Wednesday, January 29, 2020

For Everyone's Eyes Only: Bond in Short Form

Ian Fleming's James Bond has left a huge stamp on my life. After seeing 1995's "Goldeneye" in the theater my love of super secret agents was firmly ignited. I wanted more and I dove deep. There was more movies? I rushed to Blockbuster (dating myself) and found myself discovering Sean, Roger, Timothy and even George. There were James Bond books? I dove in. Past the character I found out about Leslie Charteris "The Saint" via Roger's show. "The Man From U.N.C.L.E?" I'm there. Hundred of hardback and paperback hero-spies later eventually it led me to the spawn of Bond, the Men's Adventure paperbacks.

Gotta have a retirement plan.
I'm at the point now where my young adult readings of the Ian Fleming have dulled with age. They aren't clear in my mind, save a few that I have listen on audio book. It's time for a reread of the novels. But there was a bit of unread Fleming I had never experienced: the short stories, collected in "For Your Eyes Only" and "Octopussy." The slim paperbacks have sat unread on various shelves of mine for years mostly likely because I didn't want the party to end. The various continuation novels for James Bond are a mixed bag. Kingsley Amis's almost scratched the itch, it's certainly the top of the heap. John Gardner's work was strong sometimes and then very weak a lot of the time but his Boysie Oakes books are absolutely BRILLIANT. I fear his heart wasn't always in it. Raymond Benson straddled the line of movie/book very well, they seemed like novelizations to unmade films. The smattering of "modern" authors that try their hands at Bond has also left me cold. I didn't finish Sebastian Faulks or William Boyd efforts, literary authors produce poor escapist-ism which is what Bond ultimately is. Jeffery Deaver's didn't interested me in the least. I will have to try Anthony Horowitz's take on Bond, as I have read and immensely enjoyed the first of his Alex Rider books. I would have been absolutely obsessed with them if I was a middle schooler when I read it, but as an adult it still pack a good old-fashioned punch. I  So, before my toe dips into rereading (something I VERY rarely do) I figured I should finish what I started many years ago. The two books came to my coffee table where I have bounced between the two.

The starter story in "From a View to a Kill" is near perfect distilled Fleming. The hallmarks are present, food and drink talk, feisty (though not funny named) women, the hints of real-life espionage blended with the absolute fantastical villainy and of course the well researched locales. Bond is wasting time thinking about the perfect day drink in Paris after a botched job and gets involved with a mysterious murder of a motorcycle dispatch rider with secret papers. Along the way he meets a crazy-driving .22 packing station agent named Mary. Along the way he poses a dispatcher rider giving us a little motorcycle talk, has some action with his fists and his "long barrelled Army .45" and sieges a hidden base brilliantly disguised. All this is in 23 pages, the short page count only hinders one aspect of the brilliance of Fleming: his villains. There's indefinable ones here, simply "evil agents." It's not too much of a knock, the things moves along too quickly for you to notice too much. No part of Roger Moore's "View To a Kill" pulls anything from this short. No Grace Jones in sight.

I do think Fleming grew tired of Bond but understood it was his cash-cow to milk. Bond changed as a character as Fleming grew older, the vigor ran low. The Bond of "Moonraker" is not quite the Bond of "You Only Live Twice." I prefer the earlier pulpier stuff, but the later more literary Bond's are surely better books, I just have skewed taste-buds. Any-who, the title cut to "Octopussy" is light on Bond, he stands around and basically listens to a story. It's a find story that sweeps right to a very Fleming ending but it probably would have been stronger as a standalone tale. Bond is basically playing the policeman part of the story coming to bring someone in. It's an awkward fit. It did give me a lust for a Fleming series of Scotland Yard mystery/adventures. Nearly all of his literary output is comprised of Bond it would have been interesting to have had a stand-alone or another series character to compare to OO7. A more hard-boiled detective operating a near-Bond world of evil masterminds and global conspiracies would have been killer, all wrapped in nice Pan paperback covers? Good gravy, one can dream.

The film version  of "The Living Daylights" is one of my favorites, the short story in "Octopussy" is
also one of my favorites. I do believe I read it a million years ago, but I could have just been experiencing flashbacks from the film as it's fairly faithfully recreated as the pre-title sequence. It's the strongest entry in this collection. Bond is sent to Berlin to act as a counter-sniper to protect a defection. It's a few days spent in Berlin and restless nights waiting for the moment of action. Bond of course sends it eating eggs, drinking and wandering. He also reads "Verderbt, Verdammt, Verraten" a fictional German pulp novel with a half naked woman on the cover, which is about the trials and horrible tribulations of a German woman. It's a nice parallel to the female character in the short, which we learn absolutely nothing about but would have had a hard-go of it because of her circumstances. The story builds into a fine piece of action and we see Bond being as temperamental as ever, cursing his rank and the stuffed shirt the service stuck him with as a sniper spotter.

"The Hildebrand Rarity" is a tight nautical noir of a James Bond story. I enjoyed it but it didn't scream James Bond to me. Bond ends up on the yacht of Milton Krest (the name popped up in the film "License to Kill, gotta squeeze every drop out) and gets entangled in murder. Not really wanting to get himself involved with an investigation Bond does a little evidence tampering then sails off with the dead man's wife who may have killed him. That's the most Bond thing to do. A lot of these stories just feel like the pre-title sequence or a chunk of the middle of a Bond movie, they make you wonder about the rest of the story. That's damned fine short tale telling, Fleming paints broad pictures with short word counts.

I'm going to save "For You Eyes Only," "Risico," "Property of a Lady" and "Quantum of Solace" for another time. Oh, I'll get "OO7 in New York" out of the way real quick here at the end. Bond's in New York to tell a agent that her boyfriend's bad news bears and his recipe for scrambled eggs is actually pretty good. The story is super short and actually fairly humorous. Fleming was a guy who could write. The Bond shorts aren't going to change your life, they are pretty much only there for when you've ran through all the books and don't want to touch a Gardner. None of them are objectionable, they may be forgettable which is worse. Fleming was better in long form when he could take his time and talk about what people should eat and wear and have all the deformed villains he could ever want. 

This relic of a toy has been in various Bond since middle school.


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dracula Returns! by Robert Lory

Lyle Kenyon Engel was an idea man. A book idea man. Without him we wouldn't have Nick Carter, the Killmaster version anyway, nor would we have John Eagle: Expediator, Don Miles, The Baroness, John Jake's bloated Kent Family Chronicles, Chopper Cop, the list goes on. He was a paperback salesman who "packaged" ideas for (hopefully) long running series's of books written primarily by ghost-writers.  It was a good deal and produced some of the most fun and varied lines of paperback pulp of the 60's and 70's.

Robert Lory was a fine writer working on John Eagle books. The Eagle books read like a grown up "Jonny Quest" globe-trotting, gadgets, over-the-top villains, super-suits, cyborg yetis's; you know the good stuff. It's a very strong violent take on the "Doc Savage school of pulp. Lory's entries are particularly strong, but stalwart pulp writer Manning Lee Stokes and Paul Eiden do great work with it as well.

Along the way Engel decided he wanted a Dracula series. It makes sense Old Dracula really got around in the 70's in comics, TV, and films so it only seemed fitting for his adventures to continue only this time as a roguish evil-doer anti-hero. Plus horror/occult-themed paperback were on the rise, Guy N. Smith's Sabat books, Michael Avallone's Satan Sleuth, Jory Sherman's Chill and "The Night Stalker" had invaded the television. Even Frankenstein had "The Frankenstein Horror Series" which is sadly a Hodge-podge series of non-connected books, not the continuing adventures of Frankie. Anyway Engel turned to Lory who jumped at the chance. The first of the series is simple titled "Dracula Returns" and it's a corker.

'Ol Drac had some bad luck and ended up with a stake in the heart and a nap in his tomb. Professor Harmon is a wheel-chair bound former cop who gets an offer he can't refuse from Ktara a shape-shifting witch who like this Dracula actually comes from Atlantis. So, along with his strong-man also ex-cop assistant Sanchez they go off and resurrect Dracula with their own reasons. But Dracula needs to be a fly on a string, controlled to be useful to the mysterious Harmon. That's a problem. The Solution? A tiny stake that is implanted by Dracula's heart. The trigger to fire the stake? Harmon's psychic powers. Simple as that really. Then they are off to the races over 9 books, finding lost civilizations to fighting voodoo zombies, Dracula kept busy for a few years...Dracula, Atlantis, psychic powers, sexy witches, numbers on the covers, thrills, chills and gore. This might be the most 70's books series published.

All good "packaged" book series have to start somewhere and "Dracula Returns" acts very much like the set-up to the punch line. I find myself sometimes skipping the first book in these types of series because they can get bogged down in the world building and they usually re-cap the first book in the each following volume. While this one does have a lot of information to get out it does it fairly smoothly, but he plot suffers from all the set-up, it's about the mob and its almost instantly forgotten. Good news is you didn't pick this book to read about the mafia, they are just there to be cannon-fodder anyway so Lory gives you plenty of Transylvania and Drac's "feedings" along with tough dialog and some real fun verbal face-offs between the stoic Harmon and tired and annoyed Dracula who is just bidding his time until he can figure out how to kill Harmon and get away with it. It was fairly ahead of its time for how popular these types of fantasy/adventure books are popular now, in the wake of "The Dresden Files" by Jim Butcher; though sadly most of them are fairly bland like many books these days. The edges sanded off into a round lump of uninteresting. I guess I'm saying this books has fangs, snicker.

Harmon and Sanchez are great crime-busting team and probably could have headlined their own series. They got a little Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin vibe going on but trashier. Ktara is cool and mysterious and the shape-shifting provides some cool moments. Dracula is the star though and it's a good interpretation, though he could be in the book more. He was very "off-stage" for a lot of the novel, something hopefully the rest of the books fix. Its easy to imagine Christopher Lee (the one-true Drac) speaking the dialog. These books would have made a fine series of B-movies for Hammer or a nice weekly series maybe coming on right after "The Incredible Hulk" or spun off from aforementioned "Night Stalker."

Around the same time Marvel Comics were publishing their own tales of Dracula in "Tomb of Dracula," the birthplace of Blade, The Vampire Slayer. Once Marv Wolfman gets on the book it's a fun and funky take on the legend of Dracula with a team of Van Helsing/Harker/Dracula decedents, vampire P.I.'s, and badass slayers like Blade constantly trying to kill Dracula himself. I wholeheartedly recommend these comics. I don't think the comics influenced the books or vise-versa. It's just one of those aligning of the stars that produces two pop-culture entities that are similar at the same time. And a lot of these paperback series's of the era were pretty much just dirtier comic books without pictures.

Lory's Dracula series was a wonderful wild take on the Dracula mythos that firmly put his own stamp on it and enough distance to Stoker's original book that I think even the most hardcore Dracula fans can enjoy it. This like everything I seem to review here are fairly hard to come by and command higher prices then I'd like. Or maybe not, as I really love the hunt of tracking these books down. The books are worth it if you were a monster kid turned old, like me. I look forward to the next installment "The Hand of Dracula," where he basically faces off with the Manson Family, so I hear.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Mercs Vs. Mafia Three Gritty Reviews

I've been laid up after having had surgery on my ankle. So, I've read a lot of a books, basically one a day and they've all blended into a cocktail of mafia hardmen vs. mercenary tough guys or mercenary hardmen vs. mafia tough guys. Maybe it's the pain meds. Meh. So with all these knifing's, gun shots, parachutes, explosions, kidnap victims, codes of honor and political unrest swirling around in my addled brain I figured I'd just write a smorgasbord of a review of some of these thrilling tales of blood and thunder.

It all started with a few gunshots for Briganti aka The Assassin in "Boston Bust-Out." His wife and child were taken from him freeing him up for three books with of death, destruction and being an tough asshole. His adventures continued under a different name as Philip Magellan a.k.a The Marksman by Frank Scarpetta then kinda sorta as Johnny Rock a.k.a. The Sharpshooter by Bruno Rossi and a legion of ghostwriters. That's a whole twisty tale of 70's publishing cash-grabs and politics. But it adds to the mystic of Briganti and his quest of vengeance as he would have to use numerous alias within the book to stay one step ahead of the mafia-scum hunting him why wouldn't the misdirection bleed out on to the copy-write page and a cover. Or maybe that's the pain killers in me talking.

Any-who, Peter McCurtin was the man responsible for the Assassin which started it's life with Dell Publishing but McCurtin worked as an editor at Belemont-Tower and they must not have cared for one of their own publishing a series somewhere else, that or Dell didn't want anymore books past three and McCurtin just changed the names and continued the series at BT. Now "Boston Bust-Out" isn't going to change a person's life with it's deep seated looking at the inner psyche of a vigilante. THANK GOD. Briganti is a total unstoppable killing badass who is always a bit of a uncaring prick, but that comes with the territory of Men's Adventure fiction. One bit I liked is that he looses his cache of weapons early in the book and as he kills mafia goons he keeps picking up their fallen weapons to rebuild is stash. Sorta like he's a video game character. He loves his guns and they are talked about in full detail. He makes particularly good use of a .44 magnum and a .22-250 varmint rifle. But the gun-porn isn't as overbearing as it got to be in 80's Men's adventure or a Death Merchant, he just causally expands on his knowledge of bullets and such. The story is as thin and the paper it's printed on, but moves a nice clip from mafia-murdering to drinking vodka to mafia-murdering. He's out to fuck up the mob in every way shape and form and that's all you need to know. The whole thing is done before you know and ready for the next adventure. McCutin is a solid writer who know his business and leaves out the parts that you don't want to read about.

Peter McCurtin also created the Soldier of Fortune series about hard-as-nails mercenary Jim Rainey
who kicked ass through 18 adventures across the globe. McCurtin's name is on the front of #7 "Operation Hong Kong" but the author is really the prolific (and great) Ralph Hayes who besides writing his own series's like "The Hunter," "Cominsec," "Stoner," and "Check Force" he also wrote as McCurtin and Nick Carter for Nick Carter: Killmaster. Rainey is a mercenary who spends his non-war time as a weapons salesman and after a quick bit of revenge at the beginning. He heads to Hong Kong to sell his super-cool dart-gun (which sadly doesn't reappear) to his old Special Branch buddy where Rainey is hired be the British to quell Communist rioting and uprising. It's got the usual questionable treatment of women (be questionable I mean TERRIBLE) and old fashion politics. Hayes is a top-shelf paperback writer and "Operation Hong Kong" is a fast-paced ass-kicking tale of the the unrest in pre-handover of Hong Kong who fills the book with colorful characters and very fast action. The book is full of very hard-boiled riot scenes, GRUESOME murders and intrigue.  The book works more as a cop/espionage adventure rather then a war or men on a mission tale but Rainey is a cut-throat merc through and through and he gets gets more and more pissed as the bodies pile up and pot that is Hong Kong boils over. I'm glad I have several Soldier of Fortunes to read (all by Hayes by accident) and will have to complete my collection.

"In the Hour Before Midnight" by the legendary Jack Higgins is both a tale of the mafia and a rugged story of the mercenary life and the differences in the codes that they both live by. Jack Higgins is a helluva writer especially in this era, before he became a massive success after "The Eagle has Landed" but having wrote enough to fully form his impressive skill set. The "hero" of the book is Stacey Wyatt the grandson of a Mafia capo who became a hard-bitten mercenary by the hands of Sean Burke (Jack Higgins loves the name Sean) and how his two lives collide during a mission to rescue a kidnapped women from bandits in the treacherous kills of Sicily. Deception and dirty dealing mafioso's get in his way and he has to solve most of his problems with his quick-draw action or Kung-fu grip, maybe. In a lot of ways this books is more set-up then execution. We go through Wyatt's pain, misery and questioning his abilities after nearly being broken in a hell-hole of a prison.  The actual "mission" is over quickly and kinda doesn't amount to much, but Higgins sprinkles enough daring-do and intrigue to keep you turning the page. Higgins is a classier writer then most who put out this sort of fiction but he is still very much a pulp-mind author. He knows the pace and action are the key ingredients to his work but he executes them nearly perfectly. The idea of honor is something that he plays with frequently whether it is honor between killers, spies, soldiers on opposing sides, Higgins is obviously likes exploring the concept. After Higgins became a big time author and as he went along he had a tendency to spin his wheels and play in the sandbox sometimes. But he's such a good writer that even when he's not firing all on all cylinders he produces a book worth reading. That being said it's generally a safer bet to pick up an early Higgins. I particularly like Paul Chavasse series which is James Bond but in the rougher and tougher Higgins style. The Simon Vaughn books are also quite good, although they all seem to feature a DIFFERENT Simon Vaughn, so there's Higgins repeating himself again.