The Hard Corps #4: Slave Trade, by Chuck Bainbridge
October, 1987 Jove Books
The Hard Corps returns in another action onslaught courtesy William Fieldhouse, who appears to have been like Joseph Rosenberger in that he figured out his own personal formula for writing an action novel, and by god, that was the formula he was going to stick to. As such, Slave Trade follows the same format as the previous three books, its barebones plot centered around a handful of massive action sequences.
Rather than the usual template of the Corps being hired for its latest assignment, this one opens with the team already on the case – and slaughtering with impugnity. As we meet them the Hard Corps has followed a group of bad-ass bikers to a club in a desolate patch of California. Team leader William O’Neal and second-in-command James Wentworth go in to interrogate the bikers, Joe Fanelli and Steve Caine providing unseen backup. As soon as Fieldhouse mentions that Wentworth is wielding his customary samurai sword, you know where the scene is going.
Sure enough, pretty soon the bullets are flying, the samurai sword is dicing, and the blood is spouting. While his action books mostly follow the same format, one can’t claim Fieldhouse shirks on the gore, with copious detail of limbs being hacked, intestines exploding out, and heads blasting off. The question only remains why our heroes are slaughtering these bikers. It’s because they are the enforcers of a new cult called The Fellowship of Ultimate Living which is based in Australia but has recently opened a branch here to the US. Led by a (supposedly) charismatic guru named Harold Glover, the cult has been accused of brainwashing its young members and even selling some of its prettier followers on the slave market.
But Fieldhouse, like many other pulp authors who have taken stabs at cult-villain tales, fails to convey to the reader why anyone would even want to join the Fellowship of Ultimate Living. Glover, the few times we see him, is a conman with a taste for sadism who doesn’t display any “guru-like” qualities at all, leaving the reader to wonder why so many young people have flocked to him. Rather, he mostly sits around with his muscle-bound henchman Thor and talks about selling guns, drugs, and women.
For that is the problem, really, with Slave Trade; it’s just a lot of talk, so far as the plot and threat go. We’re given to understand that Glover has his hand in the slave trade, drugging the good-looking women in his cult and selling them to the highest bidder, but none of it is presented to us. Rather, the entire novel is basically a few dialog-exchange sequences which link together massive, pages-filling action sequences. But Fieldhouse is one of the men’s adventure authors of the day who really delivered on the gore quotient – he’s almost up there with David Alexander – so one can’t complain when practically every action scene has heads getting chopped off and brains “pouring out.”
At length we learn that O’Neal and team has been hired by a group of parents whose teen children were caught up in the Fellowship of Ultimate Living movement and then subsequently disappeared. One of the parents is an attractive lady around O’Neal’s age named Carol, a widower whose daughter was apparently killed by the Fellowship – all that’s known is that, after she disappeared with the cult, the girl kept writing her mother for more and more money, until one day when Carol got a call that the police in Phoenix had found the girl’s dead body.
However, this doesn’t stop the sparks from flying between O’Neal and Carol – the Hard Corps team leader finds himself really liking to “behold” Carol’s mature-but-lovely form, which leads Slave Trade in a direction completely unexpected for a William Fieldhouse novel. Believe it or not, friends, this installment actually has a bona fide sex scene, as O’Neal scores:
Soon her head was buried in his crotch, her wide, soft lips licking greedily at the head of his cock. Carol took him in her mouth slowly, an inch at a time until her lips touched his taut balls. Carol held him in her mouth as she sucked eagerly at the length of his quivering prick.
Before O’Neal could reach the brink, Carol straddled him and guided his throbbing hard-on between her thighs. O’Neal sighed with pleasure as he sank slowly into her chamber of love. The woman rocked gently, gradually drawing him deeper inside her. O’Neal braced himself on one hand and sat up to kiss Carol’s breasts. His tongue and teeth teased her rigid nipples as he drew on her breasts with his lips.
Their lovemaking slowly reached a peak. Carol, no longer in control, began bouncing and bucking against O’Neal’s crotch. He arched his back to thrust himself along with the rhythm of the woman’s motion. Carol moaned loudly with excited pleasure as she climaxed. O’Neal held back until Carol reached a second orgasm before allowing himself to come.
Boy, they don’t call ‘em “the Hard Corps” for nothing!
Otherwise the Fieldhouse template remains. Early on Fanelli and Caine pay a visit to new character Benny the Wizard, a forger based out of Seattle. As soon as Fieldhouse mentioned that Benny was nervous, I knew exactly where the scene was headed. And sure enough, a group of thugs storm into Benny’s place, demanding payment in blood for a bad set of forgeries Benny sold them. As ever, this leads our heroes to pull out their own weapons and slaughter the thugs, saving Benny’s life – and apparently assuming he won’t pull the same scam on them.
The novel’s next big action sequence has the Hard Corps staging an assault on a theater in which Glover is holding a massive rally. Given that in the beginning of the novel they massacred the entire biker gang which was serving as the Fellowship’s enforcement arm, this time our heroes are up against two-bit thugs, ones easily outmatched by our battle-hardened heroes. But as usual the gimmick with the Hard Corps is less about any tension or suspense in the action and more so about the unique and gory ways the protagonists kill their enemies.
The second half of the novel has the team going over to Australia, Glover having absconded there after this lastest massacre of his people in California. Once again though it must be mentioned that throughout this we never actually see the commune or get a glimpse of any of the people who so blindly follow Glover; rather, it’s just the Hard Corps killing one hired goon after another, with the occasional dialog exchange reminding us how evil Glover is, what with all his drug-dealing, gun-running, and slave-trading. To me this is the biggest failing of the novel, as Glover and his cult could've been greatly expanded on.
Instead, we learn here that Glover is planning a big meeting with a bunch of Japanese mafia bigwigs, hoping to sell them a large stash of guns or somesuch. In reality I realized immediately why these yakuza chumps were introduced – so Wentworth would have someone to swordfight with. And yes, that’s exactly what happens! Glover’s headquarters for the Fellowship is “hidden” in the sprawling expanse of the Outback, and our heroes eventually locate it after circling about the area on chartered planes.
In fact, a C-130 transporter plane factors into their assault on the headquarters, and given how arbitrarily it’s introduced I have to assume the element was foisted upon Fieldhouse by a Jove editor so as to cater to the already-commissioned cover painting. At any rate the Hard Corps fly right up to the veritable doorstep of the commune nd launch into another gory, pages-filling battle, this one featuring not only lots of shooting and knife-slicing but also an elaborate samurai swordfight between Wentworth and one of the yakuza. We also get a brutal brawl between O’Neal and Thor, and while Glover’s send-off is appropriately apocalyptic, it would’ve been more satisfying if we’d seen more of his sadism in action.
Slave Trade is filled with such endless action that it just ends right here, Fieldhouse apparently having hit his word count and thus not worrying about tying up any loose ends. Like what happens to all the cult members; it’s implied that they will be set free, and early we saw our heroes getting disgusted at how the imprisoned Fellowship brainwashees were treated, but it’s all very cursorily dealt with. The subplot with O’Neal’s romance with Carol is also dropped. But Fieldhouse can’t be faulted for realizing that he was writing, first and foremost, an action novel. And in that regard he suceeds greatly, as Slave Trade is filled with splashing blood and blasting brains and more inventive deaths than we’ve seen since the first volume.
And yet despite all that there is something listless about the novel, something sort of missing, and ultimately I didn’t find it as fun as the previous three books. Here’s hoping then that the next installment features at least a little more in the plot department.