Thursday, June 30, 2022

Kiss Kill

Kiss Kill, by Roy Sorrels
April, 1990  Pinnacle Books

For a book with a cover blurb by none other than Lawrence Block, Kiss Kill is very obscure these days, and likely went under the radar even back in 1990. I discovered it a few years ago, and only because I was searching for everything Pinnacle published in the late ‘80s, once the imprint was run by Zebra Books. This was also how I discovered the similarly-obscure Steel Lightning series. But it was only recently that I actually picked up a copy of Kiss Kill, given that I’ve been on a bit of a “cop thriller” kick. It sounded interesting, even if it was outside my safe space of ‘70s crime-pulp…I mean 1990 seems “new” to me, given that I pretty much live in the 1970s. 

But other than an occasional mention of fax machines, crack, or a character wearing a Batman T-shirt (those were incredibly ubiquitous at the time – in fact I remember a female comedian at the time saying that she didn’t plan to actually go see the Tim Burton film; she’d just see it frame by frame on the T-shirts of the people who passed by her on the street!), Kiss Kill could just as easily be set in the ‘70s. Actually, the novel is most reminiscent of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s revisions Nelson DeMille did of his Ryker and Keller books, ie The Smack Man and Night Of The Phoenix. Just as DeMille took the grungy midtown Manhattan of the original ‘70s books and updated it to the grungy Lower East Side of the late ‘80s, so too does Kiss Kill mostly occur in this downtrodden area. In fact Midtown and Times Square are rarely mentioned, with most of the action taking place along Third Avenue and environs. 

And this is truly a “New York” novel. Author Roy Sorrels is certainly familiar with the city, and brings it to life in all its tawdry splendor. I’m no expert on the city – again, the New York that exists in my mind is the one I read about in novels from the 1970s – but I was always under the impression that New York cleaned up its act by the ‘80s. Kiss Kill dispels that notion, and it would appear that 1989 (the year the events seem to take place) was just as tawdry as, say, 1974. It would appear that the city didn’t really clean up its act until Rudy Giuliani was elected in 1994, after which all those tawdry places became Disneyfied. Now that I think of it, Steel Lightning also took place in this same grungy, immediately pre-Giuliani Lower East Side. 

But let’s get back to how scarce Kiss Kill is, with so little detail available about it. There are only two reviews on Amazon as of this writing, the first just a rehash of the back cover copy, the other by a person saying it’s “the best mystery/suspense novel” they’ve ever read. Speaking of the back cover copy, what’s funny about it is that it sort of gives an idea of the plot, while being very misleading; it was certainly written by some editor at Pinnacle/Zebra who only gave the book a cursory glance. Here it is:

So there was no other info I could find about Kiss Kill than this, no Google Books listing with a Snippet View of the contents (no Google Books listing at all, in fact). Nothing to go by other than that back cover. In fact I kept wondering if the “lover” mention meant that the hero cop Duggan was gay; it’s my understanding that “lover” was a term used mostly by the gay underworld before all the straights co-opted it. (Humorously, as if somehow predicting my incorrect assumption, Duggan informs a character in the first few pages that he is not gay!) So I took a gamble and ordered a copy of the book – scarce as mentioned, but luckily not overpriced, at least not yet. It was pretty much what I expected, an overlong Pinnacle/Zebra book of the day (320 pages), with the embossed cover…and I admit, I was a little bummed when I discovered it was in first-person. As anyone who has spent just a little time here will know, I prefer my pulp in third-person. 

But man, I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy Kiss Kill. I mean I planned to take it to work and read it during lunch, or whenever I felt like leaving my desk…and I ended up doing that and also taking it home with me to keep reading it there. I finished the book in a few days. And sure, it has some problems…I mean the length is a major problem, as one can detect that Sorrels was given a big word count by the publisher and thus had to pad a bit, resulting in a little repetition. But other than that the book was pretty much everything I could want in a novel about a cop taking on a serial killer. Plus snuff flicks! 

There was also the mystery of the author. I could find nothing about Roy Sorrels other than that he’d published another fat Pinnacle paperback the same year, a horror novel titled The Eyes of Torie Webster. (In a cool bit of connectivity, Torie Webster is mentioned on page 98 of Kiss Kill, a “local newscaster” in New York – surely the same character as the titular Torie Webster of the other Sorrels novel, who per the back cover is a newscaster.) I found a FictionDB listing which misleadingly implied that “Roy Sorrels” was the pseudonym of a female author named Anna McClure. But as it turns out, it’s the other way around: per this 1985 UPI article, “Anna McClure” was the pseudonym Roy Sorrels, a literature professor, used for his Romance novels, which he started writing at the behest of his wife. It seems clear though that Sorrels found more success under his pseudonym, given that he only published these two obscure Pinnacle books under his real name. 

Now let’s take a look at the also-misleading back cover. Reading that, I got the impression that Kiss Kill would be about a bitter, lone (and possibly gay!) cop wandering the neon streets of Manhattan in search of a serial killer who preys on prostitutes, like a late ‘80s take on Without Mercy. As it turns out, the fact that Phil Duggan’s “lover” was killed in a shootout is incidental to the story at best, and only mentioned once or twice. And yes, the lover was a she – Duggan commited the “sin” of falling in love with his female partner, and they planned to marry, but she was killed in a shootout. Duggan, who as stated narrates the novel, is a 15-year veteran of the force, and when we meet him he’s already part of the Undercover Squad, along with a few other cops, and he’s already on a case: posing as a taxi driver as bait for a serial killer who is killing cab drivers across the city. 

What the back cover copy doesn’t make clear – and the copy is masterful in how it captures the reader’s interest but gets so much about the novel wrong – is that it’s Duggan’s new “lover” who is the first victim of another serial killer, and Duggan goes off the books to find the killer. Now, I’ll try to refrain from my usual spoilers here, but this isn’t a spoiler – we know on page one that Duggan’s woman, a former streetwalker named Mary, is dead, as the novel opens with Duggan providing her ID in the morgue. Indeed, we learn later in the novel that it was the newscast of Torie Webster that even alerted Duggan that the corpse of a torture-killed Jane Doe was found in an alley, and Duggan had a sixth sense that it was his missing girlfriend. 

From there we go back a few weeks to the various “meet cute” incidents in which Mary became a short – but meaningful – part of Duggan’s life. First he gives her a free lift while driving his cab, Mary running from some fat guy she claimed just hit her, though later we’ll learn she actually took the guy’s wallet. Duggan takes her back to her apartment, which is in an otherwise-vacant building, and ultimately turns down her offer of sex in exchange for the drive. (Mary being the character Duggan tells he’s not gay, by the way – she questions why he’d turn down a free lay.) Somehow Mary gets under Duggan’s skin and he keeps thinking about her, looking for her on Third Street and ultimately starting up a relationship with her, with Mary moving in with Duggan in his cramped apartment in the Village. 

The relationship is a bit hard to buy, but then falling in love itself is inexplicable, so I didn’t have too much of a problem with it. Mary however is a bit too flighty and flaky; she has a hard time remembering Duggan’s name and seems spaced out all the time, despite not being on drugs. She is also a supreme liar, telling Duggan a host of tall tales about her past. Duggan will have to sift through these lies when he investigates who killed Mary. Some of this plays out in memorable ways, like Mary – who by the way is only 20, or even younger – claiming that her dad was a famous wrestler, who would beat her unmerciful. Duggan tracks the man down in Jersey, only to find a rail-thin drunk who has gone to seed…a guy who lies just as much as his daughter did, and who also apparently raped his daughter. 

Mixed in with the blossoming Duggan-Mary relationship is the assignment Duggan is currently working on, the taxi driver killer. Sorrels thanks a host of cop-world figures at the start of the book, and it’s clear he did his research. The first half of Kiss Kill is a probing police procedural steeped in realism and detail. Sorrels populates the tale with grizzled cops working out of a Village precinct, peppering the narrative with their random oddball stories. It’s humorous stuff, but not nearly as egregious as the “cop tales” that made up Hellfire. And it’s very much a procedural, with no random action scenes; Duggan informs Mary that most cops don’t even take their guns out, and he personally never fires his .38 in the course of his actual investigation. 

But by page 100 we get back to the opening sequence, of Duggan identifying Mary’s corpse, and from here Kiss Kill takes a new tack, with Duggan investigating on his own. The detectives who got Mary’s case have no interest in finding out who killed some nobody street whore, and Duggan’s boss refuses to loan him to that precinct so Duggan can investigate it himself. It’s here that the Duggan-Mary thing becomes hard to buy, as Duggan informs us that only “idiot cops” fall in love with hookers; sure, they can take freebies every once and a while, as long as the sex is discreet, but only a fool would fall in love with a hooker. But Duggan is a fool, and he loved Mary, and he’s determined to find out who slashed her throat and dumped her corpse in an alley. So he tracks down the clues in his off-time. 

The back cover is accurate in this, as Sorrels well brings to life the street people of the Lower East Side. Duggan makes his way through an assortment of drug addicts, drug pushers, pimps, and whores as he tries to figure out who would kill Mary and why. The procedural vibe remains; despite his grief Duggan does not rush into the fray and takes his time tracking clues and evidence. There’s also a long discussion with the M.E. who autopsied Mary’s corpse, and we learn she had sex shortly before she was killed, was then chained up or handcuffed (apparently willingly), and then was sliced innumerable times by a blade so that she bled profusely, before her throat was ultimately slashed. 

A curious thing about Kiss Kill is that it isn’t overly graphic. Mary’s corpse – and the corpse of the second girl to be murdered – is not even described, and the few action scenes operate more on an emotional spectrum than a visceral one. The sex too is fairly inexplicit; there’s none of the exploitation of Mary or the other hookers Duggan encounters, and perhaps the most explicit scene in the book is a random bit midway through where Duggan has sex with a cop groupie who picks him up at a bar. Here we learn that Duggan, uh, “pulls out” before finishing, given that he’s lost interest in the whole thing. Duggan is a lot more emotional and introspective than your typical cop protagonist, not that this stops him from kicking a little ass. 

There’s a lot of that cool crime novel stuff I always enjoy, with Duggan infiltrating the criminal underworld and working his way around as he seeks his goal. We get a part where he buys a gun from a dude who sells crack to elementary school kids(!), and later on Duggan tangles with a pimp who goes around with a trio of rottweilers. All this stuff takes precedence in the narrative, but to his credit Sorrels doesn’t forget about the other case Duggan’s working, with the killer targeting cabbies. Again to his credit, Sorrels plays this out realistically as well, having buried clues early in the novel, clues which bear out with the uncovering of the killer’s identity. But with this disposed of, Duggan is free to pursue his own personal case. 

For a veteran cop who has seen it all, Duggan’s a little slow to figure out what happened to Mary. When another young girl is found dead in an alley – a girl Duggan’s met in his investigation – Duggan knows it’s the work of the same killer. Ultimately he’ll discover that it all has to do with the illicit world of adult films…and it isn’t until Duggan literally sees the videotaped evidence that Duggan realizes it’s snuff films in particular. Duggan has a contact who runs a newstand, and this guy tells Duggan that “back in ‘76” there was a movie released in mainstream theaters which claimed to be a snuff film, but was clearly fake – presumably this is the real-world movie Snuff being referred to. But now someone is doing the real thing, and Mary was the unwitting performer; the embossed cover art, then, is indication that at least someone at Pinnacle read the book, what with the “film strip” angle. 

Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers; I’m only writing this paragraph in case others who have read Kiss Kill would like to discuss. Duggan finds the place that secretly made the snuff film Mary “starred” in, and it’s run by a hotstuff brunette who makes mainstream porn films…and who appears to have stepped out of a pulpier novel. Her name’s even Venus! Duggan, preposterously enough, manages to get a part in the latest mainstream porn film Venus is making, ransacking the place for evidence of snuff when no one is looking. At last he uncovers the videotaped murders of Mary and the other girl, but when Duggan gets the upper hand on Venus and the guy who “starred” in the two movies (ie the actual murderer)…Duggan calls in the police, and there follows a harried finale in which we learn that Venus and her colleague are given twenty-five years to life, “the maximum sentence.” While this I guess is believable given that Duggan’s a cop who upholds the law, I felt it was disappointing. I mean I wanted Duggan to waste them. 

Anyway, end spoilers. I can only say again how much I enjoyed Kiss Kill, I mean I was really caught up in it. Yes, some of it could have been cut, and there was a bit of repetition; for example Sorrels drops a wonderful phrase early in the book that Duggan’s nervous, and it feels like two kids learning to skateboard in his stomach. Unfortunately he repeats the same line later in the book. 320 pages of smallish print is a lot of words, and I could detect at points that Sorrels was trying hard to meet a requirement; the same thing that plagued those Steel Lightning books. I have no evidence but I’m certain Pinnacle/Zebra insisted on a big word count; just look at the bloated Doomsday Warrior books. But the fact remains that Roy Sorrels is a helluva good writer, so you don’t really mind – I’m almost even tempted to check out The Eyes Of Torie Webster, even though I haven’t been on a horror-novel kick in years. 

It's a damn shame Kiss Kill is so obscure, and that Sorrels himself is an unknown. I tried looking him up but couldn’t find anything; I even went on Facebook but had no luck finding him. It would be cool if some publisher brought Kiss Kill back into print, like Brash Books or someone. I highly recommend this one; it brings to life the crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani Lower East Side, features a host of memorable characters and dialog, and is narrated with just the right amount of literary aplomb – not to mention a good bit of dark humor. So then I totally concur with Lawrence Block’s succinct cover blurb: “Bravo!”

Monday, June 27, 2022

Doomsday Warrior #16: American Overthrow

Doomsday Warrior #16: American Overthrow, by Ryder Stacy
August, 1989  Zebra Books

Well folks with this sixteenth volume of Doomsday Warrior author Ryder Syvertsen clearly doesn’t give a shit. I mean I haven’t seen such authorial disinterest since the latter days of The Penetrator. Syvertsen is going through the motions, likely breaking out in a flop sweat as he tries to pad out the pages of this overlong 223-page novel…the sixteenth damn installment of a series he’s been writing since 1984, but for some reason people keep buying it so he has to keep writing it! You can almost feel him longing for the sales to drop so he can just stop already. 

To wit, American Overthrow is by-the-numbers Doomsday Warrior, offering nothing new to the series and drifting along on its own tedium…so lame that there’s even a “Bobby in the shower” dream sequence fakeout that only serves to further pad out the pages. The colorful gore and unbridled sleaze of the earlier volumes is wholly absent; indeed, the dream sequence has what amounts to the only sex scene in the novel, but Syvertsen glosses over any of the explicit detail. The plot is a rehash of previous novels, further evidencing the author’s boredom. Even the promised setup – that this time Ted “Doomsday Warrior” Rockson will go up against fellow Americans – is given short shrift, Syvertsen focused more on trivial details like endless treks through the nuke-ravaged wastes and battles with nuke-creatures. 

Humorously, there’s no pickup from the previous volume, not even a cursory mention of its events nor of how long ago they occurred. As we’ll recall, that one ended with Rockson presumably dead(!) in the climactic battle in Egypt, once again fighting the sadistic Colonel Killov, but American Overthrow opens with Rockson in the woods near Century City in his homebase of Colorado, on a hunting trip with his best bud Detroit. No mention is made of the previous volume’s apocalyptic final battle, how Rockson survived, or even how he and his squad made it back to America. The entire novel simply isn’t mentioned, and American Overthrow is one of the first volumes of Doomsday Warrior in a long time that doesn’t require you to have read the previous installment to know what’s going on. 

The only installment that is referred to is #3: The Last American, but only vaguely; we learn here that it was “three years ago” that Rockson attended the signging of the Constitution of the Re-United States, and that occurred in the third volume (I think…it’s been over ten years since I read it). I don’t believe this “three years” dating jibes with the other dates Syvertsen has arbitrarily strewn throughout recent volumes, and it’s just more indication that the author isn’t very invested in his saga. The important thing is that American Overthrow sees the return of President Langford’s daughter Kim, that blonde goddess who was once proclaimed to be Rockson’s “true love” before being abruptly removed from the series without any explanation; the last time we saw her was in #9: America’s Zero Hour. Actually the last time we saw her was in #10: American Nightmare, but that one took place in an alternate reality, so it wasn’t the “real” Kim. 

So anyway we have an overlong opening in which Rockson and Detroit are out hunting and get attacked by this mutated lizard creature. After this a messenger from Century City finds them and requests their presence back in CC asap – word has come in that a fellow liberated city, Pattonville, has been overtaken by a military coup. Three hundred miles away, Pattonville is the chosen city of President Langford and Kim, and Rockson feels pangs of fear. We’re informed that Rockson and Kim “had been lovers once,” which is a WTF? moment if ever there was one, as in those earlier novels Syvertsen made it clear that Kim was Rockson’s soulmate. However, any hopes for a quick-moving tale of Rockson gaining revenge are quickly dashed, as Syvertsen proceeds to waste even more time with yet another overlong sequence of Rockson taking on the mutated flora and fauna of this radblasted future. In fact he won’t even get to Pattonville until toward the end of the novel, and his reunion with Kim lasts all but a page. 

But then the women have been gradually removed from the Doomsday Warrior narrative. Rona, Rock’s other true love, the redheaded beauty who was once “one of the boys” and went out on missions with the Rock Team, is now relegated to “woman at home” status, literally only there to have sex with Rockson on the rare occasions he’s in Century City. Off-page sex at that! Whereas earlier volumes went all-out with the crazed purple prose, these days Syvertsen merely writes, “They made love for half an hour,” and that’s literally all we get for the Rockson-Rona festivities. I mean he’s bored as hell, folks. He also seems to want to write something other than post-nuke pulp, as now Dr. Schecter, the resident genius of Century City, has become the Q to Rockson’s James Bond, providing him with a trio of gadgets for the mission (namely, a breathing device that fits in the nostrils, a foldable heat-shield suit, and most Bond-like of all a mini-gun shaped like a medallion). 

His usual team whittled down to just Archer, Detroit, and Chen, Rockson heads back out into the wild for the long trek to Pattonville…cue even more of those series-mandatory “mutated flora, fauna, and weather” sequences, this time with acid rain and other horrors. Syvertsen pads more pages with cutovers to Pattonville, where we are taken into the plight of one-off characters who are either gassed or killed by the new ruler: General Hanover. The villain of the piece, Hanover is a self-styled modern Hitler, even outfitting his men in Nazi-like uniforms. The fact that Rockson for once will be facing off against fellow Americans really troubles our hero’s heart; indeed, Rockson is filled “with a Kierkegaardian brooding” over the entire mission(!). But despite all the setup Syvertsen fumbles the ball, as the Americans Rockson eventually goes up against have been brainwashed into zombies (or “gasheads”) by Hanover’s gases. 

The most egregious part of American Overthrow is a long sequence in which Rockson and team, wearing those heat-shield uniforms, fall into a volcano…and find themselves in the domain of “lava men.” Doomsday Warrior is known for trampling over any sense of realism, but this sequence in particular is goofier than a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. Led by King Sulphur, this “fucking colony of volcanic beings” puts Rockson and team through various trials and tribulations. Rockson somehow finds the opportunity to conjugate with the beautiful Shi’sa, an “angelic living sculpture” who makes her interest in flesh-man Rockson obvious. This part is super-weird; it’s not explicit, more just surreal, as Rockson marvels over the warmth and underlying softness of this lava woman’s hot bod. 

But get this…after Shi’sa helps them escape, Rockson’s riding on his mutant horse “hybrid” with the rest of the Rock Team, passing by the volcanic fields…and Detroit tells Rockson that he, Rockson, has been asleep all this time! And none of the team “remembers” the events with the lava men. In other words the entire sequence was just a damn dream! And Rockson basically just shrugs it off and gets on with the trek to Pattonville. I mean good grief! Just as ultra-lame as you can get. But then Syvertsen only livens up when he comes up with something that captures his goofy interest…like later in the book when we’re told that President Langford, who has been drugged regularly by General Hanover, looks “as drugged out as John Carradine in Atomic Vampire.” I mean we’re told this in the narrative, not in dialog, but again it’s another instance of obscure 20th century stuff being referred to in a novel that’s supposedly set in a post-nuke 2090s. 

Even General Hanover fails to meet expectations. He’s set up as suitably supervillain, but instead he comes off like a tool; in Kim’s few scenes in the novel, we see she’s kept locked up in a plush room, and Hanover will come in a few times a week to have dinner with her. The bastard!! But really he’s plotting to make Kim marry him, or somesuch…I mean the series is totally G-rated now, you see, so Kim is more bored than anything. In fact she stabs Hanover with a fork and throws food at him and whatnot, so she’s feisty as hell, but ultimately she too is drugged and kept on the periperhy of the narrative. She fights Hanover more than Rockson himself does; when our hero arrives in Pattonville and tries to disguise himself as a zombiefied “gashead,” he’s quickly outed and put through a sort of gladiatorial contest. His last challenge: Death-breath, a monstrous mutant even bigger than Archer. But even all this stuff is pretty bloodless and boring. 

The finale is goofy too, with Syvertsen so bored that he creates a fake Schecter here in Pattonville: Dr. Mason, yet another scientist able to whip up inventions, in this case a gas that counteracts Hanover’s gas. The finale sees zombie Pattonville residents stumbling around with weapons and taking on Hanover’s loyal soldiers. And of course Rockson’s medallion gun comes in at the last moment. At least this time we get a resolution, unlike the previous volume: Rockson when last we see him is about to embark on the 300-mile trip back to Century City with President Langford, Kim (both of them recuperating from the drugging), and Archer. Rockson’s ordered Chen and Detroit to stay in Pattonville to help with rebuilding; given that there are only a few volumes of the series left, I wonder if we will see either of them again. Who am I fooling…next volume they’ll both probably be back in Century City with nary an explanation. 

About the only interest I got out of American Overthrow was Syvertsen’s unwitting prescience. I mean the main plot has to do with an illegal coup that has taken away the rightful power of the American people. “We’re here to carry out the return to law under the US Constitution. There can be no higher goal than that,” Rockson informs his squad in the climax. Rockson, where are you when we need you now? And as if that wasn’t “ripped from today’s headlines” enough for you, check out this paragraph describing old President Langford, at the very end of the novel: 

Man, that last sentence says it all…it sure does, Rockson. It sure does.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Butler #5: Love Me To Death

Butler #5: Love Me To Death, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1980  Leisure Books

This fifth volume of Butler was a lot of fun and definitely my favorite one yet. Len Levinson specifically mentioned Love Me To Death when I met with him the other year, and we talked about it again just the other week when I gave him a call. So clearly this one was important to Len himself, which makes it odd that it turned out to be his penultimate volume of the series. 

As I mentioned in my review of Butler #1, Len only wrote the first six volumes of the series, the last being 1980’s Killer Satellites, after which Butler went on hiatus, returning in 1982 for six more volumes. Len was unaware that Butler continued without him until I informed him of the fact in 2010; he always saw Butler as his own series. It looks like who served as “Philip Kirk” for the post-Len volumes is still unknown, but honestly I have to wonder what the point of reading those volumes would be, as Butler is so ingrained with Len Levinson’s personality that I don’t see how the series could exist without him. I mean, this is a zany series, with a zany mindset, and again the action-centric cover art is quite misleading. It would be one thing if this was just any other action paperback series, but Butler is more Marx Brothers than The Executioner, and it would be disappointing if Belmont just turned it into just your average action series after Len’s departure. 

Speaking of which, I asked Len when I recently spoke to him why he left Butler after this volume. Len seemed to recall it might have had to do with new writing possibilities he’d gotten from another publisher – which would lead him to The Sergeant and ultimately The Rat Bastards. Butler then is the line of demarcation between Len’s ‘70s work for Belmont-Tower and Leisure – crime thrillers with a modern setting – and the WWII-themed material he would be focused on throughout the ‘80s for other publishers. It was an interesting conversation, because I was over halfway through Love Me To Death and thus closer to the world of Butler than the author himself – but then, Len wrote the book 43 years ago. Interestingly, the main thing he recalled about Love Me To Death was an otherwise incidental sequence featuring an otherwise incidental character: Pierre, an old French Foreign Legion solder Butler meets in Morocco. 

This one picks up immediately after the previous volume, with Butler when we meet him flying back into California from Hong Kong, but Len doesn’t much refer to the previous book other than vague mentions that Butler had a mission there. In other words, you don’t need to have read that one to read this one. And indeed, Love Me To Death almost sees a series reset for Butler; at the airport, Butler is approached by a former CIA colleague named Frank Sullivan, who tells Butler that the “right-wing maniacs” who have controlled the Agency are now being opposed by Sullivan’s own left-wing group. Sullivan, who knows Butler hated the right-wingers and the CIA in general, wants our hero to rejoin the Agency and help take on the right-wingers – we’re told even the President is in favor of this idea. 

So after talking over the idea with the mysterious Mr. Sheffield, who runs the Bancroft Institute for which Butler works, Butler decides to rejoin the CIA. And he’ll work in this capacity for the entirey of Love Me To Death. Indeed by novel’s end he’s still a CIA agent, and even requests a vacation from his new boss Frank Sullivan. So what I’m trying to say is that with this volume Len seems to drop the “Bancroft Institute” angle of the preceding four volumes, and now Butler’s back to being a CIA agent. Why Len decided to go this route is a mystery, and I look forward to seeing if Butler returns to Bancroft in this next volume (which is advertised in the back of the book, by the way, with the note that it will be published in March of 1980). 

That said, Len has fun with a discombobulated CIA that is so fractious the agents have to walk and talk in the countryside outside the headquarters in Virginia because their offices have been bugged by “the other side,” ie the right-wingers vs the left-wingers. Curiously FJ Shankam, that other old CIA colleague of Butler’s who has appeared – and plagued – Butler in the previous four volumes, is given short shrift in Love Me To Death. He appears in but a sentence, serving as Sullivan’s “assistant,” and Shankham doesn’t even exchange any dialog with Butler. In fact not much is made of Shankham at all, and other than his name being specifically mentioned you could assume he was just some random agent…not someone who has appeared in the previous volumes. Again, the impression is that this volume sees a sort of series reset, as if Len had grown bored with the overall setup of the series. If that is the case, then there’s little mystery why he jumped ship after the next volume for new writing pastures. 

I haven’t even gotten to the main plot of the novel, and it’s the best one yet in the series – essentially, pretty women are literally “fucking to death” various industrialists, politicians, and other VIPs. This phrase, “fucking to death,” is used repeatedly in the novel, and indeed this is the most sleazy and explicit volume yet. Which is of course to say it’s my favorite yet. The opening is an indication of this sleazy nature, as a beautiful blonde picks up a fat millionaire in New York, goes back to his place, and proceeds to ride him in explicit fashion. But the incredible thing here – and I still recall Len talking about this in the hotel foyer that day I met with him – is that the girl has a “special technique” which causes the fat millionaire to have a fatal heart attack. 

Butler is informed by Sullivan that a ring of beautiful women is possibly killing all of these men, and given that all the victims are American men of influence the CIA suspects some foreign power must be behind the plot. Sullivan wants Bulter to handle the situation because, in Sullivan’s opinion, Butler is an “utter sex degenerate” and thus would be perfect for the assignment. Butler’s idea is to bring in none other than Wilma B. Wiloughby, his archenemy/true love, last seen in the third volume. Auburn-haired Wilma is “a slender young woman with nice boobs” and “one of the most beautiful rear ends in history,” and when I spoke to Len on the phone the other week he described Wilma as his “dream girl.” Here we learn the interesting note that Wilma is sort of in love with Butler, and he gave her such an incredible orgasm in their sex scene in the second volume that she’s afraid to be around him because she knows she will become his sex slave. And Wilma has too much self-respect to debase herself for any man. Thus Wilma treats Butler like shit, hence their constant spatting. 

Despite the hostility she accepts Butler’s offer to join the CIA; she is just as much a left-winger as Butler is, though again be aware that what passes for “Leftism” in Butler would mostly be considered “Conservatism” today, something which Len also agreed with when I spoke to him recently. Wilma is sent off to New York to infiltrate the Women’s Lib movements. Again, this series is zany to the core, so Wilma promptly finds success when she hooks up with a women’s lib gang calling itself The Society To Utterly Destroy Men, and of course one of the members is familiar with the “Killer Fuck Squad” (as Butler refers to the mysterious group of women who are killing American VIPs). But as part of her undercover role, Wilma not only has to pretend to fervently hate men…but she also engages in some hot lesbian action with one of the women. Per the series template, this entails a few pages of extra-explicit material as the two women go down on each other…and after which Wilma decides that she just might be a lesbian! 

As stated in every one of my Butler reviews, while this series might have been conceived as “socialist” by Len, or even perceived as overly “Leftist” by readers of the day, it could not be seen that way today. Yet more indication is given when Wilma meets up again with Butler, Sullivan, and a fellow CIA agent named “Len Vinson” (our author again appearing in his own book – Vinson being 44 years old with a “bald head” and a black beard), and she declares herself to be a lesbian…and is promptly hassled and ridiculed by the men. Take that, identity politics! Another thing I enjoyed here is that Len Vinson claims that he’s always felt that Butler was “a stand-up guy;” this after Wilma and Sullivan have gone one about how Butler is a degenerate. In other words Butler’s creator himself appears in the novel to defend Butler! 

The book goes exactly where you were hoping it would when Butler tangles with one of the Killer Fuck Squad – the same gorgeous blonde who “fucked to death” the millionaire in the opening scene. This part is interesting because Mr. Sheffield returns to the narrative long enough to agree to pose as bait for the killers…but the real Sheffield goes into hiding while Butler disguises himself as the older man and goes to DC amid much media hoopla. In other words, if the killer women are looking for rich notables to off, then Mr. Sheffield should be prime bait for them. Of course the plan quickly succeeds – but first Butler is propositioned by a young “celebrity fucker,” who engages Butler in several pages of explicit shenanigans. Since Butler is unsure if she’s one of the squad, there follows some humor in how he’s hidden his gun in his pants…and keeps bringing the pants to bed with him, much to the confusion of the girl. 

There’s actually a lot of humor amid the sleaze, in particular how the women are shocked that the “old man” is actually so muscular and well-hung. This latter element really throws the blonde killer for a loop; she has her turn with Butler soon enough, and can’t believe how big this guy is compared to the other old men she’s killed in bed. Another recurrring element in Love Me To Death is that Butler’s “big dong” is enough to make these avowed “lesbians” question their entire sexual identity; again, a far cry from anything that could possibly pass as “Leftism” today. Here Butler gets a first-hand view (actually it’s not his hand, but still) of the “occult sexual techniques” these women use on men – basically, they work their inner muscles to access the pineal gland, via the nerves of the man’s penis, and force the men to “fuck faster” than their heart can keep up with. Hence, the old men are compelled to keep thrusting away, even if they want to stop due to chest pains, until it’s too late. However the technique is no match for young stud Butler: 

The action moves to Morocco, where Wilma has learned the woman behind all this is currently located: Kyra Deeb, an Iranian who runs a whorehouse and, given her hatred of men, trains a select group of beautiful women in the “ancient occult sexual techniques.” This part is like a sleazy sci-fi yarn as Kyra has Wilma screw a male dummy that’s hooked up to a scoreboard: 

Meanwhile Butler is engaged in a 23-page sequence that doesn’t have much at all to do with the rest of the novel, and seems to be there to help meet the excessive word count Belmont apparently demanded (the book, like the others in the series, comes in at 224 pages). Basically Butler grills an Arabic guy about the “barbarous” ways of the Middle East (again, impossible to see a Leftist attempting anything like this today) and finds himself challenged to a duel. Meanwhile Butler’s befriended an old Legionaire named Pierre, the character Len mentioned when I recently spoke to him. Despite having not much to do with the plot per se, this sequence is still pretty fun and has a nice recurring joke of how no one thinks Butler will survive the duel – the taxi driver even asks for the return fare ahead of time. 

Len does find a nice way to tie the unrelated plot into the main plot; a victorious Butler is pressured into going to the best whorehouse in town to celebrate, and of course it’s the one Kyra Deeb runs. An undercover Wilma is under suspicion due to all her questions, and to prove herself she’s forced to pose as a prostitute in Kyra’s whorehouse and screw the first man she sees. The reader can see exactly where this is going – and of course it’s none other than Butler himself. Their ensuing boff runs nearly as long as the one in the second volume, and is just as explicit:

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned much action; again, the cover art for Butler is very misleading. Len does deliver an action-packed finale, though, with Butler and Pierre leading the charge into Kyra’s headquarters and Wilma zapping people with her special CIA pen-laser. There isn’t much gore at all, and humorously the book is pretty tame in the violence department…humorous when compared to the explicit sexual material, I mean. Curiously no mention is made that Wilma has been trained in those occult sexual techniques – one would think Butler would be chomping at the bit to try them out. However by novel’s end Wilma has returned to her frosty exterior, and she and Butler are again enemies…with the vow from Frank Sullivan that the two of them will never be teamed up again. 

And that’s correct, both Butler and Wilma are still CIA agents by the end of Love Me To Death, with the implication that they will be reporting to Frank Sullivan – and not Mr. Sheffield of Bancroft – in the next volume, Killer Satellites. I’m curious why Len made this change to the series setup. But as mentioned he only wrote one more volume, so maybe he really was getting a little bored with Butler and just wanted to try something different. If so, that’s not apparent in the novel itself; Love Me To Death is a lot of fun, and Len is fully invested in the tale. And once again he channels his own personality through Butler, making for an always-entertaining read, with Len’s usual gift for entertaining dialog on full display throughout.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Syndicate

The Syndicate, by Peter McCurtin
January, 1972  Belmont Tower

In the early ‘70s Peter McCurtin turned out a series of standalone crime-thriller paperbacks through Belmont Tower (ie Omerta), and this was one of them. All of the books were related to the Mafia in some way, and the title of The Syndicate would indicate that it is as well. But in reality the title is a fakeout, and the novel is more about a professional assassin being hired to kill a neo-fascist in Ireland. The Mafia trappings are only in the assassin’s background, and otherwise The Syndicate is just an action-thriller with a decidely hardboiled bent, if only due to the narrator. 

The most interesting thing about The Syndicate is the narrator…who is none other than Philip Magellan. But not that Philip Magellan; this one’s the son of an Italian immigrant who changed his name from Filipo Maggiora to “Philip Magellan” when he tried to pursue a legal career in New York. Our narrator is the son of this Philip Magellan, and while it’s never outright stated it is implied that he has the same name; he is the Junior to Philip Magellan Senior. In point of fact, Magellan Junior – who as mentioned narrates The Syndicate – goes by various names; the back cover has it that his name is James Broderick. This is the name he uses for the majority of The Syndicate, but we know from the start that the real James Broderick died in an avalanche in 1970(!) and it’s just a cover identity used by our narrator…whose real name is Philip Magellan. 

A year after The Syndicate was published, McCurtin started up The Marksman at Belmont; as documented elsewhere on the blog, The Marksman itself started life as The Assassin, which was published by Dell Books, but for reasons unknown McCurtin moved over to Belmont, changed “The Assassin” to “The Marksman,” and also changed the name of the series protagonist from Robert Briganti to Philip Magellan. Clearly then he just liked the name, and truth be told “Magellan” is hardly mentioned in The Syndicate, and only has any relevance in hindsight. Readers with no knowledge of The Marskman probably wouldn’t even notice that the narrator’s real name is Philip Magellan. 

But man, for a professional assassin whose uncle is a Mafia don, this particular Magellan has a narratorial voice that is more becoming of, say, a literature professor who has delusions of being Raymond Chandler. Throughout the book “Magellan” will refer to obscure books and poetry, yet relayed through a voice that sounds like someone mimicking Humphrey Bogart. The delivery just fails, is what I’m trying to say, and I had a hard time buying it…it would have made a lot more sense for The Syndicate to be in third-person. Also another issue I had is that McCurtin here has taken what is basically a short story and padded it out to 153 pages, and unfortunately we aren’t talking entertaining padding. The Syndicate is dull for the most part, and even the finale – which the entire novel builds toward – is lackluster. 

The Mafia stuff only comes up in the very beginning; Magellan is summoned by his uncle, Don Eduardo. We get vague backstory that Eduardo was brothers with Magellan’s father, but Magellan Senior never made a name for himself because he never went into crime, and died at a young age. Eduardo paid for Magellan Junior’s schooling and whatnot, but Magellan craved action, so he went to ‘Nam and after which he became a professional killer for his uncle. So now the old man has a new job for Magellan: kill C. Alex Ritter, a neo-fascist who himself is really an Italian but who has given himself an English name. In quickly-relayed setup we learn that Ritter’s father was pals with Mussolini, and ended up the same as the dictator, but now Ritter Jr. has gotten hold of the family fortune and he too believes in fascism. 

So there’s subtext here of two men who are sons of Italian fathers but who go by English names, one of the men a modern-day Mussolini and the other a paid killer, but McCurtin doesn’t do much with this similar-background setup. In reality, he just writes a simple suspense tale. His biggest sin is that he fails to make Ritter seem like a viable threat. I mean we’re told the guy is wealthy and has his own army, and has been kicked out of various countries for his fascist blather…but man that’s really all he’s got. When he finally appears in the text, very late in the novel, he just rants and raves and comes off more like an idiot than someone the Mafia would want dead. And also why exactly Don Eduardo wants him dead is a mystery…he essentially gives Magellan a quick rundown on Ritter’s Italian background, says he’s sick of the way the world is going, and tells Magellan to kill the would-be dictator. That’s it, and Magellan’s off for Dublin. 

As you can see, we aren’t talking a densely-plotted thriller here. And McCurtin will only proceed to spin his wheels for the duration of the novel, which sees Magellan talking to various Irish characters and tyring to ingratiate himself into Ritter’s orbit: in true dictator fashion, Ritter lives in a castle in the Irish countryside. Magellan’s plan is so cliched the villains even make fun of him for thinking it would work: he goes around Dublin and environs and starts ranting about right-wing issues, getting in fights with “communists” in bars, so as to make a name for himself – and hopefully catch the attention of Ritter’s men. He gets thrown in jail after one bar fight, but otherwise this sequence is pretty tepid and is composed mostly of one-off Irish characters talking about Irish stuff. If I wanted that I’d read James Joyce, not a novel titled The Syndicate

Eventually Magellan finds himself in the countryside, where he is abducted by the very people he’s been seeking: Ritter’s goons. He starts a bar fight with a Ritter thug named Doolin, after which Doolin and a sadistic former British officer named Sir Anthony abduct Magellan. Along for the ride is Nora, a pretty psychiatrist who is also aligned with Ritter. These three will serve to represent Ritter’s apparently-vast fascist empire. They take Magellan back to the dungeon in Ritter’s castle where they proceed to beat him unmerciful. Somehow they know that “James Broderick” is a false name, and Magellan finally admits that his “real” name is “Dorf.” This of course made me think of Dorf On Golf. He convinces them he’s a professional assassin, and says that he was hired by some unknown party to assassinate Ritter, but changed his mind and decided to join Ritter instead. 

So in other words, despite the ridicule Magellan’s plot works exactly as intended. But as you can see with just three characters and all the dialog and vibe-setting, The Syndicate is more of a hardboiled yarn than the action tale you might expect. Also the back cover is very misleading in that a “girl” will distract Magellan in his kill-quest; this presumably refers to Nora, who only exchanges dialog with Magellan in the novel. There’s zero sex, and even the genre-customary exploitation is absent. Even Ritter isn’t properly exploited; when the would-be Hitler finally appears, all he does is stalk around his castle while he rants and raves. It’s hard to imagine him posing a threat to anyone. But then the “highfalutin hardboiled” style in which McCurtin has written the novel doesn’t help: 

Even the finale is underwhelming. Rather than a slam-bang ending with Magellan as a one-man army against Ritter’s thugs, it continues on the hardboiled angle, with Magellan cagily playing factions against one another. But by “factions” I mean just those same three characters: Sir Anthony, Doolin, and Nora. We only get a quick glimpse of Ritter’s army in the harried finale, and as for the fulfillment of Magellan’s mission it’s only relayed in the very final sentences of the book. It’s as if McCurtin hit his word count and said that’s that. I get the impression that he too was unsatisfied with The Syndicate, hence he salvaged the one memorable thing about it for a future series: the name “Philip Magellan.”

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Love Me Tomorrow

Love Me Tomorrow, by Robert H. Rimmer
December, 1978  Signet Books

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a hotstuff poet “in the Sylvia Plath tradition” who once starred in a porno flick cryogenically freezes herself in 1980 so she can wake up and screw her way through the Brave New World of 1996! Yes, folks, that is the plot of Love Me Tomorrow, “a novel of Future Shock Sex” per the awesome cover slugline (the best kind of future shock, if you ask me). The only problem with this bonkers setup is that the book was written by Robert H. Rimmer, he of The Harrad Experiment and The Premar Experiments, and he once again delivers a turgid crawl of a “novel” that’s filled with navel-gazing and bald exposition. 

Speaking of Future Shock, I wonder if whoever at Signet wrote that slugline realized how accurate the comment was, on two levels; for, not only is Love Me Tomorrow clearly influenced by Alvin Toffler’s nonfiction bestseller, but Rimmer himself also appeared in the bizarre 1972 documentary which was based on Future Shock (and hosted by Orson Welles!). Rimmer is fully on board with a progressivised future, and as demonstrated in The Premar Experiments he is wholly devoted to socialism. In this way Love Me Tomorrow is the antithesis of another book of the day that was influenced by Toffler: Lawrence Sanders’s The Tomorrow File. But the main difference between these novels is twofold. For one, Sanders’s novel is immensely better – but then, Sanders actually writes a novel, with drama and characterization and tension. Rimmer on the other hand writes an exposition-laden treatise. The other big difference between the two novels is that Sanders clearly sees the horrors of a fully-progressivised society, whereas Rimmer presents it as a utopia of sorts. (Guess which of the two progressivism is proving to be in the real world?) 

Actually a third difference would be that The Tomorrow File received an initial hardcover edition, whereas Love Me Tomorrow, same as The Premar Experiments, was a paperback original. It’s also a bit shorter than Sanders’s novel, though Love Me Tomorrow isn’t a short novel by any means: 430 pages of small, dense print. In reality it turns out that only 414 pages are comprised of the narrative, with the remaining pages given over to a bibliography. This should give you an idea of what you are in for; Rimmer has for the most part written an expose on his intended socialist utopia of the near future, based on the ideas and research of progressivists of the day, and has tried to pass it off as a novel. Like I mentioned in The Premar Experiments, Rimmer is like the antimatter universe version of Joseph Rosenberger, in that he has his characters baldly exposit on arcane books or research papers they’ve read…but whereas Rosenberger is clearly a right-winger Rimmer is very far to the left. 

He's also pretty humorless (befitting someone far to the left, one might argue), and this is evidenced throughout the novel, which is incredibly dry and incredibly talky. In essence, Rimmer was inspired by an obscure 1800s novel titled Looking Backward, by a utopian named Edward Bellamy, and here in Love Me Tomorrow has attempted to do a similar sort of novel. But he couldn’t just write a novel inspired by Bellamy; instead, Rimmer fills his own novel with rampant exposition about Bellamy’s book, quoting it and summarizing it (in addition to sundry other books, research papers, and magazine articles), and he overlooks such little things as characterization and drama and plot. He also totally fails on the “future shock sex” angle, with pathetically few sex scenes in the novel…and those sex scenes we do get are repugnant, like “mother having sex with her own son” sort of repugnant, more on which anon. 

The biggest slap in the face is that Love Me Tomorrow is boring. I mean it’s like Lustbader’s The Ninja, which took a novel about a ninja and turned it into a slow-moving excess of boredeom – this is a book about a former porn actress who freezes herself for sixteen years and wakes up in a slightly psychedelic and very progressive future, and it’s boring as hell. And like Sanders’s The Tomorrow File this is indeed a psychedelic era, with even a drink similar to Sanders’s “Smack:” C&C, a carbonated beverage that includes cannabis and coke among its ingredients. And just like Sanders’s projected 1998 was wildly progressivised when compared to the 1970s (or even today), so too is Rimmer’s 1996…but then only so far as the societal impacts go. While Sanders’s 1998 was suitably “futuristic,” thanks to its society of drug-taking young geniuses, Rimmer’s is more low-tech hippie, with the biggest innovations being a sort of immersive television and helicopter-hotel things. 

One similarity between The Tomorrow File and Love Me Tomorrow is that both novels are written in first-person. However the narrator of Rimmer’s novel is a woman…which means that Love Me Tomorrow is one of those strange (to me, at least) novels in which a male author writes explicit sex scenes from the perspective of a woman. Kids, don’t try this at home! But as mentioned there isn’t much sex at all in the novel; instead, there’s a ton of navel-gazing introspection…humorless navel-gazing introspection at that. This is the sort of book where our narrator, 33 year-old poet, porn actress, and cryogenic test subject Christina “Christa” North, will say, without even a hint of humor, stuff like, “If [Mory] had married me, I would have sucked him into my Stygian nothingness.” 

It takes a helluva long time to get to the future, too. The first hundred-plus pages of Love Me Tomorrow are a nightmare of psychoanalysis, as Christa North tells us of her sordid history. Long story short, Christa is now in an experimental cryogenic facitilty in 1980, sent here due to her frequent attempts at suicide. She’s 33, married to a wealthy older industrialist, and has two kids – whom she clearly doesn’t give a shit about. (Not that this stops her from screwing her son in the future section…but we’ll get to that…) But Christa sure does care about herself, as she blathers at us incessantly for a good hundred pages, detailing her life up to that point, complete with pedantic, verbatim discussions she had with a college boyfriend named Mory in the late ‘60s who thought he was the reincarnation of Edward Bellamy and vowed to become president one day. 

The navel-gazing is horrendous in this opening section as Christa’s narration hops from 1980 back to the late ‘60s, with periodic detours about her bestselling “dirty book,” The Christening Of Christina, which was about her sexual awakening and whatnot. Vaguely we are informed a film was made of this, somewhere in the early ‘70s, starring Christa herself – and it was one of those mainstream porn films of the era, complete with Christa giving blowjobs and having sex on camera. After this Christa became a famous “sword swallower” a la Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, but she soon escaped that life, marrying older man Karl, having two children with him, and trying to make her name as a poet. And also trying to kill herself, and she recounts each failed attempt in total self-obsessed detail. 

As with Rimmer’s other books, most of the action occurs in Boston, so we get a lot of flashbacks to Christa’s Harvard days. There is a ton of exposition here from Christa’s boyfriend Mory, on how in the year 2000 people will be so different the US will need a new constitution and a “philosopher” President, ie Mory himself. Again, very similar to The Tomorrow File, so similar that I wonder if Rimmer borrowed some ideas – Sanders’s novel projected a radically altered Unitied States, alterations which had been spearheaded by “the first scientist President.” Mory endlessly talks as he screws Christa and roommate Jenny, just on and on talking – yes, there’s even exposition during the sex scenes. Mory’s goal is to get “the liberal wing of the Republican party” to vote for him when he runs in 2000 (ie RINOs, who curiously do control the party today, but for how long is the question). 

In between the rampant flashbacks we have the “main” storyline in 1980 with Christa in the clinic, and it all finally culminates in a big business deal Karl is trying to achieve on his yacht, and Christa gets super drunk, leading the other wives in some skinny dipping, after which she tries to screw one of Karl’s business partners – and kill him along with her as she pulls their fornicating bodies down into the dark sea. After this Christa is sent off to the funny farm, only it’s a special type of funny farm, as she’s become the unwilling guinea pig in a cryogenic experiment. Why Christa? Given the high rate of failures, the clinic is looking for subjects who are prone to suicide…in other words if the cryo fails, no big deal, because the subject planned to kill himself anyway! It gets a bit creepy when Christa sees her own obituary in the paper; the false story has it that she’s drowned, leaving behind a husband and two prepubescent children. 

Rimmer pulls an interesting narrative trick, so far as when exactly Christa’s “autobiography” is being dictated, and around page 130 we come to the future portion of the novel. And here the exposition becomes even more incessant. Rather than bring his progressivised, vaguely sci-fi 1996 to life via action, suspense, or drama, Rimmer instead has a variety of characters baldly exposit on all the changes that have occurred in the 16 years Christa has been asleep. What makes it humorous is that most of the characters are men, so therefore according to current sentiments the novel is a barrage of “mansplaining.” But then Love Me Tomorrow is yet another indication of how Leftism has changed over the decades; Rimmer’s version of it is essentially the late ‘60s projected into the ‘90s, with “Love Groups” of open marriages and wanton hedonism, with the expected sex and drugs…even psychedelia courtesy lightshows people go to see in large arenas. There is none of the straightjacketed wokeism and identity politics that defines the Left today…but then again the “future” Rimmer depicts here is nearly 30 years in the past. 

The only real tension occurs soon after Christa awakens; she tries to escape from the clinic, only slowly realizing that it’s now 1996. This entails a cool scene where she wanders into a cryo room and sees a bunch of dates on the sleeping forms that range from the 1980s through the ‘90s; in other words, to paraphrase Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, it’s not 1980 anymore. Here too Christa sees that David, the head scientist in the cryo project, has gotten much older since she last saw him a few “days” ago, but there’s not much else in the way of drama. And keep in mind, Christa has two kids who now would be in their 20s; Christa is so obsessed with herself that she doesn’t even think to ask about them until many, many pages detailing various incidental societal changes have gone by. 

Rather, it’s an onlsaught of “mansplaining,” with David even giving Christa specific “don’t have sex” instructions: 

This proceeds immediately into a discussion about abortion: 

And keep in mind, Christa has yet to ask about her kids! But hey, at least Rimmer has his leftist priorities in order…I mean sex and abortion should be discussed before finding out what’s happened to your children in the 16 years you’ve been sleeping. Good grief! 

But speaking of children, Rimmer’s progressivised 1996 has also achieved that (un)holy grail of the left, same as in The Tomorrow File: the sexualization of children. Christa is taken back to David’s Love Group, which is like an extended “family” of communal living…and the kids are free to walk around naked and sleep with their parents, as bluntly exposited for us by an 11 year-old: 

And still our heroine fails to ask about her own kids, or even about her former husband. But then, she did try to kill herself, so I guess Rimmer assumes Christa wouldn’t be much concerned with them anyway. It’s just an example of the author’s complete lack of understanding when it comes to writing a compelling novel. Hell, when Christa does finally ask about her kids, she’s told in like two sentences that they’ve grown up and gone on to relatively normal lives…and then we get three times as much detail on how toilets operate in this future: 

You might note the strange words in the above excerpts. Fully committed to his own nonsense, Rimmer has the people of his 1996 even employing a language called Loglan, which we’re informed via more exposition was invented some years ago. They’ve also taken words from an obscure book on some Himalayan tribe or somesuch, referring to wealthy people as “iks” or some other such bullshit. It’s all so stupid and mundane. And the cool groovy “future shock sex” stuff you want is minimal at best: we learn that see-through blouses are all the rage among jetsetters, and you can watch fullblown sex on TV (another similarity to Sanders’s vastly superior novel). For that matter, there’s an arbitrary attack on sci-fi; it’s mansplained to Christa that science fiction isn’t very popular in this 1996, as reality is so much more futuristic than anything some hack author could conceive, and from there Rimmer goes into a puzzling attack on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, mocking the “patriarchal” vibe of it. So yeah on that point Rimmer’s certainly in touch with the real future; lots of Love Me Tomorrow comes off like the Twitter feed of some easily-triggered leftist of the modern day, ranting and raving at that goddamn patriarchy. 

This is also one of the first novels I’ve ever read where a footnote informs readers that we can jump ahead 32 pages if we want to skip the narrator’s rundown (“in an ongoing way”) of Mory’s book, Looking Backward II. I mean it’s nothing but info-dumping from beginning to end, and the sleazy stuff is off-putting. Back to the sexualization of children, on page 270 Christa kisses a teenage boy’s dick, wondering why mothers don’t teach their sons about sex…by actually having sex with them, and then later in the book Christa does this very thing. Her son, now a handsome young man in his 20s, is campaigning for Mory, ie Christa’s old Harvard boyfriend, and Christa is posing as some woman Mory has met – and the reunion between Christa and Mory is underwhelming at best. But then Rimmer fails again and again to add any impetus to the novel; it’s all just dry exposition with no emotional content. Mory is aware from the start that this mysterious woman is indeed Christa, but the truth of her having been cryogenically frozen is hidden from the public. 

So Christa decides to put the moves on her own son, Christa playing it sly that she might be his mother, and next thing you know he’s going down on her. This of course made me think of William Hegner’s unforgettable line “Kiss where you came from,” in The Ski Lodgers. (Some people quote Shakespeare; I quote trash.) From there it proceeds to full sex…I mean all the way, son screwing his mother, with the added sickness that the poor guy doesn’t know it’s actually his own mother he’s screwing. And of course nothing much comes from any of this. Instead more focus is placed on Christa campainging for Mory, complete with a sex tape they make together which is played on TV and of course only serves to make Mory even more popular. 

Curiously the novel is written with the conceit that it’s being read by someone in 2000. In the finale we learn that the nation pretty much resets in January of 2000, upon the last election of the country, and Christa is one of the prime movers of this new United States. Of course the name Rimmer has given the character, a female play on “Christ,” is our allusion to this from the get-go. But unfortunately Rimmer has not given us a novel in which we can read with anticipation as all this plays out. Instead it’s a soul-crushing block of deadened exposition which spells out every incidental detail of this “future” while ignoring all of the drama. 

In sum Love Me Tomorrow was one of the most disappointing novels I’ve read in a long time…the book I wanted, the “future shock sex” novel about some progressivised future, is not the book I got, and readers in 1978 must have been just as disappointed in it, as Love Me Tomorrow appears to be entirely forgotten these days, and justifiably so.

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Troubleshooter #2: The Black Hearts Murder

The Troubleshooter #2: The Black Hearts Murder, by Ellery Queen
No month stated, 1970  Lancer Books

An early attempt at packaging a mystery series like men’s adventure, The Troubleshooter only ran for 3 volumes and each volume was written by a different writer, though the series was credited to Ellery Queen. This second one was by Richard Deming, a veteran crime writer; searching the blog it looks like so far I’ve only reviewed some of his short stories in various ‘60s crime digests and also his Good Guys Wear Black novelization. Deming’s The Black Hearts Murder is pretty much the same as the other material of his I’ve read: a workmanlike mystery with not much pizzaz to it. If it is indicative of the other two volumes of Troubleshooter (the first by Gil Brewer and the third by Edward D. Hoch), then there’s no mystery why the series didn’t last. 

But then “mystery” pretty much sums up the vibe of the novel. The Troubleshooter is similar to later paperback mystery series like Hardy and Renegade Roe in how it is misleadingly packaged like gun-toting men’s adventure. In point of fact, titular Troubleshooter Mike McCall doesn’t even carry a gun! It’s interesting though that Lancer Books was already jumping on the men’s adventure series bandwagon; in that regard, The Troubleshooter must be one of the earliest instances of a publisher trying to follow the success of The Executioner…which only around 1970 was beginning to pick up steam. (Per Don Pendleton in his interview in A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction, it took a handful of years for The Executioner to become a successful series.) In fact, The Troubleshooter has all the hallmarks of a venture by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel…and indeed the series setup is so similar to later Engel venture Chopper Cop that I wonder if Engel was inspired by this series. For, just like Terry Bunker in Chopper Cop, Mike McCall is a lone gun who reports directly to the Governor…but whereas Bunker’s boss is clearly identified as the Governor of California, McCall’s boss is the Governor of some never-identified state…which clearly seems to be California. 

Another similarity to an Engel venture is the slugline that The Troubleshooter focuses on “top-of-the-news” subjects; very similar to Engel’s concurrent Now Books For Today’s Readers pseudo-series of unrelated standalone novels. The hot topic covered in The Black Hearts Murder is, as the title and cover should inform you, the civil rights movement. Mike McCall, whose official title is The Assistant To The Governor For Special Affairs, is sent by Governor Holland to a city called Babury in this never-named state, where racial tensions are high. The novel is an interesting relic from an earlier era; McCall and Governor Holland are the even-headed rationalists who embrace progressivism so far as black people should have the same rights as white people. But also it is interesting that in this novel both sides of the debate are given equal weight, complete with the concern that the whites might riot – in other words, the racists are given equal voice on the public platform. It is indicative of the sea change of the past few decades that such a thing would be inconceivable today – and these are real racists, mind you, not because they merely disagree with the party line but because they are wholly against blacks having equal rights. Today of course the “racist” accusation is tossed around so much that it has lost all meaning, but The Black Hearts Murder is from an era when some white people really did march against civil rights and whatnot…don’t think you’ll find too many of those whites today, despite the media/government’s obsession with “white supremacy.” 

Deming doesn’t get too preachy; McCall’s position as mentioned is more rational than impassioned. His is the voice of reason as he confronts the various racists in Banbury…and “voice” is pretty much all Mike McCall uses in the book. That and his rugged good looks. For the most interesting thing about The Black Hearts Murder is that, even if it’s progressive in the race-relations arena, it is so backwards in the gender-relations department that Richard Deming would automatically be cancelled in today’s woke era. That is, if he could even get published. (Tocsin Press would take him!) McCall, who has an athletic build and rugged good looks, indulges so frequently in what is today called “the male gaze” that it’s actually humorous – twice in the book he so stares at good-looking young women that the women become uncomfortable. 

But only a little uncomfortable, that is, because both women end up throwing themselves at McCall. The novel is almost an exercise in wish-fulfillment, as literally every single person in Banbury has heard of “the famous Mike McCall,” and his name opens doors for him everywhere. And the women are all aware of McCall’s notoriety as a lady-killer…and are plumb eager to add themselves to his list. The first is an auburn-tressed beauty who works as a secretary, and Deming has no issues with filling in incidental background detail about McCall; it would be interesting to see how this jibes with the other two authors who worked on the series. Anyway, Deming’s McCall has a thing for auburn hair, even though “his mother did not have auburn hair.” This was one of the more peculiar Freudian slips I’ve ever encountered in a book…like what the hell does McCall’s mother have to do with his longtime attraction to auburn-haired women? 

McCall’s second conquest is a blonde-haired mega-babe who happens to be a cop. When McCall oggles her it’s another unintentionally humorous bit, as he flat-out tells her she’s too hot to be a cop. And of course, later in the novel when the lady’s cop-skills might prove necessary, she instead turns to McCall for help…later admitting that she’s “mostly just a secretary” at the precinct. McCall’s rugged virility appears to be a big gimmick with the series, and I assume is just as focused on in the volumes by Brewer and Hoch. Also he manages to score with both women, with the novel ending on the certainty that he’s about to score with a third – and these are literally the only three single women in the entire novel, so McCall gets them all. But it must be noted that Deming is very much a “fade to black” author. In each case the chapter ends pre-boink, usually with the sentence, “McCall spent the night there.” And then next chapter will open the next morning and McCall’s saying goodbye to the babe to head off onto the next lead in the case. 

Unfortunately The Black Hearts Murder is a dud when it comes to the suspense angle as well. McCall basically just drives around Banbury and engages various characters in conversation. The setup is that Harlan James, the leader of a militant black movement called The Black Hearts, has been indicted by a racist district attorney, but James didn’t show up for his court date. James’s disappearance and the complicity, or lack thereof, of his fellow Black Hearts takes up the first half of the novel, and it’s a slow-grind of boredom. But then suddenly on page 94 something happens – another of Banbury’s racist political figures, who intends to launch a national movement, is assassinated during a rally…by a black man dressed all in black and wearing a domino mask. This is the part where Beth, the hotstuff lady cop, just goes into panic mode and McCall is the only one who gives the assassin chase. 

I mentioned that McCall doesn’t carry a gun. About the only thing he has weapon-wise is his training in judo, which he uses sporadically in the text. He isn’t the most capable of heroes, though, as the novel contains two separate scenes in which McCall is captured, put in a car, and driven off to his death. This is what I mean about Deming’s workmanlike plotting; the author himself seems to be bored with it all. The first “being driven off to his death” scene is the highlight of the novel, as the black man in the domino mask captures McCall and drives him out to a desolate part of the countryside. Here the man holds a pistol on McCall and has him lug a tire chain down to a river, so as to drown him. But McCall manages to escape, leading to a tense chase – pretty much the only tense moment in the entirety of The Black Hearts Murder

Otherwise the novel is just a lot of talking and time-killing, as we’re told incidental details like McCall going back to his hotel room and eating and brushing his teeth. I mean it’s all just so mundane. And it’s also funny that, despite civil rights being the subject of the novel, there are hardly any black characters in it. During the course of his investigation McCall meets a few of the Black Hearts, including Harlan James’s wife, but the black characters are mostly on the periphery, with more time spent on the various Banbury government officials who are aligned against the Black Hearts. There’s also a lot of stuff about a local radio station that plays messages Harlan James has left for them. The most puzzling thing is why Mike McCall’s character even exists; he demonstrates nothing special about himself in this particular installment, and his even-headed manner could have been supplied by any number of the governor’s functionaries. 

This lack of anything special extends to The Troubleshooter itself, so if The Black Hearts Murder reflects the vibe of the other two installments, it’s not suprising that the series never caught on. It seems as if Lancer wanted to jump on the action-series bandwagon but at the same time didn’t want to fully commit to it. And on that note, it also seems that Lancer concurrently published The Troubleshooter through its Magnum Books imprint, only minus the volume numbers on the covers, which would indicate they weren’t exactly sure what sort of series they wanted The Troubleshooter to be.