Monday, October 5, 2020

The Penetrator #37: Candidate’s Blood

The Penetrator #37: Candidates Blood, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1980  Pinnacle Books

This timely installment of The Penetrator features an election-focused plot, only it’s a Congressional race in Alabama. Initially I was under the impression that Mark Roberts had taken a look at recent volumes and found them lacking, and decided to bring back some of the fire and brimstome of the earliest installments. But as the narrative progressed Candidate’s Blood turned out to be just as bland as everything else Roberts and series co-writer Chet Cunningham have churned out over the past few years, with a suddenly-emasculated titular character now acting more like a law-abiding cop than the revenge-minded sadist of the earliest books.

But man, the beginning’s great, and has the makings of a trash classic. First of all we meet “Dandy Andy” Wells, a Democrat who is running for the seat in Alabama. A black former civil rights activist, Wells is a “walking stereotype” per his own followers and talks in an affected “black southerner” drawl, even gnawing on spare ribs while he gives his speech! (Which has to do with “normalization” of trade with China, “making friends” with other countries around the world, and of course banning guns.) Meanwhile an assassin named Art Belman watches him from afar…and we’ve already gotten a glimpse of how twisted this dude is, as he actually has to jerk off because he’s so excited that he gets to kill again. (Definite shades of Justin Perry here!) Once that’s taken care of, Belman blows Wells’s head off with a rifle, escaping in the ruckus – and meanwhile Mark Hardin just happens to be watching the live broadcast of all this back at the Stronghold. Which I believe is in California…yet they’re showing live broadcasts of a political rally in Alabama. But whatever.

Given that there’s nothing else on the “trouble board,” Mark decides to fly on over to Alabama and sort this shit out. Mercifully there’s none of the “flying fiction” Roberts indulges in so often, though he does craftily work at least something in later when Mark happens to flip through an aviation magazine. The Penetrator takes a host of weaponry with him, which again had me expecting the action onslaught of the earliest volumes, but inexplicably he doesn’t use much of it. Once again he’s acting more in a detective capacity, hoping to root out the assassin, find out what conspiracy caused the murder of Wells – whose politics, we’re informed, Hardin doesn’t agree with – and bring the perpetrators to justice. Not kill them. Only late in the novel does Mark finally decide that the main villain needs to die.

We readers already know from the get-go who was behind Wells’s assassination: Johnny Herter, a successful and famous businessman who leads a populist movement called…the American People’s Party. Now before you jump to conclusions on who this might sound like in modern-day politics, remember this is Mark Roberts writing the book. Herter’s the villain of the piece, so of course he’s a “radical leftist,” and the APP is a far-left party. (Hard to imagine such a party having “America” in its name these days, though…but then this book was written in earlier, simpler times, before the nation was irrenconcilably divided.) Herter lives in a big plantation house in Alabama where he throws wild bashes with his clingers on: “creeps…drug-pushing hippie musicians…bomb-throwing radicals,” and “slippery fixit-type fund raisers.” Roberts really tries to pile on the sleaze here:

But man, this will turn out to be it. This is the one and only part of the book that goes to this lurid extreme. Worse yet is around here I also thought we were going to get a bit of a rock novel subplot, Roberts doing his own take of The Destroyer #13, maybe, with Mark Hardin venturing into the crazy world of rock. For it develops that Johnny Herter finances a rock group named God’s Blood, which is known for depraved spectacles on the concert stage. But all we ultimately learn is that the lead singer is named Duce[sp] Wilde and we get a sampling of God’s Blood lyrics: “Let’s get down together, baby, fuck fuck fuck!” And this too will be it! It’s like Roberts teases us in this opening bit…racial stereotypes making speeches with ribs on podiums, masturbating assassins, wild parties with naked chicks diving in the swimming pool, and even “acid rock” (in 1980!!) for the soundtrack. And then he just drops all of it and turns out your basic generic Penetrator yarn that we’ve sadly become familiar with by now.

Once again Mark’s the only person who even bothers to investigate; obviously Wells’s murder has caused a national stir, but Mark waltzes around posing as a federal agent and doesn’t even run into any real ones. He does run into an old acquaintance, though: Samantha “Sam” Chase, redheaded NASA security agent introduced back in #33: Satellite Slaughter. She’s no longer with NASA, she says, operating as a freelance detective. There’s barely any history with her so far as the narrative goes; I mean she and Mark had a fling in that earlier volume and even ended the novel on vacation together, but you’d never know that here. In fact, they don’t even “get friendly” throughout the entire novel, unless it happens so far off-page that Roberts doesn’t even mention it. Instead it’s about Sam insisting she’s a “modern woman” who can handle all the gunfighting and whatnot that’s part of Mark’s life, and also she’s figured out he’s the Penetrator. But by novel’s end Mark tells her so long forever because he can’t have someone else he cares about getting wasted.

Mark and Sam reunite during an early action scene; Herter retains a team of security goons and Mark runs into them while investigating. One of them almost gets the drop on him before Sam takes him out with her pistol. But other than a brief explanation that after meeting Mark the whole NASA thing seemed “boring,” there’s really nothing that ties back to the previous volume, and Sam could’ve just have easily been a totally different character. She just happens to be in Alabama as well, hoping to make her career as a P.I. by finding out who killed Wells. Crazily enough, she’ll be the only other character Mark meets who is even investigating this case! Also here we get yet another reference to real-life private eye J.J. Armes, with Sam mentioning she wants to be as nationally famous as “that [private eye] in El Paso.” Roberts also referred to Armes – who sported metal hands – in #27: The Animal Game.

Action is infrequent, which is frustrating given all the heavy equipment Mark brings along. He does most of the early fighting with dart gun Ava, once again going out of his way not to kill unless absolutely necessary. In other words, Mark’s attackers have to try to kill him first before he returns the favor. Otherwise he knocks them out or doses them with a tranq dart. Roberts continues with his penchant for ending chapters on lame cliffhangers, thus Mark is often finding himself in dangerous situations…ones that just as often have anticlimactic resolves at the start of the next chapter. Like when he’s taken in by some local cops who happen to be on Herter’s payroll and deposited in a makeshift prison on Herter’s land. Mark escapes rather easily and makes his escape, ultimately running into a local American Indian who himself is an enemy of Herter. But Roberts drops this subplot, only to clumsily bring it back later, where Mark makes a speech to the assembled tribe, imploring them for their help and ultimately causing them to go into a war dance sort of ritual. 

There’s also weird out of nowhere stuff…like in one action scene, Sam gets shot in the shoulder and she and Mark escape from Herter’s goons…then the next chapter they’re suddenly half-dead from dehydration and starvation and out in the savage elements, having hid without food or shelter for several hours. This part seems to exist just so Roberts could insert some survivalist fiction material. And also Sam’s shoulder seems to heal up without much fuss, but it does factor into Mark’s eventual declaration that Sam must never see him again. His shock that she’s figured out he’s the Penetrator is pretty humorous, though. Roberts seems at pains to introduce a “modern woman” to the series, with Sam constantly going off on how she knows how to handle herself in a fight, and just as often arguing with Mark to let her go along with him. That being said, there really isn’t much else interesting about the character.

Roberts drops the ball on another female character. In the early wild party scene, a naked chick dives in the pool for the viewing pleasure of all the coked-up men, and we’re informed this is Herter’s girlfriend. But strangely enough this is all we see of her – and, as mentioned, all we see of one of these crazy parties. Or “Caligula Revisted,” as Roberts titles the chapter. But honestly it’s like some milk-sop editor at Pinnacle saw the early manuscript and frantically got on the phone to implore Roberts to dial it back, because abruptly Candidate’s Blood shifts tone, leaving us with yet another sluggish and meek installment of The Penetrator. Most damning is that nothing at all is done to exploit the entire God’s Blood subplot; there’s even a concert at one point, but Roberts doesn’t bother to bring it to life. How I wanted to see the Pentrator take on Duce Wilde, but sadly it never happened.

There are a lot of subplots that go nowhere, like a DC-based reporter for a “right-wing rag” who wants to get the scoop on Herter – not just his plots to murder rival politicians, but also his illegal mining schemes. This reporter ultimately meets his fate at the hands of Art Belman. Then there’s more go-nowhere stuff when Sam goes undercover with the APP, getting hit on by Herter – but she takes off before anything happens and the entire angle is dropped. Stuff like this is just frustrating because it’s clear Roberts decided to focus on less-important stuff than what the opening promised. The finale seems to imply we’re headed back in the depraved direction of the opening, as Mark decides to wipe out Herter while one of the megalomaniac’s wild parties is in full swing, but it’s really just another generic late-era Penetrator action sequence, with none of the underlings or killers or whatot meeting any brutal or memorable ends…save for Herter himself, that is. But his death, at the hands of a mining auger, comes off more as contrived than anything else.

Roberts’s patented writing style is in full effect throughout, with his usual oddball choice of words – never before have I encountered the word “crackled” as a dialog modifier (ie, “the boy crackled”). There are also occasional lines that must have been intentionally goofy, like: “The Penetrator left Guthrie’s office with his hunch node humming away like a vibrator.” But stuff like this isn’t enough to salvage what initially promised to be a lurid return to the Penetrator of yore. At any rate, by novel’s end Mark hands all the mining and assassination evidence over to Sam, so she can use her straight-world contacts to break the case and become a famous P.I., but as mentioned Mark tells her it’s over forever between them…not that anything really got started between them this time. Roberts is so busy spinning his wheels that the last pages are given over to Mark eating dinner with Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle back at the Stronghold.

I am curious what happened behind the scenes of this series – it’s very strange that both Roberts and Cunningham made their once-brutal character so bland and upright. Well, there are still more volumes to go, so maybe things will eventually improve.


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

On the positive side, I like the cover art by artist George Wilson, who did many covers for the Penetrator series -

Felicity Walker said...

Indeed, the American left should claim its fair share of patriotic iconography. It might help their message resonate better. Letting their opponents control that rhetorical territory is a strategic mistake.