Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Ms. Squad #2: On The Brink

The Ms. Squad #2: On The Brink, by Mercedes Endfield
September, 1975  Bantam Books

We have here the second (and final!) installment of The Ms. Squad, one of the more curious representations of the “men’s adventure” genre you’ll ever encounter. This is because it is in fact a caper with a light comedy tone and features a trio of women who are determined to do everything better than men – especially heisting places. But as it turns out, the best thing about On The Brink is the cover art; it isn’t credited, but it looks so similar to the work of EC Comics alum Jack Davis that I’ll go ahead and assume it’s by him. The same artist did the cover for the first volume of the series, Lucky Pierre (which I don’t have). 

Also the background of the book is more interesting than the actual plot; it’s copyright “Ruth Harris Books, Inc,” which appears to have been an outfit similar to Lyle Kenyon Engel’s “Book Creations Inc.” Only much less successful; I can hardly find anything credited to “Ruth Harris Books.” On The Brink is itself credited to Bela Von Block in the Catalog Of Copyright Entries. Block was a prolific writer of the era, writing under a host of pseudonyms, though this is the first book of his I’ve reveiewed here. He had most success writing as “Johnathan Black” in the ‘70s and ‘80s, turning out big, Harold Robbins-style blockbusters like The World Rapers and The Carnage Merchants. Around a decade ago a reader from Manhattan sent me a few packages of books, with a handful by Black, enthusing over their sordid plots (not to mention the strange frequency in which the word “smega” appeared in them), but folks I still haven’t read those books, and I feel bad about that. But damn, they’re long; The Carnage Merchants for example is over 900 pages! 

Well anyway, if Bela Von Block did indeed write On The Brink, one can only hope his “Jonathan Black” material was better – that is, if Block was really Black. That too seems to be a mystery, but I was fairly confident of this at one point. These days I’m not confident about anything. Wait, I’m confident that most of you won’t dig this book. Because I’m sad to report it isn’t very good. And despite being under 160 pages it moves really slowly. This is because Block doesn’t seem to know how to write a fast-moving book. So much of On the Brink is given over to telling rather than showing…with the double kick to the crotch that we’re often told about stuff we already saw happen! Indeed, the second half of the book concerns a new character trying to figure out what happened in the first half of the book…events which we readers were privy to from the start. 

That said, On The Brink is a fun ‘70s time capsule, which I always enjoy; that new character I just mentioned is a famous black private eye named John Shift; Block doesn’t go all the way with the goofy in-jokery and tell us there’s also a famous song about him. Otherwise he’s clearly based on John Shaft, even down to his hatred of the mob. But there’s also an interesting modern vibe to the novel. For we learn that the three members of Ms. Squad have banded together over feminist ideals, in particular the lack of pay equality. The leader of the team, Jackie Cristal (who barely factors in this installment), in particular rails against pay inequality; she’s the Vice President of a cosmetics company, their chief chemist who designs new perfumes and other inventions, but she doesn’t get paid very well. 

Apparently Lucky Pierre detailed the formation of the Ms. Squad. There’s also Deanna Royce, a black soul singer who too is sick of being treated second-hand just because she’s a woman in a man’s industry. Finally there’s Pammy Porter, whose name cracked me up because I work with someone named Tammy Porter; Pammy’s a blonde-haired gold medal gymnast who rails against the fact that she doesn’t get half the lucrative sponsorships the male Olympic athletes do. Apparently in the first Ms. Squad installment these three met at a women’s lib conference or somesuch and, the way these things go, decided to band together to heist places(!?). That first volume detailed their heisting of a luxury hotel; in other words, a retread of The Anderson Tapes

But there are two quirks with the Ms. Squad. For one, they hit places after they’ve already been hit; in Lucky Pierre, they apparently robbed that hotel shortly after it had already been robbed. And in On The Brink, they decide to heist the Brinks vault on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the famous Brinks robbery. The other weird quirk is that the Ms. Squad does these heists to prove that women can do the job better than the original male robbers did…but folks, this entire setup is ruined because the three Ms. Squad girls disguise themselves as men on the heists! WTF! So who exactly are they proving these feminist victories to?? 

Anyway as mentioned, the series is basically a comedy. The Ms. Squad has sworn that no one will be killed on their heists; Jackie, the chemist, comes up with all the harmless weapons, like “Perma-zonk,” which is hidden in an “atomizer” in their purses and can knock someone out for hours with just one spray. She also creates various explosives and fake skin that they can wear on their hands that will disguise their fingerprints. Pammy brings the muscle to the team, using her athletic ability to hop around and fight as necessary – but the action scenes, as shown below, are minimal at best. As for Deena…well, she brings her experience as a black woman to the table: she’s familiar with the crime world and how criminals think because she’s black. I’m not making that up, either. 

Deena does all the heavy lifting in this one; the dialog indicates that Pammy might have featured the most in Lucky Pierre. But then again, it appears that the two books follow identical setups; the Ms. Squad carries out a heist, then some private eye gets on the case and tries to prove these three harmless women were really the heisters. In Lucky Pierre it was a handsome Irish P.I. who got on the case and ultimately banged Pammy. In On The Brink it’s handsome black P.I. John Shift who gets on the case and ultimately bangs Deena. But folks even the banging’s off-page. There is absolutely zero in the way of sleaze or filth in On The Brink, I’m sorry to report…which again makes me wonder if this really was by Bela Von Block, given that his “Jonathan Black” books are fairly risque. 

But then, maybe this “G rating” was the request of Bantam Books, or even the mysterious “Ruth Harris Books, Inc.” I just find it curious, because you have here a series about three hotstuff swinging babes in the ‘70s who like to heist places, so you’d figure it would be at least a little explicit in the sexual tomfoolery. But it isn’t! It’s curiously deflated, as if Block doesn’t know how to write the book. This again makes me suspect he was writing to spec, as Bela Von Block also wrote some “nonfiction” sex books as “W.D. Sprague,” so you’d figure the guy would have no problem sleazing things up. Damn you, Ruth Harris! 

Another strange thing is the novel is so awkwardly constructed. So it starts post-heist, with the Ms. Squad having hit a “black restaurant” in Boston which is on the sight that the Brinks vault was back in the ‘50s. Again, their schtick is they hit places a second time, thus they wanted to heist the exact location that the Brinks armory once was, even if it’s now a place called “Chick ‘n’ Treat.” Yes, a big black-owned chicken diner. But the girls discover that they’ve heisted a lot more than the two hundred thousand haul they expected to get; the place was filled with money bags, and after all night counting they discover it’s just shy of two million dollars. 

But all this is told in summary, to the point that I assumed we were being recapped on what happened in the first volume. Not so. The majority of the novel is told in this summary fashion. Then we flash back like a year or something to the aftermath of the previous book, and learn how the girls came up with this “Brinks anniversary” heist. It’s all heavy on the plotting and planning, with little in the way of action. Jackie is the only one we get to see in her normal life as VP at the cosmetics firm; Deena and Pammy only factor into the heist planning scenes. The team comes up with an idea to hit the Brinks place, flying to Boston and scoping it out – and finding a chicken diner there. So Deena goes undercover as a waittress to scope the place out, and Pammy comes up with an idea to steal a Brinks truck, just like the original Brinks crooks did 25 years before. 

Of course, we already know from page one that they are successful in the heist, so there’s zero tension here. As I say, Bela Von Bock has a rather interesting approach to how he writes what’s supposed to be a suspenseful novel. At page 70 we catch up with the opening, and now it’s all about John Shift being hired by the heisted chicken diner owner – whose diner was really a front for a numbers racket – and putting together the pieces of how the heist went down. That’s right folks, the entire first 70 pages are the setup of the heist, and the remainder of the novel is devoted to a secondary character figuring out how the heist was planned and carried out! To say On The Brink is a study in repetition would be, uh, redundant. 

The goofy ‘70s touches are okay, like a black crook who retains a seven-foot henchman basketball player named Abdullah Eleven, clearly a spoof on Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who uses his basketball to torture Deena – slamming her in the stomach with the ball. Shift shows up with his .357 Magnum to save the day, not that anyone is killed. Block also tries to develop suspense with Shift suspecting Deena of the heist while also developing feelings for her, and Deena trying to hold him off with lies while developing feelings for him, etc. Shift also factors into the climactic action scene, which also features Pammy, apropos of nothing, showing off sudden obscure kung-fu skills: 

The girls kill no one, though we’re told the cops kill a bunch of the bad guys off-page. That’s another thing. For a trio of heisters, the Ms. Squad is saved twice by the police in the final pages, first in New York and then in Boston. Just super lame all around. Block apparently planned a third volume, as On The Brink ends with the hint that the Ms. Squad, having pulled off the biggest heist on American soil, will now try to do the same thing in a foreign country, namely Brazil. But readers of the day clearly disliked The Ms. Squad as much as I did, thus this second volume turned out to be the final volume. No tears were shed, I’m sure.


Johny Malone said...

Block/Black was the conscious shadow of Robbins, more serious, more prolix, ostentatiously documented. He plans on the excesses of the writers of the 70/80, but did not land on them. In addition, he was a kind of innovator of naturalistic literature, only unlike Émile Zola, he was not interested in the conditioning of the poor, but of the rich. I think the best thing he did was report on little-known geopolitical issues: in The Carnage Merchants you find out how Italy was a great exporter of arms without almost producing them, with a trick worthy of the best capitalism of yesteryear.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the great background on Block, Johny!