1977 was an odd year for Guy N. Smith, at least as far as his novels went. He'd started out earning good cash writing porn and translated that into seven digest publications for Tabor. Somehow he also wrote a set of four novelisations of Disney movies for kids, because why wouldn't those genres go naturally together? And he churned out half a dozen horror novels in and amongst everything else in that mere three years of novel writing. By 1978, he would be an exclusively horror writer, at least in fiction, but he had 1977 to get through and that was something different entirely.
He started the year out with the first couple of books in a planned series of novels about truckers for Mews, the series arm of New English Library. He outlined at least two more but, as far as we're aware, didn't write them. He ended the year with a war novel, also intended to be the beginning of a series, with at least a second book outlined but, again, probably not written. In between was just one horror effort, a sequel to his debut that would become the middle book in a trilogy. I'm eager to visit or revisit these.
But, for now, let's dive into 'The Black Knights', the first in a series called 'The Truckers', which was an attempt to cash in on the success of a TV show called 'The Brothers', which ran for seven seasons across the five years from 1972 to 1976. I've had this and its sequel forever, though I'm surprised to find I never had Guy sign them for me. I wonder why. Oddly, I don't think I've ever read them either, perhaps because for the longest time they sat on my Mews shelf rather than a Guy N. Smith shelf. Whatever the reason, I'm happy to finally catch up.
This was a good opportunity for him to write an action novel that could easily have been adapted into a gritty television episode, sans all the gory bits because, even if Guy hadn't planned on being a horror writer to begin with, he was so natural at it that he slipped bits of horror into a lot of his non-horror work because it worked. This novel doesn't last far past a hundred pages, but he packs quite a lot into that space and it reads fast and smooth, however cheap it looks from the cover.
As you might imagine from that page count, Guy gets his teeth into it quickly, starting us out with the novel's protagonist, Mike Britton, driving an articulated lorry back from somewhere on a job for Stafford's Road Haulage. He's too tired, though that isn't the reason why his lorry jack-knifes and takes out a learner driver in a Mini. The inquest says it was a defective tyre. As if that wasn't enough, though a speeding MG sports car promptly ploughs into the wreckage, crushing the Mini flat. The MG loses its top and so does his driver. That's three dead in a neatly horrific scene, more than the entirety of 'Werewolf by Moonlight' in just half a chapter.
Britton's okay, if shaken, but he's a tough guy and he'll do whatever it takes. We soon find out what it'll take, because his boss is forced out of business by the inquest. He has five clapped-out trucks, none of which are being maintained properly and only three are taxed. Marcus Wheeldon wants to buy the business, just as he's buying up all the small operators, but Britton offers him more to buy it himself. He's an idealist and tells his wife Jenny and Stafford both that "I'm trying to prove that it's still possible to run a transport business by playing it all above-board." He'll scrap the antique trucks, buy a couple of new ones and Stafford can drive for him.
And, if this was real life and not an exploitation paperback, everyone would live happily ever after. However, this is absolutely an exploitation paperback and the arrival of Wheeldon on the first day with Britton Transport on the front of his building ably shows us where we're going. This may claim to be a novel about truckers and it is, but the core plot is the time-honoured western story about a rich and ruthless businessman who owns almost everything and will do whatever it takes to get the last holdout of family-run independent whatever under his belt. It's Shane. It's Road House. You've seen it a hundred times before.
Guy always wanted to write westerns, though he only officially wrote one, 'The Pony Riders' in 1997, so a couple of decades on from this. I'm still half-convinced that he wrote at least one earlier that didn't make it, but nobody I know of has a copy of 'A Man Called Saton' and that's a different piece of writing. For now, I'll see this as a western, even if it's translated to the UK in the late seventies, and I'm guessing its sequel will follow suit. I'll find that out next month.
You can write much of the rest of the story yourself. Wheeldon keeps threatening but Britton won't sell and the threats soon turn into brutal reality. They thwart a quick arson attempt because Mike buys an Alsatian as a canine alarm system and the trucker puts a barrel of shotgun pellets into an intruder at seventy yards. However, someone spikes Stafford's tea with alpha chloralose at a transport café and he passes out on the motorway, ploughing into slow-moving traffic fast enough that there's nothing left on which to do an autopsy. Nine more people are dead and, a chapter later, the shed's on fire.
What frustrates Britton most is that he knows exactly who's behind it all but he can't prove a thing and he can't even convince Det. Sgt. Wadsworth who's tasked with investigating what happens on the Britton Transport lot. While we initially think he's inept, we start to realise he must be on the take, because Wheeldon's reach is long. The only thing in his way, we also realise, is Mike Britton, who's a very believable tough guy.
He's less like Chuck Norris, who would coincidentally play a big rig trucker action hero in Breaker! Breaker! a mere three months later and more like the sort of character Charles Bronson would get known for in the seventies: an everyman but a dedicated and ruthless one. I don't think it counts as a spoiler to tell you that Britton doesn't kill anyone here, but he's not above enabling it to happen and he's also not above sleeping with a prostitute for the crucial information he needs to get the dirt on the villain of the piece. Hey, it was the seventies. The little lady will understand.
Even if Britton doesn't kill anyone himself, the death toll does continue to increase and there are other violent incidents of note too. There's one rape and a surprise attack on not only Britton but his family too, young kids included. Businesses are burned to the ground, vicious thugs are hired to do vicious jobs and you surely don't need me to tell you what happens to Sultan the Alsatian. It's a wonder that Guy managed to cram all this into a novel so short that it may not technically even be a novel. I'm not convinced he gets to 40,000 words. The cast of characters seems larger than any of his novels thus far too, so I'll have to go back to confirm that.
Clearly I've unjustly underestimated and overlooked the 'Truckers' novels. I've read other earlier novels of Guy's that weren't horror, though they were early enough to not be published, and they didn't play this well. This may be only a slim 55p paperback, but it's a pretty decent novel. Frankly, I enjoyed it more than I remember enjoying his next official thriller, 1983's 'Blood Circuit' and, from a critical standpoint, it merely needed to be longer to give the story more room to breathe and the characters more room to develop.
Of course, Mews wasn't looking for that. They just wanted a short, sharp shock of a book to kick off a new series and, had they stayed in business, a succession of further short, sharp shocks of books to keep it going. Next month, I'll tackle the second and only other published 'Truckers' novel, 'Hi-Jack!', which was indeed published a month after this one, in March of 1977.
And, as an aside, I'll also go back to the gentleman who owns the handwritten manuscripts of the two 'Truckers' novels, because I seem to remember that he swears blind that he's held books three and four in his hands, even though there are no records to back that up. It's not outside the realms of possibility that Guy wrote more unpublished books that haven't come to light yet. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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