Thursday, October 31, 2019

Balzan Of The Cat People #3: The Lights Of Zetar

Balzan Of The Cat People #3: The Lights Of Zetar, by Wallace Moore
September, 1975  Pyramid Books

Well friends I hate to break it to you, but this was the last volume of Balzan Of The Cat People. Somehow the “Tarzan of Outer Space” was unable to garner a sufficient readership…no doubt because the previous two exploits were dull, overwritten yawnfests in which Balzan came off like a bufoonish lout prone to random acts of anthropology, and practically everyone he met shamed him for being a violent jerk.

It’s some time after the previous volume, which even Conway must’ve hated because he doesn’t even refer to it this time. In fact, The Lights Of Zetar is more a sequel to the first volume than The Caves Of Madness was, seemingly picking up on the events of that first installment. (And yes it stole its title from an episode of Star Trek!) Balzan often thinks of the Kharnites, the villains of The Blood Stones, pondering how the villains of this volume are “exactly like them.” This actually comes off more like Conway ripping himself off due to his own boredom with the series. But at least Balzan isn’t shamed as much this time around…and, uh, doesn’t knock up a demon-winged chick who lives underground, either. 

We meet Balzan as he’s battling a monster. Balzan fights a lot of monsters this time around, usually using his poison-tipped whip (ie his “therb”) or the Kharnite sword he appropriated in the first volume. The Lights Of Zetar has a slightly more pronounced “sci-fantasy” vibe than previous books, with more flying craft and whatnot, but Balzan has yet to get his hands on a raygun or anything. Most of his killing is done by blade, as is his offing of this particular monster which has abruptly attacked Balzan as he was casually walking along and minding his own business. 

Unfortunately the beast is owned by the Krells, a despotic race of humans who look just like Balzan save for their jutting foreheads. These are the guys Balzan keeps comparing to the similarly-despotic Karnites in The Blood Stones. (And I will just assume that Marvel Comics writer Conway conflated the names of Marvel alien races the Krees and the Skrulls for “Krells.”)  One of the many goofy things about this series is that the (unnamed?) planet on which it takes place is so massive that entire empires can exist without ever hearing of one another. Thus while the Krells proclaim themselves as the mightiest race on the planet, their name known far and wide, Balzan shrugs and says he’s never heard of them.

He gets in a quick fight, killing off the Krell war party in bloodless prose. Balzan soon finds himself among another race, the Orathians, who also look just like him but with normal foreheads. They are completely subjugated by the Krells, to the extent that the metal staffs the Krells wield don’t even have any power behind them; the Oranthians shrink at the sight of them, believing the staffs are capable of dispensing incredible pain. Balzan saves a group of Oranthians from these Krells, and thus is greeted like a hero when he enters their camp. Here he meets the lovely Tarlene, and “Balzan the Anthropologist” briefly returns as he ponders over the girl’s total mental domination by the Krells. 

Meanwhile the two shack up; Conway seems to have understood by now that Balzan’s supposed to get busy with some busty native gals each volume, which I’m sure was a stipulation from book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel. But there’s zero in the way of salacious details. Honestly the series is almost G rated, and the vintage planetary romances it was inspired by were even more risque. Also here Balzan meets Taya, the Chronicler of the Oranthians; he’s old and wizened and a revolutionary at heart, plotting an underground resistance against the Krells.

Conway has this strange tendency early in the book of setting up characters, making them seem important, and then promptly killing them off. This first happens with a much-ballyhooed Krell commander who vows to get this new “Oranthian” (aka Balzan) who’s causing so much trouble; our hero kills this guy so casually that I had to re-read the paragraph to confirm he was dead. The same holds true for the Krell ruler of the Oranthians, who is here due to being married to Lenor, daughter of Amdroth, the king of the Krells. This Oranthian outpost is his “gift” for being married to the princess, and while this initially promises some sort of royal subplot about the Krells, this guy too is perfunctorily killed by Balzan, who decides to just press his advantage and marches right into the local Krell fortress, killing the guy where he stands!

Balzan does a lot of killing this time, and luckily there’s none of the violence-shaming of the previous books. Or at least not so much of it. He is though still a complete moron, and just like last time is twice knocked unconscious, at the mercy of his enemies, within the first forty pages. Here it’s Lenor, who offers Balzan a drink mere moments after he’s killed her husband, and Balzan like a fool drinks it…and passes out. Instead of putting a knife in his throat, Lenor tells some underlings to round him up and put him aboard her ship, which she flies to the main Krell fortress to show off her prisoner to her dad. Balzan wakes up just long enough to get knocked out again.

Amdroth, ruler of the Krells, is gifted with precognition thanks to the strange shining lights of Zetar, the god that lives within the mountains above the fortress. The “Feast of Zetar” is coming up and we learn that people are sacrificed to the god every several years. Balzan’s freed by underground resistance Oranthians led by Jem, who happens to be the brother of Tarlene. Soon Balzan’s with the whole group of them, plotting the takedown of Amdroth. Our hero isn’t all just poisoned therbs and Kharnite swords, though – he’s also pretty handy with a computer, as he quickly discovers the “secret weapon” Taya has discovered beneath the Krell capital. It’s one of those Star Trek computers, too, just a massive construct that’s activated by speech. Here Balzan learns that “Zetar” was actually the name of the planet these ancient aliens came from, millennia ago, leaving behind their technology; technology Amdroth now abuses so as to subjugate the Oranthians.

We do get a little of the courtroom intrigue promised in the opening section, but it concerns Amdroth’s top warrior, Emdor, and some other dude whose name I forgot to note vying for dominance. And also Emdor is sleeping with Lenor, but Conway leaves this too off-page. We do get a lot more action, though, which is nice given the plot-heavy boredom of the previous book. The sci-fantasy sweep continues when Balzan uses that ancient computer to fire a plasma cannon sort of thing, blasting apart a Krell war party. Conway even appropriates a Weird Tales vibe when Amdroth, who is also a necromancer, reanimates some dead Krell warriors to fight Balzan, Jem, and Taya. This sub-Conan vibe continues when Balzan challenges Amdroth but is confronted by a host of visions.

The back cover copy implies that sexy (but big foreheaded?) Lenor will in some way tempt or sway Balzan, but Conway is unwilling to deliver this scene. Balzan sneaks into the palace, comes upon Lenor, and she offers herself to him. Balzan my friends turns her down, sickened by her evilness. After this Lenor falls to her death in the courtyard below…and Balzan questions his manhood for turning her down, blaming himself for her death! Not that this slows him down much. He’s here to kill Amdroth, so ventures into the caves where the evil ruler gets his power.

The beast on the cover is not a true indication of the guardian of the cave in which Zetar “lives.” In the actual novel it’s a massive spider – and humorously it’s dispatched by Balzan in a few sentences. In fact, the novel seems to end thirty pages early. Balzan takes out the monster, confronts Amdroth, and then discovers that Zetar is, “surprisingly,” a computer. Another that the ancient aliens left behind, but it needs energy or something to run, and Amdroth has been using sacrifices to power it. Along with his own body, as he’s gotten into a symbiotic relationship with the computer, which has granted him eternal youth; in reality Amdroth is incredibly ancient.

But once that’s done it seems the novel should end, but instead it’s about Jem and the Oranthians (sounds like an ‘80s cartoon) battling Emor and his still-loyal Krell warriors. In the climax Balzan gets another reminder of “man’s inhumanity to man” when a victorious Jem proves to be more merciless than even the Krells were. Even Tarlene is transformed from meek to bloodthirsty, sitting beside her brother and calling for Krell blood. This sickens Balzan, who loses all feelings for her (perfect so he could hop in the sack with whatever babe he’d meet in the next volume). After a violent disagreement with Jem, Balzan cuts Jem’s arm off(!) and then goes on his merry way.

And that was it for Balzan Of The Cat People. Even though only 140-some pages, The Lights Of Zetar is ponderously slow-going; not as slow as the previous volumes but close. It would seem clear why the series failed to take hold with readers. It’s too bad Manning Lee Stokes didn’t have a go at the series; his offerings would’ve been padded and ponderous as well, but they’d burn with that weird fire so typical of Stokes’s work, particularly in the eight volumes of Richard Blade he wrote for Engel. One can only imagine what sort of weirdness he could’ve brought to this similar series.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Istanbul (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #10)

Istanbul, by Nick Carter
October, 1965  Award Books

This was only the second volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster by  Manning Lee Stokes, but already we know what we’ll get – an ultra-macho Nick, an overstuffed plot, a good deal of padding, and a helluva lot of random exclamation points. This one’s a bit leaner and meaner than the other Stokes Killmasters I’ve read, and Nick in particular comes off as pretty bad-ass; there’s a part late in the novel where he goes through the wringer, takes a half-second breather, and then goes on the offense.

We’re informed it’s May of 1965, and Nick’s been sent to a D.C. hotel by AXE boss Hawk. Nick is instructed to wear a mask when he enters the darkened hotel room, and there he is briefed by another guy in a mask. This bizarre tidbit is never elaborated on, but the implication is that the masked man is an important politician who wants to keep his identity a secret. There are some parallels to From Russia, With Love in that the masked man references SMERSH, stating that a heroin ring operating out of Istanbul (another seeming From Russia, With Love reference) has its own pseudo-SMERSH execution wing, comprised of four individuals. Nick’s assignment is to go to Turkey, find them, and kill them.

First though, a final boink with Nick’s latest girlfriend, Janet. Nick’s realized the poor girl has fallen in love with him, so we can’t have any of that. Her response to his curt admission that he’s not coming back is excerpt-worthy:

“So that is that,” she said. “And damn you, Nick Carter. But before you leave you’re going to give me something to remember you by! Tonight I want you to do everything to me. Don’t hold off the way you do to keep from hurting me! You do hurt me, you know. I’m too little and you’re too damn big, but tonight forget it. Promise!” 

Folks, if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that

Anyway, Nick heads to Turkey and Stokes does a credible job of bringing the place to life, not hammering us with details. Instead it’s more on the tension and suspense angle, as Nick meets up with the sole AXE contact in Istanbul, a nerdish guy who hero-worships Nick: his name is Mousy Morgan, and he’s clearly coming unglued due to the heavy stuff going on with this heroin ring.

I figured it would be a long haul until we got to any action, similar to previous Stokes installments, but Nick and Mousy are attacked posthaste, as Mousy and a narcotics agent pick up Nick near the Istanbul harbor (where he’s been dropped off by a submarine) and row him to shore. Another boat attacks them, a machine gunner cutting loose. Here Nick employs a new gadget: Tiny Tim, a little metallic ball that’s actually a mini-atom bomb. It’s a bit hard to buy that Nick survives the blast, but what the hell.

From here Nick gets egregious background on the four men he’s to kill: Defarge, Gonzalez, Dr. Six (a former Nazi concentration camp doctor!), and the mysterious Johnny Ruthless, who seems to be more myth than man, but has a penchant for nearly beheading victims with his razor. There’s also Mija, a hotstuff Turkish babe who is a former “hophead” and has gone through the cure and now is helping Mousy take down the ring. There’s yet more seeming Fleming tribute with Mousy’s AXE base being hidden beneath a morgue, with Nick having to pass through a dank hallway with rotten corpses and whatnot – very similar to the underground passage sequence in From Russia, With Love.

There’s the usual random Stokes insanity; for one, to prove that Mija is really a recovering addict and not just a plant, Nick forces the girl to strip, all the way. This while she cries and pleads with him – and mere moments after he’s met her. His objective is to determine that there really are needle marks on her skin, and more importantly no fresh ones. Even crazier is a bit later, when Nick and Mousy go to a club that shows porn flicks, a club frequented by some of the heroin runners, and Mousy dresses up like a woman because only couples can get in. However Stokes doesn’t do much to exploit this, and Nick doesn’t even actually go into the theater – he and Mousy just hang out in the club, on the lookout for their prey.

Stokes got his start writing mystery novels (a la The Lady Lost Her Head), and that’s really the vibe of Istanbul. Nick keeps coming across corpses, ones with their throats slit so savagely that they’ve nearly been decapitated. All clearly the work of Johnny Ruthless, and Nick soon notes the telltale whiff of nail polish remover at the scenes of the grisly murders. Nick still has to figure out the workings of the ring, so he and Mija pretend to be a wealthy vacationing couple, Nick posing as a Southern salesman and Mija as his playmate; another setup that ultimately goes nowhere, save for the expected Nick-Mija coupling – which features more of Stokes’s patented bonkers sleaze:

Nick had forgotten everything in the universe but this red cave into which he must plunge deeper and deeper. He struggled frantically on now in love-hate and tender-hurt with a terrible obsession to cleave and rend and utterly subdue her.

The novel really picks up when Nick and Mija parachute into the no man’s region of Ankara. Mija’s presence is baffling but Stokes explains it away by Nick feeling that the girl won’t be safe if he leaves her alone in Istanbul. There are interesting parallels here to the modern day in that Nick has dropped into Kurd territory, and they are at war with both Syria and Turkey. (I seem to recall someone recently tweeting that this region has been at war for centuries.) And folks the Kurds don’t come off very well at all. In this book they are blood-crazed savages and Nick is very concerned about them, but regardless he disguises himself as one so as to slip into the fold: Gonzalez, the “Basque” uses the Kurds to transfer the poppy seeds, and Nick hopes to disguise himself as one of them for a chance at killing the man.

All this leads to a running sequence in which Nick is quickly caught, strapped to a donkey and sent over a mine field, and somehow manages to free himself, turn the tables on his Kurd captors, and ambush Gonzalez’s caravan. Another Tiny Tim is even employed, Nick once again defying reality by merely burying himself in the desert sand to escape the atomic wrath. But it gets even crazier, because Nick is shot by some Kurd who survives, and Stokes is so caught up in his own escalating pace that he forgets all about this and just has Nick waking up in a hospital along the Bosphorous, a kindly old German doctor at his side, and realizing it’s none other than Dr. Joseph Six. Nick’s in deep shit, because the good doctor is fond of experimenting on subjects.

Stokes would later bring a “Dr. Six” into his John Eagle Expeditor installment Valley Of Vultures (one of my favorites in that series), and there the character was a bit more elaborated. Here Dr. Six is a bit of a buffoon for a Nazi scum villain. He blithely informs Nick that he’s given him an overdose of morphine and Nick’s time is limited. Nick doubts this is true but slowly realizes he really is dying. Here’s where that bad-assery I mentioned comes into play. Dr. Six excuses himself to allow Nick to die alone (his first display of bufoonery) and Nick crawls off the bed, stumbles into the adjacent bathroom, and finds some bath salts in the cabinet. He drinks it, forcing himself to puke – and then drinks his own puke. All to get the morphine out of him.

Then he “accidentally” falls out the window into the Bosphorous below, waking up on the deck of a fisherman’s boat. After the men give him mouth to mouth, Nick jumps back into the water, swims over to Dr. Six’s fortress hospital, and storms the place, looking for revenge. Stokes pulls all this off with aplomb, however it’s a bit goofy that Dr. Six and his colleagues happen to be looking at Nick’s appropriated weapons when the Killmaster sneaks up on them. Even goofier that Nick pretends to be sick and Dr. Six rushes over to help him. But here we get to see gas bomb at Pierre at play, so the climax at least is entertaining.

But it still doesn’t stop. A dazed Nick escapes the hospital, only to almost be run over by a car. True to the genre, a smokin’ hot redhead from America is behind the wheel; she offers to give Nick a ride back to her place. The ensuing sex scene is so rushed over that I had to re-read the part to see that the two actually did have sex. But anyway Stokes is leading us into a surprising, even “shocking” reveal, as the lady has a deadly secret – however not to buzzkill Stokes’s efforts but I’d already seen it coming halfway through the novel.

All told Istanbul moves at a steady clip for Stokes and was probably one of my favorite of his Killmaster yarns. The egregious exclamation points get to be annoying after a while, and per the Stokes norm there’s a bit too much padding and stalling, but overall it’s a fun read, and here for once Nick Carter really lives up to his “Killmaster” title.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Marina Tower

Marina Tower, by Charles Beardsley
No month stated, 1978  Popular Library

You’ve gotta love the front cover of this fat paperback, which compares itself to not one but two Burt Hirschfeld novels – Fire Island and Aspen (which I haven’t read yet). Author Charles Beardsley was almost as prolific as Hirschfeld, but doesn’t seem to have achieved the same success; I believe all his novels were published as paperback originals, and all were churned out between 1960 and 1980 (I think).

This is the first of his novels I’ve read, and I chose this one due to Kurt’s review at The Ringer Files a few years back, which really drew my attention. I’ve collected a lot of Beardsley’s novels, though, and they all seem to follow the True Trash template: beautiful people in a beautiful location experiencing various soap opera-esque activities over a couple hundred long-simmer pages. Everything about Marina Tower screams exploitation, from the bikini-clad gals on the cover (curious though that none of these California babes are blonde!) to various promises of sex and sin on the front and back cover copy.

And yet this is one of those perplexing “dirty” novels in which hardly any dirty stuff happens! Folks this is one of those mysteries I always ponder…how in the world can an author turn out a “trash” novel that’s not even trashy? Rather, the book is a slow-moving soap opera positively overstuffed with flighty mid-‘70s California types, young and old. It is also very heavy on the New Age tip, similar to another novel of the era that also focused on ‘70s California, The Serial, but this one barrels right on past New Age and into the paranormal. You’d never guess it from the cover art but there’s actually a ghost in the novel, one that gradually possess one of the main characters.

While that’s all well and good, it’s not really the book I wanted. I wanted ‘70s sleaze, folks! I wanted post-hippie Southern California types snorting coke and popping amyl nitrates while engaging in “group activities.” Instead it’s all long-simmer, more about the various characters and their various hangups. There’s even a ‘70s-mandatory government conspiracy afoot, one that of course has to do with the environment. Well anyway, it’s fairly well written, if a bit too overstuffed with characters and subplots. Yet Beardsley mostly does a good job of keeping it moving.

The novel takes place over the Fourth of July weekend of the U.S. Bicentennial, ie 1976. I’m pretty sure the Bicentennial is among my earliest memories; I was born in October of 1974, and I seem to recall looking out the living room window of my house as a small, flag-bearing parade went by. Unless I’ve imagined this it would have to be my earliest memory, as I would’ve only been around a year and a half old in July of 1976. Well anyway I digress.

The titular Marina Tower is a deluxe apartment community along the Pacific Ocean, near Los Angeles. There’s the main Tower, with fifty floors, and a North and South community adjacent to the Tower. The novel concerns the Bicentennial activities of a few of the residents, but as mentioned the focus is more so on the paranormal, with a ghostly presence emanating on the actual holiday and witnessed by a few of the residents. As Kurt notes in his review, some of the characters and stories are more interesting than others. Here are a few of them:

Kay Francis – A reclusive, 68 year-old lady who lives in the Tower penthouse with her maid. The mystery of who Kay is dangles for nearly 200 pages before we learn she is a retired madam, and is being kept in Marina Tower by a wealthy man named Gregg Howard. Her parts are overlong and trying for the reader, but they have to do with her sponsor at the Tower being blackmailed by someone. However we do get a humorous but random bit where Kay goes to a bookstore and tries to steal a book.

Jill Hightower – A pretty young nurse who has recently untapped her psychic talents, thanks to a traumatic event two years ago. A drunk guy at a pool party tried to drown her, and soon thereafter Jill discovered her latent skills with ESP and such. Her main storyline has her channelling a vengeful spirit from the past.

Rayne Bergen – The very same dude who nearly drowned Jill two years ago. He now lives in Marina Tower too, but doesn’t seem to recognize Jill. He’s too busy hanging out by the pool with all the “stews” who flock to him, Marina Tower being a popular residence for stewardesses. He’s a struggling actor who just got a role in a new series – a paranormal TV series, naturally, and thus he soon reaches out to Jill to become his guru on the path to redemption.

Eve Black – A heavyset lesbian real estate mogul who cruises the pool for cuties; among her various egregious subplots is her trying to sell “hexed house” in which a murder took place years before (more paranormal stuff courtesy Beardsley, who clearly had an interest in the subject). She also gets in a random fight in a lesbian bar, and finally the revelation is that she is the one who is blackmailing Kay Francis and Gregg Howard.

Gary Minor – A former porn star with a 10” dick that has a bumblebee tattooed on the head. He’s in hiding from the government on trumped-up federal charges, given that a crusading senator has vowed to take down the star of that scandalous porn flick. He too is being kept at the Tower by someone, but finds out halfway through the novel that he’ll need to vacate the premises – and he doesn’t have any money or anywhere to go.

“Captain” Horatio and wife Tina – An older couple who hit the lottery, bought a yacht, and now tool it around the harbor outside the Tower. Their subplot seems to come from an entirely different novel, given that a trio of punks, hired as temporary crew, plot to hijack the yacht and use it for a cocaine run.

Gloria Deal – A smokin’ hot hooker who lives in the Tower thanks to a rich old guy she sees one night a week (a recurring theme is that many of these characters live here at someone else’s expense). By far the most interesting character in the novel, Gloria cruises the pool and asks “Are you lonely?” as a pickup line for johns (and janes; the lady will swing for whoever pays). She also sells coke and uppers. The narrative always picks up when Gloria is around, and her subplots are the most racy: in addition to cruising for customers, she’s raped by a dude who fools her into thinking he has coke to sell, then finds out the same night her sugar daddy can’t put up her keep any longer (another recurring theme). She and Gary soon realize they are soul mates.

Fumiko Reilly – A Japanese babe who gives shiatsu massages at the Tower; she’s turned on by a new resident, a hunky Iranian dude who turns out to be the new owner of Marina Tower.

Jay Wolfe and Shelly Grau – He’s an exhibitionist looking to do an “immersion couch” act in the bay outside Marina Tower, she’s a black reporter who is falling for her subject. The entire subplot is page-filling boredom, but it too delves into the New Age vibe that permeates the entire book; Jay nearly drowns in the climax and telepathically calls for Shelly…and she hears him.

In addition to this there is the above-mentioned conspiracy; a one-off character discovers that nuclear waste has been dumped into the Pacific near Marina Tower’s harbor, and even a minor underwater incident could knock the cannisters loose and bring the radioactive waste right onto the shore. For his trouble this character is killed by a “random” hit and run driver. And meanwhile an underwater earthquake does indeed knock those cannisters loose, bringing radioactive death to Marina Tower…coinciding with the supernatural vengeance sworn by Mist, the vindictive spirit which has possessed Jill Hightower…

Vindictive spirit? That’s right, folks. After a group meditation session aboard Horatio’s yacht, Caligula, Jill starts hearing a voice in her head, and will sit at her typewriter and begin transcribing the words. For the reader this translates into more egregious material, each bit subtitled “The Island Woman,” as Mist, the ghost, tells her story of suffering and despair. She has vowed revenge on the people who now live in this part of California, but promises Jill she’ll be safe so long as Jill keeps secret the words Mist tells her.

As expected things ramp up the closer we get to the Fourth of July. Horatio and wife are kidnapped by the thugs and taken out to sea; there follows more New Agey stuff in which Jill’s psychic instructor, a lady named Kay, tries to use ESP to figure out where the yacht is, giving the info to the police. Both Gloria and Gary find out they need to leave the Tower, and again Gloria’s storyline is much more interesting – there’s a nice bit where she realizes she’s wasting her life and she’s only in her early 20s. This realization occurs to her as she’s locked inside Eve Black’s bathroom, having barricaded herself from the rampaging, drunken lesbian.

The Gloria-Gary romance is probably the highlight of the novel, if only that it captures the era. Their first boink isn’t overly explicit – again, the novel is perplexingly shy when it comes to the dirty stuff – but it does feature a little amyl nitrate popping. (Kurt quoted this part in the opening of his review, memorably noting how it almost sounds like something out of a horror novel!) I would’ve preferred if there had been more material with these two, or hell maybe if Beardsley had opened up the locale a little more. I mean is there a disco club at Marina Tower? I’m sure there is, but for the most part these characters just sit around in their rooms or by the pool, plumbing the depths of their self-involved problems.

The supernatural stuff takes over in the finale, and initially it seems Beardsley is implying that all this is a mass hallucination borne by the escaping radioactive waste; first Gloria sees a ghost by the pool and runs from it in shock, and later Eve Black, drunk up in her room, has a fatal encounter with the very same vision. But soon we learn that this is in fact the reborn Mist, and by novel’s end – in which a couple characters are promptly (and somewhat shockingly) killed off – we see that it’s indeed a ghost and not just radiation-spawn visions run amok.

I don’t know, friends. Marina Tower isn’t bad, but it’s not what I was expecting. There’s definitely some cool ‘70s touches throughout, like the group meditation stuff and the focus on New Age interests, but too many of the subplots are boring, making the novel an uphill climb at times. I also didn’t dig how the raunch was constantly shackled; I mean Beardsley drops the note early on that Rayne (whose character goes ultimately nowhere) is popular with all the sexy stews who live in the Tower, but instead we get more material on how Rayne isn’t sure if he’s in love with one of them in particular.

So really it’s more of a soap opera potboiler than anything, with nothing really standing out. Neither does Beardsley’s writing; there’s nothing flashy nor memorable about it, but he does an adequate job of capturing the voices of his various characters. He definitely needed to tighten up on the plotting, though; not nearly enough happens in Marina Tower to justify its excessive length, but then I imagine the novel was intended to be picked up by bored housewives on their way to summer vacation. Here’s hoping Beardsley’s other novels have a bit more bite.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Soldato #3: Strangle Hold!

Soldato #3: Strangle Hold!, by Al Conroy
No month stated, 1973  Lancer Books

Gil Brewer takes over the Soldato series with this volume; he’ll remain for the next one. It’s clear he read the previous two installments, courtesy Marvin Albert, as Brewer often refers back to the events of the first and second volumes. I was curious to see how Brewer would handle men’s adventure, and for the most part he turns in the same sort of book he was known for: a hardboiled yarn heavy on suspense and tension, with little in the way of the action or thrills you’d get in, say, the average installment of The Executioner

Speaking of which, Brewer wrote a never-published volume of The Executioner in the ‘70s, and it was always my suspicion that he was going to be Pinnacle’s next “Jim Peterson,” following on from William Crawford’s Sicilian Slaughter (aka the infamous sixteenth installment of the series which creator Don Pendleton never even read). The other year I had my suspicion confirmed when I discovered that Brewer’s unpublished manuscript was indeed titled Firebase Seattle, a title Pendleton himself eventually used, given that Pinnacle had already come up with a cover for it (as Pendleton relates in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction). However Brewer’s yarn would’ve been the true sequel to Sicilian Slaughter that we never got, and I’d love to read it…but it costs a whopping $200 for a jpeg copy of the 240-page manuscript which currently resides in the Gil Brewer collection at the American Heritage Center.

Judging from Strangle Hold, though, those two hundred bucks might be better spent elsewhere; while Brewer’s writing is fine, delivering much more character depth for titlular Soldato Johnny Morini than previous series author Albert ever did, the story ultimately fizzles out into too much stalling and repetition, and Brewer constantly fails to exploit his own material. The book is also much too long, coming in at 222 pages of small-ish print – however Brewer is too much the pulp veteran to turn in a slow-moving tale. Even though not much happens, it always seems that something is about to.

But the first half is really nice because as mentioned Brewer gives Johnny a lot of depth. We meet him as he’s still holed up in Los Angeles, drinking more than he should, and still thinking about his ex-wife, last seen in the first volume. Johnny even goes to the trouble of visiting her, only to be told by her mother that she’s not home; a cool scene here as the phone rings, Johnny’s ex mother-in-law answers it, and it turns out to be for Johnny. Brewer captures the general paranoid vibe of the ‘70s here, with Johnny constantly being monitored by Riley, his ex-Fed handler; Riley later even informs Johnny that his ex was upstairs all along, and her mom was lying to Johnny.

This thread is dropped, though…and folks believe it or not there’s zero female companionship for Johnny in the entire novel. In fact Brewer doesn’t even deliver any exploitation of the novel’s sole babe; from Play It Hard I assumed we’d at least get a bit of that, but Brewer’s very conservative here with the sex and the violence. For the most part Strangle Hold is just a Mafia novel, with Johnny going deep undercover as an L.A. bigwig, sent down to Tampa to oversee the activities of the Florida mob. 

Riley doesn’t appear much, this time. He summons Johnny to a dingy hotel in New Jersey, turns him over to another handler, and heads out. Johnny’s assignment is to fly back to L.A., take out a guy named Frank Lott, and head down to Tampa to bust up Don Remo Paragluci, who seems to be putting together a combine with two other Florida dons. Lott is a member of the Syndicate Committee or somesuch, basically the corporate wing of the Mafia which ensures all the various “franchise” families stay in order. Then Johnny’s new handler is blown away – the novel opens with Paragluci knowing that the Feds are onto him, and sending someone off to kill Riley – and Johnny runs from the cops, who think he’s the one who pulled the trigger.

Once Johnny’s captured the real Lott, interrogated him, and left him tied up for Riley to collect, our hero flies down to Tampa…and here the novel loses its frenetic pace. As “Frank” Johnny bulldozes his way through Don Paragluci’s domain; Johnny’s idea is that it’s “expected” he’ll be a hardass, given that he’s from the Committee, so he pushes boundaries at every opportunity, constantly testing the old don’s temper. He also runs afoul of little Nevito, Paragluci’s creepy younger son; Paragluci’s older son has recently been blown away during an attempted hit on soldatos from a rival Tampa don. 

This guy’s widow provides the babe quotient for Strangle Hold; she’s a hotstuff beauty named Lucia who likes to go around in her bikini. Even though her husband’s been dead just a few days, she’s throwing looks at “Frank Lott.” But Brewer ignores this element and goes for a heavy suspense vibe; Don Paragluci, who is prone to sitting around in his office and staring at a print of a Picasso painting he much admires, is planning to get together with two other dons and start up a combine, whether the Committee approves or not. There’s a ton of talking and scenes of fat old Italian guys going over plans for the takeover and whatnot.

Despite the threat of a war with another family hanging over the proceedings, nothing much really happens. Johnny gets reproachful looks from Nevito and continues to bully old Don Paragluci. Then things get weird. Nevito gets jealous when Lucia decides to go to dinner with “Frank,” and Nevito rapes and kills the poor girl off page…this like a day after she’s buried her husband. And what does Johnny do when he finds out? Tells Don Paragluci, who basically shrugs it off as yet another indication of his young son’s growing insanity. I mean there’s no part where Johnny takes up his .38 revolver (which he’s somehow able to screw a silencer onto) and vows revenge, mostly because he’s too concerned about blowing his cover. One hopes Mack Bolan wasn’t similarly emasculated in Brewer’s unpublished Executioner.

But it gets more weird…almost a dark comedy in that Nevito keeps trying to screw over Johnny, suspecting somehow that this Frank Lott is an imposter. Yet in every case someone else saves Johnny’s skin, all of them turning in Nevito’s duplicitous actions to either the don or to Johnny himself, so as to stay in good with the Committee. And it’s very messy, too; Brewer introduces one soldato, mentions that he’s a serial killer, and intimates that he and Johnny might be matching up soon…then the serial killer soldato goes to “Frank” to tell him that Nevito’s up to no good! After which the character is brushed back under the narratorial carpet.

Only in the final pages is there any tension. This comes through two acts: first Nevito snaps a photo of “Frank” and sends it to LA to ensure this is really the right guy. Secondly Johnny decides to heist the real Picasso Don Paragluci loves so much(!?). Conveniently, it happens to be at a nearby Tampa museum. This happens after Nevito has failed to steal the painting, desperate to impress his dad, and is nearly caught in the bargain. Another incident the don decides to forget. So Johnny goes off on his own and steals the painting in a tense but protracted and arbitrary sequence, particularly given that it happens toward the very end of the novel.

The absolute worst part is that Johnny is a bystander in the climax. Riley’s shown up and attempts to stop the mail and prevent Nevito’s package of photos from getting through, but fails, and now the clock is ticking. Johnny quickly sets up the various dons so that they converge on a restaurant, then works Don Paragluci up into a lather and sends him and his boys off to wipe them out. Johnny gets in a car chase, trying to prevent a group of thugs from getting to the restaurant before the don – lamely enough, they just got a phone call from L.A. telling them “Frank Lott” is an imposter.

But all the various villains gun each other down while Johnny watches from afar. Even little prick Nevito, who we’ve waited for Johnny to blow away the entire novel, is rendered his comeuppance by a squad of cops who show up on the scene, having been summoned by Riley. After this Johnny hops in a car with Riley and heads home, bitter about the life he leads…perhaps not nearly as bitter as the reader for having endured such a subpar but initially-promising book.

Don’t get me wrong, Brewer’s writing is fine, save for a strange fascination with the recurring phrase “beneath the wheel” every time a character gets in a car to drive (ie “Johnny got beneath the wheel”). This phrase was a new one to me; I mean I can see “behind the wheel” as making sense, but “beneath” makes it sound like all the characters are midgets. Anyway, here’s hoping Brewer’s next one is better.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

SOBs #4: Show No Mercy

SOBs #4: Show No Mercy, by Jack Hild
January, 1985  Gold Eagle Books

I almost forgot about the SOBs series; it’s been three years since I read the previous volume, but this one’s courtesy a new author so there’s no continuity to worry about. Per the copyright page a Robin Hardy wrote Show No Mercy, and the only author named “Robin Hardy” I can find is a lady named Robin Moore Hardy, who was born in Fort Worth in 1955 and began publishing novels in 1984. This would put the start of her writing career right around the timeframe that SOBs was being published, so it’s my assumption that she is indeed the Robin Hardy who wrote several volumes of the series.

If this is the case, then there are no giveaways that this version of “Jack Hild” is a lady; true there’s no sex or exploitation of the (few) female characters, but that’s par for the course in 1980s men’s adventure novels. The violence is fairly minimal, though; indeed the novel has more the vibe of a mainstream thriller than your typical men’s adventure joint, slowly building to the action finale over the course of 220+ pages. Unfortunately the main villain of the novel – a seven-foot giant named Jeremiah who runs a compound of brainwashed followers in El Salvador – is kept off-page too long, and his crazy jungle domain isn’t exploited to its full extent.

We meet Barrabas as he’s flying back to the US from Germany, having broken off a romantic interlude with his girlfriend, recurring character Erika Dykstra. She won’t appear this volume. Heavyset handler Walker Jessup has summoned Barrabas to New York, where he delivers the latest mission courtesy the senator who has given Barrabas’s soldiers all their previous missions: head into El Salvador and wipe out Jeremiah and his army of soldiers before they bring chaos to already-chaotic Central America. Oh, and while they’re down there they can also kill the female leader of the leftist guerrillas.

There’s a fair bit of US foreign policy bashing in Show No Mercy, more than you’d expect from an ‘80s Gold Eagle publication. But then the earlier volumes also had a sort of left-wing vibe, if for no other reason than the occasional mention of rock songs or the fact that some of the SOBs had counterculture backgrounds. But we are constantly reminded that the US government goofed, backing the sadistic Contras rather than the left-wing Sandanistas, and Barrabas is incensed that he’s now expected to clean up the government’s mess.

Too much time is placed on putting the team together. They’re the usual suspects returning from previous volumes, with a new guy named Geoff Bishop who’s a pilot. We also get the occasional reminder that Lee Hatton, the Smurfette of the SOBs, is smokin’ hot, but otherwise she’s as bland and forgettable as the other soldiers – save as ever for Billy Two, who comes off as a bit cynical this time around. I still feel there are too many characters on display and it’s tough to remember at times who is who, especially when it’s been three years since I read one of these books.

So we’ve got this plot of a religious nutjob and his army of brainwashed soldiers looking to raise hell down in Central America, and Barrabas and team are finally together and ready to go down there and bust those fuckers up. But what does Hardy do? Comes up with a pages-filling sequence in which some of Barrabas’s soldiers pose as employees at the Panama Canal, checking out the storage on the ship that’s carrying stolen weapons down to Jeremiah. These weapons have been taken by a wily, coke-snorting American terrorist named Beam, who regularly steals weapons for the religious figure and takes them down to El Salvador in this ship.

This does eventually lead to a firefight in which Hardy pays hommage to a recurring series schtick – one of the SOBs gets wasted. In this case it’s (SPOILER ALERT) Lopez, who I couldn’t remember from previous volumes but we do get a reminder that Lee Hatton sewed up his arm back in the lackluster first volume. His death is sort of built up, with best bud Nanos crying, and then Barrabas wondering how Lee will react to the news, but Hardy must forget about all this because it’s not really brought up again. And meanwhile Beam gets away, worming his way down to Jeremiah’s armed camp.

The leader of the guerrillas turns out to be a smokin’ hot babe named Rosaria; Barrabas of course doesn’t kill her despite his orders, given that he’s sort of aligned with her cause, anyway. It’s the ‘80s and all so absolutely nothing is made of her smokin’ hotness; if this book had been published 10-20 years before, Barrabas would be hooking up with her in a jungle hut posthaste. But in the ‘80s it’s all about guns and stuff, other than the occasional reminder how pretty Rosaria us.

It's unfortunate that we don’t get to Jeremiah’s “New Society” compound until late in the novel. It’s all very Apocalypse Now as the hulking Jeremiah surrounds himself with brainwashed vassals who are prepared to start various wars across Central America. An increasingly nervous Beam is treated to a tour of the camp, which rests beside a volcano and has an underground well system – Jeremiah shows off the drugs he filters into the water to keep his followers nice and brainwashed. All this reminded me of Tilt! in that Jeremiah got his start in San Francisco in the late ‘60s, preaching to the psychedelic masses; the implication is that these gun-toting mind controlled soldiers were originally acid-fried hippies.

There are like 500 of these soldiers, and believe it or not the SOBs wipe them all out in like a page and a half, conveniently hammering the convoy as it leaves Jeremiah’s camp. After this the nutjob only has a few of his elite guards with him, making the SOBs assault on the camp relatively easy – and anticlimactic. As I say, there’s all kinds of potential here, but Hardy avoids it, save for a hand-to-hand fight to the death between Barrabas and Jeremiah. There’s more heroic sacrifice here, but not courtesy any more of the SOBs.

All told, Show No Mercy is fairly fast-moving for such a long novel (at least for this genre), and Hardy’s penchant for single-line sentences adds to the quick-moving vibe. But the lack of proper exploitation of the subject kind of ruined it for me, and I’m still not finding myself very interested in Barrabas, his SOBs, or the series itself.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Spying Blind (Mark Hood #9)

Spying Blind, by James Dark
May, 1968  Signet Books

It’s seeming more to me that, of all the post-Bond spy series of the ‘60s, Mark Hood comes the closest to capturing the vibe of Fleming. This ninth volume confirms that, given that it comes off like a variation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with a little of the sci-fi element of the Bond films of the day.

This is not to say that J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell goes for a Fleming vibe in the actual prose; he describes things a bit more than in previous volumes, which were almost outline-esque, but he doesn’t go to the elaborate lengths of the so-called “Fleming sweep.” But importantly, he keeps things moving and he keeps things interesting. However, at 122 pages (of very small print), Spying Blind is clearly more of a pulp yarn than any of the official Bond novels, and also was clearly turned out in a fast manner; unlike Fleming, MacDonnell likely didn’t have the luxury of spending a month or two in Jamaica writing his first draft and then tinkering with it for the rest of the year back home.

We meet Mark Hood as he’s in Monaco, one week after the previous volume: “Mark Hod had just completed the dangerous assignment of destroying Professor Klepner’s city beneath the sea.” Boss Fortescue at Intertrust ordered Hood on an immediate vacation, and interestingly Hood spends the remainder of the novel off-duty, here in Monaco to take part in a race. This volume’s bit of international intrigue literally falls into his lap: Hood decides to go for a late-night scuba swim by his hotel, where he’s attacked by a random frogman. It’s a fight to the death and Hood manages to kill the guy with his own spear gun; this will be Hood’s only kill until the very end of the novel.

Hood makes it back to the beach and collapses. Then a hotstuff brunette in a bikini appears, addresses him as someone else, and drops a package in his lap, telling him to deliver it to “Carton” on “the yacht.” She walks away, leaving Hood further confused. The dock teems with yachts, he doesn’t know any Carton, and the scuba attacker he just killed has conveniently disappeared, apparently taken away by the currents or somesuch. Here the sci-fi element comes in because the package contains a small, H-shaped bakelite key, and Hood discovers after some trial and error that the mysterious thing has the power to shut off electrical pulses in close range.

We readers learn that this is the control key for a Russian moon probe which is soon to return to Earth. The probe has also discovered a brand-new metallic element on the moon’s surface, which will also factor into the sci-fi. “Carton” is the treacherhous right-hand man of industrial entreprenneur Norman Edgell, who has schemed elaborately to get the key, so he can redirect the returning probe, essentially commandeering it. He wants to steal its “electronic brain” (man we should’ve kept this term instead of the more-generic “computer”), and use the Soviet technology therein to get the US on the moon first. Edgell doesn’t realize that Carton is plotting against him, looking to steal the tech for himself – and he’s also plotting to get busy with Edgell’s hotstuff daughter Lynne, even going to the extent of getting her hooked on heroin.

There’s very little in the way of action in Spying Blind. This is mostly because throughout Hood is trying to maintain his “jetsetting gadabout” image, thus doesn’t want anyone to discover he’s a badass super-spy with suprahuman karate skills. So when a blond-haired, easy-going dude with cold eyes shows up at Hood’s breakfast table next morning, Hood knows it’s a thug already come around to collect the package. This is Danny, a knife-tossing expert who initially threatens to steal the novel but is soon shuffled out of the narrative. There’s a nice bit of cat and mouse as Danny tries to casually threaten Hood, asking for the package for a variety of b.s. reasons. In reality he’s been sent by Carton.

It’s kind of dumb, though: Danny doesn’t speak French, so Hood lies that he gave the package to the cops for safekeeping, and will now call them to bring it back to him. So Hood, speaking French, calls the cops and simply tells them there’s an armed intruder in his hotel room, all while an oblivious Danny just stands there! Danny manages to escape, later doing a job on Hood’s racecar, so that he almost crashes during the race in a thrilling sequence that rivals anything in the Don Miles capers. Hood gets revenge by beating Danny to a pulp with his karate moves; it’s a violent scene but another instance in which Hood refrains from killing anyone in Spying Blind.

Edgell claims his scuba diver’s “gone missing” (Hood having killed him never comes up again in the narrative), so offers Hood the job after explaining what his motives are. So Hood goes along, handing over the control device. This whole bit is hard to buy because part of the reason Hood goes along is so he can cure Lynne of her heroin addiction; we’ll recall Hood is a trained doctor as well, thus he instantly knows Lynn is a “hophead” (per the back cover copy). Brace yourself for this one, friends – while Hood’s attracted to Lynn, he never has sex with her, and indeed doesn’t have sex at all in Spying Blind. The opportunity is of course there, with a week-long voyage to sea on Edgell’s massive yacht and Lynne all alone in her big room, but Hood’s more concerned with curing her – and MacDonnell keeps her off-page as much as possible.

Hood’s also gone along because he wants to see the returning moon probe and its electronic brain. Edgell’s never-seen “specialists” onboard have redirected the probe and it crashes in the sea, Hood and two other scuba-suited men going out to retrieve it and store it in the hidden compartment beneath the ship. There’s some nice tension when a Soviet destroyer immediately comes upon them, having tracked the “meteor” in the night sky, and send armed soldiers over to search the boat. Meanwhile Carton’s discovered via their Soviet mole that the moon probe has returned with a completely new element, taken from the moon’s surface.

The finale is ludicrous. Carton simply drugs Hood, Edgell, and Lynn at dinner, so he can make off with the new element. Then he sends Danny back to kill them all in the most belabored means possible; the new element burns under conditions I’ve now forgotten, so the entire idea is that Danny will pilot the yacht out into the Monaco harbor, having tied up the still-unconscious Hood and others, and then make the yacht burn with the new alien element. Instead Hood of course frees himself and tosses Danny into the propeller blades below – Hood’s second and final kill in the novel.

Even more ludicrous, Carton’s fate is rendered off-page; back in Geneva at Intertrust HQ, Hood is casually informed by boss Fortescue that Tremayne, Hood’s occasional partner (last seen in Throne Of Satan), has rounded up some fellow named Carton who has been attempting to sell some weird stuff on the black market. And Fortescue has no idea that Hood has been up to his neck with the very same group of people. It’s all kind of deflating, and certainly more of a hamfisted and flat-footed ending than Fleming would’ve ever delivered.

But despite it all Spying Blind is entertaining given that MacDonnell invests himself in the tale and keeps it all moving at an assured pace, doling out the economical prose of a pulp veteran. It’s lacking on the sex and violence angle but it still delivers that ‘60s spy-fy vibe I enjoy so much, and while it doesn’t achieve the crazy heights of Operation Octopus, it’s still a helluva lot better than earlier misfires like Assignment Tokyo.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Ninja Master #7: The Skin Swindle

Ninja Master #7: The Skin Swindle, by Wade Barker
March, 1983  Warner Books

I didn’t expect to take three years to get back to the Ninja Master series – I also didn’t expect to only do one post this week, but the stomach flu wiped me out last week. Anyway this penultimate volume is courtesy the same mystery author who gave us #3: Borderland Of Hell and #5: Black Magician, delivering for the most part more of a martial arts thriller than a ninja yarn, one that goes very heavy on the sleaze.

Now folks there’s good sleaze and bad sleaze, and sorry to say, but The Skin Swindle is bad sleaze. The type of sleaze you just don’t want to read about. That cover of the whip-wielding babe and the back cover copy had me expecting a lurid entry in which Brett “Ninja Master” Wallace waded into the world of mafia-backed porn or whatnot, but man…well, the author instead focuses on the “kiddie” portion of that illicit market, making for a not very fun read. Not very fun at all! There are some subjects I think shouldn’t be broached, and this would be one of them…it’s for the same reason I’ve still not read the fifth volume of RykerThe Child Killer.

But then, Ninja Master is known for pushing boundries. The previous volume, courtesy main series writer Ric Meyers, already featured little kids getting murdered by sadistic serial killers. So I guess at this point putting them in porn movies is just the next logical step. It’s just not the sort of thing I look forward to reading, and it’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder about the author – though I suspect this might be one of those times where the author has his tongue in cheek. I mean The Skin Swindle opens with an outrageous take on the “casting couch” cliché, only in this case it’s a seven year-old girl who’s servicing the sleazebag producer, all while her mother happily watches on. 

Luckily the author doesn’t go full-bore with the details on the various acts involving children in the book, but we do get a damn lot about it…of course, leavened with the occasional condemnation of such despicable acts! It’s stuff like this that always makes me suspect (or at least hope) that an author’s being ironic, particularly given that the opening casting couch bit directly leads to a fairly explicit sequence of Brett going down on his casual girlfriend Rhea, she of the “eternally erect nipples.” Still though, The Skin Swindle makes for a very unsettling read, “irony” or not, and thus it was by far my least favorite volume of the series…even the slow-as-molasses first volume was better. 

Well anyway, the mystery author enjoys referring to his previous volumes, giving the series a bit of continuity; Brett’s sidekick Jeff Archer, who proves to be irritatingly useless this time around, boasts about their having trounced the bad guys in Borderland Of Hell. The author also stays true to his version of Brett Wallace, delivering a more relatable character than Meyers’ version; this Brett enjoys the occasional drink, spends most of his time in various restaurants, and likes to blast “Steely Dan’s new album Gaucho” in his fancy sportscar. The Steely Dan appreciation was also noted in previous volumes, I believe. And more importantly so far as the series goes, this Brett Wallace is more of a martial arts superman than a ninja, content to kill people with everyday household objects instead of the exotic weaponry of Meyers.

Brett’s read about the sadistic porn industry in a series of articles published in the LA Times, and when he gets to the mentions of the kiddie flicks his fury is activated. He tells Rhea he’s going to get into it – she stays off-page for the rest of the novel – and rounds up young Jeff Archer to come along. Why Brett takes Jeff is a mystery because in this author’s hands Jeff is a complete loser. He runs Brett’s martial arts studio but proves incapable of fighting anyone in the course of The Skin Swindle, constantly getting knocked out or abducted. The expectation that he’ll provide the customary “comedic sidekick” role is also dashed, as Brett and Jeff are seldom together on-page.

Instead, Brett’s partner for the most part is the crusading journalist who wrote those porn articles: “Sam” Loring, who of course turns out to be a mega-hot and mega-built blonde named Samantha. The expected Brett-Sam conjugation doesn’t occur until late in the narrative, and as usual with the author it’s fairly explicit. Sam has a bit of personality but for the most part the author just uses her to regurgitate exposition about the porn industry. Brett presents himself as a freelance journalist from a major Japanese news conglomerate, looking to write a book on the subject. Sam agrees to show him around the sleazepits of Los Angeles, informing him that you can get practically any sort of magazine if you know the right people to ask.

It all just goes on and on with only occasional action. Brett’s learned via Sam that there’s a “King” of the industry, a guy behind all the snuff flicks and kiddie flicks and whatnot, and soon enough random thugs are coming out of the woodwork to waste Brett for poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. But yet in every single case Brett just kills these goons and never stops to interrogate them – like even simple “Who sent you?” sort of stuff. I mean it’s great the action’s there and all but still, Brett comes off kinda stupid. He knows there’s a mysterious figure behind the industry, one whose existence is almost a legend, and clearly it’s this dude sending out the thugs…and Brett could work his way backward from them, but never considers the idea.

Brett again displays his bizarre talent for using random objects to kill; he doesn’t take out as many people this time, and the violence is for the most part bloodless, other than the occasional mention of blood or brains. He kills with chopsticks, quarters, a mouth pellet, a knife, a blowgun, the pole of a street sign, and even a ninja sword which has been modified so that it hides inside his “ninja belt.” For the most part each “fight” is over quick and features Brett outmatching his opponents to absurd degrees. There’s never any sense of danger for him, so the author has to resort to placing Jeff and ultimately Sam in danger, as they both find themselves about to be the unsuspecting stars of a snuff flick.

But Brett disappears for too many portions of the narrative, with the author focusing on Cedric Gregg, the “king” of Hollywood’s illicit underground industry. He’s one of those criminal masterminds who just goes around killing any underling who has displeased him. We get arbitrary scenes of him killing such and such a porn-world figure, usually for having slipped evidence of Gregg’s connection to the industry. There’s a lot of squirm-inducing stuff with Gregg cavorting with his favorite passtime: young boys, one in particular whom Gregg is trying to woo with a new print of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s really all beyond outrageous so far as the kid stuff goes, and the author does himself no favors with having some of the child “actors” talk like veteran professionals: “I think this chick and I both know why we’re here,” as a ten year-old “star” of one of Gregg’s films says of his seven year-old costar.

Brett’s also not the most proactive of men’s adventure heroes in this particular volume. Early on Sam tells him of a woman she’s met whose daughter was taken by the lady’s estranged husband and put into porn flicks – the law, by the way, is humorously incapable in The Skin Swindle, with the vague explanation that “payoffs” allow the sleazebags to make their movies without any legal or punitive repercussions. Anyway Sam’s concocted a plan for this lady to visit a notorious “producer” and give him a b.j. in his office, something the producer expects of all his female guests, whether she be adult or child. After the oral servicing the producer’s schtick is that he goes off into his private restroom to clean up, and leaves the woman/girl in the office alone. Well, Sam says this lady can pretend to be someone else, do the oral job, then look through the producer’s files while he’s in the restroom and find the address where they’re keeping her daughter.

I figured Brett would come up with some augmentation for this plan…but instead he tells Sam to make it happen, then he and Sam wait in a diner for the lady to call them after she’s gotten the address! It’s like that throughout; Brett spends at least 30% of the narrative in various restaurants or diners, one of them a dive frequented by kids who are looking to get picked up by adults. (No, it’s not a pizza parlor!!) After checking the grungy place out – and the grizzled owner of the joint, by the way, steals the entire book with his acidic temper – Brett sends Jeff back, to pose as a teenager looking for a sugar daddy! This of course leads to yet another moment in which Jeff is abducted and Brett has to save him.

Oh, and the whip-wielding cover babe does finally appear; we see the makings of one of Gregg’s snuff flicks, and the babe is in full s&m getup and whips some manacled dude to bloody ribbons, then slits his throat. She factors into the finale, an outrageous snuff-kiddie-Nazi exploitation extravaganza which is to feature Jeff and Sam in supporting roles against their wishes, but curiously she is the only person Brett decides not to kill. The author even goes out of his way to have Brett explain why he doesn’t feel the need to kill her (she’s powerless in the scheme of things, or something to that lame effect).

The novel ends with Brett and Jeff heading back to San Francisco and Sam certain that she’ll “never forget” Brett. And this was it for the mystery author; Ric Meyers wrote the next volume of the series, which was to be the last. After which Meyers, still posing as “Wade Barker,” brought Brett and co. back for two ensuing series, which ran for four volumes each: Year Of The Ninja Master and War Of The Ninja Master.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Penetrator #35: Black Massacre

The Penetrator #35: Black Massacre, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1980  Pinnacle Books

After a glance at the back cover of this installment of The Penetrator I expected something wildly un-PC, given that the villain of the piece is attempting to wipe out the black population with an accelerated version of sickle cell anemia. But in fact Mark Roberts, serving again as “Lionel Derrick,” doesn’t go as uncomfortably over the top as you might expect – save that is for the beginning, which sees the villain of the piece, a biochemist named Raymod Barr(!), being mugged by a trio of black youths.

Before that though we get some of Roberts’s patented in-jokery. He seems at pains this time around to remind us of previous volumes. First there’s a Denver-based reporter named Terry Lucas who helped Mark “Penetrator” Hardin back in the 23rd volume, now looking into his latest story – a nationwide fan club of Penetrator followers who are compared to “Trekees” and refer to their movement as “Penetratoring.” Then we cut to Mark himself, on vacation in Gulfport, Mississippi with more returning characters: Angie Dillon and her two twins, who are celebrating their 11th birthday. Angie first appeared in #29: Aryan Onslaught, had a connection with Mark, and we learn Mark has seen her a few times since.

I almost get the suspicion that Roberts was bickering with series co-writer Chet Cunningham, who long ago introduced a recurring female character intended to be Mark’s main squeeze: Joanna Tabler. Roberts rarely mentioned Joanna in his volumes, and as stated he introduced Angie Dillon, presenting her as “the” woman for Mark Hardin.  Cunningham seemed to respond to this by introducing another “Angie” to the fold: Angie Perez, who was also presented as Mark’s star-crossed soul-mate in #32: Showbiz Wipeout. So now we have three separate women, two of them named “Angie,” who each tempt Mark to give up the Penetrator game and live a normal life. Angie Dillon even reveals that she and her kids have joined a Penetratoring club in their home town, as they’ve figured out who Mark really is. What’s more, Angie asks Mark if they can just live with him wherever his secret headquarters is!

Not to provide spoilers but the other year I peeked through the final volume of the series, #53: City Of The Dead, and I seem to recall Mark was indeed with a woman and some kids in that one. I think it’s commonly known what happens to Mark Hardin in the final volume of The Penetrator, and I’m assuming he does end up with Angie Dillon, after all – perhaps most likely because Mark Roberts wrote the final volume! But I have a couple years to go before I finish the series and find out for sure. At any rate this plot just dangles after the opening section – Mark debating with himself whether he wants Angie and her kids to come live in the Stronghold with him – before it is unceremoniously dropped.

At this point Roberts introduces Dr. Raymond Barr, and our author follows the same template he has for the past several volumes: Mark Hardin disappears for long stretches of narrative and the villains take center stage. There’s a lot of dialog, a lot of page-filling. Barr and his wife are mugged and Barr’s beaten, wakes to find his wife is missing, and later learns she’s been raped and killed. While the black cop working the case finds the scumballs, the liberal courts quickly get them all off with no punishment, and Barr is left with seething but impotent anger. Then he’s summoned by millionaire industrialist Joseph Armbrewster, who reveals his own sad story – his daughter was killed by black hoodlums years before, and he’s been biding his time on gaining vengeance.

Arbrewster’s goal is to eradicate the black criminals who are protected by the liberal courts; he suspects that Barr, with his biochemistry knowledge and his own grudge against blacks, will be able to help. As it turns out, Barr will prove even more bloodthirsty than Armbrewster, looking to eradicate the black population entirely. But he agrees and is whisked off to Puerto Rico, where he’s to whip up a new variation of sickle cell anemia in one of Armbrewster’s high-tech facilities. Here Barr meets up with a local hippie group, led by a freak “with Charles Manson eyes” named Brad Lessor. Dubbed “the Scum of the Earth,” these hippies have been here for years and, conveniently enough, are waiting for the “inevitable race war” which the blacks will win – thanks to help from the US government – after which Brad Lessor will return to America as the white messiah who will rule the victorious-but-incompetent blacks.

There’s grim stuff here but Roberts keeps it off page. Barr first tests his biowarfare on a trio of black Puerto Ricans, and we learn the youngest of them is 13. But they’re dope dealers so it’s okay. Later he starts spraying the poison on business conferences and in other parts of the US, and we learn that adults, children, and even babies are dying. It’s all almost as outrageous as an installment of The Spider, with the caveat that Roberts doesn’t dwell on the mass deaths, as Norvell Page would have. The most we learn of it is that Mark Hardin has read something in the paper, or he mentions the “recent black deaths” in conversation.

As for the Penetrator, he’s busy researching nefarious business in…the shrimping industry! That’s right, folks! This whole element was so goofy and underexplained that I had a hard time understanding why Roberts didn’t just bring Mark into the fold after Barr’s sickle cell started killing people. But, coincidence be damned, it turns out that Joseph Armbrewster is also behind the shrimiping industry shenanigans, so while Mark is investigating the one case he stumbles onto the other. And he really is investigating; at this point “The Penetrator” is more of a private eye, with hardly any of the savagery and sadism of the earliest volumes.

To wit, he hardly kills anyone this time out. He beats up a couple thugs halfway through the book and tranqs one with dart gun Ava. He also carries an “Autoburgler” 12-gauge pistol, which curiously doesn’t appear in the Penetrator Combat Catalog (which makes a return appearance this volume). His first kill in the book is crushing some dude into a “pink smear” with a crane. Action picks up when Mark ventures to Puerto Rico. There’s some goofy humor here as the hippie thugs try to kill the Penetrator, not realizing how outclassed they are, springing lame ambushes on him that Mark easily evades. One of the hippie thugs once worked for Preacher Mann, from #24: Cryogenic Nightmare, but nothing much is made of this, other than being a reference to a previous installment – though interestingly one written by Cunningham.

There seems to be a heavy focus on car chases this time around; I believe Mark gets in three of them in the course of Black Massacre, two of them happening nearly back to back. The action highlight is when Mark and a new comrade stage an assault on Brad Lessor’s commune. Here Mark again uses WP rounds that burn into the flesh of his opponents; there’s a grim bit where one of the hippies screams as the WP burns through his lungs, and Mark blows him away after getting the desired intel. But another reminder of our changed protagonist – Mark tells himself it was the humane thing to do, putting the man out of his misery. 

Either Roberts got lazy or was going for in-jokery because Mark crushes yet another dude in the finale – and the aftermath of this crushing is referred to as a “red smear,” I guess to go along with the pink one from before. Unfortunately though there’s no comeuppance for Dr. Barr, even though I felt he was more of a villain than Armbrewster; Barr wants to kill all blacks while Armbrewster “just” wants to kill off those he deems criminals. But Barr snaps and is put in an asylum, and thus Armbrewster and Lessor must share the brunt of the Penetrator’s wrath. The only problem is neither villain is very interesting; Brad Lessor as a late ‘70s Charles Manson has potential, but Roberts doesn’t exploit the character enough.

At novel’s end Mark goes back to the stronghold and ritually purges himself of the latest ordeal via a steambath or something. After which he’s already thinking about his next assignment, as it appears Professor Haskins has something big coming up. Overall Black Massacre wasn’t bad, not up to the earliest volumes but not as boring as some of the later ones.