The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man, by Bruno Rossi November, 1974 Leisure Books Johnny Sharpshooter Rock returns in a fairly good tenth installment that’s a hell of a lot better than the previous volume. First-time series author John Marshall delivers a Rock that comes off like a combo of Peter McCurtin's original version and the more neurotic character Len Levinson gave us; like McCurtin’s take
The Sharpshooter #8: No Quarter Given, by Bruno Rossi
July, 1974 Leisure Books
No Quarter Given plunges the Sharpshooter series right back to its grimy, nasty roots. Once again we have what might've been intended as an installment of the Marksman series, with “hero” Johnny Rock acting more like Philip Magellan as he kidnaps mafioso, tortures and mutilates them, and then murders them in cold blood – that is, when he’s not indulging in his penchant for disguises or taking some new weapon or knockout drug from his “artillery case.”
Lots of online searching has yielded zero information about who wrote this volume, but the style is close enough that it might be Russell Smith. Maybe without the nutzoid spark of Smith’s books, but with that same deadpan, grisly sense of humor, where things are plainly laid out in the narrative before jumping wildly to exclamatory sentences of death and destruction. There’s also a huge focus on maritime stuff, with portions of the book coming off like “US Navy 101,” and this is something else I’ve often noticed in Smith’s novels.
As expected, the book opens with absolutely no reference to the previous volume, which was courtesty Len Levinson. Rock is now in Norfolk, Virginia, on his way to DC to clear up the mob corruption there. (Also Rock is for the most part referred to as “Rock” throughout, with only one “Magellan” goof – but then, it’s actually a double goof, as the author writes “Magella.”) But as we open Rock is in a Norfolk bar watching a stripper named Mimi; the place serves as a cathouse, the women forced into prostitution, and Mimi pounces on Rock because she instantly figures out that he’s a good guy and can save her from this hell.
The place is overseen by mob boss Joey “Niente” Barbagallo, a prick who runs a veritable empire but poses as a bartender at a local watering hole. Niente was in the Navy for twenty years (cue lots of Navy material here) and has used his connections to set up a black market ring across this part of Virginia. He also sets up Navy VIPs and then exploits their families when the Navy dude’s life is wrecked, usually indenturing the daughters into forced prostitution, which happens to be Mimi’s sad story.
Rock immediately decides that Niente and his goons will all die. He breaks Mimi out of there, and for the rest of the novel she acts as his sidekick – a pretty horny sidekick, of course. It’s only after Rock has, uh, “rocked” Mimi all night that the girl informs him she’s a mere 16 years old! Rock just sort of brushes this off, marveling more over the fact that she could easily pass for an older woman. Otherwise Mimi is a fun character, easily adapting to Rock’s crazy lifestyle and helping him out on his recon missions.
There’s barely any action for the most part, instead these rushed descriptions of Rock and Mimi shuttling from one place to another as they get a lockdown on Niente’s empire; this includes a bit where they pose as a Navy officer and his mistress, but they’re abducted by a trio of mobsters who themselves are posing, as reps for a swinger’s club. After blowing away the three gunmen, Rock and Mimi head on to the club anyway, and we’re vaguely informed of the debauchery within, of the live sex shows performed on stage, mostly by juveniles (the author must really have something for pushing this particular boundary), while the audience is given beds of their own to watch the stage shows, Rock and Mimi going at it on their matress.
The author really fills pages with long sequences from Barbagallo’s point of view, down to the most mundane aspects of his life, from how his apartment is furnished to his conversations with his stooges. Rock doesn’t get in much action and only takes out a handful of mobsters, often saving Mimi from danger. (There is though a sadistic part where a trio of gunmen momentarily capture the pair and one of the guys jams the friggin barrel of his pistol up Mimi’s behind!) Also there are many scenes where for whatever reason Rock will appropriate a disguise, like a long bit where he and Mimi go to great lengths to look like street bums.
For once this particular author does bother to wrap up the tale, with Rock somehow bullshitting his way into a prison and arranging for the release of Mimi’s father; there follows a protracted scene where the man divulges how he was set up to the media. Rock ensures the guy doesn’t implicate Barbagallo, as Rock wants to deal with the bastard personally; after blowing up the mobster’s two bars he kidnaps a few of his stooges, jamming their half-dead bodies in the trunk of his car for no explained reason. Finally the whole group is dealt with in a perfunctory exploding of another Barbagallo club. It’s an anticlimatic end, but at least it’s an end.
Rayo Casablanca, over at his Sick Hipster blog, wonderfully (and accurately) summed up the Sharpshooter series: “These books feel like they were written by off-duty mall security guards.” Maybe he was thinking of this installment in particular. Here are a few excerpts from No Quarter Given that really made me chuckle:
Barbagallo opened the door to this room. He closed it immediately. He turned. He went to the left, to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator. It needed defrosting so badly it was literally screaming. Except for a six-pack of beer it was empty. Down on his knees he performed a nightly ritual of trying to figure out why the light bulb behind the freezing unit didn’t work. As usual he gave it up, slamming the door. -- pg. 80
With lightening[sp] speed, Rock’s left fist slammed into the second man’s bewildered face. Blood spurted from his nose instantly. Then Rock chopped him savagely on the neck until his knees buckled and he slipped down to the floor. Rock swung the Beretta with the brute force of an express train. He realized in a flashing second that the blow had killed the man! -- pg. 130
After double-checking everything, planting three hi-blast grenades in Mimi’s ratty looking purse and arming himself with the Llama and the Beretta, Rock gripped two sad, worn shopping bags heavy with all the junk he could find in the apartment.
“Let’s go, slut!” he grinned. -- pg. 109
The Sharpshooter #7: Headcrusher, by Bruno Rossi
June, 1974 Leisure Books
The only problem with Headcrusher is that it was the last volume of The Sharpshooter to be written by Len Levinson. Otherwise it’s the best installment of the series yet, melding Levinson’s strong writing and inventive characterization with the sadistic brutality of Blood Bath. Even though it was only #7 in the series, Headcrusher almost acts as a finale, with “hero” Johnny Rock finally settling the score with the mobsters who killed his family back in #1: The Killing Machine.
There’s an air of finality to the book, and not just when Rock visits a lawyer to have his will drawn up. I’ve yet to read my way through the series, so I wonder if the true last volume of the series, Mafia Death Watch, by Dan Reardon, has any sense of series-conclusion to it. Levinson states here that Rock has been fighting the Mafia for three years, and he’s getting worn out – that lawyer, an old family friend, even tells Rock he looks like he’s aged ten years in the past three. A fitting conclusion to Headcrusher of course would be for Rock to go out in a blaze of glory, but needless to say this doesn’t happen, though he does take a lot of damage here.
With this novel Levinson has perfected his version of Johnny Rock. In Levinson’s hands he is now a combination of the neurotic “Johnny” of Levinson’s earlier two novels in the series and the sadistic fiend of Russell Smith. The first big clue is that now Levinson refers to our hero solely as “Rock,” which of course sounds a lot more tough than the plain old “Johnny” of his previous offerings. Also Rock this time out could give lessons in being a bad-ass to Jim “Slaughter” Brown; there are several laugh-out-loud instances where Rock will put someone in place with a caustic remark, or just be mean for no reason, such as when he’s having sex with a hooker who tells him, “Ooooh, you do it so good.” Rock’s response: “Shut up.”
Anyway, Rock’s back in New York City, where he’s been hanging out in mob-frequented bars in the hopes of tracking down his family’s killers. He strikes gold when a pair of hitmen come in, conveniently blabbing about some of the jobs they’ve done in the past, one of them being the “Rocetti hit” a few years before. Ie, Rock’s family. Rock follows them and before wasting them finds out that they got the job to hit his family from someone named Mackie Malanga.
Malanga is another of those Levinson characters who springs from the pages of the book. A greaseball who runs the Venus Massage Parlor on Eigth Avenue, Malanga is thoroughly perverted and sick. Of course, the “massage girls” in the rundown place are hookers, but he makes his true money with the friggin’ kids he keeps locked away in the basement, where they are taken advantage of by creeps who pay Malanga fortunes for the opportunity. Malanga’s business model is sick but ingenious; he runs a racket so that the kids are picked up off the street by a “priest” who sends them to an “orphanage” – the orphanage being the basement of the Venus Massage Parlor.
Rock learns all of this shortly after arriving on the scene, screwing one of the hookers, and inadvertently saving Malanga’s life when a group of rival mobsters show up with guns blazing. Rock, who of course was just taking the opportunity to kill more Mafia, takes advantage of the fact that Malanga is instantly indebted to him, and soon enough Rock’s the guy’s right-hand man, giving orders to the other mobsters and schmoozing around with the motormouthed Malagna, ie the guy who killed Rock’s entire family.
Levinson works in some Godfather material here with a war going on between Malanga’s boss, Don Salvatore, and another don who wants a piece of Salvatore’s kingdom in Manhattan. Rock spends a long portion of Headcrusher acting as a mob enforcer, leading hitmen on raids against other families and gunning down traitors in cold blood. There’s even an involved part where Rock remembers he’s dubbed “The Sharpshooter” and scouts out the rival don from a rooftop, waiting to blow him away with a sniper shot.
Throughout Rock reminds himself that this is a great opportunity to keep killing mobsters; of course, he could care less about internecine strife in the Mafia. He also takes advantage of the fringe benefits of being Malanga’s right-hand man; Malanga tells Rock to feel free to sleep with as many of “the girls” as he’d like, and Rock does so. As expected, a friendship builds between the two, with Rock realizing he’s in the strange predicament of actually liking the man who killed everyone he ever loved. (In one sequence there's a humorous goof where Malanga refers to Rock as "Rock," and not by the name he's posing under, something Levinson must've missed in his edit.)
Not that this prevents Rock from being the hero we know and love. Anyone who has read Levinson’s previous two entries in the series knows that his presentation of Johnny Rock is full of surprises; Levinson will lull you into the character’s mindset and, just as you’re thinking Rock’s somewhat “heroic” (in that he only kills mobsters), Levinson will have him pull something thoroughly shocking, like in #4: The Worst Way To Die when he started sniper-shooting a group of people at a mob funeral, including young women who obviously had nothing to do with anything.
Rock pulls similar antics here, particularly near the climax when he gets a one-on-one meeting with Don Salvatore and his family. This actually leads into a well-done chase scene. Headcrusher is a little stronger in the action department than previous books in the series. There are several scenes of Rock blasting away at gun-wielding goons, either on his own or while leading Malanga’s men on raids. Rock’s main choice of weaponry is a Mauser, which he uses to blow off several faces.
It’s interesting to note that Levinson has Rock partake of drugs pretty frequently, which of course brings to mind Levinson’s The Last Buffoon. Rock smokes grass a few times with one of the massage parlor hookers, and later meets up with a group of hippies who also offer him a few joints. When one of the hippies sees that Rock looks tired (and he is, he’s been running from mobsters all night), she offers him a snort of coke. Rock likes it so much that he takes some with him, snorting it before his climatic battle! I wonder how that went over with (what I assume was) the largely blue-collar/conservative Republican readership of the series.
But again, this is a fun descent into lurid delights that one would expect from mid-‘70s Leisure Books, with the squalor of New York City brought fully to life. As mentioned, Mackie Malanga’s business affairs are thoroughly depraved (and Rock does prove himself a hero by freeing those enslaved kids), innocent people usually suffer most in the many violent skirmishes, and the sex is more nasty than erotic, usually Rock just “fucking one of the girls.” The only bright spots come courtesy of unexpected sources, like Don Salvatore’s attractive young niece, another of those strong female characters Levinson creates, one who has an instant rapport with Rock, making the reader expect one thing is about to happen when something entirely else does.
It’s a shame Levinson wasn’t kept on as the permanent writer for the series, as he does great things with Rock, turning out a twisted psychopath who still somehow manages to be likable. Or at least, enjoyable to read about. But as mentioned, Headcrusher has a note of finality to it, so it was only apt that this was Levinson’s last entry in the series.
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."
The Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins, by Bruno Rossi
March, 1974 Leisure Books
Johnny "Sharpshooter" Rock thirsts for more Mafia blood in this Miami-based entry that takes place a week or so after The Worst Way to Die. With only his second contribution, author Leonard Levinson has already given the Sharpshooter series more of a sense of continuity than it's previously enjoyed. Once again Levinson delivers a fast-moving tale filled with the patented Johnny Rock sadism, while at the same time showing how boring the life of a lone wolf can get.
The novel mostly follows the pattern of Levinson's previous entry: Rock sizes up the competition, scouts the area, murders a few mobsters, wastes time between hits, and meets a few ladies. Just as in The Worst Way to Die, many parts of Night of the Assassins are composed of Rock checking out the local sights, buying supplies, hobknobbing with locals. One might complain that it's "boring" at times, but Levinson's writing is really good, and also it only serves to make the violent moments all the more shocking.
Johnny Rock, as everyone knows, is one sick bastard. Levinson's portrayal of the character might be a bit more human -- for one, he's yet to have Rock do anything as sadistic as in Blood Bath (dammit, who wrote that volume?!?) -- but Levinson leaves little room for doubt that our hero is insane. Again, Levinson's Johnny Rock thinks he's normal, when in reality he's sicker than the mobsters he kills. In this volume he shoots men in the back, guns down mobsters with a sniper rifle as they eat their pasta, murders two women in cold blood (for being "mafia whores"), and machine-guns a row of unarmed Mafia enforcers. Like an addict he gets the shakes if he goes more than a few days without "tasting Mafia blood."
After the events in the previous volume, Rock heads down to Miami to soak up some sun. He also decides to wipe out the local Mafia boss, checking into the man's hotel. Rock hobknobs with the bartender and the hotel's whore (she's on the payroll) in between mob hits. Setting himself up as a big spender, Rock gets wind of an offshore casino run on a mob pleasure boat. Hooking up with a lonely housewife (the first of three women Rock sleeps with in the novel -- as expected in a Levinson book, there's lots of sex here), Rock takes her along as camoflauge while scoping out the place.
Here we get another of those Levinson page-filling bits where Rock plans his mission, buys the equipment, and prepares himself for the next night. But again, the calm stuff is only there so that the storm will seem all the more fierce, for what follows is the best sequence in the novel. Outfitted in a wetsuit and SCUBA gear, Rock swims out to the floating casino, boards it, and blasts all of the mobsters to hell. Again though we have little "action," here; as usual with the Sharpshooter, Rock just blows away mobsters after getting them to drop their guns.
The Miami Mafia isn't as stupid as Rock expects. They get the drop on him and proceed to beat him half to death. Levinson's version of Rock gets worried and fears death, but is resolved to the fact that he won't live long. He figures this is the end, but is saved by the last-second arrival of the cops, who cart Rock off. They decide he must be a mob-hired assassin. In a bizarre bit he's allowed to leave Miami, but he quickly returns, holing up in Fort Lauderdale (where in another WTF? scene a stewardess hits on him in the hotel bar and then goes up to his room with him).
The stage is set for final payback, and Levinson doesn't disappoint. Rock buys a grease gun from a gun supplier and blitzes the Miami mob. Here we have a genuine action scene, with Rock fighting off an army of enforcers, even a helicopter. (In other words, Ken Barr's cover actually depicts a scene in the book! Too bad the same couldn't be said for his even-better cover for Blood Bath.)
Unfortunately the climax sort of spirals into nothingness; after killing his main rival, Rock finds out that one of the mobsters who beat him earlier is still around. He tracks down the dude, finding the keys to his apartment (which he gets from the two women he blows away), and paying him a visit. This is another unsettling scene as Rock beats the shit out of the guy before killing him in cold blood. Yep, that's our hero.
Levinson sat out on the next volume, which by all accounts is one of the worst in the series. I'll be reading it anyway, of course. Levinson returned for #7: Head Crusher; in fact it seems that Levinson was the closest the Sharpshooter series ever got to a main writer. I enjoy his work; as I said before, he doesn't achieve the wacked-out sicko mentality of Blood Bath, but he delivers better character, story, and prose, all with a refreshing sense of humor.