Monday, May 30, 2016

Six Graves To Munich

Six Graves To Munich, by Mario Cleri
October, 1967  Banner Books

Two years before his breakout success with The Godfather, Mario Puzo published this scarce paperback under his “Mario Cleri” pseudonym, which he’d been using for years for his men’s adventure magazine work. Interestingly, this Banner edition of Six Graves To Munich is copyright Puzo, so there was no mystery behind its authorship. No mention is made of Male Magazine, in which the original short version of the story first appeared.

As far as I know Puzo was the only men’s mag author to decide to elaborate one of his stories to novel length; I’ve read several of these sweat mag yarns that would’ve made for great novels, like “Raid On The Nazis’ Sex Circus Stalag,” “Assignment: Nepal,” and especially “Blood For The Love Slaves.” But Puzo appears to have been the only author to go this route; “Six Graves To Munich,” the story, first appeared in the November 1965 issue of Male Magazine (it wasn’t the cover feature, so I haven’t put up a scan of it). Puzo must’ve liked the story or felt that it needed to be further exploited, hence two years later we have this sort of director’s cut.

Running to 128 pages of small print, Six Graves To Munich reads exactly like a men’s mag story of the day, with a no-nonsense, virile protagonist confronting and surmounting great odds and scoring with a bunch with exotic Eurobabes along the way. The tale is set in 1955, yet Puzo really doesn’t do much to capture the era, and other than the occasionally-mentioned ages of a few characters, it could just as easily be 1965. Indeed, later in the book Puzo (possibly) slips and states that one of the villains is “no longer the killer he was twenty years ago,” rather than “ten years ago.” But to Puzo’s defense, the character in question is a Mafia don, so he could just be generalizing about when he was younger, not necessarily just his wartime years.

Anyone expecting a multi-character drama with rich subplots along the lines of Puzo’s later The Godfather will be underwhelmed, but those looking for a streamlined tale of vengeance in the manner of the pulps will be entertained. Six Graves To Munich is almost tunnel-visioned in its simple plot, which concerns a WWII vet named Mike Rogan gaining vengeance on the men who tortured and “killed” him ten years before, along with Rogan’s wife and unborn child. Puzo livens up the plot with some interesting characters and unexpected developments, but this is not a meaty tale by any means, and likely was even more powerful in shorter form.

Rogan is a little different than the typical men’s mag protagonist: whereas he’s still a badass like the best of them, he’s a genius to boot, gifted with a photographic memory which he used from a young age to master subject after subject. In backstory (no doubt material added for this novel version) we learn how Rogan’s parents considered his brain a “gift to mankind” and pushed him to better the human race. We also learn that Rogan’s dad, after his brainiac kid got bullied, taught him how to box to defend himself. When WWII came along, Rogan used his smarts to get a job with Army Intelligence, with a mastery in code breaking.

Yearning for field deployment, Rogan was parachuted into Occupied France several months before D-Day, helping work various coded messages. Staying with a French farming family, Rogan fell in love with their beautiful daughter Christine and married her. Soon she was pregnant. But on D-Day itself Rogan got careless with his radio broadcasts and the Gestapo intercepted them. Two weeks later they descended on the farm and killed everyone, capturing Rogan and Christine. They were taken to the Munich Palace of Justice, where Rogan’s nightmare began.

Puzo flashes back to Rogan’s plight throughout the novel. Kept alone and beaten mercilessly and at whim, Rogan was questioned by six men throughout, tortured by his wife’s screams in another room. Rogan was never able to see her, never able to learn what exactly was being done to her. His dignity destroyed by the sadism of torture, Rogan was eventually broken – especially when the Nazi bastards revealed that Christine had been dead all along, and the screams Rogan heard nothing more than a wax cylinder recording. Both she and the child had been dead since shortly after their capture, and all along the sadists had just been toying with Rogan.

But when the war’s end looms the captors tell Rogan he is a free man; they bring him clean clothes and a hat and tell him to get dressed. His mind destroyed from the endless torturing, Rogan complies…only to realize when he feels a barrel against the back of his head that they’re lying yet again. However by a complete fluke the bullet doesn’t kill Rogan, though it shatters a portion of his brain. Dumped on a pile of corpses, he’s discovered by the Army doctors who soon arrive at the Palace. Over a great length of time Rogan recuperates, but now he has a metal plate in his head and his face, due to surgery, looks completely different from the one he was born with.

All this is sprinkled through the tale; Puzo focuses on the revenge plot and hits the ground running with Rogan already on one of his vengeance kills on the very first page. Only gradually do we learn that Rogan, battered from his experience to the point where he’d become an alcoholic bum, eventually got himself together and now fronts a million-dollar computer company with ties to the government. So in other words the guy is like the Count of Monte Cristo meets Bill Gates. It’s been ten years since that hellish day in the Munich Palace of Justice, and now Rogan has come to Europe to exact his revenge.

Six Graves To Munich is more of a suspense thriller; the “action scenes” are relegated to Rogan’s quick hits on his prey. His killing tool is a Walther P-38 with a silencer, which coincidentally enough is the same weapon and accessory later featured in The Butcher. The novel opens with Rogan carrying out one of his hits, heading into a sleazy strip club in Hamburg, introducing himself to a portly German, and them blowing him away. For the most part, Rogan’s kills will follow this template through the rest of the novel; he wants his quarry to know who he is, to remember the horrors they put him through ten years ago, and then watch the realization dawn on their face before he shoots them.

This first victim is named Pfann, and was one of the minor flunkies in Rogan’s torture; previous to this – in a sequence delivered in a later chapter (per men’s mag tradition, the story is told a bit out of sequence) – we’ll learn that Rogan has already killed another of his torturers, a guy named Moltke. After the hit on Pfann Rogan heads into Hamburg’s red light district as a way to lose any tails and picks up a whore, whom he choses because she shows no interest in the passing men on the street. She is a beautiful blonde named Rosalie, and Rogan buys her services so he can sleep in her room – the metal plate causes him much pain and torment, particularly when he’s worked up, and doctors have told him he could kill himself if he pushes too hard.

But next morning he ends up having sex with good-natured and innocent Rosalie after all, particularly after admiring her “strawberry-tipped breasts,” which I believe is a recurring phrase in Cleri/Puzo’s men’s mag stories. The ensuing sex is strictly fade to black, with only a little detail; safe to say the sex scenes were not sleazed up for the paperback edition. Rogan and Rosalie basically fall in love, and he enjoys being with her so much he rents her for a week, taking her out to all the fancy places. Along the way she snoops in his stuff, finds his files on the men who tortured him, and pleads to aid him in his quest for vengeance.

They head on to Berlin, where Rogan has two victims: Eric and Hans Friesling, brothers who took special delight in his torture. Eric in fact was the one who shot Rogan, though under the orders of the mysterious man who led the torture sessions; Rogan is still uncertain of the names of all of his tormentors, and the Friesling brothers are the last leads he has. They now run an auto shop in Berlin, known as wheelers and dealers behind the Iron Curtain, and Rogan makes friendly overtures with them as a guy looking for an inroad behind the Iron Curtain to sell his computers for a good price without red tape and etc.

The novel is opened up a bit with the presence of Arthur Bailey, a CIA agent who has been tailing Rogan and has figured out what he’s doing. He warns Rogan not to kill the Friesling brothers, as they are key to a big operation the CIA is working on. Of course Rogan doesn’t listen, drugging the brothers and having them separately write down the names of the three remaning torturers. Then he puts them in the trunk of his Mercedes and kills them with carbon monoxide! Leaving Rosalie behind due to the fact that Bailey’s now onto him, Rogan goes to Sicily: one of the six torturers turns out to have been an Italian named Genco Bari, there as a consultant. Now he is a Mafia don. 

The material with Bari is interesting in how it prefigures The Godfather. All of it could’ve come straight out of that later book. Bari, like Don Corleone, is at heart a good-natured man, one who regrets the necessary violence of his life. He was the only interrogator who was kind to Rogan back then, something for which Rogan now hates Bari even more. But Rogan finds that Bari is incredibly old now; he sees him at a festival in which the entire community is partying, and Bari looks like a cadaver. Rogan knows he has to act fast or nature will take care of the job for him.

Meanwhile Rogan gets lucky with a dark-haired, lusty native gal who takes him to a room in Bari’s castle…and the next day announces that she’s Mrs. Genco Bari! The don is complicit with her wanton nature; indeed he married her just a few years ago, hoping her youth would make him live longer. Instead he is unable to please her and allows her to have her share of men…men who are later paid for their time. But Bari somehow recognizes Rogan, even though he can’t place him; he invites Rogan to stay. The two become sort of friends, with Rogan uncertain if he will be able to kill the kindly old man.

The sequence with Bari is probably the highlight of the novel, as it has the most emotional resonance. Rogan is surprised to learn that the old don has long figured out that Rogan is here to kill him, and indeed welcomes him in this act. Bari is in suffering and just wants release. He is also the one who reveals to Rogan that Rogan’s wife Christine died in childbirth; none of the interrogators touched her. It was the decision of the lead interrogator, a Nazi named Claus von Osteen, to record her death cries.

Rogan next heads to Budapest, where he’ll find another interrogator who was there in Munich as a consultant for his country. This is Pajeski, who is now chief of the secret police. Arthur Bailey shows up again, offering his help, but Rogan suspects the CIA agent has ulterior motives. Whereas the Bari hit has the most emotional depth, the hit on Pajeski is the most suspenseful. The lecherous man is constantly guarded and follows a strict daily routine. Rogan puts his brains to work and figures out that Pajeski’s one moment of weakness is during his nightly game of chess in a restaurant.

The hit on Pajeski also prefigures Puzo’s later novel, in particular Michael Coreleone’s assassination of the police chief and rival Mafia don in the restaurant. Instead of a gun, though, Rogan wires a chess piece to blow! This is by far the goriest part of the book, with copious juicy detail of Pajeski’s head exploding in the ensuing blast. From there it’s back to Berlin and a reunion with Rosalie, who has been pining for Rogan and checking the airport every night in hopes of his return. Rogan has learned that the sadist in charge of his torture was an official named Claus von Osteen, now a judge in Munich’s Palace of Justice, which is where Rogan was held and “killed.”

The finale of Six Graves To Munich plays out on an unexpected note of hesitation and remorse as Rogan knows that it will be suicide to kill von Osteen, so should he just give in to Rosalie’s pleas and live happily with her, forgetting about his quest for vengeance? Meanwhile Bailey’s back in the picture, and we learn that he does in fact have ulterior motives, and if Rogan does carry out his hit there will be no happy end for our hero. Of course you can’t write a book like this and have the hero decide “to hell with it” at the end, so Puzo delivers an appropriately bittersweet resolution in which vengeance is delivered, but not without great cost.

Overall I really enjoyed Six Graves To Munich, possibly even more so than The Godfather, which occasionally gets lost in Harold Robbins-esque sequences, like the unforgettable part where the good-looking doctor rebuilds a certain portion of his girlfriend’s anatomy. But at the same time, Six Graves To Munich is a bit too spare, following the same repetitive storyline as Rogan goes to a city, appraises his quarry, and then kills him. In fact Rogan has much too easy of a time of it. To tell the truth I would’ve been happier if Puzo had chosen to turn say “Barracks Of Wild Blondes” into a full-length novel…now that would’ve been cool.

I lucked out and found a copy of this Banner edition for cheap, but Six Graves To Munich has recently been reprinted under Puzo’s own name, and is available for much cheaper. I’d certainly recommend it, but again it wasn’t the knockout revenge thriller I was hoping for.

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