Monday, June 11, 2018

Hammerhead (Charles Hood #1)

Hammerhead, by James Mayo
January, 1965  Dell Books
(original UK edition 1964)

A big thanks to Drew Salzen (aka Andy Boot) for his comment on my review of The Great Spy Race, which inspired me to finally check out the Charles Hood series. Like Jonas Wilde, this was another espionage series that followed in the wake of James Bond, also originally being published in hardcover. The Charles Hood books have an extra pedigree in that James Mayo (aka, supposedly, a guy named Stephen Coulter) provided Ian Fleming with casino-world details for Casino Royale.

And judging from this first novel, I’d say that, of all the Bond cash-ins of the day, the Charles Hood series would have to come closest to inheriting Fleming’s mantle. It has the exact same “snobbery and sadism” vibe of Fleming’s work – you can clearly tell that, like Fleming, this particular author was comfortable in the world of the rich – and it also has the exact same sloppy plotting and casual pace as Fleming’s work. That being said, the violence, when it gets around to happening, is more brutal here than in Fleming; Hood, unlike the literary Bond, doesn’t just kick someone in the shins and run away. He gets down and dirty in some bloody brawls. However I’m not saying that the series is better than the other cash-ins, especially when considering this first volume.

Hood is a bit over six feet tall, brown hair that tends to curl, made of “hard muscle,” and boxed at one time. He’s a WWII vet turned secret agent, answering to a “consortium of some of England’s dominant financial powers.” His intro in fact is a quick example of the somewhat-amateurish writing Mayo delivers throughout: “[Hood] looked a clean-cut Englishman, experienced in the ways of the world, which was what he was.” The consortium is referred to as “the Circle,” and truth be told I wish a bit more time had been spent on describing what it is. But we’re informed that the Circle most times works with the Foreign Office, ie anything that threatens the safety of England, so that usually Hood is just as much working for the Foreign Office as the Circle.

Like most swinging ‘60s spies, Hood is skilled with his hands, but unlike Jonas Wilde he mainly relies on a gun. Unfortunately Hood’s preferred pistol appears to be fictional: it’s described as a “Yassida,” an “Israeli pistol,” and I can’t find any info online about it. It fires .38 special and appears to be a revolver. Not that it matters much, as it’s taken from Hood early on and broken; he doesn’t even fire it this volume. Indeed, Hood does not come off very well in his introductory adventure, perhaps setting a precedent for the amount of times an action hero is captured by his enemies.

Where Mayo most nails the Fleming feel is in the one area most of the Bond followers always neglected: the outrageous villain. And also per Fleming, the villain has given us the title of the novel: Espiritu Lobar, known as “Hammerhead,” is a modern-day pirate who might also be a Commie spy. His particular ghoulish feature, again a la Fleming, is that he has one lidless eye, meaning it’s always glaring like a shark’s. He also has a “red weal” running around his neck, courtesy a failed hanging years before. Otherwise he is more like the average henchman: a bulky mountain of muscle with a bald head and three gold teeth. But Lobar has a henchman of his own: Golos, a mute sadist with hands that have been superhumanly enlarged by a now-illegal native tradition.

Hood isn’t introduced to us in any spectacular means; he’s on the streets of Paris, having just come out of Lobar’s place, and he encounters a terrified guy who thinks Hood is “one of them.” Hood takes the guy to a bar to find out his story, only to return to his seat and find the dude gone. This mystery will dangle for well into the novel. Hood is a collector and seller of art, this being the cover he uses for the Circle, and Lobar per tradition is a connoseuir of such things, hence Hood’s visit to the man’s Paris home to set up contact. The vague objective Hood has been given is that Lobar might be up to something in the area, particulary in the arena of “miniaturization experiments with missiles” or something. Honestly, Hammerhead suffers from seriously messy plotting.

Our hero eventually ends up aboard The Triton, Lobar’s massive swank yacht. A goodly portion of the narrative plays out here, but the titular villain himself still does not show up. Instead it’s Hood snooping around rather ineffectually and hooking up with the lovely Ivory, a biracial beauty who lives on the ship; Lobar is known for “collecting” women and then doing awful things to them, though Hood’s given no details. Ivory is much built up as a major player in the novel, only to abruptly disappear. But here she toys with Hood, drinking heavily, going into random rages at the serving crew, and performing an erotic “slave dance” for Hood’s viewing pleasure. But our man Hood is one of the few swinging ‘60s secret agents who doesn’t get laid, at least in this book – Ivory slips Hood an aphrodisiacal drug, and he rushes to his room to sleep off the effects!

When Lobar does make his appearance, it is in suitably Fleming manner; at a grand feast, with Hood of course the prime guest. Here’s what actually turns out to be the novel’s heroine makes her appearance: a young British bimbo named Sue Trenton who seems to be an “innocent kid” and might be in over her head with the sadistic Lobar. The villain makes all the expected conversation, glibly showing off his grotesque henchman Golos, and here too there might be another Fleming reference: Hood eats an avocado, same as Bond did in Casino Royale. Might sound like a minor thing, but it’s my understanding that avocados were not available in England, due to the war, until well into the ‘50s; not until after that first Bond novel at any rate. Thus Bond eating one must’ve seemed rather decadent to British readers of the day. Here Hood eats one as well, putting “vinnegar” on it (I do so hope Mayo means balsamic vinnegar) and pepper. I tried this myself and it was pretty good.

Things come to a head when Hood abruptly decides he needs to get off the ship, killing one of Lobar’s crew in the process – and by the way there’s a hilariously “this wouldn’t be acceptable today” part where Hood, who is given free drugs in his suite, uses a joint to lure away a black crew member. Just totally overdone, with the black guy practically slobbering as Hood nonchalantly takes out the joint and starts puffing on it. But anyway Hood kills another guy and makes his escape to Nice. The novel takes on more sadistic tones than Fleming here, with Hood discovering in Lobar’s empty summer home the dude he briefly befriended in the opening pages: the guy’s tied up, and his lips have been stapled together.

It makes for some unsettling reading as Hood operates on the poor guy, unsewing the lips and carefully wrenching free each staple. After this the ghoulish vibe continues apace as Hood gets in a downright gory fight with Lobar’s chaffeur, who happens to come into the empty house just as Hood’s gotten the last staple out. This fight just goes on and on, bloody all the way, complete with Hood pouring acid in the guy’s face and eventually impaling him on a spike. In a later bloody brawl Hood will use a grease gun (a real one, not a machine gun) on another Lobar hood, jamming the nozzle in the guy’s mouth and pulling the trigger, drowning him.

Around here Hood sort of discovers what Lobar’s plot is – the guy with the stapled lips is a house burglar, and managed to steal a bunch of stuff from Lobar’s house that turned out to be spy gear. Gradually Hood will put the pieces together: Lobar employs a strangely-useless crew member named Andreas who is an incredibly gifted mimic. It will develop that the crew member job is just a cover and Andreas is really going to pose as a NATO official in an important meeting here in Nice, having to do with those missiles or whatever. It’s pretty complex and convoluted but is at least original in that it’s not your average “rule the world” villainous scheme.

The convoluted plotting extends to the female characters as well. Ivory starts off strong, only to disappear and then magically reappear to save Hood’s hide in the final pages. Then there’s Sue Trenton, who does little to capture the reader’s interest yet somehow manages to capture Hood’s; he ruminates over her periodically through the book, and finally manages to convince her Lobar is evil. But where Mayo should focus more on Sue, given that he’s chosen her as the main female character, he instead seems to set his sights on Kit, a blonde waitress Hood meets in a Nice bar when he’s hiding from Lobar’s thugs. This entire subplot is unbelievably arbitrary; Hood, again on the run, even manages to later call Kit up to enjoy a lobster dinner with him! But then most of Hammerhead is comprised of Hood slipping into some bar or restaurant, mulling over the case with a cigarette and drink, and enjoying a sumptuous meal.

And as mentioned up above Hood might be tough, but he sure is dumb, or at least unlucky. Dude is constantly getting captured by Lobar’s men and only freeing himself by the grace of God (aka sloppily-plotted coincidence). Some of it descends into unintentional comedy. Chief example would be an overlong bit where Hood is chased by Lobar’s men in a casino, one of whom intends to inject Hood with something in a syringe; it leads to a long chase and fight – and Hood makes off in a taxi that turns out to be driven by a guy who works for Lobar! And mind you stuff like this happens again and again. At one point Hood even finds himself stuffed in a coffin and driven off for his latest attempted murder.

Perhaps the biggest failing of Hammerhead, character-wise, is the titular villain himself. Lobar is not in the novel nearly enough, and when he is, he comes off more like a random thug. I mean there’s even a part that should be tense – Hood has just killed Lobar’s chaffeur and broken into the villain’s house – but it instead plays out on a clumsy note as Lobar acts the perfect host, given that he’s brought Sue Trenton along and clearly was intending to sleep with her! But then it gradually dawns on the reader that Lobar isn’t even acting; he really doesn’t realize Hood has killed his mysteriously-missing chaffeur. Indeed Lobar comes off as dumb as Hood himself, only smartening up in the final pages, in which he has both Hood and Sue dead to rights; they’re saved by the miraculous appearance of another character.

The finale is also clumsy; despite having henchmen, Lobar does his own fighting, getting into a belabored fistfight with our hero. Then we have an overlong bit where Hood chases after Andreas, disguised as the NATO rep, and it just goes on and on – the reader is more so just wishing for it all to end rather than being caught up in the tension. And I haven’t even mentioned the elaborate subplot we’ve endured of Andreas’s fetish for corsets. This stuff does though lend Hammerhead a sleazy feel, like when Hood eats a sandwich Kit’s made for him and watches a sort of stripper casting call. But as mentioned there’s no sex in the novel, just a lot of leering.

While Hammerhead started off strong, or at least promising, it soon became too belabored and sloppy, and Mayo’s incessant use of the British “round” got on my American nerves. (Ie “Hood looked round the room” and etc, etc, etc.) My assumption is that, like Fleming in Casino Royale, Mayo was learning as he went, and will improve with successive volumes. However this one did well enough to warrant a film version, in 1968; Hood was played by an American actor and many of the roles were changed around. The serious plot was given a psychedelic comedy makeover and, try as I might, I found myself unable to keep watching it, so am unable to give a full review.


Britt Reid said...

TV's Ben Casey, Vince Edwards, played Hood in what was obviously intended to be the first film in a franchise.
The primary screenwriter, Herbert Baker, also handled most of the adapting/screenwriting on the Dean Martin Matt Helm movies!

There are five more Charles Hood novels...
Let Sleeping Girls Lie [1965]
Shamelady [1966]
Once in a Lifetime [1968] published in the U.S. as "Sergeant Death"
The Man Above Suspicion [1969]
Asking for It [1971]
Happy Hunting!

Ystafell Gynghori said...

'Shamelady', in which Hood tackled a gold-smuggling gang masterminded by a computer, was the best of them in my view.

Grant said...

I don't know it all that well, but the film version as you say tried to be pretty light, in sort of the same vein as the film version of THE LIQUIDATOR (though I hardly like any escapist spy movie as much as THAT one). I know that Sue Trenton was played by Judy Geeson, which can only be a good thing.

Applebetty said...

Part of the reason I find your blog invaluable is all the examples of what NOT to do in adventure fiction. I try to avoid problems illustrated in this book for example, like villains with unrealized potential, unintentionally dumb characters, and tense sequences that drag on too long. Hopefully I'm doing the opposite of all that with my own works.

Grant said...

"Villains with unrealized potential" are one of my biggest pet peeves in adventure stories, especially FEMALE villains of that kind. I'm even kind of a bore about that on this site (and others).

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, everyone -- and Applebetty, I'm flattered!