Monday, July 3, 2017

The Chinese Connection

The Chinese Connection, by William Crawford
September, 1973  Pinnacle Books

I was under the impression, due to a misleading comment on a review, that this was a BCI crime paperback. But producer Lyle Kenyon Engel’s name is nowhere to be found in the book, which is copyright William Crawford himself; it was published around the time he was also writing the Stryker series for Pinnacle.* In fact one gets the impression that Pinnacle was looking to make Crawford the William W. Johnstone of his day; the first Stryker includes an ad for Crawford’s other novels for the imprint, and also he was given the job of turning in the infamous 16th volume of The Executioner.

I’d like to know more about William Crawford; all I know is that he was a cop of some sort, that he was friends with fellow Pinnacle Books scribe Mark Roberts (Roberts mentioned Crawford in The Penetrator #9 and dedicated The Penetrator #17 to him), that he clearly lived near the US-Mexico border, and that he did some novels for Lyle Kenyon Engel under various pseudonyms (including a few volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster which were never published). He also seems to have done all of his writing in the ‘70s. At least, I can’t find anything published by Crawford after 1977, which is the year The Death Connection came out (which he did for Engel under the name “Roger Brandt”). The latest book of his I can find is a Pinnacle reprint of this novel, The Chinese Connection, from 1979 (I’m unable to find the cover online). We do know from a comment Crawford’s stepson left on Zwolf’s hilarious review of Stryker #1 that Crawford is dead, so perhaps he passed away sometime in the late ‘70s.

Anyway, this book is not to be confused with the Bruce Lee film of the same title. It is very much in the vein of Stryker and does in fact live up to its cover proclamation of being “savage.” Of the three Crawfords I’ve read, this one by far is my favorite, with the caveat that, though Crawford once again turns in a tough novel with almost brutal, Gannon-esque violence, he constantly undermines himself with too many digressions –overlong background histories of one-off characters, too many endless and arbitrary cop-world details, too many page-filing lectures on the drug trade, government corruption, and what-have-you. To be sure, this sort of thing isn’t as egregious as it was in, say, The Rapist (another one Crawford wrote for Engel), but it does make the book a bit of a chore: The Chinese Connection runs to 223 pages of small, dense print, but with some savvy editing it could’ve been much snappier at the 180-page Pinnacle Books norm.

One recurring theme in Crawford’s work is that his hero will be a grizzled, older cop who, while not sporting the gym-culture physique of the genre norm, is still as tough as they come. Real salt of the earth types. His grizzled protagonists hate everything, particularly the young (not to mention Hollywood), and they resent the encroaching, emasculating societal changes that are being forced upon their profession, not to mention how the world of policing is being hamstrung by liberal lawyers and by new recruits just out of college with “fresh ideas.” Crawford protagonists are hard men, not handsome or humorous or even polite, with bony frames and sunken cheeks and flinty eyes – in other words, Steve Holland types.

Such is the case with the hero of this novel, Tom Belcher, a 20-year veteran of some narcotics agency. Folks, I had a helluva time figuring out what kind of a cop Belcher is…my best guess is he’s a US Marshall, as he keeps referring to his department as “the Service,” never “the agency” or “the Bureau.” For the latter, he certainly isn’t in the FBI as he’s constantly looking down on that agency. The DEA isn’t mentioned, nor is the ATF. He’s not a city or state cop, as his partner is killed within the first few pages and later Belcher refers to him as a “federal agent.” Otherwise I have no idea who exactly Belcher works for – not that it much matters, as he quickly goes rogue and begins his own trackdown of “the Cinese Connection,” which, by the way, is never referred to as such in the novel itelf. Nope, it’s “the Chink Connection,” friends – even referred to thusly in big and bold print on the back cover! 

Belcher is a stone-cold bastard, of the type who could probably even give Joe Ryker pause. When we meet him he’s on the Texas-Mexico border, waiting for an informant to come across into the US with a batch of heroin supposedly gotten from a mysterious Chinese supplier. Mostly though Belcher’s sick of his annoying new partner, a college grad punk kid. Belcher goes out of his way to insult and belittle him. When the truck with the drugs barrels through the border, dumping out the body of Belcher’s informant, a biker roars by, blasting a shotgun, and takes off his partner’s head. Belcher could give a shit; when his boss later tells him that the partner “Left a wife and two small children” behind, Belcher quips: “Don’t they always?”

Regardless, Belcher goes out for revenge; later he will even admit to himself that he could care less that the kid was killed, and isn’t avenging him per se, but rather is avenging the fact that someone killed a Federal officer and the higher-ups are more concerned about red tape than about finding the killer – not to mention finding all the heroin that just slipped across the border. Belcher is basically fired by his stupid chief, who insists that Belcher take a month’s vacation after this snafu; Belcher knows that, like many men his age, he’s being put out to pasture. So he decides to take the law into his own hands. He’ll find the killers of his partner, the heroin, and “the Chink Connection” too, all on his own – he needs a big collar like this, so as to regain favor in the agency.

Sounds like a lean and mean yarn, and it has the skeleton of one. But here Crawford begins his, uh, Crawfordisms; Belcher’s murdered informer was named Pacheo, and abruptly we’re taken into an extended flashback on how Belcher recruited the Mexican drugdealer, including egregious and arbitrary background on Pacheo, not to mention his blonde slut of a wife, Gloria – I’m talking incidental backgrounds on each that have nothing to do with the novel at hand but go on for pages and pages. Such nonsense will occur throughout The Chinese Connection, constantly stalling forward momentum. Anyway it’s through Pacheo that Belcher learned of the Chinese contact who claimed to have a vast source of heroin, and Belcher quickly deduces that it was Gloria Pacheo who likely set up her own husband to be killed – she’s a notorious whore and was sleeping with his comrades, among others.

Belcher breaks into Gloria’s home and ties up a has-been actor named Rick Rawlson who is living with her. More Crawfordisms ensue as Rawlson goes on for pages and pages about his sad-sack Hollywood career and how he’s mooching off of Gloria ‘cause he heard she’d come into a windfall. But when Gloria shows up the bad-assery comes back in full force. Friends, you remember that part in the almighty Bronson: Blind Rage where Bronson interrogated that gal and lit her pubic hair on fire? Belcher pulls the same schtick here – and it’s possible that the still-unknown “Philip Rawls” who wrote Blind Rage might’ve been inspired by The Chinese Connection. (Good Lord…could it have been William Crawford??? Nah….)

Stripping Gloria down and trussing her up (noting of course her big boobs – Crawford seemed to’ve had an obsession for “silicone tits” while writing this book, as practically every female character has massive mams due to implants), Belcher squirts lighter fluid on Gloria’s exposed privates when she refuses to answer his questions (this after he’s done the same to her hand and actually set it on fire). He threatens to get her where she “lives;” she’s a nympho, and if Belcher takes away that special part of her anatomy, what the hell is she going to do with herself? “If you don’t tell me, then I’m going to burn your goddamn snatch off,” he informs her. The gal breaks, the fluid is never lit, and Gloria and Rick Rawlson disappear from the narrative, making the reader wonder if Belcher did in fact kill them.

From here it’s to El Puerto, Texas, where Belcher has been put on the trail of Rajar Creasy, a foul-smelling biker of monstrous proportions who’s a “pukepot stone queer” to boot (Crawford’s books, by the way, are almost blueprints of a pre-PC worldview; there’s even a part later on where Belcher, and therefore Crawford, defends his right to use the words “chink” and “gook” and etc). Rajar operates out of a strip joint called the Sandbox, where he runs a whips-and-chains biz for other “stone queers.” He’s notoriously rancid, not having washed himself in decades, and he’s even more notorious for his sadism.

Not to fear – Belcher captures Rajar, putting his precious chopper on fire and then sapping him. He takes him out to the desert where he gives the bound Creasy a Gannon-esque beatdown. The novel is almost relentless in its brutalism; it’s only a shame that Crawford keeps hamstringing himself with the constant stallings and out-of-nowhere lectures on this or that. Creasy turns out to have been the biker who shotgunned Belcher’s partner, but Creasy was actually hired to kill Belcher, only he missed. He blabs a few more names for Belcher to track down; hating himself for his weakness, Belcher lets the biker live, and heads on down to Mexico, where he’s promptly captured by the crooked cops who work for heroin kingpin Umberto Garcia.

Baddass Belcher “wonder[s] how long it was until midnight,” as being tied up, stripped, beaten, and having his balls crushed by a bicycle lock is “the kind of thing that ruin[s] a man’s whole day.” Our hero endures more suffering than practically any other I can think of at the moment; we’re informed that his balls are so swollen afterwards that he can barely walk. He’s being tortured by a pair of Mexican cops, and when Belcher reveals that he too is a cop they’re immediately shamefaced. Garcia lied to them, making them think Belcher was just some American hustler or something. After a phone call to Belcher’s cop buddy Daol over in El Puerto, our hero limps to freedom, where he spends several days in the hospital.

Oh yeah – another recurring motif in Crawford’s work is that someone, somewhere in the narrative, is going to shit himself. It’s happened in each Crawford I’ve read, usually more than once. And the protagonist isn’t excluded from the rule; Belcher we’re informed shits and pisses himself here, and pukes as well. There are other characters who shit their pants during the course of The Chinese Connection, to the point where you wonder about Crawford’s obsession; as Zwolf so aptly stated in the above-linked review, it’s almost like “scat-porn.”

As mentioned Crawford and Mark Roberts apparently knew one another, and I wonder if they were fellow aviation freaks; anyone who has read Roberts’s The Penetrator installments knows how some of them make unexpected detours into what is basically aviation porn, with longwinded descriptions of the private planes hero Mark Hardin is piloting. Belcher hooks up with a friend of his – a writer who struck it big and lives in Arizona – and borrows his private plane (the guy is much too successful and famous for it to be a fictional analog of Mark Roberts, though). But yeah, our grizzled, old-fashioned veteran cop can also, uh, fly his own planes, and thus he takes himself into Mochis, Mexico.

Here Belcher digs up the corpse of Pacheo, his informat, and finds that it’s been “eviscerated.” Heroin was stashed in the empty cavities, which is now gone. Belcher is jumped in the cemetery and gets in another quick but brutal fight, killing one dude with a shovel blade to the face and another with his two-shot derringer. Belcher next picks up a local floozie named Chinita – small but big-boobed, of course – and Crawford doesn’t even provide us the details, just throws her into the book and tells us that Belcher’s screwed her off-page and is happy his equipment still works. For that matter, Crawford shows a curious reluctance to use the word “fuck;” twice in the narrative he writes it just as “f – ” as if self-bowdlerizing, but in the final pages he actually writes the word. It’s strange and off-putting…it’s like Crawford is fine with writing about “chinks” and “silicone tits” and threats of burning off “snatches,” not to mention guys “coming a quart” in their excitement, but “fuck” is where he draws the line!

More aerial fiction ensues as Belcher gets in a plane chase, realizing he’s come upon all the heroin and has been set up for a contrived bust. He’s chased after by none other than Umberto Garcia, who, for no other reason than “why the hell not?” also has Gloria Pacheo and Rick Rawlson in the plane with him. Belcher manages to make them crash, circles back and lands, and finds everyone dead but Umberto, who is dying. To continue with the savage theme of the book – not to mention the general misogyny of Crawford’s oeuvre – we’re informed that Gloria’s breasts have been lopped off in the crash, given how she was killed by the crushing force of the crashing plane due to an improperly secured seatbelt.

From the dying Umberto – Belcher gives him a pistol to off himself – our hero learns of the mysterious Chinaman, Ky Sao, who is operating out of Mazatlan. Crawford finally cuts out the fat – the stuff in Mochis was weighed down with inordinate material about Belcher hanging out with a group of hard-drinking pilots and also dodging a contrived setup in which heroin was stashed in his plane – and delivers a taut finale, as Belcher, armed with a carbine and explosives, scopes out Ky Sao’s gated villa and determines that his best bet is to corner him on his boat while he’s meeting his various underworld contacts. A brief shootout ensues in which Belcher captures “the Chink.”

The finale takes place in that gated villa, with Belcher shooting down Ky Sao’s guard dogs and some more of those Mongols. Crawford develops a last-minute reversal in which Belcher’s pal Daol turns out to be working with Ky Sao – or is he? This leads to the ‘70s-mandatory downbeat ending in which Belcher, who has gotten his vengeance and stopped the heroin pipeline at the cost of his freedom (he’s now on the FBI wanted list for all the murders he’s committed), gets in his plane and heads out of Mexico, not caring what happens to him.

So overall The Chinese Connection is pretty good, especially when it’s getting down and dirty and skipping the lectures and arbitrary backstories. When Crawford reins himself in he’s capable of delivering violent pulp fiction that hits all the ‘70s bases, and I enjoyed this one enough that it’s made me figure I should probably get back to his Stryker books.

*I was also under the impression that another Crawford paperback, The Assassin, credited to Paul Ross and published by Manor Books in 1974, was also a Lyle Kenyon Engel joint, but it isn’t; it’s just copyright Manor. But from Hawk’s Authors Pseudonyms we know it was by Crawford.


James Reasoner said...

I had a copy of this book in my hand less than two hours ago but didn't buy it. Maybe I should have. If it's still there the next time I go to the bookstore, I'll get it.

Steve Carroll said...

I can't tell you the number of times I flipped through this book trying to determine if it had a martial arts element to it based on the title. I was obsessed in the 70s with all thing martial arts-related in paperback form. I never pulled the trigger on this one. I always thought the cop on the cover looked like Robert Ryan, too.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. James, I hope it's still there -- was it at a Half Price Bookstore? Let me guess, did they have a sticker price on it, maybe $2.99 or so? A sad trend developing at that chain of stores over the past few years is putting a sticker price on ANY book from before the 1980s, no matter how poor of shape it's in. I remember 20 years ago when I moved to Dallas and discovered Half could get old paperbacks sometimes at more than half off...I know I got many nice ones for 25 cents each. Anyway, sorry to turn your comment into a rant.

And Steve, that's funny you kept checking the book -- I can confirm for you though that there is absolutely zero martial arts in this novel!

James Reasoner said...

Yeah, it was at Half Price, either $2.00 or $3.00, I don't remember which. It's been there for a while. I'll be back there next week.