Monday, August 22, 2016

The Marksman #13: Kiss Of Death

The Marksman #13: Kiss of Death, by Frank Scarpetta
September, 1974  Belmont Tower

Philip “The Marksman” Magellan returns in another wild and wacky installment courtesy Russell Smith – and one that actually appears to pick up from a previous Smith entry, indeed the volume published directly before this one, #12: Mafia Massacre. This is a rare occurrence indeed, and the first time in a long while that a Smith manuscript has been published in order.

As we’ll recall, Mafia Massacre featured Magellan in Miami, where he was taking out some local Mafia scum. Kiss Of Death doesn’t pick up on any of the dangling cliffhangers from that book, but it does open with Magellan on an airplane – flying out of Miami. It’s a meager thread for sure, but we’ll take what we can get…I’ve said it before, but piecing together Russell Smith’s ongoing Marksman narrative from the jumble McCurtin made of it is almost like seeking out the Q Document in the Synoptic Gospels. Only with more sex and sadism!!

Lynn Munroe has this one as by McCurtin’s fix-it editor George Harmon Smith, mostly because Smith’s family recalled seeing this title in his collection, but I think if anything Harmon Smith only performed a few embellishments here and there – if that. For this is pure, unadulterated Russell Smith, written in the crazed style so familiar from Blood Bath and Vendetta, with short sentences of mundane description followed by wild violence and tons of exclamation points. There’s a single part midway through where Magellan briefly ponders his existence, and this brief part may have been the work of Harmon Smith. But even this could’ve been written by Russell Smith. At any rate Kiss Of Death features the Russell Smith version of Magellan we all know and love, taking people captive for no reason, murdering mobsters in cold blood, and arranging their corpses in garish displays.

It also features Smith’s casual flair for coincidental plotting, as the novel opens with Magellan just happening to be on the same flight as Joseph Fatima, Salvatore Curci, and Benito Fiori; “Joe Fat” has just gotten the other two men released from a notoriously-harsh prison in Rome, and they all are now on their way to Alberquerque via Miami (?!). Their weird intercontinental route took them through Miami, you see, which is where Magellan boarded the plane…and coincidence be damned again, he just happens to get a seat behind them. Thus he overhears their conversation and realizes these three are no doubt Mafia. Even readers willing to completely suspend disbelief will be muttering “yeah, right” at this.

But Smith only gets more brazen. Magellan’s going to Alberquerque to hang out with an old ‘Nam pal, A.P. “Apple” Locker, apparently a commanding officer of Magellan’s and a fellow Green Beret (even though Smith states that both of them were in the Marines…). And guess why Joe Fat got Curci and Fiori out of that notorious Rome prison? That’s right – to help him take over A.P. Locker’s ranch and various business interests!! Well anyway, this is a Marksman novel, after all, so it isn’t like we should expect careful plotting. Smith doubtless banged this one out in record time, following the same template as all the other volumes he’s written.

For, right on cue, Magellan hooks up with a pretty waitress, same as he’s casually and easily picked up other waitresses who became unwitting or witting accomplices of his in earlier Smith books. This one’s named Peggy “Tootsweet,” and she’s a hotstuff Eurasian babe (Canadian French and Chinese) who seems to like Magellan just fine – while meanwhile Magellan is busy checking out Joe Fat and his two Italian pals, who are dining at a nearby table. Tootsweet being Eurasian is another recurring bit of Smith’s; he must’ve been obsessed with them, as Montego, no doubt written around this time, even featured two of them. But Tootsweet, whether she likes it or not, becomes Magellan’s latest comrade, bringing Magellan info on what the three men are doing and telling him all she knows about Joe Fat, who lives nearby and is a known businessman in the area.

Apple Locker is a big dude who lives on a rolling ranch with his teenaged wife, an American Indian beauty named Snowbird who likes to walk around half nude – another motif from Montego. What all A.P.’s business ventures exactly are Smith doesn’t really specify, but at any rate Joe Fat does want this ranch. In addition the mob boss does heroin business with another mobster who lives by, this one accompanied by a lovely Mexican gal who packs a pistol. All this is just page-filling, though. As usual Smith just likes to pile on a bunch of characters with various plots and counterplots and then ignores it all by having Magellan blithely go around killing everyone.

In another bit of brazen self-thievery, Smith rewrites the scene from #5: Headhunter, with Magellan again hiding in a hotel bathroom and killing the occupying mobsters one by one as they come in to use the john. Hell, Magellan even muses to himself that he’s done this before. And the mobsters are just as dumb as ever, cluelessly sending one guy after another to see what the hell’s taking whatsis name so long to piss, and then Magellan just casually blowing their heads off as they walk into the bathroom. Goofy stuff for sure. But again this sort of thing is what passes for action, for the most part; Magellan will gun down mobsters in cold blood and then move their bodies around for no reason other than his own insanity.

And there’s no sex this time around, Smith once again leading up to it but then changing his mind when it comes to the actual sleaze. Tootsweet is super-horny for Magellan, even going out with him to his car (which we’re constantly informed is a six-cylinder Volvo) to mess around, but Magellan as usual is all business, putting the shenanigans to a stop so he can send the girl off on some mission or other. But when Magellan later goes up to Tootsweet’s hotel room to cash in on that long-simmer offer for sex, he’s for once surprised – Tootsweet calls “Joe?” to Magellan’s knock on her door. Thus Magellan discovers that Tootsweet is in fact another employee of Joe Fat, and has been monitoring Magellan expressly at her boss’s wishes.

Smith actually fills the novel with attractive, eager women; in addition to Snowbird, Tootsweet, and the Mexican heroin-dealing babe, there’s also Dusty Cummings, a sixteen year-old hooker Joe Fat hires to seduce A.P. Locker in a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere. Smith introduces the young whore at great word expense and then just happens to have Magellan run into her…then ends the chapter there and only bothers to inform us later that Magellan talked to the young beauty, figured there was something odd about her, and then just basically left! And meanwhile Locker has bigger problems on his hands than jailbait (apparently he only prefers very young girls, or something…), as Joe Fat’s men have kidnapped Snowbird and also murdered the poor woman’s dad and brother, all of it occurring off page.

But you don’t read Russell Smith for tight plotting and character depth. It’s more for the bizarre sadism, as Magellan initiates one of his typically-brutal wars of aggression against Joe Fat’s men. Probably the highlight of his sadism this time around is when he shoots one guy in the groin and then pistol-whips him, and then later ties his corpse to the back of his Volvo and hauls it to Joe Fat’s place, where he leaves it at the door. But sadism as ever isn’t relegated just to the mobsters. Poor Snowbird suffers a horrific fate of her own, as off-page she’s raped by six men who take turns with her in the back of a freight truck or something…and yet when Magellan sees her later, Snowbird’s just hanging out with Joe Fat and crew and indeed even seems to be getting horny for Tootsweet! Again nothing much ever makes sense in the world of Russell Smith.

Smith even follows his normal template for the “climax,” conveniently holing up all the central characters in one location so Magellan can slaughter them. This takes place in a bar, in which Joe Fat has a secret room on the top floor. Here he, Tootsweet, Dusty Cummings, Snowbird, the sexy Mexican gal, and other assorted enforcers all hide away, while Magellan tries to figure out how to get to them. Smith develops an eleventh-hour subplot that Snowbird, who remember has been raped all night, is getting all horny for Tootsweet – and indeed we’re informed that the two actually had some hot lesbian sex (between chapters!), with Joe Fat even joining them for a three-way! But again, all this occurs off-page. In fact the last we see of Joe Fat, he’s all relaxed and happy because he’s had sex with all the gals, up here in his little hideaway above the bar.

Meanwhile Magellan just sneaks around, once again in his “hippie disguise” (another Smith staple). He guns down various cronies who are dumb enough to leave the hideaway, and finally Magellan is able to get up there – the final image of Kiss Of Death is Magellan standing over a sleeping Joe Fat, about to blow his head off. And once again Smith ends the novel right there, no resolution on the subplot about Tootsweet’s treachery, or the whole deal with Dusty Cummings, or even any kind of reunion for Snowbird and Apple Locker.

It’s all just lifeless and perfunctory, poorly plotted and conceived, yet with that lovably bizarre quality so inherent in Smith’s work…reading his books is like staring at a car wreck. You know you shouldn’t look but you can’t help yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bronson: Switchblade (aka Bronson #3)

Bronson: Switchblade, by Philip Rawls
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

Believe it or not, the Bronson “series” wraps up with a volume that actually continues from the one before it! There goes my theory that the three books in this series were each standalones; I’d known from Len Levinson, author of the second volume, that he’d never read the first volume, the phenomenal Blind Rage (and I’m still wondering who wrote that sick masterpiece), so I just assumed that the author of this third volume, Joseph Chadwick, had never read Len’s.

Turns out I was wrong, as Chadwick demonstrates throughout Switchblade that he’s read Len’s Streets Of Blood…while at the same time he proves that he also has not read Blind Rage. Series protagonist Richard Bronson here is the same character as Len’s version, with the same background and same history – Chadwick even reminds us that Bronson’s wife and kid were murdered in October 1972, the same date Len presented. The events of Blind Rage are now relegated to what is for the most part a standalone novel, unrelated to the two books that followed it. But Chadwick appears to have studied Len’s novel, bringing back the same characters Len introduced in his; all save for Bronson’s model girlfriend, Natalie, whom we’re informed this time is on an extended vacation in Europe.

Chadwick also appears to try to write the book in Len’s style, or perhaps the authors just have similar styles. It’s just a hunch, but given the way Switchblade is written, I’m willing to bet that Joseph Chadwick was the mystery author who turned out the odd volumes of Ninja Master, starting with the third volume. Switchblade is written in almost the exact same style, with a sort of casual flair to the narrative, more focus on dialog and daily incidentals, and less focus on action, suspense, or violence – indeed, when the action does happen in Switchblade (and in those Ninja Master books), it’s quickly over. (“Bronson got him in the gut with the switchblade,” is a perfect example of the extent of violent carnage you’ll encounter throughout.) Chadwick was a very prolific author, mostly given to writing Westerns, but he also did a lot of ghostwriting on various non-Westerns, and I’m betting he was the guy who traded writing duties on Ninja Master with Ric Meyers.

At least Switchblade opens with some bloody violence, as Bronson takes out a trio of young rapists-robbers-murderers who have been hitting stores in Times Square. Chadwick quickly brings us back into the scene developed in Streets Of Blood, with Bronson’s cop pal Detective Jenkins basically giving Bronson carte blanche and leaving the job to him. Bronson is all excited to try out his new vigilante toy: a custom-made switchblade, which he promptly uses to kill the trio of criminals. He catches them while in the process of raping a woman who owns a shoe store, her wheelchair-bound husband meanwhile having been beaten by the sadists. Bronson guts one, slices the other’s throat, and kills the final one with his bare hands.

Unfortunately the leader of the goons was a white punk named “Herbie the Brain,” who we learn was the son of mega-wealthy international banker Herbert Vincet Mardin. Chadwick will spend time – too damn much time – with Mardin senior and Mardin’s hotstuff young wife Carole. The novel runs to well over 200 pages of small print, too long for a piece of men’s adventure fiction, and Chadwick proves his uncertainty with the genre by spending most of that time dwelling on the thoughts and worries of minor characters. Bronson himself disappears for long stretches of time, and his actual vigilante affairs are relegated to a handful of situations, most of them quickly dealt with so Chadwick can return to the soap opera stuff with minor charactres like Carole Mardin or Detective Harper, an uptight square of a cop determined to bring Bronson down. This sort of genre-uncertainty was also prevalent in those odd volumes of Ninja Master, by the way, but at least those books were a lot shorter.

Switchblade instead just sort of plods along. The stuff with Bronson is good, though, with Chadwick bringing back a sort of grimness to the character that was lacking at times in Len’s version – though, to be sure, this Bronson is still nowhere in the psychotic realm of the character in the first book. He gets jumpy when he doesn’t hit the street, and this time he likes to get a little more close and personal on his kills, that switchblade in particular mostly being his chosen tool of the trade. Chadwick opens up the character a bit with the introduction of Nora Foster, gorgeous younger sister of Miriam Foster, ie Bronson’s murdered wife; Nora shows up at Bronson’s plush penthouse suite shortly after his first kill in the book, basically announcing her plans to screw him.

Nora, who it should go without saying has never been mentioned before, is a dead ringer for her departed sis, but she lacks that one’s charm or maturity (at least, so Bronson muses – we readers have never gotten to meet Miriam, not even in the first book, where she was already dead when the novel began). This doesn’t stop Bronson from banging her, though. Indeed the two have sex posthaste, though Chadwick doesn’t provide details. That being said, there are occasional sex scenes throughout Switchblade; the first one he actually writes featuring Bronson and Nora is pretty explicit. But after this Chadwick instead provides the sleaze mostly through dialog or introspection, usually from Carole Mardin’s perspective, given her nymphomania. She also gets the best line in the book, trying to sway her notoriously-unhorny husband with the unforgettable line, “I’ll let you screw my backside.”

But whereas the first two volumes were sleazy, violent thrillers about an unhinged protagonist taking out street scum with impugnity, this one just gets bogged down with too much melodrama. Pretty much all of the material with Carole Mardin and her growing horniness for Bronson could’ve been cut from the novel. Indeed Chadwick shows himself to be so disinterested with the title character that he spends more time with deadbeat detective Harper, not to mention arbitrary, time-wasting details like Harper’s weird sex life (a veritable shut-in, he has sex with a lady now in her fifties who took his cherry when he was a teenager). Midway through Herbert Mardin, looking for vengeance for the murder of his “misguided” son, makes use of his impressive contacts and calls in a CIA team, led by an ex-spook named Matthews. These characters too take the spotlight from Bronson.

To tell the truth, those who enjoyed Blind Rage and Streets Of Blood would be well advised to check out the Vigilante series by Robert Lory, which picked up the “street vigilante” thread much better than Chadwick does here. Because Switchblade limps whereas the first two Bronson books hurtled; Chadwick is also guilty of telling us the same stuff over and over, like for example where Bronson confronts Herbert Mardin, putting the fear of god in him…and then we read a long scene as Mardin runs home to Carole and tells her everything that just happened – everything we just read. It’s this sort of thing that ultimately makes Switchblade a chore to read at times.

Also, whereas those first two books were all about Bronson’s street vigilante activities, this one gets more into the CIA stuff…Matthews, working with Harper, quickly figures out who the myterious vigilante is, but they have no evidence. They try to set Bronson up but end up planting a piece of “evidence” that doesn’t even belong to Bronson, let alone have his fingerprints. While it’s all cleverly plotted it’s ultimately underwhelming because, for one, it takes up a lot of pages, and more importantly two, Bronson gets off scot free just through sheer dumb luck. A hero should always have to struggle to escape danger. Chadwick does pull some unexpected bits here, like the person Matthews choses to kill in his frame-up for Bronson. We also get a payoff on Nora’s growing horniness, with her offering Bronson sex in exchange for insider info on what Herbert Mardin is planning – and assisting Bronson when he goes to Mardin’s place to finally settle matters.

Chadwick also develops an interesting relationship between Bronson and Nora, but unlike in the previous two books our hero doesn’t tell his lady what he does at nights. Instead Nora constantly asks Bronson what he’s hiding from her and then tells him the cute recurring line “I love you – sort of.” This being said, Chadwick plain just drops Nora from the book in the end, first having her take a sudden trip to Hawaii near the finale, and then coming back to New York long enough to say “so long.” Seems clear Chadwick might’ve figured he would have to write another installment and thus didn’t want to saddle his protagonist with a steady girlfriend. At any rate Nora at least points Bronson in the direction of his last kill in the book, constantly complaining about the random criminal acts perpetrated by sleazy ambassador Rodridgues of San Cristobal.

Taking advantage of his “diplomatic immunity,” Rodrigues is known for raping girls and leaving them half dead, even running over people in the street. Early in the book Bronson runs afoul of the man, roughing up one of his security men, but by novel’s end Bronson has decided the bastard needs to pay; he’s no different than the street scum Bronson normally disposes of. Thus Switchblade – and the series itself – caps off with Bronson carjacking Rodrigues, tying him up, and blowing up his car.

And that was it for Bronson, a wildly uneven series for sure, and one of these days I’m going to find out who wrote Blind Rage!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Penetrator #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers

The Penetrator #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1978  Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham brings the sleaze factor back to The Penetrator; in his latest mission, which sees him venturing around San Francisco, Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin finds the time to visit a few strip clubs and cathouses – all in the line of duty, of course. And while our hero himself doesn’t get lucky (the sex scenes were whittled out of this series long ago), he does become friendly with a platinum blonde who strangely enough is almost identical to another Cunnigham creation, Joanne Tabler, the federal agent who has sporadically appeared since the earliest volumes.

This volume also sees the continued softening of Mark’s formerly-rough edges. Multiple times in The Skyhigh Betrayers he has the chance to kill someone, but goes out of his way not to – despite the fact that these people later come back to cause him more problems. This Mark Hardin sure as hell isn’t the same guy we were presented with back in #4: Hijacking Manhattan. The softening has been going on for quite a while now, and I wonder if it was because Cunningham himself had become less bloodthirsty or if Pinnacle requested that the protagonist of the series be less sadistic. While this does make Mark Hardin seem more like a normal hero, it also does make him appear rather stupid – how else to explain a part where he fights a bunch of Cuban agents out to kill him and goes out of his way to just knock each of them out?

The Skyhigh Betrayers is a bit busy in the opening with laying groundwork. Long story short, the lead scientist on some atomic energy research project has killed himself – or was he murdered? And the number one guy on the project, Dr. Brunt Maxwell, has gone missing. Apparently the project had something to do with a shielding for atomic warheads which would cut down radioactive fallout or somesuch. Anyway Mark Hardin gets wind of all this and figures something rotten is up, so he heads on over to San Francisco to find out what’s up.

As usual posing as a federal agent, Mark is able to bullshit his way into various agencies and high-security areas. When visiting the research center, he meets a gorgeous blonde-haired babe named Juliet Marshall, a woman apparently so pretty that Mark will basically pine over her throughout the novel. As mentioned there’s no sex for poor Mark this time out, but he’s really crazy about Juliet; indeed he considers her the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen. She’s new on the project and now is mostly taking care of Mrs. Brunt Maxwell, who has no idea what happened to her husband or even whether he’s alive or not.

There’s a lot of goofy “comedy” stuff in The Skyhigh Betrayers, sort of like the hijinks you’d see in late ‘70s action movies, usually ones of a redneck bent. For example an early scene has Mark’s rental car being arbitrarily inspected by a random cop, and Cunningham ruins the tension by having Mark sneak over and disengage the parking brake on the cop’s patrol car. The cop goes running off after it and a chuckling Mark drives away. But even goofier is Mark’s sudden resolve not to hurt anyone this time around. This mostly presents itself via the appearance of Juanita, a sexy Cuban secret agent who keeps running into Mark and threatening him, with Mark laughing it off.

Juanita initially goes after Mark in a different way – when he confronts her in her hotel room, having figured out she isn’t just an innocent employee after all but really a Cuban agent – she doffs her top and offers herself to him. Instead “The Penetrator” laughs this off as well and takes his leave. Later in the book Juanita will come after him again and again, even sending some thugs after him.  The real villain of the piece is an East German agent named Thomas Ashford who is also hunting down Dr. Maxwell. Ashford is one of the most brutal villains in the series yet; his intro in the book has him torturing a Mexican dayworker in a sequence that will have the reader squirming. This opening in fact was so lurid that it had me expecting the series was about to return to its grimy roots, but it appears that Cunningham saves the sadism for the villains, these days.

The Skyhigh Betrayers is almost like a private eye yarn in that the majority of it is comprised of Mark going around the seedier areas of the city and hunting leads. Midway through he discovers that Brunt Maxwell had a penchant for nudie clubs, and Mark finds himself at a strange dive where you can buy a camera in the foyer and go in and photograph naked women. For extra cash you can feel one of them up or more in a private room. You guessed it, Mark finds Brunt’s favorite gal and gets a private room with her, and she too pretty much offers herself to Mark – not that he takes her up on it.

There’s sporadic action throughout, with Mark mostly armed with a .45 throughout, though he does finally break out Ava, his dart gun, again. By the way, starting last volume we’ve gotten “The Penetrator’s Combat Catalog” at the end of each book, with drawings and ballistics of some of Mark’s weapons, similar to the material that would appear in the final pages of early volumes of Gold Eagle’s Executioner line. This time we get to see Ava, and talk about lame – it looks exactly like a Luger! All along I’ve pictured it as some sort of sci-fi raygun-looking thing. But the bit with Ava is another indication of Mark’s softening; Cunningham introduces the dart gun again, reminding us of its lethal payload…and then Mark just carries around a .45, usually butting people in the head with it.

But Mark’s biggest and most inexplicable goof this time is his early failure in the killing of Ashford. The two first meet when Mark’s walking around a local fishing site, asking random people for Brunt, a well-known sports fisherman. This sequence, quite padded and dull, caps off with Ashford, who himself is posing as one of the fishermen, pulling his gun on Mark. Ashford gets away this time, and later – after taking out some of Ashford’s thugs – Mark heads for the dude’s house to kill him. Instead he throws a grenade at Ashford and the East German agent runs for safety; the explosion burns down the house. Mark walks off, just assuming (wrongly) that he’s killed the man! 

Cunningham was also fond of putting topical interests in his installments, as best displayed in #20: The Radiation Hit, with its trucking focus. This time it’s skydiving, which in fact leads to the (meaningless) title of the book; from the strip club babe Mark learns that Brunt Maxwell has a secret love of hang gliding, and Mark eventually goes out looking for him. This entails lots of skydiving stuff shoehorned into the book; Mark you won’t be surprised is suddenly revealed to be an expert hang glider, telling some young dude whose gear he borrows that he’s logged several hours of flight time. In reality we learn that Mark only has a passing familiarity with it, though you gotta wonder how a guy whose been on various vengeance quests for the past, what, six years would have time to do much else.

Mark finally tracks down Brunt here in the sky, and succeeds in talking him down; there follows an arbitrary bit where some random guy pulls a gun on Brunt, demanding that he race him. But the dude’s strung out on goofballs or something (don’t worry, Mark doesn’t kill this guy, either, even though the dude tries to kill Mark!!)…  Cunningham as ever has a thing for ending each chapter on a cliffhanger, no matter how lame or contrived. Pretty Juliet Marshall is also here; turns out she too is an agent hunting down Brunt, though it’s never outright stated to which agency she belongs. As for Brunt Maxwell himself, he’s super annoying; shy as a rabbit and always trying to run away.

“There’s been enough killing,” Mark consoles poor lil’ Brunt, promising that he’ll keep the scientist safe from danger. It doesn’t work out that way, though, as within minutes after Mark has located the rogue scientist, none other than Juanita shows up, toting a gun and abducting the man from right under Mark’s nose! Even here Mark refuses to kill the annoying enemy spy, instead causing her to suffer a horrendous car crash (which she apparently survives unscathed), and then planting a submachine gun in her wrecked car…for which, we later learn, she’s hauled off to jail.

Meanwhile a still-alive Ashford has done some abducting of his own – he’s kidnapped Mrs. Maxwell. Here Cunningham realizes he’s in the homestretch and starts writing Brunt as a completely different character, full of resolve and quick-thinking; Cunningham brushes off the copout by having Brunt claim that he often experiences occurences of schizophrenia or something, and when confronted by lots of stress he will temporarily take on a new personality. Whatever! At least the book caps off with a shotgun-toting Mark heading for an abandoned amusement park, where Ashford waits with a bound Mrs. Maxwell, surrounded by various traps.

Even in the finale Mark fails to kill the main villain – that honor goes to Mrs. Maxwell – but he does make off with the gal, Cunningham informing us that Mark and Juliet are headed off for vacation together. She still doesn’t know Mark is the infamous Penetrator and Mark still doesn’t know who she works for – Juliet jokes that she’s “one of the Jane Fonda Commandos” who “go where any women’s libber needs help” – but Mark figures she’s part of some NASA security force. At any rate it’s left up in the air if Juliet will return someday.

Wrapping up, The Skyhigh Betrayers was kind of middling, a bit too padded at times, with a curiously-restrained Mark Hardin acting more like the hero of a late ‘70s TV show than the bloodthirsty revenger of previous books. But it wasn’t the worst Cunningham book I’ve read by a long shot.

Oh, and that image on the cover of the dude in the scuba suit wrestling a dolphin? It’s not in the book. Neither are there any atomic lab-protesting hippies or any opium-smoking Chinese dudes. Bummer!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Soul Stealers (aka Space Probe 6 #1)

The Soul Stealers, by Charles Huntington
No month stated, 1972  Award Books

Friends, I’ve stumbled upon yet another forgotten book series “produced” by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel. Space Probe 6 ran for a whopping two volumes, both published at the same time, and came out through Award Books, which had enjoyed much greater success with Engel’s earlier series Nick Carter: Killmaster.

The two volumes were credited to Charles Huntington, and were copyright him as well, but if Space Probe 6 is like any other Engel production it’s likely Huntington was a pseudonym. If this is true, then it must’ve been by an Engel author I’ve not yet read; the closest author I can think of in Engel’s stable at that time would be Dan Streib. For The Soul Stealers is written in a clunky, sort of lifeless style, devoid of much description or spark, and does not have that professional polish so common in the other novels I’ve read produced by Engel.

Anyway, Space Probe 6 is basically Star Trek whittled down to just Kirk and Spock, with an Engel-mandatory sprinkling of sex and sadism added in. Instead of Captain James Kirk we here have Captain Matt Foyt, rough and tumble captain of the Scorpio, a barely-described spaceship which apparently has been sent deep into space to find a new home for humans, or something – again, the novel is so poorly set up and developed that you have no idea what’s going on. We’re told Foyt is a strong commander, chosen due to his heartiness (as displayed in the “Millennial Olympics”), but in truth the dude spends the entirety of The Soul Stealers either getting knocked out or sitting around in a “Detention Center” (where he also gets laid – a lot!).

Serving as the Spock to Matt’s Kirk is Ivan 3-69(M), an android who looks just like a man – indeed, he looks almost identical to Matt (average height, brown hair and eyes), which should give an indication of Huntington’s meager imagination and descriptive powers. “Ivan” is an anagram, for “Intra-Vehicular Android Navigator,” and he talks exactly like Spock, with a bit of the future Next Generation’s Data thrown in for good measure. But Ivan lacks the memorable charm of either, and for the most part is as bland as wallpaper, save for the fact that he’s a walking weapon of mass destruction:

Upon Matt’s command, Ivan could destroy an object with the deadly white omega ray (the same power used in Matt’s DSA and in the ship’s cannons); inject a dozen lethal or stunning poisons into an enemy with a mere touch of his hand; induce catatonic trance electronically; expel fatal nerve gas, virus, and bacteria; and last but not least, in a last-ditch emergency, dissolve himself in a thermonuclear cataclysm capable of completely disintigrating a land mass the size of Connecticut.

Matt’s “DSA” by the way is his Disintigrating Sidearm (Huntington is very fond of acronyms), not that he uses it much. The novel opens with the Scorpio running into “white-hot galactic waste” in deep space and having to make an emergency landing on the nearest planet. Luckily, the place turns out to have breathable air – not that Matt bothers to check any of this before leaving the ship. Actually Matt stumbles off the ship between chapters; having banged his head in the crash landing, he apparently lost his senses and wandered off the ship while Ivan was otherwise engaged with repairs.

But all this is just convenient setup so Huntington can get to the sadism more quickly. Matt is promptly captured by a pair of bland-looking humans in identical uniforms (again, the meager description and imagination, which is displayed throughout) who turn out to be androids themselves. These are the Zorrans, who rule this world, having conquered the Plantarns, ie humans. Matt has a convenient gizmo on his wrist which automatically translates any language spoken into English, and also translates his own words back into the alien language, but we’ll overlook the fact that this is a previously-undiscovered planet, so how could the language be in Matt’s gizmo?

It ultimately doesn’t matter. Matt is taken through a city in which humans are tortured and killed in public. Huntington writes as if this book were coming out through a grungier imprint like Belmont Tower, with lurid stuff here like a bound woman being raped to death by a gorilla. It’s not overly explicit or graphic but it’s sure as hell rougher than anything you’ll ever read in a Star Trek book, that’s for sure. Gradually Matt will learn that the Zorrans are “part human, a grotesque hybrid of electronic gadgetry and biology,” and they harvest the human Plantarns for their glands and other innards.

Accused of being a Plantarn spy despite his insistence that he’s a peaceful visitor from space, Matt is tossed in a Detention Center. He’ll spend the duration of the novel here. He’ll also get laid a lot here. After meeting some of the captured Plantarns in the place, Matt is quickly propositioned by pretty redhead Nyama, who informs Matt she is in her “heat period” and needs satisfaction. The ensuing sex scene lasts a sentence or two and is not at all descriptive, which makes Huntington’s focus on the rape and sadism elsewhere in the novel so strange. Afterwards Matt learns more about the Zorrans: originally created by the Plantarns to help with things, the androids eventually took over and began harvesting organs. Now they’re on a hunt for the human soul, which they further hope to augment themselves with.

Huntington opens up the novel with lots of back-and-forth between Matt and Konar, leader of the Zorrans – that is, the man who speaks for Zorr, “their supercomputer god and leader,” a massive computer panel with a large molded human head sitting on it; humorously enough, Zorr lurks behind a curtain, just like the Wizard of Oz. Konar is a little more believing of Matt being from another planet, and to get more out info of him he sends in his own sexpot – Lorya, “quite literally a sex machine,” an android programmed for sex. Will you be surpised that she looks basically the same as Nyama? At any rate, more naughtiness ensues:

The contact with her seemed to make an animal of him – he was driven to a frenzy, and she was perfect in every detail, as only a machine can be. Matt felt as though he would tear her to pieces before he was through, but she had been built to take punishment, and she lasted. Finally, when Matt’s explosion came, it was like a hot comet ravaging the deep tunnels of space.

Meanwhile Matt makes contact with Ivan – who himself is promptly captured. As if showing how bored he is with the entire affair, Huntington now has both captain and android in the Detention Center, but gradually Konar and the Zorrans want to get Ivan over to their side, mostly because they’d discovered he’s such a kick-ass android, what with those lasers that shoot out of his hands and stuff. So while Matt continues to sit around in the Detention Center, occasionally having more barely-detailed sex with Nyama, Konar and the Zorrans court Ivan, making him a general in their army. Huntington doles out a half-assed subplot where Ivan might be interested in joining the Zorran cause, what with him being a fellow android and all.

More sadism is displayed with periodic trips to the various experimentation rooms, where a sickened Matt sees Plantarn women put through various tortures, usually of a sexual nature. He also finds trash bins filled with Plantarn corpses, their innards harvested for Zorran use. It’s all very nightmarish, yet it’s all undone by the fact that Matt is such a cipher that you could care less about him, much less become concerned for him. There is I say a general air of “who gives a shit?” to the entire book.

But some of it’s so dumb it’s funny. Lorya is sent to Matt yet again, for another paragraph of sex, but this time the android appears to get off on it – another half-assed subplot has these Zorrans yearning to achieve real feelings, or something – and after the whopping orgasm she begs Matt to take her with him, beings that she’s in love with him. Then the Zorrans remote-control kill her and smoke comes out of her mouth! The sex scenes are themselves pretty funny, like yet another Matt-Nyama bout, while they’re still in the Detention Center:

And then Matt united with his Plantarn girl, and they both sucked in their breath at the pleasure of entry. Matt forgot the escape plan and Konar and Ivan’s separation from him, and thought only of the warm, writhing girl under him. And it was more beautiful than either of the other times, a space probe adventure of its own, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, a thrusting, plunging, fulfillment of universal desire.

After over a hundred pages of sitting around (and getting lucky), Matt finally escapes the Detention Center, Ivan, Nyama, and other Plantarn redshirts in tow. Armed with his Disintigrator gun, Matt vaporizes several Zorrans, but there’s a lack of gore here, given that heads and whatnot just evaporate when Matt shoots them. From there the book becomes this drawn-out sequence of military fiction where Matt, in the Scorpio, leads the Plantarn forces in revolt against the Zorran overlords, crushing them. This all goes down in like six or so pages – not to mention a farewell boff from Zyama, who gamely enough accepts that Matt will leave her after all this is over.

Matt kills Konar in a belabored fight, and the Zorran cause is in ruins, and that’s that – Matt and Ivan strap themselves into Scorpio and blast off for their next (and last) adventure, in Nightmare On Vega 3. Boy, The Soul Stealers is 156 pages of tedium, a rare miss on Lyle Kenyon Engel’s part, and having read the book I can say there’s absolutely no mystery why it didn’t last beyond two installments.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Hunter #2: Night Of The Jackals

The Hunter #2: Night Of The Jackals, by Ralph Hayes
February, 1975  Leisure Books

John “The Hunter” Yard returns in another globe-trotting adventure that takes place “about a year” after the first. Author Ralph Hayes tones down the action barrage this time, instead turning out what for the most part reads more like a private eye yarn, at least so far as Yard’s incessant searching for his prey goes.

Something about this series hasn’t clicked for me yet; the writing isn’t bad, and the characterization is pretty good in comparison to the genre average, but at the same time the series just doesn’t excite me much. Maybe it’s because it’s all so standard, despite the fact that its hero is a big game hunter based out of Nairobi. Hayes, as with the first volume, doles out a very standard tale, with nothing crazy or outrageous or very memorable – the craziest this series has gotten was in the first pages of the previous book, where a woman’s newborn baby turned out to be some hirsute monster.

But I can’t really criticize a book for playing it straight or safe – Hayes basically just turns in a no-frills adventure yarn, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. As ever the highlight here is the camaraderie between John Yard and pal Moses Ngala, a Keyan native who spent time as a cop in London and still goes about calling people “old man.” Unlike other men’s adventure authors of the day, Hayes does not constantly mention that Moses is black, and there is none of the cloying, maudlin sap about their friendship which would be mandatory in today’s PC-ridden world. However, this volume has the pair going up against a hardcore racist – so racist in fact that he’s a former Nazi.

Ernst Rohmer is the villain of the piece, currently serving on loan to the US Army as a jungle warfare instructor at a base in Georgia. Rohmer is in his early 50s and started his military career in the SS, where he served in battle and in the death camps. Afterwards he sold his services to the highest bidder, finding his best match with the Syrian army, whose leaders were very happy with Rohmer’s mania for murdering Jews. Rohmer also fought for the ARVN in Vietnam, where he carried out mass atrocities, including the massacre of an entire village: men, women, children. He was so infamous that even Yard, who served in ‘Nam, heard of him while he was over there.

All of this is relayed via backstory; Hayes spends so much time on Rohmer and on setting up this volume’s plot that John Yard doesn’t even appear until page 46 of his own novel. What brings the Hunter into this time is that Rohmer finally goes too far. Resenting the fact that a black man is in his company, Rohmer conspires with a redneck sergeant named Pruitt and a crooked stockade warden to visit the black soldier, Wendell Harrison, in his cell one night, Harrison having been sent here on false charges (after being beaten to a pulp by Rohmer and Pruitt, that is). But Rohmer goes too far, and kills Wendell – and gets off scot free.

Meanwhile Wendell’s brother Aron tries to probe the death, and for his trouble is nearly beaten to death, too. Turns out though that Aron, years before, met Moses Ngala. He doesn’t seek out the man, though; instead, Aron makes the decision to leave “the white man’s world” and move to Lagos. There he just happens to run into Moses, visiting here from Nairobi in his hunt for a jewel thief. After busting his man, an Indian criminal, Moses takes Aron out for a beer and listens in dismay to his terrible story.

Moses returns to Nairobi and presents the tale to Yard, who meanwhile has been going about his big game hunting. The question is whether these two want to return to hunting men, something they haven’t done since the previous volume. Yard is unsure, but when a persistent jackal ends up attacking his property again, Yard realizes that something must be done about all predators, because they never just go away by themselves (Liberals, take note!!). Hayes by the way is very good at thematic work, and this is just one such example – not to mention the angle of the entire series, which has Yard “hunting” his prey across the globe.

Given the elaborate scene-setting, this means that Night Of The Jackals doesn’t devolve into one overlong action scene after another, as the previous volume did. Indeed, there are only a few action scenes this time around, and Yard doesn’t get in a brawl with every person he encounters, like last time. Sometimes this is actually a detriment, like when Yard and Moses get to Georgia and learn that not only has Rohmer left the service (headed to Syria by way of Paris), but also his flunky Pruitt has moved off to another base! This sucks because you really want to see Pruitt get his comeuppance. 

Instead Yard must satisfy himself with beating Maddox, the corrupt stockade warden, to a pulp. Meanwhile Moses scores with a pretty black nurse who works on the base, but as ever Hayes is shy with the details. The hardest material we get here is, “There was gentle moaning from her lovely throat, and the fiery touch of hot thigh, and the enveloping oven of her, and then the sweet, violent song of love between them.” Enveloping oven?? She might want to get that checked out. 

The globe-trotting of the previous book is still here, though, and soon Yard and Moses are in Paris, where they find that yet again they’re too late. Rohmer has already gone on to Syria. But they have no idea where. Moses eventually meets a money-hungry bellhop who claims to know where the sadist is in Syria; there follows a long scene where the bellhop meets Moses at a boxing match and Hayes fills pages about the boxers and their match. Also Moses ends up having to get rough with this guy, after all, and ultimately discovers where in Syria Rohmer has gone.

Rohmer is in the Golan Heights area of Syria, where he can live out of his dream of killing Jews – we learn that he has a long history of helping the Syrians fight Israel, and thus is beloved by the Syrians for his zeal. Rather than taking the bastard out, Yard and Moses pretend to be mercenaries from Canada who have come down here looking for positions in Rohmer’s unit. Rohmer accepts them grudgingly, offering Yard a high post but Moses a menial one – he tries to hide his hatred of blacks from the Syrians, who appear to be all for his anti-Semitism but don’t appreciate his hatred of black people(!?).

“This group is essentially a terrorist group,” Yard sums up Rohmer’s unit, eerily predicting the nightmarish terrorist group which runs Syria in reality in the present day. Hayes seems to have done his research on the area, or perhaps even visited it, briefly but capably bringing the desolate place to life. He also caters to the men’s adventure mandate by having Yard get lucky, hooking up with a pretty Arabic dancer who sometimes serves as Rohmer’s mistress. Once again it’s not explicit in the least, “He took her savagely” being the extent of it. (After which she demands twenty bucks!)

The final third is kind of baffling, as Yard and Moses go through the motions of serving in Rohmer’s Jew-hating military squad…apparently they haven’t yet decided he truly deserves death and are just biding their time? Once Yard gets more details on the horrible atrocities Rohmer has committed, he decides (again) that the sadist deserves to die – but first he has to secretly radio word to a nearby village in Israel that Rohmer plans an ambush on the place, a “practice run” for his troops.

During the melee, in which an Isreali military squad successfully prevents Rohmer’s “surprise” ambush, Yard and Moses try to kill Rohmer, but fail. They get back to base in Syria and the dumbasses are surprised when they’re pulled out of the lineup and thrown in prison – someone saw their treachery. Now the book becomes torture-porn as Yard is by turns beaten savagely (while nude) and interrogated by Rohmer (while still nude). It goes on for too long, but finally culminates with Yard killing a guard with his bare hands and escaping.

Rather than the big action climax of the previous book, Night Of The Jackals instead finishes with Yard and Moses chasing Rohmer across the desert, where they engage him and his two men in a firefight. Rohmer is given an anticlimactic sendoff, accidentally stepping on a land mine Yard has planted. And that’s it; our two heroes drive off to get something to eat(!) and figure out how they’re going to get over the border into Isreal while wearing stolen Syrian military uniforms.

Night Of The Jackals is passable, pretty standard action-pulp fare, but as I wrote above I’ve still failed to drum up much enthusiasm for this particular series. We’ll see if that changes with ensuing installments.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection (second review)

The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection, by Paul Kenyon
February, 1974  Pocket Books

Some people re-read Moby-Dick; I’m re-reading The Ecstasy Connection. Six years ago I first reviewed this initial volume of The Baroness, and while I enjoyed it then I really loved it this time. This is opposite of the experience I had when I re-read The Enforcer #1 last year; while I loved that one the first time I read it, on my second reading I found it rather padded and uneventful.

Not so for The Ecstasy Connection, which still retains its position as one of the more sleazy, lurid, and entertaining men’s adventure novels I’ve yet read. And true to the standards of producer Lyle Kenyon Engel’s Book Creations Incorporated, it’s very well written. I don’t know how Engel did it, but he managed to always find quality authors – authors who all seemed to have the same sort of professional style. Thanks to ppsantos at The Baroness Yahoo Group, we now know that Donald Moffitt was the author of this book, as well as the seven volumes that followed (not to mention two others that were never published). Sadly, I’ve also learned from the Yahoo club that Mr. Moffitt passed away in December, 2014. Luckily he was able to discover the fan base his old series had acquired before he shrugged off those mortal coils.

I developed a lot of respect for Moffitt as I re-read this novel; the minor sleazy tidbits he packs into the book are incredible. He leaves no lurid stone unturned, from mentioning the “foamy pubes” of a nude woman who has died of a massive orgasm to detailing the plentiful carnage in the book’s frequent action scenes. While I didn’t much care for some of the later volumes (and I plan on re-reading them, too, so we’ll see if I still feel that way), it must be said that this first volume of The Baroness is one of the best men’s adventure novels ever written, hitting all the bases one could want. 

This makes it all the more interesting that The Ecstasy Connection was actually the second manuscript Moffitt wrote – the first one he wrote was Diamonds Are For Dying, which was published second in the series. (Thanks again to ppsantos for this info!) Diamonds Are For Dying was one of my least favorite books in the series, but maybe I should’ve read it first this time around, just to see how Moffitt improved between volumes. At any rate there is textual evidence throughout The Ecstasy Connection that it actually takes place after the second volume; for example, Penelope “The Baroness” St. John-Orsini at one point mentions her “previous mission in Brazil,” where she lost her favored pistol, a Bernadelli VB. All of this happened in Diamonds Are For Dying.

Perhaps Moffitt just figured out the series he wanted to write with The Ecstasy Connection; maybe he had trouble finding his footing with Diamonds Are For Dying. Whatever the reason, he scored a home run with this one, with a wildly over-the-top plot, constant action, a likable protagonist (the Baroness here isn’t as gratingly arrogant as she sometimes is in later volumes), and plentiful sex – yet again I wondered this time who exactly this series was written for. Was Lyle Kenyon Engel envisioning a women’s adventure series? Penelope’s frequent sex scenes are all written from her point of view, so we read of the pleasure she experiences as a man slides into her “scabbard” and whatnot. In the traditional men’s adventure novel, these sex scenes would of course be relayed from the man’s point of view. But then, there’s no way to get around this when your protagonist is a woman (unless you POV-hop, which you shouldn’t), so I digress.

Speaking of the rampant, explicit sex scenes, it occurred to me this time that perhaps the focus on sex is the very reason why The Baroness was published by Pocket Books, which didn’t really do much in the way of men’s adventure. However Pocket had cornered the market on trash fiction, mostly because it retained the paperback rights to Harold Robbins. Perhaps Engel envisioned this series as expressly catering to Pocket’s demand for sleaze – the dude was a genius for marketing and packaging books. Whatever the thinking, it got some attention; another thing Moffitt revealed to ppsantos of the Yahoo Baroness group was that Robbins himself at one point was trying to make a movie out of The Baroness!

Well anyway, this volume’s outrageous plot is about a dangerous new drug which activates the pleasure center of the hypothalamus, causing its users to literally die of pleasure. The novel features I believe the most memorable opening sequence in the series, with a gorgeous and famous stage actress, strung out on the ecstasy drug, doffing her clothes in front of a packed audience and yelling, “Screw me, darlings!” Meanwhile other notables are suffering from the drug, most damningly a nuclear missile operator in a military base who almost triggers WWIII before collapsing dead on his console. After the mandatory scene in which the various intelligence agency heads argue over who should get the job, we learn that “Key” – aka NSA man John Farnsworth – has been tapped by the President to activate “Coin.”

This is of course Penelope, the Baroness herself, and when we meet her she’s hosting one of her famous bi-annual parties in her plush Manhattan apartment. All the jet-setters are here, and Moffitt capably injects just the sort of sleazy ‘70s stuff we want throughout: “A blue haze of hemp hung over the rooms and drifted out over Central Park.” Interestingly, it’s just assumed that the reader already knows that Penelope is “Coin;” she sees a Senator in her party and reflects on the “NSA dossier” on him. Clearly this is yet another indication that this was intended as the second volume; I’m pretty sure Penelope was given a little more buildup in Diamonds Are For Dying.

A famous covergirl model – whom we learn later has even starred in two movies – Penelope is a smokin’ hot, raven-haired babe with an incredible bod, “huge luminous green eyes,” and “spectacular cheekbones.” (In other words, if Robbins had gotten a movie made, there was only one damn actress he could’ve hired to play the Baroness – Lynda “Good Lord!!!” Carter.) Oh, and cover artist Hector Garrido consistently depicted Penelope in a skin-tight black suit, which I always figured was his own invention. However at one point in this volume Penelope is in fact dressed in a black leotard, so maybe that’s what inspired Garrido.

Farnsworth contacts Penelope just as she’s engaged in her favorite activity – kinky sex. This too would become a recurring scene in future volumes, each of which for the most part follows the same template as The Ecstasy Connection. Moffitt turns out the first of his pages-long, XXX-hardcore sex scenes, as Penelope eagerly boffs a Joe Namath-esque football star. No detail is spared here. But once she answers Farnsworth’s call – and Penelope is contacted via her watch, which sends shocks through her to get her attention – Penelope meets her contact in the downtown Manhattan offices of International Models, Inc., where Farnsworth, an OSS veteran in his fifties with gray hair and a clipped moustache, acts as the company’s general manager.

The Baroness, tasked with finding out where this dangerous mystery drug is coming from, puts together her eight-person team. This time I actually paid attention to who they are, but be aware they are for the most part ciphers who add little to the series. Interestingly, it turns out that Moffitt himself felt the same, and indeed was requested to give the Baroness a large team – check out his comments on the origins of the series, which he also sent to ppsantos. But for posterity, here are the members of the Baroness’s team:

Dan Wharton: Described as “blond” and “bearlike,” he’s a former Green Beret who is in love with the Baroness. He’s also curiously prudish and there are many subtle mentions of how he will shyly look away when he sees a nude woman. It’s later explained that he was raised in a strict family, but still there’s enough textual evidence here for the reader to go “hmmm.”

Inga (no last name given): A “big-boned, babyfaced blonde,” whose cover is as one of Penelope’s models. She’s one of the team members who won’t contribute much here or in future volumes. This time she gives Penelope a massage.

Joe Skytop: Like Dan Wharton, he’s one of the few team members who will actually do anything in this and ensuing volumes. Another bear of a man – it’s not outright stated but I believe he’s supposed to be even more muscular than Wharton – he’s described as a “full-blooded Cherokee Indian” and he’s a master of all forms of unarmed combat.

Tom Sumo: Like Wharton and Skytop, another of the team members who actually matters. The Q of the Baroness’s team, Sumo is Japanese-American and contributes a variety of high-tech gizmos, each of which Moffitt overdescribes with annoyingly “gee whiz”-type narrative and dialog. (Ie, “My saliva is the electrolyte.”)

Paul (no last name given): An “elegant black man,” who I believe has maybe two lines this time. He won’t go on to much greater in the series. His cover is as one of Penelope’s top male models. We’re informed he’s some sort of guerrilla warfare specialist. (Meaning maybe he was a Black Panther??) And like June Cleaver, he can speak jive; ie “chillen” instead of “children.”

Yvette (no last name given): The other black member of the team, and usually paired with Paul, stereotyping be damned. (Humorously, when Penelope sends off her team on various missions early in the book, Paul and Yvette are instructed to don fly threads and head “uptown” to find out what’s going on with the pimps and the drugdealers!) She contributes nothing here and won’t in future, either. We’re informed she’s from Haiti, speaks with a slight accent, and is expert with disguises and piloting “small craft.”

Eric (no last name given): The most cipherlike member of the team, this dude’s apparently blond, the son of a merchant seaman or something, and a good fistfighter. He does absolutely nothing. We’re informed he’s Penelope’s “top male model.” It’s implied that he and Inga are an item.

Fiona (no last name given): A ravishing redhead, Penelope’s “top female model,” with no stated speciality. About the only thing we learn is that she’s notoriously late for meetings and is generally lazy.

Penelope spends the first half of The Ecstasy Connection in Manhattan, with Skytop and Wharton sent out around the country to track down various leads (which leads up to the memorable moment of Skytop taking on a bunch of bikers). This half I believe is the highlight of the book, with Moffitt capably juggling multiple threads and really keeping things moving. Not to mention sleazy – the villain, we learn, is a mountain of blubber named Petronius Sim who is behind the ecstasy drug but has hired the American Mafia to kill off any who might have taken it, as he doesn’t want any details leaked yet. One of his thugs kills one such user, and we watch again as a female character dies in the throes of orgasm. When Penelope later discovers the nude corpse, we’re informed: “Her crotch was a foamy mess.” As mentioned, Moffitt peppers the novel with such sleazy details, and it’s a wonder to behold.

The absolute highlight of the book is almost midway through, when Penelope crashes a party of the drug elite in Manhattan, where the mysterious “Big E” drug is supposed to be handed out. But Penelope quickly deduces that something rotten is going on. The Mafia hosts don’t seem too interested in the eager women here, and they also seem to insist that everyone engage in an orgy while they stand off on the sidelines. When Penelope sees the moving trucks down below she realizes that it’s a hit – they’re planning to kill everyone off and haul away the corpses. Acting fast, Penelope sheds her clothes and heads for the “biggest pile” of group-sexers: “She dove for the bottom of the pile and began wriggling her way inside. Eager hands groped for her breasts and buttocks. It was warm and steamy in the middle of the bodies, smelling of sweat and semen.”

Moffitt pulls out all the stops here, with the Mafia soldiers blowing everyone away mid-orgy, the bullets thudding into the bodies atop Penelope. In her escape she employs one of her trademark weapons, a black cigarette lighter/holder which dispenses “a splinter of synthetic black widow spider venom.” Even though I’d read it once before, I was still very caught up in this cinematic sequence, which sees a nude, blood-covered Baroness escaping up to the building’s rooftop and luring out the Mafia soldiers one by one, killing them with stolen weapons or with her bare hands. It’s a masterfully-written scene and proof positive that there was some very high-quality material in the otherwise-grubby world of ‘70s men’s adventure novels. And Moffit’s just as wonderfully descriptive in the gory action scenes as he is in the sex scenes, like when the Baroness shoots one of the mobsters: “His shattered skull began to ooze brain tissue like toothpaste.”

After this thrill-ride of a sequence – which is capped off with a nude Penelope stealing a moving truck right out from under the Mafia stooges’s noses – the team determines that the Big E has its origins in Hong Kong. After another several pages of sex with the football star, our heroine heads for Asia, Farnsworth having set it all up as yet another photo shoot for International Models, Inc. Penelope brings along all of the high-tech gear created for her – and annoyingly overdescribed via dialog and narrative – by Sumo, including her ever-reliable spyder, the “powerful little pistol-winch” that’s used throughout the series. There are also the “plastic sandal straps” which can become throwing knives, as well as a bra with “super polymer threads” and a pair of shoes with a “thermite core” in the heel. You can tell that Moffitt was really into sci-fi, and he appears to have done a lot of research on satellite technology and espionage gear of the day.

Moffitt was also well ahead of the curve in that he seems to have predicted the future sci-fi genre of cyberpunk; Petronius Sim employs a variety of “juiceheads,” each of whom have metal plates in their heads, which they insert wires into and, after entering that day’s code (provided by Sim), they experience orgasmic joy. It’s all very much like something out of a William Gibson novel from a decade later. He’s also good at capturing the feel of exotic places; Penelope is given a tour of Hong Kong’s slums by Major Nigel Pickering, who presents himself as a member of the police, and Moffitt brings to life the squalor of the place – and still doesn’t forget the sleaze, with Pickering at one point propositioned by a prepubescent girl!

Meanwhile Penelope knows instantly that she’s going to be having some hot sex with Pickering – even though she just screwed the football star half to death a few pages before. After an expensive dinner these two repair to Penelope’s hotel room for more XXX action, Moffitt again mostly relaying it through Penelope’s perspective. Who cares that she’s already deduced “Pickering” isn’t who he claims to be, and might even be an enemy agent? She wants to screw him anyway. Another overlong sex scene follows, Penelope’s “magnificent breasts” heaving away.

Moffitt hews closely to the Bond formula – after being wined and dined at the palatial residence of Sim, Penelope finds herself a prisoner of the sadist. But instead of the “mink-lined cell” of Fleming’s Doctor No, Sim instead straps a nude Penelope onto a matress and hooks her into a colossal artificial brain! Sim has used countless human guinea pigs to fully map the human brain, something no one else has been able to do; thus he knows exactly where the pleasure and pain centers are, and how to stimulate them. He proceeds to carry out his learnings on Penelope.

It all gets pretty psychedelic, with Sim and his scientific crony Dr. Jolly (and let’s not forget the flunky named Happy!) activating the portion of Penelope’s brain which still retains the hybrid sexual state it possessed when it was an embryo; soon Penelope feels that she is equipped like a man, even though she can see her nude body is unchanged. It gets more and more out-there, capping off with the unforgettable line: “And now Penelope herself was a giant penis.” It gets even more like an XXX-rated 2001: A Space Odyssey as Sim and Jolly next activate Penelope’s female region, so that she has sex with herself in a supremely psychedelic sequence:

And then, somehow, she was a vagina too. A starry tunnel bored into the sky. The two parts of herself, male and female, worked together at their cosmic copulation, and she could feel all of it. 

And then the universe ended in a galactic explosion. There was a vast milky spurt that shot to the boundaries of creation, and an answering shudder from the vaginal sky. Fiery meteors rained down from the heavens. The solar system shook.

As Dr. Jolly later says, the Baroness, like a regular Barbarella on the Excessive Machine, has “an extraordinary capacity to feel sex.” After beating the shit out of a nurse Penelope’s able to escape, and here the novel shows that it’s a bit too long for its own good – 223 pages of small print – as we have this arbitrary bit where Penelope, feverish and dazed, just manages to get away from Sim’s men and ends up collapsing on the Hong Kong docks. There she’s picked up by a kindly old junk trawler who cares for her – for three days! Once Penelope is recovered she discovers the man’s kindness was just a ruse; he intends to sell her to an old madame. Penelope laughs it off, goes back to sleep(!?) – and then the scene proves how arbitrary it is when Sim’s men board the junk and take her captive again!

So now our heroine is right back where she started, plus Skytop and Dan are also now captives; temporarily mindless thanks to Sim’s various pleasure center controllers. Pickering’s also a prisoner – turns out he’s a British secret agent. Sim plans to wire Penelope and Pickering’s minds together, so that they feel each other’s pleasure, and to get the festivities started he orders that the two be dosed with aphrodesiacs and chained together, given a night of total privacy so that they can become attuned to one another’s sex drives(just go with it!). This of course leads to another of Moffitt’s patented super-hardcore scenes, as the chained nudes have heroic sex:

He was moving in and out in a corkscrew motion now. She butted him with her bottom at each jab, trying to get all of him inside her. One of her bumps was too violent. Pickering lost his balance and fell over backward. Before he could get to his knees again, she swung around, dragging the ankle chain with her, and squatted atop his mast. She lowered herself and it pushed deep within her. “I want to watch your face when you come,” she whispered hoarsely.

Even though the Baroness frequently gets captured, she always manages to stage an ingenious escape – what will also prove to be a recurring theme in the series, and usually the highlight of each volume. After the night of super sex, Pickering is taken away and Penelope’s all alone. She manages to cajole Happy the stooge into opening her special pillbox, which really hides a microwave radar or something. At any rate it fries the wires in Happy’s brain, and a freed Penelope once again beats the shit out of the same nurse, steals her clothes, and massacres everyone in the operating room in one of the more wonderfully-gory scenes in the book…a scene complete with Penelope ramming a bonesaw through the “soft jelly” of Dr. Jolly’s brain.

The finale gets wilder and wilder, intentionally or not recalling Island Of Lost Souls, ie the Charles Laughton movie based on Island of Dr. Moreau. Penelope and her freed comrades lay to waste half of the villa, freeing Sim’s various human experiments, all of whom want their pound of flesh. Meanwhile Sim floats in a pool of honey(!), bombed out of his skull on a super-ecstasy drug he just perfected. He’s impossible to get to, safely behind steel bars and other protective barriers. However the designers of this fortress didn’t count on the freakish strength of the human guinea pigs, who break through the barriers and rip Sim to pieces with their claws in a gloriously outrageous finale.

Sadly, I don’t recall any of the successive volumes of The Baroness reaching the incredible heights of The Ecstasy Connection. Many of them come close, though, but with this one Moffitt really struck trash gold. It’s a shame the series has become so collectible and thus overpriced on the used books market. Moffitt’s even sure to end on the sleaze, with Penelope, back in Manhattan, looking up that football quarterback and demanding another night’s fun, whether he’s playing in the SuperBowl tomorrow or not.

Technically this volume would lead into #3: Death Is A Ruby Light, but I’ll read Diamonds Are For Dying next, mostly because it was published second. Ideally I guess you should read that one first, though, then this one, and then continue on with volume three. At any rate I do look forward to re-reading the rest of The Baroness, and I had a grand ol’ time enjoying the sleazy mastery of The Ecstasy Connection.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Spider #13: Builders Of The Black Empire

The Spider #13: Builders Of The Black Empire, by Grant Stockbridge
October, 1934  Popular Publications

Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page brings The Spider back to the ground after the previous fantastical volumes, with an installment that sort of retreads the one in #10: The Corpse Cargo only minus the horror elements. Indeed Builders Of The Black Empire (titled “Builders of the Dark Empire” in the story itself) is mostly just a standard action tale, lacking many of the elements that make this series so fascinating.

The Spider’s already on the hunt when we meet him; Richard Wentworth is onboard a tramp steamer somewhere near Florida, disguised as a crewman. We learn that Wentworth began researching this latest caper a week ago, hunting the papers for anything amiss. There he found that some steamers were not returning to port in New York; Wentworth instantly suspected nefarious a-doings. And sure enough Page delivers the first of many, many action scenes, with Wentworth’s steamer attacked by airplanes – turns out the various steamers haven’t returned to port because they’ve been waylaid by “piracy by airplane.”

So yes, despite the recency of The Corpse Cargo, this volume again sees Wentworth up against modern-day pirates, but rather than the sadistic ghouls of that previous installment (not to mention their depraved female leader), this time we are presented with a much less memorable cast of villains: a bunch of Mexicans who seem to have walked out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Sadly, they will prove to be the sole villains – well, them and a French guy who is a known revolutionary or something, and he isn’t much more memorable, and is more so annoying than anything.

Wentworth, who sneaked off the steamer when it was ordered to dump it’s cargo of nitro on an uninhabited island named Belulah Key, watches in disgust as the planes swoop in and destroy the boat, killing everyone on board. Wentworth manages to get on one of the planes that come to collect the loot, and plants a bomb on one of them. He hijacks another plane, taking the men aboard captive as their comrades in the rest of the squadron blow up. But Wentworth blunders, falling into their trap – the first of several times he does so this volume – and he is taken prisoner by the pirates, not even a dozen pages in.

Here we meet the boring leader, Miguel Oriano, a redheaded Mexican of mixed parentage; be prepared for lots of racist invective courtesy Wentworth, calling Oriano “half-breed” and whatnot. Sure, the Spider’s trying to rile the guy, to make him clumsy, but at the same time it is weird in today’s world to read a hero spouting such things. Again, I’m not judging the sentiments of the past, just reporting. But in true cliched fashion Oriano is a big lout who carries around a big whip, and soon enough Wentworth’s to be hitched to the post for his own whipping.

The Spider’s escape is the goriest part of the book; he steals Oriano’s whip and slashes one of the leader’s “peons” with it, knocking out the dude’s eyeball! From there it’s an escape back to New York, where we get the details on what led Wentworth to this case. Turns out while slumming in disguise in waterfront bars he heard notorious revolutionist Remarque D’Enry saying something about a revolution in America. Well, Wentworth figures D’Enry is somehow involved with this airplane piracy deal, so he begins to hunt the Frenchman down.

As per the norm, here the plot is expanded a bit with various New York notables coming into the story – as usual, people Wentworth is familiar with, due to his highfalutin lifestyle. Chief among them is big blond Scott Haillie, a diplomat who was once known for his carousing days. Wentworth – with ever-suffering Nita at his side – spots Haillie in a posh restaurant, dining with D’Enry, wealthy Spaniard Don Esteban, the don’s son Andre, and the don’s lovely daughter Carmencita. Haillie and Andre have a grudge, and next thing you know the two men are engaged in a duel, with Wentworth and D’Enry acting as their respective seconds.

Builders Of The Black Empire is more along the lines of a pulp mystery than previous books; during the duel someone tries to take a shot at Andre, and the would-be assassin lies that Wentworth hired him. Meanwhile men in masks recently came to Wentworth’s penthouse, perhaps abducing Ram Singh, who has disappeared (the leader of the gang humorously refers to Wentworth as “boy friend” twice!), and Wentworth suspects that this plus the lying assassin means that Don Esteban is setting him up. The don you see is Wentworth’s chief suspect now, given the island kingdom he rules off the coast of the Yucatan, a perfect haven for a pirate army.

Wentworth suffers more in this novel than any other I’ve yet read, which is really saying something. He and Hallie are attacked by D’Enry and a pirate crew, and even though Wentworth captures them and ties them up, D’Enry gets loose – and shoots Wentworth in the friggin’ chest! Our hero plunges into the water…and comes to a few weeks later, having been fished out of the water by ever-loyal Jackson and taken to the hospital. Wentworth convalasces for a whopping five weeks – he was shot in the lung, we learn – and through it all Nita tells him the pirates have stopped their attacks.

Turns out though she’s lying, not that Wentworth blames her. No, the nation is close to revolution now, with seven thousand innocent people having been killed on the seas by the pirates. A “great Eastern nation” is suspected of being behind the attack (but in reality is being framed by the pirates, whose plan turns out to be to cause a revolution in the US so they can sell their loot freely, or something), and Wentworth in wheelchair watches as an innocent old man from that country is almost torn to shreds by an angry mob outside the hospital. Wentworth whips out a gun and shoots some of them down! But it turns out the mob really is being pushed by D’Enry’s pirates, and there follows another violent scene where guys toting shotguns attack Wentworth in his hospital. He manages to take away one of their shotguns and blows away one of them point-blank in an elevator.

There follows one of Norvell Page’s patented insane sequences, and the highlight of the book, where Wentworth gets to the consulate ahead of the rioting mob – the pirates in their ranks pushing them there to tear the place apart. Having put on his “Tito Caliepi” costume of the old face and lank hair (and we’re informed he hasn’t worn this disguise for a while), Wentworth, still in his wheelchair, staves off the mob with nothing more than his voice and a sort of “Spider light,” clearly the inspiration for the later Bat Light. Gunning down the occasional pirate in the mob (“Death to those who preach death!” he cackles like a madman), Wentworth succeeds in turning back the rioters from the consulate, in a scene almost as crazy as the “Silent Night” singalong in the later #15: The Red Death Rain

Wentworth is lured to Don Esteban’s island near Florida by a letter from long-missing Ram Singh. But he and Jackson are promptly captured; turns out Singh is working for the pirates. Jackson mutters that it was only a matter of time before the “heathen” showed his true colors, anyway! But no fear – Ram Singh is only pretending, and he and the lovely Carmencita free Wentworth and Jackson. Next Wentworth impersonates Don Esteban, routing the pirates from “his” island and engaging Oriano in a long chase back up the mainland. Next we have that aerial fiction pulp readers must’ve loved, with Wentworth stealing a pirate plane and blowing up a field filled with them, thus preventing their planned aerial attack on Washington.

The finale occurs in the capitol, with Wentworth having learned of an attack on the Washington Monument. But instead of big action it’s more of a suspense vibe, with all of the characters converging here and Wentworth, with a bomb ticking somewhere beneath them, trying to figure out which one is the secret leader of the pirates. Frustratingly, we don’t get to see the annoying D’Enry gunned down – instead he’s killed by another character, and off-page at that! But the finale is at least thrilling, with Wentworth finding and defusing the bomb with mere seconds to spare. This is another of those great scenes with Nita standing steadfast behind Wentworth, despite the fact that she could’ve easily run away to safety.

Overall Builders Of The Black Empire was too standard for me, and certainly was my least favorite volume yet. But Page still writes with the usual fevered passion, and he puts Wentworth through a particular hell this time out – so what that Wentworth spends the last quarter of the novel acting like his usual self, despite the fact that he was bedridden and half-dead just a few pages before? (We also get the minor and passing detail this time that Wentworth carries “stimulants” in his pocket – purhaps this is the secret behind the Spider’s single-minded determination? He’s just hopped up on coke!)