Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well

Frogs At the Bottom Of The Well, by Ken Edgar
No month stated, 1976  Playboy Books

I recently discovered this obscure paperback original, and it pretty much offered all I could want in vintage pulp fiction: a hotstuff female cop goes undercover with a group of “man-hating women” who plan to carry out a terror attack on New York City. The stepback cover – complete with ‘70s-obligatory female pubic hair on the interior art (below) – only sealed the deal. 

But before even reading the book I encountered a bit of a mystery. For one, there’s hardly any info at all about Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well online, other than two terse Goodreads reviews. (The title, by the way, is taken from a Chinese proverb: that “frogs at the bottom of the well only see a part of the sky.”) But looking up the book I saw that there was also an edition published by Hamyln Books in England in 1975 – a year before this Playboy Books edition. (Cover for this one also below.) This of course was cause for concern – was Ken Edgar a British author, meaning that the novel would have that sterile, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” vibe typical of British pulp? 

Well for one, I can happily report that Ken Edgar was indeed an American author; the Playboy edition also has an “About the author” section at the end, kind of unusual for a PBO. But what’s strange is, no mention is made anywhere that Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well was previously published in the UK. Indeed the copyright page makes it clear that this is the “First Edition,” and it’s copyright 1976 under the name Ken Edgar. So who knows. In one of those flukes I think I got a signed copy, at that – mine is signed “For my friend Gary – Ken.” 

It was interesting knowing who Edgar was as I read the book. Get this: he was the professor of psychology at Indiania University of Pennsylvania, and here in this novel he clearly identifies “radical leftists,” particularly “socialists,” as terrorists who must be wiped out. Imagine that today! Good grief, we live in an era where college professors get cancelled for not openly endorsing Hamas terrorism. Edgar’s age isn’t given in the brief bio, but searching online I found that he was 52 when this Playboy edition was published (he died in 1991), which also brought another interesting layer to the book – it features solely young characters, but there is a wisened vibe to the narrative. One imagines Professor Edgar became concerned with the young “radicals” at his college, and how they were polluting young minds…one wonders, then, if Edgar suspected that these young radicals would grow up and instill that very same radicalism as college administrators and professors themselves. 

Edgar only published a few novels, this one of the last ones. He was also mostly a “hardcover author,” and that is how Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well is written: more literature than pulp. I mean, to a certain extent. This is still a novel about a lesbian hippie terror cell complete with a super-hot redheaded cop going undercover and having hot lesbian sex with the cell’s leader – that is, when she isn’t lusting after the mysterious FBI agent who put her on the case, or having hot straight sex with the male hippie terrorist who created an A-bomb that will be used to blow up…the World Trade Center. 

That’s right: the plot of the novel ultimately concerns the planned terrorist destruction of Building One of the WTC. Ken Edgar died ten years before that event became a reality, but despite which his terrorists are a pale reflection of the real thing – these ones intend to blow up the World Trade Center on a weekend, to minimize innocent casualties. For these are your typical hippie terrorists, up against “The Man” and “The System;” and one must gun down a police officer in cold blood to be initiated into FUN (aka “For an Ultimate New Society,” which techinically is “FAUNS,” which also would’ve worked given that these are all girls!). 

Into this world is thrust Molly Reagan, a 29 year-old policewoman in Indianapolis who, when we meet her, is pulling off that total ‘70s pulp-crime role: serving as sexy bait for a killer-rapist who targets women. With Molly’s breasts already mentioned in the second paragraph (indeed, “Her breasts were unusually perfect for a girl so tall and slender”), I knew I was in for just the type of read I was seeking. We are to understand without question that Molly Reagan is smokin’ hot, with a body to match. But she isn’t just all beauty, as Edgar gives her a lot of depth; in particular, she has a gifty for witty repartee. In fact, a lot of Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well is given over to bantering dialog, to the extent that, ultimately, forward momentum is lost. 

While the novel never really descends into trash, the opening indicates the possibilities that it could: Molly is introduced to us as she waltzes through a park in hardly anything, being called “Slut!” by the angry old men sitting around on park benches. It also indicates that Molly will not be the kick-ass female cop demanded in today’s entertainment: when spotted by the slasher Molly is scared and runs – though she does bash him in the face a few times. She’s saved by her partner, a treetrunk named Roy who is a ‘Nam vet and who harbors a secret love for Molly, despite being married; Ken Edgar will dwell much on Molly’s worry that Roy might ruin things by saying he loves her or whatever, but Roy is presented as such a good-natured doofus that the entire subplot is moot. 

But then, the narrative baggage accumulates, making Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well seem a lot longer than its 234 pages would imply. This is mostly through much introspection on Molly’s part; we do get very much into her thoughts at times, and there is a lot of waxing and waning on various things – but I guess that’s to be expected when the author’s a professor of psychology. But Molly is really the idealized woman, with looks to spare, intelligence, and a quick wit. But we know she’s missing something, and she wonders if it’s her fate to never be married, still single and living with her mother at 29. Right on cue mysterious – and of course handsome – FBI Inspector Kittaning shows up: Molly’s name was picked by the “computer” as the only policewoman in the country who might be able to help with a case that threatens the nation. 

Of course, this satisfies the need Molly has been searching for, so she takes the job – with Roy going along as her backup – which requires her to move to New York City and pose as a Indianapolis transplant who is engaged to be married to a high school phys ed teacher (Roy), but who has latent lesbian proclivities…all so as to serve, once again, as bait. But this time for a woman: May-One, lesbian leader of New York’s FUN cell, a 26 year-old slim brunette who has a preference for redheads, particularly ones with lots of intelligence and a quick wit. The goal is for Molly to play the long game: become May-One’s girlfriend, and ultimately get inducted into FUN, so she can stop the threat the FBI suspects: that FUN is teaming up with an all-male radical leftist cell and together plan to blow up the WTC with a “suitcase atom bomb.” 

Only when she and Roy arrive in New York will Molly understand all that is required of her: Kittaning has not been very forthcoming (like for example how previous agents assigned to this job have never returned), but that will turn out to be typical of the mysterious FBI veteran, who doesn’t even tell Molly his first name or his age. We know he’s single, at least (and it will develop that he is single due to the murderous actions of FUN), which of course will cue the eventual sparks between the two. Not that Kittaning is in the book much; this is very much Molly Reagan’s show, and Edgar keeps the narrative focus on her throughout. It must be said though that Molly doesn’t seem too shocked that Kittaning intends for her to enter into a sexual relationship with another woman. But brace yourself: all the sex will be off-page, for the most part, with only a few sleazy moments here and there. 

Rather, characterization is more Edgar’s concern, and he really does bring Molly to life, as he does May-One, a self-involved and egotistical girl with a penchant for drugs, casual lesbian sex, and quoting Nietszche. It was interesting to once again be reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re informed that radical socialism only draws two types: intellgent people and “misfits.” And the most radical are made up of narcissitic children of wealth who didn’t get enough love from their daddys as children, hence they lash out at society, looking to fill an emotional void with revolutionary invective. They cannot create and can only destroy. Kittaning is very concerned about these malcontents, and here in this 1976 novel the FBI is determined to wipe out the socialist threat…we don’t even need to wonder how the FBI is aligned today

The events occur over the span of some months, and things become more real between Molly and May-One, who by the way takes the bait almost humorously fast. In fact on her first night in New York Molly meets May-One, taken to one of the girl’s favorite bars to play her role of sexy bait, but the relationship develops over time. Despite the bushy interior art, there really isn’t much vis-à-vis lesbian exploitation, other that is a part where May-One strips down and has Molly give her a bath. But Edgar keeps all the juicy details to the reader’s imagination; curiously, even how Molly feels about the sex itself is left unspoken, which is strange given the focus otherwise on Molly’s mental musings. The closest we get on this is a bit later on where Molly has a quickie with the leader of male terrorist cell, thinking to herself “a man, at last.” But even here the focus is more on emotions and reactions, not lurid descriptions. 

This extends to how the narrative plays out as well. Despite the cool cover on the Hamlyn edition, the FUN girls at no point tote subguns and go blasting. More of the book concerns Molly hanging out in their safehouse in New York and trying to prove herself to May-One’s distrusting comrades, a distrust that goes away once Molly has proved herself in FUN’s initiation: gunning down a cop. This part is carried out like an episode of Mission: Impossible, and Edgar brings a great deal of suspense to it. But otherwise the girls of FUN spend more time fighting with each other, with lots of trouble in particular caused by drugged-out “misfit” Halsey…who by the way initially is used by May-One to keep Roy away from Molly. But again Edgar doesn’t dwell on any of this stuff, like how married man Roy feels about having so much adulterous sex with a female radical (I’m sure it must have been terrible!). But then this is I guess another indication of a time long gone, as Molly and Roy have the unspoken understanding that they must sacrifice themselves for this job. 

It's more on the suspense tip with lots of emotional and psychological asides, and as mentioned the characterization is strong – Ken Edgar, despite the pulpy setup, is intent on making the novel realistic. In some ways Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well is like the “serious” version of contemporary paperback The Savage Women, which also featured a cell of “man-hating women” in New York. But Edgar’s novel is more of a psychological suspense yarn, whereas The Savage Women trades on coarse vulgarity and exploitation (yes, I intend to read it again someday!). Even the few “action scenes” here are built up around character development, like when Halsey goes nuts. 

As professor of psychology Ken Edgar really plumbs the thoughts of his characters and what makes them tick. He is good however at not being too obtuse. From her first briefing by Kittaning, Molly is aware that the female radicals of FUN all had absent fathers as children…as did Molly, whose own father was a career Army man, always off fighting some war, and finally losing his life in Vietnam. That Molly has the same psychological background of the FUN girls is what, obviously, the FBI computer picked up on, but Edgar leaves this as a subtext…an emotional subtext, in how Molly will see May-One and the others as “just girls,” before reminding herself how they’re all cold-blooded murders. 

The finale also goes for the psychological edge; Molly struggles to retain her undercover status through the book, at one point going so deep that Kittaning and Roy essentially disappear from the narrative. Even when Molly finally gets confirmation that the FBI was correct, that FUN plans to bomb the World Trade Center, it goes for more of a suspense-thriller vibe, with the terrorists painstakingly digging a tunnel beneath Building One. I did appreciate how they didn’t “want too many innocent workers to get hurt” in the blast, a far cry from the real-life terrorists of 2001. I did enjoy Molly’s final confrontation with May-One, Edgar well paying off the long-boil tension that Molly will be outed as a cop. 

Overall Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well was entertaining, with the caveat that at times it seemed to drag; it should have been a lot more fun to read than it turned out to be. The characters were all pretty well-rounded, and Edgar also did a good job of making the FUN girls more than just caricatures. I just felt that he got a little too inside the heads of his characters, so that forward momentum was often nill; and also the witty banter, while humorous at first, quickly got to be grating. 

Here is the two-page interior art, credited to Chuck Hammerick: 

And finally here is the cover of the Hamyln paperback from the UK, which makes the book seem more pulpy than it truly is:

1 comment:

Graham said...

I used to have a copy of that one in the Hamlyn edition, it disappeared in the move and I've been trying to remember the title for ages since I could only remember the plot. Thanks for digging that one up.

Now all I have to do is find a copy.