Monday, March 21, 2022

Ninja Master #8: Only The Good Die

Ninja Master #8: Only The Good Die, by Wade Barker
May, 1983  Warner Books

Once again I’ve taken years to get back to the Ninja Master series. This final volume is courtesy Ric Meyers, who after Ninja Master wrapped up spun hero Brett Wallace and crew out into two ensuing series: Year Of The Ninja Master and War Of The Ninja Master. Initially it seemed to me that Meyers was just rewriting his previous volume here, with Brett up against a trio of psychopaths, but as it turns out Only The Good Die is a bit more complex…and muddled. 

Maybe it’s my new contacts, which require me to wear friggin’ readers to even see the words on the page, but this time I found Meyers’s prose a bit too hard to follow. Some of his sentence structures I thought were a bit awkward, particularly in the action scenes, which often pulled me out of the moment. In fact I get the impression that he wrote Only The Good Die on a tight turnaround. The plot is also as jumbled, opening as it does with a trio of psychopaths killing some poor young girl (a recurring Meyers staple if ever there was one – that, and jamming an s&m rubber ball in the mouth of the girls before their torture). But then this ghoulish opening incident is completely ignored until very late in the novel. The result is that the reader keeps wondering who the hell those three psychopaths were and how their story ties in with the novel itself. 

So serial killers torturing and then offing young women is a thing with Meyers; that’s been established in every other book of his I’ve read. This installment opens with three separate chapters in which three separate women experience brutal fates: in the first, and most squirm-induing, a young black girl in New York is abducted by those three psychopaths and driven off to her death. In the second, a successful businesswoman in New York is pushed in front of an oncoming train. And in the third, a young Japanese girl is burned alive when a gang war breaks out in a New York club, the place being set on fire in the melee. Nothing connects these three atrocities, and Meyers does his best to confuse readers by next jumping into another seemingly-random chapter, where a bald and muscular Chinese dude barges into an apartment filled with New York lowlifes and starts beating the shit out of them. 

Eventually we’ll learn that this is Hama, the cook “at the Rhea Dawn in Sausalito,” ie the Rhea who is the Japanese beloved of series protagonist Brett Wallace. Not that Brett still bothers to show up, though. Instead, Hama seems to be the star of the show, next wading into another group of gangsters, these ones Chinese triads, in a Manhattan movie theater. Meyers here indulges in his own interest in martial arts cinema, with mentions of the Shaw Brothers and Japanese samurai movies. And finally, on page 60, the Ninja Master himself appears, slipping out of a hole he’s cut in the film screen with his ninja sword and taking out the triads who have gotten the better of Hama. At length we’ll find out that the young Chinese girl killed in chapter three was Hama’s niece, and a vengeance-minded Hama headed for New York without informing anyone. Brett, Rhea, and Brett’s student Jeff Archer quickly followed him. 

This is the setup. But it’s a clunky first quarter before we figure out what the heck is going on. And really, Meyers just turns the tale into a series of extended action scenes. Brett and team get in frequent clashes with various street punks, to the extent that you keep wondering what the point of it all is. And Brett too seems to wonder what the point is. For there is a muddled mystery at the heart of it all – the gang wars, the Triad club-burning in which Hama’s niece was one of the victims, and even those opening murders of the three women are all somehow connected. But this isn’t Agatha Christie we’re talking about. Instead the vast majority of Only The Good Die is comprised of Brett Wallace engaging a seemingly-endless series of New York punks in bloody combat. 

But the helluva it is, I found the action scenes so awkwardly handled. I constantly found myself having to re-read certain passages to determine what was going on. Maybe it’s just me, though. Meyers does include some fun stuff in the narrative. Brett kicks one guy in the crotch and we learn afterward that the guy’s “private parts looked like three-alarm chili.” And there’s a long sequence where Brett battles a “street mob” in a tenement building that’s very reminiscent of Able Team #8, only minus the auto shotguns and drug-mutated street punks. Brett hacks and slashes his way through an endless horde of punks, using a variety of ninja weaponry. In this sequence Brett learns that the punks aren’t just after him, but given that they’re members of rival gangs they’re trying to kill each other at the same time. There’s a crazy bit where Brett kills several of them in sixty seconds while they are occupied with fighting one another: “They were all biodegradable punks on a one-way trip.” 

Meyers introduces a nursery rhyme conceit to Only The Good Die, with occasional mentions of “The Butcher, The Baker, and The Candlestick Maker,”’ as well as “Jack jumped over the candlestick” and such. In fact the first-page preview would have you believe the Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker – ie the three psychopaths in the opening sequence – will be the main villains of the tale. While that ultimately proves true, it isn’t until very late in the novel that we learn how it connects. And for that matter, this too is muddled, as it turns out the villains with nursery rhyme nicknames are really just underlings in this crazy army, not the leaders. For example the “Baker” turns out to be a psycho chick who gets off on being tortured, and who has lured Brett into this long tenement battle…again, it’s all very hazy and jumbled, but apparently “the Baker’s” bosses learned about this “Oriental” avenger who wiped out the Triads (ie Hama – though they think Hama is really Brett…or something), and this tenement attack has been staged to entrap him. 

I’m assuming in the ensuing series Meyers further elaborates on Rhea and Jeff; the former only has one memorable scene here, and the latter doesn’t do much except get shot (in the chest!). Rhea’s bit has her using “saimin jutsu” on a detective, a sort of seductive hypnotism which has the cop slackjawed at Rhea’s beauty and thus giving up confidential info to her. But for all this empowerment Rhea ultimately suffers the same fate as most other female characters in a Ric Meyers novel: she’s caught toward the end of the book, tied up, and shipped off to an “elegant sexual torture chamber,” which made me think of the swank sex chamber in the groovy film version of The Adventurers. And yes, a rubber ball is shoved down her throat when she’s tied up. I mean it just wouldn’t be a Ric Meyers novel if one wasn’t. As for Jeff Archer, I honestly thought he was killed in the finale; he gets shot in the chest and that’s the last we see of him, before Brett quickly exposits in the final chapter that Jeff’s seriously wounded but will recover. 

Meanwhile, the Candlestick Maker turns out to be aligned with the Black Liberation Army For Social Terrorism (which totally shouldn’t be confused with BLM); this group of black terrorists has taken credit for the nightclub fire that killed Hama’s niece. This entails another extended action scene, but one with a bit of a TNT flair, as Brett faces attack dogs in explosive vests in a TV studio. His sort-of companion here is Tommy Gun Parker, a mountain of muscle-type who is fond of wielding Mac subguns in each hand. While they start off as enemies, Parker being one of the thugs hired to kill Brett, they ultimately develop a sort of Lethal Weapon relationship of bantering. But speaking of Tommy Parker and Meyers’s sometimes-confusing prose style, check out this excerpt and tell me if you too think it’s a bit hard to follow what’s going on: 

Things wrap up in an estate outside the city where the three freaks from the opening paragraph finally return. And it turns out they aren’t psychos in the purest sense; indeed, they’ve been hiring “homicidal psychopaths” to do their dirty work in the city. And their dirty work is cleaning up the streets. These three men have suffered their share of misfortune due to rampant crime and have decided to go outside the law to restore law and order. To this end they’ve started a variety of gang wars, hoping to use their homicidal psychos to stir shit up. Of course, the resulting loss of innocent life is just seen as collateral damage. These are the guys who capture Rhea in the finale – despite her being an asskicking ninja babe in her own right – but Brett and Jeff are there to save the day. The final sequence is very odd, as Brett wants the main killer to suffer horribly, and tortures him via drowning. Overall a strange, somewhat off-putting way to finish off the Ninja Master series. 

A year or so later Brett Wallace was to return in Year Of The Ninja Master, also published by Warner. Since I took so long to read Ninja Master I think I’ll dive into the first volume of that next series posthaste.

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