The John Marshall spy/assassin series lasted five installments between the years 1976 and 1981. The pseudonym used for these Pyramid Books was “Mark Denning,” but the actual author was John Stevenson (1926-1994). Genre fans may recognize Stevenson as the author of three ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ books as well as two of the ‘Sharpshooter’ novels by Bruno Rossi. Oddly, the series continued for an additional two books released only in Italian, but it’s unclear who wrote the foreign-language installments.
John Marshall is a CIA assassin allegedly adept in killing using a variety of methods (a Killmaster, if you will), and this skill set is particularly remarkable because he is missing his left hand. His assignments come from Mr. Cramer, his corpulent CIA supervisor and cantankerous father figure. The setup for the series has one foot firmly planted in the Matt Helm tradition and another in Edward S. Aarons’ CIA corporate structure.
Unlike most literary spies, Marshall isn’t chiseled and dashing. He’s a few pounds overweight, his hair is thinning, and his face isn’t particularly handsome. He gets laid, but it’s mostly off-the-page. The fact that his left hand was replaced with a hook doesn’t really add or detract from the story in any noticeable way.
In the series debut, “Shades of Gray,” Marshall is given two simultaneous assignments in San Francisco. First, he needs to figure out who is shipping combat tanks to South America. Second, Mr. Cramer gives Marshall a seemingly unrelated - and unofficial - assignment to locate and eliminate an unknown subject who is blackmailing Cramer’s niece. The blackmail plot is about 80% of the novel with the tank smuggling being almost an afterthought to our hero. Those unfamiliar with “books” might be surprised to learn that these two plot lines overlap and converge later in the novel, but I totally saw it coming.
The setup is well-done and the main character is cool enough. The problem Is that the plot is a bit of a snooze, and it’s really not much of a spy novel at all. Marshall is investigating two rather mundane mysteries as if he were a basic - and rather inept - private eye rather than a CIA killing machine.
By the time the novel ends, it was difficult to care much who was behind either scheme. Mostly, I was glad for it to be over. I may try another book in the series in the future, but it’s definitely not a priority after this tepid debut. Buyer beware.
Thanks to the always-excellent “Spy Guys and Gals” website for doing the heavy-lifting and the background research regarding this series and author.
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