Monday, May 15, 2017

Dragon Hunt

Dragon Hunt, by Dave J. Garrity
December, 1967  Signet Books

David J. Gerrity, still using his sort-of pen name “Dave J. Garrity,” turned in this paperback original which, despite much cover-blurb ballyhoo, actually turned out to be the sole appearance of private detective Peter Braid. Very, very much in the Spillane mold, Dragon Hunt is such a Mike Hammer riff that it not only carries a cover blurb from Spillane himself, but it’s also based on a story Spillane wrote for the short-lived 1954 From The Files Of Mike Hammer newspaper comic strip.

There’s even a photo of Garrity with his pal Spillane on the back; you’ll often read this in reviews of Dragon Hunt, but you’ll seldom see it, so here it is:

I’ve yet to read a Mike Hammer novel, but it can’t be much different than this. Garrity, as in The Hot Mods, succeeds in capturing a total hardboiled voice and vibe, but this time it’s almost as if he’s trying too hard. There are parts of Dragon Hunt that are borderline parodic, and one wonders if this is intentional. It’s particularly in the blowhardry of narrator Braid himself, who’s so bad-assed and sleazy that he’s hard to take seriously, particularly when one moment he’s unsure how to spell certain words but in the next he’s using words like “limned” to describe the effect of a setting sun.

Braid is a WWII vet and is now your cliched downtrodden P.I. Hammer-style he was in love with his secretary, but unlike Hammer he married her; she was killed years ago by a criminal who in turn was killed by Braid. All this is relayed via Braid’s grizzled narration. His customary weapon is a very un-P.I. Luger, which he only uses toward the end. His business is terrible and he spends most his time guzzling bear at a sleazy bar and placing futile bets on the Mets. He’s got only one suit (“his one and only”) and even boasts to attractive women about his “dirty drawers.” Yet he’s still able to score (off-page – no sex at all in the novel despite the cover promise) with gorgeous women who wear nothing but “skin and perfume” for him.

Braid’s business might be bad, but he’s in no hurry to improve it – as the novel opens he’s already turning down a job offer from old “King Loot,” aka reclusive millionaire Adam DuMont. But when DuMont’s sexy-but-shrewish secretary Amanda Miggs shows up in Braid’s office to personally offer the job, he’s interested. Here Braid indulges in all sorts of boorish behavior which would be considerably frowned upon in today’s world, but which I gather is intended to let us know he “makes his own rules” and whatnot. At any rate his treatment of Ms. Miggs almost makes Joe Ryker seem like Mr. Rogers.

At length our narrator decides to ride along with Ms. Miggs to the rural estate of Adam DuMont. The chaffeur, Max, is a monster-sized mute who can only converse via “clacking” on a gizmo Braid/Garrity barely describes. Here in the palatial estate Braid spots young Marie DuMont, granddaughter of Adam, a curvaceous blonde who, Braid keeps reminded himself, is much too young for him. As for DuMont, he’s exceedingly old and in a wheelchair, but still has fire in his eyes and a steel grip when he shakes Braid’s hand.

DuMont wants Braid to hunt a “dragon,” aka DuMont’s son, Cain, who has been missing for two decades. In a story that was suppressed from the papers, Cain, who was built to Mr. Olympia proportions, went nuts one day and murdered his wife, locking her up in a chamber in his father’s “castle.” At least this is what Braid uncovers; old DuMont has left the room locked since the fateful night. As a sign of his inhuman strength, Cain DuMont twisted a barbell and locked the doors with it. As a sign of those different times, Braid doesn’t even seem aware of what Cain’s various gym equipment is called, which is so very different from the gym culture of today.

But then, other than a late reference to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., there’s nothing in Dragon Hunt that acknowledges this is the late ‘60s. Like The Hot Mods, the story could just as easily (and perhaps more believably) be occuring in the ‘50s. Braid’s hardboiled patter is reason alone. But then one of the unexplored elements of the book is that Braid, and his drinking buddy Mike Hammer, are men from another time – there’s a part where Marie DuMont marvels how “old” Mike Hammer must be, to be pining for the same woman for twenty years, and Braid does a brief double-take as he digests that he too has been kicking around that long.

Speaking of Marie, she’s the reason Braid takes the job; someone tried to attack her the other week while she was acting in a play somewhere, and Braid realizes it could’ve only been her father, Cain DuMont, come to kill off his daughter because she’s the spitting image of her mother. Adam DuMont has already shown Braid the trophy heads young Cain acquired all those years ago, hunting game with only a knife. Then Cain apparently figured that humans were the ultimate game – yet somehow decided he’d just murder his wife?

Honestly, the backstory in Dragon Hunt is muddled and awkward. Cain is presented as both a juggernaut of muscle as well as an artiste – in addition to being an ultra-buff tough guy, he was also a sculptor and, incongruously enough, also an opera singer!! This is how Braid starts off his half-assed investigation, first getting news from a portly musician whose clingers-on fawn on his musical belches; this guy claims to have remembered a dude years ago of massive physique with a godly voice.

Another clue is provided by Adam – someone by the name of “Black,” whose description might match Cain’s, killed off a bunch of malcontent miners somewhere in West Virginia. Adam is convinced Black is Cain. To further muddle things, there are no photos of Cain and no one in his family has seen him in twenty years. So off Braid goes to Manhattan to mull over beers and get information from various people, including a reporter almost as sleazy as himself. To show the amount of page-filling Garrity stoops to, at one point the newshound promises some photos of this Black guy…but won’t be able to get them for almost a week.

In his review on Amazon, Tom Johnson succinctly summed up Dragon Hunt: “Well, it’s a good story, though most of it is about Peter Braid trying to identify Cain, and finding him.” It just sort of goes on and on, Braid puzzling over the job, asking a few lowlifes some questions, and then wondering when the case will break. The novel’s only 143 pages but it’s one of those Signet jobs with ultra-tiny, dense print, so it takes a lot longer to read than you might expect.

Things don’t pick up until Braid drives to that West Virginia mining town and seeks clues. Lots of page-filling here as he pretends to be a traveling salesman. He meets a woman who claims she was the sex slave of the Herculean bastard Black. Then Braid goes back to his hotel room and young Marie DuMont is waiting in his bed for him nude, a moment captured on the cover. But Braid tells her to scram, then gets in bed to sleep – and is attacked by none other than Cain/Black. Yet somehow, despite being inches away from him, Braid’s unable to see the guy’s face!? (All of which reminded me of that still-hilarious Twin Peaks spoof on Saturday Night Live years and years ago, with my all-time favorite Chris Farley telling an enternally-confused Agent Cooper: “I shot you – you saw me!!”)

Braid gets his ass kicked and doesn’t even faze his attacker with the Luger, so there goes that. But Cain runs away when he sees Marie. Even here it sort of free-falls into the final quarter, with Braid in a huff telling Adam DuMont to stuff it, he’s off the case. I forgot to mention, but previous to this we have gotten a few cameos from Mike Hammer himself; he never appears on-page, only via phone conversations with Braid, who often calls “ol’ Mike” up for advice or to watch young Marie. (A job which Hammer fails at, though we later learn that Marie had already left the place Braid told Hammer to go watch her.)

The finale takes place back in DuMont’s castle where, again quoting Tom Johnson, a sort of EC Comics twist ending goes down. It’s a twist, but it’s damned goofy. I’ll spoil it so skip the paragraph if you don’t want to know. But Braid suddenly figures out that Cain is really Max, ie Adam DuMont’s monstrous, mute chaffeur, and none other than Adam DuMont was the killer of his daughter-in-law. In fact, Adam is the muscle-bound one who twisted those barbells. Our hero gets his ass kicked again, this time by Adam DuMont, who turns out to be rippling muscle beneath the shawl he wears over his wheelchair, yet for some reason Adam doesn’t kill Braid. In the end, Adam kills Max off-page and is about to bury him in the burial lot long ago arranged for Cain Dumont. Braid shoots him and the tombstone falls on Adam Dumont, killing him…and, uh, that’s it!

As mentioned above, Dragon Hunt sort of started life in January 1954, as part of the daily From The Files Of Mike Hammer comic strip; the title was “Adam and Cain,” and according to Max Allan Collins in his intro to From The Files Of Mike Hammer: The Complete Dailies and Sundays (Hermes Press, 2013), Spillane apparently just gave the story to his buddy Garrity several years later. The Hermes Press hardcover contains the “Adam and Cain” story, and I was able to read it via Interlibrary Loan.

The comic strip version of this story is much more simplistic. Hammer is summoned off the streets of New York by Amy (Marie in Dragon Hunt), granddaughter of wealthy, wheelchair bound codger Adam Shaver. There ensues a goofily bizarre bit where old Adam mocks Hammer for being afraid to show off his physique, and then Hammer, who just met this old man and doesn’t even know why he’s been summoned here to this mansion out in the countryside, pulls off his shirt and shows off his chiseled pecs!

But Adam is, uh, sizing Hammer up to see if he’s man enough to take on Adam’s muscle-bound son, Cain. In fevered backstory we learn that Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel, and twenty years ago Cain murdered Abel. Adam, who in this comic story is a wealthy old criminal, wants Hammer to find Cain and bring him back here so Adam can kill him and justice will be rendered. Hammer for some reason takes the job – there’s none of the material as in Dragon Hunt where he’s afraid for Cain’s daughter. In fact, Cain in the comic story doesn’t even realize until the climax that Amy is his daughter.

Hammer proceeds through New York to find Cain, even interviewing an old German bodybuilder who knew Cain back in the day – this made so much more sense than having Cain be an opera singer!! The central theme of “Adam and Cain” is that studly Mike Hammer is afraid of Cain Shaver, who is built up as being this inhuman powerhouse. It’s a bit hard to buy, with Hammer even freezing in terror when he finally meets Cain, who proceeds to beat up our hero on two separate occasions. 

The finale is rushed and anticlimactic – Cain, learning that his father wants him, decides to go home on his own, to have a final reckoning. There he hefts old Adam and Amy and proceeds to toss them over a crevasse. Hammer, from afar, just whips out his .45 and blows Cain away. Adam’s dead, but Amy is saved, and the story (and series) ends on a cliffhanger that Adam left behind a note for Hammer, instead of the promised payment. What the note stated would never be known, as here the series ended.

In his introduction Max Collins states that Spillane claimed he’d written “Adam and Cain,” and the fact that thirteen years later the same plot was recycled in a novel by Spillane’s drinking buddy, with a cameo by Hammer himself, would appear to confirm this. It’s hard to compare the two versions, as obviously there’s more meat in a novel than in a daily newspaper strip, but one has to admire how Garrity expanded on the central plot and added in a bunch of metaphor, particularly the “dragon” theme.

One just wishes he’d also included more action, or at least more drive. As it is, Dragon Hunt just seems to trudge on and on; maybe Spillane himself should have fleshed out his comic story into an actual Mike Hammer novel.


Zwolf said...

Good review! I'll probably have to seek this one out, too.

You haven't read a Mike Hammer book yet? Oh, man, I'm almost jealous. Seriously, right now, go find a copy of I, The Jury. That book will change your life. There are a couple of Mike Hammer novels I still haven't read yet, but I've probably read I, The Jury about ten times. If I was a movie director, and they let me direct two remakes, one would be a version of I, The Jury that stuck to the source material, set in the original time period.

(The other would be a remake of Bury Me An Angel, played more seriously).

Johny Malone said...

I liked the stories of spy Tiger Mann more than those of Hammer.

Stephen Mertz said...

"Dragon Hunt" is a mildly interesting pastiche, and Mickey doing a favor for best friend Gerrity. Zwolf is right about the need for you to sample Spillane, altho its notoriety notwithstanding, I always found "I, the Jury" too derivative to be wholly satisfying. "One Lonely Night" embodies everything that made the Mick a much (critically) loathed bestseller and will contextualize for you not only most PI's of the 50s, but the roots of action adventure as well. Happy reading!

Peter Collinson said...

I found the author's Kiss Off the Dead better than Dragon Hunt and, as a classic era Gold Medal paperback, it has a better cover, too.

I'll second Mr. Mertz's recommendation of Spillane's One Lonely Night. It's so noir and rainy and obsessed and vengeful that it's almost psychedelic. Ever read a book that ends with really hateful villains who don't get the horrific punishment they so richly deserve?
This is NOT that book.

Zwolf said...

Yep, One Lonely Night is also great. One of the best first chapters in any Spillane, and the perfect thing to throw in the face of anyone who says Mickey couldn't really write. And it's as hardcore Commie-hatin' as anything churned out in that era, the reds make Hammer rabid. I've read that one a couple of times, too -- kept a copy in my desk all through grad school. I still like I, The Jury better, just for the pure single-minded-of-purpose unstoppable vengefulness of it, but you can't go wrong with One Lonely Night, either. I also love The Girl Hunters, just for that ending. That ending's a monster.

I've only read one of the Tiger Mann books, and liked it fine. Not as much as Hammer, but, tastes are different. I'll definitely read the others at some point. Hell, anything Mickey turned out, I'll read. Just don't start with the newer Hammer books. They're not bad, but not as good as the old ones. There was one that was kind of ridiculous... Black Alley, I think it was, where Hammer starts the book with a couple of .357 Magnum slugs in the torso, and has to solve a case while recovering (as if recovering from a couple of .357 rounds is actually a thing). Definitely don't start with that one.

Johny Malone said...

To put it in psychological terms, Tiger is a sardonic psychopath, while Mike is a foggy neurotic. I think this is closely related with one is a spy and another a private detective. It's curious a novel as good as One Lonely Night has a spy component. Matter of taste.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, everyone. "One Lonely Night" is a Spillane I definitely intend to read, as Stephen sold me on it via his glowing endorsements a few years ago. Actually I guess more accurately I'll be "listening" to it -- I got the unabridged audiobooks of the Hammer novels through Interlibrary Loan, ripped them to MP3, and plan to listen to them during my work commute. I'll start with "I, The Jury," mostly because it's the first one! (And also I'm a big fan of the sleazy 1982 film version with Armand Assante and Barbara Carrerra!)