Thursday, April 27, 2017

Topless Dancer Hangup (Operation Hang Ten #7)

Topless Dancer Hangup, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1971 Macfadden Books

I was under the impression that George Snyder wrote all ten volumes of the Operation Hang Ten series, but then Justin Marriott kindly sent me a scan of an article Snyder published in a 2005 issue of Paperback Parade where he claimed that he had only written the first five volumes, with no knowledge of who wrote the others. Then to confuse matters even more, Snyder himself left a comment on a revew of this very novel at The Ringer Files, where he stated, “I wrote ten of them…other writers came later after I walked away from the series.”

So what the hell? Did he write five or all ten? I could see him forgetting when he wrote that 2005 article that he’d written one or two volumes, but to forget he’d written five novels? But then, so far as his comment on the Ringer Files goes…there only were ten books in this series, so what other writers could there have been? All very confusing, and all likely moot, as having read this seventh volume* of Operation Hang Ten, I have to say it’s certainly the work of Snyder – which would imply his comment on Kurt’s blog was more accurate than his 2005 article, and that Snyder did in fact write all ten of these books and not just the first five.

It has the exact same vibe as the previous volume I read, #3: Deadly Group Down Under, with a small group of characters and a hardboiled pulp sort of feel. This volume again proves that Operation Hang Ten is more “Fawcett Gold Medal” the “surfing meets spy-fy” hijinks promised by the series concept. Other than one or two sequences where surly hero Bill Cartwright surfs or races his Hemi-powered Woody, the series feels almost exactly like a grim and gritty private eye yarn. Even the cast of characters is whittled down to just a handful, something I’ve noticed is a recurring motif in hardboiled pulp, and the action is mostly comprised of brutal fistfights.

Another indication that this is the work of George Snyder is that Topless Dancer Hangup features that strange tendency of his which I have mentioned before. Whereas the action scenes in a Snyder novel are chaotic, harried, and over within a paragraph or two, the guy consistently over-details comparitively trivial acts like the hero trying to sneak into a building. Just as in The Defector, while the action scenes are over and done with in no time, we will read a couple pages of Bill (as Snyder usually refers to his hero) climbing through a window and trying to lower himself safely to the ground, etc. There are two such sequences in the book, and Snyder’s the only men’s adventure writer I know of who consistently does this – personally I’d rather read a few pages of a shootout instead of a belabored explanation of how Bill jimmies open a window, slides in, and tries to figure out where he can safely land without causing himself injury or making any noise.

Anyway, I enjoyed this one a lot more than Deadly Group Down Under. Bill’s customary opinions on this or that are a bit toned down, and Snyder focuses more on the noirish feel. But still, it’s practically the same book. It seems to me that each of these Operation Hang Ten novels are just noirsh pulp-action yarns with plots that center around a missing or murdered young woman, and Topless Dancer Hangup has Bill venturing to Hawaii to locate a missing Hang Ten operative named Sandra Denny who is the titular topless dancer; she has disappeared with ten thousand in Hang Ten cash along with a microfilm she bought from a Cuban refugee, which purports to show the locations of Red China-funded missile silos in the Cuban hinterlands.

I was unduly harsh on Deadly Group Down Under; it took Kurt’s above-referenced review to make me realize what I’d missed: that Operation Hang Ten is really just a men’s adventure variation of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, only in third-person (though Snyder’s prose as ever feels like first-person), and with a 24 year-old surfer-spy replacing MacDonald’s “knight errant.” I wonder if this is what series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel envisioned from the start. The similarities extend even to the “wounded birds” Bill encounters each volume, many of whom meet grisly deaths as demanded from lurid ‘70s pulp.

So, while my comments in that earlier review about Bill’s “chauvanism” and “misogyny” (two grossly overused words in the victim culture that is modern American society) are for the most part still valid, Bill’s Cro-Magnon views are tempered this time by…you know, who cares? It just didn’t bug me nearly as much this time, maybe because it just didn’t get as much in the way of the narrative. This time we just get periodic musings on hot secretaries “swishing” their behinds to and from work while Bill eats burgers and watches them from inside a greasy diner (Bill only seems to eat burgers, by the way).

We also get periodic reminders that women were designed to please men. But the most venomous musings are directed more toward the increasing commercialization of Hawaiian surfing spots and how parts of Hawaii will no doubt look just like Burbank in a decade. I’ve yet to read a Travis McGee novel, but it’s my understanding they’re along the same lines – weary cynicism about the encroaching shittiness of the world mixed with ruminations on women. All the same here, if a bit more brutish.

I still don’t buy Bill Cartwright as an action hero. For one, he’s too damn young, for me at least…I wrote elsewhere that I think these men’s adventure protagonists should be grizzled Marlboro Men-types, in their thirties at least….but more importantly he’s kind of a chump. Regardless, we’re informed that Hang Ten boss Jim Dana considers Bill his best operative – which I think is less a commentary on how great Bill is and more of a commentary on how bad the other Hang Ten operatives must be.

But Bill’s called away from his latest steady lay, a good-looking 19 year old surf “bunny” who has lived in sin with Bill for the past three weeks in his high-tech trailer, which as we’ll recall is all run off a computer that mostly just whips up Scotch and sodas for Bill. But our hero is getting sick of how “the girl” is falling in love with him and clearly wanting to marry him; more damningly, she is a neat freak. So when Bill gets his summons to Hang Ten HQ, he throws a “neatnik” tantrum and the girl storms out of his life, just as Bill hoped she would.

Later Snyder softens this a bit by having Bill “sniffling” as he sits alone in his trailer, and it’s intimated that Bill really broke it off with her because he can’t get that involved with a woman; his life is dedicated to eradicating “the lice” of the world. There are parts here and there later on where Bill will mull that his trailer is now “haunted” by the girl’s ghost, but by midpoint through the novel he’s checked out more ass-swingin’ secretaries and ass-baring surf bunnies and has pretty much forgotten about her. That being said, Bill does practically fall in love with another young lady during the course of the novel.

The book is really a private eye thriller; forget any “Surfing James Bond” expectations. Bill heads to Honolulu, as ever having his Woody and his trailer shipped over as well, and goes about scoping out the scene while dealing with the smallscale cast of lowlife characters. He also kills a few pages hitting on a surf bunny named Sue in a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, mostly so Snyder can provide a humorous scene in which the two openly discuss their intention to have sex in front of a few shocked fellow diners, but regrettably cannot as Sue has not taken her pill that day. The two make a date to screw the following day(!), but “The Cartwright” (as Snyder sometimes refers to his hero, I kid you not) forgets all about poor ol’ Sue.

Rather, the “Cartwright chick” this time around is Marie, a friend of Sandra Denny’s and a fellow topless dancer. There’s a cool late ‘60s vibe bit where Bill checks out Marie dancing in the club, with psychedelic lights playing over her half-nude form. Bill practically falls in love with her, leading to the novel’s one and only sex scene, which is fairly explicit, in particular noting a “small, circular, wonderful movement to [Marie’s] body” that just about blows Bill’s mind. Marie is the only one who knows where Sandra Denny is, and even that she’s a Hang Ten agent, and sets Bill up to meet with her.

As for Sandra Denny, she remains off-page for the duration, being hunted by various people. Bill tracks down her mom, an over-the-hill hussy who comes on strong to our disgusted hero, and also questions Don Arlen, a dark-haired lothario who claims to have been Sandra’s steady boyfriend. (“Were you getting into her?” being an example of Bill’s rather blunt questioning method.) Mostly though Bill runs afoul of three lowlifes from another local club, two of whom shadow Bill throughout the novel, leading to the few (and pretty brief) action scenes.

In fact nothing really comes to a head even though some minor characters are killed off-page. Bill mostly just bitches that he’s getting nowhere in his half-assed investigation and goes back to his trailer to make despondent calls back to HQ and have his computer whip him up some Scotch and soda. It’s only when Marie is captured and put in a sort of dungeon that the novel really kicks into gear, though to be sure it the material leading up to this moment isn’t exactly bad or anything – in fact, I enjoyed it. But I still don’t think the exorbitant prices of Operation Hang Ten on the second-hand market are justified; we aren’t talking about men’s adventure fiction gold here.

Even when Bill goes to Marie’s rescue, Snyder again indulges in his strange penchant for focusing more so on Bill’s climbing through a window and sneaking into the place than the actual action itself. And Bill proves himself again to be a klutz, dropping his .22 Magnum auto and resorting to his hands. The villain ends up blowing himself up. Once Marie’s freed, Bill basically proclaims his love to her and then gets on to the business of figuring out the plot in the last couple pages, with all of it centering around the same small group of characters we’ve been dealing with since the beginning. 

I’ve got a few more volumes of Operation Hang Ten in my collection, and hopefully they’ll be more along the lines of this one. Bill’s bitchery is toned down a bit, and while not much really happens, the tone is nice and hardboiled. It’s a shame though that Manor didn’t reprint the series in full like it did with The Aquanauts; if they had, the books might be a lot easier and cheaper to acquire.

*I was also under the impression that Topless Dancer Hangup was the sixth volume of Operation Hang Ten, as that’s how it’s listed in Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes and on the Spy Guys and Gals website. However the “other titles in the Operation Hang Ten series” list at the front of the book has Girl In The Telltale Bikini, usually listed as being the seventh volume, as actually being the sixth volume. In other words, the order of the two volumes has been swapped in Brad’s book and the Spy Guys site, and Topless Dancer Hangup takes place after Girl In The Telltale Bikini. Not only that, but early in Topless Dancer Hangup Bill briefly flashes back on his previous six assignments for Hang Ten, one of which is the Girl In The Telltale Bikini.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Lady Lost Her Head

The Lady Lost Her Head, by Manning Lee Stokes
No month stated, 1950  Phoenix Press

Proving my belief that “if it came out in hardcover, you can usually get a copy via Interlibrary Loan,” I was able to read this mega-scarce early novel by Manning Lee Stokes, thanks to the kind folks at UTA Austin. Also released in a paperback edition that’s just as scarce, The Lady Lost Her Head is one of the more obscure novels by the prolific Stokes, and all I could find out about it was that it’s protagonist was a comic book writer, as Stokes himself was at the time.

Written long before he began his association with book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, The Lady Lost Her Head (which is written in third-person, by the way) is still classic Manning Lee Stokes, a somewhat-lurid mystery with action that’s more so internalized than external, egregious padding, and a protagonist who constantly puzzles over this latest setback in his life. And yet for all that it’s still enjoyable for the most part, at least for me. I will say though that Stokes is better, I think, when he has a more action-oriented protagonist; I think the proactive mindsets of say Nick Carter or Richard Blade compel Stokes to have things actually happen in the narrative. But when your hero is a comic book writer slowly going to seed, there’s only so much action you can believably deliver.

Such is the case with the middling “hero” of The Lady Lost Her Head, portly, 33 year-old Martin Frost, current comic book writer, former “literary” novelist, his only book published “several years ago,” before the war, in which Frost served as an intelligence officer. Stokes shoots himself in the foot with this one; folks, if all the army’s intelligence officers were on the level of Frost, it’s a wonder we even won the war. The dude bumbles through the novel, veering between inaction or stupidity, trying desperately to clear his name for a crime he didn’t commit but shouldn’t have even been dumb enough to be blamed for in the first place.

Stokes does sort of ramp up the tension, as the novel occurs over a twenty-four hour period: July 13th, 1949. Frost wakes in the bed of Laverne Richardson, cougar wife of Frosts’s boss, Harry Richardson; she keeps an apartment of her own here in Manhattan, mostly to entertain the countless men she likes to screw behind her husband’s back. Frost is just her latest conquest and he’s only worked at the comic studio for a few weeks, finally giving in to the open invitation offered by mega-babe Laverne, who might have the personality of a vulture but has a body that just won’t quit. The novel was published too early for Stokes to indulge in the sleaze that would eventually become his forte – there’s no sex at all in the novel – but we get enough reminders about Laverne’s glorious protuberances and such.

But as for Laverne, we don’t get to know her at all: she’s the titular headless lady. Frost wakes up covered in blood, Laverne’s corpse on the floor beside the bed, the neck nearly shorn from the head. By the corpse is the instrument of Laverne’s death: a “Jap sword” gifted to her by an earlier conquest, a guy who served in the Pacific front and brought back this officer sword, wich usually hung on the wall of Laverne’s bedroom. Someone used it to chop off the lady’s head sometime in the few hours since she and Frost stumbled back to Laverne’s place after a night of heavy drinking and barely-remembered sex before both passed out.

Frost proves to readers posthaste what kind of a sap of a protagonist he’s going to be. Having woken up by the corpse of his cuckolded boss, Frost…takes a shower, smokes a cigarette, makes some coffee, eats some breakfast. Then he gets around to searching the apartment for clues behind the grisly murder. He finds a small tin box behind a console radio (the HDTV of the ‘40s), but before he can research further he hears the elevator doors open down the hall and the unmistakable sounds of cops on the way. Whereas the average person would’ve suspected immediately that this was all a setup, Frost only now gets with the program, and beats a hasty retreat, running across the rooftops in his successful escape.

This is another of those crime novels that occurs in a New York suffering from blistering summer heat, and Stokes often reminds us how sweaty our hero is – I felt bad for the dude, as this was in the days when the three-piece suit and hat was standard everyday wear and when air conditioning was a luxury. Frost heads to the offices of the comic publisher, so as to get the .45 automatic he left there the other week, borrowed by his boss Harry or somesuch. Friends, this bit with the gun was enough to drive me nuts, as Frost carries it around for the entirety of the novel…and never even uses it! Anyway here we get the one brief glimpse of comic writing in the novel; Frost hates the work, finds it mindless, and mostly writes scripts for a series about Red Condor, a flying costumed crimefighter. 

But anyone approaching The Lady Lost Her Head with hopes for a peek into what the life of a comic writer in the ‘40s was like will be disappointed. Stokes provides no details about the craft, focusing solely on his murder mystery; that Frost is even a comic writer is an arbitrary point, and the dude could’ve been a garbage man for all the connection his job has to the plot. While sneaking into the office Frost is surprised by the early appearance – it not even being 9AM yet – of his boss, Harry, who clearly is unaware that his wife is dead…not to mention that she spent the previous evening drinking with and eventually screwing Frost.

Frost beats another retreat, just as the cops call Harry to inform him of Laverne’s murder. On the crowded Manhattan streets Frost runs into another comic employee: Joan, a pretty young artist Frost intends to marry – not that Joan is aware of this. No, Frost has only known her the six weeks he’s worked for Harry, and after a few dates and one chaste kiss, Frost has decided that Joan’s going to become his wife. He tells her all about the previous night’s horrors – Frost (and Stokes) seems to gloss over the fact that Frost is admitting to the girl he intends to marry that he just screwed another woman the night before – and gets Joan’s promise to secretly help him out, mostly via money she promises to get for him by the evening.

Our hero is a hunted man throughout the novel, slinking through back alleys of Manhattan and finding more and more information about himself being published in the papers – Frost has now been named as the top suspect in the case, and a manhunt is out for him. He checks into a nice hotel, giving the fake name of Joseph Merlin, which I found exceedingly interesting; this appears to indicate that it was Stokes who later came up with the name Mr. Merlin, ie John Eagle’s wheelchair-bound boss in the John Eagle Expeditor series that was created and produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel. But it’s a one-off of a fake name, with neither Stokes nor Frost explaining the “Merlin” part nor why Frost even came up with it.

In the hotel room Frost breaks open that box from Laverne’s apartment, and inside finds a bunch of old checkbooks which show that the lady was well off, even before she married the wealthy Harry Richardson. Frost also finds a nude photo of the lady. It appears that she was being blackmailed, and Frost puzzles over some notes scrawled in the most recent book, referring to an “MC” and an “AI.” But Frost is once again a fool, paying a young page to go out and get him some new clothes – and not even questioning it when the kid comes back and turns down Frosts’s tip, hurrying out of the hotel room.

Yep, the kid’s called the cops, and Frost once again beats a hasty retreat in the nick of time. He slips into the conveniently-unlocked door at the end of the hall, finds himself standing over a half-naked brunette asleep on her bed. Through the most brazen deus ex machina I’ve ever read, Frost is able to convince this young woman, Aurora “Rora” Hunter, to help him. How? Well, Frost clamps a hand over Rora’s mouth before she wakes, telling her he’s not going to hurt her and that he’s hiding from the cops but is innocent. Rora goes over to her luggage…and comes back with a copy of Frosts’s novel, published all those years ago!

Friends, I couldn’t believe it. Rora just happens to be reading Frosts’s novel, which we’re informed wasn’t even a big hit or well known. An aunt just happened to give it to her to read on her trip here to New York – Rora was to be married this morning, but her fiance snubbed her at the last minute, and she’s been on a crying jag since, here in her hotel room. Despite the snub she’s a lovely creature with “small breasts” and she’s game to help Frost because she’s got nothing else going on. Besides, she figures that anyone who has written a book must be not only smart but also incapable of murder(!?), so she’s certain Frost was innocent of killing Laverne Richardson.

Rora proves smarter than our hero, helping him figure out the clues in Laverne’s books. Eventually they get to Greenwich Village, where a mysterious individual named Horsely might provide information on what exactly Laverne was into in the war years, and who might’ve killed her. He greets them at the door in makeup – “The man was a fairy.” But after getting roughed up a bit Horsely turns out to only be posing as such – again, Rora is the one to figure this out – and the makeup’s just there to cover his recently-shorn beard. For a bearded man was also seen at Laverne’s apartment the night of her murder, and it turns out to have been Horsely, who had come by to collect owed money from the doomed woman. Turns out she was in the blackmail business with him during the war years, and owed him a thousand or so.

Action is so sparse as to be nonexistant. Early on Frost runs away from a dumpy guy in a cheap brown suit who chases after him in a crowded subway station; our dumbass hero still doesn’t even realize until much later that it clearly wasn’t a cop after him. Hell, it takes Harry Richardson himself – who shocks Frost by being at Joan’s apartment that night – to explain to Frost that the murder was setup, given the phone call that alerted the cops to it in the first place! But anyway Frost proves to be further stupid, as Harry and Joan themselves are having an affair, so there goes that “I’m gonna marry Joan” stuff…and Harry calmly explains to Frost and Rora that he believes Frost is innocent, that his wife was a slut, and that Frost should turn himself in. He claims no knowledge of this “MC” or “AI.”

What makes Frosts’s foolishness so much more humorous is how Stokes often reminds us that Frost has a “writer’s mind,” meaning he’s able to suss out things a common man might miss. But Frost just comes off like a prime buffoon here; he even mopes to the nearest bar with Rora, tells her he’s failed to clear his name, and that he might as well turn himself in like Harry said. After a brief tiff – Rora has clearly fallen for Frost, but he can’t even see that – the jilted Rora sulks back to her apartment. That Frost might be putting her in danger is something he doesn’t even consider – but then Stokes himself ignores this, so it’s a moot point.

Closing in on a full day since the nightmare began, Frost finally gets a few breaks. Another mysterious dude’s following him, and this time Frost realizes it isn’t a cop. He beats up the guy in one of the novel’s pitifully few action scenes and conveniently enough finds a business card in the guy’s wallet. From this he learns the dude is a private eye, one hired by Harry Richardson to trail Laverne. Same goes for the guy in the brown suit Frost lost back in the subway station. Now we finally learn all – the “MC” of Laverne’s note refers to a Dr. Michael Cosgrove, an abortionist who also does the “reverse procedure” and who artificially insimenated Laverne – ie the “AI” of her notes.

The climax occurs back in Joan’s apartment, where everyone has gathered. Stokes, having successfully padded out 200+ pages, has his friggin’ hero bound to a chair while the villains exposit their motives and then shoot each other. Frost does nothing throughout. Since the book’s so scarce I’ll spoil it for you: Laverne got Cosgrove to impregnate her so as to force Harry to marry her, but Cosgrove went on to blackmail her. Somehow Harry found out about all this, freaked out that his seven year-old kid wasn’t “really” his (the kid btw spends the entire novel “off visiting his aunt and uncle” in another state), and had Laverne followed to expose her harlotry. On the night Frost was with her, Harry snuck into her apartment – and in a fit of rage chopped her head off. He then lied about this to everyone, framing Frost, even lying to the sleazy private eyes.

So in other words, the murderer turns out to be exactly who you thought it would be.

The last chapter is a nightmare of exposition in which a friggin’ police lieutenant who has never before appeared in the text stands over Frosts’s hospital bed (our hero injured due to a beating) and explains to him everything that happened, and why. It’s so lazy as to be hilarious. Frost himself has done nothing to solve his name and in reality did more harm than good, even beating up a random cop and a cab driver in his time on the run. But he does at least score Rora, who shows up again on the last page to declare her love for him.

I was curious what an early Stokes novel would be like, and I found out – unsurprisingly, it’s almost identical to his later novels, even down to the overwhelming amount of exclamation points in the narrative. But all the stalling and repetition customary of future Stokes novels is already here – there are at least three parts in which Frost recaps for himself all he knows about Laverne’s murder: clear page-filling at its worst. One thing missing from those later Stokes novels is any action, or a capable hero, but then Frost is supposed to be a regular guy and not an action hero. But I still do enjoy Stokes’s novels…maybe they’re like the literary version of blood pressure pills, just sedate, calming books that can lull the reader into a stupor of relaxation.

Stokes had a weird writing career…his earliest novels, all of them mysteries, were hardcover editions, but eventually he was paperback only. Then he started doing sleaze under pseudonyms, before becoming a house ghostwriter on various Engel productions, before moving on to a few film tie-ins under his own name. At the end of his career (and life) he was finally able to publish again under his own name, though both were paperback originals produced by Engel: The Evangelist (a book so scarce that the copy I ordered the other year was literally the only one listed on the entire internet), and Corporate Hooker, Inc.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Headhunters #4: Quadraphonic Homicide

The Headhunters #4: Quadraphonic Homicide, by John Weisman and Brian Boyer
October, 1975  Pinnacle Books

The last volume of The Headhunters is the best, as far as I’m concerned, injecting the series with more action than the previous three books combined. One wonders if this has anything to do with the promised “major motion picture” of the cover (which unfortunately never came to pass). Whereas volumes 1-3 were more along the lines of Razoni & Jackson, with only occasional patches of action, Quadraphonic Homicide (greatest title ever??) comes off like a rollercoaster.

But anyone hoping that this volume would see the titular protagonists in the starring role for once will be disappointed; once again The Headhunters belongs to the villains. And authors Weisman and Boyer have even introduced more villains to the fold to further steal the show from the supposed main characters. For that matter, this volume also drops the “headhunters” angle itself; while heroes Captain Eddie Martin and Lt. TS Putnam are Detroit internal affairs officers (aka the cops other cops hate), the authors break free of this restraint and have the pair basically going rogue so they can take on recurring series villain Henry Pacquette in Los Angeles.

Not sure how long this is after the previous volume (which was published a year before), but we open on the action – Pacquette is in the process of moving to Los Angeles, setting up shop in his usual grisly way. The authors prove at the outset that Quadraphonic Homicide will move more quickly than previous installments, as we witness the gory murder of a man (who happens to be a cop) in a Detroit recording studio. His killer is the latest Pacquette henchman, a mountain of muscle from Haiti named Boutique who speaks in monosyllables and can tear people apart with his bare hands – he kills the cop and rips out his eyes, which he pops in his mouth! His employers stop him when he voices his wish to move on to the dead cop’s liver. 

Boutique is the aforementioned new villain who gets more pagetime than the two heroes combined. But while Boutique is certainly crazy – inhumanly strong, cannabalistic, “ceremonially scarred,” with an almost Terminator-esque imperviousness to harm – he quickly grated on my nerves, mostly due to how fantastical he was. One wonders why Pacquette waited three volumes to bring him out. Speaking of which there’s some proto-Tarantino style dialog in the opening, as even Pacquette’s usual goons, themselves sadistic killers, complain about how violent Boutique is. But the authors are enamored with the character, even though they often refer to him as an “ape” or “King Kong” via metaphors and analogies that would likely be unacceptable in today’s crime fiction.

Pacquette, the goliath-sized “heroin czar,” has decided to set up shop in LA. To this end he has tasked yet another new henchman, Mr. Dust, a black killer who wears a lime green pimpsuit and platform shoes (and drives a lime green Cadillac – and wields a lime green switchblade!), to murder the Los Angeles music biz people who refuse to start buying their cocaine from Pacquette. Between chapters Pacquette and his entourage move to a mansion on the beaches of sunny California, but Pacquette himself is soon bedridden and only appears sporadically in the book; the authors have it that he’s suffering from kidney failure, but he’s apparently all better by book’s end. That being said, he’s still capable of the ESP abilities honed in the previous volume, which I thought was a cool ‘70s touch. 

This isn’t to mention recurring Pacquette underlings Dovell and Sonny Hope (Pacquette’s adopted son), who have their own subplots; heroes Martin and Wallace are lucky to even get in a few scenes of their own. But TS (aka “Tough Shit”) Putnam is doing fine when we meet him; in bed with his black supermodel girlfriend, who, without informing Putnam, has invited along her cousin to Putnam’s bed. Putnam thinks this is taking things a bit too far and calls them freaks and jumps out of bed(!). Meanwhile his boss, Captain Eddie Martin – who we’ll recall is so wealthy he has a Gucci-designed gun holster (more on the name brand-onslaught below) – is coincidentally enough planning a brief vacation in Los Angeles.

Martin and Putnam are given slightly more gung-ho makeovers this final volume; Martin for his part starts to act like a genuine men’s adventure protagonist, trying to find out what Pacquette’s up to in LA while dodging the bullets and other weapons of the various assassins “The Dove” sends after him. This element brings up an interesting subplot in which Dovell runs afoul of Sonny Hope for this very reason – Hope is the de facto boss while Pacquette is bedridden, and he’s pissed that the Dove has been trying to kill Martin, given Pacquette’s orders to never kill cops. The authors seem to set up Hope as the future “heroin czar” of Detroit, but as mentioned Pacquette’s apparently recuperated by novel’s end, but the series never went past this volume so the point is moot.

The authors were never shy about in-jokery and the novel’s filled with references to real-life reporters, singers, football players, and movie producers, most notably for the latter via Arthur Marks, producer of Detroit 9000 and, according to the interview Justin Marriot did with Michael Weisman in Men Of Violence #2, was the person who aimed to bring The Headhunters to the big screen. In the novel Marks is downright chummy with the LA cops, on first-name basis with Martin’s LAPD headhunter counterpart, and even ends up loaning his yacht to Martin and Putnam as a safe zone, hidden from the barrage of black assassins who keep coming after them.  Humorously, the Los Angeles cops are presented as a lot more easy-going than their Detroit counterparts, and seem content to let acts of crime play out without any interference from the law!

Weisman and Boyer also continue to excel in dark humor, with Quadraphonic Homicide getting the most outrageous yet. In particular there’s a running gag about Mr. Dust killing sundry music biz people off-page; a laugh out loud bit has one chapter being an article by a rock reporter, promising to look into these strange murders assailing the music world, murders in which a lime green Cadillac is always spotted at the murder scene, along with a black man in a lime green pimp suit. He promises to get to the bottom of the story. The next chapter opens with a brief news snippet about this same reporter’s murder – noting that a black man in a lime green suit was spotted at the murder scene! 

From their homebase of Marks’s yacht, Martin and Putnam (who has come to LA at Martin’s request, and we even get a cross-volume recurring joke where Martin tells Putnam not to pack his clothes in a plastic bag, like he did last time) take the fight to Pacquette. This includes a very unexpected bit where Martin even dons scuba gear and checks out the mysterious yacht that might be Pacquette’s – I mean, Martin’s doing this, and previously the dude was the type to run from a fight and call for backup. It’s a very Bond-esque scene, with Dovell and Sonny Hope dropping depth charges on the mysterious scuba diver beneath their boat, along with having Boutique hop in and swim around with a machete, but Martin avoids all harm.

Boutique gets in the water again in a later sequence which has him going up against a great white shark like a regular Shark Fighter, hacking it in half with his machete. Here we even get a Jaws in-joke, even the inference that the shark is Jaws itself; per the interview with Justin, Weisman was friends with author Peter Benchley. Dovell and Sonny watch the bloody carnage in the water as fellow sharks are drawn by this dying one’s blood, and even these Detroit killers are sickened by the violence – a very effective scene, and wonderfully written.

There’s a definite vibe of decadence here, given the ‘70s Los Angeles setting; Putnam, who poses as a Detroit writer for Kreem magazine, hooks up with a busty ultra-babe named Naomi, who works as a PR rep in the music industry. They go to a music biz party at the palatial estate of Upchurch, a record producer who happens to be involved in the big cocaine deal which has brought Pacquette to LA. Speaking of Pacquette, we also learn this volume that one of his many illicit enterprises is Piston Platters, a Detroit record label with crappy artists (one of which is a group of white rockers who dress up like transvestites to cash in on the glam scene), headed up by the awesomely-named Righteous Jones.

The authors bring to life the trash fiction ethic in this party scene at Upchurch’s house, which reminded me of similar sequences in Norman Spinrad’s Passing Through The Flame. The authors also bring back something that was missing from the previous volume – hardcore sex. This time we get ultra detailing of Putnam and Naomi making oral explorations of one another. In fact she’s set up to be a steady flame for Putnam, who eventually reveals to her that his name is not “Jackson Jackson,” which is how he’s been presenting himself to industry people; he even tells her he’s a cop, and she gets involved in the occasional car chase and shootout right alongside him. Again, it all does have the vibe of a “major motion picture,” and while Quadraphonic Homicide is lacking the sort of creepy, sleazy feel of the first two books in particular, it actually comes off as a more entertaining read.

There is some of that creepy sleaze at times, though, in particular a Gannon-esque bit of ultraviolence in the climax, in which a character is gorily run over by a car, one driven by Righteous Jones as he tries to escape a shootout started by Putnam, who has come across a Pacquette-planned coke deal on the beach. The authors take a sick relish in describing the horrific death wounds this character suffers while being run over – I won’t give any spoilers, but it’s someone who has befriended our heroes, and who usually suffers the most in these ‘70s crime thrillers?? But even here the authors don’t give us the sort of firefight expected from the genre; it’s a more (likely realistic) affair of characters shooting and running and not even knowing if they’ve hit anyone.

And once again it’s the villains who end up doing the heroes’s job for them. Upchurch and colleague intend to burn Pacquette in the drug deal (just as Pacquette intends to burn them), and end up trapping Boutique in a dug-out cistern and “killing” him. In a scene that could come out of an EC horror comic, Boutique digs his way free and brutally murders the two men in Upchurch’s home. But I have to say I was glad to see Boutique himself at least gets dispatched, even though there were no more volumes and thus it didn’t matter anyway. His sendoff is pretty unique; he swallows a few bags of cocaine to hide them and one of them ruptures in a fight with Putnam. Boutique goes wild before collapsing, his entire middle half “freezing,” and we’re informed later that he died of what is the largest known cocaine ingestion in history.

And that’s it for Quadraphonic Homicide, and the series itself. Pacquette, who has taken his yacht to St. Maarten, announces that he’s all better now, ready to resume control of his organization, and makes immediate plans to return to Detroit. Weisman and Boyer give no indication that this was intended to be the final volume, and really it’s all just business as usual – none of the main villains have yet died and each volume has seen basically the same thing happen again and again: Pacquette plans some nefarious deed, the Headhunters try (and usually fail) to stop him, and Pacquette manages to come out on top.  My guess is the series was cancelled due to the deadliest men’s adventure antagonist of all: low sales.  Either that or the authors just got fed up with having to fly to meet each other to collaborate, which per Weisman in his interview with Justin is what they had to do at this point, given that they lived in separate states.

The writing as ever is good, with nice scene-setting and characterization, not to mention sometimes-hilarious dialog, but the POV-hopping gets to be distracting…but not as distracting as the egregious name brand-dropping throughout the book. Friends, I kid you not, there are at least three brand names mentioned per page. It gets to be annoying fast. Brand names for clothes, cigarettes, sunglasses, binoculars, even gun holsters, just on and on. Even the pens the characters use! I was going to list some examples but time is precious these days and I felt it was better spent elsewhere. Just let it be said that even a reader who goes into this book thinking to himself, “A few name brands here and there won’t bug me,” will still be bugged by the name brand onslaught in Quadraphonic Homicide.

I wouldn’t rank this as one of the greatest action series ever, but The Headhunters is my favorite of Pinnacle’s “tough cops” books, and it would’ve been nice to see what a fifth installment might have been like.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Hot Mods

The Hot Mods, by Dave J. Garrity
June, 1969  Signet Books

Dave J. Garrity, who a few years later started off a Mafia trilogy beginning with The Never Contract under his real name “David J. Gerrity,” here turns in what could most accurately be described as a hardboiled hot rod novel. Running to a mere 128 pages of big print, The Hot Mods is entertaining, but given the hardboiled vibe it comes off like something from a decade earlier.

Our narrator is the magnificently-named Lux Vargo(!), a veteran “modified” racer (ie hot rods – throughout referred to as “mods” or “modifieds”) who is based out of the East Coast; Garrity plays it fast and loose with the locales, usually not even informing us where the action takes place. But this is just part of Lux’s narratorial style; he only gives us as much info as he thinks we should know, and anyone looking to the novel to learn about vintage hot rodding vehicles and gear will be disappointed.

Lux rarely if ever even informs you what kind of cars he’s competing against or even driving. This gives the novel the ring of authenticity and authority (Garrity thanks a New York racing team at the intro, so he was into the scene), as if Lux were speaking casually to a fellow racing enthusiast, but it does cause a bit of confusion on the part of the reader. At least if, like me, you’re not too hip on the racing scene to begin with.

But Lux’s voice steals the show, because it’s the Hardboiled Voice straight-up, weary and cynical and eternally pissed-off. Garrity pulls it off so well that The Hot Mods is another of those novels where you’re uncertain if the author intended it as a spoof, as the bad-ass dialog walks a tight line between legit and satire. Garrity was pals with Mickey Spillane and if you ever wondered what it would be like if Mike Hammer became a racecar driver, wonder no longer (for what it’s worth, though, there are no private eyes or tough cops in the novel). It’s an interesting choice Garrity’s made, and I wonder how it went over with the readers of the day – when I picked up the book, the last thing I expected was a narrative style more akin to a Gold Medal paperback from a decade (or more) earlier. 

Plotwise the novel is also more along the lines of a hardboiled yarn than the racing action one might expect; Lux is in the midst of a torrid affair with a stacked blonde named Carol Minor (“She was a dream-sized chassis with all the speed parts and built to run up front”) who just happens to be married to Pat Minor, a fellow mods racer. Lux informs us how he and Carol like to shack up in motels and have hot (off-page) sex, but Carol gets serious as the tale opens, asking Lux if he wouldn’t mind maybe “accidentally” killing Pat in tonight’s race!

Lux says hell no, and instantly that sultry look in Carol’s eyes fades away, and our narrator knows their torrid affair is over – just like that. He mopes on back to the garage, where Poppy Bergen, the “leathery old bird” who serves as Lux’s chief “mech,” nags at Lux about getting involved with another man’s wife. By that night’s race Carol, who makes her final appearance until the very end, informs Lux that she’s made a decision to work on her marriage with Pat. Lux heads on into the race, and the racing scenes throughout have that hardboiled hot rod vibe:

The champ from Langhorne found a clear chute in front of him and slammed hard into the turn with Murdock at his heels. The Florida rebel hung in the groove with Pat Minor dug in tight behind him, wheel over and back-end sliding. He stayed in there, working hard with steering and with power. The three front cars went round in front of the pack, one a battered Plymouth coupe out in the loose stuff and breaking his wrists to stay. He caromed off the wall going into the back chute but pulled free and charged away with a new battle scar to mark his already wrinkled right side.

In the heat of the race Lux corners Pat Minor’s “yellow bug” and the realization hits him just as it happens – he’s lined him up to make the kill he earlier told Carol he’d never do. It happens, the two crashing into each other and Minor’s car flipping and catching fire; Garrity well captures the horror as an unharmed Lux tries and fails to pull a shrieking Minor out of his burning car. Now the man’s dead, and at the inquest Lux is cleared – it really was just an accident, after all – but he spirals into depression and self-doubt. “Go out and get drunk,” Pappy tells him.

Lux does so…and in the next chapter we open on him sitting in some jail cell in an unnamed small town hundreds of miles south of “Mid-City,” which is where the race took place. He has no idea how long he’s been on his drinking and fighting binge, but eventually we’ll learn it’s been six weeks. The way Garrity writes it, though, it’s like Lux has been gone a lot longer, like years maybe, having completely dropped out of the racing life and gone AWOL so far as his friends and associates are considered.

The night before, Lux apparently started a hellacious brawl in the local bar, one which catered to the racing crowd. Before the judge can hand down a big sentence this wiry dude comes in, whispers to the judge, and gets Lux out of trouble. His name is Les Carver, he’s a sports reporter, and he’s recognized Lux Vargo (the novel was clearly written long before the internet existed!). Instead of serving his sentence, Lux is ordered to get the job Les claims to have arranged for him, and to even live with Carver.

The Lux-Les relationship is humorous because Garrity has our hero instantly hating the guy for getting involved in his bout of self-pity (“Two little words” being the first thing Lux snarls at him…). Things brighten a bit with Les’s live-in sister, a bodacious young blonde named Sue, who is super-nice to Lux and super-supportive and caring, and Lux reminds us throughout the book that she’s the type of understanding, loving woman a guy could spend his whole life looking for, a gal who asks no questions and puts 100% faith, trust, and love in her man (no wonder Lux has found her, this being a work of fiction and all).

Les’s ulterior motive is that the job he’s arranged for Lux has him working in the shop of a local auto owner; the dude blew a ton of money in a race car that’s been improperly designed and terribly driven. The idea is for Lux to rebuild it to win. He’s instantly fighting with Turkey Johnson, the young local yokel who has been so poorly racing the car – Turkey apparently was in the bar the night a drunken Lux began ranting about piss-poor racers and throwing fists around. Turkey has no idea who Lux is; no one does, only Les Carver, Lux calling himself “Frank Smith.”

Garrity pulls that unexpected trick I always love encountering in these sort of novels – he makes you care about his characters, to the point that the hokum “tough guy learns to care about himself and others” theme is actually more touching than grating. But this is what happens – given the brevity of the book, Sue’s sudden love for “Frank” is a bit hard to swallow, but Garrity doesn’t dwell in the maudlin sappiness; instead he has Lux lording it over Les that Lux might just take advantage of poor lil’ Sue, and how will Good Samaritan Les Carver feel about that??

Lux still runs afoul of everyone else, though of course the redemption angle gradually plays in here as well. He gets yokel Turkey Johnson fired as the racer, given how poorly he’s been doing, and Lux throws himself into rebuilding the auto shop’s racer. Time comes for the big race and sure enough Lux realizes he’s the only person who can drive it. What’s more – he’s decided it will be his last race. Les has gone back to Lux’s hometown (wherever the hell it is) and has uncovered the truth – he knows about Pat Minor’s death and insists that Lux not blame himself. This after Lux has told Les all, even about Carol.

But Lux has decided to kill himself in the race, anyhow. This climax is the longest and most tense race scene in the book, hitting all the action and emotional high points, particularly given the unexpected performance of none other than Turkey Johnson, now driving another car and giving Lux a run for his money. Not to spoil the payoff of this race, but it does end the way you’d imagine – sort of. Lux becomes savior instead of suicide as he must prevent Turkey from wiping out right alongside him. And only now has Lux realized what we readers knew long ago – Turkey pisses Lux off so much because Turkey reminds Lux of himself when he was a hungry young racer.

The finale returns to the Double Indemnity vibe of the opening; Les has uncovered what really happened the night Pat Minor died. He insists Lux go back home with him. After a humorous fistfight (“These things can only go so long unless you’re a trained fighter,” Lux informs us after trading a few punches with Les before collapsing!), Lux says the hell with it and goes along. Back home, Les takes Lux to a local mechanic who has impounded Pat’s crashed yellow bug. Looks like someone did some sabotage to the undercarriage; Lux instantly spots it, confirming the mechanic’s suspicions – sabotage done by someone who knew exactly what they were doing.

This leads to a final Lux-Carol confrontation that is a bit anticlimactic given how quickly the ice cold witch melts. But by this point Garrity has moved beyond the grim hardboiled vibe; Lux is so reformed that he’s even become BFFs with previous punching bag Les Carver. The tale ends with Turkey also new best buds with Lux, with the hint that he’s about to become his protégé, and Sue – who turns out to have known “Frank” was really Lux all along, given how big a fan she is of racers – is there waiting for Lux.

The Hot Mods is one of those novels I expected very little from, but ended up enjoying a whole bunch – enough that I’m soon to read more of Garrity’s ‘60s novels. I’ll also try to get back to that Mafia trilogy he wrote in the ‘70s, but to tell the truth The Hot Mods is much better than The Never Contract.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Smuggler #6: Death Benefit

The Smuggler #6: Death Benefit, by Paul Petersen
May, 1975  Pocket Books

The Smuggler returns to the “serious spy drama” angle of the fourth volume; the fantastical elements of other volumes, in particular the third, are long gone, leaving us with a tepid, slow-boil affair in which ultra superheroic protagonist Eric Saveman discovers treachery within the ranks of his top-secret ZED organization.

Saveman’s the worst part about this series, mostly due to his demigod status. If you thought The Baroness was idealized, then wait till you get a load of Eric Saveman, a dude so uber-perfect that he not only knows everything but everyone, and everyone is in awe of him; seriously, there are parts of this book where minor characters (themselves bad-ass spies, mind you), will stand around and say stuff like, “Wait till Eric goes after him,” or whatnot. It’s almost laughable, particularly when you factor in that author Paul Petersen apparently hoped for a TV series based on The Smuggler with himself in the starring role.

This one is as patience-testing as the others in the series (save that is for the wild and wooly second volume, and the broad-ranging third volume), with lots of dialog and scene-setting and little in the way of action (of either variety). Anyway it’s two months after the previous volume and Saveman is once again on vacation when we meet him, which seems to be a series staple. He’s still living with the lookalike sisters he encountered last time around, who have no idea what Saveman does for a living. Also hanging with Saveman here in St. Croix is Joshua Kane, black ZED agent who first appeared in the ultra-lurid second volume and who is mixing sun and sex with yet another ZED agent, Belinda, the black beauty who spent the majority of the fourth volume having sex as part of her undercover assignment.

One thing Petersen (and co-writer David Oliphant) does here is invest The Smuggler with a lot of continuity; someone who enjoys this series more than I do would get a thrill out of meeting up with all of these characters again and again. But what grates me is that Saveman’s world is a little too small. Everyone he meets he either knows or has heard of him, to the point that it’s unintentionally humorous. For example, the novel opens with Saveman and Kane all-too-casually dispensing of some M-16-wielding terrorists who show up on the golf course; later they learn that a black radical is behind them – and it’s a dude Saveman once played college football with!!

Turns out there’s yet another former Saveman pal behind it all – Marc Wrestle, another ZED agent, one who is currently on a mission in Laos which has him smuggling guns as part of a sting operation or something. But Wrestle stumbles across a stash of Red China-created germ warfare in an undercover lab in the jungle and escapes, realizing he’s been contaminated…running for his life and thinking to himself that Saveman will take care of everything(!).

Honestly folks, Saveman might as well have a big red “S” on his shirt, the way the other characters hold him in such awe. The funniest damn thing is, the dude wouldn’t even be in the top ten of most bad-assed men’s adventure protagonists. Probably not even in the top twenty. At least those lookalike sisters have enough of him; they tell Saveman they’re hitting the road when they all return to Saveman’s swank mansion outside New York, because they can’t handle the sudden violence of his life.

From here we settle in for the long haul as Saveman argues with crusty old General Velasco, scarred boss of ZED; Saveman is certain Marc was onto something big, but his death has been covered up to make it look like he was a turncoat or somesuch. Saveman, who we’ll recall (and if we forget we’re reminded again and again) is a much-vaunted Free Agent (meaning he can do basically whatever he wants), insists that he go to Paris for Marc’s funeral (Marc’s dad being an ambassador stationed there).

In France Saveman hooks up with ultra-sexy “Eurasian” Dominique Charbonet, yet another ZED agent who, believe it or not, doesn’t have immediate sex with Saveman. The only sex we get in the first half is courtesy Joshua Kane and Belinda; the two are in love, and Kane is given a desk assignment which will see him posing as a wealthy entreprenneur with Belinda posing as his wife – the author(s) now intending to write the couple out of the series, apparently. 

It’s all a bunch of wheel-spinning and dialog, with the occasional “shaggy ‘70s” flourish I so enjoy about these vintage paperbacks. Like the part where Dominique slinks into Saveman’s posh hotel room and breaks out a case of marijuana sprinkled with “Nepalese hash,” not to mention some high-grade coke, along with her own coke spoon. Saveman, that drug-smuggling demigod, once again doesn’t partake in drugs himself, but gives Dominque (and the interested reader) some handy tips on how to break up cocaine so the particles don’t screw up your nasal membranes. And here Saveman even turns down an offer for sex from Dominique, despite which we’ve been reminded constantly how sexy Saveman finds her; his excuse is he needs to keep his wits about him, or some nonsense.

Of course the long-awaited sex scene duly arrives, on a private flight to Thailand of all places, and while the authors get explicit it’s nothing as raunchy as in the second or even third volumes. As I’ve mentioned in reviews for other volumes, The Smuggler has gotten tamer with each installment. In fact Dominique is Saveman’s only conquest this time around, and he spends more time fretting over the complex mystery behind Marc Wrestle’s death and that stash of germ warfare. We also get periodic over-detail about the implants in the brains of all ZED agents, which allows them to be tracked around the globe and even snuffed out if it’s determined they’ve gone rogue; of course, Saveman’s has been deactivated.

Petersen goes to great lengths to capture a spy-fy vibe, particularly when it comes to the high-tech ZED HQ, with lots of scene-setting of walls sliding open to reveal wallscreen monitors and the like. He also again goes to great pains to show he’s done his research, with lots of detail on germ warfare; another unintentionally humorous moment, with Saveman even able to spit out obscure information about this subject, like he’s one of those omniscient characters on CSI. The dude’s so perfect you want to step into the book and knock the smug look off his moustached face. Hey – “smug – smuggler;” I didn’t do that on purpose!

Gradually Saveman figures out that one of the ZED elite is behind the plot, working with a Chinese Minister who hopes to use the newly-created germ warfare in an attack on Peking, to wipe out the Western-friendly regime and start a war. But Saveman learns via the research of his father (who is himself nearly perfect) that the germs will actually cause the death of a large portion of the Chinese population.

So Saveman, who has been ordered off the assignment by no less an authority than the President (who says basically “let ‘em die” when he finds out the plot will backfire and kill millions of Chinese people), hijacks a jet plane, flies it back into China, crashes it, turns off the power of the base that creates the germs(!!)…and wakes up in a hospital a few days later, where he’s thanked for saving so many Chinese. Oh, and he’s meanwhile taken out the ZED turncoat in one of the most anticlimactic shootouts you’ll ever read.

There’s a goofy finale in which Saveman and Velasco have a face-to-face with the President, and Saveman basically tells the President to go to hell and how he’ll never be able to order Saveman around again. Also here Petersen seems to state that the novel has taken place in 1972, which I found odd – were these books really written so long before publication? And also it would mean that Saveman’s bitching at Nixon, which would explain his hostility…I mean who could’ve gotten so angry at Gerald Ford??

Luckily the next volume was the last one.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Terror In Algiers

Terror In Algiers, by Emile C. Schurmacher
July, 1962  Paperback Library

Here we have yet another vintage men’s adventure magazine anthology, another one devoted to the work of prolific writer Emile C. Schurmacher. And this is a topical publication for sure, capitalizing on the Algerian War that was raging at the time; the four stories collected here all take place in the conflict, featuring French Foreign Legion soldiers, Algerian terrorists, French revolutionists, and even the occasional “Yank” who has become involved to make a buck or two.

Once again Schurmacher delivers a Preface in which he makes the claim of being a globe-trotting reporter, same as he did in his (superior) men’s mag collection Our Secret War Against Red China. Even the cover makes the claim that Schurmacher was an Algiers-based reporter. My assumption is this is all b.s. and Schurmacher, like the majority of men’s mag writers, was just producing straight-up fiction, but in reality it turns out that at least some of the stories in Terror In Algiers are more along the lines of potted histories, as some of the protagonists are real people.

Such is the case with the first story, “The Rape Of Algiers,” which was originally published in the August 1962 issue of Bluebook. The hero of this yarn is real-life ass-kicking French soldier Colonel Yves Godard, who we’re informed is known as “Colonel X” among his enemies in battle-strewn Algiers. Godard is a founding member of the SAO, the Secret Army Organization of General Salan, the objective of which is to keep Algieria in the hands of the French. They hate “traitor” De Gaulle for insisting that the Algerians run their own country, thus they are at war both with the Algerian FLN as well as the French.

Schurmacher starts with the action as Godard, on the run from some pursuing FLN assassins, hops into the apartment of a sexy French streetwalker who happens to be an undercover SAO agent – we’re informed most French people here in Tangiers support the secret army. Godard whips out a handy “burp gun” and mows ‘em down, knowing he’ll get away scot free because the police are also on the side of the SAO. But that “batard” De Gaulle has sent in a new police force with the express intent of taking down General Salan’s force. In the course of which the sadists even capture the poor streetwalking gal (with whom Godard does not have sex, thus ignoring all laws of the world of men’s magazines) and slit her throat.

Before Godard can launch a vengeance strike we jump back in time, as is mandatory for most men’s mag stories, and have a long backstory on how Godard came to serve Salan and how the SAO came to be. A former Green Beret in French Indochina, Godard wracked up some serious battlefield experience before eventually finding himself in Tangiers. Salan first assigns him to look into an FLN plot in which sexy European hookers are somehow causing French Foreign Legion soldiers to leave the service. Godard poses as a new recruit, has (off-page) sex with one of the hookers, and soon uncovers the spy network, which extends to Paris.

The FLN is the main villain here, and Godard swears an oath that he’ll kill “eight Moslems for every one European.” We learn that hundreds of French and FLN are indeed killed by Salan and Godard, but the tale ends with them escaping Tangiers when the heat really moves in. From Wikipedia I learned that Godard never returned to Algieria, despite Schurmacher’s proclamations at the end that he would; he died of natural causes in the ‘70s.

“Death In The Casbah” is another shortish story, originally appearing as “I Hunt Terrorists” in the March 1958 issue of Man’s Magazine. The only tale in the collection to be told in first-person, it, like the previous story, wasn’t part of the Diamond Line of men’s magazines, thus this story is not only shorter but also strives to be more realistic, coming off less like the rugged adventure fiction of the Diamond line magazines.

Lt. Rene Laroche informs us how he came to work for the French Intelligence service in Algeria, mostly because he can pass for a native; when the tale opens he’s in a firefight with some FLN terrorists who have come after a source of intel. This story is really two long siege pieces nearly back-to-back; after escaping this assassination attempt, Laroche flees back to HQ and rounds up a team of Foreign Legion Green Berets. They head into the district where the terrorists have holed up and shoot it out with them overnight; one’s killed by a sniper and the other blows himself up in an early version of a suicide vest – the saddest thing about this collection is how little things have changed.

The second siege follows immediately after, as Laroche gets word that a top FLN terrorist, as well as his equally-deadly mistress, have holed up in yet another apartment and are shooting it out. The “female terrorist” angle had me expecting the usual men’s mag luridism, but the lady stays off-page and is unexploited, save for a lame and strange denoument in which the girl’s boyfriend, as part of a surrender bargain, requests that the lady’s clothes be brought up to the apartment, as she’s been fighting in the buff! And that’s that for this one, easily the least-entertaining story in the book. 

“Planes, Gold, Guns and Women,” takes us back to the Diamond Line yarns, not to mention the novella length of their “True Booklength” features, which this one certainly was, originally appearing as “King Of the Gun And Girl Smugglers” in Male Magazine, October, 1957. Wonderfully-named Yank hero Tex Fargo, a “hard-bitten, self-exiled pilot,” is an interesting dude because in the previous two stories he’d be considered the villain, given that, as a mercenary pilot-for-hire, he sometimes flies wanted FLN terrorists out of Tangiers, evading pursuing French planes.

This story’s very much in the classic men’s mag mode, starting on the (bedroom) action, with Tex getting offered a job from sexy French babe Monique, who tells a story about a stash of diamonds in Cairo before going up to Tex’s room. But in the midst of all the (off-page) sex, Tex realizes Monique is really an undercover French operative, here to snuff out whether Tex is really about to fly two much-wanted FLN terrorists to Cairo that night. He is and does, again evading the French pursuing planes, chuckling over the free sex he got in the bargain from the sexy French spy babe.

From here to the usual flashback, in which we learn that Tex was a young hotshot pilot in WWII and then got involved in the post-war black market thanks to another sexy Eurobabe: Jeanne, a Belgium lady who approached Tex with the offer to fly bootleg cargo for her sort of startup black market operation. But after that one came to an abrupt end, with Jean in jail and her colleague dead, Tex hooked up with an Italian gunrunner named Golpe who ran his business from a villa in Rome. In between all the bootleg-flying Tex has frequent (off-page) sex with “the Contessa,” who shows up later in the tale to be flown to the Middle East to be some sheik’s latest wife.

When the Golpe business also runs out, Tex next moves on to Algeria, figuring he can set up his own black market flying service in the midst of the war. This part is given less focus than the other parts, and also has a strange downer of a finale in which Tex is hired to rescue a prince sentenced to death in Benghazi; Tex fails in the escape attempt and the prince is killed anyway, which proves that Benghazi is a bad-luck place even in vintage fiction. The tale ends with Tex excited to reap more illicit profit (and off-page sex) in the burgeoning market of the Algerian war.

The final tale is also a long one: “Legionnaire Charney of the Bat d’Af,” which was first published as “Mike Charney: The Vanishing Legionainnaire” in the February 1959 issue of Man’s World. This one’s sort of a French Foreign Legion desert adventure mixed with a prison story. Mike Charney is a half-American, half-French Legionnaire who is currently serving time in the Bat d’Af prison compound in the middle of the desert. Gradually we’ll learn he’s here due to getting in a firefight with FLN forces that he shouldn’t have; he and his entire unit were sent to the harsh prison in reprimand.

Charney’s history is probed; starting off as a mechanic in French Indochina, he got so sick of the VC atrocities that he joined the Foreign Legion Green Berets. After the French withdrawal Charney moved on to Tangier, where as mentioned he got into trouble and was sent to prison. When we meet him he’s running his “camion” along the dusty roads and encounters sexy babe Monique, daughter of some VIP who will soon be withdrawing from the area, too, given all the FLN trouble. Charney spends his nights thinking about her and can’t even bring himself to touch the fat and ugly hookers provided for the imprisoned Legionnaires. We get lots of prison fiction stuff, from the cliched sadist in charge to quickly-stifled revolts.

The action doesn’t come to a head until the final quarter, when the FLN get more bold in their attacks; Charney and compatriots kill several of them in a vengeance strike. When they find that Monique has been abducted, they set off across the desert in pursuit. Only Charney survives the melee, saving Monique after killing her captors. Here the story becomes a desert survival epic where the two budding lovers endure the elements while getting to safety – and not having sex! Not, that is, until a massive sandstorm hits one day, and while burrowing into the ground for safety the two get busy (off-page, naturally).

This time we’re given an upbeat finale in which Charney, who has decided to go AWOL, gets Monique to civilization and tells her so long – he’s going to live like a refugee or something in Tangiers. But then word comes down that Monique’s father, a VIP in the French government, is so overjoyed that his daughter was saved that Charney’s not only been exonerated from his prison term but also given a medal and a promotion.

And that’s it for the collection – to tell the truth, none of these stories were very compelling, and I’m sure there were better Foreign Legion tales in the men’s mags of the day…perhaps just none by Shcurmacher. Anyway I’d definitely recommend Our Secret War Against Red China over this one.

Sadly, all these stories about ‘50s/’60s Tangiers, and not a single appearance by William S. Burroughs! Now that would’ve made for one helluva messed-up men’s mag story…

Thursday, April 6, 2017

John Eagle Expeditor #14: Silverskull

John Eagle Expeditor #14: Silverskull, by Paul Edwards
December, 1975  Pyramid Books

I hope you’ll all shed a tear with me – I’ve now come to the final volume of my all-time favorite men’s adventure series, John Eagle Expeditor. I can’t believe it’s taken me nearly seven years to read these 14 books, particularly when you consider that the entire series was published within the span of three years! But to tell the truth I just didn’t want the series to end. I like it so much I even lobbied to name my son “John Eagle Kenney,” but I was quickly shot down.

Manning Lee Stokes wrote this final volume, which is fitting, given that he also wrote the first volume. But anyone hoping for a fitting conclusion to the Expeditor saga will be disappointed. Sadly, Silverskull could almost be an installment of practically any other series Stokes worked on. For, as he did in his previous entry The Green Goddess, Stokes turns in an installment lacking the science fiction-tinged adventure pulp of the earliest volmes, coming off more like a slow-boil crime-thriller. In fact, there are trace elements that make me wonder if it started life as a manuscript for another Stokes series, The Aquanauts.

For something weird happened with Stokes on John Eagle Expeditor. He turned in the first and the second volumes, which established the series formula that would last for the next several books: hero John Eagle, equipped with his high-tech gear and his “Apache cunning” (tempered of course by his white heritage, let’s not forget), would venture deep into some exotic locale and blow up an enemy installation. But with the fifth volume, Stokes dispensed with this formula and turned in a lurid thriller that had little in common with his first two books; despite which, Valley Of Vultures was still one of the best volumes in the series.

Then Stokes disappeared for two years, and the series was in the hands of Robert Lory and Paul Eiden, who for the most part stuck with the formula Stokes had devised in Needles of Death (a formula which more than likely was the work of series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel). But when Stokes returned for the 12th volume, The Green Goddess, it was as if he’d forgotten what the Expeditor series was even about. That one was another lurid thriller, but it was completely lacking any of the standard elements of the series; whereas Eagle at least donned his “plastic suit” (if only for a moment) in Valley Of Vulures, in The Green Goddess none of Eagle’s fancy bags of tricks made an appearance or were even mentioned. As I wrote in my long-winded review, it was almost as if Stokes had forgotten about all of it.

In fact, it’s now occurred to me that The Green Goddess and Silverskull were more along the lines of the slooow-moving thrillers Stokes was writing for The Aquanauts. It’s possible that both these books started life as installments of that series, which was cancelled in 1974 – one compelling indication is that Silverskull is stated as taking place in late June, 1974.

Len Levinson once told me it took “about a year” to see his series manuscripts appear as paperbacks in the ‘70s, so this could just be the case here, that Stokes wrote the book around June of ‘74 and it wasn’t pulished until a year and a half later. But another compelling clue is that the titular villain of Silverskull has his own submarine. As noted below, this submarine is excessively built up before being dropped abruptly, so could it be possible that Stokes’s original vision was to have this submarine engage in combat with Aquanauts hero Tiger Shark’s KRAB?

It could also be that Stokes was just in burnout and was churning out scripts to meet deadlines, with little thought to any grand design. By this point Stokes had turned in many, many books for Lyle Kenyon Engel, having begun his worker-for-hire writing duties for him a decade before, with The Eyes Of The Tiger. I wonder if Silverskull was the last novel Stokes wrote, as he died in January of 1976. In Will Murray’s 1981 interview with Engel, published uncut in Paperback Parade #2 (1986), Engel makes the tantalizing comment, “Manning is dead you know, and he was one of the greatest writers I ever had. It’s just a shame he died when he did because we were both on the track of something very very big when he died.” I’d love to know what this was, but unless Will Murray happened to write it down, I guess no one will ever know.

As for Silverskull, it unfortunately sticks to the lurid mystery vibe of The Aquanauts and The Green Goddess, with none of the cool stuff I so love about John Eagle Expeditor – other, that is, than a very late appearance of Eagle’s “plastic suit” and “gas gun.” Otherwise the book could almost pass for one of Stokes’s earlier Killmaster novels, only a lot more bloated and slower-paced. At 191 pages of small, dense print, Silverskull crawls along, and sadly is one of my least favorite books in the Expeditor series. Another thought: perhaps Engel felt this way, too, and the book was really written earlier (ie June of ’74), only held back from the publishing schedule for reasons of quality. 

Despite the padding and the lack of action, Stokes as ever invests himself in the writing, no matter how menial or tedious the events transpiring are. He also again busts out his Oxford Dictionary, delivering a brace of ten-dollar words you won’t often encounter in the men’s adventure genre. But the thing with Stokes is, these fancy-pants words are so naturally employed that you know without a doubt that Manning Lee Stokes was a well-read, intelligent guy. He just suffered a bit when it came to gripping plots; his books are more akin to sprawling affairs in which a central event is built up and up and up to the breaking point, and then everything quickly and anticlimactically comes to a close.

The villain of the piece, Silverskull, is a Flemingesque creation if ever there was one: Sir Rodney Hamilton, 51, a British billionaire with a fringe of red hair and a “polished silver plate” that is “the top of his skull.” As a racer in his youth, Sir Rodney suffered a serious crash which shaved off the top of his skull; it was replaced with this “silver tonsure,” which he polishes every night. Sir Rodney’s fortunes are slipping, and as the novel opens he has hit upon a scheme to become richer than ever: to kidnap the no-good son of Carlos de Ojeda, oil minister of Venezuela, and force Ojeda into giving Sir Rodney the controlling interests in a new oil field deep in the jungle (or something).

Stokes is never the best when it comes to main villains, so I was happy that here for once he gave us a memorable one – I mean the guy is the closest this series has ever come to a Goldfinger. But after getting a merciless stooge to kidnap de Ojeda’s twentysomething slacker kid (and kill all the witnesses), Sir Rodney proceeds to…fret over his plan, and meanwhile masturbate to X-rated fantasies of his mega-hot babe of a daughter, Jennifer, who is 22 and an infamous jet-setting nympho. Sir Rodney’s lust for his daughter is overly exploited by Stokes, leading to some intentionally humorous lines, like, “[Sir Rodney] thought a father was not supposed to notice his daughter’s breasts even when they were swinging ripe and full a few inches away.”

But ultimately this is just another go-nowhere digression on Stokes’s part; Jennifer and Sir Rodney don’t even have a face-to-face meeting in the entire novel, and all this incestual stuff is here so Stokes can indulge in sleaze. I’m a lover of sleaze, but not when we’re talking about a few pages of a silver-skulled guy jerking off at the thought of his daughter. And sadly this is the most XXX-rated scene in the book; even when Eagle has his mandatory sex-action, later in the novel (with Jennifer, naturally), it’s actually given less focus, over and done with in the span of a paragraph.

Eagle is called in to Venezuela to meet with old Simon de Ojeda, all the while wondering why he’s been handed this assignment. This is yet another Stokes novel in which the protagonist puzzles over why he was given his mission from first page to last, and you can’t blame Eagle – the assignment has nothing to do with the Expeditor setup. Stokes has it that Mr. Merlin, Eagle’s wheelchair-bound boss, owes an old colleague of de Ojeda’s a favor, one that Mr. Merlin has owed since he was a young man. Otherwise there’s no reason at all for Merlin’s top Expeditor to head to Venezuela to look into a kidnapping case.

Further proof that Stokes has forgotten what he himself wrote for this series is proven later in the book, when John Eagle phones Merlin, back in his underground labrynth in Hawaii, and gives him a “sitrep” on the action. Stokes just has the two speaking to each other plainly, clearly having forgotten that Eagle has no idea who Mr. Merlin is (Merlin’s true identity is kept even from the readers).

More importantly, Eagle has never heard Merlin’s real voice; previous books have stressed that Merlin, who gives Eagle his assignments over an intercom, electronically disguises his voice when he speaks to his Expeditor. And yet here Eagle acts like he’s quite familiar with Merlin – even knowing that he smokes cigars, when recall the two have never been in the same room. This could be more indication that Silverskull started life as another series book…the Eagle-Merlin relationship here being similar to the Nick Carter-Hawk relationship of Stokes’s Killmaster novels or even the Tiger Shark-Admiral Coffin relationship of The Aquanauts.

The book’s first half is very slow, very much in the suspense mode, as Eagle monitors the situation from de Ojeda’s palatial villa. Supposedly the man’s son is being held captive by a jungle guerrilla named the Wild Dog, and there’s a part early on where Eagle captures one of these men and tortures him (off-page) for info. But Eagle, that “assassin extraordinaire” (as he was dubbed on the back cover of some of the earlier volumes), doesn’t even kill anyone until page 132. He spends most of the novel hitting the buffet in de Ojeda’s villain, smoking a “rare cigarette,” and fretting over how the assignment is getting out of control.

Rather it’s all like some slow-boil mystery as Eagle gradually ascertains that Sir Rodney “Silverskull” Hamilton is behind the de Ojeda kidnapping, and that it has something to do with oil fields. Eagle, again sans any of his fancy gadgets or gear, poses as de Ojeda’s assistant and tries to set up a trade with Joe Garm, the sadistic old mercenary who carried off the abduction for Sir Rodney. Eagle devises a plan to hold one child for another, and flies off to London to kidnap Jennifer. Here follows more of Stokes’s patented sleaze, as Jennifer of course is nude when Eagle springs upon her in her bedroom, oggling her “medium size, pink buttoned” breasts and her “abundant brush of luxuriant red-gold pubic hair;” further, Eagle thinks she is “one of the most attractive females in the world.”

After the expected sexual shenanigans, Jennifer clings to Eagle and wants to help him – she hates her father and knows he lusts for her. Back they fly to Venezuela, where Jennifer tries to jerk Eagle off beneath a magazine, but he tells her no and “remains limp”(!). The helluva it is, after all this time spent on setting up the “one kid for another” bluff – it falls apart instantly! Eagle fails to fool Garm with the fake finger he claims is Jennifer’s, and thus Eagle is back to “square one.” Meaning we’ve spent about 50 dense-print pages on a veritable red herring of a subplot. But that’s Stokes for you.

At least we here get the first bit of action, with Eagle taking out a few men and escaping from Sir Rodney’s island in a sequence that brings to mind Stokes’s earlier Killmaster novel Mission To Venice. Here we also get the sole glimpse of Sir Rodney’s yellow(!) submarine, which is much talked up but ultimately forgotten; we’re told sleazy parties are held aboard, but Eagle just glances at it and steals a convenient inflatable raft from the cargo supplies. All that buildup for nothing. This sadly is just one indication of the sloppiness of Stokes’s plotting throughout. The novel is rife with heavily built-up, quickly tossed-aside subplots.

In fact, the kidnapping of Carlos de Ojeda – the act which got Eagle involved in the first place – is itself forgotten, for we learn that the kid has in fact been adbucted from his abducters; in hazily-rendered backstory we are informed that the Wild Dog’s soldiers have been mistreating the headhunter Indians in the nearby jungle, and these Indians, the Jivaro, launched an assault on the Wild Dog’s fortress and stole away Carlos de Ojeda, somehow knowing he was an important preson. 

Harkening back to the final quarter of Valley Of Vultures, John Eagle parachutes into the Venezuelan jungle to find the boy. Here, on page 145, we get the first mention of the usual Expeditor trappings: Eagle wears his insulated “plastic suit” and is armed with his “gas gun,” which fires needles. Finally, I thought to myself, we’ll get some of the stuff I love about this series – Eagle using his chameleon device to take out his enemies, along with the other high-tech gadgets and gear he usually employs. Instead, Eagle just pulls regular clothing overtop the plastic suit and just trudges through the jungle, pretending to be an oil prospector or something.

He hooks up with a Motilone Indian tribe led by pidgin-speaking Rauni, who reveals that his tribe is in the possesion of…the severed head of Carlos de Ojeda! Folks, that was pretty much it for me. The entire friggin’ purpose behind the entire friggin’ story has already been dispensed with, off-page…Eagle is informed the Jivaro killed the boy (and ate his body!), and Rauni doesn’t want his people to be blamed for it. He gives Eagle the head, and even offers him a 13 year-old girl that night; Eagle turns her down, despite being “tempted.” Eagle finally makes a few more kills, gunning down some Jivaro headhunters from cover, but for the most part our hero spends the “climax” running and hiding while other characters do themselves in for him.

Stokes can’t even give us an Eagle-Silverskull scene; Eagle becomes obsessed with glimpsing the elusive Sir Rodney, and ventures to his mansion, deep in the jungle. He arrives just as the Wild Dog’s men are pulling an assault on the place. Then, convenient plotting be damned, Jennifer just happens to parachute onto her dad’s property (Stokes earlier covering his ass by having Jennifer – that jetsetting nympho – declare that she’s fond of skydiving!), and Eagle pulls her away from the guerrilla soldiers who chase after her. There’s a clear Doctor No riff as the two run and hide from an armored marsh buggy; Stokes even refers to it as a “dragon.”

But friends, Eagle just hides in the tall grass and watches as the Wild Dog’s men and Sir Rodney’s men kill each other…and then the friggin’ Venezuelan air force arrives, and fighter jets blast all of them away – while Eagle just watches! I kid you not…when Eagle inspects the carnage afterwards, everyone’s dead, even Sir Rodney himself – killed off-page by a jet attack, the jets having been ordered by a vengeful Simon de Ojeda, who has somehow learned of his son’s death. That’s it! It’s all so lazy and hamfisted that I think there might be good possibility that Engel did in fact hold this one back from publication, only publishing it once the series’s fate was sealed.

Let’s recap: in the course of this novel, John Eagle beats up a henchman, kills a couple guys in combat, guns down a few Indians from afar, smokes one of his “rare cigarettes,” and gets laid by a hot nympho with an “abundant” bush. And yet we’re informed at the close of Silverskull that Eagle’s nerves are so rattled from this particular assignment that he’s told Polly Perkins, Mr. Merlin’s secretary, that he’ll be hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door of his Arizona ranch…for at least two months! (And speaking of Polly Perkins – I don’t believe we’ve previously been informed Eagle was even aware of Polly, which is perhaps more indication that Stokes had forgotten about his own series.) And here the novel as well as the series comes to a close, fittingly enough with Merlin hoping that Eagle will indeed get a chance to rest.

Plotwise the book is subpar, but as mentioned Manning Lee Stokes as ever invests himself in the writing. Nothing much might happen, but at least the writing’s good. It’s lacking some of the thematic elements of other Stokes installments; for example, the foreboding nature of The Green Goddess is gone – and for that matter, Stokes doesn’t pick up the subplot from that earlier book of whether Eagle’s foster mother survived her battle with cancer. Eagle himself seems a little blah throughout, lacking even the “macho mystique” which is usually standard for any Stokes protagonist. Save that is for a bit of TMI we’re given about Eagle’s youth:

Back on the Apache reservation, growing up with his friends, and at an age when such things were compared, [Eagle] had been known as kaki somn gunt – the well hung one. There had been the usual juvenile jackoff club with the chiefdom going to the one who could spurt farthest. Joe Thunder Horse had come in second there, too.

I used to figure that John Eagle Expeditor wasn’t really cancelled; it was just a casualty of Pyramid Books going out of business sometime in 1976. But only just now have I learned that, in 1977, Pyramid Books became Jove Books. This was news to me! So then Robert Lory was correct when he stated that the Expeditor series was in fact cancelled, thus denying us the novel Lory was considering, with John Eagle avenging the rape and/or murder of his girlfriend, Ruth Lame (sometimes “Lone”) Wolf (who by the way goes unmentioned this volume).

As I’ve gone on at length elsewhere, I really enjoy Stokes’s writing, but honestly I think he was my least favorite writer on this series. My favorite of the three who served as “Paul Edwards” would be Robert Lory, who for the most part stuck to the formula and who even made stabs at continuity, something neither Stokes nor Paul Eiden seemed to care much about. As for Eiden, the guy was wildly uneven in quality, and like Stokes seemed to sometimes forget the series he was writing for (ie Poppies Of Death), but despite which I still think he did a better job of sticking to the formula and delivering what I wanted from the series.

Well, now that I’ve finished the series, there’s only one thing left to do – the same thing I’m doing with The Baroness, just start reading it again!

Speaking of the Baroness, my own pet theory is that, after a few more years of adventuring, John Eagle and The Baroness hooked up, retired from the spy biz, and opened up a bed and breakfast somewhere on the coast of New England.