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.


allan said...

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

I found this one several months back. Knowing these rants are inside makes me want to read it now!

Brian Drake said...

I read the new editions backwards--#2: Smart Bombs first--and I didn't detect any left-wing loonyisms because I certainly try to avoid such nonsense. What I do remember is laughing a lot, because there were some really funny moments, I mean laugh-out-loud moments that I really enjoyed, and the over-the-top nature of the story kept me reading. My main complaint about the story is that Butler, while in Moscow, swears to a lesbian character that he'll sleep with her but there's never any payoff to that. It was a fun romp and I look forward to getting to #1 eventually.

Steve Johnson said...

I am doing my best to revive Len Levinson's career by buying all his ebooks -- Rat Bastards, the Sergeant, Searcher, the amazing Apache Wars -- Len Levinson is my pulp icon. Maybe I can buy some of them twice ...

halojones-fan said...

"Sex Degenerate" would be a pretty good name for a band.

I'd like to see one of those "Iranian vaginal manipulation" chicks take on the notorious electric dildo. I bet she'd end up with superpowers.

English Teacher X said...

The series reminded me of nothing so much as the "ARCHER" spy spoof cartoon on FX. Plenty of humour but plenty of action and more than a little drama, also.

Age Of Aquarius said...

Always good to see something by Mr Levinson reviewed, especially for his own insights. His 'The Last Buffoon' is probably the best and truest book about writers I've ever read, and is actually better than 'The Fan Man' as a novel (and I read that 23* times when I was younger). I have the e-books of the Butler series, but I can't get on with a kindle - this might make me try harder. I am not ashamed to say I feel love for Len.

(* ok, an exaggeration - but not by much)

allan said...

I also want to express my thanks for Len's thoughts on the reviews of his books. I wish it was possible to get more authors' recollections of the books Joe reviews.