David Hagberg died on September 8, 2019 at age 76 in Sarasota, Florida. In addition to a successful spy-fiction career under his own name, he also wrote 22 top-flight installments in the ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ series and 6 paperback Flash Gordon novels. In 1976, low-end paperback publishing house Belmont Tower released an early-career Hagberg thriller called “Croc” under the pseudonym (or truncation), David James.
In the 1970s, the public’s imagination was captured by urban legends about kids flushing baby crocodiles down the toilet and the reptiles growing to giant size in the sewers by feasting on rats and other vermin. Hagberg’s fictional take on this trope stars New York City Division of Sewer Maintenance workers Peter Boggs and Marian Fascetti who handle maintenance and upkeep of the labyrinth of tunnels under the Big Apple streets. Boggs has been doing the job for 35 years and has grown cautious over time whereas Fascetti is the young, hotshot risk-taker of the pair with a beautiful and pregnant wife at home.
In the first chapter, the partners are investigating a cave-in in an old tunnel where runoff flows into the Hudson River. Always the cowboy, Fascetti goes beyond the debris pile to investigate further when he is eaten by a giant reptilian creature while Boggs watches from a safe distance. It’s a bloody, scary and violent scene that sets up the novel’s action for 211 big-font pages.
For reasons not entirely clear, Boggs doesn’t tell his boss that his partner was just eaten by a 30-foot subterranean crocodile. He lies about the dead man’s whereabouts and keeps the existence of the monster a secret. It’s implied that this has something to do with Boggs’ alcoholism and the idea that no one would believe him if he tells the truth. His reaction and the cover-up weren’t entirely realistic to me, but then I remembered I’m reading a 1976 paperback about a dinosaur-sized crocodile in the sewers, so I should probably shut up and pick my battles for realism elsewhere.
Hagberg trots out the genre tropes for this one. We have the 38 year-old college-educated supervisor always riding Boggs’ ass about this and that. We have a screw-up cop assigned to investigate the missing workers in the sewers. We have the investigative reporter from the New York Post hip-deep in the story (and sewer water) determined to get the full scoop.
It’s also important to remember that Hagberg wrote “Croc” during the height of the “Jaws” craze, and he borrows a lot of the same themes, including bureaucratic skepticism of the threat, for this reptile-based thriller. The good news is that Hagberg had great plotting skills even in this early effort.
As the paperback’s cover art and basic premise indicates, “Croc” is a helluva lot of fun to read, and the story is never dull or repetitive. Providing the reader goes into it with the right attitude, there’s a lot to enjoy in this underground labyrinth of glorious tension and violence. Recommended.
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