Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Lone Wolf #1: Night Raider

The Lone Wolf #1: Night Raider, by Mike Barry
October, 1973  Berkley Medallion Books

About five or six years ago Marty McKee hooked me up with the full run of the Lone Wolf series, all 14 volumes, an incredibly nice thing of him to do. On his Craneshot blog he only reviewed a few of the volumes, but told me he’d read all of them and knew they’d be right up my alley. I of course thanked him for it…and for whatever reason kept putting off actually reading the series, even though he’d occasionally ask me via email when I was going to get around to it. All I can say is I’m incredibly lazy…but man, juding from this first volume, Marty knew what he was talking about.

In some ways, again just judging from this first one, Lone Wolf comes off like a surreal spoof of the men’s adventure genre. To specify, I mean of course the ‘70s version of men’s adventure, ie sleazy crime yarns instead of the “commandos vs commies” men’s adventure of the ‘80s. To be sure, Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg doesn’t play it too much on the nose, but the careful reader can clearly see that he’s mocking the conventions. And in many ways, Night Raider also comes off like a play on The Hunter; just as the hero in that first Parker novel worked his way up the rungs of the Outfit to get his money back, each confrontation coming off more and more like Hunter climbing the corporate ladder, so too does hero Burt Wulff work his way from the foot soldiers of the heroin trade up to the corporate bigwigs who run the show. Actually the similiarity is more to Point Blank, ie that surreal film version of The Hunter, with a strange vibe to everything.

Malzberg doesn’t waste time with backstory, which is one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about ‘70s men’s adventure. First of all though, there’s no mention in the text that Wulff has white streaks in his hair, per Mel Crair’s awesome cover. (Crair had a thing for painting action heroes with white streaks in their hair; a decade later he’d do the same thing on The Specialist). All we know is that Wulff is tall and like 200+ pounds of muscle. We get a brief, almost terse prologue in which we learn that Wulff’s a ‘Nam vet who became a cop, worked on the “narco” section, then got in trouble with the brass because he busted an informant. While they were trying to figure out what to do with him, they temporarily assigned him back on squad car duty, pairing him with a young black cop named Williams. On their very first night out together, they received a call to check on an OD in a Manhattan brownstone – only for Wulff to find the corpse of his girlfriend, Marie. Wulff starts ranting that the drug-dealers killed her, throws away his badge, and storms out of the house, plotting his revenge.

Now it’s three months later and Wulff has “hit the streets to kill a lot of people.” What’s curious is that Night Raider does not address the murder of Marie, nor even if she was a junkie in the first place. The entire topic is off-limits for Wulff; Marie’s name is only mentioned once or twice, and late in the novel when Williams tries to bring it up Wulff tells him to drop it and never mention her again. What we readers learn is that the mob – at least the portion of the mob Wulff hits this time – had nothing to do with Marie’s death. In fact one mobster seems to know what happened to her, and says the circumstances of her death were “another thing entirely,” but again Wulff isn’t listening and the backstory is left vague. As the novel progressed I started to suspect Wulff himself might’ve killed her, because it's soon clear he isn’t playing with a full deck.

We aren’t talking “full psychotic” like Bronson or Magellan, but still, throughout the novel Wulff will say stuff like “I died three months ago,” and constantly thinks of himself as a dead man. But what makes it strange is that there’s no effort at all on Malzberg’s part to bring Wulff’s murdered girlfriend to life – no backstory for her, whether her OD was a murder or just a bad fix because she was a junkie and Wulff’s in denial. Otherwise Wulff is more akin to Joe Madden in his carefully-plotted course of revenge, and the series itself is similar to The Vigilante, but with less of a “how-to” sort of vibe. I mean in The Vigilante, we’re with Madden every step of the way as he begins his war against murderers and criminals and whatnot. In this one, Wulff has already done his share of killing in ‘Nam, and now looks forward to breaking the rules he had to follow as a cop.

Malzberg brings grungy ‘70s New York to life in the pages of this book; in many ways it’s reminiscent of Len Levinson’s work of the period, only replacing Len’s goofy charm with a strange surreal edge. And a darker one; New York is a hellzone, the barbarians already over the gates and just a matter of time, in Wulff’s view, until the entire city spirals into crime and corruption. There’s a part late in the book where Wulff hides out in a dingy furnished room on West 97th, and the surroundings outside his window look to Wulff like a wartorn country. Many of these ‘70s crime novels capture the malaise of New York, but Night Raider goes further than most, though again the implication is that it’s all filtered through Wulff’s viewpoint. And also it adds to the surreal vibe of the novel.

Marty’s reviews indicate that eventually the Lone Wolf books will become even more surreal, more immersed in Wulff’s headspace. That’s already apparent here; there are frequent cutaways to minor characters, with pages being padded out with their thoughts. This is the same thing Marc Olden is known for, particularly in his Narc books. It’s not as egregious in this one, but I can see where it might eventually become a problem…same as it did in the Narc books. I guess these men’s adventure authors start off strong when the concept is fresh, but over time have to almost desperately pad the pages to meet their deadlines. At the very least Malzberg doesn’t seem to just be arbitrarily page-filling this time, as there’s a definite sense he has something grand in mind for the series. I do know the last volume reaches a definite conclusion, and it seems likely Malzberg has it in mind from this very first installment, particularly given Wulff’s fatalistic resolve.

At any rate Wulff sets off on his vengeance quest with nothing more than his service revolver, a .38 that has both a silencer and a safety! This is put to use in what passes for the novel’s first action scene; Wulff easily slips into the car of a guy who is on the lower rung of the drug trade – he collects cash from a pusher and moves it on up the line. Wulff manages to get the pusher in the car, too, occasionally beating the two men around so they know he means business. Once he gets the desired intel – throughout the novel Wulff’s sole quest is to understand how the drug trade operates – Wulff finds himself on a precipice. He could leave both men be and get out of the car, or he could take out his gun and kill them both. If he does the latter, he knows, it will set him on a course he’ll never be able to change. Of course, several more volumes were to follow, so he blows them both away.

Here we get to the Hunter vibe; the next guy in the chain waits in a bar for the cash-collector to come to him, and after savaging him a bit Wulff gets the name of the next guy up the line: Marasco, who lives in a big house on Long Island. Strangely Wulff goes in without a gun and proceeds to have a conversation with Marasco…this after Marasco has had a flunky killed, right in front of Wulff. Initially I thought all this was a ruse on Wulff’s part, but he really gets up tries to simply walk out, as if they’ll just let him leave! Instead Marasco has his blond-haired thug take Wulff and put him in his handy basement chamber. Speaking of which there’s more dark comedy in the relationship between Marasco and the blonde thug; the latter is a bit of an idiot, and there’s a lot of humorous banter between the two, with Marasco openly mocking him.

My only real issue with Night Raider is Wulff’s escape here just comes off as a bit lame – I mean he really goes into Marasco’s house-fortress without a weapon. Instead he realizes that the glue used in the construction of Marasco’s house is cheap and burns easily(!?) and succeeds in starting a fire and burning down the house. So it’s not a gun-blazing action scene. Nor is Wulff’s eventual encounter with the blond thug, who comes along with another guy to drop the hammer on Wulff in revenge. Speaking of familiar faces, Wulff’s former partner Williams also comes by, having tracked down Wulff, and offers to be his inside man – to help Wulff do the stuff cops can’t do. Wulff immediately turns down the offer, but Williams sort of succeeds in talking sense into him, though this scene is not played for sap at all. Williams does end up helping out Wulff in the finale, giving him the plans to another mobster’s house.

That’s another issue I had with the book. There’s no big finale, and Malzberg blows any potential for suspense; we read that this latest mobster’s house blows up…and then in the next chapter we flash back a few days to see how Wulff goes about the painstaking process of planning and executing the job. And yes, that’s two mobster houses Wulff manages to destroy in the course of one book, which comes off as a bit repetitive. The novel concludes with Wulff pulling a sniper job on some other minor figure of the drug world and taking a list from his corpse; this list, we’re to understand, will tell him where to go next. But as mentioned there’s no resolve to the death of his girlfriend, nothing but a vague sense that there’s much more to that particular story than what we’ve been told.

Really Night Raider is more of a piece with the average crime novel of the ‘70s, with less of the vibe of, say, The Executioner. Even The Vigilante is more action-focused. Malzberg’s writing is key, though; there’s a darkly humorous undercurrent to everything, not to mention the surreal edge I’ve mentioned way too many times now. There’s a promise here that the series will build into something very memorable…I don’t want to blow any surprises, but I do know the series heads for a memorable conclusion, at least, so it will be fun to see how we get there. Thanks again to Marty!

And finally, is it just me or does it look like Wulff’s blowing away famous impressionist Rich Little on the cover?? “That’s what I thought of your Carson impression, prick!”


Jerry House said...

The Lone Wolf series may best be viewed as a 14-volume novel and a deconstruction of the men's action adventure genre. IMHO. Malzberg, a brilliant writer in ordinary circumstances, outdoes himself in this series.

Marty McKee said...

I'll be honest -- I can't tell if this series is good or not, if Malzberg was either putting us on or just grinding out words to hit a page count. I'd like to believe the Lone Wolf is a parody, and Malzberg obviously is a writer of great talent and capable of shining us on.

That Wulff (whose first name changes as the series wears on -- sloppiness or intentional?) is the rare men's adventure protagonist to experience a genuine story arc from first book to last leads me to believe Malzberg had a plan from the beginning.

But I just don't know.

Have fun, Joe!

Stephen Mertz said...

One of Malzberg's essays--in Engines of the Night IIRC (& I may not!)-- is a piece on the writing of this series. The author comes across as dismissive & cynical about the series & as for the sloppy vs. intentional question, the whole series was written high speed in a very short time so I'd go for sloppy. Read this one many years ago & it was not my cup of action/adventure. Too surreal, I guess. Or maybe too sloppy.

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Ha! It does indeed look like Rich Little getting shot. ;-)

John M. Cowan said...

I do love this series, partly because it is so rough. Wulff isn't a superhero or Mack Bolan type. As you point out, most of the time he just rushes in and attacks the enemy without any kind of plan, which takes them by surprise because they expect him to be rational. But he's not. He's losing his humanity, book by book, until by the end . . . well, no spoilers. But in some ways a lot more psychologically interesting than the standard action hero who kills hundreds if not thousands of people but never changes an iota.