Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ian Fleming's Incredible Creation

Ian Fleming's Incredible Creation
No month stated, 1965  Three Star Books

Here’s an early critical study of the James Bond novels, one that seems to have been completely forgotten. This is most likey due to the publisher: Three Star Books, which was only around for a short time and no doubt had poor distribution. Ian Fleming’s Incredible Creation is definitely worth seeking out, though, and offers a unique appraisal of Ian Fleming’s novels (to say the least!). Compared to the other Bond studies of the day, I’d put it just beneath Kingsley Amis’s The James Bond Dossier, but above Ann Boyd’s The Devil With James Bond and O.F. Snelling’s 007: A Report.

This slim paperback – 128 pages of big print – is comprised of two “Parts.” The first, which only amounts to 9 pages, is by Paul Anthony, identified on the back cover as “Ian Fleming’s drinking partner.” Folks, I only wish I had a drinking partner who could write an essay about me after I’ve bought the farm. Instead I drink alone once my 14 month-old is finally “asleep” (which still only amounts to one-hour stretches on a good night) and I play a record or watch a few minutes of a movie and completely tune out of the world. Anyway Anthony’s essay is titled “My Friend, Ian Fleming.”

This short and sweet essay offers a few memories of his various discussions with Fleming, most of which occurred at various hotel bars. But the moral of Anthony’s story is this: Fleming regretted getting married, stayed married only for the sake of his son, and it was his unhappiness with his wife Ann that ultimately caused Fleming to create James Bond. So, as Anthony sums up, if it wasn’t for Ann Fleming, there would never have been a James Bond – Fleming was already wealthy, had everything a man could want. But he was unhappy with his marriage to this woman, who in Anthony’s view comes off as a domineering shrew more interested in climbing the social ladder. Thus Fleming decided to live vicariously through a globetrotting secret agent who dispatched larger-than-life villains and picked up larger-than-life babes.

As for Fleming himself, Anthony says he was as different from Bond as you could get; constantly “nervous,” due to his frustrations over Ann, to the point that he smoked “60-100 cigarettes a day.” Anthony presents himself as the babe magnet Fleming only wished he was, and also states – without much evidence – that Pussy Galore might have been based on a woman who attended Anthony’s “Judo Club,” and whom Anthony introduced to Fleming. Anthony theorizes that Fleming losing his father when he was eight years old stunted him emotionally – “On one occasion I found him reading a boy’s comic with obvious amusement.” The piece wraps up with the bashing of Ann Fleming, where Anthony states that, while she was responsible for the creation of James Bond, she was also responsible for Ian Fleming’s early death!

Next up is the meat of the book: “The World Of James Bond,” by Jacquelyn Friedman. Frustratingly, we are given no background on Ms. Friedman – who she is, what led her to this critical study of Fleming’s novels, etc. And for that matter, Friedman herself is maddeningly vague; she implies a few times that she actually knew Fleming, and conversed with him about the books, but offers up no details. Otherwise, her multi-chapter essay is very much along the lines of Amis’s magesterial The James Bond Dossier, and at times nearly as good – with one glaring difference. The James Bond Dossier brims with Amis’s enthusiasm for the novels, but one gets the feeling that Friedman really isn’t too fond of them, despite the fact that she proclaims herself “a creature in pathetic Bondage.” 

Another glaring difference is that Amis’s book is a pithy, cogent overview of the series as a whole, with little in the way of critical appraisal. It’s also not a literary study of hidden elements in the novels; Amis’s work started life as a magazine article, and the book itself retains that vibe, but make no mistake this is not meant as an insult. Friedman on the other hand does make a critical study of the novels, while at the same time she brings up many of the same points Amis did in his book, which came out in hardcover the same year.

But while Amis’s Dossier is still much beloved by Bond fans, Friedman’s study has so dropped off the radar that you seldom even see it mentioned. As stated this is most likely due to its scarcity, given the obscurity of Three Star Books, but it’s also perhaps because a huge chunk of Friedman’s analysis would be considered inappropriate today. You see, Friedman is very focused on race, and racial elements in Fleming’s novels, and discusses the subject in a manner that is as “pre-Politically Correct” as you can get. Indeed, a large portion of her study would be considered wildly offensive today, certainly more so than Fleming’s actual novels would be.

The gist is, Friedman sees James Bond as the bearer of “the white man’s burden” (her actual phrase), defending fellow white people from the encroaching minorities of the world. But Bond’s lot is a miserable one, his task ultimately pointless – something that gradually becomes an inescapable reality for him as the series progresses. The British Empire has fallen, leaving only a soulless ruin of past glories, and Bond is more so a protector of the “Wasteland” it has become. He is a destroyer of life, his goal to prevent (non-white) “families from getting through” (in the parlance of Steinbeck, more of which below), and while the early books see him fighting “non-whites,” the last two volumes see him protecting them. This is because post-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service James Bond has finally accepted the meaninglessness of his service as Agent 007; while the “white world” is in its death throes – as represented by Bond himself and skeletons like M, not to mention the various “father figures” who serve as Bond’s sidekicks, most of whom are older men who can only relive the glories of their past – the “non-white world” is young and vibrant and soon to take over.

So as you can see, this is a damn unique look at the world of James Bond!

The first chapter, “The Feelings and The Troubles,” gets this particular ball rolling posthaste. Friedman states that James Bond never actually does anything; rather, he stops others from doing things. Bond is defined by his enemies, at least in the early books – he must always wait until they make the first move, and then he acts to stop them. In the last two novels, though, Bond has experienced such a character progression that he must make the first move, otherwise he will slip fully into despair. This is mostly due to his realization and acceptance of the racial elements outlined above. “In every case, the first thing we learn about the villain is his race.” So Friedman begins her analysis of race in Fleming – and indeed, one gathers that she is a bit too focused on this element.

But race, as Friedman points out, only matters so far as the villain is concerned; James Bond has no racial prejudices when it comes to his various female conquests. In fact, it’s with a non-white woman that Bond conceives a child, in You Only Live Twice. “This [racial] division is not between white men and dark men, but Englishmen and others.” Friedman brings up the Nazi edict that “race means soul,” and proclaims that this edict is completely true in the world of James Bond – the villains in particular are defined by their race, even when Fleming goes out of his way not to expressly state things. Such as the case, Friedman argues, with Goldfinger being a Jew, even though Fleming skirts around the fact (hence Goldfinger’s quest to steal all the gold of the world – what more, Friedman argues, could one expect from an outrageously-overdone Jewish caricature?). She also argues that Red Grant is a member of the IRA, even though Fleming pointedly never refers to the IRA.

Next up is “Earth Mothers and Living Dolls.” Here Friedman presents the second unique element of her Bond appraisal: that James Bond is both repelled by and terrified of the maternal force, that strong adult women are anathema to his entire world view. The “girls” Bond prefers are “nearly interchangeable” in Friedman’s view – she honestly sees no difference in them – and while they may each start off as strong female figures, when they become the latest “Bondgirl” they are reduced to weak refelctions of their former selves. This, Friedman states, is the only kind of woman James Bond will tolerate. Strong women, she argues, only exist in the Bond films, as in the case of Fiona Volpe of Thunderball, a strong female character who was not even in the novel.

In Friedman’s analysis, the women in Fleming are divided between “girls” and “mothers,” and the latter represent everything James Bond is against – because, we’ll recall, Bond is a destroyer of the life-cycle, whereas mothers are the creators of life. Fleming’s adult women are “creatures whom [Bond] hates and fears,” and “adult women destroy James Bond whenever they meet.” Only two women represent the “mother” figure in Fleming – Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt – and Friedman ranks them as “the most important people in the world of James Bond,” because Klebb kills Bond at the climax of From Russia, With Love (or at least seems to in the cliffhanger ending), and Irma Bunt kills Bond’s wife at the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Here we have a fascinating look at how Rosa Klebb served as Red Grant’s “mother,” avenging the death of her “son” at novel’s end, and how Irma Bunt gained vengeance on Bond for ruining her family – and Blofeld, as Friedman argues, was clearly stated as being a “family man” with Irma in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Friedman wraps up this chapter with the observation that “The power of the Earth-Mother in Fleming is often mystic,” but “maternal protection [in Fleming] is a force of evil, not good.” This leads into a further discussion of the topic in the next chapter, “Steinbeck, Solo, and 007.” Here Friedman brings up the concept that “the family must get through,” as displayed by Steinbeck in The Grapes Of Wrath: the mother is the core of the strong family, which must prevail no matter what. The book shows its age with Friedman’s enthusiasm for The Man From UNCLE (in fact she clearly prefers it to Bond!), and here we get a rundown of various Season 1 episodes that demonstrate the strong family dynamic of UNCLE.

But James Bond’s goal is to ensure the family does not “get through,” as he is a killer of life, and since the mother is the central figure of the family, then the mother is the central villain of Fleming’s oeveure. “No children are born in the world of James Bond,” Friedman states, explaining away Bond’s son with Kissy Suzuki as the product of a time in which he didn’t even know he was James Bond. “While a girl is admired for her manly qualities…any show of womanly, maternal strength must be punished without remorse, no matter how well-intentioned.” Bond instead serves “father-figures” who are “relics of the past,” men who demonstrate their macho attitudes with a “vulgar cruelty.” Here Friedman broaches the same observations Kingsley Amis did, vis-à-vis Bond’s “father-son” dynamic with M, but whereas Amis sees M as a cold-hearted bastard, Friedman instead sees him as overly bound by tradition, and thus unable to openly proclaim his fatherly love for Bond.

“Fun and Games in the Wastelands” follows, and here Friedman overviews Fleming’s power in details, how he didn’t belabor his novels with “overwhelming description.” In other words, pages and pages about a fancy sports car would actually say less than the mention of a lady’s scarf sitting in the passenger seat. We’re told of the “luxury” of James Bond’s world, with the caveat that none of it actually belongs to him, and indeed much of it is untouched by his passing through. Bond himself is presented as a ghost, haunting his dying world – even his “flat” is just a place, not a home actually lived in by Bond; it’s just a place he stays between assignments. And his infrequent plans to make more of the flat are always ruined – a la Tracy’s murder at the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

“We feel that Bond is protecting a barren and empty world,” states Friedman, making the compelling observation that we never see any people in this London of Fleming, other than the employees of the Service. Crowds, such as in Moonraker, are kept in the background, and Bond and his companions seem to exist apart from the rest of mankind. This is the isolation of the Service, something Fleming often hammers home in the series. Here too we get the first of those now-offensive observations on the “doomed” element of Bond’s role as the bearer of “the white man’s burden.”

“Dignity and Grace: The Morality of the Wasteland” goes over “the morality of dignity,” in which the villain must pay for his bad acts, even if Fleming never outright states what the villain’s plans are. Such is the case, Friedman posits, with my man Dr. No; but given that Dr. No puts Bond through a grueling obstacle course, that alone justifies the vile death he is delivered. From here though we jump back to the luxurious settings of Bond’s world; Friedman describes Bond himself as “the perfect arbiter of elegance.” In a humorous note that could’ve come straight out of Kingsley Amis’s book she states, “Let [Bond] land on a deserted island and he will wind up in Dr. No’s palace!”

The next chapter, “James Bond: Portrait in Black and Tan,” finally turns the sights on Bond himself. And the picture Friedman paints isn’t flattering. She brings up the Black and Tans of British history, English criminals who were freed from prison, given uniforms, and sent to Ireland to kill with impunity, and says that James Bond is their modern representation! As more credence she notes that Bond always blots out memory of his past, preferring to promptly forget the cruel things he’s had to do. But the villains of the novels revel in their own pasts; this, Friedman argues, is an inversion of the standard form, which is the other way around.

“Physically, James Bond resembles the villain more than the hero.” This argument I don’t buy, particularly Friedman’s cheesy call-back to the “Black and Tan” stuff; ie, Bond’s “black” hair and his “tan” skin. Here’s one of the parts where Friedman casually and vaguely mentions that she knew Fleming, stating that Fleming once told her he named his character “James Bond” because he wanted the blandest name possible. But Bond’s code number, Friedman claims, furthers this idea – “seven is good luck, but before it comes two zeroes, meaning, nothing! Fleming tried to convey his hero’s basic emptiness by his names.” Methinks the lady doth exaggerate too much.

But if Bond is “empty,” even more so is the “Wasteland” he protects – this is Friedman’s designation of the fallen British Empire, where everything is now “devoid of meaning” and all that remains for its representatives is a futile catering to an accepted form. Pre-On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond could enjoy the “soft life” between assignments, but upon his realization and acceptance of the futility of his overall mission, only “constant danger” keeps him from despair. Now his enemies, in the last two novels of the series, are “chosen for him” because they would make for good opponents, not due to any particular world-threatening plans. Here we get Friedman’s argument that, instead of being presented as the enemy, as they once were, the non-white characters in these last two books are people who need Bond’s assistance.

“James Bond In Another Country” is the longest chapter in Friedman’s study. In this one she dissects one novel as a representative of the series as a whole; she says she was tempted to focus on From Russia, With Love, but instead decided on Live And Let Die. One wishes she’d maybe picked Doctor No instead – actually, maybe not, as I could just imagine what she’d have to say about the Chinese and the “Chigroes” of that novel. Folks, this chapter alone would have the sensitive readers of today running for the hills, so be forewarned – you aren’t likely to see the word “Negro” used more frequently than it is here.

However, Friedman makes it clear that Fleming, for once, went out of his way to “appease” black people in this novel; while Mr. Big was the villain, he was not presented as a racially-offensive stereotype, but had all the hallmarks of your standard “white” villain. And too the blacks of Harlem were not shown to be racial caricatures. Friedman throughout notes that Fleming never did anything like this for any other race in the Bond books, citing for example how Felix Leiter hoodwinks one of his captors into a false sense of friendship by discussing jazz – she notes how ridiculous it would’ve been had Bond attempted something similar with Red Grant in From Russia, With Love, and started discussing an Irish folk song with him.

But here we come to that stuff I referred to as “wildly offensive” in today’s climate, so be warned. In particular when discussing Bond and Leiter’s voyage across Harlem, Friedman states, “The sight of the dark race in all its animal energy leaves our hero stunned and helpless.” Yikes! But it is this vibrant, non-white energy, so different from the decayed death-throes of the white world (again, as represented by M and all the other old dinosaurs) that so befuddles Bond he is easily captured by Mr. Big here in the Harlem nightclub. Throughout this chapter Friedman often wonders what the eventual film version of Live And Let Die will be like; clearly this book was written early in the film franchise, as Friedman is not yet aware that the films would greatly diverge from their source material.

You want more bizarre theories presented as fact? How about that there “are only two beautiful women of serious potency in the series,” “vampires” who destroy men: the “Jewess” of Thunderball and the “Negro stripper” of Live And Let Die? It’s all about race with Friedman, and she proclaims that these two powerful female characters get their power due to “their closeness to their race.” Indeed she wishes that this stripper had been the “Bondgirl” of the book, seeing her as a much more powerful female character than actual Bondgirl Solitaire.

And speaking of Solitaire, Friedman only gets even more outrageous: “In [her] first appearance, Solitaire illustrates the white race in all its grandeur helpless in the grip of the dark.” As if that wasn’t enough, Friedman also details how Mr. Big ignorantly plans to marry Solitaire, “not realizing that marriage to a Negro is the ultimate offense to a white woman’s dignity, demanding punishment whether conscious or not.” Gee, I wonder why Ian Fleming’s Incredible Creation has never been reprinted?

When she gets away from the racial stuff, Friedman does make compelling points, like how each Bondgirl makes a “descent into insignificance” once she becomes Bond’s latest conquest. As is the case with Solitaire; when we meet her she is a compelling, strong character, but by novel’s end she has become “absurdly childish,” this being how Fleming describes the sight of her in oversized pajamas. Looking back on the Bond novels I’ve recently read, as well as the ones I read as a youth, I see the merit in this argument – all of these “Bondgirls” are weakened by Bond, and indeed those that aren’t weakened by him end up being killed off.

In my review of Live And Let Die, I complained about Bond and Solitaire’s arbitrary ranting against the “oldsters” in Florida. Friedman though sees all of this dialog as yet another indication of the “white man’s burden” edict of the series. The oldsters of Florida sicken Bond because they are proof that the white race is old and dying, whereas the black characters, as depicted in the Harlem section of the book, are young and vital. Bond is sickened because his role as “protector of the white race” is meaningless – the white race is dying, anyway, as evidenced by these decrepit Florida oldsters, and thus not worth fighting for. And here I was thinking all of this stuff was just pointless dialog! 

Friedman quickly wraps up her analysis of Live And Let Die, glossing over the climax; she makes a telling confession, later on, when she admits, “No great fan of the adventure novel, I often find myself reading the first 2/3 of a James Bond Thriller avidly, then skimming through the climax.” Instead she focuses more on Solitaire, again pointing out how lessened of a character she has become by novel’s end, and regrets that her fate will be the same as all the other Bondgirls: “Doubtless [Solitaire] will commence the vague wanderings which are the fate of all those James Bond has loved. None of them seem left with enough will to seek him out.”

Here Friedman again casually mentions she knew Fleming, and that he agreed with her assertions that Mike Hammer or Sam Spade could’ve “mopped the floor” with James Bond. She argues that Bond is not a super-hero, and Fleming never intended him as one. In fact, Bond in the novels is prone to making dumb mistakes (things for which he later chastises himself), and Friedman jokes that the reader of the novels has figured out the villain’s plan long before Bond himself has. This brings her to the more superheroic (yet more sadistic) version of Bond from the films; in her brief overview of the movies, which she sees as “much racier” than Fleming’s novels, Friedman discusses how the “coldness” of the literary Bond has become “sadism.”

In particular Friedman is put off by the cruel acts the film Bond commits in Dr. No, like his sleeping with Ms. Taro despite knowing he is about to have her arrested, or when he cold-bloodedly shoots Professor Dent. Friedman notices though that the films quickly backed off from this, and that many of the elements of Dr. No where whittled out of the ensuing movies – and, wouldn’t you be surprised to know, one of those elements is race. Whereas Quarrel was presented as a typical movie “Negro” in Dr. No, such racial caricatures were avoided in later films, as the producers realized no doubt they ran the risk of offending a sizeable chunk of their viewing audience. As for Oddjob not being toned down in Goldfinger? Doubtless “there were few Koreans in New York” the producers were afraid of offending(!).

Friedman also reveals that, as of the writing of her study, Thunderball had yet to be released, and all she knows about it is from pre-release material. This must explain why she constantly refers to that movie’s henchwoman as “Fiona Kelly” instead of “Fiona Volpe;” the character was originally intended to be Irish, until the last name was changed to accommodate the Italian actress who eventually portrayed her, Luciana Paluzzi.  Friedman also predicts the film franchise’s descent into gadgetry, greatly diverging from the source material: “James Bond’s weapons [in the novels] have the same elegant simplicity as his taste, for the author wants us to pay attention to the man, not his gun.”

“Coming of Age in the Wasteland” wraps up the study, and is the shortest chapter. Here Friedman briefly looks at the final Bond novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, and suspects that Fleming knew it was to be his last. Most Bond fans see this novel as a sort of misfire, a first draft that Fleming didn’t get a chance to complete, but Friedman instead sees it as a completion of the series. “James Bond must confront not only his world, but himself.” In the opponent of Scaramanga, Bond faces a version of himself – a fellow killer for hire – and also, for the first time in the series, prepares to enforce his “007” status: to finally kill someone in cold blood. Previously his kills have only been made in self-defense.

“To complete his cycle of novels, did Ian Fleming show James Bond at last arriving at some peace with himself through understanding?” Friedman doesn’t dwell on this, no doubt because she is reaching even more than normal, but she tries to argue that, “In his man-to-man confrontation with Scaramanga…Bond has accepted…the basic humanity of his enemies.” In his preparation to finally kill in cold blood (something he doesn’t have to do, after all – for Scaramanga has some hidden weapons and Bond must again kill in self-defense), Bond “accepts” who he is. And, really reaching now, Friedman also claims that this finally allows Bond to also “accept” his cruel boss: M has always been tough bastard “Mailedfist” to Bond, when what Bond has been wanting from him was to instead be fatherly “Miles Messervy.”

And that’s it – probably one of the more interesting analyses of the James Bond novels you could hope for, but one that might upset most readers of today. I can’t say I agree with all of Friedman’s arguments – she is guilty of reaching in many instances – but I do appreciate her enthusiasm. Also she admits her analysis of the series is her own interpretation, and thus perhaps not even correct(!), but she states that the one thing you could never claim about Ian Fleming’s work is that it doesn’t have meaning.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Hell On Wheels (Dennison's War #3)

Hell On Wheels, by Adam Lassiter
May, 1985  Bantam Books

You’d never know it from the title or from the book itself, but Hell On Wheels is actually the third volume of the Dennison’s War series, which ran for six volumes.* “Adam Lassiter” was in reality Steven M. Krauzer, an author I’m not familiar with, though I know he penned some Executioner novels for Gold Eagle.

Ever since I read Zwolf’s review (as well as the fab series overview Justin Marriott provided in an issue of Paperback Fanatic) I’ve meant to check out Hell On Wheels. This is one of the few series that I’ve never bothered tracking down in full, but I got this volume a while back and finally gave it a go. First off, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Zwolf did, but I can tell he’s more into biker fiction than I am; and Hell On Wheels is straight-up biker fiction throughout. No doubt much of the “research” in it was courtesy Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.

A humorous thing about Hell On Wheels is that the reader is given precious little info on who the hell Dennison is, let alone what exact “war” he’s fighting. For that matter, Dennison’s group, which appears to be made up of rugged individualists who go out on solo missions, is referred to throughout as “Dennison’s People.” Admittedly this wouldn’t make for the best title for a men’s adventure series, and in fact sounds more like a PBS kid’s show. But we get zero in the way of setup – Dennison, who is in his forties and has graying hair, has a compound somewhere in the US, as well as a hotstuff blonde bombshell named Miss Paradise who works with (or for) him in some unstated capacity.

But it appears that each volume of Dennison’s War sees the various “People” of Dennison being sent out on some assignment; this volume the spotlight is on Chris Amado, the Smurfette of the team. Due to the other people being indisposed for various reasons, Dennison drafts Chris for the latest assignment – preventing the potential unifaction of two major biker gangs. This info comes courtesy a biker named Chicken Charley, who not only turns out to be an undercover federal agent but also an old ‘Nam comrade of Dennison’s. Charley has infiltrated the gangs to the point that he has begun to question his sanity. Why the regular cops can’t stop this potential merger – which would see a mafia-like network of illicit crime taking over the country – is explained away by the usual nonsense.

It’s up to Chris Amado, dammit! The fact that she’s given an uphill battle – not only infiltrating a biker gang but doing it as a woman – is sort of brushed aside. So is Chris’s background; we get just a little detail that she was born in the US, grew up in some banana republic, and got involved with all sorts of guerrilla warfare sort of stuff. Without much fuss she gets on a Harley Davidson Electra-Glide, drapes her hot bod in torn leather jeans and a tank top, and roars into a biker dive frequented by the Outsiders, one of the two major biker gangs. And so she begins her mission to sow chaos and discord in the potential biker merger.

Krauzer’s writing is good, but be aware he is one of those men’s adventure authors who is concerned with turning out a “real” novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but there’s precious little in the way of the sex and violence one usually craves from this genre. Krauzer instead plays it out as a suspense thriller, more focused on Chris trying to figure out what’s going on while ingrating herself into the hoary world of the bikers; he saves practically all the action for the final pages, and truth be told it’s almost anticlimactically rendered. I mean, there’s none of the explosive action onslaught as depicted by men’s adventure magazine veteran artist Bob Larkin (whose work is credited) on his awesome fold-out cover painting, which Zwolf helpfully scanned for all to see at the above link.

So we’re in for the long haul as Chris ingratiates herself into the grungy, male-dominated society of bikers, proving herself as a tough female biker and not just the usual female groupie: there’s taciturn Rock, leader of the gang, who always sports aviator sunglasses and mysteriously only drinks coffee; Lizzie, Rock’s downtrodden “mama,” who takes an instant hatred to Chris; Snake, Rock’s lieutenant; Pretty Boy, a biker who looks like a surfer and who keeps staring hard at Chris; and inumerable others. In addition there are the members of the Mad Dogs, led by Apeman, a grotesquely-ugly freak who wears a suit and tie. There’s a lot of material here apparently gleaned from biker books or magazines, and in that regard Hell On Wheels is more along the lines of biker fiction than men’s adventure.

As mentioned it’s an uphill battle for Chris; she must constantly prove her worth to the misogynist bikers, most of whom just want to put the moves on her. She’s able to bullshit her way into Rock’s orbit, claiming she’s a “brother” from a previous bit of criminous biker action with an affiliate gang. We get a goofy bit of Mission: Impossible-esque stuff here where two fellow Dennison’s People save Chris’s ass: William Stirling-Price, a Green Beret colonel in ‘Nam, and Vang, a Montagnard in the war, shadow Chris in the early stages of her assignment, providing unseen assistance. First they intercept a call to confirm her story, making it sound legit, and most ridiculously they even play the would-be victims of the Outsiders. Chris at one point is forced to shoot someone who refuses to pay the bikers, as another of her trials by fire – and it turns out to be Price in disguise, Chris’s gunshot itself a further bit of trickery.

While there’s less action and much less sex than men’s adventure novels of earlier years (actually make that zero sex), there is one thing in Hell On Wheels that you won’t find as much of in genre examples from a decade or so before: rampant cursing. The word “cunt” in particular is repeated throughout the novel, this basically becoming Lizzie’s name for Chris, whom she sees as a competitor for Rock’s romantic attentions. You get a lot of that, but little in the way of thrills – the first true action scene isn’t until page 90, when Chris is finally discovered in her snooping. It’s at a biker-palooza sort of event in the desert, all the bikers here to celebrate Chris’s induction into the Outsiders. An old biker catches her listening in on Rock’s plans of what to do about Apeman; Chris kills him with a knife and plants the body as a decoy.

After this we get a herculean undertaking Rock tasks Chris with: driving 24 hours cross-country to arrange a last-minute pow-wow with Apeman. Off Chris hauls on her Harley to Manhattan, home of the Mad Dogs, where Apeman himself finally appears in the text; Chris considers him “the most grotesque human being” she has ever seen. Even here Chris must prove herself, engaging Apeman’s towering black henchman Big Buck in combat. This ends in a sort of draw, but later, in a brawl at a black-frequented biker bar, we get to see Big Buck pop some dude’s eyeball out. More fun ensues, like when Apeman, who goes around with a revolver in a waist belt, smart-offs to the parents of some kid who talks to him at a rest stop, and then the bikers close in on the family car and begin bashing it with chains like that Road Rash II video game I loved in college.

The climax sees the two gangs getting together to discuss the merger – and Rock decides Chris must die, after all, mostly because he’s heard that she talked shit about him to Apeman, Chris at the time trying to sow even more dissention. Off she’s taken by Pretty Boy and his weasel-like buddy to be raped and killed. Instead Chris gets the drop on both of them, kills Pretty Boy (with a knee to the balls!), and then the weasel guy grabs a gun and has Chris dead bang…and Krauzer pulls the one copout the action writer must never pull: the bad guy’s gun jams. Folks, only the hero’s gun is allowed to jam, ever. Ever!! Otherwise the author is guilty of one of the lamest, most brazen copouts a writer of action-fiction can pull.

But weasel-boy’s gun jams, and Chris takes him out, then she breaks into the mini arsenal in the van they’ve taken her off to be raped and killed in; now she’s got a few Mac-10s, a shotgun, some C4, and whatnot. On page 198, finally, we get the biker-action onslaught Larkin’s spash painting promised us. Well, sort of. Chris hops on her bike and starts blasting away, having set some C4 to blow up that van as a diversion. But it’s not a full-on massacre; Chris just takes on a few bikers, as well of course as Rock and Apeman, and that’s that. We learn at novel’s end that Chris is so rattled from taking these lives that she’s gonna need some time off – looks like it was permanent, as juding from a perusal of the contents of the next three volumes, it doesn’t appear that Chris Amado is featured in any of them.

*Years ago when I was researching this series I discovered that Krauzer had actually written a seventh volume, which was never published. The manuscript is currently held, along with the rest of Krauzer’s papers (he passed away in 2009), at the University of Montana.  And, for a mere 25 cents a page, they’ll be happy to send you a PDF of this (apparently untitled) manuscript, which they told me runs to 200 pages. Unless my math fails me, that would be a total of fifty dollars! Too rich for my blood, and I wasn’t that crazy about Hell On Wheels, but if there are any die-hard Dennison’s War fans out there who have been clamoring these past decades for another volume of the series, you know where to find it…

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Slaves Of The Empire #4: Gracus The Centurion

Slaves Of The Empire #4: Gracus The Centurion, by Dael Forest
August, 1978  Ballantine Books

I wouldn’t recommend taking a long break between volumes of Slaves Of The Empire, like I did; it’s been years now since I read the previous volume, so I was a bit out of sorts while reading this one. As ever, Stephen “Dael Forest” Frances cares little about catching readers up on what came before; there is zero in the way of synopses of previous books, nor are recurring characters even introduced or described. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems clear that Frances wrote the five volumes of this series as one long book.

It must be said, though, that Frances’s rather large cast of characters is pretty memorable – there’s architect Hadrian, designing the new city of Trebula, with his love-conquered slave Haesel; Saelig, brother of Haesel, a freed slave who provides a sort of shelter for other slaves; Brotan, slave-farm owner who found happiness in slavery (the theme of the series); Thane, artistically-gifted brother of Haesel who now works for Hadrian; Mertice, dull-witted sister of Haesel, once owned by foppish athlete Alexander and now owned by tomboy Melanos; and seldom-seen Redbeard, Haesel’s other brother, yet another freedman who has become a successful businessman. And that’s just the “main” characters.

Gradually all of these characters are converging on Trebula, which seems to be Frances’s theme – that, and the aforementioned “happiness in slavery” angle. For again and again these characters thrust themselves into positions of slavery, whether willingly or not, and find happiness under the yoke. But they’re all headed for Trebula; Hadrian is already there, currently engaged in pleasing Valle, a wealthy matron whose husband could really help out Trebula or somesuch. Honestly this is one subplot I’d forgotten, but long story short Hadrian basically has to treat Valle, who lives with him, as a VIP and have lots of sex with her.

The only problem is, Valle is kind of old but refuses to accept it. We’ll be informed of salacious stuff like, “the halos and nipples of [Valle’s] breasts were painted ultramarine blue,” and then Frances will buzzkill it with the mention of the “lifeless sagging of her breasts.” Meanwhile Haesel, who we’ll recall was once a proud young gal who refused to bend her neck to the yoke of slavery, encourages Hadrian to screw Valle a bunch for the good of Trebula, and “happily” tells him stuff like, “I am my master’s slave and obey his orders.” Again – happiness in slavery.

Another recurring theme is how Frances adds more characters to an already-unwieldy pile of them. Last time it was Brotan, this time it’s Gracus, a 40 year-old centurion currently warfaring in Dacia (modern Romania, a helpful footnote informs us). Gracus, ugly as sin and a centurion thanks more to his stolid service record than any intelligence, is winding up his military career. He plans to retire to Rome and live with his brother Flacus, who is married to young Julia; along with their parents, they run a metal shop. Gracus picks up a female Dacian slave, a not attractive one with a long, very long neck, and gawky underfed limbs. He treats her miserably and guess what…she comes to love him, and vice versa.

Meanwhile as for Flacus and Julia – more new characters. Julia opens the novel; having recently lost her three-month old child, she now turns her still-swollen breasts to none other than Alexander, who suckles her in exchange for lots of money. It’s the new “in” thing among the wealthy althletes of Rome – suckling mother’s milk(!). Indeed Alexander later tells arch-enemy/lust-object Melanos, who had a child last volume, that she too should rent out her boobs (“I have always adored your breasts, Melanos.”), but this of course just elicits more verbal sparring between the two.

In fact the Alexander-Melanos stuff is probably the highlight of Gracus The Centurion. It sure isn’t the stuff with Gracus, whose sections are ponderous and too reminiscent of similar “happiness in slavery” routines from previous volumes. But Frances isn’t done; there’s an entire arbitrary part that goes on and on about various female slaves who have been put to use on Brotan’s breeding farm and are now being returned to their old masters in Rome. Ruined, haggard women all, their bodies beaten down by multiple births and miscarriages. Many of them just long for death, which leads to some poignant passages, where previously-wrathful owners, who sent these poor women to Brotan’s farm in the first place, start to feel pity and mercy for their returned slaves.

Speaking of Brotan, when we briefly hook up with the dude he’s had his pal Brotan, from the first volume, make him a slave collar, which Brotan happily straps across his neck for his mistress’s pleasure! All it needs is to have “Fido” on it. Meanwhile we have interminable scenes of Gracus and his Dacian slave making their way to Rome, even stopping off on Brotan’s farm, where another interminable, arbitrary scene has farm doctor Malen trying unsuccessfully to buy the Dacian girl, who is named Nitka.

Frances’s prose still has that clinical feel, indeed to the point that a sort of torpor settles over the book. Even parts that should be thrilling, like Hadrian and Thane hunting a loose lion in Trebula, or Alexander wrestling “a tall, coal-black Negro,” come off more so as ponderous. Frances as ever better excels at the bizarre stuff, like Brotan’s “owner” Vanus whipping him and making Brotan her “serving girl” for dinner, down to dressing Brotan like a fetching female slave. And the stuff with grown men suckling breastmilk is so prevalent in the novel that you have to wonder what the hell was going on in the author’s head.

Gracus The Centurion ends on a cliffhanger, unfortunately; finally tired of Melanos’s taunting barbs, Alexander plans to steal Mertice from her as a “joke.” Meanwhile everyone’s on their way to Trebula, so my assumption is the next installment, which was the last volume of the series, will see everything wrap up in that newly-built city. I’ll try to get to it a lot sooner than I did this one.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Operation Octopus (Mark Hood #8)

Operation Octopus, by James Dark
January, 1968  Signet Books

I’ve been looking forward to this volume of Mark Hood since I first learned about the series. In this pulpy installment, karate-loving Intertrust agent Hood ventures to a domed underwater city where he takes on Nazis who are experimenting on human subjects, to make them mermen. Plus they’ve captured a nuclear sub and plan to conquer the world! So as you can see, the series continues to veer further and further from its relatively-realistic roots.

First though a word on the ordering of the volumes. According to the essential Spy Guys And Gals site, Operation Octopus is volume 9 of the Signet editions and Spying Blind is volume 8. However, judging from the copyright dates of each book, as well as the Signet numbering system on the front covers, Operation Octopus was actually published before Spying Blind. Also, The Sword Of Genghis Khan is listed in the front of Operation Octopus as the most recently-published volume. So, at least according to the US printing schedule, this would be the 8th volume of Mark Hood. Perhaps it was published after Spying Blind in the series’s native Australia.

Not that continuity is much of a concern; at 125 pages of big print, Operation Octopus is a fast-moving pulp yarn with no pretensions whatsoever, let alone any worries over filling readers in on what came before. Hood himself takes a few chapters to appear, and there’s no setup on the character other than the basic facts – he’s 36 and works for Intertrust. And whereas previous volumes have partnered him up with either karate sensei Murimoto or wise-cracking fellow agent Tremayne, this time Hood goes off on assignment all on his lonesome. Perhaps J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell realized he was unintentionally making Hood a supporting character in his own series; last time, as just one example, it was Murimoto who consistently saved the day.

The opening few pages set the precedent for what will follow; in a bravura bit of economical pulp storytelling, Dark opens in 1945 in the last days of the war, as a U-Boat escapes crumbling Germany, commanded by a pair of scientists: Ulrich Klepner, a superhumanly-gifted surgeon, and his corpse-faced ghoul of an assistant, Bergmann. They’re on their way to what will be their new home: a city beneath the sea, built so close to America (near the Bahamas) that no one will ever dream of looking for them there! And that’s it – that’s all the setup we need, and that’s all the setup we get.

Now cut to April of ’68, and a Polaris missile-bearing nuclear sub, commanded by an old service pal of Hood’s named MacLane, is in the Tongue of the Ocean testing underwater weapons. It’s caught in a net of mutant radioactive plankton, and then German frogmen in strange silver wetsuits board the ship and take the men captive. Yes, the Nazis have now built a veritable wonderland 300 feet below the surface, complete with control rooms that with the turn of a dial can activate those mutant plankton, not to mention “underwater flying objects” made of tungsteen “gossamer” threads that can go faster than any other ship. Plus they’re doing experiments on prisoners, trying to graft fins and gills on them to create mermen. Why not? The veteran pulp reader will note that this plot is mysteriously similar to that incredible volume of Nick Carter: KillmasterThe Sea Trap, with a bit of the plot of another Killmaster yarn, Moscow, tossed in for good measure.

Enter Mark Hood, having a picnic by himself along Lake Geneva – without even the mandatory babe! He’s given his assignment by Blair, the American boss at the Switzerland Intertrust HQ, and Dark seems to forget that in previous books Blair rarely (if ever?) spoke; it was always the French boss, Fortescue (who goes unmentioned this time) who gave Hood his marching orders. The convoluted briefing has it that a “merman” washed up on the shores of New Orleans, and this underwater weapons tester named Spooner was approached in that same city by a bodacious blonde named Inga who tried to, uh, pump him for info on top-secret weapons. After this the girl disappeared, and then the Polaris sub went missing. Hood is to pose as a disgraced Naval officer, kicked out on spying charges, and to slouch around the streets of New Orleans and hope he’s contacted by Inga.

Unsurprisingly, the plan works – Hood is contacted just a few pages after arriving in New Orleans. As mentioned, the book is pure pulp all the way, and pausing to think about what you’re reading is not suggested. We get the first of the novel’s three action scenes as Hood beats some stooge to pulp, breaking his arm with the usual karate bravado; the stooge, never mentioned again, works for Inga, who sent him here to this sleazy bar to collect Hood. Not that it much matters, as Inga comes along anyway, and basically hires Hood straightaway. Soon enough she’s “testing” him, from scuba diving (where she pretends to have underwater delirium to test Hood’s responses) to his skills in the sack: “What are you like as a man?” she taunts him. Here’s the extent of the sex scene Dark provides: “Half-angrily, half roughly, [Hood] showed her.”

Despite the brevity and breathless pace, Dark still manages to create nice little moments, like when Hood and a seemingly-unconscious Inga surface in the middle of a New Orleans downpour. But there isn’t much time for much of this sort of thing; even the description is kept at a bare minimum, like the “space suit”-esque, “sheathlike” suits worn in Klepner’s underwater lair which are not elaborated much upon. Inga promptly takes Hood to the underwater city in a veritable Undewater Flying Object. We get some specious “science” here that all of Klepner’s inventions are made of tungsten, so densely woven as to be “gossamer threads.” After a bit of suspicion, particularly from old U-Boat commander Korth, Klepner is willing to take Hood on as a new recruit: Inga is certain Hood’s intelligence will be a great aid in the cause, which is, of course, the total domination of the world – Klepner plans to nuke Miam with one of those Polaris missiles for starters.

Hood loses his cool when he comes upon Klepner casually lobotomizing old Navy pal MacLane; when he tries to strangle Klepner in his rage, Hood’s later able to bullshit his way out of being killed by insisting that, if he really had wanted to murder Klepner, he would’ve used the dreaded shuto chop of karate! He explains away the whole strangling bit as his nerves being frayed and whatnot. So Klepner rolls in a towering henchman for Hood to prove himself upon; Hood kills him with a single shuto chop to the neck. Hood’s first kill in the book. He’s saved his skin, but later Korth tries to feed Hood to those mutant plankton, and it’s time for the dreaded shuto chop again – Hood’s second kill. His third and final kill is the most surprising of all: Inga. So for once we have a scene where the hero actually kills the villainess, an event most of these pulp authors gloss over: “Quickly and efficiently [Hood] broke her neck.”

But instead of the underwater Nazis and their high-tech contraptions – not to mention those friggin’ mermen – Dark instead focuses on the lobotomized crew of the captured sub, in particular Hood’s efforts to get through to his old pal MacLane. Indeed, all the good stuff is effectively brushed aside off-page; Hood sets the dial that controls the mutant plankton to maximum and escapes in the sub with MacLane and his officers – Hood having figured out a way to countermand MacLane’s brainwashing – while the plankton destroys the city. In other words, Dark doesn’t even bother to deliver a proper send-off for Klepner or Bergmann; he just leaves it that Hood assumes all the Nazis are killed by the rioting massive plankton.

As mentioned, I’ve been wanting to read Operation Octopus for a while now. If you’re into underwater scuba spy action like I am, then it pretty much delivers, though not on the scale of the film Thunderball or anything. In fact, despite featuring an entire city of Nazi frogmen, the book plays out on more of a smallscale nature. In truth I would’ve preferred a bit more of a pulpy flair; Inga is not exploited nearly enough – I mean come on, she’s a friggin underwater Nazi She-Devil, yet Dark doesn’t do much to bring her to life – and I could’ve used more of the freakish “half-men, half-fish” stuff. I still can’t believe it never occurred to Dark to have Hood, you know, maybe meet one of them.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Richard Blade #7: Pearl Of Patmos

Richard Blade #7: Pearl Of Patmos, by Jeffrey Lord
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

Manning Lee Stokes has a hard time of it with his penultimate volume of Richard Blade; you can easily see why the next one was his last. On the plus side, this was the first “new” story that Pinnacle published (“Here is our first original in the series”) – and per the copyright date they released it at the same time as their reprint of #2: The Jade Warrior. This must’ve been confusing for readers at the time, as Pinnacle spread out their reprinting of the first six volumes over a few months. Not that there’s much continuity in the Richard Blade series, but still – I can imagine some fans back in the day were a bit confused by the out-of-order publication schedule.

My guess is that Stokes had written this one the year before, but it wasn’t published due to MacFadden Books closing shop; same goes, no doubt, for volume 8. Stokes had probably already called it quits by the time producer Lyle Kenyon Engel got Pinnacle to take over the series, at which point Engel hired new series author Ronald Green. It will be interesting to see how Green tackles Richard Blade, but it can’t be as disjointed as what Stokes turns in for this particular installment. To be sure, Stokes’s writing is up to its usual caliber, but boy does he make some “interesting” authorial decisions, not to mention one of the most brazen cop-outs I’ve yet encountered in a novel.

As ever we’re not given much pickup from the previous volume; Blade is merely relaxing in his cottage in the sticks, swimming in the lake, when, as it normally happens in this genre, a hotstuff babe just happens to waltz onto his property and announces that she intends to swim. Stokes does a good job of setting up this “meet cute,” which has this gorgeous gal – whose face Blade finds somehow familiar – drafting Blade into a game in which they will call one another by fake names and might have sex, depending on how it plays out. She calls herself Diana, after the goddess of the hunt, and Blade calls himself Hercules; as ever, Stokes works some mythic references into the tale. More pointedly, Blade muses on Diana’s boobs in a paen that brings to mind the similar one Stokes delivered in the Nick Carter: Killmaster novel Spy Castle, even down to the repeating “connoisseur of breasts” line:

Her breasts were beyond description. Blade forgot words and simply gazed, his loins excited and moving. He was something of a connoisseur of breasts and he immediately recognized that hers were hybrid, half Nordic, half Mediterranean. Not tanned pears, but with a hint of conoid; not warm melons, but swelling to round fullness. Her nipples were half-awakened rosebuds.

Folks, I only wish I had enough field experience to instantly detect that a pair of freshly-bared breasts are “half Nordic, half Mediterranean,” but really this is just par for the course so far as it goes for a hero in a Stokes novel, and I for one am not complaining. And if “conoid” above had you surfing over to, be prepared for similar stuff throughout the novel; Stokes is usually a bit, uh, literary for the genre, but it’s as if in Pearl Of Patmos he wanted to set the bar even higher. On page one alone we encounter “sciomachy,” “litterol,” and “corundum.” Sometimes I think these fancy words are just Stokes entertaining himself while he bangs out the latest manuscript.

Blade starts to fall for Diana post-bang, but a game’s a game and off she goes in her fancy sportscar, never to see him again per the rules. Eventually Blade will learn that her name really is Diana; she’s the famous jet-setting young wife of some British notable, and at novel’s end (nine months later), Blade will return to Home Dimension (aka “HD”) and discover that Diana has a son. He is certain it is his, but knows he’ll never see the boy or even Diana herself again, so it’s yet another arbitrary go-nowhere development which will have no impact on Blade’s characterization. But at least we get one of Stokes’s patented graphic sex scenes early on, with Blade and Diana conjugating underwater: “Blade slid easily, deeply, into that moist undersea cavern.”

Finally it’s time for the latest trip into Dimension X (aka “DX”). There’s absolutely no reason why Blade goes over this time; previous volumes have at least gone through the motions of providing a reason for the latest trip, but this time there’s none. I guess Lord L and J are just sending Blade over to Dimension X because it’s there. Why not? Lord L greases up a nude Blade per the norm, this time casually putting a few extra wires on his “scrotum,” and then just as casually mentioning that this time he plans to send Blade over to DX “a little longer” than previous missions. What’s odd though is that Pearl Of Patmos seems to occur over less of a span of time than earlier volumes, at least so far as the DX portion goes. Stokes explains this away with vague mentions that time “runs differently” in those other dimensions, at least when compared to HD.

Blade finds himself in a temple that’s been set to fire, and fights his way out of the melee; soldiers in Romanesque sort of helmets and armor are ransacking the city Blade finds himself in. At lenth Blade will learn the city is named Thyrne, and the siegers are Samostans, barbarians who are led by the infamous Hectoris. Per Stokes’s usual template, Hectoris is much discussed but doesn’t actually appear in the text until the very final pages. Blade briefly hooks up with a roughneck criminal sort named Nob, a Thyrne local who helps Blade escape – sans Nob, who is apparently killed by the Samostans – down through a hidden sewer. Prepare for some gross-out stuff as Blade makes his way through a “horrible porridge of feces and urine and rotted flesh.”

Eventually Blade comes across the first of many statues of the living goddess Juna, in particular a 200 foot statue of gold, as depicted by Tony DeStefano on the cover. Blade meets the latest incarnation of Juna when he saves her from one of the most horrific fates I’ve ever encountered in pulp: a depraved priest named Ptol and his followers plan to put a flaming hot bronze helmet on the pretty girl’s face, burning her flesh down to the bone. Blade of course saves the nude babe, chopping of Ptol’s hand and killing one of the priests. But Ptol gets away and Blade regrets that he didn’t kill him. The reader soon regrets this as well, particularly given the copout Stokes will pull before novel’s end.

“[Blade’s] heart was not in the mission; over him there hung a strange lethargy and, name it, fear!” Folks I’ve said before that Manning Lee Stokes often used his characters as mouthpieces for his own complaints about the latest writing job Lyle Kenyon Engel had handed him; practically ever Stokes book I’ve read that was “produced” by Engels features a part where the protagonist bitches about his latest assignment and wonders what the hell he’s supposed to do. I think this time takes the cake, as it goes on throughout – page 148 features another humdinger: “This was a wasted mission and [Blade] knew it.”

Worse yet, Blade is fashioned into a chaperone here, escorting a haughty, ungrateful Juna (“a shrewd and articulate wench,” per Blade) and her entourage. Eventually Blade learns that Junia herself was plotting against Ptol; she is not from Thyrne, but from Patmos, an island empire, and via complex backstory came here posing as Juna but really working as a spy. She reports to Queen Izmia, the titular Pear of Patmos, Juna’s grandmother. That all settled, Blade overcomes Juna’s imperiousness and engages with her in the expected sex scene: “Enter the house of Juna,” she eagerly commands him. Blade for his part has taken to insultingly referring to her as a “temple whore,” and once she’s nice and randy Juna is only too eager to agree with him – “For the moment [Blade] was master and they both knew it.”

Patmos turns out to be a “land of flowers and drugs,” the populace hooked on a hash-like drug that keeps them all nice and mellow. Even the soldier who is to guard a newly-arrived Blade is a “popinjay” in Blade’s eyes, and they will all be easy prey for the advancing forces of Hectoris. Blade reunites with old pal Nob, not dead after all and also a sort-of prisoner here on Patmos: “They shook hands and in that moment Blade reasserted his strength and his authority.” Blade of course gets laid again, this time courtesy Queen Izmia, who like Juna is a hotbod young gal – a “giantess,” even, with silver hair and chameleon-like skin that seems to be reddish in its normal state. And despite being a “grandmother” she too is eternally reborn into youth; yet another of Stokes’s recurring motifs is the lustful young babe who in reality is quite old. And another of those recurring motifs is the sex scene: “[Izmia] was narrow and tight and moist and there seemed no end to her cavern.”

But here’s where that copout occurs. Blade’s woken up to find Izmia ready for some lovin’ – and folks, Blade has forgotten where he is. He’s forgotten Juna, Thyrne, Patmos, wily priest Ptol, all of it! Blade has amnesia!! It’s the most puzzling authorial copout I’ve yet encountered in pulp, as there is absolutely no reason provided why Blade experiences amnesia…we get some vagueries that it might be the computer back home messing with him, but it’s too little, too late. We must read now as Blade fumbles his way through his temporary command of Patmos’s island forces; he’s even so forgotten Ptol that when he catches the little cretin again, he doesn’t even kill him.

Stokes moves on to other stuff – like that mythic stuff he tries to imbue each volume with. And it gets real weird this time. Izmia, during that boff, captured Blade’s uh, effluvia in a cannister…and she takes this and puts it in a chalice and mixes it with wine and herbs and etc, and then has Blade drink it, after which Blade goes on this quasi-psychedelic swimming trip to the bottom of a well, where he gathers up a mystical sword. And Izmia’s gone when he returns, shriveling back up into the crone she truly is. After this wildness, the final fight with Hectoris’s warriors is anticlimactic, particularly given that Stokes page-fills with near-identical scenes of Blade first fighting Hectoris’s chief lieutenant in combat before taking on Hectoris himself in a similar match. 

As if the chalice-drinking, sword-gathering stuff wasn’t weird enough, Stokes caps off the DX portion of the tale with Blade conjugating with Juna, who again catches his seed, and this time spreads it on the mystical sword – which Blade then jams right up into a certain part of Juna’s anatomy(!). And all this psychedelic stuff happens and suddenly Juna becomes the new Izmia, with the silver hair and scarlet flesh and big build, and it’s all weird and crazy, and then Blade’s head snaps and he’s thrust back into Home Dimension, where it’s nine months later. Oh, and he sees in the paper that Diana is pregnant with a boy, which Blade is certain is his: “[Blade] had come back from hell to find a bit of immortality had been bestowed on him.”

Well, I enjoy doing these overlong reviews/rundowns of the Richard Blade series, and despite the padding and uneventfulness of this particular installment, I’ll be sorry to see Stokes’s tenure come to an end. But he only had one more volume to go, and I’m hoping he at least goes out with a bang.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Springblade #2: Machete

Springblade #2: Machete, by Greg Walker
January, 1990  Charter Books

Jeez, I pretty much plumb forgot Springblade, that 9-volume “Special Forces” series from the early ‘90s that features a protagonist a bit too fond of bladed weaponry. It’s been so long since I read the first volume that I had to go back and re-read my (typically long-winded) review to refresh myself on the gist of the series before reading this one. Not that I needed to, as it turned out; as typical for the genre there’s scant reference to the previous book.

Again, this series shows how the men’s adventure genre slowly metamorphasized into military fiction. The focus is more on how an off-the-books black ops outfit like Springblade would work in the real world, with more of a slow-burn approach than the constant action more typical of the men’s adventure genre. Like the previous volume, Machete hardly has any action at all until the very final pages. But the series lasted for a respectable 9 volumes, so clearly it resonated with many readers.

Author Greg Walker again turns in a novel that revels in the grungy world of an army lifer; hero Bo Thornton and his gang are as crude and rude as can be, “blowing farts,” endearingly referring to one another as “cum bubbles,” and engaging in banter that would melt modern snowflakes. As with the previous volume, there’s some dialog here that wouldn’t be publishable in today’s world, and if all that weren’t enough, there’s a wildly outrageous part where Thornton and his pal, DEA agent Calvin Bailey, are nearly mugged (and raped!) by transvestite gay bikers.

It’s some unspecified time after the previous volume, and when we meet up with Thornton again he’s on his land in Oregon, hacking down the marijuana plants someone’s planted there. After this it’s on to some off-page sex with his girlfriend, Linda, returning from the previous volume. Like with most other entries in the genre at this time, Springblade is not overly concerned with sex – or women in general – and this will be it for any hanky-panky on Thornton’s part. The focus is actually more on the fiery banter these two exchange; Linda is a hardcore liberal, having been raised by left-leaning parents (“God help me if Mom ever finds out you were a Green Beret”), and Thornton often pokes fun at her liberal sentiments.

Thornton is contacted by Bailey again, who brings our hero and his outfit into a mission that is pretty convoluted. But it goes mostly like this: down in the fictional banana republic of La Libertad, despotic ruler Aguillar has sicced his loyal and sadistic henchman Melendez on the freedom-loving revolutionaries. The novel opens as Melendez butchers a bunch of them, though leading revolutionary Ricardo Montalvo is able to escape the massacre along with his family. Montalvo is popular among the people and, if a free election were to be held, he would easily beat Aguillar. Montalvo makes his way to America, into the safety net of the State Dept, but his story of Aguillar’s butchery isn’t fully believed.

Speaking of the State Dept, boy is it taken through the wringer in this book. Walker clearly held some strong opinions about them. Throughout the book the Dept is mocked as being run by a bunch of bumbling fools; in particular there’s Richard Lippman, mockingly referred to by all and sundry as “Dick Lips.” Walker takes a special relish in abusing Lippman; the convoluted setup at one point has Thornton and team staging the “kidnapping” of Montalvo and his family, and Thornton’s boys beat up Lippman a bit too thoroughly. As if that weren’t enough, Walker has to constantly remind us of the agony the man endures.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bailey, again representing the DEA, hires Thornton and his “Springblade” outfit for the job of feinging Montalvo’s kidnapping (due to a bunch of convoluted reasons) and then protecting him from any forces Aguillar might send up to America to exterminate him. Eventually Thornton will learn there is more to this, much to his chagrin: the DEA, despite Bailey’s own dislike of the idea, also wants Thornton to use Montalvo as bait. Anyway Thornton puts together his team, which is the same as the last time – total cipher Jason Silver, who is referred to as Thornton’s “alter ego,” and mother hen Frank Hartung, Korean War vet who actually sees some action this time. But David Lee is off on official military duty, so Bailey brings in a hired gun replacement named Mike Bannion.

Like last time it’s mostly page-filling until the fireworks finale, but boy do Thornton and Bailey get in a lot of fights throughout, all of them as arbitrary as can be. The action moves to San Francisco, which Walker presents as a liberal hellhole with an almost surreal proportion of crime – the comments on SanFran’s gay community in particular would raise the hackles of the sensitive readers of today. It becomes an intentional recurring joke that each time these two go out for dinner, they encounter some sort of bloodshed, from an arbitrary drive-by machine gunning to those aforementioned tranny bikers. Thornton as ever carries his knife, and Bailey, a sword fanatic (who drops lines from the Koran), has a cane that conceals a long blade.

The part with the gay bikers is the highlight of the book, and a damn mini-masterpiece of sleazy pulp. Led by Turk, with colorfully-named members like Teddy-San (who dresses like a “geisha girl”), Charley O, and Oboe, the bikers plan to rape, kill, and then mug our two heroes, who of course respond to the threat thusly:

“Fuck me to tears,” grunted Bailey. “Look at ‘em, Bo. They’re all queers!” 

“Big, mean queers, too,” whispered Thornton.

Of course, our two battle-hardened heroes make short but grisly work of the gang, slicing and dicing with their bladed weaponry in full graphic splendor:

Ignoring Teddy-San, who was spewing vomit over Oboe’s head, Bailey stepped directly behind the injured man, raising the waki high above his head, then brought the whistling blade down with all the power he could muster. With a sound like a coconut being split by a hammer, the hard cranial bone parted, offering the off-white softness of the brain to his eager cutting edge. Calvin, his muscles swollen with adrenalin, continued the stroke, pulling the blade back toward himself as it roared through the sponge-like mass of brain cells, effortlessly parting the tough cartilege of the neck and throat, and continuing into the dead man’s upper body.

Compared to this graphic insanity, the finale can only pale in comparison. Sure enough, Melendez – who by the way is the wielder of the titular “machete” – sneaks into the US with a group of enforcers, their goal the murder of Montalvo and family. Springblade of course prevents this, in what is unfortunately a rather anticlimactic fight – though Melendez at least buys it in fitting fashion, his heart impaled by Thornton’s springblade. So I guess the series’s titular weapon trumps the volume’s titular weapon. (That sentence made sense in my head, at least.)

But the book for some reason isn’t over yet, so Aguillar sends another dude after Montalvo, and this guy’s like the replacement for Melendez. His name is Azo and it turns out he once received combat training from none other than Bo Thornton. This final battle is a bit more spectacular, taking place in the San Francisco zoo, and features a nice blockbuster movie-esque send-off for one of the villains, as he falls into the zoo’s alligator pit. Meanwhile temporary replacement Mike Bannion has received minor injuries, and it’s doubtful if he will return in a future volume, who knows.

Walker injects a little in-jokery with the tidbit that Jason Silver enjoys reading men’s adventure novels, in particular a series entitled “Night Raider.” We see him finish the latest installment, grumbling to himself how unreal the events depicted in the book are – and then getting into a firefight just as outrageous as those in the series. However Walker drops the ball on this one, or at least didn’t even realize he had a ball in play, as at the end of the book when Thornton tosses the villian into the alligator pit, Walker describes Thornton as “the powerful night stalker.” Seems to me like his intention was actually to write “the powerful night raider,” thus serving up the payoff to the “Night Raider” setup earlier in the book.

Overall Machete is okay, mostly saved by all the insane, arbitrary stuff. One almost wishes that Walker had forgotten about delivering a “realistic” setup of our heroes guarding Montalvo and family, and just turned in more surreal stuff along the lines of the arbitrary fights on the streets of San Francisco. Personally I could’ve read an entire book of Springblade slicing and dicing tranny gay bikers who were trying to mug and bugger them.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Thirteen Bracelets

The Thirteen Bracelets, by Robert Lory
No month stated, 1974  Ace Books

Taking place in the far-flung future of 1989, The Thirteen Bracelets is a sci-fi yarn that shows the more humorous side of Robert Lory, who around this time was also writing installments of my all-time favorite men’s adventure series, John Eagle Expeditor. (And of course I geeked out when, late in the novel, the narrator-protagonist relays how he’d been “expedited” to the scene of a past assignment…!) Unfortunately though, the novel is a bit too funny (or at least, attempts to be) for its own good; it’s more in the vein of a Ron Goulart novel than what you might expect, given the otherwise-serious back cover copy. 

Anyway, it’s ’89, and our narrator is shape-changing mutant Hari Denver, a spy who, due to being near the nuke blast which separated “White Dixie” and “Black Dixie,” now has the ability to change his appearance, from his face to his entire body – if an arm is chopped off, for example, he can regrow it. He now works as a secret agent for Section, reporting to a crusty boss named Fowler, whose office is in Manhattan. One of the recurring “jokes” is that the US is now so messed-up that most government agencies work out of old corporate buildings in Manhattan, given the mass exodus of businesses from this area in the late ‘70s.

We get a glimpse of the slapstick vibe of the novel in the first pages, as Folwer contacts Denver on a “vidscreen,” telling Denver to “get rid of” the lovely young woman Denver happens to be getting in bed with. Denver responds by hitting the girl beneath the chin, instantly killing her. He explains to a nonplussed Folwer, watching it all on the vidscreen, that the girl was in fact a terrorist, and the subject of the assignment Denver was working on, which is now wrapped up! When Fowler grumbles over Denver’s “unorthodox methods,” Denver responds, “These are unorthodox times.”

Denver hops in his Datsun Super Electric and heads over to Fowler’s office, where he’s briefed on his latest assignment – appeasing the Mudir of Chad, a visiting dignitary whose thirteen virgins, each of whom was wearing an antique golden bracelet, were recently stolen from a boat that was touring Staten Island. It’s a locked room mystery sort of deal, as there was just a small window on the boat and the girls disappeared while the boat was out to sea. Denver’s job is to find those bracelets.

The novel is more of a private eye yarn than a spy story; Denver ventures about the country in his search, following various leads. Actually the novel is more of a satirical look at a whacked-out America that is now separated along outrageously-overdone racial lines. In fact, due to this outrageousness alone, The Thirteen Bracelets is the sort of novel that likely could not be reprinted in today’s santized world. In his picaresque journeys Denver meets every racial stereotype you could imagine, up to and including actual spear-chuckers.

Another of the novel’s recurring jokes is that Hari Denver, no matter what “disguise” he’s fashioned himself into, is always recognized. In the course of the book he changes himself into an American Indian, a Jew, an Eskimo, a black, an old Russian, and possibly some other caricatures I’ve forgotten. Yet in each case someone will immediately know they are dealing with the infamous Hari Denver, in what sort of comes off like a prefigure of the “I heard you were dead!” line everyone greeted Snake Plisskin with in Escape From New York. In fact, many elements of The Thirteen Bracelets are reminiscent of that later film.

Lory’s “predictions” of course didn’t come true – the novel is really more of an over-the-top satire than a serious work of sci-fi – but he does at times hit an eerie note of prescience. Like when Denver informs us of the GPS-type device which is embedded in his neck and called a “hotspot.” Otherwise the novel sticks to racial caricature-type stuff; after ditching the Mudir and his four identical brothers, Denver tracks clues from Chinatown to a series of interstates overseen by American Indians, until finally he ends up in the presence of Obadiah, the “chief wuggum of the New Lesotho,” a giant black guy who wears a leopardskin cape, surrounded by spear-carrying warriors.

At this point Denver has disguised himself as a black as well, bearing a three-foot afro with a gun hidden in it, but per the recurring bit Obadiah already knows it’s really Denver beneath the black skin. Our hero has tracked the missing girls here, but the chief claims not to have them. Meanwhile he’s about to go to war with New Zion (located in what was once Bridgeport); in an impromptu naval skirmish, Denver and the chief are knocked off the chief’s boat, and as he hits the water Denver changes himself to a Jew – prompting one of those pre-PC lines from a New Zionist on the attacking ship: “We scared this one white!”

Denver gives himself a four-inch nose, only to be informed by Obadiah that it’s a bit much; when Denver shrinks it down to three inches, the New Zionists think he’s an Arab. He’s taken into the presence of President Wineberg, a nutcase bearing a .357 he arbitrarily fires at people. The true ruler here is The O’Donnell, an obese fiddler who is in fact Jewish but changed his last name to an Irish one when he began publishing sleaze novels. With the chief out of the picture – once The O’Donnell has had him and his men screw a bunch of syphilis-tainted women the New Lesotho sold them – The O’Donnell becomes Denver’s new traveling companion.

Eventually they get to Washington, which is even more shattered than New York; Lory gets even more spoofy with the revelations that “the Mall” is now “the Maul,” and the Lincoln Memorial statue has been recarved so that Honest Abe is sitting on a toilet. After a too-brief run-in with a former colleague named Jolly Van Cleeve – who turns out to have been involved with the kidnapping of the thirteen virgins – Denver finds himself down in the White Cave, ie the relocated White House, now in the caverns beneath the destroyed structure. Obese president George II, self-styled monarch who goes around nude save for different hats, enters the fray and stays longer than he should, for here the book sort of loses its fun.

Here’s also a good part where I can show the goofy tone Lory maintains throughout the novel. While below-ground Denver runs afoul of various generals who are united against the president. Denver escapes them and engages them in a car chase through the zigzagging, booby trapped tunnels:

At that point, the air boomed with the commander in chief’s command: “Catch him – I’ve changed my mind!” 

At which point, my car took off like a shot. 

At which point, running feet in pursuit stopped and a second car, accommodating four Army brass including General Morg himself who rang the brass bell decorating the front, soared after mine. 

At which point the shooting started.

The novel is written in this same smug, pretty contrived style throughout. However, at 188 pages of big print, it is at least a breezy read. After more turnarounds, Denver next discovers that one of the Mudir’s “brothers” isn’t really a brother at all, but one of his sisters, Althea. Lory doesn’t describe her at all, but we do learn she is ugly, or at least Denver considers her so. Eventually it turns out that this too is just a disguise and she’s a smoking hot babe after all.

It stays down here in the White Cave area for the duration, unfortunately, including an arbitrary bit where Denver is briefly captured by some Red Chinese who force him to play “ping-pow,” which is ping-pong with a bomb instead of a ball. It turns out those missing bracelets contained blueprints for something called a Blight Bomb, sort of a virus-generating bomb, and the Mudir planned to use it on Nepal. Althea wants to stop this. Evetually Denver finds himself posing as an old Russian, and must also have sex with all thirteen of the stolen virgins, one after another, as part of a ruse on the Mudir’s part to suss out who here is really Hari Denver in disguise. But Lory isn’t exploitative at all: “I finished her off fast” being the extent of the sleaze.

The finale continues with the comedic approach; the Blight Bomb plan safely prevented, George II reveals himself to really be a computer, the human form just a puppet, and instructs Althea to go have sex with Hari so as to burn off her hostility! And here we leave our narrating hero. Overall The Thirteen Bracelets is passably entertaining, but a bit too “funny” for its own good, and I’m not just saying that because I normally dislike genre novels that are written in first-person.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 8


Agent 3S3: Massacre In The Sun (1966): Okay I’m cheating here, as I already reviewed this one, but this time I watched the cut of the film made for the Spanish market (which is possibly the same as the version that was released in the Italian market). Last time I watched the French cut, which was about 17 minutes longer, but as mentioned the copy I viewed suffered from a blurry, murky print. Not so this time, folks; this cut, which runs an hour and forty minutes, was put together by enterprising Eurospy fan David Alamaco, and apparently at one time it was posted on the Wild Eye Eurospy forum, which appears to be gone now. I was in touch with Mr. Alamaco last year, about to do a trade with him, but he ventures all over South America and the shipping costs are outrageous. Luckily the folks at Cult Action got hold of this very cut of the film, and for a mere $13 I was finally able to see it.

Alamaco sourced his cut from a Spanish cable broadcast, and the picture is pretty great – nothing hi-def, but certainly better than the previous version I viewed. Also, Alamaco has provided subtitles for most of the scenes that were never dubbed into English; as with the French cut I viewed, I of course watched the English dub (it just ain’t Eurospy if it doesn’t have bland, dubbed English voices). Unfortunately, this subtitling arbitrarily comes and goes; some scenes we get to understand what’s being said, other times we’re given no help at all. But whereas that French cut had no subs at all in the undubbed sequences, at least this time we’re given a better understanding of what’s going on. Otherwise the movie flows the same, with Giorgio Ardisson (as Agent 3S3 Walter Ross) strutting his stuff like the “Italian Sean Connery” he was hyped as; the women are approrpiately sexy, and in this more-clear copy we get better glimpses of the female flesh on display in the general’s multicultural harem, not to mention the bits jawdropping blonde bombshell Evi Marandi shows off in the swimming pool.

Here are the major differences I noted: The French cut of the film opens with Ross getting a fellow agent out of a Communist country, which turns out to be a training exercise that’s really being held in England. Then we get to the overlong title credits, after which we meet KGB agent Ivan Mikhailovic (Frank Wolff), who is on a training exercise of his own, posing as a peasant in a Spanish bar which turns out to be a training camp in the middle of snow-swept Russia. The Spanish cut reverses this, with the film opening on this scene, presumably catering to the Spanish market, before cutting to Ross in England, and then the credits. Later in the film, when Ross gets to San Felipe, he is given a room in which he discovers a bug hidden in a statuette. The Spanish cut ends there, but the French cut features a pretty blonde in the room who hops in Ross’s bed and offers herself to our hero. Most notably the finale, with Ross’s men geared out in black combat suits and infrared goggles, features more scenes of subgun-blasting fury in the French cut. In the Spanish cut the gliders land and we only see Ivan and Ross’s pal don their goggles and blast away, then we see some Molotov cockails in use. The French cut features the two female members of the resistance blasting away (with even more sequences of bad guys being blown away in infrared-vision), as well as an entire sequence of a glider landing and guys hopping out of it to mow down their enemies – and then we get to the Molotov cocktails scene. I’d love to see this additional action material in the same quality as the Alamaco dub. Perhaps someday a better version of the French cut will surface and someone will properly subtitle all of it.

The Big Blackout (1966): Here’s another Eurospy that sort of comes off like the Nick Carter: Killmaster film that never was. In fact, a Killmaster volume, The Weapon Of Night, played on the same concept, tapping into the blackout which gripped the East Coast of America in November 1965. Here though this event doesn’t happen until the end, and indeed the budget must’ve been pretty low – unlike most other Eurospy movies, The Big Blackout stays in Italy for the duration. The Italian name for the film is Perry Grant, Agente Di Ferro, so clearly the US distributors thought they’d capitalize on the “blackout” element.

Unknown actor Peter Holden stars as agent Perry Grant; according to this guy was only in one other movie, a Spaghetti Western, so the budget wasn’t extended for a “name” Eurospy actor, like George Ardisson, Roger Browne, or even Gordon Scott. But Holden isn’t bad, though to tell the truth I thought he was an Italian, posing under a fake English name, as was the style of the time. He isn’t the best-looking Eurospy stud nor is his physique all that great, which makes it all the stranger that the director (Luigi Capuano as “Lewis King”) keeps showing us Holden without a shirt on – at the beach, in a gratuitous shower scene, or just lying in bed smoking a cigarette. Hit the weights, dude! I think Roger Moore was more buff.

Grant is called away from his latest Eurobabe, a brunette knockout in a white bikini, by a coded radio message – rock has now entered the realm of Eurospy, with a twangy mod rocker playing throughout courtesy The Planets. Grant’s boss tasks him with posing as a fashion reporter, another agent posing as his photographer, and looking into a plot which will eventually entail a sci-fi contraption that blacks out entire cities – and soon the world! The film is curiously padded, with many scenes of people wandering around aimlessly or eating up the runtime doing menial chores, like tearing open envelopes or looking at maps. Action is sporadic, and poorly staged; the gunfights are particularly lame, with stuntwork that wouldn’t cut the mustard in a kindergarten play. Along the way Grant hooks up with another pretty brunette, named Sylvia (with vacant eyes, it must be stated), and there’s also a slinky Asian babe (who humorously enough is dubbed with a Southern Belle accent!). It must be noted though that agent Perry Grant fails to score!

The final fifteen minutes improve in a major way; the villain has that pulp spy-fy mainstay: an underground base filled with jumpsuited goons (each bearing a lightning bolt logo on his chest). Here oblong tv monitors provide views of the blackouts the main villain, a former Nazi, has been causing, the New York blackout of course included – and black and white footage of the event is included. This sci-fi vibe is much appreciated and makes one wonder why more of the runtime wasn’t spent down here in this underworld lair; the finale at least has some fireworks, with Grant toting a subgun and mowing down jumpsuited thugs in another poorly-choreographed action scene. The flick ends oddly enough with Grant not bedding down with Sylvia, which the penultimate scene implies is a foregone conclusion, but with some other random Eurobabe, on some other beach.

Superargo Against Diabolicus (1966): This perfect slice of Eurospy better captures the vibe of the classic Bond franchise than any other such flick, which is ironic given that its titular protagonist is a muscle-bound wrestler in a garish red costume and a black face mask. Plus he has superpowers! Catering to both the Eurospy and the Lucha Libra genres, Superargo Against Diabolicus only features wrestling stuff in the first quarter, as Superargo accidentally kills an opponent and goes into mournful seclusion. An old friend from “the war” shows up to offer him a job, and a chance at redemption: to stop Diabolicus, a criminal mastermind looking to take over the world in some convoluted fashion. The Bond ethic is in full effect. Superargo is given a bunch of fancy gadgets, in addition to a bullet-proof costume (and by the way he’s already impervious to blades, freezing temperatures, and can hold his breath for 7 minutes). He’s also given some weapons and a souped-up sportscar similar to the one featured two years later in the more-famous Diabolik.

The action kicks in midway through, as Superargo infiltrates the underworld lair of Diabolicus, a place of blooping and bleeping sci-fi gadgets, uniformed henchmen, and a riding crop-wielding henchwoman who apropos of nothing changes costumes at one point to put on something more revealing (not that I minded). Superargo is constantly tested, and when he gets a chance to fight back he kills without mercy. It’s all done very well, and to tell the truth I actually prefer this to Diabolik, as this one plays it straight throughout. The action finale is also fun, with Superargo wielding everything from a submachine gun to a flamethrower to his bare hands as he stops Diabolicus from escaping in a sort of rocket – and by the way, Diabolicus here wears the same avante garde “space suit” as seen in Operation Atlantis.

But man, this one’s a lot of fun, which makes it strange no one’s officially released it (mine’s a widescreen transfer taken from some overseas release, complete with the English dub); even the soundtrack comes off as Budget Bond, with the memorable theme song sounding very similar to John Barry’s “007” (not to be confused with the “James Bond Theme.”) Superargo returned two years later in Superargo And the Faceless Giants, which was courtesy the same director who gave us Devilman Story.

Top Secret (1967): The same year he starred in the dire Danger!! Death Ray, Gordon Scott made this Eurospy that clumsily melds espionage and humor, which was the style of the time. Luckily Top Secret isn’t a full-blown comedy, the antics relegated to random, inconsequential bits, and Scott, as CIA agent John Sutton, still gets to beat up a few people. But I would’ve enjoyed it more if it played things straight. Our Eurobabe is Polish beauty Magda Konopka (good grief is this woman beautiful), who the following year starred in Satanik. I’m pretty sure The Eurospy Guide (an overly-negative book that is not recommended; practically every “review” is along the lines of, “This movie sucks, but…”) makes the claim that Ms. Konopka gets topless in this film, but that unfortunately doesn’t happen in the copy I watched – a crystal-clear widescreen presentation off the Italian cable channel Rai, complete with the English dub.

The plot’s about…actually I don’t know what the hell the plot’s about. This is typical of the Eurospy genre. But it has something to do with an old former Nazi escaping Russia or something (though it’s implied he’s intentionally allowed to escape?), and agent John Sutton goes from Casablanca to Naples trying to get the top secret info he’s brought over. The film is more concerned with the “Spy vs. Spy” antics of Sutton vs. KGB agent Sandra Dubois (Konopka) – it’s just a repeating situation of one chasing the other, save for the occasional moments they get in bed together. The viewer quickly learns to turn off his brain and just appreciate Ms. Konopka’s ample charms. Action is periodic, but mostly of the fistfight variety; it’s not helped that the musical cue for one of the villains is a cartoonish “BOING!” sound effect.

Gadgets are relegated to bugs hidden in makeup compacts, and while Sutton occasionally totes a pistol, he doesn’t even shoot anyone. In retrospect I think Danger!! Death Ray was actually superior, as at least it played things mostly on the level. (And the MST3K version is one of my favorite episodes of the series.) Piero Umiliani’s score is the usual greatness, other than that annoying villain cue; some of it is the epitome of easy listening. The film ends with what might have been a flash of bare breasts; Dubois slips into Sutton’s bed at the end of the film, and her response to his tirade about her trying to kill him is to whip down the sheets which cover her. It’s hard to say – perhaps the Rai channel edition cut out the nudity, but otherwise I think it would’ve been a bit out of the norm for a Eurospy of this era to end on a scene of toplessnsess. Not that I’d complain or anything.