Monday, March 30, 2020

Bad Guy

Bad Guy, by Nicholas Brady
No month stated, 1977  Belmont-Tower

“Nicholas Brady” was a Belmont Tower/Leisure Books house name used by a variety of contract writers; Len Levinson served as “Brady” for Inside Job. Bad Guy isn’t by Len, though, and although the identity of the author has never been officially confirmed I’m fairly certain it was George Harmon Smith. Thanks to the trailblazing research of Lynn Munroe we know that Harmon Smith was a contract writer often used by BT/Leisure editor Peter McCurtin, and the narrative style of Bad Guy is identical to those installments of Marksman and Sharpshooter (ie This Animal Must DieSavage Slaughter) that Lynn has designated as being by George Harmon Smith: literary but very overwritten.

To wit, Bad Guy opens with some weatherbeaten redneck deputy in Georgia, maintaining law and order at a stock car race, and as with those other Smith books it just goes and on and with the pointless detailing of every single thing the hayseed does. I mean the writing’s good and all, it’s just flabby, and the author clearly doesn’t know when some judicious editing is necessary. That being said, this opening does feature the oddball moment of the deputy shoving some guy’s face into a pile of shit; this sort of random nastiness is another George Harmon Smith hallmark, as evidenced by his other books, and I’m even more certain he might’ve been the mystery author who wrote Bronson: Blind Rage – which by the way is still one of my very favorite novels I’ve ever reviewed on here.

As Zwolf so succinctly put it, Bad Guy is a “Grade-B sleazy crime novel,” clearly catering to the spate of Southern action films going on at the time; you could easily see Burt Reynolds (or Joe Don Baker if you don’t have the budget) as protagonist Jake Colby, shit-kicking stock car racer and former Syndicate stringer. Actually he has a much darker side than any Reynolds character; the BT house ads claim Jake Colby is “in the tradition of Gator McCloskey [sp],” ie the “hillbilly hoodlum” Reynolds portrayed in White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976). But he’s a stone-cold killer with a sadistic streak. Harmon Smith (I’m just going to proceed with the theory that the novel truly is by him) implies that Colby’s casual mercilessness is due to his wife and toddler son being killed in a car bomb six years before, a car bomb that was meant for Colby. But damn, that’s not nearly enough to explain away some of the sadistic stuff he does in this novel.

To tell the truth, the hicksploitation stuff really isn’t much exploited nor integral to the plot. There are no “Southern” quirks to Colby and he comes off no different than any other Belmont Tower anti-hero. The action mostly occurs in Georgia, the Bayou, and Vegas, but other than a couple Creole characters there’s no real attempt at making this a Dixie-fried actioner. The opening sequence is the closest approximation to this, with an overly-detailed stock race in Georgia serving as our introduction to Colby. This will be the only stock car race in the book, but it displays the same style Harmon Smith brings to the rest of the novel: inordinate scene-setting and word-painting, but with very good characterization and dialog. Seriously, the guy was like the John Gardner of BT/Leisure (I mean the John Gardner of Michelsons Ghosts, not the British John Gardner who took over the James Bond books in the ‘80s).

Before we get into the meat of the review, I’d like to clarify that I really did enjoy Bad Guy. It’s certainly more entertaining and better written than the majority of the blockbuster crime novels of the ‘70s, or at least ones that were published in hardcover and received industry reviews. I mean it’s a lot more enjoyable than The Devalino CaperThe Anderson Tapes, or Golden Gate Caper. The main characters are three-dimensional and there are memorable oddball touches to most of the minor characters that you remember long after you’ve finished the book. It’s just that the damn overwriting sinks it; the Gardner comparison again comes to mind. Anyone who has read (or tried to read) Nickel Mountain or The Sunlight Dialogs will know what I’m talking about; just an insurmountable barrage of needless topical description. Each and every chapter begins with elaborate scene-setting, and every menial gesture or action of the characters is stated; Colby smokes about a bujillion cigarettes in the novel, and we’re told every single time he tosses aside a butt and lights a fresh one. This makes the book seem like a slog at times, because it gears up to be so great, then stalls with unecessary bouts of page-filling. 

Anyway when we meet Jake Colby he’s a stock car racer in the south, a mostly-broken guy who is ready to blow into violent action at any moment. He’s approached by two hoods, Scalise and Blaustein, who claim to be representatives for Peaches Angella, Colby’s old boss in the Syndicate. Gradually we’ll learn that part of Peaches’s portfolio was heroin, which Colby ran for him. Then some interloper named Gazzara came onto the scene and started taking over Peaches’s territory, killing off his various underbosses. This is how Colby’s wife and son were killed, blown up in a car bomb meant to take out Colby. But that was six years ago, and Colby’s out of the life, and Peaches is calling in old favors and wants Colby to come out of retirement for one last job.

Before that we get a taste of our hero’s sadism; he meets Scalise and Blaustein at a bar, and after the two thugs leave, Colby is hassled by a couple corncobs who give him a hard time for drinking soda instead of beer. Rather than walk away, Colby wades into the three of them, beats them to burger, then lines them up and drives over them. All because they said a few curt words to him. It’s insane, and again all very similar to Bronson: Blind Rage in its tone of ruthless brutality. So too is the relationship Colby eventually forms with a young Creole girl, their dialog very reminiscent of the dialog Bronson has with the young Latina girl in Blnd Rage. And finally, the word “focussed” appears here, same as in Blind Rage, so my proposition is that the same author wrote Bad Guy, and that author was George Harmon Smith. Or it was Aaron Fletcher, who also served as “Nicholas Brady,” but I’m going with Smith because the book is too similar to those Marksman and Sharpshooter installments Lynn Munroe identified as being by him.

But after this random bit of sadism Colby’s legacy of brutality sort of simmers for the rest of the novel, as he’s more busy putting together the getaway portion of Peaches’s job. Peaches you see wants to hit Gazzara where it hurts, robbing the vault in his Vegas casino and making off with as much of the two million therein as possible. Colby will be in charge of getting the heisters to freedom, and to that end he has basically a blank check to have a hopped-up car put together for him. Colby also suggests the use of “chunkers,” ie the bottom feeders of the underworld – people so poor they actually jump in front of cars, acting as decoys. As with most heist novels the plotting and planning of the actual heist takes the brunt of the narrative, with the heist itself occuring over a few frantic pages toward the very end of the novel.

What makes Bad Guy so interesting is the otherwise-arbitrary situations and characters Harmon Smith introduces into the text. For example, shortly after meeting with Peaches, Colby’s relaxing in his hotel room when there’s a knock at his door. It’s a gorgeous, well-built brunette named Ginger who has been sent over by Peaches to keep Colby company. But what would be a throw-away hardcore scene in a lesser novel is here built into a fuller relationship, with Ginger not a hooker but a housewife whose husband is in the hospital with some disease and she’s desperate for money, so she took the job. And Colby’s gruff with her, not wanting any sex tonight – there’s already been some off-page hanky-panky earlier, with Colby doing, and them dumping, some never-named woman he’s been living with the past couple months. But Ginger in her innocence brings Colby out of his shell, with the author successfully doling out three-dimensional characterization for both of them. In particular for Colby, as we see he suffers recurring nightmares of the day his wife and son were killed.

And then…Colby leaves the hotel next morning and Ginger’s never mentioned again. (And also the sex between them is off-page, for anyone out there taking notes – all the sex is off-page in this one, curiously.) There are all these random bits of characterization throughout the novel which are given so much initial focus and then unceremoniously dropped. The stuff with the clunkers is another case in point. Colby heads into Harlem to hire a renowned clunker, a smashed-up black guy who lives in a tenement building and is so poor that his kids rent out their rooms to local hookers. This guy brings in two more clunkers, both of them just as memorable: one of them, also black, speaks in overly-formal terms, and the other, a Hispanic guy, is so brain-addled from his clunking that he’s become a mindless robot for the woman who controls him. There’s more of that random sadism as the poor guy eagerly bashes his own head into a hotel room wall at the woman’s order. All these characters and more – even the inside man on the heist who has “the unmistakable drawl of the homosexual” – are built up at the expense of dense paragraphs, and then dropped from the narrative with little fanfare.

My favorite of all these arbitrary characters and situations is the bitter old Mafia consigliere Colby visits a little past the halfway mark of the book. Confined to home care with a “crazy woman” serving as his nurse, the old man is filled with hate, particularly toward Colby – as it turns out that Colby’s dead wife was the consigliere’s daughter. The old man blames Colby for the loss of his daughter and grandson, but Colby, undeterred, bullies the old man into getting some info. Through various plot developments, Colby has learned that there might be more to this heist than Peaches has let on, and the old consigliere would be able to find out with his connections in the Syndicate. Harmon Smith’s tongue is firmly in cheek as the consigliere gets increasingly irrational and furious with Colby, culiminating in the unforgettable line: “Go die, so crazy woman can pour my shit and piss on your grave.”

Colby heads into the Bayou for the getaway car, hiring a poor Creole auto repairman to build a custom vehicle. But the man’s niece turns out to be more important to the narrative: Camille, a hot-tempered Creole girl in her twenties who speaks poor English and who has waist-length black hair. With her fiery temper mixed with her innocent nature, she is as mentioned very similar to the girl in Bronson: Blind Rage. As is the budding relationship between her and Colby, which is almost G-rated given the tone of the rest of the novel. The old auto mechanic is glad to get rid of the quarrelsome girl, but Colby finds himself falling for her – again, unexpected character depth and character building. That being said, man there’s a lot of padding with Colby and Camille. Even late in the game, right before the heist we’ve been waiting a couple hundred pages for, there’s an interminable sequence of them going camping in the Bayou. But it’s true love, Camille even giving Colby her virginity – as we learn after the off-page sex scene.

Colby’s trick car is cool but doesn’t get exploited enough. Per his specific demands, it’s a junked-up old Chevy that has the guts of a Jaguar, and we get a lot of gearhead dialog about the various modifications to the engine and whatnot. Cooler yet are the touches the mechanic adds from his days of doing up cars for moonshiners, like a bucket filled with nail-balls that can be dropped into the path of pursuing vehicles. Colby also goes to various lengths to plot out the getaway, including getting a machine gun and stashing out a boat and a second getaway car in a place Peaches doesn’t know about. For as the back cover has so brazenly spoiled for us, Colby’s planning his own cross, having learned that the entire thing is a setup courtesy Peaches.

The heist goes down in just a few tense pages, but here Harmon Smith is lean and mean with the prose. And humorously whereas before we were informed almost relentlessly of pedantic actions and gestures, here bigger revelations are spun out with nonchalance – like the fact that Camille is a stone-cold killer. Colby’s brought her into the heist due to her ability to scale and climb obstacles, a needed skill in the heist of Gazzara’s vault. But once her part’s done Camille’s brought out a revolver and is blowing away cops and guards with ease. In fact she kills several police officers in the final pages, toting the M-16 Colby has acquired. Colby, his heist double-cross carried out with finesse, heads up the getaway, and this too is a fun, tense scene, complete with those nail-balls in use. But Harmon Smith seems to forget about the Chevy’s changeable paint job that he so heavily built up in the narrative; another of the old man’s tricks, a plastic sheen will fly off the car when the speed gets up to fifty m.p.h, with a different-color paint job beneath.

It appears that Bad Guy is relatively scarce and overpriced, but I’ll try to refrain from total spoilers. I will say the novel heads for the exact conclusion the reader expects; there’s already been skillful foreshadowing throughout, like Colby’s admission that he’s afraid to die. But once the heist is done, Harmon Smith decides he wants to do more of a Bonnie and Clyde thing. Even though he and Camille have the chance to get away scot-free, with all the money, Colby can’t let Peaches go unpunished; of course, he’s learned that Peaches was responsible for the death of Colby’s wife and son. So Colby and Camille stash the cash and slip into Peaches’s fortified mansion for a little revenge. This is another tense scene, which might play out a little too quickly, but then when you’re dispensing bloody payback with a .357 Magnum, like Colby is, there really isn’t much opportunity to draw out the kill.

But as ever Harmon Smith is unpredictable, with Colby’s vengeance sated but having a surprise conclusion, and the climax itself involves a tense standoff between Camille and the cops. In other words we’re headed for that mandatory downer ‘70s ending, but then it was only expected given that our “heroes” just wasted several cops in the heist and chase. Harmon Smith instead focuses again on Camille’s childlike love for Colby, even while bullets are flying around them. It’s an effective, memorable finale, and again reminiscent of Bronson: Blind Rage; indeed, Bad Guy features the exact sort of ending Blind Rage seemed to be headed for, but of course didn’t, because it was the start of a series and all.

Overall though I really enjoyed Bad Guy. It’s certainly too long, with way too much flab that could’ve been cut, but at its core it’s a mean, tense ‘70s crime thriller that should’ve received more attention. And the author, whether it was George Harmon Smith or not, is definitely skilled, giving us a lot more character depth and random plot quirkiness than might be expected from a Belmont Tower publication about a “hillbilly hoodlum.”

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Iceman #4: Sunday Fix

The Iceman #4: Sunday Fix, by Joseph Nazel
July, 1974  Holloway House

Joseph Nazel phones it in for this fourth installment of The Iceman; I knew going in that Sunday Fix probably wouldn’t be of much interest to me, given that its plot concerns pro football, but man, I didn’t think the novel would be boring. It’s more Banacek than Shaft as Henry Highland West, aka “The Iceman” (though usually referred to as “Ice” in the narrative), mostly just makes phone calls and sits around in his various opulent domiciles, offering homespun philosophy and pondering man’s inhumanity to man.

The novel opens in Los Angeles, where Ice is watching his newly-acquired pro football team, the Rattlers, getting their asses kicked by the Rams. Ice puzzles over this because his team’s made of good players but it seems they are intentionally fumbling plays. All very strange because Ice has hired “the best Black coaches” in America to handle the team. Oh and curiously, “Black” is always capitalized when referring to black people, yet “white” is never capitalized when referring to white people. Pretty racist if you ask me. And of course the villain’s a white guy, too, a sports-betting honkie named Reggie Owens who, Ice reflects, seemed all too willing to bet $40,000 on the Rams…as if he knew the Rattlers were going to lose.

After the game Ice visits the team along with his constant companion, colorfully-wardrobed Christmas Tree, who berates the players for their jive plays. Ice is more hesistant – and indeed will continue to be for much too long of the narrative. Even later, when he receives a panicked call from the coach, Stewart, Ice doesn’t think too much of it. Meanwhile we readers know that Stewart has been pushed into a bad situation by team manager Ray Hubbard…the Syndicate has moved in, and is offering Hubbard, Stewart, and any willing players $10,000 each to lose games. Hubbard himself isn’t for it but believes the white bastards have some dirt on him, so he’s forced to play along. But Stewart has had enough, mulling over his troubles as he drinks – seriously folks, Ice is practically a guest star in his own novel – and finally calls the boss man to meet.

But three Syndicate goons ambush him as he’s driving up the twisty canyon road to Ice’s seaside home in Malibu, or wherever it is. Ice is already in his “blue Ferrari” (his schtick is that everything he drives, flies, or wears is blue) and racing down to meet Stewart, wondering why it’s taken him so long to get here. He arrives just in time to see Stewart shot dead, then Ice has his .38 in hand and is in a firefight. Nazel greatly reduces the gore of the earlier volumes, with the goons just getting shot and falling down – previous installments had brains blasted out and whatnot. That being said, Ice does take down one goon with a kung-fu kick that comes straight out of Mace. It’s goofy, though, because Ice wastes the three goons…then Ray Hubbard shows up on the scene; he was also tyring to prevent Stewart from telling Ice what’s been going on. Ice suspects Hubbard of hiding something, but just sort of brushes it off…even after Ice has found an envelope with $10,000 in it beside Stewart’s corpse.

After this it’s to the slow-burn…Ice heads back to his palatial desert home, The Oasis, and cooks up some soul food for his usual entoruage: Tree, Kim (aka the Chinese one), Solema (aka the African one), and Jan (aka Kim’s sister, stated as being “the newest member” of the group). There’s also Maria, the sexy programmer for the Oasis computer, named Matilda. As ever Nazel doesn’t much bring the female characters to life, nor does he even much describe them – and also as ever, for a guy who runs a high-dollar cathouse (which is what the Oasis technically is), Ice himself shows little interest in women. There’s even a “hmmm” moment where we’re told that Maria’s revealing dress “would turn any man to her side…any man but Ice.” However later Ice does get busy with Solema, who as ever is presented as Ice’s main woman, but Nazel leaves it off-page, same as he does with all other sex scenes in the series.

Action is minimal; after the firefight with the goons who come to kill Coach Stewart, Ice doesn’t do much of anything. Even by page 160 there still hasn’t been much in the way of action (as usual the novel runs to a too-long 221 pages). Ice makes calls from the Oasis to try to get leads; one of his contacts is Numbers Nate, an older street hustler in Harlem who is “like a father” to Ice. Due to the many scenes that cut away from Ice (again, the poor guy’s a guest star in his own book this time), we know that “jive honkie” Reggie Wilson, the gambler from the opening chapter, has come up with the idea of getting the Mafia into the pro football scene, taking his idea to a capo named Roman Touletti. This gets its own too-long subplot, with Wilson often meeting with Touletti and going over strategy. There’s also lots of page-filling about Hubbard, the team manager, and a new Rattlers player fresh out of college who struggles with this whole “fumble plays for ten thousand bucks” scheme.

Things don’t pick up until near the 200-page mark. First Tree is almost ambushed by three Mafia thugs in Vegas, but Tree’s wise to them; when the decoy offers info for twenty bucks, Tree’s inistantly suspicious that someone would want such little pay for what he claims to be important info. So Tree whips out his .45, takes the guy to a remote location, and ultimately gets into a firefight, one in which Tree gets knocked out but still manages to kill his would-be ambushers before falling unconscious. At the same time Ice choppers out into the desert on his personal ‘copter to meet with Owen, who has called him with an offer – Owen’s learned that Touletti plans to kill him and wants thirty thousand dollars from Ice and safe passage to South America in exchange for all the info on the blackmail scheme.

This leads to the memorable scene of Ice, on the ground, wielding a .44 Magnum in one hand and a .38 revolver in the other as he takes on a small plane in the desert, the Mafia killers onboard having come to take out Owen before he could blab to Ice. It’s a cool scene, one of the moments depicted on the cover, but again Nazel dials back on the violence – Ice manages to hit the guy with the automatic rifle in the head with his .44, and later lands his ‘copter on top of the plane and crashes it. Meanwhile Tree’s gotten captured and taken to Touletti’s Vegas lair, so the finale features a rushed climax in which Ice leads his doll squad of blacksuited fillies on an assault of the compound. If only the entire novel was like this! We’ve got Kim and Jan taking out goons with kung-fu, Solema blowing ‘em away with a shotgun like a regular Coffy, and even Ice getting in on it with some knife-throwing skills.

But overall I found Sunday Fix to be very boring, and as stated above I get the impression Nazel phoned this one in. I mean he was churning these books out, so it’s only understandable he’d lose a little steam after a while. It’s kind of fun for the topical blaxploitation vibe, though, with Tree’s colorful pimp wardrobe squarely placing the book in the early ‘70s. Also Ice and his companions almost constantly use the phrase “Whatever’s fair!,” so I assume this must have been the hip black (sorry, “hip Black”) phrase of the moment. Also “What you say!” gets repeated a lot. And Ice himself continues to be the epitome of ‘70s cool, doing “Nogare breathing exercises” before practicing his karate moves, then fixing himself a Highball and pondering over the toughness of the world and how he’d kill just to see another beautiful sunset from his palatial desert home.

The series ran for three more volumes, ending in 1975 with the seventh installment, but currently this and the first two installments are all I have. In fact I was surprised to even discover this and the second volume sitting together in the “Rare Books” section of the downtown Dallas Half Price Books back in 2012 (for three bucks each!). But to tell the truth, The Iceman just leaves me cold (lame pun alert), so I don’t plan to seek out any of the volumes I’m missing. I’d say if you want a little blaxploitation with your men’s adventure you’d be much better off seeking out Dark Angel.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 12

More Biker Movies: William Smith Edition 

Angels Die Hard (1970): William Smith gets co-lead billing alongside Tom Baker (not the Dr. Who guy), but man it takes a good while before you even realize he’s in the movie. Also the online plot synopsis on this one, about “bikers coming to the rescue of miners,” doesn’t really happen – in fact, the first hour or so of the flick is comprised of the bikers running roughshod around some small town in the Californian countryside. That being said, there’s more biker footage in this one than practically any other biker movie I’ve yet watched: copious sequences, set to music by various obscure rock groups, of bikers driving along the roadside in their tricked-out hogs and choppers. There’s a lot of cool equipment on display, and my favorite’s probably the trike with the drooping hood, which is driven by this dude that looks for all the world like a Satanic hermit.

While the biker footage is primo, the flick itself has that usual muddled low-budget vibe; dialog is captured by a single boom mic and sometimes the voices of the actors are either inaudible or so shrill that they send the levels into the red – William Smith in particular. And no character is properly introduced, no story set up. Blair (Baker) and Tim (Smith) roll their club into some hayseed town and run afoul of the portly sheriff, and one of the club’s put in jail overnight. He’s let go the next day, but crashes as he’s driving past the county line, apparently run off the road by a local – you can tell the budget was low because we don’t even see the crash, the producers clearly not wanting to actually destroy one of the choppers. Indeed it’s hard to understand initially why the guy even crashes, as it’s a clear day, there’s no other traffic on the road, and he’s just choppering along, giving the finger to the town sign on his way out…and a sudden freeze frame and we hear a poor recording of a vehicle crashing.

Speaking of freeze frames and whatnot, director Richard Compton makes up for the low budget and the unknown actors with lots of inventive angles and artsy directing touches. Some of it is in the vibe of TV director Sutton Roley (aka “the Orson Welles of television”), with stuff like the camera sitting behind latticework so that the actors are partially obscured, or the camera put up on a casket while the bikers carry it into the cemetery. These biker movies are such a strange breed, because often you can tell that the director at least wanted to try something unusual, no doubt inspired by Easy Rider, yet the script as ever is a mish-mash of jarring styles. I mean their biker brother is dead and they’re all dour and then suddenly the plot’s about them drugging up an uptight undertaker and wooping it up while a couple mamas dance nude (not that I’m complaining about that last part). But at least we get to see William Smith deliver a sermon, complete with his massive arms bared and his voice redlining the boom mic with a shouted “Brothers!” Plus he seems to have gotten his clothes from Billy Jack. 

It's curious because there’s no “plot” per se for the first hour of Angels Die Hard, which is pretty incredible when you consider that the film’s barely 90 minutes long. But at the hour point, after being hassled once again to get the hell out of town, the bikers get word of a mine collapse and decide to go to the rescue. This is due to Smith’s character, Tim, who overhears some local yokels talking about it; Tim chuckles at the plight of the miners when he hears of the collapse, then sobers up when he’s told it’s a little kid that’s been trapped in the mine. Curiously this for soft spot for children parallels the attitude of another biker character Smith would play, in The Losers (reviewed below).

But man, talk about a poorly set up and even more poorly executed plotline: the bikers race on over to the mine and we have some shaky camerawork showing the locals trying to pull on a rope that’s going down into the mine. William Smith hovers over the proceedings…then we see some random biker come up out of the mine, carrying the kid! Who the hell the biker was I don’t think is ever even stated, but it sure wasn’t Blair or Tim. This, the event which is stated as the entire plot of the movie on some websites, comprises about five minutes of the film’s runtime. After this we get another go-nowhere subplot where a local beauty seems to fall for Blair, but her boyfriend gets jealous and tries to intervene. Burly Tim beats him up but feels bad about it…then the kid runs to the cops and the locals come in with firebrands and shotguns. The finale is hilariously inept in its staging, with major characters gunned down in an almost nonchalant manner; the ending too leaves it vague who survives and who doesn’t – and I watched the climax twice and I’m still not sure who causes the villainous sheriff to crash.

Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the occasional glimpse of Dixie Peabody (Dag in Bury Me An Angel) as a biker babe – briefly seen riding a chopper when the club heads for the funeral – and Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty as another biker, but neither get any dialog and are mostly just in the background. Hell if you wanted to, you could pretend that Bury Me An Angel is a sequel to this one, as Dixie Peabody’s character isn’t even named, so if you were bored or drunk or high or whatever, you could pretend she’s also playing Dag in this one, and maybe Dag’s ill-fated brother is one of the bikers we never get to see (it’s not like any characters are actually introduced, after all)…and hell, Dan Haggerty also appears as a background biker character without any dialog in Bury Me An Angel, so that just ices the cake.

C.C. And Company (1970): Former football star Joe Namath (whose sideburns radicalized Grandma Simpson) briefly tried his hand at acting, and I believe this was his first starring role. Co-starring Anne-Margaret and William Smith, the movie seems to have enjoyed a bigger budget than most other biker flicks, but hasn’t been served well by history; the copy I saw was sourced from VHS, and there doesn’t seem to be a better version out there. Quentin Tarantino featured the trailer for this movie in his recent Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, so maybe this will result in someone doing a proper restored release. Definitely more of a mainstream picture than most other biker movies – there isn’t even any violence or nudity! – C.C. And Company clearly strives to capture the counterculture spirit of the day, with various “sticking it to the man” sequences in its 90-minute runtime. We even meet titular C.C. Rider (Namath) in the process of sticking it, helping himself to a self-made sandwich in a grocery store (including a Twinkie for dessert!) but only paying for a pack of gum on his way out. Later in the film he’ll steal a dirt bike from a used bike lot, giving the hapless owner five bucks as “down payment.”

But otherwise C.C. is a good guy, or at least we’re to understand he is, given that he doesn’t rape beautiful, busty Ann-Margaret when he and his two biker buddies come across her stranded limo in the desert. Instead C.C. comes to her defense, decking his two pals, one of whom’s ever-sleazy Sid Haig (in a Mongol helmet, aka “the Yul Brenner look”). Anne-Margaret’s character is named Ann, and she bats her eyes prettily at C.C. for saving her, even joking that they’d better hurry with the sex before the Triple-A repairmen arrive. C.C. just smiles and drives off, and finds he’s gotten himself in trouble with club president Moon (Smith), who really lords it up, sitting in a “throne” and kicking around the club mamas. Smith as ever gives his performance a tongue in cheek vibe, including a funny bit where he complains that C.C. doesn’t really jibe with the club, which by the way is called The Heads. C.C. continues to run into Ann over the next few days, and I think Tarantino nicked some of the dialog here – there’s a part where she says how it’s interesting they keep running into each other, and I think the hippie girl with hairy armpits says much the same thing to Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.

Eventually we learn that C.C. just joined the Heads a month ago; Moon’s mama hits on him one night, basically demanding he screw her because she’s “twenty-nine days overdue” for some C.C. lovin.’ C.C. tells her no, but changes his mind when she mocks him for being afraid of Moon. But again there’s no nudity afoot, even during the infrequent “bath” sequences where the bikers and their mamas hop in the river to clean off. His sights though are clearly set on Ann, and when he discovers she’s a fashion photographer (or designer…or something), doing a shoot for a motorcross race, he even gets a dirt bike so he can take part in the race and impress her. Pretty certain it’s not Namath himself in the race scene – which features an awesome climax of C.C. literally pulling his bike across the finish line – but he does clearly drive the dirt bike and a zebra-painted chopper in other sequences. And looks pretty cool at it, too. I’m due for a mid-life crisis so these movies really have me thinking about a vintage custom chopper.

But curiously C.C. And Company is more of a romantic comedy than a biker movie; the plot, such as it is, centers around the unfathomable concept that gorgeous, jet-setting Anne falls in love with grungy, jobless C.C. There’s even a part where she asks him how he “gets along” without work, and here we get a vague backstory for C.C. – he was a mechanic who fixed up the club’s bikes, and when they wouldn’t pay him he fought them…then decided to join them. One wonders why, as he clearly doesn’t get along with the nigh-socialist makeup of The Heads; when C.C. comes in third at that motocross race, Moon demands that he give the entire proceeds to the club. C.C. refuses, leading to a brawl between the two, after which C.C. manages to again score with Moon’s mama…and steal back his money from her purse.

This leads into the finale, which has Moon and the Heads holding Anne hostage until C.C. can raise a thousand bucks. Instead C.C. manages to challenge Moon to a race, which is also ridiculous, something the script at least acknowledges with Moon’s flustered reply to C.C.’s challenge (“I mean, what is this??”). The ensuing race seems to go on forever, and climaxes with Moon suffering a spectacular crash; it’s unstated whether he survives, and the last we see of him his mama is cradling his limp ragdoll of a form. After this it’s on to a Happily Ever After for C.C. and Ann! Overall C.C. And Company is somewhat fun at least in its bright ‘60s colors and fashions, and has some good dialog in spots (when Moon’s girl makes a passing query on C.C.’s skills in bed, he laconically replies, “I manage to hang in there”). I don’t think it’s worth watching more than once, though.

Chrome And Hot Leather (1971): This might be one of my favorite biker movies yet, but for an exploitation flick it’s surprisingly tame on the, uh, exploitation angle; the violence is minimal and, even more shockingly, there’s no nudity! Otherwise it is a well-made grindhouse bikersploitation piece which comes off like the film version of a men’s adventure magazine yarn: badass Green Berets take on a biker gang. In fact if I’m not mistaken that is a storyline that shows up in at least one of the men’s mag stories excerpted in Barbarians On Bikes. The concept is actually well handled, though lacking in the blood and thunder you’d expect from such a setup, with even the final conflagration featuring smoke grenades and tear gas instead of full auto hellfire. There’s even an annoying tendency toward quick cuts during the plentiful fistfights, with director Lee Frost cutting the frame seconds before fists connect with faces. My assumption is this was intended to make the fake punches look “real,” giving the action a sort of pop, but unfortunately it just looks like something off Benny Hill.

The flick opens with what will be the only death in the movie: two pretty young women are driving around the California countryside when they encounter a pack of bikers: The Wizards, who are led by brawny T.J. (William Smith, who chews scenery like it was a protein bar – the dude’s seriously ripped in this one, by the way, and also receives top billing). One of the bikers, Casey (Michael Haynes, who looks so much like Ben Stiller in a bad wig and fake moustache I laughed out loud a few times), comes on to the women and demands they pull over. When they try to escape, inadvertently knocking Casey off his bike, he hops back on and hits ‘em with his chain, causing the car to careen down a canyon and roll a couple times. The Wizards take off and both girls have been killed in the crash.

Unfortunately for the bikers, the blonde in the car was the fiance of Green Beret drill sergeant Mitch (lanky Tony Young, the epitome of the Marlboro Man look). Without dithering over the point – again, I love how lean these vintage action movies are – Mitch rounds up three other Green Beret sergeants to dish out some payback: Gabe (Larry Bishop), Al (Peter Brown, but I spent the entire film thinking it was Monte “The Seven Million Dollar Man” Markham), and Jim (Marvin Gaye – the Marvin Gay, not just some random actor with the same name). Soon enough they decide to go undercover and do what the cops can’t: find the biker scum who killed Mitch’s girl. This entails buying bikes (red Kawasaki dirt bikes, but as it develops they have a reason for wanting dirt bikes and not choppers), learning how to ride them (a humorous sequence), and getting some biker duds with sergeant stripe patches and visored sunglasses.

Meanwhile the Wizards run around the countryside and fight each other; there’s a balance of power between TJ and Casey. As mentioned Smith receives top billing so there are a lot of otherwise-unnecessary subplots or scenes with him, clearly there so as to give him more screentime. Because really TJ makes for a poor villain; Casey’s the only killer in the gang, and indeed TJ tried to stop him from chasing after the girls in the opening sequence. There is an intentional sense of humor here which makes up for this, most notable in the rapport between TJ and spaced-out gang member Sweet Willy (Bob Pickett), including a very funny bit where TJ tries to lean on Mitch (undercover as an outlaw biker who just wandered into the Wizards’s bar). When an oblivious Sweet Willy continues to play pinball, Smith calls over to him, “Can’t you see we’re trying to menace someone?”

It’s little touches like this that make Chrome And Hot Leather so much fun. Also Mitch and his comrades are given enough personality to be memorable and fun to watch working together as a team. Marvin Gaye does very well in his role – his character’s the one who makes the random demand for red dirt bikes, perhaps as a payoff for an earlier line that he never even had a bicycle as a kid – but there’s a total miss when his first line is, “What’s happenin?” It should’ve been “What’s going on?” which would’ve made for such a lame in-joke that it would have instantly become legendary. Hell, he could’ve even hummed a few lines of the song afterwards. That being said, Gaye does provide a song to the movie, but otherwise the score is composed of the fuzzed guitar rock you’d expect.

Mitch gains the graces of the Wizards, long enough to hop in the sack with sexy Susan (Kathy Baumann), who just happens to be Casey’s mama. As mentioned there’s no nudity; when Susan disrobes for Mitch her body is completely hidden save for her shoulders and head. Even when they’re rolling around in bed she’s careful to keep herself covered by the sheets. This leads me to believe that Baumann either had a no-nudity contract or the producers were shooting for a more mainstream market than other biker films of the day. That’s not to say Susan isn’t slapped around and roughed up, though; they skipped on the nudity and the violence but the producers at least still delivered on that bikersploitation staple. Casey storms in on the two post-boink, knocks out Mitch, and slaps Susan around good and proper. This leads to another of those otherwise-random scenes with William Smith, where TJ asks Susan if she wants to stay in the gang after he’s kicked out Casey. A scene which ultimately has no impact on the plot…other, that is, than to give Smith more screentime.

The finale unfortunately drops the biker angle. Mitch and team head back to base and, in another comedic scene, order up a bevy of training weaponry, from smoke grenades to a mini-rockets. They put their Green Beret training to use and segregate the Wizards in a remote canyon and rain smoke grenades and tear gas missiles on them, then run roughshod on them on their dirt bikes while wearing gas masks. This leads to yet more fistfights, which is also how Mitch handles Casey, the murderer of his fiance – unsatisfyingly, there’s no fatal comeuppance for Casey. Instead it’s off to jail with TJ and the rest of the gang – including even Susan! But otherwise Chrome And Hot Leather moves at a steady clip, featuring fun characters and a self-mocking tone, and it’s a shame there was never a sequel. The whole “Sergeants” dirt bike gang was ripe for more exploitation.

The Losers (1970): Like Chrome And Hot Leather, the plot of this biker flick seems to have been ripped from the pages of a contemporary men’s mag: bikers in ‘Nam! This one’s even more in the men’s mag realm than the other flick, with plentiful violence and nudity; the opening sequence alone features spectacular blood quibs at work as we see the Viet Cong massacring various people. Likely this rugged pulp feel is courtesy veteran adventure writer Alan Caillou, who handled the script. However this one’s really more of a war movie than a biker movie, and the budget was also a factor because the fireworks are saved for the climax. This means that characterization takes more of a precendence than in other biker flicks…but at the expense of the fun, pulpy sort of stuff we expect from a true biker movie. Hell, there aren’t even any Harleys – let alone any choppers – in the film. The bikers ride dirt bikes! (Another similarity to Chome And Hot Leather). As one of them puts it: “That’s a girl’s bike!”

William Smith stars again as a biker boss: Link, who heads up the Devil’s Advocates M.C. We don’t get much background on Link, but there seems to be some particular reason why he’s so driven to rescue a CIA agent who is being held by the Red Chinese in Cambodia. Also we’ll learn he has a bit of a sensitive side; there’s an odd but touching bit where he picks up a poor little hunchbacked kid in a Vietnam village and gives him a quick ride on his bike. That being said, we clearly see Link blow another kid away in the climactic action sequence…so, uh, he’s an anti-hero at least. In fact Smith doesn’t get much opportunity to do anything emotive until late in the movie, with most of the runtime being given over to his fellow club members: There’s Duke (Adam Roarke), who seems to have taken this CIA job so he can hook back up with his Vietnamese girlfriend and bring her home as his wife; Limpy (Paul Koslo), who is of course named for his limp and also finds love here in Vietnam; Speed (Gene Cornelius), who wears a swastika bandana and doesn’t really do much but make racist comments; and finally Dirty Denny (Houston Savage), who comes off the most “true biker” of the lot, here in ‘Nam to check up on the whorehouse he opened and to in general raise some hell.

The movie opens in ‘Nam (aka the Philipines – and yes Vic Diaz shows up!), and there’s no flashback or anything to their previous life in the US, where we could actually see the Devil’s Advocates in biker action. Instead they show up and are given their orders, then it’s off to some godforsaken village where they can plan out the assault of the fortress in which the CIA asset is being held in Cambodia. The asset is named Chet Davis (director Jack Starrett himself), and our heroes know going in that they’ll be greatly outnumbered by VC and Chinese soldiers. But the place is only accessible via dirt bikes, so they go about the business of arming and armoring their motorcycles; Limpy gets an armored trike which looks cool but not nearly as sci-fi as depicted on the film poster. However way too much runtime is given over to various subplots; love is truly in the air for these grungy bikers, with both Duke and Limpy falling in love with local gals. Limpy’s subplot in particular is goofy because the girl in question is just some random hooker he picks up in Dirty Denny’s old bordello…and she has a kid! Sure we get some toplessness here, and I’ll never complain about that, but it’s hard to buy these badass bikers getting so lovey-dovey. Even harder to buy that Limpy’s new girl is actually the old girlfriend of their army contact, Capt. Jackson (Bernie Hamilton)…and that Jackson’s the father of the hooker’s kid!! This goofy-ass subplot reveal isn’t even much exploited.

I found a good bit of The Losers to be hard going. There’s an interminable bit where Dirty Denny goes nuts in his old bordello and raises hell; apparently this wasn’t far from the actor’s normal life, with “Houston Savage” often getting in trouble in the Philipines. He was mysteriously murdered about a year after this film was released – eerily enough, in much the same way his character in the film meets his fate. And yes, that Dirty Dozen riff in the film poster is pretty much a tip-off, as it’s clear going in there will be some biker casualties. Starrett really unleashes hell in the finale, with the armed bikes running roughshod over the Cambodian village. But there’s a definite “war is hell” vibe that gets in the way of the fun, with as mentioned shots of innocent kids getting gunned down in the melee. Indeed the film ends with a maudlin montage of various bloody deaths from the film while sad music plays, the producers clearly trying to decry man’s inhummanity to man…but meanwhile check out this cool machine gun on my motorcycle! As John Lennon declared years after starring in How I Won The War, it’s impossible to make an anti-war film. Sort of like how Hollywood elites are so anti-gun…yet fetishize guns in their damn movies.

Even worse is the finale, which I found incredibly frustrating. For one the assault on the village peters out too quickly. We have some explosions and racing around and some casualties for our heroes, and then Link gets into the tent in which Chet Davis is being held. And proceeds to start arguing with him. With egregious stuff like Link complaining about how bikers back home just want to “feel free,” and Chet Davis bluntly stating that he “represents America.” And meanwhile a minor-scale war’s still going on out there in the village! Davis proves to be a very ungrateful rescuee, trying to run away from Link and get him killed. Hell, during a later firefight he even tell Link he hopes he’s killed. Apparently in the backstory Davis got Link and his men arrested for being bikers or somesuch; I sort of lost the thread on this because I was so irritated by it all. The finale is also goofy with the US army showing up and sort of shooting at the VC and whatnot while Link, Davis, and the surviving bikers make their slow way to the border, with Davis again going out of his way to get the bikers killed. Anyway I’ve meant to watch this one for years, even got the DVD over a decade ago, but have only now watched it – and I really only liked some of it. And finally I think I’m bound by law to also point out that Quentin Tarantino featured a brief clip of this movie in Pulp Fiction; it’s the movie the annoying French girl was watching in the Bruce Willis segment of the film.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dr. Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #100)

Dr. Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1975  Award Books

This was the first of two volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster written by the mysterious author Will Murray designated as “Craig Nova” in his landmark Killmaster article, in the The Armchair Detective (volume 15, number 4, 1982). But as mentioned in the comments section of my review of the other “Nova” installment, The Nichovev Plot, it appears that the real Craig Nova disputes this and says neither book was written by him. So we either have a case where it’s just some other writer of the same name, or Will Murray was perhaps given some bad info. In instances like this I just assume J.D. Salinger wrote the book. (Plus there’s a scene where Killmaster dreams he’s standing in a field of rye!! Okay I made that up.)

The paperback itself is stuffed to the gills: we’ve got the title story Dr. Death for the first 160-some pages, followed by Run, Spy, Run, which was the first volume of the series. After that we’ve got a reprint of an original pulp-era Nick Carter tale. But as with the final volume, I’m assuming Dr. Death got the vaunted “100th volume” spot just out of sheer luck, as there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it. Like Dragon Slay, it’s really just business as usual, with Nick Carter – who now narrates the tale for us – going about the latest globe-spanning espionage case.

But it’s just “Carter,” now; gone is the “Nick” of the earlier, Lyle Kenyon Engel-produced years. Only the women who are about to hop in bed with him refer to our narrator as “Nick.” Killmaster would still be referred to by his last name when the series switched back to third-person narration in the mid-‘80s, but I kinda prefer the casual “Nick” of the ‘60s installments. Not that any other sane person would give a damn about such trivialities. Also the gadgets have been whittled down; Carter himself just sticks to his trusty trio of Wilhelmina (the Luger), Hugo (the stiletto), and Pierre (the gas bomb), and the plentiful gadgetry of the Engel years is gone. Strangely though, Carter’s two companions have all the gadgets, even though one of them’s the enforcer for a Chinese tong and the other’s an AXE stringer agent.

The title I found to be very misleading: “Dr. Death” gives connotations of some super villain Killmaster will go up against, sort of like the Mr. Judas of yore. But the titular doctor is an elderly Frenchman whose nickname was given to him back in World War II due to his skills with explosives; now he’s the head of some underwater weaponry research project and he’s been abducted by the OAS, a fascist French terrorist group composed of former soldiers. So Dr. Death is actually a victim, not a villain, and it’s another of those times where I assume the writer was catering to an already-devised title and plot and just failed spectacularly to reap the potential. I mean if you title a friggin’ book Dr. Death, you put a friggin’ Dr. Death in it! It’s not rocket science, is it?

Anyway the dude’s named Dr. Duroche and Carter is informed by a typically-gruff Hawk (who as ever has called his top agent away from his latest sex-filled holiday romp) that Duroche was on the tip of some groundbreaking underwater weaponry work. Whoever has him has issued some threats and the concern is all of the US’s offshore oil rigs will be destroyed. Carter when we meet him is in Tangier, meeting up with an old French intelligence contact named Remy. True to the lurid trappings of mid-‘70s Nick Carter, the meeting takes place in a “hashish club” with a hotbod brunette doing a strip dance in the background. Whoever this author is, he (or she?) is truly a gifted writer, bringing people and places to life with aplomb.

Remy does the heavy lifting of informing Carter of this latest threat, which means that his plot function has been fulfilled and he’s expendable – and true to staple a couple guys with Sten guns barge into the club and start blasting. “Nova” has successfully worked in the hot dancer throughout this scene, with her sexual gyrations increasingly distracting Carter and Remy, to the point that she’s half-nude when the bullets start flying and soon she’s got blood all over her suddenly-bared breasts. This sequence ends with a nicely-handled surprise reveal where the dancer turns out to be a chacter that’s integral to the plot. As with The Nichovev Plot, the violence might be intermitent but when it happens it’s very gory, with Remy’s head exploding and showering blood and brains everywhere. 

Soon Carter is aligned with lovely young Michelle Duroche, daughter of Dr. Death – the nickname, by the way, rarely if ever used in the actual novel – and they run into another trap; Carter has some acquaintance here in Tangier and figures he can use the guy’s club as a safe house, but enters through the rat-infested secret tunnel to find his friend tortured half to death. He takes out the torturers and gets a few clues from his dying friend, and then it’s off to the more pressing concern: sex with Michelle Duroche. I can’t recall how explicit the previous installment from this author was, but this one goes for more of a lyrical and metaphorical approach, with lines like, “Secret female places of her body opened to me.”

We do get the firm understanding that Michelle is practically insatiable, and she’ll serve as Carter’s prime female companion throughout the novel. Unfortunately though there’s nothing much memorable about her character. The other main female character is a lithe Chinese gal named Li-Chen, who has much more sparkle to her character, trading one-liners with Carter even when bullets are flying. Initially she appears as a potential threat, tailing Carter and Michelle as they make the long flight back to DC so Carter can meet with Hawk. Soon enough we learn that Li-Chen is part of a major Chinese family, aka a crime tong, and she’s here to represent the family, which has a vested interest in many of those offshore oil rigs that have been threatened. Even more ridiculously, Li-Chin – who you won’t be surprised to know is a kung fu “mistress” – has vast resources at her disposal, including gadgets like earrings that serve as radios.

Li-Chen doesn’t properly enter the narrative until the action moves to Puerto Rico, where the author gives the novel a bit of a horror vibe – again, similar to in The Nichovev Plot. Various plot contrivances have Carter looking into a leper colony, and we’re treated to a late-night sequence in which he enters the nightmarish compound and starts grilling some poor deformed guy who is missing some of his limbs. It’s all very Island Of Lost Souls as a group of lepers try to kill Carter, some of them armed with knives but most of them just reaching out to touch him, as they’re contagious and could Carter himself into a leper. This is where Li-Chen makes her big appearance, wiping out leper-creatures with her Sue Shiomi skills.

Surprisingly though, the author holds off on the expected shenanigans between Carter and Li-Chen; instead he goes back to his hotel for some off-page stuff with Michelle. She is jealous of Li-Chen but grudgingly gives in to Carter’s insistence that Li-Chen will be helping them out now. Another new character is introduced here, more interesting than any of them: Sweets Hunter, a black AXE stringer who owns a boat and has a fondness for chocolate, hence his nickname. He also has a host of gadgets, including a necklace with beads that are actually mini-grenades. Sweets is given more personality than any of the characters, and what with him and the similarly-memorable Li-Chen it’s like Carter is a guest star in his own novel.

The final third takes place in Martanique, where the OAS have headquartered themselves in a volcano, an element that’s almost casually handled. Instead more focus is placed on the Mardi Gras that occurs outside while Carter and team discuss their plans inside a restaurant. Soon enough garrishly-costumed celebrants come in, separate the group…and make off with Michelle. This sequence does feature the memorable image of Carter blowing away men in papier mache animal masks. But “Nova” pulls a fast one on readers; Carter and Li-Chen stage an assault on the OAS HQ, and after blowing away a few soldiers they’re caught and are taken to the OAS leader. Here Carter learns that one of his comrades was really a traitor all along, but what’s annoying about it is that we learn Carter’s already figured this out, without the reader being aware of it, and has devised a backup plan.

Thus Carter and Li-Chen just stand there smugly while an off-page Sweets runs amok in inside the OAS compound, blowing up computers with his mini-grenades. Hell, Carter even informs the OAS boss that he’s called in the army – again without the reader being aware of it until this very moment. It just all comes off like lazy deus ex machina, made all the worse by the fact that Sweets, a one-off character, does all the heavy lifting while the series protagonist just stands there. Indeed the big climax isn’t very, uh, climactic, with Carter and comrades escaping the HQ bunker while gas-bomb Pierre kills everyone unlucky enough to be stuck in there. Then we have Carter in scuba gear and chasing after that former comrade who has been revealed to be an enemy, dishing out payback with his stiletto.

We of course learn that Li-Chen and Carter will be hopping into bed soon, but at this point Dr. Death comes to a close, and on a dour note at that, with a former comrade now turned into shark food. But overall Dr. Death is competently written and fairly fast moving, though it lacks the fun charm of the Engel years. I guess the greater mystery is who wrote the damn thing. There is something vaguely familiar about the writing style, so maybe it was just one of the usual Killmaster writing stable who somehow got misattributed by Will Murray when he researched the series. Probably we’ll never know.

Finally, the book features what I believe is called a stepback cover; here is the uncredited painting of Killmaster on the inner cover:

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Scarred Man

The Scarred Man, by Basil Heatter
June, 1973  Fawcett Gold Medal

Treading a similar path as another Fawcett Gold Medal biker novel, The Blood Circus, The Scarred Man comes off like one of those men’s adventure magazine bikersploitation yarns taken to novel length – and if the excerpts in Wyatt Doyle and Bob Deis’s awesome Barbarians On Bikes are any indication, many of those men’s mag biker stories were indeed first-person yarns about vets taking on bikers. Basil Heatter was a veteran pulp writer, and I’ve picked up a few of his paperbacks, but this is the first one I’ve actually read. He definitely has all the skills to be admired in a veteran pulp writer, delivering a lean, taut tale with memorable characters. The only misstep is that the final third seems to come from a completely different novel.

As I read The Scarred Man I was under the impression Heatter was British; the characters use the occasional British-ism (ie “bloody,” or an inordinate fondess for the adverb “quite”), and in general the narrative style gives off the vibe of British pulp. Plus there’s the name “Basil.” But Heatter was American, and his characters here are also Americans: William Shaw, a 40 year-old “brilliant young corporate lawyer from New York,” narrates the story for us, which given internal evidence takes place between September and November of 1972. Shaw is a veteran of the Korean War and now lives basically the life of a men’s mag protagonist, going on random global adventures with his beautiful 30 year-old wife Stacey. Their current getaway is a ketch they’ve bought near Miami, with plans to take it on a cruise to Jamaica.

But when the story opens Stacey and Shaw have decided on the spur of the moment to rent a Honda motorcycle and go riding through the Everglades. The Honda breaks down and Shaw has to fix it in the dark; just as it’s fixed they see a trio of bikers go along the road. When Shaw and Stacey get the Honda moving, they round a corner and find the three bikers waiting for them in ambush. They’re all on chopped Harleys but I’m not sure what sort of self-respecting outlaw bikers they are, given that they each wear leather jackets and helmets with the visors down. Shaw crashes to avoid hitting them, and then the nightmare begins; the brawny biker boss smashes Shaw in the head with a chain, knocking him into a stupor, and then he and his buddies get down to the business of gang-raping Stacy. Or as the big biker puts it, “We’re just gonna fuck your little chick.”

One thing that undoes The Scarred Man in this opening quarter is the snarky, ironic sense of humor in Shaw’s narration, which jars against the nightmarish aspects of the plot. For example Shaw wakes up in the hospital after passing out from the blow to the head, and he’s making ironic comments in his narration about being hounded by traffic cops in the afterlife. The reader’s like, “I know laughter’s the best medicine and all, but dude your wife was just gang-raped two pages ago!” This jarring humor wears out its welcome, but curiously disappears once Stacey’s left the narrative. In hindsight I wondered if all this was intentional and Heatter’s motive was that Shaw’s humor was a way of masking his true feelings over Stacey, her fate, and his own guilt. This could be it, as Heatter is definitely a quality writer, but still the ironic humor doesn’t sit right when you’re actually reading the book.

Shaw for his part now has a scar on his face, and presumably he’s the “scarred man” of the title (though confusingly a villain later in the book also has a scarred face), but Heatter doesn’t much describe the scar nor bring much attention to it throughout the book. For a couple months Shaw and Stacey try to rebuild their life, with Stacey slowly coming out of her catatonic shell. There’s a nicely-handled sequence where Stacey comes to Shaw’s bed one night – the first time she’s done so since the rape two months before – but Shaw pretends to be asleep, too wrapped up in his own hangups. She says nothing and gets back into her own bed. When Shaw comes back from getting breakfast the next morning, he discovers that Stacey has jumped off the balcony of their hotel suite to her death 18 floors below. After taking care of the funeral, Shaw gets around to what he’s subconsciously known he was going to do from the beginning: hunt down the three bikers and kill them.

Heatter as mentioned is a skilled writer, and he successfully works Shaw’s law background into the revenge scheme. While the cops seem unable to find out who raped Stacey, stating that there are too many outlaw biker clubs tearing through Florida, Shaw takes matters into his own hands. He reads about a gang that’s gotten in trouble down south, almost running over a little kid. Shaw flies down there – to represent the bikers in court. The club is called the Beaks and their leader, a cruel-looking bastard named Stud, distrusts this lawyer who claims to want to represent the Beaks at no expense. But Shaw ends up winning his trust and, hating himself for it, gets the Beaks exonerated on all charges, save for the biker who nearly ran over the kid – and he manages to just get that one a light jail sentence.

This succeeds in getting into Stud’s good graces, and Shaw starts hanging out with the club, hoping to get info. A problem with The Scarred Man is that coincidence too often comes into play; sure enough, Stud starts boasting about how women “want to be raped” by bikers, especially that one time in the Everglades when Stud and two buddies came across a guy and his girl on a Honda… Heatter plays out Stud’s fate in flashback sequences, with Shaw having drawn him alone into the Everglades and blowing his knee out with a .38. Here Shaw will grill Stud on who the other two rapists were and then blow his head off.

The action moves to Boston, which opens with an otherwise-random bit that I found very interesting from the perspective of 40-plus years later:

Here Shaw buys himself a chopper (which isn’t much described) and gets some biker clothes at the Army-Navy store; he completes the look with an “Indian headband.” There’s some good dialog here with various one-off characters wondering what the hell straight-looking Shaw is up to. This section of the book is really the only true “biker fiction” part of the entire novel. Thanks to Stud’s info Shaw has learned that one of the perpetrators was a biker named Soldier, who likely will be up here to take part in the East Coast Rallies, held in New Hampshire. Shaw gets on his chopper and joins up with the army of bikers that have descended on the small town that’s hosting the event – and again, coinicidence be damned, he strikes gold fairly quickly, finding himself singled out by a suspicious biker named Tiny. 

Gradually Shaw works his way into Tiny’s group, among them Tiny’s sixteen year-old mama, Pearly, and also a mysterious blond biker with a slight build but hard eyes. Pearly emerges as the most memorable character in the novel; she’s the first girl to get close to Shaw since Stacey, proving herself to be wise beyond her years – not that 40 year-old Shaw has any sexual designs on the teenaged girl. Instead Heatter succeeds in giving this more of an emotional resonance, with Pearly breaking through the icy façade Shaw has built for himself. There’s also nicely-done dialog about how her dad back home is more worried about the TV reception than where his daughter is.

The townspeople are terrified of the bikers, the local law trying to segregate them in a remote camping site, and soon enough it boils over and the assembled bikers are as “stirred up as Apaches on a rampage.” They descend on the town, and here Heatter too quickly brings this sequence to a close; that mysterious blond biker at Tiny’s side is Soldier, of course, and Shaw gets his revenge by challenging him to a chopper joust. But even here coincidence intervenes again – a random dog runs out in front of Soldier’s bike and proves his undoing. It’s little things like this that keep The Scarred Man from greatness; Shaw should be the deliverer of bloody payback, not some poor little dog that gets in Soldier’s way.

For some reason the final third drops the whole biker angle and goes for a marina mystery vibe; now it’s a taut thriller as Shaw heads for Jamaica on his ketch with a pretty jet-setting blonde named Mary Caldwell. And when I say the biker angle is dropped I mean it’s dropped. It’s almost as if Heatter is using the finale of some earlier, unpublished yarn and has just clumsily welded it to his biker revenge story. To say it’s dissatisfying would be an understatement. Shaw’s gotten to this point due to the final lead Stud gave him – the third and final biker is named Skid, and all Stud knew was that Skid was from somewhere in the Palm Beach area. Surprisingly, Shaw makes nothing out of the fact that all three bikers have a name that starts with “S” (as does Shaw himself – at least his last name), and also it seems ridiculous that Shaw was just in Miami and then went to Boston before coming back down to Florida.

Again it’s all like a completely different novel; Shaw goes into a notorious bar owned by a guy named Red, who dispenses drugs from upstairs, and makes up some story about having a line on a few hundred pounds of “Jamaican Gold.” The belabored setup has it that Shaw’s heard some guy named Skid is good for acting as security on drug deals, and he wants Red’s help in finding him. All very ridiculous and overly-complicated, and again just seems like Heatter had another unfinished story laying around that he decided to weld onto the end of this one. After meeting with Shaw encounters the lovely Mary Caldwell, who comes over to visit him at his ketch; she’s worldly and beautiful and claims to be Skid’s sister. Again Shaw finds himself becoming attracted to a woman for the first time since losing Stacey.

Eventually it builds to Mary and Shaw on the ketch, bound for Jamaica; Mary claims that Skid’s actually there, Heatter at this point deciding to go all-out with the coincidental nonsense. But he’s also peppered enough foreshadowing into this sequence that the reader kind of has an idea where it’s going. This sequence is also the most gory in the novel, with Red showing up to pull a heist on Shaw’s (nonexistent) drug money and Mary coming to the defense with a pistol. But the big “surprise” reveal just falls flat – as mentioned the reader at this point has a good idea who Skid is, and the inevitable comeuppance isn’t suitably retributive. There’s also stuff here that would offend the readers of our #metoo era, with declarations that Stacey enjoyed her gang-raping.

All in all, The Scarred Man makes for a fun read, but I definitely enjoyed the biker portions more than anything else. Heatter puts in enough biker details that you suspect he consulted an issue or two of Easyrider Magazine. The sequence in New Hampshire with the biker rally is especially entertaining, not to mention Shaw’s dialog with young Pearly, but it’s resolved too quickly – especially when you consider that the final sequence isn’t nearly as entertaining. But as mentioned Heatter’s writing is skilled and economical and he successfully pulls the reader along, though there is a strange tendency to randomly slip into present-tense at times; this happens on page 65, at the New Hampshire rally, and comes and goes so quickly in the narrative that I assume it had to be something Heatter missed in the editing stage.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Specialist #10: Beirut Retaliation

The Specialist #10: Beirut Retaliation, by John Cutter
August, 1985  Signet Books

The penultimate volume of The Specialist unfortunately loses all the oddball touches John Shirley imbued the previous ones with; Beirut Retaliation is for the most part a standard “terrorist of the week” yarn that would’ve been at home in the Gold Eagle line of books. Previous installments featured such pulpy aspects as Jack “The Specialist” Sullivan gaining super strength and even killing subway trolls with throwing stars, but this one doesn’t feature any of that, and in fact comes off as pretty dispirited. Maybe Shirley knew the writing was on the wall for the series and just phoned this one in.

It’s about three months after the previous volume and when we reconnect with Sullivan he’s on a flight to Beirut. For the past few months he’s headed up Project Scalpel, a Defense Department initiative that’s been created to revenge terrorist attacks on the US. Sullivan we’re told has never taken a contract from the US government, or any government, but in this case he has made an exception; over 200 Marines were killed by radical Islamic terrorists in Beirut three months ago, and Sullivan’s burning with the desire to dish out bloody payback. Shirley saves us the trouble of reading all the red tape and planning Sullivan’s had to go through to get here, doling out chunks of backstory in various flashbacks.

I’m probably the only men’s adventure reader in history who kept wondering, “Yeah, but what about that little girl Sullivan adopted in the last volume?” Shirley does bother to fill us in on that, eventually, in another of those flashbacks – a flashback in which he almost perfunctorily dispenses with that other series mainstay, Sullivan’s hardcore shenanigans with his latest girlfriend. This is Bonnie, who lives in Manhattan and I believe first appeared in the second volume, but I was too lazy in my review back then to note the name of the main female character in it. I think it was Bonnie. Anyway, she’s now becoming more of Sullivan’s “main woman,” to the point that our hero’s afraid he’s falling in love. In the flashback he visits Bonnie, who is the official guardian of little Melinda, who as we’ll recall Sullivan rescued in the previous volume.

Sullivan’s brought the little girl a Cabbage Patch Doll (which cost him eighty bucks!!), finally having gotten away from the busy prepping of Project Scalpel in DC, but Melinda’s in school. However Bonnie’s there, which makes for the prime opportunity for some “afternoon delight.” While previous volumes have featured (intentionally) comedic purple prose, this one’s basically over and done with in a few sentences, though we do get this memorable line: “[Sullivan] pumped and pounded like an M110 self-propelled howitzer.” Surprisingly, this will be it so far as Sullivan’s sexual activities go – save that is for a surprise bang late in the novel (which happens to be one of those precious few “oddball” moments). 

But all this was in the past; we meet Sullivan while he’s flying in to Beirut…and then a PLO terrorist tries to hijack the plane. In the incident depicted on the cover by artist Mel Crair, Sullivan’s able to bullshit his way into the cockpit, where he almost casually disposes of the terrorists. But he’s undercover, the secrecy of Project Scalpel of prime importance, so the nebbish businessman who was seated beside Sullivan is given credit for foiling the hijacking. This is a subplot Shirley later plays out, when the businessman – made famous by the media for his “heroic” actions – becomes a target of terrorists and Sullivan has to go to the rescue.

Sullivan’s hand-picked team for the Beirut retaliation features series staples Merlin and Rolff, commandoes who have helped Sullivan in previous exploits but who have now, for plot contrivances, gotten soft: Merlin’s “hooked” on marijuana and Rolff drinks all day. Then there’s Rialto Block, a tough black vet Sullivan fought with in ‘Nam; Sullivan’s recruiting of Block for Project Scalpel features an interminable flashback of Sullivan going into the “black Mafia” of Washington, DC and finding Block, who now acts as a mob enforcer. And finally there’s slackjawed yokel Boots Wilson, a southern racist who hates Block, and vice versa. And heading up Project Scalpel is military moron Colonel Mitchell, whose prime motivation is covering his own ass and ensuring that he keeps Sullivan in check. He’s also the one who insisted that Boots Wilson be part of the commando team.

In other words the team’s a mess, and Sullivan, who is particularly driven this time, blows a fuse when he sees what a shitty state they’re in. We take an unwanted detour into military fiction as Sullivan puts the team through hellish boot camp, pushing them into a self-sustaining unit. This does lead to one of the oddball touches that we took for granted in previous books: Boots, who takes off from the team after a grueling hike through the desert, runs afoul of “desert bandits.” Clearly inspired by the Sand People of Star Wars, they wear masked turbans and ride in Jeeps that have skulls on them. This leads to the best action scene in the book, as Sullivan and the others come to the rescue in armed dune buggies, climaxing with a gory sequence of Boots beating one of the bandits to death with his bare fists.

But otherwise Beirut Retaliation lacks the dark humor of the previous books, and just comes off like any other men’s adventure novel from the ‘80s. Even the villains are sadly typical: the Holy Warriors of Islam, who are known for using self-explosive devices to wipe out people, places, and things. And again we get a sad reminder of the progressive movement of radical Islam: Sullivan has to explain to his comrades that these particular terrorists don’t care about their own lives, and indeed look forward to martyring themselves if it means they can wipe out a bunch of innocents. They’re led by the mysterious Hassan the Red, so named because he wears a red turban; he claims to get his orders directly from Allah, and only informs his underlings of their latest target days before the attack will be scheduled. Hence, Sullivan and team know another attack is coming, they just don’t know where or when.

The bit with the nebbish businessman who took credit for the airplane rescue is another fun moment; he’s being kept in a bakery, and Sullivan and Moshe (a Mossad agent Sullivan’s worked with before) stagger in, pretending to be lepers. This part features Sullivan rushing through flames and fooling the superstitious terrorists into thinking he’s a demon from hell. Later in the book Sullivan looms over another captured terrorist, one that’s been drugged so that his body feels nothing, and pretends to be a ghost. Oh and the best bit of all is a random, eleventh hour sequence in which Sullivan takes the virginity of a pretty female terrorist they capture; when Moshe says no torture will make the girl talk, Sullivan says he has another idea in mind. Unfortunately brief, this sequence is on the level of other craziness in previous books: “[Sullivan] suddenly thrust deep within her once again and ground his dick into her sore, bloodied twat.” Good grief! But she’s game for it: “Having tasted a real man, she was a junkie for Sullivan.”

Otherwise too much of Beirut Retaliation is padding, with Sullivan and team going around Beirut and trying to get a lead on Hassan the Red’s plans. The climax involves them chasing after a four-man suicide party that’s planning to wipe out a US Navy ship in Alexandria, Egypt. The climax sees some dire repercussions for some of Sullivan’s team (spoiler alert – it’s none of the recurring characters), and even worse Hassan the Red escapes into Iran. The novel ends with Sullivan vowing to chase into Iran and wipe him out, government be damned. Sadly this means the next novel will continue with this bland Gold Eagle vibe – and even more sadly, the next volume would be the last. 

Bonus factoid: Each volume of The Specialist has featured a “next volume preview” sort of thing, excerpting a few pages of the next installment. We’re told in this one that the next volume will be titled “Iran Retaliation,” but the actual published title was American Vengeance. I’m curious if this sheering away of the pulp aspect and going for more of a blasé, generic “Muslim terrorist of the week” angle was due to the publisher…maybe sales were dwindling and they figured just aping Gold Eagle might help. If so, the plan failed.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Tropical Detective Story

Tropical Detective Story, by Raymond Mungo
No month stated, 1972  E.P. Dutton Books

A novel in only the loosest sense, Tropical Detective Story is a piece of hippie literature I picked up several years ago but am only now getting around to reading. Raymond Mungo was famous in the counterculture at the time for his nonfiction books about dropping out and starting a commune (Total Loss Farm, etc), but it would appear this publication didn’t resonate with readers as his previous ones had, never even garnering a paperback edition.

For some curious reason, Mungo here delivers what is a sequel to Total Loss Farm, but all character names are changed – he himself, though he narrates the novel and is cleary the same guy from the previous books, is now known as “Dennis Lunar.” I’ve not read Mungo’s other books but they must be a struggle if they’re as pretentiously “literary” as this one is. Mungo seems to have attempted a “Proust for the LSD Generation” or something, and any of the stuff you want from a novel – relatable characters, a sensible plot that builds to a resolution, etc – is not to be found here. Stuff just happens, characters and incidents are introduced with little setup or payoff, and nothing makes an impression on the reader.

Other, that is, than the annoying qualities of Dennis Lunar. As is typical with the other hippie lit books I read back in the day, our narrator is so obsessed with himself that he succeeds in invoking the reader’s wrath. So much of Tropical Detective Story is given over to ruminations on how love is the other side of hate, how hard it is to truly love someone, how love is this impossible concept…and I’m like of coure it is when all you think about is yourself twenty-four hours a day. But then the hippies were for the most part self-obessesed, and our narrator is no different from the other protagonists of the hippie lit I’ve read. Just be warned that, if you choose to struggle through this novel, you will be suffering 160-some pages of egregious navel-gazing.

The book is subheaded “The Flower Children Meet The Voodoo Chiefs,” and years ago when I first discovered this book while hunting for hippie literature I hoped it would be like a psychedelic adventure tale, with a sort of acid illuminati going up against voodoo practicioners or something. Maybe like a men’s adventure take on the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. But my friends no such luck. The subhead is just a lame in-joke because, later in the novel – and as usual without any plot development or resolution – we learn that “Lunar” is hired to write a script for Robert Redford (here too appearing under a pseudonym), and this is the title Lunar comes up with for it. We don’t even get an idea of what the friggin’ story’s about.

No, even the actual title itself has nothing to do with the novel Mungo delivers – “Tropical Detective Story” just being another random phrase Lunar comes up with in the course of his incessant navel-gazing and self-obsessing. Other contemporary reference points for this one would be Confessions Of A Hope Fiend, or even Shards Of God, but where both of those at least had stuff going on in them, ie plots and characters and action, Tropical Detective Story is basically just a prolonged ego-stroke. Whereas Leary and Sanders took their respective stories and mythologized them, providing a bit of fantasy with their psychedelia, Mungo delivers what is really just a nonfiction book about his travels around the world, with the middle section coming off like Brokeback Mountain for the Woodstock set.

Lunar hops around in time; the book opens with him in New York City, aka “The Moon,” reflecting back on a “crime” he committed last year, ie the Fall of 1970. The crime, we learn, is falling in love, and Lunar will act as a “detective” to figure out how the crime was committed. What we won’t learn for a while is that Lunar fell in love with a dude, a ranch hand type named Jake who doesn’t appear until the second half of the nove;. “I used to write books then,” states Lunar when briefly recounting his time at a commune farm he started in Vermont, apparently striving for a meta-fictional approach in that this pseudo-novel is a sequel to Total Loss Farm but never outright declares itself as such. Lunar claims he is guilty of “the sin of pride” and has committed “the crime of love,” and already within the first few pages we know the beating we’re about to endure.

First though we have this random trip to Europe Lunar takes with big and busty Eustacia Vye, presumably a recurring character from the previous book(s). While it would appear these two were in a solid relationship earlier, now it’s on the rocks, and they spend the first leg of the trip to Europe on bad vibes. There’s copious dopesmoking and acid-dropping throughout, but Mungo doesn’t really get into the details, likely because he assumed his readers were in a similar state of chemical influence. Using Lunar’s dwindling proceeds from his previous book, the two hook up with some other girl named Marie and hopscotch around Europe, Mungo doing precious little to bring the characters, situations, or locations to life.

There’s also a lot of messiness to the plot, such as it is – we’re told that Eustacia “loses her mind” in Belgrade after a fight with Lunar and takes off, yet without any explanation she’s still with him and Marie when they visit the next country. But it’s like that throughout, as if Mungo did a couple tabs and hit the typewriter and then sent the publisher his first draft. Lunar of course finds the opportunity to make it with both women – each of whom are grossly undescribed – but surprisingly it’s all left off page. I say this because a lot of the hippie lit I’ve read had some hardcore shenanigans in it. Not so here. Indeed, there’s a part where Lunar lays in bed between the two women, knowing he could have either (or both!) of them, but decides not to partake. This is a definite “hmmm” moment which will have repercussions later.

The Europe stuff just sort of drags on, culminating in a trip to Scotland where the gang hangs out with a rich guy named Jason. Here during an LSD trip Lunar sees a dead friend come to life, a guy named Fox who took his own life the year before. This too will have repercussions later. Finally Lunar returns to America, hanging out again on the commune farm, and here’s where the Brokeback Mountain stuff begins. In another “hmmm” moment which will pan out, a guy named Jake is given more description and setup than any female character in the novel, indicating that he has captured the author’s eye more than anyone else. For my friends it will turn out that Lunar has been “hetero-hiding” all his life and suddenly wants us to know he’s in love with studly ranch hand-type Jake. 

Humorously though, this homoerotic obsession is not shared. In brazen disregard of the identity politics that would one day consume the progressive movement, Jake points out that Lunar can’t be in love with him…because, you know, he and Jake are both men. I find this stuff interesting because it shows that even the progressive movement of the past would be deemed conservative when compared to the progressive movement of today. But I guess that’s “progress,” so to speak, and it makes one wonder how much more progressive the movement will ultimately become – I’m assuming Greg Egan type stuff with multiple genders. Anyway, Lunar is not to be swayed, and spends the rest of the novel badgering Jake with his declarations of love. For some inexplicable reason, Jake goes along with him on his next round of adventures around the world, despite showing no interest in giving in to Lunar’s homosexual advances.

First we have the mentioned bit with the Robert Redford analogue hiring Lunar to write a script. We don’t get much about this and don’t find out what happens with it. Nor is a big deal made out of how Lunar has become a darling of the elites; he flies to New York to meet with his agent and has a few meetings with the Redford stand-in, but absolutely nothing’s made of any of it. But then Lunar flies around the globe so much that it just comes off as yet another brief stop on his interminable trip. Marie from the earlier section shows up at the farm in Vermont, but now she’s no longer Lunar’s soul-mate (that’s Jake, now); instead she too has a thing for Jake! This would seem to set up a bizarre love triangle, but (and you shouldn’t be surprised at such a statement now) Mungo does nothing to exploit it.

Eventually Lunar and Jake go to Costa Rica, then to Panama, where dead friend Fox again appears – this time in “a new body.” After a “second voodoo attack” (ie a bad trip), Lunar is stunned to see dead Fox Rosen now posing as “Louis Caprichio, poet of obscure US background” who happens to live down here in Panama. This is also around the time that Jake and Lunar’s “karmic struggle” has caused an earthquake in South America, their war of wills – Lunar badgering Jake for some gay sex, Jake saying “no thanks” – actually affecting the Earth itself! But things cool down with the arrival of Fox-Louis, who by the way has no knowledge of Fox Rosen, of course – but Lunar and Jake insist he is their dead pal reborn in a new form, and thus Louis Caprichio is referred to as “Fox” throughout. 

Lunar and Jake achieve some sort of LSD gnosis and Lunar seems to imply they might’ve done the deed after all, or at least there’s no need for them to screw because they’ve achieved some sort of oneness or something. Really I don’t know what the hell to think. Anyway the action moves to New York City, where Lunar befriends the mysterious Zagg, a young mage with heavy duty acid that kills the ego. Here we get nonsensical, unexplored surreal bits like Lunar and Jake discovering they can “become invisible” at will and running around town. Zagg is by far the most interesting character on display, but – have you guessed it yet? – Mungo does little to explore the character or bring him to life.

Tropical Detective Story features one of the most humorously random “climaxes” I’ve ever read; after his acid-borne self-awareness, courtesy Zagg’s drugs, Lunar hops on a cargo boat with a newly-introduced fellow hippie named Tresspasser’s Will. Their destination: The Far East. Their mission: To defend US currency against the ever-strengthening yen!! I’m not joking, that’s really how the novel ends. Presumably Mungo planned a follow-up, but I’d wager given the failure of this one to draw in a sufficient audience no further adventures ever materialized for Dennis Lunar.

As a piece of hippie lit, Tropical Detective Story at least scores in that it shows where the headspaces of hippies were in the late ‘60s. But as a novel it’s a grand failure; Mungo seems at times to be attempting a Nog sort of stream-of-conscious thing, while also doing his “Proust for the LSD generation” thing, but neither aspect is sufficiently developed to make an impact on the reader. I’m assuming Mungo’s straight-up nonfiction books are better – I mean, they’d have to be. He is a good writer, though, at least in the flair of the prose itself, it’s just that I was hoping for an actual novel – particularly one about friggin’ Flower Children facing off against Voodoo Chiefs!