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.