Monday, December 30, 2019

The Aquanauts #7: Operation Deep Six

The Aquanauts #7: Operation Deep Six, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972  Manor Books

Judging from the previous six volumes, I knew what to expect for this seventh installment of The Aquanauts: a lurid crime yarn with some sleaze, some exploitation, and some padding. And that’s pretty much what I got…for the first half, at least. The second half of Operation Deep Six was a taut action thriller with sci-fi overtones, and by far this one was my favorite installment yet. Manning Lee Stokes (aka “Ken Stanton”) was often guitly of turning in overly-padded digressions, but when he was on form he was on form, a la Valley Of Vultures and Liberator Of Jedd, and he was on form for this one.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume (which anyway was set before the fifth volume), and for once we aren’t given the date that all this occurs. Instead we open with Secret Underwater Service honcho Admiral Coffin receiving a typewritten letter warning him that something’s about to happen to experimental submarine J2, and further, that previous experimental sub J1 wasn’t actually lost at sea, last year, but was hijacked. There are enough pertinent details in the letter to convince Coffin that the unknown letter-writer might not just be a crackpot. And by the way we get the usual stuff with Coffin talking the caper over with his equally-old colleague, the head of the Navy, but Stokes much reduces this stuff, this time, and I’m happy to report that he’s finally hit on a template that lives up to the plural of the series name, ie The Aquanauts: Admiral Coffin, Commander Tom Greene, and William “Tiger Shark” Martin. All three get a moment to shine, with none of the non-Tiger Shark sequences coming off as filler, as they often did in the previous six books.

Coffin sends Tiger and Greene to Boatville, North Carolina, the personal fief of reclusive billionaire Harry Janus, who “makes Howard Hughes seem like Tiny Tim.” Janus owns the company that developed the J1 and J2; he swore he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the J1, even though the last received transmission from the sub was that the course was being changed “per orders of J–.” Posing as FBI agents, Tiger and Greene are to see if anything’s up in Boatville, the coastal town in which the final touches are being put on the J2. Also, the anonymous person who sent that warning to Admiral Coffin mailed the letter from Boatville, however Greene thinks the entire thing is a fool’s quest and that the letter was written by a nut.

This first half plays out like a crime yarn, same as the previous six volumes, with zero in the way of “aquanaut” type stuff. Actually, the majority of this part isn’t even crime – it’s the long, long buildup to Tiger having sex with a hotstuff brunette named Millicent “Millie” Carter. He’s introduced to her shortly after arriving in Boatville, informed she’s the town lay, and promptly set up with her. She works PR for Janus Industries, and there follows a nice bit where the assembled Janus employees – the billionaire owns the entire town, and everyone in it works for him – listen as their never-seen leader issues his daily pronouncement from a speaker in the ceiling. Tiger says it reminds him of a séance; he also notices that Janus, Millie, and Janus computer programmer Paul Thomson all have similar-sounding voices, a sort of hoarse quality. Stokes doles out a lot of foreshadowing in this sequence (ie, “When Tiger thought of it later,” and the like), in particular the tidbit that both Thomson and Millie have faint scars on their throats.

Stokes really brings Millie to life – she’s a hardcore drunk and sex maniac and doesn’t care who knows it. She also has the mouth of a truck driver, a humorous reminder of how women were once known for not cursing as much as men. Another interesting tidbit for armchair historians: Millie tells Tiger that some of the people in Boatsville often get together in parking lots and have “trunk parties,” a trend – and phrase – Tiger’s never heard before. Apparently the early term for the modern-day trend known as tailgating. This is relayed to Tiger as Millie, already riproaring drunk, speeds home with Tiger so they can have sex, like within minutes of meeting each other. Stokes again here doles out foreshadowing, particularly that Millie is older than Tiger first suspected. We already know she has the greatest pair of legs he’s ever seen, shown off by a miniskirt – Tiger’s clearly a leg man – but whereas Tiger first thought she was in her thirties, he’s now suspecting she might be in her forties, or maybe older.

Stokes has a lot of repeating themes in his work and the “old man-eater with the body of a young woman” theme is one of the most prominent, as exemplified by such novels as The Golden Serpent and even an earlier Aquanauts yarn, #3: Seek, Strike, And Destroy. This one promises to be wilder than even those earlier instances, as the subtle hints make it clear that Millie’s a lot older than Tiger thinks. There’s also a strange surgery scar around her throat, a subject which Millie refuses to talk about. Humorously so much of this early sequence is devoted to foreplay; Millie’s either fondling Tiger under the table at a bar, in her car, or giving him a few seconds of oral ministration in the elevator, to the point that Tiger’s about to blow, so to speak. But she keeps stalling on the actual meat of the screwing, as it were, either tucking Tiger back into his pants and going for another drink or wanting to tell him more about the mysterious, reclusive Janus. Tiger even says he thinks they’re never going to get around to the actual deed.

I say “humorously” because when the tomfoolery finally happens, it’s for the most part tame, at least so far as some of Stokes’s other stuff is considered, with minimal description like, “[Tiger] was deep in her and stroking” and whatnot. I only say this is tame mind you because honestly about twenty or more pages are devoted to the foreplay, with plot and character-building dialog worked into it. Another recurring theme in Stokes is the brutal murder of a woman after – or during – sex, usually via strangling or such, and again Stokes doles out enough foreshadowing here that even someone new to this lurid genre will know Millie’s not in for a nice future. I mean she’s going for seconds shortly after the first boff and telling Tiger she loves him; the latter in particular is basically a death certificate in the world of men’s adventure. Only it’s going to happen a little more quickly, this time; Millie gets a phone call that seems to disturb her. She says it was Greene, calling for Tiger, and asking that he come back to their hotel immediately. She gives Tiger the keys to her car and asks him to come back soon.

Only, we readers know Greene hasn’t called Tiger; indeed, he told Admiral Coffin he’d leave Tiger alone until the next day. Thus upon returning to his hotel Tiger learns the truth, and that Millie lied to him for some reason. Tiger suspects foul play, Greene says she probably just wanted to go do some other guy! There’s even a subplot about a drunk security chief who lusts after Millie, who shows up to threaten Tiger – turns out this guy went over to Millie’s place shortly after Tiger left, found the apartment in chaos, and blood everywhere. But it won’t be until the very end of the novel that we learn what happened to Millie. As it is, Tiger wonders about her occasionally, but so far as the “babe quotient” of the novel goes, Millie’s it for Tiger this time around; promptly after this sequence in Boatville we jump ahead a few days and Tiger’s on the second leg of his assigment, in KRAB and shadowing the sub J2 on its first test run.

Just as with the ill-fated J1, the J2 receives abrupt summons to change course. Tiger follows along, into the Yucatan Channel near Honduras. The destination turns out to be an island where no island is supposed to be, according to all the maps; but then, Harry Janus is so wealthy he could pay to keep his private domain off any map. Here the novel appropriates a supercool suspense-thriller vibe and doesn’t let up until the end. Tiger watches as the J2 circles the island, rewarded with a brief glimpse of the reclusive Janus, who reclines kinglike atop a sort of metal strutcture that automatically rises from the ground. The J2 then is ordered to dock outside the island while Greene, the captain, and another officer are invited to dine on the island with Janus.

That night Tiger gets in his scuba gear and slips onto the heavily-patrolled island, armed only with a “killing knife” and a .45. He watches in shock as a group of natives in uniforms converge on the sleeping J2, affix hoses to it, and begin pumping gas into it. Tiger somehow knows it’s poisonous gas and everyone onboard the ship is good as dead. This is a tense scene, effectively rendered by Stokes, with Tiger unable to do anything to prevent the massacre; he wants to kill as many of Janus’s goons as he can, but knows if he does he’ll show his hand and soon be caught or killed. Tiger’s best weapon is the fact that Janus doesn’t know he exists. Stokes also tries to brush off the grander question why Tiger doesn’t immediately call in the Marines; instead there’s the reasoning that he needs to prove something is really afoul before he contacts Coffin.

Meanwhile Greene has dined with Janus, who turns out to be short and fat and surrounded by goons. But Greene’s drugged, and wakes up – par for the norm in the work of Stokes – while puking his guts out. After this he’s escorted by hotstuff native babes in red satin hotshorts and bras to a Turkish style bath…after being shown the murdered corpses of the captain and other officer from the J2. Finally he is presented to Janus, who admits to having killed everyone on the J2, as well as on the J1, and wants Greene to tell him everything he knows – Janus has determined that Greene is more than just a Navy overseer, which was his cover on the J2 run. Janus also claims to be able to grant Greene “quasi-immortality;” Janus says he is over 140 years old and in perfect health.

Stokes does an admirable job of playing this plot out in Tiger’s portion of the narrative; while lurking around the jungle Tiger runs into Paul Thompson, the computer engineer for Janus Inudstries who bears the same strange throat scar that Millie had. Tiger catches Thompson as the older man is walking in the jungle and here Tiger Shark again proves his cold-blooded nature, threatening to drown Thompson if he doesn’t tell all he knows – and then actually drowning him, having to do CPR to bring him back to life. Thompson finally claims to have come here to confront Janus, as he suspects it’s not the real Harry Janus who now runs this island and has stolen the J2.

Thompson also claims to be a hundred years old; he’s a member of the Stonehenge Society (aka a “Stoney,”), a pseudo-Freemason sect comprised of just a few individuals around the globe, each who have been granted a sort of immortality. Millie was also a member, and Thompson suspects the fake Janus is also one. And here’s the secret – old heads on new bodies! This is why both he and Millie (who Thompson claims was 90 years old!) have those strange scars on their throats; their original heads are constantly removed and put on fresh bodies. Thompson doesn’t divulge where the new bodies come from. He also says that Stoneys too can die, as the head-transplant thing can’t continue forever.

All this is beyond crazy and Tiger doesn’t much believe Thompson’s story. So instead he strips the guy nude, ties his hands behind his back, and brings him along as he infiltrates Janus’s heavily-guarded compound. This entire sequence is supercool and if only the rest of the series was up to the level. But then who knows, maybe the next volumes will be. Tiger wipes out several guards with knife and gun, including a few guard dogs, and finds Greene drugged in bed with a couple native floozies. True to the series template, though, Greene hasn’t had sex with them – his undying love for his wife and all – and Tiger finds him half-asleep while the two bimbos start going to town on each other(!). Soon Tiger’s gotten Greene sober again – more of Stokes’s patented weirdness where Tiger makes Greene drink some medicine that’s mixed with Tiger’s urine – and the three pull a ruse to gain audience with Janus.

This part is like an old cliffhanger, as Janus has a trapdoor beneath his desk, and he goes down it as soon as Tiger swoops in for the kill. It leads to an underwater bomb shelter, and eventually Tiger’s in KRAB, trying to get into the place. And folks believe it or not we actually get some “aquanaut” stuff as Tiger scubas around, trying to find the location of the bomb shelter, and is attacked by a couple frogmen. We even get to see the Sea Pistol in use here. But Stokes fails to give us a confrontation with Janus; Tiger plants explosives around the shelter, then has to fire all KRAB’s torpedos to set them off. In the ensuing conflagration he only assumes Janus has been killed, but as it is we never do find out – Coffin later even muses that Janus survived – and folks we never even learn who this fake Janus was. Not that it matters, I guess.

All we learn is that Paul Thompson suspected he was a fake because Millie, who occasionally slept with the real Harry Janus, had nomiated Janus for membership in the Stonehenge Society, but after “Janus” returned from the operation (which was done in Tibet), Millie suspected it was an imposter. (Oh, and as for Millie – Thompson also casually admits to having killed her and chopped up her body that night, after Tiger left; it was he on the phone, telling Millie to get rid of Tiger, and then he went over and murdered her, so as to keep her mouth shut about the Stonehenge Society and whatnot…and yes, meanwhile Thompson himself gives away all their secrets, but what the hell, that’s Stokes for you.) Thompson, who further admits to having written the letter to Admiral Coffin so as to get the SUS involved, has come here to confront Janus and determine if he is indeed a Stoney.

The finale is also sort of a copout; everything builds to a grand climax with Tiger fighting frogmen and desperate to get into KRAB to fire his torpedos, and Greene up on the island fending off Janus’s goons with a rifle…then the final chapter is presented as Greene’s typewritten report, which Admiral Coffin reads a few days later! But at this point I was so swept up with Stokes’s weird sci-fi action hybrid thing that I really didn’t mind at all. I mean I really enjoyed this one, and it was a nice reminder of how Stokes can often hit them out of the park. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: he’s one of my favorites. There’s just something so “off” about his plots and his writing that I can’t help but admire him.

So anyway sure, the first couple Aquanauts yarns were subpar. But Operation Deep Six was a different story. Here’s hoping the remaining volumes are up to this level.

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