The Marksman #12: Mafia Massacre, by Frank Scarpetta
June, 1974 Belmont Tower Books
Russell Smith turns in another wild installment of The Marksman, one that picks up from an earlier Smith volume, Muzzle Blast – which wasn’t even published as part of the Marksman series but was clumsily transformed by editor Peter McCurtin into an installment of The Sharpshooter! And speaking of McCurtin, I share Lynn Munroe’s sentiments in that McCurtin likely fixed up Smith’s manuscript for Mafia Massacre. For while psychotic hero Philip Magellan is still as nuts as ever, it would appear as if his rough edges have been somewhat softened.
When we meet him Magellan has just landed in fictional Opa-Locka airport in Miami, somewhere near Biscayne Bay, we’re told. The events of Muzzle Blast were just three days ago – and unsurprisingly we get no details on what exactly happened in the aftermath of that novel’s climax; as we’ll recall, Muzzle Blast featured one of the most arbitrary “endings” in published history – and Magellan has made the impromptu decision to come down to Florida. Why? Because he read in the paper about the massacre of the Tarburton family here in Miami and figured it for a mob hit.
Magellan, “thirty-nine, white and proud,” promptly left Provincetown after reading about the massacre, and now here in Miami he plans to find out what’s going on. So begins a Marksman plot that’s slightly more complex than the average installment. For we learn early on that crooked judge Vito La Malfa was behind the hit, his goal to move in on Tarburton’s vast interests. Tarburton was an island developer or somesuch, creating manmade islands in the Bay, Treasure Island being one of them. There the Tarburtons lived in a mansion, where all of them were hacked to death, save for one, who wasn’t there at the time – young Mary, a 23 year-old so mysterious and reclusive that it’s rumored she doesn’t even exist.
Smith as is his wont fills up lots of pages with bullshit backgrounds on his various Mafia characters, how they got started in the life and etc, and he’s also just as fond of wasting pages by having these characters engage in go-nowhere conversations. In many cases these dialog exchanges go over material we readers have already encountered, which only hammers home how egregious they are. In addition to Judge La Malfa and his various Mafia underlings there’s chief of detectives Captain Stagg, a dirty cop on Malfa’s payroll. Smith fills more pages with late revelations that Stagg gathers evidence on La Malfa in case he ever has to bust him to protect his career, which for once in this clumsy series is a subplot that actually goes somewhere.
As for Magellan himself, his sadistic impulses have been neutered for the most part. There’s none of Smith’s notorious stuff where Magellan will chop off heads or arrange mobster corpses in garrish displays. True, he does flat-out murder and massacre several of them, usually killing them in cold blood, but each time he does so we are reminded of Magellan’s rage and how he lost his hummanity after his wife and son were killed. In other words we are told, as well as shown, that Magellan has gone insane from grief and now lashes out in bloody vengeance. In previous Smith books it seems to me that there was much less telling and more showing, to the point that Magellan’s past was overlooked and it was more about him gorily torturing mobsters before killing them.
Otherwise Smith’s writing is the same as ever, with frenetic prose and exclamation points all over the place. We’re also barraged with the word “fuck,” especially in the first several pages. Here I must again agree with Lynn Munroe, who in the above-linked piece on McCurtin opines that many of Smith’s later Marksman manuscripts were polished either by McCurtin himself or by McCurtin’s go-to ghostwriter, George Harmon Smith (whom I once mistakenly believed to be the “real” Russell Smith; ie that “Russell” was just a pseudonym used by George H.) At any rate one can detect what appears to have been some editorial tinkering in Mafia Massacre, with some actual, genuine care placed on telling a believable story with believable characters.
Another change here – and which also calls back to the volumes actually written by Peter McCurtin – is that there’s more of a focus on action scenes. I mean genuine action scenes, with an outgunned Magellan ducking and dodging and returning fire. In most other Russell Smith volumes there isn’t any action per se; it’s just Magellan randomly and wantonly killing off usually-unarmed mobsters. Here though we have several sequences in which Magellan must actually fight. In one part he’s ambushed by a trio of gunmen with assault rifles, and in another sequence he gets in a machine gun battle with a boatful of Mafia soldiers.
Smith (or Harmon Smith, or McCurtin) also does a good job of keeping Mary Tarburton off the page for a long time, making the reader interested to find out if she’s real or not. Magellan shadows the young woman and black chaffeur (and boy are we reminded often and at length that this guy’s black) who supposedly work for Mary, which leads him into a few of those gunfights. Also when saving the chaffeur from some La Malfa thugs we get a brief return of the old Magellan, when our “hero” blows out one guy’s brains when he won’t answer a single question. Later Magellan handcuffs another thug to a speedboat and beats him into bloody hamburger. Oh, and Magellan also tortures a pair of cops for info at one point – however it happens off-page.
Mary, who turns out to be an oceanographer who lives on a swanky houseboat, is a tomboyish but beautiful blonde with “small, apple-sized breasts;” Magellan finds her after discovering a secret passageway which runs from Tarburton’s private cove on Treasure Island to his mansion. As usual with Smith this passageway is built up greatly in the narrative, with Magellan constantly marvelling over it, whereas the reader is more so “who cares?” The same goes for all of the nautical stuff in the book, which is a recurring theme in Smith’s installments, I’ve found; they all feature at least some action that takes place on wharves and harbors and sailing vessels.
For the most part the plot of Mafia Massacre trades off on Magellan trying to figure out who was behind the Tarburton massacre while, in their own subplots, La Malfa and his underlings discuss Magellan and how they can stop him. Smith also hopscotches in time, like he’s some low-rent Elmore Leonard, with most of the chapters featuring La Malfa and Captain Stagg taking place before the ones we just read with Magellan. It sort of drags on for the duration, until, per the norm, things ramp up for a clumsy finale.
La Malfa has called in a legion of soldiers, and Magellan perfunctorily and quickly massacres them all in Tarburton’s mansion, gunning them down with his favored Uzi. But Magellan does have his setbacks in Mafia Massacre; while he and Mary are on her boat for no reason at all, they are attacked by a boat filled with La Malfa’s men, and in the skirmish Magellan gets shot in the left thigh. Here the Marksman is actually injured, thus denting his otherwise superhuman armor for once. He even resorts to popping pain pills before gunning down those unarmed soldiers in the Tarburton mansion.
But it all wraps up with Magellan and Mary capturing Stagg on Mary’s houseboat. Speaking of which, Smith builds up a rapport and respect between Magellan and Mary, not that it goes anywhere – as ever, the Marksman has the libido of a robot. Mary freaks out when it’s revealed, at long last, that La Malfa was in fact the man behind the death of her family – in another go-nowhere subplot, we learn that La Malfa has lusted after Mary since she was a kid. So Magellan pistol-whips Stagg…and then has him hop off the boat and swim back to Miami(!?).
So yeah, our boy Magellan has undergone some sort of personality overhaul; the old version of Smith’s character would’ve sawed off Stagg’s head. And meanwhile La Malfa, having learned of Stagg’s treachery, abandons ship and hops on his personal plane to the Bahamas or something…and Magellan swears vengeance.
Yeah, right! I’ll be surprised if La Malfa or the events here in Miami are even mentioned in another Marksman (or Sharpshooter) novel, let alone if the cliffhanger finale of Mafia Massacre continues in a later installment.