Angela Harpe is The Dark Angel, “a luscious private eye with a ghetto upbringing, an Ivy League education, topped off with a high-class call-girl career and a stint with the New York Police,” as described on the back cover of The Emerald Oil Caper, the second of her four adventures by comic strip writer James D. Lawrence, "produced" by paperback packager Lyle Kenyon Engel and published by Pyramid in 1975 (We reviewed The Dream Girl Caper back in November). There’s no sophomore slump here as Lawrence -- the creator of Friday Foster -- continues to flaunt his freedom from the constraints of American comic strip writing with a non-stop barrage of torture, rape, kinky hardcore sex and racially inflammatory dialogue, yet still manages to back it all up with a well-plotted mystery. I’m willing to bet if there’s at least one video or DVD from Something Weird in your collection, you won’t feel cheated after reading one of these books.
The caper begins with Angela being lured into the backseat of a limo by elderly Iranian oil millionaire Xerxes Zagrevi, who first pays her a thousand dollars to sniff her panties (!) and then hires her to break into the hotel room of wildcatter Laidlaw Pike to confirm the existence of oil prospecting maps from Colombia that may or may not be in Pike’s possession. While searching the room later that evening, Angela is interrupted by a man she assumes to be Pike and, pretending to be a prostitute, exhausts him with a quickie before making her escape. The next day she discovers the man she banged in Pike’s room wasn’t Pike at all (“Jesus, Hogie – I think I’ve been raped!”) but someone named Jack Bristol, who was searching the room for different reasons: his father, a petroleum geologist for the Emerald Oil Company, was murdered eight months earlier under mysterious circumstances, and he believes Pike is somehow involved. Bristol hires the Dark Angel to help him get to the bottom of his father's death, while he gets to the Dark Angel's luscious bottom as often as possible. She dons her prostie duds at one point to get closer to a few oil execs, which leads to a lesbian encounter with another call girl and a harrowing torture session at the hands of her former pimp, Longdong Strong. Telefactor robot technology, corrupt NYPD detectives, a wheelchair-bound nature enthusiast and a hulking manservant named Nemo also figure into this hardboiled-meets-hardcore whodunit.
I could argue some of the points raised in the three paragraphs Kathleen Gregory Klein dedicates to the Dark Angel series in The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre, including her claim that the books “reduce the protagonist to a sexual machine who cooperates in her own objectification,” but when it becomes apparent that good old-fashioned research has taken the backseat to a superficial feminist agenda, we yawn and move on. These are four sleazy pulp paperbacks that were put out during the height of the porno chic era as gritty S&M alternatives to Cleopatra Jones, Coffy and Christy Love (If the Pam Grier vehicle SHEBA BABY had been made by Bob Cresse & Lee Frost in full-out roughie mode, it might’ve played like a Dark Angel novel); they're long out of print and were never reissued by a mystery press and marketed as mainstream middlebrow reading; they had a target audience, and I'm pretty sure someone writing about gender issues for a university press wasn't it.
More worthy of discussion than the so-called objectification of Angela Harpe (we never forget that she is an extremely intelligent, strong, funny human being) is the backstory Lawrence comes up with to explain her sexual freakiness: Angela was raped repeatedly from age 6 to well into adolescence by several of her junkie mother’s boyfriends, and then gang-raped on a rooftop as part of a gang initiation when she was 10. This is supposedly why she either shuts down when being sexually assaulted, or feigns enjoyment until an opportunity to gain the upper hand arises. Complicating the issue is the fact that she also vigorously indulges in consensual sex with a variety of different men and women, some she actually has romantic feelings for. The Dark Angel books go beyond objectification into the realm of sexual psychosis, which makes Angela a fully-drawn character -- an occasionally unpleasant, even deeply disturbed one. In The Dream Girl Caper she urinates on one of her captors after turning the tables on him, while in The Emerald Oil Caper she knocks two of her tormentors unconscious, dresses them in women's underwear and leaves them in an alleyway tied together in a sexual position with soiled sanitary napkins stuffed into their mouths. These moments reveal the rotting ugliness below the beautiful surface. Dark indeed.