Monday, February 8, 2016

The Revenger #3: The Vendetta Contract

The Revenger #3: The Vendetta Contract, by Jon Messmann
August, 1974  Signet Books

The third volume of The Revenger is my favorite yet, Jon Messmann having figured out how to retain the “realistic” nature of his series while still keeping it all fast-moving and exciting. He’s also reigned in his somewhat-pretentious prose, with the soul-plumbing introspection of the previous two volumes whittled down. That’s not to say it’s gone entirely, though, and thus The Revenger still has more in common with a literary sort of novel than say The Executioner.

The events of the previous volume were a “short while ago,” and now hero Ben Martin lives in Morrisville, a small town south of Indianapolis. His business card identifies him as “Ben Bruzzi, Industrial Painting.” Ben has managed to pick up a new flame: a Morrisville native named Bianca Lanza whose lush, full-figured form is often mentioned. The way Messmann describes her, Bianca sounds like a Botticelli painting come to life, all soft, rounded curves. I assumed this was his way of telling us she was a little chunky, but later on another character checks her out while she sunbathes nude and offers the sterling endorsement, “Look at those tits!”

Anyway, Bianca is a waitress at a diner and her involvement with Ben has gotten serious; cue the first of several sex scenes in The Vendetta Contract. Messmann handles these scenes a little differently, this time, as they sort of meld outright explicitness with Burt Hirschfeld-style analogy and metaphor. Actually, Hirschfeld is a good comparison, as again Messmann’s writing here is very similar in style, with that same sort of sentence-concatenation Hirschfeld employs (though not to the sometimes-absurd extent of Hirschfeld).

Bianca knows Ben’s secret, that he is really Ben Martin and that he is the man who busted the Mafia in New York and Chicago. She figured this out due to a few newspapers she found in Ben’s apartment, newspapers detailing the events of the previous two volumes. Bianca instantly deduced that “Ben Bruzzi” was none other than Ben Martin, whose name she has recalled for personal reasons: Bianca’s brother Jimmy has gotten on the bad side of the Indianapolis mob, thus Bianca has always been interested in news items about the Mafia world.

Jimmy, who doesn’t even appear in the book, serves as the impetus to get Ben back into the life of mob-busting. When Bianca is accosted by some Mafia stooges who try to grill her for info on where her brother is, Ben steps in and takes them on. He tosses industrial paint in the eyes of one, bashes the other around, and breaks the arm of the third. Ben prepares himself for the retaliation that will follow. But something strange happens – no more goons come to bother either him or Bianca.

This is because wily old Don Gennosanti, the New York godfather who appeared in the previous two volumes, has been planning a campaign against Ben Martin. Mafia branches around the country are to report back to Gennosanti if they come across anyone who pushes back against them. Thus, when the Indianapolis boys report back that this character in Morrisville beat up a few of them, Gennosanti instantly sees the work of Ben Martin. The next stage of his plan is to hire a hit man. But despite what the cover copy states, Gennosanti is determined to hire a non-Mafia hit man.

Gennosanti offers the job to Corbett, an infamous assassin who has the arrogance of success. He lives in a posh penthouse in Washington, D.C., and accepts Gennosanti’s $350,000 contract on Ben. Corbett is snide and rude, treating Gennosanti with disrespect; he thinks all Mafia types are idiots. But he’s the best at what he does, and he figures taking out Ben Martin will be simple. First though he must handle the little setback of murdering his bimbo girlfriend, who has gotten suspicious of what Corbett really does for a living.

The Vendetta Contract alternates chapters focusing on Ben and Corbett, the former gradually realizing something is up and the latter arrogantly closing in for the kill. Ben knows something’s wrong when the Mafia stooges don’t come back, and he corners one of them, shooting down two of his men in the process. The dude confirms that there have been orders to look out for troublemakers, and Ben immediately deduces that a hit man is likely coming for him. He tells Bianca to sit tight and makes plans to leave Morrisville asap, which I thought was hilarious – wasn’t Ben supposed to protect her?

So begins an elaborate “game of winner-kill-all” as Ben races eastward across the country, Corbett always at his heels. As ever Messmann is at pains to keep it all realistic, meaning that there are no sequences where Ben becomes a one-man army. Once again his kills are carried out by revolvers and hunting rifles he purchases at gun stores; there are no fancy machine guns or “war wagons” as in The Executioner. While this is interesting, and capably handled, I have to admit I more enjoy the pulpier stuff of the other Mafia-busting books of the era.

Through Ohio and on into Pittsburgh Ben goes, always trying and failing to shake his pursuer. And while Corbett knows what Ben looks like and can guess every move he will make, Ben has no idea who is even after him. This adds a nice level of paranoia to the tale, which makes it all the more goofy that, on his first night in Pittsburgh, Ben picks up a hooker! Not that he has sex with her, and indeed Messmann writes a moving scene here, as the gal, Flo, is only a “part-time hustler” and is currently down on her luck. Ben gives her some money and offers her his room for the night, where the two engage in some of Messmann’s patented soap-operatic dialog.

But Flo actually provides Ben with some inspiration, courtesy an off-hand comment she makes; Ben realizes he needs to stop running and to start kicking ass. If the Mafia is chasing him, then he will make the Mafia itself run. Armed with a hunting rifle, he starts in Pittsburgh and continues on through Pennsylvannia, blowing away Mafia stooges from afar. Again, the “action scenes” in this series are mostly relegated to Ben sniping someone from a rooftop or whatnot, and it must be admitted that Messmann generally hurries through these scenes so he can get back to the introspection and brooding.

Corbett though is almost a Terminator, following after Ben and assessing his next moves like some programmed computer. He bides his time in Pittsburgh, picking up a boozing floozy for some easy sex, and takes increasingly-irate calls from Gennosanti, who demands results. But Corbett has figured Ben’s gameplan, knows he’s making his hits based off of research he’s done on the Pennsylvannia-area Mafia, and can even guess where and when he’ll strike next. In fact he’s figured Ben out so much that Corbett even sets up a trap for him that almost gets Ben caught, causing a roadblock outside of Harrisburg.

The final quarter takes place in Philadelphia, which Ben hitches a ride to after losing his car in a late-night chase with Corbett. Meanwhile the assassin is waiting for him, having canvassed all the hotels he figures Ben will consider renting a room in. His paid contacts alert him when Ben checks into one of these hotels, and Corbett sits on a nearby rooftop with his fancy rifle, ready to kill the Revenger. It’s only through luck that our hero learns his life is over if he steps out of the hotel, overhearing a conversation between two hotel employees, one of whom was Corbett’s tip-off.

The only thing Ben knows about Corbett is that he has a weakness for the ladies. During that late-night chase outside of Harrisburg, Ben briefly had access to Corbett’s car while the assassin was out roaming the woods for Ben, and there in the backseat Ben found a few girlie mags. Ben now enacts his desperate plan; he calls Bianca and asks her to fly over to Philadelphia on the earliest available flight. After another somewhat-lyrical/somewhat-explicit sex scene, Ben goes over his plan, which surprisingly enough is the event depicted on the cover.

Bianca goes up on the hotel roof in a skimpy bikini, right in the view of where Ben knows Corbett is lurking on his own rooftop. She begins a slow strip-tease, as if she’s unaware she’s in plain sight of a professional hit man, and lays nude on a beach towel. All of which proves successful in distracting Corbett long enough for Ben to run out of the hotel and not get shot. But Ben, despite having killed several Mafia soldiers by now, finds himself unable to shoot Corbett in the back when he sneaks up on him.

Despite some last-second tension – Ben, the fool, doesn’t even consider the fact that Corbett has his friggin’ gun trained on Bianca, who obliviously lies nude on the rooftop below – the outcome here is expected. And here in the final pages The Vendetta Contract gets better and better. Given the surgical scapel Ben finds in Corbett’s pocket, he realizes that Gennosanti – for Ben has long deduced that the New York don was behind this contract – demanded evidence that Ben Martin was really dead. In other words, he wanted a piece of him.

Disguising his voice, Ben calls Gennosanti, knowing the don’s personal number from the previous volume. The don sets up a meeting with “Corbett” in New York, in the business offices of one of the Mafia’s legal ventures. Messmann delivers an effective and memorable finale which has Gennosanti and two other Mafia dons first realizing the severed hand they’ve been delivered isn’t Martin’s (thanks to Martin’s fingerprint file from when he was in the army), then rushing out of the room when they hear a ticking from the package.

But there Ben stands, like a regular Mack Bolan at last, wielding an M-1 carbine. In the span of a paragraph he wipes out several high-level Mafia targets, Gennosanti among them, thus ending a sublot that’s been building since the first volume. But Ben has decided he will not return to Bianca, who meanwhile has returned to Morrisville on her own, mislead into thinking Ben will follow her. Ben first wants to ensure the Mafia has forgotten about him before he’ll allow himself to become fully involved with her.

Given the cover copy of the next volume, it looks like a new boss soon takes over Gennosanti’s role, and no doubt will in fact continue the war against Ben Martin. I have to say, this volume was so entertaining (and concisely written at a mere 158 pages) that I look forward to reading the next one. But then, Messmann is a very gifted writer, even if I much prefer the style he used in his earlier days on the Killmaster series, in particular the awesomely whacked-out The Sea Trap. Messmann’s writing in The Vendetta Contract is good, too, but less pulpy than those earlier Killmaster novels and too clearly striving to come off like a “real” novel.

And speaking of which, Messmann retains the literary trick of the previous two volumes by slipping in and out of present-tense, but it’s done very arbitarily, and at times unsuccessfully, with the tense sometimes changing in the same sentence. But he achieves perhaps one of the most important tasks of any series writer, one that is unfortunately seldom achieved by many other series writers: he makes you care about his characters.

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