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.

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