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.

A Thousand Words: Snakes On A Plane

Snakes On A Plane

One of the first “internet meme movies”, the Samuel L. Jackson epic Snakes On A Plane has a title that, like The Death Of Stalin, describes the movie perfectly. As part of a convoluted scheme to eliminate a murder witness, a crate full of crazed snakes are set loose in a 747 flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles. And that’s basically the entire plot of the movie. This is not a character drama or deep film.

Thankfully, it is an enjoyable one. It’s actually an heir to the 1970s disaster movies more than anything else, which got plenty ridiculous by themselves. Embracing the ridiculousness, it serves as a wonderfully stupid and crazy spectacle. You’re not watching this for the sake of a good movie. You’re watching this for the sake of a fun one. And it’s very, very fun.

Review: PROMIS

PROMIS

Jack Murphy’s PROMIS series tells the story of wandering mercenary Sean Deckard as he makes his way around Cold War battlefields. A collection of short, action-packed novellas, it kind of reminded me of, well, Barry Sadler’s Casca of all things. Just replace the immortality curse with a super-prediction computer equation thingy in the background (the titular PROMIS system) and you have these books-kind of.

It’s like Casca in that it was created and written by a genuine special forces veteran, and like Casca in that it sets out a justification to plop the main character in action set pieces. The three published locations are Vietnam, Rhodesia, and South Africa. Not that it’s much worse than any other cheap thriller in practice, but I’d prefer a slightly less iffy location than both of those two. Even Central America would be better…

…Especially because, unlike Casca, there’s no real attempt at creating the surrounding scene outside of action sequences at all. While Casca had theme parks and parades of famous historical figures, this doesn’t even have that. Even by cheap thriller standards the characterization is really, really, really bare. The action is at least decent, even if it has the “try to have its cake and eat it too by trying to be both semi-grounded and spectacular” problem. But that’s not enough to raise the series to even a “51%” level.

Thankfully, I know that Murphy can do a lot better. Go read the far superior and awesomely titled Gray Matter Splatter instead of these.

Review: The Body Man

The Body Man

Eric Bishop’s The Body Man is a remarkable piece of thriller writing. This tale of an extra-secret Secret Service man has managed to dethrone past champion Marine Force One for the “most adequately middling novel” crown. It incorporates every plot trait of a cheap thriller-the agent heroes, the high-level conspiracy, the Russians, the Arabs, the action-in a simply adequate fashion.

It’s never actually bad, even if it’s a little longer than it probably should have been. But it never really becomes, or even tries to become more than what it ends up being. Which is the most solidly “median 51%” book I’ve read in a long, long time. The action is neither bad nor excellent. The stakes are not too low but not too high either. You get the idea. It’s weirdly distinct because of its “genericness”. And that’s not a small feat.

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: Brink of War

Brink of War

Logan Ryles’ Brink of War is a rather strange action thriller. It’s equal parts 51% action thriller that plods along just fast enough and just well enough to be sufficient (when it’s focused on that), tepid attempt at a technothriller that falls short because of how little research is done on the various pieces of military equipment mentioned (at times it comes close to Ian Slater levels of inaccuracy) and justification sequences. Yes, justification sequences.

See, the premise of the book is that action hero Reed Montgomery (again with the action hero names) is sent to investigate the mysterious downing of this plane called, uh, Air Force One in eastern Turkey. And despite being in one of the most militarized regions of the world, the Americans need an action hero who’s in Latin America at the start of the book. I don’t mind contrivances, but this spends way too much time dwelling on its justification for having an action hero.

So a third of the book is a “decent enough” action hero novel. But two thirds of it are not. I guess that makes it uh, a 16.83% book? Whatever it is, there’s sadly much better cheap thrillers out there.

Review: US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism

US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11

Because of my current “itch” for material involving nuclear weapons, I knew I had to read Liverpool University professor David Seed’s US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11. In spite of its title, this covers material written long before 2001. As I love highbrow analyses of lowbrow fiction, I dug deep into this book.

Doing more than just digging into stuff like The Sum of All Fears, Seed in fact wades through the Augean Stables of fiction that makes up what I’ve dubbed the “shoot the terrorist” subgenre. To have read so many books of that nature seems astounding even to me, who loves cheap thrillers. Some are books that I’ve read from big names like Tom Clancy and Mario Puzo (Fears and The Fourth K). Some are from series that I’ve heard of (like SEAL Team Seven). Others are extremely obscure and unknown to me prior to seeing Seed’s compilation.

This isn’t perfect. At times the book gets a little too stereotypically “academicese” in it writing, and there are the occasional typos here and there. And while it sounds like a clickbait video, I’d have loved to see someone with more technical knowledge critique the plausibility of many of these scenarios. Seed tries and often does a good job, but an actual nuclear expert could probably do better.

But it’s something very near and dear to my heart, and as a review of thriller fiction, I remain in awe of this smooth narrative. Where else could I hear of books like Thomas Fillinger’s Chameleon’s Shadow, where Seed mentions the following plot point in a deadpan fashion:

“Detroit is destroyed when a nuclear bomb detonates by accident, but this proves to be a sideshow from the main search for the leader of the conspirators, who are all depicted as stereotyped fanatics.

It’s plots like that that make me love my reviews. And this brave struggle of a book has warmed my heart. I mean, even I probably couldn’t make it through that many “shoot the terrorist” novels without gaining an insatiable urge to lick the Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot. It’s not Seed’s fault, but so many plot elements repeat throughout his summaries: Warheads stolen by/sold to the antagonists and the dreaded “suitcase nukes” are two of the most common. Granted, this comes with the cheap thriller territory, and these kind of books succeed or fail more on execution than concept, but still.

There are definitely a lot more terrorist nuke books than conventional WW3 books, and this does a great job covering them and (however accidentally) showing the different subgenres of thrillers.

Review: Tarnsman of Gor

Tarnsman of Gor

The Gor series is perhaps the most infamous science fiction one ever. Yet you’d never know it from the beginning entry, Tarnsman of Gor. What that is is a somewhat sleazier and really, really blatant John Carter of Mars knockoff. As transported Earthman Tarl Cabot goes to a world of barbarians, slavery, and giant birds (the titular “tarns”), a clunky narrative ensues.

The series devolved fairly quickly into what is best known as slave sleaze, where it becomes filled with blocky rants about how men holding women as slaves is the best, most natural form of society, and how many Earthwomen suddenly find themselves loving being slaves. This isn’t as present in the first installment, but Cabot is still not exactly the most ideal protagonist.

More interesting than the blocky prose is how the series got its reputation: I mean, there’s certainly no shortage of outright and far more explicit sleaze fiction, whether in the 1960s-70s or today. So why do sci-fi/fantasy fans turn their anger more on Gor and not those? I’d argue that it’s because it makes the fig leaf of “sword and planet adventure” too blatant, putting it in a different standard. Even Dray Prescot got into mocking Gor, naming a barbaric continent of slavers “Gah”.

But yeah, even in the early, less problematic books, I can unhesitatingly say: Skip Gor. Author John Norman rivals William W. Johnstone for “worst mainstream published author”, and that is no small feat.

Review: Redux

Redux

The second book in Steven Konkoly’s Black Flagged series of thrillers, Redux sadly doesn’t live up to either its predecessor Alpha or the later Deep Sleep. Granted, it took me a while to read it because of too close things-first, it involved killer diseases, second, it involved Russia, but I finally got around to it. It’s still not exactly the worst thriller ever, but it’s not the author’s best, unfortunately.

While the action isn’t exactly bad per se, the book still bounces around too much from character to character and place to place. This combined with the frequent exact spelling out of every weapon and accessory makes it look like a Gold Eagle book-and not in a good way. Even the best players can swing and miss, and this is a miss.

Review: Africa Burning

Africa Burning

Back when I was young, I made a horrendously negative review of Gavin Parmar’s Africa Burning, talking about how little sense the tale of a giant army of T-90s and M113s (really) appearing in the Chadian desert to charge up into the modernized, reformed, opened Libya made. (Boy did that “prediction”, made pre-2011, about the direction of the country, age poorly).

Now, well, I have a soft spot for this amateur Ian Slater/technothriller/shoot the terrorist-wannabe novel. It reads like someone acting out their action hero fantasies after seeing and reading a lot of relevant fiction, and the earnest, genuine quality of it has made me smile. I may not recommend actually reading it, but at least I don’t have a bad feeling towards it anymore.