Monday, August 15, 2011

The Executioner #1: War Against the Mafia

The Executioner #1: War Against the Mafia, by Don Pendleton
March, 1969 Pinnacle Books

This read has been a long time coming. Back in the '80s when I discovered the Executioner series, I somehow learned in that pre-internet world that Don Pendleton had created the series but had stopped writing it when it went over to Gold Eagle Books. Back then the first 38 volumes of the original Pinnacle run were pretty easy to come by; the series was still popular, the men's adventure market was thriving, and copies of Pendleton's original Executioner books in particular were ubiquitous in my local used bookstore. But damn the times have changed; recently I had a hell of a time tracking down the complete Pendleton run for a reasonable price, particularly this first volume. Even though War Against the Mafia went through at least 18 printings, vulture sellers online jack the price up to sickening levels.

Anyway. According to Michael Newton in his 1989 book How to Write Action-Adventure Fiction, this first installment of the series wasn't even intended as such. Pendleton wrote it as a standalone novel entitled The Duty Killer and sold the manuscript to Bee Line Books. The publisher immediately saw the potential for a series in Pendleton's story of a mob-wasting 'Nam vet, and the title for the novel was changed to War Against the Mafia, the series title changed to The Executioner. (Which is how hero Mack Bolan refers to himself in the novel, but early on he also refers to himself as a "duty killer.") Bee Line believed so strongly in the novel that they started a whole new publishing line specifically for it: Pinnacle Books. This is something Pendleton himself remarked on in later years, particularly when he had to take Pinnacle to court in the mid-'70s: the imprint had actually been created for his character.

But as a stupid kid in the '80s I didn't know any of this. I did know that Pendleton had written a slew of "old" Executioner novels where Bolan does nothing but fight mobsters. I was able to pick up a bunch of them but just didn't like them at all. I found them boring and slow-paced; I was more into the terrorist-killing storylines of the then-current Gold Eagle Executioner novels. I mean, who wanted to read about the mafia?

Flashforward these decades later and I'm on the other side of the fence: you'd have to pay me to read some of those '80s Mack Bolan novels with their terrorist-of-the-month plots. The original Pendleton run, however, seems fresh and vibrant, not only because Pendleton created the series, but also because it's so rigidly locked in its era. The series is so "seventies" as to be instantly cool, with a Pal Mall-smoking Mack Bolan who's all sorts of alpha male.

All of the trademarks we now associate with Mack Bolan are absent in this initial installment. There's no Automag, no Baretta, no "blacksuit." There isn't even a War Wagon! Bolan is presented as a 30 year-old sniper who has become legendary in 'Nam for his deadly skill. After learning of the death of his family back in Massachusetts -- a grisly scene in which his father, driven nuts by the mob, blows away everyone and then himself -- Bolan returns to find that the real battle is on the homefront. The mob has taken over the idyllic little town in which he grew up, and Bolan determines to become a one-man squad of bloody retribution.

What's funny is that all the treacle is gutted from the novel. In this day and age, the maudlin stuff would be played to the hilt; the lone survivor of Bolan Senior's rampage is young Johnny, Bolan's 14 year-old kid brother. Other than one brief scene where the kid tells Bolan what happened, Johnny is never again seen in the book. I couldn't believe it! What a breath of fresh air. In today's world of melodrama, this would've become the entire novel, cutsey little emotional moments of Mack and Johnny sitting arond in the park and batting away the tears while they talked about mom and pop. (Seriously -- watch any show that's currently on network TV. Be it a cop drama, an action show, whatever. The protagonists are always batting away the tears in super-maudlin extreme closeup while the music swells. It's the world we live in, people.)

Bolan follows the leads and finds that his dad got in over his head with a local mob-owned loanshark. He also discovers that his sister started turning tricks in order to help their father pay back the loan. Bolan then does what any other badass 'Nam sniper would do: he buys a Weatherby rifle and blows the heads off a few mobsters who work for the loanshark.

Next he pulls one of those moves that only work in action novels: he infiltrates the local mob, presenting himself as a burned-out 'Nam vet who wants to make a living as a gun for hire. Here Bolan meets Leo Turrin, one of the mobsters in charge of the local prostitution racket; Bolan learned from Johnny that "Leo" was a name dropped by their dead sister. Hence Bolan determines to make the man pay. This section of the novel comes off like an exposition on how mobsters run whorehouses; Bolan's taken around by Turrin and shown the fleshly sights.

Here too we get a few actual sex scenes. Pendleton stated in an interview with William Young in the book A Study in Action-Adventure Fiction that Pinnacle requested that sex be added to the book to spice it up. Given that Pendleton had published a few sex books in the '60s under various psuedonyms, this was no problem, and accordingly Bolan has sex with two hookers early in the novel. To be sure, the ladies offer themselves to him, it's not like the guy has to pay for it. Pendleton further stated that he was able to tone down the sex in later installments, as the series sold fine already; he specified this wasn't due to prudishness, but simply because he felt that a man on the run like Bolan wouldn't have time to dally with the ladies. I say that such worries are groundless given the already-fantastical nature of the series.

The mob isn't as dumb as Bolan thinks and soon they figure out who he is. But we have little reason to worry. This is the start of a series still running to this day, after all; Bolan survives. But after the dialog and exposition-heavy first half, the second half is an enjoyable sequence of Bolan just blitzing the shit out of the local mob. It's not overly gory, and he doesn't kill entire armies of men as he would in later books, but it's all very entertaining and effective.

Along the way he also manages to pick up a third lady (Bolan does pretty well for himself with the ladies in this novel, especially given that it's only around 170 pages!). This is a (of course) virginal beauty named Val who also gives herself to Bolan. She's in love with the guy, and Bolan realizes he's in love with her too, but in a quick epilogue -- no doubt written after it was decided the novel would become the start of a series -- Val is written off as Bolan heads to the west coast.

Pendleton can certainly write. There's no POV-hopping here and his dialog is fun at times. My one complaint would be he explains a bit too much. There are too many scenes of characters relaying stuff we've already read, or announcing what they intend to do, before we see them do it. I guess it's the whole "show don't tell" dictum turned on its head, because Pendleton does both throughout the novel. But this isn't much of a complaint as I really enjoyed the book regardless.

And yeah (see, I'm already writing like Pendleton), I've managed to get the entire damn Pendleton run, and I will be soldiering on with it. I look forward to seeing the mythology of the series as it develops.


Cullen Gallagher said...

Wow! I've been looking for this for a while, but could never find a copy cheap enough for my budget. But this sounds awesome. I might have to shell out a few extra bucks for it.


James Reasoner said...

I bought this one new and remember reading it one day when I was home sick from school (high school). I picked them up and read them as soon as they came out for a good while after that, although I didn't last all the way through the Pendleton run. I caught up on the rest of them later, though.

Brian Drake said...

I read all the books in high school--the original 38 and a ton of the terrorist-of-the-month books. Don left us many years ago but his wife Linda is still around; if you're interested in the current state of the Pendleton writing effort, you can read an interview I did with Linda at my site:

Marty McKee said...

Hmmm, I find the Pendleton books easy to find and often very affordable. I reckon I'm just lucky.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. And thanks Brian for posting your interview with Linda Pendleton!

Zwolf said...

Great review! Yep, I love this book. I remember reading the whole thing in an oak tree in my yard when I was around 13. That tree had limbs configured into the best natural easy-chair possible. I read a bunch of stuff up there, but this is always the first book that comes to mind when I think of that tree...

Pendleton's stuff is good. Sometimes the pace can drag a bit, but he's got his own unique style that's pretty endearing when you get used to it, even if they authorial praise of Bolan does come across as funny sometimes. And I'm a big fan of mafia wipeout books, and this started 'em, so I gotta love 'em just for that.

AndyDecker said...

It was a very good novel. Pendleton had his own distinct voice which todays writer of the terrorist-of-the-month novels either sadly lack or can´t display it because editorial demands it.

I remember that I thought the original series rather boring from the middle on because he wrote himself into a corner when he developed this complicated mafia conspiracy which became the focus of the latter books. But the first books were a lot of fun.

That porn producer Bee Line created Pinnacle for this was new to me. the success must have been unbelievable; I have never seen that much printings documented in other series.

Jack Badelaire said...

I've got a number of these originals, but I don't have #1 (I do have #'s 2 & 3 though). One of these days I need to launch a personal crusade to grab all of the original 38...

Jack Badelaire said...'ll arrive tomorrow. Amazon Prime for the win.

Tex said...

This was the book that started it for me, in March of 81, thanks to an ad in the back of one of Pinnacle's Doctor Who reprints.

After that it was Soldier of Fortune, They Call Me the Mercenary, The Assassin...

And yeah, I had a popcorn tree I used to read in out front (it survived Katrina, even if everything else didn't.)

Interesting that the Original 38 have been kept out of print for almost 20 years, but I think I know why.

(who finally put the run back together, even though it took almost six years to pull it off)

Felicity Walker said...

I don’t expect I’ll ever find this book, but I did find the first issue of the Innovation Comics comic book adaptation! It was even written by Don and Linda Pendleton. The art and lettering are so-so but not so bad as to ruin the experience.

Unknown said...

I have a copy of the first book. Pinacle PS 001 Is there any value?

Unknown said...

Great review.your pulp-expertise is the reason I come here.I read this volume just a few years after it came out. Just knocked me out. BTW, it wasn't a Weatherby, but a Marlin lever action in .444 magnum with which he commenced his war. He didn't pick up the .470 Weatherby until around #22,Hawaiian Hellground. Am I a nerd, or what?

eee said...

The only thing I've never liked about Mack Bolan is the "Sgt. Mercy" stuff. Always felt like a tacked-on, ham-fisted attempt at humanizing a character who (particularly in these early novels) was a ruthless war machine. Worse, it felt like the writers apologizing for the character's actions & philosophy, saying "See, he kills people, but he's a good egg!" Personally, I never needed to hear that Mack was such a compassionate, loving soul to empathize with him or see him as a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. All the maudlin "Sgt. Mercy" stuff always reminded me of the old Benny Hill joke about a character in a violent movie who slaughtered everyone in the house, but stopped to pat the dog on the head on the way out.