Monday, April 26, 2021

Dakota #3: Cat Trap

Dakota #3: Cat Trap, by Gilbert Ralston
September, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Conventional plotting and characterizations take precedence over the action and sleaze factors, which barely exist. -- Marty McKee

I think one thing we can all agree on though is that the Dakota series is graced with some of the finer covers in the men’s adventure genre. This one, with its lysergic green cat statuette, is especially nice. The artwork is signed, but I can’t make out the signature. There seems to be an “S” and a “V” in there. I was wondering if it was either John or Marie Severin, but I’m not familiar enough with their art or signature styles to say. Anyway, it’s too bad Pinncale didn’t credit the artist on the copyright page. 

I have been somewhat looking forward to this volume of the series if only to get some clarity on the plot and its similarity to a standalone novel Gilbert Ralston published through Pinnacle at this time: The Deadly, Deadly Art, which came out in November of ’74. Both it and Cat Trap feature an assassin who worships ancient Egyptian feline god Bastet. It seems very strange that an author would devote two books to the same thing in such a short span of time. It turns out though that the whole Bastet thing factors much more heavily into The Deadly, Deadly Art than it does in Cat Trap, so perhaps Ralston didn’t feel he had explored the concept sufficiently here and thus decided to devote another novel to it. Because Marty was right on the money in his review when he commented that Cat Trap suffers from “a waste of a potentially memorable villain.” 

What’s very curious is that the plots for Cat Trap and The Deadly, Deadly Art are practically identical: a Bastet-worshipping hit man takes out his victims with a special poison that mimics heart attacks. Only a telltale red dot on the victim’s back is evidence of the poison injection. But the killer is given more narrative space in The Deadly, Deadly Art, and the whole Bastet worship thing is more elaborated upon. In Cat Trap it comes off as an afterthought, introduced as a compelling subplot but ultimately dropped and not really explained. Even more curious is that there was potential to make Cat Trap a sequel to The Deadly, Deadly Art, as the Bastet worshipper Dakota goes up against is almost a clone of the villain in the other book. 

Marty in his review also notes that Dakota “has a very large supporting cast,” and that’s once again made clear within the first few pages of Cat Trap (how much you wanna bet Ralston had a different title in mind – another word for “Cat?”). As with the previous books in the series it’s clear Ralston wants to write a sort of family epic; he seems much more interested in the various supporting characters and their interactions than the action and whatnot the men’s adventure genre demands. Whereas the previous volume at least had a memorable sort of climax, this one’s comes off as perfunctory…and the few other action scenes throughout are over and done with in the blink of an eye. Well anyway, pages 2 through 4 are a nightmare of info-dumping, Ralston telling us the names of all the various people involved with Dakota near his family ranch in Carson Valley, Nevada, even up to and including “Caruso, Dakota’s pet raven.” And the damn bird isn’t even mentioned again. 

Indeed, Dakota’s personal entourage has gotten even more unwieldy. His father died at the end of the previous book, so now he lives with his mom, former local cop Bennedetti (plus Bennedetti’s wife and kids), young punk Louis Threetrees, and ‘Nam pal Joe Redbear, who figured in the memorable action climax of the previous book. In addition Dakota has a girlfriend named Alicia, introduced in the previous book and appearing again this time – Dakota’s such a “different” sort of men’s adventure hero that he even proposes to Alicia in the course of Cat Trap (she tells him “Not yet”), and hell there’s a part where he takes some other woman out on a date, just to get some info from her, and then drops her off back at her home so he can head back to his hotel and brood. And now that I think of it, there’s another part where Dakota stumbles onto a porn shoot, and the “actress” basically propositions him, and Dakota replies that he’d rather screw “a water buffalo.” 

Ralston piles on one-off characters and subplots in the first few chapters, making for a demanding read. What it boils down to is that two seemingly-unrelated men die of a heart attack on the same day in Reno, and Dakota is hired to look into it. In one subplot it’s an old ‘Nam commander who wants to find his son, and in another it’s a gambling casino that hires Dakota to find out what happened to one of its executives. But again all of this is very similar to The Deadly, Deadly Art, to the point that it’s humorous Ralston was able to sell Pinnacle practically the same book twice in the same year. I guess you could argue that Cat Trap has more action, comparatively speaking, but then again as mentioned as least The Deadly, Deadly Art had a better-developed villain. 

But in this book the villain is almost an afterthought. One of the heart attack victims died on a crowded street, and a witness overheard someone mutter something like “Bastet;” gradually (very gradually) Dakota will learn the whole connection with the ancient god. But as with the other book, ultimately we have here a professional assassin who pledges his kills to Bastet and uses a curare-tipped rapier to do his assassinating. As Marty notes, though, the villain is left so much in the background that he only appears twice, and the potential is not reaped in the least. Instead Dakota tassles with a couple low-level thugs over the plodding course of the novel. 

But Dakota is a private eye, and that’s really the vibe Ralston goes for…that is when he isn’t focused on the family and friends dynamics. Dakota flies around the country a good deal this time, meeting a host of characters who spout memorable dialog…which is another bone of contention I have with the series. Every single character delivers annoyingly glib dialog; Ralston had a Hollwyood background, which is very clear. But it’s too much of a good thing. I mean if one or two characters had some nice snappy dialog that would be fine. But when every character talks like they’re mugging for the camera it gets to be annoying – like for example the phrase “To hear is to obey,” which is uttered by two separate characters in the course of the book. Dakota himself continues to dole out the glib rejoinders; my favorite in that regard is when a hippie girl asks him if he’s an Indian and Dakota responds, “You want to see my tomahawk?”

Really though Dakota spends most of his time calling colleagues and flying to meet them to research on the ground. Here’s where that “sequel” potential is. One of Dakota’s contacts is a former New York cop named Cochran, who now works in San Francicso. He is familiar with a case in New York from a few years back where random people were dying of heart attacks, and it turned out to be the work of a professional killer named Guy Boyle Marten…who just happened to be a highfalutin snobbish type who worshipped Bastet. Yes, exactly like the art professor-professional killer who worshipped Bastet in The Deadly, Deadly Art…a novel which featured a New York cop as its hero. Man, all Ralston had to do was make that New York cop, Mack Bennett, the character Dakota works with in Cat Trap

It even works with the Marten connection; The Deadly, Deadly Art climaxes with what appears to be a random act of fate taking care of the villain, Brian Sattler…and we learn here that Guy Marten too is supposedly dead, victim of a random house fire. Marten even works for a sort of hitman staffing agency, same as Sattler did. And guess what – both Marten and Sattler live in Connecticut, where they work as teachers. It would seem clear then that these are the same characters, but Ralston never makes the connection. All he had to do was replace Cochran with Mack Bennet, and Marten with Sattler, and he would’ve had a fine sequel to The Deadly, Deadly Art. Of course that book was published two months after this one, but such things are a regular occurrence in the world of paperback originals. 

Well anyway, Dakota ventures to San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut in the course of his investigation, finding the opportunity to hook up with Alicia again in SanFran. There’s zero hanky-pankery this time; more focus is placed on Alicia’s lingerie store being ransacked with “chemicals,” a note left on the scene for Dakota to “go home.” Dakota instead sends Alicia back to the ranch in New Mexico and continues his investigation, getting in a couple scrapes. There’s a humorous amount of “kicking” this time; both Dakota and the one-off thugs are prone to launching high kicks to the head, as if inspired by Black Belt Theater or something. But this isn’t an action-heavy series by any means. I mean honestly Dakota is at one point hooked up with a pistol…and he never uses it, instead giving it back to his contact and telling him to hang on to it. 

Ralston’s writing is fine; I mean he’s clearly invested in the characters and has a gift for dialog. But he seems to be writing more of a James Michener sort of novel than about “a modern Indian lawman in today’s West.” Also the glibness extends to the narrative. There are so many short, direct sentences that at times it takes on the vibe of a hardboiled parody. But in his focus upon characters and introspection Ralston overlooks the more racy demands of this genre. I mean even Jon Messmann stories move, despite the inordinate introspection and philosophising. 

This is especially clear in the climax. After shuttling around the country to follow leads, in particular a sort of hitman hirer named Gordo (not to be conused with Greedo), Dakota finally has a personal confrontation with Marten…who makes zero impression on the reader, and instead just escapes. So Dakota heads on home to the ranch…and meanwhile Marten closes in on the ranch with a few thugs, each armed with “machine pistols.” Their orders are to kill everyone in the ranch. Taking place at night during a snow storm, this sequence has the opportunity to be very memorable…a sort of prefigure of Prairie Fire. But instead Ralston barrels through the action in just a few pages, having wasted so much time on the pondering and the glib-dialoging. That said, at least Dakota shoots someone here – and so does his mom, toting a gun she gets out of the pantry! 

What’s worse, the ending is wholly unsatisfactory, with a certain character straight-up escaping…Dakota even giving him a thirty minute head start to get away! Of course this sets up the potential that The Deadly, Deadly Art could be viewed as the sequel to Cat Trap, but then that one takes place in New York and all the stuff with New York and Guy Marten took place before the events of Cat Trap. Still though, it’s pretty lame, sort of like the average Marc Olden novel, where the villain escapes and you know they’ll never be mentioned again. I mean I demand to see the villain’s head exploding in the finale of a men’s adventure novel! 

That’s pretty much it for Cat Trap. Two more volumes were to follow, and I’m going to suspect they will be more of the same. Still, I do really like the covers. And I’m thinking more and more that Marty’s correct and Dakota started life as scripts Ralston worked on for a proposed TV series. The ensemble cast, leisurely plotting, and lack of sex and violence are all pretty much in-line with a TV production of the era. We’ll just assume Lalo Schifrin would’ve done the soundtrack.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Cover art by Charles Sovek, who was really more of a fine artist than a cover artist. Also an art teacher. More about him here ->

Matthew said...

There's an an episode of Batman: The Animated Series were assassins from a cat-cult are hunting down Catwoman for stealing one of their idols. So this trope appears in quite a few places.

I like characterization but it can weigh down the plot when it is added for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

DW Smith said...

Great Caesar's ghost....have you actually read and watched all this stuff you are reviewing?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone -- and thanks, Bob, for letting us know who did the cover! And yes, DW, I've actually read and watched all this stuff!