Thursday, March 29, 2012

MIA Hunter #4: Mountain Massacre

MIA Hunter #4: Mountain Massacre, by Jack Buchanan
October, 1985 Jove Books

Joe Lansdale turns in another volume of the MIA Hunter series, one that gives double bang for your men's adventure buck: in addition to the customary Rambosploitation of the series itself, you also get the added bonus of ninjas! Not only that, but Mountain Massacre even borrows a page from Apocalypse Now, in that hero Mark Stone's mission is to "exterminate with extreme prejudice" an American soldier, once an MIA himself, who's now a rogue psychopath who commands his own army in army of ninjas.

Unfortunately the novelty soon wears thin. What could've been a cool bit of WTF? insanity instead turns quickly into tedium, with ninja battle after ninja battle after ninja battle. My understanding of this series is that it was overseen by Stephen Mertz, who a la Lyle Kenyon Engel would send his ghostwriters an outline of each book along with requirements. (For example, per Michael Newton, who penned the first two volumes of the series, each "Jack Buchanan" was always required to insert martial arts into the book). So I'm guessing then that Mertz's outline for this book must've been "Feature ninjas," and Lansdale, after belting back a shot or three of Jack Daniels, grumbled, "Fine. You want ninjas? You'll get 'em."

Anyway, we open with Mark Stone and his two-man team already on a mission in 'Nam, freeing a handful of MIAs. Strangely, Lansdale does not tie up any of the loose ends from his previous volume -- when last we saw Stone in the US, his files were nearly stolen by the CIA and his girlfriend was in hiding. This time out Lansdale doesn't cover any of that, and indeed Stone spends the duration of the novel in Vietnam. At any rate he frees this latest batch of MIAs, but while escaping through the jungle Stone's team is attacked by "bandits." Bandits who are covered head-to-toe in black, with only their eyes visible. Bandits who, despite being armed with assault weapons, choose instead to attack with swords and other bladed weaponry. In short, ninjas.

Stone returns to Bangkok, where he is again attacked, this time by CIA agents, who try to kill him. Of course they prove little match for Stone, who immediately thereafter is given his latest mission -- contacted by an elderly billionaire named Porter who has journeyed here from the US, having gotten wind through his own sources that the famous MIA Hunter Mark Stone is here. Porter's son was a high-ranking officer during the Vietnam war who was marked as an MIA, but was never freed. He also never appeared on any official registries and seems to have disappeared. However the old man believes that his son now commands his own army within Vietnam, one which he is using to cause much chaos and bloodshed.

Putting it all together, Stone suspects that Porter Jr. must be the mysterious leader of the "bandit army" which runs rampant through the jungles of 'Nam and Laos. Stone has seen their destruction first-hand; the ninjas attack villages and kill everyone, even the children and the elderly. Their leader is swathed in mystery, but it is believed he is a practicioner of the "dark arts," ie a ninja, and that he has taught his followers the same skills. Also, his army is quite large, and the leader himself is surrounded by "the two hundred," the top ninja fighters at his disposal, warriors who are claimed to be more demons than men.

Stone and his two stalwart companions (big bruiser Hog Wiley and the still-boring Terrance Loughlin) put together another team of Laotian freedom fighters and head once more into the jungle. Their guide is Kong Le, himself a martial arts swordsmaster; not only that, but his son happens to be one of the ninjas, and Kong Le has sworn to kill the boy, to purge the evil from him. So there's all sorts of stuff going on in Mountain Massacre, but it's soon lost in the shuffle of endless fight after endless fight.

In my opinion, there's only one author who can write endless action scenes and keep them entertaining, and that's David Alexander. Lansdale's action scenes get very boring after a while, the death knell for any action writer. Seriously, as soon as Stone and his team enter the jungle, it's like they're attacked by ninjas on practically every other page. And what makes it stupid is the ninjas keep coming at them with swords, running right into the blasting CAR-15 fire of Stone and his comrades. What makes it even more stupid is that the ninjas themselves carry firearms! But for reasons Lansdale skirts over -- something about a magic potion the ninjas drink, which they believe instills them with invincibility -- the ninjas just continue to run pell-mell right into blazing death, their swords obliviously held high.

The book's a bit over 190 pages, and I don't exaggerate when I say that about 150 of those pages are comprised of action scenes. Porter the insane commander doesn't appear until the final third; Stone and team, on their trek through the jungle, comes upon another village destroyed by Porter's bandit army. One of the men there is a young punk who hopes to join the bandits -- we learn that Porter boosts his army by regularly scouting the various villages and taking away those young men who show some fighting prowess. After getting his ass kicked by Loughlin, the kid agrees to show Stone and company where the hidden bandit retreat is located.

Lansdale brings the otherwise-idyllic retreat to life; in pure Kurtz fashion Porter lives in the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery deep in the jungles of 'Nam. Stone launches a dawn raid on the place, but he and his small squad of soldiers are no match for Porter's army of hundreds. Soon enough the whole lot of them is captured, and, in pure Willard fashion, Stone is eventually taken down from his chains for a one-on-one meeting with Porter. You can almost hear the Doors on the soundtrack as Porter tries to sway Stone over to his side -- there's even a swipe on the New Testament as Porter escorts Stone over to a window and gestures at the domain below, telling Stone that all of it could be his if he would just come over to his side.

We can all guess what Stone's answer is. This leads to the thankfully final action sequence in the novel, as he and his men are able to escape from their dank and rundown cell. Once more we're off into ninja-blasting carnage as hordes of the bastards race pell-mell to their doom, swords obvliviously held high. However the man-to-man fight between Stone and Porter is well done, devolving into a flat-out brawl amid the blazing ruins of the temple. It's all very cinematic and indeed the novel appropriates the feel of say Apocalypse Now as made by the Cannon Group, with action choreography by Sho Kosugi.

Curiously, the satirical touch of his previous installment is gone, and for the most part Lansdale plays it straight throughout Mountain Massacre. Also, it got annoying that every single character had to say Stone's full name nearly every time they spoke to him. I will agree that "Mark Stone" is a cool name, but seriously, do characters have to repeat it every other sentence? I figure this must've been another of the "requirements" for the ghostwriters of the series; Newton also poked fun at the tendency of repeating Stone's name in his 1989 book How to Write Action-Adventure Novels. Another funny thing is that Stone and his fellows are here reduced to the level of animals; I lost count of how many times he or his pals would "growl" something instead of just plain old saying it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mace #2: The Year of the Snake

Mace #2: The Year of the Snake, by Lee Chang
February, 1974 Manor Books

I've been taking my time getting back into the Mace series. After reading the first volume, The Year of the Tiger, I felt about as beaten as one the opponents of hero Victor Mace. The action onslaught whipped me but good, and we have of course Joseph Rosenberger to thank, posing here once again as "Lee Chang."

Thankfully The Year of the Snake is slightly better than its predecessor. Whereas the first novel followed one single plot -- some Mafia thugs wanted to use a boat which belonged to Mace's uncle, and Mace kept beating them up -- this one opens things up a bit, but not much. Mace is now in New York City's Chinatown, called here by one Tong leader to handle the problems caused by the Blue Devils, another which has connections to the Chinese mob. Not that the mob or its soldiers or anyone poses much of a threat for Mace, who again is presented as a superhero, incapable of being harmed, let alone defeated.

Rosenberger dispenses with character development or plot development, and it goes without saying that the reader gets little feel for Chinatown or its inhabitants. He does however sprinkle the narrative with a host of goofy characters and also doles out an endless array of WTF? metaphors and analogies. If a case were to be made that Rosenberger's novels were parodies of the men's adventure genre, then his Mace books would make for Exhibit A.

There is absolutely no way the man intended this book to be taken seriously, and the nonstop fighting is just the first clue. Rosenberger even manages to insert slapstick into the book, sometimes going in and out of the perspectives of various minor characters (usually right before they're killed by Mace), taking the opportunity to write in a goofy POV-style (ie, It was like, Death, man -- far out!).

And you'd never think that in a book about a kung-fu master Rosenberger would be able to indulge in his own metaphysical interests, but he does; in the obligatory flashbacks to Mace's training at a Shaolin temple in Hong Kong, his teacher even finds the opportunity to discuss how the Egyptian pyramids were "really" constructed, via esoteric sound-manipulation techniques!

But for the most part The Year of the Snake is just fight scene after fight scene after fight scene. It's my opinion that martial arts combat doesn't make for an easy transistion to print; it's much easier to read (or write, I'd guess) gun-blazing action scenes, but how many different ways can you write about one guy kicking or punching other guys?

As usual though Rosenberger steals the show. For one, his enthusiasm is contagious. Whereas the other writer might back off on the fights a bit and work on the plot, Rosenberger instead barrels full steam ahead. I can almost see him hunched over his typewriter: "All right! I'm gonna write another action scene!" And then pounding away at his keys as he launches Mace into another pages and pages and pages-long kung-fu fight sequence.

In another "you'd never believe it" moment, Rosenberger also delivers a straight-up sex scene, featuring a heavyset Chinese gangster and his black American concubine. The scene is written from the lady's perspective, complete with description on how the gangster likes to "service" her and etc, and what's hilarious is that Rosenberger writes it all exactly like one of his action scenes, with exclamation points ending every other sentence.

And again Rosenberger puts his all into the book. It's 190 pages of tiny print, each page packed from top to bottom with copy. In other words, the man never shirked on his writing duties -- no big copy, no "white space" for him. But as usual, a whole bunch could have been cut from the novel and it would have benefited from it. Especially Rosenberger's strange fetish for explaining incidental things -- usually in flashback -- that don't even need to be explained. (For example, how Mace planned to escape from "oriental" Chinatown into "occidental" Manhattan.)

Another staple of the Mace series is the endless battery of racial slurs. I'd say the only other book that might use the word "chink" more than The Year of the Snake would have to be a manual on how to repair medieval combat armor or something. As in the previous novel, Rosenberger breaks out the slurs while writing from the perspectives of various of Mace's enemies, but what's strange is that most of them are Chinese themselves. It would be like a white character blasting away at another white character while thinking to himself: "I'm gonna waste that honkey!"

But then, the politically-incorrect vibe embraces a host of ethnicities in The Year of the Snake, not just Asians. Again it could all be a sign of spoofery, but moreso it's just a sign of its times. Like many of its men's adventure brethren, The Year of the Snake is a kind of book that couldn't be published today.

Which admittedly makes for part of its charm, at least as far as I'm concerned, but still. You need more than a non-PC vibe and goofy analogies to make for a good book. The Year of the Snake just left me feeling as beaten and exhausted as its predecessor did.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Specialist #4: The Psycho Soldiers

The Specialist #4: The Psycho Soldiers, by John Cutter
August, 1984 Signet Books

With this volume of The Specialist, author John Shirley comes into his own as "John Cutter," turning out what is easily the best installment of the series yet. While the three previous volumes were good, they were still padded a bit too much, with Shirley obviously having a hard time finding his footing in the world of men's adventure fiction. Here though he fires on all cylinders from the first page to the last, delivering a taut, action-filled novel that also manages to poke fun at not only the genre but the protagonist himself.

The novel is titled The Psycho Soldiers, but the psychos here aren't soldiers, which leads me to believe that Shirley titled his manuscript "The Psycho Killers," which is how he refers to them throughout. Swenson is the head psycho, so violently insane that we're told that even Charles Manson looks up to the guy. Then there's Esmerelda, a raven-haired beauty who claims to have psychic abilities. Two others complete the bill, minor characters in the long run: Ortega, who gets off on murder, and another sick bastard whose name I've forgotten.

For some reason I never understood, a KGB cell team breaks these nutcases out of their mental institutions in the opening of the novel. They kidnap an industrialist and his daughter after taking out the rest of his family in horrific ways -- full-on Manson family stuff here, with Shirley piling on the graphic description.

Meanwhile our hero Jack "The Specialist" Sullivan, who is slowly getting back into the mercenary game after the death of his contact/best friend Malta in the previous volume, is contacted by Knickian, a DEA agent who also briefly worked with Sullivan in the past. Knickian has discovered a turncoat within the agency, one who has funded the KGB cell and the breakout of the four psychos. After meeting with the mother of the kidnapped industrialist, Sullivan is raring to find Swenson and his comrades and kill them real good.

Sullivan now has become a full-fledged Imitation Executioner, driving around in his own "warwagon," a customized bullet-proof van that can fire rockets! Shirley also pokes fun at our hero's stern patriotism, at his single-minded obsession with justice and revenge. Shirley also manages to sneak in some of his horror roots, adding a sort of supernatural thrust to Sullivan; he can now "sense" who is good and who is bad -- and the "bad," of course, deserve to be killed. Also, when angry Sullivan becomes a sort of Hulk, his rage powering him to superhuman strength. The cover proclaims him "the toughest action hero of them all," and Shirley takes that to heart; when he's pissed, which is often, Sullivan is basically unstoppable.

Shirley works up the plot a bit, with some mystery over why the nutcases were sprung from their prisons, but the novel eventually becomes more of a chase sort of thing. After Sullivan frees the captured industrialist and his daughter, Swenson and his pyshcos manage to escape, and Sullivan gives chase. This proves to be the plot for the rest of the novel, Sullivan always one step behind Swenson, who cuts a swathe of death and misery through the rural areas of New York state. Along the way Sullivan manages to pick up a female companion, a young soldier named Beth Pepper who is a sergeant in the WAC (ie, "Sergeant Pepper"); she is of course gorgeous, and she's got a crush on Sullivan.

In yet more in-jokery, Shirley reveals that Sullivan is so legendary that exposes are run on him in Soldier of Fortune magazine. (Sullivan's response? "Those bastards! I'll have to cancel my subscription!") Beth happens to have her own copy with her -- she meets Sullivan after taking a few shots at his bullet-proof van, mistakenly thinking he was part of the group who kidnapped the industrialist and murdered his family -- and soon enough she seduces Sullivan. There follows a Shirley-patented sex scene with the obligatory mention of Sullivan's "eight-inches" and even, believe it or not, features the line from Beth: "Will you take me through the back door?" Yeah, you wouldn't read anything like that in a Gold Eagle-era Executioner novel!

But then, Shirley's The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle books should have been. Rather than playing everything straight and serious like the majority of those Gold Eagle ghostwriters did, Shirley subtly spoofs the genre and its cliches while still delivering a fun thrill-ride. He also delivers on the exploitation angle hinted at in previous volumes, with graphically-depicted carnage that follows in Swenson's wake, and also Sullivan again pulling off sadistic feats that would make Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock envious, my favorite being when Sullivan picks up one poor bastard and hurls him into a trash compactor.

The Psycho Soldiers is proof enough why Sylvester Stallone must have been a fan of the series. The only question is why he made a film merely "inspired" by Shirley's series and didn't just make a straight-up adaptation of it. This particular volume would have made for one hell of an action film. The other question is why Shirley has disowned this series. I can see why he may be a bit hesistant to acknowledge his first few entries, but The Psycho Soldiers is nothing any action writer should be ashamed of.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shannon #2: Shallow Grave

Shannon #2: Shallow Grave, by Jake Quinn
November, 1974 Leisure Books

I nearly forgot about the Shannon series; the initial volume, The Undertaker, was one of the first reviews I wrote on the blog. Shallow Grave is very much in the vein of its predecessor; author Jake Quinn, whoever he was, is once again more focused on sex and drinking than on gun-blazing action, more focused on the "leisure" in Leisure Books.

Our hero Patrick Shannon is still a globe-trotting spy who likes his Jameson's whiskey and his women. In fact the novel opens with not one but three girls hitting on Shannon as he swims in the pool while on vacation in Montego Bay, and they all go up to his hotel room for a little lovin'. As I wrote in my previous review, Shannon is incredibly idealized, but this series has to be a satire or spoof of the genre...I mean, we learn in this volume that Shannon is even a best-selling author, churning out a series of books about a spy, all of them based on his "real life" missions.

Quinn takes his good ol' time setting up the plot. Apparently some voodoo cult in New York City is hacking up hookers and leaving their mutilated corpses laying around...but who cares, 'cause Shannon's on vacation and he's getting laid. He soaks up the sights with a friend who lives down here, eventually ending up in a swanky club where a gorgeous black lady dances for the audience. One lucky member can share a drink with her if he can do the limbo, and sure enough, Shannon's the man. But the lady doesn't just have a drink with him; she of course goes back to his place.

I should mention here that though there is quite a bit of sex in Shallow Grave, it isn't the page-filling gratuitous kind like one would find in The Baroness. Yet for all of that Quinn doesn't dole out the sexual euphemisms that Paul Kenyon is known for. In other words, he calls a cock a cock.

Eventually Shannon returns to his penthouse suite in Manhattan, where you will recall he lives in ultra-swank '70s style, complete with a bedroom which is furnished with mirrored walls and ceiling. His stalwart companion Joe-Dad is there, the half-Chinese/half-black sidekick who serves up drinks, meals, and politically-incorrect banter. And too there's Shannon's stacked and gorgeous prostitute best friend, who is as ever in love with Shannon.

This time Quinn better works the lady into the plot; it's her friends who are showing up dead, prostitutes whose mutilated and heroin-ridden corpses are popping up about NYC. So she plays a much larger part in Shallow Grave than in The Undertaker, even going out on reconnoiter missions with Shannon and Joe-Dad (who himself plays a larger role here).

But again our man Quinn is more concerned with the good times. Rather than jumping right into the case, Shannon instead bides his time, more focused on looking out from his penthouse view and belaboring over the misery of the world while sipping on some Jameson's. As in the previous book Shannon drinks a whole bunch here, and I still say a case could be made for an "alternate reading" of the text, that Shannon in "reality" is a drunk who lives in his own fantasy world. Hell, the "bestselling writer" tag added with this volume only clinches it. Maybe the "real" Patrick Shannon is a drunk hack who churns out James Bond rip-offs while living in his own imaginary, booze-filled world.

Anyway this has nothing to do with the plot itself. Finally Shannon becomes involved, demanding that his boss, "Number One," assign him to the case. Shannon's method of research is so casual as to be hilarious; he basically just looks around New York City and waits for another body to show up. Quinn keeps the ball rolling with lurid scenes of hookers getting murdered every few chapters. A voodoo cult has sprung up in the city, and it likes to gather together, pound the voodoo drums, and sacrifice heroin-ravaged hookers.

Despite all of this, Quinn is still more interested in the non-action stuff. He even manages to slip in long flashbacks of not only Shannon's bio, but also how he met his prostitute best friend/occasional lover (whose name I have obviously forgotten and am too lazy to look up). It's funny, really, and while it might sound annoying it's actually fun just because it's so goofy and so unconcerned with action or thrills. In many ways Jake Quinn is like the alternate universe version of Joseph Rosenberger. Where Rosenbger is all action, all of the time, Quinn holds off on the action until absolutely necessary, and then dispenses with it quickly.

Strangely enough I really enjoyed Shallow Grave. In fact I enjoyed it even more than The Undertaker, which despite being a bit more lurid (what with its dwarf villain who wanted to hack off Shannon's manhood and have it sewn on his own body...!), was actually a bit more boring. Actually, it's that Shallow Grave is just so super-'70s.

There's a great website/blog called Plaid Stallions, which is devoted to shaggy '70s pop culture. The owner of that blog created a character to personify the he-males of 1970s fashion and lifestyle ads, and called him Brick Mantooth. Well, if Brick Mantooth starred in a men's adventure series, it would be very much like Shannon.

And is it just me, or does it look like Shannon's punching Gerald Ford on the bottom left of the cover?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Narc #3: The Death List

Narc #3: The Death List, by Robert Hawkes
September, 1974 Signet Books

The Narc series continues with another installment from the gifted pen of Marc Olden (here posing as "Robert Hawkes"), who brings to life the grim and gritty inner-city squalor of mid-'70s New York City. The Death List though is a bit less of an ensemble piece than previous books; for once, hero John Bolt is the star of the show. Unfortunately though the careful plotting and character-patchwork of previous volumes is lost, and The Death List settles into a sort of repetitive pattern.

The "list" in question is actually a notebook filled with the names and numbers of a globe-spanning group of heroin suppliers, smugglers, dealers, and buyers. It's owned by a high-ranking gangster in NYC named Mr. Church, who is murdered by another gangster early in the novel -- as usual in an Olden novel, the villains constantly plot against one another and indeed are more responsible for knocking each other off than the heroes themselves. But also as usual in an Olden novel, things spiral quickly out of control for the characters.

Frank Spain is the name of the gangster who ordered the hit on Mr. Church; the hitmen are a trio of brutal, dirty cops. They make the hit as an orgy's in progress; one of the attendees is a busty stewardess named Betsy Kerwin (Olden reminds us quite often that the lady is busty, by the way) who occasionally prostitutes herself for some extra cash. In the bathroom when the hit goes down, Betsy is able to throw a topcoat over her nude body and escapes down the fire escape. Later she discovers that the heroin list has been stashed in her purse -- in a narrative bit that doesn't ring true, we're informed that Mr. Church liked to stash the list in odd places, to keep it safe, and the latest such place happened to be Betsy's purse while the orgy was going on.

The dirty cops give chase and soon a young narc-in-training is dead; not only was the guy Betsy's boyfriend, he was also Bolt's trainee. So now Bolt and his comrades at D-3 are determined to find the culprits behind the hit on Church. Bolt handles the brunt of the mission himself, burning for vengeance. He tracks down Betsy, and in another of those stellar Olden setpieces we have an ongoing action sequence that has Bolt getting hold of her shortly after the hit; Spain's hitmen set in upon them; Bolt and Betsy escape, commandeering a cab; the hitmen crash the cab and chase them on foot through the deserted streets of nighttime NYC; Bolt and Betsy break into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an unarmed Bolt heads for the Medieval section and arms himself with an ancient battle axe and crossbow bolts. It's a taut, exciting scene, the highlight of the novel.

Betsy escapes, though, and here The Death List sets into repetition. Now the rest of the novel comes off like an endless sequence of Bolt trying to find Betsy, only to lose her. Meanwhile the lady herself tries to make a buck; one of the names in the list belongs to a high-ranking US government official, and Betsy calls him with threats: if he doesn't get her some money, and quick, she'll turn the list over to the media. The official meanwhile calls his contact in France, the main heroin supplier in Church's list. The French contact promises the official that Betsy will soon be dead.

Somehow everyone ends up in Paris. Bolt's there too, posing as a Mafia hotshot; he's brought along a former girlfriend, an actual mob gal who's in love with Bolt but who lives under witness protection. For some reason that didn't make much sense, Bolt has brought this lady out of "retirment" so she can use her famous name to make it seem to the underworld that her branch of the Mafia family is in Paris because they know that Mr. Church's famous list is here, and they are interested in buying it.

What's strange is that the Paris scene is over and done with in a jiffy; we have another fine action scene in the airport, after which everyone flies back to the US. Everyone except for Betsy Kerwin, however, who in a moment of panic falls out of a grounded plane and breaks a bunch of bones. Her character then disappears from the novel and it's as if Olden realized he had too many characters to juggle and so disposed of her quickly, despite having built her up through the first half of the book. I really suspect that Olden made up these novels as he wrote, without the beneficial guidance of an outline, and sometimes the books suffer as a result.

Characters from previous novels return, including a black D-3 agent who works undercover as a pimp, going about in gaudy clothes and a big floppy hat. He and another agent serve as backup while Bolt continues posing as a Mafioso; with Betsy Kerwin out of the picture and the list gone (we learn that she mailed it to herself in Paris and it basically drops out of the narrative), Bolt now pretends that he in fact owns the list, so that the scum will come to him. And they do, Spain sending his trio of cops after it; and the cops, of course, want the damn list for themselves and plan to kill Bolt and set up Spain for the murder. Like I said, everyone's mind is always working in a Marc Olden novel.

So, not the greatest volume in the series, but still enjoyable. Also once again the cover shows events that actually happen in the book -- and look, there's the busty stewardess herself!

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Eagle Expeditor #5: Valley of Vultures

John Eagle Expeditor #5: Valley of Vultures, by Paul Edwards
December, 1973 Pyramid Books

Author Manning Lee Stokes returns to the Expeditor series with what is by far the best volume yet. Stokes's previous volumes came off as a bit too padded, wheel-spinning until the trademark finale where hero John Eagle would don his fancy chameleon suit and, armed with his dart gun, would launch an assault on some enemy fortress.

Stokes here dispenses with the repetitive nature of the previous four volumes of the series and turns in an incredibly lurid tale about a former Nazi concentration camp doctor who now runs a place in Ecuador where he hacks off the testicles of "jungle Indians" and surgically transfers them onto the bodies of rich old men! And there's more lurid stuff besides...lesbian porno movies that are filmed while John Eagle watches, a nymphomaniac German lady who "services" Eagle moments after meeting him and thereafter wants him all of the time, flashbacks to bizarre concentration camp sex experiments, even an Israeli secret agent who hides a metal tube in a certain part of her anatomy, and needs Eagle's assistance to get it out!

The only thing missing from Valley of Vultures is the expected tropes of the series: John Eagle wears his chameleon suit for only a page or two toward the very end of the novel and then buries it, and he doesn't even fire his dart gun once. Plus he has none of the fancy gimmicry of previous volumes; no exploding shoes, explosive arrows, mini-bike, anything. Indeed Eagle goes on this mission completely unarmed, and so must survive solely with his hands, feet, and wits.

Eagle's boss is Merlin, wheelchair-bound codger who lives in a high-tech fortress built into a Hawaii island. Merlin has a "double" who poses as him, living under Merlin's real name in Scotland. The double receives a sales-pitch from a clinic on a remote island in Ecuador which promises to give the old man new balls, literally. Merlin expects it's a joke but strange reports are coming out of Ecuador, including the deaths of various Israeli agents. Merlin also suspects that it has something to do with oil, as Merlin -- via his double -- owns a large portion of Ecuadorian oil interests. In other words, he figures this company is playing on the lustful minds of rich old men, offering them a chance to be young again but in reality luring them down to Ecuador so they can get control of them.

Merlin also knows that many Nazis escaped to Ecuador after the war, and he suspects their involvement in the scheme. Stokes here reveals a bit of a left-wing slant, which is unusual given the genre. While mulling over the increasing fascism of the world (with even a veiled dig at Nixon), Merlin delivers the following comment, which is especially ironic when you consider US foreign policy over this past decade:

There is little we can do about it in the large scale -- we are hoist by our own petard of democracy and can hardly send in an expeditionary force to enforce democracy on those who do not want it.

Ha! Safe to say, Merlin wouldn't have gotten much consulting work from the Dubya Bush administration.

Merlin sends in John Eagle, who appears very early in the tale, again a departure from previous volumes, where he didn't show up until midway through. He heads to Ecuador, posing as the young assistant of Merlin's double. Eagle decides to play his role as a smart-ass cynic, and he doesn't fail to piss off the Germans who run the place. (But as stated, he also succeeds in turning on the nymphomaniac, and how.) The place is run by the creepy Doctor Six, an old lecher who we learn was once a concentration camp doctor. Six's testicle-replacement operation actually works, and Eagle meets a wealthy old former Senator who is the only patient currently at the clinic; the man's undergone the surgery and can't wait to try out the improved equipment, so to speak.

A third of Valley of Vultures plays out more like a lurid and trashy novel, with hardly any action, yet it's still pretty engrossing. Stokes is a fine writer, too, never once POV-jumping and doling out a host of ten-dollar words. He has a great ability to set a scene and delivers several taut sequences, in particular when Eagle learns that Merlin's double has actually died (of natural causes), and so now Eagle must escape the island.

This whole sequence is the best in the novel, starting off with Eagle getting in a mortal-combat boxing match with a former Hitler Youth commander, later slitting the throat of another German, then getting intel from the female Israeli agent (who is posing as a whore on the island -- kept there by the staff to film movies to test the new equipment of patients before they engage in full-on sex), then watching as a porno is filmed, before finally making his escape! Certainly an eventful day in the life of John Eagle.

What's strange is, the last quarter of the novel seems to come from a different manuscript. Returning to headquarters in Hawaii, Eagle delivers the intel he received from the Israeli agent; Merlin reads it and it appears that Hitler has a son, one who now lives in a small German-only village in the jungles of Ecuador. Eagle is sent back to Ecuador, his assignment to assisnate Hitler's son. Doctor Six disappears, despite being set up as the villain of the piece -- in fact we learn of his death only later in the book. Now the novel appropriates the adventure-writing feel of previous novels, with lots and lots of jungle description and Eagle living off the land.

What's even stranger is that Eagle drops into the jungle with all of his equipment, including his bullet-proof chameleon suit, but quickly disposes of it. For some reason I didn't quite get, Eagle instead treks through a few hundred miles of jungle while posing as one of the natives. Why he couldn't just keep his suit and gadgets is beyond me; I suspect though it had more to do with filling pages (as with previous novels, Valley of Vultures is around 230 pages, well over the men's adventure norm).

During his jungle trek Eagle of course runs into more native Indians, as well as a pretty female Indian who latches onto him. This character, Chikka, is actually pretty fun in that she speaks in a patois of jive-talking English. But all things considered, this last quarter of the novel just seems like more of the same stuff we read in previous Expeditor novels from Stokes. It's to his credit then that he ends the novel with a literal bang, Eagle finally arriving at the German village, watching it from afar with a sniper rifle, and only seeing Hitler's son in the final two pages of the book.

For the record, this series is one of my favorites, despite its occasionally repetitive nature. Also as I've mentioned before, the Expeditor series is quite similar to The Baroness -- the same sort of literary style, the same sort of pulpish plots, even the same creator (Lyle Kenyon Engel). The difference, of course, being that Eagle is a guy, but also that he works alone whereas the Baroness needs a team. The biggest difference, for me at least, is how much better the Expeditor series is, in comparison; all those who enjoy the Baroness are heartily encouraged to give the Expeditor series a try.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Penetrator #13: Dixie Death Squad

The Penetrator #13: Dixie Death Squad, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1976 Pinnacle Books

This volume of The Penetrator is all about action. Mark K. Roberts turns in what is certainly the most gun-blazing installment of the series yet. His version of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin still isn't as sadistic as co-writer Chet Cunningham's, meaning Roberts doesn't dole out anything as excessive as Cunningham, but for all that he certainly writes a better action sequence. There are many inventive setpieces in Dixie Death Squad. In fact there's so much action that the plot itself just seems to disappear.

The book gets our attention from the outset, opening with our hero Hardin blowing away a bunch of cops with his Mac-11. Eventually we learn that these are dirty cops, hired by the mysterious Colonel King as a sort of invading party that has taken over a small town in Georgia. These "cops" are members of a large private army controlled by Colonel King, an army composed of mean sons of bitches, many of whom spent time in prison. They are slowly infiltrating and taking over various small towns in Dixie, a sort of warm-up exercise before a larger invasion is launched against the US itself.

The novelty is that Colonel King is a woman, an attractive blonde who served in the WAC (Women's Army Corps) but was drummed out of the military due to her gender. Discharged from the real army, Linda King decided to start her own. Beyond her army of delinquents, King also has a grander scheme -- posing as a pillar of society, she runs an orphanage for wayward kids. In reality though she is training these kids in guerrilla warfare and crime. Her plan, which on the face of it is kind of brilliant, is to use these kids as an undercover army. Say a government official was assassinated, or a bank was robbed...who in their right mind would suspect a child?

King's adult army of criminals trains the young army, and upon learning of this, Hardin is both sickened and outraged. Concocting a cover story, he poses as a soldier who spent time in the brig and is able to get drafted into King's army. He of course quickly comes to the lady's attention, handling himself better than anyone during drills and practice. To test him, King sends Hardin out with a team of men on an assassination job. The target is an African dignitary and Hardin's team will attack his entourage along the freeway.

This is the first of many action scenes. Hardin of course foils the plan, taking out his "comrades" and preventing the dignitary's death. He returns to King's headquarters beaten and bruised, claiming that the mission was compromised and that he was the only member of the team who was able to escape. King is as expected overwhelmed with Hardin's bravery and soon latches on to him.

Here Roberts inserts some weird stuff where it turns out that Linda King is even more insane than expected, in that she sometimes slips into another personality where she believes she is a southern belle living in antebellum Georgia. Most surprising is that this leads to a sex scene, I think the first full-on sex scene we've yet received in the series. A sex scene that contains the unforgettable line: Linda struggled and squealed, seeking to escape the hugeness that was forcing its way inside her. Yikes!

It's also pretty funny that Hardin, after a few hours of lovin', discovers that King has sent another team out on a mission of infiltration; they're planning to take over yet another town at midnight. Hardin drugs King, sneaks out, drives 90 minutes to the town, and systematically kills each and every member of the invasion party in yet another well-done action scene. After which he drives back, sneaks in, and lays down beside the still-sleeping Colonel King!

Gradually though the plot evaporates. Rather than play out Hardin's undercover work, Roberts instead has the Penetrator launch a full-on war against King's army. Literally the last half of the novel is an ongoing action scene. It's overwhelming, but it's still pretty great, beginning with Hardin blitzing his way through the compound. Some of the kid soldiers come after him, and Hardin goes to great lengths not to kill them. He of course shows no mercy to the adult soldiers.

From there the action proceeds to downtown Atlanta where King, her army in rout, unleashes her fallback plan: she sends out a squad of snipers to blast away at civilians. Urban warfare and chaos ensues, with a Federal SWAT team taking up the fight against King's soldiers. Here a subplot gets buried; the SWAT team has been officially tasked with scouring the nation to find the Penetrator, so they just happen to be here in Atlanta, and of course the commander eventually meets Hardin face to face and realizes he's a great guy, after all.

In his previous installments Mark Roberts was sure to always include an in-joke to other novels in Pinnacle's men's adventure line. This time he doesn't, but as I thought about it, it occurred to me that he might have done something a bit more involved this time out. In short, Dixie Death Squad is all action, from first page to last. Action scene after action scene, and during the battles Roberts documents every path of every bullet and the gore which proceeds from their impact. The book is very much in the vein of another Pinnacle series, Joseph Rosenberger's Death Merchant.

So rather than peppering his book with a few minor in-jokes, is it possible that Roberts intended the entirety of Dixie Death Squad itself is an in-joke, a parody of Rosenberger's action-heavy series? Probably not, but it's fun to consider.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Enforcer #4: Kill Deadline

The Enforcer #4: Kill Deadline, by Andrew Sugar
July, 1973 Lancer Books

The Enforcer series continues to become more of a dialog-driven mystery thriller, which is unfortunate given the pulpy action-filled charm of the first volume. I agree with Marty McKee on this one, as Kill Deadline is for the most part a rather tepid and slow-moving affair. It isn't as bad as Calling Doctor Kill, but it's nowhere as good as Enforcer #1.

Sugar continues to extol what I called in my review of Enforcer #3: Kill City "the lost art of being a guy." Kill Deadline is filled with scenes of guys sitting around as they smoke, drink brandy, and discuss serious issues. There's more drinking in Kill Deadline than the average episode of Bewitched. I lost track of the number of times hero Alex Jason would pour brandy over ice and gulp it down. Jason, a clone, has little concern over his health, and indeed relishes the fact that he can indulge in any vice he wishes, given that he only lives in each new clone body for 90 days.

However the clone aspect begins to wear thin with this volume. It also robs the series of a sense of danger. While on his latest mission, Jason even keeps a spare clone body handy in case he gets "killed!" In other words, no worries about mortal danger; all our hero has to do is have his brain mapped into a new body, and he can go right on enforcing.

One novel aspect this time is that Jason plans the mission himself, given that he's apparently the only person in the world who can connect the deaths of various millionaires. All of these men, dead of what appear to be natural causes, were each being considered for membership in the John Anryn Institute, ie the shadowy "looking out for the little guy" corporation for which Jason enforces.

Jason deduces that these men were killed by an individual who wishes to get inside the Institute. That individual could only be Alfred Lochner, Jason's nemesis since the first volume. The clues come together after a wealthy corporate bigshot is found dead hours after playing a looong game of poker with Jason and his other Institute buddies. (As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more boring to read about than poker.) The man's now dead and his young associate, certain to one day take ownership of the company, is at death's door. Both men were poisoned by mushrooms, but even the old lady who gave them the mushrooms is dead.

Figuring that someone is shadowing people looking to get into the Institute, Jason decides to pose as Richards, the associate who survived the poisoning. Going around in a wheelchair (due to the fact that the convalescing Richards can no longer walk), Jason is assisted by his gorgeous girlfriend Janet, who poses as "Richards's" nurse. This entails many more scenes of Jason talking to various cronies as he bides his time until someone tries to kill him.

There's lots and lots of talking in Kill Deadline. Jason comes off like quite the blowhard, especially given that he's the only person to ever figure out anything. As per his custom, Sugar spices things up every so often with sex scenes between Jason and Janet. But anyone who read Enforcer #1 knows that Jason suffers from the Death Wish curse -- anyone he loves is certain to meet an unfortunate end, and soon. Also as per custom, Sugar opens the novel with a scene that takes place toward the very end, with a beaten Jason meeting Lochner face-to-face, shortly before Lochner is to have Jason tossed into the Hudson. Then Sugar backtracks so that the majority of the novel comes off like Jason's reflections upon recent events.

A few lurid moments liven things up. For one, the cover depicts actual events in the book; in one of his schemes, Jason, posing as Richards, has Institute clones pretend to be goons who storm into a party and take "Richards" captive. Prying a shotgun from a clone in a rehearsed scene, Jason then blows the head off of a handy brainless clone body. For the life of me I couldn't figure out the point of this scene, as it had nothing to do with anything and didn't help Jason solve the mystery.

Even better is a scene late in the game where a gorgeous socialite comes into Jason's apartment while he's still posing as Richards. She kisses him and Jason is instantly smitten with her -- some sort of drug on her lipstick. She then takes off her top and has Jason go to town on her breasts. Endless detail here, the moral of which is that the lady's breasts are implanted with a poison that she squirts into men's mouths as they are sucking on her. You read that right. As Jason later refers to her, "The lady with the killer-tits." Now that would've made for the title of a book.

Kill Deadline only picks up in these final pages. As mentioned Jason suffers a personal loss but snaps out of it after a bit of mourning, using those handy mental powers of his. He goes after the killer, Darkhurst, whom Jason of course is able to unmask via goofy means. Darkhurst works for Lochner, and so Jason ends up facing his nemesis at the end of the novel. The villain again escapes, and Kill Deadline ends with Jason vowing that this time the Institute will go on the offensive; they're going to find Lochner and put him out of business.

Lancer Books was apparently uninterested in joining the fight. This was the last volume of the Enforcer they published, and it's certain they dropped the title, given the cliffhanger ending Sugar delivered. The series returned however in 1975, this time through Manor Books, who reprinted the Lancer originals. All of them, that is, except for Kill Deadline.

For some reason, Manor overlooked this particular volume of the series, not reprinting it until 1979, four years after they'd reprinted the other Lancer originals. The Manor edition of Kill Deadline is quite rare, and my suspicion is it was a scarce printing. Why? Because Manor really dropped the ball on it. For one, they didn't even commission a new cover painting, as they did with the other reprints. But also they screwed up the title, numbering the book "#6" in the series, when it was really #4. But worst of all, they even misspelled Sugar's name on the spine, writing it as "Angrew!"

After a lot of searching I was finally able to get a coverscan of the Manor edition of Kill Deadline:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Marksman #3: Kill Them All

The Marksman #3: Kill Them All, by Frank Scarpetta
No Month Stated, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books

Not only is this the first volume of the Marksman series to be published under the house name "Frank Scarpetta," it's also the smoking gun in the Marksman/Sharpshooter mystery. Other reviewers have noted how often Johnny "Sharpshooter" Rock is "mistakenly" referred to as "Magellan" in certain Sharpshooter novels -- ie, the writers screwing up and referring to the hero of the Marksman books. Kill Them All however proves that the writers were not at fault; those Sharpshooter novels were in fact written as volumes of the Marksman, only to later be changed by editors with poor copy-editing skills. And there would be no copyright issues involved, as Belmont-Tower and Leisure Books were one and the same.

To wit, Kill Them All is a sequel in all but name to Blood Bath -- aka the third volume of the Sharpshooter. The clue comes early on. Philip Magellan has traveled to the idyllic island of St. Thomas, the narrative informs us, to get away from the mob, the well as "Luci Sordi" and "his headquarters on Fish House Road." Luci Sordi is the name of the gorgeous mob wife who threw herself into the arms of Johnny Rock at the end of Blood Bath, and Fish House Road is the street in which "Rock" had his dank headquarters where he tortured captives with rats. The events of Blood Bath are referred to quite often in Kill Them All. Most importantly, the writing is identical -- this is the same divine madman who gave us Blood Bath, as well as Marksman #1: Vendetta (and possibly also Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath, which I'm now certain was also originally a Marksman novel, but I'll get to that one in a future Marksman review).

It makes sense in a way. The "Rock" of Blood Bath and Blood Oath is not the same Johnny Rock of The Killing Machine or even The Worst Way To Die. The "Rock" of Blood Bath and Blood Oath drugs up mobsters, strips them down, ties them up, and then tortures them. After which he will murder them in some sadistic fashion, treating the entire sick proceedings in a cold, emotionless fashion. In short, the "Rock" of Blood Bath and Blood Oath is a sick son of a bitch, much more terrifying than the "true" Johnny Rock of The Killing Machine, The Worst Way To Die, and others -- ie, a sick bastard himself, but one more "human," at least comparatively speaking.

However, drugging up victims, stripping them, and torturing them are all part and parcel of Philip Magellan's modus operandi. As stated on the back cover of Kill Them All, "When the Mafia murdered Magellan's wife and son they drained him of all human emotion. Overnight he became a killing machine, geared to perform one function -- wipe the mafia from the face of the earth." Magellan truly is an emotionless killing machine, especially in the volumes written by this "gifted" author, whoever he is. (And I don't believe it was Peter McCurtin -- if it was, why would his name have been removed from the series with this volume?)

Anyway. I contend that Blood Bath should not only be considered part of the Marksman series, but also that it should be read before Kill Them All, for those who prefer their series fiction to be chronological. (As for why Blood Bath was changed to a Sharpshooter volume, I'm guessing it was an editorial decision, probably to fill up a publication gap between The Killing Machine and The Worst Way To Die.) I'm also happy to report that Kill Them All is just as wacked-out and sick as Blood Bath...sure, there are no rats this time, but the author more than makes up for it with his incredibly warped imagination and sense of dark, dark humor.

The author must've also recently visited St. Thomas, as the novel's filled with topical detail. Magellan's come here to kill the proverbial two birds: to get some sun and waste some scum. He sets his sights on a local mobster, in particular monitoring how the guy smuggles heroin onto the island via a gorgeous stewardess. Magellan discovers that the girl is also working with the Russians, delivering part of her shipment to a Soviet ship. Rather than investigating, Magellan blows away the Russians, takes the girl, and drugs her right up. This becomes a recurring joke in Kill Them All; Magellan spends a full third of the novel drugging the girl and stashing her away somewhere. She doesn't even become sentient until the final quarter of the book.

He looks like a psycho creep on the cover, but Magellan must be popular with the ladies, as once again he picks up a pretty hippie girl who eagerly takes part in his schemes. There isn't much of a plot here. Tetti, the mob boss of St. Thomas, tries to kill Magellan, who in turn murders an endless string of Tetti's goons. Tetti gets the drop on Magellan early on, though it's actually Magellan's fault; Tetti owns most of the island, including all of the legitimate businesses. Magellan walks into a travel agency and gives his real name; Tetti, overhearing, can't believe it, as the mob has been searching the world for Magellan, and here the guy is just a few feet away. This time Magellan is the one who gets drugged and tied up, but of course he's able to free himself.

After which Magellan becomes the sick bastard we know. Freeing himself and killing the two goons who were guarding him, Magellan chops the guards into tiny pieces, first carving out their hearts to take along with him. (Just as he sawed off that hippie's head in Vendetta and carried it around with him.) Magellan later kills another pair of goons and then loops the hearts around their necks, I guess as a sign to the world of his sickness. As with this writer's previous volumes, the focus here is on bizarre acts of violence and sadism.

More of a lurid aspect is introduced when the author reveals that Magellan's special drug also has an aphrodisiacal side effect. (This was also demonstrated in Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath.) When Magellan finally allows the stewardess to regain consciousness, he sits by and watches as the girl "rapes" a pair of similarly-bound, drugged, and horny cops whom Magellan has also captured. After which the girl becomes a satiated comrade in Magellan's war, lying naked on his lap and purring like a cat! Weird scenes inside the goldmine.

As has become custom, the finale is rushed. Tetti calls in a group of Mafia hotshots as a special team to kill Magellan. Rather than a climatic battle scene, the author instead has Magellan rent a boat, take it out into the sea, and blast Tetti's fortress from afar with a grenade launcher. After which he says goodbye to his two female accomplices and decides to leave St. Thomas. And of course, Magellan doesn't just say "goodbye" to the girls, he also drugs them. But at least he leaves them some cash. That Magellan is very fond of his drugs.

The writing is just as skewed as the story. Some of the topical detail is picturesque, and the dialog is goofy and funny. Other scenes are rough and confused, with the awkward sentence structure familiar from Vendetta and Blood Bath; you have to read many of the sentences twice just to figure out what the hell they're saying. The closest style to this that I know of would be Dean W. Ballenger, of Gannon infamy. Both authors have the same bizarre approach to syntax and narrative, as well as a gloriously warped sense of dark humor. This author especially demonstrates his gift by following moments of sick violence with incidental detail, for example going on about how "carefully" Magellan drives...after we've just seen him chop up a few goons.

Finally, Belmont-Tower goofed in the publication order. Kill Them All is directly continued in HeadHunter, which was published fifth in the series. The fourth published volume, Mafia Wipe-Out, features Magellan back in the States, whereas Kill Them All ends with Magellan in St. Thomas and HeadHunter opens with Magellan in St. Thomas. So unless the guy discovered a teleporter on the island, it's safe to say that the volumes were published out of order.

I've written a long article that delves further into the Marksman/Sharpshooter connections which will appear in an upcoming issue of Justin Marriott's Paperback Fanatic. I'll post more information once Justin determines which issue it will appear in.

ADDENDUM: I wrote the above review a few weeks ago -- I usually write these reviews several weeks in advance and just set them to post at a future date -- and since writing it I've gotten in touch with Leonard Levinson, who of course wrote a handful of Sharpshooter novels. Levinson confirmed for me that Belmont-Tower and Leisure Books were indeed the same company; further, he told me that the same editor ran both lines -- Peter McCurtin! This only makes it all the more would mean, then, that McCurtin himself chose to take his name off of the Marksman series, using instead the "Frank Scarpetta" house name. Levinson isn't sure if McCurtin himself actually wrote any of the Sharpshooter or Marksman books, though.

3/9/12 UPDATE: After a lot of fruitless research, I've finally gotten confirmation (via a 1973 edition of the Catalog of Copyright Entries) that this novel was actually written by Russell Smith. It appears that Smith is the "gifted" author who gave us the more lurid volumes of the Marksman and the Sharpshooter, and I will update my previous reviews accordingly.