Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shaft's Carnival of Killers (Ernest Tidyman, 1974)

I'm not a fanatical film buff regarding exploitation movies, but I like them enough to feel a bit embarrassed to admit that this is my very first Shaft novel. And to be even more honest, I wasn't even aware that those cool movies were based on books. I've seen old Shaft paperbacks every now and then in second-hand shops and flea markets, but they were always "filmed" ones. Babes pictured on the front cover of this one obviously caught my attention, I decided to check out its back cover, and it was really a no-brainer to take it home expecting good fun and easy reading.

And got both of these but was also pleasantly surprised how good and somehow original this stuff actually is. Especially style-wise, plotting could be better.

It starts like a good old-fashioned crime novel. Shaft is enjoying his vacation on the Jamaican beach (where there's absolutely fucking nobody), having his first can of the Red Stripe six-pack, but it doesn't take long until he's disturbed by the screaming girl being chased by a couple of thugs. But unlike Mike Hammer, he doesn't give a shit about it. In fact, he finds the whole scene just "lot better than any shit on television".

He does get involved, though, and at that point, I was expecting to get just another standard case of a runaway girl involved in the same shady business (drugs, porn flicks, blackmail, ... you choose) with Shaft helping her out. You know, it's just something to do to stay in shape and kill an hour or two while he's enjoying his holidays.

Well, I couldn't be further from the truth. Because in no time at all, our main man is involved in some sinister assassination plot against the prime minister. The plot thickens, and the characters are introduced at the speed of light. There are beautiful women (obviously), corrupted officials, gambling mafia guys (I think), tough policemen, car chases, some fanatical revolutionaries, bombs, ex-FBI operatives turned private investigators, attack dogs etc, etc. Not to mention insane taxi drivers! In fact, the plot gets complicated so much that pretty soon (6th chapter), even Shaft gets a bit confused and needs to do a little recapitulation and facts re-evaluation. But he basically just confirms what he already knew: "Suddenly it was politics, not pussy."

Cool stuff, but style is definitely the winner over the content here. It is hilarious to read because Shaft is simply the coolest bad-ass motherfucker. And not at all in the cartoonish way in which he was presented in the movies, here he is much more made of flesh and blood. More vulnerable (see facts) and - big surprise - not much of a ladies' macho-man either (see facts again). He's just this nice guy, almost of Lebowski kind, who wants to spend some quality time on his hard-earned vacations...

Language is great, too. Full of slang and cool jokes, but at the same time, it all seems to be totally natural and not forced at all. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Mr Tidyman spoke this kind of street slang in his private life. Very funny and also easy to follow.

Liked it a lot and will definitely check out some other titles - "Shaft Among the Jews" sounds crazy enough, doesn't it?

4/5 (adding an extra half-point for a cool ending)


John Shaft, PI in NYC, but just a tourist in this one

Jamaica - between Kingston and Montego Bay

Body count: 5

Most of them are disposed of in a way that would make Mike Hammer blush. And while speaking of these methods, I should probably add another corpse to the grand total. Because there's this pathetic hunchback-ed criminal, and Shaft (1) jams the flashlight into his eye, then (2) tortures him by stepping on his ankle and twisting it until he gets a confession, and (3) finally snaps his neck by driving a car over the poor bastard. I don't think he actually kills him because later, some policeman mentions that "he had crippled somebody", and Shaft himself concludes his works by saying that "If he tried again with the blowgun, it would be from a wheelchair"

The body count is also not accurate and complete unless I add a couple of birds to it. There's a scene where he shoots another asshole, and the unfortunate guy's body falls into some kind of birdcage containing two vulture birds. Shaft doesn't like them, so he just shoots them too.

  1. Marita Dawes - secretary and some kind of revolutionary (A dumb little broad with a nice ass but no brains involved in all this political bullshit)
  2. Sarah Watson - prime minister ex-lover
  3. Bernadette Lightwood - prime minister's wife
  4. Linda + Valerie - school teachers from New Jersey
But - amazingly! - Shaft doesn't fuck any of them. In fact, the one-night-stand affair with the latter two ends up pretty miserable, even humiliating for our main man (see below)

No less than three times. This is amazing, considering how tough he is supposed to be and also how short this novel is (130 pages). And while the first time is understandable (poisonous dart) and the second time tolerable (car crash), the last time is simply unacceptable! He picks up two horny housewives in a hotel bar and brings them up to his room, and they start drinking champagne. True, he is tired (but still horny!), but all this time, he's nervous about what to do because he has never been in a threesome. One of the chicks saves him from this dilemma by jumping on top of him from behind, which makes him - well, you've guessed it - lose his consciousness one more time. 

There's no shortage of killers, and I guess the carnival part comes from the costume party at the end. 

No surprises here: Shaft & Babes. Cool, but it could be better to give babes some guns.

Cool lines:  
It was black as a loan-shark's sympathy for delay.[The Coolest!]

The night was as dark as a pimp's soul. [The Coolest!]

She was a cold, dry fish, and he took a petty satisfaction in understanding why the Prime Minister had been baking bread in a hotter oven.[The Coolest!]

"Paw Paw Tree in West Kingston," the driver shouted. "No worse place than this. You not careful, they kill you for dollar."
"That's inflation," Shaft said. "In New York, they'll do it for fifty cents."

"What's your name, man?"
"David Michaelangelo," the bartender said.
"Jesus," Shaft muttered.
"You know my brother?"
I got to get out of here, Shaft thought.[The Coolest!]

They rammed their way through the crowded downtown area without accident. Shaft couldn't understand why, except that God probably loved Freddy [Taxi Driver] as an idiot. By all rights, there should have been three or four pedestrians and a couple of motor scooters draped over the front fenders.

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