Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Enforcer #1

The Enforcer #1, by Andrew Sugar
March, 1973 Lancer Books

Death is rotting your guts, tearing you apart with pain. It's all over; there's nothing left but the funeral, and they're measuring you for the coffin now.

No, that's not copy from Hallmark's new line of Sympathy cards, it's the back-cover blurb for volume 1 of Andrew Sugar's 6-volume Enforcer series, which started off at Lancer Books and then with #5 moved over to Manor. (Which makes Justin Marriott speculate that Andrew Sugar must've owned the character, and not the publishing house.)

The first quarter of The Enforcer #1 follows the grim tone of that back-cover blurb. We meet 38-year-old Alex Jason in the last stages of terminal stomach cancer, wracked with constant pain and awaiting death. Spurning drugs he deals with his horrendous pain with "ki," focusing his will into a diamond-hard blade of resolve. But the ki's no longer working and Jason knows the end is near. Then a hologram appears in Jason's apartment and offers him a chance to go on living...

Jason it turns out is a Hunter Thompson-type (well, a Hunter Thompson with the looks of a young Burt Reynolds, I guess), an investigative journalist known for stirring up hornet's nests of vice and corruption. His work has destroyed careers and put powerful men in prison, and as a result he has caught the eye of the John Anryn Institute -- the shadowy corporation which sent that hologram into Jason's apartment. Beyond its normal business functions, the Anryn Institute also houses a secret division which uses cutting-edge technology to defend the oppressed peoples of the world. A main component of their technology is cloning, hence their offer to Jason: while his "real" body dies they will map his mind and place it into a wholly-new body, one that's young and virile and untouched by disease.

The only catch is that these bodies last for a mere 90 days, and then they literally melt. However Jason's mind can be mapped again and placed into yet another clone body -- but the catch here is that this can only go on for a maximum of two years. After that, the mind-mapping becomes faulty and things start going haywire. The Anryn Institute's working to solve this dilemma, but at the very least their offer to Jason right now is for a minimum of 2 extra years of life. They ask that in return he must become their "Enforcer," fighting for those aforementioned oppressed masses. Jason finally agrees and, given a young and handsome Latino body, he's prepared for his first mission.

Afer a few weeks of training (in which he falls in love with one of his trainers, a fellow clone named Brunnie who in reality is a few decades older than Jason but now lives in a body just as young as his own), Jason is armed with a laser rifle and sent to a tiny Caribbean nation where he must destroy some oil wells. Things go wrong immediately and Jason's captured. He becomes the prisoner of the local ruler, a half-Spanish, half-Irish thug named O'Brien who tortures Jason mentally and physically. At O'Brien side throughout is a white male whom Jason suspects is a Syndicate rep -- ie the Mafia, the John Anryn Institute's #1 archenemy.

After an interminable stretch Jason's finally freed by some Anryn people -- Brunnie among them -- and they escape into the jungle. We're already over a hundred pages into the book, but instead of ending it takes a new turn; Jason's immediately given a new mission. It turns out there's a nearby base in which some twisted, Syndicate-funded scientists are turning people into plants (!). The Anryn Institute wants the place destroyed.

There are only two problems. First, one of the Anryn Institute reps who freed Jason, a redneck named Turley, is the prototype of a new clone body -- past his two-year expiration date, Turley's been given one more chance in a new but expiremental change to the mind-mapping procedure. And he's quite obviously going insane. And the second problem -- Jason's own clone body is fast approaching its expiration date, and all of the warning sings are in place: numbness in the left side of his body, motor skills fading. It won't be long until his flesh is a mound of goo and he's nothing but a brain resting on the jungle floor, awaiting a slow death.

At 220+ pages of tiny type, The Enforcer #1 is meatier than the average men's adventure novel. A lot of this is due to Jason's backstory, but beyond that one reason for its meatiness is that Andrew Sugar, believe it or not, is here crafting a genuine novel. This is certainly not something quickly churned out to make a buck; Sugar has put a lot of work into this character and his world. The Enforcer #1 is an exceptionally well-written novel, with emotional content, good dialog, a wry sense of humor (the insane Turley is an obvious spoof of the typical gung-ho men's adventure protagonist), taut action scenes, and a fair amount of graphic sex.

Not only that, but Sugar is the first of all these men's adventure authors I've yet read who doesn't -- not even once -- jump from one point of view to another. POV-jumping is a staple of amateurish writing (or, at least, hastily churned-out writing). We're in one character's head and then in the next paragraph we're suddenly in another character's head. It's jarring and it breaks the vivid dream of reading, and it happens all of the time in men's adventure novels. But in The Enforcer #1 we stay locked in Jason's point of view from beginning to end. It nearly brought a tear to my eye.

Also, Sugar is capable of delivering stupefying lines such as this one, describing a woman Jason is "associated" with:

Marcy was, simply, a sensual animal who lived for only one thing: to have a man, any man, spew sperm inside of her.

Well, if that doesn't sell you on this novel...

In 1975 Manor Books took over the Enforcer series, reprinting the Lancer originals with new covers. Here's the cover for their reprint of The Enforcer #1, which they retitled Caribbean Kill:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TNT #5: Killer Angel

TNT #5: Killer Angel, by Doug Masters
January, 1986 Charter Books
(French publication, 1978)

Once again the order of the US and French publications of the TNT series matches up -- Killer Angel was the 5th installment of the series both here and in France, where it was titled Les Jeux D'Hercule (aka The Hercules Games, cover below).

In Italy on business (whatever that means -- I've yet to figure out what exactly Tony Nicholas Twin does for a living), Twin receives a telegram that his mentally-retarded daughter October is sick. Twin freaks and, unable to reach his home in Ireland due to a storm raging about the Mediterranean, charters a plane to get home immediately. But the plane ventures right into the midst of that storm and it loses an engine. It makes an emergency landing in Albania; the passengers are given temporary shelter by the tight-lipped Communist soldiers about, whom suspect this is some sort of Capitalist trick. Twin freaks again; his constant pleas for a telephone unanswered, he breaks free, killing guards left and right. But he's caught, sent to another compound, this one heavily guarded -- and there he sees, "coaching" a team of sportsmen, Arnold Benedict, Twin's archenemy/boss.

It turns out Benedict had nothing to do with Twin's emergency landing here in Albania. That the two men are here in this exact same place at the exact same time is just a coincidence. And it's a shaky one -- one of the rules of fiction is that coincidence should never rear its head. So then Killer Angel gets off on an unsteady foot. But once this is overlooked it turns out to be one of the best entries in the series.

Twin breaks free yet again and after a harrying chase across an Olympics-sized field he's caught...only to be sprung by Valka, the 600-pound powerlifting Russian last seen in TNT #2: The Beast. There Valka stole the show from Twin, and here he does so again. Benedict has brought Valka along to oversee the sporting events: long story short, Benedict has come to Albania to ensure that this area which is quite obviously a missile silo really isn't a missile silo. But Giallica Kadar, wife of the Albanian president, has turned the area into a state-of-the-art sports complex which she hopes will one day host the Olympics. She's employed a metal-legged freak named Dr. Amadeus who produces records-shattering athletes with his hynpotic training. Giallica is a regular destroyer-of-men, a phenomenally-figured beauty who has sex with men who resemble Joseph Stalin for the amusement of her husband -- who watches it all go down through a two-way mirror.

Giallica Kadar plans to unveil her new sports complex with The Hercules Games, a sequence of twelve events loosely patterned after The Labors of Hercules. But it will be a death-match, Dr. Amadeus's group of hynpotically-trained super-athletes against his first batch of trainees, a group of political prisoners who have been augmented to mutant levels by monstrous doses of steroids. The former will easily defeat the latter in Giallica's deadly events, and Twin vows to help in the cause -- he turns himself over to Giallica and her loyal soldiers and tells them he wants to compete in the Games.

There's a lot of plot-setting afoot but once it's out of the way Killer Angel really gets in gear, reaching a level of lurid sensationalism that nearly matches TNT #1. The Hercules Games are over-the-top in the way that only the TNT series can be: Twin must race against a tank while snipers shoot at him, wrestle juggernaut-sized opponents in complete darkness, and in the best sequence of all evade a scuba-outfitted opponent who chases Twin through an acid-filled tank, firing at him with a napalm-blasting flamethrower.

In the previous volume Twin had sex with 80 women; here he slows it down a bit and has sex with a mere 13. The first dozen are young female athletes whom Twin must bring to orgasm; if he fails, Giallica will have them strangled. After which he must couple with Giallica herself. Benedict has let it slip that Twin is the only man in the world who can have sex with a hundred women in one day, or pleasure a single women innumerable times, and Giallica wants to find out for herself. But Twin, despite his hatred for her, must take Giallica as if he truly loves her -- or else all 12 of the girls will die.

The novel builds to a climax in which the drug-fuelled political prisoners fight for their freedom, inspired by Twin's belief in their cause. There's also a nice twist on one of the Labors of Hercules as Twin saves the day, unblocking the dam which looms above the missile silo.

This is one of my favorites in the series. Good characterization, good writing ("Doug Masters" certainly has a way with describing environment and atmosphere), and despite having a bit more plot than the usual installment, it features one of the best death-maze sequences.

Here's the cover of the original French edition of the book, Les Jeux D'Hercule:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Iceman #1: Billion Dollar Death

The Iceman #1: Billion Dollar Death, by Joseph Nazel
1974, Holloway House

Henry Highland West, the Iceman: Harlem-reared entrepreneur who grew his pimping business from a smallscale affair on the streets of the ghetto into a veritable kingdom of pleasure. He now operates out of a high-tech fortress/casino in the desert outside of Las Vegas, surrounded by his loyal army of "bitches," a multinational assortment of beautiful prostitutes who each know kung-fu, how to handle weaponry, operate the complicated machinery which runs the casino, and have sex with the patrons.

Sounds like the makings of a villain, doesn't it? But the Iceman is actually the hero of this series, created and written by Joseph Nazel and published by Holloway House on rough, super-pulpy paper. Man, I thought The Baroness series was expensive to collect, but it took extensive searching to find a copy of Billion Dollar Death at a reasonable price. But really, price mattered little: I've been on a Blaxploitation kick lately, and I kept running into mention of the Iceman series. From the makings it appeared to have all I could want, with a hero seemingly amalgamated from The Mack, Slaughter, and Shaft, with a little Black Belt Jones thrown in for good measure.

But if only the writing were up to par with the concept...

Nazel, a black author who churned out a lot of black-themed pulp, was apparently very prolific, but Billion Dollar Death is not the output of a writer who has honed his craft. The book reads like a first draft -- a hastily-written first draft at that. Every character speaks exactly the same, each narrative point-of-view is the same as the one before it, and no one behaves in any believeable fashion. Iceman himself comes off like a blank slate; we know he's supercool (because the narrative reminds us often), we know that everyone loves him, that his ladies adore him, but despite the adoration he's showered with by all the characters, he does nothing to gain the reader's respect. Not only that, but he's so superheroic that he's rendered bland.

Iceman's high-security casino is infiltrated; a bomb goes off in the middle of the night, killing a mob boss and one of Iceman's best women. The rest of the narrative follows Iceman trying to figure out what's happened. Long story short: an African prime minister is working with a US senator to smuggle a large cache of guns, with which he hopes to instill a revolution in his home country. Along the way the mafia gets involved, as does an old friend of Iceman's who, due to the helping hand Iceman has long given him, has become jealous of the man and wants him dead.

But it all goes down so ineptly. I mean, the prime minister also happens to be in Iceman's little casino paradise, as if it's the only place in the United States to be. Iceman flies around in his personal attack 'copter (he's richer than Howard Hughes, it appears), looking for clues, but instead it comes off like him wandering into one sneak-attack after another.

Along the way Iceman's two stalwart companions are Kim and Solema, prostitutes from his stable, the former an Asian martial artist, the latter a black weapons specialist. (Other than that the women are identical -- indeed, I couldn't tell a single one of the women apart throughout the novel.) Iceman also has a pal in Christmas Tree, a jive-talking hustler whom Iceman asks for help early in the narrative, but disappears until the very end -- where he's conveniently already on his way to the final showdown. But that's how Billion Dollar Death operates throughout: there's no real thought into the proceedings; shit just happens.

For a novel about a pimp surrounded by gorgeous women, there's zero sex in the novel. Sure, we have a few descriptions of female parts on display, but when it comes to the goods Nazel cuts to another scene. He does provide a fair amount of action scenes however, and despite their redundancy (basically just duck and shoot, duck and shoot), Nazel's sure to give us a generous amount of gore. For each bullet-hit we get a sentence or two describing the blood and brain matter which showers across the surrounding area.

But really, this is only a middling effort. It's poorly constructed and plotted, filled with spelling errors (Nazel doesn't appear to know the difference between "past" and "passed"), and it's just underwhelming on the whole. It's nowhere in the league of Marc Olden's superb Black Samurai series, so if you're seeking a little Blaxploitation with your men's adventure thrills, then look there.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Attar #2: War of Nerves

Attar #2: War of Nerves, by Robert Graham
March, 1975 Pocket Books

The strangest hero in men's adventure novels returns in the second and final installment of the Attar the Merman series. As mentioned in my review of Attar #1: Attar's Revenge, this was the work of noted sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, here posing as Robert Graham.

War of Nerves opens with a rather awkward recap of Attar's origin before getting to the plot at hand: a cache of experimental nerve gas, hidden at the bottom of the ocean by the US Gov't, has been discovered by a nutcase named Rasputin. Kidnapping an oceanographer named Mezler, Rasputin now demands a massive payoff before he detonates the nerve gas, which he has hidden somwhere off the coast of Cuba.

Once again hired by the CIA, Attar leaves his sea-city home outside of Australia and, along with his "brother" Victor and his pet killer whale Grampus, heads over to Key West, FL to help the CIA locate the nerve gas before it blows. Rasputin has given the US a week to meet his demands, and by the time Attar's onboard there are only a few days left.

The novel follows more of a low-key approach than standard for the genre. There are no massive shootouts, hardly any gore, and nothing outright lurid. There's not even any sex -- and despite the cover painting, there's not even a single female character in the novel. But regardless War of Nerves moves at a fast, absorbing pace. And I'll tell you why: the writing is great. This is one of the best-written men's adventure novels I've yet had the pleasure to read; in some ways it's nearly too good to be considered part of the genre. (But then Attar begins to breathe underwater and telepathically communicate with a killer whale, and it all makes sense again.)

My issue with Attar #1 was the lead character himself. There Attar was an arrogant ass, unlikeable and annoying. But here it's as if he's a reborn man. He's got a great sense of sarcasm throughout War of Nerves, and he and his psuedo-brother Victor trade witty banter throughout in a manner that would do screenwriter Shane Black proud.

All of the characters are wonderfully done, and again Haldeman does special justice to the aquatic characters. Attar's dolphin pal Sam is gone in this installment, replaced by a young killer whale named Grampus who was raised to think he is a dolphin. Through a convoluted process Attar's able to bring Grampus along to Key West, flying the massive beast on a C-130. The whale proves to be one of the most memorable characters, struggling against his "true" killer nature and the dolphin ways in which he was reared.

A tongue-in-cheek tone runs throughout the novel, elevating it beyond the genre norm. Here's just one example, as Attar and Victor, bloody and beaten after a brief skirmish with Rasputin, try to hitch a ride from Key West to Miami:

They decided they'd try to hitch-hike. Not surprisingly, though, nobody was anxious to pick up two burly young men - especially unshaven, in rumpled and dirty clothes, holding a probably stolen outboard motor and their eyes heavy lided with an obvious dope-fiend stare. The bloodstain down Victor's leg couldn't have helped.

The narrative proceeds in a cat and mouse game played between the villains and Attar. There are a few wonderful run-ins with the villains (in which we discover Rasputin might not be the main villain behind it all), and Attar is placed in grave danger throughout. There are also a lot of entertaining sequences with a one-legged assassin who's trying to kill Attar, Victor, and their CIA contacts. The novel builds to a spectacular climax as the villain holes himself up in a desolate fortress in Haiti, surrounded by a loyal, black-uniformed cadre of voodoo-practicing soldiers. (Okay, so maybe the novel is a bit lurid, after all.)

After Attar #1, I put off reading this second installment for a while. Now I'm sorry I did, because it's proven to be a highlight of the genre. Makes me sorry the series ended so soon. I wonder again if this early cancellation was due to low sales, or if Haldeman moved on to mainstream success and no longer felt the need to "sully" himself in genre fiction. (That War of Nerves is written so much more casually than Attar's Revenge makes me think this is a possibility, for this second volume is just worlds better than the first.) But if that was the case, wouldn't Pocket Books just hire some other chump to become "Robert Graham?"

I think again the issue lies with the lead character. Attar here is a good and resourceful character, but his ocean-centric background limits the type of adventures he can get into. In a way it's like that old Aquaman joke: he's pretty much useless unless he's near some water. But at any rate, this two-volume series is entertaining, with this installment in particular being pretty great.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection

The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection, by Paul Kenyon
February, 1974 Pocket Books

If I could meet just one character from a men's adventure novel...then it would just have to be the voluptuous, brunette, high-cheekboned, sex-starved Penelope St. John-Orsini, aka The Baroness. For sure the creation of a male writer, the Baroness is so gorgeous as to turn heads wherever she goes, she just loves a good time, and she can kill with her bare hands. Plus she's a millionaire...and a supermodel!

The Baroness is usually tagged as a "female James Bond," but she's more like a female Doc Savage. For, like the Man of Bronze, the Baroness is the leader of a group of men and women who are differentiated from one another moreso by their specialities than by their personalities. There's Tom Sumo, the Asian electronics wiz, Skytop, the American Indian ruffian, Wharton, another big guy who hides his love for the Baroness...and some others, but they were all so bland and incidental to the narrative that I couldn't remember them or tell them apart.

In the first installment of this 8-volume series, we meet the Baroness en media res -- in true men's adventure tradition there's no origin tale for our heroine. Instead her backstory is awkwardly placed in the first half of the book as a quick, two-page flashback. Married twice, her first husband a secret agent, her second a baron, the Baroness is a widow twice over. Bored with her high-society, jetsetting life, she decided to make connections with her first husband's circle, eventually becoming an uber-secret agent operating under the codename "Coin," her handler codenamed "Key," himself a top-secret NSA agent who answers to no one but the President.

The Ecstasy Connection blasts full steam ahead from beginning to end. An unknown new drug has worked its way into the elite echelons of drug society, an ecstasy pill (decades before such a thing existed) which sends users to a level of such sexual euphoria that they lose the ability for any basic functions. The opening features a montage of various people suffering the consequences -- most memorable of the lot is when an opera singer disrobes before her audience, plays with herself, and dies backstage of multiple orgasms. When an operator in a missile control center falls under the drug's sway, the NSA calls in "Key," who calls in "Coin," and the Baroness and her team are on the job.

There are some good setpieces here as the Baroness investigates. The highlight -- and the highlight of the entire novel -- is when she infiltrates a mob-thrown party in a downtown tenement building, one which turns into a drug-fueled orgy. This sequence just keeps improving upon itself, revelling in its own exploitative energy, as the Baroness, fully nude, hides herself in an orgy as the entire party is gunned down, and then, still naked and unarmed, plays a game of cat and mouse with the encroaching mobsters, killing her prey from the shadows.

Eventually the team goes to Hong Kong, where they've traced the mysterious drug. Here we meet the villain of the piece: Petronius Sim, a mountain of blubber (I kept envisioning him as a late-model Orson Welles) who lives in extreme opulence in a Hong Kong villa, surrounded by armed mercenaries and "juiceheads," unfortunates whom he has gotten hooked on his pleasure center-enhancing devices. These people have metal plates in their heads, into which they are fed electricity which stimulates the hypothalamus, giving them jolts of pleasure beyond normal human experience. Sim is devoted to pure pleasure -- his first name being a dead giveaway -- and his master plan is to get the leaders of the world hooked on his drugs and devices so that he can...rule the world.

There's a lot of action and sex from here on out, and some psychedelic stuff too, which I especially enjoyed. Sim and his scientist henchman Dr. Jolly have constructed an artificial brain "the size of a small house" with which they "map" the brains of their victims; the Baroness is hooked into it and the sequence which ensues comes off like a lurid variation of the finale of Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

Whoever Paul Kenyon was, his writing isn't bad. At 224 pages, The Ecstasy Connection moves at a steady clip, and it's a fine introduction to the series. There's some good dialog, inventive action setpieces, and a lurid quotient which outdoes pretty much any other '70s men's adventure novel (which is saying something!). Both the action and the sex scenes are incredibly graphic, the latter moreso. Which makes me wonder. The Baroness series is unlike most other men's adventure novels in that the main character is a woman. Therefore, the sex scenes are told from a woman's perspective. And again, these sex scenes are very graphic, with no detail spared.

So I wonder -- who was this series written for? It's obviously part of the men's adventure genre, but since it has a female lead character it subverts the entire "men can empathize with the protagonist" thrust of the genre. But with The Baroness series...I mean, let's face it, the Baroness is having sex with men, and the sex scenes are from her point of view. So it seems a little...strange to me. Are male readers meant to empathize with this protagonist as she has sex with...men? Or was this series some sort of attempt at a "women's adventure" genre?

To give further thrust to my theory, the advertisement in the back of The Ecstasy Connection is for Eileen Ford's A More Beautiful You In 21 Days, a book for women -- how to lose weight, stay young, etc. You know the marketing of '70s paperback fiction..."If you liked this book, you'll love..." So then why an ad for a female-centric book at the back of Baroness #1? But then... for every time we have a sex scene from the Baroness's perspective, there'll be a moment where we can objectify her in true men's adventure tradition; ie, she'll start ogling herself in a ceiling mirror. So who knows.

Anyway, it's incidental. This is certainly one of the best men's adventure series ever published, up there with TNT. (In fact, that would be the team-up of all time, the sexually-insatiable Baroness running into the sexually-insatiable Tony Nicholas Twin...)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Sharpshooter #9: Stiletto

The Sharpshooter #9: Stiletto, by Bruno Rossi
August, 1974 Leisure Books

This was #9 in the 16-volume The Sharpshooter series, but, thanks to this informative essay by Rayo Casablanca, I read it second. Stiletto appears to pick up shortly after #1: The Killing Machine, and unlike other books in the series it features Iris Toscano, voluptuous assistant of main character Johnny Rock who played such a big part in The Killing Machine, gathering intel for him and assisting in his strikes against the mob.

Given this, Rayo believes that Peter McCurtin, author of The Killing Machine, must've also penned Stiletto. However I cannot agree with that. The author who churned out this piece of garbage could not be the same as the one who gave us the genuinely-entertaining The Killing Machine.

For, sad to say, Stiletto is by far the worst men's adventure novel I've ever read. Indeed it's so bad that it could make one give up the men's adventure genre cold turkey. It's inept, poorly plotted, filled with banal dialog and plastic characters, and on the whole just plain sucks monkey balls. It's not even so bad that it's good. It's just so bad that it's...bad.

The novel opens with Johnny undercover as a hitman out of El Paso, visiting up north for a job. He's grown a moustache, wears his hair long, and darkened his skin with "Man-Tan" to complete the disguise. But within pages he's uncovered and a deliriously gory shootout ensues. This is our first clue that this is not the same author who gave us The Killing Machine. That book had action to be sure, but it wasn't as spectacularly over-the-top as the violence in this one. Each hit of each bullet is described in loving detail, complete with eyes popping out and blood and brains splattering about the walls, leaving "psychedelic art" in their wake.

Johnny was an okay character previously but here he is a cipher -- actually he's more of an asshole. Nothing matters to him but wasting mobsters. This isn't a theory, he says it several times in the novel! Johnny discovers that the mob has stolen several thousand gallons of gasoline which they plan to sell at a staggering one dollar a gallon! (Cue laughter.) I know, I know, that was a whopping amount in the early '70s, but still.

For some reason Johnny decides that this job is too big for him alone, so he drafts his Uncle Vito to help. Vito was a WWII paratrooper who now lives in a rundown house with his wife. Johnny and Iris visit the old couple, where the wife gives them both a good browbeating for breaking the law. Vito comes home, turns down Johnny's offer, and that's that. Meanwhile his wife, out cooking dinner in the kitchen, is gunned down by mobsters, who have been watching the house in case Johnny ever visited. The old lady dies, and immediately thereafter Vito says he'll help Johnny.

So let's consider this. A couple married for 30 years, the wife murdered solely due to Johnny Rock's presence. And yet Vito brushes off any blame Johnny should rightly be given. Further, consider how Vito reacts. He basically shrugs and says, well, I guess my decision has been made for me. All of the characters act like this in the novel -- they aren't even human beings, just paper-thin caricatures moved about on a wobbly chess board by an inept player. (To make it worse, later in the novel Vito buys a new car...and when it gets damaged he rants about it for a page -- more of a reaction than he gave the death of his wife!)

Perhaps the biggest victim here is Iris Toscano. A vivacious, dynamic personality in The Killing Machine, here in Stiletto she's reduced to a yes-girl. Literally. Her first line of dialog is "Anything you say, Johnny," and everything she says afterwards is pretty much just a variation of that. She barely speaks at all, reduced to less than wallpaper. There's no way the writer who created this character could've turned out the bland mockery presented here.

And to make it worse again -- spoiler ahead, but spoilers are only spoilers if the story and characters draw you in -- Iris is killed halfway through the book. Johnny's reaction? Johnny doesn't react. The death occurs during a shootout with the mob; after getting away, what does Johnny do? He washes his car. He looks out at the woods and feels "depressed" because the last time he was here, Iris was with him. It's like her death occurred years and not seconds ago. And he doesn't even mention her for the rest of the novel!

Yes, Johnny Rock is a loathsome prick in Stiletto. I wanted the mobsters to gun him down and not the innocents he dragged into his hellish life with him. He ruins the lives of many in his psychotic quest for vengeance, and yet he chalks it up as part of the job. Innocent women are killed in his attacks on the mob. His aunt is murdered because of him. Iris Toscano dies because of him. And yet Johnny pushes on oblivious. This is in no way the same character we met in The Killing Machine, and it's a shame.

I implore you to pass this one by. Everything is bad, even the action scenes, which are just the same thing over and over -- Johnny blasting at a few thugs with his shotgun. The dialog is incredibly hamfisted; the only memorable exchange is one that comes out of left field, Vito saying something about how "the pizza in this area is made by the Spanish, and their sauce is too thin."

It's so inept as to be hilarious. I mean, there are gore-packed action scenes which end, literally, with our "heroes" wondering where they should go have dinner! It's as if each paragraph has nothing to do with the one that went before it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

TNT #4: The Devil's Claw

TNT #4: The Devil's Claw, by Doug Masters
September, 1985 Charter Books
(French publication, 1978)

The Devil's Claw was 4th in the TNT series both here and in France, where it was titled Huit Petits Hommes Rouges ( aka Eight Little Red Men, cover below).

This time Tony Nicholas Twin has more of a personal connection with the mission at hand: while on vacation in the Caribbean with his mentally-retarded daughter October and his "assistant" Clare, freezing temperatures suddenly overtake the sunny locale, to such an extent that a married couple also vactioning with the Twin family dies in the horrific conditions. Unbeknownst to Twin similar freak weather has sown havoc about the world in three different locations. Determined to find out what caused the death of his two friends, Twin deposits October and Clare back Ireland and heads for Germany, where one of these freak weather attacks occurred.

At the same time, Arnold Benedict, Twin's archenemy/boss, has been employed by a wealthy sheik to find out what said sheik's similarly-wealthy cousin/enemy has been up to. Turns out this man is the culprit behind the weather-attacks; from his home base in a fictional village named Al-Wardi in Saudi Arabia he commands a team of young, idealistic scientists (each named after a Peanuts character) who have created the devices which are screwing with the weather. He also employs a team of 8 dwarves, former circus acrobats who like to slice up people with their razors (shades of Black Samurai 6: The Warlock) . Oh, and they're lead by a dwarf named Puffy, who likes to hunt stray cats and eat their guts. And they're all eunuch Muslims!

Benedict of course uses Twin to take out this global threat (he doesn't like it that Twin is already trying to do so; Benedict only wants Twin to do things because Benedict has ordered him to!). So Benedict has Clare kidnapped...and sold to a harem, one operated by a six-foot-plus lesbian named Ingrid Katt who works for our evil sheik. With the stalwart Dawlish (seen in previous volumes) at his side, Twin heads for Al-Wardi. All of the action takes place here, particularly in the "dead zone" which surrounds Al-Wardi and in which the villains have built "The Devil's Claws" (plural, unlike the title) which have caused the weather-destruction: a sequence of machinery which lurks inside an underground fortress in the middle of the desert.

The Devil's Claw by far has more sex than any previous TNT novel. Twin has sex with a whopping 80 women in this book -- one of them the afore-mentioned titanic lesbian Ingrid, the other 79 (!) the members of the harem...each of whom Twin couples with back-to-back...and each of whom he does over again immediately thereafter! Wilt Chamberlain could've taken lessons from this guy.

The harem-sex is rendered in the usual anasceptic style of previous TNT sex scenes; despite the lurid nature of these novels, they're usually written (or perhaps I should say translated) in a non-lurid tone. (Ie, the narrative never focuses on the graphic nature.) However the scene with Ingrid is deliciously over-the-top, as Twin both seduces and extracts information from the gorgeous Nordic blonde who "has never known a man."

The villains in The Devil's Claw sow more destruction than any previous villains, apparently flooding entire cities and blowing places off the map in the finale, but strangely the narrative skirts over this. That being said the villains are particularly loathesome in this book, especially the annoying Peanuts-named scientists. But as usual the denouement is skirted over; these novels never really deliver the hero-versus-villain scene which is required of the genre. Instead Twin, the enigmatic cipher who is pretty much inhuman, stalks his prey and tears them apart "off-screen" without breaking a sweat. Dawlish comes across as a much more vibrant character, insisting that all of his enemies are "Russians," even if they were born and bred in Saudi Arabia.

This novel's a bit different than previous volumes in that there's no death-maze Twin must navigate through. He does infiltrate the Al-Wardi palace (where he comes upon the harem), and the climax features him and Clare trying to escape the flooding underground complex, but there are no bizarre mazes of death such as in previous installments.

All told, despite the herculean sex scenes and the malicious villains, The Devil's Claw left me a little cold. I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the three previous volumes -- but it's still miles beyond the typical men's adventure novel. Here's the cover for the original French edition of the book, Huit Petits Hommes Rouges:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Black Samurai #6, The Warlock

Black Samurai #6: The Warlock, by Marc Olden
January, 1975 Signet

In my never-ending quest to find the most lurid men's adventure novel, I was thrilled to discover Marc Olden's The Warlock, the sixth installment of his 8-volume Black Samurai series. Just take a look at this cast of characters:

Janicot -- The Warlock of the title, an over the top parody of Anton Levay who has at his command a worldwide network of Satanists. The bald-headed freak throws bloodsoaked orgies, crucifies turncoats, and captures noteables in bizarre sex rites on film for purposes of blackmail...yet somehow he's still famous and attracts legions of admirers.

Synne -- Janicot's moll, a gorgeous black woman with silver hair, lips, and nails; with the body of a goddess she easily gets men to do anything she wants.

Bone -- An albino hitman who works for Janicot. A gay albino hitman.

Rheinhardt -- A werewolf in all but name, with claws and fangs and a taste for human flesh. Janicot saved him from an asylum and raised him for those "special jobs."

A trio of transvestite dwarves who like to carve up their prey with razor blades.

An army of African "Lion-Men" who dress like they've just come out of a 1930s "jungle movie."

Chavez -- South American pimp who once ran a global sex-slave ring which the Black Samurai smashed a few books back; now he wants revenge for that, as well as his brother's murder.

All of this, and that's not even mentioning the hero of the series, a black American named Robert Sand who trained under the greatest samurai in recent history...and who now works for "The Baron," a former president who sends Sand on high-stakes missions as "The Black Samurai!"

This is exploitation gold, and it's no wonder dime-budget Al Adamson based his 1976 film "Black Samurai" on this very novel (which however got only one thing right -- casting Jim Kelly as Sand).

Marc Olden churned out this entire series within one year; a staggering feat by any means, but even more staggering when you realize that Olden's writing is heads and tails better than just about any other writing you will encounter in this genre. I mean, there's character development, there's good dialog, there's inventive setpieces.

There's even character intropsection...sometimes a bit too much so, as Olden has a habit of getting too much inside the heads of his characters. Paragraph and paragraph will go by, detailing a character's thoughts -- which isn't a bad thing, it just becomes problematic when the characters will later relate the exact same thoughts in their dialog. Hence it makes it all of that introspection come off like padding.

The plot -- The Baron tasks Sand with killing Janicot, who has succeeded in expunging "the last good man" from Washington via blackmail. Sand heads to Paris, where another politician, this one French, has just come under the Warlock's curse. Sand battles the Warlock's dwarves and Lion-Men, but it soon becomes more personal of a mission -- in a convoluted subplot, Janicot has also been hired to get rid of a meddlesome Vietnamese politician, one who is trying to clean up the corruption in his government...and one who happens to be married to Toki, the only woman Sand has ever loved. Oh, and Janicot's also been hired by Chavez to kill Sand. Janicot's a popular guy for sure, hired to accomplish three separate jobs, all of which just happen to involve our hero; this is a bit hard to buy.

The Warlock moves at a steady clip, with Sand engaging the enemy and surveying the scene. Sand is a powerful character, and thankfully not the superhero typical of the genre. He takes a lot of damage in this novel and has his own fears to deal with. He also has a healthy dose of Black Pride which he unleashes upon many; there's a funny scene where Sand yells at the Baron over the phone, with the narrative reminding us of the irony that here is a black man (unwittingly) telling the most powerful (white) man in the world to stick it. Olden himself was black, but the novel doesn't play like a piece of blaxploitation (you'd have to track down Joseph Nazel's Iceman series for that).

Again, this is a great read, and miles beyond the usual men's adventure novel. It appears that actual care went into the writing...other than the climax, that is. The Warlock builds and builds toward that final Sand/Janicot confrontation, but fails to deliver it. Indeed, the entire finale is middling, occurring in just a few choppy pages; even the Sand/Synne climax never comes. Several times throughout the book Sand nearly sways Synne away from Janicot (mostly just due to his Black Dudeness), but there's never any resolution. I'm assuming Olden planned to bring Janicot back someday, but the series just ended before he could. Though it also appears that finales were never Olden's strong suits; many of his novels just end, as if he's reached his page count and figured to hell with it.