Vendetta, by Joseph Gilmore
March, 1973 Pinnacle Books
Joseph Gilmore, who wrote several volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and who wrote Operation Nazi - USA as “James Gilman”), turned in this standalone crime thriller that apparently did so well it warranted a second printing (cover below). Tapping in on the revenge angle that fueled so many crime novels of the day (not to mention practically every single men’s adventure series Pinnacle published), Vendetta is about a New York patrolman who pursues his own justice, gunning down the drug-runners who inadvertently killed his wife.
The novel opens with the first hit in effect, as a cop in patrolman’s garb breaks into the posh home of a mobbed-up drug kingpin named Lucius Pavan, trusses him up “like a pig,” takes out a snub nosed .32, screws on a silencer, and blows off the back of his head – that is, after saying, “This is for Betsy.” It is an effective opening, but admittedly the effect will ultimately be weakened because every single kill in the novel follows this exact same pattern. There is no variety to Vendetta; the novel is curiously unimaginative, and reading it one might get the impression that, to gain vengeance on the drug kingpins of the world, all one needs to do is make a list of such kingpins, scope each of them out, then wait till they’re alone and truss ‘em up before shooting them in the head. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The patrolman is named Alex Braley, and he’s “a big, muscular cop with brooding good looks” who is known as “the drug cop” in the papers, due to all the drug busts he’s made in his seven years on the force. But two years ago Alex’s wife Betsy died of a heroin overdose; the backstory has it that she was first hooked on pain pills from some shyster doctor in the Village, which created a habit that eventually blossomed into full-blown heroin addiction. Betsy was a waif-like hippie-type, totally at odds with Alex’s character, as he’s such a square-shooter he doesn’t even drink or smoke.
But Alex loved her, and now he’s planning to reap his vengeance on the drug world. He’s spent two years planning his vendetta, and used his job as a cop to even get himself an off-the-record gun: a .32 he nabbed from a “cheap hoodlum” Alex killed in a shootout. The .32 was the hood’s backup piece and Alex didn’t include it in his report. Now it becomes his prime dispenser of bloody retribution.
Oh, and that snub nosed .32, we’re informed late in the game, is a revolver! Which Alex puts a silencer on. As all gun enthusiasts know, it is impossible to put a silencer on a revolver. And yet the “revolver with silencer” was a common image in ‘70s crime thrillers, from movies (most notably, Magnum Force, which is a curious gaffe given that it was written by gun nut John Milius, who should’ve known better – but then, it was likely the director’s fault) to TV shows (just one case in point – the Hawaii Five O episode “Tricks Are Not Treats,” from Season 6, a phenomenal Blaxploitation cash-in episode and one of my faves). One wonders what the prop masters thought of these requests…you know they had to be aware that you can’t put a silencer on a revolver, but what can you do when it’s what the director wants? To tell the truth, I think these silenced revolvers look kind of cool, almost like rayguns or something.
Alex doesn’t waste any time now that he’s gotten started. Almost immediately he flies to Los Angeles to take out the next drugger on his list. He poses under a carefully-setup fake name and hobknobs with a drunk cougar-type babe, putting off her requests for booze and sex, and uses her as a decoy. Coincidence be damned she happens to be acquainted with Alex’s latest quarry. But Gilmore keeps this kill off-page, having us read about it in a police report…the impact not much lessened when we learn that Alex not only killed the kingpin but a blonde floozie he was banging at the time. But more importantly, while in LA Alex encounters a lovely widow named Karen Cosgrove and her two prepubescent kids (the daughter, Beth, reminds Alex of Betsy), and he begins a (sexless) relationship with Karen, who lives in Seattle.
This brings us to what I assume is intended as the hero of the novel: Detective Sgt. Wayne Crestwood of the Long Island PD. I came to resent this dude, whose goal is to bring down the “vendetta killer” he’s sure is behind all these drug kingpin murders. While the rest of the cops think it’s a gang war – not to mention the fact they could care less that drug dealers are being killed off – Crestwood takes it upon himself to bring the killer “to justice.” Sine the Pavan kill was in Long Island it’s Crestwood’s jurisdiction, and he’s able to talk his captain into flying him all over America and Europe in his quest to track down the sole individual he’s certain is behind the killing.
So the novel appropriates the cat and mouse approach that was common in ‘70s crime novels, with us readers witnessing Alex’s latest kill…and then backtracking through it all as Crestwood puts the pieces together. Along the way Alex realizes he’s in love with Karen Cosgroove and further realizes that, if he’d met her sooner, he likely wouldn’t have gone on his vendetta after all, as she would be able to fill the vacuum left by Betsy’s death. They get to spend more time with one another when Alex’s next scheduled target, who is supposed to be in Miami, happens to be up in Seattle for his mother’s funeral, so Alex kills two birds with one stone – he journeys up there to kill the bastard and also visits Karen and her two kids. This time she practically chases him off, asking him to bed and Alex getting cold feet.
Meanwhile Crestwood has come up here as well…Alex you see is working off a list he’s composed of “all the top drugdealers” in the world, and he’s killing them off in order of importance, from high to low, with occasional detours for ones who might’ve had something to do with Betsy’s death. Crestwood, gifted with a sort of omniscience or something, figures out the killer is working on a list and comes up with his own, and it turns out to be exactly the same as Alex’s. This was so damn dumb I had a hard time accepting it. But nope, Crestwood’s list is apparently identical to Alex’s, despite the fact that it amounts to a couple hundred druggers, even down to their order of importance in the underworld.
And maintaining that blasé feel which permeates the entire book, Alex’s kills as mentioned are just repetitve to the point of boredom. Scope ‘em out, wait till they’re alone (arranging for them to be alone with a few phone calls if necessary), then truss ‘em up and shoot ‘em in the back of the head. There’s no single part where say a henchman comes in early and gets in a firefight with Alex, no part where he has to defend himself with some fancy martial arts or something. Nope, the kills go down humorously easy; the druggers usually turn out to be older types, or cowards, and either meekly accept their fate or try to plead for their lives. Meanwhile Alex has lost his drive, given his love for Karen and the number of men he’s already killed, and when the heat gets too close he decides to beat it.
This in fact is the only part where Alex suffers much setback; Lucia Pavan, gorgeous daughter of murdered mobster Lucius, also has figured out one person is behind these attacks, and further she’s figured it must be “the drug cop” who tried to arrest her dad the other year. She sends some thugs around; first they kill the hunchbacked bookseller who occasionally acts as Alex’s informant, and next they beat up Alex himself, sending him to the hospital. This is all the evidence Crestwood needs that Alex Brailey is the vendetta killer – through lots of police work Crestwood has traced the ballistics on the .32 used at the crime scenes and learned it was the favored backup piece used by a hoodlum killed in a firefight with the officers of Brailey’s precinct. At length Crestwood has figured Bailey is his man.
Instead Alex escapes to Europe with a few hundred thousand bucks purloined from the various druggers he’s executed; he hangs out with the hippie set in Paris, pining for Karen. He figures the vendetta is behind him until one of Lucia’s globe-spanning minions tracks him down. From there it’s full-on back to the war, with Alex racking up kill after easy kill, flying around Europe and executing druggers. But back in Paris he’s finally captured, by none other than Crestwood – Long Island PD must have a hefty budget, given all the air miles Crestwood scores in the course of his investigation. But Gilmore makes odd choices in his plotting, sometimes telling us too much and other times too little; next we know it’s weeks later, they’re back in the US, and Crestwood has developed a fodness for Alex, even sometimes regretting that he captured him!
This at least takes us into the homestretch….Lucia Pavan plots the death of Alex Brailey, who is about to be arraigned at the FBI office in Manhattan. She assembles a few cars filled with gunners, the idea to shoot Alex down on his way into the building, along with any other innocent bystanders who might get in the way. But when one of Lucia’s henchmen, due to an act of kindness on Alex’s part in Paris, gets second thoughts, he blares his horn in warning and Alex manages to run away in the commotion. Meanwhile all of Lucia’s people – all of them save Lucia herself, actually – are gunned down by the cops. What happens to Lucia is unstated, as Gilmore ends the novel with all sorts of questions unanswered.
He also ends the book on a jarring note…Alex, injured in the firefight, escapes on a subway train and finally decides he needs medical treatment, but knows he’ll be arrested. So who else to call but that Village quack who started all this in the first place; you know, the one who got Betsy hooked on heroin? Here Vendetta ends, with what happens next being kept from us. I mean, what it have been too much for Gilmore to have given the doctor his comeuppance, or at least had maybe one confrontation between Alex and Lucia, who hunts for him for half the novel?
Otherwise Vendetta is passable fare, with a cool opening that promises more than the novel delivers. Gilmore does get a nice Pinnacle in-joke, though, with that hunchbacked bookseller saying that his favorite writer is Don Pendleton.
Here’s the cover of the second volume, dated July 1976, which almost makes Alex Brailey look like a deputy from Mayberry: