Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Eliminator (Jonas Wilde #1)

The Eliminator, by Andrew York
No month stated, 1967  Lancer Books
(Original UK edition 1966)

Yet another of the many series that tried to capitalize on the success of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Jonas Wilde ran for 9 volumes (though for whatever reason the fifth volume, The Dominator, never made it to these shores) and even garnered its own film – Danger Route, in 1967, starring the dude who was supposedly director Terrence Young’s original choice to play Bond in Dr. No. “Andrew York” was incredibly prolific British author Christopher Nicole, who some years later gave us the lusty historical yarn The Savage Sands.

Unlike most other Bond cash-ins of the day, the Jonas Wilde books came out in hardcover. Which is to say they have a bit more of a “literary” bent to them, and are a bit more fleshed-out than typical Bondsploitation paperback series like Nick Carter: Killmaster or Mark Hood. The Eliminator is nearly 300 pages long, and that’s with lots of small print – actually the series would appear to be close to Fleming in that it’s very much in the head of its protagonist, going more for introspection and scene-setting than pulp action. As for Jonas Wilde himself, he’s a 36 year-old professional assassin for Her Majesty’s government. A muscular dude with receding brown hair (just like Grant Fowler!), Wilde is a bit more morose than Fleming’s Bond, and more importantly he only kills with his hands, a veritable lethal weapon of karate skills.

I admit, this part has kind of kept me away from the series until now; I prefer my swinging ‘60s spies to use an accoutrement of weapons and gadgets. But Nicole apparently wants to stay as “realistic” as possible, thus the series strives for the feel of Deighton with a little of the pulp of Fleming. At least that’s so in this first installment, which plays it low-key for the most part. One might complain perhaps a little too low-key, but at least there’s a bit more depth to the characterization than typical for the genre – at least when it comes to the supporting characters. Despite his fondness for cigarettes, cocktails, and boating, Jonas Wilde never really came to life for me. I did though appreciate his glib retorts, many of which seem inspired by Connery’s take on Bond.

We meet Wilde on the job, down in Barbados to take out Hartman, a former Nazi, now a wealthy tycoon. This opening gives an idea of the vibe of the novel as, instead of quick action, it plays out on a long-simmer suspense angle. Wilde is known as the “Nobody Man,” given his ability to immerse himself in a new identity, and here he’s posing as a globetrotting playboy. In this way he’s gotten himself involved with Hartman’s lovely daughter, making her fall in love with him, and this only serves to make Wilde further doubt himself and his career. This doubt already started back home, due to Wilde’s growing feelings for his live-in girlfriend, Jocelyn, whom he met a few months ago. Wilde thinks he’s falling in love with her (not that this prevents him from having some off-page sexual hijinks with Hartman’s daughter), and knows that this means he needs to quit his assassin career, posthaste.

It sort of goes on and on – York is very much in love with his own writing style and with the glib dialog of his world-weary protagonists – until it finally culminates with Wilde and Hartman on a nighttime fishing expedition on Hartman’s yacht. Here the former Nazi tells “Charles Vane,” ie Wilde, that he must leave his daughter forever because he’s nothing but a worm, less than a man, etc, and even finds a moment to vaguely refer to his Nazi days. Here too York shows us the sort of action scenes we can expect – quick and anticlimactic, as Wilde lets Hartman take a swing at him, then easily kills him with a single shuto chop to the base of the skull.

The main plot of the novel kicks in as Wilde heads back to the remote island of Guernsey in the English Channel, following the elaborate but ultimately simple entry and exit process his organization refers to as “the Route.” Perhaps Nicole’s biggest failing is that he doesn’t properly explain Wilde’s organization at the outset. Perhaps if more time was spent on this than the opening assassination of Hartman, the reader would be less out of sorts when the actual reversals and turnarounds begin in the climax. As it was, I had a hard time remembering who was who, but basically there’s Ravenhurst, Stern, Bulwer, and Canning. Most of them are older guys, WWII vets who “travelled” around Europe, meaning going off on assassination jobs. Bulwer was the previous eliminator of the group, but when he himself began to doubt his line of work a replacement was quickly found – Jonas Wilde, who has been serving as eliminator since.

Wilde though is ready to quit; he’s in love with Jocelyn, who tell the truth is presented as the ideal gal: she’s blonde, sexy, spends most of her time in a bathtub, and enjoys serving Wilde the things he likes. Plus she doesn’t talk much!! I mean who could blame Wilde for wanting to quit the assassination game to be with a woman like that. Otherwise there are other reasons behind Wilde’s sudden desire to quit; namely, the suspicion that their ultra-secret conclave has been infiltrated. When Wilde goes to visit his contact Ravenhurst, who creates Wilde’s cover identities and stories, he finds there yet another nude babe: this one brunette, sunbathing under a lamp, and she’s holding a Beretta .25 on him.

She says her name is Marita and she’s Ravenhurts’s niece, unknown to him until just a few weeks ago. She claims to be from California but has a Hungarian sort of accent. Wilde questions her – and possibly also has sex with her (Nicole has a frustrating tendency toward obliqueness at times) – and she says she’s really been sent by Canning, the boss of the organization. She knows all about Wilde, the Route, etc. In fact she knows too much. Wilde has been getting doubts on his most recent assignments, as if he were being sent around on motives not exactly in-line with the British government, and this girl’s strange presence has him in even more doubt.

Meanwhile, there’s another new occurrence – Ravenhurst tells Wilde he needs to go off on another mission, asap. Usually he has weeks to prepare, but not this time. We readers know this is a trap; the novel opens with two men meeting in a porno theater. One of them’s a Russian agent, the other is one of Wilde’s organization. The Russian says that Wilde must be killed – this will be orchestrated by sending him on an elimination job to take out an Easter European germ warfare scientist named Matsys, who is about to be taken over to the US, through England. Ideally Wilde will be killed on this impossible mission, given that notorious CIA agent “Lucinda” (a dude) is in charge of security. But if Wilde manages to survive, the Russian agent says, “the girl” will finish him off when he returns to Guernsey.

Much of the narrative is given over to the hit on Matsys; Wilde takes the job, figuring it will be his last. The action moves to the English countryside as Wilde, posing as a traveling businessman, scopes out the place a few days before Matys arrives. He strikes up a relationship with the thick maid and ends up staying in her room the night before the group arrives – Wilde drugs the poor girl so she doesn’t even get lucky with him. But this is a trap and, after disposing of Matys, Wilde is ensnared by Lucinda’s crew. Here the novel picks up a gear as Lucinda (his last name, by the way) reveals that he, Lucinda, has been on the trail of a certain assassin, one who took out an undercover CIA operative several months ago.

The assassin, of course, is Wilde, who finally has confirmation that he has been used for nefarious purposes lately; there is indeed a leak in his organization, and he’s been used as the blunt instrument. Nicole adds more depth to the story with Lucinda, who was friends with that murdered agent, understanding that Wilde has been used for a sucker, and thus bearing him no ill will. Instead Lucinda lets Wilde go, with the intent of secretly following him, the goal being to use Wilde as a hunting dog to root out the traitor in the organization. The novel promises to head into higher gear as Wilde heads back to take out Canning, whom he assumes must be the traitor; the sudden presence of the mysterious Marita being another clue. She was probably planted with Ravenhurst to kill Wilde.

But Nicole is determined to dole out a leisurely-paced piece of suspense, rather than the blood-soaked vengeance yarn we now expect. Finding Canning has left on a moment’s notice, summoned away by a mysterious call, Wilde instead drafts his lovely young socialite wife Barbara into his scheme. Nicole does deliver good, snappy dialog throughout, and Barbara and Wilde trade a lot of good quips. In fact the dialog is probably one of the highlights of The Eliminator; shame that so much of it was cut from the film adaptation, more of which below. Wilde and Barbara end up booking passage on a boat to find Canning, and here again Nicole obsfucates on whether or not the two have sex, though it seems apparent they do. Next morning Wilde knocks out one of Lucinda’s flunkies, who was shadowing him on the boat, and ditches Barbara.

Still unable to track down Canning, Wilde finds more reversals in Guernsey; Ravenspur is dead, shot by a .25. Marita is clearly the culprit but Wilde knows it would be ridiculous to assume she did the deed so openly. He manages to get her released from police monitoring and they go visit Stern on his boat. Here the novel plays out its climax as Wilde finds out who his real enemies and friends are. Yet Nicole again frustrates; despite the reveal of the villain, who by the way has his own sadistic henchman in tow, instead of a taut action scene we get even more “maritime fiction” stuff, as the climax plays out on a boat upon a stormy sea. Before this though we do have a great, tense sequence where the villain captures both Wilde and Marita and tortures the latter with small dabs of oil on her skin which are set to flame.

This leaves the big finale for the incident so casually blown on the cover copy of this Lancer paperback edition – and the cover photo, by the way, is just a larger image of the British paperback, showing more of the female model’s body. “The girl” mentioned in the opening pages, ie the one planted to kill off Wilde as a last-ditch gambit, turns out to be, of course, the girl Wilde’s so recently proposed to – yes, Nicole really does have his bad-ass spy plan to get married in his introductory novel, same as Fleming did in Casino Royale. Her method of killing him off is pretty damn novel: a poison barb on the tonearm of his record player! (I enjoyed this part because shortly before reading the novel I finally upgraded my own turntable – I went vintage, with a super-cool Pioneer PL-518. Wilde though uses one of those record-changer turntables which basically just destroyed records, so the bastard deserves that poisoned barb on his tonearm. But then he apparently only listens to classical music so those LPs can be bought for a pittance – I mean they’re down there on the value scale with Lawrence Welk albums.)

Anyway, Jonas Wilde of course survives the first novel of his own series; no mystery there. And, per the dialog spoiled on the Lancer cover, Wilde dispenses justice to his would-be killer. I have to admit I was sufficiently caught up in the climax of The Eliminator, though I do wish a bit more happened in the novel. My assumption is this first one went for a low-budget sort of suspense feel whereas the later ones might get a bit more outrageous, or at least exciting. And Nicole’s writing is very good, with the caveat that he is guilty of padding and not fully exploiting his own content. I’ve seen Nicole described as “too prolific,” and I think that aptly sums up his work as it is displayed in The Eliminator. I mean for one example alone he spends pages and pages describing the plight of Wilde’s yacht in the climax, but he kills the main villain off-page! It’s like the sort of thing you’d expect from Manning Lee Stokes.

As for the film version, it plays out on an even lower-budgeted scale. Richard Johnson (the same name as my boss, btw) does not make for a good Jonas Wilde. He has none of the rugged machismo Nicole gives the character, coming off as bland and unmemorable. Plus he plays Wilde as pissed off for the entire film, snapping his lines at everyone, which makes him come off more so prissy and sulky than hardbitten and world-weary. And he’s definitely not believable in the “bad-ass” angle, either – all of which is to say you can see why Terence Young would’ve considered him for Dr. No, as he’s much more in line with Fleming’s concept of James Bond. I think we can all consider it a good thing that Connery got the gig.

Otherwise the film makes strange detours from the source novel; the opening hit on Hartman is excised, and Wilde is introduced to us as casually as possible, just walking through Customs on his return flight to England. What little exploitative content that was in the novel has also been excised; rather than being introduced in the nude beneath a sunlamp, holding a .25, Marita (portrayed by the impossibly attractive Barbara Bouchet) is introduced standing behind a door in Ravenhursts’s villa, fully clothed. The film of course takes its title from the “Route” used by Wilde’s organization, but in the film the character of Bulwer has been removed.

The opening credits state that some “additional material” was provided in the script department by Richard Johnson himself; one assumes this is the stuff that gives him more opportunity to emote as Wilde, like the goofy intro of Jocelyn, which has her posing as a market researcher – a “cute” bit she and Wilde do whenever he returns from abroad, apparently. Wilde’s preference for cocktails has been reduced to Bacardi and soda alone. He does retain his insistence upon only using his hands to kill, and the “action scenes” retain the same abrupt feel as in the novel. But then, there are no protracted action scenes in The Eliminator, and the producers didn’t add any.

Perhaps they should have; the theme song, courtesy Lionel Bart (who also wrote the theme for From Russia With Love), goes for a pseudo-Bond feel, but the film itself doesn’t live up to it. It’s bland and low-key, and, unlike say Dr. No, the viewer never gets the impression he’s watching something “big.” One can see why there were no more Jonas Wilde films, but at least there were more novels, and the second one, The Co-Ordinator, looks to be more of the pulpy sort of spy action I prefer.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Spider #20: Reign Of The Death Fiddler

The Spider #20: Reign Of The Death Fiddler, by Grant Stockbridge
May, 1935  Popular Publications

I had low expectations for this volume of The Spider – I mean it’s got “Death Fiddler” in the title – but it turned out to be one of my favorites yet. Despite the goofy premise, Reign Of The Death Fiddler is actually one of the more ghoulish titles in the series, complete with a titular villain who likes to dress up as his intended victims (complete with bullet holes in his head and body) and decorates his lair with corpses. 

One thing to note is that this time Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page takes a little time to focus on continuity, mentioning previous adventures and also confirming that the Spider’s “look,” ie the hunchback, fangs, and scraggly hair, is now no longer known as the old “Tito Caliepi” disguise (which Page mentions everyone has forgotten), but has become the standard Spider ensemble. We also get lots of reminders how Richard Wentworth’s loyal pal Jackson was killed in a previous volume (one I haven’t read). Also, this volume dispenses with the “story takes place in the same month as publication” setup the others have followed; the events occur over several weeks.

This one opens three months after the previous volume, and as usual things have already gone to hell. Wentworth has spent all these months trying in vain to figure out who the new crime boss is in New York; whoever it is has organized the crooks into such a lightning force that the cops are, as ever, incapable of stopping them, with blatant acts of violent crime staged on city streets in open daylight. Plus there seems to be some corruption in the city’s political realm which is enabling the criminals. As for Wentworth, he’s stymied because, due to this same corruption, he’s lost the license to carry his pistols. So he has resorted to his other mainstay: disguise. For the past several weeks he’s lived in the Bowery, posing as “Limy Magee,” which by novel’s end will be known to the public as one of the Spider’s many alternate names.

The book opens already displaying the brutal tone which will recur throughout; Wentworth, in the Bowery, spots a carjacking in progress, and takes out the hoodlums in vicious manner, using their own guns against them. Things get even more ghoulish when the infamous Fiddler finally appears at a grungy underworld bar Wentworth, still as Limpy, has won access to, given his assistance to a low-level criminal. The Fiddler looks like a corpse, with a gash in his head and bloody clothes. He’s dressed as his next victim, Wentworth realizes.

Page has this annoying bit early on where Wentworth has the chance to kill the Fiddler a few times, but always decides not to, so as to gauge how big the criminal’s empire really is – yet there are also recurring scenes where Wentworth will wish in frustration that he could kill the Fiddler and be done with it. Meanwhile our hero further ingratiates himself into the underworld by staging the murder of a cop who wanders into the bar; defying all laws of reality, Wentworth shoots the poor guy right in the face, yet angles the shot so it just knocks him out(!), then squirrels away the “body.” The cop will gradually figure out that Limpy and the Spider are one and the same, and will become an ally/opponent of our hero as the narrative ensues.

Meanwhile Wentworth is also busy fending off the advances of a “trollop of the underworld:” Snakey Annie, a hotstuff gun moll (curiously always described as “dark”) who hangs out in the bar, has murdered a few people herself, and who is all hot and bothered over how Limpy is such a rising star in the criminal sphere. Brace yourself for this one, folks – I do believe Richard Wentworth gets laid. Seriously! Late in the narrative, even though he “shudders” inwardly at the thought of even touching Annie, Wentworth actually goes off with her, taking her back to his place in the Bowery…and Page ends the scene there. I mean to say, no part where we find out that he knocked her out when he got her there, or pulled some other Spider-madatory duplicity to get out of something the plot is leading toward. Indeed he sees it all as part of his “duty,” even though he detests her. But after this she disappears from the narrative. Hmmm…

As for Wentworth’s actual girlfriend, Nita van Sloan as ever is given short shrift in these early volumes; she has a memorable entrance, proving her own gift for disguise. Going about as Limpy, Wentworth runs into an old woman, who turns out to be none other than Nita. She’s come here, expressly against Wentworth’s orders, to see how her fiance is faring in the Bowery. Later she plays a part in the climactic event, which concerns a Fiddler hit on Macy’s. As for other recurring characters, Commissioner Kirkpatrick is basically bullied into quitting his post, and also advised to run for Senator, but then he’s shot in the gut and spends the rest of the novel in ICU, at death’s door. No doubt none of this will be mentioned in the next book.

But for such a basic setup, Reign Of The Death Fiddler has a lot of entertaining scenes, like when Wentworth, who as Limpy is being groomed as a new flunky, visits one of the Fiddler’s headquarters and finds gruesome effigies of past victims all over the place There is also the usual supernatural vibe to the tale, like when Wentworth discovers that bullets can’t kill the Fiddler – who by the way is “the most cunning and evil foe” the Spider has ever gone up against. That’s a line used in practically every volume, but the Fiddler is pretty cunning, apparently keeping the entire city government in tow, but this plot will be squandered by volume’s end.

The last quarter features several lightning raids the Fiddler’s men make on various places, from the Metropolitan to Penn Station to Macy’s. Early on Wentworth realizes he’s being tested by the Fiddler, being given info on that night’s hit, the villian clearly seeing if “Limpy” will blab the info. So there is added tension where Wentworth must decide if he will indeed spread the word, and if so how he could do so without giving himself away. In the end though he can’t take it anymore and outs himself in typical fashion for the series – he takes a knife right to the Fiddler’s head, only to discover it’s just a wax dummy.

Throughout these raids Wentworth keeps seeing a figure in the melee that looks sort of like Jackson, his dead best bud. Then in the climactic fight at Macy’s, guess what – it is Jackson, who is tearfully reunited with Wentworth and crew. Apparently he faked his death for some convoluted reason, having to do with protecting Wentworth’s name or something, and Ram Singh was aware of the ruse all along. This though isn’t as memorable as what comes before, when the Spider catches the Fiddler in a noose, uses him as bait to keep his men at bay, and then breaks the bastard’s neck – but, as again is typical for the series, it’s not the Fiddler after all, but another stand-in.

In fact the finale is pretty underwhelming, featuring the usual red herring “surprise reveal” of who the Fiddler really is. And Wentworth doesn’t even deliver justice; that honor goes to one of this volume’s supporting characters. But overall this one’s pretty fun, with action that doesn’t get as repetitive as such scenes normally do in the series. There is also a ghoulish tone throughout which adds an extra spark. Too bad though that Snakey Annie isn’t better featured in the narrative (she basically disappears), but there’s always the chance she could appear again in a future volume, if Wentworth continues his “Limpy Magee” double life.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The President Has Been Kidnapped! (Hot Line #2)

The President Has Been Kidnapped!, by Paul Richards
No month stated, 1971  Award Books

The second volume of Hot Line perhaps indicates why this series never got beyond three volumes. For one, the entire series concept is dropped – that hero Grant Fowler has a “hot line” to the President thanks to a two-way communicator hidden in his cigarette lighter. There’s zero reference to the previous volume and it seems evident the author isn’t even aware of what happened in it.

Again thanks to the Spy Guys And Gals site we know this one was courtesy George Snyder and Dan Streib; while Snyder was also credited for the first volume, his stamp isn’t as evident on this one. Mainly because Fowler isn’t a bossy, arrogant ass; rather, this time he’s prone to fretting and constantly worries over his safety. That is, when he isn’t wondering if he’s fallen in love and should just quit the entire “President’s Agent” game. This stuff is a hallmark of Streib’s work, though, as is inordinate padding and uneventful plotting, all of which runs rampant in The President Has Been Kidnapped. The writing is slightly better than the other stuff I’ve read of Streib’s, so maybe Snyder did some polishing or something, who knows.

Anyway Folwer is re-introduced to us as a 39 year-old with receding brown hair who often considers himself “getting too old for this” and contemplating retirement, yet another recurring Streib staple. He goes to great lengths to pose as an “international wheeler dealer,” and when we meet him he’s negotiating the purchase of an airline. It occurred to me that this novel might’ve been written at the same time as the first one, or maybe Streib just didn’t even read the first one, but anyway it seems great effort is made at introducing Fowler and setting up his character, whereas we already met him in the previous book.

Fowler also now has an assistant, Matthew Lemon, who handles his finance matters; “Grant hated the frail man and his bookkeeper mind.” As if that weren’t enough vitriol, Lemon is later referred to as a “sissyish little accountant.” But Lemon seemingly blows the airline deal, barging in on the conference with news Fowler doesn’t want shared, and thus he’s left with an airline it turns out he didn’t even want to buy – it was all a show, part of his carefully-maintained cover. Turns out the government is going to handle the cost, as Fowler’s services are needed pronto, no time for fancy wheeling-dealing; that Fowler is the “President’s Agent” (his recurring title throughout the book, which makes me suspect this was perhaps the planned series title) is a secret no one knows save for three people, one of whom is the President.

So Fowler puts on his shoulder holster with its .357 Magnum (because nothing says “secret agent” like a bulky hand cannon beneath your left arm) and heads for the White House, where he eventually learns from Secretary of State Michael Kremky – one of the three people who know who Folwer really is, with the President’s matronly secretary being the third – that not only has Air Force One been skyjacked and taken to the banana republic of Conduras (which is between Cuba and Panama, we’re informed), but that the President himself happened to be onboard at the time; something known only to Kremky.

Fowler’s job is to head to Conduras on one of his newly-acquired airliners, posing as a businessman looking to branch out into this new market, and somehow orchestrate the President’s release. Conduras, described by Fowler as a “voodoo den,” is run by a despot named Juan Bahia, who keeps the people in tow; the island is comrpised of “Creoles, Caribs, and blacks.” Fowler puts together a crew on one of his new planes, including arbitrarily enough some dude who used to go adventuring with Fowler in the old days, and a couple busty stews. The Conduras air force shoots them down upon entering Conduran air space.

Here’s another thing about Grant Fowler – he comes off like a complete idiot. Maintaining his playboy cover by all means, he insists the plane keep approaching Conduras, despite repeated warnings from ground control. This results in the airliner crashing, his old pal getting killed (again, one helluva an arbitrary “plot point”), and even the stews getting horrendously injured. Only mousy Matthew Lemon emerges unscathed, but he too will suffer misfortune, as if Streib relishes in occasionally putting him through hell before delivering an almost perfunctorily coup de grace in the final pages. But Fowler of course isn’t injured at all in the crash, and emerges to find Conduras on the verge of revolution.

The novel trades off on “tense” scenes of Fowler hopscotching between the tyrannical forces of Bahia and the native rebels, led by a voodoo priest named El Vicera. It just sort of goes on and on in a permanent spin cycle. We’ll go from the rioting voodoo worshippers to the debauchery of Bahia’s circle. In each instance Fowler finds himself involved with a woman – for the voodoo folks, it’s an “olive skinned” babe with blue eyes named Angela who has an instant lust with Fowler as soon as they see each other, culminating in one of the novel’s few memorable scenes as the two have sex in the middle of the jungle as Bahia’s soldiers hunt for them. The sex scenes by the way aren’t very graphic at all; “She pulled him in to the hilt” and the like.

The other babe is Consuela, Bahia’s incredibly depraved teenage daughter. She’s the type of whip-wielding villainness I like so much; moments after meeting Fowler she’s trying to screw him, and when he turns her down for being a “kid” she’s begging her dad to have him killed. Humorously, Fowler and Consuela have sex, though Streib forgets to inform us of the event until several chapters later – this happens after an elaborate feast Fowler attends, Bahia treating him as an honored guest, given Fowler’s cover as a wealthy businessman looking to branch out into Conduras. After a serving girl is nearly raped for the eager crowd – something Fowler prevents from happening – Consuela leads him off to his room, and only much later does Streib bother to inform us what happened there.

Really though it’s because Fowler has fallen in love with Angela, who is a sort of white goddess for the voodoo-practicing rebels. Fowler is saved by her in their first meeting – which leads to that immediate boink in the jungle – but Angela says Fowler will be considered an enemy if he tries to meet with Bahia. But this Fowler must do, so as to get aboard Air Force One, which, by the way, is sitting on the Conduras Airport tarmac under heavy guard. We’ll eventually learn that Bahia orchestrated the skyjacking, abducting the child of a crew member to ensure complicity. Bahia’s goal is to get the US to turn over control of a supply ship which carries atomic weapons. Bahia however doesn’t know that the President is actually onboard the plane; in fact, no one knows save for Fowler and Kremky back at the White House, but despite this Bahia’s men have wired Air Force One to blow by a certain deadline if his demands aren’t met.

Streib attempts to broaden the action with cutaways to Kremky back in Washington, dealing with various politicians and military officials who want to nuke Conduras. We also have some scenes with the President, fretting aboard his plane. But it’s all just sort of bland and uneventful. Even the occasional action scene is harried and boring, mostly comprised of Fowler trying to run away and hide. Again, he’s lost a lot of the bad-assery he displayed in the previous book, and this is certainly the work of Streib, who is notorious for wussified protagonists. Otherwise there are a few oddballl touches here and there, like Bahia’s personal guard, in black uniforms modeled after the SS; all of them, Fowler notices, have “long, slender fingers, perfectly manicured…the hands of classic homosexuals.”

Even the rebels do the heavy lifting in the finale; Fowler has promised Bahia that supply ship – on orders from the President – but he’ll give the weapons to the rebels. This he promises Angela after another jungle boink. Oh, and Fowler loves her for sure, even begging her to come back to the US with him and get married! This is Streib for sure, folks, and even a newbie to the genre will know what happens to Angela by novel’s end. The finale is pure chaos, with the rebels storming the tarmac before the explosives can go off, and Fowler just managing to get aboard – here Streib pulls Matthew Lemon back into the narrative long enough to kill him off!

Fowler exceeds in freeing the President and Air Force One and preventing Bahia from getting the atomic weapons, but at great price, yadda yadda yadda. No surprise, poor old Angela didn’t make it out on the plane – but another female character did. Given that we’ve learned this particular gal can do “special things with her mouth,” you wonder why Fowler’s so upset. (Okay, spoiler alert – it’s Consuela.) But really it’s the reader who benefits, ultimately, because here the novel ends.

Only one more volume was to follow, courtesy Streib and Chet Cunningham, and here’s hoping it’s better than the others. But given the two authors I’m not holding my breath.

Monday, May 7, 2018


Underwater, edited by Phil Hirsch
September, 1966  Pyramid Willow Books

Curiously, this vintage anthology of men’s adventure magazine stories was published through Pyramid’s “Willow” line, which was intended for juvenile readers. So the stories here were written for an adult readership but later marketed to kids. No fears, though, as the tales in Underwater are pretty tame. According to the copyright page, the stories are taken from Men’s Magazine and Challenge Magazine; no individual issues are credited, just the years 1956,’57,’59,’63, and ’64. Phil Hirsch was the editor of these magazines as well as a host of others; his name appears as editor on about a billion paperbacks.

While the cover gives the impression that the reader will encounter many tales of underwater adventurers facing off against dangerous undersea life, in truth the majority of the tales collected here are about guys being trapped underwater or facing other such desperate situations. Stories with speargun-armed scuba divers facing off against sharks are few and far between. I should note that the men’s mags Phil Hirsch edited were not part of the “Diamond Line,” and instead of novella-length pulp tales it appeared that most of them went for shorter, more “factual” yarns. In other words, it would appear that many of these colorfully-depicted incidents actually did happen.

“Sharkbait Swimmer” by Warren J. Shanahan opens the collection (there is no foreword or anything), and this one is about a daredevil named Fred Baldasare who runs his mouth that he’d easily swim the Messina Straits, which are known for being treacherous. Instead he gets in an arduous scuba swim that goes on for hours, sharks tailing him. He fails, but we learn in a postscript that the experience helped him successfully swim the English Channel.

“Diver Hefling’s Ordeal” is by Jack Dugan and is the first of the “man trapped underwater” stories the collection focuses so heavily on. In this one Frank Hefling is deep beneath Chicago, working on something, when his hand gets trapped, followed by his entire body. It’s a tense tale as fellow divers race against the clock to free Hefling before his air tank runs dry.

“Human Torpedoes!” by Sandy Sanderson is sort of a potted history; it’s all about an Italian frogman squadron in WWII that devised torpedoes that could be ridden all the way to the destruction site. Whereas a similar story in the Diamond Line of men’s mags would flesh this out into a pulpy tale, Sanderson instead goes for a more factual approach. We learn the history of the squad, the determination of its leader Lt. de la Penne, and how they successfully bombed an Ally ship off Alexandria, Egypt.

“Man-Eater!” by Wilbur Fergussen improves things in a big way; this one is in first person, which I don’t like as much, but it at least is more along the lines of what I expected from the collection. Fergussen tells us about how the time he was fishing Dade’s Lake in Arkansas and got attacked by…a shark! The story ends up with him in the lake, defending himself with a knife; a hasty addendum informs us that the shark probably got there due to some fresh water channel, which apparently happens.

We get back to the “trapped underwater” angle with “Nightmare In The Tank,” by Don Dwiggins; this ghoulish tale is about a California diver who gets the bends, and a “civilian rigger” attempts to save him. Instead he’s stuck in a decompression tank with the guy, who ends up dying, and the tale takes on a grisly tone as the rigger’s trapped in there with the corpse for a full day, even as rigor mortis sets in. The moral of the story is that from now on a separate door would be added to decompression chambers in case of similar ghoulish events.

“I was ‘Cuda Bait” is by Frederic Sinclair and is another in first-person. It’s the Florida Keys and our narrator tells us how each morning he’d spearfish for pompano for breakfast. But unknown to him a baracuda was in the vicinity, chasing the very same pompano our narrator set his sights on. He takes a shot at the ‘cuda, misses, and his arm gets snared by the speargun cord. So this one too goes for the “trapped underwater” angle despite the “dangerous aquatic monster” setup; Sinclair ends up offering his own foot as bait to lure away the ‘cuda. It ends up snatching off his flipper, and Sinclair makes it to the surface with his dead arm just in time to pass out. A very grueling tale!

“Dive Or Die” is by Edward Nanas and is another WWII yarn, taking place in Caballo Bay, the Philipines, in 1942. But it just goes on and on; it’s about a few hundred thousand “silver pesos” that have ended up on the seabed, and the “Jap” army drafts some POW American divers to go down and bring up the crates. But those wily Americans begin diverting crates to the resistance movement; eventually they are replaced by Moro divers who are more afraid of the Japanese and thus do a better job. Ends on an open note with Nanas informing us that hundreds of thousands of dollars are still down there.

“Dive Down Niagra” is by Frederic Sinclair, and this one is told like a report. It’s about a daredevil named Red Hill who constructs a tire tube craft which he intends to ride down Niagra. The law tries to stop him, reporters flock to the scene, and Hill dies in the attempt, his brains dashed out on some rocks. The end!

“Death Dive” is by Lyman Gaylor and is another “trapped underwater” story. Navy diver Joe Talarico is deep in the Patuxent River in Maryland when he’s trapped, his lifeline caught, and he has to survive several hours. Another grueling tale, but at this point these stories are becoming repetitive. 

“Devil-Shark!” by Bob Lorenz is the best tale in the collection; another first-person story, it also apparently inspired the cover art. The narrator and his brother have rented a boat in the Gulf of California, piloted by a superstitious Mexican, with the intent of finding a sunken ship and its treasure. But a monster white shark has been tailing them the past few days; the pilot insists that they not kill it, as it would result in bad omens. But our narrator goes down and finds the sunken ship just as a massive storm is setting in; the climax features him against the shark, which finally has closed in for the kill. He takes it out with an explosive-tipped spear. “I hate their guts!” Lorenz ends the tale, referring to all sharks everywhere.

We get right back to the “trapped underwater” angle with “Ordeal Of The Atlantis” by Don Dwiggins; this one I looked up and can confirm it’s a true story. It’s about a researcher named Hans Keller who has devised an “experimental gas” that might allow for prolonged time underwater. He tests it out with a fellow researcher named Pete Small in a diving bell, but things go wrong and both Small and a scuba diver who attempts rescue die. This one’s a grim tale, and pretty depressing. 

“Panic – And I Drown” is by Pete Clark “as told to” Willard Porter, and this one’s at odds with the other stories in that it’s the first-person narration of a surfer riding some hellish Californian waves for the amusement of onlookers. Interestingly the tale is set in ’53, so it’s very early in the whole surfing phenomenon, but again it just doesn’t gibe with the other stories here. But at least it’s not about a guy getting trapped underwater.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Penetrator #32: Showbiz Wipeout

The Penetrator #32: Showbiz Wipeout, by Lionel Derrick
July, 1979  Pinnacle Books

After a couple misfires The Penetrator sort of gets back on track, though make no mistake this is a greatly watered-down take on the character, particularly when compared to the merciless incarnation of the earliest volumes. It was Chet Cunningham who gave us that merciless Penetrator (wow that just sounds terrible, doesn’t it), which makes it all the more humorous that in this one Cunningham has Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin practically walking on eggshells to only kill those who truly deserve it.

But at least this one rises a bit out of the torpor which seems to have settled over the series. That being said, Showbiz Wipeout is more akin to a private eye yarn, as Mark suddenly becomes all fired up about a potential creative agency monopoly in Hollywood – clearly the authors used this series to write about whatever their current fancy happened to be. Why this would be of any concern to the Penetrator is something the reader is encouraged not to think about. Even more goofily, Mark is appraised of the situation via the “bulletin board” in his Stronghold, ie the converted mine which serves as Penetrator HQ.

What really has Mark interested is all the random deaths and injuries going on in Hollywood; the book opens on an extended sequence of various notables either being killed, beaten, or swindled by thugs who work for Global Talent Agency. The goal of course is all the Hollywood bigshots under one roof, and the mysterious head of GTA will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Humorously the LAPD doesn’t even appear to exist, and these murders – including even a staged car crash, as depicted on the cover – are carried out with little concern about running afoul of the law. 

Cunningham fully commits himself to his own goofiness; not only is the Penetrator suddenly interested in this Hollywood nonsense, but he also just happens to have an old college buddy who now runs a talent agency! This is Joey Larson, Mark’s old frat buddy. Mark calls him up, drives over to Los Angeles, and discovers that Joey is stressed out because he too is being hassled by GTA. They want ownership of Joey’s one star client, who just happens to have been the victim of the car crash mentioned above. GTA is also threatening Joey’s life, so Mark puts him up in a motel and insists that he hide there.

Mark poses as “Lance Lansing,” up and coming actor with regional theater exeperience, his headshot and resume prepared by Professor Haskins back at the Stronghold. He gets an interview at GTA, coming off like an ass to the head agent there, a nebbish chump with a “honkey afro.” Mark sneers at the lowball offer he’s given, puts down the agent, and then beats the shit out of the two thugs the agent calls in. Mark also ingratiates himself into the orbit of Lorna Luna, a onetime box-office draw but now “old” at 45. She takes a shine to hunky “Lance” at the party she holds in her mansion, though Cunningham doesn’t have Mark exploit it – and also we get a few random mentions that Mark is only 27 or so, which doesn’t seem right to me. The series has appeared to occur in a sort of real time, ie the first volume was in ’73, seven years before this one, and periodically we’re reminded of the passage of time in various installments…so are we to believe Mark Hardin was only 20 years old in that first one?

Anyway, while Mark passes on Lorna Luna, he does become involved with plucky private eye Angelina Perez, aka “Angie,” a hotstuff Latina who carries a piece in her purse and who was herself hired to look into GTA. Mark becomes so smitten with Angie, in fact, that he occasionally wonders if he should let her know he’s the Penetrator and make her his partner! The veteran Penetrator reader can’t help but wonder why Mark never felt this way about his casual girlfriend, Joana Tabler, who is basically the same as Angie, she too being a gun-toting agent of sorts. Now that I think of it, Joana hasn’t been seen much in recent installments, so maybe Cunningham is paving the way for a new casual girlfriend for our hero. Hell, Mark even ends up not having sex with her, so as not to ruin any potential for an actual romance in the future or something.

Action is infrequent, again keeping with the pseudo private eye vibe of the novel; Mark’s kills are only few, and his first victim is the GTA thug who murdered the girl in the car wreck at the start of the book. Otherwise Mark mostly makes use of dart gun Ava, which per the norm these days is only loaded with knockout doses. The first big action scene comes at an intended trap; the mysterious leader of GTA has figured out that the Penetrator is on the scene, thanks to those handy blue flint arrowheads he always leaves behind, and sets up a “jiggle girl” event which is really just a ruse to lure out the Penetrator. A “jiggle girl” is a new busty actress the studios show off for reporters; the event, which Mark himself realizes is a trap, takes place on the Universal Studios lot and features actors dressed up like Keystone Cops (as shown on the cover – again, the cover is faithful to actual events in the novel).

Again Mark mostly does his fighting with Ava or a .45 automatic. The Keystone Cops turn out to be more GTA thugs, and one of them almost gets the better of the Penetrator, pinning him down during a long chase through some empty studio lots. Here Angie comes to the rescue, blasting away with that gun in her purse, and again there is the blatant disregard for reality as one would normally expect in a Chet Cunningham novel. After the firefight, our heroes basically just drive off and grab a bite to eat. Angie has been digging around off-page, trying to determine the paper trail that will lead to who ultimately owns GTA: we readers learn it is a producer named Jeffrey Scott Duncan who was blacklisted years before, and now aims to get the ultimate revenge on Hollywood by taking control of all the major stars.

The climax takes place at a costume ball in an old villa that’s recently been used for a horror film. Duncan has rigged the place with various booby traps, again expecting the Penetrator will show. He does, dressed as Zorro; Angie goes as a “harem girl.” But by this point Duncan doesn’t have any goons left, so rather than the typical action denoument, we instead have this “tense” bit that goes on and on where Duncan, suddenly acting crazy, reveals that he has a bomb on the premises and intends to blow everyone up as his final act of revenge. Or something. Actually the part with the bomb reveal is kind of funny in a dumb way because Duncan straight-up tells everyone it’s a bomb and they’re going to die, but everyone thinks it’s part of an elaborate act, given that the entire grounds is done up with robotic actors and taped recordings of arguments, sex scenes, and other gimmicks.

The Penetrator again fails to actually kill anyone; Duncan’s fate is so ridiculous I had to read it twice to ensure I hadn’t missed something. (Spoiler alert – the dude’s eaten off-page by a tiger!!) Cunningham winds up the tale with Mark again puzzling over his growing feelings for Angie, wondering if he’ll ever give up the Penetrating life some day and get hitched – or maybe even bring on a partner. But he tells Angie so long and heads off for his next mission, which hopefully will be a bit more fun than this one. I mean, Showbiz Wipeout isn’t terrible – it’s probably the best we can expect from the series at this point – but it replaces the gory violence of the early volumes with a sort of goofy surrealism. Personally I miss the gory violence.