Monday, March 20, 2017

A Friendly Place To Die

A Friendly Place To Die, by Michael P. Faur, Jr.
December, 1966  Signet Books

Signet Books really cornered the market on spy series fiction in the ‘60s, no doubt because they’d scored a coup with the paperback rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It would appear that this obscure one-shot novel was intended as the start of yet another Signet spy series, but for some unknown reason it never got beyond this initial book. This is unfortunate, as in many ways A Friendly Place To Die provides almost a swinging ‘60s spy variation of later men’s adventure series like The Destroyer, at least so far as its almost godlike kung-fu practicing protagonist goes.

Another mystery is who the author, Michael P. Faur, Jr, was. According to the Catalog Of Copyright Entries, it was apparently a real person (ie Faur isn’t a pseudonym or house name), but nothing else seems to have been published by him. A Google search reveals nothing save for an archived news story from December 1975 about a person of the same name being arrested for “issuing worthless checks” at clothing stores in Alabama. The article refers to this Michael P. Faur, Jr as an “Oxford concert promoter,” aged 37, who refused to “furnish background information on himself…because it was of a confidential nature.” Hmmm!

If this is the same Faur as the author of A Friendly Place To Die, then that would mean he was the young age of 26 or so when he published the book. This is interesting, as there is a weariness and wisdom to the novel and its characters that you wouldn’t expect from someone so young. (Barring of course a hippie of the day.) Cord, the hero of the book (no first name given), is in his 30s but acts more like an ancient and wise practicioner of the martial arts, thanks to the decade he spent in a secret temple in mainland China. When we meet him, Cord has finally escaped Red China and is in Mexico, about to sneak across the border into the US; this will be the first time he’s been here since the Korean War, over a decade ago.

Cord’s mysterious history is sprinkled throughout the first quarter of the book. Faur walks an interesting line, having a protagonist who is a bit of a cipher, while at the same time making that protagonist the hero of the book, with most of the narrative filtered through his thoughts. Thus the tantalizing bit on the back cover that Cord might not even be Cord is a bit ruined, as there’s no question for the reader that this is the same man who, a decade before, was captured during the fighting in Korea, later escaped from a POW camp, and after that was captured again in China during a failed cross-country escape attempt. But he escaped yet again, only to be saved by the monks of that kung-fu temple, who spent the next decade training Cord in all manner of knowledge, from the martial arts to languages to philosophy.

Cord is an okay character, if a bit too pragmatic and omniscient. He also uses a lot of annoying Britishisms, from “ruddy” to “bloody;” Faur briefly explains this as an after-effect of Cord spending so long among a people who learned their English in the, well, English idiom, rather than the American. Personally I don’t like an American hero who says “Bloody hell;” it just seems wrong on so many levels. Otherwise Cord is a cigarette-smoking, ruggedly-handsome type of protagonist familiar from this genre, and in many ways is a variation of Fleming’s Bond, only with an “Oriental” overlay. James Bond crossed with a fortune cookie, maybe.

Before crossing the border Cord is approached by a stacked brunette babe who claims she is a schoolteacher who has been separated from her friends, down here for a brief Mexican vacation. She is graced with the Fleming-esque name of Weary Nowe, and Cord is certain she is an undercover secret agent, sent to monitor him. He will be proved correct, and indeed Weary is the character referred to on the hyperbolic first page preview as “a fuming nympho who’s the sexiest anti-heroine in print.” She pleads with Cord to cross the border with her, after which they go back to her hotel room for a sex scene that isn’t hardcore, but a bit more graphic than the era average. (“They fell to the bed where they expertly and erotically made love,” etc.)

Two dudes come out of the shadows to attack Cord; he takes them out with his kung-fu skills and poor Weary is hit “between the breasts” in the melee. On Cord goes to DC, where we learn in an Ian Fleming moment that our spy hero is afraid of flying. He heads to a certain mansion on the outskirts of the city, where he challenges the woman who answers the door to another kung-fu fight, taking on more dudes who come out to fight him. But it’s all a test, and this is the HQ of Central, “a Q secret organization dedicated to preserving the internal security of the country.” Cord walks into a room in which the small, bookish leader of the department, referred to as “Central” himself, waits for him; Cord isn’t very surprised to see Weary Nowe also in attendance.

Central (which here on out refers to the man himself) reveals that he has been monitoring Cord since he slipped out of China. At length the convoluted scheme will have it that Central wants Cord for a mission, but first must determine if Cord is really Cord. Meanwhile Cord is kept in a cozy prison where he’s given gourmet meals and frequent sex visits from Weary, who in between somewhat-explicit boffings (“her voluptuous breasts jutted proudly”) tells Cord how much she hates him, and how she hopes Central “castrates” him once Central realizes Cord’s really lying.

But of course we readers know Cord isn’t lying about who he is, and at length we’ll learn that the reason behind all this nonsense is because Central was really behind the plot to spring Cord from Red China, after all – it was his man who posed as a dude who visited the temple and just happened to know a way to smuggle Cord out of the country. But this dude later ended up dead, as did everyone else who met Cord since he left the temple – all records of him prior to his Korea service are gone, not even any file photos – so there’s this belabored “mystery” of trying to ascertain if this is the same dude who was captured by the Koreans back during the war.

At length the reason behind Cord being sprung is revealed: Central has come across a plot to kill Fidel Castro when the Cuban dictator gives his speech to the UN. (Justin Trudeau would be bummed!!) The assassin will likely be a Red Chinese agent named Mao Ling, who happens to be the same officer who murdered every man in Cord’s unit back during the war, and is the same man Cord has sworn to kill. Indeed it was to assassinate Mao Ling which caused Cord to leave the temple in the first place. The reason Central needs Cord is because Cord is the only person who knows what Mao Ling looks like. So as you can see, the novel is built around two similar themes, neither of which are very believable.

Throughout all this Cord is presented as a secret agent-type bad-ass, always in command of any situation and thinking twelve steps ahead of his opponent. Thus I was a bit surprised to learn after all this that Cord is not a secret agent, has not had any secret agent training, and I guess is just a bad-ass thanks to all that kung-fu jazz. At any rate, Central puts his entire department at Cord’s disposal. Central HQ is revealed to be a spy-fy wonderland, with a radio room staffed by gorgeous babes in “spiked heels” and toting .38 revolvers; the place has an underground exit that goes on for miles beneath DC and is guarded by laser beams.

But Faur doesn’t really exploit any of this and keeps everything on a low-key level. Instead it’s all about the suspense as Cord works with a small team, many of whom are killed off-page, Cord finding their corpses with jade-handled daggers in their backs. Weary flits in and out of the narrative for more jibes and sex (at one point leaving a note on Cord’s hotel-room pillow with the memorable line, “I hurt deliciously, you brutal bastard”), while meanwhile an always-musing Cord ponders how nowhere is “a friendly place to die,” not even the palatial UN building. Oh and he also runs afoul of Niles, a beautiful redhead who, Faur casually mentions later on, happens to be a “dyke” in the midst of a torrid love affair with none other than Weary, and thus hates Cord for wrecking their romance. 

Cord doesn’t even much use the Central-provided team; he relies more on a fast-talking cabbie named Joe Knox and a group of young kung-fu students who are the grandsons of Chang Lee, an old kung-fu wizard whose name was provided to Cord by the temple in China – there is, we are informed, a network of kung-fu helpers all over the globe for graduates of the temple. Chang has a granddaughter, Sally, who is the “most exciting girl Cord had ever seen,” with a bodacious bod and all-around incredible features with those “almond eyes” pulp writers love so much. Cord falls in love with Sally and vice versa, as the two trade all-too-precious dialog, such as:

She kissed him. 

“You are so gentle,” he whispered. 

“Men love gentleness; dogs like food,” she mused. “Love does not convey the idea of pity.” 

“A hungry man is glad to get boiled wheat,” Cord said.

There’s only so much of this sort of thing a red-blooded guy like myself can take. And that is the central issue with A Friendly Place To Die; practically the entire novel is written just like this. I was only half-joking above when I mentioned a fortune cookie. The book in many ways could almost be something a fortune cookie writer churned out in his downtime. It’s all just too precious for its own good, one of those novels where characters speak at one another rather than to one another; Cord and Central in particular banter and jibe relentlessly, and while it starts off enjoyable it quickly begins to grate. But the preciousness of the “Oriental wisdom” stuff is the worst, and in that regard the novel is almost as guilty as the later The Ninja.

Action is also sparse, and generally of a martial arts nature, like when Cord engages a massive Chinese henchman in a battle to the death. Here Cord discovers the charred corpse of Mao Ling, and is devastated by the vengeance that has been stolen from him. Now the suspense ramps up as Cord must figure out who is behind the Castro plot, while Cord must also meanwhile keep hiding the payment Central has given him for the job – a recurring, annoying subplot has the intelligence boss constantly sending Weary around to figure out where the money is and if Cord has absconded with it. 

At one point Cord is caught and tied to a bamboo pole in the middle of a steam room; in a grueling sequence he uses his kung-fuery to break free, and to also save a nude Sally Chang, who is likewise tied up nearby. Speaking of which we get a few sex scenes between these two as well, and Cord’s now in love with the gal. The novel climaxes with Cord having gained omniscient knowledge of who is really behind the plot – the assassin shows up posing as a cameraman.

Spoiler alert: Faur blows through the otherwise tense climax by having a bunch of stuff happening…and then backtracking and explaining what we just read. Long story short, the cameraman/would-be assassin is a Chinese dude in a latex mask, and he’s shot by Weary, who turns out to have been his accomplice, but who had second thoughts due to her love for Cord (which she masked via the constant jibing). But Cord meanwhile has shot Weary, who dies thinking Cord’s accomplice shot her. Cord’s figured out Weary’s duplicity a while ago (Faur only now bothering to inform us of this), and likewise he’s determined that “dyke” Niles was Weary’s co-plotter.

The finale sees a final confrontation between Cord and Mao Ling (who may have been posing as Central all along; Faur really confused me here – and that charred corpse was just a decoy), with Cord shooting Niles and trading a line or two with Mao Ling before the Chinese villain escapes. Yep, folks, Cord fails to get the vengeance he’s spent the entire novel wishing for.

And that’s that…Faur ends the tale with Cord likely about to become an agent for Central (who has been the captive of Mao Ling, though again I was uncertain if he’d been so from the beginning or just since Cord’s been on the case). But no further novels were to follow, thus this is where we must leave our fortune cookie-esque hero Cord.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Warlord #1

The Warlord, by Jason Frost
No month stated, 1983  Zebra Books

First of all, I want to apologize if I’ve been writing a string of negative reviews on here. I hope it should be clear to everyone that I love these series books and would rather read them than anything else. But I’m not going to sugarcoat things when the situation arises – sometimes I’m really let down, and by god, I’m gonna tell you about it when I am. And unfortunately, such is the case with this first volume of The Warlord, which was by the usually-gifted Raymond Obstfeld, writing under the name “Jason Frost,” which he also used to write the incredible Invasion U.S.A. novelization.

I really wanted to like this book. I’d been meaning to read it for a while, having picked up the six volumes of the series over the years. But I was really let down, and in a major way – to the point where I was skimming through stuff, something I never thought I’d say about an Obstfeld novel. As for the series itself, it’s hard to tag Warlord, as it was packaged like other Zebra post-nuke pulps, only the series occurs after a natural disaster rather than a nuclear one. Otherwise the series has all the trappings of post-nuke pulp: a threadbare society dealing with the ravages of a destroyed, dangerous world, one populated by even more dangerous survivors. Given this I’ve decided to label the series as a post-nuke pulp as well, even though technically it’s not. I have my lawyers filing the necessary paperwork.

The novel runs to 398 whopping pages and suffers for it. In defense of Obstfeld, my guess is he was handed this unwieldy word count and struggled to meet it. This means that the reader is barraged with unimportant, trivial information – usually egregious background info about one-off characters – throughout the book. It also means that the overriding drive of the narrative is ultimately lost in the clutter. The book wants to be post-catastrophe action but instead comes off like a bloated bore, one with uninvolving, unlikable characters.

It takes a long time for the catastrophe to occur. Instead we are slowly brought into the world of Eric Ravensmith, former ‘Nam Special Forces badass, now assistant professor of history at a college near Los Angeles. He’s a mountain of muscle with a livid scar that runs along his jaw. Folks, Eric Ravensmith is ‘80s Arnold Schwarzenegger in tweeds, and it’s a laughable image, but an image Obstfeld strives to convey. He’s married to former hippie Annie, a big-bossomed babe with whom Eric has raised two preteen kids, Jennifer and Timmy. Only later do we learn that neither of the kids are Eric’s biological children; in another of those long backstories we read how Eric came across the corpse of Annie’s soldier husband in the war, wrote her a sympathy letter, and then ran into her years later at an anti-war protest, after which they fell in love and got married.

Plaguing Eric’s idyllic life is the recurring nightmare that his old ‘Nam enemy, Colonel Dirk Fallows, will one day come after him. The novel opens with this event occurring, Eric waking up in his bed and realizing an intruder is in his home, sneaking up the stairs to kill Eric and then slaughter the rest of his family. Eric takes the guy out in a tense scene, one which sees almost buddy cop-esque humorous dialog between him and Annie, who takes the attempted murder of herself and her two kids pretty much in stride for a former tree-hugging hippie. And then we get a clue of what we’re in for, as instead of Eric breaking the bastard’s neck…we instead flash forward to two months later, and Eric’s in the midst of a court case against him and Fallows!

Eric is building a case that the assailant was under the employ of Fallows, a Shakespeare-quoting sadist from Eric’s Nam days. Back then Eric was in a top-secret unit called The Night Shift (Stephen King references run throughout the novel, by the way), which was basically an assassination and massacre detachment of the Special Forces. Fallows was the commander, and with his sadism, glee for killing, and prematurely white hair, he brings to mind the main villain in Avatar (I couldn’t believe that was the same actor from Crime Story, one of the best TV shows in history!!). Fallows took Eric under his wing, grooming him as his second in command, but one day Fallows went too far, and massacred an entire village, babies and all, crucifying the lot.

Turning in his commander, Eric succeeded in having Fallows put away for twenty years – but he’s just been released, eight years early. And Eric is certain Fallows is coming for him. Annie is aware of all this but is a bit too pragmatic about it…if I told my wife some dude who crucified an entire village was after me, she’d probably be out the door before I could finish my sentence. More Fallows-hired thugs come after Eric, including one unintentionally-humorous bit where one attacks him with nunchucks in a courthouse, having to resort to the wooden weapons to get around the courthouse metal detector. Speaking of Arnold, we get a prefigure of the famous line from Commando, two years later, when Eric bluntly states “I lied” to a man he’d promised not to kill.

The series occurs in a California rocked by massive earthquakes, and the first doesn’t happen until around 60 pages in. But Obstfeld hopscotches through a long patch of time in the opening half, with the action resuming two weeks after this big quake. There’s been mass death and destruction, and now the government’s going around to take guns from people, to stave off the violence or something. Eric gives up his pistol, but meanwhile he’s recently bought a Barnett Commando crossbow, which we’re informed has a pump action like a shotgun. Fallows is still out there, and Eric is certain his old enemy will be coming for him, quake-destruction or not.

Another massive quake hits; in this one Eric’s mom is killed (she’s a fellow teach at his university, and Obstfeld devotes more page-padding about her and her boyfriend). From this we jump to three months later, and we learn that Los Angeles has practically been destroyed, most of the coast is underwater, and California has broken away from the continent. (Sounds like a win-win for everyone!) A “dome of chemical gases,” nicknamed “The Halo,” surrounds the new island, courtesy various chemical weapons plants that were destroyed in the quake, resulting in “a super acid fog” that keeps the Californians in and keeps everyone else out. Yep, folks, all just like in King’s Under The Dome, only this was published decades before.

The Halo has basically psychedelicized California (well, only more so, I guess), with “gray-pink night and yellow-orange day” casting everything in odd new lights. Meanwhile Eric and family have barrickaded themselves on Eric’s college campus, along with other survivors; the outside world is referred to as “the Dead Zone” in another (this one credited) Stephen King reference. The place is run by the Council, comprised of a group of elected officials, and humorously enough it’s completely socialist in its makeup (well, this is California…), much like the post-apocalypse society in Doomsday Warrior. Eric is the Security Chief; he constantly butts heads with the dumbass Council, which refuses to grasp the dangers of this new California, at one point informing them, “You are a war council and I am your warlord.”

But they don’t listen, bullying him into taking a group with him out into the Dead Zone to trade with another community of survivors. Eric is against it but goes anyway. He takes along a small team of former students, each of whom is given inordinate backstory and too much dialog. None of them are likable. The trade turns out to be a ruse and, after a minor action sequence in which we see Eric’s crossbow in use against would-be brigands, the team returns to campus only to find destruction and death. The Council lied to Eric, sending him off on a wild goose chase so they could do the deal he warned them against; unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a plot courtesy Dirk Fallows.

Now young Timmy and Annie are gone, abducted (and we were treated to another Eric-Annie XXX boff which practically announced something bad was about to happen to the poor gal – complete even with some “I might die some day” dialog from her!), and worse yet little Jennifer’s throat has been slit. Eric is only briefly numb with shock. He gets nude and goes through a ritual he learned in his youth among the Hopi Indians (I forgot to mention he was sort of raised by them), emerging from the cathartic ceremony as “the Warlord,” the old Eric Ravensmith dead and gone, the new one “more Dirk Fallows than Dirk Fallows” (?).

I was hoping that this ritual would turn Eric Ravensmith into a sort of post-holocaust Rambo, but instead it just turns him into a jerk. Losing even the bare modicum of likable qualities he possessed before, Eric is more of a grump than anything. He takes off – that same group of kids in tow, all of whom volunteer for the mission – tracking down Fallows. Another campus resident, the lovely Tracy, follows behind. Tracy is another character given inordinate word count in the early half, a freelance newspaper artist who took a shine to Eric during the Fallows trial, threw herself at him right before the earthquakes hit, and now is best buds with Annie…and indeed is the babe Annie has suggested Eric hook up with “if anything ever happens to me,” in some of the most telegraphed foreshadowing I have ever encountered.

There follows a moment one doesn’t often encounter in the world of men’s adventure; while navigating through the post-quake wasteland, Eric and followers come across a mutilated young girl, clearly being used as a sex slave or something. Her “owners” soon arrive, biker-type scum who taunt Eric and team. Eric merely hands over the young girl, and continues on his way – no attempts at saving her and taking out the scum. Eric cares solely for his own interests at this point. This causes much frustration in the group, most of whom say they’re done with Eric at this point; even Tracy claims that, the way Eric is now acting, Annie wouldn’t even want him anymore.

Meanwhile, poor Annie is being held captive by Fallows, who tortures her and the reader with “I’m evil” dialog that goes on much too long. He keeps telling her all the bad stuff he’s gonna do to her. And meanwhile he’s going to brainwash young Timmy into loving him and thinking of Fallows as his father and making him hate Eric – Fallows assures Annie that this will be simple for him, as he’s been successfully brainwashing soldiers since ‘Nam. He’s got such hatred for Eric that one can’t help but see a jilted lover sort of angle at play, whether it was Obstfeld’s intention or not, sort of like the chainmail-vested Freddie Mercury-looking dude and his hatred-love for Arnold in Commando

Those biker scum came from a place now named Savytown, and Eric learns that Fallows has been through here. He tries to barter for information, only for it to be yet another Fallows trap. The long-delayed climax has Eric and Fallows having a brief face-to-face – one in which Cruz, Fallow’s herculean stooge, breaks Annie’s friggin’ neck. Our hero gets his ass knocked out, only to wake up in this goofy contraption that has him and Cruz hanging across from each other, dangling above flames…some sort of double-dish punishment deal courtesy Fallows, who is pissed at Cruz for disobedience or something. We get pages and pages of Eric and Cruz fighting to the death. Fallows doesn’t even stick around to watch, having left with new “son” Timmy.

The finale ignores all the Fallows stuff – Eric basically shrugs and figures Fallows has gotten too much of a lead on him(!) – and instead has Eric and crew going back to liberate Savytown after all. Indeed it must be such a simple chore that Obsfted flash-forwards through it, giving us a summary of the action. One thing we can be happy about – Eric leaves those annoying former students in Savytown, taking off on his own to continue the hunt for Fallows, and meanwhile Tracy follows him. Obstfeld ends the novel on the awkward note of Eric realizing there’s “something about” Tracy after all…whereas meanwhile Eric just saw his beloved wife’s neck snapped a few pages ago.

As mentioned The Warlord ran for five more volumes, and it looks like the rest of the books are shorter, which as far as I’m concerned, so far as this genre goes, is a good thing. I’m not giving up on the series yet and have faith in Raymond Obsfted, who is usually a very gifted, entertaining author – I still think there were some editorial/imprint constraints which prevented this first volume from being all it could be. But as usual, these are just my thoughts, and doubtless others out there will think this book is just fine. I just wish some of the fat had been cut from it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Venus Probe (Peter Ward #5)

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.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 6


Invaders From Mars (1986): I loved this movie as a kid, renting it several times from the local video store. A remake of the beloved 1953 classic, the ’86 “Invaders” hasn’t aged nearly as well; ironically, it’s now almost as old as the original source film was at the time, yet whereas people still recall the ’53 original, the ’86 remake is mostly forgotten. One can see why this is; whereas the original played it mostly straight, the remake goes more for camp, though unevenly so. You’ll have parts of the movie where the main kid is supposed to be scared and runs away screaming, but he’ll be windmilling his arms like he’s in a Three Stooges short and the alien monster looks like something Sid and Marty Krofft created. And speaking of the kid – well, what sinks the ’86 “Invaders” straightaway is the casting of the main kid actor, 12-year-old Hunter Carson. To put it politely, the kid sucks. I mean, his acting is epically bad, and could almost be studied as bad acting taken to an art form. Turns out he was the son of actress Karen Black, who co-stars in the film as the only adult who believes David’s story that Martians have landed nearby (the film takes place solely within Smalltown, California) and are slowly taking over the population.

But the Cold War mindset of the previous film is replaced with more of the vibe of a kid’s movie; Carson, unfortunately, is our sole guide through the film, and thus his horror is intended to be our horror as he watches first his parents and then the other members of his small community turn into mind-controlled Martian underlings. The first hour is quite tedious, and played a whole lot better when I too was just a 12-year-old kid. Watching it now, one can’t help but notice how shoddy the whole thing is, however it would appear that at least some of the actors realized the film was going for a campy vibe. The special effects too look pretty goofy – modern fans try to explain this away by saying the filmmakers intentionally went for bad SFX, so as to pay tribute to the crude effects of the original, but I don’t buy that. No, the monsters look like they just walked out of one of those Sid and Marty productions…which is to say they look friggin’ GREAT!

Because seriously, who wants realism when it comes to alien monsters? These things – and it takes way too damn long to see them – are bulky, bipedal creatures with gaping mouths (memorably, they eat one of the characters…that is, after the character has conveniently fallen into the monster’s mouth) and gnarled, rubbery skin. The Martian leader is a weird brain-type thing whose face reminds me of the mutant leader Kuato in “Total Recall;” in fact I recall this creature being the first thing I thought of when I saw that awesome Arnold flick a few years later. The last half hour is probably the highlight; with realism tossed out the window by this point, it devolves into a long-running action scene of a Marine squad blowing away several of those Martian beasts. The movie retains the dream finale of the original – in fact, one could argue that the surreal, nightmarish quality of the entire film was intentionally done by director Tobe Hooper, right down to the bad, cartoonish acting – but unfortunately the producers put on their “artiste” britches and tried to go for a psych-out climax which only ruins whatever little goodwill they’d earned.

The Tenth Victim (1965): Encapsulating everything that is great about ‘60s Italian movies, “The Tenth Victim” is based on Robert Sheckley’s novel. The movie takes place in an ultramod 21st century in which killing has been legalized, but only if you are a hunter or a runner. Predating such darkly comic action movies as “Robocop” and “The Running Man,” this film is almost surreal in its black humor. It had a pretty nice budget, too, which is obvious. Ursula “Good LORD!” Andress stars as the top killer of the day; you know you’re in ‘60s Italian movie heaven when, within the first five minutes, she’s already stripped down to a sort of aluminum foil bikini and is doing a sensuous dance for a roomful of people. A scene that’s capped off with a crazed ending that was blatantly lifted by Mike Myers in the “Austin Powers” movies.

Her titular tenth victim is Marcello, a top Italian hunter who is operating as a runner for the first time. He is blasé and aloof and world-weary, etc, but the actor pulls it off with panache. The film is filled with weird touches of humor and the dialog, despite being dubbed in English, is well-performed, intelligent, and often very funny. Ursula Andress though is the star of the show, wearing an assortment of body-clinging ultramod clothes, though nothing beats that crazy bikini in the opening sequence. There isn’t much action per se, just a few random shootouts, but it’s all played on a comedy angle – not a slapstick sort of comedy, but more so just very dark and surreal. And it all looks great on the Blu Ray I viewed.


Churchill’s Leopards (1970): For the most part this is a static and uninspired “Dirty Dozen” rip-off, one with a strange twin brother twist. Bland Richard Harrison stars as a German officer (killed in the opening minutes) and also as his twin brother, a British soldier who impersonates him through the movie. Harrison is the vanguard for a squad of British commandos who will parachute in to the occupied French countryside and blow up a dam. Klaus Kinski chews scenery as ever in yet another variation of the sadistic Gestapo bastard he normally played – ironic given that Kinski was jailed in his native Germany during the war years for refusing to become a Nazi. As ever the Italians remember to sex it up, thus we have three incredible Eurobabes: one, a mute hotstuff who seduces the German Harrison twin and indeed kills him while they’re having sex; a vixenish Spanish beauty who is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous and who hooks up with the good British Harrison twin; and finally veteran actress Helga Line, who as usual plays a duplicitous wench.

Otherwise the movie sort of drifts along…Harrison poses as his brother and fools the Germans while working with the British commandos, while meanwhile Kinski becomes suspicious. Midway through we have a tense scene where Harrison’s sultry partisan babe is almost gunned down by Kinski along with a bunch of other natives, but she’s saved in the nick of time – but not by Harrison, who just stands there. Things finally pick up in the final quarter, with a climactic battle along the dam; here we even get some underwater action, as two of the Brits are frogmen who plant the explosives. We also get some phenomenally amateurish “special effects” in the dam explosion, which is clearly a model. Otherwise “Churchill’s Leopards” is not the best exampe of the Eurowar genre, but it is boosted by three incredible Eurobabes.

Dirty Heroes (1967): One of the first and definitely the biggest of the “Dirty Dozen” rip-offs made in Italy, “Dirty Heroes” covers all the war movie bases: it’s a gripping wartime drama with intrigue, a prisoner of war flick, a suicide commando squad flick, and even a heist flick. In fact it has so much that one wishes they’d just focused on one storyline. It certainly had a nice budget, though, and it’s two-hour length puts it in the realm of Hollywood’s WWII productions of the day. The heist stuff takes center stage; hero Sesame is an American con from Chicago who, in complete deus ex machina, runs into his old crime pals in Occupied Europe. One of them’s even posing as a Nazi guard in the POW camp Sesame happens to be in at the opening of the movie! Using the gorgeous Daniela Biancha (“From Russia With Love”), who happens to be married to a German general (played by another Bond film actor, Curd Jurgens, later to play the villain in “The Spy Who Loved Me”).

Too many subplots and “gripping drama” detract from the film, but it features a great underwater sequence where Sesame and pals don frogman gear and swim in the canals beneath Amsterdam. Also on hand is yet another Bond actor, Adolfo “Thunderball” Celli, here playing a Dutch resistance leader who works with Sesame to steal back a bunch of Dutch diamonds from the Nazis. The film climaxes with a big action scene that again tosses reality out the window as our handful of heroes stave off an SS force with just a few submachine guns. But even this peters out into more drama subplots; there’s even a budding romance subplot between Sesame and Daniela Bianchi’s character. Overall “Dirty Heroes” certainly has a nice budget and looks good, and could hold its own with a Hollywood war movie of the day, but I prefer the more streamlined “men on a mission” storylines more common of EuroWar.

Five For Hell (1969) – My favorite example of an Italian “Dirty Dozen” ripoff yet, “Five For Hell” is basically a violent cartoon. Our titular five heroes are American GIs who must retrieve documents from the Nazis deep in Italy. They’re the typical oddball squad: an acrobat (who looks uncannily like Michael Biehn, from “The Terminator”), a hulking stooge, an Italian-American safecracker, and a cowardly demo expert. Their leader is a gun-chewing stoic badass given to hurling baseballs with such deadly accuracy that he can kill men with them. Heading up the Nazis is scenery-chewing Klaus Kinski, who delivers his lines with relish, even dubbing his own voice. British babe Margaret Lee appears as Helga, a Nazi clerical worker who in reality works for the partisans. She’s ruthless, too; when she reveals to a comrade that his cover’s been blown, she whips out a gun and blows him away!

There’s plentiful action as the heroes make their way through Italy, leading up to a break-in/heist in the villa the Germans have taken over – Margaret Lee’s job is to screw Kinski so he doesn’t notice the intruder alarm’s going off. The movie climaxes with a several-minute action scene which sees plentiful submachine gun fire, almost prefiguring Arnold’s “Commando” as the heroes leap across the beautiful villa grounds, gunning down hordes of Nazis. The acrobat even gets in a few flying flips while shooting his grease gun. “Five For Hell” is a stellar example of the Euro War genre, and it’s even more entertaining than “The Dirty Dozen.”

Ice Station Zebra (1968): This isn’t Eurowar, but what the heck; it’s a big, hugely-budgeted Cold War flop that’s most remembered as being one of Howard Hughes’s obsessions (he supposedly wore out several copies of the film, sent to him directly from MGM, watching them over and over). For whatever reason MGM took a simple suspense-action tale from novelist Alistair MacLean and blew it up to roadshow proportions, a la “Ben Hur.” The pacing is as glacial as the ice captain Rock Hudson navigates his nuclear sub through; also along for the ride are Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan as a shady government operative, a grim-faced Jim Brown, and a scenery-chewing Ernest Borgnine. The first hour and a half concerns itself with the ponderous voyage of the sub as it heads for the titular ice station, which has gone incommunicado and supposedly has suffered some mysterious misfortunes. 

After the intermission we get to the north pole, which was created on a sound stage, and infamously so – despite the huge budget spent on the set, with swirling snow and big mountains of ice and heavy-duty winter gear for the characters, the breath of the actors isn’t even visible! Despite the fact that it’s well below freezing here. And yet this artificial look adds a surreal layer to the film; in this regard the movie harkens back to the studio-bound sets of Hollywood’s golden age. The whole film seems to be made on the idea that “something might possibly happen!”, but it’s really just endless delays and stalling. Even the final confrontation with the Russian paratroopers peters out into more dialog, with the eventual action scene relegated to some chaotic shooting and none of the marines or paratroopers getting killed. The costumes are cool, though, and despite the lack of thrills I prefer the second half to the first, with cool model work for the Russian jets (which despite it all look like toys – but still better than CGI!). Personally I like to imagine Hughes watched the film so many times because he was delivering his own MST3K-style riffs.

Probability Zero (1969): After the success of “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967 the Italians turned from Eurospy to Eurowar, aka Spaghetti War, WWII films which featured oddball squads on suicide missions behind enemy lines. This is one of the best I’ve seen, shot on location in Norway and featuring a plethora of WWII action. Henry “I’m playing a good guy for once” Silva stars as Duke, a badass American commando whose mission is to retrieve top-secret radar technology from a crashed fighter plane which has been captured by the Nazis and hidden away in an impenetrable fortress. Allied Intelligence gives Duke’s plan to recapture the radar a “probability zero” chance of success. But what the hell, let’s try it anyway. Off Duke goes to put together his oddball squad, from a mountaineer plagued by cowardice to an Italian POW.

Character depth is minimal, with the less-than-90-minute runtime given more to suspense and action. And there’s a fair bit of variety to the action, from a fight on a boat to even an underwater sequence – whereas the majority of these Spaghetti War movies occur in the desert, this one makes the most of its Norway setting with a sequence where Duke’s team suits up in frogman gear and infiltrates the German base underwater. There’s also a Eurobabe in attendance, a blonde who plays a member of the Norwegian resistance. Her assignment is to screw the commander of the German base while Duke’s team is carrying out its mission. In true “Dirty Dozen” style the finale features a lot of fireworks, with lots of good guys buying it alongside the Nazis. While it could’ve used a little more depth, “Probability Zero” is still a fun and short example of Eurowar done right – and it’s everything Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” should’ve been.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Spy Castle (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #12)

Spy Castle, by Nick Carter
January, 1966  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes turns in another Nick Carter: Killmaster, and this might be my favorite of his yet. Other than a few snags, Spy Castle displays why the ‘60s installments of Nick Carter have become some of my favorite men’s adventure novels of all. Plus, this one (sort of) answers the question: “What if Nick Carter met James Bond?”

It’s early November, 1965, and a nuclear warhead is fired from some mysterious place in Scotland to the North Pole, setting the various world leaders into a panic. From this tense opening we cut to the Killmaster himself, who is musing over the nude bod of his latest sexual conquest, an Irish opera star named Melba – “She had magnificent breasts, had Melba.” Indeed Melba is so stacked that she sends Nick (which is to say Stokes) off on this humorous little paen to her boobs:

Nick fancied himself something of a connoisseur of breasts. Melba’s were of the Celtic type – what else in a girl from Dublin? – half pear and half globe and hung low on the ribcage with nipples tilting high on the upper round of flesh. Velvety, satin-soft flesh, pink budded, with just a hint of blue vein tracery in marmoreal perfection. Soft-firm-hard-soft! Exquisite. They might have been carved from Carrarra!

Good grief! And as you can see, Stokes’s bizarre overusage of exclamation points is catching; the dude finishes practically every other sentence with one, to the point where you wonder if he pounded out this manuscript riding high on amphetamines. It seems that Stokes was prone to this in his early Killmaster books, and given that the exclamation-point onslaught tapers off in his later series books, it makes me wonder if Lyle Kenyon Engel himself either edited them out or told Stokes to ease up a little.

Nick is called from his posh digs to the DC HQ of AXE boss Hawk via codes Doomsday and EOW, aka End of World. This is the first time Nick has ever heard of these two codes used together, so he knows something major is up. A concerned Hawk explains that a Scotland-based supervillain going by the name Pendragon is threatening to nuke Russia, making it look like America did it, so that the two superpowers can then destroy each other in a nuclear confrontation.

This explains the opening – the North Pole nuke was likely fired from the island of Blackscape, “a little northeast of Sanday” on the northeast coast of Scotland; the island is owned by Lord Hardesty, a notorious billionaire-cum-religious leader who commands an army of “Militant Druids.” Pendragon is his Druid name, and his ultimate goal is to destroy Russia, given his ultra-hatred of Communism. 

British Intelligence has been investigating Hardesty, and a rep from Scotland Yard named Ian Travers briefs Nick along with Hawk. Nick is to be loaned to the British; Travers explains that even the famed “Double Os” of British Intelligence have failed (“They have a license to kill…well, they got killed!”), to the point that only one of them, the legendary “James Stockes,” still lives. This gets Nick’s attention, as Stockes is “nearly as much of a legend in the counter-espionage world as Nick Carter himself.” Gee, I wonder who Stockes is supposed to be?

But given the abject failure of the British agents, it’s up to Nick Carter of AXE to save the day; Hawk and Travers stress (a bit too much) that this is a lone-man job, despite the fact that the fate of the friggin’ world hangs in the balance. So off Nick goes to the coast of Scotland…where he initially poses as a native fisherman stuck on a boat in the cruel, stormy sea. As usual Stokes pads out the pages with go-nowhere digressions, in particular the various bullshit cover identities Nick briefly assumes and quickly casts aside throughout the first half of the novel.

He’s united with his local contact, a gorgeous redhead named Gwen Leith of the Special Branch, a babe who is “big and busty, high and hard breasted.” There we go with the boobs again! But Gwen spurns Nick’s advances – the Killmaster’s jaw hits the floor practically every time he looks at her, just oggling those breastesses – telling him she is in a serious relationship and no funny stuff. And plus there’s that threat of imminent nuclear armageddon.

Gwen’s staked out near Blackscape island, and has been working the area with James Stockes himself, but the old boy has gone missing. Those hoping for a Nick-Stockes team-up will be disappointed, to say the least. Nick and Gwen disguise themselves in purloined black cloaks with hoods and attend a Druid Black Mass with five hundred other costumed believers outside Hardesty’s castle on Blackscape. This sequence is pretty cool, Stokes pulling out the black magic goods like a ‘60s version of the Mind Masters installment Shamballah.

Some of the satanic hijinks include a Druid in a devil costume hoisting a two-foot “phallus” and using it to goad the onlookers; with a start Nick realizes that it’s a woman beneath the devil costume. Meanwhile Gwen is “caught up in the toils of raw pagan lust.” Nick knocks her out of her lusty mood by prodding the edge of Hugo, his stiletto, up her ass! Then the Druids on stage pull out a bound man and set him on fire as a sacrifice – and it turns out to be James Stockes. Nick shoots the poor bastard in the head to put him out of his misery. Well, so much for the James Bond analogue.

Nick prefigures later Stokes hero Richard Blade in the ensuing escape; Nick, still wielding Hugo, slices and dices sundry black-robed Druids as he and Gwen race for safety. But Gwen falls and hurts her ankle and Nick has no choice but to abandon her. Hey, nuclear armageddon is imminent, all agents are expendable! (Except Nick, of course.) The ensuing chapter “Sex Duel” is another of the novel’s highlights; escaping on the Daily Mail train, Nick wakens to find a brunette beauty with “small breasts” sitting in his cabin – and here we learn one of the Killmaster’s sexual quirks is the sound of nylon stockings rubbing together.

The woman is Lady Hardesty herself, notorious ex-wife (then wife again) of Lord Hardesty, aka Pendragon. Dubbed by Ian Travers as the “nympho to end all nymphos,” Lady Hardesty in today’s era would have her own reality TV series and famous sex tape. But she is complicit with Pendragon and ultimately will turn out to be the main villain of the piece, as it is she who truly wants to nuke Russia and start WWIII. She also wants Nick to give her some of that good Killmaster lovin’, having heard through some grapevine about Nick Carter’s legendary skills in the sack.

The Lady also reveals that poor Gwen has been tortured by snakes back at Blackscape, including the lurid insinuation that one of them was slipped into a rather delicate part of the poor girl’s anatomy. A disgusted Nick hates Lady Hardesty but can’t help getting all hot and bothered by her: “She was a bitch in heat and he was a brute male!” The open challenge is for Nick to make her orgasm, something no man has ever done before, and then perhaps the Lady will make Nick her co-ruler in the aftermath of WWIII.

Stokes gets fairly graphic in the sex scene, which takes up most of the chapter, about as explicit as he got in the earlier The Eyes of The Tiger. And no surprises, Nick helps the Lady achieve that elusive orgasm, have no fear. We go from the sex directly to the action, as Nick takes out a few of the Pendragon goons who shadow Lady Hardesty; this time Nick has a few gadgets that could come out of the Bond film franchise, including a lighter that sprays napalm. He crisps off the face of one goon with it and Stokes well describes the gory horrors that ensue.

After all this cool stuff, Spy Castle loses its way with a digressive bit where Nick must pose as an Irish convict so he can gain the confidence of one Alfie McTurk, a Militant Druid who was jailed for some offense. Stokes builds up this hard-to-swallow plotline that Alfie might provide the lead to where exactly Pendragon is hiding and where his nukes are. But rather than just torture the bastard into talking, Ian Travers et al come up with this lame ruse where Nick must pose as a fellow convict on the van ride to prison; a car crash is staged, and the two are to “escape” into the woods with the intent that Alfie will somehow tell his new convict buddy all about Pendragon.

It’s a page-filling gambit pure and simple, and it does go on a while. It turns into an extended sordid sequence in which the two come across a good-looking young woman alone in her home while her husband’s off at work, and Nick tries his best to keep Alfie from raping her. Alfie eventually makes a phone call to Militant Druid HQ for a helicopter to come pick him up(!), but then Nick falls asleep and Alfie rapes the poor girl after all – and accidentally strangles her while doing so, continuing to hump her corpse! Believe it or not, this is a recurring theme in Stokes.

Nick briefly bluffs his way into a temporary membership in the Militant Druids before he’s uncovered and imprisoned. Lady Hardesty returns, turning out to be the power at Blackscape; she shows Nick a bound and nude Gwen and orders him to drop a live snake on her for more of that snake torture that so turns on the Lady. Afterwards Lady Hardesty wants more Killmaster sex: “She looked [to Nick] like all the crazy whores in the world.” Nick makes the Lady think he’s about to do her again, then forces a bunch of whiskey down her throat until she’s pass-out drunk.

Stokes doesn’t give us a big action finale – none of the Stokes Killmasters I’ve yet read have matched the finale of his Web Of Spies – but instead goes for more of a drawn-out affair with Nick and Gwen (Nick having knocked her out and then saved her from the snake in time) running around the tunnels buried beneath Pendragon’s headquarters. There’s only periodic action, like Nick strangling one dude with his bare hands to Gwen hefting a subgun and mowing down some goons. We also get a terrific catfight between Gwen and Lady Hardesty: “Red head and dark head, spitting and clawing and scratching and gouging!” Indeed, Gwen even makes the kill while a tired “Killmaster” just sits there and watches.

The finale is a cool setpiece with Nick, back in London, infiltrating an abandonded movie lot, one owned by Lord Hardesty. This it turns out is where he has been hiding the whole time; as usual with Stokes, the main villain spends the majority of the narrative off-page. Pendragon has made his home in a fake Camelot, and Nick has a brief confrontation with the wheelchair-bound villain, telling him he’s under arrest. But Pendragon gets the drop on Nick (in the dumbest manner possible – asking for Nick’s Luger so he can kill himself!) and shoots him. Luckily Nick has on “plastic body armor” and is unfazed; he once again whips out trusty Hugo to finish off Lord Hardesty for good.

Oh, and have no fears on the Nick-Gwen score; the novel ends with the two on a coastal vacation, where Nick’s about to get good and lucky with the redheaded babe. All that stuff about her having a steady flame was a lie; Gwen too is a nympho after all, and knew as soon as she saw Nick that she wanted to screw his brains out. But she tried her bestest to keep him away, hence the lie.

I enjoyed Spy Castle and it would be one of my favorites if not for the occasional padding and the “Alfie McTurk” nonsense. Otherwise Stokes delivers just what we expect of him, with a brutal, macho hero and a plot that hopscotches from point A to point Z. The guy’s one of my favorites.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Mammoth Book Of Pulp Fiction (Part One)

The Mammoth Book Of Pulp Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski
August, 1996  Carroll & Graf

Back in late 2015 I was on a hardboiled kick and started in on Maxim Jakubowski’s colossal Mammoth Book Of Pulp Fiction, which is stuffed to the gills with hardboiled stories. At the time I envisioned a similarly-mammoth post reviewing each story in the anthology, but as these things go my hardboiled kick eventually faded away. I’ve had these reviews sitting around for a while, so figured I’d go ahead and post them now…then someday when I get back to the anthology I’ll do another post of reviews. Anyway, here are the stories I read:

“Too Many Have Lived” by Dashiel Hammett starts off the collection, from a 1933 issue of American Magazine. This tale, narrated by Hammett’s immortal private eye hero Sam Spade, didn’t appeal to me at all. It was something about Spade being hired to to look into a case about a missing guy or something, but I found it all so listless and padded that I gave it up posthaste.

“Flight To Nowhere” by Charles Williams is from a 1955 issue of Manhunt and was later expanded into novel form, published first as Scorpion Reef and then in paperback as Gulf Girl. Narrated by a war vet turned diver named Bill Manning, the story starts off very strong before it gets a little too bloated. In fact as I started to read the story I figured I’d find the unfortunately-scarce paperback, but gradually I decided the short story would suffice. “Flight To Nowhere” just gradually tapers off into too much exposition. It does however have an interesting opening and closing section that’s borderline metafictional.

Our narrator is approached by a hot young gal one day who says her name is Mrs. Shannon Wayne. She wants to hire him to retrieve an antique gun which she claims was accidentally dropped into the ocean. Manning suspects something’s up, and gets verification when the gun is easily found. After a few run-ins with some thugs, Manning finally learns there’s more to the woman’s story. Turns out her husband was a maritime insurance investigator who stumbled upon a cache of diamonds in a plane that crashed in the sea. His plan was to make off with it, but the local goon squad, under the command of Barclay, got wise – now he’s hiding in his home.

It all just gets bogged down as Manning and Shannon shuttle back and forth, gradually falling in love, while the mobsters track them. Occasional action scenes liven things up, like when our hero accidentally drowns a mobster who jumps him at the docks. There’s also a veritable heist as our hero springs Mr. Wayne from his house. But too much of it is relayed via dialog, and the rush of the opening section is soon diluted. Also, Williams fails to bring much to life. There’s a modicum of topical detail in the story; the finale plays out as a long section of all the characters on a yacht as it plies through the ocean, and Williams never once describes the scenery, the tang of the ocean spray, the feel of the sun on their backs.

“Black” by Paul Cain – From a 1932 issue of Black Mask, this short tale is narrated by the titular Black, who is like a go-to guy for criminals. I had a hard time getting into this one, which was like a Yojimbo riff, with Black playing competing gangs against one another, one led by a young guy and the other led by the dude’s stepfather.

“Finders Killers!” is by John D. MacDonald and comes from a 1953 issue of Detective Story Magazine. This is the first of MacDonald’s work I’ve ever read and I really enjoyed it. Narrated by an FBI agent named Russ Gandy, it features a snappy pace, good action, dialog, and plot. Our hero is just about to bust an infamous crook named Torran when his cover is blown; after which he’s asked to resign from the Bureau. Obsessed with catching the bad guy, Gandy gets his private eye license, buys a .357 (which he never even uses), and continues the case on his own.

Torran has just heisted a bunch of money but has disappeared, something he’s notorious for. Our hero, who has learned to think like his prey after hunting him so long, does his legwork and eventually traces him down Mexico way. The finale is like a Jim Thompson thing, taking place in a sunny patch of hell south of the border; the lone female character in the novel turns out to be the villain’s moll, and she’s dead like a few paragraphs after her introduction. The sole action scene has our hero blasting away with the girl’s .25 and recovering the stolen loot – which he uses to negotiate his return to the FBI. While it didn’t have a ton of action or anything lurid, “Finders Killers!” was very enjoyable and makes me want to read more of MacDonald’s books.

“Murder’s Mandate,” by WT Ballard, comes from a 1946 issue of Thrilling Detective Magazine and appears to be about a lawyer or something. I say “appears” because the story failed to draw me in (or perhaps I failed to be drawn in by the story) and I quickly abandoned it.

“Cigarette Girl” is by James M. Cain and comes from a 1952 issue of Manhunt. Cain is another famous crime author I’ve never read. Narrated by a guy named Jack Conner, it’s more of a love story. Our narrator is a composer or some such who visits a honky tonk dive in another city to check out some song one of his musicians claims was stolen from him, or something. But in the bar he meets up with the titular character, a lovely young lady who turns out to be on the run from the local mob. This is a shorty, breezy tale which doesn’t offer much in the way of fireworks but does work as a character piece. Unlike the MacDonald story it didn’t make me want to seek out more of Cain’s work, though. 

“The Getaway” is by Gil Brewer, late in his career, from a 1976 issue of Mystery. This short tale, told in third-person, is about a Mafia hitman named Vincenti who has been hired to take out one of the top dons in Florida. He pulls off the job, saving at the last moment a damsel who claims to have been an abused toy of the don. She’s also a pilot and flies them to safety on her small plane. But then she reveals she was really the don’s daughter, and the code of Mafia requires that she kill her father’s killer, even if she herself dies. They crash into a cliff, the end.

Nowhere up to the standards of Brewer’s earlier work, “The Getaway” could in fact have been written by anyone else. It was interesting though to see a writer from the hardboiled era in the mid-‘70s, with a generally sleazy feel encompassing everything. Also of note is that Brewer employs the term “soldato” a few times, as in a Mafia enforcer; Soldato was the title of a mid-’70s Lancer Books series for which Brewer wrote the third and fourth volumes, as “Al Conroy.”

“Preview Of Murder” by Robert Leslie Bellem comes courtesy a 1949 issue of Thrilling Detective Magazine. I really enjoyed this goofy novella, which is narrated by a PI named Nick Ransom, who tells his tale in what was apparently Bellem’s trademark goofy style. The tough-guy patter in this one is up there with Gannon, with the same bizarre syntax and vocabulary. Bellem was quite prolific in the pulps and it sounds like all of his stories had this same skewed vibe.

A former movie stuntman, Ransom now works as a private eye in Hollywood; this case has him called up by a crippled recluse who turns out to be Ransom’s old pal from the movie days, fifteen years before. Once a marquee name, Ronald Barclay is now confined to a wheelchair, missing both legs and one arm. He lives in a hovel of an apartment building and refuses to allow anyone to see his face; the entire world has thought him dead, but it turns out he’s been living under an assumed name.

The first half of this long story is played out via expository dialog, but it’s such bonkers dialog that you can’t complain. And Ransom is such a hardboiled bastard of a protagonist, narrating the tale with tough guy aplomb, that you wish it would just keep going on and on. But like the Charles Williams story above it kind of fizzles out after a while; Barclay ends up dead, as does the old man who runs the apartment building, and our hero is shuttling around Los Angeles trying to make sense of it all. 

Bellem has all of his pulp cliches firmly in check; the story features an almost token appearance by a sexy babe, this being a former starlet now married to Barclay’s old enemy, a studio bigwig. The lady, who moonbathes nude, comes on strong to our hero, who gives her the bum’s rush. But what starts out as a bizarre tale about a mutilated movie star seeking revenge turns into a rather standard murder mystery, with all of the interesting characters shuffled off the page and Ransom instead chasing after some punk kid. Still though, Bellem’s style is so goofy and memorable that I hope to read more of him someday.

“Forever After” is by Jim Thompson himself and comes from a 1960 issue of Shock. Short and punchy, “Forever After” apparently aims to live up to the title of the magazine. This third-person narrative is about a woman named Ardis Clinton who is stuck in a loveless marriage to a clout named Bill. As we meet her Ardis is priming her young stud, a peabrained roughneck named Tony, for the kill: Tony is to hide in the shower and hack Bill to pieces with an axe when he comes home. Bill sticks to a tedious routine and Ardis is certain the plan will work perfectly.

And it does, but problems ensue when Ardis insists that Tony hit her to make it look real – her plan is to mask it all as a robbery. With great reluctance Tony hits her…and knocks her flat. When Ardis comes to the cops are there, and they flat-out accuse her of a setup, planning to kill her husband. Why are they so glib? Turns out Tony hit Ardis so hard that she’s suffered fatal injuries and may go any second. She sends them away, goes to sleep…and wakes up in hell. In a surreal finale along the lines of his earlier novel The Getaway, Thompson finishes the tale with Ardis finding herself spending eternity in Bill as he goes along his same tedious routines.

“The Bloody Tide” is by Day Keene, another well-respected crime author I’ve never read, and comes from a 1950 issue of Black Mask. Slightly reminiscent of Charles Williams’s story above, this one’s narrated by a dude named Charlie White who just got out of prison, having done time for transporting illegal shipments on his boat. He did it all for his kind-hearted wife, but ran afoul of a femme fatale named Zo whom he apparently had an affair with. He gets out of prison determined to go straight, but instead of wife Beth he finds Zo waiting to pick him up.

Only after he’s drunk on rum, hours later in Florida, does Charlie find a note in his pocket, written by Beth and apparently sent to the prison for him. She says she’ll be waiting for him, and an excited Charlie rushes out to tell Zo he’s splitting – only to find her dead. Immediately after this our pal is knocked into dreamland. When he comes to he realizes he’s been set up for Zo’s murder. He decides to do something about it, but first he reconnects with his estranged wife over in Tampa. Beth is one of those wives that only exist in fiction, totally understanding and supportive, even if Charlie’s now wanted for the murder of his mistress.

I say this one’s similar to “Flight To Nowhere” because it starts off strong but gradually peters out. You start off the tale expecting this great revenge story, but instead Charlie goes off to stay on a remote island he owns with Beth, to hide in the attic of their abandoned cottage there – only to find it filled with a bunch of “wetbacks.” When he comes to from a sound beating, having been dumped in the harbor (the long swim to safety no problem for our hero, who we learn was a frogman in WWII), Charlie realizes who the villain has been all along, leading to a lame finale in which Charlie and Beth are under the man’s gun, only for the cops to come out of the woodwork and arrest him.

“Death Comes Gift-Wrapped” by William P. McGivern, is short tale I can’t remember about a cop in love with a nightclub singer or somesuch, who tries to go crooked to support the lifestyle she demands.

“The Girl Behind the Hedge” by Mickey Spillane, is another slight story I forgot as soon as I finished it, which is mostly a tale one character tells another about how he got vengeance on an enemy. Since this guy was a love ‘em and leave ‘em playboy, our storyteller made the dude fall in love with a mentally handicapped girl, and when the playboy discovered this he killed himself.

“We Are All Dead” is by Bruno Fischer and from a 1955 issue of Manhunt. This novella is a masterpiece of noir plotting and is my favorite story in the collection. Taking the old pulp cliché of a heist gone bad, it’s about a group of criminals turning against each other after one of their own died on the caper. Narrated by a career criminal in his 30s named Johnny Worth, the story moves at a fast clip, indicative of Fischer’s mastery of the craft. In a heist planned by professorial Oscar, the getaway driver is shot and Oscar finishes him off with a knife, saying it’s the only way to keep the heat off them.

The remaining four heisters split off with their share of the twenty-two thousand; besides Johnny and Oscar, one of them’s a family man and the other is an oldschool goon. Meanwhile our narrator stays with Oscar, trying not to lust over Oscar’s latest buxom gal, Stella. Then another good-looking lady, Allie, shows up, claiming to be the wife of the dead getaway driver. Not that she’s blackmailing them, but she thinks she’s entitled to her departed husband’s share of the loot. Meanwhile a cop is trying to bring them down; Oscar’s “fingerprints” are all over the job. 

The story becomes more of a tension-laden piece as the members of the heist team begin dying off one by one. But who is killing them? Meanwhile Johnny has become infatuated with Allie, who has become Oscar’s woman…and Stella has become Johnny’s woman. Fischer writes the tale so you have no choice but to finish it in one sitting. It all culminates with Johnny and Oscar against one another, and features a morbid, downbeat ending which bears out the title, Johnny writing his story from the death house.