Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Dirty Harry #1: Duel For Cannons

Dirty Harry #1: Duel For Cannons, by Dane Hartman
September, 1981  Warner Books

This first volume of the Dirty Harry series basically encapsulates everything that is wrong with Warner’s “Men Of Action” line: while it has the right intentions, the execution leaves much to be desired. In short, Duel For Cannons was a chore to read, and I constantly had to give myself pep talks to keep reading it. I mean think about that – a story about Dirty Harry that’s a chore to read. 

What makes this surprising is that Ric Meyers wrote Duel For Cannons, and he was one of the few Men Of Action writers who understood the men’s adventure genre. I know it was Meyers who wrote this one due to the words of Meyers himself; once upon a time there was a website devoted to Dirty Harry, which exists now only on The Wayback Machine. In 2001 the site proprietor, J. Reeves, interviewed Ric Meyers, and Meyers not only took credit for Duel For Cannons (as well as five other volumes of the series), but he also ranked it as one of his favorites! And for posterity, because that website was notoriously hard to navigate, here you will find J. Reeves’s brief reviews of all 12 volumes of the Dirty Harry series. 

It's crazy to think Meyers personally rated this one so high, but it’s cool that he did. I personally could barely finish it and found it to be a mess, with Harry thrown out of his element and featuring protracted action scenes that were more exhausting than thrilling. In fact I was under the impression that another of the Men Of Action writers – either Stephen Smoke or Leslie Horovitz – wrote the book, until I remembered to check the old site. But in hindsight I realized it was obvious Ric Meyers had written it, as not only was the book filled with references to the Dirty Harry films, but Duel For Cannons also opened with a super-long chapter in which a one-off character met his fate in very protracted fashion; a Meyers staple for sure, with the caveat that this time it was a male character getting wasted (gradually). 

This, as the belabored backstory has it, is Boris Tucker, a sheriff from San Antonio who happens to be friends with none other than Harry Callahan, and is here in California on vacation with his family. This opening scene takes place in an amusement park and has the sheriff, who has brought his gun with him on vacation, defending himself against a mysterious assailant who wields a .44 Magnum. But at great length the poor sheriff is blown away, as is an innocent bystander. This brings Harry onto the scene, butting heads with the cops who have jurisdiction on the case. The official story is that Sheriff Tucker shot the bystander and then himself, but Harry knows there’s more to the story. 

Meyers brings in characters from the franchise, like Harry’s chief, Lt. Bressler, from the first film. He also often refers to the movies, sometimes in goofy ways – like Harry thinking of the rogue cops in the second film as “the Magnum Force” cops. Did they actually call themselves that in the movie? I don’t think so. Even goofier is a part later in the book where, for protracted reasons, Harry agrees to be a deputized sheriff in San Antonio, to enforce the law against crooked cops, and thinks to himself how he also became an “enforcer” once before, leading to the death of someone he cared about. I mean good thing Sudden Impact hadn’t come out yet, or we would’ve gotten a goofy reference to that one, too. 

I don’t mean to be so harsh, as I think Meyers is a good writer, and he certainly was the best in the Men Of Action line. But he gets the series off to an ungainly start; as I said, Duel For Cannons demonstrates in its slow-moving 173 pages all that was wrong with this ill-fated Warners line. Meyers’s attempts to mix random action scenes in, like early in the book where Harry gets in a protracted gun fight with a group of rapists, come off as sluggish. But protracted is really the name of the game; not since Terry Harknett have I encountered such ponderous action narrative: 

Acting on instinct, Harry’s finger tightened on the Magnum’s trigger. He immediately loosened his trigger finger for two reasons. First, he remembered that he was not shooting on home turf at a local scumbag. Usually that reason was not suficient for Harry to let someone shoot back at him, but the second reason he didn’t shoot was the more important and the more pressing. Namely, Harry didn’t know whether the keg Thurston was huddled behind was fully or empty. 

If empty, Harry’s bullets would go through like they went through almost everything else. But if it was full and under pressure, it could explode with the force of a frag grenade, sending hunks of sharp metal and gallons of beer everywhere. Under normal circumstances, Harry might have tried it, but these weren’t normal circumstances. He was fighting in front of an innocent crowd and had no cover. 

I mean, just shoot the fucker already! But it’s like this throughout. There is a ton of deliberation on Harry’s part throughout the novel, particularly during the action scenes, bringing them to a dead halt. And beyond that it’s just so excrutiatingly drawn out: 

Callahan ducked down while calculating Thurston’s speed. As soon as he thought the guy had reached the rear door, he shot diagonally through the kitchen door. His aim was good but his timing was a smidge off. The bullet punched a hole midway up the kitchen door and blasted outside, narrowly missing both Thurston’s back and the swinging back door. 

Immediatley afterward Harry was up and out the kitchen door himself, almost tripping over the beer keg Thurston had kicked aside. After noticing that the kick-back man was still hustling across the back porch trying to find a way out of the yard, Harry hefted the metal cask up. It was empty. He carried it with him as he cautiously neared the back door. 

And it just goes on like this, for pages and pages. But at least we learned the keg was empty!! Seriously, this is straight out Harknett’s equally-ponderous The Revenger/Stark series. Even when we branch out of the typical gunfights it’s just as slow-going; there’s a positively endless part halfway through where a handcuffed Harry gets in a boat and is chased by the bad guys. What could have been a fast-moving action scene instead becomes a head-beating for the reader, just going on and on with extranneous detail that slows down the action. 

The non-understanding of action fiction even extends to the names of the characters – or, at least, to the name of the badass .44 Magnum killer of the opening scene. Meyers intends this guy to be the dark reflection of Harry Callahan, a merciless hitman who works for the bad guys and is as good with his .44 as Harry is. And Meyers names this evil badass hitman…Sweetboy. He names him Sweetboy! There’s also a lot of stuff about main villain Nash – who in reality is a Mexican immigrant who has given himself a new last name. This elicits some race-baiting on Harry’s part that might be a little out of line for the character, but then Nash does spend the book trying to have Harry killed. 

Humorously, just as the action scenes are protracted to the point of boredom, the sex scene in the novel is woefully anemic. That’s right, sex scene – Harry gets laid, folks. By the most unexpected babe: the widow of Sheriff Tucker! Here at least Harry only spends a hot second deliberating on his actions, sleeping with the widow of his recently-murdered friend, but Meyers keeps it all as vague as, “They made love,” and that’s that. At this point I was ready to shoot the book…but of course I didn’t know if the book was empty or full, because if it was full… Never mind, stupid joke. But still, the book annoyed me. 

Meyers also wrote #3: The Long Death, which was much better than this one. So again it’s curious he liked Duel For Cannons so much himself. Maybe because it was new for him at the time, and he was excited about writing a new Dirty Harry story. But that excitement does not extend to the novel itself, and at least for this reader Duel For Cannons was a trying, wearying read. 

Finally, there’s the compelling question of who did the cover art; note that in the interview I linked to above, even Meyers didn’t know who did the artwork for the series. As I mentioned in the comments section of a previous review, my guess is that the artwork for the Dirty Harry series was done by artist Bill Sienkiewicz, who was soon to make a name for himself in the superhero comics field with his work on Marvel’s The New Mutants.* This cover and the other Dirty Harry covers all look so much like Sienkiewicz’s work that, if they weren’t by him, they were by an artist who was trying to rip him off. I actually contacted Sienkiewicz via his official website prior to writing this review, asking if he did the art for this series, but didn’t receive a response. That he didn’t respond makes me suspect that he did handle the art, but for whatever reason doesn’t want to acknowledge it. But then, I admit I’m conspiracy-minded; it could be that the guy just didn’t feel like responding. 

*I picked up two of these New Mutant comics at the time, issues #23 and #24, and they essentially blew my 9-year-old mind; I had no idea that comics could be so weird

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Ripper

The Ripper, by William Dobson
December, 1981  Signet Books

I’d never heard of this obscure and apparently scarce Signet PBO until I recently came across it at the Frisco Half Price Books, of all places – I’ve been going there off and on for the past 20 years, and it’s certainly not a bookstore where you can expect to find rare books. Of course they wanted four bucks for it, but I saw copies went for much higher online, and in my usual high spirits I figured what the hell and bought the damn thing. 

A big thanks to Will Errickson, who did a post on author Michael Butterworth, credited as “William Dobson” here on The Ripper and his other Signet PBOs. Curiously though the book is copyright under Butterworth’s real name, despite there being a bio at the end of the book for William Dobson! There must have been an interesting story with Butterworth, as he was a British author who lived in London, but it looks like The Ripper and his other Signet books were only published in the United States. Curious why the novels weren’t published in his home country, as The Ripper is so British it hurts – written in that same haughty, patronizing tone typical of British pulp. 

But then, the novel’s really more of a Mystery, just wrapped up in the sleazy trappings familiar from many Signet PBO thrillers of the era. In fact the back cover copy and the first page preview go out of their way to hype the kinkiness of the book, calling out the sleazy proclivities of several of the characters. But, as you’ll no doubt be unsurprised to learn given the British origin of the novel, such material turns out to be scant at best in the narrative itself. The very few sex scenes are all off-page, and those sleazy proclivities are essentially info-dumped to us in bald narratorial exposition. Even the murders, which essentially would be the biggest draw of the book, are for the most with over and done with in a jiffy, Butterworth only vaguely describing the gore. 

That said, there is a very nice (and British) dark comic vibe to the novel; Butterworth basically just has fun spoofing various upper-crust English people and then killing them off; the humor is especially dark in a ghoulish sequence in which a particular character is murdered while sitting in a car, but the body is not discovered until after the novel’s events have concluded – and Butterworth occasionally cuts back to the corpse, avidly detailing its latest state of vomit-inducing decay. But man that “British” vibe really just kills the book…I mean speaking of “upper crust,” that’s really how the book is written, that sort of “I’m not taking this seriously, dear reader, so I hope you don’t, either!” vibe that I’ve found is so common in British pulp novels. 

So, The Ripper is a murder mystery, with the mystery of course being who the Ripper is. A serial killer operating in Soho and environs, the Ripper is known for slashing wide open the mouths and throats of his victims and then stabbing them until their eviscera is spilled out everywhere; he kills men and women, and the novel opens with the Ripper in the act, chasing a young woman named Eunice through the darkened, early-morning streets of Soho. An effective scene, very much on the horror side, with the Ripper almost superhuman, but here we get a taste of what Butterworth will do throughout the majority of the novel: lots of pages focused on the thoughts of the soon-to-be victim, followed by a quick chase, followed by an even quicker death. 

Essentially, The Ripper is comprised of various one-off characters going about this or that, or thinking about this or that, and then the Ripper comes out of nowhere and slashes them and they’re dead. So in a way it’s basically the usual horror novel template. Our hero, such as he is, turns out to be a private investigator named Jack Shepherd, who apparently looks like Clint Eastwood despite being an alcoholic who spends most of his days drinking, avoiding bill collectors, and sleeping in his office. This being England and all, Shepherd cannot be confused with an American P.I., meaning he doesn’t have a gun. And nor do the police Shepherd occasionally runs afoul of carry guns. Like Jay Leno would say in his stand-up act back in the ‘80s when he guest-hosted on Carson, all the cops can do over there is yell, “Stop! Or I’ll yell ‘Stop’ again!” 

But then, Shepherd’s too much of a lush to even carry a gun. In his sequences he’s desperately counting the hours until he can have a drink, and when he does drink he gets so smashed he passes out in his office – even leaving the downstairs door unlocked at one point, despite being in the midst of the Ripper case. What I mean to say is, he doesn’t acquit himself well, at least in the capacity of a bad-ass hero, but then Butterworth’s intent here seems to be how Shepherd becomes a new man in the course of the case; in that regard, The Ripper is more than just a bloody thriller, with actual character content. 

Shepherd’s brought onto the case by the elderly parents of the first Ripper victim, a pastor and his grim-faced wife. They don’t show much actual sadness over their daughter’s murder, truth be told, more concerned with how she “lost her way” and went down the wrong path and etc. At length we’ll learn that Eunice, their daughter, was a “cigarette girl,” a sort of topless hostess in a Soho bar where guys would pay extra to squeeze her boobs. Shepherd in the course of his investigation will go to this place, the Spooky Club, fairly often, but Butterworth does little to bring the sleazy environs to life; even here the “I’m not taking this seriously” vibe rules supreme, with Shepherd usually more embarrassed for the girls and their topless states. 

But as mentioned the author does have tongue in cheek; one of the Ripper’s earliest victims is a cad of the first order, an art teacher named Dawlish who is a notorious ladykiller (we even learn that he banged both bridesmaids on the day of his wedding…and his mother-in-law!). We meet Dawlish in the act, getting it on with a horny babe who poses nude for his class, and here we see in another horror-esque setpiece in the darkened university building that the Ripper is very inclusive in his kills – this isn’t a serial killer who only does in defenseless women. 

Butterworth periodically delivers short chapters in italics on the thoughts of “a death-dealer,” and these are the first-person recountings of the Ripper, who we learn enjoys his work. The “Ripper” tag comes from the press, which begins to suspect that this serial killer is the 1980s version of Jack the Ripper. But whereas Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, this Ripper seems to kill people willy-nilly. While authorities don’t believe anything links the victims, Jack Shepherd will of course learn there’s more to the story in the course of his investigation. 

It's not an action-packed novel by any means. We’ll have various one-off characters show up for a few pages, be quickly dispatched, and then we’ll go back to Shepherd as he drinks his way through the case. He manages to get laid, at least; Dawlish’s widow, Moira, takes an immediate shine to Shepherd – indeed, it is she who claims he looks like Clint Eastwood – and beds him soon after meeting. But to give an indication of how prissily “British” this novel is…well, we get dialog like this: “If you wouldn’t very much mind, I would like you to take me again.” I mean folks if I only had a dime… Seriously, though, the book’s so British it hurts – and that’s pretty much all we get in the sleaze and exploitation departments. 

The Shepherd-Moira romance organically develops, and is one of the better parts of the novel. It starts hot, gets cool, then gets hot again, developing into something more lasting. I liked how Butterworth handled it, and while Moira doesn’t have much to do in the novel, she at least comes off as a believable character, one the reader worries about along with Shepherd when Moira expectedly runs into trouble. This is due to Shepherd doggedly pursuing his leads…actually, that’s overselling what Shepherd does in the novel. He basically calls people and drives places on occasion. There’s absolutely nothing in the way of a physical confrontation or any kind of action on his part. 

I guess the only thing that separates The Ripper from a murder mystery of decades before is the increased focus on kink and gore, but as mentioned neither are dwelled on much at all. In fact this is one of those novels where I wondered why the author even wrote it, as there’s nothing particularly memorable or novel on display. The outing of the Ripper’s identity might be it, but it’s such a curveball – though believable, given the small cast of characters we’ve been given – that it more so leaves the reader scratching his head; this is another one of those mysteries that climax with characters expositing on why this or that happened, explaining everything to the reader, like the end of just about every episode of Scooby-Doo

Another thing marking this mystery as a bit more risque is the development, late in the book, that one of the female victims was not only a junkie but also in the midst of a lesbian affair; this entails a nicely-done scene where Shepherd talks to an older cabaret singer who was in a relationship with the victim – a scene that has a surprising climax, if a bit unbelievable. Actually, a lot of The Ripper turns out to be unbelievable in retrospect, given the surprise outing of the Ripper’s identity at book’s end. 

All told I was kind of “blah” about The Ripper. It was just a bit too stuffy, and some of the prose was too ornate. I did enjoy the dark humor of it, though, and Shepherd’s blossoming relationship with Moira was nicely handled. And, at 188 big-print pages, it really wasn’t much of a time commitment. I wouldn’t recommend paying for one of the exorbitantly-priced copies currently listed on the web, but if you too someday happen to come across a copy for a couple bucks at a used bookstore, you might as well pick it up. I mean what the hell, right?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

No Sympathy For The Devil

No Sympathy For The Devil, by Frederick Snow
April, 1982  Fawcett Gold Medal

I’ve managed to discover yet another obscure rock novel, one so obscure that there wasn’t even a scan of the cover online, so I had to take one with my phone. And also there’s no info out there about Frederick Snow; apparently this is his only book, and No Sympathy For The Devil is copyright under his name, but it could be a pseudonym; whoever it is, the writing is very clunky throughout, much clunkier than anything I’ve ever read from Fawcett, which in my mind was a slightly more upscale imprint. 

On the positive side, I can say without question that No Sympathy For The Devil is by far the raunchiest rock novel I’ve yet had the pleasure to read. Even more raunchy than Mick Farren’s The Tale Of Willy’s Rats; almost every other page features characters having sex, thinking about sex, or talking about sex. The image very much conveyed is that the rock world is comprised of fragile, juvenile egos that are driven by insatiable impulses, constantly snorting coke, smoking dope, or having depraved sex. This of course is a huge mark in the book’s favor. 

On the negative side, No Sympathy For The Devil is poorly written, with the aforementioned clunky prose, expository dialog, and often awkward sentence construction. Frederick Snow also POV-hops like a champ, meaning we’ll start a paragraph in the perspective of one character but finish the same paragraph in the perspective of another character. That sort of thing really grinds my gears. Also the plot is goofy – a suspense subplot is grafted onto the trashy template of the story, perhaps catering to the demands of publisher Fawcett, which of course was known for its suspense and crime fiction.

Another problem is the year of publication…I mean 1982 doesn’t scream “rock” to me. Fortunately Snow makes no mention of punk or new wave or synthesizers or whatnot, though “disco” is mentioned in passing a few times, mostly as in “disco clubs” up-and-coming singers got their starts in. Another interesting note is that the rockers for the most part presented here are all women…this however is so Snow can feature each of them in kinky, drug-fueled sexcapades. Hell, the women in this novel are so horny that at one point a 46 year-old housewife is abducted by thugs – while she’s masturbating in the shower – and one of the kidnappers is a lesbian who immeditely goes down on her when they pull her out of the shower; an orgy ensues. 

The most interesting thing about No Sympathy For The Devil is how it’s so much like something Belmont Tower or Leisure Books might have published the decade before. I’m not exaggerating. It has the same coarse narrative style as, say, The Savage Women, and the same focus on sadism as pretty much any of those BT or Leisure paperbacks – even the same big print. In fact there was something familiar about the writing style, and belatedly I wondered if it might have been written by J.C. Conaway, as there is a touch of his style to the prose – and also I can find no info on a writer named “Frederick Snow.” (Not to mention that I also suspect Conaway wrote The Savage Women.) The glitzy Hollywood trappings are another Conaway hallmark…and really the “glitz” stuff takes precedence over the “rock” stuff, as like Angel Dust this is another “rock novel” where the occupation of the main characters could be changed, from rockers to, say, movie stars, and the plot wouldn’t change. 

The chief rocker in the novel is Jennifer Carron, now “at the top of the rock and roll ladder” but at one point a no-name who sang in those aformentioned disco clubs and whatnot. Curiously Snow does not tell us what Jennifer Carron looks like; he has a tendency to not much describe his characters at all. He also doesn’t much describe the sex scenes, shockingly enough; while No Sympathy For The Devil is certainly raunchy and adult in nature, the actual sex either happens off-page or is only minimally described. What I mean to say is, the novel never truly descends (or should it be “ascends?”) to hardcore. 

And I’ve gone this far without acknowledging that the title, of course, is a nod to one of the greatest songs in history: “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones. At first I thought No Sympathy For The Devil took place in its own reality, with a made-up cast of rock stars and whatnot, but as it develops it is indeed a roman a clef, with occasional mentions of the Stones or The Beatles. We’re told though that the most famous rock group in the novel is “The Cinco’s,” five British guys who are “mentioned historically in the same breath as the Beatles, the Stones, or Elvis.” 

And yes, friends, it’s “The Cinco’s,” with the apostrophe before the “s,” as if “The Cinco” owns something. Remember when I mentioned the clunky writing? 

But as it turns out, The Cinco’s are a minimal presence anyway. It’s the women who stay at the forefront in the novel…which honestly could be yet another clue that Frederick Snow was really J.C. Conaway, given his preference for female protagonists. Jennifer Carron is sort of the main character, or should that be main antagonist, though surprisingly she fades into a supporting role, after a memorable opening which features her snorting coke and having sex in the studio. But there’s also a Tina Turner-esque singer named Darlene Silk, who has a rivlary with Jennifer, and the plot concerns their battle for which will receive this year’s “Entertainer of the Year” Grammy. 

And this is yet another “rock novel” where the author never tells us what the music sounds like, nor really much describes it – we have the opening bit where Jennifer Carron belts out what we’re told is a surefire hit in the studio, but describing the song itself is outside the author’s ability. Later in the book both Jennifer and Darlene will each sing a song at the Grammys, but again we aren’t told how it sounds – and friends that is it, so far as the “rock stuff” goes. As I said, Jennifer and Darlene could be changed into movie star divas, fighting for an Oscar instead of a Grammy, and the novel would be the same. 

Because, as it develops, the “thriller” stuff, such as it is, takes precedence. In the opening chapter we are told how, two years ago, a sleazy individual named Rudy Cannon was fired from IEM Records, where he served as VP of Sales – he was outed by hotsthot producer Greg Welles, who claimed that Cannon was selling pirated copies of the Cinco’s latest album, which had been withdrawn due to the Cinco’s being unhappy with the mix. IEM Chairman of the Board Townsend Parker, urged on by Welles, had no choice but to fire Cannon, who vowed revenge. 

Then the plot itself begins, two years later, and we see Greg Welles in the studio with Jennifer Carron, and this is the most “rock stuff” part of the novel, with studio musicians playing and Jennifer singing what will surely become a huge hit, then doing coke and screwing Greg while the engineers listen in the control booth. But after this No Sympathy For The Devil changes course and the focus of the plot concerns Ashley Burdnoy, attractive 46 year-old wife of John Burdnoy, a CPA who runs the agency that counts ballots for the Grammys. Burdnoy is a non-celebrity who, each year, enjoys a few seconds of celebrity as the guy who brings out the letter containing the winner of the “Entertainer of the Year” on live TV during the awards. 

Readers soon learn that Rudy Cannon’s revenge scheme concerns the Burdnoys: now running his own label, Good Vibrations (which started off due to a wealthy funder whose identity is left a mystery until novel’s end), Cannon seeks to steal artists from IEM, particularly ones who have worked with his archenemy Greg Welles. Jennifer Carron would be the big score, and Rudy has promised her a plush contract – as well as guaranteeing she will become Entertainer of the Year if she moves to his label. Jennifer is all for it, whatever Rudy must do to guarantee it – and his plan is to abduct Ashley Burdnoy and use her as collateral to force John Burdnoy to change the name written on the winning card to “Jennifer Carron.” 

A lot of the narrative is focused on the kidnapping, drugging, and raping of Ashely Burdnoy, who as mentioned is abducted while pleasuring herself, so of course Snow skirts the line with the subtext that Ashley, a bored housewife with no children and who keeps fit on the tennis courts, begins to enjoy it. Her kidnappers are a motley group: a radical lesbian named Ronni, a junkie slut named Eva, and a burly biker-type named Denny. Each of them will have their way with Ashley in the short course of the novel, including even a sequence where she’s forced to have sex with Denny on videotape as yet more collateral – Rudy Cannon’s safeguard to prevent John Burdnoy from going to the cops after all this is over. The kidnappers also have fun drugging Ashley up, most notably a part where they dose her with LSD and then Eva goes down on her, leading Ashley to experience the biggest orgasm of her life. 

So as you can see, No Sympathy For The Devil is pretty depraved. The issue is, it’s really more of a kidnapping/extortion novel than it is a rock novel. The “rock world” trappings are for the most part lost as the narrative becomes more concerned with Greg Welles trying to help John Burdnoy find his abducted wife. But this too is goofy, because multiple times through the novel they could just go to the police, but this is never addressed. But the idea is that Burdnoy assumes the mystery man who has kidnapped his wife – and who keeps calling Burdnoy with orders to declare Jennifer Carron the winner that night at the Grammys – must be Greg Welles, who of course happens to be Jennifer Carrons’ producer. 

As for Welles, he’s kind of a cipher and not much brought to life, despite being the hero of the piece. I did appreciate how the author recreated the casual infidelities of the rock world: as mentioned the novel opens with Welles and Jennifer having casual sex in the studio, even though both of them have respective others: Jennifer’s a sleazebag who serves as her manager and who is also part of the kidnapping plot (which Jennifer is aware of), and Welles’ a hotstuff movie actress named Frederica. The grimy vibe extends to all of this, with every character talking about sex or wondering when they’ll have sex again – even the Cinco’s show up at Welles’ place, having brought along a young girl they discovered in England who literally orgasms at the sound of the lead singer’s voice, entailing a bit where everyone sits around and watches her climax on the floor, complete with details on how wet her panties are getting! 

So yeah, all this depraved stuff is great, but the book is constantly undone by the comically-inept lack of payoff. Like for example, the opening sex between Jennifer and Welles. It’s Jennifer Carron who initiates it, fondling her producer in the studio and asking if he wants to “fuck” after offering him some coke. Later on we realize this is a casual thing between them, but Jennifer seems to secretly be in love with Greg Welles, and that he spurns her is one of the reasons she’s looking to jump ship from the label. But this is never paid off. Even worse is the case of Eva, the junkie who still likes men but for the most part is in a relationship with full-fledged lesbian Ronni. Well folks, we get the WTF? revelation midway through the book that Eva was once married to Greg Welles, and this is never really brought up again, other than another random WTF? tidbit that Welles’s chaffeur/bodyguard Tonto (a white guy with a very un-PC nickname) has “had a crush on Eva since college.” This info is just randomly introduced and then not dwelt on again…indeed, Eva seems to disappear from the text at novel’s end, leaving the reader to wonder what her fate is. 

But really the book is more focused on the various degredations of Ashley Burdnoy, who is captured while fondling herself in the shower and will spend the rest of the novel – which occurs over a few hours – either nude or in a bathrobe that’s constantly coming open so her adbuctors can fondle her nether regions. Meanwhile Greg Welles, working with Darlene Silk’s people, tries to figure out who abducted Burdnoy’s wife. Here’s where it gets hard to believe, with Tonto and another dude ultimately heading for the place where Ashley’s being held, one of them even toting a Magnum revolver – again, it would be just as simple for them to have gone to the cops, given that they’ve not only figured out where Ashley is being held but also who is behind the kidnapping plot. 

Instead the climax plays out at the Grammys, with lots of “tension” as Welles and Burdnoy wait desperately for word that Ashley is safe, the notification upon which Burdnoy will change the cards again so that Jennifer Carron does not win. This entire part is goofy – and here’s where I really started to suspect J.C. Conaway was the author – because there’s a bit where guest presenters The Cinco’s do a dumb comedy routine while presenting the Entertainer of the Year award, complete with them playing “peekaboo” with the audience from behind the award stage curtains, and it’s all very Conaway-esque. 

That Leisure Books vibe also extends to Ashley’s rescue: just as she was abducted while pleasuring herself, so too is she rescued while being forced into lesbian sex with Ronni. I mean this lady is really taken over the coals throughout the book. But there is a nice payoff with Ashley getting hold of that Magnum and blasting out vengeance – complete with the nonchalant reveal, at the end of the book, that she’s blown off the friggin’ head of one of her captors. 

Humorously, Frederick Snow just flat-out ends the book at the Grammys, complete with Ashley showing up still in nothing but that damn bathrobe – not that anyone seems to notice. It’s kind of hilarious in how poorly constructed the novel is at times, but also a refreshing reminder of the days when publishers didn’t have “focus groups” to judge the quality of a book before publication. But while it’s kind of a cold finish, it does at least resolve the kidnapping and revenge scheme storylines, as well as the outing of Rudy Cannon’s secret funder – which, honestly, is kind of easy to figure out, given that there are only a handful of characters in the novel. 

Overall No Sympathy For The Devil is certainly trashy and depraved, and in that regard serves up everything I could want from a rock novel. And at 224 pages of big ol’ print, it is a pretty quick read. Yet at the same time, the rock stuff in it is so minimal that it’s mostly just window dressing…in actuality the novel is more of a kidnapping yarn with a lot of sleaze and sadism, and I’d really love to know if “Frederick Snow” was J.C. Conaway or some other Belmont Tower/Leisure Books veteran.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Gravy Train Hit

The Gravy Train Hit, by Curtis Stevens
November, 1974  Dell Books

Nominated for an Edgar Award in 1975, The Gravy Train Hit clearly seems to be “inspired” by John Godey’s The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (which is even referenced on the cover); author “Curtis Stevens” is in reality the writing combo of Richard Curtis and Paul Stevens. The book is copyright them and the first page informs us of the pseudonym; I haven’t bothered to research them much but I believe Richard Curtis was an agent and/or an editor. 

I got this book several years ago during one of my frequent ‘70s crime kicks, and of course was drawn to it because it’s a paperback original. Plus it takes place in ‘70s pulp-crime sweet spot New York. Similar to another Edgar nominee of the day, Death Of An Informer, this one features a black protagonist; indeed, The Gravy Train Hit almost comes off like the novelization of a Blaxploitation movie that never was. But man the first twenty or so pages are a bumpy read for sure, and for a while there I thought maybe this was part of that unofficial Dell “sleazy paperbacks” line of the day, a la Making U-Hoo and Black Magic

Because, it surprised me to discover, The Gravy Train Hit is a comedy, a goofy one at that, with humor that won’t resonate much today…the Prologue being a case in point, which takes place in 1881 and features a bumbling black guy who comes across a train wreck and is mistakenly identified as “the first n-word train robber” (and no, they don’t write “n-word”), and eventually he is hanged for it…and it’s all played as comedy, complete with painful “former slave diction” for this guy, like “heah” instead of “here” and the like. 

Then the book proper begins and we are introduced to our hero, 24 year-old Cleron Jonas in early ‘70s New York, descendant of the protagonist in the Prologue (and sharing the same name), whose “large ears jut out of his closely barbered kinky hair.” So I wondered if we were in for an entire book of this stuff…my concerns compounded when Cleron was revealed to be a bumblng fool, taking a hot dog with him on his first day at the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new central office and inadvertently jamming the hot dog into a computer key slot during training. Otherwise it was cool to read about computers and their “Twenty First Century sounds” here in a 1974 novel; Cleron, having worked for the MTA for four years and knowing every inch of the New York subway system, is one of the chosen few to oversee the computer that monitors the rail system. 

Fortunately the comedy becomes slightly less goofy in nature as the book progresses, and for the most part the humor comes through the actions of the characters. And luckily Cleron Jonas will prove to be less a bumbling fool than he is a good-natured guy who harbors a lifelong dream of becoming a master criminal. Inspired by his ancestor, Cleron daydreams about being Wild West outlaw “Black Cleron,” and we have a couple fantasies featuring this character before Cleron realizes he has the makings of a real-world, first-class crime act right in front of him: robbing the “gravy train,” ie the armored train that collects all of the subway system’s receipts for the day. 

That said, when the sexual material transpires, it’s just as explicitly-rendered as in those aforementioned sleaze paperbacks Dell published at the time. All of which is to say, The Gravy Train Hit is more comparable to, say, Sexual Strike Force than it is to a crime thriller. The cover photo of a revolver could just as easily have been replaced by a scantily-clad female model, same as those other Dell paperbacks, to the point that I wondered if The Gravy Train Hit was in fact written as part of this line. The fact that it’s a comedy, with zero in the way of violence, further lends credence to the theory that it was never intended as a “serious” crime novel…which is how Dell packaged it. 

And hell it must’ve worked, otherwise the book wouldn’t have been nominated for an Edgar. But it’s curious that it was, as really The Gravy Train Hit is kind of stupid, let down by its goofy tone. Basically, young Cleron Jonas, an up-and-coming MTA computer worker who has never lived up to his full potential, strikes upon the idea of robbing the titular gravy train, while trying to also swindle the Jewish Mafia, the Black Mafia, and the regular old Mafia, each of which is trying to horn in on the caper. Plus he falls in love with a “light-skinned” black babe named Verna who engages in frequent explicit sex with him. 

It’s through Verna that Cleron comes up with the idea to rob the gravy train; there’s a nice “meet cute” between the two when Cleron, on his first day as an MTA bigwig, is riding the subway in full uniform, and a sexy young chick named Verna asks him for directions. Since he’s been ordered to ride the rails all day, as an “owner” of the system now, Cleron gets the idea that he can just keep riding with Verna, working up the nerve to ask her out. The way this plays out is a caper in itself, and nicely handled. Also Verna is an interesting character: as the weeks progress and she and Cleron become a steady item, she is the one who keeps trying to initiate sex with Cleron. But Cleron refuses, wanting to “become a man” first (by pulling a big robbery), and then “taking” her. And when the naughty stuff finally does happen, boy does it leave no juicy stone unturned, again reminding the veteran sleaze-hound of material in those other Dell paperbacks – super hardcore stuff. 

As for the caper itself, as mentioned it plays off on a comedic angle. Not even a “light” comedic angle; it’s straight-up slapstick, as Cleron goes from one racial stereotype to another as he first tries to get the Mafia in on the heist and then, having been turned down by the Italians, goes to the Jewish Mafia. Which also says no. Meanwhile Cleron’s older brother, a thug in the Black Mafia, starts to suspect Cleron is up to something (there’s no love lost between the two), and soon enough all three of these organizations come back to Cleron and basically insist they take part in the heist. 

How the caper goes down is kind of fun and no doubt why The Gravy Train Hit was nominated for the Edgar. But those expecting a gritty ‘70s crime thriller will be let down; again, the cover photo is very misleading. Instead Cleron orchestrates the entire thing from the computer terminal at the MTA office, speaking to the various thugs via the radio system; he cleverly works them against each other in what is the highlight of the book. This takes up the final quarter of the slim novel – the book’s only 157 pages – and the authors keep the narrative moving, with a calm and cool Cleron giving directions to the increasingly-panicked crooks who carry out his scheme…in ways they don’t comprehend. 

The problem with Cleron directing affairs remotely is that there’s no impact to the finale of The Gravy Train Hit. For that matter, the “hit” of the gravy train itself happens off-page, with Cleron merely instructing one group of thugs to go in and tie up the gravy train guards, simple as that. Instead, it’s still on the comedy angle with the increasing bewilderment and panic of the various thugs Cleron orders around down in the subway system, moving them like pawns. But then Cleron does prove to be rather brutal, nonchalantly sending some of them to their doom – though he specifies it’s only those who “deserve it” who will get hurt. 

Overall The Gravy Train Hit is a quick read, sometimes funny but for the most part kind of annoying. That is, if judged as a crime novel. If judged along the likes of, say, Black Magic or Michelle, My Belle, then it’s certainly a success, as unlike those novels there’s more to the story than just goofy shenanigans and bursts of sleaze. I also enjoyed the feel for mid-‘70s New York; in particular the reader gets a good appreciation of the byzantine byways and mainlines of the MTA.