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!