Icebreaker

UK First Edition

Author: John Gardner
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Published: 1983

In my review of For Special Services, I detailed how it and John Gardner’s third continuation novel, Icebreaker, came into my life, so I won’t rehash that, but if you’ll forgive the self indulgence, I’ll relate another Bondian tale from that very same trip through Asia.

Like any tourist that hits Tokyo, a trip to the Ginza precinct was obligatory – so off the family went. During our travels, we happened across a cinema complex, with various film posters attached to the front window. We must have wandered slightly off the tourist trail, because the signs suddenly didn’t have English translations accompanying them. But little things like language weren’t really a problem unless you wanted to actually communicate with someone.

Never Say Never Again
Japanese Never say Never Again Poster

Unfortunately we ran into such a problem, when I spotted an advance poster for Never Say Never Again, featuring Sean Connery. It was a black poster, with the lower portion of a bikini clad women lying on her side. Tucked through the strap on her bikini bottom, was Bond’s I.D. With a picture of Connery. It was a great teaser, and being a spoilt brat, I really, really wanted this poster. Please forgive my youthful western arrogance.

So we approached a staff member – and my father did most of the talking – and offered a large amount of Yen for the poster. The staff member didn’t speak English but the international language of ‘Connery’ and money conveyed our intention. The staff member wanted to sell the poster, but was clearly not in a position to do so, and had to say no. We walked away empty handed. I still think it’s a great poster, and would love a copy mounted on the wall.

Before I get into Icebreaker, I thought I’d explain my perception of International editions of Gardner’s Bond books. Unlike Licence Renewed and For Special Services (and despite the Illustration above), I do not own a first edition, Jonathan Cape copy of Icebreaker. The edition bought in Taiwan, was based on the American (Putnam?) edition, and I guess it would read very much the same. However the English Coronet paperback edition is slightly different. Not a great deal, but for example the first four paragraphs in the American edition are grouped into one slab in the UK edition. Also some of the commas and other punctuation are moved around. Not that this matters too much, but it does alter the pacing slightly. Funnily enough, by the time of Nobody Lives Forever, there is some quite heavy handed editing in the passages – still telling the same story, but using a different turn of phrase. I am assuming that this is common practice for various international editions, where novels are edited to suit the market that they are being released in. I wonder what author’s think about this? I know from my own simple attempts at writing, I often will write and rewrite a passage attempting to convey the full extent of my message, and keep a certain flow or rhythm happening. Maybe I am being too precious, but after all that work, I be rather perturbed if an editor for another English speaking market, tinkered with a passage and diluted the impact. Note, I am not talking about editing to tighten up and improve the story, I am talking about tinkering with a book that has already been released and adjudged to be the best it can be.

English and American readers are probably asking ‘whatsit matter?’ The funny thing is in Australia, many of the books are imported from both the UK and America. If a book is likely to be a best seller, it will get a print-run here, but a large amount of literature is imported. If something is mega-successful, like Steig Larsson’s books, not only will they be printed here, but also to meet the demand (or sometimes because it is cheaper), they will also be imported. So we have that funny situation where you can move through a shopping centre and find three different versions of the same book. And getting back to my original point about different versions, for different markets, I find it surreal that I can walk into a shopping centre with a friend, and we each go our separate way to buy the same book, and then come back half an hour later with our copies to find them different. Not a big deal, just a fascinating curio in a world which seems to get smaller by the day.

But time to move on to the case at hand – Icebreaker. When I first read Icebreaker, I was hugely disappointed. My problem was that there just way too many double and triple crosses, with characters swapping identities and allegiances. Reading it now, I get a very different impression. Maybe because I know the twists that will occur. However, the book is still the weakest of the three initial Gardner continuation novels, but not for the reasons that annoyed me as a bushy tailed youngster.

Firstly, Bond slips into a 1960s Boysie Oakes style character, chasing all the ‘loverly’ blonde dolly-birds. There was always been a certain amount of sexuality in the Bond stories, but here the tone is wrong. Bond doesn’t seem like Bond, but more like a character from a Timothy Lea novel (or film). Maybe the opening chapter should have been called ‘Confessions of a … Super Spy’. Admittedly, I am probably being a bit harsh there, it just didn’t gel with me. I was rather happy that Bond’s interlude with Paula Vacker was interrupted by two thugs intent on killing him. The fight passage, like all of Gardner’s action sequences in very well handled and rockets along.

The other big problem with the story is the presentation of the villain. He is talked and theorized about for the first two-thirds of the book, but we don’t really meet him. As such, he doesn’t seem like much of a threat. In fact, the real threat to Bond in the constantly changing allegiances of his allies. But to understand all that, you probably need a brief overview of the novel.

In Icebreaker, James Bond is assigned to join a team of international operatives to finally track down and break an neo-Nazi organisation called the National Socialist Action Army or the NSAA for short. These guys have been traipsing all over the world killing anybody who deals or trades with the Eastern Bloc countries.

The team consists of Bond (of course), CIA Agent Brad Tirpitz (known as ‘Bad Brad’ – due to his old school methods)’, Kolya Mosolov – a KGB operative, and Rivke Ingber, a Mossad Operative.

The alleged mastermind behind the NSAA is a gentleman known as Count Von Gloda – a man rumoured to be a wanted war criminal – a former SS officer, Aarne Tudeer.

The first twist comes when it is revealed that Rivke Ingber, is in fact the daughter of Tudeer. She claims that upon finding out about her father’s murderous Nazi legacy, converted to Judaism and trained with Mossad hoping to bring her renegade father to justice. The niggling thing here, is that her employer, Mossad themselves are not sure how much she can be trusted. For the first two thirds of this novels, Gardner keeps all the twists in the story under control. In fact they are enjoyable. Some are more expected than others. But then, it is almost as if Gardner assigned himself the task or literary challenge of implementing as many character twists as possible – that is the characters change allegiance; one minute they’re good guys, Bond’s allies, the next they are villains. The sheer number of switches eroded any credibility the story may have, and from that point on it becomes a literary exercise.

But as I alluded above, that’s not the problem. It’s Bond’s lack of interaction with the villain Von Gloda. Bond only meets him, after being captured, where he is brought him for some megalomaniacal gloating. And then, if you’ll pardon the ‘Incredibles’ reference, the villain starts monologuing.

Then Bond is dragged away to be tortured. And that’s it till the final showdown. Bond and Von Gloda don’t share a relationship – or more importantly Von Gloda and the readers don’t share a relationship. If an early passage in the book had described Von Gloda organising his villainous scheme – and incidentally killing one of his own minions for incompetence (just so we know he is evil) – then when Bond finally confronted Von Gloda there’d be a sense of fulfilled destiny. But instead, the head villain comes off as a secondary character.

This is also one of those stories where Bond seems to step into more traps than carrying out heroic deeds. Most of his daring escapes are aided by other characters – and therefore it could be argued in this story, he is a bit of a goose – in reality a pretty shit spy.

But it’s not all bad, Gardner handles the action well. There’s a very good passage, where Bond, in his car, The Silver Beast, is confronted by three snow plows – all intent on carving him up. And the final destruction of the villain’s lair, The Ice Palace, is pretty good too. Icebreaker is not absolute garbage, but it is a step down from the first two Bond novels by Gardner – so if you’re new to Gardner, I wouldn’t start with this one. It may give you the wrong impression of the series.

For a second opinion, check out The Tainted Archive – Gary liked this one a lot more than I did.

Icebreaker

In the Halls of Evil

Author: T.A. Waters
Publisher:
Lancer Books
Published:
1967
AKA:
The Shewsbury Horror
Cover Illustration: Charles Moll

Since reading Love That Spy, I have been trying to solve the riddle of ‘who’ T.A. Walters is/was. Instead I have stumbled on to a pimple jutting out from the side of the Bond universe.

The book in question is called In the Halls of Evil (apparently also known as The Shrewsbury Terror), and within its pages the character of Sir Miles Messervey is featured. For those not familiar with Sir Miles, in Ian Fleming’s The Man With the Golden Gun, it was revealed that Sir Miles Messervy was ‘M’. Note the additional ‘E’ in In The Halls of Evil spelling of Messerv(e)y.

So here we have a book featuring ‘M’, but just to confuse things, the story (and ‘M’) is located in America. However Sir Miles is still English, smokes a pipe etc., and now is the head of FIRES (Facility Investigating Research Experimental Submarines) – does that acronym even make sense to you? Maybe FIRES is the opposite of ICE, the outfit that Matt Helm worked for?

I have never come across any reference to this ‘crossover’ before, and most likely it was done without any permission from Glidrose (the copyright holder of the literary Bond). Perhaps it’s an in-joke perpetrated by the author, of which Lancer, the publishers of this book, were unaware? Or maybe the extra ‘E’ in the spelling of the name, means they can claim it is a different character.

The story begins with a special agent, Raymond Stuart, arriving at FIRES HQ with a gentleman named Dr. Claudius Nine (Claude Nine/Cloud Nine – get it?) for a briefing with Sir Miles. At reception is Anne, the primary character in this tale, and upon seeing Raymond, she immediately falls for the dashing young man – love at first sight.

After a whirlwind courtship, Anne and Raymond are married. She gives up her position at FIRES, and moves to the village of Morlith, where Raymond lives in his creepy ancestoral home, Shrewsbury Hall.

As you have no doubt guessed, my reading diet doesn’t stray too far from spy stories and thrillers, and as such, I can’t really say that I am an expert on Gothic novels. A simplified overview of Gothic novels would suggest that they take some of the tropes associated with horror stories, such as remote haunted mansions, and a sinister cast of supporting characters, and throw a pretty young, single female into the mix. The young woman is usually naïve, sweet and innocent, and finds herself under threat from some unknown, possibly supernatural, forces. However, despite the setup, rarely are there any supernatural elements involved.

In The Halls of Evil ticks most of those boxes. The primary difference being that Anne is newly-wed when she makes her journey to Shrewsbury Hall – the haunted mansion in the story. But, she has only been married a couple of days after a whirlwind courtship, so she doesn’t really know her husband, Raymond Stuart – and initially he doesn’t prove to be an ally – or for that matter, sexually attracted to her at all.

Anne upon arrival at Shrewsbury Hall and is immediately creeped out by a portrait of one of the former tenants of the Hall, Raymond’s Great Grandmother, Alice Shrewsbury. Both Anne and Alice have the same facial features. As an adjunct here, and I am guessing it was a mistake, from an earlier draft of the novel, that slipped through into the final print – in one sentence, Alice Shrewsbury is referred to as Alice Crowley (I am sure I don’t need to point out the similarities of her name to Aleister Crowley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleister_Crowley)

In the library, Anne find Alice’s journal that tells the sordid tale of how she was repeatedly raped by a sea God named either Dicken, or Dagon – of course, this creeps Anne out further. So she goes for a walk along the creepy beach, and guess what she sees (or imagines she sees)? the sea God rising from the reef.

I must admit, I found all this stuff rather stodgy, most of the plot in the middle part of the novel concerns Anne jumping at shadows and feeling threatened by an unknown threat. It isn’t the most absorbing reading – and those who are paying attention, may put two and two together – Spy story (FIRES) + Sea God – and guess exactly where this story is going.

I found In the Halls of Evil to be a rather flat and jumbled novel. There seems to be too many ideas going on here, and none of them are really expanded into anything meaningful and satisfying. The actual spy story, is really just a set of bookends – at the beginning and end – to what is essentially a pretty limp Gothic novel.

Now is the T.A. Waters who wrote this book, the same one who wrote The Psychedelic Spy and Love That Spy? To be truthful, I do not know. This story is very different in style to Love That Spy, which was written in a tough first person style. In the Halls of Evil, however is more akin to a Mills & Boon novel – but (almost) with spies.

As another strange adjunct, (the usual tenuous conjecture that I seem to specialise in), when I started reading this novel, the character name Raymond Stuart immediately reminded me of the name Raymond Shaw who was the protagonist in The Manchurian Candidate. But as the names were different, I put it to the back of my mind. But something kept nagging at me. So I went to Wikipedia and looked up The Manchurian Candidate, which revealed this little snippet.

In 1998, software engineer C.J. Silverio noted that several long passages of the novel seemed to be borrowed, almost word for word, from Robert Graves’ 1934 novel I, Claudius. Forensic linguist John Olsson judged that “There can be no disputing that Richard Condon plagiarized from Robert Graves”.

In the book, In The Halls of Evil, Stuart was working with Dr. Claudius Nine. Maybe I am stretching things here a little, but is this a reference that author T.A. Waters had noted Condon’s plagiarism? Mmmm? Food for thought, anyway.

In the Halls of Evil

Fighting Femmes, Fiends and Fanatics

If you haven’t been watching Steve Mayhem’s Fighting Femmes, Fiends and Fanatics series, you are really missing out on some fantastic reviews of cult cinema. Actually, ‘reviews’ is the wrong word – these are mini documentaries, highlighting all that is good and bad in these productions.

Embedded here is Episode 10 – which looks at the Eurospy flick Killers Are Challenged, and this 10 minute clip captures everything I love about Eurospy films.

But don’t just stop there. Go back and watch all the previous episodes in the series – you’ll be glad that you did.

Thanks for the shout out – Steve!

Fighting Femmes, Fiends and Fanatics

Tom Jones: Live Caesars Place

Varése Saraband Records – Re-issue (1971)

I found my knife in my hand, and she laughed no more!

As production techniques got better in the late 60’s and early 70’s, songs began to get really big. Added to usual band line ups, were string and brass sections and girl backing vocal groups. Through all this came a new type of song – ‘The Psycho Drama’. These were songs that were massively overproduced and dripping with emotion. The Queens of this type of music were Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black. The Kings were Roy Orbison, The Righteous Brothers and Tom Jones.

Now I love Tom, and I love all his overblown crowd-pleasers like Delilah, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, and Daughter Of Darkness. But one fine day I was traveling back home from rural Victoria, and was channel hopping on the car radio. Finally I landed on a independent radio station that was playing some really good live soul recordings. As I traveled on, I thought, hey I recognize that voice – that’s Tom Jones. It wasn’t his usual repertoire, it was a selection of old soul classics. And they were bloody good. As this station was run by volunteers, they didn’t feel the need to impart any information about the music they were playing, and to this very day, I do not know the name of the album that these songs come from. So many years have past, I am wondering if it really sounded like that at all?

But I knew there was a great Tom Jones live album out there somewhere, and tried to track it down. My first attempt was Tom Jones: Live Caesars Palace. It’s not the album I was after, but it’s so good, in a very different kind of way. This is Tom at the height of his manly appeal. In fact the whole album is interrupted with girls throwing themselves at Tom. But this just adds to the show. And the music is all of his big ‘psycho drama’ tunes. If you want to see a grown man cry, just play me his version of I (Who Have Nothing), and I’ll be a blubbering mess.

TRACK LISTING:
01. Dance Of Love
02. Cabaret
03. Soul Man
04. I (Who Have Nothing)
05. Delilah
06. Bridge Over Troubled Water
07. My Way
08. God Bless The Children
09. Resurrection Shuffle
10. She’s A Lady
11. Till
12. Hit Medley: – I’ll Never Fall In Love, Daughter Of Darkness, Love Me Tonight, It’s Not Unusual
13. Hi Heel Sneakers
14. Rock ‘N’ Roll Medley: – Johnny B Goode, Bony Maronie, Long Tall Sally

Sound wise, the album is very good, and the arrangements by Johnnie Spence are perfect for a recording of this era (if it was done today, there’d be more emphasis on the bass).

The line up for this show includes: Tom Jones – vocals and whipping the ladies in the crowd into a frenzy, Jim Sullivan – Lead Guitar, Kenny Clare – Drums, John Rostill – Bass Guitar, Bobby Shew – Lead Trumpet.

If your a fan of Tom Jones, I’d go as far as to say, this album is a ‘must have’. Of course if you’re a ‘tourist’ there are plenty of fine compilations out there, which feature more of his big ‘hits’.

Tom Jones: Live Caesars Place

For Special Services

UK First Edition

Author: John Gardner
Publisher:
Jonathan Cape
Published:
1982

As a teenager, in 1983, I traveled through Asia – with my family of course – and in Taiwan, at the Imperial Book, Sound and Gift Store in Taipei I found the next two books in John Gardner’s series of James Bond continuation novels. Those being For Special Services and Icebreaker. I must admit, here I got into a little bit of trouble. As a tourist, on the other side of the world, you are expected to go see the sights. However, I was more thrilled to find two new Bond stories, so I spent my down time, on the hotel bed, reading, rather than sight seeing. In my defense, as a tourist, once you’ve twenty-seven Shinto Shrines you’ve sorta seen them all.

The Bottom's Up Club in Hong Kong Circa 1983

Of course, when I hit Hong Kong, there were Bondian sights to see, so I dragged my ass out of the room and armed with my Pocket Instamatic (although I was never much of a photographer), went searching for the Bottom’s Up Club – from the film version of The Man With the Golden Gun. And I found it, snapping away some photos of the neon sign. Of course, I was too young to enter the establishment. However, unlike the film, the Bottom’s Up Club is on the Kowloon side, and not on Hong Kong Island– but a small quibble. I was delighted with my investigative skills – and tracking down this piece of cinematic history.

When I originally read For Special Services (I’ve read it a couple of times), I thought it was one of the best of Gardner’s best continuation novels, and re-reading it today it still holds up quite well. There are some contrived passages to be sure, but on the whole, the story holds up better than Licence Renewed, but I’ll talk about that a bit later. First, here’s a brief synopsis.

Airplanes from around the world, and from different airlines are being hi-jacked for their cargo. The hi-jackings are so frequent that MI-6, teamed with the SAS, have placed security details on flights which carry valuable cargo. As the story opens, James Bond is the lead man for one of these security teams.  When terrorists attempt to steal the shipment of gold bullion on board, Bond, and the SAS operatives spring into ruthless and efficient action, polishing off the aggressors. However, before one of the hi-jackers dies, he mumbles ‘in…spector, inspector’, or so the SAS officer beside him thinks. Bond isn’t quite so sure. Could the word be SPECTRE?

Yes, James Bond’s old adversaries, the evil organisation SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) have risen from the ashes. And what’s more, it appears that a person named Blofeld is running the show. Of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the original leader of SPECTRE is dead. Bond killed him in his Castle of Death in You only Live Twice. So who is this new mastermind behind the world’s most evil organisation?

Bond is assigned to answer that very question when the CIA ask assistance from ‘M’ on a case. The CIA have been investigating a reclusive millionaire named Markus Bismaquer, but so far, every agent assigned to the mission has disappeared or been found dead in a Louisiana swamp. So the CIA decide to go off the grid, bringing in a new recruit, Cedar Leiter (the daughter of Bond’s old ally Felix Leiter) on her first official assignment. Coupled with Bond, she has to find out if Bismaquer is the new head of SPECTRE and calling himself Blofeld?

To get to Bismaquer, Bond and Cedar pose as a married couple who have a rare set of Hogarth prints to sell. Bismaquer is a fanatical collector of rare (and expensive) artwork, and once word reaches him that the prints are on the market, he simply must have them.

Upon Bond and Cedar’s arrival in the United States, Bismaquer’s first overture to acquire the prints are not the friendliest of gestures, sending a band of thugs to forcibly drag Bond and Cedar to his estate. Bismaquer’s estate is a actually a huge ranch, called (funnily enough) ‘Rancho Bismaquer’, which is almost like a huge theme park with its own monorail, racing track and international airport.

Bond and Cedar fight off the thugs and then go to ground. But Bismaquer has an efficient intelligence network across the USA, and soon enough, our heroic couple are tracked to a hotel in Washington.This time the thugs plan a nasty surprise for Bond and Cedar as they prepare to leave the hotel. One of the goons cuts the power and the breaking system to the elevator carriage that Bond and Cedar are traveling in, and the compartment careens out of control towards the bottom of the elevator shaft, where certain death awaits our heroes.

US Hardcover edition

Well, maybe not certain death. I wont spoil what happens, but I am sure it will come as no surprise that Bond and Cedar survive the attempt on their life. Afterward, they decide to confront Bismaquer directly at his ranch. He is all smiles and the perfect host when they arrive, claiming that any unpleasantness was just a misunderstanding, and his staff exceeded their orders.

As Bismaquer’s guests, Bond and Cedar are treated to the full extent of his hospitality, as he is still eager to buy the prints. However, for a brief moment, there is trouble for Bond. Bismaquer’s beautiful trophy wife, Nena, is truly an art expert – unlike her husband who is a rich faker. She spots that the prints that Bond is trying to sell, are fakes. But as a neglected an abused wife, she chooses not to reveal the truth to her husband, and throws in her lot with Bond.

As Bond and Cedar dig deeper into the Bismaquer’s world, the more tangled the plot becomes. Is Bismaquer Blofeld? Or could it be his partner, Walter Luxor, a weedy skull-faced man who has undergone extensive plastic surgery? Of course, as SPECTRE is involved, the diabolical plot involves more than hi-jacking aircraft for profit. And Bond finds him self in the thick of it – almost too close for comfort as he becomes an unwilling pawn in SPECTRE’s game.

For Special Services reads far more fluidly than Gardner’s preceding novel, Licence Renewed. Gardner appears to have relaxed, and is far more confident with the Bond character. Funny how a ‘bestseller’ would do that! He has returned to his own writing voice, rather than trying to imitate Fleming and Gardner’s strength in action passages comes to the fore. He may not be as descriptive and atmospheric as Fleming, but there is no doubt that Gardner knows how to tell a story at a rattling brisk pace.

But, and if you’ll forgive the bad pun. The ‘specter’ of Fleming still hovers over the novel. There are rather obvious odes to Fleming’s previous Bond stories in the For Special Services, but rather try to write like Fleming, Gardner simply attempts to evoke a Flemingesque feel using his own words.

Coronet UK Paperback edition

Gardner’s description of the relationship between the Bismaquers, for me, evokes memories of the Krest’s (Milton and Liz) relationship in Ian Fleming’s The Hildebrand Rarity (which was in the For Your Eyes Only collection. Markus Bismaquer, like Milton Krest is a pompous ass with too much money, and likes the power that his money can bring. The wives, in both situations appear to be smothered by their overbearing husbands and are looking for a way out. They almost hope that Bond will be their white knight. However, in The Hildebrand Rarity, Bond’s actions did not free Liz Krest. And as I don’t like to include ‘spoilers’ in my reviews, I will refrain from detailing if Bond succeeds in saving Nena from her husband.

The primary conceit of the novel is ‘Who is Blofeld?’, and generally this is handled pretty well. However at the start of the novel, Blofeld is almost an evil mastermind caricature, spouting the usual gibberish about the evil scheme that’s about to unfold. The reason it becomes cartoonish, is that Gardner is deliberately trying to be vague about who Blofeld is, and as such, description is kept to a minimum. Therefore when Blofeld launches into the megalomaniac spiel, it comes across as a pastiche. Later, however, the resolution is great – even if you have guessed who Blofeld is, the final confrontation is extremely enjoyable.

For Special Services still holds up reasonably well after all these years, which pleases me no end. I was scared that my childhood memories of the Gardner books would be shattered re-reading them now. But, as it did twenty-eight years ago, For Special Services still serves up lively thrills and chills, and as such I’d heartily recommend it to Bond fans.

For Special Services

The Order

Release Year: 2001
Country: Aruba / United States
Director: Sheldon Letich
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sofia Milos, Brian Thompson, Ben Cross, Charlton Heston
Writer: Les Weldon, Jean-Claude Van Damme
Editor: Alain Jabubowicz
Director of Photography: David Gurfunkel
Music: Pino Donaggio
Producers: Danny Lerner, John Thompson, Avi Lerner
AKA: Jihad Warrior

Just a quick one today. I recently watched Jean Claude Van Damme’s The Order,  which is not a spy film, but it has a sequence in it that mirrors a sequence from Casino Royale (2006), so I’ll share a few quick observations about it here today.

In Casino Royale, most will remember the scene at Miami airport, where Bond stops a bomb attempt. You may also recall, where the vehicle he is travelling on crashes through a chain of baggage trolleys, then later, while being pursued, after crossing a runway, a police car gets blown away from the backwash of a jet engine. That sequence is played out, on a smaller scale of course, in The Order. The catchphrase for the Bond series is ‘Nobody Does it Better’, which is true. Thankfully the catchphrase is not ‘We do it first’, because The Order was made a good five years before Casino Royale.

The Order was made in 2001, and to be brutally honest it is trash. But it’s watchable trash, with a few redeeming features, like the amazing location footage in Jerusalem, and of course, some of the fight scenes. Where the film goes wrong, is the crude attempts to inject some comedy into the proceedings. There Jean ClaudeVan Damme comes off as a poor-man’s Jackie Chan. This is further enforced by the Jackie-esque blooper reel at the end of the movie. Both Van Damme and Chan have their respective styles, and I don’t believe that Van Damme has to borrow Jackie’s. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying something new, but this so clearly crosses into Chan territory that it is embarrassing.

Ben Cross plays one of the villains (However, Brian Thompson is the main villain). Cross is an actor I truly appreciate. He has been in some absolute rubbish, but he is usually the best thing in the film. The man is a professional. His attitude appears to be that just because he is appearing in trash, doesn’t mean he has to give a trashy performance. Well usually, anyway. Here Cross’ accent is all over the shop. One minute he is doing a passable Yiddish accent, then shifts to what sounds like a bad Christopher Walken impression.

On the promotional artwork in Australia, Charlton Heston gets second billing, and it is implied that he has a major role in the film. Don’t believe it! It’s barely more than a cameo, and it’s not even a good cameo. Heston plays Walter Finlay, a friend of Rudy’s (Van Damme’s character) father. Finlay meets Rudy at the airport, and disappears from the story quickly after that. A paid holiday for Heston?

So why watch The Order? Well if you’re a Van Damme fan, with the exception of JCVD (which is remarkable), this is probably the best thing he has done is ten years. It’s still crap, but good crap, if you know what I mean. And for spy fans, there’s the aforementioned airport scene – it’s so close to the set piece in Casino, I cannot believe it is coincidence or collective consciousness. The cynical side of my nature believes that somebody on the Bond story committee saw this film and liked the idea so much that they those to expand it and make it better – which they succeeded in admirably – however I would like to see a bit more originality.

The Order

The Demon Cross

Author: Nathan Shumate
Publisher: Cold Fusion Media
Released: 2011

I must admit I was (and still am) very slow to embrace the world of e-books. I am old fashioned and like having a physical copy in my hands. But there is no doubt that publishing is changing. One of the positive aspects of e-publishing is that it allows shorter novels (and novellas) that previously would have been price prohibitive to print publish can now see the light of day, and be disseminated over the internet. And so far, I have found that I have been enjoying these short-form novels. That’s possibly because, like many commuters, I do a lot of my reading on the train to and from work (yeah, I have a real job – it’s not all champagne and caviar!).

The thing is that trains are a very distracting environment to read in. It’s not just the train’s movement, and people jostling for position – these days there’s mobile phones (why do people think that their lives are so interesting that the whole carriage has to hear about it?), and iPods. You may think that iPods are relatively quiet, but let me assure you, when you’re hemmed in by three iPod users, all with their volume settings at ‘eleven’, then the chorus of chintzy drum beats can be rather intrusive.

So I tend to keep the stories that I read fast paced and spirited enough, that they can drag me from the real world and the cacophony that surrounds me. Nathan Shumate‘s The Demon Cross certainly fits the bill there. It is a rapid fire, first-person detective thriller, with a hint of the occult, that comes in a lean hundred and one pages in length (or 97 and a 4 page teaser for the next book in the seris). Perfect for train travel – and I guess by stretching that – perfect for plane travel – does that make it airport fiction?

Onto the story. It starts with a brief prologue, where six men carry out an ancient blood ritual, where one man dies mysteriously as a sacrifice. At the end of the ritual, the leader of the five remaining men, announces ominously that ‘the herald is here’.

Then the story introduces Rennie Avalon. She’s a detective – from the old school, think Marlowe or Spade, but a woman. She is also a single mom, with a young daughter named Beth. Rennie arrives at her office and finds that a potential client, Ernst Vielstich, is waiting for her. When Vielstich realises that the detective he had come to consult, is in fact a woman he considers going elsewhere – but she manages to talk him around. Why does Vielstich require a detective? It appears that he has lost a book.

The book in question, is an old leatherbound heirloom, printed in Dusseldorf in 1793, or so Vielstich claims. He also claims that a man named Hans Mueller stole the book. Vielstich wants Rennie to verify his suspicions only – she is not required to steal it back. She agrees to take the case.

Rennie’s initial enquiries lead her to a gentleman named Phillip Castler, who was one of the founding members of a white supremacist group called Stormfront. So yeah, he’s a bit of a neo-Nazi, although he not the ‘hardest’ of neo-Nazis – I don’t know if there is a scale for measuring neo-Nazi ‘hardness’ but I’d say Castler is a ‘three out of ten’. But the leader of the group that Castler has fallen in with, Hans Mueller (the book thief) is a hard Nazi (a ten out of ten). In fact Mueller in more than just a fanatical neo-Nazi, he is also a satanist, and with the knowledge in the book he has stolen, he intends to open a portal to hell.

So while The Demon Cross may have started as, and be in the style of, a traditional detective novel (albeit with a female as the detective – although that’s not so unusual these days) – the story spirals off into something different, and to me, that is its selling point. When I started The Demon Cross, I thought I was getting a familiar piece of detective fiction, with a P.I. tangling with a bunch of neo-Nazis… and I would have been happy with that. I love genre fiction. But instead I got a hybrid that caught me by surprise – part detective / part paranormal adventure, and that delighted me no end.

The Demon Cross is a nice little taster of the world of Rennie Avalon, and I look forward to seeing what twists Nathan Shumate can throw at me in Rennie’s next adventure, Brother’s Keeper.

About Avalon and Company:

Rennie Avalon is a one-woman private investigations agency whose cases lean toward the fringes of society… and reality. Originally presented as an online serial in 2002-2003, these volumes collect the Avalon & Company storylines for the first time in single volumes, specially edited and revised.

About Demon Cross:

Rennie’s current job seems simple: to find and regain an antique book purloined from the collection of an elderly archivist. But nothing is ever that simple for Rennie.

The book in question is no average book: once the property of a high-ranking Nazi official with an occult obsession.

The thief in question is no average thief: a white supremacist who’ll use any means necessary to accomplish his mission of hate.

But Rennie Avalon is no average private eye.

The Demon Cross is available for Kindle or (for those old fashioned people like me) in paperback from Amazon.

For movie lovers, it is worth noting that Nathan Shumate is a member of the legendary B Masters Cabal and his film review site is Cold Fusion Video Reviews.

He is also the author of The Golden Age of Crap, which looks at B-movies from the glory days of VHS.

The Demon Cross

Chopper

Chopper is not just one of the best Aussie crime films of all time, but is also one of the best Australian films of all time regardless of genre. As a crime film though, it is not particularly large scale. There are no daring robberies or heists, and there are no shoot-outs with the coppers. But it is a film about criminals, and one of these criminals just happens to be Mark Brandon Read, known as ‘Chopper’ to all and sundry. Mark allegedly got the name Chopper from cutting off the toes of people who owed him money with a set of bolt-cutters – that’s not in the film, by the way. If you want to see some bolt-cutter action, you’ll have to go back to Bruce Beresford’s The Money Movers.

Prior to this films release, Chopper had been the author of nine books (since then he has written more including the children’s book, Hookey The Cripple). This film is loosely based on some of the episodes mentioned in Chopper’s books.

The film opens in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison in the early 1970’s, and young Mark Brandon Read is already well versed in prison life. Gathered around him are two mates – his only mates, Jimmy Loughman (Simon Lyndon), and Blue (Daniel Wyllie). They are in the midst of a turf war inside the prison – a struggle to see who runs H-Block. On the other side are a bunch on crims under the control of the Painters and Dockers Union. The Painters and Dockers were a real union (since disbanded), but at the same time were corrupt and secretly ran organised crime in Melbourne at that time. The top man for the Dockers in Pentridge was Keithy George (David Field).

In a startling scene which has little buildup, Chopper rushes at Keithy and starts stabbing him in the face with a sharp implement. Keithy collapses on the floor in a pool of blood. Now this is where the film is very different to your average drama about criminals. This is not Goodfellas. Chopper ‘thinks’ very different to your average crime. Immediately after the attack, as Keithy writhes on the ground trying to stop a geyser of blood pissing out from his neck, Chopper approaches him – not to finish him off – but almost in the spirit of friendship. He holds out an olive branch to Keithy. ‘Are you alright?’ he asks. He even lights a cigarette and tosses it to Keithy. Of course the bloodied unionist is not so forgiving. But this strange sort of remorse or compassion for his victims makes Chopper a fascinating and unpredictable character. Sure he’s a vicious brute, but at the same time he cares about the people he is threatening. Later in the film he shoots a drug lord in the stomach, and then immediately drives him to the hospital for medical attention.

This strange, twisted duality is what gives the film its unique edge, and much of the films success on this level is do to with Eric Bana’s outstanding performance. Prior to this Bana was primarily known as a standup comedian and for his appearances on Full Frontal (an Australian sketch comedy series). Nobody expected this kind of performance from him. I guess his experience as a comedian trained him to be a good mimic and observer. He nails Chopper’s mannerisms and speech inflections. Not surprisingly, Bana won the AFI (Australian Film Institute) award for his performance.

Also collecting an AFI award in 2000 was director Andrew Dominik. Truth be told, Chopper is an episodic story, but Dominik handles the story threads and time changes masterfully. The film is essentially broken up in to two parts. The first concerns young Chopper and his life in Pentridge; and the second looks at Chopper’s life on the outside. Each section is filmed in very different ways. The prison scenes are almost mono-chromatic blue – cold and austere. The scenes outside prison, most filmed at night, are garish. It’s like it’s an amphetamine fueled trip through Melbourne’s seedy underbelly.

The supporting cast are top-notch too. Simon Lyndon’s portrayal of Jimmy Loughman, Chopper’s right hand man, is a thoughtful and well realised characterisation. These guys are not super-heroes – they are very flawed and damaged people. Loughman’s knife attack on Chopper has to be considered as one of the most astounding set-pieces put to film.

Vince Colosimo, who appears to have a monopoly on starring in Australian gangster flicks, plays Neville Bartos. Neville walks with a limp because Chopper shot him in the kneecap many years prior. But that’s all water under the bridge now, and Neville has become a successful drug dealer. I may have been a bit cheeky when I said Colosimo has a monopoly on gangster roles, because Chopper is the film that set it all rolling, and his portrayal of Neville kept him at the forefront of casting directors minds. Colosimo gets the work because he puts in good dependable performances – and Neville is no exception – ‘Mate’ I’m flying!’

I could, of course, talk about Chopper all day. It’s one of my favourite films of recent years, but in case my brief scene descriptions haven’t painted an accurate picture, let me say it is a violent film. It isn’t particularly gory, though there is a little bit of blood, but the sudden ferocious acts of violence are presented quite realistically. So if violent Aussie crime dramas don’t sound like your cup of cocoa, then I’d give this a miss. Everybody else, start queuing now, and track yourself down a copy and strap yourselves in for ninety minutes of quality, visceral cinema.

Chopper

The Dead Man: Ring of Knives

The Dead Man - Ring of KnivesAuthor: James Daniels
Publisher: Adventures in Television
Published: April 2011
Based on characters created by Lee Goldberg, William Rabkin
Book No: 2

Last month, I reviewed Face of Evil, which was the first in a new series of e-books, that have their roots in the ‘Men of Action’ stories that were popular in the ’70s and ’80s. Ring of Knives is the second book in the series, based on characters created by Lee Goldberg & William Rabkin. Taking the helm for this entry is James Daniels.

When I talked about Face of Evil, I briefly talked about Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry, and just to be predictable, I am going to talk about Eastwood again, but this time I am going to look at Pale Rider. While I enjoy Pale Rider, I have to admit that it is one of Eastwood’s weaker films. My disappointment in it stems from the fact that it is almost a carbon copy of Shane. Shane is undoubtedly a classic, and in my opinion, it is one of the finest examples of ‘The Stranger’ archetype (sometimes also known as ‘The Drifter’) in popular culture. Pale Rider doesn’t quite work, but the story elements are all in place. Eastwood, as the Preacher rides into town and ends up helping a ramshackle band of miners fight of a large disreputable mining company.

The Shane formula has been used time and time again in movies, not only in Eastwood’s Pale Rider. Off the top of my head I can think of Malone with Burt Reynolds and Nowhere to Run with Jean Claude Van Damme as other examples. However, where the formula has best been put to work is in countless television series. In these shows, The Stranger drifts from town to town, generally just trying to stay out of trouble, and ends up befriending some innocent townsfolk who are too weak to defend themselves from bullies. Mayhem ensues. I could cite many shows, but the ones that stand out most in my mind are Kung Fu, with David Carridine and The Hulk with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. And it is right that I should talk about television shows, as The Dead Man series began its life as a concept for a proposed television show. The show never went into production, but writers Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin thought that the idea was too good to go to waste, and have retooled it for this series, inviting some talented and successful mystery, western, horror and sci-fi authors, including Bill Crider, James Reasoner, Matt Witten, Joel Goldman, Burl Barer and David McAfee, to contribute to the project.

So there’s a bit of ‘The Stranger’ in Matthew Cahill, the hero of The Dead Man series, and this, the second entry, ‘The Stranger’ pattern begins to materialise. But there is far more to Cahill than just being a do-gooder who travels around righting wrongs. He has his own problems to sort out, and his journeys are solely for him to find out more about himself and the strange occurrences and visions that have become a regular part of his life.

When we left Face of Evil, Matthew Cahill’s life had changed dramatically. He had killed his best friend, and wasn’t sure if the visions that he sees – he sees evil people or those with malicious intent with festering sores – were a gift like a super-power, or if he was losing his mind. Neither was he sure where Mr. Dark fitted into the scheme of things. Was he really a malignant evil clown, who caused chaos and destruction and brought misery to the world, or was he too a part of Cahill’s madness.

So Cahill is seeking answers, and he thinks he may find some at the Carthage Medical Center where he has arranged to meet with one of the patients, named Jesse Watson, who is under the care of Dr. Dindren. It appears that Watson, after a spelunking accident, claims that he has visions of rotting flesh on people with evil intent. Naturally, Cahill believes that Watson’s story parallels his own, and if Watson had been cured, then there just may be hope for him too.

But upon arrival at Carthage, Cahill finds that Watson has been transferred and Dr. Dindren no longer works at the center. But Dindren is still at the center. The key word is ‘works’. Dindren is now a resident at Carthage. With some assistance from a foul-mouthed nurse named Maloria, Cahill contrives a plan to get to Dindren and find out what he knows, but Dindren is not quite the man he used to be. And Carthage is certainly not run like any other insane asylum. Cahill finds himself trapped inside and fighting for his life.

Earlier I talked about ‘The Stranger’ and how Matthew Cahill appears to be fitting into that character mold. In this story, at Carthage, Cahill had several opportunities to simply walk away. But instead, he chose to help other people – in particular a patient named Annica, who is a young girl, who is constantly set upon by both the male patients and staff. Cahill’s actions make him a fine avenger – and a good example of ‘The Stranger’ archetype.

The promo spiel:

Matt believes a madman may hold the secret to defeating Mr. Dark, the horrific jester with the rotting touch. But to reach him, Matt must infiltrate an asylum, where he is soon caught up in a spiral of bloodshed and madness. His only chance of escaping with his life and sanity intact is to face the unspeakable terror that awaits him deep in the asylum’s fog-shrouded woods…within the Ring of Knives.

Ring of Knives is a fine addition to the on-going story of The Dead Man, but – and as you would expect from a story written by a different author, it is very different in tone from Face of Evil. Ring lacks the humour of the first book, but in its stead Daniels has added some genuine tension and blood-curdling passages. There is a torture scene in the story, that Ian Fleming would have been proud of. Also, the ending to Ring, isn’t such a such a tease like it’s predecessor, so it is more like a complete stand-alone story.

All in all, Ring of Knives is very enjoyable, and suitably creepy. I guess now, all I have to do is wait another month for the next installment. Ring of Knives is available from today (April 4) at Amazon.

The Dead Man: Ring of Knives