Narc #6: The Beauty Kill, by Robert Hawkes March, 1975 Signet Books The sixth volume of the Narc series is full-on blaxploitation; hell, Superfly is even namedropped on the cover. Yet again our hero, John Bolt, is lost in the colorful shuffle, Marc Olden focusing more on his vast cast of street-wise villains. Also as usual, The Beauty Kill has no pickup from previous volumes; the Narc
Narc #5 Kill The Dragon, by Robert Hawkes
December, 1974 Signet Books
The fifth installment of the Narc series doesn’t pick up from any earlier volumes; as I guessed, John Bolt’s lady love from the previous volume, Anita, doesn’t appear and isn’t even mentioned. As a matter of fact Bolt gets it on with some random lady while on his latest case, and doesn’t once even think of Anita, so I guess she’s gone for good, despite being so built up in the previous book. But anyway Kill the Dragon comes off like a standalone installment, so could easily serve as an introduction to the series.
This volume at times also comes off like Olden’s superior Black Samurai series, what with its focus on martial arts fights and whatnot. Bolt isn’t the one doing the fighting, though; it’s Peter Joe, one of the novel’s many villains, an 18 year-old Hong Kong orphan who has come to the US to climb the ladder of the New York tongs. Peter Joe works for Gabriel Ling Tsu, aka “Sweet Sue,” tong godfather of New York. Gabriel is currently working a deal with mob boss Johnny Fist; Gabriel’s Red China heroin contact The Monk is about to import a huge shipment of heroin, and Fist wants to buy it to corner the market.
Of course Bolt, as top agent for D-3, gets involved; we meet him already on the case, as he’s being dragged along a concrete floor somewhere in Washington, DC by a speeding car. One thing that can be said for Olden is he knows how to start his novels with exciting scenes, and this is yet another example. Bolt is in the process of capturing the Monk, and for his pains he’s left with an injured left arm and shoulder which plague him through the rest of the novel.
But for all of that the Monk is let go within the hour, sprung by Mercer Mannering, a new-to-the-series government VIP who is very friendly with Red China. Although Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, it’s obvious Kill the Dragon was written long before it, as though Nixon’s name is never specified it’s constantly driven home that “the current president” is trying very hard to sow peace with China, hence arresting a visiting notable like the Monk would sour the peace negotiations. Mercer is also very hostile toward D-3 in general and Bolt in particular, and Olden makes it clear that Bolt has made yet another enemy.
This particular volume took a while to read; although it’s only 159 pages, those pages are filled with small print and barely any white space. Once again Olden really fills up pages by jumping into the perspectives of his huge cast of characers, to the point where snatches of the book come off like streams of consciousness. I’ve complained about this tendency of Olden’s before; in a way he’s like the reverse image of Joseph Rosenberger. Whereas Rosenberger page-fills with endlessly detailed action scenes, Olden sort of does the same with lots of extended peeks into the minds of his characters, to the point where the book can become a trawl.
There are a few action setpieces, though, just not as many as previously. There’s the opening fight in DC, and a better one later on where Bolt and his two fellow narcs Kramer and Masetta (both reappearing from previous volumes) launch a raid on Peter Joe and his men in snow-filled upstate New York. Masetta takes a lot of damage here, but doesn’t die, Peter Joe tossing grenades at the narcs. The novel finishes with a similar setpiece, as Bolt again leads an assault on the tongs and the mafia; here Bolt unleashes his specially-made shotgun, though really you’d think an assault rifle would be better suited for the occasion.
It’s the plots and counterplots that again take up the brunt of the narrative. For one Bolt has to deal with Mercer, who actually sends a trio of CIA goons to rough up Bolt. This bit is a tad too much as Bolt gets free, cripples one of them, and so “scares” the three agents that the CIA backs off and promises to no longer interfere! You’d figure Bolt would be dead within a day. But at any rate Bolt hatches a plan that ends up with Mercer kicked out of office, this whole subplot brimming with the anti-Nixon administration sentiment that was so prevalent at the time, but as mentioned was already moot by the time the book saw publication.
Then there’s Peter Joe, who schemes to take a position of power in Gabriel Tsu’s tong. Peter Joe gets most of the spotlight, so far as the villains go – and you won’t be surprised to know that he gets away in the end, yet another of Olden’s many villains who escape to return another day…a day that never comes. Maybe it’s Olden’s commentary on how villains are never caught, but it’s getting to be frustrating how he develops these bad guys and never gives them their comeuppance, instead saving them for potential sequels.
Bolt is a bit more involved in the story this time, tracking down contacts (there’s a memorable scene where he meets a contact in a movie theater that’s playing a kung-fu flick), talking back to his bosses, and shooting the shit with his fellow narcs. As mentioned he picks up some nameless chick while in upstate New York, and we learn at the end of the novel that his next conquest will be a stewardess “with big tits and bad breath” whom he meets on the flight from DC to New York.
Anyway, Kill The Dragon was entertaining and offered more of what we’ve come to expect from the series, with streetwise crooks and the occasional action sequence, but my favorite volume yet is still #2: Death Of A Courier, mostly because of its pulpish nature.
Narc #4: The Delgado Killings by Robert Hawkes
October, 1974 Signet Books
I’m starting to think Marc Olden could be considered the Elmore Leonard of men’s adventure authors, his Narc series being a case in point. Instead of the over-the-top, gun-blazing thrills customary of the genre, Olden continues to write a grim and gritty series that brings to life the sleazy, dangerous streets of 1970s New York City. Olden once again takes us into a sordid world of drug kingpins and street-level warriors, where only the most vicious survive.
As is customary for this series, The Delgado Killings is mostly an ensemble piece, with hero John “Narc” Bolt just one of the many characters. There’s no pickup from the previous volume, and indeed it appears that we’ve missed a lot between installments. For one, Bolt’s girlfriend of The Death List is not only gone and unmentioned, but he’s managed to find another girlfriend in the meantime. Anyway Bolt’s life has been pretty hectic since we last saw him, and Olden spends a lot of time informing us what we missed via backstory.
But as usual with Olden it’s the villains who get the most narrative time. The titular Delgado for example takes up a goodly portion of the novel; a cocaine kingpin, Delgado is in the sights of Bolt’s agency D-3 and is about to be put on trial. At great cost Delgado has gotten a list of the names of the people who will testify against him. His plan is to kill off these witnesses, and to do so he hires Victor Poland, a former cop who has become a hitman who specializes in helping those in the narcotics industry.
Mostly though Delgado wants Bolt dead. It turns out that Bolt has killed Delgado’s lover – Delgado is gay (he’s actually referred to as “The Snow Queen” on the back cover…man, you can’t get much more pre-PC than that), and this murder has sent him over the edge. Delgado’s homosexuality is often ridiculed throughout the book, and it’s another indication of how the times have changed…vast portions of this stuff would not be publishable in today’s tepid, sterilized, PG-13 neutered world.
Like previous novels, The Delgado Killings takes place over a short period of time, specifically during a very hot summer. We’re reminded, quite often and at length, of the extreme heat and the uncomfortable conditions. But then Olden mentions that it’s 85 degrees out, and I had to laugh…I mean, when it’s 85 degrees down here in the hellish heat of Dallas, that’s when we know it’s finally getting cooler and summer’s wrapping up! Anyway Olden fully brings to life the mire of a New York summer, just another indication of his writing talent.
Poland takes the job and hires his own little band of hitmen, and together they begin killing off the witnesses, making each look like accidental deaths. Bolt himself doesn’t even appear until well into the book, and we learn of his involvement in the Delgado case in backstory, including how Bolt caused the death of Delgado’s lover. Bolt’s the only one to quickly deduce that Delgado is behind these “accidental deaths,” and when a gunman tries to kill both Bolt and one of the witnesses in a staged holdup, he knows for sure that he’s had a death warrant placed on him.
I have to say though that Bolt really isn’t much fun of a character, which is perhaps why Olden spends so little time with him. He has all the standard attributes of your average men’s adventure protagonist, but no sparkle, no charm. In fact he’s pretty humorless, something Olden plays up on with the other characters, so it seems to me that it was Olden’s intent to make Bolt such a grim cipher. What’s strange though is the guy had a lot more pizazz back in Narc #1, including a nihilistic bent, all of which has disappeared – and by the way, what happened to Bolt’s martial arts guru, also unseen since that first volume?
But then, this is an ensemble piece and the minor players are more interesting than the protagonist. Poland comes off as a street-smart warrior with one hell of a mean streak; there’s a Stephen King-esque sequence late in the tale where Poland takes up an axe and hacks off the head and hands of one of his men. Olden really captures the sick horror of this, having another of Poland’s men puke at the sight – in fact there’s quite a bit of puking going on in The Delgado Killings, with even Bolt himself blowing chunks in the finale.
The new woman in Bolt’s life is Anita Rona, a gorgeous young model who worked as a courier for Delgado until she was busted by Bolt, who was working undercover on the case in Paris. Apparently Bolt and Anita became quite serious despite this unusual “meet cute,” but Bolt had to break it off when they got back to the US, much to Anita’s surprise and devastation. Again, all of this is relayed via backstory, and therefore lacks much impact, as we’re supposed to really be worried about Anita and regret the fact that she and Bolt couldn’t be together.
In fact, Anita only appears in a single sequence, a nonetheless taut one where Bolt comes to her rescue as Poland and his men attempt to kill her in a grocery store. But she disappears from the narrative after that, as if Olden only brought her into the tale so he could write a damsel in distress scene. It all would’ve been so much more powerful if Olden had used one of the female characters from a previous book.
There are a few action scenes, but again they’re played out on a very “real world” scale, with Bolt going into combat with nothing more than his .45 or his ankle-holstered Beretta. This in particular is his sole weapon during another taut sequence, where he chases after Bookbinder, the Poland assassin who attempted to kill Bolt in the staged hold-up. Olden does strive to make Bolt human, perhaps a little too much so. There are many, many scenes where we are informed that Bolt is afraid or nervous, and while it’s a welcome change from the traditional ultra-heroic protagonist of this genre, it gets to be a little much after a while.
Despite which The Delgado Killings is still another enjoyable Olden offering, leagues above what you’d expect. I guess my biggest problem with it would be the ending. Bolt’s entire mission here is to ensure the witnesses don’t die, so that Delgado can be put on trial and both his public stature and his criminal empire ruined. But all of this is rendered moot in the final action scene, when Poland, set up by Bolt to believe he’s been double crossed, goes after Delgado for revenge.
Another problem I had was with the resolution – namely that there is no resolution. For one, Poland’s fate is left in doubt and it seems obvious that Olden intends for him to return, but given that he did the same thing in Black Samurai #6 and that villain never returned, I kind of wish he’d just had Bolt put a bullet in Poland’s head. Also the storyline with Anita Rosa is given too much buildup and too little follow-through, especially when you assume that, like every other woman in Bolt’s life in this series, she’ll be gone and forgotten by the next volume.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the biggest fan of Ebooks. But one thing that’s great about the world of Epublishing is that it can bring back forgotten fiction. Such is the case with Marc Olden, easily one of the best writers to ever work in the men’s adventure field.
Mysterious Press has recently released Olden's work in Ebook format, including his awesome series titles Narc and Black Samurai.
The latter alone is cause for celebration, as the price of Black Samurai novels has been so inflated by online booksellers that the series has almost become too expensive to read. Well, now the joke is on those sellers, because you can get each book in the series (as well as the Narc books and the Harker Files series, which I haven’t read) for about $8 each -– pretty cheap when you consider how much the original printings go for.
I often get emails from readers who complain that they can’t find many of the books I review. So, here is a case where one can easily get a copy of these books...and, having read a handful of Olden’s novels, I can assure you they will be solid purchases.
Here’s the complete line of Olden’s Ebooks on Amazon.
Really, it’s great to see this, and a huge thanks to Mysterious Press and Diane Crafford for making it possible.
Narc #3: The Death List, by Robert Hawkes
September, 1974 Signet Books
The Narc series continues with another installment from the gifted pen of Marc Olden (here posing as "Robert Hawkes"), who brings to life the grim and gritty inner-city squalor of mid-'70s New York City. The Death List though is a bit less of an ensemble piece than previous books; for once, hero John Bolt is the star of the show. Unfortunately though the careful plotting and character-patchwork of previous volumes is lost, and The Death List settles into a sort of repetitive pattern.
The "list" in question is actually a notebook filled with the names and numbers of a globe-spanning group of heroin suppliers, smugglers, dealers, and buyers. It's owned by a high-ranking gangster in NYC named Mr. Church, who is murdered by another gangster early in the novel -- as usual in an Olden novel, the villains constantly plot against one another and indeed are more responsible for knocking each other off than the heroes themselves. But also as usual in an Olden novel, things spiral quickly out of control for the characters.
Frank Spain is the name of the gangster who ordered the hit on Mr. Church; the hitmen are a trio of brutal, dirty cops. They make the hit as an orgy's in progress; one of the attendees is a busty stewardess named Betsy Kerwin (Olden reminds us quite often that the lady is busty, by the way) who occasionally prostitutes herself for some extra cash. In the bathroom when the hit goes down, Betsy is able to throw a topcoat over her nude body and escapes down the fire escape. Later she discovers that the heroin list has been stashed in her purse -- in a narrative bit that doesn't ring true, we're informed that Mr. Church liked to stash the list in odd places, to keep it safe, and the latest such place happened to be Betsy's purse while the orgy was going on.
The dirty cops give chase and soon a young narc-in-training is dead; not only was the guy Betsy's boyfriend, he was also Bolt's trainee. So now Bolt and his comrades at D-3 are determined to find the culprits behind the hit on Church. Bolt handles the brunt of the mission himself, burning for vengeance. He tracks down Betsy, and in another of those stellar Olden setpieces we have an ongoing action sequence that has Bolt getting hold of her shortly after the hit; Spain's hitmen set in upon them; Bolt and Betsy escape, commandeering a cab; the hitmen crash the cab and chase them on foot through the deserted streets of nighttime NYC; Bolt and Betsy break into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an unarmed Bolt heads for the Medieval section and arms himself with an ancient battle axe and crossbow bolts. It's a taut, exciting scene, the highlight of the novel.
Betsy escapes, though, and here The Death List sets into repetition. Now the rest of the novel comes off like an endless sequence of Bolt trying to find Betsy, only to lose her. Meanwhile the lady herself tries to make a buck; one of the names in the list belongs to a high-ranking US government official, and Betsy calls him with threats: if he doesn't get her some money, and quick, she'll turn the list over to the media. The official meanwhile calls his contact in France, the main heroin supplier in Church's list. The French contact promises the official that Betsy will soon be dead.
Somehow everyone ends up in Paris. Bolt's there too, posing as a Mafia hotshot; he's brought along a former girlfriend, an actual mob gal who's in love with Bolt but who lives under witness protection. For some reason that didn't make much sense, Bolt has brought this lady out of "retirment" so she can use her famous name to make it seem to the underworld that her branch of the Mafia family is in Paris because they know that Mr. Church's famous list is here, and they are interested in buying it.
What's strange is that the Paris scene is over and done with in a jiffy; we have another fine action scene in the airport, after which everyone flies back to the US. Everyone except for Betsy Kerwin, however, who in a moment of panic falls out of a grounded plane and breaks a bunch of bones. Her character then disappears from the novel and it's as if Olden realized he had too many characters to juggle and so disposed of her quickly, despite having built her up through the first half of the book. I really suspect that Olden made up these novels as he wrote, without the beneficial guidance of an outline, and sometimes the books suffer as a result.
Characters from previous novels return, including a black D-3 agent who works undercover as a pimp, going about in gaudy clothes and a big floppy hat. He and another agent serve as backup while Bolt continues posing as a Mafioso; with Betsy Kerwin out of the picture and the list gone (we learn that she mailed it to herself in Paris and it basically drops out of the narrative), Bolt now pretends that he in fact owns the list, so that the scum will come to him. And they do, Spain sending his trio of cops after it; and the cops, of course, want the damn list for themselves and plan to kill Bolt and set up Spain for the murder. Like I said, everyone's mind is always working in a Marc Olden novel.
So, not the greatest volume in the series, but still enjoyable. Also once again the cover shows events that actually happen in the book -- and look, there's the busty stewardess herself!