Monday, June 27, 2016

Casino Royale (James Bond #1)


Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1953)

Sometime in the summer of 1986, when I was 11 years old, I got bit by the Bond bug. Seemingly overnight I became obsessed with the world of James Bond 007, rushing to the local video stores to rent any of the movies I could. I still remember the first Connery movie I saw, Diamonds Are Forever, and thinking to myself – now that guy is James Bond! (Just imagine how I felt when I watched one of the earlier, less campy ones!)

At that time a British author named John Gardner was the official novelist of the Bond canon, Ian Fleming having passed away over twenty years before. I read all of Gardner’s books (five at the time) and began seeking out the originals by Fleming. Most of them were pretty easy to find, Berkley Books having reprinted them with silhouette covers that in retrospect positively scream “1980s.” However in those pre-internet days some of the Flemings were harder to find than others, Casino Royale, the first book in the series, being one of them. This is the first time I’ve gotten to read it. 

Before I go any further, I must point out Zwolf’s excellent and pithy review, which so very conciscely captures my own feelings on this overhyped novel. Luckily Ian Fleming went on to write better Bond novels, because this first one really tried my patience. Admittedly I knew going in I wouldn’t be crazy about it; even as a kid I was aware that Casino Royale featured a mostly-pedestrian gambling plot as its central storyline, and even then I found gambling stories boring. But still, it’s James Bond, right? And you read all these online reviews claiming this is the best Bond novel ever… But then, we live in a world where people praise Daniel Craig as “the best Bond ever,” so there goes that.*

Anyway, I’d read most of the Bond books as a kid; Doctor No and You Only Live Twice were by far my two favorites, the former in particular. I’d never really considered reading them again, but then this past October I was in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and for some reason I kept thinking of these novels. Gradually I realized why – those old Bond hardcovers always stated that Ian Fleming wrote in Jamaica (his home, GoldenEye, is now a mega-expensive resort – and it isn’t even all-inclusive!), and of course a few of the books took place there. I decided then to finally read the series in full, including the volumes I’d missed as a kid; as fortune would have it, I later scored the entire ‘60s Signet paperback run for a pittance.

About the only good thing I can say of Casino Royale is that it’s short. As Zwolf mentions in his review, word has it that Fleming wanted to create a British Mike Hammer – Fleming was a fan of Mickey Spillane, who was incredibly popular at the time (the irony being that today Bond is by far more famous than Hammer). While Fleming captured this vibe in later volumes, in this first one James Bond is for the most part a foppish dandy; to quote Zwolf, he’s “basically an ineffectual victim who only survives by the kindness of his enemies and gets fooled by double agents.” (Plus he also plans to get married!! Some tough guy!)

Fleming’s writing has that clinical feel typical of British pulp; “all manners and no grit,” to again quote Zwolf, who as usual succinctly sums things up whereas I go on and on. I wrote “pulp” but really the novel has pretensions toward literature; here you will find many ruminations on the color of the sky or the beautiful flowers of the French countryside and whatnot. To be sure, Fleming’s writing is good, and he effectively captures his scenes and surroundings. Perhaps if one were to read Casino Royale without the accumulated baggage of six decades of the James Bond franchise, one might think differently of it. And I did attempt this, but still, the novel fails…it seems to build toward something, (anti)climaxes too quickly and too soon, and then spends the final quarter in a listless freefall.

What’s fascinating is that Fleming wastes no pages on world-building or scene-setting. When we meet James Bond he’s already in Royale-les-Eaux, a posh resort in France. Word of warning: Casino Royale is one of those novels where practically every page is peppered with French words and dialog. This only serves to make it seem all the more stuffy and snobbish. The now-familiar formula of Bond meeting with M. and being briefed on the assignment, armed by Q department, etc, is only later relayed via brief flashback. The book is lean and moves fast – it just doesn’t go anywhere, unfortunately.

Bond has been picked for this task because he’s “the best gambler” in MI6; his assignment is to outgamble a Russian counterspy named Le Chiffre, a benzedrine-enhaling, sanpaku-eyed sadist who, MI6 knows, works for SMERSH, the executive branch of Russian secret service. But Le Chiffre screwed over his employers, as relayed via too many pages of excerpted documentation M. reads in that flashback portion. Swindling SMERSH of millions of pounds, Le Chiffre is now a dead man, unless he can win all of it back at Casino Royale here in Royale-les-Eaux. Bond’s job is to beat Le Chiffre at baccarat, a high-stakes game Bond specializes in.

Fleming’s secondary characters were usually more interesting than Bond himself, who is cold and cipher-like for the most part, especially in these early volumes. This time we have Rene Mathis, the most colorful of Bond’s comrades in this one, a French agent who briefs Bond on the local scene and acts as a radio seller in a humorous sequence. Next there’s Felix Leiter, CIA agent familiar from the films but never capably captured, though Joe Don Baker in GoldenEye was likely the closest, if a bit too old for the part. Leiter is a Texan and meets Bond for the first time here; the two become as friendly as spies can be, and Bond seems to have a jealousy/respect for Americans, which was very refreshing to read in today’s “America is the source of all evil” world.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s Vesper Lynd, a hotstuff brunette junior agent, for the most part an admin assistant, sent here by her station chief to assist Bond. Our hero is famously pissed at this, hating to work with women and spending most of the novel complaining about how they shouldn’t get involved in “man’s work.” Here I should probably insert the mandatory diatribes against the novel’s outdated misogyny and chauvinism and other such bullshit, as is apparently required for all modern reviews of the James Bond books, but I’m not going to do that. Bond has his sentiments and he’s entitled to them. The irony being, of course, that his deeds do not match his words – he only comes to harm in this book for trying to save Vesper.

Setting the standard for the “Bond Girls” to follow, Vesper is appropriately sexy and stacked; though Fleming doesn’t get as exploitative as he would in later books. Not that the Bond books ever really did, though the word “breasts” would appear more and more frequently, to the point where you wonder how much more salacious the novels might have become had Ian Fleming lived past 1964. At any rate Vesper is an okay character, but for reasons of plot she’s a bit withdrawn and distant, making Bond’s gradual falling in love with her a bit hard for the reader to buy.

The first half of the book is mostly setup for the big gambling faceoff between Bond and Le Chiffre. The villain himself doesn’t even appear, and the only bit of action we get is early on, when two Bulgarian assassins inadvertently blow themselves up instead of their target, Bond. Fleming doesn’t dwell on the gore much –again, the book has nothing on Spillane – and it’s interesting how upset and shocked Bond is by the atrocity. He is by no means the stone-cold badass of the films here; indeed he spends most of Casino Royale throwing various hissy fits and looking down his nose at everyone. He’s more Tony Randall than Sean Connery.

Fleming himself worked in intelligence in World War II, thus the novel is filled with a sense of realism; these are Cold War veterans and they treat their violent world with a casual attitude. I forgot to mention, but Bond has three guns this time, none of which he uses(!). The famous Walther PPK isn’t one of them; Bond wouldn’t begin to use it until Doctor No. He starts off Casino Royale with a .38 revolver, later has a Beretta .25, and finally has a Colt .45. But none of them are used, thus ruining the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. In fact all Bond does, action-wise, is kick someone in the shins and try to run away!

After a lot of buildup, Fleming spending more time on Bond trying (and failing) to score with Vesper, the “climactic” baccarat game is upon us before we even realize it. Le Chiffre like Vesper sets the standard for ensuing Bond villains, though he isn’t as properly exploited here. He’s got all the requirements – henchmen, a weird prop (the inhaler), a strange look (waxy skin, sanpaku eyes), and a fondness for torture – but he’s talked about more than he’s seen, and thus he’s got nothing on Doctor No or even Blofeld. The game, despite the high stakes, didn’t much resonate with me, mostly due to that aforementioned dislike of gambling stories but also because it’s mostly relayed via French dialog.

Finally the novel kicks into higher gear when Bond, victorious in the game (his ass only saved by Felix Leiter’s last-second granting of extra cash), chases after an abducted Vesper. Here the reader thinks he’s finally about to see some action as Bond fondles his .45 and berates the fact that Vesper was indeed out of her league in a man’s world. Then he crashes his car, tries to kick a guy in the shins, and next thing you know he’s naked and tied to a bottomless chair. Prepare for some unsettling stuff as Le Chiffre spends some time, uh, whacking Bond’s balls with a carpet beater. I broke out in a empathetic sweat as I read this, which should be testament alone to the occasional power of Fleming’s prose.

But as Zwolf pointed out above, Bond is saved yet again(!), this time by an anonymous SMERSH assassin who not only kills the two thugs guarding Vesper (off-page) but also kills Le Chiffre (anticlimactically at that, just shooting him between the eyes). And this guy doesn’t kill Bond only because he wasn’t ordered to!! Berating the red tape of his own system, the SMERSH assassin nonetheless goes to the trouble of carving “SMERSH” on Bond’s hand, which only begs the question why he doesn’t just kill Bond, given that he knows he’s a British secret agent – I mean, if this guy wasn’t ordered to kill Bond, then surely he wasn’t ordered to carve SMERSH on his hand. But that’s that, the SMERSH guy leaves, and the story is pretty much over, but there’s like 40 or so pages to go.

Here Casino Royale goes into freefall. After convalescing in a hospital for several weeks, where a visiting Vesper is his only source of daily joy, Bond finally checks out and goes on a vacation in the French countryside with Vesper. His big concern is whether he’ll still be able to have sex, and when Vesper finally gives herself to him it all happens off-page, this being 1953 and all. But we’re to understand the lady enjoys it and Bond discovers to his joy that all his parts still work. Oh, and he’s decided he’s going to marry her! This decision comes in an effectively-written scene where Bond goes swimming; Fleming was a dedicated swimmer and the parts in these novels where Bond scuba dives or snorkels are always highlights.

The final pages are given over to the growing bitterness of this new relationship, as Bond catches Vesper in a lie – he spots her sneaking off to call someone, though the girl won’t say who and keeps trying to underplay her deceit. It sort of drags on and on, as if we’re suddenly reading a different novel. Bond doesn’t make a good showing of himself, coming off like a simpering, heartbroken lug in his debut novel. Despite all this, Fleming still manages to gut readers with the last pages, in which Vesper, after spending another night with Bond, overdoses on sleeping pills and leaves a heartwrenching suicide note in which she admits she was a secret agent for SMERSH but fell in love with Bond and now begs for his forgiveness from beyond the grave.

“The bitch is dead,” Bond tells his contact; the last line of the novel, and a sign of the Bond to come in future books. It’s almost as if this first book was something he had to go through to become the Bond of later novels, but at the same time you figure Fleming could’ve come up with a more gripping and thrilling story. As it is, Casino Royale just sort of limps along for the duration, yet strangely enough the reader is compelled to keep reading despite the lack of thrills. The only other writer I can think of who can accomplish this is Harold Robbins, and again that brings me back to the ruminations above…I wonder what sort of James Bond novels Fleming would’ve written once authors like Robbins had broken the prudish boundaries of sex in print?

As mentioned Fleming’s writing is good, though he seems to be obsessed with the words “ironical” and “directly.” The latter in particular shows up about every other page, ie, “Directly Bond paid the bill and left the table,” and so forth. It’s almost as if Fleming just learned the word before writing the book and became fascinated with it, as in a skit I once saw back in the ‘90s on a show called The State (the word that writer just discovered was “and;” I only saw the skit once, and I was likely drunk, it being college and all, but I still thought it was hilarious).

Otherwise the book shows the promise of much greater things to come. I didn’t much enjoy Casino Royale, but I don’t regret reading it, and if anything it’s made me eager to continue with the series and appreciate how much better it became. I’m definitely looking forward to re-reading Doctor No

*Personally I don’t think Daniel Craig is James Bond – he’s just playing a character of the same name.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

John Eagle Expeditor #13: Operation Weatherkill


John Eagle Expeditor #13: Operation Weatherkill, by Paul Edwards
October, 1975  Pyramid Books

The penultimate volume of my favorite men’s adventure series, John Eagle Expeditor, is courtesy Paul Eiden, a hit-or-miss writer if ever there was one. While his prose is good, Eiden’s plotting is often lazy, with some of his books, like #7: The Ice Goddess, given over to inordinate padding. But then sometimes he’s capable of greatness, as in #9: The Deadly Cyborgs.

Fortunately, Operation Weatherkill is Eiden on a good day. He keeps the action moving and the padding to a minimum. Sure, there’s stuff that could’ve been cut, but that’s typical for this series. Even at 159 pages (of small print), Operation Weatherkill seems longer than it really is. However it’s greatly improved by the fact that it’s the first installment since #10: The Holocaust Auction to return to the series formula of the earliest volumes: eschewing the tepid espionage plot of #11: Poppies Of Death, Eiden gets back to the series’s roots with John Eagle employing all of his sci-fi gadgetry as he takes on a world-threatening plot.

“Operation Weatherkill” is the name of a shadowy organization that’s blackmailing countries around the world with the threat of “climatic interference.” Somehow these bastards are toying with the jet stream and wreaking havoc with freak weather. America has been duly warned but the CIA, as ever, ignored the threat, and now, as the Weatherkill people are enacting their threats, it’s up to Mr. Merlin to handle things. Thus Eagle – for once described, stated as being 6’ 2”, two hundred pounds of muscle, with black hair, blue eyes, and “almost as tan as the Apache people he loved” – is sent to Stamford, Connecticut, where it rains for three straight days, flooding the city. Next he’s sent to Chicago, where the same thing happens.

The situation is explained to Eagle when he’s called back to Merlin’s HQ on Makaluha island in Hawaii. Operation Weatherkill is demanding a monthly payment of a ton of gold from the US, and possibly from the other countries as well – Merlin mentions that both Russia and Japan have also been suffering from freak weather and flooding. It was interesting reading this book when I did, as South Texas was experiencing torrential rains and heavy flooding, and even the bottom floor of the Louvre was being emptied out due to potential flooding!

Eagle heads for Madrid, where he’s to shadow the US destroyer that’s dropping off the first gold payment somewhere in the Mediterranean sea. Here Eagle becomes reacquainted with the Dolphin, his atomic-powered one-man sub, last seen in The Ice Goddess. Not sure about last time, but this time it’s specified that the Dolphin is painted bright yellow; perhaps its inventor was a Beatles fan. And while Eagle spends a few pages learning how to use a fancy new tracking gizmo on the sub, it’s nowhere in the realm of padding Eiden delivered in that earlier volume, to the point that Operation Weatherkill positively zips along in comparison. Indeed Eagle even brushes off more training, claiming how short time is.

Tracking the dropped-off gold to the island of Svete Hvar, off the coast of Yugoslavia, Eagle and the Dolphin are almost destroyed by depth charges dropped by enemy ships. Eventually Eagle will learn that the island is owned by Turkish billionaire Ferit Sunay, the man behind Operation Weatherkill. First though Eagle is almost arrested by secret police, only to be saved by a “beautiful blond” in a string bikini who acts like she knows him. Her name is Julie Anders and she claims to be Canadian, of Yugo-Ukranian heritage, but Eagle is certain she’s KGB . She also claims to be a nymphomaniac; “I want some sex when we get back to the hotel,” she instructs Eagle while they’re out on her catamaran – not that Eagle obeys her (more of which below).

Julie catches Eagle up on Ferit Sunay and the citadel he rules the island from; for her part, Julie suspects Eagle of being CIA. Like a regular pseudo-Bond villain Sunay stocks his ancient castle with legions of armed henchmen and guard dogs. Eagle, armed only with a knife, tries to survey the place one night, only to nearly get killed by the dogs; he’s saved by Julie, who appears brandishing a bow and arrow. After an interminable escape (the novel is filled with scenes of Eagle and Julie sneaking through the woods as they try to evade Sunay’s men), Eagle and Julie kill off a few more goons, Eagle slicing throats and Julie scoring kills with her arrows; she compares herself to Diana of the hunt. After this it’s time to get back to the hotel for some of that much-delayed sex.

Eiden as ever delivers the most explicit sex scenes in the series, yet this time it takes him a while to get to the good stuff. For some strange reason Eagle isn’t as prone to mixing business with pleasure in Operation Weatherkill, to the point that he even turns down sex from a sexy Spanish maid who slips nude into his bed one night in Madrid, offering herself. Eagle politely turns her down, not wanting to cause any “sexual jealousies” in the small Madrid-based group he’s working with, given that she’s the only girl there, and all the men are clearly lusting after her. And when Julie Anders first gets Eagle into to her hotel room and eagerly strips off both their clothes, Eagle kicks her in the ass(!) and tells her, “Next time, wait until you’re asked,” before storming off!

However when Eiden gets to the novel’s one and only sex scene he spares no details, with a two-page sequence featuring almost textbook documentation of each and every act: “Eagle slid the head of his shaft between the lips of her vagina and placed himself in her.” The same goes for the immediately-following round two: “She began the pulsing contractions of her vagina which would harden his shaft a second time.” (Hey, those are my favorite kind of contractions!) Eiden is also fond of exploiting the ample charms of his female characters; Julie for example must be nicely stacked, as within the first half-page of her introduction her breasts are described as “heavy,” “meaty,” and “bulging.” Julie is probably the best female character in the series yet (well, either her or the Sue Shiomi-esque Orchid Yang in #8: The Death Devils), and not just due to her breastesses; one can’t complain about a sexy KGB agent who enjoys killing her prey with bow and arrow.

She’s also handy with a submachine gun, carrying one in a big leather purse. Having admitted she’s KGB, Julie also acknowledges that the two men shadowing Eagle in the hotel are her comrades. The three decide to join forces to stop Sunay; Julie and team have come to Svete Hvar because the KGB was tracking the Yugoslavian climatologist Sunay is now using for the Operation Weatherkill satellite. The final sixty pages are mostly action, starting with Eagle, having gotten his plastic suit, dart gun, and explosives from the submerged Dolphin, getting in a fight with a pair of frogmen. Here we learn that Eagle’s C02 gun apparently works underwater, as does his suit’s chameleon device – as mentioned, this volume sees the return of all the gadgets that have been denied us in the past few installments.

Eiden doesn’t exploit the violence factor as much, though we do get occasional mention of the backs of heads getting blown off by Eagle’s darts; as ever in Eiden’s hands, the Expeditor goes for head shots. Eagle and Julie kill a slew of Sunay’s men here, as Eagle, chameleon unit activated, slips like a regular Predator onto Sunay’s boat and begins killing off the men who have surrounded Julie’s catamaran. Meanwhile Julie pulls out that subgun and blows off the heads of unarmed men, her “legs spread” as she wields the weapon. (Someone at Pyramid liked this phrase so much that they even used it to describe Julie’s fighting stance on the back cover!)

The climax becomes a bit muddled, as is Eiden’s wont. After some more action and chasing, Eagle and Julie spend too many pages foraging through the woods in the pre-dawn hours, trying in vain to meet up with Julie’s two comrades on the slopes of the cliff upon which Sunay’s castle looms. It goes on and on, not helped by the fact that Eagle watches through field glasses as the two KGB men get in a running battle with Sunay’s forces. Things finally kick in gear when Eagle and Julie storm the castle grounds. The “steel-vaned flechettes” fly fast and furious from Eagle’s C02 pistol as he kills a bunch of henchmen, Julie blasting them apart with her submachine gun – Eagle certain now the girl is a “thrill killer,” clearly enjoying herself too much.

Sunay is given a perfunctory sendoff; after killing several random soldiers Eagle and Julie break into Sunay’s private quarters and Julie guns him down just as he’s gotten out of bed with his mistress! More focus is placed on the climatologist Sunay’s used to create the Operation Weatherkill satellite; Julie wants to take him back to Russia to work for the Soviets, whereas Eagle argues that they don’t have the time or the resources to drag the old man back down the mountain. (The scientist takes care of the problem for them, offing himself with a handy cyanide pill.)

Julie’s thrill-killing reaches absurd proportions in the finale, with the KGB agent acting out of character as she suddenly runs around shooting down everyone, arguing with Eagle that “this is war.” As expected her own thrill-killing proves to be her undoing, shot down by a machine gun crew as she lobs some of Eagle’s “new purple grenades” down at them. I love the fact that Mr. Merlin has equipped his Expeditor with purple grenades, but one wonders what happened to the explosive vials Eagle used in the earliest installment. Ultimately it’s of no concern, as Eiden quickly wraps up Operation Weatherkill, with Eagle, having blown up Sunay’s entire citadel, safely escaping to the still-submerged Dolphin.

Speaking of Mr. Merlin, Eagle’s mysterious employer, he appears only briefly in the opening pages, per series formula, yet he is as memorable as ever in those few pages. Strangely though, these pages feature a clueless Merlin asking his honcho Samson a bunch of questions, whereas typically it’s vice versa. Eagle too is slightly different in Eiden’s hands. While he’s aggressively macho in the installments of Manning Lee Stokes and almost a monosyballic assassin in those of Robert Lory, in Eiden’s hands Eagle is more prone to self-doubt and concern. He also lacks the casual misogyny of Stokes’s version; when Julie is worried about her missing comrades and keeps looking to Eagle for guidance, our hero patiently consoles her. It would be hard to see Stokes’s version of Eagle showing such compassion. And Eiden’s John Eagle is more merciful; when Julie gleefully guns down those unarmed men on her catamaran, Eagle tries in vain to stop her, arguing that killing them would be meaningless.

And that was it for Eiden on John Eagle Expedtior, but then, there was only one more volume of the series to go, anyway. Eiden only wrote four installments (Stokes and Lory wrote five each), and they’re wildly disparate: The Ice Goddess had awesomely lurid potential but squandered it with a few hundred pages of padding until things sleazed up for a great but rushed finale; The Deadly Cyborgs, with its crazy plot of biomechanical yetis, was one of my favorite volumes in the entire series; Poppies Of Death seemed to be an installment of another series and came off like a boring espionage drama with little action; and finally Operation Weatherkill, which sort of melded the sci-fi plots of Eiden’s first two installments with the espionage fare of Poppies of Death.

As another overlong review will attest, I’m a total geek for the John Eagle Expeditor series. I’m having a hard time accepting the fact that the next volume is the last one.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Spykill


Spykill, by L.W. Blanco
No month stated, 1966  Lancer Books

I had no idea when I picked it up, but Spykill turns out to be the work of veteran hardboiled writer Lionel White, who six years earlier published the heist thriller Steal Big. I’m not sure if White wrote this one as a contractual obligation or to pay off a debt or even just for booze money, but surely it must’ve been written at least partly in jest, as evidenced by the goofy pseudonym he used, sort of a Spanish play on his name.

Cashing in on the mid-‘60s James Bond craze, Spykill features virile, tough, and ultra-wealthy secret agent Tommy Marco (identified as Thomas Jefferson Marco on the back cover) in his one and only adventure. Marco is basically James Bond meets pre-seclusion Howard Hughes. A lanky Texan with incredible wealth who owns a series of airliners, businesses, and whatnot, Marco flies about the country on his own plane and occasionally helps the US government in the fight against foreign espionage. It’s never mentioned how Marco got into this, what exactly qualifies him for it, so you just have to take it for what it is: a pulpy spy yarn.

At least, for the most part it is. Betraying his hardboiled past, White still finds a way to make Spkykill come off like a Gold Medal paperback from a decade before, as halfway through Marco finds himself in Vegas, confronted by a variety of gangsters. But that’s just one of the plots. I was only joking about the “booze” above, but as I read this book I began to suspect that Lionel White might’ve had some problems with the bottle, or at the very least couldn’t figure out how to plot a spy caper. Spykill starts off about one thing, changes into another, changes into yet something else, and then quickly wraps up in a few unsatisfying pages. The one thing I can be sure of is that it was quickly written.

Maybe White just wasn’t comfortable in the spy genre – according to Will Murray in the The Armchair Detective volume 15, number 4 (1982), White’s one and only contribution to the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, The Mind Poisoners (1966), had to be extensively rewritten by Valerie Moolman. Spykill was published that same year, so one wonders if this is what White’s original manuscript was like before Moolman reworked it. At any rate hero Tommy Marco is more along the lines of another Bond imitator, Mark Hood, in that he’s globally famous and uses that fame as a cover for his secret agent work. Unlike Hood Marco doesn’t have any fancy karate moves, and unlike Nick Carter he doesn’t rely on gadgets; his sole weapon is a .38 revolver, which again more so calls to mind White’s hardboiled work.

Marco when we meet him has been contacted by Greybone, Marco’s shady government contact; it’s never stated who exactly Marco works for. The complicated plotting begins here, as Greybone details how the Commies are using a small New York art museum as an info drop. In particular an 8-inch nymph statuette is being used to convey information; the original, it’s been discovered, was lead coated in gold paint, but the Commies don’t know this, and thus they have been replacing it with a replica of real gold. Apparently they’re stashing info in the statuette, and the prime suspect is an auburn-haired beauty named Carla Jason, who serves as secretary for a broker named Sigrid Winterset.

This proves to be the plot for the first quarter, as Marco meets with Winterset, claiming to want to hire him for a European deal – and meanwhile hitting hard on Carla. “Hitting on Carla” doesn’t really sum it up; rather, Marco bullies her, instantly assuming she’ll want to have dinner with him now and sex with him later. Carla bickers back and forth with him, going out on a date with Marco anyway, but spurning his advances. Later he saves her from two thugs who break into her apartment to murder her, making it look like a rape-killing; orders from Winterset’s KGB (or whatever) bosses, given that Carla’s now been compromised, or something.

The fight is again Gold Medal style, as Marco beats them around and shoots one of them. Carla sneaks off and meanwhile it’s over to the next plot, which has Marco heading to Vegas. Here, Greybone informs him, an Army sergeant working at a nearby missile base was recently killed, deep in debt at the Wrapper casino. Marco, posing as himself, hits the casino and gambles big like a regular pseudo-Bond, trying to figure out what the casino owner, a Mafia-type named DiAngelo, is up to. How these two plots intersect isn’t something White is concerned with, and you get the feeling he’s just using material left over from some earlier book.

This section’s bodacious babe is Charlene, a busty redhead who entertains at the Wrapper and is sent up to Marco’s suite with the champagne. He has her strip and gets in the shower with her, filtering out any possible bugs, trying to get her help on the recent killing. Instead Charlene sets him up and Marco himself is almost killed. The novel’s sole sex scene occurs off-page as Charlene, grateful to Marco for saving her from DiAngelo and his crooked empire, gives herself to Marco as they fly to California; Marco’s promised her a new life with a new name in Europe, working for one of his many companies, in return for her spilling the beans on DiAngelo.

Again, this Vegas stuff has nothing to do with the plot of the first half. Now Marco’s in LA and he tracks down a suspicious European-type seen in the Wrapper, a dude named Bole. When this guy, a contract KGB assassin named Harold, and none other than Carla Jason rent a boat for a three-day cruise, Marco first tails them via amphibious plane and then sneaks aboard the craft itself. Once again he saves Carla, who apparently was about to be killed, the two men meeting with a Russian sub from which a female scientist boards their boat. The idea being that the boat left port holding two men and one woman and would return the same, Carla, having been murdered and dropped in the sea, replaced by the Russian woman. Or something!

Marco apparently gets more sex-in-gratitude, though White forgets to tell us about it; next thing we know Marco and Carla are suddenly sharing a hotel room bed. Carla’s sob story has it that she fell in love with an Iron Curtain consulate guy, one wom she had a kid with, but the dude took off behind the Iron Curtain with the baby and blackmail letters began coming to Carla; if she didn’t work for Winterset and the Commies, her kid would be killed. Marco brushes all this off, assuring her the kid will be fine(!?), and finds out from her about a ranch in the Nevada desert owned by Winterset.

Given that we’re running out of pages – in true Lancer fashion, the novel is a mere 150-some pages of big print – this is where the “climax” takes place. Armed with a “machine pistol” that he doesn’t even use, Marco surveys the ranch…and is promptly captured. As is Carla, who has for no reason at all come along with him. Winterset, Bole, Harold, and all the other Commie villains are here, as are a bunch of Mafia-types. White himself appears to be confused, sometimes using the wrong names for the wrong characters.

And here Marco learns the plot – the Iron Curtain agents are about to take over that nearby missile base and launch one of its rockets at Fort Knox. With its destruction the US economy will collapse. Marco just sits there while the crooks shoot each other, and in the final pages he hits one guy and then shoots Harold. Then he makes a phone call to Strategic Air Command, or something, hoping for an air strike on the missile base. Instead, we flash forward to some time later as Marco and Carla sit on a beach, and via exposition we learn that the missiles had a self-destruct mechanism which prevented the catastrophe. The end!

Yeah, Spykill is a damn mess. It wants to be Bond but it feels more like Hammer, only in third-person, and the book is more a series of disconnected setpieces than an actual novel. Marco himself is too distant to be likable; he’s mostly a cipher, the usual virile superstud type, but his bad-assery is rarely on display. The villains are also interchangeable and forgettable; I spent the final pages hunting back in the book to confirm who was who. 

As mentioned this was Tommy Marco’s sole appearance. My copy has a hole punch on the cover, which I believe is the oldschool method of tagging books for the cutout bin. Most likely Spykill didn’t make much of an impression, lost in the clutter of other spy paperbacks of the day, and White moved on to other things.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cybernarc #3: Island Kill


Cybernarc #3: Island Kill, by Robert Cain
April, 1992  Harper Books

The Cybernarc series continues to capture the vibe of a late ‘80s action movie with this third volume, however there’s something a bit subdued and padded about the proceedings, as if Wiliam H. Keith (aka “Robert Cain”) were losing steam. While I greatly enjoyed the first two volumes, Island Kill sort of tried my patience. 

For one, it misses the greatest feature of those first two volumes: the growing camaraderie of heroes Lt. Chris Drake and RAMROD, ie “Rod,” ie “The Cybernarc.” Their humorous bantering at times reached the level of Remo and Chiun in The Destroyer, only based more on respect and friendship than on insults. But this time Drake and Rod only exchange a handful of lines, with Keith pulling an unusual trick by keeping Drake off-page for much of the novel and making Rod the star of the show. Again Keith makes the reader forget that Rod isn’t human; only at times when he focuses his eyes on something far away or puzzles over some latest human mystery does the reader remember that Rod’s just a bunch of circuits.

But that humorous rapport is gone in Island Kill, and the book suffers. Indeed, Keith at times attempts to add a troubling confrontational aspect to their relationship, with Rod at times disobeying Drake’s orders (to save Drake’s life, that is) and Drake occasionally wondering what would happen if Rod were ever to go crazy or something and come after Drake himself. All of that heroic sacrifice from the previous two books, like when Drake or Rod would go through hell to save one another at any cost, is also gone this time. For the most part this one’s just a standard action tale with heavy anti-drug sermonizing and a robot protagonist. Otherwise it’s run of the mill late ‘80s/early ‘90’s action pulp, neutered stuff when compared to the sleazy and lurid examples of the genre from a decade or two before.

Another sign of the times is that Cybernarc is beginning to become more and more like military fiction. The men’s adventure genre didn’t completely die in the early ‘90s; it got a makeover and lost the pulp stuff, replacing it with a lot of military acronyms and SEAL team protagonists or whatever. Such is the case here, with Island Kill stuffed to the wazoo with lots of military terminology and tactics sprinkled throughout. This again makes one wonder what the originally-envisioned series might have been like, as mentioned in my review of the first volume, with the “whacked-out Vietnam vet” building his own robot to kill the drug dealers of the world. Now that wouldn’t have been military fiction! But it sure would’ve been fun.

Unfortunately, “fun” is what’s missing from this third volume. It’s all too serious throughout, starting with the kidnapping of a senator and his wife in the Bermuda Triangle and leading to one sprawling action scene after another. Part of the uber-seriousness is courtesy Drake, who as we’ll recall still suffers from the horrific murder of his wife and teenaged daughter in that first installment. I’m starting to think this was a mistake on Keith’s part, giving us a co-protagonist who is so emotionally shattered. For once again there’s absolutely no sex, with Drake razor-focused on killing drug dealers and with little interest in women given his recent nightmare. Speaking of which, Ramona Montalva, the sexy villainess from #2: Gold Dragon, doesn’t appear and isn’t even mentioned this time.

Anyway, Island Kill takes place in the Bahamas, where Rod and Drake (I always want to type “Rod and Tod”) are sent after the abduction of Congressman Rutherford. The politician has been taken captive by Carlos Ferre, a coke-paranoid drug kingpin who rules his own island empire called Pirate’s Cay. The titular “island,” Pirate’s Cay only has a few natives, most of whom are American transplants and all of whom are basically hostages here, unable to leave and forced to work for Ferre. Keith spends a lot of time jumping into the various perspectives of these one-off characters, particularly one of Ferre’s subordinates, and it comes off like what it is: padding. The book runs to a too-long 213 pages of small print, and a lot of it’s inconsequential.

One thing that returns is the gore factor, present last time but greatly reduced from the blood-drenched onslaught of the first volume. Once again Rod smashes heads apart with his bare hands, Keith gleefully detailing the cascading brains and skull-shards each and every time. Likewise the frequent gunfights are also gore-drenched, in particular the climactic assault on Pirate’s Cay, where Rod, in Battle Mod, hefts a XM-214 minigun and blasts various gunners into “red mist.” In fact the rampant violence is about the only fun factor in Island Kill, as it all has the uber-gory vibe of Paul Verhoven at his most unhinged. Again, Cybernarc would’ve made for a great film.

As mentioned Rod is for the most part the star of the show. Throughout the book he’s ditching Drake and running off to monitor Ferre’s operations, usually pulling off his own assaults in the process. But again Keith does a great job of showing how inhuman our hero is, in particular when it comes to his patience; there’s a part where Rod sneaks onto Pirate’s Cay and just sits around for a day or so without moving. Not to mention when he hooks himself to the bottom of a boat during a drug run or walks around on the seabed. This time we also get the unveiling of Rod’s latest app: Sea Mod, which is a sea sled attachment for his Battle Mod. This is briefly used when he and Drake head to Pirate’s Cay for the climactic assault, which comprises the final quarter of the novel.

Keith also includes a new subplot featuring Weston, the shady CIA rep in charge of the RAMROD project. Turns out a lot of politicians in Washington are dirty, in the pockets of the various drug lords, and they’re trying to close down “White Sanction,” ie the RAMROD kingpin-assassination operation. Otherwise Keith doesn’t pick up many threads from the previous two volumes, with more focus placed on the Pirate’s Cay characters and long action sequences. And we get a bunch of them, from an opening jungle fight in Columbia to Rod taking out scores of henchmen, including crooked cops, on some Florida docks. The action is very well handled, with as mentioned copious gore, but again it lacks the emotional connection of the two earlier books.

The novel ends with a new direction in the lives of our two heroes: White Sanction must go underground, reporting directly to the President now that it’s officially off the records and condemned by the House of Representaties as illegal. Also Drake and Rod move to Pirate’s Cay, freed from Ferre’s yoke, its natives eager to help out in the drug war. Here’s hoping the next volume reaches the heights of the first two books, though.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Danger Patrol


Danger Patrol, edited by Noah Sarlat
January, 1963  Paperback Library

Longtime men’s adventure magazine editor Noah Sarlat returns with another paperback anthology of men’s mag yarns; Danger Patrol, like the Sarlat anthology Women With Guns, is sourced from the various “Diamond Line” of men’s mags Sarlat edited (ie Male, Stag, For Men Only, etc). The four stories reprinted here are novella length, likely featured as “True Book Bonues” in their original magazine printings, and they each run to 40-some pages of small print.

Danger Patrol does not benefit from the strongest of openers. “Bar Maid Decoy for the Soviet’s Fishing Fleet Spies,” written by W.J. Saber and originally appearing in the September 1960 issue of Stag, is frankly a boring, ponderous tale that I ended up abandoning. Sorry! I tried, though. But while Saber’s writing is up to the usual Diamond Line standards, doling out a polished tale with well-crafted characters, the story was just so slow-going that I couldn’t take it. One wonders why it was chosen for inclusion in the book, let alone why it was given first place.

Occuring in March, 1960, “Bar Maid” features WWII vet Andy Balliol, a hulking, 280-pound mass of muscle who has lived in England since after the war. He goes from port to port on the North Coast, selling things to remote fishermen from his boat. The British government has bullied him into assisting MI5. Turns out the Soviets have been sneaking spies into the swarms of Russian fishermen who congregate around the North Coast, with even a submarine or two lurking outside the three-mile limit. Balliol is put aboard a fishing vessel which hides all sorts of fancy sonar gear and weaponry, his assignment to use his knowledge of the area to help out the crew in their search.

While it sounds like an interesting premise, “Bar Maid” is ultimately boring and tedious. Balliol is an aytpical protagonist, married (not that this keeps him from enjoying some illicit, off-page shenanigans with a bar maid or two), and just looking to keep his business running. I’ve never been the biggest fan of naval fiction, and ultimately that’s what “Bar Maid” is, as the crew trawls around the North Coast, daunting the Russian fishermen and trying to lure out the subs. Eventually this becomes a larger plot where the titular bar maid is used to distract the Russian spies, but by that point I’d jumped ship. Saber was a good writer, though, and a men’s mag veteran; his later story, the violent heist thriller “A Bullet For The Enforcer,” was much better.

The second story is a little more along the lines of what we’ve come here for. “The Yank Who Fouled Up Rommel’s Desert Assault” is courtesy Warren J. Shanahan and originally appeared in the October 1961 issue of Stag. What’s crazy is that Warren J. Shanahan and W.J. Saber were one and the same! Shanahan was his real name and “Saber” was one of his pseudonyms. At any rate, his talent is much better displayed in this yarn that takes place in the North African theater of World War II and calls to mind the 1920s desert pulps of Harold Lamb. Our hero is a young lieutenant named Bob Courtney who is plucked out of basic training and put into espionage training in London due to his mastery of the Arabic language, quite a rare knowledge in those days.

Courtney is another atypical protagonist for the genre; he’s untried in combat, more prone to studying Oriental languages (something he’s been interested in since childhood), but he’s still burly and studly, have no fear. In typical men’s mag style the story opens en media res; it’s November, 1942, and Courtney’s in the Sahara with a one-eyed French Foreign Legionaire named Georges Le Brun, their mission to sway the native Tuareg tribes to turn against the Vichy French. The desert warriors have given fealty to that Nazi-aligned branch of the French government, and Courtney is assigned to change their minds.

From here, true to genre staple, we flash back to Courtney’s beginnings and how he ended up here in North Africa. He’s taught Berber (Shanahan seems to think the Tuaregs and Berbers are one and the same, which is not the case) and instructed in the customs of the desert nomad warriors. After several months Courtney is sent to North Africa, where we pick back up with the opening section. Courtney’s secondary objective is to stop a “Nazi anthropologist” named Flaegler who is stirring up the Tuaregs and moving them around the Sahara for some nefarious goal. After much traveling across the desert our heroes find Flaegler and the Tuaregs; so begins a war of wills to win the support of their leader.

The Diamond Line was always sure to add some sex appeal to these yarns; soon enough the strong-willed Tuareg women, who unlike the men do not wear veils, declare a “love fest.” All the single men, including Courtney and Le Brun, must sit with the single women and praise their beauty. Courtney is paired up with foxy Menia, “[whose] beauty is known all over the desert.” But Courtney knows that much trouble can arise from having an affair with a Tuareg woman, so he keeps himself to words only, lifting lines from Shakespeare and further winning the approval of the desert peoples. It works, though, as Menia gives herself to Courtney there on the desert sand – not that we get any juicy details, of course.

The desert life stuff goes on and on, finally culminating in a fight with a jealous would-be suitor of Menia who comes after Courtney. Our hero escapes with Le Brun and Nazi Flaegler and the trio race across the desert with angry Tuaregs in tow. We get another brief action scene as they hold off a group of desert warriors, Flaegler trying to kill Courtney during the action but our hero getting the drop on him. And that’s it – “Whether his mission was successful is not directly known,” Shanahan lamely wraps up Courtney’s tale, thus bringing to end another middling story.

The third tale is courtesy Richard Gallagher, definitely one of my favorite men’s mag authors. “WW II’s Forgotten Sailor and His Desert Shangri-La” originally appeared in the January 1962 issue of Stag. It’s a little too similar to the previous story in the anthology, as once again it concerns an untried but plucky protagonist who is dropped into a hostile desert environment. In this case the desert is the Gobi and the protagonist is Navy Lt. John Mulhare, who when we meet him in May 1942 is the sole operator of “Mongolian Weather Station #1,” a remote radio broadcasting unit from which Mulhare sends weather updates to the Navy fleet.

Gallagher proves why he’s one of the better authors with a tale that featuers more sex and action than the previous two stories combined. In true men’s mag style it opens with both, as Mulhare is being bathed by his Mongolian consort, Numdah (whom we learn Mulhare had to force to bathe initially, Mongolian women being infamously dirty and unwashed), when “the Japs” launch an air raid on the village. The brief action scene also sees Japanese paratroopers dropping in just in time to get gunned down by Mulhare and the Mongol warriors.

But from there it’s to the inevitable flashback, where we see that Mulhare was dropped into the Gobi in January and had to become friendly with this tribe, led by Otan-shu, while setting up his station. Gallagher I’ve found is known for starting his stories out about one thing before veering unexpectedly in another direction. So is the case here. After the Japanese attack in May, Otan-shu orders the Mongols off, and now Mulhare is all alone. The story becomes a desert survival epic, and stays that way for the duration, as Mulhare makes his miserable way across the desert.

Mulhare eventually hooks up with another horde of Mongols, but these ones are mean and treat him like a “guest,” ie a prisoner. It’s all eerily similar to the previous tale as Mulhare engages in various pissing contests with the Mongol warriors to prove his manly mettle. He even takes another Mongol babe (off-page), not caring this time whether she’s bathed or not – Gallagher also has a strange fondness for often reminding us how dirty and smelly his characters are, particular the ladies. Unlike the previous story, though, Gallagher doesn’t even give us a big finale; instead we have the briefest of sword fights between the Mongols and some Japanese, and then Mulhare is turned safely over to the Nationalist Chinese.

Gallagher also delivers the final tale, “Blow The German Sub Pens at Adriatic Harbor,” from the August 1962 issue of Male. Not only is this the best story in the anthology, it’s also the only story that captures the theme of the book, with a misfit commando squad venturing into Axis territory to blow up the titular submarine pens. It’s my favorite story by Gallagher yet, and brings to mind his tale “Five Greek Girls to Istanbul,” which was collected in Women With Guns. And for once he opens with a storyline and sticks with it for the duration of the tale.

It’s August 1942 and Sgt. Max Jeremy is in charge of a five-man commando squad tasked with destroying the subs that are wreaking havoc on Allied convoys that supply Malta. The sub pens are located in Bari, Italy, on the Adriactic coast, built into the grottoes of a cliff base; “three hundred feet of granite armor plate covered them.” For the mission Jeremy leads Sgt. Running Horse Smith, aka “Pawnee,” who runs the radio; Dino, a demolitions guy; Gino, a mountain man; and finally Biji Salvato, “a dark-haired sweet-meat of a girl” who has somehow gotten assigned to this particular mission, mostly due to having grown up in Bari.

Gallagher puts the focus on action this time; the story opens with a lone fighter plane attack on Jeremy’s squad, in which poor Dino buys it. Even after the customary flashback, to a few months previously, Gallagher keeps the action moving, skipping over the squad’s training in London and sending them posthaste to Italy, where they first take on a German radio-directional truck. Gallagher also remembers the sex factor; however when Biji makes the expected advances on Jeremy he turns her away, fearing that her sleeping with him would cause jealousy in the group. Jeremy does get lucky later, when a nubile 18 year-old girl gives herself to him in the village the squad hides in.

But once again Gallagher dwells on how dirty and grimy our heroes are; Jeremy even encounteres the girl, Sophia, because he’s hoping to take a nighttime swim to get the stink off him. When he asks Sophia for some soap, she laughs that there hasn’t been any soap in the village for three years. But there’s more action on the way, Gallagher again well capturing the plight of a small group of commandos in enemy territory, as our heroes take on a platoon of Italian soldiers near a cemetary. By the time they get to those sub pens, Jeremy’s squad has been whittled down to three people: himself, Biji, and constantly-worrying Pawnee.

Armed with 300 pounds of airdopped nitrostarch and an 88mm artillery shell, which they steal from the Germans in another action sequence, Jeremy and team ply through the foggy harbor on a motor boat, evading the “cornstalk-thick” mines. We don’t get a big climactic shootout, though; when the Germans and Italians spot our heroes, they jump from the boat, which is used as an explosive battering ram. In the chaos of escape Jeremy and Biji are separated, but Gallagher – who arbitrarily drops into first-person narration here and there, the idea being that he is “friends” with Jeremy or something – informs us that the two were married in ’46, and indeed Gallagher even just recently visited them in New York!

Saved by a last story that redeems the anthology, Danger Patrol really doesn’t display the best material the Diamond Line had to offer. I’m certain there were much better stories Sarlat could’ve chosen. The stories here, other than the last one, are too ponderous and lack the rugged heroism expected from vintage men’s mag yarns. However the book’s still recommended for the sole fact that it actually features such yarns – it’s sure as hell a cheaper alternative than hunting down the original magazines.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Destroyer #15: Murder Ward


The Destroyer #15: Murder Ward, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
April, 1974  Pinnacle Books

If anything, this fifteenth volume of The Destroyer has confirmed my dislike of this particular series. While I know it has its loyal fans, and while I also know the series is better-written than the genre average, with more care to world-building and characterization, I still find that it grates on my nerves. Once again the authors focus on comedy and goofy situations in this “bestselling action series;” you can almost sense them sneering at those who have come looking for typical Pinnacle Books fare.

Occuring over the Christmas season, Murder Ward does not feature the most outlandish plot. Indeed one wonders why CURE has even sent its two superhuman assassins on this particular assignment. My friends, the villains of the piece are a pair of medical professionals who are killing patients on the operating table either as contract hits or so as to reap their assets once they’re dead. This plot alone is enough to remind us that The Destroyer lives in its own realm, one much different than the average Pinnacle offering. Even sadder is that this is the plot throughout; there’s no eleventh hour revelation of a grander scheme or anything. It’s just Remo and Chiun up against an alcoholic anasthesiologist and a sexy administrative assistant. 

The first recurring joke concerns the season itself – Chiun you see does not recognize Christmas. No, it’s the “Feast of the Pig” so far as Sinanju goes, and for his gift Chiun wants Barbara Streisand. He’s given Remo a gift of his own, a Christmas tree of his own making, which Remo considers nothing more than a “bush with tennis balls” on it. This joke is played out through the duration of Murder Ward. As usual, the man factor in the book – indeed, the main reason to read the series – is the bickering and bantering between our two lead characters.

In a way, The Destroyer is kind of sad. Remo Williams was raised in an orphanage, and after being “killed” in the line of police duty he went through a grueling decade of training. Yet the bond between Remo and his “little father” Chiun is one of contention, disagreement, and bickering. Only in moments of stress will you see their “true feelings” for one another when they go to each other’s aid, but then it’s right back to the venomous banter. Even Harold Smith, their “lemony” boss at CURE, treats Remo with disrespect, looking down his nose at him. Remo has no friends and encounters hostility and rudeness wherever he goes. I mean I’m not asking for warm-hearted sentiment, but it gets to be annoying after awhile. Even Richard Camellion had friends!

The mundane plot doesn’t help matters. Operating out of the Robler Clinic near Baltimore, a doctor named Daniel Demmet and a sexy and insatiable redhead named Kathy Hahl are knocking off patients; Demmet gives them just enough of a dose to kill them. We see him at work in an opening section which will have the reader swearing to never go to a hospital again. The expected bitterness of the Destroyer authors is stronger than typical throughout Murder Ward; my guess is one of them must’ve had a bad run-in with a doctor prior to writing this book. The medical industry does not come off very well at all.

Remo and Chiun, relaxing in San Francisco, are called in by Smith because IRS agents have been dying “random” deaths recently, and CURE wants to know if it’s part of some plot. Remo is assigned to shadow Nathind David Wilberforce of Scranton, a dyed-in-the-wool IRS agent in his 40s who lives with his overbearing mother. You guessed it, Wilberforce treats Remo with hostility and Mrs. Wilberforce, an ox of a woman, literally tries to throw him out of her house. Remo mocks the two while inspecting the perimeter and figuring out where the next attack will occur, but you don’t get any chuckles out of Remo’s taunts, because all of the characters are unlikable and thus you can’t really empathize with anyone.

Also as expected, when the “action” scenes finally go down, they’re over in a flash…and, same as always, they’re told from the perspective of the thugs getting killed. Over and over again it’s the same in this series; when Remo goes into action the authors hop into the perspective of the thug in question, and we read as he sees the blur of Remo’s hands and feels something wet on his head, and next thing he knows he’s missing an ear. Or he’ll see a blur as Chiun moves and then the thug will be falling down, going to sleep forever. It’s like that over and over. Never once do we get to read an action scene from Remo or Chiun’s perspective. It’s very frustrating.

Anyway, we get an “action scene” where Remo takes out some thugs who come to the Wilberforce house late at night; he tortures them and then works his way up the chain to the top employer behind the hit. Again, each and every scene here follows the same format as above; the authors will jump into the perspective of either a thug or someone at the mercy of the thugs as Remo appears, extracts his intel, and then kills the thugs. The action is played more for comedy. Right on cue, the “feast of the pig” joke comes back up, Remo wishing his victims a happy holiday before he kills them. There is no danger for Remo and thus no reader investment. Remo, per the ad in the back of the book, is a “superman of the ‘70s.”

Luckily, the authors are slightly more exploitative in the sex scenes. Kathy Hahl is as mentioned insatiable, however men are unable to last longer than ten seconds with her due to an “internal movement” she can perform during the act. We see this in action as she seduces a Mafia don who tries to hire her to kill Wilberforce. It’s not hardcore porn but it’s more descriptive than what you’d read in a few other men’s adventure novels of the day; the authors do enjoy their female villains, and thus Kathy is so evil that she doses the don with an experimental drug that accelerates his aging. When Remo, having worked his way up the chain, finally finds the man behind the would-be Wilberforce killers, the don is an emaciated skeleton about to die anyway.

Meanwhile, Wilberforce gets sick, goes to the Robler Clinic…and is killed anyway! Next old Mrs. Robler is dosed by that aging drug, Dr. Demmet using the same dosing-during-sex trick as Kathy Hahl. The novel goes just where you expected it would as Remo and Chiun check into the Robler clinic, CURE having determined it’s the likely culprit behind the recent murders. Chiun poses as “Dr. Park” and Remo is a wealthy nutcase named “Mr. Williams.” Some of this material is slightly funny, particularly Chiun’s attempts at acting like an arrogant doctor.

But then, much of it’s pretty grating, like an overlong part where Remo, dressed in stolen doctor’s garb, wanders the halls and offers bullshit medical advice. It doesn’t help matters that Chiun does the exact same thing in a later sequence. But that’s pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle, folks; our heroes just wander around the clinic and try to figure out what’s going on. When Remo discovers a locked room with aged animals, animals with recent birthdates, he slowly puts a few pieces together – not that Smith or Chiun believe him.

Given the early mention that Kathy Hahl has never met a man who can last with her – indeed, during her random bouts of sex with Dr. Demmet she actually counts off the seconds until he climaxes – the reader knows that Remo will give her a run for her money. And when Remo sees her he thinks she’s gorgeous, but at the same time regrets that he no longer takes pleasure in sex(!?). No, we are informed that during that decade-long training “Chiun had robbed [Remo] of the pleasure of sex. Sex was just another discipline, a skill to be learned.” This is our hero, people. A remorseless killing machine who doesn’t even have a sex drive.

Well anyway, the two still go at it; Kathy Hahl, her attempts to have Remo killed having failed, attempts to escape. Remo, himself having been dosed by the aging drug – the one effective scene in the novel, in which Chiun rushes to Remo’s aid and coaches him how to expel the poison – tracks her down and gives it to her while she’s bent over a filing cabinet. Does the Destroyer last more than ten seconds? Of course he does – not that he gets any pleasure out of it. Indeed, the authors go to the trouble of informing us that he doesn’t even bother to climax; but Kathy Hahl has, over and over again.

Meanwhile in a display of his own sadism Remo has coated his member with that aging serum! He taunts Kathy as she begins to visibly age, then locks her in her office and walks away, leaving her to die a horrifying death! Meanwhile Chiun has taken out the two thugs who poisoned Remo in the first place – you guessed it, another “action scene” relegated from the perspectives of the thugs as Chiun kills them. And that’s what passes for a climactic action scene; the authors again show their true colors with more focus placed on the recurring “Christmas/Feast of the Pig” joke in the last pages.

So anyway, I can’t say I much like The Destroyer. I’ve yet to read a volume that’s really grabbed me. I have many more installments, though, so I’ll keep checking them out. Who knows, maybe eventually I’ll begin to see things the other way around and enjoy the series for what it is: a dark spoof of the action genre. But for now I prefer my pulp straight with no chaser.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Frogman!


Frogman!, by J.E. Macdonnell
January, 1960  Pyramid Books
(original Australian edition, 1958)

A few years before he wrote the Mark Hood series, Australian author J.E. Macdonnell turned out this World War II paperback, no doubt sourced from his own memories of serving in the Navy. Frogman! is written a bit differently than the later Mark Hood books, with Macdonnell delivering a mostly standard story that focuses on the so-called “frogmen” of the war.

First though let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome cover art, courtesy veteran men’s adventure magazine artist Mel Crair. It’s super cool and all, but you have to love how the frogman’s holding a stick of dynamite with a fuse…under the water. I think I once saw Wile E. Coyote try the same thing. It’s likely Crair did this as a joke, but at any rate it’s pretty funny. The cover’s still pretty great, though.

I remember being fascinated as a kid by the frogmen, probably due to their wetsuits and gear – as a kid I was obsessed with costumed superheroes and masks and whatnot. Surprisingly though, it doesn’t look like very many novels were written about the frogmen, or at least I personally have been able to only find a few of them. In fact it seems that so few were written that Pyramid Books, which published a ton of WWII paperbacks, had to import this one from Australia. It’s a slim book, too, coming in at 143 pages of smallish print.

Those hoping for a pulpy, action-packed read will be a little disappointed. Like Women’s Battalion, Frogman! is another WWII paperback that doesn’t retain the puly, sensationalistic feel of the men’s adventure mags of the day. Macdonnell plays it straight throughout, giving us a realistic story that’s made up of about 80% training and only 20% action. The novel takes place in the Pacific front of the war and its protagonists are all members of the Australian Navy, which is locked in combat with “the Japs.” The year is not stated, but it would appear to be at the height of the war.

Our hero is Petty Officer Clive Gellatly, a former boxer who has been in the Navy for about ten years. Gellatly is a “pom-pom” operator on a destroyer ship, and chomps at the bit for more athletic duty, despite his skill at the heavy gun. As for that “pom-pom” bit, part of the problem the reader of Frogman! must surmount is that Macdonnell has peppered the novel with 1940s Australian Navy slang that will be meaningless to Americans. I mean I felt like I was reading A Clockwork Orange at times, encountering nonsensical phrases like “jack-me-hearty’s” (apparently a derogatory term for pompous officials) and, my favorite of them all, “You’re acting like a sheila with her first matelot.”

Gellatly responds to a request for able seamen interested in frogman duties. “Suicide squad,” Gellatly figures, and quickly signs up. He’s taken to a remote oceanside area where he will train with another four men for the next few months. His teammates are Corby, a musclebound dude nicknamed “Blubberguts;” the monosyllabic Bill Smith, who is such a forgettable character that he doesn’t even get a nickname; “Bluey” Taplin, a redhead with lots of freckles; and finally “Whitey,” an Aborigine pearl diver. Macdonnell has a subplot where Gellatly wonders if Corby resents Whitey due to his race, but this comes and goes, and besides Corby launches to Whitey’s defense during the infrequent barroom brawls the team gets in.

In fact it takes a good 50 pages until we even get to the frogman stuff. Macdonnell introduces the readers and Gellatly himself to the team during an overlong sequence in which they hit a bunch of bars. Along the way Gellatly hooks up with a brunette bombshell named Rita, even having sex with her in a park – a fade to black scene, but humorously enough the part of the book Pyramid chose to spotlight in the first-page preview of this edition. Gellatly’s casual affair with Rita ultimately leads to the novel’s first big action sequence, a brawl in which the team takes on her former paramour and his colleagues.

But the frogman stuff is what we’re here for. The team’s trainer, Henley, teaches them all the rudiments of diving and working their air beneath the waves, along with how to keep their ears from rupturing and etc. Macdonnell doesn’t bore the reader with tedious, endless details. He capably brings to life Gellatly’s own joy with deep diving, something he’s never done before, with our hero broken in to his new life with on-the-job learning like recovering lost watches and other items from the sea floor. Eventually the team is also taught how to plant mines on enemy ships, growing into a strong, capable unit along the way.

Around page 100 the team’s given its first mission; Gellatly, as senior officer, is in charge. Taken to New Guinea, Gellatly’s frogman team boards the Wind Rode, Gellatly’s former destroyer. Their mission is to venture to Mortie Island in the Halmaheras, the location of a “big Jap base,” one that features a powerful radar station. Gellatly’s team is to blow up the radar base so that bombers can’t be called in to stave off the impending Allied invasion. We get our first aquatic action scene when Whitey suits up in his frogman gear and goes beneath the Wind Rode, encountering two “Jap frogmen,” killing both of them with his knife.

This proves to be the action highlight. While Gellatly puts a submachine gun in a plastic bag for the nighttime swim to the island, he never uses it; he uses a knife to take out a sleeping sentry and the team slips into the radar station, setting it to blow. There is no big action setpiece in Frogman!; instead the team escapes, safely in the water when the station blows up, but Corby is injured by the shock waves from depth charges dropped by a pursuing boat – repercussions for his refusal to wear a jersey beneath his wetsuit, something Henley always advised for this very reason.

Corby lives, though, and indeed the finale is a payoff on the simmering Corby/Whitey rivalry. Given that Whitey risked his neck to save Corby, the Aborigine is rightly pissed that Corby caused the whole issue by disobeying orders and not wearing a jersey. Corby swallows his pride and apologizes, and that’s that; the novel ends with the success of this first mission of Gellatly’s team. It makes one wish that there was a bit more action in the book, as it is more gripping than the training and barroom brawling.

There is nothing exploitative about Frogman!; the two sex scenes with Rita are instant fades to black, and the action scenes are not gory. As for language, anything stronger than “hell” is bowdlerized, with dialog like “- -!” appearing the text. (I enjoyed coming up with my own outrageous profanity to fill in the blanks.) About the only thing readers would find off-putting today is the constant usage of “Japs,” even on the back cover, but then that’s part and parcel of these old WWII paperbacks, and any veteran reader of vintage pulp will be immune to it.

It’s short, breezily written, perhaps a bit too confusing in its Australian dialog, and maybe too focused on training at the expense of action, but Frogman! is in the end pretty enjoyable…though I have a feeling there has to be a better frogman-focused war paperback out there.

Now stop acting like a sheila with her first matelot!!