Chant

Chant

In the 1980s, Asian martial arts and mysticism were a very popular motif in men’s adventure books and movies. I have entire shelves of novels from that era about lethal ninja assassins, sinister Eastern mystics and Western martial arts masters trained in the East, usually combined with a larger geopolitical narrative involving payback from World War II, the Vietnam War, or the ambitions of  modern-day Japan or China. I am a big fan of this sub-genre, so when I learned about an obscure three-book series about a Western martial arts master and shadow warrior called Chant, I decided to give the first book a read.

“Chant” is the alias of John Sinclair, an almost superhuman character who is like an ultimate 1980s action hero cross between Jason Bourne, Joe Armstrong (American Ninja) and Rambo. His backstory is a familiar one in ninja fiction: a Westerner raised in post-World War II Japan, trained in the most lethal martial arts by Japan’s greatest masters, a man so gifted that he is taken as an apprentice by Master Bai, the sinister Sensei of a sect of ninjas who harness the power of the Black Flame—the inner darkness and passion that breaks the bonds of traditional martial arts honor to produce the ultimate human killing machines. Later, Sinclair enlists in the U.S. military, where he becomes an elite commando who puts his skills to work killing Communists behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia. In the process he becomes a revered hero of the Hmong people of Laos, who are fiercely resisting the brutal Pathet Lao guerrillas. For reasons that are unclear, Sinclair is betrayed by his own commanders and attacked by CIA assassins, but he manages to kill them and escape. From that point on, Sinclair is a Jason Bourne-like fugitive from shadowy elements of the US government—a master assassin who has become expendable.

A decade and a half later, Sinclair learns that some of his beloved Hmong have immigrated to the USA, where they are being enslaved and terribly abused by a very nasty family of rich industrialists called the Baldaufs. With his strong sense of honor and loyalty to the Hmong, who saved his life during the war, Sinclair goes on the warpath to destroy the Baldaufs and free the Hmong from their tyranny. Sinclair begins hunting down and killing off the industrialists and their henchmen using his superhuman martial arts skills. He employs the clever stratagem of approaching the head of the Baldauf family in the guise of an operative of a secret US agency that wants Sinclair dead, and is willing to help Baldauf for a fee. Sinclair essentially hunts himself with Baldauf’s cooperation, while in the process gaining inside knowledge of the industrialists’ operations so he can more effectively sabotage them.

As all this is going on, Master Bai arrives on the scene, having also been hired by Baldauf to find and eliminate John Sinclair. Bai brings with him three gigantic henchmen and his beautiful granddaughter Soussan, who is as lethal as she is seductive. Chant finds himself irresistibly attracted to Soussan, despite knowing that she is probably Bai’s ultimate weapon to destroy him. Because Bai is not simply out to kill Sinclair for rejecting the Black Flame cult, but to prove its superiority by defeating Chant in an elaborate mental and martial arts contest. The whole thing gets a little ridiculous at this point, as Chant is challenged to defeat Bai’s henchmen, Soussan, and Bai himself, on the threat of his Hmong friends being killed. What follows is a series of staged combats with each henchman, interspersed with Chant’s inner confusion about whether Soussan is a sinister seductress or a sincerely changed woman who wants only to be with Chant and leave the Black Flame behind. The twist ending is violent, melodramatic, ridiculous and mystical, much like this book.

Chant is well-written pulp fiction that reminds me of an Eric van Lustbader novel of that era, at a fraction of the length and with the unnecessary subplots and pretentious writing stripped out. Which should make for a good read. And Chant is a pretty good read, if you don’t mind characters who are too over the top, too skilled, too good and too evil to take seriously. Sinclair is very impressive, but he lacks charisma and never really makes you care about him—he’s like a colder, more brutal and inhuman Mack Bolan. I mean, Mack has no compunctions about blowing away bad guys Dirty Harry-style, but Sinclair takes it to another level, gruesomely murdering people (even puppies!) in a manner usually reserved for villains. He may have a sense of honor, but he also has a streak of Master Bai’s Black Flame still burning in his soul that allows him to kill without mercy.

Anyway, if you’re a sucker for this genre like me you’ll probably enjoy this book despite its flaws. Get a copy of Chant here.

The Invisible Assassins

The Invisible Assassins

As I said in a previous review, Mack Bolan vs. ninjas is a matchup I can’t resist, so when I learned that Mack has tangled with the legendary shadow warriors on several other occasions I decided to track them down. The Executioner #53: The Invisible Assassins was Bolan’s first run-in with ninjas, published in 1983 just as the “ninja boom” was exploding.

The first thing I noticed about the book is the striking cover art by iconic Bolan artist Gil Cohenclick here for the full painting. Take a moment to savor the scene: Bolan in his trademark “blacksuit”, with throwing stars on his belt, his silenced pistol raised to blow someone away, in an elegant Japanese bathhouse with a dead ninja sprawled by the pool in the background. If that doesn’t make you want to read this book, you obviously aren’t my kind of shadow warrior!

The story opens with Bolan witnessing the murder of a Japanese-American computer wizard named Shinoda on the streets of L.A. during some kind of transaction. The killing is carried out almost instantaneously, by a shadowy figure who leaves the body without a mark on it and disappears into the night. When Bolan’s partner is then run over and killed by a cold-eyed Asian driver, Bolan vows to bring this “invisible assassin” to justice. Bolan is soon assaulted by the same figure and barely survivesshaken by the assailant’s ability to get to him without triggering his near-infallible danger instincts. But the attack does trigger Bolan’s eidetic memory, and he recognizes the attacker as Zeko Tanaga, a notorious Red Army Faction terrorist who was thought to have been killed in a terrorist training camp in Yemen. Clearly Shinoda was involved in something very big and bad if he was meeting with Tanaga, and Bolan needs to find out what it was.

Bolan follows his only leads to Tokyo, hoping to identify some faces in photos found in Shinoda’s apartment and track down Tanaga. Posing as an American security consultant, he is soon attacked by thugs with shortened little fingersyakuza. Soon after that, Bolan notices a blonde woman following two of the yakuza goons on the streets, whom he promptly saves by smashing the gangsters’ faces. The blonde turns out to be a graduate student named Sandra who is researching the secret power structures of Japan that led to their involvement in World War II. She has uncovered evidence of a conspiracy of the “Eight Jonin”a cabal of eight powerful warlords who have run Japan from the shadows for centuries and lead a fanatical organization called the “Circle of the Red Sun.”

Bolan’s own research suggests that Shinoda was involved in the development of a revolutionary bio-computing technology, which is somehow connected to notorious war-time Japanese biowarfare research and the Eight Jonin. All signs point to Red Sun Chemicals corporation, which owns a castle overlooking the sea, as the nexus of the conspiracy that killed Shinoda and involves Tanaga, the Circle and the Eighth Jonin. As he is uncovering this information, Bolan is also killing yakuza thugs, narrowly escaping underwater death, being rescued by naked pearl divers and fighting ninjas on top of a bullet train. This guy is a men’s adventure machine!

The story races to a classic Bond-style climax, as Mack and Sandra infiltrate the Big Bad’s castle grounds, which have been maintained as a kind of medieval Japanese theme park, complete with authentically garbed samurai and ninja guards ready to put real arrows, swords and lances into intruders’ vital body parts. There they encounter both the terrorist Tanaga and the Eighth Jonin himselfwho, unsurprisingly, is quite mad, bent on revenge for crimes against his ancestors, and determined to use Mack and Sandra as test subjects for his latest weapons of mass destruction. You can probably guess the rest.

This wasn’t a great read, but I found it entertaining. As a student of ninjas in popular culture, I liked how it’s like a mash-up of many popular ninja books and movies: the title and depiction of ninjutsu were clearly influenced by the first book on the subject in the West, Ninja: The Invisible Assassins by Andrew Adams; the dramatic opening murder using a mysterious killing technique and the conspiracy of powerful Japanese industrialists brings to mind Eric Van Lustbader’s seminal 1980 novel The Ninja; the pursuit of ninjas on the bullet train foreshadowed a scene in the excellent 1995 film The Hunted; the castle by the sea, the pearl divers and the mad Samurai overlord brought to mind the classic 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice (and 1967 film) that introduced ninjas to the Western world. Add Mack “The Executioner” Bolan into the mix, and how can it be bad?

Get a copy of The Invisible Assassins here.

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, stoicism, survivalism, stealth and mysticism—the polar opposite of the modern mentality of instant gratification, egotism, fragility, fear of darkness, transparency, moralism 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 and 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).

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.

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 moviethis 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 controlagainst 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 Tuckera 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.

Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball

Dan J. Marlowe is one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction; his 1962 novel, The Name of the Game is Death, is an all-time classic of the genre, as riveting as Donald Westlake’s debut Parker novel, The Hunter, published the same year. In that novel Marlowe introduced the sharpshooting heistman known by the alias “Earl Drake”, and Drake’s lover and partner in crime, a fiery six-foot redhead named Hazel.  Drake returned in a 1969 sequel called One Endless Hour, written with input from a convicted bank robber named Al Nussbaum who was impressed with Marlowe’s work. That novel tells how Drake got his face reconstructed after the hellish climax of Name of the Game–hence the series subtitle “The man with nobody’s face”.

Marlowe published a third Drake novel in 1969 called Operation Fireball, which began Drake’s transition from an independent hard-boiled criminal like Parker to a government-affiliated adventurer-spy more like the Jack Higgins protagonist Sean Dillon. As the novel opens, Drake is reuniting with Hazel, who he hasn’t seen since he got a new face early in the previous novel. There’s some drama at her ranch with some nasty local kids who are abusing Hazel’s father, but Drake punishes them rather violently and has to make a quick exit.

Back in San Diego, bored and looking for action, Drake is contacted by a criminal associate named Slater and a six foot four ex-navy Viking of a man named Karl Erikson, who tell Drake an exciting story. Apparently two million dollars sent by the U.S. government to the Batista regime in the last days before Castro’s revolution is still at large. The cash was hijacked by Cuban gangsters, and Slater, who was in on the heist, is the only man who knows where it is. Erikson is assembling a crew to go get the money and he invites Drake to be on the team. But the mission is a formidable one: to infiltrate paranoid, revolutionary Cuba, find the cash, and get off the island without getting killed or thrown into Castro’s prisons. Drake accepts, on the condition that Hazel is included on the team.

The novel builds slowly as the crew gathers in a hotel in Key West and prepares for the mission. Gear and weapons are purchased, boats are test-driven, shortwave radios are assembled and plans are made with Erikson’s military precision. Meanwhile, the lecherous Latin boat captain Chico Wilson is making aggressive overtures toward Hazel and Slater is being a reckless drunk, scheming to cross the rest of the team. But Erikson is a commanding presence and he manages to keep the motley crew in line.

In the final third of the novel the narrative finally kicks into overdrive, as Drake’s crew sails to Cuba posing as navy men aboard a U.S. destroyer, Slater finds himself in the brig, and they have to free Slater, get off the heavily guarded Guantanomo Bay base and into Cuban territory. This is where Marlowe really excels: fast, tense action, with flawed, desperate, violent men letting nothing stop them from making a big score. For me he’s right up there with Donald Westlake in this regard, and the international intrigue only adds to the excitement. Because Cuba in the 1960s was a very tense place, controlled by fanatical revolutionaries, its population highly paranoid following the failed CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961 and on the look-out for foreign saboteurs. Marlowe does a great job of capturing the war-time feel of the mission, as the men have to move deep behind enemy lines to Havana and the location of the hidden cash. Once there, Drake takes the lead, using his talents as a thief to break into the facility and get to the loot. There’s a tense climactic scene as they try get off the island, their radio broken and unable to signal to their boatman to be picked up. Then there’s a final twist at the end, as Drake learns who Erikson really is and he doesn’t get what he bargained for from the mission.

After a slow opening, with a little too much time devoted to the setup of the mission, this book was riveting stuff. I questioned sometimes how four Americans, particularly a six foot four Viking, could move through paranoid Cuba without more problems, but Marlowe makes it fairly believable. While not an instant classic like The Name of the Game is Death, this was a great read. If you like the Parker series and the work of Jack Higgins, you should love this. I look forward to reading further installments of the Drake series.

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

Circus

Circus

Alistair  MacLean is one of the greats of old-school adventure fiction and one of the best-selling authors of all time. Though most of his novels involve shadow operations of some kind, I’ve found them a bit less compelling than those of his fellow great, Jack Higgins, and haven’t read too many. I recently picked up MacLean’s 1975 novel, Circus, which combines a “mission impossible”-style op with Cold War espionage, and gave it a quick read.

The story’s protagonist is Bruno Wildermann, a superstar trapeze performer, tightrope walker and mentalist. Bruno is an immigrant to America from an undisclosed eastern European communist country where members of his family were killed by the regime. Not only can he perform seemingly superhuman feats of balance and agility on the high-wire, but he has a photographic memory. This makes him the perfect candidate for a daring CIA operation: to penetrate a top-secret laboratory in Bruno’s homeland where a scientist is developing a devastating anti-matter weapon, take “mental photographs” of the technical documents contained therein and then destroy them.

The first part of the novel sets up the operation, as we’re introduced to Bruno, some of his talented circus mates–including the strongman Kan Dahn, the knife-thrower Manuelo and the lasso-master Roebuck–and his CIA handlers, which includes the beautiful Maria, whose role is apparently to look pretty, admire Bruno and occasionally get hysterical. A couple of murders early on let us know that treacherous parties have infiltrated the circus and are on the scent of the CIA plot.

Things start to get interesting around 100 pages in, as Bruno is finally let in on the details of the mission he is being asked to undertake. He’s to infiltrate the Lubylan laboratory and prison facility where the scientist works and lives. There’s a power line stretching from a power station 300 yards away to the top of the Lubylan building, which Bruno is to walk across without getting fried by the 2000 volts of electricity. If he manages that, he then needs to get into the building without getting shot by guards or eaten by killer Doberman Pinscher guard dogs. His challenge is nicely illustrated in a two-page schematic at the beginning of the book:

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it: walk across a 2000 volt power line 9 stories up…”

As the circus sails across the Atlantic and rolls toward the target country the intrigue ramps up: spies are killed, sleeping compartments are bugged, shady characters are seen tailing Bruno and his mates, and a nasty secret police chief named Colonel Sergius learns of Bruno’s scheme and schemes to take him down. Meanwhile, Maria’s cover as Bruno’s love interest begins to get all too real–a corny romantic sub-plot that I could have done without.

Finally they get to the destination, where Bruno, who has more skills than you would expect of a trapeze artist, pulls off an absurd deception to fool Sergius and throw him off his trail. Then Bruno and his three circus mates undertake the audacious heist, each using his particular skills to climb, walk, rope, knife and muscle their way into the building. This was definitely the novel’s highlight, though the realism was a bit lacking; Bruno and his crew subdue the guards and get inside too easily to make it a really tense scene.

But all of this is just a setup for what MacLean really excels at: not Shadow Op believability, but plot twists, treachery and shock endings. Without spoiling it for you, let’s just say that there are traitors close to Bruno, surprise guests in the Lubylan building, and Bruno’s operation and he himself are not as they appear to be. It’s all a bit too much, like a murder mystery where you’re not entirely clued in and everything ends too tidily to be believable. My other criticism is that MacLean doesn’t bother giving his characters different voices and personalities; they all speak like cynical Oxford-educated Englishmen, including the Eastern European immigrant Bruno and the American CIA men.

It’s too bad, because MacLean had a clever “Mission Impossible” story idea here, the execution was just a bit lacking. This is probably why I haven’t read many of his novels and prefer Jack Higgins, though I understand that MacLean’s best work came years earlier. It wasn’t a bad novel, just very old-school and not as good as it could have been. Get a copy of Circus here.