The Penetrator #1: The Target Is H, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1973 Pinnacle Books
Mark Hardin, the Penetrator -- change that "i" to an "o" and you'd have the perfect pornstar name. I mean, what were they thinking? Mark Hardin? The Penetrator??
Actually, Pinnacle Books must've known what they were thinking, as The Target Is H was the kick-off of a successful series which ran for 53 installments.
It appears that "Lionel Derrick" was a house name for authors Mark Roberts and Chet Cunningham, with Roberts writing the odd-numbered volumes and Cunningham the evens. This first volume then was penned by Roberts, and it's very much in the Don Pendleton "Executioner" mold: ie, Vietnam-trained hardass gets burned by the Mob, and now wages a one-man war on them. It's high on action and thrills and light on character and plot (not to mention sex...meaning it comes off more like an '80s men's adventure novel than one from the '70s).
Later volumes opened the series way up but this first installment, despite its narrow plotline, is actually very good. Hardin has a complicated backstory -- raised in foster homes, he achieved early greatness as an athletic champion. His sports career ended by a bad injury, he entered Vietnam where he again achieved greatness, nicknamed "The Penetrator" for his ability to "penetrate" enemy territory and take out large numbers of enemy soldiers. Here too Hardin's career was terminated early, this time beaten to a pulp by his fellow soldiers after his investagtion into illegal sale of US military weapons on the Vietnam black market.
The Target Is H sets all of this up within the first few pages, with Hardin a battered shell returning home from 'Nam, unsure what to do with his life. Therefore it's a bit jarring that the next chapter opens up 7 months later, with Hardin now living in a secluded desert fortress with a "mad scientist" named Willard Haskins and an American Indian named David Red Chief, plotting a three-man war on the Mafia.
Even the reasons for this war are glossed over -- Hardin fell in love with Professor Haskin's niece Donna, who spurred Hardin to research the reasons behind his old high school football injury. It turns out that the guy who hurt Hardin was a low-tier mobster; this revelation lead the two of them further on until they somehow ran afoul of Don Pietro Scarelli, local mob boss, who had Donna killed in a car crash. (Again, all of this is rendered in elliptical flashbacks strewn through the main narrative; Donna doesn't even appear in the narrative, which is unfortunate when you realize that her love for Mark and her murder are the two factors in his genesis as the series hero.)
Hardin relies on his 'Nam penetrating skills to wage an effective war on Scarelli's mobsters. There are a few Mafia factions in the city and Hardin hits each of them so that soon they think one faction is battling another. Hardin's got a host of weaponry, most of it culled by Haskins, some of it developed by the Professor himself, such as a dart which can render a man to a death-like state for a few moments.
The battles are mostly one-sided, with the goons no match for Hardin's skills. Regardless the action sequences are all well staged and expertly rendered, particularly a great scene where Hardin gets a small army of mobsters stuck in a canyon and lobs white phosphorous down upon them. This is probably the most brutal treatment I've ever seen delivered to the mob in a men's adventure novel! But other than that there are a lot of running battles, with Hardin blasting away thugs with various automatic weaponry.
Hardin isn't the superhero typical of these types of novels. He has past injuries which he's still trying to overcome, and despite the horrendous losses he inflicts upon his enemies there are still many times in which he himself is in mortal danger. There's another great sequence where, barely able to move due to his injuries, Hardin has to scale a cliff in pitch-black darkness, escaping an assembled army of mobsters and police.
Character development is minimal, which again is a shame -- a "regular" novel would've centered solely upon Hardin's recovery of his body and psyche, whereas this one cuts past all that stuff just to get to the gory action. (That's not a bad thing...I'm just saying.) But you get to like these characters, and you look forward to reading about more of their adventures in future installments.