Jan 232014
 
The Executioner #124: Night Kill, by Michael Newton April, 1989  Gold Eagle Books Yet another novel I learned about via Michael Newton’s How To Write Action-Adventure Novels, Night Kill is actually by Newton himself; in the how-to book he showed us the outline he used to pitch the novel to Gold Eagle. And just like Psycho Squad #1, this is another men’s adventure novel clearly inspired by
Dec 302013
 
The Executioner #46: Bloodsport, by Raymond Obstfeld October, 1982  Gold Eagle Books It was strange reading one of Gold Eagle's first Executioner publications. Written by Raymond Obstfeld, Bloodsport seems less like that writer’s own work and more like an attempt at mimicking the style of Don Pendleton. From what Stephen Mertz has told me, this was no doubt intentional, given that in the
Oct 212013
 

A big thanks to Stephen Mertz for doing this interview – Stephen should need no introduction, as he’s had a huge impact on the men’s adventure genre over the years. In this interview he discusses his early days working with Don Pendleton, his years with Gold Eagle, the creation of the MIA Hunter series and others…and the promising tidbit that there might be more Mark Stone adventures on the way!


Tell us about yourself – how did you get into writing, and what were you doing before?

I was born a writer. Started scribbling stories when I was 13 and never stopped. Broke away from the 9-to-5 day job world 40 years ago and have been living by my wits on back roads ever since. I’m a musician, so I’ve fronted blues bands. Managed a resort for a summer, owned a secondhand bookshop in a small mountain town and ran a used record shop in a big city. Spent much of the ‘70s and ‘80s on the road just to see what was around the next bend. Settled in Arizona. Always writing.

What was your first published work?

First pro sale was a short story in 1975. First novel was Some Die Hard, four years later. A private eye story. Rock Dugan's first and only appearance. Funny how many writers of my generation (Reasoner, Lansdale, Randisi, Shiner, etc) first emerged as private eye writers in the tradition handed down from Hammett, Chandler and Spillane. There's just something about that sort of poetic hardboiled stuff that got us, I guess. If you've never read Spillane, you must sample One Lonely Night; the first chapter of that one makes for a brilliant noir short story, and the novel itself vividly shows the literary (?!) roots of action/adventure.

How did you become involved with working with Don Pendleton?

I wrote Don a fan letter out of the blue after discovering the Executioner series in 1973. I received in return a most gracious and down to earth letter that invited a response. I revealed that I was an aspiring writer and Don offered to read the manuscript I was working on, which became Some Die Hard. He kept it for about a month, and then sent back a 6-page single-spaced critique, pointing out trouble areas in character, plot and pacing, and suggestions on how to remedy its considerable shortcomings. When the book appeared, I dedicated it to Don and in fact used a couple of his “suggestions” word-for-word.

What was the working relationship like with Don – what was an average day like working with him?

At first, not long after we connected, Don was looking for someone to help him with his 4-book-per year production schedule, which he found daunting. Don was a craftsman, not a human word machine, and in retrospect there seems in his career to be periods of high productivity and then times when he had to cool down and step back; of course, contractual deadlines have no respect for such artistic foibles. Don paid me to write a draft of Colorado Kill Zone to the best of my then-ability. I was still living in Denver at the time. When the job was done, he dutifully paid me, and then threw away everything I’d written and rewrote an entirely new novel, which is the one that was published, naturally. My only contribution to that book is its first sentence.

A few years later I was on one of my open-ended road trips and took Don up on his invitation to visit and hang out for a spell at Pendle Hill, his home in the rolling hills of Brown Country, Indiana. We got to know each other and became friends. That trip also later took me to Bakersfield, California (I did say those trips were open-ended), where Don had requested that I meet up with Mike Newton, another Bolan fan who had made contact with Don. Mike and I hit it off and not long after that, Don invited us both to resettle in Brown County where the plan was to produce Executioner novels as a team for Pinnacle. Mike and I plotted and wrote a draft of Cleveland Pipeline. We’d have weekly story conferences with Don, then Mike would go and write these scenes and I’d go write those scenes. Don then took what we’d written for the Cleveland book, used it as an outline, holed up in the A-frame he used for an office on Pendle Hill and rewrote the book word-for-word in about a week.

That was the coldest winter in Indiana since God was born, so come the first sign of spring, Mertz hightailed it back out west. Mike stayed on to write Arizona Ambush and Tennessee Smash, after which Don regained his stride and, on his own, wrote the remainder of the Pinnacle Executioner series.

What can you tell us about Don Pendleton the man? I’ve often read that he would “act out” scenes from his manuscripts in an effort to ensure realism; is this true?

Naw, that’s PR guff. He might have paced off positions to block out an action scene now and then, but most writers do that. I’ve heard the term Renaissance man bandied about often but hands down, Don Pendleton is the only true Renaissance man I ever knew. He was my mentor. A warm Arkansas drawl and chuckle offset eyes that glinted with steely Bolan resolve. A thinker of the first magnitude; a dynamic man, embodying all that word implies. A disciplined free spirit who could discuss Copernicus or the craft of writing and marketing commercial fiction with equal ease and enthusiasm. WWII and Korean War veteran, musician, philosopher, metaphysician, lover of life in all its many manifestations, and a gifted writer who created a genre, Don Pendleton was one hell of a guy. Anyone interested in Don or in his work will learn much about both from his book on writing, The Metaphysics of the Novel.

How did you become involved with Gold Eagle?

Don hooked me up with Harlequin’s Bolan program on the ground floor. I wrote 12 Bolan novels and one Mack Bolan short story.

What was it like, working with Gold Eagle?

It was fun at first. In the beginning Gold Eagle was concerned with sustaining the readership Don had built up to that time and so I saw myself in a sort of caretaker status, trying to preserve what Don had created. I worked hard on those Bolan books and one of them, Day of Mourning, is still ranked by the hardcore fans at mackbolan.com as one of the top ten Bolan novels ever written (over the hundreds of other titles), thirty years after I wrote it.

It’s my understanding that Sylvester Stallone bought the rights to The Executioner #43: Return to Vietnam (July, 1982), which you wrote. Three years later, Rambo: First Blood Part II came out, bearing a similar storyline of Rambo freeing American POWs in Vietnam, yet you and Gold Eagle were not credited. Do you have anymore information on this situation, and did you ever hear what drew Stallone to this particular volume of the series?

Ahem, its quality, I would presume. At the time, Stallone owned screen rights to the entire series. At first everyone thought it was because he was going to make a Bolan movie but as it turned out, he just didn’t want anyone else making a Bolan movie that would compete with his Rambo interpretation; screen rights also allowed him to dip into the GE novels for source material. Given my respect for the guy, and especially that second Rambo film which I feel is the best of the movies, I’ve always been proud that they chose one of my novels to draw from.

I’ve heard that when Don Pendleton was having trouble with Gold Eagle, you came to his defense. Could you shed some light on this situation, and what all was going on?

I’m no lawyer and you’re talking 30 years ago but off the top of my head, it went like this. When Don sold the Bolan franchise to Gold Eagle, apparently the contract included a non-competition clause; i.e., Don could not write action adventure novels for anyone else. Well, Don was a writer and writers write, so sometime in the mid 1980s, his agent placed the Ashton Ford, Psychic Detective series with a competing publisher. The pinheads at Harlequin decided this was a breech of the non-competition clause and took Don to court. In truth, for anyone out there who hasn’t read one, the Ashton Ford novels are paranormal New Age allegories involving flying saucers, time travel, metaphysics, and stuff like that. There aren’t even action scenes in the books! But as I recall it, GE’s position was that there are only two types of fiction, romance and adventure, and since the Ford books weren’t romance novels, they were obviously adventure novels and therefore violated the terms of the contract. It was a greedy, nasty thing for a publisher to do. They were basically trying to keep Don from ever writing and selling again. Anyway, he needed a wingman and I was privileged to join the team. I flew back to NYC and testified in court as to the specific elements of action adventure, which clearly did not apply to the Ashton Ford books. Long story short, Don won what was essentially a nuisance suit. Naturally, my participation lowered the curtain on my work for GE but I was glad to go. I’m a restless sort. I’d gone into the program promising myself that I’d write no more than ten of the things and I ended up writing twelve because the money was good. In those days, Mack Bolan authors received a cut of the royalties, unlike today. But I’d grown bored being someone else’s product.

Please share some insight into the origins of the MIA Hunter series. It was always my assumption that it was intended to capitalize on the “POW-rescue” aspect of First Blood Part II, but it would seem that the series was already planned and being written a year or so before that film even came out.

That Bolan novel, Return to Vietnam, pretty much knocked people out when it first appeared. The book was a tremendous success and made several trade bestseller lists. An editor at Berkley saw the potential and asked me to sketch the MIA concept as the basis for a series. They liked Mark Stone, Terrance Loughlin and Hog Wiley, and so The MIA Hunter was born. By the way, those books ended up resonating with a broad audience of readers beyond the general men’s series readership. In the 1980s, there was a genuine concern among many that there were living American MIA/POWs left behind after the end of the Vietnam War. Anecdotal evidence kept filtering out that we’d left men behind who were still alive, though nothing ever materialized to the best of my knowledge. You can still see the black MIA/POW flags flying.

MIA Hunter wrapped up right around the time the genre was dying so ignobly, so I'm curious if Mark Stone's adventures ended or if you got word from the publisher that the series was over and thus never wrote a final volume?

It was the ever-changing marketplace what done in the original MIA Hunter series. This is why I’m so jazzed about the whole ebook revival of Mark Stone. He will remain at the age when he’s in his physical prime, in the time honored tradition of Mack Bolan, Mike Shayne, etc.

While The MIA Hunter was being published you were also writing the Cody’s Army series, correct? What was the background on that series?

That would be John Cody, honcho of a badass commando unit operating with White House sanction; Cody’s men are Richard Caine the Brit and big Rufe Murphy. Those boys kicked it for several books but they never did catch on like The MIA Hunter. I wrote the Cody books as “Jim Case,” and they’re all available under that name as ebooks. Cody’s my second string guy; good, but he’s no Mark Stone. With both series, I brought in co-writers to help when the deadline grind got to be, well, too much of a grind; pretty much for the same reason that Don had originally brought me into the fold. I’ve always admired, and sometimes envied, those prolific writers who seem to effortlessly turn out a dozen or more books every year, but I’ve never been able to do that. For a couple of years there I was as much a book packager as I was a writer. I was buying time, using income from the series work to subsidize development of my first “real” novel, Blood Red Sun (i.e., the first hardcover published under my own name).

What other series fiction did you work on in the ‘80s and ‘90s?

There was a two-book Vietnam deal called The Tunnel Rats, a couple of westerns in the Trailsman series, some ghost work that I can’t cop to. Contract writing paid the bills and, as I say, subsidized more ambitious, less formula-bound work efforts.

What led you to make the decision to leave series fiction/ghostwriting and to write and publish under your own name?

I hooked up with Writers Digest Magazine as an instructor in their on-line writers’ workshop program, which has really been rewarding at several levels. I’m able to share what I know about the craft with new writers, and the income that provides freed me up to get off the series treadmill. I now write mostly without those looming deadlines. This strategy has hardly made me a brand name author, but I have managed to sell everything I’ve written and for the most part I’ve been published to good reviews, so I’ll take that. Not that I’ve in any way lost my affection for pulp fiction. Since leaving the series field I’ve written a couple of short stories that are pure pulp. I mean, does it get any pulpier than “The Lizard Men of Blood River?” With my own work, the intent is to retain the vigor and immediacy of pulp fiction while delivering more than formula cliché in terms of character and plot.

Which of your own novels, both standalone and series, stand out in your own mind, and why?

The Castro Directive, my latest, is available from Crossroad Press in paper and ebook format. I suspect most writers of my generation have a Kennedy book in them and this is mine. It’s about the Bay of Pigs. A reviewer called it, “a kick-ass history lesson.” I like the sound of that. Of the others, Hank & Muddy comes straight from the heart: Hank Williams and Muddy Waters bump into each other one August night in Shreveport in 1952. Misadventures ensue. I guess that’s my favorite so far. Two others that did pretty much what I wanted them to would be Blood Red Sun, a WWII thriller, and Night Wind, a novel of dark suspense. Of the series work, an MIA Hunter novel, L.A. Gang War, is the best.

What projects are you currently working on?

Writing-wise, I’ve just finished a novel about Jimi Hendrix. As for the writing business, I’m busy promoting The Castro Directive and the resurgence of interest in the MIA Hunter, thanks to Crossroad Press republishing the series as ebooks (except for the three I wrote with Joe R. Lansdale, which will be published together as an omnibus from Subterranean Press). I’m enthused about the vibrancy of the ebook market and if the current demand keeps up, there will be new Mark Stone adventures to come. Stay tuned for details…
Apr 182013
 

The Executioner #5: Continental Contract, by Don Pendleton
January, 1971  Pinnacle Books

This fifth volume of the Executioner series is pretty strange; it’s not bad or anything, but the entire narrative seems to be building up toward a big finale, a big finale that never occurs. Also all of the continuity and sense of a developing theme from the previous four volumes is mostly gone, with Don Pendleton now firmly in a modern pulp sort of mode. The now-obligatory tropes of the series have still not emerged, but hero Mack Bolan is becoming more of an archetypal hero and less of the troubled loner of the first three volumes.

We meet Bolan in Dulles airport as he realizes he’s walked into a Mafia trap. Blitzing his way out, Bolan puts on a disguise and gets onboard the first plane out, which happens to be destined for Paris. This portion of Continetal Contract really shows its age, as Bolan is not only able to get on the plane by bribing an airline rep but is also able to stow his pistol away in his checked baggage. But the novel already doesn’t operate in normal reality, as in true pulp fashion another last-second passenger boards the plane, and the dude just happens to look a lot like Bolan!

This turns out to be a famous movie star named Gil Martin, not that Bolan has ever heard of him. Meanwhile the mob figures that Bolan must’ve escaped their trap via plane, and lock down Paris as one of his possible destinations. When a French contingent of mobsters crack down on Gil Martin in Orly airport, thinking he’s the Executioner, Bolan rushes to the rescue. After a pitched gunfight on the dark Paris streets he sees the potential of posing Gil Martin. However this subplot is barely played out; I was expecting a few scenes of goggle-eyed fans approaching Bolan on the Paris streets, but it never happened.

There are a few good action scenes in Continental Contract and one of them comes up pretty early in the narrative, as Bolan stages a vengeance strike on a whorehouse that doubles as an HQ for the French mob of Rudolfi. Rudolfi’s men were the ones who snatched Gil Martin at the airport, and now Bolan wants to make them pay. First he clears away the hookers and then he rushes downstairs, clad in his blacksuit, blowing away goons with a machine pistol. Bolan even gets the opportunity to take one of the hookers back to his hotel with him, a British transplant who has become a whore because she wants to be a writer(?), but Pendleton doesn’t dwell on the dirty details.

The British hooker quickly fades into the woodwork and Bolan is alone again – that is until he meets what will become the main female character in this installment, a Brigitte Bardot-type actress named Cici. Yet another internationally-famous star Bolan has never heard of, Cici appears in the hotel room Bolan has reserved under the name Gil Martin, thinking that Bolan is indeed the actor, whom Cici claims to have dated. Soon though she realizes Bolan is a “stand-in,” not that this stops her from clinging to him and providing a means for him to escape the enclosing police force.

So ensues a journey down into Southern France, Bolan and Cici growing closer. Pendleton does a great job bringing Cici to life, but the only problem is he spells out her French accent, like “Bolawn” and “stand-een” and etc, and pretty soon you start to think Bolan is hanging out with Pepe Le Pew or something. Other than that though she provides a welcome and strong female presence to this series.

As for Bolan himself, Pendleton continues to write a human character here, with Bolan often indulging in self-pity that he could never just enter “paradise” with Cici and live a normal life, forgetting about his mob vendetta. In fact Bolan quite often states that he likely doesn’t have long to live, strong words that come off a bit hollow given that he’s still going strong hundreds of volumes later.

Pendleton as expected broadens the narrative with scenes from the viewpoints of various factions aligned against Bolan. For one we have Rudolfi, whose plans for control of the European branch of the mob are crushed with this sudden appearance of the infamous Executioner. But there’s also Tony Lavingi, a mafioso who comes over to Paris to hunt down Bolan, bringing along with him an old pal of Bolan’s from the ‘Nam, a guy who plans to give Bolan the “Judas kiss” in exchange for a few hundred thousand dollars.

And as usual Pendleton’s mastery of the craft of pulp plotting makes for a very enjoyable and breezy read. My favorite sequence would have to be when Bolan issues an ultimatum to the mob, once he learns that those hookers have been sent to an African slave market as punishment for “allowing” Bolan’s attack on their whorehouse: Bolan will kill one high-ranking French mobster for every hour that the girls continue to be imprisoned. Here we see Bolan once again using his sniper skills as he carries out hits, but here too we also have a little page-filling as Pendleton provides unecessary backgrounds for each of the mobsters Bolan targets – unecessary because each of them’s dead within a few pages of their introduction into the text.

The various threads come together in a final showdown in Monaco, with Bolan once again alone up against superior forces. What’s great about these original Executioner novels is how much more power they pack than the later Gold Eagle offerings. And unlike the GE stuff, Pendleton doesn’t let gun specifics get in the way of a good story – once again he has Bolan screwing a silencer onto his revolver, an impossibility that would never pass muster in those gun-crazy Gold Eagle books. Hell, you can read entire action sequences in Continental Contract where the guns aren’t even named – they’re just called “guns!”

But as a tradeoff you get superior writing, characterization, and plotting. My only problem with this volume is that it just sort of peters out at the end…not to mention the unbelieveable aspect that Bolan not once but twice lets a rival go, only to regret it in both instances. You think he would’ve learned after the first time. And also Pendleton doesn’t really tie up all the ends, leaving the fates of some of the major mafia characters in question.

I’m figuring all of this will play out in later installments, though – and I’m really looking forward to the next volume, which apparently has a kinky bent.
Feb 142013
 

SuperBolan #98: Predator Paradise, by Dan Schmidt
September, 2004  Gold Eagle Books

This was one of the last books Dan Schmidt published, and unfortunately it’s every bit as uninvolving as another of his latter publications, Devil's Bargain. If anything this just confirms my theory that the earlier these men’s adventure novels are published, the better, and also that authors in this genre will gradually achieve burnout. Because without question the earlier Schmidt novels I’ve read have been very enjoyable, particularly The Executioner #115: Circle Of Steel, which was damn great.

But again I wonder how much the author is to blame. Gold Eagle has clearly refashioned itself to ride on the current fame of Tom Clancy/Ops Center stuff, and this SuperBolan almost reads like a piece of military fiction. To wit, Mack “Executioner” Bolan, who by this point is a complete cipher, has been tasked (by the President no less) to infiltrate a black ops commando/Delta squad calling itself Cobra Force Twelve to ascertain whether they have ulterior, anti-US motives.

Just like the more memorable Alpha Team Six in Devil’s Bargain, Cobra is made up of hardened warriors who go about with colorful code names…just like Cobra from GI Joe, in fact. Hell, the leader, Colonel Ben Collins, even calls himself “Cobra Commander!” If only he wore a mirror-lensed faceplate. But again as in Devil’s Bargain the too-many Cobra black ops dudes run together, and all are basically clones of one another. Hence, the reader can’t tell them apart, and quickly loses interest.

Even the narrative is lifeless, which is odd given how action-heavy it is. The first 100+ plages are literally an endless action sequence, with Bolan riding shotgun as Cobra blitzes various terrorist compounds from Mogadishu on up through Africa and into the Middle East. Collins will send in three plucky Cobra bastards who will enter into a fake deal with some despot, distracting them, and then Cobra Force Twelve will descend in their bombers and gunships and M-16-toting squads and start blowing people away.

But the action scenes are plain boring, mostly because Schmidt delivers them so flatly, stuck in the heads of the characters while the action goes down. In other words, while guns are blazing, instead of detailing the carnage Schmidt will relay it all from Bolan’s point of view (or Collins, or another Cobra commando, etc), ruminating over man’s inhummanity to man and etc. The actual combat description is relegated to stuff like, “Bolan blew the guy off his feet.” And then it’s back to the ruminating.

Compare this to the gore onslaught that was Circle Of Steel, where the action kept moving and the heads kept exploding. I guess a guy can only describe a head blowing up so many ways; it seems obvious to me that a writer in the action genre is going to eventually get sick of it. Schmidt would be a prime example. Predator Paradise is a pale reflection of the man’s earlier works, offering up cardboard characters, repetitive and uninvolving action scenes, and a general sense of frustration.

Also frustrating is that Bolan is a bit slow on the uptake here. He figures from the get-go that Cobra is up to something bad, but he tags along with them anyway. They waste a few Muslim terrorists, Bolan helps them catch a few leaders, some Cobra dudes make some evil insinuations, and Bolan just decides to keep going with it. Hell, there’s even a scene where one of the Cobra guys takes a shot at Bolan – right in front of everyone – and after killing the dude, Bolan still isn’t sure if Cobra is bad!

Of course, these guys do have an overarching plan for evil, but damn if it too isn’t muddled. I honestly couldn’t figure out what they had in mind. Something about corralling a bunch of warlords from Africa and the Middle East, taking them to a military base in Iran, and then doing something, like selling WMDs to Russians or something like that. Seriously, it was like the men’s adventure equivalent of The Big Sleep, just an endlessly convoluted plot with no satisfying resoluton.

And as mentioned, it would be one thing if we had some colorful personages here, but other than one or two of the Cobra dudes, none of them are memorable. They all have interesting code names, though, and Schmidt works it out that different code names mean they are in different level of Cobra, and therefore privy to different levels of the nonsensical Cobra scheme. But as for personalities, they have none. They all basically speak the same way, make the same threats; there are only three of them in particular, the ones who go in alone to each warlord and distract them before Cobra’s main force arrives, who have any spark, and Schmidt would’ve done well to just focus on them and get rid of the rest of the faceless Cobra masses.

It’s also frustrating that there’s a lot of potential here. A rogue team of black ops raising hell in Africa has the makings of at least an interesting plot, but it’s squandered with needless wheel-spinning and repetitive action sequences. It also would appear that “black ops team gone rogue” is something of an obsession with Schmidt, as I think every book of his I’ve read has concerned the same thing. So maybe by this point he had reached the end of the road, and could no longer find a new way to tell the same old story.

Repetition is key in this novel, so it will be in this review, as well – the earlier a book is published in the men’s adventure genre, the better it will be. And after a few decades of writing about terrorists getting their faces blown off by M-16 autofire, any writer will eventually achieve burnout. Hell, even David Alexander hung up his action-fiction-writing hat, and that dude could make an exploding head read like goddamn poetry.
Nov 152012
 

The Executioner #264: Iron Fist, by Gerald Montgomery
November, 2000  Gold Eagle Books

This is the second volume of Gerald Montgomery’s COMCON trilogy, which began with #262: Trigger Point. To recap that previous volume, Nazis insinuated themselves into the US government after World War II, their ultimate goal the removal of the US constitution and the eventual domination of the country…and then the world! Iron Fist backs down a little from the political conspiracy aspect of that previous volume, but in a good way…rather than being portaryed as crypto-fascits, COMCON is now a friggin’ Chutulu-worshipping cult who breeds Hulk-sized supersoldiers with advanced nanotechnology!

Again, the biggest surprise here is that Gold Eagle even published these books. They have nothing in common with other books in the Executioner line, filled with sci-fi weaponry and Lovecratian references. Hell, there’s even a Hunter Thompson analogue running around. What’s even more surprising is that Montgomery pulls it all off. His writing is strong, with a better focus on action than before – and he hardly delves into any gun-porn, other than a few instances here and there. (The most egregious example is where he goes on for a few pages about the C-5 plane…not technically “gun-porn,” but close.)

The novel opens with a nonstop action scene that goes on for around fifty pages; a tour de force of lurid gore as Splatterpunk, COMCON-created nanotech-powered monster, is dropped into Denver and begins killing women, all in a play to get Bolan’s attention. After busting up COMCON in the previous volume, Bolan is now COMCON's most wanted, and from what little they know about him, they’re certain that the murdering of unprotected, innocent women will draw his attention quick.

The only problem is, this opening scene outdoes the rest of the novel. Bolan is always two steps behind Splatterpunk, who has the strength of a few men and cannot be killed. Or at least it appears so. His super-tough skin deflects most weapons, even bullets, and those that do break free smash apart on his metal-like skeleton. Not only that, but it’s later learned that his body breaks down embedded ammo-bits into his bloodstream. This is all way beyond the normal Executioner ilk, which understandably might be off-putting for some. But for me, it was a wonder to even read such stuff in a Mack Bolan novel.

Splatterpunk leaves a trail of murdered women in his wake, even killing one right in front of a powerless Bolan. Montgomery does a grand job heightening the tension throughout this scene, with Bolan chasing after Splatterpunk, the cops chasing after Bolan, and chaos in general overtaking Denver. Meanwhile Montgomery often hopscotches over to Harlan T. Garrison, the aforementioned Hunter Thompson analogue, who himself is on COMCON’s trail, blasting through Denver in a permanent chemical fog, recording his thoughts into a reel-to-reel recorder for posterity, his gorgeous female assistant Brandee Wine (!) barrelling their vintage muscle car through the streets like a daredevil.

Bolan finally gets the drop on Splatterpunk, and the novel settles down, if only for a bit. Part of the problem with Trigger Point was that so much of it was dedicated to world-building, to setting up Montgomery’s elaborate plot. He does a much better job here, keeping the story moving while still doling out conspiracy-mongering backstory. Again Bolan discovers that COMCON is well beyond current technology; Montgomery even works in alien/UFO stuff, when one of the Stony Man lab assistants, after studying Splatterpunk’s inert form, swears that alien technology is behind this – she even brings up that hoary old rumor that the Nazis supposedly had alien assistance in WWII.

The most memorable character is Harlan T. Ellison, such a spot-on spoof of Hunter Thompson that you almost feel as if you’re reading a Gold Eagle rewrite of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I bet this character in particular truly set off the average Gold Eagle reader, who wondered why he was being given so much attention – for the non-Gold Eagle fan, though, the character is a blast of relief from the typical type you encounter in this imprint’s books. I suspect though that Gold Eagle probably cut out some of Harlan’s proclivities from Montgomery’s orginal manuscript; though Harlan often makes mention of drugs and the like, we suspiciously never see him partaking of anything stronger than a few cans of beer.

Splatterpunk too is a great character, and Montgomery goes the opposite route from the expected confrontation with Bolan, instead delving into a metaphysical bit where Splatterpunk, unconscious after his opening battle with Bolan, meets up with a goddess who reminds him who he once was, before COMCON turned him into the monster known as Splatterpunk. (There’s a lot of subtle goddess-worship at play here, with female deities providing salvation…Harlan’s assistant, Brandee, even makes several references to “Great Goddess” being with her.) The end result being a reborn Splatterpunk offering to lead Bolan to the Spread, the mysterious COMCON-owned place where he was created, so that together they may destroy it.

Montgomery gets even further out with the closing sequence at the Spread. Here, in addition to blazing action, we are treated to a wealth of Lovecraft-inspired stuff, with occultic orgies (black-robed priests there to soak up the “orgone energy”), baby sacrifice, and even a tentacle-headed demon, for crying out loud, though Montgomery has the characters assume it’s just someone in an animatronic mask. The implication however is that the demon is quite real.

Action-wise the novel is strong, with the gun-porn well worked into the narrative. Splatterpunk unleashes hell on Denver, and Montgomery doesn’t shy on the gore, nor does he in the several other action scenes, particularly the climax, where Bolan storms the Spread with members of both Phoenix Force and Able Team in tow. Montgomery even proves himself adept at writing the mandatory Able Team banter. In fact, dialog is pretty strong throughout Iron Fist.

We’re obviously far beyond the world of Don Pendleton here, but Montgomery’s conviction really sells the tale. It would be hard to imagine any other Gold Eagle ghostwriter coming up with such a far-out storyline, that’s for sure; little wonder, then, that other than one other standalone Bolan novel, the COMCON trilogy was all Montgomery ever wrote for Gold Eagle. I’m really looking forward to the next and final installment of the trilogy, though word has it Montgomery’s manuscript was drastically changed before publication. Again, though, it’s a wonder Gold Eagle even published it in the first place.
Sep 102012
 

The Executioner #4: Miami Massacre, by Don Pendleton
October, 1970 Pinnacle Books

The Executioner series continues to barrel full steam ahead as Mack Bolan, shortly after the events in the previous volume, heads down to Miami to bust up some more Mafia scum. By now Don Pendleton is working out the series details, and Bolan is becoming more of the archetypal hero and less of the three-dimensional character of the first three volumes. Don’t get me wrong, Bolan’s still a lot more “human” than most any men’s adventure protagonist (at least, in Pendleton’s hands he is), but with Miami Massacre he takes one step closer to becoming the “blacksuit”-garbed, Warwagon-driving murder machine of the later volumes.

Another Pendleton hallmark is opening action scenes, and once again he doesn’t disappoint. Bolan comes down hard on a mob stronghold in Phoenix, Arizona, closing in on the boss, who manages to escape. The guy is on his way to Miami, and Bolan also learns a Mafia summit will take place there, the main topic of discussion being the Executioner himself.

One issue with these early books is a lack of a good villain. In the previous two novels we had “Deej,” who really wasn’t all that much competition for Bolan. Miami Massacre doesn’t even feature one good main villain; the novel opens with Bolan hunting down a mafioso in Phoenix, and we assume the guy’s going to be the antagonist throughout. Instead, Bolan wastes him just a few pages later with some sniping skills. After that Pendleton switches the focus to another young mobster in Miami who is so similar to the one from Phoenix that I kept thinking it was the same guy.

However Pendleton here introduces the Talifero brothers, a pair of blonde-haired enforcers who employ their own army (the Taliferi) and who answer to no one. Pendleton doesn’t elaborate on the brothers much, doesn’t even really tell them apart, but it’s obvious he is working them up into greater threats who will return in future volumes. At any rate, the Talifero boys are called in to head up security for the mob summit meeting in Miami, and Bolan has to figure out how to get in around the heavy security and still waste a bunch of mobsters.

Pendleton continues his strange style of showing and telling. His novels open with great blockbuster action sequences, ones that just keep gaining momentum, but then he’ll go back and recap for a chapter or two, usually through the dialog of cops who arrive late on the scene. In each case, these guys just inform us of stuff we already know. And also, the cops this time out are basically rehashes of the California cops back in Death Squad; one of them is even the same as Carl Lyons, a young guy who begins to think the Executioner is the bee’s knees.

But with this volume Pendleton is getting the mythos down. Bolan introduces his “blacksuit,” which he wears on his commando raids. We still haven’t gotten to the Warwagon, nor the infamous Automag; Bolan here uses a Luger, which I found a little unusual. He employs it like it’s his most favorite weapon, and relies on it exclusively throughout the first half of the book. Later he shows off a large cache of weapons, apparently stuff lifted during previous raids on the mob; one of the weapons is an M-16/M-203 combo, which he uses to blow up tons of shit in the finale.

The villains might not be memorable, and in fact the mafia henchman all seem to be clones of one another, but Pendleton brings to life the supporting cast. After a thrilling scene where Bolan storms a hotel full of Mafia, he escapes with the bellhop, who turns out to be a Cuban exile named Toro who is an admirer of Bolan’s. Toro comes off like a proto version of Rafael Encinzo, from the much later Phoenix Force series, so I wonder why Gold Eagle just didn’t use Toro in that series instead of creating a whole new character. (Perhaps because Toro returns in a later volume and gets wasted?)

Bolan stays with the exiles, smoking plenty of cigarettes (ah, the ‘70s) and supplying them with guns and money stolen from the mob. Here he also meets Margarita, I guess the Smurfette of the Cuban revolutionary exiles, as apparently she’s the only woman in the camp. After he gives her comrades a ton of money, the initially-frosty Margarita throws herself at Bolan and our hero gets lucky for the first time since War Against the Mafia. Not that Pendleton goes into much detail.

But as Jack Sullivan could tell Bolan, romance while on a mission sometimes leads to sorrow. After returning to Miami and engaging in another thrilling combat sequence, Bolan discovers that Margarita has not only followed him, but has also been captured by a squad of Taliferi soldiers.

Here also Bolan again meets up with Hal Brognola (who I just realized I’ve always envisioned as Dabney “Jack Flack” Coleman in Cloak and Dagger…or failing that, Richard “Rambo" Crenna) and Leo Turrin (last seen in the first novel); this brief reunion appears to set up future volumes where the Executioner is going to be sent to Europe to bust up the mob over there. All of it comes off like a prefigure of the later Gold Eagle incarnation of the series, where Bolan is a globe-spanning commando.

The climax I found a bit disappointing, with a for-once injured Bolan again being saved by Toro and the Cubans; with one of Bolan’s appropriated heavy-caliber guns they launch a naval raid on a floating Mafia pleasure palace, inside which lurks a large assortment of Mafia elite. The scene wasn’t up to snuff for me because it lacked the personal, one-on-one confrontations I prefer in these books; instead, it was just Bolan strapped to a big gun and blasting away at a boat.

Pendleton again captures the late ‘60s/early ‘70s vibe with the despondent feel of the Vietnam era (one of the cops says it’s a wonder there aren’t more “kill crazy” ‘Nam vets like Bolan), but while I enjoyed it, I didn’t like Miami Massacre as much as the preceding volumes.

As a bonus note, be sure to check out The Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins, which is along the same lines as Miami Massacre, only a lot more fun. But then, it is by Len Levinson.
Jun 042012
 

The Executioner #262: Trigger Point, by Gerald Montgomery
September, 2000 Gold Eagle Books

I've been meaning to read this book for twelve years now. Back in late 2000, during a brief spark of re-interest in the men's adventure genre (which I hadn't read since I was a kid), I found myself on mackbolan.com, where this recently-published volume was being hotly debated on the forum. (This was also when I discovered that Gar Wilson didn't exist.) After reading the comments I went right out to a WaldenBooks store and bought a copy of Trigger Point...and it's sat unread in a box until now.

This was the first installment of a trilogy entitled "COMCON," written by first-time Gold Eagle ghostwriter Gerald Montgomery. It was also the first of only four books Montgomery wrote for the publisher; by all accounts he had some issues with them, as apparently Montgomery wanted to take Mack "Executioner" Bolan into different places than the usual terrorist-wasting storylines. It seems Gold Eagle started off on the same page as Montgomery; it's a wonder Trigger Point was even published, as it's basically an overhaul of the entire Bolan mythos, putting the Executioner up against a globe-spanning army of neo-Nazis who plan to destroy the US Constitution and take over the world.

The group goes by the name COMCON -- the Committee to destroy the Constitution -- and they mask themselves under the guise of real-life federal agency FEMA. Be preprared for a whole hell of a lot of FEMA-bashing in this book. Over and over again we are told that FEMA is basically an un-Constitutional agency, a government division created to take over the country in case of emergencies. In other words, if the emergency was great enough, FEMA could end all democratic freedoms and place the entire country under marshall law.

But Montgomery has it that FEMA is the brainchild of Nazis who came to America after WWII as part of "Operation Paperclip," in which the US imported all kinds of Nazi elite and put them to work in various governmental institutions and agencies, both to use their knowledge and also to keep them from the Soviets.

So, these Nazis have spawned their own vast army of black-garbed neo-Nazis, true fascists all, who plan to subvert the US Constitution and take over the country, initiating a New World Order (cue the Ministry track). Not only that, but they have high-tech military equipment that's beyond anything in the US arsenal; Montgomery doesn't get into details in this first volume, but apparently the COMCON guys run out of infamous Area 51, where it seems they have come upon some "advanced" weaponry. In Trigger Point this is displayed in their sleek gunship helicopters which are nuclear powered.

To recap: Nazis came to America after the war and got jobs within the government, they secretly banded together with plans to continue the Reich, they called themselves "COMCON" after their plans to destroy the Constitution, and they hid their activities behind the mantle of FEMA, which they themselves created. They now have endless legions of armed minions and command various secret bases, and also, due to their FEMA powers, can mandate "emergencies" wherever they want, thereby taking over entire towns with Federal authority. They in fact supercede the authority of the President, who meanwhile they have firmly in the pocket anyway.

The obvious question is, if COMCON is so powerful and so prevalent, how in the hell has it taken Bolan so long to come across them? To Montgomery's credit, he does answer this, having Bolan guess that some of the "shadowy government-type" organizations he's dealt with in the past were most likely COMCON agents. In other words, he's fought them before, he just didn't know who they were. But still, it's a bit far-fetched. I'm not saying it's bad or anything, it's just all very sci-fi and crazy, and thus a bit hard to swallow after the "real-world" banality of most other Gold Eagle Executioner novels.

But as I've mentioned many times, I like the crazy shit. Trigger Point gets pretty crazy, with COMCON-brainwashed teenagers (mostly girls) becoming Terminators, blitzing their way through schools and etc. This is how Bolan gets into it; there have been a rash of school shootings in the US, all of them perpetrated by teens who then killed themselves.

A government official (believe it or not, a Democrat!), who is aware of COMCON and is determined to stop them, realizes that this is the neo-Nazis's master plan finally becoming a reality: they intend to use these school shootings to engender mass protests across the US, for people to call on a ban of assault weapons, so that once the weapons are out of the public's hands COMCON will have little resistance when they finally move in to create their NWO.

I remember when this novel came out, Montgomery had a website (now gone) where he stated that his two favorite authors were Don Pendleton and Hunter Thompson. I also remember he stated it was his intention to return the Pendleton spirit to the Gold Eagle novels. Strangely though, Bolan is in full-on cipher mode in Trigger Point. There's nothing about him different from any other stoic men's adventure protagonist; he's just a stone-cold patriot determined to destroy COMCON and thus save the US Republic. Pendleton's Bolan was human, but then, it's my contention that the Gold Eagle Bolan should just be considered a wholly different character from Pendleton's original.

After being called in, Bolan meets with the COMCON-opposed diplomat and the two are promptly attacked by those nuke-powered helicopters and a legion of COMCON commandos. This is probably the best action sequence in the book, with Bolan taking on the gunship and the troops with his handy M-16/grenade launcher combo. Montgomery doesn't go too far out in the gore department, just delivering taut action scenes.

One thing I didn't enjoy as much however is that Montgomery tends to write his action scenes like military fiction. In particular the finale, in which Bolan leads a group of Rangers on an assault on COMCON's "Tranquility Base." It all comes off like Blackhawk Down, with Bolan directing fire squads and mortar rounds and etc. I'm assuming that Montgomery has some military experience, as he knows of what he writes, but personally I prefer it when action scenes have all the reality of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando.

The best element here though is that Tranquility Base stuff -- it's a secret COMCON base which poses as a Christian teen-rehabilitation center. Here a Nazi-lovin' brainwashing genius oversees the staff, and any kid who comes in who has a history of being sexually assaulted is shunted off to the secret underground lair, where they are promptly brainwashed. They're given multiple personalities, from assault troops to intel couriers. Montgomery gets pretty lurid here, and there's also a cool scene where Bolan performs a "soft probe" of the base; shades of Death Merchant #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill.

Really though, the majority of Trigger Point is given over to setting up the ensuing volumes. There are a lot of scenes of Bolan and his fellow Stony Man commandos learning about COMCON and FEMA, but Montgomery does spice it up every once in a while with an action scene -- there's also another good sequence where Bolan and his fellows take on one of those reprogrammed teenage girls. This must be the only scene in a Bolan novel where the Executioner goes up against a machine gun-toting schoolgirl. Another good scene is later on where Bolan poses as a COMCON "man in black" and meets a gorgeous female agent who is against COMCON; not sure if she shows up again, but her presence was a nice touch in the male-centric Gold Eagle world.

I know the trilogy only got the crazier as it went on -- the next one, Iron Fist, has Bolan going up against a nanotech-powered COMCON monster. After a decade-plus I went out and finally bought the rest of the trilogy, as well as Montgomery's fourth and final novel for Gold Eagle. While Trigger Point didn't blow me away, it was nice to see a Gold Eagle ghostwriter trying to do something different with the series, so I look forward to reading the rest of his work.
Apr 232012
 

The Executioner #3: Battle Mask, by Don Pendleton
April, 1970 Pinnacle Books

With this volume of the Executioner, the mythos of the character finally begins to evolve. Mack Bolan is back to being the lone wolf he was in the first volume, hitting the Mafia hard and without mercy. Reading Battle Mask, you also get an understanding why Don Pendleton, several years later, had so much bitterness toward Gold Eagle Books, who had purchased the rights to his character. For the "Mack Bolan" of those Gold Eagle novels bears little resemblance to Pendleton's original.

This was also one of the "old" Executioner novels I had as a kid in the '80s. I no longer have that particular copy, but I'm sure the one I had featured a logo emblazoned across the top which stated "Soon to be a major motion picture starring Burt Reynolds." This has always stuck with me, because shortly after buying that copy of Battle Mask I saw Burt Reynolds's craptastic 1986 film Malone in the theater, and throughout I kept saying to myself, "That guy ain't no Mack Bolan." I tried reading Battle Mask a few times back then, but I just didn't get it -- I wanted Mack to fly over to Beirut or something and start wasting terrorists, as in the Gold Eagle books.

Still on the West Coast after the disastrous finale of the previous volume, Bolan realizes that no matter where he goes, people will know who he is, thanks to media coverage. He figures his best gambit is to get some facial-reconstruction work done. To this end he visits an old 'Nam pal who happens to run a plastic surgery clinic in a small Californian town. Meanwhile the cops and the Mafia are closing in. Bolan's target from the previous book, Julian DiGeorge, Los Angeles mob bigwig, sends out his enforcers in an effort to close a trap on the Executioner.

Bolan displays his bad-assness by shrugging off any drugs after the painful surgery, and in fact is escorted out of the town posthaste by the Gary Cooper-esque sherriff, who don't want no trouble in this here town. Too bad, because the mobsters spring an ambush on the men as they're leaving. This entails an elaborate action sequence where Pendleton again displays his mastery of the craft. Whereas the later Gold Eagle books would get bogged down in narrative-halting gun porn, describing the origin and firepower capabilities of each firearm used, Pendleton instead just writes an action scene, and he does so very well.

But as proven in earlier volumes, Pendleton shows and tells. After this huge battle sequence we get a chapter recapping everything we just read! Anyway the mob's presence results in the destruction of the small town, but Bolan himself is able to escape, and no one knows he's gotten a new face. LA cop Carl Lyons, from the previous novel, is still on the case, trailing Bolan despite his growing respect for the man. Like Bolan, Lyons would become a vastly different character in the Gold Eagle books.

When we meet Bolan again he's already infiltrated into DiGeorge's estate, posing as a lone wolf mob enforcer. He's also busy putting the moves on DiGeorge's pretty daughter, and though it's intimated the two are friendly -- DiGeorge meets Bolan when his topless daughter is laying on Bolan beside the pool -- Pendleton doesn't elaborate on the details as he did in the first volume of the series. Using his own moxie as a sort of Mafia badge, Bolan's able to ingratiate himself into DiGeorge's army, eventually becoming so beloved to the man that DiGeorge considers nominating Bolan for full-on Mafia membership.

During this Bolan also works as an informant, calling Lyons with information; Lyons suspects this stranger calling him with intel is none other than Mack Bolan, who everyone now believes dead. Also introduced is Hal Brognola, a Federal agent who becomes Bolan's sort of boss in the Gold Eagle books. Ironically, Pendleton doesn't even describe Brognola, and to this day I have no idea what the character is supposed to look like; I don't think I've ever seen him described.

Lurid stuff develops in the character of Pena, DiGeorge's chief enforcer, who has been tasked with bringing back Bolan's head. Lying low after the small-town battle, Pena gets wind that Bolan might've gotten some facial surgery, and so captures Bolan's old plastic surgeon friend. He tortures the man to death in the first "turkey doctor" instance that would eventually become a staple of the series -- the name derived from mob "doctors" who get "turkeys" to talk. I know the name sounds goofy, and no wonder as it's a straight-up Pendleton invention.

Once again there are some great action scenes, in particular when Bolan discovers that Pena's out there and that he's got the "blueprint" for Bolan's new face. Bolan races against the clock to kill Pena before Pena can get the blueprint to DiGeorge, and thus ruin Bolan's cover. The finale sees a climatic battle in which Bolan turns DiGeorge's own soldiers against him, leading to utter chaos on the DiGeorge estate.

Pendleton delivers another taut narrative that moves at a steady clip; I think I read this book in about a day. I've discovered that Pendleton's novels are incredibly quick reads. And again I do admire how he never delves into the nauseating gun-porn of the Gold Eagle books: guys here just shoot "guns" and etc, meaning there are no sentences and sentences of firearms description. Hell, Pendleton proves himself a bit uncertain about guns -- toward the end of the book there's a scene where Bolan puts a silencer on his revolver. This is an impossibility!

But who cares, when a book is as enjoyable as this.
Feb 092012
 

The Executioner #2: Death Squad, by Don Pendleton
September, 1969 Pinnacle Books

Picking up not long after the events in #1: War Against the Mafia, Death Squad finds Mack "Executioner" Bolan heading to the West Coast after blitzing the Mafia in Massachusetts. The mob's put a price on Bolan's head, so he's on the run, in hiding. He's even gone so far as to dye his hair blonde. On top of that his events in the previous volume have already made him somewhat legendary.

Hooking up with George Zitka, an old pal from 'Nam, Bolan heeds Zitka's advice and realizes that it might be a smart idea to put together a team to take on the Mafia. After all, Bolan's just one man and the mob is legion. The two men go about the country putting together a "death squad" comprised of former 'Nam hardassess, all of whom worked with Bolan during the war. In total there are nine of them, with Bolan making the squad an even ten, and Pendleton shows the mastery of his economical writing here, bringing to life each and every member of the squad with only a paragraph or two of introduction.

But that is the problem with Death Squad. There are just too many characters here. Bolan suffers as a result; there are only three or so scenes from his perspective. Pendleton spends the 180 pages hopscotching among the perspectives of his unwieldy cast of characters; he even muddies the water further by introducing yet more characters, LAPD cops tasked with bringing Bolan in. One of these cops is a young hotshot named Carl Lyons, fated to one day become a member of Able Team. (So too are Gadgets Schwartz and Pol Blancanales, signed up here as members of Bolan's death squad; the three characters do not share a scene in the novel.)

The brutal, taut feel of War Against the Mafia is lost as a result of the swarm of characters. Death Squad starts off pretty great, though, with Bolan showing up at Zitka's place just in time to blow away a pair of mob goons who happen to be staking the place out, all while a "mod party" rages at the apartment's swimming pool. It continues on in an accelerated, well-done pace as the members of the death squad are assembled and devote themselves to Bolan's cause. There's even a touching moment -- again delivered without the maudlin, sappy flair that would be mandatory today -- where the men realize that Bolan's reasons for this crusade are personal, not due to money, and so each of them put a share of their pay into "the kitty." (Ie the savings stash to continue the war.)

The squad sets its sights on two LA-based mobsters. The funny part is, neither of them are shown as being truly "bad." The first makes his money by hiring unknown rock bands for little pay and releasing their cover versions of famous songs. (The bastard!!) The second guy...well to tell the truth, I couldn't even tell what he did, though I think it was briefly mentioned at one point that he had his hand in drug dealing and prostitution. But regardless Bolan's teams unleash their 'Nam-trained fury on these poor saps.

The action scenes also suffer this time out. Pendleton writes the novel as if it's a pice of military fiction. Rather than the close-quarters, personal nature of War Against the Mafia, Death Squad is comprised of sort of analytically-related snatches of combat narrative. What I'm trying to say is, the personal feel is lost. Instead, Bolan and his team relay military jargon to one another via walkie-talkie and a lot of the action is rendered via summary or flashback. I'm certain this was Pendleton's intention -- indeed, the entire thrust of the novel is a group of 'Nam soldiers deploying military tactics on the mob -- but for me it just took away from the nature of the series. Perhaps it would've worked better if the novel was longer.

Pendleton must've felt the same way, though, as he even has Bolan questioning his decision to form a squad, late in the novel. But it's a moot point: in an unintentionally funny denoument, the squad pretty much bites the dust. I mean, these guys couldn't even make it through one novel. What makes it even more ironic is the nature of the villains this time out; the climax, while entertaining, still just features a few Mafia goons in a fortress-like building. It's the sort of thing The Sharpshooter could take care of in his sleep.

The mythology of the series is still being worked out here. Bolan has yet to acquire the accoutrements that became standards later on: no Automag, no blacksuit, no War Wagon. But then, Bolan really isn't that strong of a character in Death Squad, lost amid the shuffle of too many competing characters, many of whom (like Juan "Flower Child" Andromede) are more colorful than Bolan himself. Thankfully Bolan returned to his lone wolf status in the next volume.

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