Monday, April 18, 2016

The Spy In The Jungle (Joaquin Hawks #1)

The Spy In The Jungle, by Bill S. Ballinger
May, 1965  Signet Books

A hardboiled author in the ‘50s, Bill S. Ballinger turned his hand like so many other pulp writers to spy fiction in the ‘60s, no doubt due to the overwhelming popularity of James Bond. However Ballinger’s series protagonist, Joaquin Hawks, is nothing like Bond, and at least judging from this first volume the series is more atmosphere-heavy suspense than pulp action. The back cover even refers to it as “an adroit novel of espionage.”

The series ran for five volumes, from 1965 to 1966. This first volume hits the ground running with precious little background detail on our hero Joaquin Hawks, an American agent briefly described as being 32 years old, six feet tall, with “ebony hair” and “obsidian eyes.” He has a “sinewy” build and “a bronze lean face;” his mother was Spanish and his father was a Nez Perce Indian. He has previous Intelligence experience and now reports to Horace Burke, CIA Director of Operations in Los Angeles. With Hawks’s Indian heritage and the adventure fiction vibe, the series is almost a precursor to John Eagle Expeditor.

The back cover describes Hawks as “the world’s most subtle and lethal agent,” and while the second element isn’t much explored in this first volume, we do see how “subtle” Hawks can be on his assignments. Basically he goes about in a variety of disguises and assumed identities, painstakingly building cover stories and covering up his trail. Every volume of the series takes place in Asia, which makes it interesting that, juding from vague dialog early in The Spy In The Jungle, Asia isn’t one of Hawks’s normal stomping grounds.

Like Bond though Hawks is successful with the ladies, and is called away from vacation with his latest conquest to hear all about Project Prometheus. This top-secret US affair concerns nuclear warheads that can be called back after launch; the idea is for “fifty megatons” to hover over an enemy city to make it see the error of its ways. However while the experiment worked fine when tested in Florida, now that it’s moved to Vandenberg Air Force base in California the test missiles are disappearing. The trajectory goes from California into the China Sea or somesuch, but the missiles are vanishing in the vicinity of Vietnam and Laos. We learn all about it in a too-long sequence where Hawks monitors a test firing.

With absolutely nothing to go on, Hawks is sent in – Burke doesn’t want one of his field operatives in Asia to handle it, as he wants to keep the entire afair hush-hush or something. So Hawks grows a pencil-thin moustache, speaks in French (he’s the Jimi Hendrix of foreign languages), and travels to Saigon as a dinnerware salesman from Paris. No doubt written in 1964 before US intervention, The Spy In The Jungle is filled with topical details about pre-war Vietnam that were likely outdated even by the time of publication. But there are no US soldiers here, this early in the ‘60s, and Saigon still hangs on to its French history.

Even in disguise Hawks manages to score, thanks to a busty blonde from Sweden named Anna, who happens to be a reporter. Ballinger by the way is very much in the “fade to black” aspect of the sex scenes, and indeed doesn’t even much exploit the ample charms of the two female characters in the book. But Anna is burnin’ for some good stuff and Hawks complies. She’s here, she tells him, on nothing more than a hunch – in Stockholm she was contacted by a Soviet scientist who was travelling through Sweden into the free world. The man called her newspaper’s office looking to sell his story for some much-needed cash. It was a mysterious tale of an ancient temple deep in the jungle heavily guarded by Chinese forces.

Thanks to this complete deus ex machina of a lead, Hawks figures the mysterious temple might be behind the vanishing US missiles! He checks out of his hotel, doffs the Frenchman getup, disguises himself as “Ali,” a Moslem from the Philipines, and checks into a squalid hovel. More elaborate scene-setting ensues as Hawks goes to great lenghts to set up a past for “Ali,” with the story that he’s a merchant seaman wanted for murder. Hawks wants the Viet Cong to contact him, though we are left in the dark why. To build up “Ali’s” legend Hawks even engages in a kung-fu fight, easily besting the native champion.

Ballinger by the way is also quick and dirty with the action scenes. We’ll get a couple sentences of fast action and it’s back to the atmospheric stuff; the book is very descriptive of flora and fauna and Ballinger has that old pulp writer knack for quickly bringing exotic lands to life. Did I mention that Hawks carries a throwing knife and has a belt that fires two .22-caliber bullets? Otherwise he tries not to kill and indeed is more so concerned with melting into the shadows. But when it gets down to it karate is his main weapon, and in that regard Hawks is similar to another ‘60s spy: Mark Hood

Eventually Hawks goes deep into the jungle, heading on motorcycle and foot for Hanoi. We get some mystical stuff as he hangs out in a Buddhist temple and, still as “Ali,” hobknobs with a monk who may know of the mysterious ancient temple in Laos. We will learn that this is a pre-Buddhist temple devoted to “The Tree of Life.” There’s another long sequence where Hawks comes to a Montagnard village in the jungle mountains and lives with its people for a few weeks. In many ways The Spy In The Jungle is like an anthropology textbook with a minor spy-pulp overlay.

The highlight is Hawks’s scouting of the ancient temple, a ruins deep in Laos that has a destroyed exterior but a high-tech interior. Snooping around, evading the many guards in the place, Hawks discovers that the ancient temple has all sorts of gizmos in it; we’ll learn in the end that it is basically a maser station, and it is indeed here that the Chinese are diverting the US missiles. But Hawks is caught and, breaking a guard’s neck (his first kill in the book, over a hundred pages in), he escapes into the jungle.

Those hoping for a rousing climax will be disappointed. Instead Hawks is caught while attempting to cross through Hanoi and spends weeks in prison. Here we finally learn why he went to such trouble establishing a story for “Ali” in Saigon – through the VC who approached him, his story bears out, thus the sadist in charge of the prison doesn’t have an excuse to kill him. In other words they never put it together that he’s also the man who just broke into the high-security temple in Laos. But, several weeks after he’s been in capitivity, Hawks is presented with a surprise – the Vietnamese have also captured the lovely Swede Anna.

Hawks makes his second and final kill, blasting a dude with the belt buckle gun and making off with Anna. More adventure-fiction stuff ensues as they race along the jungle in an appropriated jeep. But that’s that; we’re given a long bit of exposition for the finale, in which Hawks, two weeks later and back in Los Angeles, is briefed by Burke on what the temple was and how it was working. Including even parts where he reads verbatim from various reports. It’s a bit underwhelming to say the least. But we do at least learn that the busty blonde he was vacationing with at the beginning of the novel has come here to LA looking for more of that good stuff.

I wasn’t blown away by The Spy In The Jungle but I enjoyed it enough that I hunted down the only volume of the series I was missing (the second one, The Chinese Mask). I really enjoy these ‘60s spy series and Ballinger’s writing is capable and assured to the point that the 125 pages elapse before you even realize it.

And is it just me or does anyone else think that’s Ian Fleming’s eye on the cover? Signet retained the rights to Fleming’s paperback reprints at the time and I’m betting they just lifted a photograph of him in a sort of subliminal gambit for the cover.


Tom Johnson said...

I hated to see this series end. The stories were a lot of fun, and I grew to like the character. An encounter with kung fu before Bruce Lee brought it to light, though in this case it's a more Suma wrestling and less on boxing. He always has a chance to kill the bad guy, but doesn't, and this ends up causing him more trouble before the tale ends. But I loved the series.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Tom! I did enjoy this book...there's something very cool about these '60s spy series. I consider myself lucky to have recently come across a handful of the '60s Signet editions of various James Bond half off the cover price of 50 cents each!! Unfortunately none of them were "Doctor No," which was always my favorite Bond novel. Anyway, I look forward to continuing with the Joaquin Hawks series. I also just picked up another espionage novel from Ballinger, "The Lopsided Man," from 1969. That one seems to be more suspense than action, but still looks promising.