Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Phone Call

Phone Call, by Jon Messmann
May, 1979  Signet Books

After the men’s adventure market dried up in the mid ‘70s, Jon Messmann started turning out lurid one-shot mystery thrillers, this being one of them. Unfortunately for the most part these books are overpriced on the collector’s market, but I managed to get a copy of Phone Call for cheap. This one’s interesting because it’s actually a film tie-in, and indeed is copyright a pair of screenwriters, Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack, though the film itself didn’t come out until 1982 and was titled Murder By Phone. But make no mistake, this novel is clearly the work of Jon Messmann, written in his unique style, even though the copyright page might fool you into thinking “Jon Messmann” was a pseudonym. 

I’ve never seen Murder By Phone and have no intention to. But it’s interesting that this novel came out three years before the film (a low-budget horror) was released, indicating that Messmann’s novel was based off the script and not the actual movie. In fact, online synopses and reviews of Murder By Phone describe an almost entirely different story, with different characters, but the same general setup. Whatever the background, the novel itself is all very much in-line with Messmann’s usual output, and one could just as easily assume it was an original story of his. It’s less horror than it is a thriller, though there are horror elements to it, particularly given the threat our hero must face: namely, that phones in New York City are randomly killing people by blasting them with a sort of white lightning. 

The novel is very much of another era, then, with the first kill happening at a phone booth, and throughout the novel there’s lots of mystery over whether the phone might ring, or who might be on the other line – things hardly anyone at all would worry about in our modern era. That said, Messmann does introduce answering machines into the narrative at one point, so at least these characters in the late ‘70s have that safeguard. But for the most part the victims in Phone Call are hapless losers who do nothing more than answer the phone and then are zapped into hell. 

At 214 pages of small, dense print Phone Call is similar to most other John Messmann novels in that it turns out to be a much longer read than the page length might indicate. This is because, as was often his wont, Messmann has turned in a sluggish tale that’s more deadening than thrilling. In fact the book was a chore to read at times, and I almost got the impression Messmann himself was struggling with what was, really, a lame setup. I mean “phones killing people” isn’t exactly Jaws, is it? 

Not helping things is the protagonist we’re saddled with, Nate Bridger. Sure, he’s the typical cantankerous Messmann “hero,” quick to anger and lashing out…but what really annoyed me was that the dude was a “crusading consumer advocate” per the back cover…whereas in reality he’s a an environmentalist. From his intro, where he’s listing off all these companies he’s pestering due to their various infringements upon poor old Mother Earth, I was ready to magically transport myself into the book to punch the guy in the face. He’s basically the ruggedly virile macho male version of that shrill modern-day teenaged Scandanavian eco-harpie who’s constantly telling us the world’s about to end. Hell, we even learn that Nate, as Messmann refers to his hero, doesn’t like air conditioners! But at least it’s because he prefers “fresh air,” so it’s not like he gives a speech in the book where he says air conditioning is more dangerous than ISIS or whatever. 

But then, the average Jon Messmann hero is supposed to be annoying, and generally argues with everyone. So then, in his very first scene, Nate is in his homestate of North Dakota and is being given a celebratory luncheon by local businessmen, who congratulate him on his tireless work for the environment…and then the absolute bastard gets up on the podium and says thanks, this is nice and all, but it would’ve been swell if you’d used all the money you paid for this shindig and instead funnelled it to environmental causes, or sent some money to my office, ‘cause we need it there. I mean point taken, but this is our hero, folks. 

And his involvement with the story, which occurs in New York City, is sketchy at best. Nate’s heading into New York for, good grief, an eco-forum or some shit, and while leaving he’s stopped by some slackjawed yokel whose young daughter recently died, under unknown circumstances, in New York. We readers know how, of course – she was the first phone victim, randomly answering a ringing payphone in the subway tunnel and getting zapped to hell for her politeness. Nate says he’ll look into it, and heads off to New York…and there really are frequent scenes where he’s at this week-long convention, getting up on the podium and making speeches about the environment, or listening to others talk about it. Not my thing, but interesting from a modern perspective in that Nate doesn’t want to hector businesses, but instead wants to teach them the benefits of “saving” the planet.  Which doesn’t seem to be the goal anymore

Meanwhile random deaths continue in the city – only we readers gradually learn they aren’t random. Messmann neatly introduces the killer by only referring to the yellow Adidas sneakers he wears as he rides his bicycle across the city. Basically if he runs afoul of someone, and the person is rude or whatever, this guy will go back home, find the person’s phone number through mysterious means, and then give him or her a phone call, zapping the victim over the phone line with his special contraption. In the course of this the phone receiver on the other end is fried, and Nate Bridger is the one who slowly discovers this – and also that the New York phone company is hiding it all, and keeping the murders under wraps. 

This elicits several scenes where Nate storms into the phone company main office and starts yelling at the prissy office manager…and, the way these things go, it’s also how Nate manages to pick up what will be the main female character in Phone Call: Beth, a pretty girl in the front office who seems to also believe her company is hiding something big. There’s also stuff with a hardheaded New York cop Nate keeps confronting, with a lot of tantruming between the two, the cop scoring most of the points with his witty put-downs of “cowboy” Nate. 

This brings me to one of Jon Messmann’s more curious authorial quirks: his strange tendency for bonkers dialog modifiers. By which I mean stuff like “he said,” or “she said,” or the like. I’m pretty sure these are referred to as “dialog modifiers,” and generally they are kept innocuous, so as not to distract the reader from the importance of the dialog itself. But Jon Messmann missed this lesson. Instead, he puts all the attention on his goofy modifiers. Rarely ever is it “Nate said,” or even “Nate yelled,” but something more showy like, “Nate threw out,” or, the greatest of all, “Nate slid out.” I mean that’s an actual tag at the end of a line of dialog in Phone Call, but otherwise the book isn’t sleazy at all. Indeed, the two sex scenes are entirely off-page, which is surprising for Messmann and indicates to me he was catering his manuscript to spec. 

The horror stuff is limited to one-off characters, each of whom are given inordinate set-up material, ultimately answering a ringing telephone and getting fried. There is though a great scene where the killer hits a live-on-the-air telethon, zapping the hapless volunteers at the phone banks, but this one’s handled with such melodrama that you can tell Messmann had his tongue in his cheek. In fact the feeling was clear to me that he thought the whole thing was dumb but gave it the old college try – but the only problem is, Messmann’s tone is as every dry and overly serious, making the story seem a lot more ponderous than it should be. The same of which could be said of his other horror paperback of the day, The Deadly Deep

Nate works with Beth and a few different cops to track down the killer before he can make another deadly phone call, but Nate Bridger is not the action hero of Messmann’s earlier series paperbacks. He doesn’t really do anything “action” at all in the novel, and doesn’t carry a gun. In fact he pulls one of the dumbest moves ever…he manages to figure out who the killer is and chases him solo, cornering the guy and actually roughing him up a little. The guy agrees to go along with Nate to the cops, but asks if he can change his friggin’ shirt before they go…and Nate lets him! Would you be surprised to learn the dude runs away? 

This at least sets up a goofy finale in which the phone company people come up with this reverse-engineered contraption that will fry the killer when he calls someone, which takes us into an overly suspenseful finale where Nate must call the killer at a certain time…and listen to his inordinate demands. Speaking of which, right before this we lucky readers have “enjoyed” Nate’s own inordinate demands, in a looong closing speech he gives to the eco-forum about man’s threat to the world and etc, etc, to the point you figure John Kerry must’ve read this book when it came out and took notes. Copious notes. 

Overall I found Phone Call middling and glacially paced, and the eco-sermonizing didn’t help matters much. But I only paid a few dollars for the book, so I can’t complain too much.


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

Thanks for saving me a few bucks. ;-) Is there any artist credit for that cover?

Film Buff said...

I saw