Monday, January 10, 2022

The Adjusters #5: The Temple At Ilumquh

The Adjusters #5: The Temple At Ilumquh, by Jack Laflin
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Someone at Award Books must’ve decided The Adjusters still had legs, as three years after the previous volume was published the series returned. Several changes are evident, though: for one, a real author is credited, whereas the previous four were credited to series protagonist Peter Winston himself, a la Award’s far more successful Nick Carter: Killmaster series. Also, the cover design has been changed. Most importantly, though, the entire premise has been changed, with The Temple At Ilumquh having almost nothing in common with the previous four volumes, other than Peter Winston himself. 

Jack Laflin is also new to the series, but in the mid-‘60s he wrote the five-volume Geoffrey Hiller spy series for Belmont. I have every volume but still haven’t read any of them yet. Overall his writing is good if a little too fussy. He’s one of those authors who likes his long sentences, which to me doesn’t much suit the genre, making what should be a tense sequence instead come off like a long list of “this happened and then this happened, and furthermore this also happened.” Also he changes the setup in a major way; The Temple At Iluquh has more in common with the Joaquin Hawks series than with The Adjusters, as in this one Peter Winston spends the entire novel in disguise as “Yusuf from Alexandria.” 

Laflin starts the novel in the middle of the action, with Winston already on the job in Yemen and several of his contacts murdered; there’s mention of a professional assassin named Hamid and a “joy girl” named T’Shura, but no setup on who any of them are. This cold opening only served to make me confused, particularly given how different everything was to what came before – I mean, Winston’s always been more of a James Bond type, going around the globe in a secret agent capacity. He’s never been embedded in a foreign country and trying to pass himself off as a local. Then we have the necessary flashback and learn that Winston was elected for an “experimental unit” at White and Whittle (the firm that employs Winston as “A-2”), one in which he’d receive heavy training in Arabic life, language, and religions, with the goal that he and fellow Adjusters could ultimately be dropped into the Middle East and pose as natives on a moment’s notice. 

So the Peter Winston we knew from previous books is gone; part of his training entailed letting his beard grow, and he spends the entire novel in robes and such. However he still carries his not-very-secret-agent .357 Magnum, which he uses in the occasional action scene…but Laflin’s over-fussy style tends to rob these scenes of much impact. We know Winston’s training lasted some months, and he was put back into normal duty before the call came in and he was shipped off to Yemen. The entire setup is ridiculous and has nothing in common with the previous books. It’s more of a desert yarn with Winston, posing as Yusuf throughout, meeting a ton of natives, adopting their various customs, and trying to figure out what nefarious Red China activity is going on here. 

The novel is prescient in how Laflin predicts the radical movements that would overtake the Middle East in the ‘70s. Winston’s been sent here due to word of a new jihad that’s about to be started, one that would shake up the pro-West mindset of the current leaders. Laflin doesn’t miss the opportunity to tell us a lot about local customs and Moslem beliefs, either. Winston gets in periodic gunfights and chases, as a lot of his contacts turn up dead and he tracks down the killers. We have here another sad indication of how much more vile our modern world is; the radical Moslems, despite hating the West and wanting to start a jihad and such, still aren’t suicidal nutjobs who are willing to strap bombs onto themselves (or their children); they’re more of a crafty and cunning lot, concerned about saving their own skins. 

Laflin adds a lot more sex to the series than previous volumes, and all of it’s courtesy T’Shura, the 18 or 19 year-old dancing girl who acts as another of Winston’s local contacts. It’s not super explicit, but Laflin does use words like “orgasm,” which is pretty unusual for the era – the sequences in these mainstream paperbacks would usually be a bit less blunt at the time. And boy do Winston and T’Shura go at it a whole bunch. She’s a “part-time joy girl” who has had a ton of men in her time, but relates to Winston that he’s the first to ever truly satisfy her. Of course he is! This means that she’s constantly wanting to hump him, but Laflin leaves most of it off-page after the initial act. In fact the novel even ends with T’Shura struggling to unzip Winston’s pants; she’s clumsy with zippers, given that all her previous clients wore robes and such. And also this is the only time in the novel that Winston’s in Western garb. 

Winston is initially sent to Yemen because two local contacts have been killed, and ultimately this leads to the uncovering of the Red China plot. It takes a while to get to this, though, and a lot of the first half of The Temple At Ilumquh concerns Winston ingratiating himself into the Yemen community as “Yusuf” and trying to find out who has murdered his colleagues. Laflin has done his research on the land and the customs and he wants you to know it. He treats Islam with a fair bit of respect, other than Winston’s grumbling over the “stupid custom” of not drinking alcohol. But man it’s like we’re suddenly reading an entirely new series, and one wonders why Award even published this as an Adjusters yarn. It could’ve just as easily been a standalone, or even the start of a completely different series. 

What makes it worse is that the cover promises an almost sci-fi sort of plot (“half-men, half-machines”). This however only refers to the radical Muslims Winston eventually encounters, who as mentioned are a lot less radical and violent than the ones of our modern era. They congregate around the titular Temple of Ilumquh, deep in the desert, which is a sort of headquarters for assassins. Ilumquh, we’re informed, was an ancient goddess. Chief among the assassins is Hamid, and Winston has a few run-ins with this guy, before finding out that his fellow Americans are somehow involved. Winston shadows a State rep and Hamid out into the desert, and this is how he finds out that the Chinese archeologists here, ostensibly for a dig, are really enemy soldiers and spies. 

The finale is a big action sequence, bigger than in any previous Adjusters yarn, and features Winston blasting away with his .357, a machine gun, and some grenades. He even gets in a few protracted kung-fu fights; Laflin explains that this is a form of “Chinese in-fighting.” Humorously, Winston gets the better of his martial opponents by resorting to old-fashioned “pugilism,” bashing away with his fists. He makes several kills, but it isn’t violent in the least, at least in that there’s no gore or anything. Winston also proves himself to be a bit of a subpar secret agent by getting captured twice here in the final quarter. But by novel’s end he’s having one last roll in the hay with T’Shura, who previous to this has begged Winston to take her with him back to America. However by novel’s end she seems to accept that she’ll never see Winston again. 

As it turns out, it didn’t matter, as Peter Winston never returned, and this was truly it for The Adjusters. Ultimately I found this series a bit too generic, despite the cool setup. Only the first volume, clearly by Paul Eiden, really kept me entertained throughout. The next three, which I’m assuming were all written by someone named Jim Bowser (Eiden’s hand is only evident in the first volume, at least), were more along the lines of tepid mystery novels, and I found them boring. But this fifth and final volume was by far my least favorite of the series, and I’m hoping it’s not an indication of what Laflin’s Geoffrey Hiller novels are like.

1 comment:

Gene Phillips said...

This is the only installment I ever came across, which I assume I read though I've no memory of it. Were the other novels also bereft of even minor SF-content?