Monday, July 22, 2019

Moscow At High Noon Is The Target (Hot Line #3)

Moscow At High Noon Is The Target, by Paul Richards
No month stated, 1973  Award Books

Curiously the final volume of Hot Line isn’t copyright Lyle Kenyon Engel, like the first two were, which makes me suspect this short-lived series suffered the same fate as the Engel-produced Nick Carter: Killmaster: total control eventually went over to Award Books. But anyway Hot Line never really got off the ground, only managing three volumes.

Thanks to Spy Guys And Gals we know this one was a collaboration between Chet Cunningham and Dan Streib. Streib co-wrote the previous volume, and his stamp is frequently evident here, particularly when protagonist Grant Fowler whines about how tough his life is and desperately wishes to quit and get married. Streib’s action protagonists usually lack any balls, as most notably demonstrated in the Engel-produced Chopper Cop series. Like “tough cop” Terry Bunker, Streib’s Grant Fowler is a worry wart who is determined to quit the spy game asap and find some woman to marry. This is a far cry from the grizzled asshole who starred in the first volume.

There’s no pickup from either earlier volume, though we are informed Fowler has only been the President’s man for a few “months.” Fowler when we meet him is in Copenhagen, still successfully perpetrating his wealthy gadabout cover. Now he’s hawking a new business venture called Antique Aircraft Inc, which specializes in rebuilding exact replicas of WWI airplanes and staging mock aerial combat around the globe. There’s a lot of flying material in this one, about as much as you’d encounter in the average William Crawford novel, and it gets to be boring after a while.

This is too bad because the opening of the novel’s pretty cool, promising more thrills than what is ultimately delivered: a group of commandos, possibly American, stage daring, bloody heists behind the Iron Curtain. They’ll hit armored trucks, banks, whatever, taking out guards and innocent bystanders with subguns and explosives. The commie powers at be are convinced America is behind these attacks, and tensions have escalated to the point of WWIII. The President of course decides to call in his sole Hot Line man, Grant Fowler.

It seems to me that Cunningham handled the brunt of the writing duties; the book reads very similarly to his work. But it might be Streib who writes the occasional cutovers to the President and his secretary, who deal with their own somewhat-boring subplots in DC while Fowler handles the action overseas. I say this because these scenes are page-fillers with fretting, worried protagonists wondering what might happen next; there’s a lot of stalling and repetition. Personally I think some of the opening heists could’ve been more fleshed out.

More info on the heisters would’ve been wise, too; as it is, we only get to read about “The Commander,” who leads these American servicemen turned criminals. They operate out of Berlin and use surplus military gear in their raids. It’s dangled as a mystery who the Commander is, but gradually the puzzle pieces together until we realize it’s one of two characters, both of whom happen to work with Fowler on the assignment. This group calls itself The Brigadiers, and their next heist will be particularly audacious: the theft of Lenin’s embalmed corpse, on display in Moscow.

Fowler only knows that something’s going to be stolen in Moscow, so must get over there without blowing his cover. Luckily Antique Aircraft is scheduled to take part in a mock WWI battle in that very commie city, so Fowler’s able to get himself in the show due to the fact that he’s a pilot and he’s the owner of the company. He heads over to Frankfort, Germany (and yes, it’s spelled “Frankfort” throughout) to take over the preparation for the mock combat, and finds time for some shenanigans with Elaine Katz, the hot brunette pilot who runs the European branch of Antique Aircraft – and I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Fowler’s already had some off-page shenanigans with a blonde babe in Copenhagen.

Here in “Frankfort” Fowler meets two men who will add the mystery to the narrative, as one of them is the Commander of the Brigadiers: first there’s Okie Bob Arnold, a CIA man with “mod clothing” and a flashy moustache who has been sent to help Fowler on his assignment, and next there’s General Sloane, an older retired military man who is flying one of the planes in the mock combat. Cunningham kills the mystery posthaste, as one of these men makes a phone call and next chapter Fowler finds out Elaine’s been killed in an airport “accident,” chopped up by prop blades. Cunningham tells us which of the two men made the call, totally blowing any chance at mystery. I couldn’t believe he was so brazen about it. Particularly given that the rest of the narrative tries to play the reader along over which of the two men is really Fowler’s enemy.

Fowler’s bummed over Elaine’s death – which occurs like an hour after they sleep together – but soon enough he’s checking out bikini-clad Maria at the General’s place. She’s been sent along from Moscow as a sort of state rep to ensure everything goes well. There’s also some flatfooted suspense about whether Fowler can trust her or not, and honestly all this stuff comes off like the work of Streib, with a suddenly-wimpy Fowler moaning how hard it is for him to open his heart to a woman, due to how she could be an enemy just waiting to stab his back.

There isn’t much action. In Moscow Fowler and Okie Bob go to a bar frequented by circus freaks, a surreal setting that’s handled in Cunningham’s trademark meat and potatoes narrative style. Fowler’s deduced that the Brigadiers are using an old tunnel beneath the bar to sneak in and out of Moscow, paying the midget bar owner a fee for the benefit. Fowler slaps around the midget and then goes down the tunnel, promptly getting in a shootout with some unseen Brigadiers. He kills one with his .357.

He’s also found the time to get busy with Maria, and again I have to point the finger at Streib because here Fowler becomes a lovey-dovey sap. This is going to be his last job, no matter what, he’s done with the spy game and all the death and all that, and what’s more he’s going to bring Maria back to America and marry her and start a family. The authors basically telegraph what’s going to happen to Maria and don’t even try to be subtle about it. But then this was the last volume of the series, so hell, they could’ve just had the two go off for a happily ever after.

The Lenin corpse heist isn’t even the climax of the novel; the title comes into play because it’s learned that the Brigadiers will steal the body at noon, and Fowler manages to get in the viewing line at the right moment. He causes a scene and Moscow police intervene, stopping the ambush that would’ve caught them unawares had it not been for Fowler. After this we have the belabored mock aerial combat, with planes again factoring into the actual finale: Fowler versus the Commander, who plans to steal the Russian royal jewels or somesuch and fly away with them. His true identity is officially revealed in the final pages.

Overall Moscow At High Noon Is The Target was pretty lackluster. Grant Fowler never did manage to make himself memorable to the reader, with even his occasional gadgets coming off as lame, like the “deadline clock” wristwatch he wears which ticks away a time set by the President. I was more interested to find out if Engel just dumped the series on Award, disinterested in Hot Line himself. Readers certainly weren’t interested, and this was it for the series.

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