Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Moonfire (aka Of A Fire On The Moon)


Moonfire, by Norman Mailer
No month stated, 2019  Taschen

First published over three issues of Life Magazine in the summer of 1969 and then released in hardcover soon thereafter, Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon seems to be overlooked today, and might even have been overlooked at the time, given the rapid expiration date of interest in the Space Race. In fact I read somewhere that the publisher was surprised at how little interest there was in the hardcover edition, which came out just a few months after the Apollo 11 moon landing of July 1969; already by then the public had virtually no interest in the subject. 

The title of Mailer’s unexpurgated work is Of A Fire On The Moon, but under discussion here is Moonfire, Taschen’s abridgement of Mailer’s book that is chock full of some of the greatest space race photos I’ve ever seen, most of them from contemporary issues of Life. Simply put, this little hardcover (larger than a mass market paperback but smaller than a trade paperback) is one of the most visually stunning books I’ve ever had the pleasure to own. Usually I steer clear of abdriged books – I prefer to read the full monty, as it were – but in this case Taschen’s editors have done a fine job whittling down Mailer’s incessant navel-gazing and just sticking to what most readers are here for: a bird’s eye peek at NASA at its height, and a great picture of the era in which the first moon landing occurred. 

Actually, Of A Fire On The Moon, particularly in this illustrated “Moonfire” edition, is just as much a picture of its era as the similar-in-spirit contemporary documentary Moonwalk One. The touch of Stanley Kubrick is very evident, from Mailer’s own obsessive musings on the nature of the moon voyage to the incredible photographs that grace the book, in particular the ones by Life photographer Ralph Morse. Humorously, the Signet paperback of Of A Fire On The Moon features a blurb on the opening page which states that Mailer’s book is “The closest thing to 2001 yet produced by an important writer.” I’m sure Arthur C. Clarke really appreciated that! While Mailer doesn’t go as far as Moonwalk One on the “future shock” angle, he definitely captures the vibe in the early sequences in which he visits the NASA centers in Florida and Texas. 

At the end of the post I’ll feature a few random pages from Moonfire, but be aware this is just a scratching of the surface. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the book is stuffed with incredible photographic work, the vast majority of it in those wonderful eye-popping colors of the era. Again it’s the photography of Ralph Morse that really stands out, and I was surprised to find that there hasn’t been a book devoted solely to his NASA photography. He gets some photos that are downright Kubrickrian, in particular a shot of Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins eating breakfast with his wife that looks like it could’ve come right out of 2001 (included below). In my opinion, the first half of Moonfire has the best photos, as they’re all in this spirit, staged shots of the astronauts in training or going about their daily lives. But once the narrative moves to the moon voyage the photos follow suit, the majority of them being ones the astronauts themselves took on the voyage and on the moon. So, certainly important from a historical perspective, but lacking the stylistic finesse of the earlier photos. 

Mailer writes in the New Journalism style that was becoming popular at the time, but Moonfire can in no way be confused with another New Journalism look at the space race: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Whereas Wolfe still employs New Journalism techniques, he for the most part tells history, whereas Moonfire is mostly concerned with Mailer himself, and his impressions of things. It takes an ego of staggering proportions to write about the moon landing and make it about yourself, especially if you had absolutely nothing to do with the moon landing. And Mailer’s ego is in full effect throughout, to the point that I actually started to admire the arrogant self-strokery. In this regard Moonfire/Of A Fire On The Moon is almost like the “nonfiction” works of the Classical Age, ie Pausanias’s Description Of Greece, in which everything is filtered through the writer’s own thoughts and feelings. 

The writing is, however, very rich, and practically every page offers a line crying out to be included in a book of quotations. Mailer is also very insightful with what he divines about the cast of characters at NASA; his breakdown of the Apollo 11 crew, at a press conference a few days before launch, is one of the highlights of the book. Here he gives his opinion on each member: overly reserved Neil Armstrong could either be “the best boy in town” or the creep mothers warn their infant daughters to shut the door on, Buzz Aldrin is a man of grit and gristle who measures everything in physical terms, and Mike Collins is “the man everyone is happy to see at the party.” The stuff on Collins I found especially insightful as it’s the same thing I’ve noticed about the guy, just judging from his documentary appearances, most notably In The Shadow Of The Moon. Curiously though Mailer never meets any of the crew, even though he apparently has the chance to; in this regard he’s again similar to Theo Kamecke, director of Moonwalk One, who per his comments in the special features of the DVD states that he was given the option of interviewing the crew for his documentary, but chose to keep them afar. 

Interestingly, throughout Mailer notes on the lack of “heroism” apparent in the Apollo 11 crew, and NASA in general. None of these space figures seem willing to square their shoulders and look back into the adoring gazes of the public and bask in their accomplishments. Armstrong in particular is so reserved that Mailer spends pages and pages bitching about it – that, and the lack of emotions displayed by Armstrong and Aldrin. Collins again comes to the rescue; his pithy asides at press conferences, Mailer assures us, made him a sudden favorite of the “newsmen” covering the scene. Mailer also captures the oldschool journalism vibe; throughout he refers to fellow newsmen, all of them hardbitten veterans who are prone to making sarcastic asides on their way to the free booze stand. I’d subscribe to the friggin’ New York Times if such newsmen could come back today. But anyway, Mailer unwittingly was in the presence of the Apollo era’s most notorious jokester; early in the book Mailer relates that he’s at a barbecue with Pete Conrad, commander of Apollo 12 (and thus forgotten by history). If only Mailer had spent more time talking to Conrad, he might’ve found all the humor and jokery in the otherwise sterile world of NASA he could want; indeed, Conrad’s insights would end up fueling much of The Right Stuff

But for the most part, Mailer is too wrapped up in himself to notice much else. In some ways Moonfire comes off like a bloated prefigure of the Twitter feed of some self-obsessed modern neurotic. Mailer even gives himself a Twitter-esque handle: throughout he pretentiously refers to himself as “Aquarius.” This is in relation to his Zodiac sign, but I found it interesting because Aquarius is the very astrological age we are now moving into. The last time a procession of the equinoxes occurred, when Taurus became Pisces two thousand years ago, western culture was torn apart by a rabid ideology that was primed to destroy everything that didn’t fit in its worldview. Sound familiar? There are in fact a lot of parallels between Mailer’s era and our own; a later part has him visiting some friends who have the anti-Nixon paraphanalia that was ubuiquitous among the left at that time, and Mailer chaffes at this, that a political movement could only define itself by being against a particular person. Sound familiar? 

Well anyway, Mailer admits throughout his ignorance of the space race business, but in the second half of the book he puts his engineering background to use when speaking of the mechanics of the landing. It’s the first half that I most appreciated, with Mailer trying to get a grip on the NASA personnel but finding everything so antiseptic and sterile. There are a lot of asides on the lack of smell and whatnot; in fact the entire book is mostly made up of asides, sort of like one of my reviews. But when he sets his sights on a particular personality the book really takes off, and for a behind-the-scenes peek at NASA the book is very valuable. However Mailer skips any attempt at history, or background; Mercury and Gemini missions are dispensed with as afterthoughts, and the focus is on the “meaning” of voyaging to the moon. Not even what this might portend for the future, but what it might mean to the unconscious mind of man, or somesuch. 

As mentioned, Taschen did a very good job of cutting the fat. As I read Moonwalk I’d refer to the Signet edition of Of A Fire On The Moon to read the parts that were cut, and gradually I stopped referring to the Signet altogether. This is a book that truly benefitted from some editorial pruning. Taschen also rejiggered Mailer’s structure; there are some parts of Moonwalk that are moved forward in the text, which don’t appear until later in the original version. Sometimes the editing is a bit abrupt, with ellipses breaking off otherwise important scenes, but checking Of A Fire In The Moon in these cases I discovered that even here the editing was wise. 

So Mailer, or “Aquarius” I guess I should say, ventures to Cape Kennedy a few days before the launch of Apollo 11 and checks out the sights and attends a few press conferences. Here we get more valuable behind-the-scenes material. He witnesses the launch, noting how bored everyone seems in the stifling Florida heat until the rocket actually goes up – and here Mailer himself is moved by the spectacle. But yes, boredom is rife in Moonfire; Mailer makes it clear that many of the newsmen were just burned out with the waiting. In his view, not much was going on between Saturn V launches. This is especially clear after the launch, when Mailer heads to Mission Control in Houston and basically sits around with nothing to do but ponder more of his thoughts. 

One thing forgotten in today’s world, in which films from the moon landing are shown in documentaries, is that at the time viewers on TV saw nothing but a grayish-white screen as the astronauts landed on the moon. Mailer views the landing in a room with other reporters, and this is another highlight of the book, coming off like a proto Mystery Science Theater 3000. The newsmen, we learn, all make wisecracks as Armstrong and Aldrin bumble across the moon; some of the material, in their view, approaches a slapstick vibe. This part was very interesting in comparison to the tones of gravitas the moon landing is treated with in every single documentary. Mailer at one point even taps into the current obsession that it was all faked, musing to himself how easily this could be staged, with no one the wiser. He doesn’t believe it, though, and again his bigger concern is what this moon landing “means” for mankind. 

At this point things are getting interesting again, but after covering the moon landing Mailer decides to just take off. As improbable as it might sound, Mailer decides there isn’t anything much else to do here in Houston and heads home…watching the return and recovery on TV, like practically everyone else in the world. While we do get some material on the ensuing parades and hoopla, at this point Mailer detours into even more navel-gazing than before, going on about his failing marriage and whatnot. I’ll willingly admit that I skipped all this stuff. As I say, way too much of the book is about stuff unrelated to the moon landing, but when Mailer does write about it the book is rich with detail. And Mailer’s writing, as mentioned, is great throughout, doling out some unusual but memorable word-painting. He really brings to life the various NASA locales, and even his descriptions of the moon – gleaned from watching a blurry image on a small TV screen – make you feel like you’re there with Buzz and Neil. 

A lot of Moonfire is made up of bald transcripts, of the Apollo 11 crew talking to Mission Control, and here too Mailer gives a contemporary slant, forgotten today, that most people listening at the time had no idea what the hell anyone was talking about. There is a lot of unexpected humor in Moonfire, and a lot of it has to do with those newsmen trying to make heads or tails out of the cryptic techno-jargon that passes for communication in the world of NASA. Again what makes all this interesting is the historical perspective; Mailer’s book is unique in that, unlike the other quickie moon landing publications of the day, it doesn’t treat everything as a huge accomplishment, nor is it like later books that thoroughly cover the topic from a historical perspective. Unlike any of them, Moonfire gives a picture of what it was like to be in Cape Kennedy and Houston as it all was happening and trying to make sense of it all. 

After I read Moonfire I started to read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (also in an illustrated edition), and I have to say it’s a night and day difference between these two books. Whereas Mailer spends much of his book complaining about the lack of heroism at NASA, Wolfe goes back to the start and finds that heroism; indeed, “the right stuff” itself is a reference to all the things Mailer failed to detect in Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, and the others. Another big difference is that, while it’s of course written in his patented style, Wolfe does not insert himself into The Right Stuff, whereas Mailer’s all over his own book. In fact I have to say the dude’s pretty aware of his own feelings. So much of Moonfire is comprised of “Aquarius” noting how a sulk is coming on, or how some other incident affects him on a subconscious level or whatnot; the entire book is almost an exercise in casting everyday mundane things in a sort of profound metaphysical light. And that’s another element Moonfire has that The Right Stuff doesn’t: like the age in which it was written, it’s pretty psychedelic, and is likely the only book on the moon landing that mentions LSD and acid rock. 

So then, with Moonfire you get a lot of banal navel-gazing, a lot of complaining, and periodic bouts of valuable glimpses behind the scenes at NASA in July and August of 1969, as well as the mindset of the people who lived in Cape Kennedy and Houston. You don’t get much history, per se, but you get a glimpse of history as it’s being made. But most importantly, in this Taschen edition, which was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, you get a plethora of incredible photos. Here are just a few of them:










Thursday, November 18, 2021

Rim Of Thunder


Rim Of Thunder, by Dave J. Garrity
April, 1973  Signet Books

Dave Garrity turns in another fast-moving novel set in the world of stock car racing, following on from his earlier The Hot Mods. But whereas that story was more of a hardboiled affair, Rim Of Thunder is a drama focused on a twenty-year champ who loses it all in a spectacular crash and tries to get his courage back for one last race. The two novels are also told differently; this one trades off between first-person narrative and random third-person chapters, whereas The Hot Mods was narrated in first-person throughout. Both novels have one thing in common, though: they’re very short, coming off more like novellas, with Rim Of Thunder amounting to only 128 pages. The same length as The Hot Mods, in fact. 

Once again Garrity writes a racing story in which precious little detail is given; Roscoe Larkin, our narrator, is an 80-something racecar manager (and mechanic), and he speaks with authority on the subject – as if he’s talking to a fellow lifelong enthusiast who doesn’t need anything to be explained. Absolutely nothing is brought to life; Roscoe’s protégé, The King, drives Roscoe’s top stock car, “the 44.” There’s no description or explanation of the car other than “the 44” throughout the book. The races are told in this same “expert opinion” style, robbing them of much drama or impact – the same way such sequences were told in The Hot Mods. It’s clear that Garrity himself was a fan of racing and also that he hung out with racing crews to get all the vernacular correct, and there’s a definite vibe of legitimacy to the text, but at the same time it makes for a listless read for those of us who don’t much care about racing. 

Fortunately, the dramatic stuff is slightly better, and mostly interesting because it’s the product of an earlier, more masculine era. In today’s emasculated world, the King’s plight seems downright alien: how to “become a man” again after a crash-up that nearly ended his career. There is throughout a focus on men and masculinity, with the few women here reduced to either wives or groupies, and there are absolutely no concessions to the “inclusive” mindsets of today. The King’s wife has one or two minor sequences in the novel in which the narrative is given over to her thoughts (in third-person), but her plot is solely concerned with her separation from the King when he insists on returning to the races after recuperating for several months. There’s added drama with “the little King,” the toddler son of the King who has a heart problem and ultimately will require heart surgery before novel’s end. 

The novel takes place along the east coast, and opens with the King’s big crash during a dirt-track race. We’re never given his real name, but the King has been racing for Roscoe for twenty-two years, coming to him as a snot-nosed kid and gradually proving himself to be among the greatest stock car racers of all time, hence his nickname. How he fared against the protagonist of The Hot Mods, the magnificently-named Lux Vargo, we’re not told – but Vargo does exist in the world of this novel. In a nice bit of tie-in work, “Lux” is referred to twice in Rim Of Thunder: on page 78 he’s mentioned as one of “the good ones” who went on to other things after retiring, and on page 113 a character states, “Remember Jackie Evans in Lux’s 77?” 

Garrity has it that the King has been Roscoe’s champ for two decades, but in a repeat of the King’s origin story we have another wet-nosed kid who has gradually proven his worth driving lesser cars than the 44: Nino Cordone, a kid in his very early 20s with “an Andretti smile.” So while the King is recuperating (two broken legs and other assorted bashings), Nino’s been racing in his 44, picking up more wins for himself and moving into the spot vacated by the King. But when the King returns to the fold, insisting that he’s ready to race again, the 44 becomes his again and there is of course an underlying resentment from Nino, particularly given the growing implications that the King maybe should’ve just retired. 

For it soon becomes clear that the wreck broke more than just the King’s legs: for one, his family life is a mess. His wife Laura, it develops, has left him, taking “the little King” with him. She doesn’t want her man racing anymore, and can’t take the concern and worry. But the King’s chosen racing over the family and has come back to Roscoe anyway. Meanwhile he’s clearly lost his courage; he fails to make an impression in his first race, and as the novel progresses he further demonstrates his lost masculinity: when a thuggish racer with the misleading name “Shorty” Clanton challenges him to a fight, the King meekly asks “why can’t we be friends?” Soon thereafter the King’s also running around with Shorty’s sometimes-girlfriend, the notorious racing circuit tramp Gerry Cattlon. (Yes, Garrity names one character “Clanton” and the other “Cattlon,” seemingly for no other reason than to confuse the reader.) 

While it’s all capably handled, it does get a little goofy in that 80-something Roscoe thinks of the King’s family as his family. Roscoe, whose own backstory is occasionally doled out, has spent his life racing and never got married or had kids. So he started to thinking of the King’s family as the wife and kid he never had. All very strange, especially given that he’s twice the age of the King (presumably…I mean if the King started out as a kid Nino’s age and has been racing for 22 years, then that means he’d be in his early 40s, compared to Roscoe’s late 80s). This ultimately has the outcome of jacking up Roscoe’s own life; he has periodic blackouts and heart troubles in the book, but in true “tough redneck” fashion he walks off these incidents with a good shot of whiskey or two. 

The novel works its way up to a big race on the very same dirt track the King wiped out on at novel’s beginning. Garrity has various internal and external factors working together: the King’s racing ability, whether he’ll return to his family, whether “the little King” will survive his heart surgery, whether Nino will take the King’s mantle and become the new top racer. The climactic race is again described mostly via Roscoe’s authoritative narration, with occasional cutovers to random one-off spectators in the stand. Garrity does a good – if a bit too treacly – job of wrapping everything up in a positive conclusion. 

At only 128 pages, Rim Of Thunder moves too quickly to make much of an impression, but Garrity wisely keeps the focus on just a few characters. As a picture of the era it doesn’t really deliver, given the lack of much topical description, but it does serve as a nice window into a masculine mindset that probably wouldn’t exist in the fiction of today. As for myself, though, I didn’t relate as much to the King, as I sure as hell would pick my kid over the racing circuit.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Women Without Morals


Women Without Morals, by Richard F. Gallagher
No month stated, 1962  Avon Books

Check it out, an entire book devoted to my favorite kind of women! Seriously though, Women Without Morals is yet another vintage men’s adventure magazine anthology, this one featuring stories by Richard Gallagher, whose men’s mag work I’ve reviewed here over the years. Interestingly, the book is copyright Gallagher, implying that at least some of the authors who worked for the men’s magazines retained the copyrights on their work; I was under the impression that all of the stories would be copyright the various publishers (with those copyrights now having expired). 

Gallagher is a good writer, and like the better writers in the field he worked for the so-called Diamond Line of magazines, ie Male and Stag and the like, which is of course where the stories collected here are taken from. Another note: the copyright page lists which issues the stories came from, however as it turns out they are not listed in order. Thus I had to do a bit of research to determine which stories came from which magazines, and I’ve noted this below, as well as their original titles. Also worth noting is that Women Without Morals did well enough to receive a second printing, the cover of which I’ll place below; I prefer the cover of this first edition, with the Nazi She-Devil-esque topless babe wielding a whip…a scene that sort of occurs in the first story collected here. 

And in fact, this first story is the closest we get to a Nazi She-Devil tale in the entire book. This I found perplexing; the Nazi She-Devils were the epitome of “women without morals” in the world of men’s adventure magazines, yet I’m assuming Gallagher didn’t write too many stories in the subgenre. At least, so far I’ve only read one story by him that nearly fits in the category: “G.I. On The Ship Of Lost Frauleins.” The story in this book, though, “Hanne Jaegermann, The Sweatered Fraulein,” is actually more of a Nazi She-Devil yarn than that later one, even though the titular Hanne is not specifically stated as being a Nazi. But really it’s just splitting hairs, as gradually we learn that Hanne has attained her position of power thanks to her casual affair with none other than Goebbels. So I’d say she’s a Nazi She-Devil by default. 

The story first appeared in the February 1959 Stag, where it was titled “Fraulein Barracks.” As with the other stories collected here, it’s fairly long, running to around 40 pages of small, dense print, and it was labelled a “True Book Bonus” in the original magazine edition. Those Diamond Line mags didn’t short-change their readers, that’s for sure. Also, this story, like the others collected in Women Without Morals, is written in third-person. (As usual though the illustrations that graced the original magazine editions are not featured here.) Taking place in the last months of the European theater of WWII, “The Sweatered Fraulein” concerns Sgt. John Leonard, an injured airman who, along with other Allied prisoners, is taken to a prisoner of war camp in an old fortress called Alpenhaus, in the Bavarian Alps. 

Alpenhaus, Leonard soon discovers, now serves as a “cat house,” a rather beaten-down one at that, reserved for Nazi VIPs. It’s patrolled by old guards, most of them vets of the First World War who have little interest in Hitler but are “doing their duty” for Germany. But most importantly it’s overseen by Hanne Jaegermann, a young, beautiful, and built blonde (her hair so blonde it’s almost white, we’re informed) who likes to wear tight sweaters that are always either white or black. And in true “Nazi chic” fashion her apartment in the fortress is decorated solely in black and white. There’s an old vet here who is officially the commandant, but Hanne is clearly in charge, and this puzzles Leonard. He soon runs afoul of the woman, though; when he’s called into her presence because he speaks fluent German, Hanne demands that Leonard act as her official translator for the American prisoners. When Leonard refuses, he soon understands he’s made a powerful enemy, one who will enjoy toying with him. 

So begins a twisted sort of psycho-sexual tale in which Hanne constantly abuses and humiliates Leonard – making him scrub the floor and then dumping the bleach-filled water on his face, having him beaten up by her sadistic henchman, punishing (and killing) other prisoners as a warning to him, and etc. While Hanne toys with Leonard, saving him “for a rainy day,” she is even more brutal with the other prisoners; she has a few people taken down by her Dobermans (one of the victims a young prostitute who refuses to sleep with a certain Nazi official), orders some other people shot, and in the most harrowing example she has one guy stripped and then beats him to death by smashing him in the groin with a sharpened belt buckle! This is his punishment for trying to kiss one of the hookers in the establishment. 

With her ground rules set that this will be the treatment for any prisoner who tries to touch one of the women, Hanne then sets upon toying with Leonard. In another memorable bit she calls him to her apartment, strips nude, and has him read Faust to her – but as Leonard soon learns, she’s really trying to arouse his lust so that he can try to touch her…and then be beaten to death for it. In another bit she calls Leonard once again and both she and some of the establishment girls are all nude or half-nude, and again Leonard does his best to avoid them. Suprisingly though, Leonard never does have his way with Hanne; Gallagher I’ve noticed tries to be relatively realistic in his stories, all things considered. While Hanne is certainly a smokin’ hot babe, Leonard is more concerned about his safety and thus never falls into her trap. 

Overall this was a very good, very fast-moving story, coming off like a twisted take on Hogan’s Heroes. It doesn’t get as wild as you’d like, though, save for the parts where Hanne is dispensing her twisted brand of justice. Even the parts where the Nazi elite come over for an orgy or two are relatively tame, Gallagher focused more on Leonard’s broiling anger than the sleazy fun. Speaking of which the finale is very memorable, as the Americans arrive in April 1945 and Leonard takes the opportunity to get his hands on Hanne and beat the living shit out of her. Certainly one of the few stories I’ve ever read that ended with a male character beating a female character unmerciful, up to and including slamming her face into a brick wall several times. However Hanne manages to live, and in the epilogue we’re told she was sent to prison, then later to a sanitarium for the violently insane. 

Next up is “Meiko Homma, The Japanese Iwasaki Maiden,” which originally appeared as “Imprisoned For Six Months In Japan’s Secret Female Garrison” in the June 1960 Stag. It also appeared in the first Male annual, in 1963, and I reviewed it a few years ago here. This one also stays relatively realistic throughout, despite the giant birdcage the American soldier is kept prisoner in, but a big difference between this story and “The Sweatered Fraulein” is that the hero of this tale scores with the villainous babe. 

The third story is “Bandana Husseini, The Lebanese Guerrilla Girl,” which originally appeared as “Nude Girl Raiders Of Beirut” in the January 1959 Men. This one’s notable in that it’s shorter than the other stories in Women Without Morals, is the only story in the book that doesn’t take place in WWII, and also features a female protagonist. This would be the titular Bandana, a “beautiful Arabic-looking girl” with “hair in pigtails” and “sport clothes from Paris.” It’s early 1957, and Bandana has made waves in Lebanon for her bandit activities – plus the rumor that she carries “a tommygun with a rose-colored cartridge clip.” This is another one that would’ve fit in the Women With Guns anthology, but Gallagher already had another story in that one. At any rate, “The Lebanese Guerrilla Girl” also has a different tone than the other stories here, almost coming off like a fable; there’s no real peek into the mind of Bandana Husseini, as there is with say John Leonard in “The Sweatered Fraulein;” instead the focus is on her wild deeds, with the anti-heroine coming off like a mythical figure at times. 

Bandana is in her early 20s, the daughter of a wealthy Lebanese man and a graduate of an American university, but when we meet her she’s in jail for having stolen to give to the poor. She escapes, finds safe passage with an old merchant who ends up raping her (his two drivers also getting in on the act), and then ultimately falls in with a group of rebels led by a guy named Hulim. From here she gets her own tommygun, painting it red, and begins a series of brazen acts against the establishment. Per the original men’s mag story title, she often does so in the nude, her and her two female accomplices in the group stripping down for their various commando missions. The story’s most memorable scene has Bandana getting revenge on the old rapist, orchestrating his fall off a bridge and waiting patiently for two days for him to die. Otherwise “The Lebanese Guerrilla Girl” doesn’t have the “meat” that the other stories here do, coming off more like a quick, action-packed tale with a wild child protagonist. 

Next is “Claire Molyneaux, The Commandant’s Wife,” which originally appeared as “Madame Penal” in the June 1959 Male. This is the longest story in the anthology, coming in at almost 50 pages. It’s another prisoner of war yarn, and a bit too similar to “The Sweatered Fraulein.” While it’s a fine story, I think it was a mistake including this one in Women Without Morals, as it’s inferior to that previous story, mostly because this one lacks the twisted psycho-sexual subtext of “The Sweatered Fraulein,” coming off more like your typical prison camp yarn. But given the theme of the anthology, the sadistic commandant is of course a woman, in this case Claire Molyneaux, young wife of the official commandant of a French prison camp in Latakia, Syria (Latakia being one of the places where Nick Carter gets the tobacco for his special cigarettes, at least in the volumes by Manning Lee Stokes – random factoid alert!). 

It’s 1939, and the brief intro informs us that merchant seaman Joseph Kolinsky, of Chicago, has been arrested in French territory on false chages of being an Axis ally, this being shortly after France and Germany have declared war. Along with other falsely-accused prisoners he’s hauled off to this prison camp in the middle of the desert. Soon enough he encounters Claire Molyneaux, the hotstuff commandant’s wife who is given to wearing a military tunic, shorts, and high boots; curiously though we’re informed she isn’t that hotstuff, but still pretty enough to attract attention. Her husband, the supposed Commandant Molyneaux, is old and enfeebled (we’re informed he married Claire just a few years ago and is desperate to keep her), and Claire runs roughshod over the camp, ruling the soldiers and brutalizing the prisoners. But the focus this time is much more on the hardscrabble life of Kolinsky in the prison, losing all the pulpy nature of “The Sweatered Fraulein.” 

At least, Kolinsky is a bit more of a rugged hero than John Leonard, and spends most of the novel fighting back, whereas Leonard didn’t put up as much of an effort. It’s become clear after reading several stories by Richard Gallagher that his protagonists are for the most part normal guys…perhaps a bit too normal, as they lack the square-jawed, ass-kicking virility one might expect from men’s adventure magazine protagonists. Thus, instead of swinging into action, Gallagher’s characters are more introspective and, while they will initially put up a fight against their tormentors, ultimately they will decide that life is more important than dignity. Indeed there’s a part in “The Sweatered Fraulein” where John Leonard suddenly understands why millions of cowed German Jews obediently allowed the Nazis to cart them off to the death camps: because there was always the promise of living another day. The parallels to today were quite strong, here – the hope that someday, as we continue to give up one individual right after another (all for “our safety,” of course), things will get better…despite the grim certainty that things will only get worse. For, as the stories collected in this book demonstrate, once tyrants get a taste of power they will never give it up. 

And Claire Molyneaux is certainly a tyrant, lacking even the wanton charm of Hanne Jaegermann. Her custom outfitt, you’ll note, is almost identical to the one Sergeant Homma wore in the earlier story, but unlike the previous gals in the anthology Claire doesn’t seem to have much interest in men…other than torturing them. So begins an overly long but still suspenseful tale in which Claire brutalizes Kolinsky in various ways, often humiliating him. She also often has other prisoners shot, and enjoys making them toil endlessly on the construction of a pointless road in the desert. The focus though is on the lot of the prisoners, and the villainess disappears from the narrative too often. But as mentioned Kolinsky has a bit more backbone than the protagonists in the other prison camp stories here, and at one point tries to kill Claire, but of course he fails and is tortured more. Also at one point she strips and offers herself to him – the story’s sole concession to the sleaze men’s mag readers demand – but Kolinsky won’t play because he knows he’ll suffer. Luckily Claire is drunk and passes out, seemingly forgetting her sexual proposition. 

Gallagher takes an interesting direction in the finale, in which the Germans liberate the camp, France having declared defeat and the Nazis move in. Claire Molyneaux is placed under arrest and put on a kangaroo trial for her transgressions against the prisoners. Suddenly the sadistic harlot looks like a scared little girl, and the story ends with her being pulled in front of a firing squad and strapped to a stake. She’s crying and desolate and Gallagher has it that you start to feel sorry for her. Even Kolinsky, who has finally been granted his freedom, seems to be moved by the spectacle. Claire sees him as he is leaving the compound and screams for his help, pleading with him to stop them from shooting her. Kolinsky goes over to her…and then slaps her in the face and leaves her for her execution! This unexpected gutting of the maudlin sap was the highlight of the story, but truth be told “The Commandant’s Wife” was my least favorite story here. 

Last up is “Colette Le Gros, The French Blonde,” which appeared as “The Castaway Fraulein And Her Strange Partners” in the September 1960 Male. Even though this story also features an American prisoner of war as the protagonist, it departs from the prison camp setup of the other stories, featuring the unusual plot of four men and one woman escaping across the Atlantic in a 30-foot whaleboat. It’s November of 1944 and as the story opens Robert Corti, a downed airman who served as navigator on a bomber, is held at gunpoint as he boards a boat on the coast of France. With Corti are SS Captain Wolfgang Klausewitz, Klausewitz’s bookish aid Leitner, a mysterious Frenchman known only as Pierre (I kept picturing him as the Danger 5 guy), and finally Colette Le Gros, a stacked French beauty (the most beautiful woman Corti’s ever seen in person, in fact) who is Klausewitz’s mistress. 

The shaky setup has it that Klausewitz, knowing Germany is about to fall to the Americans, wants to escape to Nazi-friendly Argentina. The commandant of a war camp, he knows he’ll hang from a noose for the brutalities he’s carried out on his prisoners. He’s plotted out his seaborne escape, but has been waiting “months” for a navigator to be shot down. Corti, finally, is that navigator, and thus he’s been drafted into this escape attempt. Leitner is coming along because he too is a Nazi, and Colette is going along because the French natives will cut her hair off and brand her as a Nazi-loving whore. As for Pierre, his background and motives are mysterious; a former member of the Maquis resistance fighters, he’s only here due to Colette, who has insisted Klausewitz bring him along. Colette also has the thoughtful insistence that Corti, Leitner, and Pierre “have a woman” before boarding the boat, to slake their needs before beginning the voyage – she’s not bound to get on a boat with four horny men, even if she does “love to be loved.” 

It’s kind of goofy…I mean they’ve stocked the boat with crates of food and gallons of water, and lots of liquor and all, but someone’s constantly holding a gun on Corti so he won’t try to escape. But you’d think that he’d get a chance at some point during the 50-day voyage to Argentina. However Corti is another Gallagher protagonist in that he’s not super willing to risk his skin. About the only difference is that he dishes out a lot of passive-aggressive backtalk; Klausewitz, for example, he takes to calling “schmuck,” explaining to the buzzcutted Nazi sadist that the word is American slang for “boss.” Gallagher seems to have more fun with this tale than the others in the book, giving each character a memorable personality; Leitner, for example, bides his time reading from a book of quotations, always trying to find the right quote for the right occasion. 

Given the setting, the lurid angle isn’t as much exploited. Corti’s early tumble with the native French gal Colette finds for him, before leaving on the voyage, is so vaguely-described that you wonder if anything even happened. But once the voyage starts the only shenangians that occur feature Klausewitz and Colette…who enjoy going off in the whaleboat’s sole cabin for a little loud lovin,’ even leaving the door open so the others can see. Colette later informs Corti that exhibitionism turns her on. And, true to the vibe of these stories, she’s often sporting a bikini during the voyage. She’s more along the lines of Bandana Husseini than the other three villainesses in Women Without Morals; she’s not a sadistic commandant, but does enjoy a nice killing or two, most notably demonstrated when a Spanish gunship stops them and Claire frags them – hiding a “potato masher” in a bag and passing it over as if it were their papers of transport. 

But what starts out as a promising suspense yarn turns into a sea survival yarn. I mean it’s good and all, with a lot of cool survival tips – like eating plankton, or a part where a hapless albatross lands on the boat and Corti catches it and they cook it (after drinking the blood and eating the uncooked liver for all the iron). But it turns out that this is the story, not the interesting opening material like who Pierre really is, or what Klausewitz hopes to do once they reach Argentina. Rather, it becomes a sea story, with all the expected tropes: a massive storm knocks out their provisions, including Corti’s navigational equipment, followed by a hardscrabble existence as they try to figure out where the hell in the Atlantic they are. And all the while someone keeps holding a damn gun on Corti, even though he’s literally the only one on the boat who knows how to survive at sea. 

Suprisingly, Gallagher finds the opportunity to include some sleaze; one night Colette comes to Corti and offers herself to him. But once again Gallagher delivers zero in the way of lurid details; indeed, he informs us that, because of the roughness of the wooden deck and the fact that they’re afraid Klausewitz will discover them, the act is “not pleasant.” Furthermore, Gallagher is not an author who tells us much about the ample charms of his female characters. The word “breasts” rarely appears in this book, in fact. For the most part, Gallagher will tell us a woman is pretty, with a nice build, and leave it at that. Even in the supposedly risque scenes – like when Colette strips down, or wears a bikini – he yields no juicy details, just stating the bare fact that the chick’s now in her bra and panties, without any word painting. Perhaps he assumed the artist would handle the T&A and figured his words would just be redundant. 

As I read “The French Blonde” I started to experience déjà vu, and realized that it was similar to another Gallagher story I’d read – “Buried Alive: A Jap Lieutenant, Three Pleasure Girls, An American G.I.” The two stories are pretty similar, despite that one being set underground and this one being set on the sea. Again Gallagher takes a plot rife with exploitative potential – I mean a hot and horny blonde stuck on a boat with five randy guys (one of ‘em a friggin’ SS officer!!) – but ignores the exploitative stuff and goes for a reserved, “realistic” tone. As I say, the writing is fine, and the character touches are great, but the issue is that this “survival” stuff takes over the story and all the promise is ultimately jettisoned. For that matter, the finale is a harried postscript in which we learn that, upon reaching Portugal (once Corti takes the helm…after the others have been incapacitated by the DTs, a shark attack, and a salt water-jammed Luger), Corti split away from the group, recovered for a few months, and returned to England to continue fighting in the war…and he has no idea what happened to Klausewitz, Colette, Leitner, or Pierre! 

And that’s all there is to Women Without Morals, which I picked up some years ago and intended to read at the time. I’m surprised it took me this long to get to it, as it seemed to promise all I could want from a men’s adventure magazine anthology. But as it turns out, Gallagher’s stories are a little too conservative for the men’s mag genre…I mean these particular “women without morals” seem positively saintly when compared to some of the women in, say, Soft Brides For The Beast Of Blood. But on the other hand, as mentioned Gallagher is a very competent writer, providing a lot more character and narrative depth than you’d ever encounter in “the sweats.” Yet personally, if we’re talking of Diamond Line authors, I much prefer the work of Mario Puzo and Emile Schurmacher.

Here is the cover of the second edition:

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Filthy Five (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #27)


The Filthy Five, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

One of the things I dig about Nick Carter: Killmaster is that you can take the work of the various authors who wrote for the series and excise their individual volumes into a standalone series. So then the eighteen volumes by Manning Lee Stokes, who wrote The Filthy Five, could be seen as its own series, separate from the installments by the other ghostwriters. Other than the recurring setup of Nick, his weapons and gadgets, AXE, and boss David Hawk, the ghostwriters were free to do their own thing, and I doubt many of them were reading each other’s work. In this regard, then, you could break out individual series runs from the overal series itself to make up various mini-series. 

Look, even I doubt that opening paragraph made any sense, so let me start over. The Filthy Five was written by my man Manning Lee Stokes, and it is of a piece with his other volumes of the series, though in this case it’s among the better ones. It’s also in the much preferable third-person of the early Nick Carter years. But what makes The Filthy Five so interesting is that it is a trial run for Stokes’s later Aquanauts series. I mean it is so similar that you could go through the text and change “Nick Carter” to “Tiger Shark” and “David Hawk” to “Admiral Coffin” and you’d have what could be passed off as a volume of The Aquanauts

To whit, each volume of that later series, which was also “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel, follows the same template: there’s some “water” action, usually involving scuba, there are a lot of scenes with “crusty” old Admiral Coffin handling the strategy, there’s a villain with some nefarious plan involving the water in some fashion, and generally there will be an obnoxious drunkard who either serves as a henchman or acts as a villain in some other capacity. All of that is present in The Filthy Five, to the extent that I wondered if Stokes just looked back to this Killmaster for inspiration when he started writing The Aquanauts, or if Engel himself liked this one a lot and decided to spin a series off of it. 

The only thing lacking from the usual Stokes template, shockingly enough, is the typically-mandatory sex scene. Just to drop the bomb here at the start, let me inform you that Nick Carter does not, I repeat does not have sex in the course of The Filthy Five! The book doesn’t even close with him about to get busy! In fact the novel ends with a bald and flame-scarred Nick recuperating in the hospital. This is I think the only volume of the series I’ve yet read where Nick Carter does not get his mandatory booty. So far as I know, Engel established a “three women” standard for each volume, so he must’ve really appreciated Stokes’s work; I know from Will Murray’s 1981 study of Nick Carter: Killmaster that Stokes would often diverge from the outlines Engel provided, and that’s certainly the case here…and I’m not even just talking about the lack of sex. 

If you read the back cover synopsis, you’ll be under the impression that The Filthy Five concerns a plot to assassinate “the new President.” And, judging from the title, “five” people must be behind this plot. Presumably this is the idea Engel came up with. What Stokes actually writes is something wholly different. While the assassination angle is gradually worked into the plot – before being quickly dropped – the plot of the book actually concerns a madman billionaire who wants to fund his own army, conquer Haiti with it, and start up his own country. Stokes so awkwardly works in the assassination angle that it’s clear he was only doing so because he was trying to cater to an outline he’d been given. The same goes for the title, which must’ve been something else Engel (or maybe Award Books) came up with; the reader must do some serious lifting to figure out who the “filthy five” might be. 

First of all, to answer the question I’m sure many of you are asking – no, Pok doesn’t appear in this one!! I am of course referring to the Vietnamese “houseboy” introduced in Stokes’s earlier The Devil’s Cockpit. But then, we don’t see Nick at home in this one; when we meet him, at novel’s start, he’s already on assignment in Puerto Rico, posing as a beach bum along a stretch of beachside land owned by the mysterious Sir Malcolm Drake. And, I should note, The Filthy Five occurs over just a few days, so there’s no point where Nick does go home; he stays in Puerto Rico throughout. This stretch of land, with the wonderful name Gallows Cay, is Drake’s private fiefdom, and is patrolled by armed guards. Nick confronts two of them in the novel’s suspenseful opening. 

The chief guard here is the obnoxious drunkard type who would factor so heavily in later Aquanauts novels. This time the character is named Harry Crabtree; he’s a loudmouthed Australian brute who most brings to mind the similar character Neil “The Walrus” McCreary (who was also a drunken Australian lout) in The Aquanauts #6. When he’s on form, Stokes is one of my favorites, if not my very favorite, and he’s on form throughout the majority of The Filthy Five. This opening, in which Nick tests out how far he can push Crabtree, while still pretending to be a meek drifter, is very effective. And, unlike some of Stokes’s other material, it actually has repercussions later in the novel. 

As mentioned The Filthy Five takes place over a day or two, so Stokes keeps the narrative moving at a steady pace. After the confrontation with Crabtree (in which the sadist shoots at Nick – who is still playing the hapless beach bum – to run him off the beach), Nick goes back to his hiding spot, breaks out the high-tech AXE underwater gear, and scuba dives to a sunken galleon. This is a very effective scene, and again incredibly similar to material that would come in The Aquanauts. Here Nick is to meet Monica Drake, forty-something wife of Sir Malcolm; still hot despite “breasts too large for beauty” and a “tire of fat” around her midsection. There’s actually more underwater action here than the average Aquanauts yarn, complete with Nick fighting a frogman and a pack of blood-hungry sharks descending on the scene. This sequence is one of the highlights of the novel, and here again Stokes demonstrates that his Nick Carter is more “macho” (per Will Murray) than other series ghostwriters. 

Surprisingly, it keeps going; Nick returns topside, slips back to his hideout car (a half-dead heap from the ‘40s, per his beach bum cover), and starts driving off to safety. Stokes seemingly borrows from Kiss Me Deadly, as a naked and screaming woman runs into the path of Nick’s car. This will turn out to be hotstuff native babe Dona, and Stokes settles into a long-simmer sequence in which the girl claims some men were trying to rape her, but Nick certain that she’s lying and really just another agent of Sir Malcolm’s sent to suss out whether Nick’s really a beach bum or not…and soon Dona herself knowing that Nick isn’t just a regular beach bum but continuing the charade regardless. Stokes plays out the entire ridiculous nature of Cold War espionage here, with the two rival agents both aware of who one another really is, but acting on as if they’re just regular folks; of course there’s a sexual angle as well, with Dona trying to put her wiles on Nick, but as mentioned “the AXEman” goes celibate this time. 

The novel gets even more like The Aquanauts when Nick’s boss David Hawk shows up and starts featuring in his own chapters; he’s not deskbound like the character is when other ghostwriters handle the series, but out on the field directing strategy. And yes, it is all identical to the stuff with crusty old Admiral Coffin in The Aquanauts, with Hawk here a cagey silver fox who hides the fact that he wears dentures. And here’s where the “assasination” plot comes in, as Hawk ultimately figures out that Sir Malcolm’s been paid a billion dollars in gold by the Red Chinese to assassinate the newly-elected US President. Sir Malcolm’s hired four Cuban criminals to be his assassins; presumably them plus Sir Malcolm equals the “filthy five” of the title, but that’s really stretching it. As it is, the Cuban criminals never even appear in the text, and the entire assassination scheme is so much red herring. 

Indeed, Nick will determine that Sir Malcolm’s taken the money to finance his scheme to conquer Haiti and instill himself as a new political force, somehow orchestrating WWIII in the process so that the US, USSR, and Red China wipe each other out. Hawk then sends Nick back into Gallows Cay, and this bit is very Aquanauts-esque, with Nick parachuting into the place in the dead of night. He’s painted black head to toe and wears a pair of swim trunks that are “little more than a jock strap,” which is the same curious “outfit” Tiger Shark would often wear in The Aquanauts. This part promises an action spectacle, but instead Nick is captured, true to series template, but escapes in a sequence in which Stokes deftly ties up all his loose ends – Crabtree’s comeuppance and Dona’s determination to kill the man who killed her lover (ie Nick – the frogram he killed earlier being Dona’s beloved). 

Stokes has a knack for taking Nick through the ringer and demonstrating that he’s made of very tough stuff; see for example the finale of Istanbul, where Nick escapes after torture and returns to dish out bloody payback. Here Nick is blasted by a flamethrower, managing to use someone else as a bodyshield. Regardless he suffers serious burns and loses “all of his hair.” But the Killmaster doesn’t stop – Stokes has this pulpish conceit that Nick “becomes Killmaster,” with the concept that when he does he’s basically unstoppable – and instead he goes on the offense. But even here it’s relatively realistic, Stokes not so much dishing out the action but instead having Nick swim onto one of Sir Malcolm’s ships and hiding away to figure out what the madman’s up to. Even the finale takes place on a personal level, with Nick squaring off against Sir Malcolm – who despite being the supervillain of the plot is still quite capable of using his own brawn, even if he’s lost the use of his legs. 

Overall, The Filthy Five was one of the best volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster I’ve yet read, and certainly one of the best I’ve read by Stokes. He was definitely on form this time, keeping the story tight and reigning in his usual tendency to pad out the pages. He also doles out his usual brace of ten-dollar words: desuetude, incunabula, etc. He also takes the time to flesh out the world of AXE; here we learn of “Mike Henry, second-ranking Killmaster to Nick Carter,” a sort of spare Killmaster Hawk keeps on the side. However the two men, we’re told, have never met. (And Henry contributes nothing to the tale, only appearing in one scene as he’s briefed by Hawk.) An interesting thing about Stokes’s work on the series is that he tones down the usage of gadgets (the only one Nick uses this time is a device that pulls him along underwater), in general going for more of the brutal action vibe of the men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s. 

So again, I definitely enjoyed The Filthy Five, and in fact I was sorry to see it end – though true to the Stokes norm, it’s a lot more dense than its otherwise brief 160 pages might imply. It’s also highly recommended to anyone out there who enjoys The Aquanauts, as it’s clearly where Stokes got his inspiration for that later series.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Good Guys Wear Black


Good Guys Wear Black, by Max Franklin
March, 1978  Signet Books

This marks the second Chuck Norris tie-in I’ve reviewed; the first one was Invasion USA, which is still one of the best film novelizations I’ve ever read. I can’t say the same about Good Guys Wear Black, though, and it’s not solely due to author Max Franklin (apparently veteran crime writer Richard Deming), but due to the middling nature of the story itself. An awesome premise – the former members of a ‘Nam special forces team being killed off one by one – is neutered by an uncertain “comedic murder mystery” tone and a sluggish pace. What with the romantic bantering between the lead male and female characters and the infrequent – much too infrequent – action scenes, it almost comes off like Chuck Norris starring in The Thin Man

Unlike Invasion USA, I can’t compare this novelization to the film itself, as I’ve never seen Good Guys Wear Black. Even as a kid who would dutifully watch any and all action movies in the ‘80s I never watched it; but then, it seemed “old” to me, given that it was from the ‘70s. And at the time I even tried to watch all of Chuck Norris’s movies, if for no other reason than I studied karate for a few years via a school aligned with his United Fighting Arts association, or whatever it was called. Chuck himself never came to the school for a lesson, but one day Bill “Superfoot” Wallace did; I think he’d featured in one of Chuck Norris’s films, but I can’t remember which. I just remember him doing some demonstrations for the class and knocking the teacher around a good bit. So far as I can remember, this would’ve been summer of 1985, and I was ten years old. 

Anyway, Good Guys Wear Black predates Norris’s ‘80s action stardom, and judging from the trailer seems to have been an attempt at launching him as an action star, with an appropriate cast to back him up. I mean, “guest starring Jim Backus!” However judging from the trailer it looks like it might just be a slight cut above the average grindhouse/drive-in fare of the day. I’ve been told that the trailer features the majority of the film’s action sequences, most notably the bit where Norris’s character jump-kicks into a car windshield (a stunt actually performed by Chuck’s brother, I’m also told). Having read the book, I can believe it, as there’s hardly any action in Good Guys Wear Black, and instead it comes off more like an investigative thriller with a lot of comedic banter and occasional karate fights. 

But really, the martial arts don’t play too big a part in the storyline. In fact Norris’s character, Major John T. Booker, seems more prone to using a gun than his hands or feet. He’s also a lot more verbose and witty than the characters Norris would become known for, plus he has a penchant for reading the classics. We meet Booker in the final days of the Vietnam War; the novel opens like a prefigure of the later Black Eagles series, with Booker’s Special Ops squad The Black Tigers being rounded up by CIA handler Saunders for one more job. In the novel’s opening we’ve learned the political background to this; about a hundred and fifty CIA operatives have been captured by the North Vietnamese, and despite the upcoming peace talks the NV want to kill them off. It will be up to the twelve-man Black Tigers to save them. 

Franklin, if Deming he really be, isn’t very flashy with the action scenes. This certainly couldn’t be confused with a men’s adventure novel; the author rushes through the action, telling the majority of it via very long, convoluted sentences – ie, “As Gordie started to cut at the wire with his postasnips, one of the guards from the barracks who had cut down the Black Tigers’ rearguard team, then in turn had been cut down by Potter, Holly, and Walker, opened his slitted eyes.” I mean it’s almost like something out of a William Burroughs cut-up. I did get amusement out of how Minh, the Vietnamese member of the team, would throw around “Sirakens” in battle. But it’s all spectacularly bloodless, and since you don’t know any of the characters you don’t react very much to their heavy losses. 

For Booker has soon discovered that this is a trap. Half of the team is wiped out, and Booker manages to get the survivors to safety and trek through a few hundred miles of enemy terrain – all of which is curiously left off-page. When next we see Booker he’s back at the army base, where Saunders tells him he himself was unaware it would be a setup. The CIA thinks that Minh, the Vietnamese, was a traitor, but Booker doesn’t buy this given that Minh was killed in the battle. This incident will set up the plot of Good Guys Wear Black, but we cut forward a few years, to the late ‘70s, and meet up with Booker again: now he teaches political science at UCLA and, the author notes, sports a moustache. He also drives a Porsche, though how he could afford such a thing isn’t elaborated on. 

In an unexpected development, Booker and Saunders have maintained their friendship post-‘Nam, with Deming (let’s just assume it was him) including such stuff as Saunders attending Bookers’s graduation. Saunders is still CIA, though, and one day he’s approached by a hotstuff brunette reporter who calls herself Marilyn Cook. In a sequence that’s a little hard to buy, Marilyn manages to get this veteran CIA agent to blab classified intel about the last Black Tigers mission, a subject which the reporter seems to know a bit too much about. From there she goes to meet with Booker himself, now referring to herself as Margaret Cash: “By the way she jiggled when she rose to her feet, Booker realized she was wearing no brassiere.” 

Booker’s a bit randier than one might expect; he hits on Margaret like a regular Butler, with a lot of goofy innuendo in the witty rapport. When the two perform the inevitable deed, Deming keeps it well off-page. This is where I got those Thin Man vibes, as Booker and Margaret turn into a murder-solving romantic duo, trading witty banter throughout, even when their lives are in danger. It soon becomes apparent that someone is killing off the surviving Black Tigers, and Booker and Margaret shuffle around the country just in time to see two of them get wasted – in true pulp fashion, just as they’re about to reveal pertinent information. 

Along the way Booker learns that this goes to near the top of DC, and also that Margaret is a lawyer and not a reporter. He also learns that someone he thought was dead is still alive, and this leads to the novel’s sole martial arts scene as he and this character fight it out in a ski lodge. But as mentioned there’s just as much gun-play, like for example when some guy puts a gun to Margaret’s head and Booker, “an expert snap-shot,” shoots him in the head. But Deming’s method of relaying action leaves a lot to be desired. As in the example above, it’s mostly made up of overly long sentences, ie “this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” There’s no impact to any of it, no dramatic thrust. 

Even when Booker himself suffers a loss, the reader is robbed of much emotion given the way it’s handled in the narrative. Also it’s worth noting that the climax is not a big action affair, as one might expect, but instead sees Booker squaring off against the DC jackals who were behind the fiasco. In many ways it’s like the producers of Good Guys Wear Black weren’t certain what type of movie they wanted: an action feature or a political thriller, and they tried to combine the two with a bit of a romcom overlay. But, as the muddled nature of this novelization implies, it didn’t really work out, leaving me to conclude that there was a much better story here than what we got. Now maybe one of these days I’ll watch the movie!

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Four Came Back


Four Came Back, by Martin Caidin
February, 1970  Bantam Books

Another in the sequence of Space Race novels Martin Caidin published in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Four Came Back almost comes off like a sequel to his later novel The Cape, even though there are no recurring characters. The Cape took place in 1972 and concerned the launch of a manned space station; Four Came Back also occurs in 1972 and concerns a group of astronauts trapped on a manned space station. And the reason they are trapped there is very resonant with our modern era: a mysterious virus has run amok, laying waste to half the crew. 

In fact, the title of the novel pretty much blows the suspense Caidin tries to develop over the 215+ pages. And speaking of which, take a look at the cover, which per the blurry signature (and the style itself) appears to be the work of Sandy Kossin, who later did the covers for the John Eagle Expeditor series: The Andromeda Strain is specifically referenced in the blurb, giving the impression that Four Came Back is a similar thriller, one with perhaps a military angle. There’s no mention of space anywhere, and Kossin does not feature any Saturn rockets or astronauts in his illustration. So clearly by this paperback’s February 1970 printing date, “space” was no longer considered much of a selling point, giving more indication of how quickly the public’s interest in the subject waned after Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July of 1969. 

But as with No Man’s World, Martin Caidin is writing a “near future” thriller here; the original hardcover was published in 1968, and Caidin was likely writing it in 1967. Certainly after the Apollo 1 disaster, which is referenced in the text. Otherwise he mostly sticks to detailing Gemini missions, and of course there’s no mention of the Apollo 11 crew. But then Caidin in his space race novels didn’t try to do roman a clefs, per se; he uses NASA and the general framework of Apollo-Saturn, but incorporates his own cast of characters. The shame of it is that it apparently never occurred to Caidin to feature recurring characters, making this into a loose sort of series; I mean he could’ve easily featured some of the astronauts from Four Came Back in The Cape, or for that matter even featured some of the characters from Marooned (original edition 1963, revised tie-in paperback 1969 – and the only one of Caidin’s space race sequence I haven’t read yet, though I’ve seen the movie…twice! And stayed awake both times!). 

The title isn’t the only thing that blows the suspense; for some curious reason Caidin opens the novel with a chapter written in first-person (in ugly italics), documenting the journal of the unnamed captain of the space station Epsilon. Here, over the course of a few pages, the captain tells us of how a strange virus broke loose two weeks before the crew was scheduled to return to Earth. Eight people were originally aboard Epsilon, and the captain tells us, incident by incident, how four of them grew sick and some of them died. So already in the first chapter we know that “four” will come back because the other four are dead or incapacitated, and we also know which of those four died and how! All so puzzling and unintentionally humorous, like starting off a murder mystery with a first chapter that tells you who the killer is, then backpedaling and trying to play out a mystery angle for the rest of the novel. 

After this opening we jump back three weeks and things go into third-person; the captain of Epsilon is your typical rugged Apollo astronaut type, former hotshot combat and test pilot Mike Harder, and we meet him as he goes about his usual captain duties on the orbiting station, meeting with the rest of the multinational crew. Why Caidin didn’t just start the novel here is a mystery. Harder, despite his rugged virility, is pretty much a buffoon, at least when it comes to the ladies. I mentioned that the station’s multinational; it’s also made up of both men and women, with NASA here even in the world of fiction getting bullied for only sending men into space. Race isn’t mentioned, though; an interesting perspective is that in Caidin’s era it was gender that whipped the SJWs into a lather. Thus, NASA has relented and sent up six men and two women, from all around the world…but they’re all still white. 

The crew has been up here some months, and as with the other novels of his I’ve read, Caidin tells the story via somewhat clunky backstory or exposition, usually at the expense of any forward momentum. And also without much in the way of structure; we’re not told Harder’s backstory, for example, until well into the novel, even though he’s the main character. Anyway I was mentioning that he’s a bit of a doofus with the ladies. Well, one of the crew is a hotstuff brunette babe from Norway named June Strond, “a raven-haired thirty-one-year-old woman scientist” with ample curves in all the right places. And, per Harder’s incessant navel-gazing introspective musing, them Norwegians treat sex like Americans treat kissing. Meaning it’s no big thing to them, and it’s clear June wants Harder to make a pass at her so they can get right down to it up here, four hundred miles above the Earth, in one-G gravity. 

But Harder, for inexplicable reasons, can’t bring himself to make the pass; he’s flummoxed and fears he might be in love with June, and doesn’t want to spoil anything. Or something like that. The entire premise is so lame, particularly given that Harder’s in his 30s, a vet, and, Caidin assures us (almost desperately), has had his fair share of women. Compounding the issue is that another of the crew is a French dandy named Henri Guy-Michel, a lothario who is known for his womanizing. Guy-Michel’s already gotten busy with Epsilon’s other female crewmember, blonde American beauty Page Allison. But the French louse also wants to add June to his scorecard, and in one of Caidin’s clunky bits of backstory (clunky because they come off like they’re occuring in the main narrative, but are really in the past) we see Guy-Michel make his move – and get punched by Harder. 

And really, this soap opera dynamic is what fuels the first half of Four Came Back, with Caidin gradually filling in the backstory of the crew. None of them make much of an impression, though. There’s Koelbe, the German, who hides a Nazi past, and a couple engineers and other assorted astronauts who might as well be wearing red shirts, if you get my drift. The main characters are really Harder and June, and Caidin spends a lot of the narrative on this lame “will they or won’t they” storyline, which gets to be as annoying as any such storylines can be. Too bad Guy-Michel wasn’t the star of the show; now there’s a guy who knows how to have some sordid fun in one-G, but sadly Caidin doesn’t feature the character as much, and only tells us of his plans to do randy things with Page. Once again I can only regret that Harold Robbins never wrote a novel about the space race. 

According to the copyright page, Four Came Back was originally published in hardcover in November 1968, and as mentioned I assume Caidin was writing it at least in 1967. Well before Apollo 11, which would become one of the definining moments of the 20th Century, not to mention one of the most watched events in TV history. And yet Caidin was already able to predict the dwindling interests in the space program. Notably, the moon landing is not mentioned in the text as having happened or about to happen, however Caidin still has it that the public has moved on from the whole “space” thing, and NASA drummed up this multinational space station idea to curry interest, even giving in to public pressure and finally allowing women to take part in it. This, Caidin informs us, went over so well with the country that the Epsilon space station became the biggest draw NASA ever ran, with millions of fans around the world avidly keeping up with events on the space station…for nearly a full year, now, and their interest has not waned. 

Per the times, the sexual angle is a big draw for the crowds on Earth, with everyone mulling over just what might happen with the four male astronauts and two female astronauts up there in space. In particular Guy-Michel’s exploits have garnered much rumor and speculation; as with Countdown, we have here an alternate reality in which the papers publish gossip material about the space industry. As the novel opens, Epsilon’s been in orbit for nearly a year, and the crew has maintained the public’s interest with regular TV broadcasts of them doing this or that scientific experiement, or reporting on their findings up in space. None of it sounds like anything that would keep up interest for a day, let alone a year; we learn that Page Allison has grown plants that are stories tall in the weightless environment, and we also have an overlong bit where Harder and another of the rugged astronaut dudes cavort in a water tank like “human fish” for an experiment. 

The plot promised on the back cover only arises well past the halfway point. And it intrudes right on that “will they or won’t they” subplot. After nearly a year of being skittish over June’s clear interest, Mike Harder finally decides to give her the goods, despite this being right after the two of them have endured a grueling EVA and are all grimy and sweaty and whatnot. But a call from Guy-Michel interrupts them pre-boink. The station is approaching a “dust cloud” and the scientists aboard want to study the hell out of it. Harder, after getting the details – and leaving a jilted June back in her quarters – gives them the go-ahead to study the cloud. But as it turns out, this cloud will contaminate Epsilon with a strange space sickness that fells half the crew in just a few days. 

There’s a vibe of Alien as the crew, one by one, starts to come down with a mysterious illness that initially has no explanation. And yes, the two redshirts are the first to suffer, with one of them sprouting a strange rash and then gradually going nuts, even trying to kill the others. Strangely enough it reminded me of the penultimate episode of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO, in which a moon crystal or somesuch caused some people at SHADO to go nuts. But this novel predates even that. However Caidin doesn’t much exploit the horror potential. In fact he totally misses one such opportunity; early in the novel, during an EVA, Harder and June must wait for a fellow crew member to open the airlock door for them so they can enter Epsilon. Knowing the plot of the novel, I figured this was foreshadowing that, once the virus ran amok, someone would get stuck in space. However this never happens. 

Indeed, when the mysterious virus hits the crew, it’s treated so methodically as to be boring. Koelbe, the medical doctor, confines some to bed, puzzling over the illness, before he too is felled by it – the bit that reminded me of UFO, in fact, with Koelbe literally racing from his nightmares through the corridors of the space station. But other than the part where the one redshirt goes crazy and tries to attack people, there’s no real chaos, no real space horrors. In other words, there was a lot of potential here for a more thrilling read. Heck, even the sexual subplot is poorly handled; when Harder and June finally get to it…Caidin leaves it off page! The very act he spent the entire first half of the book setting up, and he feels it’s unworthy of actually being described. 

Caidin does unconsciously hit upon some prescience; when word gets to Earth of the space virus, the public goes insane, going to great lengths to protect itself from the threat. And yes, here too the media does its best to drum up the fear, with no attempt to face the threat with rationality. This leads to all sorts of insane reactions on Earth, yet even Caidin couldn’t think of the insanity of our real modern world. Regardless, the fictional space virus is pretty survivable: note that Harder, June, and Guy-Michel don’t even get any symptoms, and some of their crewmates die “with” the virus, not “of” the virus. But that doesn’t prevent any panic: the people on the ground are terrified that the returning crew will unleash an apocalyptic plague. This leads to nicely-rendered scenes of people going crazy and rioting in Houston, trying to destroy any further rocket launches – and destroying themselves by stupidly molotov-cocktailing the rocket fuel tanks. Caidin really enjoyed tearing this place up in print; there was a similarly apocalyptic Johnson Space Center incident in The Cape

Caidin fails in the airlock foreshadowing, but he does pay off on another bit of foreshadowing: midway through the book someone mentions Orson Welles’s The War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, and how it generated fear. Late in the book it’s mentioned again, and Wells’s source novel as well, in that the Martians were taken down by basic everyday germs. Thanks to Harder’s memory of a Gemini mission in which someone in Houston got sick after the crew’s return, it’s soon determined that germs are the culprit here, as well – though it’s the reverse of the Wells novel. Now it’s the absence of those germs, in the antiseptic world of space, that has caused the crew to get sick, when mixed with that space dust. Or something like that. At any rate it’s germs to the rescue at novel’s end. 

Of the three Caidin space novels I’ve read, Four Came Back is the one that most takes place in space, but perversely has the fewest scenes in space. The entire novel really occurs in the 90 foot tall, 13-story Epsilon station (built, as in the real-life Skylab of the real-life 1972, around a Saturn V rocket), with frequent and overly long flashbacks to the crew members’s lives on Earth. Despite the brevity the novel is pretty sluggish, and again that’s due to how Martin Caidin tells the tale; as with his other books, he constantly stalls forward momentum with awkwardly-placed flashbacks and never really gives his characters a chance to breathe. I also wanted more of the sleaze in space that Caidin promised in the opening pages!

Monday, November 1, 2021

President’s Agent (Bart Gould #1)


President’s Agent, by Joseph Hilton
No month stated, 1963  Lancer Books

Look everyone, yet another ‘60s spy series that tried to tap into the success of James Bond! But judging from the publication date, Bart Gould was one of the first on the bandwagon, coming out a year earlier than even the long-running Nick Carter: Killmaster. A big thanks to the Spy Guys And Gals site, which clears up the mystery of authorship on Bart Gould; this first volume was written by (and credited to) an author named Joseph Hilton, but the remaining seven volumes were written by a variety of authors and credited to the house name “Joseph Milton.”* 

This initial volume was written by Joseph Hilton, then, and it looks like he returned for one more installment: Baron Sinister, which was the fifth volume of the series and published in 1965. His writing is fast-moving and economical and brings to mind the work of J.E. MacDonnell in the similar ‘60s spy series Mark Hood. And, like Mark Hood, this series starts off on relatively realistic ground before getting into more fantastical realms (juding from the back cover synopses of later volumes, Bart Gould doesn’t seem to get as fantastical as Mark Hood, though). Hilton does a fine job of introducing us to the titular character and bringing to life the settings and the characters, and also doles out more action than I expected in the final quarter, including gunplay. Unlike Mark Hood and other swinging ‘60s spies (ie Jonas Wilde), Bart Gould doesn’t just rely on his martial arts skills and is fine with blowing off the faces of his enemies. 

An also unlike those other characters, Gould is not a secret agent when we meet him. Rather, he’s an international playboy type, one with a varied background (race car driving, some military service, big game hunting, etc). Hilton doesn’t dwell on Gould’s backstory, which is one of the things I dig about vintage pulp; he just leaves it that Gould’s been around the world – even getting a Medal of Honor at one point – and now at 36 he’s bored with it all. He grew up in wealth and now lives in a luxurious pad near Washington, DC; when we meet him one of his servants is giving him a rubdown after a quick boxing match. That night Gould gets a call from a former Senator named Titus Banning, an older man who now works in an unstated capacity for “the new President.” Banning has some business he wants to discuss with Gould. 

The never-named “new President” is clearly John F. Kennedy, and likely President’s Agent was written in 1962: he’s nine years older than Bart Gould, and also was sort of a mentor to Gould when they both were kids in Cape Cod. The President even makes an appearance in the text, but he’s not described and is presented more as dashing figure from myth, someone everyone looks up to regardless of partisan politics. He personally has tasked Titus Banning with summoning Gould and offering him this particular job: to go down to San Barrios, a fictional Caribbean country, and look into a plot that might entail sending a bunch of uniformed troops across the border into the US as a veritable invading army. 

Gould’s offered the assignment not only because he knows the President – and also because the President is aware of Gould’s military record and all-around adventuring skills – but also because he owns land in San Barrios. As mentioned Gould comes from wealth, and has inherited land down there, so it makes for perfect cover for him to abruptly visit the country. So then, Bart Gould in President’s Agent isn’t your typical secret agent; he has no training, and has literally been sent on the job by the President himself, mostly due to their past friendship. Also it’s interesting to note that Gould is a lot more hot-tempered than your average ‘60s spy protagonist, with none of the calm, cool, professionalism of someone like James Bond. 

Hilton brings to life the tropical paradise that is San Barrios, with Gould going about the capitol city and trying to find out what happened to the Foreign Service ambassador here – whom we already know has been killed, thanks to a suspenseful opening which features a memorable villain (an oversized muscular dwarf who serves as henchman for the novel’s main villain). Action is not really frequent, but at least it’s not a slow-moving dirge like another ‘60s spy paperback set in Latin America: The Survivor. Gould isn’t even that focused on the local beauties, though he “promises himself” he’ll find the time for some of them as he flies into San Barrios. As it turns out, Bart Gould won’t get lucky until novel’s end. 

Hilton seems to be taking us into that direction early on; Gould on the street is approached by a sexy young lady (whose name turns out to be Paquita), but she’s just a cover for some guy who tries to shove a knife in Gould’s back. Our hero defends himself, gets the knife, but both the attacker and Paquita take off. This leads into more of the vibe of a private eye yarn, as Gould hooks up with a local contact and goes on the hunt for Paquita, to find out who hired her. Eventually Hilton works in a plot featuring a local commie rabble-rouser, and Paquita’s boyfriend is involved with this guy’s group. All this turns out to be a red herring, as Gould ultimately learns that the threat comes from a German named Norden who owns the land near Gould’s own, and indeed is looking to take over Gould’s land. (How very German!) 

An interesting thing about President’s Agent is that, while there isn’t much in the way of action, it still moves along very quickly, and holds the reader’s interest. The action really doesn’t come along until Gould is captured by Norden and breaks free, escaping across the camp of Norden’s soldiers. It’s a thrilling sequence, but I did feel that Hilton didn’t suitably exploit some of his characters. For example the muscular dwarf, with the deformed face; he’s much built up, but Gould dispenses of him rather perfunctorily. And in fact Gould’s first kill isn’t until page 119. However, this escape sequence features more action than many other ‘60s spy novels, with Gould blasting away with a .45 and other appropriated weapons. He also manages to shoot a helicopter out of the sky at novel’s end – one that happens to be carrying the traitorous wife of an American dignitary, indicating that Bart Gould doesn’t let things like gender get in the way of completing an assignment. 

And speaking of which, Gould finally finds the time for one of those native beauties once the job’s been completed, the act occuring well off-page given the publication date…and for that matter, Hilton doesn’t much exploit his female characters. He does set up another volume, with Titus Banning informing Gould of a potential assignment in Austria – that is, after the President and Gould have gotten to play a little tennis. I liked this “personal agent” setup for the series and will be curious to see if it continues into the next volumes, whether they stick with the “new President” angle or change it given Kennedy’s assassination. 

*Lancer Books attempted to clear up the confusion, though; I have the third printing of President’s Agent, dated 1967, and the cover credits the book to “Joseph Milton,” not Joseph Hilton. The ’67 reprint date is interesting, given that the last volume of the series, The Death Makers, was published in 1966. Maybe Lancer was trying to drum up enthusiasm for the series to see if more volumes were warranted? Here’s the cover of my reprint edition: