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


Brian Drake said...

You might want to skip the rest of the Dirty Harry series, Joe. Even the ones with a better pace aren't very good. One of the authors made Harry out to be a San Francisco Mack Bolan, which felt extremely out of character; other editions turned him into a caricature (the worst was the one where he travels somewhere for a family reunion -- ugh). One opens with the line, "Geez, Harry, all he did was say good morning," or something similar, and we learn that Harry had smashed the barrel of his .44 into the guy's mouth and broke a few teeth and the fellow turned out to be a dirt bag and only Harry knew. Such a let down of a series, and I'd tracked down the entire set. Don't remember how I disposed of them, but they're long gone now. I found the novelizations much better.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi Brian, great to hear from you, and thanks for the note! This series certainly doesn't sound promising. I think I might actually have that family reunion one, though. I think it's set in Boston. It seems to have been a schtick of the series to feature Harry everywhere except San Francisco, which is kind of strange. Thanks again!

Marty McKee said...

You can usually tell a Meyers book because I contains a bunch of gratuitous pop culture references.

One weird thing about the Dirty Harry books is its inexplicable insistence on taking Harry out of SF. He goes to Boston, Mexico, he goes north to bust pot smugglers. What's wrong with SF?

(WAIT, don't answer that)

russell1200 said...

I am not sure if it is meaningful, but I did find a reference, "Covert Art- Mattelson",
here (for book 2: Death on Docks):