Monday, April 29, 2013

Richard Blade #2: The Jade Warrior

Richard Blade #2: The Jade Warrior, by Jeffrey Lord
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1969)

This second volume of the Richard Blade series is a dud for the most part; this time Blade ventures once again into Dimension X, where he finds himself on a world that’s basically molded after medieval China and Mongolia. Treachery, suspense, and slavery take center stage this time, with barely any action, author Manning Lee Stokes filling pages with abandon as he bloats a tepid story to preposterous proportions.

I guess my main problem with this series so far is that there’s no goal. Whereas the typical men’s adventure novel is very goal-driven – killing some mobsters or terrorists, stopping a doomsday device, rescuing someone – the Richard Blade books really have no internal purpose. There’s a vague mention that Blade’s mission is to go to Dimension X to research things that can be brought back to our dimension (now referred to as “Dimension H” by Blade and his government cronies), but once Blade gets to these other worlds he very, very rarely thinks back to Earth or reflects on any sort of mission; he just goes along with whatever’s happening on that particular world.

For example, The Jade Warrior clearly takes place in a Chinese/Mongolian sort of world, yet Blade never reflects upon that fact. Apparently he doesn’t realize that the egalitarian, almond-eyed “Caths” who live behind their “Great Wall,” fighting eternally against the war-loving “Mongs” who are led by an insane “Khad” are all exactly like the Chinese behind their own Wall, fending off Genghis Khan and his Mongols. I mean, does Stokes think his readers aren’t going to notice this? Why not just have Blade say, “This shit is exactly like back on Earth, with Khan against the Chinese!” But instead this never occurs to Blade, who as in the previous volume just goes wherever the characters and plot take him.

First though the tale opens in “modern” Britain, aka 1969 (the year The Jade Warrior was first published), with Blade getting nagged at by his fiance. This entire scene was irredeemably goofy; Blade is supposed to be James Bond (meets Conan, of course), and who wants to read about a domesticated Bond? And yet that’s just what Blade is, here; he’s engaged to be married and his fiance is pissed that she has no idea what Blade really does for a living, or where he disappears to for long portions of time. And Blade sits and listens to it, placating her, telling her he loves her, etc. What makes it more bothersome is that this subplot is forgotten until the final chapter, with Blade hurrying home to his girl, chastising himself that he’s “in love,” whereas meanwhile he’s scored with two other babes in the meantime, and even gotten one of them pregnant!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. With new improvements to the computer that sends Blade into Dimension X, his superiors Lord Leighton and “J” will now have access to all of Blade’s memories when he returns. More importantly it will allow Blade to remember his own world while on this alien one; the previous volume was muddled in that Blade’s memory of his true home would conveniently come and go. But anyway this entire Dimension X project still rings hollow and Blade has no clear mission at hand; they just strap him into the computer and send him off once again, hoping he doesn’t get killed or whatever.

"Dimension X" is the name Deighton and J have given to the network of worlds which apparently co-exist with our own, and Blade emerges on this one right after the latest battle between the Mongs and the Caths. Blade, posing as a corpse in some nice jade armor he took from one of the bodies, is hauled by Cath warriors through the massive Cath Wall. He’s taken into a chamber where the incredibly gorgeous Empress Mei looks down at the “corpse” – turns out Blade’s in her dead husband’s armor and Mei just ran a successful assassination plot on her husband and wants to view the body.

There’s a bunch of plotting going on in The Jade Warrior, and this is just the start of it. Empress Mei is shocked to discover it’s some other dude beneath her husband’s fancy helmet – and of course she’s got the instant hots for studly Blade. Plus Mei herself is beautiful and has a rockin’ bod (a fact quite often mentioned by Stokes), so the two go at it posthaste. Blade instantly “subdues” the gal with his good loving and by the end Mei’s a purring cat who is ready to co-rule with Blade…if it wasn’t for those damn Mongs!

We learn that Mei has it in for the Khad, the Mong leader, and especially for the Khad’s sister, Sadda, who we later learn was having an affair with Mei’s now-dead husband. Word soon spreads about this new guy with the Empress – she spreads the lie that Blade is an official visiting from the Empire’s capitol from far to the north, thus explaining Blade’s non-Cath looks – and the Khad issues a challenge that “Sir Blade” must battle his top fighter. If Blade wins the Mongs will leave, but if he loses the Khad wants Mei to turn over the massive jade cannon that stands over the Wall.

Here follows a very protracted scene where Blade battles the top Mong fighter to the death. It just goes on and on, from jousting to hand-to-hand combat. Just as you’d expect, Blade wins, but unexpectedly he’s captured immediately by the wily Khad and taken away. What’s even more unexpected is that the entirety of the narrative’s remainder concerns Blade with the Mongs, with Mei and the Caths not returning until the very final pages.

What’s sad though is the Cath material is more interesting. The Mongs are of course just Mongols, the same mentality and lifestyle, and it gets real boring after a while. But first the novel becomes a Gor clone, with Blade now the object of Sadda’s affections; shackled as a prisoner he endures all sorts of abuse before being “promoted” to bedchamber slave, where he cleans up after Sadda’s women and etc. Finally he is ordered to the woman’s bed, and Stokes describes Sadda as basically the same as Mei, only maybe a little more ruthless and a little less gorgeous.

There are a lot of sex scenes in this volume, relayed in the expected Manning Lee Stokes style – which is to say, overly literary. I’m not sure how the guy does it, because his style shouldn’t work for the men’s adventure genre. It’s too affected, too stilted…but then, this actually works in favor of the series vibe. But still it comes off more like something from the 1930s than a piece of 1970s pulp – that is, save for the slightly more explicit sex scenes. Anyway Sadda too is so mind-blown by Blade that she begins to cling to him, and for the rest of the novel this is pretty much the plot, Blade rising to more stature with the Mongs due to his liason with Sadda.

Plotting and counterplotting take up the brunt of the “action,” with Blade becoming friends with Morpho the dwarf, court jester to the Khad but who is secretly plotting against the insane Mong leader. Then there’s Rashtun, the Khad’s chief lieutenant, who himself is plotting against the Khad. As for the Khad himself, we learn he’s a right bastard, given to fits of madness where he can only satiate his sick desires with young girls…there is an extended bit later where the Mongs travel across rough terrain and Morpho summons Blade for help; turns out Morpho has a daughter who is of the age that the Khad prefers, but she’s Morpho’s secret, hidden with the “dung gatherers” at the rear of the caravan (they gather the dung for fuel, by the way…the things you learn in these books).

It all just goes on and on with little sparkle. Only one moment late in the game serves to bring the reader out of his stupor, as Sadda reveals to Blade that he’s gotten her pregnant. This is something I’ve yet to read in a men’s adventure novel. Blade for what it’s worth is supportive and is now against Rashtun’s plan to assassinate Sadda along with the Khad – Sadda you see is just as ruthless as her brother. But Blade wants to protect his unborn child. This adds much suspense to the climax, which is otherwise boring as the Khad gets in a prolonged and incidental battle with the “Sea Caths” they encounter late in their journey.

Blade’s never certain when he’s going to be pulled back to Earth, but he starts to feel the now-expected pains in his mind after he’s been here several weeks; sure sign that Leighton and J are “making adjustments” to the computer to reel him back home. Conveniently enough it all goes down just as the plot wraps up, with Morpho and Rashtun launching their attack (Stokes destroys the whole Sadda plotline thanks to Morpho’s brash actions), Blade being quickly reunited with Mei (who believed him dead and thus declared him a god, statues of Blade now worshipped all over the Cath empire), and Blade being summoned back home right as Mei’s about to have sex with him!

And that’s it, just a quick wrap with Blade going home to hook up again with his fiance…never mind that he just had two women fall in love with him, one of whom was about to bear him a child. There’s no resolution to what the point of this mission was, no learnings from this latest journey into Dimension X; just another day on the job for Richard Blade.

 So as you can see this installment wasn’t much fun, boring for the most part, and seemed to forget what it was for the majority, coming off more like John Norman than Robert Howard.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Men's Mag Roundup: Dean Ballenger

Several years before he unleashed the lurid masterwork that was Gannon, Dean Ballenger like many other pulp writers wrote for men’s adventure magazines. A while back I picked up a few of them, just to see if Ballenger’s work in them was similar to the unhinged brutality of the Gannon trilogy. It turns out they weren’t – but then, not much could be – but they were still pretty fun. On a WWII kick again thanks to Len Levinson's The Goering Treasure, I decided to give the mags another re-read…as well as some of the other men’s mags I’ve picked up, which I’ll also be eventually reviewing.

This January 1961 Action For Men is the earliest of the three I have that contain a Ballenger story. Titled “Strange Platoon: Five GIs and the Amazon Women of Papua,” the story takes place in the Pacific Theater of the war, as do the other two Ballenger stories reviewed below. And unfortunately this one’s not as good as the two reviewed below. It’s also the shortest. Ballenger writes this one in psuedo-factual style, as if he’s writing about a true WWII incident and not a straight up piece of fiction.

As for the story, a platoon heads into Papa New Guinea and asks a tribe of headhunters to fight the invading Japanese (referred to of course as “Japs” throughout!). The Americans are just advisors and the natives pull off Viet Cong-style guerrilla tactics on the Japanese, killing them unseen from the bushes, poisoning their water, etc. Ballenger relates a few scenes from the Japanese perspective, with a bit of comedy that they are so incompetent they can’t fight back and have no idea how they are being killed.

A war of attrition develops with the Japanese terrified, being picked off at night. The Americans are relegated to the sidelines, even having to ask the headhunter leader for permission to help out in the final attack! These men’s mag stories were always sure to include sex, at least to an extent, but there isn’t much here, other than the mentioning that the headhunters will rush off into the bushes with their women before going into battle, so as to propagate their seed in case they die in the fight. It’s a short story, mostly forgettable, and completely lacks the crazed style of Gannon.

This January 1964 Action For Men is more like it. Ballenger’s “Nude Harem of the US Navy’s Fleet-Wrecking Island Commandos” is a fun piece of WWII pulp. This one is written more like a short story, even though it still tries to pass itself off as a “true story” per men’s mag tradition. In this one a team of Navy frogmen head into Japanese-invaded Sulu Island and hook up with some Suluese women as part of their cover as native fishermen. The Japanese armada is stationed around this island and the mission is to destroy it or at least do some major damage.

The frogmen spend a few weeks sunning to get their skin dark, as well as loving the women, who are appropriately horny. (As soon as she meets the hero, Halpin, the Suluese girl Satabi asks “Where do we make love?”) Of course nothing is described, just a lead up and then fade to black. Posing as fish sellers, Halpin and team are allowed to pilot their little boat through the Japanese armada to sell their catch to the captains.

The entire story itself is a buildup with zero action; after gaining the trust of the Japanese after several weeks of selling fish, the frogmen stay in the armada one night, plant bombs, and escape. The armada explodes but they don’t know it, staying with the Suluese gals and believing they failed, only for a submarine to show up and the pilot to tell them the island has been cleared for weeks. No guts or gore, but the tone you expect of Ballenger is there, particularly Halpin’s lament at the end that he’d stopped sleeping with Satabi – we learn that the frogman commander was so upset over “failing” his mission that Satabi got sick of his grumbling and refused to have sex with him anymore.

There’s also a WWII story by Anson Hunter with the unwieldy title “House of Italian Call-Girls: Salerno Invasion Outpost;” it’s about an American spy who stays in an Italian brothel where he gets intel. This one is mostly told in report-style backstory, and the brothel setting is not played up. We learn that some of the whores hate the Nazis who have billeted in the village around the brothel, but there’s no sex and indeed the hero is friends with the eldery madam who runs the place, with many scenes given over to the two of them in conversation. There’s just one action scene, where a whore hits a Nazi in the back of the head with a revolver and then beats him to death with it. But it all builds up to the intelligence hero radioing in a bombing on the village, with the madam and the hookers escaping in time.

This September 1965 Action For Men is the gem of the bunch. The Ballenger story here is almost a prototype for Gannon, with a plucky hero and his “gut-busting TNT kickers!” Titled “Sgt. Mike Heiser’s Weird Exploding Jap Raiders,” this one’s longer than the other two and is a great and fun short story, one that gives a good indication what it might’ve been like if Ballenger had published a WWII novel at the time. It’s packed with more action and gory violence than the previous two stories combined, and some Gannon-isms even show up, courtesy protagonist Mike Heiser’s dialog.

Heiser is a member of the fictional Unconventional Warfare Specialists Corps, and his mission is to destroy the Japanese fuel base on New Georgia island. Bombers are unable to locate it, so a commando force needs to go in and do the dirty work. Since it’s a silent mission, Heiser and squad go in armed with bows and arrows only, fighting “Indian style.” They have explosive tipped arrow heads to destroy the fuel. Ballenger works up the tension with the team working through the dense foliage and wondering how the hell they’ll get out alive after blowing away the fuel.

After destroying the fuel they escape but the Japanese close in; Heiser realizes they can use the exploding arrows on the Japanese soldiers, something that’s never occurred to anyone! He gives the order and pretty soon explosive-tipped arrows are flying all over the place – lots of exploding guts and faces here. They grab up some dropped Japanese Nambu machine guns and take out more soldiers, escaping to safety, and we learn in a postcript that their heroic attack caused the eventual defeat of the Japanese armada here.  A few years ago I found an online scan of the splashpage; here it is:

There’s another WWII story, “The Ambush that Rescued the US 5th Army” by Leon Lazarus, one that is very similar to the “Salerno” story in the issue above…but really I can’t remember a damn thing about it, other than it is relayed as a psuedo factual article.

Ballenger by the way did publish a WWII novel, at least eventually – 1980’s The Sea Guerrillas. I tried reading it a few years ago but just couldn’t get into it. It lacked all the spark of Gannon and even of these old men’s mag yarns. One of these days though I’ll try to give it another try.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Goering Treasure

The Goering Treasure, by Gordon Davis
No month stated, 1980  Zebra Books

Len Levinson recently mailed me a wonderful gift – a package containing six of his novels. The Goering Treasure was one of them, and it was one I didn’t know much about, other than it had been published under his “Gordon Davis” psuedonym, the name Len used for his Sergeant series. Len included a note with the books, stating:

The Goering Treasure includes one of the most embarrasingly disgusting scenes I’ve ever written, which is saying something because I’ve written many disgusting scenes.

I couldn’t imagine a more compelling endorsement, so The Goering Treasure went to the top of my reading list. Like Len’s Sergeant series, this one also takes place in WWII, but it’s a standalone and not related to any series. It’s also not really a war novel, instead occurring Gravity’s Rainbow-style in the final days of the war, and concerns the efforts of a diverse group of characters as they attempt to track down the fabled “Goering Treasure,” a massive cache of jewels and gold looted by Goering during his sweep through Africa in the 1930s.

The novel starts off with a very lurid vibe, introducing us to a few of our decadent characters. First there’s Goering himself, corpulent and wasted from years of morphine addiction, stumbling about the magnificent expanse of his castle. He hides his fabled treasure in a secret chamber beneath his first wife’s masoleum, and is prone to venturing down there in an opium fog and staring at the wealth. As the novel opens he’s approached by representatives of Der Spinne, a faction of Nazi die-hards who have sworn to keep the fascist flame burning after Germany’s inevitable defeat. They want Goering’s treasure to finance Der Spinne’s activities, and Goering tells them he’ll think about it.

Der Spinne leaves behind a rep to stay on Goering’s estate; this is Rolf Engel, a Gestapo bastard who carries out the scene Len mentioned in his letter, a scene which occurs around fifty pages in. Before leaving for Goering’s castle, Engel indulges in one of his favorite activities, entering a concentration camp in Berlin and visiting the “joy division,” where he forces a lovely young Jewish prisoner to perform fellatio on him before he blows her head off. The scene certainly is disgusting, but Len shouldn’t feel too bad about writing it – I mean, David Alexander pulled off a sequence a hundred times more disgusting when he had his Neo-Nazi scum raping and murdering an entire town in Z-Comm #1.

There’s more lurid stuff afoot in these early pages, like when Rudy and Kurt, two affable pimps, listen to one of their prostitutes as she tells a pretty gross story about how her Nazi mark gets off on having her relieve herself on him. All of this depraved stuff makes the reader expect that The Goering Treasure is going to be one hell of a lurid read, but after only one more such sequence – where Rudy seduces pretty young Erika Mueller in Goering’s castle – all such material disappears and it all just becomes a “regular” sort of novel. This is not a bad thing, but it does leave the novel a strange feeling…you keep waiting for it to get down and dirty again, but it never does.

The only American protagonist in The Goering Treasure is Dawson, a square-jawed type who works for military intelligence. Having studied in Berlin before the war, Dawson speaks fluent German and can pass himself off as a native. He’s snuck into Germany via submarine and makes his way for Goering’s castle, his mission to ascertain whether the treasure exists. Len plays up on the madness of the Third Reich in a goofy scene where Dawson is forced into a truck by some SS pricks; Dawson is certain he’s been made but instead the officers are corralling all the soldiers they can find. They take them to a secluded location, where it turns out they’ve all been assembled to be featured as extras in Joseph Goebbels’s latest Nazi propaganda film – despite the fact that these soldiers would be better suited aiding the failing war effort.

Len covers all of the bases in the novel, as it ranges from sadism to comedy. Again, there isn’t much action, other than one or two gunfights and a chase scene late in the game – but then the chase scene is played more for laughs, with the hapless Kurt and Rudy trying to get out of East Germany. The central plot also comes and goes, with more of a focus on the characters and their interractions. For example Erika Mueller; engaged to a young Luftwaffe ace, Erika gives herself to Engel early in the book, only for her fiance to witness the act. The heartbroken fiance immediately leaves Goering’s estate and goes to the front line, where he dies in battle; Erika, when we next see her, hates both herself and Engel (whom she tries to stab with a fork), and spends the rest of the narrative in mourning, only finding a bit of salvation with Rudy and Kurt (who realize she is too much of a highborn lady to become one of their hookers).

Engel also goes through an unexpected arc. Starting off the novel as the expected Nazi sadist, Engel is later outed as having Jewish genes and thus is sent to a concentration camp himself – in fact, the same one in Berlin where he used to have his sick fun. Here Len delivers an unexpected left hook, with the previously-despicable Engel reduced to a blind shambles of a man, mutilated nearly to death by his former SS fellows, thrown into a prison shack with several Jews. The most memorable character in the novel makes his sole appearance here, a Rabbi who tries to take care of Engel, obviously not knowing who he once was (and the implication is clear that he would still care for him even if he did know) – this is a powerful scene, and yet another indication of how one can find treasure in trash.

For the most part though the novel plays with a darkly comedic bent; the opening, with its lurid acts and drug-blitzed Nazis stumbling around in a zombie-like fog, has you expecting more of a depraved sort of trawl through the Third Reich, before the novel switches gears into more of a farce as the various characters try to locate the Goering Treasure and spirit it away for their various causes. The Soviets even get involved, once they take over East Berlin, though they serve more as foils, not even aware that the treasure exists. One of the few action scenes takes place between them and an Allied commando team, but Len focuses more on Rudy and Kurt, who happen to have stumbled upon the fray and take advantage of the situation.

I guess Goering himself represents the novel’s change of mood – as the novel opens Goering is a wasted shell of his former self, living in his own drug-induced world. But as Germany’s conditions become more grim Goering gets back to his former self, ridding the drugs from his system and dropping pounds, ready to work out a treaty with the US. There’s another funny sequence where Dawson is captured shortly after arriving on Goering’s estate, but on his way to the firing squad he’s diverted to a meeting with the man himself; Goering, hearing an American has been discovered, assumes that Dawson has been sent here by President Roosevelt, and after telling Dawson the terms of his surrender he has him flown to France – where Dawson is promptly captured by Canadian soldiers who assume he is a Luftwaffe officer and throw him into a POW camp.

The novel goes through the end of the war and into the uncertain times of postwar Germany, and here Len ties up all of his characters – romance sparking as Dawson and Erika run into each other in a cafĂ© in Berlin (having briefly met in Goering’s castle, they know they’ve crossed paths before but can’t remember when or where), Engel living on the streets as a blind beggar, Kurt and Rudy working out a lucrative deal with the US, and finally Goering himself, now a prisoner of the US, ready to die like a soldier.

As for the treasure, half of it gets taken by Der Spinne (Len leaves their future unknown, with Josef Bormann ready to continue the Reich in Argentina), the other half, thanks to Kurt and Rudy, in the hands of the US. But really the treasure is just the framework Len uses to tie together a web of unrelated characters, providing a multifaceted view of the final days of World War II.

And as usual all of Len’s characters come to life, each given to ruminations, introspection, and telling jokes. Some of the dialog he writes for Goering is pretty great, and Engel has the best line of the entire novel, answering an American’s question on the final page of how the Germans could allow Nazism to arise, what with its concentration camps and mass murders: “You see, we didn’t know about those things.” And plotwise he’s not held back by the usual constraints of series fiction; here he follows his characters wherever they take him.

So then, while it wasn’t the depraved trawl into the insane world of the Third Reich I was hoping for, The Goering Treasure instead turned out to be a powerful novel; maybe a little unbalanced at times in tone, but gripping nonetheless, with the usual Len Levinson knack for character and humor. I asked Len for his current thoughts on the book, and here’s what he told me:

The novel itself was my take on a type of novel about Nazis being published then, written by writers such as, I think, Robert Ludlum. I also was influenced to some degree by Sophie’s Choice, the novel, not the movie. Elie Weisel said that writers shouldn't write fiction about the Holocaust, because they'd only cheapen or diminish it, and I think he was right. I guess I was trying to plumb the true horror of the camps, without holding anything back. Decent Jewish women actually were forced to become sex gratification units for Nazi officers, according to my research. And these officers unquestionably were sick in their heads. In addition, I'm fascinated by the Nazi era for all the usual reasons. How could the nation that produced Beethoven, Kant and Thomas Mann, also produce a Hitler and raise him to power? Good answers are provided in the bio of Hitler by Joachim Fest, and Gita Sereny's bio of Albert Speer. But it isn't specifically a Holocaust novel. It's about what might have happened beneath the surface in the final months of War Two in Europe and beyond, told from the viewpoint of research as filtered through my rather peculiar psyche.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Executioner #5: Continental Contract

The Executioner #5: Continental Contract, by Don Pendleton
January, 1971  Pinnacle Books

This fifth volume of the Executioner series is pretty strange; it’s not bad or anything, but the entire narrative seems to be building up toward a big finale, a big finale that never occurs. Also all of the continuity and sense of a developing theme from the previous four volumes is mostly gone, with Don Pendleton now firmly in a modern pulp sort of mode. The now-obligatory tropes of the series have still not emerged, but hero Mack Bolan is becoming more of an archetypal hero and less of the troubled loner of the first three volumes.

We meet Bolan in Dulles airport as he realizes he’s walked into a Mafia trap. Blitzing his way out, Bolan puts on a disguise and gets onboard the first plane out, which happens to be destined for Paris. This portion of Continetal Contract really shows its age, as Bolan is not only able to get on the plane by bribing an airline rep but is also able to stow his pistol away in his checked baggage. But the novel already doesn’t operate in normal reality, as in true pulp fashion another last-second passenger boards the plane, and the dude just happens to look a lot like Bolan!

This turns out to be a famous movie star named Gil Martin, not that Bolan has ever heard of him. Meanwhile the mob figures that Bolan must’ve escaped their trap via plane, and lock down Paris as one of his possible destinations. When a French contingent of mobsters crack down on Gil Martin in Orly airport, thinking he’s the Executioner, Bolan rushes to the rescue. After a pitched gunfight on the dark Paris streets he sees the potential of posing Gil Martin. However this subplot is barely played out; I was expecting a few scenes of goggle-eyed fans approaching Bolan on the Paris streets, but it never happened.

There are a few good action scenes in Continental Contract and one of them comes up pretty early in the narrative, as Bolan stages a vengeance strike on a whorehouse that doubles as an HQ for the French mob of Rudolfi. Rudolfi’s men were the ones who snatched Gil Martin at the airport, and now Bolan wants to make them pay. First he clears away the hookers and then he rushes downstairs, clad in his blacksuit, blowing away goons with a machine pistol. Bolan even gets the opportunity to take one of the hookers back to his hotel with him, a British transplant who has become a whore because she wants to be a writer(?), but Pendleton doesn’t dwell on the dirty details.

The British hooker quickly fades into the woodwork and Bolan is alone again – that is until he meets what will become the main female character in this installment, a Brigitte Bardot-type actress named Cici. Yet another internationally-famous star Bolan has never heard of, Cici appears in the hotel room Bolan has reserved under the name Gil Martin, thinking that Bolan is indeed the actor, whom Cici claims to have dated. Soon though she realizes Bolan is a “stand-in,” not that this stops her from clinging to him and providing a means for him to escape the enclosing police force.

So ensues a journey down into Southern France, Bolan and Cici growing closer. Pendleton does a great job bringing Cici to life, but the only problem is he spells out her French accent, like “Bolawn” and “stand-een” and etc, and pretty soon you start to think Bolan is hanging out with Pepe Le Pew or something. Other than that though she provides a welcome and strong female presence to this series.

As for Bolan himself, Pendleton continues to write a human character here, with Bolan often indulging in self-pity that he could never just enter “paradise” with Cici and live a normal life, forgetting about his mob vendetta. In fact Bolan quite often states that he likely doesn’t have long to live, strong words that come off a bit hollow given that he’s still going strong hundreds of volumes later.

Pendleton as expected broadens the narrative with scenes from the viewpoints of various factions aligned against Bolan. For one we have Rudolfi, whose plans for control of the European branch of the mob are crushed with this sudden appearance of the infamous Executioner. But there’s also Tony Lavingi, a mafioso who comes over to Paris to hunt down Bolan, bringing along with him an old pal of Bolan’s from the ‘Nam, a guy who plans to give Bolan the “Judas kiss” in exchange for a few hundred thousand dollars.

And as usual Pendleton’s mastery of the craft of pulp plotting makes for a very enjoyable and breezy read. My favorite sequence would have to be when Bolan issues an ultimatum to the mob, once he learns that those hookers have been sent to an African slave market as punishment for “allowing” Bolan’s attack on their whorehouse: Bolan will kill one high-ranking French mobster for every hour that the girls continue to be imprisoned. Here we see Bolan once again using his sniper skills as he carries out hits, but here too we also have a little page-filling as Pendleton provides unecessary backgrounds for each of the mobsters Bolan targets – unecessary because each of them’s dead within a few pages of their introduction into the text.

The various threads come together in a final showdown in Monaco, with Bolan once again alone up against superior forces. What’s great about these original Executioner novels is how much more power they pack than the later Gold Eagle offerings. And unlike the GE stuff, Pendleton doesn’t let gun specifics get in the way of a good story – once again he has Bolan screwing a silencer onto his revolver, an impossibility that would never pass muster in those gun-crazy Gold Eagle books. Hell, you can read entire action sequences in Continental Contract where the guns aren’t even named – they’re just called “guns!”

But as a tradeoff you get superior writing, characterization, and plotting. My only problem with this volume is that it just sort of peters out at the end…not to mention the unbelieveable aspect that Bolan not once but twice lets a rival go, only to regret it in both instances. You think he would’ve learned after the first time. And also Pendleton doesn’t really tie up all the ends, leaving the fates of some of the major mafia characters in question.

I’m figuring all of this will play out in later installments, though – and I’m really looking forward to the next volume, which apparently has a kinky bent.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Masked Dog

Masked Dog, by Raymond Obstfeld
August, 1986  Gold Eagle Books

Raymond Obstfeld is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Masked Dog isn’t as great as his Invasion U.S.A. novelization, but it’s a lot of fun, filled with vibrant dialog, strong characters, and plenty of suspense. It’s to the novel’s disservice that it was published by Gold Eagle, lending the impression that the novel’s just another SuperBolan or something. In reality it’s a melding of the suspense, spy, and horror genres.

“Masked Dog” is the code name of a CIA project that has been going on for the past decade: an agency scientist has been injecting a volunteer prisoner with a battery of experimental drugs that have removed all traces of fear from the test subject and have also granted him with superhuman strength. Gee, what could go wrong?? As you’d expect, the test subject, a pedophile pediatrist named Gifford Devane, has broken free and is now loose and looking for a little revenge.

Devane’s main target is a former rock superstar named Price Calender, who now lives a low-level life playing revival concerts and the like. Price worked for the CIA a bit in the previous decade; in a backstory that doesn’t quite ring true, we learn that Price got involved with the agency after a run-in with the law and in exchange for his freedom he agreed to act as a courier during his global tours. Price also eventually married a gorgeous lady named Liza R (no last name), a lady who turned out to be a Commie spy who insinuated herself with Price because he was a CIA goon and because she wanted to get to Devane and the Masked Dog program.

Liza R was a package deal; she came with a daughter from a brief, earlier marriage, a toddler named Rebecca who Price eventually adopted. But again, Liza’s marriage to Price was all just a ruse, and after an aborted attempt seven years ago to break out Devane, Liza carried out a running battle with the CIA, even using her own daughter as a human shield. (The end result being an errant bullet that shattered Rebecca’s knee, so that she now walks with a brace.) Price himself killed Liza…or so he thought. As Masked Dog opens, we learn that due to some commie subterfuge Liza’s death was merely staged, and now she is here with a fellow KGB operative, tracking down the loose Masked Dog.

Again, all this is backstory and it’s doled out gradually and masterfully in the narrative. Price is not your typical Gold Eagle protagonist by a longshot – he’s not a trained agent, and doesn’t even know how to handle a weapon. This is taken care of by Jo, one of Obstfeld’s typically-great female characters, a CIA agent who Baroness style was a woman of high society but grew bored of the jetset life and became a secret agent. Price and Jo have a great “meet cute” and Obstfeld really plays up on the comedy, banter, and relationship that grows between them. And when the expected sex scene comes, late in the tale, it’s unexpectedly explicit – yet another divergence from the typical Gold Eagle fare.

Obstfeld works up the tension and suspense; there isn’t much action in Masked Dog until the end, other than Devane’s brief encounters with old friends and the criminal underworld. Also graced with a quicker mind and photographic memory, Devane wants to advertise himself to the highest bidder as an assassin, so he announces that he will murder a famous East German dignitary, despite the massive amount of security which will surround the guy. Devane’s assassination too is carried out in more of a suspenseful nature than the pyrotechnics you’d expect, and Obstfeld makes it even more tense with Jo being caught in the fray.

Devane also has superstrength and can tear people apart. Obstfeld plays up the dark comedy with Devane coming off like a superpowered Hannibal Lecter, though without the serial killer aspect – his taste veers toward adolescent girls, and over the course of the narrative he catches a few of them, the ensuing grisly deaths only vaguely hinted at. But Devane gradually realizes that something is going wrong…his memory is clouding, he has lost his sense of taste, and it dawns on him that though he can’t feel pain, he can still be killed.

Obstfeld takes his time with the narrative, so that it all comes off as very character focused. All of the characters are given depth, save for maybe Liza R. I love pulpy female villains, but Liza R is just too inhuman, too much of a cipher. Obstfeld provides a backstory that attempts to explain at least a little how she could be so cold blooded (she was raised by leftist American parents who emigrated to the USSR but then abandoned her at a young age), but still she is too cold, too robotic. Obstfeld to his credit makes Liza thoroughly despicable; several times she “tests” herself to see if she might give a damn about her daughter Rebecca, finding each time that she doesn’t care if the little girl lives or dies.

Action scenes here and there liven things up…Devane’s assassination attempt of the German dignitary, or Devane’s scuffles with hoodlums. Suspense takes center stage throughout, particularly a tension-filled scene where Devane sneaks into Price’s empty home and poisons his cigarettes; throughout the ensuing scene with Price, Obstfeld keeps toying with us, mentioning the cigarettes lying there, Price picking one up and about to light it but then getting distracted. Then Jo shows up and the suspense really mounts – all told, a masterful scene. But just one of many.

The action heats up toward the end, like when Liza R and her KGB associates corner Devane, who manages to take out the redshirts and then engages in a duel to the death with a martial arts master, all while Liza coldly watches. The climax takes a page from Stephen King with Devane kidnapping Rebecca and stashing her in an empty fitness center, with Price venturing in solo and taking on Devane by himself. He’s easily outmatched, getting his arms and fingers broken by a nude Devane who swings from the shadows to torment him. All of this actually reminded me of the climax of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford’s character was similarly tortured by his superpowered foe.

I guess the only problem I had with Masked Dog is it’s a little too long for its own good. The novel is over 300 pages and a lot of it could be cut. In particular the suspense of the climax is a little destroyed because, as Price sneaks through the darkened and creepy fitness center, Obstfeld somehow decides to inform us what the place is like during the day and what Price’s usual workout routine is like. But stuff like this is rare and for the most part the novel moves at an assured pace, really getting us to like its characters to the point where we are emotionally invested in the outcome.

Perhaps due to its publisher, Masked Dog didn’t make much of a dent, it appears…it only had this one printing, and like the other Gold Eagle titles of the time it was probably pulled off the shelves when the next bi-monthly shipment of Gold Eagle stock came in. It’s too bad, because this is a very good novel, one that should have had a larger audience.

And the cover by the way is a die cut, something I’ve never seen from Gold Eagle. Here’s the inner cover:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

MIA Hunter #6: Blood Storm

MIA Hunter #6: Blood Storm, by Jack Buchanan
October, 1986  Jove Books

I’m really taking a trip down memory lane this time – I remember reading this installment of the MIA Hunter series shortly after it was published. In fact I have a vivid memory of watching my Commando VHS and, still in need of an action fix, heading into my bedroom to read this book! Other than that I have no memory of Blood Storm, whether I enjoyed it or not, but I can say with this reading I thought it was very good, definitely on par with the rest of the series.

But the biggest news here is that recently I’ve gotten in touch with Stephen Mertz, a genuinely great guy who edited the MIA Hunter series and wrote most of the later installments. Stephen has informed me who wrote each volume of this series, something I don’t believe has previously been known…in fact Stephen told me he had to dig through his files to find out, as even he wasn’t sure!

Thanks to Stephen we now know that William Fieldhouse wrote this installment. And an even bigger thanks to Stephen for letting me know that it was actually Fieldhouse himself who wrote the letter from Gar Wilson I received so long ago – Stephen told me that he recently spoke to Fieldhouse about it, and Fieldhouse remembered writing the letter to me!

William Fieldhouse is most known for writing the majority of the Phoenix Force series, and as “Gar Wilson” he was my favorite writer when I was a kid. But I hadn’t read a Fieldhouse novel since then, so I was anxious to see how I’d enjoy Blood Storm this time around. But then, Fieldhouse was the guy who got me into the men’s adventure genre in the first place, thanks to the 18th Phoenix Force novel, Night of the Thuggee, which I discovered sometime in late October 1985 at a Waldenbooks store. So I knew I’d at least find something here to enjoy.

I’m not sure if it’s due to Stephen Mertz’s behind the scenes editing, but Fieldhouse’s novel actually reads almost exactly like the previous installments. I’ve read six of these MIA Hunter novels so far, and one could easily be fooled into believing there was a real “Jack Buchanan” behind the work, as none of the volumes have been much different from one another so far as the narrative goes. Only in the minor details can you notice a difference: for one, there’s a bit more gun-porn here, likely thanks to Fieldhouse’s long tenure at Gold Eagle, and for another Fieldhouse is the first of any of these “Jack Buchanans” to give Terrance Loughlin a personality!

The plot of course follows the series template: Mark “MIA Hunter” Stone gets wind of yet another group of American soldiers held prisoner, this time in Laos. Stone gets his information from a group of Laotian freedom fighters and quickly puts together a team. In the first instance of continuity yet in this series, we learn that Hog Wiley was so injured in the previous volume that he’s unable to go on this mission. Stone settles upon an unruly replacement named Leo Gorman, an American merc who allegedly once had ties with an opium kingpin here in Laos – an opium kingpin who supposedly wants Gorman dead.

Gorman is a very entertaining character, foul-mouthed and prone to violent outbursts. He basically steals the novel from Stone and Loughlin, but the problem arises that Stone would have to be out of his mind to hire such an unstable character. Stone keeps giving the lame reasoning that they need a seasoned soldier on this mission and Gorman, despite his rampages, can keep a cool head in a firefight. This is proven when the trio are attacked by masked gunmen mere moments after their first meeting with Gorman, Fieldhouse providing a running battle that is only the first of many. But when Gorman and Loughlin get in a huge fistfight themselves, you’d think Stone would wise up and find some other merc for the job.

Blood Storm has a lot more going on than previous volumes. Fieldhouse runs two subplots in addition to the main one, gradually bringing them all together. In the first subplot a Thailand-based detachment of CIA operatives determine to finally track down Stone and bring him to justice. And in the second Gorman’s old opium kingpin boss discovers that Gorman is coming into Thailand – Gorman’s plan is to sell out Stone so as to get back in the kingpin’s good graces – and plans to kill Gorman and then capture Stone and his team, to ransom them to the government. In fact this last subplot takes up most of the novel, with the actual POW rescue occurring midway through and being a fairly easy task for Stone et al.

The majority of the second half of Blood Storm sees Stone himself captured – Gorman’s old kingpin boss ambushes them in the jungle and takes them all prisoner. Here the novel appropriates a sort of tortune porn vibe, with several unsettling scenes of the kingpin taking sick pleasure in torturing a bound Stone, beating his back with bamboo sticks, burning his toes and fingers, etc. Meanwhile an old friend comes for Stone, resulting in a total deus ex machina rescue, an action scene that ends with yet another martial arts battle, this one between Stone and the kingpin. It really goes on for quite a while.

As mentioned Fieldhouse brings more gun-porn to the series; a variety of firearms are named off, with manufacture and ballistics detail provided. Also there’s a huge amount of martial arts included – there’s almost as much kung-fu fighting in Blood Storm as the average volume of Mace. Stephen Mertz has told me that Fieldhouse was part of a “Rosenberger circle” of writers, and I can easily see that here, as the amount of hand-to-hand fighting is almost as overwhelming as the amount of gun fights. Luckily Fieldhouse's action scenes are a whole lot more entertaining than Rosenberger's. And he doesn’t shy on the gore, with plenty of exploding guts and brains.

In fact I was impressed with how much story Fieldhouse was able to put in here despite the wealth of action sequences. He brings to life the many characters and gives each of them colorful dialog – the reader will note that the heroes have developed a sudden tendency to curse this time around. (Speaking of profanity, there’s a profane amount of spelling and grammatical errors in this book!) Fieldhouse also delivers a few reversals and surprises, in particular the appearance of a particular character just in the nick of time.

But despite the plethora of action scenes, Blood Storm somehow doesn’t come off like an endless battle sequence, and overall the novel is an enjoyable read. In fact this turned out to be my favorite volume of the series since #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, but unfortunately this was the only installment Fieldhouse wrote.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hitman #2: Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart!

Hitman #2: Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart!, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1974  Canyon Books

Mike Hitman Ross once again dons his “black nylon suit” and “cowl with eye slits” and prowls the streets of Los Angeles in the second entry of this obscure series. Whereas the first volume uneasily traded between goofy humor and lurid sleaze, Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart! has a firmer grip on its tone, and comes off like a horror-tinged installment of say The Sharpshooter or The Marksman, with less focus on the goofy humor and more on the violence and sleaze.

Ross as we’ll recall is a veteran of both Korea and ‘Nam and just friggin’ loves to kill, so as the novel opens he’s chomping at the bit to take on whoever is behind the recent wave of cop killings going on across the country. Once again there’s the absurd element that the cops know that Ross is Hitman (no “the” in his title, by the way), yet somehow they don’t know where he lives and they don’t arrest him as soon as he steps foot inside a police department. One thing this volume picks up from the previous volume then is its pulpish tone, with Ross like a ‘70s equivalent of The Spider or some other ‘30s pulp hero.

The cop killers are an army of hippies, much like the one in Len Levinson’s The Terrorists. Ross gets lucky and comes across a few of them while they’re attempting to waste some cops, and he kills them all, thus discovering that they appear to be made up of mostly minorities and women; Ross surmises that this army is comprised, then, of anyone who’s ever “been hassled by the Man.” The women appear to work in cells of three and consider themselves Furies, no doubt part of the army to gain revenge for loved ones, brothers, or even sons who have been arrested or killed by the cops.

Author Kirby Carr (aka Kin Platt) also adds a bit of the occult movement that was so big in the early 1970s, with covens of witches and groups of satanists who are lead by an Anton LeVay type. Ross gradually deduces that the mob is controlling the leaders of these occult groups, having them exhort their masses to revolt against society while at the same time asking money from them, for the movement. In LA the groups are controlled by a mafioso named Tooey, but the tentacles spread across the US and Ross is certain there’s one man behind the entire thing.

Early chapters seem to build up this nationwide syndicate of satan worshippers and witches working against the government, but Carr sort of blows it. Instead Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart! becomes a repetitive ordeal where Ross stalks after a witch or some minor thug, beats them for info, then tries to find out who is in charge of them. The previous volume, despite being uncertain in tone, at least offered more fun, jumping all over the place. This installment just sort of plods along until it reaches a predictable end. Even promising material set up early in the novel, like the Furies, is quickly forgotten and never mentioned again.

In fact Carr page-fills with abandon at times, giving us lots of detail on witch practices, most of it likely gleaned from something published by Llewellyn Books. He also finds the time to throw in a budding relationship between a satan worshipper and a witch, both of whom are indentured speech-givers for Tooey (who himself works for a shadowy presence who calls himself De Groot). Ross himself takes back seat for long portions of the novel, and when he does appear his powers are so godlike that his victory is never in doubt.

Tension and thrills sort of evaporate as the novel settles into the same pace: Ross will find some Tooey stooge, beat the person up (in the event it’s a woman he will slap her around), make them call Tooey and say they’re going to quit, and then wait for Tooey’s goons, whom Ross is certain will be on their way posthaste. And once the goons arrive, Ross kills them all quickly and with ease. Indeed Ross seems to lack intelligence here, as despite the fact that he’s trying to track down who is behind this national cop-killing spree, he straight up just kills these guys instead of sparing one of them for interrogation!

Again Ross enjoys killing and fighting, but the ninja stuff of the previous volume is gone, as are the weapons Ross used last time out. Here he still deals mostly with handguns, from a Magnum revolver to a 9mm semi-automatic, and he also uses something called a Baby Ermma. At one point he uses a “burp gun,” but the action scenes are brief and are moreso Ross just blowing people away with little challenge. And the gore factor is there but nothing major; in fact a sort of blandness prevails over everything.

I said earlier that the corny element was toned down this time, and for the most part that’s true. But there’s still goofy stuff, like a nonsensical scene where Ross goes back to a building from which mobsters were operating, only to find a naked porn actress there who thinks this is the location of a new film and wonders if Ross is doing the scene with her! Once the punchline finally arrives it turns out the girl has the wrong address…but it’s just too goofy to be funny. And speaking of which Ross doesn’t see any bedroom action in this volume, a far cry from the last one, where he strangled a woman while he had sex with her. That being said Carr offers up lots of sleazy stuff, in particular the under-the-desk duties Tooey expects of his secretary.

Also the supernatural element from the previous volume is gone, only hinted at by the characters. The witches speak of demons as if they really exist, and Ross wonders often if they actually do. But unlike the last time where he met vampires, Ross only squares off against regular humans here, and in fact the entire occult conspiracy deal fizzles out into a Scooby-Doo sort of reveal where it’s just some regular schmoe behind the various hippie terrorist factions…actually a loser who poses no threat at all to Ross.

Carr’s writing reminds me of a combo of Russell Smith and Dean Ballenger; Smith because Carr writes with little regard to the rules of reality or common sense, and Ballenger due to the goofy banter he creates for his mobster characters. However Carr lacks the graphic gore of either author, though his action scenes are reminiscent of Smith’s in that there’s not much “action” at play, with Ross basically murdering his opponents with one skilled shot before they’re able to even fire at him. Ross is also a bit too superhuman, able to defeat several men at once with his bare hands and never being concerned about danger or death – but then this only gives the series more of a “modern pulp” feel.

Well, I actually have the full run of the Hitman series, which is quite a feat as some of these books are absurdly obscure and overpriced, in particular the fourth and fifth volumes. They each have lurid titles and covers, but so far there’s been little meat between the pages to back them up (let alone the overblown prices), so let’s hope things improve soon.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Tracker #4: Black Phantom

Tracker #4: Black Phantom, by Ron Stillman
June, 1991  Charter Books

The Tracker series continues to be the most painful read a men’s adventure fan can endure, once again delivering a boring story in which its asshole protagonist blithely overcomes all obstacles, defeats all enemies, and romances all women with the casual ease of a demigod. Plus the writing sucks. It’s almost as if this series was contrived by some anti-men’s adventure league and then fostered upon the reading public to sow disinterest and spite – seriously, that crap this terrible was getting published was almost a sign that anything could get published in the men’s adventure genre.

Like the previous volume, Black Phantom is basically just about Natty “Asshole” Tracker setting his sights on some non-PC villain and then spending the entire narrative fucking with him. In this case it’s Frederick Ebert, a neo-Nazi redneck who has created his own empire in the south and has entire armies of Nazi-like racists at his disposal. Despite these gun-toting goons and the murders they sow, the US government is trying to build a regular case against him instead of just taking him out, so Tracker, after assisting the Feds a bit, decides to take matters into his own hands and kill the bastard. It just takes him the entire novel to do so.

Previous volumes have also had such barebone plots and then padded them up with extraneous detail, but this one goes way overboard – I knew I was in for a shitstorm when in the very first action sequence Ron Stillman (aka Don Bendell) spent several pages providing useless backstories for a group of bikers as they raped a woman alongside the road, and then all of the bikers were blown away by Tracker within the next few pages. It goes like that throughout Black Phantom -- every character introduced into the tale is given pages of backstory filler, sometimes even including how their goddamn parents met!

Oh, and as for the title…the first page excerpt implied that “the Black Phantom” would be this new character, possibly evil, a black-armored scion of sci-fi death, but damn it all the “Phantom” is none other than asshole Tracker himself! Ebert, as we learn via incredibly elongated backstory, sends out teams of goons to kill Mexicans as they attempt to sneak across the US border, and Tracker starts showing up in the nick of time to save them, blowing away goons in his “Robocop”-style armor. Soon he becomes infamous as “the Phantom.”

But that’s just one of Tracker’s disguises here. He is also fond of showing up like an Indian “brave” in warpaint and on a horse, running commando raids on Ebert’s stooges. This is all just so stupid and monotonous, let alone unbelieveable, but Tracker as we’ll recall is a god among men and can do whatever he wants. This especially makes him seem like a dick, as it’s clear he could settle Ebert’s account straight away, but instead he takes his time about it.

Bendell fills pages with abandon, serving up useless backstory and dumbass sequences that have no bearing on anything. Most egregious is an extended sequence where we learn that one of Ebert’s goons is a professional wrestler (complete once again with elaborately detailed backstory on the guy), and Tracker trains to become a wrestler so he can take the guy on…all of it bullshit because it all ends the same as all the other extended sequences where Tracker takes on one of Ebert’s top guys, with Tracker dropping off the wrestler’s corpse as he flies over Ebert’s mansion in a C-10 – a recurring “joke” Bendell graces us with.

In fact there’s all kinds of “comedy” here, or at least the attempt at it. There is nothing more painful than a person who is not funny but thinks he is, and I fear Bendell must be of the type because he graces us with all sorts of “jokes” courtesy Tracker, and each and every one of them falls flat. It seems to me the author was going for a summer blockbuster sort of feel, with one-liners and whatnot, but boy it’s not funny.

And as we’ll recall Tracker isn’t just perfect in warfare, he also can get any woman he wants. He’s still got Dee, who has been with him since #2: Green Lightning, but we learn here that Dee’s really a secret agent and her chance meeting with Tracker in that second volume was actually part of a staged mission. To this I say “bullshit,” and it appears Bendell has merely introduced this concept so he can keep Dee around, and thus goes about majorly transforming her character in the pages of Black Phantom. He does though at least attempt to explain away Dee’s actions in previous volumes, all of which now ring false given the revelation that she is in fact a kick-ass commando herself.

Tracker also scores with Ebony Blanca, a CIA agent who conveniently moves in with Tracker as part of the mission against Ebert; she’s instantly horny as soon as she sees Tracker. And hell, Dee’s such a trouper she just leaves the two of them alone so they can get to know each other better! Of course we learn all about Ebony and etc, etc, all of which implies that she’s going to become Tracker’s “new” girlfriend, but then it just turns out to be another instance of page-filling as Ebony’s removed from the narrative posthaste.

The action scenes are also subpar, with Tracker so inhuman that he could probably take on a few Terminators at once without chipping a fingernail. And of course he’s even better than ever thanks to his continued cybernetic enhancements. But still, when the bullets begin to fly there’s no tension or excitement, mainly due to Tracker’s godlike abilities, but also because the scenes themselves are just so flat and lifeless.  Joseph Rosenberger's action scenes are even more exciting.

Good gravy but this series sucks. I looked up Bendell and it appears he has lived quite a life, serving in the special forces, teaching martial arts, writing poetry, etc. So for all I know he could be a great guy, and he at least deserves some respect for serving his country. But still, I think I’m going to save myself some pain and just skip ahead to the last two volumes, which were written by some unknown person. They have to be better…I mean, even that Twilight shit has to be better than this!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Specialist #6: The Big One

The Specialist #6: The Big One, by John Cutter
December, 1984  Signet Books

Jack Sullivan, the “toughest action hero of them all,” returns in this sixth installment of John Shirley’s Specialist series. This is one hit or miss series, with some volumes, like #4: The Psycho Soldiers, being incredibly entertaining, while others, like #2: Manhattan Revenge, being monotonous bores. Luckily The Big One is in the former category, and it’s a lot of fun.

Speaking of Manhattan Revenge, this volume picks up some threads from that early installment, opening with a darkly humorous scene where Sullivan carries out a hit on a guy who killed one of the child sex slaves in Van Kleef’s den. Per the contract Sullivan has to carry out the hit on the guy’s birthday, and since the guy has mob connections this involves taking out a slew of thugs as well. But then one of the mobsters gets wind that The Specialist is here and tips off the cops, who promptly spot Sullivan’s warwagon as he’s making a leisurely getaway.

This implies that The Big One is going to be a “Sullivan breaks out of prison” storyline, but so much goes down in the 180 pages of this novel that his jail tenure is over in a flash. Sullivan is sprung by the Feds, who actually want to put him on a job – a megamillionaire named Hughes has it in for a neo-Nazi drug kingpin named Reichstone (nicknamed “The Big One”) who rules an island kingdom in South America, where he has the support of the corrupt local government. Reichstone has kidnapped Hughes’s daughter and made her his sex slave (notice a theme developing, here), and has also tortured, with acid, Hughes’s son.

But due to that governmental backing, the US can’t officially become involved. So Sullivan is their go-to guy, as he’s friggin’ legendary, even among the criminal filth of the world. After seeing the ruined figure that was once Hughes’s son, Sullivan is consumed with his equally-lengendary wrath and eagerly takes the job. He brings along Merlin and Rolff, the mercs who have assisted him in previous volumes.

Sullivan’s been equipped with a plethora of hardware, and Shirley takes a page out of Gold Eagle, detailing it all for us. Also on the GE tip is Sullivan’s new Atchisson automatic shotgun, so memorably featured in Able Team #8: Army Of Devils. Sullivan takes an instant liking to the Atchisson, which he uses throughout the novel to blow thugs apart in gory fashion. He gets a chance to take his new toys for a test drive as soon as he lands near Reichstone’s domain, blowing away a few cops and then taking captive their captain.

The Big One operates on all the tropes of a classic pulp melodrama, with constant reversals and unexpected turns, not to mention the old clichĂ© of “enemies turned friends.” Sullivan shows a knack for making people see his way, and during the course of the narrative manages to turn a handful of Reichstone’s goons. And also per those classic tropes we see the return of many characters, in particular Skulleye, the “monster Muslim” terrorist who got half of his face shot off by Sullivan in the previous volume.

Another returning character from Maltese Vengeance is Ollie Tryst, who when last we saw him was planning to marry a spitfire beauty in Malta. Turns out the romance fizzled and Tryst went off looking for merc work…and guess what, he’s inadvertently ended up as a security guard on Reichstone’s island! There are two hundred mercs here, including the Elite, Reichstone’s personal guard, all of them hulking blondes who go about in sleeveless SS uniforms.

Given the “sex slave” angle of the plot, you’d figure Shirley would indulge in some lurid doings, but he doesn’t. In fact he doesn’t even deliver one of his trademark sex scenes until the novel’s almost over, having Sullivan get busy with a “big” redhead who happens to be an undercover Mossad agent. (Even she has heard of Sullivan!) The lurid quotient is relegated to several grisly action scenes, including a great moment – and another indication of Shirley’s gift for dark humor – where a character is eaten by a shark.

One thing that can be said for the Specialist series though is it isn’t as creative in the plot department. Everything goes down just as you expect it will, as in previous volumes – Sullivan shows up, scouts the area, kills some guards, plans his attack, and finally launches his attack. But Shirley at least throws some unexpected elments into the tale, obviously having fun as he mounts coincidence upon coincidence – like, for example, the team of CIA agents who just happen to be captives on Reichstone’s island, and one of them is Sullivan’s old pal! (Later these guys form their own detachment as “the White Berets,” another indication of Shirley having fun with his own story.)

Another unexpected element is when Sullivan himself gets captured, the first time I believe this has happened in the series. Skulleye and Reichstone interrogate him, and Sullivan proves his “toughest action hero” status here, certain he can take the torture. But instead they drug him, and Shirley shows off his horror chops with a very surreal and psychedelic scene where Sullivan hallucinates all kinds of nightmarish shit.

But still it all ends with the expected assault on Reichstone’s fortress, Sullivan assisted by a veritable army of mercs and Mossad agents who just so coincentally happen to be in the area. The Atchisson is again put to use in gory splendor, particularly in Sullivan’s final confrontation with Skulleye – though honestly I expected Shirley to play up this rivalry a bit more. All told Skulleye is barely in the novel. But the payoff with Reichstone’s fate more than makes up for it.

Anyway, this is a fun novel, filled with fun moments, like the scene pictured on the cover, where Sullivan avoids becoming shark-food thanks to a handy grenade. And also Shirley’s sense of humor is a nice change of pace; it’s obvious he’s having fun with the material, slyly poking fun at the characters and events, yet he still provides a quality story. When he’s in form Shirley is capable of delivering excellent examples of what men’s adventure novels can be, and this is exactly what he does here.