Monday, August 29, 2022

Cage #4: The Silver Puma

Cage #4: The Silver Puma, by Alan Riefe
No month stated, 1975  Popular Library

I was under the impression I had the third volume of Cage, but I’ve belatedly discovered I don’t; this is why it’s been five years since I reviewed the series. I kept thinking I’d come across the third volume in one of my book boxes, but I’ve finally concluded that I never even had it. Well anyway, we’ll just pass over that one and continue with the series with this fourth volume. There isn’t much continuity in Cage, anyway. 

The main thing to note about The Silver Puma is that with this volume Alan Riefe has recast Cage into essentially a light comedy, with only occasional violence. Whereas the first volume had a pulpy concept, this one’s just goofy, and also has no bearing on the series setup. Namely, that Huntington “Hunt” Cage, a New York-based private eye, secretly has a twin brother (Hadley Cage) who sometimes steps in for Hunt on the job. The Silver Puma doesn’t even use the P.I. setup and instead has Hunt hired to pose as the president of a fictional South American country, only to learn he’s walked into a convoluted conspiracy. 

But really this has nothing to do with private investigation; Hunt is hired for reasons that escape him, and his being a P.I. is only seen as a bonus, because it means he can think quickly and make decisions or some other crap. What seems most obvious is that Riefe has grown bored with the series concept, or maybe didn’t know what to write for this fourth volume, and thus came up with a sub-Adventurers setup that features a helluva lot of South American travelogue and a storyline that would be more at home in Mission: Impossible, complete with Hunt Cage disguised as old President Rocafuerte, the benevolent dictator of San Felipe…better known to his people as “The Silver Puma.” 

Riefe is really up to some page-filling trickery because the first few chapters just feature Hunt walking around New York and mulling over the case that’s been offered him, because he suspects something’s up with it. But basically De Ruiz, a “theatrical” and “phoney” official from the San Felipe consulate in New York, calls Hunt in and tells him the secret info that the Silver Puma has just died, here in Manhattan; the Puma was here for special throat treatment or something. The convoluted job would have Cage posing as Rocafuerte, with a bandage over his throat to disguise the fact that he cannot speak Spanish, and going down to San Felipe for a few months until a new leader can be chosen. 

In other words Cage’s job is to fool the locals, but it’s all so ridiculous. Like for example, how in the world was Huntington Cage, a private eye who grew up in Canada, even chosen for this job? It’s explained away that he vaguely resembles Rocafuerte, but this comes off like total bullshit. It’s pretty clear that Riefe had plumb run out of ideas for the series and has shoehorned this caper into the storyline. But we do get a lot of Hunt walking around Manhattan and trying to decide if he should take the case. There’s even a part where he gets his hair cut; at this point the “action” is as prevalent in Cage as in the contemporary P.I. series Hardy

We still get that pulpy concept that the Cage brothers can contact each other on a secret radio watch; we get more detail on it this time, including that the idea for the switch concept was…Hadley’s. This part of the setup has always puzzled me, as Hadley Cage is a New Jersey-based artist, one who hangs out with rich clientele…yet he’s also Hunt’s gun supplier and eagerly takes part in Hunt’s assignments. We also get the bizarre note that Lee has been accused by Hunt of “enjoying” killing, given how easily he does it. Hadley also takes part in most of the action in The Silver Puma, but the action is rendered in outline-esque blandness: 

And really the action comes off like something Riefe has included due to publisher mandate, as “light comedy” aptly describes The Silver Puma. It’s almost Three Stooges-esque at times…for example, Hunt takes the job and at much page-expense gets the Silver Puma’s coffin flown via Pan Am to San Felipe, and then he travels down there, disguised as Rocafuerte…only to discover, of course, that the whole thing was a scheme and he’s going to be used as a patsy to take a bullet for the Silver Puma. Meanwhile Hadley Cage, unbeknownst to Hunt, has also come down to San Felipe…and Hadley manages to get his hands on the real Rocafuerte, who is of course alive and part of the conspiracy Hunt’s been caught in. 

It gets even goofier when Hadley swaps the real Rocafuerte for Hunt, who we’ll remember is disguised as Rocafuerte…and then later on Hadley himself is captured, but everyone thinks he’s Hunt. I mean it’s just plain stupid, like a lame comedy of errors, and it just keeps going and going. To make it worse there’s zero in the way of sex, and the violence is minimal. Like when Hadley is captured, instead of a big action scene where he breaks out, he’s put on a kangaroo trial…one that goes on for an incredible twenty pages of exposition and dialog. The lameness of it all compounded by the fact that the prosecutors think Hadley is Hunt! 

There are times when you read a book and you know without question that the author is desperately trying to meet his word count, and The Silver Puma is one of those times. There isn’t even an action finale, where the Cage brothers mete out bloody revenge to the San Felipe scum who set them up. They basically just high-tail it out of there when they can and get back to New York, so Riefe can end the book on a dumb joke. 

But then, “dumb” also apty describes The Silver Puma. I’m not crying over that third volume that I thought I had. In fact it’s a shock Cage went on for two more volumes. Now those two I’m sure I have, so I guess I’ll get around to them someday.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Hard Target

Hard Target, by Robert Tine
September, 1993  Berkley Books

I can’t recall if I saw Hard Target in the theater; I’m thinking I didn’t, and probably saw it later on VHS or laserdisc. I also have a hazy memory of seeing the fabled workprint at some point in the dim past…I seem to have vague memories of watching a blurry video copy with the timecode on the screen, the extra gratuitous violence, and lots of scenes that didn’t make it into the completed film. Well anyway, I’ve always ranked Hard Target as one of Van Damme’s best films, despite the unfortunate mullet he sports in it, and certainly the best movie director John Woo made in the US. 

Who knew there was a novelization? Once again I have Robert Mann to thank for sending me this book. Penned by ubiquitous tie-in novelist Robert Tine, the Hard Target novelization is notable for featuring some of the cut scenes that feature in the workprint. But one thing the novel lacks in a serious way is the graphic carnage Woo brought to the film. Tine’s action scenes are curiously bloodless, more outline-esque than anything and lacking much impact. In fact, “outline-esque” sums up the novelization; Tine, judging from this and his Eraser novelization, is not a tie-in novelist who brings a lot of “new stuff” to his novelizations. For the most part, Hard Target reads like a narrative summary of the film. The positive note though is that it does have some sequences in it that didn’t make it to the finished product. 

I get the impression that Tine wrote this before production began, or at least he was not privy to the production. The characters are not described like their film counterparts, in particular old man Douvee, who is described as “rail-thin” in this novelization…but was played by rotund Wilford Brimley in the film. And there’s none of the balletic heroic bloodshed of Woo’s action choreography; in fact, the action scenes are pretty boring here in the novel. What Tine’s novelization makes clear is that the story for Hard Target was pretty anemic, and it was only John Woo’s stylistic excess that made it memorable. With that missing, Hard Target the novel comes off like a tepid retread of The Most Dangerous Game

Now as for the “new” stuff, honestly it’s pretty minimal. And most of it is material that appeared in the workprint. Like a minor crony gets his ear chopped off by a pair of scissors, something which is graphically shown in the workprint. There’s also a part where main villain Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) plays a piano. There’s also a part where hero Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) gets it on (off page) with female protagonist Natasha “Nat” Binder (Yancy Butler). The ending also appears to be different, with Chance and Nat about to go off in a Happily Ever After. But then it’s been decades since I saw the actual film, so maybe that’s how it ended. There might be other subtle differences here in the novelization that would be more apparent if I were to actually rewatch the film, but I’d rather watch Miami Vice

So the novel follows the film, or perhaps that should be the screenplay, rather apishly. Wait, another difference – I got the impression, reading the book, that Chance Boudreaux could’ve been played by just about any action star. In other words, Chance’s martial skills aren’t much focused on, and he basically just does basic “action hero stuff” throughout, with none of Van Damme’s flash. This could be another indication that Tine was writing before production; I read somewhere the John Woo originally envisioned Kurt Russell for the lead role in Hard Target, and yes he certainly could have played the Chance Boudreaux of the novel. 

Another difference is that Boudreaux is more of a ragamuffin in the novel, practically destitute and living hand to mouth in New Orleans as he waits for the opportunity to continue working as a merchant seaman. But then the poor and the homeless are a central subplot of Hard Target, something made even more obvious here in the novel. Hey, sort of like that fourth season episode of Miami Vice, “Badge Of Dishonor!” Sorry, let me get back on track. Also, no mention is made of Boudreaux having an unfortunate mullet. He’s basically a cipher here, and late in the novel it’s explained he was a Marine and such, but there’s no real personality given him in the book. This makes it really hard to buy the ensuing relationship between him and Nat. 

The novel also follows the opening of the film, with Nat’s estranged father, a ‘Nam vet, being chased by Fouchon’s men. (Fun fact: The screenwriter, Chuck Pfarrer, played Binder in the film.) The setup is that Fouchon rents out his commandos to the mega-wealthy, who go along on a sort of big game hunt, with the prey of course being man. The hunted men are former soldiers who have come upon hard times, and they take the crazy job in exchange for money; if they can make it to a certain location, they will go free. However we know from the sequences in Fouchon’s perspective that he’ll never let one of his prey escape; this opening sequence proves it, as Fouchon’s latest client, Mr. Chang, fails to kill Binder…who does indeed make it to the safe location, and thus should go free. But Fouchon kills Binder anyway. 

All as in the film, but here we learn posthaste that the novel will not have the stylistic flair of the movie. Also the vibe is different; one does not get the impression here that Fouchon has a huge team of hunter-killers at his disposal. Also he himself takes place in the hunt, and he doesn’t use any special weapons or specific gun like the film. Mostly he just issues steely-cold orders to his men, particularly Pik Van Cleave, a South African who is in charge of the hunting dogs (Arnold Vosloo in the film). Checking, Vosloo’s character is called “Van Cleaf,” and also there’s no credit for a “Mr. Chang,” so this could be more indication that Tine was writing before production. Mr. Chang also factors in the final action sequence of the novel, so the character might have just been written out of the film. 

The movie makes more sense out of how Chance and Nat team up – but again, I haven’t seen the movie in forever. Here in the novel it’s kind of hard to understand why they do. There are vague mentions that the New Orleans cops are threatening to go on strike (one of the reasons Fouchon has recently set up shop here), thus the homeless population does not get any attention. Nat’s dad, then, was a nonentity so far as the cops are concerned, so she desparately seeks someone to help her around the city. It’s just all very hard to buy – “My dad’s missing, I need some stranger to help me look for him!” But regardless she convinces Chance to help her by offering to pay the amount he needs to pay for the resinstation of his merchant seaman card. 

It's also really hard to buy that Chance sees more to the story; when it’s soon learned that Nat’s father is dead (his corpse found in a burned-out building), one would think Chance’s job has come to an end. I mean he was hired to help find the guy, and he’s been found. But Tine has it that Chance and Nat continue working together. And of course, Chance notices something the cops overlooked – that one of Binder’s two dog tags are missing – and he goes around looking for clues. This is how Chance stumbles upon Fouchon’s plot, in which “runner” candidates are sourced from a local business that’s run by a sleazy guy who hires bums to hand out XXX flyers. When Fouchon finds out about this, first he has Van Cleave take a pair of scissors to the sleazy business owner’s ear, then he tells Van Cleave to find Chance and kill him. 

From there on, Hard Target is essentially an endless action scene. Oh, I forgot to mention, but despite the recent murder of her dad, Nat still finds the time to get down and dirty with Chance. The scene plays out with the two kissing, and then Nat leaves…but then she comes back to Chance’s place and says she changed her mind. This bit is repeated in the end, only the other way around – Chance says he plans to go off on the latest merchant sailing and then comes back to Nat and says he changed his mind. But anyway the boinking is off-page; the chapter ends here. But soon after this Chance and Nat separate; when it’s soon clear that people are trying to kill Chance, he sends Nat off with his uncle, Douvee, whose job is to keep Nat safe. 

This leads to dual-pronged action scenes, with Chance taking on one portion of Fouchon’s forces and Nat and Douvee facing the other. Tine tries to work in some comedy with oldfashioned swampscum Douvee boasting about his moonshine and complaining about having to ride a horse. But it’s all pretty messy; for example, at one point Nat hurls a molotov cocktail at Mr. Chang, and Tine writes that Chang “vanishes” in a burst of flame. One would get the impression that Mr. Chang is no more. Yet he appears again, with no explanation, later in the book to hunt Chance and Nat along with two other clients Fouchon has quickly hired for the hunt to kill Chance. Also, the separation of Chance and Nat serves no purpose, as soon enough they (along with Douvee) are reunited and working together against Fouchon. 

The biggest problem is that Tine is not at all invested in his action scenes and brings nothing to them. It comes off like he’s lazily just lifted material directly from the screenplay: 

With the pizzazz gone, one is left with a curiously flat and uninvolving “action novel.” Chance’s motivation is also really hard to buy; he’s very much a cipher. I felt that the movie did a better job of investing him in the tale – and also in the film you really wanted to see Fouchon and Van Cleave and the others get blown away. Here I had absolutely no emotional investment in the story…it was all just too bland. Oh and one thing to note – the finale does feature Chance dropping a grenade down Fouchon’s pants, which I believe happened in the film. Here in the book Fouchon manages to get it out and tries to disarm it, to no avail. 

In closing, Robert Tine’s Hard Target did not come off as a fine novel on its own, and it did not make me want to see the film again. I’m not saying it was terrible, though. It was interesting at the very least just to picture someone other than Jean-Claude Van Damme as Chance Boudreaux (again, the character’s a lot more “Kurt Russell” here in the book), and I appreciated the stuff that didn’t make it into the film. Oh, and random note – yes, Chance punches a snake and then bites off its tail here in the book, too.

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Lone Wolf #4: Desert Stalker

The Lone Wolf #4: Desert Stalker, by Mike Barry
January, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

Years ago Marty McKee sent me the entire run of The Lone Wolf, telling me how much he thought I’d enjoy the series. I’m sorry again that I took so long to heed Marty’s advice, as I do indeed enjoy this series – so much so that, even though crazed hero Burt Wulff spends the majority of Desert Stalker merely sitting in a hotel room, I found myself so caught up in it that I sped through the novel in no time. 

In my review of the previous volume I noted Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg’s “Notes On The Lone Wolf” essay from 1990, in which Malzberg stated that he took a publisher-mandated break between that volume and this one, and Malzberg felt it caused him to lose some of the narrative momentum. That did not seem very evident to me. Desert Stalker burns with that same weird, neurotic fire as the first three books. And once again Malzberg subtly displays the coolest conceit of The Lone Wolf: that Wulff’s presence is so disruptive he affects the reality of those he enocunters, to the point that they wonder if they are dreaming. 

While the “Conlan” name goofs don’t appear this time, there does seem to be some confusion on the first name: is it Martin or is it Burt? They’re both used in the book; the novel opens with an underworld communique in which “Martin Wulff” and his war on the mob is discussed – a communique that makes it clear that the Mafia had nothing whatsoever to do with the OD death of Wulff’s girlfriend in the first volume. In other words, Wulff’s war on the Mafia has started on false premises…yet, the communique notes, Wulff’s learning of this would probably have no impact on his war. He is committed to it, and is clearly insane. But on the back cover we are told it’s Burt Wulff, so either it’s more copyediting gaffes or he goes by the nickname Burt. Maybe the first volume spelled this out and I’ve just forgotten. 

Malzberg also maintains the pace of the previous books, with Desert Stalker opening pretty much immediately after Boston Avenger. Wulff drives direct to New York from Boston, his first time there since the first volume. He visits Williams, his partner from the opening pages of that first volume, and we get a lot of not-safe-for-today observations on blacks from Wulff/the narrative: “There was hatred one inch below the surface of any black man.” Malzberg treads this strange ground where Williams and Wulff have a sort of surly relationship, with Wulff thinking that Williams plans to use Wulff as a blunt instrument to kill criminals – and meanwhile Williams is still just a patrolman, so it isn’t like he’s some higher-up who can use his resoruces to fuel a secret war, a la the guy in Death Wish 3

Regardless, Williams essentially gives Wulff his mission this time. Impressed with the amount of damage Wulff has done so quickly, Williams tells Wulff that maybe he should look into Bill Stone, a lieutenant in the NYPD who “bugged out” with “a million dollars worth of shit” from the evidence room – a plot similar to Inside Job. However, this plot will prove to be a nonentity, as if Malzberg loses interest in it as he writes. Stone is set up as being a sort of reflection of Wulff – in fact Williams says that it was speculated that Wulff and Stone were working together, given that they both “bugged out” around the same time – but as it turns out, Stone only features in the novel for a single chapter. 

Instead, the brunt of Desert Stalker is composed of Burt/Martin Wulff barricading himself inside a plush penthouse suite in a hotel in Las Vegas. For that is where Stone has fled, per Williams’s intel, and after a night’s sleep Wulff hauls ass for Las Vegas. That surreal vibe of his enemies always surrounding him is also retained, with Wulff attacked along a desert road. Malzberg delivers effective action scenes in that they certainly have plentiful violence and gore, but as is typical he hasn’t done much research on firearms. Most notably, Wulff’s gun is refered to as a “revolver,” but Malzberg will write stuff like, “Wulff took out his revolver, put in a full clip.” I overlooked such mistakes, though, as the atmosphere and surreal vibe of the series is superior to any sort of firearm accuracy: 

Despite the psycho-surreal vibe, Malzberg still delivers action scenes. But as ever the series has more in common with the mainstream crime thrillers of the era than it does The Executioner. Whereas Mack Bolan would carefully plan his assault on the Vegas mob, Wulff as ever just bulls his way through without much of a plan. In fact he just walks into the casino-hotel Stone is reportedly staying in, knowing that he’ll immediately be spotted. Malzberg delivers his patented dark humor as Wulff shows absolutely no fear of the two thugs who come to collect him, much to their confusion – again, he is such a supernatural force that “normal people” don’t know how to react. This leads to some crazy stuff where Wulff, presumably the target, takes charge of the situation, escorts the thugs up to the big boss’s room, and proceeds to argue with everyone. 

Vinelli is the big boss, and as seen in the excerpt above he quickly suffers at the “revolver” of Wulff. But like Stone, Vinelli initially comes off as more of a presence than he ultimately will be; one of the few problems I had with Desert Stalker is that a profusion of “big bosses” kept appearing on the scene. It’s not a big deal, though, and just more indication that Wulff himself is the true “big bad” of the series; even the top Mafia boss is stupefied by him. But after shooting Vinelli, Wulff drags his bleeding form into Vinelli’s room and spends pretty much the rest of the novel there. It sounds lame I know, but man it’s filled with such dark humor and just plain weirdness that I found myself loving it. 

Malzberg frequently refers to previous volumes, and suprisingly Wulff even makes a phone call to Tamara, aka Louise, the babe he scored with in the second volume. This is an affecting scene that doesn’t get too sappy, but it’s made clear that Wulff feels something for Tamara. In fact it is she who makes him realize that he now wants to live, to “come back” to the real world…even though he still thinks of himself as “a dead man.” Wulff makes the call while the various Vegas forces are converging on his penthouse suite, and truth be told the inevitable action scene also is not in the realm of The Executioner. Guys just come in through the window and try to barge down the door, and Wulff shoots them. Again, it’s the twisted vibe that stands out, like the ultra-bizarre metaphor Malzberg uses to describe a collapsing hotel: 

Malzberg continues the schtick of having the volumes bleed into one another; Desert Stalker ends with Wulff getting on an airplane, ready to head for his next destination to kill more mobsters. Despite Malzberg’s reservations about any loss of momentum in his 1990 essay on the series, I have to say that this one was just as enjoyable as the previous three.

Thursday, August 18, 2022


Grizzly, by Will Collins
April, 1976  Pyramid Books

I’ve never seen the movie Grizzly, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever even heard of it. It’s possible I’ve seen the poster, which appears to be the most remembered thing about the movie. But this is another one of those “I can’t believe they did a novelization of that” situations – and once again I have Robert Mann to thank for sending me his copy. I’ve failed to mention Robert in my previous tie-in novel reviews, but over the past year he has been sending me boxes of tie-in paperbacks, like Lethal Weapon and That Man Bolt!…just tons of great books I’ve been happy to receive, and I’ve been meaning to thank him in the reviews. 

This paperback was included in the most recent box, and also Robert noted about it: “It was a quick read thriller that was at least entertaining. The movie was horrible!” I haven’t reviewed a horror novel on here in a long time, so I decided to read Grizzly first. Robert was very correct – the novel turned out to be a quick read, and it was entertaining for sure. This is due to the skill of the author, “Will Collins,” which turns out to be the pseudonym of Edwin Corley, a well-known author at one time. Corley takes what is a goofy concept and treats it with some gravitas; I’ve never read Peter Benchley’s Jaws (and hell I haven’t even seen the movie – though I did see Jaws III in the theater and had Jaws IV on VHS), but I’m assuing it was written in a similar style…for clearly Grizzly is like the wildlife take on Jaws. And speaking of which, last year Robert also sent me the novelizations of Jaws II and Jaws IV, and I intend to read them as well someday soon. 

The novel sticks to the horror template, with various characters meeting, uh, grisly fates at the claws of a giant grizzly bear that’s running amok in a park in Iowa. The cover says the grizzly is 18 feet, but the novel implies that it’s 15 feet, but why quibble. Another callback to the horror trope is that most all of the victims meet their gory fates just as they’re about to have sex, or stripping down for sex, or merely thinking about sex. To be sure, though, the only actual sex scene in Grizzly occurs off-page. That said, the novel caters to the rugged masculine ethic of the day, as displayed in contemporary “nature run amok” horror novel The Deadly Deep – a nice reminder of the days when popular fiction was written and marketed for a male readership. 

Proving this posthaste, the novel opens with a park ranger who is “a slim girl, tightly contained in a uniform that seemed a size too small.” Corley does his best to convey her ensuing jiggling and whatnot, and later in the novel we’ll even have a part where she strips down and gets in a waterfall as preparation for a little outdoors lovin’. Surprisingly though this busty Playmate-esque ranger isn’t the lead female character; instead it’s a local gal in her thirties named Allison Corwin who is a professional photographer. But don’t worry, as we’re assured Allison’s attractive too, and the male hero of the yarn, Kelly Gordon, has already been putting the moves on her before the story begins. But as mentioned no actual sex material occurs in the novel – though we do get a lot of dialog about it, including the absolutely unforgettable line: “Harry simply went ape screwing to Bolero.” 

Stuff like this is clear indication Corley is having fun and not taking the material too seriously, which jibes with the eco sermonizing that frequently runs through the text. Way too much of Grizzly comes off like proto-climate change ideology, with lectures on how poor old mother nature is just suffering unmerciful because of man. White man, be assured, because we also learn in an aside that American Indians respected nature and etc, etc…the sort of stuff that once appeared in a pulp paperback tie-in but now no doubt is lectured as “the science” in universities across this once-great land of ours. 

I had to look on to see who played these characters; I was unable to get a visualization of them from the narrative, so I’m guessing Corley wrote the novel before production began. At any rate Kelly Gordon is the ruggedly masculine protagonist of the tale, very much in-line with the Marlboro Men-type protagonists of the era. Whereas today youth is key, in the ‘70s protagonists were often older, more experienced in various fields, and such is the case with Kelly, a 38 year-old Vietnam vet who acts as the chief park ranger, though he reports to a paper-pushing administrative government dweeb who has achieved his position due to politics. 

I haven’t yet gotten to the titular grizzly, who believe it or not has his own narrative sections. In some ways Grizzly reminds me of Snowman, which was also about a massive monster attacking a resort area, but whereas that one was totally sci-fi horror (complete with a giant monster), Grizzly tries to retain a semblance of realism. The grizzly, who is referred to as “The Beast” in his narrative portions, is a sort of throwback to the prehistoric era – or so it is quickly theorized at one point in the novel, so as to lend some unneccesary credence to the tale. The tale opens with the grizzly being kicked out of his usual foraging area high atop a mountain due to land developers; as I say, there is a definite eco-bent to the narrative, with man’s destruction of nature and whatnot often mentioned. But then personally I’d take a shopping mall over an 18-foot grizzly with a fondness for human flesh, so I fail to see Corley’s point. 

To his credit (or perhaps that should be to the script’s credit), Corley gets started on the horror action quick. Unlike Snowman, this nature-run-amok tale doesn’t spin its wheels in plodding setup. We’re introduced to the curvy rangerette (not a term used in the book, btw), then meet a few of the other rangers, and then we’re introduced to a pair of college gals who happen to be camping. They become the first victims of the bear, and Corley proves his horror-writing skills in an effective sequence. He’s also got the lurid vibe down pat because one of the gals happens to be talking about sex (with a park ranger she just met) shortly before meeting her fate…and also we get the tidbit that the girl happens to be having her period, the scent of which has gotten the grizzly’s attention! It’s all pretty violent, no doubt more graphic than the film version: 

Another thing the story doesn’t waste time on is people refusing to belive they are in a horror novel – I’m no expert on the genre, but “I don’t believe in any stupid old monsters!” seems to be a recurring schtick in it. That doesn’t happen here, so far as Kelly Gordon and his fellow rangers go. They come across the bloody remains of the girls and immediately know a bear is amok, promptly taking the necessary safety precautions. We get a bit of detail on how wildlife parks operate – Kelly is adamant that the rangers moved all the bears in the area to the high country months ago – and also we see some of the stupidty of the administrative ranks. The rangers work on the situation, demanding that campers move out of the vicinity…and of course, a few stubborn ones ignore the order, to their gory regret. 

With the help of a “hot-shot naturalist temporarily assigned to the park” named Arthur Scott, it’s soon determined that the attacking bear is actually a grizzly. Arthur Scott vies with Kelly Gordon as the star of the show; he’s a rugged individualist type himself, but one who likes to dress up in animal hides and lurk in nature for days, observing animals in the wild. In fact, there’s a bit of a Predator foreshadowing here when Arthur decides to buck the other rangers and go out after the giant grizzly on his own. Unfortunately for him he isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, so it doesn’t go very well. This stuff was cool, though, and I liked it that Arthur was the only character who really took the fight to the bear, going out in the element of “The Beast” cloaked in animal skins and armed with an experimental dart gun. 

It wouldn’t be ‘70s eco-horror without a bit of random casual sex, though, and Corley also delivers on this – though as stated all the sex is off-page. Kelly and Allison find the time to get it on in a remote cabin in the woods, in the midst of the grizzly’s carnage. This part is enjoyably ‘70s with them mixing drinks and shooting the pre-sex breeze while the other rangers are out in the dark woods waiting in ambush for a massive bear that’s chewing up random victims. However it’s also very ‘70s in that Allison has no bearings on the plot; she takes some photos of the carnage (and vomits), but eventually heeds Kelly’s advice that she get the hell out of the park until the bear is found. So in other words we don’t have any of the mandatory “female empowerment” of today with rugged female characters also taking on the bear; even the curvy ranger babe, Gail Nelson, doesn’t amount to much in the narrative, other than the aforementioned scene where she strips down by a waterfall, deciding to take this moment to finally give the goods to a hunky fellow ranger. You don’t have to be a horror veteran to guess how this scene plays out. 

The book also doesn’t shirk on the grizzly carnage; there are frequent attacks on hapless campers, both in the woods and in civilization. The latter plays out in a sequence more akin to a supernatural thriller, with the grizzly attacking homes and a restaurant – one that happens to be owned by Allison’s dad, and is also one of the reasons why she decides to leave until the bear is taken down. But speaking of which that’s one element in which Snowman was superior…but then, that novel featured guys with frigin’ nuclear crossbows going after the titular monster. Here, we just have Kelly piloting a helicopter while one of his colleagues takes aim with a big gun. It’s cool and all, but nowhere in the crazed realms of the other novel. 

All told, Grizzly was a quick and fun read, with that “full ‘70s flavor” I demand in my fiction. (Can’t recall where I read that phrase, but I love it.) It was so good that in my mind Grizzly will just be a novel, and I see no reason to seek out the film someday. Well, I did read that the actress who plays the curvy rangerette was a Penthouse model, so maybe there is a reason.

Monday, August 15, 2022

An Interview With Len Levinson

A big thanks to Gayne C. Young for sharing this interview he recently did with Len Levinson. The interview originally ran in two parts, in the July 27th and August 3rd issues of the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post, a newspaper in Fredericksburg, Texas: 

Len Levinson is the author of 86 novels, most of which were considered “Pulp” and aimed at men starting in the 1970’s. I got the chance to visit with Mr. Levinson about his work, what it means to be a man, and his new autobiography, In The Pulp Fiction Trenches.  

I just finished your autobiography and really enjoyed it. It was a great read, very entertaining, informative and brutally honest. What prompted you to write it and why now? 

In the Pulp Fiction Trenches began as a series of articles I wrote at the request of Joe Kenney for his Glorious Trash blog. He asked me to comment on certain novels of mine that he was reviewing. After Joe published the articles, I decided to post them on Facebook. Several Facebook friends praised the articles and suggested I collect them into a book. A few publishers on my Facebook friend list expressed interest in such a book. How could I ignore interest from publishers? So, I gathered the articles into a book, added new articles about some of my other novels, and included material about the complicated life of the strange character who wrote 86 published novels. Why write such a book now? Because the chain of events led to now. It was my karma, man. 

Some of the honesty I’m referring to in your book is your telling of the very lows of being a professional writer, of troubles in your love life, and admitting yourself to a mental institution for suicidal thoughts. Why’d you decide to include stories such as these? 

While compiling articles for the book, I thought information about my background would deepen and broaden the narrative. I assumed readers would be curious about the person who wrote the novels, and how his adventures, misadventures, love life, triumphs, defeats and crises affected his novels. 

You researched a great number of your books by going to the library and reading book after book, article after article. Today, authors just go online. What are the upsides and downsides to the way you used to research versus the way it’s done today. 

I have not thoroughly advanced into the modern age, and never read an ebook or Kindle. I doubt that I ever will. I was living in Manhattan when writing nearly all my novels. I enjoyed going to libraries and reading old books that were long out of print, sometimes out of print over 100 years. My favorite research location was the Main Reading Room, also known as room 315 on the 3rd floor of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. My second favorite was the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West at 76th Street, where I even became a member. I also schemed my way into libraries at Columbia University and New York University. I enjoy research because I have loved reading since childhood, and also love the pursuit of knowledge. Intellectual stimulation is a legal high for me. 

Thanks to streaming services and the internet, more writers are employed now than ever before yet it seems hardly anyone reads. What are your thoughts on this and what does it say about our society? 

I don’t think it’s true that “hardly anyone reads”. There always will be people who enjoy reading good fiction, no matter what twists and turns the world takes. Many people nowadays read ebooks, which I’m told sell better than paper books. 

Many people also read journalism and other writing on the internet. The internet is the raw bleeding psyche of humanity. Everything imaginable is on the internet, from the most vicious vituperation to the most noble and beautiful sentiments. There’s something for everyone on the internet, which is good and bad because people with bad intentions with have their hatred reinforced by the internet, and occasionally they become mall and school shooters. Law enforcement should monitor the internet and detain people who threaten violence. I can’t understand why this isn’t being done already. 

Shark Fighter is my favorite book of yours. The main character, Sam Taggart, is about as Un-PC as they get. He drinks, smokes, is violent, is a womanizer, and has a hell’uva lot of fun. Take him out of 1975 and drop him into 2022. What do you think Taggart would think of today’s society and of our ideas of what being a man means? 

Shark Fighter also is one of my favorites of all my novels. You understand of course that Taggart is partially me. But also partially not me. So what would Taggart think of today’s society? And what being a man means? 

My understanding of Taggart is that he wouldn’t even contemplate these issues. He’s so disillusioned with humanity that he’s escaped to a small Caribbean Island where he focuses on scuba diving, women, booze, drugs, and enjoying himself to the extent that he can, while coping with corrupt government and police, and local criminals. 

He understands that he has no political power, and no one cares about what he thinks. He knows what is a man and a woman, and doesn’t give the matter much thought analytically. Taggart is a live and let live kind of guy, just like me. The expression “society” has no real meaning for Taggart. He’s mainly interested in making the most of his little world, and to hell with society. 

Let’s pretend Hollywood comes calling and wants to adapt one of your books. Which book would you choose to adapt and why? 

I think that Cobra Woman is my best novel. It would make a fabulous movie starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, or Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. The story is about a volatile insane multicultural love affair and marriage between a male gringo advertising copywriter, and immigrant Cuban former showgirl, based loosely on my dizzy first marriage, sort of like Lucy and Desi in reverse, but much more sophisticated and geared toward modern intelligent adults. The plot is set in New York City and Miami. I think Cobra Woman would make a hilarious blockbuster movie. 

I also think my The Last Buffoon would make a great movie. It is about the misadventures of a demented pulp fiction writer, also based loosely on me, and would be a great vehicle for an actor like Ben Affleck, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, etc. 

I also think Shark Fighter would be a phenomenal movie. Actually, to tell you the truth, I think ALL my books would make fabulous movies, but Hollywood has shown no great interest YET!!! 

What’s the nicest fan comment you ever received? 

Some people say they like my books. Others say they love my books. But one evening several years ago I received a phone call from a young lady who somehow had tracked down my land line number via methods not clear to me. 

She told me that she grew up in a house in a remote rural area in one of the Rocky Mountain states, and occasionally travelled with her family to the nearest big city, where often she stopped at bookstores. At the age of sixteen, in one of these bookstores, out of curiosity, she bought a lurid crime novel called Without Mercy by Leonard Jordan, who in real life is none other than me. 

She read this book and discovered a world that she never knew existed, which inspired an intense desire to move to New York City someday. And when she was old enough, she actually did relocate to New York City, lived the Manhattan life, walked the Manhattan walk, talked the Manhattan talk, had a few disastrous love affairs, got married and divorced, and finally moved back to her home state, an older and much wiser young lady. 

She said that I had changed her life forever, and referred to me as her “writer hero”. That was the nicest fan comment I ever received. I volunteered to drive out to the Rocky Mountains so that she could meet her writer hero in person, but she didn’t think that was a good idea, because she had become a very smart young lady and knew trouble when she heard it in the earpiece of her telephone. 

It all goes to prove that a novel can change a person’s life. It even happened to me. I read I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane when I was 16, and like the young lady who phoned me, it inspired in me a desire to live in New York City someday. So finally, I arrived there at age 26, worked in advertising and then entertainment publicity, became a novelist, married twice, had many highs and lows, left when I was 68, and now I live in a small Midwestern town population 3000, way out here on the Great American Prairie. 

Literature is not just words on a page. It can be very powerful, like an earthquake in the lives of readers.

The worst? 

Some think my books are trite, shallow, vulgar, juvenile and excessively violent. Recently I read a line by the once-famous critic Edmund Wilson: “No two people ever read the same book.” In other words, different people have different reactions to novels. Most people say they like or love my books, which makes me feel wonderful. 

As I stated earlier, you’re very open about all the ups and downs of being a professional writer. Given the chance, would you have changed anything about your choice in careers? 

I don’t know what I could have changed. I’ve had a compulsion to be a writer of fiction since the 5th grade. That compulsion never went away. I wish I’d had the compulsion to become an engineer, chemist or get an MBA, because I’d be better off financially today, but I could only play the cards dealt me. 

Sometimes I wish I’d joined the Air Force, become a pilot, retired after 20 years, and become an airline pilot. I think that would have suited my temperament perfectly. 

But I've always had that infernal compulsion to write stories, and could not deny or ignore it. Perhaps it is a neurotic compulsion. Or maybe I’m mentally disturbed. Or possibly I simply was born with the soul of a novelist. 

In the immortal words of the great Maria Callas: “Destiny is destiny, and there’s no way out.” 

About Gayne C. Young: If you mixed Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Hunter S. Thompson, and four shots of tequila in a blender, a "Gayne Young" is what you'd call the drink! 

Gayne C. Young is the author of the Red Frontier Series, Murder Hornets, the Primal Force series, The Troop, Sumatra, Bug Hunt, Teddy Roosevelt: Sasquatch Hunter, Vikings: The Bigfoot Saga, Editor-at-Large for Field Ethos Journal, former Editor-in-Chief of North American Hunter and North American Fisherman - both part of CBS Sports -and a columnist for and feature contributor to Outdoor Life and Sporting Classics magazines. His work has appeared in magazines such as Petersen’s Hunting, Texas Sporting Journal, Sports Afield, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Under Wild Skies, Hunter’s Horn, Spearfishing, and many others. 

In January 2011, Gayne C. Young became the first American outdoor writer to interview Russian Prime Minister, and former Russian President, Vladimir Putin. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Gang

The Gang, by Herbert Kastle
December, 1976  Dell Books

This was the first of two paperback originals Herbert Kastle published through Dell; most of his previous novels had been hardcovers. Given the late ’76 date I’m going to assume it was the oil crisis that resulted in this book being paperback only; it’s my understanding that the crisis caused publishers to revisit their entire lines, in some cases outright canceling them – the fate that befell most men’s adventure novels at the time. I guess it was only a temporary setback for Kastle, as by 1979’s awesome Ladies Of The Valley he was back in hardcover (though the paperback was also published by Dell). 

Back in 2013 I reviewed Cross-Country, the novel which preceded The Gang. As I mentioned in my review, Cross-Country started off a sort-of trilogy, with The Gang being second and Death Squad, Kastle’s other Dell PBO, being the third. However the only thing linking the novels is Detective Sergeant Eddy Roersch of Manhattan West Homicide; the events of Cross-Country aren’t even mentioned in The Gang, so reading that book first certainly isn’t necessary. In fact someone just picking up The Gang would have no idea it even is a sort of follow-up to a previous book. However there is a bit of a benefit in reading the books in order; for example, we learn here that Roersch, a 58 year-old widow, has married the former hooker who lived down the hall from him, and is about to have a baby boy with her. In Cross-Country it was established that Roersch was starting to feel more for the former pro, Ruthie, than just the occasional freebie. 

I knew something was up when Roersch was happy in his intro; no one’s happy in a Herbert Kastle novel. I’ve read a few of the guy’s books and I love his writing, but I can’t help but feel that Herbert Kastle himself was one unhappy guy. The theme is constant in his books of rage boiling just below the surface, of people ready to lash out. His protagonists are most always unlikeable pricks…like the rapist stalker protagonist in Hot Prowl. Not to read too much into the book, but one of the protagonists of The Gang is a novelist who decides to live out his crime novels by going on a kill-spree rampage. In fact I think there was a similar subplot in Ladies Of The Valley, with a screenwriter who was a serial killer or somesuch. 

Well anyway, in my earlier reviews of Herbert Kastle I wasn’t yet aware of the work of Lawrence Sanders. Now that I have read a few of Sanders’s novels and researched some others of his I plan to read, I can’t help but suspect that Kastle, like many other crime writers of the day, was influenced by Sanders…particularly The First Deadly Sin. Kastle’s style even seems similar to Sanders’s in The Gang, mixing a methodical police procedural with lurid elements. This of course is a good thing; I’m just noting, not criticizing. But then again it could just be a coincidence. It’s just that the milieu, the focus on actual detecting instead of “cop movie” style escapades, and the periodic detours into graphic sex seem to be what put Lawrence Sanders on the map. But I guess Sanders just had a better agent, as his novels were all bestsellers and Herbert Kastle’s came out as a paperback original. 

But as I’ve said before, I prefer paperback originals, if for no other reason than the cover art, which is always better than hardcover cover art. The cover for The Gang is especially cool, but uncredited. Also a bit misleading, as the lead female character, Cynthia Derringer, has dark hair. And, unfortunately, she does not wield an Uzi at any point in the story. But otherwise one of the best covers ever, and surely had to move at least a few units in December of 1976. Or maybe not, as The Gang only received this paperback printing in the US (I think it came out in hardcover in the UK, where Kastle had more fame, it seems – in fact his last novel was only published there), and now appears to be entirely forgotten. 

So back to the unlikeable protagonists. Roersch is not the main character in The Gang, which again brings to mind the work of Lawrence Sanders, in how his cop character Edward X. Delaney would be the protagonist in some novels, like The First Deadly Sin, but a minor character in others, like The Anderson Tapes. Note even the same first names for these characters: Eddy Roersch and Edward Delaney. Well anyway, Roersch does feature in much of The Gang, and is the only thing akin to a hero we get in the novel…however he has no real interraction with the main plot, despite Kastle’s valiant struggles to make it seem as if he does. Indeed, Roersch could be entirely removed from the novel and the plot would not be impacted…Kastle ensures we understand this, for some curious reason, often reinforcing how Roersch is “too late” to change the tide in several situations. 

The actual “heroes” of the book are the fucked-up losers who make up the titular Gang. A big problem with the novel is how implausible all this is, though. In fact there were times I was wondering if Kastle was spoofing Sanders, even down to the bloated page length…I mean The Gang is “only” 316 pages, but good gravy does it have some small and dense print. It sometimes seemed that no matter how dogged an effort I was putting into the reading, the book still wouldn’t get any closer to the end. And that’s the other thing…The Gang isn’t very enjoyable or entertaining. It’s kind of ridiculous and hard to buy, and not helped by its rushed conclusion. One almost gets the impression that Kastle himself didn’t believe in the book and was just bulling his way through it. 

So here is the plot: A quartet of people who have been screwed over by life in various ways decide to become “The Gang” and pull a series of violent robberies across the country, with the intent of heisting enough money to go off to South America and live like kings for the rest of their lives. But they aren’t professional thieves or even criminals…save for one of them, 17 year-old Mark Corman, who is a criminal only in that he has a juvenile record for breaking and entering and other stuff that he now regrets. His backstory is what brings Roersch into the tale, though it’s a bit hard to buy. The belabored setup has it that Mark got pulled into the robbery of a jewelry store in Manhattan in which the owner was killed, not by Mark, and Mark freaked out and took off, leaving his two comrades behind. Roersch gets the case, and given his Columbo-esque detecting abilities soon figures there’s more to it than a simple robbery gone wrong, and indeed there is. Though it has no bearing on the major plot per se. 

Meanwhile Mark’s dad, Manny Corman, a promoter gone to seed who lives in Los Angeles and hasn’t seen his son in six years, has fallen in with Bert Brown, a successful novelist in his 40s. The two men each have a casual sex thing going with hotstuff brunette Celia Derringer, a beauty with “balloonlike tits” and a “big” rear who is the kept mistress of a famous bandleader in LA. Yes, it’s all very convoluted. But long story short, Celia’s also got a thing going on the side with Bert and the bandleader suspects her – rightly, it turns out – of whoring, and has been keeping tabs on her, and shows up while she and Bert are mid-coitus. This leads to a violent confrontation in which, typical for a Kastle character, Celia’s latent rage is unleashed in full force. 

These four characters (Manny, Mark, Celia, and Bert), now on the run from the law – Manny because he’s gone on the lamb to help his son – decide to become “The Gang,” all an idea of Bert’s. The brains behind the group, Bert convinces them to form a “family,” which appears to have spawned the cover blurb comparison to Helter-Skelter. Celia herself even thinks of the Manson Family, though notes that they’re too grungy and unkempt for The Gang. But it’s all so very implausible, how these four people just suddenly decide to band together as criminals, as they have “nothing to lose,” even down to Celia becoming the “Earth Mother” for them…having sex with all of “her men!” Weird stuff for sure, and while Kastle does his best to make it all seem plausible, it just rings hollow from beginning to end. 

As I read the book I concluded that the reason it all seemed implausible was because Kastle hadn’t sufficiently set it up. Bert Brown is the originator of the idea, and we’re told it’s because he’s done some crime novels and now wants to live them out. But we’re not told anything about his books, and really the character is introduced to us shortly before he begins his criminal career, so it’s not like there’s much establishing material. Bert’s real driving force is that, a la Alex Jason in The Enforcer, he has terminal stomach cancer. The fact that he’s soon to die is what unshackles him from society’s norms and causes him to push The Gang further and further into crime. But his ensuing viciousness – gunning down a hapless waiter in an early heist – is just hard to accept. Again though Kastle tries to cover his bases; previous to this Bert was secretly a coward, and after being called out on this in the confrontation with Celia’s cuckolded bandleader it’s clear he’s driven to prove how much of a man he is. 

And yes, a theme of masculinity also runs through the novel, and while Kastle often compares and contrasts “the old days” with the novel’s present of 1976, surely he didn’t realize that masculinity itself would one day be questioned. I mean Supreme Court justices don’t even know what women are these days! I guess things were just more clear-cut in the ‘70s. One of the many subplots concerns how men can survive in this increasingly stultifying world, and also there’s a running subtext about fathers and sons. Even here though Kastle stumbles in the actual plotting, because while Manny Corman is introduced as being desperate to help his son Mark, soon enough Manny’s convinced the whole Gang idea is the only option they have…and the fact that he’s putting his son in even greater danger is just sort of brushed under the narrative carpet. As I say, the entire novel is just so implausible in so many ways. 

Meanwhile Eddy Roersch has his own shit to deal with. As mentioned he’s 58, with 30-some years on the job, and a great record with cracking cases. Even though Columbo is dissed in passing, that’s the cop Roersch most resembles, a sort of mule-headed investigator who refuses to see the “easy” case his fellow cops see and will keep sifting through details until he finds something deeper. However Roersch always “freezes” on tests, thus he’s never advanced beyond Sergeant, even though people without nearly his track record have. Such would be the case of Roersch’s new boss, Lt. Krinke, who immediately takes a dislike to Roersch; Krinke is a stickler for detail, more concerned with rules and regulations, and bridles at Roerschs’s intuition-based approach. This rivalry takes up most of Roersch’s plot, with Krinke seeming to have it in for Roersch. Oh and speaking of changing times…later in the novel a colleague informs Roersche that rumor has it Lt. Krinke might be a closeted gay, hence his animosity, and Roersch can’t believe it: “Gays in the police department?” 

The titular Gang starts small, hitting a restaurant they happen to be eating at. This is another implausible bit, as Bert realizes he needs to sort of shock the system to make the others realize that the Gang is all they have. In other words Kastle is at pains to create a twisted family dynamic, and it occurred to me that this was the same thing he did in Cross-Country (which also had characters increasingly “act crazy” at the whims of the plot). But I had a very hard time believing that Manny, whose entire presence here to begin with is to to keep his son out of danger, goes along with it, holding a gun per Bert’s order and chortling over the unexpectedly-large haul they get. From there it’s to a furtner cementing of the familial bond; Bert has it that Celia will sleep with all three men – and Celia is all game for it. In fact the novel’s most explicit sequence concerns her initial boink with teenaged Mark. 

This particular sex scene goes on for a few pages, whereas the (relatively few) others go for just a few not-very-graphic paragraphs. There’s also a weird bit where a highway patrolman inadvertently pulls over the Gang, not realizing who they are…and they get the drop on him…and Bert urges Celia to screw the bound officer. It just all seems so dispirited, and I got the impression Kastle was just going through the motions, so to speak, maybe trying to provide the lurid stuff ‘70s crime readers demanded, but his heart wasn’t in it. But Kastle certainly delivers on the lurid vibe with a random focus on sleaze – both Manny and Mark, we learn, are well-hung…something Manny is happy to learn about his boy, peeping at him over the wall of a urinal! And then wondering if it’s acceptable for a dad to talk to his son about such things! 

Regardless, the stuff with Roersch is more entertaining than the entirety of the Gang plot, even though the Roersch material lacks much action and has zero sex. It’s really just a methodical procedural, with Roersch stubbornly tracking leads in what every other cop – especially his despotic boss – thinks is an open and shut case. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a plot if there wasn’t more to the case, and Roersch’s unraveling of the web is more entertaining than the various heists the Gang perpetrates. In fact I found much of their material tedious and unwelcome. They’re just too savage to be believable; I mean on the very first job Bert is gunning down some hapless waiter. They also take up this cutesy schtick of leaving coy messages in blood or lipstick at their crime scenes; another Manson inspiration, I guess. Their hits become increasingly reckless and violent, with each member, save for Mark, becoming increasingly crazy. 

This was another thing I remembered about Cross-Country; a female character in it started acting nuts toward the end, even though she’d been relatively normal beforehand. The same thing happens here, with Celia just getting more and more aggressively schizoid, at one point almost getting “her men” killed when she starts up some shit with a waiter. (Waiters particularly seem to suffer at the hands of The Gang.) Little does Celia realize that a few armed cops happen to be dining in the restaurant, something Mark desperately tries to warn her of. Throughout all these escapades Mark is the sole voice of reason, never taking part in the actual violence; this is the thing Roersch clings to, back in New York, as he’s determined to save Mark Corman somehow. 

But the two plots never gel, despite how much Kastle attempts to make it seem like they do. Roersch, a 30-some year veteran, suddenly gets touchy-feely about 17 year-old petty criminal Mark Corman, initially just one of the subjects in Roersch’s latest case…but as things progress Roersch starts thinking of him like a father. This is another thing that upsets Lt. Krinke, leading to another face-off between the two. The cop-world detailing here is very realistic and Kastle excels at bringing to life the monotonous routine of police work. He’s clearly done his work on how the NYPD operates; perhaps his advisor was former police captain Tom Walker, author of Fort Apache: The Bronx, who provided blurbs for both The Gang and Death Squad

It's implausible how the confrontation with Krinke ultimately comes to a boil, though. However Kastle delivers a nice wrapup to this that’s touching without being maudlin (referring here to the name Roersch decides to give his son, who is born at the end of the book). The wrapup with The Gang isn’t nearly as well constructed. After various heists, The Gang is riding high – and then we suddenly learn via dialog that they’ve been spotted along a road near Peekskill, New York, shot it out with a patrolman, and are now holed up in a particular house, which is under siege by an armada of cops. This climax is basically thrust upon us with no real setup, and it’s almost as if Kastle felt the book was getting too long and decided to cut to the chase. Or it’s more indication that he himself didn’t believe in the entire premise of the book and wanted to get it over with. 

To make things worse, Roersch still has no interraction with the main plot; throughout the book he is always “too late” to do anything about the situation with Mark Corman. Again, it makes Roersch seem completely unnecessary to the novel. Hopefully he will be more integrated into the next one, Death Squad, which apparently concerns a rogue force of cops. Roersch’s storyline was I felt the best part of The Gang, which otherwise was a curiously deflated novel from Herbert Kastle. 

Great cover art, though! And also I’ll always remember The Gang as the book I read when I got Covid. Speaking of which, I apologize if any of the preceding review was hard to understand – I wrote it while I was getting over Covid, which essentially was like a bad cold for two days. But at least now I can mark “Get Covid” off of my bucket list.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Deadly Massage (Kill Squad #5)

The Deadly Massage, by Mark Cruz
No month stated, 1976  Manor Books

The Kill Squad series comes to a close with an installment that promises a lot more sleaze than it ultimately delivers; save for the narrative tone Dan Streib (aka “Mark Cruz”) writes the book in. While Streib is fond of very crude analogies and metaphors in the narrative, the book per se is pretty anemic in the sleaze department, even if it concerns the titular Kill Squad investigating the linkup between a Chinese massage parlor and the slave trade. 

First of all, this is another book I got from Marty McKee some years ago; in fact I’m reading the same copy he reviewed on his blog in 2013. It’s interesting to see a Manor men’s adventure novel from 1976, given that the majority of publishers were whittling way back on their men’s adventure series at the time. I agree with Marty that Streib goofs by once again taking the Kill Squad out of its California stomping grounds and putting it in a foreign country, which is what he’s done for the past few volumes. The entire premise is ludicrous and gives the impression that Streib didn’t know how to properly handle the series. I mean “trio of tough cops killing crooks” seems like a series that could write itself, but instead Streib’s been running on empty ever since the entertaining first volume

But then, book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel himself referred to Dan Streib as “not very good,” no doubt a veiled reference to Streib’s work on the first two volumes of Chopper Cop. As I mentioned in my reviews of those books, Streib delivered an “action hero” who was more of a wuss. And as I’ve mentioned in my Kill Squad reviews, it’s as if Streib had a delayed realization of this and doubled down on making the hero of this series an uber-macho badass…to the extent that main series protagonist Chet Tabor comes off like a hateful prick. Definitely one of the more unlikable heroes in men’s adventure…with the added kick in the crotch that Tabor’s also a screw-up, even though he himself of course doesn’t realize it. 

But the macho drive extends to the narrative tone. In fact one could almost argue that Streib is spoofing the entire vibe of the genre. This is evident in the crudity of the narrative, particularly in such weird word-painting as, “…the [Hong Kong airport] runway extend[ed] like a stiff penis,” or “Malaysia…hung like a penis from the underbelly of Asia.” We learn that Tabor’s old Mercedes has now grown “cranky…like a woman in menopause,” and also that he sometimes takes superior-officer/fellow Kill Squader Maria Alvarez to bed because “she needed that occasionally, so she didn’t forget that she was a woman.” Oh and for the first time, I believe, Streib mentions Maria’s grim ordeal in the first volume: “…a gang rape that had left her nauseated for months when she even thought about sex.” Even the first page is indicative of this uber-macho, almost-parodic tone: 

When we meet them Tabor and Grant Lincoln, the other member of the Kill Squad (aka “the black one”), are moonlighting on the “keyhole-peeking Vice squad,” pretending to be businessmen at the China Doll massage parlor in San Diego, Kill Squad home base. Here’s where Tabor’s dumb-assness comes in; so his and Grant’s task is to get these hookers to proposition them, but Tabor soon discovers his girl doesn’t speak English. So Tabor decides to take his girl – and the two Grant has grabbed for himself (just like Jim Kelly!) – and take them out to dinner!? Right then and there! So he pulls them out of the parlor and some toughs give chase, and in the ensuing shootout one of the girls is killed and the China Doll burns down. 

So clearly this entire plot would be unbelievable even in an ‘80s buddy cop film. Speaking of which, the plot of Deadly Massage is sort of reminiscent of an actual ‘80s action movie: The Protector. But the setup is even more implausible here. Essentlially Tabor, Grant, and Maria bully their “stupid chief” into letting them go to Hong Kong(!) to track down the two massage parlor girls, both of whom were abducted during the shootout and likely have been smuggled back to “the Orient.” The idea is that these two girls could blow the lid off an entire slave-trade operation running out of Red China. Streib even unwittingly brings in some identity politics presience; when the stupid chief denies the entire idea, a fellow cop – who happens to be Asian – shames the chief that he doesn’t care about the girls: “Is it because they’re Chinese?” 

So reality be damned the Kill Squad heads over to Hong Kong. It even gets more ludicrous because the local cops allow them to keep their guns. Some detail is given Tabor’s two new guns: a Webley revolver and a Beretta .380. He might’ve used these in the previous books, I can’t remember, but Streib introduces them like they’re new to Tabor’s arsenal. Not that he will use them much; there are only a few shootouts in The Deadly Massage, and nothing too violent…except when it comes to Streib’s trademark description of a woman being shot in the face. This is a recurring theme in Streib’s novels, complete with the weird constant detail of the cheekbones also exploding: 

But here’s the crazy thing about a novel involving massage parlors and sex-slavery: there isn’t a sex scene in The Deadly Massage! Tabor often thinks about banging Maria – and later in the book we learn Maria gets all hot and bothered by Tabor, too, even though she hates his male chauvinist pig guts. Nothing ever happens, though, however we do learn that Tabor briefly considers becoming a Muslim because he learns that Muslims can have several wives! This is courtesy a local named Low who happens to be “Muslin” [sp] who has four wives, and Tabor can’t get over how hot each of them are. Tabor briefly considers becoming a Muslim to take advantage of this, “before they change the rules.” Indeed Tabor’s male-gazery is so over the top throughout the book that it’s a refreshing balm to the emasculating bullshit of today’s action entertainment. 

Oh, but there’s a dark side, though: Tabor again indulges in his penchant for random racism. This, as ever, is directed toward Grant Lincoln, who curiously receives hardly any narrative space in The Deadly Massage. Tabor is as ever the star of the show, with occasional cutovers to Maria’s perspective. But Grant Lincoln doesn’t get to do much…other, that is, receive some nonsensical baiting from Tabor: “You black bastard! What’s wrong with you, boy?” Oh and we also have the “Jap killer” the Kill Squad chases to Hong Kong – meaning he’s a killer who happens to be Japanese, not a killer of Japanese. 

Streib also works in a half-assed mystery subplot on who exactly is behind the slavery ring, even though it will soon be clear to even the most unengaged reader…though of course the members of the Kill Squad take forever to figure this out. They do a fair bit of traveling around “the Orient” as well, from Hong Kong to Malaysia to Bangkok. The action climaxes in a snake temple, but as Marty notes in his review Streib does precious little to bring the scene to life. Marty’s also on-point with how a major villain is killed off-page, which also sucks. But by novel’s end the Kill Squad has cracked the case and is happily heading back to San Diego – where presumably the three of them will continue acting as a team. 

So in other words, there’s no real finale to the series here, no indication that this was the final volume. One can’t be too upset that there were no more volumes of Kill Squad, though, as Dan Streib never really figured out how to handle the concept. Which is curious, because he did a better job on the similar Death Squad series. But on a random note I found it interesting that Streib used the term “sci-fi” in The Deadly Massage, in reference to “the sci-fi sound of Hong Kong police sirens.” This might be one of the earliest appearances of this term I’ve seen in a mainstream novel…well, not that Kill Squad was mainstream. But you know what I mean. 

Finally, I’m calling bullshit on the cover blurb by “Bestsellers.” There hasn’t been a single damn volume of Kill Squad that’s been “painstakingly well-plotted,” so either the entire review is fake (the most likely scenario) or it’s been lifted from the review of an entirely different book.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Sharky’s Machine

Sharkys Machine, by William Diehl
August, 1979  Dell Books

I’d only ever heard of Sharky’s Machine, and that was in relation to the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie, which I’ve still never seen. My mom was a big Burt Reynolds fan, like I expect most women were at the time, so I assume that’s how I first heard of the movie. I was only six or seven years old at the time. I’m not sure if I ever knew that the movie was based on a novel; even over the years when I’ve gone on periodic ‘70s crime novel kicks, I haven’t come across William Diehl’s original Sharky’s Machine, first published in hardcover in 1978. But the other month – on Father’s Day of this year, in fact – I spotted this Dell paperback edition at the Plano Half Price Bookstore, for a whopping $1.75. Yes, it irks me that the bookstore chain no longer lives up to its name – I mean the original cover price itself was under a dollar – but that seemed cheap enough. 

First of all a note on the awesome cover art. I can’t make out the signature, and online searching has not revealed who did the artwork for this Dell paperback. I see what appears to be an “S” and a “V” in the artwork signature, so I’m wondering if this is the work of Charles Sovek, who did the also-awesome cover art for Dakota #3 (per Bob Deis, who identified the artwork for me). The art style appears to be similar, so it’s possible. Also of note is that this is one of those double-bang-for-your-buck covers (actually, double-bang-for-your-buck-seventy-five, in my case), as it opens into a two-page spread, featuring characters and incidents from the novel. Another interesting note is that the Sharky depicted on the cover looks more like Nick Nolte than Burt Reynolds, but of course this paperback was published two years before the film was released. Here is the interior art:

But as mentioned I never saw the film, and now that I’ve read the novel I’m not sure if I’m in a hurry to. This is mainly because, judging from the trailer, the film version of Sharky’s Machine appears to be a completely different story from Diehl’s original novel. The dialog and situations in that trailer have no relation to anything in this novel. Reading Marty McKee’s review at the Craneshot blog leads me to conclude that director-star Reynolds and his screenwriters completely reshaped the original narrative; I mean the stuff Marty mentions, with one of the villains being an Italian mobster with a psycho brother (played by Henry Silva no less!) is unlike anything in the novel. Indeed, the villain of the novel appears to have walked out of a James Bond film: he’s a corpulent sadist with a legion of Chinese assassins at his disposal, and has an inventor who makes giant robots for him. 

This Dell paperback is stuffed to the gills with rave reviews from industry publications. A funny thing is that a glance at the Kirkus reviews of ensuing Diehl novels sees the word “derivative” most often used. I say this is funny because I found Sharky’s Machine itself derivative. As mentioned the villain and his henchmen come out of Bond, the humorous “cop banter” and the cast of quirky cops are out of Joseph Wambaugh and/or Ed McBain, and there’s even a part where an audio tape is transcribed for us that could be straight out of The Anderson Tapes by Lawrence Sanders. There’s also an “Oriental menace” motif here courtesy the villain that brings to mind Eric Lustabader’s The Ninja, but that novel came later. Sharky’s Machine even concludes more like a James Bond movie than it does a cop thriller, with Sharky and his “Machine” trying to track down an assassin in an amusement park filled with giant robots. And I haven’t even mentioned the pseudo-ninjas who attack Sharky earlier in the book. 

The novel, if you haven’t guessed, is pretty pulpy (I mean that as a compliment), but it’s presented on the level, and I’d wager those industry reviewers were so kind to it because they themselves had no experience in pulp. So while I found Sharky’s Machine derivative and sloppily written, those contemporary reviewers probably couldn’t believe how exciting it was…at least when compared to the usual highbrow shit they had to review. But Sharky’s Machine received a hardcover printing, meaning those professional reviewers covered it for their various highbrow publications – unlike something vastly superior, like, say Bronson: Blind Rage – and thus their rave reviews take up the first few pages of this paperback edition. Another thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Sharky’s Machine is also packaged here like your typical ‘70s potboiler (also a compliment), the copy and blurbs hyping the action and sex…both of which turn out to be relatively mild. 

At 479 small-print pages, Sharky’s Machine is also of a piece with the typical 1970s crime thriller. But first-time writer Diehl spins his wheels too much to make those pages count. The bloated page length could be another inspiration from Lawrence Sanders, in fact; it seems clear to me that Diehl was inspired by Sanders and looking to mimic his template. What little research I’ve done on William Diehl informs me that he was fifty years old when he started writing this, his first novel. That Sharky’s Machine is a first novel is very evident. The plot jumps around too much, too many characters are shuffled into the narrative with too little impact, and not enough is done to exploit the various situations. Also, most unforgivably, Diehl is a rampant POV-hopper, to the extent that the reader is often confused. By POV-hopping I mean when the narrative switches perspectives without warning the reader via a space break or a new chapter. 

This comes and goes, though; sometimes Diehl cuts chapters when he cuts perspectives, but in the sections with Sharky and the other cops he really POV-hops. And also the novel is several stories tied together: in addition to the tough cop Sharky narrative, we also have material on the 1975 Democrat convention, a Senator who intends to be the next President (Jimmy Carter be damned!), and the Bond-esque villain planning to unveil his massive robot amusement park. But we have to wait a while to even get to all that: the novel starts with two sort of false openings. The first, shorter one, takes place in 1944 Italy, with a GI dropped behind enemy lines to oversee a cargo drop or somesuch; it’s all maddeningly vague for reasons of suspense. Then we jump ahead to 1959 Hong Kong, for a too-long sequence in which an assassin kills a guy while he’s being entertained by a blind prostitute in an opulent cathouse. 

After all this we finally get to grizzled Atlanta cop Sharky, and from here on out the novel is set in 1975. But despite the recent date Diehl still delivers an anachronism; we’re told a character sports a Wings Across America t-shirt, but that album wasn’t released until late 1976. Otherwise the ’75 setting is mostly because one of the subplots ties in to the race to see who will get the nod for to be the Presidential nominee on the Democrat ticket. Unfortunately this stuff, and the pseudo-Bond stuff with the supervillain (whose name is DeLaroza) takes over from the cop thriller I wanted. And sure enough the cop material we do get in Sharky’s Machine is by far the best material in the book. This depsite Sharky himself, who comes off as a bit of a cipher. 

For one, I had a helluva time seeing Burt Reynolds in the role; indeed, the unknown cover artist had the right idea with Nick Nolte, who certainly would’ve been a better choice for the grim and mostly somnambulant protagonist Diehl has given us. But then, Sharky is essentially a supporting character in the novel. As it turns out, the “Machine” of the title is the Vice squad Sharky soon takes control of…or, he sort of takes control of. He still reports to a boss, Lt. Friscoe (the aforementioned guy in the anachronistic Wings shirt), who makes all the decisions. And in fact, the novel is more of an ensemble piece than I expected. Here is where the McBain stuff comes in, as Diehl spends a lot of time with the guys on Sharky’s Machine, with the typical cop banter and jaded outlooks on life and all the expected tropes. What I mean to say is, the book is not a single-protagonist thriller; there are huge portions of the narrative where Sharky disappears. And the other helluva thing is, he isn’t the most effectual of tough cop protagonists. 

This is not evident in Sharky’s intro, though. We meet him while he is in Narcotics, having lived on the streets for several months and growing a shaggy beard in the process to fit in with the underworld scum he’s trying to take down. The opening is super ‘70s with Sharky getting in a shootout with a pimp-attired drug dealer. But the shootout takes place on a commuter bus the dealer has fled onto, and even though Sharky takes him down he’s in trouble with the higher-ups for the incident. I should mention here that the novel is not overly violent, and only features a few action scenes. Also of note is that Sharky’s gun is a 9mm automatic, the make and model never noted, which seems like an unusual gun for a 1975 cop to have. Not that I minded; as I’ve said before, I don’t exactly look for realism in a cop thriller. I mean my favorite tough cop yarn is Stallone’s Cobra, and that movie’s as grounded in reality as the current administration

Sharky is reprimanded by top cop The Bat, a petty official who puts public relations ahead of all else. This is a funny scene with the bizarre bit of Sharky taking off his shoe to stratch his foot. Sharky is then moved to the purgatory of Vice, the place no cop wants to be – clearly the days before Crockett and Tubbs made Vice the coolest department of all. But here’s the funny thing, and yet more evidence that Diehl was a first-time writer; he does absolutely nothing to exploit the entire “Vice” setup, and indeed the plot sees Sharky’s Machine tackling not only a homicide investigation but even a political conspiracy. Sharky being sent to the Vice Squad is essentially window dressing, as it has no bearing on anything that happens, and even though earlier I said I don’t really demand “realism” in cop thrillers, it’s still super hard to buy how these Vice guys are able to skirt regulations and handle a homicide investigation and not let the actual Homicide Department know about it. This is where the movie appears to diverge; the trailer has scenes of Sharky being informed about hookers by the guys in his Machine, ie actual “Vice” stuff, but there’s nothing like that in the novel. 

Another indication of Diehl’s first-time writing is that he tells a lot more than he shows. This occurs throughout the novel, but particularly with the cops who make up the Machine. He clearly wants to have a McBain-esque group of memorable characters, but the problem is he tells us about them instead of displaying their quirks in action. For example, in the previously-mentioned bit where the Machine decides to buck authority and investigate a homicide without letting any other department know. Lt. Friscoe tells the guys they’re crazy if they think they can buck regulations, and then there’s a bit where Machine member Papa starts ranting and raving, and then storms out of the room. Diehl then proceeds to tell us that Papa rarely ever speaks, thus this explosion of his is shocking to the other guys. The thing is, though, we readers have barely seen anything about Papa, so it’s not like we know he rarely speaks. In other words Diehl clearly intends all this to be humorous, like we’re going to chuckle that the guy who never talks just spouted off a few paragraphs of run-on sentences…but in essence Diehl has given us the punchline first and the setup second, so it falls flat. In other words, he has failed to earn that chuckle. 

The Vice stuff that is here is actually interesting, and is as mentioned clearly inspired by The Anderson Tapes. Friscoe informs Sharky that the Machine has been tracking a hooker who has a phone sex operation going, and after tapping her line they’ve come across what they think is a blackmail scheme. Friscoe plays the pertinent recording for Sharky and the ensuing transcript goes on for some pages, very much akin to the text of The Anderson Tapes, and just as explicit as Lawrence Sanders could be. Perhaps even more so, with the hooker engaging in phone sex with some caller and all the ensuing sleazy detail…but again, not an actual sex scene. Just a lot of transcribed dialog, a la The Anderson Tapes

And that, folks, is pretty much it for the entire Vice setup. The Machine learns that another hooker might be part of this scheme, a mysterious figure called “Domino,” and Sharky comes up with the idea of having his cop pal The Nosh bug Domino’s posh penthouse suite. So yes, The Nosh, Papa, The Bat, Sharky – a bunch of quirky and colorful names for what Diehl intends to be a quirky and colorful group, to the extent that you wonder why he never wrote a followup. Oh and I forgot to mention, but Sharky’s first name is never given. Hell, “Sharky” could even be his first name, a la Shark Trager. He’s barely even described, though we learn he has a broken nose. We also learn he was in military intelligence for a bit, as in one sequence they visit an army base to ask questions about a top secret WWII missions, questioning a kooky old vet. Diehl excels in these scenes, writing a goofy spin on the average cop thriller, but there’s just too much flab with all the DeLaroza material, not to mention the material with Hotchins, the would-be Democrat nominee who is in deep with villainous DeLaroza. 

This brings us to another implausibe scenario: mega-babe Domino, a sort of modern-day Phryne of Athens, runs into Sharky, who is disguised as an elevator repairman, and falls for him. I mean this hotstuff brunette who makes her living as a super high-class hooker and is engaged to would-be President Hotchins and is the casual bedmate of supervillain DeLaroza just bumps into a guy who appears to be fixing the elevator in her apartment building and she thinks how good-looking he is. Sharky is in the disguise because he and the Machine are bugging the place, and later he shadows Domino at an upscale grocery store…where she bumps into him again. And invites him to her place for shark fin soup!! It’s one of the more implausible lust-at-first-sight scenarios ever. 

What’s even crazier is…Sharky and Domino never even have sex! Not here, not later in the book, not ever in the book! Domino bats her eyes at Sharky and the dueling perspectives let us know how attracted they are to each other, but Sharky says he’s gotta go and runs back up to the roof of the building, where he lays on a cot and monitors those bugs in Domino’s apartment via a pair of headphones. It turns out that Domino does have sex…with DeLaroza. This is the only other sex scene in Sharky’s Machine, and it’s more of an oral/handjob sort of thing which again goes for the “Oriental mystique,” Domino dressed up in robes and all that nonsense. And Sharky jerks off as he listens! Or at least he orgasms unintentionally while lying on that cot. “Soon to be a major motion picture!” 

The homicide stuff comes up when Diehl takes some unexpected directions with the Sharky-Domino scenario. This whole bit was hard to buy, but hell, they investigated homicides on Miami Vice, too. (If you can’t tell, I’ve been watching Miami Vice again.) Here we really do get a sort of cop novel, with Sharky and his Machine researching a murder, and hurrying up about it because they only have a few days until the department heads come in and the homicide has to be reported through the proper channels. Diehl again delivers an ensemble pice, with a quirky coroner also becoming a part of the team – again, Sharky himself is just one of the characters here, and the novel just as easily could’ve been titled “Papa’s Machine.” But then that sounds kind of dirty. 

But the DeLaroza-Hotchins stuff just takes up too much space. There’s also a lot of stuff about a professional assassin with fraying nerves who ultimately turns out to be tied into the opening stuff in WWII. Again though so much of it is told rather than shown. Gradually we head into the big finale, which again comes more from Bond than McBain: DeLaroza has spent oodles of money on “Pachinko!,” a high-rise amusement park with giant robots and whatnot. The name of the place, “Pachinko,” of course comes from that pinball-esque game that’s so popular in Japan. Along with Cheap Trick, of course. 

I’m fine with the sub-Bond finale, but in a real James Bond movie Bond himself will actually take place in the events. In Sharky’s Machine, our supposed hero Sharky is off-page for the majority of the climax, which instead concerns that pill-popping assassin out for revenge on Hotchins and DeLaroza. I mean really, Sharky and his Machine spend the time running around Pachinko! and trying to find the various people they’re after. But then by this point Sharky has been through a bit of a wringer; captured briefly by DeLaroza, he’s been beaten by those pseudo-ninjas, had some of his pinky finger chopped off, and managed to escape in one of the novel’s few real action scenes. So one could understand if Sharky’s a little tuckered out here in the finale. 

As mentioned, the biggest surprise is that Diehl didn’t farm these characters out into a series. Also as mentioned, I can see where Burt Reynolds and crew likely rewrote a large portion of this narrative to make it more fitting for the bigscreen. Surely Sharky was more engaged in the finale than he is here – I mean Sharky in the novel doesn’t even take out any of the major villains. But then Diehl makes curious writing decisions like this throughout the novel; I refer you again to the inexplicable non-boinking of Sharky and Domino. That one’s an almost unfathomable miss on Diehl’s part. 

You’d never guess, but overall I did enjoy Sharky’s Machine, at least when it was sticking to the “tough cop” material I wanted. I could’ve done without a lot of the political subplot and the Oriental mystique with DeLaroza. I also found myself getting bored toward the end, which you wouldn’t expect given that the finale featured literal giant robots. Then again, I might’ve been more into the crazy finale if Sharky himself had been more involved in it. But overall, I guess I have to say I was mostly entertained for my buck seventy-five.