Feb 272014

The Specialist #7: The Vendetta, by John Cutter
February, 1985  Signet Books

I’m betting John Shirley’s original title for this volume of The Specialist was “Make ‘Em Pay,” as the phrase is repeated a few times by bloodthirsty hero Jack Sullivan, who’s in full Johnny Rock mode this time out – in fact going even further, to the point where he’s practically a psychopath. I’ve said before that

Apr 012013

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.

Aug 302012

The Specialist #5: The Maltese Vengeance, by John Cutter
October, 1984 Signet Books

Unfortunately it’s one step forward, two steps back for the Specialist -– after a mostly-great fourth volume, author John Cutter (aka John Shirley) reverts to the repetitive, page-filling nature of the first two volumes of the series. The Maltese Vengeance is sort of a tedious affair, mostly given over to hero Jack Sullivan trying to figure out who wants to kill him while he’s vacationing on Malta, and Sullivan’s ensuing plans for vengeance. The reader spends the entire tale hoping that the plot will open up beyond this, but it never does.

My guess is that the breakneck publication pace was wearing Shirley down. The Psycho Soldiers was a cool slice of action exploitation, with a Charles Manson-esque killer running afoul of Sullivan. The Maltese Vengeance loses all of that, coming off like just a generic action novel. It opens with a bang, though: Sullivan, fishing off the coast of Malta, is fired on by a cannon from a fort in the harbor. Trying to find out who is behind his attempted murder, Sullivan takes on the local cops (not killing any of them) in his escape attempt, and eventually hooks up with Oliver “Ollie” Tryst (Oliver Twist??), a fellow mercenary and an old friend of Sullivan’s.

The two learn that the culprits were a force of American traitors, ‘Nam vets who now sell military hardware to terrorists. The guy in charge is Gortner, who back during the war massacred a village of innocents. During his massacre Gortner happened to murder a young Vietnamese woman and her child – this was the wife of Warneck, a disillusioned, drug-addicted shell of a man who now lives in Malta. It turns out that it was Warneck who summoned Sullivan to Malta; Warneck’s intent was to hire Sullivan to kill Gortner, but somehow Gortner’s men got hold of the news first, and so decided to take out Sullivan before he could take out them. Their mistake, as Sullivan often states, was that they didn’t kill him.

So this proves to be the plot entire. Gortner and his cronies are bringing in a host of new, experimental weaponry to sell to a delegation of Libyans. The most interesting character here is Skulleye, a Libyan so called due to the blue skulls tatooed on his eyelids. Skulleye you see was a follower of the infamous Blue Man, ie the terrorist leader Sullivan killed back in #3: Sullivan’s Revenge. I guess Shirley must’ve realized he bumped off the Blue Man too soon, as he sets up Skulleye to be an even greater threat.

In fact Skulleye’s scenes are the only ones that bring to mind the better parts of the preceding novel. Skulleye is apparently impossible to kill, and there are several scenes where he’s shot up or blown away, only to come back to life. It’s a deft bit of dark comedy, and Shirley intimates that Skulleye will return in later volumes. Unfortunately the other characters aren’t nearly as memorable; Gortner in particular is pretty bland, and doesn’t get much narrative time, vastly outshone by Skulleye, who isn’t even the main villain of the piece.

As usual Sullivan still manages to get lucky, and here it’s with Rosalita, a fiery local beauty who throws herself at him. This entails the one graphic sex scene in the book, but Rosalita becomes a bit annoying, and in fact proves to be the (near) undoing of Sullivan and Tryst. Spurned by Sullivan, she tries to set him up, going to Gortner and telling him that Sullivan is planning a nighttime raid on Gortner’s compound. Gortner has his men lie in wait.

What’s unexpected is that this sequence proves to be the climax of the novel, taking up a full third of the narrative. It’s sort of endless, with Sullivan on the prowl in Gortner’s place, escaping the trap, fighting as he evades both Gortner’s soldiers and the Malta cops, rushing to a long standoff on a clifftop. It just kind of goes on and on, and again lacks the twisted nature of the last book.

Shirley still works in some of his humor, though. I haven’t figured out yet if he’s spoofing the stereotypical gung-ho action hero through Sullivan or what, but there’s a laughable part (intentional?) toward the very end where Sullivan, alone against a horde of enemy soldiers, psyches himself up to keep fighting by recalling the innocent people slain by Gortner all those years ago, and Sullivan starts screaming, “For the children!” as the enemy converge upon him. Shirely writes it that even the enemy soldiers are baffled at this, so who knows.

I didn’t much enjoy The Maltese Vengeance, but I figure this was only a momentary lapse. I mean, for all the boring stuff, there are still a few inventive touches, like the Arabic slavemaster Sullivan and Tryst deal with midway through the novel. And I still say The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle Executioner novels should have been.

Mar 222012

The Specialist #4: The Psycho Soldiers, by John Cutter
August, 1984 Signet Books

With this volume of The Specialist, author John Shirley comes into his own as “John Cutter,” turning out what is easily the best installment of the series yet. While the three previous volumes were good, they were still padded a bit too much, with Shirley obviously having a hard time finding his footing in the world of men’s adventure fiction. Here though he fires on all cylinders from the first page to the last, delivering a taut, action-filled novel that also manages to poke fun at not only the genre but the protagonist himself.

The novel is titled The Psycho Soldiers, but the psychos here aren’t soldiers, which leads me to believe that Shirley titled his manuscript “The Psycho Killers,” which is how he refers to them throughout. Swenson is the head psycho, so violently insane that we’re told that even Charles Manson looks up to the guy. Then there’s Esmerelda, a raven-haired beauty who claims to have psychic abilities. Two others complete the bill, minor characters in the long run: Ortega, who gets off on murder, and another sick bastard whose name I’ve forgotten.

For some reason I never understood, a KGB cell team breaks these nutcases out of their mental institutions in the opening of the novel. They kidnap an industrialist and his daughter after taking out the rest of his family in horrific ways — full-on Manson family stuff here, with Shirley piling on the graphic description.

Meanwhile our hero Jack “The Specialist” Sullivan, who is slowly getting back into the mercenary game after the death of his contact/best friend Malta in the previous volume, is contacted by Knickian, a DEA agent who also briefly worked with Sullivan in the past. Knickian has discovered a turncoat within the agency, one who has funded the KGB cell and the breakout of the four psychos. After meeting with the mother of the kidnapped industrialist, Sullivan is raring to find Swenson and his comrades and kill them real good.

Sullivan now has become a full-fledged Imitation Executioner, driving around in his own “warwagon,” a customized bullet-proof van that can fire rockets! Shirley also pokes fun at our hero’s stern patriotism, at his single-minded obsession with justice and revenge. Shirley also manages to sneak in some of his horror roots, adding a sort of supernatural thrust to Sullivan; he can now “sense” who is good and who is bad — and the “bad,” of course, deserve to be killed. Also, when angry Sullivan becomes a sort of Hulk, his rage powering him to superhuman strength. The cover proclaims him “the toughest action hero of them all,” and Shirley takes that to heart; when he’s pissed, which is often, Sullivan is basically unstoppable.

Shirley works up the plot a bit, with some mystery over why the nutcases were sprung from their prisons, but the novel eventually becomes more of a chase sort of thing. After Sullivan frees the captured industrialist and his daughter, Swenson and his pyshcos manage to escape, and Sullivan gives chase. This proves to be the plot for the rest of the novel, Sullivan always one step behind Swenson, who cuts a swathe of death and misery through the rural areas of New York state. Along the way Sullivan manages to pick up a female companion, a young soldier named Beth Pepper who is a sergeant in the WAC (ie, “Sergeant Pepper”); she is of course gorgeous, and she’s got a crush on Sullivan.

In yet more in-jokery, Shirley reveals that Sullivan is so legendary that exposes are run on him in Soldier of Fortune magazine. (Sullivan’s response? “Those bastards! I’ll have to cancel my subscription!”) Beth happens to have her own copy with her — she meets Sullivan after taking a few shots at his bullet-proof van, mistakenly thinking he was part of the group who kidnapped the industrialist and murdered his family — and soon enough she seduces Sullivan. There follows a Shirley-patented sex scene with the obligatory mention of Sullivan’s “eight-inches” and even, believe it or not, features the line from Beth: “Will you take me through the back door?” Yeah, you wouldn’t read anything like that in a Gold Eagle-era Executioner novel!

But then, Shirley’s The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle books should have been. Rather than playing everything straight and serious like the majority of those Gold Eagle ghostwriters did, Shirley subtly spoofs the genre and its cliches while still delivering a fun thrill-ride. He also delivers on the exploitation angle hinted at in previous volumes, with graphically-depicted carnage that follows in Swenson’s wake, and also Sullivan again pulling off sadistic feats that would make Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock envious, my favorite being when Sullivan picks up one poor bastard and hurls him into a trash compactor.

The Psycho Soldiers is proof enough why Sylvester Stallone must have been a fan of the series. The only question is why he made a film merely “inspired” by Shirley’s series and didn’t just make a straight-up adaptation of it. This particular volume would have made for one hell of an action film. The other question is why Shirley has disowned this series. I can see why he may be a bit hesistant to acknowledge his first few entries, but The Psycho Soldiers is nothing any action writer should be ashamed of.