Monday, January 11, 2016

The Psychedelic Spy

The Psychedelic Spy, by T.A. Waters
No month stated, 1967  Lancer Books

I came across this book a while back, and even though it looked like everything I could want in a spy pulp paperback, I put off reading it because it was written by T.A. Waters, whose Centerforce I found so disappointing. But I figured everyone deserves a second chance, and so finally got around to reading The Psychedelic Spy. And boy, was I glad I did – this book was great!

The pretension of Centerforce is nowhere to be found as Waters turns out a snappily-paced action story, laced with psychedelic vibes, about a Timothy Leary sort of alpha male who helps the US government stop a Chicom brainwashing plot, one that is operating in California. The book hurtles along its 160 pages with plentiful action, sex, gadgetry, and violence, with a great and memorable hero and a pair of equally-memorable villains, one of them even a sexy villainess who of course offers herself to our hero before ordering him killed. Waters I think was trying to both spoof and stay true to the pulp concept, and he nailed the balance perfectly. 

The hero of the tale is Dr. Lowell Simon Dee, the aforementioned Leary-type. That is, Leary with the kung-fu skills of Bruce Lee and the mystical mastery of Dr. Strange. His name is obviously a clue to the in-jokery of it all, but to be fair Waters only refers to him as “Dee” or “Dr. Dee” in the narrative; it’s the cover copywriter who had to go and refer to him as “Dr. L.S. Dee.” Dee is just my type of ‘60s psychedelic dude: he’s no dirty, unwashed hippie, but an aesthethic socialite who lives in a plush loft in Manhattan. He doesn’t spurn technology but embraces it, particularly when it comes to mind expansion.

In his early 30s, with brownish-blonde hair going gray at the temples, Dee has the “wiry” build of a swimmer. He has various degrees, most of them in psychopharmacology, and is known for his groundbreaking work on LSD and other psychedelic drugs; his books are big sellers. Long ago he snuck into China, staying there for three years and learning various forms of kung-fu (which he has to explain to others; the book was published before the art was commonly known) in addition to the karate and aikido he already excelled at. Now Dee resides in his spacious loft, geared up with various custom-made strobelights, mixing up drugs for himself (or just getting them out of his “drug refrigerator”), and entertaining scores of beautiful women.

What I really love is how Dee comes off like a psychedelicized Nick Carter. Like the Killmaster, Dee enjoys using spy-fy gadgets, but unlike the Killmaster they’re mostly all of Dee’s own design. In The Psychedelic Spy he uses a “jiggle pen” that can unlock most anything, a stroboscopic penlight which he uses to descramble brainwashed minds, a pair of triple-layered black gloves that secrete poison, and even a megawatt pair of stroboscopic lights which he attaches to the back of a car and uses to blow the minds of a group of pursuing bikers. Even his drugs are custom-made, like “Cyclert,” a substance Dee has made which enables “deeper memory traces.”

But Dee’s most memorable gadget is his weapon of choice, the Mercox Special. This strange-sounding gun we’re informed looks similar to a revolver, and indeed is built on a Smith & Wesson frame, but has been augmented into a sort of gas pistol along the lines of the one in John Eagle Expeditor. Dee’s though fires not only darts, but even magnesium flares and heat-seeking missiles. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the Mercox Special actually exists: created by Smith & Wesson in 1965, it apparently never got past the prototype stage, with only 25 or so of the guns created. You can read more about it here, and here’s an image of the gun, taken from this site:

Mind you, when we meet him Dee isn’t a turned-on superspy, yet apparently he already has all of this material on hand. It doesn’t matter though; this is just part of the book’s charm. When Dee is approached by Sanders, a high-ranking spook, and Tobey, Sanders’s right-hand man, Dee ponders over the mission offered him: someone has been brainwashing college kids for some unknown reason, though one side-effect is that psychedelic drugs are going to be seen in a bad light. Dee’s concern over preventing this from happening is laughable in today’s world, but The Psychedelic Spy was published in more innocent times. At any rate, Dee’s real motive for taking the job is his hatred of control; that someone is going to such loathsome extremes to control human beings sickens Dee to his soul.

One more difference between Dr. Dee and Nick Carter is Dee’s tendency to pause and reflect, though be assured this is never at the expense of the action. He will occasionally ponder man’s inhumanity, the bloody business of spycraft, regret it, and then get on with it. Let’s also not forget his occasional drug detours, each of them also with the intent of focusing Dee’s mind on the task at hand, like when he drops 300 micrograms of LSD (his standard dose) and meditates on a mandala in his loft for several hours, ruminating on if he truly wants to accept Sanders’s job.

Right on cue with the drugs, Cathy, Dee’s nominal girlfriend, shows up for some LSD-fueled sex. Waters doesn’t get down to the nitty-gritty but lets us know it’s happening, and also uses the word “fuck” a few times, which I found surprising in a 1967 pulp paperback – usually such books from this era steer clear of the F-bomb. Cathy is insatiable, and though she’s been intimate with Dee for about a decade now she’s nowhere near to being his only bedmate, nor he hers. Indeed, after a twelve-hour or so sexual bout, Cathy practically rapes Tobey when he shows up the next day to tell Dee that Sanders wants to meet Dee at the Cloisters.

Here we get to see some of Dr. Dee’s almost superhuman skills – we already saw him easily and quickly take out two thugs as part of Sanders’s testing – as he dodges an assassination attempt. Hearing an arrow being launched, Dee knocks it out of the air just as it is about to hit Sanders’s chest, and then he actually catches the next arrow. The would-be killer, a Mongolian type, kills himself in shame, and Dee reflects sadly on this – he’s just accepted the job, and already there is death. This doesn’t stop him from some more somewhat-graphic shenanigans with Cathy.

Sanders and Tobey hand over all the intel they have on the job. Some mysterious figure named Wu Ming (a Chinese phrase meaning “no name,” Dee informs them) is behind a plot, apparently centered around a posh psychedelic club in San Francisco called the Palace of Changes, which is attempting to brainwash American youth into CommieSymps (flashforward to the college youth of today…I think the Commie brainwashers succeeded!!). Dee does his own research, coincidentally finding a young girl who visited the Palace and who tells him of the sex-and-psychedelics nature of the place; you get lots of drugs and have sex in a mattress-floored cell while colored lights play around you. But you have to sign up on a list to get access to the Palace. 

Off Dr. Dee goes to San Francisco (after a three-way with Cathy and the young girl who escaped the Palace), where Sanders has set him up with his top California agent, a black-haired beauty named Mimi Blaine, “by far the most beautiful girl Dee had ever seen.” Mimi is an interesting character, years ahead of her time, a kick-ass field agent who, unlike the manly female action heroes of today, still has a soft feminine side. She’s grown up in the spy biz, and she doesn’t appreciate Dee’s concern for her – she can handle herself. She lives in an apartment in the Haight-Ashbury (still a psychedelic paradise here, and not yet descended into the heroin-ravaged hell it became), and since space is so limited she takes Dee straight there.

Yep, time for more sex – this time almost cosmic, as Dee and Mimi are so attuned that it’s almost love at first boink. Later Dee will get a bit of a jolt when Mimi reveals she’s only sixteen years old. “I’m perfectly legal sex in most states,” she assures him. This strange element of Mimi’s youth isn’t much further explored, and she acts like your typical adult heroine, so likely Waters added this to cater to yet another pulp mainstay: the jailbait lay. Oh, and Mimi has her own personal weapon – a razored boomerang which she uses to dice people up real good. In other words, she’s basically The Baroness about a decade early.

In between more sex these two get in a few fights and also investigate the Palace of Changes. Sounding like the forgotten New York psychedelic nightclub The Cerebrum, the place has meditation rooms and private areas where you can drop acid and get busy with someone else. Waters brings the Palace to life wonderfully. Dr. Dee however knows brainwashing techniques when he sees them, especially when many of them are based on his own research. He and Mimi split up, and Dr. Dee knocks out a Chinese guy guarding a locked door. Inside Dee finds a bunch of brainwashing machinery and a beautiful – and totally naked – Chinese woman.

This is Feya Dinh, the villainess of the piece. A kung-fu master (in the opening we saw her rip off the ear of one of Sanders’s men before killing him with her bare hands), she’s also the chief brainwasher. She shows no surprise at Dee’s presence, and in fact has been expecting him. Now she wants some of that famous Dr. Dee good lovin’, and Dee, despite banging Mimi for the past several hours straight, is only too eager to comply. But afterwards Feya wants Dr. Dee himself “destroyed,” so he whips out the ol’ Mercox Special and escapes, after rescuing Mimi (who herself has been consorting with a random dude in her own mattress-lined cell). In their escape Dee employs those strobes he placed on the back of Mimi’s Triumph TR-4.

Next Dr. Dee is sent off to Mexico City, where Sanders’s intel has it that many of the brainwashed youth have been headed. There Dee will locate one of them and learn that they’ve come down here “to train,” but for what the kid doesn’t know. In his research of the mysterious villa where it all goes down, Dee is captured by Feya Dinh, who reveals that Mimi herself has been captured and will die if Dee doesn’t comply. She doses him with 900 micrograms of LSD – a “heroic dose” if ever there was one – but Dee, due to his mental mastery and drug skills, is able to keep his sanity and only feign catatonia.

The climax sees Dr. Dee staging a one-man assault on Wu Ming’s headquarters, located in a mineshaft outside of San Francisco. Here Dee will defend himself against the broadsword-weilding Churgah, Wu Ming’s massive henchman, while also saving Mimi from the clutches of death. Wu Ming is finally revealed – a “muffled” figure who speaks with a metallic voice. Turns out it’s just a “manikin,” and Mimi follows the cables that control it into the bowels of the place, where the real Wu Ming is revealed to be an old Chinese man a la Fu Man Chu.

Waters again shows his prescience with Wu Ming’s weapon: a “hydraulic biosystem” which is basically powered armor and is described almost exactly like the one worn by Ridley in Aliens. Mimi’s boomerang comes in handy against the suit’s power box, however. Meanwhile Dee chases after Feya Dinh, who has escaped in a station wagon(!!). This sequence is anticlimactic after Mimi’s fight to the death with Wu Ming, with Dee merely shooting a heat-seeking missile at Feya Dinh’s car…and reflecting sadly on the whole deal while he watches it explode.

The only unfortunate thing about The Psychedelic Spy is that there were no more adventures to follow. This puzzles me, as Dr. Dee is presented as such a fully-realized character that you’d love to read more about him. Waters leaves the ending open, with Dee and Mimi happily together and both of them telling Sanders they’re quitting, but Mimi is certain that the spook will appear again someday with a new mission. So I don’t think the reason there were no more books was because Waters didn’t want to write them. If anything, I think the concept of a psychedelic superspy might’ve been too far-out for spy paperback readers of the day, many of whom I imagine were likely blue collar types who didn’t cotton to a pill-popping hero.

It’s our loss that this wasn’t the start of a series. The Psychedelic Spy offers everything you could want in a pulp spy paperback, especially if like me you are fascinated by the ultramod, turned-on world of the jet-set ‘60s. Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius (or even Grant Morrison’s Gideon Stargrave) might be another character of the time similar to Dr. Dee, but again it must be stated that Waters plays it straight throughout, which is much to the novel’s benefit. There are no pretentious parts or intentionally “weird” parts; it’s just a straight-up spy yarn about a gadget-loving hero who enjoys his LSD. I loved the hell out of it and I highly recommend it.

BONUS NOTE: In 1990 BBC radio produced a five-part audio drama titled The Psychedelic Spy, which has no relation to this novel, despite having the same title and being set in the same year. It was written by Andrew Rissik and I finally got to hear it; occasionally the BBC will make it available to listen to via their app. While the production and performances were great, it must be said that The Psychedelic Spy isn’t very…well, psychedelic, and in fact is more hardboiled than anything, narrated by a hard-bitten British assassin who is in fact the most laughably-inept spy ever. The dude wears his heart on his sleeve and is constantly being captured or fooled, and I don’t think he even assassinates anyone in the entire thing. But at least it kept me entertained during my work commute…and those British accents made me feel super-smart!


Johny Malone said...

Glad to see a sexpionage book in your Hall of Fame.

James smethurst said...

The psychedelic spy by Andy Rissik is available on archive.I am currently listening to it. It's groovy and fab and has a freaky soundtrack. I am reminded of Michael moorcock and the jerry cornelius novels if the late 60's.YOU will no doubt have read them but if not they are a rare treat. I am British and our accents are not always dick van dyke clones or chinless aristocrats. Cheers dude.

Joe Kenney said...

James, thanks for the comment! I tried listening to the Andrew Rissik joint again recently...I just couldn't handle the protagonist's constant whining It got to be laughable after a while. Also I noted that 3 episodes (aka 3 hours) had gone by, and nothing had happened! And yeah, man -- love the Cornelius stuff, but it was many years ago I read them. I got into them via Grant Morrison's Gideon Stargrave, in the I guess this was back in the '90s. One of these days I'd like to read them again.