Monday, July 15, 2013

The Penetrator #18: Countdown To Terror

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.


russell1200 said...

Why is the badguy leader named "the boy"?

Joe Kenney said...

As far as I can recall, Chico's name was never explained!