Monday, September 18, 2017

Razoni & Jackson #4: Down And Dirty

Razoni & Jackson #4: Down And Dirty, by W.B. Murphy
May, 1974  Pinnacle Books

The penultimate volume of Razoni & Jackson is another murder mystery more involved with sleuthing and bantering, but this time our temperamental protagonists actually see a bit of action themselves, getting in a very brief firefight before resuming the bantering. But truth be told, Down And Dirty seems a bit winded, the banter at times almost lame – as if desperate – and one gets the impression Warren Murphy was growing weary of the series. Which might be reason enough why the next volume was the last.

The cover art once again faithfully captures all the events that transpire in the text – it opens with a sequence of sadism in which two black men torture and then murder a hapless beat cop, one who works the Little Italy section and has gone out of his way to keep his nose clean from corruption. We get a bit of history on this section of Manhattan, how it was once run by Italians but is slowly being taken over by the blacks – there’s lots of commentary here on how black neighborhoods quickly fall into disrepair, which would no doubt trigger sensitive modern-day readers, yet it should be noted that there is also a defense of these very same people, arguing that these slums are all they have and that in time, no doubt, they’ll clean the place up.

But the Italians run a lucrative gambling business here, one that the blacks are cutting in on, and a gang war appears to be imminent. Murphy in his prescience even has “fake news,” what with the local news constantly talking about the possibility of one, so as to drum up circulation and viewership. The media indeed comes off poorly here; when we meet our heroes, Razoni and Jackson are scoping out a famous local newscaster for reasons that are not explained to them. They discover that the guy is a “closet queen,” with Razoni finding the dude in bed with another man at a big party – this elicits a string of outrageous slurring that would really trigger the sensitive types of today. As usual with Murphy, this also sets off a chain of riffing that continues through the novel, with the newscaster himself frequently appearing on TV and Razoni launching into a new anti-gay tirade.

Our heroes are tasked with finding out who killed the cop in Little Italy and to prevent any potential gang war. Murphy must’ve been feeling a little lazy when he plotted this one out, as it all amounts to Razoni looking up a bigtime crook he knew in childhood, and Jackson looking up a bigtime crook he knew in childhood, and each arguing with the other that their childhood acquaintance isn’t the guilty party. In Razoni’s case, the crook is Ruggerio, a Mafia bigwig who gave Razoni one of his first jobs when Razoni was just a little kid, and who only deals in graft and gambling and the like. In Jackson’s case, it’s Sugar Man Lawson, an obese black guy whom Jackson tutored many, many years ago, and who now has used his intelligence to corner a huge slice of the gambling market for himself.

War has been brewing between Ruggerio and Sugar Man’s gangs in Little Italy; this cop-killing just being the latest incident. Previous to this two of Ruggerio’s runners were gunned down; as the narrative ensues, one of Sugar Man’s employees is killed by a car bomb. Our heroes try to navigate through all this while tracking down the two men who killed the cop. The two killers are quickly – almost casually – revealed to be a loser pair of brothers who served time for breaking and entering and blame Sugar Man for it. Razoni and Jackson, who have asked both Ruggerio and Sugar Man for their help in finding the killers, basically bump into them during a festival in Little Itlay.

Here’s where the only action scene in the novel occurs. The brothers, Willy and Filly Smith(!), run back to their apartment and one of ‘em grabs up a submachine gun, blasting away at their pursuers. Jackson takes out the subgunner, and when the other brother barricades himself in the apartment, Razoni grabs up the dropped submachine gun and opens fire at the door. When they discover the second brother also dead, the two cops quickly deduce that the submachine gun did not kill him – but they hide this fact from their fellow cops for their own reasons. They’ve begun to suspect that someone was just using the two brothers for their own ends.

Murphy had a proficiency for mysteries, so Down And Dirty works very much on a whodunit vibe, one that I won’t ruin. Murphy doesn’t cheat, and the killer – the mastermind behind the entire near-gang war – is a person introduced early in the story, and his outing is believable, if a bit underwhelming – as is the fact that he isn’t himself blasted by Razoni or Jackson. Instead the hero cops make their collar, the villain having exposited on all his kills, and then they go on with their bickering and bantering.

As with The Destroyer, this bickering and bantering is the true star of the series. But Razoni and Jackson’s bantering lacks the fun of Remo and Chiun’s. Theirs mostly revolves around racial differences, or Jackson’s grumblings that Razoni drives too slow, and Razoni’s grumblings that Jackson drives too fast. It just sort of goes on and on and lacks much verve or spark, coming off as listless, which I say again is more an indication that Murphy perhaps was wearing himself thin with the similar material he was writing for Remo and Chiun, and didn’t bring his A game to Razoni & Jackson.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Secret Of Sinharat and Queen Of The Martian Catacombs

The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, by Leigh Brackett
No date stated (November, 1971)  Ace Books
(Original Ace Double edition, 1964)
(Also published as Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars, by Ballantine Books, September 1982)

Where the hell has Leigh Brackett been all my life?? I grew up reading the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, but never really got into Edgar Rice Burroughs, though I was aware of his Martian tales and wanted to read them. (Something I still intend to do someday.) 

But I knew a sort of subgenre of “sword and planets” (aka “planetary romances”) existed which sort of took the sword and sorcery of Howard and mixed it with the alien worlds of Burroughs; after a recent hardboiled pulp binge abruptly petered out with no warning, I found myself suddenly interested in this subgenre, discovering a whole slew of books and series that were new to me.

Leigh Brackett’s material jumped out at me more than any other, and I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without reading her. Brackett still has a sizeable following, with info about her all over the web as well as many reviews of her various novels and scripts, so I’ll keep the preamble short. She may be new to me but I’m sure many of you have known about her for years. Sadly it would appear she is most remembered these days either for her Hollywood scripts or for the fact that she wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, so her name is prominently displayed on posters for that film. She got her start in sci-fi, though, specifically for the pulps, and she was herself a big fan of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her writing I feel comes very close to REH – certainly more close than any of the Conan pastiche authors I’ve ever read. One gets the impression that L. Sprauge de Camp should’ve hired Brackett instead of Lin Carter when he began anthologizing the Conan books.

Brackett wrote a variety of pulp sci-fi, but her main series character was Earthman Eric John Stark, who is basically a combo of Tarzan and Conan – a big, brawny dude who was raised in the wilds of Mercury, where he was known by the natives as N’Chaka. Now Stark serves as a mercenary around the solar system, violently sworn to protecting the rights of his fellow “barbarians.” The Stark stories are very much in a “Conan the Barbarian of Mars” sort of vein, ie as if Conan had starred in those Burroughsian Martian tales. Brackett’s Mars (and other planets in the solar system) are basically Howard’s Hyperborea, with only occasional mentions of laser pistols or space ships (or even cigarettes!). Otherwise they are very much in the sword and sorcery realm, with combat handled mostly with bladed weaponry, warriors in chain mail, and people speaking in the formal, almost stilted tones of Howard’s Conan work.

Stark appeared in three pulp novellas: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” from 1949 (reviewed below); “Enchantress of Venus,” also from 1949; and “Black Amazon of Mars,” from 1951. There was also a novella titled “Stark and the Star Kings,” which Brackett wrote with her husband Edmond Hamilton in 1973; it wasn’t published until 2005, though was originally slated to appear in Harlan Ellison’s never-published Last Dangerous Visions in the mid ‘70s (it is mistakenly copyrighted 1949 in the Baen eBook Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories; I will be reading/reviewing it soon). In 1964 Brackett expanded two of the Stark novellas into the paperback I’m reviewing: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” became The Secret Of Sinharat, and “Black Amazon of Mars” became People Of The Talisman, which is the flipside of this Ace Double. “Enchantress Of Venus” was never expanded, but was included in the 1977 anthology The Best of Leigh Brackett; it apparently takes place after the other two Stark novellas Brackett published, but before “Stark and the Star Kings.” Stark would later appear in a trilogy Brackett published in the mid-‘70s (The Book Of Skaith).

Folks with a lot more background on the subject than I claim that Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton actually expanded these two novellas in 1964. Having read both the originals and the expansions, I myself am undecided on this. I tend to think this myth is untrue, mainly due to the foreward Brackett and Hamilton wrote for “Stark and the Star Kings,” presumably for Ellison’s anthology, but included with the 2005 publication of the novella. In this foreward, the authors claim that “Stark and the Star Kings” was their first and only collaboration; during the writing of it they found that their styles did not jibe. My argument is that, if Hamilton had done the expansion on these two novellas, why wouldn’t they have mentioned it in the “Stark and the Star Kings” foreward, which was written several years after the Ace Double was published?

Anyway, all that is moot, and is likely a mystery that will never be solved anyway. What matters is the work itself, and folks, it’s pretty damn cool. I mean, I’m 42 now, but reading Brackett’s work made me feel like I was 12 again. Who cares that science has buzzkilled the possibility of her inhabited solar system? This to me is pure sci-fi as it should be, not bogged down with technical jargon or attempts at “realism.” It’s just straight-up fun, featuring a grim but likable protagonist and his colorful adventures on various planets. If you are looking for escapist sci-fantasy that is written with incredible polish, look no further.

Speaking of colorful, let’s get to Eric John Stark himself. His history is only sprinkled here and there throughout The Secret Of Sinharat; interestingly, Brackett doesn’t add anything more to what she’d already hinted at about Stark’s history in the original 1949 novella. Raised by “half human aborigines” in the wilds of Mercury, Stark’s skin was burned so black by the relentless sun that it is almost as black as his hair (dude, it’s called sunscreen!!). This black skin contrasts eerily with his light eyes. Otherwise he is a total Conan/Tarzan type – tall, brawny, but lean, able to move faster than normal men and given to red rages of violence. Sadly, some of this violence is toned down in the 1964 expansion, most notably in the glutting of Stark’s vengeance in one central part of the story; in the original pulp novella, Stark strangles an enemy, but in the ’64 expansion someone takes the kill from him. But more of that anon.

Brackett wastes no time on world-building or scene-setting; another wonderful element of vintage pulp sci-fi, unlike the reams of exposition you’ll encounter in the genre today. The cover painting (on this edition above and the original ’64 edition, below) captures it nicely; Stark, riding a lizardlike beast across the desert wastes of Mars, is vainly trying to escape an Earth Police Control squad. But one of them calls out for “N’Chaka,” which was Stark’s native Mercurian name, and one known only to a few. It is Simon Ashton, of the EPC, Stark’s foster father – apparently Stark’s tribe was killed when he was a child, and Ashton found the boy in a cage and raised him. There is absolutely no maudlin glurge here; the two have not seen one another in sixteen years, and Ashton conscribes Stark’s service in exchange for tossing out Stark’s imprisonment sentence – Stark’s up for life on the prisons of the moon for various illegal activities.

The expansion features one bit of explanation I appreciated; I read the original pulp novella first, and had a hard time understanding what these various “aliens” looked like; they all seemed to be humans. The ’64 expansion explains why this is: “Earth’s sister worlds…[populated by] descendants of some parent human stock that long ago had seeded the whole System.” In Brackett’s solar system, all the planets are habitable, and all apparently have oxygen and native life, as well as human inhabitants, though there are various differences – usually in body size, eye color, and the like. So it would appear there’s no “hatching from eggs” as in the Barsoom novels of Burroughs.

Despite this “parent human stock” which seeded the planets, Stark is still often referred to as “the Earthman,” which again gives the book a Burroughsian (or Flash Gordon) feel – that is, when he isn’t being called a “barbarian” or “wild man” or even “animal.” As mentioned he is drawn to barbarian causes, and was already on his way to ancient Martian city of Valkis to serve as a mercenary for barbarian tribe leader Delgaun. Word has it that all the various tribes are gathering for a war on the “Drylands” of Mars. Simon Ashton says that there may be more to it than that, and the EPC is worried, particularly over rumors of the ancient Ramas cult – basically the ancient Egypt of Brackett’s Mars.

Stark takes the mission, not only so as to get rid of his prison sentence but also out of respect to his father foster – and also so as to prevent the shedding of “barbarian blood” in whatever vain pursuit Delgaun and his colleague, fellow barbarian leader Kynon, have in mind. This brings us to the city of Valkis, which is now a “beautiful corpse” of the glorious city that once was – again, the parallels to ancient Egypt are hard to miss. Stark meets Delgaun, who is “lean and catlike, after the fashion of his race,” and has yellow eyes like “hot gold.” He meets the other mercenaries called in for the war, among them Luhar of Venus, who sold Stark out on a previous job; the two men are determined to kill one another.

Soon fellow barbarian leader Kynon makes his appearance; riding in from the desert amid great pomp, Kynon is younger and brawnier than Stark expected. His is filled with the wonder of the ancient art of the Ramas, which he claims to have rediscovered after many years searching in the endless desert; this art is displayed for the agog masses. The Ramas were known for transferring minds from one body to another, thus granting themselves immortality, their minds living on and on in an endless tide of young bodies. Kynon puts on a show, with an old man and a young boy, using a glowing scepter to transfer the mind from the former into the latter. The barbarian crowd is duly impressed, but Stark sees the con, and calls Kynon on it later. Kynon admits to the deceit, but claims it is all for the good of the rabble, something for the various tribes to gather together under.

With Kynon is a hotstuff babe with red hair named Berild; she seems intrigued by Stark’s impertinence. Serving Berild is the equally pretty – but more young and na├»ve-seeming – Fianna. Stark notices a strange struggle going on between Delgaun, Berild, and Fianna, but takes care of more pressing issues when he’s ordered that night to go pull a fellow mercenary, Freka, out of a Shanga den on the outskirts of Valkis. One of Brackett’s more novel creations, Shanga is an illegal drug, known also as “the going back.” People sit under quartz lights and regress back to various stages of bestialism, with their faces changing accordingly – the real hardcore users changing almost entirely in form. Interestingly, the original ’49 edition contains a line that was edited out of the ’64 expansion: “[Shanga] was supposed to have been stamped out when the Lady Fand’s dark Shanga ring had been destroyed.” This is a reference to Brackett’s 1948 novella “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” which was included in the early Brackett anthology The Coming Of The Terrans (Ace Books, 1967).

Fianna has warned Stark that this is going to be a trap, and it is – there follows a cool, Island Of Lost Souls-like scene where Stark is attacked by several bestial-faced Shanga users. Luhar is also there, with a knife ready for Stark; the entire thing has been an assassination attempt, courtesy Luhar and Delgaun, the latter presumably wanting to take out Stark due to his jealousy over how Berild’s been checking out “the wild man.” Stark acquits himself well in the fight, though there’s no Conan-esque moment, as I’d hoped, where he starts to hack and slash. He also doesn’t kill Luhar – who promptly begins plotting, almost in the open, with Freka. Brackett appears to imply that Luhar and Freka are an item, something which is slightly more apparent in this expansion than in the original novella.

The midpoint sees the two hatch their revenge; as the barbarian troop is making its way across the vast desert to Sinharat, ancient “island city” of the Ramas which Kynon has taken as his own base of operations, a sand storm strikes. Freka and Luhar manage to knock Stark from his mount in the vicious pounding waves of sand and leave him for dead. However, Berild is stranded with him, and there follows a harrowing trek across the red wastes of the desert. The two have only one skin of “stinking water,” and they struggle inhumanly as they march for days and days – Sinharat is a seven-day journey, and they don’t have nearly enough water to survive the walk. It becomes even more grueling when the enter “the Belly of Stones,” which is like the Saharra of Mars.

Days later, passed out from dehydration and the heat, Stark wakes to find Berild walking around an ancient well, and it looks as if she is remembering something. After much digging she points out a hidden, ancient well. Two days pass, during which the two apparently have lots of off-page interspecies sex – something Stark practically confirms to Fianna later on. When they arrive in Sinharat, ancient fallen city of the Ramas built on a mountain of coral, no one believes that they were able to survive the trek. Stark makes for Luhar, to sate his vengeance, but Berild denies him this, courtesy a dagger she’s hidden in her dress. I found this unsatisfactory. Berild argues with a raging Delgaun that Luhar and Freka’s treachery almost “ended” her, a strangely-chosen word which she stresses strongly, much to Stark’s suspicion. 

Sinharat is more captured here than in the novella. Millennia ago it was surrounded by an ocean, but now it’s just desert, and when the wind blows through the honeycombs of coral beneath it, strange cries fill the air, freaking out the superstitious barbarians (and Stark himself). The temples and palaces are fallen down, some roofless, with ancient statues all over the place – again, pretty much ancient Egypt. This part is a bit padded, compared to the original version, more so focused on Stark figuring out the truth about Berild. There is a nice part though where he’s attacked one night by Freka, hopped up again on Shanga and in pure beast mode. Stark deals with him with his hands, for which he’s arrested – Delgaun has demanded absolutely no fighting or killing, and Stark has increasingly made himself a nuissance.

The finale is almost like Zardoz – Stark has already figured out that Berild is more than she seems, something Fianna confirms. Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want to know. But Fianna reveals that she, Berild, and Delgaun are all Ramas, impossibly ancient, only in new bodies. Berild, tired of her ancient consort Delgaun, secretly plots for power; she is the one who duped Kynon into assembling the barbarian rabble, and she will replace Delgaun with someone else who can rule beside her into eternity – she offers this to Stark, but instead he arms himself with a sword and goes to deliver death. This is where the Zardoz vibe occurred to me.

Brackett isn’t much for gore or overdone violence; when people are hit by swords they just fall down. So in (what little) of her work I’ve read, there’s none of the hacking and slashing Howard did so well. And truth be told, the climax of The Secret Of Sinharat is a bit harried, at least to me – Berild is dispensed with almost casually by Kynon, who has been fatally stabbed by her…and then he goes to the ramparts and informs the throngs that it’s all been a lie, while Stark just stands there. In the end Fianna decides not to smash the globes of mind-transference, saying that she might change her mind and want a new body, after all. She invites Stark back in “thirty years” if he changes his mind and wants to be immortal with her! Stark says no thanks. The end.

Shown above is the cover of the edition I read – this reprint features no publication info, other than the original copyright date of 1964. It does however carry the inscription “cover by Enrich.” This refers to artist Enrique “Enrich” Torres, and according to a listing of Ace Double publication dates, this The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman reprint is from November, 1971. I actually prefer this cover to the original 1964 edition (which itself is nice), mostly because I think it more faithfully captures the vibe of the novel – and also I enjoy Enrich’s sub-Frazetta/Vallejo art. But anyway, here is the cover of that 1964 edition:

Just for the sake of completeness, here’s the cover for the 1982 Ballantine reprint of The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, which was retitled Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars. It retains the Ace text, though it’s not a flipover as that earlier Double was; it is however missing the “cast of characters” which was provided for Sinharat in the Ace edition. This is my least favorite cover of them all:

Now, on to the original pulp edition, which appeared as “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” in the Summer, 1949 issue of Planet Stories. You can find this novella at The Internet Archive for free download; be sure to select the PDF option, as it’s a scan of the original issue, complete with illustration and breathless editorial blurb. All I can say is, the original version is better – like, much better. It’s leaner and more brutal at times, and features a bit more action. It also, unsurprisingly, moves a lot more quickly than the expansion.  Here is the cover:

I’m mostly going to go over the differences here, so spoilers will be heavy – if you want to avoid all this, just skip the next couple paragraphs. The novella is mostly the same as the expansion, for the first half, at least. Only a few changes here and there, as mentioned above. But once Stark and Berild are lost in the Belly of Stones, the novella is much different. Here there is none of Stark spying on Berild as she seeks out the ancient well; she doesn’t bother to hide the fact that she’s apparently recalling her own ancient memory to remember where it is. And also, after their few days of humpin’ and bumpin’ here in the oasis by the well, Stark in the novella promptly accuses Berild of being a Rama – in the expansion this is drawn out much longer. Berild fiercely denies the accusation, even up to the point of threatening Stark’s life.

Once the two get to Sinharat, the novella differs even more greatly. Here occurs the vengeance-glutting I mentioned above, which Brackett denied Stark in the ’64 version; as soon as he sees Luhar, Stark strangles him to death. For this he’s tossed into a dungeon, chained, and it is Freka who wields an axe, waiting for him to waken. Hence the bit from the expansion, with Stark fighting a Shanga-drugged Freka, doesn’t happen here. Fianna appears, as in the novella, and guns down Freka, though her gun apparently shoots flame or something – the expansion makes it seem like a regular gun, but here it’s more of your typical pulp sci-fi raygun deal, which I think is cooler. After this Fianna explains the truth of it all – that she, Berild, and Kynon are all really Ramas. In the expansion, Brackett made Delgaun the Rama, and Kynon the dupe; it’s the other way around in the original.

The climax is much imrpoved in the novella, and one wonders why it was even changed for the expanded version. Here Berild reveals to Stark that she wants him to rule beside her, in Kynon’s body – and Stark accepts. There follows a cool scene in which the “Sending-On of Minds” of the ancient Ramas is employed, and Stark’s mind is placed in another body; he can barely stand to look at his old body, filled with barbarian dread at the sorcery. Turns out though it’s just a con – he declares to the assembled throngs that Berild has tricked them and that he is not really Kynon and etc. This is so much better than in the expansion, where a dying Kynon exposited all this. Now chaos breaks out, and in it Delgaun kills Berild off-page, then comes after Stark (still in Kynon’s body), and fatally stabs him before Stark kills him. The novella ends with Fianna getting Stark’s mind out of Kynon’s body just in time, returning it to his own. She also smashes the globes of mind transference, unlike in the expansion, and tells Stark she needs time to think about her new life. The end. 

End spoilers. Folks, the novella is super cool and I’d recommend it in a hot second over The Secret Of Sinharat. If you’re at all interested in checking out Brackett, I’d recommend going to the link above and downloading the PDF of “Queen of the Martian Catacombs.” It’s a ton of fun, and when I read it I couldn’t wait to read more of Brackett’s work. I’ll be doing a review of People Of The Talisman and its original version, “Black Amazon Of Mars,” next.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Assassin #2: New Orleans Holocaust

The Assassin #2: New Orleans Holocaust, by Peter McCurtin
November, 1973  Dell Books

The Assassin, that ur-text of The Marksman and The Sharpshooter, continues with a second volume which Lynn Munroe theorizes is a collaboration between Peter McCurtin and an author named George Harmon Smith. But perhaps what is most notable about New Orleans Holocaust is that it marks the origin of the infamous “hippie disguise” that Philip Magellan wears in so many volumes of The Marksman, particularly those written by Russell Smith.

It’s now over a year after the first volume (despite this book being published in the same month) and hero Robert Briganti has become a legend in his own time; something whittled out of the Marksman books is how famous Briganti/Magellan has become due to his mob-wasting activities. We learn that psychiatrists even appear on late-night talk shows, offering their own analyses of Briganti, and newspapers offer him “free legal counsel” if he’ll just turn himself in. Another element dropped is Briganti’s constant stream of audio tapes which he sends to the FBI, which themselves only serve to further the legend about him.

A big point of difference between The Assassin and the two series that followed after it is the attempt at making Briganti seem human – at least when compared to Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock. In fact if one were to argue that the Marksman novels (and those Sharpshooters which started life as Marksmans) really are the continuing story of Briganti, only with his name changed to Magellan, the validation could be found in this book, as here Briganti a few times finds himself thinking of his happy past, with his wife and child, only to quickly cut off any emotion and shut out the past. As readers of the later books know, Magellan is practically a robot, his flashbacks to his pre-Mafia war life few and far between, and one could argue that he has become the perfect mob-killing machine that Briganti aspires to be in this origin trilogy.

Not that Briganti isn’t perfect enough already. He pulls off a series of superhuman feats in New Orleans Holocaust, like when he scales down the side of a building while people gawk up in awe at him from far below. This is explained by Briganti’s circus past, where he was taught such tricks. Another hallmark of the later Marksman books is that, while Briganti denies himself memories of his wife and child, he has no problem seeking out people he knew prior to his married life. In New Orleans Holocaust Briganti briefly meets up with Anne Brady, daughter of Wild Bill Brady, the man who taught Briganti to shoot; Wild Bill himself appears in The Marksman #7 – which ironically was published one month after this book. I wonder if anyone back then collected these two series from different publishers and noted the bizarre overlap.

Anne, who makes her living as a topless dancer named Starfire LeFevre, comes on strong to Briganti when he meets her in New Orleans; she claims to have carried a torch for him since she was a kid. But Briganti’s just as much a sexless robot as Magellan and tells the gal to shove off. She promptly disappears from the narrative. McCurtin is more concerned with action. The novel immediately displays its laissez-faire approach to reality in the opening pages; Briganti takes out two Mafia chase cars which are pursuing him in the Everglades with a handy bazooka, then goes on his merry way. His target is Benito Bonasera, in Sarasota – who is in reality Benito Coraldi, brother of Joe Coraldi, the Mafioso who was responsible for the death of Briganti’s family, and who met his own death in the first volume.

Briganti is a helluva lot more unhinged than fellow mob-buster Mack Bolan. Within the first few pages he’s screaming about “Mafia pigs” and shooting down unarmed and injured men. He is in fact “sick with killing,” as a “Mafia whore” informs him, for which she’s slapped around. But Coraldi’s in New Orleans for a big Mafia summit, so off Briganti goes to bust ‘em up. There he seeks out old friend Sam Rubi, in whose shooting gallery young “Bobby” Briganti learned how to handle a gun; Rubi’s now an old pimp, and one of his gals is sleeping with Mafioso for intel. Humorously, absolutely nothing is made of this, as if the author(s) completely forget about it, though it seems clear the intent is for Briganti to meet up with this woman, who doesn’t even appear.

Rather as mentioned the focus is on action, action, action. Posthaste Briganti’s hiring a chopper and having himself dropped off on the roof of a hotel where some mobsters have made their HQ; he guns some down, realizes he’s gotten in over his head, scales down the wall like Spider-Man, and makes his escape. Before this he’s somehow used an everday portable radio as a car bomb to take out a bunch of mobsters at the airport. He doesn’t have the “artillery case” that Magellan would use in the Russell Smith books, but his main weapons here are that bazooka, a grenade launcher, and a Browning Hi-Power, which is gushed about so much as the greatest handgun in history that you wonder why Magellan started using a Beretta in the Smith books.

In addition to Sam Rubi, Briganti’s comrade this time is old retired police captain Donofrio, who was sent to prison years ago on trumped-up charges. He’s an old cop type, very much in the William Crawford mold – indeed there is a definite Crawford vibe to this novel – and he helps Briganti blow punks away with his magnum revolver. The two get involved in this endless action scene midway through; a certain character has been killed by two Mafia hitmen, one of whose father runs a voodoo church in New Orleans(!). Calling himself “The White Zombie” (after “an old Bella[sp] Lugosi movie;” as usual with a McCurtin novels, classic movie references are rife), this guy, whose real name is Connolly, ends up siccing his armed followers on the two interlopers.

Unlike his later incarnation of Magellan, Briganti often gets in tough scrapes which he fears he won’t survive. So this shootout just goes on and on, with Briganti ducking and weaving heavy fire as he beats a retreat. The same is true when he takes on one of the hitmen: Connolly’s son, a gay bodybuilder who hangs out in a gay joint. There are all kinds of slurs here that would quickly trigger the sensitive types of today. These two get in a knockdown, dragout fight, heavy with the Crawfordisms, particularly when it comes to kicking an opponent to death. Whereas superhuman Magellan would take out this guy with no fuss, Briganti sweats and struggles and strains – not that he’s much winded afterward. And he’s just as brutal, killing people he’s promised not to. Another miss here – and perhaps indication that two authors wrote the book with little collaboration – is that Briganti doesn’t even bother telling Connolly Jr that Connolly Sr is dead.

Another humorous miss is when Briganti goes back to the home of Sam Rubi’s equally-elderly sister, where Briganti’s been staying, and finds a sleazy PI there trying to threaten the old woman in her bed for info on where Briganti is. Briganti wastes him, and Sam’s sister dies in fright. Yet old Sam doesn’t even seem to care, and in the very next scene is joking around with Briganti! Sam does help out in the climax, though – that is, after Briganti’s staged an anticlimactic (and brief) assault on the Mafia summit, which is being held in a newly-opened convention center; he tosses a few grenades in there and that’s that.

But Benny Coraldi’s still alive, given that he’s been on a boat all this time, refusing to go to the summit meeting. He’s imprisoned a bunch of hookers out there, and later we learn he tossed ‘em all overboard and ran ‘em down for sport. Sam pilots a trawler and Briganti, once again hefting that damn bazooka, metes out another dose of justice to the Coraldi family. And that’s it – we’re presented with an overlong “transcript” of Briganti’s latest audio missive to the FBI that basically goes over everything we just read. Briganti figures that it’s only a matter of time before “the best hitmen in the world” are hired to kill him, apparently setting up the events of the next volume – or perhaps a Marksman or Sharpshooter I haven’t yet read.

Overall New Orleans Holocaust is passable entertainment, filled with “Mafia pigs” getting gunned down, but Briganti isn’t as interesting as Magellan, despite being the same character. Magellan’s just more crazy and unpredictable, but admittedly I’m mostly thinking of the Russell Smith version. In McCurtin’s installments, Magellan’s basically the same as Briganti, only without the “regular audio transcripts to the FBI” bit. The writing is also good, all things considered, very spare and economical, but not as seriously presented as in the first volume – which in itself might be evidence of Lynn Munroe’s speculation, that this one was possibly ghostwritten (or just co-written) by George Harmon Smith.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Richard Blade #6: Monster Of The Maze

Richard Blade #6: Monster Of The Maze, by Jeffrey Lord
December, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1972)

In this very special volume of Richard Blade, our hero ventures to the land of the Happy Little Elves, where he learns the healing power of Love. Just kidding – Blade once again hacks and slashes his way through Dimension X, banging some big-busted babes along the way. Once more Manning Lee Stokes turns in a variation of Voyage To Arcturus (or better yet any Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom pastiche), but this one lacks a bit of the sub-Conanisms of previous installments.

Stokes wrote in total eight volumes of Richard Blade, and while he wrote many more volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster and The Aquanauts for producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, I get the feeling that this series was Stokes’s favorite. I think he invested himself more in this series, perhaps because it’s so different than any of the others he penned for Engel. Each volume follows the exact same template, yet each volume has this bizarre vibe to it that sets it apart from its predecessors, and certainly from the average “sword and planet” novel.

Despite this interminable preamble, Monster Of The Maze is my least favorite installment yet. Stokes seems to have a hard go of it, this time, and one could hardly blame him; after the nigh-allegorical masterpiece that was the previous volume, Stokes had to do it all over again! Indeed, one can almost respect the guy’s ability to come up with sub-Robert E. Howard worlds again and again. Each book he has to introduce a new world for Blade to encounter, with its own traditions and royalty and etc. (That each world and its setting is basically the same is a little fact we’ll overlook.) But one can’t help but feel that Richard Blade’s growing exhaustion from his trips into Dimension X is a mirror of Stokes’s own exhaustion, and likely the reason why, when this series was picked up by Pinnacle in 1973, he didn’t continue writing it.

Anyway, as usual there’s precious little continnuity here. We are informed Blade has gone to Dimension X six times previously, which would seem to be a mistake, but recall in the last volume he actually travelled to “DX” twice. In the finale of the book we are reminded that Blade usually forgets his experiences in Dimension X upon his return to “Home Dimension,” given that his brain reformats itself to the latest dimension, Blade becoming someone other than the “true” version of himself on HD. When returning to his true state upon his return home, Blade ends up forgetting all the stuff that he underwent in DX, though it’s implied that sometimes he’ll gradually remember. But it’s a good out for Stokes not to have to constantly refer back to previous volumes – with, again, the unfortunate side-effect that a lot of the books come off like retreads.

Despite which, Blade – and thus apparently Stokes himself – is in a damned hurry to get to DX this time. There’s even less HD-stuff than normal, with Blade’s boss J only given a token appearance. Mad scientist Lord Leighton has implanted a crystal in Blade’s brain, one which will enable a sort of communication between Blade and HD when Blade is in his latest dimension; eventually we’ll learn that the crystal is slowly making Blade go insane. This is the latest invention of Lord L, who is under pressure from the new prime minister; if the DX Project doesn’t start generating any money, it will be cancelled. Ostensibly Blade’s purpose is to figure out how to exploit these various dimensions for Britain’s profit, though as we know from the previous five books, he’s failed miserably each time. At any rate this will be Blade’s “last mission” into Dimension X – a ridiculous concept which is of course jettisoned in the last paragraphs of the book.

The crystal has other effects on Blade; a glaring element missing from Monster Of The Maze is the “bluff and brawn” aesthetic which is paramount to the entire series – ie, the macho mystique one finds in all of Stokes’s work, but in particular in the Richard Blade novels. Blade this time around is a bit off his game, “only” scoring with three native babes – and what few sex scenes we get are woefully brief and nothing along the lines of previous encounters. Indeed, Blade finds himself disinterested in sex for long portions of the narrative, wondering what is wrong with him, and even finds himself unable to fully satisfy one of the native babes, no matter how hard he tries. Eventually we’ll learn this isn’t his fault – demonic possession is to blame – but still, it only adds to the picture that this time out we are presented with a Blade something less than before. 

Unfortunately, the same could be said about the novel itself. My least favorite stuff in previous installments has been all the courtly intrigue Blade encounters, each voyage into DX – all the internecine palace stuff with scheming priests plotting to take power from aging rulers. But at least in previous books this stuff didn’t take up so much space. Monster Of The Maze though is basically all palace intrique, and doesn’t get to the good stuff until fairly late in the game. Reading the book I truly got the impression that Stokes had worn himself out with the previous book and thus, in his own way, was just as impotent as his protagonist.

The crystal in his brain causes even more problems – when Blade arrives in this latest dimension, he’s got the body of a baby, with the brain (and head size) of a grown man. I was afraid it would be like this for the duration, but Blade’s only a baby from pages 23 to 47; he finds himself in the royal harem, and crying out he’s able to attract one of the women to him. She’s a beautiful brunette named Valli who is drawn to the baby because her own was killed before she could have it – it’s illegal for harem women to become pregnant, and child-killing runs rife in the kingdom of Zir, with mentions throughout of this or that child murdered for some reason or other. This means that, after Slaves Of The Crime Master, this is the second book I’ve read recently with stuff about babies getting killed, and good grief it has to stop now!

Valli ends up hiding Blade and feeding him from her breast, with Blade suckling and hiding from her that he can both speak and talk like a grown man; otherwise, he is a horrific sight, a baby with an oversized head. He knows somehow that it’s a computer snafu that has caused this, and via that telepathic link provided by the crystal he’s able to convince Lord L to hold off on returning him to his full-grown size for one month. Unsurprisingly, there is a prophecy in Zir that a mysterious child will be born to the aging Izmir, and the child will become his heir and ruler – Blade snatches upon this prophecy, having Valli sneak him into the Izmir’s chamber one night.

The old man turns out to be less the stupefied believer than Blade suspected, but goes along with Blade anyway – he’s impressed the “child” can speak like an adult and do all sorts of things. A month later and Blade is accepted in Zir as the Izmir’s son and heir, and he’s back to his “brawny” normal size, complete with the usual wild beard that the cover artist always refuses to illustrate. Curiously, he has no interest in the harem the Izmir has given him – and when Valli comes to him, it takes Blade a while to realize he lusts for her, despite her being his temporary “mother.” After all, “Had he not from the first, even with his infantile penis, wanted the girl?”

Valli has helped Blade because she wants a baby to keep – who will be surprised, then, when she reveals to Blade that she wants his baby? Blade knocking up native gals seems to be another recurring theme of the series, by the way, and he quickly complies with Valli’s request, though bear in mind the scene isn’t as graphic as previous books. It does however contain the unforgetable line from Valli: “You spewed a fountain into me and of it will come a child.” We never do find out if Valli gets knocked up, as she disappears from the narrative soon after, with Blade occasionally telling his underlings to ensure she’s okay and whatnot; in other words, there’s none of the “Blade’s woman gets wasted” stuff as in previous books. Valli just disappears. Before she goes, though, we do get a bit of that casual Blade/Stokes misogyny that makes this series so special: “[Blade] wished that Valli were brainier, cooler, more like a man than a woman.”

The Izmir has locked horns with Casta, skullfaced ruler of the black-garbed religious order of Zir. Blade’s vassal, Captain Ogier, urges Blade to kill off the priests, even though they outnumber the army by thousands, but Casta ensnares Blade’s cooperation – Casta casually reveals a “useless rock” he has gotten from the Hitts, the warlike nation that is in constant combat with Zir. It is the largest diamond Blade has ever seen. Casta claims that there are mountains of such things in Hitt – somehow he has divined that Blade would be interested in this. And he is correct, for here Blade finally sees a means to get some money back to England; Stokes toys out this “teleportation test” scenario, with Lord L occasionally “radioing” Blade via that damn crystal in his brain that they’re working on teleportation Home Dimension, so keep looking for those diamonds.

Oh, and Blade must also marry Princess Hirga, the series-mandatory evil-but-gorgeous babe. Even here Stokes does little to exploit the gal, as he did in previous books. Hirga is the woman Blade’s unable to satisfy. Hell, she even checks out his equipment on their first boff and sort of sneers – a big jolt for Blade, given his bigger-than-average uh, girth. This bit is annoying because Blade soon begins to suspect Hirga’s screwing someone else, though he can never find anyone in her chamber, and also each time he finds a small sort of incense holder and there’s this weird smell…all Blade has to do is ask Ogier or something, but he never does. As mentioned, eventually it will be revealed that this is sorcery, though Blade doesn’t learn it until the final quarter.

Blade sure seems to be on this particular mission a long time – he takes a month to grow to adult size, and after that there are long portions of him ingraining himself into Zir society and plotting his war against the Hitts after the Izmir dies. Speaking of which, the eventual battle scene takes up way too much of the text; pages 97-117 are comprised of this endless battle between Blade’s soldiers and the Viking-like Hitts. But Blade himself is mostly relegated to general status, ordering his soldiers about; this volume very much misses the “hack and slash” vibe one might expect from a sub-Conan yarn, and it lacks for it. To make the book seem even more clumsy, Stokes abruptly jumps ahead (yet another month has passed), casually informing us that Blade is now a prisoner of the Hitts, even though we just saw him defeat them in the previous chapter.

The stuff in the Hitt capital is just as slow-going as the stuff in Zir; once again Blade is given a royal babe to bang: Lisma, gorgeous daughter of Hitt ruler Loth Bloodax(!). Yep, folks, her name’s really “Lisma Bloodax.” Stokes even informs us this, as if he wants us to laugh along with him. “Put your man weapon in me and have done with it,” she informs Blade; she has been commanded by her father to get knocked up by this “god” from Zir. As I say, this is a recurring element in the series, though in this sequence’s end Lisma is so angered with Blade that she vows to kill any baby she might have by him – again with the baby-killing, dammit!

Blade sews a big balloon for himself(!), given that he’s imprisoned in a house on top of a cliff or something, and makes his escape shortly after he’s gotten to see where the Hitts keep a cavern of lifesized diamond statues of ancient rulers. One of them is of Janina, first queen of the Hitts, who ruled a thousand years ago; Blade is in love with her, and vows to screw her. Only now does he begin to suspect he’s going insane. He escapes via the big balloon, somehow making it across the sea that separates Zir and Hitt. Now the book is taking on the nigh-allegorical tones of the previous book. Back in Zir, Blade finds that Casta’s “crows” are slowly taking over the kingdom.

Now, too late in the game, we get to the good shit. Hirga reveals to Blade that Casta, who lives in the twisting mazes beneath the Izmir’s pyramidal tomb, creates monsters through magic; one of them, called Urder, is “half dragon, half serpent.” Hirga meanwhile has been screwing a massively-endowed demon, one summoned by Casta’s magic; Blade witnesses her doing the beast when he makes his climactic assault on Casta’s lair. And by the way, for this assault Blade is naked save for a helmet, armed with a sword and dagger. He watches as the creature stuff its massive “phallus” into the screaming girl. When the thing disappears, Hirga reveals that she is addicted to the monster, and begs Blade to kill her – not only that, but to chop her head off and take it with him, as it might prove some use to him!!

We’re getting into some heavy mythology-type shit now, folks, and if only the entire novel had been like this. Blade, naked, covered in blood, carrying a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other, can only bring to mind Perseus. But even here Stokes proves unable to keep it up; one hopes for a sequence of Blade venturing deeper into the tunnels and hacking up a slew of creatures, but instead the only one he encounters is Urder, who is of course the titular monster of the maze – and Urder appears and is dispensed with in less than two pages. (Blade distracts it with Hirga’s head.) This is unsatisfying to say the least. So too is Blade’s final confrontation with Casta, which comes off just as perfunctory.

Rather, Stokes saves his ammo in the climax for Blade’s near-psychedelic screwing of Janina, millennia-dead Hitt queen and current life-sized diamond statue. Stokes writes the sequence masterfully, with it never being clear if Blade has slipped through the time-space continnuum for this boffing of the ages, or if he’s just plain nuts and imagining it all. It proceeds to get more hallucinatory and dreamlike as they fall off the crevice upon which all the diamond statues are perched, passing by corpses and skeletons of other Hittians who attempted to jump the chasm and failed (long story) – and, right on cue, Blade is zapped back to Home Dimension.

Three weeks later, Blade’s let out of the nursing home – another recurring element is that he’s nearly destroyed each trip into DX – and he can’t recall anything, not even his consuming love for Janina. Meanwhile, he’s somehow managed to bring that statue of her back into Home Dimension – and it’s valued “millions of pounds.” Lord L keeps it in a closet in his private chamber (he, J, and Blade all live beneath the Tower of London, by the way!) and claims that sometimes he feels that the statue is actually alive, and calling to him. Not that this much perturbs Blade – he figures it’s just a statue, and further figures he’ll either remember this latest trip to Dimension X or he won’t. Meanwhile, he’s gonna go bang some broads. The end!

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Peacemaker #1: The Zaharan Pursuit

The Peacemaker #1: The Zaharan Pursuit, by Adam Hamilton
June, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

Who thought putting a picture of our hero talking on the phone would be badass? Look out, troublemakers, or Barry will make a few calls!Zwolf 

Marilyn Granbeck, who as “Allan Morgan” gave us the trainwreck that was Blood, returned the following year with another short-lived series (4 volumes), this one from Berkley and with cover art by the same guy who did the Jason Striker covers. With Blood, Granbeck took a protagonist who was a kick-ass mercenary and turned in a slooow-moving cozy mystery that was more along the lines of a TV movie of the time. With The Peacemaker, Granbeck takes a protagonist who is a wealthy crime-fighter devoted to achieving global peace in his time…and turns in a sloooow-moving cozy mystery that is more along the lines of a TV movie of the time. 

According to Hawk’s Authors Pseudonyms, Granbeck wrote this book with someone named Arthur Moore – Hawk only lists two Peacemaker books for the writing duo, but I’m going to assume they actually wrote all four. As I mentioned in my review of Blood #3, Granbeck appears to have mostly written mystery novels, and this is what she turns in for The Zaharan Pursuit. The action scene on the cover is incredibly misleading; Zwolf, as usual, was on-point in his pithy comment, for all Barrington “Barry” Hewes-Bradford really does in the novel is make a few calls.

Barry (and I had a hard time constantly seeing that name and not thinking of a certain past president) is 31 and massively wealthy due to an inheritance. He has armies of employees and properties all over the world, though this book mostly occurs in Hawaii, and in particular aboard Barry’s yacht, the Seabird. Despite my assumption, Barry is not a freelance spy along the lines of The Baroness; rather, he’s just a super-rich dude who secretly uses his wealth to ensure peace is maintained at all costs. While this is a goofy concept, Granbeck does little to exploit it. In reality much of the entirety of The Zaharan Pursuit is given over to Barry trying to find out who owns the boat that swideswept his yacht in the middle of the night on a stormy sea.

Not only that, but Barry, being a billionaire and whatnot, usually has his underlings handle the heavy lifting. This means that there are long portions of The Zaharan Pursuit where one-off characters take center stage, snooping here and there at Barry’s orders. Some of them aren’t one-offs, though, like Lobo, Barry’s right-hand man who was once a star linebacker. Lobo has his own vassals in the security wing of Barry’s company, and sends these dudes out to investigate the hit-and-run boat; two of them get involved in the first “action scene” in the book, engaging in a chase and shootout with some dudes. Later on one of these guys is killed in revenge…and meanwhile, our “hero” continues to sit on his yacht and ponder.

Unlike the Blood novel I read, this one at least has some sex, as Barry scores with two jetsetting hotties: Aura, a Eurasian who has inherited vast wealth from her old (now deceased) husband, and Jessica, an international sportslady or somesuch. But Granbeck doesn’t get down and dirty in the least; here’s the extent of Barry’s boff with Aura: “He made love to her on pale-yellow sheets.” That’s it, folks. The women aren’t as exploited as they’d be in the usual genre offering, perhaps unsurprisingly; and as for Barry himself, we just learn he has the expected rakish good looks. If I’m not mistaken, no mention is made of a beard, meaning that interpretation on the cover is solely the artists’s rendering.

During the interminable investigation Barry comes upon the name Zaharan, an infamous South American revolutionary who has never been seen but who has funded various left-leaning revolutions. (George Soros?!) Barry had his own run-in with Zaharan’s forces a while back, in a revolution the mysterious man started in a South American country Barry had invested in. Now it appears “Z” is running ammunition and was the secret owner of the ship that hit Barry’s yacht that night – at length, we’ll learn that Z is stirring revolution in fictional country San Martin, and that ship was carrying arms for the struggle. In this latest tangent of the investigation Barry heads to Mazatlan, where he eventually finds a Z-owned plane that crashed on land owned by a wealthy local resident. 

Here in Mazatlan Barry gets in one of his few action scenes, being chased by a would-be sniper – the same dude, by the way, who has tried twice to kill one of Barry’s secretaries, failing each time. As I say, there is very much a TV movie or series vibe in play, with corny “tense” scenes that are the print equivalent of the swelling music before a tense commercial break; here, Barry’s secretary is in a hospital after the previous near-miss and the sniper shoots at her, chapter end. Next chapter, we eventually learn he missed!! I mean it’s all just so lame and tedious. But at least Barry manages to lose the annoying failure of a sniper, using his fancy fast-driving skills.

A nice scene occurs later on, as Barry and Lobo suit up in scuba gear and snoop around an island that’s being used to store Z’s weapons. While there isn’t much action here, Granbeck captures a nice vibe of potential action. Barry’s first actual kill occurs on page 159, here in this sequence – he takes out a guard dog! The Peacemaker, baby!! From there it’s back to the clue-tracking, with Barry certain Zaharan is in reality someone wealthy and powerful, “Z” just a guise this person uses. George Soros?!!

Spoilers for this paragraph, so avoid if you give a damn – well, Barry figures out sort of late in the game that he’s been close to Zaharan all along. It’s none other than Eurasian sexpot Aura, who has been working with a sleazy entreprenneur named Sevill, funding various revolutions. The finale sees a stupefied Barry slowly digesting this shocking reveal, and then chasing after Aura, who attempts to escape on her private helicopter, which Barry shoots out of the sky. But “the Peacemaker” is such a lame duck of a protagonist that his employees have to save Jessica, who meanwhile has been abducted by Z’s forces.

With that at least the book ends. It’s slow-moving, tepid, and not very exciting. Granbeck’s writing is good, though, which leads to the unavoidable conclusion that she was working in the wrong genre. Here’s hoping the next volumes are a bit better.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Man With The Getaway Face (Parker #2)

The Man With The Getaway Face, by Richard Stark
No month stated, 1962  Pocket Books

The Parker series continues with this second novel that’s a bit shorter than the first. I actually read The Man With The Getaway Face a few years ago, after The Hunter, but refrained for some reason from reviewing it (same as I did for The Outfit, which I’m about to read again and review this time). I’ve been meaning to get back to the series, and figured I should start over again – but this time I actually listened to it.

Surprisingly, all of the Parker novels have been given unabridged audio versions; the first few are read by a voice actor named John Chancer, who does an admirable job of capturing the various voices in the novel. He especially excels at capturing the gruff voices of oddball crime-world lowlifes. He gives Parker’s voice a bit of a Clint Eastwood edge, very gravelly and terse. That being said, Chancer’s narration sometimes is a bit too melodramatic, but I figure that’s just natural – I don’t think it could be possible to make your living as a voice actor and not be a little melodramatic. But still though, I feel that the narration, at least when filtered through the narrow prism of Parker’s viewpoint, should be cold and terse as Parker himself.

This one opens just a few weeks after The Hunter; Parker is in a sanitarium run by a doctor who was blackballed for being a Socialist. Parker’s had facial surgery and spends about one or two sentences looking at his new face, accepting it with almost a Zen resolve. Shortly after this Parker gets involved in a job in the New Jersery area that’s being “masterminded” by a slovenly fellow crook named Skimm. Really though the job has been “fingered” by Skimm’s girlfriend, a scowling, unattractive diner waitress named Alma – as if proving these books don’t have the usual pulp-crime trappings, Alma is not the expected sultry babe. In fact she’s downright annoying.

But Alma’s come upon a nice heist setup; an armored car goes through her diner and without fail the drivers always stop in to take a leak. Someone could pounce on this, take the car and the thousands of dollars in it, etc. Also involved in the heist is a fellow criminal named Handy, one Parker has worked with before and whose professionalism Parker respects. Parker isn’t crazy about Alma because she’s new to the heist world and could cause potential problems. He’s also certain she’s planning to doublecross everyone, and Handy agrees. Thus the two go about plotting their own doublecross, Parker also bankrolling the job by buying a couple trucks of their own, guns, etc.

Honestly, this one is so pointlessly padded that it’s comical. The Man With The Getaway Face was the first series novel Stark/Westlake wrote, as The Hunter was intended as a one-shot in which Parker was arrested at the end. But in this sequel, Stark shows all the signs of a prolific writer quickly filling the pages so he can get to the next paying gig. Things that should be described in a few sentences go on for pages. If Parker goes to buy a truck, we have to read every struggle with the gear shift, we have to read the endless haggling with the seller, on and on. The book loses all the forward momentum of The Hunter.

To make it worse, the heist is almost anticlimactic, over and done with in a few pages, as is the uncovering of Alma’s treachery – Parker disposes of her off-page. Rather, the brunt of the novel is given over to this tedious subplot concerning Stubbs, the slow-witted chaffeur of the plastic surgeon at the beginning of the novel. As the previous novel cut over to focus on Parker’s prey, Mal, for a “book” of his own, so too does this one cut over to Stubbs. And boy is it ever more indication of the padding of this novel…lots of useless backstory about Stubbs, how he methodically goes about his hunt for the patient who killed his boss. Stubbs you see showed up before the heist went down, cornering Parker, as Parker is one of Stubbs’s suspects – the doc was killed shortly after Parker left. 

So we get all this annoying stuff about Parker locking Stubbs up in a farmhouse and daily checking on him, letting him out to walk, etc. As if that weren’t bad enough, we later have to double back and read how Stubbs escaped his prison, and how he continued on with his quest for the doc’s killer. It just goes on and on. To make it worse, Stubbs is killed at the end of his sequence, in as anticlimactic manner as the heist was rendered, and thus all that background stuff we read about him is rendered moot.

Then we double back again, and now read as Parker, post-heist, discovers that Stubbs has escaped and thus goes about finding him. This entails another trip to the sanitarium, where Parker must patiently explain his innocence to May, the cook, and her two equally-moronic comrades, all three of whom distrust Parker. “Patience” is the operative word here for the reader, too; Parker recaps again and again for the morons stuff we readers have already read and already know. But finally they tell Parker who Stubbs’s other suspect was, and off Parker goes in pursuit. He catches up with him just as he’s been shot by his prey, and Parker dispenses justice.

But there are more pages to fill, so back Parker goes to the sanitarium, where he again explains himself to the three dimwits, who finally relent and believe Parker isn’t the killer…oh, but they’ve already let it out on the undeworld wire what Parker’s new face looks like. Thus this entire endless goddamn subplot has been a total waste of goddamn time!! Rather than wasting all three of them, Parker just leaves in disgust – that is, after he’s shown them the severed head of the doc’s killer, which Parker’s brought along in an overnight bag. Now he figures he’ll head to Florida for a brief vacay before taking his fight directly to the Outfit. Mercifully, the end.

I know this book has its supporters, and I know later books are better – several years ago I read Slayground and Plunder Squad, and the other year I read The Outfit, which I’m about to read again – but as far as I’m concerned The Man With The Getaway Face is an overly-padded dud. Parker loses much of the bad-assery he displayed in the previous book; his over-explanations to May and the others comes off like wheedling at times. I mean, this is the guy who accidentally killed some random Outfit whore the previous book by binding her mouth, realizing too late she was asthmatic, and just brushed off the death as an inconvenience. Yet here he is explaining himself and his actions to a trio of dullards and then letting them live despite the fact that they ruined the entire reason for his extensive facial overhaul.

Don’t get me wrong, though; the writing itself is good, with that same economical feel I love in these vintage crime novels. The stuff with Parker getting his guns and all makes you expect some fireworks, but unfortunately there is none – he does shoot one of May’s comrades in the arm, though. We also get more of a glimpse into Parker’s life outside of his crime pursuits; he likes to hang out in Florida and screw a bunch of willing babes. Speaking of which, Parker actually gets laid, this time; two whores he picks up in two separate cities, banging each of them off-page. We also learn he’s still simmering from the loss (not to mention the treachery) of his wife in the previous book.

Well anyway, The Man With The Getaway Face at least keeps your interest so far as you want to see it through so you can continue on with the series. But man is a whole huge chunk of it ultimately pointless. There are Parker fans though who doubtless rank it as one of their favorites, which brings us to the Moonraker conundrum. It has an awesome cover on this original Pocket edition, though.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Spider #19: Slaves Of The Crime Master

The Spider #19: Slaves Of The Crime Master, by Grant Stockbridge
April, 1935  Popular Publications

This installment of The Spider appears to have been a reaction to the radio show of rival pulp magazine The Shadow, which is interesting, as this was published well before that show became what it would eventually be remembered for – ie, pulp-crime tales about Lamont Cranston and his ability to “cloud men’s minds.” (Orson Welles of course is my favorite Cranston of them all.) At this point the program was just hosted by a figure calling himself “The Shadow,” I believe, yet it was a big hit, and as mentioned clearly seems to have inspired some of the incidentals of Slaves Of The Crime Master.

But otherwise this one’s a little tough going, Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page once again pulling all sorts of page-filling tricks to meet his inhuman monthly word count. At least I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the previous/later ones I’ve read. Richard “The Spider” Wentworth’s enemy this time is “The Tempter” (Wentworth’s own name for him, per usual), a mysterious individual who is corrupting the minds of the nation’s youth, turning them into pillaging gangs of criminals. Page at times hits the vibe of the juvenile delinquent pulp of two decades later, though per the normal Spider template this “jaydee” stuff only comes and goes.

In reality this installment turns out to be Wentworth staging a series “lightning strikes” against various underworld bosses, killing them without his standard .45s due to a vow he has made to not use guns this time. The Tempter stuff is forgotten for long periods, and for that matter the villain isn’t the usual costumed/masked menace of the norm. Broadcasting somehow over the radio from some unknown location, the Tempter uses his dulcet tones to twist the minds of eager-listening youth; there’s even a rock ‘n’ roll vibe here, with the Tempter like some non-singing ‘30s version of Elvis or something.

To fight this menace, the Spider will eventually begin broadcasting his own radio messages, urging youth to resist the lure of the Tempter and to do good for others and whatnot. As I say, one can’t help feel this is all a reaction to the Shadow radio program. Wentworth even goes to the trouble of recording several broadcasts for pal/enemy Commissioner Kirkpatrick to hand over to radio stations, though Page doesn’t really elaborate how Wentworth actually accomplishes this – this was in the days when making an audio recording was a complex process. Soon there will be gangs of “Spiders” cruising the streets, young boys and girls inspired by the Spider’s words, though they are still outmatched by the roving bands of the Tempter’s flock.

Page as usual opens on the action, as Wentworth, in his Spider guise, takes out a few crooks and hangs their corpses as warnings to others. Wentworth actually spends a good portion of the narrative in the Spider disguise, which is a nice change from the past books, where he dispensed with the outfit after the first few pages. Also, looks like the “Tito Caliepi” name for this disguise has been dropped – in the earliest books we were informed that this twisted, old face and slouch hat were part of an alternate identity Wentworth appropriated, named Tito Caliepi. Now this look has become “the” Spider look, and it’s solely referred to as such.

Another recurring part of the template is Page will have Wentworth up against it and then just proceed to throw more and more proverbial rocks at him. So in the opening after fighting off some kid-gangs and killing those two thugs, Wentworth is surrounded by cops – and these are ‘30s cops, so they’re shooting on sight. (No stand down orders for these guys, folks…them were the days…) Wentworth, who has sworn never to kill cops (again, them were the days…) escapes, managing to steal a patrol car, with the “coppers” in pursuit – and he almost runs over a panicking woman carrying a baby. She pleads for a lift. Wentworth tells her to get in – why the hell not? So the baby is comatose or dying and the cops are surrounding him and the woman’s screaming, and with his lips the usual “thin line” of focus Wentworth tears through the streets of New York for the nearest hospital.

Only to be informed by a doctor – Wentworth having dropped his Spider guise along the way, incidentally – that the baby will likely die anyway…! Welcome to 1930s pulp, friends, where no one is safe. Here Page apparently decides his “jaydee menace” storyline isn’t sufficient for an entire book, so breaks out this “infantile paralysis” subplot; babies around the country are abruptly falling ill, going into seizures and comas from which they do not recover, even if they are placed on artificial life support. Not to sound like a snowflake, but what with having a six-month old and all at the time I was reading the book, this part didn’t sit too well with me…I guess that’s the power of good pulp, though – it can affect you decades after it was published.

Wentworth goes through the usual assortment of red herrings in his research; he’s certain the Tempter must be someone who makes his living as a radio announcer, and has Kirkpatrick round up the most famous personalities in the city for a voice evaluation that’s more of a psych test. Orson Welles, if he’d been famous at this time, would’ve been a shoo-in, I’m sure. Now that guy had a voice. Later, for no reason at all (other than page-filling), Wentworth visits old Professor Brownlee upstate – only to find some thugs attempting to abduct him. Leading the crew is a guy with a horribly-scarred face, as if all his features have been burned off; Wentworth, with his usual gift for instant name-coining, begins to refer to him as “The Faceless One.”

Wentworth’s knocked out, almost killed in a house fire (a long, interminable sequence features his nail-biting escape), and Brownlee’s snatched after all. Eventually we’ll learn that the Faceless One, a scientist of sorts, is the man behind the infantile paralysis plot, and also is cooking up an antidote to sell off to the highest bidders. He even keeps kids in cages as guinea pigs! Temporarily it’s back to the kid-gang stuff, and in another action scene Wentworth, again as the Spider, shoots down a would-be killer…only to see, to his horror, that he’s just blown away a 15 year-old! Wentworth, crying, vows to no longer use his guns until this caper is finished – he doesn’t want to kill anymore kids. 

Now the book heads into the arbitrary-seeming subplot of Wentworth taking out a variety of criminal underbosses, usually stating his challenge in the paper so as to draw large crowds and killing the villain in as audacious manner as possible. A few times Kirkpatrick has the opportunity to shoot down the Spider, but does not, given that he knows it is his “best friend” Richard Wentworth – it is made clear, once again, that the fact Wentworth is the Spider is an open secret between the two. So as to keep Kirkpatrick from being roasted by the public – who as usual blames the Spider for everything (fake news!!) – Wentworth slaps him around and starts a fight with him! End result: Kirkpatrick is out for the Spider’s blood, Richard Wentworth or not.

It just sort of drifts along, hitting all the template points right to a T; I mean, Nita van Sloan is kidnapped right on schedule. This time she’s degraded a bit more than usual, with the Faceless One stripping her down to her slip and tying her to an arm-ripping mechanism patterned after one used in the Inquisition or somesuch. We see this horrible contraption in action, later on, with some gangster moll’s arms getting ripped off by it. Wentworth, again as the Spider, manages to save Nita in the nick of time, taking us into the climax – and also highlighting a bit of a problem with the book overall.

Clearly winging it to a deadline, Page several times throughout has Wentworth disappearing from the narrative, then arriving miraculously and detailing where he’s been and what he’s been doing in the baldest of exposition. This happens not only here but in the final pages, as Wentworth explains all the crazy shit that’s happened – and folks, this one features the craziest finale yet. Taking place at “the Yankee stadium,” it sees a crowd of kids about to be infected with infantile paralysis via poisoned food, as well as all the red-herring Tempter-possibles being in attendance (one of ‘em being the real one). And then a giant spider descends into the fray, the Spider’s voice booming out and announcing that he’s about to kill the real Tempter.

Page stretches this out until it’s past the breaking point. The spider-thing keeps getting lower and lower and the crowd keeps gasping and Kirkpatrick keeps sweating bullets. Meanwhile there’s a corpse on the thing – Wentworth having offed a major character in another of those off-page scenes he exposits about later – and Wentworth unmasks the true Tempter in a typically-harried finale. And then explains everything that just happened to a nonplussed Nita. But hey, at least Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are best buds again!

This one wasn’t my favorite…it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.