Thursday, December 8, 2016

Ninja Master #6: Death's Door

Ninja Master #6: Death’s Door, by Wade Barker
November, 1982  Warner Books

Ric Meyers is back with another Ninja Master that pushes all the sicko sleaze buttons – honest to god, Death’s Door features some of the most outrageously twisted stuff I’ve ever read in a men’s adventure novel, which is really saying something. But in this slim novel you’ll read horrific sequences of teenage boys being chopped up on butcher blocks (as well as chainsawed), their girlfriends skewered on pot racks and raped (as well as chainsawed), and entire families being slaughtered. Hell, even little kids are killed!

It’s my understanding that this was the first volume Meyers got to conceive and write on his own, his previous volumes having been catered to plots begun by another author(s) and already-commissioned cover artwork. But man, if Death’s Door is any indication, Meyers has one twisted imagination. The book seems to be inspired by the era’s fascination with slasher movies, only everything is taken to an absurd degree of sick insanity. I’ve read a bunch of these books by now, so I thought I was pretty desensitized, but as I read the nightmarish opening sequence I was like, “Please god, let it end!”

But we read as a pretty teen girl, her friend, and their boyfriends come back to her parent’s home after seeing the latest slasher horror movie. They walk into a horror movie of their own when three sadists swoop out of the shadows and begin torturing and mutilating them. One wears an old man mask, another has his face painted white and black, and the third is fat and wears a leather mask. Gradually, as her friends are being butchered in super-graphic detail, the teen girl realizes that all this seems familiar; the sadists are in fact recreating certain scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, up to and including a chainsaw. Only, the girl discovers as this grisly opening scene finally ends, the trio plan to “change the ending” for their recreation – the girl will not escape, as in the film.

We finally meet up with Brett “Ninja Master” Wallace, who is keeping abreast of these horrific massacres occuring here in Southern California – the girl and her friends weren’t the only victims; her mom and dad were also slaughtered that night. Later there will be another killing courtesy the three sadists, again going on and on and raising hackles; in this one they also kill two young boys as they watch a horror movie on television in their bedroom, even hanging their corpses in garish displays for the teenaged babysitter to discover, before her own gory end. I mean good grief, forget about the desensitization I thought I’d achieved – I was about ready to email Dr. Phil!

Meyers clearly makes his villains as horrible as can be so that we readers can feel the rush when Brett Wallace ultimately takes care of them; Meyers has done the same thing in each of the two previous books he’s read, only a helluva lot more so this time around. And also Meyers is unique among these men’s adventure authors in that he doesn’t shirk on the villain’s payoff; Brett usually goes to great pains to ensure the villains suffer mightily before he finally sends them to hell. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure Meyers really had to go that far – I mean, you don’t have to see Doctor No murder a bunch of kids to feel satisfaction when James Bond kills him.

Anyway Brett is on the scene, as ever perfecting his “no man” aura. Brett has also mastered the vibes he gives off, so that whatever he pretends to be, the person he is speaking to will presume that’s what he is. In other words, if Brett gives off “cop” vibes and talks to a real cop, the cop will just assume he’s speaking to a fellow officer who happens to be off-duty or somesuch. So here Brett is in a diner, mulling over these nightmarish atrocities, when in walks Lynn McDonald, a good-looking babe Brett apparently had a brief fling with sometime between volume 1 and volume 2. Brett’s just agreed to see her again for dinner when a group of psychos break into the place and start coming after her.

Meyers also reinforces the concept that Brett Wallace is a modern superhero, one with a “half-secret identity;” twice Brett makes comparisons to Batman, even reflecting that he has his own high-tech “Batcave” beneath the Asian restaurant he co-owns with his girlfriend Rhea. So here, as the psychos attack, Brett must stop them while not demonstrating his near-superhuman abilities to any of the witnesses. This is one of those fun action scenes Meyers does so well, with Brett using everything from dinner plates to barstools to take out the psychos, who prove to be suicidal in their vain, desperate attempt to kill Lynn. 

The reader thinks Lynn’s going to be the novel’s heroine, but she’s off-page for the duration; shortly after this she is abducted from her apartment, carted off by an old woman and her young son, both of whom also seem violently insane. Brett ends up killing both of them in another novel action sequence, one which again sees the would-be assassins turn suicidal when they too fail in their goal. However Lynn is hurt in the action, knocked out, and spends the rest of the novel comatose in the hospital. Brett will save her life again and again as more would-be assassins come for her.

Indeed, one of these would-be assassins turns out to be a sexy nurse named Claire, and her sequences lend the novel a similar vibe to that of Murder Ward, which is interesting given that Meyers himself turned in a few Destroyer installments. But then Meyers’s Ninja Master practically is The Destroyer, only with better action scenes, more sex and gore, and none of the annoying genre-mockery. (I also enjoy it a whole helluva lot more.) But anyway Brett, superhuman as ever and invisible in his ninja costume, prevents Claire’s attempts at putting Lynn to sleep forever and then corners Claire in a closet, slicing away her nurse uniform shred by shred until she’s mostly nude. 

From Claire Brett learns of Dr. Shenkman, who runs the government-funded insane asylum The Sanctuary. The Murder Ward similarities continue as Brett gradually learns that Shenkman might be behind these crazy murders. There’s also a link to a company, which the fathers of the two massacred families worked for. Claire turns out to be the closest thing to a lead female character, and she also turns out to be the novel’s female villain – every Meyers installment has had one – sent to Brett one night to seduce him, but really acting as a diversion for some thugs who show up to kill him. We get more Remo Williams-esque stuff as Brett uses his masterful technique to reduce Claire into a quivering wreck of ecstasy, but the Ninja Master himself is interrupted while taking his share of the pleasure, as the thugs break in at that moment.

None of these thugs prove much of a match for Brett, of course. As for the three main psychos, turns out they do in fact work for Shenkman, but have been doing jobs for the CEO of that big company; Shenkman provides psycho-assassins for mercenary work, and the fathers in the two massacred families, as well as Lynn McDonald, somehow got wind of the plan and had to be taken out. But the three psychos are just demanding more pay from the CEO when Brett sweeps into the room, decked out in his ninja suit and bearing all his ninja gear, and starts slicing and dicing.

As mentioned Meyers usually doesn’t cheat us when it comes to villain comeuppance, but again it must be stated that these three don’t suffer nearly enough for the awful things they’ve done. In a running sequence Brett doles out his typically-brutal punishment, from a plain old sword through the head to one dude getting a “steel enema” and then his dick chopped in half. The fat psycho manages to escape, leading to another slasher flick tribute where he runs to a camp filled with sleeping kids and takes them hostage, giving in to his lurid impulses with the busty teen chaperone. Meanwhile Brett slips in and takes care of the bastard; Meyers has a great knack for having Brett magically appear, pull of some superhuman feat, and then backtrack to quickly explain to us how he managed to pull it all off.

This kill is particularly inventive – Brett appears to enjoy trying out new techniques on his victims – with the Ninja Master slicing a square through the fat dude’s chest and then punching it out, heart, guts, and all. The finale continues with the gory vibe and retains the “Brett vs an army” climax of Meyers’s previous books. Brett heads back to the Sanctuary and takes on the legions of psycho-assassins, to the point that he’s “ankle deep in gore and guts.” However this sequence is more quickly-relayed than previous finales, likely because Meyers at this point is past his word count, Death’s Door being slightly longer than previous installments.

The Ninja Master also isn’t one to screw over, even if you happen to be a sexy woman, as duplicitous Nurse Claire discovers; after Claire tries to kill him with a syringe injection, Brett overcomes the fatal dose with some ninja internal magic and then hunts her down in the burning ruins of the Sanctuary. And that’s that – Shenkman’s plot is foiled and Brett’s secret identity is safe, but meanwhile poor Lynn McDonald has finally woken up and it turns out she’s now practically a vegetable.

Meyers’s writing is as ever good, with lots of forward momentum and as mentioned copious gore, but he is a rampant POV-hopper, and he neglects to use the same names for his characters in the narrative, which causes confusion. For example characters are referred to by first and last names throughout in the narrative, which jars the reader, in particular when it comes to the female characters. When you read “McDonald was still in the hospital” or somesuch, after a pause you’re like, “Oh – he means Lynn!” Meyers does this for Brett as well, randomly referring to him as “Brett,” “Wallace,” or “Ninja Master” throughout. I mean it’s fine for the characters to use multiple names for each other, but the narrative should be consistent.

But it’s only these pedantic little things that annoy; otherwise Death’s Door is a lot of fun, with the caveat that some of it will certainly raise your hackles.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mission To Venice (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #21)

Mission To Venice, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes is in pure Ian Fleming mold in this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster. While it still has Stokes’s usual literary flair, Mission To Venice lacks the more outlandish elements of his other installments, sticking to the “real world” for the most part. It also has some trace elements of Fleming’s From Russia With Love. But I definitely enjoyed it – mostly because, this early in, Stokes was clearly still enjoying the series, unlike later dialed-in deliveries, a la The Red Rays.

This one’s also a short 156 pages and moves throughout, proving again that the shorter the word count, the better Stokes was. There’s no action intro for Nick Carter; he’s on vacation in Paris with a young “sex machine” named Georgette when he’s called into AXE boss Hawk’s office in Washington and given the latest assignment. A US plane carrying an H-bomb has gone down somewhere over the Adriatic Sea, and the US figures the Yugoslavs have found it. Their goal will likely be to use it for leverage against the Italians in the long-running Yugo-Italian rivalry for control of Trieste.

Nick (as he’s referred to in these early volumes) is told his companion will be an “international courtesan” who was once an Italian princess but who now works as a part-time AXE agent; he is to meet her on the Orient Express, which is where the From Russia With Love feel comes in. (Nick’s also given a special briefcase courtesy Poindexter of AXE Special Effects & Editing, a suitcase much like the one Bond was given in that novel.) Hawk informs Nick that the man behind the Yugo plot is Vanni Manfrinto, head of Yugoslavian intelligence; Hawk makes it clear that he wants Manfrinto dead by mission’s end.

Manfrinto is a “satyr” with a “woman a day habit,” thus AXE is using the former princess as a “stalking horse” to lure in Manfrinto so Nick can spring the trap on him. The princess is Morgan de Verizone, a beautiful brunette with delicate features who in fact looks more like a princess than a whore – Nick, disguised as a travelling businessman from the midwest, can’t get over how beautiful she is as he secretly watches her onboard the Orient Express. For reasons Stokes muddles around, Nick doesn’t outright present himself to Morgan as her AXE contact, even though he’s supposed to; instead he just bides his time.

Not that this stops them from the expected sex; in a complete disregard for plot contrivance, Stokes has Morgan sitting beside Nick on the dining cart that evening and promptly presenting herself to him, just thinking he’s a good-looking dude and looking to pass the night in memorable fashion. The sex scene is vague and not as explicit as such material in later volumes. Whereas the typical guy might be a bit winded after all this, “Killmaster” instead allows himself to be captured by the two thugs who have been shadowing the princess. Once he’s learned they’re Yugoslavian agents, he kills them quite brutally – bashing their heads together.

When Nick and the princess get to Venice Stokes really goes for the Fleming vibe. It’s all fog-clouded, cobblestoned streets and men in suits lurking in doorways as Nick secretly follows Morgan around the city, eventually tailing her to The Lido, where it turns out Manfrinto has stationed himself, operating out of a closed-down casino. This is where the majority of the action takes place, particularly in one sequence where Nick scouts out the casino while Morgan’s “entertaining” Manfrinto. Nick, infiltrating the henchman-infested casino, takes the time to spy through the keyhole to Manfrinto’s bedroom, where he sees the man “going after [the princess] like an oestrual goat.” 

Nick is eventually cornered, and after killing another man he has to escape, with the thugs closing in on him floor by floor. The suspense is ultimately runined with the deus ex machina presence of a long rope up in the attic, which conveniently enough goes all the way down to the ground, six floors below! There’s also a nice bit where Nick has to elude a “radar truck” that pursues him. All that accomplished, however, he gets shot in the leg the next day while again stalking the princess through the fog-bound streets, killing the Yugo agent who shot him.

Only here does Nick reveal to Morgan who he is, with one of the greatest dumb lines I’ve ever read: “Forget the theatrics. You’re a prostitute and I’m a secret agent!” One of these days I’m going to try to work that line into everyday conversation. Anyway this leads to the veritable climax, as Nick, for once not boffing the gal (who is limping due to being so worn out by that oestrual goat), instead again uses her as prey, sending her off to the casino that night to distract Manfrinto. Oh and by this point Morgan has told Nick she loves him and wants desperately to get out of the spy game and be with Nick forever and etc, in some of the lamest telegraphing ever.

The action stuff doesn’t really occur until the final quarter, and for the most part it’s briefly rendered. Manfrinto’s casino is near an “isle of the dead,” ie a cemetery-filled island which is being used as a forward base for the Yugo and Russian scuba divers who are searching this section of the Adriatic for the H-bomb plane. Nick sneaks onto the island, hiding in the muddy graves and whatnot, until he is “a mud-plastered statue of a latter-day Hercules,” who runs roughsod over the foreign agents. As ever Stokes’s version of Nick Carter is particularly cold, blowing up a bunch of scientists with a few grenades and then gunning down unarmed soldiers with a stolen tommy gun.

Stokes takes us into the homestretch with the expected development – Nick is captured, and easily, at that. It’s that damn attic rope again, which is still hanging outside the casino, and like a dumbass Nick decides to chance it and hefts himself up there, only of course to realize it’s a trap, after all. And, sure enough, the bastards also have Morgan, whom they’ve been torturing for fun. She’s bound and topless, and they have a grand old time jabbing lit cigarettes onto her abdomen and breasts.

In a twisted bit reminiscent of the even-more-twisted finale of Stokes’s The Golden Serpent, Manfrinto and his men have Nick strip and cajole him to get on top of the now-catatonic princess, and screw her for their viewing pleasure! Stokes doesn’t get as outrageous as in that earlier installment, but still it’s pretty crazy. And even though he’s “balls deep” (as a friend of mine in college always put it) and surrounded by armed goons, Nick still manages to grab away a tommy gun and start, uh, blasting. He even manages to capture Manfrinto, chasing him over to that muddy island of death and beating the shit out of him.

In the climax Stokes delivers a few reveals; for one, Manfrinto expected “someone else” to come for him, instead of Nick Carter. This turns out to be Hawk himself, who for once is here on the scene of action – Nick realizes with a sinking sensation that he himself has been used as the stalking horse, all along. Hawk and Manfrinto were best friends during the war, Hawk reveals, until Manfrinto went over to the Nazis and sold out their OSS team. Also here Stokes introduces the tidbit that Hawk’s full name is David Alexander Hawk, a name so seldom used that “Nick had almost forgotten it.”

The finale is the usual rush job of quick info that Manfrinto was tortured into revealing the whereabouts of the H-bomb, after which Hawk’s left orders for his death. And meanwhile the princess is nuts, but she’ll be taken care of in a sanitarium and given a new name and new life when she gets out. And that’s that – lots of Fleming suspense and atmosphere with occasional thrills and a too-quick action finale.

But Stokes is on form throughout, and as mentioned keeps the ball rolling. Interestingly, he mentions that Nick is “thirty-odd years old,” which is much younger than the World War II vet of the first volume. Stokes also occasionally delivers on the pulpish, perhaps-intentionally goofy stuff also expected of him; for example this time he writes “Killmaster” not only without the “the,” but in all caps, ie, “KILLMASTER ran down the corridor,” and the like. And while Stokes goes easy on the spy-fy gadgets this time, he does at one point have Nick wearing gloves made of skin flayed from the hands of executed criminals!

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Creepers, by Robert Craig
October, 1982  Signet Books

Another of those horror paperbacks that promises so much but delivers so little thanks to way too much padding, Creepers is apparently considered an early example of what came to be known as splatterpunk, ie horror with heaping helpings of gore. But bear in mind that while the book does occasionally get gory, it is for the most part a slow-moving procedural until the final several pages of graphic violence.

Coming in at 248 pages of small, dense print, Creepers is more of a thriller with occasional horror overtones. Robert Craig is a good writer, though it must be stated he’s guilty of POV hopping, starting off a scene in one character’s perspective and then abruptly jumping into another’s with no warning. He also, as mentioned, pads the pages a bit too much; Creepers, regrettably, is one of those novels where, after a hundred and so pages of not much happening, the action-packed finale is rendered in summary. In summary!!

Anyway, the novel takes place in grungy New York; despite the ’82 publication date this is still a ‘70s novel in spirit. Our hero, for the most part, is a maverick New York Transit Authority police detective named Frank Corelli. As described, Correlli is practically Tom Selleck – tall, muscular, black hair, black moustache, real popular with the ladies. In his thirties, Corelli lives for his job now, given that his fiance was murdered in a mugging six years earlier. When we meet him Corelli has no knowledge of the legendary “creepers” which are rumored to live in the bowels of the New York subway system.

Those expecting a tough cop yarn will be upset; while he definitely has all the makings of a horror novel version of Dirty Harry, Corelli doesn’t do much. The character who actually takes on the brunt of the action is a young black man named Willie Hoyt, who from his Harlem apartment runs Cerebrus, aka “The Dogs of Hell,” an army of unpaid, unofficial subway guardians. Given the increasing violence and crime in the subways, Willie’s army provides passengers with an extra level of protection, in which regard they’re constantly running afoul of the Transit Authority.

The novel occurs over the Labor Day weekend, and Craig opens it with one of the novel’s few horror sequences. Here we see the titular creepers in action as they snatch a lone woman off a deserted subway platform. Be advised that Creepers is another of those horror novels that tires the reader with inordinate backstory for one-off characters. This scene is the first indication of this, as we have to read pages and pages about this woman’s sob story of a life. It’s like this throughout, and just one of the things that adds to the reader’s frustration so far as the hurried finale goes. I mean, maybe Craig could’ve skipped this stuff and given us a more exciting climax, but I digress.

Another major character is introduced here: pretty brunette Louise Hill, whose young daughter Lisa is the next creeper victim, snatched away when Louise isn’t looking. In most fiction this would make for a traumatized parent, but throughout the book Louise, a single mother, will eventually hook up with Corelli, have sex with him(!), and then finally remember she should be looking for her lost little girl in the final pages – that is, well after she’s learned that the “things” that kidnapped little Lisa are cannibalistic mutants!

Corelli, who reads about these mysterious disappearances, decides to research the case off the book. This gets him into trouble with his “stupid chief” boss, Captain Dolchik, whom Corelli will slowly realize is hiding something. Meanwhile more people are taken by the creepers, including one of Willie Hoyt’s men. In each instance Craig spends an inordinate amount of time on backstory for these one-off characters, with the creepers themselves making brief appearances. They are for all intents and purposes zombies, described as having “dead white transluscent skin,” lank hair, and crazed bloodshot eyes, as well as inch-long claws instead of fingernails.

The splatterpunk stuff develops midway through when Hoyt, spelunking in the subway tunnels, finds his dead comrade. His face has been surgically removed, his shoulder and bicep muscles cut off, and most horrifically of all his testicles have been bitten off. There comes more overly-drawn-out material where Corelli, still on his own, finds that all creeper victims seem to be sent to Mercy Hospital in Manhattan, which itself appears to have some shady connection with the government. Eventually he’ll discover that Capt. Dolchik is well aware of the creeper plight, and is keeping a lid on it, working with the corrupt mayor.

This leads to Corelli being on the run from mysterious men in black cars; eventually he’ll have Louise being chased by them, too, with both of them having to hide out in a safehouse in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile the two have become an item, Corelli seeing something in sexy young Louise that makes him feel like finally moving on after his murdered fiance. Craig doesn’t dwell on the sleaze in the eventual sex scene, sticking to more haughty stuff like, “Corelli’s lovemaking was almost brutal, but Louise’s response matched his fervor.” We also get periodic mentions of Louise’s “voluptuous breasts,” as Corelli usually takes long ganders at them everytime Louise speaks. 

Meanwhile the creepers continue to dine on subway passengers; in one extended scene they attack a train as it sits between stations, ripping the occupants apart. Another gory scene has them feasting on graffitti artists. A survivor of this latter attack is sent to Mercy with the story that he’d been attacked by “rabid dogs;” seeing that the man’s under police guard, Corelli continues his research, which entails another overlong bit where he researches the microfiche archives in the New York Library, going through newspapers back to the early twentieth century, when the subway station was first opened in New York. Here he learns that the creepers first came into the news in 1911, when the leader of them, presented in the story as a “vagrant,” ran afoul of the cops for mugging subway passengers.

Corelli theorizes that the modern creepers are descendants of these original vagrants. Later he’ll learn it’s more horrific. The creepers of today are basically C.H.U.D.s, and pure zombie-style their bite can infect humans with “super-rabies,” which is government spook codespeak for becoming a full-on creeper yourself. Also the creepers are dying due to some genetic quirk, and thus are being pushed to propagate the species – hence, the government spooks theorize, the creepers will be real game to kidnap young women for breeding purposes. Corelli, vowing to destroy the creepers, teams up with Willie Hoyt and his Dogs of Hell, planning to run a gauntlet of the subway tunnels. Louise around this time finally realizes she should be out looking for her kid.

The novel moves to a promising finale as we learn that the mayor and Captain Dolchik are also planning a secret ambush of the subway tunnels that very night, with a platoon of flamethrower and machine gun-wielding National Guard troops sent in. Here’s where Craig drops the ball. Louise, having gone off on her own, is saved by Corelli, who himself is knocked out by the creepers. They’re both tied up in the veritable headquarters of the creatures, which is an abandoned station between the 96th and 86th street stations. Oh, and little Lisa is there, too – turns out she’s been unconscious since she was abducted a few days ago.

It’s up to Willie Hoyt to save the day, taking on several creepers with a hunting knife in a great sequence. And then our heroes…run away. That’s it, friends. There’s no point where studly Frank Corelli takes out his service revolver and mows down hordes of the creatures. Instead the trio, carrying the still-unconscious Lisa, race for safety while the National Guard moves through the subway system, the soldiers under orders to kill anything not wearing a uniform. Corelli himself is anticlimactically removed from the narrative, off to Mercy to be with Louise and Lisa.

And here’s the ass-kicker. The creepers, driven above ground due to the pincer movement of the National Guard, burst into Times Square and go into a feeding frenzy. And Craig writes all of the ensuing carnage and action in summary. I couldn’t believe it! So many, many pages of nothing happening and here, in the climax, when the shit finally hits the fan, Craig informs us after the fact of “a war” that went down between the National Guard and the creepers in Times Square, just outlining the eventual destruction and death toll. To say it’s an unfulfilling finale would be an understatement. 

We’re informed that “hundreds” of creepers are dead in the aftermath, with nearly fifty human casualties. The scene at least starts off memorably, with a creeper loose in Grand Central Station, going for the soft flesh of a woman’s throat, which we’re informed is like sirloin for creepers. But after that it’s summarized action, with the final pages reading almost like a newspaper article. We then flash forward to that Christmas Eve, with Corelli and Louise now happily married and a fully-recovered Lisa accepting Frank as her new dad. Oh and meanwhile Willie Hoyt has become a creeper, having been bitten during the escape, and likely will propagate a new strain of them.

I really wanted to enjoy Creepers, and for the most part Craig’s writing and characterization are good, but there’s just too much missed opporuntiy in my opinion. I so wanted to read a gory rollercoaster of a finale with Corelli and the Dogs of Hell going down into the subway tunnels and extracting bloody payback from the cannibalistic bastards. Instead I read in shock as Corelli got knocked out, freed by someone else, and then ran away, leaving the payback to be delivered by a group of faceless, nameless National Guard troops – in summary, no less.

The several-page sequence with the subway-dwelling satanic mutants in John Shirley’s One-Man Army is better than the entirety of Creepers, so I’d suggest you check that out instead if you’re looking for some action-horror set in the New York subway tunnels.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Super Cop Joe Blaze #3: The Thrill Killers

Super Cop Joe Blaze #3: The Thrill Killers, by Robert Novak
August, 1974  Belmont-Tower Books

The Super Cop Joe Blaze series ends with an installment courtesy the one and only Len Levinson. When I met with Len back in June, he didn’t seem to recall this book; he thought I was referring to his Ryker novel, The Terrorists. Later on he recalled it, and was nice enough to do a writeup with his current thoughts on the novel (below), but I have to say I really enjoyed The Thrill Killers, which offers everything one could want in a piece of tough cop pulp fiction.

Joe Blaze, unsurprisingly, is basically a Ryker clone, and Len’s version of the character is the same as his version of Ryker. He’s a tough cop, gets in a lot of scrapes, doesn’t like it when people run their mouths about “dirty cops.” He even has an ex-wife, same as Len’s version of Ryker. But technically this is Joe Blaze, who already had two previous “adventures” courtesy some unknown author(s). I’ve only read the second one, #2: The Concrete Cage, and in that one Blaze was just a regular cop, not prone to any of the outrageous sentiments of Nelson De Mille’s original version of Ryker. At any rate, per Len’s comments below, The Thrill Killers likely started as a Ryker novel, before editor Peter McCurtin had Len change it to a Joe Blaze.

Len ignores the title character of the previous two volumes and makes Joe Blaze more of a supercop; he carries a Browning 9mm and, while he uses his wits in his role as a homicide detective, he’s still prone to getting into shootouts, brawls, and the pants of eager women. What I found interesting was that Len was pretty left-wing in his views when he wrote this novel, but there’s no anti-cop sentiment to The Thrill Killers. Blaze is the hero, straight up, and in addition to the titular criminals he must also contend with various armed thugs, cop-haters, the corrupt local government, and liberal lawyers. 

This one’s more of a police procedural than The Terrorists, with Blaze using his detective smarts to collar a pair of rapist-murderers, but Len keeps things moving with arbitrary action and sex scenes. Which is to say, The Thrill Killers retains the spirit of the Dirty Harry movies and doesn’t become a slow-moving procedural like other Leisure/BT cop thrillers, ie The Slasher.

The titular villains are a pair of creeps who, just for kicks, abduct a pretty young nurse off the streets of Manhattan, drug her, rape her, and then slash her throat. Len doesn’t tell us their identities, leaving the reader to discover who they are when Blaze himself does. Speaking of whom, Len provides Blaze with an action intro as our hero guns down a perp who happens to be in bed with a woman. This is just the first of many “did you have to kill him, Blaze??” moments between Blaze and his boss, Lt. Jenkins, who to Len’s credit isn’t the “stupid chief” common in most tough cop yarns.

Blaze lives in an apartment on the East River which provides a view of Brooklyn (“Why would anyone want to look at Brooklyn?” asks a floozy Blaze picks up later on). His ex-wife Amy left him six years ago, incapable of dealing with being married to a cop. One can see why, as Blaze stays in action throughout; posthaste he’s handling a holdup in the Bowery, where a cop has been shot and a bunch of bums are being held hostage. Blaze talks the Commisioner no less into a plan in which Blaze will hide in the trunk of the car the robbers demand, and the Commissioner gives Blaze his .45!

Len even gives Blaze is own Dirty Harry-esque dialog; when Blaze guns down the two robbers, after he’s promised them he won’t shoot them, he sneers, “You gave up too late, punk,” before blowing the last one away. Meanwhile Blaze is handed the thrill killer case, and another nurse has been snatched off the street, raped, and killed. Len handles these scenes so that you feel very badly for the unfortunate women, and while the sequences are certainly lurid they aren’t sleazy. That being said Blaze has two sexual adventures in the novel, and these parts are a bit more graphic, but nothing compared to Len’s outright sleaze novels, ie Where The Action Is.

While researching suspects Blaze bumps into would-be muggers and even hippie terrorists bomb his precinct, this apparently being a common occurrence, not to mention recalling the plot of The Terrorists. While out for a beer with Lt. Jenkins Blaze even goes to the trouble of beating the shit out of a loudmouth drunk who bitches about the police – while Jenkins meanwhile frets that one day Blaze is “going to go too far.”

Probably the best sequence in the novel concerns a coke-sniffing go-go dancer at a topless bar; while just a few pages long, this scene is both reminiscent of and superior to the final quarter of The Lonely Lady. Chosen as the latest target of the thrill killers, the coke-soaring babe manages to turn the tables on them, given that she walks the dangerous streets of New York with a hidden .22. She ends up killing one of the sadists and winging the other in the leg, but for her troubles she herself is slashed in the stomach and sent to the emergency ward.

By this point Blaze has already determined that the thrill killers are a pair of young interns who were notorious for getting in trouble in medical school and who even attended classes with the two murdered nurses. When the dead one proves to be one of Blaze’s suspects, he heads to the posh home of the other with a warrant…and ends up arresting the guy’s father, too, after beating him up. But thanks to a shady, Mafia-aligned lawyer, the killer, Stevens, gets off scot free during the trial four months later.

Len takes us into the homestretch with more action: turns out the mobster had his Mafia pals kidnap the child of one of the jurors, ensuring her duplicity. Blaze dispenses justice in his own brutal way, then leads an assault on a Queens bar where the kid’s being held. But given that throughout he’s had no evidence, the DA refuses another trial. So The Thrill Killers ends with Blaze pulling his own abduction – tossing young Stevens into his car and driving him to his place of execution, where he’s given a sendoff inspired by his own murders (only minus the rape part, of course). Here Len ends the novel, on a bleak but fulfilling image of justice bloodily served.

Well anyway, I really enjoyed this one. Too bad this and The Terrorists were the only two cop thrillers Len wrote for Leisure/BT. Here are his current thoughts on the novel:

All my Belmont-Tower books began with an informal discussion with either Peter McCurtin or Milburn Smith at BT’s editorial offices at Park Avenue South and 33rd Street in midtown Manhattan. After I delivered a new completed manuscript to one or the other, I sat beside his desk and received my next assignment.

THE THRILL KILLERS followed this pattern. I sat beside Peter’s desk and he asked me to write a novel for one of their cop series, don’t remember the name now 40 years later because the name was changed as explained below. Peter either gave me one or more books in the series or just described it to me, I don’t remember. 

After the meeting I walked home to my pad on West 55th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, wondering along the way what the plot would be. There were so many possibilities. 

Around that time I’d done some reading about the sensational Leopold-Loeb murder case in Chicago during the 1920s. Two young college students at the University of Chicago named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb decided that they were Nietzsche-style supermen beyond good and evil, and plotted the perfect murder to prove their thesis. So they killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks but weren’t as superior as they’d thought because soon they were arrested and went to trial, defended by the legendary Clarence Darrow who argued not for their innocence, because the evidence was overwhelming against them, but Darrow successfully saved them from the death penalty. 

The Leopold-Loeb murder definitely influenced the plot of THE THRILL KILLERS. My detective’s character profile followed the guidelines of what Peter told me in his office, a real badass cop obsessed with justice and who couldn’t care less about administrative procedures and laws that seem more concerned with protecting criminals than catching, prosecuting and punishing them. The detective is not above administering the death penalty himself to murderers, often using their own methods against them. 

After working on the novel for several days, I received a call from Peter. He said something like, “We’re spinning off a new cop series about a Detective named Joe Blaze. So change the detective’s name to Joe Blaze.” 

I replied, “But his character and personality are based on (the name of the detective in the series I had been working on).” 

Peter said, “Don’t worry about that. Just change his name to Joe Blaze and keep on going.” 

(I wrote a fictionalized version of this discussion with Peter into my semi-autobiographical novel about an action-adventure writer THE LAST BUFFOON by Leonard Jordan, because it was one of the stranger experiences of my strange so-called literary career.) 

I read THE THRILL KILLERS yesterday for the first time in 40 years. I had forgotten it almost completely and as usual when reading one of my old books, it seemed to have been written by someone else. 

At the risk of sounding immodest, I thought the book was pretty good mainly because narrative tension held steady all the way through and Detective Joe Blaze was a believable character, his anger about crime reflecting my own anger as resident of Manhattan during the high crime era before Rudy Giuliani became Mayor and Bill Bratton became Commissioner of Police. 

The novel presents a brutal view of the world which reflected what I read daily in the New York newspapers and in true crime novels. Murderers by definition don’t care about laws or rules of civility. They have monstrous minds and some are sadistic like the murderers in THE THRILL KILLERS. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all loved each other or at least treated each other respectfully? But we don’t, the human race never has, and this justifiably cynical viewpoint was the philosophical foundation for the novel. 

New York City crime is increasing again according to news reports. Where is Joe Blaze now that we really need him again?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mace #5: The Year Of The Horse

Mace #5: The Year Of The Horse, by Lee Chang
No month stated, 1974  Manor Books

It’s Thanksgiving, and if there’s one thing we can all be thankful for, it’s that this was the last volume of Mace written by Joseph Rosenberger. I’d sort of been dreading returning to this series, which is a wearying read to be sure; it’s about as fun as a “Shuto chop” to the crotch. But I finally went through with it, mostly so I could move on to the next volume, which is by Len Levinson…as if Manor were rewarding us for enduring five Rosenberger books.

Anyway, The Year Of The Horse is the same ol’, so far as the series goes, however Rosenberger (aka “Lee Chang”) drops the CIA stuff from previous volumes. Hero Mace, the “Kung Fu Monk Master” (as he’s constantly referred to in the narrative), is back to working for the Tongs, going up against rival gangs and whatnot. We meet him in action, in Chicago busting the heads of the local mob; gradually we’ll learn Mace is doing a job for one Tong, which is at war with another, one that’s aligned with this Chicago syndicate.

But the threadbare plot is really just a framework for Rosenberger to deluge us with endless, repetitive kung-fu battles. The back cover copy has it that a beautiful young woman has been kidnapped, thus setting off Mace’s rage, but in the text itself the girl, Mary Wah-hing, doesn’t even appear until over 100 pages in. The book’s really just about Mace beating the shit out of an endless tide of thugs with goofy nicknames. (Wee Willie, Cherry Nose, John the Greek, etc, and my favorite of them all: Hi-There-Moses.)

The CIA stuff may be gone, but The Year Of The Horse retains the template of previous books, in that it’s basically comprised of four huge action scenes. We start off posthaste with the first, as Mace “sneaks” into a warehouse owned by Gus Vogel, Chicago mob bigwig. In the melee of punches, kicks, and Shuto chops, Mace as ever flashes back for four pages to his training in the Shaolin temple (in Hong Kong, of all places), where his teacher instructed him about…the hypocrisy of Christian beliefs. Oh, and despite being a kung-fu wizard, Mace is also a ninja, let’s not forget, and uses all sorts of fancy ninja tricks to waste scads of Vogel’s thugs.

Humorously enough, the “Kung Fu Monk Master” is knocked out…by a metal stapler! Thrown by a geriatric night guard, no less! But have no fear, Rosenberger’s superheroic protagonists are never in danger, even when they’re uncoscious in the back of a van, being driven by several armed men to their place of execution. Mace is merely using yet another ninja trick, that of only pretending to be unconscious, and comes to life to kill the rest of them, as well as to extract intel from one thug he allows to live.

Rosenberger prefigures Rush Hour or the like with stoic Mace teamed up with wisecracking Chicago P.I. Lenny Kines, but he doesn’t do much with it, and mostly it’s just Kines proclaiming how he’s “the best P.I. in Chicago” and Mace uttering “wise Oriental” sayings like, “It is the duty of the future to be dangerous.” We also have Kines in awe over Mace’s “supernormal talent,” which is displayed in another overlong action scene, as this time Mace suits up in a ninja-like costume and storms yet another warehouse owned by Vogel.

I chose this action sequence to provide a few excerpts of the action onslaught that makes up Rosenberger’s Mace work:

Jack Daniels, the other trigger-boy in the library (he considered it a compliment when people kidded him for having the same name as a famous brand of whiskey), had never heard such a sound, the kind of moaning and gurgling coming from Joe “The Pole,” who staggered back into the library, acting as if he were possessed by the devil! He was possessed – by the Shinde shuriken, which by now had almost cut off his tongue! A number one wise guy, he had never been a man to know when he had bitten off more than he could chew. Now he knew he had a mouthful of razor blades and was choking to death, drowning in his own blood! Slumping against the wall, he became a wild man, trying to pry his mouth apart to dislodge the Shinde shuriken wedged in his mouth, while Daniels gaped at him in helplnessness and terror.


The second slob, using a stainless steel Smith & Wesson .38, did his best to jump back and empty the full cylinder – six slugs – in Mace. The only thing wrong with his plan was that Mace wouldn’t let him. The Kung Fu Monk Master chopped the .38 from his wrist with a shuto slice, blocked a kick with a Gedan Juji Uke downward X-block, and slammed the boob across the temple with a Gyaku Shuto reverse chop. Looking like a man whose taxes had just been raised fifty percent, the man toppled to the floor.


An ugly thug, Steve Macy always had the appearance of a guy somebody had hung in a closet overnight! Come morning, and Steve would jump out, his clothes all bunched up! Right now, he looked twice as ridiculous as he bravely attempted to swing his chopper down on Mace, who threw the Hokachai! Steve Macy howled in fear and pain and surprise, the three hardwood rods of the Hokachai tearing the Thompson submachine gun from his hands and breaking his left thumb. To compound his purgatory, he stepped back, tripped over the overturned table and fell heavily on his back. And when he looked up, there was Mace standing over him, staring down at him, his face expressionless as a blank sheet of paper, except for his eyes…two burning black coals…

Speaking of that “supernormal talent,” throughout the novel Mace dodges bullets as if he were in The Matrix, ducking and dodging with ease. He’s so superhuman and invicible that he becomes annoying, which is only worsened by his complete lack of humor. Kines offers a bit of levity, but is lost in the kung fu barrage. Eventually the two, along with a few of Kines’s colleagues, head to Mexico City, where it develops poor Mary Wah-hing (remember her?) has been taken, having been handed over to a Mexican mobster named Najera.

Sporting white makeup, a wig, and a “Hitler moustache,” Mace is now “Matthew Romanesh,” displaying the usual goofy penchant for disguise as other Rosenberger protagonists. But this element disappears as quick as one of Mace’s Shuto chops. Soon enough he’s wearing another of those ninja garbs and infiltrating Najera’s “Le Casa de Putas,” where women are kept in bondage to be enjoyed by paying clientelle. Rosenberger skips over the sleaze with more violence, and when Mary finally appears, she’s unconscious, sedated in one of the rooms, and Mace quickly frees her.

From there it’s to the Toltec pyramids, where Najera has escaped. Mace, Kines, and his colleagues engage the Mexican mobsters in another overlong fight, with Kines getting the honor of dispatching the villain. And that was it for Rosenberger’s time on Mace; he ends the tale with Mace taking a well-deserved nap.

Overall, The Year Of The Horse is standard Rosenberger, filled with action and not much else, overwritten to the point of banality, not even saved by Rosenberger’s usual off-hand weirdness. The series though does have a big injection of pre-PC racial slurring, particularly as ever when it comes to Mace himself. (“IT’S THE SLANT-EYED ONE – KILL HIM!” being one such example – and yes, it is in all caps…) Blacks again come off as monstrous proto-humans, and this time Rosenberger broadens his palette by including Mexican slurs, referring to some of Najera’s thugs as “tamale eaters.”

Anyway, now I don’t have to dread reading another of these – Len Levinson wrote the next one, and then Bruce Cassiday finished up the series as “C.K. Fong.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

Stage Fright

Stage Fright, by Garrett Boatman
July, 1988  Onyx/Signet Books

Graced with one of those unforgettable ‘80s horror paperback covers, Stage Fright takes place in a then-future 1998 and concerns nightmares taking over reality. Despite the cover art and copy, the novel is in no way, shape, or form a “horror meets rock and roll” affair. In fact I suspect the title was changed to match the already-commissioned cover art; the book features an ad for other Onyx horror paperbacks, one of which is “Death Dream” by Garrett Boatman. Given that Stage Fright is the only novel Boatman published, it seems clear that its original title was “Death Dream.” 

The novel, which is a too-long 381 pages of small, dense print, features a great opening, one which has the reader expecting a thrill-ride. Some NYPD officers in a boat are pulling a “floater” out of the Hudson, ie a water-bloated, “cheesy”-skinned corpse. They hook the latest floater and pull it in…and then it comes to life, ripping the cops to pieces. It bites one of them, and we learn that his corpse too will soon come to life, hungering for human flesh.

Then the lights come up and we readers realize that all this has been a “dreamie,” ie a mind-movie transmitted via mindshare tech called the Dreamatron, which we’re informed was created in 1992. Izzy Stark, the director of cult horror dreamies, is the man who delivered “Floaters” via his fevered dreams, and sadly the plot of this dreamie is more compelling than Stage Fright itself. (It sounds damn cool, too, with the off-hand mention that the “street gangs” of New York end up saving the city from the floater zombies – sounds like pure direct-to-vhs trash!)

Whether by accident or design, Boatman in these opening pages captures a sort of cyberpunk vibe. The Dreamatron technology brings to mind Neuromancer, and also we get a glimpse of this alternate-future 1998, with punk horror fans in all-white makeup and “ghoul green” t-shirts and etc. It’s like a monster kid future, and it’s super cool, and it had me excited to read a whole novel in this fascinating horror-obsessed dreamie world. Unfortunately, Boatman proceeds to skip over all that. 

Instead, the novel ultimately appropriates a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde motif, with Izzy Stark using the power of his dreams to kill off people. All the dreamie-movie stuff is eclipsed. And, as is standard for all these ‘80s horror paperbacks, a helluva lot of pages are padded out with inconsequential backstory about minor characters, forgettable incidents, go-nowhere digressions, etc. There’s also way too much character-building, from Helen, Izzy’s live-in girlfriend, to Quent Hughes, an old high school pal of Izzy’s who is now a journalist and wants to do a bio on Izzy, to the elderly couple who live next door to Izzy, one of whom is going senile.

Izzy hooks up with a doctor at a nearby college who is researching the effects of taraxein, a real-life substance which is drawn from the blood of psychopaths. Constantly repeating the old “The blood is the life” saw, Izzy works with the doctor to research the effects of taraxein on his dreamies. Before you can say “I know where this is going!,” the novel goes exactly where you think it’s going. Izzy becomes consumed with the drug. Growing more and more insane, he begins to use the power of his dreams to kill off the people he thinks are out to get him. So in a way it’s all just like the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, but these taraxein dreams cross over into reality.

The kills are where the novel’s horror element comes into play, as a taraxein-soaring Izzy concocts some nightmarish scenario and sets it upon his latest victim. This ranges from zombies that call to mind Izzy’s own “Floaters” dreamie, to an army of mirror-faced soldiers who stalk the poor taraxein-supplying doctor. But we also get a surprise appearance from none other than the Creature from the Black Lagoon, always my favorite of the classic movie monsters; he smashes out of the TV when the senile neigbor is watching the movie (in 3-D, no less!) and crawls across the floor to rip out the old man’s throat and smash in his skull. Talk about a TV Casualty!!

It gets very soap operatic as Helen begins to suspect that Izzy is losing his mind. He spends all his time down in the basement of their New Jersey home, hovering over his Dreamatron, which is a console with various glowing balls that record and store the dreamer’s dreams. It all brings to mind the even-more-melodramatic Satan’s Chance, particularly when Izzy and Helen get in a hissy-fit fight and Helen storms out. But boy is all this stuff repetitive, and Izzy sure is annoying…half-drunk on taraxein, fighting everyone, beating up Helen, and puking in his sink… and then saying to himself, “Maybe I am addicted!” I mean what the hell?? We figured that out like 200 pages ago!

Izzy becomes more and more insane from the taraxein, much like Claude Rains and his monocane in the 1934 The Invisible Man. Izzy even approrpiates Rains’s look; when in his growing delusions he begins to see his skin falling off zombie-like, a panicking Izzy wraps his face in gauze so that only his red-rimmed eyes are visible. (Boatman doesn’t make the Invisible Man connection, so either he felt it was unnecessary or he just didn’t realize it.) But Izzy’s full-bore crazy now, seeing slugs and maggots in the food he tries to eat, things crawling beneath the piles of clothes on the floor, etc, and while he’s sure it’s all just the taraxein affecting his brain, he can’t be sure.

The novel gradually builds up to a big stage event Izzy’s holding on Halloween night; dreamies apparently can also be shared as live events, not just in dreamie theaters, and each Halloween Izzy puts on a special show for an audience in New York. This climactic event comprises pages 297-376 and works almost as a novella, as our disparate group of heroes find themselves within the “Boschian hellscape” that is “Izzy’s Infermo.” Having been inspired by the medieval paintings of Bosch, Izzy thrusts his dreamie audience into a nightmare of demons, zombies, monsters, and hellfire.

This sequence is cool, and definitely on the action-horror tip, with characters hacking off the heads of demons, slicing off the tentacles of demons, and in most cases being eaten or burned alive by the various monsters, but at the same time it’s a bit annoying because neither the reader nor the characters are certain if it’s all really happening. The dreamies are basically lucid dreams (a phrase not used in the text, I believe), with the dreamer, ie Izzy, coming up with the environment and the audience fully conscious as they navigate through it, even though they’re really just sleeping in their seats in the theater. So then we have a group of young dreamie fans (also the protagonists of their own too-long subplot, by the way) who get into it, wielding tridents and whatnot, confident that even though it all feels real, they’re safe and sound in a dreamie theater.

Meanwhile Helen and Quent try to get to Izzy, who appears in various personas in the hellscape, protected by demons and zombies and etc. Quent wants to stop the psychopath, while Helen is insistent upon “saving” him. Unfortunately there’s no big comeuppance for Izzy. After much setback Quent, wielding a penknife that becomes a flaming sword, and later a magical fire axe, manages to dislodge Izzy from his dreamatron, thus shattering the dreamie – and they find that the entire theater is really on fire, most of the audience burned alive in their seats. In the aftermath we find that hundreds of people have been killed, including some of the young protagonists.

However Boatman ends the tale on an unexpected ‘70s-style bummer of a note, flashing forward a year and a half later. Izzy we learn has never awoken, and is now kept asleep in a government hospital, where the CIA is using him to wage dreamie warfare on the Russians! Meanwhile Helen’s trying to free him, and also Quent’s become famous from having written a book about the disastrous Halloween event. And that’s that…after way too many pages of buildup and padding, Stage Fright sort of limps across the finish line.

Overall Boatman’s a good writer, with plentiful gore and even one explicit sex scene, but there’s just too much padding. Also, he’s guilty of some of the worst dialog modifiers I’ve ever seen – rarely do characters “say” anything. It’s always like, “Izzy intoned” or “Izzy opined,” or, my favorite of all, “Izzy intrigued.” It’s clearly an indication of a writer who felt that “Izzy said” just seemed too pedestrian and thought he’d fancy it up with bigger words…the only problem is, dialog modifiers end up calling too much attention to themselves. Never underestimate the power of plain old “said.” At any rate it’s surprising that he never published anything else.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Specialist #8: One-Man Army

The Specialist #8: One Man Army, by John Cutter
April, 1985  Signet Books

Jack Sullivan is back to kick some ass in the eighth installment of John Shirley’s The Specialist, which is easily my favorite one yet – Shirley has clearly gotten more comfortable writing straight action-adventure, and he even indulges in a bit of horror fiction this time, which adds a nice and unexpected touch to One-Man Army.

Similar to mid-‘80s action movies like Death Wish 3, this one has Jack “The Specialist” Sullivan moving into an apartment building to defend the tenants against the gang-bangers who are terrorizing them. Sullivan is in total superhero mode this time out; this guy is by far the most superheroic of all ‘80s men’s adventure protagonists, even though Shirley does a capable job of making him seem relatively human. But damn, Sullivan’s the dude Mack Bolan would call if he needed help!

Still mulling over the offer he was made last volume to head up a covert strike force for the government, Sullivan heads back to New York to help out an old flame named Bonnie, a hotstuff private eye who has gotten deep in it on her latest case. Hired by the tenants of a brownstone on the Upper East Side, Bonnie’s learned that the landlord, a crime syndicate-type named Legion (who has a penchant for taking out his glass eye and polishing it in front of his hechmen), is trying to clear out the building, raze it, and turn it into some sort of lucrative heroin-importing deal or somesuch.

After engaging Bonnie in one of Shirley’s enjoyably-hardcore sex scenes, Sullivan poses as the latest tenant and moves in. Here the fun begins; each volume of The Specialist has become more and more fun, with Sullivan the godlike figure of justice kicking evil’s ass in heroic fashion. This opening sequence is much in the Cannon Films mode, with scarred, battle-hardened, massively-muscled Sullivan moving in with the cowardly tenants – and promptly kicking the ass of the street punks Legion has hired. Given Bonnie’s “no killing” stipulation, Sullivan is relegated to using his fists, though when necessary he whips out a .44 Automag and blows a few of ‘em away in gory splendor.

As with the previous volume, One-Man Army is pretty single-minded in its sole plotline, of Legion sending more and more goons to the brownstone, either for them to disappear, get arrested, or come back in pieces. And again Sullivan demonstrates his Batman-like powers, his deadly skills so legendary in the underworld that gangsters nearly piss themselves at mention of “The Specialist.” This time though Shirley varies up the plot a bit with Tony “The Chill” Fabrizzio, a professional assassin with untold kills whom Legion hires to take out Sullivan.

Unfortunately Fabrizzio isn’t very interesting, and turns out to be the cliched pulp hitman. When Sullivan, more so due to his own innate sense of security than anything conscious, manages to avoid Fabrizzio’s attempted hits, the hitman turns coward and tries to run away. It gets even more Death Wish-esque when Bonnie is the one who gets hurt, Fabrizzio firing a grenade into Sullivan’s room in the brownstone. Surprisingly she doesn’t die, though she’s in the hospital the rest of the novel.

This of course only serves to make Sullivan even more consumed with vengeance. Desperate to find Fabrizzio and make him pay, Sullivan tears up Legion’s army of punks and gangsters. We get a great sequence where Sullivan hops into his armored van with its missile launcher and drives up an abandoned five-story parking structure in Queens, encountering a new booby trap on each level. Even though this sequence ends with Sullivan’s van destroyed, it’s still a helluva lot of fun.

Even better is the next sequence, which features the horror element mentioned above. In the highlight of the entire book, Sullivan chases Fabrizzio into the abandoned, grimy tunnels beneath the New York subway system. But it’s a setup; Legion’s henchman Crackwell has hired the Precious Ones, a gang of Satanic punks who live beneath the surface, to kill both Fabrizzio and Sullivan. The Precious Ones lurk in the rat-infested subway tunnels, and first they capture Fabrizzio – who in his panicked state thinks they’re the zombies of his victims – using him to lure in Sullivan.

This is pure pulp action-horror, with the Precious Ones mutant freaks (Shirley casually drops the tidbit that many of them are insane asylum escapees) who worship Satan and like to drop their victims into a pit of giant rats who eat people down to the bone. One of them’s even an “albino Negro,” like that scary-as-hell dude in The Omega Man. Sullivan, who thinks of them as “subway trolls,” takes them on with Automag and shotgun, massacring them, but he’s still caught – and almost thrown in the rat pit. But without surprise he manages to escape – and then he’s killing the rest of them with friggin’ ninja throwing stars!! This is the best sequence yet in the entire series, complete with Sullivan yelling “I’ve always wanted to meet Satan!” as he jumps into the rat pit.*

But after this craziness, the novel sort of drifts along to an unspectacular finale. Legion has escaped to Sicily, and Sullivan trails him there, but we get a lot of page-filler about him buying guns from an arms dealer and scoping out the villa Legion’s staying in. And even worse, Sullivan doesn’t even get to kill Legion here, instead just taking out a few Mafia thugs and then hiding on the airplane Legion hires to take him back to New York. The finale is at least memorable, with Sullivan chaining Legion up in the cellar of one of Legion’s tenements in Harlem, a place in total disrepair with a broken furnace Legion has refused to fix; the villain ends up freezing to death, while meanwhile Sullivan and an all-better-now Bonnie head off to Hawaii for a quick vacation!

Shirley’s clearly having fun with the series, even delivering subtle in-jokes. During the first Sullivan-Bonnie boink, Shirley uses the purplish prose phrase “pink steel” to describe Sullivan’s massive member. Later in the book, while stalking through Times Square, Sullivan passes heedless beneath “lurid movie marquees” for various porn flicks, one of which happens to be titled “Pink Steel!” This clear enjoyment in the writing is even more impressive when you factor in how quickly Shirley was writing the books; this one was published just two months after the previous one.

*I wonder if the Precious Ones were inspired by the titular subway-lurking creatures in Robert Craig’s 1982 horror paperback Creepers.