Monday, September 18, 2023

The Aquanauts #11: Operation Mermaid

The Aquanauts #11: Operation Mermaid, by Ken Stanton
December, 1974  Manor Books

Well, friends, it’s my sad duty to report that The Aquanauts does not conclude on a high note; this final volume is the most tepid and uninteresting of the entire series. But then Manning Lee Stokes (aka “Ken Stanton”) has struggled with this series from the start; in each of the eleven volumes he’s taken a series that’s supposedly about a kick-ass underwater force and turned it into a sloooow-moving suspense thriller that’s more concerned with esponiage and crime. But at the very least Stokes has seen his vision through to the end; he clearly wrote every volume, as ever peppering the novels with his goofy, self-referential in-jokes. Operation Mermaid for example features a minor character named “Lt. Stokes” who reports to temporary Secret Underwater Service honcho Captain Greene. 

I still chuckle to myself when I imagine series “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel receiving Stokes’s latest manuscript; it’s just a guess, but I’m betting that Engel came up with the plot for each volume of The Aquanauts, or at least the gist of a plot, and for this one Engel clearly wanted a mermaid. As I’ve mentioned before, Engel must have had a particular interest in this subject, given that mermaids were also mentioned in the earlier Engel-produced series Nick Carter: Killmaster, in the installment Moscow, not to mention the later Engel series Attar The Merman. So the title is “Operation Mermaid” and a mermaid actually appears in the first few pages of the novel, so Engel must’ve been happy…but after that Manning Lee Stokes turns in a snooze fest that comes off like an installment from a completely different series, featuring a new-to-the-series protagonist for the majority of the tale. I mean hell, “series protagonist” Tiger Shark doesn’t even show up until page 114! And the book’s only 192 pages! 

Rather, our hero for the majority of Operation Mermaid is a guy named Matt Baker, a black Navy intelligence officer who has just been assigned to the newly-formed Intelligence wing of the SUS, or SUSI (Secret Underwater Service Intelligence). This, we’re informed, is one of SUS boss Admiral Coffin’s projects, creating an intelligence wing for the SUS, and Baker is apparently the first guy. Oh and by the way, Admiral Coffin never actually appears in Operation Mermaid, other than talking over the phone and such; we are informed he’s still recuperating from his heart attack a few volumes ago, and Greene is still serving as SUS boss in his stead. So at the very least Operation Mermaid dispenses with that “Admiral Coffin and the head of the Navy meeting in mufti” scenario that was repeated throughout the majority of the series. 

So Baker is our star for most of the novel, which makes Operation Mermaid not even seem like an installment of The Aquanauts. Captain Greene doesn’t even show up until page 64. Instead it’s all about Matt Baker, a junior intelligence guy stationed in Hong Kong. We do see the titular mermaid at novel’s start, though; it opens beneath the waters outside Hong Kong, and a crusty old yank diver is up to no good, trying to get hold of some gold he’s learned about via the underworld. Then a nude mermaid – a Chinese mermaid, by the way – swims up, wearing nothing but her fishlike tail, and mouths the words, “Do you want fucky?” Oh plus she has gills that run beneath the breasts to her back. The old diver is all for it, even though it doesn’t seem real…then he wonders how indeed you would screw a mermaid, only to happily discover that the tail is just a costume the girl is wearing, and she’s nude beneath that, too. But then a Chinese “merman” stabs the diver in the back…and that’s all we’ll see of the mermaids until toward the end. 

Instead, that “lost gold” stuff will be the driving plot of Operation Mermaid. A particular Tong wants it, and a British spy named Ian Phillips wants it, plus there are also the Russians who want the mermaid, and the British government, which also wants the mermaid. Humans who can breathe underwater could change the global power structure! Or so we’re told. But none of it really goes anywhere. Instead it’s more focused on Phillips, an openly gay dude, and how he wants to screw Matt Baker, bluntly propositioning him and whatnot. Stokes has also kept the lurid vibe strong throughout The Aquanauts, at least, but there really isn’t much hanky-panky in this one. Hell, even Tiger Shark (when he finally shows up) goes without any action – even turning down an attractive young woman who practically begs him for the goods! 

But man as mentioned, Matt Baker is the star of the show for most of the duration of Operation Mermaid. And he makes for one helluva lame star. The dude is junior level, in way over his head, and spends the entire narrative either worrying over stuff or trying to figure out what’s going on. I wonder if Stokes planned to make this guy a new recurring character. Stokes has focused on other one-off characters in past installments, but Baker truly is the protagonist for a lot of the book; even when Tiger Shark finally appears, in the last quarter of the novel, his entrance is initially viewed through Baker’s perspective. So hell in a way I guess you could say this installment was Stokes’s version of The Spy Who Loved Me

Speaking of which, gay Brit Ian Phillips tries to put the moves on poor Baker incessantly in the novel, and an increasingly-annoyed Baker keeps telling him no. As for Phillips, he’s the British intelligence op in Hong Kong and he serves for the most part as the novel’s villain. He’s the one who puts Baker onto the mermaid business, and Baker goes to the funeral of the man who was killed by the mermaids, and soon enough Baker’s being made to drink by the victim’s loutish friends. Baker is such a loser that he becomes violently ill after being forced to drink some whiskey, because he’s never been much of a drinker – and speaking of which, there’s a lot of vomit-exploitation in the first half of the book, with Baker puking his guts out in the toilet and later having to step in the toilet when making his way into a crawlspace that’s hidden in the ceiling above it. 

Just the typical freaky Manning Lee Stokes stuff. Like later in the novel, Baker has been instructed to play on Phillips’ advances…up to the point of allowing the guy to give him a blowjob. Complete with a nude Baker stroking himself “absently” so as to get Phillips’s attention, and then Phillips going about it, and then Baker using the distraction to knock him out… Each volume of The Aquanauts has been pretty sleazy, but it must be noted that there’s no straight sex this time – except for when Phillips does the mermaid: “She giggled as he entered her from the rear,” and that’s all there is to it. Indeed, Phillips is actually bored as he fucks a mermaid, which should give you an idea of how bored Stokes himself was with this whole series. 

Well, what else? As mentioned a lot of the plot is concerned with planning and subterfuge and Phillips trying to get a coup with both the mermaids and the lost gold, while meanwhile the Russians and the Tongs are closing in. Stokes also works in his trademark crime-sleaze vibe when Baker discovers the corpse of his girlfriend…and we’re informed she’s been raped and strangled, a Manning Lee Stokes staple if ever there was one. For this Baker is wanted by the cops, someone having set him up, but this turns out to be a red herring of a subplot – and also Baker seems to have an easy enough time getting around Hong Kong as “a black man,” despite his concerns. But as usual it’s just Stokes grinding his gears as he pads out the pages. 

As ever, what makes all this so frustrating is that Stokes can still fire on all cylinders when he wants to: there are not one but two underwater combat sequences in Operation Mermaid, both instances featuring Tiger up against Russian frogmen. These are very tense, taut sequences, with Tiger again outnumbered and using his superior skills and resillience to survive. But both scenes are relatively quick, given how much space Stokes has devoted to Matt Baker and Ian Phillips. Hell, Stokes doesn’t even waste the usual time on Admiral Coffin or Captain Greene; the former as mentioned doesn’t actually appear in the book, and the latter only has a few scenes where he talks on the phone or meets with other bigwigs. That said, Greene does get in a shootout toward the end of the novel, the first action I believe he’s ever seen in The Aquanauts

But even this is an indication of how messy Stokes’s writing is. So, the novel climaxes with Baker trying to get the better of Phillips with the aforementioned bj, and then a victorious Baker hears someone coming up the stairs – all this is in Phillips’s house out by the docks or somesuch. Then we have Greene, with some Hong Kong cops, in a shootout with Russians and Tongs, outside the house…and then Greene discovers a beaten and half-dead Baker, and we only learn what happened to the poor guy via dialog. What I mean to say is, Stokes makes Baker practically the star of the show, then just unceremoniously drops him at the end. 

When Tiger Shark, the actual star of the show, finally appears, he too seems to have been changed. As stated in previous reviews, in the past couple volumes Stokes has developed this bit that “Tiger Shark” is only a title to be used when Bill Martin is on duty. Whereas in earliest volumes he was “Tiger” all the time in the narrative, now he’s “Bill,” until he’s in KRAB and on the job and is referred to as “Tiger.” It’s just goofy, and my hunch is it was an editorial request from Lyle Kenyon Engel, who was probably concerned prospective readers would flip through the books and see a bunch of references to “Tiger” in the narrative and conclude the series was for juvenile readers. 

But as we know, this is certainly an adult series – though as mentioned “Bill” himself goes without action for once. This time he’s also been retconned into a secret agent or something, and he shows up in Hong Kong with this hotstuff babe who is an undercover Navy Intelligence officer who is posing as his wife, and she basically begs him for sex behind closed doors, wanting to go all the way with the cover story, but our usually-virile hero turns her down because he doesn’t want to mix business with pleasure. WTF? This is another subplot that goes nowhere; the lady is not mentioned again after she storms off when Tiger turns her down. 

The mermaids, you won’t be surprised to learn if you’ve ever read a single Manning Lee Stokes novel, are pretty much forgotten. Actually, they’re just window dressing. They are introduced in the opening – a mermaid and a merman – and then disappear until toward the end, when they’re just bluntly brought back into the tale without much pizzaz. Stokes does try to go into the science of how the Chinese perfected this technology, of implanting gills in humans, but again there’s really not much to it. I also can’t believe Stokes didn’t have Tiger Shark screw the mermaid; I mean you’d figure that would be a given. Instead, Tiger only meets the girl at the very end of the book, and she does mouth the words “You want fucky?” to him beneath the waves, but Stokes only hints at what she’s said – because it’s all she says, all the time, and by novel’s end Stokes himself has gotten so tired of the joke that he doesn’t even write the phrase, and instead has Tiger Shark wondering if he read the girl’s lips correctly. 

The frogmen battles are cool, though, and fairly bloody: Tiger blows up two guys with his Sea Pistol, and another one he dispenses by jamming a shark baton with a charged end into the dude’s “rear” and it blows him in half. But these fights are over quick. We also get some underwater KRAB action, in fact a humorous part where Tiger shadows a Russian sub and then starts showing off when he realizes the sub can’t hit him, doing fancy maneuvers as he flings his ship around the sub. We also get new technology here that would have certainly played into future volumes: an underwater phone line, upon which Tiger can talk to Greene while Tiger is on missions in KRAB. 

But this was it for The Aquanauts. I would guess low sales killed the series, and it’s not surprising the sales were low. I can only imagine there were quite a few dissatisfied readers out there. But as I speculated before, I have a suspicion that Stokes’s last John Eagle Expeditor novels The Green Goddess and Silverskull started life as manuscripts for The Aquanauts. Not only were both volumes different from Stokes’s earlier Expeditor novels, but Silverskull in particular featured a subplot about a villain with a submarine, which would be in-line with The Aquanauts. But I guess we’ll never know. 

So, this ends my time with The Aquanauts. I still remember the day I excitedly came across a few volumes of this series at an antique store in Haltom City, Texas; I think it was in December 2013. This discovery inspired me to pick up the entire series (for a pittance, as it turned out), and a few months after is when I reviewed the first volume. And while I really enjoy the writing of Manning Lee Stokes, it must be said that The Aquanauts was not his strongest work, and I say again it clearly seems that he struggled with it. Other than the seventh volume, pretty much every volume was a little padded and dull. But also Stokes was truly invested in the writing, same as ever, and for that I’ve always ranked the guy as one of my favorites. He might have padded out the pages, but by God he did it with gusto!


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Thanks, Joe. Good review. I think you saved me some reading time. ;-) Is there any cover artist credit?

Joe Kenney said...

Hi, Bob! Unfortunately, there's no cover artist credit. I'm betting it's someone with some men's mag cover experience, though! Thanks for the comment!

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Thanks, Joe.