Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doomsday Warrior #1

Doomsday Warrior #1, by Ryder Stacy
May, 1984  Zebra Books

Back in the mid-'80s the men's adventure genre got a new kick with the emergence of what I call "Post-Nuke Pulps," aka action series which were set in the nuclear aftermath of WWIII. Jerry Ahern's Survivalist started the trend, but I could never get into that series. I was familiar with the long-running Doomsday Warrior series -- the painted covers, each with a fist holding a different weapon, really stood out on the bookshelves -- but I was never able to track down volume 1. It was only a few decades later, after reading Justin Marriott's fab overview of the series in Paperback Fanatic #16, that I finally decided to find a copy.

The series takes place a hundred years after the damn Commies have blasted the US with several nukes. The country is now mostly a wasteland, some spots ruined for eternity, others becoming much different from what they once were. Several cities were untouched, pointedly avoided by the Russians, so that the invading forces would have nice places to live. Yes, the Russians have even taken over the country, ruling the populace with an iron fist. The Communist empire is ruled by Premiere Vassily in Moscow; his nephew controls the US from the White House. The true power however is the KGB, here reformatted into basically the Waffen SS: a bunch of sadists in black leather uniforms emblazoned with death's heads, their commander a sociopath named Killov.

I should mention that in an eerie coincidence we are informed that the Russians launched their attack on the US on September 11th. (September 11th, 1989, but still, that's a bit creepy in its own prescient little way, isn't it?)

Americans have become slaves of the empire, churning out threadbare product which is shipped back to Moscow, suffering hardscrabble lives in slums. But from various remote areas of the conquered US an army of "Freefighters" wage a guerrilla war against the Russians. These are free Americans who have evolved in the radiated stretches of the country; in true Marvel Comics fashion, the decades of radioactivity have effected superhuman change into the people who live in these places. The end result is that the best fighters all have the builds of professional wrestlers, beyond which they can run faster, jump higher, and survive more damage than the average human being.

These Freefighters live in a nigh-idyllic world of underground cities in which each person works dutifully for the future freedom of the American people, making their own food and medicine and weaponry. There are several of these conclaves, but the top one is Century City, located in the Rockies. This is a vast, high-tech community burrowed into the mountains in which the free Americans live a sort of "communist" life of their own, really -- more importance is placed on the city rather than the individual, and each citizen works at various chores for the good of the community. At any rate it's all very comic-booky, as we learn that Century City started a hundred years ago, when a bunch of traffic-jammed Americans got trapped underground following the nuclear blasts; here they formed a society, over the decades creating this virtual paradise inside the mountains, complete with indoor waterfalls and meditation rooms and etc.

Century City's military commander is Ted Rockson, aka "Rock," the toughest Freefighter of them all. A towering, muscle-bound presence with differently-colored eyes ("one violet, one aquamarine") -- not to mention a skunklike streak of white through his heavy metal-long black hair -- Rockson grew up on the wastelands before finding Century City. In fact he trekked across the radioactive wastes on his own, after seeing his family killed by a KGB deathsquad. Hence Rockson has become affected by more radioactivity than most, which of course means he is even more powerful than the rest. Rockson is the protagonist of the series and is your basic idealized action series leading man: charismatic, deadly to his enemies, beloved by the ladies. Known as "The Ultimate American," Rockson is a folkloric hero in this post-apocalyptic world.

This first installment mostly lays the groundwork for the series. In fact it starts off with what I'm certain is the outline "Ryder Stacy" used to sell the series. We learn how this post-nuke world came to be and meet all of our characters (and there are many of them), both the Americans and the Commies. During lots of bickering between Killov and General Zhabnov (aka the ruler of America), Rockson and his Freefighters launch several raids on Russian outposts. The Commies devise a mind-controlling device which allows them to locate the hidden American bases, and later on Rockson discovers new, devastating weaponry that has been created by mutated Americans far out in the wastelands, and he and a few handpicked men venture out to get hold of it.

The problem is, Doomsday Warrior #1 is too damn long. At nearly 400 pages of incredibly tiny print, it's so padded as to be monotonous. There are many repetitive sequences and incidental bits that should've been gutted. For example, there is an endless scene where a returning party of Freefighters describe to Rockson the ruined land they just trekked across, pages and pages of dialog...and then, mere pages later, Rockson and his crew trek over the very same terrain, with the same description employed in the narrative!

But even worse is the writing. Simply put, the writing here is often atrocious. I'm always nagging about POV-hopping -- where the narrative jumps between character perspectives with no warning -- and "Ryder Stacy" takes it to new depths here. The most jarring instance I can think of is when we're in the POV of Rockson as he and his Freefighters hide in a valley, preparing to launch a sneak attack on a group of Commie helicopters -- and then, in the very next paragraph, we're suddenly in the POV of one of the crewmembers on a Russian 'copter. I just cannot understand how a writer can POV-hop and not realize what he is doing. It completely takes the reader out of the fictive dreamworld and disrupts the reading experience. I mean, at the very least, drop a damn line or two, give us a little space between POVs so we can understand that you're changing perspectives...I mean, anything.

Where was I? Oh, right, the terrible writing. The dialog too is goofy and hamfisted, but this actually lends the book more of a comic book charm, at least most of the time. (It's hard to be critical with a book that contains lines like: "Look -- it's the Ultimate American!") Cliches however run rampant throughout. Characters who "run like bats out of hell;" tension "so thick you could cut it with a knife." Even secure doors which when unlocked "open as easy as pie." And yet -- this goofy writing actually goes hand-in-hand with the goofy concept of the series itself, so somehow it all works.

What's odd is that there are long stretches of very good writing in Doomsday Warrior #1, in particular the sequences focusing on The Technicians, that aforementioned mutated batch of Americans who have created a host of particle-beam weaponry. The descendants of nuclear silo technicians, these people think only in mathematical terms, which allows Stacy to go into some outer limits of thinking and dialog. It's my understanding that future volumes go into even further reaches, but like any first installment of a series this one plays it a little safe -- any pulp writer knows that you lure readers in with a more traditional first volume before getting whacky in future volumes.

"Ryder Stacy" was the psuedonym of two authors: Jan Stacy and Ryder Syvertsen. Both wrote men's adventure series under their own names, and I'm uncertain if they collaborated fully on each volume of Doomsday Warrior or traded off. I would imagine the former, as some parts of Doomsday Warrior #1 seem to be written by different authors; for example, the writer who penned the Technicians scenes doesn't POV-hop.

At any rate, this first installment was successful enough to launch an incredible 19 volumes. And despite my dithering it is good in spots -- these authors don't shirk on the ultraviolence, with each battle scene featuring lovingly-detailed gore and destruction, lending it a definite tongue-in-cheek vibe. There's also some purple-prosed sex. Justin's Paperback Fanatic article really sold me on this series and I gather from it that it just gets better from here -- and I'm hoping it does, because in my usual OCD nature I've gotten hold of most of the volumes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Baroness #5: Operation Doomsday

The Baroness #5: Operation Doomsday, by Paul Kenyon
August, 1974 Pocket Books

This volume of The Baroness really tried my patience. Let alone that it was a retread of #3: Death Is A Ruby Light, with the Baroness and team trekking through a frozen wasteland, but beyond that it was just aggravating in its overly-padded monotony. Not to mention that the Baroness herself really got on my nerves this time out.

It's unfortunate, because the plot for Operation Doomsday is a good one. In a scenario that would've made Michael Crichton proud, we learn that a supervirus threatens to destroy all life as we know it: during one of NASA's trips to the moon, an astronaut happened to sneeze. Long story short, his germs latched onto moon rocks and basically formed into a radioactive-charged supervirus. NASA discovered this after the last manned visit to the moon, in 1972. The ship inadvertently brought back the virus, which had been growing on the moon's surface over the past years. The virus broke loose and killed over a hundred people in the plant, in incredibly gory fashion -- faces melting, chests caving in, guts exploding. There's a great bit of conspiracy-mongering when an official later admits that this is why manned voyages to the moon were curtailed in 1972.

However a Russian rover-bot has just collected some moon rocks and is headed back to Earth. These moon rocks contain the virus and the US government is in a tizzy. As soon as the Russians open the container, the supervirus will break loose and destroy everything. But the damn Commies won't listen to the President's plea; instead, they figure the US has been cooking up some sort of biological warfare on the moon and is trying to keep the Russians from discovering it. Though they refuse to hand over the unopened moon rock container to the US, the Russians do agree to have the ship land in a desolate patch of land -- namely, a biological warfare plant in the Arctic.

The Baroness is finally called in. Here we have another of those annoying scenes we're it's again drilled into us that no one knows who she really is. To hammer this home we have an overlong sequence of the Baroness wearing a "body mask" which makes her look like a man, complete with special plumbing "down there." She goes to these lengths so she can attend a conference with top US spy officials and NASA scientists, who explain the danger at hand. While the rest of the government is planning how to save a select few hundred people from doomsday, the Baroness and her team are sent out into the Arctic wildlands to get the container from the Russians and destroy it. And they've only got a few days to do it.

Now the boredom sets in. Operation Doomsday is very similar to the average entry of John Eagle Expeditor, only with half the fun. Really though it's identical, with the Baroness surviving the elements with a handful of spy-fy gadgets and an insulated suit of super-thin material. She and her team go undercover with a migrating horde of indigineous Lapps; lots of page-filler ensues, with the Baroness just raring to hunt wolves with the Lapps. She's also sure to set her sights on their top hunter, finding time to get friendly with him in the middle of a blizzard. Again, all of it the same as in Death Is A Ruby Light. Hell, there's even a traitor in their midst, which also happened in that previous installment.

But this novel just bugged me. The endless detail about the Baroness's spy-fy gadgetry, all of it overly explained -- not once but several times over. And in a world of idealized protagonists, the Baroness reigns supreme. No matter the situation, she has either had training in it or can overcome it through blind skill. From hunting wolves with nothing more than a stick and a knife to sneaking into a high-security compound with nothing more than a heated suit, the Baroness is so superheroic as to be annoying. We even learn that in her off-duty time she likes to compete professionaly in Formula 1 racing. But in the absolute dumbest bit of all, when attempting to determine which building houses the moon-rock container, The Baroness flashes into a "Samadhi trance" and instantly knows which building it is. Yes, the nirvana sought by monks over the course of lifetimes can be attained by the Baroness in mere seconds -- even after burrowing through several feet of snow and breaking the neck of a guard.

What makes it funny is how stupid the Baroness comes off, regardless of the idealizing. There are several instances where, despite having such a well-trained team at her disposal, she insists on sneaking off alone for whatever bullshit reason...and gets caught every single time. This has actually happened in all the previous novels but it happens a few times in Operation Doomsday, and it makes the Baroness appear to be a stubborn, glory-hogging fool. Even after the endless sequence where she sneaks into the biological warfare plant (complete with mind-trance detective work), she still gets caught! It almost makes you think that her team would fare better without her. Indeed they're always saving her ass; even her ever-present dogs have to save the Baroness this time out.

Paul Kenyon (now confirmed to be Donald Moffitt, thanks to an enterprising fan over at the Yahoo Baroness group) must've been in one nasty mood when he wrote this novel, as it's by far the meanest volume yet. We've got several scenes of torture, complete with women stripped nude, staked on snow-swept fields, raped (by a hunchbacked dwarf with a "member" as twisted as his body, no less), and then torn apart by wolves. The Baroness herself gets tortured; we don't get all the details but we know a pin has been stabbed into various parts of her anatomy. This is a darkly humorous sequence regardless, with her torturers referring to the KGB torture handbook throughout. There's even a scene in which an entire village is gunned down, complete with descriptions of little kids getting blown apart.

So, a grim entry in the series, but in the end a rather boring one. What's worse is that the climax appears rushed, which is strange given that so many pages have been killed describing how Lapps hunt wolves and etc. Even the main villains this time out -- a psychotic Russian and his attendant, the aforementioned hunchback -- are given short shrift, lost in the jumble of characters and subplots. John Eagle would not be pleased.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Marksman #2: Death Hunt

The Marksman #2: Death Hunt, by Peter McCurtin
No month stated, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books

I didn't much enjoy the first installment of the Marksman series, but I thought I'd dive right in and read the next one, because sometimes you just wanna read about mobsters getting their faces blown off. And I'm happy to report that this one is a zillion times better than the first. That's not to say it's great or anything; like the first volume this one is filled with problems and seems nothing more than the outline for a real novel.

First though I have to say that I think "Peter McCurtin" was just another house name, or perhaps we have here a prefigure of Don Pendleton's later arrangement with Gold Eagle Books -- ie, McCurtin's name is displayed on the cover when in reality a ghostwriter turned out the actual work. Because whoever wrote this did not write Vendetta. Whereas that novel was clunky as hell and poorly plotted, Death Hunt shows signs (most of the time) of being a carefully-constructed work. It isn't just a string of sequences featuring protagonist Philip Magellan blasting away mobsters, in between sawing off the heads of hippies.

Also, this time we actually get Magellan's background, something that was not mentioned in the first volume. Also we learn why he declared his one-man war upon the Mafia. Most importantly we get into his head and see what makes him tick. If Peter McCurtin was a real person, then I would suspect that Death Hunt was actually written by him, because it's near to the quality of the first Sharpshooter installment, The Killing Machine, which also was supposedly written by McCurtin.

In fact the two novels are very much the same. Just like Johnny Rock did in that novel, here Magellan gains an unlikely associate in Antonia Paoli, daughter of a mob chieftan who hates the mob and briefly joins Magellan in his war (and in bed). But this in itself is rather strange; as we meet Magellan in the first pages, he's just arrived in New York City and is looking for mobster vermin to exterminate. So it's very strange when he befriends a mob chieftan, Antonia's father...and then vows to avenge the family when Paoli, his son, and his soldiers are all murdered by a rival family. You'd figure Magellan would applaud the events, just stand back and watch the Mafia kill itself.

At the very least this proves that Magellan has a bit of hummanity about him. Really he's helping the Paolis because he's fallen for Antonia. Early in the book, after Magellan has brought her injured father home, Antonia promptly seduces Magellan and they have sex on the living room floor. I should mention that Antonia is described as looking like "Sophia Loren of the movies." But Magellan takes it all in stride; I guess this sort of thing happens to you often when you're a men's adventure protagonist.

Magellan at length discovers that a mob boss named Spazzi is behind the murders. Spazzi has a hidden fortress/mansion built in the middle of Coney Island. McCurtin explains this is so because Spazzi grew up here and wanted to live here, yet it makes little sense for such a powerful mafioso to live amid such noise and confusion; every scene inside the mansion features a moment where a passing Coney Island ride makes such noise that the windows rattle. But this provides Magellan with an easy means of infiltrating and later attacking the fortress, as the ride conveniently passes right beside and over the mansion's unguarded spots.

There are several action scenes throughout which are better rendered than those in Vendetta. And again Magellan, despite his brutality with mobsters, doesn't come off as the sort of character who would cut off the head of a hippie corpse, which again makes me figure someone else wrote that previous volume.

There's still some lurid stuff afoot; Antonia gets captured by Spazzi (in an unexpected subplot, we learn that Antonia was once married to Spazzi) and he and his men rape her. The rape is only implied and Magellan arrives to save her, though it appears two men, including Spazzi, have already been at her. And yet, Antonia never mentions what happened and indeed is joking with Magellan, mere moments after being freed, as they enjoy some drinks together at a local bar. Since we're near the end of the book, I imagine this is McCurtin realizing he's close to his word quota and saying to hell with any sort of characterization.

Even the climax is rushed, which is typical of these Imitation Exectutioners. Magellan, sitting on that ride with Antonia, merely drops a few grenades on the mansion and then guns down the escaping soldiers with a pair of Thompson submachine guns. After which he and Antonia go to a high-end apartment and stay in bed for a few days, and she gets up one morning to announce she's going to work (she's a professor -- and meanwhile McCurtin doesn't explain how exactly she could be going to work, as earlier in the novel she was wanted for arrest due to her family connections), and Magellan says "see ya," because a men's adventure protagonist has better things to do than get involved with some woman, and he packs his bags and hits the road.

This was it for the Marksman books bearing McCurtin's name. The next ones were published under the house name "Frank Scarpetta."

3/9/12 UPDATE: After some research it appears that Peter McCurtin in fact wrote Death Hunt. Thanks to Leonard Levinson I have learned that McCurtin was the editor of both the Marksman and the Sharpshooter. McCurtin traded off with author Russell Smith on the early volumes of the Marksman; Smith in fact wrote Vendetta, the first volume of the series. McCurtin's interpretation of Magellan is slightly less sadistic than Smith's.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Penetrator #7: Baja Bandidos

The Penetrator #7: Baja Bandidos, by Lionel Derrick
December, 1974 Pinnacle Books

All told, this is a rum entry in the Penetrator saga. After the action-packed fifth volume and the trip to Japan in the sixth volume, this one comes off as rather uneventful. Mark Roberts, who penned this installment, also wrote several Westerns; I wouldn't be surprised if the plot of Baja Bandidos was a leftover from one of them.

All the standards of a pulp Western are in place: there are Mexican bandits, a damsel in distress, plucky peasants, and an Indian-trained hero who fashions his own arrows from flint. Other than a few bows to the modern age, it's as if the entire novel takes place in 1874 rather than 1974. El Baron, bandit leader and self-proclaimed future ruler of Mexico, is kidnapping people in the Mexican desert, all of them rich or influential. His latest captives are an Israeli woman and a professor who is an associate of William Haskins, ie Hardin's benefactor.

Even though several people have gone missing in Mexico, the Penetrator is the only one who puts it all together and assumes it's the work of one person. His brilliant plan is to go undercover as a millionaire playboy. Flashforward a few weeks and Hardin's cover identity has been firmly implanted in the public conscious. He tools around Mexican resorts in his sportscar, accompanied by two gorgeous Hispanic women, one a glamorous socilaite, the other her "minder." Hardin scopes out the place, trying to get himself captured. It's all kind of dumb.

And it gets dumber, for when Hardin is captured he doesn't even have a fallback plan; I figured he would've smuggled in some weapons hidden on his person or something. Instead, he's taken to a smelting plant in the Mexican desert in which the other captives are held. Here he meets El Baron, who takes the time to announce his grand plans before taking off, leaving his second-in-command, a black American named Clyde, in charge. Clyde comes off as the worst of the two, hateful of whites and women; another of those oddly-displaced scenes occur amid the otherwise light nature of the book, where Clyde and the bandits get drunk and gang-rape the Israeli woman. Meanwile all Hardin can do is seethe and plan his escape.

At length he does, killing a guard and escaping into the merciless desert heat. Again Hardin proves his lack of planning; I mean, who in their right mind would just allow himself to be captured and hope for an eventual opportunity to escape? Hardin here is accompanied by Jose, a young peasant boy who soon acts as his surrogate son. This is the most affecting part of Baja Bandidos and really sets the reader up to be gutted at the end.

Weaponless, Hardin makes use of the training he received from David Red Eagle and fashions arrows in the Cheyenne way. After a few raids he assembles a rag-tag band of peasantry and forms them into an army, employing the same training he did with the Montagnards back in Vietnam. This is a neat sequence in which the men train in guerrilla warfare, creating weapons from anything at their disposal, including "beercan grenades."

It all culminates with a final raid, including an out-of-left-field bit where Hardin "appropriates" a Mexican Army fighter plane and hammers the shit out of El Baron's forces. What's funny is that amid all the carnage the captors, so central to the plot, are pretty much forgotten; even when Hardin frees them Roberts gives them only a cursory mention and gets back to the fireworks. Again we get a novelty death for the main villain, as Hardin takes on El Baron in the style of the bullfighters. But I'd say this is a miss, as El Baron is absent for the majority of Baja Bandidos; the true villain is Clyde, whom Hardin dispatches with a casual shot.

So this was a muddled installment. Given that the series continued on for another 46 volumes, I'm assuming it was a momentary lapse.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Sharpshooter #4: The Worst Way To Die

The Sharpshooter #4: The Worst Way To Die, by Bruno Rossi
February, 1974 Leisure Books

Johnny Rock is back in another entertaining installment of the The Sharpshooter series, a little more slower-paced than the previous three volumes but still packed with the same grisly dark humor. This volume marked Leonard Levinson's first work on the series; Levinson is an author I first became aware of a few years ago when I discovered his unsung classic The Last Buffoon. Anyone who has read that novel will know that Levinson has a great sense of humor, one which is apparent throughout The Worst Way To Die. Also, this is by far the best-written volume yet in the series. (However I'm not saying it's the best volume. How could anything top the insanity of Blood Bath??)

What's strange is that The Worst Way To Die could almost serve as the initial volume of the series. Johnny Rock is only getting started on his vendetta. Mobsters aren't even sure who he is. Meanwhile, two volumes ago, in Blood Oath, he was so famous that magazines were running profiles on him. I guess you could say this novel is like a "missing chapter" from The Killing Machine. There's of course no mention of Rock's gorgeous female partner, Iris; Rock consistently reminds himself here that he is waging a lone war. It's as if he has never met her. (Or, more likely, that Levinson never read the first volume of the series!)

But this is a very human Johnny Rock in The Worst Way To Die -- so human in fact that Levinson refers to him throughout as "Johnny" rather than the more typical "Rock." He gets nervous before his hits on the Mafia, he worries he might get caught, he regrets that he cannot live a normal life. There are many scenes where Rock will walk through New York City and look at the people who pass him by, envying their humdrum lives, wishing he too could go home to a loved one and eat a nice dinner and watch TV all night. But for all of his hummanity Rock is still consumed by rage, and Levinson brings it to life in a big way. Indeed, you could say this installment shows how Rock became the twisted monster of the other volumes. For he repeatedly "hungers for Mafia blood;" if he goes just a few days without killing a mobster he is consumed with anger and can think of nothing else.

Another thing Levinson brings to life is the tedious lot of the Mafia-killer. Rock marvels over how he spends most of his time waiting, and so Levinson shows us this. There are many scenes of Rock wasting time while he plots his next kill. Shopping, walking around the city, reading the paper. In fact you could go so far as to say that parts of The Worst Way To Die are boring -- which is pretty unusual in that we're talking about a volume of The Sharpshooter!

But this is just a trick up Levinson's sleeve; he lulls you into the tedium of Rock's life, then out of nowhere delivers gruesome, shocking scenes that remind you of the previous volumes. He's done a fine juggling act here, presenting a Johnny Rock who considers himself a nice guy, yet who can still pull off violent acts of murder. In other words, he's delivered a protagonist who is a psychopath but doesn't know he is a psychopath.

The plot itself is standard -- Rock is initially captured by a Mafia enforcer with pronounced buggy eyes (ie, a proto-Steve Buscemi), an enforcer Rock dubs "Snake Eyes." This guy suspects Rock might be this mysterious person who has been knocking off Mafia, so to be safe beats Rock to a pulp and orders two of his men to take him off and kill him. Rock of course turns the tables and escapes, bloody and battered and consumed with gaining vengeance upon Snake Eyes.

Again, this is early in Rock's career, as he goes to a family friend's house, an elderly doctor, and has to explain to the man about his new purpose in life. The doctor patches Rock up and meanwhile his daughter Angela, a girl Rock's age, teaches him the art of disguise via makeup and wigs. Rock hits on her throughout, unable to believe how she has grown into such a woman since last he saw her. (Or, as Rock so memorably puts it: Jesus, how'd she grow those big tits?) Rock knows that he cannot involve any woman in his violent life and so eventually leaves the family; there is a funny scene later in the book where he hires a hooker to sublimate his feelings for Angela.

After lots of planning Rock gets his vengeance on Snake Eyes, and the whole sequence stays true to the brutal tone of previous volumes. Rock beats the guy to shreds with a pair of brass knuckles, blows his head off, and tosses the corpse onto the man's "swinger" girlfriend -- a stewardess whom Rock has chained to her own bed. "Start swinging," Rock tells the shocked girl.

But we're only halfway through the novel; even though he's attained his vengeance, Rock knows that there are countless more Mafia vermin out there for him to exterminate. He sets his sights on bigger fish, realizing that he hasn't yet killed any Mafia "bigshots;" further sign that The Worst Way To Die is an early chapter in Rock's career.

This entails a lot of planning and time-killing on Rock's part. This novel might be trying for most readers in that nothing much happens for long stretches of the narrative, but I really do enjoy Levinson's writing. Also, he was one of the men's adventure writers who was known for putting a lot of sex scenes into his books -- his Butler series, published under the psuedonym Philip Kirk, was notoriously sex-filled -- so there are a few scenes of Rock getting lucky, in particular with a hippie chick who rents the apartment beneath his.

At length Rock carries out his big hit, his victims a pair of brothers who have taken the place of the dead Snake Eyes. This is a great sequence which almost brings to life the awesome cover illustration for Blood Bath, as Rock wastes the mobsters while they're eating pasta in an Italian restaurant -- only here Rock first hits them with vomit-inducing gas grenades and comes out shooting while wearing a gas mask. Finally he pulls off his biggest hit, murdering the father of the men, a Mafia chief, as he attends their funeral. This last bit features the most shocking example of Rock's psychosis yet: with his sniper rifle, he first assassinates the chief and then assassinates his (no doubt innocent) young daughter.

And with this The Worst Way To Die ends -- Rock hops on his stolen Honda motorcycle and speeds off toward Manhattan, having just murdered several unarmed people, a young woman among them. There is nothing heroic or vengeance-sating about it, and it leaves a rotten taste in the reader's mouth. But I would bet this is exactly Levinson's intention. Again, the Sharpshooter series is a satire on Don Pendleton's "hero," The Executioner; Levinson is savy enough to know that in reality, any man who wages a lone war on the Mafia would have to be a psychotic bastard himself. And he shows it in unforgettable ways throughout this novel.

Levinson turned in a few more volumes of The Sharpshooter, including the next one. I also suspect he wrote a few volumes of the similar Marksman series, but I haven't found anything to confirm it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

SuperBolan #100: Devil's Bargain

SuperBolan #100: Devil's Bargain, by Dan Schmidt
January, 2005 Gold Eagle Books

This is a more recent example of the men's adventure novel; it's good to know the genre is still alive but it's obviously on life-support. Dan Schmidt may be a familiar name to some; since the mid-'80s he's ghostwritten 40-some Gold Eagle titles, and in the late '80s he wrote the Killsquad series under the psuedonymn "Frank Garrett." At the same time he also wrote the Eagle Force series under his own name.

Schmidt is usually taken to task for his "needless gore" and ultraviolence, especially amongst the die-hard Gold Eagle fans, but they just as often complain about the man's jumbled and padded narratives, with needlessly-overblown casts of characters. Reading Devil's Bargain, I can somewhat see what they mean, particularly on the latter criticism. In a way, this "SuperBolan" encapsulates why I stopped reading Gold Eagle books over two decades ago. It's almost monotonous in a way, and bores more than it entertains.

The biggest shame is that the villains of the piece have such potential: Alpha Deep Six, a deep-cover Black Ops squad so deep-cover that they've been missing for the past decade and presumed dead. These guys have the makings of awesome villains, US commandos who have gone rogue and now actually fund terrorists themselves. Each of the Six has been "reborn" with a mythical name: There's Crammon, the leader; Acheron, the second-in-command; Thor, a big guy who fights with double axes; and so on. Problem is, Schmidt does little to differentiate between them. I spent the whole novel confusing Crammon and Acheron.

In the middle of all this is Mack Bolan, the Executioner himself. I'm not sure if the guy is now like a comic book character, ageless; in reality he'd be in his sixties at least, which is hard to buy in the action genre -- but then, Sylvester Stallone proved it could be done (and damn well) in his 2008 Rambo. My guess is that these novels must occur in some time-stasis zone, as Bolan still acts like a man in his, just like the Bolan of the Pendleton originals or the Executioners I read back in the 1980s. To make it all the stranger, Crammon himself is a 'Nam vet, ordering around some men he considers his sons. I don't know. I guess I'm thinking about it too much, which is beside the point.

Devil's Bargain opens like an episode of 24, with a wave of terrorism slamming through the US. Bolan has been given highest clearance to stop the threat, which involves lots of bombings on commuter trains and buses. Schmidt pulls that old Gold Eagle page-filling trick I'd forgotten: opening the occasional chapter with pages and pages of the point of view of a terrorist who soon meets his end at the hands of Bolan. But then, Schmidt does that throughout; you only spend perhaps a page or two in a character's perspective before he hopscotches to the next one, leaving for a confusing and frustrating mess. The issue is not the multiple-character perspectives. It's that all of the characters sound the damn same.

While the US-attacks are going on, all of them the work of a certain Islamic group, the Alpha Deep Six guys kidnap Barbara Price, apparently a recurring character in the Bolan universe -- a lady who works for the top-secret "Stony Man" collective and occasionally sleeps with Bolan. She's kidnapped because Crammon and his men have heard of this ultra-secret commando facility which might impede their plans, and so kidnap Price as collateral. Or something. In fact this kidnapping angle only exists so that Bolan can become embroiled in the plot...and also so he has a personal reason to see the mission through. Because otherwise Price's kidnapping has nothing to do with anything, and after she's abducted she pretty much drops out of the narrative.

Once Bolan gets in the picture he begins to track down Alpha Deep Six. We gradually learn that the bastards have funded this day-long attack on the US as a sort of cover for themselves, so they could pull off a bank job. The bank they are robbing is the fictional "Bank of Islam," probably one of the more novel ideas in the book: an endless cache of dollars and gold hidden in an ancient crypt beneath Ankara, Turkey. The place is so secret that most US agencies consider it a myth, but Alpha Deep Six have learned that it truly exists. The place is heavily guarded and Alpha has recruited a team of Iraqi soldiers as well as disaffected US soldiers to raid the place.

After a few hundred pages of character-hopping the raid finally begins. It is a stirring scene, only again ruined by Schmidt's insistence upon hopping from one character to another every other page. It should be mentioned that Bolan is busy dusting his shelves while all this occurs; really, the Executioner is more of a guest star in Devil's Bargain. Though he wastes a few terrorists (as expected), he's instead always a few steps behind Alpha, trying to figure out what they're up to.

Meanwhile we have an endless but entertaining action scene as Crammon and his men wade into the booby-trapped bowls of the Bank of Islam. In a bit of dark humor they use their Iraqi soldiers as trap-bait, tossing them ahead into dark tunnels and letting them take the brunt of whatever trap has been set. It's all like Indiana Jones. Once through the traps of course they encounter armed resistance, and here Schmidt delivers heaps of ultraviolent fight scenes, but really it isn't as gory as I expected -- it's got nothing on Army of Devils, that's for sure. Along the way Alpha Deep Six suffers incredible casualties, and finally Bolan catches up with them while the battle is coming to an end. The climax of Devil's Bargain seems rushed and, well, anticlimatic, which is strange given the expanded page length of these SuperBolans.

But all the tried-and-true gimmicks you remember from Gold Eagle are still at play: endless detail about various guns and the ammo they use, right-wing philosophizing, and a protagonist more superhuman than possible. Don Pendleton was sure to give his creation a dose of hummanity, something which has obviously been lost over the past decades. I'm sure other Gold Eagle ghostwriters have attempted to keep the spirit alive, but separating the wheat from the chaff is a job for someone with a stronger will than mine -- I'll be much happier staying in the lurid and exploitative world of the Imitation Executioners, like The Sharpshooter or The Marksman.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Able Team #8: Army of Devils

Able Team #8: Army of Devils, by Dick Stivers
October, 1983 Gold Eagle Books

Without a doubt, this is the most insane, brutal, sadistic, over-the-top gory book I've yet reviewed on this blog. It's great!! It goes beyond even the lunacy of Gannon or Blood Bath, which is shocking enough, but even more shocking is that Army of Devils comes from a most unexpected source: Gold Eagle Books. If more of their novels had been like this rather than generic, status quo terrorist-of-the-month stuff, then they'd be as hotly-collected as the earlier, more lurid examples of the genre. Because in reality Army of Devils is more like something Manor Books would've published a decade earlier.

"Dick Stivers" was a house name for the series; this novel was actually written by GH Frost, a man who wrote a dozen or so Able Team books, many of which are supposedly as insane as this one. When I was a kid in the mid-'80s I subscribed to Gold Eagle; every other month I'd receive a box of books. Able Team was always included, but I never read any of them. (They sure looked good lined up on my bookshelf, though!) Being such a fan of the publisher I knew all about them, though: a three-man commando team who usually responded to domestic terrorism threats, but would occasionally go abroad.

The Team is comprised of Carl Lyons, the leader and general alpha male, Pol Blancanales, and Gadgets Schwarz. It doesn't really matter though, as Lyons is the star of the book; the other two don't even show up until over halfway through, and even then mostly serve as back-up. This isn't a problem for me, as it allows Frost to concentrate on a protagonist and really build up the novel. Because quite honestly, Army of Devils is superbly written, with a level of character depth usually unseen in this genre; the action scenes are sadistic and brutal and insanely gory, but amid all of that Frost is still able to dole out exceptional dialog, narrative, and quiet moments of reflection.

But first the carnage. The novel opens with some of the most over-the-top stuff I've ever read, as Frost details the murderous rampage of a gang of punks one summer night in LA. Out of their minds on a variant of PCP which turns them into zombies, their only thought is to kill whitey. Yes, this novel preys on the fears of the conservative white male even moreso than the earlier Hijacking Manhattan.

These opening pages give the tone of a horror novel more than action, as the punks -- black and Chicano the lot of them, as Frost often reminds us -- kill with abandon, often in the most brutal of ways. And they truly do become zombies under the influence of the mysterious drug; unable to reason or talk, unable to feel pain. And the only way to kill them is to blow off their heads or sever their spinal columns! Just when you think this opening section has attained the peak of brutality, it goes even further, ending with another gang of punks killing the occupants of a broken-down car and then playing a quick game of ball with their baby...before finally tossing it out the window of their speeding car.

LA is set into a panic and Carl Lyons just happens to be on the scene, in town to provide a demonstration of an automatic shotgun to the LAPD. He's here with his girlfriend Flor, a pretty DEA agent who happens to be a sort of liason with Stony Man, the shady ensemble for which Able Team works. And who would believe that here we get an actual sex scene in a Gold Eagle novel?? Again, it's as if Frost has no idea who he is writing for, and more power to him. Beyond the shenanigans this is another well-crafted scene, with great dialog and introspection for the two characters. And Lyons himself comes off like a throwback to those earlier men's adventure protagonists, a hothead who's always about to blow a fuse.

Lyons hears all about the horror that was the previous night, and vows to find out what's up. He calls in his teammates and here the gory fun begins. The whole middle section of this novel concerns Able Team infiltrating a building filled with these drugged-up zombies, all of them armed and ready to kill. It's one hell of a gory ride, with the Team blasting apart wave after wave of zombie-punks, even hacking them up with machetes when they run out of ammo. In fact it gets to be so gory that eventually the Team finds themselves standing in ankle-deep blood!

Army of Devils comes off like Dawn of the Dead meets Assault on Precinct 13...or even like an NC-17 version of Death Wish 3 or Stallone's Cobra. If you have a fondness for those '80s action movies where middle-aged protagonists spend the entire film blowing away punks, then you owe it to yourself to check out Army of Devils. Just when you think he's topped himself, Frost rises to another peak and shocks you all over again. And again, it's not just a case of ultraviolence -- the man can truly write, even delivering some dark humor.

Every time I read one of these OTT novels I wonder how seriously we're to take the author. This is especially important when one is reading a Gold Eagle novel, a notoriously right-wing publisher. And Army of Devils does go out of its way to bash the "liberal media," the hippies of the '60s, the Black Panthers, and on and on. There's even a Geraldo Rivera-type who works for a "communist" public access show who suffers perhaps the goriest fate in the book, literally hacked to pieces by frothing, drugged-up punks -- Frosts's commentary on what the liberals deserve? There are also many instances where Lyons and his friends lambaste the liberal, tree-hugging attitudes of both the public and the media.

We learn early in the novel that the drug has been dispersed by a former Black Panther (of course, right?) who works with the CEO of a non-profit Hispanic American company. This non-profit guy is secretly a Communist agent and works to destroy the government (of course, right?). These two have amassed a veritable army of punks -- all of them black and Chicano, remember -- and juiced them with the drug, working them up into anti-white fits of rage. The idea is to foster a race war which will destroy the US. But the question is, where did they get this drug? The Team discovers there's more to the story than they first expected, and it all ends with a climatic battle with the Team in a helicopter going after a van which might be driven by CIA agents...a battle which ends in personal disaster for one of the Team.

Anyway, you can consider me impressed with the work of GH Frost. I'm definitely going to seek out more of his Able Team novels one of these days. This one comes highly recommended to all who want to see just how extreme the men's adventure genre can get.

Monday, June 6, 2011

MIA Hunter #1

MIA Hunter #1, by Jack Buchanan
January, 1985 Jove Books

I'm really taking a trip down memory lane, here -- as a kid I actually collected this series as it came out. I didn't have all 17 volumes,* but I had several of the earlier installments. The thing is, I don't think I ever read any of them; I was more into the gun-porn, terrorist-wasting world of Gold Eagle Books.

But man -- talk about some savy marketing! Cashing in on the mid-'80s "POW" boom (ie Chuck Norris's Missing In Action and Stallone's Rambo II), the MIA Hunter series is like an '80s action movie on paper. It's as if it was co-published by Canon Films or something. These days the series is most known for the involvement of bestselling author Joe R. Landsdale, who was one of the writers serving as "Jack Buchanan." Bill Crider also delivered a few volumes. Our pal Chet Cunningham even wrote a volume.

It's my understanding though that the main writer behind the series (as well as the plotter for each volume) was Stephen Mertz. This initial installment was written by Mike Newton, who like Mertz got his start as a sort of understudy with Don Pendleton. Newton also wrote the second volume of this series, as well as a hundred or so other men's adventure novels, including countless ones for the Gold Eagle stable, not to mention a how-to book on the craft.

Mark Stone is the titular character, a 35 year-old Vietnam vet who is very much in the mold of The Penetrator. Like Mark Hardin, Stone was known for infiltrating VC defenses and really kicked some shit during the war. Hell, the guys even have the same first name. Only Stone lacks the more pulpish charm of Hardin: he has no eccentric old scientist funding his campaigns nor an American Indian training him in metaphysical combat. Instead, Stone is a sort of private eye who uses the money from his work to fund his "second job:" namely, rescuing POWs.

Stone has two comrades in this: Hog Wiley, a mountain of a man who also served in 'Nam; Stone thinks of him as "the ugliest man he has ever known." A grizzled bulk who moves faster than his girth would imply, Hog gets off on violent action. I realized late in the book that if this novel had been published a decade earlier, Hog probably would've been the protagonist. The third member of the team is Terrance Loughlin, and a less-developed character you will never meet. Seriously, Loughlin says like four lines in the entire novel. A British commando who had to leave the SAS when his identity was exposed, Loughlin serves as the explosives expert, but generally just sits around on the periphery. You can tell Newton is uncertain what to do with him; in Loughlin's introduction he writes that the guy is "the British version of Mark Stone," and has done with it.

This first volume introduces us to Stone's world and hints at future developments. Stone is watched by the CIA and FBI and other government agencies; there's a fun scene early on where some government stooges harass him for his unsanctioned raids in Vietnam. Stone's defense is that he's just a private citizen visiting a foreign country. But Stone is known in underground channels as the go-to guy for POW extraction. He doesn't charge for his missions other than expenses for gear and etc. This time out he's contacted by a woman who has learned through various connections that her husband, missing for 15 years, might still be alive, and imprisoned in a Vietnamese camp. After verifying the evidence and getting a location, Stone takes the mission.

I actually enjoyed the second half of the novel best. Newton does a great job of bringing to life the Far East. There's a nicely-done scene where Stone meets his weapons supplier in an incense-filled temple, and Newton really captures the otherworldly air of the place. This leads to an action scene: the supplier stores his weapons in his home, and when they go there for them the team finds the place under attack. After fending off the killers and saving the supplier's pretty daughter, Stone goes on with the mission. I'm assuming this development will play out in later installments -- I mean, it's never even explained who the attackers were -- but we'll see.

Newton continues to build up the tension as Stone and his team work their way into the jungle and across the border. There's the obligatory fight scene with a sampan and PTO boats as Stone and his men are nearly caught by soldiers. At length they find the POW camp, which contains three badly-wounded and malnourished US soldiers. Stone attempts a soft probe of the site, but as expected the shit hits the fan and a huge battle ensues. A nice bit is that one of the freed POWs is a former Green Beret and goes wild with a captured AK-47, blasting apart his captors.

The only problem I had with this novel is the action onslaught of the final third. I'm not saying it falls to Death Merchant depths, but it comes close. We have the big battle in the POW camp, followed immediately by another as Stone and his team escape through the jungle and come upon a village which is being attacked by bandits. These guys have nothing to do with anything but Stone and his men decide to attack them, which is nice given that they're saving the villagers and all, but it comes off as too much too soon; we just read a big action scene a few pages ago. But then there's a third big action sequence immediately thereafter: after defeating the bandits, Stone is informed by the villagers that a contingent of Pathet Lao soldiers are on the way, as well as a tracking squad of Vietnamese soldiers who survived Stone's raid on the POW camp. So yet another big action scene takes place here, with everyone fighting everyone.

I know, there's nothing like complaining about too much action in an action novel. But the problem is the action is so samey. There are too many repetitive scenes of Stone giving himself pep talks, gearing himself up for action, and when it all goes down pretty much the same descriptive phrases are used throughout. I'm not sure how many times I read about a "headless corpse" falling down after a CAR-15 blast. Newton is good in that he doesn't POV-hop; when he gets into the perspective of a character he stays locked in, but the problem is all the characters sound the same. Even the freed POW Green Beret gives himself pretty much the same pep talks as Stone. The only flash of color here is Hog Wiley, who as mentioned really enjoys the thrill of combat.

Anyway, a strong first half that gets off the rails a bit with too many back-to-back action scenes in the last half. But it was still an enjoyable ride, not to mention a quick read: somehow I read this novel in one day, something I haven't done in a long time. In my usual fit of OCD I've acquired the entire series, so I'll soon be dipping back into the POW-freeing world of Mark Stone.

*Technically the series lasted 16 volumes, but there was an un-numbered volume, simply titled Stone: MIA Hunter, which came between volumes #6 and #7. This un-numbered volume is not to be confused with MIA Hunter #1, even though some online booksellers list it as such.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Marksman #1: Vendetta

The Marksman #1: Vendetta, by Peter McCurtin
April, 1973 Belmont-Tower

I've slowly been collecting this 23-volume series* over the past year, and figured I should finally get around to reading it. As many have mentioned, this series is pretty much the same as The Sharpshooter -- so similar in fact that the occasional writer of The Sharpshooter has mistakenly referred to the protagonist as "Magellan" rather than "Johnny Rock."

Philip Magellan is the protagonist of The Marksman series, and he and Johnny Rock are both emotionless ciphers who blitz their way through the Mafia, so you can't really blame the authors for confusing them. Peter McCurtin wrote this initial volume, and word is he also wrote the first volume of The Sharpshooter, The Killing Machine. But as usual, this leaves me with questions. McCurtin's name graces the cover of Vendetta, but The Killing Machine was published under the house name "Bruno Rossi." What bothers me, and I'll get more into it later, is how different the styles are in the two novels: I have a hard time believing that the same author wrote both books.

Anyway, Vendetta. This first volume throws you straight into the violent world of Philip Magellan without a safety net. There's no backstory, no origin for our protagonist, no sort of character introspection. What's funny is that the back cover features a rundown of Magellan's past, how he grew up learning about guns and waged war on the mob when they killed his family, but the novel itself doesn't mention any of that. Instead, we pick up with Magellan after he's become a boogey man for the Mafia, so feared that mobsters sit around and worry about the guy. Not only that but the police are hunting him.

The main plot here -- the only plot, actually -- is Magellan cracking down on a San Francisco-based mafioso. Vendetta doesn't even seem like a novel. It's more like an outline for a novel, with barebones narrative and clunky dialog. Even the action scenes are rendered boring due to the clinical way McCurtin writes them. The only time the author comes to life is when he describes guns. Anytime Magellan looks over his weaponry, or the weapons of his opponents, McCurtin wakes up and writes. One gets all sorts of information on certain pistols and shotguns and what kind of ammo they use. In a way, it's sort of like those Gold Eagle books from the '80s, only a lot more rough. Just straight-up gun porn. There is a telling moment, late in the novel, where Magellan "fondles" his weapons as he prepares for the final raid.

Magellan proves himself just as twisted and merciless as Johnny Rock: in the opening pages, as he flies into San Francisco, he realizes one of his fellow passengers is a hitman. Magellan beats the guy senseless and takes him along in his rental car, using the guy to call up his boss. In exchange for cash Magellan promises not to kill the man, but does so anyway. There are many such scenes where Magellan will string up some sap and torture him, then kill him. He takes particular relish in killing the "hippies" who work for the mobsters. Actually McCurtin can't seem to make up his mind if they're hippies or Hell's Angels; likely they're the latter as the guys are a bit too violence-happy to be true hippies.

Another twisted bit is where, for absolutely no reason, Magellan goes to the trouble of sawing off the head of a "hippie" he's killed. Magellan later tosses the severed head into the indoor pool of the hotel he's staying in, a mob-run and hippie-frequented crumbling landmark. It's unexplained why exactly he does this, but at least it's memorable. There's more unintentional comedy in the luck Magellan has throughout: I lost track of the number of scenes where he would sneak into some restaurant or bar, wearing a "hippie disguise," and sit down beside some mobsters...who would, at that very moment, be discussing not only Magellan but their plans to off him.

All told, this was a rushed and muddled effort, not very promising for the series itself. Later volumes were published under the house name "Frank Scarpetta," and thumbing through some of them it appears the series improves (and gets more sleazy!). But again, I have many questions about this novel. I'm not saying The Killing Machine was great literature, but at least it had a good plot and character development, with good dialog and well-crafted action scenes. Vendetta has none of that. Hell, even the tone is completely different.

So is it confirmed that Peter McCurtin actually wrote The Killing Machine? If so, then he must've banged out Vendetta in a rush, or at least after knocking back several bolts of whiskey. Or maybe, as I theorized in my review, The Killing Machine was planned as a standalone novel, and so McCurtin gave it more care, whereas Vendetta was churned out to be exactly what it was: the trashy first volume of a trashy ongoing series. I have my doubts, though. I'm betting someone else wrote The Killing Machine.

*The publishing history of The Marskman is as twisted as its protagonist. The first two volumes were published under Peter McCurtin's name. Volumes #3 - 22 were published under the house name "Frank Scarpetta." The Torture Contract, Murder Machine, Bloody Sunday, and Times Square Connection are all un-numbered volumes, but would be numbered respectively #19, #20, #21, and #22. The 23rd and final volume, The Reckoning, was published under the name Aaron Fletcher, and does not feature a number on the cover nor even "The Marksman." It was also published by Leisure Books rather than Belmont-Tower. Aaron Fletcher was one of the writers who served as "Frank Scarpetta," so perhaps this last volume was his attempt at a closure for the series? The only problem is, The Reckoning is by far the most rare volume of the series; after a year of debate I finally dropped $20 for a copy. At the time of this writing only a handful of online sellers list the book, with prices ranging from $18 to a whopping $160. Give me a few years to work my way through the series and I'll let you know if this final volume is worth the price!

3/9/12 UPDATE: Finally, after a ton of research, I have the truth behind Vendetta. Despite being credited to Peter McCurtin, this novel was actually written by Russell Smith. I learned this via the July-December 1973 edition of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, which states that "Peter McCurtin" was merely the psuedonym used by Smith for this particular volume. (McCurtin was in fact a real person, and indeed was the editor of both the Marksman and the Sharpshooter.)