Monday, June 29, 2015

Kingpin


Kingpin, by Burt Hirschfeld and Edwin Fadiman
October, 1989  St. Martin's Press

One of the last novels Burt Hirschfeld published, Kingpin first came out in a hardcover edition in 1988; I don’t know much about co-author Edwin Fadiman other than that he himself published a few mystery and non-genre novels in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of them paperback originals. I’m also not sure on how much these two authors collaborated, as the novel reads like everything else I’ve yet read by Hirschfeld.

Eschewing the trash fiction he specialized in during in the ‘70s, Hirschfeld here goes for more of a thriller or at least suspense sort of deal, though it’s still a slow-burner a la Fire Island and Hirschfeld’s other trashy tomes. The cast of characters is also much reduced, whittled down to a mere three: Jack Keveney, a tough New York narcotics cop, Napoleon Cruz, cocaine kingpin of the fictional South America country of Sixaola, and Nina Fuentes, the hitwoman/junior kingpin who becomes the lover of both. The novel spans decades, charting the rise of the two male protagonists, who both come from hardscrabble origins and make something of themselves.

The hardcover edition sported a blurb by none other than Harold Robbins, who called Kingpin “my kind of book.” And it really is, as one could almost look at Kingpin as a sequel in all but name to Robbins’s The Adventurers. Not that it features any of the same characters, but Sixaola is Adventurers protagonist Dax Xenos’s homeland of Corteguay in all but name. Hell, it could even be the same place at that, as we’re told it has gone through the usual turmoil of a banana republic, culminating in the ‘80s as one of the central hubs through which cocaine is imported into the States.

Napoleon gets the most text space of all of them, which is unfortunate, as I found his story the most uninteresting, not to mention the most cliched. Starting life as the penniless waif of a prostitute mother, Napoleon latches on to the drug czar of his little hometown, becoming the man’s errand boy. But Napoleon in his all-consuming desire to become someone is merciless, and after showing off his sadistic skills in getting money owed his boss he is promoted to a sort of enforcer status. But after taking out the man who is abusing Napoleon’s heroin-addicted mother, Napoleon sets his sights higher and soon shows up in the capitol of Sixaola.

Meanwhile Jack Keveney comes up on the streets himself, though most of the time he’s just posing as a hippie as part of his narcotics job. Hirschfeld employs that sometimes-annoying narrative thread schtick of his here, with the too-belabored subtext of Keveney’s Catholic upbringing. I think practically every time Keveney is featured we’re reminded of something the Sisters or Father Whatsisname told him as a young boy. And, to continue with the cliches, Keveney is conflicted by it all. The shame of it is that this detracts from the “tough cop” stuff you’d expect to read, especially given Keveney’s cred, taking down muggers and druggers and whatnot.

Napoleon grows his power thanks to a sleazy American middleman named Willie Hatch; Keveney, climbing up the ladder himself, falls for a left-wing reporter named Rosie and marries her, having a son with her. The kid I don’t think garners even a single line of text, and Rosie’s soon jettisoned from the novel too, as Keveney is more focused on his career and also a hot black police woman he’s having casual sex with. Eventually he’s offered a job by the Feds to head up a “high-tech, high-impact drug team” called D-Group, which of course reminded me a lot of the outfit D-3 in the Narc series.

And in a way, Kingpin comes off at times like Burt Hirschfeld writing an installment of that earlier Marc Olden series. Only whereas Olden would occasionally spice things up with action sequences, Hirschfeld and Fadiman are more content with the slow-burn. Making it even more of an uphill struggle is that years go by with little indication of when anything is taking place; the novel alternates between documenting Napoleon’s life and Keveney’s life, and sometimes when we reconnect with them again they’ve moved on to other things and we feel like we’ve missed out on something.

Again like his progenitor Dax Xenos, Napoleon hooks up with a leftist guerrilla squad and occasionally uses them as his private army. After pulling a daring heist on a bank owned by the Regents, ie the wealthy men who control all cocaine manufacture in Sixaola, Napoleon augments his personal staff with a few go-to specialists from the guerrillas, among them the breathtakingly beautiful Nina Fuentes. Soon Nina becomes Napoleon’s lover, but since he swings both ways, particularly to girlish young boys, she eventually becomes frustrated with him, seeking sexual relief on her assassination jobs:

You have worn me out,” Bustamente said without complaint. 

“Rest, Eduardo. You have done your best.” 

“The best is still to come, my dear.” He lay spread-eagled on his back, his breathing rapid and harsh, his eyes closed. He longed to sleep. He barely noticed the cold muzzle of the .25-caliber automatic when it was pressed up against his ear. “The best,” he repeated, before his world dissolved in pain and blood and endless blackness. 

Nina felt Bustamente’s body jerk, already dead. She took his cock in her hand and, as she knew it would be, it was pumped up in terminal tumescence. She pressed forward, her long, strong legs wrapped around the still warm corpse, pounding insistently against the curve of his hip, caught up by an excitement such as she had never before known. Spasm after extended spasm left her shaken and drained, still embracing Bustamente. Electric impulses made her flesh twitch and blinding lights went off behind her closed eyes, until she rested contentedly.

Unfortunately, this is the only sequence in the novel that goes this over the top, and Nina’s penchant for murder and necrophilia isn’t mentioned again. Indeed, that time-telescoping really neuters the characters; when next we encounter her, Nina’s become Napoleon’s roving salesperson or something, going about the Americas and posing as a seller of office furniture, but in reality a scout for possible coke-infiltrating locations. This is how Keveney meets her, though initially he knows her as Silvia Gutierrez, her cover name; regardless, Keveney’s D-Group boys have monitored the sexy woman’s voyages to and fro South America and have hard evidence of her drug dealing.

But Keveney’s got an instant hard-on for her and doesn’t just want to arrest her. Instead he poses as a mobbed-up dude in her apartment complex (?), hoping he’ll catch her eye. At length he does, though Nina’s all business; Keveney hires her to stock his “office” with furniture. This eventually leads to a relationship, with the authors getting down and dirty with that oldschool Hirschfeld style, with climaxes compared to cresting waves and peaks and whatnot. But it is a little ramped up for the ‘80s, with Nina pushing Keveney on an on, even into, uh, anal territory. But love arises amid the sodomy, and when Keveney’s group finally gets the lockdown on the lady’s meetup with a cocaine chemist, he sadly orders in the troops.

Thanks though to her smarts, Nina gets away scott free and returns to Sixaola, still not knowing that the man she was falling in love with was really Jack Keveney, top narc man who is committed to bringing her down. Napoleon (who becomes more distant to us readers the more powerful he becomes, to the extent that we’re denied any scenes from his viewpoint for long stretches toward the end) meanwhile has gotten detailed documentation on who Keveney is, and tasks Nina with his assassination. When she discovers it’s the same man she’s been screwing, she’s riled up good and proper. She’s now burning with her own lust – to track down Keveney and murder him for making a fool of her. Sounds like the buildup to a grand climax, doesn’t it?

But man, talk about a wasted finale. Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. But our authors, after spinning their wheels and slowly building up a storyline, blow the payoff in a major way. Jack’s in love with Nina, who has just been ordered to kill him. And Napoleon is plotting the death of the other Regents in an army-backed coup; meanwhile, Keveney is making plans to take out Napoleon. It all promises to lead to some major fireworks. Instead, just as soon as Nina has been given her mission from Napoleon, the army attacks Napoleon’s fortress, using weaponry they’ve gained from the CIA. Nina is anticlimactically killed off by a catamite who has been AWOL from the text for the past hundred or so pages, and Napoleon is arrested and sent to the US. After trading a line or two of text with Keveney in America, Napoleon is put in prison, where he’s killed by employees of the catamite. A depressed Keveney goes back to his ex-wife. The end.

So then, practically every thread the authors have spent 300+ pages developing just comes unravelled in the homestretch. Perhaps their theme is that, despite the maneuvering and planning of great men like Napoleon and Keveney, there are always greater forces at play. While this might be true in the real world it comes off as the dumbest shit ever in the world of dramatic fiction. How much better would it have been if we’d gotten the story they denied us – namely, of a vengeance-obsessed Nina hunting down Keveney, who is in love with her? Or of Keveney and Napoleon finally going mano e mano in a real confrontation?

Too much stalling, too much buildup, and too little payoff sums up Kingpin. It has the potential to be a great piece of thriller fiction, but the authors want to do too much, from documenting Napoleon’s Pablo Escobar-style lust for power to shady CIA deals with the Sixaolan ruling elite bringing to mind the Iran-Contra scandal. Even worse, the characters are all unlikable: Keveney is a dick, constantly bossing people around and griping about something, and Napoleon is too obsessed with his own magnificence to be much fun. Only Nina offers any enjoyment, what with her penchant for murder and necrophilia, but she’s only in about a quarter of the text.

In sum, Kingpin was kind of a letdown, but it did achieve the purpose for which I bought it: keeping me entertained during a recent trip to Tampa.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Vigilante #2: Los Angeles: Detour To A Funeral


The Vigilante #2: Los Angeles: Detour To A Funeral, by V.J. Santiago
November, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Picking up immediately after the first volume (and published the same month, too!), Los Angeles: Detour To A Funeral continues the story of Joe “The Vigilante” Madden, whose wife Sara was murdered not even a week before the events of this novel. But as we learned in that first book Madden has “found his own way” of dealing with his grief.

As I recall, New York: An Eye For An Eye ended with Madden heading out onto the streets of New York for one last go-round before leaving on a business trip for Los Angeles; as we meet him, he’s out on those streets, blowing away a pair of would-be “thrill killers.” Madden has gone total “Charles Bronson in Death Wish,” outfitted in a trench coat with upturned collar, his only weapon a .38 revolver. And let’s not forget his horrible facial scar, which still hasn’t fully healed – he just got it a few days ago, after all.

Returning from the first volume are the Grossman brothers, obese bastards who live up to their surnames and who are clients of Madden’s engineering firm, demanding clients at that. They run a printing firm out of LA and start blaming and threatening Madden as soon as he arrives the next day. Author Robert Lory wisely doesn’t waste much time with details of Madden on the job. Instead our hero just puts the prickish brothers in place, forming a sort of bond with their assistant, a guy named Prell.

Rather, Lory puts the focus on Madden’s vigilante pursuits. On his first night in LA he has a cabdriver drop him off in Watts; soon enough Madden encounters another would-be mugger/murderer, whom he dispatches with his .38. Madden’s brought the gun with him by stowing it in his package on the plane; there’s a very eerie 9/11 prescience here as Madden asks an airline rep how weapons can be transported, and she says that as long as any sort of weapon is stowed with the check-in bags, the airline could care less what you bring on a plane. This she says is so as to divert bombers. But what, Madden asks, could an airline do to prevent terrorists who are suicidal? 

Madden, not even a week into it, is fully committed to his vigilante life. Lory builds this theme where our hero occasionally asks himself if what he is doing is right, particularly when he becomes involved with a group of young women he saves. He wants things to be “neat” and “orderly,” per his engineering background, and getting involved with people could undermine that. But then he realizes that, had someone gotten involved the night his wife was killed on the subway, then perhaps he wouldn’t be here in LA, hunting criminals on the streets. Thus Madden gradually comes to see himself as a savior.

And he’s still merciless, too, even blowing away unarmed hoods who plead for mercy. Madden’s origin story dispensed with in the first volume, Lory is free here to get to the good stuff, with our scar-faced hero eager to put on his trench coat and plastic gloves and head out onto the streets of LA to blow away criminals. Worth noting is that Madden’s racist bent from that first volume is gone; true, he makes his first LA foray on the streets of Watts, where he kills black muggers, but otherwise there’s none of the talk of “animals” or other stuff from that first book. Instead, Madden just wants to murder anyone he deems a criminal, no matter their race – or their gender, either.

The meat of the story begins when Madden goes out on his second night, this time onto Sunset Strip. Here he comes upon a dude beating up a young woman. Madden surprisingly doesn’t kill him, but instead pistol-whips him to burger, despite the dude’s declarations of his karate skills. The girl Madden has saved is a 19 year-old heroin-addicted hooker named Koren Stuart. The story she tells Madden riles him up but good. Once a groupie for pop star Johnny O., Koren was eventually hooked on drugs and forced into prostitution. Madden swears vengeance.

In my review of New York: An Eye For An Eye, I wrote that the book came off like “a less sadistic take on Bronson: Blind Rage.” The same cannot be said of this second volume, which is just as over the top as Blind Rage, and just as good. In a subplot that reminded me of the obscure but awesome 1973 Lee Marvin movie Prime Cut, Koren and her fellow whore-captives are kept in a townhouse overseen by “Big Mama,” an obese lady who goes around in a black-and-white jumpsuit. As Lory describes her: “Big Mama, in addition to being a hefty pig in zebra clothing, was also a dyke.” 

Johnny O., a paunchy 25 year-old superstar whose music is described as “a combination of acid rock and country rock, with a little folk thrown in,” becomes Madden’s personal punching bag, as do Johnny’s O.’s two henchmen, Scotty and Bruce. Madden vows to take down the man’s white slavery ring; the singer uses up his groupies and then hooks them on heroin once he’s sick of them, making profits off of their ensuing prostitution. Lory adds some action here with Johnny O. at one point sending his two men after Madden – more quick work for our hero’s .38.

There’s a bit of dramatic stuff with Madden briefly connecting with four young women he saves from the Johnny O./Big Mama sex ring: Lisa, a lithe redhead, Marie, a plump brunette, and Joane, a “fine-looking blonde.” There’s also Koren Stuart, with Madden even going to the length of calling her parents in the Midwest and having them fly over to Los Angeles to collect her. The other girls he gives some money (stolen from Johnny O.’s wallet) and sends on their various ways; when Lisa tells him she has a bad heroin habit, thanks to Big Mama, Madden bluntly tells her she’ll just need to kick it!

Lory excels though with the Big Mama stuff. In her jumpsuit she looks “like a pregnant zebra,” and the most memorable part in the book occurs when Madden goes back to her cathouse for a little payback – a scene which features Big Mama pleasuring herself with a “smooth shank of ivory,” a Playboy centerfold propped open before her! And the lady’s past the stopping point, so to speak, unable to stop working that “shank of ivory” even though Madden has a pistol aimed at her head. Lory caps off this outrageous scene in the only way possible: Madden blowing away Big Mama in mid-orgasm!

Before her memorable departure Big Mama informs Madden that her heroin supplier is a dude in Torrance named Cord. This takes us into the homestretch as Madden plots the destruction of the man’s drug supply. While entertaining, this sequence again displays how Madden is just a normal guy, prone to stupid mistakes (like taking Johnny O.’s yellow Mercedes, which could easily be tracked). He’s also not capable of mass acts of carnage, like a regular men’s adventure protagonist. He’s only got five bullets left in his .38 and thus has to plan accordingly.

Oh, and you’ll be relieved to know that Madden, in his day job, is also able to turn around the profits of the Grossman brothers and take them out of the red. The dude sleeps like maybe ten hours in the entire week over which Los Angeles: Detour To A Funeral occurs. And he’s already rushing off to the next installment by novel’s end, having received another assignment from Mr. Chilton, his boss back in New York. There’s an engineer Chilton wants to hire in San Francisco, so why doesn’t Madden head on over there and interview him? Madden looks forward to killing more scum there.

With good action, dialog, and scene-setting, Los Angeles: Detour To A Funeral is even more enjoyable than the first volume, and hopefully is a sign of where the series will go. I loved it! Plus I never knew Lory was capable of such sleaze, and obviously I mean that as a compliment. The stuff with Big Mama and her heroin-hooked whores is just the most outrageous aspect – the novel is redolent with a lurid vibe, even with the tidbit that Johnny O. turns out to be a switch-hitter; cue lots of putdowns courtesy Madden.  There's no sex in the novel, to be sure, and the violence isn't overly graphic, but it's all very luridly handled nonetheless.

Lory’s writing is as strong as ever, and he’s able to pack a lot of action, introspection, banter, and sleaze into 183 pages of fairly big print. There’s no chaff at all, and somehow Lory succeeds in turning in a lurid tale that also has a bit of emotional content. Long story short, I was thoroughly entertained by this novel and look forward to reading the next volume.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Midtown North


Midtown North, by Mike Curtis
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

Credited to the same author as The Savage Women, Midtown North is clearly the work of another person; as I mentioned in my Savage Women review, we know from here that it was a guy named Myer Kutz who wrote Midtown North.

The novel is also an interesting case study in how Leisure Books would market their publications. The back cover copy, which I’m betting was written by Leisure editor Peter McCurtin, proclaims “Murder” in all caps, beneath which we are presented with the synopsis of a lurid-sounding plot about the “savage murders” of “young women.” Likewise, the ads for Midtown North in other Leisure Books of the day talked up the novel’s exploitative content, mentioning in particular how these “murders” were so repugnant as to make veteran cops sick.

My friends, Midtown North turns out to be a slow-moving character study of an older cop, Detective Ed Doherty, who works the Upper West Side of Manhattan, aka “Midtown North.” Rather than “murders” it’s “murder” in the singular, and rather than the outrageous, lurid elements hinted at on the back cover and in the advertisements the young gal is simply smothered by a pillow. I mean, not that this makes the act okay, but still – indeed, her murder comes off as almost accidental for the most part. But none of the exploitative aspects are present in the novel itself, which honestly could’ve been published by any other outfit than Leisure.

Rather than the hurried-off burst of sleaze expected from the imprint, Midtown North instead takes its time with developing its central protagonist and the case he’s currently working. There aren’t even any arbitrary “action scenes” to speed up the narrative. It’s just a police procedural based on solid research; Kutz even thanks the police of Manhattan’s Fifth Homicide Zone for their assistance with the book. The novel is filled with cop world details, Kutz leavening the tale with stories and complaints he’s picked up from the members of the NYPD he met with.

The poor young woman who is murdered goes without a name for most of the novel; when we meet her she’s drinking wine and eating cheese with some man (also not named) in her apartment on the Upper West Side. They put records on the turntable (lots of detail here about her high-quality turntable and stereo system, which I really enjoyed) and dance, and the guy thinks the girl is coming on to him when she starts rubbing her pelvis and thighs against him. But when he tries to take off her clothes she pushes him away. He snaps, and first is about to rape her, then instead jams a pillow cushion over her face and smothers her.

A few days later the landlord of the apartment building discovers a decomposing human body hidden on the top of the elevator. Doherty and his obese partner, Joseph Belotti, are called onto the scene. These two are true cops, not the photogenic types seen in movies of today, and again one can tell that Kutz has based his characters on his research. Doherty is the star of the piece, though, and he’s sort of a broken shell, his wife Brenda having left him six months ago. Doherty has been on the force for some unspecified length of time and wonders if he is losing his mind.

Doherty, unlike other cops in his precinct, actually lives in Midtown North. He’s watched as the area has went to hell over the past few decades (the back cover copy, again, oversells it, making it sound like a warzone), the affluent original residents being replaced by very noisy Puerto Ricans. The noise is what is driving Doherty insane, and caused his wife to leave him; Doherty resents the constant music the Puerto Ricans blast from the sidewalks outside of his apartment, and has resorted to various costly noise-suppressing countermeasures.

In addition to his own high-quality stereo equipment, Doherty also has these noise machines he’ll switch on to block out noises from the street, as well as sound-blocking curtains. Only, none of it works, and Doherty has become almost obsessive about the noise of the Puerto Ricans. This all reminded me of myself and my neighbor’s goddamn yapping little dog, which barks all the time. Note to all – those stupid little ultrasonic bark stopper things do NOT work on Jack Russell Terriers. I’ve found this out the hard way. (However the dog has become so scared of me that it immediately stops yapping as soon as I step out onto my back porch.)

The novel is more about Doherty than the case. It’s also filled with anecdotes about the trials and tribulations detectives would encounter in New York in the 1970s. It is as mentioned more of a character portrait thing so there is no action for the most part. In fact Doherty in all his years has only pulled his .38 twice, let alone ever shot anyone. But curiously for a character portrait there’s really no buildup or payoff; I thought Doherty would reunite with his wife or come to some sort of resolution, but none of that happens.

Instead, Kutz builds up a last-second deal where Doherty begins to identify with the murderer. This is exactly what Len Levinson did in Without Mercy, but Len did it better, mostly because he had more room to play with – Midtown North is a mere 156 pages. This means that characters and subplots disappear with no warning; Doherty’s partner Belotti, for example, just abruptly drops out of the narrative and doesn’t return. So do several minor characters, all of whom live in the building in which the girl’s murdered body was discovered.

Still operating on that real-life vibe, Kutz has Doherty find out the killer through good old police work. Also he nicely brings in Doherty’s audiophile nature; Doherty is a classical music buff, with a few thousand LPs. This interest provides the lead to who the killer is, as Doherty spots a record in the dead girl’s collection that surely wasn’t hers, and perhaps was placed there by the killer. By this time he’s discovered that the girl had the unusual name of Michael and was a recent divorcee who was staying temporarily in one of the apartments, thus she wasn’t one of the tenants and was therefore unknown to the owner, etc.

Doherty deduces that one of the tenants was the murderer, and again this is deduced via his fondness for music. But since he has no evidence Doherty begins visiting the guy for friendly chats, to try to instill some fear in him. Here the “Without Mercy” stuff comes into play, as Doherty finds that this dude too has a room filled with noise-blocking curtains and hi-fi audio equipment, all with which to block out the noise of the street. Also the guy, obviously, has problems with women, hence Doherty’s last-second “I’m identifying with a murderer” worries.

The briefest of action scenes serves as the finale, as Doherty takes the killer on an impromptu tour of the building, Doherty blithely telling the killer how he, Doherty, thinks the killer stashed the girl’s body with no one seeing him. This leads to a quick scuffle in which Doherty finally fires his gun, but it’s very anticlimactic and indeed the final image we’re given is of a victorious Doherty standing in his lieutenant’s office and trying to hide his tears. Why? Because of that murderer-identification aspect, of course, which I have to say rings hollow.

Not that it much matters, as here Midtown North ends, and as far as I’m aware Kutz never published another novel. While it was a bit slow-moving at times and more focused on thoughts and feelings than on action, Midtown North was still enjoyable for its period details, with squalid ‘70s Manhattan brought fully to life.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Avenger #3: Colombia Crackdown


The Avenger #3: Columbia Crackdown, by Chet Cunningham
July, 1988  Warner Books

After The Penetrator came to an end in 1983 (a very definite end, by the way) Chet Cunningham continued performing contract writing duties, but in the late ‘80s he authored under his own name the four-volume Avenger series. Judging from this third volume, it’s like a Drug War-era overhaul of Cunningham’s Penetrator work, only lacking the pulpy spark of that earlier series.

Hero Matt Hawke is notable because he’s a psychopath. Bringing to mind the protagonist of Barry Malzberg’s 1970s series Lone Wolf, Hawke is practically deranged and will murder with impunity. We’re informed that Hawke, who served as a Marine in ‘Nam, was once a highly-decorated DEA agent who lost it all when his wife Connie was captured by drug dealers who had been burned by Hawke; they tortured her over the course of three days, Hawke only arriving to save her as she died. He of course killed the torturers and then declared war on the drug dealers of the world.

Hawke soon became known as “The Avenger” in the San Diego papers as he ran roughshod over the men who had killed his wife. After this he headed on down to Houston to bust up some druggers there. Now he’s in Miami, following more cocaine-world leads, and we learn that all of this is occuring two short months after the death of Hawke’s wife. So in other words, “The Avenger” is relatively new to the world of lone wolf crimefighting, but he’s already racked up a hefty number of kills and has destroyed several important coke pipelines into the US.

Cunningham appears to have been attempting to create his own Executioner, as this book has the same feel as the early Don Pendleton volumes of that series. This goes beyond Hawke’s single-minded pursuit of bloody payback to little things like the term “turkey meat,” which is used throughout, Hawke often stating that this is what his wife was turned into by the sadists who killed her. Also Hawke like Bolan is rooted for by the government agencies of the US, despite being a wanted felon. He just lacks that likability of Mack Bolan, or for that matter of Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin.

Hawke when we meet him is busy killing off some dude who owns a surf board company but makes his real millions importing coke. Here we get the first taste of Hawke’s insanity as he trains a gun on the unarmed surfer, screams about how his wife Connie was hacked to pieces, and then condemns the surfer to death, shooting him in the forehead. Mind you, this surfer guy had nothing whatsoever to do with Connie Hawke’s death. But before killing any drug world bigwig Hawke will relive Connie’s last moments and start ranting and raving before pulling the trigger.

Hawke’s come to Miami to crack down on the drug-smuggling effors of Tony Labruzzo, whose uncle Vito is one of the top Mafioso from the old days. Cunningham juggles perspectives with what turns out to be the go-nowhere storyline of Sue Beth, a redneck virgin who is unwittingly used by Tony’s goons as a coke mule. When she finds out she’s being used, the goon in charge rapes her…and after like two hours of it Sue Beth shoots him! But the guy lives and has her gang-banged by several of his henchmen, then dropped off nude on the streets – ironically, right outside of the kosher deli which Hawke uses as his Miami intel headquarters.

Sue Beth’s shipped off back home and meanwhile Hawke investigates Labruzzo territory. Trying to meet Vito in the family’s main Miami building (they have several respectable businesses, naturally), he instead is introduced to an attractive young woman named Gina. Cunningham builds up a long-simmer relationship between the two, with Hawke becoming interested in Gina and vice versa, but he’s not sure how involved with the Labruzzo business she really is. He goes on offing various mobsters in Miami, planning to head on down to Latin America to cut off the supply at its source.

One thing Cunningham brings back from the Penetrator years is a female villain – Gina we learn is in fact Gina Labruzzo, one of Vito’s nieces and the ostensible ruler of the family’s American faction. In an arbitrary, unexplored tidbit we learn that Gina’s real fucked up – she enjoys slicing up her thighs and hips with straight razors! This is her way of getting mellow after a hard day. We also learn that she was repeatedly raped as a young virgin by one of her uncles, and now has a distrust of all men, or something. Cunningham doesn’t really elaborate on it too much, other than her constant dismissals of Hawke’s advances.

Hawke meanwhile takes on another female villain, an attractive assassin Gina sends after him. After the gal accidentally tumbles off a building frame Hawke flies down to Honduras and the book becomes a bit of a travelogue. Hawke meets up with a British expat named Preston Smith-Jones who claims to sell refurbished turbine props in Dallas; the man shows Hawke around, including yet another arbitrary part where he hooks him up with an American named “The Shooter” who handles security for a coffee plant. This guy and Hawke get involved in a brief skirmish with drug runners in a scene clearly placed there to add a bit of action.

Attention expats who have any knowledge of the drug world: stay away from Matt Hawke, as he will likely murder you. This happens twice in the novel, Preston being the first of two guys who shows Hawke around, being chummy with him, only to be summarily executed once Hawke learns that Preston is selling coke back in the States. And once again our psychotic hero starts screaming about his dead wife before he pulls the trigger. Afterwards Hawke continues his Latin America tour and goes to Bogota, Colombia, where he learns that all cocaine in the area is sold by The Grasshopper, an old drug baron who lives in opulence.

Gina is here too, and the whole “will they or won’t they” subplot makes no sense as we readers know Gina is a Labruzzo and has already tried to have Hawke killed a few times. Meanwhile Hawke just suspects something’s up about the girl but apparently he’s lost his faculties due to her awesome boobs. Hawke goes on more travelogue-esque tours of coke-processing plants, posing as a writer of “men’s action books.” He murders another expat, this one an American who shows Hawke one of the Grasshopper’s facilities and even offers him a job.

Hawke has a thing for fighting with unusual weapons: in Colombia Crackdown he kills one guy with an ink pen, he tears up another dude with a key padlock tied to the end of a belt, and in the novel’s most outrageous kill he blows up a guy with C4 plastic explosive on a flying model airplane. Otherwise he fights with a Colt .45 or any other gun he can get his hands on; unlike Mark Hardin, he doesn’t have a trademark weapon, like the Penetrator’s Ava dart gun.

Another callback to the Penetrator occurs in the finale, in which Hawke is captured and isn’t just shot in the head but is instead put in the sort of deathtrap Hardin might have encountered: a room with an electrified floor. In a too-long sequence Hawke is able to escape, which leads to a final confrontation between him and Gina. Here the lady’s fondness for blades comes into play, as she goes after Hawke with a poisoned dagger. Cunningham doesn’t deliver a single sex scene in the novel, but he does continue to play out this “it could be love” storyline between these two which never does come off as believable.

Otherwise Cunningham’s writing is of the same piece as his earlier work, with the action always moving and the resourceful protagonist always getting by on his luck or his wits. But as mentioned it just lacks the charm of his Penetrator material, and has too much of a “this is the ‘80s so this needs to be treated seriously” vibe inherent in men’s adventure fiction of the era. It’s also a little too heavy on the anti-drug rhetoric of the day (the back of the book even proclaims: “He says no to the drug merchants of death!”), but that’s to be expected given Hawke’s history.

Stupid but true bonus note: I was driving to work the day after I finished reading Colombia Crackdown and a white Honda CR-V got in front of me on the tollway. It had vanity license plates that said “AVENGER!”

Monday, June 15, 2015

Death Squad (Keller #4)


Death Squad, by Nelson DeMille
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

I lucked out and finally found a reasonably-priced copy of this fourth and final Keller novel, which in the late ‘80s was revised and updated to become the sixth and final volume of the “Jack Cannon” Ryker series. I’ve wanted to read Death Squad since I read Marty McKee’s review a few years ago, and I’m really glad I finally got to, as this was my favorite Keller/Ryker novel by far.

As Marty notes, Death Squad is clearly influenced by the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, as it’s about a secret police squad that acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Nelson DeMille wasn’t alone in taking off on this concept, as there was the similar Death Squad and Kill Squad series, not to mention a 1974 TV-movie titled The Death Squad. For that matter, Herbert Kastle even published a novel titled The Death Squad in 1977. So “cops gone vigilante” was a hot topic at the time, and many of the elements DeMille deals with in this novel are still relevant today.

Kastle is a good reference point, as even though both the Keller and the Ryker books were packaged as men’s adventure action novels, they have more in common with the crime thrillers Kastle was turning out at the time, like Cross-Country. They’re also very similar to the work William Crawford was doing under his own name and various pseudonyms, as they’re obviously based on extensive research and they’re grounded in a realistic-seeming cop world. But whereas Crawford had lots of police world details but lackluster storytelling skills (incidentally, I’ve recently learned that Crawford was indeed a cop himself), DeMille has a firm handle on both. (Except for when he has Keller screw a silencer onto a revolver….)

I’ve enjoyed every Keller and Ryker novel I’ve yet read, even though none of them (the DeMille ones, at least) have had much in the way of action. They are instead rather slow-paced, grim and gritty police procedurals, but the characters and the situations are so well defined and depicted that I’ve found them very entertaining despite the lack of thrills. Death Squad however turns out to be a little different – while it’s just as entertaining and well-written as the previous volumes, it actually has its share of violent thrills and action scenes.

DeMille proves this early on, with an opening clearly influenced by a scene in Magnum Force, as Keller sits in with a pair of stakeout cops who are hiding in an oft-robbed liquor store. Keller happens to leave just as a pair of black dudes walk in; Keller stumbles across their spotter outside, cuffs him, and then almost walks right in on the execution of the two would-be robbers. They’re shot point-blank by the stakeout cops, and Keller has gotten first-hand confirmation of what he’s suspected for a while: that there’s a “Death Squad” operating within the NYPD.

This leads into an entertaining and very ‘70s paranoia tale as Keller doesn’t know who on the force he can trust. It gets even worse when a rapist, jailed in the detectives’ squad room in Keller’s precinct house, “commits suicide” by hanging. When Keller later finds a needle beneath the dude’s fingernail, he gets yet more confirmation of foul play. The back cover hypes it that Keller doesn’t really mind the dirty deeds of the Death Squad, but in the book itself he’s on the fence, and can’t decide if he likes their actions or not. What most bugs him is why they haven’t asked him to join!

The only men on his squad Keller believes he can trust are series regulars Lt. Piscati (aka Fischetti in the Ryker books) and Sgt. Bo Liddy (aka Bo Lindy). He’s not sure about his new partner, a young ‘Nam vet with a leg wound named Paul Reuter. Meanwhile we readers get to see the Death Squad in action, and their efforts aren’t limited to crooks: they have grander designs, like for example taking out a notoriously-liberal circuit court judge. The Squad meets in an abandoned subway on the outskirts of town, their “Chief” sitting in the shadows and wearing a hood as his men surround him. More ‘70s paranoia continues with the details that an FBI agent and a CIA agent are part of the ruling board, as well as a retired Army general.

DeMille as ever excels in setpieces, from an arbitrary but disturbingly fascinating part where Keller watches as a corpse is embalmed to a long dialog exchange between the leaders of the Death Squad, who state that their prime targets will be liberal politicians. Grungy ‘70s New York City is again captured in all its tawdry glory, if not to the extent of the other Ryker/Keller novels. Most surprising of all is that DeMille actually bothers to write action material here, with a handful of gunfights occuring in the narrative. In previous volumes our “hero” rarely if ever pulled his gun, and never fired it once. (At least in the ones I’ve read – the only two I still need are The Sniper and The Cannibal.)

Finally the Death Squad goes too far, at least so far as Keller is concerned; when they kill off a friend (or at least what passes for a friend for Keller) our hero swears vengeance. “If they’re the Nazis,” he blusters, “I’m Attila the Hun.” Keller isn’t much for planning; instead he just loads up his Ruger .357 Magnum and his Police Special .38 (which he’s constanty screwing a silencer on, by the way) and charges in. This almost gets him killed in an ambush, but he’s saved by Reuter – a fact the two keep bickering and bantering about like a regular Razoni & Jackson, with Keller insisting that he could’ve saved himself.

The two are now on the run, hiding from cops, trying to interrogate men they have identified as members of the Death Squad. Here Keller proves himself as merciless as his enemies, killing in cold blood. But nowhere is safe for Keller and Reuter – they even have to sleep in the patrolmen’s quarters in the precinct house – and the final quarter of the novel is very tense as they’re in open conflict with the Death Squad and don’t know who they can trust. Finally Keller learns where the Squad meets, and with the aid of a surprise ally our two heroes (now a trio) make a midnight raid on the place.

The climactic action scene isn’t along the lines of The Executioner or anything, and indeed brings more to mind a ‘70s crime flick, with Keller and Reuter only having to deal with a few Squad cops in the dark subway. DeMille doesn’t go much for the gore, either, with people just getting shot and falling down. He does though deliver a very abrupt ending, with Keller and Reuter taking out the ruling elite of the Squad, at least most of them, only to realize on the final sentence of the final page that they’ve just let the leader of the Squad escape. But here the book ends, which is unfortunate, as the Death Squad has been set up as so far-reaching and widespread that the story almost begs to keep going on.

Instead, that’s that; I guess we’re to believe that Keller has chopped off the head of the organization and now it will fall apart. But at least DeMille gave us some action in the first place, and again his characters pop to life, as does grimy Manhattan. Keller here has developed a penchant for one-liners and snappy comebacks, and DeMille even employs movie-style setup and payoff dialog, like a recurring joke about “a five-letter word meaning meddlesome.” One thing missing for those keeping track on your trash scorecard is there’s no sex at all – in fact, there isn’t a single female character in the entire novel.

Death Squad confirms that this series was published (and maybe even written) out of order. In my review of The Smack Man, I mentioned that a certain character was stated as being dead, even though he was alive in later volumes. I won’t give this character’s name away in this review, as it would be a spoiler to anyone reading Death Squad, but that character is in fact killed in this novel, which means that The Smack Man takes place after Death Squad, even though it was the first volume of the Keller series! (And DeMille didn’t change the series order when he revised these books in the late ‘80s, so I guess this out-of-order sequence was intentional.)

But then on page 140 Keller’s new partner Reuter says that “rumor has it” that Keller killed a bad cop named Schwartz. My friends, this is a direct reference to the climactic events of…The Smack Man! So what the hell?? Did DeMille just figure to hell with it, no one would notice the continuity misfires anyway, or did he himself get goofed up? As mentioned, it would appear these mix-ups were present in the ’89 revisions as well, so either DeMille didn’t catch them again or he just figured “to hell with it” again. But as it stands, Death Squad takes place before and after The Smack Man. I thought maybe the novels might occur at the same time, but each takes place over the span of just a few weeks – and in different seasons, to boot.

Sadly, this was it for Joe Keller; meanwhile, his alternate-reality version, Joe Ryker, continued on to have a few more adventures over at Leisure Books, courtesy the group of writers who served as “Edson T. Hamill.”

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dark Angel #1: The Dream Girl Caper


Dark Angel #1: The Dream Girl Caper, by James D. Lawrence
January, 1975  Pyramid Books

The Dark Angel series starts off on strong footing with a fun trip back to the sleazy ‘70s, James D. Lawrence capturing the fun and goofy vibe of a Blaxploitation movie. This series could be loglined as “Pam Grier in Banacek,” and our capable heroine, Angela “Angie” Harpe, comes off as more memorable and likable than The Baroness and Cherry Delight combined.

And friends you know you’re in for a sleazy good time when, within a few pages of her introduction, Angie’s already doing a strip-tease to a Tina Turner song (on her state-of-the-art quadraphonic sound system, naturally), all for the benefit of some dude she just met. The dude claims to be a reporter for Manhattan Magazine, and after relaying her convoluted backstory (from ghetto poverty to highly-paid insurance investigator, with tenures as a cop, fashion model, hooker, and Radcliffe student along the way), Angie’s already shucking her clothes and allowing the dude to give her a little oral pleasure.

But this is just our heroine’s gambit to distract the man, whom she knows to be an imposter. Angie you see is “the Dark Angel,” as she’s known to the criminal underworld, a tireless pursuer of justice; her trademark sign is very reminiscent of the seal of the Spider: an image of a harp-playing angel which she stamps on the foreheads of her victims (whom she does not kill, as opposed to the Spider). Apparently Angie’s Dark Angel activities have only recently gotten off the ground; as The Dream Girl Caper opens, her legend in the underworld has only just begun to grow to the point where it’s reached the awareness of the mainstream press.

And like an old pulp hero, Angie’s double life is kept secret, so that though the crooks (and the cops) know the Dark Angel is supposedly a beautiful black chick, they don’t know who she is. All of this really does give the series a bit of a “pulp hero for the ‘70s” feel, only with more of a lurid and sleazy overlay. That being said, Angie is not as bloodthirsty as other female protagonists in the world of men’s adventure books; whereas the Baroness kills with nonchalance, Angie is more prone to use her karate and judo skills to just knock someone out and then tie them up.

Anyway, the faux-reporter turns out to be a private eye himself, one from Chicago who was hired to get the scoop on Angie for some unspecified reasons. Angie sends him away (after pissing on his hand…?!) and later finds out that this dude, Tony Troy, recently pulled the same “reporter” stunt on Quentin Wise, millionaire owner of Colt’s Cigarettes. Wise’s company is running an incredibly convoluted treasure hunt/sweepstakes in which one lucky winner will win three million dollars. We get more detail on this from the many scenes featuring Garth Trent, the head adman working on Wise’s contest, and the only other person besides Wise who knows where the three million bucks will be hidden.

Garth’s wife Vale turns out to be the titular “dream girl.” A hotstuff blonde who keeps having nightmares which seem to predict things that happen in reality, Vale’s most recent dream concerns a car crashing on some desolate road. After a bit of nodescript banging (Lawrence’s sex scenes only go on for a few sentences, by the way, as compared to the paragraphs of purple prose in The Baroness), Garth ventures out into the night – only to see a car speed by and crash along the desolate road near their New Jersey home. But what comes off as even more puzzling is when Garth finds a newspaper clipping in Vale’s purse, a clipping which announces the sale of Mingo Island, off the Jersey coast.

This is puzzling because Mingo Island is where the three million dollar prize money is going to be stashed, but only Garth and Quentin Wise know this. So why does Vale have a newspaper clipping about it in her purse, and why has she never mentioned it to Garth? Suspecting something’s up, Garth hires Angie Darke, whom he’s read about in the paper. There’s instant chemistry between the two, but then Angie has instant chemistry with every guy in the novel – it’s hilarious in a way that The Dream Girl Caper is almost designed to infuriate Women’s Libbers, as Angie’s endowments are constantly being checked out and commented on by every single man she meets – and we’re informed how she gets off on it.

Vale has weekly sessions with a psychiatrist named Dr. Bruno Baxt, and Angie makes his office the first place to check out in her investigation. Here Lawrence excels in another sleazy setpiece as the gnomish Baxt hypnotizes an undercover Angie, has her strip – and then begins jerking himself off as he fingers her! And to continue with the whole exploitation vibe that our author captures so nicely, we learn that Angie in’t hypnotized at all, and has just been going along with the good doctor’s finger-based assault because she’s been enjoying it! Eventually Angie discovers that Baxt has a cathouse hidden within his office suite, with his good-looking female patients whoring themselves out to various bigwigs.

Vale Trent turns out to be one of the doctor’s top gals, though she only has two customers – Quentin Wise himself, and someone only listed as “X” in Baxt’s otherwise-comprehensive black book. At first I thought Lawrence was going to go for a mind control sort of thing, with these “whores” really being patients suffering from Baxt’s hypnosis, turned into virtual MK-Ultra style hookers. But unfortunately that doesn’t turn out to be the case; we eventually learn that Vale is a willing participant in the cathouse scheme, which renders the whole “let’s hypnotize Angie” scenario kind of puzzling. But that’s missing the point, I guess.

More digging will uncover the fact that “X” is a notorious Mafia hitman. Angie also has to break it to Garth that his wife is not only a prostitute but that he’s a double cuckhold. This of course gives Angie and Garth the opportunity to go at it themselves; Angie as usual comes on strong to the guy, calling his office and identifying herself to his secretary as “his black panthress.” Interesting to note, as in the second volume, that Angie only has sex with white men. No doubt this is to cater to what I assume was the overwhelming white readership of men’s adventure fiction, but it’s still interesting in a way – we’re told she’s had a colorful history, so to speak, but so far as the Dark Angel series itself is concerned, Angie Harpe only digs white meat.

Lawrence doesn’t dole out much action in The Dream Girl Caper, unlike the second volume, which was peppered with the occasional fight and torture sequence. There are also many moments where Angie and Garth will hide and watch as other characters do things. This plays out especially in a bit where we learn how cold Vale Trent really is: telling Garth she’s going to spend the weekend in the woods of Pennsylvannia with an old college girlfriend, who has a cabin out there, Vale later calls him in a panic saying she’s had another nightmare, that someone’s going to kill her here in the cabin. Would Garth please come over and scope out the place in the middle of the night?

Angie’s already on the scene, having bugged the cabin. When Garth shows, the two crouch in the woods and listen as Vale vigorously screws Quentin Wise in the cabin – the story about the old college friend being a bunch of crap, of course. Then someone shows up outside the cabin, and Vale demands that Quentin take this “starter pistol” out there and scare him away, insisting that he aim the gun at the dude and pull the trigger. Quentin does as ordered, only to discover too late that it’s a real gun and he just killed someone – and also that the whole thing was just photographed by “X” himself, Mafia hitman Vinny Reggio, who was hiding in the bushes. But here’s the thing: the guy Quentin just murdered, who turns out to be Tony Troy, was supposed to be Garth!

In other words, Garth’s own wife just set him up for his death. So Garth does what any other shocked husband would do…he goes back with Angie to her motel room and screws the hell out of her. Our heroine meanwhile has figured out what’s going on – Vale and Vinny are plotting to heist the three million, which they plan to do by making a blackmailed Quentin Wise replace the real loot with a bunch of counterfeit. Angie’s plan is to heist the heisters, and Garth gamely agrees. The final quarter of the novel is more of a sequence of turnarounds and reveals rather than a slam-bang action sort of thing.

Outfitted in black jump suits and masks with “plastic eyelets” (which of course reminded my geek senses of the similar “plastic suit” of another Lyle Kenyon Engel production, the John Eagle Expeditor series) and armed with Uzis, Angie and Garth get the jump on Vale and Vinny, just as they themselves have gotten the jump on Quentin Wise, who is in the middle of delivering the three million to a helicopter transport. But more people arrive on the scene, bullets start flying, and soon Angie and Garth are on the ‘copter, which is shortly thereafter shot out of the sky by a ship on a river below. This turns out to be helmed by yet more Mafioso, one of whom is a boss who wants the three million for himself.

The novel’s only real action sequence occurs on Mingo Island, with Angie and Garth caught in the middle of a sort of gang war, with more bullets flying. But only some random Mafia gunman gets killed in it; as with the second installment, the novel is for the most part bloodless. Reversals and reveals continue to assail our heroes (and us readers) with a finale seeing Angie back at Bruno Baxt’s office – turns out the psychiatrist had his own heist in mind. Here Angie gets in a knockdown, dragout fight with Baxt’s hulking “dyke” secretary. Both she and Baxt are recipients of Angie’s “dark angel” stamp on the forehead, but again they aren’t left for dead, just knocked out and tied up.

Angie and Garth end up making off with the three million, but given that they’re the heroes they decide to “anonymously” tip the authorities where it can be found, something for which Angie will receive $200,000 for from the insurance company that’s hired her to find the missing money. They split this evenly, and I think The Emerald Oil Caper made passing mention of this extra cash in Angie’s account, courtesy this particular caper. Otherwise the Dark Angel series appears to have been free of much continuity, similar to most every other Lyle Kenyon Engel/BCI publication.

The kinky bent of the series is already in effect in this first volume. Lawrence must’ve wanted to set a record for finger-rapes in a novel, with not only the aforementioned bit with Dr. Baxt but a later sequence where Angie is briefly captured by a mob boss who strips her down, ties her to a table, and proceeds to jam his fingers up her ass! This kinky bent is evident throughout the novel, like when Angie thumbs through Dr. Baxt’s catalog of whores and dwells on the shots of Vale Trent, noting her “perfectly neat and classically ringleted triangle of pubic hair”!  You can’t get more sleazy ‘70s than that, my friends. Just as ‘70s is Angie’s wardrobe, each item of which is amply described and of course so revealing that she leaves men panting as she waltzes by them.

Lawrence’s writing is good, with that same sort of professional polish as other BCI authors; I’m always impressed Engel was able to find writers with such similar styles. Lawrence could’ve easily served as Paul Edwards or Paul Kenyon or have turned in one of the Engel-produced volumes of the Killmaster, his style meshes so well with what I guess we could term the “BCI house style.” Compare this to say the Sharpshooter or Marksman books, which had drastically disparate styles each volume. But also Lawrence is good with dialog, setup, description, etc; there might be a little too much POV-hopping for my taste, but that’s par for the course in this genre.

Anyway, The Dream Girl Caper is another enjoyably sleazy Dark Angel adventure, with a fun-loving, likable protagonist and several memorable minor characters. It might not be as over-the-top crazy as The Emerald Oil Caper, but it’s still pretty great and it’s a damn shame this series is so scarce and overpriced on the used books market.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Lovelorners


The Lovelorners, by William Hegner
August, 1976  Pocket Books

William Hegner scores again with another short novel that packs in a healthy dose of sleaze and sin. Not as outrageous as The Ski Lodgers or as good as The Worshipped And The Damned, The Lovelorners is still a very entertaining and ribald tale told in a very unusual form, mostly due to Hegner’s thorough skewering of “Dear Abby.”

At 188 pages of big print, The Lovelorners is about the length of the average volume of The Penetrator. It even has more white space, as cagey Hegner breaks up his text into a sort of epistolary format; not exactly like Dracula or anything, but more so via “chapters” that alternate between the editorials of its two sibling protagonists, who begin a circulation war with one another. Penelope Sutter, or “Dear Penny” as she’s known to her legions of fans, has recently come under fire courtesy none other than her busty, promiscuous sister, Lydia, whose “Letters to Lydia” column speaks to the “now generation.”

Like most other Hegner novels, The Lovelorners doesn’t take place during the year it was published; we’re informed at the outset that the year is 1968, though there’s nothing in the novel that would’ve been out of place in 1976. That is to say, there’s no attempt on Hegner’s part to capture the psychedelic or free love era, and in fact a later setting would make more sense, given the increasingly raunchy tone of Penny and Lydia’s editorials. Actually, I never really did get a full understanding why Hegner even set the novel in 1968. (For that matter, the TV show Kung Fu is mentioned at one point, and that didn’t even premiere until 1972.)

The Lovelorners is a classic case of a roman a clef; I was never a reader of “Dear Abby” but was aware of it. It was only after reading this novel and checking Wikipedia that I learned that the real-world Abby, Pauline Friedman, experienced a similar struggle with her own sister, Eppie Lederer, who challenged “Dear Abby” with the “Ask Ann Landers” column. Hegner has taken this real-life sibling rivalry as played out in the “lovelorner” columns and put his own unique spin on it – which it to say he has capably trashed it up.

One of the last novels Hegner published, The Lovelorners is almost as pessimistic about the trash fiction genre as his later The Ski Loders. It isn’t as over-the-top in the sleaze department, though be sure there’s a lot of that, mostly because Lydia specializes in answering sex-related questions, and soon Penny is pushed by her publisher to do likewise. As mentioned the novel is written in a sort of editorial format where the two female protagonists alternate chapters, telling us about the most recent events in their lives for a few pages before getting to the nitty-gritty of answering letters.

Hegner shines here, as some of the puns he comes up with would do the real Dear Abby proud. Just as in that real-life column these readers send in personal questions with goofy signatures, like for example the lady who says she doesn’t understand what “sixty-nine” refers to and signs herself as “Math Flunker.” In fact I was very impressed with Hegner’s ability to come up with so many letters from so many fictional readers; after a while I felt like I was reading a real column, such was the variety of questions posed and the pinache with which Penny and Lydia answered them.

Parallel to the questions and answers, Hegner skillfully builds a plot, even if it is a little threadbare. But then, even this little bit is impressive, given that each character only editorializes for a few pages before getting to the questions. In other words, it’s not like Hegner has given himself lots of pages to slowly build up and play out a meaty plot. Rather, it’s pretty simple: Lydia’s column has become so popular that it threatens to usurp Penny as the queen of the lovelorners – or, as Penny arrogantly insists on referring to herself, a counselor in human affairs.

“Arrogance” aptly sums up Penny Sutter, who goes on and on about her vast intelligence. Gradually though the reader can see the dent in her armor: she is not nearly as busty or sexy as her kid sister, Lydia, and has always been jealous of her. As the novel goes on Penny becomes more honest in her editorials, even wishing at one point that she could’ve given up a small portion of her intellect in exchange for boobs like her sister’s. Not that this stops Penny from spending most of the novel writing condescendingly about her readers, her editor, her assistants, and even her husband, Harry, who himself is trying to get in on the sex game by writing a novel.

Lydia on the other hand is “earthy,” as she refers to herself (but to Penny she’s “gauche”). Going on about how book smarts were never her thing, but how writing comes easily and naturally to her, Lydia is more focused on her own life than worrying about Penny – other, that is, than the circulation war she challenges her to in the opening pages. But Lydia is just as arrogant and self-obsessed as her sister, constantly complaining about how hard it is to answer pathetic questions from pathetic readers. As mentioned the questions she receives are a little more sex-focused than Penny’s, but this changes as the narrative continues.

Penny we learn has been encouraged by her editor, the Hearst-like William Cymbal of the Cymbal Syndicate, to get more “raunchy” in her letters. So then as the novel goes on, Penny’s columns start to get a little more like Lydia’s, only with more reserve – and a lot more complaint, as Penny constantly complains that she’s being demeaned by all of this. In the meantime she has real-life issues, like her husband’s novel, which he titles The Great American Whorehouse, hoping to cash in on Penny’s name with a publisher. She also soon finds out that her old office has been converted into a workroom boudoir, in which Cymbal and Penny’s assistant entertain each other.

Penny meanwhile gets increasingly raunchy in her editorials, such as a bizarre part where she’s giving herself a breast exam (both sisters write their editorials in present tense) and then begins fondling herself, all of it building into a full-on masturbation sequence. (Are we supposed to believe this would’ve been printed in a newspaper??) Speaking of masturbation, Lydia’s editorials steal the show, especially given a part early on where her live-in boyfriend, Sylvan, masturbates in her face while she’s writing! (A scene which contains the greatest single line of all time: “My suave, sophisticated, compassionate lover has just jacked off in my face!”)

Hegner confuses, possibly intentionally, with Sylvan also attempting to write a sex novel, though Lydia doesn’t know what it’s about. Like Penny though she constantly bemoans her lover’s “vain” attempts at trying to write and harbors a lot of resentment and jealousy over it, especially when it turns out that he’s pretty good. I guess this is just another of Hegner’s ways of showing how similar the two sisters are, despite their vowed hatred for one another; they’re both with guys who want to be writers, themselves. Not to mention the occasional vague reference to lesbian “explorations” the sisters performed upon each another in childhood…

It all culminates at the Presstige Awards, in which both Penny and Lydia are up for the Silver Scoop. Hegner per the norm doesn’t really play this up; in fact when we finally get to the awards he cuts away to the aftermath between chapters, where we learn that the sisters were co-winners, and Penny stormed out of the ceremony in a huff. We further learn that Lydia has officially become the new Penny, in a way, with the last chapter being a “Dear Penny” column in which Penny states she’s taking a “temporary” break; Lydia, meanwhile, has been awarded the larger circulation and is more popular and famous than ever.

As Dean Koontz opined in Writing Popular Fiction, the “Big Sexy” (aka trash fiction) genre is dangerous because a writer may soon reach burnout. It would appear that Hegner had reached it by the time of this novel, as both Penny and Lydia constantly gripe about dealing with and writing about nothing but sex all of the time. There is no joy in what they do, and it’s clear they’re only doing it to further inflate their own egos and to keep themselves in the limelight. There is an increasing frustration and cynicism to the text, similar but not as to the fore as in The Ski Lodgers.

But Hegner’s writing is still strong as ever, particularly when it comes to the puns, the dialog, and the caustic, arrogant tone of his female protagonists. Again though he rarely writes any character or situation descriptions, leaving it all to dialog. And there’s no sex, even though there’s a lot of talk about it; the closest we get is late in the novel where Lydia gets drunk and has a one-night stand, but she doesn’t even remember it. Anyway, while I wasn’t blown away by The Lovelorners, I did get a fair bit of enjoyment out of it – the fact that it was so short and breezily written also helped.

BONUS MINI-REVIEW: Last year I read another Hegner novel, Stars Cast No Shadows (Pocket Books, 1974), but never got around to reviewing it – mostly because, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it! The “novel” was more like a bunch of somewhat-related short stories, about a prep school for the children of movie stars. It was okay, but nothing great, and while sleazy at times it wasn’t as outrageous as the other Hegner novels I’ve reviewed here. Mostly it was just forgettable.