Jul 212014
 
The Penetrator #21: The Supergun Mission, by Lionel Derrick July, 1977  Pinnacle Books Mark Penetrator Hardin once again heads down into Mexico, courtesy author Mark Roberts. Researching the “wetback situation” (as it’s constantly referred to throughout the book, as well as on the back cover), the Penetrator gradually becomes involved in a plot that involves an island kingdom outside of
May 012014
 
The Penetrator #20: The Radiation Hit, by Lionel Derrick May, 1977  Pinnacle Books I think it’s time I took a long hard look in the mirror and realized that I’ve now read twenty volumes of The Penetrator. And by god I’ll keep on reading them until the bitter end. But man, this one, courtesy Chet Cunningham, is bland and listless for the most part – for whatever reason, Cunningham has been
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.
Jul 152013
 

The Penetrator #18: Countdown To Terror, by Lionel Derrick
January, 1977  Pinnacle Books

This volume of the Penetrator finds Chet Cunningham once again revamping his version of Mark “Penetrator” Hardin. Gone for the most part is the sadistic bastard of earlier Cunningham installments; though Hardin starts off the book by shooting one guy in the throat and “accidentally” breaking a woman’s neck, as the novel progresses he not only morphs into a sort of mother hen but also goes out of his way to not kill the young members of the latest terrorist group he’s up against.

The villains this time out are the FALN, an assemblage of Puerto Ricans who are united in the cause of freedom for their country. Currently they’re carrying out terrorist attacks on New York City, thus bringing Hardin into the fold, returning to his old stomping grounds from back in #4: Hijacking Manhattan. Also returning is Joana Tabler, Hardin’s occasional girlfriend who first appeared back in that earlier book; she still continues to appear in the Cunningham-penned volumes, and he really builds up the relationship between the two, with Joanna in love with Hardin and wanting him to “retire” so they can get married and have kids.

The FALN is a sadistic bunch of bastards, bombing various parts of NYC and leaving mass casualties in their wake. These guys do more damage than any other Penetrator villain yet; by novel’s end they’ve initiated the titular “countdown to terror,” in which they give authorities less than twenty four hours to meet their demands, carrying out one bombing per hour. Their leader is El Chico, who leads his terrorists into battle but also enjoys the cushier aspects of running a terrorist organization, sleeping with all of the women and taking what he wants.

Hardin arrives on the scene and promptly murders the aforementioned FALN man and woman; the latter as he’s trying to kick away her pistol. This “accidental” killing is just the first indication of the changes Hardin’s going through. Cunningham makes it part of the narrative, with Hardin, once he reconnects with Joanna, telling her that he’s attempting to create a new, “softer” image for himself! I still wonder if all this stuff was at Pinnacle’s urging or if Cunningham himself chose to make his version of the Penetrator less bloodthirsty.

Sadly though, it’s this character overhaul that’s most memorable about Countdown To Terror. It’s not that the book is bad, it’s just forgettable. Not much happens, and certainly nothing outrageous like in other volumes in the series. It’s more of a procedural affair as Hardin attempts to track down El Chico and stop his homegrown terrorists while the FALN continue to bomb public buildings and structures.

The majority of the book is given over to the sort of partnership Hardin forms with Delgado, a young Puerto Rican who is the only person Hardin encounters while scoping out the PR-frequented dives and bars in NYC who offers to help Hardin track down El Chico. Eventually Hardin discovers that Delgado is actually part of FALN and meets regularly with El Chico. Instead of butchering Delgado as he once would have done, Hardin instead plays along with the guy, driving around empty streets with him into what Hardin is certain will be an ambush.

Hardin in fact has a plan together – he figures the FALN will consider Delgado expendable in their planned ambush, and he’s right. When gunmen spring from the shadows, they blast away at Delgado, too. Once Hardin has blown away the attackers and gotten a legshot Delgado to safety, Hardin successfully turns the kid to his side, so that Delgado sees how vile and despicable El Chico really is. But they’ve actually gone beyond that, taking Delgado’s kid sister prisoner, where we later learn that she’s been raped and beaten.

But there is unusual stuff (considering past installments) where Hardin worries over Delgado, ensuring he’s getting well and etc. Beyond that there’s even more unusual stuff throughout the novel, like several times where during a skirmish Hardin will come across some kid or woman, both of them part of FALN, and tries not to hurt or kill them. There’s even a scene where Hardin knocks out a FALN guard and promises the dude that he won’t be harmed in the bomb Hardin plants in the building, and they aren’t just empty words; Hardin really does ensure the guard doesn’t die or get harmed. I mean, this is a dude that previously would blow away people for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Things begin to heat up as Hardin gets a lock on El Chico’s master plan, Operation Luz, a mysterious affair which promises to be catastrophic. This leads to a taut climax where Hardin, in a rented helicopter, follows after a few boats of FALN and discovers that Operation Luz entails the bombing of the Statue of Liberty. Hardin stages another of his one man raids on the terrorist army, taking a lot of damage during the firefight. Joana meanwhile is still back at the pier, awaiting Hardin’s call (turns out the FALN initiated Luz earlier than expected, which Hardin only discovered by accident); needless to say, the two have a chance to get reconnected at the end of the tale.

I have to say I miss Cunningham’s earlier version of Mark Hardin. Without the bizarre brutality Cunningham’s installments are coming off as pretty rote and forgettable. And that sucks, because we’ve got a long way to go until the final volume.
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.
Nov 292012
 

The Penetrator #16: Deepsea Shootout, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1976  Pinnacle Books

Man, what a misfire of a Penetrator novel. Easily the worst volume yet of the series, Deepsea Shootout comes off like a lazy first draft from Chet Cunningham, who usually delivers the more unhinged installments. This time it’s the narrative itself that’s unhinged, never certain what its plot is, hopscotching all over the place in a desperate attempt to fill pages. Most unforgiveably, it’s boring, something which can’t be said about Cunningham’s previous sadistic offerings.

Even the back cover can’t figure out what the storyline is – the blurb has you thinking Mark “Penetrator” Hardin is heading to the Caribbean to save Dr. Jamison Hutch, an archeologist who’s gone missing. Instead we open with Hardin posing as a reporter as he just sort of hangs around on the young archeologist’s boat; Hutch is down here searching for a sunken Spanish galleon from the 17th century, and has brought along his attractive colleague Beth Anne, who spends the narrative sunning in her bikini and checking out Hardin.

A group of pirates are working the area, nailing tourist boats outside the harbors of the Bahamas. This is the real reason Hardin has come here. In a brief prologue we meet the pirates: made up of radicalized natives, they’re lead by a beautiful black lady who happens to be a voodoo priestess; later in the book Hardin runs into her as she’s leading her people in a ceremony. Really though this character and her priestesshood and the entire bit is woefully underdeveloped; Cunningham introduces her and her pirates as the villains, then forgets about them, then introduces some unrelated guy as another villain, and then quickly disposes of the pirates.

I suspect Cunningham must’ve taken a well-deserved vacation to the Bahamas before penning this, as the majority of Deepsea Shootout comes off like a Caribbean travelogue. Also many pages are just recaps of sunken galleon ships which were discovered in past years, Dr. Hutch going on and on in bland exposition which again just appears like a gambit to fill pages. And no surprise, this stuff has no bearing on the story – hell, when we meet him, Hutch is going on and on about the Concepcion, the ship he’s certain is here in this area, but later in the novel he’s just like, “Oh, I was wrong – it’s not here,” and the entire subplot is dropped.

There’s absolutely no action for about 70 pages or so, a Penetrator first. That would be fine if the story was gripping, but it’s not. It’s repetitive and boring, padded to the extreme. In fact it comes off like some low-budget early-‘70s TV show, Hardin recast as Mannix or something, just hobknobbing around and doing a half-assed job picking up clues.

Even those weird plot elements of previous Cunningham installments is gone, with little of the sadism we’ve previously seen. Save, that is, for a bit at the end where Hardin blasts someone with white phosphorous, and the guy pleads with Hardin to allow him to kill himself, jumping into a shark pool! This scene is strange because Cunningham writes it that even Hardin feels sorry for the dude, when meanwhile he’s the one who doused him with WP in the first place.

I’m reading my way through this series, but I have to say Deepsea Shootout isn’t a necessary read. It’s just tepid and underwhelming, and actually doesn’t even seem to be a part of the normal Penetrator universe, more like a Travis McGee rip-off sort of thing. The highlights are few: the voodoo ceremony bit, which does flash a bit of the old Cunningham quirks when Kama, the pirate leader and priestess, offers herself to Hardin (it’s an obvious set-up, though), and the climax, where Hardin infiltrates an underwater lair straight out of a James Bond movie, one complete with that aforementioned shark pool.

Oh, and for once Hardin gets hurt badly, shot in his calf in the climatic battle, the bullet smashing the bone. This leaves him incapacitated for a bit, but in the final pages he’s already planning a detour to Miami, setting us up for the next installment. Here’s hoping it’s better than this dud.
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 092012
 

The Penetrator #14: Mankill Sport, by Lionel Derrick
May, 1976 Pinnacle Books

As if realizing his version of the Penetrator was becoming more sadistic than the villains he fought, author Chet Cunningham in this installment tones down his approach, with hero Mark Hardin coming off more like a "regular" men's adventure hero and less like the ruthless psycho of previous Cunningham books. Or who knows, maybe Pinnacle Books requested the change.

At any rate, when we meet Hardin in the opening pages of Mankill Sport, he's on vacation with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Joanna Tabler, a Federal agent who has worked with (and gone to bed with) Hardin in previous volumes -- supiciously enough, only those volumes written by Cunningham. The couple is spending time in the beachfront home of Joanna's married friends, and here we not only get scenes of Hardin playing with the kids -- complete with him giving them horsey rides on his back!! -- but also "emotional moments" where Hardin and Joanna share a heart-to-heart and Joanna cries because she wants to marry Hardin and have his kids, but they both know it could never happen. Without question, the Mark Hardin here presented is a far cry from the torture-loving sociopath of #12: Bloody Boston.

Even more unbelievably, Cunningham continues to reign in Hardin's bloodlust for the duration of the novel, only allowing him to cut loose toward the very end. But even then, he shows little of the sadism displayed in previous Cunningham offerings. However Cunningham does make his villains pretty sadistic; this time out the target is Johnny Utah, a mob gangster from Detroit who is involved in the "narco trade" and has also been behind a lot of murders. When we meet Utah he's about to waste a cop, and here Cunningham comes off like a proto-David Alexander, detailing in endless detail the gory death of a minor character:

The slug caught Sergeant Manning on the chin and drove half the bone straight back into his mouth, pushed it past more tissue, then ripped and tore through the policeman's neck bone and heavy muscles, decapitating him. Manning's head, carried backward by the tremendous force of the magnum slug, flopped against his back as his body, which had not yet received the nearly instantaneous nerve responses, remained erect for a fraction of a second. Then his knees buckled and dropped him to a sitting position before his torso fell backward, completely covering his severed head which remained attached to the body only by a few strained muscles and stretched tendons.

Did I mention that Manning only appeared on the previous page, and didn't even have a single line of dialog? Anyway, Utah is as mentioned involved in all sorts of illicit stuff, but his latest plan is to hunt man -- "the most dangerous game," of course. Utah has bought a huge patch of land in the Canadian wilderness; here Utah assembles fellow gangsters and villains, among them a German sharpshooter, with the intent of setting loose one captive at a time into the wilderness, and then hunting after them.

Utah and his men snatch various runaways and transients from local Canadian towns and imprison them in cages on the property, leaving them there until their moment arrives. In a hasty and unelaborated subplot, one of the captives is a young hooker who runs afoul of one of Utah's colleagues; due to her big mouth she too finds herself in a cage, waiting to be hunted. And, of course, all of the prisoners are nude.

Hardin spends the majority of the book in research mode, only getting in one quick firefight when sneaking into Utah's mansion in Detroit. Here he figures out something is going on in Canada, and so for a long portion of the narrative Hardin snoops around a small town, trying to figure out the connection between Utah and the disappearance of so many locals. Gradually he deduces what's going on, and so poses as a bum in the hopes that Utah's men will capture him. Sure enough they do, and Hardin finds himself naked and caged with the rest of the captives, just where he wants to be.

I guess it's part of the charm of men's adventure novels that the hero, despite being nude, caged, and unarmed, knows that he is more than a match for the armed villains who have caught him, and can't wait for them to set him into the wilderness and start hunting after them, certain that he will make quick work of his pursuers. I mean, all tension and suspense is lost, because we readers also know that Hardin will have no difficulty turning the tables.

But while he is caged we get the brain-scarring scene of Hardin actually throwing his own excrement at Utah. You read that right. Utah of course has no idea who Hardin is, but after Hardin berates the guy, screams and rages, and throws shit at him (literally), Utah finally has had enough and sets Hardin free into the wilds. But Utah's so pissed that Hardin won't have the obligatory hour before his pursuers come after him.

Again, little matter. Mark Hardin, as we'll recall, has been trained in all of the esoteric arts of the Cheyenne warrior. The men who come after him provide little challenge, and soon enough Hardin has armed himself with an appropriated M-16. Very quickly he frees the captives and captures Utah. Here again, in the strangest moment of all, Cunningham still presents a "kinder, gentler" Mark Hardin. You'd figure Hardin would basically butcher Utah, but instead Hardin just takes him out of action with a shot and then ties the man up, allowing the captives their chance to vent their rage on the bastard -- but only to a point.

When the captives start to get sadistic, especially the hooker, Hardin blows away Utah with a mercy shot, stating that even such scum deserved more respect. I mean, who the hell is this guy?? We're talking here about a character who basically crippled an unarmed teenager in #14: Hijacking Manhattan, for absolutely no reason. I think it's safe to say there was some behind-the-scenes tinkering going on with this series. But who knows, maybe this was a momentary lapse in the sadism of Cunningham's version of Hardin. I guess I'll find out as I continue to read the series.

It does look, though, like the authors tried to goof with each other: Cunningham ends the novel with Hardin actually planning to take the hooker back with him to the Stronghold -- you know, the top-secret base of operations for Hardin and his two partners -- and wondering what the Professor and David Red Eagle will have to say about it. As if Cunningham was baiting writing partner Mark Roberts -- checking the next volume, however, proves that the hooker goes unmentioned. I guess she didn't like living with three guys. Plus it would be hard to turn tricks in the middle of the desert.
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.
Feb 132012
 

The Penetrator #12: Bloody Boston, by Lionel Derrick
January, 1976 Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham delivers another rough and wild volume of the The Penetrator that's light on plot but heavy on sadism and gore. Once again Cunningham's version of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin is more vicious than the villains he fights, and the tale -- about a former college pal of Hardin's who has been replaced by a mob lookalike -- is just a convenient framework for Cunningham to depict countless scenes of Hardin brutally torturing various Mafia henchmen before killing them in novel ways. In other words, the book's pretty great.

The setting this time out is Boston, not that the reader gets much of a feel for the place. Instead, the focus is on carnage; Bloody Boston opens with a horrific scene in which Mark Hardin, our friggin' hero, tortures and mutilates a mob goon for intel. I mean, I started to feel bad for the goon. But Hardin shrugs it off, getting the information he needs; his schooltime chum, Tony Rossi, has called Mark for his help.

Tony Rossi is the son of a Boston Mafioso (I wonder if he's any relation to Bruno Rossi??) but really isn't involved with the family. Instead, Tony's been in the Amazon for the past few years; a researcher, he was kidnapped by a local tribe and held hostage. Escaping to the US, Tony found that a stand-in was posing as "Tony Rossi," and his wife and son were held captive in a mob stronghold. His father, ailing and near death, has disappeared.

Why exactly Tony calls Hardin is never made clear; Tony has no idea that Hardin is the Penetrator. Like I said, it's all immaterial, really. Hardin's going to torture and butcher a few people, that's all there is to it. In one of Chet Cunningham's patented WTF? scenes, Hardin answers a knock at their hotel door only to find a beautiful gal standing out there, one who asks if he is Mark Hardin, then produces a revolver and takes a shot at him. Saved of course by his spry reflexes, Hardin disarms the lady, only to discover it's Tony's sister Angie. Having received a panicked call from Tony, Angie came here to Boston, bought a gun, and, despite her panicking, apparently was able to remember not only Hardin's name but also the name of their hotel -- all while forgetting that Tony said that Hardin was helping him. Pretty dumb.

Anyway Angie's presence sets the stage for lots of sexual bantering between her and Hardin. The three work together with Hardin of course doing the dirty work himself. There are some fun sequences in here, like when Hardin infiltrates the Rossi mansion and poses as a loudmouthed Mafioso. There's another fun scene where he portrays a short-tempered repairman; this scene culminates in something out of a 1930s cliffhanger, with Hardin and Tony stuck in a locked cell that slowly fills with poison gas, all while a voice on a speaker tells them they're about to die.

I lost track of the number of mobsters Hardin wastes. Cunningham must've been in one nasty mood, because these poor Boston mobsters suffer like hell. There's a particularly grisly scene where Hardin sneaks on a mob-rented fishing boat; Hardin takes out the crew and mauls the mobster and tosses him into the ocean, putting a massive hook into the guy and pulling him along behind the boat. After the mobster finally spews the desired info, Hardin thanks him kindly and then shoots him in the face.

Just to give a taste of what I'm talking about, check out this scene, where Hardin has just knocked out a guard in a stairwell with his poison dart gun. Hardin, not sure if the man was Mafia or not, only hit him with a knockout dose. After confirming that the man is indeed Mafia, Hardin...well, just read for yourself:

Mark tensed his right hand and slammed the side of it hard against the underside of the hoodlum's nose. The Penetrator felt the small bones in back of the nose crush, knew that deadly splinters of bone and cartilage were being driven backwards, slanting through pulpy areas and directly into the Mafioso's brain. The body trembled; then a strong gush of air flowed from the man's mouth and at the same time Mark smelled the stench of feces as the involuntary muscles quite working. That was one hoodlum who had shit his pants for the last time.

That paragraph could've come out of Blood Bath. The only difference between the Penetrator and the Sharpshooter or the Marksman is that Hardin occasionally questions the rightness of his brutal actions. But of course he always convinces himself that he is just. Cunningham even has Hardin's pal Tony gradually become concerned about Hardin; there are a few scenes here where Tony will just gape at Hardin after he's performed the latest bit of sadism.

However this is merely Cunningham setting us up. Indeed he is so focused on sequences of graphic violence that he loses the main plot of the book. I spent the entire novel waiting to see Tony go head-to-head with the stand-in who'd replaced him, but we never even get to see the guy. Instead Cunningham has Hardin and Tony capture the Mafioso behind the plot, and Tony goes full-on insane on the bastard, giving the guy a stomping that would make even Gannon puke. I'm talking total demolition, complete with the mobster's eyeballs popping out and everything!

Yeah, Bloody Boston is certainly something else. Manor Books and the aforementioned Sharpshooter and Marksman series get all the credit for their graphically-violent sleaze level, but Chet Cunningham's Penetrator is right down there in the gore with them.