Monday, August 31, 2020

MIA Hunter #10: Miami War Zone

MIA Hunter #10: Miami War Zone, by Jack Buchanan
July, 1988  Jove Books

Bill Crider turns in his first installment of MIA Hunter which sees the series reboot in full effect; at this point there isn’t much difference between MIA Hunter and pretty much any other ‘80s men’s adventure series, like The Hard Corps or whatnot. I’m really on the fence so far as this reboot goes, because even though the early “save POWs in ‘Nam” plotlines got to be a little repetitive, the angle did give the series its own unique vibe, one that’s lost in these later volumes.

Whereas the early vibe might be lost, one thing that’s remained consistent about MIA Hunter is the narrative style. As I’ve said before, series creator and editor Stephen Mertz did a great job of assembling a group of ghostwriters who all wrote in a similar style – or Stephen just did some great editing to make all the styles seem consistent. What I’m trying to say is, one could easily be fooled into believing “Jack Buchanan” is a real author. Given this, I can’t notice anything “new” Crider has brought to the table; Miami War Zone has the same tone and style as previous books, with goodly portions of firearms detail, impromptu karate battles, “back in East Texas” tall tales from Hog Wiley, and action movie-esque friendly banter between Hog and British ciper Terrance Loughlin. Well, one new thing is that Carol Jenner, main protagonist Mark Stone’s girlfriend since the earliest volumes, has now become the computer specialist of the team, and we’re also informed she’s “a fighter to equal nearly anyone.” I don’t believe this has been stated before. 

While the Southeast Asian locales might have changed, the series is also consistent in that Stone, Hog, and Loughlin still operate as rescuers of captured personnel. This time though, as the cliché goes, “it’s personal;” Stone’s old ‘Nam buddy Jack Wofford, now an undercover DEA agent in Miami, has been taken captive. In a humorous disregard of reality, Stone – who is called by Jack’s worried wife – decides to head on down and save him, even though he and his team operate out of Fort Bragg and are supposedly there at the behest of the US Government. In other words, Stone just decides to take the law into his own hands, using the full resources of Fort Bragg to operate on US soil, going against not only the FBI but the local police. But I just point this out due to the ridiculousness of the situation, and I applaud Crider for saying to hell with realism, because it’s not what most readers want from the genre.

From the get-go Stone and team get in bad with the FBI agents in Miami, in particular Washington tool Williams. Crider displays his Gold Eagle background with a lot of running subplots involving all these one-off secondary characters: many pages devoted to the FBI guys, to a pair of Homicide cops, to Mafia chieftan Crazy Tony, and to drug baron Enrique Feliz. And there’s a lot of narrative devoted to Jack Wufford, who is shuttled around from one captor to another, constantly being drugged into oblivion; Crider nicely works this somewhat egregious stuff into the series’ past concept, with Wofford so drug-deluded that he thinks he’s back in ‘Nam, once again a POW. He saved Stone back in the war, as we learn in another flashback, so our hero is damn determined to find his old buddy and get him to safety.

Carol learns via the computer that the Feds are down here because there’s a drug war brewing between Feliz and Crazy Charlie, a nutcase who is infamous for feeding people to his pet alligators. Unfortunately this angle doesn’t pan out the way I expected to; Charlie is developed as such a psychotic you can’t wait to see Stone and team go up against him. But instead Charlie will be dealt with by Feliz, and Stone et al will concern themselves more with Crazy Charlie’s old father, Don Vito. This entails a nicely-done sequence where they perform a soft probe of the don’s villa, sneaking into the old man’s room while he’s being orally pleasured by a hooker. This is the closest we get to anything lurid in Miami War Zone -- Stone and Carol’s relationship basically seems to just involve discussing the mission – and Crider further adds a humorous element in that Hog recognizes the poor hooker; it’s a dancer he lusted after in a local strip joint.

Our author also understands the difference between the men’s adventure genre and your average mystery thriller; when one of the don’s hapless stooges comes upstairs to check on the boss, Loughlin grabs him by the throat from behind and strangles him. It just seemed pretty sadistic to me, as our heroes are really just here to get intel on Wofford, and Loughlin could’ve just as easily knocked the dude out, like a private eye or somesuch would. Anyway this sequence of course escalates into an action scene, with the don pulling a secret gun and Stone almost casually dispensing of him with a chop to the throat. This running action sequence builds to the memorable moment where Hog “wallows in shit” as he battles a Mafia goon nearly as big as himself in a sewer tunnel.

As ever Hog has more spark than any of the other characters; Crider gets a lot of mileage out of some dark humor concerning a new plastic knife Hog has acquired. It’s especially memorable in this part with Don Vito; first Hog threatens to castrate the old man with the knife, even Stone getting in on the act to make the old man talk, then again he uses it in the fight with the massive goon in the sewer tunnel. Loughlin as ever doesn’t resonate much with the reader; we learn – or we’re reminded, more likely – that he has red hair. Dude’s such a cipher I hadn’t known that, or had forgot. As for Stone, he too is in cipher mode this time, mostly just driven to save his old ‘Nam pal. When they aren’t out driving around Miami looking for Wofford, Stone’s pacing around their rented house, fretting over the situation.

But as mentioned our heroes are off-page for a lot of the narrative. The most egregious example of this is when Crazy Charlie is dealt with by Enrique Feliz; we readers (or at least this reader) keep waiting for Stone and team to take on the psychotic Charlie and his pet alligators. And indeed the narrative is building to this, with Stone’s team getting intel that Wofford is being held by Crazy Charlie, and getting in their car to head on over there (another recurring joke being the small white Toyota Stone has rented, which Hog hates). But while they’re driving there Feliz converges on Crazy Charlie’s place with his soldiers, and a major battle ensues, with Charlie dealt some fitting comeuppance, given his past proclivities for feeding people to gators – but unfortunately it’s Feliz who takes care of this, not our heroes. By the time Stone et al show up, the firefight’s over and they’re left wondering what happened.

Feliz thus becomes the main villain by default; Wofford is passed around like a hot potato, unconscious or drugged out most of the time, and Feliz takes him to a drug lab deep in the Everglades to use as a bargaining chip with some manufacturers for a deal or somesuch. This is where the action climax plays out; again saying to hell with reality, our heroes get hold of a helicopter and hit the place hard. Crider gives us the automatic hellfire we want from the genre, but isn’t as extreme with the gore. He works in some nigh-magic realism when Wofford, almost supernaturally empowered, gets hold of a gun and walks around the burning lab grounds, blowing away goons and somehow avoiding all the bullets that are fired at him.

Curiously though this isn’t the end of the book. Instead, Stone happens to read a newspaper in the airport and sees a story in there which clues him in that there’s a traitor in the FBI, one that’s been helping out the drug barons. It of course turns out to be one of the suits he’s been arguing with throughout the book, leading to a chase in the terminal as Stone tries to bring him to justice. It’s okay but seems to come from a different book; more fitting is the sendoff Stone delivers Enrique Feliz in the earlier action sequence, which involes the spinning blades of an air boat.

Crider definitely has the “feel” of the series down pat – as mentioned you could read this book and think it was written by the same guy who did the previous ten – but at the same time I’m still not as crazy about this new direction. Crider returned for two more volumes, one which apparently sees Stone and team heading back to ‘Nam, so that one I look forward to, just to see if it retains the vibe of the earliest books.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Gannon’s Vendetta

Gannon’s Vendetta, by John Whitlatch
October, 1969  Pocket Books

The other month I got an email from Marty McKee asking me why there were no reviews of John Whitlatch novels on the blog. This was one of those moments of total synchronicity, as I’d just recently decided to finally seek out the one Whitlatch novel I wanted to read most of all: this one, which happened to be Whitlatch’s first. Over the years I’d picked up some of his other Pocket paperbacks (each of which are numbered, curiously enough, even though the Witchlatch novels aren’t a “series,” per se), but for whatever reason Gannon’s Vendetta proved elusive, not to mention overpriced on the collectors market…which is strange, as the book went through several printings, so you would think it would be more available and affordable.

At any rate, shortly before receiving Marty’s email I had finally ordered a nice-priced copy of Gannon’s Vendetta, spurred on by that brief biker fiction kick I was on several months ago. Whitlatch’s novels have a respectable cred among paperback collectors: Paul Bishop has a great writeup on his own personal search for the mysterious Whitlatch, and years ago Justin Marriott did a nice overview of Whitlatch’s Pocket originals. One thing I recall Justin mentioning is that the books, despite having great covers by men’s adventure magazine artists, were a bit more “dry” than one might expect, and in particular that some of the books sort of dragged on. Such is the case with Gannon’s Vendetta, which despite a slam-bang opening turns out to mostly drag over its inexcusable length of 249 pages – 249 pages of incredibly small and incredibly dense print. I mean folks this book took me an entire week to read. It’s a definite time investment.

I have to say though that Whitlatch’s writing is so identical to the men’s adventure magazine market that I wonder if there was like a DeVry school for them or some correspondence course. Everything from the plot structure to the narrative style is exactly like what you’d encounter in Male Magazine or the like, only of course around four times the length. And just as the vast majority of those men’s mag yarns open with the situation depicted on the main illustration (or cover, if it was the cover story) and then proceed to flash back to the elaborate chornicling of what brought the hero to this predicament, so too does Gannon’s Vendetta: we meet our titular hero John Gannon as he’s tied to a “huge saguaro” in the middle of the Arizona desert, left there by a pack of savage bikers.

But after this opening, in which Gannon makes an impression on the reader with his sardonic humor – talking aloud to himself in two separate personalities so as to avoid going insane – we go straight to the men’s mag-mandated flashback, and it’ll be about a hundred pages of small print until we get back to this sequence. I believe Justin also mentioned the wish fulfillment of Whitlatch’s books, and that’s certainly evident here; according to this book, you could be a 44 year-old insurance agent with a wife and home and a 21 year-old daughter, but buddy you’ll still be able to take on biker scum in knife fights and hook up with lusty Mexican broads. But I’m not complaining because that’s exactly what I want from this genre; in our current post-emasculated era, such books can only be viewed with scorn and condescension, but at one time masculine fiction was readily available for the male reader. This was before the publishing industry – which curiously is run almost entirely by women – decided that “men don’t read.”

John Gannon himself is the epitome of an earlier, more masculine era: with his rugged virility and uncomprimising attitude he seems downright alien in our modern era of soy latte-sipping pseudo-males in their cropped pants and skinny jeans. Curiously though I don’t believe we’re ever given much context on how Gannon is such a badass; we can assume he might be a vet of WWII or more likely Korea, but I don’t think this is actually stated. Regardless, he is skilled with guns, hand-to-hand-combat, knife-fighting, horse riding, and even archery. This though is just another tie-in to the vibe of men’s adventure magazines, which featured similarly-skilled vets as protagonists. But still when we meet him, or at least when we flash back to the incidents that set him on the path which ultimately got him strapped to this saguaro cactus, Gannon’s just an insurance adjuster who lives outside of Los Angeles.

The incident that started it all was the day, several months before, when Gannon witnessed a biker running over a child. Gannon chased the scumbag down and beat the shit out of him, then served as witness against him in the trial. This even after Gannon was threatened, in his own home, by Buster, the hulking blonde-haired brother of the accused biker. One can tell that this novel truly is from another era, as Gannon doesn’t bother locking the doors of his house, thus Buster can just walk right on in. Gannon tells Buster to get out and testifies against his brother in court, despite the legal tactics of the biker’s lawyer, Pat Stein, conveniently enough an old enemy of Gannon’s. But after this things get nightmarish, as Buster comes back, this time with a couple more bikers, and attacks Gannon.

Our hero is knocked out and wakes up shortly thereafter to find Buster in the process of raping Gannon’s wife; barely in the narrative, the lady is 42, attractive, but going a bit to seed thanks to heavy drinking (she’s even suffered “two minor heart attacks” in the past couple years). Gannon grabs his .38 and blows away one biker, wings the other (a big Mexican brute named Crazy), but misses Buster. We’ll spend the next 200+ pages waiting for this bastard to get comeuppance. Meanwhile Gannon discovers that his wife is dead, suffering one last and fatal heart attack after her rape. Gannon does not seem much fazed by this, whereas he’s devastated to discover that the bikers killed his two dogs, crying over them and later even visiting their graves (a gut-wrenching scene that goes well beyond the typical emotional impact of such books). This is intentional on Whitlatch’s part, as much later in the narrative, when we pick back up on the opening desert sequence, Gannon will confront his lack of emotion over his wife’s death.

Regardless, Gannon is of course determined to make Buster pay. Whereas the reader might expect a fast-moving pulp tale, Gannon’s Vendetta is like another “biker revenge” novel, The Scarred Man, in that it doesn’t take a direct path. Instead we have a belabored court room sequence in which wily lawyer scum Pat Stein is able to get Buster exonerated of all charges; thanks to a “Socialist-leaning judge” the case against Buster is thrown out. Gannon, due to his short temper, has busted up the heads of some nosy reporters, and this coupled with the fact that he was bashed on the head that night is used to make him come off like an unreliable witness. It’s all very unbelievable – at least I’d like to hope so, but then again we live in a world were you can throw balloons filled with shit at cops and not even get arrested – but it all seems to exist because Whitlatch wants us to understand that Gannon has no choice but to take the law into his own hands. 

Despite which the book settles into a lethargic pace. Gannon heads to Arizona, spending two fruitless months trying to locate the vanished Buster. Eventually he heads for San Simon, a border town in Mexico set up by a local millionaire named Don Raul; the place prides itself on safety, yet Gannon discovers that it’s become a hangout for American biker scum. Soon he hooks up with a DEA agent named Gonzalez who wants to use Gannon as an unpaid consultant, a subplot that initially seems to promise a lot but ultimately goes nowhere. Instead more time is placed on Gannon’s budding love for Amiga, super-hot and super-busty niece of Don Raul, a Mexican babe who herself is widowed despite being in her 20s and who insists that Gannon come and stay at her uncle’s massive villa in the desert while he attends to business in San Simon.

Mysteriously enough, none other than wily scumball lawyer Pat Stein is here, and Gannon’s suspicion over the presence of Stein and the bikers he represents here in San Simon will of course be proven out, though again it takes us a helluva long time to get there. Whitlatch does pick things up a bit when Gannon blunders into a trap, storming into the biker hangout when he gets word Buster is there. This leads us to the incident depicted on the cover, but it must be stated that Norm Eastman enjoyed a little creative license in his awesome painting. For it’s made clear that the biker babe who flashes Gannon is not only ugly, but incredibly filthy and with greasy hair, and her jeans have such a “urine stench” that Gannon nearly pukes when he gets a whiff of her. So clearly not the sexy brunette babe Eastman depicted, but then ugly girls with greasy hair and piss-stained jeans really wouldn’t sell too many books. Whitlatch seems to have a fascination with telling us how all the bikers stink like piss, lending the impression that all they do is piss and shit on themselves as they drive around the desert.

Buster and his bikers abandon Gannon, strapped to the cactus, and after a day or so he’s able to free himself. His trek across the desert is grueling, vividly depicted by Whitlatch, but it does seem to go on and on. And also it too seems like a men’s mag story, in fact the entire sequence could’ve been excised to become one of those “True Book Bonuses” that would run in Men or whatnot. Here Gannon confronts the fact that he’d long ago stopped loving his wife, while engaging in “survival at any cost” actions like drinking water from cacti, eating a tortoise (another grueling scene that makes an impression, particularly when Gannon saws off the head of the tortoise), and suffering diarrhea attacks as he walks in what he hopes is the proper direction. Eventually he passes out by a highway after 11 days in the desert, and Whitlatch serves up a nice callback to Gannon’s murdered “boys” (aka his dogs) when a near-death Gannon is discovered and saved by a local man’s dog.

But again, even after all this, the novel appropriates a listless pace. Gannon gets lucky, at least; Amiga has been searching for him all these days, and once he’s healthy enough she’s all over him. Curiously their first depicted sex scene is mostly vague, with most detail placed on Gannon suckling of Amiga’s big boobs, whereas a later scene is hardcore exploitation and goes on for several pages. This first sequence though establishes Whitlach’s fixation on boob-sucking; it seems that from this point forward Amiga is constantly shoving her breasts in Gannon’s face so he can get to sucking on them. It’s downright Freudian. The second depicted boink, later in the book, goes even further into the extremes, and comes off as strange given how hardcore it is, even more explicit than what Harold Robbins was writing at the time. Given that Pocket was the publisher of Robbins’s paperbacks, I almost wonder if this second sex sequence was some sort of publisher request – keep it hardcore, it’s what our readers demand!

Actually Robbins is a good point of comparison, because a lot of Gannon’s Vendetta is trash-fictiony in that, instead of the violent revenge thriller we’re expecting, much of it comes off like a leisurely-placed summer read set in a palatial Mexican villa. Even here Gannon’s rugged charm wins the day; he’s quite fond of having Don Raul’s world-class chef whip up nothing more than a burrito, which Gannon enjoys with a beer. It’s a man’s kind of meal, baby, and Don Raul approves, even though Amiga can’t believe Gannon wants something so simple. But then, she’s just a girl. Regardless, there are so many opportunities for Whitlatch to just cut right to the action and end the book, but it’s like he has a specific word count to meet ,thus there’s an inexplicable part where Gannon, after recuperating from his desert ordeal, heads back to his house in LA and sort of bides his time for a while, getting ready for his big assault on Buster’s gang.

Here too we get another reminder of earlier sentiments; Gannon lost a ton of weight in the desert, so we read about his big meals, his constant mixed drinks, his six beers a night. All so he can gain weight – and then “turn the fat into muscle.” Clearly this was before the concept of being “jacked” hit the bodybuilding community; Gannon could’ve just hit the weights with his lean physique and saved himself the trouble. But whatever. He also buys some guns and a bow and arrow and whatnot, and talks his cop pal Dallinger into coming down to Mexico with him to bust up those biker scumbags. Ponce, Don Raul’s portly bodyguard, and old Don Raul himself, will further make up what makes for Gannon’s army in the climactic assault.

Only, it’s not really a climax, because even here Whitlatch refuses to go full-bore. It’s a gripping scene with the four converging on Buster’s biker hangout, deep in the desert, and hitting them early in the morning; Gannon again shows some sort of former commando training by silently killing a few guards with his knife or his bow and arrows. They capture all the bikers, and Gannon takes on burly Crazy in a knife fight that’s over before it even starts. But instead of wiping them out, Gannon drags the bikers back to Don Raul’s villa, where ensues an overly-complicated outing of who is really behind the heroin Buster’s biker gang has been trafficking. And then after all this, Gannon allows Buster to ecape…all so Gannon can get on a horse and go chasing after him and the others in the desert to “bring them in.” So in other words we’re right back where we were several pages ago, with Gannon hunting bikers in the desert. At least here Gannon finally dishes out the vengeance we’ve been waiting 249 pages for.

Last we see Gannon, he’s looking forward to more fun with Amiga (I’m just going to assume it has something to do with her rack) and figures he’ll stay at Don Raul’s a while. He would return years later, in Gannon’s Line (1976), which as it turned out would be Whitlatch’s last papberback. Gannon isn’t the most likable of protagonists, yet at the same time he’s a bit more three-dimensional than the genre norm…which I guess is only to be expected when a book is as long as this one is. His smart-ass retorts almost prefigure the one-liners of ‘80s action movies, yet at the same time his short fuse gets to be annoying. He definitely experiences character growth though, something else that’s unusual for the genre, in his acceptance of the fact that he’s not going after Buster because of the loss of a beloved wife, but to get payback for something that was taken from him.

On the other hand, Buster and his bikers are so one-dimensional that they come off as cartoonish. They’re just a mangy pack of sadistic freaks in grungy, piss-stinking jeans, and there’s absolutely zero of the exploitative appeal depicted in Norm Eastman’s cover. The women are even worse than the men; Buster’s girl, the scuzzy one who flashes Gannon – who we’ll recall stinks so bad that Gannon almost barfs due to the stench of her – ends up opening up a large patch of skin on Gannon’s face with a chain, giving our hero what is apparently a permanent scar. Gannon shows no qualms with hunting her down in the finale as well. The action scenes are infrequent but well done, and Whitlatch doesn’t skimp on the violence, but he doesn’t dwell on it either. In this regard as well the book is almost identical to the contents of the average men’s adventure magaznes of the day.

I did really enjoy Gannon’s Vendetta, with the caveat that it was much too long for its own good. So much of it could’ve been whittled out, giving us a more lean, mean, and focused revenge thriller. Also the biker element wasn’t nearly as pronounced as I’d hoped for. But I really did enjoy the rugged ethic of the book, the macho vibe Whitlatch almost casually captures throughout, to the extent that I’ll try to get to the other Whitlatch novels I have – and look into picking up a copy of Gannon’s Line.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Butcher #9: Sealed With Blood

The Butcher #9: Sealed With Blood, by Stuart Jason
November, 1973  Pinnacle Books

The most interesting thing about this volume of The Butcher is that it clearly wasn’t written by usual series author James Dockery; nor was it written by Lee Floren, who turned in the next volume. This unknown writer seems to have been briefed on the series, but turned in his (or her) own take on it. Unfortunately, this new take results in a middling, boring installment in which hero Bucher comes off more like a government flunkey than the terse badass of the Dockery books.

At any rate I can attest from the get-go that this is not Dockery. For one, the narrative style is completely different. For another, Dockery’s usual repetitive plot is not here – though, curiously, this ghostwriter has retained Dockery’s penchant for setting tales in the Middle East. Otherwise, the usual Dockery flourishes are absent: no opening sequence with Bucher gunning down a pair of Syndicate mutants, no obligatory bit in which Bucher is jailed over his illegal silencer and then freed by a phone call from some local politician, no outrageous plot change in the second half of the book. And no “bitter taste of defeat” as the last line of the book. And it’s not Floren, either; it’s been a few years since I read his installment, but as I recall Floren was prone to referring to Bucher as “Butcher” in the narrative – something Dockery never does in the narrative, only in the dialog – and also there was more action in Floren’s book than there is in this one. And also Bucher didn’t come off like a bureaucrat in Floren’s installment, as he does here.

I almost get the impression this poor writer was given a half-assed overview by Script Associates, the outfit behind the series:

“His name’s Bucher, he was known as the Butcher when he was in the Mafia, and now he goes by Iceman and he works for the government. Sometimes his capers take him to the Middle East.” 

“Okay…does he work for any specific governmental agency?”

“You can just say ‘the government.’”

“Does he use any particular gadgets, like a special gun he favors or anything?”


And from there the poor bastard just winged it, coming up with his own team that Bucher works with, humorously enough presenting them without any background, as if we’ve encountered all of them before. In particular there’s Stanton, Bucher’s 27 year-old “Government” contact, who so far as this volume goes has enjoyed a long working relationship with Bucher…not that we’ve ever heard of the guy before. In a way I appreciated this ghostwriter’s brazen disregard for the fact that eight volumes preceded this one. That is, if the dude even knew there were volumes previous to his; as I say, I think he got a half-assed series overview. But anyway Stanton only ever appears via phone calls with Bucher, setting him up with info, orders, equipment, and partners.

That last regard is one of the bigger changes from the Dockery installments; here Bucher is always being partnered up with a team of “government” men. This would be fine, save for the curious element that he’s always explaining himself to them. I kid you not. Bucher, practically a monosyllabic glacier in Dockery’s books, runs at the mouth constantly in Sealed With Blood; even in shootouts with mobsters he has to explain to his men why he wants them to take up certain positions, or even why he wants to go after the bad guys in the first place. It’s the most extreme emasculation of a series protagonist since Richard Blade #9. I mean Bucher even declares – not just once but a couple times – that he values his life and wants to keep living and all this other jazz. While such sentiments are of course understandable, voicing them goes completely against the grain of the terse bad-assery Dockery presented in the previous volumes.

We know something’s up from the first pages, which concern a bunch of one-off “Organization” bigwigs discussing Bucher, and how to do away with him. There’s also mention of some business in the Middle East. From there to Bucher…not being shadowed by a pair of freaks, but simply snooping around an airport in New York. The muddy plot has something to do with farm cargo to Israel being used to transfer something of vital interest to the Mafia. Some shady types are working on the cargo and Bucher’s ordered by them to leave. He’s jumped by some thug, but turns the tables and beats the guy up…then talks him into taking a ride in a taxi so he can tell Bucher what’s going on(!?). It gets even more WTF?! when Bucher gets in a conversation about Manhattan traffic with the cabbie, all while secretly holding a gun on his captive.

Oh, and that’s another funny element: Bucher’s pistol is only ever referred to as “gun.” Actually, all of the weapons throughout the book are just “guns,” with no specific make or models given, save for an arbitrary part where Bucher reckons that a gun being trained on him is “foreign.” So clearly firearms are not a speciality of this particular ghostwriter. Nor is plotting; it takes a good forty or fifty pages for us to even find out why Bucher’s looking into this “cargo for Israel” scheme. Hell if I’m not mistaken, we’re not even told the opening action is in New York until the sequence is almost over. It’s all very generic and half-baked, with lazy detailing and plotting.

Eventually it turns out that gold and weapons are hidden in the cargo. Bucher’s not the brightest, though – after the opening bit, where he makes off with the beaten thug (who is killed in a drive-by shooting immediately thereafter), Bucher realizes that there might’ve been a bomb on the cargo plane, which meanwhile has already taken off. This folks makes for some of the most lame “suspense” I’ve ever encountered in an action novel; Bucher calls Stanton, our first taste of the incessant explaining Bucher has to provide the younger man so far as his reasoning and logic go, and begs for the cargo plane to be turned back around so the cargo can be checked for a bomb. Stanton’s like, let me get back to you. Then calls back and he’s like, nope, we lost contact with the plane. And this goes on for pages…only to eventually turn out that the plane had a minor electrical gaffe or something and the flight’s fine, and meanwhile it’s already halfway to the destination so let’s just let it keep on going. Oh and Bucher, why don’t you head on over to Israel yourself?

Seriously, our hero is bossed around relentlessly in this one, even by the one-off government agents who make up his team, from Waltstrom, who gets in constant arguments/discussions with Bucher, to Hamid, who is apparently new to the team or something. Action is infrequent, and not very gripping. Bucher and team get in a shootout in a building with some thugs in New York, and even here Bucher gets in intermittent arguments with his cronies. Violence is minimal, and there’s a curious focus on Bucher’s team members getting shot, Bucher fretting over them, and then Bucher later being informed that so and so will make it, after all. Actually “fretting” sums up Bucher’s entire demeanor in this installment; it’s like the real Bucher took a bit of a vacation and hoped no one would notice a stand-in had taken his place.

As noted the finale tries to retain the vibe of Dockery with the action occurring in the deserts of the Middle East; Bucher and his team get in intermittent firefights with Bedouins, who are being used to transport the weapons and gold smuggled in on the cargo planes. The only female character appears here: Aza, a hotstuff dancer who has worked undercover for one of Bucher’s government dudes before. Another example of this author’s lack of plotting skills, Aza contributes nothing to the tale, save for an arbitrary part where Bucher dreams that he’s about to have sex with her. Yes, seriously. In the last pages he finds her in the confidence of the Bedouin leader, meaning that not only is Aza a traitor but that she’s set Bucher and team up to be killed. But curiously Bucher is mostly okay with this, and basically sends Aza off with a stern talking to.

Honestly though, Sealed With Blood is a passable installment, having nothing in common with earlier or later volumes – unless this unknown contract writer turned in any others. No idea who it was, though early on I wondered if it might be our old pal Paul Hofrichter, particularly given the arbitrary discussions that occur throughout the novel. But there’s more action in Sealed With Blood than the typical Hofrichter book. Whoever the writer was, hopefully this will be the last we see of him (or her!) and this emasculated version of Bucher.

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Progress Of An Affair

The Progress Of An Affair, by Felice Gordon
June, 1973  Dell Books

First published in hardcover in the UK in 1972 and then as a paperback a a year later in the US (with awesome but uncredited cover art), The Progress Of An Affair is ostensibly a rock novel but in reality turns out to be a piece of proto-chic lit. Narrated by a jet-setting but somewhat innocent young British woman, it has the ring of later such novels like Brigit Jones’s Diary (or whatever it was called), or even a British take on Sex And The City. Only without the “sex” part. 

Our narrator is Lenore Edwards, a twenty-something British gal who, when we meet her, has just relocated to New York City to act as Director of PR for TRAC (aka Trans-Atlantic Recording Artists Corp, which is really “TRARAC,” but whatever), a sort of vanity label in that it only records a small roster of talent. Lenore informs us that she herself performs “Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin,” but from her vague descriptions it appears that TRAC goes for a younger audience; she tells us that if you’re over 21 you might not appreciate hearing any of their artists on the underground radio stations. We’re told that the top new TRAC talent this year (specified as 1972 throughout) is COME, all caps and everything, but no detail is given on their sound.

The top overall TRAC talent is Jon James, a superstar – actually, a “constellation,” so far as run-of-the-mill rock superstars go. He’s young, he’s British, he’s beautiful with curly hair and all the mod fashions, but sadly Gordon is incapable or unwilling to tell us what he sounds like. This is another of those “rock novels” where the author doesn’t actually want to tell us about the music at hand; we’re just told Jon James is the best and the most famous, but we don’t get a lick of info about what kind of music he plays, what sound he goes for. There’s a part early on where he works on lyrics for his new album, but Lenore is in PR and thus doesn’t have much to do with the actual recording of the music. And yet, as she casually informs us, she listens to several hours of music a day as part of her job, even called in to make spot appraisals in the recording studios…not that we get to see any of this. 

Instead, the meat of the tale is either focused on Lenore’s culture shock as a new US transplant or her growing relationship with…you guessed it, Jon James. But the culture shock is the predominant part initially; Lenore’s just gotten a nice apartment on Park Avenue, excited to move in with her jet-setting American girlfriend June, who has a galaxy of admirers but has settled recently on a ruggedly handsome type named Steve Mariano. We get a lot of stuff telling us about life in America, which probably went over better with the original UK audience; particularly humorous is Lenore’s off-hand announcement that she’s “gotten very good at making Bloody Maries.” This goof is in the narrative, not through dialog, so the editors at Dell clearly weren’t checking the original British manuscript very carefully.

If only there was more about TRAC and its roster of artists. I got a little personal interest out of the fact that the TRAC office is in the JC Penney building, in Manhattan; several years ago I worked at the JC Penney HQ, which had since moved to Plano, Texas (and is still there, about 5 miles from my house). Even then there were many employees who had moved down to Texas when the corp office relocated from Manhattan. But sadly even here Gordon doesn’t much elaborate on the building, or the TRAC office and indeed, doesn’t even stick around New York for the majority of the tale. This is because she ends up going on Jon James’s latest tour, her role to accompany the star and keep him happy.

Jon arrives in the US early in the book, here for the album and the tour, and we learn his wife is in the process of divorcing him. Jon, despite being under 30, is depressed and thinking of ending his music career – better to burn out than to fade away – and Lenore’s tasked with keeping his spirits up. They meet at the airport and Jon likes Lenore’s easygoing nature. I should mention that Lenore doesn’t often tell us much about herself, letting her personality and dialog do all the talking for her. At any rate Jon likes her and it’s decided she’ll go on his US tour because her presence comforts him. Another thing I forgot to mention – Lenore is a virgin, something Jon is surprised to discover when their inevitable (and titular) “affair” finally begins in earnest. But this book takes the cake for denying the reader any sleazy thrills:

The old idea of a virgin suffering the first time is not true for me. Obviously I’m a freak. 

I hope you like commercial breaks since I have no intention of reporting explicity on my very explicit sexual experience. Let me put it this way. 



And that folks is all she wrote. I mean why even bother with the cattiness? Authors like this puzzle me. It’s like they want to write dirty books without actually getting dirty. It’s like decaf coffee, it just makes no sense. But this is Gordon’s m.o. throughout, consistently denying us the cheap thrills we want from a book set in the hedonistic world of rock. Lenore becomes Jon’s mistress, but there’s no sleaze to speak of; slightly more risque is her later conjugation with none other than Steve Mariano, aka June’s latest boyfriend. This happens in a car and is more detailed in the fact that it actually happens, something which shocks Lenore. Mostly to illustrate that Mariano is a smooth operator, setting up future plot developments.

The stuff on Jon’s tour isn’t much elaborated on, either, just some vague mentions of how the various audiences respond to his music, which itself of course is not described. We also learn that Jon’s opening act is a TRAC group named Orgasm 4, “ a weak imitation of the Who.” Yes friends, yet another rock novel that’s condescending toward just about every rock group in it – for the ultimate in such snobbery, check out The Rock Nations. Actually more focus is placed on Lenore catching sight of some bootleggers in action, recording one of the shows. She rushes to tell Wyman, the tour manager, but he seems altogether casual about the situation. Gradually we’ll learn that Mariano is behind it – a syndicate bigwig, he’s looking to add Jon James to his portfolio. This takes us into what proves to be the final third of the novel.

Sequestered in Mariano’s Vegas domain, Lenore and Jon become virtual prisoners, and soon enough Lenore learns that June’s been hooked on heroin by Mariano. Oh I forgot to mention, there’s none of the expected drugs stuff here, either; we’re informed Jon doesn’t smoke grass and only tried LSD once, years before, and hated the experience. So we don’t get sex, drugs, or rock and roll! Instead the finale seems to come from another novel, with June spiralling into fullblown addiction and Mariano getting his hooks into Jon…before June shows up one day to settle the score in a most unexpected fashion. By novel’s end Lenore has returned to London with Jon, presumably to be at his side after he finalizes his divorce.

At a staggering 288 pages, The Progress Of An Affair is too sluggish, occurring in too small of a world. I mean Jon James is supposed to be a mega star, but the novel occurs mostly in hotel rooms with just the same handful of characters appearing. Gordon’s narrative style is good, though, with Lenore’s narration casually relaying thes story to you, and she’s a likable character in that regard, but I found the novel boring, and it’s really more of a romance with only the slightest of “rock” trappings.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Soldato #4: Murder Mission!

Soldato #4: Murder Mission!, by Al Conroy
No month stated, 1973  Lancer Books

Gil Brewer turns in his second and final installment of Soldato, once again proving that, despite his talent as an author of hardboiled mystery yarns, he really couldn’t cut it as a men’s adventure writer. I can only assume he didn’t understand the genre – not that the genre is very complex or anything – and that he did his best to wing it over the course of 190-some pages. I mean folks the “climax” of this one features Johnny “Soldato” Morini hiding a room…for like 15 pages. 

Actually Morini is a former soldato, aka Mafia soldier, and Brewer again does a swell job of reminding us of his past and how he’s still hooked on the girl he was married to back in the earliest volumes. Brewer does at least invest the series with a lot more emotional weight than the genre average, but really is that what any of us are here for? Morini in Brewer’s hands is too pensive, too given to self-doubt and uncertainty; he’s comparable to Len Levinson’s interpretation of Johnny Rock in the first two Sharpshooter novels he wrote, The Worst Way To Die and Night Of The Assassins. Then editor Peter McCurtin gave Len the advice that his version of Rock wouldn’t last, that Rock must be more driven, more prone to violent action – that he must “kill with cold hate,” a phrase that spurred Len into turning in one of the better installments of the series, Headcrusher.

I guess there was no editor on Soldato to give Brewer any such advice. Thus we must endure Morini’s frequent anxieties, and while we’re often told of his burning hatred for the Mafia, very rarely does he do anything about it. In fact he goes out of his way not to kill at times. More unintentionally humorous though is his supposed helper slash “best friend,” Riley, the lawyer who set Morini up in his current capacity of one-man army for a cancer-ridden old Mafia don who wants to wipe out his former brothers. Riley does absolutely nothing to help Johnny (as Brewer refers to his protagonist, so I’ll start doing the same) for the majority of the tale, and most of the time tells Johnny not to call him! There’s a ridiculous amount of antagonism between the two, particularly in how Riley expects Johnny to do everything on his own and acts like it’s a huge pain in the ass to even answer his occasional phone calls.

There’s no pickup from Brewer’s previous volume, and when we meet Johnny he’s in New Orleans, already having established himself as “Bacchi” for local Don Marno. The gist of the series is that Johnny goes undercover in various Mafia families, busting them up from within; his operating parameters seem to be “kill everyone,” as Riley and his Justice Department cronies aren’t really looking for arrest warrants or anything. Johnny’s got a lot of problems this time, and one of them’s that the real Bacchi, a Chicago soldato, is in prison; Johnny’s pretending to be the guy, the story going that he busted out of prison and is now looking for a job with Don Marno. Of course, before novel’s end the real Bacchi’s Don will come down to New Orleans to hook up with Don Marno, adding a bunch more tension to the tale.

And as if that weren’t enough, the photo taken of Johnny in the previous volume has been destroyed, but L.A.-based Don Sesto got a drawing made of it, a drawing by a professional artist, and he’s flying around the country to show the various families this drawing. I mean he can’t mail it or anything. I mean the dude’s literally walking around with a single drawing, the thing covered in protective glass and everything, and showing it to other Dons across the country. The whole subplot is so ludicrous you have no choice but to just go along with it. Johnny manages to fix this guy, though, in one of the novel’s more tense scenes: Don Sesto just happens to fly into New Orleans after midnight, and Johnny chases him along a deserted highway before crashing him into a lake and getting in a brutal life or death struggle with him. A curious capoff here is that, when Riley belatedly arrives on the scene, he insists on taking the drawing instead of destroying it, like Johnny wants to. Given Riley’s general half-assery throughout, I almost wondered if Brewer was developing a subplot that Riley would eventually sell Johnny out, hence his keeping this drawing that could cost Johnny his life.

We get a quick reminder that this isn’t your typical men’s adventure series; the opening sequence introduces us to Don Marno and his orbit of followers, including his heroin-addicted brother Milo. There’s also a six year-old kid the Don treats as his own; the boy’s mom is Helena, Marno’s disowned daughter. There’s a subplot about Marno having killed Helena’s husband because he wasn’t worthy, and also Helena is hooked on heroin and etc. To Brewer’s credit, none of this goes where you’d expect: while Helena is introduced in a scene where she screams at her dad to be able to see her son again, she wants to be accepted back into the family and still has Mafia in her blood. Also, despite being the prettiest woman Johnny’s ever seen, our hero doesn’t get lucky – Johnny’s really a sad case when compared to his men’s adventure brethren, friends – other than a quick kiss. Indeed, Helena will go further than any other character to do away with Johnny…not that he does anything to get her out of his own way, even once he’s figured out what a threat she poses to him.

But this opening bit with Don Marno lets us know what we’re in for: a lot of talking, a lot of scheming and plotting. Don Marno is up against two rival local Dons: “Fats” Faturo and Logari. As with previous volumes, Johnny will try to engineer a war between the families…at least, that’s how it starts out. Instead the onus of the plot becomes more about Johnny trying to protect his identity, with more time placed on his fretting – and eating in restaurants and diners – than on action. The back cover even promises that in this one Riley will be taken captive, which hints at some action or at least tension; instead, the subplot’s over and done with in about twenty or so pages. A couple of Fats’s men get the jump on Riley, Johnny as “Bacchi” hears about it, and that night – after a big meal – Johnny puts on black clothes and springs Riley from the warehouse where they’re holding him. Riley doesn’t even thank him!

Speaking of meals, the novel is very much of a different era. Johnny’s constantly smoking or pouring himself a drink; before any action he’ll hit a very heavy meal, like a couple steaks and etc – plus “five different vitamins.” In fact Johnny seems to drink quite a bit in the course of Murder Mission, to the point that I wondered if it wasn’t some in-jokery courtesy Brewer…that it was more of an indication of how much Brewer himself was drinking as he ground out the manuscript. It’s clear though that he struggles with the basic tenents of this genre; the action scenes, for example, are almost dashed off, with more focus on the talking, the scheming, and the introspection. And Johnny is much too consumed with guilt for a men’s adventure hero; we’re even informed he sometimes sees the faces of the men he’s killed in his sleep – even the men he killed in self-defense. 

For that matter, Brewer fails to grasp basic action-telling principles. I mean no one could ever confuse Johnny Morini with Mack Bolan. For one, Johnny’s only ever armed with a Colt Cobra .38. Not that there’s a problem with this, I mean .38 revolvers were pretty much the standard firearm for ‘70s crime fiction. But the problem is the way it all goes down. For example, there’s a part where Johnny abducts Helena and ties her up in an abandoned building, to be collected by Riley (who of course bitches that Johnny has troubled him with this task). But Helena manages to get herself loose, call Milo (Marno’s junkie brother), and has him come over with some soldiers. So Johnny’s standing there in the room, sees three guys walking down a hallway toward him…and he runs away! This leads to a tense chase, at least, but still – dude, you’ve got a gun, and they’re all just walking toward you, conveniently bunched together. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel, but our hero instead desperately rushes for the window.

Even worse is the supposed finale. As “Bacchi” Johnny manages to talk Marno into hosting the rival two Dons – as well as the real Bacchi’s Don, from Chicago – on his yacht. Johnny gets some explosives from Riley (cue more bitching – seriously) and secretly sets them up…then for some belabored reason, he boards the yacht and must be present until right before the explosives go off, I guess to ensure everything works or something. But since he’ll quickly be outed as an imposter when the Chicago Don sees him, Johnny pretends to be sick and sequesters himself in a stateroom. This goes on for pages and pages. The ship moves further into the ocean, heading for the Gulf of Mexico, and hours later Johnny’s finally confronted by drunk goombahs who demand to see “Bacchi.” He manages to jump off the yacht as they start shooting at him; at least Riley proves his worth here in the finale, arriving on the scene in a helicopter to pick him up just before the ship blows.

I brought up The Executioner and again, as I mentioned in my review of the previous volume, I finally got confirmation that Gil Brewer was the mysterious author who was hired by Pinnacle to write the followup to Sicilian Slaughter (which was by William Crawford). I’ve read before that Don Pendleton often mocked an unpublished Executioner manuscript, one that had been sent in by some contract writer, and I’ve often wondered if it was Brewer’s manuscript Pendleton was mocking. While the writing itself is fine – the introspective stuff does add depth to the storyline, even though it’s unnecessary depth – the basic stuff you want from this genre is lacking. I mean imagine Mack Bolan hiding in the stateroom of a yacht for twenty-some pages in the climax of a Don Pendleton novel.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
No date stated (1980?), Popular Library

I first read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas in the summer of 1997, after discovering this now-scarce Popular Library edition on a Half Price Books “clearance spinner rack” for a whopping twenty-five cents. This is one of those books that’s stuck with me over the years, and given my recurring interest in early issues of Rolling Stone Magazine I thought I should finally read it again. I enjoyed it nearly as much this time, with the caveat that it’s a much different experience reading Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas when you’re 45 years old – it seemed darkly hilarious when I was 23, but this time I saw the gaping problems with Thompson’s entire theme. If indeed there is a theme; I should give him the benefit of the doubt.

But the subtitle “A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream” seems to be on the level, the book apparently intended as Thompson’s indictment of the screwed-up American mentality of the post-Altamont Nixon era. Which is all well and good, but the only problem is, if you’re going to criticize something, it’s probably best not to do it via a pair of drug-blitzed psychopaths who have no grasp on reality. It’s especially a problem when every single character they meet is normal. I can’t stress this enough – the people who encounter our loony protagonists are all presented as level-headed, even the cops in the second half of the book. They’re not bigots, or racists, or whatever, they’re just normal people who happen to be in Las Vegas and who are bullied, hassled, or harrassed by our two main characters. This renders the entire stated theme moot. But again, perhaps this was Thompson’s intention. He was a “doctor of journalism,” after all.

This though has nothing to do with the entertainment value of the book, which is through the roof – the only other novel that’s ever made me laugh so much is James Robert Baker’s Boy Wonder. And there’s a sort of similarity between the two; both books feature psychotic, delusional protagonists, copious amounts of drugs, and a willingness to take things past the limit. Both novels even sort of lag a bit in the second half, before ramping back up on the insanity. I guess the main difference is that Boy Wonder doesn’t make any pretensions toward being “nonfiction,” and also it actually has female characters in it; Fear And Loathing keeps the focus pretty much squarely on the two psychopathic “heroes,” Raoul Duke and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo.

The book was originally serialized in two installments of Rolling Stone, under the by-line “Raoul Duke.” This is the character who narrates the story, and of course it’s clearly Thompson himself; to make sure we get the in-joke, “Duke” occasionally refers to Thompson in a negative way. Thompson’s friend, lawyer Oscar Acosta, was transformed into a 300-pound Samoan named Dr. Gonzo (though usually just referred to as “my attorney”). Thompson capably brings this creature to life; whenever Dr. Gonzo leaves the text, which is more often than I remembered, things sort of lag. Duke himself is crazy, but Thompson’s set the bar too high with Gonzo; he walks a fine line throughout the text, with Duke playing the straight man to Dr. Gonzo, but it often rings hollow because we’re also to understand that Duke himself is a nutcase.

I think the first half of the book is the strongest; it features the memorable opening sequence of Duke and Gonzo riding into Vegas on “the Great Red Shark,” a huge Chevy convertible (another parallel -- Boy Wonder’s psycho protagonist also being named “Shark”) and Duke hallucinating that bats are following them. Here we get our first indication of the massive amount of drugs they’ve stashed in the Shark, not to mention already ingested; they’re so wasted they even freak out a hippie hitchhiker they briefly pick up. Through the course of the novel our heroes take acid (a rarity in ’71, we’re told), coke, speed, ether, amyl nitrate, marijuana, mescaline, adrenaline, various pills, and even the occasional beer or mixed drink. But what I always appreciate it, given all this, they still engage in talk about other drugs they’d like to take, usually leading into darkly humorous conversations about the highs that would ensue.

Duke’s come to Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a dirt bike and dune buggy race out in the desert. This entire element is incidental to the plot of the novel, and only leads to more surreal humor; when Duke tries to cover the start of the event, the dust raised up by the vehicles is so intense he can’t even see anything. So it’s back to the hotel for more drugs and insanity; here we have one of the more memorable sequences, with an LSD-soaring Gonzo naked in the tub, armed with a knife, demanding that Duke play “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane (he wants a “rising sound”) and then to throw the tape player into the tub when it reaches the climax. While the tape player’s still plugged in. Befitting something originally published in Rolling Stone, there are occasional references to the music of the day, in particular the sort-of-forgotten dope anthem “One Toke Over The Line,” by folk duo Brewer and Shipley (I also really like their earlier track “Witchi-Tai-To”).

But the thing is, neither Duke nor Gonzo are actually a part of the Woodstock nation. They’re a generation apart from the hippies, and Duke’s fondness for guns definitely puts him at odds with the whole peace and love situation. Also there are recurring swipes at John Lennon throughout the book, which I found humorous; Lennon tried to snipe back at Thompson in some material that wasn’t published until after Lennon’s death, referring to Thompson’s career as “Fear and Loathing For A Living.” Regardless, the book serves as a study of the death of the hippie dream – Manson is mentioned repeatedly, as is Altamont – and some of the best moments are the quiet ones, where Duke will reflect on San Francisco in the ‘60s, and how the dream died.

The second half of the book concerns Duke suddenly being requested to attend the narc convention in Las Vegas, an assignment for Rolling Stone. To be sure, it’s a bit too much after the increasing craziness of the first half, and the narrative stalls a bit; this material, with cops attending lectures on the dangers or drugs, doesn’t have the surreal edge of the Mint 400. And as mentioned, the cops – what very few of them we actually get to meet in the narrative – are for the most part presented as level-headed. Meanwhile Duke and Gonzo razz them relentlessly, including an arbitrary but fun bit about Satanic cults operating in California, chopping the heads off their victims in broad daylight. Otherwise the whole narcotics convention isn’t as exploited as much as it could’ve been.

More time is spent on Duke and Gonzo carousing around Vegas and getting in trouble; there’s a laugh out loud part, one of many, where they bully their way into a song and dance show at one of the casinos and immediately lose their cool. The narrative gets a bit jumbled here as suddenly Duke is looking for “the American Dream,” which entails driving way outside of Vegas and getting into a long conversation with a waitress and a cook – relayed in a chapter that’s all dialog, and featuring the goofy payoff that the waitress and cook immediately think of a notorious local drug-using spot when Duke and Gonzo start asking where the American Dream is. Even though that’s not what the place was ever called…and also even though it turns out the place burned down.

I’ve skipped my usual belabored rundown because Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas isn’t a forgotten book by any means, but I guess its popularity waxes and wanes. I don’t believe Thompson ever wrote anything else like it; from here he moved on to covering Nixon for Rolling Stone, and the narratives weren’t nearly as over the top or deranged. In fact I recall reading somewhere that Thompson felt he himself “got in the way” of his own, self-made legend, that it “would’ve been better” if he’d died after Fear And Loathing was published. Of course he ended up ultimately taking his own life; at the time I recall reading some wild speculation on some site that Thompson had gotten too deep into an investigation about abducted children and how they were forced to do unspeakable things, and ended up killing himself – I recall the date of his suicide was on the same day someone was giving testimony about such things somewhere. But this is just a hazy memory from 15 years ago, so I’m sure I have a lot of my info wrong.

Originally published in issues 95 and 96 of Rolling Stone in November, 1971, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is here reprinted in full, with the original Ralph Steadman illustrations edited a bit to fit in the confines of a mass market paperback. The original Rolling Stone issues are grossly overpriced on the collectors market (as this Popular Library edition now is as well), but I have the Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-ROM, which features every issue of the magazine. I’ve checked out issues 95 and 96, and boy is this novel crammed in there; we’re talking like four columns of dense print per page. It probably gave some readers permanent eye damage.

Curiously there’s no date on this edition of the book. But judging from the cover and interior – Thompson’s early ‘80s collection The Great Shark Hunt is namedropped on the cover, and an ad in the back has an expiration date of February, 1981 – it seems to have come out in 1980. An earlier Popular Library edition had a tan cover, and I think at the same time Warner Books released an edition that looked idetntical, save for a slightly different cover treatment. But all these mass market paperback editions are way overpriced now – I saw someone listing this particular edition for a couple hundred bucks on eBay!? – so there are much less expensive reprints to seek out.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Operation Ice Cap (Mark Hood #10)

Operation Ice Cap, by James Dark
May, 1969  Signet Books

The tenth volume of Mark Hood almost seems like a more fleshed-out rewrite of the earlier installment Operation Octopus, but whereas the plot of that one was “Underwater Nazis,” the plot of this one is “Space Vikings!” And that really is the plot Operation Ice Cap is building toward, only for J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell to scrap the sci-fi stuff at the end and go for a much more primitive finale, with hero Mark Hood being chased through the woods by a woman armed with bow and arrow.

There’s no pickup from any previous volume, and when we meet Hood he’s again on vacation, this time in the South of France where he’s busy conjugating with a Nordic gymnast named Elke. We’re often reminded of Elke’s “boylike” athletic stature, save for her large breastesses, and when we meet the new couple they’re tearing through the narrow roads in Hood’s sportscar. After some nondescriptive sex out in the cheap showiness of nature, the two are lounging around when a trio of Italian toughs come by, looking for some fun. This will be one of the few action scenes in the novel; Hood wipes out two of them with his karate skills, and Elke kills one of them, tossing a knife with a professionalism that jolts Hood. Even more curious is how she takes photographs of the two Hood knocked out, and insists they not bring the police into the affair.

Meanwhile, the main plot of the novel has to do with US Navy ships being melted in the North Pole; a megalomaniac named Norsgaard operates out of a high-tech facility beneath the ice, employing a legion of soldiers, all of them blond Nordic giants, and we watch as he uses his newfangled technology to heat the water around a couple ships to the point that they literally melt. As I’ve mentioned before, the series is now on the same wavelength of the James Bond movies of the day – heavy on the sci-fi plots, but lacking in the quips and humor Connery brought to Bond. Mark Hood for the most part is pretty much a cipher. He’s called into Intertrust headquarters in Geneva – here I belive is the first we learn his middle name is Kingsley – and briefed on the missing ships. He’s to go to Norway to figure out what the hell is going on.

I love how MacDonnell baldly ties together the two plot threads – Hood’s at a hotel in Trondheim, and in comes Elke of all people, surrounded by a group of athletic-looking young people. Hood’s cover as a globe-trotting gaddabout serves him well, and the two laugh at the “coincidence” of meeting again, and begin their affair anew. However, as we soon learn…Elke is the daughter of none other than Norsgaard, the megalomaniac ship-melter, aka “the wealthiest man in Norway.” Not that Hood knew this before coming to Norway; indeed, he has no idea who is behind the situation with the ships, and the opening with Elke in the South of France is incidental to everything. At any rate Elke invites Hood to dinner at her father’s place, which turns out to be a high-tech fortress on an island, serviced by beautiful young women in “futurisitic sheaths of some glistening material” that clings to their shapely bodies.

It’s very much in the Bond movie vibe here as one of these girls shows Hood around the fortress, which is complete with doors that slide open and other such “villain’s lair” amenities. Hood to his credit starts to suspect that any guy who can afford such luxuries – the sliding doors, for example, are built on a level beyond modern technology – might also be the sort of guy who could melt Navy vessels. As I say, MacDonnell just says to hell with careful plotting and belabored setup; he only has about 120 pages to work with, so he gives us the fast moving spy-fy yarn we’re here for.

This “dinner date” with Elke takes up a good bit of the narrative. Norsgaard – who I forgot to mention has a horrifically-scarred face, thanks to improprer forceps handling when he was born – holds forth on the usual supervillain topics as he wines and dines Hood, then trots out a bound and masked pair of guys as part of the afterdinner entertainment. They are of course the two Italian toughs who attempted to rape Elke, earlier in the book; Hood watches in amazement as Norsgaard melts one of them with his melt-ray gizmo thing, but for some reason takes exception when Norsgaard’s hulking blond henchman breaks the neck of the other. This leads to one of the few other action scenes in the novel, with Hood using his karate skills against the thug and his assortment of Viking weapons.

For as it’s clear now, Norsgaard fashions himself as a modern-day Viking (despite the horrific face he too is a towering wall of muscle), and eventually we’ll learn that his plan is to melt the Polar ice caps and destroy civilization, while he and his chosen “perfect” people wait safely in space and then repopulate the Earth with generations of Vikings. This is what he calls his “Viking dream.” He doesn’t immediately tell Hood all this, though; out hero of course has gone through all this – including the fight with the henchman – as a test, Norsgaard gauging if Hood is worthy of being in his Viking army, despite not being Nordic. Initially Norsgaard claims his plan is to melt the caps just a little, enough to raise the waters of docks around the globe, all as some sort of eco-terrosim ploy to get world governments to back off on their environment-harming practices.

Hood’s next test is even more of what we want from this genre; two of those perfect Viking gals come to his bed that night (Norsgaard having insisted Hood stay overnight in the fortress, of course), and offer themselves to him. After a moment of indecision – separately or both at once? – Hood decides on the latter, but as ever MacDonnell immediately ends the scene and we don’t even get a glimmer of naughtiness. Norsgaard next morning informs Hood that this was a test of his “virility,” as Hood will only be granted membership in Norsgaard’s organization if he gets the girls pregnant! And what’s more, Norsgaard has high-tech devices for this as well, so he’ll know in a handful of hours if Hood’s knocked the girls up. We learn that he indeed has, but interestingly this subplot isn’t much belabored other than it’s another right of passage Hood must endure to get into Norsgaard’s orbit, as he has by now of course figured out that this is in fact the villain of the piece. The dashed-off subplot about the pregnant girls is rendered a bit ghoulish, given the climax of the book. 

Sadly though the sci-fi stuff is pretty much jettisoned at this point. Hood strikes up a friendship of sorts with Danielsson, Norsgaard’s personal pilot: Danielsson, we’ll learn, is an astronaut whose chief mission will be to return the colony of space Vikings to earth. He tells Hood the true plans of the supervillain, and since Daniellson himself is sickened by the plot he helps Hood take down Nosgaard’s operation. But it’s all so anticlimactic, friends. Rather than slam-bang action, the third half of the book is comprised of Hood and Danielsson’s scheming. There’s none of the action or thrills you’d get in a Bond movie, that’s for sure. In fact it’s downright messy in how it goes down, to the point that I wasn’t sure what was going on. Hood and Danielsson escape in a plane and Norsgaard’s in a rocket of some sort – not the one going into space, because they’d expect Danielsson to be in that one, so presumably the one that’s supposed to destroy the ice caps? – and the rocket blows up, and our main villain is killed, believe it or not, entirely off-page!

Instead the finale is on the primitive tip, with Hood being stalked in the darkened woods, Elke hunting him Diana-like with bow and arrow. MacDonnell skillfully elaborates the irony of the situation: what started out as such a high-tech sci-fi caper has now reached an altogether old-fashioned climax. This part is more tense than would normally be expected, as Hood has endured such a brutal beating from Elke’s personal henchman (himself scar-faced, a recurring conceit in the novel) that he’s woozy and dazed and can’t even see straight, let alone defend himself from a skilled archer. MacDonnell doesn’t shirk on the man-vs-woman battle, either; usually these pulp authors will have some other female come along and finish off the female villain, or some other development to protect the hero’s “honor” and keep him from killing a woman and all, but Hood dishes out his own death. If that weren’t enough woman-killing, we later learn that Intertrust has overseen the bombing of Norsgaard’s HQ, killing everyone in it – meaning the two girls Hood got pregnant have been killed as well. Not that Hood even considers this!

All in all Operation Ice Cap is a fast-moving yarn with MacDonnell’s typically-capable prose; like a veteran pulpster, he knows how to tell you just as much as you need to know to keep the story moving, without getting bogged down in extranneous details. That being said, this one is at least a little more fleshed out than Operation Octopus, which was almost like an outline at times. There’s a bit more detail and description this time, more fully bringing to life the situations and settings, regardless of how outrageous they are. But I would’ve liked to have at least seen more of Norsgaard’s Viking army, and the prospect of “Space Vikings” was so cool it’s unfortunate we never actually got to see them. Otherwise, this series continues to give you everything you could want from ‘60s spy pulp, and I really like it.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Slaves Of The Empire #5: Corissa The Vestal Virgin

Slaves Of The Empire #5: Corissa The Vestal Virgin, by Dael Forest
August, 1978  Ballantine Books

The Slaves Of The Empire lurches to a close with a fifth volume that’s just as befuddling as the previous four, Stephen “Dael Forest” Frances doing little to get his readers up to speed on the plot, the characters, or anything else. As I’ve said in I think every other review of this series, I get the impression that Slaves Of The Empire was written as one big book – one that, judging from this final volume, never even got a proper ending. Worse yet, Corissa The Vestal Virgin for the most part almost seems to be an installment of another toga trash series entirely, with the recurring characters of the previous four volumes reduced to supporting roles.

As we’ll recall, the main plot has it that a Roman noble named Hadrian (not to be confused with the future emperor) is building a city called Trebula outside of Rome while meanwhile he’s fallen in love with his slave, a Briton named Haesel. Haesel’s brothers and sisters have their own subplots, from dim-witted bombshell Mertice, who is caught in a lame love triangle, to Thane, who is a master craftsman. There’s also Redeard, who became a free man volumes ago and is now a successful businessman. The very least we get in the way of “resolution” in Corissa The Vestal Virgin is that some of these siblings are finally reunited: Haesel and Thane meet in Trebula, the first they’ve seen each other since they all were taken into slavery in the first volume. Surprisingly, Frances doesn’t much exploit the dramatic potential here, just leaving their emotional reunion to a scant few lines of off-hand text, but then again the series overall has been an emotionless, spiritless dirge that takes place in a vacantly-described historical setting.

As mentioned, it’s the new characters who really run the show this time, but even here the title is misleading: “Corissa,” the lovely young head Vestal Virgin (meaning she’s been in service to goddess Vesta the longest), only appears on a handful of pages. Instead the plot is about a scheming duo of senators who plan to pin the blame of a ruined crop in Romania (or somewhere, I forgot) on Vesta – particularly, that Rome has grown so dismissive of the once-important goddess of hearth and home that she has invoked her wrath by destroying these highly-necessary crops. Their proof point is the fact that the so-called “virgins” of Vestal are anything but, sleeping around with lovers and not taking their once-sacred duties in vain; whereas serving Vesta was at one time a spiritual calling, it is now seen by young noble women as a ladder to high stature.

Diocles and Litirum are these two senators (I might’ve jotted the latter’s name down incorrectly, but I’m too lazy to get the book out of the box to verify), and they take up a goodly portion of the narrative with their boring scheming. It’s a lot of back and forth with Maximus, the High Priest of Vesta (himself a wealthy nobleman who prefers the solitude of his library and looks on his “sacred duties” with boredom) and some dude who is the “Chief Augur.” You know those parts in old historical epics like Ben Hur or The Fall Of The Roman Empire where it’s a lot of British guys in period costume debating with one another in faux-“Shakespearian” accents? Well the entire Slaves Of the Empire series is pretty much just like that, this subplot in particular.

And still we focus on other Vestas instead of titular Corissa; one of them gets involved with a dude heavily into s&m, and he gradually talks her into some whipping. This last bit is probably the sleaziest the series has gotten, but even here it’s told with that disaffected, clinical tone so familiar of British pulp. I mean there’s no outright sex in the book, just a lot of talk about “love-play,” and the majority of the lurid stuff is told in summary. There seems to be a focus on whipping in this one, though; the novel opens with Maximus presiding over the sacred duty of sending off an “old” Vesta and replacing her with a new one. Here Frances skillfully sets up his theme of dwindling faith in the old ways: we’re told that once upon a time Vestas who shirked in their duty were seriously whipped before being cast out of the temple, but now it’s a formulaic procedure in which the whipping is faked for the audience, and the girl must pretend to scream and cry.

This though again brings me to the question of when all this takes place. At one point Frances reels off a list of the gods the Romans believe in, but they’re all the old ones, like Jupiter and such. In reality, by the time of the Empire, most Romans were into esoteric Eastern cults, like Isis or Mithra. This is actually how Christianity was able to spread; it was the new hip religion among rich Roman matrons, particularly around the era of Constatine, when a few of these same matrons “discovered” sites in Jerusalem which are still considered sacred today. But there’s no mention of any of that here, which again places the setting of the series in question. We do for once get a glimmer of period detail when Tiberius and Nero are briefly mentioned; there’s also mention of an upcoming aristocrat named Trajan, with the implication that he indeed is the future emperor of the same name.

We do get a resolution on the lame Alexander-Mertice-Melanos triangle that’s been going on since the first volume. As we’ll recall, Alexander is a foppish gadabout who prides himself on his “love-play;” he once owned Mertice, who fell in love with him, but he gave her away to Melanos, ie the noble tomboy babe Alexander lusts after. Last time it was set up that Alexander had some plan in mind for these two women. This time we see it, and it’s pretty despicable; through belabored means he kidnaps Mertice, placing her in a sort of silk prison for a few days. All as a “joke” on Melanos. He has one of his buddies visit Mertice every day, trying to get her in the sack; once she’s finally succumbed and is sufficiently worked up, Alexander comes in and drops the bomb that he’s behind her kidnapping. He tries to get her in the mood with his hands – Mertice being a virgin still – until Mertice not only reveals that someone’s already done this for her, but indeed that it was done better than Alexander’s doing it…and the person doing it was a slave! This we’re to understand hits Alexander right where it hurts: in his arrogant heart.

Otherwise we don’t even get to “main” characters Hadrian and Haesel until page 67. Their story seems to occur in the swingtown seventies, with Haesel again happily “lending” Hadrian to a rich older noblewoman whose money is important for the creation of Trebula. Meanwhile Hadrian gives Haesel her freedom, for once showing a spark of personality as he first treats her roughly, calling her “slave” and the like, before revealing that she is free, and also the new mistress of his house. But this sadly is where we leave them, so there’s no resolution to the overall storyline; we’re told that Haesel will still try to find Mertice and Redwing, implying that in future volumes this would finally come to pass.

Frances does spice the book up with lurid details likely gleaned from Daniel Mannix’s Those About To Die, in particular a long sequence, which suddenly detours into the style of a history book, which recounts the bloody entertainments of “the stadium,” aka the Flavian Amphitheater, aka the Colisseum. It’s all sick and wild, with lurid tidbits about Romans having sex in the stands while blood sprays in the stadium below, but it just seems to be lifted whole-hog from some other “nonfiction” book and placed in here. Even worse is it’s all relayed via summary, in a part in which Redbeard happens to do business near the stadium and briefly reflects on its horrible nature and background. 

This sudden focus on violence and sleaze plays out in the finale, an unexpectedly brutal sequence which has the two scheming senators succeed in their plot; Vesta’s “virgins” are blamed for the crop failure, and are summarily rounded up…some of them, like Corissa, while in bed with their lovers! So much for the “virgin” tags. Corissa pays the ultimate price, whipped for real and then friggin’ buried alive outside the Hearth of Vesta, all so as to appease the goddess. From here we jump to an arbitrary, WTF-finale in which Poppaea, a very minor recurring character who is not to be confused with the former empress, picks up some dude on the street and decides he’ll be her new plaything in bed.

And that, my friends, is the unsteady note on which Slaves Of The Empire comes to a close, leading me to believe that Frances likely had more installments in mind and the series was just cancelled – and he wasn’t asked to write a concluding installment when the books were brought over to the US a few years after they’d been published in the UK. I have to say though I’m glad to be done with the books – the best thing about them is the awesome cover art by Boris Valejo on these US editions. If only the actual novels were up to that caliber!