Thursday, June 29, 2023

Call Me A Cab

Call Me A Cab, by Donald E. Westlake
February, 2022  Hard Case Crime

I recently came across this posthumously published Donald Westlake novel at the library, where someone had misfiled it in the Romance section. Why I was in the Romance section is another story. But anyway the great cover, credited to Paul Mann, obviously drew my attention; yet more proof that Hard Case Crime knows the old ways are the best ways when attracting potential readers. I mean unlike the bland photoshopped covers of today, the one for Call Me A Cab, uh, “called” me right over. 

But man, I really puzzled over the back cover copy…which seemed to go out of its way to tell you what the novel was not. Namely, that it wasn’t a crime novel. There was almost an apologetic tone to this back cover copy. Even more curious was that I saw the book featured an afterword by Hard Case Crime honcho Charles Adair, which was even more apologetic about the fact that Call Me A Cab wasn’t a crime novel. Curiously, in his afterword Adair takes no ownership in his own (potential) misleading of readers; I mean if anything misconstrues that Call Me A Cab is a crime novel, it would be the cover art, which of course seems to come straight off a 1950s Gold Medal paperback. 

As I read all this apologism, some of it nearly desperate in its attempt to convey that there might be some kernels of “crime” in the novel, I thought to myself, “Are things really so bad in the publishing world these days?” I mean, Donald Westlake, who of course wrote Parker as Richard Stark, was quite prolific and popular. The dude surely has his readers…ones who, I’m certain, would be happy to read anything new by Westlake (who died in 2008). I mean, is it truly such a concern that readers might throw Call Me A Cab down in spite when they learn that it’s not a crime novel, but instead a sort of 1970s take on a Hollywood screwball comedy from three decades earlier? 

That’s another thing. Neither Adair’s afterword nor any of the industry or reader reviews I’ve come across for Call Me A Cab have mentioned the 1934 movie It Happened One Night. I can understand this…I mean I’m sure only mutants like myself still even watch movies from 80 years ago. But Donald Westlake was born in 1933, and It Happened One Night was one of the biggest hits in early Hollywood history – and also it is often cited as the originator of the “screwball” craze. That is, comedy dramas in which two disperate personalities – a good-looking guy and a good-looking gal, naturally – find each other and fall in love amid a lot of craziness. The plot of It Happened One Night, which stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and was directed by Frank Capra, based on a short story titled “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, features a headstrong young woman who is supposed to marry a wealthy man, but instead goes on a cross-country journey with a working-class guy she gradually falls in love with. 

And what’s the plot of Call Me A Cab? Well, it’s about a headstrong young woman who is supposed to marry a wealthy man, but instead goes on a cross-country journey with a working-class guy she gradually falls in love with. So it seems pretty obvious what Donald Westlake’s inspiration was. But here’s the thing. While “girl takes a car ride across the country to put off her inevitable marriage” might work in some snappily-paced 1940s screwball comedy with witty dialog by Preston Sturges or somesuch, it just comes off as very, very hard to buy in a 239-page book by the guy who wrote the Parker series. The entire plot is just unbelievable when you have so much time to ponder it; I mean, you don’t have much time to ponder the plot of a screwball movie, given that they move so quickly. Call Me A Cab, if you’ll pardon the pun, is stuck in neutral for most of the novel. 

In his afterword, Charles Ardai also notes that Westlake continuously went back to tinker with his manuscript, adding some things, removing others, and this Hard Case Crime edition is comprised of what Ardai considers the best snippets. One thing Ardai leaves unstated is that Westlake obviously chose to move on to other projects and left Call Me A Cab unfinished because he himself likely saw the problems with his book. I mean, Call Me A Cab even features that hoary old cliché of “the very pregnant woman who needs a ride to the hospital or she’s going to give birth in the taxi.” Stuff like that was probably even considered a cliché in the days of I Love Lucy. And mind you, this happens fairly early on in the book. In a way I kind of wish Westlake had just continued on this goofy path, maybe with more of a topical ‘70s flair…like a PLO terrorist hijacking the narrator’s cab: “My friends, this taxi is going to Cuba.” 

Speaking of which, one of the saving graces of Call Me A Cab is that it’s a product of the ‘70s, though Westlake, writing in the actual era, obviously doesn’t beat us over the head with this fact. I mean for a person like me who mainly reads novels from the ‘70s, it’s all pretty typical, but this is later in the ‘70s than my usual safe space, with occasional mentions of CB radios. Otherwise it’s your basic ‘70s vibe, with frequent smoking and occasional casual sex – I was very happy for a random part where our narrating cab driver picks up some restaurant floozie during his cross-country trek. Of course the sex happens off-page, but I’d imagine such displays of rugged virility would not be acceptable in a novel written today. 

Well I’ve only tiptoed around it, but here’s the plot of Call Me A Cab: a taxi driver in his early 30s (who has a college degree – so that we’re to understand the guy isn’t a total “New York cabbie”-type, of course) named Tom Fletcher gets a fare from a lovely young woman whose name turns out to be Katharine Scott. She’s antsy and nervous on the ride to Kennedy Airport, and eventually reveals that she’s engaged to this socialite plastic surgeon in California, and right now she’s on her way to the airport to go to him and promptly get married. But she’s been putting him off for years and she’s still antsy, so in one of the more implausible scenarios ever she hires Tom to drive her to California so she can think over the situation and reach a decision on the marriage before they get there. And it’s gonna cost her four thousand dollars! Hell, maybe even Preston Sturges couldn’t have saved this one. Anyone with half a lick of sense would say, “Lady if you’re willing to pay four thousand dollars for a cab ride just so you can put off seeing the guy, I think it’s safe to say you don’t wanna marry him.” 

But our narrator is all for it, and thus ensues the wacky plotting of Call Me A Cab. Only, it’s not very wacky. Indeed, it’s kind of slow-going, which makes the reader ponder over the implausibility of the setup all the more. And hey, here’s another nit to pick – NO ONE ACTUALLY CALLS A CAB IN THE BOOK! I mean even the goddamn title is a joke. Katharine “hails” Tom’s cab on a Manhattan street, she doesn’t call for a cab, nor does she tell anyone to call her a cab. 

As I read Call Me A Cab, I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a novel by Len Levinson. But man, with the philosophical New York cabbie in his Checker cab, the feisty beautiful woman, the ‘70s New York setting, not to mention the fact that almost the entirety of the novel is dialog, with the two characters discussing their philosopy…it’s all very, very Len Levinson-esque. With the caveat that, if Len Levinson had written Call Me A Cab, it would’ve been about a thousand times better. 

For one, Len would have at least bothered to make the characters believable, and probably likable to boot. Neither Tom nor Katharine are believable or likable. Tom is either a blue-collar guy or a prototype slacker, depending on the current needs of the plot, and Katharine comes off as way to indecesive and wishy-washy for the “strong woman of the 1970s” that Westlake clearly intends her to be. Also, so far as that goes, Westlake tries to broach the Women’s Movement of the day (something Len also did at the time…in much more memorable fashion), but Tom’s already on board with the whole idea, coming off as a lot more progressive than your average cab driver. There goes the opportunity for any kind of screwball-esque bantering between the two. Indeed, they get along rather placidly…Katharine doesn’t even really bat an eye over Tom’s mid-novel boinkery with the aforementioned waittress. 

Back to that unlikable note – narrator Tom has this cynical, world-weary tone, but in Westlake’s hands it just comes off more as acidic than it does humorous. I mean, Tom does nothing to engender any sort of reader empathy. Like there’s a part where, halfway through the country, they come across a New York cabbie on vacation, one who is understandably shocked to see a New York Checker cab sitting outside the hotel, and Tom steers Katharine away from the guy before he can start talking to them. Why? Because the guy’s clearly a New York cabbie and would be eager to tell them his life story. Well, so what? I mean with just a few sentences this guy is more engaging than the New York cabbie who happens to be narrating the damn book. Also, Westlake tries to develop this implausible scenario where Tom begins to get jealous of Barry (Katharine’s would-be fiance, in California); that said, Westlake does have a great line, that beautiful women cause competition between men simply by the fact that they (beautiful women, that is) exist. 

But as mentioned the fun on-the-road road hijinks scenario you might envision doesn’t really happen in Call Me A Cab. The most humorous thing I took from it was the part where Tom and Katharine bicker over the onion rings Tom gets at a McDonald’s, and so far as that goes, I was just more interested in the fact that once upon a time you could get onion rings at McDonald’s. Or at least I guess you could. Or maybe Donald Westlake had never actually eaten at a McDonald’s and got this detail incorrect. Like I said, I was born in 1974, and I sure went to McDonald’s a lot, but I was getting the Happy Meals and I can’t remember what the actual food was. I’m sure it was fries. How many kids prefer onion rings to french fries. Hardly any, I’m sure. 

Well anyway. The plot of Call Me A Cab, like any screwball, hinges on whether the two protagonists will indeed find love in the end. I won’t give anything away, but Westlake tries to do something different in this regard. Sort of. I mean it’s still pretty clear from the last line of the novel what the future holds for these two, but at least it’s not a cliched Happily Ever After. 

In the end, I think it’s easy to figure why Donald Westlake dropped this novel – though, I forgot to mention, he did publish a short story version of it in Redbook, in June of 1979. It would’ve been cool if this short story version had been published here with the novel. I’m thinking a short story format would work better for Call Me A Cab, as the reader wouldn’t have 230-some pages to ponder the implausibility of the plot.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Liquidator #3: The Cocaine Connection

The Liquidator #3: The Cocaine Connection, by R.L. Brent
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

The third volume of The Liquidator dispenses with the continuity that linked the first two volumes and comes off more like a standalone piece, the mysterious “R.L. Brent” (supposedly Larry Powell) dropping a lot of the earlier subplots and focusing solely on hero Jake “The Liquidator” Brand’s attempt to bust a Syndicate drug pipeline in Florida. That said, the book still retains the “hardboiled ‘70s” vibe of the previous books. 

Brent pulls a trick from the template of contemporary men’s adventure magazine yarns: The Cocaine Connection opens toward the end of the story, with an unarmed and injured Brand being chased through darkened woods by rifle-toting goons. We are quickly told that Brand’s cover has been blown, they’re onto him, and if they catch him he’s dead. Then they catch him, and the story flashes back about a week. It won’t be until page 160 that we get back to this opening incident, but the main effect is that we know from the start that Brand’s cover is going to be blown, which makes pretty much the entirety of the ensuing narrative moot! 

But as usual R.L. Brent is too gifted a writer to make it all seem like a waste of time. The taut, effective prose of the earlier books is still present, as is the tough vibe. I just had a problem with the overall story of this one. So as we know, Jake Brand was once a top cop and was put in prison on fake charges, all of which was recounted in the first volume. Brand’s out now and has been exacting vengeance on the Syndicate bastards who put the frame on him, but the mastermind of the plot, Crosetti, has thus far escaped Brand. 

Rather than follow through on this revenge angle, R.L. Brent instead gussies up the plot with Brant venturing down to Florida to impersonate a Syndicate rep in the hopes of undoing a cocaine line that’s been put together, supposedly, by Crosetti. The reasoning here is that Brand’s trying to find Crosetti, so I guess he figures that if he busts up his coke ring the man himself will show up. Or something. As stated, The Cocaine Connection is mostly a standalone, and could just as easily be an installment of Narc, with Brand almost acting as an undercover Federal agent. Indeed, people even believe he is an undercover Fedearl agent in this one. 

You know, back in the first volume I speculated that this was a sort-of “near future” series, in that the events of the first volume seemed to take place in 1973, and in that same book Brand was sent to prison for five years. Meaning, it was 1978 when he got out, a few years after the publication date. But in The Cocaine Connection we’re informed a rich guy is driving a 1974 model car, with the implication that it’s brand new, so maybe Brent just dropped the idea, or maybe even more preposterously I was just wrong. Otherwise this volume does refer back to the first volume quite often, mostly because Brand ventures to Miami in this one for the first time since he was a cop. 

There’s still a bit of a Parker vibe with Brand using his underworld connections to find Crosetti. It’s in this way that Brand learns of the cocaine pipeline; long story short, a remote island off Florida called Reese’s Bluff seems to be the location where a Syndicate courier makes the payoff for the cocaine, the importation of which is handled by a non-Syndicate organization. In order to finally get Crosetti, Brand decides to go down there and bust up the pipeline. He manages to find the guy who handles the payoff, getting in a long car chase with him in the process. 

From there it’s into the “undercover agent” scenario…but again, we know from page one that Brand’s cover is fated to be blown. Reese’s Bluff is essentially a small town blocked off from the rest of society, and Brand is immediately treated with suspicion when he shows up there – posing as “Luther Martin,” new Syndicate money man. Like a regular Mack Bolan, Jake Brand is such a natural at pretending to be a mobster that he manages to fool the people he hands the coke payoff money to. It doesn’t hurt matters that the wife of the head honcho happens to be a busty redhead in her 30s who immediately has an eye for Brand – and eagerly thinks about getting him into bed. 

This leads to one of the more humorous lines I’ve recently read; the horny redhead is named Liz and Brand is certain she was doing the previous Syndicate money man. So Brand starts pushing her buttons and, when she shows him to a spare room he can sleep in that night, he basically invites her to slide into bed with him for some sex that night, capping it off with the unforgettable line: “I like to be awakened by a pair of naked tits in my back.” Well who doesn’t?? Of course this only serves to make Liz even more horny and she does this very thing to awaken Brand shortly thereafter, leading to a somewhat explicit conjugation between the two. 

Another memorable bit follows, when Brand’s jumped by a trio of goons who work for the lady’s wife. This is a brutal sequence of hand-to-hand combat that could almost come out of Gannon, only without the spiked knuckles ripping out eyeballs or anything. Otherwise Brent again displays his ability to write “realistic” crime pulp with a woozy, hurt Brand managing to defend himself against three opponents – and get the upper hand, thanks to a tire iron that he puts to violent work. A super cool sequence that is probably one of the more tense action scenes I’ve read in a while. 

But regardless I feel the plot of The Cocaine Connection just doesn’t make much sense. For reasons I couldn’t understand, Brand stays in Reese’s Bluff and, uh, “bluffs” his way into the upper echelons of the non-Syndicate coke ring. Why? He tells them he’s an upwardly-mobile goon who wants a bigger piece of the pie, or whatever, but what makes no sense is that it is of course all bullshit and one phone call could undo Brand’s entire disguise. It gets even goofier when he meets the brains of the non-Syndicate cocaine ring, Hamilton Reese, Brand doesn’t just kill him – even though he knows he should – and just continues with his charade. 

Meanwhile, he gets laid again: this courtesy Hamilton Reese’s “small breasted” hotstuff daughter, Valerie, who like Liz immediately lets Brand know of her interests. He must certainly be virile, given that per the plot he’s been banged out of shape and has various stitches on him, thanks to the aforementioned fight with the three thugs. But Valerie still lets her interests clearly be known. The payoff of this subplot will upset the sensitive readers of today: when Valerie catches Brand snooping around the house that night, he pushes her into her room and forces himself on her. But given that she’s just as much a nympho as Liz, she’s all for it, even if it’s “the next thing to rape,” leading to another somewhat-explicit sex scene. 

It's to Brent’s credit that the lead-up to Brand’s cover being blown is filled with tension, even though we already know it’s bound to happen. He’s guilty of a little revisionism, though; I got a chuckle out of how, in the opening pages, Brent states several times that Brand is unarmed…then, later in the book, we’re told that Brand straps a sharp letter opener to his calf, hidden under his pants. When he finally uses it, once the narrative picks up from those opening pages, we’re informed “he almost forgot about” the knife that he’d hidden on himself! The cynic in me could almost think that R.L. Brent was just coming up with all this on the fly. 

The finale is pretty cool. After being “the hunted,” Brand decides to “go hunting” and tracks down the coke pipeline runners one by one. Memorable stuff follows, like one guy impaling himself on the spike that’s used for copy sheets in a printing office. But it’s a little rushed at times, with some of Brand’s vengeance-sating not being exploited to the full extent. Brent does wrap up one of the major revenge angles of the series, but by novel’s end The Liquidator is prepared to keep on liquidating; and we get a hint that he might finally start hunting down that lookalike who framed him the first volume. 

Overall The Cocaine Connection was another fun entry in The Liquidator, with the same tough, terse vibe as the previous two books. It just felt a bit disconnected, given the entire “undercover” angle of the plot. Otherwise I’d certainly agree with no less than King Features and their cover blurb – and I’m starting to suspect that The Liquidator was one of the very few (only?) men’s adventure series that got any industry cred because publisher Award-Universal was probably affiliated with King Features, but who knows. I’m sure a simple Google search would explain it all, but I’m quite lazy.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Sunstop 8

Sunstop 8, by Lou Fisher
January, 1978  Dell Books

Sometimes you come across just the book you’re looking for. Such was the case a few weeks back at the Plano Half Price Books while I was scanning the sci-fi paperback shelf for something to read…something in that ‘70s psychedelic sci-fi vibe I like so much. And something not too pricey…I mean the days of “Half Price Books” actually selling half price books are long gone. But they were running a Memorial Day Sale, with like 25% off or something, so what the heck. 

Anyway, I’m not really a cheap person. It’s just hard for me to accept that books that used to cost less than a dollar at Half Price Books now have sticker prices on them that are at least double the original price, if not more. Anyway, the spine of Sunstop 8 jumped out at me from the shelf and I picked it up; my original thought was that it was a groovy late ‘70s Dell paperback along the lines of Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy (also published by Dell at the time, and a trio of books I was flat-out obsessed with at one point in my life…in fact, perhaps I should read them again, finally after all these years, and post my reviews on here). I think I might’ve seen this book before, maybe at this same Half Price Books store, but this time the moment was right, it looked to be just the pyschedelic ‘70s sci-fi book I wanted – complete with even lame interior illustrations – so I bought it, for the strangely specific price of $2.49 plus 25% off! 

Now it’s only via the ISFDB that I know Louis “Lou” Fisher was a not-very-prolific science fiction author of the time, only publishing two novels, this being the first…and the second one not published until 1986. He also did some short stories and whatnot. While I wasn’t sure at first, as I got several pages into Sunstop 8 I discovered that Fisher’s main influence, at least for this novel, was most likely Ron Goulart. I say “at first” because for the first few pages you don’t realize Sunstop 8 is going to be a somewhat satirical romp through a very 1970s “future,” with more of a comedic overtone than serious. Generally I bail at this – if you’ll note, there isn’t a single review of a Ron Goulart novel on this blog – but something about Sunstop 8 kept me reading. 

For one, the tone isn’t too comedic. Like Goulart, Fisher writes the novel with his tongue clearly in his cheek. But while it is all told spoofily, the events actually matter to the protagonists. Meaning, it isn’t all a big joke. And that’s another thing. The black-and-while illustrations in the book almost look to be taken from a Choose Your Own Adventure novel; they make the book appear to be a juvenile. And indeed, at first I wondered if Sunstop 8 was a juvenile sci-fi novel. But within the first few pages our hero is checking out a hotstuff redhead on vacation planet Sunstop 6, and flipping through some pages I saw a lot of saucy sex talk and even a bit of ‘70s-mandatory rape “humor.” So, this isn’t a book for kids. At least in the 1970s it wouldn’t have been! 

Another thing was that even though I read the back cover and the first-page preview copy, I still couldn’t figure out what the hell Sunstop 8 was about. I had to read the book to find out. And here’s what it’s about: a young bookie named Chet McCory who lives off the Earth on his own swank satellite has come to the planet Sunstop 6 for vacation…and he’s soon abducted by agents of another planet in the system, Sunstop 8. This planet was originally a tourist spot itself, but various wars have resulted in it being a hotbed of intrigue and chaos, and all the civilized planets avoid it – I assumed the whole thing was a Vietnam War metaphor. Well anyway, Chet is kidnapped and taken to Sunstop 8…where he learns that he’s been kidnapped so he can run a global lottery to drum up interest in the ruling party of despot Pawk Lundiner. Why Lundinder and his minions insist on an “Earthman bookie” to run their lottery is a question Fisher is unable to properly answer, but the plot outline should tell you all you need to know about the novel’s tone. 

But man, it’s those “sci-fi ‘70s” topical touches that kept me reading…sort of like contemporary novels The Tomorrow FileColonyMythmaster, or The Savage Report. Actually, one more reference to a previously-reviewed book: a lot of Sunstop 8 is very similar to the material in the anthology Infinity Five, only not as focused on sleaze or kink. That said, this is a pretty kinky book, with a lot of reference to sex and the physical attributes of the female characters, but the sole sex scene in the novel occurs entirely off page. But I figure this is the same vibe as actual Ron Goulart novels…I have several of them, picked up many years ago (at Half Price Books, in fact, when they truly were half off the cover price), like Gadget Man or somesuch, and I recall from my aborted readings of them many years ago that they too were mostly comedic escapades in funky future ‘70s settings, but otherwise rated PG. 

Well anyway, Fisher doesn’t belabor us with a lot of world-building; this isn’t a “hard science” novel by any means. The date is even specious, something like 2076.3 or whatnot, leaving us to wonder if this is some new “stardate” type of nomenclature or if the number after the period just denotes the month. Who knows? I got the impression Fisher didn’t want us to worry over such incidentals. I mean, there’s galactic flight and you can whisk from one corner of the galaxy to the next in almost no time, so again the impression is a little juvenile. About the most we get in the hard science department is a part where Chet’s brawny and dimwitted assistant Rocky tries to call Chet on Sunstop 6 from their satellite outside Earth orbit, and we’re informed it takes 9 minutes each ways for messages to get through. 

As mentioned though, Fisher isn’t so much concerned with the science of things. He has a tale to tell, a goofy tale, and one where I wonder what the origin of the book even was. I mean, Sunstop 8 is the inverse of the old rub that “all first novels are autobiographical.” I mean who in the world would come up with a plot like this? Other than Ron Goulart, that is? But what makes it frustrating is that Fisher doesn’t even exploit his own goofy tale. Chet is “Shanghaied” by some Sunstop 8 agents while vacationing on Sunstop 6, told by the ancient and decrepit ruler of Sunstop 8, Pawk Lundiner, that Chet’s services are needed to run a lottery, and that Chet will be payed handsomely for the deal. Even given a woman of his own. Chet says no…and spends the rest of the friggin’ novel saying no. 

I remember years ago I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, or whatever it’s titled, and at the time there were some how-to writing books out there on how you could use that whole idea to plot out your novels. And one of the caveats was that the titular hero could refuse his quest, or watever, but ultimately he would have to undertake it. And also that this decision should happen rather quickly. Certainly this refusal isn’t something that should be going on for a few hundred pages! And yet in Sunstop 8 that is exactly it; Chet says no, he says no again later, he’s captured by other people and still saying no. It gets to be aggravating. 

So the novel starts off with that fun ruggedly virile ‘70s vibe I love so much: Chet is floating in this sort of zero-g sauna on Sunstop 6 and sees this curvy female form floating around him (apparently the “du-metal” outfits worn in such environments obscure the majority of the body), and reflecting how, unlike the spaceship he just disembarked from, she’s “a structure you want to get into. Not out of.” Turns out she’s a hotstuff redhead who works in one of the attactions here and her name’s Avon. She’s not interested in Chet due to the guys who have been shadowing him. She floats off and later Chet is taken captive by those guys, who turn out to be the aforementioned Sunstop 8 agents. 

Through the rest of the novel Fisher will refer to Avon as this sort of blossoming romance for Chet, though Chet hardly spends any narrative time with her. Indeed, Chet’s sole sexual excursion in the novel will be with the slim, petite brunette Sunstop 8 beauty Juell, a gal who has one of the best intros in the book – blasting “the electronic speed-beats of Carter Lee Cash” on a sort of quad-system-of-the-future stereo rig. With her long brown hair, wrapped with a bandana, it’s hard not to see her as a future hippie. Her dialog here is also suitably bizarre; Chet mentions he broke an antique while escaping his Sunstop 8 kidnappers, and Juell replies, “I despise antiques!” 

But man, these weird touches unfortunately fade as Sunstop 8 moves on. There’s action, occasionally, but the problem is Chet comes off as so obstinate that he refuses to move the plot forward. I mean it’s constantly him just saying “no” to this or that, until finally he’s forced into doing it – even then he tries to undo the entire lottery idea, and is put in front of yet another firing squad by Pawk Lundiner. Oh, and the novel’s weirdly structured. Chet says “no” for like the entire book, then finally starts planning the lottery – all while planning also to dismantle it so as to get revenge on Lundiner – then suddenly he’s making yet another escape attempt. Then, later in the novel, we have a random flashback to a few weeks before, when the lottery was running, and Chet’s making his only trip outside of the fortress he's been locked in. And we see how the lottery is advertised by sexy women (everyone here is human, btw, despite the manifold planets). It’s just strange…like, why didn’t we read all this while it was happening, and not as a random flashback in the middle of an action scene? 

Along the way Chet learns of Abraxas, the leader of the rebels who are against Pawk Lundiner; of course this made me think of Santana. One of Lundiner’s people is a spy, and Chet starts working with this person – and meanwhile Avon, who has also been brought to Sunstop 8 against her will (Lundiner’s agents under the mistaken notion she’s Chet’s “woman’), is a prisoner of Abraxas. Oh and I also forgot, but back in Earth orbit we have Rocky, Chet’s muscle-bound oaf of an assistant, who has his own running subplot in the novel. Again, the tone is super juvenile with chapter headings like, “Rocky takes a pod” or the like, describing events that are about to happen. Well anyway, dimwit Rocky is another who brings us the kinky tone; he has a busty babe of his own on the satellite he and Chet live on, and he's rammed her so much she’s “sore,” a running joke in her dialog that gets old. This gal gives us the rape humor I mentioned above; part of her schtick is getting on the interplanetary waves and screaming “Rape!” to see if any cops will respond to the call – all so as to suss out the cops who are constantly looking for that pernicious bookie Chet McCoy, we’re informed. 

But then the humor goes away when Chet learns that poor Avon has been raped; the novel takes an unexpected turn into the grim when the two are finally reunited and Chet finds his “beloved” chained up in a cave, for daily sexual subjugation and beatings by one of Abraxas’s men. Or, as Avon herself explains to Chet, gesturing to herself, “Do you see a woman or a beat-up broad?” Here Chet and Avon themselves get the closest to sex they’ll ever get in the novel, stripping down and feigning sex to distract that very same rapist. The novel heads to a close with Chet taking on Abraxas, presumably the inspiration for the otherwise confounding cover art by Larry Kresek, which makes Chet McCoy look like Peter Fonda. 

Overall, Sunstop 8 started off strong and I was loving the freaky-funky-future-‘70s vibe. But midway through it got mired in a repetitive formula of Pawk Lundiner ordering Chet to do something, Chet saying no, Lundiner throwing Chet in prison, and then Chet finally doing what he’d been ordered to do in the first place. Also, the swank future-‘70s touches abruptly went away, the highlight of course being Juell’s stereo system. I did like the somewhat raunchy tone (Rocky for example constantly thinks of sex), and the humor is for the most part like a sci-fi Porky’s. But the story was just let down by the sluggish, repetitive pace; even the action scenes tend to trudge on, and also lack much impact given the novel’s overall comedic tone. 

Here’s a sample of the interior illustrations, which are credited to a Stuart Shiffman; this one depicts Chet struggling against a massive android that plagues him for the first half of the novel: 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Hotel California

Hotel California, by Barney Hoskyns
No month stated, 2006  John Wiley & Sons
(Original UK edition 2005)

Barney Hoskyns is a music journalist who has been steadily publishing for a few decades now; I first became aware of him in the mid-‘90s when I came across a copy of his 1997 novel Lonely Planet Boy, which I reviewed on Amazon…back in August of 2000! (And mine is still the only customer review of the book on there, so if you are really bored you can check it out by clicking the link.) I think that novel was an anomaly, as Hoskyns mostly publishes nonfiction books on classic rock and the like. Hotel California is one of his more well-received books, and covers the singer-songwriter, country-inspired soft rock that overtook California in the 1970s. 

Given the prominence of their placement in the book’s super-long subtitle, one might get the impression that the majority of Hotel California will be about Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But friends they are hardly in the book at all! In reality, Hotel California spends more time on Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt! In this way the book is very similar to later rock book Goodnight, L.A. I found it very curious, particularly given that Hoskyns also doesn’t dwell much on music criticism…except when it comes to the female singers. He’ll off-hand casually mention that CSN finally get around to releasing a new album, and maybe drop the name of a song title or two, and that’s it. But for Joni Mitchell’s latest release Hoskyns will give a few paragraphs describing the songs. WTF? 

Another curious thing about Hotel California is how blandly Hoskyns tells his story. This to me is the biggest difference between “classic rock journalism” and the rock journalism that was published as it all was happening – in other words, the sort of articles one would find in contemporary issues of Rolling Stone. Whereas Hoskyns in this book has a bland, “academic” recounting of how this happened, then that happened – in other words, bald relaying of the facts – the journalists of the actual day put a lot more personality and color into their material. A case in point would be Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres, who did several pieces on CSN&Y in the ‘70s; I’ve read some of them, and they give all the color and personality that is lacking in Hotel California

There is none of that here. Hoskyns is very much a “just the facts” sort of documentarian, but “just the facts” isn’t the best approach for rock journalism. The sad thing is that I found myself bored for long stretches of Hotel California, and even more damning was that none of it had me heading over to to pick up a copy of any of the albums discussed. I also didn’t get much in the way of sordid rock expose stuff; Hoskyns doesn’t even really dwell on the rampant sex and drugs. That said, there was a part that had me chuckling: in the mid 1970s, a coked-out Stephen Stills suffered from the delusion that he was a Vietnam combat vet(!). This was just so bonkers that it had me laughing out loud, but unfortunately other than just a bland mention of the condition, Hoskyns does nothing to exploit it. 

In fact, such is the overall bland tone of Hotel California that I read the entire 330-some page book but am having trouble recalling any of it. But then, many people would argue that ‘70s Californian singer-songwriter stuff was ephemeral pap anyway, so maybe it just goes hand in hand. I did appreciate it that Hoskyns for the most part sticks to the ‘70s; the opening pages, which document the early ‘60s, had me worried. I’m really not into the whole folk singer scene, Bob Dylan and etc, but here in the opening pages Hoskyns just details how the folk stuff flourished in California in the early ‘60s, eventually leading to an influx of folk musicians who had grown up listening to country…and soon enough country rock was created and flourishing. 

CSN are really the big movers and shakers, but as mentioned Hoskyns doesn’t write much about them. We have recounting of famous scenes, like how the group formed due to an impromptu jam session, and also we get detail on how Neil Young was eventually brought into the fold and how the “supergroup” would constantly break up and reform due to various internal strife. Hoskyns doesn’t shy from pointing fingers, which I also appreciated; we’re often told how Stills was a control freak, particularly when he was in “full-blown cocaine addiction” in the ‘70s. And Neil Young doesn’t come off like the addled hippie I always assumed he was; he too begins exerting control of the group. David Crosby is constantly referred to as a the least talented of the group, but that’s by David Geffen, another of the main figures in the book. Graham Nash comes off a the only likable one in the group, on a personal level at least. 

More focus is placed on Joni Mitchell and eventually the Eagles and Poco and other groups like that; Gram Parsons also factors a great deal in the book, and Hoskyns reveals that Parsons’s fame was mostly posthumous. According to Hotel California, Parsons was mostly ignored in life, only reaching a cult fame a decade or two after his early death. For me personally, I’ve never cared for his music. I am aware of when Parsons was being embraced by the hipsters of the ‘90s; I had a buddy who swore Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was one of the greatest albums ever. But it sounded like honky tonk redneck shit to me, and to this day it’s the only Byrds album I don’t have in my collection…and I still haven’t heard the whole thing. 

Speaking of the Byrds, Hoskyns clearly has a preference for Gene Clark, but yet at the same time is a bit misleading in what he writes about him. For example, in the unfortunately brief section on Clark’s mega-budget 1974 flop No Other, Hoskyns almost implies that the album was never released! We’re informed that Clark, after epic recording sessions, proudly brought the acetate to label honcho David Geffen…who listened to a few minutes worth and then tossed the acetate in the trash, telling Clark to “make a proper fucking album.” No more of this is mentioned, which almost implies that No Other was never released. Luckily, sloppy stuff like this doesn’t happen often in Hotel California, but it could be confusing for someone not already familiar with the topic. 

Back to Joni Mitchell; Hoskyns spends a lot of time on her and her albums. While her music has never been of interest to me, I was very interested in Hoskyn’s random mention of a vintage ad Reprise did for Ladies Of The Canyon. Essentially a short story about a young gal in Laurel Canyon who smokes dope and has just broken up with her boyfriend. Friends, this short story advertisement, which you can see in the Image Gallery here, is so similar to the work of J.R. Young that it was either by Young or by someone in the Reprise marketing department who studied his form. We know from comments left on my review of Young’s stories that Young eventually got into promotion at the record labels, so maybe he was already working at Warner/Reprise while he was doing his Rolling Stone bit. 

Hoskyns is also guilty of revisionism to fit his narrative; he has it that cocaine had so permeated the industry that as the ‘70s went on the artists were no longer able to create lasting music. But after establishing this conceit Hoskyns has to brush off landmark albums like the titular Eagles LP Hotel California (which is, you guessed it, barely even described in the narrative). That said, I found Hoskyn’s explanation interesting; as a guy who has spent a lifetime listening to ‘70s rock, it has seemed quite apparent to me that, for the most part, 1976 was the cutoff point of the good stuff. Of course, there are notable exceptions, like Dennis Wilson’s 1977 Pacific Ocean Blue (but then that was mostly recorded in ’76 and earlier), but for the most part post-1976 rock is bland and without personality, very manufactured and cold. Hoskyns notes this as well…and theorizes that it was the result of cocaine. 

I thought this was very interesting. As Hoskyns notes, cocaine is certainly a fuel for creativity, but at the same time it desensitizes the user. In sum the drug used to create ends up making the creator feel emotionally disassociated from the music being created, resulting in cold, impersonal artifice. Hoskyns also briefly notes rumors that record label boardrooms were overtaken by execs who would leave meetings to snort a quick line. All this reminded me of late ‘70s rock world novel Triple Platinum. But then it wasn’t just drugs; Hoskyns also notes the “corporate rock” that was taking over the industry at the time. He’s particularly dismissive of Boston. 

Hoskyns covers all the big acts of the day, with a focus on the Elektra and Asylum rosters. The latter in particular was centered around Southern California singer-songwriters – Jackson Browne is another of the main figures in the book – but of course they branched out into other areas of the country and rock. Hoskyns stays focused on just the Southern California bands, so Hotel California couldn’t be seen as a feature on Elektra-Asylum. For example, there’s no mention of Dennis Linde, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter. His 1974 Elektra-Asylum LP Trapped In The Suburbs is a new discovery for me…and I’m willing to rank it as one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard. How it could still be so obscure is a mystery to me. 

Hey, “mystery to me” was a Fleetwood Mac reference! And Fleetwood Mac also is a minimal presence in Hotel California, despite being one of the most famous Californian rock bands of all time…at least in the late ‘70s Buckingham-Nicks era. But then, this megastar classic rock album group doesn’t fit in with the narrative slant that rock was a barren, coke-fueled wasteland in the late ‘70s. Regardless, I’m much more a fan of the Bob Welch Fleetwood Mac era anyway, though there isn’t much about him in Hotel California anyway. 

So what do you find in Hotel California? Folks, I read the book and I can’t really tell you. It was a strange experience, because I’m struggling to remember anything about it. I mean it’s cool because there’s an entire book devoted to the ‘70s singer-songwriter movement in California, yet at the same time the narrative tone is so bland and impersonal that none of it registers.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Marc Dean Mercenary #1: Thirteen For The Kill

Marc Dean Mercenary #1: Thirteen For The Kill, by Peter Buck
July, 1981  Signet Books

Signet Books got back on the men’s adventure train in the early ‘80s with this series that ultimately ran 9 volumes. “Peter Buck” was the pseudonym of a British author named Peter Leslie, who also in the ‘80s wrote several volumes of the Gold Eagle Executioner and related books – in other words, Peter Buck isn’t some relative of Pearl S. And I’m sorry to report that a British vibe extends to Thirteen For The Kill, at least insofar as the pulp goes, with a clinical detachment to the narrative style, a plodding pace, and way too much narratorial padding. 

Also, at 224 pages of small, dense blocks of print, the novel’s just too long. Actually the length wouldn’t be bad if so much of it wasn’t devoted to scenery description or to hero Marc Dean and his titular thirteen-man force navigating treacherous stretches of the North African desert. One thing to note straightaway is that the cover makes Thirteen For The Kill look like the typical “lone wolf commando” yarn this genre is known for, but in reality it turns out to be more along the lines of the earlier Donovan’s Devils or the contemporary Soldier For Hire, only without the wonderfully bonkers reactionary vibe of the latter. Indeed, there is a blasé, bland vibe to the entirety of Thirteen For The Kill. But it is similar to Soldier For Hire in that Marc Dean, rather than being a lone wolf commando type, is actually a “leader of men” (as outright stated in the narrative), commanding a force of…forty men. Actually, the setup is even more similar to The Liberty Corps, which also eschewed the typical lone fighter setup for such large forces. 

I concur with the mighty Zwolf, who also was not fond of our series protagonist: Marc Dean, a 36 year-old career officer who now makes his living as a mercenary. As Zwolf notes, Dean’s a bit too much of an asshole officer to be a series protagonist, not much listening to his men and needlessly putting them in jeopardy. But then, this is more of a team book, as Dean doesn’t operate in a solo capacity: the core seems to be comprised of Sean Hammer, Dean’s Irish best budy, and Mazzari, an African with a British accent (and who per pulp demands is the immensely muscled black guy on the team). Atypical for most men’s adventure protagonists, Dean has both a wife and a kid – though the wife’s recently become an ex-wife, and the kid, a 4-year-old son, lives with his mom. This means then that Dean is still free to engage in the casual sex also demanded by the genre, though you win a no-prize if you’ve guessed that Brith author Leslie doesn’t get too risque in the sex scenes. Hell, even the violence is mostly PG. 

As with a lot of British pulp the vibe here is very continental, despite Dean being an American. I mean when I personally think of a professional mercenary, I don’t think of some guy who went to Harvard and has lush penthouses around Europe; Dean is very much a “man of action” in the Jefferson Boone mold. But unlike Boone he doesn’t work alone, and the gist of the series seems to be Dean putting together teams to take on his jobs. And also Dean does not have any emotional connection to these jobs, so again the usual revenge angle of men’s adventure is gone here. In Thirteen For The Kill Dean’s task is to destroy a fortress in North Africa that has been taken over by an “Arabic non-Muslim” extremist force. 

Leslie pulls a number from the average men’s adventure mag story by opening the tale late in the action, then flashing back to the establishing events. It’s very much in the men’s mag mold as we meet Dean, suffering from momentary amnesia, as he wakes up off the coast of some North African hellhole, trying to remember how he got here. Soon enough he regains his memory and recalls that he was leading a force of 40 men on an attack of a fortress, but the majority of his men were killed in a sea wreck and now Dean only has the titular thirteen mercs at his disposal. From there we jump back to the long establishing material; Leslie proves himself more comfortable in the non-action scenes, making his future career as a Gold Eagle scribe a little suspect. 

But then, there is a ton of ‘80s gun-p0rn in Thirteen For The Kill. Straight-up exposition as Dean will discuss guns and ammo and whatnot with his underworld dealer, or where there will even be asterisked footnotes explaining what certain weaponry acronyms mean. There’s even a laundry list, late in the game, of the various weaponry Dean and force still has at their disposal, complete with number of rounds for each. It gets to be a bit much, and certainly brings to mind Gold Eagle. The only notable thing is that Dean, at a bargain, picks up several Dardick pistols; Leslie explains to us via exposition (and later another footnote) that these odd-looking pistols were developed for the Air Force in the late ‘40s but were never actually put into service for various reasons. 

Not that much is made of it when all these guns are actually put to use. Peter Leslie seems to be writing more of a suspense thriller than he is a men’s adventure novel; the action scenes are sporadic at best, and certainly bloodless. They also have more of the feel of war fiction, same as Soldier For Hire and Liberty Corps, with Dean directing fire instead of actively engaging in it like a lone wolf men’s adventure protagonist would. Personally I feel this takes away from the excitement, and I didn’t much enjoy it. I did however like Dean’s hatred of all things martial arts; twice in the novel (including even in dialog with his 4-year-old son!) Dean claims that karate and such is just “jumping around” and that a “pencil in the eye” is much more effective. Take that, Joon Rhee! 

Speaking of Dean’s son, he factors into a random flashback late in the game to when Dean last saw him, just a few weeks before the novel’s opening. More focus however is placed on Dean’s ex; our hero is still hung up on her, claiming she’s the only woman he ever loved, and this entire flashback is about the most recent time he banged her. That said, Dean does pretty good for himself otherwise, picking up some nameless blonde early in the book for some off-page shenanigans, and then, just a few pages later, he’s entagled with another babe once he’s gotten to Morocco. This is Rada, who might or might not be an enemy agent. Leslie handles the sex scenes with the same white glove treatment as the action scenes, with lines like, “He went into her, deep as a sword wound.” The flashback frolic with Dean’s ex contains an even better line: “[Dean] was easily, scaldingly, wonderfully inside her.” Scaldingly? Sounds like the ex Mrs. Dean might want to pay a visit to her gyno. 

Another humorous line is when Dean, after crawling through the hot desert to scope out an enemy base, decides to disguise himself as one of the Arabic soldiers: “There was still enough grime on [Dean’s] face to give him a swarthy appearance.” This reminded me of the part in Team America where they “disguised” the main puppet as a radical Muslim terrorist. Such things might implly that Leslie had his tongue in cheek, but otherwise the tone is flat and serious throughout. There isn’t much spark to Thirteen For The Kill, is what I mean to say, and I’m hoping the ensuing 8 volumes are an improvement.