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.


English Teacher X said...

there actually is an island kingdom called Bahrain, I've never seen it spelled the other way, I see no indication they had a Shah but it is fairly progressive by middle eastern standards (that is to say, there are a lot of prostitutes there.)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for letting me know! Well, at least I know where my next vacation will be!!

English Teacher X said...

It tends to be eclipsed by its larger, fancier cousins, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Tom Johnson said...

I've only read book #4 in the series, but plan on finding the rest of the series to read.