Thursday, June 29, 2017

Soldato #1

Soldato #1, by Al Conroy
No month stated, 1972  Lancer Books

Starting off a five-volume series, Soldato! reminds me a lot of The Revenger #1 by Jon Messmann, both in plot and how it comes off like a standalone book…one that just happened to initiate a series. The novel is credited and copyright Al Conroy, which is one of the many pseudonyms used by Marvin H. Albert (aka Nick Quarry, Ian MacAlistair, etc). He wrote the first two volumes and the fifth one; volumes 3 and 4 of Soldato were written by another old hardboiled author, Gil Brewer. I’m looking forward to those.

The titular character of the series is only referred to as a “soldato” (aka Mafia soldier) in passing; his name is Johnny Morini, and he hasn’t been in the mob for a while, thus the title of the book (and series) is a bit of a misnomer. But I guess “Soldato!” has more of a ring to it than “Morini!” Johnny, now 29, was raised in the mob; an orphan who grew up on the tough streets of New York, running various “kid-gangs.” Eventually he became the top soldier of Don Renzo Cappellani of Manhattan. 

But now Johnny (as Albert refers to him throughout) is living in the Witness Protection program, hiding out as “John Hawkins” in a desolate Utah town. Don Renzo desperately wants to find him – and kill him. For some reason Renzo doesn’t understand, Johnny “went crazy” a few years ago, turned against the don, and actually served as a witness in a trial against him; a trial which was ultimately thrown out of court. But Don Renzo looked bad, despite getting off, and wants to kill Johnny as an example.

Eventually we’ll learn that the don, via one of his many underlings, killed off Johnny’s sort-of foster father, and also had his sort-of foster sister gang-raped (she later jumped off a roof and killed herself). This is how he unwittingly incurred Johnny’s wrath. Johnny vowed revenge, killing off the murderer of his foster father and setting his sights on the underling who had ordered it. When he was arrested in the attempt, a Federal lawyer named Riley offered Johnny the chance to take down the grand poobah himself, the man who’d been behind it all from the top: Don Renzo. Johnny agreed to testify that he took part in Don Renzo’s murder of a rival don five years ago.

Even though the trial failed, thrown out when Renzo’s lawyers made a mockery of “star witness” Johnny and his troubled, crime-ridden past, the government upheld its bargain and set Johnny up with a new life in a new town. Meanwhile a former cop turned private eye named Charles Moran has been doggedly seeking Johnny for the past year, paid well for his efforts by Don Renzo. After much trouble – which is elaborated on a bit later in the novel – Moran has tracked various Federal receipts and come upon a “John Hawkins” here in Utah, who owns a country store and lives on a small home near a factory. The novel opens as Moran confirms it is in fact Johnny Morini. (And yes, it does get a little confusing that two of the main characters are named “Moran” and “Morini!”)

As for our hero, he takes a while to appear, and truth be told Albert doesn’t spend a lot of the narrative with him – and doesn’t do much to bring him to life, either. The fact that Johnny was a murderous young punk is sort of glossed over. He’s fearful that Don Renzo will someday find him, not that this has prevented Johnny from marrying a sexy young gal from California named Mary. To again differentiate from the men’s adventure norm – and another parallel with The Revenger – is that Mary is three months pregnant. She has no knowledge of Johnny’s past, only a fake story that he “owed money” to some bad people and the government set him up with this new life here.

Moran comes into Johnny’s store one morning and Johnny suspects something as soon as he sees this stranger; this is one of those places where everyone knows everyone. Also, it occurs to Johnny that night when he can’t sleep, Moran has “cop eyes,” something Johnny learned to spot long ago. He’s gotten paranoid before but he’s certain Moran is the person he’s been afraid would come here someday. And of course he is; after a phone call to Don Renzo, a pair of guys who look like “cowhands” are sent to Moran. These are professional hunters of men.

The majority of the text is given over to a practically endless chase these two put Johnny through in the desert; pages 59 to 107 of the novel, in fact. Johnny, urging Mary to leave town the next morning, spots an unfamiliar car coming down the road and hops in his Mustang with Mary, the hunters in pursuit. Johnny ditches Mary and takes off on foot through the rough terrain. The two hunters pursue. Luckily Johnny has a .38 and a rifle for this very occasion, but the hunters have carbines with telescopic sights.

What with the drawn-out suspense of man hunting man in the harsh desert, this entire sequence has the vibe of a western, particularly with the carbines and rifles being used. You can almost hear the Sergio Leonne music. While it’s all suitably tense and thrilling, personally I prefer more gun-blazing sort of action; I felt this bit just went on and on. City-boy Johnny has spent the past year learning the area, hunting with the locals, and due to his newfound knowledge of the desert he’s able to (gradually) turn the tables on his hunters, so that hunter becomes prey. Also to note is that Albert doesn’t dwell much on the violence; this is one of those novels where people just get shot and fall down – no exploding fountains of gore or geysering jets of cerebrospinal fluid, more’s the pity. 

Actually, Soldato! is really just comprised of a sequence of chase scenes. Immediately after this long chase is over, we get another, as Moran, who was waiting for the two hunters to return, spots Johnny escaping town and gives his own chase, gradually tailing him all the way back to New York. Johnny has decided to take the fight to his old boss; only with Don Renzo’s death will he be free. Moran remains in the narrative, appearing sporadically; he gets more money from Don Renzo, and even when he loses Johnny in the city he tracks him down via Mary, who, against Johnny’s orders, ends up phoning her mother from the boarding house in Hackensack, New Jersey Johnny has deposited her in.

Meanwhile Johnny runs from shadow to shadow in New York, hunted by the don’s endless legions of men. Albert to his credit doesn’t give the book an ounce of sap; while Johnny knows all of these men, and indeed some of them were his “sidekicks” in that old gang, there’s none of the “but we used to be brothers!” bullshit there would no doubt be in a modern take on this story. These guys are out to kill Johnny, period, and Johnny’s out to kill them first.

But he has grander designs for Don Renzo. Calling up Riley, that old Justice lawyer, Johnny claims he’s going to “get” the don for real this time. Not kill him, but something else. What Johnny does is bust up another old acquaintance, this one a drug dealer, and makes off with all of his coke. He then breaks into a dry cleaners with the Don’s clothes and sews the packets into one of the jackets. Johnny also gets in a few more chases from various Mafia goons, including the occasional shootout, one of which leaves Johnny half-dead, with a shot-up left arm and a bullet in the ribs.

The most unusual character in the book only briefly appears: Doc Miller, a fallen-from-grace doctor who now operates out of a flophouse with a pair of nude teenaged girls at his beck and call! He patches Johnny up, tells him he’s gonna die soon – but be sure to pay up first – and gives him a handful of codeine pills. And this is our hero for the last few pages; rather than the slam-bang action finale we might’ve expected, we instead have a practically comatose, zombielike Johnny camping out in the dingy apartment he’s rented, across from Don Renzo’s headquarters in Brooklyn, watching through binoculars and waiting for the day the don shows up wearing one of those special jackets.

It’s pretty trying, for sure…page after page of Johnny stumbling in a dying funk from bedroom to bathroom, praying that this is the day the don shows up in a coke-lined jacket. Johnny lives off grungy tap water and codeine pills, his left arm numb and every breath killing him. Thus it is as big a relief to the reader as it is to Johnny when the don finally shows up in one of those jackets and Johnny calls Riley – who, realism be damned, swoops in with a bunch of cops and whatnot and summarily arrests the don on the spot, even if it’s clear he’s been framed as a drug-runner.

The novel ends with a flashforward to two months later; Johnny’s mostly recovered, if a bit battered and bruised, and he and Mary head off to a new life, with a new name, in Denver. Johnny’s been saved, in a very nice bit of character-redemption, by none other than Charles Moran, who, upon finding out Don Renzo has been arrested, quickly figures out that whoever called the cops had to be someone within viewing distance. In this way he’s come upon Johnny, lying mostly dead in his apartment, and it’s Moran who calls the cops for him, something Johnny is never to learn. Moran’s even hiding there in the airport as Johnny and Mary fly off.

This would appear to be the end of Johnny Morini’s story, but four more volumes were to follow. I figured something had to happen to Johnny’s wife and kid, otherwise why would he get back into mob busting? And sure enough, checking Marty McKee’s review, I see that in the next book Albert “discard[s] the wife and child via divorce and miscarriage!” Well, that’s….depressing.

Overall I enjoyed Soldato!, which is written in that firm, assured manner of an old hardboiled/pulp master. But while his writing is economical and fast-moving, Albert is an unrepentant POV-hopper; one paragraph we’re in one character’s perspective, and the next, with no warning or white space or anything, we’re in the perspective of someone else. This is particularly annoying in the chase scenes – we’re with Johnny as he desperately races through a canyon, then in the very next sentence we’re in the perspective of the men chasing him. This commits the ultimate author affront of pulling the reader out of the fictive experience, and to this day I still can’t understand why some writers don’t realize it!

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Deadly, Deadly Art

The Deadly, Deadly Art, by Gilbert Ralston
November, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Another Pinnacle crime paperback of the ‘70s which is forgotten today, The Deadly, Deadly Art is courtesy Gilbert Ralston, who at the time was also writing the Dakota series for Pinnacle – which, according to the ad for the series at the front of the book, was up to the third volume when this one was published.

I haven’t gotten to that installment of Dakota yet (I’m still sleepy from the first one), but Marty McKee notes that its villain happened to be obsessed with ancient Egyptian cat-god Bastet. This is interesting, because the villain of The Deadly, Deadly Art is also obsessed with Bastet…meaning Ralston turned in two novels to Pinnacle roughly around the same time which both dealt with Bastet. The back cover has it that “the cat-man” is a professional assassin who pulls jobs both for money and as “sacrifices” to his god; a “tough New York lawman” is determined to bring him down.

It all sounds very interesting, but unfortunately Gilbert Ralston wrote the book. Once again he has turned in a listless, slow-moving affair that makes little use of its oddball ideas, and offers zilch in the way of sex and/or violence. In fact the sole sex scene is a repeat of the one in the first volume of Dakota: “He plunged into her.” That’s the entire sex scene. Ralston was a former TV writer, and one quickly gleans he made his living coming up with words to put into the mouths of actors; The Deadly, Deadly Art is mostly comprised of various characters engaging in pretentious conversations.

The killer is Brian Lee Sattler, a snooty type who, despite his professorial manner (literally so, as he’s a college art professor), is really a bad-ass ‘Nam vet and an expert at karate and judo. Imagine Chuck Norris as Frasier Crane and you’ll be close. Sattler’s background is sprinkled through the novel, but we learn that he was an orphan raised by a foster family he hated, because they killed his pet cat(!), and now he teaches art at a small college in Connecticut while doing assassination jobs for a mysterious handler named Kiefer. He spends most of his time in New York City, which is where we meet him when the novel opens, killing a much-hated executive of the UBC television network in broad daylight on the busy rush-hour sidewalks of Manhattan.

Sattler’s weapon here is a curare-laced “tiny gold rapier,” which I believe is what the weapon on the cover photo is intended to be. Before he kills the man Sattler mutters “Bastet;” this will be a recurring theme through the book, with Sattler invoking his god’s name to “offer up” sacrifices or even his own pain. But Ralston does precious little to explain why Sattler even came upon Bastet as his god…we know he loves cats (he has three in his Connecticut home), but to go from that to worshipping an ancient feline deity is pretty extreme.

As mentioned Ralston was a TV writer and thus the material at UBC headquarters might be taken from his personal experience, though the most we get out of it is that the TV industry is a brutal cycle of promotions and terminations. It’s more about the executive level, with hardly anything about the actual production side; Sattler’s first kill is courtesy a UBC bigwig who wants to get another one out of the way. This murder serves to bring our hero onto the scene: a 30-something detective named Mack Bennett, who ultimately has no personality – Ralston gives Bennett a brief backstory of marriage and divorce, but he’s so dedicated to his job that he’s one-dimensional.

Bennett and his partner Doug Foster investigate the murder; the only reason they know it’s one, and not the heart attack initially thought, was because the M.E. discovered a pinprick in the corpses’s ribs – the entrance wound from that tiny rapier. Meanwhile the instrument itself eventually falls into the hands of the police; Sattler goes to a nightclub owned by a former cathouse madam and gets hooked up with a sexy French singer named Valerie. When it looks like she’s becoming an item with Sattler, a jealous suitor attacks him in the park, and Sattler makes quick work of him with those karate moves, killing him instantly and “offering him up to Bastet.”

Without knowing it Sattler has dropped the little rapier in the skirmish, and later the cops turn it up. This provides a big narrative red herring as Bennett figures the dead guy in the park might’ve been the murderer of the UBC exec, what with the curare on the rapier found at the murder scene. A big part of The Deadly, Deadly Art is given over to Bennett and partner meeting and interviewing various witnesses and experts, and here again Ralston shows his TV background with lots of dialog, most of it expository.

More pages are filled with Brian Sattler’s life in rural Schuyler, Connecticut, where he has a steady flame named Jennifer who happens to be a fellow teacher at his college. Jennifer is in love with Sattler and wants to marry him but suspects he’s hiding something from her. Little does she know that in the cellar of Sattler’s home is a locked-up chamber he has spent years perfecting: it is filled with priceless works of art, including a statue of Bastet, and each item has been paid for by one of his kills. Sattler likes to stand around and “bask” in the “perfection” of the chamber, which is a sort of adyton to Bastet (not a term Ralston uses in the book, but I wanted to prove I could be just as pretentious as his damn characters).

Things pick up when Sattler’s next job has him working for a wealthy man named Wentworth, who along with his wife want a rival killed off. Sattler falls in love with virginal Diane, pretty daughter of Wentworth and his first wife – there follows more pretentious dialog as Sattler exclaims on Diane’s piano playing and whatnot. Gradually Sattler will want to quit the assassin life and marry Diane(!), something which his handler Kiefer tells him is impossible. This sets off the confrontation between the two which proves to be the climax.

Meanwhile Bennett himself gets hitched – to Valerie, that hotstuff French babe Sattler was involved with early in the book. Bennett has finally come across Sattler’s name and figures him for the killer, though no one believes him. But first he and Valerie have to high-tail it to Maryland for a quickie marriage(!?). After this Valerie insists on following Bennett around like a loyal puppy…not that Bennett gets into any action-movie esque shootouts or anything. Friends, Bennett doesn’t even take out his gun in the novel!

Instead, Sattler, who has been injured by the traitorous Wentworths, gets his revenge and then kills the man Kiefer has sent to kill him. He then sets up the corpse in an elaborate scheme to make it look like Sattler himself has died in a house fire, burning down his precious Bastet chamber in the process. But karma’s a bitch, as in a preposterous finale Sattler is killed in a car accident as he makes his way to Canada – killed when the driver in front of him slams on his brakes to avoid a cat crossing the road. As Bart Simpson once said, “The ironing is delicious.”

Otherwise The Deadly, Deadly Art is bland and forgettable. The hero is as bland as the book, and there are no action scenes to speak of; Sattler’s kills are almost perfunctory given how superhuman he is. About the most tense part is when the Wentworths try to kill him and Sattler goes after them for revenge. But at 180-some pages of smallish, dense print, that’s too little reward. At the very least I’m interested to see what the Bastet-worshipper is like in Ralston’s third Dakota book.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Angel #3: The Gilded Snatch Caper

Dark Angel #3: The Gilded Snatch Caper, by James D. Lawrence
May, 1975  Pyramid Books

The third volume of Dark Angel is pretty patience-testing; sad when you consider how fun the previous two volumes were. But it would appear that James D. Lawrence has lost his mojo. While heroine Angie “The Dark Angel” Harpe is as vivacious as ever, with a smart-ass, Foxy Brown-esque line for every occasion, the plot itself is a muddled, listless affair, and it is accurately summed up by the proprietor of Blaxploitation Paperbacks (from whom I lifted this cover scan – thanks!): “…this one comes across as if the author just cranked it out because he was under pressure from the publisher.”

Even though this one is shorter than the first two, it seems a lot longer, mostly because hardly anything happens. Hell, even the sleazy sex has been whittled down. Angie spends the majority of the novel driving around New York City and its rural surroundings, chasing one red herring lead after another; action is just as scant as the sex. It doesn’t help matters that Angie’s case is outside her normal purview: this time she’s hired to find a kidnapped heiress, and as Angie constantly informs everyone, she doesn’t normally do missing person cases. But Lawrence must’ve been reading a lot about the Patty Hearst fiasco at the time and figured it was as good material as any to use for his third Dark Angel novel.

Lawrence at least retains his gift for memorable openings: Angie’s on a crowded elevator when a dude with a potted plant covering his face sticks a gun in her back. As nonchalant as can be, Angie reaches back, unzips his fly, and grabs hold of his dick! If he doesn’t hand over the gun he’ll be one sorry sonofabitch, so the guy hands it over. But here the longwinded nature of the tale first manifests itself; the guy’s over-complicated story has it that he was hired by a one night stand hippie chick who gave him the plant, which contains an address on it, as well as an envelope with the same address, and told to kidnap the Dark Angel.

The address turns out to be an abandoned flophouse with a store mannequin in it, one that’s got a machete through the head. There’s also an expensive necklace on it; through this and her various contacts Angie figures out that the owner is young Byrony Cargill (not to be confused with Patty Hearst, of course), college-age daughter of newspaper baron Royce Cargill. But when Angie goes to deliver them the necklace, she’s harrassed at the front gate and made to strip to panties and boots. As unfazed as ever by her own nudity, Angie beats up the men who have surrounded her, tosses one of them on the hood of her Jaguar, and drives up to the front gate.

She carries out her meeting with the Cargills while still nude – Lawrence still maintains an outrageously sleazy vibe throughout, though nothing to the caliber of his previous outings. Anyway here Angie learns that Byrony Cargill has been kidnapped. It would appear a recurring motif of the Dark Angel series is that Angie is hired by an older white male who treats her with disdain; Royce Cargill serves this function this time. Another motif is that, during the course of her investigation, Angie will be paired with a young white man, who indeed will soon become her partner in bed as well – as ever, Angie only has sex with white men.

The young man in question is Derek Morgan, wealthy ‘Nam vet who is in his mid 20s and is studying art at Rockford University with Byrony, his fiance. Cargill, who doesn’t believe Angie’s weird story and suspects she has something to do with Byrony’s kidnapping, orders her to find his daughter and insists that Derek accompany and monitor her throughout. He’ll even put them up at a company penthouse suite in Manhattan. It takes a good long while for Angie to get him in the sack, though she gives him all kinds of saucy lines in the meantime; indeed, Lawrence waits till page 102 to even get to his first sex scene, which admittedly is more explicit and longer than any others yet in the series, complete even with the TMI tidbit that Angie’s already “oozing” before they do the deed, Derek has her so worked up.

Angie and Derek spend a goodly portion of The Gilded Snatch Caper either sitting around the penthouse or driving to or from it. They chase after one lead after another, usually coming up with nothing – Angie is alternately stupid and brilliant this time out, missing obvious clues several times, then flashing on what she missed much later and having a brainiac flash that explains everything. As for the curious title of the book, it comes from the gold-colored, short curly hair which is included with the ransom note for Byrony; Derek reveals that, a few days ago, Byrony dyed her pubic hair gold as a lark. Angie chortles that she’ll file this case under the name “The Gilded Snatch.”

But it’s all pretty tedious. The sleazy ‘70s vibe at least is still in effect, with Angie’s slutty wardrobe often described, complete with the mandatory mentions of the salivating men she leaves in her wake. And Lawrence as ever busts out the racial slurs, with Angie good-naturedly joking on race with her contacts, most of whom are of various ethinicities. Particular pre-PC fun is provided by one in Chinatown by the name of Wun Good Fook. While Angie’s friends (and enemies) will often mention her race, I noticed this time around what appeared to be a careful attempt on Lawrence’s part of downplaying Angie’s ethnicity. Multiple times she is just described as “golden skinned,” as if Lawrence were trying to make us forget the character is black. (I immediately put down the book and phoned the ACLU.)

From the dyed pubic hair (there’s a sentence I don’t get to write every day) Angie has already figured out that Byrony played a part in her own abduction. It develops that she’s in with a group of hippie terrorists called The Rainmakers (not to be confused with the Weathermen, of course), and she plotted the kidnapping as a ruse to get money from her old man “to raise public consciousness.” Angie gets here after contacting a variety of leads, including a fashion mag photographer who has Angie pose mostly-nude for him like old times (even sucking on her “tits” so her nipples will be erect for the shot!). But eventually Angie and Derek learn that there is more to the kidnapping story, and that Byrony might be in real danger.

There’s precious little action. When visiting the Rockford campus Angie and Derek are attacked by a “biker freak” and a big black dude (whom Lawrence memorably describes as a “jig” – like I said, the sleazy vibe is still here), but Angie again bests her opponents with her weighted purse and judo skills. A later, even briefer fight has her taking out some Mafia thugs she meets in one of the book’s more arbitrary scenes. Lawrence mixes the sex and violence later on when Angie’s kidnapped by three Nazi-types who announce their intent to rape her. Angie tells them she wants to enjoy it, strips down, arranges which guy gets which part of her, and when two of them “slide into her” she “rakes her teeth” along the “shaft” of one and beats them all senseless.

But what makes it worse is that Lawrence keeps teasing us with the promise of action. Like when Royce Cargill gets notice of where to drop off the payment, and sends off his lawyer to do the job. Angie and Derek wait in the shadows, armed with Uzis…and all the action happens off-page, as it were, with people shooting at each other while Angie and Derek sit there. Then they just get in Angie’s Jaguar and drive back to New York!! So it’s back to the penthouse for more sex, after which they learn one of Angie’s contacts, that photographer, has been murdered. This leads to more diversions, Lawrence clearly just spinning his wheels to fill up the book.

To cut to the chase – it turns out that a sleazy hippie chick named Flower Power, who is a Rainmaker, has also been sleeping around with the “ghetto militants” of the Che Berets, a Harlem-based black terrorist army. She is the one who slept with the dude with the potted plant at the beginning of the novel; a convoluted story the goal of which was to get Angie involved with the caper in the first place. But the Che Berets, led by a big black dude with a strange speaking style, ended up stealing Byrony from the Rainmakers – and then, in the final pages, a third group has come along, stealling Byrony away from these guys, killing them all in the process.

It gets more convoluted. If you recall the dude Angie tossed on the hood of her car like a deer carcass – it was a man named Warner Upshur, editor of the National Indicator, a tabloid owned by Royce Cargill. Toward the end of the book Upshur keeps calling Angie. When she finally goes to his place, which is decorated in “Boris Karloff Byzantine,” Angie discovers that Upshur is into the bondage scene. He has a dungeon in his place with whips and chains, and Angie, despite the fact that she just pulled the exact same stunt a few pages ago, fools the guy into thinking she’s all game for it – and then ends up locking him up and escaping.

But now in the final pages…it turns out Upshur is the main villain, after all! Yep, Angie and Derek, again with those Uzis, head back to Upshur’s place and Angie exposits for a few pages about how Upshur is really a German and was a Nazi to boot. In fact those three would-be rapists are his soldiers. Angie you see has figured all this out without informing us readers. The fact that Angie was just in Upshur’s place a few hours ago, with him at her mercy, is unmentioned – nor is the fact that Upshur could’ve killed Angie at the time. As I say, the entire novel just reeks of something Lawrence quickly banged out without much thought.

Even in the finale Angie doesn’t do much – those three Nazis gun down Upshur, then Angie and Derek blast them away. This is literally on the last page, like four paragraphs before the end of the book – Lawrence has so padded the pages that he merely leaves it at “Angie shot one of them down,” or something to that effect. Sprinting for the finale now, he finally introduces Byrony, who is captive here in Upshur’s place; she doesn’t even have any dialog. In fact Lawrence is so out of sorts that he goofs and mentions Angie’s “bare breasts,” when in fact it was in her earlier visit to Upshur’s that she was topless, not here in the finale.

So yeah, this one was subpar. One can see why there was only one more volume to go; here’s hoping The Godmother Caper is much better than this dud.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Crooked Cop

Crooked Cop, by Bob Parker
No month stated, 1973  Manor Books

Here we have another BCI crime paperback courtesy book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel and boy, is this one friggin’ fantastic – a lurid, sleazy, sex-filled yarn featuring one stone-cold bastard for a protagonist. And as with The Strangler, I’m fairly certain this one was the work of Paul Eiden; while Crooked Cop, unlike The Strangler, is filled with action and sex, it still has the same quality writing, strong characterization, and, most tellingly, that “widely separated breasts” line which Eiden uses in each of his novels.

The cover is a bit misleading, as it makes you think the titular cop is a uniformed policeman. Rather, “hero” Bill Fitzjohn is a plainclothes detective with the NYPD, at 30 the youngest detective on the force. Fitzjohn is almost a protagonist in search of his own men’s adventure series. More accurately, he’s basically a Nietzschean Superman – a towering mass of muscle and cunning guile, who looks down on his fellow mortals (particularly women), makes no excuses for his corrupt nature, and has arrogance to spare. He’s so obsessed with sex that he has especially developed his lower back and quad muscles to give him an extra “boost” in the sack, if you will; indeed, to the point that he is “a formidable sexual gladiator.”

The main plot has to do with Fitzjohn launching a one-man war against a Mafia family for having the gall to try to sell heroin on the streets of New York – heroin is the one thing Fitzjohn won’t abide. Really though the majority of the novel is given over to Fitzjohn’s taming of a veritable shrew: the “top madam” of New York, a smokin’ hot blonde German babe who is not only the top madam but the youngest one to boot; Fitzjohn has dreamed since adolescence of banging the number one whore in the world, and if this babe is the best in New York, then she’s the best there is period.

But whereas The Strangler was a studied, probing sort of police procedural, Crooked Cop is more along the lines of a drive-in exploitation movie. It moves quickly and doesn’t waste time with arbitrary “cop world” stuff. To be sure, Eiden again displays his knowledge of the NYPD (and New York itself), dropping police details almost casually, but while The Strangler was almost a true crime yarn with its bird’s eye view of real-world police detecting, Crooked Cop just uses this material to provide the backdrop for Bill Fitzjohn’s sex-and-violence filled life.

Anyway, Fitzjohn is in the NYPD’s anti-vice unit which is responsible for all the illicit gambling profits in the city; we’re informed this department is “traditionally corrupt” and that many cops spend their careers hoping for an assignment to it. Fitzjohn’s been with the department for a while, starting off as a medal-winning plaintclothes detective before getting this assignment, where he lives off “clean graft;” ie, Fitzjohn is happy to take any of the syndicate’s money, as long as it isn’t from drugs in general and heroin in particular. He has no actual grudge against heroin; he just hates it because he “needs something to hate.”

He has a posh penthouse in Manhattan with a Porsche and a Mustang in a private garage, as well as a hundred thousand or so in the bank, all of it under various cover names; his “real” home is a place in Queens which he hasn’t been to in years. He carries a .357 Magnum and, in addition to his physique (courtesy an “obsession” with weight-lifting he’s had since adolescence), he runs 11 miles a day. (Even after an all-night tussle with the latest one-night stand!) He also has no problem with snorting the occasional line of coke. His ego is only matched by his arrogance; Fitzjohn makes Denzell Washington’s character in Training Day look like Mr. Rogers.

The novel opens with Fitzjohn’s bad-assery in full effect, as he waltzes into the domain of one of the Patriarco brothers, ie the main Mafia family his department takes graft from. He kicks the shit out of a few thugs, breaking one’s knees and literally kicking another in the ass. He proceeds to beat up the Patriaco brother in residence. Fitzjohn just got wind of a heroin deal the capo brothers were planning behind his back – Fitzjohn only allows them to do their usual gambling and other ventures due to that clean graft they give him and his fellow department cops. Heroin is a big no-no, and Fitzjohn doesn’t give second chances. This sets off the war between Fitzjohn and the Patriarcos; he tells them he’s kicking them “out of the rackets,” but instead they go into hiding and plot his death.

Soon after this, though, Eiden gets to the real focus of the novel – Fitzjohn’s sexual adventures. After a night of bar-hopping he picks up a sexy brunette in “a turquoise shantung pant suit” (the novel is filled with such ‘70s touches, by the way) and takes her back to his penthouse for some Eiden-typical explicit sex. But we also here see Fitzjohn’s assholery: when the gal (whose name Fitzjohn doesn’t even learn until the next morning) implores him to take her, he inspects her, uh, “portal,” deems that she is not fully aroused, and berates her for not really being “ready” yet! He then goes on a tirade about how women fake being horny in order to please their men, with the ultimate effect that the women then have subpar sex and eventually turn to lesbianism. (This same argument was made by the titular character in The Strangler; more indication that this book is by the same author.)

But Fitzjohn is a regular Nick Carter – a demigod in action and in bed. He works the gal up good and proper and then has her really begging for it. And, naturally, he’s the first guy to ever make her orgasm, but next morning he treates her with disdain and practically kicks her out of his apartment. This brunette does not appear again; rather, the focus of Fitzjohn’s sexual powers is Hildegarde, a sexy blonde German babe Fitzjohn spots on the streets of Manhattan that very day – he sees her in the distance, recognizes her from someone having pointed her out to him the other year, runs over to her, and says “Hello, whore!” by way of introduction!

Hildegarde’s description is further evidence that Crooked Cop is the work of Paul Eiden: “The breasts under her striped jersey dress were so full and widely separated that their outer curves hid part of her upper arms.” As mentioned before, Eiden has used a variation of this phrase in all of his books, so I’m certain now that it was his veritable calling card. Fitzjohn knows of Hildegarde, that she’s the “top madam” in New York, and it’s been his dream since childhood to bang the world’s number one whore – as he tells Hildegarde later, he’d rather have her than a few virgins. Their banter is humorous and outrageous – when Fitzjohn tells Hildegarde, who is from Germany, that she doesn’t have much of an accent, she retorts that she speaks seven languages. “But can you fuck?” Asks Fitzjohn. “Just try me,” she replies.

And boy does he ever! There are a handful of graphic sex scenes between Fitzjohn and Hildegarde, and in each we get a glimpse of what a bastard Fitzjohn is. First, when Hildegarde refuses to kiss him during their initial boff, Fitzjohn kicks her right between her nude buttocks, flipping her over on the bed (something John Eagle also did, by the way, in the Eiden-written John Eagle Expeditor #13: Operation Weatherkill), then ties her down, gets out a heavy belt, and whips her mercilessly! Of course, this only serves to make her super-aroused. Gradually – and I do mean gradually, as Eiden wants us to know what kind of a bastard we’re dealing with for a protagonist – we learn that Fitzjohn’s doing all this as an “experiment,” to see if he can make a woman out of Hildegarde…as he tells his partner, D’Amato, the only way to get to a whore’s heart is to treat her like shit, as all whores suffer from self-hatred, even if it’s subconcious, and the only way to get their respect is to play to that. Or as Eiden later puts it, Fitzjohn treats Hildegarde in a “hard-nosed pimp manner.”

He only gets more degrading from there: “Roll your Dutch [sic] ass out of bed and make me something to eat,” he orders her next morning. All this occurs in Hildegarde’s multi-suite apartment, which, Xaviera Hollander style, is actually a cathouse. Here Hildegarde runs her company, and a lordly Fitzjohn moves in, bossing her around, demanding that she pay him a hundred bucks a day for his services! He also promises to beat the shit out of her if she turns any tricks; she’s his “john,” and he won’t share her with any other men. As I say, Bill Fitzjohn is such a stone-cold bastard that you can’t help but laugh throughout Crooked Cop. “You stink of whore sweat,” he later tells her – then lovingly gives her a bath. I do say, a very strange romance ensues, with Fitzjohn almost growing to love Hildegarde, whom he routinely refers to as “bitch.”

Fitzjohn’s day job has him looking into various vice-related crimes. One of them leads to the novel’s second action scene; following leads on a heisted whiskey truck, Fitzjohn and D’Amato get in a shootout, Fitzjohn blowing the heister away with his .357. But as ever, Eiden’s heroes dole out clean, non-messy kills – pretty damn hard when you’re hitting people with a Magnum slug, I’d wager. But the Patriarco business increasingly takes center stage, especially when two men who not only resemble Fitzjohn and D’Amato but also happen to be seated at the same table the two men just dined at are gunned down in an obvious mob shooting. Despite past history of “racket guys” not killing cops, it would appear the Patriarco brothers are looking to take out our hero.

It gets more real when Fitzjohn’s almost hit by a drive-by shooting out at his seldom-visited place in Queens; he fires back and, invigorated by the action, gives chase on foot. He ends up blowing away all three would-be killers in another shootout. He notches another kill when he takes out a crook involved with a jewelry heist – that is, after Fitzjohn’s partaken of the dude’s cocaine stash, which gives him a “cold, clear mind.” Meanwhile the Patriarcos have “gone to the mattresses” (Eiden proving he’s read The Godfather); Fitzjohn gets leads on various family soldiers, including a memorable visit to an old flame who is now married to a minor Patriarco enforcer – Fitzjohn tells her he’ll be back sometime to enjoy more of her “champion head!”

While Fitzjohn, who started the whole war, treats everything as if it were a fun time, his partner D’Amato becomes more unglued. Married, overweight, saving up all his graft for his family, D’Amato wants to take out the Patriarcos before it’s too late. Thus he is the one who pushes Fitzjohn to abduct the first Patriarco soldier they find; they take him to an abandoned warehouse, where D’Amato urges a reluctant Fitzjohn to electrocute the bastard for intelligence. (Surprisingly, they let the guy live – Fitzjohn even congratulating him on how tough he is!) Unfortunately the climax is a bit rushed; Fitzjohn finally tracks down the Patriarcos and their consigliere in a house in Hackensack and, armed with a Remington shotgun he’s illegally modified to automatic, he blows them all away – I was hoping for more of an action-packed finale.

Rather, the brunt of the finale is given over to the Fitzjohn-Hildegarde relationship. Earlier Fitzjohn has told her that he doesn’t “handle prossy cases,” ie prostitutes; further, he tells her it’s only a matter of time before her cathouse is busted. This happens – while Fitzjohn’s lounging in the foyer. A few of his department colleagues come in with various gals, pretending to be johns, and Fitzjohn knows it’s a bust. While Hildegarde pleads with him to do something, Fitzjohn merely repeats his “no prossy cases” line and takes his leave.

If anything Eiden is a master of avoiding sap. He builds up a thread with Fitzjohn thinking more and more about Hildegarde, how she’s gotten to him more than any other woman; even after the climactic shootout with the Patriarcos, a wounded Fitzjohn sits bleeding in his car thinking about Hildegarde. But when he goes to see her at the courthouse later that morning, he basically just tells her she got what was coming to her, and turns a deaf ear to the fact that, without her green card, she’s surely going to be deported back to Germany. “Goodbye, darling,” says Fitzjohn, and that’s that – both for the relationship and for the novel. As I say, it’s pretty great how Eiden just takes all the maudlin glurge you were expecting and basically kicks it in the crotch.

All told, I loved Crooked Cop; it was one of the best standalone crime thrillers I’ve read, and it would’ve made for a great drive-in flick (only one actor could’ve played Fitzjohn, for my money: William Smith!). Eiden does drop the ball here and there, though, likely indication that this was a quickly turned-out contractual work: for one, D’Amato just disappears from the narrative, and Eiden doesn’t bother to follow up on an eleventh hour subplot that the Feds are cracking down on Fitzjohn’s department – his boss, Orlowski, has promised Fitzjohn that he’s “putting in his papers” the next morning to avoid any legal indictments, but we get no resolution on this.

But this is just a minor complaint. Otherwise I had a blast reading this one and I highly recommend it. Here’s hoping Eiden wrote some more of these crime paperbacks for Lyle Kenyon Engel – at the very least, it has me looking forward to reading the two volumes of Mafia: Operation he turned in for Engel as “Don Romano.”

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Vigilante #3: San Francisco: Kill Or Be Killed

The Vigilante #3: San Francisco: Kill Or Be Killed, by V.J. Santiago
February, 1976  Pinnacle Books

The harried life of Joe The Vigilante Madden now takes him to San Francisco, not even a whole day after the awesome previous volume. For that matter, his wife’s murder, which set Madden on his vigilante path, wasn’t even two weeks ago. I didn’t have big expectations for this series, but I’m really enjoying it; while this volume doesn’t hit the sleazy highs of the previous one, it is still pretty fun, and certainly fast-moving.

As we’ll recall, Madden was sent from Los Angeles over to San Francisco at the end of the previous volume to do an interview for his engineering firm. Madden’s day job has never really gotten in the way of the vigilante stuff, much to the credit of Robert Lory (aka “V.J. Santiago”), and this time it factors barely at all. Madden is a full-blown dispenser of brutal justice now; there’s an almost postmodern bit where he does his own killcount, totaling the number of slimebags he’s wasted at 23 (he’ll add 8 more to the total by novel’s end).

There are some nice callbacks to the previous book, mostly due to the public shock over the news in the morning paper – famous singer Johnny O. has been shot dead in LA by an unknown killer. Madden chuckles to himself over this; Johnny was the guy who was running a sex-slave business, of course. And while Madden opens up the novel – and his trip to San Francisco – by taking out a random murderer (a memorable opening which sees Madden posing as a Mafia rep, “interviewing” the dude, and then blowing him away), the basic drive of the series is gradually lost.

Instead, I had bad flashbacks to Jason Striker; Lory takes his hero to Chinatown, and fills up too many pages of Madden “playing” judo and karate and learning tai chi. It just sort of goes on and on, and you wonder when Madden’s going to start randomly gunning down muggers and drug dealers and whatnot. In fact, the very drive of the series is for the most part gone until the final quarter of the novel. But at least Madden gets laid this time – this is the first volume yet to have any sex.

Lory is one of those men’s adventure authors who knows exactly what the genre expects of him. While he doesn’t go for full-blown gore he’s sure to include lots of lurid stuff, some sleaze, and a general exploitation vibe. This latter is mainly accomplished via lots of racial and derogatory slurs, proven immediately with Madden’s interview of the potential hire for his company, who turns out to be a young Chinese man. In a hilariously pre-PC “job interview,” Madden outright questions the young man’s lack of a wife or girlfriend: “Maybe we want to be sure we don’t get a fag on the payroll.”

The two go to dinner in Chinatown that night, and toward the end of the meal the old owner of the place rushes out into the kitchen with a broken neck and dies in front of everyone. In the melee Madden runs into an old pal from the Korean War: Harry Chan, a tall Chinese-American who provides most of the invective this time, referring to his fellow Asians as “slant-eyes” and whantot. Gradually we’ll learn he hates himself for being Asian.

The potential employee takes off, flying to New York the next morning for an appointment at the corp office, while Madden and Harry hit Chinatown. Harry tells Madden that the old restaurant owner was likely murdered by the Scarlet Fist, a sort-of Tong made up of “punks” whom Harry says are nothing more than “common muggers” that wouldn’t even draw any attention back in Madden’s hometown of New York. They’ve been shaking down the various business-owners in Chinatown, threatening them to pay up protection money or else. The neck-broken old restaurant owner is the first representative of the “or else.”

Harry himself owns various businesses, from a restaurant of his own to a karate school – and yes, karate, not kung-fu! – with a “massage parlor” next door. Here’s where Lory doles out the first outright sleaze yet in the series, as it’s one of those massage parlors, filled with ultra-sexy Asian babes in clinging silk robes; the patron picks out which one(s) he wants and heads on up to a private room for a “massage.” After a bit of judo practice in Harry’s dojo with the sexy secretary, Mary Loo(!), Madden heads on over to the massage parlor, where Mary Loo herself picks out two sexy Asian babes to give Madden his rubdown.

Lory’s sex scene is similar in style to the ones he wrote in his John Eagle Expeditor installments, though this one is for the most part of an oral nature. It goes on for a few pages, with the gals bathing Madden, oiling him up, then taking turns on him (“a playful game to determine who was to have custody of Madden’s love equipment,” aka his “throbbing rod”). Then Mary Loo shows up with some Johnny Walker Black and introduces herself as the main course. Curiously, Lory keeps this scene off-page, but Madden and Mary become something of an item, with Mary growing to love Madden (even though the book only occurs over two days). Madden, despite his growing feelings for her, gives her a sort of brush off, because being a vigilante who might get blown away at any moment, he can’t get involved with anyone.

Speaking of the vigilante stuff, it disappears for a large portion of the book. Instead we get many parts where Mary teaches Madden new judo moves or some basic tai chi, and Lory isn’t shy with the exposition on the various forms. Only late in the game does Madden get more involved in this whole Scarlet Fist business, especially after Harry calls a meeting of his fellow Chinatown businessmen and discuss what to do about the threats, insisting everyone speak English so Madden, who watches from a secret window, can follow the conversation.

When the spineless businessmen refuse to do anything but pay the thousand bucks demanded each of them, Madden decides to handle affairs himself. Dressed in his customary trench coat, armed with his .38 (for which he only has nine bullets left), and now wearing a Spider-esque “slouch hat,” Madden flits across the shadows of Chinatown, trailing various Scarlet Fist thugs as they go to collect their payoffs. The gang members wear long coats themselves, faces masked, and Madden blows a couple of them away – here though we get the first indication of an annoying trick Lory pulls in the final quarter; he’ll have a sequence from the perspective of one of the businessmen, who will be shocked when Madden shows up to dispense bloody justice, and then the next chapter he’ll cut over to Madden so we can see how it all came to pass. So basically you read each sequence twice.

Madden next shadows a guy on the Fists’s collection list who happens to be a “whore-master” who runs his own cathouse. Our hero ends up killing this dude himself, blowing him away and then taking his weapon, an automatic pistol of unspecified make or caliber. But at least Madden’s “personal armory” is now up to two guns. Lory pulls a fast one on readers when Madden, who really hasn’t done much about the Scarlet Fist until the final pages, suddenly deduces who their leader really is – spoiler alert, though everyone will see it coming: it’s Harry himself.

Our hero scores another kill, this one sleazy as can be, as he brains a dude with a dumbbell as he’s sitting on the toilet! He takes out two more Scarlet Fist hatchetmen before he engages Harry in the final confrontation. It’s a bit contrived as Harry is by turns evil and contrite, even begging Madden to recall how they were once best buds. But Lory at least doesn’t go out on a maudlin vibe, with it all just a ploy on Harry’s part – one that fails as he finds himself staring into the barrel of Madden’s .38. 

Lory doesn’t wrap up the Mary Loo subplot, ending the quick tale here, but here’s betting she’s just a memory by next volume’s beginning. But “quick” does sum up Kill Or Be Killed, and Lory’s writing is so assured that you’re finished the book in no time. It might not reach the sleazy highs of the previous one, but it’s still an enjoyable read.

Oh, and this was the last volume to sport a photo cover – I’m gonna miss the “pissed-off Greg Brady” who served as the cover model.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Angelface, by Monica Jordan
June, 1976  Dell Books

Proving once again that there’s no sleaze like ‘70s sleaze, and no ‘70s sleaze like Dell Books sleaze, Angelface is a novella-length yarn about one woman’s descent into “flesh on film,” and it’s basically just a string of graphic sex scenes with the occasional “have I become a whore?” moment of self-doubt. In other words, what’s not to like?

The book is credited to “Monica Jordan,” but it’s copyright Alan Carbua. A little research shows that Caruba published a poetry book or two in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, as well as a few nonfiction books. The novel is written in third-person and details the plunge into “sex on camera” experienced by Norma Diamond, a hotstuff advertising agency babe who, when we meet her, has just gone back to the penthouse apartment studio of Jerry Slade, world-famous photographer.

Jerry is known for many things, one of which is the discovery of a lady named Martha Garnes, who is now known as “Angelface,” a supermodel before there was any such thing. Her face is known all over the globe as the “Ondine Girl,” after the company she represents. But in a brief prologue from Angelface’s point of view, we learn that the megababe “escaped” Jerry, and now to avoid him she refuses any jobs in New York. She wonders what young woman Jerry has in his spell now… 

Surprisingly, Caruba never really gives us a good idea of what Norma looks like. I mean, I don’t think her hair color is even mentioned. But we learn she’s at least “leggy,” with “nice breasts.” An interesting thing is that in the many ensuing sex scenes, Caruba has no qualms about describing Norma’s nether regions with the well-known “see you next Tuesday,” but yet for the men, it’s always “phallus.” It’s very strange to read an otherwise uber-explict sex scene that uses the word “phallus” for the sexual equipment of the dudes.

Anyway, Jerry and Norma go at it full-tilt, despite the fact that Norma doesn’t normally do this sort of thing; if you’re in doubt, Caruba occasionally has Norma ponder her past sexual experiences in page-filling detail. But she’s young (late 20s), successful, and on the Pill, so why not? Hell, she doesn’t even seem to mind when Jerry slips his “phallus” into her “anal passage,” the first time any such thing has ever been done to her. Why? Because he’s capturing it all on remote-controlled cameras. (Jerry would’ve gone nuts over video recorders!)

Jerry claims that Norma has that special something which separated Angelface from run-of-the-mill models: the look that she’s burnin’ yearnin’ for a good lay when she poses for the camera. While most women have affected looks of sensuality and whatnot, Norma’s sultry stare is 100% real – of course, the fact that Jerry’s “phallus” might be inserted into her “anal passage” at the time might account for that, not that this is ever noted. So the two begin a torrid sex-based affair, with Jerry creating scrapbooks with photos of all the various positions and sexual pursuits the two engage in, books that are just for Jerry and her; he now makes his living doing regular photography.

The sex becomes more kinky as Jerry next introduces another man into the mix, photographing the resultant three-way. Norma meanwhile goes on a few dates with a regular guy, one who would be great marriage material, but she finds that he bores her – she can now only become sexually excited if there’s a camera documenting the act. Jerry goes too far when he breaks out the whips and chains and does a bondage session; he gets off royally on it, but Norma freaks when she’s nearly strangled. Regardless she finds herself falling in love with Jerry: there are many scenes of the two talking about how they care for one another, and how this might just be more than a “casual sex with photography and the occasional second or third dude” sort of thing.

Throughout Norma has many moments of self-doubt, questioning her descent into harlotry. She even rushes back to her parents’s home for a weekend to regroup, only to find she’s gone too far and can’t live without all that on-camera sex. She’s full-blown ho at this point, picking up a random dude in a bar and letting him think she’s a prostitute, even taking money from him. She also manages to scare the guy off, demanding constant sex and debasing herself to his increasing horror. But when Jerry’s next filmed sexcapade features Norma the star feature of a gang-bang, Norma realizes she has “become a thing,” just something for Jerry and the other men to screw while it’s all captured on film. 

Meanwhile Norma’s boss has noted her strange behavior and recommended a psychiatrist. In these brief sessions Norma casually describes her countless illicit adventures with Jerry, even showing photos to the old psych, who admits he feels a “stirring” when he looks at them. But through him Norma manages to pull herself out of the wanton descent and realizes that Jerry is ultimately no good for her.

The novel is titled Angelface, but while the titular character barely appears in it, her presence looms over events; Jerry’s apartment is filled with photos of the supermodel, and he admits he still has a “thing” for her. Like Norma, Angelface starred in a series of porn-scrapbooks with Jerry and other men, including the occasional extra woman. Angelface finally appears in the last pages, having come to New York – an unexplained plot development, given her fear of Jerry Slade in the opening pages. 

Norma has been ignoring Jerry, thus she refuses to answer his calls to come over and spend some time with Angelface and him. Eventually the two come over to her place, and Norma sees that Angelface is practically Jerry’s slave, crawling on her knees for him and accepting his abuse with happiness. This is all very strange, as suddenly Jerry is a straight-up bastard, whereas he’s been very kind to Norma throughout (other than the bondage thing), even professing his growing feelings for her.

But the novel’s only 125 pages, so the brevity must account for this last-minute switch to Jerry’s personality. Suddenly he’s a raving lunatic, threatening Norma to drop her panties and get involved with some lesbian sex with Angelface right now, or else. He even uses those pornographic scrapbooks as blackmail, claiming that’s how he has such control over Angelface, too. But when the three go back to Jerry’s studio, Angelface takes care of all that – she snatches a revolver from a drawer and casually blows Jerry away. Now she and Norma are free – the end! Yep, it’s a rushed finale for sure, and all the various subplots about Norma being a modern, free-spirited woman are sort of swept aside…she realizes she needs normalcy in her life. Whether she gets it or not Caruba leaves unstated, as here the novel ends.

Given the scarcity of Angelface, my assumption is it must’ve received a low print run, and it doesn’t look like Caruba wrote any more trashy novels, under his own name or the Monica Jordan name. Overall though his writing is good, very precise and economical, with a willingness to go into full-bore explicitness. His dialog is also good. So overall, I’d recommend Angelface for those who like their ‘70s sleaze, though be aware the book has less topical ‘70s details than you might imagine; while I figured there would be a lot of shaggy details, about the only bit we get is the fact that Jerry wears a Brick Mantooth-esque blue jumpsuit with nothing beneath.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Penetrator #30: Computer Kill

The Penetrator #30: Computer Kill, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1979  Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham turned in this 30th installment of The Penetrator; Cunningham recently passed away, and I don’t want to speak ill of the dead…but this book sucked!! I mean, it was one of the worst “men’s adventure” novels I’ve ever read…down there with Cunningham’s earlier #22: High Disaster. Seriously, I know it had to be a bitch to keep turning in these manuscripts year in and year out, but still…like I wrote in an earlier Penetrator review, someone at Pinnacle shoulda said to themselves, “You know, maybe we need a new Lionel Derrick.”

Just as in High Disaster, Cunningham turns in a volume that has precious little in common with those that came before it…Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin is retconned into a computer-savvy security expert…the villain is a lame-handed electronics engineer….and there’s practically zero action in the entire book, other than one hilariously-arbitrary fight. Indeed, the majority of Computer Kill is made up of ALL CAPS COMPUTER FONT as “main villain” Hector Lassiter, the aforementioned electronics engineer, hacks into the virtual coffers of the Bainbridge Corporation.

In many ways Computer Kill is prescient in how it is focused on cyber theft, security, hacking, and identity theft. Cunningham had clearly researched this nascent field – these were the days when a good PC system could take up a whole room – and was aware of the dangers it presented. He was right on the money with all the nefarious things a good computer hacker could do. But as Zwolf so accurately and succinctly said: “You want to know a secret? Technology isn’t very interesting. In fact, it makes things boring.”

And if nothing else, Computer Kill sure is boring. When we meet him, Mark Hardin’s already in Chicago, checking out this latest threat which has captured his interest – the dwindling profits of a large corporation called Bainbridge. Yep, folks, “The Penetrator” has suddenly become interested in financial matters. He poses throughout the book as an IRS security specialist, and I kid you not, there are endless sequences where he goes through pages and pages of financial data with Barbara Simpson, the hotstuff computer director babe who is running Bainbridge in all but name, given that Jethro Bainbridge, ancient founder of the company, hasn’t been seen in years.

But really Mark is a supporting character in his own book. The real star is Hector Lassiter, a nutjob computer whiz who was fired from Bainbridge a few years ago after a hand-crippling accident he suffered on the job. Now he’s sworn revenge, which he’ll reap via extortion. At egregious page-length we will read as Hector gets the various codes for various Bainbridge accounts, hacks into the system (all of it tediously described via ALL CAPS computer commands) and makes off with increasing amounts of money. Then he’ll call Barbara Simpson with threats for more money, or else, and this executive-level babe will break down in tears, begging “IRS security expert” Mark Hardin for help.

It wouldn’t be a Cunningham book if there wasn’t any weird and arbitrary shit in it. For one, Hector seduces a fugly Bainbridge computer worker to get access codes from her, and when she discovers the truth, he stabs her to death….and then decides to make her murder look like a “random” Satanic massacre! Slashing up her corpse and scrawling “Pentagrams and other symbols” on the walls, he hopes he’ll throw off the cops (he doesn’t). And speaking of arbitrary, Computer Kill has Cunningham indulging in his own “arbitrary action scene,” along the lines of the “random bank robbery” series co-writer Mark Roberts gave us in #27: The Animal Game.

While walking around Chicago, Mark is attacked by some random dude who just happens to spot Mark and realizes he’s the very man who killed his brother years ago. Turns out this guy was brothers with one of those corrupt Seattle cops in Cunningham’s #8: Northwest Contract, and, spotting Mark on the streets, rushes to get the revenge he’s wanted for so long. It goes without saying that he fails, and indeed Mark barely breaks a sweat as he takes the guy out, “knife expert” and all.

And really that’s it so far as action goes in Computer Kill, which makes the now-customary “Penetrator’s Combat Catalog” at the back of the book especially ridiculous. Mark doesn’t use any of his weapons; even the finale, which sees him rushing to capture Hector before he can blow up the Bainbridge corporate skyscraper, doesn’t have any action. I mean, at least the similarly-pathetic “main villain” in High Disaster had a few thugs Mark could blow away. Hector Lassiter doesn’t even have that – the one dude he does get to work for him, Hector himself blows away, so as to cover his tracks.

To make matters worse, Mark doesn’t even kill off the increasingly-annoying Hector; the finale sees Hector’s plans to blow up the building with hydrogen fail, but he and Mark inhale copious amounts of the noxious vapors. (Mark later walks it off, given his fine-tuned Indian superpowers or whatnot.) While a brain-fogged Penetrator escapes in an elevator, Hector blows himself up by firing at some compressed hydrogen – and dies off-page! In fact it’s some random character who even informs us that Hector is dead!

And what makes for the final pages of Computer Kill? Mark sitting in Barbara Simpson’s office and helping her recoup, via computer, all the money Hector stole from the company! I wish I was making this up, but I’m not – that’s the climax of the novel, as if we readers were super-concerned that Bainbridge was still out a couple million bucks. I mean throughout the book you keep wondering to yourself, “Why does the Penetrator even give a shit about any of this??”

Thirty volumes in, and this series is in pretty big trouble – ironic, then, that around this time Pinnacle was trying to drum up business with a free pamphlet they were giving out at bookstores around the country (boy I wish I still had mine!). It contained writeups about the various Pinnacle action series: The Executioner, Death Merchant, The Penetrator, Richard Blade, The Destroyer, and Edge (The Butcher was on hiatus at this point). Some of these writeups showed up in the Pinnacle paperbacks of the day; the Death Merchant writeup by Joseph Rosenberger appears in Computer Kill.

And speaking of which, Allan at the Sharp Pencil blog recently sent me the Death Merchant writeup as a Word document, with the intent that I put it up here on the blog – and I’m going to get around to it posthaste.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Strangler

The Strangler, by David Black
No month stated, 1974  Manor Books

Yet another of the crime paperbacks “produced” by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel and his BCI outfit in the ‘70s (which I refer to as BCI Crime Paperbacks for ease of tagging), The Strangler is for the most part a slow-moving police procedural, but a well-written one, so absorbing in its unassuming way that its 224 pages fly by.

My initial assumption was that William Crawford served as “David Black,” given that Crawford wrote some of these BCI crime paperbacks (under various pseudonyms), and also given that the novel was very grounded in real-world police details, as if it were written by a cop (as Crawford himself was). But now that I’ve read The Strangler I have to guess it is not the work of Crawford; the novel is much too focused. The few Crawfords I’ve read all suffer from the same A-Z plotting, with inordinate backgrounds spun out for practically every character, no matter now minor.

There is none of that to be found in The Strangler, which stays focused on the plot and its central characters throughout; just compare to the similar BCI crime novel The Rapist, which was written by Crawford; that one’s a mess of extrapolated character backgrounds and arbitrary cop-world details. And it’s a boring, tedious novel, whereas The Strangler is a fascinating read – if lacking in lurid details or any action sequences.

It’s a longshot, but if I had to guess from Engel’s writing stable at the time, my suspicion would be that Paul Eiden might’ve written The Strangler. This is mostly due to one particular (and peculiar) phrase which appears in the novel, describing one of the strangler’s victims: “The breasts…were so full and widely separated the outer curves of them hid part of her upper arms.” A variation on this phrase has appeared in each Eiden novel I’ve read, particularly in his four John Eagle Expeditor offerings, so my assumption is this was Eiden’s calling card, if you will.

The novel takes place in New York City, and the author was clearly familiar with the place…or had a helluva city guide. Our hero is Rocco “Rocky” Amalfitano, a junior detective in his early 20s who has just been placed with the Nineteenth Precinct as a probationary detective, given his solid track record as a uniformed officer. On his first day on the job the first of what will ultimately be eight victims is discovered in Manhattan – the corpse of a lovely young lady who has been strangled and raped. Amalfitano is assigned the case.

This is not a Dirty Harry-esque yarn at all; The Strangler almost reads more like a true crime book, focusing as it does on the sometimes-tedious grind of actual police work and detecting. If I were to compare it to any novel yet reviewed on the blog, it would have to be Midtown North, so those approaching the novel hoping for a lurid action yarn will be disappointed. Indeed, Black keeps the strangler’s kills for the most part off-page, cutting away just as he straps his belt around the throats of his victims. To be sure, I had no real problem with this – there’s only so far I want to peek into the abyss.

After his kills the strangler carves “Herostratus” in ancient Greek letters on the chests of the women. It takes a while for the cops to figure out what the words say – a college professor provides the clue – and they learn that Herostratus was notorious in the ancient world for burning down the temple of Diana so that his name would live on in eternity. The strangler too hopes his name will be remembered forever – for strangling 26 women in New York, going alphabetically by their middle names.

Black juggles viewpoints so that our two main characters are Amalfitano and the strangler himself, who turns out to be a computer worker on Wall Street named George Stafford – a tall, dark-haired young man who looks similar to Anthony Perkins, as is often noted. Gradually we’ll learn that Stafford’s mother was a heroin addict…and used to “choke the living daylights” out of her little boy with a belt! This then explains Stafford’s taunting “how do you like it?” as he strangles his victims. Having worked at the department of health for a few years, he has compiled a list of sundry New York-area women, with their full names and addresses, and has inserted himself into their lives under a variety of false names – all of them variations of famous murderers (ie “Dick Speck,” after Richard Speck).

Amalfitano is the only cop who sees this, which leads him into confrontations with the older, veteran, more cynical cops in the precinct, in particular Captain Gregory, who flat-out despises Amalfitano and mocks him in front of everyone. An interesting thing about Amalfitano is that, despite being a junior detective, he doesn’t take any shit. Some of the most entertaining parts of The Strangler are when Amalfitano snaps at Captain Gregory, refusing to lie down and be walked over. Amalfitano is indeed an interesting character – he has no sense of sarcasm, or even much of a sense of humor, and is driven to stop the strangler case not out of a sense of justice, but hecause he’s just sick of the murders and wants them to end. He also encounters flack from his co-cops because he becomes somewhat emotionally invested in the case.

Another big difference between Amalfitano and the protagonists of the novels I usually review here – the dude’s still a virgin!! As is his fiance, Jeannete “Jimmy” Maloney. Both of them still live with their parents. They’re engaged to be married in a few months, and they stay true to their “no sex before wedding” vow, so there goes any hopes for any sexual tomfoolery in The Strangler; as mentioned, despite the incredibly lurid plot material, overall the book is pretty mundane so far as exploitative stuff goes. For that matter, the author appears shy to even use the word “fuck;” there’s a part where a surprised Amalfitano’s curse is rendered as “F –!”

A major factor of The Strangler is a ground-eye view of what detective work was like at the time. We go along with Amalfitano as veteran detectives walk with him from apartment to apartment in the crime zones, knocking on doors, interviewing potential witnesses. There are no chase scenes, no shootouts. The author was either a cop or knew one or just did some serious research. We also learn about fingerprint databases and portrait mockups and the various storehouses of data cops could then access. The job is presented as the grind it no doubt is, and by novel’s end the reader is as weary as Amalfitano himself is.

The chapters are long, and instead of “Chapter 1” and so forth, it’s “Victim One,” “Victim Two,” etc. A curious thing is that the women who become victims of Stafford are probably the most memorable characters in the novel. We only meet them briefly, but in some cases it’s enough for you to feel the impact when they are killed, as is the case with a vivacious lady who gives psychological readings to old movies. Others have weird hang-ups, like a self-hating woman who worries she’s a lesbian because she has no interest in sex with men, and literally begs Stafford to kill her(!), sitting dociley as he straps the belt around her throat.

Stafford himself is a somewhat memorable character; he’s socially awkward and gives off “leave me alone” vibes, yet for all that he’s able to get scores of women to be interested in him; some of them practically demand they go back to their apartments for sex. Stafford’s role becomes greater and greater as the novel goes on, and he’s given a lot more dialog than Amalfitano is. The author is very skilled with dialog, by the way; even an arbitrary scene in which Stafford gets in an argument with some bar patrons over the JFK assassination is entertaining due to the fast-moving dialog, despite the fact that it really doesn’t have much to do with anything.

The novel’s few moments of humor are due to Amalfitano’s lack of a sense of humor. In particular when he and his partner, “the moon-faced Ochs” (“moon-faced” being used practically every time Ochs is mentioned!), come upon a ravishing “Amazon” of a witness: Maria, a haughty German megababe who was friends of sorts with one of the victims and claims that she sees the victim’s “boyfriend” (aka Stafford) every day at lunch, as he works here at Wall Street and sits out in the park sometimes. Taking advantage of the fact that the police department wants her time, Maria demands a thousand dollars a day, and also insists that she be put up in a hotel fancier than the Waldorf. Amalfitano again proves himself an unusual protagonist for these sorts of novels; when Maria bluntly asks him to spend the night with her, he shows her a photo of his fiance and says no thanks!!

But Maria proves the means through which Amalfitano finally breaks the case, months after it started and eight victims in. Again he is mocked by Captain Gregory and the veteran cops, all who think Maria is an untrustworthy witness and who doubt that the police sketch made from her description of the man she’s seen is based on a real person – they think she’s made everything up to get more money out of them. But Amalfitano, about to be kicked off the force due to his latest run-in with the captain, realizes that so far all of his hunches have proven correct – and given that he also believes Maria, he figures this hunch will be correct, too.

Meanwhile the strangler is coming to the end of his latest list of potential victims, and desperately seeks one that will represent the middle initial he’s up to. Here David Black goes where I was hoping he wouldn’t – he makes it personal, but lamely enough it’s personal solely due to coincidence. Yep, folks, George Stafford just happens to have the name “Jeannette Maloney” on his list of potential victims, having met her months ago at a typing class…and just as Amalfitano is walking around Wall Street handing out photocopies of the drawing based on Maria’s description, Stafford is scoping out “Jimmy” as his next victim.

Despite how lame this is, it’s still suitably tense, as Stafford gets Jimmy in his car and goes increasingly insane, abducting her and taking her back to the home she’s about to move into with Amalfitano. Meanwhile our hero has gotten a postive ID on George Stafford and is calling up various people to find Jimmy, having found her name on that list of potential victims in Stafford’s apartment, which Amalfitano has broken into. The climax maintains the tense vibe, but I was seriously buzzkilled that Amalfitano, upon rushing into the house and finding Stafford wielding a knife and standing over Jimmy, only pulls out his .38, yells at Stafford…and then just arrests him! That’s it! I mean, I wanted to see the sonofabitch’s brains blasted onto the walls.

And here The Strangler ends, on an incongruous joke, as Amalfitano realizes that all the glowing words Captain Gregory has to say about him in the newspaper are the work of Amalfitano’s friend on the paper, putting words into peoples’s mouths (fake news!!). Meanwhile Jimmy insists that the reporter be invited to their wedding – the end. I guess so far as a Happily Ever After goes, it’s a fine ending, but one wishes for a more fitting comeuppance for the strangler.

Engel “produced” a bunch of these crime novels at the time, and I’m betting this author wrote more of them. The question is just who “David Black” was. I’m pretty confident it was Paul Eiden (thus I’ve tagged the review with his name), because that “widely separated breasts covering the upper arms” line is too much of a clue. Eiden uses it in every book of his I have read, and given that he is the only author I’ve ever read who uses this curious phrase, I’m figuring The Strangler must be his work.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Executioner #9: Vegas Vendetta

The Executioner #9: Vegas Vendetta, by Don Pendleton
November, 1971  Pinnacle Books

Mack Bolan blitzes his way through Vegas in this 9th volume of The Executioner, Don Pendleton now firmly in control of his series and its staples, even down to setting up future installments. While the sort of grindhouse-esque spark of the first few volumes has been lost, it’s been replaced by more of a streamlined template: we’re sure to get an action opening, a few sequences from a mobster’s point of view, some recaps of stuff we’ve already read, a lecture or two about Bolan and the life he’s chosen for himself, and several more action scenes, capped off by a big finale. One thing we won’t be getting is sex – the first volume is alone in that regard, Pendleton having deemed that his hero, being a man on the run, “doesn’t have the time” for that sort of thing(!).

Pendleton is really a pulp master; Vegas Vendetta is to the length of other Pinnacle series books, 180 pages of fairly big print, but it sure does move – just compare it to any contemporary volume of Death Merchant to see what I mean. While you’ve finished The Executioner in no time, and have enjoyed it quite a bit, a Death Merchant seems to stretch on into enternity, and reading one hurts to your very soul.

Without much pickup from the previous volume, we meet up with Bolan as he’s made a brief stopover in Vegas on his way to San Francisco; he’s decided to boost his war chest by heisting a “skim run” from a local casino to a Mafia hardsite out in the desert. This is a typical Pendleton action intro, with a black-garbed Bolan wielding a LAW rocket launcher and a Stoner weapons system. The violence isn’t too bloody, and Pendleton focuses more on the surprise of Bolan’s hit. Not to mention the surprise Bolan himself experiences, finding none other than Carl Lyons at the hardsite – future Able Team member but at this point an undercover cop, last seen in #3: Battle Mask, but having first appeared in #2: Death Squad.

Lyons, working now for “Head Fed” Hal Brognola, was undercover at the Gold Duster casino when his cover was blown and he was taken off, to this very hardsite, to be killed. Bolan pulls his broken form from a blown-apart car and hurries him off to safety. During the drive we get one of those lectures on Bolan’s “stay hardness” and reaffirmations of his fighting spirit, etc – Pendleton’s clear hero worship of his protagonist is both humorous and charming…not to mention part of the template. 

Bolan’s main weapon this time is the “hot little Beretta” he picked up in #5: Continental Contract; also returning from his European adventures is the Weatherby Mark V rifle he used in #6: Assault On Soho and which we’re informed he has had shipped to him here in the US. But once he’s dropped Lyons off in a safe place, Bolan, disguised in shades and false, longish sideburns, cruises around the Vegas Strip in a “three-year-old Pontiac convertible,” and the action drive of the opening is lost. Pendleton wantonly fills pages via the presence of Tommy Anders, a casino stand-up comic who at first brings to mind Buddy Hackett but instead comes off like a blowhard, his “hottest club act” being nothing more than a digressive list of various celebrities who have changed their ethnic last names to something more mainstream.

Yet here Pendleton unwittingly hits upon some prescient topics because Tommy’s tirade is against the nascent politically-correct movement – which hadn’t even really started yet, though it was around this time that some Hollywood snowflake actually cut from the original print the “racist” dialog from my all-time favorite Pre-Code horror film, The Mask Of Fu Manchu (these scenes were re-inserted in the late ‘90s, but since the originals had been destroyed by the snowflake, they were taken from an overseas 16mm print). While his stand-up routine goes on much too long (Pendleton clearly filling pages to meet his word count), Tommy does end on a point all-too-salient in the victim culture in which we currently live:

“What’s going to happen to this country, ladies and gentlemen? What’s going to become of it when we’re all completely and finally sliced up into militant little minority groups all too damned stiff to laugh with each other. Huh? We’re going to have to rewrite all the history books...”

Bolan’s been put onto Tommy via Carl Lyons; Tommy’s sob story has it that his talent agency has been taken over by the Mafia. In fact, the Mafia is threatening to take over showbiz in its entirety. This of course doesn’t sit well with Bolan. Tommy is staying with four long-legged beauties called the Ranger Girls, led by a blonde bombshell named Toby Ranger, “Mother Nature’s answer to Women’s Lib.” They’re super-hot singers or dancers or somesuch, here in Vegas to make it big with their act. They like to dress alike in “peekaboo hotpants and plunging, see-through tops.” Bolan and Toby have an instant lust-fueled hate for each other, with constant barbs tossed at one another. But poor Mack doesn’t get laid again, this time.

The novel follows the template of Chicago Wipe-Out in that the opening action scene is really the only big one. Midway through we have a brief one where Bolan makes one of his surprise assaults on the Mafia. A plane bringing in the dreaded Talifero Brothers is coming into Vegas, and Bolan’s there at the dawn landing to blast the wheels off the plane with his Weatherby. The brothers live, not that they go on to much greatness – having been set up so well in the past few volumes, I expected more from the Talifero Brothers, who operate their own enforcer wing in the mob and whose name spreads fear wherever they go. I mean, I wanted drooling ape-like thugs along the lines of The Butcher, but instead the twins are nothing more than…lawyers!!

Another ball’s dropped, sort of, through Vito Appostini, the guy who runs the casino in the Gold Duster. One of the templates of the series is where Bolan will show up unexpectedly, and this happens again here, as Vito heads on up to his heavily-guarded penthouse atop the casino, only to find Bolan waiting there for him. But after a bit of a build up, Appostini abruptly disappears from the novel; Bolan bullies him for info, learning of the “Caribbean Carousel,” a Mafia venture which will take us into the next volume. Also through Vito we get a lot of info-dumping about how the Mafia rakes in the cash.

Buying some mod clothes, affecting a slouch, and arranging his hair in “the just right look,” Bolan spends the rest of the novel playing the Mafia for saps as he poses as a Mafioso bigshot from the east coast. Waltzing into the Gold Duster, he takes advantage of the gullibility of the other mobsters, given Vito Appostini’s fall from grace (due to Bolan’s presence) and the arrival of the Taliferos. And talk about more ball-dropping – throughout we’re told about this tough Vegas enforcer named Joe the Monster Stanno. Folks, “the Monster” sleeps through the entire finale while Bolan walks around the Gold Duster unopposed, giving out orders and making fools of the Vegas mobsters. 

Pendleton does work in a gambling theme in the final pages, Bolan “gambling” on his life as he shuts down the Gold Duster, sets Joe the Monster up to be killed by the Talifero Brothers (and vice versa), and plans his escape via a Mafia-owned helicopter (one piloted by a guy named Jack Grimaldi, who will become another recurring figure in the series). Meanwhile Hal Brognola and the local cops are closing in on Bolan – not that much really comes out of this subplot, other than more vicarious Bolan-worship through Brognola, who considers the Executioner a “truly superior human being.” 

Even the climactic action scene is brief, more about other characters killing off one another while Bolan makes his escape to the rooftop of the casino, where Grimaldi’s helicopter awaits. Here Toby Ranger is revealed to be a Federal agent or somesuch, wielding a small automatic and blowing away a handful of goons. She escorts Bolan to the roof while mobsters pursue them – a moment faithfully captured on the cover painting (in which Bolan appears to have a Hitler moustache, thanks to that shadow). But she stays behind as Bolan escapes, with the reader not getting an answer on who she really is.

And that’s it for Vegas Vendetta, which starts off strong but sort of becomes a bit too whacky with all the “role camoflauge” Bolan achieves. As I say, the ferociousness of the early volumes is gone, this volume at least, and the Mafia comes off more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. But as stated Pendleton’s prose is so supple and controlled that, despite the occasional exposition, info-dumping, and lecturing, one blows through the book…and can’t wait to read the next one!