Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Penetrator #38: Hawaiian Trackdown

The Penetrator #38: Hawaiian Trackdown, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1980  Pinnacle Books

I love the cover of this installment of The Penetrator – take that, “Adult Books!” And humorously enough there is a sequence where Mark “Penetrator” Hardin assaults a series of adult bookstores; he doesn’t do it with a shotgun, but instead goes into them and rips up all the pedo magazines. For that’s what Mark is up against this time: I was hoping for a sleazy installment of the series, with Mark wading into the murky waters of porn flicks and whatnot, but instead the focus is on child exploitation. Fortunately Chet Cunningham isn’t nearly as exploitative of this topic as the somewhat-similar Ninja Master #7 is. 

We meet Mark as he’s pacing around the Stronghold, wondering what to do next. He gets wind of some recent pedo-ring busts in California, violent ones in which people involved with it have been murdered or found dead. In fact we see a few one-off charcters meet their grisly ends on account of their involvement with it, in particular one young guy who fell into it thanks to a honey trap who took him to an orgy which “introduced” a few kids into the mix, with the guy – drunk and high – being photographed as he was encouraged to engage with the kids! For this he’s being blackmailed, but at any rate his head is blown off like a few pages after he’s introduced, so really it’s just Cunningham filling pages instead of introducing a character that will have ramifications on the plot. 

Mark has to look up “pedophilia” in the dictionary – a sad reminder of when stuff like this wasn’t common knowledge. He is sickened by the very thought and decides to bust some heads. He flies to Sacramento – luckily there’s no “amateur aviation” stuff as there would be in a Mark Roberts installment – and hooks up with old pal Captain Kelly Patterson, last seen in #26: Mexican Brown, but I believe first introduced in #2: Blood On The Strip (which happened to be Cunningham’s first novel in the series). Here Mark muses that he first met Kelly “more years ago” than he’d like to think of, yet Mark is still presented as being the same age he was back in the first volume! Otherwise there’s no big character development here, and Patterson could’ve been any other one-off character; he has no reall scenes with Mark other than to trade a little info and to then show up and arrest the people Mark has tracked down – Patterson being one of the few people who know that Mark Hardin is the Penetrator. (This list seems to be growing!) 

Mark won’t be in California long; he first visits a few adult bookstores, where he’s sickened by a kiddie-focused magazine titled Life Child. He tries to find where it’s published, but there’s no info. Eventually he meets up with a producer in Hollywood, Mark posing as a “member of the league” who is into pedo stuff. The guy, who is involved with pedo movies and magazines, throws a party, where Mark runs into hotstuff babe Drisana, aka Drisa, who comes on strong to him. She turns out to have “acted” in some adult films on the side, though she claims to have nothing to do with the pedo stuff. Mark ends up torching the studio and tying up the producer – not to beat a dead horse, but let’s recall that Mark Hardin is curiously wimpy these days, the series having more of the vibe of Magnum P.I. than the ultra-violent early installments. In fact Mark doesn’t kill anyone until page 161 – which makes it all the more grating how he’s constantly threatening people throughout. There’s even a part where he tells some guy, “I should cut off your balls and laugh while you bleed to death,” and of course it’s just bluster…but in reality you could see the Mark Hardin of an earlier Cunningham novel, say #12: Bloody Boston, actually doing such a thing. 

Drisa will turn out to be the main female character of the novel, and she’s a typical Cunningham creation: hot-to-trot but with the emotional content of a child. She’s the closest we get to what I wanted this novel to be – a hotstuff pornstar who becomes Mark’s willing accomplice. But Cunningham is just as determined to neuter the sex as he is the violence – the expected boink occurs off-page, Mark scoring with Drisa in the back of the Brown Beast (that sounds wrong on so many levels, so I should clarify that “The Brown Beast” is Mark’s nickname for his truck and trailer combo). As if to jab the knife in further, Cunningham has Drisa merely talking about the sordid activities, next day, which is how we even learn anything happened between them. As Mark Twain once said, “Don’t just tell me the hero banged a pornstar, show me!” 

But as mentioned Drisa is woefully unexploited; Mark learns from her that all the “pedo stuff” comes from Hawaii, so off he goes to track down the source of Life Child. Drisa manages to tag along because she claims to have overheard the name of the guy behind the magazine and other pedo ventures; she just can’t remember the name, and swears to Mark she’ll be able to if she can come along with him and stay in the hotel, etc. Cunningham must’ve recently visited Hawaii, as we get a lot of topical detail when the two arrive at the airport, Drisa going on in total childlike detail about every thing they see as they drive to the hotel. Mark for his part is humorously blasé, as he’s “visited Hawaii several times.” I imagine this must’ve been back in his ‘Nam days, as I don’t recall him visiting Hawaii at any point during the series. Also the fiftieth state is here transformed into a murky den of iniquity, in which pedo rings secretly operate out of every other business and all one has to do is bypass “the usual tourist spots” to find hardcore smut, particularly of a child-exploitative bent. 

The Magnum P.I. vibe is very apparent, what with the Hawaii setting (not to mention Mark’s moustache on the cover)…and the fact that all Mark does is drive around and question people. At this point he’s essentially a private eye himself. For the most part a large portion of the novel is Mark looking around for wherever the pedo magazines are published from. Along the way he spots a trio of young black men, and wonders if they’re members of a rock band(!?), given that he believes black people aren’t commonly seen in Hawaii. This turns out to be the clunky introduction of the main villain of the novel, “the amazingly evil black man” Mark tangled with back in #24: Cryogenic Nightmare: Preacher Mann. For this is the name Drisa finally remembers…folks, her part in the book is literally reduced to sitting around in the hotel room and scribbling names in a notebook until she remembers the name of the mystery figure behind the pedo ring. 

But at least Cunningham makes it interesting: After Mark realizes Preacher Mann is indeed the same guy he fought before, Drisa whips out a gun and says “they” told her it could only be the Penetrator if he knew the name Preacher Mann. So she’s been a plant all along, which of course calls into question the part where she stood by as Mark torched an entire warehouse of porn flicks and magazines. Anyway she shoots at Mark and takes off, and this is the last we’ll see of her until the very end. Mark picks up another helper, though: Uchi Takayama, a buddy of his from ‘Nam who lives in Hawaii and has fallen on hard times. Uchi becomes yet another person who learns that Mark is really the Penetrator, and helps him out as Mark continues his seemingly-endless search for where Life Child is published out of. Along the way they get in a few fights and shootouts, but still Mark doesn’t kill anyone. He threatens people a whole bunch, though, and even throws in some unexpected racial slurs when he gets hold of that black trio he spotted earlier in the book. They of course turn out to be thugs employed by Preacher Mann. 

And just as with Kelly Patterson, there’s no reason why this particular character has been brought back; Cunningham does nothing to bring him to life and it could’ve just been any other random villain for the Penetrator. Preacher Mann only appears a handful of times, where we learn he now has a burnin’ yearnin’ to wipe out the Penetrator, given that he destroyed his whole “let’s freeze hookers and send them to clients” plot. It’s assumed he now heads up this “International League” of pedophiles, blackmailing people and whatnot, but ultimately we’ll learn – via lazy exposition – that Preacher Mann isn’t even the leader of the group. All of which to say Cunningham does little to exploit the fact that this is one of the few (if only) times we’ve had a recurring villain. 

As if to further distance ourselves from early volumes, in which Mark Hardin would go around with enough weapons to take on a small army, we have a protracted sequence here where he tries to buy some guns. This takes us to the climax, such as it is, where he and Uchi assault Preacher Mann’s hidden headquarters. Cunningham has a fondness for pulp-style death traps Mark gets caught in, and he delivers two of them here in the final pages. The second one is the most tedious, with Mark trapped in a bathhouse while little darts are fired at him. When Preacher Man arrogantly comes in to look at Mark’s corpse, he finds that the Penetrator was able to protect himself with nothing more than a few bath towels(!!). This leads to a big reveal where Mark learns who the real villain was – culminating in one of the few instances in which our hero blows away a female character. Actually now that I think of it, that is something we haven’t seen since the earliest volumes, though here it’s made very clear that Mark only pulls the trigger after he’s been fired at. 

Overall Hawaiian Trackdown is an altogether stilted, slow-going affair, with little in the way of the sadistic action of earlier installments. Probably the highlight is Mark’s rampage through several adult bookstores in Hawaii, where he grabs up every issue of Life Child and tears them up, telling the owners if they don’t like it they can call the cops! Otherwise it’s more of the same…just a slow-going and generic entry in what was once a very entertaining (and brutal!) series.

1 comment:

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

I love that cover art, too. It's one of many PENETRATOR covers done by artist George Wilson, who is known for his great comics and paperback cover art ->