Monday, December 28, 2015

John Eagle Expeditor #12: The Green Goddess

John Eagle Expeditor #12: The Green Goddess, by Paul Edwards
August, 1975  Pyramid Books

After a two-year absence, Manning Lee Stokes returns to the John Eagle Expeditor series with his first contribution since the awesomely lurid #5: Valley Of Vultures. Stokes continues the sort of series reset of the previous volume (which attempted to fashion the books more as straight spy stories), only occasionally featuring the exotic adventure fiction of the earlier volumes. And while it does achieve some pulpy, lurid heights, be warned that, like much of Stokes’s work, The Green Goddess takes its time to get going.

Stokes was 64 when The Green Goddess was published (and would die just five months later, unfortunately), and it’s impressive how this guy was in accord with the changing, more permissive times. What I mean to say is, the dude enjoyed his sleaze. Stokes injects a healthy portion of sleaze into the novel, from Eagle making a fake obscene phone call (where he delivers the immortal line, “We’re gonna crack our nuts over the phone”) to Eagle watching as a dead girl is raped…twice. And while previous volumes, including the non-Stokes volumes, have all had very lurid vibes, rarely if ever did anyone curse; Stokes takes care of that within the first few pages, doling out a barrage of F-bombs and other such filthy language that almost made me put down the book and pray.

First though the back cover copy, which is so bonkers I just had to share it with you. Whoever wrote this (perhaps series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel himself?) clearly had no idea what the overriding plot of The Green Goddess was, so just went for it with vague, lurid hypberbole:

And I have to say, The Green Goddess really is all over the place for the first 50-some pages (of typically small, small print – our man Stokes does not shirk on his word count). Starting off with a plane crash in Boston (and boy was I sure happy to read that right before taking a flight myself), the novel throws the reader in with no idea of what’s going on and who is doing what. We learn that a State Department courier named Christian Pangborn was on that flight, and that he had some sort of attache case that was spirited away from the scene. But by whom? And what exactly was in the case? 

A dude named Fred Talbert, Mr. Merlin’s man in Washington, DC, is on the case. We get a lot of padding material about this, with Stokes getting more experimental in his latter days with various fonts and even letters written in triplicate as various characters read letters and briefs. Pangborn was being watched by various people, among them two KGB agents working as free-lancers in the US: Boris Chebotarev and Zoya Tchekov. Stokes speends a goodly portion of the novel cutting over to these two guys as they get in long, long discussions, and it’s all very similar to the page-filling, inconsequential discussions of Admiral Coffin and the head of the Navy in Stokes’s earlier Aquanauts series.

Pangborn was having an affair with a young schoolteacher named Doris Morrisan who lives in Vermont. Here is where our hero John Eagle finally enters the scene; per the tradition of the earliest installments, Eagle doesn’t appear until well into the book. He’s called in by Mr. Merlin (who himself is given a rather cursory introduction, rather than the usual belabored affair of him looking down for many pages into the gaping maw of the Hawaiian volcano which his mountaintop aerie overlooks), who instructs Eagle’s contact Samson (a recurring character) to order Eagle up to Vermont to watch Doris Morrisan and determine if anyone else is watching her – the vague concern is that Pangborn might’ve spilled some intel to her, or something.

Eagle is as taciturn and all-business as ever in Stokes’s hands. We learn here that he’s been serving Mr. Merlin for three years, with two years left to go until his contract is fulfilled and he’s awarded a million dollars (up from the original payment as stated in the first volume, which was also written by Stokes). (Another intesterting tidbit is the revelation this time that there are other Expeditors, though Eagle is the first and best, of course.)  One return to the previous volume (and also Valley Of Vultures, now that I think of it) is that Eagle goes off without his customary gadgets and weapons. He calls Doris Morrisan upon his arrival in the “village” of Montrose, Vermont, and quickly deduces someone is there in the house with her – someone the young lady is terrified of.

As mentioned, Eagle for no reason other than Stokes’s penchant for sleaze subjects the girl to an obscene phone call; in the few seconds before he heard another extension on her line picked up, he told the girl he was “a friend.” His goal is to see how long he can draw out the other person, or something. All that really matters is that Stokes treats us to a few pages of a dirty-talking John Eagle, which in itself is pretty fun. But it’s all got a downer ending, for when Eagle sneaks to the lady’s place he finds her, as mentioned, lying nude on her bed, her neck broken, while a big stooge rapes her corpse.

Eagle is however as savage as ever; he ambushes the dude, who turns out to be a Commie sleeper agent born in Boston, beats him to a pulp, and gooses him with the dude’s own .357 Magnum. Then he takes him to the woods, ties him to a tree – the dude now a blubbering baby, devastated over the fact that someone caught him in the act of necrophilia(?!) – and proceeds to slice off his toes!! Once the dude has given up all he knows, namely that someone in Russia (we later learn it was Boris) ordered Doris’s death, Eagle slices his throat and then chastizes himself for “failing” this particular mission. He was supposed to meet Doris and hopefully have sex with her (seriously, this is the mission Samson tasked him with), but instead he found her dead.

Meanwhile we get a bit more information on what the hell is going on. It turns out Boris and Tchekov are plotting against the Soviet government, hoping to take over the entire regime. Their angle is a precious mineral recently discovered by a Soviet geologist in Afghanistan, which at this time was still on peaceable terms with the USSR. The mineral, named Kolymanite after its discoverer, is described in scientific briefs (printed in triplicate) as a “catalytic converter,” and when exposed to other metals and water it produces continuous electricity. As just one example of this incredible potential, were it to be mixed in with the hull of a nuclear sub, the sub would be powered for at least a year by just the Kolymanite and the seawater.

All of which provides the long leadup to John Eagle finally venturing over to the desert wilds of Afghanistan, a place which here in 1975 still has the mystical splendor of Arabian Nights and hasn’t descended into the ISIS hell of today. Eagle, who can apparently speak a few Arabic dialects, poses as a desert warrior in robes and veil, his plastic suit worn beneath, and rides a trusty camel over the desert wasteland in pursuit of some mysterious Russians (ie Boris and Tchekov) that Mr. Merlin has told him to contact. He ends up in the rugged expanse of the Hindu Kush, and the adventure fiction is very heavy and very reminiscent of #4: The Fist Of Fatima, which was written by Robert Lory.

Most of the middle portion of the text is just Eagle roughing it in the desert, his faithful and annoying servant in tow. This is Jinn, a prepubescent and cross-eyed waif who grew up in a whorehouse and rides around on a diseased camel. Stokes builds up such a “cute” rapport between the two, with Eagle as usual stoic and bossy and Jinn almost slavish in his cross-eyed devotion, that you can practically see Jinn’s fate coming from five miles away. And you won’t be disappointed. But anyway it just keeps going on and on, and you wonder if it will ever end, much like this review.

It seems to me that by this point in his life Stokes was more interested in the plotting and scheming of older characters than in any sort of heroic action fiction; he seems to get more enjoyment out of the ultimately-pointless digressions with Boris and Tchekov, not to mention lots of scenes of Merlin sitting overtop his volcano and talking to loyal secretary Polly Perkins. Eagle doesn’t do much of anything throughout, fires his trusty “gas pistol” but once, and doesn’t even wear his full plastic suit; this is a first in the series. Eagle merely wears it beneath his robes, but this is the first time in the series where Eagle doesn’t at some point pull on the mask as well.

Jinn tells Eagle of the mysterious Lala Khatun, “the green goddess,” who rules an army of multinational brigands in the remote Valley of Arjuna. The Lala Khatun line extends back a thousand years, from mother to daughter; “Shades of Rider Haggard,” Eagle thinks to himself. But we learn that Merlin hooked up with the 1916 edition of Lala Khatun, and indeed even has a photo of the lady locked up in his desk. Realizing Eagle is in the general location of Arjuna, Merlin sends out a radio message to her…and friends, given the usual all-padding writing method of Manning Lee Stokes, the titular “green goddess” (as Merlin refers to Lala Khatun) doesn’t even appear until page 156. 

Unfortunately, she isn’t really green; I had hopes for one of those Orion Slave Girls out of Star Trek. The “green” refers to the Earth and to fertility, as the Lala Khatun has sex with tons of men, getting pregnant again and again, the male babies exposed and left to die and only one female baby chosen to become the next green woman. The line suffers from Mayfly Syndrome, and the green women all die before 30. You won’t be surprised to learn that both Merlin and Eagle meet their respective green women before they’ve had any children, of course. I can’t imagine a woman that’s had child after child after child would be up to the high “hot chick in a pulp action novel” standards.

The novel’s sole action scene has Eagle, Boris, Tchekov, and Jinn defending themselves from bandits in a desert fortress. Eagle uses a .45 and a submachine gun for once. The pulpy gadget trappings of previous books is long gone; even later in the book, when Eagle pulls on his plastic suit (sans mask) and runs around a dark cemetery, Stokes goes on and on about Eagle worrying if he will be seen, as if Stokes has completely forgotten that Eagle’s suit has a chameleon unit which allows him to blend into his surroundings. But after this action scene we’re finally taken to the homestretch, as well as the appearance of the green goddess.

Who will be surprised when, upon her first meeting with Eagle, who has been bathed and separated from the others in posh accomodations, Lala Khatun announces her intention to screw Eagle silly? This current green woman is only nineteen but looks younger, with the body of a young girl – Stokes caters to the creepier ‘70s trend of having his hero screw a veritable teenager, something Eagle already did in a previous installment. After performing literal phallic worship upon Eagle, Lala Khatun gives herself to our hero, and Stokes as usual treads the line between metaphorical stuff and outright sleaze.

But man…forget about any thrilling conclusion. All plot threads clumsily come together and the denoument sees Boris and Tchekov escaping and Eagle trying to find them; poor Jinn is machine gunned down by accident. Eagle takes out the henchman of Lala Khatun’s sadistic top soldier – this top soldier, Major Akbar (not to be confused with Admiral Akbar), hates Eagle due to jealousy – and that’s that. There’s no resolution with the green woman and there isn’t even any resolution to Major Akbar’s animosity; I thought Eagle would at least break the guy’s neck, but Stokes flash-forwards a few weeks to Merlin’s HQ in Hawaii, where Tchekov is now staying.

The novel continues on its suspense/espionage vibe to the bitter end, with long backstory on the fact that Boris was really Merlin’s anonymous mole within the KGB, but he was secretly found out and Tchekov was put on his trail, in the hopes of discovering whoever was behind these would-be moles. Tchekov’s mission, you see, was to penetrate the headquarters of the mysterious “Merlin” and report back to the USSR. Stokes almost had me thinking that he was building a recurring plot here, with future volumes featuring Tchekov sneaking around Merlin’s place and snapping photos, but instead Samson shows up at Tchekov’s bed one night and blows him away with a .45. Finally, the end. 

Stokes tells the tale with his usual measured pacing; be prepared for a lot of padding via go-nowhere conversations among minor characters and lots and lots of narrative water-treading. But as I’ve said in like every review of a Stokes novel I’ve ever written, I enjoy the guy’s style nonetheless. An interesting note, back on the topic of Stokes’s age at the time, not to mention his impending fate, is the melancholy vibe of The Green Goddess, of time nearing its end. Merlin often relfects how “very old” he is, how he doesn’t have much time left. Even John Eagle, an assassin for hire, is prone to concern over the death of a loved one; Stokes makes a passing, vague mention of a “tumor in the left breast” of Eagle’s foster mother, White Deer.

And this is just the two main characters; a sort of foreboding and preoccupation with death runs throughout The Green Goddess. Given that Stokes’s next installment, Silverskull, was likely the last novel he ever wrote (and was also the last volume of the series itself), we’ll see if the theme continues.

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