Thursday, July 28, 2016

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground, by William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
August, 2014  Pinnacle Books

I happened to be in a Wal-Mart one Saturday afternoon in September, 2014 and for the heck of it I checked out the book section, just to see what garbage passed for bestselling fiction in today’s miserable, vapid world. Unsurprisingly, the majority of it was crap – paranormal romances, tweener-focused apocalyptic fantasy, and thick paperbacks with photoshopped covers about female FBI agents. But then I saw another paperback, this one just as fat as the others and with the same sort of generic cover apparently mandatory today, but this one had “William W. Johnstone” in embossed font.

“But he’s been dead for ten years!” I think I said out loud. However it turns out that William Johnstone is like the Tupac Shakur of fiction, a very prolific author despite being long dead. The book, Stand Your Ground, was co-credited “J.A. Johnstone,” which according to the back cover was none other than Johnstone’s nephew, continuing the tradition of his uncle – and curiously, the back cover bio never outright states that William Johnstone is no longer living. But the William/J.A. writing combo turns out to be quite prolific; I couldn’t believe how many books have been published by the two over the years.

So, as you all have likely figured out, William W. Johnstone has followed in the path laid out by Don Pendleton, with a host of ghostwriters turning out novels under his name. Pinnacle Books closely guards the secret of who has served as J.A. Johnstone, but the imprint has at least maintained the right wing sentiments so inherent in the work of the real William Johnstone. I found this interesting, as Pinnacle has been owned by Kensington since the late ‘80s, and Len Levinson told me once that Walter Zacharius, the man who ran Kensignton, was a rabid left-winger. Regardless, the William/J.A. novels appear to be very right wing, with Stand Your Ground itself given over to arbitrary digressions about the foolishness of liberalism. Mind you, I’m not complaining – I was chuckling throughout, mostly due to the arbitrariness of it all.

It looks like Pinnacle has tried to get on the Lee Child bandwagon with its own Jack Reacher; the William/J.A. union has, over the past decade, published a trilogy of thick paperbacks about John Howard Stark, a ‘Nam vet who, judging from the synopses of the three books, has spent a lot of time killing Mexicans who have attempted to invade America – taking advantage of those weak borders, naturally. For all intents and purposes, Stand Your Ground is another Stark novel, yet curiously his name is not mentioned on the back cover. Instead, we are informed that the hero is Lucas Kincaid (a badass name if ever there was one), a former soldier on the run from the government who is hiding in the small town of Fuego, Texas – location of a prison which a horde of Muslim terrorists have just been transported to.

My friends, don’t you believe it. Lucas Kincaid is a minor character at best for the majority of the book (which runs a too-long length of 408 pages). And forget about those ass-kicking qualities the back cover attempts to convey for Kincaid. The dude spends the first 300 or so pages sitting in front of a computer in the prison library! Rather, John Howard Stark is the true protagonist of Stand Your Ground, and either Pinnacle didn’t promote this as another Stark book because they were trying to launch Kincaid as the new William/J.A. hero, or perhaps the book was written by a different ghostwriter than whoever turned out those earlier Stark novels.

But then, even Stark isn’t the main protagonist. One of the main problems with Stand Your Ground is that there are just too damn many characters for the reader to contend with. I mean it’s like a right-wing War And Peace at times, as “J.A.” presents us with a host of Fuego locals, visiting left-wing journalists, and vengeance-minded Islamic radicals, all of them vying for the reader’s attention. William Johnstone also had big casts in the books of his I’ve read, but at least he’d gradually whittle the narrative span down to focusing on just one main character. Not so for J.A., which results in an unwieldy narrative mess at times.

The back cover also has it that the plot of Stand Your Ground is about a bunch of terrorists who invade Fuego to free their imprisoned comrades, taking the school’s high school football team hostage and threatening to kill them one by one until their demands are met. Well, this sort of happens…in the last 60 or so pages of the book. Before that the novel just keeps building and building and building…toward something. Annoyingly, every chapter – even every section within a chapter – ends on a cliffhanger, no matter how forced, which only makes the reader more eager for something to happen.

Because the thing of it is, the shit-kicker, right-wing residents of Fuego know something’s up, and they know the rotten liberal government in Washington isn’t going to do anything about it, but damned if it still doesn’t take them way too long to realize their asses are in the fire. The book is almost an exercise in constantly putting off the fireworks. Whereas normally I’d bitch and moan about this, for Stand Your Ground I really didn’t mind – mostly because “J.A.” takes the opportunity to bash liberals again and again and again. This book is in every way the exact opposite of another I recently read, The Hydra Conspiracy.

Stand Your Ground occurs in the near future, perhaps in 2024, ten years after the publication date. I did estimate that 2008 must’ve been the “over ten years ago” date which is often mentioned by the characters, complaining about how that’s when the country first started going to hell – the year Obama was elected into office, of course. But this novel gives a picture of progressive liberalism run amok, a world which we are heading toward in reality. While it never gets as over-the-top as the similar potential future in NYPD 2025, it shares the same sentiments: liberalism is stupid, its adherents are brainwashed hypocrites, it weakens society, and it is ultimately dangerous.

What’s interesting though is that, despite all the “grown up” politics stuff, the book is almost written on a Young Adult level. There is a curious lack of cursing throughout (other that is than a very late utterance of the word “fuck”), absolutely no sex, hardly any exploitation of the female characters, and rather muted violence – people die, to be sure, but the author rarely details the carnage. In other words the book is PG-13 at best, which leads to the unintentionally humorous outcome of a right-wing book that has been Politically Corrected. The author also tends to overdescribe things, which again lends it a juvenile vibe; the momentum is constantly halted so we can be informed how characters react to dialog or action or whatever, as if the author doesn’t want the reader to encounter a single bit of mystery or confusion.  (The cynic in me figures this is just the author catering to the perceived reading level of his audience.)

Which isn’t to say the writing is bad – indeed, I get the feeling that this particular “J.A.” might’ve served some time at Gold Eagle, or perhaps was just a fan of Don Pendleton. There is that same assured craft to the prose, and some of the single-sentence paragraphs sprinkled throughout definitely have the feel of Pendletonisms. And when things happen it all gets very good – it just takes a long time for things to happen. This leads me to believe that the author was handed an unwieldy word count, and thus had to keep staving off the climactic action until the fireworks promised on the back cover could actually occur.

At any rate, John Howard Stark is for the most part the central protagonist, and the novel opens with him visiting an old ‘Nam pal in Fuego. Stark is recovering from cancer – not sure if this was an element in the previous Stark novels – and he’s still a media notable, given all his battles against Mexican terrorists and drugdealers. His pal is the warden at Hell’s Gate Prison, near Fuego, and here a bunch of radical Islamic terrorists have been transported, the President finally having lived up to his promise to close down Guatanamo Bay (the novel is very prescient at times). Meanwhile the author presents us with our swarm of local characters, from the high school quarterback to the deputy with Down’s syndrome.

And meanwhile there’s Lucas Kincaid, the supposed badass, sitting in front of the computer in the prison library. He’ll be there for a good 300 pages or so. The mystery of his background is dangled throughout the novel, but in most regards he’s very similar to Stark, though younger – an Army Ranger, he expressly ignored orders and saved some of his comrades during some action in the Middle East. Now he’s in hiding, under the assumed name of “Lucas Kincaid” (meaning he chose his own badass name, which is pretty funny), and he decided to hole up in the nowheresville of Fuego, TX, even chosing to work at the prison’s library, because who would look for a wanted felon in a prison?

We also get many scenes from the point of view of the terrorists – which again lends the novel a Gold Eagle vibe – in particular Dr. Hamil, a well-known speaker of “Muslim issues” on the various cable news networks, where he insists that Islam is “the religion of peace.” However Hamil is in fact the leader of a terrorist cell – the novel predates the disgusting rise of ISIS, thus Al-Qaeda is often mentioned as the biggest Islamic terrorist faction – and he plots to destroy Fuego and free his jailed brethren as a message to the Americans. Yet he is also cagey enough to capitalize on the gullibility of the foolish liberal government – the author is careful to point out that Hamil and many of his followers are actually American-born citizens, raised in the country they secretly despised, wrapping themselves in the protective blanket of “progressive liberalism” to escape detection.

Representing the liberal front is uber-annoying Alexis Deveraux, a famous news journalist with a brick shithouse bod. Not sure if she too appeared in previous Stark novels, but she’s familiar with him and they dislike each other royally. Alexis has come to Fuego to document the recent transition of Muslim terrorists, whom she insists on referring to as “prisoners,” eager to point out how they’re being mistreated due to their religion and etc. Confusingly, though, she’s also brought along a Tom Brokaw-esque anchor to cover the story, despite the fact that Alexis herself is the one who keeps appearing in front of the camera, with the “anchor” relegated to announcing stuff like “We’re now entering the prison.” The author also seems unsure on how actual news broadcasting works – and humorously enough, so do the journalists themselves, with Alexis at one point not even knowing if they’re going out live across the country(??).

Around the halfway point things pick up. Hamil’s soldiers launch their attack on Fuego, and we read as various batches of slack-jawed yokels fight them off with hunting rifles and whatnot. The local cops for the most part carry the action here (Kincaid’s still pecking away at that library computer), with Stark meanwhile getting a tour of Hell’s Gate – just as Alexis and team have shown up to do their impromptu story. Handling the camera by the way is a sexy brunette named Riley who is not only a former Marine but also a Republican, something she keeps from her colleagues. (Humorously, calling someone a “Republican” is about the ultimate insult in this thoroughly liberalized near-future.) Riley, when she sees Kincaid in the library, recognizes him. By novel’s end they’re a couple, though the growing romance between them during the constant firefights which comprise the novel’s final quarter isn’t much explored and is hard to buy.

The finale sees the invading terrorist army heading for Hell’s Gate, where Stark and Kincaid muster the forces to stop them. It’s all very Assault On Precinct 13, and here some minor characters are killed off by Hamil as a sign of what will happen to those who oppose him – again, while Hamil and crew are presented as monsters, they are sadly nowhere near the level of our present reality; these guys are almost like Dr. Seuss when compared to ISIS. While Stark and Riley set up explosives, Kincaid marshals forces against the invading army, however the novel never does give me the scene I wanted, of a machine gun-toting Lucas Kincaid mowing down hordes of terrorists like a modern-day men’s adventure protagonist.

Oh and humorusly enough, when things finally start picking up in the last half and you figure Kincaid’s about to finally take over the show, the author doles out yet another badass who first takes on the terrorists, this one an old acquantance of Stark’s who commands an assault team which answers only to Texas senator Maria Delgado, serving as her personal (and private) army. Delgado is a strong female character, but because she’s a Republican she’s hated (sort of like how Maggie Thatcher doesn’t get any respect from the liberal feminists of today), and she instantly realizes something rotten’s going on in Fuego – I forgot to mention, but the President himself is behind the plot(!!). The author never describes him, but it’s intimated that he too is Muslim, or of Arabic descent – having gotten to the highest office by following the path paved by Barry Obama a decade before. 

But Delgado’s secret army is led by crusty Colonel Atkinson (whom Stark knew as a private in ‘Nam), and by novel’s end he has Stark on the force and Kincaid and Riley will also soon be asked to join. They are worried that a war against the government itself is on the way, and Stand Your Ground ends with Stark and Atkinson telling themselves that Fuego was “just the beginning.” No sequel has yet been published, but if one comes out it seems it will be about our heroes taking on the President himself.

Anyway, I did enjoy Stand Your Ground, but the barrage of characters and the constant forestalling of action got to be a drag. To the author’s credit, never once does he POV-hop, despite the plethora of characters; whenever he changes perspective, he either starts a new chapter or gives us a few lines of white space. I nearly wept in gratitude. And as I wrote above, the digressive attacks on liberalism were a “hoot,” as they say down here in Texas. In fact if anything I don’t think the author went far enough in this regard – the United States has only become more crazy in the two years since this novel was published.

The question remains whether William W. Johnstone himself would’ve enjoyed the novel, but one thing I can say without question is that this is a helluva lot better written than anything he could’ve done. And yet despite that Stand Your Ground misses the lovably bizarre amateurish quality Johnstone brought to his own works – not to mention the rampant sleaze. Here’s hoping Pinnacle asks its “J.A. Johnstones” to start veering closer to the style of sick Johnstone masterpieces like The Nursery – man, if the next Lucas Kincaid book is like that, I’ll snatch it up in a second!

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Last Ranger #3: The Madman's Mansion

The Last Ranger #3: The Madmans Mansion, by Craig Sargent
December, 1986  Popular Library

Strangely, I didn’t recall much of this third volume of The Last Ranger, though I’m sure I eagerly snatched it off the WaldenBooks shelves in ’86 and quickly read it, just as I had the previous two volumes. Yet as I re-read The Madman’s Mansion all these years later, damned if any of it seemed familiar; only Norm Eastman’s typically-great cover sparked anything in the dusty ol’ memory banks.

At any rate this one opens just two days after the previous volume. Hero Martin Stone speeds from Boulder, Colorado, where as we’ll recall he took on both a death-cult and a biker gang called The Guardians of Hell. Stone is determined to save his cipher of a sister, April, who was abducted by the Guardians and taken off to Vernal, Utah, where she will be put into the depraved hands of Poet, aka The Dwarf, a quadrapalegic sadist who goes around in a wheelcair with guns in the armrests and who turns out to be a lot more important than he seemed in his previous appearances – from his fortress in Vernal he hosts a deluxe watering hole for the new rulers of this post-nuke ‘90s America, from Mafioso to drug dealers to bikers.

While it takes its time getting to the good stuff, The Madman’s Mansion at least opens with the outrageous gore Jan Stacy (aka “Craig Sargent”) excelled in. Stone is waylaid by a group of bikers as he continues his escape through Colorado, riding as ever his armored and armed Harley Electroglide with ever-faithful pit bull Excaliber clutching the seat behind him. Our hero makes short work of the hapless scum: “But Stone was already firing forward again, taking out one more, with a stream of five slugs that scissored down his face, cutting a line from forehead to chin that seemed to just open up and spew out everything within it – eyeballs, brain tissue, tongue, and teeth – into a bubbling stew of parts in the road, a steaming smorgasbord just inches from the gushing corpse that dove forward into the white snow.”

But soon after this opening chaos the book settles into a measured pace for the next hundred or so pages. We do however get a return trip to “the Bunker,” ie the nuclear shelter Stone spent the previous five years in, buried in the Colorado mountains. I always enjoyed these scenes when I read this series as a kid, but even here I had no recollection of the Bunker sequence in this volume, which sees Stone opening up tons of canned food for Excaliber as repayment for saving Stone’s life so many times. Afterwards the pit bull is a bloated lump that can only lay in misery on the floor – once again Stacy develops a humorous rapport between man and dog, with many funny scenes between the two. 

Stone again consults the sort of proto-internet his father, Major Stone, left behind for him in the Bunker, a computer interface which answers any military-strategy question Stone might have. In this case he asks how a lone person can attack a heavily-guarded fortress, for Stone has learned that the Dwarf’s Vernal retreat – which was once a posh ski lodge – is guarded by hundreds of men, many of them former insane asylum patients. But Stacy holds off on the carnage, with the book sort of detouring into some of the goofier stuff one might encounter in Stacy’s other post-nuke series, Doomsday Warrior, as Stone stops off in “Mom’s Diner,” a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Colorado, where he gets in a poker game that becomes a gunfight.

Here Stacy introduces a character I had no recollection of: Dr. Abraham Reagan Kennedy, an old hippie-type who drives around the blasted country in a “house-truck” (complete with chimney), selling “Certified Snake Oil.” Stacy is much too enamored with Kennedy, giving over pages and pages to his blatherings, particularly when it comes to selling snake oil. But Kennedy proves to be Stone’s in to the Dwarf’s resort, as Kennedy is hired each year to put on a magic show there. And guess what, that’s just where he’s headed right now. So Stone hauls his massive bike onto Kennedy’s big truck (formerly a moving truck), which is both a home and a store on wheels, stuffed with the various bric-a-brac Kennedy sells to eager clientele.

More flashbacks to Doomsday Warrior ensue as Stone and Kennedy drive into the freak weather that was customary in that earlier series: a tornado-blizzard that goes on for too many pages and, despite the danger Stacy strives to convey, doesn’t have a chance in hell of actually killing our hero, his new best friend, or his faithful dog. If anything this scene just provides the setup for another goofy Stone-Excaliber moment, as a mud-drenched Stone, who rode out the storm from beneath the truck, demands that Excaliber – who stayed nice and clean inside the truck – jump out and also get muddy. This the dog does with joyful aplomb, once again coming out on top in this latest goofy exchange with his master.

But a bit after page 100 The Madman’s Mansion takes a change for the better, abruptly becoming the most lurid offering yet. The Dwarf’s plush resort is of course the titular “mansion,” and here insanity reigns; the nation’s new “elite” come here to cavort in the most outrageous, most sleazy manners possible, and Jan Stacy plumbs the darkest recesses of his capable imagination for some truly over-the-top shit, like a roulette wheel where the “ball” is a severed head to crazed “bloodcleaner” maids who worry about “flying penises” that might eat them. The Dwarf has staffed the place with former asylum patients, and as we know Stacy had a penchant for nutcases-turned-enforcers, as memorably shown in C.A.D.S. #1.

The former high-class ski lodge is now the stomping grounds of bikers, Mafia bigwigs, and scantily-clad female chattel; women are so disposable here that a shocked Stone even finds himself stumbling over casually-discarded female corpses as he’s shown to his grand suite by a jaded preteen bellhop. Later Stone will find sections of the lodge catering to the most perverted whims imaginable, including a room where girls are strung up and slowly sliced to ribbons. The Dwarf also runs a lucrative “white slavery” business, and Stone will gradually discover that this is the fate the sadist has in mind for April. Meanwhile Stone, after killing a Mafia thug in a knife fight, enjoys the explicit sex scene which is mandatory for the series.

I forgot to mention – Stone, due to the events in the previous volume, is wearing a disguise: he’s now “Vito ‘Pimp’ Staloni,” Mafia bigshot from New York, clad in a pink pimpsuit with violet sunglasses (the clothing provided by Kennedy). At any rate a blonde bimbo with an awesome bod named Triste is so turned on by Stone’s killing of the Mafia thug that she throws herself at him. After dancing in a room with an all-female, all-naked band and mutilated corpses arrayed along a clear floor beneath the dancers’s feet, Triste and Stone head back to his room for a “long night of super sex.”

Stacy devotes the entirety of Chapter Fourteen to the sexual shenanigans, and unlike in the Doomsday Warrior books it doesn’t get very purple-prosed, instead sticking to hardcore description throughout. It goes on for pages and pages as these two get along in the most XXX-detailed manner imaginable: “It was as if he were mining her. The harder he pumped, the more she seemed to open. As if her body had lived just for this night, her breasts just for his hands to squeeze, her entrance just for him to find the full depth of. Then he suddenly seemed to go half mad himself and started banging into her like a jackhammer.” And so on!!

Finally, in the last third of the book, things started to get somewhat familiar – and indeed made me wonder if the book had been so OTT that 12-year-old me just couldn’t handle it and promptly forgot everything! Anyway Stone, after checking out more of the Resort’s horrors, finds a slavery auction going on, beautiful, nude young women trotted out and pawed by an obese auctioneer. Who will be surprised when one of them turns out to be none other than April? Stone bids desperately for his sister and wins at exorbitant cost, even though he has no money. But it turns out to be a trap – when he goes to collect his winnings, Stone is instead bonked on the head and captured by Dwarf, who has been expecting him.

Here The Madman’s Mansion becomes even more like an ‘80s horror paperback. First we get a spine-chiller of a chapter where Stone is cuffed amd thrown in a brackish pool while rats, big centipedes, and various other creepy critters come after him. He passes out and comes to at a dinner table with Dwarf himself, presented with a banquet of delicacies. But man Stacy was in a gross-out mood when he penned this one, as it turns out the food is human flesh – “deveined” eyeballs for potatoes and even a poor young woman (nude, of course) with a spigot in her throat, so the Dwarf can tap it and hurridly share the “wine” before she dies! There’s even a bizarre bit reminiscent of The Butcher #2 where a massive snake eats another girl.

Stone, still in cuffs, must now fight a seven-foot mutant with “muscles that would have made Arnold Schwarzenegger turn in his bodybuilding badge,” with a face that’s “a mass of tissue like bloody pudding.” This knock-down, drag-out fight is particularly brutal, as is everything else in this volume, with Stone literally knocking the mutant’s brain out! When an outraged Dwarf orders Stone’s death, hell suddenly breaks out with the appearance of Kennedy, tossing grenades. Deus ex machina be damned, Kennedy also has the “blueprints” for the Resort, and in the commotion they escape to the elevator shafts and rappel up to Dwarf’s floor-spanning suite on the 18th floor.

Even though he was just down there in the chaos of the ground floor, Dwarf’s already somehow up here on the top floor – who cares about realism, anyway? – and he’s leading a bunch of dudes in robes as they prepare to sacrifice poor April, nude and nailed to a cross! Did I mention it’s Christmas? With “tommy guns” roaring Stone and Kennedy save the day, and here occurs about the only thing I remembered from The Madman’s Mansion, as a victorious Stone kicks Dwarf off his wheelchair, picks him up by the throat, and hurls the misshapen bastard out the window! Indeed I got such a vicarious thrill out of this all those years ago that I remember eagerly discussing this scene with a fellow Last Ranger fan I ran into at the Country Club Mall in LaVale, Maryland sometime in early 1987, when the fourth volume came out – and I remember the kid and I both reacted with the same excitement when we saw that the fourth volume was sitting there on the shelf; back in those pre-internet days you had no idea when new books were coming out.

Unfortunately though, we readers see that Dwarf does not die – he plummets through the frozen-over pool and bobs to the surface, “to mean to sink,” and as I recall he returns in the next volume to wreak his vengeance. Meanwhile Stone’s acting a little too concerned over April; intentionally or not, Stacy sort of hints at a more-than-siblings relationship between the two, with Stone fretting over the girl’s nude body. At any rate he lets her and Kennedy escape separately – and believe it or not April finally gets a few lines of dialog, revealing a fiery temper – while Stone meanwhile kills a bunch of guards, blows up the resort, and saves a mack truck full of “slavewhores.”

 Anyway, this one was pretty crazy when it got going, but the middle section was a bit too padded and goofy – I could’ve done with less of Kennedy’s “snake oil” blatherings. But man when it got out there it really got out there, and many sections of The Madman’s Mansion could’ve come out of the “splatterpunk” subgenre of horror fiction that was popular at the time.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Six Million Dollar Man: Season One (1973-1974)

Like any kid of the ‘70s I was a fan of The Six Million Dollar Man; but then, I was so young at the time I thought Steve Austin and Jaime “Bionic Woman” Summers were not only real people but a real couple. I recall watching the show on syndication and the later seasons in primetime – I probably started watching the show shortly before it ended, with its fifth season – but I’ve always meant to go back and check it out again. Now, thanks to the complete series being released on DVD, that’s a possibility; for too long The Six Million Dollar Man was way too hard to find.

The first season only ran for 13 episodes, starting as it did in January of 1974 as a replacement series for another that had been cancelled. However the series was preceded by a trio of telemovies which were each tonally different from one another – and all of them were pretty different from the series itself.

The Television movies

“The Six Million Dollar Man” (1973): The telefilm that started it all is wildly different from the series that ensued – indeed, only Lee Majors himself would be the sole remaining element. The rest of the cast, the production crew, even the soundtrack composers, would all change by the time the series began in early 1974. This grim, leisurely-paced movie faithfully follows Martin Caidin’s source novel Cyborg, with only minor changes, particularly when it comes to the bionic augmentations test pilot/former astronaut Steve Austin receives after a horrendous crash. For one Caidin’s character received a bionic left arm (rather than the right of the show), a metal-covered skull, a finger capable of shooting a poison dart, and legs with all sorts of augmentations (scuba gear, etc). The show whittled it down to a bionic left eye, right arm, and legs. But it takes its good ol’ time getting there; the movie moves at a snail’s pace, focusing more on Steve’s internal plight of grief and remorse – at one point he begs his nurse to kill him. This vibe would be quickly jettisoned, as was the shady motives of the government organization, OSO (changed to OSI in the series), which wants to use Steve as its bionic agent. Represented by a scenery-chewing Darrin McGavin, OSO is not the family-like agency that OSI would become, and Steve Austin is basically considered replacable junk. But the telemovie is very static and only picks up here and there. The highlight by far is when Steve finally goes on a mission; dropped into the desert he must fight off some soldiers and even a tank; he definitely kills the tank driver (by dropping a grenade inside the tank), but it’s left up in the air if he kills any of the others. The best part of this episode is the song composer Gil Melle crafts for this sequence, a two-minute masterpiece that starts off sounding like leftover material from Jerry Goldsmith’s bizarre Planet Of The Apes soundtrack before veering into jazz-funk. (Oliver Nelson – and his famous theme – wouldn’t become involved until the series itself.)

“Wine, Women, and War” (1973): The grim, fatalistic feel of the first telemovie is abruptly gone, replaced by the campy, self-spoofing tone of the Roger Moore Bond films. In the first minutes we already know it’s a completely different beast, with a tux-clad Steve Austin taking on a commando mission on a yacht at sea, spouting double-entrende quips that even Moore wouldn’t touch. The measured pace of the previous film is just a memory, something which is quickly displayed as Steve’s tux becomes a wetsuit and he takes out a bunch of terrorists. The confusing, muddled plot eventually has a grief-stricken Steve (mourning the lost of a female agent killed early in the film) going on vacation – whereas in reality OSI chief Oscar Goldman (the iconic Richard Anderson) has swindled him into taking another mission, Oscar here displaying some of the shadiness of McGavin’s earlier character. The babe factor is nicely improved this time out – this was inspired by the Bond movies, after all – with the appearance of Britt Ekland as a Russian agent. It gets even more Bond-like in the climax, which sees Steve infiltrating the underground base of the villain which is stockpiled with stolen nukes. This movie doesn’t get much love but I actually enjoyed it, despite the goofy camp of it all. Plus David McCallum co-stars as an old Cosmonaut pal of Steve’s, sporting the same pseudo-Russian accent he employed in The Man From UNCLE.

“The Solid Gold Kidnapping” (1973): The third and final TV movie is closer to the spirit of the ensuing series, though still very much in the “Bond for TV” mode of the previous film. The Moore-esque quips have been whittled away and Steve is closer to the laconic but quick-witted character of the series. The plot is also similar to later episodes, with a SPECTRE-like cabal led by Maurice “Bewitched” Evans which specializes in kidnapping notables for exorbitant ransoms. (And as double bang for your Bewitched buck, David “Larry Tate” White also appears!) It’s pure ‘70s TV as Elizabeth Ashley guest-stars as a scientist who has some RNA/memory serum or somesuch which she eventually injects herself with, giving herself the memories of a dead man. On the babe meter we also have Luciana “Thunderball” Paluzzi as a contessa Steve scores with (in the line of duty, of course – the price a secret bionic agent must pay!). The shadiness Oscar Goldman displayed in the previous film is mostly gone, with he and Steve now the “pals” they would be later in the show (you could almost base a drinking game off the number of times these two would go on to call each other “pal”), and Alan Oppenheimer is still playing Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam played him in the first movie and Martin E. Brooks eventually took over the role in the series). While it doesn’t have the constant action of the previous movie, this one does have a more-grounded tone, and is probably the best of the three telefilms. Plus it’s got John Vernon!

Season 1 (1974)

1: Population Zero: After three TV movies in 1973, the Six Million Dollar Man series proper debuted in January 1974 with this episode, which is basically The Andromeda Strain on a TV budget. This early in the series various elements that would soon become patented are nowhere to be found; for example, when Steve Austin uses his bionics we do not hear the famous bionic sound effect. Also the relationship between Steve and OSI boss Oscar Goldman is more factious here, with Oscar sternly issuing Steve orders – orders which Steve disobeys. The residents of a tiny town have all mysteriously died, and Steve insists on going there, despite Oscar’s orders to stand down; in an unneccessary subplot, the producers have it that Steve grew up near here. Thus he knows everyone; apparently this was intended so as to add a personal layer to the story, but not much is done with it. Turns out though the people aren’t really dead, despite the creepy opening of the ghost town. A somewhat-attractive scientist on the scene informs Steve that the town was hit by ultrasonics. Eventually it will be learned that a former government-contracted scientist is using his ultrasonic weapon on the town; he threatens to really kill everyone if he isn’t paid ten million bucks. Some of the episode is laughable, like when the villain buzzes the army compound with his private plane and the general and the soldiers stand around like morons, just watching. But Lee Majors carries the episode, and he’s perfect for the role of Steve Austin. Here in these early episodes Steve is more laconic and grim, and it’s notable that he kills off the villains in the finale, something you wouldn’t see happen in later seasons – he blows ‘em all up with a hurled metal pole which somehow causes their van to explode. Oliver Nelson’s music is the exceptional jazz-funk expected of the dude, but a bit muted in this episode, as is the theme – only a few bars of it play in the opening credits. Overall this is a fine intro to the series and more of a sign of things to come than the three TV movies that preceded it.

2: Survival Of The Fittest: Cleary The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t yet figured out what kind of show it wanted to be, for this second episode seems to be a TV version of Airport. Steve and Oscar are somewhere, perhaps Hawaii, boarding a plane filled with military people, when Oscar reveals to Steve that someone’s been trying to kill him. We learn that the plotters are a corrupt Air Force major and a Navy officer played by veteran B-movie villain William Smith. But shortly the episode becomes Lost a few decades early, as the plane enters a heavy storm and ditches in the ocean. Suddenly it’s a survival tale as the passengers find themselves on a barren island and must wait until help arrives. Meanwhile the two assassins, who were also on the doomed plane, continue to plot Oscar’s death. Steve’s bionics are only sporadically used, from ripping open the plane’s escape hatch to running (in slo-mo, of course). The bionic sound effect still isn’t heard, but we do see some hazy infra-red through Steve’s bionic eye, as well as telescope crosshairs. It’s also implied that Steve kills again, hurling a rock with his bionic right arm at one of the would-be assassins. Oliver Nelson provides the score and gets a chance to groove things up with some Afro-Cuban drumming.

3: Operation: Firefly: This episode is for the most part just goofy fun, as Steve contends with a rubber alligator and a somewhat attractive female colleague who dabbles in ESP. Some scientist has devised this laser gizmo but he’s been kidnapped, reported as missing in the Florida everglades or something. Oscar follows the obvious logic: he has Steve team up with the scientist’s young daughter, because she has ESP and might know where he is! The pacing is measured as the two go down the river, with lots of weird jungle sound effects on the soundtrack. The attack by the rubber alligator is pretty great, and the episode gets even campier when the gal falls in quicksand – and her clothes are magically clean the very next scene. Steve only uses his bionics sporadically, like when he breaks out of the jail he’s wrongly placed in toward the climax. All told though this one’s only marginally entertaining for the campy aspects. We also get some early ‘70s psychedelic fades and whatnot during the “ESP” sequences.

4: Day Of The Robot: The series finally finds its footing with this episode based on a story by Harold Livingston, who wrote some of the whackier episodes of Mission: Impossible. This is also the episode which inspired the ‘70s Six Million Dollar Man toy Maskatron. John “Enter The Dragon” Saxon plays two roles: Steve’s old astronaut buddy Sloan, who is now part of some missile development deal which the bad guys want to steal. Enter Saxon’s other role: the robot created in Sloan’s likeness which the villains replace the real Sloan with, monitoring his every move. Steve, assigned to act as Sloan’s bodyguard, slowly begins to suspect something weird about his old friend, though it would be obvious to anyone that something very strange is going on – again, the show has a subtle campiness to it, which adds to the charm. This one culminates in an 8-minute brawl between Steve and the Sloan-robot (in slow-motion throughout, naturally) as Oliver Nelson’s theme song plays over and over again. Also Steve again kills, flipping a car over on a would-be assassin. However the good guys suffer no losses, with a bizarrely happy ending in which Steve, assuming the real Sloan is dead, just sort of stumbles upon him, sitting in confusion at a park bench.

5: Little Orphan Airplane: Greg Morris, of Mission: Impossible (where he played Barney, aka “the black one”) guest stars as an Air Force reconnaissance pilot whose plane goes down over contested area in the new African republics. The episode replicates the feel of a mini-Bond movie, with the Air Force going to Oscar at OSI, requesting their “special man,” and then Steve briefed by Oscar before heading to Africa. He’s to parachute in and rescue Morris and destroy the plane – and look out for a brief appearance by future B-movie lunkhead Reb “Space Mutiny” Brown as an Air Force dispatcher Steve briefly talks to via radio after landing in Africa. The Bond feel is quickly lost as Steve drops into Africa and meets two Dutch nuns who take him in. Coincidence be damned, they’ve also found Greg Morris’s character, and are hiding him from the local army – a group of “Africans” who sound suspiciously American and appear to be familiar faces from Blaxploitation movies of the time. Also their leader seems a bit too affable to be the villain of the episode (“All right, men, move ‘em out!”), which makes later scenes where he threatens the nuns a bit hard to buy. Rather than action this one focuses on Steve’s MaGuyver-esque abilities, particularly how he can use his bionics to fix Morris’s broken airplane using jerry-rigged parts from old trucks. While a bit plodding and certainly padded, this one nonetheless is entertaining, and plus those “jungle noises” from “Operation: Firefly” return.

6: Doomsday, And Counting: This episode’s like The Posidedon Adventure or another of those ‘70s disaster flicks on a TV budget. Steve’s old Cosmonaut pal (the actor speaks with an American accent but a “foreign” diction, which again sounds super campy) comes over to the US to discuss some new projects with Steve and Oscar, when he’s called away to the island base where he’s working on a new rocket or somesuch with his fiance. Turns out an earthquake has hit the island and, when Steve and his pal get there, they discover that the fiance, Irina, has been trapped underground. Here the disaster movie parallels begin as Steve and comrade work their way into a massive factory-type building, navigating through collapsed tunnels and whatnot. Things get more dire when Irina reveals that the computer which guards the base has gone into safeguard mode and is about to launch nuclear missiles. Steve reveals his bionics to the couple, using his arms to pull down girders and etc. Overall this one was pretty tepid, very static, however Irina would return a few seasons later.

7: Eyewitness To Murder: It’s The Six Million Dollar Man meets Mannix as Steve just happens to witness the member of a legal team being gunned down on a street outside the restaurant Steve’s dining in. The assassin is played by Gary “2001” Lockwood, sporting the same awful, shaggy hairdo he wore in his guest appearance a few years earlier on Mission: Impossible. Turns out he was actually gunning for the leader of the legal team, who is preparing a big case against the syndicate. Steve desperately tries to track Lockwood down and uncover his supposedly-solid alibi in another leisurely-paced episode. However this one’s saved by the awesome ‘70s fashions sported by Steve throughout, accessorized with his cool tan-lensed Ray Ban aviators (as seen above, in a screengrab taken from this episode). His bionics are relegated to telescope eyes (the “radar” sound now firmly in use) and the occasional running/stopping a truck with his arm (but still no “bionic sound effects” for this stuff yet.) Oliver Nelson says “to hell with it” and funks up random scenes with some jazzy grooves. Despite the leisurely pace I actually enjoyed this one more than the last few. And like Irina in the previous episode, Gary Lockwood’s character would also return.

8: Rescue of Athena One: Even the Six Million Dollar Man must contend with the Social Justice Warriors, as Steve finds himself having to instruct “the first female astronaut.” Despite her constant screwups (as if!!), Steve’s pressured by NASA/etc to ensure she’s fully capable of piloting her ship into deep space for some “energy research” project; due, of course, to all of the publicity the event’s getting. At any rate the astronaut, played by Lee Majors’s wife Farrah Fawcett, wilts under Steve’s humorously angry orders – the first half of the episode wouldn’t be possible in today’s proggressively-liberalized world…unless that is the instructing astronaut was a woman and the ill-equipped student was a man. Speaking of Farrah Fawcett, she gives a quality, reserved performance, not very recognizable as the pop culture sex icon she would soon become – only at the very end of the episode does she sport her soon-to-be-patented feathered hair. Throughout most of the episode she’s clad in a bulky space suit with her hair tied in a bun, and looks eerily like the future Jodie Foster! Anyway this episode is yawnsville. My guess is someone realized there was all this NASA moon/rocket launch footage lying around and decided to shoot an episode around it. When Fawcett’s ship, Athena One, encounters trouble in space, it’s up to Steve to blast off in a separate rocket to save the day, as apparently only his bionic right arm is capable of pulling off the wreckage which has trapped poor Farrah in her ship. This episode sees the now-recurring bit of someone outside OSI learning about Steve’s bionic parts; I like to imagine that Steve has orders to kill anyone who learns of this, orders which he carries out promptly after the end credits roll. Seriously though, this episode is only heightened by the fact that Steve’s bionic parts go screwy in space, with Farrah having to land the rocket herself. Oliver Nelson really gives an otherwise lackluster episode a rip-roaring fanfare of an ending; otherwise he puts a lot of weird synths and theremins on the soundtrack, sounding at times like the music in The Andromeda Strain. Also we get the hint that Steve scores again, at episode’s end, as Farrah (in an unflattering body-hugging pantsuit) invites him back to her place for “dinner.” 

9: Dr. Wells Is Missing: One of the highlights of Season 1, this episode has Steve venturing to Austria to rescue the kidnapped Dr. Rudy Wells, the character who gave Steve his bionic parts and who hasn’t been seen since the TV movies which preceded the series (and here he’s again played by Alan Oppenheimer, returning from the second and third TV movies, but later replaced by the more iconic Martin E. Brooks in the role). Steve, as usual sporting his awesome ‘70s threads with aviator Ray Bans, snoops around a scenic Austrian village (aka the Universal backlot) and using his smarts he quickly finds the villa in which Rudy is being held. This episode, unlike the past few, really puts the focus on action; after being captured Steve is put through a series of challenges by the Bondian villain, who wants Rudy to create a bionic henchman for him. Steve must fight a handful of the villain’s men; one of them is a black guy who is a master of savate (which looks suspiciously similar to kung-fu, which had taken the world by storm at this point – and the dude’s fighting screams are even dubbed chop-sockey style). The fight goes on and on, in slow-mo, and gets to be annoying because in reality a man with a bionic arm and two bionic legs could rip off the limbs of his enemies and smash their skulls into jelly. But anyway Steve, after throwing them all around, is undone when one of them smashes a lampost into his bionic arm. This long fight is notable for the first appearance of the bionic sound effect which would soon become so famous; it’s briefly heard when Steve twists the arm of one of his opponents and flips him to the ground. The climactic escape is cool and maintains the Bond vibe; Rudy makes off downhill in a jeep and Steve, arm in a sling, jumps out to take care of their pursuers. First he leads them on a chase back up the mountain, running at speeds in excess of 60 mph. Then he flips their car over the cliff, causing it to explode, thus killiing both men; he takes out the final henchman with a bionic kick to the chest which surely ruptured something. This episode is tonally similar to the third (and final) TV movie, “The Solid Gold Kidnapping,” and shows what the series might’ve been like if it hadn’t become progressively campier and more kid-friendly. 

10: The Last of The Fourth of Julys: My favorite episode of Season 1 retains the action focus of the previous episode; this time scene-chewing Steve Forrest is Quail, a very Bond-style villain who has devised “the ultimate weapon” for his nefarious employer. When an undercover agent sends in word that the evil plot hinges around July 4th, Steve’s sent on the job – after that is some training courtesy a paunchy, ill-tempered drill seargent who steals the show. Curiously, most of the stuff Steve’s trained in – including being launched out of a torpedo tube from a submarine – is stuff we already saw him do in the second telefilm, “Wine, Women, and War.” This episode really harkens back to that TV movie, minus the groan-worthy quips, with a sometimes-flippant Steve presented more as a badass spy than the “average dude with bionic powers” he normally was in the series; also, the finale maintains the Budget Bond vibe, with Steve diregarding “orders from Washington” to score with a sexy babe. This sort of stuff would be gone in future seasons, as would Steve’s cold-bloodedness; this episode again sees him killing off a bunch of bad guys, indeed blowing up Quail’s entire fortress. This episode’s really a lot of fun, again providing a glimpse of the show that might have been, with a rousing and funky Oliver Nelson score – and a great stunt when a pole vaulter stand-in for Lee Majors hops a thirty-foot fence. There’s even a bit of Mission: Impossible-type stuff where a captured Steve is strapped to a revolving chair while a light flashes in his face, psychological torture courtesy Quail. And you have to love how director Reza Badiyi really capitalized on the low-cut dress Quail’s sexy henchwoman Violette (Arlene Martel, most known for playing Spock’s wife) wears in the final quarter of the film – particularly when she climbs into Steve’s escape torpedo, a gratuitous cleavage shot if ever there was one. (But who’s complaining?)

11: Burning Bright: Finally, the opening credits present us with the four words we’ve been waiting for: “Guest star William Shatner.” Eschewing the action-focus of the previous episodes, this one’s more of character study, with an emoting Shatner providing the OTT melodrama we love him for. (In 2000 I met Walter “Chekov” Koenig, whom we’d flown into the company I was then working for to narrate an audio book, and I kid you not, the very first thing I said to him was, “What’s William Shatner like?” After a pause his reply was: “Bill is an unusual guy. He’s a good guy, though.”) Shatner plays Josh Lang, another astronaut buddy of Steve’s, who has come back from his latest space mission a little shall we say batshit crazy. Spouting New Age claptrap about “the sun as the origin of the space vector” and carrying on conversations with an unseen entity called “Andy,” Josh is in danger of being removed from the space program. It’s up to Steve, called in to observe his behavior, to give the recommendation on whether he should be or not. Shatner gets ample opportunity to chew scenery as Josh becomes more and more insane; he was affected by some cosmic forcefield or somesuch which all astronauts experience (including Steve), but they usually shrug off the effects. Not so for Josh, who is soon conversing with dolphins at the local aquarium – time for lots of ‘70s-style faux-psychedelic close-ups of Shatner’s face while Oliver Nelson provides goofy bleeps and bloops on the soundtrack. Pretty soon Josh is using his mind to overpower people and, most damningly of all, accidentally kills a kindly old sheriff in Houston – Josh having gone back home, where it turns out “Andy” was a childhood friend Josh accidentally caused the death of by daring him to climb up a power line. I was hoping it would turn out to be some alien intelligence. The finale sees Shatner pulling out all the stops, emoting grandly as Josh goes from pleading with Andy one second to ranting at Steve to “stay back!” the next. All Lee Majors can do is hang there and squint and say nothing, which is pretty much all you can do when you’re in the presence of a master at the top of his form. The two actors reunited many years later, on Shatner’s short-lived sitcom Bleep My Dad Says, but the producers blew the potential. The episode climaxed with Shatner and Majors – each in goofy costumes – getting in a brawl (in other words, Captain Kirk versus The Six Million Dollar Man!), but the idiot producers chose to focus instead on Shatner’s dweeb of a son. This is the course they chose for most every episode, which makes it unsurprising that Bleep My Dad Says was cancelled.

12: The Coward: Last time it was Shatner, this time it’s George “Sulu” Takei, in a much less important role – he has what amounts to a bit part as an Army climbing instructor who trains Steve for his latest mission: venturing into the Himalayas to retrieve intelligence documents from a recently-unearthed American plane which crashed in the mountains in WWII. But “this time it’s personal,” to quote the old cliché; turns out none other than Carl Austin was the pilot of that doomed plane…ie Steve’s dad. This entails a shaken Steve venturing home to talk to his mom – the first we’ve seen her or heard of her in the show (and it turns out Steve was raised by a stepdad, who is unseen this time) – where he learns that Mom never told him of the stories that Dad might’ve been a coward, bailing out of the plane and letting his crew die in the crash. This one, unlike the previous episode, includes action with the drama; when Steve and Takei parachute into Tibet they’re instantly attacked by Mongol warriors on horseback – the leader looks uncannily like Frank Zappa. Poor George is removed from the episode posthaste, and an escaping Steve runs into a grizzled old American expat – a dude who looks sort of similar to Steve. As a double bang for your “Star Trek” buck, this guy happens to be married to a lovely native gal who is played by France Nuyen, who played Elaan of Troyius. Humorously enough, Steve and his new pal never tell each other their names, but the writers don’t take the expected route – after the journey up to the crashed plane (where Steve sheds a few tears), and after a climactic fight with the Mongols – during which the old expat sacrifices himself to save Steve – it turns out that Steve’s dad did in fact die on the plane. The old expat was in fact the copilot, who bailed out and later climbed back up to the plane to switch dog tags, so no one would think him a coward. Or is that what really happened? It’s left intentionally mystertious, with it just as possible that the expat was in fact Steve’s dad, and the dog tag story just a lie.

13: Run, Steve, Run: So it’s come to this: A Six Million Dollar Man clip show. Steve is visiting a pal on a construction site when his elevator goes haywire and almost kills him. Turns out Steve’s being stalked by Dr. Dolenz, the old scientist from “Day of the Robot.” He’s been hired by a new Mafia boss who wants Dolenz to create a robot for him, one which he plans to rob Fort Knox with(!!). Talk about a guy who thinks outside the box. But boy this episode is lame. For one, Oscar, head of a friggin’ intelligence agency, waves off Steve’s concerns that someone is stalking him, and instead insists Steve go on vacation! This Steve does, and suddenly the episode becomes “The Six Million Dollar Hick” as Steve ambles around the ranch of an old friend, riding horses and trying to get a gangly but pretty young cowgirl to come out of her tomboy shell. Meanwhile he flashes back – at length – to previous episodes: “Day of the Robot,” “Dr. Wells Is Missing,” and “Population Zero.” The cheap producers even re-use footage from “Survival of the Fittest” when Steve takes a flight, early in the episode; you can even see the actors from that earlier episode in the background of the plane’s interior. The episode is dull as dishwater, only sparking in the finale, where Steve is caught again and must show off his bionics to Dr. Dolenz. We get more humorous quips from Steve at least, particularly when he insults Dolenz’s Sloan robot, saying it squeaked when it walked. But this is not a strong finale for the first season, and indeed they should’ve placed “The Coward” last.

Overall I really enjoyed this first season of The Six Million Dollar Man. Sure, some of the episodes were a bit static, but the relaxed pace was kind of refreshing when compared to the constantly-moving, cgi-ridden fluff of today. And Lee Majors is perfect in the title role, bringing to it the sort of square-jawed resolve impossible in today’s world, where Steve Austin would need to be bettered/ridiculed by a female partner and also have some sort of debilitating condition/issue which prevented him from being a “complete man.” In other words Steve would be more like the character presented in the first TV movie rather than the self-assured hero of the series. I also really enjoyed the lack of continuity, particularly when compared to the season-long story arcs demanded of today’s shows. Each episode resolves its central conflict before the end credits roll, and I really dug that. Today it’s like nothing can ever be resolved in most TV shows, which dangle subplot after subplot to the point where you figure even the producers have no idea where it’s all headed – and, as was proven by Lost, usually they don’t.

Now on to Season Two!

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Sharpshooter #12: Scarfaced Killer

The Sharpshooter #12: Scarfaced Killer, by Bruno Rossi
February, 1975  Leisure Books

Paul Hofrichter, the man who gave us the abysmal Stiletto, returns to the Sharpshooter series with an installment that turns out to have been written as a volume of The Marksman but changed by editor Peter McCurtin into a Sharpshooter. Yet for once the copyediting is fairly good, with only a handful of slips in which Johnny Rock is mysteriously referred to as “Magellan.”

As Lynn Munroe points out in his awesome Peter McCurtin checklist, McCurtin employed a ghostwriter named George Harmon Smith to polish the occasional Sharpshooter or Marksman manuscript. I wonder if Scarfaced Killer was one of those manuscripts, as the early pages display a level of qualitity inconsistent with Hofrichter’s typically-clunky style. Whereas Hofrichter’s typical novels are filled with pedantic dialog and scant description, the opening of Scarfaced Killer is for the most part pretty good, with Johnny Rock heading into the small town of Boyle, Oklahoma, which has been subtly overtaken by Mafioso who want to control Boyle’s newly-discovered gold mines.

Another thing that makes me think McCurtin or Smith tinkered with the book is the phrase “Soon he would again taste Mafia blood,” which appears early on and reminds us of Johnny Rock’s mob-killing psychosis. The phrase “taste Mafia blood,” to my knowledge, only appeared in the three volumes of the series written by Len Levinson, and given that it appears here makes me think that either McCurtin liked the phrase and used it in his polishing of the manuscript, or perhaps Hofrichter had been given copies of Levinson’s three books as study material before writing his own. But anyway, gradually the polished feeling of the opening page is replaced by the clunkiness we expect from Hofrichter – the same sort of style he was still employing over a decade later, in the Roadblaster books. 

But McCurtin (or one of his copyeditors) slips at times, missing the occasional “Magellan” in Hofrichter’s original manuscript and not changing it to “Rock.” However the reader gets the suspicion that this might’ve started life as a Marksman novel early on; when Rock checks into his hotel in Boyle, he gives the fake name of Phil Marsalla – ie Philip Magellan, the Marksman. This “subtle” joke clearly made more sense in Hofrichter’s original version, where it was Magellan. Curiously, a minor character in Scarfaced Killer is named “Emil Scaretta,” which is so similar to the Marksman house name of “Frank Scarpetta” that you wonder if this was yet another in-joke on Hofrichter’s part or if it was just an oversight. (At any rate, Scaretta’s accidentally referred to as “Scarpetta” on page 163.)

Anyway, as usual with this stuff, it doesn’t matter. Hofrichter’s Johnny Rock/Philip Magellan is such a cipher that it really could be either character; only minor details, very late in the novel, betray that the character we’ve been reading about started life as Magellan – namely, the tidbit that “Rock” once worked in a carnival. As all fans know, that’s Magellan’s background, not Johnny Rock’s. Also, this version of “Rock” is fond of carrying a “suitcase” around with him, in which he stores his arsenal; surely this is none other than the infamous “artillery case” Magellan lugs around with him in every volume of The Marksman written by Russell Smith.

Oh, and speaking of that suitcase – Scarfaced Killer is filled with typos, like a ludicrious amount of them. For the most part they’re the usual Belmont Tower/Leisure screwups, like “shair” instead of “chair.” But my friends, on page 180 we come across this humdinger: “…holding the handle of the heavy shitcase.” Yes, friends, someone actually wrote “shitcase” instead of “suitcase.” How this could possibly happen – let alone not be caught – will have to remain a mystery, but maybe it was the copyeditor or McCurtin or even Hofrichter himself letting us know what they thought about the book.

Anyway, Rock surveys Boyle and discovers that it’s practically the fief of a Mafia bigwig named Franklin Ditrinco, who rules the small town with a crooked mayor and the police in his employ. Only a hardscrabble group of salt-of-the earth types oppose Ditrinco’s complete takeover of the gold mines, and Rock finds out about them thanks to Carl Cortner, the town drunk. Leading the miners is Hank Belmann, Cortner’s son in law, and the man Rock gradually teams up with to take on Ditrinco’s goons and dirty cops. In particular Ditrinco retains a trio of wheelchair-bound killers, the Celebano brothers, who go around town on electric wheelchairs, toting shotguns. Their leader, sadistic Wendell, may be the “scarfaced killer” of the title and hyperbolic back cover copy, but probably isn’t – this is likely another indication of McCurtin once again coming up with a suitably “tough” title.

One thing that can be said of Hofrichter is that he doesn’t shy from the gory violence. While there isn’t even a hint of sex in the novel (the only woman in the book is an old lady who has maybe a line or two), there’s a ton of action and carnage, with Hofrichter, as in the inferior Stiletto, taking a sort of relish in describing how eyeballs pop out of skulls when a person’s gunned down or blown up. And Rock as ever is a straight-up killer in this one; his first victims being a pair of Ditrinco-paid lowlifes who occasionally rape runaways and then murder them. Rock catches them in the act of doing this, waits until they’ve raped and killed their latest prey(!!), and then guns them both down. This initiates his war of attrition against Ditrinco.

It’s constantly hammered home that Rock has been fighting the Mafia “for two years,” and practically everyone has heard of him. However in Hofrichter’s hands he’s kind of a moron. After his first hit Rock’s in his hotel room and falls for a Celebano brothers swindle; figuring the new guy in town is Rock, they send a flunkie up to his room, posing as a sandwich seller. Rock, who just killed two henchmen moments after rolling into town, buys himself a sandwich and doesn’t suspect a thing. It takes town drunk Carl Cortner to explain to him that it was a ruse to suss Rock out.

While he might be stupid, Rock is still sadistic – not to mention deadly to his friends. Learning that Ditrinco and the crooked mayor are hosting a dinner for various town notables, Rock steals a bunch of nitro, gets a job as a busboy at the restaurant, and then fills the coffee percolators with the nitro. After the tediously-overdescribed setting up of the explosives Rock escapes before the blast hits – and he wipes out around 70 men and women at the banquet. This leads to the first of many running battles in the novel, as Rock, armed with Uzi and grenades, takes on hordes of Mafia soldiers in the woods outside the restaurant.

Another long action sequence quickly follows, as poor ol’ Carl is gunned down by dirty cops who open fire on Rock’s hotel room, hitting the drunk instead. Rock blows ‘em all up with grenades, and then gets in another big firefight at Frank Belmann’s place. Oh, and speaking of which, that patented clunky Hofrichter dialog appears in an interminable chapter in which Belmann convinces his sickly wife to leave town until the action’s over; there are go-nowhere conversations throughout the novel, in particular the stuff with Ditrinco and his butler Scaretta, most of it recapping stuff we’ve already read.

The majority of the novel trades off between Ditrinco plotting to send killers after Rock and Belmann’s men and then Rock and Belmann fighting them off. Things really come to a head in the finale, in which Rock comes up with the “master plan” of serving himself up as bait in his hotel room while Belmann’s force capitalizes on this concentration of forces and heads for Ditrinco’s supposedly-defenseless home. Meanwhile, Ditrinco quickly deduces it’s a trap and Belmann and his little army is massacred in another running action sequence which sees more heads exploding and eyeballs popping out. 

The Celebano brothers are the highlight here, riding specially-made heavy-tread electric wheelchairs with armored shields covering their bodies, shields which have slots to see through and slots for their shotgun barrels. (“In them, the brothers looked like creature[sp] from Mars.”) These three butcher Belmann’s army, killing them to a man on a battle that rages on the streets of Boyle, and for once the reader figures Johnny Rock might be up against some stiff competition. But the finale is a total copout; in just a page or two Rock takes the three brothers out, shooting under their armored plates and then blowing them up with dynamite.

More focus is placed on Rock’s knife fight with Emil Scaretta, who is a master with the stiletto; here we get the background detail that “Rock” grew up in a carnival and thus is a master of knife-throwing. As for Ditrinco, he does Rock the favor of offing himself – after which “There was no one else left to kill,” and that’s it for Rock’s war upon Boyle, a war which humorously enough has seen the death of everyone, mobster and innocent townsperson alike.

As mentioned, despite the clunky prose and the headscratching amount of run-on sentences, Hofrichter really doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the action and the gore, which makes Scarfaced Killer more entertaining than any of Hofrichter’s other novel’s I’ve yet read.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Death Squad #2: Killers For Hire

Death Squad #2: Killers For Hire, by Frank Colter
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower Books

The second and final volume of The Death Squad is just want I want in a lurid ‘70s cop thriller – it’s sleazy, gory, and rude. Dan Streib returns as “Frank Colter,” but strangely the book seems to be a little more polished than the first volume, with more introspection, reflection, and description than I recall being in that earlier book. Maybe editor Peter McCurtin or one of his ghostwriters touched up Streib’s manuscript?

Another interesting change this time is that the members of the Death Squad – San Diego cops Mark Sanders (the tough white guy), Sam Durham (the tough black guy), and Raul Gomez (the tough Hispanic guy) – are very concerned with not blatantly breaking the rules and with covering their asses. As I recall they basically gave everyone the finger in Gang War and casually slaughtered their enemies, with no concerns over red tape or legal troubles. In Killers For Hire the three are constantly fretting over the law and the fact that they might go too far some day. Indeed a firefight midway through the book has our heroes mostly worried about being found out for killing several bikers.

But at any rate, according to the Catalog Of Copyright Entries this novel was written by Streib, same as the first. He pulls a clunky fast one on readers, starting the novel with Sam Durham as the featured character, making the reader suspect that this will be his story. Not so; as with the previous book, Streib soon brings on Mark Sanders as the main guy and keeps him in the spotlight for the duration, with Durham relegated to supporting status (and Gomez practically a nonentity). But Durham’s there in the beginning, trying to prevent a young woman from killing herself by jumping off a bridge. Durham soon discovers that it’s really attempted murder – a Hispanic guy is trying to throw the girl off.

Sanders and Gomez are on duty nearby and are called in to assist; Durham meanwhile gets in a shootout with the killer and tries to keep the girl from plummeting. But even with Sanders’s assistance she still falls, which leads to an incongrous bit of racial-slurring between Durham and Sanders. As before the series makes a cop’s plight seem hopeless; when “stupid chief” Lt. Hailey shows up, he flat-out disbelieves Durham’s story that there even was a murderer, and further disbelieves that anyone shot at Durham, claiming that Durham himself shot up his patrol car! But a lot of this stuff is just unbelievable, like when the girl’s corpse is hauled out of the water and her fingers are missing, shot off by the killer, and Hailey insists that a fish could’ve just bitten them off. Surely the wounds would look different?

Anyway it doesn’t matter. Durham has a delayed realization that the killer he saw on the bridge was none other than Carlos Reyes, an independent hitman known for boasting of his kills but always evading the law; none of his hits have ever been successfully pinned on him. Hailey again disbelieves Durham, which leads “the big black cop” to vow his own revenge. Pulling Sanders out of bed with his latest girlfriend, a “tiny Japanese broad with the suction cup mouth,” Durham insists the Death Squad head to a posh nearby hotel in which Reyes is hosting a high-society party. The Japanese stewardess meanwhile “chatters” at Sanders – the novel is filled with that pulpy ‘70s stereotyping we all know and love – and we’re informed Sanders doesn’t even know her name!

This volume has a bit more focus on sleaze than the last one. Sanders gets laid a few times – and we’re reminded often how orally skilled that Japanese stewardess is – and while it never gets into full-bore porn it’s still more explicit than the fade to black dirty stuff in the previous book. Anyway this sleaze is displayed posthaste as the party at Reyes’s hotel becomes an orgy, initiated when a girl is forced to strip and streak through the crowd, culminating with her sort-of rape while the partygoers excitedly look on. Soon enough Sanders and pals, having crashed the party, are waylaid by their own “shills;” hot women on Reyes’s payroll who use their womanly wiles to distract our heroes.

Sanders is given a stacked redhead who, while hot, has “the flare of a woman’s libber that [Sanders] detested.” The book is also filled with the lovable feminism-bashing expected of mid-‘70s Belmont/Leisure, which reached its apotheosis in The Savage Women. This series though has never been kind to women, with Streib last time taking pleasure in detailing the gory deaths of several women; accordingly Sanders gets rough with the redhead, backhanding her and beating her for info on Reyes and where the killer was the previous night – the cops still determined to get a solid case on the Reyes. But have no fear, the redhead likes the rough stuff and soon treats Sanders to her own oral skills – again, though, nothing too explicit.

After getting in a brawl with Reyes and his henchmen, the Squad finds itself in jail, and here Streib inserts some of that unexpected introspection, as Sanders we learn is terrified of enclosed spaces and swears that he’ll never so cross the line that he himself winds up in prison. Streib throws in another unexpected angle with Lt. Hailey berating the Squad and telling them to take a leave of absence – and in fact, why not go to Vegas, which is where it turns out Reyes has been visiting of late. In fact there our heroes might get the leads they need to bust the bastard. So with Hailey’s sort-of blessing the Death Squad grabs a bunch of guns from Sanders’s private armory and hops in his Mercedes for the long drive across the desert.

Here occurs that firefight with the army of bikers, who ambush our heroes in the middle of the night on an open patch of desert road. Sadly though, Streib focuses more on the worries of the Squad, in particular of Gomez, than on the actual fireworks. And the gunfight, which sees Durham wielding two Wild West-style revolvers, is so chaotic and brief that it never gets as gory as the stuff in Gang War. The Squad is sure these bikers have been hired by Reyes, who clearly wants to prevent the Squad from arriving in Vegas and figuring out how to unravel the lie he’s used to keep him in the clear for the murder of the girl on the bridge (who by the way has turned out to be the inheritor of a few million dollars).

The sleaze returns with the entrance of Kay Drummond, a “nympho” stripper who is sisters with Jennifer Drummond, a hotstuff brunette Sanders met at Reyes’s party. Jennifer, who appears to be Reyes’s kept woman but who clearly thinks Sanders himself is hot stuff, calls Sanders in his Vegas hotel and begs him to look after Kay. Figuring Kay too knows the goods on Reyes, Sanders resolves to his usual methods; moments after allowing himself into her penthouse suite he twists her arm behind her back, slaps her, and beats her around. Will you be surprised to learn that she too likes it? Fairly graphic sex ensues, more so than anything else in the series.

Streib really seems to enjoy putting female characters through hell and then killing them sadistically; just after nympho Kay has gotten her fill of Sanders a dude in a mask kicks in the door and guns her down! (“Mark was still inside her when the bullet hit.”) As in the previous volume we get copious detail on how a bullet can destroy a woman’s face, all of it similar to the finale of the previous novel, where Sanders himself blew off the face of the girl he was in love with(!). Now Kay’s dead, mere pages after her introduction, and Sanders finds himself in bed with a corpse. Once again he clears himself from going to prison, and meanwhile Streib never even bothers to tell us who Kay’s murderer was, nor why the guy didn’t also kill Sanders – the lame suspicion is that he assumed Sanders was just “another of the girl’s marks.”

Killers For Hire climaxes in the ghost town of Jerome, Nevada, where Sanders is taken by some bikers who easily get the drop on him. Lovely Jennifer has also been captured, and even though she initially blames Sanders for Kay’s death she still begs him to screw her – and time it so Reyes can walk in on them during the act and get pissed off! More sleaze ensues, but is quickly put to a stop by an enraged Reyes, who orders Sanders to be killed. The finale sees Durham and Gomez arriving in the nick of time, guns blazing, in a running shootout with Reyes and his biker henchmen, with the villain himself delivered an appropriately-horrible comeuppance, wrapped in flames.

And that’s that – that is, once yet another female character has been gunned down and killed off. Killers For Hire ends with the Death Squad victorious, having uncovered Reyes’s stupid ruse for exoneration, and clearly ready to bust more criminals off the books. But for whatever reason no further volumes of Death Squad ensued, whereas meanwhile Streib’s other killer cop series, the inferior (and similarly-titled) Kill Squad, ran for more volumes than it deserved.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Depth Force #5: Torpedo Tomb

Depth Force #5: Torpedo Tomb, by Irving A. Greenfield
February, 1986  Zebra Books

The Depth Force series continues to come off like a soap opera in novel form; this series could’ve just as easily been titled “As The Periscope Turns.” For once again “action” is for the most part nonexistant and author Irving Greenfield is more focused on detailing the potboiler lives of his main characters. I mentioned in my review of the previous volume that I didn’t have this instalment, but the men’s adventure gods intervened and I recently came across a copy for a pittance.

However, as I’ve found with the other installments I’ve read, I could’ve indeed skipped Torpedo Tomb without missing anything pertinent. Per the usual template this one picks up from the previous volume’s cliffhanger finale, without a shred of background detail to catch up readers new to the series. Hero Captain Jack Boxer and his crew of the Shark are introduced en media res, and lord help you if you don’t know who any of them are or don’t know what happened in the previous book; Greenfield certainly doesn’t remind you. Having read that previous installment I knew that it ended with the Russian sub squad of Captain Igor Borodine, briefly housed on the Shark after their own sub’s destruction, attempting to take over the Shark – while two more Russian subs were attacking it. 

Greenfield brushes off the mutinying Russians subplot, with the riot already quelled when Torpedo Tomb opens. Rather, it’s all about the attacking Russian subs, which fire “killer darts” that almost destroy the Shark. Apparently these are like heat-seeker torpedos or something. Again the “action” is for the most part relegated to dialog as Boxer stands on the bridge and shouts orders to his crew. This time the only two Shark characters who rise out of the anonymous backdrop are Vargas, aka “The Spic,” who leads the ground assault forces, and Cowly, Boxer’s EXO who outs himself as gay in the first half of the book. Otherwise they’re all nonentities save for Boxer himself.

Borodine is also onboard; the Depth Force series is built around the dynamic between Boxer and Borodine, with the rival sub commanders respecting each other despite the Cold War (which still rages in this fictional 1997). Greenfield doesn’t spend as much time with the Russians this volume, with the sexy female Russian scientist who propositioned Boxer in the last pages of Battle Stations given short narrative shrift and Borodine himself relegated to mourning – in the usual heartless vibe of this series, he finds out via a radio dispatch from his comrades that the woman he was going to marry – plus her unborn child – has been been killed in a car wreck! By novel’s end Borodine has been promoted to Rear Admiral and is sent to D.C. on some sort of ambassadorial mission, which will certainly guarantee more soap operatic stuff in future books.

When the Shark returns to port Boxer takes care of priorities – having sex with his girlfriend Trish in one of Greenfield’s patented explicit sequences. Sadly though, Torpedo Tomb features less dirty stuff than previous books. However Trish delivers one of the greatest lines of all time, cozying up with Boxer in his quarters on the Shark for some illicit shenanigans: “Finger me, my darling.” But after the whopping mutual climaxes Boxer and Trish realize they have an audience – a shocked Cowly watching from the door. Trish freaks out, questioning Cowly’s manhood in dialog that’s hilariously un-PC in today’s world, but meanwhile Cowly does later admit to Boxer that he, Cowly, is gay, and was in fact enjoying the view while he watched ol’ Boxer hump away!!

Methinks the Boxer-Trish romance will gradually go the way of all the other Boxer romances so far; the dude’s had like four girlfriends in the three books I’ve read. But Trish is getting increasingly pissed with how Boxer is so devoted to his work and how he keeps leaving her, etc. And as for that soapy Borodine angle mentioned above; Torpedo Tomb ends with Borodine and Trish on a date in DC, kissing, announcing they want to have sex with each other(!?), and then sort of wondering what to do. At any rate Trish is Boxer’s sole bedmate this volume, with another explicit featuring the two later in the book – which is it so far as the hardcore stuff goes, this time.

Instead, Greenfield spends more time on dialog, much of it either banal or just regurgitation of stuff we’ve already read about. The novel runs to the usual exorbitant Zebra length, but it’s got big print and lots of white space; I feel bad for Greenfield, because it’s clear he was handed an unwieldy word count for this series. So as ever he takes the plot in all sorts of directions. Once he’s back in his home (and Greenfield by the way rarely if ever describes any of the surroundings – or characters, for that matter), Boxer is contacted by Sanchez, shadowy CIA dude who has offered to find the muggers who inadvertently killed Boxer’s mother in the previous volume. Here follows an arbitrary bit where Boxer heads to New York and, armed with “a .357 with silencer,” he blows the kneecaps off the three men who beat his mother into a fatal coma.

Gradually the main plot bears its head. Responding to a distress call from a monster sub called the Tecumseh, Boxer is unable to find the ship and eventually deduces that someone has hijacked the ship itself. When the corpses of the Tecumseh’s crew begin to wash up on New Jersey’s shores, Boxer’s hunch is proven correct – and here follows another very arbitrary bit where Boxer finds out he’s been willed two million or so bucks by the dead Tecumseh captain(!?), and Boxer goes into the slums of the Bronx to find the guy’s bastard son and tells him that, if he can get his shit together, the kid stands to become a millionaire when he’s 18. Again, it’s all like something off Days Of Our Lives.

It gets even more soapy when Boxer and a few of the Shark crew are placed on the experimental vehicle The Sea Turtle, which is a submarine/tank combo; it can go beneath the water, then sprout tank treads and travel overland. But also placed onboard the Turtle in an overseer capacity is none other than sexy Cynthia, Boxer’s on-again, off-again girlfriend from previous books – again, we aren’t reminded of specifics, and Cynthia’s just introduced as if we remember her as well as Boxer does. At any rate this causes a bit of friction on the bridge, with Boxer struggling to deal with the woman after their hot n’ heavy romance of yore.

And if that wasn’t soapy enough for you, the Turtle soon responds to a crashed airplane in the Atlantic, which went down in a thunderstorm. Boxer has the survivors pulled out of the stormy sea and put onboard the Turtle, and it develops that one of the passengers is eight months pregnant and has just went into labor from shock. Coincidence be damned, it turns out to be Louise, Boxer’s black girlfriend who was forced (by Boxer’s CIA boss Kincade) to break up with Boxer in the previous book (because she was black!). After delivering the baby Louise has a heart-to-heart with Boxer where she reveals that the “Dear John” letter she wrote him wasn’t her idea, and anyway she’s happy now, married to a doctor who treats her well, and etc. As The Periscope Turns!

More soapy stuff ensues with the fractional presence of Captain Bush, who apparently appeared in volumes 1 or 2, neither of which I have. Per Kincade, Bush is put in co-command of the Sea Turtle, and whereas before he was apparently “tight,” now he’s acting “loose.” In particular, Cynthia claims that he’s been sexually harrassing her. This leads to a short but bizarro section where Bush goes nuts, takes over the Turtle’s bridge and announces himself on the PA as “Captain Bligh,” and orders Cynthia onto the bridge so all the men can gang-bang her! After sending Cynthia to the bridge(?!?), Boxer gases the room and puts Bush in custody.

In the final quarter the plot promised on the back cover takes place. Again proving how small this soap opera world is, the Turtle is to pick up none other than Sanchez, ie the dude from the New York section, who will be leading Vargas and an Agency assault team on a strike upon a prison camp in Libya in which some Americans are held. Boxer is informed that the place is run by the Shushas, “an extremist Arab group” that is 500-man strong. The expected casualty rate for Sanchez’s assault force is seventy-five percent! Boxer drops ‘em off and Greenfield proves again that Depth Force is not an action series by any means; rather than read about the assault on the prison camp, we instead sit around with Boxer and crew on the Turtle bridge while they listen to radio updates and sip coffee! 

Things quickly and anticlimactically escalate to yet another cliffhanger ending, something for which this series is also known. Sanchez and his force is almost wiped out to a man and Boxer realizes the whole mission was a set-up, as the Shushas knew they were coming. When he discovers that Boxer is still alive, Boxer orders the Turtle to the attack, but meanwhile it’s been caught by an underwater steel net or something, and more forces are coming to attack them.

And that’s it – no resolution, no climax. As ever, the tale just sort of rolls along, and the next volume will pick up from this very moment with nary a word of background material. Luckily I’ve got that one, so I won’t be completely lost when I start reading it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Butler #1: The Hydra Conspiracy

Butler #1: The Hydra Conspiracy, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

The first series he got to create and write on his own, Butler was basically James Bond as written by Len Levinson. Len wrote the first six volumes of the series, after which Leisure Books – without Len’s knowledge – continued publishing it, employing a few ghostwriters as “Philip Kirk.” In fact Len wasn’t aware that Leisure had done this until I mentioned it to him a few years ago, and he was properly incensed, as Butler was his series.

Unfortunately this is another of those cases where the original books have become pretty scarce and expensive. (The first two volumes were e-published as Kindle books the other year, but it doesn’t appear that the rest will be.) I’ve picked up Len’s six installments over the years and have finally gotten around to reading this first volume. The Hydra Conspiracy works as a fine introduction to the series, introducing hero Butler and his world, but I suspect future installments will be better once Len has figured out the tone for the series.

For in many regards The Hydra Conspiracy is all over the map tonally; it starts off like grim tale of espionage a la Len’s earlier Operation: Perfidia before it veers more and more toward goofy fantasy and satire. The other month, when I met him in Chicago, Len told me that he had been good friends with Ted Mark, creator of the long-running ‘60s spoofy spy series The Man From O.R.G.Y. as well as other such books. It was only after Len told me this that I realized that Butler was almost a late ‘70s take on Mark’s series (only Len wrote his series in third-person, unlike the first-person narrative of Mark’s series).

In many ways The Hydra Conspiracy trades on that same sort of goofiness of The Man From O.R.G.Y. and all those other paperback spy spoofs of the ‘60s, only without all the annoying “funny” acronyms which were mandatory in those earlier books. (But as a tradeoff we do get a lot of socialist invective to make up for the lack of punny acroynms!) But otherwise the tone is the same; there’s really no sense of danger as hero Butler (no first name given) tries to prevent nuclear armageddon courtesy a SPECTRE-like cabal of intelligence/politics/business sadists called HYDRA.

That is, other than the first several pages, which come off like a missing section of Operation Perfidia. Butler, a 32 year-old Vietnam vet (where we was a Green Beret, much like another Levinson protagonist – Phil Gordon in The Camp) who has been a CIA spy for years and who looks like Clark Cable without a moustache (as we’re often reminded), is called into the office of his Agency boss, FJ Shankham. Butler’s being let go from the CIA due to his constant criticisms, in particular his vocal frustrations with the recent operations in South America – the assassnation of Chilean president Allende especially set him off, and Allende is mentioned again and again in the narrative.

Only these opening pages take place in the New York City familiar from so many other of Len’s ‘70s novels, but in many ways The Hydra Conspiracy paves the way for Len’s ‘80s work, where his novels moved out of New York and took place all over the globe. But here again Len captures the New York he knew so well. While drowning his sorrows in a bar Butler is approached by the lovely Wilma B. Willoughby, a stacked brunette whom Butler is sure is a spy, or at the very least some sort of plant – but for who?

These opening pages are heavy on the paranoia as Butler is certain someone is going to set him up for his own assassination; the most likely culprit, he figures, being the CIA. At any rate he hits hard on Wilma, who turns him down and leaves. An hour later Butler returns to his apartment, only to find Wilma’s butchered corpse in his bath tub. The cops show up and arrest Butler, an obvious setup, but when he’s in jail he finds that Shankham isn’t willing to use the Agency’s resources to free Butler. For all Shankham knows, Butler really killed the poor girl.

Here, gradually, the goofy vibe begins to creep into The Hydra Conspiracy. That Butler’s old boss would think he murdered some random girl is ludicrous, but at any rate Butler gets sprung from jail by an Agency-paid lawyer and then skips out of town. Eventually he picks up some cash he stashed away and makes his way down to Mexico, where he decides he’ll live in some anonymous village and look at all the old pyramids – Butler we’re told always wanted to be an archeologist. But he’s caught anyway, doped by a kindly old man posing as another tourist.

Butler discovers that he’s been abducted by the Bancroft Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank with offices all over the globe. Bancroft uses its business front as a mask for its true purpose: to stop the efforts of HYDRA, a cabal made up of wealthy villains in the business, intelligence, government, and criminal arenas. The Bancroft Institute is very reminiscent of the Jon Anryn Institute in The Enforcer. (And just as author Andrew Sugar used that series to promote his own Libertarian views, so too does Len uses Butler to promote his own political views, as noted below.)

Butler finds that he’s not really a prisoner, and the man in charge of the San Francisco headquarters, Mr. Sheffield, offers Butler work as a secret agent for Bancroft. Butler’s first mission plays right into his own personal views (not to mention Len’s at the time) and caters to the socialist agent of the Bancroft Institute. A HYDRA bigwig named Philip Noble, famous for his Noble Oil company, is up to something no good in South America. Butler, via his Agency contacts, will be given a job as Noble’s bodyguard. His mission will be to monitor Noble and figure out what he’s up to. But meanwhile Butler must take care of a more pressing concern – getting laid.

Leisure headlined Butler as “the adult action series” in their advertisements in the backs of the books, and thusly Len caters to the enjoyable sleaze that was mandatory for grimy Leisure paperbacks of the day. But as usual, he doesn’t go for full-bore porn, gussying up the sleaze with goofy phrases and terms. For example, Butler’s first score in the book is with a gal name Sheila, and most of it is relayed via XXX dialog, with the actual sexual descriptions featuring goofy terms like “fuzzy little lamb chop” to describe Sheila’s nether region. At any rate Butler scores with both Sheila and her roommate, at the same time, but Len skips the details and ends the chapter with all of them in bed.

Humorously, Len delivers another sex scene almost immediately thereafter, as Butler scores with Philip Noble’s secretary, a sexy gal with “torpedo tits” and a “magic valley” that’s all too eager to accept Butler’s “throbbing screwdriver.” Again we go heavy on the porn dialog as we’re informed that Butler is almost superhumanly endowed. Our hero gradually gets back to the mission at hand; Noble’s nefarious deeds have him venturing down to Halvados, a fictional banana republic in South America which Noble practically runs behind the scenes.

The brazen disregard for reality is prominent now, as Butler just waltzes right out of Noble’s military base in Halvados in the middle of the night, meets the local Bancroft contact (another sexy gal, this one a redhead named Nora C. Morrissey), and then easily gets back on the base the next morning, telling the guard he went into the city for cigarettes! And when Noble’s men discover that someone has leaked last night’s top-secret plans to the locals (namely, bombing the rebels), Butler’s able to bullshit his way out of it! In the real world, this guy, new to the organization and even noted as skipping out of the base against orders, would be the instant suspect.

But Butler is eventually found out and winds up in jail. Not that this poses much trouble, as he uses his fountain pen laser gun – which the guards left on him when throwing him in jail – to melt the bars. In the jailbreak Butler scores his first kill in the novel, at 147 pages in. This is not a violent tale by any means, and Len does not dwell on the gore. In fact the novel is more so composed of Butler making plans, eagerly awaiting the next day, and then running from trouble. It’s all more in the parodic/goofy realm, particularly when you factor in that Len himself appears in the book, as “Doctor Levinson,” a “lean man in blue jeans and a black beard” with “the nose of a hawk and nervous furtive manner” who works for Bancroft and teaches Butler how to disarm an atom bomb. (Len also slyly references his one and only Mace novel, mentioning a restaurant called “Lee Chang’s” in New York’s Chinatown.)

In an overlong sequence Butler poses as a cook on a ship bound for Corpus Christi – a Noble ship which will secretly carry the atom bomb down to Halvados – and disarms the atom bomb without much trouble. But Bancroft’s people fear Noble will just send down another one! Off Butler goes to Halvados again, and soon enough he and Nora C. Morrissey are roughing it through the jungle. Here, in the final pages, occurs the most explicit sex scene yet, as Butler basically bullies Nora into having sex wit him out in the cheap showiness of nature. Len again doles out the goofy anatomical descriptions: “He was hard as a baseball bat as he pushed it into her gooey sweetness.” 

The finale is pretty perfunctory, more chaotic than thrilling, with Butler leading a bunch of rebels in an assault on Noble’s bunker. The villain himself is at least disposed of memorably, eaten down to the bone by piranhas. Meanwhile Butler has more pressing issues back in San Francisco – turns out Wilma B. Willoughby, whom Butler has lusted for the entire novel, has found out about Butler’s shenanigans with Nora, and boy is she pissed off about it. And here we leave Butler, in the doldrums because even though he’s a “hero” no one respects him.

As usual with Len’s writing, the characters take more precedence than the plot or the action; I don’t think it was until the ‘80s, with the Rat Bastards and the Sergeant series, that he really found firm footing with the action genre. For as it is, The Hydra Conspiracy doesn’t offer much for the action-pulp enthusiast; it’s more of a shaggy-freaky ‘70s thing, with lots of socialist invective tossed in for good measure. As Len himself notes below, late 1970s Len Levinson could’ve gotten a job writing material for Bernie Sanders. The novel is filled with leftist rants that, sadly, would probably still go over well with the easily-swayed left-leaning youth of today.

Back in late April I wrote Len to tell him I was finally getting around to Butler. He’d mentioned the series to me a few times in the past, so I was curious what he thought of it today. In response he wrote me the wonderful essay below.

My Butler series was the first series I ever created, after writing eight novels in other series, and nine standalone novels. 

The year was 1978. My goal was to rip off James Bond. I’d read all the James Bond novels published at that time, and had enjoyed them very much. They seemed original, freaky, sexy and totally bizarre, just what the world needed in those days and even today. 

I first heard of James Bond during the early days of the JFK administration, when JFK was reported to be a big fan of James Bond. In addition, a close friend and one of my early mentors, Lin Carter, also was a big fan of James Bond and recommended him to me. 

I met Lin in 1962 when we both were direct-mail advertising copywriters at Prentice-Hall, a publishing company in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Lin later became a popular sci-fi writer and still has quite a following. He was exceedingly well-read and I considered him a great man, one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met. He recommended many books to me and educated me in literature to a large extent. Unfortunately he’s no longer alive and I miss him very much. 

But in 1978 I wasn’t Ian Fleming or even close. Obviously I wasn’t a British gentleman, son of a member of Parliament, never attended Eton. never was a naval intelligence officer, and never had love affairs with titled ladies. 

I was only Lenny Levinson from New Bedford, Massachusetts and had to do James Bond my way. I’d recently seen GONE WITH THE WIND for approximately the fifth time, one of my all-time favorite flicks, and decided that my James Bond would be named Butler, a descendent of Rhett Butler. My Butler also was from Georgia, but unlike Rhett had graduated from the University of Georgia and been a Green Beret officer in the Nam. 

My Butler was not an elegant British gentleman like Bond James Bond. He was a rowdy all-American sex degenerate who also was brave, intelligent and resourceful, with a big sense of irony and bigger sense of humor. It was with high hopes that I began writing this series. 

Joe Kenney recently emailed me and said he was going to review my Butler books for his GLORIOUS TRASH blog. He asked me to write an article about the series to accompany his review. How could I reject this opportunity to promote my so-called literary career which currently is in the deepest doldrums? 

I thought I’d just sit down and write my reminiscences, because I didn’t feel like taking the time to read all six Butler books, but then decided I couldn’t do justice to Joe or Butler if I didn’t actually read the novels. 

So I re-read them all in around five days. And I must confess that I wasn’t very happy about what I read. 

The main problem with BUTLER was goddamned politics. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was a deeply committed Marxist-Leninist Communist lunatic during the 1970s, and these putrid attitudes often spilled over into the Butler books. Many paragraphs sound like Joe Stalin addressing the Politburo, or Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail. 

I regret to confess that I used the Butler series to rant against Corporate Amerikkka, the real estate lobby, big oil, big pharma, the military-industrial complex, the CIA, Pentagon, Wall Street, and all other enemies of Marxist-Leninism. In retrospect, all I did was retail the usual boring loony left baloney, which I fear doomed the series to failure. 

The great Leo Tolstoy said: “I have found that a story leaves a deeper impression when it is impossible to tell which side the author is on.” I agree completely with Tolstoy because stories become tendentious and boring when the author is as one-sided as I was in BUTLER. 

BUTLER also contains numerous long meandering conversations that should have been cut drastically. And there also are numerous long meandering sex scenes described in graphic XXX-rated terminology, which I thought at the time would make the series more appealing to the sex degenerate market, but which I now think made the series seem too vulgar, and also helped doom it to failure. 

However I must say in my defense that there are wonderfully funny scenes in the BUTLER series, and much snappy dialogue, and genuinely weird original situations that you won’t read anywhere else. 

My favorite novel in the series was SMART BOMBS, with CHINESE ROULETTE a close second. And I’m proud of some of the peculiar characters such as F.J. Shankham, the sinister double-crossing head of the CIA; Wilma B. Willoughby, Butler’s on again off again spy girlfriend; and the elegant Madame Wang, owner and director of numerous businesses which altogether were called the Kinki Corporation, and who formerly was a prostitute named Hong Kong Sally. 

I also liked the premise of LOVE ME TO DEATH, about militant man-hating feminist lesbians who actually were screwing prominent wealthy older men and government officials to death by employing arcane Iranian vaginal manipulation techniques, but then they run into Butler whose prodigious sexual abilities were more than a match for them. This novel is terribly incredibly politically-incorrect and could not be published today, although I think parts of it are hilarious. 

I’m no longer the person who wrote the BUTLER series. I no longer advocate those tired, failed Marxist Leninist political views. I no longer write extended hardcore erotic scenes. And I’m more inclined to cut meaningless dialogue. 

I have read on the internet that many people have enjoyed the BUTLER books, which astonishes me, but different people respond differently to the same novels. I’m looking forward to reading Joe’s critique, because sometimes I think he understands my books better than I do. 

The first few books in BUTLER series recently were republished as ebooks by Piccadilly, but the series was cancelled due to dismal sales, which unfortunately is the primary theme of my so-called literary career.