Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Total Recall

Total Recall, by Piers Anthony
June, 1990  Avon Books
(original hardcover edition 1989)

While it didn’t make much of an impression on me when it was released, Total Recall has gone on to become one of my favorite Schwarzenegger movies, second only to Commando. In hindsight one can see it as the apotheosis of ‘80s action movies: a big budget, the biggest action star of the decade, gory violence, one-liners aplenty, good special effects, an incredibly dark sense of humor, and a positively hard R rating. After this Schwarzenegger and Stallone and the other ‘80s action stars went for a “kinder, gentler” approach in the ‘90s, so in many ways Total Recall was the end of an era, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. 

I was 15 when it came out in the summer of 1990, but I didn’t see it then – either the commercials didn’t do much for me or I couldn’t get an adult or guardian to take me. It feels like a million years ago that Hollywood would churn out mega-budget flicks that were 90% targeted toward teens, but put an R rating on them, thus blocking out that target audience. I finally saw the movie on VHS shortly after it was released in that format, over at a friend’s house, but I recall not being able to get into the movie at all. In fact I had this eccentric friend – it was a group of us watching the movie, I remember – and at the climax he said, “I think this is the part where we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats,” and then literally jumped onto the edge of his seat. Super stupid I know, but not only is this an example of this kid’s eccentricity (I think he went on to become an airline pilot), but it’s just something that’s stuck with me over all these years, despite how super stupid it was. 

Somehow my opinion changed over the years, watching the movie on TV or laserdisc…I had another weird/eccentric friend (I’ve had a bunch of them, honestly), and this one who was a major movie fan, particularly anything with Schwarzenegger or with copious gore. So as you can expect, he was in seventh heaven with Total Recall. He was really into laserdiscs and I seem to “recall” I watched the movie again in that format some years later and realized how good it was. In retrospect, it’s the action movie Terminator 2 should have been; while T2 was a massive hit, in hindsight you could see it as where Arnold’s movies would be headed in the ‘90s – softer, less darkly humorous, less violent. Total Recall is the complete opposite, and in fact it’s a smarter movie than Terminator 2, and smarter than most action movies, given its multiple layers. 

Everyone who enjoys Total Recall likes to engage in the “did it happen or didn’t it?” game, or even wonder if the entire thing was just a dream. There will never be a correct answer to this, as Paul Verhoeven pointedly directed each and every scene with “both realities” in mind. So you could just as easily argue that the movie is on the level as you could that it’s all a delusion, a “schizoid embolism” that gets out of control until the hero is lobotimized at film’s end (ie the flash of white before the credits). Or you could argue the entire movie is just a dream, given that it opens and closes with a dream – the last line even a winking reference to this: “Kiss me quick before you wake up.” But then, I’ve found that it’s just as easy to take the movie at face value, that it’s all really happening to Douglas Quaid, a mild-mannered (but herculean-sized) blue collar worker who finds out he’s a secret agent with an erased mind who holds the key to a planet’s survival. 

This I think is just one of the many things that makes Total Recall so entertaining. And the gore, action, occasional nudity, and super-dark humor doesn’t hurt. (“See you at the party, Richter!” is still my all-time favorite Arnold line, and it pops in my head at random intervals.) But it would be difficult to carry this “is it a dream or is it reality” vibe in a novel, and truth be told Piers Anthony seems for the most part to treat everything on the level in this tie-in, first published in hardcover in 1989 and then in softcover when the movie came out. Given that his book was published a year before the film was released, Anthony most likely was working from an earlier draft of the film; most notably, the protagonist is named “Douglas Quail” in the hardcover, but this has been changed to “Douglas Quaid” in the paperback to reflect the movie. (The Avon editors did a good job of changing almost all the “Quails” to “Quaids” in the paperback, but they did miss one – on page 58.) 

Quail was the name of the protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” which “inspired” Total Recall. Verhoeven I believe is the one who changed it to “Quaid,” which is a more fitting name for a Schwarzenegger character. The script had been in development hell for some years, with a tide of writers, directors, and actors becoming involved with it, making changes, and then jumping ship. Once production began someone must’ve thought it would make sense for this new story, which was wildly different from Dick’s original (I was going to write “the original Dick,” but thought it would sound too sophmoric), to receive its own novelization. Piers Anthony somehow got the gig, and as mentioned this one even received a hardcover edition, meaning it received appropriate industry coverage in 1989 – even a review in Kirkus

I’ve never read any of Piers Anthony’s sci-fi, but I have read his Jason Striker series, and his Total Recall novelization is of the same caliber: a fast-moving plot with good description, but an occasional tendency to overexplain things, either through exposition or authorial lecturing, plus an inordinate fondness for goofy puns and malapropisms. The lecturing especially tends to make the story come off as a bit too stuffy and ponderous at times. To be fair to Anthony, he had his work cut out for him, trying to make sense out of this film; it’s my understanding that the third act of Total Recall was the most problematic in the development stage, and Anthony does his best to give more depth and explanation to what’s going on. Indeed, he works in a galactic threat in the finale; Mars and the rest of the solar system will be wiped out if Quaid doesn’t prevail. There’s also an entire storyline about the aliens who lived on Mars eons ago. But then again, perhaps this material was in the script Anthony was working from – it’s also my understanding that a lot was cut from Total Recall for budgetary reasons. 

If you have seen the movie, the book really isn’t all that different. In fact it’s a classic example of what a tie-in should be: it tells pretty much the exact same story as the film, only with minor changes, and also fleshes out the characters and the world a bit more. The question here though is how much of this extra stuff is Anthony’s imagination or stuff that was never filmed. For example, one of his most notable changes blows the most memorable moment in the film – a moment which was blown in the trailers, too. I am of course talking about the heavyset woman disguise Quaid wears when he enters Mars, which goes haywire and keeps saying “Two weeks.” The audience is just as surprised as the people in Mars in the film, but in the novel we already know Quaid’s in the costume; but then, in the novel we’ve also seen his trip to Mars, which we didn’t see in the film. 

And also to his credit, Anthony does cater at times to the idea that this is all a dream; Quaid, even though on the run, constantly questions things and wonders over how bizarre everything has become. But unfortunately in many cases Anthony will then go out of his way to over explain what’s happened, or why it’s happened, or how it could have happened; this is why I say he mostly treats the story on the level, as he seems to be at pains to work out every little detail and make it fit. Of course in dreams (or schizoid embolisms, I assume) things don’t always fit, so what could be seen as gaping plot holes in the film (ie changing an entire planet’s atmosphere in minutes) could also be seen as just the usual random events of a dream. Even here though Anthony will over-explain how indeed an atmosphere could change so quickly, so the book would be beneficial for those who do take the film at face value but want to understand how all of it could have really happened. 

The novelization also world-builds more than the film does. We’re not told what year all this is occuring, but we are told that the solar system has been colonized, and the 1980s are now considered “ancient” history. Interplanetary travel is common, and technology is so good that you can have real-time videophone conversations between Earth and Mars. We’re also told of things like “Venusian wine” and glasses that are cut from perfect crystals grown in zero-g. Anthony also finds the time to work some left-wing sermonizing into the text; we’re lectured on how gas-guzzling cars were finally banned (even though the government didn’t want to!), and it was about time because they were destroying the atmosphere and such. Indeed, getting rid of them allowed the ozone layer to “finally repair itself.” That one really took me back; I’d completely forgotten about the ozone layer panic, which was the early ‘90s version of climate change. Actually the world of Total Recall is the one we’re rapidly heading toward: a vaguely-socialist overpopulated hellhole of crime and poverty, ruled over by mega-corporations that are outside of the law. 

I’ve gone this far and haven’t mentioned the tone Piers Anthony uses throughout Total Recall. Just as the film was for the most part aimed like a heat-seeker for a young male audience, so too is Anthony’s novel. I hate to use modern progressive terms, I mean they’re just such passive-aggressive bullshit, but folks the “male gaze” is strong as hell in this book. And in fact, the only way we’re going to win this culture war is to appropriate the other side’s words, sort of like how us Americans supposedly took the insult “yankee doodle” from the damned British and wore it as a badge of honor. So yes, the male gaze runs rampant throughout Total Recall. We are told of the breasts and appearances of every female character we meet, with even ruminations on what their sex lives must be like. Mind you, this isn’t a complaint; I loved the unbridled testosterone of it all. I mean here’s just one example – a notable example, though. Here’s Quaid in bed with his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) at the beginning of the novel:

This my friends is an author who knows his readership is made up of similarly-horny men. Lori’s “impressive architecture” will be mentioned throughout the novel, even in sequences where she’s not even around. Here we have the novel’s sole sex scene, as Quaid and Lori enjoy a little roll in the hay before Quaid heads off for work. I found it difficult to imagine Schwarzenegger in such a scene, so it’s just as well there’s no more such material in the book; I recall reading years ago that his character was supposed to kiss Vanessa Williams in Eraser (1996), but this was cut, because per Williams it just “didn’t work:” 

Quaid’s still so turned on by his hotstuff wife that he almost considers round two, but knows he’ll be late for work. Here we have a bit more world-building than in the film: we’re informed that Quaid and Lori have been married for eight years, and she’s well above him in the social strata, a daughter of wealth who for inexplicable reasons fell in love with meathead Quaid. He assumes it’s because she was turned on by his muscles! And as you can see by the mention of the “dream woman” in the excerpt above, the novelization follows the film; Quaid has just awoken from a dream of Mars, in which he explored a structure with some beautiful, brunette woman (whose bust, we’ll eventually learn, is “fuller” than Lori’s!), and then he was separated from her and fell into a chasm. 

And indeed, the book just goes on to follow the film as faithfully. Quaid seeing the Rekall commercial on the crowded subway to work, going there himself, and freaking out before the implant can happen. From there the novel, just as the film, turns into an extended chase sequence, with Quaid’s former work friends the first who show up and try to kill him. Here we see one of the biggest differences between the film and Anthony’s novelization: the book lacks the ultra-gore of the film. While there is a lot of violence and killing, Anthony does not dwell on the sprays of gore and whatnot; the action scenes are more nondescript, along the lines of “Quaid shot down two of them.” In that regard, it would’ve taken someone like David Alexander to write a Total Recall tie-in that matched the ultra gore of Verhoeven’s film. 

But even here Anthony is at pains to explain things that the film doesn’t; Quaid is such a bad-ass, able to kill three men with his bare hands in a few seconds, because of his “hidden, alternate self.” Throughout we will learn that this “alternate self” will come to Quaid’s rescue when his survival instincts kick in gear, even imbuing him with a sixth sense at times. Ultimately this will of course turn out to be “Hauser,” the “real” Quaid, same as in the film. Anthony even explains around this: near novel’s end we’ll learn that Quaid’s full name is Douglas Quaid Hauser! I don’t believe this was stated in the film. Again, maybe it was in the script Anthony worked from. It’s just another example of his striving to make everything “make sense” in the book…otherwise the reader might question where the name “Quaid” came from, if “Hauser” was the guy’s original name. But this too comes off as clumsy, as why would all of Hauser’s old colleagues keep referring to him as “Quaid,” even when the cat’s out of the bag and Quaid is aware he’s nothing more than a “personality construct?” 

The trip to Rekall is another fun demonstration of the male gaze at work. First there’s the receptionist, who same as in the film is changing the color of her fingernails with a stylus, but unlike in the film she’s also topless: 

You’ve gotta love how Quaid instantly decides Lori will need to get a similar top! Quaid is not only much more introspective in the novel, he’s also more horny. Earlier, when getting on the subway, we had a bit where he hoped that the X-ray machine would go haywire and he'd instead see the nude bodies of the women boarding, instead of their skeletons. Now, for no reason at all, he even broods over the sexual proclivities of the frowzy Rekall scientist who is about to put him under for the memory implant (this, by the way, after he’s imagined “being in bed” with the nurse who set up the IV): 

“He did not care to be victimized by her imagination.” Awesome! That’s how you turn the tables, folks! Another of the key bits that make Total Recall’s second half seem like a haywire memory implant also happens here: the technicians are able to recreate the spitting image of Quaid’s mysterious Mars woman, who is “wanton…and demure,” just like the woman of his dreams. In the film, we see her face on the screen before the implant procedure begins, and eventually will learn her name is Melina (Rachel Tictotin). However in the novel, toward the very end, Anthony also explains away this seeming incongruity; Melina, despite the fact that she and Quaid are at the moment running for their lives, mentions that she once “did some modelling” for Rekall! But then again, this could be another facet in the entire “did it happen or didn’t it?” scenario. 

However Anthony is at pains to tie up any loose ends the film might’ve had, no matter how minor. For example there’s the part where Quaid, hiding in the slums of the city, is contacted by a mysterious guy who has a package for him. We’ll learn that this guy is named Stevens, and he was “pals” with Quaid back in the Agency, ie the sadistic government agency which runs roughshod in this future – the guys trying to kill Quaid are all agents of the Agency. Chief among them is Richter (Michael Ironside), who is depicted here almost exactly as he is in the film. The only character who seems different, for that matter, is Mars boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who in the novel is described as being nearly as muscular as Quaid is. Well anyway, in the film this mysterious helper leaves Quaid a bag and takes off. In the novel, we see that Richter eventually gets hold of him and kills him. We’re also informed that Richter has killed off the Rekall office workers who tried to implant Quaid. 

As mentioned the package has the “fat lady” disguise in it, and Anthony explains how it works. This all was a surprise reveal in the film, but here we know Quaid has it from the get-go. And we see him try it out when he boards a passenger spaceliner bound for Mars, a scene which also includes Richter and his Agency minions searching the ship for Quaid – who walks right by Richter, in the fat woman disguise. But here in the novel the mask’s glitch is it keeps asking “Where is my cabin?” instead of “Two weeks.” We also learn here that Richter is a passenger on this same ship to Mars, but Anthony doesn’t describe the voyage itself; Quaid decides to take the trip “in stasis.” I don’t believe we’re even told how long the voyage to Mars takes. The reveal of Quaid in the fat lady disguise is kind of the same as in the film, only as mentioned the glitch that outs Quaid is “Where is my cabin?,” which his mask keeps asking as he disembarks the ship on Mars. 

And again from here on it follows the film pretty faithfully. Other minor changes would be that Tony, the Resistance member on Mars who was played by a pre-fame Dean Norris in the film, is not stated as being a mutant. As fans of the film know, Tony in the film had a seriously mutated face, and thus was the recipient of one of Quaid’s more insensitive one-liners. (Tony: “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around here.” Quaid: “Look who’s talking.”) Here in the novel Tony just appears to be a regular human, as no mutation is mentioned. But I’m sure you all want to know about the most famous mutant in the film: the three-breasted lady, of course. Yes, she’s here, but curiously in the book she isn’t topless in her memorable intro: 

Dude, “farted and oozed.” WTF? Glad that wasn’t in the film! Melina comes off the same here as in the movie, though more of a deal is made out of how she is both “wanton” and “demure,” per Quaid’s request at Rekall – she merely poses as a wanton whore here in a cheap bar in the Venusville district of Mars, but in reality is a fiery member of the Resistance. The novel at this point really turns into a sequence of action scenes, but the most memorable bit is the visit by “Dr. Edgemar,” the Rekall rep who claims to be visiting Quaid in his mind and tells him all this is a “schizoid embolism.” This sequence plays out pretty much identically to the film, as does most everything else that follows. Only the violence is minimized; for example, that “See you at the party, Richter!” part in the film features Quaid memorably holding aloft Richter’s severed arms before tossing them away. Richter meets his fate with both arms intact here in the novel. 

By far Anthony’s biggest change is to the explanation of what happened to Hauser. Not only does Anthony provide a long backstory on who the Martians were, but he even includes a subplot that Hauser was not a double agent, as revealed in the film’s finale, but really a triple agent. The film has it that, as Cohaagen’s minion, he ingratiated himself into the Resistance, and then “Quaid” was created to truly get in their confidence and to bypass the mental probes of the mysterious mutant leader Kuato. Anthony however develops a whole new plot out of this: Hauser actually fell in love with Melina, who made him find the good in himself, and thus he tricked Cohaagen by going along with the “Quaid” gambit, all in the hopes of wiping out his mind and protecting Melina and the Resistance from the truth he, Hauser, discovered in the ancient ruins. 

And this is the other big change. When Kuato does his mind-meld with Quaid, we are treated to a long chapter that comes off like its own separate short story. This part is the most “sci-fi” bit in the entire novel. Hauser, when separated from Melina while exploring a massive pyramid on Mars, discovered a cavern built by the ancient Martians who lived here 50,000 years ago. He enters into a chamber which takes him on a mind-meld sort of trip into Mars’s past, were he sees the No’ui, ie the human-sized bipedal telepathic ants who once lived on Mars. A “star seeder” race, the No’ui looked forward to the future and realized that the humans would one day come to Mars, and so have prepared this test sort of chamber thing, and it all works out that now Mars can either be saved – the atmosphere turning into one like Earth’s – or both it and the rest of the solar system could be destroyed by an artificial supernova the No’ui also prepared all those eons ago. It’s all very unwieldy and hard to grasp, and comes off like an entire change to the storyline in the eleventh hour. The question is whether it’s all Anthony’s creation or was material excised from the film. 

And that really is the main problem with the final quarter of Total Recall. Anthony tries to develop this massive galactic threat, with his hero outed as a former sadistic agent who found redemption in love and now can save the entire cosmos. It’s just too much to keep up with, and feels ungainly, not helped at all by the massive amount of exposition. I mean Quaid explains – sorry, “mansplains” (remember, we’ve gotta co-opt those bullshit terms) – everything to Melina as they are running from Cohaagen’s goons. But we do get the stuff from the film, like the cool watch that projects a hologram, complete with even the goofy as hell part where Quaid fools the dumb soldiers into thinking he’s a hologram when he isn’t. Anthony seems to have his tongue in cheek while writing this scene; it’s very clear that the author himself thinks the whole sequence is ridiculous, but he dutifully transposes it from the script. 

But as mentioned the changing of Mars’s atmosphere is explained here (actually, over-explained); it’s just something else the all-mighty No’ui set up all those millennia ago, and Quaid’s hand is necessary to trigger it. There’s even more exposition here as he and Melina ponder, “Can an entire atmosphere change in only ten minutes?” But then that’s one of the few areas in which films trump books; this whole sequence can be handled by fast cuts and crazy CGI (ie the eyes bulging out of heads on the surface of Mars), but poor Piers Anthony has to make sense out of it all. Oh and something I forgot to note – one of the biggest clues that the second half is just a Rekall program is the Rekall tech’s off-hand comment, when Quaid is about to be implanted: “Blue sky on Mars – that’s interesting!” This line does not appear in Anthony’s novelization; in fact, the entire “it’s all a figment of Quaid’s mind” scenario isn’t nearly as on the nose as in the film, and really only comes up via Quaid’s own pondering. 

But then to me a big sign that it isn’t all a Rekall mind trip is because Quaid kills all his friends in the opening act, and his wife is outed as a secret agent – indeed, he further learns that he’s only been married to her for six weeks, which is how long Hauser has been Quaid. The Rekall salesman, who is just as sleazy in the book as in the film, offers the “secret agent” element as a bonus to the Rekall Mars trip, and further he insists that Quaid will not be able to tell between his real memories and the Rekall procedure upon his “return” from Mars. So then, killing his friends and finding out his wife is also an enemy would very much conflict with Quaid’s real-life memories…but then this also plays into the idea that a “schizoid embolism” is creating this new wrinkle in the Rekall program. Or it could also mean it’s all a dream, hence the opening and closing “blue skies” on Mars. 

In the end though, I think this constant questioning of what’s “real” only adds to Total Recall’s appeal. (Hey, that rhymed!) And also, as Alan Moore once asked, “Aren’t all stories imaginary?” But then to continue arguing against myself, at one point a sequel to Total Recall was planned, one that would use Dick’s Minority Report as inspiration. I’ve yet to find the script for it (it was written by Gary Goldman, who so revised the third act of the film that he received billing credit), but I’ve read that it features Quaid on Mars heading up a police unit of pre-cog mutants. So then if that film had happened, there certainly wouldn’t have been a question whether the events of Total Recall “really happened.” There seems to be no question from Anthony, at least; after Melina tells Quaid “Kiss me quick before you wake up,” Quaid takes her in his arms, and Anthony ends the novel with: “[Quaid] was through with dreaming; reality was much better.” 

Anyway, Piers Anthony does a good job of making sense out of Total Recall and conveying at least some of its manic spirit. His version of Quaid is just a little too ponderous, though, and the frequent bouts of exposition kind of take away from the fun. But Anthony definitely succeeds in making a 278-page book seem half its length. I wouldn’t say the novel is better than the film, but it certainly adds to it, expanding on the world and particularly on Quaid; it just lacked much of the movie’s blood and thunder. But then it also inspired me to watch the movie again, which I plan to do posthaste.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Chinese Paymaster (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #18)

The Chinese Paymaster, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

The mysterious Nicholas Browne, who per Will Murray in his 1982 article for The Armchair Detective was a merchant seaman, turns in what has to be the most slow-moving installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster I’ve yet read. I mean this one’s sluggish, folks, and gives Amsterdam a run for its money as the most boring volume of the series. This is strange, as the other two Browne novels I’ve read (he only wrote four of them), Operation Starvation and The Bright Blue Death, were pretty good, and featured such far-out stuff as unfrozen viking warriors(!). 

There’s no far-out stuff in The Chinese Paymaster, that’s for sure. And also this one wins the award for “most deceptively slim paperback” ever – this book’s a mere 157 pages, but boy does it have some seriously small, dense print. The thrill-lacking plot doesn’t help much with the forward momentum, either. Personally I’m surprised a merchant seaman had the time to turn out such a long book. Maybe he wrote it while bored at sea, who knows. Looking at my review for The Bright Blue Death, I see that I mentioned that book somewhat had the “realistic” vibe of later Killmaster novels, like Blood Red. Well The Chinese Paymaster is very much in that same realm, very similar to the sub-Robert Ludlum novels Jack Canon would write in the final years of the series…only with even less sex and violence. 

I kind of suspected something was up with The Chinese Paymaster when I noticed that the back cover copy didn’t give a firm understanding of what the plot was even about. We’re told about three separate incidents across the globe (a doctor being killed in China, a Green Beret squad being wiped out in Laos, and a dignitary dropping dead in a New York restaurant) and that Nick “Killmaster” Carter will be put on the case. My assumption is the poor editor at Award couldn’t figure out how to make Browne’s sluggish book sound exciting. Actually what the plot turns out to be about is Nick flies around the world as part of a charter flight, trying to figure out which of his fellow travelers is the titular “chinese paymaster.” 

Oh and misleading title alert – the paymaster isn’t even Chinese. All Hawk, Nick’s boss at AXE, is sure of is that the paymaster is getting around the world and illicitly spreading money to fund Red Chinese nefariousness. In that 1982 article Will Murray mentioned how the earliest Killmasters featured Red China in a villanous capacity, something that was gradually filtered out of the series due to the thawing of relations. Well, things have come full circle, haven’t they! Anyway we open with a long chapter in which we see those back-cover incidents play out, and then Nick’s called into Hawk’s office and apprised of the situation. Per Hawk, “The Chicom paymaster is a greater threat to Western Society than The Beatles.” But he has nothing real for Nick to go on, other than that the Chicoms have come up with the idea of shuttling their paymaster around on a charter flight…and AXE believes they’ve figured out which charter. Now it’s up to Nick to figure out who among the passengers – or crew – is his target. 

We’re in for the long haul as Nick settles into the plane – which is total ‘60s with a cocktail lounge and all the other stuff that’s been removed so they can pack in more passengers like sardines – and begins his flight around the world. We do get the pretense of action early on, as when boarding the plane at Kennedy Nick is accosted by an attacker. Nick chases him, Luger drawn, but the guy ends up getting chopped to pieces by the propellers of a plane that’s about to take off. Nick gets on board, takes his seat by an old blowhard named Pecos, and it’s off to London. Pecos blathers away – as he will for the majority of the novel, Browne almost desperately padding out the pages – and Nick fumes that his cover has already been blown. Per tradition, two of the passengers are hotstuff women, and Nick wonders if either of them could be his target: first there’s blonde bombshell Tracy Vanderlake, a jet-setting heiress, and also there’s Li Valery, a Eurasian model. 

The veteran reader of the series will immediately know that Nick will ultimately have his way with both women, and of course the veteran reader will be proven correct. But whereas Operation Starvation and The Bright Blue Death had at least some hanky-panky in them, the sexual material in The Chinese Paymaster all occurs off-page. Seriously, this is the men’s adventure novel Agatha Christie never wrote; it’s a cozy mystery in which Nick acts more like a detective, trying to figure out who among his fellow passengers is guilty. It has nothing in common with most other volumes in the series, and likely was only published because Award was determined to get several volumes out per year. It really has more in common with a mystery novel, one featuring a plane filled with red herrings. 

Our first stop is London, where Nick follows Tracy to a jam-packed club where a mod band plays. Here too Nick is shot at by an unseen assailant, and this leads to a long sequence in which he’s chased by some “teddy boys” along the docks. Tracy is abducted, but the charter flight continues on(!?), next stop Paris. Here we have another red herring bit where Nick deduces that Eurasian beauty Li is the paymaster, and indeed she is smuggling money for some commies. However as it turns out it’s against her will, and has nothing to do with the plot Nick’s trying to stop. But boy does Browne fill up a lot of pages about it. Unfortunately he doesn’t have nearly as much to say about the inevitable Nick-Li sex scene, which while inexplicit would still upset sensitive readers of today, given that Li’s one of those girls who can’t make up her mind. “Nick took her triumphantly” should tell you all you need to know about who comes out on, er, top of this particular struggle. 

We’re on page 70 and this is Nick’s first “conquest.” His first real action scene follows immediately after, as another would-be assassin slips into the room and tries to kill him. Killmaster of course turns the tables, leading to another curiously overpadded sequence where Nick sneaks the body away, dragging it along the streets as if it were a drunk friend he was helping home. Oh and have I mentioned that blonde beauty Tracy is back at this point, delivering a hard-to-buy story about slipping away from her captors, whom she assumes were just people out to ransom her for her family’s money? She is yet another red herring in a book filled with them. She becomes the sort-of female lead after this, the expected shenanigans between her and Nick also kept off-page, but she does take part in some of the action scenes. 

The flight moves on to Rome, where we have another action sequence as more would-be killers come after Nick, and then on into North Africa. Here follows a safari, in which a character is suprisingly killed off, followed by a random bit where Nick is captured by Arabs in the desert…and then is randomly saved by his plane pal Pecos…who randomly carries the shrunken head of his dead friend in his luggage(!?). With all the globetrotting in The Chinese Paymaster it occurred to me that maybe Browne did write it at sea; maybe these are all his ports of call during a particularly long voyage. We also even learn of off-page visits to Greece, and later on we’re told of another off-page visit to Japan. The narrative picks back up on the return flight to New York, where Browne clumsily stages the climactic action scene in which the paymaster is finally uncovered – an action scene where Nick doesn’t come off very well, having to go borrow a fellow passenger’s gun because he gave his up! 

But Browne’s not even done spinning his wheels; we have a second climax in which Nick deduces that someone else was really the paymaster, the brains behind it all, and this leads to a confrontation on the aiport tarmac which comes off like a retread of the earlier scene where Nick chased his would-be killer directly into the spinning blades of an airplane. About the only clever thing here is that Nick decides on a staycation at novel’s end; not that Browne uses that term, but still Nick and Li decide that it would be more enjoyable to spend a few days in Nick’s penthouse after their nigh-endless trip around the world. 

With that The Chinese Paymaster mercifully comes to a close. I had to force myself to keep reading this one. I know this is the second negative review I’ve posted this week, and I apologize for that. I mean I wanted it to be all sweetness and light on this week before Christmas, but the book was a chore to read. And pulp fiction should never be a chore to read. There’s only one Browne Killmaster left for me to read, Seven Against Greece, so here’s hoping it’s more like his other two and less like The Chinese Paymaster.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Destroyer #17: Last War Dance

The Destroyer #17: Last War Dance, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
October, 1974  Pinnacle Books

The Destroyer continues to grind my gears with another volume that goes heavy on the “comedy” but light on the action. This series so far seems to me like a ‘70s variation of those annoying “spy comedy” paperbacks that populated the book racks in the ‘60s, ie The Man From O.R.G.Y. and whatnot; ostensibly packaged as action, but really more just satires. And unfunny satires at that. 

This is not intended as an insult to authors Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy; they clearly had a formula that worked for them, and they turn in novels that read super fast. It’s just that their formula is not the series I want. As I say in practically every single Destroyer review I’ve written, I want my men’s adventure straight with no chaser. The concept of Remo “The Destroyer” Williams being a “Superman for the ‘70s” (per those Pinnacle house ads) is a very cool one; I want to see him tearing mobsters and etc apart with his bare hands. But damn it all to hell, Sapir and Murphy want to write a satire, or even a spoof; the action is always secondary to the humor. And what action does happen is even usually played for laughs. Even the sex is tame; for once Remo gets lucky, and it happens off-page. 

It’s the tone that most annoys me, though. The authors want their cake and to eat it too. Thus Last War Dance (published the month and year of my birth, btw) veers from spoof to moments in which Remo’s concerned the world is about to be destroyed via a super-secret nuclear weapon. And speaking of Remo, given the “funny” vibe of the series, he and Chiun come off like total assholes. I mean, their recurring schtick is Chiun is a racist and looks down on everyone who isn’t from his tiny village in Korea, and he’s always putting down Remo, and all he wants to do is watch his soap operas. This volume adds the bit that Chiun also wants to sell out his and Remo’s services to the USSR, as the Russians better appreciate professional assassins. As for Remo, he spends the novel tossing around innocent people – his intro even features him tearing the shirt off some random guy in the airport – and he does nothing “heroic” in the course of the book. For that matter, he even plans to hand over the girl he has sex with to some people who want to kill her. 

Well anyway, Last War Dance is very much in the ‘70s mold at least, in so far as the satire goes – this one’s on the same level as The Thirteen Bracelets in its focus on making fun of races. This time it’s American Indians (or Native Americans, if you prefer), and the authors trot out all the usual stereotypes – they’re a bunch of lazy drunks, etc. There’s also a recurring “joke” that a white woman who is devoted to their cause is constantly being told by them to shut up and then getting punched in the face. (Making it worse, this is of course the woman Remo has sex with…and then plans to hand over to her would-be killers.) You all should know I’m not someone who gets worked up over accusations of “misogyny” in old pulp paperbacks, but even I got disgruntled with this shit. Ultimately though it was just another indication of how little I like The Destroyer

The novel opens making you think it will be more on the level than it really is; it’s the early 1960s and a group of military contractors are digging up missile sites in Montana. They uncover the remains of an Indian massacre and go on strike. A military general flies in and explains to them that this is pretty much ancient history: the massacre occurred in 1873, and indeed a monument will be erected commemorating the horrendous act – the Wounded Elk Masssacre. The workers go on with the dig, and then we have some dark stuff where this general has an agency hitman kill off the head contract worker on the site, and then the general kills the hitman. All to keep the location of this particular site as secret as possible. 

We then flash forward to 1973 and this general, Van Riker, is retired, under the assumption his secret is safe. There under the Wounded Elk monument he has stashed the Cassandra, a mega-powerful nuclear bomb of his own creation that could change the tide of the Cold War. It’s so powerful that it could wipe out several states if it were to be set loose. Unfortunately for Van Riker, activist American Indians are now protesting at the monument, which they intend to blow up. This could of course set off the Cassandra. Oh, and they’re not even Indians, we’re informed; many of them are young whites who are just looking for the latest activism to get involved in. The actual American Indians live across town and are too busy getting drunk and laying around and have no interest in the protests. In fact they have a serious grudge against the “fake Indians” who are over protesting at the monument. 

Sapir and Murphy skewer the sentiments of the radicals, with them going on about America being a racist country and founded on cultural genocide and etc for the TV cameras. At the same time it kind of wrankled, as how could the authors know that in a few decades such bullshit would make for the tenets of Critical Race Theory? They’re playing all this for laughs, as the “Indians” are of course a moronic lot who just want to blow stuff up and make a fuss to get on TV. Chief among them (so to speak) is Lynn Cosgrove, aka “Burning Star,” a blonde-haired actress who is known for latching on to the latest activist fads. She’s even written a book about the Wounded Elk massacre, the authors spoofing Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

Lynn is the aformentioned recipient of the slaps and punches in that unfunny recurring “joke” the authors continue with throughout the entire book. Even Remo, who ingratiates himself into the temporary trust of the Indian radicals (by promising them free food and booze, naturally), gets in on the act, telling her to shut up and hitting her. Sometimes she’s knocked out, sometimes we’re informed of her “swollen lips.” It’s not funny at all and it makes you wonder how two authors could think it was. But regardless Remo does have the belated realization that he has the hots for Lynn; he notices her nice rack beneath her deerskin tunic, and at one point pulls her aside and tells her he wants to do it. This is the first I’ve ever seen Remo display a libido. He uses his Sinanju training to touch a few sensitive spots and Lynn’s very ready for the act…the entirety of which is relayed as, “And Remo made love to her.” 

The action scenes are just as nondescript. Actually they aren’t even action scenes. Once again the authors relay everything from the perspective of Remo’s victims; suddenly they’ll find thesmselves flying through the air, or getting their necks broken, or whatever. One memorable bit has Remo shoving a guy headfirst into a toilet. But then that’s the thing. Remo is super brutal here, needlessly so. He hopelessly outmatches these befuddled would-be radicals, and thus comes off as more sadistic and evil than they are. Again, this is the problem with playing everything for laughs; the bad guys don’t even seem like bad guys, and the “heroes” seem like cruel bullies. Also, given the jokey vibe of the entire novel, it’s especially hard to buy the periodic parts where Remo will worry that the Cassandra might accidentally be blown up. There’s absolutely no tension in the entire novel, and the authors’ attempt to add some comes off like half-assed catering to the imprint’s desire for an “action” novel. 

To their credit, Sapir and Murphy stick with this piss-poor setup for the entire novel; Remo tries to prevent the radicals from destroying the monument (beating and killing some of them as necessary), then spends more time trying to track down a 155 mm cannon one of the locals intends to use to kill all the radicals. And Remo isn’t trying to find the cannon to save the radicals (indeed as mentioned he even plans at one point to turn them all – including Lynn! – over to the locals), it’s just that Van Riker has informed him a cannon of such power could also set off the Cassandra. There’s also another time-filler subplot about a Russian agent who has been hunting for the Cassandra for decades, and now has deduced it’s here in Montana; he is the one Chiun considers selling the services of Sinanju to. 

Speaking of which, the Sinanju stuff is really the only thing I like about The Destroyer (even the Remo-Chiun bickering is annoying me now). This time we learn that Remo exercises entirely mentally; there’s a part where he stretches out in bed, imagines himself in a wooded area, and “runs” for several minutes, getting his heart pounding. We also get a brief explanation of how Remo was recruited into Sinanju, with Van Riker acting as the new guy being brought into the bizarre fold of CURE…but then that’s another example of the clumsy vibe of this series. Because CURE is top secret of course and anyone who learns about it must die. Once again this makes our “heroes” seem more like villains – nothing like killing off the guy you’ve been working with for the entire novel. But then again it’s a nice payoff, given how Van Riker just as ruthlessly enforced his own secrecy at the beginning of the novel. 

Anyway, Last War Dance is certainly my least favorite volume of The Destroyer yet. But then again I haven’t liked any of them. Readers of the day must’ve felt differently, though, at least judging from the cover blurb – was The Destroyer really “America’s bestselling action series?” Even more so than The Executioner?

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Sea Scrape (Mark Hood #12)

Sea Scrape, by James Dark
April, 1971  Signet Books

The Mark Hood series comes to a close with a final installment that was published two years after the previous one. According to seldom-reliable Wikipedia, Sea Scrape was originally published as The Reluctant Assassin in Australia, but that’s not correct. The cover of The Reluctant Assassin, which depicts a sportscar race, doesn’t reflect any events in Sea Scrape. And also this Worthpoint listing, archiving an old eBay listing, shows a few pages of The Reluctant Assassin, and it’s a completely different book than Sea Scrape. So then The Reluctant Assassin was just a volume of the series that never made it over to the US, same as the earlier installment Spy From The Deep. Meaning that there were 14 volumes of Mark Hood in Australia but only 12 in the US. 

As it turns out, Sea Scrape seems like an attempt at a series finale by J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell; for the first real time in the series there’s an attempt at continuity, with previous adventures often mentioned, and supporting characters not seen for several volumes appearing again. Also MacDonnell even seems to harken back to the first volume, turning in a deceptively slim paperback that reads a lot more slowly than its brief 128 pages would imply; there’s some seriously small and dense print here. Compare to some of the more recent volumes, which were really just glorified novellas. Also the sci-fi elements of the more recent books have been toned down, again calling back to the early volumes of Mark Hood. However for the most part Sea Scrape is a retread of Operation Ice Cap (which itself was sort of a retread of Operation Octopus), only with the far-out elements downplayed. 

As with Operation Ice Cap, the supervillain of Sea Scrape wants to get his hands on a Polaris sub, but whereas the previous supervillain collected such subs, this supervillain only needs one of them. Eventually we’ll learn that the supervillain believes Western Civilization is finished, and thus he plans to destroy it and start a new civilization in its wake. (So essentially his plan is Build Back Bettter a few decades early.) Intertrust has gotten word that someone’s planning to steal a Polaris, but the only lead they have is that this person will be staying in a certain hotel in a ski lodge not far from Intertrust HQ in Geneva(!). Blair, the American head of Intertrust, sends Hood to the hotel to scope things out and see if he can determine who the mystery villain might be. (Fortescue, the British co-head of the agency, also appears in the book, furthering the “gang’s all here for the final volume” vibe.) 

While Sea Scrape is busily plotted compared to some of the more recent volumes, it certainly relies a bit too much on lazy coincidence. I mean for one the setup of the mystery villain being at this particular hotel is pretty lame. But then Hood goes there, and the first person he sees is a goatteed, mysterious man – whom we readers already know is indeed the supervillain of the yarn! This is Count Alexander Pefner, the “Satanic genius” of the cover copy, a self-proclaimed “International Zionist” who ultimately turns out not to even be Jewish, but a guy who has gotten into power by working for various governments, including at one point even the Nazis. More importantly he’s got a hotstuff daughter at his side, a twenty-something man-eater who is “one of the most beautiful and unusual girls Hood had ever seen.” This is Rachel Pefner, who ultimately will be Hood’s sole conquest this volume. 

But you can already see some lazy plotting at work here; intel just happens to know a person of interest will be at this specific hotel at this specific time, and the first person Hood sees there just happens to be the very same man he’s looking for! To make it worse, Hood basically just zeroes in on Pefner, despite no firm evidence he is indeed the madman planning to steal a submarine…and in fact, the entire novel continues on that level, with Hood uncertain until toward the very end that he has the right man. Actually in this first half Hood’s under the impression that Pefner is nothing more than an art thief, and Hood goes back to Geneva with his tail between his legs, upset that he’s let Intertrust down. This despite the fact that he’s had multiple run-ins with Pefner’s henchman, a former Navy crewman named Maitland. 

On the other hand, Hood has found the time to conjugate with Pefner’s horny daughter Rachel. But MacDonnell is very reserved this time – not that this series ever got very explicit – and everything happens off-page. About the only thing we learn is that Rachel has a quirk in that she gets turned on by violence. Before “doing the deed” she’ll slap Hood around, or try to fight him in some manner. Otherwise she’s imperious and doesn’t make much of an impression on the reader. And that ultimately is what separates Mark Hood from its obvious inspiration, James Bond. While MacDonnell turns in fast-moving yarns with just the right does of spy-fy thrills, he fails to ever really create memorable characters. Absolutely none of the villains in this series have been on the level of even a lesser Bond villain, and the female characters too fail to make much of an impression on the reader. 

But then I don’t mean to sound like I’m judging things too harshly. I mean Ian Fleming had a full year to work on his Bond novels, whereas MacDonnell was turning out several Mark Hood books a year, in addition to whatever else he was working on. But Rachel Fefner is a perfect example of how these Mark Hood characters could be so much more than what we get. She’s an imperious man-eater who doesn’t hide behind any pretenses, but she doesn’t contribute much to the tale. And for that matter, Hood pretty much leaves her in the lurch, figuring he’s wasted his time checking on Pefner and heading back to Geneva…only for Blair to suspect that Hood might’ve been onto something after all. 

Another thing that makes Sea Scrape notable is that the second half occurs in Australia, which of course is where the series was originally published. After a bit of investigation it looks like the Polaris sub that might be captured will soon be in Australia, so Hood heads over there to investigate, playing a hunch that Pefner might be involved after all. Blair insists that Hood take along fellow Intertrust agent Tommy Tremayne, last seen in Throne Of Satan. Speaking of supporting characters we haven’t seen in a long time, we also get a random reference to Hood’s karate sensei “Matsimuro.” Presumably this is Murimoto, last seen in The Sword Of Genghis Khan, and MacDonnell just forgot the character’s name. Speaking of random references, Hood also thinks back to the events of Assignment Tokyo, which is ironic given that it was I think the worst volume of the entire series – just a slow-moving dirge. More importantly Hood and Blair refer to Norsgaard, the villain of Operation Ice Cap; even they note the similarity between this current threat and that previous one! 

Humorously Tremayne doesn’t offer much in the way of support. He and Hood race around looking into clues and get in a few firefights, but at one point they’re both easily captured by Maitland and his men, walking into a trap. As ever MacDonnell isn’t much for bloody violence, either, but an unusual element of Sea Scrape is that this time Hood uses guns more than his customary karate and judo skills. That said, there isn’t much action in this one; again, it’s very similar in that regard to the earliest volumes, only with slight sci-fi trimmings. For example, we learn that Pefner has his own island, one that contains a high-tech underworld lair beneath it. Macdonnell doesn’t do much to bring it to life, nor does he much exploit Pefner’s Blofeld-esque penchant for acquiring loyal staff – and disposing of those who disappoint him. 

Another interesting element of Sea Scrape is that Hood kills a woman in combat; he’s already done this before, in, you guessed it, Operation Ice Cap. As we’ll recall, that earlier volume had a very similar scenario in which the madman genius had a super-hot daughter, and the daughter and Hood became enemies once they’d spent some quality time in bed. Well the same thing happens here; Rachel Pefner bears a serious grudge with Hood, given how he rushed out on her in Geneva and such, and also now she’s certain he’s a spy – she’s devoted to her father, you see, but isn’t aware her father is in fact an international terrorist. She is under the mistaken assumption that Hood is an industrial spy. Her fate is pretty crazed, one of the most crazed scenes in the series, involving as it does Hood using the rotating blades of a helicopter as his weapon. Hood even pukes after the job is done. 

The climax is somewhat unusual; Hood follows another hunch that Pefner will attempt to capture the Polaris at such and such a location in Australia, and Hood is correct, though he himself is also captured. We then flash-forward one month and Tremayne’s back at Intertrust HQ in Geneva, puzzling over the situation with Blair and Fortescue. Meanwhile we learn that Hood’s been on the sub all these weeks, kept as a prisoner, but now almost friends with Pefner, who likes to come into Hood’s quarters and chat and play chess and whatnot. Humorously, the dude has no idea what’s happened to his daughter, but the threat hangs there that he might find out and of course Hood will suffer. 

However MacDonnell delivers one of his typically anticlimactic finales; Hood does manage to escape – and I love it that Pefner’s men wear scarlet-colored wetsuits on the Polaris – and gets off the sub, taking out a series of foes in almost casual fashion. And we have yet another volume that ends with all the main villains suffering their fate off-page; this is a recurring gimmick of Mark Hood that’s always annoyed me. It seems like every volume ends with Hood blowing people up from afar, and that’s that. Well, at least this time it’s over and done with, this being the final volume of the series and all, and Hood heads off for his expected vacation at novel’s end. 

Unless I ever turn up Spy From The Deep or The Reluctant Assassin, this will be the last volume of Mark Hood I read, and it was a good enough finale. Overall I enjoyed this series a lot, particularly how MacDonnell kept the plots moving and also doled out just enough of that ‘60s spy-fi vibe I enjoy so much. He also always had a lot of scuba action, which I always enjoy. But as mentioned the villains – despite how wild some of them were – never achieved the level of any Fleming creations, nor did the female characters. However on the other hand Mark Hood is exactly what it should have been: a fast-moving pulp-spy series that focuses on entertainment, never striving to be a “serious” piece of espionage fiction.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Penetrator #40: Assassination Factor

The Penetrator #40: Assassination Factor, by Lionel Derrick
January, 1981  Pinnacle Books

Well folks this volume of The Penetrator is something else entirely…this is, I’m fairly sure, the only volume of the series yet in which hero Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin doesn’t get in a single fight. And he doesn’t even get laid! Poor Chet Cunningham must’ve been supremely weary of writing the series at this point; I mean, even his previous half-assed contributions, like #30: Computer Kill or #36: Deadly Silence, actually featured a little action, not to mention the death of the main villains…even if the villains did Mark the favor of killing themselves. Not so here; for once again Assassination Factor comes off like the novelization of a bland TV movie. 

In fact, Cunningham is so bored that he spends most of the novel writing about other characters. As far as I’m concerned, with these series novels the series protagonist should always be the primary character. But Cunningham here spends much more time with one-off characters, in particular a professional assassin named Butler (not to be confused with the other Butler) who is killing off famous people who use their platform to speak ill of the United States. (Boy would this guy have his work cut out for him today!) We see him in action at novel’s start, taking out by methodical (not to mention pages-consuming) means a variety of targets. He’s pretty diverse in that he hits anyone who bad-mouths the US, whether they be Liberal, Conservative, or even Independent, as demonstrated in his first kill, which really threw me for a loop. Check this out and see if a certain phrase jumps out at you:

“Make America Great Again” was a slogan originally used by Reagan in his 1980 campaign for president; Trump bought the rights to it in 2016 and obviously branded it more than Reagan ever did. But at the time Assassination Factor was published, this phrase would’ve resonated as Reagan’s, and initially I thought Cunningham was “taking the piss” (as the British say) out of series co-writer Mark Roberts, who as we all know was a pretty conservative guy. But as it turns out, Butler kills liberals as well as conservatives; as the novel progresses we see him take out a civil rights activist (where Cunningham doles out the dreaded n-word), a wealthy Iranian, and finally a Jane Fonda analogue, who presumably is the busty babe on George Bush’s cover…and yes, the “No nukes” stuff works into the plot. Anyone who denounces America on a public stage becomes Butler’s target. 

But as mentioned Cunningham is bored with it all. For example, Mark Hardin is fishing when we meet him, and then he hears about this assassination early in the book. He heads back to the Stronghold and, playing a hunch, starts making a list of all the recent deaths of notables, and gradually comes to the conclusion that it’s the work of a hitman who is making the kills seem like freak accidents or whatever. And folks, Mark spends the first 76 pages investigating at the Stronghold! Literally sitting at a desk and looking at computer printouts and making lists! It all gave me bad flashbacks to when the similarly-“badass” hero spent nearly the entire novel pecking away at a computer keyboard in Stand Your Ground

On the plus side, this is by far the most the Stronghold has ever featured in a Penetrator novel. While it isn’t much brought to life, it was interesting to see Mark Hardin there so long, as generally we get but a page or two at his “home base” before he heads off on his latest mission. Curiously though the Stronghold is explained to us again, how it’s built on an old Borax mine and how the Professor built it and all this other setup stuff that you think wouldn’t be necessary in the 40th volume of the series. But again, poor Chet Cunningham is bored with The Penetrator and he’s doing his damndest to fill up the pages and meet his word count. He’s even got Mark calling up various contacts – including even Dan Griggs, the Justice Dept dude who is supposed to be finding and arresting the Penetrator – to ask if they have any info on these mysterious murders. 

Cunningham only proceeds to pile lameness on top of lameness. Intermittently in Assassination Factor we will encounter one Marshall Songer, a guy in his early 20s in Los Angeles who likes to go around…pretending to be the Penetrator. He’s got plastic blue arrowheads, a .45 he managed to acquire, and he blusters his way into shopping areas and whatnot to give people lessons on the danger of crime and etc. The cops nearly bust him at times and Marshall always gets away – there’s also a weird gimmick that he does magic tricks on the side – and Mark eventually finds out about it. We already know there are “Penetrator fan clubs” out there, and while Mark is okay with those, he’s concerned this imposter Penetrator, whoever he is, will get killed by the real Penetrator’s many enemies. 

Of course as it plays out, Mark eventually heads to LA, finally leaving the Stronghold (on page 76!) to scope out an Iranian whom he thinks will be the assassin’s next target. Mark will be proven correct, though he’s unable to catch or prevent the killer. Instead, more focus is placed on Mark coming across Marshall Songer during one of his “Penetrator” routines, and then tracking him back to his home and doing like a “scared straight” sort of thing, where he convinces the punk that he is in over his head. This sequence ends with Songer pretty certain that his mysterious visitor, who claims to be a reporter, is likely the real Penetrator. But luckily that’s all there is to this particular time-waster of a subplot. 

But man, that’s what The Penetrator has been reduced to by this 40th volume of the series: a guy who sits around and “investigates,” occasionally giving pep talks to wayward youth. And believe it or not, after meeting Songer he goes back to the Stronghold to investigate some more! Finally he figures that famous movie star-slash political activist Jane Marvel will likely be the assassin’s next target. Clearly a spoof of Jane Fonda, Marvel is a hotstuff brunette with “full breasts” (“thirty-nine inches,” we are specifically informed) who, when not making films, is known to get involved in the latest activist stuff. Currently she’s been denouncing various nuclear plants and silos, and folks you better believe that Cunningham wastes pages and pages on Jane protesting at not one but two events, her activist husband Larry Tollison (ie Tom Hayden) in tow. Her third husband, we’re informed, Cunningham slyly setting it up so we won’t be too shocked when Jane makes her inevitable pass at Mark. 

Curiously, Jane Fonda herself was mentioned in a previous Cunningham volume: #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers. This means that there is both a real Jane Fonda and a fake Jane Fonda in the world of The Penetrator. Jane Marvel, we’re informed, even watches movies on “the China Syndrome,” an unsubtle reference from Cunningham to Fonda’s real-life film of the same name. Furthering the similarities, Jane Marvel even went to ‘Nam during the war to protest, which ran her afoul of the servicemen there; later in the book, when Mark and Jane meet, the actress asks Mark why he’s trying to help her, given that he served in ‘Nam and thus should hate her guts as a traitor. Mark’s response is that, while he doesn’t agree with most of what Jane preaches, for this one instance they are aligned. Plus he’s a big fan of her movies! Even if she’s “an all-around extremist,” so far as Mark is concerned.

Mark gets into her confidence via goofy means. He scopes out Jane’s mansion, up in the richer area of Beverly Hills, and slips past her elaborate security system. There he rings the house phone and speaks to Jane on it, informing her that he’s waiting for her in the den! Mark manages to convince Jane and her husband that he’s certain an assassin is coming for her, and that he’s here to help. Soon enough he’s shadowing Jane on the studio lot, and prevents her “accidentally” being crushed by a sandbag that falls from the rafters or somesuch. But it’s clear at this point that there will be no action finale for Assassination Factor. Instead, the only time Mark fires his gun in the entire novel is while guarding Jane’s home that night, shooting at Butler’s shadow out in the woods. We get a retread of the very same thing the following night, but this time Mark manages to lure Butler into a trap and knocks him out, ties him up…and then tells Jane to call the cops! 

I mean he doesn’t kill the bastard or anything! Nor do we have a big confrontation between Mark and Butler…for that matter, Butler himself at this point is lost in the narrative, just a mysterious figure Mark’s trying to stop. You might imagine him as this buzzcutted humorless super-patriot, but Cunningham does absolutely nothing to bring him to life, nor to let us know what makes him tick. No, Mark just knocks him out, ties him up, and takes off – another assingment complete. And as mentioned he doesn’t even have the expected sleazy shenanigans with busty Jane Marvel; she plants a big kiss on him twice in the book, and at one point bluntly propositions him, but Mark Hardin can’t be bothered with such things. I mean, the lady’s married! The Penetrator has morals, folks! 

It’s all just so lame and stupid…you almost wonder if you’re reading a TJ Hooker novelization. Actually that’s an insult to TJ Hooker, plus I don’t think the show was even on the air yet. But you get my drift. Overall this one was very lame, as bad as Cunningham’s previous “worst installment ever,” #22: High Disaster.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Spider #27: Emperor Of The Yellow Death

The Spider #27: Emperor Of The Yellow Death, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1935  Popular Publications

The Spider delves into a “ Yellow Peril” storyline once again, but this one’s not as wild as a previous entry in this subgenre: The Red Death Rain. Otherwise we have the same trimmings: a dastardly plot that sees thousands of New Yorkers die, a nefarious “Oriental” villain whose mental powers seem to dwarf those of our hero, and also most importantly a sexy Oriental henchwoman. But none of these elements are as exploited as they were in The Red Death Rain (which unforgettably climaxed with the sexy henchwoman being raped to death by an orangutan), and also the villain’s kind of lame…I mean his name is “The Turtle.” 

One thing I’ve noticed about these Yellow Peril storylines in The Spider is that no narrative space is wasted on the usual red herring-chasing that you find in the volumes that don’t feature Asian villains. You know what I mean…practically every volume will have a cast of one-off characters and Richard “The Spider” Wentworth will suspect several of them of being that volume’s villain, only for it to turn out to be some random guy, revealed on the very last page, the revelation making no impact on the reader because we have no idea who the hell this guy is. But this doesn’t happen in Emperor Of The Yellow DeathDragon Lord Of The Underworld, or The Red Death Rain. The villains in these tales are Chinese…and folks, elite rich guy Richard Wentworth doesn’t know any Asians, except for hired staff. I found this an interesting insight into the culture of the ‘30s, where Asians were still seen as remote and mysterious. 

And as to be expected Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page doesn’t write with the cultural sensitivity you’d expect from today’s authors: the Turtle, for example, is introduced as “yellow-skinned Wang-ba.” His name, which we’re informed translates as “Turtle,” is sort of a joke, as he’s given himself a lowly name despite being the usual Spider supervillain…would you believe, the worst threat the Spider has yet faced? Of course we’re told that every single volume, but regardless Wang-ba has an army at his disposal, he can control various animals and reptiles, and he has his own personal submarine which he travels around the New York area in. Also his mental powers are so grand that he even manages to put none other than Wentworth under his control, however to do so he has to cheat a little. 

It’s clear though that Page was recycling ideas at this point to meet his ungodly monthly word count. There’s a long sequence in Emperor Of The Yellow Death where Wentworth is a mind-controlled vassal of Wang-ba’s, plotting to kill his best friend/enemy Stanley Kirkpatrick…who himself was mind-controlled by the villain in Overlord Of The Damned. And Wang-ba’s mastery of animals is a retread of Ssu His Tze’s mastery of vermin in Dragon Lord Of The Underworld. In addition to that we also have the usual events that occur each volume: Wentworth’s own vassals get waylaid early on and removed from the narrative until the end, lovely Nita van Sloan is captured by the villain, and thousands of innocent New Yorkers die in freak attacks. But Emperor Of The Yellow Death is faster-moving than some of the preceding volumes, mostly because as mentioned Page has removed the lame “mystery” angle that has slowed them down. It’s clear from the get-go that Wang-ba is the villain and there’s no fooling around trying to find out his secret identity. 

Another recurring schtick is that the novel opens with Wentworth arlready on the job, as it were. He’s walking along Fifth Avenue at 2:30 in the AM, hoping to lure an attacker – we’re told earlier that evening he prevented a “Chinese houseboy” from poisoning a judge aquaintance of Wentworth’s, and now our hero is sure he’ll be attacked himself for foiling the plot. This happens, but randomly enough it’s courtesy a Bengal tiger. This is our first indication of the control Wang-ba has over the animal kingdom. After stopping the tiger Wentworth returns to his penthouse, where he’s visited by a pretty young Chinese woman; Page twice uses “langurous” to describe her, and we’re told she has a “cruel smile.” 

It won’t be until later in the novel that we learn her name is White Flower. She’s not as depraved as the Chinese henchwoman in The Red Death Rain, and Page ultimately develops a subplot in which White Flower is drawn to Wentworth due to his charisma. But at the start the relationship, such as it is, is more centered around White Flower trying to test Wentworth as being worthy to join Wang-ba’s army. Because yet again, the villain knows of course that Richard Wentworth and the Spider are one and the same, and wants to offer him the chance to rule at his side. However he goes about his invitation rather strangely, kidnapping Nita and luring Wentworth to his submerged submarine – even trapping Wentworth inside at one point to see if our hero will kill himself or wait patiently for Wang-ba to visit him. 

Page is very fond of taking his hero through the wringer, and that’s brought to the fore here. Wentworth is trapped in a chamber that’s submerging with water. He’s here to save Nita, but he knows that Wang-ba must also be on the submarine. Here we learn that Wentworth always carries on his person two vials of an experimental liquid explosive which, were the two liquids to be combined, would be able to destroy the entire sub. Wentworth struggles with himself whether he should combine the liquids and destroy the sub, thus stopping Wang-ba’s plot – but also killing himself and Nita in the bargain. Of course our hero cares nothing for the loss of his own life, but it is Nita’s fate he worries about. No surprises then that Wentworth decides it’s more important to stop Wang-ba…and of course the villain finally appears at that moment. This too had been one of Wang-ba’s tests. 

“We are two mighty killers, thou and I,” Wang-ba announces. The Turtle doesn’t have a fancy costume or mask, going around in the expected “Oriental” style robes, but he does have the unusual gimmick of a mysterious green light always shining in his face. His murdering of innocents almost comes off as perfunctory; there’s a hellish part where his minions kill everyone in a tenement building, and later in the novel his attacks become more frequent, culminating in his ultimate plan to ransom New York City for one hundred million dollars. The green light gimmick extends to the “guns of devil flame” he’s armed his soldiers with; they spout green flames. In a curious subplot we learn that Wang-ba’s soldiers, Chinese all, are under his mental sway, and there are parts in the end where Wentworth is trying to save them. 

As mentioned Wang-ba challenges Wentworth to a mental duel; if he wins, Wentworth too will become his vassal. But our hero has more than enough mental power to defeat Wang-ba, so the villain pricks Wentworth with a dart, thus distracting our hero and conquering him in the challenge. The Oriental fiend! Now follows a long stretch where Wentworth becomes the willing proxy of Wang-ba. This sequence climaxes in a cool bit that comes off like a prefigure of the scene in John Milius’s Conan where Conan is brought back to life by his friends. Here Ram Singh and Nita reclaim Wentworth’s soul, Nita the key to the affair as she shares the “same karma” as Wentworth. Cool stuff, and one of the best scenes yet in the series. 

Wentworth only dresses up in his Spider digs once in the book; this is another typical element of Page’s novels. But it’s another sterling sequence where Wentworth, with the hunchback and fangs Spider getup, runs a train filled with food into New York, braving Wang-ba’s soldiers, who throw grenades at the train. This sequence reveals that Wentworth also carries special cigarettes in his case – four “narcoticized” ones. Unfortunately he never lights one of them up; we’re informed they are there solely for emergencies. I was hoping we’d get a coke-fueled Spider moment. We do get the usual Page craziness, though, in particular a bit where Wang-ba, ever the host, shows Wentworth how he punishes soldiers who fail him: Wentworth watches in disgust as the poor men are torn apart by turtles. Of course Wentworth himself will need to get past these same bloodthirsty animals later on. 

Page also does a good job of tying together all the subplots in a typically-harried finale, which sees Wentworth prove to White Flower that her master is a bit of a fake in the mental powers department. As I say, these Yellow Peril storylines really inspired Page to cut back on the fluff. The fate of the various characters is not unexpected, but touching in some ways. With a cooler villain and a more depraved villainness, Emperor Of The Yellow Death could’ve given The Red Death Rain a run for its money, but it comes down as relatively meek in comparison. Still, yet another entertaining Spider yarn, and it’s a testament to Page’s skill that he could turn out memorable tales month after month, in addition to the plethora of stories he was writing for other pulp mags.

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Weapon Of Night (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #19)

The Weapon Of Night, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

The final Nick Carter: Killmaster by Valerie Moolman, The Weapon Of Night taps into the Northeast blackout of November 1965, with UFOs and LSD also somehow figuring into the plot. Sounds like a bonkers installment, but Moolman doesn’t really exploit any of this stuff, and for the most part the novel features Nick Carter running around various nuclear plants. Even the novel’s villain, the series regular Mr. Judas, is given short-shrift, and comes off as pretty boring. This I’ve found is typical of Moolman’s work on the series in general, and given that she was the sole writer of Nick Carter: Killmaster for its first few years, I’m surprised the series lasted long enough for other ghostwriters to come aboard. Maybe readers were just desperate for any spy fiction at the time. 

I suspect Moolman knew this would be her final venture, as she brings back characters from her previous installments; we’re even informed which volumes they appeared in on the first-page preview. She also does something unique in that the novel opens with Nick finishing up an assignment in progress; chasing an old Nazi across the rooftop of a Chicago skyscraper. A blackout occurs during the melee and the Nazi plummets to his death. Nick hops aboard a plane and heads back to his New York penthouse, figuring that he’s wrapped up the case…not realizing of course that the blackout presages a case he’ll be working on posthaste. 

We have a lot of sequences with one-off characters experiencing weird stuff across the US: UFO sightings, blood-red water coming out of faucets, “grubby” atmospheres, and another blackout – this one hitting the airport as Nick’s plane comes in to land. There’s this strange, almost casual vibe to Moolman’s Killmaster books; Nick finds a letter waiting in his mailbox from Hakim Sadek, a “cross-eyed criminologist” in Cairo Nick worked with in Safari For Spies. Something about a plot Hakim has uncovered, in which people are having their faces changed and somesuch. Shortly thereafter another previous Moolman character returns: Nick’s boss Hawk tells Nick that his next assignment is to escort a Russian VIP on a tour of a US nuclear plant, and that Russian VIP is Valentina Sichikova, who appeared in The 13th Spy

“Now there is one dame I really love!” Nick says when informed that Valentina will be his guest. But as it turns out, she is “one of Russia’s biggest women,” and is morbidly obese and whatnot. Ostensibly here to tour a plant for vague reasons, Valentina’s real purpose is to discuss the blackouts that are also occuring in Russia; she tells Nick and Hawk that the USSR suspects some Chinese are behind the plot. Ultimately this will tie in with the letter Hakim sent. Valentina, Nick, and Hawk sit around in AXE HQ in DC and talk – there’s a lot of talking in the The Weapon Of Night – and it all has more the vibe of a mystery than an action novel. Once again Moolman gives the impression that AXE is a massive organization like U.N.C.L.E., with tons of employees going around, each of them with different numbers and security clearances. 

Another character returns: Julia Baron (sometimes referred to as “Julie,” though Moolman doesn’t here), hotstuff AXE agent with “slightly slanting, catlike eyes” and black hair. She appeared in the first volume (as did Mr. Judas) and then in several others, before being removed from the series in Time Clock Of Death. In each instance she was presented as the perfect match for Nick Carter, the love of his life and whatnot. But here the two have more of a contentious relationship, with Julia snipping at Nick and constantly questioning him. This was annoying and brought to mind the vibe of modern thrillers, in which the heroic male characters are constantly mocked and second-guessed by the lead female characters. Ironically this doesn’t prevent Nick and Julia from getting in bed – she’s his only conquest in the novel – for some vaguely-described shenanigans (ie “She accepted him again and he plunged into warmth and softness.”). 

But the problem is, Moolman clearly likes these characters she’s created, and spends too much time with them instead of on action or suspense. In particular she spends way too much narrative on Valentina and her earthy proclamations and sentiments, and Hakim too gets too much print. What makes this an issue is that it’s all written in this highfalutin style, ie “American officialdom gave [Hakim] a pain in the traditional place.” Lame stuff, and very similar to the lifeless style “Bill Rohde” brought to Nick Carter: Killmaster in his (their?) installments, a la The Judas Spy and Amsterdam. In fact, I wonder if the Rohde style was influenced by Moolman; in Rohde too AXE is a vast organization akin to U.N.C.L.E., with an army of technicians and planners and etc, and an overall “safe” approach to the proceedings where hardly anyone ever gets hurt, let alone killed. In this regard the volumes of Manning Lee Stokes, when he came onto the scene with The Eyes Of The Tiger, must’ve been like a bucket of cold water to those who had grown familiar with the vibe of the preceding Moolman novels. 

Even the action scenes are lifeless, not to mention bloodless. And Nick doesn’t come off nearly as badass as he would in later books, particularly the ones by Stokes. I mean Nick is knocked out three times by page 114. He also uses more gadgets than in the Stokes novels (just as he does in the Rohde books – another similarity), including a “pocket-sized laser gun” which he uses at one point to get himself and Julia out of danger. A curious thing is that there’s no tension in Moolman’s action scenes; there’s such a safe, casual air that you know even the supporting characters will be safe. There’s a part, for example, where Valentina is abducted, and never once is her fate in doubt. Instead, more entertainment comes from the strange bitterness between Julia and Nick in these action scenes; Julia second-guesses and mocks Nick at every turn, a la “Why aren’t you out there doing something?” It’s strange and makes me wonder if Moolman had built up this resentment in her earlier volumes. 

But as mentioned the bickering nature doesn’t prevent the bedroom action, and the novel’s climax features Nick and Julia…watching TV. I mean nothing says “action novel” like your hero sacked out in front of the television in the final pages. Judas you see has orchestrated various blackouts, but AXE – using various high-tech tracking methods – has been unable to locate him. The blackouts have gotten worse, to the point that the President addresses the nation on television, and Nick and Julia watch this from their hotel room. The President’s name is never given, but he’s clearly LBJ (not to be confused with FJB). A blackout occurs at that moment, knocking out the TV screen, and Nick deduces where Judas is. This leads to a climax where he faces off against Judas overtop Niagra falls, trying to cut the supervillain’s line so he will plummet to his doom – a nice callback to the plummeting Nazi of the beginning. 

The novel mercifully ends here, but there was a pseudo-sequel many years later: Vatican Vendetta. The climactic events of The Weapon Of Night are referred to throughout that later installment, which also happened to be the last one “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel. And per my review, it’s my assumption that Vatican Vendetta was written shortly after The Weapon Of Night and just went unpublished for a few years. Overall I didn’t much enjoy The Weapon Of Night, and I haven’t really enjoyed Moolman’s work on the series. Not that she’s a bad author, I just feel that she doesn’t bring much bite to her novels, which come off more like cozy mysteries.