Hand Of The Mafia, by Jack Baynes
June, 1958 Fawcett Crest Books
The four-volume Morocco Jones series continues with another volume that comes off like the Mike Hammer books if they had been handled by Lyle Kenyon Engel’s fiction factory instead of Mickey Spillane. This one hews a little more closely to the Spillane mold than the first one did, with bad-ass Morocco Jones heading down south to bust up some heads, meet some willing dames, and deliver a couple tough-guy lines.
There isn’t much pickup from the previous volume, nor any idea how long ago it was. We do learn that Llora Madigan, aka former spy babe The Countess, now works at Morocco’s P.I. firm in Chicago, along with their old boss General Weyland. Whereas that first book implied that Morocco and Llora would become an item, in this one she only gets a couple lines of dialog in the opening pages, and it’s clear that she doesn’t have any proprietary rights on our two-fisted rake of a hero. This is of course as it should be so far as men’s adventure goes (or at least proto-men’s adventure), and thus Morocco will be free to score with a couple new willing babes in this installment.
Morocco learns in the first few pages that Chris Shane, his old intelligence world comrade (and a supporting character in the previous volume) has been murdered down in Border City, a badlands in a southern state which is never identified. Morocco decides to head down there posthaste, find out who killed Shane, and deliver some bloody payback. He tells Llora so long – the General we’re informed being in DC on business – and heads on down to Border City, where the rest of the novel plays out. It’s very much along the lines of the later Vice Town, a small city totally in the grip of crime; Morocco gets a lot of info from pal Joe Kincaid of the Chicago police, and learns that a new boss named Carlo Fontana has taken over the town, complete with his own army of henchmen and a dirty police force. The question is how Fontana is keeping the Syndicate out of the picture, as he appears to be running the entire city without the influence of the Mafia.
Our hero’s entrance is very memorable; a couple Border City hoods accost a local muckracking journalist and a pretty young woman in a bar, about to take them on a one-way ride. Then the big lanky new guy gets up from the bar and proceeds to maul them, even killing one of them with his bare hands. It is of course Morocco Jones; the reporter is a guy named Larry Mellon whose life has been endangered for his attempts at uncovering the truth (wow, even then it was rare for a journalist to seek the truth!), and the woman is a beauty named Brenda, a former flame of Carlo Fontana’s.
I’d forgotten that Morocco has this comic book schtick where his gray eyes turn green when he’s in a rage; Brenda duly notices this, getting all hot and bothered when Morocco wipes the floor with Fontana’s toughs in the bar. That night Morocco takes her to dinner, and too late Morocco realizes that Brenda’s car parked out front will bring in more toughs. So using those quick wits he often boasts of, he buys a pail of oil from the kitchen and sits in the passenger seat as Brenda tears through town, the stooges giving chase. Like that old Spy Hunter video game I played religiously in the ‘80s, Morocco tosses the oil onto the street and causes the car pursuing them to crash spectacularly. Immediately after this Brenda pulls over to the side of the road, hops on Morocco’s lap, and tells him she wants him, the shameless hussy.
But as with the previous book, the actual tomfoolery is left completely off page, usually denoted by an ellipsis. The raunch occurs in a “secret” cabin Brenda has in the woods; we do get only a minor bit of exploitation as Morocco checks out Brenda’s gloriously nude bod as she lays on the bed for him. But really he’s more concerned about leaving the windows out front open, as someone might sneak in. Baynes (I insist on referring to Bertram B. Fowler by his much-cooler pseudonym) spends so much dialog on this that, when the unexpected guests finally appear, it’s a foregone conclusion – and again Morocco takes Fontana’s stooges out without much fuss, killing all four of them without even the use of a gun.
Brenda turns out to be here on her own vendetta; her sister, also a former flame of Fontana’s, was killed – and in fact Brenda’s the one who hired Chris Shane to look into it. Then when she heard nothing more from him she came down to Border City herself, changing her last name and herself becoming a floozy of Fontana’s. This plot element is lost in the shuffle – like last time, Baynes throughs way too many characters into the mix – and indeed Brenda herself soon disappears from the narrative. Now that she’s served the function of providing Morocco with his first lay in town, she’s no longer needed…and Morocco scoots her off to safety with “a friend” and periodically calls her on the phone to make sure she’s still alive.
The opening half is very much in the hardboiled action mode; Morocco seems like a force of vengeance, mauling and killing Fontana’s goons without breaking a sweat. But as with last volume Baynes can’t contain his impulse to muddy up what should be a streamlined action yarn. So we have this triple mystery – how Fontana runs town without the Mafia, who killed Chris Shane, and what happened to the son of local newspaper magnate Blake Ellis. Of course all of it is mixed together, but Morocco chases separate threads, at one point even wasting time on former town boss Mike Dravo, a dude who employs his own henchmen (one of them an albino) but is otherwise Mr. Rogers when compared to Fontana.
Baynes tosses so much stuff into the middle half that the reader can quickly become lost; nothing lasts long enough to make an impression. I mean Morocco goes to great lengths to disguise himself as a bum and then, not too many pages later, has to drop the act. Or things that pomise to blossom into more interesting developments don’t pan out, like the passing mention that Fontana employs roving gangs of juvenile delinquents. Morocco gets in a quick fight with some of them, showing the punks the proper use of a chain, but it’s over too quick and nothing more is made of it. At least the element of Fontana employing a gang of crooked cops pans out, one of them a sadist named Granger who gets his mitts on Morocco and beats him to a pulp.
But the thing about Morocco Jones is that he’s got all the tough-guy lines, he’s got all the fancy espionage and commando training…but he keeps walking into traps and he keeps getting saved by other people. Like here, when he’s pulverized by Granger and other dirty cops in a dingy room in the local precinct…I mean that’s it for Morocco, he’s toast. Then a local crusading lawyer happens to come in and save his ass. The same exact thing happens at the end of the novel, Morocco caught dead to rights by Granger and Fontana…and he’s saved by one of the most brazen acts of deus ex machina I’ve ever read in a novel. But more griping on that in a minute.
Gradually heroin smuggling works into the plot; Morocco gets word to be on the lookout for a certain ship coming in from New Orleans. Once again he gets the drop on Fontana’s men, discovering that they’re bringing heroin in on it and going to elaborate lengths to get it off the ship before it docks. Morocco hides the stuff in the bum area of Border City, using a spot he learned of earlier thanks to a bum; as with the previous volume, Baynes again displays compassion for the downtrodden of society. While posing as a bum, Morocco becomes friends with a real one, a guy who knew another Border City character Morocco’s been hunting for, and the bum makes for one of the more interesting characters in the novel. But like the juvenile delinquents and sundry others, he disappears from the text too soon.
Morocco’s next conquest is another local babe: Dorsa Ellis, hotstuff blonde daughter of the newspaper owner. She too practically throws herself on Morocco moments after meeting him, but before the expected shenanigans she first takes him to a local watering hole and introduces him to…Carlo Fontana. At first I thought Dorsa was a honey trap of sorts, but she claims to have brought Morocco here to initiate the war full-on; she’s sick of her father’s cowering. Another of the too-many mysteries afoot is why Blake Ellis isn’t using his paper to take down Fontana. It’s clear that his vanished son – and Brenda’s murdered sister – has something to do with it.
The action of the first half gradually fades away and the mystery stuff takes precedence. But as mentioned Morocco does find the opportunity to score again, but as ever the most we get is stuff like, “[Dorsa’s] breasts were superb.” Dorsa’s kind of a trendsetter in her own regard; after some all-night sex she basically tells Morocco so long the next day, that this was a one-time thing she’ll never forget! Later she takes care of Morocco after his savage beating, but has her own cross to bear when her dad finally decides to do something about the situation with Fontana, and pays the ultimate price for it. This leads to the “big finale” where Morocco storms into Fontana’s place…and is promptly captured, once again.
Spoiler warning so please skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. But man, talk about a brazen copout ending. Morocco’s about to get wasted by Fontana and Granger when someone springs in and shoots Fontana in the arm. And folks it’s – Llora Madigan, the Countess! You see, she has been working the same case these past few days, without Morocco’s knowledge, acting as Fontana’s latest floozy! And General Weyland is here, too! They both waltz in with guns and grins and cover the hoods while Morocco can beat Granger to a pulp. It’s all so brazen and unsatisfying; Baynes attempts earlier in the book to set up this lame reveal, with Dorsa Ellis casually mentioning she’s heard that Fontana has a new girl, “a real beauty,” but the revelation that it’s Llora is incredibly flatfooted, because it just reinforces the notion that Morocco Jones always needs help to get out of scrapes.
But really, the first half of Hand Of the Mafia is very cool and comes off just like you’d hope a series titled Morocco Jones would. Our hero comes off like this inhuman force of wrath, beating the shit out of various hoods and delivering one-liners with aplomb. Even when the odds are against him, Morocco wades into combat with a grin, confident that the training he received in Europe will make him more than a match for his opponents. He doesn’t use as many guns this time, using his fists to do the killing; he also employs some Judo moves to further maul and maim his enemies. But the thing is, Baynes retains his strange tendency to make Morocco a fool for plot contrivances…he’s forever forgetting to do something or overlooking something obvious and walking into an easily-avoided trap.
The book ends with Morocco and Llora deciding to take a quick vacation before getting into the latest caper the General has cooked up; there’s a bit of a modern feeling in how it’s implied Llora had to sleep with Fontana as part of the job, but it’s nothing for her to be ashamed over. In fact, she’s the one who scolds Morocco for sleeping around so much on this one. But at any rate we are reminded that Llora is Morocco’s woman (or she’s “his person,” in the gender-neutralized parlance of our miserable modern world), and all these other babes are just passing fancies. Two more volumes followed, and Morocco’s image returns to the covers; looks like the repeating image of his upper body, used on the first, third, and fourth volumes, couldn’t fit on this volume’s cover painting.