Butler #4: Chinese Roulette, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979 Leisure Books
I took longer than expected to get back to Butler, but luckily Len Levinson again delivers a story that stands quite well on its own, only occasionally referring to past adventures. Actually the main volume referred to is the first, mostly just as a reminder of how Butler quit the CIA and started working for the Bancroft Institute, now dedicated to stopping the multinational menance known as Hydra. All of which is to say I didn’t feel like I had forgotten a chunk of the storyline going into Chinese Roulette.
But then, Len goes for a zany, almost surreal vibe in this series, with Butler stumbling into plots and traps – that is, when not propositioning various women. As I’ve said before, Len is one of the very few men’s adventure authors who has his protagonists work for it; whereas the standard trope is the distressed damsel throwing herself into the arms of the studly protagonist, Len’s protagonists have to put in some serious effort to get laid. This will also at times entail several pages of entertaining dialog, as the protagonist will try his best to convince the girl they should do the deed. Today all this would be considered harrassment, I’m sure, but it’s done with such goofy glee that you can’t help but laugh. Also it furthers the image that Butler, instead of the muscular he-man of the cover, is really more of a loser; the finale in particular brings this home, with Butler being turned down by three women in a row and having to go to bed all by his lonesome.
The same can’t be said of the start of the book, though, which features Butler and his latest flame, jet-setting Brit socialite Lady Ashley, having sex on top of a mountain in Colorado. Butler’s here for vacation, and he and Lady Ashley hit it off, to the point that Butler’s able to convince her to get it on before they ski down the mountain. Again, Butler’s the one that makes all the moves; I just find this aspect so interesting about Len’s work because you honestly don’t see it anywhere else. What makes it even more interesting is how realistic it is, compared to the genre trope mentioned above…yet at the same time, it’s one of the few realistic elements of the series. But anyway, Butler pours it on and convinces her to unzip her pants so they can do it while still clothed, here in the snow; “They humped each other shamelessly on top of the mountain.” Actually the XXX material here is pretty explicit, as are the few other sex scenes.
Butler’s called away, though, some guys from the Bancroft Institute showing up and whisking him via helicopter to the Institute HQ “in the mountains of Big Sur.” Here we get a reminder that the Institute is devoted to liberty and stopping tyranny around the world, in particular the tyranny that is threatened by the evil global network Hydra. As I’ve mentioned before (and as Len himself did in the series recap he wrote for my review of the first volume), Len was a “Radical Socialist” at the time he wrote Butler. What’s fascinating to me is that the sentiments Butler espouses throughout are not in-line with today’s Left: he’s in favor of free thought, free speech, and fair elections, plus he’s not hung up on identity politics. So if that was the mindset of the Radical Left in 1979, then some shit has seriously changed. Butler comes off more like the kind of guy who would regularly ignore COVID mask mandates, if only to “shake up the Establishment.” In fact, Hydra sounds suspiciously similar to the Multinational-Big Tech Complex of today: “There appeared to be no shortage of maniacs and psychopaths anxious to gobble up all the wealth and power they could. They even cooperated with each other from country to country, bribing politicians, corrupting democratic processes, and enslaving populations.”
Humorously Butler’s called in due to some dire emergency, yet Bancroft boss Mr Sheffield (whose face is still never seen, so that he comes off more like Blofeld than M) doesn’t really have much for Butler to go on: something’s up in Hong Kong, and Butler needs to go research it. That’s it; the “bubonic plague” threatened on the back cover won’t come up until much later, and Butler only even learns about it by accident. So he’s almost sent to Hong Kong on a fact-finding mission, which makes the whole “let’s pull Butler out of his vacation” schtick seem like pure sadism on Mr. Sheffield’s part. But then, I know Len would usually write these books quickly, sort of winging his way along as he went; I get the impression Len himself just wanted to write about Hong Kong, so for the most part Chinese Roulette comes off like a travelogue, with Butler sort of stumbling his way around.
This “winging it” approach will also affect the supporting characters. Butler tells Mr. Sheffield that he’ll need a beautiful female agent to go along with him – not for his own sleazy needs, of course, but because a beautiful woman will be able to loosen up lips that Butler himself might not be able to. Butler requests series regular Wilma Wiloughby (who has a love-hate thing going on with Butler), but is told she’s on assignment elsewhere. Since Butler further demands that this hot female agent also be fluent in Chinese, Mr. Sheffield has little choice: he suggests Claudia Caribou, an Institute chemist based out of Hawaii. However, absolutely nothing will be made of Claudia Caribou in the novel, other than to become yet another object of Butler’s lust and someone for him to bounce ideas off of. She doesn’t even speak in Chinese to anyone!
But there’s no use complaining, because the Butler-Claudia rivalry turns out to be as fun as the Butler-Wilma rivalry of past volumes. With the big difference here that Butler tries throughout the novel to get Claudia in bed. She turns out to be a mega-hot blonde, much to Butler’s surprise (he figured that as a chemist she’d be a dog), and within moments Butler’s hitting on her…only to be turned down again and again. Ultimately Butler will keep her locked up in their hotel room in Hong Kong, never letting her leave. A funny recurring joke develops that she’s like Butler’s pet, with the big difference that at least he’d take a pet out for a walk, whereas Claudia never leaves the hotel room. It would seem that Len ran out of interest in the character, though; after a lot of verbal sparring, Butler just keeps ditching Claudia in the hotel, at one point even telling her he’s decided she’s no longer necessary and can go home.
However the focus is more on the zany; I still say Butler is a more explicit take on the “spy satire” series of the ‘60s, a la The Man From O.R.G.Y. and the like. So Butler and Claudia are verbally sparring on the flight to Hong Kong, and Butler gets all hot and bothered. He goes into the restroom, but is determined not to masturbate, as he swore that off when he was 18; he’ll either get laid or just suffer. So he looks out in the cabin, spots a “little oriental stewardess,” and calls her in to “help” with the toilet. She comes in and throughout Butler leaves his massive tool sticking out, which of course serves to get the stew hot and bothered herself. They pull an explicitly-rendered “quickie” at thirty thousand feet…and to make it even more goofy, it turns out the two have actually done this before: the stew remembers Butler’s “big one” from a previous flight!
The stew, Mai Ling, serves to get Butler into the plot per se, but like Claudia she’s dropped from the narrative soon after. She invites Butler to a party at the famous Madame Wang’s that night, in Hong Kong. Butler’s never heard of Madame Wang, and is informed she is a wealthy businesswoman who owns the Kinki Corporation. Butler leaves Claudia in the hotel – after going out to buy her some books, including Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – and heads to the party with Mai Ling. Madame Wang turns out to be a sort of Dragon Lady out of older pulp, a ravishing Asian woman of indeterminate age who employs a legion of goons. On no basis other than this, Butler suspects she’s involved with the plot he’s here to investigate.
The plot too is basically thrown into Butler’s lap; he runs into another familiar face: former CIA boss FJ Shankham, who is also here at the party. Butler’s cover is that he’s now a reporter for a paper out of Big Sur (a recurring joke that no one’s heard of the paper), and he goes around asking blunt questions which again don’t gel with the whole “radical leftist” thing…like asking a high-ranking official from China when China will allow free elections. He hammers Shankham with questions as well, and learns that a ship bearing vials of bubonic plague was recently discovered in the harbor. This will be the Hydra scheme Butler tries to prevent, and he literally only learns about it when asking his old CIA boss what he’s been up to.
Meanwhile the focus is more on figuring out who Madame Wang is. There’s a nicely-done scene where Butler goes swimming in her opulent pool (during the party!) and surfaces to find the Madame watching him. Butler seems sure she’s involved in the plot, however of course still tries to bang her. No luck, so he heads home (after beating the shit out of one of her thugs, almost for no reason), where Claudia opines that Madame Wang was probably a whore – that’s why she’s now wealthy(!). But regardless, Butler goes around looking for people who might’ve known Madame Wang “back in the old days” to see if she really was a hooker…again, with nothing more to go on than an errant comment of Claudia’s.
At this point it’s really a Hong Kong travelogue, with Butler shuffling around the city while getting in occasional fights. He still carries a .45, but only uses it rarely. The gun too entails recurring jokes, with Butler often having to explain why a reporter feels the need to carry around a gun. One of my favorites in this regard is when a cop finds him on the street with the gun and Butler tells him he found it under a car. Coincidence abounds, again proving how quickly Len wrote: Butler runs into a street kid and gives him a motorcycle Butler himself stole. Later Butler runs into the same kid, asks him if he knows any old pimps(!), and the kid says his old opium addict uncle would be just the guy for Butler to talk to, as he ran a whorehouse(!!). Even more coincidental – the old guy not only affirms that Madame Wang was once known as “Hong Kong Sally,” but he also loved her as a daughter!
Ultimately we meet the main villain of the piece: Professor Kee, a wizened old guy who doesn’t appear as much as he should. His intro is especially nice, where he tells Butler his thoughts on reincarnation. Butler ends up a victim of Chinese Water Torture, another well-done sequence where Len hammers home how ultimately horrific this torture would be…the effect of which is a little undone when Butler pretty much just walks it off after a few days of ceaseless water-torturing, having been sprung by an unexpected savior. Soon thereafter we get to another fun scene – several pages devoted to the explicit rendering of Butler going down on Madame Wang, who reveals that she has not had sex for 15 years, since she quit the hooker game. A wild, ribald, XXX sequence containing such unforgettable lines as, ”I’m going to put you on the floor and fuck you like a dog.”
But honestly at 204 pages of small, dense print, Chinese Roulette sort of runs out of steam. This is mostly because so much of it has been devoted to Butler fumbling his way through his “investigation” that the climax, which sees him leading an assault party of Red Chinese soldiers against Professor Kee’s compound, almost comes off as perfunctory. That said, Butler does call someone a “rat bastard” here, as if unwittingly flashing forward to the title of a future Len Levinson series. But then action is never a central point of Butler; more focus is placed on the zany comedy, like Butler’s rival in the spy game: Geoffrey Stonehall, a James Bond spoof who drives an “Austin-Martin V8” and who mostly just jumps in and out of bed with various women – something which only furthers the rivalry between the two men, given whom Geoffrey gets to score with this time.
In his series overview Len ranked Chinese Roulette as one of his favorites in the series. I enjoyed it – I enjoy all of Len’s novels – yet at the same time I thought the plotting was a little too laissez-faire for an action novel. Too much hinged on coincidence and improbabilities…but then, such things would only matter if you were looking to Butler to be a “straight” thriller, when in reality it is everything but. In this regard the cover art, nice as it is, is too misleading. To tell the truth, when I read these books I don’t see the guy depicted on the cover as Butler – I see Len himself. So maybe Leisure Books should’ve just gotten him to pose for the covers, same as he did for The Last Buffoon.