Monday, August 8, 2016

The Hunter #2: Night Of The Jackals

The Hunter #2: Night Of The Jackals, by Ralph Hayes
February, 1975  Leisure Books

John “The Hunter” Yard returns in another globe-trotting adventure that takes place “about a year” after the first. Author Ralph Hayes tones down the action barrage this time, instead turning out what for the most part reads more like a private eye yarn, at least so far as Yard’s incessant searching for his prey goes.

Something about this series hasn’t clicked for me yet; the writing isn’t bad, and the characterization is pretty good in comparison to the genre average, but at the same time the series just doesn’t excite me much. Maybe it’s because it’s all so standard, despite the fact that its hero is a big game hunter based out of Nairobi. Hayes, as with the first volume, doles out a very standard tale, with nothing crazy or outrageous or very memorable – the craziest this series has gotten was in the first pages of the previous book, where a woman’s newborn baby turned out to be some hirsute monster.

But I can’t really criticize a book for playing it straight or safe – Hayes basically just turns in a no-frills adventure yarn, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. As ever the highlight here is the camaraderie between John Yard and pal Moses Ngala, a Keyan native who spent time as a cop in London and still goes about calling people “old man.” Unlike other men’s adventure authors of the day, Hayes does not constantly mention that Moses is black, and there is none of the cloying, maudlin sap about their friendship which would be mandatory in today’s PC-ridden world. However, this volume has the pair going up against a hardcore racist – so racist in fact that he’s a former Nazi.

Ernst Rohmer is the villain of the piece, currently serving on loan to the US Army as a jungle warfare instructor at a base in Georgia. Rohmer is in his early 50s and started his military career in the SS, where he served in battle and in the death camps. Afterwards he sold his services to the highest bidder, finding his best match with the Syrian army, whose leaders were very happy with Rohmer’s mania for murdering Jews. Rohmer also fought for the ARVN in Vietnam, where he carried out mass atrocities, including the massacre of an entire village: men, women, children. He was so infamous that even Yard, who served in ‘Nam, heard of him while he was over there.

All of this is relayed via backstory; Hayes spends so much time on Rohmer and on setting up this volume’s plot that John Yard doesn’t even appear until page 46 of his own novel. What brings the Hunter into this time is that Rohmer finally goes too far. Resenting the fact that a black man is in his company, Rohmer conspires with a redneck sergeant named Pruitt and a crooked stockade warden to visit the black soldier, Wendell Harrison, in his cell one night, Harrison having been sent here on false charges (after being beaten to a pulp by Rohmer and Pruitt, that is). But Rohmer goes too far, and kills Wendell – and gets off scot free.

Meanwhile Wendell’s brother Aron tries to probe the death, and for his trouble is nearly beaten to death, too. Turns out though that Aron, years before, met Moses Ngala. He doesn’t seek out the man, though; instead, Aron makes the decision to leave “the white man’s world” and move to Lagos. There he just happens to run into Moses, visiting here from Nairobi in his hunt for a jewel thief. After busting his man, an Indian criminal, Moses takes Aron out for a beer and listens in dismay to his terrible story.

Moses returns to Nairobi and presents the tale to Yard, who meanwhile has been going about his big game hunting. The question is whether these two want to return to hunting men, something they haven’t done since the previous volume. Yard is unsure, but when a persistent jackal ends up attacking his property again, Yard realizes that something must be done about all predators, because they never just go away by themselves (Liberals, take note!!). Hayes by the way is very good at thematic work, and this is just one such example – not to mention the angle of the entire series, which has Yard “hunting” his prey across the globe.

Given the elaborate scene-setting, this means that Night Of The Jackals doesn’t devolve into one overlong action scene after another, as the previous volume did. Indeed, there are only a few action scenes this time around, and Yard doesn’t get in a brawl with every person he encounters, like last time. Sometimes this is actually a detriment, like when Yard and Moses get to Georgia and learn that not only has Rohmer left the service (headed to Syria by way of Paris), but also his flunky Pruitt has moved off to another base! This sucks because you really want to see Pruitt get his comeuppance. 

Instead Yard must satisfy himself with beating Maddox, the corrupt stockade warden, to a pulp. Meanwhile Moses scores with a pretty black nurse who works on the base, but as ever Hayes is shy with the details. The hardest material we get here is, “There was gentle moaning from her lovely throat, and the fiery touch of hot thigh, and the enveloping oven of her, and then the sweet, violent song of love between them.” Enveloping oven?? She might want to get that checked out. 

The globe-trotting of the previous book is still here, though, and soon Yard and Moses are in Paris, where they find that yet again they’re too late. Rohmer has already gone on to Syria. But they have no idea where. Moses eventually meets a money-hungry bellhop who claims to know where the sadist is in Syria; there follows a long scene where the bellhop meets Moses at a boxing match and Hayes fills pages about the boxers and their match. Also Moses ends up having to get rough with this guy, after all, and ultimately discovers where in Syria Rohmer has gone.

Rohmer is in the Golan Heights area of Syria, where he can live out of his dream of killing Jews – we learn that he has a long history of helping the Syrians fight Israel, and thus is beloved by the Syrians for his zeal. Rather than taking the bastard out, Yard and Moses pretend to be mercenaries from Canada who have come down here looking for positions in Rohmer’s unit. Rohmer accepts them grudgingly, offering Yard a high post but Moses a menial one – he tries to hide his hatred of blacks from the Syrians, who appear to be all for his anti-Semitism but don’t appreciate his hatred of black people(!?).

“This group is essentially a terrorist group,” Yard sums up Rohmer’s unit, eerily predicting the nightmarish terrorist group which runs Syria in reality in the present day. Hayes seems to have done his research on the area, or perhaps even visited it, briefly but capably bringing the desolate place to life. He also caters to the men’s adventure mandate by having Yard get lucky, hooking up with a pretty Arabic dancer who sometimes serves as Rohmer’s mistress. Once again it’s not explicit in the least, “He took her savagely” being the extent of it. (After which she demands twenty bucks!)

The final third is kind of baffling, as Yard and Moses go through the motions of serving in Rohmer’s Jew-hating military squad…apparently they haven’t yet decided he truly deserves death and are just biding their time? Once Yard gets more details on the horrible atrocities Rohmer has committed, he decides (again) that the sadist deserves to die – but first he has to secretly radio word to a nearby village in Israel that Rohmer plans an ambush on the place, a “practice run” for his troops.

During the melee, in which an Isreali military squad successfully prevents Rohmer’s “surprise” ambush, Yard and Moses try to kill Rohmer, but fail. They get back to base in Syria and the dumbasses are surprised when they’re pulled out of the lineup and thrown in prison – someone saw their treachery. Now the book becomes torture-porn as Yard is by turns beaten savagely (while nude) and interrogated by Rohmer (while still nude). It goes on for too long, but finally culminates with Yard killing a guard with his bare hands and escaping.

Rather than the big action climax of the previous book, Night Of The Jackals instead finishes with Yard and Moses chasing Rohmer across the desert, where they engage him and his two men in a firefight. Rohmer is given an anticlimactic sendoff, accidentally stepping on a land mine Yard has planted. And that’s it; our two heroes drive off to get something to eat(!) and figure out how they’re going to get over the border into Isreal while wearing stolen Syrian military uniforms.

Night Of The Jackals is passable, pretty standard action-pulp fare, but as I wrote above I’ve still failed to drum up much enthusiasm for this particular series. We’ll see if that changes with ensuing installments.


Zwolf said...

That lack-of-spark seems to be a trademark with Ralph Hayes' writing. I can't really put my finger on what's wrong with it -- he's far from being a bad writer -- but something just fails to click and it all seems by-the-numbers. I recently read one of his Stoner books (for the massive blog post that'll be born someday... so far it'll have around 35 books in it!) and it, too, was kind of meh. And there was really nothing wrong with the book, it just somehow didn't click. Every Hayes book I've read has been the same. None bad, none really good. Never bad enough to stop me from reading another one, but never good enough to make me rush to do it.

Stephen Mertz said...

Haven't read this one and you're right bout the "workman-like" quality of the prose, but the guy has an excellent sense of place and character and I've always found myself admiring and enjoying his work from this period, though being so prolific some, of course, have to be better than others...