The Specialist #6: The Big One, by John Cutter
December, 1984 Signet Books
Jack Sullivan, the “toughest action hero of them all,” returns in this sixth installment of John Shirley’s Specialist series. This is one hit or miss series, with some volumes, like #4: The Psycho Soldiers, being incredibly entertaining, while others, like #2: Manhattan Revenge, being monotonous bores. Luckily The Big One is in the former category, and it’s a lot of fun.
Speaking of Manhattan Revenge, this volume picks up some threads from that early installment, opening with a darkly humorous scene where Sullivan carries out a hit on a guy who killed one of the child sex slaves in Van Kleef’s den. Per the contract Sullivan has to carry out the hit on the guy’s birthday, and since the guy has mob connections this involves taking out a slew of thugs as well. But then one of the mobsters gets wind that The Specialist is here and tips off the cops, who promptly spot Sullivan’s warwagon as he’s making a leisurely getaway.
This implies that The Big One is going to be a “Sullivan breaks out of prison” storyline, but so much goes down in the 180 pages of this novel that his jail tenure is over in a flash. Sullivan is sprung by the Feds, who actually want to put him on a job – a megamillionaire named Hughes has it in for a neo-Nazi drug kingpin named Reichstone (nicknamed “The Big One”) who rules an island kingdom in South America, where he has the support of the corrupt local government. Reichstone has kidnapped Hughes’s daughter and made her his sex slave (notice a theme developing, here), and has also tortured, with acid, Hughes’s son.
But due to that governmental backing, the US can’t officially become involved. So Sullivan is their go-to guy, as he’s friggin’ legendary, even among the criminal filth of the world. After seeing the ruined figure that was once Hughes’s son, Sullivan is consumed with his equally-lengendary wrath and eagerly takes the job. He brings along Merlin and Rolff, the mercs who have assisted him in previous volumes.
Sullivan’s been equipped with a plethora of hardware, and Shirley takes a page out of Gold Eagle, detailing it all for us. Also on the GE tip is Sullivan’s new Atchisson automatic shotgun, so memorably featured in Able Team #8: Army Of Devils. Sullivan takes an instant liking to the Atchisson, which he uses throughout the novel to blow thugs apart in gory fashion. He gets a chance to take his new toys for a test drive as soon as he lands near Reichstone’s domain, blowing away a few cops and then taking captive their captain.
The Big One operates on all the tropes of a classic pulp melodrama, with constant reversals and unexpected turns, not to mention the old cliché of “enemies turned friends.” Sullivan shows a knack for making people see his way, and during the course of the narrative manages to turn a handful of Reichstone’s goons. And also per those classic tropes we see the return of many characters, in particular Skulleye, the “monster Muslim” terrorist who got half of his face shot off by Sullivan in the previous volume.
Another returning character from Maltese Vengeance is Ollie Tryst, who when last we saw him was planning to marry a spitfire beauty in Malta. Turns out the romance fizzled and Tryst went off looking for merc work…and guess what, he’s inadvertently ended up as a security guard on Reichstone’s island! There are two hundred mercs here, including the Elite, Reichstone’s personal guard, all of them hulking blondes who go about in sleeveless SS uniforms.
Given the “sex slave” angle of the plot, you’d figure Shirley would indulge in some lurid doings, but he doesn’t. In fact he doesn’t even deliver one of his trademark sex scenes until the novel’s almost over, having Sullivan get busy with a “big” redhead who happens to be an undercover Mossad agent. (Even she has heard of Sullivan!) The lurid quotient is relegated to several grisly action scenes, including a great moment – and another indication of Shirley’s gift for dark humor – where a character is eaten by a shark.
One thing that can be said for the Specialist series though is it isn’t as creative in the plot department. Everything goes down just as you expect it will, as in previous volumes – Sullivan shows up, scouts the area, kills some guards, plans his attack, and finally launches his attack. But Shirley at least throws some unexpected elments into the tale, obviously having fun as he mounts coincidence upon coincidence – like, for example, the team of CIA agents who just happen to be captives on Reichstone’s island, and one of them is Sullivan’s old pal! (Later these guys form their own detachment as “the White Berets,” another indication of Shirley having fun with his own story.)
Another unexpected element is when Sullivan himself gets captured, the first time I believe this has happened in the series. Skulleye and Reichstone interrogate him, and Sullivan proves his “toughest action hero” status here, certain he can take the torture. But instead they drug him, and Shirley shows off his horror chops with a very surreal and psychedelic scene where Sullivan hallucinates all kinds of nightmarish shit.
But still it all ends with the expected assault on Reichstone’s fortress, Sullivan assisted by a veritable army of mercs and Mossad agents who just so coincentally happen to be in the area. The Atchisson is again put to use in gory splendor, particularly in Sullivan’s final confrontation with Skulleye – though honestly I expected Shirley to play up this rivalry a bit more. All told Skulleye is barely in the novel. But the payoff with Reichstone’s fate more than makes up for it.
Anyway, this is a fun novel, filled with fun moments, like the scene pictured on the cover, where Sullivan avoids becoming shark-food thanks to a handy grenade. And also Shirley’s sense of humor is a nice change of pace; it’s obvious he’s having fun with the material, slyly poking fun at the characters and events, yet he still provides a quality story. When he’s in form Shirley is capable of delivering excellent examples of what men’s adventure novels can be, and this is exactly what he does here.