Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Harker File #2: Dead And Paid For

The Harker File #2: Dead And Paid For, by Marc Olden
July, 1976  Signet Books

After Black Samurai and Narc folded, Marc Olden aimed for something more upmarket than men’s adventure and turned out The Harker File, which Signet still graced with a series title and volume numbers, just like the Black Samurai and Narc books. The differences between these series couldn’t be greater; The Harker File, which ran for four volumes, is narrated by an investigative reporter who not only “isn’t in great shape” but who also runs from violent confrontations, a far cry from the battle-hardened heroes of those two earlier Olden series. 

Hawthorne Albert Harker, who just goes as “Harker,” is a well-known reporter for a New York paper and is famous for spending months on investigative research, research which usually leads to trouble for whoever he is investigating. But Harker is also a far cry from later investigative reporter Dagger, as he has no combat experience – at least none he mentions this time – and he never carries a weapon of any kind. About the most we learn is that he’s nearly seven feet tall, 33 years old, and has an ex-wife named Loni, who was (and now is again) one of the “top call girls in New York.” Yes, Harker’s ex-wife is a hooker, and he’s still in love with her. This bizarre background tidbit isn’t much elaborated on, but Loni does show up at novel’s end to give Harker a little off-page lovin.’ Otherwise Harker is curiously asexual, and Olden doesn’t really descend to the typical lurid depths of the ‘70s; that being said, there is a part where Harker and an informant eat “organic nuts” off of a naked girl’s crotch, but more on that anon. 

I’m not sure if Olden originally planned this as a series or if he just turned in a standalone novel and Signet compelled him to branch it out into a recurring story. At any rate the character development is about on the lines of your average men’s adventure series, and really Dead And Paid For could easily serve as an installment of Narc, only with less action. Actually that’s not true. Narc itself wasn’t really action-packed, with hero John Bolt usually only dealing with one or two foes at a time, with long breaks between the action scenes. The same holds true here, it’s just that unlike Bolt, Harker is more prone to run and hide and doesn’t pack a gun. Otherwise he operates like a private eye, and that seems to be the vibe The Harker File most attains, with Olden even going for a hardboiled tone in Harker’s narration. 

One thing that Harker has in common with Bolt is that he’s white; Olden never outright states this but it’s clearly implied given how Harker is sure to tell us whether someone is black or American Indian or whatnot – in other words, he never tells us when a character is white, because Harker himself is. And did I mention he’s nearly seven feet tall? He tells us he’s six foot seven…he mentions he was in sports in college, but a vicious knee injury decommisioned him. He’s now so slovenly that his ex wife gave him a gym membership and he refuses to use it. We don’t get much more detail about Harker (other than his bizarre statement that “people have said that I look like a child molester”), but again with the slothfulness and aversion to violence – not to mention the bum knee – he comes off like your typical cliched private eye…particularly like Hardy

Well anyway I don’t have the first volume but it seems to have been about Harker investigating some CIA nefariousness. Olden looks to have tapped into the post-Watergate paranoia of mid-‘70s America with this series, with this installment focusing on a scam involving MIA soldiers in ‘Nam. When we meet Harker he’s already been on the investigation for some time; it all hinges around a sleazeball named Richardson, who was busted for running drugs and whatnot in ‘Nam. Now Richardson is involved in a new scam, telling the families of MIA soldiers that he’s found intel that their husbands/sons/whatever have been located…and Richardson just needs some money from these families to negotiate for their release. The story goes that the US government has written these lost men off as dead and now it’s up to private contractors like Richardson to seek them out…and negotiate for their release. 

Richardson is such a scumbag that he fleeces people based off what they can afford; the poor Hispanic lady whose son is MIA is asked for $200, whereas old rich man Vance is asked for fifty thousand dollars. This is where we come in, Harker meeting with frosty socialite Amanda Vance, wife of an MIA who has been missing since ’72. She’s living with her father-in-law, one of those magnificently wealthy types, and he’s being taken for a big ride by the scammers – the missing boy was his favorite, and he’s desperate to get him back. The old man never appears in the story, but Harker’s main accomplice throughout is Roger Vance, younger brother of the MIA and an up-and-coming senator. Vance gives Harker most of his leads as the novel progresses, and he too believes that his dad is being taken for a ride. 

Harker spends a lot of time running into a pair of thugs who work for Richardson: a dullard named Aaron and a hulking sadist known as Mickey Mouse, due to only having three fingers on one hand courtesy a ‘Nam wound; he covers the hand with a white glove. Harker suspects these two are “not only sadists but perhaps share an unnatural relationship,” a suspicion he will learn to be true. But as mentioned Harker is not a fighting he-man type, and panics whenever these two confront him. He manages to still get the better of them, though; when Aaron and Mickey corner Harker in an apartment corridor our hero makes use of the heavy brass nozzle on a fire hose, and later, in a car repair shop, he manages to light some puddles of oil on fire with a cigarette lighter. But there’s no part where Harker gets a gun and puts the hurt on anyone, and he’s not a hero at all. In fact the finale has Harker escaping to save his own skin and pointedly telling us he’s not going to try to save the other people Richardson has captured! 

Harker shuttles around the East Coast for the majority of the novel, meeting contacts to pin down Richardson or getting more intel from Vance. Eventually Harker learns that Richardson now goes by the name “Vale,” which was kind of a weird miss on Olden’s part, as the name is so similar to “Vance” and could easily cause reader confusion. Harker is adamant that Richardson is running a scam and makes it clear to Vance that he believes there are no MIAs at all in ‘Nam; in Harker’s opinion they are all certainly dead and the relatives are clinging to “hope when there is none.” We also learn that in a previous research assignment Harker found out about some American soldiers who went over to the Cong, doing missions for them; this promised a more action-centric tale than the one we get here, but not much else is said about it. 

Wait, I forgot about the girl with the nuts. The “organic nuts,” that is! She’s the drugged-out hippie girlfriend of some sleazy informant Harker meets up with in one sequence that goes on a bit too long. The couple live in a crash pad and the dude was one of Richardson’s flunkies in ‘Nam, the only one who did any time and thus has a score to settle. Olden adds some oddball sleaze here with the girl, who is rail-thin, dirty, and just in general unkempt, lying on a bed watching Hawaii Five-O with a bunch of organic nuts resting on her hairy crotch. And the sleazebag informant keeps encouraging Harker to eat some of them…which Harker grudgingly does. All very strange stuff indeed. 

Eventually Harker discovers that Richardson runs his operation out of Arizona, on a rolling ranch that’s filled with armed thugs. One of them is a heavyset American Indian named Joe Dread; he is the dude with the bow and arrow on the photo cover. He threatens Harker often with this weapon, nearly making our hero soil his pants. But again Harker manages to turn the tables by setting a fire. Harker’s come down here to investigate as Richardson claims to have sprung an MIA from a “top secret Viet Cong base.” Of course Harker soon learns that this too is b.s. As mentioned Olden goes out of his way to keep the novel realistic, though I did feel that Harker was able to escape a little too easily thanks to combustible stuff that just happened to by lying around. 

By limiting the viewpoint to just Harker, Olden is able to get away from the rampant POV-hopping that mired so many volumes of Narc, where the perspective would just jump wily-nily among the characters, almost surreally dipping into their random thoughts. One thing that remains from Olden’s earlier work is the needless stretching of everything out; if Harker tells us something once, he tells us three or four times. There’s a lot of mulling and recapping and worrying, same as with John Bolt in Narc, only here we stick with just one worrier for the duration. That being said, I didn’t find myself liking Harker very much. I guess the problem with going into this series after Narc or Black Samurai is that you’re used to a little more of an ass-kicker in an Olden protagonist. 

No doubt it was refreshing for Olden to have a little change of pace with a meeker hero, but at the same time I felt that Harker’s “run and hide” ethic kind of detracted from the story. I also felt that Dead And Paid For was a little slower-paced than it should’ve been, with a little too much repetition; it seemed that Harker and Vance were forever talking about what they planned to do, instead of us just seeing them do it. That said, the finale was suitably tense, with Harker’s ex-wife Loni being threatened. I’ve only got one more volume of The Harker File, the last one, but if I ever see the other two someday I’ll pick them up.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The True Confessions & Wild Adventures Of Two Rent-A-Girls

The True Confessions & Wild Adventures Of Two Rent-A-Girls, by Julie Nelson and Linda Tracey
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

Sometimes I wonder why I read this crap. The True Confessions & Wild Adventures Of Two Rent-A-Girls presents itself as one of the countless sex books of the early ‘70s (it’s actually labelled “Sociology” on the spine), but the cartoonish cover art is more indicitave of the content. Credited to a pair of “rent-a-girls” but likely churned out by some poor contract writer (it’s copyright Pinnacle), the book comes off like a poor man’s The Happy Hooker, presenting itself as a glimpse into the life of a pair of girls for hire. Who are not, as you might justifiably suspect, prostitutes! In fact the entire premise of the book is about as hard to buy as the authorial credit. 

“Only in the swinging seventies could there be rent-a-girls,” the intro informs us. Throughout the book we’re given a bit of backstory on this organization, which turns out to be a business run out of Los Angeles in which men (or women!) can rent a girl…for dates or whatever. Only later in the book do we learn that rent-a-girls are not hookers, and indeed it’s “against the rules” for them to have sex with the men who have rented them, as they could lose their job, the company could be fined, etc. What makes this so strange is that, prior to us readers being informed of this, narrator Julie Nelson has already had sex with practically every guy who has rented her! It’s also kind of funny because she and her rommate, fellow rent-a-girl Linda Tracey, get indignant when clients bluntly ask them for sex, or assume they’re hookers, etc. 

“Julie” narrates the majority of the book, turning in a series of random chapters that follow a “day in the life of a rent-a-girl” approach. Each chapter is very short, concerns some unusual “client” she or her fellow girls meet and have sex with, and then each chapter ends on a lame punchline or joke. This, coupled with the naïve tone of Julie’s narrative, reminds me very much of The New Stewardesses. Even when it comes to the frequent sex scenes, which – early in the book, at least – are about as tame as those in The New Stewardesses. In fact early in The True Confessions I thought I was about to read another of those unusual publications: the sleaze novel that isn’t very sleazy. I’ve always wondered about those kinds of books, and who the intended readership for them was. Like, “I want to read some sleaze, but then I also have church tomorrow, so…” 

At any rate, The True Confessions (I refuse to type out that super-long title every time) does indeed become more explicit as it goes along, as if “Julie Nelson” were skittish in the opening pages and got more bold as she went along. But still, we aren’t talking super-sleazy material here, with the majority of the shenanigans over and done with in a sentence or two. Also, textbook anatomical terms are used throughout, which I guess goes along with the b.s. “Sociology” tag on the spine. Even when Julie quotes her fellow rent-a-girls, it’s all “his penis” this and “my vagina” that, and none of it has any impact. Also as mentioned the sexual material is over and done with in just a few sentences; practically every chapter – and there’s a bunch of them, each chapter only a few pages long – follows the same template: Julie gets a phone call from Bernice, buxom redhead who runs the Rent-A-Girl office, and Bernice will have a new client. Julie will go meet him, talk to him a bit and learn what his weird hangup is, more than likely have sex with him, and then she’ll end the chapter on a lame joke. 

Julie informs us that she and Linda were sorority sisters in college at Wisconsin and then moved to LA to become actresses, with little success. One day they were at a friend’s wedding and the bride told them her husband was a former “client.” She further explained that she’d been a rent-a-girl, the “best job in the world,” and on this shaky recommendation Julie and Linda decided to give it a go. That was two years ago and the book is comrpised of Julie and Linda’s wily-nily reflections on the job. The author works in some hamfisted metatextual stuff with Julie occasionally informing us that “Linda says I should write about this…,” as if there really are two women writing. 

The True Confessions opens with Julie on one date, then flashing back to how she started the job. This entails a chapter in which she and Linda meet Bernice and have to fill out a questionaire. Then they’re each sent on their first dates: Linda’s client wants immediate sex and Julie’s is a wealthy guy who just has Julie run him a bath and then give him a “happy ending.” So from this first date it’s established that rent-a-girls have sex with their clients. So imagine my stupefecation when later in the book Linda comes running home crying from a date because her client demanded that they have sex! Or when Julie gets indignant because another client tells her he wants a mistress in every state! “What does that have to do with me? You just met me!” Julie asks him in shock, causing the reader to wonder if he’s suddenly reading a completely different book. 

Well anyway, as mentioned there’s no “plot,” per se. The two girls – plus other rent-a-girls who are occasionally quoted – tell us all about their various dates, like the couple that hires Julie so she can watch them have sex, or the guy with the small dick who flies Julie to Vegas, or even when Julie tells us about “my first black date.” There’s even a part where two lesbians rent them, and Julie grits her teeth and goes through with it. Again, practically every client does these two girls…and not to beat a dead horse, but it continues to be strange when Julie goes out with a guy who turns out to be an undercover cop, and we’re informed the LAPD occasionally runs sting operations on the office to make sure the girls…you guessed it, aren’t having sex with their clients. Because they could “lose their license” and stuff. Of course Julie manages to screw the cop and keep her job. 

Even more random is the part where Julie and Linda are hired to “act” in a movie…and of course it turns out to be a porno. “What do we have to lose?” Julie tells the ever-suspicious Linda, and soon enough Linda’s having sex on film and Julie is being double-teamed. And they’re fine with this. Again, it’s just a “date” they’ve been hired for. But then a few chapters later Julie gets uppity when another client asks her to go straight up to his hotel room. Well anyway, the author tries to cover the full spectrum of kinkiness, each client wanting something odd, like the guy who wants Julie to play hide and seek with him. Some of the clients are unhappily-married men…and again, confoundingly enough, Julie feels bad for one of them and decides, moments after meeting him at the office, to take him back to her apartment – which is against the rules – and screw his brains out to make him feel better. For a negotiated price, of course. But please, don’t ever confuse her with a hooker. 

Honestly, I don’t why I read this kind of crap. Anyway, this is another one of those books that is better served by a series of random excerpts: 

But the idea of having sex with a stranger I had only met a few minutes before was not very appealing. I was beginning to feel more like a call girl instead of a rent-a-girl. But by the time we reached his room, I had made up my mind to give my very first customer the best screw he ever had. -- pg. 26 

We had our drinks in the library and Mr. Palmer was a different man. He was relaxed, dignified, and cool. We didn’t talk about his bath, but rather about politics. He is a Democrat and so am I, so we had much to discuss. -- pg. 32 

I was becoming excited and I am sure part of it was the anticipation of what his small penis would feel like up my vagina. -- pg. 72 

We made love and I really did my best. I did everything I could think of to excite him, but at first I was doing as badly as his wife. Then I remembered something one of my girl friends had told me. I grabbed his balls and began to squeeze them. -- pg. 99 

It was wild. Two men screwing me at once. And I was getting paid! -- pg. 115 

Toward the end of the second day I was beginning to feel guilty. What was I doing here? Was I nothing more than a cheap whore sleeping with some creepy guy who paid women to fuck him in London and probably Paris, Madrid, and Rome too? -- pg. 150 

I hope I haven’t given the impression that all our rent-a-girl dates are wild, weird, and off-beat. -- pg. 171

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Devil’s Ring (Don Miles #4)

The Devils Ring, by Larry Kenyon
July, 1967  Avon Books

The first thing one realizes about this fourth and final installment of Don Miles is that it actually takes place before the previous volume; we know this due to an early comment that Don won the race in Le Mans “two years ago,” an event which happened in the first volume. We also get a recap of the events of the second volume, with the note that they happened “one year ago.” And we’ll recall that in the third volume, Le Man was “four years ago,” and the events of the second volume were “three years ago.” So anyway not to draw a chart or anything, but you get my drift – even though it has a “4” on the spine and was published one month after the third volume, The Devil’s Ring clearly takes place before Revenge At Indy and likely only came out last in the series due to a publishing snafu. 

Anyway, we also know, per Revenge At Indy, that Challenge At Le Mans took place in 1963, which means that The Devil’s Ring takes place in 1965. Not that Lou “Larry Kenyon” Louderback mentions any dates this time. There aren’t as many topical details this time, either. If anything The Devil’s Ring more so harkens back to twenty years before, as the plot of this one is focused on World War II and it seems that Don is forever coming across some bombed-out ruin or abandoned bunker as he drives across West Germany. This is how we meet him, Louderback delivering an evocative opening in which Don is running solo along a section of the Nurburgring, the titular Devil’s Ring, a notoriously-dangerous racing course that cuts through the Eifel mountains in Germany. 

Don crashes out during his late-night trial run and ends up injured and stranded in a remote section of a fenced-off forest; it’s been condemned given all the artilery, tanks, bunkers, and other detrius of the final days of WWII which litter the countryside. In an effectively surreal moment Don’s fired at by a spectral figure who emerges from the foliage, blasting away with an old Schmeiser. It’s the infamous “Wolf Man” of the area, a psychotic holdover from the war who has been haunting these condemned hills for over twenty years, complete with Nazi helmet and everything. Don, who has a severely-injured leg due to the crash, manages to get the upper hand in a tense sequence, the outcome of which sees Don in possession of the Wolf Man’s SS ring. 

While a savage WWII relic known as the “Wolf Man” would be enough for most authors to devote an entire novel to, Louderback’s over and done with him in this opening chapter, though the Wolf Man’s ring will play a central role in the ensuing plot – a nice play on the title from Louderback, the “Devil’s Ring” referring to the race course as well as the SS ring. But as ever Louderback stuffs the novel to the gills with oddball characters, to the extent that the oddness of each is ultimately lost: a skull-faced rival driver (his skin burned off in a crash so that his face is literally skull-like), a hulking Patagonian Indian, kidnappers who wear Frankenstein and Dracula masks, two women who claim to be the same person, and even a return of Don’s rarely-seen boss, Hedge, whose entire being seems to be a carefully-constructed special effect, from his face to his voice. Don even gets in on the oddness by once again wearing the “Mr. Nobody” mask, a “plastotex” creation which makes his face so unremarkable that it’s impossible for anyone to remember it; he wears it during a meet with another agent who wears a similar mask, adding another surreal sequence to a novel that’s filled with them. 

This is another one of those “secret agent stumbles into an enemy plan” sort of novels; Don’s not on assignment, and in fact is never officially briefed on an assignment. It’s just that his fight with the Wolf Man sets the action in play and it turns out various groups of people want that SS ring. Don gets his first indication of this some time later, once he’s back in Texas; it’s not exactly stated how long after the fight with the Wolf Man this is, but Don’s leg is healed and he’s sick of fending off questions from the media about the bizarre attack. He’s also concerned that the Wolf Man battle will ruin his cover, as it might seem too coincidental to some that a millionaire race car driver just happened to find himself in a fight to the death with a WWII holdover in full Nazi battle gear. 

This part in Texas features Sierra “Smoky” Stover, Don’s hotstuff blonde secretary-slash-former race car driver. We’re informed here that the two have never done the deed, even though they’re both hot for each other, as Don believes that a good secretary is more important than a good lay. Now there’s a LinkedIn recommendation I’d love to see! This also means that this would’ve been the first time we saw Sierra, had this volume been published in the proper sequence, ie before Revenge At Indy. We also get to see, once again, Don’s engineer Buck, who continues to speak in an annoying Texan drawl – annoying due to how Louderback phonetically spells it out, to the point that most of what he says is incomprehensible. 

Don’s racing world stuff is not given as much precedence this time, though Louderback works in a few car chases here and there. For the most part the opening trial run in the Devil’s Ring is the most we get, and in fact The Devil’s Ring ends with Don just about to enter his latest championship race, per the template of earlier installments. It’s more so his cover identity Don is concerned with, and here in the Texas portion he learns he might indeed have undone his own cover when a good-lookin’ babe named Marilu Madero shows up for an interview – and all she wants to talk about is the fight with the Wolf Man. With her “high breasts” and sultry South American looks, Marilu has Don all worked up…particularly when she offers her body in exchange for info. She even sort of goes down on him to keep him talking, though Louderback isn’t super-clear with the details, this being a mainstream book from the ‘60s and all. 

However Don loses all randiness when it turns out Marilu wants the ring – and she wants it for her father, who is none other than an infamous SS sadist named Helldorf, one of the most notorious of the concentration camp commanders. But a crying Marilu insists her dad is just an old man, living feeble and almost senile in Argentina, and plus she was born long after the war, her mom an Argentinian woman. Don tells her to take off, without giving her the ring or consumating the act, then takes a cold shower…only for Sierra Stover to inform him that another “Marilu Madero” is here to see him! This one’s a built blonde, just the type Don likes, we’re informed…as if this makes Don different from practically any other guy in history. This Marilu also claims to be half-Argentinian, though she’s clearly pure German and is only pretending to be someone else, and failing miserably. Regardless, Don works her up so much that she screams they must do it “Now! On the floor!” 

This one’s name turns out to be Rosemarie Kwiff, aka Rosie, and she’s a German secret agent in training. Don promises to bring the SS ring to her, as she claims her boss wants it to destroy it, as it could be seen as a talisman to neo-Nazi movements…particularly the one the real Marilu Madero is part of in Argentina. The plot gets even more busy when it turns out that Buck is wearing the SS ring, and what’s more he wants to keep it because it helps out in his engineering work or somesuch, so Don just decides to buy another SS ring when he’s over in Europe and take that to Rosie. After all, they’re all the same, he figures. This turns out to be the main plot of The Devil’s Ring, as the SS ring Don got, which Buck now wears, is anything but typical, and various factions are willing to kill for it. 

The middle section stalls out a bit as Don muddles his way through Germany; as with the previous books, The Devil’s Ring is “only” about 180 pages, but boy does it have some small, dense print, to the point that it would probably be near 300 pages at normal-sized print. These books are as overwritten as one of my reviews! Like I said before, I don’t know why Louderback went to such trouble to plot-build in this series. I mean his writing is great and all, with copious evocative scenes – like when Don meets with a German intelligence official who has a room completely made of and furnished by plastic – but there’s just too much of a good thing. Like this interminable sequence in Bonn; Don arrives, takes out Rosie, and is immediately chased by some goons. But the chase just goes on and on, and later material, with Don being shuffled around by various groups of kidnappers, makes our hero seem like a nitwit. Don Miles has never been the most perfect of secret agents, as evidenced by the previous three books, but in this one he’s constantly getting outsmarted or captured – easily at that. 

More revelations and plot-heavy stuff ensue when it develops that the original “Marilu Madero” is really named Justa Boll, the mistress, not daughter, of SS bastard Helldorf (who never appears in the novel, by the way). She has various oddball goons at her disposal, but when she too manages to capture Don the two find the opportunity to consumate their earlier shenanigans. I should mention here that while Louderback doesn’t go for full-bore sleaze, he’s definitely one to exploit the ample charms of his female characters: some of the stuff in here is like paeans to boobs. While this breast worship will go on for quite a bit, the actual boinkery only occurs over a few sentences, the actions only vaguely described. At any rate, the stuff with Justa Boll also turns out to be very plot heavy, with various revelations occurring for her character – and who she really works for – as the novel trudges for the climax. 

Don even comes off poorly in the climax, for that matter; with some enemies turned friends, he tries to lead an ambush on the villain of the piece. And is immediately captured – for like the fifth time in the book. Louderback goes to his usual elaborate lengths in scene-building here, with the finale taking place in a ceramics kiln, where the villain intends to melt the gold stored in a bunker in the hills – the Wolf Man’s SS ring containing microfilmed directions on how to safely recover the gold, which is protected by nerve gas. Don and his comrades put in “six hours of back-breaking labor” to transport the bricks of gold from the truck to the kiln, after which the villain intends to put Don and comrades in the kiln. But our hero is saved by another character, after which he gets in a protracted fight which of course sees the villain going up in flames. All pretty much telegraphed, but it just takes forever for any of it to happen. 

Once again an installment ends with Don about to run another race. Only periodically has he raced his Panther throughout this one, and Louderback includes a chase within a race sequence at one point, a fellow racer being one of the enemy agents after Don. As mentioned though Don’s not “on assignment” this time, despite a brief appearance by Hedge, who gives Don what turns out to be faulty intel. Don’s also given some poison-tipped C02 pens, which he spends more time trying to get away from other people who keep taking them from him; as I say, Don Miles is about a rung above the dude in Get Smart, so far as his secret agent skills go. 

Back to the publishing goof which caused this one to come out last…it actually works that Revenge At Indy was the real finale of the series, given how it ties back to the plot of the first volume. So it was kind of weird reading this “final volume” knowing that the events of the previous book were Louderback’s true finale to the series – though of course it’s likely Revenge At Indy wasn’t even planned as such, and Louderback no doubt was ready to write more volumes. I imagine Don Miles got canned because the books, despite their awesomely pulpish plots and exploitative nature, are just too plot-heavy and sluggish, coming off like miniature epics instead of fast-moving action yarns.

Monday, February 15, 2021

MIA Hunter #11: Crossfire Kill

MIA Hunter #11: Crossfire Kill, by Jack Buchanan
February, 1989  Jove Books

Unforunately this eleventh volume of MIA Hunter is a definite low point for the series; it seems to have been written by an author who has no knowledge of the previous volumes and just wants to do a Robert Ludlum style Cold War thriller. The editorial hand of Stephen Mertz is only occasionally present, usually just adding clarifying points about the changing nature of Stone’s mission. This disconnect from previous books is odd, given that Arthur Moore wrote Crossfire Kill, and he wrote two earlier volumes, #8: Escape From Nicaragua and #9: Invasion U.S.S.R. Checking my reviews of those two previous books, it looks like I wasn’t very fond of either of them…but Crossfire Kill is real patience testing, and definitely my least favorite volume of the series. 

For one, some revisionism seems to have taken place; Carol Jenner, hotstuff blonde who much earlier in the series was nothing more than “Mark Stone’s girlfriend,” now comes off like the boss of the team! We’re informed that she’s “on assignment from Fort Bragg,” with the official capacity of overseeing the taskforce that is Mark Stone, Hog Wiley, and Terrence Loughlin. There’s absolutely no indication here that she is (or was?) Stone’s woman, and what’s more she now seems to have an antagonistic relationship with Hog, easily frustrated with his one-liners and ever-randy attitude. Now we know that a few volumes ago the series overall changed, with Stone and team now working directly for the US government; Carol’s role changed as well, acting mostly as “the computer girl,” giving intel and whatnot on each mission. But this time she’s not only giving intel but basically dictating what Stone and team does. She also seems to have lost the ability to use contractions when she speaks. All very, very strange, and not exactly welcomed. 

But then, the change in the series itself isn’t much welcomed. Capturing POWs was the gimmick of MIA Hunter, and with the gimmick removed the series is struggling. Particularly here, as Crossfire Kill is really just a sluggish thriller with “action scenes” that seem to be huriedly grafted on to meet a series mandate. In fact, Stone and team pretty much disappear for long portions of the narrative, Moore focusing instead on the one-off Eurotrash villains. In this regard the novel most reminded me of S-Com #1: Terror In Turin (which curiously also had a main character named Stone), another slow-moving “men’s adventure novel” that kept its heroes on the sidelines so as to focus on the annoying bickering and bantering of its too-many villains. But at least Terror In Turin had some sleazy sex to keep things interesting; we don’t even get that in Crossfire Kill. The genre has been neutered of such stuff by 1989, anyway; I mean there’s even a hooker in the book, but she’s just there to add more pseudo-suspense to the tale. In a men’s adventure novel from the ‘70s her role would’ve been entirely different. That’s progress, I guess. 

So Stone and team are now tasked with saving kidnapped people all over the world, at the behest of the US government; this time though their role is pretty muddled. The opening chapter lets us know what we’re in for: an overlong sequence in which one of the villains of the piece carries out his hit, assassinating a German official. The assassin is a “potato-faced” little man named Danzig(!). He’s just one of the many villains we have to keep up with…there’s also Neff, a terrorist leader initially presented as the main villain of the novel, until we ultimately meet Von Schiller, a former SS officer who truly runs things. But man. The majority of Crossfire Kill is comprised of these dudes fighting each other, with long portions of the narrative devoted to Danzig trying to kill Neff, or Neff trying to kill Von Schiller, or whatever. And every once in a while we’ll cut over to Stone and team in their Frankfurt apartment, where Carol Jenner bosses them around a little more. 

After this opening assassination, Stone’s team is called to Frankfurt…for something. Even Hog questions why they should give a damn if some German official has been killed. (Of course Carol doesn’t take kindly to this.) The explanation is that the murdered official was organizing a visit from the US Secretary of State or somesuch, so Stone’s here to ensure everything goes smoothly – but wait, an American General has just been adbucted right off the Army base here in Germany, so Stone’s team will indeed have someone to rescue after all. When Stone rescues the General we get our first indication that Crossfire Kill won’t have near the action quotient of previous books; as we’ll recall, some of the early volumes of MIA Hunter were nothing but long-running action scenes. Here it’s over and done with in a few pages, Stone, Hog, and Loughlin making a few bloodless kills as they storm a Euroterrorist compound and rescue the General. 

Here also we get the bizarre revelation that some chick Loughlin once had a thing with is now with Neff; we’ll eventually learn she’s a hardbitten SAS agent, thus her shocked yelp of “Terry!” when she sees Loughlin comes as a bit hard to buy. But whatever, this is the absolute most focus the cipher known as Terrence Loughlin has ever received. I mean I honestly thought the dude was gay (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but here we have an ex-girlfriend for him and everything. And hell, later in the book Loughlin even gets in some casual gay-bashing, putting down some dude who appears to hit on Stone in a German bar. Well anyway, the girl is named Eva Ullman, and once he gets over his shock Loughlin tells Stone and Hog that he had an affair with her many years before, when he was still with the SAS, and this is the first time he’s seen her in all these years, etc. 

But for veteran commandos, the Stone group seems easily fooled. Eva just happened to be standing right beside terrorist leader Neff when she saw Loughlin, and the two then ran away – Loughlin unable to tell if Neff was pulling Eva, like she was a captive or something, or if she was willingly running off with him. Shortly after this Loughlin receives a message at their apartment complex, presumably from Eva, asking to meet “Terry” at a certain location – a location which the team’s German contact tells them just happens to be in the middle of the friggin’ forest. “Well, let’s just go see how it plays out,” our heroes basically decide. Of course, it turns out to be a trap, leading to another bloodless action scene as Stone and Hog, lying in cover while Loughlin drives around on a dirt bike, cut down the assassins who unsurprisingly show up. 

There is such a focus on the one-off characters that we even have sections from Eva’s point of view, with the intent that we’ll be afraid that Neff will have her killed. She’s on assignment from SAS, you see, which makes her shocked yelp of “Terry!” even harder to believe. Not that she should worry about Eva’s wellbeing, as Neff is such a lame villain that he actually forgets to do anything about Eva, who might, you know, be familiar with at least one of those mysterious commandos who keep killing Neff’s men. She’s eventually taken to some countryside retreat to be interrogated, but manages to escape on her own, Stone and team luckily coming upon her before she can indeed be killed. After this though she basically disappears from the narrative; about the most we learn is that she needs to take a nap to calm her nerves and she’s determined that this will be her last SAS assignment! 

But yeah, most of the last third is composed of Von Schiller hiring Danzig to kill Neff, due to all Neff’s screwups, and then Neff trying to get the better of Danzig, and then Neff trying to get revenge on Von Schiller, and on and on. And meanwhile Stone and team stand around and try to put together the clues to figure out who is funding Neff. Occasionally we will have a super-brief action scene, Stone and his crew cutting down Neff’s seemingly endless supply of Eurotash terrorists in spectacularly bloodless fashion. Hog will occasionally make a quip or two; he has a strange fetish for talking about “tits” this time, sometimes in the most unsettling of ways, like implying that Neff is going to torture Eva by beating on her boobs. To the extent that even Loughlin and Stone wonder what the hell’s going on with Hog. That being said, there’s one goofy part where Hog merely backhands a guy and kills him! 

Even the climax is pretty unspectacular, with Stone and team racing around Germany and Holland and then back to Germany to put the hammer down on Von Schiller. Who by the way has a great track record, despite all the internal squabbling; he and his men manage to kill several more European officials during the novel. Stone seems to be especially driven to take out Von Schiller, once he learns of the man’s Nazi past, but even here the final battle is pretty quick and anticlimactic. I mean it features an exploding car, like an episode of Knight Rider or something. 

I think here in the very final pages is the only part where Stephen Mertz contributes to the tale; we get a sudden glimpse into Stone’s perspective. His was the most common perspective in earlier books, but it’s hardly present this time. He muses over “the shifting role of his team.” Here we also learn that Stone’s “main” objective is still rescuing POWs in Vietnam, but there’s been no recent “hard intel” of any. I know eventually Mertz delivers an installment which returns Stone and team to ‘Nam, and I have to say I’m looking forward to it. Like I wrote above, saving POWs was the gimmick of this series; these guys should be in the jungle, hitting Charlie in long-running action scenes. That’s their thing. Taking them out of their element hasn’t really been working out, at least not for me, so I’ll be looking forward to this eventual return to the original series template.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Aquarius Rising

Aquarius Rising, by Robert Santelli
August, 1980  Dell Books

This is sort of the nonfiction equivalent of The Rock Nations in that it’s an overview of the rock festivals that occurred across America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But unlike that earlier novel, Aquarius Rising goes further into the ‘70s, author Robert Santelli documenting how the rock festival concept was basically dead by the end of the “Me Decade.” Santelli also seems to have a clear appreciation for rock music, something you couldn’t really say about the narrator of The Rock Nations, and also he keeps his opinions to himself – though I have to admit I would’ve preferred a bit more color commentary. 

Indeed, Santelli goes for a dry, almost textbook format for the book, whereas the material calls for a bit more personality. You don’t even get the impression Santelli’s been to any of the festivals, as he never mentions himself in any of the sections. This is all well and good if you want to read about the facts and less about some guy’s recollections of them, but still, an “I was there” viewpoint for the Woodstock material in particular would’ve been welcomed. The strange thing is, at least judging from a few of the photo credits herein, Santelli was there…he just doesn’t tell us he was. This is a curious omission, and I can only assume Santelli was going for more of a “just the facts” approach. 

Santelli opens the book with a quick preface in which he states the goal of the book is to document the rock festivals of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and how they were more than just rock concerts for those who attended them – that they were thriving communities in which young people communicated with like-minded heads. The other goal is to show how corruption gradually set in post Woodstock, with the ultimate outcome that by the late ‘70s the rock festivals of a decade before – three-day affairs in which people stayed on the site for the duration – were basically dead and gone, replaced by one-day concerts that lacked any of the community experience of the earlier fests. Also, and Santelli doesn’t broach this as much, but by the late ‘70s the music sucked, too. I mean I could see standing in the rain and mud for three days to see Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and maybe even Janis Joplin, but Aerosmith or Rush? I think I’d stand in the rain and mud not to see them. 

Another curious thing about Aquarius Rising is that Santelli writes about the great rock festivals as if they were long ago, whereas in reality Woodstock was only eleven years before the book was published. In many ways the tone of the book is akin to one that would be written today, over fifty years after Woodstock; there is a wistful tone to Santelli’s narrative of a time lost, never to be regained. Again, it lacks the immediacy of an on-the-ground sort of report; I know there are multiple Woodstock books out there, but I’ve never read any of them. I could imagine the majority of them give more immediacy to the reporting than Santelli does here. And not to beat a dead horse, but if Santelli really was at some of these festivals – he’s got photo credit for both Woodstock shots and Altamont shots – you would expect a slightly less reserved perspective. 

The book opens with a look at the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, which is generally considered the first major rock festival, setting the template that others followed. It was also the intro of many acts who would play at other major festivals, like Hendrix and Joplin. Santelli documents how the festival was created and set up, dropping some notes I’d not seen before, like how Monterey was one of the only festivals with assigned seating. We learn in this first chapter another important element of Aquarius Rising; Santelli won’t be telling us much about the music, either. Very rarely do we get any sort of description of the sound of these various groups; if anything it will just be sweeping statements about their overall contributions. 

In addition to some detail on Ravi Shankar’s three-hour performance (in which he advised everyone to sit still and keep quiet!), we get a little more color on the two most remembered events of Monterey: Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix’s respective debuts. There’s also some detail on the Who’s destructive set. The Jimi stuff is cool, but not a patch on the Monterey material in Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, but then Santelli’s m.o. here as stated is more of a dry overview. Actually I know I wrote this above, but “textbook” really sums it up – I mean this bit on Steve Miller reads like it could’ve come out of a high school Social Studies textbook: 

Miller became a near-legend in San Francisco rock circles. His albums, Children Of The Future and Sailor, both released in 1968, are still considered classic psychedelic albums. But while other San Francisco bands were crisscrossing the country in the late sixties and early seventies, Miller slowly faded from the picture. It wasn’t until 1973 that he resurrected himself with The Joker. The album contained the smash hit single by the same name and helped introduce Miller to the Top 40 AM radio audience. He’s been a superstar ever since. 

Monterey Pop was also a trendsetter in how it proved to be a one-off; once the festival promoters had their fun, politics set in like a rot and another festival was prevented due to legal wrangling, public hue and cry, and the like. In fact the festivals for 1968 were pretty understated, and Santelli only sheds a little light on them. The Miami Pop in December 1968 sounded pretty cool, with unusual acts like Procol Harum and Iron Butterfly (who were supposed to play at Woodstock but couldn’t get there due to traffic – something Santelli doesn’t mention in this book, but which I knew from James Kunstler’s novel The Life Of Byron Jaynes). There was also the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, which was noted for featuring The Doors, an atypical presence at rock festivals. The Sky River Rock Festival in Washington was another trendsetter: gatecrashers led to such a violent scene that cops descended on them with billy clubs smashing hippie faces. Santelli sees in this a prefigure of the later Altamont debacle. 

1969 of course was the pinnacle year of rock festivals, and of course Santelli spends the most time looking at the most famous rockfest of all: Woodstock. We get a lot more detail here, from the origins of the festival to the setting up of the site. Again, some personal commentary would’ve been welcomed, but Santelli does a good – if overly dry – job of describing the hellish conditions…and how these conditions made such little impact on the good vibes of the massive crowd. For that matter, here’s another thing I learned from Aquarius Rising: previous to this I was really only aware of Jimi Hendrix’s set at Woodstock, having picked up the CD released in 1994 when I was in college. What I didn’t know is that Jimi only played to a fraction of the audience; some 400,000 people attended Woodstock, but most of them finally had enough of the constantly pouring rain and hit the road on Sunday morning…right before Jimi started to play. So he only played for like 25,000 people. I mean come on, hippies! Leave during Sha Na Na’s set, not Jimi Hendrix’s! 

Santelli doesn’t give as detailed a look at the performers, but he does provide a list of the pay each act received. Hendrix was contracted for the highest amount ($18,000), with an obscure band named Quill getting just $375 for their set. They were so obscure that I don’t think their set was even filmed, though bootleg audio exists. What Santelli really brings to the fore is how the media made Woodstock sound like a disaster waiting to happen…which it in fact was. Constant rain and trampling feet exposed some power lines, for example, threatening to electrocute a couple thousand long-haired freaks. There were also the downed communication lines, backed-up portapotties, the infamous brown acid (“It’s not poison. It’s just bad acid!”), and etc. 

While Santelli’s account is a little dry, it did provoke me to do something I’d never considered doing before: watch the 1970 Woodstock film. Santelli’s description of it, with the split screens and other filmic effects, got me interested in it, and I’m about halfway through viewing it, though I could only find the 3+ hour Director’s Cut. It seems that the original theatrical release, which Santelli discusses in the book (the Director’s Cut not existing until 1989), is now almost impossible to find. I couldn’t find it, at least, and I can usually find just about anything after some thorough web searching. Santelli presents Woodstock as the apotheosis of the youth movement, the hundreds of thousands of kids congregating peacefully in their own little republic. Unfortunately it was all downhill after that. 

In fact, the post-Woodstock festivals are progressively hellish, with Altamont not even the most violent, though it’s the most often namechecked. Thus Altamont gets nearly as much focus as Woodstock. I’d never realized how poorly planned this thing was; it was a disaster waiting to happen. Santelli opens with the well-documented moment in which a young black man was knifed to death by Hell’s Angels, right in front of the stage on which the Rolling Stones were performing. Santelli well captures the desperate plight of the Stones, who realized their “only choice” was to continue playing, else chaos would descend on the Altamont Raceway. From there Santelli jumps back to how this festival had the most hazy of planning, the Stones only vaguely giving their approval of it…and then the site being decided upon a mere twenty-four hours before the scheduled show. Laborers only had a day to set up the stage, the scaffolding, etc, thus there wasn’t even a bare minimum of safety checks in place…and 300,000 rabid kids showed up. 

Speaking of which, Santelli brings up something here few other Altamont chroniclers have; that the wanton rampage of the Hell’s Angels was just as much the fault of the cowed audience. As Santelli argues, there were only 200 Angels, yet they were “the masters,” smashing hippie heads and even knocking out Marty Balin of the Airplane – the only person, Santelli states, who stood up to the Angels that day. And yet there were like over 300,000 people in the audience. They could’ve easily swarmed upon the Angels and brought them to bear, yet they never did. All it would’ve taken was say for Jagger to call for their aid in the mike – this by the way is not something Santelli opines, though. He just says the fans themselves should’ve come to this conclusion. Santelli does bring up another salient point, that the stage was so important to the Woodstock community, with frequent updates to the throngs of what was going on, what to look out for, etc. But at Altamont, the stage was to be avoided – the only thing up there was a pack of Angels who would beat you bloody if you tried to climb up. 

Santelli also presents the Stones as “partly to blame” for the chaos and loss of life, but he also repeats the oft-stated fallacy that they purposely came onto the stage after dark, to be at their most evil. As it turns out, the Stones performed late for two reasons – the Grateful Dead chickened out of their set and didn’t play, and also Bill Wyman flew in by separate helicopter and was delayed, thus the rest of the band had to wait for him. But likely Santelli wasn’t privy to this info in 1980; as I understand, it was revealed in Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, which was published in 1984. Santelli does make clear that the Stones played a great show, with some critics opining that it was indeed the best show they’d ever done. 

As mentioned, after this things become almost ridiculously more hellish; there’s Powder Ridge, the festival that never was due to local law shutting down the concert and threatening legal action against any act that played there; it pretty much became a drug bazaar. Another encroaching element that spelled doom for many festivals was politics; leftist radicals tried repeatedly to ingratiate themselves into the planning stages, “demanding” that promoters include shoutouts for various leftwing causes in the shows and to fork over earnings to support those same causes. Many would threaten dire repercussions if their demands weren’t met, and ultimately promoters would either cut ties with them or simply just cancel the festivals. (There may be a lesson here.) Of course Pete Townshend summed it all up the best when he knocked leftist rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman off the stage at Woodstock, an incident Santelli documents here. 

As more and more festivals faced various setbacks, promoters tried novel approaches, like single-day festivals featuring nigh-endless performances from just a few artists; sorry, but three hours of the Allman Brothers just doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. Then there was the uneventful festival in Puerto Rico, Mar Y Sol, held there to get around the increasingly-stifling US laws…and the locals quickly showed skill in fleecing the naïve American hippies who descended on their town (ie twenty bucks for a drive to the festival site, etc). Santelli also bemoans the frequency of hard rock artists who proliferated at festivals in the later ‘70s, finding their aggressive styles far removed from the sounds of the early rockfests. Just imagine how he’d feel if he could see into the future and witness Woodstock ’94! 

Speaking of which, Santelli ends the book with the prediction that rock festivals are forever gone. It turns out he was sort of right and sort of wrong. Wrong because there was the above-mentioned Woodstock ’94, with such diverse acts as a mud-caked Nine Inch Nails and even Bob Dylan (who decided not to show at the original Woodstock), and then five years later there was Woodstock ’99, which seemed to be a new Altamont. (I recall really wanting to go to Woodstock ’94 – I was 19, a NIN fan, but tickets were like a couple hundred bucks or something and I was just a poor self-financed college student. At least I got to see NIN a little over a year later, when they toured with Bowie.) 

But Santelli is correct in that none of these later festivals had the spirit of the originals, and indeed how could they, given the sea change of ensuing generations. Watching the Woodstock movie, one thing that amuses me is that, despite how grungy and unkempt those hippies were, they were worlds more…well, wisened than the kids of today, not to mention infinitely better spoken. I mean there’s this one scraggly-headed kid in the movie who talks about how everything he needs in the world “is right on this roadside,” commenting how his father, an immigrant, grudgingly accepts his lifestyle and even encourages him to pursue it and learn his own life lessons. This kid talks like he’s in his 40s or something, and the irony is the mass belief at the time was that hippies were a stupid, drugged-out lot. Actually, maybe it was the drugs that made them so wisened…I imagine several heroic doses of vintage LSD would turn the average kid into an old soul. What more is there to see once you’ve peered into the cosmos? 

Anyway, Santelli’s book is a success in what it aims to be: a snappily-paced overview of the rock festival era. I forgot to mention, he only discusses American rock fests – no mention of Isle of Wight. Which by the way did factor into the finale of The Rock Nations. To again bring up that novel, it would’ve greatly benefited Aquarius Rising if Santelli had gone for a similar, more lively commentary, with a few personal reflections. So if you’re looking for on-the-ground reporting from the rockfests of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you won’t find it here. But you will find a concise overview with a few notable tidbits you might not find anywhere else.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Executioner #14: San Diego Siege

The Executioner #14: San Diego Siege, by Don Pendleton
November, 1972  Pinnacle Books

It’s old home week for The Executioner; this installment sees Mack Bolan back in California, where he hooks up with former Death Squad members Gadgets Schwarz and Pol Blancanales. Los Angeles cop Carl Lyons also appears, making this sort of an unintentional prefigure of the later Able Team series, which featured the three characters. However Lyons does not share a scene with Gadgets or Pol, and barely even interracts with Bolan – he walks right by him, late in the novel, but Bolan’s in costume and Lyons doesn’t recognize him. 

At the end of San Diego Siege Bolan reveals that he was on his way to Phildelphia when he got the call from Gadgets and Pol which brought him here. The two surviving members of the Death Squad have called in Bolan because their old ‘Nam commanding officer, Howlin’ Harlan Winters, may be in deep with the Mafia, and only the Executioner could sort things out. This is a fary cry from the future days of Able Team, where Pol and Gadgets would handle things themselves. Bolan is reticent to step foot in San Diego, claiming that the rot runs too deep and the Mafia is too embedded in the city; one would have to destroy most of the place to save it. This is mostly due to the naval presence in the city, the Mafia taking advantage of the continnuous sea traffic to transport illegal wares. 

Gadgets and Pol aren’t certain Winters is involved with the mob, but they’ve got their suspicions. A Colonel in ‘Nam, he was essentially kicked out of field duty due to his colorful presence and bucked up to General. Now he’s living above his means and the two men suspect he may be engaged in some illegal chicanery. Bolan thinks of Winters as the Patton of Vietnam, but the unfortunate thing is we’ve never heard of him before…and don’t even get to meet him. Because, and spoiler alert but it happens real early in the book, Winters is already dead when Bolan goes to see him. Props to Pendleton for including a busty blonde in a see-through robe when Bolan comes upon Winters’s corpse; she’s the man’s niece, we’re informed, and she’s just standing there staring at the gory ruin that was her uncle. It looks like he’s blown his head off in his own study, but Bolan isn’t sure if it was murder or assassination. 

That’s it for the busty blonde, though; San Diego Slaughter is very tame on the babe front, and Bolan goes nookieless. As if to compensate for this, though, Pendleton later delivers yet another topless babe, a redhead Bolan comes upon while she’s sunbathing. Presumably she’s the one Gil Cohen has illustrated on the cover, as she’s the closest we get to a female protagonist in the book…but even she only appears on a scant few pages. It’s very much a man’s world in this volume of The Executioner, with Bolan determined to undergo a “rescue mission” for Winters, even though Winters is already dead. What Bolan intends to rescue is Winters’s honor – that is, if he still had any. The question remains whether he was in bed with the Mafia. 

This certainly isn’t the most slam-bang action entry in the series, but that’s not to say San Diego Siege is boring. For me its greatest failing is that the reader has no investment in Howlin’ Harlan, and we’re robbed of the chance of him making an impression on us. I thought it would be interesting to see Bolan’s mentor – but then, Winters isn’t really even presented that way. Pendleton is intent upon the hero-mythologizing of his protagonist at this point. Winters, we learn, wasn’t so much a mentor of Bolan’s as a colleague, as Bolan was already a hardened jungle warfare expert when he was put in-line with Winters back in the ‘Nam hellzones. Indeed, Gadgets and Pol look up to Bolan so much that you wonder what sort of awe they ever even had for Howlin’ Harlan Winters. 

What I mean to say is, the revenge which fuels these three guys is not felt by the reader. But then it’s the 14th installment of a long-running series, so you can only expect so much emotional investment. It’s all very by the numbers, Pendleton faithfully following his constant template – the mandatory opening action scene followed by a long simmer, occasional “yeah, this will be hell” asides, parts where the local mobsters rant and rave, periodic plot recaps by one-off cop characters, lots of Bolan-worshipping from hero and enemy alike, and an action climax. But it’s all done so well! At this point it’s not so much the template as how Pendleton subtly changes things around. Like the lack of a female this time, or how Bolan has two assisstants; this latter element is humorously worked into the story when a San Diego mobster doesn’t believe the Executioner is really in town, because Bolan always works alone. 

Big Ben Lucasi is the name of that San Diego mobster; he’s a shorstuff prick who serves (poorly) as this novel’s villain. He lacks any menace and comes off more like a character Danny DeVito would’ve played in the ‘80s. He’s also lost in the mire of the narrative. The question is whether Winters was killed by Lucasi’s mobsters, and if so why. To determine this Bolan acts more like a private eye than a lone wolf vigilante. For one he plants a bug Gadgets has devised in Lucasi’s house; this is another of those scenes Pendleton does well (yet another template staple) where we’re introduced to the latest Mafia thug, who rants and raves that the Executioner is in town – and then literally finds himself face-to-face with the Executioner himself. However Bolan just puts the fear in Lucasi and leaves, covering for the fact that he’s planted a bug in his place. I forgot to mention, but Pendleton cagily sneaks yet another topless female into the scene, this being Lucasi’s floozy wife, who promptly thereafter disappears from the novel. 

There’s a proto-Baroness vibe to San Diego Slaughter in the spy-fy descriptions of Gadgets’s various radio and monitoring devices. I always like stuff like this because it’s clear Pendleton did some research or checked with some people. I mean it could all be completely made-up so far as the workings go, but it’s all described so well in the narrative and dialog that you take it all as fact. One of the elements here I’m certain appeared in at least a few Baroness volumes: the tiny spool of wire that can record four hours of audio in a few-seconds’s burst of static, and when you play it back slow you can hear it all at normal speed. Pendleton weaves all this stuff into the novel so that Gadgets has more to contribue to the tale than just being a sidekick, but at the same time it detracts from the usual action quotient. 

That being said, the collecting of the recorded material leads to one of the novel’s few action scenes; Bolan, Gadgets, and Pol get in a shootout on the grounds of Lucasi’s house. It’s not overly violent or even that long, really, and seems to be there just because Pendleton realized he wasn’t meeting his action quota. There are other scenes which promise action but don’t deliver, like when Bolan, just bullshitting his way through it, commandeers a Mafia drugdealing boat, pretending to be a stand-in for the usual guy. This part makes Bolan seem kind of dumb, as he just gets on the boat with no clear plan. At least it has a memorable conclusion; they get to the waterborne drug meet and Bolan blows away the dealer on the other side. He lies to the crew that the guy was selling them “trash,” dumping what is in reality high-grade heroin into the sea. Humorously enough, even the crew starts to idolize Bolan after this…even after they learn that it was really the Executioner and that he dumped real heroin into the sea! 

Through this sequence Bolan poses as “Frankie Lambretta,” his cover identity he’s used a few times now. Surely there must be a shelf life on such things. The crew members take him at face value, but Lucasi and his main henchman Tony Danger instantly recognize the name, which is already being tied to the Executioner. Oh and I forgot. Speaking of “face value,” Gadgets and Pol make passing reference to Bolan’s “new face,” which he got in the third volume, one volume after the duo briefly joined Bolan in the Death Squad. But anyway, Bolan continues to fumble and bamboozle his way into the ranks of the Mafia, fooling them with ease into thinking he’s some high-ranking member of the family, and while this is yet more hero-stuff from Pendleton, it also does the disservice of making the bad guys seem like easily-fooled losers. 

But wait, I was talking about a topless redhead. Her appearance is one of the more notable scenes in the book. And not just because of the toplessness! Her name – though Pendleton is slow about informing us this – is Marsha Thornton, and she’s the easy-lay wife of a San Diego bigwig named Thornton who is in deep with the Mafia. Bolan comes across her while she’s sunbathing. She is known for screwing all of her husband’s mobster pals, and I guess Bolan’s here to get info from her. Whatever; the thing of importance is that she has a big guard dog which she sics on Bolan. Now we’re told that only a rare man could stand up to a raging guard dog – but Bolan, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a rare man. And he punches the dog in the throat as it’s leaping at him. This of course gets Marsha hot and bothered, but Bolan goes for more of a “you’re not just a whore, you’re special” sort of approach, and Marsha decides to tame her usual “hunger,” dammit all to hell. I mean I never undersand why Pendleton never goes full fantasy in his novels, but whatever. 

Meanwhile Carl Lyons is called in by the San Diego cops to help nail the Executioner, but Lyons makes it clear that he respects the dude – not that he won’t do his job. Then he goes straight into some Bolan idolizing for his fellow cops, to the point that you start to wonder if Lyons is decorating the precinct locker room with pinups of the Executioner. Humorously though as mentioned Bolan walks right by him and Lyons doesn’t even realize it, given that Bolan has appropriated an officer’s uniform and is brazenly walking through a police station. His target is recently-arrested Tony Dancer, whom Bolan springs in another memorable scene. But we’ll remember that Bolan is squarely a good guy, thus he even calls the cops and tells ‘em he’ll be bringing Danger back. Well anyway, through Danger Bolan finally learns the whole sad story – Howlin’ Harlan Winters and Thornton both were hoodwinked by the mob, the latter in particular blackmailed into helping them via some porno flicks the mobsters secretly shot of Marsha. Thornton himself is unable to have sex, for unstated reasons, and while he understands his wife’s many infidelities, he still is willing to protect her honor. 

Anyway, long story short, it all ends somewhat unspectacularly. It develops that the Mafia was using Winters so as to get high-grade military radio technology, which I guess they intended to use for betting on horse racing or somesuch. Not the most dastardly of villain plans, but we’ll take it. Bolan, in an appropriated Ferrari, shadows Lucasi’s convoy out into the California desert, Gadgets and Pol following in Bolan’s war wagon. The goal is to find the radio tech or something, but it all ends as expected: with a massive gunfight. But it’s not nearly as massive as previous ones, and indeed Bolan leaves much of the shooting and stuff to his two comrades, saving his own justice-dispensing for Lucasi. But Lucasi has been presented as such a non-threat that Bolan’s cold delivery of justice almost comes off as too harsh. I mean just imagine Arnold blowing off Danny DeVito’s head at the end of Twins; it pretty much has the same vibe. 

Well, that’s it for this volume of The Executioner. Bolan tells Gadgets he can keep the war wagon, and what’s more he lets the duo keep the winnings they stole from the Mafia so they can open up their own business. Little do the three of them realize that in eleven years Gadgets, Pol, and Lyons will be hacking up zombie punks.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Mercenary

The Mercenary, by Joseph Freytag
June, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Like Death List, this is another late-‘70s Pinnacle offering that seems to be the first volume of a series that never was. The only difference is that I wouldn’t have minded reading a second Death List, if only to see how more grimy and sleazy it could get. But I’d rather watch paint dry than read another volume of The Mercenary. The back cover promises an “orgy of death,” but it turns out the most violent thing about The Mercenary is the cover photo. It’s a cold war thriller curiously devoid of thrills and it’s about as bland as a TV movie of the era. Actually that’s an insult to TV movies, but you get my drift. 

Another indication this was intended as the start of a series is that the book’s copyright an outfit called “Series International,” and the events are left open for continuing adventures at novel’s end. No idea who “Joseph Freytag” was, but there may be a clue in the book: the titular protagonist hunts for an elusive scientist named “Professor Leslie,” and I wonder if this could’ve been an easter egg clue to the author’s identity – namely, Peter Leslie, a veteran series writer. I know he did several volumes of The Executioner for Gold Eagle, and online reviews indicate that Leslie’s books were a bit tame in the sex and violence department, with few thrills. That is certainly evident here, which makes me wonder. Also I believe Leslie was Britsh, and a few “British-isms” slip into the dialog of the American characters in The Mercenary

So we’re to understand from the back cover copy that “The Mercenary” is an almost mythical figure in the shadowy world of espionage who apparently takes jobs from the highest bidder. His identity is unknown, and the major intelligence agencies of the world want him dead – that is, when they aren’t contracting him for some high-stakes job. The first chapter throws us into this mystery headfirst. A sort of junior agent for “The Department” has been sent by his superior, Mitchell, to meet with the Mercenary and offer him a job. Mitchell is supposed to be there as well, but turns out to be a no-show as the rookie waits in a darkened bar. Finally the Mercenary arrives, cloaked in shadows. The rookie tries to get a look at the Mercenary’s face as he offers him the job – finding Professor Leslie, a government-funded scientist who in one sentence is described as not being political but in the next is described as being an outspoken critic of the President(!?). Leslie has developed an Armageddon Bomb, which he plots to destroy half the world with. 

The reader can sort of see where this is going; the rookie has a sudden realization of who the Mercenary is – moments before the Mercenary blows him away. Next chapter opens, randomly enough, with some hotstuff babe named Faye about to kill herself in Las Vegas. She fell in love a year before with an intelligence agent named Nick Mitchell and now so pines for him that she’s about to commit suicide because she thinks she’ll never see him again. Through Faye we also learn that Mitchell is the Mercenary – which we already suspected given the previous chapter, Nick Mitchell of course being the same “Mitchell” the Deptartment flunkie was waiting for. That’s right…the very same Mitchell who killed that flunkie in cold blood. And he’s the hero of the book! 

Nick Mitchell is your typical dashing action protagonist, but maybe a little older, with flecks of gray in his dark hair. Occasionally through the book he’ll muse over how many young people there now are in the intelligence game, and will regret having to kill them. But he is willing to protect his secret identity at all costs. Why Mitchell became the Mercenary isn’t much elaborated on, but he uses his capacity as a “Department” field agent to mask his secret identities; surprisingly, no one has suspected that Mitchell and the Mercenary are one and the same. A late-developing backstory has it that Mitchell’s wife and daughter were killed two years ago; the car crash was officially pegged as an accident but Mitchell detected the hand of a fellow professional at work. Of course eventually in The Mercenary he will find out his suspicions were correct and will get a chance to settle the score. 

Mitchell miraculously shows up just before Faye, the Vegas floozy, is able to kill herself. He used her in his Mercenary activities a year before and now needs her again, though it turns out for lame reasons. In any event, Faye is the main female character in the novel and Mitchell’s sole “conquest,” though Freytag leaves everything off-page. We don’t even get any of your typical boobsploitation for Faye. It’s all very tame and boring. Even a later part, where Mitchell discovers an enemy agent murdered in his apartment, with his testicles hacked off and shoved in his mouth, is delivered in such dry, monotonous narrative that it has little impact. For that matter, Mitchell himself only makes a few kills in the book, and they’re all spectacularly bloodless, of the “his bullet found its mark” variety. You would figure there’d be more sprays of gore, given that Mitchell’s favored weapon is a very un-secret agent-esque .45 caliber revolver. 

So anyway, Mitchell goes to Faye for help, bringing her back to San Francisco, where the majority of the tale plays out. The author seems to at least be familiar with the city, often dropping the names of streets or major locations – the Presidio in particular is mentioned a couple times. Why Mitchell needs Faye turns out to be a little lame. It develops that Professor Leslie, who by the way is fairly old, has a twenty-something daughter named Darlene who lives in the city. Darlene is a lesbian, and there’s all sorts of stuff here that wouldn’t be publishable today…especially the part where Faye goes to meet Darlene and later suspects that she met someone merely pretending to be Darlene, given that the girl Faye met was too pretty to be a lesbian! Well anyway, Mitchell tasks Faye with contacting Darlene, given that Darlene hates men and also has a distrust of government agencies, thus wouldn’t be willing to talk to him. 

Darlene makes her living as a tarot reader, and we learn via her off-hand comment that she prefers the Aleister Crowley deck. Whoever did the cover photo didn’t get the memo, as it shows the Rider-Waite deck. I mean come on, people! (Personally I like the psychedelicized Albano-Waite deck.) Unfortunately not much is made of the occult aspect. Faye succeeds in getting into Darlene’s confidence…but as they’re leaving Darlene’s dingy apartment a sniper from afar blows the poor girl away. All because Darlene is wearing, for completely deus ex machina reasons, Faye’s coat – Faye is certain that she was the real target of the sniper, and poor Darlene suffered the consequences for wearing her coat. 

But as mentioned, Mitchell soon figures out that it wasn’t Darlene who was killed – the real Darlene, you see, is a quite unattractive woman who harbors absolutely zero feminine nature, given that she’s a lesbian and all. Soon he and Faye will be high-tailing it to a ski resort in Nevada, where it develops that the real Darlene has fled with her father. This sequence serves no other plot relevance than to see Mitchell get in a harried gunfight on the slopes. Actually it’s not even a gunfight. Some sniper shoots at him and Mitchell makes a bloodless kill with his .45, then sees that the would-be assassin is yet another young agent. One thing that separates The Mercenary from its ilk is that Mitchell is very aware of his age, constantly regreting how he must kill younger agents – as here, where the would-be assassin refused to give up; an experienced agent would’ve surrendered, so Mitchell was forced to kill him. 

The action returns to San Francisco and later Palo Alto, Mitchell and Faye constantly one step behind the Professor and his daughter. As mentioned Faye at this point is the co-star, and novel’s end clearly sets her up as being Mitchell’s companion in any ensuing volumes. This shows how little the author understands the genre; the last thing the reader wants is a steady girlfriend for the studly spy hero. But anyway the plot is further muddled by a lot of cold war plotting and counterplotting; Mitchell’s boss at the Department, Random, has called in – against Mitchell’s wishes – agents from England, the CIA, and Russia to help find the Professor and to stop the Mercenary, as they’re all aware the infamous character has been called on the job. Yes, the Department hired the Mercenary in the first place, but I believe the end goal here is to shadow the Mercenary, take the Professor when the Mercenary finds him, and then kill the Mercenary. Or something. I might’ve dozed off and missed it. 

The only rival agent who makes an impression is Turgenev, a fat Russian greaseball who has a notorious stench. Constantly we’re told how he stinks, and some of the dialog about him has a proto-Justin Perry vibe to it in how it’s just so weird. Mitchell is ceratin the Russian is onto him – in fact a running thread in The Mercenary is that Mitchell’s afraid his cover may be blown and he’ll be outed as the Mercenary, whereas in reality it should be clear as day to anyone with a lick of sense. In fact it should also be clear as day who is ordering the periodic attempts on Mitchell’s life, but our hero doesn’t put two and two together until the final pages. At this point he’s learned the plotter is also the same bastard who ordered the death of Mitchell’s wife and daughter; he gets to take out the assassin who staged the car crash a ridiculously anticlimactic scene. Mitchell merely storms into the guy’s apartment, finds him in the shower, and shoots him. I mean come on, play out the revenge a little. Like at least douse the bastard with gasoline and throw a lit match on him, something

Freytag pulls out some tricks in the finale, with some enemies who become friends and friends who become enemies, though this later reveal is blatantly obvious and thus lacks any punch. For some odd reason, though, Freytag denies Mitchell his revenge on the man who ordered the death of his family; instead gravity does the trick, pulling the villain and his henchwoman to their grisly fate several stories below. Yes, that’s “henchwoman;” yet another miss in The Mercenary is that the villain has a hotstuff female assistant who is a martial arts wizard, promising for at least some high-impact action. But instead she merely shoots at Mitchell and then ends up falling to her own doom. As I say, the novel plain sucks. 

By book’s end Mitchell is confident he can continue as the Mercenary, his cover fully intact, and what’s more he’ll make Faye his fulltime partner. We’re to understand they will enjoy a brief vacation before their “next assignment,” but mercifully another assignment was not forthcoming. This was it for the adventures of Nick Mitchell, and I can’t say the men’s adventure world was poorer for the loss.

Monday, February 1, 2021

The New Stewardesses #3: The Diary

The New Stewardesses #3: The Diary, by Judi Lynn
No month stated, 1975  Award Books

The New Stewardesses series loses the illustrated cover art for this third and final volume, going for more of a sleaze paperback-esque photo cover. But as with the previous two volumes, “Judi Lynn” doesn’t get overly explicit, and while there’s certainly a lot of stew sex in The Diary, it isn’t very graphic, usually over and done with in the span of a sentence or two. 

Whoever Lynn was, she(?) was certainly in a bad mood when writing this one – in chapter one a few main characters are casually killed off, then a few chapters later another main character is raped in her own apartment, and later on another of the stews is even involved in a shootout. Then there’s the stew who is arrested for smuggling diamonds, as is her airline captain boyfriend. All this is far removed from the soap opera melodrama of the previous two books. And whereas those two books followed one after another, The Diary occurs a year after the second volume; initially I thought this one too opened immediately after the previous book’s events, but a random comment that some of the stews opened their Cloud Nine clothing store in Manhattan “a year ago” proves otherwise, as they opened the store in the previous book. 

We’ll vaguely recall stew Cynthia, who was one of the main protagonists of the earlier books; in fact she opened the series, with the line “Cynthia was nude” being the first line of the first volume. The Diary opens with Cynthia in Paris, fully in love with her pilot boyfriend Dan. We get the first of many somewhat-explicit sex scenes as the two conjugate. Here we also have Esther, a stew who I think was only nominally mentioned before – they’re all so minimally described, and as ever Lynne doesn’t catch us up on previous events. Well, Esther is one of the owners of Cloud Nine, and there’s vague mystery as Cynthia wonders what’s taking Esther so long to show up for the flight back to New York. Esther arrives just in time, getting off a flight that’s just come in from London; Cynthia wonders what Esther was doing there, but Esther is vague about it. Then they’re off on the flight to New York, serving drinks, and somewhere “over the Atlantic” the right wing friggin’ explodes and the plane crashes into the ocean. Cynthia, Dan, Esther, and the two hundred passengers on the plane are all killed. And we’re only on chapter 1! 

Curiously this plane crash doesn’t seem to do much financial damage to the airline the stews work for. In fact, it’s never mentioned again, other than the ramifications of Esther’s death, as she is the author of the titular diary. While Cynthia was one of the most frequently-appearing stews in the first two books, she’s gone and forgotten this time, never mentioned again, and Esther gets the most focus. This is because another stew, Sandy, who also runs Cloud Nine, finds Esther’s diary in the store and begins reading it. I can’t recall if Sandy much appeared in the previous books, but she’s definitely the main protagonist this time. In fact The Diary has the most coherent plot in the series, as Sandy reads Esther’s diary, meets up with the man Esther was in love with, and also discovers that Esther had a big secret she hid from her sister stews. 

For once Lynn decides to actually describe a character; Sandy, we’re informed, is “almost plain without makeup” and doesn’t have a “rubber-doll inflated body.” I was shocked to see that Sandy had indeed appeared in previous books; checking my typically-overwitten reviews of the previous two books, I see she delivered a passenger’s baby in volume 2 (and also opened Cloud Nine with Esther), and she had a lesbian fling in volume 1. No mention’s made of any of that, this time; instead Sandy becomes solely focused on Chuck, a dashing young lawyer whose photograph inexplicably happens to be in Esther’s diary. Esther never mentioned him, and part of the hazy mystery which propels Sandy’s storyline is whether Chuck and Esther were lovers…and who the “Ellen” is Esther keeps mentioning, someone clearly dear to Esther who lives in London. 

Meanwhile, more dark stuff ensues; Laura, one of Sandy’s stew roomates, is raped in their own apartment; Sandy comes in to find her after the fact, Laura claiming that the rapist posed as someone from the phone company to get in. There’s no apprehension of the rapist, this minor subplot instead being about Laura slowly coming out of her shocked state and deciding to marry her doctor boyfriend. Jennifer is another of the roomates; checking my reviews she seems to be the closest thing The New Stewardesses has to a main character, but she doesn’t factor as much in The Diary. Jennifer’s storyline has her deciding to go Full Whore; as we’ll recall, she slept around the most of them all in previous books, even getting an abortion in the second volume. This time she breaks up with an airline executive who wants to marry her and decides to become the “kept woman” of a businessman who lives on Long Island. Even her fellow stews are shocked by the brazen hussiness, but Jennifer defiantly moves into an apartment the guy furnishes for her and becomes a happy mistress, for a time at least. 

Surprisingly the “stewardess stuff” is almost nonexistent this time; the novel is more about Sandy plumbing the mysteries of Esther’s diary while being courted by Chuck. This takes up most of the narrative; Chuck clearly likes Sandy, but she’s afraid he was doing her dead best friend and feels guilty about her attraction to him. Not that this prevents the eventual boinkery (minimally explicit as all the others in the novel, a la “he thrust within her” and the like). Humorously Sandy will ponder this or that mystery about Chuck or Ellen, then open Esther’s diary, and find herself on an entry that discusses that very topic. Also it becomes super clear who Ellen is, but Sandy is thunderstruck when she learns, toward the very end of the novel, that Ellen is (spoiler alert): Esther’s 8 year-old daughter. This causes more tension with Chuck, as Sandy wonders if he’s the father, but when Sandy finally confronts Chuck about the diary (which Sandy has kept secret from everyone), she learns that Chuck was more of a big brother to Esther, and also Ellen was fathered by some guy who knocked Esther up when she was a teenager. At Chuck’s recommendation, the girl was sent off to a convent in London to be raised(!).

I mentioned spoilers above, but The Diary seems very hard to find; I was lucky to come across a copy for cheap several years ago. So hell, I’ll tell you all how The New Stewardesses comes to a close. The other stews warn Jennifer she’s in for heartbreak – they say she’ll fall in love with this married guy and he’ll refuse to leave his wife and kids for her. And folks…this is exactly what happens! Things continue in the dark direction as Jennifer heads to Jones Beach to drown herself. But an off-duty cop named Jim happens to be there, saves her, and takes her back to his dingy apartment in Queens. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer will slowly begin to fall in love with this guy, even after Jim gets in a shootout during one of their dates. The novel ends with the new couple about to go off happily ever after together. 

Meanwhile Laura has gotten over her rape and is about to marry her doctor boyfriend, and Sandy at novel’s end decides to retire from the stew game, marry Chuck, and together they’ll raise Esther’s daughter Ellen. Plus she’ll continue to manage Cloud Nine, implying she’d still be a character if the series were to continue. But given how love and marriage is in the air throughout The Diary, I almost wonder if this one was intentionally written as a series finale. It certainly works that way. Overall The Diary was pretty much up to the admittedly-low standards of the previous two books, way too light on the sleazy stew thrills hyped by the cover copy, but the fact that this one actually had a plot put it above the other two.