The Venus Probe, by David St. John
October, 1966 Signet Books
Yet another spy paperback series Signet published in the ‘60s, Peter Ward was special because “David St. John” was in reality future “Watergate conspirator” (as he was proclaimed on the ‘70s reprints) E. Howard Hunt. A prolific pulp author going back to the hardboiled era, Hunt supposedly was tasked by the CIA to come up with an American James Bond…I read this somewhere, though to tell the truth it sounds like baloney. The simple truth was probably more along the lines that Hunt wanted to capitalize on the spy boom created by Fleming’s famous creation.
Anyway, there appears to be some legal requirement that all reviewers must state that St. John was really Hunt, so now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, on to the series itself. The Peter Ward series ran for nine volumes, the first six published by Signet, the seventh by Dell (and that one, The Mongol Mask, also got a hardcover edition), and the last two were published by Fawcett Crest. The series ran from 1964 to 1971, and for the most part appears to have strived for realism throughout – to the point of boredom, unfortunately.
For while he is a gifted wordspinner, Hunt suffers from some of the most belabored, ponderous plotting and storytelling I’ve yet encountered. Simply put, it takes forever for anything to happen in The Venus Probe. This is the sort of book that would even make Manning Lee Stokes grumble to himself, “Good Lord, man, get on with it!” The other year I started in on the sixth volume of the series, One Of Our Agents Is Missing, only to give it up after nearly falling to sleep with each attempted reading. Luckily, this early volume is slightly better, and benefits from a couple elements lifted from Fleming.
Hero Peter Ward is a pipe-smoking, horse-riding CIA veteran in his thirties who studied law at Harvard. He is a widower, his occasionally-referenced wife a Chinese lady who was killed at some point in the past. Ward’s only relative is a sister, whom he brings along to a CIA banquet at the opening of The Venus Probe, in which Ward is the man of the hour and his prior (top secret) assignment is discussed openly(!). He’s a stuffy upper-crust type who lacks any of the charisma of James Bond or Nick Carter, and likely is an indication of a real-life CIA agent of the time. The dude doesn’t even pack a signature weapon, and goes about the globe without even a gun.
One similarity between Hunt and Fleming is that Hunt too had an Intelligence background, thus he injects a lot of “behind the scenes” stuff into the novel. He also gives a lot of detail on foreign agencies; the book is stuffed with footnotes, even more than the average installment of Death Merchant. To Hunt’s credit, he does all this mostly via showing instead of telling. But whereas Fleming used his factual roots to (gradually) get a bit far out, Hunt is instead fine with keeping it all for the most part grounded in reality – even when, as is the case with this particular volume, the climax takes place in an underwater installation which has been built in preparation for an eventual space probe to the planet Venus.
Ward reports to Avery Thorne, Deputy Director of the CIA, a guy who uses “vis-à-vis” in everyday conversation. Thorne is one of the more patient spy agency bosses in history, basically sending Peter (as Hunt refers to his protagonist) around the globe on nothing more than a hunch. I mean, this dude racks up some serious frequent flyer miles. It all starts the night of that award dinner; staying over at the palatial house of his fellow CIA friend “Pip,” the CIA’s sciences chief, Peter is almost drugged by an assailant, who after a brief scuffle himself dies while trying to escape in a car.
Thorne pieces it together that the assailant mistook Peter for Pip, and perhaps Pip, with his scientific acumen, was the planned latest abductee of whoever has been kidnapping noted scientists over the past several months. Thorne has it that the missing seven scientists, all of whom have been announced as dead, could make up a potential “lunar team” that might advance the Soviet drive to get to the moon before the US – for Thorne is certain “the Sovs” are behind the apparent “deaths” of the seven men.
Peter’s eager to helm the project and is sent over to a sort of proto-X-Files department, headed by a eccentric coot named Milo Dunster. His group tracks weird info, like UFO sightings and whatnot, and is a sadly-unexploited element of The Venus Probe. For the most part Peter will sit in the cluttered office of Dunster’s team, read paperwork, and then drive somewhere for dinner. Peter Ward does a lot of sitting around, by the way. He also has an apparent-steady girlfriend, a nightclub singer with whom he enjoys two (off-page) sex scenes with over the course of the novel.
In the course of investigating the missing scientists, Peter goes to Paris, where he watches a topless dancer in a Caribbean-themed nightclub in a sequence that seems very reminiscent of Live And Let Die. This is Monique, ex-wife of one of the scientists; she dances with an “asexual mulatto” as part of her act. Peter romances her (no sex, though) over the course of a few days, then breaks into her apartment one night (shades of Watergate!) and rifles through her “dead” husband’s paperwork, where he conveniently finds like a paystub from the man’s secret Commie backers. Later Monique comes in and has a three-way with that “asexual mulatto” and another gal while Peter hides in an alcove and listens!
Back at Dunster’s, Peter is informed of a “sea monster” spotted in the seas of Micronesia, one that spouts flame and has been wreaking havoc on the natives. Having apparently read Doctor No, Peter immediately realizes it’s likely a hydrofoil with machine gun and flame-thrower, a la the marsh buggy in Fleming’s novel. But forget about that – off Peter goes to Buenos Aires to chase another lead. It’s suddenly Jack London as Peter mounts a hike into the snow-swept mountains with a local guide who claims that his charge, one of the missing scientists who supposedly died in the hike, didn’t die after all; he was kidnapped by Russians who paid the guide to keep his mouth shut. But the guide has a sickly wife and will tell Peter all about it for more cash.
Meanwhile Peter has another no-sex romance, with a British national babe who lives here as a travel agent. Indeed she gradually falls in love with him, and saves his ass when Peter is almost killed by an unseen sniper out in the mountains. This is the closest we get to an action scene, well into the novel; Peter’s even armed with something called a “Mendoza automatic,” which he purchased before the trip…and he doesn’t even fire it! Instead he himself is shot in the leg and crawls for his Land Rover and passes out, only to awaken in the hospital. Not to worry, though, as off Peter goes next to St. Thomas, to recuperate for a week in the sun.
One wonders how the CIA stayed afloat in Hunt’s (fictional?) world, as Thorne next sends the recovered Peter to Berne, Switzerland, to investigate a “coy whore” who tangled with another of the missing scientists. Peter actually gets in a fight here, having walked into a honey trap – back to the girl’s place for sex, where two dudes attack him. Peter hits one guy with an ice hammer and gets away; later he discovers the “coy whore” herself has been murdered. Off Peter goes again, this time to Micronesia, to finally look into that “sea monster” business brought up so many pages ago (we’re now past page 100 of a 176-page novel with some super small and dense print).
Posing as a marine biologist, Peter navigates the ocean in a ketch with a few natives, acting as bait for the hydrofoil. It attacks them – and Hunt gets rid of it in a few paragraphs as Peter whips out a bazooka and destroys it. Rather than investigate further…Peter flies back to DC. This after he’s enjoyed the sexual talents (off-page) of the island chieftan’s daughter, a “laughing, full-breasted maiden,” that is. Thorne figures Peter should investigate the area in which the hydrofoil operated, so has him test out the Snark, the Agency’s new one-man submarine, which is actually a two-man submarine; many pages are devoted to Peter and an Agency pal piloting the thing around Florida, only for the friend to get injured and not able to take part in the actual mission(!).
In the final thirty or so pages, The Venus Probe gets fairly interesting. In his one-man submarine Peter searches the floorbed of the ocean, eventually encountering a massive underwater structure. His sub is caught in a net and he’s hauled in. It’s a Russian place, and of course the captured scientists are all here. Peter continues to pose as a marine biologist, and the KGB man in charge of the installation, Borsulov, eventually buys his story. In fact Borsulov even puts in a call to Moscow to have Peter be made a member of the team of scientists the Sovs have put together.
For it isn’t a lunar team after all – the Russians want to exceed the US-USSR space race, and go to Venus itself. Peter finds that the captured scientists are split into two parties: those who rebel against the Russians and the “progressives” who are liberals and have willingly joined the Commies. Eventually Peter manages to recruit one of them, a former Army man who fights against the Russians, into an escape plot. Peter then waltzes into Borsulov’s place…and announces he’s a CIA agent and that it’s against the law for Borsulov to hold him here against his will!?
The action finale is more humorous than thrilling, mostly because Peter Ward himself doesn’t do anything more than tie up a few guards. Meanwhile it’s that army vet scientist who does all the heavy lifting (off-page, at that!). Peter does shoot one guard in the thigh – and then another scientist, a proclaimed pacivist, shoots the guy in the chest…and then blows the smoke off the barrel of his pistol! Meanwhile that vet takes out three guards and Borsulov, who humorously enough has a self-destruct button for the entire underwater installation on his desk!
Peter and all the scientists desperately escape in scuba gear, trying to swim up from a great depth before the installation blows up. Oh and Peter’s gone around to warn everyone, hoping that the sexy KGB babe down here – provided as sexual release for the men (Peter turns her offers down, too) – somehow manages to escape. Doubtful, though, given that all of the scientists except one actually die in the escape. Personally I’d say Peter has failed in his mission, but I’m sure he’ll get another award dinner.
And that’s that. Peter, once again on a hospital bed, wonders if he’ll head back to Micronesia for more chieftan-daughter sex, or maybe to Buenos Aires, to hook up with that travel agent babe he promised he’d see again. As mentioned I started the sixth volume the other year, and I can tell you neither of these things happen in One Of Our Agents Is Missing.
But then, not much of anything appears to happen in the Peter Ward books at all. Even the seventh volume, The Mongol Mask, sounds to be a bore, despite the cover promise of “atomic sex” and other thrills – just check out Jure’s review.