Jul 082014
 
I was very sad to see the Burke series end, but was confident Andrew Vachss would still give me the best entertainment and food for thought in fiction with his new Cross series. That series doesn't beat this new series featuring ex-Legionnare Dell though. With this guy and his love, former Médecins Sans Frontières nurse Dolly Mr. Vachss has found the perfect guides into the world of sexual violence and the advocates for justice for the abused, just like Burke and his crew were.
When a teenage girl shoots a fellow student in the hallway people try to compare it to Columbine. The girl's not talking at first, but Dell sets out to investigate her reasons for shooting the student and discovers their hometown has a dark secret.
This story is a perfect combination of court room drama and vigilante justice as Dell enlists the aid of a lawyer and a really cool and original forensic psychologist to find out the truth.
Great, dark and chilling hardboiled prose, the best dialogue Vachss has written so far and a lot to think about.
A winner.
Apr 072014
 
Paperback 760: Dell 696 (1st ptg, 1953)

Title: Slan
Author: A.E. Van Vogt
Cover artist: Uncredited, aarrgh!

Yours for: $20

Dell696

Best things about this cover:
  • "I Was a 22nd-Century Gun Moll!"
  • Her mouth! Is she talking? Hissing? Shouting "Slan!"?
  • I have seen the future. It is full of 8th graders' atom diagrams.
  • Pretty bold to paint right on top of a well-used bandage.
  • Quintessential mid-century sci-fi cover art. Iconic. Beautiful. Perfect.

Dell696bc

Best things about this back cover.
  • Why aren't people named "Groff" any more? Or "Jommy"?
  • Idea: Western / Scifi epic with a hero named "Slim Tendrils"…
  • I'm guessing that's not "Jommy" on the cover. But who knows what the future holds…

Page 123~

The impression smashed into fragments. Granny.

That has to be the weirdest two-sentence sequence in literary history.

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
Mar 262014
 
Paperback 757: Dell 223 (1st ptg, 1948)

Title: Hammett Homicides
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Cover artist: Gerald Gregg

Yours for: $30

Dell223-1

Best things about this cover:
  • Taste the (lead) rainbow!
  • Uh, guys? I think it's probably dead now.
  • I see a pretty butterfly.
  • Gerald Gregg is my favorite early, semi-abstract, non-sleazy cover artist.

Dell223bc

Best things about this back cover:
  • [ahem] … MAPBACK!
  • So iconic—Hammett's S.F.!
  • Sausaleto? What the?! … aw, I can't stay mad at you, mapback! Come here!

Page 123~ (opening paragraph of "The Main Death")

The captain told me Hacken and Begg were handling the job. I caught them leaving the detectives' assembly room. Begg was a freckled heavyweight, as friendly as a Saint Bernard puppy, but less intelligent. Lanky Detective-Sergeant Hacken, not so playful, carried the team's brains behind his worried hatchet face.

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
Jan 272014
 
Fear Itself, by Ric Meyers June, 1991  Dell Books About a decade after writing Ninja Master, Ric Meyers turned out this now-forgotten trilogy that seems very much inspired by Sam Raimi’s film Darkman. But whereas Raimi was sure to keep his story action-packed and darkly comedic, Meyers unfortunately delivers what is for the most part a padded, tepid, and uninvolving story – a definite
Jan 252014
 
Paperback 736: Dell 186 (1st ptg, 1947)

Title: She Ate Her Cake
Author: Blair Treynor
Cover artist: Uncredited [Gerald Gregg]

Yours for: $12

Dell186

Best things about this cover:
  • Hell yeah she did! Good for her.
  • She ate her cake, then stood near the window and shot at birds.
  • Pretty dang racy for a '40s Dell cover.

Dell186bc

Best things about this back cover:
  • Mapback!
  • Chickens! 
  • I'm not sure where to go after "Chickens." Not sure how you top "Chickens."

Page 123~

"Well then, why not come back to Los Angeles when I leave? You can go places with me. Now that Al is gone, I'm Mr. Big."
"Yeah, Mr.-Big-on-the-Lam."

Yeesh, I've heard better gangster patter at crossword puzzle conventions. Come on!

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
Jan 092014
 
Traveler #3: The Stalkers, by D.B. Drumm September, 1984  Dell Books Sort of picking up from the events of the previous volume, this installment of the Traveler series, once again courtesy John Shirley, sees our titular protagonist movin’ on down the road, where he’s promptly ambushed by mutant horrors called “Bloats” which string him up with another captive and then line up for dinner. As
Dec 122013
 
Traveler #2: Kingdom Come, by D.B. Drumm July, 1984  Dell Books Yet another post-nuke pulp series from the ‘80s, Traveler is one I remember checking out from my local library as a kid (they actually had men’s adventure novels on a spinner rack!). I think I read the first volume, but they didn’t have any others and so I never bothered buying the later volumes at WaldenBooks, as even then I
Nov 112013
 

Making U-Hoo, by Irving A. Greenfield
November, 1973  Dell Books

Another of those early ‘70s sex novels Dell Books specialized in, Making U-Hoo is courtesy Irving A. Greenfield, who again delivers a fast-moving narrative that, while not being especially memorable in the plot department, definitely delivers some memorable sex scenes. In the ‘60s Greenfield served as “Vin Fields” for porn imprint Midwood, so he certainly had the experience under his belt (so to speak) to capitalize on the sex novel boom of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.

The playful title is apt – the characters in this novel “make yoo-hoo” in both the literal and the figurative sense. Sales for a previously-low tier soft drink called U-Hoo (a citrus-lime soda clearly modelled on Sprite) have gone through the roof, basically destroying the profits of larger soft drink manufacturer SDA (read: Coca-Cola). Protagonist and sometimes narrator Bart Sherriff, a consulting ad whiz, is called in by SDA to find out what’s going on.

I say “sometimes” a narrator because most of Making U-Hoo is in third-person, but Greenfield will arbitrarily jump into Bart’s perspective for several first-person sequences. Sometimes it’s when he’s meeting with clients, other times when he’s just walking around (strangely though, none of the actual sex scenes are written in first-person), so there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the perspective changes.

Bart Sherriff is a totally ‘70s protagonist; he’s in his 30s and lives in a swinging bachelor pad in Manhattan complete with a round bed and a stereophonic system that’s hooked into a fancy lighting system, so that various colors will flicker in accordance with the mood of the music. He’s such a successful advertising man that he rents out his services, charging high dollars for his consultations. Just as importantly, so far as the narrative goes, he’s also a big success with the ladies, able to score with ease.

We see Bart handling a few accounts before he’s called in by SDA president Knowles to handle the U-Hoo situation. Knowles states that the problem threatens the national economy, and it’s so bad that people are bootlegging U-Hoo, buying it off shelves and reselling it at a massive upcharge. After accepting the job Bart realizes he’s being followed, and soon discovers that the Feds are on the case, shadowing his every move.

Not that this prevents him from sleeping with the first of three conquests in the novel, this being a gorgeous blonde SDA secretary named Sandy, who just started working at SDA, is happy to go home with Bart, and is obviously an FBI agent (though it takes Bart a while to realize this). In the ensuing sex scene Greenfield takes us completely into the shagadelic ‘70s, with the couple engaging in explicitly-rendered sex on Bart’s round bed while stroboscopic lights flash around them.

Greenfield lazily works up a mystery here, but the novel is moreso in the light humor vein, with no violence or deaths or anything of that nature. In fact when Bart is confronted by a pair of FBI goons he’s easily able to fool them into thinking he himself is a G-Man, and then gets the guys drunk and sends them on their way. This after the trio have watched a televised speech from the President (clearly Nixon, though he isn’t named – and there’s a fair amount of President-bashing throughout the novel, again firmly rooting it in its era), in which the President informs the country of the “soda conspiracy” and requests that everyone buy a can of pop the next day.

It’s his ruse to further throw off the Feds that leads Bart to his next conquest, a brunette model named Lois. The focus of the most sex scenes in the novel, I guess Lois is the closest we get to a female protagonist. Bart calls in a crazy friend to throw a costume party in Bart’s apartment, so Bart can take off in the fray and leave the Feds to wonder what happened to him. He tells his crazy friend to bring along anyone he knows; one of these people happens to be Lois, who offers her place to Bart as a safe place to stay, and thus moments after meeting each other they rush back to her place to screw. Ah, the ‘70s.

Greenfield serves up another pages-long sex scene here, miles beyond the metaphor and analogy-ridden purple prose you’d encounter in say the Baroness series, with graphic depictions baldly rendered…though not with the outrageous aspects of Harold Robbins or the boring, repetitive, and mechanical sex descriptions you’d find in a vintage sleaze novel like Flowers And Flesh. One thing I’ve noticed though about Greenfield is his tendency to always mention what his female characters taste like, if you catch my drift.

Making U-Hoo runs at 251 pages of fairly big print, and I figured most of those pages would be given over to sex scenes, but that’s really not the case. In fact Greenfield seems determined to deliver an actual story, one that’s couched in goofy humor and the occasional sex scene. Most of the novel is focused on Bart’s inner monologues and his thoughts and feelings on various things as he traipses around ‘70s New York City tracking down clues. However the U-Hoo “conspiracy” stuff is not given enough weight or focus to classify the novel as a thriller or anything of the sort. Again, it’s more of a comedy.

In fact the whole mystery angle is rendered moot in the reveal, when Bart meets Flosie, a black masseuse. While giving Bart a handjob she casually informs him that she’s behind the “conspiracy,” having spread the word that the black community should “get whitey” by buying up one brand of soda and then gouging the market with inflated resale prices. Bart thanks her by paying to have sex with her, having already broken off his days-long relationship with Lois. In fact the women just abruptly drop out of the narrative once Bart’s done with them, and Greenfield intentionally or not builds ill will against his protagonist, as it’s clear that these women develop feelings for Bart, particularly Lois, but he could care less.

I’m sort of on the fence with Making U-Hoo; I enjoy Greenfield’s writing and the dialog he gives his characters, but the plot is middling and forgettable. However the book works as a nice capsule of early ‘70s New York and the fashions of its hipper denizens, which always results in high marks from me. I guess I’d end by saying you should maybe check it out if you come across it for cheap, but it’s not worth going to great lengths to hunt it down.
Oct 172013
 

Cross-Country, by Herbert Kastle
December, 1975  Dell Books

This was Herbert Kastle's last hardcover book for a few years, at least here in the States; after this novel he was relegated to paperback originals (until Ladies of the Valley, which came out in hardcover in 1979). Which is fine by me, as I much prefer paperbacks. But anyway at least Cross-Country was a memorable way to go out, Kastle returning to his crime fiction roots but leavening the tale with the hot and heavy sex scenes he’d been writing since 1968 in his steamy, Harold Robbins-style potboilers.

The novel opens with the discovery of Judith Keel’s mutilated corpse – Keel, a gorgeous blonde who worked as an assistant in an ad agency, has been hacked up in horrible fashion in her Manhattan apartment, her severed arms chained to the headboard of her bed and her body tossed on the floor and further desecrated. From this we jump to Evan Bley, a top ad man at the agency Keel worked for, and Kastle immediately lets us know that this guy likely killed Judith; Evan’s stopping off in a topless bar for a quick drink before getting in his Jaguar and leaving New York forever.

But Evan’s picked up by a stacked brunette with an Australian accent; the lady is named Lois, and she instantly deduces that Evan’s planning to ditch town and she wants to go with him, especially when Evan informs her he’s planning a cross-country drive to Los Angeles. After getting bombed out on the bar’s potent drinks, Evan wakes to find himself sprawled out on the backseat of his own car, Lois in the passenger seat…and some bearded freak behind the wheel. This turns out to be John, Lois’s ex-boyfriend, and thus begins the major twisted thread of this twisted novel.

In one of the most brazen acts of coincidence I’ve ever read in a novel, Kastle gradually reveals that, unbeknownst to one another, each of these strangers knew Judith Keel. Thus, since each of them have shady, lawless backgrounds and insane tendencies, each of them are actually suspects as Keel’s murderer. Before we get to that though we have a long, tense sequence in which they keep going up against one another, Evan feeling like he’s been swindled, what with the sudden appearance of John, who comes off like a creep who’s planning to steal Evan’s car and/or slash his throat while Evan’s sleeping. Kastle is a dark comedy master and this sequence is filled with it, as Evan and John keep trying to one up one another.

Meanwhile we are introduced to the hero of the tale, such as he is: Detective Eddie Roersch of the NYPD, a 30+ year veteran of the force who, at a heavyset and weathered 55, feels like life has passed him by and that he’ll never get the recognition or the pay he deserves. Despite having more collars than any other detective in his precinct, Roersch has never been promoted to Lieutenant, let alone Captain.

Beyond the job Roersch’s personal life is in disarray, given the death seven months ago of his wife of three decades. Not that Kastle makes much of Roersch’s widowhood; he’s already sort of moved on, scoring sex from a high-class hooker named Ruthie who happens to live on the same floor as Roersch’s Manhattan apartment. In exchange for not busting her Ruthie gives Roersch freebies, but over these past few months Roersch has found himself thinking of Ruthie as more than just a free lay.

Assigned the Keel case, Roersch very quickly deduces that Evan Bley is the top suspect. The majority of the Roersch sections follow a police procedural format, with Roersch tracking clues and leads. Soon enough he has what he figures is a cut and dry case against Bley. But this is a Kastle novel, and there are no white hats; seeing as how wealthy Bley is, Roersch decides that instead of tracking him down and arresting him, Roersch will instead build a solid case against Bley, find him, and tell him he can either go to the chair or pay Roersch a few hundred thousand dollars, and Bley will go free.

Evan Bley, though, is pretty sick. Not really sick, but tormented, having grown up with an overbearing mother who burned a permanent scar into young Evan, having once discovered him masturbating in the bathroom. In one of those bizarre yet (darkly) humorous scenes he excels in, Kastle has the mom go apeshit, beating young Evan and then, believe it or not, pulling down her skirt and graphically showing him that it’s her time of the month and blaming it all on him! Well, you won’t be surprised to know that this has had some definite ramifications on Evan, who nonetheless considers himself a “monster.” Kastle himself builds a pretty damning case against Bley as being Judith Keel’s murderer, but Bley’s fellow passengers are screwed up too.

John has his own sob story background: he’s from a wealthy background but has been drifting around the country for the past decade. In another dark comedy flashback we see how when John was a young boy his dad went balistic when he found out that John’s mom was sleeping around, a crazed scene that sees a poor dog kicked around until it’s hamburger. Lois too is fucked up, being raped by her father when a teenager and from there finding brief comfort in the arms of other women; but lesbian affairs are completely against her nature, she constantly chastizes herself. Having been in the States for the past few years she makes her meager living dancing in bars or working in massage parlors, but she dreams of becoming a famous actress. When she finds out that Evan has contacts in the industry, she latches on to him.

What’s weird is how Kastle builds a familial relationship for these three whackjobs. First though there’s the tension, both of the danger and the sexual variety; Lois coming on to Evan, much to John’s frustration. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, given how Lois so brazenly rubs it in his face that she’s over him and now wants Evan – who is not only better looking and in better shape, but has more money and a bigger dick. In fact Evan’s size is often brought up, particularly in the first of several highly graphic sex scenes between him and Lois – as I wrote above, Kastle with this novel returned to the crime fiction genre he’d written in the early ‘60s, but here he’s free to give vent to his most explicit ideas. There’s some hardcore stuff throughout Cross-Country, and no detail is spared.

As the trio moves on through the Midwest they become closer, Lois feeling like the glue that holds them all together (sometimes literally). But she’s moved on from John and wants Evan for herself, so in another lurid sequence they manage to pick up an attractive but stupid redneck girl named Alma-Jean, who works in a clothing store. More drinking, drugs, and group sex ensues, but Lois, who has lesbian tendencies she tries to subdue, loses control of herself on the girl.

Another demonstration of Kastle’s skill, this sequence goes from erotica to horror as it devolves into bad vibes all around, Lois storming off and Alma-Jean hitting the road, sick of these “freaks,” with John trying to find her before she can get away. Kastle plays this game throughout where we know that one of the trio is a murderer, but which one? They all have their issues, and they all have their chances in the narrative to commit murder – and sure enough, later on we learn that Alma-Jean’s mutilated body has been discovered in a dumpster outside the hotel, and it could’ve been any one of the three who killed her.

Roersch, still in New York, begins to doubt his blackmail scheme, once news of Alma-Jean’s death comes to him. This means that, along with Judith Keel and two other murdered girls, four people have been killed by Bley (Roersch’s only suspect; he doesn’t even know about Lois or John), and how could Roersch live with himself if he allowed a monster like that to escape justice? Meanwhile Roersch goes on with his life, finding that his feelings for Ruthie, the hooker next door, have increased to the point where he wants the blackmail money from Bey so as to provide a better life for her and her prepubescent daughter.

Cross-Country is more of a slow burn affair, and lacks the dynamic characterization and plotting of Ladies of the Valley. It is however a much darker tale (believe it or not), with practically every character fucked up to some degree. But the writing is as strong as ever, with Kastle fully bringing his rejects to life; he remains locked in each perspective when featuring each character, and brings you enough into their worlds that you can at least understand them, if not like them. Save for Lois, who comes off as more self-centered and annoying in her sequences, and I get the feeling Kastle had a hard time writing about her, as there isn’t much there.

The action only picks up toward the climax, when Roersch feels he’s successfully put together his case (after visits with Roersch’s still-domineering mother, now old and alone, as well as a private eye named McKenney, who tailed Judith Keel for Bley) and heads for a confrontation with the man in the Grand Canyon, having got hold of Bley’s planned travel route through AA (Bley being a member). But we see that it’s all come to a head for our depraved trio, as well, as during another group sex session things again become nightmarish, with bad vibes leading to a startling but expected bit where John buggers Evan – who despite his shock realizes he enjoys it.

Please skip this paragraph if you don’t want the novel’s surprise spoiled. As mentioned above, Evan, John, and Lois could each have been the murderer of Judith Keel, as well as poor Alma-Jean and some other women back in New York. Gradually though I figured out which of the three it was, mostly due to a bit of foreshadowing Kastle delivers early in the book; Roersch, considering the horrible nature of the Keel murder, figures it had to have been a man behind it, as female murders of such brutality are few. He can only think of the Countess Bathory. From this I soon figured Kastle was foreshadowing that Lois was actually Keel’s murderer (and all the other girls besides). And Lois does indeed turn out to be the killer, as revealed at the very end. As yet another example of his writing skill, you can go back to the sequences from Lois’s POV and see how Kastle has so masterfully left clues therein. But my problem here is that after this reveal Lois immediately “acts crazy,” blithely recounting her murderous deeds to Roersch as she perches above a chasm in the Grand Canyon. The way her character acts here in the climax is so separate from how she acted throughout the rest of the novel that it comes off like a cheap cop-out; however Kastle does cover himself by having Lois already feeling a sort of psychotic break thanks to discovering Evan’s homosexual tendencies the night before. Now learning that Bley’s a “goddamn closet queen,” her hopes for Hollywood stardom are dashed, and she’s gone around the bend. But still, it comes off as too much, too late.

This was the first of a loose trilogy featuring Roersch; he appeared in Kastle’s next two novels, both of them as mentioned paperback originals: The Gang (1976) and Death Squad (1977). Finally, there was a film adaptation of Cross-Country, released in 1983; there’s no DVD, but it came out on VHS (glad I still have a VCR player!). One of these days I might check it out, just to see how far it strays from Kastle’s novel – one thing I do know is they changed it so that Judith Keel was Bley’s wife, which I guess they thought would add more tension and suspense.
Oct 102013
 

The Killing Of RFK, by Donald Freed
September, 1975  Dell Books

The JFK assassination gets all of the attention, but I’ve always been more interested in the assassination of RFK. With its “lone gunman” who to this day can’t remember pulling the trigger, allegations of MKUltra brainwashing, obvious LAPD coverup, and most compelling of all the infamous Lady in the Polka Dot Dress, the June 1968 murder of Bobby Kennedy is just downright weird.

This paperback original from Dell (my favorite publisher, by the way) is courtesy Donald Freed, a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who previously co-authored a similar work on JFK, titled Executive Action. Some day I plan to read it, as I’m sure there are elements in The Killing Of RFK that reflect back to that earlier work. This novel opens on June 7th, 1968, the day after RFK’s death (he was shot after 12AM, June 5th, but died on the 6th), and as Ted Kennedy delivers a televised eulogy we meet our two ostensible protagonists, Paul Woods and Judith Shankman.

Paul, a black ex-Secret Service agent who was part of JFK’s retinue but fired after 1963 due to his allegations that the assassination was part of a conspiracy, now works as “Public Relations” for RFK. His job, we learn as the novel unfolds, is basically to provide clandestine back-up security. He’s also in love with Judith Shankman, a white former radical (or somesuch) who previously backed Hubert Humphrey. How she met Paul and indeed what exactly she brings to this tale is something Freed doesn’t really provide much detail on.

We then flash back to April, 1968; the novel never returns to the June 7th section, thus the opening pages of the novel are also the narrative’s end. (I even re-read this section after finishing the book, to see if it provided any hints of what was in store for our protagonists, but really it doesn’t.) These early chapters are very heavy in late ‘60s politics, and some of the names dropped were from before my time. However Freed captures the feel of the era, with Paul and Judith swept up in the idealism of RFK’s candidacy. Kennedy himself rarely appears in the narrative, and when he does it’s only from a distance, or on TV or radio.

Gradually Freed breaks away from these two charactes and weaves in the darker material we’ve come for. This presents itself in the creepy character of William A. Must, Jr, another former intelligence agent who now is also a self-styled “public relations” worker. Freed never outright states who gives Must his orders, his funding, or who indeed he now works for, but we do eventually learn that he was formerly CIA and was part of the task force that killed JFK. In fact we eventually learn that the Kennedy brothers actually created the task force that caused their own deaths; agents who were selected to take part in the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco. After that fell through, this contingent of CIA agents went rogue and first took out JFK, now setting their sights on RFK, mostly to keep him from re-investigating his brother’s murder.

Must has already selected his patsy, a Palestinian immigrant with occult leanings. Interestingly enough, Sirhan Sirhan is never named in the novel; he’s always referred to by the codename Must gives him, “Saladin.” And yes, Freed puts quotation marks around the name every single time he writes it! Must’s never-outright-stated plan is to brainwash Saladin into wanting to kill RFK, and to do so Must blackmails a gorgeous behavioral psychologist (with a brick shithouse bod, naturally) named Helen Dukemejian.

The most interesting character by far, Helen will become the Lady in the Polka Dot Dress. She’s 30, of Armenian descent, and grew up in war-torn Europe. Now she works in UCLA’s Violence Research Center (which doesn't exist in reality, though I read somewhere that one was planned to be built in the early '70s), where she carries out some pretty twisted experiments on test subjects both animal and human. Helen has done work for the CIA in the past, though against her will; they use her, basically, and gradually Must reveals to her that this is because Helen’s decades-missing father was a member of the infamous Ustaci, a Croatian terrorist group with fascist leanings. Helen’s father has been captured in Sweden, and the only thing that could exonerate him would be for the Agency to reveal that he was a double agent…something, Must assures her, the CIA would be just thrilled to do, in exchange for Helen carrying out this little project for them.

One of the more creepy aspects of the RFK puzzle is, if Sirhan really was brainwashed into his actions, then how in the world did the CIA pick him? That to me is one of the weirdest things…if they could pick some anonymous, penniless immigrant to become their patsy, then no one is safe. (In an interesting bit early on, Freed has it that before finding Sirhan Must had a black patsy pegged, but the man went rogue and escaped.) Helen insinuates herself into Saladin’s life, posing as a co-ed who herself is into the occult and etc, and posthaste Saladin’s fallen for the “stacked” brunette.

The narrative gets a bit lopsided, as previously Paul Woods and Judith Shankman were the stars of the show, but they basically disappear for a long stretch as Freed focuses on this storyline, which, truth be told, is more compelling. After breaking down Saladin’s emotional barriers (and it takes Helen a few tries to get him to sleep with her, due to how introverted and innocent he is) Helen moves on to the actual brainwashing and political invective. Sex, drugs, hypnotism, and Clockwork Orange-style film subjection are the tools at Helen’s disposal, and within a few weeks she has almost succeeded in creating a regular Manchurian Patsy.

Must meanwhile puts together his hit team; one of them is a former ‘Nam Green Beret named James Jerrold, who unfortunately disappears soon after being introduced into the narrative. But this happens throughout and at times Freed has a tough time juggling his large cast of characters. And also to note, The Killing Of RFK is much heavier on dialog and character and scene-setting, with very little action. However Freed is good at setting up scenes, of getting us into the heads of his characters (even Must’s, who despite being the villain has his own reasons for doing what he does).

The stuff with Saladin’s programming almost could come out of The Mind Masters; even Helen’s initial meeting with Must at the Violence Research Center is like something by John Rossmann, only slightly less expository. Must pressures Helen to move faster, as he wants RFK dead within a certain timeframe. This leads to the infamous Sirhan notebook entry where Helen asks a hypnotized and drugged Saladin about RFK, and Saladin sits and scrawls “RFK must die” over and over again.

Freed also incorporates known elements from the conspiracy, like the fact that Sirhan was seen in the days before the assassination in various places, from a gun shop to various gun ranges, always in the presence of “Arabic”-looking men; Freed has it that these are agents who work for “The Arab,” another of Must’s functionaries, and one who takes over Saladin when Must deems that Helen’s brain-programming isn’t proceeding fast enough.

When we get back to Paul and Judith, they’re still part of “the Candidate’s” whirlwind tour of the states as he makes his way to Los Angeles for the primaries. Paul has made contact with an FBI agent who, after pinning down Must as the man who put a “superbug” on Kennedy’s phone, manages to stumble upon Saladin and Helen at an RFK rally. He immediately suspects something strange about them, Saladin and his glassy eyes in particular. (Also, this dude reveals the fact that Must was the guy who posed as Oswald in Mexico.)  

Finally everything converges on the night of June 4, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. Must’s team is here in various disguises, posing as hotel workers and such, while Helen, in a polka dot dress, leads around a dazed and hypnotized Saladin. Curiously Freed makes Helen’s choice of the polka dot dress arbitrary, merely mentions she’s wearing it, when by all accounts it must’ve had something to do with Sirhan’s programming. The several witnesses of the infamous polka dot dress lady all said that the dress was rather weird looking, frumpy almost, and not at all flattering to what was otherwise described as a very pretty, very “built” lady. (But then, Freed also makes no mention of the strange story of John Fahey, a man who claims he spent the day of June 4th with the polka dot dress woman – and those who toss off his story as a tall tale are stymied when they discover that a sketch artist made a drawing of the lady’s face under Fahey’s descriptions, and when this drawing was later shown to Vincent DiPierro, a man who saw the polka dot lady closeup on the night of June 4th, DiPierro said the drawing was identical to the woman he saw standing beside Sirhan.)

Freed ramps up the tension here, as Paul sends Judith upstate to get a drawing of Saladin from his FBI contact, all of this going down during the primary festivities. Meanwhile a zombiefied Saladin stumbles about the Ambassador, Helen guiding him – Freed doesn’t go into Sirhan’s hypnosis-derived memories of pouring coffee for a pretty “Armenian” woman in a polka dot dress who asked for lots of cream and sugar (likely the trigger phrase that activated Sirhan, as this is his last memory until after RFK was shot) and then lead him “into a dark place.” Instead Freed has Saladin already hypnotized fully into kill mode, even though he’s not intended to be the actual assassin – but, as Must says, if Saladin actually does manage to shoot Kennedy, so much the better.

Of course Judith gets back too late to give the drawing of Saladin to Paul, and besides the Ambassador is filled to capacity with cheering throngs. Freed closes the novel with the assassination, with Saladin firing madly while Must’s top agent closes in and fires directly into the back of Kennedy’s head. After which Helen flees from the scene, screaming “We’ve shot him!” in horror, which again goes against the grain of the many eyewitnesses, who claimed that the lady in the polka dot dress yelled out this phrase happily, like she was celebrating RFK’s death. More upsetting though is that Freed doesn’t let us know what happens to Helen – does Must reunite her with her father, per his promise? Or does Must have her taken out, a possibility he intimates to one of his cronies, given that “the woman knows too much?”

But then, Freed leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps his way of mirroring in fiction the enigma that is the RFK assassination, a puzzle that has even more layers than the more famous JFK assassination. Now, as for the book’s style and quality. Freed’s writing is very good, though at times he goes for more of a literary feel, getting in the heads of his characters and focusing more on their memories and impressions than the action. Unfortunately however Freed is a hardcore POV-hopper, so the reader’s left unsettled sometimes as the perspective switches between paragraphs (sometimes within the paragraph), jumping from one character to another. As for the trash quotient, it’s there moreso in the creepy feel of Helen’s brainwashing of Saladin, but Freed does sleaze it up a bit in the two sex scenes between them, with lots of mentions of “full breasts” and “wet thighs.”

Anyway, I really did enjoy The Killing Of RFK, mostly because I’d recently become re-interested in the RFK assassination after a period of several years, so the discovery of this book was fortuitous. Freed states in his acknowledgements that he’d spoken with police and government authorities who gave him information “off the record,” and a lot of what he writes does dovetail with what’s now known about the assassination, though he does leave some things out, likely because he was writing before they were revealed. (For example the revelation that the LAPD destroyed all evidence from the case, even photos that were taken of RFK while he was being shot!) But overall it was an entertaining novel – though there was never a film version, despite what the cover proclaims.