Oct 252012
 

Able Team #4: Amazon Slaughter, by Dick Stivers
March, 1983 Gold Eagle Books

It’s been too long since I’ve returned to the work of GH Frost. His contribution to the Able Team series, #8: Army of Devils, is one of the best pieces of action pulp ever, a tour de force of madness and gore, up there with the Phoenix saga. Amazon Slaughter at times approaches that unhinged level, but not quite. It more than makes up for it with the high-quality level of Frost’s writing, which again is leagues above the genre norm.

The copyright page credits the book to “CJ Shiao,” but Frost acknowledges it as his own on his website. I think Frost, again working under an alias (“LR Payne”) also wrote the first and third volumes of the series (I don’t believe he wrote the second one, though – that was Norman Winski), but I haven’t read them. At any rate this fourth volume ushered in an unbroken set of installments Frost turned in for the series, though apparently he was removed from it; his comments on his blog and also those he left on my review for Army of Devils suggest that he didn’t quite get along with Gold Eagle.

Frost’s comments make it sound that GE was unhappy with his work, or at least the direction he was taking with the characters. This is just more indication that Gold Eagle never understood quality men’s adventure and just wanted to churn out the same old “terrorist of the month” shit…and more indication why you’d have to pay me to read the majority of the books they’ve published. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the book at hand, which is a piece of quality men’s adventure.

The Able Team trio (Carl Lyons, Gadgets Schwartz, and Pol Balancales) are sent down into the Amazon due to recent evidence of a plutonium factory somewhere in the jungle, in an uncharted region of the map claimed by Bolivia. We readers know that the factory is under the control of Wei Ho (fetchingly named “Death incarnate” on the back cover), a Chinese warlord who employs a Khmer Rogue assassin as his security chief, as well as an army of mercenaries from around the world.

Wei Ho’s army ransacks the native Indian population (the Xavante), decimating entire villages. They kidnap the healthy and force them to work at the plutonium plant, which itself is a death sentence, as every Indian they’ve forced into bondage has died from working around the plutonium. All of which is to say that there’s a lot of death and bloodshed and misery going on here, and Frost really builds it up, showing the horrors of the Xavante in gruesome and excruciating detail.

Able Team is quickly on the scene, voyaging down into the jungle where they hook up with a group of Xavante warrirors. I believe this must’ve been the introduction of the Atchisson assault shotgun to the series, as Lyons has one and must explain it to his comrades. As is customary there’s a lot of witty banter between the trio, with lots of ragging and good-natured putdowns.

Even better there’s a touch of the psychedelic, when Lyons smokes some sort of substance with the Xavante. Pretty soon he’s gone native, painting himself in the black goup the Xavante make from genipap, covering themselves in it to ward off insects and to mask themselves with the terrain. Lyon’s mind is somewhat blown, and more banter ensues as Pol and Gadgets try to determine how gone he really is.

A goodly portion of the novel in fact is given over to Able Team working with the Xavante as they journey deeper into the Amazon. There are a few firefights here and there, most notably one in which they attack a group of mercenaries while they’re hauling around prisoners. One of the escaped prisoners is a young Brazilian army lieutenant named Silveres, who after initial hostility starts to help the team.

Action scenes are rendered very well, even if none of them have the savagery of Army of Devils. Frost is really good at getting you in the heads of his characters, for example Silveres as he volunteers to swim off alone through piranha-infested waters to sneak attack a ship filled with Khmer Rogue and turncoat Brazilian soldiers.

Strangely we get Wei Ho’s backstory toward the very end of the novel, as Able Team receives intel on his history. While this chapter is enjoyable, documenting how Wei Ho turned his family’s drug and crime business into an empire, blackmailing powerful communists in China, it just seems so out of place this late in the game. Even stranger is that Wei is so quickly brushed off in the last pages of the book, not nearly given the villain’s farewell you’d expect of such an evil character.

And for that matter, the finale itself is rushed. Two of Wei’s top henchmen just disappear from the narrative, and instead Able Team and the Xavante launch a dawn raid on the mercenary camp. Again, it’s a gory scene, with lots of heads exploding and guts spilling, but still nothing on the level of Frost’s later masterpiece. And again unlike Army of Devils, Amazon Slaughter just rushes to a conclusion. There’s no wrapup or even any real resolution, just a bunch of dead Cambodians and mercenaries. It’s as if Gold Eagle lost some of the pages of Frost’s manuscript during the printing process.

But for all that it was still an enjoyable book. The rapport of the team really sets this series apart from others, with the Able Team guys coming off like the soldiers in Gustav Hasford’s Short Timers, ribbing each other with that same sort of dark and morbid sense of humor. Frost returned with the next installment, Cairo Countdown, even though it too was credited to another author (Paul Hoffrichter). I’ll be reading that one next.
May 022012
 

Stony Man #83: Doom Prophecy, by Douglas Wojtowicz
June, 2006 Gold Eagle Books

Able Team and Phoenix Force were canceled as individual series in the early 1990s, but lived on collectively as the Stony Man series, in which both teams would together take on the latest global or domestic threat. As of this writing there are a whopping 119 volumes of this series in print. Could you imagine reading all of them?? You'd probably put a bullet in your brain afterwards -- though, these being Gold Eagle books, by that time you'd be able to identify the bullet as say a 5.56x45mm NATO round with a 62 grain Steel Penetrator lead core full metal jacket.

Yes, friends, we are back in the world of Gold Eagle and its overwhelming love of gun-porn. Vast sections of this publisher's novels have often read like copy from a gun catalog. Gold Eagle is the last man standing in the world of men's adventure publishing, which is a shame, for in many ways their offerings are the worst of the genre. Whereas in my opinion these action series should offer escapism, Gold Eagle instead tries to make everything "realistic," with the end result being that their books are dour, bland, and boring affairs, filled with cipher-like "heroes" who, when they aren't killing people, just sit around and clean their guns.

The biggest surprise is that sometimes a Gold Eagle book offers a bit of promise, something different than the standard "terrorist of the month" gimmick. Doom Prophecy is a case in point. There are rave reviews for this novel over on mackbolan.com; the author, Douglas Wojtowicz, is a fan favorite. And to be sure he does seem to have fun with his novels, pulping them up with oddball villains and crazy threats. He's also relatively new to the Gold Eagle stable, but to date has already turned out 30-some books in various Gold Eagle series. He also has an obvious fondess for the characters and their world, so it's a good sign that there's at least one Gold Eagle writer who is willing to do something different than the norm. But to be sure, the reader must still be prepared for the Gold Eagle trademark of endless action sequences and weapons fetishizing.

The villains here are pretty great, the best part of the novel; they're much in the line of the sort of villains you would encounter in the pulpier 1970s examples of the genre. For one, there's a Vietnamese lady who, as a young girl, watched as her mother was murdered by a US soldier in 'Nam. Years later, attempting to gain vengeance, the girl was raped by the same man, now a high-ranking government official. And now, in the present, she is a self-styled "cyber prophetess" who has named herself Ka55andra, after the mythical oracle-spouting character Cassandra. She heads up a globe-spanning terrorist cell called AJAX, and is now finally bringing her plans of vengeance to fruition, while also sowing hell in general.

Even better are the various henchmen who work for AJAX. First and foremost there's Algul, a dude who not only wears a mask made of human skulls, but also a cape of human skin -- each patch of flesh adorned with a military tattoo, Algul having stitched it together from the hides of US soldiers he has killed. Oh, and he enjoys drinking blood. He also commands a legion of mud-encrusted zombies in all but name, shambling creatures who tear up out of the ground and attack en masse any who stand in their way, eating their flesh. Crazy stuff for sure. There's also a trio of assassins: one a dwarf, the other a tall and thin guy who compares himself to a boa constrictor, and finally a big biker dude whom Wojtowicz actually names "David Lee Haggar." And on top of that there's even a small army of ninjas, lead by a self-proclaimed "American Ninja" named Wilson Sere, who goes around with his gorgeous blonde Argentenian lover Terremota, an explosives expert.

I mean, all of these characters seem to have walked out of, say, Black Samurai #6: The Warlock. But for some strange reason, Wojtowicz does little to exploit the potential of the villains. All told, he only spends a handful of scenes with them, instead focusing the entirety of the tale on the bland and boring members of Phoenix Force and Able Team. I know this is a strange criticism, to blame an author for giving the focus to the stars of the book, but still. When your villains are this interesting -- and when there are so many of them -- I think it would be a bit more entertaining for the reader to actually read about them. Because as it is, the Phoenix Force and Able Team guys just put you right to sleep.

It's been about twenty-five years since I've read a Phoenix Force novel, so it was humorous to see that the same stock epithets are still employed -- Encizo is the "powerful Cuban," Calvin James is the "tall ex-Navy SEAL," Manning is the "big Canadian." Like we're reading the Iliad or something! Changes have occurred since my last encounter with the Force, though; Katz, the elderly Israeli leader of the team (who as I recall was a missing a hand, and, Army of Darkness style, would put various weapons in the empty socket), has apparently bought the farm and the team is now lead by McCarter, a former SAS soldier. A new character has been introduced in Katz's wake: TJ Hawkins, a vague nonentity who appears to be from Texas and is some sort of special forces type.

The guys from Able Team, as always, are a bit more colorful. Carl Lyons, the leader, is still prone to violent outbursts, and I know this is Lyons's "thing," but I wonder when this happened? In the Executioner novels I've read by creator Don Pendleton, Lyons is presented as a level-headed guy. But then, he also has a wife and kid in those early Pendleton books, and given that they're never mentioned in the Gold Eagle books, I'm guessing something must've happened to them, something that created the anger-prone Lyons of the Gold Eagle world. Anyway, throughout Doom Prophecy Wojtowicz keeps alive the Able Team tradition of witty banter amid the team members, showing their longstanding camaraderie, doing a great job of keeping the spirit of the characters alive.

Ka55andra initiates her mission and havoc breaks out across the globe. Able Team tracks down the aforementioned David Lee Haggar in the US and gets in some fights with bikers. Phoenix Force splits up, one half of the team going to Africa to take on Algul's zombie forces, the other half going to Hong Kong to take on Wilson Sere, Terremota, and the ninjas. And from there it's action, action, action.

That is, other than the scenes which take place in Stony Man headquarters, detailing the very 24-esque activities of the Stony Man "cyber team." It's like we're back in CTU and watching Chloe and the gang trace various threats while reporting on them to Jack Bauer in the field; my assumption is that Gold Eagle has added all of this tech warfare nonsense as a gambit to draw in the military fiction crowd. I mean, just look at that stupid damn cover Doom Prophecy is graced with. It might as well just be emblazoned with "Tom Clancy Presents."

But anyway, I do not exaggerate about the action onslaught. Every place Able Team or Phoenix Force goes, they are attacked. Over and over again. There's even a scene where Encizo and James catch a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and even on the damn flight they are attacked by a team of ninjas! Wojtowicz can write a good action scene, and throughout he displays his knowledge of firearms and bladed weaponry. But after a while you want a little breather. And again, given that this is a Gold Eagle novel, the endless action scenes lack the nutzoid spark of a Joseph Rosenberger -- they are all relayed in a sort of real-world format, which I find strange in this post-9/11 world.

And now let's look at the gun-porn, a longstanding hallmark of Gold Eagle. Every time a person pulls out a gun, we get like four sentences describing it, no matter what's going on in the narrative. The characters themselves even discuss the various weapons, info-dumping blocks of detail about their rifles or knives or whatever. Hell, there are even scenes where, during combat, the heroes will taunt their opponents about their poor choices in weaponry -- in particular I'm thinking of a scene where a member of Able Team derides an opponent for using a gun "without a slide-action," or something to that effect.

Again, I realize it's stupid of me to complain about gun-porn in an action novel; it would be like buying a Harlequin Romance and complaining about all of the flowery dialog. But what has always most annoyed me about gun-porn is that it ruins any sort of tension or suspense. Just check out this scene, which occurs as a special forces soldier is attacked and overrun by Algul's zombies -- a tension-filled scene, mind you, which is suddenly ruined as Wojtowicz tells us all about the soldier's nifty gun:

Wild eyes rimmed with red focused on him and his team, and he brought up his Barrett M-486. The Barrett was an M-4 rifle that had been chambered for the new Special Forces 6.8 mm special purpose cartridge as an improvement over the smaller 5.56 mm NATO round. Grabbing the rail-mounted forward grip to stabilize it, he flipped the rifle to full-auto and fired through the gap between the door and frame of the downed aircraft, spitting a stream of SPC rounds.

Start taking notes, 'cause there's gonna be a quiz later:

Encizo backed his pair of Glocks with a 7.65 mm Walther PPK. While he was a fan of Heckler and Koch weapons, the excellent 9 mm USP wasn't as ubiquitous as the Glock, and finding spare magazines around the world would be more difficult. As well, the brand new P-2000 compact didn't share the Glock-26's record or reliability, nor the capability to use the larger USP's magazines.

And here's a third example, because everything comes in threes:

He picked up an M-3 submachine gun. In .45 ACP, the weapon was a standard with the US Army for a period of thirty-five years before being gradually phased out. However, being cheap and easy to build, it showed up in arsenals around the world.

There's stuff like this throughout the book. And again I realize, this sort of thing is not only expected but demanded by the core Gold Eagle readers. Wojtowicz proves himself a master of the craft, but it's just not a craft I'm crazy about. Actually the one thing I learned from Doom Prophecy is that I can't consider myself a "core" Gold Eagle reader. Elaborate gun and weapon detail just wears me down to the point where I start to hate life and just wish Flanders was dead. It's all just so blatant and annoying and, ultimately, pointless. I just kept wanting to shout, each time some dude would whip out a gun and we'd get endless detail about it: Who fucking cares??

But the hell of the thing is -- the core Gold Eagle readers do care. There are really people out there who want to read a few paragraphs explaining some Heckler & Koch submachine gun. And believe it or not, these people (whoever they are), will write angry letters when they see something incorrectly described about the gun. But for me this real-world focus just destroys the escapism, the lurid quotient, the fun of the genre. Rather than the fun pulp of say John Eagle Expeditor, most of these Gold Eagle books are just depressing, and ultimately forgettable.

That is, save for the ones by Wojtowicz. I have a few more of his books and they all look promising -- not to mention that they're all raved about over on mackbolan.com. As I say, he definitely knows what he's doing. He knows his core readers and he knows what they want, and he delivers. And as mentioned he has an obvious fondness for the characters. He also has a definite knack for coming up with memorable villains, as proven here with Doom Prophecy. Personally though I would've preferred more scenes from their perspective, or even more background on them. But I guess you can't blame the guy for making the stars of the book, you know, the stars of the book.

But then, I'm biased. I much prefer the original incarnations of the genre, from the '70s and '80s. And whereas I and other reviewers around the Web enjoy reading and writing about those men's adventure novels from 30 and 40 years ago, I'll bet you good money that no one will be writing about these current Gold Eagle books a few decades from now. They just aren't much fun. And I don't even blame the writers. All of the stock epithets, the gun references, the "real-world" attitude, all of that stuff I'm betting is mandated by the editors.

In a way, it's almost like Gold Eagle is committing willful suicide. Given the lack of marketing for the imprint, the minimal web presence, and the fact that the books are steadily disappearing from the shelves of bookstores and department stores (K-Mart, I've read, is just one such store that has stopped carrying Gold Eagle books), I'm guessing that parent company Worldwide Library is just letting these novels trickle out, doing little to improve or differentiate them, until the day comes when they can finally (and happily) announce that profits have dropped too much to continue publishing, and thus the adventures of "the Stony Man warriors" et al will come to a close.
Feb 272012
 

Able Team #2: The Hostaged Island, by Norman Winski and LR Payne
June, 1982 Gold Eagle Books

These early Gold Eagle novels are turning out to be much better than I expected. This one in particular comes off like an action-packed B movie, with an army of bikers taking over the peaceful island of Catalina, right off the California coastline. The three-man Able Team is called in to take care of the problem. Or, as team leader Carl Lyons succinctly puts it: "Kill them all."

The novel plays out very much like the '70s incarnation of men's adventure novels, with a lurid vibe and pulpish plot and villains. In other words, the imprint hasn't yet devolved into the nuke-of-the-month/Team America jingoism of later years. It does though uphold the Gold Eagle philosophy of, "Everything will be fine as long as you have a gun." It also makes cursory mention of the right wing bias that would also become so prevalent in later Gold Eagle offerings; when helicoptering to the island, Able Team is informed by their boss Hal Brognola that the civil rights of the bikers have been "suspended." IE, no need to worry about law and order or prosecution; just kill the bastards.

The writing however is quite good. The cover credits the book to Don Pendleton (who had nothing to do with it) and house name Dick Stivers, but the copyright page of the book credits authors Norman Winski and LR Payne. Winski published several novels over the years, but Payne is a mystery; the only credits to his name are the first three Able Team novels. I suspect the name was the psuedonym of a Gold Eagle editor who polished these early manuscripts to better fit the burgeoning Gold Eagle house style; what makes me suspect this is the last chapter of the novel, which has nothing to do with what came before, and seems to be written by a different author. In it Able Team basically sits around and waits to meet up with Mack Bolan. It just struck me as something an editor might add to the book to remind readers that the Able Team boys are part of a larger universe.

The takeover of Catalina is taut and well-rendered. The bikers are all well armed and, in a prefigure of Chuck Norris's Invasion USA, infiltrate the island in the dead of night and seal it off from the rest of the world. What makes the novel fun though is that the bikers act like bikers, and not like a commando force; most of them would rather tear across the streets on their choppers, get drunk, get high, and mess around with the local women. After killing the sheriff and making a call to the governor with their demands, the bikers imprison the island residents in a community center and bide their time until their demands are met.

A few islanders manage to escape and arm themselves, killing a few bikers and finding cover. But the brunt of the rescue of course goes to Able Team, who are quickly called into action, as the government wants to keep the takeover a secret. Winski does a fine job of juggling the three characters, meaning that the novel doesn't come off solely focusing on just one of them. Also, there's great rapport between the three, including a lot of enjoyable banter, even while the bullets are flying. This again lends the novel a B movie feel.

The Gold Eagle focus on guns also factors in when Able Team is equipped with their firepower for the mission. Their gun supplier lays out all of the equipment, going on and on about each piece. Literally paragraph after paragraph of firearm detail that will likely have gun-porn enthusiasts reaching for the Lubriderm. And of course following the old "rifle hanging on the wall" dictum of Chekhov, each firearm is shown in action as the novel unfolds. Winski excels in the action scenes, pouring on the graphic violence and gore.

The Hostaged Island has the one plot and follows it through to the end. Since the novel isn't long, it all works out perfectly. We know of course that Able Team will survive the mission, so Winksi plays up some truly dramatic scenes with the island residents and their constant danger. He even works in some great stuff like when the bikers keep getting nailed by this secret "commando team" (Able Team of course striking from and returning to the shadows) and so decide to take out their rage on the residents. This involves a plan to basically spray everyone in the community center with gasoline and set them on fire. Winski provides excellent revenge material as well; he makes these bikers truly evil, and all of them get their comeuppance in gory and spectacular ways.

I think this was Winski's only Able Team novel, but his contribution here was enjoyable enough that I'll look out for more of his stuff, in particular his three-volume Hitman series, which sounds like a lot of fun.

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