Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The Liquidator #1

The Liquidator #1, by R.L. Brent
No Month Stated, 1974 Award Books 

I’ve been meaning to get to this series for a while, but I have to admit I’m a little bummed that it isn’t about a dude who helps retail stores “liquidate” their unsold merchandise. Instead, The Liquidator mines the same territory as The Lone Wolf and Stryker, only without the surreal edge of the former or the arbitrary backstory-dumping of the latter: it’s about a tough cop who is framed for getting too close to the mob, and ultimately takes the law into his own hands to dish out a little bloody justice. Writing-wise it’s superior to either of those series, “R.L. Brent” going for a terse, almost hardboiled tone that comes off like “Fawcett Gold Medal for the ‘70s.” 

This then makes who “Brent” really was pretty surprising: according to James Reasoner, it was Larry Powell, who also for Award wrote the Donovan’s Devils series. I remember absolutely nothing about the first volume of that series, other than that it was boring and padded to the extreme. Such is not the case of The Liquidator #1, so either the same writer did not in fact write both series – for what it’s worth, Hawk’s Authors Pseudonyms credits Robert Turner for Donavan’s Devils – or Powell’s heart was just more into The Liquidator, and the writing displayed that. (Let’s just assume that sentence made sense.) I went into this one not expecting much, and found myself greatly entertained; it was a fast-moving tale with little fat, a good plot, and strong characters. Another thing I dug was tht Powell (or whoever) clearly wrote it as the start of a series, with several subplots still dangling by novel’s end. 

Another interesting gimmick is that The Liquidator appears to take place in the “future” of 1978 – which, curiously, is the year the fifth and final volume was published, a few years after the previous four had been. Granted, this gimmick isn’t even mentioned and is only inferred from the narrative: when hero Jake Brand, the tough Miami cop who stars in the series, is arrested midway through the novel, we’re informed that it’s the biggest thing to happen in Miami “since the Dolphins won the Super Bowl.” This would place the action in 1973, which according to usually-reliable Wikipedia is the first time the Dolphins won the Super Bowl. This would also coincide with the time Powell was likely writing the manuscript, as it’s my understanding it took these books about a year to get into print from the time of manuscript submission to the publisher. Well anyway, Brand spends five years in prison…meaning it’s 1978 when he’s released, if we’re to take that Super Bowl reference literally. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Brand when we meet him is a former football player who now works as a cop in Miami; he has a grudge to bear on the Mob, particularly local creep Leo Hester. Brand’s dad was a beat cop, and was killed by a junkie when Brand was a teenager. Brand’s older brother went to law school as a result of that, imploring Brand to pursue the football career their dad wanted for him. But then Brand’s brother was killed, too – while trying to bring down Hester’s racket. Upon this Brand dropped out of football and joined the force, and now in his late 20s he’s been successful in derailing Hester’s pipeline. Powell doesn’t waste our time with a lot of “realistic cop stuff;” within the first few pages Brand’s blowing away a pair of drug dealers, with little concern over rules and regulations. 

Brand isn’t so sharp, though; his contact is a stripper at one of Hester’s dives, and early in the book one of Hester’s stooges catches Brand and the girl meeting. Brand tries to rough up the stooge, claiming he has the hots for the stripper and all, but it’s clear he’s been made…not that our hero realizes this. Instead he goes back to bang his hot girlfriend, Diana, whom we’re often reminded is way out of Brand’s league; he constantly wonders what she sees in him. I mean Brand as presented is six-plus feet of pure musclebound stud, but at the same time he’s a cop with a cop’s pay, and Diana is high-class stuff. Again, this too should set off Brand’s sixth sense. Also it would help if he, like us readers, could consult the back cover, as the copy there completely blows the surprise that Diana will sell him out. 

This happens in a memorable moment about a quarter of the way through the book. Brand’s already taken down so much of Hester’s setup that the Mob executive board, run by Mr. Orsini in New York, plots to take him out of the picture. Rather than just kill him, which Orsini thinks is the better option, Orsini’s “slick” lawyer Cordetti devises a “cute” scheme to frame Brand: a lookalike (who remains off-page the entire narrative) is hired to blow away a minor cog in Hester’s pipeline, making it look that Brand has finally taken the law into his own hands. This, uh, “brands” him as a dirty cop in the eyes of his fellow cops – especially when Diana lies that Brand was not with her all night. Indeed, she further fibs that Brand admitted to killing this guy, asking her to keep quiet about it and cover for him. All this is relayed to the cops in her bedroom, the cops coming to arrest Brand at three in the morning; meanwhile in reality, Brand has been in bed with her all night. 

Quick sleaze quotient note: Powell is not one to much exploit the sexual tomfoolery, with nothing here approaching say Harold Robbins levels. But on the other hand, you definitely know some hanky-panky is underway, with occasional mentions of “deep thrusts” and the like. As for the violence, that too isn’t much played up, with no copious descriptions of exploding faces or fountains of gore. And in fact, Brand kills relatively few opponents, at least when compared to his men’s adventure comrades. He blows away a couple guys, usually using pistols, and Powell never dwells on the carnage. Even a hardcore bit where Brand fixes a guy’s shotgun – jamming up the barrels with shards of soap – is handled conservatively, with the ensuing face-blowing-offery of the jammed shotgun happening off-page. 

Brand’s time in prison is compactly conveyed over a few chapters; this is by no means a “prison novel.” After a few attempts are made on his life due to his ex-cop nature making him a top target, a black acquaintance outside sets up a group of “brothers” to serve as his guardians – a subplot that could’ve been more elaborated upon. Even behind bars Brand proves his heroism, first foiling an attempted prison break and later saving a doctor from a raging psycopath. This final act results in the warden making a call to the governor and getting Brand’s sentence commuted. All told, Brand “only” spends five years in prison, and when he gets out he immediately sets upon his plan to dish out a little payback to Leo Hester and the mob. In particular he has a score to settle, given that he’s found out his stripper informant was gang-raped and murdered by Hester’s thugs, courtesy an icepick to the spine. 

Brand understands that he can never be a cop again; even though he’s innocent, he is forever tainted as a dirty cop. But this is no big deal; it’s the ‘70s, and practically everyone is taking the law into their own hands to fight the Mob (at least according to the proliferation of similarly-plotted men’s adventure novels on the racks). He even comes up with the “Liquidator” title at the very end of the book, though otherwise he doesn’t have any fancy gimmicks or calling cards. And so far as guns and stuff go, he just uses a revolver and whatever else he picks up along the way, like a silencer-equipped .45. Initially he doles out revenge in fitting methods, like icepicking the thug who icepicked the stripper informant. There also follows the memorable bit where Brand sabotages another thug’s shotgun. 

But still, the vibe, at least to me, is like something from Gold Medal in the ‘50s. Like when Brand starts staking out Hester’s beach house, and spies his hotbod brunette mistress sunning on the beach – topless, of course. She catches him and rushes over to confront him, catching Brand off-guard. Turns out she’s been instructed by Hester to tell Brand that the mobster wants to talk, and also that she, the mistress, is Brand’s for the taking – she looks forward to it, having never been with a guy who has been celibate for five years. Surprisingly Brand doesn’t take the bait, and instead has her call Hester to set up a meet. The girl is named Gwen, and Powell gives her a memorable personality; she certainly doesn’t consider herself some cheap whore, and promises Brand that she’s super-skilled in the sack. At length our hero of course relents, but as mentioned Powell isn’t one for the sleazy details: “She gasped when he made the deep stroke” and the like being the extent of it. And it must be some deep stroke, as Gwen isn’t eager to let Brand go afterwards, insisting that their time together “meant something” to her. 

The meet with Hester is also pretty cool; the portly mobster swears it was the higher-ups who framed Brand, and further offers Brand enough info to get started on his mob-busting. Hester’s no fan of Brand’s, but figures he can kill the proverbial two birds: take out some competition in the mob, and along the way Brand might get himself killed. Hester tells Brand about the frame, who was behind it, and also where Diana has disappeared to. Curiously though at this point the book takes a slight detour; Brand’s also been informed of a new mob computer setup in Virginia, and goes about a lengthy plan to bring it down. But even here there’s more characterization than you’d expect, from the proto-computer geek who turns out to really be the boss of the operation to the shrewish lady who ends up helping Brand. Here Brand gets more info on the mob, and more importantly does more damage to them, but at the same time it detracts from the revenge scenario. 

The finale also takes an unexpected direction; Diana is in the suburbs of Maryland, where she’s married to a wealthy plastic surgeon who runs a fortified clinic. Brand basically just walks in the place and asks for Diana! This turns out to be his entire plan. He’s drugged, surrounded, and wakes up on a hospital bed; he was hit so hard the doctor actually gave him stitches. Diana returns to the narrative here, and again the plot goes in an unexpected direction, with Brand getting lucky and suffering a loss in quick succession. In the ensuing gunfight Brand also winds up taking out the guy who killed his brother, without even realizing it (though he’s informed so later). Powell pulls an interesting trick here with Brand being saved by women twice in the finale; first Diana gives him a gun no one knows she has, then after the climactic firefight (in which Hester is almost casually dispensed with), Gwen shows up and escorts Brand to safety. 

Gwen is actually still with Brand at novel’s end, but I doubt we’ll see her next volume. These ‘70s mob-busters were pretty much swingers. Anyway, I enjoyed The Liquidator #1 more than I thought I would, and I’m glad I picked up the rest of the series several years ago. FYI the last one, The Exchange, which as mentioned came out a few years after the others, appears to be the hardest one to track down. It was also published by Charter, which might be one reason it came out in ’78 while the others were in ’74; maybe publication was delayed when Charter took over Award’s books.


Treebeard said...

Did anyone write novels from the perspective of the mafia, instead of these endless "war on the mafia" vigilantes? Something like the "Parker" novels, if Parker worked for the mob. That would be an interesting series.

Film Buff said...

Of course. There's one called the Trigger Man by Richard Posner. Is a Fawcett publication. There's a lot of them but with misleading package.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! Treebeard, off the top of my head there's Adrano For Hire, which is about a young Mafia punk climbing up the ladder. I seem to recall it has a definite Parker influence at times.

Film Buff, thanks also for the note -- and I happened to review The Trigger Man a few years ago!

Grant said...

I couldn't help hoping this review was of that other series called "The Liquidator," the one that inspired the very tongue-in-cheek Rod Taylor film.
I've only read the first one in that series, but it's good.

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

Interesting! I have not read that series but I know the cover art was done by Samson Pollen, who did hundreds of men's adventure magazine illustrations and paperback covers, many of which are featured in the books POLLEN'S WOMEN and POLLEN'S ACTION. I'd love to get high resolution scans of the LIQUIDATOR covers from you, Joe, for a future book. (Meaning 300dpi scans, if possible, or high rez photos.) Is that doable?

Joe Kenney said...

Hi Bob, sorry I neglected to respond to you. I thought I had! I actually don't have access to a scanner -- I lifted the cover image above off the internet years ago, and don't even remember where I got it. Might've been from Bill Crider's review of many years ago. Sorry -- and sorry for the delay in response!

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

No prob. Thanks, Joe.