Monday, May 23, 2016

Danger Woman

Danger Woman, by Abel Mann
September, 1966  Pocket Books

I was drawn to this obscure and apparently scarce paperback due to the fact that it’s titular protagonist happens to be a gorgeous female secret agent, a veritable proto-Baroness. “Abel Mann” was a pseudonym of John Creasey, a prolific British author I’ve never read. It looks like Danger Woman was only published in the US, and one wonders if it was intended as the start of a series.

The book, which is smaller and more squat than the average paperback (about the size of one from the ‘50s in fact), is fairly short, more along the lines of a novella. And Creasey tells what is for the most part a rather simple and streamlined story. Our hero is a 34 year-old “copper haired” British beauty named Storm Frend who is a kick-ass spy for her government, reporting to a taciturn enigma named “Bandy” Bannion. Storm is as expected gorgeous and phenomenally built, though Creasey only mentions her “magnificent breasts” once or twice. I couldn’t help but imagine her as a brunette, though, given the cover painting, and with her aloof attitude it was easy to picture Diana “Emma Peel” Rigg.

Storm herself is rather taciturn, and truth to tell not a very fun protagonist. She is a world-weary secret agent who is so self-confident that she’s borderline arrogant. Creasey sprinkles backstory throughout the narrative, so that we gradually learn Storm is a widow and turned to spying after her husband’s death – again, very much like in the later The Baroness. (Is it a coincidence that Pocket was also the publisher of that series?) Storm is wealthy and lives in opulence, all of London her stomping grounds, though there are no Swinging London details here. The novel is not very grounded in the era in which it was published, sad to say.

Bandy runs AE, a subset of British Intelligence, and one afternoon he calls Storm in to first chastize her for her “bed-hopping” but also to let her know she’s about to get a new assignment. Meanwhile on the way in to Bandy’s office Storm caught sight of a young AE agent named Paul, and we readers know that Bandy intended this – indeed, he has instructed Paul to “take no notice of Storm.” From this one sighting Storm, who we’ll recall is world-weary to the point of pessimism, basically falls in love with Paul, and will think of him often in the frequent ruminations which pepper the text. It’s hard to buy.

When Storm goes back to her apartment she realizes someone’s snuck in. As a sign of her bad-assery she waltzes into the bathroom, starts up a bath, and slinks out of her clothes; more opportunity to document those “magnificent breasts.” Toying with the intruder she knows is one the premises, Storm relishes the opportunity to once again test herself in combat. She makes short work of the would-be assailant, a gangly British dude named Plessey who comes at Storm with a syringe. His goal was to drug her up with sodium pentathol and find out all she’d been told by Bandy.

Storm beats Plessey up and grills him. Turns out he has been hired by Juan, the Duke of Arago, a mysterious and wealthy Spaniard who has a villa in Hampstead. He may be an enemy of England. Apparently Arago, as he’s called throughout, has reckoned that AE is onto him and that Storm, AE’s top agent, has been put on his tail. Arago we gradually learn is suspected of plotting against the UK, in particular stirring up “new countries” so that they turn against England. Bandy instructs Storm to track him down and get the details on what exactly Arago is up to.

The novel’s sole action scene has Storm suiting up in black, masking her curvy body so that she looks like a man, and arming herself with a palm-size gun and a garter stocked with knives and various tools. She also has some “fire-raising chemicals.” Not that any of this is used. Rather, Storm infiltrates Arago’s Hampstead retreat, killing one of his guard dogs in the process. She finds a cellar filled with Medieval torture equipment and is nearly caught. She also is startled to see none other than Paul on the premises; turns out he’s posing as one of Arago’s guards as part of his own AE assignment.

Storm also finds a lovely young lady sleeping alone in a room – a lady who happens to be the same mystery woman who’s been following Storm around lately. This is Isobella, young descendant of Spanish royalty; Arago’s goal is to bring back “Old Spain” as a ruling power, with Isobella as queen and Arago as the de facto ruler. But Storm’s caught after all, and placed on a Medieval torture device called The Pirouette, which spins her around like Roger Moore in Moonraker. She’s freed by Paul, who is gunned down off-page; Storm for her part uses that palm gun to kill one of Arago’s henchmen.

Now Storm, that bad-ass female agent, recuperates…for three weeks!! Receiving daily massages from housekeeper Bertha (who berates Storm for not having children), Storm pines over dead Paul, and again Creasey fails to make their would-be relationship believable. When Bandy isn’t satisfied with Storm’s full report, he sends her ass in again; this time he wants her to purposely be caught by Arago and to find out without fail who he is working for. Off Storm goes to Nice, where she’s promptly drugged in a restaurant…and wakes up once again in that damn torture chamber in Arago’s Hampstead villa.

Here Danger Woman, in its final pages, gets weird. Storm is nude and bound once again to the Pirouette. Arago towers over her, wearing “talons” on his fingers, with which he threatens to slice Storm up and forever mar her beauty. We’re treated to a Bond-esque exposition courtesy Arago on his crazy plans for world domination. Meanwhile Storm, never losing her calm, tries to seduce Arago with her womanly wiles, luring him with sex. Her gambit is that if Arago does her he’ll lose his sadistic impulses and be less likely to kill her. She promises vaguely that she’s the best lay in the entire world, or something to that effect, and Arago would really be missing the hell out if he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

And guess what, she succeeds. Creasey is vague in the novel’s sole sex scene, with lines like “two bodies became one” and such. But Storm’s plan succeeds, and in his post-coital stupor Arago concedes to Storm’s point, that Spain can never be great again, just as England can never be; that their days of glory are in the past. The man’s dreams properly crushed, Storm breaks the poor bastard’s neck, and that’s that…oh, and Arago also concedes that Storm was in fact the best lay of his life. The end!

Neither sleazy nor prudish, neither pulpy nor literary, Danger Woman is for the most part a fairly enjoyable thriller, carried mostly by Creasey’s skillful writing. I could’ve used more period detail, and it would’ve been fun to see Storm cut loose a bit more; the few times she does get to kick ass she’s a lot of fun. However she’s still no Baroness.

I wonder though if Creasey did in fact plan this as the start of a series, as the novel ends with Storm certain that Bandy will call on her once again with a new assignment. But then, maybe he never did.


Zwolf said...

I got a copy of this years ago for a quarter, off the "giant wall o' trash" in the late-lamented Hawsey's Book Index in Pensacola, Florida (it's still there, but late-lamented because they turned into some crappy newer-books-only "upscale" crapfest instead of the one-of-my-favorite-places-on-earth that it used to be). I've had it for probably 30 years, and didn't know it was scarce. Haven't read it yet, but good to know it won't be terrible when I do. :) It looked like it might be a bit dry, which is why I haven't gotten around to it.

I got a copy of The Hippy Cult Murders off that same wall-o'-trash for around the same price, and I've seen copies of those going for almost a hundred now. God, I miss that wall. It was all just books that were either really old so half-of-cover price was next to nothing, or books that were still readable but a little too beaten-up to put with their regular stock. A lot of weird old things ended up there, and since they all averaged out to around a quarter each, you could afford to gamble on 'em.

Johny Malone said...

Beautiful cover. Who illustrated it?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! Johny, unfortunately I don't see an artist credit on here...I agree, though, it's a great cover.

Zwolf, you should check out your copy. It's no Baroness but it's pretty good. Your old bookstore sounds great, reminds me of the Paperback Exchange in Lavale, Maryland, which I used to frequent weekly as a kid in the '80s. I know what you mean about crappy modern bookstores, though...I haven't been in one in years, and last time I was, it was nothing but books by female authors writing about how hard it is to be a woman or books by male authors writing about how hard it is to come out of the closet. The Thriller section was just as bad, nothing but thick books with generic, photoshopped covers, most of which seemed to feature female FBI agents who were trying to solve the latest case while self-raising their child...not to mention dealing with the usual struggles of being a woman.

Anonymous said...

Not only was author John Creasey prolific, some have said he was the most prolific author of all time.

Karlos N said...

Hi Joe

Wasn't sure where best to put this, but have you seen this new book?:

Looks pretty awesome!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for letting me know about the book, Karlos -- it does look awesome!