Renay on "My Favourite Disney Songs"
Film 101: Captain America (2011) & Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Review Round-Up: Four Decades of the Plutocracy

This Woman is DeathA romp through forty years of mediocre genre fiction... or, a thorough investigation into the secret rulers of the world? You decide.

Stephen D. Frances' This Woman is Death (1948) claims to be a 'fast moving thriller'. Having now read it, that's three lies. This Woman is actually a stodgy political thriller about a well-meaning secret society who recruit our protagonist to do odd jobs for The Greater Good. It is notable primarily because, on the spectrum of secret societies, this is on the "Pro" end of the spectrum. The collusion of powerful millionaires and aristocrats is a good thing - they can do what namby-pamby governments and lawmakers cannot. Their quiet work regulating the world is what keeps us from dissolving into chaos and war. Of course.

This Woman is Death is also spectacularly boring: it spends most of the book with the character (who is mystifyingly worthless) being recruited. As if ashamed by its own premise, the bulk of the dialogue is spent in tepid philosophical banter. When the action does kick off, it is misogynistic and unpleasant. This is presumably an attempt to emphasise the real world horror that results from theoretical decisions, but that may be giving the book too much credit. The result is a book that oscillates from being dull to being mean - and is thoroughly unpalatable and unpleasant at every step of the journey. (Intriguingly, this edition, which seems to be from the 1960s, was published as a "Stephen Frances" novel, and not under Frances' far more popular pseudonym: Hank Janson. Possibly because it doesn't actually feature the character of Janson?)

Meanwhile, in the Wild West - J.T. Edson The Peacemakers (1965). I read one of Edson's other books a few years ago and enjoyed it. He's nothing if not prolific, and has a nifty sort of sprawling continuity to his books. This one, chosen randomly from a pile at the bookshop, is #42 - or #33 in the 'Floating Outfit' series.

Dusty Fog and his best men all head down to Mexico to prevent a... not entirely sure - some hand-wavey combination of revolution, assassination, kidnapping and war. But whatever it is, Fog et al are on top of things - in no small part due to their extremely fetishised new guns: the Colt Peacemaker. For those that follow the Edson series, this is apparently a pivotal turning point in the canon. I'm not entirely sure why - maybe because the new gun helps readers date when other books take place? 

Following this round-up's (forced) Illuminati theme, The Peacemakers also features plutocracy-democracy tensions, albeit in a more moderate way. In the overtly feudal landscape of the Wild West, both the US and Mexican sides of the story feature land and cattle barons and their armies of minions. The government, again on both sides of the borders, serves as the medieval monarch - the remote Richard the Lionheart, omnipotent but inattentive. Fog and his cohort fight on the side of the good barons - who have allied to prevent the bad barons from doing their thing. (What that thing is, as mentioned above, is never really specified. Less "one coherent scheme" and more "basket o' evil".)

The whole thing is a bit of a bore, honestly. Fog, Mark Counter, Waco and the Ysabel Kid are all superheroic figures in their own right, and when all four team up, they turn into the Justice League of America. Individually, they're unstoppable. Together, they're tiresome. 

TurquoiseOn the other side of the world... George B. Mair's Miss Turquoise (1965) is a 'David Grant' adventure, which I must admit, is a new thing to me. Like many (all?!) 1960s thrillers, it has a quote comparing it to James Bond - the Gone Girl of its day. I'm fairly sure this is a McGinnis cover, but, far most importantly, this is about how agent Grant battles SATAN (Society for the Activation of Terror, Anarch and Nihilism). What's not to love?!

On the surface, this is actually pretty good. Grant fakes his death at the start of the book - a way of setting him loose so that he can track down a source of a rare new element (we'll nickname it "unobtanium") in the Saharan desert. On the way, he discovers that he's not just up against Chinese and Russian agents, but also the shadowy forces of SATAN! (Here's SATAN security in action: the leader kidnaps Grant, then shoots a valuable agent because she dares to reveal the leader's code name in front of him. Leader then describes SATAN's infrastructure, motives and goals at length. Er.)

To win the unobtanium, Grant has to seduce the foxy princess of a Saharan tribe. (He is engaged to a Russian ballerina, by the way, but presumably his 'death' has freed him of that entanglement.) The princess, nicknamed 'Miss Turqouise' because she likes wearing (you guessed it) turquoise, is well on-board with the plan. The two of them hit it off like gangbusters and it isn't long before the boat from Spain to northern Africa is a-rockin'. There are desert hijinks - macho man-fights, gun battles, etc, and, of course, the climactic showdown. Agents everywhere, shooty shooty deathtrap kapow.

To follow the theme, we have: SATAN - a well-funded terrorist organisation that's anti-government in the largest possible sense. They're opposed to all governance of any form, thus the anarchism and nihilism in their mission statement. 

As noted above - this is all pretty cool. However, there's not actually a single element in here that isn't lifted from an Ian Fleming book (or Bond film). The intro it out of You Only Life Twice, the liaison with Miss Turquoise is lifted from On Her Majesty's Secret Service and SATAN is an obvious knock-off of SPECTRE. Nor does Mr. Mair even hide his devotion - at one point Grant even discusses the 'James Bond' option with his superior (the chance of him doing something superhuman on his own). I suppose this makes it an open homage, but still, however delightfully kitschy the book is, it is ultimately recycled material.

Leaping forward into the 1970s, Richard L. Graves' The Black Gold of Malaverde (1973) is a disaster novel with one simple twist: the disaster is the result of the 'good guys'. Black Gold features a team of explosives experts who are out to cause as much destruction as possible.

Like all disaster fiction, it is about establishing a system, disrupting it, and then portraying the consequences. Also, it is far, far more about world-building that system than, say, making believable characters. As it is, the mercenary team are shockingly one-dimensional: the diver, the leader, woman, the pilot, the black guy. Anyway... kablooie.

To continue a theme, the book is constructed around the premise of a millionaire taking justice into his own hands because government(s) are too slow. For all its faults, it does handle the ambiguity better than This Woman is Death. The millionaire and his pawns are causing a disaster, after all, and however much the book revels in the 'splosions, our 'heroes' never have a clear moral mandate. Destruction is fascinating, but it is looking into the abyss - and all of the characters suffer the consequences. For bonus Illuminati points, there's also a shadowy organisation - 'the Bank' - that is the economic wing of the CIA, waging the financial Cold War.

Of course, the real financial war begins in Lewis Perdue's Zaibat$u (1988). The cover declares this 'the ultimate big-money thriller', which is a slight overclaim, but certainly, of all the stories in this pile, Zaibatsu (I refuse to keep that stupid $) has the highest stakes.

The Delphi Commission are a group of shadowy powermongers who control all the world's largest banks and corporations. For The Greater Good, they're keen to push the reset button on the world and rebuild it under their own control. The means? Crashing the dollar. Given that they've been stockpiling gold, oil and mercenaries for years, this means that the future will belong to them. Or something. Their plan is extremely well documented - like the agents of SATAN, the Delphi Commission are better at exposition than information security. At one point they even print off a convenient, bulleted list of action points and leave it lying around for the hero to find. But what happens afterwards is a little... hazy. "Step 1: Break the world. Step 2: Wealth? Step 3: Working lunch.")

Zaibatsu really, really wants to be the fusion of Arthur Hailey and Tom Clancy - a fast-paced, intensely insightful thriller of economic systems and global apocalypse. Sadly, it ain't. A few infodumps about circuitry doth not a Hailey make. And it takes more than a square-jawed American wunderkind to replicate the Clancy formula. Instead, this is a far-fetched thriller than involves an inordinate number of car chases, crashes and 'hammering' bullets.

Bizarrely, the book has its ludicrous heroes plotting several different schemes to save the day, only to find that the apocalypse is averted by d) none of the above - a side scheme that's simultaneously both obvious and a deus ex machina. The book is let down even further by, well, every character - especially the British aristocrat/assassin who has large breasts and a sexual fetish for death that allows her to say the word 'orgasm' a lot, which was apparently what qualified for edgy fiction. If this book were any more 1980s it would come with free hairspray. Avoid at all costs.