Motive For Murder, by Edson T. Hamill No month stated, 1975 Leisure Books It doesn’t feature a series title or volume number, but this was actually the seventh volume of the Ryker series. Not that it much matters, as Motive For Murder works as a standalone novel, likely turned out by a writer new to the series – given the research of Justin Marriott in Paperback Fanatic #28, I’m assuming
Shannon #3: The Mindbenders, by Jake Quinn January, 1975 Leisure Books As half-assed and leisurely-paced as its predecessors, the third and final installment of the Shannon series once again sees our titular hero more concerned with downing whiskey and scoring with his hooker girlfriend. Meanwhile an Anton LaVey-styled “medium” is implanting mind-control devices in the heads of UN employees
The Immortal, by John Tigges No month stated, 1986 Leisure Books John Tigges published several horror paperbacks through Leisure Books in the ‘80s; I’ve picked up a few over the years, but this is the first I’ve read. Like most other Leisure horror novels The Immortal runs to a fat 400 pages, but it’s got super-big print and Tigges’s writing is so pulpy and melodramatic that you’ll finish
Z-Comm #3: MIA, by Kyle Maning No month stated, 1989 Leisure Books If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night and asked yourself, “Hey, what if David Alexander had written a volume of MIA Hunter??”, then wonder no more, as this third installment of Z-Comm answers that very question. Unexpectedly though in MIA Alexander (once again posing as “Kyle Maning”) cuts back on the crazed
Night Of The Phoenix, by Jack Cannon
September, 1989 Pocket Books
(Original publication June, 1975 Manor Books)
In 1989 Nelson DeMille decided to bring his Ryker series back into print, crediting himself as “Jack Cannon” with a note to the reader explaining that these editions were “revised and updated” by the author himself. The note to the reader also provides a little backstory on these books, briefly stating that the series started as Ryker with Leisure books before moving over to Manor and becoming Keller.
As part of the revisions New York “hero” cop Joe Ryker is here only referred to as such, and never as “Joe Keller.” It’s my theory that DeMille left Leisure because he got pissed off that editor Peter McCurtin published Ryker #3 under DeMille’s name, even though it was written by Len Levinson. Len explained this to me that McCurtin’s thinking was that Leisure owned not only the series but the rights to the author’s name. Doesn’t sound legally accurate to me, I mean DeMille was a real name, not a house name, but what do I know, it was the ‘70s.
But anyway shortly after this DeMille split from Leisure and went over to Manor, changed “Joe Ryker” to “Joe Keller,” and continued writing the series, which ran for a total of four volumes. Counting the two Ryker volumes DeMille published with Leisure (actually they published three by DeMille, but more on that below), that means the Joe Ryker/Keller books ran a total of six volumes, all of which were reprinted by Pocket in these “revised and updated” editions. Night Of The Phoenix originally appeared in 1975 as the third volume of Manor’s Keller series, but was the fifth (and thus penultimate) volume of the ’89 Ryker reprints.
Even this is screwy, though; as Marty McKee notes, Leisure actually published Night Of The Phoenix as the fourth volume of Ryker, titling it The Agent Of Death. Marty mentions that this Leisure edition features different character names than the Manor edition and also lacks a prologue which features so memorably in the Keller version of the tale (fortunately, the prologue is also in this Pocket reprint). So as Marty states, sly DeMille must’ve gotten paid twice for the same book…though if Len Levinson’s comments to me are any indication, DeMille probably didn’t get paid for either book, Manor and Leisure being notoriously reluctant to pay their authors.
Now that all that is out of the way, on to the novel itself. Night Of The Phoenix is along the same lines as the other DeMille Ryker I’ve read, The Hammer Of God. (A problem with all of these Ryker and Keller books is they're so goddamn expensive on the used book marketplace – hell, even the Pocket reprints are expensive, in some cases moreso than the original editions!) Rather than focusing on the action this genre is known for, DeMille instead delivers a police procedural that’s heavier on dialog and character.
And speaking of character, Joe Ryker is once again an arrogant, obnoxious prick, belittling coworkers and degrading superiors. Whereas Len Levinson made Ryker a whole lot more likable, DeMille’s (original) interpretation of the character is a hateful bastard, as repulsive as can be. Like Narc #4, this is another cop novel that takes place in the sweltering heat of a New York summer, and DeMille relishes in letting us know how sweaty and stinky his protagonist is – and talking about obnoxious, there are a few scenes where Ryker notes his own stink and will spread his arms so that others can smell him! So like I said, he’s a pretty repulsive guy.
As mentioned this Pocket reprint retains the prologue which was in the original Manor edition but removed from the Leisure edition. And truth be told, this prologue is the highlight of the novel; I could’ve read an entire novel about CIA assassin Morgan as he sits in ambush in some swamp deep in ‘Nam, targetting any unfortunate NVA or VC who might come his way. There’s a dark comedy afoot as we learn that Morgan is paid per kill, and, like Death Race 2000 or something, he’s paid in accordance to how important the person is he’s killed.
It’s late in the war and a CIA rep drops into the swamp to tell Morgan he’s no longer employed; the CIA rep further informs Morgan that he’s made the personal decision to kill Morgan and take the few hundred thousand dollars he’s amassed over the years in his Swiss Bank account. But Morgan ends up killing the rep and, stranded in the swamp (his sole companion a Vietnamese girl he wounded earlier due to a misfire and spent the rest of the night raping), begins walking his way out of the jungle.
This brings us to the “present,” clearly 1989 in this updated Pocket edition; I’m curious how much exactly DeMille revised, but the original Manor edition being so pricey I’m unable to compare the two printings. Anyway Ryker is called onto the case when a gruesome corpse is discovered; a former CIA agent is found sitting in his bathtub, killed by leeches. DeMille brings to life the nightmarish scene, with Ryker and his fellow cop “friend” Lindly looking in horror at the fat leeches as they float around in the bloody water – a scene which finishes on a bizarrely humorous cop movie-style joke when Ryker pulls one of the leeches out of the water and reads it its rights.
When the guy’s wife is later blown away by a sniper, Ryker is convinced something’s going on…his first clue being how his “stupid chief” superiors at the precinct sort of brush over how the Feds immediately swooped onto the crime scene and took away all of the evidence. Then CIA rep Jorgenson shows up and informs the cops that a rogue CIA assassin from the ‘Nam era is back and is hunting down the men who set him up. The assassin is of course Morgan, and Jorgenson delivers Ryker et al a background story that’s a little different from the “facts” as presented in the prologue. But then, Jorgenson makes it clear that he’s in the business of lying, thus making Ryker even more distrustful of the man and the entire situation.
But as mentioned Night Of The Phoenix is narratively identical to Hammer of God in that the novel is basically a dialog-heavy police procedural with none of the action or suspense a reader might want. There isn’t even much of a lurid element, other than the grisly crime scenes Ryker investigates, for example a later sequence where another former CIA agent who betrayed Morgan is found hanging above a building, the skin flayed from his corpse. As for sex, there isn’t any of that either, even considering a nonsensical bit where Ryker and his new partner Lentini hire a hooker for the night, even bringing her onto one of the crime scenes the next morning!
For the most part Night Of The Phoenix is comprised of Ryker snapping at his colleagues and superiors that there’s more to the Morgan case than meets the eye; he of course runs afoul of Jorgenson, who makes veiled threats that Ryker “knows too much.” Ryker’s certain that a member of Jorgenson’s CIA team is a turncoat, someone who is feeding Morgan intel, but Jorgenson continues to backpedal and spread mistruths. After a while Ryker’s also certain he and his partners will come under fire, so in one of the more unusual “plot twists” I’ve ever read in one of these novels, he decides to hell with it and goes on vacation!
For vacation Ryker settles on a rural farmland owned by his ex in-laws in Chicago. Both of them “old unconverted Nazis,” they live on a compound guarded by dogs and the old man has an arsenal in his basement, complete with machine guns, subguns, and even gatling guns. There’s a part where Ryker, Lindly, and Lentini look over the weaponry, suspecting they might need it when the inevitable CIA squad comes after them – Ryker has gone on vacation so as to escape any death squads that might be sent after him, but when Lindly follows after him Ryker knows the cat’s out of the bag and his hiding place has been uncovered.
But man, DeMille can’t be bothered to write an action scene. Forget about Chekov’s dictum; DeMille shows us a whole lot more than just a rifle above the mantle, but doesn’t use them in the third act or any other act. When the squad does show up that night, all we get is a somewhat tense scene where Ryker et al hear the dogs barking outside; they see some headlights; and then the car drives away! The next morning, despite finding all of the dogs dead, Ryker just decides to leave, telling Lentini to go start up the car…and Lentini’s killed in the ensuing blast, the CIA of course having wired the car to blow. You see, Ryker’s an idiot in addition to being an asshole.
Please skip this paragraph if you want to avoid the novel’s surprise. As the murders continue, Jorgenson doles out more info, like the fact that Morgan is a leper. Ryker starts to wonder how a guy with such a supposedly-ruined face could get around the city without anyone noticing him. And like Ryker you soon begin to suspect Jorgenson himself. This turns out to be the reveal – Jorgenson is actually the murderer, and he doles out the tale for Ryker at the very end of the novel. Long story short, Jorgenson himself was part of the CIA team that screwed Morgan over, and also as coincidence would have it Jorgenson happened to be on the base a jungle-ravaged Morgan stumbled into after surviving his betrayal in the prologue sequence. So Jorgenson finished off Morgan himself (throwing him out of a helicopter!) and now, these years later, has decided to cash in on the Swiss Bank account, after getting the various serial numbers from his old turncoat pals. So in other words the promised tale of a leper-faced CIA assassin running amok in NYC is denied us, DeMille once again going for more of a “realistic” approach. Dammit!
While it skimps on the action and the sleaze, Night Of The Phoenix is still rather well-written, with DeMille bringing his characters to life, in particular his slimy protagonist. There’s good dialog and funny stuff too, though nothing on the un-PC level of Hammer of God. Speaking of which I don’t think DeMille removed too much of such material from this revised edition, as evidenced in an early scene where Ryker goes on about how black people hate cold weather. It’s just that in this installment Ryker’s moreso just a regular asshole instead of a racist and sexist asshole.
I’d like to read more of DeMille’s Ryker and Keller novels, whether in the original editions or these “Jack Cannon” reprints, but the prices for them are too prohibitive. However the post-DeMille Ryker novels from Leisure, credited to Edson T. Hamill, are fortunately much more affordable, so I’ll be reading them next.
Oh, and as for these Jack Cannon/Pocket reprints, each of them have similar covers, of this shades-wearing "cool" cop who in no way shape or form resembes Ryker or anyone else in these books. In fact, the covers look like stills from the sequel to Cobra that Sylvester Stallone never gave us.
Trouble Is My Business, by Jay Flynn
No month stated, 1976 (incorrectly states "1967") Leisure Books
This was the second of two novels Jay Flynn wrote about tough San Francisco street cop Sgt. Joe Rigg; the first one was Blood On Frisco Bay. And like that previous book Trouble Is My Business is for the most part a listless affair churned out by a drunk and disinterested author, a book that ranges from endless digressions on inconsequentialities to super hardcore sex scenes straight out of Penthouse Letters.
Flynn constantly refers back to the events in Blood On Frisco Bay, so one would do well to read that first before reading this book. At any rate Rigg’s life is mostly the same, he still works the docks in San Fran and still only wants to be a street cop, despite having been “technically” promoted to a lieutenant after what went down in the previous book. We also learn that Rigg is best buds with “The Cowboy,” aka the new President of the US, clearly implied here as being Ronald Reagan (he’s a stern Conservative Republican who used to star in Westerns), which I found interesting given that in reality Reagan wasn’t elected for another four years.
Really though the book is almost a complete retread of Blood On Frisco Bay, but if anything even more listless and unconcerned with forward momentum. At least that previous book livened things up every once in a while with violent action scenes that had no relation to the main plot. Trouble Is My Business doesn’t even have that, instead focusing more on Rigg’s mundane daily life. But yet again like that first book, this one starts off with a bang, as Rigg witnesses a cold-blooded murder in broad daylight, on a busy street, as a dude with a Bowie knife hops out of a car and chops off a lawyer-type’s hand, snatching the guy’s attache case and squealing off in his car before anyone can react.
After discovering that the murdered man, Blackton, was a CPA who handled hush-hush deals for wealthy clients, Rigg just sort of moves on with his life…instead of delivering a taut, blood-soaked thriller, Flynn instead thinks that we want to hear all about the new litter of puppies just delivered back on Rigg’s Trumpy houseboat! Along with that he gives us more scenes with Annie Dale, Rigg’s now live-in girlfriend, who actually has much less narrative time in this one. The puppies are courtesy a dog the Cowboy gave to Rigg, knocked up by Croc, Rigg’s massive Irish Wolfhound “partner.”
Eventually the book takes on the tone of a police procedural, just a really boring one. Rigg goes around tracking clues and meets up with various of Blackton’s clientele. Flynn here works up a massive land-buying conspiracy scheme that almost makes the plot of Chinatown seem easy to follow, but it all fizzles out into a basic scheme – namely, Cuba-funded counterfeit US dollars. It takes forever for Rigg to discover this, though, but in the meantime he’s too busy getting orally pleasured by the daughter of one of Blackton’s clients and a super-hot and super-horny female Treasury agent who is working undercover as the man’s maid.
I should mention here that all the women in this novel are super-hot and super-horny. Flynn has what appears to be an obsession with three-ways time out, with Rigg constantly being propositioned by two girls at once. And if he’s too tired or spent to handle them, they’re more than happy to go at it with each other! I would imagine though that all this is just a recurring joke…serioulsy, there are numerous scenes where the girls will want to do Rigg, who sends them away because he’s exhausted or needs to work, and Flynn will go into great graphic detail on how the girls will just flop on top of each other and go at it.
But if it’s an in-joke, it gets old quick. It got boring fast to see how one-dimensional the women were. I understand and even appreciate the fact that these old pulp novels trade on the conceit that women are mostly there just to look sexy and screw the protagonist…and in fact I want to bang my head against the wall when I read all the lame, whiny-assed complaints about ‘70s novels you will encounter in reviews on the internet, where modern-day losers will bitch about the “misogyny” and “racism” of 1970s novels. You get the idea that these people would be better served watching shit like Dancing with the Stars or How I Met Your Mother instead of venturing into the choppy waters of ‘70s pulp, but I digress. Long story short, even I got a little annoyed with how the women in Trouble Is My Business were only there to proposition Rigg or to go down on one another.
Meanwhile the main plot drags on with little (non-sexual) action. Other than one hilariously arbitrary scene early on where Rigg stops a convenience store robbery, the only action sequence Flynn delivers is one right after Rigg’s been blown by the undercover maid and the client’s daughter, as someone pulls off a driveby shooting at the client’s house. Rigg, naked, chases after and fires at the car with a heavy-caliber pistol. But that’s it, that’s all we get on the action front, until the climax of the book.
And again like the previous book, Flynn kills more time with the unwelcome presence of the Cowboy, who despite being the President just heads on over to SanFran to hang out with Rigg on his Trumpy! And returning with him is Tina Holmes, Rigg’s callgirl friend who is now the Cowboy’s main squeeze (she informs Rigg with delight that she’s finally gotten the Cowboy to give it to her via rear entry, by the way). And guess what, Annie and Tina are immediately propositioning Rigg, only to go down on one another when he tells them he needs his rest.
Even the (anti)climax is a recursor to Blood On Frisco Bay; not only does the main villain turn out to be a gorgeous foreign lady, but Rigg is again called in at the last second so as to stage a half-assed raid on the villain’s just-discovered lair. In this case the lady is Catarina, a beautiful Cuban woman who is the ex-wife of Blackton’s land-developing client; the entire attache case mystery turns out to be a MacGuffin, as the counterfeit US currency was the true evil here…apparently Blackton had photos of the printing plates in his attache case, and Catarina wanted those photos back. Instead her goons killed Blackton, thus getting Rigg on the case.
Flynn does deliver a fairly good fight between Rigg and the Bowie-wielding maniac, who actually appears in maybe five pages of the book. (I was under the impression that Trouble Is My Business was about a knife-wielding “sex killer,” so I guess I must’ve confused it with some other sleazy ‘70s cop novel.) But the finale is over and done with posthaste – and Catarina, the mastermind behind it all, gets maybe three pages narrative time and is only introduced into the text toward the very end. She has none of the memorable (or sadistic) qualities of the female villain in the previous book.
This was it for Joe Rigg, whose adventures ended with this second volume. Though honestly one could argue that his adventures never even really started – these two books were snoozefests for the most part, not even saved by the XXX-rated stuff. However it must be said that Flynn actually can write, especially when it comes to dialog, as he has a particular gift for funny lines. But man if he’d only combined that writing skill with a good, forward-moving plot, he really would’ve had something.
The Sharpshooter #8: No Quarter Given, by Bruno Rossi
July, 1974 Leisure Books
No Quarter Given plunges the Sharpshooter series right back to its grimy, nasty roots. Once again we have what might've been intended as an installment of the Marksman series, with “hero” Johnny Rock acting more like Philip Magellan as he kidnaps mafioso, tortures and mutilates them, and then murders them in cold blood – that is, when he’s not indulging in his penchant for disguises or taking some new weapon or knockout drug from his “artillery case.”
Lots of online searching has yielded zero information about who wrote this volume, but the style is close enough that it might be Russell Smith. Maybe without the nutzoid spark of Smith’s books, but with that same deadpan, grisly sense of humor, where things are plainly laid out in the narrative before jumping wildly to exclamatory sentences of death and destruction. There’s also a huge focus on maritime stuff, with portions of the book coming off like “US Navy 101,” and this is something else I’ve often noticed in Smith’s novels.
As expected, the book opens with absolutely no reference to the previous volume, which was courtesty Len Levinson. Rock is now in Norfolk, Virginia, on his way to DC to clear up the mob corruption there. (Also Rock is for the most part referred to as “Rock” throughout, with only one “Magellan” goof – but then, it’s actually a double goof, as the author writes “Magella.”) But as we open Rock is in a Norfolk bar watching a stripper named Mimi; the place serves as a cathouse, the women forced into prostitution, and Mimi pounces on Rock because she instantly figures out that he’s a good guy and can save her from this hell.
The place is overseen by mob boss Joey “Niente” Barbagallo, a prick who runs a veritable empire but poses as a bartender at a local watering hole. Niente was in the Navy for twenty years (cue lots of Navy material here) and has used his connections to set up a black market ring across this part of Virginia. He also sets up Navy VIPs and then exploits their families when the Navy dude’s life is wrecked, usually indenturing the daughters into forced prostitution, which happens to be Mimi’s sad story.
Rock immediately decides that Niente and his goons will all die. He breaks Mimi out of there, and for the rest of the novel she acts as his sidekick – a pretty horny sidekick, of course. It’s only after Rock has, uh, “rocked” Mimi all night that the girl informs him she’s a mere 16 years old! Rock just sort of brushes this off, marveling more over the fact that she could easily pass for an older woman. Otherwise Mimi is a fun character, easily adapting to Rock’s crazy lifestyle and helping him out on his recon missions.
There’s barely any action for the most part, instead these rushed descriptions of Rock and Mimi shuttling from one place to another as they get a lockdown on Niente’s empire; this includes a bit where they pose as a Navy officer and his mistress, but they’re abducted by a trio of mobsters who themselves are posing, as reps for a swinger’s club. After blowing away the three gunmen, Rock and Mimi head on to the club anyway, and we’re vaguely informed of the debauchery within, of the live sex shows performed on stage, mostly by juveniles (the author must really have something for pushing this particular boundary), while the audience is given beds of their own to watch the stage shows, Rock and Mimi going at it on their matress.
The author really fills pages with long sequences from Barbagallo’s point of view, down to the most mundane aspects of his life, from how his apartment is furnished to his conversations with his stooges. Rock doesn’t get in much action and only takes out a handful of mobsters, often saving Mimi from danger. (There is though a sadistic part where a trio of gunmen momentarily capture the pair and one of the guys jams the friggin barrel of his pistol up Mimi’s behind!) Also there are many scenes where for whatever reason Rock will appropriate a disguise, like a long bit where he and Mimi go to great lengths to look like street bums.
For once this particular author does bother to wrap up the tale, with Rock somehow bullshitting his way into a prison and arranging for the release of Mimi’s father; there follows a protracted scene where the man divulges how he was set up to the media. Rock ensures the guy doesn’t implicate Barbagallo, as Rock wants to deal with the bastard personally; after blowing up the mobster’s two bars he kidnaps a few of his stooges, jamming their half-dead bodies in the trunk of his car for no explained reason. Finally the whole group is dealt with in a perfunctory exploding of another Barbagallo club. It’s an anticlimatic end, but at least it’s an end.
Rayo Casablanca, over at his Sick Hipster blog, wonderfully (and accurately) summed up the Sharpshooter series: “These books feel like they were written by off-duty mall security guards.” Maybe he was thinking of this installment in particular. Here are a few excerpts from No Quarter Given that really made me chuckle:
Barbagallo opened the door to this room. He closed it immediately. He turned. He went to the left, to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator. It needed defrosting so badly it was literally screaming. Except for a six-pack of beer it was empty. Down on his knees he performed a nightly ritual of trying to figure out why the light bulb behind the freezing unit didn’t work. As usual he gave it up, slamming the door. -- pg. 80
With lightening[sp] speed, Rock’s left fist slammed into the second man’s bewildered face. Blood spurted from his nose instantly. Then Rock chopped him savagely on the neck until his knees buckled and he slipped down to the floor. Rock swung the Beretta with the brute force of an express train. He realized in a flashing second that the blow had killed the man! -- pg. 130
After double-checking everything, planting three hi-blast grenades in Mimi’s ratty looking purse and arming himself with the Llama and the Beretta, Rock gripped two sad, worn shopping bags heavy with all the junk he could find in the apartment.
“Let’s go, slut!” he grinned. -- pg. 109
Ryker #3: The Terrorists, by Nelson DeMille
October, 1974 Leisure Books
It bears his name, but this third volume of the Ryker series was not written by Nelson DeMille; it was actually written by Len Levinson. Len says it was a last-second job from his editor at Leisure, Peter McCurtin, and since the publisher owned the series rights they could hire anyone to write it.
It’s easy to see though that this is not the same author who gave us #2: The Hammer of God. For one, “hero” Ryker isn’t a full-bore bastard this time around, coming off more like your typical Levinson protagonist, and the narrative has that same down and dirty (yet still funny) vibe common of Levinson’s work.
I asked Len about his work on The Terrorists in my interview with him for The Paperback Fanatic #23. Here are his comments on it:
I wrote The Terrorists around the time that the Symbionese Liberation Army was in the news for kidnapping Patty Hearst. It also was around the time that some Weathermen made an error in their laboratory and blew up themselves and a townhouse in Greenwich Village, not far from where I lived on Christopher Street. Weathermen and their affiliates were shooting and killing police officers during those years, so I came to hate terrorism in all its self-righteous, hypocritical forms, and this attitude was expressed in the novel. Amazingly, some people nowadays consider Weatherman terrorists to be heroic figures and noble idealists.
There’s nothing heroic or noble about the SLA stand-ins in this novel; Len calls them the American Freedom Army, and they’re made up of inner-city youths who murder in the name of “democracy.” In fact they have more in common with the drug-created zombies of GH Frost’s Able Team #8: Army of Devils, rampaging through society with little concern for the police, blowing away “capitalists” with insane zeal. If you kill one, five more rise up to take his or her place.
The Terrorists is also like The Penetrator #4: Hijacking Manhattan in how it plays on all the fears of the average mid-1970s middle American – the AFA is mostly made up of blacks and Hispanics and they’re all under twenty and they’re all hippie scum. To make another comparison to yet another forgotten book, they’re like a more military version of the hippie terrorists in Burt Hirschfeld's Father Pig. They start their campaign on New York with the shocking abduction of a banker’s son followed by several massacres in Manhattan, showing absolutely no mercy.
Sergeant Joe Ryker is called onto the case by his captain, who humorously enough proves to be just as willing as Ryker to break the rules in order to see justice. This alone goes against the old “stupid chief” cliché and was fun to see. Actually Ryker’s version of the NYPD operates in a mode far removed from reality, where they can stage raids on supposed hippie terrorist compounds, armed with machine guns and grenade launchers, and then blithely lie to the Mayor’s rep that the hippie terrorists shot first!
I get the feeling that Len banged this one out pretty quickly, probably fueled by some controlled substances. (This isn’t a criticism, it’s something I demand from my pulp writers.) But still Len has a tendency to fill some pages here, especially with lots of stuff in ALL CAPS. He doesn’t give us much of a view on why the Army is like it is – they’re just a bunch of sociopathic hippie scum, and that’s that. He does however play up the lurid quotient, with several scenes of unarmed people getting blown away, tortured, and murdered. Surprisingly though, there isn’t much sex in this one, the first Levinson novel I can say that about.
Ryker comes off as a more likable person here. Rather than the hateful prick of The Hammer of God, the Len Levinson version of Ryker is just a dedicated cop with a knack for goofy humor and a tenedency to stray outside the bounds of the the law. He also has no problem with picking up hookers for the night. Like most other Levinson characters, Ryker lives in a crumbling flophouse sort of place, rides around town in taxis, and gets most of his meals from Chinese takeouts.
When the AFA kidnaps a banker’s son and then mows down a disco filled with clubbing socialites, Ryker gets on the job and starts tracking down clues. This mostly entails meeting up with a young snitch in a 42nd Street porn theater and hobknobbing with a mafioso named Zagari. Along the way Ryker also continues to work on another case, namely the unsolved murder of a circus midget with the great name of Charlie Salt. This subplot really doesn’t add much to the story and comes off like another incident of page-filling, and in fact Len leaves it unresolved at the end of the book.
Ryker himself sees a lot of action, another big difference from the previous volume. He finds the time to lead two assaults on the AFA, gets in a lot of chases, and even manages to collar a pair of juvenile delinquents who break into his apartment and attempt to make off with his color TV and stereo. Again the character has little in common with the DeMille incarnation, and in fact we learn that Levinson’s Ryker was a Marine in Korea and wants to move to China someday so he can eat Chinese food all the time! There’s also a goofy sequence where Ryker, at a Chinese restaurant, overhears some dude calling the cops “fascists” and Ryker tosses his food at the guy.
But the cops sort of are fascists here, going to any means necessary to bring in the AFA. Actually, they just want to kill them all. “Civil rights” have no meaning as Ryker and squads of machine gun-toting cops will storm suspected AFA quarters with no intention of arresting anyone – they just want to waste them. But then the AFA are shown to be such merciless bastards that you want to see them get blown away. Some of it’s too much, though, like when Ryker catches an AFA guy, has the morgue doctor drug him with truth serum, and then blows the guy away in cold blood once he’s revealed the AFA headquarters!
When Ryker wants to go even further than his permissive captain will allow, though, he goes to mob boss Zagari. The two have a friendly sort of “one hand washes the other” relationship, with Zagari giving Ryker underworld intel in exchange for Ryker letting off cronies of Zagari that get arrested. Once Ryker knows where the AFA is, he tells his captain not to worry about it and goes to Zagari, who puts together an army of mobsters. This entails the second of two major raids in the novel (in the first Ryker gets shot in the leg, but manages to walk it off), and goes to even more zany extremes than the first, with the mobsters basically unleashing armageddon on the AFA-run tenement building, blasting it to its foundations.
The goofy humor you’d expect from other Len novels is still here, if a bit subdued. Ryker has a knack for delivering some dumb jokes, particularly one about dope-smoking monkeys. Ryker also has a penchant for pondering things, again as is expected in a Levinson novel. And funnily enough, Ryker is referred to a few times as “Blaze” in the novel. This is something Len spoofed in his must-read The Last Buffoon, with an editor calling his protagonist Frapkin and telling him to change the name of the hero in Frapkin’s latest tough cop novel. This happened to Len in reality; he later wrote an installment of the similar Super Cop Joe Blaze series, and he discussed the name-switching in the interview:
I don't think I consciously based Joe Blaze on Ryker, although they were similar characters. Joe Blaze began as a different already-established Belmot-Tower character, don't remember his name; he probably was a rip-off of Ryker. While I was writing, Peter [McCurtin] called and said BT was spinning off a new cop series, so I should change the name of the main character to Joe Blaze and keep going. So evidently Joe Blaze was a rip-off of a rip-off. I more or less reproduced my conversation with Peter in The Last Buffoon, changing names to protect the innocent or guilty, another example of art imitating life.
This was the only volume of the Ryker series that Len wrote; DeMille returned for the next one, and then the series went over to “Edson T. Hamill,” which I’m guessing was a house name. As mentioned, Len also wrote a Joe Blaze installment, The Thrill Killers, and I’m betting it will be along the same lines as The Terrorists. At any rate I look forward to eventually finding out.
And here’s an interesting postcript to The Terrorists, once again from Len’s interview:
After Nelson became a literary star, his agent Nick Ellison mailed me a legal document with a letter asking me to relinquish my rights to The Terrorists. I signed on the dotted line because I couldn't imagine what could be gained by being a pain in the neck to Nelson.
Z-Comm #2: Killpoint, by Kyle Maning
February, 1989 Leisure Books
I’m not sure why it took me so long to get back to this series, which was courtesy the fevered imagination of David Alexander, posing under the psuedonym “Kyle Maning.” Whereas Z-Comm #1 was a bit too padded and uneventful until the final third, Killpoint fires on all cylinders from the first page, racking up a gory deathcount that rivals anything Alexander delivered in the Phoenix series.
One thing missing though is the characterization from the first volume. Whereas previously Alexander spent a lot of time introducing the five members of Z-Comm, particularly the “living weapon” Sam Profitt, here all of them are reduced to ciphers, even Profitt himself, who barely has any dialog. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. Normally I complain about “too much action” in an action novel, but when the action’s being written by David Alexander, there can never be too much.
And make no mistake, Killpoint is an action onslaught, as action-heavy as Phoenix #3. Alexander piles on his customary gore and over-the-top descriptions, but for the most part plays it straight with the blood and guts. To be sure, there’s a ton of ultra-detailed sadism and violence here, but very little of the goofy death descriptions you’d find in the Phoenix novels, or even Z-Comm #1. In fact it seems Alexander here tried to play up more of a “realistic” portrayal of violence – still taken to outrageous extremes, mind you – showcasing the horrors of terrorism in an almost absurdly overblown way.
This time Z-Comm is called in to handle a possible terrorist action in Venice, during a highly-publicized meeting between the US president and the Soviet premiere. Intel has it that the infamous Vulture, a Middle Eastern terrorist leader known for his horrific torture methods, has put together an army and is already holed up on one of the innumerable islands which surround Venice, planning his attack.
Of course, everyone else is too incompetent to track down the Vulture and stop him. Enter Z-Comm, who arrive on the scene and immediately begin kicking “scum sheik” ass; Alexander doesn’t even bother with a mission prep this time, and introduces Z-Comm leader Logan Cage while he’s en route to Italy on the Orient Express – on the same train, of course, as a pair of would-be robbers, whom Cage deals with in bloody fashion.
But Alexander is only getting started; immediately after this we have an ultra sick scene where a trio of terrorists have their gruesome way with a hooker before engaging in a suicide attack on Venice, complete with one of them blasting away at tourists with an Ultimax machine gun with explosive-tipped bullets. The scene with the hooker rivals the infamously gross denoument of Phoenix #2, and will either have you running for the hills or laughing (like I was) at the incredibly dark and violent humor Alexander excels at.
Cage and his four comrades (Bear, Sam Profitt, Zabriskie, and Domino, the Smurfette of the group) basically waltz around Venice, tracking down clues, getting in frequent firefights, and beating information out of known Vulture accomplices, one of them being an exiled American mafioso. Each of them gets their share of the action spotlight, and for Domino there’s even action of the sexual variety – whereas it’s customary in the genre for female operatives to flaunt their wiles in order to distract a mark, but never going all the way with them, Alexander instead has it that Domino really gets into this aspect of her job, and therefore screws an Arabic terrorist supporter in uber-explicit detail while the rest of Z-Comm listens in on their radios.
The novel soon appropriates the feel of Invasion USA, with the Vulture’s followers launching catastrophic attacks on the citizens of Venice, who blithely go about their daily lives. By the climax of the novel the terrorists have apparently wasted half of the populace in surprise attacks on commercial areas or tourist venues, but regardless when the Vulture launches a full-on assault on the city, people are still sitting around in movie theaters or going to the mall, easy pickings for the terrorist kill crews. Again, it’s all so goofy and overdone that you can’t help but laugh…sort of like Invasion USA, in fact.
The action scenes are plentiful, but they’re also varied, from hand-to-hand combat to even fullscale military stuff, like when the Vulture wages a naval war on the wharves of Venice. And as in the previous volume it quickly appropriates a comic book feel, with each member of Z-Comm the equal to an entire army of terrorists, blowing away hordes of them with nary a scratch. But all of the plentiful action scenes are fun (and insane), especially one where Z-Comm launches a "hard probe" on a diplomatic function, a mission which of course quickly devolves into massive bloodshed and destruction.
Alexander also excels in scenes of outrageous sadism, and in addition to the aforementioned hooker-murdering there are extended bits where we see the Vulture’s infamous torture techniques, as well as another incredibly gruesome scene where Z-Comm discovers the mutilated corpses of a couple who worked as informants for the terrorists. (Humorously, Alexander has the Z-Commandos unfazed by the horrific sight.)
As you’ll note, I haven’t really gotten into the plot much. That’s because there isn’t much of one. It’s just Z-Comm following leads, getting in firefights, killing tons of terrorists, and moving on to the next attack, with an occasional topical detail about Venice on the side. There really is no plot other than that. But come on. It’s David Alexander. It’s great!
The Sharpshooter #7: Headcrusher, by Bruno Rossi
June, 1974 Leisure Books
The only problem with Headcrusher is that it was the last volume of The Sharpshooter to be written by Len Levinson. Otherwise it’s the best installment of the series yet, melding Levinson’s strong writing and inventive characterization with the sadistic brutality of Blood Bath. Even though it was only #7 in the series, Headcrusher almost acts as a finale, with “hero” Johnny Rock finally settling the score with the mobsters who killed his family back in #1: The Killing Machine.
There’s an air of finality to the book, and not just when Rock visits a lawyer to have his will drawn up. I’ve yet to read my way through the series, so I wonder if the true last volume of the series, Mafia Death Watch, by Dan Reardon, has any sense of series-conclusion to it. Levinson states here that Rock has been fighting the Mafia for three years, and he’s getting worn out – that lawyer, an old family friend, even tells Rock he looks like he’s aged ten years in the past three. A fitting conclusion to Headcrusher of course would be for Rock to go out in a blaze of glory, but needless to say this doesn’t happen, though he does take a lot of damage here.
With this novel Levinson has perfected his version of Johnny Rock. In Levinson’s hands he is now a combination of the neurotic “Johnny” of Levinson’s earlier two novels in the series and the sadistic fiend of Russell Smith. The first big clue is that now Levinson refers to our hero solely as “Rock,” which of course sounds a lot more tough than the plain old “Johnny” of his previous offerings. Also Rock this time out could give lessons in being a bad-ass to Jim “Slaughter” Brown; there are several laugh-out-loud instances where Rock will put someone in place with a caustic remark, or just be mean for no reason, such as when he’s having sex with a hooker who tells him, “Ooooh, you do it so good.” Rock’s response: “Shut up.”
Anyway, Rock’s back in New York City, where he’s been hanging out in mob-frequented bars in the hopes of tracking down his family’s killers. He strikes gold when a pair of hitmen come in, conveniently blabbing about some of the jobs they’ve done in the past, one of them being the “Rocetti hit” a few years before. Ie, Rock’s family. Rock follows them and before wasting them finds out that they got the job to hit his family from someone named Mackie Malanga.
Malanga is another of those Levinson characters who springs from the pages of the book. A greaseball who runs the Venus Massage Parlor on Eigth Avenue, Malanga is thoroughly perverted and sick. Of course, the “massage girls” in the rundown place are hookers, but he makes his true money with the friggin’ kids he keeps locked away in the basement, where they are taken advantage of by creeps who pay Malanga fortunes for the opportunity. Malanga’s business model is sick but ingenious; he runs a racket so that the kids are picked up off the street by a “priest” who sends them to an “orphanage” – the orphanage being the basement of the Venus Massage Parlor.
Rock learns all of this shortly after arriving on the scene, screwing one of the hookers, and inadvertently saving Malanga’s life when a group of rival mobsters show up with guns blazing. Rock, who of course was just taking the opportunity to kill more Mafia, takes advantage of the fact that Malanga is instantly indebted to him, and soon enough Rock’s the guy’s right-hand man, giving orders to the other mobsters and schmoozing around with the motormouthed Malagna, ie the guy who killed Rock’s entire family.
Levinson works in some Godfather material here with a war going on between Malanga’s boss, Don Salvatore, and another don who wants a piece of Salvatore’s kingdom in Manhattan. Rock spends a long portion of Headcrusher acting as a mob enforcer, leading hitmen on raids against other families and gunning down traitors in cold blood. There’s even an involved part where Rock remembers he’s dubbed “The Sharpshooter” and scouts out the rival don from a rooftop, waiting to blow him away with a sniper shot.
Throughout Rock reminds himself that this is a great opportunity to keep killing mobsters; of course, he could care less about internecine strife in the Mafia. He also takes advantage of the fringe benefits of being Malanga’s right-hand man; Malanga tells Rock to feel free to sleep with as many of “the girls” as he’d like, and Rock does so. As expected, a friendship builds between the two, with Rock realizing he’s in the strange predicament of actually liking the man who killed everyone he ever loved. (In one sequence there's a humorous goof where Malanga refers to Rock as "Rock," and not by the name he's posing under, something Levinson must've missed in his edit.)
Not that this prevents Rock from being the hero we know and love. Anyone who has read Levinson’s previous two entries in the series knows that his presentation of Johnny Rock is full of surprises; Levinson will lull you into the character’s mindset and, just as you’re thinking Rock’s somewhat “heroic” (in that he only kills mobsters), Levinson will have him pull something thoroughly shocking, like in #4: The Worst Way To Die when he started sniper-shooting a group of people at a mob funeral, including young women who obviously had nothing to do with anything.
Rock pulls similar antics here, particularly near the climax when he gets a one-on-one meeting with Don Salvatore and his family. This actually leads into a well-done chase scene. Headcrusher is a little stronger in the action department than previous books in the series. There are several scenes of Rock blasting away at gun-wielding goons, either on his own or while leading Malanga’s men on raids. Rock’s main choice of weaponry is a Mauser, which he uses to blow off several faces.
It’s interesting to note that Levinson has Rock partake of drugs pretty frequently, which of course brings to mind Levinson’s The Last Buffoon. Rock smokes grass a few times with one of the massage parlor hookers, and later meets up with a group of hippies who also offer him a few joints. When one of the hippies sees that Rock looks tired (and he is, he’s been running from mobsters all night), she offers him a snort of coke. Rock likes it so much that he takes some with him, snorting it before his climatic battle! I wonder how that went over with (what I assume was) the largely blue-collar/conservative Republican readership of the series.
But again, this is a fun descent into lurid delights that one would expect from mid-‘70s Leisure Books, with the squalor of New York City brought fully to life. As mentioned, Mackie Malanga’s business affairs are thoroughly depraved (and Rock does prove himself a hero by freeing those enslaved kids), innocent people usually suffer most in the many violent skirmishes, and the sex is more nasty than erotic, usually Rock just “fucking one of the girls.” The only bright spots come courtesy of unexpected sources, like Don Salvatore’s attractive young niece, another of those strong female characters Levinson creates, one who has an instant rapport with Rock, making the reader expect one thing is about to happen when something entirely else does.
It’s a shame Levinson wasn’t kept on as the permanent writer for the series, as he does great things with Rock, turning out a twisted psychopath who still somehow manages to be likable. Or at least, enjoyable to read about. But as mentioned, Headcrusher has a note of finality to it, so it was only apt that this was Levinson’s last entry in the series.