Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Executioner #6: Assault On Soho

The Executioner #6: Assault On Soho, by Don Pendleton
April, 1971  Pinnacle Books

I’ve been looking forward to this installment of the Executioner, given Marty McKee's sterling endorsement of its “kinky sex” and “healthy dose of sex, violence and sadism.” Don Pendleton wrote sleaze and porn novels before he hit it big with the Executioner, but he purposely chose to keep this series less lurid and kinky, mostly because he felt Mack Bolan’s hectic life wouldn’t allow time for such sordid affairs.

But for whatever reason he must’ve felt differently when penning Assault On Soho. In many ways, this installment is almost the source material for the Marksman, the Sharpshooter, and the countless other, more lurid imitations of the Executioner that followed. The focus here is on exploitation and sadism, and what with the Swinging London setting it should’ve been my favorite Pendleton installment of the series yet. Unfortunately though there are too many problems with Assault On Soho.

Bolan arrives in Dover, taking the ferry from France; after the heavy action of the previous volume, he wants to quietly skip through the UK and get back to the States. But he walks into a mob trap. A sexy British girl in a mini-skirt pulls up in a Jaguar and tells him to hop in. (Don’t you wish you lived in a pulp novel?) The girl is named Ann Franklin and she tells Bolan she’s been sent here to get him. She takes him to the Club De Sade, a swanky Soho nightspot that’s decorated in what I guess would be called Kinky Chic, with doorways shaped like female genitalia and lamps shaped like thigh-high boots.

Ann’s comrades in the club are two older men, one of whom is named Major Stone and monitors Bolan from a tv camera, speaking to him via speakers from some hidden location. When no one will tell Bolan what they want of him, he takes out his Beretta, shoots out the tv camera, and storms into the night. Charles, the club’s electronics wizard, has warned Bolan that the mob’s out there, looking for him. An outgunned Bolan uses his wits in a clever sequence, setting up some mob contractor as the fall guy while Bolan himself escapes unharmed.

The Mafia is here in too many numbers, though; in the expected breakovers to the mobster perspective, we learn that Danno Giliamo, a survivor of Bolan’s assault in #4: Miami Massacre, is here in London tracking down the Executioner. Danno’s working with Nick Trigger, an old-school Mafia hitman who now resides in London, acting as the “chief enforcer” for the UK branch. We also learn in a cutover to a long meeting in the US that the assembled Mafia heads have unified to kill “the bastard Bolan,” with one of them recommending he be set up by “Leo the Pussy,” aka eventual series-mainstay Leo Turrin, an undercover cop posing as a Mafioso.

But when Bolan finds that even Heathrow is swarming with mobsters, he’s happy to once again find Ann Franklin shadowing him, and goes with her back to her secret apartment. Pendleton really made his hero human, something that eluded many of the later Gold Eagle ghostwriters, and here he displays the utter exhaustion and paranoia that has befallen Bolan. The expected sex scene doesn’t happen, with Ann telling Bolan she’s afraid of men in general, but when she sees the hell he’s been through and the state he’s in, she curls up to sleep beside him, in what amounts to a moving scene.

Pendleton also brings to life Swinging London at times, like when Bolan briefly visits The Soho Psych, a club in which nude women pose like “mannequins” in glass cages, striking poses for the various colored lights that flash inside their cages. There’s also a disco floor with strobing psychedelic lights. But the Club De Sade sees the most action, with Bolan returning to find each room filled with various acts of sadomasochism, usually played out by actors, including a group of “devil women” in thigh-high boots who wield whips. Plus there’s a full-on orgy taking place in the main room. Here too Bolan discovers the corpse of old Charles, bent hideously over a torture rack.

One of the biggest problems with Assault On Soho is that Bolan is shuffled around and has no active part in the plot. He has no idea who the “Sades” are and what they want of him, and when the murders start piling up of people who work in the club he has no idea who is killing them and why. In fact, the novel is moreso a lurid murder mystery than an action novel; what few action scenes there are in the book are brief, but nonetheless memorable, like a lightning strike Bolan pulls on Danno and Nick Trigger, blasting at them with an Uzi. Otherwise this installment comes off more like a noirish pulp, with Bolan the clueless hero and Ann the innocent lady who seems to be hiding dark secrets.

But still, it’s all just sort of disjointed. Bolan ventures around the city with Ann, discovering more corpses, while meanwhile various Mafia factions fly into London. One group, Turrin’s men, is tasked with offering Bolan a truce. The other is made up of guys who want to kill Bolan. Whoever gets to him first wins. Pendleton builds up the suspense, with Bolan and Turrin meeting in a tense sequence at the Tower of London, but unbelievably he brushes it all aside, with Bolan taking off just as the two opposing factions get in a scuffle. And for that matter, there’s not even any resolution to this plotline – we just learn about its outcome through some off-handed comments Bolan makes at the end of the novel!

Instead Pendleton focuses on the Club De Sade storyline, which despite being so developed turns out to be just as simple as you knew it would be from the beginning – basically, Major Stone was swindling his clientele, and once Nick Trigger showed up, the two men began to work together. Apparently Stone called in Bolan so as to either make him the fall guy or to kill off Trigger, or both; I couldn’t really figure it out. At any rate, it ends with Bolan strapped to some torture device and Major Stone dropping his trousers and sidling up behind him! Pendleton delivers a nice moment though with Ann’s appearance, wielding a Weatherby rifle.

Really, this is a strange and muddled installment of The Executioner. Bolan himself is lost in it, and ultimately he has no impact on the events; he gets caught in the end, and Ann saves him, even dispensing of the villains herself. Bolan is relegated to taking out a few gunmen and running from the cops as he goes from one murder scene to another. And also, despite the sleazy tone, Bolan fails to score; Pendleton develops a long-simmer romance for Ann and Bolan, but each time they’re about to make it they get distracted. Finally Bolan’s had enough and tells her “so long,” heading off for what will hopefully be a more focused installment.

Pendleton’s writing is good as ever, with the same sort of forward momentum combined with an occasionally ponderous tone. He also has this quirk about introducing a theme and hammering it home a bit too thoroughly. For example, early in the book Charles, meeting Bolan, quotes Kipling, comparing Bolan to a tiger in a jungle. Through the rest of the novel Pendleton keeps employing this “jungle” motif, to the point where it sorta gets annoying. Also, the Bolan/Ann romance is hard to buy, with Ann deciding she’s in love with Bolan and Bolan feeling the same about her…hard to buy given that in just the previous volume, which was like a day or two ago, Bolan fell in love with that French girl and immediately thereafter swore to never get romantically involved again.


Trever Palmer said...

Great review!

I have to admit that I could dig this book, though. Saying that, I'm really a sucker for Pendleton's work on THE EXECUTIONER.

Grant said...

This review interests me because of that romantic sub-plot, whether it's convincing or not as you say. Do any other EXECUTIONER books have those? (I know there are hundreds of books, so that isn't a simple question.)
As always, I'm especially interested in anything going on between the hero and the villainess (when there is one), as opposed to the heroine. So I go into almost every "Men's Adventure" story hoping for another THUNDERBALL, so to speak (I mean the movie, not the book, since it's the movie that came up with the great Fiona character).

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Grant, I haven't read them all, but I think there's at least a major female protagonist in all of Don Pendleton's original Executioner novels, and they usually have a brief (but rarely described) fling with Bolan. The romantic subplot in this particular installment was not convincing in the least, however the one in the previous novel, with the French actress, was a little more believable.

As for Bolan hooking up with a villainess, I doubt that ever happens in any of the novels, especially those written by Pendleton, whose Bolan is pretty black-and-white in his viewpoint. Even in the non-Pendleton Executioners the ghostwriters refrain from this, like that volume I reviewed a few months ago, Bloodsport by Raymond Obstfeld, where the sexy villainess propositioned Bolan and he immediately turned her down.

Grant said...

Thank you, though that second answer is disappointing. Thanks to Bond movies and Destroyer books (at least, EARLY Bond movies and EARLY Destroyer books), I'm hooked on the idea of the hero "letting" the villainess seduce him, and not always because he's been misled about her either. In fact, it often works even better if he DOES know all about her - it sounds awful of me, but that gives an extra ruthless edge to the what he does to her later on in some stories.

chris haynes said...

I got the impression Mr. Pendleton was trying to change up his formula for the series in this book. I don't mind authors trying something new but in this case I don't think it worked. The action scenes happened fast and there wasn't much detail. I didn't like Ann Franklin at all. She wasn't well developed and I kept waiting for her to turn out to be the bad guy. Overall, the book was OK but it could have been a lot better.