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.”


DrYogami said...

I've been enjoying your blog. But I've been wondering why you haven't reviewed Judith Krantz's Scruples. It was a '70s 'bonkbuster' and I figured it would be right up your alley when it comes to trash fiction.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi DrYogami, thanks for the comment! I haven't read Scruples yet but I intend to someday. In fact I need to read more bonbukster-type books, as I haven't reviewed any on here in a while. I see that Martin over at Sleaze Factor has done a few posts on Scruples, though!