Monday, August 31, 2015

Invitation To Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #246)

Invitation To Death, by Nick Carter
February, 1989  Jove Books

Jack Canon turns in yet another volume of the seemingly-neverending Nick Carter: Killmaster series, which at any rate did end about a year after this one was published. Like the earlier Canon installment Blood Raid, this one’s in third-person and comes off like a Robert Ludlum-esque Europe-trotting espionage affair, overly “realistic” and methodically paced, as compared to the pulpier volumes of the series’s earlier years.

We meet Nick Carter already on his latest mission, in London and looking up what turns out to be an old colleague of sorts – a dark-haired beauty who now goes by the name Lola and runs a strip club. But we quickly learn this lady is actually Serena, who last appeared in the Canon installment The Satan Trap, published ten years before. As we’ll recall Serena was a con lady and almost got Carter killed a few times – that is, in between banging him a whole bunch. Canon refers back to that earlier volume a few times and makes it seem pretty clear that this is the first Carter has seen Serena since then; he’s kept up with her shady underworld adventures, though, and has sought out her assistance for this job.

One wonders why Canon even bothered to bring back such a minor character ten years after creating her, especially when Serena is referred to as “Lola” from here on out (and will be in the review as well). She’s practically a different character anyway, so it doesn’t make much sense. Their previous adventure is only given cursory mention, but then Nick Carter by necessity is a blank slate of a protagonist due to the army of ghostwriters who control him. The most important thing, really, is that Lola/Serena is smoking-hot and super-stacked and she enjoys dressing ultra-slutty to the jawdropping enjoyment of all red-blooded men. She’s also Carter’s sole bedmate in this novel, which is pretty surprising, but then the AIDS paranoia was in full effect at the time and even James Bond himself was reduced to sole bedmates in his own adventures, like in The Living Daylights.

“N3 leads a high-tech gang of thieves on a top secret heist!” proclaims the cover, and while that does sum up the central plot of Invitation To Death, it takes about a hundred pages to get to it. This is standard of the Canon novels I’ve read; lots of wheel-spinning until the rushed finale. But as I’ve mentioned before, one bonus of these later installments is the more explicit sex scenes, which always increases the trash quality; Carter and “Lola” get it on posthaste after being, uh, reconnected after all these years. (Though to be sure, nowhere is it implied that the previous adventure occurred a decade before; this is part and parcel of that whole “blank slate” situation.)

Carter’s trying to get info on the whereabouts and plans of Gerhard Rouse, a terrorist/thief who usually works for the Russians. Vague intel has it that Rouse is planning some major heist, but of what? Eventually we will learn that it’s of the plans for top-secret space weapon technology. Rouse’s target is a young American who is transporting the documents into London; Rouse hires a team of London low-lifes to ambush their car, kill everyone, and abscond with the documents. In the melee the young American is able to use a special lighter that shoots long bursts of flame to scorch off half the face of one of the low-lifes.

Meanwhile Carter’s several steps behind, and by the time he figures out what’s going on Rouse has already left London. Here Carter is informed what exactly Rouse has stolen, and so begins the “heist” portion of his mission. Rouse was hired by a billionaire named Charmont who lives in a palatial residence “near Arles, on the Rhone River;” Charmont intends to sell the documents to the Russians for an exorbitant amount. To ensure he alone has the wealth Charmont even sends his hotstuff female assassin off to London to kill Rouse. And talk about a huge miss: the lovely lethal lady basically disappears. I figured it would be a given that she’d meet up with Carter, but nope, Canon apparently forgets all about her.

Instead, more focus is placed on Carter’s recruitment of his heisters. Carter’s mission is to retrieve the documents, but since Charmont is a world-famous celebrity the theft must not only be kept secret but cannot be tied in to US intelligence. Thus Carter must recruit actual criminals. He and Lola go about Europe picking various dudes: a safecracker, a demolitions man, even a studly young Spaniard whose job will be to pose as a famous matador. The heist will go down at Charmont’s villa while a grand party is happening; Charmont hosts frequent major affairs and so Carter and team will go in while the festivities occur and steal the documents, hopefully before the Russians arrive.

We get a lot of ultimately-pointless digressions from the point of view of the Russian commander who is trying to find Carter; the Russian’s wife, also in the KGB, will be at Charmont’s to broker the deal. The final quarter sees a lot of training in Carter’s camp, with the only problem being the young Spaniard who constantly bucks Carter’s authority. Finally, at long last, the heist goes down. Carter and team suit up in black with facepaint, berets, and masks, and infiltrate the villa at night, while the rich are partying within. Carter’s accomplices think this is merely a regular heist, and know nothing of the documents, so to ensure the cover story Carter takes part in robbing the various elite, taking their cash and diamonds.

The entire novel is pretty bloodless, with Carter insisting that no one be killed in the heist. He and his team use stun guns, and Carter only shows his customary “Killmaster” techniques when one of his team goes rogue and when Charmont refuses to reveal where he’s stashed the copies of the documents. The finale is particularly bizarre, with Carter taking captive that Russian commander’s wife and using her as blackmail to ensure their freedom. This all gets real weird when Carter ties the woman onto the grill of his car and drives up through snowswept mountains, confident that the lurking Russians won’t shoot when they recognize the woman he has strapped to the grille(!?).

And that’s that, Carter destroys the space weaponry documents and tells Lola so long; she says she might change her name to “Tereza” and Carter intimates they might see each other again someday. Her character by the way turned out to be more enjoyable than Carter himself, always thinking of money and bantering with Carter.

All told Invitation To Death was marginally entertaining, but it’s seeming more apparent to me that the best volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster were those published in the ‘60s, when Lyle Kenyon Engel was in charge of the series.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Trigger Man

The Trigger Man, by Richard Posner
May, 1974  Fawcett Gold Medal

Richard Posner wrote a trio of novels for Gold Medal in the early ‘70s, and this was the last of them. I found it so enjoyable that one of these days I intend to seek out more of Posner’s work. This is a big, meaty novel, filled to the brim with underworld characters and their Machiavellan scheming against one another. It’s also everything The Godfather Part III should have been.

The titular triggerman is Marugo, a middle-aged Mafia hitman known for his professional thoroughness. Stocky and bald, always wearing sunglasses, Marugo sets off the events of the novel by deciding to go to New York and take over one of the five families. He’s sick of always being the underling, and with his seniority in the Mafia and the savagery of his cunning he wants to take what he feels is his due. He pounces on Don Sgambati, now pudgy and soft from his years of easy living as the don of Manhattan. The two were childhood friends in Sicily and fought in the war together. Now Marugo asserts himself within Sgambati’s rubric, whether the sleazy slimeball likes it or not.

Sgambati is in the middle of a cold war with the other four families of New York. They’re all sort of held together by Don Pietro of Long Island, an elderly type who unites the familes as godfather. But the man is old and has handed over most of his decisions to Sabatino, his equally-elderly consiglieri, and Johnny Russo, a young hothead recently appointed to a sort of junior don status for having saved Don Pietro’s life. Yes friends, all of it almost exactly like Michael and Vincent in The Godfather Part III, only better.

Because importantly, Posner understands the turmoil the Mafia was going through in the ‘70s, and this is central to The Trigger Man. Whereas the third Godfather movie digressed into Vatican corruption, this novel explores how the Mafia was losing its hold on crime in the turbulence of the 1970s. Whereas the old Sicilians had previously run the rackets and the drugs and the extortion schemes, now it was going over to the blacks and the Hispanics, who were finally uniting together into their own little Mafias. The dons of the five families are now scrambling to retain their hold on crime, branching out into pornography and other avenues; the last thing they need is a war among themselves.

But a war is exactly what Marugo intends to start. Within a day of his arrival he’s blown off the head of old Don Pietro, shotgunning the dude as he sits in the back seat of his Lincoln. Johnny Russo assumes control of the family and vows bloody vengeance. This all serves to get his girlfriend, Don Pietro’s young niece Mary Adorante, all hot and bothered. Posner delivers a few fairly explicit sex scenes here and there, and Mary, who grew up cloistered in the world of the Mafia, wants to hitch herself to a rising star like Johnny and rule through him. She’s now in college and she’s both smart and sexy, and most every male character is enamored with her. She also enjoys slapping Johnny and getting slapped by him before they have sex.

Meanwhile a cop named Elliot Cohn is working deep undercover, posing as a dirty cop and offering his services to one of the smaller dons of New York. Elliot offers secret intel in exchange for cash, and while he’s already gotten enough to imprison his current target he’s certain that this could provide the lead to a bigger score. In particular he could get an in with Don Pietro through this current target, and from there, posing as a dirty cop, he’d be able to gather enough evidence to bring down all five families. But Don Pietro’s murder throws this out of whack, and besides, Elliot has gone so far undercover that he’s getting the feeling that maybe he wants to join the Mafia for real. 

Sadly our protagonist, as Elliot turns out to be, is a complete dick. We’re informed that he was a juvenile delinquent as a kid in the ‘50s but got turned around by a stern but good-meaning uncle. Elliot became a cop, got married, has two young kids, lives in a nice house out in Long Island. But now he lusts for more – in particular he lusts for Mary Adorante, having gotten a glimpse of her in her bathing suit the day he went to Don Pietro’s estate to meet with the man, not knowing that he’d been assassinated that same day.

Elliot’s potential swaying over to the dark side proves to be a central theme of The Trigger Man, but it’s not a compelling one, as Elliot is not a likable character. In fact you grow to hate him, as the dude has a perfect life, with an understanding and attractive wife, two kids who are capable of doing their own thing and don’t need constant parental guidance, and a nice home. But he starts to get resentful that a life of crime was stolen from him, that he could’ve become a don himself, that a girl like Mary should be his girl, and he becomes more and more obsessed with the lady, who throws him a few interested looks.

Meanwhile Marugo in his relentlessness pushes Sgambati to greater acts of sabotage and murder, wiping out the other dons and their underlings. While it never escalates into a full-scale war, there are a handful of shootouts, from both sides of the conflict. It gradually develops into Johnny Russo and the remnants of Don Pietro’s clan up against Sgambati’s soldiers. Johnny gets the upper hand first, killing off one of Sgambati’s top heroin manufacturers. But Johnny is not only a hothead but also a sadist, and wastes a few precious moments of the ambush to savor his kill. This ends up getting one of his top boys killed and Johnny in further shit with Sabatino the consiglieri, who doubts Johnny’s leadership abilities and wants to follow the dead don’s plans for peace.

Mary, a regular Lady MacBeth, continues to push Johnny, and Posner with his writing skills makes the girl not seem like a manipulative shrew but more as a capable woman trying to make her way in a man’s world. However she’s just as heartless as Johnny. Elliot sees through what he thinks is her false “tough girl” veneer and manages to successfully court her, taking her out to Montauk one day and engaging in another explicit sequence with her in a hotel room. Meanwhile Elliot’s been suspended, the commissioner suspecting – rightly – that he’s become too involved with the Mafia and is goofing off instead of truly working. Elliot could care less and is convinced he’s going to become Mary’s man and take over one of the families.

Posner is a good writer and his characters are three-dimensional. Just when you think Mary might be a nice girl after all, she brags late in the novel about one of Johnny’s hits, which took place at a wedding, several innocent people (including the bride) getting killed. This wedding by the way provides the source for the cover illustration, however it doesn’t play out as the way depicted. I assume the older, heavyset guy in the tux with the gun is supposed to be Sgambati, but it’s his neice who’s getting married; it’s young Johnny and his thugs who pull the gun on her in the firefight. As for Sgambati he also gets his kicks in, like a hit in an Italian restaurant in which all of Johnny’s pals are gunned down as they sit beside him, Sgambati leaving Johnny alive as an insult.

Another thing Posner is good at is taking the narrative in unexpected places. The characters meet fates much different than expected, sometimes not in the most dramatically fulfilling ways. Sgambati for example suffers an 11th hour heart attack that takes him out of commission, and Johnny Russo suffers payback from Sabatino himself, who is sickened by the wedding hit. (This is another memorably sleazy scene, with the consiglieri gunning Johnny down while he’s getting a blowjob from Mary!) Speaking of Mary this also serves to cow her, effectively destroying her plans of becoming a Godmother. And meanwhile she’s spurned Elliot’s advances, telling him their afternoon sex was just a moment’s fancy. Elliot really gets the message when Johnny Russo, shortly before his death, beats the shit out of him.

The problem with The Trigger Man is that it’s too long, too wordy. It’s very much in the Burt Hirschfeld mode, with almost the same effected sort of narrative style and over-description. Practically every scene begins with elaborate scene-setting, which while bringing the locale to life (this is sleazy ‘70s New York in all its glory, fully captured) also serves to slow down the pace and make the novel seem a lot longer than it really is. But what makes it even worse is the quick denoument, as if Posner realized he was hitting his word count and decided to barrel through a finale, pulling some tension out of nowhere to make it all more dramatic.

In a prefigure of the cheesy, copout finale of the later novel Hellfire, we get this lame sort of climax in which Elliot, suddenly stupid, figures Marugo is going to make a hit on a massage parlor. In one of the novel’s many subplots we’ve seen the assassin dealing with one of Sgambati’s many ventures, a Times Square massage parlor with a gorgeous masseuse being groomed for porno stardom. In another sleazy action scene midway through Marugo blew away a Sgambati flunkie who had just raped the girl and was in the process of beating her. Now Marugo will likely kill the girl, as she has seen his face – a central mystery faced by all the characters in the novel is who exactly is planning all these attacks for the otherwise-ineffective Don Sgambati.

But instead of going to the massage parlor, Marugo heads to Elliot’s house and kidnaps his wife and kids. The same wife and kids Elliot has turned his back on, by the way, having told his wife he wants a separation and moving out. Now we’re to believe it that Elliot is burning and yearning to go save them. (To his credit, Posner has Elliot’s boss snidely make fun at him for the very same thing!) But it all culminates with a lame action scene as Elliot rushes back to his home to talk Marugo out of killing his family, and the treacle gets even thicker when the last page has Elliot reunited with his wife and kids and telling his wife he was stupid to leave her and he wants to come back, and oh by the way I screwed a hot Mafia princess but all that’s in the past, honey.

And that’s that. The majority of The Trigger Man is great, with real novel stuff, deep characters and their intricate thoughts and schemes and awesome topical details of gritty ‘70s New York. Posner also has a gift for memorable scenes, like a hit that goes down in a zoo. And as mentioned he’s not afraid to sleaze it up once in a while, with lots of sleazy massage parlor and porno movie material. He also doles out plentiful gore in the action scenes, with copious descriptions of exploding faces and brains and even in one memorable part a pumping heart visible through a just-blasted-open chest cavity.

The problem is, this stuff is so good that eventually it overwhelms the novel, with too many characters and too many subplots, so that the various threads are almost perfunctorily wrapped up in an unsatisfying finale. But don’t get me wrong, because The Triggerman is still a recommended read, and definitely has me wanting to read more of Posner’s work…and you wish Puzo and Coppola had maybe read it before they began work on the last Godfather movie.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blood #3: The Cat Cay Warrant

Blood #3: The Cat Cay Warrant, by Allan Morgan
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

Billed on the back cover as “a new kind of action series,” Blood only ran for three volumes and, judging from this final volume, was like a combo of Award’s Killmaster series and a sort of Travis McGee-esque mystery thing. And it’s also very clear why the series only ran for three volumes; The Cat Cay Warrant is a dud of the first order. 

The series was credited to Allan Morgan, which according to Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms was a house name used by an author named Marilyn Granbeck. One of the very few female writers to work in the men’s adventure field, Granbeck also co-wrote with Arthur Moore the Peacemaker series (as “Adam Hamilton”) and also delivered a volume of the Killmaster series, 1976’s Assignment: Intercept.

Judging from her entry in Hawk’s, Granbeck had a preference for mysteries, and that’s exactly what she writes with Blood. The series is written in first-person, which in my opinion is not a style that meshes well with the genre. No matter who or what your narrator is, the tale will come off like a hardboiled private eye yarn, as is the case here. Our narrator Mark Blood is a ‘Nam vet turned professional assassin, but in reality he’s a complete and utter idiot. Seriously, this book reads like an entry of the Killmaster series, only with Nick Carter replaced by Jason Striker.

Not that Blood’s a judo or martial arts master – no, he’s just Striker’s equal in the moron department! And that isn’t just me criticizing him. At least two characters in two separate situations tell Blood “you’re a lousy agent,” and boy they aren’t kidding. In the course of 203 pages Blood is caught unawares, knocked out, gotten the drop on, fooled, poisoned, abducted, stranded, kicked in the balls, sabotaged, ridiculed, betrayed, and even fired from his assignment. He blindly overlooks clues, eagerly trusts people who are clearly hiding ulterior motives, and proves himself the most ineffectual men’s adventure protagonist you could imagine. Hell, it takes the “professional assassin” 160 pages to even kill anyone.

But so far as Mark Blood is concerned, he’s a primo shit-kicker, the best professional assassin money can buy. Like a regular Jason Striker he pompously narrates his middling story, apparently not realizing how moronic he comes off. About the most he does is smoke cigarettes; this dude smokes more than even Alexander Jason, which is saying something. The novel is almost a paean to smoking, how relaxing cigarettes are, how they help take the edge off even in crisis situations. Anyway, usually in cases like this I’d figure the author was having fun and it was all intended as a spoof, but I don’t get that vibe here. It seems to me that Granbeck really was trying to deliver a quality men’s adventure novel, she just didn’t understand the genre very well. 

The book opens with a chapter written in third-person, which details the grisly hijacking of a train in London that’s transporting half a million pounds in gold. While it opens slowly, what with the old conductor and his thoughts on life, it becomes very violent once the hijacking occurs. Overseen by an older man with Italian features but a (fake) American name, the heist goes off flawlessly, with everyone dead but the Italian criminal. Granbeck disproves the notion that a female action author might refrain from too much gore with lots of descriptions of heads blowing up when shot and etc. Also the old man behind the heist, gradually revealed to be a former Mafia hitman named Edward Sorrento (not “Nick,” as claimed on the back cover), is merciless, killing off his underlings with casual savagery.

Then Chapter One rolls along and it all goes downhill. Mark Blood becomes the narrator of the novel, having been flown over to London. He’s offered the “warrant” from Scotland Yard, who tell him Sorrento’s background. A sadist of the first order, the old bastard’s so cruel that even the Mafia was sickened by the way he’d take out innocents in his hits. In particular Sorrento was ousted for killing some kids during a hit at an amusement park. All of this background detail really makes the reader hate Sorrento and want to see him get his comeuppance. Unfortunately our author forgets all about Sorrento and indeed he basically disappears from the text.

Instead, the book is more about the foolish exploits of Mark Blood. Within moments of arriving in London he’s already almost dead. Buddying up with an airline pilot named Charlie, Blood heads back to the guy’s hotel and hammers a few beers with him. Blood you see is a beer man, which should already tell you something of his quality as a men’s adventure protagonist. I mean, I love beer myself, but seriously, if you’re a professional assassin you might want to consider upping your alcohol game. But after a few bottles Blood’s woozy and next thing he knows he’s on the ground. 

Here the novel would end, as Blood’s been fatally poisoned, but some Yard investigators just happen to show up and pump his stomach. Throughout the novel Blood is being saved by people who just happen to show up; this is only the first such instance. The Yard officials explain that Sorrento has absconded with the half-million pounds to Cat Cay, a British-owned island in the Caribbean. Blood’s mission is to kill the man and return the gold, of which he’ll be entitled to a five percent commission. Immediately after this Blood’s almost killed again, this time by a raising bridge in London; immediately after that he’s briefly taken captive by a Mafia boss, who tells Blood how he too wants Sorrento dead.

Blood’s next easily-avoidable death sees him on a cargo plane bound for Miami; he’s hitched a ride with hotstuff stew Helen, Charlie’s former casual bedmate. (Charlie by the way is dead from that poisoned beer.) The cargo plane’s main passengers are a bunch of dopesmoking rockers, and this entire section reminded me for all the world of something you’d read in a Thomas Pynchon novel, in particular Vineland and it’s subplot about the groovy airline the main character once worked for. But anyway Blood soon learns that both pilots are dead (later we learn they too drank some of that damned poisoned beer).

Now Blood has to land the plane in the water, talked through it by air control. Here’s where we learn that cigarettes can help soothe the nerves, even when you’re piloting an airliner that’s about to crash into the ocean. Oh, and everyone does die in the crash, save for Blood, who emerges unscathed, and Helen, who loses one of her eyes and gets her face smashed up. Blood later almost pukes when he sees her in the hospital (he’s constantly almost blowing chunks when he sees something gory, yet another knock on the guy’s men’s adventure worthiness). He bullies the doctor into performing plastic surgery, no matter the cost, and says he’ll foot the bill.

And he still hasn’t even gotten to Cat Cay! Coincidence continues to abound, as the world in which this novel occurs seems to only have a few people in it. One of them is Carl Malden, a friend of Blood’s from ‘Nam that Blood just happens to run into here in Miami. Malden is a longtime conman and seems to have something going on. Meanwhile Blood hooks up with Merinda, wife of the man who was supposed to be his contact, but who turns out to be dead. Merinda informs Blood that her husband was hacked up by someone and tossed in the ocean; as proof she takes her husband’s left arm out of the tacklebox on her boat! She knows it’s her husband’s arm because, “I bought him the watch last Christmas!” The watch she ends up giving to Blood.

Oh, and speaking of exclamation points, our author is very fond of them. They pepper Blood’s narration throughout the novel, usually for no reason at all. Like this! Or this! It all just further serves to make Mark Blood seem like a ninny. He’s also constantly spurning the advances of women, though he eventually gives in to Merinda, after conceding to her demands that she be allowed to take him to the remote isle of Cat Cay. It’s a sort of swinger’s paradise and only couples can go. Merinda by the way is a stacked Cuban beauty who used to make her living walking the streets, something that’s constantly mentioned by everyone.

Well, the two are making it on a deserted little island in the middle of the ocean when Merinda’s boat explodes. At a recent port Blood had been informed that some mystery man had briefly gotten on the boat while he and Merinda were out and about; of course, our dumbass protagonist never thought to check the boat out. But now it explodes, and Blood and Merinda are not only stranded on a remote island but naked to boot. But don’t worry, the next day a Coast Guard plane just happens to fly over and Blood’s able to get the attention of the pilot. But wait – it’s carrying a Yard official, one who is here looking for Blood!

Yes, this guy just happens to be flying around this remote section of the Caribbean, looking for Blood. Further, he informs Blood that he’s fired from the assigment, due to how poorly he’s doing. No shit! Blood beats the guy up and demands that the pilot leave him on the island!! Now he and Merinda get to Cat Cay…where Blood only now realizes that he’s basically walked into the lion den. You see, the few people on this tropical isle are either swinger tourists here to get high and orgy or mobbed-up Sorrento employees who have been expecting Blood’s arrival. I mean hell, someone calls him “Mr. Blood” moments after he signs the register under a false name, and it takes like several moments for Blood to even realize it!

Well anyway, it all just keeps stumbling along. Blood’s been informed his Scotland Yard contact here is named Margo, and after sending off Merinda (Blood by the way having gotten sick of her, given that she peddled her ass to that Coast Guard plane crew mere moments after they arrived on the island she and Blood were briefly stranded on), he gets busy with her. Margo has been hiding for the past week, Sorrento’s people having uncovered her as an agent and tortured her. But she escaped and has managed to survive, but more importantly she’s gotten real horny living alone there in the jungle. 

I should mention here that Branbeck usually fades to black in the sex scenes, though sometimes she gives a bit of the juicy details. It’s not full-on explicit but it’s more than nothing, and she has no qualms with describing the female anatomy. She even goes the extra mile by occasionally referring to “breasts” as “tits.” So clearly she was making the attempt to cater to the demands of the genre. And yet for all of that you can still detect something afoot, as Blood appears to develop feelings for most every girl here, and indeed tells us he can’t have sex if there are no feelings involved – what more proof do you need that the writer was a woman??

Blood only kills a handful of people in the novel, the first a pair of would-be hitmen who attack Margo the morning after she sleeps with Blood. But then Blood’s caught when he tries to sneak to Sorrento’s mansion, deep in the jungle – only for his captor to turn out to be Carl, who beats Blood up and then throws him in a locked room on his huge boat with the mutilated and beaten Merinda. Carl’s certain Merinda knows where that lost gold is…her husband apparently stole the gold from Sorrento. I mean, what?? It’s like this entire goddamn novel started out being about one thing but changed its mind and became something else.

Merinda dies right after Blood sees her, and after choking on his gorge a bit at her ghastly sight, Blood finds himself stranded in the locked room with her. Oh but wait – there’s a bunch of dynamite in here!!! Seriously! Yep, Blood makes use of the dynamite that just happens to be in the locked room and blows his way out. When later he sneaks again to Sorrento’s mansion, he finds the old Mafia sadist bedridden and comatose. Blood perfunctorily shoots him in the face. My friends, I cannot tell you how unsatisfying all of this is. We started off the novel seeing how cruel Sorrento is, then waited and waited and waited to see him get his just desserts, only for the author to change her mind halfway through and basically forget about him.

Sorrento dead, Blood now goes after Carl. But the dolt still hasn’t figured out who has been duping him all along, even though an idiot would’ve long ago realized it was Margo. But it all plays out more on suspense and scene-building, with Granbeck in no hurry to get to the climax, such as it is. The final moment of the book is at least memorable, with Margo hugging Blood and Blood literally stabbing her in the back. Why? Because Margo is revealed as the true villain, the person who had Merinda and Merinda’s husband killed, who was behind Carl; she also has the gold, now, the location for which was scrawled in the watch of Merinda’s dead husband.

Blood ends the tale telling us he’s gonna go see if stewardess Helen is better yet, ‘cause he’s hoping to get a little lovin’ from her. Oh, and if another Sorrento-type comes along, Blood will kill him, ‘cause that’s his job. I guess no further “warrants” (as Blood refers to his contracts) were ever issued him, as this was it for Mark Blood. This is the only volume of the series I have, but I don’t see myself seeking out the other two.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Two-Fisted Detective Stories, October 1960 (Volume 2, Number 3)

I’ve been on a hardboiled pulp kick recently and discovered that a lot of good material was published in the ubiquitous digest-size crime magazines of the time (roughly 1953 to 1965 or thereabouts). Then I discovered that some of the more lurid crime digests were published by the same twisted folks who also turned out the various sweat mags of the time, ie the stuff that was anthologized in Soft Brides For The Beast Of Blood. In particular Two-Fisted Detective, Web Detective, and Off Beat Detective, and I got a few volumes of each, luckily for acceptable prices.

This October 1960 issue of Two-Fisted Detective is the first of them I read. At 113 pages of double-columned stories, it basically amounts to a paperback-sized anthology. Some stories were okay, others just middling. While entertaining it was nothing mindblowing, with each of the stories short, snappy, and heavy on the torture/lurid vibe. I’m betting the more famous (and respectable) Manhunt magazine didn’t feature so much torture and bondage! Practically every story in here features a woman being tied up and slapped around by a thug.

“Kill Me With Kisses” by Art Crockett, the lead story, is a case in point. Narrated by recurring protagonist Juan Kelly, a private eye with a talking parrot in his office, the story sees Kelly hired by wealthy Mrs. Southwell to find her daughter Barbara, who has run off with some damn beatniks. In reality “Babs” has been abducted by Charlie Sleeper, a rough pimp who keeps the young girl tied up in a room for his clients who are into rape scenes. Our hero Kelly when we meet him is surrounded by several of Sleeper’s gorgeous hookers, each armed with a dagger. He is very much in the Mike Hammer mold, dishing out punishment with his fists.

When Kelly finds Babs he takes her back to his place, only for Sleeper to call and say he’s sent in all of his clientele – all of whom would want Babs permanently silenced. The finale is pretty good, with Kelly and Babs running across rooftops, being chased by the bloodthirsty creeps, though the finale is perfunctory with Kelly merely blowing Sleeper away and the others running for it. Of course Kelly must inform us that Babs, who has been bound and raped for the past week or so, demands they go back to his apartment so they can have sex.

“No Escape” is by Don Unatin, which according to was a pseudonym of Reese editor (and owner?) Bud Ampolsk, who also wrote as “Bill Ryder.” Ampolsk I’m betting wrote many of the stories that appeared in the sweat mags he edited, and according to Bob Deis at Mens Pulp Mags, Ampolsk was also the guy who devised the crazy, torture-focused covers Norm Eastman would paint for the Reese mags. So then it’s safe to say Ampolsk had a quite fevered imagination. It’s at work here in this short, breezy tale written in third-person about a girl named Ronnie who keeps getting calls from a horny sadist named Duke who claims he got her number off a payphone, where someone had written that she offered a great time.

The calls have become more and more aggressive, with Duke even figuring out her address. He says he’s coming over for a little loving, and might even rough her up a little because he likes that, too. And don’t bother calling the cops ‘cause they’d never believe you, or something like that. Finally Ronnie talks him into meeting her somewhere. They meet at a hotel where, surprisingly, Duke actually does have sex with her, though obviously it’s an off-page event. But as he’s lying there afterward Ronnie takes an icepick from her purse and jams it into his brain. Turns out Ronnie is a killer, putting up her own number on payphones so as to root out and kill off “lust crazed animals.” 

“Hell School” by Pete McCann returns to the first-person narration and concerns Craig Bradman, a gym teacher at deadbeat Southside High, which is populated by “duck-tailed punks” and promiscuous young women who are hookers in all but name. The narrator’s wife wants him to move on to a better job in a better school, but Bradman wants to stick around. On his way into the school one day he comes across one of the punks having sex out in the open with one of the gals. Bradman isn’t surprised when later he’s called into the principal’s office and there’s a cop there, having busted them. Also the cop found dope in the backseat. The principal convinces the cop that they can handle it – turns out Bradman earns his living by beating the shit out of the punks who break the rules! As a double ironic twist we also learn Bradman is the supplier for the punks, hooking them up with drugs and using them as salesmen so he can eventually get his wife out of the hovel in which they live. 

“Save Her For A Passion” by Grover Brinkman is narrated by Joel Vance, an enforcer hired to pull a hit on Diane – who turns out to be the wife of Joel’s boss, Jud. He’s about to assassinate her along a beach but the lady gets the drop on him, coming armed with her own gun. She talks Joel into teaming up with her against Jud, who doubtless will send Joel up the river for doing this job, anyway. She reminds him what a bastard Jud is, like that innocent girl Jud raped and got hooked on drugs in New Orleans. The narrator goes along with it, absorbed with Diane’s great breasts, and the finale sees a quick fight on Jud’s drug-transporting ship. But then Diane shoots Joel in the gut and leaves him: that innocent kid in New Orleans was her sister, and Joel’s the one who snatched her off the streets for Jud.

“Mistress of Mayhem” by Al James is another third-person tale with an ironic twist ending you can see coming even with blinders on. Mira is a hotstuff 19 year-old married to deadbeat Phil, 23 and unemployed, a former car mechanic. Mira is having an affair with Jim, 40, and hopes to marry him, but Phil won’t give her a divorce. Al James appears to have written sleaze paperbacks in the ‘60s and that’s quite apparent here, as the word “breasts” is used more than all the other stories in the issue combined; Mira must be quite stacked.

Mira demands Phil leave to look for a job and then when Jim comes over for their daily rendevous (cue a sex scene that isn’t as vague as the others), she tells him she wants him to kill Phil. There’s a red-gloved bandit going around the neighborhood, attacking people in their homes, and they can set Phil up so Jim shoots him, mistaking him for the bandit. Can you see the ironic twist? Yes, Phil turns out to be the red-gloved bandit, and the tale ends with Jim dead and Phil revealing his true identity to Mira, as well as his knowledge of her affair with Jim; it’s intimated he’s about to strangle her. 

“Come-On Cutie!” by Flip Lyons has a hell of an opening: a con man named Bennie beating the shit out of his female accomplice, Jodi. He bashes her in the stomach, the face, beating her to the floor. Why? Because he came into a hotel room and caught her packing her luggage with ten thousand bucks she just conned from an old millionaire named Hollingsworth. Battered and bloody, Jodi tells Bennie he’s an idiot; she packed his bag, too. Hollingsworth, whom she knocked out with a sleeping pill, is on his way with the cops and they need to leave town. Further, she and Bennie are now through; she refuses to stay with a guy who beats her. After cleaning up – during which she shows Bennie her breasts and tells him he’ll never see them again! – Jodi takes off…only to immediately be snatched by Hollingsworth and the cops.

Feeling bad about it, Bennie tries to con Hollingsworth so Jodi can be freed. But then he finds out that Jodi really stole 90 thousand from the guy. He springs Jodi from prison and tells her he’s going to beat her to a pulp this time – that is, right after she tells him where she hid that ninety thousand. Jodi talks him into a last meal at the local diner, where she of course slips a mickey in his drink. A bizarrely light-hearted finale sees Bennie, that woman-beating maniac, merely falling asleep at his table as Jodi announes her plans to go live like royalty in Europe with the 90 thousand!

“Lust Holds The Gun!” by Gil Grayson concerns Spandau, a con who came up with his latest idea in prison; he’s going to rob Marie Rodgers, a high-class madame who makes monthly payoffs to a mob boss named Rodman. Spandau became pals with one of Rodman’s men in the slammer and learned how Rodman’s men collect from the various madames. This tale definitely has the feel of a vintage men’s mag story as it’s all about the bondage and the breasts. Spandau, wielding a .38, sneaks into Marie’s office building at night, an hour before the scheduled money pick-up, and barges in. He roughs her up, which she seems to enjoy. Also she’s certain Rodman won’t believe that she’s been robbed, so she wants him to hurt her.

So Spandau ties Marie up and then, because she seems eager for it, rapes her. (She apparently enjoys that, too…) Afterwards he burns her with cigarettes, all so as to get the safe combination. Finally Marie gives it, and Spandau absconds with twenty-five thousand bucks. The story features a typical EC comics-style twist with the greasy, obese elevator operator being a pickpocket who ends up lifting Spandau’s wallet. This third-person story is written in a goofy hardboiled style, with such enjoyable lines as, “The elevator door finally opened, revealing a sallow faced man whose bald head looked like something you might step on in a graveyard at midnight.”

“Dark Hunger” by Jay Richards is the shortest story in the book and the goofiest. It’s also very much in the EC Comics vein. Marty is a serial killer who strangles women, and he’s set his sights on a lovely young lady named Erica as his latest kill. With the opening lines of “She was young… Lovely… Stacked…”, you know this one also upholds the Reese Publications standard, and thus there’s a definite lurid vibe throughout. Mostly the dark comedy comes through Marty chastisizing himself that his last kill was named Loreta, which blew the A-B-C nature of his previous kills; if only Loretta had been named “Doris!” He takes Erica home, ready to strangle her – and who will be surprised when Erica herself turns out to be a serial killer, pulling a knife from her purse and killing Marty? The lurid vibe continues with the vague detail that Erica orgasms when she kills. And now she’s on the hunt for a new man…

“Don’t Tempt Murder” by Jim Arthur is another dark comedy piece; this one’s about Alfie, a would-be “professional bleeder” who has just gotten his first job from mob boss Turk. Alfie’s been ordered to kill Turk’s old flame Sue Martin, who is about to turn state’s evidence. Alfie goes to Sue’s apartment with a .38 Special that only has one bullet in it, so as to fool the cops into thinking an amateur was behind the kill (professional bleeders we’re informed use six slugs on their hits to ensure death, an industry standard).  But Sue turns the tables on him, opening her door fully nude. The dark comedy ensues as Alfie gawks at her awesome bod and keeps telling her he has to kill her. She offers herself, he reluctantly refuses; somehow he shows her he only has one bullet, and then he spins the chamber and it’s like Russian roullette, with the girl passing out with each blank shot. Finally the cops show up and it turns out Sue is under police protection and she also took the bullet out of Alfie’s gun, so it was empty the whole time!

“A Darling For The Devil” is by Lawrence Stone and rounds out the magazine. This “novel”-length tale is narrated by Charlie, a chaffeur for a sadistic kingpin named Bugs Martin. We watch as Bugs beats some hapless diner owner nearly to death, then moves on to a local nightclub. Along the way our narrator informs us how Bugs gets his rocks off whipping women with a studded belt. This story is very heavy with the sweat mag vibe. The nightclub has a new act – a hotstuff lady named Francie who turns out to be the childhood sweetheart of our narrator. Bugs gets the immediate hots for her, and due to his span of influence the club owners turn away as he basically abducts Francie. She fights back and now he’s all hot and bothered, just ready to whip the shit out of her.

They go to a cottage outside of the city, where Bugs has his fun, and when the narrator can take no more he ends up getting bashed in the face by Bugs. It culminates in a bizarre ending where the narrator finds some spiders on a milkjug and throws it at Bug’s feet, after he’s been whipping Francie for a good long while – Bugs freaks out (turns out he’s afraid of bugs, hence his nickname!), and in the chaos Charlie picks up his .38 and blasts him. The story does not feature the expected denoument in which Charlie gets lucky with the gal; instead, he carries her home and he tells us he never heard from her again. Jeez, wonder why?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Another Time, Another Woman

Another Time, Another Woman, by Walter Kaylin
March, 1963  Fawcett Gold Medal

It’s hard to believe that for a guy who cranked out so many men’s adventure magazine stories from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, Walter Kaylin only published two novels: this one, a Gold Medal paperback original from 1963, and The Power Forward, which came out in 1979 and never received a paperback edition. But this was Kaylin’s only crime novel, which is very puzzling, given that he even published a few stories in the legendary Manhunt magazine; you’d figure he would’ve been a Gold Medal regular. 

In the Kaylin anthology He-Men, Bag Men & Nymphos, editor Bob Deis features an interview he recently conducted with Kaylin, who is now in his 90s. This is all Kaylin had to say about Another Time, Another Woman: “It was pretty cheesy, but I got $2,500 for it. And $2,500 was a lot of money when you were getting $300 for writing a story, so I was very pleased with that.” Given that Kaylin wrote the book 52 years ago, you can forgive him for not having much more to say about it – and sad to say, but Another Time, Another Woman really is mostly forgettable. It only runs to 128 pages, and you keep waiting for something to happen, but unfortunately nothing much ever does.

I don’t mean to imply that Kaylin’s not a good writer; in fact it’s because he was so prolific in the pulp realm that you expect more of him. The aforementioned He-Men anthology opens with a short story titled “Snow-Job From A Redhead,” which appeared in the June 1956 issue of Male but is more the sort of thing you’d expect to read in Manhunt, just a very hardboiled crime story with plenty of action and thrills. Given this I expected Another Time, Another Woman to be along the same lines, but instead it’s more of a slow-boil thing that, well, never gets to the boiling point.

The first issue comes with our narrator, a 32-year-old jazz pianist named Harry Quist, who turns out to be a heel of the first order. Harry, we gradually learn, got in a head-on collision with another car three years ago, killing the entire family in it and also injuring his wife, Mildred, who was eight months pregnant at the time. The baby died shortly after. Harry wasn’t drunk or running from the mafia or anything; he was just being negligent, speeding through the Pasedena hills in the middle of the night. And rather than taking responsibility for his actions he covered up the accident and took Mildred to his old pal Dr. Emmett Gregg, knowing the guy would fix her up and keep it all hush-hush.

So yeah, our narrator is an asshole. But even worse is the way he tells us his tale. Somehow Kaylin must’ve decided he’d try his hand at like “beatnik hardboiled” or something. Being a jazz pianist, Harry is already “cool,” or at least thinks of himself so, and blabs his story to us in a breathless rush of pseudo jive talk that really comes off as pretentious more than anything else. For example:

Now you take fear. Fear hangs inside you like a deflated basketball bladder brushing so easily against heart, lungs, kidneys and intestines there are times you don’t even know it’s there. Not until it begins to inflate. Begins to press. Begins to crowd. Now try breathing. Try moving your bowels. Hard, ain’t it? Hurts, right? That’s because you’ve got something solid as a bowling ball in there and it’s squeezing the pee/paste/puss (five points f’r each k’reck answer) out of everything you own.

I just chose that example at random out of the book, but it’s like that throughout; what starts as an interesting paragraph or thought soon spirals into contrived nonsense. Actually, the biggest impression I get is that Kaylin was just trying too hard. And who knows, maybe after writing so much pulp for the men’s mags he was having fun letting his hair down and turning out a story that, for once, wasn’t about some square-jawed American soldier in WWII. But the cumulative effect of Another Time, Another Woman is weariness; at least it was for me. Harry’s way of telling his story got on my nerves quick. But then, he is an asshole, so maybe that was Kaylin’s point.

Harry’s wife Mildred, now ex-wife, is the titular woman of the novel (though the title could in fact refer to two other women, as mentioned below). A shell of her former self, she’s now married to Dr. Gregg, ie Harry’s old pal who saved her. She whores herself out to man after man in the hopes that someone can get her pregnant again, despite the fact that the crash Harry got her in has rendered her infertile. This is dark stuff, obviously, and it’s typical of Gold Medal that this aspect was hyped on the front and back cover (which refers to Mildred as a “slut”), making it sound a lot more salacious than what it really is – downright depressing.  Mildred also turns out to be the character on the cover; we are informed that Emmett has a painting of a fully-nude Mildred which hangs in their home.

Harry informs us that after the crash that night he left town, Mildred obviously wanting nothing to do with him due to the loss of her baby, but eventually he came back because he loves Hollywood. Now he plays in a nightclub, torch singer type stuff, with a new girl named Jessie doing the vocals. That Jessie doesn’t work the audience and play up on her natural sex appeal is something the owner of the club is constantly bitching about, and Harry’s always being nagged at to tell her to sex it up. But Jessie’s sort of a prude due to the fact that she’s already a widow in her early 20s, her husband, a writer, having contracted a rare disease and dying a year before. Now she cuts off her emotions and is constantly shutting down Harry’s advances. Hence Jessie was also “another woman” in “another time.” 

The novel occurs over a few days and starts off with Harry being called away from the club in the middle of the set by Mildred, whom he hasn’t seen in years. He’s aware of her infedility, though, having kept in touch with Emmett, who himself is a bit of a lothario at the local hospital. Mildred was in the act of entertaining Sidney Flake, husband of the wealthiest woman in town, Vivian, but now Sidney is dead in the guest house, an icepick in his head. Mildred tells Harry that Emmett came home earlier than expected, caught her with Sidney, and the two men enganged in a brawl, this being the outcome. 

Now Mildred demands that Harry hide the body and ensure Emmett doesn’t get in trouble. If he does get in trouble, Mildred will go straight to the police and tell them about that fatal car accident Harry caused three years ago and then covered up. So Harry is blackmailed into it, though he soon finds out there’s more going on than this simple story. Harry goes back and forth, meeting with Emmett (who’s hiding in his hunting lodge and then in the woods), being pressured by Mildred, and being interrogated by the Gary Cooper-esque Sgt. Combs, a cop who goes around with a little pet monkey named Baked Beans that he keeps in his pocket.

This is not an action-packed tale by any means. In fact there isn’t a single shootout, fistfight, chase, or even sex scene in the entire novel. It’s all about style and mood, and as stated your mileage will vary. Kaylin does come up with some goofy characters, like Sgt. Combs, as well as the so-called Father Zosimus, a lunatic who preaches a bizarre off-shoot of Christianity which demands that you “wound God” by harming likenesses or representatives of Jesus, the idea being that to truly suffer you must hurt that which you love most. Zosimus has gotten his hooks in rich Vivian Flake, whom we’re told lives in a cave on her own expansive property and has for the most part gone insane. She then is yet “another woman” in “another time,” like Mildred and Jessie a shell of her former self. 

Gradually Harry learns that there is more to the story than a simple act of a husband’s rage; Combs employs an old drunk, the man who discovered Flake’s body in Emmett’s guesthouse, and the old man reveals that Flake wasn’t dead when Emmett staggered away after the fight. As for Emmett, he’s certain Mildred did it, as it’s revealed that Sidney Flake had a sadistic streak and was known for mercilessly beating and maiming women who ran afoul of him. So Emmett’s certain that Mildred, fearing that she would suffer reprisals from Sidney once he recovered from the beating Emmett gave him, took matters into her own hands and murdered him. Now Emmett presses Harry into his service, pressuring our narrator to help him set up fake clues that will exonerate Mildred – and put the blame on Vivian Flake.

Emmett wants it to look like the rich lady, who is insane anyway, secretly followed Flake, discovered him in bed with Mildred, and then took the opportunity presented to her and drove an icepick into Flake’s head as he lie there insensate in the guesthouse after Emmett beat him up. Harry goes along with all of this…only to eventually learn that this isin fact what happened, and Emmett has stumbled onto the truth without realizing it. However none of this is played out in any dramatic fashion, with Harry relegated more to the role of a reporter or something, just shuttling around Pasadena and Hollywood and meeting an assemblage of odd characters with affected personalities and habits. 

Indeed the tale is so in Harry’s thoughts that the main plot culminates in a depressing murder-suicide that happens off-page and is given no buildup or payoff. Instead more narrative space is given over to page-filling tactics, like when Harry reads a short story written by Jessie’s dead husband and Kaylin actually writes out the entire story, which takes up a few pages. More page-filling is handled by long chants and prayers courtesy the followers of Father Zosimus. I forgot to mention that there are no chapters in the novel, only white space to break up the various sections. But still you get the feeling that there’s either too little story here to justify 128 pages, or that Kaylin just left out too much of it. 

He does however end on a bit of a lighter note. Harry manages to break through Jessie’s hard shell, talking her into staying in Hollywood with him. But even here there is a touch of uncertainty, as a part of Harry wishes she would just leave and he wouldn’t have to worry about her – yet another indication that our asshole of a hero has still not learned to be responsible for himself or his actions. Have I mentioned that throughout the novel Harry doesn’t once show any remorse for his actions of three years ago?

I can’t give Another Time, Another Woman a ringing endorsement, either for Walter Kaylin fans or for fans of Gold Medal in general. As a crime story it’s lacking and as a character study it’s frustrating because our main character apparently learns nothing. However the theme of the three ruined women is skillfully played out by Kaylin and indication of the caliber of his writing, and the goofy characters are all memorable. But the contrived pseudo-hipster jive talk of our narrator quickly grates, and makes you glad when you’re finished the novel and can move on to something more rewarding.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Illusionist #1: The Most Happy Con Man

The Illusionist #1: The Most Happy Con Man, by John P. Radford
No month stated, 1974  Canyon Books

Published by Canyon Books, the same outfit that brought out the first few volumes of the Hitman series before they went out of business, The Illusionist ran for four volumes and, judging from the covers, you’d assume this series was a light-hearted caper sort of thing.

My friends, do not be deceived. The Illusionist is actually sleaze – unrepentant sleaze at that. More typical of the sort of thing published by sleaze purveyors like Bee-Line or Midwood, the series is straight-up porn. And like most of those old sleaze books it’s porn of the most unerotic kind, with pages and pages and pages of sex scenes with little steam, just an endless barrage of anatomical terminology. Worse yet, “John P. Radford” is determined to gross us out; some of the material here is almost puke-inducing.

But I perservered and read the damn thing, which let me tell you was not a pleasant experience. What makes it all the stranger is that Radford, who I’m betting was just a sleaze writer using yet another pseudonym (the book’s copyright Canyon), can actually write, with some goofy lines and bursts of philosophy. But for all that his characters speak in the most wooden, expository dialog, and his talent for “plotting” leaves much to be desired. He’s also not much concerned with forward momentum, with the story just sort of drifting along for 190 pages until the big caper plays out in the last fifteen; but then, this is just a sleaze novel, and the focus is more so on the rampant sex scenes.

Our hero as such is Joe Maguire, 45-year-old former engineer who served as an executive on the Apollo space program throughout the 1960s and was instrumental in getting man on the moon. Joe was once ultra-wealthy and had a wife and children. But then Nixon came into office and it all went to hell. This book bashes Nixon so frequently that I started to suspect that the author himself had been wronged by the man in some way. Anyway, Nixon fired everyone on the Apollo staff and Joe’s vast fortunes quickly plunged. Soon enough his wife left him (as for the kids, the author doesn’t really say what happened to them).

Now Joe is penniless, so down and out that he’s forced to live with a “dirty whore” named Midge. Staying in a dank fleabag apartment in Hollywood, Joe, who we’re informed looks like “an aging Woody Allen” with his scrawny frame, short height, balding head, and glasses, is basically a kept man, there to serve streetwalker Midge. Here’s the gross stuff. Midge, my friends, refuses to bathe – or to clean herself in any other way. Radford shows us what we’re in store for in the first few pages of the novel, as Midge comes home late at night after her daily whoring duties and demands Joe make his daily payment to her: in order to stay in the apartment, Joe must have sex with Midge every night.

Here we go – and grab your barf bag. I mentioned Midge never bathes. Well, she doesn’t clean up at all. And she’s just been with like thirty guys. And that’s just tonight. So now Joe must do his duty after all these other dudes have been, uh, filling the hole, and the stuff Radford writes here is so tasteless as to be beyond belief. The author spares no details. Did I mention that Joe has a ten-inch dong?? This causes most of the gross-out issues, particularly given those aformentioned details on how Midge never cleans up after screwing her johns. Puke city, people. Seriously! And afterwards we’re duly informed how Joe cleans himself off with vodka and hard soap scrubbing and etc.

So as a porn novel, we’re already off to a bad start, as this is easily the most disgusting “sex scene” I’ve ever read. But our author’s just getting started. The next night Joe’s at his favorite bar and runs into Esther, hot young tramp who once worked as his maid. Esther informs Joe that she’s long desired to have sex with him and practically demands they go back to a hotel room, which she’ll pay for. On and on this one goes, with the gal gorging on Joe’s humongous dong, lots of detail on Esther’s private areas, and again with the gross-out material as we’re informed how hairy she is down there, both on the front and in the rear….!

Reading The Most Happy Con Man, you soon assume that “John P. Radford” hated both the reader and himself, and was determined to just offend everyone. But somehow after the pages-long bangings we get the beginnings of a plot. Esther mentions she’s now a maid for the wealthy Richards family. They have more money than they know what to do with. But the issue now is, due to a photo story about their lavish home in the L.A. papers, they’ve made themselves easy prey for criminals, in particular a recent kidnapping threat on their young daughter, Karen.

It turns out the would-be kidnapper was some young black kid in Watts, one who had no clue what he was doing. As Esther happily goes over all the things the kid did wrong (giving the Richards family too long to collect too small a ransom), Joe thinks to himself how he could’ve done a better job. He’s already been thinking of getting into crime, but not in a way that would harm anyone. Indeed, he doesn’t even want to do actual crime but only the illusion of a crime having been done; in Joe’s mind, this would be the perfect criminal, a person who only pulls off things that seem to have been crimes but in reality weren’t.

Meanwhile Joe has run into an old Apollo program pal of his (at the same damn bar – the author could give a shit about coincidence): Bob Sidak, an electronics wizard who further fuels Joe’s interest in crime by relaying the long story of how he built this gizmo that made long-distance calls for free on Ma Bell’s dime. And yet it wasn’t illegal at the time due to the wording of Bell’s usage laws.  This makes Joe think again of how a smart criminal could get around vague laws.  Bob’s now buds with a salesman named George Harris, who proclaims himself an “old con man,” and has further tales of the sort-of criminal cons he has run in the past.  Joe begins to hatch a scheme.

Inspired by “his favorite television program,” Mission: Impossible, Joe decides to put together his own team of caper specialists. Only his team will be devoted to thievery. (Despite what the back cover proclaims, Joe Maguire is not a “Robin Hood, 1974;” he steals for his own good and doesn’t give the loot to the needy or whatever.) Meanwhile, lots more screwing occurs. In true sleaze novel fashion it’s as arbitrary as can be, from more bouts with Esther to even a completely-arbitrary part where Joe’s driving around one night and comes upon a young hippie girl, who gets in the car, announces she’s horny from a “pot party,” and begs Joe to pull in to the nearest parking lot so she can screw him right there in the car.

The book runs 190 pages and around 65% of it is porn, but as mentioned it’s the bad kind of porn that’s just explicitly-detailed screwing, with no emotion or anything behind it, which as I’ve said before would be fine if we were talking about a porn movie. But when it comes to a novel you need a bit more, otherwise it just comes off as junk, as is the case here. But on it goes, Radford giving us incredible detailings of Joe’s explorations of the hippie girl’s nether regions, with the expected gross-out stuff of how she cleans herself afterwards by peeing in the parking lot. Oh and as double bang for your buck, this scene, between the screwing, features more expository dialog in which Nixon is again thoroughly bashed.

Well anyway, Joe has decided he’s going to become “The Illusionist.” He’s going to run a crime caper in which he won’t even commit a crime. He brings in Bob and George, and here’s one interesting thing Radford delivers – Joe even runs a con on them. Telling them he’s been hired to perform a prank on a mega-wealthy dude, Joe lies to his buddies, making them think it’s a simple job for which they’ll each get a thousand bucks. What Joe really intends to do is fake the kidnapping of young Karen Richards and demand a ransom of a quarter million dollars.

We get lots of material of how thoroughly Joe plans this. We’re informed how he was once known for his project management skills, and now will use the same legendary brilliance that he used to get a man on the moon to pull off this caper. But ultimately it’s stupidly simple, as he just uses the specialities of other people. If it wasn’t for his pal Bob’s wizardry with phone lines or knack for impersonations, “The Illusionist” wouldn’t be able to run a con in the first place. As for salesman George, his simple job has him fidning out which banks the Richards family uses.

As mentioned it all plays out in the final fifteen or so pages. Joe’s ruse has him calling Karen’s private school to inform them her mother has had a stroke, and a cab’s being sent for the girl. When the school calls the Richards home to confirm, Bob breaks into the line and mimicks the servant’s voice, confirming the false story. Joe then calls Mr. Richards and demands payment in five minutes, secretly waiting there in the bank lobby and watching him come in and hurriedly collect. The money’s dropped in a car driven by George. Meanwhile, young Karen Richards is taking a mere cab ribe home – something her parents only discover after they’ve forked over a $250,000 for a kidnapping that never happened.

Leaving money for “dirty old slut” Midge (along with a “six dollar douching kit”) and his accomplices Bob and George, Joe takes the vast remainder of his loot and absconds to France, where we’re informed he’s already hooked up with “a Paris whore.” We leave the Illusionist wealthy and excited to continue his life in pseudo-crime, but god give us the strength to read about it. And yet, given that I have the next two volumes, someday I probably will…

Monday, August 10, 2015

Men's Mag Roundup: Mob Heists and Hell Racers

“The Great Sierra Mob Heist” by C.K. Winston is the reason I tracked down this December 1971 issue of Male. It’s pretty good but it’s not the best men’s mag story I’ve read. It is however graced with one of the greatest splashpages I’ve ever seen, courtesy Executioner cover artist Gil Cohen: 

Surprisingly, this does accurately illustrate an event in the story, though the heroes aren’t wearing bandit masks at the time and the busty lady isn’t wearing a plunging-necklined top and hotpants during the heist. (To be fair, she does wear this outfit earlier in the tale, just not during the actual heist!) But unsurprisingly, the actual event in the story itself lacks the dynamism of Cohen’s art – when I saw this illustration I hoped for a balls-to-the-wall caper story, filled with masked heisters blasting away with their submachine guns.

Rather, C.K. Winston goes for the slow burn; “The Great Sierra Mob Heist” is one of those “true book bonuses,” but not as long as such stories were in the earlier years of Male magazine. But I do like these early ‘70s stories because they got away from WWII tales and delved more into crime fiction, likely inspired by former men’s mag author Mario Puzo’s success with The Godfather. Though our “heroes” this time aren’t mafioso and indeed aren’t even professionals, just small-time crooks looking for the big score.

Bob Asherman is our main protagonist, a 28 year-old criminal who has spent many of his years behind bars for petty theft. While in prison he meets James Barker, son of a multimillionaire but whose gambling addiction has led to his being disowned; he’s in jail due to tax evasion. Barker tells Asherman about the Kennelworth Ski and Gambling Resort on Lake Tahoe, a mob-owned getaway in which high rollers spend oodles of money on the gambling tables and the stable of hookers provided for the clientele. Barker reckons there’s at least two million in the casino’s vault. 

The only problem is, the place only has one road in an out: a “dirt mountain road” that has three checkpoints along the way, each guarded by goons with machine guns. The back of the resort is up against a mountain and a frozen lake and is considered impassable. But Asherman gets an idea, and after his release he puts together a team for the heist. Barker is part of it, mostly so as to put up the money for it (Barker lifts thirty thousand from his dad’s savings), as is Barker’s nympho wife, Fran, a curvy redhead Barker’s certain slept around a lot while he was in prison. Then there’ s Charles Lewis, “older” than the others at 36; he’s a “mechanics and demolitions wizard.” Finally there’s high-class hooker Alice Emmons, a blonde with “the face of an angel and the body of an Italian movie actress.” 

True to the genre Winston delivers some sleaze here and there, but none of it’s too explicit and it all comes off like the sort of thing you’d read in these magazines in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Asherman of course gets it on with both Alice, his “mistress,” as well as Fran, who comes to Asherman’s hotel room one night after he’s “loaned” Alice to a wealthy gambler who provides Asherman his in to the Kennelworth Resort – you need to be invited by a member to go there. But the gang waits three months for Charles Lewis to augment Asherman’s main idea for the heist: an All Season Vehicle (as opposed to All Terrain Vehicle), which is capable of traversing any sort of terrain in the world. 

Lewis not only armors the ASV but increases its horsepower, and finally the heist is underway. While Asherman and Alice go into the Kennelworth as guests, Lewis and Barker will take the ASV over the frozen lake and wait there on the designated night. The heist goes down pretty smoothly. After killing an old cellmate who happens to be working as a stooge in the resort, Asherman (who jabs the spoke of his ski pole into the poor bastard’s eye!) gets his machine gun from the ASV and he and Alice storm into the vault. Alice in fact is the only person who kills anyone, cutting down a guard who raises a gun on Asherman.

Cohen’s illustration is for the final pages, as the gang makes its escape on the ASV, blasting away at their pursuers. They even have a bazooka, Lewis blowing a helicopter out of the sky. But the best-laid plans can go to hell when treachery’s involved, and Barker unsurprisingly pulls a doublecross, pissed that his nympho wife slept with Asherman that night. The tale ends with every single member of the gang dead, Lewis gunned down by a guard, Alice killed with a knife in the back by Barker, Barker accidentally killing his wife, and Asherman killing Barker. Asherman himself dies from wounds sustained in the fight.

“Sgt. Regan’s Slaughter Bunch” by Richard Farrington is the WWII yarn of the mag, and it’s about the titular OSS commando’s secret mission into Stuttgart in March of 1944. Intel has it that “Operation Quintuplet,” aka the “Hammer and Anvil Project” could be very bad news for the Allies – five German scientists are working on a new missile technology. Regan is outfitted with a motley crew for the assignment: two women, a Cherokee Indian, and three German POWs. Per the norm the story opens on an action scene before backtracking to the setup; namely, one of the German POWs going nuts and killing the team’s contact as soon as they arrive in Stuttgart.

The three Germans are there under the shaky premise that they know Stuttgart and its environs better than anyone else; the girls are there to handle the radio. One of them’s named Molly, a Montreal native who will operate it, and the other is Sharon, an American who will assist her. Thomas Running Horse, aka “Cherokee,” is there just for pulp fiction purposes; his skill is with the bow and arrow. Regan’s “impossible mission” is to assassinate four of the five scientists and exfiltrate the fifth one back to Allied territory.

Surprisingly, the story doesn’t have any sex in it – I figured it would’ve been a given that Regan would hook up with either of the women on his team. But this doesn’t happen and indeed the girls don’t have much to do with anything. Instead after one of the POWs goes turncoat the team splits up and takes out their targets solo. Some of this is memorable, like one of the Germans having to kill his target as he sits on a raft in a pool; the German stabs him from underwater with a poison-tipped dagger. It culminates in a big action finale in which Regan’s team must escape across an open field to the planes that have come in to rescue them; in the firefight every single one of them is killed except for Regan and Sharon.

“Buy Me Nude” by Andrew Rich is labeled as “modern fiction” and it’s a goofy tale about a ladies’ man whose wife is away, visiting her sister; he’s promised her he’ll stay faithful while she’s gone. But a knock comes at the door and it’s a stunning young blonde offering magazine subscriptions. Her sales method is pretty genius: for each mag he subscribes to, she’ll remove an article of clothing until she’s down to her lingerie. The “continuation plan” is if he orders five more, she’ll go fully nude. And the “bonus” is if he buys more off of that; then she’ll have sex with him. He ends up banging her, having subscribed to like a hundred magazines. The end.

“My Life As A Football Sex Bum” by Karen Lewis purports to be the thoughts of a gal who follows major league teams around and sleeps with various players. It’s pretty tame and stupid, as are the other sex-focused articles herein. “I’ll Keep My Treasure Or Die Fighting” by Mike Shaffer is a first-person adventure story about a guy sick of the city life who heads down to Venezuela and ends up tangling with a group of merciless natives led by a guy named Barabas.

Also a big thanks to Bob Deis of Men', who happened to have a spare copy of this issue to sell me; I only just recently discovered by the way that Bob offers customs scans, so if there’s a men’s mag story you’ve been seeking for years and he has the issue, you can pay him to send you a scan of it. More info here.

The July 1974 issue of Male is a strange hybrid of the mag’s earlier days and its later Playboy-esque descent. For one the cover doesn’t feature a nude model, as would be typical of this era. But the stories within all strive for the pseudo-factual approach, even the True Book Bonus, “The Gun Them Down Bunch,” by Neil Turnbull. This is another piece of crime fiction, and goes for a “Bonnie and Clyde for the ‘70s” approach, only this time it’s three dudes and one woman. You won’t be surprised that the woman, Lila Cole, shares herself with all three of the dudes. Turnbull however is very much in the oldschool mode and there’s no sleazy stuff at all in the tale.

The story title is quite misleading as the gang, led by a ‘Nam vet named Hal Regan (let’s assume he’s the son of Sgt. Regan, above), prides itself on never killing anyone. The other members of the gang are Lew Bellows, another ‘Nam vet, and Bruce Kracek; they all run into each other in Pittsburgh, where they somehow decide to start knocking over places. Given that pseudo-factual approach, we’re informed that all this began in early 1972 and that the story is coming from a series of articles Lila Cole herself penned from behind bars. However the story isn’t in first-person, it just arbitrarily features excerpts from Lila’s articles.

There isn’t much action, with the gang moving southward across the US and knocking off various places. The opening scene of the novel is one of their most audacious heists, knocking over a “floating orgy” on a yacht near Corpus Christi. The yacht’s owned by billionaire Wilson Teague, who is infuriated after he’s swindled by Lila, who uses her body to distract him while Regan and Bellows board the yacht in scuba gear and abscond with his money. Teague hires a private eye named Phil Kline to track them down, demanding that the four heisters die for the wrong they’ve delivered him. Kline however begins to respect the gang.

There are several more heists along the way; in one of them Bellows is injured. In a sort of Anderson Tapes lift the gang is knocking off a hotel suite when a little old lady happens to still be in her room and shoots Bellows with her derringer. They have no choice but to drop Bellows off at a hospital, but later they attempt to rescue him. Bellows, being lifted out of his room on a rope, ends up dropping to his death thirty feet to the pavement below. After this the gang descends into fatalism, walking blindly into a trap in Acapulco. Here everyone buys it save for Lila, who as mentioned goes on to a sort of fame behind bars thanks to her memoirs.

“The Demo Derby Hell Racers Who Battled The Mob” by Cole Stryker is along the same pseudo-factual lines; the entire thing attempts to catch the vibe of a long article and lacks the immediacy of a short story, which ironically enough is exactly what it is. Also the title and photo blurbs are misleading; they have you expecting a redneck actionfest with demo derby racers taking on the mob, but instead the story’s about the mob beating up the demo derby racers! Opening in some unspecified city the story informs us that one night a numbers runner is robbed by a pair of guys in a demo derby car; they’re masked, but local mob boss Sam Drago instantly blames the local derby drivers.

When the mob starts beating up several of the derby drivers, racer Steve Leeman has had enough. He teams up with local cop Lt. Stanley Wallace and tries to turn the tables on Drago. Soon enough Leeman and his pals figure out that it was a pair of Drago’s own men behind the opening heist. Here comes the only part that lives up to the title’s promise. When the two thugs refuse to admit the truth to Drago, Leeman and pals toss them in a pair of junker cars, get behind the wheels of their derby racers, and begin bashing the hell out of them. Afterwards the bruised and bloodied thugs are only too happy to tell Drago that they stole from him – after which they are never seen again. 

“The Half-Sisters Of Virgin Farm” by George Causey sells itself as “1974’s best in the Erskine Caldwell tradition,” and it’s hicksploitation about a dude coming back to the farmland in which he grew up and getting involved with the titular half-sisters, one who’s white and one who’s black. It’s angled as raunchy stuff but there’s nothing crazy or even memorable about it at all.

“Rouge G.I. Who Beat The Pentagon Brass” by Charles W. Kranepool is a too-long piece about Private Tony Krewzewski, who found himself alone on Omaha Beach on D-Day and went on to die a hero’s death. Backtrack to the meat of the story, which is all about how Private Tony was really a hellion who was constantly in trouble or in the brig for starting fights, gambling, going AWOL. No sex or much violence or anything.

The mag has the expected sex articles, from “14-State Prostitute Shuttle Service” (“They ship prostitutes to your local motel!”) to “The Super Nymphos: ‘I Need More Than One Man A Day.’” In each instance these are presented as real case studies or news events, and are pretty boring. Back on the adventure tip there’s “The Hell Ship Of Heroin Smugglers,” by Jim Brenner, which is the first-person narrative of a guy who becomes a seaman on a ship that turns out to be secretly smuggling heroin, but it too is forgettable.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Blood Circus

The Blood Circus, by Thomas K. Fitzpatrick
No month stated, 1968  Fawcett Gold Medal

I’d never heard of this obscure piece of bikersploitation until I came across Zwolf’s review. His comments are on point, as The Blood Circus is an enjoyably pulpy tale that definitely has the feel of a men's adventure magazine story; it’s about a young deputy who goes undercover with The Beasts, the worst gang of hell-raising bikers in the USA – even worse than the Hell’s Angels!

At 160 pages, The Blood Circus barrels right along, Thomas K. Fitzpatrick delivering his story with a veteran pulpster’s skill. Which makes it all the stranger that I can find no other work credited to this author. The book is copyright Fawcett Gold Medal, and Thomas K. Fitzpatrick isn’t listed in Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms. But it would be hard to believe that this was the work of a one-time author. Despite its faults this book has a very polished, professional nature, as if the author made his living churning out this kind of pulp. My guess is that maybe he was indeed a men’s mag writer, and “Fitzpatrick” is just the pseudonym he used for this book. Who knows.

And, just like a men’s adventure mag story, the novel opens on a scene of atrocity, as the Beasts descend upon Calico, a ghost town near Hollywood. They run roughshod over the tourists, beating up one dude and preparing to rape his wife when the cops show up. Their leader, a shaven-skulled, muscle-bound sadist with Nazi leanings named Paul Krascoe, orders them to beat a hasty retreat. Not that Krascoe or his minions are afraid of the cops; indeed, Krascoe looks forward to the day when he can openly declare war on them and “the whole square world.”

Captain Walt Mooney, an old-liner cop in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, has had enough of this shit. He brings in Lt. Bob Waldrop of the Intelligence department and together they hatch a plan to send someone undercover, to infiltrate the Beasts; Mooney has a hunch that Krascoe’s gang is planning something. Heavy-duty weaponry has been stolen around the Los Angeles area, and Mooney suspects the Beasts are the culprits. We readers know they are, and that they’ve got everything from machine guns to bazookas. Krascoe’s plan is to start a war on society and he intimates some foreign power is behind it, but this is a plot thread Fitzpatrick ultimately leaves dangling.

Mooney and Waldrop settle on Ed Bartel, a 29 year-old deputy new to the force. Bartel is a ‘Nam vet, a biking enthusiast, and even an actor, having appeared in minor film and tv roles and in local stage productions. Bartel sees the opportunity as a surefire way to promote his career, but Peg, his wife of one year, is overly concerned about it. Peg hasn’t yet accepted the lot of being a cop’s wife, and there’s lots of friction between the two. Given that the book occurs over only a few days, Fitzpatrick luckily doesn’t devote too much of the narrative space to this matrimonial discord, but there’s enough there that you feel bad for the two.

Ordered to stop getting his hair cut and to look more unkempt (complete with a trip to the local Warner Brothers studio, where a professional makeup artist works on him), Ed gradually begins to look more like a biker. Over the course of two weeks he’s trained in biker culture, undercover methods, and self-defense. The latter element provides us with the book’s title, as Ed’s martial arts instructor, who teaches him something very much like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, informs Ed, “Life is just a bloody circus.”

Telling a bitter Peg so long, Ed hops on his Harley chopper and scoots on over to Beast territory, in the Bell Gardens district of Hollywood. His cover is that he’s an ex-con biker from Florida who used to run with the Hell’s Angels and was told to look up the Beasts in Los Angeles. But as expected, when he meets up with them, driving around a riverbed near their hangout, the Beasts are suspicious. Krascoe immediately figures he’s a cop. Here comes Ed’s first test; to prove he’s a real biker, he has to do a trial race of six laps, chugging a beer after each lap. This he accomplishes, getting progressively wiped out, finally knocked on his ass when on the last lap he has to chug a bottle of brandy.

Krascoe sort of accepts him, but not as a full-fledged Beast. Meanwhile Krascoe’s woman, hotstuff blonde Maggie, sets her sights on Ed. Fitzpatrick is to be congratulated for specifying that Maggie is not in any way like the other biker chicks; whereas the others are grungy, unwashed and unkempt, Maggie looks like a million bucks, with clean clothes, skin, and hair, even makeup. So unlike William W. Johnstone in The Devil’s Kiss, Fitzpatrick understands that a hotstuff evil chick needs to have good hygeine. Otherwise the entire effect is ruined.

Maggie’s just as wild and cruel as the regular pulp biker chick, getting off on the outlaw nature of it all. The question is, why is she with the Beasts? This is another plot thread that Fitzpatrick never bothers to answer; Maggie ultimately is there to provide sex appeal, though to be sure there isn’t a single sex scene in the novel. She does promptly declare that she’s deciding if she’s going to let Ed “ball” her, though. Ed’s growing interest in Maggie, whose Levi’s jeans outfit fits as tightly as a “rubber scuba suit,” is another element that comes and goes in the book, and unfortunately Maggie just plain disappears in the final pages, as if Fitzpatrick forgot all about her.

After beating up a few Beasts, Ed is warmly welcomed by Krascoe. He then orders the gang on a midnight run to Mexico with no explanation. Throughout the ride Ed’s shadowed by a burly Beast named Frenchy. There are several tense moments as Ed and the gang are stopped by the cops and the suspicion plays out if his cover will hold up, or if Krascoe and gang will learn that he’s a cop. Meanwhile Peg continues to fret, and intelligence chief Lt. Waldrop sits around in his office, guzzling coffee, hoping Ed’s okay. Our hero manages to get tidbits of detail to Waldrop, but he’s never left alone very long, the suspicious Beasts watching him, especially Frenchy. He also manages to call Peg once or twice.

After Ed’s with them a few days Krasco unveils his master plan. Uniting the outlaw biker gangs into a guerrilla force, he’s going to pull the biggest robbery in history. They’re going to hold up seven blocks of downtown Los Angeles, looting the diamond stores in the area. The plan is so crazy that Ed has a hard time getting Waldrop to believe it. But Krascoe has another surprise up his sleeve: he actually pulls the job a day earlier than he announced. Ed is hauled off of his dirty matress (the Beasts live in a grungy old auto garage in Bell Gardens, by the way) at 4AM and told to get his ass moving. Now he’s desperate to get the news out, but he’s pulled along by the biker barbarian tide.

Krascoe’s plan is so audacious that it could only exist in the world of pulp fiction: a legion of machine gun-toting bikers descending on Los Angeles. The Beast leader’s got every detail down, though, from sneaking in his choppers to blocking off traffic around the seven targeted blocks. There are even snipers across from the LAPD headquarters. Unfortunately Fitzpatrick here veers into summary; so much happens over such a broad sweep of canvas, with so many characters involved, that he has to hopscotch back and forth, giving overviews of what happens. This is the novel’s biggest failing; whereas the short page length is a boon, because pulp should move fast, it’s also a bane when it necessitates skimming over so much.

But it all goes down in a scant several pages, the Beasts unleashing hell on Hollywood. We’re informed that this day will become known as “Bloody Thursday” and that ultimately thousands of civilians will die, along with around two hundred cops. Open warfare rages on the streets of Los Angeles, with the Beasts cutting loose with their stolen heavy weaponry. One thing Krascoe failed to wager on was the resourcefulness of the cops; figuring they’d be hamstrung by their pea-shooting .38 revolvers, he’s surprised to find that they’re able to get stronger weaponry and National Guard help.

Ed’s cast adrift in all this, and finally spurs into action by blowing away Frenchy and a few other Beasts. Fitzpatrick isn’t an author to dwell on the gory details, mind you, but he’s definitely got a knack for keeping the tension and pace up. But I swear this guy was a veteran pulpster under a different name because The Blood Circus suffers from that veteran pulpster speciality: the harried and unsatisfactory ending. Without any buildup or payoff Ed runs into Krascoe, who goes for his gun (did Krascoe know Ed was a cop all along? Who knows!), and Ed blows him away.

The Beasts routed, the city in flames, and Maggie completely disappeared from the text (the last we see of her she’s riding on the sidecar of a Beast chopper), the novel speeds for the end. Ed basically tells Captain Mooney to go to hell and calls Peg, to let her know he’s all right. Oh, and maybe he’ll quit the force and become a teacher. The end! We get no resolution on what happened to the rest of the Beasts nor if Krascoe was indeed getting his funding from a foreign power, despite vague mentions throughout the story that he was.

Anyway, I really did enjoy The Blood Circus, and it was only after reading it that I pondered its faults. But while I was reading it I loved it! This I guess is the problem; if I hadn’t liked it as much, I wouldn’t have expected more of it in hindsight. But given the quality of Fitzpatrick’s pulpy prose, the interesting characters, the bit of character depth, and the outlandish plot, you just sort of feel that if a couple more details had been ironed out the novel would’ve been great.

At any rate it would’ve made for a helluva ‘60s biker film. William Smith of course would’ve played Krascoe.

Monday, August 3, 2015

C.A.T. #2: Kidnap Hotel

C.A.T. #2: Kidnap Hotel, by Spike Andrews
January, 1983  Warner Books

A short-lived entry in Warner’s “Men Of Action” line, C.A.T. ran for three volumes and was about a pair of tough cops who were the sole members of New York’s “Crisis Aversion Team.” According to Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms “Spike Andrews” was a house name for George Ryan, but according to Allen J. Hubin Ryan only wrote this second volume and Duane R. Schermerhorn wrote the first and third volumes.

This is the first George Ryan novel I’ve read, but also according to Hawk’s Pseudonyms he wrote the strange-sounding Crime Minister series under the pseudonym “Ian Barclay.” Kidnap Hotel isn’t a knockout or anything, but judging from it I’d say Ryan isn’t too bad of a writer, doling out a tale that has a very Len Levinson kind of vibe, with a goofy plot, quirky characters, funny dialog, brief snatches of violence, and generous portions of sleaze. There’s even a little philosophy.

The CAT team is comprised of detectives Stewart Weston and Vince Santillo. Both are in their 30s and are ‘Nam vets. There really isn’t much to distinguish them other than that Weston is white and has a wife and two young daughters, and Santillo is the Itallian Stallion who sleeps around. Other than that the dudes are identical, and there’s really nothing to tell them apart when they’re together, like, “Oh, it makes sense that Santillo would’ve done that,” or anything. In other words there’s no Lethal Weapon-esque stuff where one is constantly bemoaning the tactics of the other. They’re both equally wild and reckless.

But true to the cliché their “stupid chief” is another matter. This is Lt. John Hunt, who does constantly bemoan the wild and reckless tactics of the CAT duo. But again the Len Levinson feel is here in that Hunt sometimes looks the other way and also enjoys engaging his two junior officers in witty banter. Also true to the cliché Lt. Hunt is constantly under pressure from the commissioner and the mayor, and thus puts Weston and Santillo on a case outside of their normal purview: someone is briefly kidnapping wealthy people off the city streets, holding them at gunpoint, and ordering them to walk into the nearest bank to make a healthy withdrawal for ransom.

With his first and only novel for the series, Ryan already appears shaky about the whole “crisis aversion” angle; we’re informed that Weston and Santillo are supposed to focus on city-wide crises, but since such cases are so infrequent and rare, they usually just help out New York precincts on random cases! I mean geez, don’t you think we could’ve read about one of those city-wide crises? But I don’t intend to complain to much, as Ryan does turn in a fun, if goofy, installment, which while not having much of a crisis at least keeps moving. Kidnap Hotel runs 219 pages, but it’s got big print and it moves at a fast clip.

The kidnappers are just a group of teenagers, led by a surly London youth named Graham. Later on we’ll learn that Graham was a roadie for the Sex Pistols. But now he leads a group of five guys and two girls who have grown up on the tough streets of New York and now live almost communally, the guys sharing the girls. Oh, and they’re also apparently trying to start a rock group. Indeed we learn that their whole kidnapping scheme is so to raise the cash to record a proper demo! These eight teenagers aren’t the usual men’s adventure antagonists, and they aren’t all that threatening, never even killing any of their victims.

After swiping a few rich old men and women off the streets, the gang sets their sights higher. Stupid member Moose works as a night guard on an unfinished building on 86th Street and 3rd Avenue; spanning twelve floors, it’s mostly just a steel skeleton with plastic tarps for walls. Graham comes up with the idea to kidnap a bunch of wealthy people and hold them here; he dubs the place “Kidnap Hotel,” and another gang member gets the day guard job so that the gang has it to themselves 24-7. Since it’s so unfinished, we’re told, the lawyers responsible for the halted-due-to-red-tape building are afraid to visit it, due to a fear of heights. 

Meanwhile Santillo and Weston deal with random shit. In addition to loose sea crabs in Greenwich and a vague mention of a trio of young women who rob banks, they also tackle Mad Miguel, a Lower East Side scumbag who has a nasty method of dealing with people who don’t pay for his heroin: he chops off their hands. He’s just done this to a young boy, and Weston and Santillo descend on the scene. Having dealt with Miguel before, and sick of how he always walks free due to the liberal courts, they take him down in a memorable sequence, one which sees Miguel throwing a baby out a window (Santillo catches it) and culminates in Weston jamming a hot iron in Miguel’s face. (We’re later informed both of his eyeballs burst from the heat!)

Ryan I’m guessing must’ve been a New Yorker, as Kidnap Hotel almost works like a tour of the city; again, just like a Len Levinson novel. But at times it gets to be too much, with the topical details reduced to street directions. He also appears to have spent some time with New York cops, as he fills the novel with cop-world details and the complaints of an average cop, in particular the public outcries against their “brutal” tactics. In fact one part of the book really struck home, given the current “cops are nothing more than white racists with guns” mentality prevalent in the United States, courtesy and its ilk:

Stewart Weston broke a rule that many cops made for themselves. He liked to talk to his wife about the questions posed to him by his work on the underbelly of society. She was a liberal and believed that if everyone had an education and a job, they would all be constructive, love artistic things, and live peacefully together. The streets had given Weston a more biblical view of things. He saw good and evil conflicting in men’s souls, and one or the other gaining the upper hand. People’s surroundings and poverty seemed to him often to bring out extraordinary good as well as evil in an individual. He suspected that extreme wealth had the same effect on people as poverty, but he couldn’t be sure since he didn’t come across nearly as many rich people as he did very poor. 

If Stewart Weston had been anything but a cop, this line of introspective thought would never have occurred to him. But once a man daily gets called a pig, a racist, a fascist, a lackey for the millionaires who own America, and so forth, he naturally takes a hard look at himself from time to time. What infuriated Weston was the total unfairness of most of the name-calling and the total gullibility of those who were so willing to believe anything bad about the police – until they themselves got ripped off and started screaming that the cops should kick ass and they should bring back the death penalty.

Speaking of Weston’s family life, these scenes are some of the highlights of the novel. Weston not only talks openly about the nightmarish aspects of his job to his wife, but also to his two prepubescent daughters. Ryan has a gift for dark comedy and these scenes are filled with it, as the two little girls sit slackjawed and listen to their father dole out these stories of atrocities, usually taking everything he says literally, like when late in the book he complains that he practically hanged a suicidal girl with his own hands. (“Did you really hang a girl, Daddy?”) They then rush off to tell their friends all about their dad’s latest bloody exploits.

Santillo doesn’t get as much fun stuff, but he does get laid by random women – twice in this one novel alone. First it’s some lady he saves in the garment district, and then later it’s one of Graham’s gang, a pretty brunette named Harriett. Ryan doesn’t shy from the details, though the novel doesn’t go into outright sleaze, with the actual shenanigans only taking up a paragraph or two. Even some of this stuff has dark comedy, like Lt. Hunt complaining that Santillo must be losing his skills as a Latin lover, as despite having sex with him Harriett still doesn’t blab all she knows about Kidnap Hotel; he says that next time Weston gets to have sex with the suspect!

As for the Kidnap Hotel material – it too is goofy, but fun. Graham and gang assemble a motley crew of quirky characters, all of them wealthy. The most memorable of the hostages are the three women: Jane and Wilma, two young, married, and bored socialites, and the wonderfully-named Favia Wanderlust, a black “disco singer” who towers over most men and wears skintight gold pants. True to the goofy spirit, the hostages look at their stay in “Kidnap Hotel” as a vacation, and soon it all devolves into an orgy, with the three women sleeping with all the men, and usually bickering over who gets to sleep with German opera conductor Von Ryder, who is the most skilled lover of the men.

Santillo and Weston operate under all the standard “tough cop” rules, beating up random suspects, getting in car chases, pulling their guns all the time, and trading quips. They also bend the rules past the breaking point, like when they accidentally kill one of Graham’s gang in a car chase and then have the coroner secretly make the corpse look like it’s still alive, so a photographer can shoot photos of it. They take this shot around town to track down leads on who might know the mystery man. But even then it’s only blind luck that leads them to the location of Kidnap Hotel; one of the hostages attempts to break free after the ransom has been paid, and tosses a bundle of money off the roof of the 12-floor structure; Weston and Santillo just happen to be walking by, and see it!

The finale isn’t heavy on action but at least it continues with the fun vibe. Jan and Favia chase down the surviving female member of the gang, beating the shit out of her right on the street, and Weston and Santillo get in a gunfight with Graham. But again these criminals are outmatched by the protagonists, so there’s no tension or suspense at all. In fact Weston and Santillo get more of a challenge from Mad Miguel, and even he isn’t much of a match for them. At any rate, this was Ryan’s only contribution to the series, so next time I’ll see how Schermerhorn’s work matches up.