Monday, April 9, 2012

The Penetrator #14: Mankill Sport

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.


Jack Badelaire said...

If you haven't read it, Blood & Tacos #1 has a pretty good review of this book. I think its inevitable that any long-running adventure series does a "man-hunting" story. I'm almost surprised Penetrator got it out of the way so early in its lifespan.

Brian Busby said...

Ah, yes, why wouldn't the Penetrator want to bring a sadistic young hooker back to the Stronghold.

I must admit I've been looking forward to your take on Hardin's first Canadian adventure... but not as much as the next.

A question: Do we know where in Canada this "mankill sport" takes place?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks guys, for the comments.

Brian, I just looked up the info in the book. It's vague on an exact location, but Johnny Utah's mankill sport land is designated as being in British Columbia, in "the area over Vancouver." Hardin follows the Fraser river north until he gets to two minor logging towns, then he heads west, where Utah's area is located among the vast stretch of woods.

I'm looking forward to the next Penetrator novel, too. That one sounds like it will be a lot of fun.

Brian Busby said...

Thanks, Joe. Amusing to think that in writing "the area over Vancouver" Cunningham leaves out only the twenty or so miles along the American border. That said, from your description, Hardin would've been heading into some very remote territory.