Thursday, July 28, 2022

Murder Machine (The Marksman #20)

Murder Machine, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower 

Russell Smith turns in another volume of The Marksman that’s just as crazed as his others, with the added bonus that Murder Machine features what I’m sure is some intentional in-jokery, as well as a self-awareness that’s very unique for the series. My assumption is by this point the manuscripts Smith had written the year before were coming out in paperback, and he saw how editor Peter McCurtin was butchering them, changing them wily-nily into Sharpshooter novels, and for this book Smith decided to hell with it – he was just going to have some fun. 

Lynn Munroe apty summarizes Murder Machine as a “a schizoid read,” but he also detects the hand of fellow series ghostwriter George Harmon Smith in the work. I personally didn’t detect Harmon Smith’s style at all – to me his style is very noticeable, a sort of sub-John Gardner, with very literate prose but a tendency to overdescribe the most mundane of actions. See for example #18: Icepick In The Spine, which was certainly the work of George Harmon Smith. Murder Machine on the other hand has the stamp of the other Smith on the series: Russell, with the same loosey-goosey approach to plot, a bunch of lowlife loudmouth Mafioso who talk like rejected Jerky Boys characters, and a “hero” who comes off like a monster. I mean Russell Smith’s unique style is evident throughout the book, like for example: 

This excerpt, while displaying Russell Smith’s distinctive style, also demonstrates another new element with this volume: a constant reminder that Philip “The Marksman” Magellan will keep killing Mafia until he himself is dead. Again, I get the impression that, given that we’re already on the twentieth volume of the series, someone at Belmont Tower must’ve felt a reinforcement of Magellan’s motive was in order. There are frequent parts in Murder Machine where Magellan will resolve himself to the destruction of the Mafia, given their murder of his wife and son – an event which happened, of course, in the first volume of a different series: The Assassin

But speaking of how Philip Magellan started life as Robert Briganti in another series, and then turned into “Johnny Rock” for the Marksman manuscripts McCurtin arbitrarily turned into Sharpshooter installments, this brings us to the intentional in-jokery I mentioned above. I strongly suspect that, by the time he was writing Murder Machine, Russell Smith saw that McCurtin was publishing his Marksman manuscripts as a completely different series – see for example The Sharpshooter #2 and The Sharpshooter #3. I say this due to nothing more than an otherwise random comment early in the book. When the mobsters in New York start freaking out that Magellan’s in town, one of them says, “You remember that Sharpshooter guy from last year? Magellan’s his name?” 

Now, never in a Marksman novel has Philip Magellan ever been incorrectly identified as “Johnny Rock.” It’s only in The Sharpshooter where the “Magellan” goofs appear, or where Rock, the Sharpshooter, is incorrectly referred to as “The Marksman.” Because, of course, those novels started life as Marksman manuscripts, and poor copyediting resulted in a mish-mash of protagonist names. But after this early “Sharpshooter” mention, Magellan is consistently referred to as “The Marksman,” even in the narrative. Magellan also frequently thinks of himself as “The Marksman,” ie “the luck of The Marksman was with him” and etc, as if Smith were doubling down on the fact that he was writing a Marksman novel, but with that sole “Sharpshooter guy” bit he was acknowledging his awareness of the situation. 

There’s even more subtle in-jokery in Murder Machine: there are characters named Frank and Peter, ie “Frank Scarpetta” and “Peter McCurtin.” But I think the biggest indication here that Russell Smith was in on the whole twisted joke is that Murder Machine shows the first signs of self-awareness in the series. Another minor Mafia stooge later in the book goes over Magellan’s modus operandi, noting how the Marksman generally just shows up in a city, with no particular purpose, but somehow gets involved with the Mafia – usually due to their own stupidity – and then Magellan doesn’t leave town until he’s killed everyone. In other words, the “plot” of every single Russell Smith installment. The stooge basically implies that Magellan is a supernatural force who gets by on luck, something Magellan himself realizes. Bonus note – the stooge apparently tangled with Magellan “a year ago” (and lost an eye in the fight), in “New Brunswick,” a reference to the earlier Russell Smith entry #14: Kill!

Another new element in Murder Machine is the sudden focus on sleazy sex. Russell Smith has turned in some sleaze in prior installments, but this time it’s really over the top. Lynn Munroe speculates that this material is “grafted in from some porn novel,” but again it is similar to the sleaze material in previous Smith installments. Personally I just thought it was a quick (and dirty) way Smith figured he could meet his word count. Because of all the Smith books I’ve read, Murder Machine most comes off like a first draft that was cranked out over a single weekend, the author fueled by a steady stream of booze and amphetimines. Again this could be more indication of a “who gives a shit?” sentiment, given Smith’s recent awareness that his manuscripts were being butchered during publication. 

And just to clarify, this is all my impression – Lynn Munroe could be entirely correct that Murder Machine is a collaboration between the two Smiths, and the sleaze stuff is indeed grafted in from a different novel. Lynn performed a herculean task of figuring out the development of this series, and who wrote what volumes. To me though it just seemed like every other volume of Russell Smith’s I’ve read, with none of the literary flourishes of GH Smith. 

Well anyway, there’s of course no pickup from the previous volume, which was written by a different author. Curiously there seems to be a pickup from an earlier Smith installment, possibly #15: Die Killer Die!, as when we meet Magellan he’s flying back to the US, returning from a trip to France. That was the most recent volume of the series Russell Smith wrote, so it seems likely that Murder Machine picks up after it. As I’ve written before, Russell Smith’s books – from both series – could be excised into their own separate series, with even a bit of continuity linking them. Otherwise though there’s no plot per se, and Murder Machine is a lift of every other Russell Smith installment, following that same setup mentioned above: Magellan goes to New York, literally bumps into a Mafia thug on the street, and then starts killing them all off, ultimately wiping out a heroin pipeline. 

But Magellan’s practically a supporting character. As with most Russell Smith installments, there’s a big focus on one-off characters, all of them mobsters. There’s also a convoluted subplot about a triple-cross involving a bank robbery, heroin, and bombs. It’s hard to keep up with all this because these characters all talk the same and there’s a lot of flashbacks that jumble up the forward momentum. Also it soon becomes clear that the author himself is not paying attention to his own plot. As usual though Magellan has nothing to do with any of this, but he acts almost like a divine force in how he just screws up all the carefully-laid plans…without even expressly planning to. 

The central characters here would be Frank Savago, Manny Weintraub, and Leah Castellano – who per Lynn’s note is abruptly referred to as "Lily” for several pages later in the book, demonstrating how sloppily it was written and edited. There are a ton of run-on sentences and typos throughout, but there’s also an undeniable energy; I mean just look at the excerpt above. Oh and we learn this time that Magellan has spent “years” searching for a mysterious figure in the Mafia – indeed, a figure whose legend almost matches that of the Marskman’s: a shadowy figure called “Mister Lee.” But Smith doesn’t even bother to play out the mystery because it’s quickly clear who “Mister” Lee really is. 

Now let’s take a look at the sleaze. It runs rampant in the novel, and again could be evidence of some in-jokery. For one, there’s Manny Weintraub, aka “Manny Wein,” an apparently older and heavyset Jewish mobster who has a young hotstuff wife…who, in every scene, is giving Manny a blowjob. Even in the parts where Manny is with other characters, he’ll be thinking about his wife’s blowjobs. Oh and meanwhile we’re informed that while she is performing her oral duties, the wife herself is being orally pleased by some naked woman. All of them sitting on a big round motorized leather couch Manny has specifically purchased for sex. Actually oral sex is the most frequently mentioned topic here, particularly on the female end of the spectrum; there’s a several-page sequence where Leah has hot lesbian sex with her live-in “winsome Negress” maid (who in true ‘70s fashion smokes a joint before the festivities). 

Russell Smith takes us into a whole different world of sleaze when Leah indulges in a bit of necrophilia. Per that triple-cross mentioned above, Leah finds herself in possession of a ton of money and heroin, and she buries it all in the cellar of a desolate mansion upstate. Then she murders the brawny stooge she’s used to do all the labor…ahd has sex with his corpse: 

Magellan himself even gets laid this time, a rare event to be sure, but it happens off-page. It’s courtesy an Asian hooker Magellan gets in his hotel (as with every other Russell Smith installment, the majority of the tale features Magellan checking into and out of various hotels)…who, apropos of nothing, tries to lift Magellan’s wallet the next morning. But Magellan is only pretending to sleep, and catches her in the act. He drugs her with his usual assortment of syringes, shaves her head and “pubic mound,” and then even more randomly tapes her “from ankles to thighs” with adhesive tape, “like a mummy,” and tosses her uncoscious form in the elevator and sends it to the lobby! Just another ultra-bizarre scene of random sadism, but that’s what we expect from Russell Smith. Oh and Magellan secretly watches the lez action with Leah later in the book, getting super turned on: “It was an incredible orgy scene Magellan would not soon forget. He’d not seen anything like it in his life!” 

As ever Magellan totes around his “artilery case.” For the first time ever (I believe), we’re given a list of its contents: 

In addition to this we’re informed that a photo of Magellan’s wife and son are on the inside lid of the case, as if “guarding” his weapons. As stated there is a big focus in Murder Machine on the loss that made Philip Magellan become The Marksman in the first place. This I assume is there to explain away his sadism, but as the drugging and shaving of the hooker would indicate, the guy’s just nuts – I mean the hooker has absolutely nothing to do with the Mafia. 

As expected, everything “climaxes” exactly how every previous Russell Smith installment has: all the villains do Magellan the courtesy of conveniently gathering in one location so he can blitz them from afar. Smith shows no mercy in his rushed finale – no mercy for the reader, either, telling us almost in passing of the bloody deaths of his various one-off characters. The most notable bit here is the “eerie calm” Magellan always feels after one of his massacres, which fills him with a sort of profundity. 

Man, what a crazy one this was – almost like a “greatest hits” of Russell Smith’s work on the series. It went through absolutely zero editing and you get the sense that they just printed everything straight off of his typewritten manuscript. But for that reason alone it was pretty entertaining. Oh and finally, Ken Barr’s cover illustration actually (sort of) illustrates a moment in the book; during an action bit where Magellan finds out that a private eye force is closing in on him, he goes up on a rooftop and knocks out a would-be sniper. Russell Smith pointedly mentions the “door” on the roof, which makes me figure we have here another instance of editor Peter McCurtin directing his author to include a specific scene, so there would be a part in the book to match the already-commissioned cover art – a la McCurtin giving Len Levinson a similar direction for Night Of The Assassins, in a bit Len later spoofed in The Last Buffoon.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Dakota #4: Murder’s Money

Dakota #4: Murders Money, by Gilbert Ralston
March, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Wake up, everyone, it’s time for another volume of Dakota! Yet another blood-soaked tale of fast-moving action and mayhem with tons of explicit sleaze to spare! Actually all of that’s a total lie; I was just trying to be as misleading as the art and back cover copy. For in reality Murder’s Money is even more slow-moving than the previous three installments, as hard as that is to believe. But at the very least Gilert Ralston himself is honest this time; he has removed all pretensions toward writing “men’s adventure,” and this one’s really just a mystery novel. 

At this point I’m more interested in what was going on behind the scenes at Pinnacle. I think it’s very impressive that they tried to package Dakota as an action series. This took some very creative thought from the marketing department, or whoever wrote the back cover copy. The plot promised on the back cover squashes all hopes of an action extravaganza, though; we’re told Dakota is hired to figure out who murdered someone. I mean we aren’t exactly talking The Executioner. But then this is what paperback publishers were doing in the ‘70s; take a look at the similarly-boring Hardy series, which was also misleadingly packaged as a sex and violence thriller, where in reality it was more focused on what Hardy ate or watched on TV. Same goes for Renegade Roe, another “action” series low on thrills that featured an American Indian P.I., much like Dakota

One interesting thing is that Murder’s Money picks up immediately after the previous volume; as we’ll recall, Cat Trap ended with an assault on Dakota’s Nevada ranch, led by a professional assassin who worshpped an ancient Egyptian god. This one opens the morning after that assault, with Dakota and his many friends cleaning up the frozen corpses. One frozen corpse not here is that of the professional assassin, Guy Marten, who as we’ll also recall was lamely allowed to get away in the climax of the previous book. Dakota will often ponder this throughout Murder’s Money, “knowing” that he will once again encounter Marten. We readers know this is true, given occasional cutovers to Guy Marten and his plan to get revenge on Dakota. Given that there was only one more volume to follow, I wonder if we will see this plan come to fruition. 

The periodic ruminations on Marten and his possible return seem to be Ralston’s attempt to cater to Pinnacle’s “action” mandate, because otherwise Murder’s Money is deadly dull, and has more in common with Agathie Christie than Don Pendleton. Let me give you an example of this. After handling corpse patrol, ie removing the frozen bodies from around his ranch, Dakota is informed by one of his friends: “Your mother says come to breakfast.” Folks this line basically encapsulates Dakota. It’s a wonder Ralston didn’t go all the way with it and saddle Dakota with a nagging wife: “You better forget about working on another case, Mister – we’re going to The Home Depot!”

Even though it’s just a few hours after he fended off a commando attack in the middle of a snowswept night, Dakota heads on into town to look into his latest case: basically, he’s been hired to find out who killed a local named Jack Bray. The accused is Henry Bray, wheelchair-bound brother of Jack, an eccentric millionaire who pays people in gold coins. We learn later in the book (though the back cover copy gives it away) that Henry Bray is wheelchair-bound because his brother Jack ran over him years before, which of course gives him motive. Henry Bray has hired Dakota to clear his name, insisting he is innocent, and paying Dakota in those gold coins: “The wallpaper we call money is a mortuary bill for a dying economy.” How prescient

So Dakota drives around Nevada and on into California as he tracks various clues. There is a lot of driving and clue-tracking in Murder’s Money. One can’t help but feel that Ralston has run out of steam…and he didn’t have much to begin with. A few more off-page murders occur, like that of an ex-Marine who works at the curio shop where Bray would get his gold coins. Ralston also works in an allusion to the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping with a subplot about “the Gerber kidnapping,” an equally notorious event in the world of Dakota. Long story short, the coins Henry Bray have been using were involved in the payoff for the long-ago Gerber kidnapping scheme, leading to a complex conspiracy Dakota tries to work his way through. 

And also Dakota’s still planning to marry Alicia, the woman he met in the first volume. She again appears in this book, not adding much except to tell Dakota to be careful and to hurry back to her. See, the nagging is already starting! But the main female character in Murder’s Money is Melissa Bray, stepdaughter of Jack Bray; she too hires Dakota’s services. She also features with him in an extended sequence that does nothing more than pad out the pages; Melissa, a pilot, flies Dakota in her private plane, but sabotage causes them to crash, stranding them in the desolate expanse of a forest. It goes on forever as Dakota tries to take care of an injured Melissa, while a group of “mountaineers” navigate through the thick snow to find the two of them. If I wanted something like this I’d just read Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” 

Once all that is out of the way, Ralston decides around page 135 to make Dakota a badass. When a friend of his is shotgunned in California, Dakota starts busting heads when he tries to get some answers. He punches and kicks a couple people, causing another friend to tell him, “You’re two people. This one scares hell out of me.” Well, too bad we readers didn’t see more of “this one.” Soon enough Dakota’s going around with a group of criminals, among them a Japanese guy who is impressed with Dakota’s martial skills, and there’s a bit more bad-assery when they get info from a stooge by threatening to blow him away. But Dakota himself shoots no one, despite the misleading cover, and the novel’s biggest action scene occurs at the very end, where four motorcyclists give chase to Dakota’s car as he drives to Nevada. Unbelievably, Ralston charges through this entire action scene in a single paragraph that goes on for a page and a half…and that’s it. One can only imagine how a more confident action writer would’ve played out this sequence. 

Staying true to its mystery credentials, Murder’s Money instead “climaxes” with a long dialog exchange in which Dakota and his too-many friends baldly exposit on who might have killed Jack Bray. I mean up to and including listing the same characters over and over in different capacities so far as their awareness and involvement in the scheme would go. It’s very clear that Ralston at this point is on an empty tank and is praying to hit his word count asap. Not helping matters is that he (or perhaps a Pinnacle copyeditor) has neglected to put any white spaces in the book for scene transitions, meaning that we jump all over the place in the narrative with no warning. 

By novel’s end the promise is there that Guy Marten will be coming after Dakota for his revenge, but as mentioned there was only one more volume so we’ll see if it happens. There’s also I would say no mystery whatsoever why there was only one more volume in this series.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

In The Pulp Fiction Trenches

In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, by Len Levinson
June, 2022  Rough Edges Press

I’m sure I’m going to get even more long-winded than normal in this review, so I’ll start off with the big finale: In The Pulp Fiction Trenches is one of the best novels I have ever read. This memoir, detailing “The Tumultuous Literary Career” of Len Levinson, is a heatbreaking work of staggering genius. You can forget about Dave Eggers; this is the real deal. It is the book Len Levinson has been working toward since he ventured into his writing career in the early 1970s. It is at turns hilarious, poignant, insightful, and at times even touching, without ever once getting maudlin. If you have even a passing interest in men’s adventure novels, or war novels, or pulp fiction in general – or even life in general – then you owe it to yourself to head over to Amazon and get yourself a copy. 

But In the Pulp Fiction Trenches isn’t just a memoir about Len’s writing career, though it does spend much of its time on that. It’s also about the sometimes-insurmountable troubles Len has encountered over the years…troubles he managed to surmount regardless. And even though the overwhelming theme of the book is the series of crushing “low sales” and cancellations of his vaious writing ventures, there is still a note of dogged optimism throughout the narrative. This I think is one of the main things that appeals to me about Len’s writing; he is clearly an optimist, and despite being “crazy” by his own admission, he is clearly a nice guy. This is also evident in how, despite writing action novels for much of his career, he’s never delivered a purely loathsome villain; even his bad guys have their reasons, and never come off like cliches or stereotypes. 

Len and I have been planning to do an audio interview where we talk about his books, and I’d put it up here as the first (and perhaps only!) Glorious Trash Podcast, but I’ve yet to figure out how the hell to record a phone call. If anyone out there knows a good (and free!) app for doing that, or for doing a podcast, please let me know. But in the meantime I’m just going to list here what I was going to open that podcast with. I’ve read many of Len’s novels over the years and I think I’ve narrowed down what exactly it is that appeals to me about his work. First and foremost, it’s his unique style. No one can write a Len Levinson novel like Len Levinson. This unique style permeates the narrative; even for stuff like his Sharpshooter novels, it’s clear that we don’t have an anonymous author just turning in a mob-busting action novel. There’s always more going on, with a focus on characterization, witty dialog, and occasional dollops of philosophy. Whereas a lot of those series writers of the ‘70s turned in dry, professional books without a wit of personality, Len’s books are all about the personality. 

The other thing, which I’ve noted before, is that Len is literally the only action-adventure writer I know of who has his male protagonists hit on women. This is one that took a few years for me to realize. Whereas the genre staple is for some hotstuff babe to throw herself into the arms of the studly hero, Len Levinson’s protagonists have to work for it. Take for example his Butler series, which is the Len Levinson take on James Bond; Butler spends the majority of his novels trying to put the moves on various women. And often failing. It’s such an inversion of the genre that, like I said, it took a while for me to even realize how different it was…not to mention how much more realistic it is. Not that Len’s action books were bogged down by realism! 

Another thing I love about Len’s work is tied into the optimism I mentioned above; he’s a true believer in various things, like the ideal of love, or that a macrobiotic diet might lead to a breakthrough of zen understanding, but he always undercuts the sap with a joke or a dose of gutbucket reality. The best way to describe this would be a direct quote from Trenches. Early in the book Len describes the few years he spent in the wilds of Canada, in the mid-1970s, living off the land in a hardscrabble but rewarding existence, and he ends the chapter with his comments on how he’d “love to live that way again:” We cannot recapture the past except in our minds, although I’d certainly try if I had the bucks to bring it off. I laughed out loud when I read that. That’s Len’s style in a nutshell: he sets you up with a profundity and ends it with a punchline. And there are gems like that throughout In The Pulp Fiction Trenches

The book is mostly told sequentially, with Len starting off with how he decided to quit his job as a PR agent and become a writer. One thing he doesn’t note in the book is that the 1970s would have been the perfect time to attempt this; there were a glut of paperback houses and publishing outfits at the time, so quitting your job to become a writer wouldn’t have been as risky a proposition then as it would be now. This is not to minimize Len’s gamble, of course. I’m just noting this because the 1970s was a much different era so far as the publishing world went. From there Len details his earliest novels, from a porn paperback to those three Sharpshooter novels, and his standalone books like the incredible Shark Fighter. These chapters started life as the essays Len wrote for my blog years ago, though he has revised and expanded some of them. In some cases he has also included excerpts from my reviews, which flattered me. Except in the case of my comments on Cabby; I was embarrased to see how critical I was of that book. I’m sure if I were to read it again I’d be more positive about it. 

On a pedantic note, one book Len does not cover in Trenches is Streets Of Blood, his installment of the short-lived Bronson series. However, Len wrote his thoughts on that book for Jack Badelaire’s Post Modern Pulps blog back in 2012, so you can read them there. Len covers each book with a chapter, some just a few pages long. These are great windows into a forgotten era, where Len would sit beside the desk of his editor Peter McCurtin and get his latest writing assignment, as if Len were the Bond to McCurtin’s M. Occasionally Len sprinkles in some details of his own life, but really In The Pulp Fiction Trenches isn’t a straight-up autobiography. Indeed, important events in Len’s life are only mentioned in passing, like his two (relatively short) marriages, and the fact that he has a daughter. He focuses more on the writing of the books themselves, and what thought processes formed their narratives. These are great bird’s-eye views into a creative mind at work. 

Other memorable chapters include Len’s tenure as a cab driver, very early in his writing career, and also his thoughts on his first-published book, a hardcore sleaze novel which I’ve been meaning to read and review on here. There’s also great material on Lin Carter, with whom Len worked in the early 1960s at Prentice Hall. There are also chapters here in the early part which do get outside of the writing process, and they’re just as fun, if not more so. One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on Len meeting none other than John Lennon. In his capacity as a PR man, before he quit the game to write, Len was called at a moment’s notice to do the publicity for one of John and Yoko’s bed-ins, and Len well captures the heady air of the times. In just a few sentences Len brings John Lennon to life, and the chapter is interesting because it shows a direction Len’s life could have gone in. Len relates how John took to him, based off Len’s familiarity with a macrobiotic restaurant in New York. Later on, Len is calling radio stations for publicity when John strolls in and starts strumming his guitar, a sort of solo performance for Len. But John somehow detects he’s making Len feel nervous, so he leaves. Len then tells us that, months later – after he’d quit the firm – his old boss told him that John was actually asking about Len. I’ve read a few books about John Lennon, and it seems to me that this is not standard behavior for him; I think it’s clear that he liked Len, and the two of them could have become friends. Who knows, maybe Len could have become Lennon’s assistant/best friend, instead of Frederic Seaman. As if Fate were really trying to get Len’s attention on this, he tells us that years later he passed by a store in the Village in which John and Yoko were shopping, but Len kept on walking despite his momentary consideration to step in and tell them hello. 

But then, Len had his own life to live, and Trenches proves how colorful his life has been. Despite the disappointment that ultimately settles into the narrative, the subtext is quite clear that Len has lived this colorful life precisely because he turned his back on the standard setup of job and family. After all, who will remember you for being a PR agent, or spending your entire life working for a company? Another great chapter is the one mentioned above, where Len lives in a remote cabin in the Canadian woods; I had forgotten that this was where he wrote The Bar Studs and Hype!. Here Len talks about his lifelong friend William Kotzwinkle, who himself provides a chapter for In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, sharing his thoughts on Len. When I first talked to Len, back in 2012, I mentioned to him that The Last Buffoon reminded me of Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. This really blew Len’s mind, as of course he was friends with Kotzwinkle, something I was not aware of at the time. 

As the narrative moves into the ‘80s, Len talks about his various WWII works, like The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards. It’s the former through which I first discovered Len, when I was a kid; the little library in th town where I grew up had a spinner rack of action paperbacks, and as a kid in the ‘80s I vividly recall bringing home a few volumes of The Sergeant to read. Len spent the majority of that decade writing WWII yarns, before moving into Westerns. Even though I have never been much interested in Westerns I’m sure I will read Len’s novels in this genre, and also his pieces on them here in Trenches are some of the best parts in the book. In particular his chapter on the origins of his Pecos Kid series is one of the book’s highlights. Here, late in the book, Len talks about his childhood, how his mother passed away when he was only four years old and how Len was unceremoniously dropped into foster care by his dad. It’s hard not to read this section and feel bad for little Lenny Levinson, but Len is not one to wallow in self-pity. Indeed, he sees his dad’s later abusive behaviour as a way to teach Len “coping skills.” 

Another thing I’ve noticed about Len’s overall work is that his protagonsts are generally strong-willed men who are determined to make a name for themselves. As if they were trying to prove themselves. It’s such a consistent theme that I’m certain it’s some sort of subconscious thing on Len’s part. I’d known about his childhood, of his mother dying when he was very yong and his father not being around, and over the years I’ve figured that is the core of the theme: perhaps those protagonists are driven to prove they are worth it, that they matter. In this regard the chapter on The Pecos Kid is almost a skeleton key to Len’s work in general, and it’s also a wonderful indication of how he uses his own experiences to fuel his fiction…I loved the part of how the young Pecos Kid’s plans for his future were inspired by the young Len Levinson’s plans in Miami. Again, this chapter is one of the highlights of In The Pulp Fiction Trenches; Len clearly cared about his Western books (in fact it’s clear he cared about all his books – he never just turned in a lazy first draft), to the extent that his enthusiasm for them is enough to make one want to read them. 

Despite his unflagging devotion to his Westerns, Len was still dumped and canceled, thus had to go back to driving taxis and working various odd jobs. I mean a guy who had spent two decades at this point as a published author, and he had to go back to driving cabs. As if that weren’t depressing enough, Len also details a chapter in which a good friend commited suicide, ultimately leading Len to have a crisis which had him contemplating suicide – and willingly checking himself into an insane asylum. What I found interesting is that this chapter comes right after a chapter in which Len relates how, after the cancellation of his latest Western series, he was desperate to come up with a new novel idea, something that would finally put him in the big leagues. He ended up writing a story about an intelligent parrot, one that was owned by a go-go dancer, but Len was unable to sell the manuscript. What I found interesting is that Len’s bout in the insane asylum was the “bestseller story idea” he was looking for. Wasn’t there like a big-selling “novel” a couple years ago where some guy wrote about his time in drug rehab, and it all turned out to be fiction? Len could’ve been the person to write that story, with the caveat that his story actually happened. 

But as In The Pulp Fiction Trenches draws to a close, Len’s focus turns away from writing, due to his lack of success. He works for a few years in a child-care facility in New York, and Len is so overwhelmed by how poorly-run the place is that he writes an expose which is published in The Village Voice. Len includes this piece in the book, also noting that he wrote an unpublished book about the experience. The most grueling chapter in the book soon follows, in which Len relates his bout with prostate cancer. Len is incredibly candid in this chapter, and manages to take what could be a sad story and makes it poignant, touching, and even funny. There is also a fascinating bit of life imitating art. I won’t get into all the details, but post-surgery Len finds himself unable to perform in certain capacities…and he relates all of this with that same bittersweet humor. But he is told by his doctors that there are various gizmos he could use to provide assistance in these capacities, and not only does Len find them “grotesque” but he also laughs at the idea of hauling these gizmos out from under the bed, to the puzzlement of the woman he happens to be in bed with. Well, I’d recently read Len’s Love Me To Death, which featured the recurring gag of Butler hiding his gun in his pants…and carrying the bundled-up pants into bed with him, to the puzzlement of the women he happened to be in bed with. 

Len’s medical problems aren’t over, though: soon after we have a chapter detailing his 2012 heart attack, and again the incident is treated more with humor than with self-pity. I recall when this happened, as it was shortly after I first contacted Len; at the time, he wrote an essay about the experience, which he has revised for this book. One thing he did not mention in that original 2012 essay, which he does state here, is that he happened to be high on marijuana at the time of his heart attack! Both the original essay and the chapter in this book feature Len’s doctor telling Len that, within a year of the heart attack, Len’s heart would be even stronger. I can personally attest to this. When I met with Len in 2016, we spent the majority of the day walking across Chicago. And we walked a lot. Even though I’m 40 years younger than Len, I was the one who wanted to stop to rest, whereas Len just wanted to keep walking. 

One thing that floored me about In The Pulp Fiction Trenches is how Len subtly changes his tone throughout the book. The early sections capture the wild-eyed (and possibly drug-fueled) optimism of his early writing career, and Len comes off like the real-life Alexander Frapkin, of The Last Buffoon. As an acquaintance tells Len: “You’re the craziest person I know. But you seem normal.” (Len is so flattered by this comment that he tells us about it a few times.) There are funny Frapkin-esque moments, like when Len momentarily loses the ability to speak when a publisher tells him he could become a millionaire. As the book progresses, though, the constant tide of rejections and cancelations take their toll, and a note of disillusionment permeates the chapters. Ultimately Len questions his choice to become a writer, that his “so-called literary career” was really just a joke, and that at the end of it he was just a loser. He is especially disappointed that his newly-published novels (ie Web Of DoomGrip Of Death, and Cobra Woman) and his various reprints (ie the reprints through Destroyer Books and various eBooks) have not been selling very well. 

After I read Trenches I had a revelation on why Len has yet to achieve the literary fame he deserves: it’s not because he’s a poor writer, or a deluded fool, or any of the other things he occasionally calls himself in the book. It’s because his agents and his publishers did him a disservice. The simple reason is that his books, starting at least with the Butler series, should have been published under his own name. Or even under his standalone novel pseudonym, Leonard Jordan. That way Len could have established and maintained a core following for each of his ventures. But the way things played out…say someone read and loved The Last Buffoon in 1980, and then a few years later came across an installment of The Rat Bastards at a bookstore. Unless the reader actually purchased the book and read it – and noticed the similarity of the writing style – he never would have known that “John Mackie” was also “Leonard Jordan.” But the publishers were more concerned with anonymous house names so they could continue publishing the various series with different authors; Len’s career was clearly not a concern. Again though this is short-sighted. One of the many profundities Len notes in Trenches is his response to an agent in the ‘90s, when yet another of Len’s series is about to be canceled due to “little profits,” as the publishers now demand “big profits.” To which Len responds, “But little profits add up to big profits.” It’s such common sense that it comes off as genius, but obviously didn’t change the minds of the publishers. 

As for why Len’s reprints aren’t selling well, just speaking as a collector of vintage paperbacks, I think people are more willing to pay more for the original item, even if a modern reprint would be more affordable. But there are many cases where the original paperback is either impossible to find our just priced out of reach. So then why wouldn’t the reprints of such books sell well? I think it comes down to the presentation. I don’t mean to criticize those publishers who are bringing men’s adventure novels back into print; I’m just speaking from my own opinion. But all of them reprint the books either as eBooks or as trade paperbacks with Photoshopped covers. This I feel detracts from the experience. I think those reprints should be mass market paperbacks, and to the exact physical dimensions of a 1970s paperback. This is how Tocsin Press books are printed, by the way – to the point that your copy of The Psycho Killers will fit right beside your vintage copy of The Thrill Killers on the shelf! It’s like how vinyl records sells better than compact discs today, even though the vinyl is more expensive and is itself sourced from digital, same as the compact disc. Collectors are willing to pay more for a special medium, and I honestly believe that if Len’s Butler novels were reprinted in paperback, to the same dimensions of a ‘70s paperback, they’d sell a lot better than they would as eBooks. Well anyway it’s just my opinion, but maybe one of the reprint publishers out there might come across this and give it a shot – after all, most of them use Amazon’s KDP service, and KDP can publish mass market paperbacks to those dimensions. That’s how Tocsin does it! 

I would read In The Pulp Fiction Trenches at night, and there were some nights I was so keyed up after reading that I couldn’t sleep. I had a particularly sleepness night after reading the chapters on prostate cancer, Grip Of Death, and Cobra Woman. But whereas a sort of pragmatic acceptance overtakes Len’s narrative in these latter chapters, I instead found myself getting pissed off – that Len had been so ill-served by his agents and his publishers. I mean how in the hell could an agent worth his or her salt not have sold The Last Buffoon in the ‘70s? The book could have easily become a cult classic along the lines of The Fan Man. Hell, it could’ve been a bestseller, with the right marketing. But instead it was rejected and then ultimately released years later by Belmont Tower, probably in a scarce printing and certainly without any marketing or publicity. It boggles my mind. I mean the upmarket imprints were publishing total shit in the ‘70s, like The Mafia’s Virgin Daughter. But The Last Buffoon is rejected. 

But then, as you get older, you gradually learn that people in positions of authority rarely know what the hell they are talking about. A case in point: in the chapter on Grip Of Death, Len notes with clear bitterness that the novel started life due to his agent. In the ‘90s, when Len was looking for a new project after the latest cancellation, his agent suggested, “How about a novel about the Civil War?” I almost wanted to reach into the book and knock on the agent’s forehead: “Helllooo! Who the hell is reading books about the Civil War in the 1990s?!!” But then maybe this was around the time Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published, and the agent was looking to get on a bandwagon. But even if that were so – did she expect Len Levinson to write a book like Cold Mountain? I mean I’m not saying that Len couldn’t, I’m just saying that this errant comment comes off like an agent completely unfamiliar with the work of her client. The fact that she even refused to read Len’s manuscript – which she herself suggested he friggin’ write – only made me want to reach into the book again…and do more than knock on her forehead. 

So Len, no – you aren’t a terrible writer, you were just served poorly by those who could steer your career. I mean I can understand why Len’s early books were under house names, but by the time of Butler he should have at least been credited by one name, whether his own or Leonard Jordan, and one name only. This would have established a readership that would have followed him through the various series. I mean this is how sci-fi authors survive, isn’t it? I’m not talking about the bestsellers; I’m talking about the ones who turned in a book a year and made a career off that. And speaking of sci-fi, at one point in the book Len notes that he was riding high at the time, as he was confident that he could write in any genre. Unfortunately the one genre he never wrote in was science fiction. This is why I’ve always said that Venus On The Half-Shell is the closest thing to a “Len Levinson sci-fi novel” we ever got. 

I first got in touch with Len in early 2012; I’d just read The Last Buffoon for the second time, after discovering it in 2005 in a Half Price Bookstore in Dallas. The copy was signed “Leonardo Levinson,” and after a bit of research I discovered that this was the real name of the “Leonard Jordan” credited on the cover. I read the book then and really enjoyed it, but when I read it again in 2012 I loved it, given that I was once again into the men’s adventure novels I’d read as a kid. But at the time Len did not have an online presence, at least one I was aware of. I think I even asked James Reasoner about him – and I have gone all this time without mentioning James, who should be thanked for bringing In The Pulp Fiction Trenches into print for everyone to enjoy. James, who also had read Len’s books, didn’t know what happened to him, or whether he was still alive. Then I came across a comment “Len Levinson” had left on Amazon for a review of The Last Buffoon. At that time you could comment on reviews, something I think Amazon has now disabled. And also, Len commented on this specific review because it had been posted by a woman – we discussed this years later, and he was surprised because it’s not a book you’d expect a woman would read, let alone enjoy. But anyway, in his comment Len noted his location, and I did some real-deal Big Brother searching and tracked him down via an online phone catalog for that Illinois town. There was of course only one “Len Levinson” in that phone book, so I figured it had to be the same guy – and luckily, it turned out to be him. 

I bring all this up because shortly after we got in contact, Len had his heart attack, and while he was convalescing I suggested a book I’d recently read and enjoyed: Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors Of Love. This is a super-long novel (almost as long as this review!) that was published in France in the early ‘60s, and then translated and published in the US in the late ‘60s. It was a Book Of The Month Club selection and etc, but it must’ve gone over like a lead balloon because there was only the hardcover edition, and it’s completely unknown today. I got my copy for a dollar in an antique store in 2005 and couldn’t believe how good the book was. It’s about two guys walking around Paris, discussing the murder-suicide affair of a colleague, and the entire novel is rendered in dialog. In fact, I always thought that the day Len and I walked around Chicago, talking the entire time, was like our own version of The Horrors Of Love. Well anyway, back in early 2012 I suggested Len read the novel, and in an email to me dated June 26, 2012, Len wrote: “I finally finished reading The Horrors Of Love and really enjoyed it…Dutourd’s insights were remarkable. Compared to him, I feel like a featherweight writer and thinker.” 

With In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, Len proves the fallacy of his own words. A “featherweight writer and thinker” could not have written a book with this kind of impact. And it is filled with plenty of remarkable insights. It is a book to be read and enjoyed, and then dipped into again and again. Since “finishing” Trenches I’ve picked it up at least five more times to read a section again. That’s how good it is. So long story short, I recommend In The Pulp Fiction Trenches probably more than any other book I’ve ever reviewed on here. You all should know, I’m never pushy about telling you to buy books. I mean the blog isn’t even monetized. I write these reviews for fun, because I’m reviewing books I enjoy. But I’ll be pushy about this one – please head over to Amazon and purchase a copy of In The Pulp Fiction Trenches. Len has been ignored for too long in his career. The best way we can show him he matters is to buy this wonderful book.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Stakeout Squad: Line Of Fire (Stakeout Squad #1)

Stakeout Squad: Line Of Fire, by D.A. Hodgman
February, 1995  Gold Eagle Books

This short-lived Gold Eagle series from the mid-1990s only amounted to three volumes, and about ten years ago I picked up the last one in a used bookstore. I kept meaning to read it, but eventually decided I should check out the other two installments first. And, judging from Line Of Fire, Stakeout Squad might be a series that has a bit of continuity. 

First of all, a big thanks to Paul Bishop for the outing of “D.A. Hogdman:” when I got that last volume years ago there was zero info available on who Hodgman really was. But thanks to Paul, who credits “reader Phil Wong,” we now know it was an author named Dorothy Ayoob. So yes, a rare instance of a woman writing a men’s adventure series. However Ayoob is in no way comparable to the only other female men’s adventure writer I’ve yet read, Marilyn Granbeck, of Blood and The Peacemaker. In fact there was absolutely no giveaway I could detect in Line Of Fire that the author was female; there’s only one major female character in the book, and she isn’t focused on as much as the male characters. What I mean to say is, there’s none of the wussification of Granbeck’s “action novels.” 

But then, there’s hardly any personality at all in Line of Fire. There’s absolutely no spark, and the novel could almost have been written by a robot. A robot programmed to love guns. Like, really love guns. I mean we all know how Gold Eagle books go for overbearing gun-p0rn. Line Of Fire takes the excessive gun-detailing of the average Gold Eagle publication and uses that as a starting point. I swear to Zod, folks, this book is flat-out obsessed with guns and firearms and ammunition and holsters and Kevlar, to the extent that I was almost in a daze. 

Paul’s blog post notes that Dorothy Ayoob was the wife of Massad Ayoob, who had “a regular column in American Handgunner magazine.” Phil Wong apparently noticed the similarity between this column and the work of “D.A. Hodgman” (who also wrote another three-volume series for Gold Eagle, Code Zero), and he asked Massad Ayoob himself if he was Hodgman. Wong certainly was barking up the right tree, as it turned out Massad acted as the technical supervisor for Dorothy’s writing. This then explains the nitty-gritty obsessive detail about guns throughout Line Of Fire. I mean even simple stuff that would be rendered as “he holstered his gun” in an average book is detailed pedantically here, noting how the gun is “on-saftied” before being stored in a specific holster – there’s even more brand-naming than in the average installment of The Survivalist

Well anyway, I’ve been on a cop novel kick lately so figured I’d finally check out this series. I was a bit put aback by the length, though: each volume comes in at 330 or so pages. And also note how the volume numbers have been dropped from the covers. My assumption is Gold Eagle was trying to branch away from the men’s adventure series that had been their stock in trade for the past decade-plus and wanted to market this series as “real books.” Whatever the behind-the-scenes reason, Line Of Fire was the first volume, Miami Heat the second, and The Color Of Blood the third. 

I think continuity might be more pronounced than the average Gold Eagle series because only one author worked on Stakeout Squad, and also this first volume introduces the characters and the setup. Now one thing I can say about Dorothy Ayoob is that she’s one of the most “on-theme” authors I’ve ever read. The book details the formation of a Stakeout Squad in Miami, its first big assignment to take down a violent gang of bank robbers, and Ayoob sticks to this theme throughout the book; there are hardly any attempts at bringing any added dimensions to any of the characters or the settings…and even the frequent flashback material sticks to how these characters became cops (or criminals). This is what I meant about the narrative not having any spark. The dialog is for the most part wholly expository, with characters even talking about guns, or why they became cops…I mean the theme is central throughout, with no one coming off remotely like a real person with varied interests. 

And there are a lot of flashbacks. Indeed, the novel would be a lot shorter if you took out the obsessive gun detail and the frequent flashbacks. It’s a bit hard-going because forward momentum is nil. And given that the novel is populated with several characters, this means that we get flashbacks for each of them – not to mention the various criminals. It’s a weird way to tell a story and very much at odds with the average men’s adventure novel. However Ayoob’s writing isn’t bad, and one can certainly tell that she met with several cops who gave her a lot of insight. I mean the novel definitely succeeds in showing how tough it is to be a cop, with little in the way of gratitude from the public or politicians. 

Given the 1995 publication date, the political correctness which ultimately led to our modern miserable age of identity politics is present. This is mostly in the form of the commander of Stakeout Squad, Lt. Ken Bartlett, a black man who, per his long flashback sequence, never liked being a cop, and indeed looks down on guns. We’re told how he used identity politics to climb his way up the ladder, not to mention the occasional publicity bit. But all the while he avoided real cop work, and looked down on the people he was supposedly protecting. There’s even a part where he introduces “sensitivity training” for the white cops. I mean the novel is very prescient in this. 

But this bit also demonstrates the lack of spark in Ayoob’s narrative. Now Bartlett hates being a cop, and he thinks the Stakeout Squad is a bad idea, and he’s against cops carrying guns and all that. All this we are told basically as soon as the character is introduced, via long-winded flashback. So the potential is there that this character will be a thorn in the side of the Stakeout Squad, maybe their nemesis who constantly tries to disband them. We even learn he’s a “liberal Democrat” whose wife – a black lady who also uses identity politics to climb the legal ladder – nags at him for “thinking” he’s a cop. But folks by the time the flashback sequence ends, Bartlett has decided “You know what, maybe I’ll start wearing a gun and be a real cop for once!” I mean the entire promise is just gutted before the flashback has even come to a close…and from then out Bartlett, who only minimally appears in the narrative, is just your basic commander. 

Another bit of prescience is the focus on “officers of color,” as the saying would go today. The Stakeout Squad itself is the brainchild of John Kearn, recently-appointed Police Commissioner, a black man who started off as a cop in New York decades ago. There’s a lot of material on the real-world Stakeout Squad that operated in New York in the ‘60s. In particular we learn how the original New York force was disbanded due to claims of racism, given that all their victims were black. (The fact that black criminals were committing all the crimes was irrelevant, of course.) The novel really takes on a dry, nonfiction-esque tone for these “history lesson” portions, not helped by the expository dialog. In fact “dry” really sums up Line Of Fire, despite which the novel has several action scenes. It’s just all relayed without the spark one gets from typical men’s adventure. In other words, it is as humorless and devoid of fun as the average Gold Eagle publication – it’s just too serious for its own good. 

But Ayoob seems to be committed to the project. She populates the novel with several characters, meaning that there isn’t one the reader can hold on to. The main character of the novel, and perhaps the series, seems to be a young blond-haired cop named Bob Carmody…who, wouldja believe, happens to be a firearms instructor. I mean folks I am not exaggerating when I say that the vast majority of the narrative is concerned with guns, guns, and more guns. Firing them, wearing them, reminiscing about guns used in the past, the types of ammo for them, just on and on. Well anyway, Carmody is a helluva shot and has become the instructor for the newly-formed Stakeout Squad, but he personally has never shot a suspect and secretly wonders if he’d be able to. Spoiler alert: as expected, Carmody gets his chance to do this very thing – but Ayoob doesn’t even follow through on the dramatic thrust of it. In fact Carmody features in the Hollywood-esque finale, using his sharpshooting skills in memorable fashion, but the entire scene is played without any drama. 

Another character who somewhat surfaces from the pack is the sole female on the Squad, Melinda Hoffritz, a hotstuff and stacked “blond” who joined up due to sexual harrassment from her former chief. And yes that’s “blond;” we’re in the ‘90s now, so oldschool “blonde” for females is considered sexist. I still use the term, though; in fact I think it’s kind of brilliant in differentiating between the sexes…not that I actually know the difference between the sexes, of course. I mean I’m not a biologist! Well anyway it seems like Carmody and Melinda might become an item someday…or at least they would be if this series had been written a decade before (and by a man, dammit!)…but that’s just my suspicion. They work together in Line Of Fire and even share the climactic showdown. 

There are other characters besides, like a cop who panicked on the job and caused his partner to get killed, but due to various misunderstandings was given a medal for “bravery;” another cop who has a wife and kid back home; a cop with a big chip on his shoulder; and others besides. Guess what: the members of the Stakeout Squad are introduced at target practice! I mean it’s very impressive how Ayoob sticks with the “guns” theme. But the thing is, the characters come and go, so it’s not like your typical men’s adventure series where you have the same group of characters to root for. In that matter the villain of the piece gets more narrative space: John Blaisdell, the head honcho of the Shotgun Gang. 

In a plot reminiscent of the first episode of Police Woman, the Shotgun Gang is hitting banks in Miami. Oh I forgot to mention: Stakeout Squad is set in Miami, which I found interesting because one can’t help but think of Miami Vice, given that this series is also focused on cops. But Ayoob never acknowledges that show, nor even really brings the setting to life. Other than mentions of the heat or the Metro-Dade police force, the novel could just as easily take place anywhere else. Well anyway the Shotgun Gang is hitting banks, and there’s a cool Tarantino-esque gimmick where Blaisdell has given each member of his gang a codename that’s based on the shotgun he uses: ie Moss, Savage, etc. This I thought was the most clever way Ayoob worked the gun obsession into the narrative. 

So like that Police Woman episode, the Stakeout Squad ultimately goes undercover, posing as tellers in banks they think might be hit next, with backup forces prowling nearby in case a hit happens. The Shotgun Gang is especially brutal; we meet them in an opening where they hit an armored truck, killing everyone, and later on they gun down women and children in various hits. But the Stakeout Squad gets off on shaky footing when a pair of preteens, inspired by the Shotgun Gang, try to hit a bank with plastic guns (well, one of them sneaks in a real gun), and the undercover Squad members gun them down. The ensuing public and media backlash is enough to almost kill the Stakeout Squad before it has even gotten started. 

There are several action scenes, with the Squad going up against some of the Shotgun Gang, but these scenes too are written without much spark. I mean there’s nothing the reader feels vicariously as the two forces go against one another, as Ayoob is more focused on the shooting posture the cops assume as they engage in their firefights. Or how they obsess over their new Glock .45s, which are more powerful than the 9mm Glocks they used to use. I mean incidental stuff like this is the focus of Line Of Fire, not the drama or action stuff, so you can see how someone might have thought the novel was written by a columnist for a firearms magazine. 

Ayoob strives for realism throughout. There are no extended action scenes, and for the most part they are over and done with fairly quick. There’s also not much gore, other than a part where the cops view some of the victims of those shotguns. There isn’t much police work, either, but then that’s not the Stakeout Squad’s role. They aren’t detectives figuring out who is pulling the hits; they’re a tactical squad who stakes out banks, ready to shoot down any would-be robbers. The break in the case comes due to happenstance, when one of the robbers, thinking he’s about to die, starts giving the details on where the Gang hides out. This sequence has a memorable bit where the father of a severely-injured child slips past the cops and puts a gun to the bastard’s head. And speaking of which, true to Gold Eagle norm there are many chapters detailing the subplots of various one-off characters. 

Despite the bulky length of 320 pages, Line Of Fire was a pretty quick read. Of course it was even more quick given that I skimmed a lot of the gun details. Ayoob does a good job of bringing the reader into the formation of the Stakeout Squad, but as the novel progresses this setup is lost and it’s more concerned with one-off characters getting into various gunfights. In other words the center is somewhat lost. Even Blaisdell sufers; he starts the novel calm and collected, and there’s a cool idea that he had “the best education” in prison, where lifers gave him the in-and-outs of various schemes and heists. But as we near the climax Blaisdell becomes more of a nutjob with little control of himself. And yet for that matter the novel never goes fully batshit crazy, which would have greatly helped matters. “Tepid” is the best word I could use to describe it; competently written, but just missing something. 

So if the other two volumes are the same there’s little mystery why Stakeout Squad failed to connect with readers. Regardless I’m a slow learner, so even though I found this one tepid I’m still looking forward to the next volume, Miami Heat, which features the Squad up against…a Satanic cult! 

As for Dorothy Ayoob, judging from this obituary she “passed away peacefully in her sleep” in April of 2021. Given that Massad Ayoob (who is still alive) is not mentioned in the obituary, I’m assuming the two must have been divorced. And I also assume this is the same Dorothy Ayoob, given that she lived in New Hampshire, which is where Massad Ayoob apparently lives.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Lethal Weapon

Lethal Weapon, by Joel Norst
March, 1987  Jove Books

Even though I was obsessed with action movies as a kid in the ‘80s, I didn’t see Lethal Weapon until around 2001. It just didn’t seem like an “action movie” to me, a la Rambo or Predator. It seemed more like a cop movie. In fact, I recall thinking it looked like a bigger-budgeted episode of Miami Vice. But as mentioned I finally saw it in 2001, mostly because at the time I was checking out all the films that had been written by Shane Black, a guy who should’ve been huge…sort of a proto-Quentin Tarantino, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that he started directing his own movies. 

Anyway, this Lethal Weapon novelization is notable because presumably it’s based on Shane Black’s original script, and not the revised version that was ultimately filmed. There’s a lot of stuff here that’s not in the movie, and overall I found the novel superior to the movie. Author Joel Norst, aka a novelist named Kirk Mitchell, delivers exactly what you would want from a movie novelization: a novel that stands on its own. He adds background material and thematic work that certainly wasn’t in Black’s script, and there’s a voice of experience in play throughout. It wasn’t until I finished the novel that I learned Kirk Mitchell had been a cop, but I was not surprised; he inserts a lot of cop-world detail in Lethal Weapon, but never to the point that it’s bogged down in “realism.” This is still the novelization of an ‘80s action movie, with the appropriate fireworks…there’s just a lot more emotional grit and introspection here than in the film. 

It's now known that Shane Black claimed his Lethal Weapon script was inspired by Warren Murphy’s Razoni & Jackson series, but that is not evident in the novelization. In fact, the most similar comparison would be the novelization of Hickey & Boggs, which itself was supposedly the inspiration for Razoni & Jackson. What I mean to say is, there’s none of the race-fueled bantering of Razoni & Jackson; the bantering humor here comes more from the disparate personalities of the co-protagonists. In fact race is hardly mentioned; other than the early establishment that Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is black, Mitchell doesn’t beat us over the head with the fact. And absolutely nothing is made out of Murtaugh being paired with white partner Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). The bigger deal is that Riggs is a nutcase known for his shootouts. 

One thing that doesn’t come off as well in the novelization is the cutesy schtick Shane Black came up with of “M” and “R,” ie Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. In the film you’d never notice, but here in the novel Mitchell will arbitrarily refer to the characters by either first or last name in the narrative. Meaning, you’ll be reading about “Riggs” doing something, and then suddenly he’s being referred to as “Martin,” and your mind initially misreads the “Martin” as “Murtaugh.” Well hell, maybe it’s just me. I found the “Riggs” and “Roger” stuff especially confusing. But this was Black’s way of showing how his heroes were two sides of the same coin; Mitchell takes this into even further thematic territory, carefully establishing in the opening sequences how Roger Murtaugh is terrified of violence intruding into his family life, thus going to exorbitant lengths to ensure their safety. Martin Riggs, meanwhile, walks directly into the path of a sniper without even bothering to crouch for cover. 

Another bit of thematic backstory here in the novel which I’m certain is solely Mitchell’s contribution is that Riggs’s old trainer at the police academy committed suicide; we’re informed that suicide is common among hardbitten cops. Riggs hasn’t taken that step yet, but he’s close; we learn early in the novel that Riggs’s wife of eleven years died just two months ago. Here in the novel it’s established that she had a weak heart due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, and one day she just passed on while Riggs was out on the job. Now he keeps his TV constantly on, set to the channel she was watching when she was died (which appears to only play old movies), and he spends most of his days drunk off his ass – that is, when he isn’t engaging in what is now referred to as “toxic masculinity.” 

Reading this Lethal Weapon novelization is a frustrating experience, because it’s another lesson in how the original screenwriter knows how to turn in a compelling story…a compelling story that is ruined by producers, directors, rewriters, and actors. The first quarter in particular is excellent and better than anything in the actual film. We are treated to several instances in which Riggs’s lack of self-care is proven in action. First he stops a random kidnapping attempt when, coming out of a convenience store, he blows away a trio of armed guys who are trying to make off with two young women in their van. Riggs doesn’t even bother calling it in and just high-tails it out of there with his six-pack of beer. There’s another part where he challenges a patrolman to a race to Las Vegas (as in the film, the novel occurs in Los Angeles); here Mitchell shows his cop roots with the patrolman going through the various hoops that will fool his dispatcher into thinking he’s busy for the next few hours. 

This part, while entertaining, just shows how Lethal Weapon comes from a different era; it would be hard to imagine a movie today where the hero cop throws all safety concerns to the wind and races another cop at 130 miles per hour through sleet and rain for several hours, even evading fellow cops along the journey. But it’s still kind of funny, like when Riggs is pulled over by Highway Patrol and comes up with a story that he’s transporting a baboon heart for an emergency operation. Coupled with his wanton drinking and smoking, all this serves to make Martin Riggs seem even more dangerous in our coddled “Nanny State” era than he did in 1987. 

But the most notable element of Riggs’s disinterest in safety is one of the best sequences in the novel, and another that didn’t even make it to the film. Actually it did, but the scene was cut; I recall seeing it as a deleted scene on the DVD. But here in the novel it is so much more powerful – with the added element that it has extra resonance in our post-Uvalde world. Riggs responds to a call that a sniper has holed up outside a daycare; when Riggs gets to the scene, he finds the cops sprawled around and more concerned about their own safety than the kids trapped inside the building with an active shooter. Even though there is a veritable army of cops present, they show no interest in doing anything except waiting for SWAT, which is stuck in traffic. When Riggs is informed by a disinterested cop that one kid was shot in front of everyone and “is probably dead now,” Riggs goes into action. 

None of this material survived in the scene as filmed, which you can see here. I’m not sure if this sequence is the product of Mitchell’s imagination or was in Black’s script, but it is vastly superior to what director Richard Donner actually filmed. For one, the sniper is even worse here in the novel; we learn he’s killed a few kids, and also he’s wearing a gas mask to protect himself from the inevitable tear gas the cops will shoot at him. And when Riggs goes into action, he doesn’t just blindly walk into the fray as Mel Gibson does in the cut scene; instead, he relies on the fact that the gas mask will obstruct the sniper’s view, and his “Hello, Mr. Sniper” dialog is intended to distract the killer rather than to just taunt him as in the film. Also, Riggs here sees first-hand the shot kid the disinterested cop told him about, and the child is indeed dead, but Riggs manages to save another young kid who is hiding on the playground. Here we even get a reference to Miami Vice, which I wonder if was in Black’s script…surely he must’ve realized the similarities between his screenplay and the hit TV show. 

The first quarter of the novel is where all the major differences are. Mitchell proves himself just as good at bringing to life the much less danger-prone Murtaugh; indeed Mitchell seems to identify with Murtaugh more, and if I’m not mistaken the sequences from Murtaugh’s perspective slightly outnumber those from Riggs’s. As mentioned Murtaugh is terrified something bad will befall his family, and Mitchell does a phenomenal job of weaving this element throughout the story via random, incidental details – like later in the book when Murtaugh’s hotstuff, 17 year-old daughter Rianne is necking (as they once called it) in a car with her boyfriend, and we’re informed the car doors are locked because Murtaugh drilled this into Rianne from an early age. What I mean to say is Mithcell skillfully develops the disparity between his two protagonists in ways that Black was unable to in his script – I mean a script isn’t going to tell you incidental background stuff like a novel can. 

I ended up enjoying the first quarter of Lethal Weapon most of all, with the two protagonists separate. Around page 70 however they are teamed up, and the story begins to more resemble the film. One thing I noticed in the novel is that it follows more of a procedural vibe than the movie; as mentioned, Mitchell was a cop, and thus peppers in just enough real-world details of a crime investigation to lend the tale the right amount of versimilitude. And the plot is the same as the film; a call-girl – the daughter of a guy Murtaugh knew in ‘Nam – has jumped to her death from a high-rise, only it turns out she’d really been poisoned, and in investigating the murder Murtaugh and Riggs will discover a plot that ultimately takes in a global drug operation run by former ‘Nam badasses. 

One thing missing here in the novel is the age difference that was really played up in the film. In the novel, both Riggs and Murtaugh are ‘Nam vets; Murtaugh is older, as the novel opens on his fiftieth birthday, but Riggs can’t be much younger. He too fought in ‘Nam, and we’re told he was married for 11 years. Also, Murtaugh was still in the shit in the late ‘60s, so it’s not like he was fighting in ‘Nam in the earliest years of the conflict. The novel also makes it clear that Murtaugh was a Green Beret in ‘Nam, so in a way he’s just as much an ass-kicker as LRRP guy Riggs. But it’s the age difference that’s not much a factor here; indeed, Murtaugh’s famous “I’m too old for this shit!” line does not appear in Mitchell’s Lethal Weapon novelization, implying that it’s something that was come up with during production. 

Curiously I found my interest waning as the action increased. This surprised me, as I’m an action junkie. But I really did enjoy the first half of Lethal Weapon more, with Riggs and Murtaugh engaged in their separate lives before becoming embroiled in an investigation together. But due to the demands of the action genre things pick up, same as in the film, with frequent explosions and gunfights. One thing Mitchell makes more clear in his novelization is that Riggs finds his meaning with this case; when the villains start going after Murtaugh’s family, Riggs takes on a new drive, telling Murtaugh’s wife that there’s “no one better at making war” than himself. Oh another thing not in the novelization is the spelling out of the title phrase; it’s been many years since I saw Lethal Weapon, but I seem to recall it was stated that Riggs himself was registered as a lethal weapon or somesuch. Here in the novelization, this phrase only appears in a sequence from Murtaugh’s perspective, when he realizes that Martin Riggs is exactly what he needs: a “lethal weapon” who will take on the bad guys who have kidnapped Murtaugh’s teenaged daughter. 

Oh and speaking of teenaged, there’s another bit here in the novel that’s about as unacceptable in today’s world as the race to Vegas. When meeting Murtaugh’s family, Riggs is momentarily taken aback by teen daughter Rianne’s beauty – and body. There’s even a part where he sneaks a look at her shapely rear while Murtaugh is otherwise distracted. Riggs later realizes that this is the first time he’s felt any “sexual urges” since his wife’s death…and nowhere is it belabored that he’s felt these urges due to the sight of an underaged girl. At any rate, this leads to yet another sequence that was not in the film; Riggs picks up a streetwalker and takes her back to his place…and pops some popcorn so they can watch old movies all night on TV. This part was wisely cut, and also it reminded me of Pretty Woman…of course Pretty Woman came out later, but still. 

The villains are more military here in the novel; led by a never-named “General,” the group includes in its ranks Joshua, as memorably played by Gary Busey in the film (who would reunite with Danny Glover a few years later in the underappreciated Predator 2). Joshua in the novel is more creepy than Busey’s portrayal, and also he’s as close to being albino as you can get without being Edgar Winters. He’s the lead heavy in the novel, same as the film, and as the novel progresses it becomes more like the movie, only with minor variations – like when Riggs is captured and tortured, here in the novel Riggs is strapped up in a bathtub, not hanging from a girder or whatever it was in the film. But while the action scenes are similar, they are just better played out here in the novel. Most notable is the bit where Riggs, with a long-range gun, raises hell when the General’s goons try to exchange Murtaugh for Rianne. Mitchell develops this sequence a helluva lot better than the film does, and this extends to the emotional content. Whereas Murtaugh just lamely yells “Everything’s gonna be all right” to his daughter before the shooting starts in the movie, here in the novel Mitchell really brings home how terrified a father would be in such a situation: 

The finale is especially different and an indication of how much change the script went through in production – and how much society has changed as well. Believe it or not, but Mitchell’s novel – and presumably Shane Black’s original script – ends with the Murtaugh family and Riggs going to church on Chrismas day. With Murtaugh introducing Riggs to the congregation and the preacher grumbling that Riggs hasn’t been there for a long time. Not only is it a lame way to end the story, but it’s also an indication of how much things have changed…I mean imagine a Hollywood action film ending with the heroes going to church. I guess even in ’87 this would’ve seemed odd, and it would seem positively bizarre today. But then in a way I appreciated it for this very reason. I’m not a religious man by any means, but it seems clear to me that western society has sort of lost its way with the abandonment of Christianity – I still recall my mind being blown last year when I was into all that Space Race stuff and saw how the astronauts would pray during their missions and whatnot. Imagine such a thing happening today! They’d probably get sued for mixing religion with “the science.” 

Well anyway, I really did enjoy Lethal Weapon. It joins the ranks of Hickey & Boggs and Invasion U.S.A. as a novelization that’s better than the film it’s based on. Mitchell’s writing is strong throughout, and I look forward to reading another of his novelizations I have, for the Chuck Norris vehicle Delta Force (which I saw in a jam-packed theater when it was released in 1985 – and the audience enjoyed the hell out of it in a totally non-ironic way).