Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Butcher #34: The Man From White Hat

The Butcher #34: The Man From White Hat, by Stuart Jason
April, 1982  Pinnacle Books

In October of 1977 The Butcher went on hiatus with its 26th volume, The Terror Truckers, which was the last to be written by original series author James Dockery. The series didn’t return until December 1979, with veteran pulpster Michael Avallone at the helm; he was the sole writer of The Butcher until it ended with the 35th volume, Gotham Gore, in 1982.

I planned to read the series in order, only to discover there isn’t much continuity. At any rate I was in no hurry to jump ahead to Avallone’s installments; it had been many years since I read one of his books (unless we count Run, Spy, Run, which is debatable as an actual Avallone novel), and I remembered not being very fond of his unique style. Avallone is one of those authors who sometimes puts his tongue too far in his cheek, with too many knowing asides to the reader, too many authorial pats on his own back. But then one day I came home to find a package waiting in my mailbox; it was from Stephen Mertz, and it contained this volume of The Butcher. Stephen included a note with the book, and with his permission here’s an excerpt from it:

Michael was a dear personal friend of mine. He was a hardboiled writer of note in the ‘50s. Try his Ed Noon novels (The Violent Virgin, The Living Bomb, Dead Game are all great). In the 1960s he became known as “The Fastest Typewriter in the East,” and for a decade averaged 10-12 paperback originals per year. Everything from movie novelizations to gothic novels to ‘60s sleaze to novels about The Partridge Family. Much of the ‘70s was spent in burnout phase, sadly, but he came back in the early ‘80s with his Butcher entries, more novelizations and several historical romances before his unbelievably great final novel, High Noon at Midnight, wherein the reader is never sure if Ed Noon is going insane or if he really is taking on outer space aliens walking among us, commanded by Zavoda, The Noseless One. 

Avallone is where the cut comes down. This one is not necessarily his best Butcher – that would be Death In Yellow or Go Die In Afghanistan – but is representative of A’s late period over-the-top style. There is much division of opinion about Avallone, who was a real character. He wrote the first Man From UNCLE novel in one day! Some see him as an industrious joke; a writer who’s so bad that he’s actually fun. Others, like me and James Reasoner, love his stuff, although his technical shortcomings are obvious enough. This Butcher novel is in Avallone’s late “high” style; over-ripe but relentlessly one-of-a-kind.

Well, I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed The Man From White Hat, and all such reservations I previously had about Avallone’s writing are now null and void. The book moves fast, it has a fun spirit, good action, plenty of “good stuff,” and clearly seems to be written by an author who is having a good time. Also, the knowing asides, while occasional, are not nearly as prevalent as I feared. In many ways Avallone is one of those authors who makes these men’s adventure books read like ‘70s/’80s updates of the pulps of the ‘30s.

Avallone has a very different take on the series than Dockery. Whereas Dockery went for wild plots with a dense, highly-unique narrative style, Avallone (at least in this volume) is very streamlined. To the point where you sort of wish there was more to the plot. Yet his Butcher is a very fast, easy read, whereas Dockery’s books get to be a little long-winded and can wear the reader down. Also, Avallone’s take on hero Bucher is much different; here Bucher is, believe it or not, a regular human being who is prone to mistakes. The Butcher’s infamous fast-draw gun technique is similarly downplayed (indeed a pivotal moment late in the book rests on the fact that Bucher can’t draw his gun in time, something that never would’ve happened in a Dockery installment), and he’s also prone to talking a whole bunch more. And if all that wasn’t enough, Bucher actually tells a gal he loves her in this one!!

It’s June 1981, shortly after the events of the previous volume, Go Die In Afghanistan, which I look forward to reading given Stephen’s statement above. Bucher is recovering from the apparent catastrophic events of that book, thus isn’t too hip to go on this latest assignment. But the Director of White Hat wants him to head to the small Latin American country of Avella, which is ruled by the Castro-esque Pablo Da Costa. White Hat is concerned because Da Costa’s mistress, a former whore turned Eva Peron-wannabe named China Lupe (pronounced “Chee-na,” we’re helpfully informed), has Communist leanings and might sway Da Costa into making Avella a Red satellite state, one that would be way too close to the US.

Going into this book one of the few things I knew about Avallone was that he was a fan of the pulps; I checked out a book on The Spider via Interlibrary Loan the other year which included a rundown by Avallone on the first ten volumes of that series. Well, the phrase “corpse cargo” is employed early in The Man From White Hat, and I’ve only seen that phrase used one other place. Avallone brings additional pulp sensibilities to the series; Bucher we learn now has exploding chewing gum, and both his title and the White Hat director’s are occasionally italicized, a la “The Spider.”

Bucher’s also a little sour to learn that the Director has not only hooked him up with a partner on the case, but one who is brand new and is indeed being tested out for full White Hat membership. Plus it’s a woman! This is Catharine Farrow, a blonde bombshell who has no idea that she actually works for an ultra-secret intelligence agency and who thinks she’s been sent to Avella to act as secretary for a Texan lawyer named “Dix Hernon,” ie Bucher’s cover identity for this caper. For reasons of his own the Director feels that Catharine will make for a perfect field agent, and one of Bucher’s tasks will be to gauge her performance down here.

The Man From White Hat doesn’t have much action, but we’re graced with a nice scene shortly after Bucher arrives in the humid land of Avella. As he’s escorted to Da Costa’s villa by the man’s top general, their convoy is attacked by a helicopter, one we later learn is piloted by an ex-Nazi (a development by the way that really isn’t much explored). Bucher picks up a subgun and blows the ‘copter out of the sky, something we’re informed is near impossible to do – but not for the Butcher! However “Dix Hernon” has to come up with a fib on how a fancy-pants lawyer has such stellar shooting skills.

Da Costa is a better character than expected, a big bear of a man who appears to have stomped out of The Adventurers and who carries around a big bull whip. But he’s in a bad way, these days; a would-be assassin shot Da Costa in the head several weeks before, and though Da Costa survived he’s prone to debilitating migraines. China Lupe is something else. A hotstuff brunette who we learn has Sapphic inclinations (though this doesn’t stop her from stripping down and offering herself to Bucher), she is pure evil and Bucher instantly realizes she’s probably working for the Commies and thus is bad both for Da Costa and Avella.

Catharine Farrow meets “Dix Hernon” and promptly tells him how hot he is and how she’d love to get involved with him! Bucher himself is taken by the girl’s beauty and fantabulous body, and it’s worth noting that Avallone’s version of Bucher actually has a libido; Dockery’s version was almost a robot. It’s also worth noting that, unlike Dockery, Avallone is not averse to writing frequent and fairly explicit sex scenes. But as a tradeoff, and something I forgot to mention, Avallone also does not give the series the uber-dark comedy vibe of Dockery, and also removes the traditional opening bit where Bucher is confronted by a pair of Syndicate thugs. Indeed, Avallone’s Bucher is for the most part just a regular James Bond-type secret agent…one, that is, who carries around “explosive chewing gum.” 

Catharine later in the novel will be referred to in a chapter title as “The Girl From White Hat,” likely one of Avallone’s trademark in-jokes to one of his own novels; in the ‘60s he wrote the novelization for The Girl From UNCLE. But Bucher’s initial appraisal of Catharine is so out-there outrageous that I just had to share it with you:

Her rear-view was challenging and pulse-raising. She had a “black” ass. The kind that only generations of women got from walking down the centuries with baskets on their heads. The true female rump.

Avallone understands that sexy female characters, particularly evil ones, need to be properly exploited in the men’s adventure genre; here’s his juicy breakdown of the novel’s bad babe:

China Lupe stood naked before the full-length mirror, admiring herself, as usual, her dark cold eyes investigating the primal fullness of her arched, curving breasts whose aureolae were like two ripe strawberries cresting humps of snow-white angel cake. She was much taller than Latin-American women generally are and the deep tan of her splendidly elongated, yet rounded and contoured body was in sharp contrast to the pale shade of her magnificent breasts. Her thighs were like stanchions, her buttocks perfect, and lastly, her head was unforgettable. Jet-black Cleopatra bangs framed a diamond-shaped face whose outstanding features had driven several males mad…

Now that’s a men’s adventure author who knows his stuff. As mentioned Avallone doesn’t shy from the sex, either, though nothing in The Man From White Hat goes for full-bore porn. If anything it trades between explicitness and faux-literary ponderings. Midway through the book Catharine Farrow is almost killed by poisonous scorpions in her room. Bucher blows them into jelly with his customary Walther and then, to soothe the gal’s nerves, decides to finally give her some of that good lovin’ she yearns for:

After that, it was a kind of sexual chaos and orgy. Wild, abandoned, unrelenting. Thoroughly whole-hearted. 

She whaled him, coming down from above him, spreading her ample charms for him to select and make use of. There was something wholly carnal about her now, altogether purposeful and deliberate. Once again, Bucher was amazed at the transformation most females underwent when they got down to the very basics of being female. Desire was the great leveler for them all.

I don’t think I’ve ever been “whaled” before. Sounds like I’m missing out!

The novel spans a few days, and over this time Bucher and Catharine, believe it or not, actually fall in love. And she survives the novel! I’ll be curious to see if she appears in the next (and final) installment, Gotham Gore. But as it is, she is clearly set up as Bucher’s steady girl in this one, with the two basically living together by novel’s end. After a few misadventures in Da Costa’s villa, from those scorpions to China Lupe trying to get her in bed, Catharine undergoes enough trial by fire that Bucher decides she’s ready to learn all about White Hat and himself. He tells her all about his history – Bucher is positively a windbag compared to Dockery’s stoic version – as well as White Hat and what it does, after which Catharine is even more game to help out. By the end of The Man From White Hat she’s a full-fledged field agent. 

But yeah, China Lupe hits on Catharine hard and strong. China’s lesbianism is well and truly mocked throughout; Da Costa is impotent due to the attempted assassination, but the lady enjoys other women anyway. She’s often referred to as a “dyke,” and later Avallone offers this humdinger which won’t get you too many friends in today’s politically correct world: “Lesbians eat those they love – first the soul and then the body.” Don’t think you’ll be seeing that slogan beneath one of those pink ribbons! But China’s attempted sexual conquest of Catharine is the highlight of the book, relayed by Catharine herself in a rambling, several-page sequence of exposition, excerpted here:

“So we entered her room. A boudoir, really. No chairs or tables. Just cushions. I felt light in the head just being there. And [China] kept massaging my tit and I hate to say this but it gets to you after a while. Because it does feel good – no matter how you feel about women being hot for women. I could see she wasn’t going to talk about anything but my lovely complexion, my gorgeous hair, my swell chest and incredible ass – etcetera. So I started to wriggle off the hook. Well, she laughed and lay back, showing me her glorious snatch. You know it’s jet-black like her hair? But that can’t be, can it? Must be dyed. No woman is like a drawing in a magazine, I tried to get up and she went for me, then. What I mean – went – geezis, I never would have believed it! 

“I don’t wear bras or panties. Especially in this kind of climate. So there I was and she pulled me down to her and before I knew it, she had me laid out and was going hammer and tongs at my box – I’m telling you – this woman’s got a tongue like a forked adder – I tried to get up before she got my juices going – no matter how I feel about it like I say – she was beginning to make me feel damn good though I never would have reciprocated – God, what a mouth. She knows all the tricks. The clit treatment, the man-in-the-boat, everything. And she’s strong as well as beautiful – I had my hands full –” 

“And she had her mouth full,” Bucher commented wryly.

As mentioned, action (of the guns and fistfights variety at least) is sporadic. There’s a part midway through where Bucher is attacked by a bola-wielding assassin, one who calls him “The Butcher” and appears to be going for that legendary Syndicate bounty for Bucher’s head. There’s also an attack on the villa by a trio of blowgun-wielding Indians. Avallone also appears to pay heed to a former Dockery staple with Bucher beating a muscle-bound henchman to pulp. As ever Bucher is godlike and emerges unscathed – at one point he even diverts the path of a fired dart by shooting at it, the path of his bullets creating a fluctuation in the wind and throwing the dart off course!

The novel climaxes in another long dialog sequence, where Da Costa and China entertain a group of Soviet representatives. When Da Costa says “hell no” to going Commie, China stands up and declares the “junta” she has been planning for months. Most of Da Costa’s loyal followers are in fact Commie dupes, loyal to China, and a full-blown Communist revolution is about to ensue…until Bucher breaks out the ol’ exploding chewing gum. The finale is a bit lame with Da Costa recapturing his manhood via his bullwhip and China unceremoniously executed – by several point-blank bullets to the face, courtesy Da Costa. Turns out she’s been slowly poisoning him with arsenic. But no worries; we find out the kindly despot is going to be fine.

Strangely, we have twenty more pages to go, even though the novel is clearly over. Avallone sort of muddles through some incidental chapters in which Bucher and Catharine trade more lovey-dovey talk on the return flight to New York, and there they have dinner with the Director(?!). It just keeps going and going, and is clearly the sign of an author shooting desperately for his word count. What makes it worse is that the plot itself is so one-layered; really, almost the entirety of The Man From White Hat is comprised of Bucher sitting around in Da Costa’s villa and wondering what to do.

But I did really enjoy the book, as evidenced by the lengthy quotes above. Avallone’s approach to The Butcher is so radically different that it’s basically a whole different series than Dockery’s. Instead of sadism and dark comedy, we get more sleaze and more of a fun, goofy spirit. And Avallone’s writing throughout is crisp, clear, and memorable – there are so many asides in here that at times it’s reminscent of Joseph Rosenberger, including an arbitrary diatribe against Cosmopolitan magazine! 

At any rate, I look forward to reading more of Avallone’s work. Thanks again for sending me the book, Stephen!


Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

I really liked this entry and the insight to Avallone. These Butcher novels by him are a lot of fun. Also the Ed Noon novels from the 50's are pretty good. It's been awhile since I've read one though. These later Butcher novels are appropriately over the top and pulpy, sort of recalling the madness of old Doc Savage stuff but with more evil babes (with breasts like Howitzers!) and sex. Gotham Gore and Death in Yellow are pretty great.

Zwolf said...

I need to read more Avallone. I kinda wrote him off as a hack when I was a kid and read some horror short story collection he did... it was full of kiddie-horror, may have even been a Scholastic Book, I can't remember. But those were really bad so that's always the first thing that pops into my mind when I hear his name. But, that's undoubtedly a bad representation of his work. I mean, the dude wrote a little of everything.

I can't remember which Butcher novel it is - it may be Go Die In Afghanistan, but I'm pretty sure it's an Avallone one -- where Butcher "kooshes" a bullet down a guy's rifle barrel. That's some shootin' so wild-assed even James Fenimore Cooper wouldn't attempt to write it! (If you've never read Mark Twain's takedown of James Fenimore Cooper, oh, man, do it - It's one of the most hilariously vicious pieces of literary criticism ever, just drops an H-bomb on the poor bastard). Still, over the top as shooting down a rifle barrel (on a fast-draw, mind you) is, you have to admire the panache...

James Reasoner said...

In one of Mike's Butcher novels, he had a character reading one of my books, which of course I thought was a nice touch. I read all of his Butchers before I read any of the others in the series, so it was quite a shock when I started back at the first with Dockery's books. But I like both versions of the character quite a bit.

Marty McKee said...

I have one of Avallone's Satan Sleuth books, but haven't read it. What's the buzz on that series?

AndyDecker said...

I never read Satan Sleuth, but there are some very negative reviews. Apart from some Butcher I read a few Avallone's, one Gothic, one Horror and a few Noon. Can't say I liked any of them. Humorous crime novels are fine, I adore Westlake, but couldn't stand Noon.

The re-imagining of The Butcher is interesting. A two year gap is a long time for such a series, and sales must have been pretty low if they did such a heavy number on the concept. It is a different series, from the new chapter headings to the dedications where Avallone - if my memory is correct - mentioned his own novels. I couldn't get into it, too much self parody, too tongue in cheek. Is there any other series which got such a reworking?

englishteacherx said...

Never read him but sounds like he's definitely worth checking out. I see that Avallone's stuff is available as affordable e-books on Amazon. I know, it's heresy, but it looks like $5 - $10 and up is the best you can do on eBay.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Zwolf, I'll check out that Twain takedown! Andy, I don't know of any series that had such a reboot...maybe Tracker, the last two volumes of which were written by a guy who clearly had not read the first few. The last two volumes of The Mind Masters also seemed to be the result of an intentional reboot, but nothing as extreme as the Butcher.