Mar 062014
 
Soldier For Hire #6: Commando Squad, by Mark K. Roberts No month stated, 1982  Zebra Books Mark Roberts's second go on the Soldier For Hire series is nearly as outrageous as the others I’ve read, once again featuring our “hero” JC Stonewall acting like a regular horse’s ass, but this particular installment goes to some dark extremes that put the novel on a scuzzy level. More damningly,
Dec 022013
 

The Penetrator #19: Panama Power Play, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Whereas his previous volume of The Penetrator was almost surreal in its focus on action, this time out Mark Roberts attempts to go for more of a plot-heavy approach. It doesn’t always succeed, though, making Panama Power Play come off as a bit padded at times, very much lacking the spark of Demented Empire.

Roberts continues to dole out the metaphysical stuff with an opening which sees Mark “Penetrator” Hardin engaging in some past-life regression with his Indian mentor, David Red Eagle. This entire sequence seems lifted from a Western novel Roberts might’ve been working on at the time, with cowboys taking out Hardin’s Indian tribe. It kind of goes on for a while, too. Finally though Hardin emerges from the trip with the understanding that he should not hate his enemies, and instead look upon his vigilante activities moreso from a “maintaining the karmic balance” sort of view. I mean, he’s still supposed to kill them, just not hate them!

From this we clunkily go into the volume’s threat – one Norbert Briscoe, a tycoon who has escaped America, where he’s wanted on various white-collar charges. Now living in Costa Rica, Briscoe plans to take over the Panama Canal, funding a group of soldiers for the job. His objective is to then extort the US and other countries to use the Canal, but unbeknownst to him the commanders of his mercenary army are in fact communists and are secretly working with Cuba. Briscoe is an unlikely villain for the series, but Hardin takes the job because he’s bullied into it by Dan Griggs, a Federal agent who has helped Hardin in the past.

Hardin flies down to Costa Rica on his personal plane, and here again we have arbitrary bits in the text where Roberts informs us how pilots handle small aircraft in rough weather and whatnot. Was the guy a pilot or something on the side? Anyway Hardin’s shaky plan is to pose as Manny Czonka, Norbert Briscoe’s childhood friend; the two haven’t seen each other in decades, and Hardin hopes that Briscoe will have forgotten what Manny looked like. Czonka has gone on to become a left-leaning labor union rep, giving Roberts many opportunities to bash liberals and commies.

Unbelievably enough, Briscoe not only buys that Hardin is his childhood pal, but he immediately tries to recruit him into his Panama Canal scheme! This develops over a very long sequence in which Hardin as Czonka hobknobs with the expatriot jetset at a party on Briscoe’s estate in Costa Rica. We get lots of scenes in which Briscoe’s financial advisors bicker with one another over the Canal plan; they are immediately distrustful of Hardin, as is “The Colonel,” Briscoe’s security chief who is secretly working with the Cubans. In fact for a “financial wizard” Norbert Briscoe comes off like an idiot in Panama Power Play, constantly being fooled by those around him.

Action is sporadic for the first half of the novel, other that is than a completely superfluous scene where, before heading down to Costa Rica, Hardin heads up to Briscoe’s old home turf in Chicago and gets in an arbitrary fight with a pair of cronies who attack him. Needless to say, this incident has no bearing on anything and is never again mentioned. But I guess this would be like complaining about a “superfluous” sex scene in a porn flick. Anyway there’s very little action for the first several chapters of the novel, again marking it from its predecessor.

When the Colonel’s goons pull a hit on Hardin, he finally decides to kick things into gear. Once again hopping into his plane he flies on down to Panama to scout out the location. Here we have another strangely arbitrary scene where, on the main street of some village in Panama, Hardin just happens to run into two old army pals from back in his Vietnam days! These guys, who immediately thereafter disappear from the novel, serve as backstory-expositors, telling Hardin, whom they suspect is now CIA, how the army has gotten word that something strange is going on in the area.

Hardin forages into the jungle and finds a battalion of Cuban soldiers have already secretly encamped. Posing as a local he gets onto the base, but is immediately discovered. There follows a sequence torn from a war novel in which Hardin commandeers a radio and calls in the Panamanian army; troops descend upon the encampment and a smallscalle war ensues. The Penetrator literally disappears throughout this sequence, as we read about random Cuban or Panamanian soldiers blowing each other apart.

When Hardin returns to the narrative he’s busy trying to escape the surviving Cubans, who are still after the imposter who snuck into their camp, despite the apocalyptic battle they just lost. Hardin gets shot in the leg and falls off a cliff, right into a river; he wakes up to see a beautiful young Indian woman looking down at him. This is Rainbow Child, and the next sequence of the novel sees Hardin staying with the natives in their village as he recovers from his wound.

Rainbow Child is of course “given” to Hardin by the chief, though we learn that the girl wanted Hardin anyway. Strangely though Roberts doesn’t make much of the eventual sex scene, with Hardin instead biding his time until he recovers, so that he can finally thwart Briscoe’s Canal plan from occurring – despite the Cubans having been rousted, Hardin knows that Briscoe’s underlings are turncoats and no doubt still have something in mind for the Canal. Only when Rainbow Child complains that Hardin hasn’t slept with her does Roberts deliver the expected scene – but he skips right over it, which is also strange. I was hoping for a Soldier For Hire-style purple-prosed sex scene.

Speaking of sex, as soon as Hardin manages to get back to Costa Rica he finds Joanna Tabler waiting for him in his hotel room. Joanna is Hardin’s girlfriend in all but name, and this is one of the few Roberts Penetrator novels she’s appeared in. Sent down here by her boss Dan Griggs to pose as the girlfriend of “Manny Czonka,” Joanna does absolutely nothing to help Hardin – that is, other than immediately get abducted by the Colonel’s men!

In a sequence that seems to come right out of a sweat mag, Roberts has the Colonel’s stooges torture Joanna in horrible fashion. She’s stripped, burned, beaten (until the point where she pukes), and even violated by the Colonel’s rough fingers. It’s all pretty unsettling and seems to come out of nowhere, but it all culminates in a nice bit where Hardin magically shows up and blows everyone away – just in the nick of time to prevent Joanna from swallowing her cyanide pill.

From here Panama Power Play stalls into the home stretch as Hardin and Joanna turn into veritable pranksters as they try to fool Norbert Briscoe into believing his life is at stake. Their goal is to get him to willingly leaving the country, taking advantage of his “old pal” Manny Czonka’s private plane. At length the ruse works, and after drugging up Briscoe Hardin turns the plane from the Briscoe-intended destination of Cuba and back to the US, where Hardin delivers Briscoe into the hands of Dan Griggs. And by novel’s end, of course, Joanna has sufficiently recovered enough to want a little play time with the, uh, Penetrator.

I guess on second thought Panama Power Play was in fact just as discombobulated as the previous Roberts installment, jumping at random from one subplot to another, but still it lacked the nutzoid spark of other Roberts offerings, not to mention the gore and sex factor. Also on a pedantic note, the nifty little submachine gun Hardin had made at the end of Demented Empire is revealed this time out as being an American 180, which doesn’t look nearly as cool as Roberts described it.
May 272013
 

The Black Eagles #1: Hanoi Hellground, by John Lansing
September, 1983  Zebra Books

I used to always see copies of this long-running series on the racks of the local WaldenBooks store when I was a kid, but it looks like these days the Black Eagles series is relatively forgotten. I had a few volumes back then but never read them; the series was set during the Vietnam War, and I much preferred the “modern” men’s adventure series. However the covers were great and basically designed to capture a young boy’s attention: awesome paintings of headband-wearing skulls with weapons crossed behind them.

I’d read that someone named Patrick E. Andrews mostly served under the house name “John Lansing,” but Mike Madonna recently told me that this first volume was actually written by Mark Roberts. Well, I instantly had to read it. I hoped for another blast of Soldier For Hire-style patriotism and commie-bashing, and for the most part that’s exactly what I got. However the impact was dilluted over the 330+ pages of small print – I really have no idea why Zebra Books insisted on making their series novels so damn long.

The Black Eagles is the name of a CIA-backed squad of special operatives formed during some unknown part of the Vietnam War (I had a hard time figuring out when Hanoi Hellground took place). They are formed around Major Robert Falconi (don’t you love those convenient last names for protagonists?) and are made up of Americans from each branch of the US military as well as soldiers from South Vietnam and even Korea. First though a little more information on the series, courtesy Stephen Mertz:

That series was a Bill Fieldhouse operation. I don’t recall if Bill actually wrote any of the books solo but he did develop the series, and then farmed out those titles to his buddies. Lansing, by the way: my favorite of Bill’s work is a series of novellas that appeared in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine from 1979-1982, about a US Army CID officer in Europe named Major Lansing. There’s 10-12 stories in that series and they’re all worth tracking down. MSMM was a digest but in reality was the last of the pulps, with a “Mike Shayne, private eye” story in every issue. It’s a place where a handful of us then new guys (me, Fieldhouse, Lansdale, Reasoner, etc) were first published regularly.

Knowing this helped explain the acknowledgements page, where author “John Lansing” thanks WL Fieldhouse (“a gifted creative artist”), Michael Seidman (“a terrific editor”)…and Mark Roberts (“scribbler extraordinaire”)! This might be the very definition of post-modernism, an author thanking his own psuedonym. Anyway I believe this was the only volume of the series Roberts wrote, and it’s a strange thing because throughout it tries so hard to be what it’s not: namely a big and bloated piece of “war fiction,” complete with unecessary and digressive backgrounds on each and every one of the many, many characters.

This first volume lays the groundwork for the series. Falconi is called away from his already-successful strike force to helm another one, this one a multinational squad that will report to the CIA and handle black ops affairs. The first target is sort of like the Nazi pleasure castle that was the target of The Dirty Dozen -- a pagoda deep in ‘Nam that is run by the depraved General Song, a pleasure palace where all of the lurid needs of the NVA elite can be met in private. The focus though is Song’s recently-acquired Russian descrambler, which allows him to intercept Russian and American coded broadcasts or something like that. This detail was a bit vague, but anyway it was a MacGuffin so who cares.

Roberts really fills some pages with background on the many characters who are assigned to the Black Eagles. The only memorable one is Andrea Thuy, a pretty young Vietnamese lady who hates the VC and lives to kill them. Thuy is basically insane but this is only hinted at by Roberts; she was raped as a teen and her family slaughtered, and now she finds joy in murdering the commies. She even gets off on using her looks to ensnare them, happily relating a story to Falconi of how she once got a high-ranking VC on a date and then took him back to his place and, instead of giving him the offered blowjob, instead emasculated him, put a dagger in his heart, and then stuffed the severed organ in his mouth! All of this related, by the way, on Falconi’s and Andrea’s first date!

Falconi and Andrea you see take an instant shine to one another, and Roberts delivers one of his gut-busting sex scenes between the two. Nothing as hilarious as in Soldier For Hire #8, but still pretty great. In fact there are a few graphic sex scenes in Hanoi Hellground, like an endless scene midway through where General Song enthusiastically screws a young VC-lovin’ gal in his pagoda. (The girl is later blown away by Andrea when the Black Eagles storm the pagoda, which I actually found a little off-putting, given that she was just some innocent kid who had nothing to do with anything…plus she was just standing there nude and confused when Andrea wasted her; another sign of Andrea’s insanity, perhaps).

Anyway once a lot of jump-training goes down the team finally undertakes the mission. HALO-jumping into the jungles of Vietnam they slowly work their way to Song’s pagoda. Even here during the mission Roberts still intersperses background info on the characters, which really makes for a slow read. The assault on Song’s pagoda is well staged (despite the aforementioned bimbo-killing), and again much like The Dirty Dozen, with the Black Eagles mowing down undressed VC and NVA who are in the midst of all sorts of shenanigans. Song meanwhile manages to escape.

The only thing is, the pagoda-assault takes place just a little over halfway through the book, and there’s still a long way to go until the end. The rest of Hanoi Hellground is anticlimax of the worst sort, comprised of the Black Eagles trying to track down Song and also escape Vietnam. It just goes on and on, finally culminating in a good action sequence as the Eagles attack an NVA base, taking on superior numbers with their advanced training. But it’s too little too late, and besides which Roberts just ends the novel like he hit his (unwieldy) word count and said to hell with it – Falconi and squad just barely getting on some US ‘copters and taking off to safety.

So it’s muddled and digressive, but on the whole Hanoi Hellground still offers quite a bit of Mark Roberts’s patented goofiness. Such as…

Pointlessly-detailed gore as Black Eagle medic Malpractice blows away a VC he was just trying to save:

He saw the movement via the corner of his eye and ducked away from the Viet Cong’s knife thrust. The blade missed him by more than an inch. Malpractice drew his issue .45 Colt auto while the VC tried a backhand slash.

Muzzle blast singed off the Viet Cong’s eyebrows and crisped the skin around the entry wound. Hot gasses, added to hydrostatic shock, bulged the would-be murderer’s eyes until one popped free of the socket to dangle on his powder-flecked cheek. His head seemed to explode and bits and pieces of the ungrateful Cong splattered on Malpractice’s hands, arms, and face.

“Shit. Now I gotta clean up,” the medic complained.

Dialog that would make Stan Lee cringe, followed by more gore, as a VC tries to get Andrea Thuy to help the Cong effort:

“…Throw down your arms and join us in the struggle.”

“Not likely, son of a snake,” Andrea returned coldly.

“You are a betrayer of the masses! A camp-following whore! Daughter of a diseased sewer rat!” he screamed on, adding more insults.

“I am an orphan whose parents where killed by the Viet Minh. Whose refuge was destroyed by the Pathet Lao, who also raped me. All in the name of liberation. You are a traitor and the son of a traitor. The excrement of a leper smells sweeter than your foul, lying breath. You are going to die in the name of liberation, but you will be no martyr. No one will know your name.”

Slowly, deliberately, Andrea shot him in the groin. The man squealed like a wounded pig, dropped his rifle and clawed at his bullet-ravaged genitals. Massive shock blocked out the nerve passages and Captain Muc sat down abruptly, stunned and immobile. Again Andrea took aim and shot him in the stomach. Then she turned the selector switch to full auto and emptied the magazine into his face.

Headless, the ambitious Muc became truly anonymous.
Mar 142013
 

Soldier For Hire #5: Libyan Warlord, by Mark K. Roberts
No month stated, 1982  Zebra Books

This was the first of four volumes Mark Roberts wrote for the Soldier For Hire series, and it’s just as over the top and Team America-esque as the last one he wrote, #8: Jakarta Coup (which unfortunately was the last volume of the series – Mike Madonna told me that a Zebra editor once informed him that Soldier For Hire was canceled due to low sales, by the way). Libyan Warlord is just as unhinged as that later volume, featuring lots of gory action and goofy but explicit sex, mixed with frequent Right Wing sermons and random rants against commies and liberals.

Our “hero” is JC Stonewall, a white-haired ‘Nam vet who now works as a soldier for hire (he hates the word “mercenary,” by the way, referring to it as a “communist” word). I wonder how Stonewall fared in the hands of the first author who worked on this series, Robert Skimin, for in Roberts’s hands Stonewall is a complete bastard, a loudmouthed know-it-all dick who rants and raves and doesn’t listen to any opinion but his own. He is in every way an awesome spoof of the typical men’s adventure protagonist, but I don’t think Roberts intended him that way.

Also we learn that Stonewall is just an outright murderer. I knew from Jakarta Coup that something happened in Stonewall’s past to make him hate communists so much; here we learn that a squad of Pathet Lao soldiers killed a woman he loved (and was married to?) during the Vietnam war. She was hacked apart and mutilated in horrible ways before dying, and Stonewall gained vengeance by destroying an entire village of suspected Viet Cong supporters, killing “every man, woman, and child.”

This is shocking enough; even more shocking is how Roberts shuffles this under the carpet and instead plays it up that fortune was on Stonewall’s side in that he pulled this before the My Lai massacre – another ‘Nam atrocity that Roberts implies was justified, and was only played up as a “massacre” by the Liberal press – and thus was able to get away with it scott free. There’s a part in Libyan Warlord where Stonewall gets in one of many arguments with Left Wing reporter Melissa Gould, and he uses this butchery of his wife to explain his hatred of commies and liberals…and I always love how these rabidly Right Wing sentiments are always based off of fictional inciting incidents.

Anyway, we get a bit more detail on Stonewall’s operating parameters here. His contact is an older Texas millionaire patriot who goes by the handle “Trojan” and hooks Stonewall up with missions all over the world. The usual deal, those high-priority missions that the regular military can’t handle due to all of the goddamn liberal bureaucrats who get in the way. This time word’s come to Trojan that Qaddafi is currently putting together a nuclear plant somewhere in Libya along with a missile-launching service that could carry out strikes on the US. Helping Qaddafi are a few rogue US soldiers and CIA agents, one of them the infamous Marc Tolliver, an officer in Vietnam who came under fire for openly praising the VC and their methods.

Stonewall’s mission is to destroy the nuclear plant and kill Tolliver and his men. He decides to bring along only one man: Hank Polanski, apparently a muscle-bound type who comes off as a complete clone of Stonewall. I really couldn’t tell them apart, other than that Polanski only has about 10% of the narrative. Also, Polanski prefers to drink beer while Stonewall hammers scotch; indeed Stonewall comes off like quite the lush, always worried about when his Black Label is going to run out.

Much like John Eagle Expeditor #4, Stonewall holes up with some Tuaregs in the desert of Libya and trains them into a strike force. The military feel is not so prevalent here as in Jakarta Coup, parts of which came off like military fiction; the training isn’t given as much focus this time and Roberts instead doles out action scenes more expected of a men’s adventure novel, with Stonewall usually going up solo against Libyan forces while on recon missions or whatnot. However it seems that part of the schtick of this series is Stonewall training native forces in proper military conduct, so there is some of that here.

Stonewall’s weapon of choice this time is a Sidewinder submachine gun, which I couldn’t find much info about online. Roberts actually dedicates Libyan Warlord to the creator of this gun, and has Stonewall enthusing about it throughout the narrative. Roberts also displays his usual gift for in-jokery by mentioning that Stonewall has heard of the Sidewinder before, reading about it in “articles written by that guy Roberts,” ie Mark Roberts himself. (I wonder what magazine this was in??)

And this volume of the series wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t have frequent sex scenes. Stonewall scores with a whopping five ladies this time out, starting with his blonde beauty of a girlfriend (a lawyer who argues with Stonewall over his political views); a stewardess (who does him right there on the plane, drawing some curtains around his first class seat for privacy!); another beauty who happens to work in a consulate in Cairo and throws herself at Stonewall immediately after meeting him; Najeed, the “liberated” daughter of a Tuareg sheik who also throws herself at Stonewall; and finally the liberal reporter Melissa Gould, who garners the most narrative time, arguing long and often with Stonewall over his political views. It’s to Roberts’s credit that he doesn’t have these two go at it until the very end of the novel, even though you know it’s headed that way as soon as Melissa appears and Roberts mentioned that she’s not only, you guessed it, beautiful, but also that she has large breasts, another prerequisite for a guaranteed Stonewall shagging.

One thing I’ve found typical about veteran pulpsters like Roberts is that they have a steady command of their narrative, chugging along and doling out action, sex, topical detail about the environment and customs of whatever place they’re in, and etc, but when it comes to the climax they rush right on through it. Which is to say the finale comes off as too hurried, which is odd given the amount of page-filling stuff earlier in the book about various desert-crossing trips Stonewall takes (all of which feature action scenes, thankfully).

To wit, Roberts basically forgets about Tolliver and his band of turncoats until the very end, having Stonewall deal with them rather quickly. Strangely though, it isn’t until this time that Roberts decides to fill us in on who exactly these guys are, giving us pages-filling backstories that have no bearing on anything. So by the time Roberts gets to the long-simmering Stonewall/Melissa sex scene, he blows right through it in a sentence or two and then has Stonewall back in the US in the very next paragraph. He also just barely remembers to tie up a lingering question about someone who set up Stonewall at the beginning of the novel, but the resolution is pretty great, with Stonewall and Polanski hurling the poor bastard off of a rooftop.

The action scenes occur frequently and are filled with lots of gore, moreso than in Jakarta Coup. Stonewall kills hordes of Libyans with his new toy the Sidewinder, and also gets in a lot of close-quarter fights with an assegai tribal knife he picked up on an earlier adventure. He uses this thing to lop off several heads, and Roberts is sure to provide ample colorful detail about the ensuing carnage. Also worth mentioning is that Roberts is just as enjoyably detailed in the many sex scenes, leaving nothing to the imagination.

These Soldier For Hire books remind me a little of Norman Winski’s The Hitman series, with that same sort of ultra-heroic protagonist and overall goofy vibe. I prefer this series, though, just because Roberts is even more unhinged than Winski, delivering a nutcase “protagonist” who rants and raves against commies and liberals with such venom that he’d even put off Richard Camellion.

So I say again, if you are a fan of the movie Team America, you should check out this series, as it hits many of the same points…only it seems that the author of this one wasn’t being satirical. Which actually just makes it all the more entertaining!
Feb 072013
 

The Penetrator #17: Demented Empire, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1976  Pinnacle Books

This volume of the Penetrator is all over the place, filled with carnage and lurid subplots, which is a little surprising given that it’s by Mark Roberts, who generally delivers the more “grounded” installments. In fact Demented Empire reads like one of the crazed installments churned out by Roberts’s co-author, Chet Cunningham…and given Roberts’s penchant for in-jokery as displayed in previous volumes, I wonder if this was his attempt at writing a Chet Cunningham-style Penetrator novel?

Whatever the case, Demented Empire is a lot of twisted fun, and probably my favorite Roberts volume yet. (Most likely because it’s like a Cunningham volume, given that I like the crazy stuff.) The plot’s just as wild as the action, starting off with Mark “Penetrator” Hardin in southern Florida, where he’s looking into a land fraud scheme…but then somehow he’s tracking up through the country hunting down a nascent crime ring, and by the novel’s end he’s gone down to Guatemala, where he stages a daunting raid on a kingpin who calls himself The Poet.

The plentiful action scenes are filled with gory deaths, starting off with Hardin’s attack on the land schemer’s headquarters. You’d figure it would just be a regular office, and it is, but it’s filled with goons, and Hardin mows them down. Here he comes upon a new submachine gun, apparently custom built by these guys, which Roberts expounds upon throughout the book. A wicked little .22 caliber-spitter, Hardin pries the gun from a corpse and uses it from there on out, blowing away scads of scum. I have to say, I’m no gun nut but this weapon sounded pretty cool, especially how Roberts described it.

The novel is almost surreal in how it comes off like a fractured series of barely-connected storylines, all tied together by Hardin as he comes into some new place, kills a few people, and moves on. To continue with the Cunningham parallels, it must be noted that Hardin is pretty savage here, moreso than normal in a Roberts installment. He shows absolutely no mercy to his enemies, no matter how low they are on the criminal empire’s totem pole. There’s one unsettling scene where he murders a crook while the man’s wife sits nearby, and at the climax he leaves another villain to suffer a horrible fate in the grip of an anaconda.

Roberts also packs on the lurid and exploitative stuff. The biggest instance is a subplot concerning Malcom Stone, one of the Poet’s executives, who runs a porn ring out of Nebraska. But this is porn of the sick and warped variety; Hardin comes upon a few films and watches them in disgust on a rented projector. Roberts continues to build upon the twisted element here, culminating in a bizarre scene where an actress is apparently blown up on film. Throughout these movies a gorgeous redhead constantly appears, usually wearing nothing but go-go boots and sporting a whip, which she uses to lash the other actors, spurring them to greater lengths of depravity.

This turns out to be a lady named Nila Dennis, Malcom Stone’s secretary. Nila is a protype for the later Roberts villainess Margot Anstruther (from Soldier For Hire #8), and just as depraved, though unfortunately she doesn’t get as much narrative time as I’d like. (Due no doubt to some psychological quirk, I love female villains, the more depraved the better.) But here Roberts delivers on the scene he denied us in Soldier For Hire #8, having Hardin and Nila spend some quality time together. This scene is probably the highlight of the novel, with Nila so overwhelmed by Hardin’s skills in the sack that she forgets to call in Malcom Stone, who’s waiting outside for Nila’s signal to come in and kill Hardin!

Actually there’s a pretty strong focus on sex here, again moreso like what you’d expect to find in one of Cunningham’s Penetrator novels. Hardin gets it on with two different women, the first time with Nila Dennis and then later on with the beautiful proprietor of a hotel in Mexico…this scene is particularly Cunningham-esque, with the woman coming on to Hardin mere moments after meeting him, offering her Jeep in exchange for some good lovin’!

The sex scenes are just as purple prosed as you’d want, but more fun is how Roberts keeps reminding us of them throughout…both women continuously marvel over how good Hardin was, including an unforgettable bit where Nila, days after the event, reflects over “the warm glow in her loins.” Wow! I guess Hardin calls himself “The Penetrator” for more reasons than one. (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

There’s enough material in Demented Empire for a few books, from Hardin’s entry into a knife-throwing competition(?), to an attack on Hardin by a group of bikers, to even the familiar old saw about the small-time sheriff who quickly figures out who Hardin is but decides to help him anyway. Not to mention a random scene where Roberts details how difficult it is to pilot a small plane through a heavy thunderstorm, nor a subplot where Hardin’s old pal Tony Rossi (from #12: Bloody Boston -- a Cunningham novel, by the way) tries to get Hardin to work for the Mafia! Even the last chapter of the novel is sort of arbitrary, with Roberts delving into full-on gun-porn as Hardin, back in his HQ, goes over what weapons he’s used on past missions and how each performed, and also designs his own machine gun for use in future missions.

So while it lacks much direction or control, I still think Demented Empire is one of the most entertaining entries in the series yet. Roberts is more focused on delivering a string of sex and violence-heavy scenes than on delivering a taut story, but when those scenes are so well done, who can complain? At any rate Demented Empire is leagues above the previous volume, which was by Cunningham…meaning that Roberts bested Cunningham by delivering a sort of imitation that’s better than the original.

Back in my review for #9: Dodge City Bombers, I wondered if Roberts’s mention of a character in Texas named “Crawford” might’ve been an in-joke reference to Texas-based Pinnacle house writer William Crawford, aka the man who penned the infamous 16th installment of the Executioner series, Sicilian Slaughter, as “Jim Peterson.” It must’ve been a reference to him after all, as Roberts actually dedicates Demented Empire to Crawford.
Jul 232012
 

The Penetrator #15: The Quebec Connection, by Lionel Derrick
July, 1976 Pinnacle Books

This volume of the Penetrator finds our hero Mark Hardin going all over the place, from Quebec to France, seeing a lot of action along the way. Author Mark Roberts appears to combine a few separate plotlines here, with The Quebec Connection starting off like just another tale of Hardin's tracking down and killing the members of a terrorist group, but then ends like something out of TNT, with Hardin fighting a trio of dwarves atop the Eiffel Tower. Even Hardin himself in this volumes wonders "what the hell he'd gotten himself into."

A group of hippie terrorists dubbed the 23 May Liberation Front is bombing places both in their homebase of Quebec and in the States; the novel opens with a pretty female member of the group planting a bomb in a Buffalo, New York bank. In addition to this the group is dealing a drug called Ziff, no relation to Artie Ziff, which appears to have the same effects as Ecstasy, just a decade or so before that drug existed. Only Ziff has a bizarre side effect which Hardin doesn't learn about until later.

As usual Hardin's method of research is pretty basic: he beats people around. In one out-of-left-field sequence, probably there just to boost the action quotient which is a bit lacking in the first quarter of the novel, Hardin poses as a priest and is jumped by a gang of street toughs, whom he kills after a protracted and brutal fight. Eventually he makes his way to Quebec (one of my favorite places in the world is Montreal, by the way), where he has tracked the movers and shakers in the 23 May Liberation Front.

Here the action picks up, with Hardin "penetrating" terrorist bases, killing guards and planting bombs. The hippie terrorists prove little threat, and indeed Roberts must've realized he already had Hardin kill a bunch of hippies back in #9: Dodge City Bombers, so he opens up the plot. While Hardin's tracking the French-Canadian terrorists, a separate group is tracking him: a Chinese villain who suffered fallout from Hardin's crime-busting way back in #3: Capitol Hell is finally getting around to his revenge, and so has sent out various teams of Chinese killers to waste Hardin.

There are some fun action scenes throughout, from Hardin taking on the first wave of Chinese assassins to another drawn-out sea warfare sequence with Hardin, in a commandeered yacht, launching a surprise attack on the hippie terrorists while they're engaged in a drug drop. After this battle the Feds appear, having been tracking the hippie terrorists themselves, and despite Hardin being a wanted man the Feds propose that he work with them on the case! Joanna Tabler, Hardin's occasional girlfriend, is with them; I'm pretty sure this is the first time she's appeared in a Roberts-penned installment of the series. (In fact, Roberts ends the novel with Hardin realizing that he'll have to break off relations with Joanna!)

After a laughable sequence in which we learn that Hardin has purchased a bullet-proof business suit, he flies to Marseilles, France, where a la The French Connection the Ziff has been imported from. Here those dwarves appear: the side effect of Ziff is that it corrupts the biology of the user so that his or her offspring will be born a dwarf. Masterminded by a trio of sadists who think dwarfism is normal and who hate the "giants," Ziff is created here in France and funnelled out to the 23 May Liberation hippies, who themselves are unaware of its damaging effects.

The Chinese have followed Hardin even here, and there follows a scene in which his bullet-proof suit is put to use, followed by an even better scene where Hardin gets his revenge. Meanwhile he closes in on the Ziff manufacturers, blowing up their plants and killing more terrorists. The finale is by far the best part, with those dwarves -- who, by the way, are dressed like the Three Musketeers at the time -- taking on Hardin atop the Eiffel Tower. (And yes, there's a part where Hardin grabs one of them and hurls the little bastard right off the Tower!)

While it was for the most part entertaining, I just felt that The Quebec Connection went on too long, and despite the abundance of plotlines it just seemed to drag at times. But then, I've found that I much prefer the sadistic, fast-moving installments written by Chet Cunningham.
Apr 262012
 

Soldier For Hire #8: Jakarta Coup, by Mark K. Roberts
No month stated, 1983 Zebra Books

I learned about this series through Michael Newton's 1989 book How To Write Action-Adventure Novels. Newton ranted and raved about this particular installment of the series throughout that book, going on about the author's not-very-veiled political commentary, the "repulsive" female villain and her weird sexual quirks, and on and on, even mentioning a scene where blustering hero J.C. Stonewall (!) cursed at the sea for nearly drowning him, thus almost robbing him of the chance to "continue killing commies." (In point of fact, I've discovered this scene doesn't actually occur in Jakarta Coup; it's in the fifth volume of the series, Libyan Warlord.)

Anyway, Newton's comments had me raring to read this book, which by all accounts sounded like full-on parody. And the book really was everything I wanted it to be -- just an over the top explosion of Right Wing sermonizing and terrorist killing, with a lot of goofy and explicit sex thrown in. The book is more Team America than Team America, and reading it you'd never guess that this is the same Mark Roberts who wrote the even-numbered volumes of The Penetrator. The tone, style, and antics of the protagonist are wholly different than anything I've read from Roberts in that earlier series, so the question is, was he just hamstrung by Pinnacle Books, or did Zebra Books ask him to go over the top with Soldier For Hire?

The series was actually begun by a different author, Robert Skimin, who wrote the first four volumes. Mark Roberts took over the series with the fifth volume, writing it all the way through to this last installment. The "hero" of the series is the aforementioned J.C. Stonewall, white-haired Vietnam vet who basically lives to kill Communists. Seriously, the man has such a red-hot burning hatred for them that even Richard Camellion would be taken aback. Stonewall's wife or something was killed by them, and now every Communist Stonewall kills is seen as a retribution for her murder. But then, Stonewall is very liberal in his definition of what a Communist is -- terrorists, criminals, Democrats; they're all commies, and they all deserve to die.

Reading Newton's scathing (but curiosity-generating) comments about this book had me certain that it had to be a parody. Understand then my shock when Mike Madonna, owner of The Fabulous Mrs. Poopenplatz blog, told me that it was his understanding that Roberts did not intend the Soldier For Hire books as a parody! Mike knew Roberts pretty well and has shared with me a lot of great information about him and other action-series authors he has known over the years (including the interesting tidbit that Dan Schmidt, whom Mike also knew, was pals with Joseph Rosenberger!). Anyway, Mike has told me that, though Roberts had a sense of humor, he was quite serious in his political views, and was not using the Soldier For Hire books as a way to spoof the Right Wing mindset or anything else.

But reading Jakarta Coup, though...to quote Frank on Everybody Loves Raymond: "Jeez oh lou!" If you sat down and tried to come up with a list of things to spoof in an action novel, you still couldn't top this novel. Stonewall, our "hero," is a chauvinistic blowhard who hates everyone, picks up ladies and casts them aside, lives to kill commies and terrorists, and takes every opportunity to rant and rave against his arch-enemy Senator Ned Flannery, a far-left Democract who is in no way similar to Senator Ted Kennedy, at all.

Mike Madonna has also told me that Kennedy's people actually found about about the blatant Kennedy-bashing in the Roberts installments of this series, and I guess word made its way to Roberts, who was told to ease up, but he didn't -- though he doesn't appear in Jakarta Coup, Flannery's name is invoked by not only the Liberal politicians but even by the terrorists, both of whom admire the guy. Hell, the Liberals even openly side with the terrorists, complaining about "the savage" currently in the White House -- ie Ronald Reagan, whom the good-guy Right Wingers lovingly refer to as "Good ol' Ronnie!"

The plot is really just a framework for the Kennedy-bashing and the frequent sex scenes, which I will get to posthaste. Stonewall's m.o. is that he hires himself out to whoever needs him, and if he can use the job as a means to kill more commies, then so much the better. Stonewall is hired by the Indonesian government to train an anti-terrorist taskforce; a Communist-backed terrorist force called KAM is causing dissent in Jakarta, and the government needs help in dealing with them. Stonewall has a team, apparently, but this time he only brings along two of them: Theo, a black soldier (and boy, are we reminded every time he appears that Theo is black), and Ed Cotter, a nonentity who I think only had about four lines in the entire book.

A goodly portion of the novel is given over to Stonewall training the Indonesian task force, and it all reads like some WWII novel. Indeed, much of Jakarta Coup is similar to a war novel; even the action scenes come off in that regard, in particular the finale, which finds Stonewall and his men making a beachhead assault, complete with mortars and tanks. But the pulpy stuff makes it all more than worth it. Also worth noting is that Roberts doesn't play up too much on the gore. In fact I believe the Penetrator books of his I've read are actually a bit more gory. But then, none of them I've read have been as laugh-out-loud funny as Jakarta Coup.

Special mention must be made of the villains. Leading the KAM faction is Pomo, an Indonesian rebel with dreams of conquest but who takes the opportunity to run from every fight. Most enjoyably though we have Margot Anstruther, an 18 year-old blonde Australian beauty who was raised by left-wing parents who sent Margot to a radical terrorist camp in the Middle East when she was 13. While there, we learn in a brief background, Margot discovered sex and "practically raped" the few-hundred men and boys in her camp. Now she gets off on combat, becoming sexually aroused while fighting and killling. It was this character whom Newton found so "repulsive" in his How-To book, but, as you could no doubt guess, her scenes were my favorite in the book -- I consider warped and evil female villains to be the very essence of pulp fiction.

As for the sex scenes...again, above and beyond anything else I've read by Roberts. Stonewall is described as a veritable mountain of muscle, and apparently irresistible to the lady folk. While in Singapore in the opening of the novel, Stonewall manages to pick up "the only white woman" in the city, and Roberts writes a graphic scene between the two (quoted below). Then, just a few pages later, Stonewall, now in Jakarta, picks up another lady, this one a cute Indonesian model named Lisa who joins our hero for an even more explicit scene -- one complete with "pearls of heaven," which Lucy inserts into various of Stonewall's orificies...that is, after she's given the man an apparently 30-minute blowjob...!

Anyway, I'm just gonna start quoting stuff, because the book sells itself.

Not-very-veiled Ted Kennedy-bashing:

"At least he won't be running for President," Theo observed.

"Don't fucking count on it," Stonewall snapped. "He said the same thing last time, then campaigned like mad for it. It was the same old shit four years before that. He's just angling to get the loyal party hacks to beg him to take the nomination."

"The Flannerys do seem to think they are the rightful pretenders to the throne of North America," Ed allowed.

"Yeah. King Ned the First," Stonewall shot back. "King of the sewer rats, if you ask me."

Jaw-dropping sex scenes with equally jaw-dropping dialog:

Audry did something at the side of her surong and it fell away, revealing her ripe, alabaster body. She came to him in a rush, fingers flying to undo his belt and open his trousers. She let them drop and pressed her naked flesh against the bulge that distorted the front of his undershorts. Her blonde-thatched mound, glistening with moist readiness, throbbed against the pulsing organ separated from her center of passion by a thin weave of white cotton cloth.

"You are the stuff of my dreams, J.C. Hurry, fill me with that enormous phallus before I lose my cookies right here."

The depraved female villain, complete with incorrect ammunition detail (AK-47s actually fire 7.62mm "slugs"):

They entered a wall-less, roofed-over drying shed and sprinted to the other side. Margot raised her AK-47 and sent a squirt of 5.56mm slugs at the legs of a soldier who stood with his back to them.

He uttered a short, harsh cry of pain and fell to the ground. With an effort the man rolled over toward his enemy. Grinning wildly, Margot raised the muzzle of her Soviet-made weapon and fired again, trashing his genitals. A gasp of passion, that sounded more like a sob, escaped from Margot's lips and, with her left hand, she began to grope her crotch. Pomo shook his head and turned away.

Political commentary, courtesy our learned protagonist, with additional not-very-veiled Ted Kennedy bashing:

"Bullshit. If it weren't for fuzzy-brained, pseudo-intellectuals like you, with your heads stuffed full of Liberal crap, terrorist slime like Pomo wouldn't last five minutes in anyone's country. Christ! I don't know why I'm wasting my fucking time with you. You're no better than that Leftist bastard from Iran who joined forces with the anti-gun pricks in California last year. You both do an excellent job of reflecting the philosophy of that bunny-bashing wimp who gave you your posts."

There are only two disappointments in Jakarta Coup. For one, Margot Anstruther talks Pomo into allowing her to seduce Stonewall, who has never met her. Margot's plan is to take Stonewall to a nearby hotel room, where Pomo's soldiers can come in and kill Stonewall while Margot is "frigging him." While Roberts sets up this scene, he has Pomo's men act too early, thus we never get the scene that would have undoubtedly been the most fun in the book. Secondly, Roberts intimates that the next volume would feature Stonewall in action in the US -- and possibly going up against Ned Flannery and his armed goons as well.

So far I only have one other volume of the Roberts-penned installments of the series: #5: Libyan Warlord, which was his first. I can only hope it will be as enjoyable (for all the wrong reasons) as Jakarta Coup.
Mar 082012
 

The Penetrator #13: Dixie Death Squad, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1976 Pinnacle Books

This volume of The Penetrator is all about action. Mark K. Roberts turns in what is certainly the most gun-blazing installment of the series yet. His version of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin still isn't as sadistic as co-writer Chet Cunningham's, meaning Roberts doesn't dole out anything as excessive as Cunningham, but for all that he certainly writes a better action sequence. There are many inventive setpieces in Dixie Death Squad. In fact there's so much action that the plot itself just seems to disappear.

The book gets our attention from the outset, opening with our hero Hardin blowing away a bunch of cops with his Mac-11. Eventually we learn that these are dirty cops, hired by the mysterious Colonel King as a sort of invading party that has taken over a small town in Georgia. These "cops" are members of a large private army controlled by Colonel King, an army composed of mean sons of bitches, many of whom spent time in prison. They are slowly infiltrating and taking over various small towns in Dixie, a sort of warm-up exercise before a larger invasion is launched against the US itself.

The novelty is that Colonel King is a woman, an attractive blonde who served in the WAC (Women's Army Corps) but was drummed out of the military due to her gender. Discharged from the real army, Linda King decided to start her own. Beyond her army of delinquents, King also has a grander scheme -- posing as a pillar of society, she runs an orphanage for wayward kids. In reality though she is training these kids in guerrilla warfare and crime. Her plan, which on the face of it is kind of brilliant, is to use these kids as an undercover army. Say a government official was assassinated, or a bank was robbed...who in their right mind would suspect a child?

King's adult army of criminals trains the young army, and upon learning of this, Hardin is both sickened and outraged. Concocting a cover story, he poses as a soldier who spent time in the brig and is able to get drafted into King's army. He of course quickly comes to the lady's attention, handling himself better than anyone during drills and practice. To test him, King sends Hardin out with a team of men on an assassination job. The target is an African dignitary and Hardin's team will attack his entourage along the freeway.

This is the first of many action scenes. Hardin of course foils the plan, taking out his "comrades" and preventing the dignitary's death. He returns to King's headquarters beaten and bruised, claiming that the mission was compromised and that he was the only member of the team who was able to escape. King is as expected overwhelmed with Hardin's bravery and soon latches on to him.

Here Roberts inserts some weird stuff where it turns out that Linda King is even more insane than expected, in that she sometimes slips into another personality where she believes she is a southern belle living in antebellum Georgia. Most surprising is that this leads to a sex scene, I think the first full-on sex scene we've yet received in the series. A sex scene that contains the unforgettable line: Linda struggled and squealed, seeking to escape the hugeness that was forcing its way inside her. Yikes!

It's also pretty funny that Hardin, after a few hours of lovin', discovers that King has sent another team out on a mission of infiltration; they're planning to take over yet another town at midnight. Hardin drugs King, sneaks out, drives 90 minutes to the town, and systematically kills each and every member of the invasion party in yet another well-done action scene. After which he drives back, sneaks in, and lays down beside the still-sleeping Colonel King!

Gradually though the plot evaporates. Rather than play out Hardin's undercover work, Roberts instead has the Penetrator launch a full-on war against King's army. Literally the last half of the novel is an ongoing action scene. It's overwhelming, but it's still pretty great, beginning with Hardin blitzing his way through the compound. Some of the kid soldiers come after him, and Hardin goes to great lengths not to kill them. He of course shows no mercy to the adult soldiers.

From there the action proceeds to downtown Atlanta where King, her army in rout, unleashes her fallback plan: she sends out a squad of snipers to blast away at civilians. Urban warfare and chaos ensues, with a Federal SWAT team taking up the fight against King's soldiers. Here a subplot gets buried; the SWAT team has been officially tasked with scouring the nation to find the Penetrator, so they just happen to be here in Atlanta, and of course the commander eventually meets Hardin face to face and realizes he's a great guy, after all.

In his previous installments Mark Roberts was sure to always include an in-joke to other novels in Pinnacle's men's adventure line. This time he doesn't, but as I thought about it, it occurred to me that he might have done something a bit more involved this time out. In short, Dixie Death Squad is all action, from first page to last. Action scene after action scene, and during the battles Roberts documents every path of every bullet and the gore which proceeds from their impact. The book is very much in the vein of another Pinnacle series, Joseph Rosenberger's Death Merchant.

So rather than peppering his book with a few minor in-jokes, is it possible that Roberts intended the entirety of Dixie Death Squad itself is an in-joke, a parody of Rosenberger's action-heavy series? Probably not, but it's fun to consider.
Dec 192011
 

The Penetrator #11: Terror In Taos, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1975 Pinnacle Books

Finally the Penetrator series gets back on track with the best volume in a long time. Mark Roberts in my estimation had been slacking off a bit in his last few contributions to the adventures of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin, but this time out he comes back with a renewed vigor, delivering a breezy, action-filled tale filled with the violence and in-jokery one has come to expect from this author.

With a nod to Wounded Knee and the American Indian rights movements of the early '70s, Terror In Taos concerns a militant uprising of American Indians in Taos; they've taken over the city in their demands for equality while meanwhile the mafia is murdering their holy men and stealing their priceless jewelry. Hardin, who we are reminded every volume is half-Cheyenne, infiltrates the police barrier and gets involved with the militants, proclaiming himself as one of them. Here Roberts serves up some in-jokes, as Hardin "proves" he is a member of the tribe by reading passages from Sapir and Murphy's The Destroyer series in the Cheyenne language.

Hardin finds an old comrade among the militants: Gil Otero, who went through Intelligence training with Hardin years before. Hardin tells Gil that he is in fact the infamous Penetrator -- which is never a smart thing for a men's adventure protagonist to do, because the reader knows well what will eventually happen to the person he has just told. (It's sort of like when Charles Bronson tells a lady he loves her in the Death Wish films -- expect a funeral soon.)

The mafia thugs make for an enjoyable cast. There's Snuffer Weiss, a little fellow given to Yiddish outbursts, Il Lupare, a hulking brute who learned English from sleazy paperbacks, and most importantly Rammer Norton, a thug whose name has been mentioned throughout the series. Norton was the guy who inadvertently sent Hardin on the path to becoming the Penetrator; a decade ago Norton was the bastard who set Hardin up for a tumble, ending a promising football career. As soon as Hardin discovers that Norton is behind the shaman-killing, jewel-stealing activities in Taos, he is even more determined to see the mission through to its bloody end.

Roberts provides a lot of nice setpieces. There's an actual New Agey mystical trip (which was the style of the time) as Hardin drops peyote with his Cheyenne "brothers." This otherwise-unrelated scene is well done, with Hardin preparing to go through the mystical rites of becoming a full-on "son" of the head shaman, but Roberts drops this storyline. Even better is Hardin's infiltration into a mob-ruled medieval castle in the middle of the desert, built there a century before by an oil tycoon (shades of TNT #6: Ritual Of Blood).

There's even a bit of "sweat mag" stuff when Gil's fiance, a Cheyenne beauty, is captured by the mobsters and taken to a secret dungeon within that castle, where she's stripped down and put on a torture rack. Here a group of "turkey doctors" (Roberts borrowing a phrase coined by Don Pendleton) prepare to make mutilated "Indian turkey" out of the girl, before Hardin of course shows up with his combat shotgun.

All told, this is just an enjoyable, well-rendered installment. Hardin is back to his likeable self, even indulging in his previously-abandoned penchant for disguise. This is another goofy but fun scene where Hardin dresses up like an old Indian so he can berate some government reps who have come to Taos to speak with the militants; one of the reps happens to be the head agent in charge of tracking down Hardin himself.

The novel ends with some unintentional humor as Hardin, flying away from Taos in his personal plane after another successful mission, already begins to plan his next mission! It's a nice way I guess to remind readers that the series will continue with more and more adventures, but it has the unfortunate effect of making Hardin appear like some vengeance-programmed android.

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