The Specialist #7: The Vendetta, by John Cutter February, 1985 Signet Books I’m betting John Shirley's original title for this volume of The Specialist was “Make ‘Em Pay,” as the phrase is repeated a few times by bloodthirsty hero Jack Sullivan, who’s in full Johnny Rock mode this time out – in fact going even further, to the point where he’s practically a psychopath. I’ve said before that
Narc #5 Kill The Dragon, by Robert Hawkes
December, 1974 Signet Books
The fifth installment of the Narc series doesn’t pick up from any earlier volumes; as I guessed, John Bolt’s lady love from the previous volume, Anita, doesn’t appear and isn’t even mentioned. As a matter of fact Bolt gets it on with some random lady while on his latest case, and doesn’t once even think of Anita, so I guess she’s gone for good, despite being so built up in the previous book. But anyway Kill the Dragon comes off like a standalone installment, so could easily serve as an introduction to the series.
This volume at times also comes off like Olden’s superior Black Samurai series, what with its focus on martial arts fights and whatnot. Bolt isn’t the one doing the fighting, though; it’s Peter Joe, one of the novel’s many villains, an 18 year-old Hong Kong orphan who has come to the US to climb the ladder of the New York tongs. Peter Joe works for Gabriel Ling Tsu, aka “Sweet Sue,” tong godfather of New York. Gabriel is currently working a deal with mob boss Johnny Fist; Gabriel’s Red China heroin contact The Monk is about to import a huge shipment of heroin, and Fist wants to buy it to corner the market.
Of course Bolt, as top agent for D-3, gets involved; we meet him already on the case, as he’s being dragged along a concrete floor somewhere in Washington, DC by a speeding car. One thing that can be said for Olden is he knows how to start his novels with exciting scenes, and this is yet another example. Bolt is in the process of capturing the Monk, and for his pains he’s left with an injured left arm and shoulder which plague him through the rest of the novel.
But for all of that the Monk is let go within the hour, sprung by Mercer Mannering, a new-to-the-series government VIP who is very friendly with Red China. Although Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, it’s obvious Kill the Dragon was written long before it, as though Nixon’s name is never specified it’s constantly driven home that “the current president” is trying very hard to sow peace with China, hence arresting a visiting notable like the Monk would sour the peace negotiations. Mercer is also very hostile toward D-3 in general and Bolt in particular, and Olden makes it clear that Bolt has made yet another enemy.
This particular volume took a while to read; although it’s only 159 pages, those pages are filled with small print and barely any white space. Once again Olden really fills up pages by jumping into the perspectives of his huge cast of characers, to the point where snatches of the book come off like streams of consciousness. I’ve complained about this tendency of Olden’s before; in a way he’s like the reverse image of Joseph Rosenberger. Whereas Rosenberger page-fills with endlessly detailed action scenes, Olden sort of does the same with lots of extended peeks into the minds of his characters, to the point where the book can become a trawl.
There are a few action setpieces, though, just not as many as previously. There’s the opening fight in DC, and a better one later on where Bolt and his two fellow narcs Kramer and Masetta (both reappearing from previous volumes) launch a raid on Peter Joe and his men in snow-filled upstate New York. Masetta takes a lot of damage here, but doesn’t die, Peter Joe tossing grenades at the narcs. The novel finishes with a similar setpiece, as Bolt again leads an assault on the tongs and the mafia; here Bolt unleashes his specially-made shotgun, though really you’d think an assault rifle would be better suited for the occasion.
It’s the plots and counterplots that again take up the brunt of the narrative. For one Bolt has to deal with Mercer, who actually sends a trio of CIA goons to rough up Bolt. This bit is a tad too much as Bolt gets free, cripples one of them, and so “scares” the three agents that the CIA backs off and promises to no longer interfere! You’d figure Bolt would be dead within a day. But at any rate Bolt hatches a plan that ends up with Mercer kicked out of office, this whole subplot brimming with the anti-Nixon administration sentiment that was so prevalent at the time, but as mentioned was already moot by the time the book saw publication.
Then there’s Peter Joe, who schemes to take a position of power in Gabriel Tsu’s tong. Peter Joe gets most of the spotlight, so far as the villains go – and you won’t be surprised to know that he gets away in the end, yet another of Olden’s many villains who escape to return another day…a day that never comes. Maybe it’s Olden’s commentary on how villains are never caught, but it’s getting to be frustrating how he develops these bad guys and never gives them their comeuppance, instead saving them for potential sequels.
Bolt is a bit more involved in the story this time, tracking down contacts (there’s a memorable scene where he meets a contact in a movie theater that’s playing a kung-fu flick), talking back to his bosses, and shooting the shit with his fellow narcs. As mentioned he picks up some nameless chick while in upstate New York, and we learn at the end of the novel that his next conquest will be a stewardess “with big tits and bad breath” whom he meets on the flight from DC to New York.
Anyway, Kill The Dragon was entertaining and offered more of what we’ve come to expect from the series, with streetwise crooks and the occasional action sequence, but my favorite volume yet is still #2: Death Of A Courier, mostly because of its pulpish nature.
Recycled Souls, by Ian Ross
September, 1976 Signet Books
It doesn’t feature a series title or volume number, but this was the fifth and final installment of the Mind Masters series. In fact, “Mind Masters” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the novel, and what’s odd is that Recycled Souls comes closer than any previous volume to being a direct sequel to The Mind Masters #1. The events of the previous volume in particular aren’t even mentioned, and author John Rossmann (aka “Ian Ross”) brings back characters and situations that haven’t been seen since that first volume.
But the series overhaul begun in #4: Amazons continues here, with Recycled Souls coming off like a reset switch. As for Rossmann himself, he’s still for whatever reason calling himself Ian Ross. Humorously, the book features an ad for The Mind Masters volumes #1-4, stating that each volume is “by John Rossmann (Ian Ross)!” And for that matter, Recycled Souls is actually copyright John Rossmann, so I wonder why he even bothered with the name change.
Inexplicable name changes aren’t just limited to the author. Kelly Dale, the American college student who entered the series back in #3: The Door, is now known as “Trish DeVele,” and we get absolutely no reason why this is! Throughout the novel Rossmann (and the characters) refers to her as “Trish,” and Rossmann never once explains why she changed her name, what the goal was, or anything. He just informs us right at the start that Kelly is now Trish, and that’s that! It’s even odder because Recycled Souls takes place just “a few weeks” after The Door.
But at any rate Trish is basically now just a female version of series hero Britt St. Vincent, anyway, spouting out the same parapsychology mumbo-jumbo in the baldest of exposition. And remember how she fought off the titular Amazons in the previous novel and took a position of power in their queendom? It’s not even mentioned here, which is just as odd given that the events of Amazons took place only a few days before Recycled Souls!
This volume brings Britt and his fellow Mero operatives to the exotic locale of Long Beach, California. As you’ll recall, they boarded a plane to California at the very end of Amazons, and on the flight Britt researched the mission – namely, that a WWII sailor, believed to be dead for decades, recently showed up in a waterfront gay bar in Long Beach and, after starting a fight, was tossed in jail, where he turned into a pile of ashes overnight. Now in a Long Beach hotel, Britt is busy pining over the years-ago death of his fiance, Gayle, whom he suspiciously hasn’t mentioned (or thought of) since The Mind Masters #1. In fact Recycled Souls opens with Britt looking over his hotel balcony, crying at Gayle’s memory, and debating if he should kill himself!
Trish/Kelly meanwhile poses as an investigative reporter; her job is to interview Dr. Laura Wharton, a beautiful blonde aquatic researcher who lives in a mansion filled with equally-gorgeous women on Catalina Island, just off of Long Beach’s shore. Wharton you see is a devoted lesbian, as are all the women at her disposal. Plus, she relates to Trish mere moments after meeting her, Wharton is also a CIA agent, and is performing underwater research for the agency – like, for example, psychically training sharks to obey her commands! (The back cover copy smacks of desperation on this point, attempting to cash in on the recent success of Jaws.)
Britt continues to pose as a race car driver, and we get a few long sequences of him barrelling through the Long Beach streets. But then Rossmann page-fills in his favorite fashion: Britt is mysteriously summoned to the famous Queen Mary; in an isolated room there he meets up with Mero head Dr. Webster (himself not seen since the first volume) and a CIA agent named Carlton who’s old acquaintances with Webster. Here Rossmann delivers about twenty or so pages of the outright exposition the series is known for, with the trio discussing psychic phenomena and the ever-constant threat of mind enslavement. The series-reset feeling is strong, with Britt even informing Carlton how he got involved with Mero and who each member of his team is and what they do.
One thing I can say is that Rossmann has finally figured out how to keep the plot moving while still dumping his metaphysical info on us. Recycled Souls moves right along as Trish is promptly kidnapped by the evil Laura Wharton; Trish is drugged and wakes to find herself nude and chained to the good doctor’s bed. (One of Wharton’s female goons later mentions that Trish “pleasured” Wharton through the night, but suspiciously enough Rossmann failed to inform us of that lurid fact…or, more importantly, to provide us with the details!) Wharton is just the latest version of the longwinded villains this series is also known for, and as a bound Trish listens the “man-hating seductress” goes on and on about how she can make clones from something as simple as a strand of hair.
The action doesn’t go down until the final quarter, with Britt being attacked by a few CIA “cyborgs,” ie those one-shot-and-die psychic kamikazes last seen way back in The Mind Masters #1. Meanwhile Trish, no longer useful to Dr. Wharton, is tortured by a pair of sadistic guards (they use her breasts as a dart board!), who plan to toss her to the sharks once they’re finished with her. But if only Trish could reach those psychic-boosting pills… (Of course she does!) There are still no guns or any other “regular” sort of men’s adventure action standards, but Rossmann doesn’t shy from the gore, with plentiful description of how heads explode and eyeballs pop out when people are hit by Britt or Trish’s psychic mind-bolts.
As for the series overhaul mentioned above, the sleaze has been thoroughly gutted. The Mind Masters started off with some of the more lurid stuff I’ve ever read, in particular #2: Shamballah, which featured some hyper-explicit and sleazy sex (and of course was the best volume of the series!). But after that installment the sleaze began to taper off, with Amazons not even featuring a single sex scene. Recycled Souls follows suit, with even less of a sleaze factor than that…other that is than a scene where Britt is momentarily knocked out and his attackers plan to rape him so as to make it look like a “sex murder” here by the gay bars of Long Beach’s wharves.
I wonder if this tamed nature was due to the whims of Rossmann or the publisher. My guess is it was the former, as the back cover and first page of Recycled Souls makes the novel sound just as lurid as the earliest volumes of the series, talking up the hot lesbian chicks in Dr. Wharton’s undersea city, as well as the intriguing development that Wharton creates a clone of Trish so as to sexually ensnare Britt. It would seem the copywriter had a better novel in mind than Rossmann himself did, for while Wharton actually does clone Trish, all she uses it for is to distract Britt’s attention and to lure him into a trap, where the Trish-clone attempts to karate-chop him to death. (After which she falls into the ocean, conveniently gobbled up by sharks.)
In fact, given the lack of sleaze and the removal of all the explicit sex, coupled with that ultra-lame bit in The Door where Britt called to God for help and God helped him (!!), my bet is that Rossmann himself was trying to move away from the cheap and dirty feel of the earliest installments and into more of a “holy” atmosphere. And I’m not just pulling that word out of nowhere; there’s a part in Recycled Souls where Britt goes into an extended jag about various “holy” things, and the novel ends with Britt ranting about how “the world is for children!” and other maudlin chestnuts you’d more expect to hear coming from the head of the PTA instead of a dude who previously attended Black Masses and orgies with his nympho German girlfriend.
Rossmann attempts to end the novel (and thus the series) on a cliffhanger; perhaps he hoped if he did so, enough readers would write to Signet Books and request another installment. If so, I would say the attempt failed. Recycled Souls ends with Dr. Webster’s dire warning that the CIA has more than likely figured out the secret location of Mero HQ, and that an assault squad is no doubt on the way. Though Laura Wharton’s faction of CIA renegades has been disposed of (Wharton and her entire lesbian army having become shark food, thanks to Britt psychicaly shattering the protective glass wall of their underwater lab), there are more CIA factions out there who want Mero.
So this is where we leave Britt St. Vincent and his pill-popping, racecar-driving, psychic comrades; eternally vigilant for a CIA attack that will never come.
The Never Contract, by David J. Gerrity
April, 1975 Signet Books
This was the first of three obscure novels David J. Gerrity wrote about infamous mob enforcer Frank Cordolini, a gray-eyed “wolf” who, now in his fifties, has been retired from the mob life for the past ten years. Living in upstate New York under a new name, with a wife and young son, Cordolini knows that it’s only a matter of time before his old life comes back for him. The Never Contract is the long-simmer tale of how this comes about.
Cordolini is almost like a guest star in his own novel. The narrative, especially at the beginning, focuses more on low-tier mobsters, in particular Eddie Rush and Peter Bergin. The latter has been contracted by representatives of Don Anthony Vicari in New York City to kidnap the son of Frank Cordolini, and Bergin wants Rush to do the job with him. But Rush, a perpetual loser, is wary of the job. We get lots of page-filling as Rush gets Bergin to go on a job with him, one that turns out to be a total bust. Meanwhile Bergin also employs some upstate radicals, a trio of revolutionaries lead by Jerry Roth, a self-styled Abbie Hoffman who has more in common with Charles Manson. Their job will be to watch Cordolini’s kid after he’s adbucted.
We also get a lot of material from Don Vicari’s perspective – Vicari is the son of the man who was Frank Cordolini’s don, but Vicari is nothing like his father. He’s psychotic, which we learn when in his opening scene he kicks a stray cat that’s just given birth on his oceanside property and, before her dying eyes, stomps her litter of kittens to death! We learn via snippets of backstory that Vicari actually killed his father, so as to take over the family empire; that was ten years ago, and was the reason behind Cordolini’s sudden departure from the hitman life. Like the other “old-timers” Cordolini despises the young Vicari and all he stands for; he knew it would only be a matter of time before Vicari junior would order his own death, so he split.
As for Frank Cordolini, he only appears sporadically for the first half of the novel. Cordolini is a ghostly figure in the underworld, nicknamed “The Wolf” and legendary for his brutality. In other words, he’s a younger, better looking Luca Brasi. I say “younger” but Cordolini is in his fifties at least (Gerrity mentions in one of the brief flashbacks that Cordolini was ten years old when the Depression set in), though Gerrity doesn’t make much of this in the narrative itself – in other words, there’s none of that “I’m too old for this” shit. Cordolini has lost his edge over the past decade, though; he suspects Don Vicari is finally going to try to have him killed, but Cordolini does nothing about it, other than gradually plan to take his family on vacation.
So really, there’s just a lot of plotting and dialog for most of The Never Contract, and Gerrity is along the lines of Dan Schmidt in how he wastes so many pages with several different characters planning to do something…and then taking forever to show them actually do it. The novel really has all the makings of being a trashy, sleazy classic – Don Vicari by the way also gets his kicks trussing up women and whipping them to death – but even this exploitative stuff is downplayed in favor of go-nowhere digressions and redundant character introspection.
When the novel finally achieves boil, however, it’s pretty good. The abduction of Cordolini’s kid doesn’t happen until toward the very end – the plan is, Bergin’s people will kidnap the boy, and when Cordolini comes out to get him Vicari’s men will kill Cordolini. But the incredibly annoying Jerry Roth, who dreams of himself as being “The Leader” of a post-revolutionary United States, takes over the job from the ineffectual Bergin and spirals the whole affair into chaos.
The old killing instincts slowly come back to Cordolini as he goes after the kidnappers. Even here though it’s a long-simmer affair, with Cordolini complying with their demands (getting ransom money, being at certain phone booths at exact times for their calls, etc) as he bides his time. This develops into a contest of wills between Cordolini and Roth, who doesn’t understand why this guy isn’t quaking in fear – none of the people Bergin hired for the kidnapping job (or Bergin himself) know who Cordolini is, or know of his past. Gerrity does a fine job here of making the reader despise these kidnappers so much that we look forward to Cordolini’s many promises that he’s going to make them suffer horribly before they die.
But man, talk about an anticlimax. Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. When Cordolini finally turns the tables, Gerrity welches on the blood-soaked finale he’s been promising throughout. There are several instances where Cordolini will think to himself how he’s going to skin Jerry Roth alive and etc, but when the big finale arrives…Cordolini walks into the kidnappers’s hideout with a shotgun and blows everyone away in the span of a sentence. That’s it! The reader has so grown to despise Roth that we want to see him carved up horrifically or something to pay for his deeds, but Gerrity fails to deliver, in a big way. Just as worse is the resolution with Don Vicari, another guy who deserves to get his just desserts; Gerrity puts on his fancy “Literary Artist” pants and ends the novel just as Cordolini has snuck up behind Cordolini, leaving what transpires next to the reader’s imagination.
As mentioned above, this wasn’t it for Cordolini; he returned the following year in The Plastic Man and then finally in 1977’s The Numbers Man, all of them paperback originals. Gerrity by the way was pals with Mickey Spillane, who endorsed this novel; Gerrity also published as “Dave J. Garrity” and also just plain “Garrity,” so I guess he must’ve really wanted to confuse his readers.
Decoy #1: The Great Pretender, by Jim Deane
November, 1974 Signet Books
This was the first of a two-volume “series” narrated by Nick Merlotti, aka The Great Pretender – surely the author’s intended title for the series. I can only assume that either Signet or some editor there came up with the Decoy title, as never once does Merlotti (or anyone else) refer to himself that way. At any rate Merlotti is a “super thief turned super cop,” a guy famous in the underworld for his heists and capers. Caught by the cops after a decade of inactivity, Merlotti is now offered a chance to work for the Man, after which his slate will be wiped clean.
Sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun, but sadly The Great Pretender is one of the more leisurely-paced books I’ve read. Author Jim Deane fills countless pages with the bluster of his arrogant narrator Merlotti, the worst instances being the endless sequences where Merlotti will brainstorm how this or that happened. Just pages and pages of immaterial and unnecessary junk. The novel is moreso a suspense or mystery sort of thing; the cops hire Merlotti to find out who stole 5 million dollars worth of heroin, but in the course of the narrative it turns out that there’s more to the case than meets the eye.
Merlotti’s brought in by Duffy, captain of police in New York and a guy Merlotti’s had run-ins with in the past, as well as Passantino, a young assistant DA. The two men hit Merlotti with the proposal to figure out what happened to the heroin; they want Merlotti to ambush another shipment coming into New York and then turn around and try to sell it to Gianfreddo, a mobster they believe is behind the heroin steal. To help Merlotti they’ve brought in Mr. Waves, a black radio/gadgets wiz (sort of like Barney on Mission:Impossible, I guess ) who himself is famous in the underworld.
That’s the setup. Merlotti meanwhile immediately dives into his favorite pasttime: checking out the ladies. Reading this book was almost like reading a Harold Robbins novel – it was a chore getting through all of the boring, repetitive stuff, but you kept going only because you knew you’d gradually be rewarded by a goofy sex scene. But unlike Robbins Deane isn’t explicit in the least – that is, except for when it comes to describing the female anatomy, breasts in particular. This guy will go on and on about the female form, to the point where it almost gets a little creepy, but the sex scene itself will be relegated to: “We fucked again.” That’s an actual quote from the book, by the way.
The Great Pretender’s first conquest is Jane, a “tit-goddess” he meets while sunning on Fire Island. The ensuing romance takes up more of the opening narrative than the actual case, with Merlotti falling in love with the gal. Meanwhile he just sort of messes around with the investigation into the heroin, and Deane bores us with incessant pages of Merlotti researching the various clerks who worked the shift when the heroin disappeared, what their lifestyles are now like, etc. Here though he does indulge in a little disguise work, something he’s constantly reminding us he’s talented in; my favorite part is when he poses as a “sex researcher” and goes to each clerk’s home and interviews their wives about how their husbands are in bed! Again, it has no bearing on anything that happens in the novel, but it’s so goofy that it’s entertaining.
Jane departs the narrative (she pleads with Merlotti to run off with her, but he’s given his word he’ll see this case through) right before Merlotti launches a raid on a boat importing the heroin. This is one of the few action scenes in the novel, as Merlotti and Waves find that the drugrunners don’t surrender as quickly as Merlotti expected. A smallscale war ensues, Merlotti blowing away goons with a machine gun. After this though the placid nature returns; Merlotti and Waves discover that the drugrunners were actually carrying sugar, not heroin, and so they begin trying to figure out what’s really going on.
Here the doldrums really set in, as Deane fills pages with tons of unimportant and uninteresting stuff. Things liven up a little when Merlotti picks up yet another gal, Faye, who we are told is even hotter than Jane (it cracks me up though that Deane came up with such similar names for his female characters, Faye and Jane…but then, they are pretty much clones of one another). The highlight of The Great Pretender is all of this pre-PC stuff, with Merlotti picking up chicks and etc; he meets Faye by basically stalking her, first catching a glimpse of her chest in the window across from his own apartment, and thus he begins staring out the window for more glimpses of her magnificent mammaries (which he describes ad naseum).
Things also liven up with a few brief action scenes, Merlotti ambushed by gunmen sent after him. Deane proves he can also dole out the graphic violence, with Merlotti blowing out one of the dude’s brains. But for the most part The Great Pretender is heavier on the brainwork (and breast-oggling) than the action – even the finale lacks much action or any violence, with Merlotti, Waves, and Faye corralling Passantino (whom Merlotti at great length has pegged as the villain) and Gianfreddo on an airplane, outing them in front of a hidden news camera, and then parachuting out over Florida. It’s intended as a big finish, but it’s kind of stupid.
Besides the Decoy series, Jim Deane only has two other books to his name: The Mistress Book, a 1972 Pinnacle release that falls right into that early ‘70s “sex book” category, and The Fine Art of Picking Up Girls, a 1974 Pinnacle book that might be a retitled republication of The Mistress Book (the front cover is the same as the back cover of The Mistress Book). All of the Deane books however are copyright “Paul Gillette Enterprises,” a corporation which is still around…I wonder if Jim Deane and Paul Gillette are one and the same. Gillette is a name I’ve seen before; he’s published several novels over the years, one of them being 1965’s Satyricon: Memoirs of a Lusty Roman, which I have on my first toga porn list.
Finally, I thought I’d share a few of the more memorable quotes from The Great Pretender. See if you can spot a recurring theme!
I lay on the beach at Fire Island looking at tits and wondering why I felt so grumpy. -- pg. 18
I tuned in on her tits before I became aware of the rest of her. Lying dune-side on the beach, looking out over the tit-sea at the real sea, I saw these gorgeous grapefruit-sized beauties roll to life as she flopped over from prone to supine and stretched her lovely long arms into the sun. -- pg. 19
I was really getting pissed off. It’s bad enough striking out with a chick you meet on the subway. But when they come to a beach and pop tits into your face and let their pubes stick out of their bathing suits and still shoot you down, even when you happen to be one of the very few males on the island, it can get a mite depressing. Only my lust for that fantastic body drove me onward. -- pg. 21
What happened to her tits during the backstroke was not to be believed. They didn’t quite bounce, owing mainly to the water pressure. They just sort of slid around. And every stroke of her long arms sent each jug in a massive elliptical slide that would’ve been enough to blow the top of my head off even if her gorgeous pubes weren’t showing through the front of her sheer minikini panties – which, as a matter of fact they were. -- pg. 22
Tits! -- pg. 80
The Specialist #6: The Big One, by John Cutter
December, 1984 Signet Books
Jack Sullivan, the “toughest action hero of them all,” returns in this sixth installment of John Shirley’s Specialist series. This is one hit or miss series, with some volumes, like #4: The Psycho Soldiers, being incredibly entertaining, while others, like #2: Manhattan Revenge, being monotonous bores. Luckily The Big One is in the former category, and it’s a lot of fun.
Speaking of Manhattan Revenge, this volume picks up some threads from that early installment, opening with a darkly humorous scene where Sullivan carries out a hit on a guy who killed one of the child sex slaves in Van Kleef’s den. Per the contract Sullivan has to carry out the hit on the guy’s birthday, and since the guy has mob connections this involves taking out a slew of thugs as well. But then one of the mobsters gets wind that The Specialist is here and tips off the cops, who promptly spot Sullivan’s warwagon as he’s making a leisurely getaway.
This implies that The Big One is going to be a “Sullivan breaks out of prison” storyline, but so much goes down in the 180 pages of this novel that his jail tenure is over in a flash. Sullivan is sprung by the Feds, who actually want to put him on a job – a megamillionaire named Hughes has it in for a neo-Nazi drug kingpin named Reichstone (nicknamed “The Big One”) who rules an island kingdom in South America, where he has the support of the corrupt local government. Reichstone has kidnapped Hughes’s daughter and made her his sex slave (notice a theme developing, here), and has also tortured, with acid, Hughes’s son.
But due to that governmental backing, the US can’t officially become involved. So Sullivan is their go-to guy, as he’s friggin’ legendary, even among the criminal filth of the world. After seeing the ruined figure that was once Hughes’s son, Sullivan is consumed with his equally-lengendary wrath and eagerly takes the job. He brings along Merlin and Rolff, the mercs who have assisted him in previous volumes.
Sullivan’s been equipped with a plethora of hardware, and Shirley takes a page out of Gold Eagle, detailing it all for us. Also on the GE tip is Sullivan’s new Atchisson automatic shotgun, so memorably featured in Able Team #8: Army Of Devils. Sullivan takes an instant liking to the Atchisson, which he uses throughout the novel to blow thugs apart in gory fashion. He gets a chance to take his new toys for a test drive as soon as he lands near Reichstone’s domain, blowing away a few cops and then taking captive their captain.
The Big One operates on all the tropes of a classic pulp melodrama, with constant reversals and unexpected turns, not to mention the old cliché of “enemies turned friends.” Sullivan shows a knack for making people see his way, and during the course of the narrative manages to turn a handful of Reichstone’s goons. And also per those classic tropes we see the return of many characters, in particular Skulleye, the “monster Muslim” terrorist who got half of his face shot off by Sullivan in the previous volume.
Another returning character from Maltese Vengeance is Ollie Tryst, who when last we saw him was planning to marry a spitfire beauty in Malta. Turns out the romance fizzled and Tryst went off looking for merc work…and guess what, he’s inadvertently ended up as a security guard on Reichstone’s island! There are two hundred mercs here, including the Elite, Reichstone’s personal guard, all of them hulking blondes who go about in sleeveless SS uniforms.
Given the “sex slave” angle of the plot, you’d figure Shirley would indulge in some lurid doings, but he doesn’t. In fact he doesn’t even deliver one of his trademark sex scenes until the novel’s almost over, having Sullivan get busy with a “big” redhead who happens to be an undercover Mossad agent. (Even she has heard of Sullivan!) The lurid quotient is relegated to several grisly action scenes, including a great moment – and another indication of Shirley’s gift for dark humor – where a character is eaten by a shark.
One thing that can be said for the Specialist series though is it isn’t as creative in the plot department. Everything goes down just as you expect it will, as in previous volumes – Sullivan shows up, scouts the area, kills some guards, plans his attack, and finally launches his attack. But Shirley at least throws some unexpected elments into the tale, obviously having fun as he mounts coincidence upon coincidence – like, for example, the team of CIA agents who just happen to be captives on Reichstone’s island, and one of them is Sullivan’s old pal! (Later these guys form their own detachment as “the White Berets,” another indication of Shirley having fun with his own story.)
Another unexpected element is when Sullivan himself gets captured, the first time I believe this has happened in the series. Skulleye and Reichstone interrogate him, and Sullivan proves his “toughest action hero” status here, certain he can take the torture. But instead they drug him, and Shirley shows off his horror chops with a very surreal and psychedelic scene where Sullivan hallucinates all kinds of nightmarish shit.
But still it all ends with the expected assault on Reichstone’s fortress, Sullivan assisted by a veritable army of mercs and Mossad agents who just so coincentally happen to be in the area. The Atchisson is again put to use in gory splendor, particularly in Sullivan’s final confrontation with Skulleye – though honestly I expected Shirley to play up this rivalry a bit more. All told Skulleye is barely in the novel. But the payoff with Reichstone’s fate more than makes up for it.
Anyway, this is a fun novel, filled with fun moments, like the scene pictured on the cover, where Sullivan avoids becoming shark-food thanks to a handy grenade. And also Shirley’s sense of humor is a nice change of pace; it’s obvious he’s having fun with the material, slyly poking fun at the characters and events, yet he still provides a quality story. When he’s in form Shirley is capable of delivering excellent examples of what men’s adventure novels can be, and this is exactly what he does here.
Narc #4: The Delgado Killings by Robert Hawkes
October, 1974 Signet Books
I’m starting to think Marc Olden could be considered the Elmore Leonard of men’s adventure authors, his Narc series being a case in point. Instead of the over-the-top, gun-blazing thrills customary of the genre, Olden continues to write a grim and gritty series that brings to life the sleazy, dangerous streets of 1970s New York City. Olden once again takes us into a sordid world of drug kingpins and street-level warriors, where only the most vicious survive.
As is customary for this series, The Delgado Killings is mostly an ensemble piece, with hero John “Narc” Bolt just one of the many characters. There’s no pickup from the previous volume, and indeed it appears that we’ve missed a lot between installments. For one, Bolt’s girlfriend of The Death List is not only gone and unmentioned, but he’s managed to find another girlfriend in the meantime. Anyway Bolt’s life has been pretty hectic since we last saw him, and Olden spends a lot of time informing us what we missed via backstory.
But as usual with Olden it’s the villains who get the most narrative time. The titular Delgado for example takes up a goodly portion of the novel; a cocaine kingpin, Delgado is in the sights of Bolt’s agency D-3 and is about to be put on trial. At great cost Delgado has gotten a list of the names of the people who will testify against him. His plan is to kill off these witnesses, and to do so he hires Victor Poland, a former cop who has become a hitman who specializes in helping those in the narcotics industry.
Mostly though Delgado wants Bolt dead. It turns out that Bolt has killed Delgado’s lover – Delgado is gay (he’s actually referred to as “The Snow Queen” on the back cover…man, you can’t get much more pre-PC than that), and this murder has sent him over the edge. Delgado’s homosexuality is often ridiculed throughout the book, and it’s another indication of how the times have changed…vast portions of this stuff would not be publishable in today’s tepid, sterilized, PG-13 neutered world.
Like previous novels, The Delgado Killings takes place over a short period of time, specifically during a very hot summer. We’re reminded, quite often and at length, of the extreme heat and the uncomfortable conditions. But then Olden mentions that it’s 85 degrees out, and I had to laugh…I mean, when it’s 85 degrees down here in the hellish heat of Dallas, that’s when we know it’s finally getting cooler and summer’s wrapping up! Anyway Olden fully brings to life the mire of a New York summer, just another indication of his writing talent.
Poland takes the job and hires his own little band of hitmen, and together they begin killing off the witnesses, making each look like accidental deaths. Bolt himself doesn’t even appear until well into the book, and we learn of his involvement in the Delgado case in backstory, including how Bolt caused the death of Delgado’s lover. Bolt’s the only one to quickly deduce that Delgado is behind these “accidental deaths,” and when a gunman tries to kill both Bolt and one of the witnesses in a staged holdup, he knows for sure that he’s had a death warrant placed on him.
I have to say though that Bolt really isn’t much fun of a character, which is perhaps why Olden spends so little time with him. He has all the standard attributes of your average men’s adventure protagonist, but no sparkle, no charm. In fact he’s pretty humorless, something Olden plays up on with the other characters, so it seems to me that it was Olden’s intent to make Bolt such a grim cipher. What’s strange though is the guy had a lot more pizazz back in Narc #1, including a nihilistic bent, all of which has disappeared – and by the way, what happened to Bolt’s martial arts guru, also unseen since that first volume?
But then, this is an ensemble piece and the minor players are more interesting than the protagonist. Poland comes off as a street-smart warrior with one hell of a mean streak; there’s a Stephen King-esque sequence late in the tale where Poland takes up an axe and hacks off the head and hands of one of his men. Olden really captures the sick horror of this, having another of Poland’s men puke at the sight – in fact there’s quite a bit of puking going on in The Delgado Killings, with even Bolt himself blowing chunks in the finale.
The new woman in Bolt’s life is Anita Rona, a gorgeous young model who worked as a courier for Delgado until she was busted by Bolt, who was working undercover on the case in Paris. Apparently Bolt and Anita became quite serious despite this unusual “meet cute,” but Bolt had to break it off when they got back to the US, much to Anita’s surprise and devastation. Again, all of this is relayed via backstory, and therefore lacks much impact, as we’re supposed to really be worried about Anita and regret the fact that she and Bolt couldn’t be together.
In fact, Anita only appears in a single sequence, a nonetheless taut one where Bolt comes to her rescue as Poland and his men attempt to kill her in a grocery store. But she disappears from the narrative after that, as if Olden only brought her into the tale so he could write a damsel in distress scene. It all would’ve been so much more powerful if Olden had used one of the female characters from a previous book.
There are a few action scenes, but again they’re played out on a very “real world” scale, with Bolt going into combat with nothing more than his .45 or his ankle-holstered Beretta. This in particular is his sole weapon during another taut sequence, where he chases after Bookbinder, the Poland assassin who attempted to kill Bolt in the staged hold-up. Olden does strive to make Bolt human, perhaps a little too much so. There are many, many scenes where we are informed that Bolt is afraid or nervous, and while it’s a welcome change from the traditional ultra-heroic protagonist of this genre, it gets to be a little much after a while.
Despite which The Delgado Killings is still another enjoyable Olden offering, leagues above what you’d expect. I guess my biggest problem with it would be the ending. Bolt’s entire mission here is to ensure the witnesses don’t die, so that Delgado can be put on trial and both his public stature and his criminal empire ruined. But all of this is rendered moot in the final action scene, when Poland, set up by Bolt to believe he’s been double crossed, goes after Delgado for revenge.
Another problem I had was with the resolution – namely that there is no resolution. For one, Poland’s fate is left in doubt and it seems obvious that Olden intends for him to return, but given that he did the same thing in Black Samurai #6 and that villain never returned, I kind of wish he’d just had Bolt put a bullet in Poland’s head. Also the storyline with Anita Rosa is given too much buildup and too little follow-through, especially when you assume that, like every other woman in Bolt’s life in this series, she’ll be gone and forgotten by the next volume.
The Mind Masters #4: Amazons, by Ian Ross
March, 1976 Signet Books
There are a few changes afoot with this volume of the Mind Masters series; most notably, the author is now credited as “Ian Ross” instead of “John Rossmann,” but make no mistake it’s the same dude. Also there’s more of a team dynamic at play, with series protagonist Britt St. Vincent sort of brushed to the side for many sequences so that the author can focus on other members of Britt’s Mero Group. Also, believe it or not, there isn’t a single sex scene in Amazons, though it still brims with a general air of sleaze and exploitation, as is customary for the series.
Another change worth mentioning is the name of the villainous CIA psychic warfare lab that goes up against Mero; throughout the series Rossmann has referred to it as the “Hary Diamond lab,” but in Amazons it’s suddenly the “Harry Hammond lab.” Unlike the other changes, this one actually occurs in the novel; Rossmann writes “Harry Diamond” when he first mentions it early in Amazons, but thereafter it becomes “Harry Hammond.” So are we witnessing the mindset of a paranoiac at work? Did Rossmann, afraid he’d let out too many “secrets” with the previous three novels, suddenly get scared, changing his own name to a psuedonym as well as material within the actual book? Who knows.
Anyway, Britt’s life continues its hectic pace; this installment picks up apparently just a few weeks after #3: The Door. Britt’s now in Brazil, where he’s looking into a string of political murders that might or might not be tied into some ghost activity: Furtado, the CIA-backed new president of Brazil, has had a powerful medicine man killed, and word is the medicine man’s ghost is out for vengeance. But that’s just one of the plotlines; there’s also Dr. Sin, a North Korean anthropologist who’s gone missing down here. Like The Door, there are a wealth of plots going on in Amazons, and Rossmann skirts over some and forgets others.
As we’ll recall from the final pages of The Door, Britt’s also journeyed to Brazil due to reported sightings of valkyrie-like blonde beauties who have been seen with these politicians shortly before they turned up dead. As luck would have it, the mission coincides with Brazil’s infamous Carnival, during which a racing event will be held – perfect for the Mero Group’s cover as a racecar team.
Once again it’s the preparation for the race that takes the brunt of this portion of the storyline; very rarely do we see Britt or the team’s head driver, Greg, actually take part in a race. And also these prep scenes continue the series’s curious homoerotic tenor, with lots of otherwise-pointless details about Britt “gripping” gearshifts or screwdrivers or what have you. (Not to even mention the many, many references to Britt’s “heavy penis” and whatnot…sounds like a medical condition, if you ask me.)
While Carnival rages in all its uninhibited glory about them (which gives Rossmann ample opportunity to mention all of the “swaying breasts” and “erect penises” of the naked celebrants), Britt and teammate Karl head off into the jungle. Their destination: the ruins of a Mayan temple from which the dead medicine man’s ghost supposedly operates. Karl though can’t hack the bad vibes and takes off, leaving Britt solo. When he spots yet more swaying breasts and erect penises headed his way – a line of Carnival celebrants branching off into the jungle – Britt follows them and pretty soon gets his ass caught by bona fide jungle Amazons.
These statuesque blonde women are so incredibly beautiful that men lose all senses when looking at them; this though is due to their psychic powers. Also, they walk around the jungle fully nude! Shackled in their village in the depths of the jungle, Britt also meets Dr. Sin, the supposedly “missing” North Korean anthropologist. Sin is actually a James Bond-style villain and has come here to harness the psychic powers of the Amazons to take over Brazil…and then the world! Also, Sin is a hermaphrodite!!
The level of sleaze Rossmann descends to (ascends to?) throughout this section is a wonder to behold…naked Amazon beauties traipsing about; a CIA agent captured, tortured, roasted and then eaten; copious descriptions of Sin’s hermaphrodite anatomy; tons of strange scenes where a nude and shackled Britt loses sexual control of himself due to the psychic manipulations of the Amazons; and even an actualization of that curious tenor where Sin (consistently referred to as “he” in the narrative) grabs hold of Britt’s manhood seconds before Britt orgasms from the Amazonian psychic chicanery!
Again, the only thing missing here is an actual sex scene, which is only strange given how plentiful (and explicit) they were in previous volumes. What’s odd is that much is made of how the Amazon chieftess makes Britt her lover for one night, the challenge being that if Britt doesn’t please her she’ll have him castrated, but Rossmann doesn’t get into details on the actual night, despite building it up so much. (An even bigger miss is when, later in the narrative, Britt’s girlfriend/teammate Kelly is challenged to sexually pleasure the Amazons or face death…and Rossmann apparently forgets all about it!)
A staple of the previous books was the longwinded explanation the villain would give Britt once having him in custody. Here Rossmann takes that and basically spends around 75% of the novel on it; once Britt’s been captured, we are faced with an endless string of scenes where Sin will question Britt, baldly exposit on the latest metaphysical research, and then tell him his plans for world conquest. And of course Britt exposits right back; vast chunks of the Mind Masters books read like excerpts from a magazine article on ESP or psychic research or whatever, with quotation marks merely bracketing the information in a lame attempt at passing it all off as “dialog.”
Meanwhile Britt’s fellow Mero operatives try to find him. Kelly, the young American college student Britt saved back in London, in The Door (I’m sure we all remember that unforgettable and touching scene where she screwed the gearshift of Britt’s car, right??), has apparently become a fellow operative in a bit of narrative sleight of hand. Somehow in the unstated time between volumes she’s gone from London to LA, where she’s offered herself as a human guinea pig to Mero to test-case those psionic-boosting pills Britt popped in the last volume, and now she’s come to Brazil, here to put her newfound powers to use in the quest to rescue Britt.
Even Greg, previously a blank slate of a character, has a lot of narrative time here. Rossmann also builds up a nasty feud between John, the scientist of the team, and Kelly; the pointedly stated reason behind John’s dislike being the sole fact that Kelly is a woman. (Hmmm…) Whereas the earlier books shunted these other Mero members off to the side while Britt handled everything on his own, here we have extended sequences where we read all about their trials and tribulations.
Britt learns all about the Amazon beauties – and this being Rossmann, we learn all there is to know. They’re almost clones of one another, and savage rites ensure that only the strongest survive. Also, they rule men, keeping them shackled, castrating ugly and frail ones and keeping the “good” ones in breeding pits. And all men in the Amazon village are kept in line with a garrotte-like string that’s tied about their scrotums; one yank from an upset Amazon and it’s bye-bye to their balls.
Even though Rossmann denies us the scene, Britt apparently keeps the head Amazon honcho happy, but that doesn’t stop her from attempting to sacrifice him when Britt refuses to give Sin the info he wants. Sin, through some nebulous means, is able to rule the Amazons…Rossmann has it that his hermaphrodite nature gives him this privilege. Finally we have one of the few action scenes in the novel, Britt once again blasting away with psychic eyeblasts, as in the previous book…cue lots of “dialog” about how the fear of incipient death might unleash awesome psychic powers.
An interesting thing about Amazons is that our heroes are presented as a bunch of paranoid pill-poppers who are united against the US government. There’s a strong anti-US foreign policy sentiment at work here, very unusual in the world of men’s adventure. Sin rails on and on against America and how Vietnam was really waged so that the US government could get hold of more oil fields. (Which doesn’t sound familiar at all.) He claims that the US is doing the same thing in Brazil, looking to exploit the country’s untapped oil fields by installing a puppet president.
Also, Amazons is sort of like the men’s adventure novel Terence McKenna never wrote. There’s a goofy scene where Britt is saved by an actual ayahuasca vine – one that crawls across a field so that it can place one of those psionic-boosting pills in Britt’s mouth! There’s a lot of material in Amazons that could almost come out of McKenna’s 1993 book True Hallucinations, which served for an unusual reading experience for me, given that I’d recently listened to McKenna’s 1984 “Talking Book” audio production of True Hallucinations (complete with “psychedelic” sound effects and hippie rock…search for it online if you want an unusual listen on your work commute).
Rossmann eventually gets around to amping the tension. Kelly proves herself a more memorable protagonist than Britt, arriving on the scene and kicking Amazon ass in no time. Popping those pills and blowing blonde psychic warriors away with eyeblasts, she succeeds in getting herself crowned as the new chieftess, though as mentioned to do so she must pass two tests. First she must fight, unarmed, several ferocious men to the death, after which she must sexually satiate several of the Amazon women! But while Rossmann fully documents the first test, he completely omits the second, not even mentioning it again…and I doubt it was something the publisher cut out; a lesbian sequence would’ve been the least of this series’s exploitative moments.
There’s more action later in the tale as a CIA strike force descends upon the Amazon village, blasting away from some Huey helicopters. Here Britt, for I think the first time in the series, actually acts like a men’s adventure protagonist, going up solo against the invaders. Of course, he’s using his eyeblasts instead of a genre-customary machine gun or whatever, but still, at least it’s something. Strangely though Rossmann chooses not to end the novel with this powerful scene, instead apparently remembering all that shit about the medicine man’s ghost and so now focusing on that plot.
So then Amazons limps to a close as Britt and Karl dig up the medicine man’s body in an attempt to “free” the ghost, and then the spirit goes off and quickly wreaks vengeance…it’s all like Ghostbusters or something, and you wonder where the naked blonde beauties went. Oh, and Kelly’s passion for Britt has “cooled” in the weeks(?) since last seeing him, but she might still love him, or maybe not…I get the impression Rossmann is attempting to build up a long-simmer love story here, a will they or won’t they? sort of thing, which of course is rendered moot given how much sex Britt has with various women during any given assignment. (And one last time, let’s not forget that gearshift-screwing scene…)
Only one more novel in the series was to follow: Recycled Souls, which is actually referenced, by name, on the last pages of Amazons. In a “funny” bit of self-reference, Rossmann has it that Britt’s cases are given the same names as the actual Mind Masters novels, and “Recycled Souls” is the name of his next assignment. Also Rossmann slyly mentions again that “real” Mero operatives are out there, getting information out to the people…including one author who is writing it all under the guise of an action series.
So who knows, maybe there really are megalomaniacal North Korean hermaphrodites out there with an army of psychic Amazon warriors at their beck and call…
Zardoz, by John Boorman and Bill Stair
April, 1974 Signet Books
Zardoz is one of those films that’s more fun to talk about than to watch, just a weird blitz of a movie, with a flying stone head, future hippie communes, rampant toplessness, and Sean Connery running around in thigh-high boots and red diapers. At the very least, I can respect director/writer/producer John Boorman’s attempt to “go beyond 2001.” I mean, you’d never see someone attempt anything like this movie in today’s world, where most sci-fi is just cgi-laden, PG-13 junk that caters to the tweener market.
What’s most surprising about this novelization is how slim it is. Given the elaborate/psychedelic nature of the actual film, one would expect the novel to be a bloated mess. Instead it is so focused that it almost comes off like some tractate from a forgotten gnostic religion. According to his preface, Boorman’s initial draft of Zardoz more resembled a novel, and after filming the movie in late 1973 he decided that perhaps it should be a novel after all. So he called in colleague Bill Stair, who helped Boorman during the writing stage of Zardoz, and went about fashioning it all into a book, using excised portions and storylines from his earlier screenplay drafts.
One thing I can say is, if you rewatch the actual film after reading this book, you will certainly understand everything you see. Zardoz is pretty unique in that it’s a film that shows more than it tells, so this novel really fills in a lot of blank spots. And this isn’t the typical sort of film novelization, where it’s the work of some contractor who’s churning out a book based on some early draft; this is the actual work of the film’s creator.
The story follows the film quite closely, only changing things here and there, with the biggest changes coming at the climax. Those who have seen the film though will not find anything much different in the opening section, other than a brief background on protagonist Zed – we learn that his father was also an Exterminator, thus high above the common rabble, and so Zed too was raised to be a leader of men.
The setting is hundreds of years in the future, and some apparent calamity has sent hummanity back into a near-primitive existence. Zed is an Exterminator who rides about on his horse, armed with pistols and rifles, blowing away the Brutals, ie peasants and the like. His god is Zardoz, a gigantic stone head that flies around and pronounces things like “The penis is evil” in a booming voice, then spits out more pistols and rifles from its gaping mouth. (Can you imagine Boorman pitching this to the studios? Man, there will never be another time in Hollywood like the early ‘70s.)
We meet Zed as he has snuck into Zardoz’s mouth, lifted off into the air and flying inside his god. Zed is not filled with holy reverence, though. We eventually learn that Zed is here for revenge. Instead of being the murderous villain we expect him to be, Zed is actually enlightened – for one, when Zardoz proclaimed that the Exterminators stop exterminating and instead force the Brutals into slavery, to harvest crops, Zed started to suspect something was up. Then, after a mysterious meeting with some shadowy figure in a library, Zed began to read, homeschooling himself…and he was a fast learner, too, as the novel informs us that Zed is a “super mutant,” with both physical andmental superiority over normal humans.
All this is learned much later in the book (and film), but long story short, Zed discovers in the goofiest possible way that his god Zardoz is nothing but a joke. (Famously, the name is a play on The Wizard of Oz.) So Zed has snuck within the stone head to find out where it comes from, who is behind it. So focused is he on his mission that when he sees another man inside the stone head (Arthur Frayn, the creator of Zardoz, though we don’t learn this until later), Zed simply shoots the bastard and watches him fall to the ground far below.
The stone head lands in a vast plot of land filled with buildings and robe-wearing Eternals, ie humans who have somehow learned to cheat death and now live in a sort of hive community. This place is called the Vortex, and it is protected by an invisible barrier. Zed comes in contact with some of the Eternals, but plays dumb, not admitting to having killed Frayn. Not that it much matters, though, for the Eternals regenerate, even if the body is destroyed, and even now Frayn’s embryo is growing into an adult being.
A pair of Eternals latch onto Zed as if he’s a wayward dog, or at least one of Pavlov’s dogs. The first “normal” human they’ve seen in perhaps centuries, they marvel over Zed’s “barbarian” nature and carry out various experiments on him. In particular they are fascinated by his lusts and desires. Since these people cannot die they’ve cast aside their sexual impulses, with the result that no one now has sex and no children have been born for hundreds of years.
Things proceed much as in the film. After a psychedelic group mind-vote, the Eternals deem to allow Zed to stay in the Vortex for a few days, until Frayn has regenerated – then they can get to the bottom of what happened to him. Meanwhile Zed is shuffled around the Vortex, sometimes hanging with Friend, a male Eternal who despises his immortality, other times being traded off between Consuella and May, female Eternals who harbor lustful thoughts behind their sneers. The book even replicates the unintentionally hilarious scene where the gals try to goose Zed’s libido via a series of sexual images projected on a screen.
Zed’s mere presence fosters revolt within the Vortex, which in addition to Eternals is made up of those who have rebelled and have been aged as punishment, and finally those who are so apathetic that they do nothing but sit around and stare into nothingness. The moral of the story is that man is not designed for infinite existence, and immortality will eventually lead to apathy and madness.
Along the way Zed learns a bit about the Vortex. Most importantly he learns of the Tabernacle, a mysterious force which apparently controls the Vortex and its occupants. It also mentally unites them and keeps them from remembering how it was created, or indeed where it even is, so that they may never destroy it. Zed, who has sworn to destroy the Vortex, realizes that to do so he must destroy the Tabernacle. But to do that, he must first figure out what it is. Meanwhile, he discovers that the Tabernacle is trying to destroy him.
With a group of Eternals led by Consuella out to kill him, Zed hides out with Friend and a gaggle of May’s female followers. They understand that Zed can save them, but he must be prepared first. Since time is of the essence, they must instruct him by “touch-teaching.” This entails a very elaborate and very psychedelic section where Zed mentally voyages into inner and outer space, and really clarifies all of the nonsensical stuff that occurs in the film version.
Here the novel delivers the answers that the film did not. For one, we discover that the Vortex is really a spaceship, one that never left the earth. Hence the force field which surrounds the place, which is really just clear material of dense construction that was created to endure the rigors of space travel. (Why is it clear? So the spaceship occupants could see outside into space and thus manuever around asteroids and the like…!) The Eternals were so created so that they could survive the long years of space voyaging, and indeed their fellows are far out into space, but for whatever reason this particular ship never took off, and the Eternals instead became vapid occupants of a desolate earth.
Still in his psychedelic mind-trip, Zed sees the construction of the Tabernacle. Created by a scientist, it “lives” in crystals which are implanted in the minds of each of the Eternals. Further, to ensure that none of them ever died, the scientist made each of them, including himself, forget how the Tabernacle was created. It just sort of goes on and on, with Zed free-floating through psychic space, witnessing past events – that is, when one of the female Eternals isn’t having astral sex with him. There’s a lot of psychedelic-hued purple prose here, with Zed getting busy on the mental plane with a few of the Vortex gals.
The denoument is basically the same as the film. Chaos overtakes the Vortex and Zed’s fellow Exterminators swoop in, delivering the sweet relief of death. Zed, who was being prepared as the ultimate deliverer of the Eternals, has been reborn after his astral/psychic voyaging, and can no longer bring himself to murder. Nothing stops his old Exterminator friends, though, who chop down characters like Friend and the reborn Frayn, who go to their deaths with cheer, in what I assume we are to take as a happy ending. Zed meanwhile escapes with Consuella, where we are told – just as in the film – that they eventually have a child and then grow old together and die.
Writing-wise the book is pretty good, with a literate feel...or, at least, the striving for a literate feel. It does though have the expected clinical/sterile tone I get from most British pulp, but in this case it actually complements the aloof tone of the story itself. Finally, the authors are adept at doling out metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, serving up some truly delirious dialog. (Choice line: "Stay close to me, inside my aura.")
Writing-wise the book is pretty good, with a literate feel...or, at least, the striving for a literate feel. It does though have the expected clinical/sterile tone I get from most British pulp, but in this case it actually complements the aloof tone of the story itself. Finally, the authors are adept at doling out metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, serving up some truly delirious dialog. (Choice line: "Stay close to me, inside my aura.")
So then, the novel really exists as a clarification of the events in the film, sort of like a companion piece. I guess the biggest compliment I can pay it is that, after reading this book, I wanted to watch Zardozagain. And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get drunk enough that I actually will.
The Specialist #5: The Maltese Vengeance, by John Cutter
October, 1984 Signet Books
Unfortunately it’s one step forward, two steps back for the Specialist -– after a mostly-great fourth volume, author John Cutter (aka John Shirley) reverts to the repetitive, page-filling nature of the first two volumes of the series. The Maltese Vengeance is sort of a tedious affair, mostly given over to hero Jack Sullivan trying to figure out who wants to kill him while he’s vacationing on Malta, and Sullivan’s ensuing plans for vengeance. The reader spends the entire tale hoping that the plot will open up beyond this, but it never does.
My guess is that the breakneck publication pace was wearing Shirley down. The Psycho Soldiers was a cool slice of action exploitation, with a Charles Manson-esque killer running afoul of Sullivan. The Maltese Vengeance loses all of that, coming off like just a generic action novel. It opens with a bang, though: Sullivan, fishing off the coast of Malta, is fired on by a cannon from a fort in the harbor. Trying to find out who is behind his attempted murder, Sullivan takes on the local cops (not killing any of them) in his escape attempt, and eventually hooks up with Oliver “Ollie” Tryst (Oliver Twist??), a fellow mercenary and an old friend of Sullivan’s.
The two learn that the culprits were a force of American traitors, ‘Nam vets who now sell military hardware to terrorists. The guy in charge is Gortner, who back during the war massacred a village of innocents. During his massacre Gortner happened to murder a young Vietnamese woman and her child – this was the wife of Warneck, a disillusioned, drug-addicted shell of a man who now lives in Malta. It turns out that it was Warneck who summoned Sullivan to Malta; Warneck’s intent was to hire Sullivan to kill Gortner, but somehow Gortner’s men got hold of the news first, and so decided to take out Sullivan before he could take out them. Their mistake, as Sullivan often states, was that they didn’t kill him.
So this proves to be the plot entire. Gortner and his cronies are bringing in a host of new, experimental weaponry to sell to a delegation of Libyans. The most interesting character here is Skulleye, a Libyan so called due to the blue skulls tatooed on his eyelids. Skulleye you see was a follower of the infamous Blue Man, ie the terrorist leader Sullivan killed back in #3: Sullivan's Revenge. I guess Shirley must’ve realized he bumped off the Blue Man too soon, as he sets up Skulleye to be an even greater threat.
In fact Skulleye’s scenes are the only ones that bring to mind the better parts of the preceding novel. Skulleye is apparently impossible to kill, and there are several scenes where he’s shot up or blown away, only to come back to life. It’s a deft bit of dark comedy, and Shirley intimates that Skulleye will return in later volumes. Unfortunately the other characters aren’t nearly as memorable; Gortner in particular is pretty bland, and doesn’t get much narrative time, vastly outshone by Skulleye, who isn’t even the main villain of the piece.
As usual Sullivan still manages to get lucky, and here it’s with Rosalita, a fiery local beauty who throws herself at him. This entails the one graphic sex scene in the book, but Rosalita becomes a bit annoying, and in fact proves to be the (near) undoing of Sullivan and Tryst. Spurned by Sullivan, she tries to set him up, going to Gortner and telling him that Sullivan is planning a nighttime raid on Gortner’s compound. Gortner has his men lie in wait.
What’s unexpected is that this sequence proves to be the climax of the novel, taking up a full third of the narrative. It’s sort of endless, with Sullivan on the prowl in Gortner’s place, escaping the trap, fighting as he evades both Gortner’s soldiers and the Malta cops, rushing to a long standoff on a clifftop. It just kind of goes on and on, and again lacks the twisted nature of the last book.
Shirley still works in some of his humor, though. I haven’t figured out yet if he’s spoofing the stereotypical gung-ho action hero through Sullivan or what, but there’s a laughable part (intentional?) toward the very end where Sullivan, alone against a horde of enemy soldiers, psyches himself up to keep fighting by recalling the innocent people slain by Gortner all those years ago, and Sullivan starts screaming, “For the children!” as the enemy converge upon him. Shirely writes it that even the enemy soldiers are baffled at this, so who knows.
I didn’t much enjoy The Maltese Vengeance, but I figure this was only a momentary lapse. I mean, for all the boring stuff, there are still a few inventive touches, like the Arabic slavemaster Sullivan and Tryst deal with midway through the novel. And I still say The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle Executioner novels should have been.