Review: The Last Great Death Stunt

The Last Great Death Stunt

Clark Howard’s The Last Great Death Stunt is perhaps the strangest and most bizarre book about a man deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge imaginable. Written in the 1970s, it’s basically to Evel Knievel-style feats what the movie Rollerball was to football and other physical sports. It’s a future where the world is so peaceful that conventional sports with winners and losers are so boring and out of focus, they’ve gone under.

Instead, the public’s eye is on ever-crazier “Death Stunts”. However, there is a backlash against even this, and the book begins with the government planning to outlaw them. Before they do, legendary Death Stuntman Nick Bell aims to do one mega-stunt on the final day of legality-leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and survive! The book centers around him, rival Jerry Fallon, and the authorities trying to stop the stunt from taking place.

The execution is only adequate, with prose and plotting worthy of a 51% cheap thriller. There are sleazy secenes you’d expect from a 1970s mass market novel. There are a few too many padding infodumps in a short book.

But the concept, taken completely seriously, is so great that adequate execution still makes for an excellent, if weird book. But I like weird. So I loved The Last Great Death Stunt.

Weird Wargaming: Conventional Bush War

The Rhodesian Bush War passed without a decisive 1975-style conventional campaign. Of the two main guerilla organizations, it was the Ndebele, Soviet-favored ZIPRA that placed more of an emphasis on conventional operations, compared to the majority Shona, China-favored ZANLA’s “people’s war”. A combination of largely successful preemptive strikes by the Rhodesian military and a (smart) focus on inherent strengths than weaknesses by the opposition meant that the large battle never came.

The common wisdom about such an operation “Zero Hour” (as one code name for it was) is that it would be stopped with ease (although it does not help that most surviving prominent sources are either from the ZANLA-veteran regime or former Rhodesians, neither of which has an incentive to talk up their opponent). But even if the first such offensive was stopped with ease, the rebels definitely had the people and enough hand-me-down aid to try multiple times.

Such an offensive would feature the fairly light Rhodesian military against an opposition that would have at least T-34/85s, BTR-152s, appropriate artillery, and even rumors of fighter aircraft. (If said fighter aircraft could disrupt the deployment of the infamous Fire Forces, it would not be good for the Rhodesians). It can obviously be played with any kind of wargaming ruleset that can handle early/mid Cold War equipment and formations.

A Thousand Words: Airport

Airport: The Movie

I was not exactly the fondest of the original novel Airport. So what did I think about the Burt Lancaster movie, which basically created the disaster genre? It was mixed, but I’m willing to give it a break based on its limitations. Having read the book first was not the best way to appreciate the movie, especially as it tracks the plot well. Too well.

First off, the cinematography is dated and clunky. This isn’t the movie’s fault, but it was one of the last “old fluffy Hollywood” movies, and it was made just before movies got more dynamic and more of an edge (the low body count in this compared to later disaster films is something.) But that’s not really its fault.

What I do think is its fault is trying to cram too many subplots from the book into an inherently shorter movie. A looser adaptation would have been preferable, especially because the book is not very movie friendly. It has too much overhang of “look inside an airport” and less focus on the main “a plane is in danger” plot.

Thankfully, the cast and crew are undeniably talented, and they do the best within these limitations. It’s easy to see why it made so many imitators, and at the time, it would have been seen rightfully as a giant spectacle.

Review: The Rich and the Righteous

The Rich and the Righteous

I’d already known why Sidney Sheldon had the appeal that he did. One of his strengths that appealed to a lot of readers (including me), was a very simple, easy, and smooth-flowing writing style. The virtues of this writing become far more apparent when you read another “pop epic” that doesn’t have that advantage. Helen Van Slyke’s The Rich and the Righteous is one such book.

The story of a struggle for corporate control, this is like a specific type of airplane. It has an excellent shape regarding aerodynamics. It has excellent sensors and a cockpit layout. There’s just one small problem: Its engine can’t get it off the ground. Likewise, Van Slyke is one of the blockiest, clunkiest authors I’ve read, and thus what should be interesting just sort of taxis down the runway and then falls into a ditch. Ouch.

Which is a shame. But oh well.

Review: Wheels

Wheels

Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, published three years after Airport, turned its attention to the auto industry. While I’ve been a fairly new study to the aircraft industry, I’ve been interested in cars for much, much longer. So I knew I had to at least try this book. Especially because there are bizarrely few novels about the auto industry’s shenanigans. The biggest names are just this and The Betsy, which barely counts as a coherent book.

This is only somewhat more focused than Robbins’ scattershot, crazed novel. And it’s less focused than Airport. While that had a big broad soap opera and industry exposition that concluded with a rushed thriller plot, this is nothing but a Detroit drama. Or to be more specific, a series of Detroit dramas that range from car design to the struggles of a poor assembly line worker to the not-exactly-scintillating subject of middle class adultery.

I can respect this book for what it is-a lot of the research holds up, even if Hailey once again fell for futurist wonders being just around the corner (room-temperature superconductors in this case). It does work as a snapshot of an utterly rotten industry that was practically begging for the imports to come and whip it into shape (Published in 1971, the only reference to Japanese cars is a Subaru 360-esque “four wheeled motorcycle” that no one likes). But it doesn’t really work as a practical narrative.

Review: Gadget

Gadget

Nicolas Freeling’s Gadget is a book about a terrorist nuclear weapon. It can sort of be described as Red Army (villains win) meets The Sum of All Fears (nuclear terrorism). Only without the strong points of ether and with the latter’s weaknesses.

See, if you really, really loved the scenes in Fears where the nuclear bomb is being constructed, you will like this book. In fact, if the editor had chopped the entirety of that novel down to just the bomb construction scenes and ended the book right when it was successfully brought to the target and detonated, you’d have something very much like Gadget-a dry, technical nuclear tale.

I’ve pondered before why most nuclear terrorism novels were the way they were. The reason is “because it’s more dramatic than this”. If you absolutely need a detailed Herman Melville’s Nuclear Bomb story, this is the book for you. Otherwise, stay away.

Review: The Burma Wars

The Burma Wars

Because Myanmar/Burma features so prominently in my current novel draft, I figure I’d look at George Bruce’s The Burma Wars , a history of the British conquest. There were three large Anglo-Burmese wars, but Bruce mostly concentrates on the first. This is understandable, as the latter two were uninteresting squashes.

Bruce is every bit the Empire fan you’d expect a British pop-historian of the 1970s to be, but he still gives the Burmese credit when due. They were comparably armed, had a knack for building fortifications quickly, and the Anglo-Indian force that went against them was logistically troubled and questionably led. And yet, the British still eventually won, and it only got better/worse from there.

I wouldn’t make an old piece of popular history the sole source on any big historical event, but this at least made for a good starting point. I’m glad I read it.

Review: Manhattan Massacre

Manhattan Massacre

In the mid-1970s, the Mack Bolan inspired “Men’s Adventure” genre reached either its height or its nadir with a trio of series overseen (and often written by) Peter McCurtin. The Sharpshooter, The Marksman, and The Assassin were a jumbled mess of mobster slayers intended purely to be released as quickly as possible. Their sloppiness led to internal inconsistencies in such minor issues as the main character’s name.

Anyway, Manhattan Massacre features interchangeable mobster hunter Robert “The Assassin” Briganti, who joins fellow interchangeable mobster hunters Johnny “The Sharpshooter” Rock and Philip “The Marksman” Magellan on a mobster-killing revenge trip. The book doesn’t really have much of a plot beyond killing mobsters, and its prose is weird. It alternates between long overdescriptive passages (especially concerning weapons, such as the insistence on saying that Briganti carries a Canadian 9mm Hi-Power) and short crude sentences with lots of exclamation points!

This is not a good book, and it’s kind of offensive even by 1970s cheap thriller standards (A scene where Briganti meets Black Power activists is particularly horrible in both political and literary terms) . But it’s weirdly amusing to see a genre at its most frenetic. I did not regret reading this-uh, book.

Review: Diggstown

Diggstown

Leonard Wise’s Diggstown is a 1978 novel about a small town in the Deep South that is obsessed with boxing to the point that it’s named after a local who became a world champion. It’s also about an attempted swindle by a scam artist from up north that leads to boxer Honey Roy Palmer having to run a gauntlet of ten Diggstown dwellers in the ring. A colorful sports thriller, it nonetheless works a lot better as a comparably low-stakes sports novel than when it tries to be a serious thriller.

This unsteady wobbling also applies to its treatment of sensitive and difficult topics. For a 1970s book set in the south, I was pleasantly surprised to see it being tasteful and well-handled in terms of race. Yet the same cannot be said about it regarding its sex scenes. Those are not tasteful or well-handled.

The book also tries to be too setting-focused, taking its time before it finally gets to the climactic boxing matches. Yet once it gets there, those are as well-written as any other good sports fiction. You could do a lot worse than this book if you like boxing or old thrillers.

A Thousand Words: The Assassination of Trotsky

The Assassination of Trotsky

Directed by Joseph Losey and starring Richard Burton as the title character, The Assassination of Trotsky is often placed on many “worst movies ever” lists. It is a well deserved placement. For this is a terrible, terrible movie. And it’s deliberately terrible-it’s not due to circumstances, but due to creative choices.

First off is Richard Burton’s performance. His Trotsky looks like a cheap Colonel Sanders mascot and acts like that aging beatnik professor you had in college and loathed. You will learn absolutely nothing about the historical context from this film. In fact, the only way to make sense of the incoherent plotting is to assume that Losey thought the audience would already know everything historically relevant.

Second is the massive, massive padding. Since it doesn’t take ninety minutes to have an ax hitting someone in the head (SPOILER ALERT!), Losey fills the movie with filler. This includes a scene involving rabbits being raised, a long gondola ride where Stalin’s image appears in the water, and, worst of all, a long and gruesome bullfight scene. The only attempts at suspense involve dragging every scene out and playing minimalist music. This gets old after about, oh, two such scenes.

About the only sympathetic character is Romy Schneider’s “Gita”, who is as confused with the situation and disgusted with the bullfight as the audience is. Sadly, she cannot carry on her own, and is the subject of a padding scene as well.

This is a terrible, terrible mess that’s almost so bad it’s good. Almost.