Monday, February 12, 2018

The Baroness #2: Diamonds Are For Dying (second review)

The Baroness #2: Diamonds Are For Dying, by Paul Kenyon
March, 1974  Pocket Books

I’m still enjoying my re-reading of The Baroness; coming back to this series, you can see how it was a cut above the genre norm, despite the repetitive nature of each volume. But I’ve found that most all the series books “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel have been a cut above; regardless, Diamonds Are For Dying is still one of the weaker books in the series, though I have to say I enjoyed it more this time than the first time I read it.

As mentioned in my second review of #1: The Ecstasy Connection, enterprising Baroness fan ppsantos discovered, via series author Donald “Paul Kenyon” Moffitt himself, that Diamonds Are For Dying was the first installment to be written, and should have been the first volume of the series published. Either Engel or Pocket decided to hold it back in favor of The Ecstasy Connection. If their intention was to hook readers with a stronger story, then I completely understand their decision – The Ecstasy Connection is one of the best men’s adventure novels ever, and, with it’s borderline sci-fi plot mixed with hardcore kinkiness, works as a much better series hook than this one does.

There were clues strewn about The Ecstasy Connection that it was actually second in the series; in particular there were a few mentions of Baroness Penelope St. John-Orisini’s previous mission, which took place in Brazil. That of course would refer to the events of this volume – humorously, though, the intros to the Baroness and her team aren’t much more fleshed out here than they were in the first volume. So clearly Moffitt was writing each of these books to stand on their own, with little focus on continuity.

Moffitt might’ve gotten better with his second-written installment, but that’s not to say Diamonds Are For Dying is bad. It’s just that, whereas The Ecstasy Connection hurtled along from first page to last, this one doesn’t feature nearly as many thrills. However Moffitt’s already got his series outline worked out – the only difference between this one and ensuing volumes is that it does not open with the inciting incident that will gradually get the Baroness on the job. Rather, Diamonds Are For Dying opens with what would normally be the second scene of each installment: the Baroness’s latest party for the jet-set.

“The Baroness stood at the center of it all, a martini in one hand and a joint in the other.” So we meet our heroine: long, leggy, busty (and lusty) brunette babe of all babes Penelope St. John-Borsini, throwing this massive bash in her Rome villa. She displays the randy stuff of which she’s made posthaste, taking a bet with another jet-setting gal that she’ll be able to get studmuffin Sir Hugh into bed – and Penelope succeeds, of course, within the hour. Moffitt delivers what will become the patented hardcore screwin’ the series would be known for, with the Baroness eagerly boffing Hugh not once but twice – the “back-to-back bangs” being another recurring element of the series. No detail is left unmentioned, though personally I felt The Ecstasy Connection was a little more hardcore, what with Penelope’s “foamy pubes” and all. Or hell, maybe she was just more excited in that one.

Right on cue her watch goes off, zapping her with the demand to contact her secret control at NSA, John Farnsworth, aka “Key.” The Baroness’s own codename is “Coin,” which means that, like The Butcher, this series isn’t titled after the protagonists’s actual codename (the Butcher’s codename was “Iceman”). But like with The Butcher, I wondered why Moffitt went to all these lengths, anyway; why all the busywork about “Key” and “Coin” when he could’ve just made Penelope’s codename “The Baroness” and have done with it? Anyway in this one Farnsworth flies over to Italy to give Penelope her assignment in person – US intelligence is in a dither over it.

Also another thing made somewhat clear in Diamonds Are For Dying is that “the President’s man,” who appears each volume in the meeting with the Intelligence heads and gives them their marching orders, is actually Henry Kissinger, real-life “President’s man” at that time; we are informed he has a “slight German accent,” and later on he is referred to as “Henry.” Speaking of “German,” this volume’s villain is that old pulp menace, the unrepentant Nazi who plans to launch the Fourth Reich and conquer the world, picking up where Hitler left off. His name is Wilhelm Heidrig, and he lives on an old coffee plantation deep in the jungles of Brazil.

The Baroness’s team is actually given less of an intro in this one than The Ecstasy Connection. Members like Yvette and Eric make their first appearance as ciphers and will stay that way throughout the series, though we do get the oddball comment that Eric is a “mathematical wiz.” We learn unusual stuff about some of the others – like for example that bulky Green Beret Dan Wharton is a chemist, and this time has made for Penelope a “synthetic black widow spider venom” which is uber-potent, and which she can eject via a hidden button on her cigarette lighter. Team geek Tom Sumo though as ever provides the main gadgets, which are heavy on the “co-polymer” tip this time, from sandals that can turn into blades to a bra that can turn into a bow. We also get lots of talk on series staple the Spyder, which is a grappling hook that gets Penelope out of many a pickle.

Perhaps the Baroness’s background bio is a bit more fleshed-out in this one; it runs from pages 39 to 46. After which it’s on with the show, and on with the template; promptly upon landing in Brazil, and being hassled by some asshole customs inspector, Penelope and team are saved by an attractive local male, same as in The Ecstasy Connection. This is wealthy lothario Silvio, who turns out to be a leftist who secretly provides medical help to the destitute inhabitants of the slums outside Rio; he’s banging the Baroness that very night, in yet another tour de force of hardcore shenanigans – back-to-back shenanigans at that.

Meanwhile we meet our villains, a curiously-uninmpressive lot, at least so far as this series goes. In addition to Heidrig, the stereotypical died-in-the-wool Nazi who is now in his 60s, there’s sadistic, effiminate Horst, a blonde-haired freak who will ultimately turn out to be Hitler’s son. Heidrig will tell Penelope all about it late in the book, but it goes that Hitler, insane after the war, was spirited out of Germany and hidden in Heidrig’s jungle villa, where he was fooled by his followers into thinking the war was still raging. In the mid-‘60s he managed to sire a son with a local whore, who was later killed off – Hitler himself died in ’65. But Horst doesn’t contribute much to the book, and mostly just enjoys feeding various unfortunates to the pirhanas in a pool on Heidrig’s estate. Or having his dogs tear people apart. Heidrig’s plot centers around Dutch jeweler Peter van Voort, who has figured out how to use diamonds to power a laser that will in turn power an atomic bomb, or somesuch.

Moffitt as ever makes The Baroness feel like the trash fiction equivalent of the typical men’s adventure novel, complete with descriptions of Penelope’s revealing, high-fashion clothing to topical mentions like “a bossa nova with the new, acid beat” that Penelope and Silvio dance to. But Penelope uses Silvio as her means to get into Heidrig’s orbit; dressed as Marie Antoinette for a Louis XVI-themed party the old Nazi throws, the Baroness succeeds in ensnaring Heidrig’s attention, much to Silvio’s dismay. Not that she doesn’t make it up to him. A few pages later and we’re getting more Penelope-Silvio double-banging (actually this time it’s a triple banging). For this Silvio is, unbeknownst to Penelope, beaten to a pulp by Heidrig’s men, but curiously enough Silvio just plumb drops out of the novel afterward, not appearing again until the end of the book, when he shows up at the airport to tell Penelope so long and thanks for all the sex.

Penelope ventures to Heidrig’s jungle estate, only bringing along Tom Sumo and blonde cipher Inga, whose big role this time is to get nude, put on a wig, and pretend to be Penelope to fool Heidrig’s hidden cameras. Oh, and at one point she also frees the Baroness’s big dogs, which have also come along for the occasion.

Here the novel comes to sort of a standstill, with Moffitt continually stretching things out as Penelope tries to maintain her cover as fussy jet-setting mega-babe while both keeping prudish Teuton Heidrig at bay and figuring out what he’s really up to. Meanwhile Sumo sneaks around and puts listening bugs in various places. The writing is good but it’s just sort of slow-going, almost a prefigure of #8: Black Gold, which similarly slowed to a dead crawl for a long duration (and which, now that I’ve re-read Diamonds Are For Dying, would easily have to be my least-favorite volume of the series).

Things pick up in the final quarter; Heidrig, assuming Penelope hates “the inferior races” as much as he does, blabs about his “laser-trigger fusion bomb” and how he plans to rally together old and new Nazis under Horst, proclaiming him as Hitler’s son and heir. Surprisingly, Heidrig then goes about finally banging Penelope – in a mainstream thriller, I doubt this would happen, and our heroine’s honor would be untarnished. But Penelope lays there and thinks of, well, not England, ‘cause she’s an American agent, but anyway she lets Heidrig screw her, then kills him while he’s climaxing. At least she gives the old sadist a memorable send-off.

Interestingly, the Baroness doesn’t spend a single second thinking about how she allowed herself to be probed by Heidrig’s “gristle-tough tool;” Moffitt is with it in that he understands that, as a female agent, the Baroness has no qualms about having sex solely for the mission. Oh, and of course she kills the old bastard with that black widow venom Dan made for her.

As I mentioned in my first review, though, the finale is sort of anticlimactic, as these old Nazis don’t prove much opposition for the Baroness and her team; there’s a nice part where Penelope and the others escape the compound while the main team infiltrates via the jungle, but regardless per series template Penelope is captured. Here too it’s less outrageous than similar such scenes, later in the series; Horst merely pulls her along, still clad only in the lingerie Heidrig gave her, and attempts to feed her to his precious pirhana. Instead, Horst himself becomes fish bait, thanks to the miraculous presence of Penelope’s dogs – those damn dogs save her ass just about every volume.

The finale is just as stretched thin as the middle half; the team splits up and heads for Rio, but Penelope is waylaid by a group of Nazi leftovers, soon to die thanks to radiation poisoning from the atom bomb her team set off in Heidrig’s compound. Here the Baroness puts to use her bra-bow, but despite the nice cover painting she’s not in her black catsuit while she wields it. As ever she’s barely clothed. And now that I think of it, even the gore level is subdued in Diamonds Are For Dying. While The Ecstasy Connection was rife with exploding heads and guts, this one is more reserved.

And that’s pretty much it – it’s back to Rome, where Penelope’s already set her sights on another jet-setting stud to share her bed. Overall Diamonds Are For Dying is fun, and certainly well-written, but pales in comparison to its predeccessor and the other volumes that were to follow, save for Black Gold. But I’m finding that I’m appreciating The Baroness even more upon this re-reading of the series.


Invisible Customers by Earl Pilkington said...

It's funny, I've always wanted to read The Baroness series, after seeing it once on a bookshelf many, many years ago - but have never been able to re-find it.
It appears that maybe this is one that is best left for a discovery in a second hand book store, or yard sale.
As a series it seemed to hold much promise - but maybe I am reading too much into it.
Thanks again for the review.

John M. Cowan said...

I read it as a teen. All I remember are the sex scenes. I picked it up again at a used-book store a few years back, but haven't reread it yet—except to check out the sex scenes. Still hot.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

P said...

I think the writer, Don Moffitt, was still feeling his way, trying to determine how the Baroness series would shape up, when he wrote this first of the series. Certain Baroness templates were still being fashioned out. For example, the number of Baroness' sex scenes, was highest here (6 I think), and gradually became less (to about just 2 for the later titles, #4 and onwards). The black cat suit was not yet developed, the nude-torture, and the naked action, which were pretty standard items for the later titles, were not present in this first Baroness-outing.

Felicity Walker said...

Re: “Coin”: if she actually is a baroness, making her codename “The Baroness” might give away her secret identity. :-)