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.

1 comment:

Brian Drake said...

Great review. I scored a mint copy of this one in an eBay auction that also included a bunch of other Marksman books, so I have a nice set of them now; can't wait to dig in.