Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Penetrator #3: Capitol Hell

The Penetrator #3: Capitol Hell, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1974 Pinnacle Books

Mark Roberts returns as "Lionel Derrick," again delivering a taut narrative that plays out like one of Don Pendleton's Executioner novels. After the inept #2: Blood On The Strip, I was uncertain if I wanted to delve back into the world of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin, but this volume was just as good as the first -- which also happened to be written by Mark Roberts.

Capitol Hell picks up right after the previous volume, and this volume itself ends with tidbits which take us right into the next. I like this attempt at a serial narrative -- it's better than the freeflowing chaos of the The Sharpshooter, at least -- but it gives the unfortunate impression that Hardin is one busy s.o.b., going from one campaign to the next. Even James Bond took the occasional vacation.

The novel opens with a goofy coincidence; Hardin just happens to be driving behind a mobster who gets in a fatal crash. It would've made more sense if Hardin was tracking the guy, but whatever. Anyway, Hardin inspects the crash, finds the half-dead mobster; the mobster whispers something about "SIE" with his dying breath, and Hardin goes off, perplexed. Meanwhile, an assassin pulls an Oswald on the press secretary to the President of the United States -- a man who, coincidentally again, just happens to be friends with Hardin. The Penetrator heads for DC to investigate. He soon encounters the name "SIE" again, as it comes up in relation to his dead press secretary friend.

SIE it develops is the Societe Internationale d'Elite, a VIP club in the District which houses a secret cabal of James Bondish-supervillains who plot the takeover of the world. The SIE's club activities are open to all and so Hardin goes to a few events undercover, learning gradually that there is more afoot here than simple DC partying. In another goofy coincidence, one of the "inner chamber" members of SIE happens to be a former 'Nam commanding officer who was screwed over when Hardin exposed the black market ring back in the war. When Hardin leaves his first SIE party this guy follows after with some men; a shootout occurs in pitch darkness, and it's unintentionally hilarious because the goons keep crying out when Hardin shoots each of their comrades: "Jesus! He just shot Louie in the balls!!"

The clunkiness of Blood On The Strip returns when Hardin hooks up with a pretty District employee who invites him over to her place; the lady's roommate happens to be a former dancer at the Pink Pussy -- the Fraulein-run casino in volume #2 -- and she instantly guesses that Hardin is the Penetrator. It's another of those WTF? moments. But Capitol Hell has more going for it: the inner chamber of the SIE is a sort of Satanic coven in which the members wear red KKK-type robes and stand around chanting. The hidden level of their club is a torture chamber/orgy den; unfortunately we never see it in action, only when Hardin discovers it after it has been used. It's unfortunate Roberts didn't play up this angle a bit more; he could've easily given us a sleazefest here, but instead only hints at the Satanic insanity of the SIE.

Roberts however scores huge points by finally poking fun at both Hardin's own name and his codename: a few mobsters, re his "Penetrator" title, wonder if he's "some sort of sex freak," and another calls him "that Hard-on guy." I still say this series would've been the greatest ever if it had approrpiated more of a Baroness angle, if Hardin's name really was "Mark Hardon," his mission each volume being to "penetrate" the defenses of some beautiful enemy agent...

There are a wealth of shootouts throughout Capitol Hell, all of them well done. And again Hardin takes more damage than the average men's adventure protagonist; early on he suffers a terrible knifing which would lay up an ordinary guy. Here also Hardin comes off like John Eagle Expeditor; his "Indian" heritage is brought to the fore, with Hardin leaving behind arrow heads with his kills, and he wears a "thermal suit" which makes him look like a "space warrior." And again Hardin uses white phosphorous on his enemies, as he did in The Target Is H -- this is still the cruelest punishment I've yet seen a men's adventure protagonist inflict upon his enemies.

It all leads to a bizarre climax right out of Murphy and Sapir's Destroyer series, with Hardin and a cop friend chasing the head SIE villains through Colonial Williamsburg; Hardin even delivers the final blow with a vintage rifle. After which he hops back on his personal plane and heads back for his home base in California, already planning his next campaign; in another coincidence Hardin learns of something called "Black Gold" coming out of New York City, and now he's determined to find out what it is. This takes us right into #4: Hijacking Manhattan, but unlike Hardin I think I'll need to take a break before I get to it.


Marty McKee said...

I think I like this one better than you, but I love most of the Penetrator books.

Jack Badelaire said...

I read and reviewed Penetrator #4 a little while ago - you can read this and decide if you want to keep on keeping on...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks guys for the posts. Marty, your Penetrator reviews were what inspired me to finally track down the series after hearing about it for so long!

Jack, I enjoyed your review too, meant to comment on it back then...I actually started #4 this weekend and believe it or not I'm enjoying it. Sure it's rough and goofy, but how can you not laugh at a book in which Hardin tries to go undercover as a black man -- even practicing on the streets of NYC how to "act black!"

I'm starting to get the feeling that the even-numbered volumes are more in the Executioner mold, whereas the odd volumes are lurid trash moreso in the vein of The Sharpshooter and The Marksman!

Jack Badelaire said...

I've got a few more Penetrators kicking around - if my dance card wasn't so damn full I'd dig into 'em. Soon though...soon...

BrentVoltaire said...


I just found your blog. I am amazed at your very literate output on these novels. You are a very good writer yourself.

Anyway, I can't help but notice you have nothing to say about my very favorite men's adventure series, also by Pinnacle: The Destroyer.

I too loved the Executioner when I read tghem in the 70s, but once I stumbled upon Remo Williams and Chiun of the Destroyer books, I was hooked. I wound up passing them around like candy to my friends in high school. Everyone became a fan.

Why? I hope you will pick some of them up and see for yourself, but mainly, these books are funny. Start with the idea of Remo Williams being trained to be the deadliest man in the world by the deadliest man in the world, Chiun, and you have the beginning of an action series. But add some wonderful little touches and you have something unique. Chiun is 80 years old and a complete racist. The only worthy people in the world are Korean, especially if from Sinanju where Chiun is from. Remo is a white "pale piece of pig's ear" to Chiun at first, but eventually these two who start off hating each other develop a contentious, but loving father-son relationship. This is the heart of the books. Now throw in those touches I mentioned, such as Chiun's addiction to American soap operas and often referring to himself as a weak and tired old man when he wants to get out of helping dispose of bad guys' dead bodies, and you have a brilliant run of entertainment.

Read them and see what you think.

Brent Inman

Joe Kenney said...

Brent, thanks for the comment! You know, I haven't read a volume of the Destroyer since the '80s, when the "Remo Williams" movie came out. (I think even people who knew nothing about the series itself STILL knew that the movie was a half-assed adaptation...!)

At the time I got hold of a few "old" Destroyer books and tried to read them, but they went over my head...I was like 11 or so and wanted the simplistic fare of Phoenix Force and Mack Bolan (Gold Eagle incarnation) know, terrorist and commie-blasting action. I didn't get the irreverent nature of the Destroyer.

However now I'm sure I'd love it. And I have picked up a slew of Destroyers, particularly from the early Murphy/Sapir run. I just need to actually get around to reading them...! Your comments have given me the push I needed, and I will attempt to start reading them soon. Thanks again!

BrentVoltaire said...


I am happy you are going to read them. While in high school in the 70's, I must have read 40 of them, then moved on to other things, I guess. Many more have been published since then, but not by Sapir and Murphy, which might be why I stopped reading them. I don't remember.
However, I never lost my soft spot for this series or for Remo and Chiun, and I still wish someone would try another movie, especially now that comics-inspired films are so big.
The reason I found your blog though, is because of the Destroyer series. Recently I noticed issues 7, 8, and 9 on one of my bookshelves. I don't remember putting them there, and I don't remember buying them anytime during the past few years, but there they were. I was delighted and planned to read them quickly and renew an old friendship.
In so doing I began to wonder about another series I had read way back then. The very first series I fell in love with was Mace. I thought, I wonder how many were written?, who was the author? (I couldn't remember), etc. The Google search led me to your pretty funny critique of the books and Joseph Rosenberger, whom I have never heard of. I actually bought that the writer of book one was an Asian because of the name.
Anyway, I have now finished 7-9 and am going to find other early issues. Maybe I'll call up my old high school gang and put them back in touch with what I am pretty sure is the best of men's adventure books of the 70's, including the Executioner, which I also love.

Keep up the excellent work, Joe! I love your site.


Grant said...

I just now saw Brent Volaire's posts, so I'm responding to them almost 18 months late, but I've always wanted to correspond with someone who's attached to the Destroyer series (especially since that one particular site devoted to it ended).

Felicity Walker said...

I’ve only read one “Destroyer,” and it was #63: “The Sky Is Falling.” It was dark and disturbing and made me miss “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (1985). [I don’t recommend the TV movie “Remo Williams: The Prophecy” (1988), though.] After some research I gathered that the “Destroyer” books are meant to be taken as an over-the-top parody of men’s adventure fiction, which is why they’re so hyper-violent and anti-heroic. Either way, not a world I want to visit again. I’ll stick with 1980s “Executioner” books.