Monday, May 22, 2017

Moonraker (James Bond #3)


Moonraker, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1955)

I had a hard time with this third volume of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, friends. I brought my copy of the Signet paperback edition to work and left it here to read at lunch. But gradually I found that I had to push myself to read it, each day. I mean, there were days I would’ve rather done actual work stuff than read the book, and that is the biggest criticism I could ever level at a work of fiction. It wasn’t until the final quarter that I started to enjoy it – I think I even enjoyed Casino Royale more, mostly because it was shorter.

If anything I think this novel proves that, if you’re the trendsetter, the creator of a movement, you can pretty much do whatever you want and fans will still dote on it. Imagine if a modern Bond continnuation author turned in a manuscript similar to Moonraker, a slow-moving tale in which Bond does practically nothing in the first 100+ pages except for get involved in an overlong game of bridge(!), doesn’t get in a single shootout, doesn’t kill a single villain in a fight, and doesn’t even get the girl!!!

But no, you will read glowing endorsements of Moonraker from devoted fans, proclaiming its introspective nature and character-building charms. To be sure, the highlights of the book are the in-depth peeks into the personal world of James Bond; it’s as if Fleming realized he’d done little to flesh Bond out in the previous books, and decided to do so this time around. But he did so a little too thoroughly, at the expense of the action and suspense and the other stuff you might expect when you read a James Bond novel.

It’s not too long after Live And Let Die; Bond even still has a slight suntan. The book opens with Bond at the target range, working on his marksmanship with a .38 revolver; sadly, this will be the only time Bond fires a gun in the novel. Fleming hops perspectives without shame throughout Moonraker, and here, thanks to an abrupt shift into the perspective of the marksman instructor, we learn that Bond is the best marskman.

Indeed Fleming is at pains to bring to life Bond’s close-knit community of intelligence agents. We learn that his office is on the 8th floor of the United Exports building and we meet his lovely-but-spinsterish secretary, Loelia Ponsonby. We also learn about the two other Double Os on the force (008 and 0011). Bond occasionally frets about the safety of 008, but by novel’s end we learn he’s okay. There’s lots of info-dumping in these first pages, even down to Bond’s annual salary; as I say, it’s as if Fleming realized he hadn’t told us much about Bond before and went into overkill.

We’re also given a more elaborate intro to Ms. Monneypenny and M, who have adjoining offices on the top floor of the United Exports building; here we also meet M’s Chief of Staff, one of Bond’s “friends,” though as Kingsley Amis wrote it’s hard to imagine James Bond just hanging out with anyone. M calls Bond in on a personal assignment – the manager at the club Blades suspects one of the members is cheating at cards, and has asked M to look into it. M in turn has drafted Bond, as he’s the most adept card player in the service. Here M calls Bond “James” for the first time in the series (I think), and Bond knows when this happens it means the old man’s about to ask a personal favor.

This brings us to the novel’s villain, Sir Hugo Drax, a man with a mysterious background. He is the classic Fleming villain as defined by Amis (who also ranked Drax as his favorite Bond villain, but I have to disagree with him on that one): big, burly, red hair, loutish. But Drax is beloved by the people of England, as he has vowed to create a super missile to procect them from foreign powers: this is the Moonraker, a massive ICBM sort of deal. Bond puzzles over why someone so famous and well-loved would stoop to card-cheating.

Bond himself gets in on the rampant info-dumping that comprises the first quarter of the novel; during the M briefing Bond relates Dax’s history, even though M himself is already aware of it; this is just a taste of the page-filling Fleming resorts to throughout. I’m pretty sure it’s the most Bond has ever spoken at once in the series yet, three-plus pages of bald exposition. One realizes the character is more interesting when he keeps his mouth shut, otherwise Bond comes off, as he does here, like a bore.

Highfalutin Fleming well brings to life the swank club that is Blades, and apparently its is an amalgam of a few different real London clubs which Fleming often visited. But I think I’ve mentioned before how gambling stuff just isn’t my thing (my sole gambling experience was once in Vegas, where I put twenty on the line, lost, and thought to myself, “Well, that was really damn dumb!” and just went for the free drinks). The central event here is the pages-long game of bridge Bond engages Drax in, Bond’s goal to determine if Drax is really cheating.

In his Bedside Bond Companion, Raymond Benson describes the bridge sequence as “exciting, suspenseful, and fascinating.” Personally, those are not the three adjectives I would use. In fact this endless bridge game made me wax melancholic for the video game battle in Never Say Never Again. What I found more interesting here was something I’m not sure other Bond commentators have noted, though surely they have (at least Amis didn’t in the Dossier): that M in the Blades sequence serves as Bond’s customary sidekick. Usually it’s a foreigner of some sort – Felix Leiter, Karim Bey, Quarrel, etc. But here M himself, removed from behind his desk, serves the function of those other, more customary sidekicks, and it was interesting to see the old bastard in a different light.

Drax is indeed cheating, and Bond succeeds in winning heavily from him. Drax is properly incensed and makes a veiled threat on Bond’s life. And herein lies one of the greatest issues with Moonraker: James Bond is pretty stupid in it. When he first meets Drax Bond instantly suspects the man is cruel, villainous, but after the Blades bit Bond is assigned to act as security chief at the Moonraker site in Kent, due to the death of the previous chief. When Bond meets Drax again, he’s drawn in by the man, doubts his first impressions about him, and figures he’s a great guy, after all. Even when attempts are made on Bond’s life, he still puzzles over who might be behind it, giving Drax the benefit of the doubt. To say the least, Bond comes off buffoonish as a result.

I already know the defense the Fleming fan might make: the author was going for realism, and Bond doesn’t know that Drax is a supervillain, etc. Thus in the real world a person like James Bond would tread carefully and wait to ensure Drax was really behind the attempts on his life, etc. But the thing is…in the previous book, Bond went up against a villain who was a self-styled voodoo god who had a desk-gun. James Bond does not exist in “the real world,” full stop. It’s for this reason I will always prefer Imitation Bonds like Nick Carter: Killmaster to the real thing. I mean, you won’t find a single person (other than myself) who would argue that, say, The Sea Trap is vastly superior to Moonraker, and yet for me it’s as clear as day that it is – I mean, that novel moves, it has no pretensions, and it entertains, which I feel is key to any piece of pulp fiction (which, despite what any apologists might claim, is exactly what Fleming was going for).

But Bond ignores his honed instincts, mostly so the novel can continue to drift along at its own measured pace. At the Moonraker site Bond meets up with the undercover agent from Scotland Yard: Gala Brand, this volume’s “Bondgirl” (to again quote Amis), who despite being more self-reliant and capable than the Bondgirls in the previous two books, is actually less memorable than either. She is of course gorgeous and phenomenally built, but unlike the past two Bondgirls she’s a trendsetter in that she’s a strong woman; Bond even suspects that she could kick his ass, but really just about anyone could kick the literary Bond’s ass. But if you do fight him, just be sure to watch out for your shins; that’s his go-to attack zone.

But then it’s this characterization and moody introspection which seems to fire up most Fleming enthusiasts about Moonraker; I have a hardcover book, My Name Is Bond , edited by Simon Winder and published in the UK only in 2000, which is solely made up of excerpts from the Bond novels. Having glanced through it, it appears that Winder takes a lot from Moonraker, and there are some colorful patches of description and whatnot throughout. But for me, personally – I’d still rather read The Sea Trap. I mean, I wouldn’t put that novel off to do work stuff.

Luckily, the final quarter is a bit more entertaining; the stakes are ramped up to life-or-death situations, though again Bond himself doesn’t do anything to the caliber of the film franchise. Speaking of which, Fleming I kid you not pulls the exact same copout as in Casino Royale; there’s a part where Bond, back in London and having (gradually) discovered that Gala has been abducted by Drax and his henchmen, grabs a pistol and gives chase – and, once again, not only does he not even fire the gun, but he also crashes and gets captured…AGAIN!!

Bond you see at length has realized that Drax really is a villain (in other words, Bond’s instincts were correct from the get-go), and that he’s planning to launch the Moonraker into London itself. This element by the way is exposited via hardcore data and Gala’s flight calculations; Fleming has done his research and by god, he wants you to know it. But Bond using his teeth and a blowtorch to free Gala and himself from the rope that binds them is pretty cool, and an esnsuing sequence where the two hide in a missile silo while scalding water is shot up at them is pretty thrilling.

Speaking of Gala, Bond tries to put the moves on her here and there, but fails spectacularly; there’s a nicely-written part where the two go swimming one day and, as usual, Fleming brings to life any sequence that has to do with water or the sea or etc. But she is pretty much a cipher when compared to the Bondgirls before and after her, and what’s more, reveals to Bond at the finale that she’s about to be married! Fleming has developed the chemistry between the two from the initial frostiness on Gala’s part to her warming up to Bond, even kissing him during the swim, so that the reader too feels properly jilted at novel’s end when she says so long. Bummer!

While the climax is thrilling, with Bond and Gala escaping Drax’s men at the Moonraker site, it lacks the action-pulp one might expect. Which is to say, there’s no part where Bond appropriates a gun and starts dishing out bloody payback. Rather, the two hide out in Drax’s office, nude and beneath the pounding spray of a showerhead, as the Moonraker makes its monumental launch – the shower to counteract the effects of the blast, which mostly works. Meanwhile Gala –not Bond, mind you – has set the Moonraker to head out to sea, where it conveniently blows apart the Russian submarine Drax has escaped on…off-page. Yes, the villain is killed off-page, my friends. Off-page!

This is another Bond novel I didn’t get to read as a kid, and it was probably for the best – I’m certain the 11 year-old me would’ve enjoyed it even less than the 42 year-old me did. I do however friggin’ love the movie version, which I’ve gone this long without mentioning – to me it’s not only the logical progression of Connery’s ‘60s movies (I mean, “Bond in space” was exactly where the franchise appeared to be going after You Only Live Twice), but it’s got a helluva lot more charm than the recent “oh so serious” Daniel Craig crap. And more balls, too – the modern Bond producers are too busy trying to redo the Bourne franchise to even consider something as brave or out-of-the-box as having James Bond go into space.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ryker #1: The Sniper


Ryker #1: The Sniper, by Nelson De Mille
August, 1974  Leisure Books

Everyone’s favorite asshole cop makes his debut in this first volume of the Ryker series, which I was recently able to find at a very nice price. The Sniper appears to confirm my theory that Nelson De Mille wrote these novels in a different order than they were published; while this one takes place after May, 1973, the next volume takes place between 1969 and 1970.

I don’t know much about Nelson De Mille, other than that he served in ‘Nam and, upon his return, hoped to break out into bestselling crime fiction. While he eventually succeeded in his goal, he spent his formative writing years at low-rent publishers like Leisure and Manor (Len Levinson once told me that the one time he visited the Manor offices in New York, the only people there were De Mille and a lady whose name Len couldn’t recall; he got the impression that the two were running the place). My suspicion is that the Ryker books (and by tangent the Keller books, which basically were the Ryker books) were really “trunk novels” that De Mille had perhaps written with the intention of getting published as hardcover crime fiction and, failing to secure a publisher, ended up just publishing them in willy-nilly order through Leisure and Manor.

There is of course also the possibility that De Mille intentionally wrote these novels without any care toward continuity, with one volume taking place several years before the previous one, and etc, but I think there might’ve been more going on behind the scenes. This might also explain strange instances like one character being dead in one volume, only to be alive with no explanation whatsoever in another. Or maybe De Mille just didn’t care, who knows.

Anyway, The Sniper is a fine intro to the series, in that it sets the measured pace of the ensuing volumes. This is a police procedural, not an action onslaught (only the final De Mille volume, Death Squad, really featured any action – and was easily my favorite). De Mille slowly spins a 240-page story about Sgt. Joe Ryker of the NYPD and his new partner, Arthur Hayes, tracking down the titular sniper: Homer Cyrus, a freaked-out ‘Nam vet who is murdering pretty blondes with a Starlight-scoped M-14 he smuggled into the country after the war. Action is very infrequent, with more focus on detective work; De Mille by all accounts did his research with various police units, and he goes out of his way to bring it all to life. Indeed one wonders if Joe Ryker was based on a real cop De Mille met.

Worth noting is that Ryker isn’t as much of an asshole this time around; other than his interractions with his “stupid chief” Captain Peterson, a pair of Puerto Rican kids, and a gold-hearted hooker, Ryker isn’t as mean as in other volumes. Nor is he as obnoxious. The first half of The Sniper sees Ryker growing increasingly foul-smelling as a result of working round-the-clock on the case, with no niceties like taking a shower or whatnot, but Ryker himself doesn’t go out of his way to assail his fellow cops with his stink, as he did in The Hammer Of God. Speaking of which, The Sniper is yet another crime novel that takes place in a New York City in the grip of merciless summer heat, and De Mille often reminds us of his sweaty, stinky characters – but like the other books in the series, it takes place over several months, so that by novel’s end we’re in the middle of a freezing winter.

One thing The Sniper proves is that at least one of the Edson T. Hamills who eventually took over the series had actually done his homework; in my review of Motive For Murder, I mistakenly claimed that the still-unknown Hamill who wrote that one had devised an “alternate universe” in which Ryker’s wife and son were murdered by the mob. Well, it turns out this sad background was taken from this first novel; De Mille gradually informs us that part of the reason behind Ryker’s brutal behavior is that his wife and kid were strangled years ago by two Mafia hitmen (who themselves have disappeared, though Ryker and his fellow cops still search for them). This is something De Mille changed when Joe Ryker became Joe Keller; the latter not only didn’t have a son, but his wife was still alive, if separated from him.

Another thing I got wrong in my Motive For Murder review was the presence of muckracking TV reporter Creighton Straichey, who I assumed was original to that volume but who in fact appears in The Sniper and hounds Ryker and the rest of the police force. As in that later installment, Ryker succeeds in using Straichey in the course of his investigation, though without the harm to Straichey’s life the reporter endured in that later volume. At any rate it seems clear that series editor Peter McCurtin gave at least one of his “Hamill” ghostwriters this first installment to work off of; Len, who wrote his own Ryker novel, told me that he’d never read any of the De Mille originals. (And speaking of Len, McCurtin proves he was a savy editor by having Len ghostwrite a novel under De Mille’s name, as the two have very similar styles.)

We know from the first page that Homer Cyrus is the killer; we see him in action on the incomplete, elevated highway on the West Side as he snipes a gorgeous blonde passing beneath him in a red Jaguar. In death she crashes and causes a huge pile-up which results in several more dead and wounded; meanwhile Cyrus brains a bum with the butt of his M-14. Folks, I hated Homer Cyrus more than any of the other killers in this series, and relished the moment he’d get his just deserts. De Mille has him as a bumbling fool who goes about his killing with professional acumen instilled upon him in the ‘Nam jungles; eventually we’ll learn that he suffered a head injury there which affected his mind but not his coordination and skills. Also he appears to be targeting blondes due to an old pre-war flame as well as a hot nurse who frequently had sex with her patients to cheer them up(!).

Ryker and Hayes (whom Ryker actually treats fairly well and even considers a friend!!) do solid police work to root out the killer; again, this isn’t a Dirty Harry-esque book at all. This mostly hinges around Cyrus’s Starlight scope, which is still top secret. Here De Mille works in a customary ‘70s conspiracy vibe with the presence of a shady FBI agent who comes onto the case, more concerned about the stolen Army inventory than the dead bodies piling up. Captain Peterson, who I don’t believe appears in other volumes, I can’t recall, ends up making “a deal with the devil,” as Ryker puts it, comprimising the integrity of the NYPD to placate government politics. Ryker and Peterson hate one another, by the way; whereas ensuing volumes have Ryker more so butting heads with Lt. Fiscetti, here Fiscetti is sort of friends with Ryker, at least carrying on a civil relationship with him, and it’s Captain Peterson who has it in for our hero.

And what a hero he is! In the opening half of The Sniper, Ryker grabs a nude preteen Puerto Rican girl and slams her into the gravel on a rooftop, bullying her for info! While Ryker’s no Dirty Harry when it comes to the action side of things, he goes far beyond him when it comes to police brutality. Ryker’s hassling the girl and her boyfriend because he discovers they were up here on the roof having sex while Cyrus was nearby aiming his rifle. The two hid and watched him, and it’s from them that Ryker learns about the starlight scope; the kids saw the eerie green glow on the scope, and Hayes, who also served in ‘Nam, knows what it must be.

Hayes actually does more detecting work than Ryker, hence Ryker’s respect for him; that being said, there’s a goofy part where Ryker kicks Hayes out of bed with his live-in hooker girlfriend, sends him downtown to get some prints…and then tells the hooker to “get on the floor” so Ryker can have his own go at her! While De Mille keeps all the sex off-page, Ryker himself eventually lives with the hooker in her “fleabag” apartment on the West Side, which leads to one of the most devastating “Rykerisms” in the entire series, when the girl mentions she’s been meaning to move to the East Side:

“Look, we’re going to be roommates for awhile,” interrupted Ryker. “I don’t want to hear your whining about how life could be better. You’ll live and die a hooker and a junkie, probably right here in this fleabag. Concentrate on good fucking, please.”

That’s our Ryker! This all comes later, after Ryker and Hayes have pissed off their brother cops by getting Cyrus released; the killer escapes and manages to murder two cops, thus explaining the anger of Ryker’s brothers in blue – so he moves in with the hooker, Maureen, to use her fleabag as a hiding place. Cyrus was caught after a few more blonde killings by the appearance of that aforementioned nurse; solid police work having yielded Homer Cyrus as the prime suspect in the recent M-14 shootings. The nurse, currently stationed in Europe, heard about the case and offered her help. She feels that her casual screwing of Cyrus – not to mention the abrupt way she broke it off – might have had something to do with his ensuing murder spree. “You think?” Ryker sarcastically asks her.

The woman’s appeal on the radio is what gets Cyrus out into the open, but meanwhile Ryker has already got a positve ID on him thanks to a bum who has seen him around. This is another guy Ryker badgers, along with the Puerto Rican kids; when the bum shows up drunk at the precinct, Ryker decides to “Puke him!,” and he, Hayes, and Fiscetti take the bum into the bathroom, force him to puke, and then clean the stink off him with turpentine. Cyrus has been impossible to find because it turns out he’s been living in a tree in the middle of Central Park – a bit of subtle in-jokery from De Mille, who early in the book has Ryker guessing that Cyrus “could be living up in a tree.”

Dumb-ass Cyrus responds to the nurse’s radio-broadcast appeal to meet at a hotel, and thus walks right into a police trap. But as mentioned it’s a dirty job; the FBI has strong-armed Capt. Peterson into focusing more on the starlight scope than the actual killer, and Cyrus has walked into the trap without his gun. Now the book devolves into an overlong sequence of people searching Central Park for the hidden M-14 and scope. Ryker comes up with the idea to get Creighton Straichey, who always wants a scoop, to front the $10k bail. Ryker and Hayes follow Cyrus upon his release, hoping to nab him with the rifle in hand, but end up losing him in the now snow-shrouded Park – and getting their two fellow cops killed as a result.

Ryker deals with this the only way he knows how – beating up another woman! This is Cyrus’s sister, who lives in Oklahoma. Ryker flys there off-radar, threatens the woman in her home, then slaps her face (and breasts!) around while her little kid is screaming in another room(!). That’s our Ryker! He even ensures that she’s gotten his name right, his goal for her to blab to her brother when he makes one of his periodic calls to her. Then, again using Straichey, Ryker has the fake news planted in the media that Ryker will be “grieving” at the coffin of one of those murder cops (whom Ryker didn’t even know), which is lying in state in a West Side church for a week. Thus Ryker has set himself up as bait for Cyrus.

This takes us into the homestretch, with a foolish Ryker realizing too late that he has to get out of the church that’s holding the coffin and into a cab without getting shot by Cyrus, who is no doutb watching from afar through a sniper scope. True to series form, when Cyrus does pull the trigger it’s someone else who is killed instead of Ryker (guess who!!). This leads to the hilariously-anticlimactic climax…in which Ryker engages Cyrus in an endless walk through the streets of the West Side, the two mortal enemies keeping a hundred or so feet distance between each other; in other words, out of the range of their pistols.

It just goes on and on, the two walking almost casually through the grimy streets. Cyrus is jungle-honed and thus can’t hack the freezing cold, something Ryker capitalizes on. Ryker here has his .357 Ruger Redhawk, but also has a Beretta automatic “ladies gun” strapped to his ankle as a backup (the “ladies gun” bit proving that Ryker – and therefore De Mille – was at least familiar with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels). De Mille is good with setups and payoff, as Ryker is constantly dismissive of the little Beretta, but it ends up saving his ass; he uses it to get the drop on Cyrus when the killer finally closes in on Ryker, mistakenly believing that the .357 is out of bullets.

And while he denies us much action or thrills, De Mille at least has Cyrus getting those just desserts; after shooting him in the legs with the .25, Ryker proceeds to “carefully” bashing out each of Cyrus’s teeth with the butt of the gun, then “smashing” his testicles with a savage foot-stomp. Ryker then proceeds to cuff the heartless kller to a pipe on a desolate rooftop, leaving him there to freeze to death – or starve to death. Ryker could care either way. It’s a fitting, brutal end for the sniper, not to mention an abrupt end for the novel, given the preceeding 200+ pages of slow-going police procedural.

I enjoyed this one, as I have all the others in the series, though ultimately I think it was my least favorite of De Mille’s Ryker/Keller books. Now the only one of them I haven’t read is the nauseatingly-overpriced The Cannibal…which I hope to read someday.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Dragon Hunt


Dragon Hunt, by Dave J. Garrity
December, 1967  Signet Books

David J. Gerrity, still using his sort-of pen name “Dave J. Garrity,” turned in this paperback original which, despite much cover-blurb ballyhoo, actually turned out to be the sole appearance of private detective Peter Braid. Very, very much in the Spillane mold, Dragon Hunt is such a Mike Hammer riff that it not only carries a cover blurb from Spillane himself, but it’s also based on a story Spillane wrote for the short-lived 1954 From The Files Of Mike Hammer newspaper comic strip.

There’s even a photo of Garrity with his pal Spillane on the back; you’ll often read this in reviews of Dragon Hunt, but you’ll seldom see it, so here it is:


I’ve yet to read a Mike Hammer novel, but it can’t be much different than this. Garrity, as in The Hot Mods, succeeds in capturing a total hardboiled voice and vibe, but this time it’s almost as if he’s trying too hard. There are parts of Dragon Hunt that are borderline parodic, and one wonders if this is intentional. It’s particularly in the blowhardry of narrator Braid himself, who’s so bad-assed and sleazy that he’s hard to take seriously, particularly when one moment he’s unsure how to spell certain words but in the next he’s using words like “limned” to describe the effect of a setting sun.

Braid is a WWII vet and is now your cliched downtrodden P.I. Hammer-style he was in love with his secretary, but unlike Hammer he married her; she was killed years ago by a criminal who in turn was killed by Braid. All this is relayed via Braid’s grizzled narration. His customary weapon is a very un-P.I. Luger, which he only uses toward the end. His business is terrible and he spends most his time guzzling bear at a sleazy bar and placing futile bets on the Mets. He’s got only one suit (“his one and only”) and even boasts to attractive women about his “dirty drawers.” Yet he’s still able to score (off-page – no sex at all in the novel despite the cover promise) with gorgeous women who wear nothing but “skin and perfume” for him.

Braid’s business might be bad, but he’s in no hurry to improve it – as the novel opens he’s already turning down a job offer from old “King Loot,” aka reclusive millionaire Adam DuMont. But when DuMont’s sexy-but-shrewish secretary Amanda Miggs shows up in Braid’s office to personally offer the job, he’s interested. Here Braid indulges in all sorts of boorish behavior which would be considerably frowned upon in today’s world, but which I gather is intended to let us know he “makes his own rules” and whatnot. At any rate his treatment of Ms. Miggs almost makes Joe Ryker seem like Mr. Rogers.

At length our narrator decides to ride along with Ms. Miggs to the rural estate of Adam DuMont. The chaffeur, Max, is a monster-sized mute who can only converse via “clacking” on a gizmo Braid/Garrity barely describes. Here in the palatial estate Braid spots young Marie DuMont, granddaughter of Adam, a curvaceous blonde who, Braid keeps reminded himself, is much too young for him. As for DuMont, he’s exceedingly old and in a wheelchair, but still has fire in his eyes and a steel grip when he shakes Braid’s hand.

DuMont wants Braid to hunt a “dragon,” aka DuMont’s son, Cain, who has been missing for two decades. In a story that was suppressed from the papers, Cain, who was built to Mr. Olympia proportions, went nuts one day and murdered his wife, locking her up in a chamber in his father’s “castle.” At least this is what Braid uncovers; old DuMont has left the room locked since the fateful night. As a sign of his inhuman strength, Cain DuMont twisted a barbell and locked the doors with it. As a sign of those different times, Braid doesn’t even seem aware of what Cain’s various gym equipment is called, which is so very different from the gym culture of today.

But then, other than a late reference to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., there’s nothing in Dragon Hunt that acknowledges this is the late ‘60s. Like The Hot Mods, the story could just as easily (and perhaps more believably) be occuring in the ‘50s. Braid’s hardboiled patter is reason alone. But then one of the unexplored elements of the book is that Braid, and his drinking buddy Mike Hammer, are men from another time – there’s a part where Marie DuMont marvels how “old” Mike Hammer must be, to be pining for the same woman for twenty years, and Braid does a brief double-take as he digests that he too has been kicking around that long.

Speaking of Marie, she’s the reason Braid takes the job; someone tried to attack her the other week while she was acting in a play somewhere, and Braid realizes it could’ve only been her father, Cain DuMont, come to kill off his daughter because she’s the spitting image of her mother. Adam DuMont has already shown Braid the trophy heads young Cain acquired all those years ago, hunting game with only a knife. Then Cain apparently figured that humans were the ultimate game – yet somehow decided he’d just murder his wife?

Honestly, the backstory in Dragon Hunt is muddled and awkward. Cain is presented as both a juggernaut of muscle as well as an artiste – in addition to being an ultra-buff tough guy, he was also a sculptor and, incongruously enough, also an opera singer!! This is how Braid starts off his half-assed investigation, first getting news from a portly musician whose clingers-on fawn on his musical belches; this guy claims to have remembered a dude years ago of massive physique with a godly voice.

Another clue is provided by Adam – someone by the name of “Black,” whose description might match Cain’s, killed off a bunch of malcontent miners somewhere in West Virginia. Adam is convinced Black is Cain. To further muddle things, there are no photos of Cain and no one in his family has seen him in twenty years. So off Braid goes to Manhattan to mull over beers and get information from various people, including a reporter almost as sleazy as himself. To show the amount of page-filling Garrity stoops to, at one point the newshound promises some photos of this Black guy…but won’t be able to get them for almost a week.

In his review on Amazon, Tom Johnson succinctly summed up Dragon Hunt: “Well, it’s a good story, though most of it is about Peter Braid trying to identify Cain, and finding him.” It just sort of goes on and on, Braid puzzling over the job, asking a few lowlifes some questions, and then wondering when the case will break. The novel’s only 143 pages but it’s one of those Signet jobs with ultra-tiny, dense print, so it takes a lot longer to read than you might expect.

Things don’t pick up until Braid drives to that West Virginia mining town and seeks clues. Lots of page-filling here as he pretends to be a traveling salesman. He meets a woman who claims she was the sex slave of the Herculean bastard Black. Then Braid goes back to his hotel room and young Marie DuMont is waiting in his bed for him nude, a moment captured on the cover. But Braid tells her to scram, then gets in bed to sleep – and is attacked by none other than Cain/Black. Yet somehow, despite being inches away from him, Braid’s unable to see the guy’s face!? (All of which reminded me of that still-hilarious Twin Peaks spoof on Saturday Night Live years and years ago, with my all-time favorite Chris Farley telling an enternally-confused Agent Cooper: “I shot you – you saw me!!”)

Braid gets his ass kicked and doesn’t even faze his attacker with the Luger, so there goes that. But Cain runs away when he sees Marie. Even here it sort of free-falls into the final quarter, with Braid in a huff telling Adam DuMont to stuff it, he’s off the case. I forgot to mention, but previous to this we have gotten a few cameos from Mike Hammer himself; he never appears on-page, only via phone conversations with Braid, who often calls “ol’ Mike” up for advice or to watch young Marie. (A job which Hammer fails at, though we later learn that Marie had already left the place Braid told Hammer to go watch her.)

The finale takes place back in DuMont’s castle where, again quoting Tom Johnson, a sort of EC Comics twist ending goes down. It’s a twist, but it’s damned goofy. I’ll spoil it so skip the paragraph if you don’t want to know. But Braid suddenly figures out that Cain is really Max, ie Adam DuMont’s monstrous, mute chaffeur, and none other than Adam DuMont was the killer of his daughter-in-law. In fact, Adam is the muscle-bound one who twisted those barbells. Our hero gets his ass kicked again, this time by Adam DuMont, who turns out to be rippling muscle beneath the shawl he wears over his wheelchair, yet for some reason Adam doesn’t kill Braid. In the end, Adam kills Max off-page and is about to bury him in the burial lot long ago arranged for Cain Dumont. Braid shoots him and the tombstone falls on Adam Dumont, killing him…and, uh, that’s it!

As mentioned above, Dragon Hunt sort of started life in January 1954, as part of the daily From The Files Of Mike Hammer comic strip; the title was “Adam and Cain,” and according to Max Allan Collins in his intro to From The Files Of Mike Hammer: The Complete Dailies and Sundays (Hermes Press, 2013), Spillane apparently just gave the story to his buddy Garrity several years later. The Hermes Press hardcover contains the “Adam and Cain” story, and I was able to read it via Interlibrary Loan.

The comic strip version of this story is much more simplistic. Hammer is summoned off the streets of New York by Amy (Marie in Dragon Hunt), granddaughter of wealthy, wheelchair bound codger Adam Shaver. There ensues a goofily bizarre bit where old Adam mocks Hammer for being afraid to show off his physique, and then Hammer, who just met this old man and doesn’t even know why he’s been summoned here to this mansion out in the countryside, pulls off his shirt and shows off his chiseled pecs!

But Adam is, uh, sizing Hammer up to see if he’s man enough to take on Adam’s muscle-bound son, Cain. In fevered backstory we learn that Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel, and twenty years ago Cain murdered Abel. Adam, who in this comic story is a wealthy old criminal, wants Hammer to find Cain and bring him back here so Adam can kill him and justice will be rendered. Hammer for some reason takes the job – there’s none of the material as in Dragon Hunt where he’s afraid for Cain’s daughter. In fact, Cain in the comic story doesn’t even realize until the climax that Amy is his daughter.

Hammer proceeds through New York to find Cain, even interviewing an old German bodybuilder who knew Cain back in the day – this made so much more sense than having Cain be an opera singer!! The central theme of “Adam and Cain” is that studly Mike Hammer is afraid of Cain Shaver, who is built up as being this inhuman powerhouse. It’s a bit hard to buy, with Hammer even freezing in terror when he finally meets Cain, who proceeds to beat up our hero on two separate occasions. 

The finale is rushed and anticlimactic – Cain, learning that his father wants him, decides to go home on his own, to have a final reckoning. There he hefts old Adam and Amy and proceeds to toss them over a crevasse. Hammer, from afar, just whips out his .45 and blows Cain away. Adam’s dead, but Amy is saved, and the story (and series) ends on a cliffhanger that Adam left behind a note for Hammer, instead of the promised payment. What the note stated would never be known, as here the series ended.

In his introduction Max Collins states that Spillane claimed he’d written “Adam and Cain,” and the fact that thirteen years later the same plot was recycled in a novel by Spillane’s drinking buddy, with a cameo by Hammer himself, would appear to confirm this. It’s hard to compare the two versions, as obviously there’s more meat in a novel than in a daily newspaper strip, but one has to admire how Garrity expanded on the central plot and added in a bunch of metaphor, particularly the “dragon” theme.

One just wishes he’d also included more action, or at least more drive. As it is, Dragon Hunt just seems to trudge on and on; maybe Spillane himself should have fleshed out his comic story into an actual Mike Hammer novel.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Narc #7: Corsican Death


Narc #7: Corsican Death, by Robert Hawkes
May, 1975  Signet Books

For once hero John Bolt stays in the forefront of this volume of Narc, though to be sure author Marc Olden (aka “Robert Hawkes”) as ever populates the book with too many supporting characters and their own subplots, many of which abruptly faze out. For that matter, Corsican Death is yet another Olden novel in which, by book’s end, nothing has really been resolved and most of the villains are still alive. I’m starting to think that Olden was trying to make a point that “crime pays.”

This series, like most from the ‘70s, could care less about continuity; there’s no pickup from the previous volume or any other earlier volume. Other than the recurring characters of Bolt, his grizzled boss Craven at D-3 (The Department of Dangerous Drugs), and fellow D-3 agents Kramer and Masetta (the latter only mentioned but not seen this time), there’s really nothing to tie together the Narc series into a complete whole. There isn’t even a developing thread about Bolt himself, who one volume has a steady girlfriend (never before or again mentioned), and the next goes the entire novel without a woman (as is the case this time).

Olden knocked out both this series and Black Samurai within the span of a year or so, and one can clearly see that he was writing to an aggressive deadline. While I’ve still only read one volume of Black Samurai, I’m going to wager that it was closer to Olden’s heart than Narc was, not the least because that one was actually credited to Olden (though Olden also held the copyright to the Narc books). But I need to get back to the Black Samurai series (which I had to resort to buying the instalments I was missing in eBook form like some barefoot peasant, given the increasingly-exorbitant prices of the original paperbacks), to see if that series too suffered from Olden’s egregious page-filling and constant stalling of forward momentum.

Corsican Death, like the other Narc novels, is positively filled with scenes in which this or that character will mull or worry or fret over some action they’re about to do…over and over again…and when the actual moment comes Olden will either breeze through the action or skip it altogether. It gets to be annoying. I try not to be hard on these old series authors, as I know it couldn’t be easy to bang out manuscript after manuscript to a tight deadline, with the perhaps-editorial mandate that the status quo must never be affected. But when you come to the seventh Narc novel in which hardly anything happens, and indeed in which the page-filling is so egregious that nothing really comes to a head until the final eight pages, you start to get a little annoyed.

To me, Olden has the tendency to get a little too far into the headspaces of his characters, with some of the most blatant POV-hopping you’ll ever encounter, resulting in a bumpy read – one paragraph we’re in the fevered thoughts of one character, and in the next paragraph, with no warning whatsoever, we’re in the fevered thoughts of another character. Action is constantly held off, and when it does go down it’s harried and chaotic. In this way Olden is a bit similar to fellow Signet Books series author Jon Messmann, with the caveat that Messmann delivered more satisfying novels, at least in that they had actual plot payoffs. (Plus Messmann wrote The Sea Trap, one of my favorite men’s adventure novels of all time.)

In this one Bolt goes up against the Coriscans, basically the French version of Sicilians. We’re informed at length how the Corsicans have cornered the heroin market in France – and this is yet another Olden novel, by the way, that takes place in Paris. Even the Black Samurai volume I read, mentioned above, took place there, so I guess Olden had an affinity for the place. While he doesn’t go out of his way to bring Paris to life, he does make it sound like a crime-ridden cesspool, and when Bolt does get there he mostly spends it in the palatial villa of this novel’s main villain (well, one of two main villains): Count Napoleon Lonzu.

Proclaimed on the back cover as a sadist of all sadists, Count Lonzu actually spends the majority of Corsican Death off page. In reality the true sadistic main villain of the novel is Lonzu’s sometimes-partner, most-times enemy Remy Patek, a fellow Corsican drug kingpin who is known for his brutal and wanton acts of violence. Remy is especially incensed these days because his brother Claude has just been killed – by Count Lonzu’s younger, bodybuilding brother Alain. In a sort-of flashbacked opening action sequence we learn that Alain and Claude were in DC to broker a big heroin deal, with four million dollars on the line, but in a raid led by none other than John Bolt, the two Corsicans were captured.

But Claude jumped out of a second-story window in his escape attempt and broke both legs. Alain, fearing his “best friend” would spill the beans about the deal and also about the Coriscan contact within the Justice Department, strangled Claude to silence him. Now Alain is free, escaping Bolt and his fellow D-3 agents in another action scene – one which sees a redshirt D-3 agent killed – and absconds onto a ship which heads off into the Atlantic. The question is where Alain is going – London or Paris – but at any rate he won’t get where he’s going for five days.

So Bolt badgers Craven into letting Bolt pose as a rep for a “Black Mafia” drug dealer and go to Paris, where he’ll try to set up a fake deal with Count Lonzu or Remy Patek before Alain’s ship arrives in Paris. Meanwhile Patek vows revenge on Count Lonzu and begins to set his sights on the Count’s vast heroin empire. These are the essentials of the plot, but understand that for the most part Corsican Death is comrpised of almost stream-of-consciousness seques into the minds of the various characters; in particular the opening quarter is made up of these ongoing thoughts written in second-person from Bolt’s perspective, going over the rigors and dangers inherent in the life of a D-3 agent. 

In Paris Bolt hooks up with two French cops he’s worked with in the past (I couldn’t recall if they’d featured in a previous volume): Jean-Paul, an obese dude who has an apartment filled with dogs and who, despite his obesity, has slept with scads of incredibly gorgeous women, and Roger, a calm-natured quiet type who is uber-devoted to his wife, which Bolt thinks is an uncommon tendency among French husbands. These guys don’t factor into much until the finale. Instead Bolt, surprisingly, stays for the most part in the lead, setting up a deal with a grungy American expat who tries to burn Bolt but gets beaten up for his efforts.

Olden is as ever at pains to make the action in Narc realistic. John Bolt is no superhero and gets nervous in fight scenes, even complaining about his skinned knuckles afterward. While the average men’s adventure protagonist wouldn’t bat an eye at a long-haired slimeball wanna-be drug dealer trying to rip him off, Bolt frets over the act and takes a few pages of frantic combat to bring the slimeball down. But he does get his meeting with Remy Patek, which is busted up by some Lonzu assassins – and Bolt, unarmed, crawls on the floor panicked that he’s about to buy it. He’s hauled in as part of his cover, with Jean-Paul keeping up the charade that Bolt is really an American drug dealer, something the obese French cop will pay for.

Dog-lovers beware: there’s a grisly bit toward the end where Patek, who has discovered that Bolt is really an American agent, sends his goons to Jean-Paul’s house to teach him a lesson for his treachery. The goons go about slaughtering all the dogs in the place, Olden detailing it as one of them slits the throat of a little puppy! It’s so arbitrarily brutal that you can’t help but marvel at Olden’s cajones for even writing it – especially given that, when Jean-Paul gets his own vengeance, it’s rendered off-page! Yes, this is another Narc installment where the “main” villain, Count Lonzu, is alive and well by novel’s end, but the secondary villain, Remy Patek, meets his maker – however, not at the hands of the series protagonist. Nope, ol’ Jean-Paul abducts Remy and feeds him to a zoo lion! 

Bolt himself spends the final quarter of the book a prisoner of Count Lonzu. The Corsican kingpin is keeping Bolt as a “guest” until Bolt’s “Black Mafia” backer can arrive in Paris – this is Kramer, returning from previous volumes, posing as a loud-dressing gangster. But then Bolt’s cover is blown, just as Bolt himself is making his escape. As if he hasn’t killed enough dogs in print, Olden has our hero in mortal combat with one of the Count’s guard dogs, a moment captured on the typically-accurate cover painting. But it’s more of a tension deal as Bolt sneaks his way out of the Count’s heavily-guarded monastery on the outskirts of Paris; the sole action scene is when Bolt picks up a dropped pistol and shoots at a few people, killing at least one.

The finale as mentioned is so hurried as to be humorous – Olden, no lie, blows through all the events he’s been building toward in a scant eight pages. Immediately after escaping Lonzu’s monastery, thanks to the rescue of Jean-Paul and Roger, Bolt, along with the just-arrived Kramer, says so long to his French pals and hops a flight to London, where it’s been determined that Alain Lonzu was headed, after all. And there we get a perfuncory wrap-up where Bolt finds the guy hiding in the apartment of his London girlfriend, and Bolt makes his arrest.

Corsican Death ends with a warning from Kramer to Bolt that Count Lonzu now knows who John Bolt is and will no doubt come after him, not only for making the Count appear a fool, but also for arresting his little brother. Bolt shrugs it off as the usual dangers a D-3 agent must face. More than likely Bolt’s just reflecting on the fact that the main villains escaped unscathed from the previous six volumes, and given that none of them have ever come after him for revenge, it’s more than likely that the Count won’t, either.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Framed


Framed, by Art Powers and Mike Misenheimer
May, 1974  Pinnacle Books

In addition to their men’s adventure series, Pinnacle also published a lot of standalone crime-thriller paperback originals, usually labelled, like this one, as “adventure” on the spine. Unfortunately a lot of these titles are obscure and/or scarce these days, which is a pity in the case of Framed, as it’s a helluva ‘70s crime novel – and brutal, too, with grisly carnage like eyeballs popping out, point-blank blasts to the face by Magnum revolvers, maulings by killer guard dogs, and torture via spark plugs. Hell, it’s even got a fairly explicit sex scene, so what more could you ask for. 

I’d never heard of the book – and when researching it was surprised to find there was even a film adaptation, released the following year and starring Joe Don Baker, more of which below. But as for the novel itself, I was able to find out that authors Art Powers and Mike Misenheimer were ex-convicts, of the Ohio State Peninteniary, and had actually published a nonfiction book about their experiences there a few years before. It appears that Framed was their sole novel, released in only this paperback edition and promptly forgotten (other than the film, that is). It’s a shame, as these two prove themselves to be very talented authors.

Framed is written in first-person, narrated by an ex-con named Ron Lewis (mistakenly referred to as “Tom Lewis” on the back cover). Seven years ago Ron was sent to Ohio State Pen for murdering a sheriff’s deputy in Steubenville, Ohio, but it was a frame; Ron killed the man in self-defense, as the deputy had been sent to murder Ron for something Ron saw but shouldn’t have. Ron came out the victor of the fight, but the people behind it all were able to send him to prison on trumped-up charges. Now Ron has served his time and has returned to Steubenville to bust those fuckers up.

Like the best crime fiction, Framed is lean and mean and doesn’t waste time with inessentials. Like for example Ron himself. We’re given no real background on him, what he does for a living, where he’s from, etc. All we learn is that he served for two years in Korea, after which he tried college but dropped out after a semester. He then ended up in Steubenville, shortly after which he ran into the trouble which sent him to prison for seven years. And now he has returned, apparently in the present (ie 1974).

Despite their solid writing skills, not to mention their gift with a melancholy vibe, the authors appear to lack math skills. As mentioned Ron served in the Korean War, which ended in 1953. When checking in with the sheriff’s office upon his return to Steubenville after getting out of prison, Ron gives his age as 31. This would imply the novel is set in the mid 1960s at the latest. And yet the book is clearly set in the early ‘70s, with references to Twiggy, Jimi Hendrix, the 1968 Ohio Pen reforms, and even the Beatles song “Something,” which alone places the novel after 1969. But who knows, maybe like Don Pendleton Ron lied about his age so he could serve in Korea. Or maybe he lied to the sheriff’s office.

What happened seven years ago is capably dispensed in bits and pieces without stalling forward momentum. Framed occurs in almost a postmodern format, with Ron making his return, figuring out who was behind the frame, and plotting his revenge; this takes precedence over the backstory of what happened that night seven years ago. For that matter Ron’s time in prison is also only sporadically referred to, with only one (kind of jarring) part where he goes into an extended flashback about his time there. That being said, it made total sense when I learned the authors themselves were ex-cons, as former prisoner Ron marvels over things that would be ignored by the average person, like the simple act of putting a key into a locked door and letting himself in. It’s little touches like this that elevates Framed beyond your basic (but bloody) revenge tale.

The novel opens with Ron getting off the bus that has returned him to Steubenville. He’s met at the depot by Susan, aka “Susan Cool,” a hotstuff nightclub singer Ron was involved with seven years ago. She takes him back to her place where she “balls [him] out of compassion,” though the authors leave this one fade to black; a later sex scene between the two is more in-depth, with Ron’s statements that his “tumescence was complete,” and Susan “grasping [his] extended manhood.” But after the “balling” Susan tells Ron he should leave town; the people behind his frame are still around and don’t want him here.

A funny (but I don’t think it was intended as such) element in Framed is Ron’s (and thus the authors’s as well?) sentiments toward women in general and Susan in particular. Simply put, she’s there to have sex with him and make his meals. While the former is implicit the latter is, uh, plicit (I stole that from somewhere but can’t remember where). Ron often tells us that Susan’s main chore is to make his meals, and there are many scenes where he sends her off to the kitchen to whip up food while the men talk. Anytime she gives him backtalk Ron simply ignores her, and he usually evades her questions. Indeed Ron treats Susan with such casual misogyny that Bill Cartwright of Operation Hang Ten could take a few pointers from him – high (or low?) praise indeed.

What happened was that seven years ago Ron decided to go out driving late one night. Passing by a field, he was shot at by some unseen assailant. Returning home, Ron was jumped in his garage by a burly sheriff’s deputy, one with a reputation for sadism and brutality. Ron, realizing he was about to be taken away to be killed, not arrested, engaged the dude in mortal combat. This fight, friends, is to Gannon levels of brutality. These two beat each other to burger, with Ron biting out a “chunk” of the deputy’s neck and finally ripping out his eyeball, which he shows to the dying deputy before throwing it in his face! (“He was strangling on his own blood and his own eyeball.”)

Ron is sent away for murdering an officer of the law, and his story of innocence is ignored. Now he uses Susan to figure out what’s happened since he was gone. For one, the sheriff at the time, a beefy dude named Morello, has become mayor. The new sheriff was a deputy back then but doesn’t seem to know anything about what happened. There’s also a new deputy who was cousins with the man Ron killed and who periodically threatens our narrator, usually getting his ass kicked – Ron himself, by the way, is a musclebound hulk. There’s also a black cop on the Steubenville force named Sam, who gradually assists Ron; Sam is aware of the corruption in town and knows Ron was framed.

Also assisting Ron is Vince, his old cellmate, a professional thief/Mafia hitman who ironically enough has been sent to Steubenville on a hit assignment, only to realize his target was none other than his old cellmate. Instead Vince gives Ron a warning and also loans him a .38. He suggests Ron call up another old prisoner pal, Sal Viccarone, a Mafia don who still wields power despite being behind bars. A simple call to a number Sal provided gets the underworld heat off Ron, but there’s still the question of who put the hit out on him in the first place.

More assassins follow, including a pair of hitmen who show up outside Susan’s home one night; Sam takes them out, now fully helping Ron. Our hero doesn’t just sit around; in the field that night years ago he spotted a yellow sports car, and tracking down leads finds that it was owned by the hippie son of current Ohio senator Polanski. The punk now lives with a bunch of hippies in Cleveland, serving as their lawyer; the authors bring to life the squalor of a hippie pad as Ron questions young Polanksi and learns that his dad had sold the yellow car long before the night of the shooting.

Ron’s now certain Senator Polanksi was behind the frame; he gets further confirmation when three killers get the jump on him outside of Susan’s place; Susan meanwhile has revealed that she was raped seven years ago, threatened to keep her mouth shut about Ron’s innocence…and conveniently one of the guys waiting for Ron now is the dude who raped her. We get another bit of Gannon-esque ultraviolence as Ron wrecks the car they’re in into a train and then beats the guy in the tail car to burger, even ripping apart his nostrils with his bare hands – and of course it’s the guy who raped Susan. Ron then proceeds to shoot off his ear and torture him for info with a skinned spark plug. The scene climaxes with a .357 Magnum blast to the sonofabitch’s face. As I say, the novel is wonderfully hardcore.

But Polanski senior also turns out to be innocent, or at least mostly so. Cornering the senator, Ron gets the full story. That night seven years ago Senator Polanski had just killed the man who was selling drugs to his son in that field. When Ron happened to drive by, the senator flipped and thought it was an accomplice. After firing at Ron’s car, Polanski blabbed to Sheriff Morello, who promised to square things away. Ron was framed, and in exchange for keeping Polanski’s name clean, Morello was able to exert his influence over the senator in various underhanded pursuits, not to mention gaining his help in becoming mayor of Steubenville.

This takes us into the climax, where Ron and Vince break out the revolvers and infiltrate Morello’s heavily-guarded home, a sequence which has Ron punching a killer guard dog to death. While this finale doesn’t have the explosive action I was hoping for, it does at least have a satisfactory end, with various reversals and reveals, as well as a quick firefight. Also it features the above-mentioned dog mauling, which sees the unfortunate victim’s face chomped and ripped to bloody ribbons.

Framed even features that other mainstay of ‘70s crime fiction: the downer ending. Not in the “everyone dies” fashion, but more so in an ironic sort of defeatism. The last chapter jumps into third-person and tells us of a man killing off a few cops who are guarding someone in protective custody, someone who is serving as a witness against the mob. The assassin then drowns the witness himself in the ocean. While he is never named, it is implied that the assassin is Ron, who post-vengeance has taken a job with old prison pal Sal Viccarone, who at novel’s end offered him a job in the Syndicate. The irony being that Ron has spent the novel fighting hitmen who blindly followed orders, killing without care, and now he himself has become one of them.

All told, Framed is damn great. There’s a level of introspection that is skillfully worked into the narrative, never slowing it down, just enough to give it an extra dramatic boost. It also has an assortment of memorable characters, and the brutal violence goes beyond some of the men’s adventure novels of the era. About the only misstep is the cover, which is cool enough, but I figure is recycled from something else, as it has nothing to do with the novel. That sunglasses-wearing dude in the snazzy suit sure isn’t Ron Lewis, and the array of profiles behind him doesn’t bear much relation to the characters in the book – I mean, the guy in the hat at the center appears to be Chinese or something, and there isn’t a single Asian in Framed.

As for the film, Framed came out in 1975, but it’s copyright ‘74; Powers’s and Misenheimer’s novel is credited, but they did not write the script. The movie is much inferior to the novel. Joe Don Baker stars as Ron, and admittedly I didn’t picture Baker as the protagonist when reading the novel, but then I can’t think of a single novel in which I ever have. (I still think he made for the best onscreen Felix Leiter though – I mean, at least Baker’s from Texas!). Ron is more fleshed out in the movie, though I feel this detracts from his cipher-like nature in the novel. “I’m a gambler,” he helpfully exposits in the first few moments of the film, and he’s more of a bumbling redneck than the stone cold badass of the book.

The movie drops the template of the novel and follows a linear format, with Ron’s framing and prison service playing out in real time. The manner of Ron’s frame is also changed; in addition to the “wrong place, wrong time” setup of the book, here he’s intentionally framed due to his gambling winnings, which are taken by the corrupt sheriff. The action is also changed from Ohio to Tennessee, making the film part of the slew of “redneck revenge” exploitation yarns that were popular at the time.

The producers maintain the violent setpieces of the novel as closely as they can while still making it a mainstream picture; Ron’s brawl with the deputy is bloody, but no eyeballs pop out, and while Ron still shoots off the rapists’s ear he doesn’t blow off his face as in the novel. The action is the most memorable part of the film, in particular the film’s recreation of the scene in which Ron wrecks his car into a train – a stuntman is almost incenerated as he rolls away from the exploding car. All in a day’s work!

Finally, the flick skips the downer, ironic ending and gives us a veritable Happily Ever After, as Ron, his vengeance sated and his money returned, makes off with Susan – who herself has been changed in the film; gone is “Susan Cool,” replaced by a shrill harpy who grates the nerves. All told, the film adaptation of Framed is passable hicksploitation, but doesn’t come close to matching the brutal impact of the novel.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Book Of Justice #1: Genocide Express


Book Of Justice #1: Genocide Express, by Jack Arnett
November, 1989  Bantam Books

I think I already see why this obscure, late-era men’s adventure series only amounted to four volumes. Not that it’s bad or anything, it just lacks much bite, and its main protagonist would be more at home hanging out in a beach house in Malibu than gallivanting around the world fighting evil. There’s an off-putting New Agey type feel about Genocide Express, but not in the cool Ryder Syvertsen-esque way; rather, we have here a book where the protagonists say things like “What is reality?” and frequently hug one another.

I would’ve never heard of Book Of Justice if not for the series ad in Overload #2. As I wrote in my review of that trucker-action book, it’s commendable of Bantam Books that they were even attempting to launch new men’s adventure series while the genre was so ignobly dying. This first volume even sports a back-cover blurb by none other than Warren Murphy, who claims that Book Of Justice is “something new” in the action-fiction world. Well, it sort of is…but really it’s kind of a take on The Liberty Corps, with a bit of SOBs tossed in. But judging from this first installment it’s not as entertaining as either.

“Jack Arnett,” who even has his own (fake) bio in the back, is really Mike McQuay (who also holds the copyright on the novel), a prolific writer I’ve not yet read, though I do have his time travel novel Memories, which I’ve meant to read for a while. McQuay also turned in some of the Gold Eagle Executioner books, so there’s a bit of that feel here, though to be sure McQuay is clearly going for more of a realistic or perhaps serious vibe – not to mention he’s throttled way back on the action. One will not only not find any of the Gold Eagle-mandated gun-porn in Genocide Express, but one also won’t find much action, either!

The series setup is a little complicated. Basically, William Justice, an American whom the world knows as William Lambert, has just gotten his “island republic” Haven (apparently off the coast of France) inducted into the United Nations. It’s a self-sustaining “corporate nation” comrpised of people who have been deported or kicked out or just plain left their own countries. Operating under the guise of Lambert International, Justice and his core group go around the world under political or entreprenneurial interests, but really their main goal is to combat evil and help the downtrodden. Apparently they have an arrangement with the US State Department, something unexplored here, so in that regard the series is similar in setup to The Liberty Corps, with Justice’s army fighting wars for the US government. But that doesn’t happen this time; it’s all Justice’s ballgame.

As usual with ‘80s men’s adventure novels, the focus is on teamwork instead of the (much preferable, I think) lone wolf ethic of ‘70s men’s adventure novels. Justice has a fairly big entourage, and McQuay doesn’t help the reader out much as he barely describes most of them. Here are the main characters:

William Justice – I don’t believe he’s ever described, so the moussed-up “Just For Men” dude on the cover will suffice. Justice’s schtick is that he gets emotionally invested in the people he wants to help, so that their fight becomes his personal fight. He has a vague backstory of suffering and loss; his wife was killed in a housefire sometime in the past, one started by a bomb. It’s mentioned a few times that Justice is “certifiably crazy” and that his sanity is only a pretense, but come on, people – John Sullivan is insane. Johnny Rock is insane. Philip Magellan is real friggin’ insane. But William Justice is practically Mr. Malibu – a guy who sprinkles wheat germ on his egg whites and periodically embraces his teammates and tells them how much he loves them.

Sardi – Turban and ankh-wearing Indian who is basically Justice’s right-hand man. Has the ability to hypnotize people. Worries that Justice might become too insane someday.

Kim – Hotstuff Vietnamese/French babe with a fondness for throwing knives, watching cartoons while drinking bourbon, and arbitrarily announcing “I’m horny” or “I’m bored – let’s fuck,” to the male members of the team, though she never follows up on it. Also seems to disregard the occasional verb, ie “You stupid,” and the like.

Kiki – Not to be confused with Kim (though I sure as hell did), Kiki is a “Nigerian cowboy” who wears Western clothing and calls people “podner.”

Bob Jenks – Completely-undescribed dude Justice sprung from prison (with the help of the State Dept); Jenks was in prison for murdering a drug dealer in vengeance. Along with Justice he’s the guy Kim makes occasional sexual propositions to – at one point he tries to take her up on it, but she turns him down because he doesn’t have a rubber! (Welcome to the late ‘80s, my friends…)

There are others, including a State Dept contact and another guy who has an eyepatch and a prosthetic hand, who I hoped would feature a chainsaw or gun he could screw onto his arm a la Ash in Army Of Darkness, but he stays back in New York.

McQuay does a fairly good job juggling all these people, but as is typical with the team focus of ‘80s men’s adventure entries, the “main” protagonist is thus mostly lost in the shuffle. Therefore none of these guys were ever as memorable as their ‘70s predecessors. And Justice isn’t very memorable at all, though we’re often told how much of a badass he is and how he lives for the “game” of fighting wars and taking down evil. As mentioned, his main thing is he gets involved in his wars, and he’s especially riled up in this initial adventure, which brings to mind the plot of The Hunter #1.

On the day Haven is being inducted into the UN – a scene which features Justice making a blunt speech to the various heads of state about how they need to watch their asses around Haven(!) – an Ugandan native named David Lule approaches Justice’s apartment in the UN building, his Americanized niece, Alena, in unwilling tow. David Lule wants Justice’s help – like the A-Team, he and his people are there to help the unfortunate – and the Ugandan shows that his body has been inhumanly twisted, his eyes bulging out, by some mysterious plague. He then breaks his own neck in a seizure and dies on the spot.

Justice is all fired up and leaves immediately, first busting Bob Jenks out of protective custody. Not by force or by action, but by computers – again, welcome to the late ‘80s, my friends. Speaking of computers, McQuay wrote sci-fi and there is, I think, a bit of a Neuromancer vibe when an Ugandan nuclear submarine (a gift from the US) shows up in the harbor to take Justice et al to Africa; the crew is populated by apparent stoners, the sub reeks of incense, and the heavyset Captain roars “Prepare to dive, motherfuckers!” over the loudspeaker. All of it reminded me of the stoner Jamaican crew on that space station in Neuromancer.

McQuay adds some dark humor here and there – like when one of Justice’s crew pops open a bottle of champagne right as David Lule’s corpse hits the floor – but to be honest Genocide Express is pretty dour and slow-going. We get lots of detail on how Uganda was raped by Idi Amin and how the country is still rebuilding itself, and it’s all very depressing and to tell the truth a bit more than what is needed for the genre.

You might notice one thing I haven’t mentioned yet – the action. That’s because there is none! Well, not until fairly late in the game, when Justice and team realize that sadistic General Asea of Uganda is plotting something with some KGB agents and even working with Amin himself, Asea turning out to be the tyrant’s cousin. At this point Justice whips out his customary .45 and declares that the Republic of Haven is going to war.

But talk about The A-Team…I had bad flashbacks to that show, as the initial action scenes see a bunch of bullets flying but not a single person getting shot. It’s all Justice’s team, split up for various pursuits, running afoul of Asea’s soldiers, engaging them in brief firefights, and running and ducking. The novel is a very bloodless affair, akin to the PG-13 dreck with generic photoshopped covers that fills the Thriller sections of bookstores today. Personally when I read these books I want rivers of blood, with exploding organs and brains blown out in chunky sprays of gore, with men puking their guts out as they shit their pants and die. But that’s just me.

It only goes on to get even more unintentionally humorous, and friggin’ fast, when McQuay expands on his New Agey vibe. First Justice suffers nightmarish visions of the people who were tortured in the hotel he’s staying in, which years before was the torture palace of Idi Amin. Then later Justice, Sardi, and Alena Lule head into the jungle to find Alena’s home village, from which the mysterious Mama Alice operates – David Lule told Justice to find Alice, who heads up a sort of Christian-voodoo cult.

“Paint me!” Justice screams as he goes native in the jungle, having a similarly reborn-into-savagery Alena whip out her lipstick and paint up his face and chest! Then they meet Mama Alice, who has like a thousand jungle warriors at her disposal; Justice is the prophecized “Windbringer,” and Justice casually informs his crew that he has already been in “spiritual conversation” with Mama Alice(!). There follows an eye-rolling sequence in which Mama Alice commands Justice to “Dance! Dance!” in front of her warriors in a Golden Bough-esque ritual, the desired effect of which is for Justice to become one with the jungle people. Does it work? Of course it does.

Meanwhile Bob Jenks and Kim try to infiltrate the Ugandan army, a scene which sees the unforgettable moment of white guy Jenks using shoe polish to give himself blackface! The two are quickly caught and summarily beaten – it’s the late ‘80s so there’s zero lurid stuff with a nude and/or exploited Kim, as there would have been (and naturally so) in a ‘70s men’s adventure novel. The two are sprung by one of those KGB agents, who turn out to be the good guys. Oh and Idi Amin is here, and there are also two Europeans who a few years before massacred a bunch of Ugandans so they could resttle the area to pursue their own twisted interests (one of ‘ems named Merkle, which I thought was particularly ironic).

There are even Libyan soldiers afoot, and at length McQuay decides they are the main threat. They are working with Merkle and the other European, as well as General Asea and Amin; the sadists are mixing that body-destroying plague into locally-produced Joke Cola, which is eagerly quaffed by the jungle natives. Now Justice is real fired up, leading us, finally, into an action sequence, in which he takes a commandeered personnel carrier on an assault of the Joke factory. Violence is, again, bloodless, with the most graphic detail being when Kim cuts a Libyan soldier “in two” with an Uzi burst.

McQuay has gone so long without action that he just barrels on through this one and keeps going; learning that a train bearing the plague is headed for the capital of Uganda (ie the “Genocide Express” of the title), Justice commandeers a helicopter and gives chase. Still the action is almost in outline detail, with none of the juicy gore or jetting bloodsprays I demand in action pulp. But McQuay at least delivers his villains memorable ends. For one, Idi Amin is torn apart by the natives (off-page, though), and Justice forces General Asea to drink a can of that body-deforming Joke Cola!

For his good deeds Justice is gifted the nuclear sub by a grateful president of Uganda, along with its joint-smoking captain. Justice has also bullied the US President into confirming Haven’s membership in the UN, something which was in jeopardy throughout the novel. And that’s that. I can’t say the book was terrible – McQuay shows a sensitivity for character that is unexpected in the genre, so there’s that, but the problem is his characters are pretty boring. And so, ultimately, is Genocide Express.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Marksman #14: Kill!


The Marksman #14: Kill!, by Frank Scarpetta
December, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

Sporting one of the greatest, most succinct titles in men’s adventure history, Kill! is courtesy the fevered imagination of Russell Smith and comes off as a sort of sequel to an earlier Smith novel, No Quarter Given, which happened to be published as the 8th volume of The Sharpshooter, with editor Peter McCurtin simply changing the name of hero Philip Magellan to Johnny Rock. (And speaking of McCurtin, he no doubt came up with the title of this novel – per Len Levinson, McCurtin came up with the titles for every volume of The Marksman and The Sharpshooter; Len didn’t even bother titling the three manuscripts he turned in to McCurtin). 

Lynn Munroe, whose research into the twisted roots of this series can’t be praised enough, has Kill! as being a collaboration between McCurtin and Smith. Lynn always knows of what he speaks, but the book seems like pure Russell Smith to me, with no detectable McCurtin presence. Perhaps McCurtin listed himself on the copyright submission for the book because he came up with the title, who knows. But none of McCurtin’s more careful, straight prose is to be found in this one, which follows the usual brutish Russel Smith template: “hero” Magellan shows up in a new city, appraises the Mafia situation, ties up and drugs a few captives, and eventually begins murdering his prey, usually while they’re in the bathroom.

Such is the case with Kill!, which takes place in New Brunswick, NJ, home of Rutgers University – which here is a cesspit, mostly controlled by the local mob of Nick “The Screw” Corisco. Indeed Smith is at great pains to describe Rutgers and its environs as a hellhole; when Magellan arrives on the scene he quickly drives through town and can’t believe how shitty the place is. Magellan is here, through one of the more contrived backstories ever, thanks to an ad he saw in a friggin’ mens adventure magazine, I kid you not – one placed there by a Rutgers geology professor named Dr. Jeremy Bowles. Magellan even goes to the Argosy classified ads office in New York to research the mysterious advertisement; we’re informed that it ran in many men’s adventure and detective magazines.

Smith informs us that this installment occurs one year after Magellan has begun his war on the Mafia, an incident which was relayed in The Assassin #1 (which ironically enough was published one year before this book). The only clear element to tie this volume to a previous Smith manuscript is later in the book, when it’s stated that Magellan’s “most recent” anti-Mob activity was in Norfolk, Virginia, the events of which were detailed in No Quarter Given (which I guessed at the time was yet another Smith book…ah, the sweet taste of vindication). Those editorial Magellan/Rock gaffes so common from other books aren’t as apparent here, mostly because this one started and ended as a Marksman manuscript; other that is than a humorous slip on page 41: “Magellan…the man known as the Sharpshooter.” What more proof do we need to confirm my theory that The Assassin, The Marksman, and The Sharpshooter were all the same messed-up dude??

I’ve read enough of these Smith installments to figure out that he basically writes the same book over and over. Whatever city Magellan goes to will not only be mob-run but filled with competing mobs, and Smith will page-fill with various one-off mobsters plotting against each other. There will also likely be dirty cops in attendance. Magellan will arrive on the scene, check into a sleazy hotel (in which the mobsters themselves might also be staying), and he slowly figures out what’s going on. To do so he’ll capture a few people, tie them up, drug them, and interrogate them. “Action scenes” will be comprised of Magellan sneaking up on mobsters and shooting them in the back; more often than not this will happen while the mobsters are using the john. Along the way Magellan will hook up with a young woman, usually a waitress, who might have been abused by the local mobsters. The young woman will ultimately have nothing to do with anything, not even for a genre-customary sex scene (Magellan is as sexless as a robot, for the most part). The finale will be a harried, anticlimactic affair in which Magellan kills off the villains, all of whom have conveniently gathered in one spot.

Given this, it’s no wonder Smith turned in so many volumes of The Marksman, many of which were changed into Sharpshooter books. In addition to the above recurring elements, Smith will fill out his books with almost stream-of-consciousness dialog between the lowlife mobters, most of whom are only capable of spouting paragraphs of profanity. We’ll also get behind-the-scenes peeks into how the Mafia rakes in the cash through various illicit ventures. It’s the same thing over and over again in each Smith book, with only the barest details changed, and it explains why there were so many volumes of these two series published in such a short time – clearly, there was no quality control going on at Belmont-Tower or Leisure Books.

Which isn’t to say these books aren’t fun. I mean, I really love them! There is something admirable about the way Smith has figured out his hero is a psychopath, and thus Smith appears to write the novels themselves through a sort of psychopathic lens. His Marksman books take place in a strange alternate reality, and one thing you can never say about them is that they aren’t entertaining. But after so many of them you kind of want something a little more straight, something that doesn’t seem to have been dashed out in a single boozy weekend.

And Kill! is really dashed out in a hurry. The novel is filled with arbitrary, chapter-long arguments between mobsters and the dirty cops who work with them, and seemingly-important subplots are built up only to be completely forgotten. Like the bizarre tidbit that Dr. Bowles and Magellan look identical. This is played up, both characters puzzling over the mind-boggling improbability of it(!), but for the most part it’s just used for the occasional scene where Magellan pretends to be the kindly doctor, who has been blackmailed by Corsico’s mob – Bowles was in deep due to how expensive his global archeology trips are, and in exchange for repayment Nick the Screw now uses Bowles’s archeological site hauls from the Yucatan to smuggle heroin and guns.

Bowles has sent Magellan the coded letter in those men’s mag classifieds so as to get Corsico off his back. But while Magellan researches the situation, other characters are about ready to do the job for the doctor anyway: Joe Girotti, a psychopathic rival mob boss, is about ready to begin a war with Corsico, and aiding him is corrupt Captain Boffin of the New Jersey State Police. Smith page-fills with abandon as these various characters dither with one another, but occasionaly he throws in unexpected detours like when Girotti brutally – and arbitrarily, so far as the narrative itself goes – mutilates and murders Corsico’s wife in her bed. This lurid scene is so random and barely-explored as to be hilarious, but unquestionably Smith intends it as just another bit of his trademark dark humor, as evidenced via Corsico’s reaction to his wife’s bloody murder: “It was a brand new mattress, too!” 

Meanwhile Magellan dons his customary “hippie disguise,” drives around town in a rented Volvo bus, and “mingles” with the hippified students at Rutgers. Boy would I have loved to see Smith describe just a little of this. Eventually Magellan begins to impersonate Bowles, sometimes bullshitting his way out of situations by acting like the strong-willed professor. Surprisingly, though, Magellan has yet to kill anyone – even by page 90 the Marksman has yet to claim a life, which is quite unexpected, particularly for a book titled, uh, Kill! Instead Magellan knocks out a couple Corsico thugs, ties them up, and dumps them in the “university garage” where Dr. Bowles’s crates are stored. Later on Magellan proceeds to his other favorite passtime: tying up captives, drugging them, and then dropping them in the garage.

One of the captives he lets go, in a bit that’s not further explored: Maria, lovely young wife of a guy Nick the Screw has set up as his second in command in New Brunswick. Magellan abducts her and drugs her, carting her around per his usual method – and then when she wakes up he just talks to her! She gives him info on Corsico’s doings in town…and then Magellan lets her go! All very strange to say the least. Maria wants vengeance on Nick and whatnot, but you won’t be surprised to know that this is just another subplot Smith completely ignores and/or forgets about.

Magellan by the way is a bit off his game this time out, overly cautious and indecisive; there’s a part where he even wishes that he had an advisor who could suggest what actions he should take(!). Magellan’s uncertainty is no better displayed than a bizarro bit where he scopes out Joe Girotti’s house, standing on a trash can to look in a window. Magellan hefts his Uzi (which we’re informed he hasn’t used “in a long time”) and blasts away at the three stooges in the place, but the recoil knocks him off-balance – and he falls off the trash can, banging his head on the brick wall! For one of the few times in the series our godlike hero is completely at the mercy of his enemies, totally unconscious…but wakes in the room of lovely young Sally, 17 year-old sex captive of the mobsters. She’s real thankful that Magellan came along and killed all those guys, and hangs out with him for the remainder of the book, doubtless to never be mentioned again.

Smith injects the novel with his usual dark comedy, in particular a sequence in a diner. After saving young Marie, Magellan takes her to a diner. Per the usual Smith fondness for coincidence, a bunch of Girotti stooges roll into town and pick this exact spot to eat. So Magellan resorts to his customary method: sneaks into the bathroom while each is using it and blows them away. Then another mobster will go to check on the ones who are taking so long in the john, puke at the gory ruin within, and meet his own fate from Magellan’s silenced Beretta. Smith includes a running joke here with Magellan coming back to his table after each kill and dealing with an increasingly-impatient waitress, who wants Magellan’s order; the scene caps off with Magellan, who has now murdered all the mobsters, telling the waitress, “Well, now. I think I’ll have ham and eggs.” 

The story really belongs to the mobsters, who as mentioned fill up pages with, I kid you not, “conversations” that are almost completely made up of strung-together expletives. Nick the Screw, set up as the main villain early on, abruptly fades away and the villain slot is filled by Joe Girotti, whose sadism is barely explored, just casually detailed; he talks corrupt Captain Boffin into going into business with him and screwing over Nick the Screw. Action is periodic and arbitrary, like a part near the 100-page mark where Magellan finally makes his first kill, staging an impromptu raid on a Mafia gambling venture. Here Magellan uses something new in his arsenal, a sulphur grenade, donning a “plastic surgical mask” to protect himself from the fumes.

The finale is the usual rushed Smith job, so anticlimactic as to be hilarious. While Magellan poses as a worker, scoping out Captain Boffin’s mansion in the middle of a lake(!), Nick the Screw’s men pull an assault on the place. Magellan has been so out of it this volume that he’s yet to figure out that Dr. Bowles has been kidnapped, and indeed is being held captive right there in the lake house. He also shows no interest in Bowles’s hippie daughter, who first appears nude in the good doctor’s loft – Magellan is so razor-focused on Mafia-killing that he doesn’t even check out her nude body, or at least Smith doesn’t even properly exploit it. But Bowles is abruptly gone, clearly and obviously kidnapped like fifty pages ago; Magellan is really slow on the uptake this time around.

Anyway, they’re all here for this final “action sequence,” including even a dude Magellan has kept tied up for the past few chapters – I mean, with no explanation at all, the dude, a Mafia hitman who has been drugged and bound since halfway through the book, is there with Nick’s enforcers as they storm Boffin’s home. How does Smith explain how this guy made his escape? He simply writes, “Magellan was never to know.” Once everyone’s done killing each other (off-page), Magellan hoists his Uzi and another of those sulphur grenades and stages his own assault, perfunctorily killing Nick the Screw and conveniently enough saving Dr. Bowles – and only here does Magellan even realize Bowles had been kidnapped!

And that’s it for Kill!, which per the usual template just flat-out ends with no real resolution or wrap-up. All told this was a weird one, filled with that patented rough Russell Smith charm that I find entertaining despite its many, many faults. If anything I appreciate how this guy clearly banged his Marksman manuscripts out without wasting his time on editing or revising or any of that other limp-wristed stuff.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Topless Dancer Hangup (Operation Hang Ten #7)


Topless Dancer Hangup, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1971 Macfadden Books

I was under the impression that George Snyder wrote all ten volumes of the Operation Hang Ten series, but then Justin Marriott kindly sent me a scan of an article Snyder published in a 2005 issue of Paperback Parade where he claimed that he had only written the first five volumes, with no knowledge of who wrote the others. Then to confuse matters even more, Snyder himself left a comment on a revew of this very novel at The Ringer Files, where he stated, “I wrote ten of them…other writers came later after I walked away from the series.”

So what the hell? Did he write five or all ten? I could see him forgetting when he wrote that 2005 article that he’d written one or two volumes, but to forget he’d written five novels? But then, so far as his comment on the Ringer Files goes…there only were ten books in this series, so what other writers could there have been? All very confusing, and all likely moot, as having read this seventh volume* of Operation Hang Ten, I have to say it’s certainly the work of Snyder – which would imply his comment on Kurt’s blog was more accurate than his 2005 article, and that Snyder did in fact write all ten of these books and not just the first five.

It has the exact same vibe as the previous volume I read, #3: Deadly Group Down Under, with a small group of characters and a hardboiled pulp sort of feel. This volume again proves that Operation Hang Ten is more “Fawcett Gold Medal” the “surfing meets spy-fy” hijinks promised by the series concept. Other than one or two sequences where surly hero Bill Cartwright surfs or races his Hemi-powered Woody, the series feels almost exactly like a grim and gritty private eye yarn. Even the cast of characters is whittled down to just a handful, something I’ve noticed is a recurring motif in hardboiled pulp, and the action is mostly comprised of brutal fistfights.

Another indication that this is the work of George Snyder is that Topless Dancer Hangup features that strange tendency of his which I have mentioned before. Whereas the action scenes in a Snyder novel are chaotic, harried, and over within a paragraph or two, the guy consistently over-details comparitively trivial acts like the hero trying to sneak into a building. Just as in The Defector, while the action scenes are over and done with in no time, we will read a couple pages of Bill (as Snyder usually refers to his hero) climbing through a window and trying to lower himself safely to the ground, etc. There are two such sequences in the book, and Snyder’s the only men’s adventure writer I know of who consistently does this – personally I’d rather read a few pages of a shootout instead of a belabored explanation of how Bill jimmies open a window, slides in, and tries to figure out where he can safely land without causing himself injury or making any noise.

Anyway, I enjoyed this one a lot more than Deadly Group Down Under. Bill’s customary opinions on this or that are a bit toned down, and Snyder focuses more on the noirish feel. But still, it’s practically the same book. It seems to me that each of these Operation Hang Ten novels are just noirsh pulp-action yarns with plots that center around a missing or murdered young woman, and Topless Dancer Hangup has Bill venturing to Hawaii to locate a missing Hang Ten operative named Sandra Denny who is the titular topless dancer; she has disappeared with ten thousand in Hang Ten cash along with a microfilm she bought from a Cuban refugee, which purports to show the locations of Red China-funded missile silos in the Cuban hinterlands.

I was unduly harsh on Deadly Group Down Under; it took Kurt’s above-referenced review to make me realize what I’d missed: that Operation Hang Ten is really just a men’s adventure variation of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, only in third-person (though Snyder’s prose as ever feels like first-person), and with a 24 year-old surfer-spy replacing MacDonald’s “knight errant.” I wonder if this is what series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel envisioned from the start. The similarities extend even to the “wounded birds” Bill encounters each volume, many of whom meet grisly deaths as demanded from lurid ‘70s pulp.

So, while my comments in that earlier review about Bill’s “chauvanism” and “misogyny” (two grossly overused words in the victim culture that is modern American society) are for the most part still valid, Bill’s Cro-Magnon views are tempered this time by…you know, who cares? It just didn’t bug me nearly as much this time, maybe because it just didn’t get as much in the way of the narrative. This time we just get periodic musings on hot secretaries “swishing” their behinds to and from work while Bill eats burgers and watches them from inside a greasy diner (Bill only seems to eat burgers, by the way).

We also get periodic reminders that women were designed to please men. But the most venomous musings are directed more toward the increasing commercialization of Hawaiian surfing spots and how parts of Hawaii will no doubt look just like Burbank in a decade. I’ve yet to read a Travis McGee novel, but it’s my understanding they’re along the same lines – weary cynicism about the encroaching shittiness of the world mixed with ruminations on women. All the same here, if a bit more brutish.

I still don’t buy Bill Cartwright as an action hero. For one, he’s too damn young, for me at least…I wrote elsewhere that I think these men’s adventure protagonists should be grizzled Marlboro Men-types, in their thirties at least….but more importantly he’s kind of a chump. Regardless, we’re informed that Hang Ten boss Jim Dana considers Bill his best operative – which I think is less a commentary on how great Bill is and more of a commentary on how bad the other Hang Ten operatives must be.

But Bill’s called away from his latest steady lay, a good-looking 19 year old surf “bunny” who has lived in sin with Bill for the past three weeks in his high-tech trailer, which as we’ll recall is all run off a computer that mostly just whips up Scotch and sodas for Bill. But our hero is getting sick of how “the girl” is falling in love with him and clearly wanting to marry him; more damningly, she is a neat freak. So when Bill gets his summons to Hang Ten HQ, he throws a “neatnik” tantrum and the girl storms out of his life, just as Bill hoped she would.

Later Snyder softens this a bit by having Bill “sniffling” as he sits alone in his trailer, and it’s intimated that Bill really broke it off with her because he can’t get that involved with a woman; his life is dedicated to eradicating “the lice” of the world. There are parts here and there later on where Bill will mull that his trailer is now “haunted” by the girl’s ghost, but by midpoint through the novel he’s checked out more ass-swingin’ secretaries and ass-baring surf bunnies and has pretty much forgotten about her. That being said, Bill does practically fall in love with another young lady during the course of the novel.

The book is really a private eye thriller; forget any “Surfing James Bond” expectations. Bill heads to Honolulu, as ever having his Woody and his trailer shipped over as well, and goes about scoping out the scene while dealing with the smallscale cast of lowlife characters. He also kills a few pages hitting on a surf bunny named Sue in a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, mostly so Snyder can provide a humorous scene in which the two openly discuss their intention to have sex in front of a few shocked fellow diners, but regrettably cannot as Sue has not taken her pill that day. The two make a date to screw the following day(!), but “The Cartwright” (as Snyder sometimes refers to his hero, I kid you not) forgets all about poor ol’ Sue.

Rather, the “Cartwright chick” this time around is Marie, a friend of Sandra Denny’s and a fellow topless dancer. There’s a cool late ‘60s vibe bit where Bill checks out Marie dancing in the club, with psychedelic lights playing over her half-nude form. Bill practically falls in love with her, leading to the novel’s one and only sex scene, which is fairly explicit, in particular noting a “small, circular, wonderful movement to [Marie’s] body” that just about blows Bill’s mind. Marie is the only one who knows where Sandra Denny is, and even that she’s a Hang Ten agent, and sets Bill up to meet with her.

As for Sandra Denny, she remains off-page for the duration, being hunted by various people. Bill tracks down her mom, an over-the-hill hussy who comes on strong to our disgusted hero, and also questions Don Arlen, a dark-haired lothario who claims to have been Sandra’s steady boyfriend. (“Were you getting into her?” being an example of Bill’s rather blunt questioning method.) Mostly though Bill runs afoul of three lowlifes from another local club, two of whom shadow Bill throughout the novel, leading to the few (and pretty brief) action scenes.

In fact nothing really comes to a head even though some minor characters are killed off-page. Bill mostly just bitches that he’s getting nowhere in his half-assed investigation and goes back to his trailer to make despondent calls back to HQ and have his computer whip him up some Scotch and soda. It’s only when Marie is captured and put in a sort of dungeon that the novel really kicks into gear, though to be sure it the material leading up to this moment isn’t exactly bad or anything – in fact, I enjoyed it. But I still don’t think the exorbitant prices of Operation Hang Ten on the second-hand market are justified; we aren’t talking about men’s adventure fiction gold here.

Even when Bill goes to Marie’s rescue, Snyder again indulges in his strange penchant for focusing more so on Bill’s climbing through a window and sneaking into the place than the actual action itself. And Bill proves himself again to be a klutz, dropping his .22 Magnum auto and resorting to his hands. The villain ends up blowing himself up. Once Marie’s freed, Bill basically proclaims his love to her and then gets on to the business of figuring out the plot in the last couple pages, with all of it centering around the same small group of characters we’ve been dealing with since the beginning. 

I’ve got a few more volumes of Operation Hang Ten in my collection, and hopefully they’ll be more along the lines of this one. Bill’s bitchery is toned down a bit, and while not much really happens, the tone is nice and hardboiled. It’s a shame though that Manor didn’t reprint the series in full like it did with The Aquanauts; if they had, the books might be a lot easier and cheaper to acquire.

*I was also under the impression that Topless Dancer Hangup was the sixth volume of Operation Hang Ten, as that’s how it’s listed in Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes and on the Spy Guys and Gals website. However the “other titles in the Operation Hang Ten series” list at the front of the book has Girl In The Telltale Bikini, usually listed as being the seventh volume, as actually being the sixth volume. In other words, the order of the two volumes has been swapped in Brad’s book and the Spy Guys site, and Topless Dancer Hangup takes place after Girl In The Telltale Bikini. Not only that, but early in Topless Dancer Hangup Bill briefly flashes back on his previous six assignments for Hang Ten, one of which is the Girl In The Telltale Bikini.