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.


Johny Malone said...

I read the last novel in the series, "The Fascinator". I do not remember anything, except that Wilde had to make great physical efforts to survive. A pretty realistic story, to help pass the time.

Glen Davis said...

I think I have this entire series. When I got it, I was expecting a sort of British version of The Destroyer, as I got mine with 70's Men's Adventure type covers. I kept waiting for over the top violence, but got something entirely different.

Ystafell Gynghori said...

The 'Wilde' books are closer to James Mitchell's 'Callan' than Bond. I rather like the film.
Great cast and Johnson worked in the role for me. According to my paperback edition, Patrick Wymark was cast as 'Hartman'. As he's not in any version I've ever seen, I guess his scenes wound up on the cutting room floor for some strange reason.

Grant said...

Even though I've never seen the film version, and as much as I like him as an actor, I can understand the Richard Johnson comment, judging by the "Bulldog Drummond" films DEADLIER THAN THE MALE and SOME GIRLS DO. Maybe it isn't so true of the first one (I don't know it well enough), but the last parts of the second one make Drummond a really rough protagonist physically, and for me that somehow clashes with Richard Johnson.