Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Random Record Reviews: Volume 4

Even yet more (sort of) obscure ‘60s/’70s Rock LPs: 

1. Aorta: Aorta
Columbia, 1969

Sometimes dubbed “The American Sgt. Pepper’s,” Aorta is courtesy a Chicago-based group that should’ve gone on to bigger things, as this LP is a masterpiece of psychedelic rock. To tell you the truth, I’d rather listen to it than Sgt. Pepper’s any day of the week! For one thing, it has a lot more variety, and more sonic textures; it’s definitely along the lines of After Bathing At Baxter’s, by the Jefferson Airplane, in that you hear something new every time you play it. Each side plays as a long suite, tracks flowing in and out of each other with recurring phrases and themes that add to an incredibly-realized conceptual nature. The pressing is phenomenal, too, with a wide soundstage. They cover the spectrum of psych rock, from pop to heaviosity to even a maudlin Burt Bacarach-type number on side 2. Judging from the copyright, Aorta was actually recorded in 1968, so perhaps releasing this in post-psychedelic 1969 did it no favors. I searched my Rolling Stone CD-Rom and only found a single mention of the album, in a review Lester Bangs did for the first Alice Cooper record, Pretties For You, where he commented on the fuzz guitar sounds of Aorta.

Top Track: This is a tough one, but if I had to say it might be “What’s In My Mind’s Eye,” one of the poppier numbers on the album, but with a super-cool “underwater” sound effect on the chorus vocals.

2. Dave Mason Alone Together
Blue Thumb, 1970

Okay, this one isn’t obscure, or at least it wasn’t at the time, as it sold quite a many copies and received regular airplay on the rock stations. But I guess over time its reputation waned, at least to the point that the average rock listener might not be aware of it today. This is their loss, as Alone Together stands up with any other rock classic of the day. Mason broke off from Traffic to start a solo career, this being his debut album, populated with a host of (usually uncredited) celebrity musicians. It doesn’t sound much like a Traffic album to me, covering a wide range of styles, from shorter tracks for radio play to longer ones for the dopesmokers at home. One of those albums that perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist but which have faded in significance – at least judging from a lack of “classic rock” airplay.

One of the biggest draws of the album is the packaging. The original release was a sort of triple gatefold gimmick cover that opened up into a psyechedelic photo of Mason. Even better was the vinyl, a “marble splatter” of gray, brown, yellow, black, and a little pink, mimicking the rocky terrain on the cover photo. Only problem – the marbled vinyl made for a very noisy pressing. I’ve read comments from people who’ve sought a good-sounding copy for decades, ultimately deciding that good-sounding pressings don’t exist. I personally have two copies; the first I bought many years ago, and I seem to recall it sounded okay on my cheap conical stylus…but when I played it on an elliptical (where the stylus gets deeper into the grooves), it was nothing but noise – the record was toast. I replaced with a “very good plus” copy off Discogs, but it too has a bit of surface noise at times. Apparently it’s a combo of things: the marble effect makes it hard to gauge the groove condition, and also colored vinyl itself is often noisy. Regardless, the thing looks super cool spinning on the turntable…I mean you won’t get that from your MP3 download!

Top Track: There’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve always been a big fan of “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave,” a six-minute burner featuring an uncredited Eric Clapton on some mean wah-wah guitar. This would be one of those dopesmoker numbers.

3. Space Opera: Space Opera
Columbia, 1973

Hailing from nearby Fort Worth, Space Opera was sort of like a prog rock take on the Byrds or CSN. One of those groups that should’ve made it, they seem to have taken too long to get an album out; if this had been released a year or two earlier, doubtless it would’ve resonated more. But as it is, Space Opera had little impact, with this lone pressing going for high dollars now due to its scarcity. The album ranges from country-rock to prog, with a few tracks that sound for all the world like the “alternative rock” of the early ‘90s. Guitars are piled atop guitars in some of the most rampant overdubbing since Randy California’s Kapt. Kopter, almost to the point where the bass and drums are lost in the mix. I’m not as much into the more country numbers, and there’s an overlong prog instrumental (“Guitar Suite”) that I could do without, but overall the album has its own sort of sound that’s really at odds with anything else at the time. The vinyl’s hard to find, but there’s a CD out there, and supposedly the band members remastered it themselves, ramping up the guitars. Or so I ‘ve read. I managed to get a copy of the original vinyl for super cheap and mix wise it doesn’t sound that different from the CD…at least to my untrained ears.

Top Track: Definitely my favorite on here would be “Holy River,” one of those proto-alternative rock numbers. I don’t mean this as an insult – I mean personally I can’t stand ‘90s music, though I loved it at the time – but this track sounds like almost anything that could’ve played on MTV’s “Buzz Bin” around 1994.

4. Alvin Lee and Mylon Lefevre: On The Road To Freedom
Columbia, 1973

Like so many other rockers at the time, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After went rural in the early ‘70s, recording this LP with gospelist-turned-rocker Lefevre in Lee’s home studio in the countryside. Along with a cast of mostly-uncredited performers (apparently even Mick Jagger plays rhthym guitar on one track!), the two turned out an album that melds Band-influenced roots rock with heavier numbers along the lines of Lee’s work with Ten Years After (only less bluesy). The title track almost captures the very sound of the era, the whole back-to-the-country vibe so many artists were aspiring to at the time, but it doesn’t look like the album’s had much of an impact over the years, as it’s mostly forgotten. The album did have a sort-of hit at the time: “So Sad,” written by George Harrison and featuring him on guitar; it sounds like it could’ve come off of Harrison’s solo epic All Things Must Pass.

Top Track: Overall there’s a very laid-back sound to On The Road To Freedom, making for a pleasant, relaxing listen, but I’ve always been most drawn to one of the heavier tracks: “Fallen Angel.” This one sounds a lot like Ten Years After, only with more of a processed, in-studio sound to the guitars, which gives it a vaguely proto-metal vibe.

5. Ted Nugent: Ted Nugent
Epic, 1975

That’s right, Ted Nugent! I never would’ve thought of picking this one up, until I read this review. Man, I’d forgotten all about “Stranglehold,” doubtless one of the greatest tracks in ‘70s rock. As a Youtube commenter put it, this is the song Nugent should be remembered for instead of “Cat Scratch Fever.” I used to hear “Stranglehold” all the time on “classic rock radio” as a kid in the ‘80s, but over the years just forgot about it. After reading that review on Unsung, I remembered it and decided to pick up the album. Now I’ll be honest, the rest of the LP doesn’t reach those heights, but it’s pretty good mid-‘70s hard rock regardless, with a bit of a Stones influence going on for a few tracks. But who cares, just buy the LP and play “Stranglehold” over and over!

Top Track: You’ll be shocked to learn that my favorite track on here is “Stranglehold!” Seriously though, it’s 8+ minutes of grooving heavy ‘70s rock, with the coolest phased bass you’ll ever hear – the track that launched a thousand bongs, no doubt.

6. Various Artists: Flash Fearless Versus The Zorg Women Parts 5 and 6
Chrysalis, 1975

Flash Fearless was the rock opera equivalent of a big budget flop; the record spoofs Flash Gordon, clearly tapping into a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe. Alice Cooper sings on two tracks, Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas shows up, and Jon Entwistle, who co-produced, plays bass throughout. Another of those elaborate deals, the LP came with a big comic book explaining the clunky storyline (which the album itself doesn’t really stick to). I lucked out and got a promo copy years ago that came with all this, plus a Xeroxed memo sheet for radio stations which further explains the storyline and the genesis of the concept. I’m not sure how big of an impact this album had, and indeed Entwistle himself didn’t even appear to be aware it had been released, at least judging from the comments of someone who talked to him about it in the early ‘90s. Overall though this is total mid-‘70s studio rock, with nothing really standing out individually but all of it working together well enough. The goofy concept alone makes it kind of lovable.

Top Track: I like the closing instrumental track “Trapped,” by Eddie Jobson, but can’t link to it – for some reason, none of this album’s on Youtube, however you can listen to the entire thing on Daily Motion.

7. Lone Star: Lone Star
Columbia, 1976

The group name has you expecting some country-rock thing, but in reality Lone Star is slick but spaced-out mid-‘70s hard rock. I have no way of confirming it, but these guys had to have been inspired by the first Montrose album. This album has the exact same vibe, with heavy guitars put through all sorts of sonic wringers and songs focusing on sci-fi themes; most of the lyrics are about spaceships or journeying to the stars and whatnot. Now I won’t lie, maybe the album is a little too slick for its own good (one of the reasons why I generally prefer my rock up to 1975 at the latest), but this is total Guitar Hero sort of stuff, and at times it verges on prog – only without ever losing its hard rock foundation. UK DJ John Peel loved the group, but they never hit the big time, and this was the only album released by the original lineup.

Top Track: The eight-minue psych-prog-metal remake of “She Said, She Said” is probably my favorite, but please note – the version I’m linking to is not the album version, but instead a BBC rehearsal from 1975. For some curious reason, most of the album tracks from Lone Star aren’t on Youtube, but you can find all of those BBC rehearsals. Overall the LP versions are much more concise and slick, with extra effects on the guitars and vocals. But also I’ll admit, the LP versions also have that icy, lifeless sound pretty much all mid-to-late 1970s rock did, whereas the BBC versions are a bit more vigorous.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mafia: Operation Hijack

Mafia: Operation Hijack, by Don Romano
August, 1974  Pyramid Books

“Attention Mafia hijackers: Richard Dawson has had enough of your shit!”*

The penultimate volume of Mafia: Operation is courtesy Paul Eiden, the first of two books he wrote for the series; he also wrote Operation Loan Shark, which happened to be the last volume of the series. But again as I’ve mentioned in every single review, Mafia: Operation isn’t really a series, per se, and instead is a set of unrelated, standalone novels focusing on the world of the mob. This time the plot is hijacking, obviously, and my only assumption is that Eiden, like most other ghostwriters for series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, was given the title and synopsis and told to cater a novel to it – only he had a helluva time figuring out how to write about hijacking trucks for 190 pages.

The end result is that there’s precious little hijacking in Operation Hijack, with the focus more on inter-family Mafia rivalries, a complex heist involving freight shipments from Europe, and finally the seduction-via-subjugation of a couple cold-fish beauties – an Eiden staple, and a clear indication that he was indeed the author who wrote another Engel production, Crooked Cop. There’s a subplot here that’s almost identical to the one in that earlier, superior novel, where the titular crooked cop went out of his way to subjugate a beautiful high-society whore…and she ended up falling in love with him. Eiden is in some ways in an even more macho, misogynist realm than Manning Lee Stokes: Operation Hijack states often that most women want to be treated like shit or generally abused, and it’s the surest way to get them to love you – and when they love you they’ll do anything for you. Actually there are “tips” throughout on how to get women in line and to do your bidding. (None of these tips seem to work on wives, btw; in fact, it turns out they have the complete opposite effect.)

Another hallmark of Eiden’s work is that his books are basically tragedies, featuring an arrogant alpha male protagonist who is clearly headed for misfortune – misfortune he could easily prevent if he was more aware of what was going on around him and not so much wrapped up in his own ego. There are a lot of similarities to Crooked Cop, so far as the protagonist goes: the “hero” of this one is Ralph Borden, aka Rafael Bardini, a muscular former boxer who still runs a couple miles a day and hits the weights first thing in the morning, working out in his penthouse apartment in Manhattan. He’s 29, sports a moustache, moves through women with ease, and runs the “hijacking scheme” for Don Carlo Renati. Ralph was plucked from the streets by Don Carlo, taken out of his successful Golden Gloves career and put on the fast-track to Mafia success. He was sent to college and put his business ideas to work in refashioning the mob, immediately making the family tons of money through various legal and illegal schemes.

The main plot actually has more to do with Ralph scheming to become the youngest Don in the Mafia. Don Carlo is in his 70s and frail and Ralph worries that he might be going senile. The other families are closing in on them, and Ralph’s afraid a mob war is brewing, and their little family will be wiped out – unless Don Carlo can “make” more soldiers (ie giving them kill contracts so they can become full-fledged Mafia members) and put himself together a proper army. So there’s a lot of plotting and scheming in this one, more of a “peek inside the Mafia world” than in Operation Loan Shark, so be prepared for a barrage of Italian names and histories on the various fictional families at play. I found it all a little boring, but at the very least it is a “Mafia novel,” more so than any others in the series, most of which focused on characters who orbited around the Mafia. Operation Hijack is different from the other four books in the “series” in that the protagonist is a full Mafia member, wholly part of the mob life.

The opening had me thinking we were going to get something similar to Operation Porno (the best volume of the series by far!), as we meet Ralph while he’s planning the financing of a “black action flick with white money behind it.” Eiden was certainly aware of the urban action movies of the day, with the characters specifically referencing Blaxploitation, and Ralph telling the young black director of the movie that he could be “the next Melvin van Peebles.” Or as one of the black characters says, “People who put down so-called blaxploitation films are mistaken.” Central to this group of filmmakers is a six-foot black beauty named Camille Caine, who is to star in the movie Ralph is financing: “Black Motor Cycle Girl.” The title sucks, but the plot sounds promising (what little we learn of it)…a biker/Blaxploitation hybrid. But sadly friends this will be all we hear about the movie!

Instead, the focus is on Ralph getting his “pound of flesh.” Haughty Ciarra, a model, is pissed that she’s getting such low pay, and Ralph goes out of his way to talk down to her, to make it clear she’s easily replaced – just total prig stuff, like referring only to “the girl” when speaking of the main actress, even though Ciarra’s sitting right there. This will just be our first glimpse of how Ralph must subjugate his female prey before he dominates them…and the more they dislike him, the more enjoyment he gets out of it. The guys leave, and Ralph makes it clear that Camille has “the classic decision” all aspiring actresses face: anonymity or the producer’s bed. Camille of course choses the latter, trying to get some digs in on Ralph for being a “wop.” He responds that “to be Italian is beautiful,” and further makes a compelling case that all black women secretly lust for a white lover! 

As with other Eiden novels I’ve read, Ralph’s poor treatment of the woman works to his advantage, with her soon pleading for sex in his swank penthouse. And promptly falling in love with him afterward! Indeed Ralph has to threaten to throw her out a few days later, as she refuses to leave him – and she needs to fly out to California to get started on the movie. In other words she’s willing to throw away her potential career for this guy she just met, this guy she hated at first sight. This sort of alpha male dominance is of course unacceptable in today’s entertainment, but as mentioned Eiden doles it out so casually that you almost forget Ralph’s supposed to be an anti-hero. He’ll go on to subjugate and dominate two more women in the novel, and unfortunately this is the last we see of Camille, or even hear about the movie.

The only hijacking stuff in the novel occurs early on. Ralph’s lieutenant, a former street soldier named Mickey, oversees a trucking hijacking scheme, where they rip off some poor trucker, stuff him in the trunk (eventually letting him go), and take the wares to a secret location to sell later. We see one of the hijacks go down, then learn later that the hijackers themselves were hijacked – some guys with shotguns and lead pipes ran the truck off the road and beat the drivers so unmerciful that one of them dies and the other loses an eye. Mickey is simmering for revenge, as is Ralph, but Don Carlo finds out from the Mafia commission that they’re to let it slide – longtime rivals the Palucci family were behind the counter-hijack, lying that they didn’t know Don Carlo’s men had already hijacked the truck. The Don sees something Ralph missed: there must be a traitor in their family who let the Paluccis know about the truck.

Ralph succeeds into talking the Don into vengeance, so an elaborate scheme is set up where they can foil the hijackers…and figure out who the mole is in their own organization. The cover painting comes into play here, with Ralph and Mickey waiting in a decoy truck with shotguns; when they’re hit by hijackers they come out blasting, wiping out would-be hijackers in gory splendor. This will be the only action scene in the novel. After which it’s more into the “Mafia drama suspense” mode, with a lot of stuff centered on the elaborate revenge on the capo who set them up in the first place…a revenge which has another of Ralph’s men, Joey, making his bones by carrying out the hit. Later the Paluccis will approach Ralph, basically offering him the role of a minor don if he himself will kill Don Carlo. Ralph will of course refuse the offer, which sets off the climactic events, but honestly the Mafia subplot also disappears for long stretches.

Instead, Eiden is more focused on Ralph’s breaking down the icy demeanor of a “full-breasted” Dutch beauty named Holly, who is such a cold fish she wonders if she’s a “Lez.” Actually she doesn’t even wonder; she reveals later she’s had sex with “many” women, in addition to men…it’s just that no one’s able to get her off. This is the subplot that is so reminiscent of Crooked Cop. Holly works for Dutch airline KLM, and Ralph’s had this complex heist scheme in mind for a long time…basically, from what little we learn of it, involving Holly using her contacts in the freight departments of various airlines in Europe to hijack shipments by changing the shipping addresses. But first he’ll need to seduce Holly, so we have a lot of stuff of him breaking down her icy reserve, despite her reservations and hesitations and constant reminders that nothing turns her on. Of course Ralph succeeds, quite easily it seems, by merely going down on her…after which he has her calling him “Lord Ralph” and literally begging for sex.

I should mention that despite all the focus on seduction and foreplay, there really isn’t much hardcore material in Operation Hijack, certainly not as much as there was in the first three volumes by Alan Nixon and Robert Turner. Also Eiden’s recurring “widely-separated breasts” line doesn’t appear here, so maybe it’s something he only used occasionally as his literary calling card. We are often reminded of Holly’s “heavy breasts,” but even this boobsploitation is nowhere on the level of later Eiden offerings like Operation Weatherkill. So focused is Eiden on the subjugation and dominance of Holly that the actual Heist material is over and done with in a few pages; we’re told Ralph and Holly venture around Europe for “two months” to set up the complex scheme, after which Ralph thankfully deposits Holly in Zurich and hurries back to New York – she has, of course, fallen completely in love with him, hoping for marriage.

Ralph’s third conquest happens immediately after and isn’t as much explored as the previous two. It’s a redheaded beauty named Eilen, and he meets her at his country club, where she rides horses and enjoys the highfalutin life of the jet-set rich. She’s a stewardess, and Ralph doesn’t have to do much in the way of subjugation or domination for her, but Eiden does cleverly work it in when the first time Eileen sees Ralph, he’s screaming at some poor stable hand for failing to take proper care of Ralph’s horse. In other words she’s glimpsed his alpha male dominance from afar. So we get stuff of them romancing, and meanwhile Eiden occasionally reminds us that Ralph’s in the Mafia and there’s a war brewing between his family and the Paluccis.

As is typical with most of Eiden’s work, things come to a sudden head after so many, many pages of stalling and padding. Holly comes back without warning, to catch Eileen in Ralph’s bed, and literally tears her face apart in a shocking scene. Things fly to a conclusion after this, as Holly claims to have been sent back due to a cable she received from Ralph…however Ralph never sent a cable. It’s a setup from the Paluccis, and the finale is almost hamfistedly rushed; major characters are killed off-page, and Ralph assembles the remaining family to discuss going to the matresses…while a squad of Palucci hitmen with Browning Automatic Rifles converge on the scene. It’s memorable at least, and definitely the ending we’ve been expecting since page one, but man if Eiden had only spent more time developing the Mafia subplot instead of hopscotching around so much other incidental stuff. In other words he’s squandered the plot’s potential, something he did – even more drastically – in The Ice Queen.

That said, Eiden’s writing is fine as ever; he has a definite literary touch, same as most other writers in Engel’s stable, yet never lets it get in the way of the narrative flow. But he had a tendency to pad and stall, same as Stokes. Perhaps not as bad as Stokes, but then Stokes was capable of more memorable plots and sequences, whereas a sort of blandness often settles over Eiden’s books. But when he was on form, he could knock them out of the park, as with Crooked Cop. Maybe he just took a while to warm up to the series he was hired for, as Operation Loan Shark was much better than this one.

*In the tradition of Zwolf’s hilarious takes on celebrity lookalikes on cover artwork

Monday, September 21, 2020

Black Magic

Black Magic, by R.T. Larkin
June, 1974  Dell Books

Now that my friends is a cover. Yet another of those “sleaze comedies with nude photo covers” Dell specialized in during the early ‘70s, Black Magic is courtesy Rochelle “R.T.” Larkin, a prolific author who published under a variety of names. She also wrote a few of the New Adventures Of Cherry Delight books. Under her own name it seems she might be most remembered for the Godmother trilogy, which was about a female Godmother taking on the mob. I’ve got one of those and tried to read it a few years ago but just couldn’t get into it, because it was more of a “comedy” (or at least spoof) than what I was looking for – as you all know, I prefer my pulp straight, no chaser. I mean, it can be as wild and extreme as possible (and preferably so), but if nothing seems serious even to the characters, then I’m not into it.

Luckily though Black Magic has no pretenses toward being a spoof of pulp crime novels. It is what it is: a goofy-natured sleaze novel, same as all the other books in this unofficial Dell line, such as Sexual Strike ForceMaking U-HooMichelle, My Belle, etc. Only unlike those books, this one has a Blaxploitation angle, taking place entirely in Harlem and featuring a “honey-skinned” seventeen year-old named Opal Hopewell (a Pynchonesque name if ever there was one). Larkin as it turns out pulls the same trick that Maxene Fabe did in Death Rock: she thoroughly skewers the left-wing radicals of the day. Of course the irony here, same as with Fabe’s novel, is that much of the moronic leftist mentality that Larkin spoofs has not only become accepted, but championed (or even knelt to, you might say) by the so-called mainstream.

First though a note on the sleaze: there ain’t much of it, sad to say. This is another of those curious “sleaze” novels that skips most of the sex, which as I’ve said before is about as puzzling a conundrum as decaf coffee. But seriously, Opal gets laid a lot – the entire plot of the novel, no exagerration, is her getting her grandmother to whip up spells to conjure up a new man for Opal to screw – however pretty much the entirety of the action happens off-page. Those sex scenes we do get to read are usually relayed in a few sentences, and as vaguely as possible. There’s no anatomical exploitation, description, or anything else the horny reader demands in his sleaze fiction. About the most we get to learn is that Opal has “nice breasts.” There isn’t even much description of the men Opal encounters, so it isn’t just a case of a female author not wanting to exploit her female protagonist. In fact, there is a naïve, almost innocent tone to the novel, which is bizarre when you realize it’s literally all about a seventeen year-old screwing a series of men.

And that’s another note – this book would not be publishable today, that’s for sure. Not only is Opal a minor, but she operates like a street hustler, making her way through one guy after another. As if that weren’t enough, her first “experience” in the book is a rape – and it’s not only inferred that this isn’t Opal’s first time encountering a “raper-man,” but the entire situation is played off as a joke! In this “#metoo” era this part just seemed so insane and in poor taste. I mean, speaking of those leftist radicals, they’d burn this book (along with whatever city they happened to be in, of course)…that is, if they could afford a copy, as Black Magic seems to be a little scarce and pricey these days. But all “kidding” aside, the book really does cross some boundaries that might make for uncomfortable reading for some. Yet again what makes it all the more bonkers is that Opal is just a naïve kid, so there’s this innocent tone to the narrative – which by the way is in third-person, though Larkin is guilty of some egregious perspective-hopping, jumping abruptly into POVs other than Opal’s with little warning.

Well anyway, Opal Hopewell is seventeen and, when we meet her, she’s grown frustrated with her life of squalor in Harlem. There’s a lot of anger in Opal, a lot of lashing out at others; there are many parts where she mouths off at people, yet we’re often told she’s “a nice girl.” Likely this is more subtle skewering courtesy Larkin. Opal’s parents are never mentioned. She lives in a small apartment in a Harlem tenement building with her Grammy, a little old lady whose age is never disclosed; Grammy is widowed (and we’re treated to a few egregious tall tales about her departed husband) and is something of a hoodoo witch. The title of the book is a play on how Grammy will whip up various hoodoo spells to find Opal whatever man has gotten her fancy. As the book progresses Grammy will ensnare a hapless country bumpkin, a James Brown parody, a welfare worker, a street hustler, and finally – and most humorously – a “black activisit for gay liberation.”

But the first guy Grammy brings in with her hoodoo is that “raper-man.” This is probably the most distasteful way Larkin could’ve started the book, but it happens regardless. Opal’s watching famous basketball player Bigfoot Barnum on TV and begs Grammy to do some hoodoo to get him for her. Grammy says she’ll need some of Bigfoot’s sweaty socks, so as to use the sweat for the magic recipe she’ll whip up. Tall men, we’re informed, require special hoodoo spells. This entails a humorous bit where Grammy poses as a cleaning lady and gets into the locker room at Madison Square Garden, taking Bigfoot’s socks. Meanwhile Opal waits outside the forum, in a sexy red dress; the idea is that Bigfoot will be so entranced by the hoodoo spell that he will be drawn to Opal in her red dress. But instead of Bigfoot Barnum, it’s some creep who jumps out of the shadows and throws Opal into a sidestreet and rapes her. When a black-eyed and beaten Opal stumbles back home and informs Grammy that it wasn’t Bigfoot who got her, but a rapist, Grammy says: “Tell me one thing – was he tall?”

Yes, it’s a rape-joke punch line, as Grammy’s point is that her spell did work – Opal did get herself a “tall man,” it just wasn’t Bigfoot Barnum. This isn’t even the only joke at Opal’s expense. When later she complains about rapists and eating nothing but bread crumbs, Grammy’s response is: “You was only raped once, and we haven’t had a crust of bread for days, so what-all are you speechifying for?” Regardless, the incident spurs Opal to do something about their rough life in Harlem, and she storms off to a local meeting of the militant black power group the Black Spiders. Instead of getting radicalized, she falls for the hunky young leader of the local chapter, Shakim Shabazz Sazam (formerly known as Roosevelt Jones). She brings Shakim back to the apartment and proceeds to have sex with him when Grammy goes to bed, and unlike the rest of the men in the book, Shakim will become Opal’s “main man” from here on out. And also it only occurred to me after reading the book, but Shakim is the only guy Opal gets for herself, without Grammy’s hoodoo, so doubtless there’s a message there.

Larkin almost presciently mocks the whole radical movement through Shakim – he’s dedicated to revolution and freeing the downtrodden from poverty, but lets it slip that he himself is well-off, so wealthy that his dad even bought him a car. As if to prove this wealth, the next day he comes back with presents for both Opal and Grammy, including a songbird he gives the latter which Grammy names “Shakim.” There’s more leftist skewering as Shazam tries to radicalize Opal, who is such a tabula rasa that she begins quoting Eldridge Cleaver and the like, though of course the majority of their concepts are above her. (And of course little does she or Shakim realize that Cleaver would eventually become a Republican!) Shakim is so dedicated to the cause that he even often brushes off Opal – “First comes the revolution, and then I’ll fuck you, okay?” – yet at the same time is often clueless what exactly he’s rallying for. There’s also an egregious bit where they go to a party hosted by a Warhol type, where Opal is digusted by the wealthy liberal elite, including more “unpublishable today” stuff where she mocks a tranny.

Shakim takes off, though, leaving Opal heartbroken – he lies that he’s only going to Philadelphia to help the cause, but reveals to Opal at the airport that he’s really going to Algeria. Opal will pine for him the rest of the novel, still referring to him as her man; not that this stops her from getting friendly with a bunch of other guys, thanks to Grammy’s hoodoo magic. First though she decides to get a job. She waltzes into a swank department store and tells them she wants to work there. More presience from Larkin where the white HR guy tells Opal that the company is “eager to hire minorities,” to which an increasingly-surly Opal responds, “Last to hire, first on fire.” The joke here is Opal’s increasing black power radicalization contrasted with the white HR rep’s meekness, but at the same time comments like this seem particularly troubling given recent events.

Opal gets the job, but immediately gets in a fight when another black girl is asked to train her – the girl accuses Opal of being too friendly with her man. Also Grammy’s gotten Opal in trouble; the old lady is fond of carrying around a shopping bag, which she fills via shoplifting that no one ever seems to catch her in the act of. Opal decides to quit, after which it’s back to the main plot: finding her a man to screw. Grammy has her sights set on the young boy next door, George Washington Bridges, who lives with his mother and just moved here from the country. Opal has no interest in him, but this portion of the novel is fun because it turns out George’s mom is also a hoodoo witch; she sends George over to Opal’s with something called “tumble pie,” which Grammy reveals is a magical pie that’s intended to keep Opal away from the boy. This sets off a witch war between the two women, with Grammy of course winning; Opal gets her grips on George and takes his virginity in a major way (though as ever the actual description is minimal to nonexistant). Even up to and including a bit of sodomy, if I’m understanding the dialog correctly.

Announcing she’s worn George out, Opal’s done with the boy forever and sends him home to his mama. Next up she wants James Black, “Soul Brother Second To None,” who of course is a play on James Brown. Opal and Grammy go to one of his shows and perform the usual hoodoo to get his attention. But James turns out to be an arrogant prick, putting down Grammy, and Opal spurns him. Actually Opal spurns a bunch of dudes in the novel, but ends up changing her mind, as she does with James Black when he comes over to their apartment. But he complains “I done five bitches already,” and can’t rise to the occasion. Grammy’s various hoodoo remedies can’t even help him, so nothing happens here.

Not that Opal slows down – next she settles on a redheaded welfare worker named Alexander, who is new on the job. Now radical Opal gets to harras whitey, first mocking him for looking down on Opal and her Grammy, then telling him he should quit his work. Then of course she gets him in bed – and another recurring gimmick in the novel is that these guys all fall in love with Opal right after doing her. This holds true for Alexander, with the bonus that he proposes to her. This part is also humorous as the two, along with Grammy, go to Alexander’s home, which he shares with his 82 year-old mother. She of course passes right out when her son announces that this young black girl is his fiance. Grammy and Opal take the old woman through the wringer, making her pass out frequently; there’s a very funny part where Opal loudly has sex with Alexander, knowing that his mother’s listening: “You light as a feather, but you hard as a rock!”

Eventually the two tire of the game, and Opal breaks it off with Alexander, heading back to Harlem with Grammy. There follows some stuff with Al the Hustler, who shows up to sell his mostly-stolen wares but ends up bedding Opal and briefly becoming her latest flame, before he ends up in jail. Another humorous bit follows, as Opal’s next “conquest” is a handsome black man named Lavender X, who is a member of the Black Activisits for Gay Liberation, or “Bagel,” as they refer to themselves. Again Opal is clueless about homosexuals, just figuring that Lavender’s outrageous wardrobe and pierced ears are the sign of a truly turned-on fashionable dude. More “inappropriate today” stuff ensues, like Opal wondering why Lavender has such a strange lisp, saying for example “tho” instead of “so.” But he is of course truly over the top in a cliched manner totally impossible in today’s world of entertainment, spending more time in the kitchen whipping up food for the two women – including some grass he’s brought along.

Unfortunately the novel ends here, pretty abruptly, with Opal and Grammy stoned from the grass they’ve unwittingly eaten…and Shakim suddenly returns, very upset to discover his “woman” hanging around with a strange man, naked and high. But as soon as he finds out Lavender is with Bagel – “Where the limp wrist makes the clinched fist,” per Shakim – he’s okay with the situation, and he and Opal run up to the roof to look at the view. On this abrupt note Black Magic comes to a close, with Opal looking forward to the coming revolution.

The novel is mostly entertaining, especially for what it is, but it’s nowhere as good as the cover. I mean that cover! It promises so much more, like a novel devoted to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” (I know, technically that should be Fleetwood Macs “Black Magic Woman,” but come on – I bet even Peter Green would’ve said he preferred Santana’s version!) Unfortunately the novel itself has nothing to do with the cover…Opal herself practices no black magic and is just the recipient of it. Otherwise, I enjoyed Black Magic more than I thought I would.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Executioner #13: Washington I.O.U.

The Executioner #13: Washington I.O.U., by Don Pendleton
September, 1972  Pinnacle Books

I get the feeling Don Pendleton was a little worn out when he wrote this installment of The Executioner. Maybe he just invested too much of himself in the previous volume, which per his own comments was one of his favorites of the entire series. I don’t think anyone could say that about Washington I.O.U., though; this one’s a bit of a mess, with too big a story for too few pages, with a rushed narrative (the “telling instead of showing” is especially rampant this time) that ultimately dispenses with the grander storyline and climaxes with a bizarre finale that would’ve been more at home in a 1930s pulp.

I do appreciate how Pendleton picks up from the previous yarn, which ended with Bolan blowing away some random Mafia dude and taking some papers from him, papers which would tell the Executioner where to go next in his endless blitz on the mob. So it’s now about a week later and Bolan’s in DC; when we meet him, he’s trailing a beautiful gal named Claudia Vitale; in her day job she’s the secretary for an over-the-hill Congressman, but in her night job she’s a “Mafia whore.” Claudia will be the main female character in this one, but despite the sleazy setup – we’ll learn Claudia is used as a honey trap by the mob, baiting and snaring Washington VIPs, getting them in the sack so their photos can be secretly taken, and then blackmailing them – there will be no hanky-panky for Bolan himself. This of course results in several demerits from me.

The opening definitely promises a more gripping story than we’ll ultimately get; Bolan happens to witness an attempted hit on Claudia, a pair of Mafia thugs pulling her off the street and into her apartment. Bolan takes out the guy waiting in the car and the two sadists in Claudia’s apartment without even breaking a sweat; he’s totally in superhero mode at this point in the series, but Pendleton’s such a gifted author that it all still has a realistic vibe to it. And speaking of which, Bolan solely uses his sidearms this time, either the big Automag .44 or the Beretta Belle, which he picked up many volumes ago. The second one is used a little more, as Bolan goes for a lot of quiet kills with the silencer on the Beretta. Otherwise there’s none of the heavy autofire of other Executioner yarns. 

Bolan was put onto Claudia because “Vitale” was mentioned in those papers he got in Boston; Claudia is the widow of a young Mafia exec who was one of those “college types” rebuilding the organization, to the jealousy of the old “moustache Pete” types. This ultimately got him killed, and per Claudia’s sob story she was soon “forced into prostitution” (to quote Senshi in the greatest-ever kung-fu movie, Chinese Super Ninjas) for the mob, used as a honey trap for Washington notables. The plot seems ripped from the many sleazy “Washington tell-all” books of the day, so Pendleton was clearly abreast of what was going on in the paperback market. But the sleaze isn’t nearly as focused on, with Claudia calling herself a “whore” and actually thinking that it might’ve been better if those mobsters had killed her: not only does she consider her life without value, but she also recently pulled the stunt of informing one of her marks that the Mafia was setting him up.

This has put Claudia in the cross-hairs of “Lupo,” aka the Wolf, the mysterious, never-seen man behind the DC Mafia. This makes for I don’t recall how many volumes in a row in which Pendleton’s injected this theme of a mysterious, behind-the-scenes Mafia bigwig with a cutsey name, with Bolan pondering over who the guy could be…it almost gives the impression that Pendleton didn’t think a pulp-action focus was sufficient to fuel an entire narrative, and thus gussied it up with a “mystery” angle. But at this point it’s getting ridiculous, and is about on the level of the lame “surprise villain reveals” of The Spider. Also it’s been frustrating because none of these secret mob bosses with cutsey names have yet justified the expense of prose devoted to them; they’re finally trotted out onto the page in the very end and dispensed with almost perfunctorily by Bolan. The same holds true here, with Lupo revealed in the final few pages – Bolan having already figured out who he is without the reader being informed of it – and quickly blown to hell.

We’re treated to another action scene immediately after Bolan saves Claudia – a cool setup with “The Wolf Squad,” a five-man Mafia assault group composed of former GIs. This promises so much, Bolan finally going up against a group with the same military experience he has. But ultimately it turns out to just be another ball Pendleton briefly tosses in the air. The Wolf Squad, despite an inordinate amount of time given over to their internal squabbles and thoughts – Bolan’s perspective disappears from pages 36 to 113, with Pendleton dipping into the thoughts of his sundry supporting characters, making the Executioner seem like a guest star in his own book – is wiped out in this initial skirmish. That sentence was hamfistedly complex so let me write it in more simple terms: this is the only time we see the Wolf Squad in action, Pendleton blowing the potential of “Bolan vs fellow soldiers.” What’s worse, the Wolf Squad isn’t even taken out in a pitched firefight or somesuch; Bolan causes them to wreck and then shoots each individually with his Automag as they stumble out of their burning car. At least Gil Cohen does a nice job of illustrating this part.

As mentioned Bolan disappears for a long stretch of the book; when he does briefly appear, it’s filtered through the impressions of other characters. Thus we get a lot of the customary hero-worship, which comes off as incredibly egregious this time, with so many characters marvelling over Bolan’s he-man nature. There’s also a lot of skimmable stuff about various one-off Mafia characters, and even worse news dispatches, including verbatim TV reports, informing us of the action scenes we’ve already read about. Pendleton’s goal is ostensibly to show how Bolan has become a mythical figure at this point, with even regular people aware of his one-man war on the mob, thus the TV is filled with panicked reports of his “rampage” here in DC. I mean that’s the goal, but the reality is it seems more like Pendleton’s filling up the pages because he’s got another damn book to write and it seems like just yesterday that he turned in the last one.

And Bolan’s DC blitz is rendered almost entirely in these pseudo-dispatches; the book has become so cluttered at this point with arbitrary digressions on one-off mobsters and “who is Lupo?” ponderings that Pendleton actually has to summarize Bolan’s many and frequent hits on various DC-area Mafia strongholds. Along the way Bolan also picks up a few mobster allies, including Ripper Dan Aliotto, a wheelman for a DC underboss (who himself is heavily built up with chapters devoted to his impressions, before being unceremoniously dropped from the narrative) who develops a sort of friendship with “the big guy in black.” Through Ripper Dan we also get a lot more of that “what a man!” stuff, with the wheelman looking at Bolan in the rearview mirror and pondering over his larger than life qualities and whatnot. I did a Google search on “Ripper Dan Aliotto,” to see if he ever returned to the series, and it looks like he did, sort of, over ten years later, in the tenth installment of Able Team, Royal Flush – long enough to get blown away, at least. No idea if he appeared before that, though, but so far as that Able Team book goes, it seems to have been the one and only contribution of someone credited as “Flavel Ballam.” So I guess Ripper Dan must’ve made an impression on ol’ Flavel. Or at least enough of an impression that he felt the need to bring him back, twelve years later, so he could kill him off.

The pulpish mystery takes more predominance as the narrative progresses. Bolan ponders over the Boston connection with this DC power grab, ultimately coming to the goofy conclusion that Boston fits in the puzzle because it doesn’t fit…! What this means is that Bolan’s figured out Lupo is really from Boston, and at this point in the narrative the reader has more than a strong certainty who the mysterious figure actually is. I won’t spoil the reveal, but I will say it isn’t Claudia, which I think would’ve made for an even better reveal. But this is still the early ‘70s and thus really is a man’s world, so Claudia’s nothing more than the “Mafia whore” she claims to be. She is though “devastating in hot pants and a hip-length cape” in one sequence, not that Bolan’s pressured to take advantage of the situation – indeed, he merely gives her a kiss at novel’s end.

As mentioned, the finale wouldn’t seem out of place in The Shadow. Bolan determines that Lupo’s group, comprised of intelligence-world types, operates out of a headquarters hidden beneath a building, accessible via an underground tunnel. Bolan slips down there, silently kills a few guards, and then ends up saving Claudia again, as she’s once more been captured by Lupo’s men and escorted off to her own doom. Oh and I forgot to mention, right before this Pendleton’s introduced yet another ball in the air – a Mafia with thespian skills whom Lupo’s made to look like Bolan, having him run roughshod around DC and killing various people, even attempting to kill the President! This part is bonkers, particularly because it’s so incidental to anything else, and a clear sign that Pendleton was winging it as he went along.

But anyway, this pseudo-Bolan, who only gets like a single line of text, is also hanging out down here in Lupo’s secret headquarters, and Bolan merely sends Claudia in to confront the mysterious Lupo…who turns out to be exactly who Bolan suspected it was. After this our hero waltzes in and shoots everyone, save for the imposter Bolan, who we’re to understand we’ll be properly charged so the public at large will understand that the real Mack Bolan didn’t just kill a bunch of innocent people. Not that this matters, as the pseudo-Bolan subplot is so harried and poorly developed that you couldn’t see any repercussions from it, anyway. What’s worse is that this plot to take over the US is overseen by Lupo and like two other guys, and by blowing them away Bolan’s stopped this massive plot…a plot which in reality could’ve taken up several more volumes, instead of the single, rushed volume we got.

That said, Pendleton is certainly prescient, even if it’s unintentional. Claudia’s boss is a Congressman in his 80s who is so senile that “he doesn’t know what day it is,” and thus willingly acts as a “puppet” for his mob controllers. And if that isn’t “ripped from today’s headlines” enough for you, check this out: the bad guys (former intelligence agents, remember) operate out of a front company called IMAGE, a “civil rights outfit for ethnic minorities,” which they use to sow division in the country.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well

Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well, by Irving A. Greenfield
No month stated, 1977  Manor Books

This obscure Irving Greenfield paperback turns out to be the sequel to another obscure Irving Greenfield paperback: Making U-Hoo, which was published four years earlier by Dell. I had no idea of this when going into Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well, thus it turned out to be a pleasant surprise – as well as a relief, as “the U-Hoo Conspiracy” is constantly referenced in the narrative, with absolutely no background on it. One wonders if the few people who bought this Manor publication even realized it was the sequel to a book that had been published by another imprint a few years before.

My guess is that by the time Greenfield turned in his manuscript, Dell had moved away from the “sleaze paperbacks with photo covers” they’d been doing in the early to mid-‘70s; there were a ton of books in this unofficial line, in addition to Making U-HooSexual Strike Force, Michelle, My Belle, etc. Another possibility is that Dell just rejected Greenfield’s manuscript, which truth be told is pretty bad. I mean no joke, this is a lousy book. There are few things worse than an unfunny comedy, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well is. Whereas Making U-Hoo at least made the pretense toward being fairly “straight,” this one’s more of a madcap yarn in the vein of Ron Goulart, only spiced up with frequent hardcore sex sequences. This is another similarity to the previous book, and another indication that Greenfield likely wrote it thinking Dell would publish it.

At any rate we are introduced to returning hero Bart Sherriff (misspelled “Bat Sherriff” on the very first line of the book, reminding us from the get-go that this is Manor and not Dell) while he’s enthusiastically – and explicitly – banging his assistant, a redheaded beauty named Pam. Bart we’ll recall is a “trouble shooter for the big ad agencies on Madison Avenue” and charges thousands of dollars for his freelance advertiser services. He lives in a swank suite high atop Manhattan, often entertaining eager young women on his round bed with musical accompaniment courtesy an 8-track tape system; no mention is made, this time, of the lights that accompany the music. Last time Bart got involved with a conspiracy that had him rubbing shoulders with government agents and foreign spies, and the same holds true here, but this time Greenfield doesn’t even bother with the “freelance advertiser” setup.

Bart and Pam are interrupted mid-boink by a call on Bart’s “red line,” which is what the emergency calls from panicked clients comes in on. Pam doesn’t want him to answer, but Bart argues that his professional pride demands he do. Greenfield indulges in these sub-Len Levinson dialog exchanges throughout, with Bart engaging in pseudo-“deep” conversations with characters, but whereas such material is humorous in Len’s work, here it comes off more like teeth-pulling. Bart answers the phone to find it’s Fred Warren on the other line, president of North American Labrotories. Bart met him the other week at a party in Manhattan, where a drunk Bart was asked who was the greatest writer in history was and responded, to the amazement of all, “Julius Caesar.”

Choppering Bart out to the corp HQ, Warren explains that this is the very reason they want to hire Bart. You see, and brace yourself in for the stupidity, the lab once employed a man named Dr. Douglas who also said that Julius Caesar was the greatest writer in history! This, these “scientists” believe, is too much of a coincidence. A confused and progressively annoyed Bart claims that a “hobo” told him the Julius Caesar thing fifteen years before, and for no reason at all Bart repeated it at the party. By showing him some photos, Warren and his executive board prove that the hobo Bart met years ago might have been Dr. Douglas – Bart barely remembers what the hobo looked like, but he admits he remembers him as looking somewhat similar to the photos of Dr. Douglas.

It gets goofier: Dr. Douglas turns out to be dead, and the man who was working here at the lab was an imposter. One who stole some secret involving genetic engineering. Since Bart made this harmless statement about Julius Caesar being the greatest writer at the party, Fred Warren has decided to hire him to track down the missing man who was posing as Dr. Douglas and find out what happened to the secrets he stole. It’s all so incredibly preposterous, especially given that it has nothing to do with advertising, which is Bart’s forte. However, he’s somewhat famous now due to the “U-Hoo Conspiracy” (which is mentioned so many times I pity the poor readers who had no idea there was a previous book in this “series”), so Warren figures Bart will have no problem turning into a temporary gumshoe.

On this shaky ground the novel stands. The jumbled plot is however just an excuse to whisk Bart around the country so he can boff a series of hot, willing women. First among them is Dr. Paula Kay, who was friendly with “Dr. Douglas.” She claims there was something unusual about the man, particularly how he’d speak of historical events in almost casual terms. After this it’s down to the business of screwing, with Paula feigning drunkeness so Bart can escort her back up to her hotel room. As ever Greenfield spares no detail in his sex material, with the usual focus on oral activities, particularly Bart’s going down on the various women. This is a recurring theme in Greenfield’s work, by the way; there’s always more focus on the protagonist licking out the women, as well as “diddling her bunghole” in addition to dining at the Y.

But man, the book still sucks even if words like “bunghole” appear in it. And there’s so much padding. Like an entire chapter given over to Bart razzing his hot and built secretary, Wendy, that God just called him on the phone. This is in regards to a mysterious, deep voice on the other line that instructs Bart to “forget about Dr. Douglas.” The chapter ends with Bart making a lame joke to Wendy that he just spoke to God, and preposterously enough the entire next chapter is given over to Wendy asking if this is true – including “shocking” stuff like Wendy arguing that “when God comes” and Bart interrupting her and saying he’d never talk about God “coming,” when of course all Wendy meant was “coming” in the sense of appearing, a la like a burning bush and the like. Just low-brow bullshit like this that even a glue-sniffing punk in detention would think was immature, and it goes on for pages.

Warren sends Bart to Kentucky, where he’s to research the company the real Dr. Douglas worked in – where he was working when he was killed in a car wreck two years ago. But on the way Bart’s drugged by the hot stewardess, coming to in a hotel room and disovering the “stew” is really a Russian spy named Natasha, here with a couple male Russian spies. They’re all still simmering over the U-Hoo thing, and are also ticked off because they too were duped by a deep, mysterious voice on the phone – one that warned them that Dr. Douglas would be flying to Kentucky under the name “Bart Sherriff.” Realizing they’ve been duped and that Bart doesn’t know anything, they drug him and leave him in the hotel room, to be found by the local cops, who eventually let Bart go.

Here Bart learns that someone named Sanders stole Dr. Douglas’s identity, and after trading some dialog with a memorable cab driver – another similiarity to Len Levinson’s work – Bart catches a flight to New Orleans, where he talks some more with Jo Ann, hot-to-trot widow of Sanders. Surprisingly this does not lead to a sex scene. Instead, Greenfield’s moved more into a Keystone Cops sort of thing, with Bart constantly bumping into the Feds. Admitedly this does lead to a somewhat funny part where Bart, in a cheap wig and disguise, finds himself sitting across from the Fed he just lost, and the two men pretend to be underwear salesmen. As I recall, this “fooling around with idiotic government agents” seemed to have taken precedence in Making U-Hoo as well, which does lend the novel a ‘70s vibe.

Another thing I recall from that earlier novel is that the swinging ‘70s sex gradually faded away, in place of the “mystery” subplot. Same holds true here, with Bart’s hardcore moment with Dr. Paula halfway through the novel being the last such moment – though he also apparently has sex with stewardess Natasha on the plane, but the scene is played more for (unfunny) comedy, so it’s not explicit at all. Indeed, it’s so non-explicit that I didn’t even realize they’d had sex until the end of the novel, where the act is mentioned. But anyway Bart’s soon ducking and dodging various Feds, even using a buddy of his, a famous mystery writer, to get him out of a scrape late in the book. There’s no real action, though, and no violence at all – again, it’s all just a broad comedy centered around a lame mystery. But my friends believe it or not, the title of the friggin’ novel blows the entire mystery!

The last quarter has Bart in London, where Sanders was recently seen – and to again prove how stupid the novel is, Bart’s author buddy, Reese, just happens to have run into some dude at the airport, a dude who was on his way to London and who said in passing that Julius Caesar was the greatest ever writer. So Bart gives chase, but instead of getting to this mysterious figure, Greenfield instead pads the pages with Bart running around London with an overly-British private investigator. And then, on the final few pages, Sanders is revealed – and folks, spoiler alert, but who the hell cares, right? Because I really don’t think any of you will ever want to read the book. But get this – Sanders, aka Dr. Douglas, is in fact…Julius Caesar himself, who is alive and well!

There’s absolutely no explanation of this, no piecing together of the lame puzzle Greenfield has developed throughout the dumb-assed narrative. I mean really, Julius Caesar appears on like the last four pages of the book, and it’s all dialog. We get some shit about him being into genetic work and cloning, and he apparently stole the material Dr. Douglas was working on to prevent mankind from attaining the secret of cloning. Oh, and Dr. Paula and Natasha and Fred Warren were all part of the plot – Bart was hired, due to his activities in the U-Hoo Conspiracy, so as to make an easy target for the various Feds and Commie agents (of whom Natasha is a “friendly member,” JC reveals, in another go-nowhere moment casually relayed in the last pages). The goal was for Bart to distract the various spies so that JC could slip out of the country undetected.

And on this lame note, the entire group drinking a toast and Bart feeling confused, the stupid novel comes to a close. Having endured the 234 pages of banality, I can only suspect that some intelligent editor at Dell Books did indeed reject Greenfield’s manuscript, and Greenfield later managed to sell it to Manor. This is one of those books were I wonder what the author’s goal was. I mean, Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well isn’t funny, so it’s a failure as a comedy. And the “mystery” is treated so ridiculously (intentionally so) that it can’t be viewed as a suspense novel. The sleaze is rampant, initially at least, but soon disappears. So what are we left with? Probing character portraits? Soul-plumbing narrative and introspection? There’s none of that, either. In fact it seems as if the entire book serves as a payoff of the title itself, but unfortunately Greenfield does little to even bring to life – let alone exploit – his vaguely sci-fi concept.

Greenfield was very prolific, so they can’t all be winners. Admittedly though, I’m still waiting to read a Greenfield winner, but I’m sure there’s one out there. Finally, a sad note on Greenfield: I just learned, here, that he passed away on April 1st of this year, at the age of 91. According to this lengthy piece, he turned to producing independent plays, including one that was based on his experiences writing Depth Force.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Revenger #6: A Promise For Death

The Revenger #6: A Promise For Death, by Jon Messmann
September, 1975  Signet Books

The Revenger series comes to a close with a sixth volume that caps off the storyline; it seems evident that Messmann knew this would be the series finale, and thus gave it an appropriate send-off. So, I can’t say I’m sorry to see The Revenger go, as Messmann delivers not only a fantastic novel but also a fitting series conclusion, paying off on elements that were introduced back in the first volume. This was by far my favorite installment of the series, with the introspection toned down and the focus more on suspense, action, and character.

It's about eight months after the previous volume, and Ben Martin (or “Ben,” as Messmann always refers to him in the narrative) has made his way back to New York, in yet another attempt to start over again. As usual he’s gotten a working-class life, driving a bakery truck for a Sicilian immigrant. But when we meet Ben he’s back to Revenger mode, Messmann again writing the sequence in present-tense. The fifteen year-old daughter of Ben’s boss was raped by a pair of young Mafia thugs, and in the following taut sequence we see Ben doling out some brutal payback with his customary .38. The action is more pronounced in A Promise For Death than it was in any of the previous volumes, most of which featured Ben sniping targets from afar. Here he’s taking down goons in pitched firefights, and this opening part packs more punch than usual because Ben’s fired up over how the Mafia has again spoiled the innocent.

Eventually Ben learns that Don Aldo Trafficante was behind the girl’s rape; Trafficante now runs the New York mob, having taken over the position vacated by Johnny Lupo in the previous book (after Ben killed Lupo, that is). Trafficante ordered the rape of a poor innocent fifteen year-old because he happens to be a distant relative of the girl – and had a hunch that the hulking new employee with the gray eyes at his cousin’s bakery might actually be Ben Martin, the Revenger. Thus the young girl’s rape was intended to draw Ben out, if indeed it was him, the rapist punks used as veritable Revenger bait. Not that Trafficante wants some revenge of his own; he’s got some problems with two rival dons, a mob war brewing with them, and he wants to retain Ben’s services as his personal executioner. In exchange Trafficante promises to give Ben insider Mafia info which could crush the entire organization.

Trafficante isn’t the only one who suspects Ben’s back in town; Captain Leo Hendricks, first introduced in the fourth volume, has also been keeping his eyes on the papers, and when he reads that some Mafia thugs have recently been gunned down he figures Ben’s back in town. Whereas Ben is against the idea of helping Trafficante, Hendricks pushes him to go for it, as the don could give Ben – and the cops – all sorts of info that would otherwise be inaccessible, and could do more damage to the mob than all of Ben’s previous kills put together. This elicits another nicely-done sequence, where Ben visits Trafficante in his townhome and Trafficante argues that Ben is always so willing to help “his people” but won’t help Trafficante himself, turning Ben’s own logic around on him. But as mentioned, Messmann doesn’t let the philosophy bog down the plot this time; during the argument, a phone call comes in that Bianca, Trafficante’s daughter, has been kidnapped by one of the rival dons. 

Ben now of course has the opportunity to do what he does best: save the innocent from the Mafia. Bianca, who you won’t be surprised to know is a smokin’-hot and stacked brunette babe, has nothing to do with her father’s life; her mother died when she was a child and Bianca was sent to Europe to attend various elite schools. Now she’s in her early 20s and back in America, living alone in her own apartment; she claims later to only have recently deduced that her father is Mafia. Ben tells Trafficante he’ll save the girl, leading to another taut and well-executed action sequence, which first has Ben posing as a firefighter to get into the building Bianca’s held in, then scaling down from the roof and breaking into the apartment with .38 blasting.

Bianca is a fully-realized character, probably the best female character in the series – which again is only fitting given that this is the series finale. And by the way, there’s no reference to the other “Bianca” Ben had a relationship with, the one who was last seen in the third volume; it’s possible Messmann himself had forgotten about her. I sure as hell had, until I recently reviewed my incredibly-overwritten reviews of the previous five volumes before writing this review. As with most any other female protagonist in a Messmann novel, Bianca is not only beautiful but capabale of deep thought and probing analyses of people she’s just met, and can also quote odd lines of poetry. Plus she’s great in the sack! Sorry, couldn’t resist. But yes, Ben and Bianca’s relationship develops in the expected direction, but it comes off as natural, not forced – Bianca feels that the two are “connected” now, given that fate has put them together – but whereas earlier volumes were fairly explicit in the sex department, Messman’s now firmly in a Burt Hirschfeld mode, where it’s all relayed via metaphor. 

Messmann doesn’t cheat us on the action, though. Ben we’ll recall was a “specialst” in ‘Nam, a “specialist in death,” per the first volume, and this installment really brings that to the fore. With Capt. Hendricks occasionally setting him up with gear, Ben pulls off a series of hits on the mob that would even impress Mack Bolan, from taking on a few cars filled with Mafia assassins in the Westchester mountains to employing one of the bakery trucks in the prevention of another potential assassination of Trafficante in Manhattan. Most of the action deals with Ben wiping out Trafficante’s opposition; per the agreement the two men have made, Trafficante vows to quit the Mafia if Ben will take out the two rival dons who are cornering his territory. Bianca herself is the one who has brokered this agreement, acting as intermediary between Ben and her father; Trafficante claims to love his daughter so much that he’s willing to quit the mob life for her. Of course, Ben doubts this, but Bianca is innocent enough to believe her father.

The action is broken up with sequences that focus on Ben and Bianca’s growing relationship. As with previous female characters in the series she sees right through Ben’s “Revenger” exterior and wants to be with him forever. But there is something about Bianca that sets her apart from previous such women. Again this is no doubt because Messmann knows he’s writing the final volume, but still, I take it we’re to understand what separates Bianca is that she’s a daughter of the very organization Ben has been warring against all this time. What I like is how Messmann doesn’t beat us over the head with the pathos; there are but a few references to Ben’s murdered son, his ex-wife not mentioned at all, but the implication is there that Ben wants to end his war and start over for real this time, making a new life with Bianca. First though he must prove to her that her father is a liar.

The last quarter is more of a suspense thriller, as Ben of course quickly deduces that Trafficante does indeed plan to kill him; we readers already know this, as Messmann this time writes several sequences focusing on other characters instead of just on Ben all the time. Thus we see Trafficante plot Ben’s death with his lieutenant, Joe Morelli. Messmann implies that the chief skill of a “specialist in death” is to always be prepared, thus Ben has staked out Trafficante’s downtown office and knows which buildings the don will put snipers on to take Ben out when he comes to meet Trafficante. This sets off a suspenseful finale in which Ben must chose whether killing Trafficante is worth losing Bianca over. However, fate intervenes in the form of a once-innocent fifteen year-old girl who was raped, at the start of the novel, and has been slowly going insane with a desire for revenge – a masterful play by Messmann, who shows that Ben Martin is not the only person who has ever owed the Mafia some payback.

Ben’s choice is taken from him, but revenge is served regardless. The novel ends with Bianca once again coming to Ben’s apartment and telling him she wants to be with him, for them to start a new life together. The last lines of the novel seem to make it clear that Messmann knew this would be it for The Revenger:

It might just work this time. Those who shared pain were so much more a part of each other than those who shared only joy. And, maybe, happiness was a revenge of its own.

It is a very affecting ending, particularly given that Messmann’s managed to give his hero a Happily Ever After without being too obvious about it. The question is whether Messmann himself chose to end the series at this point, or whether low sales were the culprit. I can’t help but notice that the second through fifth volumes were all published rather quickly, coming out between June of ’74 and February of ’75. But this sixth volume came out seven months after the fifth one, indicating that Messmann might’ve needed more time to write it…or that Signet put it on the backburner. But then, nowhere is it stated on or in the book that this is the final volume, so maybe Messmann just turned this one in and told Signet he was done.

In any event, A Promise For Death is an incredibly entertaining and well-written thriller, notable for being one of the few men’s adventure finales that acts as a legitimate conclusion to the series. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend it – as well as the series itself.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Spy In The Java Sea (Joaquin Hawks #5)

The Spy In The Java Sea, by Bill S. Ballinger
November, 1966  Signet Books

The Joaquin Hawks series comes to a close with this fifth installment, which is a shame as Bill Ballinger turns in an entertaining, fast-moving yarn that’s a big improvement over the somewhat-ponderous earlier volumes. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed every volume of this series, but truth be told the “exotic travelogue” of some of them got to be a drag. With The Spy In The Java Sea, Ballinger dispenses with that and instead goes for more of a pulpy flair; in other words, exactly what you want from ‘60s spy-pulp. 

Interestingly, another ‘60s spy series experienced this sort of “fifth volume renovation:” Mark Hood, the first four installments of which suffered from a sluggish pace before going for more of a fast-moving vibe in the fifth volume. But whereas Mark Hood lasted for several more installments, Joaquin Hawks ended here. It seems clear though that Ballinger envisioned more adventures, or at least left the book open-ended enough for one, so I’d imagine low sales killed the series. In fact Hawks has the chance to settle down with an exotic native woman at novel’s end, but regretfully tells her so long; but then, I seem to recall similar finales in the previous books. Hawks certainly isn’t a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” type, and Ballinger makes it clear that it’s hard for him to leave these exotic women when the assignment’s complete.

Well anyway as mentioned this one moves at a much snappier pace than previous. Hawks is in Djakarta when we meet him, already on his mission; there’s a reference later that he was just returning home from Singapore when he was contacted for this job, which implies that the novel might take place directly after the previous volume. Hawks is here to find the Manta Ray, a nuclear sub that’s hiding somewhere in the Java Sea; as we’ll eventually learn, something when wrong with the radar and the crew needs a new “SMS card” for the computer – or “CPU,” as Ballinger refers to is, making for one of the earliest usages of this term I’ve seen in a pulp novel. Ballinger here develops a subplot, one that’s never actually resolved, that Hawks’s cover is already blown, and he’s just started the job. 

The novel features a memorable opening; Hawks is in his hotel room when a German guy comes in and pulls a gun on him. The German is himself a spy and claims to know who Hawks really is, despite his current disguise and cover name; he also mentions Hawks is notorious on the other side for ruining a bunch of Commie plots in the past. The German and the local Indonesian Communist chapter are trying to find the nuclear sub, and the German wants all of the info Hawks has about it. Our hero pretends to be innocent, then finally drops the pretense when he sees the German isn’t buying it. But somehow between volumes Hawks has become a little more gadget-savy, so he manages to get himself out of this situation with a handy explosive lighter. This is a very well-done sequence and nicely sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Ballinger really brings the pulp spy nature more to the fore this time; Hawks meets with Navy Intelligence who themselves are posing as the crew of a small vessel, where he’s informed that a computer specialist named Housmann has been sent over from England to deliver the SMS card to the missing sub. The belabored setup has it that one crew member left the sub to radio in for help, but the crew member is hiding – and the crew member is the only person who knows where the Manta Ray is berthed. Ballinger brings even more of a spy-pulp vibe to the tale when Hawks goes to collect Housmann – and discovers that it’s a beautiful and well-built blonde. But our author has more up his sleeve, as cagey Hawks figures that there’s something up with “Mrs. Housmann,” and proves her true identity in a memorable sequence which finds the two in a rapidly-sinking boat.

The next action scene has Hawks pretending to be the German spy he killed in the opening of the book, bluffing his way into the lair of some Chinese spies. Here we see more gadgets in play: a suspender and a mechanical pencil which combine into a timed explosive device. Hawks is here to free the real Housmann, who turns out to be a stodgy British man who was quickly captured upon entering Djakarta. But again Ballinger leaves it a little vague how the US intelligence ring has been so quickly outed. Hawks and Housmann even have to go to elaborate lengths to avoid the enemy ship following them when they hitch a ride to Bali; the two get on a small lifeboat and rough it on the open sea for a day or two, eventually landing on a remote isle.

Here, about halfway through, The Spy In The Java Sea begins to more resemble the previous four books. Now it’s totally adventure fiction in an exotic locale, as Hawks must use his strength and cunning to convince the ruling natives that he’s not been sent here as a spy from the Indonesian government, and that he and Housmann need passage to Bali. Of course this entails lots of one-on-one fights between Hawks and the rulers’s various warriors, with Hawks again using his Indian skills to come out the victor. He does take some damage though, thanks to a brutal whipping he endures during one of the combats.

The final third of the novel combines the adventure fiction vibe with the spy-pulp of the opening quarter. The Manta Ray crew member is on an island outside Bali, one ruled by a kindly Raja. Hawks and Housmann have to prove they’re really here to help, and not just some spies sent to uncover the missing sub. Meanwhile Hawks gets friendly with the Raja’s hot daughter, Leyak, who seems to be the perfect woman for him: she’s a mixture of Western culture and old-world attitudes, and she and Hawks have some nicely-handled dialog throughout. But then some “officials” from Indonesia show up, claiming they’re just now here to take the island into official Indonesian protection; Hawks is certain they’re really PKI spooks (aka Indonesia Communist Party) merely posing as government reps.

The climax is tautly-handled suspense, with Hawks soon proven correct: the supposed government reps are really PKI sadists here to torture Hawks and the other two westerners into discovering where the sub is. At least this time we’re given an explanation for how Hawks’s carefully-laid plans have again been spoiled: Kent, the Manta Ray crewman, foolishly used the Raja’s radio to check on Hawks and Housmann and confirm their story. The PKI, monitoring for any radio messages, clearly just put two and two together and realized the nuke sub crewman everyone is searching for is hiding in the Raja’s island.

Actually this one has the best finale in the series. Hawks, his thumbs dislocated from torture, gets hold of an antique bow from the Raja’s museum (the firearms having been confiscated by the PKI), and, armed with arrows made of chicken bone, slips across the darkened palatial grounds and silently takes out PKI guards. It’s pretty brutal, too, as the chicken bone splinters upon impact, causing pretty messy kills. This leads to a tense climax in which Hawks and his comrades, armed only with a few appropriated carbines and pistols, defend themselves in a gazebo from the encroaching PKI troops. But again Ballinger goes for more of a realistic tone, with the heroes prevailing more through Hawks’s painstaking planning and cool-headed reserve.

As mentioned Hawks has a chance for a happily ever after by novel’s end; after some off-page shenanigans with Leyak – who actually drugs Hawks so she can get him in bed! – the beautiful princess has fallen in love with our studly hero, and basically begs him to stay with her on the little island. But Hawks claims his presence will only bring trouble, that it is only a matter of time until the island is ingested into Indonesia, and that he doesn’t want to ruin such a paradise. So off he goes, and we’re told he’s not happy about it, but it’s duty and all; little did he know he’d not be returning! Well anyway maybe we can just pretend that he decided to go back after all, and he and Leyak went on to rule the island together.

Overall I enjoyed the Joaquin Hawks series, with each volume offering a lot of entertainment, but I definitely enjoyed this installment the most. It would’ve been cool to see if Ballinger would’ve retained the more pulpy tone for future volumes, but I guess at this point the spy-pulp market was no longer lucrative and he moved on.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hot Bullets

Hot Bullets, by Brick Killerman
No month stated, 1981  Tower Books

Years ago Justin Marriott told me about this obscure “Adult Western” from Tower Books; at the time he wondered if Jay Flynn was the awesomely-named “Brick Killerman,” due to some sleazy similarities to Flynn’s Joe Rigg books. When Justin told me the book featured a “whip-wielding Mexican villainess,” I knew the day would come when I’d just have to read it. Of course it only took me like 8 years, but anyway…plus I’m not really into Westerns, and in fact this will be the first review tagged thusly on the blog.

It looks like Tower was trying to cash in on the then-recent Adult Western trend, which as everyone knows is basic paperback Westerns with an overlay of hardcore filth. Of course, these were the only kinds of Westerns I read as a kid – I vividly remembering reading one in the ‘80s about Bigfoot. It was like hardcore sex every couple chapters and then I think Bigfoot showed up at the end. In fact I think the author even worked in a female bigfoot. I can’t recall the title of the book, but I know it was an installment of a long-running series. Maybe someone out there will know the one I’m referring to, and who wrote it. But anyway, Hot Bullets was intended as the start of Tower’s own Adult Western series, but it appears that only one other volume was published: Hell’s Half Acre, which came out the same year and is even more scarce and pricey than Hot Bullets. I’d advise saving your money, though, as despite occasional flashes of ghoulish charm, Hot Bullets is for the most part a bit of an overwritten slog, saddled with some of the most unlikable protagonists ever. Even the hardcore Western screwing can’t save it.

The narrative style is certainly strange, at times coming off like a pulpy equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which hadn’t even been published yet, but still). Sure, it’s got hardcore sex, gory violence, and outrageous situations, but there’s a ghoulish pall which hangs over the book, a focus on morbidity and desolation. And there are these strange flashes of sub-“literature” throughout, with the unfortunate caveat that “Brick Killerman” is often guilty of telling more than he shows. This is particularly true for his characters; he introduces them, then proceeds to info-dump details about their attitudes and beliefs, and their firefighting skills and such, and pretty much all of it would be better-served if we actually saw it instead of were told about it. But regardless, there’s a level of insight at times that’s well beyond what you would expect from a novel titled “Hot Bullets” by a guy named “Brick Killerman:”

This sort of stuff had me wondering initially if the book was another from George Harmon Smith, who would go to similar literary – but flabby – lengths in his work for Belmont Tower. But Smith, at least in what I’ve read of him, wasn’t nearly as bad with the narratorial exposition. And also, his stylistic quirks aren’t really in evidence here. In fact the writing style seems different from any other I’ve encountered on the blog…but damned if the tone isn’t identical to Jan Stacy, particularly to what he wrote in The Last Ranger. Hot Bullets features the same sort of ghoulish morbidity as Stacy’s work, even down to minor details – for example, there’s a fascination with corpses being piled up or otherwise put on display, and “Killerman” describes the 1800s southwest like it’s a radiated hellzone straight out of a post-nuke pulp. Hell, there’s even a sort of mutant afoot: late in the novel our “heroes” encounter a monstrous opponent who is eating a literal horse leg when they encounter him…plus he’s surrounded by piled corpses.

There are several other similarities, which I’m sure I’ll document in my usual nauseatingly-pedantic manner in the review, but long story short, I wondered toward the end of Hot Bullets whether the novel was actually written by Stacy, maybe even with Ryder Syvertsen. The novel was published just a few years before the two began publishing as “Ryder Stacy.” The only problem is the narrative style, which is very different. Then I remembered that George Harmon Smith was an editor at Belmont Tower; indeed, according to Lynn Munroe Smith was often used as a fix-it author on manuscripts. So heck, this book could’ve been the product of Stacy (with or without Syvertsen), with some post editing tinkery by Smith (or some other editor), lending the novel it’s unusual narrative style. Failing that, my backup theory is that J.D. Salinger wrote it. Perhaps with an assit by Thomas Pynchon.

Anyway, Hot Bullets takes place entirely in the American Southwest, eventually veering into Mexico. The date appears to be sometime in the 1870s or later. The author is vague on the date, but we are sort of told that the Civil War was eight years ago. Maybe. Honestly I’m not sure, but we can be sure at least that it’s post-Civil War, for our hero, a one-eyed outlaw in black named Chance, fought in the war and then went on to a successful career of banditry. The novel is almost tiring in how the reader must spend so long figuring out what’s going on, so I’ll make it easy and tell you the setup from the get-go: Chance led a gang of bank-robbers and ultimately came away with three hundred thousand bucks. But his sultry Mexican girlfriend Maria sold him out and absconded with the money. Chance was taken into federal custody for some years and now has broken out and is looking for revenge.

This is where the narrative picks up, but again, the above is material that takes the reader a good damn long time to learn. In fact Maria is the first “main” character we’re introduced to, and she’s initally presented as a damsel in distress, which flies in the face of her true character. A couple mean outlaws ride into a Mexican town on the border, so mean that one of them, for no reason at all, shoots some poor kid’s dog (which leads to the passage excerped above). These guys are here for Maria, who turns out to be a hotstuff Mexican babe who only leaves with them because they threaten to kill her brother. In between taunting her with promises of rape, the three reveal that they’re old prison-mates of Maria’s ex, Chance, and they’re here to find the three hundred thousand bucks she supposedly stole from him.

Then of course Chance himself arrives on the scene, making short work of the three outlaws – and then throwing Maria on her ass. This sets off the bizarre relationship between the pair. For the two go back to the town…where Maria engages Chance in a pages-consuming, explicity-detailed sex scene, one in which the author curiously seems more focused on describing Chance’s oral treatment of Maria and her “jungle of wiry hair.” (And nope, he isn’t referring to the hair on her head.) This sequence also contains the phenomenal line, from Maria: “I need you, my lover! I need your cock! Your balls!” As if all this wasn’t enough, a post-orgasm Maria brings herself to the brink again as she imagines castrating Chance, an explicity graphic sequence that’ll make any male reader sweat in anguish. But unfortunately after this Maria splits – you see, despite her “damsel in distress” intro, she’s actually the villain of the piece, sort of, and Chance will spend the rest of the novel trailing her across the blitzed, pseudo post-apocalyptic Southwestern desert.

We know Maria’s the villain because she tries to kill Chance, brazenly enough, right after their all-night boinkery…it seems she’s like hooked on his stuff, or something, though humorously later in the book we’re informed that Chance isn’t the most “well-endowed” of dudes…honestly the only time I think I’ve ever been informed that the studly hero of a novel has a small dick. Well as everyone knows, it’s how you use it that counts, and Chance must do alright by Maria…not that this keeps her from taking off and heading for Mexico to reconnect with her latest boyfriend, a notorious bandit leader named Nuego whom she claims now has Chance’s money. The entire setup is really dumb – I mean why would Maria just give three hundred thousand bucks to this guy, and why, after all this time, would Chance even think any of it would still be left?

Killerman keeps us from pondering such imponderables by throwing bizarre material at us – like when Chance, soon after setting out on the trail, runs into a gang of six outlaw women who are in the process of whipping two bound men. The women – only two of whom are even attractive, we’re informed, Killerman buzzkilling his own pulpy concept – close in on Chance, who proves posthaste that he has no problem with beating the shit out of female opponents. This fight scene goes on quite a long time, Chance not killing any of the women but pounding them all into the ground with some savage kicks and punches. He also proves he’s no ordinary hero when he refuses to free the two poor dudes, knowing full well that they’ll suffer the brunt of the women’s wrath.

Meanwhile Chance himself is being chased, by a blond haired bounty hunter named Neems – who gets the jump on Chance while he’s enjoying a bath. This occurs in another of Chance’s strange meetings with Maria; he catches up with her in an abandoned hotel, easily dispatches the men Maria has stationed there to kill him, then forces her to draw him a bath. After another attempt on his life, Maria gets away again, and after this Chance and Neems serve as the main protagonists of the book, with Maria not appearing again until near the end. Oh but before I forget, here the author for no apparent reason tries to tie in with the modern day, ie the nuclear war fears of the 1980s, when Chance tells Maria of an Indian shaman he once met who had a vision of the future, of “the eagle versus the bear” in a great global confrontation, after which the entire world would burn. The book is filled with random, pages-filling stuff like this.

Chance is able to talk Neems into not taking him in for the bounty but instead forming an “unholy alliance” with him, and seeking out the $300,000, which they’ll split. This clunky plot contrivance is explained in that Neems knows this territory better than Chance. And also, Neems can pretend that Chance is his prisoner, so the two will be able to travel easier. Or something. But really, when these two set out on the trail the novel really appropriates the vibe of The Last Ranger or even Doomsday Warrior, in that they just encounter one ridiculous (but menacing) character after another. First they encounter a trio of renegade US soldiers, who are escorting one of Chance’s old gang members; our heroes butcher the lot in a nicely-done firefight (Chance by the way carries a Navy Colt .44 and Neems a Colt Dragoon), after which they find themselves in possession of a Gatling gun.

The Gatling is soon put to use when the pair wipe out a legion of goons Nuego has implanted in a small town, after which Chance and Neems are rewarded with a pair of hookers. Chance, apropos of nothing, decides to go the “backdoor” route with his whore, who tells him, right in front of Neems and his hooker: “That always hurts so. Even though you’re not as big as others.” Neems gets a chuckle out of this – he himself is quite “well-endowed,” we’re informed, but Chance is undeterred, and thus we are treated to a few pages of buggery. The part after this is where my “Jan Stacy senses” started to tingle; Chance and Neems come out next day to find that the townsfolk have arranged the corpses of the slaughtered goons in coffins, lined up on the city street, and have turned the whole thing into a sort of thank-you ceremony…complete with a cake a local baker presents the pair! All of this is uncannily like something you’d encounter in The Last Ranger.

Strangely though, for an “Adult Western” the sex isn’t as frequent as you’d expect in Hot Bullets. It’s like our mysterious author realized this, for immediately after the all-night festivities with the two hookers, Chance and Neems run into those six outlaw women Chance tussled with earlier in the book…and the women propose an orgy to make up and let bygones be bygones. We’ll forget that some of them are supposed to be fugly; Neems takes on three while Chance gets three, and since he’s the hero he gets the two who are apparently pretty. This part also goes on and on, but like the other sex scenes in the book it fails to generate any heat, despite being explicit. In fact there is an unpleasant tone to the screwing throughout.

Another “I just walked out of a Ryder Stacy novel”-type character appears soon after: Piedmont, a moronic scalp hunter. This character really sent my Jan Stacy Senses to tingling, but again, I could be entirely wrong. And yet, shortly after this we get to the most Last Ranger-esque sequence in the book: the climax plays out in the City of Blood, nightmarish domain run by one of Nuego’s comrades, a place where corpses are piled high and death reigns supreme. The city is guarded by a 9-foot tall, hulking-muscled pseudo-mutant, exactly the sort of thing you’d encounter in Doomsday Warrior. When Chance and Neems – now with a captive Maria and Nuego with them – confront the massive guard, they learn that they must defeat him to gain entry into the city. This Chance does, somewhat unbelievably, in a rather quick fight.

The climax at least is suitably apocalyptic. Chance learns that most of his money has been used to fund the building of the City of Blood, but he’s able to get back the remainder. At this point all hell breaks loose, and the Gatling gun is once again used to memorable and gory effect. Chance shows his complete ruthlessness, though – and spoiler alert, but honestly the book’s so scarce and overpriced I figured I might as well spoil away and save you the time and money. Well anyway, Maria’s tied to a stake during all this…and Chance lights up some dynamite and tosses it beside her, doing away with her for good! After which he gets in a duel with Neems – and that’s not a spoiler, because the back cover already tells us this is going to happen. By novel’s end a lone Chance rides out of the burning City with half his loot, to return in Hell’s Half Acre – not that the book tells us this, or indeed even lets us know that this is intended as the start of a series.

The problem with Hot Bullets is that it just isn’t fun, which is odd given the pulpy setup. There’s just a dispirited air that hangs over everything, as if the life’s been sucked out of it. I mean when I read these books, I want the impression that the author is cackling with insane glee as he writes, but I don’t get that from Mr. Brock Killerman. Rather, I get the impression that he’s just going through the motions, and the spark of creativity is hard to detect. Save, that is, for the sub-literary flourishes…which don’t even really belong in a novel titled Hot Bullets, I’d argue. Anyway, I can’t say I hated the book, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it, either. I definitely remember liking that Bigfoot Adult Western a lot more, so maybe someday I’ll look for it again.