Monday, September 30, 2019

From Russia, With Love (James Bond #5)

From Russia, With Love, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1957)

It’s clear from the outset that Ian Fleming has something grander in mind for this fifth James Bond installment. It’s almost like he’s attempting the War And Peace of the espionage genre. Bond himself is almost secondary to the plot and the supporting characters, in particular the villains. Overall the novel is certainly the best so far in the series, but at the same time it lacks the pulpy spark of Live And Let Die.

Fleming seemed to have followed a “serious/pulpy” pattern for the Bond novels, ie Casino Royale, the first one, being a serious affair, and Live And Let Die, the second one, being a bit more pulpy. Whether consciously or not, Fleming mostly followed this pattern throughout the series (to wit, overall serious From Russia, With Love being followed by the pulp masterpiece Doctor No), with of course the occasional detour. I guess I’m supposed to say that now that I’m an “adult” and all (in fact I’ll turn 45 on October 6th) I prefer the serious, more meaty books…but I still love the pulp!

As mentioned Bond himself doesn’t appear until From Russia, With Love is well underway; we won’t see him until page 72. That doesn’t sound like very long until you consider the insanely small, dense print of this Signet paperback. Instead Fleming takes his time with the narrative, going to great lengths to bring his cast of villains to life. In fact the first character we meet is nutjob Red Grant, who is given a background much more elaborate than any previous Fleming villain. Now the chief executioner for SMERSH, Grant grew up in Ireland and got his jollies as a kid killing animals, then eventually moved on to people, always on nights of a full moon. Now he gets to indulge in his favorite hobby and get paid for it.

But then Grant leaves the narrative and we flash back a few months to an indordinate meeting among various Soviet bigwigs, chief among them “General G,” who challenges them to come up with something big to put Russian espionage back in the game. The question is where and who. After much discussion England is settled on, and someone brings up the name James Bond, who caused so much trouble for the Reds in the previous books. At this point Rosa Klebb, this volume’s main villain, enters the fray. A grotesque, toadlike creature with an “asexual” nature, Rosa is one of the few “mother figures” in the Bond world, and thus of course is the natural enemy of Bond, who is a destroyer of the life-cycle. (Uh, at least according to Jacquelyn Friedman!)

Klebb threatens to steal the show in her few pages, but I was more interested in Kronsteen, a master chess player who serves as a strategist for SMERSH. He is the one who comes up with the plot, which ultimately will be fooling the Brits into sending Bond to Turkey to collect a cipher machine, while in reality compromising photos will be taken of Bond in the arms of a Russian girl. When both Bond and the girl turn up dead on the Orient Express, victims of an apparent murder-suicide, and the photos are printed in the papers, the British government will be properly embarassed, and the Soviet intelligence network will be back in the big leagues.

I was impressed with how faithful the movie was to the novel. Of course SMERSH was changed to SPECTRE, and a little more action was added, but really the film is quite close to the book. Even things I assumed were inventions of the film, like Rosa Klebb “testing” Red Grant with a brass knuckled suckerpunch to the breadbasket, occurs in the novel. But bringing it back to Kronsteen, at least the film gave him a conclusion. In the novel he appears at the opening and that’s it. This is a shame, as I found his storyline very interesting; called away while in the midst of a big chess competition but briefly ignoring the urgent summons so as to defeat his opponent.

Klebb’s job is to find an appropriate “girl” to woo Bond, and ultimately this brings us to brunette beauty Tatiana Romanova, who is given more narrative time than any of the other “Bond-girls” (as  Kingsley Amis calls them). But to tell you the truth, friends, Tatiana really got on my nerves and she was my least favorite Bondgirl yet. But this is only later, when she finally meets Bond and becomes his traveling companion. In her opening sequence she’s more tolerable, called out of her innocuous but safe existence by a summons from Klebb, who offers Tatiana the assignment (of course not telling her about that whole “killed on the Orient Express” part) – and then comes on to her. (“She looked like the oldest and ugliest whore in the world.”) Interestingly, Raymond Benson states in The James Bond Bedside Companion that Fleming’s first draft ended with Rosa asking Tatiana to have a seat beside her; in the final novel Tatiana runs away.

At this point we finally reunite with James Bond, who is performing some morning calisthenics in his apartment. It’s “nearly a year” after Diamonds Are Forever, late August, and Bond broke up with Tiffany Case in July. It’s notable we’re informed of this because it’s the first time we’ve ever been told what happened to a previous Bondgirl. Unfortunately we won’t be told what happens to Tatiana, but late in the novel Bond muses to himself what likely will happen to her upon her entry to England, and my bet is we’re to understand this is exactly what will happen to her: grilled for info in various government safehouse and then shipped off to Canada to live an anonymous life. Here we also meet Bond’s housekeeper, May, and learn a little more about the protagonist of the series, who isn’t nearly the cipher that is his filmic counterpart.

The M-Bond sequence is as enjoyable as the others, particularly M’s comment here that it’s best to stay away from “neurotic” women like Tiffany Case! His attempts to convince Bond that this situation in Turkey could be legit are also humorous. But Bond immediately disbelievies this story of a Russian code girl approaching the station man in Turkey and telling him she’s in love with James Bond and wants to leave the USSR and live with him in England, even offering a highly classified SPEKTOR cipher machine as part of the bargain.

There is a romantic flavor to the novel, one that Fleming consciously develops with his usual scene-setting and florid description. When Bond arrives in Turkey this is especially pronounced, but first we get a reminder of Bond’s fear of flying. Similar to the flying sequence in Diamonds Are Forever, Bond has a panic moment when his plane encounters severe weather, and here we learn he has a “hurricane room” within himself, to which his mind flees when danger outside of his control arises. 

Bond’s ally in Turkey is Darko Kerim, whom Kingsley Amis deemed the “most appealing” of all Bond allies in The James Bond Dossier. I would certainly agree with that, as Darko steals the show. He’s much larger than the film version of the character, taller and broader than Bond, with curly black hair, a bulbous nose, and a vagabond-esque earring. He gets all the funny lines and all the grandiose statements, but curiously Darko nearly being killed by a bomb in his office – which goes off while he’s having sex with one of his many female companions – happens off-page in the novel, and is only related via dialog.

My favorite part of the novel is Darko and Bond’s journey beneath Istanbul, through a rat and bat-infested tunnel, a sequence nearly as chill-inducing as Rambo’s crawl through the bat cave in First Blood. The hackle-raising journey has a goofy payoff: Darko reveals a periscope in the tunnel, one that provides a view into the meeting room of the Russian Embassy above. This sequence of course made it to the film, but one thing that always bugged me – admitedly after I’d seen the movie a few times and even pondered such trivialities – was why this tunnel and periscope were even there. A movie of course can just cut to the next scene and pass over real-world explanations, but a book can’t, and Darko’s explanation of the periscope answered a question I’ve had for a long time.

Action is, as you’ll note, sporadic. I felt more like I was reading a classic of literature than a spy thriller. The focus is more on suspense and character; Bond’s first view of Tatiana, through the periscope lens while she comes into the Embassy office above, is very memorable in this regard. Particularly given the strange, almost resentful looks she gets from the bigwigs there. Again Bond’s suspicions are aroused, but ultimately nothing comes of it – Bond really is caught unawares in the climax, whereas he was a little more on the ball in the film. Speaking of which, the firefight in the gypsy camp occurs here in the novel as well, and Bond shoots down two men, his first kills in the book.

Fleming is a bit more risque this time around; the novel’s sole sex scene occurs when Bond and Tatiana first meet. Per Amis’s template in The James Bond Dossier, she’s nude when she meets Bond, but Fleming adds some kinky details like a choker and stockings. We get a bit more detail on her ample charms than I recall being in the previous four novels, but nothing too extreme by today’s standards. She’s beautiful and built and all that but she still gets on my nerves; she complains about everything (“that is not kulturny” being a constant snobbish refrain) and keeps things from Bond.

The final quarter takes place on the Orient Express and here Fleming goes fullbore into romantic adventure fiction, detailing the various scenic stops on the exotic ride. As in the film this will be the last we see of Darko Kerim, and he has mostly the same exit dialog, probably one of my favorite speeches yet in the Bond series – to the effect that one might know the rules of the game he is playing, but outside forces could intervene and change the game itself. Darko’s loss is felt by the reader; he is by far the most colorful character in the novel, given to grandiose speeches and flamboyant actions.

At this point Red Grant finally returns to the narrative, in disguise as Gerald Nash. The novel diverges from the film in that Bond assumes “Nash” has been sent by M, so this means that Grant fools him entirely. Whereas the film Bond has a measure of distrust for the obnoxious Nash, thus catching him when Nash tries to drug Bond on the train, the novel Bond is caught unawares, and curses himself for a fool when Grant gets the drop on him. The fight between the two isn’t nearly as elaborate in the novel, but more brutal – Bond makes use of the knives hidden in the special suitcase Q Branch made for him, jamming one of them into Grant’s crotch! Also per Amis it’s the villains who mostly use the gadgets in the novels, and here Grant uses a gun hidden inside War And Peace, shooting Bond but hitting his metal cigarette case; Bond manages to get hold of the weapon and unloads it on Grant’s face for a gory coup de grace.

I enjoyed Bond’s confrontation with Klebb even more. It’s a bit hard to buy – Bond’s able to talk the French authorities into letting him surprise Klebb in her hotel room, having learned from Grant that she’d be there the following day at a certain time – but still very entertaining. Klebb pretends to be a harmless old woman and Bond’s somewhat uncertain if he’s really dealing with the head of SMERSH’s execution wing. It all climaxes with Klebb trying to jab Bond with poison tipped needles, and Bond’s silenced Beretta gets stuck in his pants so he has to pin the madwoman down with a chair, like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or something.

The end of the novel is where it really diverges from the film: Fleming leaves Bond’s fate in question, as well as Klebb’s. She manages to cut him with a blade hidden in her shoe, and last we see of Bond he’s collapsed onto the hotel room floor. Last we see of Klebb she’s being loaded onto a stretcher and strapped down, meaning she lives and Bond, apparently, dies. Of course this wasn’t to be, as Bond would return a year later in Doctor No, which was the first Bond novel I ever read and was always one of my favorites. I look forward to re-reading it after all these years.

Speaking of which, I know I read From Russia, With Love back in the summer of ’86, when I was 11 and had been bitten by the Bond bug, but it must not’ve made much of an impression on me. I suspect I probably skimmed it at the time, considering it slow-paced, and was content to just stick with the film version, given how similar the book was. Or, sadly, I was probably more excited to read the newest John Gardner Bond novel! Well, I very much enjoyed it this time, and would say it’s the best installment of the series yet. Light on action, but heavy on atmosphere, character, and suspense – and Fleming’s writing, always excellent, seems even more refined.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Logan’s Search (Logan’s Run #3)

Logan’s Search, by William F. Nolan
October, 1980  Bantam Books

“With this volume the Logan trilogy is complete.” So claims author William Nolan in a brief but somewhat self-congratulatory Preface, which is funny given that in the second volume he promised to keep Logan “running for a long time.” I guess Nolan must’ve plumb run out of ideas, thus a potentially long-running series was changed to a “trilogy.” Logan’s Search would be proof of Nolan’s paucity of ideas for this particular character and his world, given that it’s basically a rewrite of Logan’s Run. I have to admit though…perversely enough, Logan’s Search turned out to be my favorite book in the trilogy!

It’s some time after Logan’s World, at least nine months, as we’re informed at the outset that Jessica is in the late terms of pregnancy. It will be a boy, and she’s finally succeeded in convincing Logan that they should name the child Jaq, after their previous son – ie the young boy who was almost casually killed in the previous book. Humorously, Jaq is mentioned more here than he was in the entirety of Logan’s World. It’s almost as if Nolan realized, “Wait a second – I killed Logan’s kid in the previous book. That’s kind of a big deal!” Whereas Logan and Jessica practically took the loss of their prepubescent son in stride in Logan’s World, here we finally get a bit of emotional content from both characters, particularly Logan.

I say “particularly Logan” because once again he’s the star of the show and Jessica’s cast out of the narrative. Actually, this Jessica, ie the one we know from Logan’s Run, is cast out of the narrative, but more on that anon. If you’ll recall, Jaq was murdered and Jessica was adbucted and abused in Logan’s World because our “hero” Logan just flat-out abandoned them, not even leaving them with a gun for protection. Well folks you’d think Logan would’ve learned his lesson from all that. But nope. Because as Logan’s Search opens, someone from Chicago flies in, says his people have plenty of medicine but hardly any food, and strikes up a bargain with Logan’s D.C. commune. Logan offers to fly the food to Chicago and return with the meds, given the Chicago guy’s injuries prevent him from making a return trip. That’s right – Logan once again plain abandons Jessica, though I guess this time at least she’s with a community.

One thing I should mention is that Nolan thankfully decides to describe things this time around. Logan’s World approached the vibe of an outline at times, with hardly anything described or explained. Logan flew in a “paravane” and the reader was expected to come up with his own interpretation of what the hell a paravane even was, let alone looked like. So we get a little more depth of description here, as well as more of a glimpse into Logan’s thoughts and feelings. Characters and costumes still aren’t much described, but then the book runs to around 150 pages so again my impression is Nolan’s intent was to deliver something quick.

On the way to Chicago Logan is zapped onto the massive spaceship of glowing, amorphous aliens. Hey, it could happen! These beings draft Logan into going to an alternate Earth, one that’s ten years behind Logan’s Earth and thus still enforces “Lastday” and the like – life is gloriously hedonistic but ends at 21. It’s the same as Logan’s Earth of ten years before, the aliens explain, but subtly different – enough so that Nolan can pretty much rewrite Logan’s Run but not be accused of plagiarizing himself. Here there’s no Sanctuary, but there is a thing called “Godbirth,” in which select Sandmen are afforded the mysterious opportunity to live beyond 21. The alternate-Logan is about to be granted this privilege, but the aliens have frozen him and want to send Logan to the alternate Earth in his place: his goal to destroy the system.

Logan doesn’t have much choice. These godlike aliens tell him it’s either do the job or be erased or something; he’ll never see Jessica or his soon-to-be-born son unless he goes to the other Earth and destroys the System…in two weeks! The aliens, who are humorously omniscient and omnipotent but somehow unable to alter the course of this alternate Earth on their own, warn Logan against meeting the alternate Jessica. They also don’t know what makes this alternate Earth so different from Logan’s, claiming there’s some sort of supernatural element at play which prevents Sanctuary, Ballard, or the other resistance movements that allowed Logan to help topple the system of his own world.

Here we return to the first half of Logan’s Run, which was by far my favorite part of that book (and the movie), in that it occurs in a psychedelicized future of pleasure domes and rampant hedonism. Nolan downplays the latter element this time, even though when Logan comes to on this alternate world he’s in bed with a dancer named Phedra, and ends up giving her some mostly off-page good lovin’ (“He thrust into her” being the extent of it). But again I had a hard time buying this Logan’s Run world of the novels, given that everyone is under 21. The movie got it so much more correct by increasing the age cutoff to 30. Nolan himself seems to forget at times that no one here is over 21. 

Logan, who by the way has been made to look younger by those omnipotent aliens, has a hard time adjusting to this alternate Earth. He’s once again a Sandman but is sickened by the job. And he’s once again hanging out with best bud and fellow Sandman Francis, who of course became Logan’s enemy in Logan’s Run. He’s also overwhelmed with his task, and has no idea how to take down this system in such a short time with no Sanctuary, Ballard, or etc. He’s again in the Angeles Complex, same as in the first book, but this time he’s about to undergo the mysterious Godbirth ritual; he hopes he can use this to destroy the system. As mentioned there’s more emotional content this time and Logan’s driven by the desire to see Jessica again and to be there for the birth of the second Jaq.

The novel follows the course of the first book. Logan and Francis chase a Runner, one who turns out to be Jessica’s brother, and same as in Logan’s Run he dies. Then Logan, despite the aliens’s warning, seeks out Jessica – who has heard of the great Logan and doesn’t seem much bothered that her brother is dead. She engages him in some good lovin’ that’s entirely off-page. Jessica seems to be like the version Logan is married to on his Earth, but her lack of care about her brother turns him off. But here the minor variations begin. Logan’s hauled off by some cops on suspicion of carrying an illegal drug called “death dust” (aka cocaine), and it’s clearly a setup thanks to sluttish dancer Phedra. Jessica is also accused and summarily punished alongside Logan.

Once again we’re pulled out of the more-interesting future world and sent into random, arbitrary plot detours, same as the previous two books. First Logan and Jessica are chased across the Serengeti by massive robot ants. Then Jessica reveals that it was she who set Logan up, in revenge for killing her brother – her icy carelessness about his death was just an act. However she didn’t plan to get set up herself. She also didn’t plan to fall in love with Logan. After several adventures the two make their way to Moscow, where the aliens have told Logan he can find a local contact, Kirov. This part is incredibly arbitrary, as Logan must steal a Sandman Gun for Kirov, and this leads to a humorous bit where Logan tricks a trusting robot that’s responsible for the Guns. After this Logan ventures to Jamaica, where he fights off barracudas to save a nearly-drowned Francis(?).

Meanwhile Jessica’s hit her Lastday, same as in the first book, but another pair of Sandmen go after her when she runs. Like other female Runners, though, she disappears before they can set in on her; we don’t see this happen, just hear about it when Logan asks the Sandmen what happened. They claim Jessica vanished. Meanwhile it’s finally time for Godbirth, which sees Francis and Logan being plied with drugs and taken to Egypt. I forgot, those thoughtful aliens also implanted Logan with defenses against drugs, despite which he goes on a chapter-long trip which sees snatches of surreal events taking place, similar to the stuff in Logan’s World when Logan was high on R-11.

The last quarter reminds me of Zardoz; Logan and Francis are whisked up to a secret floating city above the clouds, ruled by an older guy named Sturdivent. Like the “gods” in Zardoz, Sturdivent has surrounded himself with the great works of antiquity – he’s even had the Great Pyramid taken apart and rebuilt for him in his palace. Former Sandmen are at his beck and call as mind-controlled vassals. And those missing female Runners are now his “Dreamers,” kept in stassis and only brought out when Sturdivent wants some female company for the night. Of course, Jessica’s one of the Dreamers, and Logan makes prompt plans to save her, making various excuses for Francis.

Francis acts as a deus ex machina throughout the final quarter, turning out to be on Logan’s side and helping him figure out how to get around Sturdivent’s inner chambers. This is all explained in the climax, which first sees the head of the Sphinx getting sheared off by Sturdivent’s city as it crashed down into Egypt, then has Francis revealing his own story to Logan. Here Logan learns that those wily aliens were lying to him all along, and tells Jessica he’ll probably never get home despite their promises. I suspected Nolan was headed for a ‘70s-mandatory downbeat ending…but it’s the ‘80s now, baby!

Instead Logan’s first zapped back to the alien ship, then back to his own Earth, where he discovers that no time at all has passed. In fact Jessica wonders why he hasn’t left for Chicago yet! Logan has finally learned his lesson, though, and brings Jessica along with him. We don’t get to see the new Jaq, as here Nolan ends the tale, thus also ending the “trilogy.” Someone commented on one of my earlier reviews that there was a Logan short story many years later, and maybe some other planned novels, but these three books will be sufficient for me. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Logan’s Search, as there was just a goofy charm to it, but I’d still rather watch Logan’s Run than ever read this trilogy again.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Goodnight, L.A.

Goodnight, L.A., by Kent Hartman
September, 2017  De Capo Press

I stumbled upon a mention of this recent book and checked it out via InterLibrary Loan. I’m not familiar with Kent Hartman but it looks like he’s published a few books on rock history, in particular on the ‘60s studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. Goodnight, L.A. presents itself as a pseudo-sequel to that book, in that it takes place in the AOR adult contemporary mid-to-late 1970s (with a few unnecessary – or perhaps unwanted, at least for me – slips into the ‘80s and ‘90s), once again focusing on a few studio musicians.

The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve only listened to ‘70s music, be it rock or jazz, in particular the early ‘70s up through the pre-disco era. Actually sometimes I like disco, too, so long as it’s cosmic, baby! I’m not as much into the soft rock (aka “yacht rock”) thing, and luckily Hartman doesn’t veer too much into that territory, other than detailing how Kenny Loggins got his start; for the most part the book focuses on the album-oriented rock acts who defined the ‘70s, in particular Buckingham-Nicks era Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Chicago.

Hartman opens the book with a recounting of how when he was sixteen in 1976 he and his pal briefly ran a record store. I thought this part was fun and interesting enough that it could’ve been elaborated on more. But Hartman just uses this to establish his credence as an authority on the subject, having been there and later meeting many of the musicians and songwriters whose music he’d grown up enjoying. Their stories form the basis of the book, he tells us, in particular the stories of a producer named Keith Olsen and a studio guitarist named Waddy Wachtel.

Of the two, Olsen takes up the brunt of the narrative, given that he had his hand in producing so many classic albums of the time. I was surprised to read how he got into the business: he was a member of the Music Machine, whose sole hit “Talk Talk” was probably the highlight of the Nuggets compilation, just a total blast of proto-punk. Wachtel on the other hand is a guitarist who ends up playing in the touring groups of several artists and providing guitar work for innumerable albums. Olsen though gets a lot more space, given that he discovers Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, becomes their manager, produces their first album (and their first album with Fleetwood Mac), and goes on to produce many more classic albums.

One of the most curious things about Goodnight, L.A. is that it presents a relatively neutered ‘70s rock scene. Hartman makes only passing mentions of sex and drugs, and usually in a deragatory or at least condescending manner; for the former mostly in how Fleetwood Mac coke-binged throughout the recording of Rumours, and the latter only sporadic mentions of such and such a rock star having a weakness for his female fans – as if that were something to be ashamed of. But I guess in today’s #metoo world, it is. Who knows. All I’m saying is, the book lacks balls, which is funny given that it’s about the testosterone-laced world of classic rock. But then, Hartman writes the book in a chatty, “ready-for-Entertainment Weekly” sort of style, with the focus more on a mainstream readership. 

Well anyway, Goodnight, L.A. comes off more like a scattershot sequence of VH1 Behind The Music clips, jumbled together with no real unifying thread. In an attempt to be broad-focused Hartman will jump from interesting stuff (say, Fleetwood Mac) to skimmable stuff (say, Helen Reddy). I also didn’t get much of a vibe of the times, of the culture that created these rock stars. Nor was there much of a peek into the creative process, other than the occasional focus on this or that hit song being recorded; for the most part Hartman delivers a shallow overview of the mid-to-late ‘70s rock scene, with a (sort of) focus on Los Angeles.

My main problem with Goodnight, L.A. is the whiplash the reader suffers from this abrupt plot-jumping. You’ll be reading about Fleetwood Mac recording their self-titled 1975 album, then there’ll be a two-line break and suddenly you’re reading something like, “One day in 1967 on the way back from a gig, Linda Ronstadt’s truck broke down,” and next thing you know you’re reading a long section about Linda Ronstadt(!?). It’s like that throughout the book. We’ll have like the “A plot” of the chapter, with arbitrary cutaways to the B, C, and sometimes even D plots. Most of the time none of the plots even meet. There’s no unifying thread to the book is what I’m saying, even though the intro makes you expect that Olsen and Wachtel will pull all the various threads together. As it turns out, Olsen does the heavy lifting in that regard, with Wachtel disappearing for vast stretches of the book.

Fleetwood Mac seems to take center stage initially, in particular how Buckingham and Nicks were spotted by Olsen when the duo were still part of go-nowhere group Fritz. Olsen invested heavily in the two, letting them crash in his place, putting his own money into the recording of their self-titled album, which as it turned out failed to become a hit. But, in what is now a legendary rock story, one day Mick Fleetwood happened to walk into Olsen’s studio, checking for a good place to record the next Mac album. Olsen played him “Frozen Love” from the Buckingham Nicks album, and Fleetwood eventually asked that the guitarist join Fleetwood Mac, Bob Welch having recently left the group. Olsen informed Fleetwood that Buckingham’s girlfriend Stevie Nicks would also have to join, as the two worked as a pair; Olsen also had to convince Buckingham and Nicks to take the opportunity.

This is all cool but honestly I would’ve preferred to read about the Bob Welch Fleetwood Mac, one of the most unsung groups in rock. I mean Heroes Are Hard To Find is my favorite Fleetwood Mac album of all. The whole Welch tenure was like cosmic soft rock or something, which is to say great stuff. But Welch only gets passing mention in the book. It’s all about the Buckingham-Nicks era…for a while. Because, in the first instance of what will sadly become a recurring theme in Goodnight, L.A., Fleetwood Mac abruptly vanishes from the text upon hitting it big time; we get the sad story of their dropping Olsen for a new producer, but after that it’s just passing, high-level mentions: recording Rumours while flying on coke, recording the maximalist Tusk.

For we jump around to other musicians, other bands – Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, the Eagles, Chicago, Helen Reddy(!?), the Cowsills. For some inexplicable reason, famous L.A. acts like Crosby, Stills, and Nash (let alone Young) and Jefferson Starship aren’t mentioned. And for that matter, I get that Helen Reddy and Linda Ronstadt and later Pat Benatar are in the book because Hartman had to have some female musicians in it, I mean diversity is paramount today, so the book couldn’t just be about a bunch of male rock stars, right? But man, Helen Reddy?  Carole King??  Why couldn’t it have been about ‘70s-era Grace Slick? And hell, Stevie Nicks is mentioned a bit, but Christine McVie gets short shrift, so there was potential there as well.

Another big miss was not featuring much about Dennis Wilson, mostly remembered as the drummer for the Beach Boys but a gifted singer-songwriter in his own right. Hartman does mention him once or twice, but only in passing, and I say this is a miss only because I recently rediscovered Wilson’s solo album Pacific Ocean Blue, from 1977, and remembered that it’s THE GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME. Unfortunately Hartman doesn’t mention it, and the references to Wilson have either to do with his drumming style or his popularity with female fans. Heck, Wilson even had a late ‘70s fling with Christine McVie, so there was opportunity to write about Wilson and another female rock star, but Hartman misses it.

More frustrating are the parts that seem promising but ultimately fizzle, like the mention midway through of Boston. Here we see how industry and fan perception has changed; we’re informed the various labels have passed on Boston given that it’s not an actual “band” per se; just a mega-talented dude in his basement named Tom Scholtz, who has played everything himself. In today’s day and age this would not only be acceptable but marketed as a sign of the artist’s talent, but Hartman informs us that record labels in the ‘70s feared potential customers would think a one-man band was some sort of freak. So we get another legendary rock story, with Scholtz recording the debut Boston album in his garage and the other band members going through the charade of recording in a professional studio, all to fool the label.

But after this…Boston disappears! We’re told Boston was the biggest selling debut album ever, but after that the group drops from the text, with only a passing mention much later on that their follow up LP didn’t do as well, after which they were caught in legal wrangles for a few years. Instead it’s about the group Chicago and its various issues, including the accidental suicide of guitarist Terry Kath, or the Eagles recording Hotel California and eventually falling apart due to jealous infighting. After this the book gets into real questionable territory, with features on Pat Benatar, MT friggin’ V, and Tom Petty recording “Free Fallin’” in the late ‘80s. And while the Petty stuff is fine, what’s bizarre is that Hartman fails to mention his association with the Traveling Wilburys.

Actually I started to wonder why Goodnight, L.A. even exists. I guess as a piece of popular history it’s fine, but readers looking for more meat will be disappointed. I mean we’re often informed that such and such a group is recording such and such an album, but rarely if ever are various tracks discussed, let alone dissected; a simple Google search would yield more info on each of the acts than what Hartmann tells us, even down to the minutiae the hardcore rock listener wants to know about. Goodnight, L.A. is a quick read, though, mostly because it comes off like a collection of magazine articles. And Hartman’s enthusiasm wins him points.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Butcher #8: Fire Bomb

The Butcher #8: Fire Bomb, by Stuart Jason
October, 1973  Pinnacle Books

This time I’ll try skip my usual belabored overview of how this volume of The Butcher sticks to the same repetitive theme as the previous installments, with only the most minor of variations. Instead I’ll just bluntly say that at this point James “Stuart Jason” Dockery’s series is becoming almost a chore to read, with each volume coming off like a lazy rewrite of one that came before.

So we open, as always, with Bucher in some unstated city, being trailed by a pair of Syndicate goons out for the bounty on his head. These parts are always my favorite in the series, but Dockery doesn’t get as outrageous this time, other than that one of the goons goes by the handle Rum Dum Lagoona, but Bucher knows his real name is Percival Pinkham. Other than that it’s the usual “kill quick or die” from Bucher, who guns both down without breaking a sweat…on to the customary jail scene, followed by the customary “out of jail” scene thanks to some calls behind the scenes. This time we don’t get the customary “illegal for Jesus Christ to own” line about Bucher’s silencer, though.

Bucher’s already on his assigmnet: trying to figure out how big shipments of heroin are getting into the country. As ever it has something to do with a Syndicate bigwig he knew years before, when he too was a Syndicate bigwig. This one’s named Johnny Procetti and his nickname’s “Fireball” because he likes to douse women in gasoline and light ‘em up. And also we get “foreshadowing” that the plot will make its customary left turn midway through; Bucher just happens to see in the paper that some people in Mexico and the Southwest are coming down with radiation burns, and something in the back of his head is alerted by the news, though he ignores it. Of course, this will be brazenly shoehorned into the main plot before novel’s end.

First stop is Reno, where Bucher storms his way into a bar owned by another Syndicate associate of years past. He and Procetti were once pals but now the sleazebag reveals that he has a hit out on Procetti and hasn’t seen him in months. Bucher for some bizarre reason takes off immediately upon learning this, but runs into the “dowdy” hostess he just got fired from the bar, the owner pissed off that she allowed the Butcher to get past security. Her name is Anna Helm and she claims to know where Procetti is, but will only tell Bucher if she can come along: her sister was firebombed by Procetti and Anna wants revenge.

Bucher as ever is all business, even after Anna is revealed to be a smokin’ hot, built babe, whose “dowdiness” was really just a disguise. She claims it was defense against the notoriously-lecherous bar owner. As ever though Dockery does not exploit his female characters in the least; he refers to them in almost a romantic poetry vibe, with little of the “upthrusting” or “curvy” or even “jiggling” that this genre demands. And while Bucher is gobsmacked by this beauty to the point he doesn’t even realize it’s the same Anna Helm he agreed to bring along, he promptly gets back to worrying over the case, with absolutely zero thought on how to get her into bed posthaste.

The trip to Mexico is over in a few pages, only lasting long enough for Bucher to run into a quartet of infamous Syndicate hitmen who are humorously built up as being the most dangerous, vile group of killers in history – and then are casually dispatched by Bucher in just a few sentences. More importantly, here Bucher briefly runs into Blood Red Sal, an old Syndicate flame of his whose nickname comes from her penchant for eating raw meat to preserve her beauty. This bit goes nowhere other than for Sal to inform Bucher that Procetti is likely in Iraq – so in other words, once again Bucher is headed for the Middle East.

Here in Baghdad Bucher gets wind of the infamous Hashashin, aka those favorites of pulp writers everywhere – the mystical order of hash-lovin’ assassins who in Medieval times were sent out by the Old Man of the Mountain. Well, they’re back in business, and an always-masked personage dubbed “Ibn Wahid” is their mysterious leader. Bucher learns all about it thanks to Karamene, hotstuff mistress of disguise who, along with her brother, operates for White Hat here in Baghdad. Once again Karamene is described in terms having more to do with grace and beauty, and Bucher finds himself falling for her, to the point where he thinks he might be in love. Whoever guesses what happens to Karamene wins a no-prize.

Meanwhile Bucher does believe it or not get laid; Anna Helm has been throwing herself at him relentlessly, and Bucher finally gives in…and, as ever, the incident happens entirely off page. This is bad enough, but what’s worse is the lazy plotting Dockery presents us with; shortly after this Bucher remembers that Karamene had translated a message from White Hat for him – Bucher just put the note in his pocket and forgot all about it. Well, he remembers finally, reads it…and this letter he’s had all along in his friggin’ pocket tells him who Ibn Wahid is, what the plan is, and etc! And if he’d read the note a few chapters before certain characters would still be alive.

What’s crazy is Dockery is a fine writer, at least in his dialog and bizarre characters. But man he needed some help with plotting. Or who knows, maybe The Butcher was intended as a satire, one played so dead straight that no one noticed? Even if that’s so, the dude could’ve at least come up with something new each volume. As it is, Fire Bomb is nearly a direct ripoff of  #4: Blood Debt, even down to the “surprise” reveal of the main villain’s identity (and gender) – someone Bucher has become “close” to. But then, Bucher already knows who Ibn Wahid thanks to that note, thus the removal of the villain’s mask isn’t a shock to him. The strangest thing is that it’s mentioned here that Bucher’s never killed a woman, even though he did way back in #3: Keepers Of Death, where we were told it was the first one he’d ever killed.

I was really digging this series when I started it, but now it’s looking more like the later ones by Michael Avallone – of which I’ve only read one so far, #34: The Man From White Hat – might be better. Dockery’s stubborn insistence on sticking to the same damn plot, over and over with only slight variations, is quickly sinking The Butcher. Seriously, if you’ve read one you’ve read them all.

 Here’s the last paragraph:

Then slowly he turned from the scene of violence and death, turned toward the helicopter beside the runway a few yards distant, the weary slump in his shoulders more pronounced and the bitter-sour taste of defeat strong in his mouth.

Monday, September 16, 2019


Omerta, by Peter McCurtin
No month stated, 1972  Leisure Books

The last standalone Mafia novel Peter McCurtin published before turning his efforts to The Marksman and The Sharpshooter, Omerta is, per Lynn Munroe, pretty scarce today. This is too bad, as the novel, running a brisk 150-some pages, is a fast-moving slice of crime pulp, lacking the polish of some of McCurtin’s other standalone thrillers but not as grungy as his Marksman yarns.

Actually it’s pretty grungy at the start; McCurtin seems to be setting a goal for how often the word “fuck” can appear on a single page – it’s used in dialog and narrative and has the entusiastic ring of a fifteen year-old boy who’s just learned how to curse. Humorously though it disappears for a stretch before returning toward novel’s end. But man it’s all over the place at the start of the book, almost lending the novel a proto-Jerky Boys vibe. And truth be told, “hero” Lorenzo “Larry” Collino at times comes off like one of Johnny Brennan’s brash, foul-mouthed personas.

Collino is 42 and a third-generation mafioso; his grandfather started in the family as a torpedo for Don Francesco, now an old wheelchair-bound codger who lives in a fortress-mansion. Collino often relfects on his grandfather, who was a hot-tempered enforcer for the family; Collino the third is much like him, whereas Collino’s dad wasn’t as tough, and ended up getting killed years ago. Collino works the Manhattan area and, unlike the typical protagonist of this sort of tale, he’s a happily-married father of two prepubescent boys.

When we meet him Collino’s on a job for the Don; he’s spent the past several weeks in frustrating pursuit of a French coke dealer named Jacopetti, who is cutting in on the family’s territory. This engenders the F-bomb onslaught which initiates the novel; Collino’s royally pissed over this time-consuming task, as Jacopetti has holed up somewhere in Manhattan. But Collino’s gotten word on a restaurant Jacopetti frequents, and has staked the place out. He collars him, pretends to be a cop, takes him to some desolate location, and kills him – this after Jacopetti swears that the five million dollars worth of cocaine he brought over is already on the streets.

Here’s where Collino starts to get even more Jerky Boys-ish. He heads over to the bar he owns in Brooklyn and gets drunk. This was probably my favorite part of the book, as McCurtin populates the bar with some Bowery Bum types, including an old guy who works as a moritician but spends his nights getting wasted in Collino’s bar. The drunk mortician’s known for his biting tongue, and tonight Collino’s not in the mood for it; he beats the old man up after a few drinks, then later wonders what’s gotten into him.

This appears to be the theme of Omerta, that Collino is slowly losing control of himself. Despite often reflecting that he’s 42 and past all the “macho stuff,” he acts with savagery throughout the book, unable to control his temper. When Garafalo, the Don’s second in command and one of Collino’s enemies in the family, calls to ask about the hit, Collino basically tells him to go to hell. This sets off the incidents that will lead to the novel’s grim finale, all because a drunk Collino can’t watch his mouth. But then, we also learn late in the novel that things have been going on behind the scenes without Collino’s knowledge, so this throws the presumed “theme” out of whack: Collino’s in trouble whether he keeps his mouth open or closed.

Next day Collino’s called to the Don’s mansion, where the old man grills him on the hit. The cops have it that the five million bucks in coke are not on the street, so the old man is “just checking” to ensure Collino didn’t nab it from Jacopetti before killing him. Collino insists on his innocence but refuses to swear on the lives of his children, as Don Francesco requests. The Don, passing all this off as “just business,” tells Collino that the family will be checking on him over the next few days, etc. In other words, to spy on him to see if he does indeed have the coke.

Instead of going along with it, Collino instead bulldozes his way across the New York underworld, determined to find out what happened to that five million he’s been blamed for stealing. Meanwhile he pines occasionally for his wife and kids – and all three of them, by the way, stay off-page for the duration of the novel. The most we see of them is late in the game when Collino calls up his brother in law, another Italian immigrant and a Korean War vet who hates the commies, and tells him to come get his wife and kids and take them out of town for their safety. Collino watches from afar as the three are rounded up by his brother in law (who comes wielding a rifle) and driven off, content that they’ll be safe.

For it becomes clear as Omerta races for its conclusion that Collino himself is not safe. Mobsters tail him wherever he goes, and he doesn’t do much to stay on the Don’s good graces. He leads one of his tails into a gay bar, and when the dude follows Collino into the john Collino beats the shit out of him – and speaking of shit, he proceeds to jam the guy’s face into a backed-up toilet. As the novel continues Collino carries out more of these impromptu bursts of violent savagery, even randomly murdering a hapless clerk in some slummy hotel.

Otherwise on the action front there isn’t much in the way of shootouts or anything. In that gay bar Collino has stashed a .38 automatic – he’s stashed a few guns around the city – but he only uses it on two unarmed opponents. McCurtin goes for more of a mounting suspense vibe, with Collino feeling increasingly cornered as he shuttles around Manhattan. In the homestretch we realize we’re in for the mandatory downbeat ending of the ‘70s, as Collino learns it’s been a setup from the start. However I had a hard time understanding why exactly Collino even was set up.

Actually the finale is total ‘70s paranoia, and I’ll only go into spoilers here because the book is apparently scarce. For some baffling reason, Collino goes back to his home once his wife and kids have been taken safely away. He has some more drinks and eventually notices a car sitting in front of his house – no doubt some enforcers coming for him. Then the FBI calls, tells him they’ve just learned he’s about to be killed(!), and Collino agrees to turn state’s evidence in exchange for safety for his family and himself. But when the FBI guys show up and send off the enforcers, they take Collino to a remote location…where he’s to be shipped off to South America, to be tortured and killed by Jacopetti’s brother!

McCurtin handles the story with skill, keeping it fast-moving and tension-filled. My only issue was with Collino. One the one hand we’re told he’s happy, content, but on the other he acts like a nutjob, doing stuff even he himself doesn’t understand. In point of fact it just seems like the character is being yanked around by the demands of the plot. But in its short running time Omerta delivers a solid slice of Mafia pulp…though to be honest I kept waiting for Magellan to show up and start blowing these goons away.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

MIA Hunter #9: Invasion U.S.S.R.

MIA Hunter #9: Invasion U.S.S.R., by Jack Buchanan
April, 1988  Jove Books

MIA Hunter ventures into uncharted territory with this ninth installment, which sees a return of the same authors from the previous volume: Arthur Moore and Stephen Mertz. But in many ways Invasion U.S.S.R. seems to be from another series entirely, replacing the Southeast Asian POW-rescuing adventures of the earlier volumes with a sort of sub-Ludlum Cold War thriller. I found the results decidedly mixed.

For one, there is a bit of continuity, which makes me assume series editor Stephen Mertz was taking a firmer hand; the early volumes rarely if ever referred to each other. Here we have a reminder that Stone and team (Texan Hog Wiley and Brit Terrence Loughlin) are now employed by the government, thanks to the efforts of Senator Harler. Rather than illegally going into ‘Nam and neighborhood to rescue American POWs, they now go around the world to rescue captured American notables. Not technically MIAs, then, which makes Hog’s announcement, “We’re the MIA hunters” late in the novel sound a bit forced.

This time an American journalist who moonlights for the CIA is captured in Moscow. His name is Lee Daniels and the authors pad some of the pages with cutovers to his plight; this is another hallmark of previous volumes but Daniels seems to get a lot more attention. Unfortunately I found his story, which has him shuffled around this or that Russian sanitarium and grilled by this or that Russian flunkie, to be a bit tiresome.

I wanted action, baby – and shockingly, for a series known for big action scenes – Invasion U.S.S.R. is a bit lackluster in that department. It is for the most part a slow-moving thriller in which Stone and team are relegated to using pistols instead of their customary assault rifles. That being said, the author(s) do a better job of bringing the main characters to life, especially Loughlin; whereas he was a terse cipher previously, now he has a gift for sarcastic retorts. (And I still think there’s buried subtext that the dude’s gay – just sayin.’)

Stone, Hog, and Loughlin are called in by Harler to accompany him as “security” on a trip to Moscow. Their real goal will be to secretly find Daniels and exfiltrate him from whatever secret location the damn commies have him stashed away in. We get a bit of humor here with wily Hog (clever pun alert) chafing at the attempts to make him look respectable, complete with haircut, suit, and tie. The result, per Stone, “looks like a wrestler on his day off.” After this though, other than the occasional Hog-Loughlin banter, it’s a mostly humorless and dry affair.

It’s all very, uh, different, as Stone is suddenly meeting with embassy personnel and in-country CIA agents. As stated it just seems like a completely different series. The random action scenes still appear, a little less frequently, but they aren’t as overdone as the ones in the ‘Nam adventures. In fact it seems like Loughlin is forever stealing a car and the trio are sneaking away on the darkened streets after some random firefight with their appropriated pistols. It’s like the author(s) wanted to do a fairly realistic Cold War spy story while at the same time accomodating the action quotient required by the men’s adventure genre. For example, soon enough Hog is shooting helicopters out of the sky, something we’re told he’s quite good at.

The team gets in action posthaste, going off to meet with their CIA contact but walking into an ambush. This is just the first of many following sequences in which the boys get in a firefight, Loughlin hotwires a car, and they get away from the encroaching KGB. This happens so many times I started to suspect it was a subtle attempt at humor, and possibly it was. Stone and team don’t really integrate well into the shadow war mindset; they make cursory attempts at maintaining secrecy but keep getting in brief skirmishes with roving KGB patrols, making their getaway in stolen cars. Strangely neither Senator Harler nor the embassy folks get much frustrated by this, and just meet the team’s frequent requests for info, contacts, or more guns.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of sexual material – in the men’s adventure of the ‘80s, only the protagonists of  post-nuke pulps got laid. The protagonists of regular men’s adventure were too busy checking their guns and stuff to mess around with womenfolk. But we at least get the promise of it – first Stone’s put in contact with a pretty female agent based in Moscow named Rima…who doesn’t do anything but cook for them. Later when the action moves to Moscow they’re put in line with Anna, a hotstuff Swedish agent whose ample charms are much admired by Stone and team…but there’s absolutely nothing in the way of sexual hijinks. The idea is so remote that it isn’t even mentioned.

For the most part Invasion U.S.S.R. concerns “the MIA hunters” going around Moscow, trying to find leads on Daniels, and always being one step behind the KGB force that has him. Late in the game the action moves to Leningrad, but even here it continues in the same pace as the Moscow material: they meet up with some local CIA agents, sneak around the city, get in brief skirmishes, hotwire a car, and make their getaway. The action promises to expand when the team is captured by the cunning KGB officer who has Daniels, Stone and team walking into yet another ambush, but Anna manages to free them within a few pages.

The big fireworks are saved for the finale, in which Daniels is finally located inside a sanitarium-fortress near Leningrad. But whereas the previous books would feature Stone and team hitting the base with some native soldiers backing them up, this time they follow a goofy, pseudo-Mission: Impossible scenario: they let themselves get arrested so that they’re put in the sanitarium’s jail, and then they try to figure out a way to break both themselves and Daniels out. What’s worse, there isn’t even a final comeuppance for the KGB officer who has taken up so much of the narrative.

Despite being 180-some pages, Invasion U.S.S.R. seems to be longer. Even though the writing is fine, with a clear attempt at conveying suspense and tension, the book just seems sluggish at times. I’m assuming this one was just a misfire and the series will get back on track, but I do feel that this new angle with Stone’s team being a rescue unit isn’t panning out very well. I mean there has to be at least a few POWs they could look for in ‘Nam…

Monday, September 9, 2019

Death Of An Informer

Death Of An Informer, by Will Perry
November, 1974  Pyramid Books
(Original Pyramid edition July, 1973)

First published by Pyramid in 1973, Death Of An Informer received this ’74 reprint after winning an Edgar for best paperback mystery. After that it seems to have fallen off the map, as you can’t find much about it online. This is too bad, as the novel is very much in the vein of sleazy ‘70s crime fiction I enjoy, with the caveat that there’s hardly any action in it – I mean I was at least expecting a shootout or two, but about the most that happens is a guy gets pushed into the path of an oncoming train.

Will Perry was the pseudonym of a British reporter named W.J. Weatherby who was based in New York for many years and apparently covered the black community extensively. Thus there is a sense of authenticity to Death Of An Informer, which solely focues on the blacks who frequent “The Block,” ie the stretch of Forty-Second Street which runs between Seventh and Eight Avenues in Mahnattan. This is a “hell” (per the hyperbolic back cover copy) of strip clubs, hookers, pimps, hustlers, drug dealers, and everything else you could imagine, and in many ways the novel is a time capsule of a place and an era long gone. If I were to write a novel set in ‘70s Manhattan, I’d surely use this book for topical details.

This certainly isn’t a pulp crime novel, though. Weatherby seems to be shooting for the big leagues, and I’d say the novel has more in common with contemporary bestsellers like Report To The Commissioner than pulp paperbacks like, say, A Piece Of Something Big. But man, it still could’ve used at least a little action; Death Of An Informer really is a mystery, for the most part, so it didn’t win that Edgar by accident. It’s just that the sleazy inner-city setting cries out for more of a pulp-crime sort of yarn, particularly given how well Weatherby brings to life the lurid atmosphere of depravity and decadence.

It is odd though that the book was afforded such acclaim because its characters would have been considered very taboo at the time: gay black cocaine dealers. Well, not all of them are gay, but it’s implied that they all switch hit. And also one of the characters is white, but he’s also a drug dealer, and he’s also gay, and in fact he has a “sickness” for black men. This would be Charles De Gaulle Tyler, the “informer” of the title, whose death is promised on the very first page of the book; the novel opens on what will be his “last day.”

Tyler is 24, an army vet, born and raised in the south by less-than-understanding rich parents. We learn in brief flashbacks that even as a boy Tyler would go off to “consort” with the black men his family employed on their estate; one of his deepest relationships happened in the stockade while he was in the army, with a young black man named Boy Ronnie. Your classic “it happened one night in the stockade” sort of affair. When Tyler came to New York years later he ran into Boy Ronnie again; Ronnie was part of an all-black coke dealing gang, and their boss, a hat-wearing teenager dubbed The Kid, decided to give Tyler a job – as a white man, one of a privileged background, Tyler would be better suited to dealing with the gang’s Park Avenue clientelle.

We actually don’t get much detail on the cocaine business; the Kid keeps everything to himself, running the operation out of a hotel room. In addition to Tyler and Boy Ronnie, the gang is comprised of Sweetboy, Leroy, and Groove. We’re brought into all this by the reflections of Tyler as he goes about what will be his last day, dropping off coke to a few customers and bumping into Sweetboy, whom he has a crush on. Tyler considers himself a chronicler of the Block and thus large portions of the narrative are given over to his rhapsodies about this or that landmark or establishment; again, the book is very much a time capsule, even more so than the Len Levinson novels of the era because it is so focused on capturing the time and the place. In some ways it bears a similarity to Joyce’s Ulysses, if only in its similarity to Joyce’s declaration that his novel could be used to rebuild Dublin.

When Tyler goes back to the Kid’s hotel, he finds himself walking into a frosty reception – even Boy Ronnie refuses to meet his eye. It turns out Sweetboy has been arrested and Tyler was the last person to see him. As the only white man in the gang, Tyler is instantly suspect number one. He pleads his innocence, but panics and manages to escape. The rest of this section of the book concerns Tyler’s desperate attempt to get off the Block. Weatherby masterfully shows how this once-fantastical place has now become nightmarish for Tyler, and of course he can’t expect any help from the average New Yorker.

Grindhouse enthusiasts will appreciate the references to the plentiful moviehouses on Forty-Second; Tyler passes them by, but doesn’t even have a dime on him so can’t escape inside one for a few hours. Instead he finds his way into a bookstore, where he runs into Boy Ronnie – who tries to help him. However when Tyler tries to use the subway token Ronnie’s gotten for him, someone rushes up behind him and pushes him into the path of the train. All we know, from the testimony of the train driver, is that the assailant was black. The mystery of who killed Tyler is the main plot.

At this point Boy Ronnie becomes our protagonist. The literary asperations that peppered Tyler’s section are gone; Ronnie can barely read, and whereas Tyler at least had an apartment – cockroach-ridden as it was – Ronnie lives on the street, taking “baths” in the sink at the Port Authority and occasionally washing his few clothes at the Kid’s hotel. He’s 21, a former boxer, with a savage knife scar; we learn that he had an affair with his trainer’s wife, and nearly got killed for it. Instead, he lost the ability to box, so now he makes his living dealing coke for the Kid.

Ronnie is one of the switch-hitters on the gang; he had that affair with Tyler in the stockade years ago, but in the novel itself his sexual interests are demonstrated on a blonde girl. I should mention that the novel is not explicit in the least; none of the sex scenes, whether they be gay or straight, are at all detailed. In fact, when Ronnie goes to a grungy hotel with the blonde, he finds himself unable to rise to the occasion, bummed over Tyler’s plight. Later Ronnie has a second chance with the girl, and this time succeeds, but Weatherby leaves the scene off page.

As with Tyler we get the occasional digression into Boy Ronnie’s background, and here we learn the meaning behind his bizarre name; he informs the blonde that in the smalltown in which he grew up there was also a little girl named Ronnie. Thus he became “Boy” Ronnie to the others, and the nickname stuck. But this is a ‘70s New York of colorful nicknames and even more colorful wardrobes, so Ronnie doesn’t much stick out. In fact he thinks other people are weird, like a friend of his who is a would-be pimp, going about in wild fashion and looking for a new stable, despite the wife and kid he has waiting for him back home in the subburbs.

I was under the impression that with the narrative switching from the effete Tyler to the macho Ronnie we’d have an increase in the action quotient. However I was wrong. Ronnie mostly walks around the Block and ponders Tyler’s diary, which he discovered in Tyler’s apartment after searching it per the Kid’s instructions. There is though a nicely-done sequence where Ronnie runs into Tyler’s father, come here from New Orleans to collect his son’s body. The old southerner is numb with grief, to the point that he’s even willing to talk to this black man who claims to have known his son. Weatherby displays the casual racism of the older generations in a nicely subtle way, not banging us over the head with it as such a scene would be rendered today.

When the Kid is finally able to speak to Sweetboy through a lawyer, the Kid learns that Tyler couldn’t have been the informer; as mentioned the Kid keeps the workings of his coke business secret, so that his dealers aren’t privy to each other’s work. Sweetboy was caught by the cops while on a run Tyler couldn’t have known about, thus he was innocent – and shouldn’t have been killed, Ronnie argues. But neither the Kid nor the others care too much about Tyler’s loss. The Kid suspects Groove, and Ronnie is dispatched to round him up – more inexplicit lurid stuff where Groove first goes home with some white dude he just met and Ronnie waits patiently in the foyer for them to screw in the bedroom.

Ronnie feels himself becoming more distant from his “friends” in the gang, to the point that the Kid tells Ronnie to leave as the Kid and Leroy torture Groove – who swears he isn’t a snitch. Frustratingly, the novel seems to be headed for some action just as it comes to a close; Ronnie, adrift on Forty-Second, finds himself in one of those movie theaters as a Western is playing, and there sit the Kid and Leroy a few aisles in front of him. Ronnie immediately realizes which of them is the true informant, and sees himself as the sheriff who is about to take out the bad guy. And here the novel ends!

Weatherby’s writing is strong throughout, with a gift for capturing mood, character, and location. He also nearly succeeds in passing himself off as an American author. Only the occasional gaffe betrays his British background, such as minor things like, “He looked round the room.” Americans don’t look “round” anything – we look around them. And these inner-city black Americans tend to say “quite” a bit too much to be believable, but again, this is nothing major. However, I didn’t even realize “Will Perry” was a pseudonym until I subconsciously detected something “British” about the prose. 

While Death Of An Informant won the Edgar and got this second printing, I don’t see any other reprints and it appears that Weatherby’s few other novels, all bearing the “Will Perry” by-line, didn’t receive as much critical attention. They also appear to be relatively rare, at least judging from prices on the used books marketplace.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Vigilante #5: Detroit: Dead End Delivery

The Vigilante #5: Detroit: Dead End Delivery, by V.J. Santiago
December, 1976  Pinnacle Books

I suspect Robert Lory was getting a little fatigued with The Vigilante; Detroit: Dead End Delivery lacks the fire and brimstone of the previous volumes, and shows evidence of a series increasingly losing its way. Whereas the first volume established nutcase “hero” Joe Madden as a merciless dispenser of justice, cleaning the streets of scum, this fifth volume comes off like a ‘70s take on hardboiled pulp, with Madden acting more like a private eye.

It’s about a week after the previous volume, and this installment marks five weeks since the events of the first volume. As Madden reflects to himself, he’s done some serious work in those few weeks, killing 42 scumballs. Lory at least sticks to the template he’s devised, with a sort of introductory action scene of Madden blowing someone away on the streets of the latest city he’s visiting, but here we already get indication that Dead End Delivery is going to be a bit more sluggish. Lory spends much too long introducing the one-off character Madden saves from a hooker-mugger team who intends to knife the guy in an alley, until Madden appears in trench coat and wide brim hat and blows them away.

All this is well and good, but the thing is, Lory spends so much time on this one-off character’s plight that the actual justice-dispensing is basically skirted over. That being said, Madden again shows his viciousness in blowing away the woman who has lured the would-be victim out onto the street; this is the fourth woman Madden’s killed, not that it causes him to lose much sleep. And really that’s it for the “vigilante” stuff of the book. I really do think Lory had gotten bored with the series concept at this point, as he comes up with a storyline that has nothing to do with the previous four volumes – even the subplot about the New York cop who might’ve figured out Madden’s game is dropped this time.

Madden’s come to Detroit to accept an award for his firm; none of the previous volumes have dwelt too much on Madden’s day job (wisely), but this one’s humorous in how quickly it’s passed off. Madden’s there to accept the award and leaves the luncheon as soon as he’s given his speech! Meanwhile he’s decided to stay in Detroit a few days, as the night before, after killing the would-be muggers, he bumped into an old friend at a bar: Stan Hart. Hart’s in trouble and wants Madden’s help – the implication is that Hart must detect some innate quality in Madden’s steel-eyed, scar-faced visage which screams: “I can help you.”

Hart’s story goes that he’s working on a top-secret auto engine plan, and someone keeps stealing his plans. He suspects Tander, his boss at the firm, of being behind the thefts. He’s gotten so nervous that he’s hired a grungy P.I. named Voll and he’s also told his wife and kid to leave town. He doesn’t elaborate what exactly he hopes Madden can do to help him; for all he knows, Madden’s just an engineer. But again, the intimation is that the scarred face Madden now sports lets people know he can handle dirty jobs.

And it is a dirty job, as next morning Madden finds out Stan Hart took a head-dive out of his corporate office. It was clearly murder, but staged to look like suicide…and if it’s deemed so, Hart’s family won’t get a dime of insurance money. This Madden learns when he visits Hart’s widow, and finds Hart’s boss Tander also there. Madden realizes that Hart was right in his suspicion; Tander is indeed behind the blueprint thefts and he probably also killed Hart. Of course Madden will be proven correct, and we get more indication of the somewhat padded nature of the novel with too many sequences from Tander’s point of view, how he’s stealing the plans to make it big, selling them to some Mafia thugs.

But then it’s kind of padded throughout; I mean there’s a part where Madden goes to the downtrodden building in which P.I. Voll offices out of, and we get copious description of the place’s fa├žade and bedgraggled appearance. It’s all nicely written, sure, but isn’t what this genre demands. I mean, I know it had to be a drag to turn in men’s adventure novels several times a year, toiling under a house name with no critical attention, but still…to me, it would be a simple matter to fill the pages, despite the author’s boredom. Your character is a vigilante? Then put him on the street and have him gun down some criminals!! I mean it isn’t rocket science, is it? And personally I would’ve rather read random snatches of Madden gunning down street-dwelling punks instead of the half-baked, low-simmer yarn Lory’s given us.

Action is minimal because it turns out this is all Madden’s up against…sniveling coporate ladder-climber Tander. We aren’t exactly talking about a supervillain here. The only person he’s got at his disposal is a hitman he hired; Madden has a brief firefight with the guy in Hart’s office, but doesn’t exact revenge until later in the novel. Lory has to come up with arbitrary action scenes to meet his quota, like three young punks who accost Madden on the street one night as he waits to ambush Tander. This sequence, even if arbitrary, reminds us of the cold brutality of our hero; he guns the three down almost as an afterthought, despite their pleadings.

Even the lurid stuff is minimized; Tander has a hotstuff wife, and the implication seems clear that Madden will have sex with her, per the ‘70s men’s adventure template. When the expected scene happens, Lory initially appears to be catering to the template; Madden goes to Tander’s house during business hours, while Tander is in the office, and storms inside wearing a ski mask. And naturally sexy Irene Tander is only wearing a nightie at the time. But even here Lory gussies it up with overdone plotting; Madden bullshits the girl into thinking he has the “real” documents Tander’s been looking for and will let her share in the profit, at her husband’s expense. To prove her trustworthiness, Irene treats Madden to a dual blowjob-handjob…no doubt the only moment in literary history in which oral sex is compared to a symphonic movement.

But that’s it…Madden doesn’t do anything else with her. At leat here we get a laugh-out-loud reminder of Madden’s increasing psychosis; after Irene has finished her oral ministrations, Madden momentarily considers blowing her head off right then and there! Instead he strings her along, and ultimately sends her to Voll’s office, framing her for the private eye’s murder. This part’s hard to buy, given that the guy’s been dead for a day or two at this point, but Madden gives the cops an anonymous tip and siccs them on her just as she’s entered the office, and last we hear Irene’s under arrest.

It’s clear though that we are far removed from the series concept at this point. Instead of cleaning up the scummy streets of Detroit, Madden dicks around with Tander, determined to prove Stan Hart was murdered and didn’t commit suicide. More interesting is the subplot: Dead End Delivery opens with a Mafia underling named Vincent Bell getting the word out to the various families to be on the lookout for a guy named “Joe” with a scarred face, sending out the police sketch made of Madden in the previous volume. This promises some thrills, but when Madden runs into the chief Mafia thug here in Detroit the guy swears he won’t tell anyone that “Joe” is in Motor City.

There’s only one more volume to go, and if this one’s any indication I suspect Lory won’t be wrapping anything up. But I would’ve preferred more about this than the “A” plot, with all the Maguffin stuff about the auto engine plans and whatnot. Lory sees it through, though, with brief action scenes as Madden takes out the occasional hitman or Mafia thug. There’s nowhere near the action level of previous books, though – not that this series was ever action-packed – and the finale follows suit, with Madden luring Tander into a fitting end: falling to his death, just as Hart did.

Well, next time Madden heads to D.C., and hopefully the last volume will be better than this one. In the meantime, here’s a contemporary interview I found with Lory, from 1973, which also features a few words from his mother!

Monday, September 2, 2019

To Kill A Snowman

To Kill A Snowman, by Charles Miron
No month stated, 1978  Manor Books

It looks like after Airport Cop failed to get off the ground (clever pun alert) Charles Miron went on to publish several standalone crime novels for Manor Books…crime novels with some of the most psychedelic narrative you’ll encounter anywhere. Seriously folks, halfway through To Kill A Snowman it occurred to me that I had no idea what the hell was going on.

First of all, the cover art implies that this novel has something to do with heroin, but in fact it’s about coke smuggling, as evidenced by the title. I was hoping for a Cocaine-inspired sleazy ‘70s crimefest set on the mean streets of New York, but To Kill A Snowman actually takes place in…Sweden. This is just our first example of how skewed Mr. Miron is…not to mention that the plot, such as it is, is sort of ripped off from a subplot in his earlier Death Flight: a struggling filmmaker uses a coke deal to finance a movie. I mean, that’s what the plot’s supposed to be about. What actually happens in the book is a different matter.

For one, I don’t think Miron ever even informs us where in Sweden the novel opens; initially I thought it was taking place in Copenhagen, which of course is in a different country. Finally though “Sweden” emerges as the locale, and it would appear Miron must’ve visited the place, as he peppers the narrative with egregious references to Swedish words, places, and cuisine. Our hero is Jeff, a young American fillmmaker who has come here to Sweden because…honestly I don’t know why the hell he’s here. Apparently there’s like a screening of an unfinished documentary he made, or something like that…really, just like with the Airport Cop books, I spent the entirety of the novel feeling a sort of contact high, so a lot of the “plot” escaped me.

The novel opens with Jeff attempting to rip off some coke dealers, working with Lena, his Swedish girlfriend. If I understood it correctly, and I’m not sure I did, the plan is for Jeff and Lena to act as couriers for other buyers, but they intend to take the coke for themselves and sell it. I think. But Lena, after picking up the cocaine, doesn’t show at their prearranged meeting place, and Jeff starts to suspect he’s been had. Spoiler note for anyone who attempts to read this damnable book: Lena won’t return. I mean you’d think it would be a given that Jeff would have a reunion with her, at least for revenge, but nope – that’s not how Charles Miron rolls. I mean folks you can’t expect basic storytelling elements when your author turns out prose like this:

Wet film flooded over [Ulla’s] perfect marble-shaped eyes. “Puries” Jeff called them when he knelt as a kid outside round circles in the dirt where potfulls of gaily speckled globollas lay waiting to be knocked out from a three-finger heist.

What does that even mean?? Or how about:

Who understands the phalarope, his dreams or flights of fancy? Now [Jeff] drove masochistically through the nutcracker drill, football’s two-on-one suicide formation propelling a lone ballcarrier between a pair of Neanderthal shoulders with no necks, only blind desire to bust head, claw inside his birdcage face mask, using callous stumps for hammers, gouging his eyes before the body fell limply forward. 

“Girl, open your eyes, the ones you closed everytime we made love. Touch me, a bit of a user, selfish, but Christ, not the shadow of anyone’s mind blowing incomplete man.” 

Ulla watched as Jeff nervously picked loose skin from the corner of his cuticle. She tried remembering intimate details [her old boyfriend] Jurgen had left outside his window for her. Back of the hand over his left eyelid, as if the sun always shone too brightly for him.

Mind you, that’s exactly how those three paragraphs appear in the book – I mean that’s in sequence. And it’s like this through the book. Soon enough it devolves into a near-psychotic blur of senseless narrative. And speaking of psychotic, the infrequent violence comes out of left field and hits hard: when rounded up by the men who financed the coke deal, Jeff fools them into thinking he’s hidden the stash somewhere, and as they’re driving him to get it he uses a surprise “karate elbow” to knock a dude’s eyeball out of its socket! Bloody cord dangling down the guy’s cheek and everything. And previously Jeff’s been portrayed as a harmless movie-fan…though he did get “commando training” from his high school gym teacher(?!).

The “Ulla” of the excerpts above is Lena’s 18 year-old roommate, who professes no knowledge of where Lena’s run off to, and this after Jeff’s slapped her around a bit. She asks to come along with him, as apparently she’s attracted to him, and during the escape they get around to having sex: “I’m going to spunk you like you are a jungle goddess” being the unforgettable words Jeff initiates the act with. Oh and I forgot, at this point the two are on a ship, escaping wherever the hell the novel opened, and Jeff’s just taken a big shit! Yep folks, you read that right…we have a scene where Jeff sneaks into the restroom while everyone onboard is sleeping and tries to hide the sound of his, uh, “evacuations” with the flushes of the toilet. This takes place directly before the sex.

One would think Jeff would be a nervous man, with Swedish and American mobsters and the cops looking for him, but again, Charles Miron doesn’t roll that way. Instead our hero blathers endlessly about classic film, or makes obscure references to film or literature, and instead of hiding out he goes to a little village and works on his film script. Then one day he ditches Ulla and tries to get a boat to Copenhagen. Instead he’s caught by more drug-world denizens, but these ones are more professional and just want Jeff to work for them and find the cocaine he lost.

Instead Jeff makes off with Elizabet, sexy babe of this drug kingpin, and is right back to watching movies and talking about movies instead of worrying about his life. In fact the “climax” occurs at a screening of Jeff’s unfinished film, where the cops, thugs, and Mafioso who have been trailing him all congregate. Hopefully at this point no reader is expecting an action-packed finale, or even a sensible one. Jeff throws a “brick” of cocaine that turns out to be candy, and the thugs squabble for it, and the cops take custody of Jeff and lead him out, passing by the audience that wants to ask Jeff about his movie.

Honestly To Kill A Snowman was a hot mess, and I have to say I’m not sad that I don’t have any of Miron’s other Manor standalones.