The Devil’s 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.