In 1974, Signet debuted a short-lived series entitled 'Decoy.’ The concept was in the vein of 'Death Dealer' and offered a hero who would don disguises for the government to foil criminals. The debut novel, “The Great Pretender,” was a commercial failure and Signet would cancel the series after the second entry, “Moon Over Miami.” Series author Jim Deane never made a large footprint in the men's action-adventure genre. Other than Decoy, the only other known work is the 1972 sex-book “The Mistress Book,” later re-titled as “The Fine Art of Picking Up Girls.” Classy guy.
Series protagonist Nick Merlotti is a high-profile criminal known to the public as The Great Pretender or the Clown Prince of Crime. Specializing in theft, Merlotti's most acclaimed work was stealing a priceless museum painting and inserting his own photo in its place. Eventually he was captured and prosecuted, but Merlotti's talents led to prison escapes, only to be re-captured again.
In the opening chapter of “The Great Pretender,” Merlotti is approached by the feds and asked to infiltrate mobster Gianfreddo's circle. In an effort to locate the police officers who are tipping off the mafia, Merlotti's skill-set is apparently in demand. With absolutely no backstory on Merlotti, the author lazily explains that our hero has a computer brain allowing him to quickly quell and escape conflicts, decipher the most complex problems and perform a heroic display of self-defense tactics. There's no mentioning of Merlotti's past until page 134 of 166 – he's a former U.S. Marine. Partnering with Merlotti is a “gadget whiz” named Waves who will assist in recording and monitoring the mission.
The second chapter has Merlotti surrounded by mounds of titties on a New York beach. Picking Jane at random, the two flirtingly swim before heading to Merlotti's temporary residence to bone six times before dinner and once more afterwards. His sexual prowess is extraordinary, leading Merlotti to “ball” Jane repeatedly, as well as another babe named Faye. None of this is particularly interesting.
In a one of the most incomprehensible strategies you'll find in a men's action-adventure, Merlotti hatches a plan to intercept a yacht filled with heroin intended for Gianfreddo. By stealing the heroin, he'll then go to Gianfreddo and explain he didn't know it was intended for the mob kingpin and then give it back to him to earn respect and trust. To do this, he plans on just borrowing a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a machine gun. There's absolutely no mention of how he manages to steal a government boat or where he obtains a machine gun (there's not even a mention of what kind of firearm it is). The next chapter just has Merlotti on the Coast Guard boat with a machine gun. The plan works out perfectly and Merlotti easily intercepts and steals the boatload of heroin, which is revealed to be a load of sugar.
Meeting with Gianfreddo, Merlotti explains that he stole the shipment of heroin for the feds in an effort to infiltrate Gianfreddo's empire. In a reversal of the mission, Merlotti explains that he now knows Gianfreddo knew about his plan all along and lured him in with the sugar (huh!?!). Now, Merlotti offers to work for Gianfreddo to reveal the informants that the feds have planted to spy on Gianfreddo's operation. This is baffling – if the feds already had informants within Gianfreddo's ranks, why did they even need Merlotti? Regardless, Gianfreddo accepts Merlotti's offer. Only Merlotti then goes back to the feds and explains that he has told Gianfreddo of the plan and that he will use this as his advantage to find the police leak. This narrative is both confusing and moronic at the same time - no small feat.
The focus of the book's last 100-pages is simply Merlotti interviewing various cops to discern who's being bribed by Gianfreddo. In a shocking sequence of events, Merlotti decides the best course of action is to dress the part of a city social worker, visit every cop's residence and perform a sex survey with their spouses. By asking detailed questions like how many times they perform oral sex, favorite positions and what bedroom fetishes they desire, Merlotti will be able to quickly inspect the homes to determine who has lavish décor, because surely if they have expensive draperies, they are on the take. Wow!
Jim Deane's short-lived literary career is completely explained by the piss-poor storytelling in “The Great Pretender.” In fact, I would speculate the book's title was a recycled adjective that the author had received by publishers when submitting drafts. This novel makes very little sense due to it's overly complicated plot-development. Further, there are entire dialogue scenes where quotes with characters are mistakenly inserted into scenes where the character isn't even in the room or a part of the scene. At one point Merlotti speaks to Faye in a restaurant but she's not even in the building! Instead, he's talking with mobsters while Faye is at her place. Did Signet edit this or just publish a shitty first draft, sight unseen?
“The Great Pretender” is hereby inducted into Paperback Warrior's Hall of Shame. The only positive aspect is the phenomenal cover art, which may have been created by Jack Faragasso, a popular paperback artist who worked for Pinnacle, Lancer, Signet and Belmont among others. Based on the overwhelming failures of this novel, there is zero chance I'll ever read the sequel. You shouldn't either.
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