Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Spider #11: Prince Of The Red Looters

The Spider #11: Prince Of The Red Looters, by Grant Stockbridge
August, 1934  Popular Publications

Without question the most subdued volume of The Spider I’ve yet read, Prince Of The Red Looters goes for more of a mystery-suspense vibe than the bloody chaos of preceding volumes. And while hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth is at pains to state that this volume’s villain, The Fly, is the most evil and merciless man he’s ever faced, the truth is the Fly is pretty tame and lame. The dude doesn’t even wear a mask!!

It’s a hot August and the apocalyptic events of the previous volume have of course been forgotten. I mean, that was a whole three weeks ago or whatever. Wentworth has more pressing things in mind – like the challenge placed to the Spider in the newspapers. Signed by someone calling himself “The Fly,” the challenge reverses the “said the spider to the fly” saying, with the Fly inviting the Spider into his parlor…if he dares. As we meet him Wentworth is disguised as a milkman, heading into a tenement building which has been listed in the latest newspaper-printed challenge as where the Fly will meet him.

The cops have the place surrounded, monitoring the woman also mentioned in the paper: redheaded beauty Rosetta Dulain, whom author Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page wants us to understand without actually stating it is a stripper. For once Wentworth dons his “Tito Caliepi” disguise here, the old man with hunchback and fangs disguise which gradually became “the” Spider look but which comes and goes in these early volumes. Posthaste he meets the Fly, who waits for him in Rosetta’s room. The Fly is described as a sort of dandy with slicked-back blond hair and black eyes. No mask or outrageous costume or anything. After the villains of previous volumes, he’s quite a letdown.

He is good with sabres, though, and so is Wentworth, and they go at each other. Wentworth gets the drop on him and has a chance to kill an unarmed Fly, but due to his usual stern code he refuses to do so. The Fly for his part pulls a gun, apologizes for the lack of conduct, and takes off. Meanwhile he’s promised to wage a war of crime on New York. He is the total antithesis of Richard Wentworth, something Page reminds us again and again: a man of intelligence and wealth who has decided to do evil instead of good. We are to understand that he is Wentworth’s equal in every regard. Still, the Fly lacks much spark.

Even his criminal acts, while horrible, are like minor atrocities when compared to the craziness that came before. His first hit is on the National Bank, where he waltzes in, makes off with a million dollars thanks to an air gun hidden in his cane, killing off several bank employees in his escape. Wentworth’s best friend/archenemy Stanley Kirkpatrick, Commissioner of Police, is framed and forced to resign over this; Mayor W.O. Purviss, a fervent Spider-hater, comes across a letter supposedly delivered to Kirkpatrick’s office the day before, warning of the bank robbery. The letter of course is a forgery, but Kirkpatrick resigns anyway. New commissioner Holland is hired by Purviss to take down the perpetrators – and also bring in, finally, the Spider.

Kirkpatrick mostly disappears from the tale, which occurs over just a few days. Instead we hang out with his nephew Corkie, who himself is a sabre enthusiast. Corkie’s been fighting it out with Joe Stull, a banker who is also skilled with sabres. Corkie’s quickly cleared but Wentworth spends the novel wondering if Joe Stull, who doesn’t even have a line of dialog, might be the Fly. Or is it MacTivish, Holland’s Chief Inspector? Or is it Fred Cook, a notorious gangster who is also a master of sabre-fighting? As mentioned Prince Of The Red Looters goes more for the mystery angle, with a lot more narrative focused on who the Fly might be than previous villain-outings.

Making it all the more annoying is how Wentworth has so many face-to-face confrontations with the Fly, yet he can never figure out who he really is – even when the bastard isn’t wearing a mask! I mean even Clark Kent wore a pair of glasses; this dude doesn’t even do that. There’s another sabre-fight in a hotel room above the restaurant in which Wentworth, Corkie, and the lovely Nita are dining; Wentworth, playing the role of the bored millionaire, caps off this scene with a rare bit of in-jokery when he complains to another diner, “Some people have all the fun. Nothing ever happens to me.”

Rosetta “Rose” Dulain is this volume’s bad girl, but she’s barely in the novel, and when she is she’s whining and crying. Her kid sister Ginnie has been taken captive by the Fly, and though Rose knows who the Fly is and where he’s located, poor Ginnie will be killed if she talks. This lame plot convenience is frustratingly played out throughout the narrative, with Wentworth, who keeps Rose in his luxurious penthouse suite, trying to get the woman to talk, and Rose refusing to, worried that Ginnie will die if she does. Even Nita fails to get her to talk. Oh, and Corkie’s in love with Ginnie, even though he just met her.

Action is sporadic, and again low-key when compared to earlier craziness; the Fly “only” kills about a thousand people all told, which is pretty damn paltry when considering the average Spider villain. Like a villain in the Batman TV show, the Fly merely wants to become a kingpin of crime, uniting the various lowlifes of New York under his rubric. Hence if he kills the Spider, he will be the greatest villain in history. This fuels his various robberies throughout, like a hit on an opera house in which the Fly sets the place on fire as a diversion and then uses poison gas to take out the rich patron’s section, looting the corpses of their jewels and cash.

Page does have fun with the tale, like when Wentworth disguises himself as one of the Fly’s stooges and infiltrates one of the sadists’s tenement headquarters. The place is booby-trapped like something out of a vintage cliffhanger serial, with poison, false doors, and a wall with armed men standing behind it, ready to blow away “Gus” if he says the wrong thing. And yet despite passing through all the barriers Wentworth blows it, having donned a man’s shirt that has a bullet hole in the arm; the Fly immediately notices that “Gus” doesn’t seem to be injured, despite the bloody bullet hole. The brilliant fiend!

Wentworth of course manages to escape after a firefight in the darkened room. Our hero himself must’ve suffered withdrawal symptoms after this one, as all told he only wastes several villains. Plus despite his oft-mentioned rage, Wentworth is a little slow on the uptake here. Nita, again relegated to the sidelines, fails to get Rose to talk, so Wentworth finally has enough of the girl’s shit and gets tough with her. He fools her into thinking that the Fly has hurt the girl, after all, and then has Ram Singh tail Rose, knowing that she’ll head to the Fly’s secret headquarters for revenge.

All this ties in with the final big setpiece; the Fly plans to hit the National Bank again, as well as a few other banks, all at once. It’s a big plan that involves dirigibles being secured to the rooftops and men coming down to loot. To add to the usual atrocities they spray Fifth Avenue with deadly phosphene gas; Wentworth comes upon piles and piles of corpses on the streets in an eerie moment, one which brings to mind the infamous War Of The Worlds radio broadcast from 1938. Meanwhile Kirkpatrick has been re-appointed Commissioner and has sent planes with machine guns to the rescue.

The final pages return to the vibe of earlier volumes. Wentworth, again in the “skirted mask” getup he sometimes wears as the Spider, closes in on the Fly’s other tenement HQ, Ram Singh at his side. There’s a cool part where the two heroes ambush a roomful of underworld bigwigs and just massacre them, Ram Singh slicing up guts and throats and Wentworth blowing out brains. Then we come to the outing of the Fly, who gets in one last sabre-fight with our hero; meanwhile, Wentworth has figured out who it is. Stop reading this paragraph if you don’t want to know, but as usual it’s the least likely candidate: none other than Deputy Commissoiner Holland!

The book shows its age with a long footnote courtesy Page where he describes these wondrous new inventions called contact lenses. The phrase isn’t used this early in the game, but they are described as misery-causing shards of glass that the wearer “gradually” becomes used to. Sure they got used to them – right after they’d torn off their retinas, that is. Anyway Page tells us that these are mostly used by actors; the Fly has been wearing them to make his eyes black, which is as we’ll recall the guy’s sole “disguise.” But anyway Wentworth slices him and he plunges to his death, but someone claiming to be the Fly returned in the later installment Green Globes Of Death. We’ll find out then if it’s the same guy or not.

I didn’t love Prince Of The Red Looters, but I didn’t hate it, either. Like any other Spider installment it races along, even if it lacks the usual insanities. Nita doesn’t have much to do in it, but at least Ram Singh gets in on the action – there’s a nice bit of character depth where he almost disobeys Wentworth’s orders, due to his concern over his master – but Wentworth is as usual the star of the show, and he’s compelling enough a character that he can still carry this one pretty much on his own.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Our Secret War Against Red China

Our Secret War Against Red China, by Emile C. Schurmacher
October, 1962  Paperback Library

We have here another vintage anthology of men’s adventure magazine stories, similar to Women With Guns but focused on tales of “secret commandos” working against the Red Chinese. Unlike that other collection, this one solely features the work of Emile C. Schurmacher; there were a few other such anthologies published under his name, and if they’re as entertaining as this one I look forward to reading them.

Schurmacher opens the collection with a Preface in which he conveys the conceit that all this is true. I’m sure he had a chuckle as he wrote these few pages of introduction, delivering a brief overview of some of the tales to come and stating how he was “journalistically hungry” to tell the true story of our secret war against the Chicoms. But it goes without question that, like 99% of everything else to ever appear in a men’s adventure magazine of the era, everything here is straight-up fiction.

“My One-Man Raid On Red China” is not only the shortest tale in the anthology but also the only one written in first-person. It’s from the January, 1958 issue of Champ, and doubtless appeared there with a fake “as told to” credit which is shorn from this anthology reprint. Thus, we have no idea who our narrator is! He’s briefly referred to in the dialog as “Mr. Barclay,” so I guess that will have to do. At any rate he’s a Korea vet who now plies a schooner around Hong Kong and has been hired by the silk nylon-clad Mary Tzu to transport 18 coffins upriver into some remote part of China.

But as the tale begins (and likely the incident which was illustrated in the original story), the coffins open up and out come several Chinese guerrillas. Led by Chau, these dudes fought in WWII and are looking to free their homeland from the Reds. Our narrator still hates the Chinese as well and agrees to fight with them. The plan is to make a beachhead landing in some Chinese town and take it over or something, but my friends this is the lamest “invasion” you will ever read about. A dozen men and one woman with “burp guns” and a few explosives are going to take over China?? The majority of the tale is a running action scene, which ends with our hero, his engineer, and Mary Tzu the only ones alive; he makes it for Macao and later receives a check from Mary for his troubles.

The next story is more like it – and is also the novella length of the average Diamond magazine line “true book bonus” feature. Titled “Deadly Siren of Hong Kong,” it originally appeared under the less-evocative title “China’s Mystery Girl And The Air Force Hostages” in the October, 1959 issue of For Men Only. Very reminiscent of the work of Edward Aarons in his Sam Durell books, this one’s about a former WWII Intelligence officer named Bill Locke tracking down the titular “Deadly Siren,” Gay Yung, a Chinese operative described as a sexy Eurasian with nice legs and “sculptured breasts.” She’s also, so far as Locke thinks, “the most dangerous woman in Southeast Asia.”

Locke is a businessman based out of Tokyo but he still has all his Intelligence-world contacts from the war. He’s hired by the State Department to arrange the release of several US pilots who have been imprisoned by the Chinese on false spying charges. This eventually puts him on the trail of hotstuff Gay Yung, who is familiar with high-ranking Chicoms due to her spying for them, despite the fact that she sells her skills to the highest bidder; she drives around Hong Kong in a black Jaguar. Locke himself is very much in the Durrel mode, with a bit of Fleming’s original James Bond thrown in; his choice weapon is a “.38 automatic.”

The story is more espionage than action. Locke spends most of the time waiting in his hotel room and listening to radio reports about an India-bound plane carrying several Chicom top brass which has exploded in midair; the Commies are blaming agents of Taiwan (here called Formosa) for planting a bomb during the stopover in Hong Kong. Locke meets the lovely Gay Yung, asking for her help on the captured airmen scenario, but his coincidental prescence raises the suspicion of Ivan Sandor, an Eastern European Communist agent. Later we’ll learn that he and Gay were part of the plane-bombing plan, one concocted by Chicom agents to hopefully trigger WWIII.

Locke saves Gay’s life from Sandor and thugs, and she rushes to his hotel room one night, clad only in a trenchcoat, black nightie, and high heels, looking “sexy as hell.” Another confrontation with Chinese stooges on the Hong Kong docks, and then it’s to Gay’s opulent junk on international waters between Hong Kong and mainland China. After a few heavenly nights of Gay cooking for him and the two dancing to the radio, the inevitable (fade to black) sex ensues…then the next day Sandor tracks them down and poor Gay dies in a gunfight with him. Locke kills them off and rushes to safety, goes back home to Tokyo and tells the State Department he failed his mission! We learn in a postscript that the airmen still haven’t been freed.

Next up is “Yankee Spy On The China Coast,” which originally appeared as “Yankee Spy Called X” in the January 1959 issue of Stag. I didn’t much enjoy this one; it’s told in that pseudo-factual style of some men’s adventure mag stories, meaning that the majority of the tale is rendered in summary, recounting the various exploits of our titular yankee hero. He’s Russ Smith, an American known as “X” in the Intelligence community, a spy who worked against “the Japs” in WWII and who now works for Taiwan against the Red Chinese. A lot of the story recounts his various adventures in WWII. This was my least favorite story in the anthology, mostly due to the summary-style narrative. Luckily it isn’t very long.

“Assignment: Nepal,” the next story, improves things in a major way, and is my favorite story in the anthology. Originally appearing under the more lurid title “The Spy Trap They Baited With Sex” in the February 1958 issue of For Men Only, this story encapsulates everything you could want from a book titled Our Secret War Against Red China. Hero Steve “Dusty” Rhodes is a 31 year-old former Air Force Intelligence officer who is hired by the CIA to head into Nepal and find out if there’s any truth to the purported secret airstrip the Red Chinese are supposedly building there. The concern is the Chicoms might be planning to launch an atomic attack from this airstrip – the US thinks the Red Chinese don’t have any atomic weapons, but isn’t sure.

Like Bill Locke in the earlier story, Steve uses something called a “.38 automatic.” This tale however is more in the action-adventure mold and should’ve been expanded to novel length. The action basis is displayed posthaste; while on the Calcutta-Katmandu flight Steve is attacked by a poisonous snake, one left for him by a duplicitous fellow passenger. (Snakes on a plane!) The Bond-esque fun continues when Steve gets to his hotel room in Nepal – and a sexy Eurasian gal is there waiting for him. This is the awesomely-named Poppy Velho. She is “Macao-Portuguese mixed with Chinese,” which we are reminded at length is Steve’s favorite kind of woman, all exotic and passionate and etc. – and Poppy is the sexiest and best-built one he’s ever seen. And she makes it clear that she’s in the mood for some good ol’ American lovin’.

Almost immediate fade-to-black sex ensues, as Poppy, claiming to have intimately known the missing British agent who preceded Steve here, takes Steve back to her place and throws herself at him. Steve suspects it’s a trap, but what the hell. When he goes back to his hotel the next morning, he’s almost killed in an explosion; someone left a bomb in his suitcase the previous night while he was out, but then another person came in, rummaged through the pack, and inadvertently set off the bomb. Either way, Poppy was bait for the trap. Steve later learns she’s a spy for the Red Chinese and is quite dangerous; she’s more so a “Deadly Siren” than Gay Yung was in the earlier story.

The adventure-fiction vibe Schurmacher excels at returns as Steve heads into the mountains of Nepal with his trusty native guides. The secret airstrip exists, not far from the base of Everest, and the Chicoms have a big plane there, awaiting its atomic payload. The natives say that there are only six Red Chinese there, but they have a native force at their command. Steve spies the place out just in time to see sexy Poppy Velho arrive and meet with the Chicom commander.

An assault ensues, Steve and his companions blasting away with Sten guns and grenades. They kill all the Chicoms and blow up the plane. Poppy runs to Steve in the confusion and he takes her along back to Katmandu, to turn her over to the authorities as a spy. But due to her “magnificent Eurasian body” and “exotic beauty” he can’t help but bang her again, right there in the cheap showiness of nature during the trek back to Katmandu. He ends up letting her go free, wondering what will become of her.

“Jim Poole’s Monstrous Secret Weapon” originally appeared under the less-ridiculous title “The Yank Who Stole An Island From Red China” in the April 1959 issue of For Men Only. This short tale recounts the adventure of Jim Poole, skipper of a schooner plying its way through the Philipines. Like every other protagonist in the collection, Poole is a virile stud in his thirties who has military experience. One day his schooner is boarded by Taiwanese soldiers, 900 miles outside of their jurisdiction; this is due to the nearby island Pagasa, aka Freedomland, which lies in the contested territorial waters of the Spratly archipelego, an area which Taiwan and Red China are fighting over. 

Poole heads on over to Pagasa to check it out. The natives are Filipino and the island nation was founded shortly after the war. Poole hobknobs with the local authorities and goes for long swims with sexy native wench Maria; this tale skimps on the sex but it’s implied the two soon become an item. Then the Red Chinese show up, saying they are going to evict the populace. Poole, weaponless due to the Taiwanese soldiers early in the tale, turns to history for his “monstrous weapon.” Inspired by General Washington’s “solar guns” from the Revolutionary War battle for Boston, he erects these big cannons of glass and aluminum foil, which can direct beams of concentrated sunlight that hopefully start fires. More of a mental trick, the “ray guns” succeed in diverting the Chicoms until the Taiwan force can destroy them. After which Pagasa is free again and it’s back to bed with Maria.

Up next is “Mystery Of The Vanishing U.S. General,” from the September 1961 issue of Stag and thus the latest story in the collection. Unfortunately it’s the least interesting story here, mostly due to how it’s relayed via summary. One of those stories that purports to be actual reportage, this one concerns Brigadier General John Heintges, a graying-haired WWII badass who disappeared in 1958, his name even omitted from the Army Register. But we learn Reid took a “civilian” job as part of a top-secret task force of military trainers in Laos, helping the locals stave off the Red tide.

The Pathet Lao, under the command of Kong Le, have been making their way across the border, Chicom soldiers in tow, and the Laotians need help. Heintges takes the job, even though he must give up his military commission. The summary-style storytelling recounts the various frustrations the Americans endure as they train the Laotian troops, all of it like something out of a military comedy movie like Stripes or something. Since none of the Americans are allowed to engage in actual combat, it all comes down as synopsizing how this or that happened as Kong Le was fought out of Laos. Not much action and no sex – there isn’t a single woman in the story. Luckily it’s pretty short.

“Kidnap The Shan Princess!” rounds out the anthology, and it’s another great story, not to mention the longest in the book. First appearing as “Find And Kidnap The Orient’s Promiscuous Vice Queen” (damn those men’s mag editors knew how to come up with a title!!) in the June 1961 issue of Stag, this one definitely could’ve been expanded into novel length. I’ve said it before, but it blows my mind that these men’s mag authors never thought of turning some of their stories into full-on paperbacks. The only such author I know of who did is Mario Puzo, whose Six Graves To Munich started life as a story in Male – and speaking of which, I finally got a copy of the original Banner edition of that one and will be reading it soon.

Ruggedly virile Vance Reid is our hero, a 32 year-old Korea vet with CIA ties who takes a job for $10,000 plus expenses to venture into Burma and “rescue” opium-smoking Princess Jala of the Shan Hills frontier. Reid’s offered the job by a rep of the Taiwan NSS (ie their CIA), who tells the sordid tale: the Taiwanese planned to train some of the tough Burmese mountain tribes to fight against the Red Chinese, with the intent that the Burmese could even slip over the border and cause havoc in China. A badass named Captain Mong Tsing was put in charge of a dozen Taiwanese soldiers and dropped into the Burma mountains to train the natives. Instead, they all disappeared, and about a year later Mong Tsing showed up selling opium!

Turns out Mong Tsing has apparently taken over Shan, ruling beside the depraved Princess Jala. He has an army of tough mountain fighters at his disposal and likes to kill the Chicoms in addition to selling his opium, thus giving the tale an Apocalypse Now kind of vibe. Shan is wealthy due to the copious amount of poppies which grows there, poppies which are cultivated into opium. Reid learns that Jala might not exactly want to leave Shan, thus he isn’t rescuing her so much as he’s kidnapping her. Taiwan wants her so as to show her off to the world and make Mong Tsing leave in shame, or something. But anyway if Reid is caught both the NSS and the CIA will disavow his existence. He takes the job anyway and parachutes into the rugged mountains of Burma. His plane is promptly shot down by a Chicom jet fighter.

Turning himself over to Mong Tsing’s men per his plan, Reid is escorted to the palace of Shan deep in the mountains. It’s all very adventure-fiction exotic, like Lost Horizon or something, and it’s this sort of vibe that these early men’s mag authors were so great at capturing. Posthaste Reid checks out some bikini-clad babes in a pool, “exotically attractive brunettes with high, proud breasts” whom he figures to be Laotian whores. As for Princess Jala herself, she’s described as a “nymphomaniac” who smokes a lot of opium and goes through a new man every few weeks, calling him to her palace and ravaging him until she gets bored and sends him off.

As for Mong Tsing, he’s a “dandified” type save for the left side of his face, which from below the eye to the chin is covered by “a grotesquely shaped shrapnel scar.” He rules Shan with his mountain bandits as well as his fellow turncoat Taiwanese soldiers, among them Hok Sun, who chops off the heads of some Chicom soldiers when he first finds Reid. Our hero poses as the rep for a US crime syndicate that’s looking to buy opium straight from the Shan region; Mong Tsing believes his story. Princess Jala finally appears; she’s 27 and “exotically beautiful,” and at dinner Reid can’t figure out if she still rules alone or if the Chinese have taken over. That night she comes to Reid’s room, smokes some opium, and gives herself to him – about the most detail we get is that she throws her arms around his neck.

Reid learns that Jala is a prisoner in her own palace; Mong Tsing and his comrades took the place over and have been slowly killing off Jala’s staff. Reid is concerned for her, and she’s willing to escape with him. But Mong Tsing gets wise, lopping off the head of one of Jala’s eunuchs as a warning. Reid and the girl – after getting friendly some more – make a nighttime escape, with our badass commando hero killing several men with knives and fists. This leads to more adventure fiction as he and Jala head across the Burmese countryside, at one point staying in Jala’s old village. It climaxes with a battle against Mong Tsing’s men, Steve and some of Jala’s countrymen blasting away with burp guns and grenades.

After crossing the border into India, the two fly to Rangoon, where Reid and Jala say goodbye – after one more roll in the hay, naturally. Jala for her part seems to want Reid to stay with her, but as usual with these virile men of vintage men’s mag fiction, he can’t be tied down with a foreign babe, no matter how exotically beautiful she might be. The same sentiment was displayed in the stories contained in Women With Guns. We learn in a postscript that Jala’s story of escaping her own homeland due to the Chinese invaders finally spurred the Burmese government to crack down on them, eventually kicking them out of the country so that Jala could return to Shan as ruler.

And that was our secret war against Red China – we won, baby!!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Executioner #8: Chicago Wipe-Out

The Executioner #8: Chicago Wipe-Out, by Don Pendleton
September, 1971  Pinnacle Books

Can’t believe I let so much time pass before I returned to The Executioner. Not reaching the same heights as the previous volume, Chicago Wipe-Out is nonetheless mostly entertaining and a good reminder of the pulp-writing skills of Don Pendleton. The dude was on a different level than most other men’s adventure author of the time; like every other Executioner novel Pendleton wrote, this one practically speeds by, with none of the stalling common of many other series novels.

Proof in point, Chicago Wipe-Out opens with hero Mack Bolan already in the titular city and beginning his “wipe-out.” It’s some unspecified time after the New York-based events of the previous book, though Bolan still has the same Beretta and his arm is still giving him trouble due to the injury he sustained there. And while Bolan is still a flesh-and-blood character (for the most part, at least), he has attained mythic proportions by now; gone is the very human protagonist of the first few volumes. Like some hero of fantasy, Bolan is not here in Chicago due to any personal reasons, it’s just because he’s figured it’s the right place to attack, given its mob-heavy history.

The events of this book play out over a twenty-four hour period, nicely ramping up the tension. The first half is undoubtedly the most entertaining. We reconnect with Bolan just as he’s begun his hit on a mob stronghold; a blizzard is moving in on the city and Bolan plans to use it to his advantage. The ensuing action scene is sparse but effective; be forewarned that Chicago Wipe-Out is not only the least violent entry yet, but also lacks much action at all. Throughout Bolan more so uses chaos and confusion in his war against the Mafia rather than good ol’ guns and bombs.

Bolan picks up an unexpected surprise after the hit – unexpected for him but mandatory pre the genre – “a mind-blowing blonde with [a] million-dollar wiggle.” Her name is Jimi James and she’s a Foxy Lady, working at one of the Foxy Lair Clubs and perhaps also a modelling in Foxy Magazine (none of which should be confused with the Playboy franchise, naturally). She was brought here to this mob meeting against her will, as a sort of half-nude showpiece for the event. She runs from the melee during Bolan’s attack and puts herself at his mercy. The fact that she’s wearing a revealing costume that could fit in Bolan’s palm only helps her cause; he takes her with him.

Believe it or not, Bolan actually scores with the gal; she comes to him in the shower later that night in their hotel. He’s decided she has to stay with him, you see, because the Mafia will no doubt figure she rushed from the hit because she was working with the Executioner. If he lets her go they will find her and torture her for information she doesn’t have. This is the first time Bolan’s gotten lucky since with the pseudo-Bardot in #5: Continental Contract, I believe, though unlike in the first volume Pendleton doesn’t even write any of the naughty stuff; he just fades immediately to black as Jimi offers herself to Bolan. Bummer!

We are informed at great length that Chicago is mob city and indeed is the template through which the Mafia will extend its power into the US itself; this is known as “Cosa di tutti Cosi,” aka the “Thing of all Things” or “the Great Thing.” It’s my understanding that future volumes will greatly expand upon this, with a whole government-Mafia conspiracy thing thrown into the works. But here in this eighth volume it’s more of a problem that Bolan is concerned with squashing at the outset, but as the novel elaborates Pendleton works in more of a ‘70s-madatory vibe of pessimism where Bolan realizes that there’s only so much a guy can do when the place he’s trying to protect is already rotten to the core.

Pendleton also spends a lot more time in the heads of his mobsters in this one. They’re an interchangeable bunch and none of them really capture the attention save for a veteran “Turkey Doctor” who goes by the name of Larry Turk, the nickname gamed for his sadism in that field. Turk heads up the soldiers who are put on a sort of Executioner task force, combing the city during the blizzard and seeking out their prey. Bolan meanwhile gives Jimi some pointers on how to survive in his “jungle” (a recurring joke where he yells “Down!” and expects her to drop instantly), and out they go into the snow-heavy night, just as one of those squads converges on their hotel.

The ensuing action scene is again brief and also plays out in pitch-darkness and from Jimi’s confused perspective. Bolan hits hard and fast, though, and realizes he needs to get rid of his excess baggage so he can strike without fear of collateral damage. Enter the most interesting new character in the novel: Leopold “Leo” Stein, a Mafia-fighting lawyer who for his troubles has been crippled and also had acid thrown in his face. He now operates in a Chicago office under a different name, but given his omniscience about all things Mafia-related, Bolan tracks him down. He leaves Jimi with him and gains Leo’s mob intel, a little leather book with names and addresses in it. This will become Bolan’s warbook in Chicago Wipe-Out.

Jimi in safe hands, Bolan straps on a white thermal commando suit, gears up, and heads out into the blizzard. The reader expects a rousing second half in which our hero will blow away scores of Mafia scum on the snow-swept streets of Chicago. Instead we are treated to endless phone conversations, lots of expository dialog, and many scenes of Bolan practicing “role camouflage” as he infiltrates the Mafia positions, posing as some hapless city worker, and thus exploiting the mob’s stupidity. All of which is to say Chicago Wipe-Out is pretty much a letdown after the relentless pace of Nightmare In New York.

Bolan, posing as a telephone repairman, gets into one of the Mafia meeting places – a posh nightclub – and splices its line. Through this means he gradually sets up an internecine war between Don Giovanni and Joliet Jake Vecci. Mind you, all this occurs over the course of a single night. But by its end both these men will think the other is planning a war against him, yet somehow neither of them manages to realize that it all might be the work of the Executioner, even though they both know he’s here in Chicago. (Later a mobster will make the off-hand yet ridiculous comment that Bolan has probably “taken off” and isn’t even there anymore.)

Our hero sort of slips into the shadows and a slew of Mafia characters take his place, all of them with confusing names and all of them practically the same character. The action angle promised in the first half is eclipsed by fears of a war among the family, and Bolan drifts like a wraith across the darkened streets, usually pretending to be a phone repairman. He even hobknobs with soldiers standing out in the freezing weather, guarding Don Gio’s “hardsite” in the woods. Bolan through his chicanery has gotten both sides to converge here, both of them preparing for a war.

Along the way Bolan also learns more of the corruption which controls this city and here he realizes that, even without the Mafia, it would still be corrupt. His goal by novel’s end is to kill as many mobsters as he can, but he knows he can’t touch the most powerful: there’s a mysterious character named “City Jake” who pulls the strings, and Pendleton leaves his identity a secret. All we learn is he’s nationally famous and is known for his good deeds, yet Bolan has discovered he’s rotten to the core and mobbed-up. Presumably he will appear in later volumes; Bolan has a face-to-face with him at the end, but for some reason lets him live.

Even the finale is muted. Joliet Jake and army converge on Don Gio’s hardsite in the middle of the night, and Bolan, hiding in a tree, blasts away a few of them. Jake’s boys assume the shots came from Gio’s house and open fire. Bolan slips away, breaks into Gio’s villa, and guns down a few more soldiers. Then he gets knocked down a flight of stairs! It’s none other than Larry Turk, who has completely gotten the drop on our hero – I mentioned Bolan was more human in these early volumes, didn’t I? But it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth as our hero spends the last pages standing around with his hands in the air while Don Gio and Larry Turk plan how to kill him.

Even worse, Bolan’s only saved by the appearance of an underboss who hauls in a captured Joliet Jake – and Bolan uses the underboss as a human shield in the ensuing fireworks. After quickly dispatching the others with his Beretta, Bolan heads off just as the cops converge. It’s then back to Leo Stein’s place to say thanks and so long to Jimi, and that’s that; Bolan hops in his warwagon (officially named thus in this eighth volume, though it’s the same Ford Econoline van he got in the previous book) and hits the road.

Chicago Wipe-Out displays all of Pendleton’s many strengths, but at the same time it’s a disappointment because it promises so much but ultimately delivers so little. One is certain a better story existed here. Fortunately, Pendleton delivered thirty-some more installments, so doubtless he had many chances to redeem himself. At any rate I can’t give this one a sterling endorsement, but given the continuity-heavy basis of Pendleton’s Executioner books, that could hardly matter; you need to read it, anyway!

And I love that cover – looks like Bolan’s strangling a carnival barker!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #1: The Moneta Papers

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #1: The Moneta Papers, by Jon Messmann
April, 1973  Pyramid Books

Jefferson Boone is a different kind of agent. If you like a little culture with your killing, a hero who’s literate as well as phallic, the Handyman’s your man. -- From the back cover

The same time he was writing The Revenger, Jon Messmann also turned out another action series that ran for six volumes: Jefferson Boone, Handyman, which on the surface is more along the lines of the spy-fi Messmann wrote for the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. Style-wise the series is more similar to The Revenger, with an intellectual hero given to lots of introspection and rumination. He also likes to occasionally quote from say Boethius or Dante, which results in a strange protagonist; Jefferson Boone is pretty much James Bond meets Frasier Crane. 

Boone (or “Jeff” or “Jefferson,” as Messmann arbitrarily refers to him in the narrative) is a sandy-haired stud who works out of DC and performs odd jobs for the government. His dad was a diplomat, and we learn in quickly-relayed backstory that Pop Boone once complained to his son about all the red tape that prevents diplomats from effecting change in the international arena. What was needed, said old Boone, was a sort of “handyman” who could fix all the leaks and whatnot. Apparently from this off-hand comment young Jeff decided that he himself would become the Handyman.

He’s apparently been quite successful, for as we meet him he’s in a posh apartment in DC, with another in New York, and drives a new cherry red Mustang (which he has flown around with him so he can drive it wherever he goes). His custom weapon is a .357 Magnum but he carries a Colt automatic target pistol as a backup piece. The “phallic” stuff mentioned on the back cover comes into play posthaste, as Jeff scores with some gal who takes him to a fancy DC party. But Messmann as ever is in a Burt Hirschfeld style this time, relaying all of the frequent sex scenes via analogy, metaphor, and purple-prose. There’s hardly any descriptive material at all, even though Jeff gets laid a bunch. Messmann actually wrote harder stuff in his Nick Carter books.

In fact, Messmann’s work could very well provide the answer to the unasked question: What if Burt Hirschfeld had written men’s adventure novels? The style is at times so similar as to be mysterious, even when it comes down to the plotting. For like Hirschfeld Messmann is all about the slow burn. Jeff’s assignment this time has him looking up an old platonic friend named Dorrie whose mega-billionaire dad, dead now, was about to turn over some important land to the US. Dorrie is game to sign over the deeds, but two couriers who have been sent to her in Italy have turned up dead. The State Department tasks Jeff with being the latest courier, and getting “The Moneta Papers” signed. 

This simple plot drags on over the course of 190 pages of small, dense print. My guess is the book is around 80,000 words or so, but then I’ve never been good at estimating word count. Let it just be said that The Moneta Papers is way too long and lots of it could’ve been whittled down; The Revenger books are also pretty densely-written, with lots of incidental rumination and whatnot, but at least those books are shorter. Maybe Pyramid Books demanded higher word counts, who knows. But instead of ramping up the action and etc to fill the space, Messmann instead just goes for lots of slow-burn and long-simmer sort of stuff. 

Anyway, Jeff heads on over to Venice, his portable bar in tow. An attempt is promptly made on his life, a car trying to ram him as he drives along the Italian countryside. Things get more interesting when Jeff meets Dorrie – only he discovers, gradually, that it isn’t really Dorrie. Rather it’s a “ringer” who looks very much like Dorrie, laughs at the same jokes, shares the same memories, and otherwise walks and talks just like the real thing – save for one peculiar difference. This particular Dorrie doesn’t appear to realize that she and Jeff have never had sex. Playing the girl along, Jeff takes her back to his apartment – and proceeds with boffing her.

The nympho ringer just loves it, and while she begs for more Jeff grabs her by the hair and demands answers. This leads to a knock-down, drag-out fight, during which the fake Dorrie manages to escape – and is never seen again. Messmann just forgets all about tying up that loose end. Understandably puzzled, Jeff the next day meets the real Dorrie, who is living in a posh villa with her new beau Umberto Fiando, heir to the Fiando automobile fortune. But what has concerned the State Dept is that Umberto is a loyal follower of Cesare Gallermo, a regular modern-day Mussolini, and they’re worried that once Dorrie and Umberto are married, by Italian law all of her possessions are also owned by Umberto, and he’ll give those highly-important lands over to his pal Cesare.

The Hirschfeld/trash fiction vibe continues as Jeff hangs out with Umberto’s jet-setting crowd, among them the dark-eyed Marie-Claude, a French-Italian beauty who is bored due to her billions but clearly wants to get freaky with Jeff. After lots of boring Formula 1 race car stuff – during which another attempt is made on Jeff’s life, this time via an “accidental” crash – Jeff heads with Marie-Claude over to her summer house for some more “phallic” shenanigans. But again it’s more on that poetical tip:

She trembled under him and he felt her surgings and he drew away from her and she cried out in protest, but only for a moment as he caressed her openness until she sighed and surged again, each movement of her abdomen like successive waves on a shore, coming nearer and nearer to the high-water mark.

If that doesn’t sound like Burt Hirschfeld, I don’t know what does.

The climax plays out in a ski lodge in the Italian Alps. Jeff has gotten Umberto’s father to reveal that Umberto has been denied the family fortunes, thus he’s “more air than heir,” per Jeff. And thus, he really is part of Cesare’s plotting and is only marrying Dorrie for her wealth and those important lands. But the game is now out in the open, and Umberto has taken an unwitting Dorrie to this lodge, which is under guard, with the veiled threat to Jeff that if he comes after her, Dorrie will die. For his part, Jeff still wonders how complicit Dorrie is in all this. Later he will discover that Umberto, a former doctor, has been drugging her with truth serum and extracting info from her. But the reader will have long ago come to this conclusion.

Among his skills Jeff is also talented at disguise. He makes himself look like an Italian, goes by the name Guido, and even in this manner manages to pick up a hot-to-trot babe, this one an American gal on vacation named Edie. Jeff poses as a man of the world, using the naïve but sexy Edie as a way to throw off the blue-blazer-wearing thugs who have surrounded the lodge, on the lookout for Jeff. And guess what, Jeff ends up hopping into bed with Edie as well, especially given how she keeps throwing herself at the Italian lothario. Another vague, Hirschfeld-esque sex scene ensues.

But this one has a fun finale, as Jeff decides to hell with it and comes clean with Edie, suddenly speaking without his fake Italian accent. He tells the girl who he is and why he’s here, and after getting over her shock Edie agrees to help – and wants a bit more lovin’. In fact she wants to come visit him in his pad in New York after all this! A very Bond-esque scene follows the next morning, as Jeff takes out several thugs while skiing down a dangerous pass. He sets up one of them as his own corpse, thus fooling all and sundry into believing that “Guido” is dead, his disguise having been ruined.

The actual climax though is mostly dialog. Messmann again writes the novel like it’s a “real” book, and perhaps he hoped for the success and popularity of a mystery series along the lines of Travis McGee or something. Jeff outs Umberto as a murderer, which ends up breaking poor Dorrie’s heart. He then confronts Cesare and tells the man the US lands – and Dorrie’s fortunes – are no longer his, and also makes him promise to drop out of Italian politics.

And that’s that – Jeff makes amends with Dorrie (Jeff is more heartfelt than many of his men’s adventure contemporaries, and indeed turns back before leaving to make sure Dorrie has forgiven him for exposing her lover as a fraud) and heads back to New York – just in time for more of that good lovin’ courtesy his new guest Edie.

Overall The Moneta Papers was mostly enjoyable, though the introspection and rumination did serve to slow down the proceedings. And yet, as with The Revenger, despite the measured pace Messmann is still capable enough of a writer to make the reader invested in the story. He’s also very good at description, and brings the Italian countryside to life. This only serves to further lend the book more of a trash novel vibe and less of a men’s adventure one.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mutants Amok #4: Holocaust Horror

Mutants Amok #4: Holocaust Horror, by Mark Grant
September, 1991  Avon Books

David Bischoff turns in his final installment of Mutants Amok, though the series would last for one more volume after his departure. Bischoff goes out the same way he came in, delivering a goofy splatterfest that comes off like a sci-fi Looney Tunes with sex and gore. However, Holocaust Horror displays the signs of an author who is getting burned out with his series.

Just a day or two after the third volume, our heroes are still in California, wondering what to do next. Having lost the former love of his life (who went off to live happily ever after with a dapper mutant), Jack Bender is now “stuck” with Jill Morningstar, the American Indian beauty he first hooked up with in the second volume. For just as Bischoff got sick of Jenny, Jack’s first girlfriend, he’s also gotten sick of Jill; cue lots of whining on Jack’s part of how Jill is a “bitch” and how she constantly disagrees with him. Even oafish “rebel leader” Max Turkel is sick of Jill.

This is pretty sad, as Jill Morningstar previously was a fun character, a self-proclaimed post-apocalypse babe. But it’s clear Bischoff has gotten tired of her, and you can see poor Jill’s fate coming a mile away; it’s practically announced from her first appearance in Holocaust Horror. Perhaps this is why there were seldom recurring female characters in men’s adventure series; maybe the whole appeal of these books is a new lay each volume. Duh, what the hell am I saying? Of course that’s part of the appeal! But anyway, I have to admit I felt a little bad for the narrative short-shrift Jill was given.

Meanwhile the novel opens with the appearance of a new female character: Captain Martha “Marty” Abrahams, a hot-stuff brunette who leads an army of human rebels in the Arizona desert. They’re busy getting their asses kicked by some new-type cyborg mutants when we meet them, and also there’s word of certain a-doin’s transpirin’ in the nearby mountains. Later we’ll learn this is courtesy human freak Dr. Edward Wilkens, great-grandson of a man who helped invent the atomic bomb. Wilkens, confined to a wheelchair due to various diseases that have deformed him, is even more maniacal than the mutants and serves them due to his hatred of his own kind; he was mocked by fellow humans as a child given his warped appearance.

Bischoff delivers more of his patented freakish mutants this time, mostly through human baby-rat hybrids who plague the hell out of our heroes through the first half of the novel. While Holocaust Horror does occasionally get as gory as its predecessors, there is on the whole a sort of subdued or perhaps even defeated air to the whole thing, and Bischoff clearly page-fills throughout. He’s very fond of the single-line paragraph, for example. But also there is a lot of stalling and repetition and precious little of the whacked-out, gory insanity of the previous three books.

The borderline comedy material is still here, though, maybe not to the outrageous slapstick level of the third volume, but close. Wilkens and his “halfsie” assistant for example provide a lot of this; the halfsie is an “igor” class halfsie, which means that it looks identical to the Igor of the Frankenstein films, with a hunchback and everything – and the hunchback even has an extra brain. This recalls the goofy “hobbit” halfsies of the first volume and is just another indication of the Looney Tunes vibe of this entire series. (At one point Jack even watches a bunch of Looney Tunes cartoons in this volume, thus bringing it all together.)

Action is mostly sporadic. Turkel et al get out of one tough situation only to land in another; escaping a mutant squad they come to a complex built beneath the California desert, where they’re attacked that very night by those rat-babies. While Jack is graphically humping Jill, I should mention. As ever Bischoff gets down and dirty with the sex scenes; Jack might be getting sick of Jill’s temper and how she argues with everyone all the time, but he sure can’t complain about her skills in the sack.

After escaping the rat-babies our heroes end up joining forces with Marty Abrahams and her army. It’s instant hate between her and Turkel, but any idiot can see that these two will of course soon be jumping in bed themselves. Before we get there though we have another action sequence, where a stubborn Marty insists that they can easily defeat the nearby mutant base, which they’ve just discovered is the home of Dr. Wilkens and his atom bomb research. Wilkens by the way is here because his great-grandfather apparently hid some actual A-bombs in these mountains, and he’s searching for them.

Jack and Turkel and geek Phil Potts all say this attack will be suicide, and vote against it; you guessed it, Jill votes for the attack, mostly so as just to disagree with them and be contrary. And guess who gets killed in a major way the next morning? Yep, poor Jill is torn apart by a massive robot in the aftermath of the “attack,” which turns out to be a total rout. It’s a trap, Wilkens and his mutant leaders knowing the humans were planning an attack and having lots of nasty stuff waiting for them. All of the main heroes except for Jill manage to escape, of course.

A depressed Jack spends the next two weeks watching cartoons while Phil heads down to a local bar and meets some halfies(?). One of them he’s certain is working with Wilkens; he’s right, and it turns out to be the igor, who is named Trevor. Also Phil meanwhile manages to get his own babe, a bodacious blonde who first tries to hop in bed with Jack. Our teenaged hero gets her all worked up in another explicit scene, asks her “Do you want to fuck?”, and then sends her off to Phil’s room!

And also meanwhile Turkel and Marty Abrahams get it on, doing the deed on a pool table no less, but in a recurring theme they are interrupted right as Turkel has reached the climactic moment – by the robotic spleen in Turkel’s guts popping out and saying hello. Bischoff appears to have been remolding the series as a mission-based sort of thing, as rather than the free-form nature of the first books, this one has BrainGeneral Harten, Turkel’s for-now colleague, issuing orders through the robotic spleen. Harten and the other BrainGenerals want Wilkens stoped, as atomic power could be the end of the world, but insane Emperor Charlegmane is all for it and kills any BrainGenerals who disagree with him.

But it’s all a lot of padding. There’s a part where Wilkens discovers the cavern where his ancestor stored the atomic bombs, and it just goes on and on. There is on the whole just a feeling of boredom to the whole thing. More focus is placed on Trevor the igor’s fear of atomic armageddon, and after a few misadventures he ends up assisting our heroes – that is, his hump does, which has been sliced off by one of Wilkens’s new super-robots, advanced versions of the one that almost ripped Turkel apart in the second volume.

The finale sees a staged assault on Wilkens’s cavern complex, the rebels using high-tech “Reagan” tanks. They prove ineffective against the titanic robots, and Turkel goes running around with a LAW rocket launcher. It all has the feel of the future scenes in The Terminator. I thought maybe one of the main characters would get killed, like a big sendoff from Bischoff, but nope – Jack and Phil manage to escape while Trevor’s hump reattaches itself to the rest of his body and he tortures Wilkens before the atomic bomb explodes, Wilkens having set it to blow up in case his forces were overrun.

Lacking overall the gory, bizarre charm of the first three books, Holocaust Horror comes off as kind of limp and uninvolving. It’s also a little clumsy, with many subplots and characters brought up and then abruptly dropped. It does get back on the course of the storyline developing in the first two books – and here we are told again that early series villain BrainGeneral Torx really is dead – but unfortunately it just lacks the spark of those earlier volumes.

Only one more book was to follow, though, courtesy Bruce King: Christmas Slaughter, which is also the most scarce volume of the series. My guess is sales were low and thus it had a low print run. Anyway I’ll get to it eventually.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Assignment To Bahrein (aka The Adjusters #1)

Assignment To Bahrein, by Peter Winston
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

Even though it has all the makings of another Lyle Kenyon Engel production, The Adjusters was actually the sole work of Award Books, and clearly they were trying to duplicate the success they’d enjoyed with an Engel production: namely, the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, which is even referenced on the cover of this first volume. And like the Nick Carter books, Award credited this series to its protagonist, Peter Winston.

The Adjusters ran for five volumes, and a big thanks to Juri, who figured out a few years ago who wrote each book. Paul Eiden wrote this first volume as well as the second one, and Jim Boswer wrote volumes three and four. After this the series went on a brief hiatus, returning in 1969 for the final volume, The Temple At Ilumquh, which featured a different cover design than the first four and was credited to the author who wrote it, Jack Laflin. My guess is the series failed to catch a readership, which is too bad, as if this first volume’s any indication The Adjusters has a lot of potential, and is better than another would-be Killmaster from Award: Hot Line.

Assignment To Bahrein opens with a prologue that takes place eight years before the series proper. Peter Winston (or “Peter,” as Eiden refers to him throughout, just like Nick Carter was “Nick” in the early books) is a 21 year-old dude with a love for violence and action. Out of work, he happens to be on a subway when some leather-clad punks attempt to rob an old man at knifepoint. Peter beats the shit out of them, getting hurt in the process. While recuperating in the hospital, he’s approached by a lovely young woman with sad gray eyes who offers him a job at White, Whittle, Limited, a global and famous firm that’s mostly involved in engineering contracts.

Flashforward to eight years later, and Peter, 29 now, is agent A-2 for the secret arm of White & Whittle’s Adjustments Division. Reporting to A-1 (by all acounts old Whittle himself, though this is never confirmed – and Peter’s only met the dude a few times), Peter Winston is now a global troubleshooter who earns a couple hundred thousand a year and has a millon or so in his bank account. He is a total ‘60s alpha male-type protagonist, driving a Ferrari Superfast and living in a swank Manhattan penthouse with all the bachelor pad trimmings. He’s over six feet tall, with a rangy, muscular build and described as not necessarily handsome but attractive to women because they can see the danger in his eyes. So in other words we can once again only envision ubiquitious paperback cover model Steve Holland in the role.

At first I thought Eiden’s writing here was a bit more focused than in later novels, like say John Eagle Expeditor #11. But make no mistake it’s Eiden for sure, with shall we say a leisurely approach to the plotting. Yet for all that, I really enjoy this guy’s style! Like many of these other pulp authors he has a knack for bringing characters to life and making you enjoy reading about them…despite the fact that hardly anything happens! I find it strange that Eiden never broke out into Burt Hirschfeld-style potboilers, as his style is very much in that vein and you think he’d breathe easier if he could get rid of the “action” requirements and just write about the beautiful people doing their thing.

The Adjusters are a group of secret agent-types who handle jobs A-1 himself has come up with, going around the globe and posing as engineering managers for White and Whittle. In brief backstory we learn that there were three A2s before Peter; the first died in action, the second died as well (I think; I forget), and the third “simply disappeared,” to quote Principal Skinner. Now Peter has risen to the top rank of A-2, getting his jobs from Vandervelde, the Dispatcher; then there’s A-3, the interesting Tinker Priest, an older dude who has learned a few hundred languages and serves as Peter’s Q. Eiden sets up a cool vibe in the White and Whittle offices in New York, not to mention Peter’s playboy lifestyle in his swanky penthouse (which has mood-music lights that can be adjusted by a dial on his bed’s headboard).

Peter’s current assignment has him going to the fictional island kingdom of Bahrein, located on the Persian Gulf and run by a Shah who is very forward minded (those were the days…). The country is quite westernized and content, but A-1’s concerned about some strange a-doings courtesy Prince Marko, the Shah’s brother, who was “practically Commie” as a youth and now has been moving funds around, ostensibly to fund a dam but perhaps in reality for some nefarious, communist purpose. Peter is to pose as an engineering inspector (White and Whittle holding the dam contract) while really figuring out what’s going on.

Peter’s main choice of weapon is a .357 Magnum that he’s a helluva shot with, and he also has a slide ruler that can be transformed into an 18” sword. Overall he’s less good-humored than the Killmaster and comes off as more aggressively macho, almost like Manning Lee Stokes’s version of Nick Carter but a bit more arrogant. But then, when gorgeous swinging ‘60s chicks are falling at your feet like they do for Peter Winston, you have every right to be a little arrogant. Indeed we meet Peter just as he’s boffed a hot TV weather girl who threw herself at him – and to note, Eiden’s frequent sex scenes are not very explicit, but he is very heavy on the anatomical details, particularly when it comes to breastesses. This is fortuitious, as every woman in the novel is busty.

The Shah has Peter flown over on his private jet, and here we get a taste of Eiden’s leisurely plotting, as the flight just goes on and on. But it sure is groovy, as Peter’s private room has an astrodome that allows him to sleep in starlight and the sexy Arabic stews are dressed like Barbara Eden, and plus there’s super-sexy hostess Mara, a Hawaiian-Japanese gal who serves as secretary for Prince Marko’s wife and doesn’t seem to mind Peter’s sexual advances at all. I did though have bad flashbacks to the endless chess games in John Eagle Expeditor #7 during a sequence where Peter engages Marko flunky Gholam in an endless game of blackjack, but at least the scene caps off with (fade to black) sex between Peter and Mara, who jumps on Peter’s bed, twists her nude body into a pretzel, and informs Peter that she used to be an acrobat.

Further evidencing Eiden’s steamy potboiler predilections, the Bahrein material is even more Hirschfeld-esque, or better yet a prefigure of Harold Robbins’s The Pirate. For one there’s wily Prince Marko, who treats Peter cordially but clearly hides ulterior motives, and also there’s Princess Ayesha, dropdead gorgeous drunk of the Shah’s wife – by the first night she’s already skinny dipping and making blatant advances to Peter. Then there’s Chahnaz, anoter dropdead Bahreinian beauty, one who flew over with Peter (treating him frostily throughout) and who is rumored to be the Shah’s next wife, whether she likes it or not; she was well on her way to Hollywood stardom before she got the call, and no one refuses the Shah.

It’s all very soapy as Ayesha comes on to Peter, then backs off when it gets hot and heavy – and Peter circumvents modern sentiment by practically demanding the gal give it to him, even trying to get her drunk the morning after she dissed him and forcing himself on her. But nothing ever comes of it, the girl reduced to crying fits, and Peter starts to suspect something’s up. Especially when he’s shot at on the streets of Bahrein, saved by his new best bud, muscular Chinese-American Hank Lee, an expat who runs a business here and who carries a gun. Later Peter’s knocked out at the Shah’s villa, and he suspects Prince Marko and flunky Gholam, mostly because he’s certain they’re afraid he’s about to uncover the purpose behind those mysterious funds.

Peter is most interested in Chahnaz, the only gal who doesn’t give him much play, of course. But his alpha machoness gradually melts her frosty nature, to the extent that she soon helps him and indeed even learns he’s a secret agent. Chahnaz is being forced to marry the Shah even though she hates Prince Marko, thus her willingness to assist Peter. Eiden succeeds in making the three main female characters more than just busty ciphers. He builds a nice budding chemistry between Peter and Chahnaz, for example, particularly given the open hostilities.

The final fifty or so pages ramp up the action. Having broken into Marko’s high-rise office with rappelling gear and stealing some documents, Peter gets Chahnaz to translate the paperwork. Turns out Marko is indeed a Commie and is building a missile silo for the Red Chinese. Here the gadgetry of the Killmaster series comes into play: Peter requests delivery from the Adjusters office of the X-42, a one-man helicopter, and also a Rocket Belt(!). First though we have some aerial action as Peter and another Whittle employee are shot out of the sky in their private plane by Marko-loyal members of the Bahrein air force.

Peter further gains Chahnaz’s assistance – not to mention her interest – by lying low in her place while he waits for the material to be delivered. Here Peter treats the girl with utter macho mystique, lying around and drinking beer while she goes out and buys him food and cooks for him, putting the poor girl down the whole time and never once lifting a finger to help her. Chahnaz comments on his sexist behavior throughout, making fun of it, but she serves him nonetheless. Despite which she still doesn’t sleep with him, even mocking him for assuming she would, and Eiden continues to elaborate on the chemistry between the two, having fun with it.

As typical with Eiden, the climax unfortunately fizzles out. Peter is confronted with a “surprise” traitor (spoiler: It’s Hank Lee, but you probably already figured that out as soon as the guy was introduced), and then he hooks up the ol’ Rocket Belt and flies back and forth to Marko’s refinery in the desert, planting explosives. This takes him two hours. Afterwards he hops on his mini-helicopter and flies off into the night amid the explosion, passes over Marko and the air force dude who shot him down. Peter takes out his .357, about to lower the helicopter and blow ‘em away – and then figures he probably shouldn’t!! Indeed we learn that the two were killed off-page, by Marko’s wife no less, who we find out lost her son in the refinery explosion. Meaning our hero killed an innocent kid, but that’s brushed under the carpet.

After one more quick lay with Mara, who has disappeared for 50 or so pages – and we learn that she’s a “slut” who will do anything for money and even set Peter up for that knockout at Marko’s villa – Peter hops aboard the company plane for the US, having smuggled aboard a secret passenger, one’s he’s going to get to boffing posthaste: None other than Chahnaz, you won’t be shocked to discover.

Another of those deceptively slim paperbacks, Assignment To Bahrein only runs 160 pages but it’s got some super-small and super-dense print. This is not a quick read by a long shot. And while it could’ve used a little more action and forward momentum, it did still have enough of that vintage pulp feel as to be enjoyable – enough so at least that I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vatican Vendetta (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #88)

Vatican Vendetta, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

A notable installment of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, Vatican Vendetta was not only the final volume to feature Nick’s archenemy Mr. Judas, but it was also the final volume to be “produced” by series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel. From here on out the series, now in first-person (until sometime in the mid-‘80s, at least), would be in the hands of a changing lineup of editors at Award, Charter, and Jove.

According to Will Murray in his excellent Killmaster article in The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982), Vatican Vendetta was a Ralph Hayes revision of a George Snyder manuscript. Also of note is Judas’s appearance in this book. The last Killmaster book the metal-handed archvillain had appeared in was 1969’s The Sea Trap, not only a series highlight but one of the best men’s adventure novels I’ve ever read. Yet as Murray notes, Judas’s appearance in Vatican Vendetta actually picks up from the 1967 entry The Weapon Of Night, a Valerie Moolman installment that featured Judas plummeting over Niagra Falls in the climax.

Strangely, in Vatican Vendetta all of Judas’s post-The Weapon Of Night appearances are ignored, and the events of that book, which took place “a few years back,” are constantly mentioned, with Nick (who narrates the novel) and his boss Hawk repeating over and over that they believed Judas was dead after he went over the Falls. My guess is that George Snyder probably wrote his first draft sometime in 1969, which was not only “a few years” after ’67 but also was when Snyder started writing for Engel (his first volume of the series was 1969’s The Defector).

According to Murray, Engel had a slew of unpublished Killmaster novels in his archives, not only ones by series regulars but also by authors such as William Crawford (whose Killmaster work was never published, and probably for the better). I’m guessing Snyder’s first draft of Vatican Vendetta was one such manuscript, and sometime in ’73 or ’74 Engel gave it to new series author Ralph Hayes for revision. (Also I believe that by 1974 George Snyder had already retired from the writing biz.) I’d also say that Hayes rewrote the vast majority of it, as Snyder’s style isn’t very apparent here; however Hayes’s clunky style, familiar from The Hunter, is very apparent.

Vatican Vendetta doesn’t have much spark to it, and honestly was a sad way for Judas to go out – they should’ve just left it at The Sea Trap, where he was blown up in the finale (like any pseudo-Bond villain, Judas “died” at the end of every volume he appeared in). Hayes’s plotting (not to mention his description, characterization, dialog, etc) is pretty pedestrian, with the once-mighty archvillain Judas reduced to a regular sort of crime kingpin (ravaged by diabetes, no less!) who pulls heists like a villain off the Batman TV show.

As for narrator Nick himself, he too doesn’t shine as brightly in Hayes’s hands. When we meet him he is, of course, in bed with a woman; he’s in Rome, his mission to steal back a blueprint of a new top-secret nuclear triggering device from a KGB agent who stole it from a courier. Nick easily takes on the guy, killing him in the process, and makes off with the document – that is, not before he’s (very coincedentally) met an attractive young Italian gal named Gina in a bar. Hayes gives us the first of a few sex scenes between the two, but they aren’t very explicit or page-consuming.

Nick is to hand the blueprints over to an AXE courier, but he’s followed by KGB agents the next day. He rushes into the Vatican museum and ends up stuffing the blueprints into an ancient Etruscan vase. He loses the tail and it’s back into bed with Gina, who just happens to be the former mistress of a Mafia dude named Farelli. The next morning when Nick heads back to the Vatican to retrieve his blueprints…he walks right into a heist. Reality tossed out the window, Hayes first has a diversionary assassination attempt on the Pope, followed by a helicopter hovering over the Vatican while men rope down, loot the place, and rope back up onto the waiting ‘copter. And sure enough, they’ve taken the Etruscan vase!

The novel operates like a generic private eye/police procedural as Nick hooks up with an Interpol friend named Tony Beneditto and the two track clues and scan evidence, trying to determine who was behind the heist. Nick discovers an odd footprint in the looted Vatican and at great page-length they deduce it was from a “crepe-soled shoe” which is made only in Sicily. This leads us to the Mafia, and coincidence rears its head again when it’s determined that one of the heisters was the bodyguard of none other than Farelli, Gina’s ex! Now Gina’s part of the team, helping Nick and Tony but not really doing much other than keeping Nick’s bed warm.

Hayes does throw in the occasional oddball touch, like when Gina puts Nick in touch with Madame Vasari, a cathouse owner who has ties to the Mafia and might help track down the heisters. But to speak to the lady, Nick “has” to sleep with one of her girls! This right after he’s gotten out of Gina’s bed. Hayes again keeps it vague in the ensuing naughtiness, but lets us know at least that something has happened. But anyway the Madame is the centerpiece; like something out of a Fellini film she’s ancient and obese and wears a bright red orange wig to cover her bald head. Iincense and vaporizers mist the air to block out “the strange aroma” her body has acquired.

Action is sparse and, when it finally does happen, is relatively bloodless. Hayes is very much in the first-draft mode of writing, and according to Murray’s article all of his manuscripts were heavily revised by Award, usually because they came in well beneath the required word count. Nick doesn’t fare very well, either; at one point two random thugs get the better of him, leaving him a bloodied mess, and you have a hard time seeing this happen in books written by other Killmaster authors. Even when the trio goes down to Sicily and finds Judas’s secret complex beneath a villa, Hayes keeps it threadbare; Nick takes out the mere two guards who oversee the place and discovers that Judas has not only found the nuke device blueprint, but has actually made a nuclear bomb of his own.

The final third is more page-filling as Nick and Gina parachute onto an ocean liner upon which Nick believes Judas has planted the nuke. It’s headed for New York and Nick also believes Judas is aboard. But many pages are devoted to Nick bickering with the stubborn captain and then days elapse as Nick et al search the ship…finding nothing, not even Judas. Not until they come into port in New York does the mayor reveal that they’ve just been wired a ransom note, and the captain only then happens to remember that a strange man with a “gaunt face” attempted to place something valuable in the captain’s special safe.

During the Vatican heist Nick caught a look at Judas in the helicopter over the building; here’s how Hayes describes the villain, whom we later learn looks “emaciated” now due to having picked up diabetes in the ensuing years(!?):

It was a skull-like face, emaciated, the skin like parchment, waxen and pulled tight. The man’s eyes were slits, cruel and reptillian, narrow coal-black eyes peering out from a face of yellow leatherish flesh. The wide, thin-lipped mouth was curved up into a death head’s grin. This was the profile I continued to stare at, one side of a face that belonged to the most depraved and monstrous human being I’d ever known in my entire life. I thought I’d seen the last of him the day he plunged over Niagara Falls.

Later it’s also mentioned that Judas has metal hands, but Hayes goofs in stating that Judas lost both of his hands in childhood (meanwhile Nick himself shot off one of them in Run, Spy, Run). And strangely enough we’re informed Judas hides his metal claws with fake flesh. Seriously, if you’re a crazed supervillain with a skull face and metal hands, why the hell would you cover them up??

The finale is pretty middling. The nuclear bomb is found in the captain’s quarters and an expert disarms it while Nick stands around. Then Judas attempts to escape with the debarking passengers, having a tough go of it due to his emaciated, gaunt form and his cane and all. Yet he still manages to lose Nick! The villain hops a plane to Rome and Nick follows after him, once again bringing Gina along for no reason. The climax is a harried affair in which Nick gets in a brief gunfight with the two men on the streets of Rome, killing Farelli and chasing after Judas.

Racing down a well into the sewers beneath Rome, Judas leads Nick on a page-consuming chase across the slimy, rat and bat-infested passageways under the city. Nick catches up with him in the Catacombs, where a weak Judas finally appears, delivering his one and only line of dialog in the novel: “I will finally kill you now, Carter.” But he misses with his .44 Magnum and then passes out into a “diabetic coma,” falling over a bunch of skeletons from the early Christian era. Nick checks his pulse and there is none, and thus Judas is well and truly dead. The end!

So yeah, a pretty anticlimactic finale to the Judas saga, with the villain himself reduced to a shadow of his former self. But then the novel overall is pretty clunky and forgettable. Not only did Judas deserve better, but so did Lyle Kenyon Engel.

Murray states that Engel had the opportunity to stay with the series, and was indeed even offered the reigns again years later, when Charter Books took over, but ultimately he chose to end his relationship with the series he himself had started. Engel had grown frustrated with how Award was managing it, publishing manuscripts he submitted under different titles and taking forever to send payments, not to mention sending back many manuscripts and requesting vague rewrites.

But most importantly, Engel chose not to continue with Nick Carter: Killmaster because he hated the first-person narration which Award Books demanded. One must admire the force of his conviction, to quote Professor Lombardo.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Assassins From Tomorrow (The Mind Brothers #2)

Assassins From Tomorrow, by Peter Heath
No month stated, 1967  Magnum/Lancer Books

The second volume of The Mind Brothers is an interesting departure from the first volume; whereas that one was heavy on the psychedelic sci-fi, this one is more of a streamlined pulp tale. Also of note is that the plot concerns the mysteries surrounding the JFK assassination, which is pretty unusual given that the novel was published just a few years after it happened – not to mention a year before the RFK assassination.

However, Assassins From Tomorrow ultimately has nothing much at all to do with the various JFK conspiracy theories; in this novel you will read nothing of multiple Oswalds or grassy knoll tramps, let alone any umbrella men. The Kennedy assassination serves as the impetus of the events, sort of, but the book instead becomes more of an adventure thing with vague sci-fi trappings before finally dispensing with the Kennedy stuff in the very final pages, and arbitrarily at that. So despite what the cover and back copy imply, the novel is not in any way a conspiracy theory sort of deal.

Anyway, the spine of Assassins From Tomorrow is labelled with a “1,” as if implying that this is the start of the series and not the second volume of it. What’s interesting is that “the Mind Brothers” don’t play nearly as great a part in this book as they did in that first book. Rather, Assassins From Tomorrow is more of a solo piece, focusing for the most part just on Jason Starr, blond-haired super-genius and sometimes CIA spook who now, two years after the first book, runs Consultants Unlimited in Washington, D.C.

Heath doesn’t really pick up many threads from the first book, and to tell the truth he acts like most of it never happened! There’s hardly any recapping or scene re-setting; the book comes off as the start of just another ‘60s spy series, with as mentioned only slight sci-fi trappings. This comes mostly due to Jason’s “mind brother” (the phrase never actually used in this book), Adam Cyber, a bald clone of Jason (his twin-like similarity to Jason also ignored this time), who as we’ll recall is from 50,000 years in the future and is now stuck in the past. Not that any of this is really mentioned here; only Cyber’s future history is dispensed with in a paragraph or two.

One other thing has changed since The Mind Brothers; I think Heath started to watch Star Trek. For Cyber has become Mr. Spock in all but name; you can’t help but hear Leonard Nimoy delivering every single one of his lines. Like Spock Cyber is now an ultra-logical sort-of human who acts as the straight man to Jason’s Kirk. But here’s the big problem – Heath basically removes Cyber from the novel, and we hardly get to see him. Seriously, he’s like in twenty pages of the book. He disappears around page 80, abducted by the villains of the piece, and we don’t see him again.

Heath introduces a new character to the series, 16 year-old Mark Brown, a sort of hippie-type smart guy who is the son of a scientist friend of Jason’s and is currently on his way to Dallas to get to the bottom of the JFK thing. Instead Mark runs into a weird group in a bar, including a muscle-bound dude and a pretty lady who identifies herself as Consuelo Blake, and then he’s beaten up when he asks about JFK and finds himself in lockup. Escaping the prison detail he’s been put on, Mark manages to get in touch with Jason, whom his father had told him is a person to trust when in need – Mark’s dad being out of touch.

Jason lives in wealth in D.C. and has a special wall in his office that’s really a goofy sci-fi sort of magic hidden entrance that leads him into Cyber’s secret area. There the two decide to…I don’t know, do something. Heath is not very good at connecting various plot threads, though he is a very competent pulp writer. We also learn here that Jason has gotten a girlfriend, Hillary, but she is absent for the entire novel, and when we do see her she’s under mind control and doesn’t even recognize Jason. But anyway Jason and Cyber team up with Mark to find out what’s going on – Consuela Blake gave Mark some coordinates before she was taken away that night, and Jason realizes they are positions for an orbiting satellite.

Heath also injects more action into this one, getting away from the world-building (and character-building) of the previous volume. But again it’s all just Jason, like when he almost casually kills a few thugs with his martial arts skills and when he later escapes a miniature thermonuclear missile that’s been fired at him. We do get some of the sci-fi stuff of the last one, mostly through Jason’s science geekery – not to mention Cyber’s post-human brilliance, and also Mark I forgot to mention is a budding scientist himself. Jason even has a LearJet that’s got this fancy future-tech computer in it, but after building it up so much Heath just drops it, having Jason take the plane apart and cannibalize its parts.

The thermonuke was fired from Mexico, and Jason, along with Mark and a pair of Mexican brothers named Mendez and Ramos, goes out into the jungle waters near Puerto Vallarta and calls down the mysterious satellite at great page expense. Inside it they find the preserved corpse of an astronaut. The satellite was for spying and was launched on the day of Kennedy’s assassination. Eventually we’ll learn that the perpetrators of this plot put in orders for this “spy in the sky” not to be called back down that fateful November day, as he’d taken photos of the JFK killing, photos that could disprove the official story, or something.

Now Jason, Cyber having been kidnapped off-page, finds himself surrounded by a Hollywood movie crew(!?), shooting a movie down here in Mexico. Meanwhile he’s gotten in combat with a remote control nuclear sub which he took down with a top secret nuke-firing handgun thing…! A blonde bimbo starlet offers herself to Jason one night, but he turns her away (no sex in the novel, by the way). And meanwhile he finds down here – none other than Hillary, his girlfriend who by the way was kidnapped too, also off-page, earlier in the book! But Hillary acts dazed and doesn’t even recognize Jason.

The novel climaxes in the ruins of Tuxtilatan, an ancient pyramid deep in the jungle. Inside Jason finds a metallic underground structure in which the villains make their home. One of them is Consuella Blake, who Jason never met but who he somehow recognizes. The sexy, evil lady reveals that she and her fellow villains are all humans from 5,000 years in the future, and to escape their nuke-ravaged hellscape they’ve decided to invade the past. This by the way was the exact same plot of the excellent fifth (and final) season of Fringe.

So yeah, we have villains from 5,000 years in the future and a co-hero who is from fifty thousand years in the future, even though he’s off page and Heath denies us the chance of seeing Cyber take on these freaks. But Heath doesn’t really elaborate on any of this, and seems unable to understand the basics of time travel fiction – if the people from Conseula’s time were using time travel to escape their reality, then how did their world evolve for another forty or so thousand years to become Cyber’s – and why didn’t they go into the future, which as described in the first book is a sort of artificial paradise that’s barren of any humans?? I mean they could’ve just moved right on in, rather than wasting resources on conquering the 20th century.

And for that matter, it’s quickly mentioned that JFK was killed because he could’ve stopped this future-invasion, somehow; other potential disruptors of the plan have also been killed. Like Cyber, who is being sent to the earth’s core “five minutes ago,” and Jason watches and does nothing as Cyber is in fact sent to the friggin earth’s core! So is he dead or what?? Heath doesn’t even bother to tell us. Oh and Mark’s also been sent somewhere, I think three years in the future or something, but Heath doesn’t bother to follow up on that plot thread either.

Instead, the finale is an overlong sequence of Jason, assisted by the deus ex machina Mendez and Ramos, taking on the future-invaders in their high-tech complex. Consuela is about to tell Jason where the other hidden time-travel places are when she’s shot dead by none other than Dr. Brown – Mark’s dad. But it’s revealed that the real Dr. Brown and Consuela herself are really dead and these people Jason is fighting are just walking automatons with the brains of the future-invaders, or something.

Anyway, it ends with Jason at least saving Hillary, who comes out of her mind control stupor in the very last sentence and thus is at least given a single line of dialog. Meanwhile Jason smokes a couple cigarettes and figures the FBI will now be after him as a “murderer.” Why? I guess because they’ll think he killed Dr. Brown, or somehow all of these events will be pegged on him, but all of it happened in Mexico, and Jason doesn’t seem to realize that the FBI has no jurisdiction there, so the finale left me plumb friggin’ confused, as did most of the rest of the book.

Only one more volume was to follow, Men Who Die Twice, and it appears to tap into the folk-rock craze of the time. I’ll get to it eventually.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Stark #5: Rainbow Colored Shroud (aka The Revenger #5)

Stark #5: Rainbow Colored Shroud, by Joseph Hedges
May, 1975  Pyramid Books
(Original UK publication 1974)

John Stark, the Revenger (not to be confused with the other Revenger), continues his European war against “the company” in this fifth volume that’s as tediously overwritten as the third one was. Terry “Joseph Hedges” Harknett again undermines his own writing skills with blocks and blocks and blocks of overdescription that stops all forward momentum and turns Rainbow Colored Shroud into a turgid trawl of a read.

Harknett does inject a lot of continuity into the series, with this fifth book presumably opening up after the events of the fourth one, which I don’t have. (And again the occasional asterisk will refer us back to a previous volume, but again the series is referred to in these notes under its original title, The Revenger, which must’ve confused readers in the US!) Stark apparently wreaked havoc in Germany in that book, and now he’s heading up into Denmark to kill more company scum. The very first pages give us a reminder of how John Stark is a complete asshole and not at all heroic.

Stark’s hired a father and son team to pilot a boat up into Denmark, and coming in on a night landing during a heavy thunderstorm, Stark realizes at the last moment that the company is awaiting him on the beach. Stark jumps off the boat right before the goons open fire – and lets the son take the bullets that were intended for him. Then Stark hides in the water and silently pulls himself to safety while the father, an old man, is tortured by the company thugs who are seeking Stark. Stark finally pulls out his Luger, which is his customary gun this volume, and you think he’s about to do something heroic. Instead he shoots the old man in the head and runs away!

So safe to say, Harknett does not see Stark as a hero, and it’s a stretch to even consider the guy an antihero. But I found as I read this book that I actually want a hero in these men’s adventure novels; even Philip Magellan and Johnny Rock, despite being psychopaths, occasionally do something to engender reader empathy or sympathy. Not so John Stark, who cares for no one but himself and is actually more danger to those who help him than the company itself. Once again, if you are a character in this series and your name isn’t “John Stark,” you’re going to be killed in some horrific fashion.

But this opening left a bad taste in my mouth, which is never a good sign when the damn book’s 188 pages of incredibly small and dense print. Stark’s ass-holery is only just a small part of the problem. Not only could’ve a lot of these Imitation Executioner authors learned something from Don Pendleton in making their protagonists heroic (or at the very least likable), but many of them could’ve learned a helluva lot from the master on how to friggin’ write these kinds of books. I mean, just check out a section from this opening “action scene,” as Stark attempts to evade the company thugs waiting for him on the beach:

One of the riflemen sent a burst of shots across the beach and Stark speeded his progress. Perhaps spurred by fear, perhaps by a reasonable decision that the explosion of noise provided good cover. Shouts, in the tone of contrition and derision, ended the brief silence after the barrage. He didn’t step on to the steeply pitched roof of the barn when he reached the gutter. Instead, his probing foot tested the strength of a beam running along the rear wall on a level with the ledge of a hatchway into the barn’s hayloft. The beam was solid and he edged out along it. It protruded a lip of less than twenty centimetres from the wall and Stark had to keep his body pressed tight against the shiplap timber to stop from pitching backwards to the ground four metres below.

At one time the hatch had been shuttered by two swing doors, but one had long since been wrenched or had rotted off its hinges. There was ample space to crawl through the opening and stretch out full length across planks which smelled of decomposed hay and bird droppings. He froze into stillness, holding his breath and pumping sweat as he heard movement below him. He pin-pointed the position of two enforcers as he used the unaviodable idleness to accustom his eyes to the deeper degree of darkness within the barn.

Even the so-called “action” just drags on and on:

The recoil of the Luger jolted against his palm as he shot the man who had not yet fired at him. The bullet hit the side of the man’s head and burrowed through flesh on a downwards trajectory, passing across the mouth to burst out at the cheek and then find a new mark in the shoulder. The lightning supplied its follow-up of thunder, swallowing the sound of the Luger. The enforcer had flung himself backwards, fearful of being hit by the bullet blazing through the other man. Blood from the punctured cheek splashed into his eyes and the thunder masked his scream of revulsion. The Luger cracked a second time and the bullet rifled into his throat. The impact flung him harder against the door, then he bounced away and slumped across the forward curled body of the first man to die. They twitched through their death throes together. The thunder rolled away into the far distance and there was just the beating of the rain and howling of the wind against and around the crumbling walls. It covered the regular dripping of blood from torn flesh to floorboard carpet.

Seriously, enough of this could put you to sleep. And it’s like that on every single page. Every single thing Stark sees, hears, or does is over-described to the nth degree. Pendleton would’ve whittled the above down to a few sentences at the most and kept the action moving. In many ways Stark could be viewed as a primer on how not to write men’s adventure fiction. I haven’t even mentioned yet how pointlessly dour and nihilistic it is. Yet even this shouldn’t be a detriment to it being entertaining; Gannon and Bronson: Blind Rage were both dour and nihilistic, but good lord were they fun to read. Rainbow Colored Shroud almost makes you want to slit your wrists.

What makes it all the more sad is that the novel has a lurid core that could’ve made for a classic, and indeed perhaps there is a classic buried within the overlong text. For Stark in his Scandanavian war becomes involved with the porn business of the company; Denmark and Sweden are where 90% of the world’s porn comes from, we’re told, and Stark’s contact in Copenhagen is a busty beauty named Ingrid who has starred in many of these movies. Stark gets in touch with her via Poul, the son who took Stark’s bullets in the opening pages; Ingrid, a lesbian, is in love with Poul’s sister, Britt, who is also a porn actress but who is missing now. Ingrid fears that Britt fell in bad favor with the company sadists who run the porn biz.

As another example of the tedious overdescription in the book, here’s how Ingrid, the “statuesque Lesbian,” is described in her intro:

She was about twenty-five and at least six feet two inches tall, he guessed. Basically slim, she nonetheless had full, thrusting breasts and flaring hips that were challenging in their sexuality. The tight fit of her clothes revealed that she kept everything in place by her own muscle-power. Her face was long with a lot of sharp angles that could easily have resulted in plainness. But, in fact, the effect was opposite. Her eyes were dark, heavily shadowed with mascara. Her mouth was adorned by just the right colour and amount of lipstick. Her hair was long and golden, worn as Veronica Lake used to wear hers in the wartime mystery movies she made with Alan Ladd. Her hanging earrings were of real gold, as was the brooch above the cone of her right breast. The stones in the rings on the third finger of each hand had the blue sparkle of genuine diamonds.

Honestly, this is a men’s adventure novel; just tell us she’s young and pretty and has nice breasts and call it a day. I mean, is Stark’s vision so good that he can tell in a glance that earrings and brooches are “of real gold?” And for that matter, what the hell kind of a mob-busting vigilante even notices a woman’s brooch??

As in the previous volume, Ingrid’s homosexuality really sets Stark off, and he baits and taunts her throughout. They have an instant hate for each other, but Ingrid needs Stark to find out what happened to Britt. As for Stark, he could care less what happened to Britt and couldn’t care less what might happen to Ingrid – this is not just implied but flatly stated in the novel. Ingrid says Britt got involved in the bondage area of the biz, and we readers know that four women play a central part in this, led by the beautiful and psychotic Sigrid. Company bigwig Rappe, the main villain of the piece, has tasked Ingrid and her three co-dominatrices as “secret weapons” in the war against Stark. 

Unfortunately, this twisted stuff doesn’t factor into the novel until the damage of tedium has been done. Stark and Ingrid head to the posh island resort in which the company shoots its porno movies under the guise of a “health spa;” this sequence also takes place at night and clearly demonstrates Stark’s unheroic nature. While “The Revenger” is stalking the grounds, Ingrid sees that it’s a trap and cars filled with enforcers are on the way. She puts herself at risk by pushing a car down a hill and causing a massive pile-up that kills a dozen or so company flunkies. Later she’s caught…and Stark gives her up for dead and concerns himself with his own escape!

It’s hard to not hate Stark as poor Ingrid, who just saved his life, is strapped to a bed and tortured by Sigrid and her bondage sisters while Rappe and other company freaks happily watch. This is straight-up torture porn, as we learn that Sigrid gets off royally on mutilating other women. Harknett keeps toying with us on what happens to Ingrid, but by novel’s end we’ll learn that the flesh has been razored off of her breasts and ultimately scissors have been jammed into her eyeballs and mouth. But meanwhile Sigrid, posing as a wanna-be defector, has met Stark on the health spa grounds, and eventually succeeds in winning his trust and “escaping” with him. You want more tedious overdescription? Here’s how she’s described:

She was tall and slim with short black hair that hugged her head like a custom-made hat of some thick, silky material. Her face was as lean as the rest of her with clean-cut features and a smooth, tanned skin. Her eyes were china blue and saucer big. Her nose was just a trifle crooked and the imperfection added to her beauty rather than detracted from it. She had a wide, fractionally pouting mouth above a resolute jawline. Her clothes were elegantly casual and incongruously erotic – a polka-dot scarf tied at her throat above the high-necked, long-sleeved sweater, a plaid-patterned skirt with a large safety pin halfway up the split at her right thigh, and knee-length boots of shiny white. Thus, only the flesh at her knees, hands and face was exposed. But there was something, even in the tense fragment of time as Krag and his men piled into cars and sped towards the wood, about the way she wore the clothes and held her body which was sexually stimulating.

Krag by the way is the henchman in charge of finding and killing Stark, and Sigrid hides ulterior motives in that she wants Stark’s help to kill the bastard. Krag has a penchant for taking the various company porn actresses and using and abusing them as his mistresses; we see this in effect early on as Krag has his current mistress, an Israeli girl named Yeda, lick butter and jam off his body(!?) before blowing him in fairly graphic detail. One thing that must be said of Harknett is that, unlike many of his British peers, he doesn’t shirk on the explicit material. This is well displayed later in the novel, when, after killing Krag, a super-horny Sigrid succeeds in getting Stark to screw her:

With a sigh, Stark covered her body with his own, inserting himself between her thighs. Her sigh was louder as her arms dropped and her hands delved under his lowering form. The electric touch of her fingers sent delicious sensations to every nerve-ending again. And then she guided him into her and the sucking wetness of her drove him to the edge of ecstasy. As her womb drew at him, she fixed her clawed hands on his shoulders, crushing his chest to her breasts. Her legs rose and she locked her booted feet around him.

“Come on, Mr. Stark, do it to me,” she whispered, forcing his head down so that her wet lips brushed his ear. “Do it to me like you’ve never done it to any woman ever before.”

The strength with which she had sunk the knife blade deep into Krag’s stomach was now brought into use again. But this time to sink a weapon into herself. For pleasure, not pain. Despite Stark’s weight and the powerful thrusts that drove him lustfully into the hirsute centre of the woman, she was still able to arch her back from the bed: pushing towards him with her straining body and pulling him towards her with legs and arms.

Sweat pasted their flesh together and sometimes it tore apart with a moist sound: then became fastened again. But the engulfing grip of wet flesh that trapped the man willingly inside her body never released its grip. It flexed and sucked around his pumping hardness, yearning to hold him forever yet drawing him inexorably towards the spurting finale that would drain him of the essential driving force to maintain the ecstasy.

Ten points for managing to use the word “hirsute.” Mind you, all this occurs shortly after Sigrid has tortured Ingrid to death, unbeknownst to Stark. Plus Sigrid has yet another ulterior motive; Stark killed Sigrid’s boyfriend in the third volume, and now she aims to kill him in revenge; that is, after she’s “flexed” and “sucked” his “pumping hardness” to a “spurting finale.” Immediately after the sex a still-naked Sigrid tries to kill Stark, but he’s taken the clip out of his Luger. She starts clawing at him, and ol’ Stark trips her into a doorframe and slams the door on her, breaking her neck!

We go to Sweden in the homestretch, with Stark now accompanied by Yeda, Krag’s abused mistress. Yeda, who saw everything go down in Krag’s place, tells Stark how sick and evil Sigrid was. You feel bad for Yeda, who is nice and has had a rough time, which of course means Harknett plans to kill her off. And she’s dead in like two pages, her head bashed open and her neck broken as Stark crashes his stolen Datsun into the river while escaping the cops. And meanwhile we learn that Ingrid’s decomposing body was locked in the trunk, apparently planted there on the off chance that Stark would steal the car and get pulled over and thus pegged for her grisly murder…

Harknett piles on more lurid stuff in the finale, in which Rappe and his fellow “pornbrokers” watch Sigrid’s last film, which is an all-out bondage piece in which poor Britt is burned and mutilated on camera (“color by Rainbowcolour,” we’re informed, thus giving us the book’s cryptic title). As the cherry on the top, a happy Rappe even pulls poor Britt out for the others to see, proudly showing off how mutilated and mauled she is! She looks so bad – and Harknett leaves the details vague – that some of the company men even puke their guts out. But Stark, who meanwhile has of course lived through the car wreck, shows up just in time to steal a pair of AK-47s and goes in, guns blasting, mowing down every single one of them. The end!

A dire trawl of a read, Rainbow Colored Shroud leaves an unpleasant taste in the reader’s mouth. And worst of all, it isn’t even very entertaining. The book is too pessimistic and nihilistic and lacks the spark you want from this genre; it’s so dispirited as to be depressing. While Harknett’s a good writer, he honestly needed a better editor to whittle down his material to a more acceptable and fluid length.

Also, this book features one of the funniest goofs I’ve yet encountered – on page 170 Harknett actually writes “me” instead of “him” when referring to Stark, and both the UK and the US editors missed it. (My guess is they both probably fell asleep while reading the book.) Did Harknett identify with Stark that much?

Clearly I’ve been railing on this book, but the fact remains that Harknett has been a successful author for many years, so there are many readers who enjoy his style of writing. Like everything else on the blog, this review is just my opinion. And who knows, maybe after I’ve read a few more of his books I will become a bit more acclimated to Harknett’s info-rich narrative style. But as for right now, I prefer my pulp to be lean and mean and with as little excess fat as possible.