Thursday, September 27, 2012
The Sharpshooter #7: Headcrusher, by Bruno Rossi
June, 1974 Leisure Books
The only problem with Headcrusher is that it was the last volume of The Sharpshooter to be written by Len Levinson. Otherwise it’s the best installment of the series yet, melding Levinson’s strong writing and inventive characterization with the sadistic brutality of Blood Bath. Even though it was only #7 in the series, Headcrusher almost acts as a finale, with “hero” Johnny Rock finally settling the score with the mobsters who killed his family back in #1: The Killing Machine.
There’s an air of finality to the book, and not just when Rock visits a lawyer to have his will drawn up. I’ve yet to read my way through the series, so I wonder if the true last volume of the series, Mafia Death Watch, by Dan Reardon, has any sense of series-conclusion to it. Levinson states here that Rock has been fighting the Mafia for three years, and he’s getting worn out – that lawyer, an old family friend, even tells Rock he looks like he’s aged ten years in the past three. A fitting conclusion to Headcrusher of course would be for Rock to go out in a blaze of glory, but needless to say this doesn’t happen, though he does take a lot of damage here.
With this novel Levinson has perfected his version of Johnny Rock. In Levinson’s hands he is now a combination of the neurotic “Johnny” of Levinson’s earlier two novels in the series and the sadistic fiend of Russell Smith. The first big clue is that now Levinson refers to our hero solely as “Rock,” which of course sounds a lot more tough than the plain old “Johnny” of his previous offerings. Also Rock this time out could give lessons in being a bad-ass to Jim “Slaughter” Brown; there are several laugh-out-loud instances where Rock will put someone in place with a caustic remark, or just be mean for no reason, such as when he’s having sex with a hooker who tells him, “Ooooh, you do it so good.” Rock’s response: “Shut up.”
Anyway, Rock’s back in New York City, where he’s been hanging out in mob-frequented bars in the hopes of tracking down his family’s killers. He strikes gold when a pair of hitmen come in, conveniently blabbing about some of the jobs they’ve done in the past, one of them being the “Rocetti hit” a few years before. Ie, Rock’s family. Rock follows them and before wasting them finds out that they got the job to hit his family from someone named Mackie Malanga.
Malanga is another of those Levinson characters who springs from the pages of the book. A greaseball who runs the Venus Massage Parlor on Eigth Avenue, Malanga is thoroughly perverted and sick. Of course, the “massage girls” in the rundown place are hookers, but he makes his true money with the friggin’ kids he keeps locked away in the basement, where they are taken advantage of by creeps who pay Malanga fortunes for the opportunity. Malanga’s business model is sick but ingenious; he runs a racket so that the kids are picked up off the street by a “priest” who sends them to an “orphanage” – the orphanage being the basement of the Venus Massage Parlor.
Rock learns all of this shortly after arriving on the scene, screwing one of the hookers, and inadvertently saving Malanga’s life when a group of rival mobsters show up with guns blazing. Rock, who of course was just taking the opportunity to kill more Mafia, takes advantage of the fact that Malanga is instantly indebted to him, and soon enough Rock’s the guy’s right-hand man, giving orders to the other mobsters and schmoozing around with the motormouthed Malagna, ie the guy who killed Rock’s entire family.
Levinson works in some Godfather material here with a war going on between Malanga’s boss, Don Salvatore, and another don who wants a piece of Salvatore’s kingdom in Manhattan. Rock spends a long portion of Headcrusher acting as a mob enforcer, leading hitmen on raids against other families and gunning down traitors in cold blood. There’s even an involved part where Rock remembers he’s dubbed “The Sharpshooter” and scouts out the rival don from a rooftop, waiting to blow him away with a sniper shot.
Throughout Rock reminds himself that this is a great opportunity to keep killing mobsters; of course, he could care less about internecine strife in the Mafia. He also takes advantage of the fringe benefits of being Malanga’s right-hand man; Malanga tells Rock to feel free to sleep with as many of “the girls” as he’d like, and Rock does so. As expected, a friendship builds between the two, with Rock realizing he’s in the strange predicament of actually liking the man who killed everyone he ever loved. (In one sequence there's a humorous goof where Malanga refers to Rock as "Rock," and not by the name he's posing under, something Levinson must've missed in his edit.)
Not that this prevents Rock from being the hero we know and love. Anyone who has read Levinson’s previous two entries in the series knows that his presentation of Johnny Rock is full of surprises; Levinson will lull you into the character’s mindset and, just as you’re thinking Rock’s somewhat “heroic” (in that he only kills mobsters), Levinson will have him pull something thoroughly shocking, like in #4: The Worst Way To Die when he started sniper-shooting a group of people at a mob funeral, including young women who obviously had nothing to do with anything.
Rock pulls similar antics here, particularly near the climax when he gets a one-on-one meeting with Don Salvatore and his family. This actually leads into a well-done chase scene. Headcrusher is a little stronger in the action department than previous books in the series. There are several scenes of Rock blasting away at gun-wielding goons, either on his own or while leading Malanga’s men on raids. Rock’s main choice of weaponry is a Mauser, which he uses to blow off several faces.
It’s interesting to note that Levinson has Rock partake of drugs pretty frequently, which of course brings to mind Levinson’s The Last Buffoon. Rock smokes grass a few times with one of the massage parlor hookers, and later meets up with a group of hippies who also offer him a few joints. When one of the hippies sees that Rock looks tired (and he is, he’s been running from mobsters all night), she offers him a snort of coke. Rock likes it so much that he takes some with him, snorting it before his climatic battle! I wonder how that went over with (what I assume was) the largely blue-collar/conservative Republican readership of the series.
But again, this is a fun descent into lurid delights that one would expect from mid-‘70s Leisure Books, with the squalor of New York City brought fully to life. As mentioned, Mackie Malanga’s business affairs are thoroughly depraved (and Rock does prove himself a hero by freeing those enslaved kids), innocent people usually suffer most in the many violent skirmishes, and the sex is more nasty than erotic, usually Rock just “fucking one of the girls.” The only bright spots come courtesy of unexpected sources, like Don Salvatore’s attractive young niece, another of those strong female characters Levinson creates, one who has an instant rapport with Rock, making the reader expect one thing is about to happen when something entirely else does.
It’s a shame Levinson wasn’t kept on as the permanent writer for the series, as he does great things with Rock, turning out a twisted psychopath who still somehow manages to be likable. Or at least, enjoyable to read about. But as mentioned, Headcrusher has a note of finality to it, so it was only apt that this was Levinson’s last entry in the series.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Be A Tiger In Bed, by Paul Warren
November, 1975 Pinnacle Books
(Original publication October, 1971)
Like most other publishers in the early ‘70s, Pinnacle tried to cash in on the success Dell Books enjoyed with their Sensuous Woman and Sensuous Man books. There were many such sex-focused books at the time, all of them offering tips from “experts,” as well as ones that provided overviews of particular kinks, such as the already-reviewed Group Sex Scene.
Be A Tiger In Bed was originally published by Pinnacle in 1971 as How To “Make It” 365 Days A Year. Author Paul Warren is a fun writer, often going into tangents that have no bearing on the topic at hand. It comes off as very obvious that he’s trying to fill space, yet he does so in such a humorous way that you can’t complain.
For it must be noted that, for a book that advertises itself as a guide for men to become “tigers,” Be A Tiger In Bed offers little in the way of guidance or instruction. In fact little attention is even paid to how men can meet women, let alone how to get them into bed. Instead, Warren barrels through 19 short chapters, doling out “tips” without any idea of an outline or theme. We go from learning “how to spot a sensuous woman” in one chapter to reading about how most “true stories” in sex-focused tabloids are fictional in the next.
Warren just sort of jumps from one topic to the next, all of which continues to imply that this was a quick exploitation of The Sensous Man. In fact Warren uses this exact term to describe the ideal reader of this book (not to mention that also in 1971 he published through Pinnacle a book titled The Sensual Male); the idea is, you read this, follow its guidelines, and you will transform into a “sensuous man,” able to spot sensous women out of the pack, able to carry off affairs and one-night stands with aplomb.
But again, the biggest failing is that Warren offers no tips on how to get there. One of the most enjoyable things about these old sex books is the tips on how a guy can pick up a woman, but Warren offers no such wisdom. Instead he gives vague tips on how to spot the tigresses, and also how to keep them happy in bed, but when it comes to how to get them in bed, he says nothing. But then, the book was published in the early ‘70s, right at the height of the free-lovin’ sexual revolution, so it probably didn’t take much effort.
Warren does serve up some guidance in the chapters that focus on bedroom activities. Here the reader gets all manner of sexual tips on how to keep his lady happy (most of them of an oral nature), but again a lot of it is the same as what you’d find in any of the other sex books of the era. And while as stated little attention is paid on how to actually pick up women, Warren does give an overview of how to make yourself more attractive to them: stay in shape (“push back from the table” and work out three times a week) and be in style (check out current issues of Playboy and find less-expensive variations of the styles at your local store).
Warren really shines in the page-filling arena, from chapters on how you can overcome your “anxieties” about “becoming a sensuous male” to even breaking down various “myths” about the sensual life. This leads into my favorite bit in the book, where Warren, somehow finding himself on the topic of how men’s magazines of the time (ie 1971) are filled with bullshit “true” stories of sexcapades, dreams up a scenario in which a writer is meeting with his editor and trying to come up with a new sex story that will appeal to the readers. The whole thing reads like something out of Joe Goldberg’s Quickies.
As expected, Be A Tiger In Bed is filled with anecdotes of things that either happened to Warren or “friends.” In each case these scenarios have the ring of fiction, also as expected. Warren in fact outs himself in an early chapter, relating how he was paid fifty bucks per story by a tabloid for creating “true life” tales (which were completely fictional) of a sexual nature. Another standout section, with Warren relating how he dreamed up a storyline of a guy in a rabbit suit taking advantage of a gal on Easter Sunday, and how the ensuing story went over like gangbusters with both the tabloid’s editors and the readers themselves.
Anyone familiar with the men’s adventure magazines of the mid-‘60s through their end in the mid-‘70s will read Be A Tiger In Bed with a feeling of déjà vu, as the whole book has the same feel as the sex articles in those magazines. Only, it lacks a little of the groovy feel of the era, something that was much more pronounced in The Sensuous Woman and others.
But then, it’s a quick and breezy read, and Warren manages to sound both sincere and jaded (in the “I’m only doing this for the money” sort of way) at the same time. And his “this happened to a friend of mine” stories are pretty fun, too. There are better and more fun sex books from the early ‘70s out there, though, and I will be reviewing some of them eventually.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Mace #3: The Year of the Rat, by Lee Chang
No month stated, 1974 Manor Books
Joseph Rosenberger returns as "Lee Chang" for another installment of the fight-filled Mace series, and let me tell you, these books are getting harder and harder to endure. For one, Rosenberger here drops the bell-bottom fury vibe which (sort of) saved the first two volumes, replacing it with the feel of just another installment of the Death Merchant.
Victor Mace, we learn in the opening pages, has taken extensive CIA training since the last volume and is now a secret agent working for the US government! Other than the many, many references to specific kung fu or martial arts moves, The Year of the Rat could easily be a Death Merchant novel. Just like Richard Camellion, Mace is a cipher who accepts his job without emotion and proceeds to kill everyone with even less emotion. Oh, and sometimes he wears a ninja costume.
But yeah, Mace is now basically an Asian 007; skilled in all manner of subterfuge and modern weaponry. Not that he uses modern weaponry, mind you. There’s an action scene (one of many) where Mace goes in with a Browning Hi-Power in a shoulder holster, and I spent the entire endless damn time waiting for him to blow someone’s head off, just due to the fact that it would be something different than yet another belabored martial arts sequence, but he never even took it out of the damn holster!
Well anyway, the “plot” this time concerns some “Red Chinese” who are infiltrating spies in through French Canada, Ottawa to be precise. Mace is hired to go up there and see what’s what. But as is typical with a Rosenberger tale, Mace’s cover is blown on like the first page, and it’s straight into the fighting. He has a mere two contacts, an American CIA guy and his Canadian girlfriend, and though Mace realizes one of them has set us up, Rosenberger doesn’t bother to tell us who it was until literally the last two pages of the book, well after the action has moved on from Ottawa.
And as for that Canadian locale, Rosenberger doesn’t do much to bring it to life, other than mentioning the odd building or street, or to feature a soon-to-be-wasted French-Canadian thug who speaks in stilted English. There’s also an assault on the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, but this too devolves into an endless fight scene. What I’m saying is, plot, locale, and narrative all suffer at the hands and feet of Mace’s endless damn kung-fu fighting.
Let me give you an idea of what the book is like:
Mace’s cover is blown. Fight. Fight. Fight. Shuto chop. “We’re going to spread this virus across the US, my Communist brothers!” Fight. Fight. Fight. Flying sidekick followed by Shuto chop. “The world is going to end in 1980 -- this is why.” Fight. Fight. Fight. Spinning back kick followed by Shuto chop. “My son, when one seeks to kill a rat, one must proceed directly into the nest!” Fight. Fight. Fight. Reverse monkey kick followed by Shuto chop. “We’ve gotta kill that Chink!” Fight. Fight. Fight. Roundhouse kick followed by Shuto chop. “That Chink’s killing us!” Fight. Fight. Fight. Explosion of getaway helicopter followed by Shuto chop. The end.
It wears you down. It seems clear to me that Rosenberger figured he had settled upon the craft for writing action fiction, and nothing in the world was going to budge his conviction. Fight, fight, fight, fight. Which would be fine, if every damn scene wasn’t written out to the nth degree, and if everything wasn’t so repetitive! A reader can only endure so many back-to-back fight scenes before he can take no more.
As usual though, the only saving factor here is Rosenberger himself, but this time he seems less unhinged than in the previous books. I mean, as far as the sadistic violence goes, he’s still there -- he as ever takes delight in describing every detail of the deaths of those who fight Mace. But this time he doesn’t do as much of the goofy stuff as in the first two books, like jumping into the POV of some hapless stooge, or churning out his patented unusual turns of phrase. There are a few instances to be sure, but not as many as I’d want.
Even the conspiracy/hidden knowledge stuff is toned down, other than a part where Mace tells his Ottawa contacts -- with complete conviction -- that the world will end in 1980, due to various “prophesized” events. I kept wanting to yell at him, “You’re wrong, asshole! Wrong!” Not that I usually yell at books, but Mace is so damn annoying…I mean he is never wrong, and blitzes through the book constantly correcting or belittling others. What I’m saying is, he’s a dick.
None of the characters spark to life, save perhaps for the Canadian girl who worries about her boyfriend and has the audacity to question how Mace is always right. (Of course, she turns out to be the traitor.) Mace’s CIA goon-pals are also ciphers; toward the end when Rosenberger writes that one or two of them died in the final melee, you have no idea who the hell he’s talking about. I mean, there’s nothing to tell them apart. And the same goes for the Red Chinese villains, each a clone of the other. Plus the constant barrage of Chinese names causes reader confusion -- and mind you, my in-laws are Chinese!
Anyway, I’m just bearing through these until I can get to the sixth volume, The Year of the Boar, which was written by Len Levinson. It will come as a definite relief after the fight-heavy monotony of these Rosenberger offerings.
Monday, September 17, 2012
The Death of the Fuhrer, by Roland Puccetti
December, 1973 Fawcett Gold Medal
They’ll never save your brain now, Hitler!
-- Grampa Simpson
I read about this forgotten novel in Bill Pronzini’s Son of Gun in Cheek, specifically in the chapter about sex in mystery/thriller fiction. Pronzini gave a certain sex scene in The Death of the Fuhrer the “Alternative Sex Scene To End All Sex Scenes” award, quoting the scene in full. Unfortunately said scene ruined one of the novel’s biggest surprises, but then, as Mike Madonna notes, the cover for one of the UK paperback editions did the same.
The novel was first published in 1972 in the UK, receiving a hardcover edition that same year in the US via St Martin’s Press. A Fawcett paperback followed, and I’ve used that cover here, as it’s the best of them all, mostly because it captures the book’s pulpy tone. For The Death of the Fuhrer is a men’s adventure in all but name; it could easily be another installment of Nick Carter, what with its reborn Nazi plot and generic but heroic protagonist who narrates his own adventure for us.
Our hero is Karl Gisevius, and we meet him in a brief prologue set in 1972 (I guess), in a two-page sequence that is not narrated in third person. Gisevius is old and living in Switzerland; while playing a game of solitary chess he encounters an American tourist, and claims he can tell the young man the “truth” behind the death of Hitler. This then takes us to the story proper, “twenty years ago,” all of it relayed in the first-person narrative of Gisevius, a la Gary Jennings or something.
One issue I had with this novel is that, although it takes place in 1952 or so, I still kept getting confused and thinking it took place in 1972. Everyone acts like the war was years and years ago, even though it was only a few short years before. Puccetti himself I feel got confused here, and it doesn’t help that he has an unsure handling of his tenses. Gisevius’s narrative jumps from past-tense to present, which I guess is supposed to convey the feeling that he’s telling us this story, as people jump tenses in everyday speech, but still it comes off as clumsy.
Also, it must be mentioned that Gisevius is an idiot. Well, maybe only half an idiot. He rushes headlong through this novel, overlooking simple things and lacking even a grain of forethought. He never would’ve gotten into the Boy Scouts, that’s for sure, as the guy’s never prepared. Not only that, but just about every time he sneaks around in this novel (and he sneaks around a lot), he's always sure to bump into things or knock something over, like a regular Mr. Bean. Anyway, Gisevius was a doctor, or something, but now after the war he works as a reporter in Paris.
Gisevius meets an old Russian doctor who claims to have been part of the team that went into Hitler’s Bunker when the Soviets took it over. Again, Puccetti treats the character like he’s ancient and as if he’s recalling events that happened decades before, not five years ago. Anyway the guy has it that Hitler’s corpse lacked a brain, and the brain was missing, and Gisevius convinces his editor that there’s a story here, and next thing you know Gisevius is sneaking into the Soviet section of Berlin.
His entry into the closed-off Bunker is pretty hilarious, as it’s the first indication of our hero’s ineptitude. In a sequence that almost comes out of TNT, Gisevius worms his way down through a claustrophobia-inducing shaft and into the abandoned complex. Only now, after an hour or so of toil, does the guy realize he only brought one flashlight, no batteries, and didn’t even realize that the air down here might not be breathable! More TNT stuff ensues as Gisevius fights for air as he investigates the eerie surroundings.
But his luck is just as powerful as his ineptitude, and Gisevius is able to discover a hidden chamber in here, one which leads him into an apparent operating room. Gisevius knows the signs of brain surgery when he sees them; in fact, thanks to an engraved scalpel he finds in the mess, he even knows who was behind the surgery – Willi Tranger, an old doctoral school chum of Gisevius’s, from the days before the war.
Able to escape the Bunker, Gisevius works his underground contacts and tracks Willi down to a castle in the mountainous regions of Spain – a castle under apparent guard, with soldiers roving behind the gates, machine pistols in hand. Gisevius has not seen Willi since those days in doctoral school; Gisevius, we learn, turned against the Nazi party and ended up working for the OSS during the war, even becoming a US citizen. Willi meanwhile was a true-blue Nazi, joining the party and becoming a high-ranking SS officer.
Gisevius’s plan to get into the castle is another instance of his stupidity: he drives a friggin’ motorcycle right through the gates, in the hopes that they’ll just think he’s a lost tourist and Willi will come upon the scene of the accident and recognize his old pal. That’s pretty much what happens, though of course Gisevius nearly breaks his neck and is almost killed by Willi before he regains consciousness – seems that the Germans who live in this castle don’t want any visitors.
It turns out there’s a minor assembly of former Nazi officers living here, Willi overseeing them. Gisevius is granted a bit of leeway, allowed to stay with them, thanks to his former friendship with Willi plus some doctored papers he has with him, ones which make him appear to be a former SS hotshot himself. Gisevius meets the freaks and is instantly smitten with one of them, a gorgeous blonde named the Baroness, who shortly calls Willi to her chamber for dinner. (This dinner occurs after a sequence where Gisevius, sneaking around the castle in the middle of the night like Bruce Lee on Han’s island, finds himself in the Baroness’s quarters and hides behind the curtains while he watches her parade around her room in the nude.)
The dinner leads to the sex scene Pronzini quoted in full, and it’s a doozy for sure. Long story short, and skip here if you don’t want the surprise ruined, but the Baroness’s body contains Hitler’s brain! Yes, Gisevius discovers this right after the two have had sex. After their simultaneous orgasms the Baroness screams, “Ich ben der Fuhrer!” and Gisevius instantly hops off the bed and puts a nearby sword through her chest. You have to at least give the guy credit for quick reactions.
The novel takes on a Clockwork Orange vibe as Gisevius is caught and Willi implants a mental control device in his brain. Next thing you know, Gisevius is being controlled to do all sorts of things, and with the push of a button Willi can make Gisevius be consumed with rage, sorrow, etc. In the most laughable scene in the novel, Willi even makes Gisevius screw a couch!
Oh, and meanwhile Willi’s preparing to put Hitler’s still-living brain in another body, this time a sturdy young German who has given himself to the cause. The Baroness we learn was also a Hitler supporter, and sacrificied herself in those last hours in the Bunker after there was a problem with the original body that was to hold Hitler’s brain; further, Willi informs us that Hitler was righteously pissed to wake up in a woman’s body, but soon learned to love it, due to the fact that “the brain is bisexual.”
You’d think that Gisevius would be a goner, but in another bizarre sequence he’s able to perform brain surgery on himself. The entire finale continues on this lurid, hyper-weird vibe, as Gisevius staggers about the castle, steals an old Luger, blows away a few blackcoats, and settles the score with Willi. The two fight in the bowels of the place, Gisevius having set off the James Bond villain-esque self-destruct mechanism which will destroy the entire castle. He also makes his escape on an underground railcar in a finale that comes off like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a few decades early.
Puccetti ends the novel on a punchline, taking us back to that forgotten opening bit in 1972, or whenever the hell it takes place. Personally I found the epilogue just as unnecessary as the prologue; we already know the novel is pulp, there’s no need to try to explain it all away. The Death of the Fuhrer was apprently forgotten, despite receiving a few different printings, only revived by Pronzini in his 1986 book. As for Puccetti, he is as forgotten as the book, and as obscure; I can only find one other novel under his name, The Trial of John and Henry Norton, from 1973.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
As promised, here’s the second half of my interview with David Alexander. Hope you enjoy!
You also worked on the C.A.D.S. series, published by Zebra Books under the name John Sievert, correct? How did you become involved with that series, and which volumes did you write?
I wrote the last few of these. My interest at the time wasn't in writing the series but in finding a new publisher, as I'd moved on from Leisure, and wanted to contract with a house that would give me broader scope for new and advanced projects. C.A.D.S. was, first, last and always, a "foot in the door" job that, as the description implies, would hopefully lead to bigger and better things. Unfortunately I learned before long that I’d blundered. When a writer accepts a project like C.A.D.S. with only vague promises of "being taken along," and similar catchphrases, that writer will more often than not wind up being typecast as something lower than a Johnny pump before the ink has dried on the first advance check.
Curiously, though, I'm frequently asked by readers about whether I'm planning a C.A.D.S. sequel. I seem to have inherited the mantle of C.A.D.S. authorship purely by being the last man standing, as the first two chroniclers of Dean Sturgis and company seem to have vanished without a trace.
C.A.D.S. was, like Phoenix, a post-nuke action series, only the series was created by someone else (authors Ryder Stacy). Did you approach it differently than Phoenix?
As the foregoing should indicate I approached it in a manner that was in many if not most ways diametrically opposite to how I approached Phoenix. Also, in complete candor, I don't consider C.A.D.S. as part of the cannon of my work. It was work for hire, conceived by others. I was just basically mopping up.
There’s a part in Z-Comm #1 where the hero assumes the covername “Coltray,” which happens to be the title of a three-volume series you later published under your own name. What’s the story behind that series?
Coltray was a specialist operative who worked solo but had ties to official law and intelligence agencies. Coltray was in some ways a one-man Z-Comm, although he generally assembled a team before going into action. The reason that the Coltray series had my byline was because I wasn't putting up with any more of the same house-name nonsense of the sort that had already given the world "Kyle May-ning."
I’m also curious about your work with Gold Eagle, for example the Nomad and Slam series. What was it like working with Gold Eagle? You mention on your site that they edited your manuscripts for Nomad (which you offer in the original forms on your site); what all did GE change, and why?
The Nomad ebooks I've made available on my website for free download are based on the original manuscripts of the four-book Nomad Miniseries that I proofread and lightly edited a few years ago. I plan to revise them in the near future to make downloads more compatible with tablet readers and whatever else is currently the latest and greatest. Working with Gold Eagle is the subject of mixed emotions, but there were some positives.
At any rate, the edits referred to seemed to reflect an attempt not only to Bowdlerize anything even remotely suggestive, but also to grind down any and all the edginess of the writing, wherever edginess was to be found. Beyond this there were totally off-the-wall and gratuitous emendations that seemed to have no rhyme or reason for having been made.
I countered each hatchet job on my Nomad manuscripts with faxed lists of stuff I demanded be changed back to the way I'd originally written it. Comparing those lists against the published books, I found that although some of my demands had been met, others had not.
Were there any other series you worked on, under your own name or a pseudonym?
Possibly. Fortunately or otherwise, I seem to have forgotten them like Nixon forgot the Plumbers in the basement.
In your Writing The Action Scene article, you mention performing an overview of the action-series genre before you began writing Phoenix. You further mention, correctly, that none of them were like Phoenix; which series did you read, and were there any you enjoyed? Did you maintain any interest in what was going on in the world of action-series fiction while you were working on Phoenix and your other series titles?
I enjoyed a number of things in the course of planning and writing the Phoenix series, but not all of them were action series. Other sources of inspiration were fiction and nonfiction books of many types, as well as movies. I liked Rolling Thunder, the '70s movie that they're still blogging about in which actor William Devane returns home as a Vietnam vet and discovers, somewhat like Ulysses at the conclusion of the Iliad and Odyssey cycles, that home base ain’t what it used to be, and needs some serious cleaning up.
The great line in that movie is, "You learn to love the rope." You can Google that and it still gets a zillion hits, just like for, "Say hello to my little friend." In many ways I thought of Phoenix as a character who also had to learn to "love the rope" in order to survive in post-nuclear hell.
I also found inspiration in Mad Max, which had some memorable lines among its riffs and hooks, such as, "He goes to water over a dummy," and, “Perhaps it was a result of anxiety,” which I still quote at times.
I know you have moved on from action-series fiction. What projects are you currently working on? How has your experience been in the world of eBooks?
In fiction I'm currently working on several things, including a project I'd put away some time ago and had believed, until I sought to read it again, that it was only a short proposal. It was, in fact, a fair-sized manuscript. I'd always liked its concept and still do. It seemed to cry out to be completed. As to ebooks, I think they’re obviously the future of publishing, but I also think that printed books will continue to play a significant role in it.
Which of your own books are your favorites, and why?
I've favored Machine Breakers. I wrote it as literary fiction that I hoped would also appeal to a more commercially oriented audience. Despite or because of the different approaches to narrative I took, including an invented language and casting aside conventional sentence structure, as well as using some techniques I devised such as one I call "chaosing," (which, as the term implies, is the deliberate introduction of chaos or noise into the prose narrative slipstream), the book has been remarkably accessible to a wide range of readers, despite my belief that it would appeal only to small number of them.
I'll go so far as to say that I've always considered it an alternative Phoenix story insofar as it's set in a dystopian universe, as well as in the immediate aftermath of a series of apocalyptic events, and the characters that strut and fret their hour upon the stage have also been warped and disfigured by war and technological innovation run amok.
Ultimately I try not to adore any of my efforts either from the past or those on which I'm currently working. I'm too oriented toward scrutinizing them for faults and defects. As Swift observes by way of Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnagians, even the most seemingly flawless human beings show massive imperfections when an observer the size of a fly crawls across their bodies. That's also something like my point of reference to my own writing, and I think (at least hope) it helps me overcome my limitations and develop beyond them.
Still and all, I have to admit to holding Phoenix in a special place, though I probably couldn't say exactly why this happens to be so.
Monday, September 10, 2012
The Executioner #4: Miami Massacre, by Don Pendleton
October, 1970 Pinnacle Books
The Executioner series continues to barrel full steam ahead as Mack Bolan, shortly after the events in the previous volume, heads down to Miami to bust up some more Mafia scum. By now Don Pendleton is working out the series details, and Bolan is becoming more of the archetypal hero and less of the three-dimensional character of the first three volumes. Don’t get me wrong, Bolan’s still a lot more “human” than most any men’s adventure protagonist (at least, in Pendleton’s hands he is), but with Miami Massacre he takes one step closer to becoming the “blacksuit”-garbed, Warwagon-driving murder machine of the later volumes.
Another Pendleton hallmark is opening action scenes, and once again he doesn’t disappoint. Bolan comes down hard on a mob stronghold in Phoenix, Arizona, closing in on the boss, who manages to escape. The guy is on his way to Miami, and Bolan also learns a Mafia summit will take place there, the main topic of discussion being the Executioner himself.
One issue with these early books is a lack of a good villain. In the previous two novels we had “Deej,” who really wasn’t all that much competition for Bolan. Miami Massacre doesn’t even feature one good main villain; the novel opens with Bolan hunting down a mafioso in Phoenix, and we assume the guy’s going to be the antagonist throughout. Instead, Bolan wastes him just a few pages later with some sniping skills. After that Pendleton switches the focus to another young mobster in Miami who is so similar to the one from Phoenix that I kept thinking it was the same guy.
However Pendleton here introduces the Talifero brothers, a pair of blonde-haired enforcers who employ their own army (the Taliferi) and who answer to no one. Pendleton doesn’t elaborate on the brothers much, doesn’t even really tell them apart, but it’s obvious he is working them up into greater threats who will return in future volumes. At any rate, the Talifero boys are called in to head up security for the mob summit meeting in Miami, and Bolan has to figure out how to get in around the heavy security and still waste a bunch of mobsters.
Pendleton continues his strange style of showing and telling. His novels open with great blockbuster action sequences, ones that just keep gaining momentum, but then he’ll go back and recap for a chapter or two, usually through the dialog of cops who arrive late on the scene. In each case, these guys just inform us of stuff we already know. And also, the cops this time out are basically rehashes of the California cops back in Death Squad; one of them is even the same as Carl Lyons, a young guy who begins to think the Executioner is the bee’s knees.
But with this volume Pendleton is getting the mythos down. Bolan introduces his “blacksuit,” which he wears on his commando raids. We still haven’t gotten to the Warwagon, nor the infamous Automag; Bolan here uses a Luger, which I found a little unusual. He employs it like it’s his most favorite weapon, and relies on it exclusively throughout the first half of the book. Later he shows off a large cache of weapons, apparently stuff lifted during previous raids on the mob; one of the weapons is an M-16/M-203 combo, which he uses to blow up tons of shit in the finale.
The villains might not be memorable, and in fact the mafia henchman all seem to be clones of one another, but Pendleton brings to life the supporting cast. After a thrilling scene where Bolan storms a hotel full of Mafia, he escapes with the bellhop, who turns out to be a Cuban exile named Toro who is an admirer of Bolan’s. Toro comes off like a proto version of Rafael Encinzo, from the much later Phoenix Force series, so I wonder why Gold Eagle just didn’t use Toro in that series instead of creating a whole new character. (Perhaps because Toro returns in a later volume and gets wasted?)
Bolan stays with the exiles, smoking plenty of cigarettes (ah, the ‘70s) and supplying them with guns and money stolen from the mob. Here he also meets Margarita, I guess the Smurfette of the Cuban revolutionary exiles, as apparently she’s the only woman in the camp. After he gives her comrades a ton of money, the initially-frosty Margarita throws herself at Bolan and our hero gets lucky for the first time since War Against the Mafia. Not that Pendleton goes into much detail.
But as Jack Sullivan could tell Bolan, romance while on a mission sometimes leads to sorrow. After returning to Miami and engaging in another thrilling combat sequence, Bolan discovers that Margarita has not only followed him, but has also been captured by a squad of Taliferi soldiers.
Here also Bolan again meets up with Hal Brognola (who I just realized I’ve always envisioned as Dabney “Jack Flack” Coleman in Cloak and Dagger…or failing that, Richard “Rambo" Crenna) and Leo Turrin (last seen in the first novel); this brief reunion appears to set up future volumes where the Executioner is going to be sent to Europe to bust up the mob over there. All of it comes off like a prefigure of the later Gold Eagle incarnation of the series, where Bolan is a globe-spanning commando.
The climax I found a bit disappointing, with a for-once injured Bolan again being saved by Toro and the Cubans; with one of Bolan’s appropriated heavy-caliber guns they launch a naval raid on a floating Mafia pleasure palace, inside which lurks a large assortment of Mafia elite. The scene wasn’t up to snuff for me because it lacked the personal, one-on-one confrontations I prefer in these books; instead, it was just Bolan strapped to a big gun and blasting away at a boat.
Pendleton again captures the late ‘60s/early ‘70s vibe with the despondent feel of the Vietnam era (one of the cops says it’s a wonder there aren’t more “kill crazy” ‘Nam vets like Bolan), but while I enjoyed it, I didn’t like Miami Massacre as much as the preceding volumes.
As a bonus note, be sure to check out The Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins, which is along the same lines as Miami Massacre, only a lot more fun. But then, it is by Len Levinson.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
Anyone who has read my reviews will know that I place the Phoenix series by David Alexander in the highest echelon of action series fiction. As I’ve mentioned before, the Phoenix series is available in one complete eBook edition, and Alexander also has many other books and novels available on Amazon as eBooks.
He also has a website, and a few months ago I wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed his work. After exchanging some emails, I realized Dave would make for excellent interview material, and so was very happy that he agreed to one.
Here’s the first part of the interview; in this one Dave focuses on his start in the writing world and the Phoenix series.
Tell us about yourself – how did you get into writing, and what were you doing before?
As a child I began writing spontaneously. I’m sure it’s a common development; just as children often like to draw, they also like to write. At any rate, when I was seven I was mentioned in a newspaper article for having written some poetic verse. I don't know if it was actually any good, but I can say that unlike others I was never coached or was the product of efforts to mold me into something my elders, instead of I myself, wanted. Just the opposite, in fact. I come from a working class family background where letters weren't and still aren't held in particular esteem.
What was your first published work?
Probably the poem that sparked the newspaper item, and certainly the poetry that followed which found its way into miscellaneous publications before I reached my teens. Truthfully, I had no desire to write prose fiction until later on. Prior to that my only aim was to write poetry. I still compose from time to time, but only when my muse speaks, or when, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, "the fit is on me." I haven't felt compelled to compose for some years, but awhile back I did manage to write a considerable number of poems.
How did the Phoenix series come about?
Phoenix originated as a convergence between my early aspirations to write booklength thriller fiction and Leisure Books' interest in expanding into that market. I hadn’t set out to write a series, per se; that’s just what was offered. They'd previously had a success with a series whose title I forget and wanted to increase their presence in the marketplace.
The first Phoenix title sold well enough for the house to sign me for another two or three series installments. In the end I wrote five in all, with a sixth and final installment planned which never materialized.
Was Phoenix planned as an ongoing series, or did you envision it with a definite end in mind?
I certainly envisioned the sixth book as the series conclusion, but I hadn't envisioned a final book when I'd begun writing the series. At that time I hadn't a clear-cut sense of how far I'd be able to grow the concept and characters, as Leisure had originally committed to a single book only. I turned in an outline for the planned sixth but it never materialized. At this stage I may have already been in the process of writing the Z-Comm series.
The Phoenix series is more over-the-top than anything I’ve read. What were some of your thoughts while you worked on each volume – were you just constantly trying to top yourself, to see how far you could go? What scenes/volumes stand out most in your mind?
I approached writing the Phoenix books in a deliberate manner. Principally, I set out to create what might be called a post-nuclear apocalypse noir series, and tried to work out how the elements of noir might function in this context.
To address the second part of your question, I don’t really have permanent favorite parts of anything I’ve written. I might find myself idly reflecting on this scene or that, or this paragraph or that, from time to time, with appreciation or odium, or I might like or dislike some parts as I re-read an earlier effort, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.
What was the relationship like with Leisure Books? Did they play much of a factor in each book, or request any changes? Did you receive any feedback from readers?
As far as my words went, I had text approval, and I tried to insure that it was honored.
As to feedback from readers, there was its share, and I think mainly more positive than negative. One fan offered several hundred dollars for the set of original Phoenix manuscripts. I never sold it, though.
Phoenix #5 ends on a cliffhanger, with Magnus Trench still searching for his family. Why did the series end with this volume? Have you considered wrapping it up with a final installment?
As I've said, I'd done an outline for what would have been a final story in which Trench and his family were (in some way, shape or form) reunited (probably with some wicked twist, such as wife and child having become contams by this point, or Luther Enoch or John Tallon appearing to do a "Luke, I am your father" number on Trench junior, etc.).
But as I may have also mentioned, I've from time to time over the years considered precisely that – ending the series in earnest. The most recent "Phoenix moment" was a few months ago when, on pondering the phenomenon of doomsday bunker building and the warped mentalities of survivalists who actually seem to relish the prospect of apocalyptic catastrophe striking the United States, I jotted down some notes for a story where Trench and a group of good guys pit themselves against the last of post-apocalypse America's bunker cities, and the bad-asses who are dug in there.
One of my biggest personal "Phoenix moments," by the way, took place on September 11th, 2001, when I happened to find myself caught in the vicinity of the World Trade Center when the two planes struck. Throughout the ensuing chaos, I recall saying to myself, "What is this? – ‘Dark Messiah East,’ chapter one?" or "What would Trench do at a time like this?"
I'll add that reflecting on Phoenix number five's (Reap the Whirlwind) subway scenes kept me from attempting to take the trains, which turned out to be a smart move on that dismal day. Should I have had thoughts like these on 911? I don't know. But think them I did.
One thing it does point up is the way a character, or group of characters, once created, can tend to powerfully and lastingly root themselves to an author's consciousness. It's a phenomenon that's been commented on by writers other than myself, too, I believe.
While writing Phoenix, I see you also worked on some other series. One of them was Z-Comm, also for Leisure Books, published under the name Kyle Maning. What’s the story behind that one?
I wanted to do a more contemporary action series, which is how Z-Comm got going. The title stood for Z-Command, a unit of last resorts that took on missions too impossible for anybody else, and which of course always brought home the bacon. I was told, though, that I had to provide a house name for the series byline, as for some unfathomable reason I couldn’t still be just plain old me.
Now, if this were today, I'd have taken out a laundry marker and scrawled “David Alexander” on the editor's desk by way of response, but in those days I suppose I was more … temperate. So I gave Leisure the byline "Kyle Manning."
Note that the surname, as might be expected, is spelled with two n's, not one. The reason the series' book covers bear the surname spelled with a single n was revealed to me when -- on one of my visits to the Leisure office, during which I was shown the cover of the first Z-Comm book -- I noticed that one of the n's was missing.
"It should be Manning, with two n's," I’d pointed out to the editor, who apparently had thought I might miss this disparity.
To this he replied, "Oh, we can't afford the AA (which stands for author's addition or author’s alteration, requiring a second run through the printing presses) so from now on your name is May-ning."
Once again, were it today, I would have carved that extra n into the editorial desk, but that was then, not now, and "Maning" it remained.
In the second part of the interview, Dave talks about his contributions to the C.A.D.S. series, his work with Gold Eagle, and his current projects – posting here next week!
Monday, September 3, 2012
Blood On Frisco Bay, by Jay Flynn
No month stated, 1976 Leisure Books
This was the first of two volumes Jay Flynn wrote for Leisure Books about San Francisco police sergeant Joe Rigg. According to Bill Pronzini’s excellent bio of Flynn, the novels were churned out during a low ebb in Flynn’s career, while the author was fueled on booze and bitterness. This is normally something I demand in my pulp fiction writers, but unfortunately I can see why Pronzini referred to the Rigg novels as the "worst.” While Blood On Frisco Bay starts off strong, it eventually loses its way and becomes a sort of padded and dull affair…indeed, the sort of thing you’d expect to be churned out by someone too drunk to notice or care.
Rigg is a tough cop very much in the mold of Nelson DeMille's Ryker, and it’s easy to believe that Leisure was starting up a whole new series based around the character. At this time Leisure (and parent company Belmont Tower) dropped both series titles and volume numbers from their series fiction, but for all intents Blood On Frisco Bay could be titled Joe Rigg #1.
Driving around in an unmarked station wagon (which is built on a Checker frame) with his “partner,” an 8-foot tall Irish Wolfhound named Croc, Rigg is in his late thirties and has no desire to move up in the police world. He doesn’t want to be a detective because he hates paperwork. He gets by on his wits and is friendly with the “harbor rats,” the whores, the smalltime drug dealing riffraff, the hippies and the junkies, in order that he can get things from them when he needs to. He carries around a Bowie knife, a 9mm Walther, and keeps an Uzi in his station wagon. Plus he lives on a “Trumpy,” an old gangster-era floating palace which he reminds everyone he bought at a vast discount and can barely afford to keep afloat.
A gorgeous young socialite is found strangled in a bar, and Rigg arrives while the scene is still hot. He chases after the culprit, a young Vietnamese woman, and within a few pages of the novel’s lurid opening Rigg is already calling in backup so he can storm into “The Muff,” a lesbian bar! Yes, there’s nothing like a mid-‘70s Leisure novel. The suspect, whom we later learn is named Francine, is hiding in the bar, and Flynn delivers one of the novel’s few action scenes as Rigg nearly gets hold of “the bitch” before he’s attacked by some cleaver-wielding cook; Rigg chops the man’s hand off with his Bowie knife.
Rigg becomes a sort of honorary detective, leading the case; the rest of the force is busy guarding the President-elect – referred to as “The Cowboy” – who happens to be in town. After some searching for Francine, including the questioning of her former employer, a millionaire named Keller who was married to the murdered young woman that started this whole thing, Rigg sort of gets involved in all sorts of unrelated stuff, most of it through coincidence.
For example, after stopping in a bar and meeting yet another of his lowlife friends, a truck driver, Rigg just happens to later see the guy’s truck driving down the road, and when Rigg can’t get him on the CB he figures something must be up. This develops into an endless sequence where Rigg trails after the stolen truck, which heads on down into California; eventually he learns that it’s hauling gold and that the truck is owned by one of Keller’s subsidiaries. Oh, and along the way Rigg also wastes a few hippie-terrorist bank robbers, who have absolutely nothing to do with anything.
His social life is just as frantic; Rigg has a casual sex thing with Annie Dale, a pretty young girl who cleans the boats on the harbor, and occasionally sleeps with Rigg. Then there’s also Tina Holmes, a high-dollar hooker who as you’ll expect is in love with Rigg; Tina, as part of her job duties, once “made it” with Francine and Keller’s now-dead wife while Keller himself watched on, so after Rigg is attacked in Tina’s apartment by hoods he figures he needs to put her away in a safe place.
So now Tina lives on Rigg’s boat, butting heads with Annie – not that this stops them from both doing Rigg at the same time. (A scene Flynn curiously leaves vague…but as for the other sex scenes, they’re pretty graphic, including one between Rigg and a super-horny Tina which includes the unforgettable line: “Not there, Joe! I want you in my ass!”)
But as the novel proceeds it loses its thrust, and comes off more as Rigg just sort of wandering around from one coincidental event to the next. Oddly enough the novel is fairly well written, and comes off as masterful when compared to the genre average. The dialog is good, the characters are fun, and the tone is strong; all of which makes the novel’s failings all the more pronounced. The entire middle half just spins its wheels, with Rigg chasing trucks, having sex with Annie and/or Tina, or even giving Annie love advice (she finds herself growing attracted to Tina and worries she might become a “les.” Rigg’s advice? “Give it a try!”).
The “plot” of the novel – Rigg trying to crack the Mrs. Keller murder case and catch Francine – is lost, and you keep wondering what happened to it. Especially when the climax really gets weird, with Rigg playing chaperone to the Cowboy. This is the most “coincedental” part yet, as Rigg and Tina drive by the President-Elect’s motorcade, and Rigg just happens to spot a dude who emerges from the crowd with a bazooka! Rigg takes out the guy with his car but one of the secret service cars is destroyed in the blast.
Somehow this entails the Cowboy coming to stay with Rigg on the Trumpy boat…and plus the guy already knows Tina, as he was another of her “clients.” Now we have long scenes of Rigg and the future President sitting around on the boat and shooting the shit, knocking back plentiful amounts of brandy. Eventually we learn that the would-be assassin was part of a hippie terrorist network (unrelated to the hippie terrorist bank robbers from earlier)…and in a very rushed denoument (Rigg is literally called while hanging out on the boat with the Cowboy and informed that Francine has finally been tracked down), we also learn that Francine herself is involved with the terrorists, and the murder of Mrs. Keller was all part of their scheme.
Flynn is sure to pack the novel with tons of lurid detail, just as we’d expect from a ‘75/’76 model Leisure book – a time when, it seems to me, the imprint got even more lurid. Francine, who unfortunately doesn’t have much “screen time,” is set up as one sick, sick woman, into the torture and s&m world, even making brutal films. This entails a sequence where Rigg watches an underground sadomasochism film in which Francine brutalizes an unfortunate woman (who turns out to be Mrs. Keller); Flynn writes up all sorts of harrowing stuff, going on and on, and ends the sequence with the in-joke punchline that Rigg always thought such things could only happen in bad novels by hack authors.
So while there’s a lot of explicit sex, there isn’t much action…Rigg as mentioned chops off a hand and shoots a few hoods, blowing off their heads in grisly detail, but otherwise he spends his time talking and drinking. As for his “partner,” Croc, Flynn carries out the goofy partnership pretty well, with most everyone terrified of the dog as soon as they see it, but Rigg always telling them he’s “harmless.”
The novel definitely captures that mid-‘70s “shag rug” sort of feel, and actually comes off a bit like the Shannon series, only less goofy. Don’t get me wrong, Blood On Frisco Bay is definitely goofy, but in a different way…the books are mostly alike in how they capture the decadent spirit of the era and feature protagonists who are more interested in screwing and drinking than solving crimes.
There was one more Rigg novel, Trouble Is My Business, which sounds even more lurid, about a “sex killer” who chops off heads with a knife. I’ll be getting to it eventually.