Under the pseudonym of Mallory T. Knight, author Bernhardt J. Hurwood (1926-1987) wrote nine bawdy, tongue-in-cheek spy paperbacks in ‘The Man From T.O.M.C.A.T.’ series that ended in 1971. He then began writing paperback originals for the Fawcett Gold Medal imprint, including the stand-alone 1972 thriller, “Rip-Off!”
As the novel opens, former CIA spy Peter Ross is bored as hell in his current position as a federal prosecutor in New York’s U.S. Attorney’s Office targeting “second-rate losers who had run afoul of federal law.” Ross becomes obsessed with a spate of recent domestic terrorist incidents, burglaries, and bank robberies attributed to the shadowy, left-wing Revolutionary Action Party (RAP). As luck would have it, his politically-ambitious boss gives Ross a secret assignment to neutralize RAP, even if it means breaking the rules.
Leaving aside the author’s ignorance regarding the role of an Assistant U.S. Attorney and the machinations of the U.S. justice system, all of this seemed like a promising set-up - like Mack Bolan vs. The Hippies. Early in the novel, Ross catches a break when a young, female RAP member named Holly is captured alive at a bank robbery attempt. Ross takes Holly into his personal custody with the goal of flipping her to the side of Team America. Did I mention that Holly is super-sexy? Can you see where this is headed?
Hurwood’s written dialog is super-clunky, and his characters aren’t particularly likable or interesting. Ross is a charmless hero who does a lot of his speaking in sentences that end in unnecessary exclamation points (just like the title), so the reader is forced to imagine the ex-spook shouting in every conversation. It’s also clear that the author had some real animus towards left-wing hippies of the early 70s and used the verbal jousting between Ross and Holly as a way to score political points largely irrelevant to a modern reader.
The main problem with the novel is nothing really happens for the first 146 pages of this 160-page paperback. It almost feels like a romance novel where the federal prosecutor runs off with the hippie terrorist for an extended getaway with a lot of chit-chat between tepid sex scenes. Ross seems to take his sweet time actually getting anything worthwhile during his questioning of Holly. A single action sequence at the end of the book lands with a thud because of the dreadful slog it takes to get that far. Hurwood constructed the final scene to introduce the possibility of a series starring Peter Ross, but the character thankfully never appeared in any other books, to my knowledge. 160 pages of this dullard was more than anyone should have to endure.
Another issue with “Rip-Off!” is that my expectations are just higher for Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks. Even accepting that the quality of their output diminished by the 1970s, this felt like the kind of hastily-written one-off that Manor Books was releasing around the same time. Upon finishing the paperback, I felt cheated out of a few weekend hours and had an overwhelming feeling of being, well, ripped off. Don’t make the same mistake and waste a second of your time with this one.