Starting with the publication of The Bastard in 1974, the incredibly popular “Kent Family Chronicles” by John Jakes was without a doubt the most famous and lucrative deal made by legendary book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel. What started out as something tossed together to capitalize on the approaching bicentennial ended up a phenomenal success; eight books were written, three made-for-TV movies were made, and Jakes became the first author to have three bestsellers on the New York Times Book Review lists within a single year. Your public library probably has the whole series -- reason enough for us to now shift our focus to one of Engel’s less reputable projects from the same time, the Dark Angel.
Just as The Baroness series was Engel’s dirt-encrusted knock-off of Modesty Blaise, the Dark Angel was his smutty grab at the box-office success of CLEOPATRA JONES and the Pam Grier movies. The Dark Angel is sexy private eye Angela Harpe, “one soul sister who made it out of the ghetto” according to the back cover of The Dream Girl Caper, the first of her four adventures “produced” by Engel, written by James D. Lawrence and published by Pyramid in 1975. As if graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Cambridge wasn’t enough of a ticket out of the ghetto, 25-year-old Angela also studied aikido under the mysterious Master Ichi and -- prior to getting her P.I. license -- was a high fashion model, a thousand dollar a night call girl, and a beat cop for the NYPD! Her successful handling of numerous high profile cases quickly earned her a rep as the best in the business, and the payoffs from the insurance companies have made it possible for her to lounge naked in a Charles Eames chair re-reading Huxley’s After the Fireworks “for the umpteenth time” and listening to Bach fugues while waiting for the next case to stroll through the door of her swank Turtle Bay apartment.
Although The Dream Girl Caper opens with Angie seducing, beating up and finally urinating on (!) a Mafia hitman posing as a magazine reporter, the story really kicks into gear at the start of chapter three with the arrival of handsome advertising executive Garth Trent. The rising star at a hot Madison Avenue agency and recently assigned to their important Colt Cigarettes account, Trent is the brain behind the Colt Cash Cache Contest, a $3 million dollar treasure hunt with a quickly approaching deadline for payoff. The only snag in the otherwise successful contest is Trent’s wife Vale, a former super model plagued by nightmares that may or may not be premonitions. Vale seems to know a little too much about the island where the $3 million treasure is to be hidden -- details only Trent and his boss, Quentin Wise, know about -- so Trent hires the Dark Angel to find out if Vale is up to something.
Lawrence is probably best known as the writer of the James Bond comic strip, a gig he held for 20 years, but he also penned pseudonymous novels for the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift, Jr. series and even came up with a few series of his own, such as Christopher Cool: Teen Agent. More important -- in respect to the Dark Angel books, anyway -- is the fact that he created Friday Foster, the first syndicated comic strip about a black woman (smartly scripted by Lawrence and beautifully drawn by Jose Longaron, the Friday Foster strips are long overdue for the Eclipse reprint treatment). Lawrence has gone on record as saying he preferred the more permissive British daily comic strips to their G-rated American counterparts, and much of The Dream Girl Caper reads like an author trying to overcompensate in the sex, violence and racial epithet departments (characters refer to Angela as everything from the n-word to the c-word during the course of the book, and she’s molested in at least two sleazy sequences straight out of a Lee Frost grindhouse roughie). Lawrence may have also been reacting to the cancellation of the Friday Foster strip and the news that an R-rated FRIDAY FOSTER movie (starring a badly miscast Pam Grier) was being made without his involvement. Whatever the reason, Lawrence came out the winner as far as I’m concerned. The Dark Angel books are a lot more fun and much better plotted than Arthur Marks’ terrible FRIDAY FOSTER movie, and what other '70s action paperback series so casually drops names ranging from Felicien Rops, Georges Feydeau and Richard von Krafft-Ebing to Linda Lovelace, Tina Turner and Mort Drucker?!