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.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Good review, as always. I haven't been able to ID the cover artist for that series. Does anyone happen to know who it was?

Steve Carroll said...

Great review, Joe! I have owned this entire series for decades. I rabidly bought every single martial arts-related book as it was published as a teen in the 70s. Even then I knew that Black Samurai was a cut above the norm (pun intended), even if they came off a veritable assembly line from Olden. Olden's standalone later novels are really good as well, and he tends to keep some level of martial arts action in most of them.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! Bob, unfortunately I don't know the artist ID. I assume it's the same person who did the covers for Olden's Narc series, though. And Steve, that's cool you got these as they were published. Did you watch the movie when it came out? I'm almost halfway through the second volume and enjoying it as well. As for Olden's later novels, one obscure one I picked up years ago is "Gossip," a fat paperback original from 1977 (I think), which seems to be his attempt at a glitzy trash fiction sort of read. I need to get around to it one of these days!