Monday, October 18, 2021

Amsterdam (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #35)

Amsterdam, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

The mysterious author officially credited as “William Rohde” returns with a third contribution to Nick Carter: Killmaster…one just as boring and listless as the previous two “Rohde” novels: The Judas Spy and Hood Of Death. Amsterdam truly lives up to its title; like the earlier Rohde novels it’s basically just a ponderous travelogue, set in the titular city, just as The Judas Spy was a listless travelogue about Jakarta – and by the way, an asterisked footnote in Amsterdam indicates that the original title of The Judas Spy was “Jakarta.” Clearly the editor at Award didn’t catch that Rohde’s footnote was referring to what was presumably his original title for the novel before it was changed; perhaps the editor had fallen asleep, because folks this is by far the worst volume of Nick Carter I’ve yet read. Granted, I haven’t read the one by Joseph Rosenberger yet, but still… 

Literally the only interesting thing about the “Rohde” novels is the mystery of the author’s identity. As I recounted in uber-pedantic detail in my review of The Judas Spy, “William Rohde” might have really been a writer named Al Hine, who turned in two volumes of the series later in the ‘70s, after the switch to first-person and after series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel had left. Or it might have been the actual William Rohde, a ‘50s hardboiled writer. Or, as I’m starting to suspect, it might’ve been a collaboration between the two authors. For once again “Bill Rohde” is referenced in the text; at one point we’re told that “[Nick] had told it to Bill Rohde…a younger AXEman…Practical fellow, Rohde…Bill was handling the New York end and the Bard Galleries.” The mysterious “Bard Galleries” was also referenced in The Judas Spy, likely a “clever” allusion to Rohde being the writer, or “bard” behind the tale. 

But folks that isn’t enough to save a novel, not by a long shot. Amsterdam is so lame that Nick “Killmaster” Carter kills no one in the seemingly-endless course of the novel. Unless I too fell asleep like the Award editor and missed it! But no, I went back and checked…the entire novel is mostly composed of Nick, who spends the entirety of the tale in Amsterdam, driving around the city and checking out the sights. Even the harried ending is bloodless. What makes it funny is that at novel’s end a Dutch cop tells Nick he “plays rough,” and meanwhile Nick’s gone out of his way to not kill the novel’s villains. 

The only other thing that makes the Rohde books fairly interesting is the focus on continuity, with returning characters – but the continuity is only with the other Rohde novels. So this time we have, late in the game, a return of Mata, the Indonesian beauty who featured in The Judas Spy; as it turns out Mata has been relocated to Amsterdam, where she works as a stringer for AXE. There’s also a weird attempt at filling in background details on Nick Carter; we’re told, for example, that Nick’s grandfather, “the original Nick Carter,” was a famous detective known for creating gadgets – in other words, the Nick Carter of the original pulps. 

Well anyway, Amsterdam features Nick posing as a diamond seller, traveling for work into the Netherlands, but in reality tailing the lovely Amlie de Boer. Amlie works for famous diamond company Mansons, but AXE has determined that the company is housing a spy ring. Amlie works as a courier, and Nick’s trailing her to figure out if she’s delivering more than just diamonds. So this sets us up for what the rest of the novel will entail; Nick gets a seat beside Amlie on the plane into Amsterdam and just starts talking away. So much of the novel is just dialog and travelogue, and it’s overly prissy, too, with sentences like, “A quiet aquasport of captivating sweetness, mixing greedy draughts with the daintiest bonne bouche.” You’d never guess it, but that’s from what passes for a sex scene! Honestly, Amsterdam is one of those books where I wish I could give the author a friendly punch in the face. 

Rohde makes some attempts toward excitement in these opening pages; when they land in Amsterdam and walk through the “ultra modern” airport, Nick feels something whiz by and realizes they’ve been shot at. He rushes around the place but finds no one. Later, in his hotel room, he’s accosted by three toughs. Here’s where I suspect Rohde was really a collaboration between Hine and the real Rohde, because the action scenes in the Rohde Killmaster novels – at least, what passes for action scenes – are more out of hardboiled fiction, with Nick doling out and receiving beatings a la Spillane. What I mean to say is, there’s rarely any gunplay or other “secret agent”-esque action. That said, it’s fairly brutal (but deathless), as Nick ultimately gets the better of the three tough guys. 

Another annoying penchant of Rohde is the constant teasing of gadgets; as with the previous two books, we’re told of weird gadgets Nick has on him…but he never uses any of them!! This time we’re told of these bottles in his traveling kit which look like typical grooming items and whatnot, but are really explosives or whatever…and they’re never employed. We’re also constantly reminded of Pierre, the gas bomb which “hangs like a third testicle” beneath Nick’s boxer shorts, and it’s never used, either. It’s all so puzzling, not to mention maddening, as Nick has all this stuff but it’s never actually used, and instead we’re just put through interminable locale-jumping across the Netherlands. And folks, I spent a semester of college in in the Netherlands (in Maastricht), and I couldn’t care less about this stuff – I wanted Cold War pulp action, not boring travelogue! 

The sexual material is also non-explicit, even more so than the other Killmaster novels of the era. When Nick and Amlie finally “do the deed,” as we used to say back in the ‘80s, it’s rendered in pseudo-poetics like, “[Nick] swam deeper into saturated depths.” Man, swimming in saturated depths and quiet aquasports (ie the “sex scene” quoted above – that one’s with Mata, by the way); one would figure Rohde had a bit of a metaphor going here. There’s absolutely no bite to any of it, either the action or the sex. Have I mentioned yet that “Killmaster” doesn’t kill anyone in the entire book? It’s just so lame, compounded by all the long Dutch names; there’s a plethora of suspects, and Nick slowly works his way through them as he figures out the spy plot. 

The mysterious Rohde returned for two more volumes, which I’ll get to someday. Oh and since starting this review (it took me over two weeks to write it, due to some vacation time), I’ve actually read Joseph Rosenberger’s Killmaster (review coming next week), and while it ain’t great it’s a helluva lot better than this one. So for now I’m sticking with my assessment of Amsterdam: worst installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster ever. (Said in my best Comic Book Guy voice.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Paradise Alley

Paradise Alley, by Sylvester Stallone
October, 1978  Berkley Books

I’ve never seen Sylvester Stallone’s 1978 movie Paradise Alley, and tell the truth had never even heard of it until I discovered this tie-in novel a few years ago. At the time I read somewhere that Stallone had written the novel first, then did the film, which was his followup to Rocky and also his debut as director. What’s most interesting about Paradise Alley is that it presents Stallone as an “event picture” type of actor instead of the action star he’d become more famous as with Rambo and other action flicks in the ‘80s. 

Paradise Alley was a dud, though, and this novelization appears to be just as forgotten. I need to see the movie to see how it differs from the book; if it’s true that Paradise Alley started as a novel, then I must assume this is that novel, unless Stallone rewrote it to cater to his script. In his contemporary review of Paradise Alley, critic Leos Carax (who memorably describes the movie as “an orphan’s nightmare”) states that the project started life in 1970 and that Stallone’s original script was much “darker.” So is this novel what the original, darker script was based on? Perhaps Sylvester Stallone himself will leave a comment here and clear up the mystery. (Hey, I can dream, right!) While the novel isn’t super dark, there is a bit of weird stuff that I’m betting didn’t make it into the film…like the part where the character Stallone plays wants to make a fast buck by lining up a bunch of winos to screw the corpse of a dead hooker! I mean, it’s not exactly up there with Adrian rushing into the ring to hug Rocky, is it? 

First published in hardcover in 1977 (where it was reviewed by Kirkus), Paradise Alley received this paperback edition the year of the film’s release. It includes some stills from the movie, which I assume were not in the original hardcover edition. There are also a handful of illustrations by an artist named Tom Wright, and I assume these were in the hardcover. What’s curious is that neither Wright nor Kirkus seem to know which of the three main characters Stallone would play; the uncredited Kirkus reviewer assumes it will be Victor Carboni, the brawny but gentle ice truck driver who eventually becomes a wrestling champ – clearly the role someone would expect Stallone to play, post Rocky, especially given that Victor is in love with the Adrian-esque wallflower Rose. However Wright, judging from his illustrations, seems to think Stallone will play Lenny Carboni, the morose WWII vet who becomes increasingly Machiavellan as the story progresses. 

As it turns out, Stallone played Cosmo Carboni, the least “Stallone-esque” character in the film, a conman with hardly any redeeming features. The character, as featured here in the novel, is so unlike any Stallone has ever played that I’m determined to see the film one of these days to see how Stallone pulls it off. Well anyway, Paradise Alley takes place in 1946 and occurs solely within Hell’s Kitchen, New York; supposedly the original title of the script was “Hell’s Kitchen.” But this is a 1946 straight out of classic cinema, and I concur with the Kirkus reviewer that the dialog here is much more 1930s than late ‘40s, but then it’s not like I was there and could give an accurate assessment. At any rate, Stallone well captures the grungy vibe of the place, presenting a small cast of penniless lowlifes; Leos Carax was very apt in his “orphan’s nightmare” description, as Paradise Alley takes place in a world in which grown men act more like waifs, where bullies roam the streets and there are no “adults” to set things straight. 

Stallone writes the tale in a simple, earthy sort of tone, with a lot of dialog and not much effort into word-painting the settings. In a way it reminds me of the Bowery sequences in The Bar Studs. Stallone, for some random reason, also sprinkles the narrative with short poems that seem inspired by haiku. But despite the aforementioned necrophilia for dollars plot, the tone is pretty much PG here, or at least the ‘70s version of PG, with only a little cursing and no real dwelling on any explicit stuff. Cosmo even has a hooker he visits frequently, but the sequences are mostly given over to dialog concerning the plot before immediately “fading to black” before the sleazy activities begin. I have to say overall that I really enjoyed Paradise Alley, and felt that it worked fine as a novel in its own right. And in fact I’m wondering if this will be a situation like The Rose, where the tie-in novel is such its own thing that seeing the film it’s based on would spoil it. 

Stallone spends the first hundred pages (of a 215-page, big-print book) on character building, before he gets down to the promised “wrestling” plot. He brings us into the grimy world of Hell’s Kitchen, in the sweltering summer of 1946, and introduces the three brothers who will be our protagonists: there’s Victor, who makes a meager living as an iceman, hauling hundreds of pounds of ice around town on his deliveries; Cosmo, the conman, with his “shockingly long hair” and anachronistic earring; and finally Lenny, with his cane and war injury and his perpetual scowl, who works in a funeral parlor. They’re all grown men, but the way they live together in a dingy home and insist how they must “stick together” only adds to that “orphan” vibe Carax noted. 

And the “nightmare” vibe is also present; within the first few pages Victor sees a dead dog on his route and some kids are trying to play with it, and there are a lot of refrences to dog shit and bird shit in this opening sequence. During his route Victor also comes across a legless vet who is begging for money; in one of the novel’s first big reveals this turns out to be none other than Cosmo Carboni, the “legless vet” bit one of his many cons. Lenny Carboni doesn’t feature as much in this opening half of the novel; as mentioned he’s morose, much more of a grown-up than either of his brothers in that he just wants to work and doesn’t daydream like either of them. The implication is that he’s come back from the war “half a man” and is now content to just live his lot in life here in the squalor of Hell’s Kitchen, and doesn’t dream of escaping like Cosmo and Victor do. In fact, Stallone is a bit guilty of completely changing Lenny’s personality in the second half of the novel, but he does at least set it up in a believable way. 

In addition to his dreams of striking it rich via some scheme and escaping Hell’s Kitchen, Cosmo also dreams of Annie, a local looker who works as a dancer. Gradually Stallone will dole out another reveal: Annie and Lenny used to be an item, until Lenny decided to become a hero and go fight in the war. This however is not mentioned in the text until halfway through the book. But instead of plot-building, Stallone is focused on bringing his characters and their world to life in these opening hundred pages. The dialog throughout is priceless, with some of the most bizarre putdowns and retorts I’ve heard this side of a Jerky Boys skit. But it’s all G-rated, just super oddball, like “Go stand in a corner and pretend you’re popular!” and the like. Or Victor’s “You guys are causin’ me to breathe heavy!” when Cosmo and Lenny start nagging at him. 

Cosmo is an oddball himself; there’s a weird bit early on where he and Victor visit Lenny in the funeral home and Cosmo starts making inappropriate comments about the “stiffs,” noting the stink. There’s a lot of death in this hot New York summer, and one guy who’s died was a street performer who had a pet monkey. Cosmo wants the monkey for one of his schemes, but one of the boys in Nickels Mahon’s gang has gotten hold of it. Nickels and his street toughs are straight out of that “nightmare,” roaming Hell’s Kitchen and preying on the weak, but still it has a juvenile vibe, with Nickels mostly trading insults with the Carboni brothers. However there is a dark quality at play; in an effective sequence Cosmo remembers the time when he saw Nickels and gang beat a bum to death: 

But now Cosmo wants that damn monkey. So at the neighborhood hangout Mickey’s Bar (surely an in-joke reference to Rocky’s trainer) Cosmo challenges Nickels: if Victor can beat Nickels’s hulking stooge Frankie the Thumper in an arm wrestling match, then the monkey is Cosmo’s. Otherwise Cosmo will owe Nickels a lot of money. This is where the brothers first learn the untamed power Victor has at his disposal, and also where they learn that he’ll only fight when his brothers believe in him. This will be the first pretense toward the main plot, but before that we’ll have more material with Cosmo’s schemes, like for example his plan to line up some drunks and tell them a dead hooker is really just “sleeping.” Tom Wright illustrates this scene, of Cosmo and Victor standing over the hooker’s corpse in the funeral parlor: 

But it’s not until around page 100 that we get to the wrestling setup, and it’s a spur of the moment thing, as Cosmo again eagerly volunteers Victor’s brawn. A “colored” fighter named Big Glory has remained undefeated in the ring at Paradise Alley, where people can bet on the fighters. Cosmo, apropos of nothing, dubs Victor “Kid Salami” and talks him into fighting Big Glory, which Lenny is opposed to. But Victor again proves his worth in the ring, which takes us into the main plot, of Victor becoming a famous Hell’s Kitchen wrestler, working his way up on the underground fight circuit. Here too Stallone reveals that Annie and Lenny were an item before the war, and Cosmo gets his heart broken when he sees the two back together. 

Also here as mentioned Lenny gets a personality overhaul; whereas the first half of the novel he’s taciturn and introverted, with Victor’s success in the ring Lenny turns into his aggressive manager, pushing Lenny further and further. This comes off as very awkward given that there’s not much setup for Lenny to suddenly become such a prick, but Stallone does sort of cover for it, as previous to this Cosmo gives Lenny a “what the hell happened to you?” speech, where he accuses Lenny of being a fool and rushing off to prove himself in the war…and coming home with nothing to show for it but a bum leg. (As I say, Cosmo is pretty unlikable at times.) Shortly after this Lenny’s not only rekindled his relationship with Anne, but he’s also become a new man, pushing Victor around like a proto-Don King. He also comes up with the schtick of hanging actual salamis on Victor before he enters the wring. But the implication is that Cosmo’s speech has spurred this change, serving as a moment of clarity for Lenny. 

Cosmo for his part becomes Victor’s trainer, leading to more goofball stuff, like Cosmo making Victor through radiators and such. Again, nothing on the par of running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but still entertaining in its own right. As for the wrestling matches, Stallone doesn’t dwell on them much. They’re for the most part rendered in a few sentences, and only occasionally does Stallone give blow-by-blow action description. There is though this phenomenal sentence when Victor knocks out one of his opponents: “Patty McLade dropped to the floor like a whore’s nightgown.” Again it comes down more to character, with Victor losing his lovable nature and becoming more of a “killer” in the ring. Unexpectedly here Stallone goes for the heart strings in a sequence that comes out of nowhere but leaves the longest impression on the reader: on Christmas Eve, a drunk Cosmo comes across Big Glory, the black fighter Victor defeated on his path to wrestling fame, and the two men carouse around Hell’s Kitchen, trading goofy dialog; a sequence that leads to a surprising, and touching, climax. 

The same can’t be said for the actual climax of the novel, though; Nickels Mahon, planning revenge on the Carboni brothers, gets Frankie the Thumper into his own wrestling career, leading to a final confrontation between the two giants in Paradise Alley. At this point the Carboni brothers are split asunder, with Victor a sadistic brawler, Lenny a heartless bastard, and Cosmo hating Lenny not only for taking Annie from him, but for being such a merciless controller of Victor. But the brothers reuinite during this climactic brawl, after which things get back to how they were at the start of the novel. Stallone goes for a circular approach, implying that the Carboni brothers can never leave Hells Kitchen, but by novel’s end it’s clear that there’s no place they’d rather be. 

So in closing I have to say I enjoyed Paradise Alley more than I thought I would. It’s a fast-moving tale for sure, and Stallone shows his screenwriting nature by sticking mostly to colorful dialog instead of scenery description. I did feel that the wrestling angle wasn’t properly exploited, but I’m assuming the movie goes into more depth in that regard. I’m also curious to see if Cosmo’s various schemes make their way into the film. Speaking of which, Stallone clearly intended to play Cosmo, as he’s the main protagonist of the novel, appearing more than either Lenny or Victor. But as mentioned Tom Wright must’ve been under the impression Stallone would play Lenny, as evidenced by this illustration of the cane-wielding Lenny looming behind Victor: 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Kane‘s War #5: Depth Charge

Kanes War #5: Depth Charge, by Nick Stone
November, 1987  Ivy/Ballantine Books

When I began collecting Kane's War years ago I really looked forward to getting to this fifth volume; the plot, about an underwater luxury resort only accessible via scuba or submarine, really appealed to me. I could just see the Burt Hirschfeld-esque trash fiction yarn this setting might entail, with a bunch of jet-setters congregating in a plush locale beneath the waves for some wholesome sin. But one thing I’ve learned from reading so many men’s adventure novels is that the contents of the books often differ from the stories promised on the back covers, and such is the case with Depth Charge

While there is an underwater resort here, it’s largely unexploited and indeed the entire novel – up to the series’ usual unwieldy length of 280+ pages – takes place before the resort even opens! The resort, Neptune’s Palace, only opens to its guests in the final quarter of the book, but instead of the glitzy beach read I’d hoped for it instead turns into a Die Hard prototype, with terrorists attacking (and destroying!) the place before the festivities can even begin. Rather, the majority of Depth Charge is given over to the usual Kane’s War formula, with our hero getting in frequent waterborne scrapes with a variety of foes, while finding the opportunity to enjoy some explicity-rendered sex with his two female companions. 

One thing this fifth volume seems to confirm for me is that there really were two authors on Kane’s War, maybe more. Some of them, like the previous volume, are a bit more “straight” and feature small print, the author fully invested in capturing the “marina mystery” vibe. The odd-numbered volumes, like this one, are much more crude, especially in the sex scenes, and feature big print. In fact the closest comparison I could make would be to prolific men’s adventure writer J.C. Conaway, but there’s too much plot here for one of his works, not to mention too much action. Otherwise whoever served as this particular “Nick Stone” writes like he’s working for Leisure Books or Belmont-Tower in the ‘70s; he could care less about “realism” and instead wants to serve up a bunch of sex and action. The only caveat is the page length, which again makes the series a bit of a chore; if a hundred pages were cut out, Depth Charge would be a lot more fun. 

Anyway the story follows on from the previous four: hero Ben Kane is minding his own business in the Caribbean when all hell breaks loose. The opening is memorable; Ben and his “favorite playmate,” Michelle, are deep-sea diving and checking out Neptune’s Palace, which is soon to open. Someone cuts their air lines, but luckily Neptune Palace owner Paul Kavouris happens to be scuba diving nearby and gets Kane and Michelle into the resort before they drown. Here we get our first – and only, really – look at Neptune’s Palace. It’s a two-storey structure that looks like “a twenty-first century spaceship.” Kane’s charter line has gotten the contract to ferry guests to the resort, and he and Michelle wanted to come by this Sunday morning to see how the development was going. When they get topside they find Kane’s skipper out cold, courtesy a dart to the neck; we readers know that an assassin’s in the vicinity, his sights on Kane. This cutting of the air lines was just his first assault. 

But really this setup becomes unintentionally humorous; there will be multiple attempts on Kane’s life as he’s just tooling around the ocean, lending the novel the slapstick tone of The Naked Gun or somesuch. I’m certain the author had his tongue in cheek, though; I mean, Kane will be out cruising the waves with erstwhile colleagues Ganja and Miles, and some boat will come out of nowhere and start shooting at them, and pretty soon Miles will be blasting back at it with an M-16 he takes from the bulkhead or whatever. Reading this series you get the idea that firefights frequently occur in the Caribbean. The author tries to make it all somewhat believable, with a hapless cop at least making the pretense of trying to maintain law and order – and chastising Kane for his violent “American ways.” 

An interesting thing about this series is that it has the ‘80s-mandatory “team” focus, even though Kane is the titular character. While Kane is the main character, Ganja and Miles are part of his team and have their own subplots. Miles continues to be a cipher, and the author doesn’t do much to bring him to life; he’s monosyllabic and likes knives. There’s a definite “hmm” factor at work, too; Neptune’s Resort features two “mermaids” at the entrance, twin blondes (“they were natural blondes, too”), clad only in scuba gear, who welcome all visitors. Well, one of them (or both, the author doesn’t clarify) takes a shine to Miles…who goes out of his way to ignore her. Otherwise the mermaid bit is wholly unexploited by the author; as I say, the entire “Neptune’s Palace” setup comes off like an afterthought, with more focus on Kane’s waterborne firefights and the lame mystery of who hired the assassin that’s after him. 

This “mystery” angle is what makes me suspect J.C. Conaway was this volume’s “Nick Stone,” but as usual I could be wrong. Conaway always had a mystery angle in his books, and there’s one here, complete with even a Conaway-esque bit at the end where Kane assembles all the suspects and starts grilling them with full-bore exposition. But as I say, there’s a lot more focus on action here than any Conaway novel I’ve ever read, though the firearms detail is minimized. In other words, you certainly couldn’t confuse Kane’s War with the average Gold Eagle offering of the era. Nor is the violence much exploited; gunfights are frequent, but blood and gore is minimized. The same, happily, cannot be said about the frequent sex. As mentioned, this particular author is quite crude in that regard – enjoyably so. 

So the previous volumes have established the template which appears again here: each novel opens with Kane having explicit sex with either Michelle or his other “playmate,” British beauty Jessica, and then shortly after this escapade we’ll have Kane conjugating with the other playmate. So this time it opens with a graphic bang of Michelle, then that night Kane goes to a lavish party of the elite and has sex with Jessica. This will be repeated throughout the book, and as with previous books a third babe will gradually be introduced into the mix. But the sex in this volume is much more crude than previously – and I’m sorry to keep using that word, but it really is the best description:

 But this is just the tip of the veritable iceberg. Later on we have a bit where Paul Kavouris has sex with his mistress Rachel, a stacked redheaded widow who becomes manager of Neptune’s Palace (and ultimately will become the “third babe” Kane himself enjoys in the novel). This part is so randomly bonkers that I just had to share it: 

As mentioned Kane gets his turn at the wheel with Rachel, leading to even more bonkers filth: 

And this crude vibe extends to the entire book, complete with random exclamation points in the narrative. Again, the feel is very much of a Leisure offering from the decade before. But the sleaze can’t save the book, because too much of it is given over to egregious page-filling. Through Max’s somnambulic mumbling, Kane learns of an infamous assassin nicknamed “Feathers” due to his favored method of kills – feather-tipped darts. Ultimately this has Kane constantly cornering a local gaddabout named Sir Max and accusing him of being Feathers, or of hiring him. And yeah, that’s “Sir Max;” rather than the Hirschfeld-esque potboiler beneath the sea I was hoping for, Depth Charge instead concerns itself with stuffy upper-crust British types, like a notoriously “fabulous” old lady named Adelle. 

After the interminable attacks on Kane – I mean he’s even shot at while merely fishing with Kavouris – we get back to Neptune’s Palace, which soon will open to its first round of tourists…who happen to be those stuffy upper-crust Brits. The author brings the recurring characters here, with Michelle getting a job – it’s implied so she can ensure Kane doesn’t get too cozy with either of the “mermaids” – and Ganja also working in the place. But as mentioned any chance to exploit this exotic setting is squandered. Promptly upon Neptune Palace’s opening it’s hit by those titular “depth charges,” and pretty much the entire place is destroyed! I mean there’s no part where we see the various characters interacting with this plush underwater resort, complete with its view of the sea and its nude mermaids. 

Even the proto-Die Hard connotations are squandered, as the underwater action’s over quick and things go topside, with Kane and comrades blasting away at the villains. But this only leads us to that ultra-lame “climax” I mentioned earlier, with Kane assembling all the various one-off characters and grilling them to discover who would want to destroy Kavouris’s underwater resort. It’s all incredibly lame and almost reminds the reader of the climax of the average episode of Scooby-Doo. Even worse is this “Nick Stone” has no feel for drama; one of the new one-off characters is killed in the action at Neptune’s Palace, and the death is treated like an afterthought. 

That said, Depth Charge moves incredibly fast for a 281-page book. I’d love to know who the authors were who worked on this series; maybe it really was J.C. Conaway who wrote this one. I guess we’ll never know.

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Executioner Series Style Guide

In my review of Men's Adventure Quarterly #3 last week I mentioned the issue had inspired me to upload an Executioner curio I picked up some years ago, thanks to a cool guy I used to be in regular contact with named Mike Madonna.  Mike kindly shared with me this style guide for The Executioner that Gold Eagle put together in the early 1980s, when the imprint began publishing the series.  I have been meaning to share this out for several years now, and the newest MAQ inspired me to finally do it.

This 38-page document features an intro by Don Pendleton himself, and then goes on to give potential Gold Eagle ghostwriters the ins and outs of handling the series.  It would appear that the guide was not used for very long; per his comments in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, Pendleton grew quite frustrated with how Gold Eagle ultimately veered away from his suggestions for the character and the series.

Also, I thought it would be fitting to post this now, given that the final Executioner novel was published this past December, courtesy long-time series author Michael Newton (who per a comment Brian Drake left in my recent The Hunter #1 review passed away recently).

Head to this Mega link to download the Executioner Series Style Guide and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Men‘s Adventure Quarterly #3

Mens Adventure Quarterly #3, edited by Robert Deis, Bill Cunningham, and Chuck Dixon
September, 2021  Subtropic Productions

It was a definite pleasure to receive this third issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly; while the first issue featured Westerns and the second issue featured spy stories, this one features ‘70s “man vs the mob” stories, with a particular focus on The Executioner. Indeed Mack Bolan is the star of MAQ #3, with not one but two “book bonuses” which condense the first two Executioner novels. In addition we have more detail on Don Pendleton and his work, as well as an essay by his widow Linda. Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham serve up their usual informative intros to whet our appetite, and guest editor Chuck Dixon also fills us in on how The Executioner connected with the latter-day men’s mags. 

What I really like about this third issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly is that each story here is from the 1970s; in just about every other men’s adventure mag anthology, the stories are generally from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The last years of the genre are usually swept under the veritable carpet, often minimized as being nothing more than lurid “adult” rags. While this is mostly true, a lot of those later magazines still featured great stories, and I’ve reviewed some of them herehere, and here. Years ago when I was avidly collecting men’s mags I’d try to find ‘70s issues, mostly because the covers promised such lurid crime stories. However the later ‘70s men’s mags are pretty pricey (not that the earlier ones are cheap!), likely because they had lower print runs. I mean, how many horny men in 1976 would buy Men when they could buy Penthouse instead? Not only less “stories” to get in the way of the nude flesh, but more bush! 

The fun begins with “Blood Feud With The Mafia,” by Don Honig and from the August 1970 True Action. The setup follows Honig’s Western yarn “Shoot-Out At Mad Sadie’s Place,” in MAQ #1: a guy’s brother is killed and he goes out for revenge. But the way it plays out here is much different. For one, as Bob points out in his intro, the storyline is similar to The Executioner formula, but per Honig himself he never read that series, and the story was all the product of his own imagination. As it turns out, “Blood Feud” comes off more like a pseudo-Executioner, as the protagonist doesn’t nearly have the same drive for vengeance as Bolan (or any of Bolan’s imitators, for that matter). 

Honig is very good at succinctly setting up his stories, and that’s evident here with fat Don Carlo tasking his “number one gun” Nick Piano with going to Frisco to take out Dick Malloy. Malloy’s brother was killed by the Don years ago, and Malloy swore revenge. Instead he got shipped off to ‘Nam, and now he’s back; the don wants him killed in case he still has plans. But as mentioned Dick Malloy’s much different than Mack Bolan. When we meet him he’s drunk, coming out of a bar, and has no intentions of following through on his vow anytime soon. Honig takes the story in a different direction when Piano, instead of killing Malloy, offers to run cover for Malloy while he sows havoc on Don Carlo’s various operations. So already we see a much different approach to the formula than typical: Malloy has to be talked into his new role as mob-buster, and heck, later in the story he even states, “I don’t cotton to killing.” 

Regardless Honig turns out a fast-moving crime yarn that covers all the bases, from karate-chop kills to heists (a ‘70s men’s adventure mainstay), to even the mandatory willing female. This would be Trix, the “busty” blonde waitress at Malloy’s motel who makes her interests clear – and when Malloy doesn’t respond she shows up in his room one night. By 1970 such scenes were slightly more risque in men’s adventure magazines, but it’s still a mostly fade-to-black affair. The finale features Malloy sneaking into the don’s villa and trying to figure out how many henchmen are there so he can make his kill and safely escape; even here he proves himself to only be a Bolan pretender, as he bumbles through it. Honig delivers some nicely violent setpieces, capping off an entertaining tale; this was a good first story for MAQ #3

“We Wiped Out ‘Brutal Mack’s’ Cyle Killers” by Jack August, from the November 1972 For Men Only, is the longest original piece here; indeed, it seems to just keep going and going. This one’s outside the template of the issue in that the narrator doesn’t go up against the mob per se, but a biker mob. In that regard it’s more of a piece of the glut of biker yarns the men’s mags would publish at this time, as wonderfully documented in Deis and Doyle’s Barbarians On Bikes. The narrator of this one is pulled back into the wild world of biker scum; when word has it that a new gang called The Savages is tearing up other clubs through the midwest, he soon finds himself in a direct confrontation with them. Brual Mack, the herculean ruler of The Savages, gets in the narrator’s crosshairs when he kills his best bud/’Nam pal, and our hero swears revenge. But it’s not a direct action sort of tale; first he infiltrates the gang, gains Brutal Mack’s confidence, and only gradually pulls off his revenge. With its reactionary flavor, “Brutal Mack” has little in common with the true biker tales that would appear around this time in Easyriders; indeed, no makes or models are even mentioned, and the bikes are more of just a prop for the author to hang the story on. 

“The Amputee Vengeance Squad’s Mafia Wipeout” is by Jack Tyler and from the August 1975 Men. This I felt was the highlight of the issue, even better than the Executioner yarns. First of all though, kudos to the editors for showing the uncensored cover of the original issue of Men, with no black bars or other digitization blocking out the nudity. I also appreciated Bob’s intro, which discusses how these latter-day men’s mags were mostly Playboy and Penthouse imitators, with much less focus on pulp stories – but at least they featured full-color artwork for the pulp stories they did run. Bob rightly puts a lot of focus on Earl Norem’s fantastic artwork for the story (Norem handles the art for many of the stories here, and he’s always been one of my favorites), but he doesn’t tell us much about author Jack Tyler. No idea if Tyler was real or a house name, but he turns in a very entertaining slice of pulp crime. I rank this with “Blood For The Love Slaves” as another men’s adventure magazine story that I wish had been fleshed out into paperback length. 

As the title would suggest, this story entails a trio of ‘Nam vets who band together to take on the Mafia. Nothing unique about that particular plot, but the difference here is that each of the men lost various limbs in the war…but their army-supplied prosthetics have only made them even more badass. So we have a dude with artificial legs, another with a false arm and mechanical hand (“a thing of wizadry”), and another with a pair of hooks replacing his lost hands. Norem faithfully captures the look of each man, even the “walrus moustache” one of them sports: 

Tyler serves up succinct backgrounds for each of the three men, vividly capturing how they lost their limbs in the war and how they learned to live on without them when they returned home to East Michigan. But when one of their own, one who has served as an “idol” because he was determined to “live normally,” is killed by the mob, the three decide to get revenge. The action never falters, with lots of violent shootouts. Norem’s splashpage illustration also comes into play when a hapless stooge blows off the legless guy’s artificial limbs. Tyler writes the tale in flat, declarative sentences, so that it almost comes off more like a piece of reporting than fiction. He doesn’t get into the thoughts of his protagonists very much, and ultimately he doesn’t make much use of their prosthetics in some novel way, ie an artificial hand that hides a gun or etc. But the idea itself is super cool and Tyler does a great job of playing it straight and delivering a fast-moving and memorable piece of pulpy crime. 

Tyler easily could’ve hussled this into a paperback series to go on the racks along with the other men’s adventure paperbacks in the ‘70s – Pinnacle, Leisure, Manor, even book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel might’ve seen the potential here for a hit. But then, by late ’75 the men’s adventure paperback genre was already dying down, with most series getting cancelled and not many new ones hitting the market at all. Per Michael Newton in his How To Write Action-Adventure Fiction, men’s adventure paperbacks disappeared around this time due to the oil crisis; publishers had to throttle back on their publications, and the low-circulation men’s adventure series were often the first to go. Whatever the reason, perhaps the world is a poorer place for never having had an “Amputee Vengeance Squad” series. 

Next we get into the main portion of the book, which is devoted to two lengthy Executioner reprints; the first, originally published in the October 1969 issue of For Men Only, is a condensed version of #1: War Against The Mafia, and the second, originally published in the September 1971 issue of Men, is a condensed version of #2: Death Squad. As Bob and Linda Pendleton note, these “true booklength” versions might’ve been edited by Pendleton himself, or perhaps by Executioner series editor Andy Ettinger. Their appearance here is nice, but they’re mostly more of a novelty nature, as the actual books themselves are quite common, with about a zillion editions each. But it’s cool to see how they were molded into the template of a men’s adventure magazine, at least, and in this regard War Against The Mafia really stands out as different from the rest of the series with its focus on sex. Per my overly-comprehensive notes in my review of that first volume, these sex scenes were specifically added per Pinnacle’s request. How wonderful it must’ve been to live in an era where “add more graphic sex and violence” was an actual publisher request! 

The Executioner theme continues with an insightful essay from Linda Pendleton, a piece on the mysterious The Executioner Mystery Magazine, and a focus on Gil Cohen’s art for the Pinnacle and Gold Eagle books. Bob Deis and Wyatt Doyle did an entire book devoted to this, One Man Army, and that one’s highly recommended. There’s also a study of Cohen’s art in William H. Young’s A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction; there Young describes the cover of every Executioner and tie-in novel from the first volume all the way through the mid-1990s. The one thing I recall from this piece is Young’s note that Bolan on Cohen’s covers becomes increasingly weapons-bound as the novels progress; whereas the earliest volumes have him with a single gun and garbed in his blacksuit, by the latter volumes of the series he’s encumbered by grenades, ammo, and other accessories that dangle from his suit. 

This issue’s “Gall-ery” is devoted to the famous Betty Page, and we get a teaser that MAQ #4 will feature work from a female men’s mag author. There aren’t any reader letters this time, but overall Men’s Adventure Quarterly #3 looks as great as the first two – this is clearly a labor of love from Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham – and it’s highly recommended for anyone into men’s adventure novels or magazines. Also, this issue inspired me to finally get around to posting an Executioner curio I acquired some time ago; it will be up on Monday.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

That Man Bolt!

That Man Bolt!, by Peter Crowcroft
May, 1974  Pocket Books

To be filed under “They did a novelization of that?,” That Man Bolt! is a tie-in for the Blaxploitation flick starring Fred Williamson. To be honest, I’ve never seen the film, but the novel does a good job of conveying the story, which was obviously an attempt at a “black Bond.” The movie poster’s tagline even spelled it out for those who didn’t get it: “He’s been bonded!” 

Hero Jefferson Lincoln Bolt is clearly intended as a black James Bond for the ‘70s: he’s a globetrotting, ruggedly virile man of international mystery who wears the best clothes, drives the best cars, and beds the best babes. Given this, author Peter Crowcroft might’ve been just the man for this tie-in, with a somewhat stuffy, more “literary” prose style than, say, the Coffy tie-in. But then, Coffy was an urban thriller (an incredibly sleazy one in the tie-in, too). That Man Bolt! is more of a budget Bond affair, complete with kung-fu fights, scuba diving, and the obligatory locale-jumping. But within moments of starting the novel my Britdar was going off; this was certainly the work of a British author. That somewhat fussy and overwritten approach to pulp, as if written by an author who frowns at such such things. 

Unlike Bond, Jefferson Bolt is a courier, and he must make a good living at it, as his prime residence is a sweeping bachelor pad in Hong Kong, with other places around the world. He’s a kung-fu master, the baddest of bad-asses, and super-smart to boot. In other words, he’s way too idealized, which might be fine in the film, with Fred Williamson carrying it, but in the novel it comes off as tiresome. Bolt’s always a few steps ahead of his enemies, never fazed, and his fate is never in doubt. Crowcroft attempts to make Bolt more relatable by occasionally filling us in on his hardscrabble background…but then he goes and makes Bolt even more superheroic in the explicit sex scenes. But more on those anon. 

When we meet him Bolt’s in his stomping grounds of Hong Kong, where he’s just gotten out of jail. He soon learns he was put there on trumped-up charges courtesy Griffiths, who appears to be with British intelligence. Griffiths wants Bolt to handle a courier job in which Bolt will transfer a briefcase with one million dollars in it; three previous couriers have handled the job, and all are now dead. I’ll be completely up front with you all now and admit I couldn’t figure out what the hell the plot was about. But basically it just entails Bolt cuffing the briefcase to his wrist and venturing around the globe, waltzing unscathed out of various attempts on his life while still finding the time to bed a few babes. Oh and at one point he hides the briefcase, otherwise it would be a bit of a nuissance during all the babe-bedding. Anyway, Bolt chaffes at Griffith’s pressuring him, but ends up taking the job for the “high adventure” of it all. 

First Bolt heads to Los Angeles, where he promptly gets in a car chase. The passage in LA is so brief and narratively unimportant that I figured it was only there because the filmmakers had to shoot one scene in Los Angeles. After this Bolt heads to Las Vegas, where he has some contacts in the casino biz verify if the bills he’s carrying are legit. More importantly Bolt cozies up with old flame Samantha, a sexy lounge singer. Here’s where the novel definitely veers from the film, as surely the ensuing sex scene wasn’t this graphic. But curiously Crowcroft focuses more on Bolt and his body than on exploiting Samantha, particularly Bolt’s “thick, ten-inch manhood,” a phrase that is repeated a few times in the novel. But never more memorably than in its first appearance: “[Bolt’s] thick, ten-inch manhood always devastated Sam’s beautiful body on first impact.” 

You don’t need a degree in ‘70s crime to figure out what happens to Samantha next, especially when she’s soon thinking to herself how much she loves Bolt, and how she wants to go off with him and whatnot. Sure enough, an assassin wielding a Luger slips into the room and blows her head off! Crowcroft tries to use Sam’s murder to further humanize Bolt, with him occasionally thinking of her loss and etc. At any rate soon afterward Bolt’s back in Hong Kong, which makes you wonder why he left in the first place. Again, it’s no doubt because the producers wanted to mimic the Bond formula with locations all over the world; it’s a wonder there wasn’t a part where Bolt went to a ski resort so he could tangle with some enemies on the snowswept mountains. 

Bolt at one point is actually caught, where he’s strapped down and subjected to acupuncture, an “old Chinese torture.” He manages to escape, of course, leading to a fight with several thugs. Here Crowcroft shows that he can’t be bothered with writing an action scene, leaving it as, “It was an intense fight, while it lasted.” At this point my Britdar was going haywire. But at least Crowcroft is more descriptive in the sexual interludes, and one follows soon after: Bolt heads into Wanchai, a “salubrious district,” where he gets busy with Mai Lo Fong, a masseuse who speaks in ‘70s-mandatory pidgin English. Bolt whips out that “thick, ten-inch manhood” again; indeed, “Mai Lo was not sure it was within her natural capacity to take it.” Again Crowcroft focuses more on Bolt than the girl, but this scene has a strange bent to it, given Mai Lo’s employment of the mythical “Butterfly Kiss,” which has her body playing host to Sam’s ghost – so it is Sam who is riding Bolt, not Mai Lo. One last boink from beyond the grave, as it were. 

Ultimately the plot centers around Yun Soo-Chin, the “Howard Hughes” of Hong Kong, a wealthy old man who seems to be behind the various attempts on Bolt’s life. Even here Bolt finds the opportunity for some bed action, courtesy Dominque Kuan, Yun’s ultra-sexy Eurasian mistress. But Bolt is a bit of a prick; after his bout with Dominique, he scrawls a secret message for Yun on the girl’s nude rear end, mindless of how the notoriously-jealous Yun might react when he discovers Dominque’s whoredom. Not that the girl really minds, as from here on out Dominique is the closest thing to a main female character the novel offers. 

There’s also some stuff about an island off the coast which produces the best assassins in the world, kung-fu masters all, and wouldn’t you know it but Bolt himself is the best student the school’s ever produced! An assassin named Spider is given the task of killing Bolt, but any attempt at tension is immediately scuttled because we’ve already been told – by no less than the island’s top instructor himself – that Bolt is a better fighter. Ultimately this will lead to a climactic kung-fu fight between Bolt and Spider at novel’s end. We also have more sub-Bond stuff like Bolt scuba-diving onto one of Yun’s ships, and leading a big assault on his HQ at story’s end. 

Crowcroft seems invested in the tale, and no doubt puts more effort into the writing than is warranted. But at the same time his fussy, precise prose style makes the novel seem twice its length. (Insert your own “thick, ten inches” joke here.) Otherwise given that I’ve never seen the film, I can’t say whether Crowcroft’s novelization of That Man Bolt! offers anything different from the film; it could wildly diverge from the movie itself, but I have no idea. Maybe one of these days I’ll get around to actually watching the movie to find out.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Survivor (Peter Trees #2)

The Survivor, by John Q.
August, 1965  Avon Books

For some inexplicable reason I decided to read this second volume of Peter Trees, even though the first one bored me to tears. The helluva it is, I want to like the series; there’s something undeniably cool about an uber-masculine WWII vet still kicking ass and picking up babes in the mid-1960s. Plus he’s a secret agent! And he has his own fighter jet!! But once again author “John Q.” (aka John Quirk) has turned in a slow-moving yarn that features little in the way of the spy action promised on the cover. 

First a note on Quirk himself. In my review of The Bunnies I stated that he’d died in 1969. The other day I began researching Quirk and discovered this date is wrong – like, really wrong. John Quirk actually lived until 2012, and per this memorial is remembered more for his equestrian pursuits than his writing. I’m not sure where the 1969 date came from – I see it all over the net where Quirk’s novels are mentioned – but it does appear that his last published novel was The Tournament, the final Peter Trees novel, which came out in 1966 and was published by Signet. (Clearly Avon wasn’t fond of the series either and dropped it!) I came across a 1969 interview with Quirk where he mentions three novels he’s working on (one of them sounding very promising – a businessman getting involved with drugs and hippie sex!!), but none of them were published. Quirk was also a Detroit-based businessman, so maybe he just lost interest in the writing biz. Or maybe he just couldn’t get published anymore. 

So anyway, The Survivor (a nickname Trees was given by reporters, given his war record or somesuch) takes place “fifty-two hours” after the end of The Bunnies, and opens with Trees flying his modified Crusader fighter jet into Puerto Rico. This immediately gives us the impression that we’re in for a thrilling read…I mean the hero’s even got his own high-tech helmet, personally designed for him by Toptex, with a full-face visor providing him with oxygen instead of the usual mask. But folks, this will be it for Peter Trees’s Crusader. He lands it, parks it, and that’s that. The rest of the novel, believe it or not, is mostly composed of Trees engaging in glib conversations with a host of jet-setters here in Puerto Rico. That is, when he’s not lighting a cigarette or “swimming a quick forty laps” in the hotel pool. 

Also, the opening threw me for a loop; within the first two pages we’re informed that Trees just killed Jo Court, the pretty young secretary of Trees’s boss, billionaire Archangelli. It’s not every day you’re told right off the bat that the friggin’ hero just killed an unarmed woman…and that he feels absolutely nothing about it, as it was something “that needed doing.” I had to go back to The Bunnies immediately to remind myself what had happened, and yep – turns out at that novel’s climax the “lovely” Jo Court was outed as a traitor aligned with Archangelli’s archenemy Martinelli, and the novel ended with Trees taking her up in his Crusader…and cutting off her oxygen. Then dumping her corpse in the ocean and flying along on his merry way. Just to remind you again – he’s our hero! 

But then Quirk is at pains to let us know that Peter Trees is not your everyday white hat hero; he’s amoral, ruthless, and only appreciates fairness when it comes to sportsmanship. A female character in this novel often goes on how “cold” Trees is. What makes it curious is that Quirk clearly wants us to understand this. It makes for a hard-going read, though, as the hero is hard to root for. Peter Trees is so tough, skilled, and world-weary that he’s hard to relate to. I’m also getting annoyed with Quirk’s lack of follow-through on his own setup. So Trees is the personal pilot of Archangelli, but on the side is an agent for the top secret Program Committee, reporting to Broderick Whitehead, who ultimately reports to the President. Hardly anything is made of this setup, and as with the previous book more focus is placed on Trees’s affairs in the line of duty for his employer, rather than for the government. 

To this end Trees has flown to Puerto Rico to get “revenge” on Martinelli for the previous book’s affairs, but once again Quirk hits the brakes and puts everything on a real low boil for the duration. The plot, or at least what I could make out of it, has to do with Trees trying to get a lucrative “rail spur” from wealthy native Alvarez, so that Archangelli can add this to his acquisitions and beat Martinelli from getting it. There’s also something about a fuel injector, which I think is leftover plot from The Bunnies. What this entails is Trees lounging around the hotel and playing golf and trading taunts with Alvarez and his minions, among them a sadistic Brit named Pelham. 

I came across an interview once where Quirk stated that Peter Trees was his attempt at filling the void left by Ian Fleming’s death. But of course the big miss on Quirk’s part was that Fleming gave us entertainment in the James Bond novels. Regardless, Trees does a little literary borrowing with a clear reference to Goldfinger as Trees plays golf against Alvarez and his boys – Trees, just like Bond, shocked to discover that Alvarez is a cheater on the course, just as Goldfinger was. There’s also a lot of brand-naming, again per Fleming, with all of Trees’s stuff the best money can buy. But as for action, forget about it. Pelham clearly wants to fight Trees on the golf course, but everything blows over until the finale. Not that there’s any concern on Trees’s part. He's almost ridiculously macho, content that he can take on anyone; indeed, one almost gets a dose of second-hand testosterone from these books. 

As mentioned last time, Quirk clearly identified with his character, or at least wanted to; the back cover features the same tiny author photo, Quirk appearing ruggedly virile in an orange flightsuit, a fighter jet behind him and a Toptex helmet like Trees’s in his hands. This might’ve been author identification along the lines of Fleming, who would pose with a pistol on the back of the Bond novels. Or perhaps it was some satire on Quirk’s part (as it could’ve been on Fleming’s part as well). Maybe it was a bit of both. Trees though is famous, known for his war exploits and magazine spreads and whatnot, and the book features an unintentionally humorous part where Trees lounges in the hotel restaurant and wonders how many people there recognize him. It’s a wonder Quirk didn’t go all the way with it and have Trees be one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts; I mean he’s really that idealized. 

Things sort of pick up with the intro of Elizabeth Martin, a pretty young American woman who approaches Trees at Dorado Beach and says she needs his help. It will take a long time for her to tell him what she needs; the two trade world-weary barbs for pages and pages. Every single character in the novel is cynical and world-weary, and as I read The Survivor it occurred to me that this particular style would be the last thing I’d expect from an author who was himself a WWII fighter pilot vet. Quirk’s style is so smarmy and contrived that it comes off like some modern-day coastal hipster trying to write a spy novel while sipping soy lattes at the latest trendy coffee bistro. Nearly every line of dialog from nearly every character is an urbane, witty bon mot, as if these people were all fervent readers of The New Yorker. This makes for a very curious – one might even say “quirky” if one were given to lame puns – sort of read. Peter Trees is an alpha male of rugged virility, but he and the other characters talk like they’ve just wandered out of a John Cheever story. 

Well anyway, Elizabeth needs Trees’s help; something about her husband having been taken prisoner by Alvarez and only Trees can rescue him. She’s also to offer herself to Trees, though he puts her off a bit. Our hero is quite aware of his charm with the ladies, and if he plans to ravish them he’ll let them know when he’s good and ready. He is quite brutal with women; there’s a part where he comes upon an innocent Pan Am stewardess and, using her as bait, ties her up and leaves her in his hotel room bed as a decoy. He even tapes her mouth despite her begging him not to, which of course reminded me of the repercussions of doing such things, as seen in The Hunter. But hey, at least he’s polite; as with last time, “Mr.” and “Ms.” is incessantly used, even when characters are holding guns on one another. And Quirk also has an obsession with using the word “your” to denote (and mock) affiliations, ie “Your Mr. Archangelli” and “Your Mr. Pelham” and etc. 

Trees does eventually take Elizabeth up on her bedroom offer, though as with last time Quirk cuts immediately to black. He’s not even one to exploit the ample charms of his female characters. Oh, and now that I’m thinking of it, that sexy scuba babe on the cover (artwork credited to Ben Wohlberg) does not exist in the book! I was really bummed about that. Elizabeth is Trees’s sole conquest in the book, and he mostly seems to go through the motions; there’s no impression that he even finds her attractive or wants her. Again, the connotation is he’s more machine than man, merely a conqueror taking his rightful reward. Elizabeth is the character who often goes on about how cold and uncaring Trees is, not that he cares much what she thinks. In fact, he takes the bait to rescue her husband more because he looks forward to the challenge and the danger, and also because it somehow ties in to the whole rail spur plot. 

The climax is spectacularly underwhelming. Trees spends most of it off-page, leaving the heavy lifting to some Puerto Rican soldiers he’s aligned with. Then he gets Elizabeth Martin’s husband on a plane and escapes. Trees’s sole kill in the novel occurs when a villain slips into his hotel room, boasting how Trees will soon die, but our hero of course is unfazed by the threats – and quickly proves them hollow. While there’s no blood or excitement or anything, Trees does have a great badass line when he nails the would-be killer with his throwing knife: “You die an amateur. Now get on with it.” Otherwise our hero doesn’t even get his hands very dirty in the course of this installment. 

As mentioned Avon Books dropped the series after this one, but Signet picked it up for one more volume: the following year’s The Tournament, which I don’t currently have and am in no hurry to acquire. Quirk does try to develop some plot threads for future books: in exchange for his help, Trees promises a Puerto Rican colonel that he’ll come and train his men to battle communist insurgents, and by novel’s end Trees is already planning for this. There’s also another part where Broderick Whitehead tells Trees that one day soon the Program Committee will want to know the story behind Archangelli, and that Trees will have to snoop on his boss to see whether he’s secretly on the side of the Reds. 

Even to the end of The Survivor our protagonist is a merciless prick; Archangelli has a new secretary to replace Jo Court, just as young and pretty and all that, and she too has her share of witty repartee, even when she’s holding a gun on one of the bad guys. The novel ends with Trees figuring that one of these days he’ll probably have to give her a little sexing – and may even have to kill her, too, if it turns out she’s just as traitorous as Jo Court was! So the novel opens with our hero thinking about how he just murdered one unarmed girl and ends with him musing that he may need to kill another unarmed girl someday. Yeah, I seriously won’t miss this series. 

In addition to the Peter Trees novels, John Quirk also published three standalones. As a random note for anyone who researches him sometime, be aware that one of these novels, 1962’s No Red Ribbons, is abridged in the paperback edition. The original hardcover, which apparently focuses on a pair of WWII fighter pilots and their business and political affairs after the war, runs to nearly 600 pages. The paperback, released the following year, is around 300 pages, and per the copyright page the abridgement was by Quirk himself…so even he must’ve felt his novels were a little bulky and slow-going. But as mentioned the Peter Trees novels were his swan song so far as the publishing world went, so maybe he just lost interest in writing anyway.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Cape

The Cape, by Martin Caidin
No month stated, 1971  Doubleday

The last of the space race novels Martin Caidin published before he hit the big time with Cyborg (which would of course become better known as The Six Million Dollar Man), The Cape takes place in the near-future year of 1972 and is more focused on the ground crew than the astronauts. Also, like Caidin’s earlier No Man’s World, The Cape clearly didn’t resonate with readers of the day, as it only received this original hardcover edition – which, also like No Man’s World, is now grossly overpriced on the used books market. 

I will concur with the contemporary Kirkus review that The Cape was likely influenced by Countdown, only I feel it is a much inferior work to Frank Slaughter’s beach read potboiler. Caidin too attempts to write a sort of melodrama set in the space program, occuring in the titular Cape Kennedy and environs, only he lets his technical familiarity with the program get in the way of telling an entertaining tale. Whereas Slaughter put the characters first, Caidin is more about the nuts and bolts; as with Countdown the tale is more about the preparation for launch rather than the launch itself, with the astronauts minor characters in the narrative. The Cape is all about the technicians and managers behind the scene, and as in No Man’s World Caidin is sure to let you know he’s been there and knows all about it. 

To that end our hero is Ray Curtis, the director of Manned Launch Operations, a brawny and hirsute individual (Caidin often mentions the “thick hair” on the guy’s chest, stomach, and shoulders, giving the impression he’s more ape than man) who currently is overseeing the launch of Apollo 17. In reality this was the last lunar mission, commanded by Gene Cernan and featured in the great mini-documentary The Last Steps. Probably writing in 1971 (the most recent real-world Apollo launch mentioned is Apollo 14, but Caidin refers to it in such a way that I got the impression it hadn’t actually happened yet), Caidin presents a 1972 in which the space program hasn’t been totally gutted, and the US is still actively pursuing “this new ocean.” 

Also another difference here is that the Apollo 17 in Caidin’s novel will be launching the space station Skylab, something that didn’t happen in the real world until 1973 (and had nothing to do with Apollo 17). So again, Caidin was certainly familiar with NASA’s plans, and uses this setup to flesh out the surrounding Cape Kennedy…which turns out to have a somewhat rotten core, again as per Countdown. Actually there’s more to NASA’s plan: for reasons not suitably explained, the agency plans to launch Skylab via Apollo 17, and then secretly launch Apollo 18, a moon shot, immediately after. But Apollo 18 will rendezvous with 17 in Earth orbit, switch commanders, and the commander of Apollo 17 will get in Apollo 18’s command module and continue on the voyage to the moon. I couldn’t understand why the plan was so complicated, other than a vague reference that it might be a way to boost interest in the program again or somesuch. 

At any rate, the major issue with The Cape is that Caidin seems to want to write a beach-read sort of affair at first, but then changes course and turns in a tense thriller that’s undone by too much pedantic info and stalling. While Ray Curtis is the protagonist for the most part, Caidin also introduces a host of other characters, and humorously enough tells us about their past sexploits with girlfriends or mistresses or whatnot in their intros. Again, this just gives the impression that Caidin’s about to attempt a torrid novel about the space race, but ultimately he fails to deliver. Also the underground stuff is as reactionary as Caidin’s later Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve, with marijuana and hash literally turning one minor character’s teenaged daughter into a mindless sex-slave. This revelation only occurs at the very end, and as ever isn’t much exploited, though it does have the laugh-out-loud moment where the father, a bigwig in the space program, is taken to a hippie crash pad by the cops, and there is shown his nude daughter, fresh from her latest orgy and lying in a stupor on the floor. When she sees her dad, whom she is too drugged to even recognize, she asks him, “Wanna fuck?” It’s so over the top it could be out of a Jack Chick comic. 

In addition to Ray Curtis we have a score of supporting characters. Most interesting is Danny Stuart, an Apollo astronaut who has already been to the moon, and will now be the first person to walk on the moon twice, given that he’ll be the Apollo 17 commander who switches over to 18 and heads for the moon. His intro also has us expecting the beach read stuff, as it opens with him flying a jet, ruminating on how astronauts like to have a little extra something on the side in Florida while keeping their wives back in Houston, and then has him meeting up with his mistress – only to learn she’s pregnant! But unfortunately Stuart will soon fade away in the text, his plot more focused on the ramifications of a blackmail scheme cooked up against him by another minor character. At any rate, the opening bit on astronaut marital infidelity could almost come out of Tom Wolfe’s later The Right Stuff (or even “Post-Orbital Remorse”): 

But man, Caidin could have delivered on the “space race beach read” novel I’ve been looking for, by just making Danny Stuart the hero and focusing on his extramarital exploits. And speaking of which all these guys have pretty hectic personal lives; even Paul Jaeger, the fussy ex-Nazi Quality Control Inspector, has his own mistress. Caidin is so focused on quickly dispensing with such info that he loses control of any plotting: for example, we learn early on that Ray Curtis’s secretary, Ginny, is so in love (or actually lust) with her boss that she fantasizes all the time about having sex with him. She’s prone to giving him footrubs and other perks that of course would be frowned upon today. So Caidin establishes this, and will have unintentionally hurmorous moments later in the book where Ginny, all aflutter, will stumble away from a confused Curtis. But Caidin lacks follow-through skills; after Ginny’s secret lust has been established, we cut over to Curtis, unaware of his secretary’s love for him, as he drives off to meet his latest girlfriend. But instead of telling us about her, Caidin instead has Curtis flash back to how he met his first wife, what she was like in bed, and etc…and then neither the first wife nor the latest girlfriend appear in the text again! 

I’m learning though that this is part and parcel of Caidin’s writing style. I’m always comparing him to Mark Roberts, but in reality his prose style is most similar to William Crawford. So similar in fact that if I didn’t know better I’d hypothesize that “William Crawford” was a pseudonym of Martin Caidin, but then we know they were two separate people. But their narrative style, dialog, and storytelling peculiarities are almost identical. Neither seems capable of allowing their characters to breathe, and neither seems unable to stop lecturing the reader via the narrative. There is so much info-dumping in The Cape that you quickly lose all interest. It would be great if you were learning about the space program, or how NASA works, or some other interesting period detail, but for the most part it just comes off like arbitrary ranting and digressing…same as in Crawford. 

Another interesting character who initially seems important but ultimately becomes trivial is Gene DeBarry, a dashing reporter (he’s compared to a young Orson Welles) who lives in an entire apartment complex along the beach. Caidin has it that when all the “pink slips” were handed out at NASA after Apollo 11, real estate was cheap given how many fired employees left the Cape. DeBarry purchased an entire building and refitted into his own domain, continnuing to write about the space program here. His intro too makes us expect some kinky stuff, opening as it does with his nude girlfriend commenting on how the naked DeBarry’s balls look when he’s sitting down(!). DeBarry too could’ve made for a fine protagonist in a torrid melodrama about the space program, but he soon fades into the narrative woodwork. I did think his pad sounded super-cool in that late ‘60s way I so enjoy, though:

There are other characters as well, but most of them gradually hinge around Ben Rayburn, a Cape-based crime boss who acts as a liason for people engaged in various underground activities, and usually blackmails them for it. For example, we learn that Danny Stuart’s mistress is pregnant. They both decide on an abortion, and Stuart tells the girl he knows a guy named Ben Rayburn who could help set up something – like what doctor they could use, or where they could go to have it done discreetly. Then we flash over to Houston, where Danny’s wife Dee suspects her husband of being a cheater. She decides to hire a Cape-based private eye to shadow him…and the name she’s given for the job is Ben Rayburn. Thus Rayburn is hired separately by both husband and wife, and ultimately uses this to blackmail Stuart. But even this is only a minor distubrance in the narrative, and even here Caidin fails to deliver on the dramatic potential. Danny Stuart pretty much disappears from the text after his intro! 

Rather, the focus is on a panoply of characters and the fact that the CIA et al suspect the Reds are going to sabotage the Skylab launch. Worse yet, intel has it that one of the top men at NASA is a traitor. This suspense angle becomes the impetus of the plot, which plays out over a week. Curtis doesn’t take the info seriously, claiming that there have been sabotage warnings on every prior launch, but soon gets the vibe that this one might be legit. At one point he comes up with the novel idea to use the recently-hired “Negro” engineers at NASA as undercover monitors to ferret out Reds, figuring they’d be less capable of treason than the Germans who came over to NASA after WWII. 

Speaking of which there’s a whole bunch of stuff here that readers today (and even in 1971) would find unpleasant, like Curtis “jokingly” referring to his black colleague by the dreaded N-word. For that matter, when villain Gene Clayburn later finds out that one of his hookers had sex with one of the black engineers, he goes ballistic: “You balled the jig?!” I know that’s racist and all, but it made me laugh to think how younger readers of today probably wouldn’t understand what the sentence even means. They’d probably think it was some new dance move. That said, Rayburn goes on to beat the woman unmerciful for it. As for the other “inappropriate today” stuff, I did enjoy how the novel took place in a working world in which Human Resources hadn’t yet been invented; as mentioned secretary Ginny enjoys giving her boss rubdowns, and there’s a bunch of smoking and drinking in the office. 

The Cape slowly builds up steam as various government agents come on the scene to help figure out the sabotage plot. I got another postmodern chuckle out of how one of them, a notorious killer, had the last name Clinton. That Cartel’s everywhere, man! But it’s all just so static and listless. The finale is pretty apocalyptic, though, with the massive Vehicle Assembly Building nearly being destroyed in a planned explosion. This part was an almost eerie prediction of 9/11, with thousands of employees in the building losing their life in the destruction. But Curtis pushes on with the Skylab launch, leading to a anticlimactic finale in which the main villain is outed – though this is a nice bit of misdirection from Caidin, who has us suspecting someone else. 

It’s no mystery why The Cape failed to make any traction. Caidin does himself no favors by turning in an un-thrilling thriller. Also I’d say public interest in the space race was at its lowest around this time; Caidin does mention the same thing in his novel, but also has the Russians still in open competition with the US, which at least still lends the launches and whatnot a little public awareness. In reality though the Russians had pretty much thrown in the towel at this point. At any rate, The Cape only received this original 374-page hardcover edition, and as mentioned it’s now pricey like most of Caidin’s other novels are. If you still want to read it, just do what I did and request it via Interlibrary Loan.