Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Destroyer #15: Murder Ward

The Destroyer #15: Murder Ward, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
April, 1974  Pinnacle Books

If anything, this fifteenth volume of The Destroyer has confirmed my dislike of this particular series. While I know it has its loyal fans, and while I also know the series is better-written than the genre average, with more care to world-building and characterization, I still find that it grates on my nerves. Once again the authors focus on comedy and goofy situations in this “bestselling action series;” you can almost sense them sneering at those who have come looking for typical Pinnacle Books fare.

Occuring over the Christmas season, Murder Ward does not feature the most outlandish plot. Indeed one wonders why CURE has even sent its two superhuman assassins on this particular assignment. My friends, the villains of the piece are a pair of medical professionals who are killing patients on the operating table either as contract hits or so as to reap their assets once they’re dead. This plot alone is enough to remind us that The Destroyer lives in its own realm, one much different than the average Pinnacle offering. Even sadder is that this is the plot throughout; there’s no eleventh hour revelation of a grander scheme or anything. It’s just Remo and Chiun up against an alcoholic anasthesiologist and a sexy administrative assistant. 

The first recurring joke concerns the season itself – Chiun you see does not recognize Christmas. No, it’s the “Feast of the Pig” so far as Sinanju goes, and for his gift Chiun wants Barbara Streisand. He’s given Remo a gift of his own, a Christmas tree of his own making, which Remo considers nothing more than a “bush with tennis balls” on it. This joke is played out through the duration of Murder Ward. As usual, the man factor in the book – indeed, the main reason to read the series – is the bickering and bantering between our two lead characters.

In a way, The Destroyer is kind of sad. Remo Williams was raised in an orphanage, and after being “killed” in the line of police duty he went through a grueling decade of training. Yet the bond between Remo and his “little father” Chiun is one of contention, disagreement, and bickering. Only in moments of stress will you see their “true feelings” for one another when they go to each other’s aid, but then it’s right back to the venomous banter. Even Harold Smith, their “lemony” boss at CURE, treats Remo with disrespect, looking down his nose at him. Remo has no friends and encounters hostility and rudeness wherever he goes. I mean I’m not asking for warm-hearted sentiment, but it gets to be annoying after awhile. Even Richard Camellion had friends!

The mundane plot doesn’t help matters. Operating out of the Robler Clinic near Baltimore, a doctor named Daniel Demmet and a sexy and insatiable redhead named Kathy Hahl are knocking off patients; Demmet gives them just enough of a dose to kill them. We see him at work in an opening section which will have the reader swearing to never go to a hospital again. The expected bitterness of the Destroyer authors is stronger than typical throughout Murder Ward; my guess is one of them must’ve had a bad run-in with a doctor prior to writing this book. The medical industry does not come off very well at all.

Remo and Chiun, relaxing in San Francisco, are called in by Smith because IRS agents have been dying “random” deaths recently, and CURE wants to know if it’s part of some plot. Remo is assigned to shadow Nathind David Wilberforce of Scranton, a dyed-in-the-wool IRS agent in his 40s who lives with his overbearing mother. You guessed it, Wilberforce treats Remo with hostility and Mrs. Wilberforce, an ox of a woman, literally tries to throw him out of her house. Remo mocks the two while inspecting the perimeter and figuring out where the next attack will occur, but you don’t get any chuckles out of Remo’s taunts, because all of the characters are unlikable and thus you can’t really empathize with anyone.

Also as expected, when the “action” scenes finally go down, they’re over in a flash…and, same as always, they’re told from the perspective of the thugs getting killed. Over and over again it’s the same in this series; when Remo goes into action the authors hop into the perspective of the thug in question, and we read as he sees the blur of Remo’s hands and feels something wet on his head, and next thing he knows he’s missing an ear. Or he’ll see a blur as Chiun moves and then the thug will be falling down, going to sleep forever. It’s like that over and over. Never once do we get to read an action scene from Remo or Chiun’s perspective. It’s very frustrating.

Anyway, we get an “action scene” where Remo takes out some thugs who come to the Wilberforce house late at night; he tortures them and then works his way up the chain to the top employer behind the hit. Again, each and every scene here follows the same format as above; the authors will jump into the perspective of either a thug or someone at the mercy of the thugs as Remo appears, extracts his intel, and then kills the thugs. The action is played more for comedy. Right on cue, the “feast of the pig” joke comes back up, Remo wishing his victims a happy holiday before he kills them. There is no danger for Remo and thus no reader investment. Remo, per the ad in the back of the book, is a “superman of the ‘70s.”

Luckily, the authors are slightly more exploitative in the sex scenes. Kathy Hahl is as mentioned insatiable, however men are unable to last longer than ten seconds with her due to an “internal movement” she can perform during the act. We see this in action as she seduces a Mafia don who tries to hire her to kill Wilberforce. It’s not hardcore porn but it’s more descriptive than what you’d read in a few other men’s adventure novels of the day; the authors do enjoy their female villains, and thus Kathy is so evil that she doses the don with an experimental drug that accelerates his aging. When Remo, having worked his way up the chain, finally finds the man behind the would-be Wilberforce killers, the don is an emaciated skeleton about to die anyway.

Meanwhile, Wilberforce gets sick, goes to the Robler Clinic…and is killed anyway! Next old Mrs. Robler is dosed by that aging drug, Dr. Demmet using the same dosing-during-sex trick as Kathy Hahl. The novel goes just where you expected it would as Remo and Chiun check into the Robler clinic, CURE having determined it’s the likely culprit behind the recent murders. Chiun poses as “Dr. Park” and Remo is a wealthy nutcase named “Mr. Williams.” Some of this material is slightly funny, particularly Chiun’s attempts at acting like an arrogant doctor.

But then, much of it’s pretty grating, like an overlong part where Remo, dressed in stolen doctor’s garb, wanders the halls and offers bullshit medical advice. It doesn’t help matters that Chiun does the exact same thing in a later sequence. But that’s pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle, folks; our heroes just wander around the clinic and try to figure out what’s going on. When Remo discovers a locked room with aged animals, animals with recent birthdates, he slowly puts a few pieces together – not that Smith or Chiun believe him.

Given the early mention that Kathy Hahl has never met a man who can last with her – indeed, during her random bouts of sex with Dr. Demmet she actually counts off the seconds until he climaxes – the reader knows that Remo will give her a run for her money. And when Remo sees her he thinks she’s gorgeous, but at the same time regrets that he no longer takes pleasure in sex(!?). No, we are informed that during that decade-long training “Chiun had robbed [Remo] of the pleasure of sex. Sex was just another discipline, a skill to be learned.” This is our hero, people. A remorseless killing machine who doesn’t even have a sex drive.

Well anyway, the two still go at it; Kathy Hahl, her attempts to have Remo killed having failed, attempts to escape. Remo, himself having been dosed by the aging drug – the one effective scene in the novel, in which Chiun rushes to Remo’s aid and coaches him how to expel the poison – tracks her down and gives it to her while she’s bent over a filing cabinet. Does the Destroyer last more than ten seconds? Of course he does – not that he gets any pleasure out of it. Indeed, the authors go to the trouble of informing us that he doesn’t even bother to climax; but Kathy Hahl has, over and over again.

Meanwhile in a display of his own sadism Remo has coated his member with that aging serum! He taunts Kathy as she begins to visibly age, then locks her in her office and walks away, leaving her to die a horrifying death! Meanwhile Chiun has taken out the two thugs who poisoned Remo in the first place – you guessed it, another “action scene” relegated from the perspectives of the thugs as Chiun kills them. And that’s what passes for a climactic action scene; the authors again show their true colors with more focus placed on the recurring “Christmas/Feast of the Pig” joke in the last pages.

So anyway, I can’t say I much like The Destroyer. I’ve yet to read a volume that’s really grabbed me. I have many more installments, though, so I’ll keep checking them out. Who knows, maybe eventually I’ll begin to see things the other way around and enjoy the series for what it is: a dark spoof of the action genre. But for now I prefer my pulp straight with no chaser.


Tom Johnson said...

I put off reading the series until a few years ago. I was running out of stuff to read and decided to give them a try. Yes, they are kind of stupid, but I find them an easy read and a few hours spent with a stupid book is better than getting in trouble (G).

Stephen Mertz said...

I dunno, Tom...I'd rather get in trouble than waste my time. Thanks, Joe, for a review that mirrors my reaction. This series has so many gung-ho fans that I had to try a few. Not as bad as The Death Merchant, these books to me proved how subjective humor is and how "topicality" can age very quickly.

Tom Johnson said...


Grant said...

"A remorseless killing machine that doesn't even have a sex drive."

I've harped on it already in the right comments section, but that's one more thing that I think Destroyer # 5 gets RIGHT - it comes this close to throwing that part of the Destroyer "canon" out completely. You're never told in so many words that he enjoys the twins, but it really seems to be implied.

Steven Johnson said...

As a big fan of the Destroyer series, let me agree with you all right off: it's comedy. It's really only notionally an action-adventure series, and half the plots are just straight-up satire.

Joe, you might appreciate #38, Bay City Blast, in which Remo and Chuin go up against thinly disguised versions of the Executioner, the Butcher, and the Death Merchant.

But some of the novels, I guess about one in ten, is different. They're more martial arts horror, in which Remo and Chuin's over-the-top abilities clearly aren't going to help against something terrible which is going to happen. And it turns out, they don't. The scales are much more like one man against the Mafia in these stories, although it's really one man (or two) versus Fate.

In that vein I particularly recommend #20, Assassins' Play-Off, and #55, Master's Challenge. When the Destroyer series gets serious, it's amazing.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! And Steven, luckily the ones you mention are volumes I have -- I'm especially interested in checking out Assassins' Play-Off one of these days. I have a feeling I'll much more appreciate the serious installments; for that reason I've been meaning to check out the second volume, which the authors supposedly weren't fond of but which by all accounts veers more closely to the standard men's adventure format.