Thursday, March 28, 2019

Radio Waves

Radio Waves, by Jim Ladd
No month stated, 1991  St. Martin's Press

I never listen to the radio – I can’t imagine why anyone would, these days – but I’ve always been interested in what is known as “progressive free-form” rock radio, ie the radio format that briefly flourished in the very late ‘60s to the very early ‘70s. Where DJs approached their shows in a “free-form” style, playing whatever they wanted, saying whatever they wanted.

I always wondered what such a broadcast might sound like, but other than modern CD recreations like The Golden Age Of Underground Radio volumes 1 and 2 I figured this would be impossible. Then I discovered Let The Universe Answer, where you can stream actual vintage recordings of rock radio; “airchecks,” as they’re officially known. The recordings from ’68-’72 are by far my favorite, and listening to them you can hear everything from avante garde sound paintings to waterbed commercials – not to mention rock songs they still don’t play on today’s so-called “classic rock” radio. It really is a window into another era, and a big thanks to Javed Jafri for making it available for us to listen to.

After listening to hours of vintage airchecks, I decided to learn more about free-form radio. There are serveral books out there, but this one by Jim Ladd, a famous LA jock from the day, struck me as the most interesting, as it opens with the beginning of free-form and shows how corporate radio finally killed off the genre. Also Ladd has chosen to write his book in a pseudo-novel style, which I thought was interesting. Others would disagree, though, particularly in how he’s changed the names of known radio personalities and even radio stations. So if you’re looking for a straight-up factual report of rock radio, this might not be the book for you.

Ladd opens the book in ’68, with Tom Donahue and his wife Raechel starting a San Francisco radio station that actually played rock music. Donahue by the way was the creator of what is still thought of as rock radio; he had 20 years experience doing AM, got sick of the banalities, and hit upon the idea of a radio station that played current music, hip music, and wasn’t as much worried about ad revenue. Donahue by the way is the “star” of the first Golden Age Of Underground Radio, which features vintage airchecks by him throughout – it’s a great listen, as is the second volume, which features B. Mitchell Reed.

The format follows that of Dakota Days; Ladd relays history via fiction, complete with expository dialog. So we have Tom and Raechel sitting around one night and listening to the first Doors album and Donahue wondering why you never hear music like it on the radio. From there he begins calling FM stations until he finds a number that’s out of service, which is sign that they’re in trouble and not paying the bills. He has a meeting with the mousy manager, who keeps the office lights off to conserve the energy bill, and from this the first free-form rock FM station is born.

Ladd changes not only the names of people but also the names of stations. I can understand the former, but the latter decision is truly strange – is he afraid he’ll upset the actual radio stations? At any rate Donahue’s first station was KMPX, but Ladd changes it to “KFRE.” Later on KMET will become “KAOS.” All this robs Radio Waves of being a legitimate history of free-form radio, while making it seem more like fiction – goofy fiction, at that, particularly given the goofy fake names Ladd saddles his real-life coworkers with (ie, KMET DJ Mary Hart becomes KAOS DJ Mega Turnon).

Tom and Raechel (and here Ladd is using their real names, which only adds further confusion to the text) meet with instant success, the hippies of the Bay Area freaking out that you can actually hear The Jefferson Airplane and the like on the radio. Soon they’re running a sister station in LA, presented with this almost herculean task by management that doesn’t even offer them greater pay. Actually I thought all the stuff with the Donahues warranted its own book; soon they jump ship to KMET, aka KAOS, the San Francisco free-form station they would become most associated with. Throughout the first half of Radio Waves Ladd tells us of all the crazy things happening over at “KAOS,” and you wish there was more detail about it.

Because at this time Ladd himself has gotten into radio, in the Bay area, but works for “KASH,” a station that runs by a strict format. Be prepared for some serious format-bashing in this book. Basically this is when upper-management (insinuated as being nothing more than bean-pushers who listen to Lawrence Welk if they listen to anything at all) comes up with an index card database of what songs to play and when. And DJ personalities are to be kept to a minimum. This is all interesting, because we’re here in the golden days of free-form radio, ie when it started, and despite the image of DJs being allowed to, uh, “free-form” to their heart’s content, Ladd states that it was a battle against “the formula” from the very beginning.

At least this was so at KASH. The book would’ve been a helluva lot better if Ladd had quit and gone over to KAOS, but sadly (for the book, at least) he stuck at KASH. This is because he had a family to support and KASH paid more – and also was beating KAOS in the ratings. This would imply that the formula does work, which would render most of Ladd’s complaints moot. At KASH we get more of Ladd’s goofy fake names for real people, like station manager “Hai Ku,” who browbeats his DJs to stick to the formula but at the same time is cool enough to insist they come to work stoned if it means they’ll get better ratings. Speaking of which this features the best part of the book when Ladd, doing a late night program, goes outside for a joint and locks himself out of the station.

Unfortunately, Ladd skims over the glory days of free-form; we get some minor topical details about 1969, then before we know it, it’s June of ’73. And even in the ’69 stuff I think he’s misremembering things, as he relays a story purportedly from this year in which a fellow DJ plays “Star Star” by the Stones, in brazen disregard of FCC policies against on-air cursing. The only problem is, the Stones’s Goat’s Head Soup came out in ’73, not ’69. Anyway that whole ’68-’71 era was when free-form was at its peak, so I would’ve preferred a whole book just about those years. But thanks to the website above we can actually hear the real thing and not just read about it.

While at KASH Ladd comes up with a show called Innerviews (his name for it, at least) which would feature in-depth interviews with rock stars. His biggest deal in this is with John Lennon, and Ladd devotes several pages to his 1974 interview with him. However I never understood if this was actually broadcast; Ladd has it that some screw-ups in the office might have prevented the interview from ever going on the air. Innerviews ultimately causes Ladd to leave KASH, as one of those stupid goddamn suits back in the New York home office deems that Ladd can’t be a KASH personality and and independent personality, which he is given that Innerviews is syndicated.

So Ladd quits and heads over to KAOS, but unfortunately it’s well after those free-form glory days. Tom Donahue has passed away, dead of a heart attack at 46 (the dude was so big even Orson Welles would’ve considered him fat), and his widow Raechel doesn’t run the place like you’d expect. Even here it’s the damn suits in charge and the internecine infighting of the other stations. Also, all the wild stuff is years past, like the SLA using “KAOS” to broadcast their messages about Patty Hearst – again, a book all about KMET would’ve been so much better, as we read all this stuff from the perspective of a guy who was working at a rival station.

That being said, I do like Ladd’s conviction that radio is like a mystical communion with fellow spirits, or “banging the tribal drum,” which is a recurring phrase throughout. This only further serves to illustrate how underground radio was once so vital to the youth movement. Today it’s a haven of asshole “personalities” and obnoxious commercials. Or at least that’s what it was like the last time I listened to a radio station, at least two decades ago. Ladd however seems to be under the impression that all radio listeners feel the same way he does, and includes a bit in the late ‘70s when a young guy called into the station to complain about all the political ranting Ladd was doling out (he’s a left-leaner, of course; the latter half of the book breaks into arbitrary Reagan-bashing). To his credit, Ladd states that this was an eye-opener to him…not that he was wrong, per se (he feels that he’s entitled to say whatever he feels on the radio), but that the listening audience was changing. Note the distinction. It’s never the jock who is in the wrong, folks.

I wasn’t as much into the late ‘70s/early ‘80s portion, which unfortunately is the meat of the book. Most of it’s annoying, like run-ins with Mega Turnon and the stupid bean counters in the home office. And, just like with Donahue, important characters are kept out of the narrative: for example, B. Mitchell Reed, who also works at “KAOS,” but has the morning shift whereas Ladd has the night one. So the two rarely if ever meet. As for Raechel Donahue, she too disappears from the narrative, victim of infernal office policies and let go from the station she and her husband brought to prominence. Otherwise this part features memorable events like Ladd kicking off a call-in protest to the Carter White House to complain about chemicals being sprayed on illegal shipments of marijuana.

Overall Radio Waves is mostly entertaining, though as mentioned the goofy fake names bring it down a bit, and some of Ladd’s pseudo-dialog comes off as phony and forced (again, just like in Dakota Days, but not as bad). I would’ve preferred a whole book about the Donahues and KMET in the ‘60s.

Finally, I just finished a long book that slowed down the reading schedule, so I’ll only have one post next week – it’ll be up on Wednesday.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Dirty Harry #3: The Long Death

Dirty Harry #3: The Long Death, by Dane Hartman
December, 1981  Warner Books

Ric Meyers wrote this third volume of Dirty Harry, and unlike whoever wrote the sixth volume, he was clearly familiar with the franchise. The Long Death is filled with references to the first three Dirty Harry movies (Sudden Impact hadn’t been released yet), and in many ways it’s almost a sequel to The Enforcer, with characters from that third film making appearances.

But despite the strong sense of feel for the franchise and the careful continuity, The Long Death is jarring when compared to its film predecessors, as for the most part Meyers has written a horror novel. There is a horrific vibe here, from women being abducted and forced into sexual slavery to copious amounts of gore in the plentiful action scenes, and all of it seems out of place in the Dirty Harry mythos. But in a way Meyers here shows the direction the franchise could have taken in the ‘80s; he’s very much aware of the horror boom taking place in the film world (and even has a character discussing the phenomenom at length), and shows how it could be paired up with the cliched “tough cop” genre.

In fact for long portions of The Long Death I thought I was reading one of Meyers’s Ninja Master books, which he was writing at the same time for Warners. That same dark vibe runs throughout, with a focus on the depredations of women; Meyers must’ve been a big fan of the torture porn that ran in the latter sweat mags. He writes very long (very long) sequences of innocent young women being captured, subjugated, bound, beaten, and raped, before their ultimate murder, and usually he writes these scenes from the woman’s perspective, so we can witness her reaction to each and every horror. I have to admit, this sort of stuff isn’t my thing, but I also must admit that Meyers excels in this regard, and at the very least makes you eager to see the villains get their final comeuppance.

We see this horror element in the opening chapter, which features a young female student at Berkley captured on campus grounds and tied up, subjugated, brutalized…on and on it goes, giving the reader a clammy, grimy feeling of unease. As I say, it is like nothing ever depicted in the Dirty Harry films, but very much akin to the horror flicks of the day, or even the sleazy Italian slasher movies of the ‘70s, which are later mentioned in the text. Meyers tries to have his cake and eat it too, with frequent condemnations of ultraviolence in horror films and how Harry himself doesn’t like gory films. So it’s safe to say there’s a bit of in-jokery going on throughout.

Speaking of Harry, we meet him in a prolonged action scene that is very well done, but again more spectacular than anything in the films. Here Harry has become more like a one-man army of the sort soon to be featured in ‘80s action movies; throughout the novel he finds himself up against multiple heavily-armed opponents, Harry dishing out bloody payback with his customary .44 Magnum. And Meyers doesn’t cheat on the gore, with copious heads exploding under Magnum impacts – again, more violent than anything in the films.

Meyers does pull the same stunt the mysterious author of the sixth volume did: Harry’s working on a case when we meet him, he’s yanked off it by his “stupid chief” boss, put on another case…and soon discovers the two cases are related. Anyway Harry is introduced in an over-the-top action sequence which has him taking out a trio of child pornographers who are hiding in a big aquarium. The shootout goes all over the place, Meyers incorporating the setting into the action; of course one of the bastards becomes shark bait. The recurring joke of Harry’s heavyset partner Fatso Devlin always being ten steps behind Harry – and never surprised by the violence and gore that trails in his wake – is introduced here as well.

Harry is very much in the vein of his film counterpart; Meyers doesn’t try to expand on his emotions or feelings or anything. He’s just a grizzled cop with a healthy disrespect for authority; there’s a lot of traded barbs with his chief, Captain Avery. About the only thing that doesn’t ring true is the eleventh hour development of romantic feelings between Harry and a pretty Vice cop named Lynn McConnell. Meyers introduces her early in the book, has her bantering with Harry and giving as good as she gets, then later on brings her into the main case and having Harry worry over her. However, there’s no sex for Harry and Lynn spends the majority of the novel off-page.

Capt. Avery insists that Harry be taken off the child porn case, which is run by a mysterious individual known as “The Professor,” as he’s reportedly a teacher of some sort. Harry is instead put on a case involving the black militant group Uhuru which is run by Big Ed Mohamid, as seen in The Enforcer. Meyers doesn’t do much to expand on this, with Big Ed reluctant to talk to Harry – the corpse of a young white girl has been found in Uhuru’s headquarters, and of course it’s the young girl we readers saw abducted and killed in the first chapter. Harry immediately suspects something’s going on, and ultimately he will be proven correct – the true villains of the plot are trying to bait Uhuru into starting a race war so as to divert attention from their kidnapping-white slavery setup. And of course Harry is alone in his convictions, with Avery insisting that Big Ed and Uhuru are the culprits who raped and killed the girl.

Bringing in this militant radical aspect allows Meyers to incorporate more gun-blazing action than you’d expect in a cop novel. Sometimes in surprsing ways, like when Harry visits a film class at Berkley and, after a lot of exposition from the teacher on the films of Dario Argento, finds himself ambushed by a trio of black militants with assault rifles. There’s also another action scene where Harry races into the Uhuru building while it’s being attacked by the cops, so he has to dodge bullets from both the militants and his own colleagues. It’s all entertaining but a lot of these action scenes just go on too long, with too much detail on Harry doing this or that – sort of like in Stark, where the overwhelming narrative description slows down what should be fast-moving action.

Meyers has a little fun playing with the Dirty Harry mythos; when Harry has a confrontation with one of the main villains in a packed disco club, the villain asks Harry, “Do you feel lucky?” To which Harry will ultimately respond: “That’s my line, punk.” And speaking of a disco club, bizarrely enough this is what the white slavers operate out of, their leader being a flat-chested woman (flat-chested = evil: men’s adventure 101, folks). The finale however plays out at their separate headquarters, a remote villa on an island which turns out to be a house of traps. Again the horror feel is strong, as the place even has a torture chamber with an iron maiden. And again Meyers incorporates the setting into the action.

Overall The Long Death is an action and gore-filled yarn with horror elements, and Meyers keeps the story moving. He does introduce too many concepts he doesn’t much exploit – Lynn McConnell being one, to such an extent that we don’t even get to see what happens between her and Harry at novel’s end – but he definitely takes his job seriously and doesn’t just phone in a middling “tough cop” yarn a la the guy who wrote the lame sixth volume.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Jefferson Airplane And The San Francisco Sound

The Jefferson Airplane And The San Francisco Sound, by Ralph J. Gleason
June, 1969  Ballantine Books

Ralph Gleason was a jazz critic who covered rock from its earliest days, and was one of the fouders of Rolling Stone. This scarce papebrack documents the rise of San Francisco rock, with a focus on the Jefferson Airplane – indeed, 200 pages of interviews with all six members. Published in ’69, much of the material seems to have been gathered over a year before, as the Airplane is documented while recording what would become their album Crown Of Creation.

I love reading these vintage rock books and being reminded how rock music was once seen as a liberating but dangerous youth movement. In particular I like to see how groups and albums were viewed when they were new – you can always get a chuckle out of vintage Rolling Stone reviews that diss LPs that are now considered sacred. (I mean those jokers ran a negative review of Abbey Road!!! But to their credit they also ran a positive one.) It’s also interesting to see how groups that were once considered important have sort of slipped out of the public consciousness. I grew up listening to “classic rock” in the ‘80s, and while I knew all the “important” bands, I’ve gotta say, Jefferson Airplane wasn’t one of them. In fact I’ve only begun to appreciate their music in recent years. I mean back then we all knew the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, etc, and you’d always see Grateful Dead t-shirts on the potsmoking teens in high school. But the Jefferson Airplane? Not really.

I’ve wondered about this, and if anything I think it’s the band’s politics that has gotten in the way. While most everyone knows “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love,” probably not too many average rock listeners could sing along to “We Can Be Together,” with its “up against the wall, motherfucker” chorus. Whereas the Beatles and the Stones just let the music speak for itself – other of course than a few random tunes – the Airplane wore their politics on their sleeves. And such things just don’t age very well. Hell, even John Lennon regretted singing “You can count me in” on “Revolution” just a few years after it was released. At least, that’s my assumption on why the Jefferson Airplane’s music didn’t resonate with my generation – at least with the people I knew, and we were all into classic rock. Hell, I was listening to the Who in ’89 when most of my high school classmates were listening to shit like Guns And Roses or Poison or whatever.

Ralph Gleason’s fat paperback documents the time before the Airplane let their politics direct the course of their career; in fact politics aren’t much discussed, and the focus is more on the music. The book captures them just as they’re coming off the success of Surrealistic Pillow and it’s more about them hitting the big leagues, getting beyond their local SanFran creds to a more national audience. And also there’s no sign of the fractional in-fighting that would ultimately break up the group. Singer Marty Balin gives no indication that he’d leave the band just a few months after this book was published, but readers gifted with future knowledge can already see seeds hidden in the interviews: guitarist Paul Kantner raves about Grace Slick, with whom he’d eventually have a child, and bassist Jack Casady says that he and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen are the only ones on the same advanced musical wavelength; in a few years they’d split off to form Hot Tuna.

Gleason starts off the book with an 80-page dissertation on how rock music came to San Francisco; it basically started in October, 1965 with the Family Dog, a group of proto-hippies who were looking for a place to host a rock dance. Dancing is a key theme in these pages, as Gleason informs us of the plight of poor ‘60s kids who were prevented from actually dancing during rock performances – the goddamn pigs insisted they stay in their seats during the show. But seriously, from such minor things revolutions are born, so we learn how it was an uphill struggle to make possible something that today would seem so mundane.

I find it weird that Gleason does little to set up the Airplane; he just sort of introduces them in the narrative with random asides or references. Clearly he figured the readers of the book would know who the Airplane were and would be more interested in the group dynamics. But then that makes his free-ranging history piece even more puzzling, as it’s filled with material that has no bearing on the Airplane. He goes over the dizzying array of groups that formed in San Francisco in the ‘60s, many of them obscure. Some of them, like Petrus (which featured Jorma’s brother Peter) and Ace of Cups (an all-female group that Hendrix raved about), never even got their albums released (Jorma says that the Petrus album sounds “a lot like the first Jefferson Airplane album”).

After this opening, which encompasses everything from Ken Kesey’s acid tests to Tom Donahue and free-form radio to the Human Be-In, Gleason moves into the meat of the book: 200 pages of interviews with the members of Jefferson Airplane. These are very much in the mold of the Rolling Stone interviews of the day: very long, very “loose” in that they come off more like free-ranging conversations than actual interviews. And this book is so true to its era that Gleason even tells us each member’s Zodiac sign in the intro blurb that precedes each interview.

First up is singer Marty Balin, and in the intro Gleason states that this interview predates the others, taken shortly after the release of the first Airplane album. Balin covers the history of the group and how they need to get some national exposure and move beyond their Bay area fame, which of course they’d do with Surrealistic Pillow. I found the most interesting part of this interview to be Balin’s comments on then-drummer Alexander “Skip” Spence, who later went on to join Moby Grape and ultimately released the now-legendary solo album Oar in 1969:

Next is Jorma Kaukonen, a “viking Capricorn,” probably one of the most unsung lead guitarists in rock history. This dude really rips! But somehow his name just doesn’t resonate with people like the other greats – everyone knows Jimi, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, etc. Jorma should be added to that list. Anyway as expected this interview, which like the following ones takes place after the release of Surrealistic Pillow, is focused more on the playing of music, and Jorma’s folk days.

Next is Paul Kantner, who comes off too much the hipster in his interview, almost as if he’s trying to hard to be the “cool cat.” We do get random notes on how he likes to drive around in whatever city the Airplane’s playing in, and also as mentioned he has some glowing comments about Grace. Paul’s probably my favorite member of the group, if only because of his solo 1970 LP Blows Against The Empire, which is one of my favorite albums of all time. Unfortunately he doesn’t talk much about sci-fi or mystical stuff or whatnot, which is what I was expecting from his interview:

Now we come to Grace Slick, who comes off as witty and intelligent in her interview. It covers how she started singing, how her family wasn’t musically inclined, and how she became involved with the Great Society (ie the group she sang for before joining the Airplane). I’ve always felt Grace Slick has one of the best voices in rock music. Her solo LP Manhole is pretty cool, too – one of those nice-price scores I found in some antique store years ago, complete with the booklet featuring all her far-out illustrations.

Up next is bassist Jack Casady, perhaps the only guitarist as unsung as Jorma. This guy is definitely one of the greatest bass players of all time – even Hendrix thought so, as he used Jack (instead of his usual bassist Noel Redding) on “Voodoo Chile.” I recently got the remastered all-analog vinyl reissue of Electric Ladyland, released by Sony Legacy a few years back ($16 at Wal-Mart, folks – I actually bought a record at Wal-Mart!!), and it was like I’d never heard the album before, even though it’s one of my favorites (if not my favorite album ever). Good grief Casady’s bass on “Voodoo Chile” was isnane – it sounded like heavy metal blues circa 1968. I’d say Jimi, who produced the album with Eddie Kramer, recorded it just right – something Casady states is quite difficult to do with the bass:

Next we get to Spencer Dryden, the drummer who replaced Skip Spence and who himself would soon depart the group, to play with New Riders of the Purple Sage. Gleason considers him the most varied of the group members, at least so far as his musical experience goes, but I have to admit I wasn’t as interested in his interview. But for the hell of it, here’s a little of it:

Then we go back to Marty Balin, in a more recent interview than his first one, where he discusses the split with manager Bill Graham. After this we have an interview with Graham himself, and then, apropos of nothing, an interview with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. This one’s shorter than the Airplane interviews, and though I tried to read it, I just couldn’t connect with it, because friends even though I’ve tried and tried I just can’t get into the Dead:

Anyway this book was interesting as a period artifact, but overall I’m glad I got it via Interlibrary Loan – I couldn’t believe I actually found it listed on – and that I didn’t pay the outrageous price it goes for on the used books marketplace. I would’ve preferred more of a critical look at the Airplane’s music; instead, the book is mostly just a rundown of SanFran rock history followed by free-ranging discussions with the members of the group. Which is cool if that’s what you’re looking for.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Revenger #5: City For Sale

The Revenger #5: City For Sale, by Jon Messmann
February, 1975  Signet Books

If you want a little philosophy with your blood and guts, The Revenger is for you – Jon Messmann doesn’t let the little fact that he’s writing the fifth installment of a mob-busting series deter him from indulging in frequent and lengthy digressions on man’s inhumanity, free will versus fate, and even the occasional quote from Ecclesiastes. And yet despite all this, I do enjoy the series, with the caveat that you really have to be in the mood for it, because if you want fast-moving action you’d better look elsewhere.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume, but hero Ben Martin is still in New York, finding himself unable to leave. Now he serves as the foreman of a construction crew, and he’s gone back to using his real name – so much for the various cover identities he was using. Ben now considers killing mobsters “as natural as breathing;” it’s not something he burns to do, as in previous installments, but something fate often places in his lap. Like for example how he’s noticed a bunch of mobsters have been spying on a lovely young women who lives across the street from Ben’s construction site; Ben knows the men are hoods and has monitored them as they’ve monitored the girl over the past week.

Meanwhile, in what will prove to be a related plot, two Mafia gunners storm into a coutroom and massacre eleven people, including the judge. (Somehow they’re able to use a “silenced Magnum revolver,” which the uncredited cover artist has gamely illustrated.) The young woman being watched will turn out to be the daughter of another judge: her name is Carola Cozzi, and her dad is a judge who is known for cracking down on the mob. Ben is spurred into action when the mobsters finally make their move and abduct Carola, throwing her in their car and driving off. Here we see that the Revenger doesn’t mess around; he bumps into their car with his own, making it look like an accidental fender bender, then guns them down with his .38 revolver.

Surprisingly, Ben’s saving of Carola doesn’t lead to the hot and heavy sex scene you might inspect. Instead Messmann goes for more of a realistic depiction, with a shocked Carola asking Ben if he’ll stay the night so she can feel safe…and then Ben leaving when he sees she’s fallen asleep. This part’s kind of funny because Ben’s certain the Mafia won’t try for Carola again that night because “it’s not their way.” Yet throughout City For Sale Ben is constantly surprised by the unexpected tactics of the Mafia as represented by its latest boss, nutcase Johnny Lupo.

As Marty McKee so accurately notes, Lupo brings to mind Henry Silva to such a degree that Messmann must have been thinking of him when writing the character. Lupo’s taken over the New York action and has grand ambitions – he wants to rule the city itself, and has put together a mysterious plan to make this mad dream a reality. The courtroom massacre and the attempted abduction of Carola Cozzi are only pieces of the puzzle. Lupo dreams big, taking only the occasional break to explicitly screw his favorite girl, a redhead with “big tits” named Linda Akins who knows a good thing when she has it, and thus does her best to stay in Lupo’s graces.

Returning from the previous volume is Captain Leo Hendricks, who now acts as Ben’s unofficial supplier of info, weapons, and whatever else he might need to quash Mafia scum. Through Hendricks Ben learns that the murdered judge was actually on the Mafia payroll, which makes Lupo’s plot all the more mysterious. And Hendricks is sure Lupo is up to something, though he’s of course unable to do anything about it. Thus he uses Ben as his one-man army, getting Ben whatever he needs and helping him out. Don’t expect any major-duty firepower, though; true to the ‘70s crime genre, Ben Martin solely uses revolvers. This time it’s a .38 and a Colt Cobra.

Messmann spends more time on the mystery of Lupo’s plot and its unraveling as caused by Ben Martin’s presence. He also builds up the Ben-Carola relationship, keeping them out of bed until well past the middle of the book. However Carola doesn’t do much to make herself rise above the other female characters in the series; she comes off as a little one-note and boring, despite a fondness for scuba diving. She of course quickly gets her hooks in Ben, falling in love with him, though she knows from the start that he’ll end up hurting her. As ever Messmann writes their eventual sex scene fairly explicitly, though it’s not as hardcore as I recall the previous volume being.

One can’t accuse Messmann of not fully exploiting the angst and thoughts of his protagonist. City For Sale is literally stuffed with Ben’s musings on this or that weighty subject. And yet sometimes there is an impact to such material, like when Ben meets Captain Hendricks at a playground to exchange info, and Ben glimpses a boy on a carousel who looks almost identical to his murdered son. Messmann handles this well, not veering into the maudlin, and thus it actually makes an impression on the reader. But as mentioned Ben Martin is no longer fueled by the quest for revenge, and he just kills mobsters because it’s what he does. There is almost a Zen sort of vibe here, not that Messmann goes into that angle – one of the few angles he doesn’t go into.

But anyway, there’s a lot of musing and pondering over Ben’s growing feelings for Carola, even though he’s found himself in this exact same scenario for four volumes now – meeting and developing feelings for some new babe, all the while telling himself he can’t get involved and whatnot. And of course there’s no mention of what happened to his previous flings, other than a random moment when he thinks of something Valery Alwyn, from back in the second volume, once told him. Messmann doesn’t even bother explaining who she was, expecting his readers to remember her.

Unlike those previous gals, Carola gets slightly involved in the action; after an aborted infiltration of Lupo’s townhouse, in which Ben doesn’t find anything to figure out what the bastard is up to, he has a flash and realizes that Lupo’s hiding something in the water somewhere. And as luck would have it, Carola is a scuba diver. Ben retains her services to dive into a lake in the Catskills at night, and down there she finds all of Lupo’s hidden blackmail material. This is a nice part in which the mobsters almost get the jump on Ben, but he and Carola are able to escape, and later figure out that Lupo has stuff on all the city’s elite. He intends to take over the city in this way.

The finale is probably one of the best in the series, so it’s nice to see Messmann hasn’t gotten burned out five volumes in. Taking place at the Statue of Liberty late at night, it plays out on a nicely-done suspense angle. There have been various reversals and turnarounds at this point, and Messmann brings everything together fittingly. We also get a nice confrontation between Ben and Lupo, with the latter trying to lure Ben up the darkened stairs in the statue. I like it that Messmann gives Lupo a proper sendoff, because at this point you want to see him dead, however I did feel that Lupo was kept off-page a bit too much.

It’s funny; like the other volumes of the series City For Sale is deceptively slim. It’s only 144 pages, but man does it have some small and dense print. So what I mean is it isn’t a fast read by any means. I’ll be sorry to see the series end with the next volume, but at the same time I can see how all the heavy pathos could get tiresome if prolonged.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Warlord #2: The Cutthroat

The Warlord #2: The Cutthroat, by Jason Frost
January, 1984  Zebra Books

I shouldn’t have doubted Raymond Obstfeld. I found the first volume of The Warlord so poor that I put off returning to the series for a good long while. I shouldn’t have waited so long, because from the first page of The Cutthroat I realized that this was the Obstfeld who’d written Invasion U.S.A.. That sounds like an insult but I mean it as a compliment, because I loved that book.

And luckily, The Cutthroat is in much the same style as Invasion U.S.A.; whereas the first volume of The Warlord was, I felt, a ponderous and bloated bore, the second one moves at a fast clip and has the snappy dialog I expect from Obstfeld. This is proven in the first few pages, in which Eric “The Warlord” Ravensmith and his girlfriend, former courtroom artist Tracy, are in a boat above sunken downtown Los Angeles and Tracy randomly starts wondering aloud if Goldie Hawn’s still alive.

It’s a few months after that previous book, and California has descended even further into brutality and despair. Rather than socialism, full-on unbridled capitalism is the order of the day, and in random asides we learn that women have become chattel. Obstfeld takes this concept and runs with it throughout, as well as the idea that people are free to become whoever they want to be in this post-catstrophe California. A former information technology entreprenneur can become a modern Blackbeard, a former nightclub singer can become ruler of Hearst Castle – which itself is transformed into a Mos Eisley sort of trader’s den. So the theme of transformation also extends to the setting, with California getting a new image post-Halo.

And yet despite the wish-fulfilment, Obstfeld is one of those men’s adventure authors who wants to buzzkill the escapism with “realistic” stuff. So we learn soap and razors are at a minimum – not only is everyone nasty and grungy, but women can no longer shave their armpits or legs. Tracy however loves this, and finds it one of the “best things” about living in post-Halo California. (Obstfeld uses this phrase throughout, and it’s catching, the Halo being the psychedelic smog that now hangs over California.) Tracy’s also hacked her hair off so she’ll look more like a boy and not rapist-bait.

Maybe because it’s because I’ve been on a classic rock kick lately, but I wonder if Obstfeld’s opening is an action ‘80s inversion of the CSN/Jefferson Airplane track “Wooden Ships.” ‘Cause both the book and the song open with people on different ships approaching one another in a post-holocaust world: in the song they exchange smiles and food, but in The Cutthroat they shoot arrows and bullets at one another while trading action movie one-liners. Of course, it’s possible I could be reaching, and it’s also possible my reading might’ve been colored by the fact I recently got Volunteers on vinyl, first pressing in mint shape with all the inserts and everything…

Anyway I’m digressing as usual. It’s a masterful opening sequence, and better than the entirety of the previous book. Eric and Tracy are on a canoe heading out onto the sea, tracking Eric’s archenemy Fallon, who as we’ll recall kidnapped Eric’s adopted son with the intent of raising him as his own. Instead they run into a bunch of pirates. The Cutthroat is basically Pirates Of The Caribbean meets post-nuke pulp; it has almost nothing in common with the previous volume, which played it straight for the most part.

And indeed, Obstfeld only makes occasional mentions of the first volume; only rarely are we reminded how much of a prick Eric became in the final quarter. Here he’s more willing to save others, though he’ll occasionally give almost blasé “it’s everyone for himself” comments on the situation. He’s also had a huge personality upgrade, doling out one-liners and sarcastic retorts; another recurring joke is that he’s a walking encyclopedia, and knows the particulars of any subject, no matter how obscure.

Obstfeld has just as much fun with the villains of the piece. Chief among them is Rhino, sort of a ripoff of Two-Face from Batman: one side of his face and body is melted gray flesh from a failed attempt at crossing through the Halo, which turns out to be hazardous to all forms of life. Now he’s reborn as the captain of a pirate ship, his crew dressed like Rocky Horror Picture Show rejects and Rhino intentionally going over the top as a bad guy.

There’s also Angel, an evil Vietnamese babe with boobs that are “large for an Oriental’s, but firm and perfectly round.” Further, “her long dark nipples budded straight out like thorns.” We get to see all this because Angel casually doffs her top upon Eric and Tracy’s capture aboard Rhino’s ship. Angel and Eric have a little history: after a night of sex 14 years ago in ‘Nam, Eric “killed” Angel with a sniper rifle. Orders from Fallon. Angel now proudly displays the puckered bullet wounds between her big ‘ol boobs; she didn’t die because double-crosser Fallon warned her and gave her a bulletproof vest.

How or why exactly Angel got to California before the quakes isn’t much elaborated on, but I love my pulpy and depraved female villains so I won’t complain. I’m just happy she’s here. However Obstfeld doesn’t do much to capitalize on this aspect – Angel’s evil, to be sure, in the Nietzschean sense at least, and was known for eviscerating and mutilating people with a balisong knife back in ‘Nam. But otherwise there’s no exploitation of her sexy evil charms, and she just plumb wants to kill Eric. She also disappears for a large portion of the novel, along with Rhino, which kind of sucks, because they’re set up as such a wacky pair, and Rhino’s motley crew of sadistic rejects is equally fun.

Instead, Eric and Tracy are able to escape when Rhino attacks another ship. Tracy is shot in the hip and, surprisingly for the genre, we learn that she won’t be able to just walk it off. She’ll have a permanent slight limp. So again as you can see, Obstfeld isn’t afraid to let realism get in the way of his escapist fantasy. However Eric and Tracy are promptly captured by another group of pirates, this one led by a muscle-bound black dude who calls himself Blackjack. They turn out to be sort of post-Halo hippies who live in a partially-submerged skyscraper; the top floor turns out to be a greenhouse in which they grow their own vegetables.

Both Blackjack and Rhino are searching for “Alabaster’s map,” and of course neither Eric nor Tracy have any idea what it is. Ultimately we’ll learn that Alabaster was a government employee who knew where all the guns and weapons confiscated from Californians in the first volume are now hidden. Both pirates want these weapons for their own purposes, though Blackjack claims he wants the guns for defense of his skyscraper island fortress. Presumably the “cutthroat” of the title, Blackjack is a memorable character, though not nearly as much as Rhino is. He turns out to have been a pediatrician before the quake, but now he’s the pot-smoking leader of a group of battle-hardened pirates, many of whom worked in Blackjack’s old hospital.

Even though there isn’t much in the way of the action, the novel moves at a snappy clip, making the previous volume seem even more like a sluggish bore. Also it’s worth noting that this volume’s much shorter, which I think works to its advantage. The focus is more on character and plot, as Eric is able to convince Blackjack that his best chance of getting that map is letting Eric get it, as Eric’s already figured out that Angel double-crossed Rhino and knows where the map is. This is how Eric’s able to negotiate his freedom and safe passage out of here with Tracy.

Things pick up in the final quarter, in which the action moves to the transformed Hearst Castle, now run by the above-mentioned nightclub entertainer, BeBop; his goons patrol the grounds in black Hearst Castle T-shirts. It’s an everything-goes sort of place, but BeBop has a strict no-killing policy, as it’s bad for business. Of course, Rhino and Angel are here, so it’s only a matter of time until the fireworks break out. Obstfeld works up the suspense and tension as Eric, Tracy, and Blackjack plot Angel’s abduction. Even here though it’s done more on a low-key vibe, without the big action setpieces you usually get in post-nuke pulp.

The climax is similarly unspectacular, but memorable: Eric versus Rhino in a garbage-filled pool in Hearst Castle. This features the novel’s sole gore, as Eric begins ripping off strips of Rhino’s mutated skin. There’s also mortal combat between Tracy and Angel; like the reporter in Invasion U.S.A., Tracy is a strong female character who doesn’t let cliched “tough girl” posturing get in the way of being a fun and vivacious personality – Hollywood’s screenwriters of today could learn much from Obstfeld in this regard.

Obstfeld’s writing is great but he undermines himself periodically with strange digressions that are shoehorned into the narrative and come off as incredibly arbitrary. This first occurs early on, with a needlessly-digressive backstory on Rhino, up to and including his first sexual encounter! This sort of thing goes on throughout; characters will flash back on happenings long ago, no matter what dire situation they’re facing – like Eric, in the climactic brawl with Rhino, pondering how people need entertainment no matter how horrible the world is. And did we really need all the arbitrary backstory on the employees who once worked in Blackjack’s skyscraper headquarters? This sort of stuff, now that I think of it, is what ultimately ruined The Warlord #1, but at least it isn’t as prevalent here. 

Even though this volume almost seems like filler in the grand scheme of things – Fallon doesn’t appear and Eric doesn’t get anywhere in his search for his son – it’s still very enjoyable, and makes me look forward to continuing with the series.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Cold Iron

Cold Iron, by Robert Stone Pryor
No month stated, 1970  Unibooks

Here’s another obscure rock novel, although the rock stuff isn’t that integral to the plot. It’s more of a piece on the drug-addled rabble-rousers of the day, with one of the chief rabble-rousers clearly being modeled on Jim Morrison. The book even opens with a quote from “Five To One” so everyone can get in on the joke from the start. 

While Cold Iron garnered some critical acclaim, it clearly didn’t take off with readers; this paperback edition came out via lowly Unibooks, which I believe was yet another wing of Belmont-Tower. And this was the only other edition it got, so clearly the book didn’t resonate much. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Cold Iron is the identity of its author; the jacket of the original hard cover edition (also dated 1970) makes it clear that “Robert Stone Pryor” is “the pseudonym of a well-known young novelist.” Surely it wasn’t just Robert Stone, he of Dog Soldiers??

I don’t think it’s ever been revealed who the author really was (likely given how obscure the novel is – no one cares), but there’s a funny part early on where Woody, the main character of the novel, mistakenly thinks someone’s name is “Steven King.” I got a bit of a chuckle out of that, but Cold Iron is certainly not the work of that “Steven” King; it’s much, much too literary…and plus no one even knew who Stephen King was in 1970. Other of course than his friends and family and stuff.

And how can you tell Cold Iron is a literary novel? Simple – the author’s a bit too in love with his prose, characters are seldom described and never introduced, scenes are seldom if ever set up, and there’s no real plot to speak of. And the book is filled with those grating little “hipster” annoyances of literary fiction…like the fact that Woody is actually, get it, a girl! Her full name is Woods Hagen and she’s a novelist-screenwriter of some fame, apparently, not that she does any writing in the novel itself. Rather, she spends her time in such a befuddled state that you wonder how she got any work done in the first place.

The novel takes place in Los Angeles and occurs over a few days of what is presumably 1969, though there isn’t much in the way of topical details. Nor is there a peek into the Hollywood culture of the day, or for that matter even the rock business. Really the novel’s mostly comrpised of Woody and her comrades getting blitzed and running various pranks on the Man. We get no setup on Woody or “the boys” who live with her, two guys who I assume are in a casual relationship with her. There’s also her boyfriend, an up-and-coming actor, who doesn’t do much to make himself memorable.

Aside from Woody the only character we get to know is “Big Jim” O’Leary, the aforementioned Morrison analog. He’s a long-haired, self-styled poet who fronts the rock group Cold Iron, which is of course the Doors, only a Doors with a bassist and without a keyboard player. Otherwise this is pretty much Doors fan-fiction, only with the Doors mostly off-page for the duration of the novel, save for one or two very brief concert scenes and one peek in the recording studio. Pryor is another of those authors incapable of telling us how his fictional rock band sounds; we get a lot of O’Leary’s lyrics, and him jumping around the stage and all that jazz, but what the music itself sounds like is something the reader must determine himself.

We open with one of those few concert scenes, Cold Iron playing to a big outdoor crowd at the Venice Love-In. Here O’Leary makes like his real-life counterpart and dangles a rose over his crotch – in a later, off-page gig in Wisconsin, he’ll be arrested, same again as Morrison was, for actually exposing himself to the audience. But Cold Iron is sort of like the Doors mixed with the Jefferson Airplane; I mean there’s no Grace Slick analog, but they’re like “up against the wall” proponents who could likely initiate the revolution all the kids are expecting. O’Leary proves this by poking fun at the “pigs,” sparking a mini-riot. In the melee Woody is arrested, apropos of nothing; it’s indicated that it’s just the usual hassling by the pigs, but as the novel proceeds we see that Woody really is pretty much a degenerate danger to society.

As mentioned there’s no setup or explanation for any of the characters – that’s just how literary fiction rolls – and soon Woody’s calling other characters we’ve never met to figure out how to proceed with her upcoming trial. They have her on various bullshit counts, one of which is assaulting an officer, when all Woody did was hold her hands out for the cuffs. Cold Iron escaped the wrath of the law, but O’Leary brings it down on himself soon enough, at that off-page concert in Wisconsin. Just like the Lizard King in Miami (I think it was), O’Leary works himself up on stage and whips it out, and now the law is coming down hard on him, same as it was on Jimbo. And just like Morrison, O’Leary’s able to cross state lines and sneak back to LA, where he and Woody continue their newfound relationship.

Curiously, for a famous rock star, O’Leary pines for Woody, even though we learn he thinks she has a “boyish” vibe and isn’t the most gorgeous of women. I say curious because Woody keeps putting him off, despite the fact that he’s a famous rocker with girls going ga-ga over him around the world. But after the Love-In gig she finds herself grooving to O’Leary’s sinnuous onstage mannerisms, and soon enough they’re having some hot off-page sex. Which is yet another curious thing – for a novel published in 1970 about drug-addled rockers and radicals, Cold Iron is very tame in the sex department. All of it occurs off-page and the author is not interested at all in exploiting the anatomies of his characters, be they female or male.

Now both of them self-styled fugitives of the law, O’Leary and Woody do the sensible thing…and begin a sort of mad prankster war on the straights and the narks. Like the hapless nark they spot spying on Woody’s place; now that she’s been arrested, her house is constantly monitored by cops who suspect her of housing radicals and drugs and whatnot. O’Leary comes up with the very un-Jim Morrison idea of painting their bodies in psychedelic colors and then they go out and sort of play aggressive peek-a-boo with the poor old nark, scaring him half out of his wits. Meanwhile O’Leary’s also hotwired the guy’s car and moved it onto Woody’s property so they could call the cops and have it towed.

Sometimes the cops ask for it, like when Woody is driving and abruptly pulled over, the cop likely being incensed by passenger O’Leary’s long hair. Of course, they’re both high and are carrying, and the cop paws Woody and then basically beats the shit out of O’Leary – who casually reveals to Woody when they’re safely away that he was indeed carrying a few joints all along. He just hid them in his long hair. Oh and the straights get theirs, too, like when Woody, O’Leary, and her usual “boys” get blitzed on various drugs and head to a shopping center, freaking the masses. This includes a troubling bit where O’Leary takes a toy gun and starts aiming and shooting at other customers, in particular a store employee. It’s all just so juvenile, with O’Leary and Woody hassling the guy relentlessly, and I couldn’t tell if Pryor meant for us to be laughing at the hijinks or condemning the duo.

As for the Cold Iron material, it’s sadly scant. We see that O’Leary has a bit of tension with the lead guitarist, which I guess sort of paralells how Morrison didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Robbie Krieger, particularly over Morrison’s hardcore drinking. But for Cold Iron the group is just sick of O’Leary’s onstage antics and general bullshit, and threaten they’re going to drop him if he keeps it up. O’Leary takes it in stride and tells them he might not want to stay with the group after all. Pryor ends the novel without us finding out what happens.

Speaking of the ending, Cold Iron has the most abrupt conclusion I’ve ever read. Woody has her court date and the judge isn’t as lenient as she’d hoped for, given that she has a prior arrest on her file. He gives her a year’s probation, which freaks her out – she says she’ll just go to jail for the two months the judge gave her, instead of living a year of paranoia on probation. O’Leary shows up and cheers her up over a burger lunch, then they get in Woody’s car, she backs out – and that’s it! The novel’s over. It’s almost like the literary equivalent of a bitch slap.

Overall I found Cold Iron middling, not so terrible that I hated it and not so entertaining that I loved it. Ultimately it was forgettable.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Penetrator #34: Death Ray Terror

The Penetrator #34: Death Ray Terror, by Lionel Derrick
December, 1979  Pinnacle Books

The Penetrator says goodbye to the ‘70s in yet another phoned-in installment courtesy Chet Cunningham. George Wilson’s cover again focuses on the few action scenes (though the bikini-clad babe only shows up on the last page), whereas the novel itself is mostly a slow-going affair of padded scenes and page-filling expository dialog. All of which to say Death Ray Terror is just business as usual for The Penetrator, further proving that the series should’ve been ended years before – or that a new “Lionel Derrick” should’ve been hired.

Wilson’s cover also doesn’t lie – that blond guy in the glasses wielding a carbine with an almost psychotically bland look on his face is indeed none other than Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin. He’s decided to bleach his hair blond and shave off his moustache in one of his arbitrary attempts at masking his identity. The real reason for this is that Cunningham finally brings FBI agent Howard Goodman back into the series – Goodman being the agent with a personal grudge against the elusive Penetrator. I can’t remember the last time we saw him, but here he has many conversations with Mark, of course not realizing that this blond-haired “Justice Department agent” is the person he’s been chasing.

Cunningham also brings back Justice agent Joanna Tabler, last seen in #24: Cryogenic Nightmare. She sends Mark a letter at the Stronghold letting him know she’s in New Mexico working on a case involving eco-radicals. We readers already see the situation in an opening segment that features a mentally-retarded guy who has been hypnotized into a suicide attack on the research labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the top-secret Operation Long Reach project is being worked on. The hypnotizer is a guy named Harry Ackors, a ten-year resident in good standing of Los Alamos, a business owner and member of various boards, but in secret a KGB operative.

Curiously, Cunningham seems at great pains to bring sleaze back to the series, but mostly via outrageous dialog. Like in the opening sections in Los Alamos, in which we see Ackors’s main weapon – a busty blonde named Dawny – at work. She’s been through two of the top lab scientists, one of whom was killed in a car wreck she arranged and another who gave up the project in shame when his affair with her was discovered. Now she’s at work on number three, who goes on about various parts of her anatomy in dialog we’ve never before encountered in the series. No funny business, though. No, Dawna blows the dude’s brains out instead of screwing him, given that he finally cottoned to the fact that this girl was asking too many questions.

What’s funny is that Ackors tells Dawna she needs to scram, but she’s still in town when Mark Hardin shows up…and no one but him seems to think it’s screwy that the same woman was involved with three dead (or departed) scientists at the lab. It takes a while for her to return to the narrative, though. Instead Cunningham page-fills with Mark scoping out the town, watching a demonstration of the Star Wars-esque laser defense being built in the labs, and also sitting through a long speech on the economy of Los Alamos. Fun stuff is only sporadic, mostly through the limited conversations Mark has with Goodman, aka the Penetrator’s number-one enemy. Goodman resents being taken off the Penetrator case for this Long Reach business and spends his time going through his thick files on his quarry, all while Mark is standing in front of him.

As for the action, it’s very sporadic. Cunningham has shown less and less interest in action as the series has progressed, and this time he keeps Mark out of anything serious until nearly a hundred pages in, when he guns down one of the eco-terrorists. Oh, these characters take up their own goodly portion of the narrative; led by HR Rivers, a young lady with very small boobs (that’s how you know she’s evil – Men’s Adventure 101, folks), the greenpeace freaks seem to have stepped out of the previous decade, spouting “power to the people” babble that seems pretty dated given the ’79 publication date. Cunningham randomly includes a former professional basketball player named Clutch in their ranks.

Actually Clutch’s appearance leads to some of that “unacceptable in today’s world” stuff; Joanna Tabler has her own pages-filling subplot in which she goes undercover as a new member of the eco-terrorists, trying to gain the trust of Rivers. Clutch hits on her relentlessly, and Joanna lies to him that she’s gay so he’ll back off. But meanwhile Rivers is gay for real, and she calls Joanna to her room that very night. Here Joanna admits she fibbed to Clutch because “He’s so big and looked mean and he’s black.” This part also features some of that random raunch Cunningham has suddenly decided to add to the series; Clutch refers to Joanna, apropos of nothing, as a “honkey tight-twat.” Almost sounds like a country music dance craze – “Folks, it’s Merle Skrugg and his Pickin’ Grinners with their number-one hit, ‘Honkey Tight-Twat,’ tonight at the Opry!”

Speaking of random, later on we learn one of the lab techs is a guy named Dan Streib, but nothing much comes of it – he doesn’t even have any dialog. Anyway it all just sort of grinds along; Rivers’s terrorists attack the labs a few times, and only Mark can convince the heads to call in military support. It’s just sort of goofy and juvenile…the eco-terrorists hit the lab, then scramble back to their headquarters and sit around. And meanwhile Mark suspects someone’s behind them, using them as a diversion. He does at least take a few of them out, in another of their attacks on the labs, but Cunningham is very conservative with the violence this time.

And he’s conservative with the sex, too, despite the occasional dirty talking; for example, Mark and Joanna’s expected coupling occurs off-page at the very end of the novel. Mark doesn’t even have an encounter with sexy Dawna, who returns to the novel long enough to try to take out a few more lab scientists (one of them being the Streib character) all while still avoiding police suspicion. However Dawna does engage Mark in the longest and most entertaining action scene in the book; early on she makes a failed attempt on his life, and at the end of the book Mark finally goes back to her house for some payback. They engage in an almost Police Squad!-esque firefight, shooting at each other from behind furniture in her living room, mere feet apart. This fight involves hands, feet, and knives, but as usual with the genre Dawna meets her maker via her own accidental hand, tugging on a grenade handle a little too hard.

Actually the whole book is sort of cartoonish, or at least juvenile. Particularly given that Mark, toward the end, figures out that popular Los Alamos citizen Harry Ackors is really a Russian spy. But instead of driving over to Ackors’s place and blowing his brains out, Mark sits around and waits for the opportunity to arrest him. It’s all just so ridiculous; this was a series in which the protagonist used to kill even the most minor of villains with a sadistic glee. Now he seems to think of himself as an officer of the law, and apparently takes his fake Justice Dept creds as genuine.

The finale is also juvenile and lame – Ackors fakes everyone out with another suicide attack using yet another piece of cannon fodder, and when the place is again defenseless, only Mark is there to stave off Ackors’s grenade attack via helicopter. In the finale Mark himself suffers first-degree burns and must spend a few weeks off…of course on the beach with Joanna so they can have some of that hot off-page lovin’.

Humorously, Death Ray Terror ends with a survey, in which readers are asked how many books they read a month, what Pinnacle titles they like, etc. Hopefully Pinnacle got some feedback telling them that The Penetrator had gone to shit and needed work asap. Because it’s kind of surprising the series lasted almost another 20 volumes.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Godfather Killer

The Godfather Killer, by Dan Brennan
November, 1973  Belmont Tower Books

This grubby paperback is courtesy veteran pulp writer Dan Brennan, who here turns in what appears to be the first volume of a series that never was. This is for the good, as the “hero” of the piece is a modern-day cowboy type who really doesn’t do much of anything except kill unarmed women. I’m betting editor Peter McCurtin did some behind-the-scenes tinkering, as the back cover copy definitely seems to be his work, and I also suspect McCurtin re-titled Brennan’s manuscript. There isn’t any godfather-killing in the entire damn book…despite what the back cover hypes, the novel is ultimately concerned with a KGB plot(!).

Taking place in South Dakota, The Godfather Killer concerns Jack South, one of the least-described protagonists I’ve ever encountered. We get hardly any info about this guy other than that he’s “the meanest sumbitch in Oriente, South Dakota,” and has come here to Chippewa City, SD to get revenge for the murder of his dad. He’s over six feet tall and wears denim and cowboy boots, but otherwise we get no info on how he became such a primo shitkicker, save for a vague mention of being in a “war.” But as stated despite talking tough, Jack’s main m.o. is gunning down defenseless women in cold blood.

Brennan’s in no hurry to give us the setup and throws us right into the tale; South (or “Jack South” as Brennan constantly refers to him in the narrative, which ultimately takes on a hypnotic effect for the reader) has just arrived in Chippewa City and looks to make a name for himself as a guy here to bust some heads. Thus he beats up a cabbie who works for the crooks who run the town; gradually we’ll learn South suspects the criminal kingpins of Chippewa set up his father and ultimately caused him to commit suicide. South’s dad was mayor of Oriente or somesuch and was wealthy from graft and corruption and all that jazz, and someone outed him to the government. Mayor South went to jail for a spell and then killed himself in shame.

Now South’s here to track down Janet Hall, his dad’s former secretary-mistress and the woman South thinks set his dad up. It’s all sort of Parker-esque with South’s relentless pursuit of the woman, only this is a Parker no reader could root for. I’d like to think Brennan intended for South to be an anti-hero, but there’s no indication of this. And as mentioned the novel ends with the possibility of a series or at least a sequel, with South being hired by the government to root out Commie spies. It’s not as if an unlikable protagonist would’ve prevented Belmont Tower from launching a series, so either Brennan wasn’t interested or sales sucked. (Actually that never stopped BT either.) 

Brennan’s writing has that usual pulp vibe, just giving us what few details needed to keep the story moving, but sometimes his reluctance to explain South’s mindset results in confusion, or even unintentional laughter. Like when early in the book South is jumped by some dude, knocked out, wakes up and vomits…and then arbitrarily runs into a group of locals and spends the night hanging out with them. Even stranger for the reader is when South takes a woman back to his hotel room, and she gets nude…and South tells her to get dressed and leave.

Actually South doesn’t seem to be too bright; he sort of waltzes around Chippewa City without much of a plan. He has a private eye working for him – Brennan doesn’t properly introduce the character nor explain when South hired him – who helps him track down Janet. South blows into her house and grills her for a bit, and two “swarthy” men come after him, resulting in South’s first kills in the book. Brennan isn’t exploitative in the least, for either the violence or the sex. He also doesn’t really capitalize on the potential with Janet, a slightly over-the-hill beauty who was apparently forced into setting up South’s dad; she meets her fate off-page, thus ruining whatever chance there was for any sort of potential to build up her plot.

We do however get a lot of stuff about a guy named Stutz Gandler, who turns out to be the local Mafia bigwig in Chippewa. Through Stutz we learn that the mob actually had nothing to do with the setup and death of Mayor South. Nope, folks – it was the Russians! (You can blame them for practically anything. Try it sometime!) In particular it’s Leon Bolkov, who operates out of Chippewa and has insinuated himself into Dakotan business and politics over the past several years, posing as a Greek. This of course explains all the various “swarthy” guys South keeps seeing around…guys he’s sure (somehow) aren’t Arabic or Italian or whatever. They’re friggin’ KGB agents! 

South definitely has a mean streak about him. While having a confrontation with Stutz, South gets the drop on a bigtime KGB assassin who moves in too early for the kill – an assassin whose schtick is just plain shooting people, so I didn’t understand what was so topnotch about him. In a bit that would appear again in the following decade’s Justin Perry #2, South ties the poor bastard to a roped tree and lets it loose, cutting the bastard in half. Stutz and his personal whore, Mona, both witness the event and either pass our or puke.

Speaking of Mona, South uses her as bait for yet another KGB killer. This one, again posing as a businessman, phones her up for an appointment; his mission is to kill South and Stutz, and figures the girl’s the best way to get either of them. But South is already there (we learn through belabored backstory) and gets the drop on yet another much-ballyhooed KGB assassin. And here’s where we get our first indication (well, second, if you count the tree-tying bit) that our hero’s a nutjob. With zero setup or explanation courtesy Brenann, South pulls out a gun, shoots the assassin, and then shoots Mona. You know, the unarmed hooker who has been helping him. Brennan doesn’t explain away this act or follow up on it.

But our hero’s just getting started so far as the woman-killing goes. Next up he confronts Leon Bolkhov in his Chippewa office, and when the KGB boss won’t talk South starts beating up his secretary. But it’s okay because South has been assured she’s part of the KGB plot, too. In another Parker moment, South gets Bolkhov to call his superior in order to get more money – but instead South blows Bolkhov’s brains out once he’s seen the number dialed. He then proceeds to murder the (unarmed) secretary as well. The Godfather Killer!!

Following the tangled KGB web, South is put on the trail of a lovely New York-based ballet teacher named Syssis; the Russians insist that she was behind the plot against Mayor South. Surprisingly, South doesn’t kill her outright; he suspects the Russians are lying, and of course they are. A hardbitten spy with years of undercover service, Syssis reveals that the KGB wants to get rid of her, so they have set her up as a patsy. Together she and South take out the various KGB assassins who are lurking around, leading up to the novel’s sole action scene – complete with a car chase and Syssis throwing grenades (in Manhattan!).

This also leads to the novel’s sole sex scene, as South and Syssis get jiggy with it, as the kids say (or said). Brennan gives a little detail, but nothing explicit. I kept waiting for South to just plain shoot her – murdering unsuspecting, unarmed women with little narratorial setup being the guy’s specialty – but instead it develops into more of a relationship. But Syssis takes off, leaving South to dole out his final revenge on the Russians…sort of.

In one of the more inexplicaby anticlimactic finales, South tracks down the main money man for the Russians in South Dakota, and takes care of him (and his secretary, of course!!) almost perfunctorily. I mean, was this the guy who set up Mayor South? I don’t think we even find out. I mean it’s the moment the entire novel has led to but it’s delivered almost as an afterthought. Very puzzling. Even more puzzling is the finale, in which a ranking Mafia boss admits to the FBI that the KGB has infiltrated the mob around the country – and Jack South’s services are needed to stop them!

On this goofy note The Godfather Killer shambles to a close, neither Brennan nor Belmont Tower following up on the idea of a government-empowered Jack South taking on KGB spies. But this is nothing to get hung up about, as the book kinda sucked. And no idea what the hell the cover’s about (I’m pretty sure it’s lifted from a movie poster), as nothing like it occurs in the novel.