Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Hard Corps #3: White Heat

The Hard Corps #3: White Heat, by Chuck Bainbridge
July, 1987  Jove Books

The Indian’s body convulsed wildly as high-velocity slugs crushed into his torso.

With an opening sentence like that, you know William Fieldhouse is back in the writing saddle. The Hard Corps return in an adventure set a month or so after their previous mission. We learn that the team has finally rebuilt its secret base in the state of Washington, which was destroyed in the first volume; now it’s time for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.

Then their CIA contact Saintly choppers in and bullies them into another mission: to go down to Bolivia and blow away a few cocaine-manufacturing plants that belong to El Dorado, which is the top cartel in South America. But Fieldhouse delivers more than just another “drug war” scenario, with the revelation that a faction of El Dorado is actually run by Weisal, an old Nazi, one who fled down here after the war with the hopes of raising a neo-Nazi army. Now too old and feeble, the old man has turned the rule over to his sadistic son, Erik, who while still being a Nazi is more concerned with creating a cocaine empire than any sort of new Reich.

Unfortunately, despite this novel premise the entire Nazi angle is abruptly lost, with only cursory mentions of swastikas flying over Weisal’s various encampments in Bolivia. In fact, Erik Weisal himself disappears for the majority of the narrative, Fieldhouse keeping his four heroes in center frame throughout. They’re the usual motley bunch, with Joe Fanelli all fired up for a bit of cheap sex with any woman he can find, morose Steve Caine content to just wander around the woods and perfect his silent stalking methods, James Wentworth just wanting to practice his samurai sword technique and do some reading, and team leader William O’Neal as stoic and bland as ever.

Reluctantly canceling their r’n’r, the Hard Corps head on down to South America, where they’re put in touch with their helper for this installment, a burly DEA agent named Garcia. We’ve already seen a few DEA agents get wasted by El Dorado goons, so Garcia is understandably driven to wipe them out. He puts the Hard Corps in touch with a locally-based gunrunner named Paddy Murphy, a walking cliché who escaped to Bolivia after getting in hot water in his native Ireland for selling arms to both the Irish army and the NRA. Paddy is greasy and fat and more interested in drinking whiskey.

But we know by now the rule in practically every Fieldhouse novel – when characters enter a bar, a brawl will soon break out. And right on cue one does, with some of Paddy’s upset customers coming to collect a refund in his blood. In steps O’Neal and his “mercs” (as Fieldhouse often refers to his heroes), who, despite not even liking Paddy, get in an extended fight with the goons, a fight that just keeps going on and on. Meanwhile Paddy doesn’t have much to offer the guys in the way of firepower, but it’s enough for the Corps to pull off the ambush they’ve been hired for.

The novel’s first big action sequence has the Hard Corps taking out one of El Dorado’s factions in this vicinity. The CIA order is just to make a messy hit, and this is accomplished with much gunfire and explosions and gory exit wounds. Fieldhouse as ever doesn’t cheat his readers on the blood and violence demanded of the men’s adventure genre, but this being the ‘80s, the once-mandatory sex element is of course nonexistent. Hell, there isn’t even a single female character in the entire novel. In that regard the Hard Corps series is very similar to something from Gold Eagle Books.

With their task done, the team figures they can go collect payment, but in the aftermath they discover that one of their victims not only was a high-ranking member of El Dorado, but also happened to be the son of a powerful man in Bolivia’s government. Realizing they won’t be able to escape – the government will obviously be on the lookout for military-looking Americans – they instead split up and fade into the woodwork of desolate areas of Bolivia. Fanelli and Paddy Murphy pair off, which is such a total setup on Fieldhouse’s part, given that we were informed earlier that Fanelli was a drunk and has been sober for ten years.

And guess what? Paddy insists they go to a bar. “One drink won’t hurt you,” he keeps pressuring, and next thing Fanelli’s drunk as a skunk and, you won’t be surprised, another bar brawl breaks out. This one lands Fanelli in jail, so we’re treated to an arbitrary but page-filling bit where the other members of the team pull a heist to break him out. During this O’Neal and the others have been approached by Raul, a young Bolivian Indian who begs for their help to take on a gang that’s been tormenting and pillaging his village.

O’Neal tells the kid to go to hell, but persistent Raul tracks the Corps down to their hotel next morning and informs them that their comrade Fanelli has been imprisoned. Raul offers to help free him in exchange for the Corps helping his village. This serves to take us into the homestretch, as the Corps ventures deep in-country, where they find a primitive village of old men and youth who have no weapons whatsoever. But Steve Caine, with his much-vaunted “Kantu tribe” training (per his time in the ‘Nam), teaches them how to make weapons with spears and whatnot. Fanelli, the demolitions expert, even figures out how to make explosives with bat shit.

More weapons are discovered buried near the village, put there decades ago by followers of Che Guevara and stored in gun oil against the elements. Again per the Fieldhouse method, as soon as the Hard Corps gets these guns, an El Dorado strike force happens to show up and a massive firefight ensues. Heads explode and guts splash to the ground. These guys work for Weisal, which finally brings the sort-of neo-Nazi back into the picture. When O’Neal discovers from Raul that this faction of El Dorado is run by a neo-Nazi, he decides to just wipe them all out – he’s always wanted to kill a Nazi.

The climactic battle features an ambush on Weisal’s forward base in the jungle, where Steve Caine again comes off as the most skilled of the team, hacking and slashing guards silently. True to the spirit of a lot of these ‘80s men’s adventure books, though, it all just keeps going and going, complete with O’Neal and team, out of bullets, even engaging various of Weisal’s thugs in protracted fistfights. And it keeps going, with Weisal blasting at the Corps with a hidden machine gun, and then coming at them again later with some sort of “armored wall” protecting him.

By this point you’d love like a three-paragraph description of Erik Weisal’s head exploding, but for some reason Fieldhouse denies us this and just ends the chapter with O’Neal about to kill him. And that’s that; the Hard Corps has suffered some losses (none of them have suffered personally, of course), but the job’s done so now it’s just to return to the States and collect payment.

So overall, White Heat does the job of providing ‘80s action and gore, with nothing like deep characterization or heavy plotting to get in the way. But Fieldhouse is a skilled action writer and keeps it all moving, even managing at times to give his characters some individual spark. And yet there’s nothing really novel about the series; it’s just another ‘80s men’s adventure-type deal, with none of the goofy charm of the first volume. So in other words, not bad but not great.

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