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.