Monday, May 30, 2022

Announcing Tocsin Press

I’m interrupting the usual review schedule to let you all know that Tocsin Press is up and running – those two awesome novels The Undertaker #1 and The Undertaker #2 are now available for purchase. 

A quick background note…the books are slightly different than the versions I reviewed. Not in content, but the actual paperbacks themselves. John Doe wanted to follow the same “handcrafted” aesthetic of the copies he sent me – printed on actual pulp paper like an oldschool men’s adventure paperback – but it proved to be impossible. For one, the pulp paper he originally used is no longer available. And secondly, it would’ve been unfeasible for John Doe to handcraft every single copy he sells…printing and assembling each book, gluing the binding, shipping the books out, etc. A pretty serious time commitment for someone who already has a fulltime job! 

So in the end, Mr. Doe has decided the Amazon route makes the most sense, and the Buy Now buttons on the Tocsin Press site will take you to the individual Amazon pages for each title, where you can preview contents and order a copy. He’s gotten the books as close to the look of the original handcrafted editions as possible: glossy covers, the same physical dimensions as a ‘70s men’s adventure paperback, and typesetting that looks very close to the print in those ‘70s paperbacks. 

I’m only providing this behind-the-scenes info because I raved about the pulp paper of the handcrafted editions John Doe sent me a few months ago, and I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed that the versions they’ll receive from Amazon are a little different. The important thing is that the text has not been changed…and folks Death Transition and Black Lives Murder were two of the best novels I’ve read in years. I give them my highest recommendation. 

Currently there’s one other title available at Tocsin, by a different author: John Falcon Infiltrator: The Hollow Earth. Here’s the cover: 

You could think of this one as a “lost” installment of John Eagle Expeditor – perhaps even the novel that The Ice Goddess should have been… 

So currently there are three titles at Tocsin Press, and I am certain you all will enjoy each of them! But like the old Pinnacle house ads said, there’s “more to come,” so when more titles are listed I’ll do another post here on the blog. 

And if you read any of the books, please leave a review on Amazon or drop a note here to let us know what you think!

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Torture Contract (The Marksman #19)

The Torture Contract, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower

There’s no volume number on the cover, but this was the 19th installment of The Marksman. The first page of the book mistakenly states that it’s “volume #18,” but no doubt editor Peter McCurtin realized the 18th volume was the previous one, so at least he kept the goof off of the cover. From here on McCurtin or whoever else at Belmont Tower just decided to play it safe and put no further volume numbers on the books. They must’ve been really confused, because there weren’t just 19 volumes of The Marksman, there were actually more – let’s not forget all those earlier installments by Russell Smith that got turned into Sharpshooter novels. But all of these books were published in the span of like two years, so no doubt the hectic pace – and arbitrary transitioning of manuscripts into a different series – caused a lot of behind-the-scenes confusion. 

According to the Catalog Of Copyright Entries, The Torture Contract was written by series newcomer Steve Sherman. This would be his only contribution to the series. I can’t find much info about him; I can only find one novel he published under his own name, a 1977 Western PBO titled The Hangtree that was published by low-rent Major Books. I’ll say one thing about Sherman: he wasn’t afraid to experiment. In fact I’m tempted to say that The Torture Contract is the Sicilian Slaughter of the Marksman series, in that it’s such an anomaly. But then it’s not like there’s much continuity in this series to begin with, so in a sense every volume of The Marksman is an anomaly. But still, The Torture Contract is just plain weird. As Lynn Munroe aptly put it, “This is a bizarre entry, not much like any other Marksman book.” How bizarre is it? Well, Philip “The Marksman” Magellan kills someone with a laser rifle in it. And also Magellan’s female companion is put into a sex research clinic straight out of The Sex Surrogates, complete with the scientists attempting to make a sex “machine” out of her. 

How Sherman came onto the series and how editor McCurtin allowed him such freedom will have to be a mystery. My assumption is that it was that aforementioned hectic publishing schedule. When you’ve published 19 volumes of a series in less than two years, thoroughness and exactitude probably aren’t your top concerns. McCurtin was probably just happy he received Sherman’s manuscript on time. And Sherman isn’t a bad writer at all; his style is very humdrum, very meat and potatoes a la Ralph Hayes…but man he scuzzes things up. There’s just a grimy vibe to the book, like one of the grindhouse/drive-in flicks of the era. To be sure, it’s not overly explicit; Magellan only makes a few kills, and they aren’t nearly as gory as in the other books, and the majority of the sex occurs off-page, with the one sex scene toward the end over and done with in a few sentences. But Sherman pulls no punches with some of his dialog and narrative, as I’ll demonstrate in the excerpts below. Sherman also knows a lot about different subjects, baldly expositing about various arcane research subjects via this volume’s villain, the Professor – who himself seems as if he’s stepped out of some other series. He’s a brainiac megavillian with his own fortress, one that’s secured by deadly traps, and not much like any previous character in the series. 

As Lynn Munroe also notes, Magellan here “has suddenly turned into a different kind of character, a private detective.” I totally agree with Lynn on the first half of that statement, but I don’t think it’s so much that Magellan acts like a private eye in The Torture Contract…it’s more so that he becomes totally under the thrall of the Professor. As in, reporting to him as if Magellan were just another of the Professor’s lackeys. Hell, there are parts where Magellan is straight-up afraid of the Professor. This so goes against the grain of the character that I’m surprised editor McCurtin let it slip. What’s weird though is that in the first quarter of the novel, before the Professor appears, Magellan is his usual bad-ass self, not giving a shit about anyone and eager to taste Mafia blood. This is certainly McCurtin’s influence; Len Levinson has told me that Peter McCurtin’s editorial insight on The Sharpshooter (which McCurtin also edited) was that protagonist Johnny Rock “killed in cold hate.” I would imagine this same editorial direction extended to Philip Magellan in The Marksman

We meet Magellan just as he’s arrived in New York, beckoned by “society page female” Angela Peabody. We’re informed that “two years ago” Magellan helped Angela’s father, wealthy businessman Johnathon Peabody, with a Mafia problem. Now Angela has called on Magellan to help her, and even though Magellan has “never liked” the attractive young woman he meets with her in her art store in Manhattan. In an opening sequence we’ve read as two hoods, one named Johnny Sin and the other named Logosa, heisted a Renoir from a museum. Now Angela has bought a sketch of this Renoir, but has learned it’s a fake. She bought it from Johnny Sin for $5,000 and she wants her money back. So this setup is already unlike any other in the series. However the novel itself will only proceed to become more unusual. 

As mentioned Magellan is very much in typical form here, busting heads and checking leads in the dingy areas of the city. He gets a tip from a guy who runs a whorehouse that Johnny Sin might be in Los Angeles. So Magellan gets an American Airlines flight (Sherman mentions the airline so many times you wonder if he was getting a kickback) and heads over to California – with Angela in disguise following. When Magellan learns that Johnny Sin, a former Mafioso, is now working for the Professor, the book begins to really get outside the series template. Magellan and Angela head to Palos Verdes, where the mysterious Professor lives in his fortress in the woods. Magellan and Angela watch as a guard dog rips a man to shreds on the grounds. All of this is a game for the Professor, who comes out to jovially greet his guests. He’s an older man with silver hair, and he’s a “billionaire,” operating an underground “laboratory of forgerers.” 

The fake Renoir Angela got was produced in these underground labs, and she and Magellan are given a grand tour of the place, with the Professor expositing on the various projects – people recreating Stradivarius violins, finishing an incomplete Elizabeth Browning poem, even working on mummification in the exact style of the ancient Egyptians. A vast enterprise of specialists in their various glass-walled chambers, working on counterfeits so exact that even experts would be fooled. Angela, who is almost more of the protagonist than Magellan is, really takes to it all. Except for the sex research part: the Professor also has three scientists working on “simultaneous orgasms” with a lifelike female sex doll, all of course with the help of some local whores. I mean it’s all really like a James Bond film, only with that grimy grindhouse vibe; the Professor is totally in the Bond villain mold, an evil supervillain with arrogance to spare. 

Which begs the question why Magellan decides to work for him. The Professor propositions our supposed hero; the Professor says that the Mafia is trying to horn in on his operation, and he needs help killing them off. He knows with his omniscience who Magellan is, and offers him several times the amount Angela is paying him: all Magellan has to do is kill Mafia for the Professor. Magellan eagerly accepts, but from this point on he’s working for the Professor. It leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Magellan is a lone wolf mob-buster…he works for no one! And what’s worse is he’ll never push back against the Professor; indeed, Angela Peabody acts more like the hero in this regard, as she begins to resent – and fear – the clearly insane Professor. As Lynn Munroe notes, a lot of the novel takes place in the Professor’s fortress, with a lot of exposition on the various counterfeit schemes. Through it all Magellan is a silent bystander as the Professor blabs away; Magellan’s almost a supporting character in his own book. 

What’s worse is that Sherman tries to work an action scene into the novel midway through, and it just demonstrates how weak his version of Magellan actually is. The Professor orders Angela to head back to New York and steal a valuable coin from her socialite friend. And Magellan, Johnny Sin, and Logosa are to go along. They pull the heist easily, but afterwards they find themselves tailed by four mobsters. In any other Marksman novel, Magellan would waste these guys with no problem. Here, though, he’s barely able to take on just one of them. That’s one lesson Sherman failed to take from McCurtin. Another thing Len told me was that in his first two Sharpshooter novels, The Worst Way To Die and Night Of The Assassins, he inadvertently made his Johnny Rock “too neurotic” and too concerned. This is when McCurtin stepped in and told him the “kill with cold hate concept,” that Johnny Rock wouldn’t survive long if he was worried all the time. But Philip Magellan comes off as too concerned here…which is strange, given how he came off like a badass in the first quarter of the book. 

Things get even weirder when the Mafia stages an attack on the Professor’s fortress later on. But still, one wonders why the Professor even needs Magellan; he takes Magellan and Angela up to a room at the top of the fortress and gleefully goes about cornering and killing the Mafia team that has infiltrated the grounds, employing a host of remote-controlled hidden weapons. One of the weapons you can control up here is a laser gun, and as mentioned Magellan gets to fire it: 

Meanwhile the Professor kills off other Mafioso with an electric fence, and even more crazily he has a trapdoor that drops a few of them into acid. And he laughs and laughs like a madman throughout, Sherman doling out the lurid weirdness in that bland style of his, just blunt declrarative statements, which only makes things even weirder. But anyone can plainly see the Professor is nuts. I mean he literally rolls on the floor in laughter when mobsters are killed, and later on he forces one of his lackeys into becoming a live subject of vivisection – the corpse to be mummified by resident expert Penword Suite. But the novel proceeds to get even weirder. Angela has taken it upon herself to propose to the Professor that she, Magellan, and Johnny Sin should become “partners” with the madman. Angela was very excited during the Park Avenue heist (indeed, we’re even bluntly informed that she, uh, got wet during it – again, the grimy vibe predominates), and now she wants to work permanently with the Professor…only as an equal. This has unexpected repercussions, and Angela finds herself forced into those sex experiments in the Professor’s lab. As she later relates to Magellan: 

Yeah, crazy shit for sure. “They’re making a machine out of me,” Angela tells Magellan, and the reader can’t help but wonder if Angela means this in the figurative sense, ie the three scientists are, per the dialog above, screwing her constantly like a veritable sex machine, or if she means it literally – that the artificial female the Professor hopes to create and sell is actually being based on Angela. Unfortunately we will get no resolution on this. Instead, Angela is desperate to escape…and Magellan, who has somehow become emasculated in the Professor’s employ, cagily seems to want to help her escape, though he too as mentioned is now scared of the Professor, so Magellan doesn’t want to rock the boat. The guy who in previous volumes would cut off Mafioso heads and carry them around is now afraid of a ranting old psychotic! But our lame hero does manage to propose to the Professor – over dinner! – that Angela be sent out of the fortress on some errand, and the Professor agrees.  

This takes us into the climax, though we don’t even realize it’s the climax: the Professor has it that a Hollywood-based Mafia don named Fiori was behind the attack on his fortress, and he wants Magellan to kill him. But Angela will be used as bait, and apparently if she does well she can go free. So Magellan and Angela leave the fortress, and only here does Magellan notice what a sexy broad Angela is, now that she’s dressed all slutty to catch the sleazy Fiori’s eye. But Angela herself has realized how hot she is…and take a gander at this bit of ‘70s-style female empowerment: 

I’ll refrain from spoilers here, but even in this sequence Magellan is emasculated. Angela is to lure Don Fiori off to some secluded spot for sex, and Magellan is to swoop in for the kill. And yet Magellan, for reasons never explained, just disappears while Angela rides off with the don, still not even showing up while Angela’s having sex with Fiori on the beach – the sole sex scene in the novel, and not even that explicit. When Magellan finally shows up, even here it takes him forever to take out of Fiori and his men, and the Mexican Standoff with Don Fiori at the climax is insulting to anyone who claims the title “The Marksman;” Magellan literally just holds his Beretta on Don Fiori and keeps telling the mobster to drop his gun, “The Marksman” apparently unable to get a clear shot. This whole bit seems to go on forever. 

Now we’re going to get into some spoilers, so skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want to know. Sherman again shows how fearless he is in his approach to the series. When Magellan learns via a panicked Angela that she offered Don Fiori a deal (ie for Don Fiori to give Angela protection if she gave him information on the Professor in exchange), Magellan solves the problem of not being able to get a clear shot at the don: he shoots Angela, I mean shoots her dead, and then blows away Fiori. So this is acceptable because we readers already know Philip Magellan himself is insane, and Sherman has worked up the angle that our sadistic hero hates anyone who has anything to do with the Mafia…even for something as relatively minor as offering to make a deal with the Mafia. Okay, whatever. But we readers are still waiting to see the Professor get his own comeuppance, or at least to see what happens next in the Magellan-Professor relationship. Instead, the novel just ends! 

Now this has happened before, both in The Marksman and The Sharpshooter. Abrupt, “what the hell just happened?” finales are pretty much standard for this series, so I shouldn’t have been too put out this time. But dammit! I mean I wanted to see Magellan finally confront the Professor…maybe even brave his torture-trap fortress to show the old madman who the real top dog was. But it doesn’t happen, and the book literally ends right as Magellan blows Don Fiori away. And since this was the sole volume written by Steve Sherman, I’ll hazard a guess that the Professor will never be mentioned again. This is what I meant by the Sicilian Slaughter comparison; that Executioner novel too featured a main villain who was never seen or mentioned again, leaving readers to forever wonder what was supposed to happen next. And I mean so much is not explained, like for example the Professor’s omniscience – not only does he already know who Magellan is, but there’s also a bit where he’s managed to swipe a Beretta Magellan keeps hidden in the Los Angeles airport. How did the Professor even know it was there? 

Well, I went into all this detail because I have to say one thing about The Torture Contract: it kept me wondering what would happen next. Sherman certainly puts the reader as on edge as Angela Peabody, sticking his characters in a remote fortress with an insane madman. The setup was so outside the series template that I actually enjoyed it all – to the extent that I wish there had been more of it. But as mentioned this was, for whatever reason, Steve Sherman’s only novel for the series. Who knows, though…maybe someday someone might write a pastiche sequel that finally tells the rest of the story.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Witchcraft Today

Witchcraft Today, edited by Martin Ebon
April, 1971  Signet Books

This slim paperback is a nice encapsulation of the Occult Revival that took place in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that post-Aquarian moment when suburban housewives decided they were witches and started wearing pentagrams. The book was also published just as the Manson cult had cast a pall on the scene, as some of the pieces here elucidate. For Witchcraft Today is really an anthology of pieces on witchcraft and occultism in general, taken from a variety of mainstream and occult publications. Martin Ebon, with whom I’m unfamiliar, has assembled articles that present witchcraft from the perspectives of insiders, the curious, and the concerned. 

“It is lack of personal power that usually spurs one on the road to witchcraft,” Ebon notes in his introduction. In addition to his intro, which provides a general overview of the occult revival and wonders “why now?,” Ebon serves up pithy intros for each of the pieces he’s chosen for the anthology. Here’s a quick rundown of each: 

“Witchcraft Today – A Survey,” is by Raymond Van Over and sort of continues the vibe of Ebon’s intro, delivering a concise history of witchcraft with a focus on the ‘60s revival. The piece is pretty ‘60s, too, with tidbits on turned-on modern witches like Louise Huebner (who appears later) and mentions of the suddenly-trendy Carl Jung. 

“Britain’s Witchcraft Scene” is by John Kobler and seems to be from earlier in the ‘60s.  “Britain’s witches are not very sinister,” Kobler sums up in his recounting of various witchy movements in England through the centuries, culminating in covens like the one housewife Mrs. Jenkins participates in…“in the buff.” 

“America’s Leading Witches: Sybil Leek vs Louise Huebner” is by Joy Miller and takes on more of the vibe of mainstream journalism. It’s a character piece, comparing elderly British witch Sybil Leek, who moved to the US and considers herself “the number one witch in America,” and “sexy” Louise Huebner, “a shapely woman in her late 30s with long dark hair.” Years ago I downloaded a vinyl rip of Huebner’s 1969 LP Seduction Through Witchcraft, now a hotly traded collectible, in which she recounts spells overtop avante-garde proto-electronica. Cool stuff! She definitely comes off as the more memorable of the two; whereas Leek is stodgy and arrogant, certain she’ll be the only witch remembered when one looks back on the 20th Century, Huebner dismisses most witch lore and likes to do spells for city officials in Los Angeles – and indeed became the “Official Witch of Los Angeles.” According to Wikipedia, though, soon after the publication of Witchcraft Today Louise Huebner moved out of the public eye, which is surprising given how publicity conscious she comes off as in this piece. 

“New York’s Witch Explosion” is by Mary Bringle and is another mainstream journalism piece that also gives a nice view of the era. Most of it is dimissive, the “real witches” Bringle interviews mocking that “You can’t walk into a party anymore without meeting a half-dozen girls who think they’re witches.” We learn how some of these girls are just latching onto the latest trend and use witchcraft to snare a boyfriend or other mundane things. But the story really picks up with the too-brief appearance of Pietro, a warlock who has gotten into the black magic scene and who states that the first Black Mass he attended was “Bad! On the level of a Forty-Second Street skin flick.” 

“The Witchcraft Boom In Canada” by Bill Trent is a short puff piece trying to fathom the “explosion” of occult interest in Canada. 

“I Was Born A Witch” is by Helen McCarthy and is a character piece focused on Lavora, a Creole witch who now lives in New York. It’s mostly Lavora’s colorful history and how she moved to the big city, with such memorable details as the abortion she had to get when she was 15 – and the witch charm she used to gain her revenge on the guy who knocked her up. 

“Black Magic Against White” is by Gordon Fleming and about Brazil’s macumba witchcraft. I wasn’t interested in the topic so skipped it. 

“The Original Black Mass” by Stephen A. Hoeller presents an historical overview of the Black Mass, with the details that when first practiced in 1600s France it might have entailed the sacrifice of children. Hoeller, as Ebon notes in the piece’s intro, is a reverend, and it’s to his credit that the article doesn’t come off like some proto-Satanic Panic. Indeed, Hoeller notes that the so-called Black Mass of notorious Aleister Crowley is mostly just “poetry.” 

“Meet A Practicing Sorcerer!” by Peter Bloxham is one of the more fun pieces in the collection, totally giving a glimpse of the groovy age of horror. Once again we’re back in England, where we meet “modern Merlin” Cecil Williamson, proprietor of Witches House Museum; a tour will cost you 18 cents! Williamson, who drives a station wagon(!), sneers at the “playgirl witches” of the day who have “suburban orgies” in their “comic covens.” He also makes vague mentions of a “big business Occult Mafia.” 

“Anton LaVey: San Francisco Satanist” is by Jean Molina and is a character piece on LaVey, who comes off as a guy with a pretty sharp sense of humor. “To LaVey black is beautiful, but it refers to his brand of magic, not his skin color,” notes Molina – and Ebon also informs us that “Molina” is a pseudonym. LaVey shares stories about starting up his Church of Satanism, also noting how Jayne Mansfield would’ve lived if she’d listened to LaVey and stayed away from her boyfriend, whom LaVey put a hex on. 

“The Devil And Sharon Tate” is by Michael Ballantine and gets into the darker aspects of the movement. This is a piece of mainstream journalism that captures the weird vibe of the late ‘60s, and works into the overall theme of the anthology in that Manson’s girls considered themselves to be “witches,” something I hadn’t been aware of. Ballantine however mostly quotes other sources; in particular he keeps noting “Rolling Stones Magazine”[sic] and its interview with Manson. If anything this article made me decide to finally get around to reading Ed Sanders’s study of the Manson scene, The Family. Two years ago I got a copy of the first edition, which has material that’s been cut from every other edition of the book, and I’ve been meaning to read it. 

“The Innocents Of Salem” by Eleanor Early is, as you’d expect, a history of the Salem Witch Trials. All I need to know about this particular subject I leaned from that two-part episode of Bewitched where Sam went back in time to confront the judges, so I skipped this one. 

“Twentieth-Century Victim” by Paul Langdon is “lurid,” per Ebon’s intro…and it certainly is. This is the sad story of a teen girl in Zurich named Bernadette Hasber who, in 1966, was beaten to death by the members of a Christian cult that was trying to “save” Bernadette from demonic possession. And her parents are the ones who turned her over to the cult! 

“The Warning Witch: An African Adventure” is by WJ Ousby and seems to come out of a men’s mag, only without any of the fun. It’s about a guy meeting witches in the jungle. I skimmed it. 

“Healing Witches” by Frank Osgood follows the previous article, and given my lack of interest I skipped it as well. 

“It Worked For Me” by Max Gunther closes out Witchcraft Today. This is another pithy piece that captures the vibe of the era, with the topics including a witchcraft supply store some young witch opens in New York. Gunther relates the story of how he employed a spell to get something, and it came true, which may be an indication that it’s all for real…or that the current occult thing is just “a fascinating hobby.” 

Overall Witchcraft Today is pretty enjoyable if you’re into that late ‘60s/early ‘70s “dark side of the Aquarian Age” scene like I am, with the caveat that most of the articles here are along the lines of puff pieces, as if the editors at Life had decided to do a special issue on witchcraft.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Black Samurai #1

Black Samurai #1, by Marc Olden
May, 1974  Signet Books

I actually got halfway through this first installment of Black Samurai around 7 years ago, but ended up dropping it for reasons that now escape me. I think I was reading it as an eBook (as mentioned, the entire series is available in eBook format now) and just found the format to be a pain at the time, though I don’t mind eBooks nearly so much now. Also, I was reading the Narc series (also written by Marc Olden, though posing as “Robert Hawkes”), and I didn’t want to mix my Oldens. Well anyway all of which is to say this series has been hanging over my head for quite some time now; I’ve been wanting to read it, and I should’ve gotten to it sooner – I mean, the sixth volume of the series, The Warlock, which I reviewed here 12 years ago, is still one of my favorite men’s adventure novels ever (and I intend to re-read it now that I’m reading the series from the beginning). 

Speaking of that later volume, what’s interesting is that the plot is similar to the plot of Black Samurai #1; both novels feature Robert “Black Samurai” Sand’s beloved Toki being abducted, and Sand moving heaven and earth to get her back – he even finds himself in Paris in both novels. So maybe this was just a recurring schtick of the series, we’ll see. But whereas The Warlock was ultra-wild with silver-haired megababes, transvestite midgets, and werewolves, Black Samurai #1 sticks a bit more to realism. I mean to a certain extent. We’re still talking about a series that features a guy who has been trained in the art of samurai and who acts as a one-man army for a former US President. It’s a pulpy concept for sure, and Marc Olden would only further pulp things up as Black Samurai progressed. 

The main thing I remember from my aborted initial reading of this novel was that it had “emotional content” (to quote Bruce Lee) above and beyond the men’s adventure norm. But don’t get me wrong, we aren’t talking the maudlin sap that passes for such content in today’s estrogen-laden action entertainment. This is masculine emotional content, with Olden developing a touching relationship between Sand and the old Japanese sensei who brings him into the fold of the samurai. And yet this heroic bloodshed angle is unfortunately dropped as Black Samurai #1 progresses; Sand is set on the path of revenge, but rather than focusing on that, Olden gussies up the storyline with adjacent plots about adbucted young women and a villianous plan to carry out a My Lai Massacre in the US. So my assumption is Olden was developing a series, thus he had to work on the setup for future volumes rather than just dwelling on a violent revenge thriller. Unfortunately this means that, at least for this reader, the main impuetus that carries the first quarter of the book is not satisfactorily carried out in the last quarter. 

But as I’ve mentioned before, Marc Olden could not be accused of being lazy. He turned out the 8-volume Black Samurai series and the 9-volume Narc series between 1973 and 1975, and that’s in addition to the other stuff he was publishing at the same time, like Cocaine. But, like I’ve also mentioned before, this frenetic writing pace sometimes undermined the novels themselves. Like Barry Malzberg in the Lone Wolf books, Olden would often rely on arbitrary and random detours into the minds of his one-off characters, filling up the pages with their thoughts or backgrounds or what have you, with most of it seldom having anything to do with the main plot. I’ve complained more than a few times that this has resulted in a rather choppy read; the latter Narc books in particular suffer from it. But I’m understanding, because Olden was a workhorse turning out these books. It’s just that Olden is so good at hooking the reader in the first quarter of the book but then gets so distracted midway through that the final quarter of the book can often be unsatisfactory. 

Let’s take a look at Black Samurai #1 for an example of this. Olden spends a bit more time on establishing the setup in the first quarter of the novel, with a little more “origin material” than the average men’s adventure novel of the era. The novel opens in the “now” of 1973, with Robert Sand already the “Black Samurai” (just a description of himself, not a codename as it was in the goofy film adaptation) and already having an established relationship with former President William Baron Clarke. But Olden sort of gives us an origin story by flashing back in this first quarter of the book to 1966, where we see a 22 year-old GI named Robert Sand get shot in the gut while on R&R in Japan – he came upon a group of rednecks trying to mug an old Japanese man, and Sand ran to the rescue. He was shot a few times in the stomach for his troubles…and before passing out he was able to witness the old man decimate the rednecks like a veritable martial arts tsunami. From there Olden will periodically flash back to this 1966 material, which he refers to as “seven years ago.” So yeah, 1972 would’ve been six years after 1966, not 1973, but presumably this is something Olden didn’t catch due to his aforementioned frenetic writing schedule. 

The novel opens with a bang – the 1973 storyline is the main storyline of the narrative (the 1966 flashbacks stop after the first half of the book), and it concerns Sand’s quest for revenge against Colonel Leo Dimitri Tolstoy. Despite his misleading name, Tolstoy’s actually an American soldier, one who has been drummed out of the service for perpetrating an atrocity in Vietnam that was worse than the My Lai Massacre. Humorously though, even though Tolstoy’s massacre was supposedly more vile than My Lai, it’s My Lai that is constantly referenced in the narrative. We meet Tolstoy as he’s leading a group of fellow ex-GIs on an assault on a samurai training compound outside of Tokyo; there are to be no survivors. This is how we meet our hero, Robert Sand, who is the top samurai in the group, the favored of Mr. Konuma – ie the old man Sand rushed to defend six years ago. In this opening Sand’s brothers are killed; Olden plays this out in an interesting method, in that we “meet” these characters, including Konuma, as they are being killed…but then in the flashbacks we learn who they were, and how much they meant to Sand. 

The Sand-Konuma relationship proves to be touching in that manly way mentioned above. While Sand is a gangly black guy who grew up in foster homes, Konuma sees in him the heart of a warrior, and his view is proven out when we learn how Sand advances in the training. In fact Konuma sees Sand as the modern version of Sandayu, a legendary samurai warrior of yore. He’s also given Sand one of his favored swords, a 200 year old blade that will be Sand’s main weapon throughout the series. But unlike other martial arts-based series of the era, ie Jason Striker or Mace, Robert Sand has no problems with modern weapons, and will just as often use a .45 pistol. And as I mentioned in my review of The Warlock, Sand isn’t even that superhuman; he has of course higher martial arts skills than most, but he’s often caught unawares and can’t take on countless guys without breaking a sweat like Victor Mace can. Again this is more striving for realism on Olden’s part. 

Another interesting thing is that Olden just as often refers to Sand in the narrative as “the Black Samurai.” In fact, Olden reminds you so often that Robert Sand is black that it gets to be humorous. This “by the way, this character’s black” schtick is pretty common in the men’s adventure novels written by white authors, but as we know Marc Olden himself was black. I mean it’s incessant – Sand’s “black face,” his “black hands,” his “black skin,” etc. But then Olden seems to have set a bar for himself for racial slurs – Sand is called a host of them throughout the novel, and if the characters aren’t saying it via dialog we’re getting it via those arbitrary “in their thoughts” perspective bits that Olden specializes in. He doesn’t stop at black slurs, either: we get ‘em for the Vietnamese and Koreans who populate the novel as well. So Olden certainly kew his market; there are no niceties here. Also I would imagine the fact that Marc Olden was black probably wasn’t well known at the time, so perhaps Olden was just trying to cater to the outrageous content of the typical (ie white-authored) men’s adventure novel. 

Well anyway, Col. Tolstoy wipes out Sand’s brothers in the opening, and we get the reasoning that it’s because Tolstoy is about to abduct Konuma’s granddaughter, Toki, who happens to be married to a politician in Vietnam. Tolstoy has a whole helluva lot of plotting going on, but essentially he wants revenge for being drummed out of the military, and part of his scheme involves getting his digs on this Vietnamese politician (who doesn’t even appear in the novel). So taking the man’s wife is part of that scheme, but since she happens to be the granddaughter of a famous samurai badass, Tolstoy wants to ensure Konuma and/or his men will not come after him to rescue Toki. But Sand manages to escape (perhaps the most thrilling sequence in the novel) and vows revenge for his murdered “family.” This is the central heart of Black Samurai #1, but as the novel goes on Olden loses his control of the situation and “stopping Tolstoy’s plot for a US My Lai” takes precedence over the “kill Tolstoy in revenge” storyline. 

The Sand-Clarke relationship has already been established, and is somewhat clunkily worked into the flashback sections. Basically, “The Baron” is a boisterous Texan type who served two terms as President of the United States and now works in a sort of unofficial capacity to ensure liberty across the globe, using his vast network of informants and lackeys. So somehow he got word of this black samurai in Konuma’s compound and worked something out with Mr. Konuma that Robert Sand, once fully trained, could be added to Clarke’s list of personnel. So already before the “1973” sequence begins, Sand has ventured around the globe to meet Clarke at various times and has gotten an idea of what the ex-President wants of him. After the samurai compound massacre, Clarke is the person Sand goes to – conveniently enough he happens to be in Japan – and this sets us off on the plot itself. Clarke has gotten intel that Colonel Tolstoy plans to bring the Vietnam War to the US; he intends to perpetrate a My Lai-type massacre on an American city. 

So already this dilutes the revenge scenario set up in the first quarter. And not only must Sand stop a town from being destroyed, he also must rescue Clarke’s daughter, who may be another of Tolstoy’s kidnap victims. And plus Tolstoy’s taken Toki as mentioned. So Sand has a lot going on, and the novel moves at a fast clip as he shuttles around Japan, Paris, and New York in his quest to stop – and kill – Tolstoy. But Olden further dilutes the impact with his expected detours into the thoughts of the various minor characters in the book. As established in his other novels, Olden really liked his villains – to the point that he’d crowd the main narrative with too many of them. Too many crooks in the kitchen, you might say. And it’s the same here, with a lot of incidental stuff about the backgrounds of the various villains at Tolstoy’s disposal; in fact I’m pretty sure I quit reading Black Samurai #1 all those years ago when the narrative hit a brick wall: a several-page flashback about how a random IRA thug swore vengeance on America and thus joined up with Tolstoy. I mean as if we care about this guy’s vengeance when we’re still waiting for Sand to get his

Speaking of Tolstoy’s villains, the novel gives us a sad reminder of how radical Islamic terrorists were once a kinder, gentler lot (comparatively speaking). One of Tolstoy’s thugs is a Black September-type Muslim terrorist who talks a big game, given the innocents he’s gunned down, but there’s an ironic-in-hindsight bit where Sand cuts off the head of one of the terrorist’s comrades and tosses the severed head at him, and the Muslim terrorist vomits in terror. But then again, Tolstoy is kind of ahead on the “diversity” trend, as he’s put together quite the group of malcontents: in addition to the Muslim terrorist he’s got a black American guy who hates whitey, the aforementioned IRA dude, a pair of Korean karate experts who kill for money, and even a depraved Vietnamese soldier. And we read as Sand makes his way through each of them; again, Marc Olden really had a penchant for villains, but the issue is the bad guys would eventually take the limelight from the good guy. This was especially prevalent in the later Narc books. Here in Black Samurai #1, though, Robert Sand is still the star of the show…for the most part. I do feel that his revenge storyline gets too muddied by the rampant subplotting that takes up the second half of the novel. 

The action scenes pack a nice punch because the aren’t overly showy in the sense that Sand, despite his superhuman training, isn’t himself superhuman. I mean he doesn’t just wade into a group of guys with his samurai sword flashing. That said, he does come off as very badass throughout – like the part where he chops off the guy’s head and tosses it through a window. He also does a fair amount of martial arts combat; the fight with the two Koreans is one of the action highlights of the novel. Sand also has a fair amount of badass lines, but nothing as glib as the Jim Kelly film adaptation. Like those frequent racial slurs; one of Clarke’s cronies in Vietnam is a Southern racist who makes the mistake of calling Sand the dreaded n-word…to his face. Sand’s calm response is pretty classic – basically, that he just killed a man who didn’t say anything to him, let alone call him a slur. I should probably just look up the actual quote but I’m lazy at heart. Olden keeps the action moving as Sand travels across the globe in hot pursuit of Tolstoy, whittling down his private army one by one. Sand also gets to play the hero, rescuing Clarke’s daughter in Paris, but it’s worth noting that Sand resents this intrusion into his own quest for revenge. 

The finale plays out in upstate New York, and it features Sand commandeering a helicopter to drop him off at the location of Tolstoy’s weapons cache. Sand is not only frantic to stop Tolstoy’s attack of a small town, but also to rescue Toki, who happens to be held captive by Tolstoy here. But I personally found the climax, uh, anticlimactic. No spoilers, but it was over and done with a little too quickly for me. I mean, Sand spends the entire novel lusting for Tolstoy’s death. And Tolstoy is rendered as such a loathsome prick that I wouldn’t have minded several pages of Sand hacking him apart piece by piece. But it’s over in the span of a sentence, and that annoyed me. However, we should be glad because Olden, at least in Narc, was notorious for letting the bad guys get away in the end. I think almost every volume of Narc ended with hero John Bolt failing to catch or kill the main villain, so at least that didn’t happen here. 

The end itself is very sudden – and also an indication that Olden has lost the plot a bit. For Sand’s impetus throughout has been gaining vengeance for Konuma and his fellow samurai…yet instead, the final page sees Sand relenting that he never told Toki he loved her! So it’s as if our author changed course midway through the book, and decided to make Sand’s love for Toki more important to our hero than his desire for revenge. Again, I’d say the frenetic writing schedule might be to blame. 

But overall I did enjoy Black Samurai #1 a lot. Much of it comes down to Robert Sand himself, who sort of stands apart from most of his ‘70s men’s adventure brethren, and I don’t just mean because he’s black. He has more of a code that drives him, and I appreciated his mostly-terse attitude; one of Konuma’s teachings was to never tell someone more than they need to know, so Sand is not one to flap his lips. In some ways Sand reminds me of another “driven by an ancient code” men’s adventure protagonist of the era, Franis Xavier Killy in Martin Cruz Smith’s The Inquisitor, with the important caveat that Robert Sand has no “limits” on how many people he can kill. However Sand goes without any nookie this time (can’t remember if he did in the sixth volume as well), so that’s one more difference from the average ‘70s men’s adventure hero. (I note this only for the sake of thoroughness, of course!) 

Long story short, I look forward to the second volume – and in fact, since I took so long to get to Black Samurai, I might read the series a bit more quickly than my standard “one volume a year” speed.

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Closing Circle

The Closing Circle, by Lou Cameron
November, 1974  Berkley Medallion

Between 1974 and 1977 prolific author Lou Cameron published five paperback crime thrillers with Berkley. The cover art for most of the books had a somewhat-similar design to Berkley’s cover art for Lawrence Sanders’s The First Deadly Sin (which was even referenced on some of the covers of the Cameron books). These five novels weren’t part of a series, but they were all about cops. In addition to The Closing Circle, the others were Barca (1974), Tancredi (1975), Dekker (1976), and Code Seven (1977, but this one dispensed entirely with the cover design of the previous four books). Each of them were also fairly long, coming in around 250 pages. 

If The Closing Circle is any indication, Cameron’s goal for these books was realism, gritty cop-world realism that left no sleazy stone unturned. I’m not sure about the other books, but this one is not an action thriller by any means; it is a slow and methodical procedural, one that is livened up by Cameron’s focus on the lurid. He brings mid 1970s New York City to life in all its tawdry, grimy splendor, and he certainly captures the grizzled cops who patrol its streets. Our protagonist is Lt. William Garth, “a cold-eyed white man of about thirty-nine or forty,” per Kitty Hot Pants, a “high-yellow” black streetwalker who appears early in the book. “High-yellow” is a term I have only seen infrequently; I would imagine it is considered racist now, and assume it was a way that light-skinned black people were referred to at the time. I’m sure I’ll be headed back to sensitivity training for even wondering about this. 

But then, the racism is thick throughout The Closing Circle, courtesy the other cops on Garth’s force. This too is certainly a quest for realism on Cameron’s part; these are grizzled cops who don’t give a shit when they’re done for the day. One of them, a sergeant named Crosby who used to be Garth’s partner, bluntly states that he could care less about the latest serial killer when he clocks out for the day. Crosby also refers to a Hispanic colleague as “the Spic” and, when he sees Garth talking to Kitty Hot Pants and a new “colored” probationary patrolman named Till, Crosby asks Garth, “What’s with you and the spades today? Martin Luther King Day or what?” Crosby is not alone; there are racial slurs throughout the book. And for that matter, Garth himself is certain that the serial killer he’s hunting isn’t white, because the kills are happening in a white area that “resents” the encroaching black population – and the serial killer is moving around freely, meaning the white residents trust him. I found this very interesting from a historical perspective, given that we live in an era that has become so emasculated that, even when there’s an active black shooter afoot, his race is not mentioned

And speaking of lurid, move over William Crawford – we’ve found an author who seems even more obsessed with characters shitting themselves. Seriously, if there’s one thing I learned from The Closing Circle, it’s that you shit yourself when you’re strangled to death. Cameron reminds us of this many, many times. And he doesn’t just tell us. He has Garth and the other cops enthusing over the amount of shit at the crime scenes; “We really shit ourselves when we’re strangled!” Garth even exposits at one point. I mean we are told this again and again. Each and every single time the killer strangles a woman, we are informed she shits herself before dying. In the cases of the corpses the cops discover that are clean, we’re informed that the body must’ve been moved after death and then cleaned off – for, sure enough, the shit’s all over the place where the murder actually occurred. I mean William Crawford had an obsession with characters shitting themselves in his books, but Lou Cameron takes it to a whole different level. To an extent that I found myself questioning it…I mean honestly, let’s say you went to the john shortly before being strangled to death. Would you still shit yourself? These are the sort of questions I found myself wondering during the course of The Closing Circle

Adding to this lurid vibe is the killer himself. Now an issue with The Closing Circle is that it truly is methodical; Cameron really wants to show how an investigation is handled in the real world, with Garth and his fellows going over all leads, researching all clues, and putting forth theories. The only problem is, we readers know from the get-go who the killer is. Hell, the back cover tells us: it’s a “professional exterminator” named Kraag. And that’s in the literal sense; he’s not like a Syndicate contract killer but a guy in a uniform who goes around apartment buildings killing bugs and rodents. Cameron tries to get in Kraag’s mind, but he doesn’t come off as fucked-up enough for the crimes he commits. Basically, the sick bastard’s m.o. is that he strangles the old women in the apartments he handles, gives their corpses a bath, and proceeds to “bang them all three ways,” leaving their defiled corpses for the cops to find. And yet in the scenes from his perspective, Kraag isn’t nearly twisted enough…he just clearly hates women and thinks they’re more obedient when they’re dead. I mean sure, he’s twisted, but we aren’t talking like a wackjob personality-wise; he comes off more like a grumpy idiot, and we never even get a good idea of what led him to this particular serial-killer approach. 

Well anyway, it kind of ruins the suspense because we know what Kraag’s up to, but we’ll keep spending a lot of time with the clueless cops who try to put the puzzle pieces together. And unlike Crosby, our hero Lt. Garth is determined to find the killer, even working off duty. Kraag has already made a few kills when the novel starts, all of them the murders of old ladies in apartment houses around 72nd Street and nearby. The opening of the book is probably the highlight, as it comes off like a grungy ‘70s cop flick, with Garth bringing in veteran street hooker Kitty Hot Pants to ask if she’s seen any unusual dudes on her beat, given that she works the area in which the kills have occurred. We also get mentions of the “pussy patrol,” ie the NYPD vice squad. Again, a far cry from the domesticated demeanor of today’s police forces; The Closing Circle is populated by mostly-white detectives who sit around smoking and drinking all day and hurling racial slurs with aplomb. They also make poor choices throughout; Crosby in particular makes some dumb moves when Garth is temporarily removed from the case. 

Cameron was a veteran crime writer, and I suspect he enjoyed getting risque here. Even the dialog between Garth and the M.E. follows the overall lurid angle of the novel; there’s a part that goes on for pages where they discuss how guys “cream less” as they get older – the seminal fluids left at the crime scenes indicates that the perp is likely a middle aged man, and this gets Garth and the M.E. going on about the lessening of, uh, emissions as time goes by. There’s a lot of dialog in The Closing Circle, though, much of it recapping things we readers already know, but the majority of it retaining that same sleazy vibe. It seems clear that Cameron wanted to write a police procedural in the exploitative vibe of contemporary crime novels; perhaps Lawrence Sanders’s work itself was an inspiration, and not just a cover blurb. It goes without saying that Cameron didn’t reach the success levels of Sanders, as his sequence of Berkley crime novels seems to be forgotten today. 

The setup is that Kraag scopes out his victims when on exterminator calls, and then weeks or days later will go back to the building, get in the apartment on the claim that he’s here to finish the job…and then he’ll strangle the old woman from behind, wait until she shits herself, give her a bath, and then start raping her corpse. As mentioned Cameron tries to capture Kraag’s twisted mind, usually via crudity. Like for example when Kraag thinks what it would be like to rape a woman he’s planned as a future victim: “But she was so old her boobs would flop all over the place like empty sacks of shit.” The back cover hyperbole has it that Kraag himself will get caught up in an evil worse than even he is: this is in reference to Cynthia Dean, a “brassy blonde with a Miami tan. Cynthia Dean (and Cameron constantly refers to her by her full name) is the manager of the company that owns the apartment buildings that the killings have occurred in (the company also owns its own exterminator service). She’s the one who figures out one of her own men is behind the killings. However she has plans of her own, leading the narrative in an unexpected direction. 

At 255 pages, there’s a lot going on in The Closing Circle. Garth is not married, and Cameron tries to work in a romance subplot, but it too follows the same grim-eyed vibe as the novel itself. One of Garth’s top suspects is a 19 year-old kid named Randy who is mentally retarded and who was locked up for exposing himself to kids at a playground. Randy has a social worker named Sandy, a hotstuff babe Garth takes to, and they end up going on a few dates. The two like each other, even though Sandy is a social worker and she knows cops hate social workers – indeed, cops hate all “bleeding heart liberals.” Again, compare to today. I should mention here that, despite the ultra-lurid tone, there is no sex whatsoever in The Closing Circle. Spoiler alert, but Garth never scores with Sandy. And while I don’t consider rape scenes to be “sex scenes,” I should also note for the sake of thoroughness that all of Kraag’s assaults occur off-page. So this too is similar to William Crawford in that we can learn about all sorts of sordid stuff via the dialog, but when such material actually transpires the author quickly cuts to another scene. 

The focus on realism means that The Closing Circle also lacks much action. There’s a random part, midway through the novel, where Garth gets in a shootout. This part is very unexpected, as he happens to be on a date with Sandy…and sees a guy who is wanted in connection with a cop-killing. The guy fires at Garth, who takes him out in the firefight. All told, this sequence is over and done with in the span of a few sentences, and Cameron is not one to dwell on the violence of the shootout. Instead, the greater ramification is that Ballistics takes Garth’s gun and he’s put on temporary suspension while the “paperwork” is filled out – the cop-killer was from out of state, and thus there’s an extra layer of red tape Garth must overcome in order to get his gun back and be put back in charge of the serial killer case. So we can see here that Cameron’s goal is not a Dirty Harry type thriller but a realistic procedural; we’re even given occasional breakdowns of how the NYPD runs, with Cameron at one point baldly expositing through the narrative that the plainclothes detectives (aka “Clothes”) are the “true workhorses” of the entire force, even though they rarely get any recognition. 

Things really pick up when Kitty High Pants returns to the narrative…and ends up whoring out to none other than Kraag himself. This part isn’t much explained; we’ve been told through the endless theorizing-exposition bits that the killer (ie Kraag) is probably afraid of women (thus he always kills them before raping them), and likely wouldn’t rent a hooker. And yet Kraag does, and despite his racism there’s no mention made of how Kitty is black. Instead Kraag is excited that he can “bang her all three ways” for thirty bucks. But he does his usual thing (off-page), and given that Kitty was the favorite of a black underworld type, we soon have a Black Mafia contract out on the killer. This leads to fun stuff that seems to be from another novel, like when two black contract killers sit around in Manhattan on the lookout for Kraag and argue over how they can walk around in broad daylight with a shotgun. With the infamous “n-word” liberally employed by these colorfully-named underworld types as they bicker and banter (and try to kill each other), it gives the entire thing a sort of proto-Tarantino vibe…but probably was just another “inspiration” from Sanders, given how he too seemed to populate his book with a host of underworld characters. Again, I get the impression that these Cameron books were devised by Berkley itself, with the publisher probably trying to capitalize on the success of its Sanders paperbacks. 

Cameron’s other theme appears to be necrophilia. I mean necrophilia and shitting yourself are the two central ideas of The Closing Circle. Randy, the mentally-retarded kid Garth incorrectly assumes to be the serial killer, gets his own taste of necrophilia in a super weird scene where he accidentally kills a woman…and then starts exploring her body. This ultra-twisted sequence does lead to unexpected consequences in the finale, but again it’s another indication of Cameron seeming to enjoy the freedom crime writers had in the ‘70s. Oh and I forgot – even here in this sequence with Randy, the dead female also shits herself after being (unintentionally) strangled. I mean seriously! But as I was saying, this bit leads in an unexpected direction; Cameron, despite wanting to show thorough police work, also apparently wanted to demonstrate how thorough police work can lead to incorrect conclusions. An annoying thing about The Closing Circle is that its unsatisfying climax prefigures The Zodiac Killer, with fate and coincidence trumping police work. 

Sleazy mid-‘70s New York City is fairly well captured, though Cameron mostly sticks to the Upper West Side; Needle Park factors into the novel a lot. This so-called area, near 72nd and Broadway, was a favored spot for heroin users at the time, hence the name. There are also two separate scenes in a 42nd Street porn theater, but otherwise Cameron keeps the topical details few. In other words the city itself isn’t practically a character, like it is in Nelson De Mille’s Ryker and Keller cop novels. The ‘70s vibe is well captured, though, with the streetwalkers and pimps and whatnot, and also Johnny Carson gets mentioned a few times. I’ve always loved Carson and remember staying up late in middle school in the mid to late ‘80s to watch his show…I recall being super bummed when the school year would start and I wouldn’t be able to watch Carson anymore! Surely no kid today is staying up to watch the annoying dweeb who currently hosts the show. 

I think I have all of Cameron’s other crime novels for Berkley. They don’t all take place in New York, and it looks like some of them might be more action-focused than The Closing Circle, but that could just be the misleading back cover copy. Not that The Closing Circle is boring. For what it is, it’s very well done: a probing police procedural with a super sleazy overlay. But it certainly could’ve been tightened up. Garth is removed from the case for like 40 pages or so and we read as secondary characters try to make sense of the killings, and all this just seems to be a means to pad out the pages. But if you are into grimy ‘70s crime fiction like I am, I believe you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of The Closing Circle.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 17

Jim Kelly movies: 

Black Belt Jones (1974): This was to be Jim Kelly’s big role after his starmaking turn as Williams in the previous year’s Enter The Dragon. Robert Clouse again directs, but this time the film is a Blaxploitation joint with a comedy overlay. It’s still the ‘70s, though, so there’s a bit of blood at times and some random nudity. Oscar Williams handled the script (as he would for the execrable sequel, more on which below), and it seems like a clear attempt to launch Kelly as a new urban action hero. I believe Black Belt Jones did fairly well, but as it turned out this would be the only time Jim Kelly would carry a major studio film. 

As a kid I was of course familiar with Kelly, having first watched Enter The Dragon as a teen, but I didn’t discover Black Belt Jones until the summer of 1994, when I was 19 and came across the video in a Suncoast Video store (remember those?). To say this movie had an impact on me would be an understatement. Actually – it would be the theme song by Dennis Coffey (miscredited as “Dennis Coffy” in the closing credits) that had the biggest impact on me. I would watch the video just to hear the “Theme From Black Belt Jones,” and even recorded it directly onto audio tape so I could play it. I even did dumb faux-movie commercials in the campus studio and would use Coffey’s theme song on the soundtrack. As far as I’m concerned, this unjustly-overlooked track is the best song in the entire Blaxploitation soundtrack canon. Many years later I finally found a good-quality copy of it on Harmless Records’s Pulp Fusion: Revenge Of The Ghetto Grooves; “Theme From Black Belt Jones,” by the way, was never released on a Coffey LP (a 7” single – now grossly overpriced – was released on Warner Records in 1974, whereas Coffey’s albums at the time were released on Sussex), and there was never an official soundtrack release, though a bootleg came out on vinyl in 2000…recorded directly off the VHS. Luichi DeJesus, who the following year would handle the kick-ass vocoder-heavy soundtrack for Pam Grier’s Friday Foster, did the actual score for Black Belt Jones; Dennis Coffey only did the theme song and the “love theme” which plays during the ultra-bizarre “mating” sequence that occurs late in the film. 

Well, enough about the soundtrack. The movie itself also made a big impact on me. That summer of 1994 was somewhat special to me. I seem to recall spending most of it drinking and watching kung-fu movies with my college friends. Now that’s the life! We watched Black Belt Jones several times; this was also at the time that I was becoming obsessed with the early to mid 1970s. I was born in 1974, the year this film came out, and Thomas Pynchon writes in his novel V something to the effect that many people are destined to become obessed with the era in which they were born. Well, that summer was when it started for me…but then, at the time the entire ‘70s obsession was in full swing. The Beastie Boys of course were at the center of that, with their “Sabotage” video being a faux-‘70s cop show and ‘70s references throughout their albums (including a Dennis Coffey reference in their 1992 B-side “Skills To Pay The Bills”). To this day I’m still fascinated by this era, and what’s funny is that 1994 is now longer ago than the ‘70s were when I first watched the movie – at the time, Black Belt Jones had only been released 20 years before. But man, as hard as it is to believe, 1994 was 28 years ago! WTF!? Now that I think of it, there might be some kid out there now who was born in ’94 and is thus obsessed with the early ‘90s, the poor bastard... 

I watched that video untold times, but at some point lost my copy – I seem to recall someone “borrowed” it. It wasn’t until 2010 that I watched the movie again; this was when Black Belt Jones was finally released on DVD, along with two other Jim Kelly films (plus one with Rockne Tarkington, the actor who was originally set to play Williams in Enter The Dragon). Seeing the movie in remastered widescreen was almost like seeing it for the first time, but man I still remembered all the lines, all the story beats. Hey listen, I should talk about the movie and cut out the navel gazing. So look, no one’s going to say Black Belt Jones is a classic. But I love it. And watching it again the other day (still no Blu Ray release, though), it only seems to have gotten better with age. Clouse and company were very right to get rid of the grim and gritty vibe typical of Blaxploitation and go for more of a good-spirited vibe. This is a fun movie, and Kelly carries it well. He sort of plays a less cocky version of his Williams, from Enter The Dragon, but he still has a bunch of smart-ass lines. Who exactly “Black Belt Jones” is, though, is pretty much a mystery; and yes, that’s his damn name. I mean he’s referred to as “Black Belt” for cryin’ out loud. Well anyway, when Black Belt Jones isn’t having white girls jump on a trampoline by the beach or kicking it in his ultramod bachelor pad (which is also on the beach), he seems to do odd jobs for the government. Or at least some agency. When we meet him, he’s busy protecting some dignitary from would-be assassins. Later in the film, though, he acts more in his personal interests than in any government or law enforcement capacity. 

An interesting thing about Black Belt Jones is how its template is so similar to just about any Chinese kung-fu movie you could name. I mean it’s literally about the bad guys trying to take over a martial arts school; that’s pretty much the plot for around a billion kung-fu movies. And man what a school this one is – it’s “sensei” is none other than Scatman friggin’ Crothers, playing the least believable karate master in film history. The movie never does make it clear whether Scatman’s “Pop” actually taught Black Belt Jones, but we do learn that the two men have some sort of a student-pupil connection. However, playing the emotional stuff is not Jim Kelly’s forte, so this isn’t much played up on. The convoluted story has it that the Mafia is leaning on black criminal Pinky; they want a particular building in Pinky’s domain, the building with Pop’s karate school, so Pinky and crew start leaning on Pop. Robert Clouse must have taken to actor Malik Carter, who plays Pinky; Carter even gets an “introducing” credit at the start of the movie. Several scenes are given over to Carter so he can chew scenery as the outlandish Pinky, sometimes strutting and rapping about his awesomeness. While Clouse might have seen a future star in Malik Carter, it was not to be; he only acted sporadically after this, his last role being the “night guard” in Stallone’s Cobra (1986). (I discovered this myself before the Internet Movie Database existed; I saw Cobra on cable TV not long after I got the Black Belt Jones video, and just about freaked out when I recognized none other than Pinky himself as a security guard – even though he was only on screen for a few seconds and didn’t have any dialog.) 

When Pinky leans a bit too hard on Pop, things quickly escalate. But even here Black Belt Jones does not become a violent revenge thriller a la Coffy. As I say, Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones never really seems to give a shit; Pinky’s plot just gives him another opportunity to “be busy lookin’ good.” Actually that’s a Williams line, but it also describes Black Belt Jones. Kelly is very much on form in this picture; he so outmatches his opponents, never tiring even after hordes of them come at him, that it almost approaches the level of a Bruceploitation movie – like Bruce Le, the fake Bruce who starred in the most loathsome Bruceploitation movies of all, where he’d fight like a thousand people and never even break a sweat. At no point does Black Belt Jones seem in trouble, even in a part where Pinky’s men capture him and attempt to beat him to death, with the warning that if Black Belt fights back one of Pop’s students will be killed. I’ve always thought that the action highlight in the film is the one toward the end on the abandoned train; this is an excellently staged sequence, which still retains the goofy comedy overlay of the film (ie the twitching knocked-out thugs, as if Black Belt has given them nerve damage in addition to a sound beating). 

The film also has some of the best foley work ever. It’s totally exaggerated; every punch and kick is magnified on the soundtrack. The producers also add a weird “bone crunching” noise at times, which is so overdone it actually can raise your hackles. It gives the impression that Black Belt’s just ruptured someone’s innards. But my favorite sound effect of all in the entire film is when Sydney, Pop’s estranged daughter (played by a fierce Gloria Hendry), bitch-slaps Black Belt before their weird mating ritual on the beach. Gloria Hendry delivers lines with aplomb throughout the film, bad-ass lines that she serves up more convincingly than even Kelly does. And they’re wonderfully un-PC, too, like when she calmly tells one of Pinky’s men, “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot.” She’s got a great one before she bitch-slaps Black Belt, too; when Black Belt tells her he “takes” what he wants, Sydney responds, “My cookie would kill you.” You can check this scene out here – listen to that bitch slap! And this mating sequence deal, scored by Coffey’s “Love Theme From Black Belt Jones,” is a bizarre bit that features Black Belt and Syndey chasing each other around the beach and beating each other up as foreplay. There’s a random bit, in an altogether random scene, where they come across a fat hippie strumming his acoustic guitar along the beach, and the two sadists smash the guitar up; you can see this at the end of the clip I linked to above. Folks, the fat hippie looks so much like Wayne’s World 2-era Chris Farley that you almost wonder if the dude traveled back in time – he even has the same overdone reactions as Farley when they grab his guitar. 

The climax is underwhelming after the fight in the empty train; it’s pretty goofy, too, with a seemingly-endless tide of thugs coming out of the soap bubbles to be knocked out by Black Belt and then escorted into a sanitation truck by Sydney. And yes, soap bubbles; the final fight occurs in a car wash that’s gone haywire. Also here one will spot a cameo by Bob Wall, who played a sadistic henchman in Enter The Dragon; here he plays a geeky Mafia chauffeur. I’m cool with the underwhelming climax, though, as it retains the spirit of the overall film. It’s the dialog that’s key for me; I could quote this movie all day, from the kid’s “She was bad! She was good!” when referring to Sydney’s karate skills to Black Belt’s triumphant, “Let’s go to McDonald’s!” after foiling Pinky. And of course, Black Belt’s “Batman, motherfucker!”  Clouse and crew keep the action moving, with a lot of fun sequences, like when Black Belt employs those white trampoline girls on a heist. It’s a little bumpy at the start, though; I mean I don’t watch a movie titled Black Belt Jones and expect to see Scatman Crothers arguing with his heavyset girlfriend. (A scene which regardless features more wonderfully un-PC dialog, ie “I’ll slap the black off you!”) Once Gloria Hendry shows up it’s as if the movie takes on a new drive, and she acquits herself well in the action scenes, really selling her punches and kicks. 

I’ve gone on and on about Black Belt Jones but I feel like I really haven’t said much about it. I’ll just leave it that it’s a fun movie, and I bet it was fun as hell to see it on the bigscreen in 1974 – I can just imagine a pack of inner-city kids enthusing over it in some theater on 42nd Street. And the movie did well enough that it warranted a sequel, something I wasn’t aware of until the DVD release in 2010. And speaking of which… 

Hot Potato (1975): This movie was so goddamn stupid I scanned through it and didn’t even watch the whole thing; a half-assed movie deserves a half-assed review. Like Black Samurai, this is another one that has a copyright that differs from the release date; Hot Potato is copyright 1975, so far as the opening credits are concerned, but was apparently released in 1976. It’s also a sequel to Black Belt Jones, though you’d never know it. Jim Kelly plays “Jones,” apparently as in “Black Belt Jones,” but he’s never referred to by that name, and no other actors from the previous film are in this one. Indeed, absolutely no mention is made of that previous film. Hot Potato was written by Oscar Williams, who also wrote Black Belt Jones, but he directs this time as well. What a bad decision for the studio; Hot Potato makes Black Belt Jones look like Citizen Kane. It’s messy and chaotic, and I actually felt embarrassed for Jim Kelly. Whereas the previous film had an accent on comedy, it still featured some violent action and everything didn’t seem to be a joke to the characters. Not so here; the entire stupid movie is nothing but comedy, and unfunny comedy, to boot – like Jim Kelly and his colleagues watching a fat man and woman challenge each other to an eating contest, and the gross spectacle just keeps going on and on, complete with gut-churning overdubbed “eating” sounds. 

Kelly himself looks bored this time…he looks older than he did just a year before, and also for some reason he’s shaved off his sideburns. There are some parts I kid you not where he looks like ol’ Barry Obama – check out the final fight scene. It’s like Obama with a natural! I’m guessing at this point Jim Kelly must’ve realized his moment in the limelight had already passed him by; surely he had to realize this movie was a turkey. Maybe he did it because he figured the guy who wrote Black Belt Jones couldn’t do him wrong. Obviously he was proven wrong. Or hell, maybe Kelly just wanted a vacation in Thailand (the entire film takes place there – again, a far cry from the urban setting of the previous film). I also feel bad for the Warners marketing department, as they had to try to get people to pay to see this piece of shit. Well, I’ve spent enough time on this one…it’s lame, Jim Kelly’s barely in it (and when he is, he’s usually just standing around), and the focus is on lame comedy throughout. What’s crazy is, despite the suckitude, the film actually looks like a big-budget venture when compared to the cheap productions Kelly would find himself starring in next. Speaking of which… 

Black Samurai (1976): As with Hot Potato, this one has differing copyright and release dates – it’s copyright 1976, but seems to have been released in 1977. It certainly seems more “mid-‘70s” than “disco ‘70s.” Even though it isn’t a big studio production like his previous films, Jim Kelly is back to his old self in this one…you’d think it was actually shot before Hot Potato. Maybe he thought it would lead to a franchise – which the film should have. Well anyway, this is of course a filmed adaptation of Marc Oldens Black Samurai – specifcally, an adaptation of Black Samurai #6: The Warlock. While lots has been changed to accommodate the small budget (the entire second half of the film takes place in one location, for example, despite the globe-hopping of the source novel), the film is still faithful to the bare bones of the novel’s plot. And almost all of the characters from The Warlock are here, though in a lessened state: Synne, the hot-as-hell black beauty of the novel, has lost her silver hair; Bone, the hulking gay albino henchman, is a black guy (though it’s intimated in overdubbed dialog during the climactic fight that he’s still gay in the film); and most humorously of all, Rheinhardt, the werewolf in the novel, has been changed to…a midget. But then there were midgets throughout The Warlock, and sure, they were transvestite midgets who wielded whips and wore s&m getups, but at least director Al Adamson was still somewhat faithful to the novel with this change. 

But he made some strange changes which were not faithful to the novel. For one, Robert “Black Samurai” Sand (ie Jim Kelly) does not report to former President William Baron Clarke in the movie; instead, Sand works for D.R.A.G.O.N. (as in, “Enter The;” no doubt Adamson was trying to refer back to Kelly’s most famous movie). And whereas Robert Sand in the novels was a somewhat-terse badass who favored a samurai sword and a .45, the Sand of the movie is a James Bond wannabe, complete with a Thunderball-esque jetpack. He also drives a purple 1972 Dino Ferrari. But man, if Adamson had dispensed with this stuff, he might’ve had sufficient budget to do a more faithful adaptation of the novel. I mean for one thing, Sand uses his samurai sword in the novels, but here he mostly relies on his hands and feet; he shoots one guy with a revolver, and later in the film affixes a silencer to a .45 (for absolutely no reason, as he’s in the friggin’ jungle at the time), but he never fires it. And he only uses a samurai sword briefly in the climax – to cut the ropes off someone. My assumption is Adamson whittled down on the sword action because it would’ve cost more so far as choreography went; it’s much cheaper to have actors just pretend to be kicked in the face than to be chopped by a sword. 

But now let me tell you how I personally learned about Black Samurai, because I’m sure you all are dying to know. I grew up with an obsession for kung-fu movies, and the early ‘90s was a cool time for this because it seemed like a ton of them suddenly came out on VHS. I built up quite a collection, despite not having much money, and on one of the videos I got there was the trailer for Black Samurai. I no longer recall what kung-fu video in particular it was that featured this trailer, but it would’ve been something I bought in 1994. This trailer, which you can see here (it was also included in Alamo Drafthouse’s 2012 Blu Ray release Trailer War), made a big impression on me. At the time I was in college, and we’d often film impromptu kung-fu parodies or whatnot…I recall often mocking this goofy commercial, in particular the line “half the world’s out to kill him.” At the time I had no idea how Black Samurai itself could even be seen – all I had was the trailer on the video. Then in 2000 or so Black Samurai was released on VHS and DVD…but I quickly learned that it was edited, with the nudity and violence removed. Fuck that! It was also at this time that I learned of Marc Olden’s source material, and while I eventually got the actual books, I still never sought out Al Adamson’s film. Actually that’s a lie, as I’d read somewhere that in the ‘80s the film had been released uncut on VHS, but this video was impossible to find – at least impossibe for me to find. And now that I think of it, I’m assuming it was this ‘80s video release that was being advertised on that video I purchased in the early ‘90s. 

Well anyway, in one of those random flukes, Black Samurai was released on Blu Ray the other year as part of “The Al Adamson Collection,” and friends it’s the uncut version that was originally released in grindhouses and drive-ins in 1977. It was a strange experience to actually watch this movie so many years after discovering it via that trailer; I almost found myself getting misty-eyed, but that was probably the cheap blended whiskey I was drinking at the time. And booze (or drugs) would certainly be recommended for anyone who chooses to watch Black Samurai. But then, the movie isn’t that bad, even though people often rake it over the coals (just check out Marty McKee’s review at Crane Shot).  I mean yeah, it is lame, but it isn’t nearly as bad as Hot Potato. And hell, I’d still rather watch Black Samurai than The Eternals. Also, the movie is deserving of at least some respect, as it was the only film adaptation of a men’s adventure series in the ‘70s – the decade that saw a glut of men’s adventure paperbacks, and Black Samurai was the only one that made it to the big screen. 

I’d love to know what Marc Olden thought of the film. Many years ago his widow Diane told me via email that Olden never met Jim Kelly, “though he admired him.” I was bummed to learn that Olden never got a chance to meet the man who brought his Robert Sand to life. One thing everyone can agree on is that Jim Kelly was the perfect Robert Sand. Unfortunately Al Adamson and his screenwriters didn’t understand the source material, because Kelly, who didn’t have the greatest of range, could’ve easily handled the character as presented in Olden’s novels. Indeed, the Robert Sand of Olden’s novels doesn’t say much – but when he does says something, it’s pretty bad-ass, and then he gets to the ass-kicking. Kelly could’ve handled this. But given how he had all the best lines in Enter The Dragon, the directors of his ensuing films tried to replicate that, so the film version of Robert Sand is a blabbermouth when compared to the novel version. He also lacks the samurai training and mindset; indeed, “Black Samurai” seems to just be this Robert Sand’s codename. He’s basically just a regular movie spy, with all the customary gadgets, only one with a little more focus in karate. No mention is made of him being an actual samurai. 

It's been twelve years(!) since I read The Warlock, but so far as I recall the bones of the novel’s plot are here in the film. And speaking of which, I really enjoyed The Warlock, but am only now starting to read the series from the beginning…not sure why I took so long, but I think it’s because I was also reading Olden’s Narc series and just wanted to focus on it first. Well anyway, same as in the source novel, the plot hinges around black magician Janicot, the warlock of the original novel’s title, taking captive Toki, daughter of Sand’s samurai trainer Mr. Konuma. Adamson and team have changed the relationships a bit, but Toki is still Robert Sand’s beloved in this one – however as mentioned Jim Kelly didn’t have the greatest range, thus he never seems all that fired up about rescuing Toki. In fact, Toki’s practically an afterthought. Oh yeah, I recall Janicot ran a sideline operation in the novel where he filmed various noteables in his black magic sex orgies, using that for blackmail…none of this is in the film. Janicot has practically been neutered in the film version; Bill Roy’s portrayal of the character is more Paul Lynde than Anton LaVey. (Seriously, it would be easy to imagine this Janicot as one of Uncle Arthur’s “special male friends.”) He makes for a lame duck villain, and his “warlock” nature isn’t nearly as exploited as in the novel. 

But let’s talk about the boobs! Seriously though, this uncut version of Black Samurai has been lost for many, many years, but the topless gals are here in all their glory. Adamson strings nudity throughout the film, befitting a movie intended for grindhouse theaters; in particular we have a dazed-looking blonde who does a practically endless striptease halfway through the film, topless throughout (the camera cuts away for the big finale when she pulls off her panties, however). Marilyn Joi as Synne also gets her top torn off by Chavez, Latino thug who in the novel ran his own drug empire, but here in the novel is another of Janicot’s men. Actually he comes off as more threatening than Janicot himself. Oh but randomly enough…Adamson kept the “lion-men” in the movie! One of the more outrageous elements of an outrageous novel made it to the film; randomly enough, Sand at one point is attacked by a pair of black guys dressed up like the savages in a 1930s jungle movie. One of them he seems to relish in killing; I’m not sure if the bloody violence was cut from the previously-available versions, but here in this Blu Ray Sand makes a few bloody kills. For example he tosses a boulder on one of the lion men, and we get a closeup of the spouting blood as the lion man floats in water. 

The karate scenes are actually pretty good. Once again Kelly comes off as vastly outmatching his opponents, but there seems to have been an attempt at actually making him work for it at times. For example the fight with Bone (Charles Grant) is pretty good – livened up by some postproduction dubbing where the two trash-talk each other. Here Sand calls Bone all kinds of inappropriate-for-today gay slurs, adding to the over-the-top vibe of the film; making it even more crazy, the actors clearly aren’t saying anything to each other and all their dialog has been dubbed in after the fact…and since you hear their voices but their lips aren’t moving it gives it all a surreal, dreamlike quality. Unintentionally avant-garde, I guess. Also, Jim Kelly fights a friggin’ vulture, but it’s staged so ineptly that again you wonder why Adamson didn’t use the money for something else. And the fight with Janicot is so lame you wonder why they even included it. But Kelly really seems invested in the role, even if the production is meager compared to his previous movies – I mean we’re talking “boom mic audio.” 

Speaking of cost-cutting, Adamson saved on the soundtrack, too. Black Samurai does not feature an original score. Adamson instead uses what’s now known as “sound library” music, ie production music created by various labels for use in film, TV, radio, and etc. The “theme song,” for example, is actually “Flashback” by Alan Hawkshaw and Keith Mansfield. The song that plays throughout the endless stripdance sequence is “Soul Slap” by Madeline Bell and Alan Parker. Some years ago a blogger by the handle Fraykers Revenge created the soundtrack for Black Samurai, tracking down each song from his vast collection of sound library releases; unfortunately his blog is long gone, but perhaps the soundtrack is still available somewhere on the internet. 

I’ve been going on and on, but I’ve gotta say Black Samurai isn’t terrible. I mean Hot Potato is terrible. Black Samurai is actually watchable, and it’s at least good enough that you wish it was better – that it had more money for the setups and locations. Jim Kelly acquits himself well, proving he could carry a film…even when wearing a very un-Robert Sand tracksuit. There’s definitely a camp quality to it, which always helps. But then perhaps my positive sentiments are due to the uncut Blu Ray; I might be complaining just like every other reviewer if I was talking about the cut version that was previously available on the market. At any rate, it makes one sorry that there wasn’t a followup; the following year Kelly starred in another Adamson production, Death Dimension, and you kind of wish they’d just done Black Samurai II instead. 

Well friends, I was going to review more of Jim Kelly’s movies (he’s always been one of my favorite actors…I mean he’s the only guy in film history who could be in a movie with Bruce Lee and actually come off as cooler than Bruce Lee), but as usual I ran on so long that I’ll have to get to the others anon; Three The Hard Way, Death Dimension, Golden Needles, etc.