Monday, April 11, 2016

Operation Scuba (Mark Hood #5)

Operation Scuba, by James Dark
March, 1967  Signet Books

The Mark Hood series improves in a major way after the padded bore that was the previous volume, with a fast-moving installment that never lets up. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t talking about a ‘60s spy-fy masterpiece like The Psychedelic Spy or anything, but at least J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell doesn’t waste our time with this one. Operation Scuba retains the vibe of the first few volumes and is the same short length as them. But it’s easily the best volume yet.

This volume also finally gets hero Mark Hood out of Asia; he’s been there the past three installments. Some indeterminate time after Assignment Tokyo, Hood is called into the Geneva offices of Intertrust and given his latest mission, along with recurring character and fellow agent Tommy Tremayne. Intertrust boss Fortescue wants them to head to Kingston, Jamaica and for Tommy to pose as a British nuclear scientist named Charles Battersby with Hood posing as his bodyguard.

The concern is a recent string of ship crashes in the Caribbean; we know from the first page that a Spanish mastervillain named Pedro Borja is behind this. Borja lives in a villa in Kingston with an army of henchmen at his disposal; he is a medical doctor and scientist and has created an underwater mechanism that disrupts the gyrocompasses on ships. One of Borja’s loyal scuba divers swims near a ship, hits it with the beam, the compass goes crazy, and the ship crashes. But Borja has grander intentions. He wants to control the nuclear arsenals of the various navies, and now is an opportune time given the naval maneuvers about to occur in the Caribbean.

Intertrust doesn’t know about Borja, but the concern is something is going on that might affect those naval maneuvers, where a bunch of nuclear and atomic stuff will be present. As we remember, Intertrust is solely concerned with maintaining the stability of nuclear power, limited to the US, USSR, England, and France. Battersby will be going to Kingston early for these maneuvers, and Fortescue is afraid someone will try to nab him. Hence, Battersby himself will be sequestered in a hotel under a fake name and Tremayne and Hood will act as bait. 

“Dark” doesn’t waste our time. Hood and Tremayne promptly confront a pair of would-be kidnappers upon arrival in Kingston, with Hood having to ensure they’re dead after a lengthy chase. No one must know that the real Battersby, who turns out to be a belligerent ass, isn’t staying at the opulent villa reserved for him. Instead Hood and Tremayne go there. Hood, again posing under his real name and background, puts on a wetsuit and heads into the ocean for some fish. He’s immediately attacked by a scuba diver! An exciting underwater fight ensues, climaxing with the enemy scuba diver becoming shark food.

Action and intrigue out of the way, Dark gets to the next item on his ‘60s spy mandatories list: the exotic babe. This is a hotstuff young Spanish lady who happens to be standing along the road when Hood comes out of the water after fending off the attack; she’s sexy as can be and comlains that her Alfa-Romeo has mysteriously stopped running. Hood, a car expert, fixes it for her and accepts her offer to go back to her dad’s place to get his leg stitched. Mind you, Hood should be very suspicious of this gal, who says her name is Marcia, given that he’s already been attacked twice. But Mark Hood comes off like an idiot this volume. Oh, and the girl’s last name is Borja. Yep, she’s none other than the niece of Pedro Borja, a man who basically raised her from childhood. 

Borja is very much a Bond-esque villain. He’s ruthless, amoral, and given to grandiose speeches. He even has a henchman, a slim-hipped Spaniard with “womanly lips” named Manrique. Borja is of course behind the plot, as we learn from the first page, but Hood and Tremayne don’t know it. But Borja patches Hood up, all the while planning his death. Plus Marcia has the hots for Hood, but zilch is made of this – the novel is too fast-moving for any funny business, I’m sorry to report.

More importantly, with this volume the series approaches the sci-fi nature of later installments. Borja has created a plasma beam, one which he will use to control the missile-launching mechanisms of navy destroyers. He explains this to Tremayne later in the novel, Borja having successfully captured him – for once again Mark Hood has acted the fool. Despite yet another attempted abduction of “Battersby,” in which sharpshooter Tremayne crippled his would-be kidnappers, Hood decides the next day to go swimming with Marcia, thus again leaving Tommy unguarded! No wonder our “hero” berates himself for failing yet again.

In truth, Tremayne is more so the star of the show; he seems to be in the book a lot more than Hood is, and his dry wit is refreshing when compared to Hood’s utter seriousness (not to mention Hood’s buffoonery). But Tremayne’s in a bad way in this one; caught and taken out in Borja’s fancy yacht in the middle of the Caribbean, where he’s tortured and beaten. Borja thinks Tremayne is Battersby, and Tremayne doesn’t know how long he can keep up the charade. He’s taken through the ringer, pummelled by Manrique, his left hand mangled. Along the way Borja proudly exposits about his plasma beam like a good pseudo-Bond villain. He wants “Battersby” to help him make it more powerful.

Meanwhile Hood trounces futiley around Kingston, pissing off the local cops. He runs into an old navy pal who captains an experimental “flying saucer,” a prototype hydrofoil-battleship thing that moves like greased lightning. This blatant deus ex machina comes in handy when Hood later learns that Tremayne indeed has been abducted by Borja – only too late has Hood begun to suspect the man – and he begs his old buddy to loan him the ship. This leads into yet another maritime adventure-type climax, which appears to be a staple so far as J.E. MacDonnell’s writing goes.

Hood gets to bust out those karate skills in the climax, with a brutal fight aboard Borja’s yacht. But Hood’s still dumb. For no reason at all he assumes Borja’s either dead or indisposed, only for the guy to show up for a final faceoff – after which Hood still drops the ball, getting hit by a curare-dipped blade and slowly losing his senses to the point where he escapes, thinking he’s saved Tremayne from Borja’s sinking boat, only to discover at novel’s end that poor ol’ Tommy was left aboard and presumably drowned with everyone else.

And so ends Operation Scuba, on a big cliffhanger. Dark insinuates that Tremayne, Borja, and perhaps Manrique all escaped with the quick mention of a helicopter escaping the scene, but we’ll have to wait for the next installment to see what happens. Overall though this was a good one, as mentioned fast-moving and gripping at times, but as usual Dark handles the proceedings with a low budget sort of aesthetic. I mean the book is titled Operation Scuba and Borja has an army of frogmen at his disposal, so are we wrong to presume we’d get a Thunderball-esque finale of mass underwater combat? Instead we get a ship run to ground and a quick and dirty karate fight.

But at least stuff happens this volume, so I can’t really complain – and I’m still looking forward to the later installments.

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