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Underground Reading: The Blood Circus by Thomas K. Fitzpatrick

The Blood Circus Published as a Fawcett Gold Medal in 1968, The Blood Circus is a thriller based on the alien subculture of the motorcycle gangs. It isn't exactly Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels, but, for a chapter or two, Thomas Kirkpatrick's The Blood Circus isn't bad.

Fitzpatrick has done his research, and joyously recites long glossaries of biker vocabulary and lovingly lingers in his descriptions of urine-stained jeans and growling engines. Unfortunately, as a piece of thriller fiction, the book fails quite badly. In his quest to detail the horror of biker culture, Fitzpatrick goes skidding down the slippery slope to outright madness. What begins as a depiction of a violent counter-culture ends as a paranoid fantasy.

The book begins in a very promising fashion. A gang of bikers, the Beasts, pull into a Southwestern ghost town and proceed to do horrible things to a family of tourists. Fitzpatrick illustrates the conflict between the gang and 'square society' - the bikers are fearless and unrestrained while normal folks are frightened and bound by the rules. As long as the bikers refuse to play by the rules, they're unstoppable. Fortunately, we have the police (with big guns) to hold them in check.

The leader of the Beasts is Paul Krascoe - a neo-Nazi with charisma, conviction and a lust for big guns of his own. He's upping the ante in the arms race, and now local law enforcement is getting twitchy. Interestingly enough, Krascoe gets guns by... robbing gun shops. He's hardly a criminal mastermind, but the simplicity of his plan is pretty impressive.

The Man counters by sending in Ed Bartel, an undercover officer who is willing to pee on his own jeans, drink too much and alienate his wife for a week or so while he romps around with the Beasts. The Blood Circus is still promising at this point - Bartel's marital problems aren't riveting, but they at least add a little flavor. It is also easy for the reader to understand his justifiable nervousness at first encountering the Beasts, and trying to join their inner circle. Bartel is actually kind of a dick, so a vague hope that he doesn't get stomped by angry bikers is the closest the reader ever comes to empathy.

The stage is now set, and this is when things start to go horribly wrong. Bartel follows Krascoe around on a series of bizarre errands, including a cross-border scamper to Mexico. Bartel is possibly the worst undercover cop in the history of bad fiction, but that's ok, as  Krascoe is equally incompetent at being a sinister villain. Bartel shows the quality of his training by calling his wife every morning and occasionally shouting instructions at passing police officers. In the mean time, Krascoe gleefully fumbles about trying to arm a biker army, taking care to show Bartel every tiny piece of his master plan.

Krascoe's plan is of monumental stupidity, essentially involving creating an army of bikers and laying siege to California. Apparently just chain-whipping and raping tourists wasn't menacing enough for Fitzgerald, so he decided to threaten his readers with the biker apocalypse (Communist bikers, too!). Fortunately for Krascoe, despite telling Bartel-the-obvious-cop the details of his plan... repeatedly... Bartel gets cold feet about actually informing the authorities until the last possible minute ("Hmm... do I tell my commanding officer about the horde of bikers descending on LA? I'm just not sure.")

The outcome is predictable. Fitzgerald, despite whipping up his paranoid vision of the bikepocalypse, can't figure out how to actually make them win. The effect is rather counter-productive. A gang of bikers that terrorizes individuals is actually quite scary - it is an intimate sort of horror, that is close enough to reality to really hit home with the reader. As fuel for a thriller, it works well - an undercover cop has to infiltrate a small group of unpredictable 'guerilla' bikers, as conventional efforts of stopping them have failed. Unfortunately, by trying to scale the threat, Fitzgerald effectively neutered it. A dozen bikers in your backyard: scary. A thousand bikers trying to lay siege to LA: silly. It moves the fear from personal to impersonal - one biker is scary, the bikepocalypse (however smelly) is not.

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