Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Executioner #13: Washington I.O.U.

The Executioner #13: Washington I.O.U., by Don Pendleton
September, 1972  Pinnacle Books

I get the feeling Don Pendleton was a little worn out when he wrote this installment of The Executioner. Maybe he just invested too much of himself in the previous volume, which per his own comments was one of his favorites of the entire series. I don’t think anyone could say that about Washington I.O.U., though; this one’s a bit of a mess, with too big a story for too few pages, with a rushed narrative (the “telling instead of showing” is especially rampant this time) that ultimately dispenses with the grander storyline and climaxes with a bizarre finale that would’ve been more at home in a 1930s pulp.

I do appreciate how Pendleton picks up from the previous yarn, which ended with Bolan blowing away some random Mafia dude and taking some papers from him, papers which would tell the Executioner where to go next in his endless blitz on the mob. So it’s now about a week later and Bolan’s in DC; when we meet him, he’s trailing a beautiful gal named Claudia Vitale; in her day job she’s the secretary for an over-the-hill Congressman, but in her night job she’s a “Mafia whore.” Claudia will be the main female character in this one, but despite the sleazy setup – we’ll learn Claudia is used as a honey trap by the mob, baiting and snaring Washington VIPs, getting them in the sack so their photos can be secretly taken, and then blackmailing them – there will be no hanky-panky for Bolan himself. This of course results in several demerits from me.

The opening definitely promises a more gripping story than we’ll ultimately get; Bolan happens to witness an attempted hit on Claudia, a pair of Mafia thugs pulling her off the street and into her apartment. Bolan takes out the guy waiting in the car and the two sadists in Claudia’s apartment without even breaking a sweat; he’s totally in superhero mode at this point in the series, but Pendleton’s such a gifted author that it all still has a realistic vibe to it. And speaking of which, Bolan solely uses his sidearms this time, either the big Automag .44 or the Beretta Belle, which he picked up many volumes ago. The second one is used a little more, as Bolan goes for a lot of quiet kills with the silencer on the Beretta. Otherwise there’s none of the heavy autofire of other Executioner yarns. 

Bolan was put onto Claudia because “Vitale” was mentioned in those papers he got in Boston; Claudia is the widow of a young Mafia exec who was one of those “college types” rebuilding the organization, to the jealousy of the old “moustache Pete” types. This ultimately got him killed, and per Claudia’s sob story she was soon “forced into prostitution” (to quote Senshi in the greatest-ever kung-fu movie, Chinese Super Ninjas) for the mob, used as a honey trap for Washington notables. The plot seems ripped from the many sleazy “Washington tell-all” books of the day, so Pendleton was clearly abreast of what was going on in the paperback market. But the sleaze isn’t nearly as focused on, with Claudia calling herself a “whore” and actually thinking that it might’ve been better if those mobsters had killed her: not only does she consider her life without value, but she also recently pulled the stunt of informing one of her marks that the Mafia was setting him up.

This has put Claudia in the cross-hairs of “Lupo,” aka the Wolf, the mysterious, never-seen man behind the DC Mafia. This makes for I don’t recall how many volumes in a row in which Pendleton’s injected this theme of a mysterious, behind-the-scenes Mafia bigwig with a cutsey name, with Bolan pondering over who the guy could be…it almost gives the impression that Pendleton didn’t think a pulp-action focus was sufficient to fuel an entire narrative, and thus gussied it up with a “mystery” angle. But at this point it’s getting ridiculous, and is about on the level of the lame “surprise villain reveals” of The Spider. Also it’s been frustrating because none of these secret mob bosses with cutsey names have yet justified the expense of prose devoted to them; they’re finally trotted out onto the page in the very end and dispensed with almost perfunctorily by Bolan. The same holds true here, with Lupo revealed in the final few pages – Bolan having already figured out who he is without the reader being informed of it – and quickly blown to hell.

We’re treated to another action scene immediately after Bolan saves Claudia – a cool setup with “The Wolf Squad,” a five-man Mafia assault group composed of former GIs. This promises so much, Bolan finally going up against a group with the same military experience he has. But ultimately it turns out to just be another ball Pendleton briefly tosses in the air. The Wolf Squad, despite an inordinate amount of time given over to their internal squabbles and thoughts – Bolan’s perspective disappears from pages 36 to 113, with Pendleton dipping into the thoughts of his sundry supporting characters, making the Executioner seem like a guest star in his own book – is wiped out in this initial skirmish. That sentence was hamfistedly complex so let me write it in more simple terms: this is the only time we see the Wolf Squad in action, Pendleton blowing the potential of “Bolan vs fellow soldiers.” What’s worse, the Wolf Squad isn’t even taken out in a pitched firefight or somesuch; Bolan causes them to wreck and then shoots each individually with his Automag as they stumble out of their burning car. At least Gil Cohen does a nice job of illustrating this part.

As mentioned Bolan disappears for a long stretch of the book; when he does briefly appear, it’s filtered through the impressions of other characters. Thus we get a lot of the customary hero-worship, which comes off as incredibly egregious this time, with so many characters marvelling over Bolan’s he-man nature. There’s also a lot of skimmable stuff about various one-off Mafia characters, and even worse news dispatches, including verbatim TV reports, informing us of the action scenes we’ve already read about. Pendleton’s goal is ostensibly to show how Bolan has become a mythical figure at this point, with even regular people aware of his one-man war on the mob, thus the TV is filled with panicked reports of his “rampage” here in DC. I mean that’s the goal, but the reality is it seems more like Pendleton’s filling up the pages because he’s got another damn book to write and it seems like just yesterday that he turned in the last one.

And Bolan’s DC blitz is rendered almost entirely in these pseudo-dispatches; the book has become so cluttered at this point with arbitrary digressions on one-off mobsters and “who is Lupo?” ponderings that Pendleton actually has to summarize Bolan’s many and frequent hits on various DC-area Mafia strongholds. Along the way Bolan also picks up a few mobster allies, including Ripper Dan Aliotto, a wheelman for a DC underboss (who himself is heavily built up with chapters devoted to his impressions, before being unceremoniously dropped from the narrative) who develops a sort of friendship with “the big guy in black.” Through Ripper Dan we also get a lot more of that “what a man!” stuff, with the wheelman looking at Bolan in the rearview mirror and pondering over his larger than life qualities and whatnot. I did a Google search on “Ripper Dan Aliotto,” to see if he ever returned to the series, and it looks like he did, sort of, over ten years later, in the tenth installment of Able Team, Royal Flush – long enough to get blown away, at least. No idea if he appeared before that, though, but so far as that Able Team book goes, it seems to have been the one and only contribution of someone credited as “Flavel Ballam.” So I guess Ripper Dan must’ve made an impression on ol’ Flavel. Or at least enough of an impression that he felt the need to bring him back, twelve years later, so he could kill him off.

The pulpish mystery takes more predominance as the narrative progresses. Bolan ponders over the Boston connection with this DC power grab, ultimately coming to the goofy conclusion that Boston fits in the puzzle because it doesn’t fit…! What this means is that Bolan’s figured out Lupo is really from Boston, and at this point in the narrative the reader has more than a strong certainty who the mysterious figure actually is. I won’t spoil the reveal, but I will say it isn’t Claudia, which I think would’ve made for an even better reveal. But this is still the early ‘70s and thus really is a man’s world, so Claudia’s nothing more than the “Mafia whore” she claims to be. She is though “devastating in hot pants and a hip-length cape” in one sequence, not that Bolan’s pressured to take advantage of the situation – indeed, he merely gives her a kiss at novel’s end.

As mentioned, the finale wouldn’t seem out of place in The Shadow. Bolan determines that Lupo’s group, comprised of intelligence-world types, operates out of a headquarters hidden beneath a building, accessible via an underground tunnel. Bolan slips down there, silently kills a few guards, and then ends up saving Claudia again, as she’s once more been captured by Lupo’s men and escorted off to her own doom. Oh and I forgot to mention, right before this Pendleton’s introduced yet another ball in the air – a Mafia with thespian skills whom Lupo’s made to look like Bolan, having him run roughshod around DC and killing various people, even attempting to kill the President! This part is bonkers, particularly because it’s so incidental to anything else, and a clear sign that Pendleton was winging it as he went along.

But anyway, this pseudo-Bolan, who only gets like a single line of text, is also hanging out down here in Lupo’s secret headquarters, and Bolan merely sends Claudia in to confront the mysterious Lupo…who turns out to be exactly who Bolan suspected it was. After this our hero waltzes in and shoots everyone, save for the imposter Bolan, who we’re to understand we’ll be properly charged so the public at large will understand that the real Mack Bolan didn’t just kill a bunch of innocent people. Not that this matters, as the pseudo-Bolan subplot is so harried and poorly developed that you couldn’t see any repercussions from it, anyway. What’s worse is that this plot to take over the US is overseen by Lupo and like two other guys, and by blowing them away Bolan’s stopped this massive plot…a plot which in reality could’ve taken up several more volumes, instead of the single, rushed volume we got.

That said, Pendleton is certainly prescient, even if it’s unintentional. Claudia’s boss is a Congressman in his 80s who is so senile that “he doesn’t know what day it is,” and thus willingly acts as a “puppet” for his mob controllers. And if that isn’t “ripped from today’s headlines” enough for you, check this out: the bad guys (former intelligence agents, remember) operate out of a front company called IMAGE, a “civil rights outfit for ethnic minorities,” which they use to sow division in the country.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Agreed on the nice Gil Cohen cover painting. I liked the book better than you, but it's not one of my favorites Bolans.

Stephen Mertz said...

Great rewview, as always, and a good reminder to me of why there's horse racing. This is one of my favorite Don Pendleton novels. I've it several times. But good, bad or in between, I trust we can agree that what makes the Pendleton Bolans so great is that, while he had influences and immitators (for 12 Bolan novels I was one of them) nobody, I mean nobody, ever wrote Bolan like Don Pendleton.

Norman Jade said...

nice blog

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments!