Monday, November 17, 2008

The DARK ANGEL series - by James D. Lawrence

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 U.S. Bicentennial ended up a huge 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: 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 Pam Grier movies like COFFY and FOXY BROWN. 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 Books in 1975. I suspect that Lawrence created this series after spending a weekend on 42nd Street watching blaxploitation flicks and Lee Frost/Bob Cresse sex roughies. If you have any DVDs from Something Weird or Vinegar Syndrome in your collection, I can pretty much guarantee that you will not feel cheated after reading a Dark Angel novel.

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 (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?).

Although The Dream Girl Caper opens with Angie seducing and then assaulting 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 started his professional career writing educational short films for the Jam Handy Organization, then moved on to scripting radio shows such as Challenge of the Yukon, Sky King, The Silver Eagle and The Green Hornet before switching to daily comic strips and novels. Although he’s best known as the writer of the James Bond comic strip, a gig he held for almost 20 years, he also penned pseudonymous novels for the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift series, and even came up with two series of his own:

Christopher Cool/TEEN Agent (Grosset & Dunlap, 1967-1969), six hardcover spy adventures for young adults, which he wrote as “Jack Lancer,” and The Man from Planet-X (Pinnacle, 1975-1977), an erotic sci-fi paperback trilogy written by “Hunter Adams.”

More importantly, Lawrence created the nationally syndicated comic strip Friday Foster (Chicago Tribune Syndicate, 1970-1974), in which a bright, beautiful, career-minded African-American woman enters the fashion industry as an assistant to a world-renowned photographer and eventually becomes a globetrotting supermodel.

The physical similarities between Angela and Friday are anything but coincidental, since Lawrence’s collaborator on almost all of the Friday Foster strips, Barcelona-born artist Jorge Longarón, was commissioned by the author to create cover art for the Dark Angel series.

Lawrence has gone on record as saying he preferred the more permissive British daily comic strips to their G-rated American counterparts, and the Dark Angel books read like an author trying to overcompensate with an endless barrage of torture, rape, kinky hardcore sex and racially inflammatory dialogue.

Los Angeles Times - March 18, 1973

He may also have been reacting to the cancellation of the Friday Foster strip and the news that an R-rated FRIDAY FOSTER movie was being made, without his involvement, as a vehicle for Pam Grier.

Whatever the reason, Lawrence came out the winner in the end, since his Dark Angel books are more memorable and much better plotted than Arthur Marks’ disappointing FRIDAY FOSTER adaptation.

Two months after the publication of The Dream Girl Caper in January 1975, the Dark Angel returned in The Emerald Oil Caper (Dark Angel #2). The story 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. Corrupt NYPD detectives, telefactor robot technology, a wheelchair-bound nature enthusiast, and a hulking manservant named Nemo also figure into this hardboiled-meets-hardcore whodunit.

Published in May of ’75, The Gilded Snitch Caper (Dark Angel #3) opens with Angela being accosted in a crowded midtown elevator by a deliveryman carrying a gun and a potted plant. She easily overpowers him by pulling out his package and squeezing his balls until he spills – er, reveals that he was paid $100 to deliver the Dark Angel to an address in Greenwich Village. Angie finds a key inside the potted plant (after smashing the pot over the hapless deliveryman’s head), then goes downtown to the address where she discovers a mannequin wearing a 24k gold necklace engraved to “Bryony” inside an otherwise vacant apartment. "Bryony" is Bryony Cargill, the missing daughter of newspaper owner/publisher Royce Cargill. Because the Dark Angel’s calling card was mailed to the Cargills and now the Dark Angel herself has arrived at the family’s estate with Bryony’s necklace in her possession, Royce is convinced that Angela is somehow involved in his daughter’s disappearance. When a ransom note shows up demanding $500,000 for Bryony’s safe return -- with a single dyed gold pubic hair included as proof of the kidnapping (Bryony’s boyfriend Derek blushingly confirms to daddy that his little girl did indeed dye the hair down there) -- Royce reluctantly hires Angela to retrieve his daughter under the proviso that if she doesn’t succeed within five days, he’ll turn her over to the FBI as the number one suspect. The second proviso: To ensure that she’s not in cahoots with the kidnappers, Derek must accompany Angela wherever she goes, a caveat that results in many highly descriptive sex passages. Along the way she gets help from her Asian friend Wun Good Fook, bumps heads with a black private eye named James Crow, and in what could be the book’s most offensive sequence -- it’s hard to tell, there are so many -- makes the three imported hit men (a German, a Belgian, and a Rhodesian) who are about to gang rape her draw from a deck of cards to determine their starting positions.

The fourth and final Dark Angel adventure, The Godmother Caper, appeared on bookstore shelves in July 1975. The most convoluted of the series, it begins with a woman named Marilyn Johnson offering $5,000 to Angela if she’ll exact revenge on Carlo Fosca, the mafia soldier who raped her niece. Angela reluctantly accepts and goes to Fosca’s place to beat his ass, only to discover Fosca’s testicles nailed to a wall and the rest of Fosca nowhere in sight. Three button men from the Licata crime family show up looking for Fosca and end up mincemeat after messing with the Dark Angel, who escapes naked down the fire escape and catches a ride home with Jeff, a young man who just happens to be hanging around the alley outside Fosca’s building. It turns out Jeff’s uncle is an art dealer who imported a statue of Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, for one of the biggest crooks in New York City, Steve Kurgan. Jeff followed Kurgan to a bar where he met with the three Licata thugs, who Jeff then tailed to Fosca’s place. Angie and Jeff soon realize that the statue is missing, and a lot of people seem to be interested in recovering whatever got smuggled into the country inside of it -- including art collector and Wall Street sleaze Roscoe Tazewell, who gives Angie a tour of his ritzy apartment during one amusing sequence. As she admires a den decorated with “canvases ranging from a Perugino madonna to a Jasper Johns, and objects as varied as a bronze horse of the Late Chou Dynasty and a Tiahuanacan ceremonial urn,” Lawrence goes beyond the usual name-dropping into the realm of inside joke:

His den walls were ablaze with a frescoed erotic mural depicting ecdysiast housewives ravaged by satyrs, teen-age debauchery in cars and schools, lust running wild in business offices – obviously the work of one of the brilliant, modern, Spanish school of comic book artists.

“Jorge Longaron?” guessed Angie.

Tazewell beamed. “Right on, my dear!”

The caper ends with Angie collecting a hefty fee from the Columbia Insurance Underwriters, but there's no indication that this would be the final installment in the series.

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 research has taken the backseat to a superficial feminist thesis, I yawn and move on. We’re talking about four sleazy paperback originals that were put out during the height of the porno chic era as gritty S&M alternatives to Cleopatra Jones, Coffy and Christy Love. Long out of print, they’ve never been reissued by a mystery press or marketed as mainstream middlebrow reading, and probably never will. 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 six until 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 ten. 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 -- also an occasionally unpleasant, 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 and others reveal the ugly damage that exists just below the sparkling facade. Dark indeed.


Marty McKee said...

Engel also produced the Chopper Cop series of paperbacks, of which I think there were three (I own and have read two). "Paul Ross" was the author; don't know if Ross is a real person or not.

Jim O'Brien said...

Top post–and a fine example of how great minds think alike! Not sure if you already know it, but check out The Paperback Fanatic zine at Issue 36 (at the printers now) has a short piece by me on the Dark Angel series.

We are clearly both people of great taste and discernment! But when (if?!) people read mine and feel short-changed I will definitely be steering them towards your post for more info, and the wwaaayy better reviews of the narratives than I managed. Loved the Donald Bremner clipping you'd found and I had had no idea Jim Lawrence was responsible for the Planet X books. Brilliant stuff!

RJR said...

Thanks for this. I enjoyed the books when they first came out but didn't know much about the author.