Monday, October 30, 2017

The Revenger #4: The Stiletto Signature

The Revenger #4: The Stiletto Signature, by Jon Messmann
October, 1974  Signet Books

Jon Messmann continues his “Burt Hirschfeld writing The Executioner” schtick with this fourth volume of The Revenger that’s once again heavy on the introspection, usually at the expense of the action. That being said, The Stiletto Signature has more sex than the previous three volumes, with hero Ben Martin scoring with two uber-sexy babes – several times over, in extra-smutty detail, which is how I demand my sleaze.

Surprisingly, given the “sex slavery” plot promised on the back cover, we don’t really get much about it; indeed, the sex slave stuff, which serves to get Ben Martin engaged on this particular hit, is given narrative short-shrift. The villain of the piece, a Sicilian mafioso named Vito Cavallo who has taken over the family of Don Genossanto (killed in the previous volume), runs a business in which Sicilian girls are imported to the US and sold to men who keep them in their homes ostensibly as maids and whatnot, but who really use them for sex. Martin’s distant cousin Rosa has become a victim of Cavallo, having been imported from Sicily for this sexual slavery, and murdered when Ben went around looking for her; Ben, who never even knew Rosa, was requested by her family back in Sicily to find out what happened to their daughter. Little did they know they were writing The Revenger himself.

But in reality the crux of Stiletto Signature is more about Ben plotting against Cavallo and trying to get evidence of the sex slavery business and who is helping the Mafioso run it. Cavallo was brought over by old Don Genossanto a few years ago, and has now used his native savagery to get to the top of the heap. He has brought back many of the savage old Mafia ways, in particular murdering turncoats and special enemies with a stiletto; the use of this particular instrument has become Cavallo’s “signature.”

The series takes a turn expected from so many of these other ‘70s lone wolf vigilante novels; Ben is contacted by a police chief who is not only a secret supporter of Ben’s vigilante work, but who also wants to secretly endorse him. This is Captain Leo Hendricks, who has become a fan of Ben’s over the past few years. When Ben goes to see the corpse of his cousin in the morgue, Hendricks has him hauled in, having suspected that the infamous Revenger might eventually try to become involved in this latest mobland plot.

Hendricks, after getting a grudging Ben to admit he is the Ben Martin who is supposedly dead but who is really the Revenger, tells our hero all about Cavallo’s sex slavery operation. If they can figure out how Cavallo is running it, who his financers are, they can bring him down legally. Ben takes the job and sets his sights on Carter Van Rhyne, a jet-setter type who employed Ben’s murdered cousin as a “housemaid.” Ben goes to Van Rhyne’s mansion, just flat-out asking about his cousin – and then telling a nonplussed Van Rhyne that she’s dead. Ben also trades interested looks with Larel, Van Rhyne’s hot-stuff sister.

Action is minimal, as usual; the Mafia tries to put out a hit on this mysterious guy looking into Van Rhyne’s business – for of course it turns out Van Rhyne is up to his neck in the whole sex-slave operation – and Ben fools them with a handy mannequin he puts in the front seat of his car. He guns them down casually, as usual mostly sticking to a revolver or a rifle for his mob-busting. However this volume puts a bit more focus on Ben’s ‘Nam past, in particular where it comes to his preparations for his various attacks.

Laurel unsurprisingly becomes Ben’s first conquest in the novel; she is gradually drawn to his side, initially disbelieving her brother’s role in any Mafia business, but soon pledging to help Ben stop him. She has a secret apartment in the city, and there the two enjoy the first of what will ultimately be a few explicitly-rendered sex scenes; Messmann actually has ‘em go at it twice, back to back, but bear in mind the sex scenes themselves are written in the “literary” vibe Messmann employs for the series: “[Ben] touches…the calyx of ecstasy” and the like. So while the hardcore screwin’ is fairly graphic throughout, it is couched in that same sort of highfalutin style that Burt Hirschfeld would use in his own novels, to the point that the reader doesn’t know whether he should be getting hot and bothered or reaching for a dictionary.

Eventually the action transitions to Sicily, as Ben heads to Cavallo’s hometown to disrupt his plans there. But even here the sex slave stuff isn’t much explored; throughout we only learn about the financial aspects of it, or how exactly Cavallo is bringing the girls over. Rather it’s all about Ben shaming Cavallo by exploiting the overly-masculine dictates of the old world. Which is to say, Ben screws the virgin Cavallo plans to marry! Pretending to be Cavallo himself, Ben ingratiates himself into the local community, all of whom look up to Cavallo with much fear and respect. Due to various reasons, Cavallo has never actually met the girl he is to marry, nor her parents, so Ben successfully bluffs his way into their presence and makes off with the babe, claiming that he has decided to marry her earlier than expected.

Her name is Norma, and Ben takes her virginity in another explicit sequence, one that, as with the material with Laurel, actually features back-to-back banging. Turns out Norma is “built for sex” despite being a virgin…and when Ben drops the bomb that he isn’t Cavallo, thus “despoiling” the girl forever (we are informed that these old-school Sicilians would rather their daughters die than lose their virginity before marriage), she takes it placidly. Ben for his part feels “stained” for the heartless deed he’s done, but hell, you can’t call yourself “The Revenger” without ruffling a few feathers.

Once Ben has called Cavallo back in New York to blab that he just banged his bride-to-be, Norma drops a bomb of her own: she’s known from the start that Ben was not Cavallo, having managed to find some photos of the man. She went along with Ben because she sensed he would be her savior, taking her from the life she does not want with Cavallo. So Messmann gets his cake and eats it, too – Ben thus is not a liar-rapist, but a hero after all. Anyway, Norma soon takes off to hang out with a girlfriend, and we’re into the homestretch.

The finale sees Ben fighting against time as he tries to make various connecting flights and arrive in the US a few hours before Cavallo’s latest shipment of sex-slaves, which are being transported first by a Sicilian fishing boat, then to a private plane, and finally to a lumber mill truck that waits for them at Kennedy Airport. Carter Van Rhyne is so involved with Cavallo that the distribution center of Van Ryne’s lumber mill is secretly used as a sort of waystation for the imported women, who are then shipped out separately across the US. Ben wants to get there before them, set up an ambush, and end the entire affair that night.

Laurel of course manages to go along with Ben on his assault, which sees him blasting from afar Cavallo and the ten mobsters he’s brought along with him. Here Ben again uses his .38, as well as a Mossburg rifle. It’s not an action-centric finale, playing more on chaos and Laurel’s fear that her brother will be killed. And Ben for his part bizarrely enough tries to take Cavallo alive, wanting to deliver him to Captain Hendricks, who will then go about the process of legally taking down Cavallo’s operation. But seriously, what kind of “Revenger” would Ben be if he didn’t kill his man – first shooting off his kneecaps and then his ear for the desired intel, and then finally blowing him away when Cavallo lurches at him with his stiletto?

The story ends with Ben once again boffing Laurel in literary-smut fashion, with the intimation that Laurel is going to be Ben’s woman…for a time. It would appear that Messmann is giving up on the ongoing storyline of the previous three volumes; as we’ll recall, Ben was also quite serious about his leading lady in the last volume, even debating at book’s end if he was going to return to her. 

Messmann’s writing is good as ever, though – at least, if you’re looking for a little literary-style stuff with your mob-busting action. But at this point, Ben Martin is not much different from Messmann’s other series character of the time, Jefferson Boone; both are presented as more worldly and sophisticated than the average man of action, prone to brooding and introspection, well-versed in history and poetry and what-all. But so far I like this series better.

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