Becoming a Ninja Warrior

Becoming a Ninja Warrior

I’ve long been obsessed with ninjas, the legendary shadow warriors of feudal Japan. I love their dark mystique and their mindset of endurance, discipline, survivalism and mysticism—the polar opposite of the modern mentality of instant gratification, egotism, fragility, fear of darkness and materialism. I’ve read dozens of books about them, from the historically accurate to modern interpretations to the wildly fictional, and enjoyed most of them. They are a primary influence on my own path of the Shadow Scout. One of the more interesting takes on the ninja that I’ve come across is contained in the book Becoming a Ninja Warrior by Martin Faulks.

Faulks is an English esoteric writer and teacher with a background in Hermeticism and Freemasonry. He’s also highly adept at meditation and martial arts, which he demonstrates in older videos at his youtube channel. According to the account in Ninja Warrior, in the early 2000s Faulks did what many Westerners have only fantasized about: sought out real ninjas in the modern world and trained with them in their ancient martial and mystical arts in an effort to became a more powerful, shadow-aware person. He trained with thieves, mystics, mountain monks and martial arts warriors around the world, rather like a real-life Bruce Wayne in the film Batman Begins.

Faulks describes the ninja as part thief, part mystic and part warrior. This is reflected in his training under various masters: first with the “Norfolk Ninjas”—two amoral working-class British rogues who teach him the dark arts of stealth, lockpicking, and infiltration; then with Stephen Hayes, the famous American ninjutsu guru who takes a more spiritual approach to training; then in Japan under Bujinkan Grand Master Hatsumi and other Japanese masters who focus on martial arts; and finally with the ancient brotherhood of Yamabushi mountain monks of Japan, who seek spiritual strength by enduring austerities in nature.

All of these stories were interesting, but I found the first and last groups particularly so. The Norfolk Ninjas have their own “Bat Cave” in the basement of their mother’s house, stocked with a huge collection of ninja books, movies, weapons and tools. In addition to rigorous combat and lockpicking, their training includes a lot of prowling around in black ninja suits at night,  playing pranks on policemen by sneaking into their cars and stealing their radios to test their stealth skills. At the other end of the spectrum, the Yamabushi training consisted of hiking for several days in the mountains while fasting, getting little or no sleep, chanting, praying at shrines, hanging off cliffs and participating in a fire-walking ritual. It’s fascinating that their Shugendō (“Way of trial & practice”) tradition, which is over a thousand years old and is said to have influenced the ninja, still exists long after the historical ninja lineages have been broken.

Personally, I suspect Faulks made up some of the stories in this book. The Norfolk Ninjas in particular sound too perfect; they remind me of the kind of characters esoteric teachers invent to illustrate their ideas. I could be wrong, and I hope I am. It’s an inspiring story, regardless. But it should be noted that even if everything Faulks described in this book really happened, he’s still not a ninja. To experience the full reality of ninjutsu, he would need to do more than train in dojos and run around at night in the English countryside. He would need go into a warzone, train with special forces, infiltrate forbidden places, escape captivity, spy for MI6, execute a heist, commit arson, and the like. Enduring life-threatening danger in war-time conditions, and using stealth, deception and skill to survive, is the essence of the ninjutsu art. With those caveats, Warrior is an enjoyable and inspiring read for anyone interested in this topic.

Get a copy of Becoming a Ninja Warrior here (or a new version called The Path of the Ninja here).

Ways of the Shadow Scouts

Ways of the Shadow Scouts

Introduction

The brotherhood of Shadow Scouts that I envision is a secretive society of free spirits who think outside the boxes of current ways of life and structures of power. Here are some more details about the ways of this brotherhood, as practiced by myself and as I foresee them developing.

Ranges

Shadow Scouts reject existing national and territorial boundaries and reserve the right to roam anywhere we please. Each Scout will usually have a home “range” that he frequently scouts, which won’t overlap with the ranges of other Scouts because we do respect each other’s territory. Within his range, each Scout will be responsible for scouting shadow routes, establishing lookouts, gathering intelligence, leaving Scout sign and recruiting others. Collectively, Shadow Scouts are the rangers of our own shadowy nation—one with its own ideals, codes of conduct, communications, security, intelligence service and language.

Shadow Routes

As previously discussed here, “shadow routes” are routes that offer stealth travel and are not frequented by vehicles, police, security or the general public. They include:

  • Forest roads
  • Foot and bicycle trails
  • Power line corridors
  • Railroad tracks
  • Rivers and waterways

The first task of the Scout is to explore all shadow routes in his range, establishing stealthy routes for bugging out, gathering intelligence, getting to lookouts and general travel. He should also scout pathless sections between shadow routes—bushwhacking, crossing deserts, cutting across private property, crossing borders, etc.—so as to be able to travel long distances with maximum stealth and freedom.

Power line corridors can be good shadow routes.

Lookouts

Shadow Scouts should establish lookouts in areas where they are active. These are places where Scouts can observe an area, take shelter, meet other Scouts, leave messages and cache supplies. They will be established not only in wilderness areas, but in rural, suburban and urban locations. In our secret tongue, lookouts are called tyârzunz (“lookplaces”).

Locations

Some elements of a good wilderness lookout include:

  • near existing shadow routes
  • good views of the surrounding area
  • discreet location away from established camps, trails and roads
  • near natural shelters and camping areas
  • near water sources
  • places to discreetly cache supplies and leave messages

With well-stocked lookouts located along shadow routes, you can use them as re-supply points to travel long distances and extend your stays in the field. The best lookouts should be difficult to get to. They should require scouting skills to reach so they are unlikely to be visited by non-Scouts. This adds to their mystique as special places for a special breed of person.

A lookout location overlooking my home range and the U.S.-Canada border.
Caches

A weather- and animal-proof container, such as an ammo can, bear can, PVC pipe or wide-mouthed plastic bottle, should be hidden at the lookout site for caching supplies. A notebook and pen should be included in the cache for Scouts to log their visits and leave messages, if desired. Possible items to put in caches include:

  • food
  • maps of the area
  • emergency shelter (poncho, tarp, space blanket, etc.)
  • clothing
  • firestarters (lighter, matches, flammable material)
  • cookware (pot, stove, fuel, silverware)
  • water purification (filter, tablets)
  • medical supplies
  • lights and batteries
  • duct tape, thread, needle
  • notebook and pen/pencil
  • cash
A plastic container cache at one of my lookouts, marked with Scout sign.
Using Lookouts
  • When travelling, the Scout should visit lookouts as needed to obtain supplies and send or receive messages. The Scout should leave supplies in the caches for future use by himself and other Scouts whenever possible. Ideally, in a bug-out situation a Scout should be able to walk from his location with just the clothes on his back to nearby lookouts to obtain emergency supplies so he can stay in the field for days.
  • The Scout should leave no trace of his visits to lookouts by carefully re-burying caches, packing out trash and covering his tracks.
  • Lookout locations should be memorized. Part of the Scout’s training is learning the locations of lookouts in areas where he travels. Locations might also be sketched on paper, but avoid storing them in GPS devices as this makes it easier for the lookout network to be compromised.
  • The seal of the Shadow Scouts should be placed somewhere at the lookout to identify it to others of our kind.

Communications

Scouts have their own secret ways of communicating with each other, including:

Language

Shadow Scouts have their own spoken and written language, which they use to identify each other, leave messages, and reinforce their status as members of a separate, secret society. Understand that this language actually exists; it is not some figment of my imagination. To learn more about it, you will need to be admitted into the Scout society by following clues that will be provided at this blog.

Scout Sign

“Scout sign” are symbols of the Shadow Scouts placed in strategic locations to mark ranges, shadow routes, lookouts and other points of interest. These symbols can be engraved in wood or stone, drawn, painted, made with rock or wood arrangements, etc. The primary symbol used for signing is the “Scout seal” shown below, which is shorthand for “Scout” in our secret tongue:

The seal of the Shadow Scouts.

Individual Scouts should also develop their own seals, to mark their ranges and identify themselves to other Scouts. When I’m out scouting I carve the Shadow Scout seal on trees, bridges, kiosks and other structures I find with my knife; here is a sign carved on a bridge on a shadow route in my range:

The Shadow Scout seal carved on a bridge marks it as part of a shadow route.
Recognition Sign

Scouts may also use a special hand sign to identify themselves to other members of the Brotherhood. This is the gesture in the photo below: hand held sideways, with fingers split and thumb out, representing the Scout seal. Make this casually to someone you suspect of being a fellow Scout, and if they return the gesture you will know they are one of our kind.

If you see someone walking on a lonely road making this sign, he’s probably a Shadow Scout!

Recruiting

For the moment Shadow Scouting is a solitary vision, but one of my goals is to find others who share this vision and recruit them to the brotherhood. Here are a few communities I am eyeing for recruitment, both as Shadow Scouts and as allies and informants:

  • Thru-Hikers: “Thru-hikers” have their own society, with trail names, lingo, volunteer supporters, shelters, hostels, trail towns and donation boxes. They also have a sense of adventure, independence and ability to roam long distances, all of which makes them good potential Shadow Scouts. I have begun scouting sections of the major hiking trails in my area, the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, in hopes of encountering a thru-hiker who may be interested in being part of this brotherhood. It is common for thru-hikers to take hiking partners on long hikes, so I may be able to discreetly introduce Shadow Scouting to one in this way.
  • Geocachers: Geocaching is a type of treasure-hunting game that involves placing containers with small items and notebooks in obscure places for other geocachers to find. There are thousands of geocaches around the world, in every kind of environment, often in interesting and scenic locations. Geocachers have their own lingo and community; for example, non-geocachers are known as “muggles”. I have recently begun vising the geocaches in my area and placing my sign in them. I may start placing my own geocaches in difficult locations with messages for potential Scouts about becoming part of the brotherhood.

    Scout sign left in a geocache in my range.
  • Hoboes: The modern community of “hoboes” or “freight-hoppers” is small compared to its golden age in the early 20th century, when they had their own hobo signs, road names, lingo and community, but there are still a few around. Their “tags” (signs) can be found under bridges, in abandoned houses, on rail cars and other places hoboes frequent. I have researched this lifestyle a bit and intend to ride the rails in the near future, not only to gain familiarity with these shadow routes, but to see what kind of people I may be able to recruit.
I keep an eye out for other shadowy characters on the trails to recruit to the Brotherhood.

Return to Burnt Hill

Return to Burnt Hill

Today I returned to Burnt Hill, a place I’ve hiked several times before and reported on previously here. This mission had three primary objectives:

  1. Get a good workout and enjoy a nice Spring day outside.
  2. Scout new shadow routes down the mountain and other points of interest.
  3. Give my new scout vest system a good field test.

The hike goes up a steep forest road to the top of the hill. After about a mile it comes to a rock quarry with a peculiar piece of artwork made out of someone’s trash. I thought this was an interesting way to turn litter into something strangely magical, so I took a picture:

Appreciating the weird magic of trash art.

At about 1.75 miles the trail levels out at a clear-cut and a nice vista of the northeastern Olympic mountains. At this point objective #1 was completed.

Performing Kuji-Kiri cuts at the clear-cut near top of the hill.

From the clear-cut I continued west down a forest road I hadn’t travelled before. I wanted to see if it could connect me to trails I had previously scouted at the base of the hill, giving me a complete shadow route from the hill to my house. The road went on for a mile, bringing more spectacular views of the Olympics to the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. At road’s end, a dirtbike/foot trail continued down the hill in the direction I wanted to go. I was hoping it would take me all the way down, but it soon started curving back up so I had no choice but to bushwhack downhill toward my destination.

Bushwhacking down the steep hillside.

After some hill scrambling I came to a stream cutting down the hillside in the direction I wanted to go and started following it. This was a mistake, as the stream soon went over a cliff and the whole area cliffed out. This reinforced two points about mountain navigation: one, water takes the fastest route downhill, not the route easiest for humans to walk; and two, when contour lines on a topographical map are closest together, travelling perpendicular to them is probably going to be difficult. In this case it was nearly impossible, so I had to skirt around the steep area and take an indirect course at an angle to the contour lines.

Streams on hillsides are good for getting a cool drink, but bad for finding a safe route down the hill!

I finally got down the hill and connected to an unmapped trail I had previously scouted. This connected to a forest service road that isn’t technically open to the public, but the Shadow Scout philosophy is that this only matters if you’re caught, which is unlikely! I avoided problems by following a path along an irrigation canal above the road that I already knew about:

Irrigation canals often have trails that make good shadow routes.

The road also went by a facility with padlocked doors that could be considered a challenge, if you’re so inclined.

Secure facilities in obscure locations are excellent places to practice lockpicking skills.

Finally the private road came to a gate that connected to a road leading back to my house, which successfully completed objective #2 for this mission. Note the striking sign on the gate; are they planning a Jurassic Park-type facility here? I will keep an eye on it.

Don’t trespass. Especially if there are dinosaurs around. Unless you’re a Shadow Scout.

As for mission objective #3: the scout vest performed very well. It sustained no damage from over a mile of sliding down steep slopes, scrambling over logs and light bushwhacking. I was able to quickly access my water pouch, filter, phone, sunglasses, snacks, gloves, map and other items without having to stop and rummage around in a pack.

All in all, a very good day of shadow scouting.

The Scout Vest

The Scout Vest

Here’s an interesting alternative to the everyday carry or bug-out bag that I’ve been experimenting with recently: the scout vest!

The scout vest contains everything I need for my everyday scouting activities.
Note the large zip pocket in the back and the thread where I removed the reflective strip.

It’s just a slightly modified, dark-colored fishing vest with its pockets loaded with my everyday scouting and survival gear. There are many fishing/travel vests available that would work for this purpose; here’s the one I’m using:

I chose the variant labelled “Cmov060-khaki” because I liked its natural green and black colors, the large zip front pockets and the mesh torso for warmer conditions. My modification was to remove the reflective strip across the lower back for greater stealth. I might also pick up the variant “Cmov050-black” for night/cold/urban scouting.

Here are two more vest options that look good:

I like the scout vest system for several reasons:

  • My scouting gear is always ready; I just put on the vest and go.
  • It has much more carrying capacity than the pockets of my normal clothes.
  • I don’t have a pack hanging off my shoulders, which can restrict movement, be uncomfortable or get lost in the field.
  • I can quickly access my gear in any situation—walking, climbing, crawling, concealed location, etc.
  • It’s more discreet than a tactical backpack; carry a rod and reel and I have a ready-made cover as a fisherman!

This vest has a lot of storage space: many large and small zipper and velcro pockets in the front, inside, and a huge zip pocket down the back. I have put most of the items in my bug-out bag (as described in this post) in the vest, including:

  • folding knife
  • 25 feet of paracord
  • pen flashlight
  • lighter and firestarter material
  • compass
  • carabiner
  • medical pack: bandages, tape, antiseptic wipes, aspirin, diarrhea pills, water purification tablets
  • compact rain/wind jacket
  • neck gaiter
  • gloves
  • baby wipes
  • lockpick set
  • smartphone
  • cash
  • energy bars
  • Sawyer Squeeze mini water filter

Other items I might include for some missions are my handgun with ammo clips, compact binoculars, puffy jacket, maps, notebook and pencil, rope and grappling hook, and mosquito netting. I could even put my hammock and straps in the back pocket if I wanted to be able to sleep out. Another option is to have a pack with my hammock, sleeping bag, extra food, clothing and other items I need for multi-day missions ready to go that I can slip on over the vest if I need it.

I haven’t fully field-tested this setup yet, but so far I like it. My only concern is that it might not hold up to heavy scouting use such as bushwhacking, rock scrambling or crawling in rough terrain. It’s not military-grade, just a cheap Korean fishing vest, so I don’t expect it to be too durable. But it’s a fun item to have in your scout arsenal, and worth considering.

Night Boat to Paris

Night Boat to Paris

The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.

The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.

Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:

You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.

Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?

Another question.

And no answer for it.

Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.

This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.

Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.

Scouting the Dungeness River

Scouting the Dungeness River

The Dungeness River near my home.

I live near the Dungeness River; it cuts right through the town of Sequim, but it’s mostly wild on both sides with few access points until it joins the Strait of Juan De Fuca several miles to the north. I was curious to see what this stretch looked like, and I also wanted to investigate the possibility of using it as a bug-out route from my house. Since I can walk to the river in ten minutes, inflate a raft and float down it where no one is likely to be looking for me, it seemed like a potentially excellent shadow route in an exfiltration scenario. If I could float the approximately six miles to Dungeness Bay, I could then take a hypothetical small boat stashed there or contact a friend with a boat and sail across the Strait to a discreet location on the southern Vancouver coast. From there I could be picked up by a Canadian contact or simply stay in Canada as a lone fugitive for as long as I needed to. Anyway that was the scenario, but first I needed to scout the feasibility of the river exfil.

I put my little two man Intex Seahawk 2 inflatable boat in a backpack, along with the manual pump and a paddle (I considered taking my Intex Challenger inflatable kayak, which is a much better boat, but it’s bulkier to carry and I didn’t want to worry about dragging the skeg on the rocks of the shallow river so I took the raft):

I also packed a few supplies — machete, water, filter, snacks, cell phone, etc. — in a small dry bag and put it in the backpack. Ready to go, I jumped my back fence and made the short walk through the woods to the river. Finding a good spot on the bank, I inflated the raft, assembled the paddle and cinched up the dry bag tight inside the backpack. I didn’t bother bringing any paracord to tie the pack to the raft, and for some reason I didn’t think of wearing the pack on my shoulders with the waist belt fastened so it would be secure to my body. Instead I just threw the pack in the back of the raft thinking I would use it as a back rest. This laziness and inexperience with river rafting would really cost me.

I pushed off into the shallow, fast-flowing river, trying to use the flimsy paddle to guide me. I quickly realized that the current was deceptively strong and I had almost no control over the little raft. It didn’t help that the raft has no skeg, so I would frequently spin around and find myself going sideways or backwards downstream. I flailed around with my paddle, hands and legs trying not to crash into the logs near the banks which could potentially puncture the raft or damage a body part. When I came to a large fallen tree across the river I managed to get to a bank, drag the boat and pack over the log and continue. Soon after that I hit a particularly fast, deep section of water and found myself sucked toward a pile logs. The next thing I knew, the raft had capsized and I was completely underwater. I desperately grabbed the raft and managed to crawl back onto it. To my dismay, I saw my backpack, paddle and hat all floating downstream. Realizing that my only hope to retrieve the pack with the expensive smartphone and other supplies inside was to chase after it in the raft, I set off in pursuit.

I continued my roller coaster ride, bouncing off logs and spinning my way down the river. Once or twice I found myself floating in the water and had to use the raft as a flotation device until I could crawl back on it. I was able to slow and control the boat somewhat by dragging a stick against the river bottom as the boat floated sideways. I had to get to the bank several times to bypass some particularly hairy sections of the river, while looking around hoping I’d find the pack snagged on some logs.

After a little while of this I saw the railroad trestle over the river where the Olympic Discovery Trail crosses and there’s a public access area. Realizing that the pack was lost–probably far down river or sunk to the bottom–and that I had no water or means of communication, which meant continuing down river would make getting back home that much harder, I decided to abort the mission. The only problem was I was on the left side of the river and needed to get to the right bank. I barely managed to ford the waist high water, pulling the raft behind me without getting knocked over or losing the raft. I stashed the raft in some bushes and road-walked a few miles back to my house in the midday sun and soaked clothing.

It was a fun little adventure and I did get some useful information, even if it turned out to be an expensive lesson. I still think this route is doable, but I will need better equipment next time. Here are my take-aways from this mission:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of river water, particularly in the spring.
  • Use a hard-shell or inflatable whitewater kayak, not a cheap inflatable raft, on a fast river.
  • Attach your pack to the raft or wear it on your body.
  • Carry your phone on your body in a waterproof bag — something like this.
  • Wear a hat with a strap on it.
  • Install a tracking app on your phone if you are worried about losing it. These can tell you its current or last known location from the built-in GPS chip. Of course these apps allow others to track you, so I don’t recommend it.
The Great Train Hijack

The Great Train Hijack


I had little information to go on when I picked up The Great Train Hijack (originally titled The Gravy Train), published in 1971 by Whit Masterson. All I knew was that it featured a prison break, a train hijacking and a heist, and that sounded good enough for me to give it a read.

The novel’s antagonist is Anthony Heaston, the brilliant ex-leader of a Special Forces unit called “Heaston’s Hellions” that raised a lot of hell in the early days of the Vietnam War. Once a promising young colonel, Heaston was blamed for the murder of a South Vietnamese leader and relegated to a Pentagon basement, his career ruined. Bitter at the president and the military establishment for not backing him up, Heaston resigned and turned to outlaw mercenary work around the globe. But eventually he was captured leading revolutionaries in Columbia and sentenced to prison for life.

As the novel opens, Heaston pulls off a clever escape from the Columbian prison using a bold deception and outside help from some of his men. Soon he’s back in the USA, and ex-president and Heaston nemesis Carson wants to know where he is and what he’s up to. Carson puts Jake Duffy, a brilliant young agent for the FBI’s Special Assignment Division on the job. Duffy is a hip, long-haired, rebellious new type of G-man–very much like an FBI version of CIA man Ronald Malcolm from Six Days of the Condor.

Duffy tracks Heaston to a ranch in southern California, where he and some of his old Hellions are training to hijack a train using an old coal-powered model that was previously part of a Western movie production. Duffy, ever the bold and creative agent, gets himself into the ranch using a cover as a representative of a movie production company interested in making a film on the property. He meets Heaston, with whom he has a surprising rapport, as well as his brutal henchman Branko, with whom he shares a girlfriend. He also uncovers the group’s connections to a shadowy billionaire who is apparently funding them, and learns about a priceless art collection being shipped across the country. He also meets a beautiful but rather icy art museum director and Women’s Libber named Leslie, and they strike up a hip early ’70s relationship. Meanwhile Heaston and his men get wise to Duffy’s deception and make moves of their own to deceive him.

Following some clever investigative work where Duffy oversteps his authority to learn more about the heisters’ plans and some minor romance between Duffy and two of the female characters, the novel rolls to its climax aboard trains in the desert Southwest. There’s a surprise twist toward the end as Duffy realizes what Heaston’s crew are really after, and his entire operation to entrap them falls apart. Duffy, acting independently of the Bureau, decides to make a desperate last-minute gambit to try to resolve the situation that could cost him his career and his life.

I was expecting a story centered on Heaston and his heist crew, like a Parker or Drake novel, but as it turns out it’s more of a detective story about Duffy’s efforts to figure out what Heaston’s crew is up to and stop them. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not the type of novel I prefer, being inclined toward the point of view of the shadow operators more than the lawmen. I would have liked this novel a lot if “Mad Anthony” Heaston had been the focus of the narrative rather than Duffy, because for me he was a much more compelling character. My other criticism is that there wasn’t a lot of action or intensity. Duffy carries out his investigation a little too flippantly; there’s never a sense of real physical danger, and the violent crew does little actual violence. While this is a well-told tale with an intriguing plot, Masterson doesn’t have the Jack Higgins flair for suspense and action that could have turned this detective story into a real thriller. If you like trains, heists and crime procedurals you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise it’s not that exceptional and I can see why this novel is now obscure.

Get a copy of The Great Train Hijack here.

The Domino Principle

The Domino Principle

The Domino Principle, published in 1975 by Adam Kennedy, is another semi-forgotten classic from the golden age of paranoid thrillers. Like The Parallax View, Six Days of the Condor, The Killer Elite, Telefon, and Flashpoint, it was made into Hollywood movie–this one starring Gene Hackman, which I haven’t seen but am told wasn’t particularly good. Like Parallax and Pay Any Price, Domino imagines a world where shadowy agencies recruit patsies from among the general population to carry out assassinations, while keeping them in the dark about the nature of their work.

As the novel opens, Roy Tucker, the underprivileged son of generations of manual laborers, is in the early stages of a twenty year murder rap. He has stopped writing his devoted wife and resigned himself to spending his best years behind bars. Things look hopeless when one day a well-dressed, high-powered man named Tagge shows up at the prison and offers to get Roy released and re-unite him with his wife. All Roy has to do in return is whatever Tagge tells him to once he’s on the outside. Tagge just has a few questions for Roy, re: his murder rap (Roy was framed by a jealous employer), his contacts on the outside (a lawyer and a doctor), the status of his family (all deceased except a sister) and his wife Thelma (no longer in contact), and his military service in Vietnam (excellent discipline record, combat record and skill as a marksmen). Otherwise, Roy is kept in the dark about what Tagge expects from him. Desperate to get out of prison and figuring he has nothing to lose, Roy accepts blindly.

Roy is let out of the prison as planned, but a violent twist soon lets him know that Tagge’s crew are utterly ruthless and not to be crossed. Holed up in Chicago, Roy is given cash, new clothes and a new identity. Though he’s a fugitive, there’s no sign that the authorities are on his trail. His lawyer and doctor want nothing to do with him and can’t help him, and his wife is out of reach. Roy may be out of prison, but he’s totally alone and at Tagge’s mercy.

Roy is soon jetted off to a luxurious Central American villa for some post-prison R&R with Thelma. He’s briefly tested to make sure his shooting skills are up to snuff, then his actual mission starts to come into focus. Not too keen on his assignment and realizing that he has traded one prison sentence for another, Roy attempts to escape the clutches of Tagge’s men. I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, so I’ll keep this review short. Let’s just say that it races to a dark and dramatic climax in the best noir tradition.

This is not the typical men’s adventure or spy story featuring a superman protagonist who saves the world and gets the girl. This is all about one poor man’s struggles against the forces of control–against poverty, the military, his employer, the law, the prison system, and finally Tagge’s shadowy group. The latter are seemingly all-powerful: they control prison personnel, military men, policemen, hotel employees, airlines, customs agents and phone lines almost at will. And every attempt by Roy to escape their control only reveals more of their power. Who exactly this group is is not clear; from Roy’s everyman perspective they are simply the Man, and can do whatever they want.

Domino is fast, lean and well-written; it reminded me of a Dan Marlowe novel with its noir atmosphere, fast pace and immersive action. Kennedy puts you right in the shoes of Roy Tucker–a simple guy who never quite knows what’s going on but who, like Earl Drake, knows when to trust his gut and how to survive. This is an excellent novel that deserves to be read by all connoisseurs of assassin, noir and conspiracy thrillers. Apparently there is also a sequel called The Domino Vendetta published in the 1984, which I will definitely track down and review at my earliest convenience.

Get a copy of The Domino Principle here.

100 Megaton Kill

100 Megaton Kill

After the rather subdued, cerebral novel of my previous review, I was in the mood for some good old pulpy spy-adventure fiction, and I found just the ticket on my bookshelf: 100 Megaton Kill, by Ralph Hayes. Published in 1975, it’s the first in a series of six novels about “Check Force”: an unlikely pair of spies who team up to take down a sinister global cabal.

That this was not going to be a highly realistic novel of shadow warfare was made clear at the outset, when a bad guy, having nearly killed a secretary who surprised him while he was burgling some documents after-hours, decides that the expedient thing to do is to feed her body into a paper shredder. It’s apparently a very heavy-duty paper shredder, though he acts surprised when there’s a lot of blood and he has a little trouble with the job. And when he’s confronted a few minutes later by a co-worker, instead of killing him so there’s no witnesses, he plays it cool and claims he just saw two strangers leave the office, then proceeds to throw paper shreds over the human hamburger, wipe off his fingerprints and pretend like nothing happened. This is the kind of zany stuff that makes men’s adventure fiction from that era so much fun!

The spared witness turns out to be Alexander Chane, an ace agent and crack shooter who was already thinking about leaving the Agency due to its corrupt and war-mongering ways. When Chane’s boss tries to frame Chane for the gruesome office killing, and Chane learns that the boss is connected to a mysterious conspiracy called “Force III” that involves Russian missile bases, Chane goes on the run from the Agency until he can sort everything out. Meanwhile, a top Russian agent named Vladimir Karlov has defected from the KGB for similar reasons as Chane and is hiding out in the British embassy in Paris.

The globe-trotting action is fast and furious from here on out. Karlov is attacked in Paris, Chane in New York, and both flee to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to hide out. Realizing that they have no allies and a common enemy in Force III, the two join forces to defeat the cabal. More assassins show up, more information about the conspiracy is uncovered, and Chane even finds time for meaningless sex with two horny hotties, because it’s 1975 and it’s a men’s adventure novel, so why the hell not? The action then shifts to Russia, where the dynamic duo have to infiltrate a missile base to stop a Force III agent from launching a devastating thermonuclear ICBM attack on New York City. This was easily the highlight of the book; the way Karlov infiltrates the base and the dramatic scene at the missile silo was tense, exciting and almost believable.

We also go inside a few meetings of Force III, who, like any self-respecting evil cabal, have a massive secret complex from which they’re plotting world domination. Their base is underground in the Argentinian outback, where they’re working to unleash nuclear terror on the USA and trigger World War III. Their leader is a nasty Nazi-like character named General Streicher, whose junta has recently taken over Argentina. The Brazilian President, the Chilean Defense minister, a Greek shipping magnate and a very rich Arab are also involved. While this all sounds very cartoonish, it may have been inspired by a real conspiracy called Operation Condor that was going on in South America at the time. The novel’s climax takes place at this complex, and the ending strongly suggests that Force III is not defeated, but like SPECTRE will return to haunt the world and our protagonists again soon.

100 Megaton Kill reminds me of a Robert Ludlum story stripped down to its essentials and told in 200 pages instead of 600. In particular, it brings to mind Ludlum’s 1979 novel The Matarese Circle, with its idea of an American and a Russian intelligence officer teaming up against a third global force that is sabotaging both sides and trying to provoke world war; it also has (pre-)echoes of The Bourne Identity and The Aquitaine Progression. While I rather doubt that Ludlum read this novel, for me it shows that he was really just a puffed-up pulp/men’s adventure novelist who somehow became a mega best-seller.

Anyway, this was a fun, quick read. It’s not going to win any literary awards, but if you like Nick Carter/Mack Bolan style men’s adventures and aren’t overly concerned with realism, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this one. It’s also apparently a collectible, judging by the price in excess of $50 on the used market (I lucked out and got it as part of a large lot at a buck a book). And note the cover, a masterpiece of 1970s men’s adventure pulp–I’ll be damned if the villain isn’t a dead ringer for Laurence Olivier/Szell from Marathon Man.

Get a copy of 100 Megaton Kill here.

Pay Any Price

Pay Any Price

Ted Allbeury was a prolific British spy novelist who, before becoming a writer, actually lived the life of a Shadow Operative as a secret agent behind enemy lines in World War II. I’d never read his work before, but when I saw the description of his 1983 novel Pay Any Price I was immediately intrigued. It deals with a fascinating front of the Shadow War that is arguably the most important of all: the war for the mind.

The novel’s premise is that Lee Harvey Oswald and other notorious assassins were actually under the hypnotic control of rogue psychiatrists working for the CIA. That might sound outlandish, but when one studies some of the historical assassins and mass shooters up to the present day, many of them do seem rather disconnected from their acts, as if they were committed by alter egos not under their control. Having read a few things about the history of CIA mind control (The Search for the Manchurian Candidate is a classic) and MKUltra, I find the premise of this novel chillingly plausible.

The book begins in the early 1960s, as we meet the psychiatrists, intelligence officers, criminals and dupes who will carry out the Kennedy assassination. Mafia leaders, incensed by the Kennedy brothers’ aggressive prosecution of their activities, and CIA men, equally incensed by JFK’s failure to back the overthrow of Castro, conspire to have the president whacked. They find the perfect patsy in Lee Harvey Oswald, an early subject of a secret CIA mind control program. Two psychiatrists have discovered how to hypnotically create multiple personalities in their subjects and program them to obey commands when code phrases are spoken (readers of classic spy thrillers will be reminded of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate and Walter Wager’s Telefon). Meanwhile, a sexy British nightclub singer named Debbie Rawlins is recruited and programmed–her gig as a travelling entertainer for military personnel providing a convenient cover for her programmed personality’s more lethal vocation.

The narrative jumps ahead several years as the two psychiatrists, wanting to get away from the heat of Congressional investigations, media attention and public suspicion that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy, relocate to a house in the northern English countryside to lay low and continue their research. But when two suspicious British MI6 agents break into the house of their CIA handler they discover incriminating papers connecting the doctors to the assassination program. Being shady operators, the SIS men take full advantage of the situation by blackmailing the American psychiatrists into employing their hypnotic assassins to take out some troublesome IRA leaders in nearby Northern Ireland. So a corporal named Walker is recruited and programmed for the hits, and Debbie Rawlins is reactivated.

The story finally gets a clear protagonist when an MI6 agent named James Boyd is asked to investigate a psychiatrist’s report of a patient who is having dreams about political murders that he should have no way of knowing about.  It seems that the patient (Walker) is experiencing a mental breakdown, as memories of the hits performed under his alter ego begin to leak into his daily life via disturbing dreams. Boyd’s sleuthing uncovers some disturbing facts about both Walker and Rawlins, the psychiatrists who programmed them, their connections to the MKUltra assassination program and the IRA hits. What are CIA assassin programmers doing in the UK, and why are they having people offed for MI6?

Boyd is faced with a moral dilemma: does he go along with his superiors’ desire to bury the scandal in the interest of transatlantic spook relations, or does he seek justice for the pawns of the hypno-assassin program whose lives they ruined? The story has the sort of cynical ending that you find in a lot of British spy fiction, which you’ll never get in more popular spy fiction novels but no doubt has more resemblance to the realities of shadow warfare. Anyone imagining that shadow warfare is some kind of morality play, where there are good guys and bad guys and the former always win, is surely living in a fantasy world!

While the set up of this story is excellent, the execution was a bit off. The narrative is very disjointed in the first half; it jumps from location to location, introducing characters and plot threads that didn’t seem connected. It’s hard to maintain any narrative tension when you’re not sure who the protagonist is and you’re bouncing around every page or two, though this gets better in the second half as Boyd’s investigation becomes the focus. My other complaint is that the story lacks action and intensity; it’s a bit too political and cerebral, more John le Carré than Jack Higgins, which is not how I prefer my spy thrillers. There were a few short, intense scenes of violence and a bit of shadow operating, but not enough for my liking.

I don’t know if this is typical of Allbeury, but for now I’ll put him in the category of interesting authors who are worth reading further when I’m in the mood for less pulpy spy fiction.

Get a copy of Pay Any Price here.