Thursday, August 5, 2021

Doctor No (James Bond #6)

Doctor No, by Ian Fleming
October, 1963  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1958)

I certainly didn’t mean to take so long to return to the James Bond novels, especially given that I’ve been looking forward to re-reading this particular volume. As I mentioned in my review of Casino Royale, Doctor No was the first Bond novel I read; it was the summer of 1987, I was 12 years old, and I bought, new off the shelf at WaldenBooks, the recently-published Charter Books edition with the glaring orange cover. I’d already read a few of the John Gardner Bond novels, and now I wanted to read a Fleming original. And I certainly enjoyed it, as soon enough I was reading all the other Flemings I could get my hands on. 

Now that I’ve read the preceding novels in sequence, it’s clear that Doctor No is a cut above. I know you’re supposed to say that From Russia, With Love is the superior novel, with its cerebral plot and probing characterization, but I’ll take pulp over that any day. And Doctor No is certainly pulp; the villain is straight out of Sax Rohmer and Bond is much more of a man of action than he was in previous volumes. In fact Fleming’s at pains to tell us how much Bond’s enjoying himself, particularly when in danger. This is a far cry from the effete snob of Casino Royale. Bond’s so tough this time that his main weapon is a big .38 revolver; humorously, Doctor No sees the introduction (at great narrative expense) of the Walther PPK, which will become James Bond’s trademark weapon, but as it turns out he never even uses it in the course of the novel. Anton Chekhov would not be amused! 

While Bond comes off as fit, recuperated from his stay in the hospital after his pseudo-death at the finale of From Russia, With Love, one can’t say that his boss M comes off very well here. I’m fully with Kingsley Amis, who in The James Bond Dossier states “no thought is taking place behind those damnably clear eyes.” M is a buffoon here. He’s as cantankerous as ever, and clearly blames Bond for almost getting killed at the previous novel’s end. First he strips Bond of his beloved Beretta (“For the first time, Bond hated the man”), then he tasks him with a “vacation” to Jamaica to look up some minor business with Strangways, a character who appeared in Live And Let Die. While we readers know that Strangways and his assistant have been murdered, M is incredibly negligent in his muleheaded certainty that Strangways and his pretty young assistant have just run off together. 

In fact M is so obstinate here that it’s a wonder Bond doesn’t suspect “the old bastard” of having dementia. Even Bond, who has been in the hospital for some indeterminate amount of time, instantly suspects foul play when he’s briefed on Strangways’s disappearance by M and the Chief of Staff, aka Bill Tanner, the pseudonym Kingsley Amis adopted for The Book Of Bond. M even mocks Bond for assuming that he, M, hadn’t himself suspected foul play, but of course the old bastard turns out to be completely incorrect. There’s of course the possibility that M knowingly sends Bond into the lion’s den, as penance for nearly getting killed last time, but there’s no real indication of that. In fact it’s the opposite: M gets his digs in by sending Bond on an “easy” assignment, unsubtly implying that this is about all he could trust Bond with anymore. 

A great thing about Doctor No is how quick it is: Bond’s briefed and on the job within the first few paragraphs. There’s no stalling while he dithers about at home or ponders past assignments or anything. In fact, Bond’s private life is almost a closed book this time, and he never thinks of the events in From Russia, With Love, as if blocking all of it from memory. The novel Doctor No most refers back to is Live And Let Die, given that here Bond returns to Jamaica, the first he’s been here since visiting the country “almost five years ago” in that earlier novel. I should say though that while the novel is quick-moving, at least when compared to previous books in the series, it’s still a little too overstuffed: this Signet edition is only 192 pages, but it’s got some seriously small and dense print. And a lot of this stuff is made up of evocative word painting as Fleming brings to life the flora and fauna of his beloved Jamaica. 

I’ll try not to refer to the film version very much, but I will say that it certainly has more action than this original novel. And “adult” stuff, too; oviously, Bond’s “fiance” doesn’t exist in the novel, as she did in the film (a character that was wisely ejected by the third film), and Miss Taro, the busty evil pseudo-Asian babe who beds Bond in Jamaica, is here a very minor character who has no interraction with Bond himself. Also one of my favorite parts of the movie is all the radiation zone stuff in the finale, with goons in pastel radsuits (not to mention Ursula Andress flashing a bit of skin during the “decontamination” sequence – though in reality it was just a “flesh-colored skinsuit”). The goons here for the most part just wear khaki shorts and are much more brutish than their film counterparts, not to mention foul mouthed; Fleming shows the skittish era in which he’s writing by self-bowdlerizing their expletives (ie “Shut your –ing mouth!”). And on the action front, there’s much more of it in the film, with car chases and shootouts that you won’t find here. 

Yet despite all that, Doctor No is still the most action-packed of the novels yet. Bond blows away several goons in the finale, even gunning down some of them in cold blood. He isn’t nearly the ruggedly virile hero Sean Connery portrayed in the film, but he’s still a much tougher bastard than the man we knew in the earlier books. Here the subtext is clear: Bond’s been toughened up by his near-death experience. He even requests Quarrel, the Cayman Islander who also first appeared in Live And Let Die, to further toughen him up. Also this volume has what I consider the best villain in all of Bond: the titular Doctor No, aka Dr. Julius No, who comes off like a Fu Manchu for the Space Age. Memorably described as a “giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil,” Doctor No is a towering half-Chinese madman with mechanical pincers for hands and a heart that’s on the wrong side. 

The plot of Doctor No is such a Jungian archetype that it practically became the archetype that all Bond films would follow (I am of course only referring to the original films, nothing with “starring Daniel Craig” in the credits): Bond is briefed, goes to some exotic place, meets some exotic locals, dallies with some exotic babe, and eventually tangles with the exotic villain in his exotic lair – foiling, of course, the villain’s exotic plot. At least viewed after all these decades of repeats and retreads it seems like an archetype, though clearly Fleming in his day was also hewing to established pulp templates. He just does it with his usual skill; to me one of the most humorous things to read in vintage Bond criticism is the complaint that Fleming’s prose is childish or poor. Today it comes off as downright literary. So either the literary critics at the time were just effete snobs themselves (how the times have changed…oh, wait…), or our reading standards have plummeted. Honestly I think it’s a combo of both; I’ve seen early 1900s English primers for Elementary school students at antique stores, and some of them would likely challenge college students of today! 

So given this archetypal vibe – not to mention the fact I suspect that most of you have read the book or at least are familiar with the story – I’ll skip over my usual belabored uber-comprehensive rundown of the plot, and just stick to my impressions. It’s been a bit since I read Live And Let Die, but Quarrel is a very memorable presence here. Fleming seems to have an affection for him, and he brings the character to life. Likely Fleming’s portrayal here would at times be seen as insensitive in our overly-sensitive era, but Quarrel is much more of a strong, capable presence than the stereotype seen in the film. One thing I really enjoyed was how Quarrel developed such a “thing” for Annabel Chung, the “Chigro” news photographer who hounds Bond upon his arrival in Kingston; this bit made it into the film, with Quarrel hurting Annabel per Bond’s order and Annabel slashing Quarrel’s face with a shattered flashbulb. But here in the book it further develops that Quarrel’s pretty damn turned on by the whole thing, and in fact thinks about looking Annabel up one day! 

Ah yes, “the Chigroes.” In what will certainly be considered the most off-putting element of Doctor No to today’s coddled readers, the Chigroes are half-black, half-Chinese natives of Jamaica who have suffered much racism, to the extent that a local rep of the British Government tells Bond it’s only a matter of time until someone rounds them up into a political movement! Of course Bond will discover that Dr. No has done just that, he himself being half-Chinese. The Chigroes are presented as all part of one underground network, almost mindless in their devotion to Dr. No. The men who act as No’s soldiers are especially sadistic, boasting of how they like to torture their victims and coming off as much more vile than any opponent Bond’s faced in the past. It goes without saying of course that I was not offended by any of this, I mean it’s a pulp novel for crying out loud, but these days you can’t even read a modern review of a Fleming novel without encountering the words “offensive” or “racist” or “sexist.” I wonder how much longer until these sorts of books are either suppressed from publication or just edited for content – but then that’s nothing new, either, as the original US editions of Live And Let Die removed some of the “racist” content of the original UK printing. 

I also loved the stuff on the “mount of Venus,” which honestly I always thought meant something else entirely! But at least here, per Quarrel, it’s the span of flesh directly under the thumb; the thicker it is, the wilder in bed a woman is. Well that’s something new I’ve learned! Throughout Quarrel has such little homespun profundities, and his dialog is a lot of fun, but really he so pales in comparison to Honeychile Rider that he must be removed from the narrative shortly after her introduction. Deemed by Amis as “the most appealing” of Bond’s women, Honey is usually voted the fan favorite, at least in the surveys I’ve seen over the years. She is I think the most fully developed Bond heroine yet, and I’m not just talking about her “firm beautiful breasts.” She’s naïve but not innocent, childish but not immature. She’s smarter than Bond when it comes to survival in the wild, and Fleming even unknowingly taps into our modern demand for “female empowerment” in that Honey not only saves herself in the finale, but also gets hold of a weapon and goes after Dr. No for revenge! 

Interestingly though Fleming doesn’t cater as much to the exploitative content this time; Honey is introduced fully nude (save for the fetishistic touch of wearing only a wide leather belt), but Fleming doesn’t go hog wild with all the “chesty” details. This is mostly due to Bond’s very interesting response to Honey; while he certainly admires her ample charms initially (watching her like a true Peeping Tom from the bushes), after this he takes on an almost paternal or at least brotherly approach to her. This is different than how he responded to, say, Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever. The implication here is that Honey is too “pure” for Honey, almost a child of nature; there’s also an age divide, as she’s only 20 and Bond at this point is late 30s, I believe. But when has that ever bothered a guy?? It’s deeper than that, as evidenced by the various insulting names Bond refers to Honey as in his own thoughts: “female Tarzan,” “Ugly Duckling,” even “poor bitch.” 

But Honey so sparkles with life that she seems to exist outside the page, and for my money at least she’s the strongest heroine Fleming’s created yet. From my readings of the following books many years ago I don’t believe any female character impressed me as much as she did, though I do recall liking Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice. Honey was to become such a fan favorite that John Pearson had Bond end up with her in his 1973 novel James Bond, The Authorized Biography. Initially though Bond takes as mentioned more of a protective stance toward Honey; perhaps it’s her horrifically-broken nose, which in one of the more memorable moments of the book she covers instead of her “beautiful breasts” when Bond meets her nude on the beach. In her extended monologue Honey proves here again that she’s not the innocent Bond initially suspected; the broken nose was courtesy a man who raped her, a man Honey later murdered in a very cruel way. Bond’s response to this story is so great it made it into the film, and actually does sound very much like the sardonic rejoinders Connery would soon be known for: “It’s not a thing to make a habit of.” 

Once Bond has met Honey on Crab Key the novel takes on more fantastical elements, all for the better. Not only does the mysterious Doctor No employ legions of Chigro followers, but he also has a fire-breathing “dragon,” which Bond rightly assumes to be a modified vehicle of some sort. When Bond and Honey are taken captive they find themselves in an opulent “mink-lined prison” that’s built inside a mountain, complete with a pair of receptionists who seem to have stepped out of the Hilton – and who in one of the few unexplained bits seem completely unaware of Dr. No’s nefarious plots, even if their “guests” often show up in handcuffs. But then it’s established that No’s hold on his minions is so complete that they wouldn’t even think to ask him of such things. But even here, in the well-appointed suite, Bond still refuses to see Honey as the sexual character she is; she practically begs him to have sex with her, to which our hero responds, “This isn’t the time for making love.” 

Here is yet another reminder that Bond the literary character cannot be much confused with Bond the film character. The film version of Bond’s already been through two women at this point, with Honey soon to follow, while the literary version has presumably been celibate since the previous adventure, having been confined to a hospital bed all the time since then. But Bond is all business at this point, determined to figure out how to stop the seemingly-invincible Dr. No and get them out of this seemingly-inescapable prison. Despite which, he’s still kind of a dolt in that he doesn’t suspect the food they’re given might be drugged. That being said, Fleming here creates a bizarrely domestic scene of Bond and Honey, freshly showered and in silk kimonos, eating a hearty breakfast after their surreal adventures in Crab Key. 

But I do feel we get to a stone wall with the almost-neverending monologue courtesy Dr. No on his past. The villain, while incredibly menacing in his visual presentation, turns out to be a damned bore when he opens his mouth. Sure, it’s all about power and the merciless acquisition of it, but still his interminable backstory just seems to never come to an end. I did appreciate Fleming’s occasional mentions that Bond and Honey would exchange mocking looks throughout the speech, none of which No apparently notices. Here we at least learn Dr. No’s fiendish plot: that he intends to do something! Humorously, his entire plan is to do something wicked as “the next chapter” in his villainous career; currently he’s been messing with American missiles, thanks to some Russian programmers he has in his employ. The film version I felt fleshed this out a bit more satisfactorily, also making Dr. No a member of SPECTRE, which didn’t exist yet in the novels. 

But then the movie doesn’t come close to matching Fleming’s climax, which takes up almost a full quarter of the narrative. Clearly an inspiration for the death mazes that would feature in the later TNT series, this harrowing sequence also seems to go on and on…but the effect is the exact opposite of No’s tiresome speech, with the reader almost breaking out in a vicarious sweat. Bond is placed through a series of obstacles, with the clear understanding that he won’t ultimately survive. Here we see an aspect of Bond’s character that hasn’t been this fully explored: he is a survivor, and will fight until the end. He goes through electricity, fire, spiders (almost too much after the celebrated bit with the poisonous centipede earlier in the book), and even at the climax of it all fights a “kraken,” aka a giant squid. Bond also proves himself a proto-MacGyver in that he makes weapons out of what he has at hand, and also has had the foresight to smuggle a bread knife and lighter out of the dining room. All this is great stuff, more thrilling and action-packed than anything in the previous five novels. 

Another interesting element here too is that Bond’s struggle to survive isn’t even to save his own skin; it’s to get out of this death maze so he can save Honey. She’s been carted off to her own sadistic fate, to be Dr. No’s first “white victim” of the crabs that inundate the beach each night and tear apart everything in their wake. I can only assume this bit was the inspiration for Guy N. Smith’s later Crabs series. But as mentioned Honey isn’t nearly the damsel in distress Bond assumes. Even though she passes out when Dr. No reveals her fate, it’s later revealed that Honey knows more about these crabs than the doctor does, and she passed out because she knew Bond’s fate would be even worse than hers! With Bond and Honey reunited, we do get some of the action the movie series would be known for, with an armed Bond running roughshod through the place. But again it’s nowhere to the spectacle of the film, with Bond only making a few kills – some of them in cold blood. Another part I loved: Bond kills one guy and apologizes to Honey for having to do so in front of her, to which she responds, “Don’t be an idiot!” Man, I really loved her character. 

Here’s one part where Fleming goes to greater lengths than the film: Bond and Honey make their escape in the “dragon.” I kept waiting for this to happen and was glad it did, but unfortunately Fleming doesn’t decide to go all the way with it and have Bond light up the flamethrower and fry up some thugs. Fleming does deliver Dr. No a more gruesome fate than the anticlimactic one he received in the film; in one of the more hard-to-buy bits in the novel, Bond suddenly knows how to operate a crane and manages to dump a ton of guano on the doctor. Even more sadistic is how Bond gets hold of the crane controls; he jams the sharpened bread knife into the operator’s throat. Again, all much more brutal than the James Bond of the previous five novels. 

I feel that Fleming knew he’d created such a strong heroine with Honeychile Rider that he had to establish, even here, that she would not be in the following novel, per the series template of a new “Bond girl” each book. For Bond, once back to safety in Kingston and about to have some much-delayed good lovin’ with Honey, thinks to himself how he can help her get her nose fixed and set her up with a good job. (Another great bit: Honey’s earlier statement, delivered matter of factly, that she’d become a hooker to make enough money to fix her nose!) It’s almost as if Fleming’s telling us now that Honey, despite being such a vibrant character, will have to go. In reality though I think practically any guy would try to hold on to her for good. I know I would. But then, Fleming here has Bond for once reflect on a previous flame, Solitaire from Live And Let Die, so perhaps this material at the end is just playing off of that; Bond already knows that these relationships are not meant to last. But unlike Solitaire, whose fate Bond briefly wonders over earlier in the book, Bond will know exactly where Honey is: with the job he sets up for her. 

There’s an interesting thematic subtext in Doctor No that Bond is constantly being told what to do. This of course plays into Jacquelyn Friedman’s somewhat twisted interpretation of the series in Ian Fleming's Incredible Creation. But it’s pretty obvious here, starting off with the M-Bond briefing which ends with Bond saying, “If you say so, sir,” and M replying “I say so,” and continuing throughout the novel, the last line of which is Honey telling Bond: “Do as your told.” It’s almost overt given how frequently it happens, with Fleming giving the impression that Bond, despite being the action-prone hero of the series, is really just a pawn on a chessboard. Speaking of Friedman, I do appreciate her study, if only because it’s so far-out, but she does miss one thing: in the chapter “Dignity and Grace: The Morality of the Wasteland,” she claims that Fleming never outright states what Dr. No’s plans are. This is only partly true, of course. Otherwise I suspect Friedman took a lot of her inspiration from Doctor No; this novel in particular shows the “decayed death-throes of the white world” in full effect, with all the white figures of authority, from M to the Governor of Jamaica, so disaffected and siloed in their elitism that they have no concept of the “vibrant, non-white energy” that thrives around them – and, as is the case here, that plots against them. 

At the bottom of the post I’ll put up the cover of that Charter edition I got when I was a kid; I’m betting I picked it up right around its publication date of July, 1987. In past posts I’ve been writing “1986,” so clearly I got my dates wrong based off this publication date; maybe 1986 was when I started reading the John Gardner novels. My memory of summer of 1987 is certainly wrapped up with Bond, as I recall reading Doctor No as well as the two new Gardner novels: Nobody Lives Forever, which I had in the just-released mass market paperback edition and loved at the time (I recall telling my pal Jimmy Stevens I’d come over and play with him some other time ‘cause I wanted to keep reading the book – which was a big deal because Jimmy’d just gotten that insanely massive G.I. Joe aircraft carrier and wanted to show it off!), and No Deals, Mr. Bond, which I had in the just-released hardcover edition. 

But it was Doctor No that apparently made the biggest impression on me; it was the first “pure” Bond novel I’d read, in that it was by the creator himself, and right away I could see how different the character was from Gardner’s interpretation. That summer I went on to read as many of those original Flemings as I could. I always held Doctor No in high esteem, but I recall it was the one-two punch of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice that thrilled me the most, and which I ranked as my favorite. I look forward to seeing whether that’s still true, as I have to say Doctor No was a lot of fun and I can’t see any of the others topping it; the older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate pulp, and this must be the pulpiest the Bond novels ever got. Disregarding of course the ninjas in You Only Live Twice

Oh and if you haven’t already, be sure to download my Music To Read James Bond By compilation! I listened to it for the first time in years while reading Doctor No, and it really does make for good music to read Bond by! 

And finally, here’s the cover of the Doctor No mass market paperback (Charter Books, July 1987) that I got off the shelves of WaldenBooks in the summer of 1987; I recall the cover being very neon ‘80s orange, which isn’t really reflected in this cover scan:

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Executioner #16: Sicilian Slaughter

The Executioner #16: Sicilian Slaughter, by Jim Peterson
June, 1973  Pinnacle Books

I’ve been looking forward to this volume of The Executioner for several years now. Even though it’s hated by hardcore fans of the series, Sicilian Slaughter sounded interesting to me because, for one volume at least, it was as if Bruno Rossi or Frank Scarpetta got hold of the keys to the kingdom: the refined, skilled touch of Don Pendleton is gone, and for once “hero” Mack Bolan comes off as vile and sadistic as the mobsters he’s up against. 

Per his interview with William H. Young in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, Pendleton himself never read Sicilian Slaughter, and never knew who wrote it – however he clarified that he held no ill will toward whoever did write it. Young himself was unable to find out how’d written Sicilian Slaughter, but we know now that it was William Crawford. Young did reveal something I’ve not read anywhere else: That Pinnacle was ready to keep The Executioner going as by “Jim Peterson,” a house name that would be filled by a revolving cast of ghostwriters, and Pinnacle even mocked up covers for the next Peterson volume (which turned out to never be published), Firebase Seattle. This is a mystery I’ve chased for a while, and I have some of the details I discovered below. 

It makes sense that Crawford got the “Peterson” gig first, as at the time he was sort of being groomed as Pinnacle’s flagship author. The imprint published several of his books, even devoting full-page ads to them. And having read a few of Crawford’s novels it was clear to me from the get-go that he was indeed the author of Sicilian Slaughter. Most of Crawford’s hallmarks are at play: an asshole protagonist, rampant misogyny, interminable digressions concerning one-off characters, perspective hopping, periodic sermons to the reader on the shittiness of the world, and an overall dispirited vibe. One Crawfordism that does not appear is the typically-mandatory scene in which a character shits his pants or pukes his guts out. Maybe series editor Andy Ettinger told him to reign that in. 

But then, Ettinger seems to have done some tinkering to Crawford’s manuscript, as it’s more streamlined than most of Crawford’s other bloated books. And also there’s a lot of flashbacks to previous Executioner volumes, so either Crawford did some serious research (which doesn’t seem likely from what I’ve learned about these contract writers) or Ettinger went into the manuscript and added these touches. I suspect the latter, given that Pendleton also told William H. Young that Andy Ettinger wrote the prologue for the following volume, Jersey Guns: this volume saw Pendleton’s return to the series, and given that he refused to read Sicilian Slaughter it was up to Ettinger to pen the prologue. 

And it’s a good thing Pendleton did refuse, as there’s no way he could’ve retconned Sicilian Slaughter into his overall storyline. The one thing we know about William Crawford, thanks to Will Murray’s research in his 1982 article about Nick Carter: Killmaster, is that he was a cop. Thus Crawford sees Mack Bolan as a criminal; he has absolutely none of the heroism Pendleton gave him. In this novel Bolan shoots unarmed people, murders a woman (in a very sadistic manner), gets another woman to take a severe beating for him, threatens a cop, and basically just acts like an asshole throughout. Even established relationships are skewed; Leo Turrin, Bolan’s inside man in the Mafia, basically hero-worships the Executioner in Pendleton’s novels, as evidenced by the various “what a man!” reflections he’ll have when encountering him. Turrin shows up in Sicilian Slaughter as well…and thinks to himself what a “pain” Bolan is, wondering if he should just turn him in to the capos and be done with it! 

Turrin was also in the previous volume, and Crawford tries to pick up the story from directly after. Bolan’s shot up and bleeding and heads to an underground doctor Turrin told him about years ago. Here we quickly see that this isn’t your grandma’s Mack Bolan when our “hero” decides he’s going to have to kill the doctor who just saved him. But as it happens the doctor has ulterior motives of his own and is about to call in some gunsels and collect the bounty on the Executioner. Meanwhile of course our hero has a surprise of his own in store for the good doctor. Bolan is a mean-spirited son of a bitch throughout, almost identical to other s.o.b. Crawford protagonists, like Stryker. But he’s a lot more action-prone than others, carrying along an artillery case of heavy firepower. I’m betting Crawford also had military experience – I know he also published some Vietnam War novels – as evidenced by the firearms and military details sprinkled throughout Sicilian Slaughter

Bolan decides to take his war directly to Sicily; this was set up in the previous volume with Bolan getting irked that the American mobsters were starting to import new blood from the mother land. The sequence in which Bolan flies to Italy is like something out of The Marksman or The Sharpshooter; the “Mack Bolan” here could easily be Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock. First he threatens the sleazy private pilot into the job, and then, in the most outrageous moment in the novel, Bolan decides to get rid of the pilot’s busty assistant. She, uh, deserves it, though, given that she’s a former hooker and drug addict and works as a stringer for the Mafia – and plus she’s recognized Bolan and plans to snitch on him. As if it wasn’t enough to show Mack Bolan killing off an unarmed woman, Crawford has it happen in the most vile way possible – the girl’s naked, offering herself to Bolan in the cabin, and Bolan coldly shoots open a window so that she’s sucked out, screaming in terror, thirty thousand feet above ground! 

What’s surprising is that series editor Andy Ettinger even allowed this material to be published. If there’s anyone Pendleton seems pissed at in his intervew in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, it’s Ettinger. And one can see his point. It’s surprising that the series editor and the imprint would even publish Sicilian Slaughter with its sadistic “hero;” it makes it very clear that they just saw The Executioner as product, something they had to get on the book racks at a certain date to keep up the publishing cadence. They couldn’t have cared less about the mythic hero the series creator had painstakingly built over the preceding fifteen volumes. In fact, the editorial embellishments throughout make it clear that Ettinger was indeed involved in Sicilian Slaughter, and one would think he’d be like, “No, Mack Bolan probably wouldn’t blast some nude and unarmed girl out of an airplane.” 

To be sure, though, I like this crazy stuff and always have, and if this had been a volume of The Sharpshooter or The Marksman it would’ve been one of the best installments of either series. What I do mind is Crawford’s typical penchant for undermining himself; his books come off like bloated bores what with the constant background detail on one-off characters, just egregious crap that’s there to meet the word count. Even the buxom victim has several pages devoted to her sad-sack history, which only further undermines Crawford, given that the reader sort of feels sorry for her…and then the “hero” mercilessly kills her. But then perhaps it’s intentional on Crawford’s part, more indication that he saw the Executioner as a villain. But then again, it’s surprising that the sequence even made it into print, given that the guy who’d served as series editor for the past fifteen volumes was involved. Surely someone at Pinnacle must’ve figured that at least some readers might be shocked by all this, but apparently the driving goal was more to get the product in the stores. 

Another annoying penchant of Crawford’s is that he’s never consistent in what he calls his hero in the narrative. It’s either “Mack” or “Bolan” or “the man in black” (which made me think Johnny Cash had suddenly become the Executioner), and it’s never consistent. But then this is one of my pet peeves, and others might not care. I just personally feel that the author should refer to his protagonist by only one name, and one name only; other characters can call the progatonist by various names, but the author should be consistent. And I’m willing to fight for my beliefs! Sorry, lost the thread there. And also Crawford fails to make “Mack” (or “Bolan,” or whatever) likable. Even Magellan, in all his “cutting-the-heads-off-my-victim’s-corpses” insanity was still at least somewhat likable, if only because he was so batshit crazy. But Crawford’s version of Mack Bolan is like all of Crawford’s other progatonists: he’s just a prick. 

Another thing that bugs me about Crawford’s prose is that he uses this half-assed “omniscient” tone, in that he’ll tell us stuff, while otherwise limited to Bolan’s perspective, that Bolan himself doesn’t know. For example, Bolan might shoot somebody, and Crawford will write like, “Bolan blew out Eddie the Champ’s heart,” or somesuch. But the thing is – Bolan doesn’t even know who Eddie the Champ is! For all he knows, it’s just some random mobster thug. Yet we readers know who it is, because Eddie is one of the many one-off characters we’re saddled with in the narrative, a former military dude hired by the Sicilian don to train some troops. And all this stuff here is just lazy retread of the previous volume, with the troops being trained pure military style, with barracks and hiding out in foxholes and whatnot, all of which is sort of ridiculous because it’s like they’re being trained to invade a country or something, not to act as enforcers for dons in American cities. 

And indeed, the climax is basically like a military novel. Bolan, after having blitzed his way through Italy and even posing as a simple country boy to get to Sicily – which entails him hooking up with some busty local babe and having some off-page lovin’ with her – ends up on the training fields of the Mafia recruits and starts mowing them down (in spectacularly bloodless fashion) with heavy weaponry. Here Crawford shows what appears to be some military background, with sidebars on strategy and also the efficacy of the Browning Automatic Rifle. There’s also weird survivalist stuff, like when Bolan’s shot in the back and kicks in a tree, grabs out the “thick spider webs,” and stops the flow of blood with them. Speaking of which Bolan comes off as a brazen, reckless fool in Crawford’s hands, displaying none of the superheroic planning of Pendleton’s original. Several times Bolan will just storm his way into some situation and realize he’s gotten in over his head. 

But one thing I can say about Crawford’s version of Bolan is that he’s mega-tough. Bolan goes through a lot of pain in this one, shot up and beaten and just in general abused, and he just keeps on going. He starts and ends the novel in a half-dead state. Crawford again goes places Pendleton likely wouldn’t when Bolan, late in the novel, shoots up with some morphine to combat the pain. However he’s not a hero by any means; I’ve already mentioned how the poor local girl gets beaten to a pulp for being suspected of having helped Bolan, and all Bolan does is watch from safety and swear to himself he’ll “make it up somehow” to her. But Bolan’s motives are purely driven by sadistic rage; not content to merely kill the Sicilian don, he goes to great lengths to destroy the man’s entire villa so as to prove a point to the rest of the Mafia. 

An interesting element of Sicilian Slaughter is the finale, which cuts to Seattle and features a muscular dude in his 40s with gray hair named Mr. Molto. This guy runs a sort of underground military operation, and has just been hired by the Mafia to kill the Executioner. Molto has an extensive operation, and via computer has deduced that Bolan’s next strike will be in Seattle. This epilogue – which I’m betting was written by Ettinger – clearly sets up the stage for the following volume, same as how Panic In Philly ended with an Ettinger epilogue that set up this Sicilian adventure. However, the Mr. Molto subplot would never be mentioned in any future Executioner novel. 

As mentioned above, William H. Young stated that Pinnacle had done mockup covers for the next “Jim Peterson” novel, Firebase Seattle. Given the title, it was clearly intended to follow up from the climax of Sicilian Slaughter. This Peterson novel was never published, as Pendleton and Pinnacle worked out their legal issues and Pendleton came back to the series for the next volume, which was titled Jersey Guns. Pendleton did eventually turn in a novel titled Firebase Seattle (I assume using the cover originally designed for the unpublished Peterson manuscript of the same title), but obviously it had nothing to do with the events set up in Sicilian Slaughter

This means then that the closing material with “Mr. Molto” was never picked up on, and thus the villain remains a mystery in the Executioner universe. I knew that Gil Brewer had written an unpublished volume of The Executioner, and for a long time I suspected that he’d written the unpublished sequel to Sicilian Slaughter. In other words, I had a hunch that Gil Brewer had been hired to be the next “Jim Peterson.” A few years ago I got my confirmation: the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming has Brewer’s unpublished Executioner manuscript in its Gil Brewer bollection, and friends, it’s titled…Firebase Seattle. And for a mere $50.00, you can get a copy! (They charge 20 cents per page for jpeg copies, and it’s a 248-page manuscript.) 

So I wager that Mr. Molto does indeed appear in Brewer’s manuscript, and further I wager Brewer’s manuscript would have more Andy Ettinger embellishments to keep everything simpatico with the series overall. But I’m certainly in no hurry to fork over so much to read it. Gil Brewer was a great writer, but judging from his work on Soldato he wasn’t a great men’s adventure writer. But if anyone out there wins the lottery and decides to check out the manuscript, let me know!

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 14

More Space Race Documentaries: 

For All Mankind (1989): This documentary still has a lot to offer, despite being a few decades old now. It’s sort of the prototype of Apollo 11; indeed, Todd Douglas Miller’s 2019 film ends with the credit “For Al and Theo.” Theo is Theo Kamecke, director of Moonwalk One, and Al is Al Reinert, who directed this theatrically-released 1989 documentary. Like Apollo 11, For All Mankind presents a concise trip to the moon and back, but with a few differences from that later film: it too features vintage audio from the era, but also includes modern voiceovers from many of the astronauts, and also it presents a sort of composite of every lunar mission (plus a clip from a Gemini-era spacewalk). In that regard it isn’t nearly the historical document that Apollo 11 is, and actually if you are familiar with the Apollo missions and the various astronauts you could get confused by the whirlwind of assembled footage. For example, Charlie Duke appears in this film as both an astronaut on the moon and a Capcom at Mission Control! Now that’s multitasking! 

Another big difference here, and one of the things that still elevates For All Mankind, is that the majority of the footage is from post-Apollo 11 missions. Whereas most other documentaries just rush through Apollos 12-17 and put the most focus on Apollo 11, here the more famous mission actually gets less screen time. But again, it’s all assembled into a composite of “one” trip, so for example you’ll see Buzz “Apollo 11” Aldrin coming down the ladder for his first steps on the moon, after Neil Armstrong has been out there for several minutes, but the voiceover is courtesy Pete “Apollo 12” Conrad, who’s talking about what it was like to be “second” on the moon. But what Conrad really means is that his was the second trip to the moon, Apollo 12, and he was the third man to walk on the moon. Regardless another thing For All Mankind has going for it is humor; here Conrad reveals that he took a bet with someone that he could say whatever he wanted when he first stepped on the moon, and thus he proclaimed with his first step: “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” 

One thing For All Mankind proves is that the Apollo 11 crew (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins) was indeed a laconic bunch…even when compared to other astronauts. For the others presented here are downright giddy; these guys hoot and holler, joke constantly, occasionally sing and dance, and as seen above even lampoon famous quotes. In fact one wonders how different space history might’ve gone down if the Apollo 12 crew of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean were the first two men to walk on the moon, not Amrstrong and Aldrin; Conrad and Bean are almost a lunar comedy duo. Whereas the Apollo 11 crew approached their mission with a sort of gravitas, Apollo 12 and the rest mostly just seemed to have a good time. I wondered as I watched how it would’ve been if these later guys were really the first ones to get there, the ones that billions would’ve watched on TV…I figured it could’ve gone either way, with the public either getting more invested in the program, what with how approachable and goofy these astronauts were, or they could’ve thought the entire thing was a waste of money, being taken as a joke by the astronauts. 

The footage itself is incredible, and one of the big selling points of For All Mankind when it was released was that it was the first time many viewers got to see actual moon footage outside of the blurry black and white images that had been originally broadcast on TV. It isn’t a feast for the senses like Apollo 11 is, but it’s still in the same ballpark at least, and the Criterion Blu Ray presents it all in remastered high definition. There’s a lot of great material with the lunar rover just barrelling over the moonscape. The majority of the Mission Control footage comes from the Apollo 17 mission (as seen in The Last Steps, below), but as mentioned footage from various missions is cobbled together. This personally bugged me about the film, but honestly the less you know about the Apollo program the more you’ll enjoy For All Mankind. Another thing that added to my personal confusion was that none of the modern voiceovers are credited; you’ll hear an astronaut talking – and most of them have Southern accents, adding to the confusion – but you’re not given any info on who he is. However having seen a few of these space documentaries now, many of the voices were recognizable to me, in particular Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Alan Bean, and Gene Cernan. 

Speaking of astronaut voices, one you won’t hear is Neil Armstrong’s. It doesn’t look like he appeared in many of these documentaries; the only one I’ve yet seen is the 2008 Discovery Channel doc When We Left Earth, which features Armstrong as one of the onscreen talking heads. Otherwise director Reinert, who apparently gathered all his audio interviews in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, has assembled at least one crew member from each of the lunar missions, ie Apollo 8 through Apollo 17. Speaking of which two more surprising no-shows are Frank “Apollo 8” Borman and Buzz Aldrin. And neither of the Apollo 14 lunar walkers – Ed Mitchell and Alan Shephard – show up. Mitchell I believe was sort of the black sheep of the space program, given his New Age/UFO interests (see below), which might explain his absence, but I’m surprised that Alan Shepard rarely features in any of these documentaries. I find his story compelling, given that he was the only Mercury Program era astronaut who actually made it onto the moon during Apollo. But the Apollo 14 mission, in all the documentaries I’ve yet seen, is usually relegated to a few super-quick clips. Mitchell did show up in In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007), at least, but given that Shepard died in 1998 I’m not sure if he appears in any of these space documentaries. 

Oh and I’ve gone this far and forgotten to mention the one thing most people talk about when it comes to For All Mankind: Brian Eno’s score. This is the most overtly “sci-fi” of all the space documentaries I’ve yet watched, and really it comes down to Eno’s work. Its ambient, synthy vibe gives everything a science fiction spin, yet at at the same time it sort of reminds me of the music I’d hear in Twin Peaks at the time. That said, there’s also a lot of country music in the film, given that so many of these astronauts were fans of it– Southern boys, remember – and they would take along tapes of country music into space. Personally if I was going into space I’d take along Electric Ladyland. Oh and one of the astronauts also plays “Thus Spake Zarathustra” in the command craft, talking about how ironic it is to be playing the theme from 2001 in space. 

But overall this gives a great view into what the lunar astronauts experienced, and the film pairs well with the later In The Shadow Of The Moon (which I meant to review this time, but given how I’ve gone on and on per usual I’ll save it for the next Random Review). Reinert only uses a little footage from Moonwalk One; even the launch prep material, of the astronauts getting suited up and waiting to leave, is from later missions. After the launch we have the aforementioned spacewalk, aka “EVA,” which actually predates any of the Apollo material – it’s Ed White performing the first American EVA in 1965. Reinert even incorporates the Apollo 13 disaster into the storyline, with an alarm flashing abruptly on the soundtrack courtesy some post-production audio. Unlike reality though, the error is quickly fixed and the composite lunar mission continues on. And speaking of multitasking, Jim “Apollo 13” Lovell also appears as both an astronaut and in Mission Control. The lunar material gets a lot of screentime, but Reinert skips over the return material, basically ending the film with a quick clip of the descent parachutes and the mandatory flashback to President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962. Throughout there is unexpected stuff, likely not seen anywhere else, like the fires of Bedouin desert tribes in the Sahara, glimpsed through the cockpit window as the ship orbits the Earth, or a part on the moon where one of the astronauts loses his footing as he walks and totally wipes out into the lunar dust. 

The “modern” audio from the various astronauts adds an extra layer to the film, giving us their thoughts. Cernan as usual stands out; his gift for gab and making “profound statements” must’ve been a godsend for these documentary directors. Reinert features long clips of Cernan’s voiceover, particularly his “The stars are my home” monologue which closes the film. Cernan’s comments also graced the closing credits of In The Shadow Of The Moon, by the way – and in fact even the title of that film was derived from one of his comments. But not always knowing who is talking does rob For All Mankind of a little emotional connection. That said, Reinert does a great job of showing how lonely the command capsule pilots could become when their two fellow crewman would descend to the moon, leaving the pilots to circle the moon alone for the next few days; Neil Armstrong’s “See ya later” to Mike Collins as Eagle breaks off from Columbia particularly comes off as touching in this regard – and also this is the only documentary where I’ve heard this audio footage. A cool thing about watching all these space docs is that you see and hear different stuff in each. 

The Last Steps (2016) Three years before the incredible Apollo 11, director Todd Douglas Miller released this mini-documentary, again for CNN films. Whereas Apollo 11 documents the first moon landing, this one documents the last, in December of 1972. The Last Steps follows the same format as the later film, using archival film (remastered in high definition) and audio footage to tell the story with no modern intrusions. And once again Matt Morton provides the score, making this come off like a proto-Apollo 11. It isn’t nearly as epic, but then it’s only 25 minutes long. This was the last Apollo launch; budget cuts cancelled any more moon landings, and Apollo 17 would be the last lunar landing: Commander Gene Cernan (who had also commanded Apollo 10), Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans. Cernan was the only one I was familiar with, given that he’s appeared in almost every space documentary I’ve yet watched. He’s quickly become one of my favorite astronauts…he has this super-serious sort of vibe, always making these “profound” statements, but at heart comes off like a fun-loving goofball. He’s like the kind of character Patrick Swayze would play, if that makes any sense. 

Anyway, it’s late ’72 now, and first thing one notices is that things have gotten a bit grungier: the hair is longer, the sideburns are thicker, the collars are more severe. Whereas Mission Control in Apollo 11 still had that natty ‘60s look, it’s replaced here with dudes sporting massive ‘staches, smoking pipes, and just in general looking like hairy freaks. Oh and speaking of Mission Control, there’s a brief clip of Jim “Apollo 8 and Apollo 13” Lovell sitting in there; again, much of this footage, as well as the ensuing lunar footage, is also seen in For All Mankind. Miller opens the documentary with some rare pre-flight PR material from Cernan, talking directly to the camera and explaining that Apollo 17 is not the “end” of space travel, just of the Apollo Program. How little did he know… From there we go to the midnight launch of the Saturn V rocket, which turned night to day – this was the launch Tom Wolfe was hired by Rolling Stone to write about, the ensuing story which became the kernel for The Right Stuff (see below). 

The launch material is thrilling, Morton’s music again providing a great soundtrack. Miller uses still photography at times, and when the ship gets to the moon we also have video – by this time NASA was able to shoot color video on the moon, though I don’t believe any of it was broadcast on television at the time. The public had pretty much grown bored with the whole space race thing, which makes you feel sort of sorry for Cernan and crew. I mean, they were still risking their lives, same as the Apollo 11 crew did, but none of their names would be cemented in history like Neil Armstrong’s was. Oh and speaking of which, it’s funny to see how blasé these moon landings had become; when Cernan and Schmitt land “Challenger” on the moon, Cernan yells, “We is here! Man, is we here!,” and the Capcom says, “Roger, Challenger, that’s super!” So much for momentous occasions. But then, Cernan and Schmitt reveal themselves to be fun-loving goofs of the highest order, gamboling across the lunar landscape like little kids on the playground, cracking jokes, and even breaking into song. 

But there is also a sense of sadness about it, as everyone involved – both the astronauts then and Miller and his crew now – knew that this was to be it for the moon landings. Cernan almost seems desperately insistent that this is not the end in his opening and closing PR interview, that the exploration of space will continue. But it was not to be – and manned space exploration still hasn’t reached the extent of the Apollo Program. As for Morton’s score, you can hear some precursors to his work on Apollo 11, though The Last Steps has a bit more of a tribal feel at times, which is nice. Morton too seems to tap into the elegiac vibe of this final Apollo mission; in the staging sequence where the rockets drop off in the blackness of space, the music is almost mournful: this will be the last time a Saturn rocket heads for the moon. 

Overall The Last Steps is a concise, entertaining mini-doc that really paves the way for what Miller would accomplish on a grander scale in Apollo 11. A lot of the footage here – especially the Mission Conrol sequences – was seen previously in For All Mankind, but here it’s shown in its proper context. Currently The Last Steps can be viewed for free on Vimeo; personally I think it should be released on a special Blu Ray with Apollo 11 and Apollo 11: Quarantine. Actually what I really think is that Smith should do a documentary for every one of the Apollo lunar missions! 


Tom Wolfe, “Post-Orbital Remorse” (1973): Here’s an admission: I’ve never read or seen The Right Stuff. (I’ve never even seen Apollo 13or Jaws!) Several years ago I was on this crazy New Journalism kick and even then I never read Wolfe’s famous book, even though I read many other books by him. The reason was, I knew The Right Stuff focused on the earliest days of the space race, and indeed spent the majority of its opening sequences even before that, with Chuck Yeager in the ‘40s. I wanted to read about stuff from later on, at least the Gemini Program but especially Apollo. I also knew that Wolfe had originally planned to write about all three of these programs, but after spending so long on just Mercury his wife told him that he was finished with the project(!). So The Right Stuff turned out to be Wolfe’s only book on the subject, ostensibly about the Mercury Program but as mentioned taking a long time to even get there, with a lot of ‘40s test pilot stuff. 

Anyway, you often read that The Right Stuff started life as an article Wolfe wrote for Rolling Stone. I was under the impression that The Right Stuff was just a fleshed-out version of that original article, which ran in four issues of the magazine in early 1973. However this was not the case: “Post-Orbital Remorse,” the title of the series of articles, actually encompasses the entire space program up to 1972. Wolfe was hired by Jann Werner to cover Apollo 17 (see above), and while gathering material from the various astronauts at the launch he cottoned to the idea of telling the entire story. Here we can see where a lot of The Right Stuff probably came from; the article is written in this omniscient “collective voice of the astronauts,” telling “Tom” about their test pilot origins and their quest to be at the pinnacle of “the Right Stuff.” 

Even though this long article covers the entire program, you can tell Wolfe’s heart is already with the earliest days; so much of “Post-Orbital Remorse” concerns the test pilot beginnings and the Mercury Program – with of course the usual detours expected of Wolfe’s new journalism. He doesn’t touch on Gemini much, and surprisingly doesn’t even talk much about Apollo 11, but he does get into some of the other lunar flights, among them Apollo 8 (where he details Frank Borman’s bout of stomach flu). As for Apollo 17, all Wolfe really talks about is the launch, then in a later part he lampoons commander Gene Cernan’s moment of “the higher bullshit” when Cernan starts thanking countless people for the success of Apollo at a press conference. Here Wolfe goes into a humorous fantasy sequence in which a janitor pushes Cernan off stage and starts taking credit for the mission’s success. We also get some detail on the “postal flap” that plagued the Apollo 15 mission, and also a focus on Edgar Mitchell, who was forever after maligned for his New Age ESP experiments on Apollo 14; Wolfe, in that “voice of the astronauts,” ponders over Mitchell, as he has “the Rightest Stuff” of them all, what with his incredible fighter pilot and test pilot background, yet he too was humbled by his trip to the moon. 

You can also see why Wolfe titled his later book The Right Stuff, as that’s the phrase most often repeated here. The titular “Post-Orbital Remorse” only factors sporadically, and has to do with the comedown the astronauts experience after achieving the “pinnacle of the Right Stuff,” ie going to the moon or into space and then coming back to…what? As Wolfe details, there’s nowhere left to go, other than into religion (as some of the astronauts did, which Wolfe also details) or mysticism (like Mitchell) or politics (like John Glenn) or “an old-fashioned breakdown” (like Buzz Aldrin). Speaking of which, Wolfe also mentions a Volkswagen TV ad Buzz did at the time, which I’d never heard of before: you can see it on Youtube. Also Wolfe discusses things that were about to happen, like how Deke Slayton, a Mercury astronaut who was grounded due to a minor heart issue: Wolfe tells us that Deke got surgery, the issue fixed, and will soon “go up” in Skylab, which Slayton in fact did. Also Wolfe of course was unaware of stuff further in the future; he tells us that John Glenn’s first voyage into space was so magnificent to the public that New York cops broke into tears at Glenn’s parade, and Glenn was so famous NASA couldn’t let him “go up” anymore…meanwhile, Glenn did return to space, at the age of 77 in 1998. 

I don’t believe “Post-Orbital Remorse” has ever been reprinted. But someone by the name Tom Rednour on the collectSPACE forum scanned the entire series of articles onto a 24-page PDF and uploaded it here, so check it out if you’re interested.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Emerald Chicks Caper (Renegade Roe #2)

The Emerald Chicks Caper, by L.V. Roper
January, 1976  Popular Library

The second and final volume of Renegade Roe gives a good indication why this series didn’t last: Renegade Roe is a dick. In fact I’d rank him as the most annoying protagonist in any of the series I’ve reviewed here. He’s an obnoxious twit, and once again I wonder if L.V. Roper even realized it, or if the whole thing was just an intentional joke. 

At the very least, Jerry “Renegade” Roe comes off slightly better than he did in the first volume. Sure, he still talks a big game but does little in the way of action to back it up, but at least this time he actually knocks a guy out. And sure, he himself is again knocked out a couple times and constantly has to be saved by his partner, Stuart Worth, same as last time. But at least he doesn’t do stuff like “spy” on people with binoculars while standing in plain sight of his prey or talk out loud to himself while “hiding” in a closet. On the other hand, he’s become even more juvenile than he was in the previous volume, pulling off stuff that could get a guy jailed in our #metoo era, up to and including feeling up the firm’s hapless secretary…and then accusing her of wearing a padded bra! 

Roe does seem to get laid a bit more this time, though as ever Roper leaves everything off page. The novel opens with Roe’s perennially-aggrieved partner, Stuart Worth, showing up at the office one morning to find Roe sacked out in their room with a nude blonde at his side…the very same runaway socialite Roe and Worth had been hired to track down. We’re to understand that this girl, as well as the others who fall in his sway in the novel, are drawn to Roe due to his “exotic” cast: he’s tall, reddish skin, wears flamboyant “Indian” fashions like moccasins and a headband, and of course is a loudmouthed brute. 

This is displayed posthaste, when Roe, mere hours after sleeping with the blonde, sets his sights on yet another attractive female client: Helen Bingham, who slinks into the office and asks to hire Worth and Roe to find out what happened to the gold egg and emerald chicks her husband found in Venezuela. Roe makes his interest known immediately, in his usual fashion – ie making all kinds of inappropriate comments – and the idea one gets is that sophisticate Helen merely decides to entertain him so as to file off “an exotic” from her bucket list. As for her case, it’s involved: her husband, a loser who married Helen for her money, desperately struck out to find money for himself, given that Helen had lost interest in him, but was too lazy to file for divorce. Thus Mr. Bingham found out about the legendary golden egg and emerald chicks of Venezuela, and somehow managed to get them, and mailed them to Helen here in New Orleans. But the shipment is missing. Oh, and he’s dead now, not that Helen seems to give a rat’s ass. 

This caper takes Roe into the upper crust of New Orleans, but Roper doesn’t do much to bring any of it to life. Nor does he do much to heat up any of the erotic stuff; Roe just makes his inappropriate comments – the one thing Roper does excel at – and when Helen gives in to his “charms” it’s an immediate fade to black. Even the exploitative content isn’t up to stuff; when Roe visits Helen late one night to ask some questions on the case, she answers the door in a robe made of “transluscent material” (so, uh…plastic??), and Roe can’t stop staring at her boobs: “That’s a lovely bra you’re not wearing.” But Roper doesn’t even do much to bring those heaving, upthrusting, ample charms to life, other than to tell us how Roe keeps gawking at them. The entire novel is just so listless. 

And given that the case has Roe hanging out with uppercrust of society types, there’s little opportunity for much action, so what Roper does is have endless scenes where Roe shows up at Worth’s house and starts hassling Roe’s wife. Just ridiculous stuff, like being there every time Worth comes home from the office – even at one point rushing over to Mrs. Worth when Stuart comes in and panting, as if Worth just caught them in the act. Just stupid juvenile stuff. What makes it worse is that Roper wastes not only our time but his own by even writing all this shit. It just goes on and on, Roe showing up at the Worth home and bugging them…honestly it’s almost like if Billy from Predator had starred in What About Bob? 

Action does finally show up when some Venezuelan thugs accost Roe; he beats up one of them but is of course caught, and Worth has to save him. This is a repeat of the previous volume and will happen again before novel’s end. This motif is one of the things that makes me wonder if Roper had his tongue in cheek the entire time he wrote, because American Indian “Renegade” Roe is presented as the studly hero of the series…yet he’s always getting captured and it’s up to the white guy to save him. Maybe the whole series is a subtle play on the whole cowboy and his sidekick Indian schtick, who knows. 

Not that Roe’s upset by his near death; soon enough he’s back to harrassing Frances in the office, even unizipping her dress when she’s unawares and grabbing her bra strap. Shortly thereafter Frances herself is abducted; Roe finally makes some headaway in the “action hero” department when he tracks her down and sneaks in to free her, but wouldn’t you guess it he’s knocked out and captured again. And who arrives in the nick of time to save his ass but Worth? Roe’s shot in the shoulder here, and there follows and interminable bit where he’s in the hospital, then storms his way out of the place because he’s figured the villains are going to escape via plane. Roe gets in his Mustang and races onto the tarmac to stop it. 

And mercifully here The Emerald Chicks Caper comes to a close, as does Renegade Roe itself. Whereas The Red Horse Caper had a “future books in the series” page with a slew of projected titles, The Emerald Chicks Caper doesn’t, which leads me to believe that by the time of publication Popular Library had decided the series was finished. I guess maybe they’d also had enough of Renegade Roe’s shit.  Great uncredited covers, though; I wonder if they were done by Hector Garrido of The Baroness and The Destroyer.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Operation Moon Rocket (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #34)

Operation Moon Rocket, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

I’ve been looking forward to this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster for a long time; not only because it was written by Lew “Don Miles” Louderback, but also because the plot ties into the space race. As it turns out Operation Moon Rocket is downright streamlined compared to Louderback’s plot-heavy other novels; the big print and somewhat-jumbled narrative leads me to suspect that some behind-the-scenes tinkering went on. 

Whereas Louderback’s other Killmaster novel, Danger Key, was an overly-complicated (but still very entertaining) yarn, with plot upon plot, Operation Moon Rocket keeps things simple: someone is sabotaging the effort to land the first American on the moon, and Nick “Killmaster” Carter must go undercover to find out out who it is. And yes, folks, this one features “astronaut Nick Carter,” however he doesn’t actually go into space. In fact the “space race” stuff almost seems to disappear in the final third, which comes off more like a hardboiled yarn. And also “Killmaster” doesn’t even kill anyone until page 105, and sets a record for the number of times a protagonist can get knocked out and not suffer permanent brain damage. 

The novel opens with what is clearly a reference to the Apollo 1 disaster, as a three-man astronaut crew dies in a cockpit fire while sitting on the launching pad. Even the last names of two of the victims are clearly inspired by their real-life counterparts: “Liscombe” instead of Grissom, and “Green” instead of White. But here the fire is the result of sabotage, courtesy the gantry crew chief. It’s a harrowing scene, again mimicking real life, as the astronauts are trapped in the cockpit as the fire rages. The crew chief, we learn, hasn’t done this for his own evil purposes; he’s been blackmailed or pushed into it. When NASA calls him that night, having determined the fire was sabotage and also that the crew chief caused it, he asks for police protection in exchange for telling everything he knows. 

Louderback must’ve been in a bad moon when he wrote Operation Moon Rocket, as it has a bit more brutality than the average Killmaster novel; some “cops” immediately show up at the man’s door, only they’re imposters, and they go about slaughtering the gantry chief and his entire family, including the little kids. Eventually we’ll learn that NASA has been plagued with other deadly acts of sabotage, and in each case the saboteur has ended up dead, or his family killed, etc. This brings us to Nick, as Louderback refers to him (as do most other series authors, this early in the series), who happens to be lounging by the pool in Miami Beach, a woman at his side – his “first vacation in two years.” 

As usual Louderback works in a Red Chinese angle, same as he did in Danger Key and most of the Don Miles books; Nick is called by boss Hawk to West Palm Beach, where they meet in a nightclub with an “Oriental” theme, a place that will ultimately factor into the plot as a den of Red China spies. Louderback also has a penchant for swingin’ spy chicks, and here it’s Candy Sweet(!), a bombshell blonde who is barely 20 and comes off like a proto-Kardashian in that she’s always in the trade papers for her jet-setting kicks and thrills; it’s mentioned that one of her biggest affairs was a birthday party turned orgy, which I guess is the ‘60s equivalent of a sex tape. 

While Nick frets over being paired with such a junior agent, especially one who appears to view the entire spy biz as just another kick, his reservations are thrown aside when he sees the girl in action. She knocks out a couple guards at the nightclub and shows Nick all the spying and monitoring gear inside. But Louderback throws a definite curveball here in that Nick and Candy don’t get down to the expected shenanigans, and instead Candy disappears for a good bit after her initial appearance. 

Louderback seems to have a lot of fun with Hawk, Nick’s ever-grizzled boss; the scene where Hawk briefs Nick in the nightclub, casually going on about top-secret material, is fun because Nick wonders if the old man’s finally lost his marbles. But of course cagey Hawk has ulterior motives. He does brief Nick on his assignment, though: Nick is to pose as an astronaut, Glenn Eglund, who happens to be in the hospital due to another of those sabotage attempts – only it was prevented in time, and AXE has kept it secret. Since Nick bears a similarity to Eglund, the idea is Poindexter in “Effects and Editing” will do a little makeup work (which involves a “Plastotex” mask like the “Mr. Nobody” disguise featured in the Don Miles books). Then Nick will be given the “basics” on aeronautics over several hours, after which he’ll be sent over to Houston to pose as Eglund. Oh, and Eglund’s part of the crew of “Phoenix One,” a replacement mission NASA plans to launch asap into space so as to get over the public backlash from the recent disaster. 

So of course all this is preposterous; there’s no believable way Nick could handle this assignment without outing himself as an imposter. To think you could just slip onto a spaceship crew and no one would notice is ridiculous. But then, that’s part of the charm of these books; I don’t exactly demand realism from them. Regardless, Nick is able to fake his way through this with the excuse that “Glenn” suffered from oxygen poisoning or something to that effect, hence is a little groggy and forgetful. His biggest test is passing the inspection of the medical chief on site. But this isn’t Dr. Bellows we’re talking about: it’s Dr. Joy Han Sun, a “shapely, full-breasted” beauty of Chinese-English descent. This is another callback to Louderback’s previous novels; he often has hot but evil Chinese women in them, and Nick’s certain straightaway that Joy is evil, and likely the person behind the sabotage. And of course catering to the genre, the very first thing Dr. Joy does is have “Glenn” strip down…and when she checks out his scarred body Nick is sure she knows he’s an imposter. 

Louderback I’m guessing was given the direction “make Killmaster an astronaut” by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and he tries to make it as believable as he can. So while we never actually see Nick in space, we do see him in a full pressure suit as he makes his way around a lunar training ground in Houston. It’s got the same gravity, temperature, and terrain as the moon, and it’s there for astronauts to train on. Nick’s there with the other two members of “Glenn’s” crew for some last-minute training before the Phoenix One launch, which is scheduled to happen at any moment. Nick of course bumbles his way through it, pretending to still be a little groggy to cover the fact that he has no idea where he is or what he’s doing. Curiously Louderback mentions a prototype of the lunar rover here, but one wasn’t taken along on the actual first lunar landing (ie Apollo 11 in July ’69). 

The rover factors into an action scene here were Nick, separated from his fellow crewmen, is attacked by a mysterious figure in another pressure suit who comes after Nick aboard the lunar vehicle, bearing right down on him. This isn’t your typical Killmaster action sequence, as Nick mostly just tries to run away and can’t fight back much, given the bulkiness of the pressure suit, the lack of weapons, and his unfamiliarity with moving around in low gravity. Thus it makes for a somewhat gripping sequence, with of course the knowledge going in that Nick’s not going to die…I mean there was over two hundred more volumes to go! 

Even here Nick suspects Dr. Joy Sun was behind the attack; Hawk has given Nick a photo of Joy having sex with some unidentified man, taken on a spy camera in that nightlub. This leads to one of my favorite goofy lines in the novel; when Nick first sees Joy, he thinks she is “even more beautiful than the pornographic photo had suggested.” As mentioned the mob eventually factors into the plot, and Nick will soon learn of Joy Sun’s involvement with Reno Tree, who per a complicated backstory was a vicious Mafia hitman who has now turned into a famous member of the international jet set(!). And also Joy is aware Nick is an imposter; she says of course she knew as soon as she saw him naked. We’re to understand this is due to all those scars, of course! 

I mentioned the narrative is a bit messy. So there’s a part where the Phoenix One crew has to fly to Florida for a special rocket launch and the airplane explodes in midair, courtesy a planted bomb, and the cabin loses gravity and everyone’s floating around. All this part is weird and very hard to believe, especially when Nick hauls a terrified Joy into a seat and starts interrogating her. But there seems to have been some material cut here; as Joy relates her story – which proves her innocence – and then there’s a sudden narrative cut, with the plane abruptly about to crash land, and Nick thinking “to hell with that,” he’ll face forward and watch it happen instead of cowering in his seat. Well, it’s hard to explain but if you read the book maybe you’ll see what you mean. I know Engel and Award often edited these manuscripts before publication, so it does seem like something happened to Operation Moon Rocket, like chunks were taken out of it and the gaps not properly filled up. 

This midair interrogation does however lead to the expected Nick-Joy conjugational activities (speaking of filling up gaps…sorry, I know that was crude but I couldn’t resist). First Joy demands Nick take off the “Eglund” mask so she can see his real face, then it’s on to the hardcore stuff…which isn’t too hardcore, given the publication date. And in fact goes for more of a pseudo-poetic filth approach: “She felt the sudden quivering of him at the springing of his seed,” and whatnot. Nick at this point by the way is happy to learn that Joy isn’t one of the bad guys, that she was pressured into a bad scene thanks to Reno Tree, the aforementioned Mafia sadist…who happens to also be the guy who butchered the gantry chief and the man’s family at novel’s beginning. And also the guy in that “pornographic photo” with Joy, per belabored backstory.

At this point the “syndicate” stuff takes precedence over the “space” stuff. I wasn’t happy about this, as Louderback had clearly done his homework on the Apollo Program and NASA in general, and it was fun to read an action novel set in this milieu. But Nick drops the Glenn Eglund disguise and right after takes up another – now he poses as a notorious mobster. But humorously this guise is immediately uncovered by the goons Nick tries to infiltrate. Here begins an unintentionally humorous sequence of Nick Carter constantly getting caught unawares, tied up, and beaten to a pulp, then managing to escape. At one point guys wearing cleats even go at him. It’s like Louderback gets stuck on repeat; every chapter ends with Nick caught or about to be beaten, and then falling into “the merciful haze of blackness” or whatever, and then waking up next chapter to find himself in a situation he can easily escape from. But it’s downright goofy; at one point he wakes up to find himself trapped in a centrifuge, an unwilling “test subject” for a new design, but once again he blacks out before the increased gravity can pulp him. 

Eventually the main villain of the piece is revealed, and he too is more suiting of a hardboiled novel, an entreprenneur whose plot involves getting a big contract to build new space equipment. To do this though he intends to divert the Phoenix One rocket into Miami. Nick still finds the opportunity to get laid, though; he awakens from one of his many beatings to find none other than Candy Sweet riding him. This part too is goofy as Candy helps Nick escape…and then of course he’s captured right again. You could almost set your clock by his frequent captures. Again this gives the impression that the manuscript was edited, or Louderback was in a hurry; I know all this stuff is there to make it seem tense, but at the same time Nick comes off as one pathetic “Killmaster.” 

There’s more messiness later where Nick, once again caught and managing to escape, rushes to the villain’s Palm Beach villa, where all the bad guys have conveniently assembled. Nick at one point breaks out Pierre, the “gas bomb” he usually keeps near his privates (which isn’t weird at all). He tosses it at the people, but they’re outside, so the gas apparently floats harmlessly away…or Louderback just forgets to tell us who the poison gas actually kills, as all we learn is one of the guys keeps grabbing at his eyes. Even the sendoff of desipicable Reno Tree isn’t as momentous an occasion as I would’ve preferred. It’s all just very rushed and lackluster, which is surprising given that Louderback wrote it. 

But then, the Don Miles series had ended the year before, and Danger Key was published the year before that, so it’s possible that by 1968 Louderback was just burned out on the men’s adventure genre. The fact that Operation Moon Rocket was his last novel in the genre would seem to confirm that. At least, I’ve found no other books by him in this field, pseudonymous or otherwise. The only other books I’ve seen by him are The Bad Ones, a Fawcett book from 1968 on ‘30s gangsters, and another book, published in hardcover, on “fat acceptance,” which clearly would now be seen as a trendsetter in our current world of “accepting all body types.” (Which curiously only seems to matter when it comes to ads for womens lingerie or bikinis…yet the half-nude male models of such clothing are still handsome and muscular…yes, quite curious indeed.)

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer

The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer, by Fritz Gordon
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

This obscure Award PBO turns out to be a light espionage comedy; not an out-and-out satire like the Man From O.R.G.Y. books, but more of a caper in which a trio of agents bumble their way through an assignment. While there is some action, it is not the focus of the novel; suspense is more of the driver, as the characters try to find the blueprints for the titular saucer. But the suspense is mostly played for laughs. 

The most interesting thing about The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer is the mystery it presents. The year after this novel was published, a film titled The Bamboo Saucer was released, directed by Frank Telford and starring Dan Duryea and John Ericson. I was under the impression the film was based on this novel, but it turns out to be a completely different story (actually, one that’s much better than the novel), and the author of the novel, Fritz Gordon, isn’t credited anywhere in the film. So either the film producers ripped off the title, or it was just a coincidence that two separate stories would have such similar titles…or maybe it’s a Blade Runner sort of thing, where William S. Burroughs came up with the title for that film adaptation of a Philip Dick story. But then, Burroughs was credited. Gordon isn’t credited. 

And that’s another mystery…as it turns out, “Fritz Gordon” is a pseudonym; the copyright page credits Fred G. Jarvis and Robert F. Van Beever as the authors of The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer. And neither of these guys are mentioned in the film credits, either. This leads me to believe that my first proposition is the correct one; the filmmakers just lifted the title without credit. And truth be told, they do a damned better job of bringing the title to life, because friends believe it or not, a “bamboo saucer” never appears in the novel! We only learn of its aftermath, and the trio of protagonists shuttle around the globe looking for its blueprints. 

Whereas the saucer in the film is of alien origin, the saucer in this novel is wholly terrestial. Indeed, there isn’t any sci-fi content in The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer, other than the saucer itself, which we learn was designed by Otto Von Arnstead, a Werner Von Braun type. The novel opens with the saucer’s brief appearance, but in each case we only learn of it after it’s passed through. We’re told that Von Arnsted’s barn in Vermont has exploded, a saucer spinning across the sky from the wreckage (at 12,000 miles per hour!), and next we know a passenger airline over the Grand Canyon runs into it with disastrous results. But even here the saucer is never seen; the entire sequence is relayed from the perspective of the pilots, who try to evade this mysterious flying object but are unable to. This will be the last we see of the saucer. 

As mentioned the focus of the novel is the hunt for the blueprints; Von Arnsted as it turns out created the saucer on the side, and kept it from the US government. A la Von Braun he was brought over from Nazi Germany to work on the space program. He also has a son in his 20s or thereabouts who worked on the saucer with him. Not that any of this matters, as both of these characters are dead before the story even begins; they are killed in the barn explosion. Oh and the title turns out to be misdirection: the saucer itself is not made of bamboo. “Bamboo saucer” just happens to be the codename a CIA officer comes up with for the project, given that Red China factors into the plot. 

Our ostensible hero is Schuyler Townsend, a sort of wealthy gaddabout publisher who happens to be a CIA agent on the side. We get our indication of the “light comedy” tone of the novel when we meet Shuyler; he is in one of those long-running chess matches with a female acquaintance, and she falls asleep while mulling over her next move. So as you can see, this isn’t even very funny. But this is the sort of “comedy” we have throughout. Again, I would’ve preferred a straight-up novelization of the pulpy Bamboo Saucer flick. Shuyler is almost asexual, more of a foppish dweeb than the action-prone protagonist you’d expect (but then possibly a more realistic portrayal of an undercover agent). That said he does shoot a guy out of a helicopter early in the book, but this will be his only action moment. 

The authors make it clear that the espionage world is mostly comprised of overgrown boys playing Cowboys and Indians on a global scale. This is most pronounced in the character of Sasha Petrov, a KGB goofball who does the heavy lifting in the sex department, though the entirety of it happens off-page. A blonde bear of a man, Petrov is a rapacious skirt-chaser and plows through sundry women in the course of the novel, to the extent that he’s constantly reprimanded for shirking his duty by his superiors. Heading up the US wing of the undercover KGB operations, Petrov also gets wind of the terrestial saucer and goes about his own scheming to get the blueprints for the USSR. 

The third spy in this group is Major Jasper, a Brit who acts as the chief of undercover intelligence for the Chinese – or Red Chinese, as they’re most often referred to. He actually turns out to be the prime mover of the plot, and perhaps the closest we get to a villain, but the authors don’t present him that way. Jasper has his own share of the narrative, which has him working for the Chinese so as to get revenge on his countrymen, and as the novel proceeds he actually takes up more of the plot. So too does Madame Sun Loo, one of Jasper’s agents; her age is never disclosed, but she has two college-age sons and yet is still beautiful enough to stop a few of the male characters in their tracks. She runs a Chinese restaurant, which is part of a network of similar restaurants around the world that are really fronts for Chinese spies. I’ll remember this the next time I go into a Panda Express! 

Early in the assignment Shuyler is attacked by some Russian goons in a helicopter in Vermont, and he shoots a few of them in spectacularly bloodless fashion. But as mentioned this will be it for the action. Instead the authors just focus on the espionage, with the Commie agents plotting and counterplotting; Jasper and Petrov in particular have a bitter rivalry. The first half of the book really features Sun Loo, whose son suffers for her espionage; working as Von Arnsted’s apprentice, he’s stolen the blueprints, only for Major Jasper to plan the poor kid’s death when he is captured by Shuyler and looks like he’s about to blab everything. This leads to Shuyler thinking that Sun Loo plotted her own son’s death, and he confronts her in her restaurant, calling her a “monster.” This whole scene is very much at odds with anything else I’ve read in spy fiction, especially given that Sun Loo is innocent…and runs back to her room to cry! 

She has another son, though, of the same age, and she just as eagerly involves him in the Commie planning of Major Jasper. But the plotting is overly complicated; the blueprints are mailed to Venice, and the three agents rush off in pursuit. It’s all played as a light comedy, like if Ernst Lubitsch did a spy thriller, only with none of the sex appeal – Madame Loo is the only main female character in the novel, and she has no real interraction with any of the characters. Eventually we also meet Major Jasper’s estranged wife, who factors into the plot in that she’s dedicated to her causes and willing to sacrifice herself for them. 

But to tell the truth, folks, I just wanted to read about that damn saucer. And sad to say, it’s nowhere to be found. The title of this book is misdrection of the lowest order. The “flight” of the bamboo saucer happens on the first few pages, and that’s it! Instead it’s a bumbling affair as these three agents go around the world looking for the blueprints, all the while plotting against one another – even having to ride the same airplane at one point – as they go through Europe, into India, and finally into Bali, chasing after the blueprints. It’s just all so boring and lackluster, honestly, as you care about none of these characters, or the Maguffin of the blueprints. 

I guess Sasha Petrov is the character who most comes to life, as he’s a loafer who is more interested in chasing women and constantly shirks his duties. But even his material isn’t very risque; we have sequences of him meeting various women, but it’s all left off page, and the authors don’t even do much to exploit the ample charms of Petrov’s many conquests. It’s all just very tame, and it’s another one of those books where I wonder why it even exists. 

There isn’t even a big climax; the blueprints make their way into a particular coffin in Bali and Shuyler watches as Jasper and Petrov make fools of themselves. It’s easy to see why this paperback original didn’t make much of an impact, and has been forgotten by the ages. Again the only thing really interesting about it is the apparent aspect that it’s title was lifted for a film – a much superior film. But be aware if you ever come across this novel that there is no “bamboo saucer” and the majority of the book is composed of various secret agents flying in airplanes and plotting against one another.