Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #2

Mens Adventure Quarterly #2, edited by Robert Deis, Bill Cunningham, and Tom Simon
April, 2021  Subtropic Productions

I really enjoyed Men's Adventure Quarterly #1 a lot, but as expected I enjoyed Men’s Adventure Quarterly #2 even more. The first one had great stories and wonderful production quality, but Westerns have never really been my thing, so I knew that this second volume, with its focus on Cold War spy stories from men's adventure magazines, would be more up my alley. Once again the issue comes off like a vintage men’s magazine, only with much higher print quality, complete with risque vintage ads, a gallery of beautiful women, and even letters to the editor to go along with the stories themselves. 

As with the first volume we get a series of nice intros from each editor which are broad outlines of men’s mag spy stories and how they intersected with paperbacks. I thought this would’ve been a good opportunity to mention a few vintage paperbacks that actually had their origins as spy fiction in men’s adventure magazines: Spy In Black Lace, Assignment X (an Emille Schurmacher men’s mag spy anthology I keep meaning to read), Our Secret War Against Red China, and Six Graves To Munich. Well, the latter is really more of a post-WWII revenge thriller, but it operates very much like the Cold War tales presented here in MAQ #2, and also is one of the few (only?) men’s mag stories that got expanded into a novel. I still don’t understand why that didn’t happen with more men’s mag stories; I’d give anything to read a full novel of “Blood For The Love Slaves” (and still keep thinking about just writing the damn thing myself). 

I’d read some men’s mag spy yarns in the past, but luckily the ones here were all new to me, and I was especially happy to see a few I’d looked for in the past. These stories reminded me of what I’d learned from the previous ones I read: the espionage yarns in the men’s adventure magazines were not really escapist fantasy in the mold of the James Bond movies; they weren’t even similar to the original Ian Fleming novels. For the most part they were much more “realistic” (comparatively speaking), with little in the way of exotic villains or sci-fi gadgets. For that, you’d need to look to the paperbacks of the day, particularly Nick Carter: KillmasterMark Hood, or Don Miles

However that isn’t to say the stories here aren’t enjoyable. And indeed, two of them do have exotic villains and other Bond-esque trappings. But for the most part, the stories in MAQ #2 are similar to those in the vintage anthologies I mentioned above; Cold War thrillers with yank protagonists who go about their assignments with stone-cold professionalism. Speaking of paperbacks, the closest comparison I could think of would be the Sam Durell books; if you like those, you’ll certainly enjoy the spy yarns assembled here. Otherwise the stories follow the same template as most every other men’s adventure story I’ve ever read: a memorable opening (usually depicted on the splash page), followed by a flashback to how the characters got to this moment, followed by a hasty wrap-up. This is the template that the men’s mag editors stuck to, regardless of the genre. I mean seriously, they could’ve done a story on Jesus and it would’ve followed the same format. 

As with Men’s Adventure Quarterly #1, the production quality of this issue is first-rate, with eye-popping visuals faithfully reproduced from the original covers and interiors throughout. Also the typeset is much easier to read than those original magazines, but one minor issue I had was that occasionally full-color art would be placed beneath the print on pages that were otherwise comprised solely of copy. This was never done in the original mags, at least none I’ve ever seen, and likely is a concession to our modern “more artsy” approach to printed materials. While it looks great, I personally found it made for difficult reading, like for example the cover of Colonel Sun (by Kingsley Amis) beneath the copy in the example below. But there are only a few instances where this happens; otherwise the print is nice and bold and, as mentioned, much more pleasant to the eyes than the original magazine layouts. 

“The Kremlin Agent Will Be Wearing A Pink Nightgown” by Martin Faas starts off the issue; it’s from the October 1961 issue of Male. A fairly low-key opening, this one’s a pseudo “true” tale that occurs in 1957; the titular agent, a “blonde woman of staggering proportions” named Magda Karoli, spies on the US at the behest of a Hungarian communist cell. This one’s identical to the stories in Spy In Black Lace in that Magda isn’t a female agent in the Baroness mold, but instead a shapely blonde who uses her ample charms to get horny men to do her bidding. It’s also an indication of the type of “spy stories” to be found in the men’s mags, in that it literally is a spy story, with no fantastical elements; Magda works as a secretary for a studly dude named Major Mancuso, head of US intelligence in Frankfurt, but she’s secretly a spy for Miklos Tarash, “one of the Soviet Union’s slickest agents.” 

As with the spy-babes in Spy In Black Lace, Magda sleeps with Mancuso while stealing info from him; we watch her in action as she snaps some photos in his office while he’s out. From there we have a recap of how Magda, a Hungarian, was drafted into the commie spy game by Miklos, who poses in Frankfurt as a famous businessman. Mancuso starts to suspect something is amiss, and Magda nearly blows it when she slips out one night and hooks up with some random guy. Otherwise this one’s kind of a mess in that Mancuso seems a little easily fooled for a top intelligence guy, and only comes to the conclusion that Magda is the mole a little late. But there’s no bloody action to be found in this particular story, nor any deaths, though Miklos does fall in a vat of hot chocolate at one point. We have a goofy finale in which we learn the prison terms these various characters were given, complete with “this writer,” ie Faas himself, visiting Magda in prison…to discover she’s still super hot. 

“How Would You Do As A CIA Spy?” is by David Norman and from the September 1961 Male. The longest piece in MAQ #2, this is a nonfiction account of what one might expect in the spy game…at least as it existed at the time. Being a Korea vet and having various military abilities would be a bonus, Norman advises, with also pointers on how your undercover life might conflict with your everyday life. The most interesting thing about this one was how it compares to the CIA of today

“The Deadly Spy Mystery Of The Formosa Joy Girls” is by Brand Hollister and from the March, 1963 issue of Man’s Action. “Brand Hollister is the pen-name of a counter-espionage agent,” an intro informs us; something Bob Deis rightfully pokes fun at in his own intro to the story. Told in first-person, this one starts with the action as Brand blows away a Chinese agent who is strangling his “best friend.” We’re in Formosa, now known as Taiwan, and after the expected flashback we learn that intel has been leaking from Formosa into “Red China” and Brand and his best bud have been tasked with finding out how. But now his buddy’s dead, as is the Chinese agent who killed him. Brand searches the Chinese dude’s eyes and suddenly the “mystery” is revealed to him – it has to do with “Fu-Ming’s night club” with its “naked girls.” 

Here the story gets wild as Brand goes back to Fu-Ming’s and checks out the naked dancing girls – you can of course take ‘em upstairs for a fee – but this time he gets a whole ‘nother view thanks to the “infra-red contacts” he’s put on. Contacts that belong to someone else. Sounds uncomfortable! This bit, with secret messages uncovered on the babes, is so crazy it could come out of a Eurospy flick. Otherwise this yarn didn’t do much for me; like most other Man’s Action stories I’ve read it was just too short and too rushed to make much of an impact. 

“Belly Dancer Raid To Spring Russia’s Top Rocket Man” is by Roger Tetzel and from the May 1964 issue of For Men Only. This is another that follows the men’s mag template with the “faux-true” approach (as Bob so aptly describes it in his editorial intro); we’re to understand that protagonist Whitney Trumbull is a real person, as are the other characters in the story. This one’s in third person, and per tradition opens with the incident that really takes place toward the end – Trumbull and a group of Turkish actors, one of whom is a “girl,” enter a whorehouse in Batumi, Georgia, looking for a place to hide from the KGB. But just as they get to hide – with the girl posing, naturally, as one of the hookers – the KGB come in, with the officer in charge immediately deducing that “the new girl” doesn’t belong here, as she’s too hot for the typical hookers. He kicks over a chair and uncovers Trumbull, who is hiding there; Trumbull darts out and begins to strangle the officer. 

And, per usual, we flash back to how we got here…Trumbull was a Navy Intelligence guy in Korea, then retired, then got re-hired again six months ago; we’re informed this tale occurs in 1961. Trumbull’s assignment had him going to Istanbul, where he establishes himself as a professor of English and drama. After doing this for half a year he’s given his assignment – naturally, by a hotstuff belly dancer named Yasmin. Trumbull’s job is to put together a touring drama company, go through the Black Sea area and finally into Russia, and there smuggle out a Russian rocket scientist who wants to defect. Part of the drama group includes a sexy student of Trumbull’s, Inci. Tetzel injects some suspense into the tale with Trumbull, who is of course engaged in some off-page sex with both Inci and Yasmin, suspecting that one of them is a traitor. 

The story is a bit longer than some of the others in the issue, and some of it per tradition is padded; there’s a random digression where Trumbull’s group runs afoul of a mountain tribe while on the tour. This entails a lot of strongman stuff from Trumbull to prove his worth. We finally get back to the opening sequence, which occurs almost immediately after the group springs the Russian scientist; the KGB was aware of the plot all along, thanks to a traitor in Trumbull’s group, and have allowed it to proceed so as to catch them all in the act. But Trumbull’s able to get him and his people loose, thanks to a KBG guy who is so eager to defect that it comes off as humorous. After this we get a quick finale with the group rushing into Turkey in a Rolls Royce, followed with a b.s. “where are they now?” wrapup. All told, a pretty fun tale, and very much along the lines of the stuff you’ll find in Our Secret War Against Red China and the like. 

“Detective Willian Clive: Is He The Real James Bond?” is by Walter Kaylin in his “Roland Empey” pseudonym, and from the January 1966 issue of Male. I was already familiar with this one, given that it appeared a few years ago in Deis and Doyle’s He-Men, Bag Men & Nymphos anthology, which was dedicated to Kaylin’s men’s adventure magazine work. I read that anthology right when it came out, but for some reason never got around to reviewing it. Re-reading the story again now these years later, I still think “Detective William Clive” is basically a piss-take on the Bond novels…not to mention an almost lazy rewrite of them. 

Kaylin borders on plagiarism by riffing on the various Fleming novels, with the aspect that the titular Clive is the character Bond was based on – and each of his assignments in the “real world” were ones Fleming lifted for his novels. So everything is an inversion on the novels and movies: Clive hangs out in Trinidad, not Jamaica, and instead of a hulking Korean who tried to kill him on one caper (ie Oddjob in Goldfinger), it was a hulking Fillipino. A fun tale, framed as an interview with the fictional Clive, but still I found it a little irritating, as I would’ve preferred a legit spy pulp tale from the always-entertaining Kaylin. 

“Operation Maneater” is by Don Honig, and from the February 1969 issue of For Men Only. This is one I’d thought about picking up in the past but just never got around to it; the Mort Kunstler cover, of a guy and a buxom blonde dangling over a pool full of pirhana, promised a fun read. And Honig delivers, though same as with his story in MAQ #1, “Shoot-Out At Mad Sadie’s Place,” it seems a bit rushed. This though I’ve found is common for latter-day men’s adventure stories; whereas the ones from the ‘50s and ‘60s had a bit more narrative meat to them, the later ones were shorter, likely due to lower page counts and/or the need to show more nudie photos to drive sales. Anyway, this, along with Kaylin’s yarn, is the only other story in the issue that approaches the vibe of a Bond flick. 

Narrated by a character who proclaims himself a “freelance” agent named Brackett, “Operation Maneater” concerns a plot to sow chaos in Europe with counterfeit currency. Brackett’s called away from the poolside in Palm Beach for the assignment, and he spends a humorous amount of time turning down the job; in fact, this stuff gets more narrative space than the actual climax, which per men’s mag tradition is rushed to the point of anticlimax. The government’s traced the scheme to an ex-Fascist named Luigi Brunetti who has a compound in Brazil, guarded by some ex-Nazis. Brackett heads over to “High Street Weaponry” where he’s hooked up with grenades that look like guavas and a belt that shoots “flat, deadly rockets.” 

The middle part of the story is a Brazilian jungle travelogue along the lines of the stuff in another vintage men’s adventure mag anthology, Adventure In Paradise. Things pick up when Brackett scopes out Brunetti’s compound – and instantly runs into his blonde mistress, a Canadian girl named Ariel who has “the lushest body [Brackett had] ever seen.” After some skinny dipping the two enjoy some off-page lovin,’ and here we see that the men’s mags were slightly more risque at this point, with Brackett copping a feel. Brunetti isn’t as memorable as a Bond villain, but he’ll do; there’s a fun part where he shows Brackett – who’s posing as a travel writer – all his exotic and dangerous pets. The climax features the cover sequence, of Brackett and Ariel dangling over a pool of pirhana, but Brackett’s able to get out with some bluffing, leading to the memorable use of that rocket belt. The finale’s a bit rushed, but features the cool bit of Ariel wielding a flamethrower on the counterfeit currency. Despite being a little underdeveloped, “Operation Maneater” was definitely the highlight of the issue for me. 

At this point the editors take a page from Chris Stodder’s Swingin’ Chicks Of The ‘60s (2000), with a “Gal-lery” of beautiful babes who starred in ‘60s spy movies and TV shows. So for example we have Ursula Andress from Dr. No and The Tenth Victim, and also Diana Rigg from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and of course The Avengers. Great photos, but I was bummed that there was no mention of Minikillers

Up next is “Castro’s Bacterial Warfare Chief Wants To Defect – My Job, ‘Get Him,’” by Hal Gorby as told to Robert F. Dorr, from the April 1971 issue of Man’s Illustrated. Another story told in first-person, not to mention another of those “faux-true” yarns, this one concerns a marine bacteriologist who gets special passage into Cuba to take part in a conference. Before leaving some mysterious dude from the US government hassles our narrator to look into a particular Cuban scientist who wants to defect. Hal makes for an unusual men’s mag protagonist in that he’s not only a scientist, but he’s also married – indeed, promptly upon arrival in Cuba he’s set up with a hotstuff babe named Celia, from the “government visitor’s bureau,” and he will ultimately turn down the opportunity for some shenanigans with her. 

This is another yarn that of course opens at the ending before flashing back for the setup, so we already know that Hal ends up holding a .38 on Celia and heading for an awaiting hydrofoil with her. We learn when we get back to this point that Celia wants to defect – a recurring theme in the stories collected here, and a nice reminder of when the US was the place you’d go to escape socialist tyrannies – and there follows a sequence in which MIG fighter jets come after the hydrofoil. A fast moving yarn, one that would feel at home in Deis and Doyle’s Cuba: Sugar, Sex, And Slaughter anthology…which I will certainly be reading one of these days. 

The cover gallery is great and features some spy-themed stories I’ve been meaning to find for years now, in particular the March 1967 For Men Only with its “Jet-Sled Raid On Russia’s Ice Cap Pleasure Stockade,” and the “Book Bonus” novella “Strangekill” by W.J. Saber, from the October 1969 Male. Here’s hoping either (or both!) of these stories will appear if there’s ever another spy-themed issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly

The final story is “She Knew Too Much To Live,” by H. Horace, from the October 1973 Man’s Life. Bob spends a bit of time in his intro talking about the artist who handled the cover and interior art for the story, Vic Prezio, with the cool tidbit that Prezio handled the covers of the early ‘60s comic Brain Boy. This comic was actually written by none other than Herbert Kastle; an anthology of it came out a few years ago and I read it (and enjoyed it), but for whatever reason never got around to reviewing it. Anyway, H. Horace’s story seems more of a hardboiled yarn than a spy one, mostly due to the tone of its narrator, a tough intelligence agent operating in Cairo. We meet him as he is in the process of killing a rival agent, but a hot blonde happens to see it and runs off screaming murder. 

Next day the narrator’s chief orders him to round up the chick, who has appeared in all the papers telling about the “murder” she saw, and to get her to take back her story – or kill her if necessary. Turns out her name’s Nadine and she’s a college student here from the US. The narrator gets her and holes her up in a villa, trying to talk her out of what she saw; we have more concessions to the “modern age” when the narrator says he thinks about sleeping with her, but she’d probably consider it rape! This wouldn’t even be a concern in the earlier examples of the genre. Indeed nothing happens between the two save for a promise from Nadine that they’ll go out sometime! Otherwise the short tale has a hasty wrapup in which a pair of “commie” agents try to abduct Nadine from the villa and the narrator gets in a shootout with them…not even killing either of them. 

And that’s it for Men's Adventure Quarterly #2, save for a brief preview of the next installment, which will focus on lone wolf justice and feature the condensed men’s mag version of The Executioner #1. I’m definitely looking forward to it. This was another fun and expertly-produced trip back to the days of the men’s mags, and I hope Bob Deis, Bill Cunningham, and their revolving cast of guest editors continue to publish Men’s Adventure Quarterly for many years to come. Buy a copy for any millennials you know!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Baroness #10: A Black Hole To Die In (unpublished volume)

The Baroness #10: A Black Hole To Die In, by Paul Kenyon
Undated manuscript, circa Fall 1976

I’ve been interested in this unpublished volume of The Baroness since I learned about it years ago on the Baroness Yahoo Group, where series author  Donald “Paul Kenyon” Moffitt revealed – via an interview with ppsantos – that the plot concerned a black hole in outer space. Given Moffitt’s later ventures in sci-fi, A Black Hole To Die In offered a lot of potential; each volume of the series had an overlay of science fiction, at least insofar the gadgets Penny “The Baroness” St. John-Orsini employed on her assignments, but this one sounded like it could go even further in that direction. But as it turns out, A Black Hole To Die In stays fairly grounded for the majority of the narrative, until literally blasting off into space in the final pages. 

One thing to point out at the start is that this manuscript made me revisit my assumption of when Moffitt was writing. Internal evidence, which I’ll document, indicates that A Black Hole To Die In was written no earlier than September of 1976. This changes everything I speculated about in my review of the previous unpublished manuscript, #9: Death Is A Copycat.  It is now evident that Moffitt was writing this manuscript long after the last official installment of the series, #8: Black Gold, was published, in February of 1975. In that Yahoo Group Moffitt also stated he became ill after writing Black Gold and took some time off; when he returned he wrote these two manuscripts, only to find out later that the series was cancelled. However we know that Death Is A Copycat was published in France, in January of 1976, given the info at this site. This would indicate that Moffitt certainly wrote Death Is A Copycat in 1975, or even late 1974. Given this, I propose that Moffitt, writing on that Yahoo Group many decades later, had his dates and titles confused – maybe it was after he wrote Death Is A Copycat, not Black Gold, that he became sick, hence the delay until he wrote A Black Hole To Die In in late 1976. 

Unfortunately, as will be seen from the screenshots below, the 285-page manuscript of A Black Hole To Die In is in pretty bad shape. The paper is very yellowed and the typescript has faded over the decades, making for a sometimes-difficult read. I get the impression that this is a copy Moffitt made for himself before mailing the original to Engel, given the sometimes-blurry nature of the print, but who knows. Again, it’s a miracle it even exists, and I’m only just pointing this out now so as to explain why the screenshots might be a little hard to read. Also as you can tell by the manuscript title page above, so far as Moffitt was concerned this was the tenth volume of the series; in other words there’s no accounting for Robert Vardeman’s also-unpublished installment, Quicktime Death.

As with the review for Death Is A Copycat, I’ll be even more comprehsensive in this review than I usually am…as before, this will be more of a blow-by-blow account of the manuscript, given its unpublished nature. Off the top I’ll say I mostly enjoyed A Black Hole To Die In, save for some issues with the climax, but as with the previous unpublished installment it’s a shame it never made it to print. Moffitt continues to be fully invested in the series, resulting in a very entertaining read. There was also a special vibe to this one given that it was the last Baroness novel Moffitt ever wrote – indeed, there is a definite air of finality to the climax. That being said, I don’t think Moffitt intended this as a “series finale,” as I’ll detail below. 

The opening gets back to the usual series template; as we’ll recall, Death Is A Copycat was unique in that it opened with Penny herself, driving in the French countryside. Most every other installment opened with some world-threatening incident, followed by a meeting of US intelligence chiefs who would argue over who should handle the situation, with the Baroness ultimately getting the gig. All this happens here; the inciting incident however isn’t of the dire ramifactions of previous threats. At least initially. In what seems a tribute to the film version of You Only Live Twice, we read as a Russian spacecraft, looking to hurriedly build a 50-man space station to get superiority over the US, vanishes in space…to the total confusion of the control center back in Russia. 

From here to the usual intel briefing, where the CIA et al argue with each other; they monitor all Russian space activities and are under the mistaken assumption that the commies have developed the ability to cloak their spacecraft from monitoring devices. Ultimately “Coin” gets the assignment to find out what’s going on, with the caveat that the Russian bear must not be poked too much. This leads to the fun sequence of John Farnsworth, aka Penny’s handler “Key,” looking at himself in his bathroom mirror as he’s about to shave and then suddenly finding his NSA contact looking at him through the mirror. More of Moffitt’s spy-fy stuff, with the mirror actually being a video conference screen that masks Farnsworth’s face from the NSA man. 

After getting the assignment Farnsworth calls in “Coin,” aka Penny, who happens to be on vacation: “The Baroness had spent most of her summer playing with her new seven-million-dollar toy, a 300-foot yacht that she’d christened the Reynaldo”, after her second husband, the Baron Orsini.” Farnsworth records his orders to Penny and sends the message to Greece, where she’s vacationing, via MESTAR satellite. More weird sci-fi stuff ensues as Tom Sumo abruptly appears on Farnsworth’s TV screen – another “bug” the electronics wiz has set up to keep in contact with the various team members – and cries that Penny’s “dead,” or at least will be: the Athens CIA branch has been compromised and Farnsworth’s message will be intercepted, just as Sumo himself has intercepted it. Thus when Penny goes to pick it up via prearranged scenario at the Athens branch she’ll be walking into a hit. 

Penny’s intro has her scuba diving topless near Aphros, Greece (“One ought to swim naked in the Aegean.”), searching for an ancient Phoenician statue of the love goddess Astarte. As I predicted, Hughes from the previous two volumes is gone and not once mentioned; when we meet her, the Baroness’s latest stud is Valentin Stark, “a bronze, slightly dissolute Apollo with a big, golden-curled head and devil-may-care face.” As with most of Penny’s men he’s rich and handsome, “heir to a supermarket fortune and a playboy reputation.” He also has an interest in archeology, hence this effective intro in which he and Penny search for the statue. An unusual element here is that some of Penny’s team are on vacation with her: Skytop, Wharton, Inga, and Eric are all also aboard and helping with the underwater search (and apparently unfazed by the sight of Penny’s “bare breasts” as she traipses around the yacht). Penny’s discovery of the statue is especially apt: 

Penny furthers the image by stripping off her trunks and floating here forty feet underwater in the same position as the statue – kneeling, offering her breasts to her supplicants. She then takes her scuba knifes and hacks at Val’s crotch(!), as if inspired by those ancient supplicants who would literally castrate themselves for the goddess. Instead Penny’s goal is to slice a “gash” in Val’s wetsuit, which she somehow manages to do rather than castrating him. This leads to an underwater sex scene, which on my initial perusal of the manuscript I mistakenly assumed was a zero-gravity sex sequence. Given the “floating” imagery, it’s not easy to see why I was confused: 

Moffitt pours on the kink factor here; complete with Penny taking off her mouthpiece long enough to give Val a b.j., and then Val returning the favor – his mask rubbing against her thighs and adding “piquancy to the delicious sensasion.” Not to mention the “little orgasm” Penny enjoys given the “icy shock” of the seawater that gets inside her as Val spreads her legs further. This leads to a “rotary” style of underwater sex, as Penny “rotate[es] like some massive piece of machinery around the shaft that [Val] had plugged into her socket:” 

Before long we have the memorable image of Penny “fondl[ing] one of the [statue’s] golden breasts in sisterly salute!” This is probably one of the most out-there sex scenes in the entire Baroness series, Moffitt leaving no kinky stone unturned – we’re even informed how that gash Penny cut in Val’s wetsuit has resulted in “flaps of rubber” that “whisked round [Penny’s] mound of Venus like an erotic gasket.” A sequence that comes to the usual whopping mutual-climaxes finale we know and love from the series, with Penny “sandwiched between the metal breasts of the goddess and Val’s broad, rubber sheathed chest.” This leads to that other mainstay of the series, one that went missing in the previous volume – when Penny finds Val immediately ready for round two, she checks her watch to see how much time’s left in their tanks, only to see that she’s receiving a secret coded message from Farnsworth. Duty calls. 

One thing I enjoy about reading older books is to see how long certain phrases have been in the vernacular; here I learned that “banging” was being employed for sex even in the mid ‘70s (I was under the impression “balling” was more frequently used at the time, but maybe that was a hippie thing). Val is ready for another round despite the dwindling air tanks, because, “Even five minues was worth it when you were sampling the Baroness, but they’d been banging one another an average of seven or eight times a day since the start of the voyage, and he wouldn’t mind waiting till they got topside to do it properly.” But Penny has to get going, which leads to another humorous image of her, Val, and the statue being lifted out of the sea to the awaiting crew – with Penny still “stark naked” and Val’s “prong…sticking out of a hole in his rubber trunks.” Val takes umbrage at Penny’s sudden “impulsive” announcement that she must go to Athens, but Penny’s crew intervenes as our heroine goes to her quarters to change. Once again Moffitt brings a trash fiction vibe to men’s adventure with the opulent décor: 

As predicted Penny walks into a trap; Farnsworth’s coded message has her entering the Acropolis to meet her CIA contact. But Penny, armed only with her small automatic, quickly discovers it’s a hit attempt. This leads to the first action scene in the novel, as well as a surprise appearance, as Penny turns around in a darkened colonnade to find an “old man” – a tour guide she passed on her way into the Acropolis – has snuck up on her and is holding a .45 pistol: 

Farnsworth explains that he’s gotten to Athens in three hours via “The SR-71 experimental job,” ie the Blackbird. But there’s another hitman, one with a heavy machine gun hidden in an old-fashioned camera tripod, and Penny takes him out in her preferred method: using her bare hands while she’s completely naked: 

After taking out a few more of the terrorists – including one whose eyeballs Penny stabs out with her fingers – Farnsworth and the Baroness repair to a tavern, where Penny’s clued in on the assignment. Humorously, both of them discount the theory of the “idiots in Washington” that the Russians have come up with a way to cloak their spacecraft; clearly something bad has happened to the ship and the Soviets are trying to hide it. Given that “détente” prevents Penny from going into Russia via Afghanistan with a commando team, she decides to head to England along with Eric and Skytop. They meet with Sir Percival, the Astronomer Royal; Penny declares that she’s “doing journalism” because it’s “all the rage this year. Candace is doing it, of course, and Pia, and Jackie and Marisa and Margaux.” 

Here Penny learns via radar data that the Russian craft mysteriously vanished. This leads Penny to Professor Ralph Earle, who has Percival’s data on the disappeared ship, and who might be a target for Russian assassins because of it. This leads to the introduction of the most outrageous villain yet in The Baroness, “the Zhook,” a creepy Russian assassin who seems to have lurched in from a horror novel:

The Zhook turns out to even be stranger, with “empty eyes” and scarred sockets hidden by goggles, and anatomy that clicks when he moves. I have a hunch Moffitt was inspired by Peter Lorre’s character Dr. Gogol in the 1935 horror flick Mad Love.  This leads to a bizarre fight in a darkened computer room as the Zhook, on all fours “like a beetle” and able to see in the dark, gets the better of Penny, Skytop, and Eric. In fact he only doesn’t kill them because he’s in a hurry; even man-mountain Joe Skytop is injured badly, Eric gets a concussion, and Penny considers lucky that “her liver and transverse colon [are] unruptured.” 

After this per series template the Baroness assembles her team and sends them out on various assignments. Since Professor Earle has been killed, the goal is to find some other scientist who might’ve made some headway on the data about the missing Russian ship and figure out what happened to it. We get what appears to have been the start of a new series gimmick in that this is the second volume in a row in which someone smokes a joint during Penny’s team briefing; this time it’s Fiona. (“Real Panama gold, from Nippy’s private stash!”) Also here we get what I believe is the first indication that Fiona has her eyes on the ultra-reserved Wharton, thinking of him as “one of her unfinished projects.” 

Speaking of Fiona, she and Tommy have a run-in with the Zhook shortly afterwards; sent to round up two prominent astrophysicists at a conference, they find that these men have been abducted by the Soviets. Fiona has an off-page encounter with the Zhook, sprawled unconscious with her “breasts spilling out” of her torn dress when Tommy finds her. When Tommy asks “Are you…,” Fiona responds, “Did he rape me, you mean? Lord, no! Even a Russian isn’t that quick.” Again the team is lucky to have survived, as they find the corpse of a girl in the scientists’s bathroom, “broken in half like a doll,” same as Professor Earle was. This is a specialty of the Zhook with his superhuman strength, and the only reason Fiona wasn’t killed too was because the Zhook was in a hurry. Meanwhile Wharton heads to Harvard to check on an Indian astrophysicist who may be able to help out. Here Moffitt indulges in his obvious science interests, with the professor, Singh, giving a lecture on black holes and how they threaten the stability of the universe: “Since a black hole must continue to collapse until it reaches the point of zero volume and infinite density, the whole universe will necessarily become such a Swarzschild singularity – go down the drain, in other words.” 

Wharton also strikes out – Singh is abducted seconds before he arrives – and next we move on to Paul and Yvette (ie the black members of the team) in California. Moffitt doesn’t mention the grim torture Yvette experienced in the previous volume, but then The Baroness never had much in the way of continuity to begin with. We meet them as they are having a candlelit dinner, but in a humorous reveal this turns out to be a commercial they’re filming for a product called Orasan, “The oral spray with sex appeal.” Sumo’s sci-fi electronics strike again, as he and the Baroness give Paul and Yvette their assignment – to find another scientist – through the mirror mounted inside Yvette’s makeup case. They strike out as well when they hunt down their scientist, getting in a fight with the Russians who take him, as well as a pair of redneck cops. The two get out of custody, and next we see them they’re back with the Baroness in England, “their eyes red-rimmed with jet lag.” 

Here we learn that Dr. Hunnicut, yet another astrophysicist, has also been abducted, right out of a CIA safehouse. The difference with Hunnicut is that we briefly met him at the start of the novel; the intel heads retained his services to look into the data about the disappeared spacecraft. The narrative picks up here as Penny decides to hit the Russians, détente be damned. They’ll abduct a Russian astrophysicist themselves; one happens to be staying at the Russian embassy. Meanwhile we learn that a Russian spy has somehow figured out that Penny is the elusive “Coin” who is wanted dead by the Soviets, and plans to make the score solo for his own benefit. 

The Baroness puts on a disguise and passes herself as “a rich, crotchety old woman,” with Inga as her nurse. Meanwhile Fiona poses as the Baroness, and the guys on the team pose as “rock musicicians on their way to a gig,” complete with Paul hiding a Galil assault rifle in a hollowed-out guitar. Penny’s disguise is so as to fool the KGB watcher, while meanwhile a car with Skytop and Paul try to divert the Russians who are escorting the astrophysicist out of the embassy. In the firefight Skytop loses an earlobe: 

Penny, still disguised as an old lady, manages to take out the KGB crew shepharding the Russian scientist to Heathrow. This is a nicely-done scene which sees Yvette sporting a big false afro that hides a bomb. They manage to capture the scientist, but then Penny herself is captured – by the solo Russian agent who has figured out she is the infamous Coin. This leads to a somewhat goofy bit where an injured Paul limps back to the others and informs them the Baroness is “dead,” which comes off as repetitious given that Tom Sumo declared the exact same thing at the opening of the novel. Heck, maybe Moffit subconsciously suspected this would be the final installment, hence all these “The Baroness is dead!” freakouts. Meanwhile we see that the solo Russian who abducted Penny is…none other than Alexey, the GRU commando who first appeared in #3: Death Is A Ruby Light and then again in #9: Death Is A Copycat

Penny delcares “It’s been a long time” since she last saw Alexey, and we get a brief rundown of their time in Death Is A Ruby Light, with the events of Death Is A Copycat rendered as a mere “The last time we met, you let me live,” from Alexey. Who by the way has Penny completely nude; she awakens to find her entire body stiff and her private parts feeling “greasy” from obviously having been searched. Given that Alexey appeared in the previous volume, this makes one wonder how long A Black Hole To Die In occurs after Death Is A Copycat; the Baroness herself clearly thinks it’s been a while. But as I noted above, I think this is because Moffitt was writing this volume over a year after he wrote Death Is A Copycat

Alexey is under the impression Penny has been “murdering KGB agents and kidnapping Nobel Prize winners;” he has no idea that this is an “eye for an eye” retaliation for the American scientists the Russians have been kidnapping. In fact, Alexey was here in England to spy on the Shah of Iran and only discovered Penny’s presence by accident; he knew she was Coin from Death Is A Ruby Light, and decided to capture her for his own advancement. But at this point the two are, once again, uneasy allies; Alexey informs Penny that “the Zhook” is really a guy named Zhukalov, his nickname Zhook (Russian for “click-beetle”) courtesy the KGB agents who fear him. (We also learn by this point that Alexey and Penny have already “made love once, on the leather couch, just to take the edge off.”) 

We learn that the Zhook came to his mutilated state courtesy the Germans, who captured him when he was very young and working behind German lines in the last days of WWII. They “tore his arms and legs out of their sockets,” which now results in that clicking sound when he moves. And did more horrible things: 

As for the Zhook’s ability to see in the dark, that is due to Chinese agents in 1960 throwing “some sort of caustic substance into his eyes” which blinded him. However only the lens of his eyes were destroyed, leaving behind a scarred reitna and iris in each eye. The lenses were replaced with clear glass; Penny surmises that this is what gives the Zhook the ability to see in the dark, but Alexey scoffs at the idea as “supernatural.” Penny insists that the Zhook “can see beyond the spectrum of visible light,” as “his ultraviolet filter is in his glasses, not his eyes,” meaning the Zhook can “switch from one sort of vision to the other whenever he wants.” Oh and he gets his “source of illumination” from a “black-light lantern hidden in that shroud of a suit he wears.” 

Given that the Zhook basically runs his own team in the KGB, both Alexey and Penny assume he is the one behind all the scientist snatches, and Alexey decides to help out, for once again it is in “the interest of both our nations” to free all these various kidnapped scientists. After that’s decided, it’s on to the hardcore sex; we rejoin the Baroness and Alexey as they’re about to enjoy their ninth round, Penny having to encourage Alexey to go at it again. Moffitt injects some humor in the scene with the buttons on the leather couch hurting Alexey’s back, so they repair to a wooden chair for the, uh, climax:

Next we jump ahead a week. Penny’s relaxing in her opulent London hotel with Inga as ever at her side. No mention is made of how the team thought Penny was dead just a few pages ago; Moffitt has left the reunion between Penny and her team off-page. Alexey sneaks into Penny’s hotel, posing as a waiter, to inform her that “The Zhook is holding your scientists prisoner in a fortified villa on the Black Sea coast, near Yelta.” While Alexey says the prisoners have not been ill-treated, he says it is a “bad place…the scum of the Soviet intelligence services are assigned there, sadists, psychopaths…the KGB brass stay away from the place.” We see that the place is beautiful on the outside but nightmarish on the inside; a Russian official visits the villa to check on the condition of the scientists, who are kept in a rat-filled dungeon. Again it’s like a horror novel as the Zhook follows a scientist who has escaped down a sewage tunnel and breaks him into pieces. 

The Baroness and team head to Istanbul, where Tom Sumo reveals “experimental wetsuits” he’s created from NASA spacesuits that were designed for “exploring planets with corrosive atmospheres.” Described as a “snakeskin,” it has “friction pads” on the fingertips so you can grip a gun and hold things; the suit itself is too slippery to even pick up. It sounds very much like the “plastic suit” in another series produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel, John Eagle Expeditor

Penny quickly proves this “slipperysuit” is effective in combat. She challenges Skytop to attack her: “And no faking. If you break one of my ribs, I’ll buy you that Zeiss F 0.7 lens you’ve had your eye on – the one Kubrick used.” But try as he might, Skytop’s unable to even get a hold of the Baroness, who continuously slips out of his grip. Indeed I get the impression Moffitt might’ve been inspired by that other Engel-produced series, as the slipperysuit is next proven to be knife-proof. Penny commands Paul to come at her with a knife, and it merely “slither[s] along the surface of the fluorocarbon fabric without penetrating it.” Penny suspects the suit could only stop a “glancing hit” from a bullet; “I felt that knife edge! With a high-velocity bullet, the shock wave travelling through your body fluids would kill you.” As readers of John Eagle Expeditor recall, Eagle has a special pair of infrared googles for his plastic suit. And so too does the Baroness for hers; the “snake eyes,” which Sumo just made for her:

As usual Penny’s plan is to make a show of herself, thus she has a big party on her yacht in Instanbul, inviting all her jet-setting friends. It’s a big affair, complete with a “rock band from London” that’s “taking a hash break” as the chapter opens. This is the Baroness’s “Black Sea Bash,” with all the glitterati in attendance, so close to the Crimean coast that Soviet jets are doing flybys and a submarine is tracking the yacht. We get the usual cast of partying nobles and jet-setters, complete with a jokey reference to Peter Benchley and Jaws: one of the guests is “the young novelist whose book about a killer whale was making its second million dollars.” 

Penny slips off and begins a 12-mile swim to the coast with the rest of the team, all garbed in the wetsuits (Skytop and Wharton wear jocks under theirs, we’re informed, while everyone else is naked), pulled along by “screws” created by Sumo that are made of “synthetic resilin protein – same stuff that lets a flea jump hundreds of times its own length.” So as to not set off any monitoring devices they have no metal on them; even the guns are made of “radar-transparent plastic.” The screws look like black whips and churn the water “in a rotary motion;” given the frequency of how often “rotary position” appears throughout A Black Hole To Die In, I’m going to chalk it up as some intentional thematic work on Moffitt’s part. The team goes in through the rat-infested sewer – the offal sliding right off their suits – and breaks out the scientists one by one. Penny’s appearance through the latrine drain in one scientist’s cell is particularly memorable: 

The team begins springing the other scientists from their individual cells. After this Penny puts the slipperysuit in action against some guards, also wielding the trident she used during the swim here:

There follows a big gunfight with the Baroness and Eric (whose foot is broken by a bullet that glances off the suit) holding off hordes of approaching Russians. Penny ends up holding them off on her own as Eric makes his escape: 

Penny’s trapped in the cell, and gets out in a novel way – she takes a hostage, straps all of her plastique to his “testes,” and shoves him back out into the cell to his waiting comrades! In the diversion she makes her escape. But on her way through the sewer to reconnect with the others she finds the Zhook waiting for her – Eric’s twisted body in his grip, “limp as death.” An effective sequence as the two size each other up, Penny just as able to see in the dark as the Zhook is, thanks to her infrared goggles. Despite her own superheroic skills, the Baroness is no match for the Zhook, who does his best to crush her to pulp. When all seems lost Penny snaps him with her backup “screw,” which Sumo earlier warned could be used as a brutal weapon – its coils are wound up to slowly power a 12-mile swim. But if they were to be unwound all at once on a human victim it would make for a gory spectacle, as the Zhook discovers. It goes on for a while, the Zhook being crushed to death to the point that he screams for his mother, until finally we get this memorable image: 

As with the fakeout with Yvette at the end of Death Is A Copycat, Eric’s wounds turn out to be a lot less terrible than Moffitt implied; we learn he just has a few cracked ribs. The scientists are taken to Penny’s yacht, and we get more of the “Black Sea Bash” stuff as we jump ahead a few hours and see Russian soldiers boarding the boat and looking agog at the drunk and high revellers aboard. The Russians leave after being threatened with starting a diplomatic incident, and after this…Moffitt applies the breaks. A Black Hole To Die In descends into a mire of exposition and TV-watching as first the scientists explain what the Russians have discovered…then the Russians discuss it amongst themselves…then the US President discusses the exact same stuff with the scientists, and etc. 

Long story short, the Russian space ship disappeared due to a “mini black hole” in Earth’s orbit, one that’s “no bigger than a virus.” Despite its microscopic size, it has the weight and density of a star, thus sucks anything into it. The Russians, we learn, plan to send multiple spaceships up there to harness the black hole into a source of unlimited energy; Moffitt capabaly makes it all seem possible as a Russian scientist explains his plan to the Premiere. Meanwhile we learn from the US scientists – the ones Penny rescued – that the black hole threatens the Earth, given that it’s entered Earth’s orbit and could easily wipe out the planet. Moffitt works in the mysterious Tunguska explosion of 1908, which is often theorized as being caused by a meteor; one of the scientists explains it was really the black hole, which follows a “comet trajectory” and actually passed through the Earth that time. This time, given that the hole is bigger, the impact will be even more catastrophic. 

But the US can’t do anything because, given the “dwindling” funds for the Space Race, there are no operational Saturn rocks left over from the Apollo Program. So friends believe it or not but the first half of this climax features the Baroness and team watching television as the various networks report on the mass Russian spacecraft launches – complete with Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite giving reports! So basically the Russians are turning it into a media spectacle, launching three ships at once with several men in space at the same time. The intent being that they are staking the black hole as their own. And going about the process of harnessing it for energy: 

Then the Chinese launch their own spaceship to interfere, having gotten the intel thanks to one of the scientists Penny’s team freed; a guy named Dr. Hsu who managed to escape her and get back to China with the info. So ridiculously enough, Penny and team continue to watch television as now the Chinese enter the race for the mini black hole. Our heroine finally gets re-engaged with the plot when she calls Farnsworth and demands that he scramble an SR-71 for her – with Wharton flying it – so Penny can parachute over the Chinese rocket complex at Shwangchengtze. Aerial photography implies that the Chinese are about to rush up another rocket, “to get in the black hole business.” Penny plans for there to be another “passenger” on that rocket – herself! When Farnsworth says she’d be unable to jump out of an SR-71, given that it basically flies in space, she responds, “Then I’ll need a space suit, won’t I, darling?” 

Before we can get to this, though, Penny watches more TV, as NBC reports that the Chinese spacecraft has “extracted a cylindrical module from the booster…about the size of the special docking adapter that allowed the American Apollo craft to link up with the Russian’s Soyuz ship back in 1975.” The Apollo-Soyuz linkup occurred in July of 1975. So here we have our first internal indication that A Black Hole To Die In was written at least by then. We get more confirmation of this as Penny, who flies her LearJet to Hawaii to rendevous with the SR-71, watches even more TV – and this time it’s “Yuri Fokin, the veteran announcer who had covered the Apollo-Soyuz mission.” However as we will soon learn, Moffitt was writing even later than the summer of 1975…something that is also indicated by that “back in 1975” in the dialog above. 

At any rate, once again action is relayed via TV coverage as the commander of the twelve-man Russian space station informs viewers that the Chinese spaceship is being “extremely reckless” with its close approach. We also see how the times have changed, as per Penny the “worldwide audience” is clearly rooting for the Russians, and “whatever happened could be turned into anti-Chinese propaganda.” You don’t see too much of that these days! But again, Penny here just watches TV as the Chinese “ram” the Russian space station and overtake it, killing all the cosmonauts with weapons that look like “underwater spear guns.” 

More TV coverage ensues as the Chinese overtake the station and “blackmail” the US and USSR with threats of destruction. This is a great bit from Moffitt, who has the Chinese issuing their demands but insisting they are a “people of peace.” How little things change!  More exposition follows as the President argues with his intel chiefs that nothing can be done, as does the Premiere with his underlings – both leaders also try to cancel a mission a sole agent of theirs is undertaking to stop the threat, only to be told its too late. Meanwhile Wharton flies the Baroness over the Gobi desert and she bails out, dressed in an astronaut helmet and an experimental NASA pressure suit: 

It’s night in the desert when she lands and she’s immediately spotted by a trio of Mongols. After killing one of them, Penny – who is still in her spacesuit and helmet – bluffs that she’s from the rocket base, speaking in perfect Mandarin. The Mongols demand she take off the helmet, to prove she’s Chinese. Penny hesitates a moment, and then: 

We later learn that her body has also been “dyed to make her look Chinese, and even her nipples ha[ve] been colored brown.” The disguise works for a while, but Penny ends up fighting the last two Mongols anyway, crushing one’s throat in her usual favored move. But then she’s caught unawares by another guy who comes out of the darkness – one who knows who she is. It is of course Alexey, who returns to the narrative once again – he was the solo agent the Premiere was trying to stop. Alexey says he recognizes Penny despite the Chinese disguise, because “nobody has a body like yours.” Alexey relates how he’s gotten here on his own desperate solo quest to stop the Chinese, and again he and Penny decide to work together. It’s curious that Moffitt has shown this sudden interest in Alexey; after appearing in the third volume he was gone and forgotten, until abruptly reappearing in the last pages of Death Is A Copycat, to return again here. 

Regardless, he and Penny once again get on famously – despite the fact that the world’s about to end and they’re alone in the middle of the desert, surrounded by a few million enemy, Penny and Alexey find the time to engage in some hardcore shenanigans: “She rode his long, stiff shaft with a steady in-and-out motion, taking it slow at first, lifting her tail at the end of each stroke.” As typical with the series this goes on for a few pages, and we learn that, once again, it’s their tenth round! The show gets back on the road as Alexey and Penny split up to get into the base; Penny is buried in the sand and manages to secretly board a train headed for the rocket site. 

Penny wants on the base because earlier she planted a bug up the ass of Hsu, the scientist she rescued who turned out to be a Chinese agent. (One that’s “too small” for Hsu to even notice, we’re informed!) She wants “fifteen minutes” with him to ask him a few questions. Using a directional finder that’s locked on the bug, she hunts him down in the rocket base. We also learn that the Baroness has no plans to “get out of here alive.” It always surprises me how brutal Penny can be; she tracks Hsu to a blockhouse from which various scientists are entering and exiting. Penny spots her chance when a tall Chinese woman comes out, a nurse or somesuch. Penny lassos her into the darkness and, after saying “Sorry, sweetie,” proceeds to strangle her. “She made it as quick and painless as possible, but it’s never nice.” Just imagine Mack Bolan or John Eagle strangling a nurse! 

Here we get our firmest indication of when A Black Hole To Die In was written; part of Penny’s disguise is a Mao button she takes from the dead nurse. This triggers one of the guards, who starts yelling at her, and Penny realizes, “Mao was barely in his grave, and already the factions were squaring off.” So this confirms that the manuscript was written sometime in the Fall of ’76, as Mao died in early September of that year. Penny – after killing a few technicians and a doctor – corners Hsu in the “astronaut prep” room; despite his advanced age, the old man is going up in space. He recognizes the Baroness despite the disguise. He won’t tell her why he’s insisting to go into space, as the trip will clearly kill him. Penny uses a “synthetic hypnotic” to get him to talk, and here, in the eleventh hour, Dr. Hsu is revealed as the main villain of the piece: 

Hsu has “falsified” his calculations so that the Chinese think that the black hole will merely pass through the Earth if their demands are not met; they are unaware Hsu has set it so the black hole will stay in Earth’s orbit and render everything into “nothingness.” He’s also set it so that the plan will go into effect even if the Chinese don’t launch the hole themselves; even if the nations were to give in to their demands, the mini black-hole would still descend into Earth’s orbit. And it’s going to happen “within the next twenty-four hours.” Penny strangles Hsu – he’s very casual about his death, given that drug – and then she takes a page from Connery’s Bond in You Only Live Twice by putting on Hsu’s spacesuit and passing herself off as one of the Chinese astronauts. In the chaos – caused by Alexey firing SAM rockets into the installation from afar – she mows through the crowd, slicing and dicing doctors, technicians, and other astronauts with a scalpel as she makes her way toward the rocket, which is about to launch. 

Indeed the finale is a bit preposterous – and rushed – as Penny storms across the crazed compound as the SAM rockets fall around her. Here she uses an “AR-7 survival rifle” which she’s brought along with her, sniping technicians and soldiers from afar as she climbs the 30-story scaffolding to the rocket’s cockpit. More soldiers are on the way, and MIGs are bombing Alexey’s position (“Goodbye, Alexey!” Penny thinks to herself). It’s incredibly apocalyptic, and there are only two pages left in the manuscript. At this point I started to get a sinking suspicion; there was no way Moffitt could suitably end the tale in just two pages. And folks it turns out he doesn’t; as maddening as it is to believe, A Black Hole To Die In ends on a cliffhanger! 

Penny gets into the cockpit, the only person aboard. She straps herself into the bamboo astronaut couches, turns on the AC and the oxygen supply, and cuts off mission control. She then figures out how to launch the rocket! “And then a huge gentle hand was pushing at her chest, presssing her into the couch. She lay back and willed herself to relax while the G-forces built up.” As Hsu told her, “the launch sequence had been wired in automatically,” meaning that the second and third stages of the launch sequence will go down without Penny having to do anything: “She had a free ride all the way.” 

We’re now on the last page of the manuscript, and our heroine is launching herself into space! “It was the most thrilling sensation she’d ever felt in her life.” And folks this is how A Black Hole To Die In comes to a close, as Penny’s rocket passes through the atmosphere into the zero-gravity of space: 

This is the most bonkers finale I ever could’ve expected, and I would love to know if Moffitt even intended for this manuscript to see print. (Though I have to admit it’s pretty great how he still found a way to mention Penny’s breasts one last time!) But as the handwritten and typed edits throughout attest, this wasn’t Moffitt’s first draft, so clearly it was the draft he submitted to Lyle Kenyon Engel for publication. It’s all just so crazy as to be ludicrous; Penny has absolutely no plan on how to even stop Hsu’s plot, and what will she do in space? It’s about as irrational and ridiculous as Doomsday Warrior #14. This also begs the question of how Moffitt planned to follow this installment up. Would his next volume have been entirely in space? Or would the climactic events of A Black Hole To Die In be skirted over in the intro of the next volume? What’s interesting is that no other volume ever ended on a cliffhanger, with little in the way of series continuity to link together the installments. 

As mentioned at the start of this review, there is an air of finality here – note the last line of the manuscript: “Nobody would ever see it again.” Was Moffitt referring to the series itself? Maybe he intentionally delivered this apocalyptic finale – with no resolution – knowing that it would never see print. Or maybe he wrote it in the hopes that if it were printed, reader demand to know what happened next would be sufficient to keep up sales and thus continue the series. 

Unfortunately we’ll never know. Moffitt passed away in 2014, taking any answers with him. Here’s hoping ppsantos also got to read this manuscript and was able to discuss it with Moffitt. If you are out there my friend, I’d love to hear from you! Otherwise I have to say my feelings on A Black Hole To Die In are mixed. It started strong, then got a bit sluggish, only to become incredibly crazed in the final few pages. It’s hard to judge it given the nightmarish climax, as the adventure doesn’t seem complete – particularly given that we’ll never get to see what Moffitt intended to happen next. In a way then I’m almost glad this one was never published; Death Is A Copycat would’ve made a much more suitable series finale (and indeed it was – in France!). 

One day I’m sure I’ll read this again, and I look forward to it because then I’ll just be able to read it and do a “normal” review (as part of my re-reading of the entire series; the most recent I’ve re-read is #2: Diamonds Are For Dying), and not have to worry about documenting everything. I have to say, doing these overly-comprehensive reviews of the two unpublished Baroness novels has really been exhausting! Again though I was very grateful for the chance to read them. But man I wish Moffitt had gotten to write another volume, to tie up the loose ends. 

There is of course one more unpublished Baroness novel: Robert Vardeman’s Quicktime Death, which we at least know was submtted to Engel before A Black Hole To Die In. (Vardeman has said Engel told him that “the next volume” of the series would concern a black hole.) I’ve reached out to Vardeman to see if he would mind sharing any detail on his unpublished manuscript, but haven’t heard back from him – hopefully I will, though!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Radcliff #3: Double Troube

Radcliff #3: Double Trouble, by Roosevelt Mallory
January, 1975  Holloway House


 -- From the back cover 

Holloway House cornered the market on action and crime novels featuring black protagonists, and Radcliff ran for four volumes right at the height of the Blaxploitation genre. This is a few volumes less than The Iceman, so either readers of the day didn’t take to it or the author, the wonderfully-named Roosevelt Mallory, moved on to other things. This is the only volume of the series I have, and judging from it Radcliff is a lot less “Blaxploitation-esque” than The Iceman, coming off for the most part like a series from Pinnacle or Pyramid or any other ‘70s imprint, one that just happens to have a black protagonist. 

So then, jive-talk is kept to a minimum, cops are referred to as “policemen,” and the sex and violence are tame – very tame when compared to the ‘70s men’s adventure average. Actually The Iceman isn’t very explicit in the sex department either, at least judging from the two volumes I’ve read. One thing both series have in common is the capitalization of “Black,” whereas “white” is never capitalized. Actually this has also crept into modern journalism (so-called); I’ve read the justification for it, but it only makes sense if you’ve been completely brainwashed. Or if you get your news from the sort of people who capitalize the “b” but not the “w,” which pretty much amounts to the same thing as being brainwashed. 

Another thing this series lacks is a strong impetus for the hero. Joe Radcliff (whose real name appears to be Jason Washington) is a ‘Nam vet who realized he was killing VC for free for Uncle Sam and decided to farm out his specialty to the highest bidder. He’s now a top “pro hit-man,” per the cover, with a talent for killing mobsters and the like. He’ll be hired by one Mafia bigwig to kill another Mafia bigwig, and Radcliff makes a fortune off it…enough to keep him in some styling threads with a few ladies at his side. So in other words, Radcliff’s only in it for the money. His customary getup includes a pair of rose-tinted glasses and he sports a stylish “Natural” (aka afro) and goattee…though he only has the Natural for the first few chapters of Double Trouble. His customary weapons are a dual pair of .38s; like most ‘70s crime fiction, revolvers are the main choice of weaponry in Radcliff

As mentioned I’m missing the previous two volumes, but it appears that Mallory has tried to inject a bit of continuity into the series. When the novel opens Radcliff is on a cruise through the Caribbean (having picked up two women along the way, “a Black and a Mexican-American”), and in fact he stays off-page for a bit too long. Rather the focus is on a pair of cops who are trying to track down a cop-killer. This would be the “double” of the title; the novel has an unsettling opening in which a ringer for Radcliff guns down an LA cop at his breakfast table, even going to the lengths of killing the man’s seven year-old daughter. Mallory doesn’t keep the kid’s death off-page, either, which makes for an unnecessarily grim opening. At any rate, the killer leaves a witness – one who will be able to relate that someone named “Radcliff” did the killing. 

A local cop named Gene Clark (not that Gene Clark) was friends with the murdered policeman and investigates the murder. The reader assumes Clark will be an important facet of the narrative, but the reader will soon be proven wrong, as Clark basically just disappears. Next we meet another cop, this one from New York, named Lt. Sam Hanson. He’s flown in from New York given his familiarity with Radcliff, having encountered him in one of the previous volumes. In the meantime the fake Radcliff has killed another couple cops. And once again made it a point for a witness to be able to peg the killer as someone named Radcliff. Of course Clark and Hanson are not aware this is an imposter, but Hanson is adamant that Radcliff is a “pro” and wouldn’t go around killing cops or innocent people…something the real Radcliff has never done. 

Meanwhile the real Radcliff is blissfully going about his cruise, but when he returns to port he’s almost blown away by a cop. This sets off the narrative drive of Double Trouble, as Radcliff scurries around Los Angeles while trying to evade the cops and figure out who is behind the frame. The vibe of Blaxploitation really is not present; Radcliff seems to have almost a professional respect for “policemen” and we know he’s never killed one. There are several parts where he has the opportunity but always goes out of his way not to. In fact he doesn’t kill very many people at all in Double Trouble. Mallory tries to inject realism into the story, with Radcliff presented as a supreme bad-ass, but not a superhero like other men’s adventure protagonists. 

Radcliff unwittingly predicts future fashion trends when he shaves off his afro – or “screwing up a masterpiece,” as he thinks to himself. With his “clean face and equally clean-shaven head” Radcliff sounds more like a ‘90s action protagonist than one from the ‘70s. Mallory was clearly familiar with Los Angeles as he brings the city to life, with Radcliff shuffling all over the place, including into Watts. Radcliff has various safehouses around the city, as well as contacts, some of whom turn out to be traitors. There’s a bit of a private eye vibe in the middle section of the novel, as Radcliff starts looking around for any local black hoodlums who have come into sudden money; his gambit is that such a person might be the ringer who was paid big bucks to impersonate Radcliff and kill a few cops and Feds. 

Truth be told this middle half is a bit hard-going, as Radcliff chases one red herring after another. Meanwhile we have a lot of business about him getting new papers and ID and etc, Mallory again striving for a crime underworld realism as Radcliff meets with various criminal contacts. Actually this whole bit has the vibe of a “black Parker” or somesuch. That said, Mallory clearly had an unwieldy wordcount (the book’s way too long at 224 pages of small print), as there’s a fair bit of padding at times; most egregious of all would be an arbitrary game of basketball Radcliff gets into with a group of kids in Watts while he’s waiting to meet the contact with his new ID paperwork. 

Mallory does inject some action into these red-herring chases, including an unexpected bit where Radcliff busts out some kung-fu to take on a guy who tries to get the drop on him. There’s also a go-nowhere bit where he finds himself talking to a stripper “with two huge breasts” named Brandy. While she disappears from the novel, Radcliff does find the time to sleep with the jilted wife of one of the suspects, but Radcliff just goes through the motions (Mallory literally writes “he went through the motions of making love to the woman”), because the lady’s clearly expecting to get lucky with him, and Mallory keeps the majority of it off-page. Speaking of which Radcliff appears to have a steady gal with whom he’s in an open relationship; a redhead beauty named Angie who only appears in the last two pages of Double Trouble. Anyway, the husband of the jilted wife Radcliff sleeps with does indeed turn out to be the fake Radcliff; while snooping through the drawers when the woman’s asleep, Radcliff finds a fake goattee and other parts of the “Radcliff” disguise. 

Radcliff can be pretty badass, though. He abducts the Mafioso who hired the fake Radcliff, torturing the mobster’s henchman to make him talk. After which Radcliff doesn’t leave any witnesses, despite his promise to take them to a hospital. Throughout we are to understand that Radcliff is supremely pissed at the situation, not concerned or worried. Mallory tries as well to give Radcliff some Jim Brown-esque dialog to convey his anger; there’s a humorous part where Radcliff tells one thug, “I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve pissed off an already highly pissed off man.” But again the drive just isn’t there, or Mallory doesn’t sufficiently convey it. Radcliff’s more angry that his name has been sullied; even here there is no burning drive to get revenge on the men who have murdered innocents so as to frame him. 

The action briefly moves to Mexico, where the fake Radcliff is hiding. Meanwhile Radcliff discovers that an infamous professional hit man is also tracking the guy: the Scorpion, who is much built up but almost perfunctorily dealt with. Also, Radcliff doesn’t even show much divine wrath when he gets hold of the imposter, basically just handcuffing the guy and getting him back to the US so he can exonerate Radcliff. I expected a few bitch-slaps at least, but for the most part Radcliff is all business. The finale lacks much spark as well, with Radcliff getting in a quick shootout with some Mafia goons, Radcliff using a .22 with dum-dum shells. 

The finale has Radcliff’s reputation restored, and he’s back with Angie. According to this insightful essay at Crime Reads, Angie would meet her own fate in the next volume, which happened to be the last. Overall Double Trouble was fairly entertaining, but came off as too blasé compared to some of the more outrageous Blaxploitation paperbacks of the era, like Dark Angel or the awesome Coffy novelization. I do love how Radcliff and Mallory are presented as one and the same on the cover; that’s Mallory’s photo (which is reproduced on the back cover) there on the Wanted poster behind Radcliff. It’s both cool and corny how Holloway House tried to make their authors come off as bad-ass as their protagonists.

Thursday, June 17, 2021


Countdown, by Frank G. Slaughter
July, 1971  Pocket Books

Frank Slaughter was an incredibly prolific bestselling author, but he seems to be mostly forgotten today, at least by the general public, a la Harold Robbins and Burt Hirschfeld and the like. I don’t believe Slaughter was known for material as risque as either of those authors, especially Robbins, but this 1970 novel is certainly luridly melodramatic at times. In fact it’s a nearly perfect “beach read” novel and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It also seems to have done well in its day, scoring two mass market paperback editions after the original 1970 hardcover. 

I came upon Countdown in my usual manner: hunting Google for a sex and drugs-filled novel about the Space Race. No, really. This is the sort of thing I usually do. I figured there just had to be a lurid cash-in on the Space Race or the moon landing, with uber-horny astronauts and their depraved wives and drug-fueled orgies between the rocket launches and space voyages…and something set in the future, but that “future 1960s” I prefer, ie the ‘60s projected out a few decades, with the Cold War still raging and the public still fully invested in keeping America at the top of the Space Race, and maybe even some LSD too. And folks, Countdown has all of that! Even the LSD! 

While it’s certainly risque at times, I should clarify here at the start that it’s nowhere along the sleazy majesty of Robbins. Slaughter, despite his awesome last name, is slightly more reserved in that department, but then Robbins’s own novels didn’t get truly sleazy until later in the ‘70s. Actually speaking of Slaughter’s name, he was also a doctor, I mean “Doctor Slaughter:” sounds like it could be a James Bond villain or even a psychopath out of a grindhouse flick. If I’m not mistaken Slaughter was also known for Biblical themes or stories (I honestly haven’t researched him much), and fact is there’s a supporting character here who is a minister, so safe to say the sordid stuff, while present, is a bit conservative, and not of the Robbins-esque “full, upthrusting breasts” or “amyl nitrate-popping during the orgy” variety. That being said, the minister uses his role to scope out horny gals in his congregation, and the steamy stuff is slightly more explicit than what you’d find in Hirschfeld. Indeed the Pocket editors make an effort to hype up the sleaze on the back cover, calling out the “TV-monitored orgies” in this “bizarre world of driven men and restless women.” 

So while the sleaze in’t to the level I would’ve preferred (but then is it ever??), Countdown is still one heck of an entertaining read. As I wrote above, it is the epitome of a “beach read,” even, like Fire Island, comprised of various characters going to the beach themselves. Slaughter fully brings to life the fictional town of Spaceport City, built near Cape Kennedy in Florida. A bustling town of “highly trained aerospace personnel…a sun-drenched community, dominated by giant launching pads.” (That Pocket back cover copy again.) Slaughter, likely writing in 1969, extrapolates on what must’ve seemed like the obvious future the country was heading toward: the Space Race is still running strong, and Spaceport City is the center of America’s efforts in that regard. He must’ve written early in ’69, though, as there’s no mention of the moon landing. 

This brings up the question of when Countdown is set. An early reference to Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again indicates that it occurs in 1980 or thereabouts, a la Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO. (Actually that show took place in 1984, as clearly stated in two separate episodes, but given that each episode opened with a flashing “1980” in the credits you can understand why most people would be confused.) We’re told that Wolfe’s novel was published “nearly half a century ago,” and since You Can’t Go Home Again was published in 1934, nearly fifty years later would be the early 1980s, or even the late ‘70s. 

So then again, we have one of those wonderful “futures” that never happened, the 1960s projected out with the same societal setup, with “housewives” (many of whom pine for mink stoles) and the Cold War and “girls” in miniskirts, where people still smoke “breakfast cigarettes” and talk about Laugh-In and send telegrams. Even the drugs of the late ‘60s are present, to the point that you wonder why Countdown never made it onto the big screen, as it so captures the era in which it was written…I mean the Andersons could’ve produced it, with Robert Parrish directing and Derek Meddings handling the miniatures, Sylvia Anderson providing “Century 21 fashions,” and Roy Thinnes as the protagonist and Lynn Loring as one of the depraved housewives… Okay I admit, I’ve been watching Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun again. 

Well anyway, it’s 1980 or so and we meet our hero, Dr. Michael Barnes, as he’s returning home to Merritt Island, Florida; Slaughter delivers an effective opening in which Barnes witnesses the massive changes to the area he knew as a boy. What was once mostly countryside has now been developed into a bustling city, one specifically catered to the aerospace industry. “Mike,” as Slaughter will refer to him throughout, is a former astronaut himself, and this is the first he’s been in Florida “in nearly eight years.” (A phrase that is curiously repeated several times in the narrative). Mike now works in “space medicine,” meaning he researches the effects of space travel on astronauts. But as we soon learn, he himself was almost killed “nearly eight years ago” when his rocket went haywire after a launch and he plunged into the ocean. 

Mike was part of the “Hermes” program, which in this novel appears to have existed immediately after the Apollo program; characters often talk of how things “go back to the Hermes days.” Unless that is Slaughter is referring to the real-life Hermes program, which per Wikipedia was an Army project that ended in 1954. However that one seemed to be focused on unmanned rockets, and the Hermes program Mike was involved with was manned spacecraft. I think it’s just a creation of Slaughter’s, as Mike seems to be in his 30s here in the early ‘80s and thus not old enough to have taken part in any rocket launches in the 1950s. 

Slaughter though has created an entire alternate reality space program. Here in this “future” space flights have become so routine that they’ve lost the “novelty” of the Mercury and Apollo days. While Slaughter can’t be blamed for assuming his future would become a reality, given the stalling of the space industry in the ‘70s Countdown now comes off more as a sad indication of what could have been. At any rate, NASA in the novel has recently moved on to the Pegasus program, the goal of which is to put a space station in orbit. Actually it’s now the “FSA” (ie the Federal Space Administration), given that in this future the military has taken over all NASA affairs. (Just like in I Dream Of Jeannie!) Mike has come to Spaceport City to act as an unofficial investigator, sent here by a Congressman pal: there have been several Pegasus launch snafus, and the Congressman is concerned and wants Mike to figure out what’s really going on there. 

Mike’s gotten the gig because, some years before, he published in a science journal a study on the “aerospace syndrome,” with the finding that “a lot of men in high places in the rocket business divorce their wives when they’re in their fifties and marry much younger women.” The horror! But you can see already what I mean about the overall conservative tone of the novel – I mean this is actually such a “concern” that Mike’s made enemies due to the publication of the study. But more pointedly Mike was accused of foiling his Hermes launch himself and causing that crash eight years ago, to the extent that he was dubbed “space chicken.” (Which sounds like a disco song – and also disco doesn’t exist in this 1980!) The ship he crashed in was built by Taggar, the company that’s now building the spacecraft for the Pegasus program. All of which is to say that Mike’s return to the Cape isn’t a cause for celebration among several people in the aerospace industry. Regardless, his Congressman friend thinks the “aerospace syndrome” has gotten so bad that Pegasus is bound to fail, and wants Mike to give a ground report. 

An interesting note is that when Slaughter wrote this novel “TGIF,” ie “Thank God it’s Friday,” was apparently such a new term that he has to tell us what it means a few times. We’re told this concept originated in the rocket industry, but Mike himself is unaware of it and it must be explained to him a few times. Essentially at 4:30 every Friday, everyone in the aerospace industry kicks off early and hits the bars and clubs, with frequent “TGIF” parties at the houses of the VIPs. These are swinger parties; married couples are not allowed to come together. We are supposed to see this as a sign of rot in the aerospace industry, one that is ultimately leading to the Pegasus launch failures – the people in the industry are too drunk, hungover, or hooked on illicit sex to deliver quality work. 

Not that Mike has too much trouble with the “illicit sex” part. On his first day back at Spaceport City he manages to hook up with hotstuff redhead Jan Cooper, the piano-playing chanteuse of the Astronaut Inn, a now-“seedy” motel from the earliest days of Spaceport City. At the bar Mike’s invited to a TGIF party by a former astronaut pal and Jan says she’ll take him. At the party Mike sees his ex-wife Shirley (they divorced “nearly eight years ago”), who does a drunken strip-tease by the pool and nearly drowns, only to be saved by Mike – good real-world “medical stuff” from Dr. Slaughter here. After this Jan takes Mike back to his motel, where the two have a little “mangoes with brandy” and then move on to some hot lovin’. Slaughter as mentioned isn’t full-on risque, but we do get stuff like “high proud breasts” and “her body opened to his and the urgency of shared passion gripped them both once again.” 

But speaking of Burt Hirschfeld, Mike Barnes is similar to Cindy Ashe of Cindy On Fire in that he literally runs from an orgy. The title of the novel turns out to be one of them fancy double-entendres; “countdown” in the aspect of rocket launches, but “countdown” also being the name of a game played by the astronauts and aeronautical elite. Mike finds this out when an old astronaut friend turned enemy named Hal Brennan invites him over to his pad for a little get together. Mike when he enters is handed a card with a number on it, and sees a bunch of people sitting around watching a big TV. Brennan calls out bets and people throw money in a ring, then the TV comes on and Mike sees a man and a woman lying on a bed on the screen: “Both were nude and they were making love.” 

This is Countdown, a “game” invented by Brennan in which men and women are paired off by lot, randomly selected a la bingo, and then go into Brennan’s guest house to have sex while knowingly being recorded by an infrared movie camera! All for the enjoyment of the people watching in the living room, who take bets on how long it will take the couple to climax! Oh and also everyone at the party is ripped on “stingers” which are laced with amphetimines and possibly LSD. Mike learns all this in a great sequence in which he witnesses Countdown firsthand, but then he realizes the Stinger he just drank has drugged him. He rushes out of the place “before it’s too late” and hurriedly drives back to his motel before the drugs can kick in! What a loser! Especially given that he can’t make it and ends up stumbling into some lady’s house and puking his guts out all night. Slaughter’s definitely got a kinky imagination, which I appreciated, as next day Mike discovers that the number-card Hal Brennan gave him would’ve paired him up with Mike’s ex, Shirley – who happens to be Brennan’s mistress now. 

This won’t be the first orgy our hero runs from. Later on he and Jan go to the beach and stay till nightfall, and while leaving they come upon a “nightmarish” scene on the darkened beach where a bunch of teenagers are having an actual glue-sniffing party. Complete with rock music on a “battery-powered radio” and bikini’d go-go dancing, with a little orgying off to the side. Mike and Jan freak out at the spectacle and run away, worried over what they should do to stop the shenanigans. When Jan later tells Mike that she recognized the Maserati there as being owned by Paul Taggar, the CEO of the company behind the Pegasus spacecraft, Mike calls the cops about the beach party – only to find out next morning that Taggar’s teen daughter has been found dead, her body washed ashore from drowning the night before. A victim of glue-sniffing! 

So now Mike has his confirmation that the aerospace syndrome (also referred to as the “Lockheed syndrome,” which is how Mike “discovered” it – at a Lockheed plant) has run amok in Spaceport City. But Taggar and Brennan have a lockdown on the local scene, protected by their own Congressman – a political rival of Mike’s friend, and also the guy who labelled Mike “space chicken” years ago during a Congressional review of Mike’s Hermes crash. The cops are aware of all the drugs and partying and whatnot, but there’s nothing they can do about anything. Indeed Slaughter here creates this awesome alternate reality where there’s even a syndicated “Space Race gossip column” in the paper, and Mike finds himself spotlighted in the latest story, the gossiper detailing Mike’s involvement with Jan as well as some orgies, all in his first two days in Spaceport City! And all of it again a story planted by Hal Brennan, who clearly wants Mike out of Spaceport City asap. 

Slaughter shows us the effect of the aerospace syndrome among a small group of supporting characters, and admittedly a lot of this stuff could be cut. I should clarify here that so far as Mike is concerned, the syndrome only affects “rocket men,” and usually not the “flyboys.” But the engineers and general contractors and such are known for either becoming so committed to their work that they ignore their wives – and the wives start sleeping around – or they work so hard that they get rip-roaring drunk and carouse all the time to let off steam. We see all of this in play, from a “nicely curved” Southern Belle of a housewife whose engineer husband continuously ignores her, so she starts up an affair with the local reverend(!), to a contractor who goes into work hungover and hides his shoddy work, to a gay engineer who is known for borrowing money from employees to give them revivifying shots of 95% alcohol. His is the most egregious of all subplots, involving as it does a long sequence of him finding out he has syphilis and going to complex ends to handle his own treatment. 

Slaughter shows some prescience in many of the subplots. Mike discovers that there’s an almighty rush to get Pegasus off the ground and a space station in orbit. From the Space Race gossip columnist he learns the FSA’s purposes might not be altogether altruistic; it’s more than likely they have been inspired by a Soviet plan from the ‘60s to put an oribitting thermonuclear missile station in orbit, and thus Taggar is pushing to get the Pegasus spacecraft launched as soon as possible. Whoever has such a satellite could “control the world,” with the ability to drop nukes anywhere on the globe by just repositioning their location, all of which of course is a prefigure of the real-world “Star Wars” stuff in the ‘80s between the US and the USSR. There’s also a lot of political corruption afoot, as Mike further learns that the Congressman pushing for the Pegasus launch, the very same Congressman who dubbed Mike space chicken years ago, has a son who is an executive at Taggar, despite not having any experience – I mean how prescient can a 1970 book be to have a “Where’s Hunter?”-esque subplot?! 

So then, it becomes more clear to Mike that he didn’t chicken out eight years ago. The Hermes spacecraft he crashed, built by Taggar, was faulty, and now it’s coming out that the evidence was buried. Worse yet, Taggar is using the very same spacecraft in the Pegasus Program, but all faults are being covered up by the fact that the Congressman behind it has a vested interest in Taggar stock. And also Hal Brennan, Mike’s former astronaut pal, is determined to become the next governor of Florida. Slaughter masterfully puts all these threads together with fast-moving narrative, Mike learning all this stuff not via exposition but by running afoul of various people and learning what their game is. This is particularly demonstrated by Hal Brennan’s frequent attempts to blackmail Mike in some fashion, even at one point sending him a photo of a fully-nude Jan – one which was clearly taken during a Countdown party, given the glassy and drugged look in her eyes. When Mike further learns that the evidence which would’ve exonerated him was buried years ago, he’s further committed to staying in Spaceport to see things through. 

Slaughter also doles out an old-fashioned romance here, with Mike falling for Jan but things cooling off after their first-night tussles given the publication of that gossip column. (Which leads to Jan asking Mike to leave town, complete with the so stupid it’s great line, “You’ve had your orgy.”) But also Jan is in an open relationship with one of the Pegasus astronauts, leaving Mike the frustrated other man, uncertain how Jan feels for him. Not that he doesn’t have plentiful opportunities to score a whole bunch – everyone from a hotstuff reporter to Mike’s ex-wife to even that Southern Belle housewife with the “nice curves” all proposition Mike at some point in the novel. But Mike is a “Puritan” and a “prude,” and he’s a one-woman guy throughout, even telling Jan he’s in love with her before the novel’s halfway through. As I say, this is the big difference from a Robbins or even Hirschfeld novel – Mike would be much more amoral in the hands of either of those writers. 

The final third loses its way a bit with those aforementioned subplots taking center stage, showing how the aerospace syndrome can lead to disaster through negligence at work. Slaughter does a good job of incorporating these subplots into the climax, which displays yet more prescience in its prediction of the Challenger disaster, but some of the stuff just gets in the way of what had been a very entertaining novel. For example, the hazards of glue-sniffing return when a young man who now has jaundice from his escapades wants to crack the lid open on Spaceport City’s juvenile drug problem, and Mike helps him out. There’s also a lot of “medical” stuff, with Mike driving around and checking on various patients. And also Mike himself comes off like a dewy-eyed chump here, having realized he’s in love with Jan almost ridiculously fast – imploring her with lines like, “Darling, why won’t you marry me?” and such. What makes it even more humorous is Jan’s increasingly distant nature toward him. And there’s a lot of stuff about him just going to eat various meals or glumly watching TV alone – even turning off Star Trek at one point because space stravel seems so easy on the show! 

Slaughter also incorporates a paranoid thriller vibe in these final pages, as Mike learns that he’s so dangerous to the Pegasus launch that someone’s willing to kill him. We get a prefigure of the Moonraker film where he almost buys it in a centrifuge, lured there and trapped inside as it begins to spin to a force that would pulp him. It’s a tense scene, but somewhat undermined by Slaughter’s medical world know-how; rather than focus on the danger and the terror, we’re informed how Mike’s body reacts to the increasing gravity and what will happen to his arteries and heart and etc. In other words it just comes off more “cold” than it should. Also this conspiracy subplot is humorously rushed through in the finale, in which Slaughter loops all his threads: the Pegasus launch, the various aerospace syndrome subplots, the crazy preacher, the conspiracy to kill Mike, and even Mike’s love for Jan. It’s so busy that the revelation of who was trying to kill Mike almost comes off as an afterthought. 

To be sure, don’t go into Countdown expecting a novel of space travel or astronauts in orbit and such. It’s more of a torrid melodrama along the lines of Hirschfeld and the other mainstream authors of the day, one that just happens to be set in the space industry. Slaughter’s clearly done his homework and brings to life the rigors and hazards of this industry very well. But really it’s more about the buildup to a spacelaunch, rather than the spacelaunch itself. In this regard the novel might not be as recommended to sci-fi readers, but definitely recommended to fans of this era’s “Big Sexy” fiction. I enjoyed it a lot, with the caveat that I found the final third a bit hard-going and the climax a bit underwhelming. 

Here’s the cover of the 1976 Pocket edition, which misleadingly makes Countdown look like a romance novel!