Vic Merritt: Man of Justice: Death On The Boardwalk, by Jake Cafferty
No month stated, 1986 Critic's Choice
J.C. Conaway surfaces as “Jake Carfferty” for this one-shot courtesy Critic’s Choice, likely yet another Leisure imprint. Billed as the first volume of a series titled Vic Merritt: Man Of Justice, Death On The Boardwalk was the only installment ever published. The spine labels it as “men’s action,” which is a laugh and a half. One could likely find more action in a cookbook. This one’s a slooow-moving affair that, as usual with Conaway’s work, is more of a tepid mystery.
There are also a few interesting paralells to Conaway’s earlier Shannon series. For one, the “sidekick” hero Vic Merritt is graced with: a Filipino cook/karate master named Joe-Dad, which was also the name of Shannon’s sidekick. (However this Joe-Dad doesn’t speak in the pidgin jive of the previous one.) Merritt himself is different from Shannon: he isn’t a spy, secret agent, vigilante, or anyting – he’s just a mega-wealthy owner of a global chain of hotels and buildings. Seriously, folks, Vic Merritt: Man Of Justice is like ‘80s Donald Trump starring in a TV mystery movie.
Sounds promising, but Conaway isn’t up to the challenge. This book is a snoozer. While we’re at times reminded that Vic Merritt, 32 and good-looking, has studied karate and whatnot, he doesn’t do much more in this book than fret over his newly-opening Atlantic City hotel, the Boardwalk. As is typical with Conaway, the novel is stuffed to the gills with incidental characters, and mundane dialog runs rampant. Death On the Boardwalk has more in common with a glitzy ‘80s trash novel, only most of the sex is off-page and there’s nothing racy about it.
The novel spans August through October of 1985; the Boardwalk is scheduled to open in early September and it’s been plagued with accidents that seem to have been intentional. Vic shows up from his New York penthouse to oversee the final days. We get lots of digressive stuff about various characters, including the Madonna-esque singer Suzi Harrington, who is almost burned alive in the run-through for her opening night act. She isn’t too hurt, though, as Vic manages to have off-page sex with her in her hospital room a few days later; she’s an old flame of his (lame pun alert), and Vic wonders if maybe her old boyfriend Bart Bartolucci, notorious Mafia boss, might be behind the Boardwalk attacks, as vengeance for stealing his girl way back when.
Most time is spent on walk-throughs of the deluxe Boardwalk, with an endless tide of one-off characters trolled out to fill the pages. If we read that there’s a girl group named Glitter hired by the hotel, Conaway will introduce us to each and every member, even give us a few lines from one of their songs. The novel in no way, shape, or form is “men’s action.” It is mostly a soap opera with a slight mystery overlay, as eventually one of the musicians is killed during a rehearsal, thus Vic must try to find out who has been behind these intentional attacks.
Along the way Vic meets lusty redhead Kay Harrington, a reporter for an Atlantic City paper who has “voluptuous lines” and “nicely rounded buttocks.” Their inevitable coupling is the one sequence where Conaway gets slightly risque, but it’s all pretty tame for an ‘80s paperback. These two trade lots of exposition as Vic gets all lovey-dovey with Kay; here we also get slight more detail on Vic’s background. His parents, who ran the global business before him, were “killed by terrorists” at Kennedy airport (an incident almost humorously unexplored), and if that wasn’t sad-sack enough, his fiance was also murdered a few years ago.
Who knows what Conaway’s plans were, but it appears that if the series had progressed there would have been recurring characters, in particular Lila, an old lady who was a famous singer in the ‘40s who now lives across from Vic on the penthouse floor of the Boardwalk; there’s also Caledonia Brown, Lila’s maid, “a Negro woman of sixty.” (If that isn’t enough for you, there’s also Carmen, head of Boardwalk security, who is a “big, beefy broad.”) But mostly it’s about the one-off characters, like Sike Deacon, sleazy manager of a Sex Pistols-esque British rock group who runs afoul of Vic given his bad attitude. Then there’s Charles Deacon, flamingly flamboyant night club actor.
As mentioned Death On The Boardwalk is mostly a mystery story, and it builds to a slow boil, with Vic not as driven to uncover the murders as you might expect. There’s no part where he whips out a pistol and takes justice into his own hands. Indeed he puts pieces together thanks to off-hand dialog from one of the bajillion characters who overstuff the novel. The killer turns out to be two unlikely culprits, with Conaway doling out that hoary old cliché that one of them’s actually insane and suffers from a sort of split personality disorder. The novel ends on a bittersweet note, with Vic determined to make it as big in Atlantic City as he has around the rest of the world.
More indication that this was a Leisure joint is the puzzling goof halfway through where a character refers to Merritt as “Jake Cafferty,” which is of course the pseudonym Conaway used for the book! Even more puzzling is the fact that the book is copyright “James Callahan.” One begins to wonder if Conaway was in the Witness Protection program or perhaps the CIA or FBI – pseudonyms upon pseudonyms. In fact this element is more interesting than the book itself; shed no tears that there were no more volumes of Vic Merrit: Man Of Justice.