Justin Perry: The Assassin #4: Death’s Running Mate, by John D. Revere
January, 1985 Pinnacle Books
I meant to read this fourth volume of Justin Perry back in November, but I’m glad I didn’t; I don’t think I could’ve handled two fictitious elections at the time.* The plot of Death’s Running Mate concerns an evil organization’s scheme to get its female candidate into the White House, no matter the cost: election laws, the Constitution, and the will of the American people be damned. As if such a thing could happen in the real world! Luckily the Federal government is concerned about such things (in the book, I mean), thus the CIA calls in its top assassin to stop the scheme: Justin “I guess I’m a weirdo” Perry.
As I mention every single time, I read the last volume first, which while not ideal has allowed me to see the story Hal “John D. Revere” seemingly had in mind from the first volume. Namely, that this is a deeply perverted satire of the men’s adventure or spy genre and also that it’s a psycho-sexual headfuck of the highest order. In fact some of it is downright creepy in the surreal textures Bennett adds to the narrative. But don’t get me wrong; this one’s a total failure as an “adventure novel,” as all the other volumes in the series are: action is practically nonexistent, there’s endless amounts of exposition and padding, and major events and plot developments occur off-page. But then it’s very clear by this point that the series doesn’t take place in any normal sort of reality.
There’s no pickup from the previous volume, and in fact Bennett pulls all sorts of “literary” narrative tricks with this one so far as time goes. It opens toward the end, with Justin flashing back to a year ago, and from there the narrative will continue flashing back and forth to random points (including even to Justin’s childhood and to his first kill as a CIA assassin) before finally getting back to this opening section, which is actually the finale…which is then rendered in summary, Bennett having run out of pages given all his excessive padding. Anyway, we meet Justin Perry in November of 1983 (so then a month after the previous volume...yet the events of this novel actually occur before that volume, and thus would contradict its events!), with his erstwhile sidekick/demonic familiar Bob Dante; they’re in the small town of Carlton, Illinois, and Justin informs Bob they’re going to have to blow up the entire town – killing everyone in it. This leads into a discussion of how there are no children in the town – everyone here, Justin affirms, is depraved and evil, and deserving of death.
From here we get into the typically-bizarre circumstances which set the scene. We flash back to February of ’83, in which two weird incidents occurred: SADIF, that SPECTRE-like evil organization dedicated to conquering the world (which will ultimately be cast aside in the following volume, to be revealed as a front for a Halley Comet-worshipping cult), has freed patients from several mental institutions around the country. On that same night, a ravishing brunette named Andrea McKay announces the start of the Federalist-Liberal Party (“a colorful coalition of dissident Democrats and Republicans, homosexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, cripples, females, and the like”), which is determined to “throw the rats out” of DC (a sort of prefigure of “Drain the Swamp,” but then Bennett prefigures a lot of stuff here). To give evidence to this, McKay’s party is known for eating rat meat and drinking champagne.
Justin’s CIA boss, the Old Man (who is revealed here to only be 40 years old!), is convinced these two incidents are connected. He’s truly presented as a sadist this time; he has “scripts” he prepares for his agents, complete with veritable stage directions they’re to follow when on assignment, with photos of “suspected SADIF agents” to look out for. Bennett especially rams home this whole “play” motif this time, with events happening on cue…just as predicted in the Old Man’s script, complete with even suspected SADIF agents making “dramatic” entries. And again this is all just foreshadowing for the following volume’s revelation that the Old Man is really boss of the Halley Society, and another person whose entire life has apparently been spent toying with Justin Perry like a puppet on strings. And again all of it adding to the surreal vibe of the entire series.
So Justin’s sent to Chicago, where he’s to pose as a psychiatrist at Riverview, one of the sanitariums SADIF didn’t break anyone out of. Just to make things all the more weird, Justin sees a hot babe in a truck filled with pumpkins following behind him as he drives to the sanitarium; his thoughts here are so humorous I just had to share them:
This leads into a super-freaky flashback to when Justin was 15 in Orlando, Florida, staying with his Aunt Eugenia. Now, Justin only thinks of Orlando because it’s the title of the assignment the Old Man has given him…and ultimately, wouldn’t you believe it, practically everything that happens in the novel turns out to have to do with people Justin knew when he was a teenager in Orlando. Again more subtext that every single thing in this series is some concoted scheme, put together for the benefit of Justin Perry…who would in the final volume be revealed to be the guy a secret society looks to to impregnate women for a thousand years. There’s almost a proto-Truman Show vibe to the series, with Justin being shuffled around by behind-the-scene sadists who move him like a chesspiece. The Old Man’s otherwise-pointless titling of this particular assignment “Operation Orlando” is really just another mindworm the boss has implanted in Justin’s head, to get him thinking back to Orlando twenty years ago.
But anyway, Justin starts thinking about those days with his Aunt, and the horny little nympho named Thelma Carew who was 15 like Justin and who “taught him how to fuck.” There’s a lot of wild stuff here; Thelma, cliched Southern trash type, often goes on how Justin has “a dick just like a n –” And FYI later in the book we’ll be formed that Justin measures 9.5 inches on that particular scale. Well anyway, all this flashback stuff with Thelma goes on and on, and it’s as gutter-minded as can be, filled with lots of stuff about the “spilled come” of Justin and his pals in the various orgies Thelma would stage – again, the obsession with sperm, which would be played out in Stud Service. This sequence comes to a surreal head when Thelma announces one day that there’s going to be a “white sacrifice” (Thelma herself being white, by the way), and Justin’s been bestowed the honor; what he ultimately has to do is deflower another girl his age, one named Betty, on an altar.
Which brings us back to the “present,” as it were, ie February of 1983 (but then all this too is part of the overall flashback setup that makes up the narrative). Justin, horny as ever – especially after reminiscing over all those tussles with Thelma – checks out the babe tailing him in the pumpkin truck, pulls over, and points for the girl to kneel on the ground before him and give him a (off-page) blowjob! They decide to go to a hotel and screw…then the girl tries to ram him from behind and her truck explodes, courtesy bombs SADIF implanted in the pumpkins. Justin literally just walks it off and catches a ride with someone who is heading by. And of course later – like toward the end of the novel – we’ll learn this girl was one of the “SADIF suspects” in the photo file the Old Man gave Justin in his script. But this is after an almost endless series of reversals and counter-reversals of who this girl (and so many others) really was. As I say, this series is almost baffling in how creepy-crawly weird it is. Every single thing that happens is part of some sadistic SADIF scheme, or something the Old Man cooked up, all the parts falling like clockwork…and all of them having something to do with Justin Perry.
Even more freakish is Justin’s “interview” in the sanitarium. The head psychiatrist informs Justin that female patients are allowed to indulge in their “fantasies,” and that male psyciatrists treat them in “the most meaningful way.” “Fucking, you mean,” replies Justin, after which the head psych has Justin get naked so he can check out the size of his dick! The head doc approves, and Justin’s sent to his room…and who would’ve thought it, but it turns out that another psychiatrist working here is…none other than Dr. Thelma Carew! Yes, the same Southern gal who engaged in all sort of shenanigans with Justin when they were both 15, back in Orlando. But as you see, the surreal vibe of this series is through the roof…Justin was just flashing back to this girl some pages ago…and now here she is out of the blue, twenty years later.
While Justin Perry is certainly weird and off-putting, I suspect Hal Bennett was rather proud of it. I say this because, for the first time in the series, Bennett refers to himself: when Justin unpacks his suitcase, among the items is “a completely innocent and gimmic-free copy of a novel by a writer named Hal Bennett.” This again leads me to believe that Justin Perry wasn’t so much contract work that Bennett “had” to do, but more of a literary experiment…the perverted, disturbed nature runs so deep that it can’t be anything but a calculated attempt at surreal satire. Even the metaphors and analogies are disturbed, ie, “…he said spitefully, as though he had caught a trusted friend crapping on a prized rug.” Speaking of which, one of the metaphors hints that “John D. Revere” is in fact black; at one point Justin looks at the moon, and it looks “like a white woman’s face, turning away.” Of course the moon is white, but specifically referring to a “white woman” implies that the author himself is not white. And also this could be another “tell” that the entire thing is just some author’s in-joke.
We get another of those jarring time-switches; Justin settles into bed, his first night in the sanitarium, wondering if the entire thing is a SADIF trap and if everyone in the asylum is a SADIF agent. He hears someone at the door…and next chapter it’s four months later and Justin Perry is a battered mental wreck in the asylum, having been committed. One of the things used to commit him was the photo footage of him getting naked in the head psychiatrist’s office! All of it has been a setup, but even stranger is the revelation that the Old Man also played a part in having Justin committed. But even here we have more flashbacks within flashforwards – we go back to the night he was abducted, and it was four hot women who came to Justin’s room, engaging him in an all-night orgy: “Their pussies and lips wrapped around him like animated oysters.”
As ever Bennett doesn’t go much for the actual graphic description, more so for crude after-the-fact statements like, “She was the one who had nearly sucked his asshole out through his dick, at the orgy.” I mean honestly you can almost sense the author cackling at the typewriter as he gives vent to every depraved teenaged fantasy he ever had. The “committed Justin” stuff goes on far too long, again coming off like a huge paranoid trip, as suddenly Justin doesn’t know who he can trust or why he’s been abandoned. Even Thelma, who knows Justin for who he is (ie Roger Johnson, Justin’s pre-CIA name), suddenly treats him like an inmate. Justin eventually marshalls himself back to sanity with the mantra “I have a son!,” which ultimately comes off as humorous…because once Justin does get out of the asylum, he doesn’t call or even mention his son! Instead the focus is on a bizarre interview (which goes on for pages and pages) in which four beautiful inmates – the very same foursome who engaged Justin in that orgy months ago – ask Justin questions on the economy, politics, and the like, as if this were a political debate.
After the debate Justin’s drugged again, and has a “dream” in which a ravishing brunette has very explicity-rendered sex with him. Of course he wakes up to discover it wasn’t a dream at all. Next day Justin gets out of the asylum, saved by Bob Dante and Thelma Carew (who turns out to an undercover KGB agent, working with the CIA to stop SADIF), and we never do get acceptable explanation why the Old Man kept him there so long. For none of it was part of the Old Man’s assignment sheet, aka his “script.” Instead we go back down to Orlando, where Justin discovers that old Aunt Eugenia is dying, poisoned by some SADIF agent. Oh, and she’s his real mom; the woman who raised Justin, as revealed in volume 1, was also a SADIF agent – here we learn the pleasure the evil woman experienced when she finally got to tell young Justin she was not his real mother! Anyway aunt-mother Eugenia dies…and leaves Justin 8 million dollars in her will! “She was a very shrewd businesswoman,” a lawyer somewhat needlessly explains.
Finally we get to the main plot per se, which continues with the entire depraved theme: Andrea McKay, the gorgeous rat-eating head of the new SADIF-aligned political party, is so famous with voters that she treatens the incumbent Republican President. (We’re informed the Democrat hopeful is such a loser he doesn’t have a chance!) Indeed, Andrea McKay hasn’t even given a single political speech, but she’s so popular with the rabble – merely appearing on talk shows and in magazines – that she could win the election as a write-in. Earlier I mentioned the prescience Bennett sometimes hits upon. We come to this here, as the Old Man gives a “blanket indictment of the American press” to Justin and the other CIA agents:
This whole section really threw me for a loop; it’s like Bennett saw what passed for the mainstream media circa 2016-2020. The first paragraph alone sums up the COVID fear-porn that has served as headline news for the past fucking year. Especially notable is the Old Man’s comment that the people will vote for whoever the press is against. His solution is for the media to proclaim bad people good, so that voters won’t vote for them, out of general contrariness. It’s for this bonkers reason that the CIA can’t go forward with the info that Andrea McKay is actually an agent for SADIF; if they were to do so, voters would disbelieve the press and vote for McKay anyway.
But we’re not done with the prescience yet. Here’s another bit that I found very compelling, after our summer of “peaceful protests” and the situation it has led us to:
And finally check this out…we learn that Andrea McKay might win because she encourages voters to stay home! (Not to mention that she's a “fabrication of the American news media!”)
But anyway the book is crazy enough without the predictions that came true: Justin finally sees Andrea McKay on TV (“She looked like a spectacular Dolly Parton with large breasts, black hair and green eyes” – and let’s not forget that memorable line “slut-green eyes” from Volume 1, yet another recurring Bennett motif). He is shocked to discover it is the very same ravishing brunette who had sex with him the night before he escaped the asylum! Even more surreal…when Andrea has her first political debate and is asked questions on the economy and politics and whatnot, the answers she gives are the exact same answers Justin gave to the four female invates in his own “debate” at the asylum! As I say, this entire series is just so weird, and made even more weird by Justin’s almost casual acceptance of how weird everything is. But any forward momentum is abruptly lost, as Justin next moves on to Carlton, Illinois, smalltown home of Andrea McKay, and proceeds to spend nine months there, posing as a journalist. This part just goes on and on and on and is mostly made up of blocks of narrative.
Meanwhile Justin has energetic sex with Fran, the hot blonde receptionist at his hotel (and yet another SADIF agent); per the series template, there is a violent aspect to the relationship, with Justin enjoying the power he has over her, thanks to his massive member: “Perhaps he would kill her right now, with his dick.” Speaking of killing, Justin finally lives up to his “assassin” tag very late in the novel. Once again clad in the one-piece black nylon suit he sports on the covers, he knifes four SADIF agents to death in the dark, as ever getting all hot and bothered in the process. These men are security for Andrea McKay, who turns out to be a basketcase under the care of Dr. Thelma Carew…and further her full name happens to be Andrea Beth McKay…and yes, the very same “Betty” Justin deflowered in Orlando twenty years ago! Justin conjugates with her right here in the open showiness of nature: “His balls slapped like bell clappers against her ass, hurting him; but the pain felt good.”
But even this will turn out to be an endless series of reversals and re-reversals. Perhaps Andrea McKay really isn’t Betty from Orlando…and maybe she’s just been programmed by a certain person, given the implant that’s embedded behind her left ear. Regardless, Andrea happens to win the election, even though she’s so mentally incompetent that she doesn’t know where she is half the time, and is only lucid when drugged up by her handlers. (No comment!) But even here in the homestretch it’s all about the exposition and the narrative padding; even worse is what seems to be the climactic moment, with Justin and Bob, both in those black commando suits, about to blow up Carlston (ie the incident which started off the friggin’ novel, 180 pages ago)…and then Bennet flash forwards yet again, to three months later and Justin hanging out in Jamaica! Even here the “climax” is relayed via backstory, Justin reflecting on the events of that night, in which friends turned out to be SADIF agents. This part does at least have a memorable moment where Justin blows away a shotgun-wielding old woman.
And that’s it, really. Another recurring motif – and likely another in-joke – is how Justin’s always falling in “love” with some woman; it’s happened pretty much every volume. This time he thinks he’s falling in love with both Thelma and Andrea, but of course doesn’t know whether either (or both) of them is SADIF. Not that it matters; Death’s Running Mate ends with Justin happily reunited with one of the two, here in Jamaica, but we know she’ll be out of the picture soon, given Justin’s statement that she’ll be sent to South America to stay in a CIA safehouse so as to escape SADIF’s wrath. As for the other female character, Justin has dispatched her…unbelievably enough, off-page! One almost gets the impression that Bennett is so busy with all his psycho-sexual literary subtext that he’s overlooked how to tell a compelling story.
Regardless, I really did enjoy Justin Perry. I think it would be rewarding to read the whole series at once; I bet that would really reveal how Bennett had the end game in mind from the start. But also at the same time your brain would truly be rotted after such an experience. I’m almost tempted to re-read Stud Service now that I’ve read the previous four books, just to catch all the stuff I missed that first time. And you know what, maybe I’ll do just that.
*I am of course referring to the plot of The Penetrator #37: Candidate’s Blood, which I read in October. I hope you didn’t get the wrong impression, comrades!