Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Men‘s Adventure Quarterly #3

Mens Adventure Quarterly #3, edited by Robert Deis, Bill Cunningham, and Chuck Dixon
September, 2021  Subtropic Productions

It was a definite pleasure to receive this third issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly; while the first issue featured Westerns and the second issue featured spy stories, this one features ‘70s “man vs the mob” stories, with a particular focus on The Executioner. Indeed Mack Bolan is the star of MAQ #3, with not one but two “book bonuses” which condense the first two Executioner novels. In addition we have more detail on Don Pendleton and his work, as well as an essay by his widow Linda. Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham serve up their usual informative intros to whet our appetite, and guest editor Chuck Dixon also fills us in on how The Executioner connected with the latter-day men’s mags. 

What I really like about this third issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly is that each story here is from the 1970s; in just about every other men’s adventure mag anthology, the stories are generally from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The last years of the genre are usually swept under the veritable carpet, often minimized as being nothing more than lurid “adult” rags. While this is mostly true, a lot of those later magazines still featured great stories, and I’ve reviewed some of them herehere, and here. Years ago when I was avidly collecting men’s mags I’d try to find ‘70s issues, mostly because the covers promised such lurid crime stories. However the later ‘70s men’s mags are pretty pricey (not that the earlier ones are cheap!), likely because they had lower print runs. I mean, how many horny men in 1976 would buy Men when they could buy Penthouse instead? Not only less “stories” to get in the way of the nude flesh, but more bush! 

The fun begins with “Blood Feud With The Mafia,” by Don Honig and from the August 1970 True Action. The setup follows Honig’s Western yarn “Shoot-Out At Mad Sadie’s Place,” in MAQ #1: a guy’s brother is killed and he goes out for revenge. But the way it plays out here is much different. For one, as Bob points out in his intro, the storyline is similar to The Executioner formula, but per Honig himself he never read that series, and the story was all the product of his own imagination. As it turns out, “Blood Feud” comes off more like a pseudo-Executioner, as the protagonist doesn’t nearly have the same drive for vengeance as Bolan (or any of Bolan’s imitators, for that matter). 

Honig is very good at succinctly setting up his stories, and that’s evident here with fat Don Carlo tasking his “number one gun” Nick Piano with going to Frisco to take out Dick Malloy. Malloy’s brother was killed by the Don years ago, and Malloy swore revenge. Instead he got shipped off to ‘Nam, and now he’s back; the don wants him killed in case he still has plans. But as mentioned Dick Malloy’s much different than Mack Bolan. When we meet him he’s drunk, coming out of a bar, and has no intentions of following through on his vow anytime soon. Honig takes the story in a different direction when Piano, instead of killing Malloy, offers to run cover for Malloy while he sows havoc on Don Carlo’s various operations. So already we see a much different approach to the formula than typical: Malloy has to be talked into his new role as mob-buster, and heck, later in the story he even states, “I don’t cotton to killing.” 

Regardless Honig turns out a fast-moving crime yarn that covers all the bases, from karate-chop kills to heists (a ‘70s men’s adventure mainstay), to even the mandatory willing female. This would be Trix, the “busty” blonde waitress at Malloy’s motel who makes her interests clear – and when Malloy doesn’t respond she shows up in his room one night. By 1970 such scenes were slightly more risque in men’s adventure magazines, but it’s still a mostly fade-to-black affair. The finale features Malloy sneaking into the don’s villa and trying to figure out how many henchmen are there so he can make his kill and safely escape; even here he proves himself to only be a Bolan pretender, as he bumbles through it. Honig delivers some nicely violent setpieces, capping off an entertaining tale; this was a good first story for MAQ #3

“We Wiped Out ‘Brutal Mack’s’ Cyle Killers” by Jack August, from the November 1972 For Men Only, is the longest original piece here; indeed, it seems to just keep going and going. This one’s outside the template of the issue in that the narrator doesn’t go up against the mob per se, but a biker mob. In that regard it’s more of a piece of the glut of biker yarns the men’s mags would publish at this time, as wonderfully documented in Deis and Doyle’s Barbarians On Bikes. The narrator of this one is pulled back into the wild world of biker scum; when word has it that a new gang called The Savages is tearing up other clubs through the midwest, he soon finds himself in a direct confrontation with them. Brual Mack, the herculean ruler of The Savages, gets in the narrator’s crosshairs when he kills his best bud/’Nam pal, and our hero swears revenge. But it’s not a direct action sort of tale; first he infiltrates the gang, gains Brutal Mack’s confidence, and only gradually pulls off his revenge. With its reactionary flavor, “Brutal Mack” has little in common with the true biker tales that would appear around this time in Easyriders; indeed, no makes or models are even mentioned, and the bikes are more of just a prop for the author to hang the story on. 

“The Amputee Vengeance Squad’s Mafia Wipeout” is by Jack Tyler and from the August 1975 Men. This I felt was the highlight of the issue, even better than the Executioner yarns. First of all though, kudos to the editors for showing the uncensored cover of the original issue of Men, with no black bars or other digitization blocking out the nudity. I also appreciated Bob’s intro, which discusses how these latter-day men’s mags were mostly Playboy and Penthouse imitators, with much less focus on pulp stories – but at least they featured full-color artwork for the pulp stories they did run. Bob rightly puts a lot of focus on Earl Norem’s fantastic artwork for the story (Norem handles the art for many of the stories here, and he’s always been one of my favorites), but he doesn’t tell us much about author Jack Tyler. No idea if Tyler was real or a house name, but he turns in a very entertaining slice of pulp crime. I rank this with “Blood For The Love Slaves” as another men’s adventure magazine story that I wish had been fleshed out into paperback length. 

As the title would suggest, this story entails a trio of ‘Nam vets who band together to take on the Mafia. Nothing unique about that particular plot, but the difference here is that each of the men lost various limbs in the war…but their army-supplied prosthetics have only made them even more badass. So we have a dude with artificial legs, another with a false arm and mechanical hand (“a thing of wizadry”), and another with a pair of hooks replacing his lost hands. Norem faithfully captures the look of each man, even the “walrus moustache” one of them sports: 

Tyler serves up succinct backgrounds for each of the three men, vividly capturing how they lost their limbs in the war and how they learned to live on without them when they returned home to East Michigan. But when one of their own, one who has served as an “idol” because he was determined to “live normally,” is killed by the mob, the three decide to get revenge. The action never falters, with lots of violent shootouts. Norem’s splashpage illustration also comes into play when a hapless stooge blows off the legless guy’s artificial limbs. Tyler writes the tale in flat, declarative sentences, so that it almost comes off more like a piece of reporting than fiction. He doesn’t get into the thoughts of his protagonists very much, and ultimately he doesn’t make much use of their prosthetics in some novel way, ie an artificial hand that hides a gun or etc. But the idea itself is super cool and Tyler does a great job of playing it straight and delivering a fast-moving and memorable piece of pulpy crime. 

Tyler easily could’ve hussled this into a paperback series to go on the racks along with the other men’s adventure paperbacks in the ‘70s – Pinnacle, Leisure, Manor, even book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel might’ve seen the potential here for a hit. But then, by late ’75 the men’s adventure paperback genre was already dying down, with most series getting cancelled and not many new ones hitting the market at all. Per Michael Newton in his How To Write Action-Adventure Fiction, men’s adventure paperbacks disappeared around this time due to the oil crisis; publishers had to throttle back on their publications, and the low-circulation men’s adventure series were often the first to go. Whatever the reason, perhaps the world is a poorer place for never having had an “Amputee Vengeance Squad” series. 

Next we get into the main portion of the book, which is devoted to two lengthy Executioner reprints; the first, originally published in the October 1969 issue of For Men Only, is a condensed version of #1: War Against The Mafia, and the second, originally published in the September 1971 issue of Men, is a condensed version of #2: Death Squad. As Bob and Linda Pendleton note, these “true booklength” versions might’ve been edited by Pendleton himself, or perhaps by Executioner series editor Andy Ettinger. Their appearance here is nice, but they’re mostly more of a novelty nature, as the actual books themselves are quite common, with about a zillion editions each. But it’s cool to see how they were molded into the template of a men’s adventure magazine, at least, and in this regard War Against The Mafia really stands out as different from the rest of the series with its focus on sex. Per my overly-comprehensive notes in my review of that first volume, these sex scenes were specifically added per Pinnacle’s request. How wonderful it must’ve been to live in an era where “add more graphic sex and violence” was an actual publisher request! 

The Executioner theme continues with an insightful essay from Linda Pendleton, a piece on the mysterious The Executioner Mystery Magazine, and a focus on Gil Cohen’s art for the Pinnacle and Gold Eagle books. Bob Deis and Wyatt Doyle did an entire book devoted to this, One Man Army, and that one’s highly recommended. There’s also a study of Cohen’s art in William H. Young’s A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction; there Young describes the cover of every Executioner and tie-in novel from the first volume all the way through the mid-1990s. The one thing I recall from this piece is Young’s note that Bolan on Cohen’s covers becomes increasingly weapons-bound as the novels progress; whereas the earliest volumes have him with a single gun and garbed in his blacksuit, by the latter volumes of the series he’s encumbered by grenades, ammo, and other accessories that dangle from his suit. 

This issue’s “Gall-ery” is devoted to the famous Betty Page, and we get a teaser that MAQ #4 will feature work from a female men’s mag author. There aren’t any reader letters this time, but overall Men’s Adventure Quarterly #3 looks as great as the first two – this is clearly a labor of love from Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham – and it’s highly recommended for anyone into men’s adventure novels or magazines. Also, this issue inspired me to finally get around to posting an Executioner curio I acquired some time ago; it will be up on Monday.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

That Man Bolt!

That Man Bolt!, by Peter Crowcroft
May, 1974  Pocket Books

To be filed under “They did a novelization of that?,” That Man Bolt! is a tie-in for the Blaxploitation flick starring Fred Williamson. To be honest, I’ve never seen the film, but the novel does a good job of conveying the story, which was obviously an attempt at a “black Bond.” The movie poster’s tagline even spelled it out for those who didn’t get it: “He’s been bonded!” 

Hero Jefferson Lincoln Bolt is clearly intended as a black James Bond for the ‘70s: he’s a globetrotting, ruggedly virile man of international mystery who wears the best clothes, drives the best cars, and beds the best babes. Given this, author Peter Crowcroft might’ve been just the man for this tie-in, with a somewhat stuffy, more “literary” prose style than, say, the Coffy tie-in. But then, Coffy was an urban thriller (an incredibly sleazy one in the tie-in, too). That Man Bolt! is more of a budget Bond affair, complete with kung-fu fights, scuba diving, and the obligatory locale-jumping. But within moments of starting the novel my Britdar was going off; this was certainly the work of a British author. That somewhat fussy and overwritten approach to pulp, as if written by an author who frowns at such such things. 

Unlike Bond, Jefferson Bolt is a courier, and he must make a good living at it, as his prime residence is a sweeping bachelor pad in Hong Kong, with other places around the world. He’s a kung-fu master, the baddest of bad-asses, and super-smart to boot. In other words, he’s way too idealized, which might be fine in the film, with Fred Williamson carrying it, but in the novel it comes off as tiresome. Bolt’s always a few steps ahead of his enemies, never fazed, and his fate is never in doubt. Crowcroft attempts to make Bolt more relatable by occasionally filling us in on his hardscrabble background…but then he goes and makes Bolt even more superheroic in the explicit sex scenes. But more on those anon. 

When we meet him Bolt’s in his stomping grounds of Hong Kong, where he’s just gotten out of jail. He soon learns he was put there on trumped-up charges courtesy Griffiths, who appears to be with British intelligence. Griffiths wants Bolt to handle a courier job in which Bolt will transfer a briefcase with one million dollars in it; three previous couriers have handled the job, and all are now dead. I’ll be completely up front with you all now and admit I couldn’t figure out what the hell the plot was about. But basically it just entails Bolt cuffing the briefcase to his wrist and venturing around the globe, waltzing unscathed out of various attempts on his life while still finding the time to bed a few babes. Oh and at one point he hides the briefcase, otherwise it would be a bit of a nuissance during all the babe-bedding. Anyway, Bolt chaffes at Griffith’s pressuring him, but ends up taking the job for the “high adventure” of it all. 

First Bolt heads to Los Angeles, where he promptly gets in a car chase. The passage in LA is so brief and narratively unimportant that I figured it was only there because the filmmakers had to shoot one scene in Los Angeles. After this Bolt heads to Las Vegas, where he has some contacts in the casino biz verify if the bills he’s carrying are legit. More importantly Bolt cozies up with old flame Samantha, a sexy lounge singer. Here’s where the novel definitely veers from the film, as surely the ensuing sex scene wasn’t this graphic. But curiously Crowcroft focuses more on Bolt and his body than on exploiting Samantha, particularly Bolt’s “thick, ten-inch manhood,” a phrase that is repeated a few times in the novel. But never more memorably than in its first appearance: “[Bolt’s] thick, ten-inch manhood always devastated Sam’s beautiful body on first impact.” 

You don’t need a degree in ‘70s crime to figure out what happens to Samantha next, especially when she’s soon thinking to herself how much she loves Bolt, and how she wants to go off with him and whatnot. Sure enough, an assassin wielding a Luger slips into the room and blows her head off! Crowcroft tries to use Sam’s murder to further humanize Bolt, with him occasionally thinking of her loss and etc. At any rate soon afterward Bolt’s back in Hong Kong, which makes you wonder why he left in the first place. Again, it’s no doubt because the producers wanted to mimic the Bond formula with locations all over the world; it’s a wonder there wasn’t a part where Bolt went to a ski resort so he could tangle with some enemies on the snowswept mountains. 

Bolt at one point is actually caught, where he’s strapped down and subjected to acupuncture, an “old Chinese torture.” He manages to escape, of course, leading to a fight with several thugs. Here Crowcroft shows that he can’t be bothered with writing an action scene, leaving it as, “It was an intense fight, while it lasted.” At this point my Britdar was going haywire. But at least Crowcroft is more descriptive in the sexual interludes, and one follows soon after: Bolt heads into Wanchai, a “salubrious district,” where he gets busy with Mai Lo Fong, a masseuse who speaks in ‘70s-mandatory pidgin English. Bolt whips out that “thick, ten-inch manhood” again; indeed, “Mai Lo was not sure it was within her natural capacity to take it.” Again Crowcroft focuses more on Bolt than the girl, but this scene has a strange bent to it, given Mai Lo’s employment of the mythical “Butterfly Kiss,” which has her body playing host to Sam’s ghost – so it is Sam who is riding Bolt, not Mai Lo. One last boink from beyond the grave, as it were. 

Ultimately the plot centers around Yun Soo-Chin, the “Howard Hughes” of Hong Kong, a wealthy old man who seems to be behind the various attempts on Bolt’s life. Even here Bolt finds the opportunity for some bed action, courtesy Dominque Kuan, Yun’s ultra-sexy Eurasian mistress. But Bolt is a bit of a prick; after his bout with Dominique, he scrawls a secret message for Yun on the girl’s nude rear end, mindless of how the notoriously-jealous Yun might react when he discovers Dominque’s whoredom. Not that the girl really minds, as from here on out Dominique is the closest thing to a main female character the novel offers. 

There’s also some stuff about an island off the coast which produces the best assassins in the world, kung-fu masters all, and wouldn’t you know it but Bolt himself is the best student the school’s ever produced! An assassin named Spider is given the task of killing Bolt, but any attempt at tension is immediately scuttled because we’ve already been told – by no less than the island’s top instructor himself – that Bolt is a better fighter. Ultimately this will lead to a climactic kung-fu fight between Bolt and Spider at novel’s end. We also have more sub-Bond stuff like Bolt scuba-diving onto one of Yun’s ships, and leading a big assault on his HQ at story’s end. 

Crowcroft seems invested in the tale, and no doubt puts more effort into the writing than is warranted. But at the same time his fussy, precise prose style makes the novel seem twice its length. (Insert your own “thick, ten inches” joke here.) Otherwise given that I’ve never seen the film, I can’t say whether Crowcroft’s novelization of That Man Bolt! offers anything different from the film; it could wildly diverge from the movie itself, but I have no idea. Maybe one of these days I’ll get around to actually watching the movie to find out.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Survivor (Peter Trees #2)

The Survivor, by John Q.
August, 1965  Avon Books

For some inexplicable reason I decided to read this second volume of Peter Trees, even though the first one bored me to tears. The helluva it is, I want to like the series; there’s something undeniably cool about an uber-masculine WWII vet still kicking ass and picking up babes in the mid-1960s. Plus he’s a secret agent! And he has his own fighter jet!! But once again author “John Q.” (aka John Quirk) has turned in a slow-moving yarn that features little in the way of the spy action promised on the cover. 

First a note on Quirk himself. In my review of The Bunnies I stated that he’d died in 1969. The other day I began researching Quirk and discovered this date is wrong – like, really wrong. John Quirk actually lived until 2012, and per this memorial is remembered more for his equestrian pursuits than his writing. I’m not sure where the 1969 date came from – I see it all over the net where Quirk’s novels are mentioned – but it does appear that his last published novel was The Tournament, the final Peter Trees novel, which came out in 1966 and was published by Signet. (Clearly Avon wasn’t fond of the series either and dropped it!) I came across a 1969 interview with Quirk where he mentions three novels he’s working on (one of them sounding very promising – a businessman getting involved with drugs and hippie sex!!), but none of them were published. Quirk was also a Detroit-based businessman, so maybe he just lost interest in the writing biz. Or maybe he just couldn’t get published anymore. 

So anyway, The Survivor (a nickname Trees was given by reporters, given his war record or somesuch) takes place “fifty-two hours” after the end of The Bunnies, and opens with Trees flying his modified Crusader fighter jet into Puerto Rico. This immediately gives us the impression that we’re in for a thrilling read…I mean the hero’s even got his own high-tech helmet, personally designed for him by Toptex, with a full-face visor providing him with oxygen instead of the usual mask. But folks, this will be it for Peter Trees’s Crusader. He lands it, parks it, and that’s that. The rest of the novel, believe it or not, is mostly composed of Trees engaging in glib conversations with a host of jet-setters here in Puerto Rico. That is, when he’s not lighting a cigarette or “swimming a quick forty laps” in the hotel pool. 

Also, the opening threw me for a loop; within the first two pages we’re informed that Trees just killed Jo Court, the pretty young secretary of Trees’s boss, billionaire Archangelli. It’s not every day you’re told right off the bat that the friggin’ hero just killed an unarmed woman…and that he feels absolutely nothing about it, as it was something “that needed doing.” I had to go back to The Bunnies immediately to remind myself what had happened, and yep – turns out at that novel’s climax the “lovely” Jo Court was outed as a traitor aligned with Archangelli’s archenemy Martinelli, and the novel ended with Trees taking her up in his Crusader…and cutting off her oxygen. Then dumping her corpse in the ocean and flying along on his merry way. Just to remind you again – he’s our hero! 

But then Quirk is at pains to let us know that Peter Trees is not your everyday white hat hero; he’s amoral, ruthless, and only appreciates fairness when it comes to sportsmanship. A female character in this novel often goes on how “cold” Trees is. What makes it curious is that Quirk clearly wants us to understand this. It makes for a hard-going read, though, as the hero is hard to root for. Peter Trees is so tough, skilled, and world-weary that he’s hard to relate to. I’m also getting annoyed with Quirk’s lack of follow-through on his own setup. So Trees is the personal pilot of Archangelli, but on the side is an agent for the top secret Program Committee, reporting to Broderick Whitehead, who ultimately reports to the President. Hardly anything is made of this setup, and as with the previous book more focus is placed on Trees’s affairs in the line of duty for his employer, rather than for the government. 

To this end Trees has flown to Puerto Rico to get “revenge” on Martinelli for the previous book’s affairs, but once again Quirk hits the brakes and puts everything on a real low boil for the duration. The plot, or at least what I could make out of it, has to do with Trees trying to get a lucrative “rail spur” from wealthy native Alvarez, so that Archangelli can add this to his acquisitions and beat Martinelli from getting it. There’s also something about a fuel injector, which I think is leftover plot from The Bunnies. What this entails is Trees lounging around the hotel and playing golf and trading taunts with Alvarez and his minions, among them a sadistic Brit named Pelham. 

I came across an interview once where Quirk stated that Peter Trees was his attempt at filling the void left by Ian Fleming’s death. But of course the big miss on Quirk’s part was that Fleming gave us entertainment in the James Bond novels. Regardless, Trees does a little literary borrowing with a clear reference to Goldfinger as Trees plays golf against Alvarez and his boys – Trees, just like Bond, shocked to discover that Alvarez is a cheater on the course, just as Goldfinger was. There’s also a lot of brand-naming, again per Fleming, with all of Trees’s stuff the best money can buy. But as for action, forget about it. Pelham clearly wants to fight Trees on the golf course, but everything blows over until the finale. Not that there’s any concern on Trees’s part. He's almost ridiculously macho, content that he can take on anyone; indeed, one almost gets a dose of second-hand testosterone from these books. 

As mentioned last time, Quirk clearly identified with his character, or at least wanted to; the back cover features the same tiny author photo, Quirk appearing ruggedly virile in an orange flightsuit, a fighter jet behind him and a Toptex helmet like Trees’s in his hands. This might’ve been author identification along the lines of Fleming, who would pose with a pistol on the back of the Bond novels. Or perhaps it was some satire on Quirk’s part (as it could’ve been on Fleming’s part as well). Maybe it was a bit of both. Trees though is famous, known for his war exploits and magazine spreads and whatnot, and the book features an unintentionally humorous part where Trees lounges in the hotel restaurant and wonders how many people there recognize him. It’s a wonder Quirk didn’t go all the way with it and have Trees be one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts; I mean he’s really that idealized. 

Things sort of pick up with the intro of Elizabeth Martin, a pretty young American woman who approaches Trees at Dorado Beach and says she needs his help. It will take a long time for her to tell him what she needs; the two trade world-weary barbs for pages and pages. Every single character in the novel is cynical and world-weary, and as I read The Survivor it occurred to me that this particular style would be the last thing I’d expect from an author who was himself a WWII fighter pilot vet. Quirk’s style is so smarmy and contrived that it comes off like some modern-day coastal hipster trying to write a spy novel while sipping soy lattes at the latest trendy coffee bistro. Nearly every line of dialog from nearly every character is an urbane, witty bon mot, as if these people were all fervent readers of The New Yorker. This makes for a very curious – one might even say “quirky” if one were given to lame puns – sort of read. Peter Trees is an alpha male of rugged virility, but he and the other characters talk like they’ve just wandered out of a John Cheever story. 

Well anyway, Elizabeth needs Trees’s help; something about her husband having been taken prisoner by Alvarez and only Trees can rescue him. She’s also to offer herself to Trees, though he puts her off a bit. Our hero is quite aware of his charm with the ladies, and if he plans to ravish them he’ll let them know when he’s good and ready. He is quite brutal with women; there’s a part where he comes upon an innocent Pan Am stewardess and, using her as bait, ties her up and leaves her in his hotel room bed as a decoy. He even tapes her mouth despite her begging him not to, which of course reminded me of the repercussions of doing such things, as seen in The Hunter. But hey, at least he’s polite; as with last time, “Mr.” and “Ms.” is incessantly used, even when characters are holding guns on one another. And Quirk also has an obsession with using the word “your” to denote (and mock) affiliations, ie “Your Mr. Archangelli” and “Your Mr. Pelham” and etc. 

Trees does eventually take Elizabeth up on her bedroom offer, though as with last time Quirk cuts immediately to black. He’s not even one to exploit the ample charms of his female characters. Oh, and now that I’m thinking of it, that sexy scuba babe on the cover (artwork credited to Ben Wohlberg) does not exist in the book! I was really bummed about that. Elizabeth is Trees’s sole conquest in the book, and he mostly seems to go through the motions; there’s no impression that he even finds her attractive or wants her. Again, the connotation is he’s more machine than man, merely a conqueror taking his rightful reward. Elizabeth is the character who often goes on about how cold and uncaring Trees is, not that he cares much what she thinks. In fact, he takes the bait to rescue her husband more because he looks forward to the challenge and the danger, and also because it somehow ties in to the whole rail spur plot. 

The climax is spectacularly underwhelming. Trees spends most of it off-page, leaving the heavy lifting to some Puerto Rican soldiers he’s aligned with. Then he gets Elizabeth Martin’s husband on a plane and escapes. Trees’s sole kill in the novel occurs when a villain slips into his hotel room, boasting how Trees will soon die, but our hero of course is unfazed by the threats – and quickly proves them hollow. While there’s no blood or excitement or anything, Trees does have a great badass line when he nails the would-be killer with his throwing knife: “You die an amateur. Now get on with it.” Otherwise our hero doesn’t even get his hands very dirty in the course of this installment. 

As mentioned Avon Books dropped the series after this one, but Signet picked it up for one more volume: the following year’s The Tournament, which I don’t currently have and am in no hurry to acquire. Quirk does try to develop some plot threads for future books: in exchange for his help, Trees promises a Puerto Rican colonel that he’ll come and train his men to battle communist insurgents, and by novel’s end Trees is already planning for this. There’s also another part where Broderick Whitehead tells Trees that one day soon the Program Committee will want to know the story behind Archangelli, and that Trees will have to snoop on his boss to see whether he’s secretly on the side of the Reds. 

Even to the end of The Survivor our protagonist is a merciless prick; Archangelli has a new secretary to replace Jo Court, just as young and pretty and all that, and she too has her share of witty repartee, even when she’s holding a gun on one of the bad guys. The novel ends with Trees figuring that one of these days he’ll probably have to give her a little sexing – and may even have to kill her, too, if it turns out she’s just as traitorous as Jo Court was! So the novel opens with our hero thinking about how he just murdered one unarmed girl and ends with him musing that he may need to kill another unarmed girl someday. Yeah, I seriously won’t miss this series. 

In addition to the Peter Trees novels, John Quirk also published three standalones. As a random note for anyone who researches him sometime, be aware that one of these novels, 1962’s No Red Ribbons, is abridged in the paperback edition. The original hardcover, which apparently focuses on a pair of WWII fighter pilots and their business and political affairs after the war, runs to nearly 600 pages. The paperback, released the following year, is around 300 pages, and per the copyright page the abridgement was by Quirk himself…so even he must’ve felt his novels were a little bulky and slow-going. But as mentioned the Peter Trees novels were his swan song so far as the publishing world went, so maybe he just lost interest in writing anyway.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Cape

The Cape, by Martin Caidin
No month stated, 1971  Doubleday

The last of the space race novels Martin Caidin published before he hit the big time with Cyborg (which would of course become better known as The Six Million Dollar Man), The Cape takes place in the near-future year of 1972 and is more focused on the ground crew than the astronauts. Also, like Caidin’s earlier No Man’s World, The Cape clearly didn’t resonate with readers of the day, as it only received this original hardcover edition – which, also like No Man’s World, is now grossly overpriced on the used books market. 

I will concur with the contemporary Kirkus review that The Cape was likely influenced by Countdown, only I feel it is a much inferior work to Frank Slaughter’s beach read potboiler. Caidin too attempts to write a sort of melodrama set in the space program, occuring in the titular Cape Kennedy and environs, only he lets his technical familiarity with the program get in the way of telling an entertaining tale. Whereas Slaughter put the characters first, Caidin is more about the nuts and bolts; as with Countdown the tale is more about the preparation for launch rather than the launch itself, with the astronauts minor characters in the narrative. The Cape is all about the technicians and managers behind the scene, and as in No Man’s World Caidin is sure to let you know he’s been there and knows all about it. 

To that end our hero is Ray Curtis, the director of Manned Launch Operations, a brawny and hirsute individual (Caidin often mentions the “thick hair” on the guy’s chest, stomach, and shoulders, giving the impression he’s more ape than man) who currently is overseeing the launch of Apollo 17. In reality this was the last lunar mission, commanded by Gene Cernan and featured in the great mini-documentary The Last Steps. Probably writing in 1971 (the most recent real-world Apollo launch mentioned is Apollo 14, but Caidin refers to it in such a way that I got the impression it hadn’t actually happened yet), Caidin presents a 1972 in which the space program hasn’t been totally gutted, and the US is still actively pursuing “this new ocean.” 

Also another difference here is that the Apollo 17 in Caidin’s novel will be launching the space station Skylab, something that didn’t happen in the real world until 1973 (and had nothing to do with Apollo 17). So again, Caidin was certainly familiar with NASA’s plans, and uses this setup to flesh out the surrounding Cape Kennedy…which turns out to have a somewhat rotten core, again as per Countdown. Actually there’s more to NASA’s plan: for reasons not suitably explained, the agency plans to launch Skylab via Apollo 17, and then secretly launch Apollo 18, a moon shot, immediately after. But Apollo 18 will rendezvous with 17 in Earth orbit, switch commanders, and the commander of Apollo 17 will get in Apollo 18’s command module and continue on the voyage to the moon. I couldn’t understand why the plan was so complicated, other than a vague reference that it might be a way to boost interest in the program again or somesuch. 

At any rate, the major issue with The Cape is that Caidin seems to want to write a beach-read sort of affair at first, but then changes course and turns in a tense thriller that’s undone by too much pedantic info and stalling. While Ray Curtis is the protagonist for the most part, Caidin also introduces a host of other characters, and humorously enough tells us about their past sexploits with girlfriends or mistresses or whatnot in their intros. Again, this just gives the impression that Caidin’s about to attempt a torrid novel about the space race, but ultimately he fails to deliver. Also the underground stuff is as reactionary as Caidin’s later Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve, with marijuana and hash literally turning one minor character’s teenaged daughter into a mindless sex-slave. This revelation only occurs at the very end, and as ever isn’t much exploited, though it does have the laugh-out-loud moment where the father, a bigwig in the space program, is taken to a hippie crash pad by the cops, and there is shown his nude daughter, fresh from her latest orgy and lying in a stupor on the floor. When she sees her dad, whom she is too drugged to even recognize, she asks him, “Wanna fuck?” It’s so over the top it could be out of a Jack Chick comic. 

In addition to Ray Curtis we have a score of supporting characters. Most interesting is Danny Stuart, an Apollo astronaut who has already been to the moon, and will now be the first person to walk on the moon twice, given that he’ll be the Apollo 17 commander who switches over to 18 and heads for the moon. His intro also has us expecting the beach read stuff, as it opens with him flying a jet, ruminating on how astronauts like to have a little extra something on the side in Florida while keeping their wives back in Houston, and then has him meeting up with his mistress – only to learn she’s pregnant! But unfortunately Stuart will soon fade away in the text, his plot more focused on the ramifications of a blackmail scheme cooked up against him by another minor character. At any rate, the opening bit on astronaut marital infidelity could almost come out of Tom Wolfe’s later The Right Stuff (or even “Post-Orbital Remorse”): 

But man, Caidin could have delivered on the “space race beach read” novel I’ve been looking for, by just making Danny Stuart the hero and focusing on his extramarital exploits. And speaking of which all these guys have pretty hectic personal lives; even Paul Jaeger, the fussy ex-Nazi Quality Control Inspector, has his own mistress. Caidin is so focused on quickly dispensing with such info that he loses control of any plotting: for example, we learn early on that Ray Curtis’s secretary, Ginny, is so in love (or actually lust) with her boss that she fantasizes all the time about having sex with him. She’s prone to giving him footrubs and other perks that of course would be frowned upon today. So Caidin establishes this, and will have unintentionally hurmorous moments later in the book where Ginny, all aflutter, will stumble away from a confused Curtis. But Caidin lacks follow-through skills; after Ginny’s secret lust has been established, we cut over to Curtis, unaware of his secretary’s love for him, as he drives off to meet his latest girlfriend. But instead of telling us about her, Caidin instead has Curtis flash back to how he met his first wife, what she was like in bed, and etc…and then neither the first wife nor the latest girlfriend appear in the text again! 

I’m learning though that this is part and parcel of Caidin’s writing style. I’m always comparing him to Mark Roberts, but in reality his prose style is most similar to William Crawford. So similar in fact that if I didn’t know better I’d hypothesize that “William Crawford” was a pseudonym of Martin Caidin, but then we know they were two separate people. But their narrative style, dialog, and storytelling peculiarities are almost identical. Neither seems capable of allowing their characters to breathe, and neither seems unable to stop lecturing the reader via the narrative. There is so much info-dumping in The Cape that you quickly lose all interest. It would be great if you were learning about the space program, or how NASA works, or some other interesting period detail, but for the most part it just comes off like arbitrary ranting and digressing…same as in Crawford. 

Another interesting character who initially seems important but ultimately becomes trivial is Gene DeBarry, a dashing reporter (he’s compared to a young Orson Welles) who lives in an entire apartment complex along the beach. Caidin has it that when all the “pink slips” were handed out at NASA after Apollo 11, real estate was cheap given how many fired employees left the Cape. DeBarry purchased an entire building and refitted into his own domain, continnuing to write about the space program here. His intro too makes us expect some kinky stuff, opening as it does with his nude girlfriend commenting on how the naked DeBarry’s balls look when he’s sitting down(!). DeBarry too could’ve made for a fine protagonist in a torrid melodrama about the space program, but he soon fades into the narrative woodwork. I did think his pad sounded super-cool in that late ‘60s way I so enjoy, though:

There are other characters as well, but most of them gradually hinge around Ben Rayburn, a Cape-based crime boss who acts as a liason for people engaged in various underground activities, and usually blackmails them for it. For example, we learn that Danny Stuart’s mistress is pregnant. They both decide on an abortion, and Stuart tells the girl he knows a guy named Ben Rayburn who could help set up something – like what doctor they could use, or where they could go to have it done discreetly. Then we flash over to Houston, where Danny’s wife Dee suspects her husband of being a cheater. She decides to hire a Cape-based private eye to shadow him…and the name she’s given for the job is Ben Rayburn. Thus Rayburn is hired separately by both husband and wife, and ultimately uses this to blackmail Stuart. But even this is only a minor distubrance in the narrative, and even here Caidin fails to deliver on the dramatic potential. Danny Stuart pretty much disappears from the text after his intro! 

Rather, the focus is on a panoply of characters and the fact that the CIA et al suspect the Reds are going to sabotage the Skylab launch. Worse yet, intel has it that one of the top men at NASA is a traitor. This suspense angle becomes the impetus of the plot, which plays out over a week. Curtis doesn’t take the info seriously, claiming that there have been sabotage warnings on every prior launch, but soon gets the vibe that this one might be legit. At one point he comes up with the novel idea to use the recently-hired “Negro” engineers at NASA as undercover monitors to ferret out Reds, figuring they’d be less capable of treason than the Germans who came over to NASA after WWII. 

Speaking of which there’s a whole bunch of stuff here that readers today (and even in 1971) would find unpleasant, like Curtis “jokingly” referring to his black colleague by the dreaded N-word. For that matter, when villain Gene Clayburn later finds out that one of his hookers had sex with one of the black engineers, he goes ballistic: “You balled the jig?!” I know that’s racist and all, but it made me laugh to think how younger readers of today probably wouldn’t understand what the sentence even means. They’d probably think it was some new dance move. That said, Rayburn goes on to beat the woman unmerciful for it. As for the other “inappropriate today” stuff, I did enjoy how the novel took place in a working world in which Human Resources hadn’t yet been invented; as mentioned secretary Ginny enjoys giving her boss rubdowns, and there’s a bunch of smoking and drinking in the office. 

The Cape slowly builds up steam as various government agents come on the scene to help figure out the sabotage plot. I got another postmodern chuckle out of how one of them, a notorious killer, had the last name Clinton. That Cartel’s everywhere, man! But it’s all just so static and listless. The finale is pretty apocalyptic, though, with the massive Vehicle Assembly Building nearly being destroyed in a planned explosion. This part was an almost eerie prediction of 9/11, with thousands of employees in the building losing their life in the destruction. But Curtis pushes on with the Skylab launch, leading to a anticlimactic finale in which the main villain is outed – though this is a nice bit of misdirection from Caidin, who has us suspecting someone else. 

It’s no mystery why The Cape failed to make any traction. Caidin does himself no favors by turning in an un-thrilling thriller. Also I’d say public interest in the space race was at its lowest around this time; Caidin does mention the same thing in his novel, but also has the Russians still in open competition with the US, which at least still lends the launches and whatnot a little public awareness. In reality though the Russians had pretty much thrown in the towel at this point. At any rate, The Cape only received this original 374-page hardcover edition, and as mentioned it’s now pricey like most of Caidin’s other novels are. If you still want to read it, just do what I did and request it via Interlibrary Loan.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Invisibles (Mark Hood #11)

The Invisibles, by James Dark
August, 1969  Signet Books

The penultimate volume of Mark Hood sees our hero in some never-named Caribbean island, here to investigate the possibility that someone has gotten hold of fissionable material. As an agent for Intertrust, Hood’s ongoing assignment is to ensure nuclear power remains in the hands of just a few countries. When we meet him he’s already on location in this “Caribbean stronghold,” trying to figure out who could be behind this scheme. 

There’s a definite vibe of Pre-Code thriller Black Moon to this one, with pounding voodoo drums always in the background and overly-superstitious natives, many of whom have congregated around the mysterious ruler Shango (not to be confused with shanga), who operates out of a remote fortress. There’s no pickup from previous volumes, nor any appearance of Hood’s earlier colleagues, like Tremayne or Murimoto. Instead Hood’s working solo, and as we meet him he’s rolling along in his rental car one night and comes upon a native lying in the middle of the road. The dude whips out a rifle and after a bit of action Hood takes him out with one of his karate moves; as ever, Hood makes most of his kills this time with his hands. This is how I prefer to make my own, btw. 

Hood’s local contact is Sangster, an Intertrust agent who has been on location on this island for the past few years to monitor the situation. He’s not as memorable as former agents Hood worked with; his most memorable qualities are his Land Rover and his limp, which he acquired during some rough field action years before. Oh, and the knockout rum punch he likes to make. Otherwise he’s an affable sort, and there to fill Hood in on the local happenings and whatnot. While Hood’s driving to see Sangster, a “monster” springs up and begins to chase him – tornado winds, a frothing sea, trees ripped out by their roots by an invisible wind, etc. Hood’s car is thrown off a cliff but he manages to survive. 

This is how Hood first begins to understand that his unknown enemies on the island can control the weather. Here he also meets Ecolette, a hostuff half-Creole babe who has been hurt in the melee; she claims “the Invisibles” are after Hood. Soon we’ll learn that she is referring to voodoo spirits. Hood mends her injured arm in a nice sequence in which Dark (the pseudonym is much easier to type than the author’s real name, J.E. MacDonnell) reminds us of Hood’s medical background. But there’s no hanky-panky and Ecolette takes off. Next day Mark learns she’s the daughter of Chardonnier, a conservative Frenchman who is running for president of the island and who is backed by the US, given his “liberal” agenda. He’s running against Shango, who heads up a “left-wing” party that the US does not want to see in power. Some definitions must have clearly changed over the years! 

Dark successfully captures the colonial vibe here, with Hood and Sangster meeting Chardonnier in his sweeping home off the sea as they have drinks, smoke cigarettes, and engage in “man talk.” Dark is also very good at doling out info via dialog; as ever the book is a fast-moving, professionally-produced yarn that comes in at a concise 150-some pages, but has more impact than some books twice its size. This I feel is the true sign of a gifted author, and Dark is certainly that; I’m sorry there’s only one more volume to go. At any rate, here Hood gets the info on Shango’s operation, and it would seem clear he is the villain Hood has been sent here to dispatch. Dark does try to drum up some brief suspense when Hood learns that Chardonnier himself is a physicist, but this suspense is quickly jettinsoned; Chardonnier, it seems, is just too likable and Old World regal to be involved in any nuclear nefariousness. 

We readers know Shango is the bad guy, given the few cutovers to his perspective. With his “lizardlike” eyes and bald head, he comes off as more repitillian than human, and he’s capable of hypnotizing people merely by staring at them. He sends his top henchman over to Hood’s to take him out, leading to another entertaining sequence where our hero again uses his hands and feet instead of a gun. Dark hits all the series bases here, with Hood even engaging in a quick skindiving session to hide the body in some underwater coral. This bit of action perturbs Hood’s boss, Forescue, who talks to Hood via phone from Geneva and comes off as particularly jerkish this time: “The job is too important to have you boys pussyfooting around playing 007’s.” 

Speaking of James Bond, the following voodoo sequence is straight out of Live And Let Die. Hood pressures Ecolette into taking him to that night’s voodoo ceremony in the hills, and they watch from afar as a woman is sacrificed. But they’re spotted, and Hood takes off, making use of Sangster’s Land Rover on the rugged terrain as men with torches and guns chase him; a thrilling sequence that rivals anything by Ian MacAlister. You can almost hear Mandigo’s The Primeval Rhythm Of Life on the soundtrack playing in your imagination. Even here Hood manages to only use his hands in the action scenes, at one point memorably breaking a dude’s hand through the Land Rover’s door window and sticking the torch back in the guy’s face. 

Ecolette meanwhile has been plunged into an erotic sort of stupor from the ceremony – the implication being that she’s been raised with voodoo so under its sway – and Hood has to literally slap her out of it once they’ve gotten to safety. She comes to demanding that Hood take her back to his villa for some all-night boinkery; getting “on all-fours,” she declares, “We will do everything – everything that is possible for two lovers to do to each other.” Dark is a bit more explicit than previous volumes – nothing too crazy, though – with lines like, “[Hood] pounded himself into her.” Indeed we’re told, with no juicy details, that the two engage in various conjugations all the night long, only stopping once they’ve passed out. 

Things get real the following morning, when Hood discovers the true power of voodoo, at least when it comes to its true believers. Here Hood finally decides to take things straight to Shango. First though he has a meeting with Chardonnier, who again doles out info in capably-handled dialog that doesn’t come off like exposition. Chardonnier theorizes that Shango has a “heat-transference” contraption which is capable of drumming up crazy weather and directing it at his prey. So Hood calls up Sangster, grabs his .38, and they head on up into the mountains to infiltrate the villain’s fortress – even going in by the front door! After taking out a thug or two, Hood discovers the power of Shango’s hypnotic eyes. 

Once again Dark capably displays Hood’s medical knowledge with our hero having done minor surgery on himself, planting something within his arm that will allow him to escape Shango’s sway. But while there’s a bit more action here, with Hood taking out a few more thugs, the finale of The Invisibles is a bit anticlimactic, with Hood waiting for Chardonnier to arrive, so the physicist can make use of Shango’s secondary weather-control device and use it on Shango himself, who is departing in a destroyer with a larger weather weapon to lay waste to Miami. Personally I prefer my action pulp novels to end with the hero doing all the heavy lifting, not some one-off supporting character. 

But otherwise there isn’t much to complain about with this one. Once again Dark’s taken the series from its too-stuffy origins into the outer limits of pulp, complete with nuclear-armed “voodooists” and their sacrificial ceremonies. So I can only say again I’m sorry the series will end with the next volume, and also it bums me that one of the Mark Hood novels, 1966’s Spy From The Deep, was inexplicably excluded from the American reprints. Worse yet, like any other vintage paperback published in Australia, it’s not only incredibly scarce but incredibly overpriced when you do manage to find a copy.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Penetrator #39: Cruise Into Chaos

The Penetrator #39: Cruise Into Chaos, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1980  Pinnacle Books

The back cover of this 39th installment of The Penetrator promises a tale in which Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin takes on a Mafia scheme involving a WWII U-Boat that preys on cruise lines and other ships, so it only makes sense that the story itself is more concerned with Mark first posing as a mobster, then getting in an extended survival sequence in the desert. The actual “U-Boat preying on cruise lines” material doesn’t even occur until the final chapters of the book. 

So then it’s more indication that Mark Roberts was bored with the series, but then he’s also clearly lost the bloodlust that drove his earliest installments. Once again “The Penetrator” comes off more like a TV detective or cop than he does the brutal revenger of early in the series. I mean, the bit with Mark impersonating a mobster. Mark corners the guy in Portland early in the book…and merely knocks him out, then gives him a drug dosage that will keep him under for several days. I mean what the hell happened to the Penetrator who would’ve blown the guy’s brains out with nary a concern? This puzzling change to the series – which is also reflected in the volumes written by Chet Cunningham – is to me the most interesting aspect of these later Penetrator novels. Were both authors just drawn to a kinder and gentler protagonist, or was someone at Pinnacle involved in the change? Or it could be the opposite – maybe the early, brutal Penetrator was a Pinnacle mandate, and the requirement waned as the series went on. 

Who knows or cares, as this point it’s very clear that The Penetrator was just a way for Roberts to indulge in his latest interests and get a steady paycheck for it. So this time he must’ve read something about U-Boats, and maybe planned to take a cruise, so decided to integrate both elements into the story. Oh, and maybe he’d also read about desert survival so thought he’d include that, too. But what I mean to say is, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it, but given that he’d written so many volumes at this point you can’t blame the guy. It’s just that these latter volumes make for poor entertainment when compared to the wild volumes of the earlier years. 

Anyway per usual we have the opening of Mark in the Stronghold, going about his usual daily activities and deciding he’ll look into this recent rash of piracy off the coast of Baja California. We’ve already seen the U-Boat in action in the opening, complete with a boarding party of pirates. They are a pretty vicious lot, wiping out some of their prey. Roberts delivers an effective opening in which he takes us into the perspectives of the various victims, among them a young woman taking her first cruise. Back to Mark in the Stronghold, who figures the Mafia is behind the action. An interesting element here is that Professor Haskins, formerly the guy who came up with missions for Mark, has almost been reduced to butler status, like the Penetrator’s version of Alfred. All he does is make drinks for Mark and act as a sounding board. 

Our hero heads off to Portland, where as mentioned he assumes the identity of a Mafia bigwig, one named Boots. Once again Roberts refers to previous volumes; one of the Portland thugs immediately pegs “Boots’ as the Penetrator, given that he stood face-to-face in front of him “a couple years ago” in Nebraska. This would be a reference to the Roberts-penned installment #17: Demented Empire. Mark bluffs his way out of it, but this sets off what will consume the first half of Cruise Into Chaos: Mark Hardin posing as a mobster and his cover constantly in danger of being blown. Speaking of being blown, Mark also spends the majority of the novel turning down a young woman’s pleas for sex: this would be young Massalina, daughter of the Portland don, with her “small, high-poised breasts.” Despite her seductive nature, not to mention her claims of sexual activity since she was 10 years old, Massalina is only 17, and Mark spends the entire novel kicking her out of his bed. 

So anyway “Boots” is like a U-Boat specialist or somesuch, and thus had been called in to Portland to help the Don figure out how to operate this U-Boat piracy thing better, so Mark does some manual-cramming to be able to bluff his way through training other mobsters. Roberts shoehorns in a lot of stuff he’s gleaned about captaining submarines and whatnot, just like he shoehorned in all the similar techincal stuff in #33: Satellite Slaughter. There’s only a bit of action here and there, usually due to various mobsters trying to prove “Boots” is really the Penetrator. For once Mark actually kills a couple people before the last few pages, as has been the common trend of the past several volumes. But despite which his identity is uncovered, leading to a thrilling bit where Mark’s able to escape the mob’s holding pen in Mexico and make his mistake. 

This seemingly-endless sequence is straight out of Gannons Vendetta, with Mark making his way across the unforgiving desert while trying to elude his pursuers. In fact, if I’m not mistaken a similar sequence occurred in a previous Penetrator novel. But it goes on and on, with Mark setting up traps for rabbits, finding some water, trying to turn the tables on his pursuers. At one point he gets hold of their helicopter and makes his escape, able to get back to the Stronghold to plan again. There then follows a random bit where Mark gets hold of a B-25 bomber and makes a bombing run over the mob’s Baja California base, blasting them to pieces but still unable to get the U-Boat itself. The most humorous part here is that Roberts has his hero flying a WWII bomber and blowing away the bad guys, but rushes right on to the next part as if not comprehending how big of a deal this is. Or more likely he just hurries through so more thoughtful readers won’t ask any questions. 

This finally leads to what the back cover promised; Mark becomes a passenger on a cruise through this passage of the sea, hoping it will be attacked by the U-Boat. And in these more lenient days he’s managed to bring along his entire arsenal in a carry-on crate: machine guns, pistols, even an M-79 grenade launcher. His brilliant way to bypass discovery is to tell the porter he’ll carry the crate himself! So Mark just lounges around and takes advantage of the various dinners as he waits for the U-Boat to hit. He figures he’s on the right ship when none other than Massalina shows up, propositioning him once again, even if he’s the Penetrator. And once again Mark turns her down. Why Massalina would be on a cruise ship about to be hit by her dad’s thugs is a question Roberts doesn’t ask, nor answer. But after this latest refusal Massalina tries to take out Mark herself, “accidentally” shooting at him with a shotgun for clay pigeon practice, then later tossing a fire extinguisher at him. 

The finale is cool if not suitably exploited for all its worth, a sort of proto-Die Hard at sea, with a heavily-armed Mark getting the better of the boarding gangsters. But even here the spectacular gore is toned down, and once again it’s a “kinder, gentler” Mark Hardin, who at times merely knocks out his opponents instead of blasting them to gory bits. However it does get fairly bloody when one of the gangsters, escaping on the U-Boat, is blown in half by Mark’s M-79, and his corpse prevents the hull from fully closing, thus making for a fatal dive for those aboard. Given that he’s already had his hero fly a WWII bomber earlier on, Roberts again says to hell with reality and has Mark merely toss his weapons overboard and talk his way out of custody – though he does let the cops know who he is before escaping. 

Another interesting thing about these later installments is the battle between Roberts and Cunningham over who Mark Hardin’s “real love” is. For Cunningham, it’s a character he created: Joanna Tabler, hotstuff Federal agent. For Roberts, it’s a character he created: Angie Dillon, widowed mother of twins. Both women are aware Mark Hardin is the Penetrator, and both are in love with him. Cruise Into Chaos closes with Mark making the random decision to head on over to Utah for some hot lovin’ with Angie. Given that Roberts penned the final volume of the series, I’m going to assume Angie is the woman he ended up with – and unfortunately for our hero, it was a permanent end.

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Bigamist

The Bigamist, by William Hegner
October, 1977  Pocket Books

With sales “over 1,000,000,” William Hegner turns out another paperback potboiler, one which memorably features a disco-era lothario on the (uncredited) cover. Another notable element is that Hegner this time actually writes a novel, or at least what passes for one with him; there’s no real beginning, middle, or end, but at least it isn’t just a sequence of sleazy sex scenes, a la The Ski Lodgers or Stars Cast No Shadows

Indeed, the sexual material in The Bigamist is less explicit than Hegner’s previous books. But unfortunately we don’t here have a trashy masterpiece like The Worshipped And The Damned. Instead, this one’s more of a slow-moving character study, with the caveat that the character being studied is your typical self-involved Hegnerian antihero. Barry Solon is aligned with past Hegner protagonists in that he’s a narcissistic egotist involved with the entertainment industry; he’s the creator and writer of the successful soap opera Love And Let Love. However the title of the book is a bit misleading; while Barry does indeed come to have two wives during the course of the novel, the reason why is inexplicably not much dwelt upon, and this aspect of his life is kept hidden from other characters. 

The novel opens with Barry in a rather cushy setup; he lives in a Manhattan apartment Monday through Friday, furiously pounding out a daily quota of pages for the soap. Friday evenings he drives to Cape May on the coast, where he lives with his wife of twelve years, Merry, as well as their two young daughters. The two lives do not meet: his soap opera colleagues suspect “Merry” doesn’t exist and is merely an excuse Barry uses to avoid going to parties on the weekend, and the locals in Cape May suspect that Merry’s husband is just a myth. With this sort of a setup it’s only expected that Barry will stray from time to time, and we see him in action with a busty actress early in the book, an act for which Barry later chastizes himself. 

One thing I’ve learned from Hegner is not to expect to learn much about the world in which the novel is set. So don’t go into The Bigamist thinking you’ll get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of soap opera production in the 1970s. The actual amount of stuff we get in this regard is a few meetings Barry attends with the producer and director, and a half-page appearance by the soap’s lead actress. Otherwise the novel, like most every other Hegner offering, occurs in a vacuum, one solely populated by the protagonist’s ego. It’s as if nothing else can exist outside of Barry and his viewpoints; in this regard he has the vibe of a modern Twitter addict, stranded within his own bubble. We also don’t get an idea of when the novel occurs; it seems to me that most of the Hegner novels I’ve read have been set in eras earlier than the publication date, and that’s possible here, with a brief mention that Love And Let Love got its start in “the earliest days of television.” But then later on hippies are mentioned, so as usual it’s hard to say, and probably just another example of the “vacuum effect” of Hegner’s self-involved characters. 

But it’s too bad we don’t learn more about the soap Barry writes, as it sounds wild as hell, with plots about “voyeurism, exhibitionism, and masturbation,” not to mention a subplot in which the main female character engages in a brief bisexual fling! It’s through one of these subplots that Barry runs afoul of a notoriously bitchy TV critic, who takes umbrage at a storyline involving homosexuality. As Barry’s producer notes, the critic himself is likely gay, thus got offended; the show’s director, Rotterman, gets first-hand indication of this when he’s at a Manhattan bar one night and spots the critic, Matrix (presumably a relative of John Matrix), surrounded by a couple male clingers-on. Rotterman, progressively drunk, finds himself annoyed with the open display of gayness: “If [Rotterman] was a political liberal, then he was a social conservative.” I thought this line was very interesting, as it reminded me of the findings of a recent survey

Rotterman has a drunken run-in with Matrix, who ends up slapping the director, and this leads to Matrix having a long-boil hatred for Love And Let Love as well as anyone involved with it. But folks William Hegner is not one for paying off on plot points; believe it or not, but Barry and Matrix never meet, and for the most part Matrix will come and go in the narrative via his increasingly-bitchy appraisals of any soap opera Barry’s involved with. At any rate, Barry finds his tenure on the show coming to an end due to behind-the-scenes politics; the top sponsor suspects “the well might run dry” and requests that a new writer be brought to keep the show moving while Barry’s on vacation. This will lead to what is really the only running conflict in the novel. 

Oh and Barry doesn’t go on vacation with his wife Merry, either. Surely the most abused character in the novel, Merry is a loving wife who misses her husband and treats him with kid gloves when he’s home. But despite this he treats her like dirt; there’s a part where she has a painting on exhibit and is very excited to go to the gallery opening with Barry, but he’s a total prick – he refuses to talk to anyone, immediately goes to the bar, and promptly leaves when someone has the audacity to approach him. And this happens quite early in the book, meaning that it’s pretty hard for the reader to drum up much enthusiasm for this particular protagonist. But anyway, Barry first goes to Key West, where he engages a pair of hookers; Hegner actually leaves this off-page, which is hard to believe from the guy who wrote The Ski Lodgers. Maybe he was trying for self-restraint this time, sort of like how Clive Barker pointedly reigned in on the description in Cabal after the description-dense Weave World

Barry returns to New York to find the show’s been “augmented” with a new writer, a young grad student named Martin Lombard who has studied melodrama writing and such. He also turns out to be the nephew of the main sponsor. Barry can see the writing on the wall, so takes off for yet another solo vacation, this time to Cape Cod. Here he meets a young local named Eden Summers, who also happens to be a painter like his wife Merry, but is more of a hippie type. The two hit it off quickly, but again Hegner leaves the boinkery details vague. Then, without any warning, Hegner jumps forward six years, and Barry and Eden are now married and have two children, and meanwhile Barry’s still married to Merry, his daughters with her now in their teens. 

What possessed Barry to marry Eden? To have kids with her? Hegner is not interested in answering these questions. Nor is Barry himself; the latest set of kids is just as immaterial to him as the previous set, with the only difference being that Eden often badgers Barry for never being around them. But our cad of a “hero” trades off between wives; he sticks to the usual Monday to Friday work week in New York, then will head to either Cape at whim: Cape Cod for Eden or Cape May for Merry. And when he does go to either home, he usually encloses himself in his study and works on the “GAN,” aka the Great American Novel he has spent years writing. Ultimately even this is little explored; the book is published, at novel’s end, but all we learn about it is that it’s very long “family saga.” 

Also, Barry’s now involved with a new soap opera, this one another of his own creation, but one that runs in a late-night slot so is free to be even more daring than his previous one had been. However Hegner is even more vague about this show than he was about Love And Let Love, and indeed as the novel progresses Hegner basically rewrites the first half of the novel: once again the show’s top sponsor turns out to be the same as the one on the previous soap, and once again Martin Lombard is brought in as a new writer by request of the sponsor! All a carbon copy of the scenario we read in the first half of the book. 

In fact, Hegner’s so disinterested in his own book that he goofs; as mentioned, early in the book Barry takes off from Merry’s art exhibit because some local guy dares to talk to him. Later in the novel, Martin Lombard mentions that he’s happened to meet this guy, Barry’s neighbor at the Cape. Barry, concerned that someone’s about to discover his double life, recalls meeting this neighbor “last winter.” But folks the scene in question occurred six years earlier, not “last winter;” Hegner has apparently forgotten the flash-forward he placed in the middle of the novel. But anyway the supposed threat here is that Martin Lombard, who suddenly is presented as a skirt-chasing drunkard, might be on Barry’s trail, deducing that he has two wives. But the threat really is only “supposed,” because Barry Solon is such a prick that you couldn’t care less if he is uncovered. 

Actually, Hegner is so disinterested in the novel that he gives it one of the most half-assed endings I’ve ever encountered. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Okay, so as mentioned Hegner establishes the possibility that Lombard might know Barry’s secret. Barry shuttles around between the Capes, disregarding Lombard’s assertation – gleaned from studying Barry’s scripts – that Barry has a split personality. The last we see of Barry he’s heading back into New York, his thoughts focused on how to get out of this mess. And folks, next chapter opens…and Barry’s dead!! The rest of the novel is told in backstory, with Barry having collapsed on a Manhattan street and dying immediately of a “massive brain hemorrhage.” Hegner leaves all of the juicy stuff off-page…I mean it’s discovered post-mortem about Barry’s dual lives, but there’s no part where the wives meet, or the kids meet, or anything! We just learn that both families are at the funeral, with Merry crushed and Eden disinterested. Oh and meanwhile Barry’s GAN is maligned as “formless and immature,” but turns out to be a huge hit when it’s finally published – with a TV series to be adapted from it and written by Martin Lombard. 

And with this The Bigamist comes to a close. While it was nice to see Hegner write an actual novel for once, the problem I had was that the novel kind of sucked. Even Hegner’s talent for bitchy dialog was mostly absent; too much of the novel was filtered through Barry’s impressions. Anyway Hegner only published one more PBO after this one, The Creator, after which he stopped publishing for twenty years, to return with 1999’s Razzle Dazzle.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Operation Snake (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #51)

Operation Snake, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

“I’d never been on a mission where so much was going on and so little was happening.” 

So narrator Nick Carter tells us midway through this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster, courtesy Jon Messmann, and folks sadly that for the most part sums up Operation Snake. This one’s nowhere near the crazed pulp majesty of Messmann’s earlier The Sea Trap, despite having a plot that features crazed cults, spiritual transference, and an actual yeti. For the most part, Operation Snake is a slow-moving travelogue set in Nepal, and I suspect “Nick’s” comment is Messmann’s subtle acknowledgement to the reader that the thrills have been few. 

And yes, we’re in the first-person narrative years now, with Nick himself telling us about his mission. I find this conceit hard to believe; I mean when the hell does super-agent Nick Carter have the time to even write these books? At any rate he’s on the job when we meet him, flying into Nepal on his latest caper. One thing the first-person gimmick robs from us is the usual setup of Nick being called into Hawk’s office, being briefed, etc. As is the case here, Messmann just leaves all that to backstory quickly doled out by Nick as he looks through an airplane window. As usual he’d been called out of bed, on vacation and the usual setup, when he got the urgent call from Hawk to get into DC asap for briefing. 

The plot Nick’s trying to stop this time is especially relevant today: the Red Chinese are taking advantage of the porous Nepalese border and sending Commie saboteurs over as “immigrants.” Couldn’t help but think of our own porous border and the countless unvetted immigrants who are literally being bussed into the country by the current administration, many of them with possible terror ties. (Not to mention the ones who have Covid but are dropped off on Texas city streets regardless.) But of course the big difference here is that the Federal government in Nick Carter’s world wants to stop such plots. So Nick is to wing his way over to Nepal, hook up with a local contact, and try to prevent a power-crazed monk from perpetrating the Red Chinese plan. Oh, and there’s also something about a yeti, aka the Abominable Snowman

Abruptly upon entering Nepal Nick encounters Hilary Cobb, a hotstuff blonde British reporter with massive breastesses; Messmann, Zod bless him, is sure to mention those big boobs every single time Hilary appears. But Nick resents Hilary’s “masculine” attitude in how she’s such a nosy, bossy pest; our hero is particularly reactionary this time, telling us he hates it when pretty women spoil their prettiness by trying to act like men. And Hilary certainly sets him off, despite her massive gazoongas, which Nick can’t help but oggle. Indeed he makes it a point to leer at ‘em, making Hilary bridle with rage; this entertainingly misogynist stuff is similar, I recall, to how Nick treated the hotstuff marine scientist babe in The Sea Trap. And sure enough, it will only serve to (eventually) turn Hilary on good and proper. 

In fact Nick’s treatment of Hilary is downright brutal in our touch-feely modern #metoo era; not knowing she’s dealing with a badass secret agent, Hilary tries to pull a fast one on Nick, sending him a fake summons so he leaves his hotel room and then slipping inside to steal his precious mountain climbing equipment. When Nick figures out what’s happened he quickly puts her to rights: he slaps her, ties her up, strips her, and of course oggles her boobs the whole time. Hilary is reduced to enraged tears. It’s all quite an uncomfortable sequence given that Nick is the friggin’ hero of the story! But we are to remember this all is occuring in a less sophisticated era, yadda yadda, and besides Nick’s just trying to keep the stubborn girl from following him out into the mountains, as he knows things are about to get very dangerous out there. 

Nick heads into the mountains where he meets his contact, who of course turns out to be another hotstuff babe, this one a petite native named Khaleen. “You’re a very beautiful creature,” Nick later tells her in another display of his brutish skill with the ladies – and of course she likes it. Khaleen’s the daughter of a local notable who stands against Ghotak, the power-mad leader of the Snake Cult. So basically Ghotak claims to speak for the snake god but is really an agent of the Red Chinese, and Nick’s intent here is to act as someone who has travelled quite far to speak against Ghotak and get the natives to rise up against him. So in other words the plot too is from a less sophisticated age, the natives suitably superstitious and gullible, and likely would reduce overly-sensitive modern readers to their own enraged tears. 

This is demonstrated posthaste when Ghotak calls a meeting at the temple that night, and per the ceremony a woman in the audience is chosen to “give” herself to the snake god, to be used by one of the men. All while tribal drumming is going on and a feverish pitch of eroticism is being reached by the onlookers, of course, with the expected orgy ensuing. Ghotak, as a challenge to Nick the interloper, calls on Khaleen for the honor, and she proceeds to storm onto the stage and starts dancing up a sensual storm. This bit is kind of overdone, with Nick trying to tamp down his horniness while protecting Khaleen’s virtue; he ends up storming the stage before any of the men can get to her and whisking her off to safety. However that night Khaleen repays Nick in the time-honored men’s adventure fashion: offering herself to him in his room. This leads to a mostly-inexplicit sequence; surprisingly, Messmann is much more conservative in tone here than he was in The Sea Trap

Nick eventually tangles with the yeti in a memorable sequence; after the latest Ghotak challenge he heads into the mountain to fight the monster, which apparently serves Ghotak. Hilary manages to go along with him, and soon enough the two are being chased by the shaggy, hairy creature; Messmann of course has it that Nick doesn’t believe in the yeti even though the natives do. Even sophisticated types like Khaleen and her father, with their fancy British educations, believe the yeti exists. And now here Nick gets first-hand proof, and only manages to fight it off so he and Hilary can escape. 

Stuck in the snowy expanse of the mountains overnight, Nick and Hilary engage in exactly the activities you’d expect. Even here Messmann keeps up the lovably misogynist tone of his hero, again recalling how Nick treated the main female character in The Sea Trap: “Are you going to try to make love to me?” Hillary asks, to which Nick responds: “I’m not going to try. I’m going to do it.” Indeed Nick taunts Hilary that soon enough she’ll be crying out in need for him, and sure enough she soon is. This bout’s a little more explicit than the one with Khaleen, but it soon develops that Messmann’s more concerned with the love triangle itself than he is with hardcore material. For Khaleen has fallen in love with Nick, slightly concerned he’ll soon be sleeping with the big-boobed “pretty” Englishwoman but trusting Nick regardless, and Nick slightly feeling like a heel for betraying her. 

Of course the veteran reader knows where all this is going. First though we have another encounter with the yeti, which turns out to be a human-bear hybrid, the product of a Sherpa woman who “used” a bear, per Ghotak. The mad monk found the creature and raised it, keeping it a bloodthirsty animal for his own ends. A captured Nick is to be chased by the yeti, but for some inexplicable reason Ghotak decides to allow Nick to keep his Luger and stiletto! While the beasts’s hide is too tough for bullets to pierce, Nick soon discovers that the inside of its mouth isn’t resistant to 9mm slugs. But this will be it for the yeti subplot, and I feel Messmann didn’t exploit it as much as he could’ve. 

Much more over the top is the finale, which sees Ghotak raising hell in his temple, complete with a trap door that leads to a room of poisonous snakes. Nick experiences what passes for heartbreak here, as one of the two women gives up her life to save him. Okay, a no-prize to whoever figures out which of the two women it is…the busty British babe who has spent the entire novel fighting Nick before bedding him, or the sultry but innocent native babe who is in love with him? Well anyway, Nick ends up finishing the novel on vacation with the surviving babe, pondering over “the difference between being wanted and being loved…the trick was to keep them apart.” 

This is unexpected depth from a men’s adventure series, but the sort of thing that would become par for the course in Messmann’s work, as demonstrated in The Revenger and Jefferson Boone, Handyman. As it turns out this “relationship” subplot had more of an impact on me than the plot itself, so clearly I need more testosterone in my diet.