Apr 172014
 
Shark Fighter, by Nicholas Brady No date stated (1976), Belmont-Tower Books One of Len Levinson's more elusive novels, Shark Fighter was published under the pseudonym “Nicholas Brady,” which was a house name at Belmont-Tower (who couldn’t even be bothered to put a publication year on the book). According to Len, BT editor Peter McCurtin came up with the concept, of a man fighting sharks for
Oct 312013
 

Super Cop Joe Blaze #2: The Concrete Cage, by Robert Novak
March, 1974  Belmont-Tower Books

Another men’s adventure “series” in only the loosest sense, Super Cop Joe Blaze ran for three volumes and might have had a different author for each installment. Credited to house name “Robert Novak,” all that’s known for certain is that Len Levinson wrote the third volume. Content-wise the series is pretty much identical to Ryker.

Marty McKee in his review of Joe Blaze #1 complains about how bad and boring the novel is, which leads me to expect that the same Robert Novak wrote this second volume. Blaze is referred to as “Blaze” throughout (meaning there are no half-assed editorial changes to the protagonists’s name), but regardless he’s basically the same as Ryker, a hardnosed cop who doesn’t take crap and doesn’t mind bending the rules. At least, that’s how the back cover has it; as the narrative itself plays out, Blaze is just a regular cop, nothing “super” about him at all.

The back cover, with its huge logo proclaiming “WHITE SLAVERS,” also has you expecting a lurid thrill ride, but sadly The Concrete Cage doesn’t deliver on this either. In fact, the book is pretty much a routine and mundane police procedural, only sporadically sleazed up with quick descriptions of the mauled female corpses Blaze comes upon in his investigation. Other than that, it’s all very bland. I mean, Blaze doesn’t even kill anyone in the novel! There’s something I never thought I’d write about a ‘70s men’s adventure protagonist.

The Concrete Cage opens with a bang, though. An ambulance pulls up in front of a department store in busy Manhattan and a group of masked guys hop out and, at gunpoint, corral several pretty young women into the ambulance. One of the women refuses to go with them and they shoot her dead. The women taken captive, the ambulance roars off, and several minutes later the cops arrive to find a bunch of shocked witnesses stumbling around.

Blaze is on the case, assisted by his partner Ed Nuthall. Blaze gets very little background and is just presented as your typical New York cop, but really there’s nothing outrageous about him and he doesn’t fight with his superiors and fellow cops like De Mille’s version of Ryker does. In fact Blaze appears to be well-respected; there are laughable scenes here where the Commissioner will gape helplessly and ask, “Joe, what do you think we should do?”

Despite the shocking nature of the kidnapping, the crooks turn out to be pretty stupid. Blaze manages to track them down within a day, though it is pretty much a narrative cop-out; after “asking around” for several hours, Blaze ends up in a bar where some drunk claims he overheard someone asking how they could go about renting an ambulance!

From there Blaze follows an easier trail than you’d expect, getting the lockdown on the kidnappers in no time flat. Turns out they’re a small gang lead by a career con named Jack Tunney; Blaze learns this from pimp Homer Chase, who was part of the aduction. There follows a long, long sequence where Blaze and the Commissioner offer Chase immunity if he’ll rat on where the girls are being kept, but at the expense of many, many pages of repetitious dialog Chase finally refuses the offer, afraid Tunney would have him killed anyway.

Meanwhile the gang begins issuing demands to the cops: they want a few million and they’ll let the girls go. Initially their plan, according to the info Blaze unearths, was to sell the girls to hardcore sadists who wanted “fresh meat” to abuse and torture! Now that Blaze has figured out who they are, the gang instead turns to a straight kidnapping scheme, and they aren’t playing around; they begin leaving mauled and mutilated corpses around Manhattan and the Bronx, as warnings that if their demads aren’t met they will murder all of the girls.

This is where the book’s scant lurid quotient comes into play – Blaze as acting investigator is called to the locations where the corpses have been discovered, and Novak (whoever he was) provides all the gruesome details of how the poor women have been hacked up and disfigured. Other than that though the sleaze element is downplayed, without even a single sex scene. In fact the book is pretty bland and padded mostly with go-nowhere dialog exchanges.

Novak finally gets around to providing some action at the very end, when the cops find out where the gang is hiding out with the girls. Blaze convinces the Commissioner to allow him to go in solo and, as stupid as ever, the Commissioner agrees. This is a nice and tense scene where Blaze sneaks into the darkened building, but again it’s ruined in that it goes on too long and everything works out exactly per Blaze’s plan – he finds the girls, gets them out of the house, and then corners the two gang members while the rest of the cops move in on the front of the house.

The ensuing firefight is also bland and played out along the lines of a ‘70s TV cop show, with lots of ducking and running and no one getting killed. It all leads to an overlong car chase straight out of Bullit as Tunney makes off in a stolen car and Blaze pursues. And that’s that, the crooks are caught and the girls are free and everyone’s happy (everyone apparently forgetting about the ones who were mauled, mutilated, and murdered).

The most interesting thing about The Concrete Cage is where the cover art was sourced from; through a complete fluke I happened to discover that it was taken from the March 1968 issue of the men's adventure magazine Male -- and don’t you love how in the original painting this shades-wearing dude, who on the cover of The Concrete Cage is supposedly Blaze himself, is holding a pistol to the head of a cop?

Oct 142013
 

The Marksman #7: Slaughterhouse, by Frank Scarpetta
December, 1973  Belmont-Tower Books

Peter McCurtin returns as “Frank Scarpetta” for another entry in the Marksman series, another one that’s super-heavy on action but barebones on plot and character. Unusually enough this one actually has a bit of background for Philip Magellan – another indicator that editor McCurtin was behind the tale. Overall though Slaughterhouse wears you down with endless action sequences.

As revealed in the previous volume (also courtesy McCurtin), Magellan has his roots in a carnival, where he was a trickshot artist. This volume opens with Magellan in St. Louis (again there is absolutely no pickup from previous books or any sense of continuity), where on the first page he bumps into young Tommy Brady, the son of Wild Bill Brady, aka the man who taught Magellan how to shoot all those years ago.

Wild Bill’s been laid up in the hospital due to a stroke for the past few years, but Tommy and his mom now run a carnival in nearby Florissant, Missouri. And wouldn’t you know it, the friggin’ mafia has been giving them trouble! Out of a sense of obligation to the old man, Magellan tells Tommy he’ll help him out. It should be mentioned that throughout the tale Tommy Brady has no idea who Magellan is these days, and indeed appears to have never even heard of the Marksman.

The carnage begins posthaste as Magellan and Tommy come across a pair of goons as they’re trying to cut the lines that hold up the main tent of the carnival. Needless to say, Magellan blows them both away, McCurtin really going to town on the gun-porn. There’s lots and lots of firearm and ammunition detail strewn throughout Slaughterhouse, and the gore factor is there as well, with plentiful descriptions of how bullets impact bodies.

The goons work for the infamous Morelli brothers (Giorgio and Lupi), who along with their underlings Vito Guardi and Tony Mambo run St. Louis. Vito Guardi appears to have had a run-in with Magellan in the past; at least this is inferred in the narrative, but it’s done so clunkily that I couldn’t tell if McCurtin meant it happened in an earlier volume or if Guardi is speaking of something that happened earlier in this volume. Anyway Guardi’s name seems familiar, but honestly these mobster names run together after a while, so I don’t know.

Given the tie-in with Magellan’s history, I figured Slaughterhouse might have a little more character or backstory, but gradually I realized the stuff with Tommy Brady and the carnival was just a convenient framework around which McCurtin could weave a plethora of endless action scenes. There isn’t even a reunion with Wild Bill Brady, and Tommy’s mom buys it in a scene where the mob comes back to the carnival when Magellan and Tommy are gone.

Instead the novel is all about action, to the point where it gets tiresome. The plot is basically this: Magellan runs into Tommy. Magellan tells Tommy he will kill the mobsters who are troubling him. Magellan proceeds to do so. That’s pretty much it. There are several elaborate action scenes, with Magellan unfazed throughout, but after a big confrontation with Giorgio Morelli (in which the mobster gets wasted) Tommy is captured.

Rather than play out the suspense angle, McCurtin instead has Magellan instantly figure out where Tommy is being held captive, climb into a building across from where the thugs have conveniently placed him in front of a window, and then blow away the guards. After which Magellan ropes over into the building and he and Tommy proceed to blow away all of the mobsters within!

McCurtin also fills a lot of pages with meaningless dialog sequences, like one interminable chapter that’s made up of banal conversation among the Morelli brothers and their underlings. Curiously enough there’s no sleaze in Slaughterhouse, and Tommy’s mother is the sole female character. The book is almost like an ‘80s version of the men’s adventure genre, in that it’s all about gun-porn and gore.

Anyway it all resolves exactly as you’d expect, with Magellan ruthlessly blowing away the surviving Morelli brother with his .44 Magnum, and then telling Tommy “see ya” before hitting the road. Like the other installments McCurtin has written, Slaughterhouse isn’t burdened by continuity – or much of anything, other than endless gun fights. However the Ken Barr cover is awesome!!
Jul 082013
 

The Marksman #6: Death To The Mafia, by Frank Scarpetta
November, 1973  Belmont-Tower Books

This volume of The Marksman was clearly written by series creator and editor Peter McCurtin, and amid all the sleaze and violence we have, believe it or not, some actual characterization for “hero” Philip Magellan, complete with background information, something we’ve never rececived in any preceding Marksman novel. Unfortunately, the background information is for an entirely different character! But more on that later…

First we get a one-page “prologue” that informs us that Terri White, of the previous volume, is now hiding out in Florida, Magellan having gotten rid of her because she was becoming a nuissance due to her “loving him and all that.” Terri White was of course a creation of series co-writer Russell Smith, and McCurtin has no intention of making the Marksman into a continuity-heavy series. His intent is to provide one thrill after another as Magellan “kills in cold hate.”

In fact McCurtin isn’t even concerned with continuity in his own tale; Death To The Mafia opens with Magellan driving away from Dallas, where he apparently killed a few mobsters but was then ratted out by a girl he picked up in a nightclub. Now in the desert Magellan is ambushed by an army of mafia “soldiers,” tipped off by the mobsters back in Dallas. Little concern, though, as Magellan hastily dispatches them with his handy grenade launcher – though McCurtin provides plenty of battles in this novel, none of them have much spark because Magellan’s so superhuman.

Even though he’s in the middle of the desert, in a shootout no less, Magellan still meets a pretty girl – a redhead who has just left her husband. She happens to drive by during the shootout, and after her car is destroyed Magellan feels obligated to carry her along to her destination of Lubbock. But the mobsters are chasing them, and McCurtin delivers a nice scene where Magellan and the girl go into Carlsbad Caverns and Magellan takes the thugs out in the pitch-black caves, using his night vision goggles. (Magellan also causes the death of several tourists when he shoots out the lights in the caves, and people get trampled in the mass panic, but McCurtin just brushes this off!)

The novel proceeds in episodic fashion. Honestly, I had a hard time retaining half of what I read, as this book was the very definition of disposable literature. After dropping off the redhead Magellan heads for LA, where he discovers that Anselmo, the brother of the man who ordered Magellan’s family killed, is now residing. Another quick and unsatisfactory battle ensues (though one packed with gore), after which Magellan blithely continues on his way into Los Angeles, where for reasons apparently important (to him alone) he simply must create a cover story for himself as a black man!

Yes, in a move reminiscent of Mark Hardin, Magellan sprays his skin black. And we’re reminded that, having grown up in New Orleans, Magellan knows how to “talk black.” This entire sequence has no bearing on anything, but then McCurtin fills pages throughout. For example, several times in the narrative Magellan will flip through his mental notebook of the mobsters he’s currently after, and we’ll get several pages of inconsequential background data on each; how they got into crime, how they made their fortunes, etc.

McCurtin also doles out plentiful amounts of sleaze. I figured he would be more restrained than Russell Smith, but he’s about on the same level! Like for example a very long but of course unnecessary scene where Magellan scopes out his first LA target, Anselmo, at a dive where women put on erotic shows for the delight of the crowd, after which they are bid on for a night’s service. McCurtin packs on some sleazy stuff here, breaking out words and phrases I’ve never once encountered in thirty-plus years of reading, like “V-tuft” to describe the women’s pubic hair, and, brace yourself, “cuntal juices.” Good grief! (It would make for a great band name, though -- V-Tuft & the CJs!)

But our series editor is about the same as Smith when it comes to action scenes, all of which lack any tension despite being generous on the graphic violence. Even the Anselmo hit is par for the course, despite the dude being related to the man who had Magellan’s family killed. Magellan will just mow thugs down with his guns in gory splendor, or he’ll blow them up, and there’s little retaliation on the part of the goons. After dealing with Anselmo the novel hurtles on, abruptly changing plots: Now Magellan is after “The Bump,” an elderly mafioso who lives in Howard Hughes-style seclusion. Magellan sets himself up as a visiting mob torpedo, and somehow manages to pick up another girl, one named Mignon.

Throughout McCurtin will drop occasional flashbacks to Magellan’s previous life. This is a rarity in the series. We learn that Magellan has basically done everything ever known to man. From demolition stunt driving to climbing sheer walls with nothing but his hands and feet, Magellan has mastered it. This stuff is so egregious and shoehorned into the narrative to accommodate the plot that it becomes comical after a while. More importantly McCurtin writes a lot of material about Magellan’s family, how they were killed when Magellan refused to sell guns to a powerful mobster, and how Magellan “got revenge” on them in New Orleans.

The only problem is, this New Orleans vengeance tale has never been told in the Marksman. Nor have we ever heard the story behind the deaths of Magellan’s family. You see, all of the stuff McCurtin writes here is actually background material for another McCurtin series and creation: The Assassin, a three-volume Dell series from 1973 relating the first-person adventures of a New Orleans native named Robert Briganti whose family was murdered when he refused to supply a mobster with guns.

Len Levinson once told me that The Sharpshooter was “based on the Marksman series, which was based on the Assassin series.” So I guess The Assassin is the ur-text so far as the Marksman and Sharpshooter series go. Either McCurtin just confused his own characters or figured to hell with it, and guessed no one would notice. Or maybe there’s another reason…

Maybe McCurtin was just a postmodern genius, and had grander intentions. Maybe these three characters are all the same character, one who suffers from multiple personalities…let’s say when Robert Briganti goes to sleep he becomes Philip Magellan, and when Magellan goes to sleep he becomes Johnny Rock…and when Rock goes to sleep he becomes Robert Briganti, and thus the cycle continues. Hey, it works for me!
Dec 032012
 

Xuan And The Girl From The Other Side, by Paul A. Bergin
No month stated, 1969  Tower Books

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that goofy cover blurb. Goofy as it is, though, it does sum up the porn-meets-science fiction vibe of Xuan And The Girl From The Other Side (hereafter just “Xuan,” for reasons of laziness). The 1969 publication date fooled me into thinking this would be a softcore sort of thing, but no; the novel’s nearly as explicit as the Baroness or Mind Masters books, only here the sex scenes just go on for a few paragraphs instead of a few pages.

Really though, sex is the only selling point here, and it’s as nasty and unerotic as you’d expect from a vintage sleaze novel. Xuan was published by low-end Tower Books, but it has all the earmarks of something they would’ve released through their porn imprint, Midwood. It’s slim, a little over 130 pages, with small print, lots of typos, and it pulses with a general disdain both for the reader and itself.

Taking place sometime in the 21st Century, the novel is set in a United States greatly transformed by the “Continental Wars” that raged a few generations before; we’re told the last one was in 1986, after which the US was split into two warring factions: Omega and Telix. Our heroes are the Omegans, who are sort of like post-hippies in that they’re into peace and love…not that it stops them from killing in cold blood and waging endless warfare against Telix.

We never get much detail on the Telix people, but we’re told their government is cold and cruel and rules its populace with an iron fist. At any rate they’re clearly set up as the villains, and as the book opens the Telix bastards are preparing a massive assault on the Omegan capitol headquarters – which, author Bergin unsubtly lets us know, is actually the White House, even though the current occupants don’t know it by that name, or indeed even know its history.

A guy named Danais is in charge of Telix, but only temporarily; Xuan is the true leader, but he’s left to infiltrate Telix territory in a desperate gambit to get new weaponry from Basil, an Omegan scientist who went over to Telix lands for more research and has gone missing. Danais knows that the Telixans are about to strike, but this doesn’t stop him from more important pursuits – the novel opens with the first of many gratuitous sex scenes as Father, the elderly security chief of the Omegans, brings Danais a young woman named Nadine, who has somehow gotten past Omegan security and wants to join the cause. After a few lines of dialog, Danais and Nadine are screwing right there in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile Xuan’s driving into Telix territory, where he hooks up with his contact. You guessed it, she’s a gorgeous gal whose ready to “give herself” to the cause, if you catch my drift…cue another sex scene, mere pages after the first. But wait, there’s more. After a full night of shagging, the contact, Miki (though Bergin goofs and actually writes “Mike” several times, thereby giving the scene a whole ‘nother interpretation), brings in her teenaged sister, whose never been with a man, and asks Xuan if he’d mind, uh, breaking her in.

Basil turns out to be detached from the war effort, wanting to live in peace. Years ago he was literally emasculated by the Telix bastards, and Xuan uses this fact to reinstill a fighting spirit in the scientist…in the strangest, most insulting way possible: he screws Miki right in front of Basil, and then her sister as well! Basil, who watches it all with mouth gaping and eyes popping, announces that his fighting spirit has in fact been restored, and he goes about creating the ultimate weapon.

This turns out to be a bazooka-like device that emits blasts of sound waves. During his eventual escape from Telix, Xuan has opportunity to try it out a few times, his victims melting beneath the assaults. Xuan by the way is one hardcore bastard, which is strange given that we’re told the people of Omega are peace-loving; during his escape, he flat-out murders an innocent Telix civilian, some dude who has nothing to do with anything, just so he can steal the poor bastard’s car. Even Johnny Rock would’ve just knocked the guy out.

The attack on Omega HQ goes on, not that it stops Danais and Nadine from having impromptu bouts of sex. But the sex isn’t always fun in Xuan; late in the narrative comes a thoroughly disgusting and despicable sequence where Nadine is captured by Telix soldiers and raped over the course of a few detailed pages. And wouldn’t you guess, she eventually begins to enjoy it!

To his credit, though, Bergin follows up this loathsome scene with another which spotlights the novel’s goofy nature, where Nadine is taken to see the leader of Telix, who happens to be a dwarf. Turns out the dwarf is into sick games, and starts acting like a tantrum-throwing child so Nadine will whip him! Nadine takes this deus ex machina opportunity to strangle the life out of him. (Not that this scene salvages anything…there’s another unpleasant rape scene shortly after this one, this time Xuan’s girl getting it, and again it goes on and on in detail, as if placed there so the author and publisher could cover all the sleaze bases.)

It’s funny that the titular “Girl from the Other Side,” who according to the back cover blurb is the one who changes Xuan’s mind about things, doesn’t even appear until the final quarter, and offers nothing to the story. In fact I can’t even remember her name. Anyway she’s another Telix rebel who has sex with Xuan immediately after meeting him, then escapes with him to Omega HQ with the sound weapon…where as mentioned above she eventually gets raped. Bergin then wraps up the novel in a page or two, Xuan blowing the invading Telixans away with his sound cannon. The end.

Yeah, the book sucked.
Oct 182012
 

The Marksman #4: Mafia Wipe-Out, by Frank Scarpetta
August, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books

Without a doubt this is the strangest volume of the Marksman yet. Coming off like a Marx Brothers movie with gore, Mafia Wipe-Out combines the mob-wasting nihilism of previous books with a lowbrow sense of humor, one that bounds right over the limits of reality and into full-on fantasy. Only problem is, it’s not very funny. And it’s not very good.

As mentioned in my review of #3: Kill Them All, this volume falls outside of the mini-storyline that started in the third volume and continued in #5: Headhunter. But then, Mafia Wipe-Out doesn’t have much to do with any Marksman novel. “Hero” Philip Magellan in this one is a superhero, famed for his Mafia vanquishing, unable to be harmed or killed. Not only that, but he’s developed a penchant for (really bad) one-liners, ones that would even make James Bond shake his head.

There isn’t much of a plot here, just a series of madcap confrontations between Magellan and a revolving door of bizarro mobsters, a new villain each chapter, each chapter ending on a lame cliffhanger. Well, there’s sort of a plot – Magellan discovers that the Mafia plans a council meeting in Elgin, Ohio, and there they will have two points of discussion: the death of Philip “Marksman” Magellan and the installation of a Mafia puppet into the White House.

Magellan, who is spurred by the memories of his slain family in this novel more than any other I’ve yet read, burns with a desire to kill all of the mobsters in Elgin and prevent their “Mafia President” idea from happening. But the Elgin summit meeting doesn’t occur until toward the very end; instead, Mafia Wipe-Out concerns itself with playing up to its own title, with Magellan wiping out mobster after mobster.

One thing I can say is that the book goes by like a rocket. In fact it moves so quickly that little sticks with you; it’s just an endless series of Magellan coming upon the latest mobster, killing him, offering a lame one-liner, and then running into the next mobster. True to the series, Magellan is so superheroic that his victory is never in doubt, even in the few instances when the mobsters get the advantage on him. There are laughably-stupid scenes where Magellan is able to muscle his way out of his bonds or even recover from significant damage and just brush it all off – that is, after he’s killed the mobster who got the jump on him.

Let me give you an idea of how goofy and stupid this novel is by examing one particular sequence. Okay, Magellan has killed a bunch of mobsters unrelated to anything in New York, and then he comes upon the info about the Elgin meeting. After a quick gunfight in a funhouse and park, he’s briefly kidnapped by a Mafia don who takes Magellan away in his car. Magellan of course manages to not only kill the guy but his henchmen as well, in a big firefight along a turnpike. As the cops swarm in, Magellan tries to figure out how to get away from them and prevent the Mafia takeover of the White House.

Then a sportscar driven by a gorgeous blonde pulls up, and the girl, whom Magellan has never seen before, says she’s here to pick him up. All of this a show for the cops…who just let Magellan hop in the car and leave the crime scene. (This is just a taste of the lack of reality in the novel.) Magellan assumes the girl, who calls herself Tina, has picked him up due to his good looks – Magellan reminsces over all the women who have flocked to him over the years, so this isn’t all that new to him!

But no, Tina reveals that she knows who Magellan is, and in fact she needs his help. At that moment some heavy trucks bear in on them, blasting away. “I wish we had some grenades or something,” says Magellan. Then he looks in the glove compartment – only to find some grenades in there. Again, it’s all like a lame Duck Soup riff or something. After Magellan kills the pursuers, Tina reveals that they were actually Feds, and further Tina is the daughter of a Mafia don – in fact, the don Magellan just killed on the turnpike, though she doesn’t know Magellan has killed her dad.

Next Tina imprisons Magellan in metal straps that come out of the carseats, and tells him that not only is she into s&m, she also wants to screw Magellan before taking him to Elgin, where the Mafia has plans for him. Magellan goes on about how disgusted he would be to even touch a member of the Mafia, and there ensues an unsettling scene where Tina tries to rape Magellan, and he bites a huge gaping hole in her mouth (!). Finally he gets the upper hand, and then debases Tina in such a way that the reader is truly unsettled…making her crawl around like a dog and say how she’s no-good slime and etc.

But wait, it gets worse. Magellan doesn’t want to kill a woman (despite the fact that earlier in the book he had no qualms with killing a 300-lbs hitwoman or the fact that he just bit off a portion of Tina’s face), and tells Tina he’ll let her go, but she manages to grab his gun and blast at him as she runs into the woods. Magellan throws one of those grenades at her and in yet another unsettling moment blown-off pieces of Tina fly out of the woods and overtop Magellan: Tina’s arms, Tina’s head. Magellan says “Bye-bye” to the pieces, but as he turns Tina’s flying severed leg hits him in the ass, and Magellan mutters that it’s just like a woman to get in the last word.

Now, I’ve had my problems with women (who hasn’t?), but blowing them up with grenades just seems a little too much, especially when it’s all played for laughs. But that’s the other thing. As you’ve no doubt registered from my little rundown, this novel just ain’t funny. It’s just stupid, mean-spirited, and scatterbrained.

Unbelievably, it only proceeds to get more inane, as when Magellan arrives in Elgin he just sort of walks around the mansion where the meeting will take place, and takes on the occasional mobster who happens to walk by, all of whom know who Magellan is and who try to dispense with him quickly, to no avail.

Then there’s another character, a rogue scientist who creates chemical warfare, and there follows a long protracted sequence where Magellan is sprayed by an experimental gas which he just happens to have read about, so he knows how to overcome its effects, only to turn it around and use it on a bunch of other mobsters. (This isn’t even mentioning the other gas, one which gives people superhuman power.)

The “climax” in the Elgin mansion is also seriously stupid, with Magellan just walking in and making all of the mobsters lay down on the floor! There’s absolutely no tension or drama or anything, just superhero Magellan doling out glib and unfunny lines as he blows away various mobsters. And more unsettling stuff besides, as you actually start to feel bad for the mobsters, in particular one who wears a leather suit and comes at Magellan with a whip: Magellan figures the guy must be a “sado-masee” gay and calls him all sorts of names as a result, toying with him before killing him.

I was under the impression that this one had been written by series editor Peter McCurtin. But reading the book made it clear that someone else was behind it. After a little research I discovered here that Mafia Wipe-Out was in fact written by someone named Michael Harris. I have no idea who he is/was, or if he wrote more volumes of the Marksman. We can only hope he did not.

Despite the irreverent spirit and Keystone Cops mindset, Mafia Wipe-Out just comes off as being a stupid waste of time, churned out by an author not taking the story, series, or character at all seriously. And if the author doesn’t care, why should you?
May 212012
 

The Marksman #5: Headhunter, by Frank Scarpetta
October, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books

As mentioned in my review, Headhunter picks up immediately after the events in The Marksman #3: Kill Them All, which was also written by demented genius Russell Smith. (The fourth volume, Mafia Wipe-Out, meanwhile features Magellan back in the States, even though Kill Them All closes with him in St. Thomas...and Headhunter opens with him leaving St. Thomas.)

And by the way, you have to read Kill Them All for Headhunter to make any kind of sense; Smith refers back to that novel throughout the book, never once bothering to explain any of his references. It might be frustrating for someone who has never read that previous volume, but if you have read it, then it makes for probably the best example of continuity I've yet encountered in a men's adventure series.

After killing a ton of Mafia in idyllic St. Thomas, Magellan charters a private plane to fly him to Puerto Rico. Here we have an awesome instance of the pre-PC mindset when Magellan is thunderstruck to discover that the co-pilot of the plane is...a woman!! He's brought along his ever-present "artillery case" complete with drugs, disguises, and whatnot, as well as the heroin he's been lugging around for the past few volumes. Magellan arrives in Puerto Rico with a gameplan in mind: he's going to of course crack down on the local Mafia chieftan, Jacopo Morandi.

Things derail posthaste; hailing a cab, Magellan is attacked by the driver and his comrades, but of course manages to waste a few of them with his ever-ready Beretta. And again Magellan manages to take someone prisoner, in this case a kid whom Magellan drugs up, later tying the kid to a bed in his hotel room. Pretty strange stuff for sure.

But the plot changes again when Magellan discovers that he has become a wanted man, the story of his assault on the mob in St. Thomas breaking out in the local media. Sure enough the cops have figured out that Magellan is now in Puerto Rico, and not only are they most likely on their way to find him, but Magellan also discovers that the cops are busy cracking down on anyone Magellan reportedly dealt with in St. Thomas.

Magellan instantly realizes then that Terri White, his cute hippie-chick accomplice in Kill Them All, will now be in harm's way. But no worry, as she happens to already be on her own chartered flight to Puerto Rico, hoping to hide out with a fellow hippie who gives music lessons there. Magellan and Terri soon meet up again, and in a strange way it actually develops into a sweet little bond between the two (at least, as "sweet" as a blood-soaked Marksman novel can be), with Terri obviously falling in love with Magellan, and Magellan realizing that he too is developing feelings for the girl. In fact there are some very funny moments between the two, with Terri going along with Magellan's bloody plans, but constantly asking him to rethink, or at least to go somewhere else -- "Maybe some tropical island somewhere. I'm sure you can find some Mafia to kill there, too!"

From here it comes off almost like a retread of the previous book, with Magellan using Terri as bait, renting out a lavish villa and posing as a wealthy and single socialite, so as to attract the attentions of Morandi, a notorious skirt-chaser. In the meantime Magellan goes about wasting mobsters and/or taking them captive, drugging them and shackling them up in the wine cellar beneath the villa. Of course per tradition he manges to ensnare a few cops as well. This engenders bizarre but played-for-laughs scenes where Terri has to cook meals for the growing assortment of prisoners in the cellar, and Magellan taking them all out every once in a while for "latrine visits."

All sorts of lurid stuff ensues, as expected from this "gifted" author. Early in the tale, after moving into the villa and before he has started growing his collection of captives, Magellan leaves Terri with the still-captive kid, who manages to break free, rape Terri, and comes back with his fellow gangsters. By this time Magellan has arrived, and here of course is where he starts up his collection of drugged and shackled prisoners. Terri's rape though is brushed off, and the implication is that the kid didn't even know what he was doing -- Smith plays it vague on the kid's actual age, which makes it all the more strange when Magellan discovers later that the other prisoners, all of them adult mobster guys, are using the kid as jailbait in the wine cellar. At least Magellan has the dignity to take the kid away from them.

Anyway, there's all sorts of crazy and rough shenanigans throughout, but what more can you expect from the man who gave us Blood Bath? (Which by the way would actually serve as the first volume of this "trilogy," each of the volumes referring to one another.) The "action scenes" are again given over to Magellan blowing away various mobsters, though he does take a little damage here and there, moreso than in any other volume yet. Also, believe it or not, Smith works in some actual character development here, with Magellan several times questioning his motive, his choice to continue seeking his bloody fate, especially once he realizes he has developed feelings for Terri.

It's funny, because Magellan plans throughout to get rid of the girl, but she keeps sticking to him like glue. And even at the end Terri rushes off with him, the two planning to escape from Puerto Rico to Miami (once again Smith ends the tale with a rushed climax in which Magellan just casually blitzes the main villains)...and yet, it doesn't appear that Terri appears in another Marksman novel. I've only just flipped through a few future volumes, I haven't read them yet, but it doesn't appear that she shows up again. Time will tell. She makes for a fun character, though, adding a much-needed spirit to the books.

Finally, here's a scene I just had to quote, to give an idea of the twisted genius that is Russell Smith. Read on in slackjawed amazement as Magellan wastes a mobster who's visiting the restroom:

Magellan saw him walking toward him. He hugged the closet wall. He fingered the silencer on the Beretta and released the safety. Just as Micheli dropped his pants and reached for a comic book on the floor in front of the toilet, Magellan aimed and fired at his left temple.

Blood, brains and flesh splattered against the shower curtain as the body raised up and the sound of the man's noisy bowels evacuating drowned out the pressurized "whoosh" of the gun.

As the body of Micheli seemed to be trying to balance itself in death, wobbling to and fro ever so gently on the toilet seat, Magellan flushed the toilet at the same time he gripped the arm and holding it, allowed the heavy body to sink sideways onto the tiled floor now puddling with dark red blood.

Carlo Micheli's last shit was a ghastly sight!

I mean, that about says it all, doesn't it?
Mar 012012
 

The Marksman #3: Kill Them All, by Frank Scarpetta
No Month Stated, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books

Not only is this the first volume of the Marksman series to be published under the house name "Frank Scarpetta," it's also the smoking gun in the Marksman/Sharpshooter mystery. Other reviewers have noted how often Johnny "Sharpshooter" Rock is "mistakenly" referred to as "Magellan" in certain Sharpshooter novels -- ie, the writers screwing up and referring to the hero of the Marksman books. Kill Them All however proves that the writers were not at fault; those Sharpshooter novels were in fact written as volumes of the Marksman, only to later be changed by editors with poor copy-editing skills. And there would be no copyright issues involved, as Belmont-Tower and Leisure Books were one and the same.

To wit, Kill Them All is a sequel in all but name to Blood Bath -- aka the third volume of the Sharpshooter. The clue comes early on. Philip Magellan has traveled to the idyllic island of St. Thomas, the narrative informs us, to get away from the mob, the cops...as well as "Luci Sordi" and "his headquarters on Fish House Road." Luci Sordi is the name of the gorgeous mob wife who threw herself into the arms of Johnny Rock at the end of Blood Bath, and Fish House Road is the street in which "Rock" had his dank headquarters where he tortured captives with rats. The events of Blood Bath are referred to quite often in Kill Them All. Most importantly, the writing is identical -- this is the same divine madman who gave us Blood Bath, as well as Marksman #1: Vendetta (and possibly also Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath, which I'm now certain was also originally a Marksman novel, but I'll get to that one in a future Marksman review).

It makes sense in a way. The "Rock" of Blood Bath and Blood Oath is not the same Johnny Rock of The Killing Machine or even The Worst Way To Die. The "Rock" of Blood Bath and Blood Oath drugs up mobsters, strips them down, ties them up, and then tortures them. After which he will murder them in some sadistic fashion, treating the entire sick proceedings in a cold, emotionless fashion. In short, the "Rock" of Blood Bath and Blood Oath is a sick son of a bitch, much more terrifying than the "true" Johnny Rock of The Killing Machine, The Worst Way To Die, and others -- ie, a sick bastard himself, but one more "human," at least comparatively speaking.

However, drugging up victims, stripping them, and torturing them are all part and parcel of Philip Magellan's modus operandi. As stated on the back cover of Kill Them All, "When the Mafia murdered Magellan's wife and son they drained him of all human emotion. Overnight he became a killing machine, geared to perform one function -- wipe the mafia from the face of the earth." Magellan truly is an emotionless killing machine, especially in the volumes written by this "gifted" author, whoever he is. (And I don't believe it was Peter McCurtin -- if it was, why would his name have been removed from the series with this volume?)

Anyway. I contend that Blood Bath should not only be considered part of the Marksman series, but also that it should be read before Kill Them All, for those who prefer their series fiction to be chronological. (As for why Blood Bath was changed to a Sharpshooter volume, I'm guessing it was an editorial decision, probably to fill up a publication gap between The Killing Machine and The Worst Way To Die.) I'm also happy to report that Kill Them All is just as wacked-out and sick as Blood Bath...sure, there are no rats this time, but the author more than makes up for it with his incredibly warped imagination and sense of dark, dark humor.

The author must've also recently visited St. Thomas, as the novel's filled with topical detail. Magellan's come here to kill the proverbial two birds: to get some sun and waste some scum. He sets his sights on a local mobster, in particular monitoring how the guy smuggles heroin onto the island via a gorgeous stewardess. Magellan discovers that the girl is also working with the Russians, delivering part of her shipment to a Soviet ship. Rather than investigating, Magellan blows away the Russians, takes the girl, and drugs her right up. This becomes a recurring joke in Kill Them All; Magellan spends a full third of the novel drugging the girl and stashing her away somewhere. She doesn't even become sentient until the final quarter of the book.

He looks like a psycho creep on the cover, but Magellan must be popular with the ladies, as once again he picks up a pretty hippie girl who eagerly takes part in his schemes. There isn't much of a plot here. Tetti, the mob boss of St. Thomas, tries to kill Magellan, who in turn murders an endless string of Tetti's goons. Tetti gets the drop on Magellan early on, though it's actually Magellan's fault; Tetti owns most of the island, including all of the legitimate businesses. Magellan walks into a travel agency and gives his real name; Tetti, overhearing, can't believe it, as the mob has been searching the world for Magellan, and here the guy is just a few feet away. This time Magellan is the one who gets drugged and tied up, but of course he's able to free himself.

After which Magellan becomes the sick bastard we know. Freeing himself and killing the two goons who were guarding him, Magellan chops the guards into tiny pieces, first carving out their hearts to take along with him. (Just as he sawed off that hippie's head in Vendetta and carried it around with him.) Magellan later kills another pair of goons and then loops the hearts around their necks, I guess as a sign to the world of his sickness. As with this writer's previous volumes, the focus here is on bizarre acts of violence and sadism.

More of a lurid aspect is introduced when the author reveals that Magellan's special drug also has an aphrodisiacal side effect. (This was also demonstrated in Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath.) When Magellan finally allows the stewardess to regain consciousness, he sits by and watches as the girl "rapes" a pair of similarly-bound, drugged, and horny cops whom Magellan has also captured. After which the girl becomes a satiated comrade in Magellan's war, lying naked on his lap and purring like a cat! Weird scenes inside the goldmine.

As has become custom, the finale is rushed. Tetti calls in a group of Mafia hotshots as a special team to kill Magellan. Rather than a climatic battle scene, the author instead has Magellan rent a boat, take it out into the sea, and blast Tetti's fortress from afar with a grenade launcher. After which he says goodbye to his two female accomplices and decides to leave St. Thomas. And of course, Magellan doesn't just say "goodbye" to the girls, he also drugs them. But at least he leaves them some cash. That Magellan is very fond of his drugs.

The writing is just as skewed as the story. Some of the topical detail is picturesque, and the dialog is goofy and funny. Other scenes are rough and confused, with the awkward sentence structure familiar from Vendetta and Blood Bath; you have to read many of the sentences twice just to figure out what the hell they're saying. The closest style to this that I know of would be Dean W. Ballenger, of Gannon infamy. Both authors have the same bizarre approach to syntax and narrative, as well as a gloriously warped sense of dark humor. This author especially demonstrates his gift by following moments of sick violence with incidental detail, for example going on about how "carefully" Magellan drives...after we've just seen him chop up a few goons.

Finally, Belmont-Tower goofed in the publication order. Kill Them All is directly continued in HeadHunter, which was published fifth in the series. The fourth published volume, Mafia Wipe-Out, features Magellan back in the States, whereas Kill Them All ends with Magellan in St. Thomas and HeadHunter opens with Magellan in St. Thomas. So unless the guy discovered a teleporter on the island, it's safe to say that the volumes were published out of order.

I've written a long article that delves further into the Marksman/Sharpshooter connections which will appear in an upcoming issue of Justin Marriott's Paperback Fanatic. I'll post more information once Justin determines which issue it will appear in.

ADDENDUM: I wrote the above review a few weeks ago -- I usually write these reviews several weeks in advance and just set them to post at a future date -- and since writing it I've gotten in touch with Leonard Levinson, who of course wrote a handful of Sharpshooter novels. Levinson confirmed for me that Belmont-Tower and Leisure Books were indeed the same company; further, he told me that the same editor ran both lines -- Peter McCurtin! This only makes it all the more puzzling...it would mean, then, that McCurtin himself chose to take his name off of the Marksman series, using instead the "Frank Scarpetta" house name. Levinson isn't sure if McCurtin himself actually wrote any of the Sharpshooter or Marksman books, though.

3/9/12 UPDATE: After a lot of fruitless research, I've finally gotten confirmation (via a 1973 edition of the Catalog of Copyright Entries) that this novel was actually written by Russell Smith. It appears that Smith is the "gifted" author who gave us the more lurid volumes of the Marksman and the Sharpshooter, and I will update my previous reviews accordingly.
Feb 222012
 

The Last Buffoon, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1980 Belmont-Tower Books

Back in 2005 I discovered this paperback original in a used bookstore -- a signed copy, at that. Only, it was signed "Leonard Levinson." This confused me at the time, given that the book was credited to Leonard Jordan. It was only later that I discovered that "Jordan" was a psuedonym of prolific writer Leonard Levinson, who among many, many other novels cranked out a few volumes of the always-entertaining Sharpshooter series.

Levinson is known for his series work, written under a host of psuedonyms, but the Jordan name was one he reserved for a handful of nongenre novels, spanning from the mid-1970s on up to The Last Buffoon, from 1980. When I first read the novel a few years ago I really enjoyed it; upon this re-reading, I loved it. Simply put, anyone who enjoys the men's adventure genre or the trashy paperback fiction of the 1970s must read this novel. Especially if like me you've often wondered, Who the hell writes this sort of trash? Levinson offers a first-rate glimpse into the zany life of a paperback writer living in the slummy New York City of the late 1970s.

And make no mistake, Levinson -- speaking here in the voice of his protagonist, Alexander Frapkin -- knows without question that he is writing trash. If you take a look at the cover, you'll note that Levinson is standing inside a trash bin. ("Cover photo posed by professional model," facetiously states the copyright page, but it's certainly Levinson himself; he looks exactly the same as how he describes Frapkin.) But Levinson knows what separates common trash from glorious trash. As he explains early in the narrative:

Besides, intellectuals have contempt for books like mine. They don't realize that the great archetypal hallucinations of our times are contained within so-called trashy books, while literary establishment authors like Updike, Barth, Roth -- that ilk -- are effete dilletantes who should be teaching lit courses in colleges, and in fact many of them are, the scumbags.

Levinson writes The Last Buffon in first-person present tense. We meet Frapkin as he is completing his latest novel, another entry in the Triggerman series, in which hero Johnny Ripelli battles the Mafia. As he's writing, Frapkin's editor calls to tell him to include a scene in the book where a helicopter attacks Ripelli, as this is the image he has commissioned from the cover artist; the editor also confirms that the story is taking place in Miami, and says that he'll have the artist add some palm trees into the drawing. All of this exactly as in the Levinson-penned Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins. Levinson peppers The Last Buffoon with a host of in-jokes, referring to various series novels Frapkin has written, all of them spoofs of ones Levinson wrote in reality.

This is more of a goofy character piece than a plot-driven novel. Lots of stuff goes down in The Last Buffoon but there's no real plot development, which I guess was a nice change of pace for Levinson, given the plot-heavy basis of men's adventure novels. Instead we slum around with Frapkin as he works on his series fiction, gets married yet again (in a scheme worked out with his lawyer, Frapkin marries women who are about to lose their green cards in exchange for cash), does a lot of drugs, tries to hustle a film version of his best-selling porno novel, and even gets beaten up for his writing.

One could say this is a brave novel, because Levinson lets it all hang out. No detail is spared here, particularly when it comes to Frapkin's sexual activities, all of which occur while he is by himself. The idea is, he's as sleazy as the characters he writes about, and he'd be the first to admit it. His paranoia runs rampant and he deals with a wealth of worries throughout the novel, especially concerns over race riots.

There are several hilarious setpieces, my favorite being when Frapkin receives a fan letter for the aforementioned porn novel, yet another book he has written under a psuedonym. Sex is always first on Frapkin's mind and he instantly sets up a date with the woman who wrote him. It turns out to be a set-up; a mobster-type guy waits for him in an abandoned loft, a pair of goons with him, and has them beat up Frapkin. Why? Because the mobster caught his daughter reading the porn novel.

After which Frapkin is even more paranoid, and vows to never put his real name on a book. His chance at a big break occurs toward the end of the novel when a pair of rapists are caught and tell the police they got the idea from a novel they read. You guessed it, the novel was another of Frapkin's. The media exploits the story and sales of the book go through the roof -- all of Frapkin's various novels start selling like hot cakes -- but due to his beating Frapkin instead panics and goes into hiding, coming out long after the media around the event has died down.

For me one of Levinson's greatest strengths is his ability to bring to life any character, no matter how minor. Characters in his novels always jump off the page and The Last Buffoon is no exception. It's like all of his characters have lives outside of the book and are just making guest appearances. Just a few of them here are Frapkin's latest wife, a feisty beauty who determines to clean up Frapkin's pigsty of an apartment; Frapkin's homosexual lawyer who, after spotting Frapkin in a gay bar (where Frapkin was only using the phone) starts making passes at him; Frapkin's drug connection, who accepts Frapkin's trashy novels as downpayment on grass; and a plethora of others, including a crabby socialite who hosts religious gurus in his penthouse suite. Even incredibly minor characters spring to life, like a grammar-focused sales associate Frapkin encounters while shopping.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element though is how The Last Buffoon shows the mind of a writer at work. Frapkin works out his problems and frustrations in his writing; this is most effectively presented when he writes that trio of mobsters who beat him into the Triggerman novel he's writing, having Johnny Ripelli blow all three of them away. In fact anyone who ticks off Frapkin may soon find their way into one of his novels, their fictional analogues suffering some horrible fate.

Frapkin has more of an uphill battle with his publishers, though, as they refuse to pay him for his manuscripts, let alone any royalties he's due. The Last Buffoon ends with Frapkin threatening the life of one publisher, only to have another fold beneath him as he's turning in a brutal cop manuscript (clearly based on the characters Ryker and Super Cop Joe Blaze, both series which Levinson contributed to). But no matter, as there's always the pretty Japanese girl across the street to spy on...

Finally, the novel offers a great view of late 1970s New York City, a long-gone sleazepit of 42nd Street porno theaters and rampant crime. Again, this book's highly recommended for connoisseurs of trash fiction and men's adventure novels, particularly the more lurid 1970s incarnation of the genre. It's a lot of fun, moves at a snappy pace, and it's well written to boot. In a way The Last Buffoon reminds me of William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man in that both novels are about eternal optimists who are even more crazy than the crazy characters they meet. But whereas The Fan Man attained a sort of cult fame, The Last Buffoon went unnoticed, and that's a shame.

I'll be reviewing a lot more of Levinson's work here in future, from his contribution to the Mace series (another one spoofed in The Last Buffoon), to his longrunning work on the crazy Butler series, to the other nongenre novels he published under the Jordan psuedonym. I also intend to track down copies of his Rat Bastards books (he wrote all of them under the name John Mackie, but they're all now available as ebooks under Levinson's own name) as well as his Sergeant series (published under the psuedonym Gordon Davis), which I haven't read since I was a kid. You can consider me a fan of his work.

Since re-reading The Last Buffoon, I've been lucky enough to get in touch with Leonard Levinson himself. He's still writing, and he was kind enough to give me some background information on many of his novels, including the fact that The Last Buffoon was twice optioned for the movies, though unfortunately nothing came of it. Throughout our conversation he expressed amazement that he has readers out there, particularly for some of the series novels he wrote. (He was shocked that the Butler novels for example go for such high dollars on the used-book market.) He's also written a piece on his life as a writer, complete with a list of the 80-some books he's published under various psuedonyms, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Justin Marriott's Paperback Fanatic.

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