Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pulp Trash Part One: The Sharpshooter Series

I'll admit to being a fan of what's commonly referred to as "Men's Adventure Series" fiction. This genre is typified (and limited) by a number of different types of stories: 1) super spies vs. terrorists/commies/mad scientists, 2) men traveling the world and blowing things up and sleeping with gorgeous women, 3) kunf fu fighters, 4) men crushing the Mafia one goon at a time, 5) war vets called back to duty, 6) post-apocalyptic soldiers and 7) african american kung fu fighters vs. sadistic dwarves (don't ask, I'll get there). All contain the following: hideous prose, large plates of pasta, large busted women, surreal asides, graphic dispatches, detailed descriptions of firearms, fast cars, explosions and rants (these can be/will be about everyone and everything.)

I wrote the below overview of one of my (ahem) favorite series, The Sharpshooter series by "Bruno Rossi", in 2000. The prose is a bit purple, forgive me. I had originally intended to send it to the now defunct Bare-Bones magazine. Sadly it was defunct by the time the article was finished. Enjoy!

(P.S. I still haven't identified all of the writers involved in this series. Feel free to correct me.)

"Then Johnny Rock shows up, and all hell breaks loose. The Mafia is tough, but he is savage and merciless in the flesh ripping vengeance he visit on the goons that were trying to destroy a town" - From the blurb on SCARFACED KILLER

I love pulp fiction. Sure, it's crap. It was written by monkeys at typewriters and edited with a hacksaw but at least it's entertaining and at least, the very least, it's honest! When I say honest I mean that it was written by someone who couldn't give half a shit about allusion and metaphor. These books feel like they were written by off-duty mall security guards.

For me, THE SHARPSHOOTER (Leisure Books) series was the pinnacle of 1970's pulp mafia action fiction. This twaddle is so outrageous, so distinctly treacherous to today's ultra-P.C. culture, that it makes me cringe to actually read the stuff on the subway. Written with all the aplomb of a taxi cab driver's hidden poetry, the plot contrivances of a high school filmmaker and riddled with so many political and cultural references that have all but faded from modern parlance, these short novels (they are usually less than 200 pages) stand as a testament to the fiction of the streets. While I enjoy lambasting the authors for their technical ineptitude, I must say that various chapters in the SHARPSHOOTER series contain passages that are very well written and in some regards literary. "Bruno Rossi" had a way with words, a way of industriously bringing a plot to a close and a "gift" for macho bravado.

Let's get down to business. THE SHARPSHOOTER was spawned by author "Bruno Rossi" in 1973. But who is Bruno Rossi? The first books in the series were composed by various staff writers, most notably Peter McCurtin and Russell Smith. Other authors in the series include: Leonard Levinson, John Stevenson and Paul Hofrichter.

The series focuses on Johnny Rock (Johnny Ricoletti) who has become a one-man mobster-eating machine after Mafioso killed his family. That's it. A very simple revenge plot fueled by bullets and gasoline. You'd think one novel would suffice, Rock would kill enough gangsters to get even and then call it quits. That's what you'd think but instead Rock continuously blasts his way though the ranks of the mob over a period of four years. How? Cause Johnny is a trained soldier, a pragmatic gun-buff, a lone hunter and a damn somber patriot! Every book follows the same pattern: 1) Johnny assimilates himself in some nefarious community. 2) the sociological dynamics of Mafia life are explained, 3) the assassination of Johnny's family is recounted, 4) Johnny sleeps with a gorgeous (or not so gorgeous) woman, or women, 5) Johnny guns down mob "buttons" or "soldiers", 6) Johnny must run away quickly, 7) Johnny returns and blows something up and then drives of in search of that ever elusive fulfillment. C'est la! C'est fin!

The varying authors write with an eye towards detail. (This is putting it lightly as they all make sure to laboriously (at times) document every move his character makes, from giving us a detailed description of his bathroom fixtures to making sure we know each and every outfit Johnny Rock wears.)

This is the one that started it all but there is no need to read it first as it is not quite as effective as the later books. This one's by Peter McCurtin - famous for "Mafioso". The book opens with a bang as Johnny is gunned down at his parent's funeral and then awakens after a long period of rehabilitation to become a bloodthirsty vigilante. Assisted by the buxom Iris Toscano, Johnny starts a mob war between two antagonistic families and in the process kills a grip load of Mafia bastards. The book is a bit bland and doesn't have that fierce edge that is so obvious in the later books.

"He was out of bed and into slacks and a shirt in a matter of moments. He felt vitally alive, energy was practically oozing out of his pores, he thought, running a comb through his black hair. Was it because he was going to see Iris? That woman did things to his hormones, she had him freaky."
(For some reason Johnny is often referred to as The Enforcer, perhaps this was the original title for the series?)

This one opens to an entirely different feel, Iris is gone and Rock is in Xenia, a quaint New York town. (The difference in writing style, and more aggressive nature, hints at this one being written by Russell Smith. The author mistakenly calls Rock by the name Magellan (hero of the MARKSMAN series) at various points in the book, and makes it clear that he was a very sedulous author (to put it mildly.))

Rock is out to get a Mafia don hiding in an almost inviolable fortress and therefore reasonably blasts Mafia butt in this very violent entry. BLOOD OATH has all the requisite "explosive violence for the 70's" (as Leisure books notes) and delivers nicely.

"Rock raised the heavy Mossberg. With two loud blasts he killed both the horse and its rider. He could imagine what effect the roaring blast of the Mossberg would make on anyone within hearing."

Ah yes, the BLOOD BATH. Coming quick on the heels of BLOOD OATH this bad boy follows suit with a vicious little tale of immorality and violence. This one seems to have been written by a different writer as it contains passages much too descriptive and metaphorically laden for Smith's taste.(I suspect it was written by the same person behind #13). This is a long puppy, again not a "Rossi" trademark, at over 200 pages and contains some thoroughly good political commentary. Rock is after mob boss Lorenzo Torrielli, who has bought out all the lawyers and judges who would stand in his way. Of course, Rock is in town to prove that one man can make a difference. It's good but very rough.

"He carried his tin lunch pail as he walked down West Street. It attracted no attention whatever. It was worn and dented like those belonging to the guys who worked on the dock. The single difference between his and theirs was that Rock's contained two pounds of gelignite with a special detonating fuse."

Rock's a total wuss in this one. While writer Leonard is usually the series' best writer he stumbles here as he presents a young and naive Rock where a go-for-broke-guts-and-action Rock would have been much better. While well written, Rock gets the shit beat out of him at every turn and he even stumbles with his weapons. Ridiculous.

This puppy finds Rock in New York, Little Italy to be exact, where some gangsters( the Cat, Snake Eyes and a mob family) have it out for him. He gets beat up, healed up (by a doctor's sexy daughter) and then goes off to right the wrongs he's endured. We get lots of newspaper clippings this time round, Rock gets himself tangled in a web of police befuddlement and loads of "homeless" quips. Very clichéd. Sure, there are a few passages that sparkle, but overall the book is a dud. And it's got a nasty misogynist bent.

"Johnny looked and sew a beautiful girl in a blue silk robe and long black hair. She looked familiar, and then he realized of course she was little Angela Discola grown up. Jesus, how'd she grow those big tits?"

Rock heads to Florida to bust a mobster meeting in this fast paced and fun entry. Leonard Levinson wrote this novel and I suspect he was on vacation because it's very relaxed and has a tropically nearly quixotic feel to it. Rock blasts gangsters right and left and the book methodically documents his procedures. Very simplistic and sparse, the writing is reminiscent of a guidebook but the overall tone is one of light-hearted action. There's a hell of a good gun battle on a gambling boat and just imagining Rock, the merciless, blood-thirsty killer, wearing "a pair of faded blue denim slacks, a yellow polo shirt and tennis shoes imported from France", or even, "a blue suit, pale blue shirt and a red paisley tie" is hilarious.

One passage in particular struck me for its blasé surrealism:
"After she left, Johnny napped for an hour and had a strange dream about being in a submarine underneath the North Pole. When he was awake he went to the bathroom, splashed water on his face and then crawled under the bed and removed the Weatherby. He had fired it last night and it should be cleaned."

It is obvious at the outset of this one that Smith/"Rossi" was busy writing THE MARSKMAN series while writing SHARPSHOOTER. Amazingly the Leisure editors failed to notice the fact that Rock is called Magellan (the star of the MARKSMAN series) in every other chapter! Kind of a rush job, MUZZLE BLAST takes place in Boston where corrupt cops and Asian mobsters are involved in dealing dope. The book is hasty but violent and has some very roughly edited passages. The worst part about the whole affair is that the book ends in the middle of the action! Very frustrating!

"The bullets sang across open space and instantly signed four death warrants at the same time ..."

As if the series couldn't delve into a sleazier territory, Rock finds himself the right hand man to a notorious 42nd street Mafia man who runs a brothel, porno-house, XXX film factory and a pedophile ring in this outrageous outing. Our Mafioso king-pin picks up Rock to work round the clock as his bodyguard, Rock sensing the opportunity takes full advantage. Gritty, nasty and brutal this episode paints no pretty pictures and with its porno theatre etiquette is a takes-no-prisoners slice of pulp.

"He pulled the trigger and shot Mackie in the forehead, and the bullet ripped the top of Mackie's head off, Rock felt neither pleasure nor displeasure. He had to do it and he did. That was all."

Rock, our fearless Costra Nosta killer, is headed to Washington D.C. to root out all the evil in our nation's capitol (which may be a bit overzealous.) D.C. is controlled by our mobster in arms Joey Barbagallo ("When farting's fashionable Joey will be behind it") and he runs a tight ship, thing is The Sharpshooters already on board! Rock hooks up with another babe in this one, named Mimi, and she actually survives the novel! This is average for the series, and contains all the harsh language, scandalous situations and violence that can be expected. I still have not determined who wrote it, though I suspect it wasn't a house writer like Russell Smith. The writing is similar to that of Avallone's, in that kind of "stop-and-start" gesticulating.

"At the same time the Mafia thug slapped Mimi's naked buttocks, he signed his own death warrant. This was what Rock determined as he stood naked watching the thug rifling through the pockets of his Commander's uniform."

Johnny heads to New Jersey in this deliriously gory addition to the series. Rock, tanned and sporting a chic moustache, heads to Jersey in the guise of a hired gun to steal back a million drums of oil from those nefarious mobsters that seem so rampant. I suspect that this was by McCurtin because Iris Toscano pops up again as Johnny's partner in crime (and lover in the bedroom). Not only does Johnny have Iris on his side but he calls his Uncle Vito in from retirement to fight the mob! Vito is, of course, just as passionate against the Mafioso. Oddly, this book reads as if it were number 2 in the series and written directly after KILLING MACHINE. This is a well-written and exciting addition. A it too graphic but otherwise a great read.

"The pressure of the bullet traveling in a path behind the eyeballs, plowing a wide tunnel through the brain, forced the eyeballs out of their pockets. They dropped to the floor with a sickening splat, as the now dying body spilled rivers of red from the empty eye sockets and sent flashing purple signals to the dying brain."

This bad boy has been "blessed" with the worst artwork in the series. The cover illustration of an angry, moustache-wearing Rock appears to have been drawn with a few colored pencils and a marker by my 14-year-old cousin! The book is good however and is graced with the best blurb of the series:

"When the Mafia wiped out his family, Johnny Rock went to the police for justice and got shafted by pigs on the pad. From that moment on, Rock took the law into his own hands - hands that held all types of deadly accurate weapons, hands that squeezed the life out of every Mafioso he could find. When he hit L.A., the city of angels, the city of the worst criminals in the world, Rock was hot for the blood of his sworn enemies and didn't mind sinking to their sewer level to blast them to hell."

Johnny's old army buddy, Mike, calls him out to L.A. cause he's got mob problems. Johnny gets entangled with yet another femme fatale (Mike's distraught and mean hell-cat wife) and blasts a whole mob family to pieces. Brisk and exciting HIT MAN was written by John Marshall and follows the tale with a gruff sense of urgency. A good edition that supports the later book well.

Russell Smith must have downed a six-pack, smoked a pack of cigarettes and then sat down at the typewriter and wrote until dawn never looking back, 'cause TRIGGER MAN is awful. Filled with typos and logic gaps, this sad book limps along dragging its wasting corpse behind it. The story's about a mobster who just released from prison out to cause mayhem. So far, so good. Rock shows up and is determined to kill him and then the book falls flat on its face. We get a bunch on nonsense about a hidden call-girl/drug ring, a bunch of soft-core escapades, some lame action and terrible dialog. This is tough to scrape off your shoe.

"(The man) didn't look up the staircase. He shook his head. He wiggled one finger in his ear. He looked around once more then returned to picking his nose... Rock fired a single bullet...It ripped the into the hood's forehead, blasting off the top of his skull... So much for the nose picker!"

Again "Rossi" flails when it comes to names and mixes up Rock with Magellan. But this time "Rossi" (my sources say Paul Hofrichter but I suspect Smith) also mixes in a western ambiance. This one takes place in Oklahoma, where the Mafia has it's hands deep in the mining business. You see, there's gold in them thar hills and the mob wants it. Rock arrives, like the typical western hero, to rid the town of its enemies and restore the rightful powers. Very traditional stuff except this one goes all cockeyed near the middle: in one bizarre twist we've got three brothers who ride around town in motorized wheelchairs with shotguns on there laps! This is one of the more excessive books, complete with lots of explosions and gritty violence. Who the hell edited this? Oh that's right, no one did...

"The man looked disappointed, but not unhappy. He nodded and walked away, the shound (sic) of his shoes making a funny sound, in that almost empty room."

"The sign on the door said: DANGER HIGH EXPLOSIVES. He smiled. This was just the candy he needed. A man can't always being along the munitions he would like to carry. There are space considerations."

This was written by Paul Hofrichter and more closely resembles the writing style presented in #2. This is a dreary and grim little book that wades into the muck and mire of 70's politics and race-relations. More than an adventure tale, the book is a soapbox on which the anonymous author can wax philosophic about all things decadent in society. The entire book takes place in a squalor ridden United States where everything has gone to hell. Rock travels around town, picks up a hitchhiker who tells him of the vast conspiracies in our government, kills mob goons, meets an old man and his innocent daughter, and suffers at the hands of "bad" men. Very grim stuff and not the light reading I expected but surprisingly well written and exceptionally powerful. Definitely the best of the series.

"A couple of blocks away there was a street of bars, pool rooms, pawn shops, amusement arcades and adult peep shows. He walked slowly along the street, ignoring the outstretched palms of panhandlers and smiles of whores, and turned in through the open door of one of the bars. The juke box was blaring a senseless barrage of noise and the people's faces seemed tense and strained as they bellied up to the bar and crowded around the tables, shouting and laughing to each other in their frantic search for the elusive shadow of happiness."

And from a long passage of political conspiracy,

"I knew the French were cozy with the North Vietnamese, but do you mean that they were actually working against us?"

Johnny heads to Vegas for a much-deserved vacation (why he would go to Vegas for a vacation from Mob-killing is a plot device best left untouched) and of course finds himself embroiled in a mob showdown. A widowed Mobster wife, Elise Parandetti, who wants to help him kill off mob goons joins him in this episode (see #1 for the same plot twist). Rock finds himself ratted upon by a corrupt cop, blows up a mob meeting and the bullets really start to fly when Eilse is kidnapped. Rock blows things up real good. John Marshall's literary style (a.k.a. John Stevenson) is brisk and sufficiently pictorial.

"I'm Johnny Rock and all I want is for you to shut up and drive."
"Johnny Rock? God help me."
"He can'. I'm in charge of this operation." Jimmy climbed shakily out of the car, he stood there wide-eyed with fright, while Johnny slowly raised the Browning and shot him through the right knee.
"You bastard," he cried," Look what you've done. My knee. I'll never be able to walk again without a limp."
"Don't worry about it, " said Johnny, "You're never going to walk again anyway."

Johnny returns with a new cover artist, not the usual Ken Barr, and a swinger style. Johnny's been framed by the mob for the murder of a young "intellectually challenged" child. Low blow, huh! Well, Johnny learns who organized the frame and heads to Palo Alto California to kill the mastermind, a sick mobster who has weaseled his way into a university in the guise of a psychologist. This nasty little man conducts bizarre experiments, hosts orgies, sells dope and was a Vietnam sympathizer who tortured American troops! How's that for a bad guy. Rock, of course, infiltrates his way into this guy's circle and slowly begins to wreck him.

A great little book, with solid writing and some skillfully done suspense sequences. The strange plot is a nice addition to the traditional story line and the characters are better developed than usual. A solid entry and a worthwhile read.

Love this line: "The sudden look of wretchedness in the gunman's eyes as the bullet roared through his forehead was convincing."

Hmmmm. Someone at Leisure books decided to resurrect the Johnny Rock legend for this soft-core and explicit little novel that really doesn't fit in the series at all. This edition is not numbered so I'm calling it 16. MAFIA DEATH WATCH reveals its intentions with some rather graphic cover art and big bubble letters reading KILLER PIMPS. Yeah, this time Johnny is caught (!) by cops (in fact the same cops from #5, leading me to suggest that the author was Leonard Levinson) and sent to Detroit to bring down a white-slave racket responsible for the death of a young prostitute. Very rough editing here and thoroughly perverse, this is more a descent into sex and sadism than action. Gross and ill conceived MAFIA DEATH WATCH is not a fitting end for Johnny Rock. Take a shower after this puppy.

"Oh my God, I can't stand it anymore," she gasped, "I've got to have you now!"


Anonymous said...

Great now another series I'll have to search out for.

Rayo Casablanca said...

Luckily used copies are pretty easy to come by at Abebooks. The last two entries in the series were the most difficult to find...

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Anonymous said...

I use Biblio more often now for my used book needs. Since you can usually find a wider variety of the same titles from cheap to pricey.

Or I just scour the five diffrent used book stores I go to once a month.

Joe Kenney said...

Just want to say I enjoy this essay and refer to it often -- I'm making my way through the Sharpshooter series at the moment. I'm posting reviews of each over at my blog -- http://glorioustrash.blogspot.com/. Direct link to the Sharpshooter reviews: http://glorioustrash.blogspot.com/search/label/Sharpshooter.

I don't agree about Stiletto; I think that's for sure someone other than Peter McCurtin. Either that or it was a very drunk McCurtin.

Anyway, please drop by and let me know what you think! And thanks for posting this essay!