The Smuggler #6: Death Benefit, by Paul Petersen
May, 1975 Pocket Books
The Smuggler returns to the “serious spy drama” angle of the fourth volume; the fantastical elements of other volumes, in particular the third, are long gone, leaving us with a tepid, slow-boil affair in which ultra superheroic protagonist Eric Saveman discovers treachery within the ranks of his top-secret ZED organization.
Saveman’s the worst part about this series, mostly due to his demigod status. If you thought The Baroness was idealized, then wait till you get a load of Eric Saveman, a dude so uber-perfect that he not only knows everything but everyone, and everyone is in awe of him; seriously, there are parts of this book where minor characters (themselves bad-ass spies, mind you), will stand around and say stuff like, “Wait till Eric goes after him,” or whatnot. It’s almost laughable, particularly when you factor in that author Paul Petersen apparently hoped for a TV series based on The Smuggler with himself in the starring role.
This one is as patience-testing as the others in the series (save that is for the wild and wooly second volume, and the broad-ranging third volume), with lots of dialog and scene-setting and little in the way of action (of either variety). Anyway it’s two months after the previous volume and Saveman is once again on vacation when we meet him, which seems to be a series staple. He’s still living with the lookalike sisters he encountered last time around, who have no idea what Saveman does for a living. Also hanging with Saveman here in St. Croix is Joshua Kane, black ZED agent who first appeared in the ultra-lurid second volume and who is mixing sun and sex with yet another ZED agent, Belinda, the black beauty who spent the majority of the fourth volume having sex as part of her undercover assignment.
One thing Petersen (and co-writer David Oliphant) does here is invest The Smuggler with a lot of continuity; someone who enjoys this series more than I do would get a thrill out of meeting up with all of these characters again and again. But what grates me is that Saveman’s world is a little too small. Everyone he meets he either knows or has heard of him, to the point that it’s unintentionally humorous. For example, the novel opens with Saveman and Kane all-too-casually dispensing of some M-16-wielding terrorists who show up on the golf course; later they learn that a black radical is behind them – and it’s a dude Saveman once played college football with!!
Turns out there’s yet another former Saveman pal behind it all – Marc Wrestle, another ZED agent, one who is currently on a mission in Laos which has him smuggling guns as part of a sting operation or something. But Wrestle stumbles across a stash of Red China-created germ warfare in an undercover lab in the jungle and escapes, realizing he’s been contaminated…running for his life and thinking to himself that Saveman will take care of everything(!).
Honestly folks, Saveman might as well have a big red “S” on his shirt, the way the other characters hold him in such awe. The funniest damn thing is, the dude wouldn’t even be in the top ten of most bad-assed men’s adventure protagonists. Probably not even in the top twenty. At least those lookalike sisters have enough of him; they tell Saveman they’re hitting the road when they all return to Saveman’s swank mansion outside New York, because they can’t handle the sudden violence of his life.
From here we settle in for the long haul as Saveman argues with crusty old General Velasco, scarred boss of ZED; Saveman is certain Marc was onto something big, but his death has been covered up to make it look like he was a turncoat or somesuch. Saveman, who we’ll recall (and if we forget we’re reminded again and again) is a much-vaunted Free Agent (meaning he can do basically whatever he wants), insists that he go to Paris for Marc’s funeral (Marc’s dad being an ambassador stationed there).
In France Saveman hooks up with ultra-sexy “Eurasian” Dominique Charbonet, yet another ZED agent who, believe it or not, doesn’t have immediate sex with Saveman. The only sex we get in the first half is courtesy Joshua Kane and Belinda; the two are in love, and Kane is given a desk assignment which will see him posing as a wealthy entreprenneur with Belinda posing as his wife – the author(s) now intending to write the couple out of the series, apparently.
It’s all a bunch of wheel-spinning and dialog, with the occasional “shaggy ‘70s” flourish I so enjoy about these vintage paperbacks. Like the part where Dominique slinks into Saveman’s posh hotel room and breaks out a case of marijuana sprinkled with “Nepalese hash,” not to mention some high-grade coke, along with her own coke spoon. Saveman, that drug-smuggling demigod, once again doesn’t partake in drugs himself, but gives Dominque (and the interested reader) some handy tips on how to break up cocaine so the particles don’t screw up your nasal membranes. And here Saveman even turns down an offer for sex from Dominique, despite which we’ve been reminded constantly how sexy Saveman finds her; his excuse is he needs to keep his wits about him, or some nonsense.
Of course the long-awaited sex scene duly arrives, on a private flight to Thailand of all places, and while the authors get explicit it’s nothing as raunchy as in the second or even third volumes. As I’ve mentioned in reviews for other volumes, The Smuggler has gotten tamer with each installment. In fact Dominique is Saveman’s only conquest this time around, and he spends more time fretting over the complex mystery behind Marc Wrestle’s death and that stash of germ warfare. We also get periodic over-detail about the implants in the brains of all ZED agents, which allows them to be tracked around the globe and even snuffed out if it’s determined they’ve gone rogue; of course, Saveman’s has been deactivated.
Petersen goes to great lengths to capture a spy-fy vibe, particularly when it comes to the high-tech ZED HQ, with lots of scene-setting of walls sliding open to reveal wallscreen monitors and the like. He also again goes to great pains to show he’s done his research, with lots of detail on germ warfare; another unintentionally humorous moment, with Saveman even able to spit out obscure information about this subject, like he’s one of those omniscient characters on CSI. The dude’s so perfect you want to step into the book and knock the smug look off his moustached face. Hey – “smug – smuggler;” I didn’t do that on purpose!
Gradually Saveman figures out that one of the ZED elite is behind the plot, working with a Chinese Minister who hopes to use the newly-created germ warfare in an attack on Peking, to wipe out the Western-friendly regime and start a war. But Saveman learns via the research of his father (who is himself nearly perfect) that the germs will actually cause the death of a large portion of the Chinese population.
So Saveman, who has been ordered off the assignment by no less an authority than the President (who says basically “let ‘em die” when he finds out the plot will backfire and kill millions of Chinese people), hijacks a jet plane, flies it back into China, crashes it, turns off the power of the base that creates the germs(!!)…and wakes up in a hospital a few days later, where he’s thanked for saving so many Chinese. Oh, and he’s meanwhile taken out the ZED turncoat in one of the most anticlimactic shootouts you’ll ever read.
There’s a goofy finale in which Saveman and Velasco have a face-to-face with the President, and Saveman basically tells the President to go to hell and how he’ll never be able to order Saveman around again. Also here Petersen seems to state that the novel has taken place in 1972, which I found odd – were these books really written so long before publication? And also it would mean that Saveman’s bitching at Nixon, which would explain his hostility…I mean who could’ve gotten so angry at Gerald Ford??
Luckily the next volume was the last one.