Thursday, August 17, 2017

Inside Job


Inside Job, by Nicholas Brady
No month stated, 1978  Leisure Books

“Nicholas Brady” was a Leisure Books house name that was used for a few standalone crime novels; this was the only time Len Levinson served under the name, and as mentioned earlierInside Job is now back in print under Len’s real name. I always figured Len would’ve turned in a nice ‘70s crime tale, and he doesn’t disappoint, though be aware Inside Job takes many of the typical trappings of the heist genre and turns them on their head.

Per Len’s comments below, this one takes place in a late 1970s New York that’s on the brink of bankruptcy and chaos. Mayor Ed Koch is taken through the ringer, constantly referred to as corrupt by the irate city workers who are suffering from the crooked antics of the city government. When we meet him, “hero” Michael Brody is unconcerned about the potential layoffs which might hit all city employees; Brody is a cop, in fact newly placed on the detective squad, and he figures cops will never get fired. He will be proven wrong, though.

Brody is a ‘Nam vet and busted his ass as a patrolman; he’s not even thirty and, as a plainclothes cop, he goes around in a brand name leather jacket. Brody has expensive tastes and also likes to indulge, quite often, with the wanton babes who go crazy for cops – we’re informed of a few Manhattan watering holes where a cop can quickly and easily pick up a woman who has expressly gone there for that very purpose. However Brody’s married and has two kids, one just a baby – not that this much stops him from screwing around. He laments that the fire has gone out of the relationship with his wife – she’s gotten so plump and looks so dowdy now that she’s had kids and Brody isn’t even attracted to her anymore. And they’re fighting a lot, to the point that Brody seldom goes back to their Queens home; when he does, he quickly leaves, to escape his wife’s nagging and the baby’s crying and etc, and will instead go find some slut for the night. So Brody’s sort of a self-involved asshole. 

The book opens with a nice action scene as Brody and his heavyset partner Ralph Shannon, a veteran of the force, bust a pair of Puerto Rican drugdealers, as well as their sexy moll. The trio try to bribe the cops, but neither Brody nor Shannon are having it – though Brody we learn was tempted. This will prove to be the only time we see Brody in action, as shortly thereafter – that is, after he’s had a one-night stand (of off-page sex, for shame) with some babe he picks up in a bar – Brody’s called into the office of his squad commander…Inspector Levinson.

A tall man with thinning hair and a “buzzard nose,” Inspector Levinson is Len once again appearing in one of his own pseudonymous novels, as he did in Butler #1. (“He was considered a very dappy guy,” Len informs us of the inspector!) Levinson breaks it to Brody that he’s been let go; orders are that every precinct has to let go their most junior members, no matter how good their track record. A dejected Brody goes back home, only for another fight to break out with his wife. This one’s the final nail, as she leaves him, taking the kids – there follows a sad part where he tracks his wife down to her mother’s home and tries to get the kids back and etc, but the kids don’t want him – they barely even know him – and he ends up getting in a fight with his brother in law. I say it’s a sad part but Len sort of plays it for laughs; at least I laughed out loud when, even in the middle of trying to get his kids back, Brody takes the opportunity to put down his wife for the unflattering clothes she’s wearing. 

Brody ends up chasing various go-nowhere job leads…he turns down a security guard job because he feels it’s beneath him, and the cops out in the sticks don’t want city cops because the locals don’t trust them. A few weeks later Brody bumps into a fellow fired cop, and an old ‘Nam pal to boot: Anthony Ricci. The two go out for burgers and beers and literally decide to become criminals over dinner. There’s no deep moment of introspection, of deciding if it’s worth it to pursue a life of crime. The two are all for it and eagerly begin discussing places they can rob. Brody’s the one who comes up with the idea of robbing the Property Room at police headquarters downtown, where all the confiscated cash, drugs, and etc are kept – millions of dollars there. What’s more, Ricci worked in the Property Room, so he could provide insider info on how to pull the job.

Now they put together the rest of their team, made up of former cops who also served in ‘Nam. First there’s Dennis Laganello, who now drives a taxi, then there’s Robert Hardesty, a “lapsed Black Muslim” who doesn’t get on very well with Brody. Whereas most heist novels will spend a goodly portion of the narrative on the plans of the heist, getting into details and timing and etc, Len spends two pages on it! Indeed the heist goes off without much fuss, other than when Hardesty shoots a cop who goes for his gun, and the cop later dies – one of the heist staples Len does cater to is that the heist ends up causing lots of problems.

In fact the property room theft itself only takes up a few pages of the novel, whereas Len will later spend around 30 pages on incidental dialog between some lady Brody hits on while buying a cabin up in the New England woods. As ever, Len is more interested in his characters than in the plot. At any rate the robbery is tense enough, despite the fact that Brody and pals screw silencers on their revolvers, tsk tsk. As mentioned Hardesty guns down a cop who happens to be in the property room during the heist, and while the noise isn’t heard, a with-it detective named Pelletier has already figured out something is going on, what with those strange “temporarily closed” signs outside the property room at two in the morning.

After the heist Brody and pals split, though Hardesty stays in New York. Pelletier spends six weeks investigating the case, and is certain it was an inside job. He eventually comes upon Anthony Ricci as being a prime candidate for part of the heist crew, given that he worked in the property room, was recently fired, would likely have a grudge, and has disappeared. Pelletier tracks him down to Florida where, working with Brody’s old partner Shannon, he busts the heister – and Ricci soon blabs about his comrades. This part features a great line, Pelletier threatening Ricci: “You’ll fry like a hot dog at Nedick’s.” (Nedick’s was a New York fast food chain known for its hot dogs – there was a location right on the tarnished glitz of 42nd Street.)

Meanwhile as mentioned Brody’s up in the woods, hitting on the sexy real estate lady in town. And no joke, Brody engages this woman in almost 30 pages of bonkers dialog, taking in everything from a guardian angel scam some local lady is running on the town church to Brody’s pressuring the gal into sex – and gradually achieving his goal, with the babe latching onto his “stiffening dong” for a somewhat-explicit sex scene.

With Ricci’s bust, the other heisters quickly follow suit; one of the few things I disliked about Inside Job was that the heisters, particularly Brody, disappear in the final quarter. While Brody was our protagonist in the opening, once the heist happens he heads up to New England, hits on the real estate broker, and drops out of the book, leaving new guy Pelletier to do the heavy narrative lifting. And Pelletier is more of a heroic character, determined to bring down these cop-killing heisters, but still – I like to end a novel with the character(s) I started out with. As it is, Brody meets his fate in a harried climax that doesn’t feel fulfilling at all. But then, that was likely Len’s point, that crime does not pay. 

Overall I enjoyed Inside Job, and I’d say it’s definitely worth reading for the Len Levinson fan, or someone looking for an unusual take on a ‘70s crime novel. As usual one feels Len was poorly served by his publisher; the novel, in the original Leisure edition, suffers from the expected typos, my favorite being when Brody’s wife Doris is mistakenly referred to as “Davis.” There’s also a bizarro part, which goes on for a few pages, where the editor writes “copy” instead of “cop!”

I asked Len for his thoughts on the novel, and he responded with a slight revision of the piece that he wrote for the recent reprint edition of Inside Job:

This novel began with a meeting back in the 1970s between editor Peter McCurtin and me in his office at Belmont-Tower publishing company on lower Park Avenue, New York City. He asked if I knew about the property room at NYPD headquarters. I replied that I’d heard of it but didn’t know many details. He explained that it was loaded with confiscated cash, jewels, drugs, furs and other items, and asked me to write a novel about a robbery of it. 

Peter showed me the artist’s mock up of the cover, whose copy line read: “The NYPD property room, bulging with millions in recovered cash, drugs, and jewels, is ripped off!” 

That was all I had to go on. So I went home and tried to figure out the novel. Who would be the characters? How could they pull off the heist? Why would they attempt such a dangerous enterprise? Would they get caught? 

That was back when Ed Koch was mayor and NYC was going bankrupt. Hordes of city workers were being laid off including cops, firemen, teachers, sanitation workers, etc. Crime was rampant. NYC seemed ungovernable. 

In that atmosphere, I decided that the perps would be four angry cops who’d been laid off. One actually had worked in the property room and knew how it functioned. But before the actual heist went down, I needed to establish who they were as human beings. 

Many of my own frustrations and disappointments were heaped onto the shoulders of poor Brody. The media always is regaling us with stories of successful people but it ain’t easy to be a loser which is what Brody and the others felt like and what I often felt like in those days. 

The four cops thought they were very smart guys. But intelligence is not enough when planning a complicated heist, because you can’t plan for everything. That’s why crime doesn’t pay most of the time. 

Brody, Ricci, Laganello and Hardesty were blinded by desperation combined with arrogance. They thought they could beat the system. But the system eventually beat them.

I recently re-read INSIDE JOB. It reminded me somewhat of Dostoyevsky, although I’m certainly not on his level. But there’s the same sense of despair, doom, and inevitability of divine justice.

Brody, Ricci, Laganello and Hardesty weren’t intrinsically evil, but became evil when their worlds were shattered. If they hadn’t been laid off, they probably would have continued their successful careers in law enforcement. All were tough guys, but too weak to withstand temptation.

I lived in New York City 42 years, arriving when I was 26 and leaving when 68. Now I’m in a small peaceful Midwestern town population 300, and have become aware that in comparison, an atmosphere of criminality constantly was in the air in NYC. One needed to be cautious at all times, otherwise one could become a crime victim.

I often read in the press about people from all walks of life engaging in major and minor rip-offs. I even personally met people engaged in illegal activities. Many New Yorkers simply didn’t respect the law, which resulted in New Yorkers from Wall Street to Mulberry Street to125th Street and all around town stealing, swindling and occasionally even killing if they thought they could get away with it. So in a sense the city itself was one of the perps, due to its widespread moral bankruptcy.

Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton cleaned up the city to some extent. And Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley built upon their success. Now they’re gone and the city reportedly is sliding back into crime and violence.

If people were honest, we wouldn’t need so many police and so much government. But many people aren’t honest, unfortunately, and temptation is difficult to withstand in a city where many if not most residents consider traditional morality obsolete if not totally ridiculous. I believe that just about everyone could become a criminal if he or she were desperate enough, and the temptation strong enough, and the moral atmosphere conducive.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Aquanauts #5: Stalkers Of The Sea


The Aquanauts #5: Stalkers Of The Sea, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972  Macfadden Books

The fifth volume of The Aquanauts starts off with Manning Lee Stokes fooling you into thinking he’s actually going to write a novel about, you know “aquanaut”-type stuff. It opens right on the action, with hero Tiger Shark (aka William Martin) in his KRAB submersible deep in the Gulf of Finland on an espionage mission for his Secret Underater Service; SUS intelligence has it that the Russians are up to something in the vicinity.

Tiger (as Stokes refers to him) discovers what it is – an “experimental underwater dry dock” being built near the Estonian coast, where the Russians will be able to build and repair hunter-killer nuclear subs. There’s even a dummy nuclear vessel underwater to help with the sizing. Tiger gets spotted by a few Russian frogmen and battles them to the death; here he even fires his Sea Pistol, I believe for the first time in the series, and takes out one of them. The other two he kills in a brutal knife fight, after which he barely escapes to KRAB, his scuba tanks out of oxygen.

Then it’s a week later (the novel is stated as occuring between January and February of 1971), and all that stuff is gone and forgotten about; now portly, middleaged Captain Tom Greene, aka Tiger’s direct superior in the SUS, is moping about Amsterdam on some “bitch of an assignment” courtesy SUS head honcho Admiral Hank Coffin. Stokes is up to his old tricks now; the book settles in for the long haul, with lots of stuff of Greene simmering in his hotel room and looking around Amsterdam and griping about the mission. This is a recurring element in Stokes’s novels; each one usually features the main character confused and/or annoyed at his present job, but figuring there’s nothing to do but continue on with it. I swear this is Stokes himself bitching about his current writing job via his characters.

Even though it’s only 160 pages and thus shorter than the previous four volumes, Stalkers Of The Sea has such a measured pace that it actually feels longer. Plus the print’s really small and dense. But I do enjoy Stokes’s measured style, particularly when he as ever indulges in his penchant for oddball sleaze; while checking out the Red Light whorehouse district in Amsterdam, Greene ventures into a strange club that has “electronic whores,” ie plastic women who come to “life” when you press a button on their boobs, and who, if you press some other buttons when you rent them and take them upstairs, can actually have sex.

Not that Greene indulges; he’s more interested than disgusted, so we get a lot of info about this weird shit. Mainly though Greene’s in love with his wife to the point of prudishness. He also just wants to see the job through, which entails him meeting with American-born KGB agent Colonel Yuri Solennikof, sent here by his own superiors. Turns out the Russians have a scientist named Karl Vaganova, who has created this program that will detect every ship on the oceans of the world; it’s called REKORD. Vaganov wants to defect, and the Russians are actually willing to give him up; in return they want an SUS marine biologist named Steffi Kaldor.

We get a lot of stuff about high-roller Solennikof, who admits that he takes testosterone drops to keep it up because he’s past fifty, lording it up as he yaks with Greene. Tiger’s far gone from the action, all that stuff in the beginning clearly there so Stokes could have a little action before his customary treading of the water, so to speak. But something occurred to me this time – for a while I’ve wondered why this series was titled The Aquanauts when there’s only one Aquanaut, Tiger. My assumption is Stokes is in his way actually writing a “team book” sort of series – the titular Aquanauts being not only Tiger, but also his landlocked comrades Greene and Coffin, who engage in all the espionage and schceming while Tiger does the heavy lifting.

Anyway Greene is our main protagonist for the first half of the book, sort of like how Admiral Coffin was the star of most of the previous volume. After interminable, dense-print pages of dialog he even gets in what passes for an action scene; Solennikof is driving them back to Amsterdam when they’re chased by another car. Solennikof is certain they’re after him, not Greene, and besides he’d get in trouble if anything were to happen to Greene, so he drops him off – and Greene watches from afar as Solennikof guns down his pursuers, off-page. Later Greene finds one of them, who happens to be a woman; she’s injured, half-dead, and Greene gets her medical treatment. She turns out to be a goldmine of intel for SUS: her name is Mila Hrouda, she’s a hotstuff 26 year old, she’s Czech, and she’s a former TV reporter turned resistance fighter; she and her comrades were trying to kill Solennikof but failed.

Stokes is up to all sorts of page-filling tricks in this one. Pages 68 to 80 are comprised of a transcript of Mila’s debriefing with Greene, just endlessly digressive back-and-forth dialog that doesn’t do much to advance the plot – we already know Mila and comrades were trying to kill Solennikof, which is pretty much all we’re told (again) here. But as if that weren’t enough, pages 97-108 are given over to the rambling first-person account (in ugly italics) of Steffi Kaldor, all about his past (including random mentions of some floozie he liked to bang) and his escape from Russia and etc – all of it, to be sure, as trivial as could be. But Stokes presents all this stuff as material Tiger is given as part of his assignment dossier; Tiger is to study it, and Stokes must assume we readers too are in the Navy and must also be prepped on everything, no matter how inconsequential.

But for all that Stokes still delivers nice moments here and there, complete with the well-above-genre-norm writing style one expects of him. In particular there’s an enjoyable sequence where Tiger, in KRAB, hovers about the “pelegaic twilight” of the deep sea, mapping sea floor and testing out SYNMIR, a new “synthetic mirage” system KRAB’s been given which camoflauges it from enemy radar and sensor equipment. Here Tiger broods and looks off into the aquatic world and it’s one of the few times Stokes allows him to be more human than the macho cipher he normally is.

Also as per Stokes’s wont, things don’t pick up until the final quarter. It’s now late February and Admiral Coffin has succeeded in getting the NATO sea games held earlier than normal in the North Sea, to provide cover for the defector-swap the Russians are requesting. Also Coffin has figured out the ruse: the Russians, who have their own SUS, are jealous of the American SUS and want desperately to find out about any and all “Tiger Sharks” (of which our Tiger is, so far, the only one) as well as the mysterious KRAB. So this swap they’ve come up with is clearly a sting op to roust out Tiger Shark…yet somehow Coffin still goes along with it?

Who cares, I guess – it at least serves to bring the long-simmer plot to boil. Tiger has Steffi Kaldor in a sort of cryo chamber in KRAB, and must pull it through a few miles of zero-visibility North Sea ocean while Russian hunter-killer subs surround him. And there’s Solennikof, with a few Russian frogmen, overseeing the swap. But when Tiger gets back to KRAB with Vaganov, in his own cryo chamber, he discovers that there’s a homing beacon on him. Not only that – Tiger gradually figures out that the Russians have implanted a beacon and an explosive in the still-unconscious man’s chest cavity.

The finale is a taut affair with the Russian subs hounding KRAB and Solennikof broadcasting, via laser beam, messages that Tiger must surrender himself or KRAB, or Solennikof will blow them both up. Failing that, the bomb in Solennikof is wired to blow in 9 hours. Tiger takes his only option and again proves his bad-assery. He sends KRAB off on a round trip and goes out in his special scuba gear, taking out the Russian frogmen one by one. Solennikof is dispatched almost perfuntorily, blown apart by Tiger’s Sea Pistol – which, we learn, is a one-and-done weapon, but it’s dart actually explodes in the “second stage” of impact. Here we get one of Stokes’s gorier deaths, complete with descriptions of Solennikof’s lungs and intestines blasting out.

Only it turns out it wasn’t Solennikof; when Tiger later gets back to KRAB, there the wily Russian’s voice is again. The man Tiger killed was a decoy. Indeed, Solennikof survives the tale and, according to the proprietor of the essential Spy Guys And Gals site, he will return in the 8th volume. Tiger kills more frogmen in brutal underwater combat, stealing their air due to the slashed hoses of his tanks, yet for some odd reason Stokes leaves Tiger’s escape off-page, and picks up a few hours later with our hero safely onboard the Poseidon while a combat doctor successfully removes the bomb from Kaldor.

Stalkers Of The Sea moves pretty slow. Other that is than the opening and closing sequences with Tiger Shark. Otherwise this series has yet to really ramp up. Oh, and perhaps you’ve noted something that’s missing from this review – the sex!! Believe it or not, folks, this is the first volume in which Tiger does not get laid, and other than those “electronic whores” (which we don’t even get to see in action), Stokes for once doesn’t indulge in the bizarro sleaze we expect of him. Bummer!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trouble Man


Trouble Man, by John D.F. Black
December, 1972  Dell Books

If Trouble Man is remembered for anything these days, it’s likely just the super-funky soundtrack Marvin Gaye produced for it. Otherwise it appears the movie is one of the more forgotten Blaxploitation action pictures of the day, certainly not as well-remembered as Shaft, a movie for which author John D.F. Black also wrote the script.

Black, a white screenwriter who served as a producer for Star Trek during its original run and who wrote scripts for Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and other ‘60s-‘80s shows, produced Trouble Man and wrote the script for it. He also turned in this novelization, which appears to be scarce these days, and also appears to be the only novel Black published – per IMDB.com, it looks like Black’s last credit was a Murder, She Wrote episode he scripted in 1987, though it appears he’s still alive.

This is an interesting novelization to say the least. Black practically drops you right into protagonist Mr. T’s psyche; the novel is related in first-person present tense, with the reader enmeshed in T’s thoughts, giving the book more of the feeling of a literary affair than the average movie tie-in. The novel is filled with ellipsis overload, approaching a stream-of-conscious vibe as T becomes involved in this latest case. There’s no real intro or description of the guy, but he is the expected superbad stud of Blaxploitation, one who drives a brand new Mark IV around the streets of Los Angeles. He has a private eye license as well as a license to carry a gun, and he has an office in the back of pal Jimmy’s poolroom.

The novel (and movie) concerns Mr. T being hired by a white-black duo who run illegal craps games around LA: Chalky (the black one), and Pete (the white one). A group of thugs in ski masks and sunglasses have been knocking over these games, and the duo want T to find out who is behind it. After much dithering – T don’t take no shit from no one, especially when it comes to his fee – they agree that T will get ten thousand bucks for the job.

At least, that’s the plot. But the scattered way Black writes the novel makes it occasionally hard for the reader to understand what the hell is going on. I mean, this is the sort of thing the reader is faced with on every single page:

Left my damn window open…wet on the sweet smelling leather seat…fuck it, it’s last night’s suit. Brittle chick…like a thin sheet of window glass…but she doesn’t break…weird…she won’t ever break, that woman. Put a tape on…nothing on the radio but cats playing night music in the daytime or half-ass dudes trying to be funny and selling garbage nobody needs. Pretension…play some Oscar…easy…like the fog with the sun fighting it to see who wins and stays. Chick won’t ever know what she’s missing, hating mornings…brittle chick that won’t break…damn…where are the car keys?

Or even:

Zap…zap! 

Slap…Oscar…chung chung chung chung…!  

Fog…silver fog…winging…singing…doing…being! 

Right on…yeah…right on! 

Zap!

T when we meet him is in some babe’s bed (ie the “brittle chick” above), but he has a steady gal – Cleo, a singer who turns down an opportunity in Chicago because it means she’d be going without T for a few weeks. Otherwise she’s there in her apartment to make T breakfast, run his showers, and provide him with some good lovin’. The two have a sex scene…at least I think they do:

Cleo… 

Like nothing was…no body…no life…no warm…like birds…like nothing was…like everything…drifting…fast…fast…going…staying…like nothing was…like everything was…and loud…louder…loud!

The occasional action scenes, most of them toward the climax of the book, are just as scattered:

There was a dude, Frank…outside the sliding glass doors to the terrace, baby…gunman…at the wall…sees me…can’t let him swing that shotgun toward me…got to burn him…bullet picked him up and threw him through one of the glass panels…messy as hell, man…cat looked like he was flying, baby…all right…let’s get it on…

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, folks, Mr. T is cool.  And he goes out of his way to prove it to us in the novel.  To the point where you start to wonder about the guy.

This striving for “coolness” overclouds the narrative to the point of density…a big issue with Trouble Man is that none of the other characters get a chance to breathe. Cleo is less than a cipher, a sexy chick “with no bitch in her” who is literally just there to have sex with T and then leaves town when he tells her to. Sidekick Jimmy fares a bit better, in that we learn he has a gift for comeback lines. But T’s psyche swamps the novel, to the point where, as displayed, even the action scenes come off like William Burroughs collaborating with Iceberg Slim. I would’ve given anything to read a simple sentence like, “T fired the shotgun and the thug’s guts splattered on the wall.”

The book is faithful to the movie, which is to be expected given the author. T soon finds himself set up for the killing of Abbie Walsh, a soldier for black crime boss Big. Later T is also framed for the murder of Big – if you’ve never seen the movie, just check out the song titles of Marvin Gaye’s score, as they give away all of these plot points. (But good grief is the track “T Plays It Cool” as badass as can be.) T also has run-ins with Captain Marx of the LAPD, who disbelieves T’s cover stories and vows to bust him.

The climax sees quickly (and hazily) rendered action scenes: T has Cleo and Jimmy clear town, and some of the major players are taken out in a few pages…T shoots some of them and you don’t even realize they’re dead till later, because we read stuff like, “Squeeze [the trigger], T…take Chi out…gone…” And by the way, “gone” means Chi is now dead! Right on, baby…!

Mr. T tries not to kill any poor fools in the finale, which sees him staging a one-man assault on the downtown office building owned by main villain Pete; T goes out of his way to just knock most of ‘em unconscious. T here is armed with some pistols he’s stolen from a police evidnece room (in a too-drawn-out sequence): a .38 and a .45. He uses these to dish out some bloodless violence as he closes in on Pete, who is locked in a room at the top of his building; Black is not one to dwell on the gore (or even the action, for that matter).

Indeed, it’s T’s returning of the pistols to the evidence room that serves for the gripping finale…and Mr. T picks up some hot black lady cop who is new at the precinct, driving off into the sunset with her. So much for Cleo, baby! Black almost appears to be in a hurry to tell the tale, which comes in at 171 pages of fairly big print. But T’s overbearing presence serves to hamper the forward momentum, making the novel seem longer.

I’m not sure how I’d rank Trouble Man. I mean it’s weird, for sure – there can’t be too many Blaxploitation novelizations like this one. And yet that otherness makes it seem kind of special. At the very least, it made me want to listen to the soundtrack again for the first time in years – and also made me bummed out that I’ve yet to get it on vinyl.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Hawker #4: Deadly In New York


Hawker #4: Deadly In New York, by Carl Ramm
October, 1984  Dell Books

The fourth volume of Hawker had me experiencing déjà vu; it’s almost identical to The Specialist #8 in plot and even in some of the incidentals. In fact even the writing is similar at times. Randy Wayne White (aka “Carl Ramm”) even injects a bit of metaphysical stuff here, sort of like something John Shirley might’ve done on that other series, giving Deadly In New York a bit of a different vibe than the norm.

I’m missing volumes 2 and 3, but this one has hero James Hawker’s new role as personal troubleshooter for billionaire Jacob Hayes firmly intact; this relationship was arranged in the first volume. Also this one proves that Hayes’s Butler, a British guy named Hendricks, is important in his own right to the series; while the first volume had Hawker solo, this one seems to indicate that Hayes and Hendricks (why all the Hs??) also take part in the heavy lifting. At least they do for this assignment, which has Hayes tasking Hawker with taking down Blake Fister, owner of Fister Corp out of New York – a despot with a shady past who is looking to control the world one city block at a time.

Word has it that Fister’s goons – hired out of the ranks of the Mafia – are roughing up the residents in a certain no man’s land area of Manhattan, and Hayes wants Hawker to go there, pose as a new resident, and take care of them. This is of course exactly what happened in The Specialist #8, but White doesn’t spend as much time on it…instead, we have subplots featuring Hayes and Hendricks pursuing their own objectives. In fact, it seems to me that Deadly In New York was a bit sloppy in the plot department, as some elements and characters are heavily built up, only to disappear.

The opening is proof of the inordinate setup that recurs throughout the novel; a long sequence from the perspective of French contract killer Renard, here in Little Cayman island to kill Hawker. Renard’s been hired by the Fister Corp and it just goes on and on as he plots the death of his prey (complete with Renard screwing a silencer on his .38 revolver!). But Hawker of course gets the better of him – and not just Hawker, but Hayes and Hendricks are also there, and they toss a scorpionfish at the French killer, a fish that’s incredibly poisonous and can kill with a single touch, etc. They brutally leave Renard along the shore to die; he’s too weak to move, and if the poison doesn’t kill him the water will drown him. Only little do they know Renard actually lives, and is saved by the hotel owner.

Meanwhile our trio splits up – Hawker to New York, Hayes to Grand Cayman, and Hendricks to London. Hawker’s portion takes the brunt of the narrative and first has him hooking up with Dirty Harry-esque Detective Cahill of the NYPD, who is like the lone justice in a crime-ridden district of the city. This guy is given his own inordinate setup and indeed he is made to appear as if he’ll be a big player in the book, only to abruptly drop out of the story. But he knows of Hawker from a fellow cop, one who helped our hero in a previous novel, and thus turns a blind eye to Hawker’s arrival – even helping Hawker steer clear of any charges from killing off a handful of Fister thugs who set in on him immediately upon his arrival in New York.

The major action setpiece has Hawker staging a one-man raid on a three-story warehouse along the waterfront that’s filled with Fister Corp enforcers, drug-soaring freaks who were considered so crazy and dangerous that they were kicked out of the Mafia! But sadly White does little to grasp the exploitative material. They prove to be just your common everyday thugs, not even proving much of a struggle for Hawker during the long action sequence, which sees him sneaking into the building, killing quiety and then on full auto, and eventually blasting the place with plastique. The gore isn’t too extraordinary here, even though Hawker blows away a whole bunch of them.

Meanwhile Hendricks is looking up old WWII pals in London, and all this initially seems so arbitrary, particularly Hendricks’s questions about “the Druid,” a rumored top-level British intelligence operative who was really an undercover Nazi. Eventually these two plots will coalasce in an admittedly hard-to-buy fashion; for all that, Hendricks does kill a punk rocker/wanna-be hitman with a long needle to the brain. Another thing that melds the three separate subplots is a New Agey sort of vibe; both Hawker and Hendricks randomly flash on Jacob Hayes being in trouble, thoughts which come out of nowhere and serve to trouble them. Eventually they’ll learn that Hayes, who has studied Zen, mentally sent them this alert!

Then Hawker finds out from Cahill that Hayes has been reported as abducted, back in Grand Cayman. Cahill actually calls Hawker out of bed – he’s gotten busy, in somewhat graphic fashion, with the sexy German babe who owns the building Hawker’s been staying in. A woman Hawker saved from Renard, the French hitman who ended up trailing Hawker back to New York. This sequence sees Renard posing as someone Hawker knows, and trying to force our hero to eat a cake laced with the poison of a scorpionfish(!?); Hawker ends up mashing the cake down Renard’s throat, and this time the Frenchman does us the favor of offing himself.

The finale sees Hawker and Hendricks in Grand Cayman, Hendricks using his training in Zen and whatnot to metaphysically grok where Hayes was taken to! And he succeeds! The rushed finale has them staging a two-man raid on the compound of Blake Fister, who turns out to be an old Nazi under a new name. Hawker and Hendricks are armed with Thompson submachine guns, and trade appropriate action movie quips, but it’s a bit lacking on the excitement scale, especially given that Fister doesn’t appear to have too many men patrolling the compound. Justice is served and Hayes is saved, but the novel ends with the revelation that Hayes is dying.

Overall Deadly In New York is fairly entertaining and is for the most part well written, though as mentioned some of the stuff that’s heavily built up is dropped too quickly. I mean, the reader is almost certain that Hawker and Detecive Cahill are going to team up and take out tons of goons together, but it never happens – instead Cahill, who has been given his own action movie sort of intro, basically just serves to keep Hawker out of trouble. Same too is the German babe perfunctorily removed from the tale; she bangs Hawker and begs for him to take her along to Grand Cayman, but he gives her a few smart-ass remarks and takes off.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Shroud 9


Shroud 9, by Robert Turner
No month stated, 1970  Powell Publications

This 200 page paperback seems to be exceedingly scarce; I’m unfamiliar with Powell but they must not’ve had the best distribution. They also didn’t come up with the best covers. While the artwork by Bill Hughes for Shroud 9 is nice, it’s also very misleading. It makes the book look like a horror thing. It’s not – it’s a collection of short stories the prolific Robert Turner wrote for various crime fiction digests in the mid-‘50s, Manhunt in particular. The title also has nothing to do with anything, as there are 18 tales here, not 9!! 

Another miss is the acknowledgements; we’re not told which specific magazine each story came from. We’re only given a list of publishers and dates. I know Flying Eagle published Manhunt, so I know which ones here are from that magazine. But the other ones are unfamiliar to me. Not that it matters – those crime digests are sadly tough to find, so it likely would be easier to just hunt down this book…which itself is too damn scarce! There’s no intro from Turner; about all we get are a few words of praise from John D. MacDonald and Robert Bloch on the back cover, and a few snippets of various industry reviews of Turner’s work. It’s also mentioned that Turner has written an “original script” and that some of his stories have been optioned for the movies, but I don’t think anything came of it; the one thing I recall from Turner’s autobio Some Of My Best Friends Are Writers But I Wouldn’t Want My Daughter To Marry One (1970) is that he was always on the cusp of fame and fortune, but never quite got there.

Despite coming from various crime digests, the tales in Shroud 9 aren’t really of a criminous nature; mostly the stories are about average people getting caught up in horrific situations of their own making. Stories featuring professional criminals or contract killers or the other staples of pulp-crime are relatively few. But the main thing that I disliked about the book was that all of the stories are so short – just a few pages each. After a while I really wanted something with a bit more meat to it; I know Turner wrote scads of such stories, some of them novella length, and I wish some of those had been included here. My assumption is the theme of this anthology was to stick to short, punchy tales with “shock” finales; in that way the stories are very similar to EC Comics. Another point of reference would be the Old Time Radio drama Lights Out.

The first story, “Field of Honor,” from a 1955 issue of Manhunt, isn’t what I would’ve expected, but it definitely introduces the dark theme of the book. It’s a piece of juvenile delinquent fiction in which 14 year-old Jill ducks out on her uncaring socialite mother and hooks up with her pal Thelma. The two put on jeans and tote beer can openers; they’re going to prove their mettle in a fight with a rival girl gang. In particular Jill wants a piece of big-boned Roxanne; Thelma says hunk Johnny, “nearly twenty years old,” is going to date the winner; this excites Jill greatly. But the fight doesn’t go as planned, with Roxanne tearing Jill the hell up, even gouging out her right eyeball. The juvies dump Jill off at her house and she has to scratch at the door with that beer can opener to get her mom to let her in, as she’s too busy entertaining guests. The end!

Up next we have “What Do You Want?” from 1955, another dark one with a dark comedy payoff. Rich punk Buckman is getting freaked out how “old man” Pritchett keeps staring at him; never speaking, just staring. Pritchett’s been doing it for days. We’ll learn that Buckman “accidentally” killed Pritchett’s daughter in a car wreck. It develops though that Buckman’s thing was to take girls who refused to screw him on 100mph races in his sports car, which usually thawed ‘em out. Only Pritchett’s daughter wouldn’t give. Now Pritchett keeps following Buckman around and staring at him, to the point where Buckman tries to escape him in his car, racing along that same perilous road in which he crashed with Pritchett’s daughter. You can see this one coming a mile away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Not bad but not great.

“The Two Candles” is from 1955 and concerns an old lady just returned to her apartment after lighting two candles at the local church, one for her recently-departed husband and one for her son, who died 21 years ago. She’s shocked to discover a young man waiting for her in the apartment, a self-assured punk who swears up and down that he’s her son, returned home at last. It’s none other than Mad Dog Castle, infamous bank robber, who just killed a cop last week. The lady refuses to listen to him, calls the cops, and shoots him when he tries to stop her. Up-in-the-air finale in which the reader must decide for himself if Mad Dog really was the lady’s son, and she just made herself think he died all those years ago, instead of running away and becoming a notorious criminal.

“A Life For A Life” is from a 1954 and is a little better. This one’s also about a killer bank robber; the cops have come up with this sting where they’ve made the guy think that a lady he knocked up is about to give birth in a local hospital – in reality the lady was moved out of town long ago. They set up their dragnet, with the narrator and his junior partner concerned that the sadistic sergeant in charge of them, a top marksman, is going to kill the crook instead of arresting him. This is what happens, but as the crook is dying in the hospital he calls in the cop who shot him – and gouges out his eyes with his bare hands! That makes for two eye-gougings in one book!!

We return to the Manhunt yarns with “Fight Night,” from a 1955 issue. Our narrator tells us about the night he went to a bar to watch a boxing match with his pal Max, a dude who, despite his “sensitive face,” is actually quite manly and served in the war. But a drunk starts up a fight with Max, insinuating he’s gay and whatnot. The two get in a brutal brawl which climaxes with the drunk smashing a bottle and grinding it in Max’s face. Our narrator finally gets off his ass – he’s been in shock throughout – but the drunk escapes and Max later dies from too much blood loss. He leaves behind a wife and kid, and the narrator questions the “macho” sentiments which demand that men must defend their honor and not turn their backs to drunken challenges.

“A Living From Women” is from 1957 gets back to the third-person narration and concerns good-looking stud Danny Lund, who is notorious for marrying rich women, burning up their money, and then divorcing them. But his latest victim, a willowy girl named Levora, keeps following him around the country, getting frailer and frailer. Danny goes on with his con work, and has his biggest coup in sight, an ultra-wealthy woman who admits to him that she knows he’s only after her for her money, and that’s fine with her – she just wants to be seen around town with a pretty face and will give Max a thousand bucks a month, and he won’t even have to touch her. Levora louses all this up when she throws acid in Danny’s face one day! The rich woman leaves him and, despite extensive plastic surgery, Danny now looks like a “gargoyle.” Features an EC Comics finale in which Levora now happily cares for Danny.

“Who’s Calling?” is from a 1956 Manhunt and actually received a TV adaptation. It makes for good early television fodder, taking place in one location and featuring only two characters: Jay Breen and his wife, Beth. This one is totally in the Suspense mold as Jay keeps receiving calls from New York, the operator asking for “James Binford.” What freaks Jay out – and he gradually loses his sanity over the few pages of the story – is that this is his old name; five years ago, in New York, he embezzled a lot of money and killed a guard or something in the escape. He changed his name from Binford to Breen, but only Beth is aware of this new life. But the calls keep coming and the mystery of who knows Breen is Binford deepens, our “hero” getting closer to panic. It’s a taut, suspenseful tale, and very good, though given that only Beth knows Jay’s past makes it quite obvious who the culprit is. The ending though goes on a surreal tangent as Beth, happily with the man she used to drive Jay nuts (to the point of suicide), starts to receive mysterious calls for a Mrs. James Binford…

“Shy Guy” is from a 1954 Manhunt and is screwy in that it’s narrated by a dude who is telling us about a story he heard – it’s overly pedantic, with too much background detail and setup, something for which the narrator apologizes. Apology not accepted! The story is overly dull and is yet another tale about a guy driven to insanity – in this case an artist named, on-the-nose as can be, “Artie,” whose wife Della insists on going to big parties and is likely whoring around. A few years ago Artie and Della lost their unborn child in a car wreck, and the narrator intimates this is what has driven Della to her behavior, though he also claims she pretended not to be overly concerned about it. Ends with Della leaving her latest part and coming back with other people for Artie, who refused to go because he had a premonition bad stuff would occur if he did. But when they get him to the party they ignore Artie, and he sees his wife hanging around with some men…he finds a .45 in a deputy’s car and shoots everyone, the end. Thought this one was lame.

“Business Trip,” from a 1957 Manhunt, makes up for the previous misfire, and is probably my favorite in the book, even though it too is too short. We go back to the third-person narration and meet our protagonist, Burke, a “Specialist” for “The Organization.” He sits in a nondescript office with a few other Specialists while the Organization rep, an older VIP type I pictured as legendary character actor John Vernon (who of course would’ve pronounced his outfit “The OrganIZE-ation,” in that old-school way I love so much), goes over the latest target. We’re informed of the Organization’s weird way of assigning hits; all men are briefed, then a random drawing determines who actually gets the job. Burke of course pulls it, and he takes a train to the unnamed city – banging some broad he meets off-page, the first mention of sex yet in the entire book – and then buys an ice pick. He jams this into the ear of the target when the man gets in his car. Burke flies home to his nice house, with his lovely wife and adoring kid, reflecting over how he only needs to be a Specialist for a few more years before he too becomes a VIP. The “shock”-type finale we now expect has it that Burke suffers from recurring nightmares in which his ear is clogged and only an ice pick could unclog it, with Burke nightwalking to the kitchen to do the deed, ie kill himself. His wife stops him this time – but who knows about next. Other than the dumb finale, I liked this one, and it has that vintage pulp-crime vibe I love.

Next is “Everyman’s Woman,” also from 1957, and slightly longer than the other tales collected here. Our narrator is Brad, a cartoonist who moved to a cabin in the woods a few months ago with his new wife, a mega-babe named Nikki. One day Nikki comes home from the long hike to the town post office – Brad was too busy on a project to go with her, as he usually does – and she’s distraught because some creep followed her home. Eventually Brad rousts out the creep; it’s a dude with a limp named Carl Brand, who announces himself, “I’m free, white, and twenty-five.” He insists on his right to walk along the country road, and says he wasn’t following Nikki, but eventually Carl will flat-out tell Brad that he, Carl, has figured out that Nikki is a “nympho,” and it’s only a matter of time before he screws her. Unfortunately for Brad, this turns out to be the truth, at least so far as his wife is concerned; he met her, he tells us, when she was about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in suicide to escape her condition, which compels her to screw countless men. A doctor recommended moving to the countryside where there were less men(!). This one ends with Brad finally having enough of Carl’s shit and accidentally killing him in hand-to-hand combat. Turner just says “to hell with it,” with Brad going home, realizing he’ll never be free of the worry that Nikki might screw every man she meets, and so killing her to end his worries!

“Accident” is from 1955 and goes back to third-person; it’s a short about a rich drunk who crashes into a car one night, wiping out an entire family except for the father. He lies to the cops that the other driver was at fault, and gets away with it; when the father who drove the other car comes out of his coma, he basically just shrugs it off, for what will bring back his wife and kids? Features a nasty finale in which the father shows up one night and carjacks the rich dude, tearing off into the night with the rich man’s own wife and kids in the car and plowing into a tree, killing them all – poetic (if draconian) justice is served, as now the rich man must live with everything also having been taken from him.

“Don’t Go Away Mad” is from a 1956 issue of Justice and is a highlight of Shroud 9 as it was a highlight of The Hardboiled Lineup; I reviewed it in my writeup on that one.

“Repeat Performance” is from a 1957 Manhunt and concerns a nameless guy who fondles teen girls at rock concerts. He’s all jazzed up about how he went “too far” with one of them at a concert this afternoon; the intimation is that he raped the girl and got away with it due to the noise and the crowd. He’s all excited to go to this evening’s concert and do it all again, but when he gets there he sees his victim from this afternoon, with a bunch of other girls. She saunters over to him and, just when he thinks she actually enjoyed her raping and has come back for more, she and her friends stab him to death with hat pins. Ends with the cops figuring they’ll never figure out who killed the guy! 

“Vacation Nightmare” is from a 1956 Manhunt and is like a ‘50s Deliverance. Our narrator informs us how he was driving his wife and teen daughter back from vacation, and decided after a full day’s driving to sleep in the car one night, at a fishing camp just off the highway. Next morning they woke into a nightmare: a trio of rapist-hillbillies were leering in the car at the women. Our narrator gets beaten while the hillbillies take their turns with the women; Turner keeps it all off-page, with the narrator knocked unconscious. When he comes to he staggers to his car despite the pleading of his wife and daughter and finds the three men down at the lake fishing(!). He steers his car toward them, jumps out, and the car runs over them – the cops chalk it up as an accident, the end.

“Everything Has To End,” from 1956, features the most disturbing “shock” finale in the book. We’re informed that a rich bastard named Vincent has knocked up his latest mistress, Verna, and he’s taken her to a doctor who handles abortions; indeed, this isn’t Vincent’s first time handling such an issue. But this time it’s cheaper, as we’re informed that Vincent has learned that dumb, poor women like Verna are much more “enjoyable” than the rich dames he used to run with – plus they’re easier to handle. But Verna’s waited four months to tell Vincent, which makes him wonder if he should break the affair off for good once the abortion is over. The doctor gives Verna a pill and Vincent drops her off at her place and gets back to his society life with his rich wife – Vincent is only wealthy due to her inheritance. Then one afternoon a few days later Vincent is drunk at a big party at his house; so drunk he thinks it’s his imagination when he sees a taxi pull up and Verna herself get out. She looks disheveled and she’s carrying a small box. She comes up to Vincent and tells him that she didn’t know what to do, especially since “he” was Vincent’s – “he” being the aborted child, of course, which Verna proceeds to dump on Vincent’s lap, right in front of his wife and everyone!

“Movie Night,” from a 1957 Manhunt, gets back to the juvenile delinquent fiction. Our narrator tells us how he and his family would often go to the drive-in with the family that lived next door. The father of that family, Fred, was a hothead who would get worked up over nothing, as he does this particular night; the movie is about juvenile delinquents, and Fred rants and raves that the “jaydees” get away with their rule-flaunting and bad behavior because no one ever stands up to them. Fred gets his chance to do this very thing when everyone goes to the crowded snack bar between movies; a group of jaydees are horsing around and one of ‘em knocks Fred’s soda all over Fred’s shirt. This leads to a brawl in which Fred gets the better of the punks, but when a cop comes by and is eager to bust the jaydees for causing a disturbance, Fred’s wife pleads with him not to press charges and to just forget it. Fred does so, reluctantly – and that night our narrator and his wife are woken by the horrible screaming of Fred’s wife. Turns out the jaydees lured him out of his house and beat him about the knees with axe handles before smashing him in the face with glass-filled socks. He’s now crippled and half-blind, and the narrator receives notice that he’s next on the jaydee revenge list.

“The Onlooker” is from a 1954 Manhunt and concerns a dude named Blake who watches a blonde in the hotel room across from his own. This is a stalker tale, with Blake becoming increasingly worked up as the blonde talks to the young soldier she’s invited up to her room; when it’s apparent the two are having sex in the now-darkened room, Burke whips out an automatic rifle and fires. Ending has the cops discussing this nutjob Burke, who didn’t even know the blonde, and was just some psycho who thought she was “his” girl; he didn’t even know that the soldier was actually the blonde’s husband, just returned from the war.

“Room Service,” from a 1955 Manhunt, follows, and is of a similar bent; indeed it’s so similar to the previous story you wonder why it was placed right after it. This one’s also about a guy hanging out in a room with a rifle, but this guy’s watching a parade pass by beneath him. Occasionally he checks over a dossier at his side, which shows an older man and a young, pretty woman – the last photo shows them being married. Then we see the main attraction in the parade below is the man and woman in the photo; our nameless rifleman blows the woman away and escapes. Ends with the revelation that the older man was the rifleman’s father, and apparently he killed the woman out of jealousy because she was going to get in the way of all the big game hunting he’s done with his dad(!?).

And that’s that, 18 tales that mostly just go for shock and usually succeed. I really wanted to read something by Turner a bit longer, which I guess is an indication that his writing is good enough that it made me want more. I think next I’ll get around to one of his actual novels. Anyway, Shroud 9 is entertaining enough, but I’m not sure it justifies the exorbitant prices it goes for on the secondhand market.