Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Executioner #11: California Hit

The Executioner #11: California Hit, by Don Pendleton
November, 1972  Pinnacle Books

Picking up shortly after the previous volume, this installment of The Executioner has Mack Bolan in San Francisco, and what I found most impressive about California Hit is how effortless Don Pendleton makes it all seem. I was halfway finished the book and it felt like I’d just started reading it.

And yet, that edgy feel of the early volumes has been lost; one could almost argue that Pendleton is on autopilot at this point. I don’t mean that as a criticism; he’s just so perfected his template that you know exactly what you’re going to get: an opening action scene, a couple arbitrary parts where one-off characters recap everything that’s happened, some Mafia parts where various goombahs argue with one another, perhaps a sexy babe or two, and a final action scene. But Pendleton does it all so well that it comes off as fresh…but then we’re only on the 11th volume. If we’re still reading the same thing in the 30th volume it will be a different story.

Bolan’s already in San Francisco when we meet him, and the cover illustration comes into play immediately. Bolan tosses a satchel charge into a mob bar with an Asian theme and a “real live Chinal doll” runs onto the scene moments before the explosion. Bolan saves her, but this compromises his “numbers;” now his plan has been thrown awry and he’s in danger of being cornered by the mobsters and/or the cops who are quickly gathering on the scene. However I’m sure no reader anywhere was concered about this; as ever Bolan manages to escape both parties.

The “China Doll” is named Mary Ching, but she isn’t nearly as important to the series as a new item in Bolan’s arsenal: the .44 Auto Mag. This stainless steel automatic magnum is dwelt on for a few pages of proto gun-porn, receiving more coverage than any previous Bolan weapon, even down to the load mixture for the cartridges. What I found most humorous though is we are told this gun is new on the market, yet we’re not told how Bolan acquired it – previously we’ve been informed how he came across all his other weapons. Perhaps he took it from some thug he killed between volumes.

Anyway, Bolan’s come to mess up the San Francisco mob, and also he’s heard of a msyterious “Mr. King” who is behind the scenes and also needs a good killing. This recalls the previous volume, in which Bolan targeted the peons before going after the big bad guy in what came off as an arbitrary finale. However, there’s less action here. Pendleton spends more time with those one-off characters, either cops or Mafioso, fighting with each other or trying to figure out how they can finally bring down “that bastard Bolan.”

Even Mary Ching disappears too abruptly from the text; she drops Bolan off at her apartment and leaves him there. Bolan finds himself alone with two sexy nude young women who are sleeping in Mary’s place. One of them, a blonde, wakes up and starts waltzing around in the buff, asking Bolan if there’s any “organic coffee” in the cabinet. She idtentifies herself as Cynthy, her sleeping friend as Panda Bare, and says they’re both friends of Mary Ching – not to mention they’re both porno actresses. Believe it or not, I once found myself in the same situation! Sure, I didn’t have any organic coffee and the two porn actresses were on a video I was watching, but still!

I found all this reminiscent of Bolan meeting the three cuties in the seventh volume, but Bolan doesn’t seem to, and neither does Pendleton. This time though Bolan doesn’t consort with either babe, though Panda Bare is a “lez” anyway, per Cynthy. Surprisingly, Bolan doesn’t take Cynthy up on her offer for some good lovin’, but instead tells her to scram and to keep her mouth shut at the porn shoot she has that night…even though he’s sure either of the girls will mention him, even unwittingly. Bolan’s aware that the mob runs the porn racket, so it’s only a matter of time before these girls run into trouble – which of course they will before novel’s end.

Bolan does however find the time to get lucky with Mary Ching, later in the book, but the scene is totally off-page. Bolan is more concerned about whether he should trust her. First she comes back to her place with a few Mafia gunners tailing her, and after taking them out Bolan seems to be sure Mary was unaware they were following her. Then after taking her back to his “drop house,” Mary takes off again without any notice, and thus Bolan feels that his secure base has been compromised. He can’t get a handle on which side she’s on; Pendleton initially seems to be working in a Chinese tongs subplot, but apparently changes his mind and drops it before novel’s end. There’s also some red herring stuff about Red Chinese commie cells operating out of the Bay area, but that too doesn’t amount to much. 

As mentioned action is more sporadic. Bolan hits the bar in the opening, then gets in a few quick firefights here and there. The action highlight for me is his blitz on a mob location in which he first hits it with smoke bombs and then storms inside, wearing a gas mask and his customary blacksuit, and blows away goons with his new Auto Mag. Here though we have a return of another element of the template: a cop who is supportive of Bolan’s one-man war on the mob. Pendleton throws in a new twist this time in that the cop, Bill Phillips, was on Bolan’s team in ‘Nam.

Pendleton works in references to previous books, in particular #2: Death Squad; Phillips has kept up with Politician and Gadgets, telling Bolan they’re doing well living lives of anonymity now. Of course these two would later feature in Able Team, but as for Bill Phillips I don’t know if he returned to the franchise; the last time the two face one another Phillips tells Bolan that it will be his duty to arrest him if Bolan ever steps foot in San Francisco again.

The Mr. King subplot is almost surreal in how vague it is. As with the last volume, Pendleton tries to remind us periodically that there’s a big man behind the scenes, one shrouded in mystery. Bolan finds out who it is in the final pages, after having set up the mobsters and orchestrating them into an ambush. Mr. King shows up in a car, and when Bolan spies him from afar he’s blown away by his identity. All we find out is that Mr. King is black, and his name “isn’t really King;” it seems evident that we’re to understand Mr. King is a Martin Luther King type of civil rights figurehead who in reality has “sold out his own people,” per a disgusted Bolan, who of course kills him.

At any rate Pendleton is more concerned with setting up the events of the next volume, which I believe per his interview in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction he claimed as one of his favorites in the series. Bolan gets in phone contact with Leo Turrin, the undercover cop back in Pittsfield, Bolan’s hometown and the location of the first volume. Turrin seems preoccupied about something and at novel’s end (as usual, the book occurs over just a few days) he informs Bolan that Bolan’s kid sister Johnny and Bolan’s old flame Val have gone missing. At the end of the book the Executioner hops in the “Warwagon” and heads back east to find them.

Pendleton’s writing is as skilled and assured as ever, but he seems to have forgotten that Bolan is only thirty years old. Several times in the book Pendleton mentions that Bolan’s not only a ‘Nam vet but he’s also a veteran of the Korean war! First this appears in a “Uniform Crime Network” bulletin which opens the book; it’s stated that Bolan fought in Korea, and I was willing to accept this as just a gaffe on the part of the authorities. But then in the novel Bolan himself is remembering this or that incident in Korea, so Pendleton must’ve forgotten for this installment that his protagonist would’ve been way too young to fight in that particular war.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Richard Blade #9: Kingdom Of Royth

Richard Blade #9: Kingdom Of Royth, by Jeffrey Lord
March, 1974  Pinnacle Books

This was the first volume of Richard Blade written by Roland Green, whose name I’ve always associated with Conan; when I was a kid and new Conan novels populated the bookstore shelves, Green’s name was on the majority of the covers. It appears then that he cut his teeth writing this pseudo-Conan series for book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, who must’ve liked Green’s work, as the dude wrote the series until it ended ten years later. (Ended in the US, at least; I think Blade’s still having adventures in France.)

Given this I was under the impression that Kindgdom Of Royth would at least be entertaining. Unfortunately, it was such a damn beating that it took me months to read it; I kept putting it down and swearing I was done with it before a sense of duty pulled me back. This was a “contract read” in its purest sense, as I felt it was my obligation to see it through and report back so that no one else would make the mistake I did: reading the damn thing. But it was hard going, folks. I mean I could’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow in the time it took me to get through Kingdom Of Royth.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume, but it’s clear Green has a passing familiarity with the earlier books, which of course were written by Manning Lee Stokes. However Green chooses to ignore all of the subtext and thematic material Stokes brought to each of his installments – they might’ve been belabored and ponderous but it was damned clear Stokes was invested in them, something which cannot be said for Green. In fact Green goes out of his way to dismiss Stokes’s earlier work; when Blade reports for duty in this volume, ready for the latest zap into Dimension X, Green writes, “This time, of course, [Blade] was not running away from a broken love affair or running toward some place he hoped might cure an inexplicable and maddening impotence. No, it was just a case of going out once more to do what he did well and, when you got right down to it, enjoyed doing.” One can almost envision Green airily waving away all the subtextual material Stokes invested his novels with.

Which would be fine…if Green offered anything else. Sadly, Kingdom Of Royth is truly awful. If you were under the impression that a new author would bring fresh ideas and vigor to the series, you would be sadly disappointed, perhaps as disappointed as I was. The banality of the plot is mind-numbing; Blade goes to a new dimension which follows the fantasy world template of previous volumes, only with a “pirate” overlay, and he basically jumps from one group to another, displaying absolutely zero of the macho mystique of the Stokes installments.

Indeed, Kindgom Of Royth features a neutered, emasculated Richard Blade, one who constantly doubts himself or waits for another person to make the first move. As we’ll recall, “bluff or brawn” was the central tenet of Manning Lee Stokes’s Richard Blade; in fact it was the central tenet of Stokes’s entire oeveure. The macho mystique component of a man bluffing or beating his way into a position of dominance. You won’t find that here. Here you will find a shell of what Richard Blade once was. And here you will find a shell of what the series itself once was.

He might’ve dropped all the deeper stuff, but Green stays true to the basic repetitive nature of the Stokes plots: Blade goes to a new dimension, meets a dude who will become his loyal ally, bangs a few willing babes, and eventually gets involved in some court intrique, climaxing with a big battle scene. So all that holds true, it’s just a pale reflection of what came before. The pirate angle gets to be overbearing after a while, with long, long stretches comprised of Blade at the deck of some new ship, voyaging through choppy waters. It’s not helped that the characters he encounters, save for one, are cipher-thin forgettable – so forgettable that Blade’s first female conquest, Alixa, promptly disappears from the narrative…even though she stays with Blade for the duration of the book.

Well anyway Blade lands in the middle of an ocean when entering this dimension – Green doesn’t get near as psychedelic with the interdimensional travel, either – and fights off some pirates, saving the crew of a ship. It’s captained by Brora, who will become Blade’s loyal comrade per the template. Then these guys hook up with another ship, this one captained by some dude headed for the empire of Royth – this dimension’s worls is one big land mass with a massive ocean in the center or something, and pirates operate out of a sort of pirate utopia there called Neral. So Blade’s eager to go to Royth because he’s figured it’s the biggest nation on this world and he might get something useful there – Green, even more than Stokes, seems uncertain how to factor in Blade’s H Dimension interests with his Dimension X exploits. Actually he comes up with something at the very end, but it’s ridiculous.

More importantly the lovely Alixa is on this new ship, and she makes her sexy interest known…and comes to Blade one night. Here we get the first of our infrequent sex scenes: “She rolled toward him and he rolled toward her and entered. At the first moment he knew he had been right in his guess; this was no virgin. She accepted him smoothly and sheathed him snugly, milking him with muscles at first delicately controlled, then wilder and wilder in their motions as she was swept away by her own rising tide.” So on the average, about as risque as the material Stokes delivered, with the caveat that Stokes at least brought his female characters to life. Alixa disappears after this, even though she remains in Blade’s entourage for the rest of the novel; Green merely makes passing references to her, reminding us that she’s still around.

On the way to Royth this latest ship is also attacked, by a larger pirate force, and Blade ends up beating them and taking charge of the pirates. All of it very much indebted to the Conan pirate yarns. Blade is even sworn in as a pirate and must head back to the pirate utopia of Neral, thus throwing off the trip to Royth. Not that Blade’s much concerned. He’s very much in a “manana time” mindset here…there is absolutely no impetus for his trip to Dimension X, no dramatic thrust.

Green’s lurid imagination also pales in comparison to Stokes’s. While in Neral Blade drops off Brora and Alixa – his only two surviving companions at this point – and checks out the island kingdom. A baccanal is going on, and Green tries to make it seem sleazy and outrageous, but it’s yawnsville after the previous eight books. There’s a room with “colored smoke” that makes everyone high (Blade literally runs from it) and an orgy room where everyone gets busy en masse (Blade runs from this one as well). Further evidence that a lesser author is now “Jeffrey Lord:” Blade is sickened by all this, and vows to escape Neral posthaste.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because at this point Blade has become the mate of a feisty female pirate who is quickly becoming a major force in Neral: Cayla, a blonde beauty who is a priestess in the long-suppressed Serpent Cult. She basically steals the show, and is the only memorable character. Having caught a glimpse of Blade as his ship entered Neral’s port, she’s made it clear he will be hers…and this could be bad news for Alixa, Blade is warned, however nothing comes of it. Alixa is so buried under the narrative carpet that she only exists so that people will occasionally have something to threaten Blade with. Oh yeah and I forgot another stupid thing – everyone pronounces his name “Blahyd” throughout the book, as apparently the word “blade” doesn’t exist in this dimension. Even though every single damn weapon is bladed. That’s how stupid the book is.

Well, Cayla wants to bring back the Serpent Cult, and she wants Blade to join her in the effort so they’d made a regular power couple. Blade, expectedly, goes along with it, displaying no initiative or backbone of his own. Green does incorporate supernatural elements in his version of the series; during the most memorable part of an altogether forgettable book, Cayla and Blade launch an assault, and we learn that Cayla’s intents are twofold, given that the ancestors of the people who rule this city were one of the chief suppressors of the Serpent Cult. The villainous babe calls forth an actual sea serpent in her attack, and further she gets her own sword bloody, diving into the ocean and slipping out of it to stab people in the back, slit throats, and etc.

But Blade is horrified still and thus makes plans to escape Cayla as soon as possible. That’s our Blade, folks! Or at least, that’s our new Blade. Stokes’s Blade would’ve tamed Cayla within a few pages. Instead, Blade, Brora, and Alixa manage to escape, leading to more egregious sea voyage stuff, then they’re shipwrecked again and end up in Royth, a vast empire run by ineffectual rulers. Here we are in for the long haul, though Blade again manages to get lucky thanks to a hotstuff countess. It goes on and on, made worse by Green’s periodic attempts to recap everything that’s happened so far:

It occurred to Blade that there were now no less than five different plots all focusing on the Kingdom of Royth. There was Indhios’s scheme. There was that of the Council of Captains and the Neralers generally. There was Cayla’s monstrous notion of a revival of the Serpent Cult. There was the ambitious and ruthless little countess. Each of these four would cheerfully sell any or all of the others to the devil to get them out of the way. And there was his own comparatively simple plan, to save Royth from the pirates. But was this decadent and ancient land worth the effort? And even if it was worth the effort, would he live long enough to carry his efforts through?

Perhaps that gives an indication of the sort of shit you endure throughout Kingdom Of Royth. It’s almost William Johnstone-esque in a way; Green is one step away from ending every other chapter with, “What might happen next?” But the thing is – who cares?? It’s all so relentlessly turgid and boring. But perhaps you noticed the line “to save Royth from the pirates.” Yes, folks, this turns out to be Richard Blade’s new m.o., as revealed at the end of the novel – going forward, his mission won’t be so much to exploit each new dimension for H Dimension benefit, but to help the people of that dimension. That’s right, folks – Richard Blade is now going to become a hero of the interdimensional people. This is so far removed from the previous version of Richard Blade that it made me laugh. 

Well, the thing gradually wears to a close with a big battle scene, which is by far better than any that came before, mostly because it has some dramatic content. Blade and Cayla have their final confrontation as she attacks Royth, but Blade’s too busy chopping off the heads of her pet sea serpent to handle the pirate queen herself – Brora, disappointingly, takes care of that. At this point Blade is finally zapped home…and it seems like he’s been in this dimension for years. Seriously, months and months pass for Blade in this dimension, almost a full year, but at novel’s end J and Lord Leighton marvel over the fact that Blade was “only” gone for four months. Which to tell the truth is about how long it took me to read this damn book.

As mentioned, Green went on to write many more installments, so I can only assume Lyle Kenyon Engel saw some promise in his work and Green improved. But to paraphrase John Lennon, “He couldn’t get much worse.”

Thursday, August 22, 2019

C.A.T. #3: Cult Of The Damned

C.A.T. #3: Cult Of The Damned, by Spike Andrews
May, 1983  Warner Books

The final volume of C.A.T. is courtesy Duane Schermerhorn, hereafter referred to as “Duane S.” for reasons of laziness. Duane S. also served as “Spike Andrews” for the first volume of C.A.T., as I mentioned in my review of the second volume. I could barely remember anything about Kidnap Hotel as I read it so long ago, but it’s no bother, given that it’s never referred to in the course of Cult Of The Damned

Speaking of which, this book proves my universally-accepted theory that the Warner “Men Of Action” line was likely dictated by editors who, Lyle Kenyon Engel style, came up with the titles, plots, and even covers of the books, and then farmed out the actual writing chores to some contract writer. Why? Because there’s no cult of the damned in the book! Okay, very, very late in the game we discover that one of the two main villains was raised by a nutjob lady who runs a Christian cult, but this amounts to like just a few pages…and indeed, seems more like Duane S. desperately trying to work a “cult of the damned” into the, uh, damned book.

Because otherwise this third C.A.T. installment is straight-up sleazy ‘70s crime fiction, with the minor caveat that it was published in 1983…but really, only occasional mentions of “pageboy beepers” belie the ‘80s publication date. Otherwise the novel occurs in a totally ‘70s New York City, complete with outrageously-attired pimps and a tawdry Times Square of porn theaters and hookers. It even takes place during a sweltering August, same as so many of those ‘70s New York crime novels. 

Well anyway, I’m pretty sure Duane S. at one point ran his own website, the name of which escapes me at the moment. This was five or six years ago that I discovered it. I say this because Duane S., writing as “James Marcott,” published a novel through Fawcett in 1975 titled Hard To Kill. No, it wasn’t the novel that Steven Seagal based his later movie on – it was a Parker-esque heist yarn with the unique twist that the protagonist broke people out of places. In other words, a reverse-heist sort of concept, which is pretty cool.

This website had Hard To Kill for free online reading at the time, claiming it was the first of a trilogy. What’s more, the site also had the second volume, The Golden Coach Caper, for free reading as well – and the thing is, I don’t believe this novel was ever even published. At least, I could find no record of it at the time. The site also claimed that the third volume – don’t recall if we were given the title of that one – would be put online for free reading soon, but as I recall it the site hadn’t been updated for some time when I discovered it, and the third volume still hadn’t been uploaded.

I emailed the unnamed proprietor of the site through the “contact” section, asking if it was indeed Duane S. and if he was ever going to put that third book online, because I’d read the first one (I was too lazy to review it on here for some reason), planned to read the second one soon (which I actually still haven’t done – I saved it to a Word file, which proved to be downright prescient, as things turned out), and would want to read the third volume at some point. I never received a response…and a few days later the site was taken offline!! I of course promptly contacted the police.

It appears that by the early ‘80s Duane S. was performing ghostwriting duties; we know from Hawk’s Authors’s Pseudonyms that he wrote the first and third volumes of C.A.T., which we’ll recall stands for “Crisis Aversion Team,” an (apparently) two-man police squad operating out of Manhattan, composed of snappy dresser Vince Santillo and married man Stewart Weston. And that’s really all we get in the way of “personality” for these two guys. This sure as hell’s no Razoni & Jackson; these two guys are easily confused. And that “married man” part doesn’t even really factor for Weston, given that he bangs some broad in the course of Cult Of The Damned, and it ain’t his wife. 

Duane S. actually works up a “crisis” his heroes must avert, something the other series writer (George Ryan) failed to do in Kidnap Hotel. As the novel opens we are treated to a twisted Ric Meyers-esque scene in which a lovely young model is secretly summoned to a tawdry hotel in Manhattan, ostensibly to model a new line of lingerie…but really to be tied to a bed, raped by a succession of businessmen-types, and then have her head chopped off by the psychotic photographer who summoned her here. This is something the murderer, Mitch, has done a few times: his m.o. is inviting hotstuff models to grungy hotels and then killing them; this bit with the rapists is new, Mitch having decided he can make a buck off the poor women before he kills them!

As if that weren’t enough, a sniper is also going around Times Square and blowing away hookers, shooting them in broad daylight as they walk down busy streets. The humorous thing here is that Warners completely ruins any suspense on who the sniper is – folks, the first page preview outs him as “Christian,” who is introduced early in the book as Weston and Santillo’s new partner! And Duane S. tries to make the sniper’s identity a secret, which means that some careless editor at Warner’s didn’t even bother reading the manuscript…he or she just looked through the book for an action scene to spotlight on that first page, even though said action scene features Weston and Christian in a fight to the death!

Our heroes are summoned by their “stupid chief” boss, Lt. Hunt, and put on both cases. To this end as mentioned Detective Tom Christian is reassigned to the C.A.T. team to assist. A muscular karate master, Christian isn’t concerned with winning friends and influencing people; he comes off like an arrogant ass, trying to goad his new partners into a fight. Of course as mentioned that preview page has already blown it that Weston and Christian will indeed fight, but again Duane S. tries to work in the mystery that Christian is a nutjob – he even sneaks in “crafty” touches like noting the sniper’s muscular shoulders, and then dropping in the tidbit that Christian is heavily muscled when introducing him a few pages later.

Duane S. is also a master of the protracted action scene. Like, real protracted. The book runs 221 pages, which of course is way too long for this genre, and a lot of it is composed of action scenes that run for several pages. Like very early in the novel, when Weston and Santillo descend on the sniper’s latest hit in Times Square; Santillo sees a suspicious man on the periphery and assumes (correctly) that it’s the sniper lingering on the scene to check out his work. This leads to a fifteen-page running chase through the grungy streets of Times Square, with Weston getting involved as well. All the action scenes follow this outline, and the majority of them could’ve been whittled down for a less sluggish read.

The boys find time for a little tail, though. While working the model-killings case Santillo gets friendly with a busty model, going out with her a few times before the expected sex transpires. And as mentioned Weston gets some extramarital perks when he hooks up with a hotstuff babe who works as a secretary in a porn company in Manhattan – the company being the publisher of a magazine the sniper left at one of his hits. This sex scene, with unforgettable lines like “He entered her swiftly but gently,” is a bit more explicit than the one with Santillo. It also leads to another of those overlong action scenes: after the festivities, Weston’s putting on his clothes and saying goodbye, and as the gal opens her mouth to say something her head blows off, having been hit by a .357 dum-dum slug fired by an unseen assailant!

This leads to Weston chasing after Christian, of course not knowing it’s him, and it’s another of those running chases that goes on and on. This chase leads to the revelation that Christian is the sniper; while running from Weston he collides with a pigeon coop or something and next day Weston and Santillo find pigeon feathers in the file room…from such meager leads they begin to suspect surly Christian as having some ulterior motives on the sniper case, which he’s insisted on covering by himself. Here they briefly meet his mother, who runs a hardscrabble fire and brimstone church and preaches against sin and whatnot – Duane S.’s attempt at a “cult of the damned.”

As you’ll note, the sleazier model-killing case doesn’t get as much print. The killer has a pretty easy time of it, just talking sexy-but-gullible models into some make-believe photo shoot at various grungy Manhattan hotels. Here he will slap the girl around a bit, tie her to the bed, and then watch from a peephole as various men rape her. But the killer, Mitch, can’t get it up himself, thus uses his knife to “enter” the women as he kills them. As stated all this has the uber-lurid vibe of fellow Men Of Action house writer Ric Meyers. Occasionally Duane S. will cut over to this subplot, showing Mitch in action, piling up headless models. A personal note is worked into this one when Santillo’s new flame, busty model Dawn, becomes Mitch’s next target.

Here’s the other funny thing about the book – these two plots would be enough for any cop action thriller. Heck, even just one of them would be fine. But Duane S. also throws in an arbitrary – and initially unrelated – third subplot about a deposed leader from some fictional Middle Eastern country who is now chaffeured around New York, picking up eager women. At length he becomes involved with Mitch, becoming his latest customer for some model-raping. Duane S. tries to set up this particular subplot early in the book with a long, long action scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which seems inspired by the one in Narc #3, at least in that Weston appropriates bladed weaponry from the Medieval exhibit to fight off some would-be assassins.

But the way Duane S. ties it all together at novel’s end is spectacularly unsatisfying. The plot with the sniper is taken care of on page 174, with the Weston-Christian fight which was already spoilered on the first page preview. Then Mitch the model-killer is taken care of on page 190, just before he can slaughter Dawn, Santillo’s new girlfriend. And still we have 30 pages to go. So what does Duane S. do? He brings back those Middle Eastern assassins, who first kill off Mitch and the deposed ruler, then abduct Dawn and take off with her!

Thus the final thirty pages have nothing to do with any of the suspense that’s come before…Santillo and Weston rush after these newly-introduced villains, who end up barricading themselves in a subway train with even more hostages. The finale at least is tense with good action, but again it would’ve been more satisfying to just end the novel with the capture or killing of Christian and Mitch – and also more satisfying if either Santillo or Weston had handled Mitch on their own, instead of some just-introduced minor character.

Not that it much matters; this was the final volume of the series, making it (I believe) the shortest-lived of the Men Of Action line. I’m not sure what Duane S. moved on to…other than perhaps starting up that now-defunct website many years later.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Anderson Tapes

The Anderson Tapes, by Lawrence Sanders
January, 1971  Dell Books

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for quite a while. First published in hardcover in 1970, The Anderson Tapes was a big seller in its time but seems to be forgotten today, perhaps most remembered for the 1971 film adaptation starring Sean Connery – which itself is pretty obscure. At least, I had never heard of it until coming across a mention of it when I was actively looking for ‘70s crime movies a few years ago.

And the thing is, the film – directed by Sydney Lumet and co-starring Dyan Cannon – is actually pretty cool, plus it features a bizarrely young Christopher Walken in a supporting role. And also there’s a wacked-out Quincy Jones score, filled with “sci-fi” bloops and bleeps. But now that I’ve read the book I see how much of it didn’t make it to film, and also it’s clear that Connery was miscast, though he’s good as ever in the role.

The book was hot for its time because it brought to life the surveillance and monitoring that was becoming increasingly commonplace; this was a few years before Watergate. Lawrence Sanders broke his teeth writing crime stories in skin rags (I have an anthology of his pulp work, Tales Of The Wolf, which sounds cool – save for the upsetting tidbit that the tales have been “modernized” for the 1986 republication date). He the big league with The Anderson Tapes. Today it seems mostly known for being the first appearance of a character Anderson brought back in later novels: NYPD Captain Edward X Delaney. However Delaney doesn’t even appear until late in the narrative and doesn’t make much of an impression on the reader, or at least he didn’t to me.

The conceit of the novel is that it’s presented as a report “the author” has put together about the organized robbery of an upscale apartment building in Manhattan on Labor Day weekend of 1968. To this end the novel itself is comprised of conversations which have been secretly recorded, either via wiretap or hidden microphonees. The implication is that Big Brother is encroaching on us little folk, however the main failing for me with this conceit is that it ultimately has nothing to do with the plot of the novel: simply put, The Anderson Tapes is the story of how a career criminal attempts to heist an entire apartment building, but is ultimately foiled by a handicapped kid with a shortwave radio. It’s a simple story made complicated.

While the “transcripts” nature of the book must’ve seemed revelatory in its day, or so contemporary reviews would imply, today the whole thing just seems tedious. And it’s not even just that I’m viewing it with a modern eye. The Anderson Tapes still seems sluggish and bloated; at 337 pages in this Dell edition, it is much longer than it has any right to be, and a lot of it is due to needless repetition and tedious overexplanation of mundane things. And in fact by novel’s end I was longing for basic narrative stuff like “He said” or “She said;” the conceit that the entire thing is a “case study” soon becomes a deadweight around the reader’s neck.

Anyway the novel such as it is opens with a secretly recorded conversation between John “Duke” Anderson and Mrs. Everleigh, an attractive married woman who lives in a posh Manhattan apartment all by her horny lonesome. Here we get a taste of what’s in store for us, with long dissertation on how and why this recording was gathered (in this case, the woman’s separated husband, who owns the apartment, placed a bug in it under the suspicion that his wife was cheating on him). This gets to be a beating as the novel goes on, though sometimes there is some humor in it. However Sanders’s “Big Brother” paranoia rings hollow here because the majority of these people are planning crimes, thus the wiretapping and etc was justified.

In this case the illegal recording is also justified, because Mrs. Everleigh is indeed carrying on extramarital affairs, and proceeds to have sex with Anderson – not that anything is described. In another of those quickly-grating narrative quirks, we are informed that “ten minutes of silence pass on the recording” and such. In fact hardly anything is described in the novel, which also quickly becomes a bummer – in some of the explanatory introductions to each excerpt we might get a brief, Wanted Poster-esque description of some of the characters, but otherwise the reader’s imagination has to do all the heavy lifting.

Contemporary reviews made a big deal out of the “kinky sex” of The Anderson Tapes, but what it boils down to is that Anderson gets off on sadomasochism, mostly thanks to an old flame of his, a pseudo-hooker from Germany named Ingrid. Much is made of “getting out” in the dialog; Anderson to Everleigh, Ingrid to Anderson: “Do you want me to get you out?” and the like. I assumed this meant climaxing but by novel’s end it seems to have a darker connotation. Also, a few of the characters are gay. This was heavy duty stuff in 1970, and the industry reviewers hyped it up accordingly. But again, there’s no meat to any of it – it’s all talk, zero show. It’s like Sanders, in his quest to make this seem like a legitimate case study, forgot the most basic storytelling requirements. 

The story itself is pretty cool, though, and reading the book made it clear that Hollywood saw the potential and skinned away the flab. Some characters were removed, others were skillfully combined; for example, Mrs. Everleigh doesn’t exist in the film, however elements of her character were combined with Ingrid. Thus in the movie Ingrid lives in the apartment building Anderson plans to rob, and becomes his inside woman, as it were. And they also renamed the character “Ingrid Everleigh!” But in the novel Ingrid lives in her own pad and is basically there for Anderson to exposit on his schemes – her place is secretly wired too, of course, “on suspicion of prostitution.”

While in Ms. Everleigh’s apartment Anderson starts to wonder how much he could score from such a luxury establishment. He’s already done time for various robberies, but he’s looking for the next big hit. He starts planning the heist, going to the Mafia for some backing, putting together a group to reconnoiter the premises via various sneaky means. All this is relayed via wiretapped phone conversations or secret recordings in various locations, with the now-mandatory explanation of why things were being taped there in the first place. In an interesting foreshadowing trick we also know that some of Anderson’s comrades will be captured, as two of the characters “speak” via interviews or testimonies they’ve given to police after their arrest.

I’ve always been a fan of the heist genre, and this is basically a heist book, but we’re robbed of much of the fun, given how it’s told. The usual elements of the genre, from planning the heist to assembling the team, are all rendered via dialog, which robs the tale of the tension and atmosphere it needs. And only a few of the characters are able to transcend the limitations of the conceit, in particular a black criminal acquaintance of Anderson’s who raps instead of talks…well sort of a proto-raps, in that his statements rhyme. But even Anderson himself is lost to us, though this would seem to be intentional, as the book is about his plot but we never actually “meet” him. Not that this should’ve prevented Anderson from being more memorable. We never “met” Shark Trager in Boy Wonder, either, but damned if he wasn’t a memorable character.

As part of the mob’s buy-in on the job, Anderson is given a kill assignment; they want to get rid of a torpedo who has gotten a little out of hand, and Anderson’s told if he kills this guy during the heist, the mob will fund the operation. Anderson, who like the heister in The Devalino Caper never carries a gun on his jobs, agrees to this requirement, and there follows some material where he exposits about it with Ingrid. Speaking of which there is a lot of stuff that could’ve been cut from The Anderson Tapes, and not just the expository dialog scenes. It just seems that Sanders has taken a short and sweet story and bloated it beyond all rational proportions.

The heist doesn’t even begin until over 200 pages in, and here of course the novel finally kicks in gear. But again it’s all relayed via dialog, from either eyewitness testimony of the apartment occupants to the interviews with Anderson’s imprisoned comrades. Anderson and team wore unusual masks in the film, but here they go for the basic pantyhose over the face ensemble. They’re a bit more violent than in the movie, too, particularly the mobster torpedo (who doesn’t even exist in the film), however none of the apartment occupants are killed. The plan is to round up the few people still in the building over this Labor Day weekend and put them in the apartment of two old ladies…whose testimonies are perhaps the most irritating of all in the book, given that much of it is comprised of them bitching at each other.

Anderson is undone same as in the film, thanks to a wheelchair bound kid who happens to be a genius…however here in the book he too is more irritating, going on at great self-congratulatory length in his testimony. What I found interesting is that Sanders didn’t even tie in the “Big Brother monitoring” conceit of the novel into Anderson’s foiling; the kid’s short wave radio has nothing to do with any of that, proving once again that this could’ve been done as just a “normal” novel. But of course this way we also get to read a lot of intercepted short wave radio broadcasts to fill up more pages.

The film did change the finale, though: Anderson doesn’t get out of the building in the movie, but in the novel he’s able to escape and get back to Ingrid…for another conversation about “getting out,” believe it or not! Actually the novel just sort of limps to a jarring close, with the final pages focusing on what’s happened to Ingrid, even though she was at most a supporting character. I would’ve preferred more info on what happened to the other criminals, but again the conceit holds that all at bay, given that this “report” has been put together shortly after the heist, thus most of the criminals are “still under investigation.”

I’m not sorry I read The Anderson Tapes, but the time I spent reading it could’ve been spent on more entertaining – and shorter – novels. Readers of the day clearly felt differently, as this book put Sanders on the map, and he went on to a successful mainstream crime fiction career.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Peacemaker #2: The Yashar Pursuit

The Peacemaker #2: The Yashar Pursuit, by Adam Hamilton
August, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

Ah, The Peacemaker. The “adventure” series that makes Dakota seem like a rip-roaring rollercoaster of thrills. I have to quote him again, but damned if Zwolf didn’t aptly sum up this series when he mocked the covers: “Look out, troublemakers, or Barry will make a few calls!” Because that’s all Barington “The Peacemaker” Hewes-Bradford does in the course of The Yashar Pursuit.

But first a note on that cover art, which is by far the best thing about this series. The back cover credits artist Mel Crair, and it would seem evident that the character depicted is his own interpretation. Indeed, Marilyn Granbeck (aka “Adam Hamilton”) briefly describes “Barry” as having “a hawk nose and black hair,” and later even has him joking about wearing a false moustache. Thus the moustached lothario of the cover is Crair’s invention – I mean hell the dude doesn’t even wear a bow tie in the books. But he sure as hell uses the phone a lot, so that part of the cover is at least faithful to what happens in the actual books.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume. The novel opens with what will turn out to be one of the few action scenes as a group of American terrorists break into an army base in the desert and steal a cylinder of nerve gas. Later we’ll learn that four other cylinders have been stolen from other bases across the country, but this information is being kept top secret from the public. We readers know it is a plot of Yashar, an Arabic terrorist from the fictional Middle Eastern country Kushka, in league with some hippie terrorists who call themselves the International Peace Movement.

Barry comes onto the scene because the husband of one of his most trusted employees is hurt in the opening cylinder heist. He makes here the first of the many, many phone calls that will comprise the brunt of what passes for “action” in The Yashar Pursuit, trying to get details on what exactly was stolen from that army base. He even flies to DC to get the scoop on what’s happened. For the most part he relies on two employees: Frank Trask, the pipe-smoking executive in charge of the security wing of Barry’s corporation, and Lobo, the former pro footballer who, same as last time, does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to researching leads, fighting bad guys, and doing all the other stuff that the main protagonist of an action series usually handles himself.

For that is the inherent problem with The Peacemaker. I mean it’s like reading an action series starring the President. Barry hardly ever rolls up his sleeves and gets in on the action – he just, you know, makes a few calls, and other people do the work for him. About the most he does for the first 160 pages is call people, smoke mountains of cigarettes, and occasionally take a flight on his private plane. But even then a savvy writer could come up with a way for Barry to actually go out and see some action, but part of the gist of the series is that Barry protects his “secret identity” at all costs – the world just thinks of him as a successful entreprenneur, not realizing he uses his vast wealth to “ensure peace.”

Well anyway Barry gradually comes across mentions of Yashar and deduces that he’s stolen the cannisters with the help of the hippie terrorists. Sad to say, the highlight of the book might be a part where Lobo is sent to check out an International Peace Movement sit-in in DC, where he hobknobs with a willowy redhead (who promptly disappears from the text, despite initially promising to be a more important character) and spies a package of grenades being unloaded alongside some food. But the cops raid the sit-in and steal the grenades, which turn out to be unarmed or something, and both Lobo and Barry suspect they were going to be filled with some of that stolen nerve gas.

There’s also a lot of nonsense about Freda Polk, the leader of the International Peace Movement. Granbeck wants her cake and to eat it, too, because Freda is both a grungy hippie terrorist and a sultry babe who is wooed by Barry’s manly charms. Whereas a real-life Freda would be a shrill harpie who hated men, Freda actually tries to communicate with Barry, resenting him for being “Establisment” but still offering to spend the night with him…an offer, folks, which Barry turns down. Like I said last time, it wouldn’t take a genius to deduce that “Adam Hamilton” is really a woman.

Nor does Barry conjugate with Elorith, attractive young sister of the current ruler of Kushka, a woman who knows the mysterious Yashar and might even be able to contact him. But Barry is constantly uncertain if he can trust Elorith, if she’s just setting him up for Yashar, and all that – again, Granbeck’s bibliography is heavy on mysteries and that’s pretty much all she writes here. But back to the sleaze, nothing happens with these or the few other women Barry meets in the course of the novel, though on the very last page it’s implied he and Elorith might get friendly on a trip to Kushka. 

It just churns on and on, with hardly anything happening. Most interest is derived in how much more ruthless Muslim terrorists have become. The terrorists send letters to the media that the cylinders will be released in a big city if demands aren’t met – freeing Kushkan prisoners and the like – and Barry and others have trouble believing that these terrorists could kill people on a mass scale. When one of the cylinders accidentally leaks, killing nineteen innocents, Freda Polk goes out of her way to proclaim Yashar’s “innoncence,” that he had no intention of killing those people. Of course I’m comparing fiction to reality, but still, the book is from an era in which the idea of radical Muslim terrorists flying airplanes into skyscrapers would be outside the realm of rational thought. But that’s progress for you, I guess.

Last time there were at least some gestures toward excitement, or potential excitement, like Barry doing scuba reconnaissance and such, but this time there isn’t even that. Barry just smokes and flies around on his private plane, including a trip to Denver when it appears one of the cylinders is about to be released. The climax, such as it is, involves a long drive into Pennsylvannia, where Barry finds Yashar’s headquarters, deep in a mine. The cover art comes into play here, with Barry knocking out a few of the terrorists with an appropriated rifle – shooting none of them.

In fact the book is so determined to be bloodless that when Barry captures Yashar, he goes out of his way to keep him alive; this despite Elorith, who begs Barry to let her kill Yashar, given how evil he is. I mean even the female character wants to kill the bad guy, but our hero refuses! At length Barry is indeed forced to pull the trigger, but only after Yashar has conveniently escaped with a gun of his own, and thus Barry has to defend himself. This is Barry’s first and only kill, on page 189 of a 192 page book. The whole thing is just so tedious and lethargic. And the helluva it is, Granbeck’s writing is fine, she’s just working in the wrong genre.

Honestly folks, no fooling – this series sucks. It seems to have been written for a target audience of grandmothers. But I bet even grandmothers would find it boring.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Hook #3: Hate Is Thicker Than Blood

The Hook #3: Hate Is Thicker Than Blood, by Brad Latham
December, 1981  Warner Books

A big thanks to Darren Heil, who recently posted a comment on my review of the first volume of The Hook that the series was in fact not written by David Schow. And also Schow himself left a comment on the review, also stating that he wasn’t “Brad Latham,” so thanks to him as well – I must’ve missed his comment when he posted it back in 2017.

Darren Heil confirms what I started to supsect after the second volume; namely, that The Hook was written by at least two authors. That second volume was so out of line with the first one that it should’ve been clear as day to me when I read it; I mean the first one traded off between gumshoe action featuring oddball gangsters and incredibly explicit sex scenes, whereas the second one didn’t feature much of either. Per Heil, this is because an author named Richard O’Brien wrote the first, third, and fifth volumes of The Hook. I guess it’s still a mystery who wrote volumes two and four. Hey, maybe it was David Schow!! Oh, wait…

As with The Gilded Canary, Hate Is Thicker Than Blood is a busily-plotted private eye yarn occuring in a 1938 Bronx populated by misfit gangsters and uber-horny women. I mean these ladies will screw at the drop of a fedora, and damned if O’Brien doesn’t document each and every bang in full-on detail. I don’t mean this as a complaint; I’ve said before I think this genre should start where “over the top” ends, but at the same time something about the book seems sluggish, even though it’s only around 160 pages. But then like those other Warner “Men of Action” books, it’s got some very small, very dense print, so the page number is a bit misleading.

It's clear that O’Brien didn’t read the previous volume, which as stated has a totally different vibe than this one. Humorously in Sight Unseen Bill “The Hook” Lockwood fell in love with a woman, planned to marry her and etc, couldn’t believe he had finally found “the one” and etc…and the same scenario occurs here, with nary a mention of the previous volume’s babe. The veteran men’s adventure reader will of course know what happens to both these women. A proposal in this genre is practically a death contract.

Speaking of babes, the hardcore sex makes a huge return here, pretty much all of it on the level of the “Put it in me!” raunch of the first volume. Lockwood does pretty well for himself, scoring with four sexy women over the course of a couple days. I honestly never knew 1930s women were so damn horny. But they throw themselves at “The Hook” with wild abandon: a sultry female doctor; an old flame of Lockwood’s who is now a heroin-addicted mob floozie; a widow (whose sex scene, believe it or not, is completely off page – yet inexplicably this scene is spotlighted on the first-page preview); and finally a virginal but smokin’ hot babe who is the sister of the murdered Mrs. Nuzzo. O’Brien details each slam in full glory (save for the bit with the widow), featuring almost as memorable phrases as the first volume. My favorite: “Her fluids were hot on his phallus.” Almost sounds like slash fiction about Herbie the Love Bug.

Curiously though the violence, when it happens, isn’t nearly as exploited. Lockwood kills several goons, blowing them away with his customary .38 revolver, but there isn’t as much detail when it comes to the exploding fountains of gore and guts. Actually the action is kept on mostly a hardboiled sort of level, with Lockwood getting in as many fistfights as shootouts, taking a bit of damage along the way himself. There’s a tense bit where he’s captured and forced into a chair while a sadistic mobster tortures someone for info, and Lockwood gets punched around himself. Actually Lockwood’s captured a few times, which I guess is part of the hardboiled template but makes him come off sort of stupid sometimes.

The plot is muddled despite being ultimately simple: Bill “The Hook” Lockwood is called in by his cantankerous boss Mr. Gray at TransAtlantic Underwriters to look into an “easy” case: a Mr. Frank Nuzzo of the Bronx is calling in the insurance he had on his wife’s necklace, which has been stolen. That Mrs. Maria Nuzzo was killed in the robbery seems incidental; Mr. Nuzzo is more concerned with cashing in on that stolen necklace. Mr. Gray has no idea that “Frank Nuzzo” is really Frankie Nuzzo, an infamous mobster. Of course Lockwood is familiar with him, and instantly suspects that Nuzzo offed his own wife so as to collect on the insurance.

This leads to the first of many confrontations Lockwood has with Nuzzo; Lockwood gets in a ton of scrapes, chases, and shootouts in the book. And he encounters the usual parade of mobsters with goofy monikers: Wall-Eye Borowy, Fish Lomenzo, Willie the Weeper. From the start Lockwood’s certain Nuzzo hired someone to stage a robbery and murder his wife; eventually Wall-Eye Borowy (so named because his eyes look in opposite directions) is outed as the man who pulled the trigger. But things get more muddled, as the autospy shows that Mrs. Nuzzo was shot by two different guns.

It gets even more twisted when it turns out Mrs. Nuzzo was having an affair, and this would appear why Frankie Nuzzo offed her. This brings in Fish Lomezo, a sadistic hood who happens to be Maria Nuzzo’s brother, and now he’s out for revenge. Lockwood follows all these clues around, usually staying one step ahead of the mobsters. Soon he encounters Gina Lomenzo, Maria’s kid sister, a virginal beauty who is so dropdead pretty and innocent that Lockwood falls for her instantly. And of course she’s Fish Lomenzo’s other sister, but claims no knowledge of Fish’s criminal activities.

It just sort of churns on, Lockwood getting in and out of scrapes without batting an eyelash, complete with wrecking a carfull of hoods into the Hudson. And of course, banging a bevy of willing babes – the widow being the unsettling moment in this regard. At Maria Nuzzo’s funeral Lockwood overhears a Bronx lady talking about Maria’s whoring, and he goes to see the lady next day…she turns out to be a widow, her husband having killed himself due to the Depression, and she’s nice and horny. After some off-page lovin’ she gives Lockwood the dirt on Maria…and next day Lockwood reads in the paper about a Bronx widow’s mutilated corpse being discovered by the cops. Her throat’s been slashed and her tongue’s been cut out, a clear warning of what happens to people who talk. Lockwood doesn’t seem much bothered about it.

Instead, he’s too busy planning to marry Gina Lomenzo! He suffers from total amnesia that he was planning to get married in the previous volume as well. Even a glue-sniffing kid will know this romance isn’t going to end well, but at least O’Brien keeps the narrative interesting with oddball sleaze, like an arbitrary visit to a “floating cathouse in the financial district” where Lockwood tracks down the elusive Wall-Eyes Borowy. We also get a return appearance of bullish police chief Mad Dog Brannigan, which further gives The Hook the vibe of an amped-up ‘30s pulp.

The plot twists all over the place, as if O’Brien were trying to rewrite Chinatown, even though at the end it turns out Lockwood was right from the very beginning: Nuzzo really did do it, but the question is who fired the other gun that killed Maria Nuzzo. In one lame moment Lockwood even accuses Dr. Susan Venable, the hotstuff doctor he had fullblown sex with in the opening pages. This accusation is just forgotten in the finale, in which Lockwood is shocked – damn shocked, I say – to discover the other shooter was…well, you can probably figure out who it was.

The finale features all sorts of “tragic” reveals and reversals as Lockwood learns the truth behind the Nuzzo-Maria-Gina triangle, complete with Lockwood basically walking off a gunshot wound and managing to crash the car his would-be killer is driving. And while we are to understand Lockwood is heartbroken and devastated, a sort of apathy has long since set upon us, perhaps due to the crushing weight of the various plots and subplots we’ve endured. What I mean to say is, the problem with this series as I see it is that Bill Lockwood is lost in the shuffle, and there’s otherwise nothing that registers on the reader’s awareness, save for the ultra-kinky sex scenes.

Oh and how about this random bit of geekery…now we know that most of the series was written by Richard O’Brien, and as I mentioned in my review of the first volume, “Bill Lockwood” sounds like “Hugh Lockwood,” aka the main character of the obscure 1973 TV series Search. And Hugh Lockwood, my friends, was portrayed by Hugh O’Brian, thus bringing it all full circle. I’ll pause as your heads explode.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Voyage Of Death (aka Kill Squad #2)

Voyage Of Death, by Mark Cruz
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

Dan Streib seems to have learned his lesson from Chopper Cop, the series from which he was apparently fired by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel; the first volume of Kill Squad was much better than either of Streib’s Chopper Cop novels, featuring more biker action and exploitation than both of them put together. This second installment continues the trend, at least in that it’s sleazy ‘70s crime. However this time there’s an almost goofy disregard for reality or common sense.

Actually the goofiness is prevalent throughout, with almost the entirety of Voyage Of Death featuring the titular Kill Squad – blond Chet Tabor, black Grant Lincoln (we’re reminded many, many times that he’s black, of course), and sexy Maria Alvarez – on a luxury cruise ship bound for Mexico. Streib pulled the same trick in the lackluster third volume, taking his heroes out of their San Diego stomping grounds and putting them in an unusual locale. My suspicion is he was shoehorning them into various mystery novel ideas he had on the backburner. For example, the plot of this one could feature practically anyone as the protagonist; a trio of rule-breaking San Diego cops seems forced. 

There’s no pickup from the previous book; we meet the trio as they’re aboard a ship in San Diego, working a stakeout on drug runners who’ve been smuggling heroin into the city from Mexico. Maria’s kid brother Pedro’s on board, a junior cop who has been working the case. There’s a quick firefight where Tabor inadvertently kills all the bad guys – Tabor is an almost bafoonish protagonist, more of which later – much to the dismay of their “stupid chief” boss, Chief Jackson.

We get our first taste of the ridiculous nature of the book when Tabor leaves the crime scene…and goes to a party in his apartment! And then Lincoln and Maria show up to yell at him! The yelling of course gets Tabor and Maria properly heated, so that they’re engaged in some sort-of explicit hardcore shenanigans on Tabor’s bed, a reminder that these two “have a casual sex thing going” (per Marty McKee). Then Lincoln barges in on them (not the last time “the big black” will barge in on Tabor while he’s getting busy) with a box that’s just arrived for Tabor.

You guessed it, folks…pre-Seven style it’s Pedro’s severed friggin’ head in the box. Well this of course ruins Maria’s randy mood good and quick. Things get even more ridiculous…Tabor and Lincoln march into Chief Jackson’s office and flat-out tell him they’re boarding the cruise ship they’ve determined is behind the heroin smuggling…if Jackson doesn’t “make some calls to Washington” and get them assigned they’ll just go as ordinary civilians. So Jackson relents, mostly because it will get these two out of his hair for a while, and thus these San Diego police officers are flown to Los Angeles so they can board a luxury ship bound for Mexico.

Oh and to make it even more ludicrous, a grieving but determined Maria comes in and says she’s going too, like it or not. But it gets goofier, folks…’cause Tabor, who as you’ll recall started all the action at the opening of the book which ultimately led to Pedro’s death, is basically like “Who gives a shit?” that the kid’s dead, and disregards it because there’s nothing he can do about it now. And so Tabor looks as the cruise as ample opportunity to check out some swinging ‘70s chicks and maybe take a couple of them back to his stateroom, which he shares with Lincoln; “the Negro cop” will just have to find his own place to spend the night.

To this end Tabor insists that he’s only going to check out the young female passengers on the ship; the evidence shows that life preservers have been missing from staterooms occupied by single male passengers, and thus it seems clear that the smugglers are stealing them and using them to float the heroin shipment before the ship comes into port, to be picked up later by boat. While Maria and Grant believe this means that single men are behind the heroin pipeline, Tabor is certain it’s an all-girl pipeline, sleeping with those single men and stealing their life preservers the next morning.

There are supposedly a few hundred passengers on board but Tabor keeps bumping into the same three women – a willowy librarian named Winifred, a standoffish blonde named Sabine, and a sexy brunette named Kirstin – and immediately deduces that one or all of them is involved with the heroin pipeline. Of course he’ll be proven correct, coincidence or plot cliches be damned. Meanwhile Grant Lincoln hooks up with Winifred’s Japanese roomate; Streib often includes Japanese babes in his novels, I’ve noticed, with Tabor scoring with one in the third volume. 

But it’s just all so goofy…Tabor, despite his better judgement, ends up with Winifred, even though he’s sure she’s a virgin. He just feels sorry for her. Plus she drops enough hints that she’s on the cruise for reasons other than just pleasure, so Tabor’s suspicions are aroused. They have some fairly explicit sex, where it turns out Winifred is indeed a virgin. Late that night Tabor wakes up alone in bed, searches his room, and finds that his life preserver is indeed missing! He gets in a chase with a shadowy individual on the empty, dark deck – there are a lot of contrived “action scenes” where Tabor is haunted by someone he somehow can’t see on this massive, empty ship.

The next big action sequence has Tabor and Lincoln shadowing Winifred as she sneaks around Puerto Vallarta, immediately after the ship docks. She appears to do a drug deal while “chuting,” ie flying along in a parachute behind a boat. To make it even more ludicrous Tabor and Lincoln chute behind her, tailing her to a remote island, where they get in a shootout with some Mexican thugs…a shootout for which Tabor is arrested and thrown in jail. And then folks, a friggin’ helicopter descends on the prison that night, dropping a ladder for Tabor, and it’s piloted by Maria and Lincoln: they got the helicopter from the ship’s captain, who wanted to ensure his passenger could get back on board the ship!

Yes, that all really happens. There is I say an almost brazen disregard for reality in Voyage Of Death. Somehow Tabor’s unable to determine Winifred’s complicity in the smuggling, though it seems clear she’s gotten in over her head and is being used as an unwitting mule. It doesn’t matter, because shortly Winifred is dealt with, and again Tabor is unable to see the attacker even though this happens on an otherwise empty deck. After this his sights set on Sabine and Kirstin, though suprisingly Tabor doesn’t have sex with either of them, Winifred and Maria being his only conquests this time around. 

The climax occurs at the next stop, Acapulco, and by this point Tabor’s certain the smuggling mastermind is either of those two women…but also one of them might be the private eye the Mexican government has put on the ship, keeping his or her identity a secret. There’s a nicely done shootout at a half-finished, abandoned hotel, which proves that our heroes don’t really live up to the badassery of their “Kill Squad” name, in that for the most part they run for cover, scream “Stop! Police!” and trade ineffectual return fire. One of the two ladies is killed here, but Streib lamely has it that no one’s certain whether Maria shot her or an unseen sniper did.

This leads to the climax, in which Tabor confronts the main villain…at dinner. He’s already arranged for a date with the lady, and here he accuses her of her villainy and whatnot…and she ends up falling to her death when a vengeance-filled Maria shows up, looking for blood. I was surprised that the female villain didn’t get shot in the face so her eyeballs popped out – believe it or not, a recurring image in Streib’s novels.

Streib doles out frequent action but it seems clear he mainly wants to write mysteries…most of the novel’s centered on the lame suspense of which of the three women is behind the pipeline. But it’s a mystery with a moronic protagonist; Tabor does little to gain the reader’s sympathy or even interest, stubbornly bulldozing his way through the narrative with little regard for others. He spends a lot of time fighting with Lincoln and Maria, too. But it’s all still miles better than Streib’s work on Chopper Cop.

For those taking notes, Tabor and Maria didn’t get friendly in the third volume – perhaps indication that Maria’s not forgiven Tabor for Pedro’s death. She blames him frequently in Voyage Of Death, and of course Tabor doesn’t give a damn. So we’ll see what happens in the fourth volume, though there isn’t much continuity in the series.

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Assassin #3: Boston Bust-Out

The Assassin #3: Boston Bust-Out, by Peter McCurtin
December, 1973  Dell Books

The Assassin comes to a close with a final chapter penned by Peter McCurtin himself. At this point there doesn’t seem to be any effort to make this a “class” crime novel a la the first volume was; Boston Bust-Out is just as rough and wild as the books McCurtin, Russell Smith, and others churned out for The Marksman and The Sharpshooter.                             

Even the schtick of Robert “The Assassin” Briganti making tape recordings and sending them to the FBI has been dropped. Briganti at this point really is Magellan; the climax of the novel even has him working out marksman trajectories, so “Marksman” was certainly a better handle for the character than “The Assassin.” But as I mentioned before, several volumes of The Marksman had already been published before this original series even hit the shelves; it seems clear that Belmont-Tower and Leisure got their product out more quickly than Dell Books (as evidenced by the plentiful typos and grammatical errors in those B-T and Leisure publications!).

I’ll tell you one thing McCurtin whittled down when he took Briganti over to Belmont Tower and changed his name to Magellan: the references to Briganti’s “dead son.” While The Marksman never had an origin story (because it was contained in the first Assassin volume), the authors who worked on the series would occasionally remind us that Magellan’s family had been killed by the Mafia. It seems to me, looking back on the blur of the volumes I’ve read, that most often it was Magellan’s wife they referred to, with his young son only seldom mentioned. I would imagine this is because a murdered child is a helluva lot more impacting than a murdered wife, comparatively speaking, and in a way adds too much “emotional content” to what is intended to be just a cheap revenge thriller series.

At least that’s my interpretation. And McCurtin would seem to agree, as in this final volume Briganti often thinks of his murdered son and these parts have more emotional resonance than anything else in the Assassin/Marksman/Sharpshooter mythos. But also Briganti reflects that he’s been able to get a handle on his wife’s murder, given that she was in her early 30s when she was killed and had been married, “borne a son,” etc. An abruptly-ended life to be sure, but at least a mostly full life. The same could not be said for Brigainti’s son. And for this reason, we learn, Briganti is often so “tortured” by memories of his son that he has to drink himself to slumber.

This is heavy stuff, and wisely was cut from the series when Briganti became Magellan (and occasionally “Johnny Rock”). In those grungier Belmont and Leisure books Magellan/Rock was more of a human killing machine, impersonal as a robot – something else McCurtin dwells on here, seemingly paving the way for the work of Russell Smith, who delivered a completely psychotic Magellan. Boston Bust-Out occasionally dwells on Briganti’s lack of emotions, how in the past year since his family was murdered he himself has killed so many mobsters he no longer keeps count, how he can so easily go into a killing frenzy with no emotional fallout afterward. He even bluntly – and truthfully – tells a beautiful young “Mafia whore” that he’ll kill her in cold blood and sleep soundly that night.

Another reason these morbid musings were likely cut was because Dell required a bigger word count, or so I’m suspecting; as with the previous two volumes, Boston Bust-Out comes in at an unwieldy 192 pages, compared to the shorter BT and Leisure publications (which had bigger print as well). But despite the extra emotional baggage, this final installment really does come off more like one of those Marksman books, as there’s no concern with realism and Briganti is occasionally so unhinged in his quest to quash “Mafia pigs” that he might as well just be referred to as “Magellan” in the text. He even takes the opportunity to tie up and drug that “Mafia whore,” just like Magellan does in so many of the Russell Smith Marksman novels.

Okay, time to rein in the review a little. We meet Briganti with no pickup from the previous volume; he’s just barrelling through Boston when some state cops come after him. Briganti reflects that he’s yet to kill a cop but likely will if he’s pushed to it. Regardless he avoids them, ditches his car (and his arsenal), and catches a bus to Maine. He spends a few months on the farm of old Lem Perkins as a hired hand. Lem’s an even better shot than Briganti and shows him a thing or two. Then one day while shooting at squirrels Lem himself is blown away – by a pair of Mafia snipers who have somehow trailed Briganti up here. Our hero dispatches them quickly, then vows to return to Boston to wipe out the only person who could’ve sent the killers: Don Franco Toriello. 

So begins Briganti’s war of attrition. One thing I found interesting is this time Briganti has to rebuild his arsenal, which comes pretty easily – he just kills a few mobsters and picks up their dropped guns. His main weapons this time are a pair of Magnum revolvers, a .44 and a .357. He also gets a machine pistol of German manufacture (don’t believe the model is specified). McCurtin is more liberal with the gore than I recall previous volumes being; we get copious detail of bullet-riddled bodies leaking blood, guts, and brains. And Briganti’s pure hardcore this time around; he hates “Mafia pigs” with such vehemence that he’s almost granted superpowers; during a hit on a Toriello whorehouse Briganti gets so pissed when two torpedos blow away an innocent girl that Briganti steps out of cover and calmly walks forward, guns raised – and neither mobster is able to hit him, their aim apparently thrown off by his heavy vibes.

Briganti’s here at the whorehouse thanks to a tip from lovely “Mafia whore” Louisa Fioretti, a redheaded beauty who is Toriello’s kept woman. She comes into the text via an assault Briganti stages on an apartment complex in a running battle that’s very well done, complete with Briganti swinging Tarzan style between buildings on a television antenna cord. Louisa is perhaps the most memorable character here, a cool beauty who trades banter with Briganti despite the corpses strewn about the place. But I’d advise against getting a copy of this book for your feminist pals, because Louisa is raked over the coals, and in a major way.

First Briganti casually tells her he’ll kill her without a second thought, all while calling her a whore and whatnot. Then he ends up giving in to her wiles, screwing her in somewhat-explicit fashion. After this he drugs her to sleep, ties her up, and later squeezes her and hits her when she won’t give him the info he wants. He even threatens to throw scalding coffee in her face, which he says will permanently disfigure her beauty. Then he lets her escape, intending to use her to set up some in-fighting in Toriello’s camp. When she reunites with Toriello things get even more extreme. The mob boss is certain she “fucked Briganti,” that she wasn’t even raped by him but wanted it. Toriello strips her and starts slapping her around in front of his underlings, all while she keeps pleading that she loves him. Then Toriello blows her away with a .38 before revealing to a stooge that he too loved her!

This and the material about Briganti’s murdered family is really the only stuff that sets Boston Bust-Out apart from the average Marksman installment, in that this material has an extra dimension of depth. In particular when Briganti, hiding out, goes to a John Wayne movie and reflects how his son was such a fan of John Wayne. McCurtin drops some unexpected emotion into this scene and it’s very refreshing after the various brutalisms Briganti has perpetrated in the previous pages, like his merciless setup of Louisa. Here we are reminded that the people he’s up against actually murder children and thus do not deserve any mercy, even the “otherwise innocent” women who sleep with the murderous scumbags.

And as mentioned the finale is fitting because it points the way to the ensuing Marksman novels, if for no other reason than, for one, the term “marksman” is actually employed, but also more importantly because Briganti goes to elaborate lengths to plot out sniper trajectories. Even down to doing math equations in the mud with his finger; he lures Toriello and a few others into the mountains of Maine, painstakingly ensuring he’ll be able to shoot accurately with his rifle. This part though goes on a little too long, with Briganti climbing the mountain, the others struggling to follow, and Briganti picking them off one by one.

And that’s it for The Assassin, so far as the original series goes, but as mentioned (way too many times now) this volume, with its focus on violence, sadism, and cold-blooded brutality, already has more in common with Briganti’s further adventures over at Belmont-Tower.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Mafia: Operation Loan Shark

Mafia: Operation Loan Shark, by Don Romano
November, 1974  Pyramid Books

This was the last published volume of Mafia: Operation, and the second one to be written by Paul Eiden. His first was Operation: Hijack, published before Operation: Hit Man, but I haven’t read it yet. That’s no big deal, as there’s no continuity or recurring characters in this “series.” What’s important is that Eiden here delivers the sleazy crime novel we expect of him, featuring one of the most unlikable prick protagonists ever.

I really wasn’t looking forward to this volume. Loan sharking just didn’t sound like a compelling enough topic to dwell on for 190 pages of smallish print. Luckily Eiden isn’t as much interested in the mechanics of loan sharkery as he is in the sleazy vileness of his protagonist, a hulking mountain of muscle named Mickey Di Angelo. In many ways Operation: Loan Shark harkens back to the BCI Crime Paperback Eiden wrote for producer Lyle Kenyon Engel the year before, Crooked Cop (still one of my favorite novels I’ve ever reviewed on the blog). Just like the “hero” of that earlier novel, Mickey Di Angelo is a sadistic bastard who has gotten wealthy from crime and will do anything possible to get himself a bigger piece of the pie. To do so he’ll trample anyone in his path, even going as far as setting up elaborate murder triangles. Plus he enjoys forcing the occasional innocent young woman into prostitution.

The back cover has it that the plot concerns Mickey trying to wrest full control of his loan shark operations from his boss, Dominic Zinna, and in this effort Mickey retains a willing young woman to cater to Zinna’s depraved interests. Well, that’s sort of what happens…towards the very end of the novel. For the most part, Operation: Loan Shark is a slice-of-sleazy-life yarn more concerned with Mickey’s lurid daily activities, without the hassle of a plot getting in the way. In fact Zinna barely figures into anything; Mickey’s the true star of the show, and as mentioned he’s a major bastard. 

Mickey’s more focused on his long-vanished father, a drunk who knocked up Mickey’s mom thirty-one years ago and only came around long enough to beat little Mickey around. In fact the bridge of Mickey’s nose lacks any cartilege because Mickey’s dad, in a drunken rage, smashed Mickey in the face with a broomstick. This happened when Mickey was ten years old. He mentions this often in the text and Eiden works in a nicely-done undercurrent of Daddy Issues which isn’t nearly as overdone and melodramatic as it would be in today’s cliche-ridden entertainment, while at the same time being a lot more over the top.

However Mickey disdains any sympathy and despises any sign of weakness in others. Very much like the protagonist of Crooked Cop he is the personification of the Nietzschean superman, unburdened by morals or emotions. His prime motivator is the accrual of power and wealth. He doesn’t even care about sex (a big difference from the Crooked Cop character), despite which he keeps no less than three women around Manhattan. The dude seems busy as hell in this regard, constantly shuttling around in his El Dorado to hook up with one or another of his mistresses: from Louise, the busty barmaid at one of Mickey’s legitimate establishments, to Joanne, a haughty doctorate student who gives Mickey a bit more lip than the others. Finally there’s Rosa, an Hispanic mother of three girls who serves more as Mickey’s accountant.

The female character who takes up the most of the text is Gerry St. John, a blonde actress who starts trailing Mickey around in the opening quarter of the novel, which introduces us to Mickey as he rushes around Manhattan on various business interests. One of Mickey’s concerns is a punk who owes money but can’t or won’t pay back, so Mickey’s already had one of his stooges, a muscular Sicilian named Grieco, break both his legs. Turns out Gerry is the punk’s brother and, after following Mickey around all night, hopes she can offer her body in exchange for her brother’s debt.

Mickey of course gets a good laugh out of this – he even laughs when Gerry reminds him that he had her brother’s legs broken – not that this stops him from screwing her. There are a few sex scenes throughout but nothing overly raunchy. But what’s crazier is that Mickey decides that Gerry can earn the money for her brother – by becoming a hooker! He drops her ass off at the whorehouse of a madame he knows and tells Gerry she can pay off the debt in no time on her back. Surprisingly Gerry’s game for it, realzing that if she can have sex with Mickey she can have sex with anyone. 

There isn’t much in the way of gun-blazing action, though. Later in the novel Mickey’s almost gunned down by two would-be assassins, obvious heroin-addicts in grungy army fatigues, but he just ducks and covers and spends a few pages wondering who sent them before forgetting about the situation. He passes it off as one of the dangers of his profession. He also rubs out a “client” who has been unable to pay back his hefty loan. Mickey talks the guy, Corkell, into driving Mickey and another stooge into Central Park on some b.s. assignment, and Corkell agrees because he’s eager to do anything to get back in Mickey’s good graces. Mickey, in the backseat and casually giving driving directions, puts a gun to the back of Corkell’s head and blows him away. I found this scene reminiscent of the finale of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle.

Eiden saves most of the action for the super-sick climax. Zinna we’re told is a thorn in Mickey’s side, despite being the guy who set Mickey up as one of the prime loaners and collectors in Manhattan. The way the pyramid works is that a Mafia don retains Zinna, who himself retains a few loan sharks, one of them being Mickey. So while Mickey does all the work, Zinna gets ten percent of his profits, all while doing nothing but sitting around. This is what really grinds Mickey’s gears; that, and fifty year-old Zinna’ growing interests in very young girls. Early in the book Mickey encounters a husband-and-wife acrobat team, Carlos and Carmen, and Mickey comes up with the idea of using nubile Carmen in his plot against Zinna. She’s got the build of a young girl, and quickly proves to Mickey that she’ll do anything he asks if he pays her.

This plays out over the last quarter of the novel, with Eiden never informing us of Mickey’s plans. He hires Carmen as a secretary in the office of another of his legit firms and Carlos as a gofer, constantly sending him off on assignments. Mickey plays on Carmen’s obvious interest in him – she’ll do anything for the money and lifestyle Carlos can’t provide for her – and even rents an apartment in the city “just for them.” But Mickey always passes off on her offer of sex. Then he starts whoring her out to random guys, with Zinna being the top job. Mickey’s twisted plot is revealed in the final pages, and any hopes that he will find come kind of salvation or redemption are quickly dashed. This is one of the most shocking climaxes I’ve read in a while, with Mickey setting up an elaborate murder scene.

From the first page it’s evident what kind of ending Mickey himself is headed for; it’s almost a prefigure of Training Day, with Mickey becoming increasingly deranged and unhinged as the narrative proceeds. Longtime friends even start to turn on him, much to Mickey’s confusion; he can only learn things the hard way, and the only comeuppance he could ever receive would have to be fatal. The conclusion of the book’s almost as shocking as Mickey’s plot against Zinna, if for no other reason than how abruptly it happens – it seems clear Eiden was up on his word count.

Overall I enjoyed Operation: Loan Shark a lot more than I thought I would. Like the other three books in the series I’ve read it was a great example of sleazy ‘70s pulp crime. Maybe not as good as those other three volumes, but good enough. Eiden really keeps the narrative moving, with the first half almost coming off like a breathless rush, occuring over just a few days in Mickey’s harried life. I also appreciate how he delivers such a zero-morals bastard of a protagonist with little of the niceties or maudlin cliches of today. Eiden even finds the time to render chilling fates for minor characters.

As mentioned this was the last volume of Mafia: Operation, and I can only assume it was low sales that killed the series, as there was plenty of opportunity for more novels. I for one would’ve enjoyed reading something like Operation: Hooker. At any rate I’ve still got the third-published volume, Eiden’s Operation: Hijack, to look forward to. Here’s hoping it’s as entertaining as the others.