Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Nemesis From Terra (aka Shadow Over Mars)

The Nemesis From Terra, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1961  Ace Books

The copyright page of this Ace Double doesn’t mention it, but The Nemesis From Terra is actually a reprint of a novel by Leigh Brackett originally titled Shadow Over Mars, which first appeared in the Fall, 1944 issue of Startling Stories and was later reprinted in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story.  This was Leigh Brackett’s first novel, and any worries that it might not be up to par with her later work are quickly dashed. Also, unlike
The Secret Of Sinharat or People Of The Talisman, this one has not been expanded or otherwise changed in this Ace reprint, other that is than a few editorial snafus.

Brackett, despite her recent intro to the world of fiction, is as evocative as ever, her fast-moving pulp tale both masculine and poetic. I mean this one covers everything from dewey-eyed love at first sight to a fistfight in which a dude’s thumb is ripped off…and then later he’s bashed in the face by the severed “trunk” of a corpse! It’s also interesting that Shadow Over Mars (as I prefer to call it – doubtless Ace changed the title because they didn’t want to scare away dweebs who’d get upset over the fact that there’s no life on Mars) has elements which would be expanded upon in later Brackett work.

I get the impression that this one is set later in Brackett’s future chronology than the other tales I’ve read; perhaps around the era of the latter stories in the anthology The Coming Of The Terrans. Terran “exploitation” of Mars is more rampant than in the other Brackett stories I’ve read – and just so you know there’s no fooling, the organization actually calls itself the Terran Exploitation Company. There’s also use of the Banning shocker weapon, which featured in the late-chronology (but also early-written) Brackett yarn “Child Of The Sun.” It appears that Brackett’s early stories, coincidentally or not given that WWII was raging when she wrote them, were more concerned with a despotic galactic government than her later material.

Anyway I’m guessing that Shadow Over Mars takes place at least a few decades after, say, “Enchantress Of Venus,” and perhaps around the same time as the beginning and ending sections of The Sword Of Rhiannon. And speaking of which, there are similarities between that tale (aka Sea-Kings Of Mars) and this one; both feature ruggedly virile but hardbitten bastards of protagonists who are, despite their nefarious nature and crime-laden backgrounds, thrust into prophetic positions as saviors of Mars. 

Such is the case with this novel’s hero, Rick Gunn Urquhart, and I have to say, I do love it that the savior of Mars is named “Rick.” He’s a cynical, tough-talking, Bogart-esque brawler who, we learn, was born in space; the first planet he ever set foot on was Mars. When we meet him, like Matt Carse in The Sword Of Rhiannon, Rick is on the run, but in his case it’s from the “black boys” (aka “black apes”!) of “the Company,” aka the Terran Exploitation Company. Another resemblance to Rhiannon is that this future Mars is filled with splinter strains of native life, such as the winged humans who appear in both novels and the Dhuvian snake-men of Rhiannon. But this I think is the only mention I’ve so far encountered of the “black apes,” aka “anthropoids,” which are used as brainless muscle by the Company.

The title of the novel, at least the original title, comes from an ancient Martian “seeress” whose hovel Rick sneaks into while hiding from the apes. She goes into a trance and declares that Rick’s “shadow” will fall over Mars – uniting its people as one and ruling them. Then, as if in denial of her own prophecy, she comes at Rick with a knife and he takes her out with his “blaster.” Speaking of which there’s more blaster-fighting here than in the other Brackett yarns I’ve read, most of which go for more of a Conan vibe with swords and axes and whatnot.

The action opens in Ruh, an ancient Martian city I don’t believe I’ve encountered before; like all the others in Brackett it’s a decayed fossil of its former self, with an Old Town that’s nearly haunted and a New Town filled with strip clubs and bars and the like. In fact, Shadow Over Mars has the first – if brief – sleazy elements I’ve yet encountered in Brackett, as later in the novel Rick walks through the grungy New Town section with its stripper Venusian girls, 3-D cinemas, and various drug parlors. The Venusians don’t come off very well here, mostly used as muscle or as sex objects by the Martians; we also get the mention that they have greenish skin and blue hair.

The novel features a small core of characters, as ever graced with those Brackett-esque names which would be sort of pillaged by George Lucas: a chief example would be Jaffa Storm, a Star Wars name if ever there was one; he’s a “Terro-Mercurian” with skin burned black by the sun, same as  Eric John Stark. But unlike Stark, Jaffa Storm is a villain through and through, a 7-foot sadist with a limp who is telepathic to boot. He’s the main villain of the novel, though we start off thinking it will be Ed Fallon, heartless owner of the Company. However Fallon’s sort of anticlimactically removed from the narrative. On the female front, there’s Mayo McCall, hotstuff brunette babe who is a spy for a Martian rights movement led by Earthman Hugh St. John and his Martian pal Eran Mak. (Yes, the name had me thinking of former actresses turned sex-slaving cultists, too!)

In true pulp style, Shadow Over Mars veers all over the Martian map; I’ll forego my usual belabored rundown of the plot. Rick is basically traded around for much of the narrative, variably captured by the inhabitants of Ruh – who want him for murdering the seeress – to being captured by the Company. In this latter sequence he meets Mayo, and it’s a love at first sight thing, but bear in mind Rick is very much in the vein of the later Gully Foyle, of The Stars My Destination (another pulp sci-fi novel with some narrative resemblances to this one), so there’s a lot of hostility and distrust in this particular love. That being said, Rick and Mayo are barely in the novel together. Also, Mayo isn’t one of Brackett’s more interesting female characters, most likely because she spends the majority of the novel off-page.

Actually two women love Rick – there’s also Kyra, diminutive winged gal who latches onto him in a more poignant subplot than the entirety of the Mayo storyline. For Kyra loves Rick even though she knows he doesn’t love her back – indeed he refers to her condescendingly as “kid.” Further, she knows he’s in love with Mayo. But Kyra is young and resents that Mars thinks itself “old” and dying; there’s a part late in the tale where she says goodbye to Rick, brining up reincarnation and the planet’s future, and it’s one of those heartbreaking moments Leigh Brackett does so damn well.

She also does action and violence well, and there are several such scenes throughout the novel. Rick (rather quickly) lives up to his prophecy and unites the Martians against the Company – that is, after he’s been captured and escaped a few times – and leads them in a grand battle against Jaffa Storm’s forces, Storm having assumed control of the Company. However Brackett doesn’t give this sequence as much focus as one would assume. The smaller, more private battles are the ones that make the most of an impression, like the aforementioned climactic brawl, or a cool part midway through where Rick escapes via “flyer” to the other side of Mars, lands in Valkis (familiar from other Mars tales), and is captured by olive-skinned desert barbarians.

This part comes off like a prefigure of the later masterful novella “Beast-Jewel Of Mars,” with a drugged Rick put on display in a pit for a group of bloodthirsty Martians (Rick having been set up as a traitor by Hugh St. John and Eran Mak). They watch eagerly as the Earthman trips out in various hallucinations, mostly involving Kyra and Mayo. There follows perhaps one of the few instances in fiction in which cigarettes actually save life; Rick regains his thoughts due to the cigarette burning into his hands, and sees that he’s about to become part of the soil that feeds these hallucination-causing plants. Further, the smoke wards off the effects of the plants and allows Rick to think clearly. So he fires up a fresh cigarette and starts inhaling away, crawling off to safety!

Overall though Shadow Over Mars gives a great view of Brackett’s Mars; you’ll find here everything from the desolate, haunted ruins of its beyond-ancient past, familiar from the Stark tales, to the decadent sprawls of its Earthling-populated areas. There’s even a somewhat arbitrary trip to the polar cap, an area drenched in mystery, where the legendary “Thinkers” lay in suspended animation, their minds moved on to a realm of pure thought. This part has the haunted vibe of the later Brackett story “The Last Days Of Shandakor,” but gradually builds up to the brutal fistfight mentioned above, complete with thumb-ripping and severed bodyparts used as impromptu clubs. This part also reminds the Brackett fan of The Sword Of Rihannon, as here too our Earthling hero comes upon ancient weapons of mass destruction.

All told, a lot goes down in these 120 pages of small, dense print, and Brackett never lets up – something’s always happening, and it’s always entertaining. In a mid-‘70s audio interview I recently discovered, Brackett makes a few disparaging comments about her early work. Hopefully she wasn’t thinking of Shadow Over Mars, because I really enjoyed it, and would rank it as one of my favorites yet. And that audio interview is highly recommended, if only to hear her voice, but unfortunately the majority of it concerns her screenwriting work, with her sci-fi writing only briefly discussed. (Note how she perks up at the sudden mention of Eric John Stark 54 minutes in! But sadly the interviewer asks no further questions about the character or his stories.) And I have to give the lady props for not only claiming she “walked out” on Kubrick’s 2001, but for saying that she thought the movie was “foolish!” Perhaps the only time I have ever seen that particular word used to describe the film!

Monday, May 28, 2018

MIA Hunter #8: Escape From Nicaragua

MIA Hunter #8: Escape From Nicaragua, by Jack Buchanan
November, 1987  Jove Books

The MIA Hunter series undergoes a bit of a change with this eigth volume (actually ninth when you count the unnumbered installment Stone: MIA Hunter); now MIA Hunter Mark Stone will venture around the globe at the behest of the US government to free prisoners of the Cold War, not just into Southeast Asia to free ‘Nam-era POWs. But while the setup might be slightly changed, the series template is firmly intact. 

A couple years ago Stephen Mertz sent me a list of the writers who worked on MIA Hunter. Basically, Mertz edited the series and wrote each volume, with a lineup of co-writers occasionally helping out. For this volume his co-writer was Arthur Moore. I’m not familiar with Moore, but per Mertz he also co-wrote MIA Hunter volumes 9 and 11. As ever though this series really does seem to be the work of the same writer, ie “Jack Buchanan,” so doubtless this is Mertz’s behind-the-scenes hand. But I’m pretty sure I can detect what Arthur Moore has written.

For the first time in the series, I think, Stone is usually referred to as “Mark” in the narrative, save for occasional scenes where he abruptly is referred to as “Stone.” Given that these latter parts are often arbitrary action scenes, my assumption is that this is Mertz filling in Moore’s manuscript. (Escape From Nicaragua comes in at an unwieldy 198 pages of small print.) Not that there’s anything wrong with action scenes, but in many instances they clearly seem to be filling up a void – like, “Mark” will scope out a truck he needs to acquire to get to his destination, and then a page or two later “Stone” will be blowing away scads of Sandanistan soldiers before proceeding on his way. In other words, the “Stone” stuff could be cut out of the narrative and one would never know the difference.

Anyway, the changed setup. For once, unbelievably, we get a bit of continuity – events clearly refer to Stone: MIA Hunter and the fiance Stone was reunited with therein; we’re informed that Stone is giving Rosalyn “time” to get over her decades-long captivity in ‘Nam. Translation: We’ll never see nor hear from the broad again. Otherwise, Stone and his colleagues Hog Wiley and Terrence Loughlin have now been hired by the government, working out of Fort Bragg, their objective to find and retrieve various prisoners. Stone’s girlfriend April is also on the scene, but will stay in Fort Bragg and handle all the paperwork, what with her being a girl and all. Oh, and given that it’s related up front that Stone has a girlfriend, this means that, as usual, there won’t be any funny business on the mission. This, the team’s first mission, has them going to Nicaragua to rescue a pair of CIA agents who have been captured by the Sandanistas.

It's humorous because for the most part Escape From Nicaragua plays out identically to the preceding volumes; only the locale has been changed. Stone and team venture into South America, meet a few native freefighters, get in countless skirmishes, finally find the prisoners (on the very last pages), free them, and escape. It’s practically the eighth variation of the story that was first told in MIA Hunter #1. This time the difference is that the natives speak Spanish, and the villains are Russian-backed Sandanistas instead of Russian-backed NVA.

Other than Stone becoming “Mark,” subtle changes include Hog Wiley speaking more like an “East Texan” than previously, and also there’s a bit more of an attempt to give cipher Terrence Loughlin some personality, mostly through his endless bantering with Hog. Some of this dialog is funny, and there are recurring jokes throughout, like Hog designating helpful natives as “Honorary Texans.” Stone is presented more as the straight man, always caught in the middle of the bickering and bringing the two back to the matter at hand. But other than the bit early on about Rosalyn, his old fiance, there really isn’t much personality for Stone this time; “Mark” just goes about his job to rescue the CIA agents, and it’s not like this time he’s even driven by the same personal demons that had him rescuing MIA soldiers in ‘Nam.

From Honduras the trio slip into Nicaragua, and the festivities begin posthaste. No joke, it seems llike every other page these guys are getting chased and shot at. If they aren’t getting chased by guys in trucks, they’re hiding from ‘copters that patrol from the skies. If anything I began to respect the apparently-vast army resources of the Sandanistas. I mean they have their country guarded down to the last blade of grass. But the action is constant and at the usual level of the series, which is to say lacking the brain-spurting, gut-busting gore I prefer in this genre; people just get shot and fall down. But make no mistake, a lot of people get shot, and sometimes knived…there’s a grim scene showing the coldblooded nature of our heroes as Stone slits the throats of a few dozing guards at a Sandanistan air base.

The team goes through a sequence of local guides, which also robs the narrative of what little emotional impact there could’ve been; some new guy is introduced, makes an impression, then takes the team to some backwoods Nicaraguan village, introduces the next guide, and says so long. One of them turns out to be a turncoat, setting our heroes up in yet another action scene, and one of them’s a hotstuff Latina babe who isn’t exploited at all, in complete disregard of what I feel should be written-in-stone rules of the men’s adventure genre. I mean her breasts aren’t even mentioned! But our heroes do trade lines about how pretty she is, at least – and she’s even more cold-blooded than they, at one point casually blowing away a pair of cops.

Action is as mentioned frequent and at times exhausting – and also as mentioned sometimes arbitrary. There’s a bit midway through where “Mark” decides the team needs an armored truck, then “Stone” and comrades get in a positvely endless firefight to attain it. Then just a scant few pages later they deem the truck is more trouble than it’s worth and burn it!! So much time is consumed with this sort of thing – not to mention a lot of sequences from the point of view of the various Sandanista soldiers – that the actual rescue of the CIA agents comes off as anticlimactic and rushed, occurring over just a few pages at the very end.

All told I have to rate Escape From Nicaragua as my least favorite MIA Hunter. Hopefully Moore’s next contributions will be better, and I’m really looking forward to the ones by Bill Crider.

Oh and Stone’s gotten a makeover on the cover…dude doesn’t look like a psycho at all.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Roadblaster #3: Blood Ride

Roadblaster #3: Blood Ride, by Paul Hofrichter
No month stated, 1988  Leisure Books

This is one of those books that makes you take a long hard look in the mirror; the kind of book that has you reflecting on your life and all the poor choices you’ve made – particularly your choice to read this book. Yes, it’s the final novel of the Roadblaster series; the surprise isn’t that the series only lasted three volumes, it’s that it actually made it this far.

It’s four whole days since the nuclear events of the first volume, which as we’ll recall precipitated such armageddon-like events as people driving around the mountains outside San Francisco and complaining about the price of gasoline. Only four days have passed, folks, and we’re like 500 pages into this “epic.” Loser “hero” Nick Stack has yet to get off his ass and head to New York to find out if his wife and kids are still alive; the poor sap is constantly getting caught up on some random assignment, eternally prevented from starting off on that cross-country journey. A journey which, if you’ll think about it, is apparently the entire friggin’ point of this stupid series, but three volumes in and the dude’s in the same exact area he started off in.

But then, it would appear that Paul Hofrichter is already bored with the series concept. Blood Ride opens, arbitrarily enough, with a flashback-dream sequence in which some older woman who lived in Stack’s apartment building many years ago has a “panic diarrhea attack” and plummets to her death from the roof of the building. I’m not making this up, friends. That’s how the damn book starts. And Nick Stack sees her falling, then wakes up to the real world and it’s post-nuke hell and will spend the rest of the novel randomly flashing back to the time he saw that lady fall off his apartment building. 

There is in fact a New Agey vibe to this series, but Hofrichter takes it to new realms in the final volume…Stack is prone to lots and lots of soul-plumbing introspection, up to and including an overlong bit where he taps into the minds of crabs as they’re being boiled. There’s lots of “man’s inumanity” shit throughout Blood Ride, which of course makes the book even more of a beating to get through. Worse yet, the action, while never much of a concern for Hofrichter, is even less pronounced this time around, with basically nothing happening until the climax…a climax which, by the way, is basically a retread of the climax of the first volume.

The dialog is as soul-crushingly banal and exposition-laden as normal; when asked why he doesn’t just stay here with his new Californian friends instead of voyaging all the way to New York to find his family, Stack responds, completely serious, “I have more emotional investment in my wife and kids.” Really, Stack?! But honestly it’s like that throughout. And, like last time, the exposition isn’t just relegated to the dialog; anytime a new character is introduced, we get lots of arbitrary backstory about them, even including various sexual encounters. Oh and speaking of which, sex finally makes its return to Roadblaster, in typically bizarre fashion, but more of that anon.

Anyway the preceding installment featured the typical time-wasting development of Stack promising some injured dude that he’d try to find the dude’s family to let him know he’s okay. Keep in mind this is at the expense of Stack finally leaving for New York to find his own family. So off Stack goes with his Harley Davidson club buddies. This entails an overlong but pretty suspenseful bit where they have to scale the towering ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, which has collapsed in the nuclear maelstrom. Even here, climbing high above the churning water, Stack finds the time to ruminate on digressive philosophical asides.

And folks we settle in for the long haul; they get to the town they seek, they ask an old guy for directions, down to the specific street intersections, and they trudge along on their quest. They find a town of inhabitants who are just sort of hanging out, drinking tepid beer that isn’t cold, due to the lack of refrigerators, due to the lack of electricity, due to the friggin’ nuclear war that just occurred a few days ago. Here the group also finds a couple who dance for the entertainment of the townsfolk: Aaron Dragon and the attractive Gina. Stack checks her out, wonders if she’s doing Aaron exclusively, and then the locals say they’ve hauled in a bunch of crabs, so let’s have a crab feast.

The long haul gets even longer now as we have this nigh-psychedelic nonsense as Stack commiserates with the poor little crabs, about to be boiled alive; he empathizes with their terror, the misery they endure before the bitter end…not that this stops him from going for seconds and thirds of crabmeat. And all this ruminating extends to your basic “man’s inhumanity” drivel that no one in their right mind would expect to encouter in a paperback “action” novel titled Blood Ride. After this everyone goes out to skinny dip and Stack comes upon Aaron and Gina “coupling” in the waves; he watches in secret, reflecting that he’s gone without a woman so long.

When Aaron goes off to “urinate” (and Hofrichter also has to inform us that Stack takes a piss, too, just in case we were concerned), Stack lingers a bit and Gina spots him. She was happy he watched and eagerly asks, “Would you like some?” Stack momentarily forgets about the wife and kids and heads on over. When he tries to slip it in, Gina says, “Not there. Put it where Aaron had it. In my ass. I can take it there. I like it that way, too.” This, she informs Stack, is “Nature’s birth control.” The sodomy goes on for a few pages, with the humorous “climax” that Gina, unbeknownst to Stack, doesn’t even get off, and after the act rushes away to “handle” herself! Our hero is such a loser, folks, that three volumes in when he finally gets a chance for sex, he doesn’t even satisfy the woman!

Oh, speaking of sleaze, we’ll recall the sleazeball bikers who were the main villians in the first volume. Well, they’re back, led by Lance Zoyas, who is the “son of a Mexican wetback.” Whereas in the first volume their prime goal was to round up preteen girls and force them to give blowjobs(!), this time these bikers are amost presented as their own famiy unit, caring for one another – hell, Zoyas and his co-leader fight back tears and hug each other when Zoyas finally returns to the fold, presumed dead after the events of the first volume. There’s another set of villains afoot, criminals led by a dude named Arnie Vastra, who actually do all the heavy lifting in the “thrilling climax” while Zoyas and his bikers watch from afar.

Stack is again used as a post-nuke courier, heading back into the mountains to reconvene with the downed B-52 crew. Along the way we get a sermon on buffalo. Seriously, we do. Here Stack gets the sad news that he won’t get to bum a ride on the plane, once it’s repaired; it will more than likely be sent on a mission to bomb Russia. Stack here finally recalls Rayisa, the preteen girl who was basically the supporting character in the first volume; that is, until she was captured in the final pages, forced to orally please a biker, and then Stack shot the dude’s dick off while it was still in Rayisa’s mouth. Not much in men’s adventure fiction can compare to that scene, friends; too bad the rest of the series never lived up to it.

Anyway Rayisa returns on page 162 of Blood Ride, having remained off-page the entirety of the previous volume; she tells Stack she wants to go with him no matter where he’s headed, thus forces herself on him for the trip to New York. He says okay and leaves; Rayisa’s in the book for like a page and a half and never seen again. And yes, that’s page 162; you’ll note that not much has happened in Blood Ride, which as you’ll note is a recurring friggin’ theme of the entire series.

The finale sort of picks things up; the nukes are being removed from the B-52 via convoy, and Arnie Vastra and crew, in stolen armored vehicles, attempt to route it, leading to a bloody firefight in which Stack again takes part. But as usual with Hofrichter, not much is resolved; Vastra fails in his attempt and escapes, and meanwhile Zoyas and his bikers, who have watched it all, try to follow the convoy but somehow lose it. So meanwhile they’re still out there, likely plotting some tomfoolery. As for Stack, he’s hanging out in a cave with another new friend, who tells Stack it’s perhaps due to the “cosmic pattern” that Stack has ended up here in California.

And that’s it, folks, it’s over! The book – and series – is over! We made it!! I hate to say it, but Roadblaster necessitates an emergency reformation of the men’s adventure tribunal which previously dealt with the abonimation that was The Penetrator #22. Paul Hofrichter has been found guilty by a jury of his men’s adventure peers for multiple counts of narrative padding, go-nowhere plot digressions, copious philosophical ponderings, bald exposition, banal dialog, buffalo sermonizing, misleading titles (both series and individual volume), misleading cover art, and one count each of nonclimactic sodomy and needless crab-boiling. Sentencing is to be carried out immediately.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Devil's Cockpit (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #23)

The Devil's Cockpit, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

A curious thing about this volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster, one of the many written by Manning Lee Stokes, is that it’s sort of a prefigure of a later Stokes joint: The Red Rays. Unlike that one, The Devil’s Cockpit is written in much-preferable third-person, but otherwise it deals with mostly the same subject: a bonkers Red Chinese plot to film anti-US propaganda porn and distribute it to the West in the hopes of spreading anti-American fervor, while also loosening up the morals of the viewers so as to make their ultimate brainwashing all the easier.

Well anyway, only Nick Carter, N3 of AXE, can stop this porn menace – which I kid you not even includes Tiuana Bibles! Nick is more riled up than usual this time, and not just because the CIA agent who was working the case has been killed, literally emasculated, his “shriveled testicles” put in a box and mailed back to his Agency boss(!). No, Nick is sickened not only by the porn, but also by the dirty comics in which characters like Mickey Mouse and whatnot perform perverted deeds. He’s ready to “become Killmaster,” as Stokes often puts it, and even has the armory guy at AXE get him a hip holster for his Luger, Wilhelmina, so he can draw more quickly. (Believe it or not, even though he’s introduced this hip holster apropos of nothing…Stokes never mentions it again or has Nick use it!!)

First though a bit of that random bizarro Stokery we expect from our lovably prolific author – we get a lot of backstory that Nick has just returned from a grueling, hellish training mission in Vietnam, where he was slipped behind the border and basically presented as a live target for the VC. Now he’s back, though still suffering from “jungle rot,” and he’s brought with him Pok, a 16 year old Korean orphan whom Nick now considers himself the “foster father” of. Pok will live with Nick in his New York penthouse, going to school during the day and serving as Nick’s “houseboy” in the evening. Not to mention serving up some pre-PC ethnic humor via his pidgin English: “Everything number one. I go to school half day for first week, get olientated.”

Despite just getting back from ‘Nam (and the date, we’re informed, is September 1966), Nick is again called to DC to meet with boss David Hawk. At AXE HQ Nick’s briefed by the old man, who threw up when he saw what was in the box carried by the CIA man. The threat is this: a series of anti-US porn films have been making the rounds in Europe and abroad, played mostly to lower class people whom we’re informed are so stupid, due to being poor and all, that they’ll take the films at face value. Now the movies are getting even bigger league because they star Mona Manning, former Hollywood megastar, but now “old” and ruined at 45 (though her face and bod are still jawdroppingly hot, Nick muses). Plus she’s bonda fide nuts.  All of this, from the anti-US porn to the former screen siren turned Commie propaganda star, would turn up again in The Red Rays, and in similarly unexploited fashion. 

Nick watches one of the movies, which features Mona and some other dude as criminals drafted by the CIA who go around murdering wantonly and screwing wantonly. Nick is again disgusted. Then he sees the dirty comic books! This plus the “shriveled testicles” of the murdered CIA agent are the icing on the cake – Nick practically begs to be sent off on the mission. But as usual with Stokes Nick has absolutely nothing to go on: the threat is vague, the leads even vaguer. The CIA man was killed in London, where he was investigating a “procurer” of women named Paulus Warner who is from Germany. The CIA believes that these porn movies are being filmed near Budapest, unbeknownst to the Hungarians, and are in fact being funded by the Red Chinese – as Nick states, the Russians don’t go for the hanky-panky stuff, so it would be too much to figure they were behind these dirty movies in their own veritable backyard.

Before heading for London Nick stops back in his penthouse for more un-PC banter with Pok, who informs Nick that a “Florence” has been calling for Nick and indeed is waiting for him in the study. Florence we learn has long set her sights on Nick, who doesn’t much like it when the woman shows the initiative. So to get rid of her he engages her in a yoga-fueled sex marathon, wearing her out good and proper. Stokes isn’t as explicit here as normal, but the fact that he has this sex scene so shortly after the porn movie material – which we’ll recall upset Nick so much – surely must be a bit of intentional humor on his part.

We move now to Swinging Soho, but Stokes doesn’t much bring to life this long-gone era, though Nick does get in a brief tussle with a gang of mods. More time is spent with waiflike Pam, a newbie hooker with a heart of gold; Paulus Werner’s angle is that he finds hookers and showgirls, offers them a gig in movies or whatever, and then takes them back to Budapest, where they star in these porn flicks whether they like it or not. And once the producers are done with them, they’re shipped off to Vietnam and China to sexually serve the troops! I say, Manning Lee Stokes has taken the Yellow Menace into new heights of sadism, though curiously there isn’t a single Chinese character in the novel.

Anyway Nick is approached on the street by Pam and takes her back to his place, thinking on the fly – he might be able to draft her into the rooting out and capturing of Paulus Werner. Humorously, Stokes basically builds up Pam as he goes; when we first meet her, she’s barely attractive, lurking in shadows and quick to jump like some beaten puppy, but she becomes more and more outspoken – not to mention hotter – the more Nick talks to her. By the end of the Soho sojourn Nick and she are engaging in the expected sexual hijinks, though again Stokes doesn’t get as explicit as he does in other volumes. Stokes’s version of Nick is as ever one cold bastard, though; Pam falls in love with Nick, begging to go back to the US and live with him, and Nick tells her he’s starting to feel the same for her – then at novel’s end he just leaves her without a word, figuring the assignment’s over and that’s that, and then goes back to his penthouse for more all-night shenanigans with Florence!

Nick’s first kill occurs here; again proving the brutal version of the Killmaster Stokes gives us, Nick questions heavyset Paulus Werner, toying with him that he’ll send him to America if he answers his questions, but planning of course to kill him. And Paulus too realizes this moments before it happens. But as Jure so wonderfully put it, Paulus is “A fat fucking German pimp whom we don’t feel sorry about!”  (And by the way, Jure, when are you going to start posting reviews again?) Paulus has put together a “troupe” of whores and dancers to take to Budapest for the porn films, and Nick’s plan is to pose as Paulus’s nephew, looking to take over the business.

Pam poses as Nick’s wife in one of Stokes’s usually-digressive and ultimately arbitrary setups, because this goes absolutely nowhere; they slip into Budapest where Pam is arrested as part of the plan. Nick heads into the hinterlands of Hungary where he comes to the castle-like villa of Michael Blackstone, exiled American director who was blacklisted in the ‘50s and decided to become a Commie for the hell of it. Supposedly he’s making the porn movies, as his stamp is evident in their style, yet this is another ball Stokes drops as it turns out in the homestretch that a Hungarian director, Bela Kojak, is running the show – and he has a bit of a Fleming flair to him in that he dresses like a “1920s director.”

But at least this part’s kind of cool as Nick paints his face black and sneaks into the villa, knifing a few servants in cold blood. He finds a veritable orgy taking place in the main area. Another curious miss here is that not much else is relayed about the porn movies; instead, Nick catches sight of the “actresses” being used and abused, including the memorable bit of two towering “Amazons” in fetish gear going around and whipping them! (Later Nick gets hold of these two, who turn out to be former female guards at the Belsen prison camp; he interrogates them and then shoots each of them in the back of the head!) But even more shocking is the sight of Pam and the other girls who were part of Nick’s “troupe.” The long-belabored plan has obviously gone to hell, and rather than jail the girls have been sent straight to the villa.

As Jure mentions in his review, Stokes as ever cuts some quick corners – Nick is captured, tortured, and escapes in rapid succession. An interesting note is that the print is bigger in The Devil’s Cockpit than Stokes’s other Killmaster novels, meaning he turned in a lower word count this time. Maybe he was getting close to burnout? Even more curiously, Nick, drugged by Bela Kojak as part of his own interrogation, is forced to take part in one of those anti-US porn movies, and Stokes not only leaves all of it vague but doesn’t follow up on it! At any rate Nick “performs” with a dusky-skinned pro who is apparently a phenomenal lay, but Nick’s too busy biting his tongue raw so as to keep part of his mind alert, less the drugs fully knock him out. Later Nick will burn the film print, as well as all the other porn flicks in the villa. Take that, seduction of the innocent!

But hopes for a good hero-villain confrontation are squandered, which is par for the course in Stokes. Even though pages were devoted to Kojak literally crushing Nick’s resolve – by placing hundreds of pounds of millstones on his chest – when Nick gets free, running around with some “tommy guns” (despite his broken arm), he doesn’t shoot a single person with them and all he does is fire off a few shots at Kojak’s car as the villain tries to flee the burning villa. Later Hawk will inform Nick that Bela died – eventually – in a hospital. Meanwhile Blackstone and Mona Manning, who finally appear in the text, are given almost cursory sendoffs; they decide to leave Hungary with Nick, even though a return to America will result in prison…and then Blackstone takes matters into his own hands.

That Mona only has a few lines of dialog is typical of Stokes’s usual sloppy plotting, or at least how he will busily set up plots at the outset of the novel, then pad with abandon, and then quickly wrap everything up in the (anti)climax. But damn it all I really like his books regardless. Perhaps it’s because his Nick Carter is so brutal and mean, with none of the niceties other ghostwriters give him. There is also that ultra-macho vibe to Stokes’s work in general which is a bit refreshing or at least unusual in today’s emasculated and chickified era. Yet at the same time, Nick’s sort of a dick and he murders in cold blood, so there’s that.

The Devil’s Cockpit overall is pretty entertaining, and moves more quickly than the usual Stokes installment, likely because it appears to be shorter. But it’s unfortunate that so many subplots are just ignored – there was all kinds of opportunity with fallen movie star Mona Manning, and the entire Chicom propaganda porn threat was so bizarre it really needed more exploitation. One would think Stokes would learn from this, but he pulled the exact same stuff in The Red Rays.  Also, the title has nothing to do with anything and I’m betting it was something Award Books came up with.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Eliminator (Jonas Wilde #1)

The Eliminator, by Andrew York
No month stated, 1967  Lancer Books
(Original UK edition 1966)

Yet another of the many series that tried to capitalize on the success of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Jonas Wilde ran for 9 volumes (though for whatever reason the fifth volume, The Dominator, never made it to these shores) and even garnered its own film – Danger Route, in 1967, starring the dude who was supposedly director Terrence Young’s original choice to play Bond in Dr. No. “Andrew York” was incredibly prolific British author Christopher Nicole, who some years later gave us the lusty historical yarn The Savage Sands.

Unlike most other Bond cash-ins of the day, the Jonas Wilde books came out in hardcover. Which is to say they have a bit more of a “literary” bent to them, and are a bit more fleshed-out than typical Bondsploitation paperback series like Nick Carter: Killmaster or Mark Hood. The Eliminator is nearly 300 pages long, and that’s with lots of small print – actually the series would appear to be close to Fleming in that it’s very much in the head of its protagonist, going more for introspection and scene-setting than pulp action. As for Jonas Wilde himself, he’s a 36 year-old professional assassin for Her Majesty’s government. A muscular dude with receding brown hair (just like Grant Fowler!), Wilde is a bit more morose than Fleming’s Bond, and more importantly he only kills with his hands, a veritable lethal weapon of karate skills.

I admit, this part has kind of kept me away from the series until now; I prefer my swinging ‘60s spies to use an accoutrement of weapons and gadgets. But Nicole apparently wants to stay as “realistic” as possible, thus the series strives for the feel of Deighton with a little of the pulp of Fleming. At least that’s so in this first installment, which plays it low-key for the most part. One might complain perhaps a little too low-key, but at least there’s a bit more depth to the characterization than typical for the genre – at least when it comes to the supporting characters. Despite his fondness for cigarettes, cocktails, and boating, Jonas Wilde never really came to life for me. I did though appreciate his glib retorts, many of which seem inspired by Connery’s take on Bond.

We meet Wilde on the job, down in Barbados to take out Hartman, a former Nazi, now a wealthy tycoon. This opening gives an idea of the vibe of the novel as, instead of quick action, it plays out on a long-simmer suspense angle. Wilde is known as the “Nobody Man,” given his ability to immerse himself in a new identity, and here he’s posing as a globetrotting playboy. In this way he’s gotten himself involved with Hartman’s lovely daughter, making her fall in love with him, and this only serves to make Wilde further doubt himself and his career. This doubt already started back home, due to Wilde’s growing feelings for his live-in girlfriend, Jocelyn, whom he met a few months ago. Wilde thinks he’s falling in love with her (not that this prevents him from having some off-page sexual hijinks with Hartman’s daughter), and knows that this means he needs to quit his assassin career, posthaste.

It sort of goes on and on – York is very much in love with his own writing style and with the glib dialog of his world-weary protagonists – until it finally culminates with Wilde and Hartman on a nighttime fishing expedition on Hartman’s yacht. Here the former Nazi tells “Charles Vane,” ie Wilde, that he must leave his daughter forever because he’s nothing but a worm, less than a man, etc, and even finds a moment to vaguely refer to his Nazi days. Here too York shows us the sort of action scenes we can expect – quick and anticlimactic, as Wilde lets Hartman take a swing at him, then easily kills him with a single shuto chop to the base of the skull.

The main plot of the novel kicks in as Wilde heads back to the remote island of Guernsey in the English Channel, following the elaborate but ultimately simple entry and exit process his organization refers to as “the Route.” Perhaps Nicole’s biggest failing is that he doesn’t properly explain Wilde’s organization at the outset. Perhaps if more time was spent on this than the opening assassination of Hartman, the reader would be less out of sorts when the actual reversals and turnarounds begin in the climax. As it was, I had a hard time remembering who was who, but basically there’s Ravenhurst, Stern, Bulwer, and Canning. Most of them are older guys, WWII vets who “travelled” around Europe, meaning going off on assassination jobs. Bulwer was the previous eliminator of the group, but when he himself began to doubt his line of work a replacement was quickly found – Jonas Wilde, who has been serving as eliminator since.

Wilde though is ready to quit; he’s in love with Jocelyn, who tell the truth is presented as the ideal gal: she’s blonde, sexy, spends most of her time in a bathtub, and enjoys serving Wilde the things he likes. Plus she doesn’t talk much!! I mean who could blame Wilde for wanting to quit the assassination game to be with a woman like that. Otherwise there are other reasons behind Wilde’s sudden desire to quit; namely, the suspicion that their ultra-secret conclave has been infiltrated. When Wilde goes to visit his contact Ravenhurst, who creates Wilde’s cover identities and stories, he finds there yet another nude babe: this one brunette, sunbathing under a lamp, and she’s holding a Beretta .25 on him.

She says her name is Marita and she’s Ravenhurts’s niece, unknown to him until just a few weeks ago. She claims to be from California but has a Hungarian sort of accent. Wilde questions her – and possibly also has sex with her (Nicole has a frustrating tendency toward obliqueness at times) – and she says she’s really been sent by Canning, the boss of the organization. She knows all about Wilde, the Route, etc. In fact she knows too much. Wilde has been getting doubts on his most recent assignments, as if he were being sent around on motives not exactly in-line with the British government, and this girl’s strange presence has him in even more doubt.

Meanwhile, there’s another new occurrence – Ravenhurst tells Wilde he needs to go off on another mission, asap. Usually he has weeks to prepare, but not this time. We readers know this is a trap; the novel opens with two men meeting in a porno theater. One of them’s a Russian agent, the other is one of Wilde’s organization. The Russian says that Wilde must be killed – this will be orchestrated by sending him on an elimination job to take out an Easter European germ warfare scientist named Matsys, who is about to be taken over to the US, through England. Ideally Wilde will be killed on this impossible mission, given that notorious CIA agent “Lucinda” (a dude) is in charge of security. But if Wilde manages to survive, the Russian agent says, “the girl” will finish him off when he returns to Guernsey.

Much of the narrative is given over to the hit on Matsys; Wilde takes the job, figuring it will be his last. The action moves to the English countryside as Wilde, posing as a traveling businessman, scopes out the place a few days before Matys arrives. He strikes up a relationship with the thick maid and ends up staying in her room the night before the group arrives – Wilde drugs the poor girl so she doesn’t even get lucky with him. But this is a trap and, after disposing of Matys, Wilde is ensnared by Lucinda’s crew. Here the novel picks up a gear as Lucinda (his last name, by the way) reveals that he, Lucinda, has been on the trail of a certain assassin, one who took out an undercover CIA operative several months ago.

The assassin, of course, is Wilde, who finally has confirmation that he has been used for nefarious purposes lately; there is indeed a leak in his organization, and he’s been used as the blunt instrument. Nicole adds more depth to the story with Lucinda, who was friends with that murdered agent, understanding that Wilde has been used for a sucker, and thus bearing him no ill will. Instead Lucinda lets Wilde go, with the intent of secretly following him, the goal being to use Wilde as a hunting dog to root out the traitor in the organization. The novel promises to head into higher gear as Wilde heads back to take out Canning, whom he assumes must be the traitor; the sudden presence of the mysterious Marita being another clue. She was probably planted with Ravenhurst to kill Wilde.

But Nicole is determined to dole out a leisurely-paced piece of suspense, rather than the blood-soaked vengeance yarn we now expect. Finding Canning has left on a moment’s notice, summoned away by a mysterious call, Wilde instead drafts his lovely young socialite wife Barbara into his scheme. Nicole does deliver good, snappy dialog throughout, and Barbara and Wilde trade a lot of good quips. In fact the dialog is probably one of the highlights of The Eliminator; shame that so much of it was cut from the film adaptation, more of which below. Wilde and Barbara end up booking passage on a boat to find Canning, and here again Nicole obsfucates on whether or not the two have sex, though it seems apparent they do. Next morning Wilde knocks out one of Lucinda’s flunkies, who was shadowing him on the boat, and ditches Barbara.

Still unable to track down Canning, Wilde finds more reversals in Guernsey; Ravenspur is dead, shot by a .25. Marita is clearly the culprit but Wilde knows it would be ridiculous to assume she did the deed so openly. He manages to get her released from police monitoring and they go visit Stern on his boat. Here the novel plays out its climax as Wilde finds out who his real enemies and friends are. Yet Nicole again frustrates; despite the reveal of the villain, who by the way has his own sadistic henchman in tow, instead of a taut action scene we get even more “maritime fiction” stuff, as the climax plays out on a boat upon a stormy sea. Before this though we do have a great, tense sequence where the villain captures both Wilde and Marita and tortures the latter with small dabs of oil on her skin which are set to flame.

This leaves the big finale for the incident so casually blown on the cover copy of this Lancer paperback edition – and the cover photo, by the way, is just a larger image of the British paperback, showing more of the female model’s body. “The girl” mentioned in the opening pages, ie the one planted to kill off Wilde as a last-ditch gambit, turns out to be, of course, the girl Wilde’s so recently proposed to – yes, Nicole really does have his bad-ass spy plan to get married in his introductory novel, same as Fleming did in Casino Royale. Her method of killing him off is pretty damn novel: a poison barb on the tonearm of his record player! (I enjoyed this part because shortly before reading the novel I finally upgraded my own turntable – I went vintage, with a super-cool Pioneer PL-518. Wilde though uses one of those record-changer turntables which basically just destroyed records, so the bastard deserves that poisoned barb on his tonearm. But then he apparently only listens to classical music so those LPs can be bought for a pittance – I mean they’re down there on the value scale with Lawrence Welk albums.)

Anyway, Jonas Wilde of course survives the first novel of his own series; no mystery there. And, per the dialog spoiled on the Lancer cover, Wilde dispenses justice to his would-be killer. I have to admit I was sufficiently caught up in the climax of The Eliminator, though I do wish a bit more happened in the novel. My assumption is this first one went for a low-budget sort of suspense feel whereas the later ones might get a bit more outrageous, or at least exciting. And Nicole’s writing is very good, with the caveat that he is guilty of padding and not fully exploiting his own content. I’ve seen Nicole described as “too prolific,” and I think that aptly sums up his work as it is displayed in The Eliminator. I mean for one example alone he spends pages and pages describing the plight of Wilde’s yacht in the climax, but he kills the main villain off-page! It’s like the sort of thing you’d expect from Manning Lee Stokes.

As for the film version, it plays out on an even lower-budgeted scale. Richard Johnson (the same name as my boss, btw) does not make for a good Jonas Wilde. He has none of the rugged machismo Nicole gives the character, coming off as bland and unmemorable. Plus he plays Wilde as pissed off for the entire film, snapping his lines at everyone, which makes him come off more so prissy and sulky than hardbitten and world-weary. And he’s definitely not believable in the “bad-ass” angle, either – all of which is to say you can see why Terence Young would’ve considered him for Dr. No, as he’s much more in line with Fleming’s concept of James Bond. I think we can all consider it a good thing that Connery got the gig.

Otherwise the film makes strange detours from the source novel; the opening hit on Hartman is excised, and Wilde is introduced to us as casually as possible, just walking through Customs on his return flight to England. What little exploitative content that was in the novel has also been excised; rather than being introduced in the nude beneath a sunlamp, holding a .25, Marita (portrayed by the impossibly attractive Barbara Bouchet) is introduced standing behind a door in Ravenhursts’s villa, fully clothed. The film of course takes its title from the “Route” used by Wilde’s organization, but in the film the character of Bulwer has been removed.

The opening credits state that some “additional material” was provided in the script department by Richard Johnson himself; one assumes this is the stuff that gives him more opportunity to emote as Wilde, like the goofy intro of Jocelyn, which has her posing as a market researcher – a “cute” bit she and Wilde do whenever he returns from abroad, apparently. Wilde’s preference for cocktails has been reduced to Bacardi and soda alone. He does retain his insistence upon only using his hands to kill, and the “action scenes” retain the same abrupt feel as in the novel. But then, there are no protracted action scenes in The Eliminator, and the producers didn’t add any.

Perhaps they should have; the theme song, courtesy Lionel Bart (who also wrote the theme for From Russia With Love), goes for a pseudo-Bond feel, but the film itself doesn’t live up to it. It’s bland and low-key, and, unlike say Dr. No, the viewer never gets the impression he’s watching something “big.” One can see why there were no more Jonas Wilde films, but at least there were more novels, and the second one, The Co-Ordinator, looks to be more of the pulpy sort of spy action I prefer.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Spider #20: Reign Of The Death Fiddler

The Spider #20: Reign Of The Death Fiddler, by Grant Stockbridge
May, 1935  Popular Publications

I had low expectations for this volume of The Spider – I mean it’s got “Death Fiddler” in the title – but it turned out to be one of my favorites yet. Despite the goofy premise, Reign Of The Death Fiddler is actually one of the more ghoulish titles in the series, complete with a titular villain who likes to dress up as his intended victims (complete with bullet holes in his head and body) and decorates his lair with corpses. 

One thing to note is that this time Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page takes a little time to focus on continuity, mentioning previous adventures and also confirming that the Spider’s “look,” ie the hunchback, fangs, and scraggly hair, is now no longer known as the old “Tito Caliepi” disguise (which Page mentions everyone has forgotten), but has become the standard Spider ensemble. We also get lots of reminders how Richard Wentworth’s loyal pal Jackson was killed in a previous volume (one I haven’t read). Also, this volume dispenses with the “story takes place in the same month as publication” setup the others have followed; the events occur over several weeks.

This one opens three months after the previous volume, and as usual things have already gone to hell. Wentworth has spent all these months trying in vain to figure out who the new crime boss is in New York; whoever it is has organized the crooks into such a lightning force that the cops are, as ever, incapable of stopping them, with blatant acts of violent crime staged on city streets in open daylight. Plus there seems to be some corruption in the city’s political realm which is enabling the criminals. As for Wentworth, he’s stymied because, due to this same corruption, he’s lost the license to carry his pistols. So he has resorted to his other mainstay: disguise. For the past several weeks he’s lived in the Bowery, posing as “Limpy Magee,” which by novel’s end will be known to the public as one of the Spider’s many alternate names.

The book opens already displaying the brutal tone which will recur throughout; Wentworth, in the Bowery, spots a carjacking in progress, and takes out the hoodlums in vicious manner, using their own guns against them. Things get even more ghoulish when the infamous Fiddler finally appears at a grungy underworld bar Wentworth, still as Limpy, has won access to, given his assistance to a low-level criminal. The Fiddler looks like a corpse, with a gash in his head and bloody clothes. He’s dressed as his next victim, Wentworth realizes.

Page has this annoying bit early on where Wentworth has the chance to kill the Fiddler a few times, but always decides not to, so as to gauge how big the criminal’s empire really is – yet there are also recurring scenes where Wentworth will wish in frustration that he could kill the Fiddler and be done with it. Meanwhile our hero further ingratiates himself into the underworld by staging the murder of a cop who wanders into the bar; defying all laws of reality, Wentworth shoots the poor guy right in the face, yet angles the shot so it just knocks him out(!), then squirrels away the “body.” The cop will gradually figure out that Limpy and the Spider are one and the same, and will become an ally/opponent of our hero as the narrative ensues.

Meanwhile Wentworth is also busy fending off the advances of a “trollop of the underworld:” Snakey Annie, a hotstuff gun moll (curiously always described as “dark”) who hangs out in the bar, has murdered a few people herself, and who is all hot and bothered over how Limpy is such a rising star in the criminal sphere. Brace yourself for this one, folks – I do believe Richard Wentworth gets laid. Seriously! Late in the narrative, even though he “shudders” inwardly at the thought of even touching Annie, Wentworth actually goes off with her, taking her back to his place in the Bowery…and Page ends the scene there. I mean to say, no part where we find out that he knocked her out when he got her there, or pulled some other Spider-madatory duplicity to get out of something the plot is leading toward. Indeed he sees it all as part of his “duty,” even though he detests her. But after this she disappears from the narrative. Hmmm…

As for Wentworth’s actual girlfriend, Nita van Sloan as ever is given short shrift in these early volumes; she has a memorable entrance, proving her own gift for disguise. Going about as Limpy, Wentworth runs into an old woman, who turns out to be none other than Nita. She’s come here, expressly against Wentworth’s orders, to see how her fiance is faring in the Bowery. Later she plays a part in the climactic event, which concerns a Fiddler hit on Macy’s. As for other recurring characters, Commissioner Kirkpatrick is basically bullied into quitting his post, and also advised to run for Senator, but then he’s shot in the gut and spends the rest of the novel in ICU, at death’s door. No doubt none of this will be mentioned in the next book.

But for such a basic setup, Reign Of The Death Fiddler has a lot of entertaining scenes, like when Wentworth, who as Limpy is being groomed as a new flunky, visits one of the Fiddler’s headquarters and finds gruesome effigies of past victims all over the place There is also the usual supernatural vibe to the tale, like when Wentworth discovers that bullets can’t kill the Fiddler – who by the way is “the most cunning and evil foe” the Spider has ever gone up against. That’s a line used in practically every volume, but the Fiddler is pretty cunning, apparently keeping the entire city government in tow, but this plot will be squandered by volume’s end.

The last quarter features several lightning raids the Fiddler’s men make on various places, from the Metropolitan to Penn Station to Macy’s. Early on Wentworth realizes he’s being tested by the Fiddler, being given info on that night’s hit, the villian clearly seeing if “Limpy” will blab the info. So there is added tension where Wentworth must decide if he will indeed spread the word, and if so how he could do so without giving himself away. In the end though he can’t take it anymore and outs himself in typical fashion for the series – he takes a knife right to the Fiddler’s head, only to discover it’s just a wax dummy.

Throughout these raids Wentworth keeps seeing a figure in the melee that looks sort of like Jackson, his dead best bud. Then in the climactic fight at Macy’s, guess what – it is Jackson, who is tearfully reunited with Wentworth and crew. Apparently he faked his death for some convoluted reason, having to do with protecting Wentworth’s name or something, and Ram Singh was aware of the ruse all along. This though isn’t as memorable as what comes before, when the Spider catches the Fiddler in a noose, uses him as bait to keep his men at bay, and then breaks the bastard’s neck – but, as again is typical for the series, it’s not the Fiddler after all, but another stand-in.

In fact the finale is pretty underwhelming, featuring the usual red herring “surprise reveal” of who the Fiddler really is. And Wentworth doesn’t even deliver justice; that honor goes to one of this volume’s supporting characters. But overall this one’s pretty fun, with action that doesn’t get as repetitive as such scenes normally do in the series. There is also a ghoulish tone throughout which adds an extra spark. Too bad though that Snakey Annie isn’t better featured in the narrative (she basically disappears), but there’s always the chance she could appear again in a future volume, if Wentworth continues his “Limpy Magee” double life.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The President Has Been Kidnapped! (Hot Line #2)

The President Has Been Kidnapped!, by Paul Richards
No month stated, 1971  Award Books

The second volume of Hot Line perhaps indicates why this series never got beyond three volumes. For one, the entire series concept is dropped – that hero Grant Fowler has a “hot line” to the President thanks to a two-way communicator hidden in his cigarette lighter. There’s zero reference to the previous volume and it seems evident the author isn’t even aware of what happened in it.

Again thanks to the Spy Guys And Gals site we know this one was courtesy George Snyder and Dan Streib; while Snyder was also credited for the first volume, his stamp isn’t as evident on this one. Mainly because Fowler isn’t a bossy, arrogant ass; rather, this time he’s prone to fretting and constantly worries over his safety. That is, when he isn’t wondering if he’s fallen in love and should just quit the entire “President’s Agent” game. This stuff is a hallmark of Streib’s work, though, as is inordinate padding and uneventful plotting, all of which runs rampant in The President Has Been Kidnapped. The writing is slightly better than the other stuff I’ve read of Streib’s, so maybe Snyder did some polishing or something, who knows.

Anyway Folwer is re-introduced to us as a 39 year-old with receding brown hair who often considers himself “getting too old for this” and contemplating retirement, yet another recurring Streib staple. He goes to great lengths to pose as an “international wheeler dealer,” and when we meet him he’s negotiating the purchase of an airline. It occurred to me that this novel might’ve been written at the same time as the first one, or maybe Streib just didn’t even read the first one, but anyway it seems great effort is made at introducing Fowler and setting up his character, whereas we already met him in the previous book.

Fowler also now has an assistant, Matthew Lemon, who handles his finance matters; “Grant hated the frail man and his bookkeeper mind.” As if that weren’t enough vitriol, Lemon is later referred to as a “sissyish little accountant.” But Lemon seemingly blows the airline deal, barging in on the conference with news Fowler doesn’t want shared, and thus he’s left with an airline it turns out he didn’t even want to buy – it was all a show, part of his carefully-maintained cover. Turns out the government is going to handle the cost, as Fowler’s services are needed pronto, no time for fancy wheeling-dealing; that Fowler is the “President’s Agent” (his recurring title throughout the book, which makes me suspect this was perhaps the planned series title) is a secret no one knows save for three people, one of whom is the President.

So Fowler puts on his shoulder holster with its .357 Magnum (because nothing says “secret agent” like a bulky hand cannon beneath your left arm) and heads for the White House, where he eventually learns from Secretary of State Michael Kremky – one of the three people who know who Folwer really is, with the President’s matronly secretary being the third – that not only has Air Force One been skyjacked and taken to the banana republic of Conduras (which is between Cuba and Panama, we’re informed), but that the President himself happened to be onboard at the time; something known only to Kremky.

Fowler’s job is to head to Conduras on one of his newly-acquired airliners, posing as a businessman looking to branch out into this new market, and somehow orchestrate the President’s release. Conduras, described by Fowler as a “voodoo den,” is run by a despot named Juan Bahia, who keeps the people in tow; the island is comrpised of “Creoles, Caribs, and blacks.” Fowler puts together a crew on one of his new planes, including arbitrarily enough some dude who used to go adventuring with Fowler in the old days, and a couple busty stews. The Conduras air force shoots them down upon entering Conduran air space.

Here’s another thing about Grant Fowler – he comes off like a complete idiot. Maintaining his playboy cover by all means, he insists the plane keep approaching Conduras, despite repeated warnings from ground control. This results in the airliner crashing, his old pal getting killed (again, one helluva an arbitrary “plot point”), and even the stews getting horrendously injured. Only mousy Matthew Lemon emerges unscathed, but he too will suffer misfortune, as if Streib relishes in occasionally putting him through hell before delivering an almost perfunctorily coup de grace in the final pages. But Fowler of course isn’t injured at all in the crash, and emerges to find Conduras on the verge of revolution.

The novel trades off on “tense” scenes of Fowler hopscotching between the tyrannical forces of Bahia and the native rebels, led by a voodoo priest named El Vicera. It just sort of goes on and on in a permanent spin cycle. We’ll go from the rioting voodoo worshippers to the debauchery of Bahia’s circle. In each instance Fowler finds himself involved with a woman – for the voodoo folks, it’s an “olive skinned” babe with blue eyes named Angela who has an instant lust with Fowler as soon as they see each other, culminating in one of the novel’s few memorable scenes as the two have sex in the middle of the jungle as Bahia’s soldiers hunt for them. The sex scenes by the way aren’t very graphic at all; “She pulled him in to the hilt” and the like.

The other babe is Consuela, Bahia’s incredibly depraved teenage daughter. She’s the type of whip-wielding villainness I like so much; moments after meeting Fowler she’s trying to screw him, and when he turns her down for being a “kid” she’s begging her dad to have him killed. Humorously, Fowler and Consuela have sex, though Streib forgets to inform us of the event until several chapters later – this happens after an elaborate feast Fowler attends, Bahia treating him as an honored guest, given Fowler’s cover as a wealthy businessman looking to branch out into Conduras. After a serving girl is nearly raped for the eager crowd – something Fowler prevents from happening – Consuela leads him off to his room, and only much later does Streib bother to inform us what happened there.

Really though it’s because Fowler has fallen in love with Angela, who is a sort of white goddess for the voodoo-practicing rebels. Fowler is saved by her in their first meeting – which leads to that immediate boink in the jungle – but Angela says Fowler will be considered an enemy if he tries to meet with Bahia. But this Fowler must do, so as to get aboard Air Force One, which, by the way, is sitting on the Conduras Airport tarmac under heavy guard. We’ll eventually learn that Bahia orchestrated the skyjacking, abducting the child of a crew member to ensure complicity. Bahia’s goal is to get the US to turn over control of a supply ship which carries atomic weapons. Bahia however doesn’t know that the President is actually onboard the plane; in fact, no one knows save for Fowler and Kremky back at the White House, but despite this Bahia’s men have wired Air Force One to blow by a certain deadline if his demands aren’t met.

Streib attempts to broaden the action with cutaways to Kremky back in Washington, dealing with various politicians and military officials who want to nuke Conduras. We also have some scenes with the President, fretting aboard his plane. But it’s all just sort of bland and uneventful. Even the occasional action scene is harried and boring, mostly comprised of Fowler trying to run away and hide. Again, he’s lost a lot of the bad-assery he displayed in the previous book, and this is certainly the work of Streib, who is notorious for wussified protagonists. Otherwise there are a few oddballl touches here and there, like Bahia’s personal guard, in black uniforms modeled after the SS; all of them, Fowler notices, have “long, slender fingers, perfectly manicured…the hands of classic homosexuals.”

Even the rebels do the heavy lifting in the finale; Fowler has promised Bahia that supply ship – on orders from the President – but he’ll give the weapons to the rebels. This he promises Angela after another jungle boink. Oh, and Fowler loves her for sure, even begging her to come back to the US with him and get married! This is Streib for sure, folks, and even a newbie to the genre will know what happens to Angela by novel’s end. The finale is pure chaos, with the rebels storming the tarmac before the explosives can go off, and Fowler just managing to get aboard – here Streib pulls Matthew Lemon back into the narrative long enough to kill him off!

Fowler exceeds in freeing the President and Air Force One and preventing Bahia from getting the atomic weapons, but at great price, yadda yadda yadda. No surprise, poor old Angela didn’t make it out on the plane – but another female character did. Given that we’ve learned this particular gal can do “special things with her mouth,” you wonder why Fowler’s so upset. (Okay, spoiler alert – it’s Consuela.) But really it’s the reader who benefits, ultimately, because here the novel ends.

Only one more volume was to follow, courtesy Streib and Chet Cunningham, and here’s hoping it’s better than the others. But given the two authors I’m not holding my breath.

Monday, May 7, 2018


Underwater, edited by Phil Hirsch
September, 1966  Pyramid Willow Books

Curiously, this vintage anthology of men’s adventure magazine stories was published through Pyramid’s “Willow” line, which was intended for juvenile readers. So the stories here were written for an adult readership but later marketed to kids. No fears, though, as the tales in Underwater are pretty tame. According to the copyright page, the stories are taken from Men’s Magazine and Challenge Magazine; no individual issues are credited, just the years 1956,’57,’59,’63, and ’64. Phil Hirsch was the editor of these magazines as well as a host of others; his name appears as editor on about a billion paperbacks.

While the cover gives the impression that the reader will encounter many tales of underwater adventurers facing off against dangerous undersea life, in truth the majority of the tales collected here are about guys being trapped underwater or facing other such desperate situations. Stories with speargun-armed scuba divers facing off against sharks are few and far between. I should note that the men’s mags Phil Hirsch edited were not part of the “Diamond Line,” and instead of novella-length pulp tales it appeared that most of them went for shorter, more “factual” yarns. In other words, it would appear that many of these colorfully-depicted incidents actually did happen.

“Sharkbait Swimmer” by Warren J. Shanahan opens the collection (there is no foreword or anything), and this one is about a daredevil named Fred Baldasare who runs his mouth that he’d easily swim the Messina Straits, which are known for being treacherous. Instead he gets in an arduous scuba swim that goes on for hours, sharks tailing him. He fails, but we learn in a postscript that the experience helped him successfully swim the English Channel.

“Diver Hefling’s Ordeal” is by Jack Dugan and is the first of the “man trapped underwater” stories the collection focuses so heavily on. In this one Frank Hefling is deep beneath Chicago, working on something, when his hand gets trapped, followed by his entire body. It’s a tense tale as fellow divers race against the clock to free Hefling before his air tank runs dry.

“Human Torpedoes!” by Sandy Sanderson is sort of a potted history; it’s all about an Italian frogman squadron in WWII that devised torpedoes that could be ridden all the way to the destruction site. Whereas a similar story in the Diamond Line of men’s mags would flesh this out into a pulpy tale, Sanderson instead goes for a more factual approach. We learn the history of the squad, the determination of its leader Lt. de la Penne, and how they successfully bombed an Ally ship off Alexandria, Egypt.

“Man-Eater!” by Wilbur Fergussen improves things in a big way; this one is in first person, which I don’t like as much, but it at least is more along the lines of what I expected from the collection. Fergussen tells us about how the time he was fishing Dade’s Lake in Arkansas and got attacked by…a shark! The story ends up with him in the lake, defending himself with a knife; a hasty addendum informs us that the shark probably got there due to some fresh water channel, which apparently happens.

We get back to the “trapped underwater” angle with “Nightmare In The Tank,” by Don Dwiggins; this ghoulish tale is about a California diver who gets the bends, and a “civilian rigger” attempts to save him. Instead he’s stuck in a decompression tank with the guy, who ends up dying, and the tale takes on a grisly tone as the rigger’s trapped in there with the corpse for a full day, even as rigor mortis sets in. The moral of the story is that from now on a separate door would be added to decompression chambers in case of similar ghoulish events.

“I was ‘Cuda Bait” is by Frederic Sinclair and is another in first-person. It’s the Florida Keys and our narrator tells us how each morning he’d spearfish for pompano for breakfast. But unknown to him a baracuda was in the vicinity, chasing the very same pompano our narrator set his sights on. He takes a shot at the ‘cuda, misses, and his arm gets snared by the speargun cord. So this one too goes for the “trapped underwater” angle despite the “dangerous aquatic monster” setup; Sinclair ends up offering his own foot as bait to lure away the ‘cuda. It ends up snatching off his flipper, and Sinclair makes it to the surface with his dead arm just in time to pass out. A very grueling tale!

“Dive Or Die” is by Edward Nanas and is another WWII yarn, taking place in Caballo Bay, the Philipines, in 1942. But it just goes on and on; it’s about a few hundred thousand “silver pesos” that have ended up on the seabed, and the “Jap” army drafts some POW American divers to go down and bring up the crates. But those wily Americans begin diverting crates to the resistance movement; eventually they are replaced by Moro divers who are more afraid of the Japanese and thus do a better job. Ends on an open note with Nanas informing us that hundreds of thousands of dollars are still down there.

“Dive Down Niagra” is by Frederic Sinclair, and this one is told like a report. It’s about a daredevil named Red Hill who constructs a tire tube craft which he intends to ride down Niagra. The law tries to stop him, reporters flock to the scene, and Hill dies in the attempt, his brains dashed out on some rocks. The end!

“Death Dive” is by Lyman Gaylor and is another “trapped underwater” story. Navy diver Joe Talarico is deep in the Patuxent River in Maryland when he’s trapped, his lifeline caught, and he has to survive several hours. Another grueling tale, but at this point these stories are becoming repetitive. 

“Devil-Shark!” by Bob Lorenz is the best tale in the collection; another first-person story, it also apparently inspired the cover art. The narrator and his brother have rented a boat in the Gulf of California, piloted by a superstitious Mexican, with the intent of finding a sunken ship and its treasure. But a monster white shark has been tailing them the past few days; the pilot insists that they not kill it, as it would result in bad omens. But our narrator goes down and finds the sunken ship just as a massive storm is setting in; the climax features him against the shark, which finally has closed in for the kill. He takes it out with an explosive-tipped spear. “I hate their guts!” Lorenz ends the tale, referring to all sharks everywhere.

We get right back to the “trapped underwater” angle with “Ordeal Of The Atlantis” by Don Dwiggins; this one I looked up and can confirm it’s a true story. It’s about a researcher named Hans Keller who has devised an “experimental gas” that might allow for prolonged time underwater. He tests it out with a fellow researcher named Pete Small in a diving bell, but things go wrong and both Small and a scuba diver who attempts rescue die. This one’s a grim tale, and pretty depressing. 

“Panic – And I Drown” is by Pete Clark “as told to” Willard Porter, and this one’s at odds with the other stories in that it’s the first-person narration of a surfer riding some hellish Californian waves for the amusement of onlookers. Interestingly the tale is set in ’53, so it’s very early in the whole surfing phenomenon, but again it just doesn’t gibe with the other stories here. But at least it’s not about a guy getting trapped underwater.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Penetrator #32: Showbiz Wipeout

The Penetrator #32: Showbiz Wipeout, by Lionel Derrick
July, 1979  Pinnacle Books

After a couple misfires The Penetrator sort of gets back on track, though make no mistake this is a greatly watered-down take on the character, particularly when compared to the merciless incarnation of the earliest volumes. It was Chet Cunningham who gave us that merciless Penetrator (wow that just sounds terrible, doesn’t it), which makes it all the more humorous that in this one Cunningham has Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin practically walking on eggshells to only kill those who truly deserve it.

But at least this one rises a bit out of the torpor which seems to have settled over the series. That being said, Showbiz Wipeout is more akin to a private eye yarn, as Mark suddenly becomes all fired up about a potential creative agency monopoly in Hollywood – clearly the authors used this series to write about whatever their current fancy happened to be. Why this would be of any concern to the Penetrator is something the reader is encouraged not to think about. Even more goofily, Mark is appraised of the situation via the “bulletin board” in his Stronghold, ie the converted mine which serves as Penetrator HQ.

What really has Mark interested is all the random deaths and injuries going on in Hollywood; the book opens on an extended sequence of various notables either being killed, beaten, or swindled by thugs who work for Global Talent Agency. The goal of course is all the Hollywood bigshots under one roof, and the mysterious head of GTA will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Humorously the LAPD doesn’t even appear to exist, and these murders – including even a staged car crash, as depicted on the cover – are carried out with little concern about running afoul of the law. 

Cunningham fully commits himself to his own goofiness; not only is the Penetrator suddenly interested in this Hollywood nonsense, but he also just happens to have an old college buddy who now runs a talent agency! This is Joey Larson, Mark’s old frat buddy. Mark calls him up, drives over to Los Angeles, and discovers that Joey is stressed out because he too is being hassled by GTA. They want ownership of Joey’s one star client, who just happens to have been the victim of the car crash mentioned above. GTA is also threatening Joey’s life, so Mark puts him up in a motel and insists that he hide there.

Mark poses as “Lance Lansing,” up and coming actor with regional theater exeperience, his headshot and resume prepared by Professor Haskins back at the Stronghold. He gets an interview at GTA, coming off like an ass to the head agent there, a nebbish chump with a “honkey afro.” Mark sneers at the lowball offer he’s given, puts down the agent, and then beats the shit out of the two thugs the agent calls in. Mark also ingratiates himself into the orbit of Lorna Luna, a onetime box-office draw but now “old” at 45. She takes a shine to hunky “Lance” at the party she holds in her mansion, though Cunningham doesn’t have Mark exploit it – and also we get a few random mentions that Mark is only 27 or so, which doesn’t seem right to me. The series has appeared to occur in a sort of real time, ie the first volume was in ’73, seven years before this one, and periodically we’re reminded of the passage of time in various installments…so are we to believe Mark Hardin was only 20 years old in that first one?

Anyway, while Mark passes on Lorna Luna, he does become involved with plucky private eye Angelina Perez, aka “Angie,” a hotstuff Latina who carries a piece in her purse and who was herself hired to look into GTA. Mark becomes so smitten with Angie, in fact, that he occasionally wonders if he should let her know he’s the Penetrator and make her his partner! The veteran Penetrator reader can’t help but wonder why Mark never felt this way about his casual girlfriend, Joana Tabler, who is basically the same as Angie, she too being a gun-toting agent of sorts. Now that I think of it, Joana hasn’t been seen much in recent installments, so maybe Cunningham is paving the way for a new casual girlfriend for our hero. Hell, Mark even ends up not having sex with her, so as not to ruin any potential for an actual romance in the future or something.

Action is infrequent, again keeping with the pseudo private eye vibe of the novel; Mark’s kills are only few, and his first victim is the GTA thug who murdered the girl in the car wreck at the start of the book. Otherwise Mark mostly makes use of dart gun Ava, which per the norm these days is only loaded with knockout doses. The first big action scene comes at an intended trap; the mysterious leader of GTA has figured out that the Penetrator is on the scene, thanks to those handy blue flint arrowheads he always leaves behind, and sets up a “jiggle girl” event which is really just a ruse to lure out the Penetrator. A “jiggle girl” is a new busty actress the studios show off for reporters; the event, which Mark himself realizes is a trap, takes place on the Universal Studios lot and features actors dressed up like Keystone Cops (as shown on the cover – again, the cover is faithful to actual events in the novel).

Again Mark mostly does his fighting with Ava or a .45 automatic. The Keystone Cops turn out to be more GTA thugs, and one of them almost gets the better of the Penetrator, pinning him down during a long chase through some empty studio lots. Here Angie comes to the rescue, blasting away with that gun in her purse, and again there is the blatant disregard for reality as one would normally expect in a Chet Cunningham novel. After the firefight, our heroes basically just drive off and grab a bite to eat. Angie has been digging around off-page, trying to determine the paper trail that will lead to who ultimately owns GTA: we readers learn it is a producer named Jeffrey Scott Duncan who was blacklisted years before, and now aims to get the ultimate revenge on Hollywood by taking control of all the major stars.

The climax takes place at a costume ball in an old villa that’s recently been used for a horror film. Duncan has rigged the place with various booby traps, again expecting the Penetrator will show. He does, dressed as Zorro; Angie goes as a “harem girl.” But by this point Duncan doesn’t have any goons left, so rather than the typical action denoument, we instead have this “tense” bit that goes on and on where Duncan, suddenly acting crazy, reveals that he has a bomb on the premises and intends to blow everyone up as his final act of revenge. Or something. Actually the part with the bomb reveal is kind of funny in a dumb way because Duncan straight-up tells everyone it’s a bomb and they’re going to die, but everyone thinks it’s part of an elaborate act, given that the entire grounds is done up with robotic actors and taped recordings of arguments, sex scenes, and other gimmicks.

The Penetrator again fails to actually kill anyone; Duncan’s fate is so ridiculous I had to read it twice to ensure I hadn’t missed something. (Spoiler alert – the dude’s eaten off-page by a tiger!!) Cunningham winds up the tale with Mark again puzzling over his growing feelings for Angie, wondering if he’ll ever give up the Penetrating life some day and get hitched – or maybe even bring on a partner. But he tells Angie so long and heads off for his next mission, which hopefully will be a bit more fun than this one. I mean, Showbiz Wipeout isn’t terrible – it’s probably the best we can expect from the series at this point – but it replaces the gory violence of the early volumes with a sort of goofy surrealism. Personally I miss the gory violence.