Death Merchant #21: The Pole Star Secret March, 1977 Pinnacle Books Picking up a few months after the previous volume, this installment of the Death Merchant is a direct continuation of Hell In Hindu Land, so you should probably read that one first. As we’ll recall from that novel, hero Richard Camellion discovered friggin’ aliens in India, and while there he was informed that there were
NYPD 2025, by Hal Stryker May, 1985 Pinnacle Books Betrayed by a misleading cover, NYPD 2025 is in fact a men’s adventure novel, one very much in the over-the-top vein of The Hitman and Soldier For Hire. And it’s just as right-winged, “Hal Stryker” serving up a future world in which the goddamn Liberals have taken hold of America…hell, they’ve even opened the country’s borders to immigrants
The Destroyer #14: Judgment Day, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy February, 1974 Pinnacle Books I enjoyed this volume of The Destroyer a lot more than the previous one I read. This time Sapir and Murphy make no attempt to write an actual men’s adventure novel, thus there are no unwieldy or arbitrary moments in which they must insert an action scene. Instead Judgment Day works as a
The Penetrator #19: Panama Power Play, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1977 Pinnacle Books
Whereas his previous volume of The Penetrator was almost surreal in its focus on action, this time out Mark Roberts attempts to go for more of a plot-heavy approach. It doesn’t always succeed, though, making Panama Power Play come off as a bit padded at times, very much lacking the spark of Demented Empire.
Roberts continues to dole out the metaphysical stuff with an opening which sees Mark “Penetrator” Hardin engaging in some past-life regression with his Indian mentor, David Red Eagle. This entire sequence seems lifted from a Western novel Roberts might’ve been working on at the time, with cowboys taking out Hardin’s Indian tribe. It kind of goes on for a while, too. Finally though Hardin emerges from the trip with the understanding that he should not hate his enemies, and instead look upon his vigilante activities moreso from a “maintaining the karmic balance” sort of view. I mean, he’s still supposed to kill them, just not hate them!
From this we clunkily go into the volume’s threat – one Norbert Briscoe, a tycoon who has escaped America, where he’s wanted on various white-collar charges. Now living in Costa Rica, Briscoe plans to take over the Panama Canal, funding a group of soldiers for the job. His objective is to then extort the US and other countries to use the Canal, but unbeknownst to him the commanders of his mercenary army are in fact communists and are secretly working with Cuba. Briscoe is an unlikely villain for the series, but Hardin takes the job because he’s bullied into it by Dan Griggs, a Federal agent who has helped Hardin in the past.
Hardin flies down to Costa Rica on his personal plane, and here again we have arbitrary bits in the text where Roberts informs us how pilots handle small aircraft in rough weather and whatnot. Was the guy a pilot or something on the side? Anyway Hardin’s shaky plan is to pose as Manny Czonka, Norbert Briscoe’s childhood friend; the two haven’t seen each other in decades, and Hardin hopes that Briscoe will have forgotten what Manny looked like. Czonka has gone on to become a left-leaning labor union rep, giving Roberts many opportunities to bash liberals and commies.
Unbelievably enough, Briscoe not only buys that Hardin is his childhood pal, but he immediately tries to recruit him into his Panama Canal scheme! This develops over a very long sequence in which Hardin as Czonka hobknobs with the expatriot jetset at a party on Briscoe’s estate in Costa Rica. We get lots of scenes in which Briscoe’s financial advisors bicker with one another over the Canal plan; they are immediately distrustful of Hardin, as is “The Colonel,” Briscoe’s security chief who is secretly working with the Cubans. In fact for a “financial wizard” Norbert Briscoe comes off like an idiot in Panama Power Play, constantly being fooled by those around him.
Action is sporadic for the first half of the novel, other that is than a completely superfluous scene where, before heading down to Costa Rica, Hardin heads up to Briscoe’s old home turf in Chicago and gets in an arbitrary fight with a pair of cronies who attack him. Needless to say, this incident has no bearing on anything and is never again mentioned. But I guess this would be like complaining about a “superfluous” sex scene in a porn flick. Anyway there’s very little action for the first several chapters of the novel, again marking it from its predecessor.
When the Colonel’s goons pull a hit on Hardin, he finally decides to kick things into gear. Once again hopping into his plane he flies on down to Panama to scout out the location. Here we have another strangely arbitrary scene where, on the main street of some village in Panama, Hardin just happens to run into two old army pals from back in his Vietnam days! These guys, who immediately thereafter disappear from the novel, serve as backstory-expositors, telling Hardin, whom they suspect is now CIA, how the army has gotten word that something strange is going on in the area.
Hardin forages into the jungle and finds a battalion of Cuban soldiers have already secretly encamped. Posing as a local he gets onto the base, but is immediately discovered. There follows a sequence torn from a war novel in which Hardin commandeers a radio and calls in the Panamanian army; troops descend upon the encampment and a smallscalle war ensues. The Penetrator literally disappears throughout this sequence, as we read about random Cuban or Panamanian soldiers blowing each other apart.
When Hardin returns to the narrative he’s busy trying to escape the surviving Cubans, who are still after the imposter who snuck into their camp, despite the apocalyptic battle they just lost. Hardin gets shot in the leg and falls off a cliff, right into a river; he wakes up to see a beautiful young Indian woman looking down at him. This is Rainbow Child, and the next sequence of the novel sees Hardin staying with the natives in their village as he recovers from his wound.
Rainbow Child is of course “given” to Hardin by the chief, though we learn that the girl wanted Hardin anyway. Strangely though Roberts doesn’t make much of the eventual sex scene, with Hardin instead biding his time until he recovers, so that he can finally thwart Briscoe’s Canal plan from occurring – despite the Cubans having been rousted, Hardin knows that Briscoe’s underlings are turncoats and no doubt still have something in mind for the Canal. Only when Rainbow Child complains that Hardin hasn’t slept with her does Roberts deliver the expected scene – but he skips right over it, which is also strange. I was hoping for a Soldier For Hire-style purple-prosed sex scene.
Speaking of sex, as soon as Hardin manages to get back to Costa Rica he finds Joanna Tabler waiting for him in his hotel room. Joanna is Hardin’s girlfriend in all but name, and this is one of the few Roberts Penetrator novels she’s appeared in. Sent down here by her boss Dan Griggs to pose as the girlfriend of “Manny Czonka,” Joanna does absolutely nothing to help Hardin – that is, other than immediately get abducted by the Colonel’s men!
In a sequence that seems to come right out of a sweat mag, Roberts has the Colonel’s stooges torture Joanna in horrible fashion. She’s stripped, burned, beaten (until the point where she pukes), and even violated by the Colonel’s rough fingers. It’s all pretty unsettling and seems to come out of nowhere, but it all culminates in a nice bit where Hardin magically shows up and blows everyone away – just in the nick of time to prevent Joanna from swallowing her cyanide pill.
From here Panama Power Play stalls into the home stretch as Hardin and Joanna turn into veritable pranksters as they try to fool Norbert Briscoe into believing his life is at stake. Their goal is to get him to willingly leaving the country, taking advantage of his “old pal” Manny Czonka’s private plane. At length the ruse works, and after drugging up Briscoe Hardin turns the plane from the Briscoe-intended destination of Cuba and back to the US, where Hardin delivers Briscoe into the hands of Dan Griggs. And by novel’s end, of course, Joanna has sufficiently recovered enough to want a little play time with the, uh, Penetrator.
I guess on second thought Panama Power Play was in fact just as discombobulated as the previous Roberts installment, jumping at random from one subplot to another, but still it lacked the nutzoid spark of other Roberts offerings, not to mention the gore and sex factor. Also on a pedantic note, the nifty little submachine gun Hardin had made at the end of Demented Empire is revealed this time out as being an American 180, which doesn’t look nearly as cool as Roberts described it.
Cut, by Jerry Bronson
July, 1976 Pinnacle Books
Proving once again that the best trash is ‘70s trash, Cut pulls no punches in its sordid tale of an asthmatic private eye, a missing socialite, a hippie cult, and the sick world of snuff films. “Jerry Bronson” was actually the pseudonym of two British authors, which Justin Marriott explains below, and after reading this novel I’ll need to reassess my lazy opinion of UK pulp as “prudish!”
But then, nothing about Cut comes off as British, save for one slightly jarring bit where Frank Reagan, our Dirty Harry-esque former cop turned private eye, uses the distincly British curse “bloody.” Otherwise the novel is as lurid as one could wish a trashy ‘70s novel to be, opening with the graphically-detailed filming of a porn scene that, unbeknownst to its drugged-out starlet, is actually a snuff film…and her ensuing on-screen murder goes on for a few pages, the authors going out of their way to push buttons. And they succeed – I’ve read some sick shit, and this opening chapter of Cut is pretty damn sick!!
The opening chapter also introduces the villain of the tale, namely Priest, a muscle-bound and bald “guru” of sorts who wears denim suits and white gloves of kid leather; Priest also fancies himself a director and shoots snuff films on stolen equipment, usually murdering the people he steals it from. In this scene we witness one of his snuff films in full, as the novel opens from the perspective of Reena, the starlet who thinks she’s shooting just another porn scene.
As mentioned the explicit detail in this sequence alone places Cut outside the realm of most other ‘70s pulp, but then it gets super sick as the masked and caped mystery man who’s humping Reena pulls out a dagger at the moment of truth and stabs her in the throat…and then continues to mutilate her face in excruciating detail for a few pages. The mystery man’s identity is easily figured out as the novel progresses, but this first chapter really sets him up as one sick bastard.
After this charming opening we are introduced to the “hero” of the tale, the aforementioned Frank Reagan (his last name elicits a few Ronald Reagan jokes in the text), a former Las Vegas cop who was kicked off the force after blowing away a drug dealer who sold Reagan’s former-junkie wife some heroin, heroin which she OD’d on. Now working as a P.I. in San Francisco, Reagan is as mentioned asthmatic and as bitter and cynical as you’d expect a private eye to be.
With its jaded, ball-busting private eye protagonist, snuff film plot, over-the-top tone, and super-lurid vibe, Cut is everything LA Morse’s The Big Enchilada wanted to be. However unlike that later novel Cut is told in third person and, despite the seriously dark humor that runs throughout, it never devolves into satire or spoofery. Also, at 146 pages of big print, it’s half the length – indeed it’s shorter than the average volume of The Penetrator – which is also to its strength.
Reagan’s contacted by the wealthy and beautiful Lorraine Hamilton, who lives in opulence in Los Angeles. A veritable man-eater, Lorraine sets her sights on Reagan as soon as he enters her palatial home. After getting the details of the job out of the way – Lorraine wants Reagan to find her sister, Lee, an 18 year-old nympho who’s run off into the hills around LA to join some hippie cult – Lorraine promptly gets down to the business of having sex with Reagan.
As expected for a pulp P.I., Reagan’s method of “investigation” is basically to harrass and beat up people. He drives up to one of the communes in the hills and does precisely that, throwing around tranced-out hippies who have no idea who Lee is. Eventually he gets wind of Priest’s cult; larger and more mysterious than the others, it’s located among the same hills, the cultists having taken over abandoned studio sets from the golden days of Hollywood.
Anyone hoping for a deeper glimpse into who Priest is and an explanation for why he holds people in such thrall will be let down – I mentioned ealrier that the short length of Cut is a good thing, but that’s at least so far as its overall impact goes. One thing it lacks is much explanation for what we are witnessing, or much depth. But anyway like a muscular Charlie Manson Priest rules an obedient flock, and shortly after barging onto the cult’s property Reagan is escorted by Priest himself to Lee’s shack, Priest proving to Reagan that the girl is here of her own will.
Guess what, this leads to yet another sex scene, Lee throwing herself at Reagan. Again, the novel is very similar to The Big Enchilada, with its protagonist scoring with practically every woman he meets. Here at the commune Reagan runs afoul of a few of Priest’s stooges, thus setting the scene for the later action sequences, including one enjoyably arbitrary bit where Reagan drives back up to the commune in the middle of the night for the express purpose of murdering a few of them!
The novel rushes headlong for its conclusion as we are quickly introdued to Douglas Q. Wilde, a Boris Karloff/Vincent Price-type horror actor with delusions of grandeur who is known for portraying insane men who get off on murdering women. (Even the “subtle” material is obtuse in Cut!) Wilde happens to be at a party Lorraine is hosting, and Reagan instantly suspects something about the guy. Meanwhile Lorraine doesn’t believe that her sister is really a willing Priest devotee, and insists that Reagan bring her back, regardless of what the girl says.
The authors are also good at setting up action scenes. When Reagan finds himself being tailed by two of Priest’s goons the next day, he veers off into Disneyland, and the ensuing action sequence suspensefully plays out among the rides and attractions. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride is the setting for one memorable scene, where Reagan jumps out among the model pirates and blows away one of his pursuers as he rides by in a boat.
Like Dirty Harry Reagan carries a .44 Magnum, though sometimes it’s a .45, and sometimes it’s an automatic…that is, when it isn’t a revolver. And yes, he just has the one gun! So it’s safe to say the authors forgot to compare notes when it came to Reagan’s gun. Strangely enough they don’t play up too much on the gun-battle gore, with Reagan apparently doling out clean and nonmessy kills, which must be pretty hard to do with a .44 Magnum.
Before it’s all over we get another detailed snuff film sequence, this time “starring” a character we know. And unlike Morse’s parodic character Sam Hunter, Reagan is actually fazed by what he sees, to such a point that Priest gets a drop on him while he’s watching the flick. This leads to a suitably apocalyptic finale, one that leaves Reagan further unsettled. In fact it’s strange that there was no sequel to Cut, as the authors leave a lot of potential for further lurid adventures with Reagan.
As for the authors and more background info on Cut, here’s what Justin Marriott has to say:
Jerry Bronson was Laurence James and John Harvey. The late Laurence James is my hero, ex-editor at NEL whose final days were spent on Deathlands as Jerry Axler. When the original author of the first Deathlands story faced a few personal issues which resulted in him supposedly turning in a manuscript consisting of several hundred pages of dialogue between the two lead characters crouching in an armoured tank, it was Laurence that Gold Eagle turned to. No doubt due to the connection between GE editor Mark Howell and Laurence -- they worked together at New English Library in London during the early 1970s.
John Harvey is the best-selling and politically aware crime author. I asked Harvey about the book, and his version was Laurence did the kinky bits and he did the PI bits. From what I know of Laurence, that would definitely have been the case. Apparently he always had the latest scandalous gossip and sometimes photos of various dignitaries and celebrities up to no good. His Hells Angels books as Mick Norman for New English Library are my favoutite all-time books - subversive and hugely entertaining.
Cut was written for the American market. The link here was Andy Ettinger at Pinnacle who reprinted a number of Laurence's UK books at Pinnacle, and those of his colleagues. Examples include the Edge westerns by George G Gilman (Terry Harknett was the author but Laurence was key in their development), The Killers by Klauz Netzen (Nettson in the US), The Gladiators by Andrew Quiller (the pun only works with the English series which was called The Eagles. Aquilla meaning Roman for eagle), The Vikings as Neil Langholm, and Simon Rack as Laurence James.
There's no way Cut would have been printed in the UK in the 1970s. I think the stilted and restrained approach of UK pulp authors reflected the standards of the time and our strict censorship laws. Hardcore only became legally available here in the 1990s and is still only available through licenced sex shops. In the 1980s the video distributor of The Evil Dead was given a jail sentence and the likes of The Exorcist weren't available on DVD until the late 1990s. At one point the word Chainsaw was banned, so that terrible film with Gunnar Hansen was renamed Hollywood Hookers. Nunchaka scenes were also banned in the 90s, which meant Enter the Dragon couldn't be seen uncut and the video cover was doctored to show Lee holding what appeared to be a large baguette! (At one point, an uncut version was accidentally shown on terrestial TV and was the source of bootlegs for many years.) Bizarre I know - we Brits are totally obsessed with sex and violence yet at the same time totally repressed and hung-up.
I think Cut shows what they could write with the brakes off!
The Hitman #2: L.A. Massacre, by Norman Winski
July, 1984 Pinnacle Books
The first volume of Norman Winski’s The Hitman series was a lot of goofy fun, but this second installment is even better. In fact it’s one of the best ‘80s men’s adventure novels I’ve read. It sort of comes off like Bronson: Blind Rage as rewritten by David Alexander, melding the sleazy and lurid plotlines of the former with the OTT action onslaught of the latter.
This one opens a little over a year after Chicago Deathwinds, and we learn that since we last saw him Dirk “The Hitman” Spencer has taken out “the Lake Shore Killer-Rapist” and Harry Gayarti, “the biggest dope-dealer in Chicago history.” L.A. Massacre opens with Spencer pulling a hit on another piece of scum who preys on the people of Illinois, dousing the bastard with a flamethrower before making a getaway in his Countach S Lamborghini.
As anyone who has read the first volume knows, this series pretty much begins where “over the top” leaves off, and this installment goes to even further heights of lunacy. The opening immolation, crazy as it is, is almost forgettable when the rest of the novel is taken into consideration. Another improvement from the first volume is that this time Winski doesn’t pad out the pages. The action is fast, furious, and constant – indeed, if it wasn’t for the colorfully-described gore, comic book-ish tone, and generally goofy feeling, L.A. Massacre would almost becoming numbing in its total devotion to action sequences.
The only thing this volume lacks in comparison to its predecessor is a focus on sex, which is strange given that in this installment Spencer cracks down on an illicit porn empire, one that also deals in snuff films and kiddie porn. Unlike the first volume, which saw Spencer mixing “business and pleasure” while on his mission, L.A. Massacre features all the “good stuff” in the opening pages only, and Spencer’s in full-on business mode throughout the rest of the tale.
In fact it’s Spencer’s latest conquest who gets him on the case: Karla, a sexy Brazilian stewardess, whom Spencer takes to a porn theater at Karla’s behest. (In a definite “hmmm” moment, Winski writes that, “when the movie grew all too predictable,” Spencer begins to think about his days in ‘Nam!) The onscreen sex gets Karla quite randy, but then shock overcomes her horniness when she sees her kid sister Manuella in the film. She’s lost contact with the girl, a runaway who isn’t yet 18, but Karla can tell from watching her sister as she engages in sex with another woman that Manuella is doped up, and no doubt was forced into all of this.
Spencer’s own sense of outrage is inflamed, not that this stops him from banging Karla right after the flick, the lady apparently getting over her shock pretty damn fast. (Also just as humorously, Spencer has picked up the odd habit of calling his lady friends “rose petals” this time around.) Learning that the porn movie was produced by Beaver Enterprises, Spencer checks with his old flame Valerie, newsreporter and former actress, aka the gorgeous babe he rescued in the previous volume, and remember the only woman Spencer has ever loved – a scene which sees the two getting friendly again in Valerie’s office.
Flying himself to LA, Spencer researches Beaver Enterprises, which is headquartered in a geodesic dome. Soon enough he learns that beyond their “respectable” front as a porn studio, they also deal in snuff films, child abduction, and kiddie porn, yet of course the damn liberal bureacrats won’t do anything about it! Even more unbelievably, Spencer learns that the silent owner of the entire operation is superstar Billy Que, a “younger clone of Elvis” who as coincidence would have it just happens to be in LA at the same time, giving another of his hugely popular concerts.
Billy Que is the goofiest archvillain you’ll ever meet in a men’s adventure novel, a portly and pompadoured crooner who wears silver jumpsuits and prefers young boys and girls to women. Spencer doesn’t mess around, pulling off a hit on Billy as soon as he finds out he’s behind Beaver; this is one of those setpieces Winski excels in, like in the first volume where Spencer pulled off a hit with an Uzi while performing flight aerobatics! And like that previous time this hit fails, thanks to Billy’s wearing of a bullet proof vest (which I don’t think would’ve been much use against Spencer’s high-velocity slugs, but no matter).
From here L.A. Massacre settles into a repetitive but enjoyable sequence of Spencer attempting to kill Billy Que in a variety of action-packed ways, with the villain himself always managing to get away but tons of his henchmen buying it in spectacularly gory fashion. You can tell Winski did some time at Gold Eagle, as he doles out the gun-porn with abandon, but never to the point where it becomes nauseating. Spencer is loaded to bear with an arsenal of machine pistols and assault rifles as he runs around in his costume, “a body-tight black linen jumpsuit with a long silver zipper in front,” a black “stocking mask” covering his face.
The lurid element gets a big focus as well, as we learn that Stephanie Julio, the obese president of Beaver Enterprises, puts on “parties” for Billy Que, bringing in drugged-up children for his sick pleasure. Spencer crashes one of these parties, which takes place in the penthouse suite of a posh apartment building, another great sequence which sees Spencer crawling all the way to the top of the place on suction cups and mowing everyone down with his Uzi. As mentioned the gore and carnage are stronger this time out as well, though still not up to the hyperkenetic level of David Alexander.
Winski in fact keeps piling climatic action sequence on top of climatic action sequence, building up until the expected final confrontation at Billy Que’s remote villa on Catalina Island (not-so-coincidentally the setting of the Winski-penned Able Team #2). During his blitzes Spencer picks up the intel that Billy plans to make Manuella the “star” of one of his snuff films – a priviledge we learn is granted to anyone who attempts to out Beaver Enterprises – and so the clock is ticking for Spencer to make his hit and save the girl. The finale is even more OTT than the action scenes that came before, with Spencer “drafting” a herd of buffalo in his merciless attack.
The stock epithets of the previous volume are also here in spades, with Spencer invariably referred to as “the blonde viking,” “the big warrior,” and etc, not to mention my favorite of them all, possibly my favorite character description ever: “the tall, bogus milkman” (which actually makes sense within the context of the narrative, but still!). Taken together the whole book reaches a level of jawdropping absurdity that puts it on the level of satire or spoofery – again, like Mark Roberts’s just-as-great Soldier For Hire series. The question is whether Winski intended it that way.
But regardless if he did or didn’t, it doesn’t matter – I give The Hitman my highest recommendation. Too bad there were only three volumes…but I guess, like Dean W. Ballenger’s Gannon series, great things come in small doses.
The Headhunters #2: Starlight Motel Incident, by John Weisman and Brian Boyer
April, 1974 Pinnacle Books
Hard to believe it’s been three years since I read the first volume of the Headhunters series. This second installment is a direct pick-up from it, with our heroes Eddie Martin and Jake “T.S.” Putnam of the Detroit police internal affairs division once again coming off like guest stars in their own book; like Marc Olden’s Narc series, the Headhunters novels are more about merciless crooks and dirty cops.
One difference between the two series would be that Narc has a much stronger focus on action. Martin and Putnam in fact shy away from battle, and spend the majority of Starlight Motel Incident either tracking leads or investigating crime scenes. I guess this would be a problem with making your protagonists members of the internal affairs division; for the pair to even be involved, the majority of the storylines must revolve around crooked cops or internal corruption, and as with the previous volume that is once again the plot here.
However the plot moves a lot faster this time, and one thing I should mention is, despite the action-avoiding protagonists, The Headhunters is without question one of the more lurid series to ever see print. For pete’s sake, the first-page excerpt/preview is about a white reporter coming to consciousness “in a pool of blood from his ruptured sphincter,” having been sodomized by several black inmates…and now they’re coming after him for more! I mean, did Pinnacle think prospective buyers would peruse this first page and then rush for the checkout line to buy the book?? (Though to tell the truth, it did get my attention!)
Martin and Putnam (who by the way is still invariably referred to as “TS,” “Putnam,” and “Jake” in the narrative, which is pretty confusing) appear in maybe a quarter of the novel. Instead the majority of the tale goes once again to Henry Pacquette, crime kingpin of Detroit, who finds his kingdom threatened by the Black Saracens. Lead by the mysterious Malcom 4x Saladin, who has never been seen, the Saracens are trying to corner Pacquette’s market of drugs and hookers and whatnot. What brings our heroes into it is the fact that a lot of cops happen to be Black Saracens.
Reading Starlight Motel Incident could leave one pretty paranoid about cops, especially those in Detroit circa 1974; practically every one of them are on the take, and have side jobs as executioners for either Pacquette or Saladin. And the corruption runs right up to the top, with of course Martin and Putnam being the only two clean cops we meet. You wonder why they don’t just say to hell with it and bust out of town – which, as the acknowledgements page would indicate, is exactly what Weisman and Boyer themselves did. They dedicate the book to their wives, for talking them into leaving Detroit, “the most dangerous city in the world.”
The titular event occurs in the first pages, as a group of Black Saracen cops burst in on a group of Henry Pacquette’s cops as the latter play poker in the Starlight Motel, hookers squatting beneath the tables and giving them blowjobs at the same time! (I told you this series was lurid…) The Saracens blow the cops away (they allow the hookers to live, though), thus setting off a war between Pacquette and Saladin’s men. We learn this from the outset from the scenes with Pacquette, who again is surrounded by his top two henchmen: Sonny Hope and Dovell, but it takes Martin and Putnam a while to put everything together.
There isn’t much “action” per se in the novel, other than a scene where Putnam, who goes undercover as a Saracen inductee, is chased by a trio of Saladin’s cops, who quickly deduce who Putnam is. Again though these heroes don’t do anything heroic; Putnam just runs from the Saracens, even stealing some guy’s car to make his getaway. In fact the people who do “heroic” things are the villains, with Dovell and Hope swooping in to save Putnam, a foreshadowing of the finale, in which they save both Martin and Putnam from the Saracens.
But while there isn’t action, there are definitely sordid hijinks. As mentioned above there’s the sad plight of Joe Thomas, a Detroit reporter who stumbles on the fact that the Black Saracens have friends in high places; for his trouble he’s set up on a bogus rap for heroin possession, sent to jail, taken to a notorious wing, and tossed in a cell with several black inmates (and yes, the authors inform us the inmates are all black). After he’s gang-sodomized by the lot of them, Thomas comes back to consciousness only to have his throat slit by the Elephant, Saladin’s top henchman and yet another dirty cop, not to mention the person who set Thomas up in the first place. Talk about a sick bastard – Elephant not only set him up, but initiated Thomas’s raping, and then waited around for him to wake up so Thomas would be conscious while Elephant slit his throat!
There are other instances, though none of them reach this exploitative high (low?). Another of Saladin’s cops is caught by Pacquette and his men in a darkly humorous scene, with Pacquette posing as a bus driver, and the guy’s tossed to the bears in the Detroit Zoo; both Martin and Putnam puke at the sight of the mauled remains the next morning. And once Saladin is uncovered (his identity is easily figured out, though), he too suffers a horrifying fate at the hands of Dovell and Hope – thrown against a sheet metal-lined brick wall and smashed against it by an armored truck!
As for our protagonists, Martin and Putnam don’t even shoot at anyone, and throughout are at least one step behind Pacquette and Saladin. This concept does make the Headhunters interesting, as of all the men’s adventure series I’ve read, this one features the least effective protagonists. But then they’re moreso there just to framework the stories; the tales really belong to the colorful cast of villains. Be forewarned, though, if you’re sensitive to such things; as in the previous book Weisman and Boyer go out of their way to make their black characters “talk black,” which gives the book a humorous Blaxploitation tone, whether intentional or not.
Justin Perry: The Assassin #5: Stud Service, by John D. Revere
May, 1985 Pinnacle Books
Certainly one of the more unusual series ever to be published in the men’s adventure genre, Justin Perry: The Assassin ran for five volumes from 1983 to 1985, one of the last gasps of Pinnacle Books. I’ve long been interested in checking out this series, mostly due to its reportedly bizarre and twisted sexual vibe. And make no mistake, having read this final volume I can confirm that this is one twisted series. But then I also detect something else is afoot, mostly due to who author “John D. Revere” really was, more of which below.
“Kinda disturbing one-fisted action” is how Zwolf summed up Justin Perry #1 on The Mighty Blowhole. And Mike Madonna had even more damning things to say about the series, in an email to me: Pinnacle had one series called The Assassin and the only book I started to read was so bad – had the hero recalling that as a kid he’d killed a chicken while trying to have sex with it – that not only did I not finish it, but I absolutely tore it up and threw it out. When I later talked to Michael Bradley, an editor then at Pinnacle, I told him how offensive this book was. He seemed to agree and told me that the only reason the series was launched was because someone there at Pinnacle owed the author a favor.
I’d love to know what that “favor” was, wouldn’t you?? But at any rate there’s no chicken-screwing in Stud Service, not that “hero” Justin Perry doesn’t get in enough sex. He’s in Spain researching the mysterious murders of around 30 men and women, whose corpses have recently been found deposited in caves, the women summarily shot in the head, the men dead from apparently being screwed to death. Checking various leads, Perry eventually discovers that all this is the work of the Halley Society, an underground organization of nutjobs who believe that Halley’s Comet is a god and that its forthcoming arrival (the novel occurs in early 1986) heralds a new dawn for man. (By the way, this is one of those novels where the back cover copy has nothing to do with the actual novel’s plot.)
First though Perry shags a woman on a plane en route…merely by getting up and stretching he gets her excited, and so promptly hops into the seat beside her and, after roughly feeling her up, orders her to blow him! Turns out though that the lady’s a KGB spy, which Perry was aware of; further, he was aware that she was a nympho who looked for any opportunity to have sex. But this is just the first of the many such curious incidents in which Perry has sex in the novel, and while the book is heavily sex-focused, the scenes themselves lack much description. They’re usually relegated to Perry thinking how he wants to “fuck” the woman in question (also curiously, this word is almost always used), and how the woman “takes his semen” (another recurring phrase).
But even this strange stuff apparently is there just to fit in with the author’s theme. For Stud Service is a very thematic book, and writing-wise it’s downright literary. It develops that the Halley Society has been around for centuries, and they’ve been trying to cultivate studly men to become sacrifices for their comet god; the sacrifice, chosen as a virile man with all sorts of masculine qualities, will be screwed to death by the Society’s women, who will collect his sperm…which will then be placed in special containers so that it can last 50,000 years, used to insiminate future generations of Halley Society descendants who will rule the world!
What’s crazy is that Stud Service is the author’s culmination of the series entire – it would appear that every previous volume has lead up to this one, with Perry’s twisted nature (ie his constant thoughts of sex, the fact that he gets sexually excited when he kills, and, uh, his chicken-screwing) all having been developed beforehand so that “John D. Revere” can drop the revelation here that all of this has been planned out because Justin Perry has been chosen to be the Society’s sacrifice! And what’s more, his CIA boss, the Old Man, is revealed to be the head of the Halley Society, and he specifically sought out Perry and offered him a job in Justin Perry #1 with the express purpose of grooming him for this “honor.”
These surprise reveals come up toward the middle of the novel. First though we see how creepy Justin Perry is. Every woman he meets he thinks about “fucking” (again, the word is always used), and in a few flashbacks we see how he’s always been messed up…there’s a completely bizarre bit where we learn that when Perry was a child an old black man taught him how to steal watermelons(!), and then years later while in Japan after interviewing some ‘Nam soldiers Perry decided to steal some watermelons again…we learn that at this time Japan would fertilize their crops with human excrement…and running out nude one night to steal a watermelon, Perry fell in a pit of human shit(!)…and this scene goes on and on, with Perry starting to enjoy the animalistic nature of it all, climbing out of the piles of shit…!
But there’s more. Going to meet with a contact, Perry is waylaid by an old woman, one whose seeming mounds of fat is really hard muscle. She beats up Perry, then runs away. This completely bugs Perry out, to the point where he constantly doubts his virility and manhood…so he decides to get his mojo back by killing someone. He decides to kill Willie the Rat, a CIA informant who is on the agency’s “slush pile,” ie the list of people an agent can murder if he happens to be in the area; not a major threat, but a person that should be liquidated if the opportunity arises.
So Perry starts to become sexually excited at the thought of killing Willie…murdering him will bring back his manhood, etc. I mean, it’s all really creepy, particularly given that Perry is the hero of the series! But then, he is nicknamed “The Assassin,” the agency’s top hitman, so granted the guy would be fucked up. However the author again has a trick up his sleeve – midway through the tale, along with the reveals listed above, Perry also himself realizes how disturbed and sick he is, even chastizes himself for the stupidity of his thoughts, how he believed murdering Willie would restore his “virility,” etc. He even reflects back on the stuff he did in previous volumes, further disgusted by his own thoughts and actions. (“I guess I am sort of a weirdo,” he admits.)
It would be apparent then that this author has a lot going on beneath the sordid surface of the tale. Meanwhile though Justin Perry has been captured by the Halley Society; he’s captive in a cell on Ibiza, prisoner of the Baroness, whose women are constantly “taking his semen” as he is strapped to a chair, bringing him to climax and then collecting his sperm in test tubes. Here Perry further reflects on the aptness of his being chosen as the sacrifice for the comet god, because he starts “actually liking the bondage, the many ejaculations.” But gradually Perry needs “to offset the trauma of repeatedly ejaculating into the air, as it were,” and begs for a woman.
The woman Perry is given turns out to be Leslie Stafford, the nympho KGB agent from above; she’s infiltrated the Halley Society so as to free Perry. Even here though the author does not render an actual sex scene between the two. Instead they manage to flee, saved by the Old Man of all people, who reveals to Perry that he is in fact the Grand Halley (as the Society leader is named) and has been rearing Perry to be the Society sacrifice, but only so far as the collecting of his semen goes. He never wanted Perry to be killed; that was the doing of the Baroness, the Old Man’s sister, who runs a more violent faction of the Society.
But meanwhile there’s Pedro Antonio, the self-appointed messiah of yet another faction of the Halley Society, once chosen to be the sacrifice himself but deciding instead to take over the organization and sell out to the Russians. The Old Man implores Perry to help him bring down Pedro, whose union with the Russians threatens the entire world. But after this Stud Service sort of stalls into the home stretch; there are no more action scenes, and the next 50 or so pages of denoument feature Perry and his comrades back in Mexico, where Perry basically just screws around while the Old Man, now released from the CIA, slowly goes insane.
There are many instances where the author will go into extended flights of character introspection, and we have lots of that here, from how Perry realizes that he is losing his insane, murderous nature to Willie the Rat, who is reborn as a more upstanding individual. And we have long sections from Leslie Stafford’s point of view; she’s a Russian-born agent who also thanks to Perry is now questioning her Commie devotion and decides maybe she’ll defect and marry Justin Perry.
Only at the very end does it approach boil, as Mario, one of Perry’s comrades and another character who’s apparently been around since volume #1, is also revealed to be a Halley devotee. And not only that but he’s also been posing as Pedro Antonio, who is dead. Mario and Perry fight to the death, and I should mention that both men have hardons during the battle, Mario who groans “I love you, Justin,” as Perry strangles him, and Perry all excited because, remember, he gets turned on by murder. And it’s all capped off by Perry blowing away the Old Man, who we learn has a brain tumor, and thus begs Perry to kill him.
Now, as for the author. Through a fluke I discovered that “John D. Revere” was actually a black author named Hal Bennett (1930-2004), whose biggest success came in the early 1970s with a handful of literary novels about the African-American experience. You won’t be surprised to know that his novels featured an exaggerated focus on explicit sex, to the point where critics either complained about the excess or figured that Bennett was going for satire. It would seem that the latter was the case, particularly for 1970’s Lord of Dark Places, “a satirical and all but scatological attack on the phallic myth,” per one critic.
Knowing this, it’s clear that Hal Bennett was using the Justin Perry series as a way to do the exact same thing, only in this case over the course of five volumes in the men’s adventure genre. This alone is enough for me to place Justin Perry in a high status; the only other series I know of where the author tried something similar would be The Enforcer, which Andrew Sugar used as a platform for his Objectivist/Libertarian views, and The Mind Masters, which John F. Rossmann/Ian Ross used to promulgate his parasychology views and mind control paranoia. Indeed the latter series is closest in spirit to Justin Perry; both works seem to come from a disturbed mind.
The parody/satire element extends to the few scenes in the novel with black characters. There are only two of them in Stud Service, a pair of black guards who work for the Halley Society. Bennett refers to this duo as “big blacks,” “negroes,” and even “bucks,” and plays up their animal-like nature. It seems like just another indication of the author’s spoofing of the action genre, playing up to the “jungle savage” stereotype that would threaten the white protagonists of pulp. And of course there’s old Willie, the black man who taught young Justin Perry to steal watermelons.
So it seems to me then that there’s an actual point to all of the disturbed stuff, and that Hal Bennett was trying to lampoon the cliched image of the studly white James Bond-esque man of adventure in his Justin Perry series, the same as he spoofed the superstud “black phallus” cliché in his novels of the 1970s. Personally this really gets my respect – I love to see when something different is done to a genre, and damn this is different. I mean, we have here the bizarre, disturbing sex-filled adventures of a unibrowed white American assassin who gets off on murder, as written by a black author.
And also quite clearly with this installment Justin Perry’s adventures came to a definite (and no doubt planned from the beginning) close, but I’m going to go back and start reading from the first volume, because something as twisted and strange as this series needs to be read and appreciated.
Skull, by Joe Buffer
May, 1975 Pinnacle Books
This is the only novel Joe Buffer published, which is a mystery, because Skull is actually pretty good. It’s not an action pulp like most other Pinnacle offerings, but instead is more of a character portrait sort of thing – however of a character who happens to be a paid assassin. Plus it occasionally drips with a sleaze quotient that just screams 1970s, which around these parts just adds to the charm.
Joe Skull is our protagonist (I love it that Buffer also named his hero “Joe”), though if you were to thumb through this book you wouldn’t see “Skull” mentioned very often in the narrative. That’s because Skull’s real name is Mike Farrell, although we don’t learn this for the first several pages; Buffer plays a neat little literary trick for the first twenty pages or so, making us think Skull and Farrell are two different characters. But anyway Farrell is our hero; he’s a former Marine sergeant, a ‘Nam vet in his early 30s who for the past two years has lived a double life as top-dollar hitman Joe Skull.
In his day life Farrell owns a restaurant, Mick’s, in Los Angeles. He runs it with his old ‘Nam buddy Ken Ozaki, and the place does great business, bringing in Hollywood elite and tourists alike. Skull really captures the mid-‘70s, seedy feel of Los Angeles, so I’d suspect Buffer must’ve lived there or was very familiar with the place. Farrell and Ozaki have a chummy banter, Farrell calling Ozaki “Buddha Head” and the married Ozaki betting Farrell that he won’t be able to score with Terri Layne, ie the pretty young hostess who has just started at Mick’s. Terri is from England, and we eventually learn that her real name is Vicki Thompson and that she has escaped from a sadistic drug kingpin in London who kept her as his sex-slave.
All of this stuff takes quite a while to get to, however. Buffer instead focuses more on Farrell’s daily life, hobknobbing with Ken and his wife Reiko and their kids, running the restaurant, and trying to get in Terri’s pants. There isn’t much hitman stuff in the novel, so there goes any expectations that Skull will be a blood-soaked action extravaganza. We meet Farrell/Skull while he’s on a hit, blowing away some young woman in a Dallas parking lot (Skull never asks questions about his jobs), but that’s pretty much it so far as his assassin life goes.
Instead, Buffer spends vast portions of the narrative flashing back to important times in Farrell’s life. Vietnam gets a particular focus; Farrell was also in charge of prisoners, where he occasionally got in trouble for being too cruel. We also learn that Farrell and Ozaki were pretty damn sadistic in combat, Farrell in particular, and that deep down he enjoys killing. There are also extended flashbacks to Farrell’s first hit as Skull, and eventually we learn how he got the gig in the first place (he took over the “Joe Skull” mantle from an old ‘Nam buddy as the guy sat on his hospital deathbed, having been crushed in a random car crash).
The narrative comes to an eventual broil as Kadak, the British drug kingpin, sends his men after Terri (aka Vicki) who has now become involved with Farrell. Kadak’s chief assassin Werner heads up the job, flying to New York and hiring some mafia thugs; Kadak’s order is that Terri’s death must be slow and painful and that it be caught on film for future viewing! But even here it takes forever for anything to happen, as meanwhile Farrell and Terri are busy falling in love, and Farrell’s even decided to terminate his sidejob as Joe Skull, Terri not knowing about his double life.
Buffer throws the curveball I was hoping for, when Werner, following the underworld prompts, makes contact with Skull via his phone service. Here Farrell, on the phone with Werner, is informed of his next job – kill a woman named Terri Layne and her boyfriend Mike Farrell! So begins a game of cat and mouse as Farrell, alert to the fact that mobsters are in LA looking for Terri, continues to pose as just a regular restaurant owner, while playing out the hitmen so he can take them out when they least suspect it. The final confrontation with Werner is also played out on more of a suspense angle (the novel never goes full tilt into action), however it leads to the ‘70s-mandatory downbeat ending.
There’s a sex scene in the novel (the only one, in fact) that’s so un-PC Skull could likely never be reprinted. Midway through the book Farrell hooks up with Tanya, a black high fashion model, and they instantly go back to his place for a night of sex. The two play off on their race differences, getting off on calling each other racial slurs; the entire scene, particularly the stuff Tanya screams as she’s screwing Farrell, is just so over the top that you’ll either be enraged (if you’re a PC square with no sense of humor) or laughing your head off.
Buffer’s writing is pretty good, but the constant jumping to and fro sort of diverted from the feeling of suspense or tension. He definitely has a gift for dialog, with Farrell and Ozaki in particular trading off an unending series of quips and in-jokes. I read somewhere that the New York Times gave Skull a positive review, something I bet didn’t happen very often for a Pinnacle paperback original. But it would appear Buffer never followed up on this promise, and thus this was his only book.
Stryker #1, by William Crawford
November, 1973 Pinnacle Books
I’ve mentioned William Crawford a few times before, how he got an injoke reference in The Penetrator #9 and also how The Penetrator #17 was dedicated to him. More importantly, he was also the “Jim Peterson” who wrote the infamous 16th volume of The Executioner, Sicilian Slaughter. The Stryker series however was published under Crawford’s own name; it ran for four volumes and was more of a “crime fiction” deal than the men’s adventure novels Pinnacle was better known for.
I’ll say up front though that I wanted to like this novel a lot more than I actually did. The back cover copy (which is actually just an excerpt from the book itself) makes Stryker #1 sound like a Gannon sort of affair, and I was hoping this was maybe Pinnacle’s response to that gory and grim Dean W. Ballenger series. But no; Stryker #1 has more in common with the Narc series or better yet the Headhunters series in how it’s more of a gutter-view spotlight on street level criminals and the overworked and underpaid cops who have to bend the rules in order to stop them. The focus is more on “true to life” than nutzoid violence.
Sgt. Colin Stryker is a veteran cop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s been on the force for twenty years and served in both Korea and ‘Nam (where he served two tours of duty). His partner is Chico Bellon, and we learn via prolonged backstory how the two became partners, and how they both like to bust balls and break heads. (The novel for the most part is made up of backstory, by the way; any time a character appears in the narrative, Crawford will give us several pages about them and their history.) Stryker is married and has a seven year-old daughter, but these characters are such ciphers – and so little seen – that they hardly matter in the larger scheme of things.
Meanwhile a pair of hitmen, who happen to be a romantic couple as well, are heading toward New Mexico after their latest bank heist, during which one of them blew away a young girl. This is Harmon Robey and Steve Ray; Robey is the veteran hitman who insists on bringing his lover along, but Ray is a psychotic who gets off on killing innocent passersby. They’re on their way to New Mexico because local mob boss Sam Borchia has a job for them: kill Stryker and Bellon.
It takes a long time for this to happen – seriously, the first half of the book is made up of elaborated backstories for Stryker and Bellon (in particular the cases they’ve worked on in the past) as well as meetings between various crooks. Crawford juggles a pretty big cast of characters, and he makes it confusing for us because he lacks consistency when referring to them – for example, he arbitrarily refers to Bellon as either “Chico” or “Bellon,” which is a bit bumpy when the character first appears. Even worse is a later character also hired to kill Stryker; Crawford introduces him as “Kell,” but then keeps writing “Sapper” for the next couple of pages, and you wonder who this dude is and what the hell happened to Kell! Only later do we learn that it’s “Sapper Kell.”
The first hit on Stryker and Bellon is a nice sequence, as again Harmon and Ray knock over a bank, and then attempt to kill the cops during a chase and shootout. However the hitmen lovers (rather anticlimatically) die in the skirmish, and Stryker and Bellon survive unscathed. Borschia then hires the aforementioned Sapper Kell, who makes his kills via explosives. He plants a bomb on Stryker’s house, and in the explosion Stryker’s wife is killed and his daughter is blinded and crippled. This event lacks much resonance for the reader, as these characters have been nonentities so far as the novel goes, only appearing – conveniently enough – a few pages before the bombing!
This at least serves to propel the narrative; Stryker, unhinged, goes after Borschia, beats him half to death…and then gets tossed in jail for assault! Crawford throws a definite curveball, with the final quarter of the novel concerning Stryker’s few years in prison. Meanwhile Borschia and Kell are still out there, and Bellon takes care of Stryker’s daughter, Colleen. The finale too lacks much explosive action, as instead of gunning the pair down, Stryker upon his release from prison instead concocts a plan that ends with Borschia and Kell being convicted and arrested. I would’ve preferred seeing them gunned down.
Pinnacle really promoted this series, though, heralding it as a new event in crime fiction – the back cover even features an “editor’s note,” again like Gannon, which warns readers away if they don’t like too much violence. Even the last page of the book is an ad for other Pinnacle novels by Willam Crawford. At any rate I didn’t much care for Stryker #1, but one of these days I’ll get around to the second volume, mostly because I already have it.