Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Paperback Warrior Primer: The John Raven Mysteries

Considering the enormous success of series staples like “Mack Bolan,” “The Butcher,” and “The Penetrator,” it would make sense that publishers would want to steer their marketing and branding efforts into the look and feel of the Gold Eagle or Pinnacle product lines. Brutish bullies, fast cars and the damsel in distress surrounding bold fonts, a serial number, and an immortal gun-toting hero. These elements are the centerpiece of the book’s plot, so why not run with that for the marketing flair? Back in the day, every bookstore and pharmacy in America had a prominent display of these book covers depicting all of the above hallmarks of the 70s and 80s costume party known as the Men's Action-Adventure genre.

This packaging approach was an economic success story for a lot of publishers. But what exactly could publishers do when they didn’t really posses written content suitable for a Men’s Action-Adventure series? That seemed to be a problem confronted by Berkley Books back in the day, and they had an interesting solution to this lack of supply.

In 1981, book shoppers may have seen a new action hero adorning their paperback aisles. His name was Raven, and Berkley released “Raven #1 – Raven Settles a Score” in the US with a tag line that introduced “The playboy ex-cop in the sizzling new action series.” The cover design certainly dressed the part with the scantily clad woman, a sleek car, and a turtleneck-clad hero with gun-in-hand. New subscribers had a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor with this alluring new series. The problem with “Raven #1” is that it wasn't a new series at all. In fact, this novel was actually the sixth book in a pre-existing series originally marketed as the 'John Raven Mysteries' – and the story was a far cry from the cover’s promise of an extraordinary action-hero debut.

'Raven' author Donald MacKenzie received most of his official education at a hodgepodge of England, Canada and Switzerland's school systems. However, like so many of writers, his true education came through life experience. MacKenzie was jailed numerous times - once in the U.S. for five years and another time in England for three. In fact, his life was so tumultuous that he wrote two autobiographies chronicling his checkered past - “Fugitives” (1955) and “Gentlemen at Crime” (1956). He began writing stand-alone crime novels in the late 1950s, with titles like “Manhunt”, “Knife Edge” and “Double Exposure.” But it wasn't until 1974 that he really hit his stride.

The 'John Raven Mysteries' ran from 1974 through the writer's death in 1993. The series comprised 16 total entries about an ex-British Inspector named John Raven. It was published in England by Macmillan and featured standard and unremarkable mystery novel cover designs that bore zero resemblance to the gun-toting bold font and Raven branding that Berkley invented for this benign series. To their credit, the bland covers of the original novels made no attempt to deceive or rook their intended audience. The plots themselves are more international man of mystery stories. There's plenty of espionage, international escapades and a sense of heightened alert – but John Raven just isn't an action hero in even the broadest definition of the genre. They were more like Tom Clancy writing Sherlock Holmes starring Spenser. Not exactly 'Hawker' or 'The Revenger' as Berkley conveyed the series in their deceitful packaging.

The grift behind “Raven Settles a Score” was simple enough for Berkley. After obtaining the license from British publisher MacMillan, they falsely staged the books as a new American series by dressing them up in packaging dripping with testosterone. The publisher either didn't know the chronological order of the original stories, couldn't get the rights to the earlier books, or simply just didn't care. It appears that Berkley simply slapped a #1 on whatever book was handy to score some quick cash from ill-informed male book shoppers looking for some action.

Berkley’s opening shot, “Raven Settles a Score,” begins with a walk down memory lane among series regulars John Raven and Inspector Jerry Soo. The whole scene is confusing to the uninformed reader with talk about a recent marriage, Soo's current happenings and the presumed defeat of a villain named Drake. Later, some alliances form that were clearly the bi-product of some incidents in prior books from the British Raven mystery series. Any reader believing this was truly the opening episode in a new series is bound to be lost. To hamper things even more, the “Settles a Score” reference in the book's title actually refers to the prior book altercations between Raven and his nemesis, Drake - a malevolent figure in this book that Soo/Raven both want to defeat for the greater good. Again, there's very little action and most of the book is simply positioning characters in key locations where Korean Embassy officials are hiding bad deeds while utilizing drug squad members as cover. There's a damsel in distress, but she’s buried in dialogue and never actually seems to need Raven’s help all that much. In fact this whole novel (or the 95-pages I could tolerate) is really just a ton of dialogue among a humongous cast of characters with very little explanation or entertainment value.

Apparently, Berkley's ruse didn't generate an enthusiastic reaction among readers. The publisher ran only four titles before canceling the whole debacle:

Raven #1 - Raven Settles a Score (originally 1979's sixth entry)
Raven #2 – Raven in Flight (oddly the second novel from 1976)
Raven #3 – Raven After Dark (renamed from 1980's fifth book, Raven Feathers His Nest)
Raven #4 – Raven and the Paper Hangers (originally the seventh title from 1980)

The entire 'John Raven Mysteries' series:

Zaleski's Percentage (Macmillan, 1974)
Raven in Flight (Macmillan, 1976)
Raven and the Ratcatcher (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven and the Kamikaze (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven Feathers His Nest (Macmillan, 1980); US title Raven After Dark
Raven Settles a Score (Macmillan, 1979)
Raven and the Paperhangers (Macmillan, 1980)
Raven's Revenge (Macmillan, 1982)
Raven's Longest Night (Macmillan, 1984)
Raven's Shadow (Macmillan, 1984)
Nobody Here by That Name (Macmillan, 1986)
A Savage State of Grace (Macmillan, 1988)
By Any Illegal Means (Macmillan, 1989)
Loose Cannon (Macmillan, 1991)
The Eyes of the Goat (Macmillan, 1992)
The Sixth Deadly Sin (Macmillan, 1993)

Buy "Raven Settles a Score" HERE

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