Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Avenger #3: Colombia Crackdown

The Avenger #3: Columbia Crackdown, by Chet Cunningham
July, 1988  Warner Books

After The Penetrator came to an end in 1983 (a very definite end, by the way) Chet Cunningham continued performing contract writing duties, but in the late ‘80s he authored under his own name the four-volume Avenger series. Judging from this third volume, it’s like a Drug War-era overhaul of Cunningham’s Penetrator work, only lacking the pulpy spark of that earlier series.

Hero Matt Hawke is notable because he’s a psychopath. Bringing to mind the protagonist of Barry Malzberg’s 1970s series Lone Wolf, Hawke is practically deranged and will murder with impunity. We’re informed that Hawke, who served as a Marine in ‘Nam, was once a highly-decorated DEA agent who lost it all when his wife Connie was captured by drug dealers who had been burned by Hawke; they tortured her over the course of three days, Hawke only arriving to save her as she died. He of course killed the torturers and then declared war on the drug dealers of the world.

Hawke soon became known as “The Avenger” in the San Diego papers as he ran roughshod over the men who had killed his wife. After this he headed on down to Houston to bust up some druggers there. Now he’s in Miami, following more cocaine-world leads, and we learn that all of this is occuring two short months after the death of Hawke’s wife. So in other words, “The Avenger” is relatively new to the world of lone wolf crimefighting, but he’s already racked up a hefty number of kills and has destroyed several important coke pipelines into the US.

Cunningham appears to have been attempting to create his own Executioner, as this book has the same feel as the early Don Pendleton volumes of that series. This goes beyond Hawke’s single-minded pursuit of bloody payback to little things like the term “turkey meat,” which is used throughout, Hawke often stating that this is what his wife was turned into by the sadists who killed her. Also Hawke like Bolan is rooted for by the government agencies of the US, despite being a wanted felon. He just lacks that likability of Mack Bolan, or for that matter of Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin.

Hawke when we meet him is busy killing off some dude who owns a surf board company but makes his real millions importing coke. Here we get the first taste of Hawke’s insanity as he trains a gun on the unarmed surfer, screams about how his wife Connie was hacked to pieces, and then condemns the surfer to death, shooting him in the forehead. Mind you, this surfer guy had nothing whatsoever to do with Connie Hawke’s death. But before killing any drug world bigwig Hawke will relive Connie’s last moments and start ranting and raving before pulling the trigger.

Hawke’s come to Miami to crack down on the drug-smuggling effors of Tony Labruzzo, whose uncle Vito is one of the top Mafioso from the old days. Cunningham juggles perspectives with what turns out to be the go-nowhere storyline of Sue Beth, a redneck virgin who is unwittingly used by Tony’s goons as a coke mule. When she finds out she’s being used, the goon in charge rapes her…and after like two hours of it Sue Beth shoots him! But the guy lives and has her gang-banged by several of his henchmen, then dropped off nude on the streets – ironically, right outside of the kosher deli which Hawke uses as his Miami intel headquarters.

Sue Beth’s shipped off back home and meanwhile Hawke investigates Labruzzo territory. Trying to meet Vito in the family’s main Miami building (they have several respectable businesses, naturally), he instead is introduced to an attractive young woman named Gina. Cunningham builds up a long-simmer relationship between the two, with Hawke becoming interested in Gina and vice versa, but he’s not sure how involved with the Labruzzo business she really is. He goes on offing various mobsters in Miami, planning to head on down to Latin America to cut off the supply at its source.

One thing Cunningham brings back from the Penetrator years is a female villain – Gina we learn is in fact Gina Labruzzo, one of Vito’s nieces and the ostensible ruler of the family’s American faction. In an arbitrary, unexplored tidbit we learn that Gina’s real fucked up – she enjoys slicing up her thighs and hips with straight razors! This is her way of getting mellow after a hard day. We also learn that she was repeatedly raped as a young virgin by one of her uncles, and now has a distrust of all men, or something. Cunningham doesn’t really elaborate on it too much, other than her constant dismissals of Hawke’s advances.

Hawke meanwhile takes on another female villain, an attractive assassin Gina sends after him. After the gal accidentally tumbles off a building frame Hawke flies down to Honduras and the book becomes a bit of a travelogue. Hawke meets up with a British expat named Preston Smith-Jones who claims to sell refurbished turbine props in Dallas; the man shows Hawke around, including yet another arbitrary part where he hooks him up with an American named “The Shooter” who handles security for a coffee plant. This guy and Hawke get involved in a brief skirmish with drug runners in a scene clearly placed there to add a bit of action.

Attention expats who have any knowledge of the drug world: stay away from Matt Hawke, as he will likely murder you. This happens twice in the novel, Preston being the first of two guys who shows Hawke around, being chummy with him, only to be summarily executed once Hawke learns that Preston is selling coke back in the States. And once again our psychotic hero starts screaming about his dead wife before he pulls the trigger. Afterwards Hawke continues his Latin America tour and goes to Bogota, Colombia, where he learns that all cocaine in the area is sold by The Grasshopper, an old drug baron who lives in opulence.

Gina is here too, and the whole “will they or won’t they” subplot makes no sense as we readers know Gina is a Labruzzo and has already tried to have Hawke killed a few times. Meanwhile Hawke just suspects something’s up about the girl but apparently he’s lost his faculties due to her awesome boobs. Hawke goes on more travelogue-esque tours of coke-processing plants, posing as a writer of “men’s action books.” He murders another expat, this one an American who shows Hawke one of the Grasshopper’s facilities and even offers him a job.

Hawke has a thing for fighting with unusual weapons: in Colombia Crackdown he kills one guy with an ink pen, he tears up another dude with a key padlock tied to the end of a belt, and in the novel’s most outrageous kill he blows up a guy with C4 plastic explosive on a flying model airplane. Otherwise he fights with a Colt .45 or any other gun he can get his hands on; unlike Mark Hardin, he doesn’t have a trademark weapon, like the Penetrator’s Ava dart gun.

Another callback to the Penetrator occurs in the finale, in which Hawke is captured and isn’t just shot in the head but is instead put in the sort of deathtrap Hardin might have encountered: a room with an electrified floor. In a too-long sequence Hawke is able to escape, which leads to a final confrontation between him and Gina. Here the lady’s fondness for blades comes into play, as she goes after Hawke with a poisoned dagger. Cunningham doesn’t deliver a single sex scene in the novel, but he does continue to play out this “it could be love” storyline between these two which never does come off as believable.

Otherwise Cunningham’s writing is of the same piece as his earlier work, with the action always moving and the resourceful protagonist always getting by on his luck or his wits. But as mentioned it just lacks the charm of his Penetrator material, and has too much of a “this is the ‘80s so this needs to be treated seriously” vibe inherent in men’s adventure fiction of the era. It’s also a little too heavy on the anti-drug rhetoric of the day (the back of the book even proclaims: “He says no to the drug merchants of death!”), but that’s to be expected given Hawke’s history.

Stupid but true bonus note: I was driving to work the day after I finished reading Colombia Crackdown and a white Honda CR-V got in front of me on the tollway. It had vanity license plates that said “AVENGER!”


Zwolf said...

An electrified floor. It's always a good idea to put your action hero in the same situation we were all in when we played "the floor is lava!" when we were eight. :)

I've only read the first one of these and liked it okay, but it was pretty generic. I heard rumors there was a fourth volume published only as an e-book, but I didn't see it on Amazon, so, maybe not. If I remember right, the last book did have a "Coming Soon: Avenger #4: Tupelo Trackdown!" or something listed on the last page. (It wasn't really Tupelo... I just always kind of resented it that none of these vigilantes ever made it to Mississippi. I mean, at least the gun-totin' truckers in the Overload books got to Alabama once... we've got easily as many people who need shootin' as Alabama...)

Blackwolf said...

Zwolf, there were actually 4 books in the series. The fourth was set in Manhatten, and, if I remember correctly, they mentioned setting the next one in Hollywood. I'm wondering if you might be thinking of the .357 Vigilante series by Ian Ludlow(a pseudonym of Lee Goldberg), which was published by Pinnacle books. There was going to be a fourth volume in that series, but Pinnacle went bankrupt before it could be published. These are available on Kindle as The Jury Series.

Felicity Walker said...

The ’80s are my favourite decade, so I’m happy to read any reviews of ’80s books, even if it was a ponderous time in men’s adventure fiction.

That cover has a CGA “Palette 0” colour scheme!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Zwolf, you'd never believe what I'm reading at the moment -- that's right, a volume of the Overload series! "Gun-totin' truckers" sums it up nicely.

Anyway, you and Blackwolf are both correct -- there was indeed an ebook-only installment of The Avenger. It was #5: Radiation Wipeout. However, it looks like it's been removed from Amazon and the only place you can get it now is on Barnes and Noble's site, here.

chris haynes said...

I read some of The Penetrator books a long time ago. What did you mean by "After The Penetrator came to an end in 1983 (a very definite end, by the way)"? How did The Penetrator series end? I've looked but it doesn't look like you've reviewed #53 yet and I couldn't find anything on Google. Curious minds want to know.....

Joe Kenney said...

Chris, thanks for the comment. If you really want to know -- Mark "The Penetrator" Hardin died in the 53rd and final volume of The Penetrator! I haven't read that one yet but flipped to the end just due to my own curiosity, and he dies a hero's death, sacrificing himself to stop some nefarious Commie plot. You can't get much more of a "definite" end than that!

chris haynes said...

Joe, thanks for the reply. I thought that's what you meant but wanted to be sure.

I love your site by the way. I used to read a lot of the men's adventure novels back in the day. I belonged to the Gold Eagle book club that sent me a Mack Bolan, Able Team, Phoenix Force, and SOB novel every month; there may have been others but it was 4 or 5 novels a month. I read the original The Executioner novels, Death Merchant, Ninja Master, Nick Carter, The Survivalist, Death Lands and others. Because of your site and the nostalgia factor, I recently re-read The Executioner #1. It brought back a lot of fond memories.

There was another series about a group of mercenaries that I can't remember the title of. In the first few books, the books started with the leader of the team getting into fights with muggers while jogging in Central Park. Does that ring any bells for you?

I also used to read the men's western novels such as The Gunsmith, Gunn, Longarm, Edge, etc. They are very much in the same vein as the men's adventure novels on your site.

Again, I love your site. Keep up the good work!!

Joe Kenney said...

Chris, great to hear you are back into reading these books -- I find that I enjoy them even more as an adult than I did when I was a kid. I too was in the GE Book Club back then, and I was always so excited when that box of books would come in.

I wish I could answer your question on the series, but it doesn't sound familiar to me...I've read most of the mercenary team books from the '80s and don't recall anything like that. Could it have been the Black Berets series by Mike McCray? That's one I have several volumes of but I've never read any of them -- maybe that's the series you're thinking of?

Anyway, thanks for the comments and I'm really glad you are enjoying the blog!

chris haynes said...

Joe, I read a synopsis of the Black Berets and it doesn't sound familiar...of course it's been a few years since the early '80s.

I like that some of these series are coming out in e-book format. Doesn't take up as much shelf space and they're easier to get. I know The Executioner series and The Survivalist series are available for kindle if you're interested.