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Saturday, November 10, 2018

THE MARK OF CAIN

 
THE MARK OF CAIN
In a recent used bookstore foray, I picked up a copy of War Dogs #4 Body Count, an entry in a 1984 men’s adventure paperback original series set during the Vietnam war. Having been a collector of men’s adventure genre novels since my late teens, I was surprised I was unfamiliar with both the series and the author, Nik Uhernik. 

Back home some quick Internet research revealed Uhernik as a pseudonym for prolific men’s adventure writer Nicholas Cain. His first, and best remembered, series was the cult favorite Saigon Commandos, written as Jonathan Cain in the mid-80. The series ran for 12 titles all published by Zebra Books. One critic referred to the Saigon Commandos series as the Hill Street Blues of Vietnam.

*Saigon Commandos is a derogatory term invented by infantrymen during the Vietnam War as a reference to any soldier not on the front lines. However, the military policemen in Saigon, who found themselves up against snipers, rowdy sappers, and other hostile local criminals across the Saigon underworld, wore the title as a badge of honor—proud to be lawmen patrolling what they considered the toughest beat in the world.*

Cain used various other pseudonyms for a number of other paperback original men’s adventure series. These included the first 8 books in the Chopper—1 series as Jack Hawkins (a house name owned by Ivy Books); 3 books in Gold Eagle’s long-running Able Team series as Dick Stivers (a house name shared by many Gold Eagle authors); and 4 books in the War Dogs series (which prompted my line of research) as Nik Uhernik.

*One of Cain’s Saigon Commando characters is Private Nick Uhernik, the son of a diplomat who was born and raised in Saigon, and is very possibly the genesis for Cain’s Nik Uhernik pseudonym.* 

There were 6 books in Cain's urban cop series, Little Saigon, which were published under  his own name, Nicholas Cain. The series focused on serious crimes perpetuated in the biggest community of Vietnamese immigrants in America. Located in Orange County in Southern California, Little Saigon was once a quiet Los Angeles suburb dedicated to prosperity and hard work. However, over the years it became a war zone. Asian crime lords took to terrorizing legitimate businessman with threats of murder and extortion. Youth gangs in hot cars with Uzis cruise the Bolsa Strip dealing death and destruction in bloody turf disputes. Outgunned and outnumbered, regular cops are ineffectual. Enter police Lieutenant Luke Abel, a former MP from Old Saigon’s war torn streets. He knows the culture, the language, and the people. He also knows how to take the fight to the Vietnam-style guerilla crime gangs and win.

*Assigned to LAPD’s Anti-Terrorist Division for two years, I was seconded to a federal anti-terrorist task force. I spent a lot of time in Little Saigon on an investigation into Vietnamese organized crime factions terrorizing the community. The high ranking members of the syndicate all had ties to Operation Phoenix, a CIA sanctioned special-op in Vietnam that trained South Vietnamese special forces fighters to become assassins. They would then send them up-river alone with instructions to return with as many sets of North Vietnamese ears as they could cut off. When Saigon fell, the CIA managed to get a bunch of these guys out of Vietnam, but they failed to retrain them with skills useful in a civilian world. The remnants of Operation Phoenix were dumped in Montreal, Canada, where they quickly reverted to the deadly training they received in Vietnam and began to prey on their own community.  They eventually expanded their terror network into America and on to Little Saigon in California, which had a much sunnier climate than either Montreal or Vietnam.*    
 
Interestingly (possibly only from the perspective of a Men’s Adventure genre groupie) Cain also wrote the final installment of the Vietnam Ground Zero series using the pseudonym Robert Baxter. Vietnam Ground Zero was a long running series written by at least two other authors (Robert Charles Cornett and Kevin Randle) under the house name Eric Helm. Oddly, this last series entry written by Cain (as Baxter) was never published as a separate book. Its only appearance was in Heroes Book 1, a strange hybrid omnibus. Each of the 3 books in the Heroes omnibus series contained two or three novels from Gold Eagle’s various men’s adventure series. All of the included novels were previously published, except for Cain/Baxter’s Vietnam Ground Zero entry, Zebra Cube.

*For my fellow fanatics, the Vietnam Ground Zero series consisted of 27 books (28 if you count Cain/Baxter’s final entry) published between 1986 and 1990 by Gold Eagle. Between 1988 and 1990, 5 Super Vietnam Ground Zero books (longer versions of the original series books akin to the Super Bolan entries in Gold Eagle’s Executioner series) were published. Eric Helm was also the house name used for Scorpion Squad, a 4 book, Vietnam set, men’s adventure series published by Pinnacle between 1984 and 1985 (prior to the first Vietnam Ground Zero entry in 1986).*

With so many of Cain’s books set in the Vietnam War, I was interested to find out more about his background. Checking with the ever reliable Google (sarcasm noted), there appeared to be conflicting information regarding Cain’s real first name—was it Jonathan or Nicholas—since he had used both at various times.

Several entries indicated the Saigon Commandos Jonathan Cain was also the keyboardist for the classic rock band Journey—responsible for co-composing and playing the piano on Don't Stop Believin' as well as writing Journey’s hit ballad, Faithfully.

This did not seem right since no information on Journey’s Jonathan Cain listed any connection to the writing of at least 30 men’s adventure novels. Still, numerous links associated with Saigon Commandos author Jonathan Cain clicked through to information on Journey’s Jonathan Cain.

Even the legitimate, and usually reliable, Fantastic Fiction website’s bio entry for Saigon Commando author Jonathan Cain states: Jonathan Cain is a musician best known as the keyboardist and lyricist for the world-renowned band Journey. The listing even includes a photo of Journey’s Jonathan Cain...CLICK HERE

If it’s on the Internet, it must be true...Maybe not...

Futher checking quickly revealed Jonathan Cain as a pseudonym for Nicholas Cain—whose most likely connection to Journey was being barraged by their music on his car radio. The ever more valuable Paperback Warrior website gave a lukewarm review of Cain’s initial Little Saigon series entry, Abel’s War (a guy named Cain writing about a character named Able—let’s not go there), but does give a nod of acknowledgement to Cain stating: His volunteer service time in Vietnam (despite a high draft number) and as a Colorado state trooper is commendable...CLICK HERE

Cain apparently did his research for his Saigon Commandos series the hard way. In the latter years of the Vietnam War, he served as a US Army military policeman in Saigon. He later continued his Army career as an MP, which included tours of duty in Thailand and South Korea. He was honorably discharge in 1975 with the rank of sergeant. A civilian again, Cain returned to his hometown in Colorado. He then began a decade long law enforcement career. He started as a state trooper and later became a police officer in suburban Thornton, Colorado.

Ten years removed from the war, Cain wrote a non-fiction manuscript entitled Saigon Alley, which was based on his experiences in Vietnam. The manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers until it came to the attention of Zebra Books editor, Michael Seidman. Once an MP himself, Seidman offered Cain a four book contract if he would fictionalize the experiences in his manuscript and increase the sex and violence—which Zebra relied on as a selling point for their books. Cain agreed, turning Saigon Alley into the basis for his fictional Saigon Commandos novels.

*Zebra editor Michael Seidman was at Tor Books when he bought and purchased my first novel, Citadel Run, and contracted me for two more.*  

Starting publication in 1983, the Saigon Commandos grew to a series of 12 books and became a cult classic. More than a standard Vietnam action series, Cain’s first-hand knowledge helped him capture the essence of being in Saigon during the height of the war.

*At the end of Saigon Commandos #4: Cherry Boy Body Bag, Cain adds an unusual epilogue. His original contract from Zebra was for four books, so my guess is Cain had not received a contract for further books by the time he finished book four. Thinking this would be the last book in the series (it actually ran for eight more titles), Cain gave some closure to the books with an epilogue covering what would happen to the main characters in the future. As Cain did himself, the Saigon Commando MPs hired on with various law enforcement agencies back in the real world. One would commit suicide, another would be killed in the line of duty, and one would join the anti-Communist resistance in Cambodia. The various Vietnamese policemen (who were secondary characters in the books) would disappear into reeducation camps after the Communist victory. The leader of the Saigon Commandos, Ex-Green Beret Mark Stryker, however, remained in Saigon continuing to resist the Communist takeover of the city he loved.*

Being an MP in a city like Saigon demands far more guys and skills than those to than guard installations or direct traffic. Cain crafts an exotic city full of beautiful women and nonstop excitement as his collected stories cover all aspects of an MPs duties. In doing so, he skillfully brings to life a vibrant city inhabited with colorful and dangerous characters.

The final three books in the series, known as The Tet Trilogy, were the culmination of everything Cain had experienced as an MP and learned as a writer. The trilogy is among the best writing ever—fiction or non-fiction—about the Vietnam War.

*In his Tet trilogy, Cain uses actual transcripts of MP jeep-to-jeep radio transmissions, taken from official logs, records and archives, and incorporates them into the punchy dialogue.*   

In an unlikely turn of events for any men’s adventure series, Saigon Commandos #9: Mad Minute, was not only bought by Hollywood shlockmeister Roger Corman's Concorde Studios, but actually made into the 1988 straight to video film, Saigon Commandos. It was released as a feature film in foreign theaters as American Kommandos...CLICK HERE

Written by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver and directed by Clark Henderson The movie was filmed in the Phillipenes on a typically miserly Corman budget. Despite this, Saigon Commandos is a decent B-action movie for those of us who get a kick out of such low-budget fare. The film starred Richard Young, who would become far better known for his role in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a year later.

*Saigon Commandos is a surprisingly decent film, focusing not on the battles in the Vietnamese jungles, but on the corruption, heroin infested streets, hidden snipers, and hollow-point killing murders in Saigon. I was hooked from the opening scene of a Vietnamese band singing House of the Rising Sun in a strip club. I had low expectations for this film. However, it rose above those expectations—however slightly—and turned out to be entertaining. If you can manage to track down a copy, I recommend it for action B-movie fans.*

Cain’s writing career spanned over thirty book in various men’s adventure and military adventure paperback original series. While successful by many standards, and despite Hollywood interest leading to a produced feature film, Cain had slowly become a victim of the deadly curse of the mid-list writer—the main symptoms being the inability to breakout of the genre markets, small advances, and rarely, if ever, a royalty check large enough for a dirty weekend away.

In 1990, Cain moved on to another act in his career...literally moving on...to Los Angeles, where he became a private investigator. However, he did not give up his keyboard completely, writing two investigative manuals, Trick Questions (And Other Trade Secrets of an L.A. County P.I.) and So You Wanna Be A Private Eye, as supplements to the courses on investigation he taught at a local continuing education facility.

The Internet turns up little information concerning Cain’s personal life, and what can be found is most often repetitive. However, I did uncovered a strange book entitled Whatnots! Thirty Fascinating People Share Their Extraordinary Collections by Eileen Birin. In it, Cain has his own chapter talking about his book collecting habits and his love for Doc Savage. Along with Doc Savage, Cain claims Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and Joseph Wambaugh as major influences on his writing. He collects all of their books among many others.

 
SAIGON COMMANDOS
Saigon Commandos (1983)
Code Zero Shots Fired (1984)
Dinky Dau Death (1984)
Cherry Boy Body Bag (1984)
Boonie-Rat Body Burning (1984)
Di Di Mau Or Die (1984)
Sac Mau, Victor Charlie (1985)
You Die, Du Ma! (1985)
Mad Minute (1985)
Torturers of Tet (1986)
Hollowpoint Hell (1986)
Suicide Squad (1986)

 
WAR DOGS
War Dogs (1984)
M-16 Jury (1985)
Busting Caps (1985)
Body Count (1986)

 
CHOPPER—1
Blood Trails (1986)
Tunnel Warriors (1987)
Jungle Sweep (1987)
Red River (1987)
Renegade Mias (1987)
Suicide Mission (1987)
Kill Zone (1987)
Death Brigade (1988)

 
ABLE TEAM
#43 Kill Orbit (1989)
#44 Night Heat (1989)
#46 Counterblow (1990)

VIETNAM GROUND ZERO
Zebra Cube (1992)


 
LITTLE SAIGON
Abel's War
Death for Sale
Off Limits
Rough Cut
Street Tricks
White Death

1 comment:

  1. Paul – Thanks for your work preparing this profile. The SAIGON COMMANDOS books are now on my list to find.

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