Monday, July 29, 2019

Dakota #2: Red Revenge

Dakota #2: Red Revenge, by Gilbert Ralston
March, 1974  Pinnacle Books

I dreaded returning to the Dakota series; the first volume really disappointed me so I just bided my time until I moved on to this second installment. Actually I was going to read it the other year, but ended up reading Ralston’s The Deadly, Deadly Art instead…which was enough of a reminder why I really don’t dig this guy’s work. I mean he’s a good author and all, especially when it comes to character and dialog, but so far as being an action writer…I’ve still gotta agree with Marty McKee, who deemed the series “dull.”

I mention Marty in my Dakota reviews because he hooked me up with the series years ago; this one and tons of other series books, for which I’ll always be grateful to the guy. (That sounds sarcastic but I really mean it!) However Marty didn’t have this volume (hence no review of it on his blog), so I sought out a copy, hoping it would be an improvement over #1: Warpath. And luckily it is, though once again Ralston makes some very “interesting” authorial decisions.

Another thing Marty mentions in his reviews is the large cast of supporting characters in the Dakota series, much more than the genre average. I mean Red Revenge opens with Dakota riding his horse Bunky around his place in New Mexico and Ralston introduces all these characters sitting around and waving at him or being introduced in various ways, usually not even reminding us who they are. As if this were the Spoon River Anthology of men’s adventure or something.

It’s not that long after the first volume, as Dakota’s father is still on his deathbed and Dakota’s still mourning the people he lost in that introductory installment. One thing I’m happy to report is that Ralston whittles down on the musings and ponderings I seem to recall Warpath being saddled with. Dakota’s taken a course in bad-assery between volumes, doling out glib retorts and kicking ass when needed. In fact a quarter of the way through I started to think I was actually enjoying Red Revenge, given the increased pace and better focus on action, and halfway through the book I was flat-out loving it, which really threw me for a loop. Then I got to the last quarter…but more on that anon.

Par for the men’s adventure course some random babe throws herself at Dakota within the first few pages; her name’s Alicia and she’s in town on vacation. She bluntly announces herself as single and has “model” looks, though as ever Gilbert Ralston is not one to exploit the ample charms of his female characters. Dakota spends the majority of the text sending Alicia off or having her stay with random people to help them out. Setting up this recurring joke posthaste, Alicia immediately tells Dakota that one of the innumerable supporting characters has a message for him.

Turns out Dakota’s secretary has just been contacted by Martha Peavey, whose husband is a wealthy executive, and Martha wants Dakota over at her Lake Tahoe place quick. She’s waiting there with other wealthy women whose husbands are execs at the same company; in some arbitrary backstory we learn that Dakota had an affair with one of these women, pretty and younger than the rest, years before. Anyway all of the executive husbands were off on a fishing trip but they’ve been kidnapped; Martha doesn’t want the cops to find out about it, due to the demands of the kidnappers, so she’s hiring Dakota, and grudgingly he takes the case.

Already we have more tension and suspense than anything in the previous book. And speaking of which Dakota’s young Indian sidekick Louis Threetrees returns from the previous volume, driving the now-purple “sedan” Dakota gave him. (For some maddening reason Ralston refuses to tell us what make and model the car is…I assume we were told this in the first book and he figures we remember, or hell maybe he himself forgot.) Together Dakota and Louis drive around looking for clues, and again we get more action than previously when Dakota kicks some hapless guard’s ass at the harbor, tracking down the boat the men were kidnapped on.

When Dakota’s pal, a sheriff named Bennedetti, is gunned down (off page), Dakota realizes something serious is going on. Bennedeti lives, by the way, though he’s alternately paralyzed and in a coma during the narrative, before recovering in the final pages; Dakota is unusual among men’s adventure protagonists in that he’s always checking up on injured friends, visiting their wives, and also of course going to visit his mother and father frequently. The more I think of it, Ralston really is trying to do this sort of soap operatic men’s adventure private eye thing, and I can’t think of anything else like it in the genre.

And when it’s good, it’s good – Dakota and Louis find themselves tailed by a car around town, and we readers know the driver is a hotstuff babe named Margo. Ralston as ever POV-hops like crazy in the narrative, writing in a pseudo-omniscient style; we’ll be reading about Dakota and Louis and then next paragraph we’re being told something like, “Unkown to them, Margo was behind the wheel of the other car,” and such. This sort of thing is annoying because there are too many characters in the novel, and the abrupt POV-switching gets to be confusing and egregious. Damn egregious!

The absoulte highlight of the novel – and possibly the entire series, I suspect – occurs a little past the halfway point. Dakota’s already gotten in some action, from a few fights to shooting at that car that’s been tailing him – and only later does he learn he’s killed a woman – but here he has a very cool Rambo-esque moment. He’s deduced that the captured executives (who have their own running subplots, again giving the novel the unwieldy vibe of an epic) are being held in a remote valley. So he calls up some “blood brothers” from ‘Nam, baby!

This is Joe Redbear and Johnny Pius, two guys Dakota commanded back in the war; they were part of an “all-Indian group, trained for close combat.” Dakota figures the kidnappers are going to kill the hostages when they get their three million ransom, so he works against time to free them before the cops can move in and blow everything. He’s already scouted out the site and here the narrative has the rugged nature survival vibe of similar sequences in Soldato #1. Dakota and his blood brothers get some knives, some revolvers, and a bow and arrow, and work their way onto the site in the darkness.

This is a great sequence and at this point I was fully caught up in the novel. Finally Dakota was what I’d been waiting for it to be. Ralston’s not much for violence but the action is still fairly bloody, with subgun-toting guards getting impaled by arrows and their throats slit by knives. The cover illustration comes into play when Dakota uses a flare gun, taking out one guy with the flare and crunching another’s skull like an eggshell when he hurls the empty gun at him. Oh yeah and one of the guards is named Binky, not to be confused with Dakota’s horse Bunky. I was certain that had to be an in-joke.

And here’s where all those bad memories of Warpath came back to me in full sensurround. The novel pretty much ends here, on page 152: Dakota has killed the bad guys and freed the hostages. But Ralston keeps the narrative going for another 32 pages. We get belabored stuff like Dakota’s father dying and pages and pages devoted to his funeral, complete with long quotes from prayer books, complete with asterisked footnotes telling us where the quotes are taken from! And Dakota visiting his now-widowed mom, and checking in on old friends, and getting a new car…I mean it’s the sort of stuff that happens after the credits roll, not before.

Oh, and Dakota gets laid (by Alicia), but it’s not just off-page, it’s actually off-book; Alicia offers herself to Dakota at the bottom of the page, and at the top of the next page it’s an abrupt cut to the next morning. She’s now become his “sits-beside-him woman,” or some other such “Indian” thing, but regardless she takes off at the end of the book, going back to her lingerie store in San Francicso. Marty implies that she returns.

It just keeps going and going…and what’s most hilarious is that, on the last friggin’ page, Dakota gets in a quick fight with the person he’s suddenly realized was the true mastermind behind the kidnapping. I mean you’d think this is the sort of thing that could’ve been elaborated over those 32 pages, but whatever, Ralston has his own way of handling the men’s adventure genre, and he’s stubbornly determined to see it through. Hell, maybe he was going for a Spoon River Anthology thing.

But still, I enjoyed the majority of Red Revenge (certainly the title would be frowned upon today, at the very least). I’m looking forward to the next volume, mostly because it features a villain who worships the Ancient Egyptian feline deity Bastet, same as in The Deadly, Deadly Art.


Marty McKee said...

Man, I don't even remember sending Dakota your way, but I'm glad you're, er, enjoying them? I'm still waiting for your deep dive into the madness of the Lone Wolf!

I still think Dakota may have been an idea for a television series Ralston couldn't sell to the networks, so he turned him into a book series. ABC had a series called NAKIA on the air, about an American Indian cop in the Southwest, which could have been what blocked Ralston (I'm not researching this or checking the dates, just theorizing off the top of my head).

Joe Kenney said...

Nice to hear from you, Marty! I remember you mentioned Nakia in your first Dakota review...I finally went and looked it up (doesn't seem to be much about it online) and it definitely looks similar to Dakota. I think you might be onto something.