Monday, January 18, 2021

Dagger #1: The Centaur Conspiracy

Dagger #1: The Centaur Conspiracy, by Carl Stevens
September, 1983  Gold Eagle

This was the start of the short-lived Dagger series. How short-lived? There was only one more volume. This isn’t an indication that the series is bad; I think it’s just more of an indication that it was courtesy the wrong imprint. For “Carl Stevens” is none other than Raymond Obstfeld, and his series has more in common with John D. MacDonald than Don Pendleton; judging from this first volume, Dagger would’ve been more at home with Dell or Pocket instead of from the publishers of Phoenix Force, as it has little in common with the action-focused titles Gold Eagle was known for. 

At 221 pages, The Centaur Conspiracy is already a little different from the rest of the Gold Eagle line; there’s a lot more backstory than the typical series book, with Obstfeld carefully world-building. There’s also more of a focus on characterization, and there’s much more focus on snappy dialog. But one thing missing is the gun-detail typical of the standard Gold Eagle fare. Hero Christian “Dagger” Daguerre doesn’t even carry his own gun, and his kill count is a fraction of other series protagonists in this imprint. For that matter, many of the action scenes in The Centaur Conspiracy seem forced, as if grafted on to appease the publisher’s demands. This is not to say they aren’t thrilling or well-written, though, it’s just that they could easily be cut and the story wouldn’t suffer from the loss. 

Daguerre then is different than the genre norm; he’s not a vet or a former cop or anything. He’s a journalist, one who has an extensive background in combat reporting. Daguerre’s father was a hardcore military type and raised his son to be the next in line, only to be stunned when young Daguerre announced he wanted to be a reporter. But as mentioned Daguerre’s specialty is combat reporting, to the extent that he’s had extensive Special Forces training, firearms and hand-to-hand training, and has even seen a lot of action in the line of journalism. There’s a lot of backstory peppered into the narrative, one of the stories being how Daguerre saved a bunch of soldiers all by himself during some heavy fighting in ‘Nam. One mystery I had is that the back cover specifies Daguerre’s “youth,” but we’re informed he was reporting in ‘Nam over a decade ago. I assume we’re to understand he’s in his early 30s or somesuch, but Gold Eagle calling out Daguerre’s “youth” on the back cover copy seems an indication they were trying to separate him from the standard “older Vietnam vet” of the genre. 

Daguerre’s backstory isn’t just limited to war reportage, though; there’s also his time with Hearst-esque “Captain” Hannibal Kyd, a newspaper baron who gave Daguerre his first big job many years ago and became like a father figure to him. Kyd eventually factors into this first installment, entailing long backflash sequences in which we learn that his duplicitous nature caused a rift between the two men: Kyd sent a pair of reporters on an investigation case back in the late ‘70s, not telling them the mob was involved, and they ended up being executed. While all this stuff is well written, it doesn’t have much to do with the story at hand, and again is another indication that Dagger isn’t at the right publishing house. An even bigger backstory has it that Daguerre was engaged to a young woman named Cara, but over a year ago she was gunned down on the streets of Rome when a pair of terrorists were trying to kidnap someone. This too elicits a long flashback sequence. But it now occurs to me that this is a common element in Obstfeld’s series novels; even his post-holocaust The Warlord often suffers from too much backstory digression.  

But Cara’s death was a year ago, and we learn of the events in gradual backstory. When we meet Daguerre he’s parasailing in Mazatlan, on assignment in this tourist spot in Mexico to do an easy job on the vacation industry. Only he sees one of the guys on the boat below whip out a knife and start sawing at the rope he’s connected to. This is our immediate indication that Obstfeld will, as ever, be delivering a fast-paced thriller with the vibe of an action movie; Daguerre’s even spouting quips in the face of danger like your average Hollywood hero of the day. Daguerre manages to manuever himself so that he plunges harmlessly into the ocean, but later he’s attacked by the same guy in his hotel room. We get another indication here that this isn’t going to be your average Gold Eagle novel: Daguerre doesn’t have a weapon, and must use his wits and his skills to kill his opponent in vicious hand-to-hand combat, strangling him with a tie. In fact there’s a proto-MacGyver vibe to the novel, with Daguerre often creating makeshift weapons. This too harkens to The Warlord, particularly given the focus on bladed weaponry; Obstfeld is certainly not one for the gun-detailing you get in the average Gold Eagle publication. 

Another Obstfeld mainstay is a vivacious female character – as with the other main female characters in the Obstfeld novels I’ve read, Alexandra Kidd (daughter of Hannibal) is a spunky heroine who has sparkling dialog and a gift for acidic rejoinders…and of course the genre-mandatory hot bod. Her intro is memorable, coming on to Daguerre in the hotel lobby and talking about a cigarette burn on her foot. But Daguerre quickly learns that she’s the daughter of his former mentor; last time he saw her she was a teenager, and now she’s a hotstuff babe in her mid 20s and looking to break into the news game on her own. A running gag has it that she secretly stays appraised of her father’s activities thanks to a well-placed “contact” (aka her mother), thus she found out that Hannibal Kyd was coming down to Mazatlan to look for Daguerre. Alexandra, sensing a big story, came down here on her own to find out what the scoop is and to exploit it; she doesn’t believe Daguerre’s insistence that he’s merely here to cover a simple vacation story. 

Hannibal Kyd turns out to be the reason that guy tried to kill Daguerre; Kyd wants to investigate a mysterious travel agency that operates out of Mazatlan, one Kyd believes is involved in something nefarious, and he started spreading the word around town that famous investigative journalist Christian Daguerre was down here to research the place! Thus the frequent attempts on Daguerre’s life. Kyd is not aware that his daughter is down here, though, and things take a turn for the personal when the bad guys manage to abduct her. This leads to one of those MacGyver moments when Daguerre, who still doesn’t even have a friggin’ gun, goes into a toy store and buys some supplies, along with a chemistry set, and makes himself a pitcher of homemade tear gas. This is used to save Alexandra in a thrilling sequence which once again sees Daguerre using bladed weapons to kill his enemies, as well as delivering more action movie-esque quips. 

Eventually Daguerre learns the “travel agency” is up to something real nefarious; long story short, it’s a front for a PLO terrorist organization run by a sadistic dude nicknamed Centaur (due to a scar on his forehead), and the “conspiracy” of the title has to do with Centaur’s plan to smuggle terrorists across the border via the travel agency so as to carry out a major terrorist strike on the US. The terrorists, male and female, pose as simple “Mexican” laborers, hired by wealthy Americans who use the travel agency via word of mouth. In an entertaining sequence Daguerre and Alexandra (who of course have done the deed by this point, though the sex scene is pretty PG – but the fact there’s even one in a Gold Eagle novel is surprising enough) pose as a married couple and visit the agency, looking for a new maid. 

They cross the border and then pull off in the desert to inspect their “new maid,” who has been hidden by the travel agency in a secret compartment behind the trunk. It’s a young woman who claims to be from a desolate region of Mexico, hence her bad Mexican accent (Daguerre being fluent in many languages). Of course it’s all a ruse and she’s really a Palestenian terrorist. Daguerre ties her to the ground and interrogates her with a tarantula, but it’s up to Alexandra to save the day when the terrorist chick gets free, as expected. Centaur meanwhile appears sporadically in the novel, usually domineering over his cowed underlings; Centaur, whose name is really Nasil, is infamous for biting the tongues out of his victims…and feeding them to the “elite” members of his commando squad. Unfortunately his towering nature is a bit subdued in a climax that would be more at home in a Travis McGee novel. 

With much setup Daguerre ventures to Los Angeles, where Centaur now is situated, and goes about posing as a windsurfer. At length he gets on a boat inside which Centaur has stashed several wealthy American victims; Centaur’s somewhat anticlimactic plot centers around kidnapping wealthy Americans and blowing them all up. So Daguerre gets on the boat, starts to free some of the people, and is surprised by Centaur, who shows up, knocks Daguerre out…and leaves! It’s all very ridiculous as Daguerre stumbles back to consciousness and gives chase, eventually ending up on Centaur’s own boat and getting in a prolonged fight with him. Even the villain’s comeuppance seems more out of a summer blockbuster film than the typical Gold Eagle staple; it’s courtesy some spinning boat propellers. 

The Centaur Conspiracy ends with Daguerre and Alexandra forming a “team.” No idea if she appears in the second (and final!) volume, which judging from the cover takes place in Japan. Overall this one was pretty entertaining, if a bit overlong – a lot of the backstory was somewhat excessive and could’ve been shortened. But Obstfeld’s attempt at melding standard Gold Eagle men’s adventure with something along the lines of John D. MacDonald is to be commended; it’s easy to see, though, why the series didn’t last. 

Finally, I love how the back cover of The Centaur Conspiracy features a blurb from none other than “Dick Stivers” – yep, a nonexistent author. This almost leads to one of those philosophical ponderings: if a nonexistent author blurbs a book, does that mean the book itself doesn’t exist? Better yet is the page of reader comments at the very end of the book, with quotes from readers across the country on how great Gold Eagle is; all their names are given as initials, but an asterisk informs us that “full names are available upon request.” Like in case the FBI wants to investigate the legitimacy of these claims or something.


Matthew said...

MacGyver also, I believe, (it's been years since I watched the show) did not like guns which is why he had to come up with various contraptions. That was the fun part of the show, but it actually makes more sense to carry a gun since in the real world you couldn't rely on having all the materials around you need or having time to make whatever you need. (Also I thin Richard Dean Anderson was really anti-gun.)

Zwolf said...

I think Gold Eagle was trying to branch out into more "mainstream action novel" territory for a while, more LeCarre than Pendleton. I've got a few limited-series books they did later that definitely felt like they were aiming for a more mainstream audience. Code Zero, Room 59, Hatchet, even Jake Strait felt a little like they were aiming for the Tom Clancy crowd.

As pseudonym blurbs go, my favorites were always the cross-pollenation of Andrew Neiderman and V.C. Andrews blurbing each other's books, when Neiderman was actually secretly writing all the Andrews books at the time, since she was dead. :) I bet he laughed every time he did that.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! FYI I've never actually even seen an episode of MacGyver. For some reason though I did watch Airwolf! Zwolf, all I know of VC Andrews is all the girls read those books in middle school. This was of course during the big horror paperback boom of the '80s.

Zwolf said...

Yeah, the VC Andrews saga is a very, very strange thing. :) In the past year I've been watching both MacGyver AND Airwolf, even though I never watched 'em back in the day. Got a good deal on some DVD sets. I've only watched a few of each, but they're both good. MacGyver's a bit silly 'cuz they're trying to do an action show with minimal violence, which always results in goofiness (which was why I could never stand the A-Team -- eight million M-16s going off and nobody ever gets killed), but it's not bad if you're in the right mood. And Airwolf is a lot better than I expected it to be. I thought it'd be major goofiness, and it has a bit of it, but it's got a little grit buried in there, too. :)

Matthew said...

From what I remember Airwolf started off well, but went down hill in later seasons. It's been even longer since I've seen MacGyver.

I remember being in a bookstore and hearing an old lady be very suspicious of how V.C. Andrews continued writing after death. I told her the books were probably written by a ghostwriter or post death collaborations like Robert E. Howard had.

Mark Louis Baumgart said...

Non-existant authors: I remember reading a story how Anthony Boucher, editor (Fantasy & Science Fiction), writer and critic once wrote a novel under one name, reviewed the same book under two other names, and then ended up being quoted under one of those names as recommending his own novel.