In the mid-1970s, the pulp fiction world was awash with macho, post-Bond super spies who screwed women, battled foreign agents and master criminals and generally alpha-males their way through lengthy – in some cases, still ongoing – series of novels that were fast, furious and unquestionably entertaining. The likes of The Executioner (who has appeared in over 600 books and is still going strong), The Destroyer, TNT and SAS all cranked up the violence, the sex, and the general excess that made these books hugely popular.
The Baroness series from 1975 was an attempt to produce a similar series, but with a female super spy. This was hardly a new idea – Modesty Blaise had already conquered that market – but these books upped the ante on the absurdity and excess, with central character Baroness Penelope St. John-Orsini, a wealthy international jet setter who is also a spy and who sleeps her way through friend and foe alike before finishing off the villains with her Bernadelli VB .25 caliber. Between assignments – or often during them – she throws extravagant parties at her Rome mansion, drives a red Porsche and – in a sop to Seventies sensibilities – smokes joints. The American-born widow of a rich Italian Baron, she has taken to espionage out of boredom rather than through any sense of patriotism.
The Baroness novels appeared between 1974 and 1975 from Pocket Books, with the author credited as Paul Kenyon. This was a Pocket Books house pseudonym that was used by various writers, but in the case of this series, it would appear that all the books were written by one man, Donald Moffitt, who was better known (under his own name) as a science fiction writer. Perhaps unsurprisingly – given both the author and the increasingly fantastical nature of spy fiction and cinema – the Baroness novels often veer into the absurd. The cover art was by Hector Garrido, who brought a comic book sensibility to the series.
Eight novels were published in all – The Ecstasy Connection, Diamonds Are for Dying, Death Is a Ruby Light, Hard-core Murder, Operation Doomsday, Sonic Slave, Flicker of Doom and Black Gold. Three more novels were written (one by a different author), but remained unpublished when the series was abruptly cancelled due to weak sales. In France, the series was repackaged as ‘Penny’ (the name the Baroness uses in the novels), and a ninth volume, Photo-Phobie, was added. In the UK, the first four books were published by Futura with new, somewhat artier and sexier covers. These British editions are now harder to find than the American originals, which themselves have become quite collectible.
The Baroness series is mostly forgotten, save for a hardcore fanbase, today – one of several short-lived pulp series that came and went during the 1970s. But as characters go, Baroness Penelope St. John-Orsini is entertainingly ludicrous, and she probably deserves to be revived in some form. I imagine a Baroness comic book would be very entertaining. And the whole series, including the missing books, really needs to be reprinted.