Monday, February 27, 2017

Christmas Slaughter (aka Mutants Amok #5)


Mutants Amok, by Mark Grant
December, 1991  Avon Books

The Mutants Amok series comes to a close with this final volume, the sole installment written by Bruce King (to whom the book is also copyright). Curiously “Mutants Amok” isn’t mentioned anywhere on or in the book, other than an ad for the previous four volumes. It makes one wonder if Avon intended to drop the volume numbering and just continue with standalone titles, or if by this point the writing was already on the wall, the series was cancelled, and they were just publishing this final book to be done with it. Given the scarcity of Christmas Slaughter, I think that might be the case – I’m figuring this fifth volume had a lower print run than the prior four.

King follows a different tack than David Bischoff did in volumes 1-4. Whereas Bischoff created an almost Loony Tunes-esque world of lowbrow, cartoonish humor followed by slapstick gore, King delivers a mostly straight piece of men’s adventure, complete with genre-mandatory gun-porn. There’s more firearms detail in Christmas Slaughter than the previous four books combined. Not that King overlooks the comedic angle; as with the Bischoff installments, there’s a fair bit “crazy mutant world” afoot in this one, but it’s undermined by the way King writes it.

Whereas Bischoff for the most part showed us the mutant insanity, King instead tells us about it, usually shoehorning exposition into the narrative or having characters baldly exposit on various things, even if they happen to be in the midst of a firefight. In this way the book reminds me of the recent misfire Go, Mutants! (coincidentally another book with “mutant” in the title; what are the odds??), which also tried but failed to be funny thanks to the same mistake. Like Go, Mutants!, Christmas Slaughter will have some punchline about mutant whackiness, and then King will spend a few paragraphs on backstory and/or exposition to explain the joke.

The characters are also a bit different. Rebel leader Max Turkel is no longer the clod of the first four books but is now a post-holocaust badass. In fact we learn here that his nickname among humans is “Mad Max.” Teen hero Jack Bender has lost much of his na├»ve nature, coming off like Max Turkel Junior. Only egghead Phil Potts stays mostly the same, and King appears to favor him the most of all the characters. However it’s via Potts that King delivers his most eggregious exposition, with Phil going on about arcane lore no matter the situation they’re in.

And speaking of which – just like I just did, King arbitrarily refers to his characters by first and last name in the narrative, which as far as I’m concerned is a no-no for professional authors (but just fine for unpaid bloggers who have gotten about two hours of sleep last night thanks to a crying newborn). But seriously, it’ll be “Turkel” one sentence and “Max” the next, and King does it for all the characters from beginning to end, resulting in a few bumps along the reading road.

Many of the subplots Bischoff built up are not only jettisoned but not even mentioned. For example, the alpha female rebel leader Max Turkel had developed a relationship with in the past few books doesn’t appear here and isn’t referenced once. And speaking of another Turkel subplot, the deal with BrainGeneral Harten monitoring Turkel via the robotic spleen (a sicko Loony Tunes-esque bit if ever there was one in this series) is dropped within the first few pages; sluglike Emperor Charlegmane announces that he knows Harten is a traitor and has the BrainGeneral “returned to his vat.” Speaking of Charlegmane, for the first hundred or so pages King will jump over to him and his cronies, and it’s here that we get most of the attempts at “comedy.” But luckily after this King focuses solely on our human heroes.

As the novel opens Max, Jack, and Phil are scouting the sewers beneath New San Francisco, investigating the latest mutant plot, which apparently will see a “final solution to the subhuman problem,” ie an eradication of human beings entirely. Here we get lots of details on the various guns our heroes are equipped with. They get in a gory firefight with “faders,” aka mutant zombies, and King proves that one thing he’s retained from the Bischoff books is the hardcore violence and gore. 

And also like Bischoff we have weird strains of mutantkind who are intended as goofy spoofs of humans; in the Haight-Ashbury district our heroes encounter “counter-culture muties,” including a bunch of “mutant Krishna monks,” who go around chanting for peace – Turkel et al slaughter them. Indeed, the “slaughter” in the novel’s title actually refers to the slaughtering the heroes perpetrate. One begins to feel bad for the mutants, who we learn are crazy about Christmas; thus it’s a bit of a downer in the many scenes where Turkel and the others will jump up out of sewers and mow down hordes of unarmed, harmless mutants who are singing Christmas carols or shopping for presents.

The novel takes place during the few days leading up to Christmas, and our heroes gradually learn that Charlegmane’s “final solution” has to do with taking the essence from humans (asexual mutants needing the procreation abilities of humans to survive) so that the actual humans are no longer needed. Thus Planned Genocide, Inc. is opened (surely the author’s spoofing of Planned Parenthood??), with its towering pyramidal HQ located in New San Francisco. The place is guarded by NZ mutants, aka blonde Nazis in black uniforms.

King adds a new character to the series who would’ve gone on to be a regular: Sue, a mega-babe redhead with a phenomenal bod which she shows off in a spandex leotard that follows the same color pattern as Supergirl’s costume (which geek Phil notices). She saves our heroes before the NZs can take them out, driving a hearse and firing an Uzi one-handed at pursuing NZ vehicles. They go back to her place, where Sue reveals that she’s actually “S.U. 912,” aka Seduction Unit 912, a cyborg (she prefers the term “replicant”) specifically created to bed Max Turkel – and then kill him.

But Sue was granted sentience and within seconds of being able to think for herself she realized the mutants were awful leaders. She wants to join the human revolution. She proves her devotion posthaste, killing hordes of NZ troops who attack her house, handing out Thompson submachine guns with heat-seeker bullets(!) to her new friends. Here King shows the lowbrow tastes of the Bischoff books, with a bonkers capoff where our heroes find a mutant corpse with a blown-off dick impaled through its forehead. (On a similar note we earlier have learned that Charlegmane only knows the word “schlong” for the male anatomy; this after a few pages of various penis euphimisms.)

In the second half Max and friends hook up with the Cleavers, a group of merciless human rebels who have taken their name from Eldridge Cleaver. They’re mostly black and are led by Hosannah Brown, a gorgeous lady who goes around with way-too-many guns strapped to her nubile form, which is properly displayed thanks to the black studded leather outfits she and the rest of the Cleavers wear. After initial hostilities the two rebel factions decide to work together. Meanwhile Hosannah takes an unexpected shine to Phil Potts, and also meanwhile Sue asks Max, “Don’t you think it’s about time we fucked?” And King delivers on another of Bischoff’s mainstays: a super-explicit sex scene that leaves nothing undescribed. (After which Sue announces her intention to go next door and screw Jack, to keep any jealousies from forming within their group!)

The titular slaughtering occurs on Christmas Eve, our “heroes” just blitzing unarmed mutants and watching as their bodies explode into gory ruin. But they’re all caught while trying to break into the Planned Genocide pyramid. Here Max is strapped to a table and a sexy human lady gives him a blowjob; then a machine comes in to “collect” his specimen right before the moment of truth. Sue meanwhile is about to be raped by a BrainGeneral who has no idea he is interrogating a cyborg; she rips his heart out with her bare hands.

The finale sees Max and Sue hooking up with a commando squad of the rebel army and launching an assault on the PG pyramid, flying helicopters and bringing along a tactical nuke. Max Turkel finally does some badass stuff, toting a flamethrower and crisping hordes of NZ soldiers. For the epilogue, King again shows that Phil Potts must’ve been his favorite character, having the nerdish bookworm in bed with Sue, who tells Phil that he’s her favorite of all the humans – a finale that has no setup anywhere in the novel and which comes off as a rather awkward way to end the book, not to mention the series.

And that was it for Mutants Amok. It would’ve been interesting to see where King might’ve taken the series; as I say, it certainly would’ve been in more of a men’s adventure-esque direction. But there’s no resolution to any of the main plotlines: Emperor Charlegmane is still alive and the humans are still the slaves of the mutants. This only gives more indication that the series was cancelled. Overall I enjoyed the five volumes of this series, but the dichotomy of lowbrow humor and gory ultraviolence proved unwieldy in the long run, as if the two authors couldn’t figure out the series they wanted to write. Perhaps this is why Mutants Amok never gained enough of a market to last beyond five volumes.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Spy Who Came To Bed


The Spy Who Came To Bed, by John Nemec
May, 1968  Triumph News Company

This grungy little paperback, while packaged as a spy thriller, is really just a “stroke book,” as Grandma used to call ‘em. (Just kidding.) Seriously though, The Spy Who Came To Bed is unrepentant ‘60s sleaze with some parts that are reminiscent of Ennis Willie’s Sand books, only with more of a sleaze overlay.

Like Sand, the protagonist, Rudy Heveson, is a private eye with a notorious reputation for being a bad-ass. Like Morocco Jones, Heveson was an Intelligence operative before quitting the Agency and starting his P.I. business. He operates out of North Lisa, California. Despite cashing in on the secret agent craze of the era, there is a definite hardboiled vibe to The Spy Who Came To Bed, as if it were from a decade earlier; while Heveson doesn’t actually do much bad-ass stuff (unlike Sand or Morocco Jones), he at least has some bad-ass dialog: “No shady moves. My hand’s cold and that’s why I’ve got it under my coat.”

Hired by the CEO of Alamo Aircraft, Heveson is given a regular assassination assignment: a mysterious KGB saboteur who goes by the name Alexander Shaw has been targeting Alamo, and the CEO wants him dead. Only problem is, no one knows who exactly Shaw is or what he looks like, despite which it is known he’s tops with a gun and other incidental details, as well as being a killer with the ladies.

Not that any one could match Rudy Heveson – the novel is mostly comprised of Heveson hopping into bed with one eager gal after another. As mentioned, a difference between this and other vintage sleaze books I’ve read is that Nemec really puts the focus on the sex to the detriment of the plot. But this is that unerotic sleaze of yore:

His answer was drowned under the onslaught of a throbbing need wich zigzagged into the body of Maxine and swiftly smashed her backward into the pillow and conquered her with its unmatchable strength. Because of her zeal, a contagious fever that could drive a man wild, he reached climax early. But she was right behind him, and they unlocked their arms and legs while the ebbtide swept into mastery in the motel cabin.

Or:

He felt himself reach the zenith and he knew that the damp, spasming wonderland of her valley had claimed its pulsating invader to the hilt. She bent away from him in a cruel arc. He moaned as she pushed her fists into his chest, and then he wrestled the nymphish woman down to defeat. He ground into her. She hopped and jumped as he ended the physical suspense with the eruption of a dazzling universe within her.

Heveson, tracking various digressive, go-nowhere leads, tries to hunt down Shaw, but mostly just screws a bunch of women. These range from Heveson’s sort-of girlfriend, Maxine, who herself is a CIA agent (who doubles as a topless waitress) to Jesse, a sexy Red Chinese agent who ultimately tries to kill Heveson later in the novel and who herself is killed (Heveson’s first kill, I believe), tossed into an alligator pit(!). There are dozens of others, from a switch-hitting babe who has naturally just been waiting for a real man like Rudy to come along, to a self-proclaimed “hippie” babe who spouts some New Age drivel before screwing Heveson.

It’s all just pretty dismal though, mostly due to how repetitive it is. Nemec shows some inventiveness with dialog, which ranges from hardboiled to free-spirited (particularly from the hippie chick), but the dullness of the sex scenes can’t be overlooked. The plot of chasing the mysterious Shaw is also underwhelming, with the Sand similarities again coming to the fore with Heveson more so chasing after a local Syndicate tough named Nick Talirosa, who had a working relationship with Shaw. While the Syndicate goons lack the spark of Willie’s characters, I would hazard a bet that Nemec might’ve been inspired by the Sand books.

Action is slim. Heveson resorts mostly to his fists, but at one point he arms himself with a “.48 caliber” automatic pistol – which he never even fires. This even during a battle with Hayseed Jones(!), a hitman Talirosa hires to take out Heveson. Characters by the way are abruptly introduced throughout, giving the novel a very rough, awkward feel – there’s barely any setup for anyone and Nemec will casually refer to not-yet-introduced characters as if we know them as well as Heveson does. At any rate a dude named Chester Devy emerges from the woodwork as one of the few recurring characters (most of which are one-off women); he’s a CIA agent who occasionaly assists Heveson.

The surprise reveal of who Shaw is comes just as abruptly in the final pages, Nemec clearly hitting his word count and figuring to hell with it. Here in the last pages Heveson actually shoots someone, and then ponders if he’ll marry Maxine after all…Nemec does his best to build a “will they/won’t they” dynamic between the two. Not so far as the sex goes, of course; rather, Heveson occasionally muses that he should give up the life and go ahead and settle down with the uber-busty babe who’s so crazy about him.

Anyway, The Spy Who Came To Bed is most recommended for those who like their vintage sleaze straight up. There’s really nothing else about it I could recommend – while many of these old sleaze novels are really great books with just hints of sleaze, this one doesn’t even beat around the bush (so to speak). It’s all screwing, all the time.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cody’s Army #2: Assault Into Libya


Codys Army #2: Assault Into Libya, by Jim Case
November, 1986  Warner Books

Stephen Mertz handles this second volume of Cody’s Army himself, and he has mentioned to me a few times that he considers this the best installment of the series. I certainly liked it better than the first volume, which was by Chet Cunningham working off an outline by Mertz (who created and edited the series). But I can see why Cody’s Army never took off as strongly as Mertz’s other series, MIA Hunter, did.

For one, John Cody himself. The dude’s pretty much a cipher, and two volumes in I still don’t have a clear picture of him. While MIA Hunter hero Mark Stone is driven to find Vietnam POWs, Cody is more of your standard, run-of-the-mill action hero, with no special quirks to bring him to life. About the most we get is that he wants to stop evil and help innocents, but that’s true for practically all men’s adventure heroes. He most brings to mind the Gold Eagle version of Mack Bolan, which is unsurprising given Mertz’s tenure at that imprint.

Like Mark Stone, Cody has a group that is more colorful than he is, in particular Hawkeye Hawkins and Richard Caine, who bicker a la Hog Wiley and Terrence Loughlin in the MIA Hunter books. Not sure if it was made clear last volume, but this time we learn that there’s a bit of a Hard Corps vibe to Cody’s Army; like the Hard Corps, these four ‘Nam vets so loved fightin’ and killin’ that they just couldn’t hack peacetime, and soon enough were pulling assignments for the CIA. Their Agency contact is a man named Peter Lund, who reports directly to the President; Mertz delivers several scenes of Lund in the Oval Office and I had some fun picturing Ronald Reagan fretting over the latest exploits of Cody and team.

Another similarity to those Gold Eagle novels is that Mertz will jump around a small group of characters, not keeping the narrative eye solely on Cody. In true Gold Eagle style we have many sequences featuring Abdul Kamal, the villain of the piece, a PLO terrorist who has masterminded a plot to take the American embassy in Rome hostage. A big problem with Assault Into Libya when reading it in the modern day is that Kamal, despite his evil nature, is almost Mr. Rogers when compared to the radical Muslim terrorists of today.

While the modern terrorist kills all and sundry with impunity, Kamal is more concerned with taking hostages and bartering for demands. Indeed he fears death and doesn’t display the drive to martydom that is so sickeningly common in today’s fucked-up world. That being said, Kamal does kill a little kid, which is as verbotten as you can get in these kinds of books – a shock piece Mertz skillfully employs and uses throughout to give John Cody a little bit of a drive (but nothing too much, as he often shuts off any emotional impulses and goes back to the focus of his military training).

Mertz opens with an action scene, as Cody’s Army, outfitted in black commando suits a la Bolan himself, launch an assault on the just-taken Rome embassy. Rather than send in the Marines, Cody’s Army has been given the job due to the delicate nature of it all and whatnot. In the melee Kamal makes his escape, having killed the ambassador and abducted his preteen daughter. This is the little girl who is later blown away, right in front of Cody, and Cody blames himself because he was unable to save her.

Now it’s a vengeance mission, as Cody’s team is ordered to kill Kamal and stop whatever plan he’s clearly formenting. The helicopter he escaped in was last tracked heading into Bulgaria. Our heroes head to Greece, with the idea to sneak across the border. This part features perhaps my favorite typo of all time: “Cody had allowed himself a catnip” on the flight. I could almost picture a wild-eyed Cody chasing around his own rear like some catnip-hopping cat. Anyway, the Greece sequence culminates in a mostly-arbitrary action scene, as a group of mountain brigands ambush our heroes and are quickly butchered for their menial efforts.

Kamal is backed by the KGB, and we have many sequences devoted to him and his Russian contact plotting more KGB-funded terrorism while bickering with each other. Again Kamal comes off like a harbinger from a kindler, gentler time, despite the fact that he is a psychotic murderer. His terrorist army truly would be considered a “JV team” in today’s world. Mertz further opens up the narrative with the appearance of a female Bulgarian spy: Narda Rykov, a member of her country’s anti-Commie National Freedom Organization. She turns out to be the local contact for Cody’s Army once they make it to Bulgaria, but Mertz doesn’t play up any sexual shenanigans, despite the occasional mention of Narda’s hot-stuffness.

A running action sequence in Bulgaria calls to mind an action movie of the day as Cody’s men and Narda are chased by the Bulgarian army, and our heroes commandeer an armored truck and run roughshod over the countryside in their escape. Mertz shows a very Pendleton-esque flair for action scenes, keeping everything moving and never getting bogged down in firearm detail. He also employs what I consider Pendletonisms, ie occasional one-liner proclamations of Cody’s bad-assery or stoic resolve, etc.

Cody’s Army is a few steps behind throughout the Bulgarian sequence, trying to find Kamal on hardly any solid leads and usually tracking down those Kamal has dealt with when it’s already too late. Meanwhile Kamal himself heads to Libya where he is to open up like a new line of new, improved terrorist training camps or somesuch. While still in Bulgaria, Cody’s Army engages in one of the action highlights of the novel, staging a “soft probe” of a KGB barracks which was really housing Kamal’s Arabic army – a soft probe that quickly goes hard. In the melee Hawkeye is injured and thus doesn’t take part in the final setpiece.

Everything climaxes in Libya, Cody and team finally tracking Kamal there. They chase the “two hairbags” there (ie Kamal and Vronski’s his KGB backer), and we get a brief, sort of arbitrary part where Cody and Caine pose as terrorists who have come down here to join up with this newfangled training camp. I say abritrary because the two are exposed within a page or two. Meanwhile Rafe, the fourth member of Cody’s Army, is flying high above in an F-82 and decides to launch an aerial assault on the camp even though he hasn’t received the proper signal from Cody.

While Cody has spent the novel vowing to kill Kamal for the murder of the little girl, it’s Caine who curiously enough gets the honor of dispatching the terrorist bastard. I found this strange, like the Indian dude popping up in the final seconds to kill the Predator instead of Arnold. But I guess the important thing is that the radical Islamic terrorist is dead. Otherwise, Assault Into Libya was pretty good, and would certainly appeal to fans of the Gold Eagle novels of the era. It’s a fine piece of men’s adventure fiction, but I’m still not warming up to the series as with MIA Hunter. This is no criticism of Mertz, though, who handles the book with craft and skill – I look forward to reading the other volumes of the series he wrote.

On a closing note, I’ve been on paternity leave for the past three weeks (the baby was born on 1/26), so the blog has been running on autopilot; luckily I had several reviews scheduled to post ahead of time. I just checked out my stats and was surprised to see that I’m now at almost 1.1 million page views; over the past few months I’ve noticed the daily page views have jumped significantly. I have no idea where the traffic is coming from (the Traffic Sources is almost humorously unhelpful), but I just want to say thanks to everyone for visiting the blog.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Night Jump – Cuba


Night Jump – Cuba, by Poke Runyon
June, 1965  Pyramid Books

I’m very happy that I discovered Poke Runyon, an unfortunately-obscure author who should have gone on to fame as a writer of Hemingway-esque action novels. The other year I was in a used bookstore and came across Commando X, a 1967 Pyramid paperback graced with an awesome cover of a bikini’d babe in scuba gear coming out of the ocean. The author was Poke Runyon, and the novel was billed as a “Pyramid Espionage Thriller.” I of course bought it, and after a bit of research I found that Runyon had earlier published a separate, standalone novel through Pyramid: this one, Night Drop – Cuba, so I decided to read it first.

Billed as “a novel of action and intrigue,” “tense and tough up to the climax,” Night Jump – Cuba melds men’s adventure magazine-esque brawny action with the espionage vibe of a techno-thriller. In fact the book likely was excerpted in a men’s mag of the day. It concerns a small Special Forces unit that works for the CIA and which must find a missing “atomic drive” that was shot down over Cuba. But Runyon instills the novel with so much more – great heroes, great villains, and a clear grounding in the facts.

According to the brief bio in the opening of the book, Runyon himself was a Special Forces vet, aged 28, but it’s stipulated that he himself has had no involvement with the CIA. Sure!! According to a mini-bio of Runyon by Susan Wolfson on Goodreads, Runyon had “trained in the art of writing” and thus was perfectly suited to turn out this piece of Cold War action fiction. He also obviously performed work for the CIA as part of the Special Forces, particularly in Cuba. In other words, here is an author who has clearly been there, done that, and has the writing acumen to deliver a great piece of fiction about it.

And Runyon is a hellishly gifted author. He brings characters to life in just a few sentences and invests the book with unexpected flourishes of literary stuff. But this never gets in the way of the action – the violence is gory and the female characters are properly exploited, as is demanded by the pulp genre. I also wonder if book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel didn’t have this novel in mind when he later devised the Aquanauts series; there are many paralells, not the least of which is that the hero of Night Jump – Cuba is also codenamed “Tiger.”

This Tiger is Ed Malone, a “giant” of a man with balding hair, thick beard, and a cigar stub permanantly lodged in the corner of his mouth. At 38 he’s a Special Forces vet who served as a Ranger in Korea, where it’s tantalizingly mentioned that he was “victim of brainwashing” tactics courtesy the Reds when they briefly captured him. Now he’s the field leader of Queen Bee, a Special Forces unit that does black ops jobs for the CIA, based out of the Bahamas. Their area of operations is Cuba. Their main enemy is known as “The Fat Man,” the chief KGB operative in the area. In reality his name is Walter Oliver and he is an obese Englishman who raises venomous ants. He’s been nicknamed “Puppies” since childhood for drowning a litter of puppies, the memory of which still causes him much joy. In other words, one sick bastard.

Runyon develops a romantic subplot courtesy Duke and Toni Carlisle; Duke is the young radio operator on Malone’s four-man team (the other member is 40 year-old Cuban native Rico Santana; then there’s a barely-featured one named Badrena, who is a “dumb” Cuban), and Toni is Duke’s “fanatic liberal” hotstuff wife, who makes her living as a journalist. In torid backstory we learn that Malone and Toni had a brief fling before Toni and Duke were married – though they hate each other for their separate beliefs (Malone being firmly right-wing, as we’re informed most of the CIA was at that time), they have an “animal lust” for one another.

We get our first action scene within the first few chapters. Outfitted in an “Emerson 0-21 rebreather,” a directional finder, and other high-tech military gear, Malone and Duke swim deep beneath the coast of Cuba. They’re attacked by “hogs,” underwater sleds operated by enemy frogmen. Runyon well captures the dangers of deep diving – the rebreathers, despite being high-grade, are nearly poisonous at this depth – as Malone tries to evade his hunters. He goes on the offense, armed with nothing more than a knife, and we see first-hand why “Tiger” Malone is a legend in the Special Forces.

However Duke doesn’t make it. This tears Malone up – he goes on a bender with Santana, who has been mostly drunk since his brother was killed in the Bay of Pigs fiasco – and he puts off telling Toni. What Malone doesn’t know, but the reader soon learns, is that Toni not only has been planning to divorce Duke, but she has a bombshell up her sleeve – her son Jimmy is really Malone’s. She’s never stopped loving him and only fled to Duke when Malone spurned her three years ago, not willing to get in a relationship due to the fact that he’s a kick-ass living legend warrior and all. 

We get a Bond-esque sequence in which Puppies Valentine abducts Toni, brainwashes her with “hypno-drugs,” and uses her as bait to snare Malone, all so to grill him over mysterious radio broadcasts from the Escambray area of Cuba which call out “Tiger.” These dispatches are from Cuban revolutionaries who have found the atomic drive. Malone’s comrade Santana and a few other soldiers show up to save the day. More display of Malone’s bad-assery ensues when he kills one dude with a palm to the nose. One of Valentine’s men shows up in “infra-red goggles,” which I thought was cool.

Toni loses a finger courtesy Valentine, who tortures her to get Malone to talk; this serves to make the recently-widowed hottie super-eager for some more Malone loving, and Runyon provides a couple sexual scenes here that tread the line between explicitness and literary stuff. Oh, and Malone realizes he’s fallen in love and will need to quit the life to raise “little Jimmy,” aka the son he never even knew was his. Then Duke Carlisle, still alive after all, walks in and catches his wife and his best friend in mid-boink. Awkward!!

Unfortunately, Night Jump – Cuba loses its way when our team of four parachute into Cuba to destroy the atomic drive with thermite grenades. The buildup to this is cool, with a debriefing by a NASA scientist and Carlisle grim and likely suicidal after suffering this double betrayal – actually triple, given that he’s found out the kid isn’t even his! – but still on the mission due to his top radio skills. But while the first 75% of the novel is cool, rugged action-adventure spy intrigue with a men’s adventure feel, the last quarter stalls out in an overlong piece of military fiction.

Teaming up with the revolutionaries, our Malone endures several setbacks – the drive is radioactive and the loyal rebels who found it, including a young husband and wife with a child on the way, have discovered that they will be dead in a few days of radiation poisoning. This causes Santa to destroy all the thermite grenades in rage; now the two superpowers will be forced to fight over the drive, rather than letting it all play out via black ops. Then Carlisle tries to kill Malone, fails, then tries to kill himself, then realizes he’s an ass and joins up with the doomed radiation-dosed soldiers.

All the stuff with Valentine and the high-tech gear Malone uses is forgotten as we are given a running action sequence in which the four Queen Bee members, acting with different rebel groups, go up against Cuban soldiers, Russian soldiers, and artillery. There’s another men’s mag-esque moment where the Cubans unleash a regular “nymph squad,” but the female soldiers run from the firefight and are used more so as cannon-fodder. Along the way Malone almost bites it thanks to a few machine gun bullets in the leg, but is saved once again by Santana. 

Runyon sadly drops so much potential. Most importantly we aren’t given a fitting resolution between Valentine and Malone; while our hero is out gunning down anonymous Cuban and Russian soldiers, Valentine, seeing the cause is lost, makes his escape – and is hacked to pieces by rioting locals. Runyon has the novel ending with Castro’s end a surety, given that Santana has provoked an outright American-Russian war on Cuban soil, and now American soldiers are even parachuting in. The Russians are already beating a retreat. Even the romantic subplot with Malone and Toni is sadly unexplored, with Malone at the end certain he’ll quit to be with his family, and Toni basically saying, “No, thanks – just stay being a commando, ‘cause it’s what you like.”

Overall I really enjoyed Night Jump – Cuba, with the caveat that the first part was much more enjoyable than the last. It all just sort of lost its charm for me when the action moved to Cuba. As mentioned, Runyon turned out Commando X two years later, and that’s it. He also published some short stories and novellas in Argosy magazine (which I’d love to read), but gradually his writing interests turned to magick. Runyon you see is a Crowleyite magician, and his writing has focused on this for the past several years. Personally I’d love to see him turn out a novel about a magick-practicing special forces outfit…now that would be cool!!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Roadblaster #2: Death Ride


Roadblaster #2: Death Ride, by Paul Hofrichter
No month stated, 1988  Leisure Books

The Roadblaster series continues with a second volume that picks up a few hours after the soul-wearying first installment. At least this time Paul Hofrichter has realized that his series occurs in a post-nuke world, so there’s a bit more shock and horror among the characters, who last volume spent the duration drinking beer and talking about the price of gasoline, despite the fact that friggin’ World War III had just gone down. That being said, Hofrichter dwells a little too much on the nightmares of nuclear holocaust, with material that seems to be shoehorned in from some nonfiction study on the subject.

Loser hero Nick Stack once again graces us with his presence; this time he’s been given more of a melancholy nature, often reflecting on “the bitch that is war” and whatnot. In fact Stack’s musings take up a lot of the book’s too-long length. Once again he’s sort of fired up to go find his wife and kids in New York, but once again Hofrichter prevents this by having Stack get involved in something completely unrelated. As we’ll recall, the first novel ended with a big battle to prevent some bikers from taking over a downed nuclear bomber; now Stack intends to hitch a ride on the bomber – as repayment for saving its crew! – to New York.

The crew is all for it, but first they need orders, plus a mechanic. So will Stack head into nearby San Francisco and see if the local commander there will issue both those things? Sure thing, but first Stack has to check on preteen Rayisa, who was sexually abused in grimy detail last volume (FYI, there’s no sex at all in this volume). Still traumatized – after all, it was just a handful of hours ago that Stack shot a cock out of the girl’s mouth – Rayisa freaks out when Stack says he’s gonna go back to New York. She wants to go with him, and Stack says sure – and then Hofrichter removes her from the book, having her stay back in the small town of Montieth while Stack heads for SanFran. 

Stack’s back in his camper, and along for the ride come that division of “nice” Harley-Davidson bikers who showed up in the final pages of Hell Ride to help out against the bad bikers. Hofrichter as ever writes dialog that’s humorously exposition-laden, and the initial dialog with these guys made me chuckle:

“If you’re going to San Francisco, our Harley-Davidson club can join you and help find the military people in command. We planned to go down there anyway to search for the relatives of one of our members who live in Sausalito, across from San Francisco. I already explained to you last night that we’re part of a Harley-Davidson user club which travels the country attending various events. The war caught us in the mountains, and now we have to find out the whereabouts of our loved ones. Since we’re a team, each of us is going to travel to the homes of the other members to help him find his relatives.”

This must be how people talk “less than 48 hours” after WWIII. Stack for his part has been retconned into a surly ass; whereas the previous book gave the impression of a potbellied simp, this one has Stack as a grim warrior prone to melancholy introspections about the evils of hummanity. I did though appreciate his frequent diatribes against moronic left-wing thinking:

They came to a large, intact wall covered with graffiti from another time and place. In blazing red letters now almost burned off were two words: TOTAL ANARKEE. A twisted spelling of the word anarchy, which said a lot about the present world. And next to that, RONALD RAY GUN, a pithy comment about a past President whose politics the left had not liked. It made Stack wonder, if America had been stronger, whether [World War III] would have happened. No, he told himself, and silently cursed what the left had done to the country in their endless orgy of emasculation.

Ironically, it’s that “endless orgy of emasculation” which eventually brought the men’s adventure genre itself to an end; Len Levinson oncce told me that his left-wing female agent in the late ‘90s flat-out told him that publishers no longer wanted to focus on “fiction for men,” and hence he lost all of his writing contracts. Could it just be coincidence that the generation that was raised without any men’s adventure fiction was the generation that came to be so accurately known as Generation Snowflake? 

Stack’s grimness expands to the Almighty, as witnessed in another humorous diatribe, accompanied by an even-more-humorous response:

“I’m not that way. I say to God, you fuck me and it’s all over, I’m not your dart board. You want me to show love and respect, treat me in a way that will merit it. Love has to be earned, even by a God. You may find my attitude brazen and hard, but I think even so small an object as a human being, while showing respect for God and asking for his mercy, has to draw the line somewhere. This far and no further, even for the Master of the Universe. One should be as good a son to God as he is a father to us. It’s a two-way street.” 

“I’ll have to think that over,” Dellatore said.

Eventually Stack et al get to bombed SanFran, encountering horrors along the way, including an army of rats. Upon arrival they save a gangly, balding guy from two Arabs who are trying to kill him. The gangly guy is Bushnell, a “leftist liberal” who lives with a conclave of hippie-types. He reveals that, since the war, the Arabs have been chasing down gays, hippies, and Russians, claiming that they’ve been spreading AIDs. Stack mulls it over and finds the colonel in charge of the area. He makes his request for mechanics for the bomber, but instead the colonel deputizes Stack and demands that he go back and defend Bushnell’s people against the Arabs!

“There’s a time to make love and a time to kick ass,” Stack tough-talks Bushnell’s hippie comrades, and let’s remember that Stack was the guy who said “no thanks” to saving a bunch of people in the previous volume. He then ventures over to the gay area, led by Francis Pelf, and feels uncomfortable as he’s checked out by a transvestite Burlesque dancer named Gravy Train. Hofrichter doesn’t go too wild on the gay stuff, and indeed has a few “tough gays” who served in ‘Nam and are happy to join the war party Stack’s putting together. We also get a visit to the Russian area, for more drafting.

But despite the retconning, Nick Stack is still a chump. Here’s the funny thing…about a hundred pages in Stack and an ally do a “soft probe” of the Arab area. Turns out it’s just a few Arabs who lead the group; it’s also composed of native Americans who were caught up in the AIDs paranoia (the novel was clearly written in the late ‘80s). Stack briefly captures a sentry and issues a warning; he tells the guy to let his Arab leaders know that Stack’s in town and there’s going to be new rules. Stack then leaves…and the Arabs immediately launch an attack on the gay and hippie sections, massacring countless people – while meanwhile Stack himself is obliviously hanging out with an old National Guard commander!!

Hofricther shines in unexpected moments, like a strange-but-charming New Agey bit where a one-off character is killed in the massacre and leaves his body and connects with departed friends in the afterlife! But Hofrichter’s terrible with the POV-hopping, changing perspectives between paragraphs with no warning; this gets to be painful in the chaotic action scenes. Finally Stack – working with Bill Batthurst, aforementioned National Guard pal – launches a counterattack.

As with the previous book, Hofrichter delivers a runing action sequence that comes off more like war fiction than men’s adventure; Stack leads various fire teams on attacks on the Arab’s compound, dwelling more so on the agonies and horrors of war rather than on the exploitative gore. And there isn’t a single part where Stack shoots someone’s dick off!! Lots of one-off characters are introduced, given inordinate backgrounds, and then promptly killed off, a page-filling gambit that occurs throughout the book. Even more sadly, when the main villains meet their long-awaited ends, Hofrichter delivers them anticlimactic deaths.

The novel ends with Stack promising to help find Batthurst’s family; the National Guard commander has suffered an injury in the battle and now will be unable to continue his search for them. Uh, Stack, didn’t you start off the novel bound and determined to find your own family? And what about poor little Rayisa?

Well, there was only one more volume to go, so we’ll see. Oh, and word of warning – two entire volumes now and Stack hasn’t blasted a single damn road. What the hell??

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Amazon (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #43)


The Amazon, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Not having much in common with the average installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster, The Amazon is more of a jungle adventure. Jon Messmann served as the author, and the book couldn’t be more dissimilar to his awesome The Sea Trap; whereas that one is one of the best men’s adventure novels I’ve ever read, The Amazon is, well, boring.

One questions if Messmann just recycled an old pulp manuscript, as even AXE boss David Hawk wonders if he should get a “less sophisticated, less urbane” agent than Nick Carter for this latest assignment, which really just entails venturing into the Amazon jungle and locating an “electronic brain.” Hawk explains that this thing will “revolutionize missile-to-missile defense” in the customary Hawk-Nick briefing that opens the novel. And speaking of which, in the opening pages Messmann proves why the series was so much better in third-person; most of this sequence is written from Hawk’s perspective, which I thought was an interesting touch.

But when Nick heads down to the “Brazilian territory of Ampasa” in the “north flank of the Amazon jungle,” the promise of the opening pages disappears, at least for me. Nick’s got a safari jacket courtesy Special Effects as well as some fancy bug zappers and a retrieval wench that he can attach the brain to once found, for a plane to receive and pull away, much like the finale of Thunderball. The brain was being transported by plane, and when the plane crashed due to an emergency the pilot broadcasted a mayday. The Russians and the Chinese intercepted, and their agents are already here, as is a sadistic expat named Kolben.

Hawk has set Nick up with a local guide; Nick initially fends this off, saying that he doesn’t feel like dealing with “Pidgin English.” To his surprise (but not the reader’s), the guide turns out to be young woman named Tarita, super-sexy daughter of a local chief. Tarita was raised in Switzerland(!), and hence is now a “woman of two worlds.” She’s got the flowing “jet black” hair and awesome beauty expected of pulp, but her boobs must be the feature attraction, as Messmann refers to them at least twice per page. Really! “Full, peaked breasts,” “studies in grace,” etc; these things must be real beauties. Nick’s gawking at them constantly.

He really gets to gander at them when Tarita, who claims that she becomes more native the longer she’s in the jungle, doffs her top and goes around – in the jungle! – wearing nothing more than a sarong bottom, letting “the girls” hang loose. Actually they don’t so much hang as they sway, heave, and just in general provoke utter lust in Nick. I shouldn’t joke, though – Messmann well understands the genre he’s writing for. The girl’s breastesses should constantly be mentioned, as far as I’m concerned. That’s just part of the genre’s brutish charm.

An early problem arises with The Amazon as Messmann delivers a false premise: namely, that the Killmaster does not kill. As mentioned, Nick sees that the Russian and Chinese teams are already here, ready to go into the jungle. He’s confident that they will get bogged down with so many people to look after, whereas Nick and his sole guide will move quick. Then there’s shady Kolben, who also clearly plots to find the brain for his own motives. And yet when Kolben tries to kill Tarita the night before they depart – leaving a scorpion in her hut – Nick runs over to the guy’s house…and beats up a few of his men. Why “the Killmaster” doesn’t kill this man who is clearly a threat to him – not to mention the fate of the free world – is a plot error Messmann hopes we’ll ignore.

Most of the narrative is comprised of Nick and Tarita trading lustful looks while dealing with the harsh brutality of the jungle. Messmann piles on the expected “jungle horrrors” material, including an anaconda attack. This brings us to Atutu, a “little Indian” about to become anaconda bait before heroic Nick saves his ass. Now Atutu, who speaks “Pidgin English,” is a loyal member of the party, helping Nick and Tarita gather food and etc during the journey in-country. It’s around this point that Tarita explains “I feel wrong with more on” as she doffs her top and “lets them tit-tays go” (to quote the Impractical Jokers), and Nick can’t gawk at ‘em enough. (Atutu for his part seems to studiously ignore the “twin peaks” which are “studies in grace.”)

Messmann also delivers the “man’s conquest” theme that was central to ‘60s and ‘70s pulp. Tarita you see has developed “stubborn perversness” from her time in the West; whereas the average native gal would be subservient to Nick, Tarita constantly questions him and at times outright defies or challenges him. She has become “haughtily western” and mocks Nick’s “masculine ego.” To which he responds, “My masculine ego isn’t hurt, honey. But your little ass sure as hell will be if you don’t cut this out.” When she continues to defy him, Nick takes a measure unheard of in today’s era – he knocks her “little ass” right out!

Now, if you think this abuse would make Tarita hate Nick, you don’t know men’s adventure novels. Rather, her eyes showing the “banked fire” of desire, Tarita shortly thereafter leads Nick into a waterfall – and he finds her there waiting for him fully nude. Messmann again proves that he writes the most explicit sex scenes in the series, with a few pages devoted to this initial Nick-Tarita coupling. Not much is left to the imagination and Messmann here delivers more graphic stuff than you’d encounter in some men’s adventure books from a decade later. Tarita is Nick’s only conquest in the book, and Messmann, per tradition, has the Killmaster developing feelings for the girl amid all the jungle humpin’.

But sadly the Nick-Tarita stuff is about all I found interesting in The Amazon. The rest is stuff that could’ve come out of any piece of jungle pulp, with lots of detail about the flora and fauna and occasional attacks via tapirs and jaguars and “spider wasps.” These latter attack the Russians en masse as Nick watches – he saves them with those Special Effects gadgets – and Nick reflects on how it will likely be an attack from something else which will finally cause mankind to band together. This brought to mind Messmann’s later “sea creatures attack” horror novel The Deadly Deep, which saw this very event occur.

The action is more so Nick et al getting into and out of scrapes, with little of the gun fighting or martial arts combat you’d expect from the series. Kolben ends up taking out most of the “enemies;” getting the Chinese team killed by posing as them with his men in rubber masks that look like Chinese faces (which Kolben, who has lived in the jungle for decades, just somehow has) – thus prompting the local headhunters to kill the real Chinese in retaliation. And Nick strikes up a sort of working relationship with the Russians, saving them at one point and getting saved by them at another. Only the finale sees any action, with Nick in a fistfight with one of Kolben’s men and then a knife fight with Kolben himself. Hmm, the Killmaster versus an old fat guy. Suspenseful! 

Messmann ends the tale on a joke, same as he did in The Sea Trap, one again courtesy Hawk – Nick, back in New York, is invited by Hawk to a special screening of a new film. Nick takes along Tarita, who is now “Therese,” given that she has returned to the version of herself that is part of the western world. The movie turns out to be a documentary about the Amazon jungle. Nick and Therese laugh it up and then head back to Nick’s place for more sex. Even here Messmann delays, giving the impression that he was struggling to meet his word count, with a lame “will they/won’t they?” mystery, given that Therese acts all sophisticated and whatnot in her other incarnation and might not be as prone to illicit humping like “Tarita” was. No worries, though, as the Killmaster always gets his girl.

This one certainly wasn’t a favorite, but Messmann’s a good writer and he delivers enough fun and entertaining material that the somewhat-boring plot itself isn’t as frustrating as it could be.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Butcher #4: Blood Debt


The Butcher #4: Blood Debt, by Stuart Jason
October, 1972  Pinnacle Books

James Dockery must’ve already been getting bored with The Butcher this early in the game, as for the most part Blood Debt is a snoozer, only featuring a bit of the lurid craziness expected of the series. A large portion of the narrative is egregious detail about “life among the desert Arabs,” not to mention a hard-to-swallow subplot that has tough-guy Bucher falling in love(!).

At least it starts off with the template well in place; Bucher’s in Miami, chasing leads on his latest assignment. Someone going by the handle The King of Spades has been bombing businesses in the southern US with miniature torpedoes with atomic warheads. As with every other Butcher opening, we read as Bucher waltzes into town, well aware of the Syndicate creeps out to nail him for the bounty on his head. This opening is the highlight of the book, as Bucher hangs out in a Syndicate-owned dive where the sexy waitresses wear nothing but stockings and high heels.

One of these waitresses is a hotstuff brunette named Lela who happens to be a junior White Hat agent, on her first field assignment. Bucher helps her out and blows away a couple goons who come blasting for him. This leads to the inevitable second part of the series template: Bucher is arrested by the local cops and must be sprung by a local politician, with the local sheriff saying something to the effect of how illegal Bucher’s silencer is. The senator who springs Bucher is accompanied by his ultra-gorgeous blonde niece, none other than mega-famous TV personality Twiti Andovin, who is famous for her awesome bod and sexy on-screen dancing.

Bucher heads to St. Denis, France, on the lame possibility that a former Syndicate acqaintance named Capusini might be working with the King of Spades. Here Bucher is immediately confronted by another gal: Barbe, a French intelligence agent who is half Arabic and who is “ugly,” per Bucher. True to form, he won’t allow her to sleep with him, and Barbe is the first character to openly question Bucher’s strange aversion to sex…perhaps he prefers other men? This only elicits rage from Bucher, but I myself have wondered this.

The St. Denis sequence provides the one and only part in Blood Debt where Dockery gives us the weird stuff we expect of the series: the superdeformed freaks who make up the Syndicate in Dockery’s messed-up world. In one of the very few times he’s caught unawares (but not to worry, as he bullshits his way out), Bucher comes back to his hotel room to find two Syndicate gunmen waiting for him, one of them holding a gun to Barbe’s head, the other “furiously masturbating” on a nearby couch(!). Here Dockery delivers what we expect of him:

Larpy Kazar had fallen face-forward into a fire as a child, long before the present day profficiency of plastic surgery. When the burns at last healed he had no hair, one ear, part of a nose, a lipless pucker of flesh for a mouth and one eye that never closed. He depicted the tangible epitome of a Karlofian nightmare and this, plus personality increments of acid hate, caused most people, in his presence for the first time, to be reminded of an indestructable obscenity.

But these moments are few and far between in Blood Debt. Bucher hurriedly dispenses of both freaks, after making up a bunch of stuff about being sent here by “Mr. Big,” infamous, never-seen leader of the Syndicate. As an indication of how quickly and carelessly Dockery likely wrote the novel, Mr. Big is soon elaborated into a bigger character in the book, despite the fact that Bucher brought him up apropos of nothing. But gradually Dockery will confuse Capusini, the hood these two goons work for, the King of Spades, and Mr. Big.

Eventually though Dockery will forget about all of it and just write egregious, interminable stuff about Bucher hobknobbing with the desert natives near Rabat, Morocco. Like so many other Butcher novels, our hero soon heads to the Middle East, having learned Capusini is operating somewhere in Rabat. Dockery clearly spent some time in this part of the world or was just inordinately interested in it, as each book of his I’ve read features at least some sequence there, and of course we’re often reminded that Bucher is fluent in Arabic (as so many real-life Syndicate gunmen are, no doubt!!) from his time spent there.

As mentioned, Barbe, who goes along to Rabat with Bucher, is half-Arab, and her grandfather is a notorious sheikh. Well friends, I knew I was in for a bad time when the whole sequence opens with Bucher “proving” himself to the Arabs via some ancient tradition of brawn. It has nothing to do with anything and proceeds to spiral out of control. We get lots of stories of desert dwellers and customs and whatnot; the explanation for Bucher’s presence is so the sheikh can get all the locals at his command in Rabat to root out Capusini, but the reality of the situation is just that Dockery has some pages he needs to fill.

And to continue with the half-assed nature of the plotting…none other than Twitty Andovin shows up at the camp! You know, the friggin’ TV star!! Dockery explains it that she’s here in Morocco to scout out locations for a new TV special and to also hire some local dancers. She’s escorted by her sleazy producer. Here Blood Debt gets even worse, as Bucher finds himself falling in love with Twitty, based on nothing more than her looks, a conversation with her, and her super-sexy dancing skills, which she shows off in the buff for the sheikh and his people. I kid you not, several scenes in the book feature Bucher mulling in his tent, wondering why he’s feeling all these strange feelings for Twitty!! There were times I felt like I was reading Casino Royale again.

Dockery at least mixes in some sex, this time. For one a mysterious woman visits Bucher’s tent one night, and the sex is more so literary than hardcore, but we know Bucher had a grand old time. Of course it turns out to be Twitty. To overcome his growing feelings for her, Bucher does the unexpected – has sex with another woman a few pages later. This is sexy junior White Hat agent Lela, who has followed Bucher here to Rabat. We get even less explicit material this time, but Lela does inform Bucher, “I love the way you fornicate.” We also get a return to the Butcher stuff we’re more familiar with as Mr. Big’s top hitman shows up at this very moment, but Bucher is always ready to kill would-be assassins, even when he’s in bed with a girl.

It takes a long time, but we finally escape from the desert life narrative quagmire. Bucher, working with Lena (whose sexing didn’t succeed in making Bucher stop loving Twitty), finally locates Capusini…only for the friggin’ guy to already be dead!! We’re almost at the very end, and the reader’s time has been fully wasted at this point. But Dockery isn’t done. Bucher heads back to the US, where the King of Spades has struck again, even blowing up an orphanage, killing 47 kids. And meanwhile a fuming Bucher sits in his hotel room, reading the daily copies of Rabat’s newspaper which are brought to him by a local news vendor’s kid. Seriously!!

Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid a lame spoiler. Bucher, reading that day’s Rabat paper, can’t believe what he’s seen. It’s a photo of Lela’s corpse(!). Last we saw her she was about to fly off with a suddenly-sick Twitty Andovin, who’d come down with some mysterious disease. Well, Bucher puts it all together – and realizes Twitty is the friggin’ King of Spades!! No fooling, Dockery spins out this half-baked yarn within a few pages, that Twitty’s sleazy producer was married to a woman who was really an undercover agent for the Red Chinese(!) and who was aware of a pipeline of missile launchers beneath the ocean. Twitty got this info and was using the warheads to strike various businesses, but went “crazy with power” or somesuch, and the bombed orphanage was a mistake. I’m not making any of this up. A heartbroken Bucher confronts Twitty and leaves her a gun to kill herself with. She does so. The end!

As bad as it was, I still enjoyed Blood Debt more than Deadly Doctor.

Here’s the last paragraph:

He stood there motionless for a long time, still as the dead girl in the room behind him, the flat crack of the little pistol thundering in his ears. Then he turned and walked slowly down the hall, a weary slump in his big shoulders, an acid sting from the gall-bitter taste of defeat strong in his mouth.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Chinese Mask (Joaquin Hawks #2)


The Chinese Mask, by Bill S. Ballinger
June, 1965  Signet Books

The Joaquin Hawks spy series continues with a second installment that has our “interpid agent” heading deep into China in a sort of Mission: Impossible-esque plot. Whereas the previous volume was sort of a jungle adventure, The Chinese Mask is almost a heist or caper, with Hawks tasked with breaking three Western scientists out of a prison near Peking and getting them to safety.

In the previous book it was made clear that Hawks, a tall, rangy, rakishly-handsome CIA agent, rarely went into “the Orient” on assignment. Now we’re informed that he is getting more missions there – indeed, the entire Joaquin Hawks series takes place in Asian locations – and thus he has increased his already-robust knowledge of languages. Now he’s nearly fluent in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. I have a hard time relating to Hawks. It would appear that between assignments he’s like the movie Bond, virile and popular with the ladies, yet when on a mission he’s a chameleon who can blend into any surrounding and speak any language. You get the impression that between missions Hawks is more likely to be found in a book-lined study, surrounded by his legion of cats.

At any rate he’s called away from his latest good time by Berke, his CIA handler in Los Angeles. Berke’s all riled up about Sensor, a “psycho gas” that can turn people into veritable zombies. Three top nerve gas specialists were working on Sensor in West Germany when they abruptly disappeared behind the Iron Curtain; intel has it that they were recently transferred from Moscow to Peking, where they are kept in a fortress-like prison. Hawks is to spring them or kill them if necessary so that the secrets of the nerve gas cannot be used by the Reds.

Thus Hawks becomes a Swiss jewelry dealer, speaking only French and pretending to be older and in worse shape than he really is, and flies to China. As before Ballinger works in a lot of travelogue and topical detail about China, with characters often relating arcane info via expository dialog. In other words one can tell where Ballinger was certainly influenced by Ian Fleming. However one big difference I’ve noticed about these Paperback Bonds of the ‘60s is that none of them have the personality of the real thing; they are all for the most part ciphers, whereas James Bond lives on the page.

Rather than focus on character, the Paperback Bonds are more about the plot; for example Joaquin Hawks is presented to us as the hero, and he is given a mission, and we read as he pursues that mission at the cost of all else. There are no perodic asides or ruminations about this or that. We do get a bit more detail on Hawks’s past, though, courtesy an arbitrary dream/flashback where he remembers an incident in his youth on the “Lapwai Reservation.” Here it’s noted that Hawks’s father, William, was apparently a tribal leader of the Nez Perce Indians, and instilled in Hawks all sorts of arcane Indian lore. But that’s about it.

After losing Fung, his China-appointed “little yellow shadow,” Hawks escapes into Peking and hides with his Berke-appointed contact, a Russian circus performer named Vassili Vazov, who wants to defect but must grant the American government a favor first. As expected, Vazov has a hot young blonde who lives with him – his neice, Laryssa – who is all-too-eager to hop in bed with studly Hawks. But Ballinger leaves all such naughtiness off-page; we’re only informed Laryssa is insatiable (as all hot ‘60s spy-babes are). Vazov is an old drunk given to sad-sack stories, and in his own minor way brings to mind some of Fleming’s supporting characters. So too does Neih, a Tong member who also helps out Hawks; our hero has brought along real diamonds to hire the Chinese underworld into helping him fight the Communist government it hates.

Now disguised as a Mongol, Hawks stays with Vazov and Laryssa and puts together his plan to free the three scientists. This he does with Neih, cornering the car that escorts the three on their daily ride from the prison to a laboratory; Hawks uses a tranquilizer gun on the guards and driver. Now the book takes on a Mission: Impossible feel. Hawks deems that the only way to get the three scientists across China is to pose as a Russian circus troupe! Given that Vazov is already a bear-handler and Laryssa a wire-walker, Hawks decides to pose as a knife thrower and tries to flesh out whatever skills the scientists have – ie juggling, etc. But they need another girl, so Neih brings in the gorgeous young Meng, who is a Shan “slave” of the tong – a willing slave, at that.

When none other than Fung shows up as the Government rep who will escort the circus across the country, Hawks knocks him out and decides to keep him tranquilized and comatose, posing as the “freak” Vazov’s old circus troupe once featured. Perhaps this is where the title comes into play, as they deem a mask will be necessary for Fung, as the troupe is supposed to be from Russia. At length a “mourning hood” is decided on, dyed red, with a green turban on top, with the story being that Fung is a Moslem who has made his pilgrimage to Mecca and has not moved since. Meanwhile Neih will pose as the real Fung.

We get the entire circus routine in detail, from Vazov boxing with his bear (which has become irritable and prone to violence in its old age) to Hawks throwing knives. The scientists juggle and play marching songs on harmonicas. It sort of goes on for a while. But at least it works, and the troupe moves on, everyone becoming more confident. But on the last performance complications ensue, leading us into some long-awaited action. After making a break for it to their escape vessel on the coast, our heroes realize that poor little Meng was left behind.

Hawks and Neih head back into town, which is covered with Security Police. Hawks here employs that belt buckle-gun of his, the sole Bond-esque gadget he uses, to kill a guard. He and Neih scout out the government building where Meng is kept, and given the amount of armed soldiers there, Hawks deems there’s only one option: to unleash mean old Ivan the Bear! In a climax that could come out of a men’s adventure magazine of the day, Hawks and Neih slam their truck into the place, let Ivan loose, and gun down what few soldiers the animal doesn’t behead or eviscerate. After a boat chase at sea that comes off as anticlimactic given the preceeding bear attack, our heroes make it to safety – and Ballinger ends his tale.

The curious thing about The Chinese Mask is how dissimilar it is from typical spy fiction. As mentioned it’s more of a caper. Given that Ballinger was a hardboiled writer and published a few heist novels, I’m wondering if he just recycled an old or unused plot. It would be easy to believe that The Chinese Mask started life as a hardboiled heist yarn set in the US in which the protagonists, after pulling a job, had to disguise themselves as circus performers for their escape; all Ballinger would’ve had to do was change the locale and the nationality of a few of the characters.

But it must be said that it’s still an enjoyable book – Ballinger is a fine writer and I was really caught up in the plot. This is a good series.