Thursday, May 11, 2017

Narc #7: Corsican Death

Narc #7: Corsican Death, by Robert Hawkes
May, 1975  Signet Books

For once hero John Bolt stays in the forefront of this volume of Narc, though to be sure author Marc Olden (aka “Robert Hawkes”) as ever populates the book with too many supporting characters and their own subplots, many of which abruptly faze out. For that matter, Corsican Death is yet another Olden novel in which, by book’s end, nothing has really been resolved and most of the villains are still alive. I’m starting to think that Olden was trying to make a point that “crime pays.”

This series, like most from the ‘70s, could care less about continuity; there’s no pickup from the previous volume or any other earlier volume. Other than the recurring characters of Bolt, his grizzled boss Craven at D-3 (The Department of Dangerous Drugs), and fellow D-3 agents Kramer and Masetta (the latter only mentioned but not seen this time), there’s really nothing to tie together the Narc series into a complete whole. There isn’t even a developing thread about Bolt himself, who one volume has a steady girlfriend (never before or again mentioned), and the next goes the entire novel without a woman (as is the case this time).

Olden knocked out both this series and Black Samurai within the span of a year or so, and one can clearly see that he was writing to an aggressive deadline. While I’ve still only read one volume of Black Samurai, I’m going to wager that it was closer to Olden’s heart than Narc was, not the least because that one was actually credited to Olden (though Olden also held the copyright to the Narc books). But I need to get back to the Black Samurai series (which I had to resort to buying the instalments I was missing in eBook form like some barefoot peasant, given the increasingly-exorbitant prices of the original paperbacks), to see if that series too suffered from Olden’s egregious page-filling and constant stalling of forward momentum.

Corsican Death, like the other Narc novels, is positively filled with scenes in which this or that character will mull or worry or fret over some action they’re about to do…over and over again…and when the actual moment comes Olden will either breeze through the action or skip it altogether. It gets to be annoying. I try not to be hard on these old series authors, as I know it couldn’t be easy to bang out manuscript after manuscript to a tight deadline, with the perhaps-editorial mandate that the status quo must never be affected. But when you come to the seventh Narc novel in which hardly anything happens, and indeed in which the page-filling is so egregious that nothing really comes to a head until the final eight pages, you start to get a little annoyed.

To me, Olden has the tendency to get a little too far into the headspaces of his characters, with some of the most blatant POV-hopping you’ll ever encounter, resulting in a bumpy read – one paragraph we’re in the fevered thoughts of one character, and in the next paragraph, with no warning whatsoever, we’re in the fevered thoughts of another character. Action is constantly held off, and when it does go down it’s harried and chaotic. In this way Olden is a bit similar to fellow Signet Books series author Jon Messmann, with the caveat that Messmann delivered more satisfying novels, at least in that they had actual plot payoffs. (Plus Messmann wrote The Sea Trap, one of my favorite men’s adventure novels of all time.)

In this one Bolt goes up against the Coriscans, basically the French version of Sicilians. We’re informed at length how the Corsicans have cornered the heroin market in France – and this is yet another Olden novel, by the way, that takes place in Paris. Even the Black Samurai volume I read, mentioned above, took place there, so I guess Olden had an affinity for the place. While he doesn’t go out of his way to bring Paris to life, he does make it sound like a crime-ridden cesspool, and when Bolt does get there he mostly spends it in the palatial villa of this novel’s main villain (well, one of two main villains): Count Napoleon Lonzu.

Proclaimed on the back cover as a sadist of all sadists, Count Lonzu actually spends the majority of Corsican Death off page. In reality the true sadistic main villain of the novel is Lonzu’s sometimes-partner, most-times enemy Remy Patek, a fellow Corsican drug kingpin who is known for his brutal and wanton acts of violence. Remy is especially incensed these days because his brother Claude has just been killed – by Count Lonzu’s younger, bodybuilding brother Alain. In a sort-of flashbacked opening action sequence we learn that Alain and Claude were in DC to broker a big heroin deal, with four million dollars on the line, but in a raid led by none other than John Bolt, the two Corsicans were captured.

But Claude jumped out of a second-story window in his escape attempt and broke both legs. Alain, fearing his “best friend” would spill the beans about the deal and also about the Coriscan contact within the Justice Department, strangled Claude to silence him. Now Alain is free, escaping Bolt and his fellow D-3 agents in another action scene – one which sees a redshirt D-3 agent killed – and absconds onto a ship which heads off into the Atlantic. The question is where Alain is going – London or Paris – but at any rate he won’t get where he’s going for five days.

So Bolt badgers Craven into letting Bolt pose as a rep for a “Black Mafia” drug dealer and go to Paris, where he’ll try to set up a fake deal with Count Lonzu or Remy Patek before Alain’s ship arrives in Paris. Meanwhile Patek vows revenge on Count Lonzu and begins to set his sights on the Count’s vast heroin empire. These are the essentials of the plot, but understand that for the most part Corsican Death is comrpised of almost stream-of-consciousness seques into the minds of the various characters; in particular the opening quarter is made up of these ongoing thoughts written in second-person from Bolt’s perspective, going over the rigors and dangers inherent in the life of a D-3 agent. 

In Paris Bolt hooks up with two French cops he’s worked with in the past (I couldn’t recall if they’d featured in a previous volume): Jean-Paul, an obese dude who has an apartment filled with dogs and who, despite his obesity, has slept with scads of incredibly gorgeous women, and Roger, a calm-natured quiet type who is uber-devoted to his wife, which Bolt thinks is an uncommon tendency among French husbands. These guys don’t factor into much until the finale. Instead Bolt, surprisingly, stays for the most part in the lead, setting up a deal with a grungy American expat who tries to burn Bolt but gets beaten up for his efforts.

Olden is as ever at pains to make the action in Narc realistic. John Bolt is no superhero and gets nervous in fight scenes, even complaining about his skinned knuckles afterward. While the average men’s adventure protagonist wouldn’t bat an eye at a long-haired slimeball wanna-be drug dealer trying to rip him off, Bolt frets over the act and takes a few pages of frantic combat to bring the slimeball down. But he does get his meeting with Remy Patek, which is busted up by some Lonzu assassins – and Bolt, unarmed, crawls on the floor panicked that he’s about to buy it. He’s hauled in as part of his cover, with Jean-Paul keeping up the charade that Bolt is really an American drug dealer, something the obese French cop will pay for.

Dog-lovers beware: there’s a grisly bit toward the end where Patek, who has discovered that Bolt is really an American agent, sends his goons to Jean-Paul’s house to teach him a lesson for his treachery. The goons go about slaughtering all the dogs in the place, Olden detailing it as one of them slits the throat of a little puppy! It’s so arbitrarily brutal that you can’t help but marvel at Olden’s cajones for even writing it – especially given that, when Jean-Paul gets his own vengeance, it’s rendered off-page! Yes, this is another Narc installment where the “main” villain, Count Lonzu, is alive and well by novel’s end, but the secondary villain, Remy Patek, meets his maker – however, not at the hands of the series protagonist. Nope, ol’ Jean-Paul abducts Remy and feeds him to a zoo lion! 

Bolt himself spends the final quarter of the book a prisoner of Count Lonzu. The Corsican kingpin is keeping Bolt as a “guest” until Bolt’s “Black Mafia” backer can arrive in Paris – this is Kramer, returning from previous volumes, posing as a loud-dressing gangster. But then Bolt’s cover is blown, just as Bolt himself is making his escape. As if he hasn’t killed enough dogs in print, Olden has our hero in mortal combat with one of the Count’s guard dogs, a moment captured on the typically-accurate cover painting. But it’s more of a tension deal as Bolt sneaks his way out of the Count’s heavily-guarded monastery on the outskirts of Paris; the sole action scene is when Bolt picks up a dropped pistol and shoots at a few people, killing at least one.

The finale as mentioned is so hurried as to be humorous – Olden, no lie, blows through all the events he’s been building toward in a scant eight pages. Immediately after escaping Lonzu’s monastery, thanks to the rescue of Jean-Paul and Roger, Bolt, along with the just-arrived Kramer, says so long to his French pals and hops a flight to London, where it’s been determined that Alain Lonzu was headed, after all. And there we get a perfuncory wrap-up where Bolt finds the guy hiding in the apartment of his London girlfriend, and Bolt makes his arrest.

Corsican Death ends with a warning from Kramer to Bolt that Count Lonzu now knows who John Bolt is and will no doubt come after him, not only for making the Count appear a fool, but also for arresting his little brother. Bolt shrugs it off as the usual dangers a D-3 agent must face. More than likely Bolt’s just reflecting on the fact that the main villains escaped unscathed from the previous six volumes, and given that none of them have ever come after him for revenge, it’s more than likely that the Count won’t, either.

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