Monday, May 30, 2016

Six Graves To Munich


Six Graves To Munich, by Mario Cleri
October, 1967  Banner Books

Two years before his breakout success with The Godfather, Mario Puzo published this scarce paperback under his “Mario Cleri” pseudonym, which he’d been using for years for his men’s adventure magazine work. Interestingly, this Banner edition of Six Graves To Munich is copyright Puzo, so there was no mystery behind its authorship. No mention is made of Male Magazine, in which the original short version of the story first appeared.

As far as I know Puzo was the only men’s mag author to decide to elaborate one of his stories to novel length; I’ve read several of these sweat mag yarns that would’ve made for great novels, like “Raid On The Nazis’ Sex Circus Stalag,” “Assignment: Nepal,” and especially “Blood For The Love Slaves.” But Puzo appears to have been the only author to go this route; “Six Graves To Munich,” the story, first appeared in the November 1965 issue of Male Magazine (it wasn’t the cover feature, so I haven’t put up a scan of it). Puzo must’ve liked the story or felt that it needed to be further exploited, hence two years later we have this sort of director’s cut.

Running to 128 pages of small print, Six Graves To Munich reads exactly like a men’s mag story of the day, with a no-nonsense, virile protagonist confronting and surmounting great odds and scoring with a bunch with exotic Eurobabes along the way. The tale is set in 1955, yet Puzo really doesn’t do much to capture the era, and other than the occasionally-mentioned ages of a few characters, it could just as easily be 1965. Indeed, later in the book Puzo (possibly) slips and states that one of the villains is “no longer the killer he was twenty years ago,” rather than “ten years ago.” But to Puzo’s defense, the character in question is a Mafia don, so he could just be generalizing about when he was younger, not necessarily just his wartime years.

Anyone expecting a multi-character drama with rich subplots along the lines of Puzo’s later The Godfather will be underwhelmed, but those looking for a streamlined tale of vengeance in the manner of the pulps will be entertained. Six Graves To Munich is almost tunnel-visioned in its simple plot, which concerns a WWII vet named Mike Rogan gaining vengeance on the men who tortured and “killed” him ten years before, along with Rogan’s wife and unborn child. Puzo livens up the plot with some interesting characters and unexpected developments, but this is not a meaty tale by any means, and likely was even more powerful in shorter form.

Rogan is a little different than the typical men’s mag protagonist: whereas he’s still a badass like the best of them, he’s a genius to boot, gifted with a photographic memory which he used from a young age to master subject after subject. In backstory (no doubt material added for this novel version) we learn how Rogan’s parents considered his brain a “gift to mankind” and pushed him to better the human race. We also learn that Rogan’s dad, after his brainiac kid got bullied, taught him how to box to defend himself. When WWII came along, Rogan used his smarts to get a job with Army Intelligence, with a mastery in code breaking.

Yearning for field deployment, Rogan was parachuted into Occupied France several months before D-Day, helping work various coded messages. Staying with a French farming family, Rogan fell in love with their beautiful daughter Christine and married her. Soon she was pregnant. But on D-Day itself Rogan got careless with his radio broadcasts and the Gestapo intercepted them. Two weeks later they descended on the farm and killed everyone, capturing Rogan and Christine. They were taken to the Munich Palace of Justice, where Rogan’s nightmare began.

Puzo flashes back to Rogan’s plight throughout the novel. Kept alone and beaten mercilessly and at whim, Rogan was questioned by six men throughout, tortured by his wife’s screams in another room. Rogan was never able to see her, never able to learn what exactly was being done to her. His dignity destroyed by the sadism of torture, Rogan was eventually broken – especially when the Nazi bastards revealed that Christine had been dead all along, and the screams Rogan heard nothing more than a wax cylinder recording. Both she and the child had been dead since shortly after their capture, and all along the sadists had just been toying with Rogan.

But when the war’s end looms the captors tell Rogan he is a free man; they bring him clean clothes and a hat and tell him to get dressed. His mind destroyed from the endless torturing, Rogan complies…only to realize when he feels a barrel against the back of his head that they’re lying yet again. However by a complete fluke the bullet doesn’t kill Rogan, though it shatters a portion of his brain. Dumped on a pile of corpses, he’s discovered by the Army doctors who soon arrive at the Palace. Over a great length of time Rogan recuperates, but now he has a metal plate in his head and his face, due to surgery, looks completely different from the one he was born with.

All this is sprinkled through the tale; Puzo focuses on the revenge plot and hits the ground running with Rogan already on one of his vengeance kills on the very first page. Only gradually do we learn that Rogan, battered from his experience to the point where he’d become an alcoholic bum, eventually got himself together and now fronts a million-dollar computer company with ties to the government. So in other words the guy is like the Count of Monte Cristo meets Bill Gates. It’s been ten years since that hellish day in the Munich Palace of Justice, and now Rogan has come to Europe to exact his revenge.

Six Graves To Munich is more of a suspense thriller; the “action scenes” are relegated to Rogan’s quick hits on his prey. His killing tool is a Walther P-38 with a silencer, which coincidentally enough is the same weapon and accessory later featured in The Butcher. The novel opens with Rogan carrying out one of his hits, heading into a sleazy strip club in Hamburg, introducing himself to a portly German, and them blowing him away. For the most part, Rogan’s kills will follow this template through the rest of the novel; he wants his quarry to know who he is, to remember the horrors they put him through ten years ago, and then watch the realization dawn on their face before he shoots them.

This first victim is named Pfann, and was one of the minor flunkies in Rogan’s torture; previous to this – in a sequence delivered in a later chapter (per men’s mag tradition, the story is told a bit out of sequence) – we’ll learn that Rogan has already killed another of his torturers, a guy named Moltke. After the hit on Pfann Rogan heads into Hamburg’s red light district as a way to lose any tails and picks up a whore, whom he choses because she shows no interest in the passing men on the street. She is a beautiful blonde named Rosalie, and Rogan buys her services so he can sleep in her room – the metal plate causes him much pain and torment, particularly when he’s worked up, and doctors have told him he could kill himself if he pushes too hard.

But next morning he ends up having sex with good-natured and innocent Rosalie after all, particularly after admiring her “strawberry-tipped breasts,” which I believe is a recurring phrase in Cleri/Puzo’s men’s mag stories. The ensuing sex is strictly fade to black, with only a little detail; safe to say the sex scenes were not sleazed up for the paperback edition. Rogan and Rosalie basically fall in love, and he enjoys being with her so much he rents her for a week, taking her out to all the fancy places. Along the way she snoops in his stuff, finds his files on the men who tortured him, and pleads to aid him in his quest for vengeance.

They head on to Berlin, where Rogan has two victims: Eric and Hans Friesling, brothers who took special delight in his torture. Eric in fact was the one who shot Rogan, though under the orders of the mysterious man who led the torture sessions; Rogan is still uncertain of the names of all of his tormentors, and the Friesling brothers are the last leads he has. They now run an auto shop in Berlin, known as wheelers and dealers behind the Iron Curtain, and Rogan makes friendly overtures with them as a guy looking for an inroad behind the Iron Curtain to sell his computers for a good price without red tape and etc.

The novel is opened up a bit with the presence of Arthur Bailey, a CIA agent who has been tailing Rogan and has figured out what he’s doing. He warns Rogan not to kill the Friesling brothers, as they are key to a big operation the CIA is working on. Of course Rogan doesn’t listen, drugging the brothers and having them separately write down the names of the three remaning torturers. Then he puts them in the trunk of his Mercedes and kills them with carbon monoxide! Leaving Rosalie behind due to the fact that Bailey’s now onto him, Rogan goes to Sicily: one of the six torturers turns out to have been an Italian named Genco Bari, there as a consultant. Now he is a Mafia don. 

The material with Bari is interesting in how it prefigures The Godfather. All of it could’ve come straight out of that later book. Bari, like Don Corleone, is at heart a good-natured man, one who regrets the necessary violence of his life. He was the only interrogator who was kind to Rogan back then, something for which Rogan now hates Bari even more. But Rogan finds that Bari is incredibly old now; he sees him at a festival in which the entire community is partying, and Bari looks like a cadaver. Rogan knows he has to act fast or nature will take care of the job for him.

Meanwhile Rogan gets lucky with a dark-haired, lusty native gal who takes him to a room in Bari’s castle…and the next day announces that she’s Mrs. Genco Bari! The don is complicit with her wanton nature; indeed he married her just a few years ago, hoping her youth would make him live longer. Instead he is unable to please her and allows her to have her share of men…men who are later paid for their time. But Bari somehow recognizes Rogan, even though he can’t place him; he invites Rogan to stay. The two become sort of friends, with Rogan uncertain if he will be able to kill the kindly old man.

The sequence with Bari is probably the highlight of the novel, as it has the most emotional resonance. Rogan is surprised to learn that the old don has long figured out that Rogan is here to kill him, and indeed welcomes him in this act. Bari is in suffering and just wants release. He is also the one who reveals to Rogan that Rogan’s wife Christine died in childbirth; none of the interrogators touched her. It was the decision of the lead interrogator, a Nazi named Claus von Osteen, to record her death cries.

Rogan next heads to Budapest, where he’ll find another interrogator who was there in Munich as a consultant for his country. This is Pajeski, who is now chief of the secret police. Arthur Bailey shows up again, offering his help, but Rogan suspects the CIA agent has ulterior motives. Whereas the Bari hit has the most emotional depth, the hit on Pajeski is the most suspenseful. The lecherous man is constantly guarded and follows a strict daily routine. Rogan puts his brains to work and figures out that Pajeski’s one moment of weakness is during his nightly game of chess in a restaurant.

The hit on Pajeski also prefigures Puzo’s later novel, in particular Michael Coreleone’s assassination of the police chief and rival Mafia don in the restaurant. Instead of a gun, though, Rogan wires a chess piece to blow! This is by far the goriest part of the book, with copious juicy detail of Pajeski’s head exploding in the ensuing blast. From there it’s back to Berlin and a reunion with Rosalie, who has been pining for Rogan and checking the airport every night in hopes of his return. Rogan has learned that the sadist in charge of his torture was an official named Claus von Osteen, now a judge in Munich’s Palace of Justice, which is where Rogan was held and “killed.”

The finale of Six Graves To Munich plays out on an unexpected note of hesitation and remorse as Rogan knows that it will be suicide to kill von Osteen, so should he just give in to Rosalie’s pleas and live happily with her, forgetting about his quest for vengeance? Meanwhile Bailey’s back in the picture, and we learn that he does in fact have ulterior motives, and if Rogan does carry out his hit there will be no happy end for our hero. Of course you can’t write a book like this and have the hero decide “to hell with it” at the end, so Puzo delivers an appropriately bittersweet resolution in which vengeance is delivered, but not without great cost.

Overall I really enjoyed Six Graves To Munich, possibly even more so than The Godfather, which occasionally gets lost in Harold Robbins-esque sequences, like the unforgettable part where the good-looking doctor rebuilds a certain portion of his girlfriend’s anatomy. But at the same time, Six Graves To Munich is a bit too spare, following the same repetitive storyline as Rogan goes to a city, appraises his quarry, and then kills him. In fact Rogan has much too easy of a time of it. To tell the truth I would’ve been happier if Puzo had chosen to turn say “Barracks Of Wild Blondes” into a full-length novel…now that would’ve been cool.

I lucked out and found a copy of this Banner edition for cheap, but Six Graves To Munich has recently been reprinted under Puzo’s own name, and is available for much cheaper. I’d certainly recommend it, but again it wasn’t the knockout revenge thriller I was hoping for.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Butcher #10: Deadly Doctor


The Butcher #10: Deadly Doctor, by Stuart Jason
January, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Given that I’m jumping around in The Butcher, I thought I’d next check out one of the volumes written by the third author to serve as “Stuart Jason,” Lee Floren, who was apparently a prolific Westerns writer. He only wrote two volumes of The Butcher, this one and the next volume, so I thought I’d see how he compares to James Dockery and Michael Avallone.

The first notable thing is that Floren, unlike later series author Avallone, clearly tries to stay true to the template set forth by series originator James Dockery. Indeed one could almost be initially fooled that Deadly Doctor is the work of Dockery, albeit a very subdued Dockery. Floren is unable to match the grotesque dark comedy standard in Dockery’s installments, though he tries. But just like a Dockery installment this one opens with Bucher alone in the dangerous back streets of a city (Los Angeles in this case) while a pair of Mafia gunners tail him, looking to collect on that bounty.

Floren’s Mafia gunners lack the bizarro nature of Dockery’s, though again he tries to retain that feel. In this case one of them is notorious for shooting people in the back and the other’s a coward unless he’s hopped up on heroin. Bucher makes short work of both of them while constantly flashing back to his origins, from his break with the Syndicate to his taking out of the first few hitmen sent after him, and finally to his starting work as “Iceman” for White Hat. And meanwhile he keeps pondering this latest White Hat case: he’s to look into the disappearance of a famous doctor named Dr. Primo Marcelli, who was supposedly researching birth control.

First though Bucher has to be sprung from jail, having been arrested for killing those two gunners – another hallmark of the Dockery installments. From there it’s to chasing down the meager leads provided by White Hat. Bucher interviews an uber-sexy redheaded doctor named Marton Byers, who was briefly colleagues with the missing Dr. Marcelli; Floren has a good time detailing the woman’s ample charms as Bucher checks her out – like Avallone’s version of the character, this Bucher at least has a libido, and knows a sexy lady when he sees one. But Byers flees immediately after the interview and Bucher ponders this.

Bucher does a lot of pondering in Florey’s hands; whereas Dockery’s incarnation was a stone-cold bad ass, this Bucher often sits around and bemoans how many men he’s killed. You can also detect Floren’s Westerns background as Bucher often flashes back not only to past Syndicate hits which have the tang of Wild West shootouts, but also even refers to Wild Bill Hickock on occasion.

Floren also stresses Bucher’s piloting skills; here we learn that Bucher was not only in the Air Force (just missing combat deployment in Korea due to being too young), but is also a capable fighter jet pilot. This time he flies a P-38 (same plane model as his gun, something else he ruminates on) and an F4 Phantom. Floren really goes to town on the aviation fiction stuff, with Bucher at one point “having fun” by flying acrobatically over the desert. It’s all very reminiscent as the “plane porn”-type stuff you’ll read in some of the Penetrator installments of Mark Roberts.

Floren’s “plotting” is just as convoluted as Dockery’s, though. Bucher, in Phoenix, dodges hits from the brothers of the two men he killed in Los Angeles while chasing faint leads on the missing Dr. Marcelli. Mind you, we’re about 50 pages in and still have no idea what the doctor was even researching. Instead we have a repeat of the earlier scene where Bucher takes out one of the guys after him (a stupid, would-be comedy scene where Bucher tosses the guy, an LSD addict named Looney, out of a hotel window and then argues with a belligerent cashier over this act of violence…?!) and then has to phone White Hat to spring him from the police. We even get a repeat on how illegal Bucher’s silencer is.

So yeah, while Deadly Doctor is all very indebted to Dockery, it’s just lifeless in comparison. Floren seems unable to tell if he’s writing a spoof or a legitimate action novel. After a few middling adventures with his Phoenix White Hat contact, a young hippie named Apostle Paul, Bucher hops back in his plane and heads for Salt Lake City, where a disguised Dr. Marton Byers has supposedly gone. Meanwhile the other Syndicate villain, a sadist named Bruno Niccoli who gets off on hanging people, is also still apparently after Bucher…or something. It’s all very convoluted, I tell you. Floren is not the best plotter, at least judging from this book.

But then, perhaps Floren just didn’t understand the genre; it’s my understanding he specialized in Westerns, and interestingly enough Deadly Doctor is filled with references to the Old West. But Floren is very hamfisted in his writing; the novel is constantly stalling and repeating itself – Bucher is arrested not once but thrice, with the same outcome (and same shocked reactions from the cops when he’s freed) each time – not to mention the arbitrary backgrounds delivered for various one-off characters, including those we just saw get killed. But repetition is the most nauseating, though sometimes it’s played for comedic value, like the recurring joke of Bucher killing various Syndicate flunkies by tossing them out of windows.

As for Bucher, for one Floren is more prone to refer to him as “The Butcher,” unlike Dockery. But also we learn here that he’s fond of fishing and indeed there are many times in the novel where he wishes he could go into those lovely streams outside Salt Lake City and grip a fishing rod(!). Floren’s Bucher is also a lot more prone to rumination and introspection, constantly pondering his brutal life and the fact that he himself will inevitably be killed. Floren, again proving he’s done his homework, even breaks out Dockery’s patented “bitter-sour taste of defeat” line once or twice.

Still though, Deadly Doctor is nothing much like Dockery’s work, for the main reason that it becomes a chore to read. Indeed Floren reminds me very much of Russell Smith, not due to the wild nature of his book, but how he keeps stalling and stumbling and wasting time on pedantic, incidental details. And most of the details are redundant, like “water moat” and “switchblade knife.” It sounds like a little thing, but it builds up to a lot.

Floren’s also similar to Dockery in how he denies us any sleazy sex scenes. Busty redhead Dr. Marton Byers shows up again much later in the book and offers herself to Bucher, telling him a b.s. story about needing his protection. Bucher instantly deduces she’s a Syndicate honey trap and tosses her aside, leaving Salt Lake City to chase further go-nowhere clues. A few pages later he finds out that the lovely lady is dead, hanged by Mafia sadist Bruno Niccoli in punishment for not successfully conquering Bucher. Well, there goes that. After more banality Bucher finally deduces that the overall plot he’s facing has the Syndicate aligned with a fascist organization called The Musketmen, which plans to use Dr. Marcelli’s sterilizing serum in soda to depopulate non-white races.

We’re now in the homestretch. Off Bucher goes in his P-38 to Ecuador, which he’s figured out is where the Musketmen are testing their plan. The final pages still don’t give us the big sendoff we’ve been hoping for. Instead Floren continues with his low-brow, goofy approach. A corrupt senator named Oakes (who doesn’t even show up) turns out to be behind the affair, working with the Syndicate and the Musketmen to sterilize minorities or something. He owns a massive villa here in Ecuador, where the locals slurp down a particular brand of soda and wonder why their women can’t get pregnant. Without much fuss Bucher, disguised with skin-darkening cream as a native, slips into Oakes’s guarded villa.

Here, after killing a random guard, Bucher discovers Dr. Marcelli, a prisoner of Oakes and the Syndicate but insane now, likely due to the fatal injection he’s been given of his own serum. Bucher escapes with him, only for the doc to die, and Bucher sees Bruno Niccoli coming for him in his damned F4 Phantom. Bucher straps into his own and Deadly Doctor climaxes with an endless aerial dogfight between the two men. Yes, friends, this volume of The Butcher ends with an aerial dogfight!! What more proof do you need that Floren was not ready to ghostwrite for this particular series?

At least it caps off with a nice bit of poetic justice, as Niccoli, ejecting from his Phantom, inadvertently hangs himself on his own parachute strap. Bucher briefly tastes “the bitter taste of defeat” as he ruminates over dead Dr. Byers and the fact that one of these days he too will inevitably be gunned down by Syndicate stooges…but at any rate we readers can breathe a sigh of relief that this dud of an installment has finally come to an end. Unfortunately Floren returned for one more, the next one, but mercifully after that Dockery came back on board.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Danger Woman


Danger Woman, by Abel Mann
September, 1966  Pocket Books

I was drawn to this obscure and apparently scarce paperback due to the fact that it’s titular protagonist happens to be a gorgeous female secret agent, a veritable proto-Baroness. “Abel Mann” was a pseudonym of John Creasey, a prolific British author I’ve never read. It looks like Danger Woman was only published in the US, and one wonders if it was intended as the start of a series.

The book, which is smaller and more squat than the average paperback (about the size of one from the ‘50s in fact), is fairly short, more along the lines of a novella. And Creasey tells what is for the most part a rather simple and streamlined story. Our hero is a 34 year-old “copper haired” British beauty named Storm Frend who is a kick-ass spy for her government, reporting to a taciturn enigma named “Bandy” Bannion. Storm is as expected gorgeous and phenomenally built, though Creasey only mentions her “magnificent breasts” once or twice. I couldn’t help but imagine her as a brunette, though, given the cover painting, and with her aloof attitude it was easy to picture Diana “Emma Peel” Rigg.

Storm herself is rather taciturn, and truth to tell not a very fun protagonist. She is a world-weary secret agent who is so self-confident that she’s borderline arrogant. Creasey sprinkles backstory throughout the narrative, so that we gradually learn Storm is a widow and turned to spying after her husband’s death – again, very much like in the later The Baroness. (Is it a coincidence that Pocket was also the publisher of that series?) Storm is wealthy and lives in opulence, all of London her stomping grounds, though there are no Swinging London details here. The novel is not very grounded in the era in which it was published, sad to say.

Bandy runs AE, a subset of British Intelligence, and one afternoon he calls Storm in to first chastize her for her “bed-hopping” but also to let her know she’s about to get a new assignment. Meanwhile on the way in to Bandy’s office Storm caught sight of a young AE agent named Paul, and we readers know that Bandy intended this – indeed, he has instructed Paul to “take no notice of Storm.” From this one sighting Storm, who we’ll recall is world-weary to the point of pessimism, basically falls in love with Paul, and will think of him often in the frequent ruminations which pepper the text. It’s hard to buy.

When Storm goes back to her apartment she realizes someone’s snuck in. As a sign of her bad-assery she waltzes into the bathroom, starts up a bath, and slinks out of her clothes; more opportunity to document those “magnificent breasts.” Toying with the intruder she knows is one the premises, Storm relishes the opportunity to once again test herself in combat. She makes short work of the would-be assailant, a gangly British dude named Plessey who comes at Storm with a syringe. His goal was to drug her up with sodium pentathol and find out all she’d been told by Bandy.

Storm beats Plessey up and grills him. Turns out he has been hired by Juan, the Duke of Arago, a mysterious and wealthy Spaniard who has a villa in Hampstead. He may be an enemy of England. Apparently Arago, as he’s called throughout, has reckoned that AE is onto him and that Storm, AE’s top agent, has been put on his tail. Arago we gradually learn is suspected of plotting against the UK, in particular stirring up “new countries” so that they turn against England. Bandy instructs Storm to track him down and get the details on what exactly Arago is up to.

The novel’s sole action scene has Storm suiting up in black, masking her curvy body so that she looks like a man, and arming herself with a palm-size gun and a garter stocked with knives and various tools. She also has some “fire-raising chemicals.” Not that any of this is used. Rather, Storm infiltrates Arago’s Hampstead retreat, killing one of his guard dogs in the process. She finds a cellar filled with Medieval torture equipment and is nearly caught. She also is startled to see none other than Paul on the premises; turns out he’s posing as one of Arago’s guards as part of his own AE assignment.

Storm also finds a lovely young lady sleeping alone in a room – a lady who happens to be the same mystery woman who’s been following Storm around lately. This is Isobella, young descendant of Spanish royalty; Arago’s goal is to bring back “Old Spain” as a ruling power, with Isobella as queen and Arago as the de facto ruler. But Storm’s caught after all, and placed on a Medieval torture device called The Pirouette, which spins her around like Roger Moore in Moonraker. She’s freed by Paul, who is gunned down off-page; Storm for her part uses that palm gun to kill one of Arago’s henchmen.

Now Storm, that bad-ass female agent, recuperates…for three weeks!! Receiving daily massages from housekeeper Bertha (who berates Storm for not having children), Storm pines over dead Paul, and again Creasey fails to make their would-be relationship believable. When Bandy isn’t satisfied with Storm’s full report, he sends her ass in again; this time he wants her to purposely be caught by Arago and to find out without fail who he is working for. Off Storm goes to Nice, where she’s promptly drugged in a restaurant…and wakes up once again in that damn torture chamber in Arago’s Hampstead villa.

Here Danger Woman, in its final pages, gets weird. Storm is nude and bound once again to the Pirouette. Arago towers over her, wearing “talons” on his fingers, with which he threatens to slice Storm up and forever mar her beauty. We’re treated to a Bond-esque exposition courtesy Arago on his crazy plans for world domination. Meanwhile Storm, never losing her calm, tries to seduce Arago with her womanly wiles, luring him with sex. Her gambit is that if Arago does her he’ll lose his sadistic impulses and be less likely to kill her. She promises vaguely that she’s the best lay in the entire world, or something to that effect, and Arago would really be missing the hell out if he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

And guess what, she succeeds. Creasey is vague in the novel’s sole sex scene, with lines like “two bodies became one” and such. But Storm’s plan succeeds, and in his post-coital stupor Arago concedes to Storm’s point, that Spain can never be great again, just as England can never be; that their days of glory are in the past. The man’s dreams properly crushed, Storm breaks the poor bastard’s neck, and that’s that…oh, and Arago also concedes that Storm was in fact the best lay of his life. The end!

Neither sleazy nor prudish, neither pulpy nor literary, Danger Woman is for the most part a fairly enjoyable thriller, carried mostly by Creasey’s skillful writing. I could’ve used more period detail, and it would’ve been fun to see Storm cut loose a bit more; the few times she does get to kick ass she’s a lot of fun. However she’s still no Baroness.

I wonder though if Creasey did in fact plan this as the start of a series, as the novel ends with Storm certain that Bandy will call on her once again with a new assignment. But then, maybe he never did.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Aquanauts #4: Sargasso Secret


The Aquanauts #4: Sargasso Secret, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1971  Macfadden Books

The fourth volume of The Aquanauts is pretty oddball; for the first hundred pages author Manning Lee Stokes appears to be under the impression that he’s writing a murder-mystery – indeed, a murder-mystery starring a septuagenarian Navy admiral! Once again one must wonder if series creator/producer Lyle Kenyon Engel figured he might’ve hired the wrong ghostwriter.

At any rate Stokes’s writing, despite the padding, stalling, and general lack of anything “aquanautical,” is still so readable, at least for me, that I find I don’t really mind the fact that not much at all is happening. Perhaps Engel felt the same, and just let Stokes do his thing. Regardless, the first half of Sargasso Secret will be hard-going for most, especially those who are eager for the Thunderball/Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea underwater action promised by the series’s concept.

For once again Stokes has taken a series about a kick-ass Navy frogman codenamed “Tiger Shark,” his billion-dollar high-tech submersible KRAB, and turned in a story that really has nothing much to do with any of it, sort of like in the first volume. As mentioned Tiger’s boss, “Old Crusty” Navy admiral Hank Coffin, is the star of the show for the first hundred pages – and my friends, this is perhaps the longest Stokes offering yet, coming in at 224 pages of small print with hardly any white space. Stokes was both prolific and industrious, you have to give him that.

Some unspecified but short time after the previous volume, Admiral Hank Coffin is flying to Hawaii under orders of the President to look into a potential solution to the growing threat of world famine. Sargasso Secret is heavy with the doom and gloom prophecies of the ‘70s, with “world starvation” at one point stated as being a certainty by the ‘80s. Coffin as we’ll recall is chief of SUS, ie the Secret Underwater Service, and he has no idea why the President would task him with this assignment. This is another hallmark of Stokes’s writing – the protagonists are constantly wondering why they’ve been given their latest mission. One wonders if this was Stokes himself bemoaning his latest ghostwriting duty through his characters.

Tiger and his immediate boss Captain Tom Greene are already here in Hawaii; Stokes as ever does well with bringing to life his trio of main protagonists, with Coffin and Greene, closer due to age, bickering and bantering, and alpha male Tiger chomping at the bit to get back into action. They’re here to meet Dr. Lee Choon, a chain-smoking marine biologist of Hawaiian-Chinese descent who, we gradually learn, has formulated a way to synthesize proteins and vegetables out of seaweed. In fact he’s called the Navy reps here to his mansion to eat “thousand dollar steaks,” ie steaks that were created by seaweed harvested at great cost from the Sargasso Sea, near Cuba.

Also here is Choon’s wonderfully-named stepdaughter, Poppy Choon, a free-spirited, vixenish “Eurasian” gal with “large-apple size breasts” who informs Tiger posthaste of her plans to screw him silly. Stokes does get to the good stuff, though per his usual wont it’s only after much dialog and narrative detailing Dr. Choon’s seaweed-harvesting. But our pal doesn’t cheat us when it comes to the sleazy goods; the books are only becoming more explicit as they go on, though Stokes is still his literary self even during all the wanton activities, with lines like, “[Tiger was] providing the phallus on which she immolated herself.”

In fact Stokes is in even more of a “literary” mood than usual in Sargasso Secret; you know for sure this isn’t The Marksman when you come across descriptions like “the soft druggets of radiance cast by the lanterns.” But Stokes is one of the few genre authors I’ve encountered who can write like this and still get appropriately sleazy and pulpy, so the high-brow narative style just adds to the charm. I’ve said before how much I enjoy the guy’s work, and an enjoyment of Manning Lee Stokes’s writing is about the only way you’ll be able to endure the first half of Sargasso Secret.

It’s all in a suspense and mystery mode as Stokes dwells on just a few characters here at Dr. Choon’s mansion. Besides those mentioned there’s also Charles Wong, Choon’s assistant who is obsessed with Poppy and thus instantly jealous of Tiger, and Hideki Sato, a “Jap” agent who has been sent here by his government in coordination with the US, as Japan too has been seeking a means of cultivating food from seaweed. Yet Coffin recognizes Sato and remembers him as a Japanese spy in the pre-WWII years, one who was kicked out of the US.

Eventually we readers see that Sato is pressuring Dr. Choon to turn over his formula to Sato personally, the man acting for himself and blackmailing Choon with his knowledge of some bad stuff Choon was once involved in. All this stuff plays out in very slow-moving prose, with the “action” happening off-page…after Sato delivers his threat to Choon, in the next chapter we learn that a post-coital Tiger took a dip in the pool, only to find Sato’s murdered corpse. One of Choon’s guards has also been killed.

More pedantic time-wasting occurs as, instead of it happening in forward-moving narrative, we’re instead treated to a lot of summarized backstory as the hapless CIA agents tasked with monitoring Choon try to figure out what happened at the doctor’s mansion. Long story short, the place was burned down and everyone disappeared. At long last we’ll learn that Coffin Tiger, Choon, et al likely escaped in a jeep, which they drove to a beach, and then perhaps got on a sub. Of course, this was all the plotting of Hank Coffin, though why he went to such extreme lengths is unstated. When the narrative switches back over to Coffin we learn that “Old Crusty” wisely suspects Choon of killing Sato and the guard.

Finally, on page 118, Stokes remembers that he’s writing a series titled The Aquanauts. Tiger Shark returns as our protagonist and mostly stays for the duration. It’s six weeks later and he’s onboard KRAB, monitoring a prototype “monster sub” named the USS Narwhale as it lurks in the Sargasso Sea. Dr. Choon, Poppy, and Charles Wong are on board the sub, “guests” of the US Navy, as they gather and harvest the Sargasso seaweed. The aqautic stuff we want from the series sporadically returns, like when Tiger gets in his special gear (a black “light metal helmet” and a black “neoprene wet suit [with] five zippers, but none in the right place”) and “fins” around the murky sea.

Admiral Coffin suspects Dr. Choon of somehow sneaking info to Chinese or Russian agents posing as Cuban fishermen in the boats that trawl the Sargasso. Tiger quickly figures out that Choon is firing messages via speargun, to be later collected by the pseudo-fishermen. Once Tiger’s had dinner onboard the Narwhale – and gotten a blowjob from Poppy – it’s time for him to suit up, stalk the area once the big sub leaves, and collect one of those errant spears before the Commies come to collect them.

All the plot threads from the first half of the book awkwardly come together as Charles Wong, on Narwhale, takes Capt. Greene captive, phoning his demands to Admiral Coffin on nearby sub Poseidon. Wong we’ll learn is a double agent, working for the “Chinese Commies” and the Russians; Dr. Choon himself is aligned with the Chinese, his assignment to use US resources to perfect his protein manufacturing before delivering the whole thing to China on a silver platter.

But Choon has escaped – oh, and Charles has accidentally killed Poppy!! Stokes flashes back so that we readers can witness the poor nympho’s sad demise as Charles Wong bashes her head to pulp with the butt of his gun; as an extra twist of the knife Stokes even informs us that Poppy has fallen in love with Tiger and fantasizes about marrying him!

For the hell of it, Stokes then throws in a new subplot – Admiral Coffin tasks Tiger with killing a new Shark (ie a junior SUS frogman, Tiger being the only Tiger Shark). The guy has the convenient name Battenkil and Coffin’s just learned he’s a Russian secret agent. Tiger is assigned to kill the spy while the two men speed in KRAB after the Cuban fishing boat Dr. Choon has escaped on, which is taking him to Havana. Now we’re getting to the material we want as Tiger, in his “special wet suit,” which has “thousands of tiny suction cups” on it, affixes himself to the bottom of the Cuban boat as it speeds through the waters and slowly pulls himself aboard, ready to kill some Chinese Commies and capture Dr. Choon.

But Choon’s already friggin’ dead!! Once again Stokes builds up a plot and dispenses with it off-page; Choon, miserable over how he had a chance to save Poppy but instead ran for his life, shoots himself in the heart with a Luger(!?) and dies as Tiger watches. The Cuban sailors proving to be pretty damn easygoing, Tiger then takes the corpse, gives it a sea burial, and returns to KRAB. Meanwhile Charles Wong has gotten onboard a Russian sub, and it’s now angling to shoot a torpedo at the Narwhale, just as Coffin suspected. Tiger’s mission is to destroy the Russian sub, and kill fellow Shark Battenkil.

The final dozen or so pages are gripping and entertaining and damn if only the rest of the book was the same. It culminates with Tiger and Battenkil in desperate battle beneath the waves, and then a trio of Russian frogmen come after Tiger. Our hero once again doesn’t get to use his “Sea Pistol,” that bizarre weapon introduced in the first volume but not used since then (I think); this time it’s knocked out of his hand before he can fire. The fight with the Russian frogmen is especialy gripping because Tiger has planted a bomb on their sub and he has to keep them from seeing it – plus Battenkil managed to cut Tiger’s oxygen supply, so there’s an extra layer of desperation as Tiger frantically swims for KRAB before he runs out of air – and before the Russian sub blows. 

Ponderous and slow-moving, more focused on mystery and suspense than Cold War aquatic thrills, Sargasso Secret is really only enjoyable for fans of the series or fans of Stokes’s work. I’ve found with this particular series to not hope for any action or lurid thrills or whatever – or if so, only hope for it in small doses – and instead just appreciate it for what it was: a skilled and capable author winging it as he bangs out his latest contract assignment.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Flight To Takla-Ma


Flight To Takla-Ma, by Tedd Thomey
October, 1961  Monarch Books

With the vibe of a very long men’s adventure magazine story, Flight To Takla-Ma is a compelling Cold War novel with action, intrique, some spicy stuff, and even an unexpected romance angle. Author Tedd Thomey penned several paperback originals and his style is very much in the men’s mag vein, though I don’t believe he ever wrote for those magazines. (Some of his books were excerpted as “true book bonuses,” though.)

If anything Thomey has a knack for unusual plotting. Flight To Takla-Ma concerns itself with the “secret missions” of a would-be astronaut in the Taklamakan desert of China, but really it turns into more of a prisoner of war tale. It’s how the protagonist, square-jawed he-man Al Riley, becomes a spy that displays Thomey’s unusual plotting; namely, Riley accidentally breaks the neck of a woman he just had sex with and is offered a secret spy mission as a way to salvage his Air Force career!

Riley is a major, in the astronaut program, and he’s based in Mercury Beach, Florida. He’s really on the second-run list and is mostly training in case one of the main astronauts drops out of the program. Riley is a hotshot pilot with a successful war record in Korea, but his hot temper has kept him from truly achieving his goals. That and his rakish charm with the ladies. When we meet him Riley is berating a ranking officer over a faulty helmet piece, even slamming the helmet over the poor bastard’s head. But what really gets Riley in trouble is when, later that day, he meets the “nymphomaniac” blonde wife of a new astronaut on the program. 

This is Fay Exler, a “leggy-pure-bred blonde,” who scopes Riley out while he changes into swim trunks on the beach. She makes her interest known posthaste, and Thomey capably brings to life her ample charms. Monarch Books was a spicy imprint for its day, thus the word “breasts” appears frequently in these opening chapters. And when Riley and Fay have sex on the beach the next night, after sharing a bottle of wine, the ensuing scene is slightly more risque than what you might read in say Gold Medal Books:

He drew her very close, feeling her wet breasts, tasting the salt water on his lips, thrusting his leg between hers. He lifted her into his arms and carried her with a rush of water and excitement up onto the beach. 

Placing her on the sand, he covered her body with his own. She was remarkable from the beginning, her movements vigorous and unselfish. They forgot everything. Physically they were perfectly matched, and from the moment she caught and joined his propelling rhythm, he knew he had found a woman who regarded this ritual with the same frank, hedonistic delight as he did – a calculated but abandoned pursuit of the ultimate in exquisite awareness. She was with him all the way, from the slowjoy-piercing take-off, through the steady breath-taking climb, as they drove higher and higher, plunging toward unimaginable heights of sensation, till, somewhere in outer space, their world blew wide-open in a jet explosion of total ecstasy.

So in other words they get along great. But Fay’s very drunk on the wine and when they drink another bottle she jumps in the ocean for some skinny dipping. She’s so drunk she doesn’t realize she’s lost control of herself and she nearly drowns in the ocean. Once Riley catches up with her she is freaking out, half drowned, and he tries to calm her down. When this doesn’t work he slaps her, then punches her, but in his own panic he’s broken her damn neck! Now he has to drive the dying girl to the nearest hospital, only to be told she’s dead, and then he sits there and waits for her husband to show so he can explain himself. Talk about embarrassing!

Riley’s kicked out of the astronaut program and moved back to Edwards Air Force base in California, serving again as a test pilot. In his frustration and self-loathing he breaks record after record. He’s approached by mysterious General McKnight, an old Army vet who asks Riley a bunch of intrusive questions. Turns out McKnight runs Twelve-Twelve, an intelligence agency so top secret most people haven’t heard of it. At length Riley is picked for a secret mission; McKnight won’t divulge any details about it, but he promises Riley that, if he succeeds, McKnight will get him back in the astronaut program.

Thomey races through Riley’s training in espionage; in addition to more precision flying maneuvers he’s also taught the rudiments of the Russian and Chinese languages and given lessons on encryption and etc. But Riley’s still a hothead and breaks out of camp five weeks in; he steals a car and gets to Las Vegas, a few hundred miles away, where he picks up a hot redhead and scores again, in another explicit-for-its-time sequence just a chapter or two after the last one:

As soon as he picked her up and carried her to the bed, she pressed her naked breasts against the skin of his chest. Her hands grasped his shoulders insistently, her nails digging deep into his flesh and then even deeper. Her hips began a wonderful rhythm against him. Her green eyes looked up at him boldly, full of desire and excitement, and then she very deliberately bit deeply into the muscle of his chest, her teeth sharp and demanding.

Whether the lady is a vampire is unstated, but Riley again has a good ol’ time before finally deciding to mosey on back to Edwards. When he arrives he finds that he’s not in trouble – McKnight expected this of him, and besides Riley’s too damn skilled in all regards, particularly flying. Rather, McKnight informs Riley that he’d better get ready to move out the next morning: Twelve-Twelve is heading to Pakistan. After a long flight in his F-121A – and Thomey is very good at aviation fiction, giving enough detail to make him sound knowledgeable about the subject to the layman – Riley is briefed.

He’s to fly to the nearby desert of Taklamakan, where the Russians have built a missile base called Takla-Ma. (Taklamakan by the way was also visited by Nick Carter in Operation Starvation.) Riley is the only person going on the mission, despite the several other pilots who flew here with him. He is to drop something – McKnight won’t divulge what – into a specific area in the camp. The place is guarded by Russian and Chinese troops (this being set in the days before the two countries had their falling out), not to mention MIG-25 fighter jets. The flight the next morning is a taut, suspenseful sequence, Riley flying at 500 mph just 50 feet off the ground.

But he misses his target due to a dusty whirlwind that obscures the marsh he’s supposed to drop the mystery object into. While trying to fly back over the spot Riley is shot down; while bailing from his jet he sees what appears to be a stone falling from it. When Riley wakes up, beaten up from the impact of his fall, he is a prisoner in Takla-Ma. We are only now 50 pages in the book, and here Flight To Takla-Ma will stay for the duration. As stated, it’s more of a prisoner-escaping-the-odds tale of survival rather than a piece of Cold War espionage action.

So in other words, this is sort of a pulp novelization of the real-world U-2 incident with Gary Powers, which took place in May, 1960. McKnight even sets Riley up with a U-2 escort for the first half of the flight to Takla-Ma, and later the Russians and Chinese inform Riley that it too has been shot down, over Russia, just like Powers was. However, Gary Powers is never referenced in the book – and it would be natural for Riley to compare his own plight with that of Powers – so either Thomey just didn’t want to so visibly show his hand, or perhaps he did write the book before the U-2 incident and it just took a very long time to get published.

Takla-Ma is filled with Russian and Chinese soldiers, but Riley only interacts with two of them. In charge of the Chinese is Colonel Lu Fie-tzu, aka “Colonel Lou,” an Intelligence chief who went to UCLA and speaks in perfect English. (“Howdy, fellow,” he greets Riley when our hero wakes up after the crash.) But Lu is really a sadist, we’ll eventually learn. In charge of the Russians, and the entire base, is Colonel Fedotov, an obese KGB man who is more interested in drinking and talking about Russian greatness. The first-page preview mentions the “inevitable Communist enchantress” who will try to sway Riley to the dark side, once the drugs and brainwashing don’t work: this is Judith, an Indian nurse who is “distinctly lovely” and “dainty, small-boned and small-breasted.”

The love angle develops between Riley and Judith, but Thomey doesn’t force it. Judith is against using drugs for evil and thus secretly saves Riley from the brain-melting drugs Lu wants to use on him. The Russian and Chinese keep drilling Riley on who his accomplice is here in the base, who he was trying to airdrop a message to. But Riley knows nothing and can reveal no info even under sodium pentathol. Gradually Riley will figure out that he dropped a transmitter, disguised as a stone, and he’ll even spot it lying on a pile of rubble not far from his prison cell. It will become his mission to get out there and retrieve it.

Thomey injects a few action scenes, despite the fact that Riley is confined to a small cell. He breaks free soon after capture, leading to a sequence where he bashes in the heads of a few guards and steels a jeep. But he is of course captured – there’s still about 80 pages to go – and it’s back to the grilling and the drugging. More focus is gradually placed on Riley and Judith’s growing love for one another. She is a delicate flower and has been abused by Lu, whom she fears. Her character is warm and loving and innocent – but not na├»ve – and Thomey successfully paints the picture that she is very different from the women in Riley’s past.

Riley eventually figures out that McKnight sent him here due to the upcoming launch of the experimental Lenin II rocket; the Twelve-Twelve contact here was to transmit the exact moment the test rocket was launched. Through Judith Riley learns that it’s a lady named Madame Lysenko, widow of the man who built the Lenin II. Once Riley manages to escape again he and Judith hide in Lysenko’s apartment while the Chinese and Russians run amok on the base, fighting each other in an open war. Here Riley and Judith consumate their newfound love, and given the romance angle Thomey treats it all a lot more poetically than the earlier encounters, with lines like, “This was excitement and desire far beyond body and flesh.”

It’s not an action-packed tale, and indeed the men’s mag vibe of the opening 50 pages is soon lost, but Flight To Takla-Ma does have a thrilling finale, with Riley and Judith trying to escape the war-ravaged base. Even Judith gets to blow someone away, and Thomey has a nice bit of character payoff here where Judith, freaking out and panicking during the escape, loses control of herself, and Riley has to forcibly calm her down. It’s not over-elaborated, but it is a good callback to the similar sequence with the panicking Fay Exler in the ocean. Only now Riley – thanks to being in love – is a “complete man,” and this time he’s able to calm the girl without breaking her neck(!). 

Overall I enjoyed Flight To Takla-Ma, though to tell the truth I wanted something more along the lines of the story promised by those first 50 pages…a story of a hard-ass pilot taking secret missions for a top-secret spy agency. Instead the story became more of a prisoner of war deal, going more so for suspense and, eventually, romance. But Thomey’s writing is polished and professional and it’s very impressive how he was able to deliver such a meaty tale in just 142 pages.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Hitman #3: Nevada Nightmare


The Hitman #3: Nevada Nightmare, by Norman Winski
November, 1984  Pinnacle Books

Here ends The Hitman, with a third volume that unfortunately isn’t as crazed as the first two. Sure, the goofy moralizing and hilarious epithets are still in effect, but it’s all very subdued, as if Nomran Winski was running out of steam. Which is a shame, as Nevada Nightmare has a lot of potential: Dirk “The Hitman” Spencer goes up against a self-styled messiah who rules his followers with “sex yoga, mind molding, and unequivocal obedience to the will of Allah as inerpreted by Zarathustra.”

Forget about the “Allah” mention; there’s nothing remotely Muslim about the cult of Zarathurstra, a bearded hedonist who resides in a clifftop fortress of glass in the High Sierras. Despite being heavily set up, Zarathustra and his followers aren’t given much focus in the novel; rather, the majority of Nevada Nightmare is comprised of a practically endless sequence where a disguised Dirk visits Zarathustra’s commune, scopes it out, gets discovered, explodes some stuff as a distraction, and then makes his escape. No kidding, this entire sequence runs from pages 43 to 120. When you consider that the book is just over 160 pages, this doesn’t leave room for much else.

The novel opens with one of Dirk’s patented hits that go right over the line into overkill; still in his home base of Chicago, The Hitman has decided that a millionaire industrialist deserves to die. The man is poisoning the lakes and in social circles he mocks the “redneck scum” who have died as a result. It’s “eye for an eye” time, as Dirk sits in a bulldozer and waits for the guy’s armored limo to come by. Of course the millionaire has armed goons with him, but they prove short work for Dirk’s customary Uzi. As he crushes the car, we learn that Dirk gets no pleasure in prolonging the suffering of his victims, thus he quickly ends his prey’s misery with another quick burst of Uzi slugs. 

Meanwhile Tad, an old, alchoholic newspaper reporter who is friends with Dirk, is about to head to Nevada to get back his stepdaughter Melody, a Latin beauty who is “one of the top ten covergirls in the country.” A wildchild in her late 20s, Melody has gone from one religious fad to the next; currently she is associated with the mysterious Zarathustra. But Tad suspects foul play, as Melody has not appeared to be herself, and indeed just called Tad in a panic before the line was cut dead. Now Tad, who by the way suspects Dirk of being The Hitman, is about to go kick some ass. Then some burly dudes come by and ambush him…

When a letter appears in the newspaper, supposedly from Tad and praising the religion of Zarathustra (which Tad in the letter claims to have run off to join), Dirk becomes concerned. It’s off to Nevada in his high-tech arsenal of a helicopter, busty redheaded sometimes-girlfriend Valerie Jones with him (the TV reporter who appeared in previous volumes). After a quick perusal of Zarathustra’s fortress below, complete with armed guards in white patrolling it, Dirk gets down to business: inducting Valerie into the mile high club! Sadly this is the one and only sex scene in the novel, and it too does not reach the goofy heights of such scenes in previous books.

Valerie is in love with Dirk, and we know he loves her too, but he is unable to tell her; the novel is filled with Don Pendleton-esque ruminations on how Dirk can never love a woman, never put her in jeopardy, due to his savage life as The Hitman. (He does still call Valerie “Rose petals,” though, and inspired by Dirk I’ve decided to start calling my wife that, whether she likes it or not.) After this sex scene Valerie disappears, only phoning Dirk once or twice from Chicago to provide him some leads on Zarathustra. She is the only person who knows he’s The Hitman, thanks to the events of the first volume, but Winski works up an angle where by novel’s end hard-drinking Tad will also have figured it out. Unfortunately there were no more volumes to follow up on this.

Zarathustra’s mountaintop fortress-commune, Shangri-la, is open to tourists on the weekend. Dirk puts on a fake beard and goes undercover with a busful of other faithful. Little does the reader realize that this sequence will prove to be the majority of the novel! Viewing the commune Dirk sees white-suited guards, the so-called knights of Zarathustra, patrolling the grounds, while the faithful who live here are clearly mind-blown from various drugs. Dirk has only brought one pistol with him, and has to stash it on the bus when he sees a metal detector outside the entrance. When he sees that the gun will be discovered Dirk decides he must escape – after planting an explosive.

Here the reader learns how to jury-rig a napalm bomb. As mentioned it just goes on and on, Dirk touring the building while putting together the components of his explosive. Along the way he briefly gets to see Melody, the aforementioned covergirl. She is one of Zarathustra’s “brides” and in a clever sequence Dirk gets her to admit, to an entire room, that she is here against her will. She has never met Dirk, so she doesn’t know who he is, but his icy blue eyes melt her right on the spot and she’s game for “the big man” to save her and her stepfather. As for Dirk, when he sees Melody he becomes “the warrior of love,” possibly my favorite-ever goofy ephitet in a series filled with them. As for Melody’s own reaction to her first sight of Dirk:

The big man’s steady gaze was like a blowtorch burning into her, melting every cold corner of fear in her being. Melody felt she was in the presence of a man whose inner resources were bottomless, a man of heroic capabilities, someone who, once he fixed his mind on a goal, would move mountains and overcome armies. In seconds the electric impact of his presence on her was as reassuring as it was arousing. In fact under her flowing white robes she felt a familiar wetness.

Dirk doesn’t even make his first kill in Shrangi-la until around page 80. After setting off the napalm bomb in the cafeteria he tries to escape the snow-swept mountain. Winski’s background with Gold Eagle Books comes into play with lots of gun-porn about the various machine guns the knights of Zarathustra carry. While the action scenes aren’t as prevalent this time out, they do still retain some of the gore factor, with copious detail of brains blasting out and guts spilling. Dirk is also one of the few ‘80s men’s adventure protagonists who enjoys taunting his prey before killing them, like when he calls a pair of knights “dummies” before shooting blowing their brains out.

This overlong sequence doesn’t really bring Shangri-la much to life. Zarathustra only briefly appears, speaking to the tourists; Dirk instantly notes that this guy too is hopped up on goofballs. Anti-drug rhetoric runs rampant in Nevada Nightmare, and the cult’s drugging seems to be what most sets off Dirk’s killer instincts. During his escape he finds an “addict’s paradise” of drugs on the commune. However that “sex yoga” stuff gets zero mention and Winski doesn’t dwell much on the actual acolytes of the so-called messiah. It’s really all about Dirk building a bomb and then slowly escaping; he manages to hitch himself under the departing bus of tourists.

In the final pages Winski pulls a new plot out of his hat: turns out Zarathustra is funded by Don Cerrito, aka “The Snowman,” an old Mafioso who keeps his Sierras retreat icy cold as he thinks it’s like a cheap way to cryogenic life preservation or something. But anyway Cerrito is now unveiled as the “real” villain of the piece, with like 20 pages to go; Dirk gets the info from Valerie, whose brother on the Chicago force looked up various info. Meanwhile Dirk has found a secret burial site near the commune, filled with instigators killed by Zarathustra. Next he saves Melody, who appears on a local radio show; he blows away her knight escort and the two head for Shangri-la, hoping to find Tad still alive there. Oh, and Melody gives Dirk a blowjob during the drive. Why not?

But Winski has wasted so many pages with the tour-escape sequence that the climax is perfuntory at best. Indeed, Shangri-la is already under attack when Dirk and Melody get there – by “terrorists” under the employ of Don Cerrito. Thus Dirk, clad in the white suit of a knight with a white ski mask (so Melody won’t see his real face – meaning she just orally pleased a dude in a ski mask whose name she doesn’t know…) doesn’t even get to fight anymore knights as they’re all already dead. He evades the assaulting terrorist squad, Melody, who has grown up with guns, serving as his sidekick as she capably blows guys away with a submachine gun.

Winski has in fact wasted so much space that we don’t even get to see Dirk rescue Tad, let alone Melody’s reunion with him. Dirk blows away a few Mafia goons and a dying Zarathustra, shot apart by the Mafia, tells Dirk and Melody that Tad is down in the wine cellar boozing it up! Melody races off for him…and Dirk heads for Don Cerrito’s nearby villa, just leaving Melody there! (He figures she can fend for herself. What a hero!) The finale is an abrupt bit where Dirk drops a bunch of plastique on the mountain above the Don’s villa, causing an avalanche that destroys both it and Shangri-la.

And that’s that…Winski ends the tale here, with a triumphant Dirk looking down at the destruction he’s caused. He suspects that Tad – who he isn’t even sure has survived – will no doubt soon figure out that Dirk Spencer and The Hitman are one and the same. But that was it so far as the series went, so here we leave our “warrior of love,” hovering in his armored helicopter and resolving himself to the fact that, as The Hitman, he will continue to wage war against the forces of evil.

Finally, one can’t help but feel that this series would’ve survived longer if it hadn’t had such terrible covers. With this one it looks like the photographer snapped his shot before his models were even ready!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Throne Of Satan (Mark Hood #6)


Throne Of Satan, by James Dark
May, 1967  Signet Books

The Mark Hood series continues to get better and better; finally J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell has apparently decided to go for the pulpy, comic book vibe of the James Bond movies rather than the espionage-heavy vibe of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. The plots are becoming more pulpy and the action, violence, and sex are given greater focus – indeed, one particular scene in Throne Of Satan combines all three.

Picking up immediately after the cliffhanger climax of the previous volume, we find British Intertrust agent Tommy Tremayne struggling for his life as the ship of his captor, Borja, sinks in the Caribbean. Dark pulled a fast one on readers in the final paragraphs of the previous book, as we see here that the mysterious figure that came out of the water and signalled for an approaching Borja-owned helicopter was not a Borja henchman, as assumed, but instead was none other than Tremayne himself. In his pain-wracked stupor he assumed the chopper was one sent by Hood to save him.

But Tremayne’s just gone from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Borja, the big villain of the previous book, is here revealed just to be a “partner” of a greater figure, a menacing man Borja is taking Tremayne to see right now, Borja still under the mistaken impression that Tremayne is British physicist Charles Battersby. We readers have already met Borja’s partner in the opening of the book: he’s a Blofeld-esque villain who commands legions of followers and lives in a high-tech compound built inside of a hollowed-out volcano! The paralells to the Bond movie You Only Live Twice are strong, which is interesting in that Dark certainly wrote his book before the movie was released (and the sci-fi elements of Roald Dahl’s You Only Live Twice script are nowhere to be found in Fleming’s original novel).

The Blofeld type is named Dominat. As David Foster points out on The Cultural Gutter, the title of the original Australian edition of this volume was Black Napoleon, and there Dominat was clearly identified as being black. As Foster notes, the editors at Signet apparently shied away from Dark’s somewhat-racist views, and edited out all references to Dominat’s race in this US edition. However one can still see trace elements of the original character; the Signet editors should have added material to replace what they removed, as though Dominat’s skin color is never stated, one can still guess it thanks to otherwise-meaningless reactions on the part of Tremayne when he meets the hulking, muscle-bound villain. (For example, that Dominat’s boasting is due to a “sense of inferiority,” which makes no sense within the context of this Signet edition).

Personally I think the Signet editors should’ve made the dude like a purple-skinned freak, but at any rate the Dominat of Throne Of Satan mostly reminded me of Omne, the menacing, super-powered villain in the excrutiating Star Trek novel The Price Of The Phoenix. But anyway Dominat is by far the best villain in the series yet, and another indication of the pulpier, more sci-fi basis the Mark Hood series is thankfully acquiring. (Those first few volumes were slow-going at best!) Dominat rules the island Dominica, “the most savage, most mysterious island in the West Indies,” and his hollowed-out volcano headquarters is called Devil’s Mountain by the natives.

While Tremayne is choppered there by an increasingly-nervous Borja, Mark Hood meanwhile tries to figure out if his pal and partner Tremayne is really dead. He goes out to the wreckage site of Borja’s ship and scuba dives for a look. Here he finds a few papers in waterproof seals. The new action focus of the series is displayed posthaste as Hood is attacked by an enemy frogman wielding a speargun and a sort of underwater shotgun (a shotgun cartridge on a brass spear). This is one of the more brutal and thus exciting fights in the series yet, as Hood again falls back on his karate skills despite being in the ocean. He gives the dude’s arm a fracture break and ends up killing him with his own shotgun spear.

Hood’s found some intel that makes mysterious reference to “Satan” and figures out the “5 3” on the paper is likely indication of “May 3rd,” ie the following day. However Hood’s boss Fortescue back at Intertrust HQ in Geneva doesn’t give a damn and figures Tremayne needs to be “written off” as dead. Instead Fortescue wants Hood to head into the West Indies to look into a bunch of nuclear “rabble rousers” who have disappared, or something. (Again per David Foster’s article, it’s all vague because the book’s first chapter, which clearly identified these villains as black militants, has been excised from the Signet edition.) Oh, and Fortescue is sending over Hood’s karate instructor Murimoto to assist. This is interesting as previously it was made clear that Murimoto was not aware that Hood was a secret agent, but in this volume we’re informed that Murimoto himself is an Intertrust agent used for “special action work.”

Sex is also given a welcome focus here, with Hood going back to his villa and finding a “dusky, scarlet-lipped beauty” waiting for him. (Whether this means she too was black in the original edition is unknown.) Her name is Jane and she claims that she was checking Hood out on the beach that day; she wants some sex asap. From the burning yearning clearly visible in her eyes Hood instantly figures her for a “nymphomaniac,” and figures all this is no doubt a trap – but what the hell, he screws her anyway. Why not? The sex is beyond vague, but at least it’s there – and Dark has fun with it when Jane pulls a stiletto while they are “making love the second time” and tries to kill him. Hood casually deflects the blade, knocks her out, knocks out the girl’s comrade who waits out in the hall, and then calls the cops to come pick them up! 

Meanwhile Dominat is given a suitably menacing introduction. Defined by Borja as a “mechanical scientist,” Dominat quickly and easily figures out that Tremayne is not a nuclear physicist – that is, after Dominat has shown off these cool biomechanical arm and leg gizmos he’s created. But now it’s time for Borja to pay for his stupidity, not to mention bungling the previous volume’s caper and losing not only the nuclear reactor core but also that plasma cannon. Dominat produces a steel-tipped bull whip, gives Borja a running start, and then nearly decapitates him with one strike! So much for Borja; meanwhile Dominat figures to keep Tremayne around for a while; mostly, Tremayne figures, just to see him “squirm.”

Dark really keeps Throne Of Satan moving, again making all the deficencies of those early volumes so much more apparent. Just a few hours after having sex with the gal who tried to kill him, Hood, still in Kingston, runs into another sexy gal who gives him a run for his money: Mona Gillespie, an American who once raced against Hood on the Grand Prix circuit. He nearly crashes into her while racing his rented Jag through Kingston after picking up Murimoto, and the lady gives chase in her Ferrari, Hood flying along and ready to battle thinking its yet another enemy agent chasing him down. (Oh, and speaking of women, Marcia, Borja’s sexy neice who had a crush on Hood last volume, is nowhere to be found this time, and indeed isn’t even mentioned. Wonder if Dominat sent her a telegram informing her that he just killed her uncle??)

Hood and Mona have a contentious relationship, with their apparent chemistry masked by snide retorts. We are informed Mona is “not beautiful in the accepted sense” but “attractive in a brown, assured way” (not sure what that really means). Most importantly, she does have a “beautiful body,” well displayed by the brief bikini she happens to be wearing while driving her Ferrari. She also has a twin-diesel clipper and will loan it to Hood; Dark again saying to hell with coincidence, Mona claims to have seen a weird sub-like thing in the water near Dominica island! Hood immediately realizes this is the same thing he saw after that fight with the scuba diver by the wreckage of Borja’s boat. Mona agrees to take Hood and Murimoto out to Dominica.

As stated, Dark really ramps everything up in Throne Of Satan, with Hood scoring yet again, just a few pages after tussling with the would-be assassin Jane; after trying to feel up Mona during one of their spats, Hood inadvertently catches her when the ship jolts in the water next morning, and in the chemistry-laden moment Mona says “Be quick.” They manage to do the deed, once again off-page, in a wopping ten minutes. Meanwhile Dominat takes Tremayne on a long tour of Devil’s Mountain, showing off all of his fancy high-tech wonders like a regular Bond Supervillain and also relaying his intention of first conquering Cuba as a forward base before invading the US.

The finale continues with the smallscale vibe of previous books, despite the fact that Dominat has like legions of followers in his volcano lair. Mona, casually announcing that she works for Dominat, turns Hood and Murimoto over to the villain promptly upon arrival on Dominica and then disappears from the text; we are never informed what happens to her. In Dominat’s control room Tremayne commandeers those biomechanical exoskeleton deals and fights Dominat, but still gets his ass kicked. Then it’s Hood’s turn, and he only fares marginally better. Now it’s up to Murimoto, the living weapon, and we learn how Dominat hates the Japanese. “Come on, little yellow man,” Dominat taunts him, later also calling him a “monkey,” and it’s quite interesting that the Signet editors didn’t feel the need to edit sentiments like those out of the book despite removing all mentions of Dominat being black, isn’t it?

So rather than a huge battle between Hood’s team and Dominat’s forces, the climax is instead comprised of Murimoto calmly beating Dominat half to death. From there it’s a mad dash to escape while a beaten and broken Dominat plummets to the volcano’s core in his “atoborer,” his high-tech tank-drill thing. Devil’s Mountain explodes as our three heroes escape on Mona’s boat (again, no mention what happens to her) and that’s that. While the finale wasn’t as spectacular as I would’ve liked, one can’t complain how snappily Throne Of Satan moves, Dark doling out his tale in a compact 128 pages of fast-moving ‘60s spy action. I really enjoyed it.