Monday, January 3, 2022

The Aquanauts #9: Evil Cargo

The Aquanauts #9: Evil Cargo, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1973  Manor Books

Manning Lee Stokes loved his in-jokery, and this ninth volume of The Aquanauts features his biggest in-joke yet, as Manning Lee Stokes himself guest-stars in Evil Cargo. Sort of. I knew something was up when the prologue featured a few quotes on the definition of “karma,” and one of the people quoted was Kermit Welles – a pseudonym Stokes used in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But as it turns out, Kermit Welles actually appears as a character in this Aquanauts yarn, and one can only wonder how much the character is based on Stokes himself. 

The novel occurs between September 1972 and January 1973. There are a few allusions to previous volumes, but the biggest development here on the home front is that crusty Admiral Coffin, boss of the Secret Underwater Service, suffers a heart attack and is taken out of commision for the duration of Evil Cargo. This happens early in the book, as Coffin is briefing Tiger Shark and Captain Tom Greene on “Code Coke,” their new SUS assignment: someone’s stolen a Yankee-class Soviet sub, and it’s being used to run heroin and coke into the US. Coffin has a heart attack before he can finish the briefing – we’ve been told since the beginning of the series that he’s way past retirement age – and control of SUS falls on Greene’s shoulders. He will prove to be a pretty weak-ass boss, and luckily Coffin’s back in action by novel’s end. Given the lack of much continuity in the series, I wonder if Coffin’s heart trouble will even be mentioned in the next two volumes. 

As usual though Coffin, Greene, and Tiger Shark himself almost come off like supporting characters. As I’ve said in just about every Aquanauts review I’ve written, this series has more in common with the standalone crime paperbacks Lyle Kenyon Engel “produced” in the ‘70s, with the “underwater commando” stuff almost an afterthought. This is especially prevalent in Evil Cargo, which doesn’t even bother with the Cold War intrigue at all; it’s really just a crime novel, with the main characters a pair of Mafia creeps who come up with the “drug run via sub” plan. Actually, Kermit Welles is the character who comes up with the idea, but more on that anon. 

The entire novel is almost a prefigure of Stokes’s later Corporate Hooker, Inc., which was in fact one of those standalone BCI paperbacks. It’s got the same setup, with a scheme involving waterborne Mafia nefariousness and a twisted love triangle. Here it’s Dom Caprio, hulking and hirsute New York mob boss, who in a brief opening chapter meets meek Harvard student Harvey Fletcher in 1962. Dom hires Fletcher, we’ll learn, to be his accountant, but Fletcher ultimately doesn’t factor much into the novel; his subplot has him coping with the fact that he’s gay and going to a tough “leather” guy for kicks. After this opening we flash to 1972, and learn that Dom, now a successful mobster, is “banging” Harvey’s wife Anita for kicks – and it was interesting to see that “banging” was being used for sex in 1973. 

This is certainly the sleaziest Aquanauts yet. Dom and Anita get right down to it in full-bore detail, in a crazed matter almost equaling The Nursery. There are some back door shenanigans, you see…that is, after Anita literally measures Dom’s 9 inches with a ruler, and then implores him, “Please, honey, fuck me in the ass!” Stokes was in his early sixties when he wrote this novel – as is Kermit Welles, we’ll learn – so it was great to see he’d only gotten more sordidly kinky with age. But then it’s all even more in-jokery, as we’ll learn that Dom himself is an “inveterate reader of paperbacks,” going through “three a day” at times; he especially likes ones with “plenty of gore and sex,” and judges their quality by how big of a hard-on they give him! 

After this escapade Dom heads back to Manhattan but takes a wrong route and ends up in a “hick town” near Montrose, New York (or perhaps it is Monstrose – Stokes isn’t clear), and, stopping in a bar, meets once-famous author Kermit Welles. Manning Lee Stokes himself lived in Montrose, or near it (according to his Wikipedia page he died in Peekskill, New York, which is just a few miles from Montrose), so it’s clear that he based Kermit Welles somewhat on himself. Further evidence: Dom’s favorite Welles novel is the one where “the lady got her head sliced off by the Jap sword.” Yes, friends, this is The Lady Lost Her Head, the title referenced by Welles himself. In the real world, The Lady Lost Her Head was published under Stokes’s own name, so it’s curious he referenced this book in Evil Cargo and not one of his actual “Kermit Welles” novels. 

But the Kermit Welles of the novel is more successful than the real-world Manning Lee Stokes; we learn that Welles’s The Lady Lost Her Head was made into a movie fifteen years ago, but Hollywood “butchered” it. That was then, though; now Welles is basically a lush, spending most of his time and money in a dingy bar here in this “hick town” in upstate New York. He makes his living off residuals or foreign reprints of his old books, and when Dom meets him Welles is in the process of begging the bartender to accept his check. It’s a down and out caricature of Stokes for sure, or at least I assume so, perhaps along the lines of the self-caricature William Shatner played in Free Enterprise. One must wonder if the description of Kermit Welles matches the description of Manning Lee Stokes:

Unfortunately Welles isn’t in Evil Cargo nearly enough; he pretty much steals the novel as is. He speaks in a sort of highfalutin tone, trying his best not to correct Dom’s poor grammar. He’s also a bit of a coward, but this is understandable given that Dom’s a brawny mobster who has an army of thugs at his disposal. The crux of Welles’s storyline involves Dom coming up with the bizarre idea of hiring Welles to write a novel – for ten thousand dollars – with Dom intending to use the manuscript to come up with schemes for his underworld empire(!). And of course Welles is to tell no one of this, not even the woman he’s “shacked up with.” Stokes’s biggest misgiving is that he doesn’t properly explain Dom’s scenario, and even worse we don’t get to read any of Welles’s manuscript. This would’ve been opportunity for even more metatextual in-jokery, but all we learn is that it concerns a submarine…run, apparently, by a bunch of horny women! 

Given that the novel is told out of sequence, we already know at the start that Dom got this “impossible idea” off the ground (or under the sea, I should say), managing to use some underworld contacts to steal a Soviet sub in Cuba. Welles pretty much disappears from the narrative at this point, and not to spoil anything but he’s still alive at novel’s end; Dom upholds his offer and gives Welles the ten thousand. Welles then ditches the woman he’s been living off of, moves back to Manhattan, and the last we see of him he’s planning to start writing again. “Early sixties wasn’t old, not for a writer.” The same age as Stokes at this time, so one wonders again how much of Kermit Welles here is a reflection of the real-life Manning Lee Stokes; we already know from Will Murray’s 1982 article on Nick Carter: Killmaster that Stokes was “industrious but hard-drinking,” so certainly there’s a bit of truth to Welles’s tendency to be a lush. We also get the tidbit that he doesn’t write as well drunk as he used to! 

And that is reflected in Evil Cargo itself. Because believe it or not the “heroin sub” is kept almost entirely off-page, and Stokes spends more time on the twisted Dom-Anita-Harvey love triangle. There’s a lot of kinky stuff here, all very sleazy ‘70s. For example Dom practically begs Anita to “go down” on him, but she refuses…then one night he sneaks into her place and discovers her giving some other jerk an enthusiastic bj. And meanwhile as mentioned we get some stuff with Harvey visiting his gay acquaintances. In fact, Stokes writes all the sex material for his one-off characters; poor Tiger Shark is celibate this time. We do however get the casual TMI mention that Greene, as ever pining for his wife Evelyn, has had a “wet dream” about her! 

Tiger Shark? I almost forgot about him…even though he’s ostensibly the star of the show. The funny thing is, despite the focus on lurid love triangles and lush pulp writers, Evil Cargo actually contains the best underwater action scene yet in The Aquanauts. Certainly the most brutal. Tiger Shark is sent into Cuban territorial waters to spy on the stolen sub, which the SUS has already tracked down…but at this point Greene’s in charge, and the weak-ass gives Tiger the order to swim over to the sub, pound out a message in SOS on the hull, and tell them they’re all under arrest!! Tiger chafes at this stupid idea, just wanting to blow the damn sub up, regardless of the loss of life – and he’s certain this is how Admiral Coffin would’ve played it. But he’s a Navy man and he follows orders. 

As expected it goes poorly, and for once Tiger Shark is caught unawares. Four frogmen come out of the sub and surprise attack him, leading to a very tense sequence that just keeps going. Stokes, despite his padding, really knows how to ramp up action scenes and take his protagonists through the ringer, and he does so here. In fact Tiger’s so outmatched that he kicks off his gear and races for the surface, 240 feet up, knowing it will be certain death due to the bends. But at least he’ll have a chance, unlike down here. There follows a crazy survival setup where Tiger staggers around a small Cuban isle, finds someone who will help him (in exchange for future payment), and jury rigs his own decompression chamber, using an old car and an air hose. It’s crazy stuff and very tense, but again Stokes pulls this weird gimmick as he always does and, next time we see Tiger, it’s some time later and he’s safely back at SUS HQ. In other words, Stokes completely cuts out the escape sequence itself. 

But then, another tidbit: “Welles had always been good at that – everything first draft and six weeks to do a book.” No doubt more real-world insight into Manning Lee Stokes’s writing method, not to mention possibly explaining why there are often so many missed opportunities in his books. Oh, and not content to sort of feature himself in the book, Stokes also finds the opportunity to slyly reference his own name; we get an off-hand mention of the law firm Birnbaum, Fenster, Stokes, and Engel. Double in-jokery at that; “Engel” of course a reference to Lyle Kenyon Engel. If you can’t tell, I would’ve enjoyed an entire book about Kermit Welles…it could’ve been a more serious take on The Last Buffoon. But as mentioned Welles isn’t in the novel nearly enough, and by book’s end we learn he’s in Federal protection – he himself is innocent so far as Dom’s plans go, as all Welles was hired to do was write a book, with no idea of Dom’s grander plot. And, naturally, it’s a Federal agent named Frank Manning who informs the SUS of Welles’s innocence in the plot! 

The out-of-sequence narrative takes away a lot of the tension of the book, and also Harvey Fletcher isn’t properly focused on, so that his face-off with Dom at novel’s end could’ve been more powerful than it is. Speaking of which, Captain Greene’s foul-up with nearly getting Tiger Shark killed isn’t properly focused on; by the time Admiral Coffin’s back in charge, it’s understood that Greene should have just ordered the damn sub blown, but his plan was “understandable” given that he’s not nearly as cold-blooded as Coffin is. Or something. The helluva it is, Tiger’s finally ordered to torpedo the sub to hell at novel’s end…well, sort of. First, for undisclosed reasons (possibly to pad more pages), he’s ordered to tail the sub in his KRAB submersible, back to the sub’s secret base near Iceland. This is a cool scene at least, with the action taking place on a stormy sea. But at the same time it’s just more padding, as the entire plan for tailing the sub to its base is pointless – and quickly disposed of. 

Stokes scores points by working the title into the novel; we’re told that the sub is carrying an “evil cargo.” Would’ve been cooler if this was the title of Welles’s manuscript for Dom, but as mentioned we don’t get much detail at all about the manuscript. The concept alone though is really out-there; I mean a mobster hiring a pulp novelist to write an entire novel for him, so that the mobster can mine the manuscript for ideas! And Dom wants a full novel, not an outline, as Welles suggests. But what is such a wild concept isn’t properly exploited…I thought Stokes would go all the way with it, and have a fictional underwater service as the good guys in Welles’s manuscript, and etc, but I guess he didn’t want to play it too on the nose. As it is, Evil Cargo is entertaining for the peek at Manning Lee Stokes himself. And also the battle between Tiger and the rival frogmen is the best action scene yet in the novel, or at least one of the best. 

Two more volumes were to follow, and judging from the titles and back cover synopses they get into more of a sci-fi realm, with sea monsters and mermaids(!). Stokes was clearly invested in the series, so I’ll be sorry to see The Aquanauts come to an end.


Johny Malone said...

In old age, birds fly better...

Guy Callaway said...

Nothing against your review, but dig the new pic of you & the rugrat!