Sep 252014
 
The Marksman #8: Stone Killer, by Frank Scarpetta January, 1974  Belmont Tower Books Russell Smith returns for another crazy and sick volume of The Marksman, one which again is part of the continuity Smith developed for his installments but which was broken up by editor Peter McCurtin. Stone Killer proves out a theory I had a while back that The Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath was in fact
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?
Apr 022012
 

The Sharpshooter #6: Muzzle Blast, by Bruno Rossi
April, 1974 Leisure Books

This is by far the clunkiest and roughest installment of the Sharpshooter yet, and I don't mean in a good way. Also it is quite obviously another novel that was written by Russell Smith as a volume of the Marksman series, but changed for whatever reason by editor Peter McCurtin into a Sharpshooter novel. Only, as usual, McCurtin (or one of his junior editors) did a poor job of copyediting, with hero Johnny Rock occasionally referred to as "Magellan" throughout the narrative.

There are other giveaways. For one, the "Rock" presented here is a grim figure with a penchant for taking people captive and drugging them, eventually murdering them in some sadistic fashion. He also travels around with his trusty "artillery case" which contains his firearms, syringes, and makeup kit. In short, this is once again Philip Magellan, the Marksman, not Johnny Rock. Also Smith again works in references to other Marksman novels he has written; early in the narrative "Rock" uses some heroin as bait, heroin which he got from "the score in New Orleans." This is a direct reference to the Smith-penned Marksman #11: Counterattack.

There isn't much of a plot here, which makes me suspect that Smith banged out his manuscript in no time. Maybe that's why he turned in so many volumes of both series, he was just a fast writer who could meet his deadlines. Fast doesn't always equal good, though. And Muzzle Blast is pretty bad. It's not only the shortest novel yet in the series, but it's also jammed with a lot of characters and a bizarre plot that never makes any sense. Characters just do shit with no rhyme or reason, and Smith never bothers resolving anything.

Rock is in Boston's Chinatown looking into the local heroin trade. Here we get the tidbit that a stuffed orange cat in a Chinese antique store is an indicator that the place sells heroin. The things you learn from these novels. Rock buys the cat from the store proprietor Po Yi-Po and his sexy associate Mai-Lin, but the cat has no heroin in it. Rock then stuffs the cat with his own appropriated heroin from the New Orleans caper and takes it back to the store. The essence here, apparently, is that Rock is trying to set himself up as a Mafia bigwig looking to move into the territory, but the subplot is lost.

Instead, Mai-Lin comes on strong to Rock and insists on taking off with him. They head up into Provincetown, Maine -- Smith apparently was from the area, as many of his novels take place in New England, for example the legendary Blood Bath -- where Rock now begins scoping out the local mobsters. Meanwhile Po Yi-Po is back in Boston, somehow oblivious to the fact that Mai-Lin, who he loves, has run off with another guy.

Before that though we have another instance of Rock's sadism, by which I mean Magellan's sadism. Much as in the aforementioned Blood Bath, Russell Smith is unconcerned with "action scenes" per se, and instead doles out sequences in which Rock just murders his enemies in cold blood. In another baffling and unexplained plot development, Po Yi-Po is being blackmailed by some dirty cops. Rock jumps them and takes one prisoner. Of course he drugs the guy and, later, decides he'll have to kill him. In a loving tribute to the scene in Blood Bath, Rock makes the handcuffed bastard walk away, his back to Rock, as Rock takes out his UZI and "surgically" blasts off the man's limbs and head.

There's also another WTF? subplot about some punk who keeps trying to break into Rock's Mercedes, and Rock beats the shit out of the guy, but strangely allows him to live. Anyway, the plot moves on. Now Rock is in Provincetown with Mai-Lin; here they meet up with a friend of Rock's, a local artist named Mike. From what I could make out, a meeting of Mafia hotshots is soon to take place here, in the mansion of local Mafioso. Rock and his two friends basically sit around in a local mob-run bar and bide their time.

I really get the feeling that Smith just knocked this one out in record time, probably under the influence of cheap booze. Stuff just happens with little setup or resolution. For example, while "hiding" in the P'town bar (despite the fact that somehow everyone knows her), Mai-Lin is picked up by one of the mobsters, who takes her captive -- the word is out that she's been seen with this "handsome" stranger whom everyone now suspects is Rock.

The dude tortures Mai-Lin with a lighter, playing the flames over her stomach and such, but then he leaves to take a phone call (?), and Mai-Lin, who through sheer deus ex machina happened to steal a pair of keys on her way into the bar, is able to free herself. When she later meets up with Rock, she never mentions being captured or tortured, and indeed acts like nothing even happened. And this isn't just because she's tough, it's because Smith obviously forgot all about it!

As in the other Smith novels I've reviewed here, the finale is rushed, but in a bigger way than normal. Once again Rock launches a one-man raid on the mobster meeting, blowing up the mansion. Smith doesn't even bother showing Rock setting up the dynamite; instead he just blows up some shit, shoots a few guys (in another bizarre moment, Rock allows one of them to live!?), then hops in Mike's dune buggy and roars off.

Meanwhile Po Yi-Po, who in his own subplot has finally discovered Mai-Lin's treachery, heads to Provincetown. His lust for the girl is such that he knows he will one day kill her due to his jealousy, and Smith implies that this is Po Yi-Po's exact intention. But in the strangest cop-out I've ever encountered in a novel, Smith brushes it all over. Rock, after his assault on the mobsters -- and en route to another assault on them -- stops off at Mike's beachside shack. There he finds the corpse of Po Yi-Po, which hangs outside the shack; inside, there is a note from Mike, stating that Po tried to poison Mai-Lin and him, and so the two of them have left for the hospital.

And believe it or not, here Muzzle Blast ends. I mean, it just ends! Did Mike or Mai-Lin die? What about Rock's assault on the second Mafia hideout? None of these questions are answered. And there are so many other questions. Was Smith's manuscript accidentally published with some pages missing? Or was Leisure in such a hurry to publish another installment that they could care less that the book had so many problems? What's strange is that the last several pages of the book are given over to ads for other Leisure books, more ads than normal, which indicates that Leisure knew it had to fill up extra pages.

I guess we'll never know. Anyway, Muzzle Blast sucks for the most part. However we do get a great line, courtesy Mai-Lin. While at the bar, a drunk saunters up to her and hits on her with the cliched line: "Is it true what they say about Chinese girls?" Mai Lin's answer: "It depends on how you look at 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.