Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Black Eagles #14: Firestorm At Dong Nam


The Black Eagles #14: Firestorm At Dong Nam, by John Lansing
February, 1988  Zebra Books

After reading the first volume, which was courtesy Mark Roberts (and the only volume of the series he wrote), I didn’t really consider another installment of the Black Eagles series. But when I came across a pristine-condition copy of this 14th volume for half off the cover price, I couldn’t pass it up.

The copyright page acknowledges a Patrick E. Andrews, who supposedly was the author who wrote the majority of the series, which was edited by William Fieldhouse. I don’t know anything about Andrews, what or any other series he might have worked on, but so far as Firestorm At Dong Nam goes, he has a very breezy and readable style, which plunges you facefirst into the bloody hell of ‘Nam.

Don’t get me wrong, the novel’s no The Short-Timers. I mean, just look at the cover! As I mentioned in my review of the first volume, the Black Eagles series was graced with some of the greatest covers ever; each and every one of them could’ve been like the cover of a Megadeth or Metallica single. But beyond that, this book doesn’t delve into the “war is hell” angle mandatory of “real” Vietnam fiction; the novel’s as mired in realism as the average David Alexander book.

Like every other Zebra publication, Firestorm At Dong Nam is too long – 256 whopping pages. But boy it’s got some big ‘ol print, and Andrews’s style is so breezy that I read the book in record time. Little concern that I’d missed 12 volumes since readng Roberts’s initial installment; while this one makes the occasional reference to previous missions, there’s really no heavy continuity. But even if you’re still worried you missed something, Andrews helpfully shoehorns aout 20 pages of background into the first quarter of the book, an entire chapter which, believe it or not, synopsizes every previous volume of the series!

Anyway, there have been some heavy changes to the series regulars, with apparently lots of redshirts dying in the interim. That appears to have been a schtick of this series, killing off “regulars” at regular intervals, but my friends, these characters are such ciphers that you don’t even realize they’re alive. Honestly, eight of the seventeen Black Eagles die in the events of Firestorm At Nong Dam, and only maybe one or two of those deaths even register with you. And of course, each of them are dudes who just showed up in the previous volume or such.

But the series regulars are still here – Lt. Colonel Robert Falconi, strong-jawed leader of the squad, and Malpractice, the medic. Andrea Thuy is also still afoot, though much less psychotic than she was in Roberts’s hands. In fact Andrea has been removed from the squad; in an underexplained development we learn that she was removed from active duty by the squad’s CIA rep, Chuck Fagin, due to her “love affair” with Falconi. Andrea’s still around, but now she works as Fagin’s admin assistant…and rushes off to screw Falconi whenever he’s off duty.

To clarify though, Andrews unlike Roberts doesn’t provide a single damn sex scene. He’s more in the Fieldhouse realm of men’s adventure writing, more so into the guns and action side of things, and less so about the lurid or sleaze element. Anyway, Archie Dobbs is also still around – apparently the jokester of the squad, and busted down to private for going AWOL in a previous volume. Oh, and Malpractice has married a Vietnamese girl named Xinh, whom he insists upon calling “Jean” in a total disregard for cultural sensitivities.

Anyway, the plot of this 14th volume concerns Lt. Colonel Gregori Kraschenko, leader of the newly-organized Red Berets, the “cream of the Iron Curtain’s elite forces.” Kraschenko, a monster of a man, has whittled 100 recruits down to just 30 men due to rigorous training; the novel opens with the further whittling down to 17 total, including the Lt. Colonel. Sewing a patch emblazoned with a red bear onto their jungle camo, the Red Berets head to ‘Nam to take on the Black Eagles.

Kraschenko apparently was the KGB liason with the NVA forces in previous volumes, and thus is familiar with Falconi and team, but Andrews doesn’t make it clear if the dude actually appeared in those previous volumes. We do get the clarification that he and Falconi have never met, and even Falconi has never heard of Kraschenko. But at any rate, the KGB commando has a burnin’ yearnin’ to kill Falconi, and thus through his intelligence contacts issues a challenge.

This is where you know you’re reading pulp – CIA goon Fagin informs Falconi that the Red Berets have challenged the Black Eagles to a battle to the death in a neutral zone. No backup, no heavy weaponry, just whatever they can carry in on their backs. And if the Black Eagles refuse, the US will be badmouthed in intelligence circles! It all sounds ridiculous of course, but Brigadier General Taggart, who has the final say in what the Black Eagles do or don’t do, demands that they accept the challenge.

Falconi makes it clear that it’s a volunteer mission, but of course the rest of the squad is all for it. Andrea Thuy fights back tears as the men all leave to go fight their secret little battle, and you wish she’d go along, as she was by far the most memorable character in the first volume. But as mentioned Andrews is in the Fieldhouse/Gold Eagle realm, and this is a man’s world; women can’t take part in it. We do though get the occasional page-filler sequence where Andrews cuts back to Andrea and “Jean” as they worry over their men out in the field, as well as Archie’s white trash nurse of a girlfriend.

Another thing to mention about Firestorm At Dong Nam is that there isn’t much action, until past the halfway point. There are no opening firefights or anything; it’s all just plot development, incidental dialog, and previous-volume catchup. The sparks don’t fly until the two squads parachute into the neutral zone in which they’ll wage their war. But even here Andrews fails to give us the OTT blitz we’d want, by throwing a group of Vietnamese refuges into the mix; soon enough, Falconi’s team is saddled with protecting them.

By prior arrangement this zone was supposed to be free of any natives, yet the refugees of course are unaware of such pacts; they’re just trying to escape the battleground that has become of their previous village. The Red Berets make short work of them, blowing away all of the men and going for the women. While scouting the jungle Archie Dobbs and a squad come across the fleeing women, and after a quick firefight with the Soviets they head back to the Black Eagles camp.

Here Falconi remains for the duration, playing mother hen to the natives. He sends out small teams to take on the Red Berets, which leads to several action scenes which are written like military fiction. It’s not that they’re bad, just that they lack emotional content, to quote Bruce Lee. It’s all sort of rendered in summary, relaying the tactics of the various “fire teams” as they shoot at each other in the jungle. And as mentioned while plenty of characters die, even the deaths are quickly rendered, which further undercuts the emotional impact.

The “biggest” team death would probably be Doc Robicheaux, another squad medic, and who apparently joined up a few volumes ago. This death appears to affect the team the most. (Speaking of which, Chen and Park, two characters I seem to recall from the first volume, were killed off a long time ago.) As for the Red Berets, the only character we spend much time with, other than the leader, is a cossack named Ali Khail, whom Archie Dobbs is determined to kill in vengeance.

All of the action is saved for the second half of the novel, and it goes on and on, with periodic cutovers to the three gals back home. It appears Andrews has worked a soap opera aesthetic into his storyline, in particular with Archie and his white trash girlfriend, but so far as this volume goes, nothing much happens on that front. It’s more about Falconi trying to get the refugees to safety while the Red Berets chase after them. And for that matter, the Soviets basically win for the first half of the battle, until Rocky style the Eagles come back and win the day through superior strategy.

Andrews also stays true to the military fiction style with aiming for “realism” for the most part, with no big “action moments” or anything. The Eagles basically just kneel in the foliage and blow away whatever Red Berets they can with their M-16s. Luckily Kraschenko’s send-off is played out a little, with the Red Beret leader being the last survivor of his squad, pleading for his life, and then trying to outfox Falconi, only to suffer for it as expected.

The novel ends with the Eagles flying back into camp and the three gals shedding tears that their men, at least, have survived. Falconi doubtlessly went about refilling the empty slots, but he didn’t have to go all out; the next volume was to be the last. If I see it someday I’ll grab it, but it’s not high on my list. But if you ever see a copy of The Black Eagles for half off the cover price at a used bookstore, you’d really have nothing to lose by picking it up.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Red Rays (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #41)


The Red Rays, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Given that The Golden Serpent was a great entry in the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, I thought The Red Rays would be as well, since it was also written by Manning Lee Stokes. But man this turned out to be a rum entry in the saga of Nick Carter, only notable for being the first volume to be written in first-person.

But if you thought Nick Carter narrating his own adventure would result in a quick-moving tale, boy you’d be wrong. Maybe this is so in the other first-person installments by other series authors, but in the hands of Stokes, The Red Rays comes off as incredibly slow-moving, Carter reduced to a nauseating bore as he drones on and on and on about little of interest.

In fact, it surprises me that this book even saw print, let alone paved the way for the eventual series transition to first-person. According to series creator and “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel, in a 1981 interview with Will Murray that was published in Paperback Parade #2 (1986), Award Books made the demand that the Killmaster series be in first-person, as that style worked for the successful Matt Helm series.

Engel stated that he never thought first-person was the correct style for Nick Carter: Killmaster, and I agree with him – indeed, he also claimed his dislike of this style was one of the reasons which lead him to leave the series in late 1973, when it went over to Charter Books. Strangely though, Engel also claimed to envision, outline, and in some cases actually write the books in the series that carried his “producer” credit. So then, if Stokes turned in a first-person manuscript, why didn’t Engel change it to third-person before submitting it to Award?

I’ve never been able to find an interview with Stokes, but in his super-informative article “The Saga of Nick Carter: Killmaster,” published in The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982), Will Murray states that Stokes (whom he memorably describes as “an industrious and hard-drinking writer”) claimed it was his own decision to write The Red Rays in first-person, as he’d enjoyed using that style in some of the suspense novels he wrote in the 1950s.

But still, given Engel’s control of the Killmaster series – writers apparently had to send him detailed outlines before submitting their manuscripts – I have to wonder how the first-person narrative even got past him in the first place. Maybe he thought it was an interesting, one-time-only experiment? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, if Engel so hated the idea of this series being in first-person, why did he send The Red Rays to Award in the first place?

And that’s just the narrative style; even beyond that, this book sucks. Like most other Stokes novels I’ve read, The Red Rays has a great, pulpish plot, but falls flat in the execution. The front and back cover have it that the Red Chinese have invented a “bizarre sex ray” and have taken over the airwaves of the western world, broadcasting porn 24/7, with further mentions of Nick Carter finding himself in Hollwyood, aka “La-La land,” before some sort of gas drives everyone crazy…

Yeah, none of that shit’s in the book. Yes, the “Red Chinese” have taken over the airwaves, but despite Carter often mentioning that they’re playing porn, we never get to see any of it – every time Carter actually watches TV, it’s just playing some woman in a devil mask mouthing anti-US propganda. This will usually be followed by travelogues of China. That’s right, friends – travelogues! And there ain’t no “bizarre sex ray” to be found anywhere in the book. As for “La-La Land,” this is where Carter’s eventually sent once the plodding plot has finally kicked in gear.

Before that, though, he’s in Beirut, getting laid. This is by an attractive female agent named Kezia Newmann who works for Shin Bet, but, as Carter well knows, is also an agent for the KGB. And she’s also involved with AXE, Carter’s agency. Carter knows that her time is limited – she’s marked for death by the KGB. Not that Carter plans to do anything about it. In fact, he displays a disquieting, morbid obsession with this girl throughout the novel, wondering often if she’s been killed yet – and wondering if they raped her before killing her!

As if that wasn’t enough, Carter even chuckles to himself that he’s screwing a corpse, as he has sex with Kezia, or at least a soon-to-be corpse, given that she’ll no doubt be dead within a day or two. Yes, friends, this is our hero. He tells himself that there’s little he can do to save the woman, anyway, so to hell with it…and then every few chapters he’ll wonder to himself if she’s been raped and killed yet! (And of course, we find out on the very last page that she has been – Carter’s boss Hawk blithely informing Carter that Kezia’s corpse was recently found.)

When Carter finally gets back to the US, he’s summoned to Hawk’s office in DC, where he’s appraised of the latest global threat. Namely, that the “NeoComms,” a faction of Red Chinese who want to break away from Mao and the “old” Communist guard and side openly with the USSR, have overtaken the airwaves and now every channel in the US and etc broadcasts nothing but NeoComm propaganda – along with, we’re often informed, hardcore porn. Why this porn stuff is even there is unexplained, and I’m betting it’s something Engel came up with in his original idea for the novel, and Stokes just failed when it came to actually fleshing it out into a novel.

Because Stokes fails over and over again in The Red Rays, committing the worst sin a pulp author can make: he delivers a boring story. Focusing more on suspense and intrigue, Stokes works up a sideline where AXE has to work with the CIA, and after lots and lots of exposition and setup Carter goes to Hollywood, where he’s to meet with a female CIA agent who will be posing as Peter Pan at a costume party held at the mansion of Rona Matthews, a former silver screen siren.

Rona it’s explained is aligned with Dion Hermes, an openly gay Hollwyood type who himself is aligned with this llama or something, and the three of them hold big parties in Burbank for older rich people, trading on some secret that will bring back their youth and vitality, all for lots of money, etc, etc. It’s shoehorned into the main plot that Rona is apparently the woman in the devil mask; the CIA has determined this via analysis of the NeoComm broadcasts. Oh, and they’ve figured out that the NeoComms are broadcasting from somewhere in Peru.

And yet, instead of heading for Peru and kicking ass, Carter instead poses as a security guard at Rona’s mansion. Here we get lots and lots of gay-bashing as Carter gets his first glimpse of Dion Hermes; the name alone unleashes Carter’s homophobia, as he can’t believe how gay it is. (As for me, I thought “Dion Hermes” sounded more like the name of a ‘70s pimp.) But then, The Red Rays is clearly from a different era; but then again, Carter’s bashing of Hermes is beyond even what you’d read in the typical pre-PC pulp. At any rate, Carter doesn’t come off like a very broadminded individual.

At Rona’s he meets Pat Kilbride, the young CIA contact, who seems nervous. After showing Carter who’s who, she gives him a chaste kiss and returns to the party, and then Carter gets in a fight with a suspicious guard, kills him, and then runs afoul of Dion Hermes. Then Carter’s dosed by some paralyzing nerve spray, and at great page-length Hermes concocts this lurid scenario where it will look like Carter was in the process of raping Pat Kilbride before they both were killed in a fire(!). Uh, all so as to discredit Carter and AXE, or something.

Anyway Pat actually does die in the fire, but Carter escapes, and now he’s consumed with vengeance. I should mention that none of the above stuff has any tension, as it’s all relayed via flashback, Carter obsessing over it even once he’s gotten to Peru, where he hooks up with a few more CIA dudes and then poses as a Peace Corps worker. Now he has to drive like 500 miles through rough terrain as part of his cover.

But Carter’s found out instantly and taken captive by a pair of Commie guerrillas – Jorge, a hulking drunk, and El Rubio, aka “The Blonde,” a super-hot Spanish native who leads a group of Cuban guerrillas and whose real name is Inez Gaunt. But as usual Stokes can’t keep it simple, and it develops that Rubio and Jorge are at war, and Rubio uses Carter – whom she somehow knows to be an AXE agent – to kill off Jorge.

Believe it or not, Carter does not have sex with Rubio, despite her pleading with him to screw her, given how turned-on she is after watching him kill Jorge. In fact, Carter only has sex with one woman in the entire novel: Kezia Newmann, the doomed triple agent from the beginning of the story. (And the sex scene, by the way, is nothing explicit or outrageous, per the publication date.) Carter instead proceeds to treat Rubio like shit, tying her up and threatening to kill her if she attempts to escape. He even tortures her a little with his stiletto.

The NeoComms are broadcasting from the top of Condor Craig, and Carter announces that he and Rubio are going to blow it up – despite the fact that Rubio, he’s determined, is secretly a NeoComm agent. One who works for Dion Hermes, to boot. So we get lots of tedious mountain-climbing material, where finally, in the last few pages, Stokes unveils the pulpy stuff: the NeoComms are situated in a SPECTRE-type fortress in the caverns beneath an old Incan temple, and their guards walk around toting laser rifles!

But even here Stokes fumbles; rather than slam-bang action, Carter instead takes out one guard, only to find Dion Hermes waiting in ambush with a laser rife. But El Rubio takes the blast that was meant for the Killmaster, and Hermes runs away…and later Carter finds his corpse! I mean, Stokes couldn’t even deliver a payoff for the long-simmer vengeance plot he himself came up with!! Instead a CIA dude is presented as the true villain, an eleventh hour reveal that only further serves to tick off the reader.

As usual, Stokes takes too many divergent plot threads and does little to make sense of them all. I mean, the stuff with Rona Matthews and the llama and the old people they were conning? Forget about it. Hell, Rona Matthews doesn’t even have any dialog in the novel, whereas the first section has you expecting her to be some sort of Tokyo Rose who would bait and taunt Carter. But instead she’s relegated to a nonentity in the narrative, Stokes more concerned with word-painting about the scenery or plumbing the morbid thoughts of our “hero.”

I’ve said before that I like Stokes’s style, and I still do, but sometimes he gets to be a bit too much (sort of like me in these reviews, I guess). But still it would’ve been great if he’d backed off on the “suspense” nonsense and instead just written a straight-up piece of pulp. But then, he could’ve been trying something different, along with the first-person perspective. The actual text would hint otherwise, though; I think it’s more a case of that “hard-drinking” element Will Murray mentioned.

Long story short, The Red Rays is the least entertaining Nick Carter: Killmaster novel I’ve yet read. Here’s hoping Stokes’s other installments are more along the lines of The Golden Serpent.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mutants Amok #3: Rebel Attack


Mutants Amok #3: Rebel Attack, by Mark Grant
June, 1991  Avon Books

The Mutants Amok series continues to be a gross-out splatterfest of gore, projectile vomiting, explicit sex, and literal shit eating with this third volume, which once again sees author David Bischoff (ie “Mark Grant”) not taking his material seriously in the least.

Rebel Attack picks up soon after the previous volume, but a few questions from that one remain unanswered – like if BrainGeneral Torx, the main villain of the series, is truly dead. As we’ll recall, he had a climactic sword fight with loser hero Max Turkel in Mutant Hell, but we never saw the finale of it; instead, Turkel just informed the others that he’d chopped off Torx’s hands and the mutant sadist then plummeted to his doom.

Turkel’s sticking to his story this volume, with the added info that Torx apparently blabbed lots of info before falling off that mountain; like for example how he sold hotstuff blonde Jennifer Anderson to a mutant movie producer named Algernon Waugh. Jennifer is the true love of teenaged hero Jack Bender, who meanwhile has gotten serious with sexually-insatiable Jill Morningstar, the classic rock-listening, M-16 wielding American Indian beauty he met in the previous volume.

Jennifer Anderson, missing since the first volume, plays the central role in Rebel Attack, which makes for a problem, because she’s naïve, bland, and boring. Also, the material with her skirts too far over the line of satire and into slapstick, as Jennifer finds herself in Hollywood, now renamed “Hollyweird,” which has been taken over by mutants. It’s all just like the Hollywood of old, with despotic mutant moguls and lowly screenwriters who are treated like shit (even forced to eat it), and it’s all about as unhinged as a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Anyway, Jennifer is brought to the attention of famous mutant director Foxtrot Bennington-Spleen, who takes one look at Jennifer’s blonde hair and big breasts and announces that she’ll be perfect for his new film, Blade Babes of Babylon. Spleen is British, just like Waugh – for some reason Bischoff has the ruling elite of Hollyweird all be British mutants – but whereas Waugh is dandified and “cute,” Spleen is an overbearing drunk. Jennifer agrees to the film, caught up in the excitement of being a star, not realizing that this will be a snuff film and she, like all other human actors, will be killed for real in the finale.

Meanwhile, in one of the novel’s top gross-out moments, Max Turkel discovers that he now has a robotic liver. Secretly put in him in the previous volume by his “ally,” BrainGeneral Harten, the liver announces itself to Turkel in a gory Alien hommage as it pops out of his abdomen, stating that it does not like alcohol – which explains why Turkel’s been puking so much. The liver is also a conduit to Harten, who demands that Turkel head on into Hollywood and kill the mutants who have Jennifer Anderson.

It turns out that Foxtrot and Waugh are involved with mutant movie mogul Hairy Kahn (seriously) in a black market gene-splicing initiative. Their goal is harvesting the genes of famous celebrities of the past, mixing them with the genes of healthy modern humans, and whipping up perfect actors! (Don’t laugh, this is exactly how Serpentor was created.) But this gene-splicing deal is pretty dangerous, so far as Harten is concerned, and he explains to Turkel that it’s in Turkel’s best interest to do his request, mostly because it’ll give Turkel the chance to kill a bunch of mutants.

The gang appropriates a mutant “MV,” aka motorized vehicle, which is described as an “armored Winnebago.” Curiously, despite being built up so much, the MV doesn’t even feature it in the climactic assault on Kahn’s fortress, as Turkel et al must find a new ride when the MV’s wheels are stolen in LA. Bischoff does this throughout, building up characters/incidents and then brushing them aside, like the late introduction of a “halfsie” named Joe Brown who looks identical to Elvis (having been created by an Elvis-obsessed mad scientist), a character who seems like he’s going to be a lot more important than he actually turns out to be.

Action scenes are a little more limited this volume. More focus is placed on the surreal, violently slapstick world of Hollyweird, which comes off as a scatalogical spoof of the real Hollywood. We have Hairy Kahn walking around in his “sleazure suit,” making writers named after Ernest Hemmingway literally eat shit, as well as Kahn flunkies who do reenactments of Hollywood’s more sordid stories, like Herman Makiewicz puking at dinner and then delivering an immediate quip, or even more grisly bits like the Black Dahlia murder.

But it’s all just so intentionally goofy; I mean, Turkel’s robotic spleen, when it returns into his body, even bats its mechanical eyes and says “Th-that’s all, folks!” Even the minor details are goofy, with tidbits like “mutant Reebok shoes” and even “Mutant Top Forty” radio, which as described sounds a lot like modern death metal. (Jack becomes a huge fan of it during the long drive to LA.) While some of this is funny, ultimately it robs from the novel, as you can’t take it seriously. A little jokery is great, but too much and the entire edifice will collapse. That basically happens in Rebel Attack.

Oh, and meanwhile Jennifer falls in love with Algernon Waugh, the mutant. We never get a thorough description of Waugh, but apparently he’s “cute” and a pure gentleman, very refined and British – so refined in fact that his Hollyweird pals think he’s gay. But Waugh proves himself very much straight in the novel’s longest and most explicit sex scene, as Jennifer practically throws herself on him. We get thorough graphic detail here, just as in the sex scenes of previous installments.

To Bischoff’s credit, you can see where he understands that Jennifer is a boring character, and thus has come up with a good way to write her out of the series: have her fall in love with someone other than old sweetheart Jack Bender. Luckily, he has created a much more interesting female character in Jill Morningstar, who is every post-nuke male’s dream – and, in yet another of the novel’s many overtly comedic touches, declares herself as such.

Things ramp up as Hairy Kahn informs Foxtrot Bennington-Spleen that he’ll have to finish Blade Babes Of Babylon much earlier than expected. Poor Jennifer doesn’t realize that her hectic last day of filming will be her last day on earth. It all culminates in a huge massacre, the mutants killing one another in a fight for the cameras, and then a mutant Hitler is about to gut Jennifer on camera – that is, after he’s sung “Springtime for Hitler.” Then Waug swoops in on a jungle vine, wooping like Johnny Weismuller as he comes to Jennifer’s rescue.

So yeah, it’s all just really dumb. But it sure is gory, with heads juicily exploding, guts pouring out, and so forth. By the time Jack, Turkel, Jill, and geek Phil Potts arrive, all the mutants on the set are dead, and the four heroes now must hurry to the secret vat in which the gene-splicing experiments take place, Jennifer having been rushed there by Hairy Kahn. But it’s Waugh to the rescue again, fencing with Foxtrot and again saving Jennifer. In fact, the humans don’t do all that much.

Rebel Attack ends with Jennifer and Waugh now a couple, and the two planning to leave for New York, where Waugh has just gotten a job at “Evian Books,” which “even has its own cosmetics line.” (Note who publishes Mutants Amok…!) Bidding goodbye to his former sweetheart, Jack Bender resigns himself to a life of mutant killing and “raw sex” with Jill Morningstar…and meanwhile, none of the elements introduced in the previous two volumes are much explored in this one, so here’s hoping the next volume gets things back in focus.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bonnie


Bonnie, by Hugh Barron
November, 1970  NEL Books
(Original US edition, 1965)

One of the more obscure Burt Hirschfeld novels, Bonnie is also the most fun, and certainly the most sleazy and pulpy. Originally published under the house name “Oscar Bessie,” Bonnie is all about a horny young woman who becomes “the princess of the motorcycle gangs.”

If ever there was a Hirschfeld novel that should’ve been an AIP biker movie, this is the one. Curiously, it was never reprinted under Hirschfeld’s name in the US (more of which below), and it only appeared under his “Hugh Barron” pseudonym in the UK. The “Oscar Bessie” edition was published by Domino Books, a sleaze imprint of Lancer, however be aware the novel isn’t explicit, really, and not just due to the year it was published (1965); Hirschfeld is very much in his metaphorical mode this time out, with climaxes compared to cresting waves and etc.

Bonnie shares almost the exact same template as a later Hirschfeld novel, Cindy On Fire. Like Cindy Ashe, Bonnie Dixon is 19, beautiful, blonde, and bored. Living in Bayville, an area of Long Island, Bonnie like the later Cindy is saddled with a loser of a fiance, super-square Bob Horner. The dude doesn’t even believe in premarital sex! The novel opens with yet another of his refusals, as Bonnie implores Bob to take her one night after a date. Throwing a fit when she’s turned down for the umpteenth time, Bonnie runs away from Bob’s car, whips off her clothes, and runs nude along a deserted stretch of the beach.

After spying on a couple having sex, Bonnie swims nude in the ocean. When she lays back on the sand she’s almost raped by a pair of bikers. She’s only saved by the appearance of their leader, a muscular, good-looking dude who wields a riding crop. This is Mike Shaw, leader of the Apaches “motorcycle club.” The two would-be rapists are Leo and Buster. Mike gives Bonnie a ride home, and she’s so excited she can’t sleep that night and must pleasure herself (again, written in a very metaphorical style).

Bonnie, increasingly distant from her parents and Bob Horner, runs into the Apaches again, and tells them she wants to join. But she doesn’t just want to be a “squaw;” she wants to be a full-fledged member, with her own bike. First though she must pass the “Ordeals” all new Apaches must face. The first ordeal is a mugging in a park, Bonnie distracting a pair of random dudes while a few Apaches swoop in and attach them, and then Bonnie must join in the fight. She enjoys it so much she nearly beats the victims to a pulp.

The next ordeal is a brutal fight with another female Apache, while the rest of the gang watches. It takes place in an old farmhouse the Apaches have taken for themselves, and Bonnie is able to overcome her more-powerful opponent, using her wits and her speed. This leads immediately into the final ordeal, which first has Bonnie bathed by “handmaidens,” and then, nude, put up on an auction block! The Apaches bid for her, and the winner gets Bonnie for the night.

Hirschfeld, realizing he was required to write a sleazy tale, goes all the way – a female Apache bids for Bonnie at an exorbitant cost. This is Paula Hart, gorgeous redhead with a shitkicker bod. Paula takes Bonnie to a separate room and has her put on thigh-high boots and hands her a whip. Yes, friends, Hirschfeld really goes for it, here – Paula gets off on being whipped, and urges Bonnie to lash the hell out of her, after which Paula crawls on her hands and knees to an exhausted Bonnie and starts dining at the Y…friends, I never knew ol’ Burt had it in him!

Three weeks later and Bonnie’s such a diehard Apache she threatens to usurp Mike’s position as leader. She has her own crew now, in particular Paula, Leo, and Buster, and she and Mike are on the verge of open warfare. Not that this stops Bonnie from occasionally screwing Mike. Hirschfeld also intimates that Bonnie’s screwed most of the Apaches, but wisely, for such a short novel (124 pages), he limits the narrative to just a few named characters. Strangely, Bonnie is still engaged to Bob Horner, who not only still refuses to have sex with her, but apparently is oblivious about her secret life as an Apache.

Now our antihero needs her own motorcycle. One thing I should mention is that Bonnie is pretty scant so far as biker stuff goes – I mean, motorcycle models aren’t mentioned, and there’s maybe two or three parts where people even ride their bikes. It’s more about Bonnie’s need for constant thrills, and the increasing levels of sadism and danger she compels her fellow Apaches to. It’s also your typical morality play-type tale, about the dangers of peering too far into the abyss.

Anyway, Mike Shaw pokes fun at Bonnie that she could just ask her loaded parents for the money to buy a bike. But Bonnie’s plan wins yet more favor from the Apaches – she’s going to rob her own parents. Once again employing Paula, Leo, and Buster, Bonnie and her three followers dress “completely in black leather, including full-face wind masks and leather helmets” and head for Bonnie’s home. There they break in, threaten Bonnie’s parents with knives, tie them up, and raid the safe.

But before Bonnie can even buy a bike, she goes back to the farmhouse, where new Apaches are being inducted…and bids on the new girl for herself! This is buxom, vixenish Leah, who is game for a little lesbian fun with Bonnie, though again it doesn’t drop into outright sleaze. I mean, to be sure, there’s lots of dirty stuff going on, but it’s written so “poetically” that it never descends into porn. Bonnie has outbid Mike for Leah, which furthers the potential Apache rift, something compounded when Bonnie gets her own chopper and starts leading around her own little crew.

The Apaches are at war with the Monarchs, a gang from a few towns over that greatly outnumbers the Apaches. Mike has never been able to defeat them. Bonnie knows that if she comes up with a strategy to destroy them, she’ll immediately become the leader of the Apaches. Her plan is as usual mean-spirited and crazy; she breaks into a beach house, hides weapons in it, and invites the Monarchs over for a big party.

Having the “squaws” and other female members “be nice” to the Monarchs (including the memorable image of Leah standing over three satiated and unconscious Monarchs), Bonnie gets the other gang nice and drunk while she and the Apaches stay sober. Then, after Bonnie’s had (unfulfilling) sex with the Monarch “war chief,” she blows a whistle and the battle begins. The Apaches beat the shit out of the Monarchs, trashing the beach house in the process.

A recurring element – same as in Cindy On Fire -- is that Bonnie cannot achieve satisfaction in anything, especially sex. Constantly spurred to greater lengths, she ends up screwing Mike Shaw yet again, and then racing with him on the night roads at top speed. When a cop gives chase, Mike attempts to lead him to his death, but Bonnie panics and crashes herself, saving the cop’s life. She’s sprung from jail, and it’s even worse because her parents and Bob Horner are even more understanding and etc.

But it’s worse with the Apaches – Bonnie goes to the farmhouse to discover that she’s now persona non grata, thanks to her saving a cop’s life. She has to murder someone to make amends with the gang, or they’ll kill her. When Bonnie refuses to kill a bum that night at a park, she runs from Mike and Paula, almost killing the former with the wrench she was supposed to use on the bum. Bonnie, just like Cindy Ashe, ends up running to the man she’s treated like shit since page one – her fiance, Bob Horner.

Humorously enough, Hirschfeld only bothers to inform us here in the eleventh hour that Bob was formerly a collegiate wrestler, and is still a big and muscular guy! (The image previously presented to us clearly made him out to be a 90-pound weakling.) The couple goes to the beach, where Bonnie unloads her story to a noncommittal Bob. Then, right on cue, Mike, Paula, Leo, and Buster show up, staging an ambush right where this whole story began.

Would you be surprised that Bob Horner makes short work of the three men? Better yet is Bonnie’s fight with Paula, who comes at her with a knife. This is a pretty vicious catfight, which ends with Bonnie finishing Paula off with “a perfect karate chop” to the throat. Then Bob, suddenly the man, hops on one of the choppers, tells Bonnie to get behind him, and blasts off! Then he insists they swim nude…and have sex right there on the beach!

And of course, just like Cindy Ashe who too was reunited at long last with the man she’d treated like shit, only to find he was the perfect match for her, Bonnie Dixon finally knows true satisfaction and happiness with Bob Horner. As mentioned, it’s a morality play, or whatever you all it, only one filled with leather-clad biker chicks and lesbian sex and occasional mentions of “pot parties.” In other words, it’s pretty great.

Maybe the one thing holding Bonnie back from true greatness is, again, Hirschfeld’s ornate style, which admittedly isn’t as busy here as it is in some of his other books. And also you have to admire how much he packs into so few pages. Given that Bonnie was never reprinted under his own name, you have to wonder if Hirschfeld maybe disowned it, but I think there might be another story there.

Bonnie was first published by Domino, as mentioned a Lancer imprint; this NEL reprint is copyright Lancer Books. When Hirschfeld reprinted his “Hugh Barron” books in the ‘80s, Bonnie was not included – but then, all of the other Hugh Barron novels had originally been printed by Pyramid Books. Lancer had been out of business since September 1973. So what I’m trying to say is, maybe Bonnie was never reprinted in the ‘80s because Hirschfeld couldn’t secure the rights to it.

Who knows. At any rate Bonnie is pretty fun. Here’s the cover of that original Domino/Lancer edition, from 1965, which not only gets it wrong by making Bonnie a brunette, but also by making her look like a drag queen:

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cody's Army #1


Cody's Army #1, by Jim Case
July, 1986  Warner Books

In the ‘80s Stephen Mertz oversaw two series, but MIA Hunter got all of the attention. However at the same time he also did Cody’s Army, which ran for seven volumes and, like that more popular series, saw a collaboration of various writers working under a house name, with Mertz outlining and editing (and occasionally writing volumes himself).

Like most other first volumes from the ‘80s, Cody’s Army #1 is focused on setting up the characters and storyline, and thus is longer than the average men’s adventure novel, coming in at 232 pages of smallish print. Also like MIA Hunter, there’s hardly any info on who wrote which volumes, so then a big thanks to Stephen Mertz himself, who told me that, for this first volume:

I wrote the opening chapters introducing Cody in action and him putting the team together. Sidebar: I asked my writer pal Joe Lansdale to please draft me one chapter where a Southern member of the team is busted out of jail. I wanted it racy but from a southern writer's viewpoint so as not to demean, much less alienate, southern readers. So Lansdale delivers a scene with a small town halfwit named Scooter who totes around a skateboard with a dead racoon nailed to it. Sigh. Joe never could write to spec, which probably accounts for his well-deserved success. Chet Cunningham picks up the narrative with the airplane hi-jacking, completing the novel based on my outline.

Interestingly enough, one can barely tell the author switch-up; the whole novel reads like the work of one writer. This is the same for the MIA Hunter books, which also seem to have the same style, even though almost every one of them is written by a different author. My assumption is this is Mertz’s behind-the-scenes editing, making it all come off with the same tone and style. But at any rate, there is little in this novel that reminds the reader of Cunningham’s earlier work; ie, none of the batshit craziness of, say, Hijacking Manhattan.

Anyway, Mertz opens the tale, and it’s all very ‘80s, as hero John Cody, a CIA agent who was in Force Recon in the Marines in ‘Nam, is down in Nicaragua, fighting the Sandanistas. Working with the Contras, Cody’s mission is to rescue a group of nuns who have been kidnapped. What starts off as a fairly routine action scene sees an unexpected twist, as Cody frees the nuns – only for them to be coldly murdered by the Contras he’s working with!

Learning much too late that this was not a rescue mission – the nuns were supposed to die, so that it would look to the media like the Sandanistas butchered them – Cody exacts vengeance on the Contras and his CIA contact, a sadist named Gorman. We then pick up 14 months later, and it’s all very Commando-esque, at least so far as the beginning of that Schwarzengger film went, with Cody living the life of a recluse in a mountain cabin in the wilds of Canada.

Cody has quit the Agency life in disgust, the memory of the nuns still haunting him. However he is of course tracked down, a trio of men showing up one day on his property. They’re lead by Pete Lund, a CIA man Cody has dealt with in the past. Lund offers Cody the opportunity to lead a new, off-the-book team that will be answerable to the President only; there will be no incidents like the fiasco in Nicaragua. Plus, Cody will be able to pick his own men. The operating principle of the outfit will be that it can do things Delta Force and etc cannot, as the outfit will technically not exist, and thus can work in the shadows.

After a page or two of deliberation, Cody agrees. Now he has to put his team together. First up there’s Richard Caine, who is basically Terrance Loughlin of the MIA Hunter series – a stoic Brit who was formerly in the SAS and is an expert in demolitions. I mean, Richard Caine is so similar to Loughlin – even coming off as a vague shadow of Cody, just as Loughlin does to Mark Stone – that I started to figure that maybe the dude is Terrance Loughlin, like maybe polygamist style Loughlin serves in two seprate action groups, and for Stone et al he’s known as Loughlin, but Cody and gang know him as Caine.

Next there’s Hawkeye Hawkins, a southern hellraiser who is similar to Hog Wiley of the MIA Hunter series, but not as bearish or oafish. To tell the truth, Hawkeye doesn’t do much to capture the reader’s attention, though he does blow off a few heads with his .44 Magnum, which is always a memorable thing. Anyway, Hawkeye and Caine are down in East Texas working as bounty hunters, so they’re easy for Cody to wrangle.

The fourth and final member of the team is another story. This is Rufe Murphy, who also comes off a clone of Hog Wiley, only he’s black. However he’s more like Hog than Hawkeye is, as Rufe is the roughian of the group, plus a pilot to boot. Rufe is currently in jail in some small town in Mississippi, having gotten there due to his banging the white mayor’s wife. Cody and team will need to break him out.

This breakout turns out to be the most memorable scene in the novel. Coming off like a redneck version of Mission: Impossible, it sees Cody and gang posing as cops from a neighboring town, who have come over to measure the size of the prisoner’s dicks! Rufe is of course massively endowed – the cops having gotten a good gander of him in the showers – and thus he’s trundled out as a sure-fire winner for this (fictional) contest Cody claims to be running. It all culminates in incriminating photos taken which make it appear that the police chief is giving ol’ Rufe a blowjob, and he’s of course let go in exchange for the negatives never being shown.

Gradually we get around to the storyline of this first volume; namely, that an American airplane, en route to Tel Aviv from Athens, is hijacked by a group of Palestinian terrorists. They’re soon taken to a deslote patch of Lebanon, just outside of West Beirut, where the captors demand various things or, in 48 hours, will start killing the passengers. It’s all very similar to the plot of The Hard Corps #2, which especially gets confusing when you realize that this novel also has a dour and taciturn character named Caine.

The hijacking stuff goes down just past page 80, which would mean, per Stephen’s comments above, that this is where Chet Cunningham takes over the writing duties. But as mentioned, the reader can hardly tell. The only problem is, it’s all so familiar; after some harrowing stuff, the prisoners are taken to a fortress outside of Lebanon, where the terrorists, lead by Farouk Hassan and Abdel Khaled, first murder the pilot, and then threaten to off the rest if their demands aren’t met.

Cody and team head to Beirut, where we’re at first lead to believe that a character named Kelly McConnell, a famous TV reporter, will become important to the story. Kelly provides a lead for Cody behind the Green Line of Beirut, ie the war-torn, Shiite-controlled area…and then she is promptly killed off. This is a typical “pull the rug out” Cunningham trick, and one he’s done successfully in the Penetrator books.

Cunningham does a good job of bringing to life the hellzone that is this quarter of Beirut, with innocents getting killed in the melee; there’s a bizarre subplot about some woman named Ona whose husband is killed in a blast, and she’s taken into sexual captivity by Majed Kaddoumi, a Palestinian leader who lives in a fortress, and who is the lead Kelly McConnel provided Cody. This takes us into our first major action sequence, as “Cody’s Army” stages an assault on Majed’s fortress.

Neither Mertz nor Cunningham much play up on the gore, but the latter does a little more so, with descriptions of heads exploding and guts pouring out. Hawkeye in particular has a knack for shooting people in the head with his .44 Magnum, which always results in showers of skull shards and brain matter. Just as in the MIA Hunter books, Cody is really the star of the show, though, to the point where the supporting characters sort of blur together.

Cunningham finishes the novel with back-to-back action sequences. First there’s the assault on Majed’s place. Immediately thereafter Cody’s Army (after dropping off the captured woman, Ona) attacks the remote fortress outside Beirut in which the captives are being held. Meanwhile, in a prefigure of the subplot Cunningham would write in Stone: MIA Hunter, the captives themselves are revolting, lead by a plucky stewardess named Sharon Adamson.

This action-packed finale has memorable moments like Rufe Anderson weilding dual Uzis; a total ‘80s action cliché if there ever was one. We can just go ahead and assume he’s wearing a headband. Cunningham opens it up a little with helicopters brought into the mix, including a climax in which Cody, piloting a chopper, chases after the fleeing Farouk Hassan. This part features a total Rambo ripoff, where Cody, crash-landing his chopper, plays dead, and when the other chopper comes in for a closer to look at him, he jumps up and sprays them with his Uzi!

It also looks like Gorman, the CIA sadist who was behind the nun massacre in the beginning of the novel, is to become the series’s recurring villain, much like Alan Coleman in the MIA Hunter books. Humorously enough, despite Pete Lund telling Cody that this new outfit won’t have any problems, Cody arrives in Beirut only to discover that his CIA contact is…none other than Gorman, the man Cody tried to kill in vengeance back in Nicaragua!

However, nothing at all comes of this, and Gorman and Cody don’t even meet; Cunningham writes only one or two scenes with him, cooling his heels outside of Beirut. There is no confrontation between he and Cody, all of which makes me suspect this Gorman stuff is there mostly to set us up to understand that the dude’s still around and still harbors a lot of animosity toward Cody (and vice versa), with the potential that it’ll all eventually blow up.

This first volume, while entertaning for the most part and well written, ultimately comes off as a little too standard. In his interview here on the blog, Stephen Mertz said about Cody’s Army: “Those boys kicked it for several books but they never did catch on like MIA Hunter.” I can sort of see why that is, at least given this first volume, as there’s no unusual hook or memorable quirk, as there was in the other series.

Future installments look to open things up, though; Mertz wrote the next two volumes himself, and the sixth installment, Hellfire In Haiti, sounds especially promising, with a plot about voodoo.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Penetrator #23: Divine Death


The Penetrator #23: Divine Death, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1977  Pinnacle Books

After the boredom of the previous few installments, Divine Death gets things back on track for the Penetrator series.  Mark Roberts again turns in a volume filled with violence, blood, and occasional right-wing sermonizing, as Mark Hardin takes on the cult explosion of the late ‘70s.

Similar to Death Merchant #36 and Chameleon #2, Divine Death trades on the cult trends of the day a la Jim Jones and Sun Moon, as a Fiji-born “messiah,” Vanua Levu, heads the Church of the Final Coming, and countless youngsters flock to him. Of course, the shaven-headed Levu harbors evil intentions, his cult just a front for his Communist-backed plans, and he’s surrounded by legions of gun-toting goons in robes. He also enjoys killing people with poisonous mollusks from his native Fiji.

Hardin happens to be in Denver on vacation; curiously, this volume almost appears to be a sequel to Chet Cunningham's earlier #20: The Radiation Hit. I’ve figured for a while that Roberts and Cunningham were writing their volumes at the same time, hence the lack of continuity, so perhaps this Cunningham installment was the most recent one to have been published while Roberts was working on Divine Death.

The Penetrator’s alerted to this latest menace when he hears about the murder of an undercover cop. This guy had infiltrated the Church, which has its sole temple in Denver, so as to find a pair of runaway girls – part of the cult’s schtick is taking legal guardianship of runaway kids and keeping them from their parents. However it appears that these kids are soon brainwashed and exploited, with attractive girls for example being thrown into the temple harem, where they are expected to openly prostitute themselves on the streets for the good of the Church.

Hardin gets pissed and decides to do something about it. To Roberts’s credit, he doesn’t waste time getting to the good stuff. Hardin visits the Denver temple and soon suspects foul play, propositioned immediately by a drugged-out “temple whore” and later bullied by a pair of brown-robed thugs. Of course, Hardin quickly butchers the thugs, only to find his photograph being snapped. He chases the photographer down, and after destroying the negatives has a new ally; reporter Terry Lucas, who himself is researching the cult.

Lucas is researching a pair of local sisters who have been legally adopted by the cult, and he suspects they were more so just abducted. When Hardin gets wind of this – coupled with the murder of that undercover cop – he’s really pissed. Reasoning that the usual “red tape” would delay anything from being done soon enough, Hardin charges in to the rescue. This is a pretty good action scene that starts off as a soft probe of the temple, but once Hardin has freed the girls – who have been drugged and put into the cult harem – he goes back for a hard probe, killing with impunity.

Unusually for the series, Hardin is caught. This is a strangely-written sequence, though, almost clunky in a way. Roberts keeps cutting over to Levu’s security thugs, a group of brown-robed sadists, as they watch Hardin on hidden monitors. Yet these guys keep biding their time, even after Hardin’s escaped with the girls(?!), and then don’t pounce on him until he’s come back into the temple and found evidence of a Moscow-backed plan to assassinate key figures in the US. I mean, how did they know he was going to come back after leaving with the girls??

Anyway, Hardin is strung up and tortured, but the thugs aren’t sure if he’s yet another undercover cop or the Penetrator himself. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as Levu himself trundles out another of his precious mollusks, stinging Hardin with it. The Penetrator uses his Indian training to shut off parts of his body so as to funnel the poison “harmlessly” through his system, all while it appears as if he has died; Roberts writes variations of this scene at least three times throughout the rest of the novel, as Hardin keeps reflecting back on it.

Now that Levu’s people think he’s dead, Hardin is free to…well, to continue on just as if none of it the “death” stuff ever happened. He knows from his probe of the temple that 60-some people across the US will be targets of the cult. He also knows that the killers are brainwashed assassins who have been programmed Manchurian Candidate style, however he doesn’t know who the killers will be, nor who their targets are. And since there won’t be time to expose Levu, the Penetrator himself will have to kill the would-be killers.

After a pointless meeting with one of Professor Haskins’s academic friends, Hardin begins a whirlwind tour of the US as he flies around to each stop of Levu’s “final coming” tour – the assassinations will take place in each city, the assassins being activated by key phrases in the speech Levu will give at each venue. The reader must be prepared for long dialog sections of Levu’s vitriol, much of which sounds like it could come out of Tilt!.

Hardin flies to each city, shows up at the rally, and watches the crowd to see who might be activated by Levu’s words. Then Hardin will follow after the assassin, stopping them before they can get their target. A humorous thing is that Hardin shows absolutely no mercy to these brainwashed assassins, blowing their heads off whether they be male or female. Yet they’re always just kids for the most part, easily-swayed youth who have been perverted against their will by Levu’s people.

Even Hardin is exhausted by the time he’s flown around the country and taken out so many assassins. Again his reasoning is that the Feds or whoever wouldn’t act in time to stop the murders, but he does retain the help of reporter Terry Lucas. Also the Penetrator, a wanted felon so far as the law is concerned, is able to talk the would-be targets into faking their deaths for the press! All so Levu and his Russian backers will believe that the assassinations are proceeding as planned.

It culminates in a quick climax in Florida, as Hardin storms Levu’s hotel room and blows away his henchmen. This includes a memorable scene where one of them falls into a tank filled with those poisonous mollusks. Levu himself is strung up, with evidence of his plot scattered beneath him. After which we get a quick wrapup where Hardin’s at dinner with his girlfriend, Joanna Tabler, as well as Professor Haskins, wondering when he can get a real vacation.

Roberts writes a prologue and epilogue that promise an interesting future installment. A Mafia don named Federico Calucci, who briefly appeared in #17: Demented Empire, is still trying to kill the Penetrator and collect the large bounty that’s been placed on his head. In the prologue Calucci deduces that the Penetrator must be using a computer to determine the locations of his strikes, and by novel’s end he’s gotten confirmation of his guess. Calucci then does what any other Mafia don would do – he hires a friggin’ ninja to kill the Penetrator!!

I have no idea when this storyline will play out, but it goes without saying I’m looking forward to it. Anyway, Divine Death was pretty good, and while not perfect (and a little clunky at times), it was definitely an improvement over the previous couple volumes.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Challenge At Le Mans (Don Miles #1)


Challenge At Le Mans, by Larry Kenyon
April, 1967  Avon Books

One of the more obscure series produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel, Don Miles only ran for four volumes, all of which were published by Avon in 1967. I’d never heard of it until I came across Will Murray’s 1981 interview with Engel, which was published in Paperback Parade #2 (1986), where Murray briefly mentioned “the Don Miles books.”

Engel’s response was that, at the time, he was into automative publications, and thus came up with an action hero/auto racer. However, in the interview Engel could no longer remember who had actually written the books. Thanks to James Reasoner, who posted here, we now know that the author was Lew Louderback, one of Engel’s writing stable who also wrote a volume or two of Nick Carter: Killmaster. I’m not familiar with Louderback, but it seems an article on fat acceptance he wrote back in 1967 is well-regarded today.

Anyway, as expected, Don Miles is basically like Nick Carter, only with an auto racer day job. Challenge At Le Mans, the first book of the series (none of the books were numbered), tells the tale of how Miles becomes an agent for SPEED, a highly-secret branch of US intelligence. Unusually enough for an early-model men’s adventure novel, this first volume takes the time to tell the origin story for our character, a gutsy 35 year-old Texan who, in addition to being mega-rich thanks to his oil prospecting father, is also a world famous racing champion.

Be prepared for lots of racing stuff; many, many paragraphs are devoted to how race cars run, the competitive circuit, pit crews, and the like. So then another series this is reminiscent of is The Mind Masters, only without the supernatural element or ultra-sleazy sex scenes – though, to be sure, there are many sex scenes in this novel. But, given the 1967 publication date, they aren’t all that raunchy. But at least they’re there.

In fact, we get one early on, as Don beds a hotstuff female reporter who has come down to Houston to check out the unveiling of Don’s new Panther racer, a car he himself has designed. Le Mans is coming up, and Don plans to unveil it there, winning with a US-built automobile. Lowderback proves himself a good pulp writer, with copious exploitation of the lady’s, uh, ample charms, though when it comes to the actual screwin’ he fades to black. So in other words, it’s about on par with what you’d read in a Killmaster novel from this time period.

But after he crashes the Panther in a test run for the journalists, Don’s life is changed forever. He wakes up in a hospital, where a man calling himself “Hedge” informs Don that he was not harmed in the wreck, but the accident could be used to cover a few months of secret training. Hedge, who wears a mask and distorts his voice, offers Don the opportunity to become a secret agent, using his globe-hopping, famous identity as the perfect cover story. Don, reflecting back on advice his dad once gave him(!), says “Sure.” Otherwise this series would’ve been even shorter.

Similar to Eric Saveman in The Smuggler, Don is taken through a few months of intense espionage training. After which he returns to his life as a race car driver, with two months of preparation before Le Mans; he’s informed he might never even be activated, but of course he promptly is, as soon as he arrives in France. Don’s first mission has him researching the mysterious death of a CIA operative, who was looking for a young German girl named Greta Thiess, a nuclear researcher who apparently murdered her mentor – a man who had just devised a new device that could make any nuclear device into a warhead.

Like Nick Carter, Don Miles has a trio of weapons he relies on, though he does not give them goofy names: a .25 magnum Sauer automatic, a ballpoint pen that fires poison-tipped needles, and a 16-inch piano wire which he uses as a garrotte, hiding it in specially-lined pockets of his pants. He also has a Mission: Impossible-style face mask, made of “Plastotex,” which turns him into “Mr. Nobody,” a face computer-designed to be forgotten as soon as it is seen. In addition to his gadgets, Don is also given new partners. First there’s Buck Garrett, a redneck engineer who speaks in the most painfully-rendered dialog ever.

In addition to being a super-skilled racing car engineer, Buck himself is a SPEED agent, and serves as Don’s conduit to another new partner, Sam Harris, who stays back in the US and acts officially as the CEO of Don’s racing enterprise. Harris, then, is like the David Hawk of the series, even though he doesn’t appear in this particular volume.

Similar to The Mind Masters, more focus is placed on the preparation for the race rather than the race itself (in fact, the novel ends just as the race begins). So then we get lots of scuttlebutt among the racers in Le Mans as they discuss the upcoming contest. The back cover mentions that Don will be going up against a gang of leather-clad biker women, and they show up promptly: they are the Devil Bombers, a gang of gorgeous German girls lead by Wilma Zeiss, an actress who recently appeared in a biker film. They terrorize Le Mans, driving on sidewalks and knocking aside pedestrians.

The gang is staying at a nearby chateau owned by Baroness Falkenhorst, aka Elga Winter, herself a once-famous actress who is apparently 30-something and of course stunningly beautiful, and a man-eater to boot. She is the villain of the piece, and she must be an unforgettable sight, with a magnificent body, red hair, silver nails, and white lipstick! She is infamous for tearing through professional racers, conveniently enough, but has yet to sink her hooks into Don Miles.

I found this “Baroness” stuff interesting, given Engel’s later Baroness series, which itself was credited to a “Kenyon” house name. Maybe this character provided some inspiration for the later Penelope St. John-Orsini? Baroness Falkenhorst is even once described as wearing the same outfit Penny wears on the Baroness covers, “a black outfit resembling a skin-tight track suit.” And as mentioned, she’s just as sexually-insatiable as the later Baroness.

As for Don Miles, he doesn’t come off so well on his first mission. He bumbles and stumbles throughout; first almost being crushed by a car that’s kicked on him. While investigating the car the CIA agent was driving when he had his fatal crash, Don is trapped when someone kicks the car off the cinder block that’s holding it up; he just manages to pull himself free. Later, he’s almost run over by a car. A later incident has him getting captured – while having sex with a woman who has clearly set him up for abduction. Later on, he’s captured yet again, and is only saved by a female accomplice.

Tracking the clues for the CIA agent’s murder leads Don to the chateau of the Baroness. It’s a pulpishly depraved place, with the Baroness entertaining the fifty-some biker chicks who are staying there with her, many of whom Don finds naked in the Baroness’s palatial-sized bedroom. There’s a fountain in there, an “opium lamp,” erotic posters, and a massive bed that has electronically controlled (and mirrored) floorboards and headboards. Would you be surprised that the Baroness promptly throws herself on Don?

A funny thing about the sex scenes is that Louderback will set us up with lots of anatomical detail, but then he’ll always fade to black with an ellipsis. However we are told enough to know that the Baroness is insatiable, doing Don “at least ten times” through the night, even waking him up for more. He finally beats a retreat, claiming exhaustion, only to get more German booty the next night, when he finds Ulla Kihss, daughter of another racer, waiting for him in his hotel bed.

We get another somewhat-explicit sex scene, followed by a quick ellipsis, as Don, despite suspecting something, quickly ravishes the hot blonde…only to realize at the last second it’s a trap. Louderback continues to make the plot overly complex; we learn Ulla is a secret agent for SD-3, the French version of the CIA, and her boss, a man named Dimanche, drugs Don in order to figure out if Don is really a secret agent. Thanks to his training, Don is able to fool Dimanche, who goes on to request that Don begin working for SD-3, given his “relationship” with the Baroness – as it turns out that the Baroness is aligned with an East German spy group called SPIDER, and likely has the nuclear McGuffin hidden in her chateau.

Have you noticed how busy all of this is getting? Louderback keeps piling on new plots and characters, and doing precious little to exploit that which he has already created. Like those biker chicks. Forget about them! They appear in maybe three scenes, and usually for only a few sentences. How a pulp author could write a book that features a gang of gorgeous female bikers and do nothing with them blows my mind. But there are no scenes where Don, uh, “consorts” with any of them, and when one of the biker girls is taken out, it’s not even by Don (Ulla does it), and it happens off-page.

In his review of Louderback’s Killmaster novel Danger KeyKurt Reichenbaugh states that Louderback pretty much does the same thing in that Nick Carter novel; he just keeps piling on the characters and the subplots. This results in the fact that Challenge At Le Mans feels a lot longer than it really is – unlike the Killmaster novels of the era, which are quick reads, this one is at times an uphill struggle.

Louderback does try to factor Don Miles’s racing background into the climax, but still it’s a bit tepid because Don is such a waste of a spy – honestly, he’s knocked out, captured, and hoodwinked throughout the entire novel. But anyway he spends most of the finale driving back and forth from France to the Alps in a souped-up VW built for him by Buck Garrett. Here we learn that he does not have a “speed threshhold” and can go incredibly fast without fear.

Don’s racing around looking for the nuclear McGuffin, Ulla riding with him, as the Baroness has taken it to her castle in the Alps. Even here though we do not get much of an action scene, and Don’s kills are limited to three or four SPIDER agents back in France, in the very final pages. In fact, he does nothing to prove himself as a capable agent, even though the SD-3 guys gush all over him for “saving Europe.” But he’s a dolt, fooled throughout by the women of the tale – any idiot could easily figure out who Ulla Kihss really is.

Also, there really isn’t a memorable send-off for any of the villains; the Baroness, despite being built up as this man-eating tigress, is dispatched almost casually (and not even by Don), and when the real villain is uncovered, Don’s more shocked than spurred to action. What I’m saying is, he’s no Nick Carter. You’d think perhaps that was Louderback’s point, that Don is an untried agent, this being his first assignment, but instead he’s played up as a primo shit-kicker. So in other words it comes off as unintentionally humorous; Don Miles, in this adventure at least, is in the Mitchell class of heroes.

At 160 pages of small print, Challenge At Le Mans does not exactly “speed” by; in fact, it’s less like Don’s Panther and more like my old VW Rabbitt (which my friends and I always called “the Joe Weider car,” because it didn’t have power steering and you got one hell of a workout turning the steering wheel). But even still, it was enjoyable for the most part, just a little too harried with too many characters and plots, and too little action – not to mention a protagonist who came off as a bit ineffective.