Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Executioner #5: Continental Contract

The Executioner #5: Continental Contract, by Don Pendleton
January, 1971  Pinnacle Books

This fifth volume of the Executioner series is pretty strange; it’s not bad or anything, but the entire narrative seems to be building up toward a big finale, a big finale that never occurs. Also all of the continuity and sense of a developing theme from the previous four volumes is mostly gone, with Don Pendleton now firmly in a modern pulp sort of mode. The now-obligatory tropes of the series have still not emerged, but hero Mack Bolan is becoming more of an archetypal hero and less of the troubled loner of the first three volumes.

We meet Bolan in Dulles airport as he realizes he’s walked into a Mafia trap. Blitzing his way out, Bolan puts on a disguise and gets onboard the first plane out, which happens to be destined for Paris. This portion of Continetal Contract really shows its age, as Bolan is not only able to get on the plane by bribing an airline rep but is also able to stow his pistol away in his checked baggage. But the novel already doesn’t operate in normal reality, as in true pulp fashion another last-second passenger boards the plane, and the dude just happens to look a lot like Bolan!

This turns out to be a famous movie star named Gil Martin, not that Bolan has ever heard of him. Meanwhile the mob figures that Bolan must’ve escaped their trap via plane, and lock down Paris as one of his possible destinations. When a French contingent of mobsters crack down on Gil Martin in Orly airport, thinking he’s the Executioner, Bolan rushes to the rescue. After a pitched gunfight on the dark Paris streets he sees the potential of posing Gil Martin. However this subplot is barely played out; I was expecting a few scenes of goggle-eyed fans approaching Bolan on the Paris streets, but it never happened.

There are a few good action scenes in Continental Contract and one of them comes up pretty early in the narrative, as Bolan stages a vengeance strike on a whorehouse that doubles as an HQ for the French mob of Rudolfi. Rudolfi’s men were the ones who snatched Gil Martin at the airport, and now Bolan wants to make them pay. First he clears away the hookers and then he rushes downstairs, clad in his blacksuit, blowing away goons with a machine pistol. Bolan even gets the opportunity to take one of the hookers back to his hotel with him, a British transplant who has become a whore because she wants to be a writer(?), but Pendleton doesn’t dwell on the dirty details.

The British hooker quickly fades into the woodwork and Bolan is alone again – that is until he meets what will become the main female character in this installment, a Brigitte Bardot-type actress named Cici. Yet another internationally-famous star Bolan has never heard of, Cici appears in the hotel room Bolan has reserved under the name Gil Martin, thinking that Bolan is indeed the actor, whom Cici claims to have dated. Soon though she realizes Bolan is a “stand-in,” not that this stops her from clinging to him and providing a means for him to escape the enclosing police force.

So ensues a journey down into Southern France, Bolan and Cici growing closer. Pendleton does a great job bringing Cici to life, but the only problem is he spells out her French accent, like “Bolawn” and “stand-een” and etc, and pretty soon you start to think Bolan is hanging out with Pepe Le Pew or something. Other than that though she provides a welcome and strong female presence to this series.

As for Bolan himself, Pendleton continues to write a human character here, with Bolan often indulging in self-pity that he could never just enter “paradise” with Cici and live a normal life, forgetting about his mob vendetta. In fact Bolan quite often states that he likely doesn’t have long to live, strong words that come off a bit hollow given that he’s still going strong hundreds of volumes later.

Pendleton as expected broadens the narrative with scenes from the viewpoints of various factions aligned against Bolan. For one we have Rudolfi, whose plans for control of the European branch of the mob are crushed with this sudden appearance of the infamous Executioner. But there’s also Tony Lavingi, a mafioso who comes over to Paris to hunt down Bolan, bringing along with him an old pal of Bolan’s from the ‘Nam, a guy who plans to give Bolan the “Judas kiss” in exchange for a few hundred thousand dollars.

And as usual Pendleton’s mastery of the craft of pulp plotting makes for a very enjoyable and breezy read. My favorite sequence would have to be when Bolan issues an ultimatum to the mob, once he learns that those hookers have been sent to an African slave market as punishment for “allowing” Bolan’s attack on their whorehouse: Bolan will kill one high-ranking French mobster for every hour that the girls continue to be imprisoned. Here we see Bolan once again using his sniper skills as he carries out hits, but here too we also have a little page-filling as Pendleton provides unecessary backgrounds for each of the mobsters Bolan targets – unecessary because each of them’s dead within a few pages of their introduction into the text.

The various threads come together in a final showdown in Monaco, with Bolan once again alone up against superior forces. What’s great about these original Executioner novels is how much more power they pack than the later Gold Eagle offerings. And unlike the GE stuff, Pendleton doesn’t let gun specifics get in the way of a good story – once again he has Bolan screwing a silencer onto his revolver, an impossibility that would never pass muster in those gun-crazy Gold Eagle books. Hell, you can read entire action sequences in Continental Contract where the guns aren’t even named – they’re just called “guns!”

But as a tradeoff you get superior writing, characterization, and plotting. My only problem with this volume is that it just sort of peters out at the end…not to mention the unbelieveable aspect that Bolan not once but twice lets a rival go, only to regret it in both instances. You think he would’ve learned after the first time. And also Pendleton doesn’t really tie up all the ends, leaving the fates of some of the major mafia characters in question.

I’m figuring all of this will play out in later installments, though – and I’m really looking forward to the next volume, which apparently has a kinky bent.

1 comment:

Chris H. said...

I finished reading this book yesterday. Right after finishing I thought it was a really good book but the more I thought about it, I realized there were a lot of things wrong with the story.

One of the scenes that really show how old the book is, is when Bolan walks into an airport, walks up to an international flight podium and bribes the gate agent with $100 to get him on the plane. The agent has them reopen the plane to get him on. That would never happen today! Another scene of the book has Bolan taping a bunch of different types of maps together to make one good map of the area. No Garmin or Google Maps back in those days!!

Another thing that bothered me about the book was Bolan letting Rudolfi go...TWICE!! Why would he do that? In the previous book he shot a mob guy the instant a door was open wide enough to stick the gun through, no questions, no verification of who was opening the door, just blam and on to the next guy. It made no sense to let Rudolfi go, except to fit the narrative at the end of the book.

Other things that bothered me: the Paris police come to Bolan's hotel room just minutes after he killed a dozen guys (right across the street!!) and they don't check his passport because he has a naked woman in his bed and they are embarrassed for disturbing him. Seriously?!?! Cici made several suspicious phone calls that Bolan even thought were suspicious, but he doesn't even ask her about it the first time and the second time she assured him she wasn't betraying him and all he said was "OK"?!? That makes no sense. I know he spent some time in this book thinking about dying but it doesn't make sense to have such a fatalistic attitude that he wouldn't question her until he was satisfied with her answers. The Wilson Brown part of the story line really went nowhere and Brown's sudden change of heart at the end was too convenient.

The parts of the book I really liked were the Bolan character development scenes. He questions what he's doing, he feels he's reaching the end of his road and is going to die soon. He really just wants to take some time off and forget about everything, spending time in Eden with Cici is the way he put it. I thought those scenes showed Bolan's humanity.

I liked his second trip to Madame Celeste’s whorehouse where he started at the top and worked his way down to the street, taking out everybody in his way. I also really liked when he gave the mob an ultimatum that he would kill one mob boss every hour until the hookers were released. It didn't take them long to give in to his demands.

Like I said about the last book, it doesn't pay to be a female friend of Mack Bolan. In this book there are two women who feel the wrath of fate. One is a British hooker, in France trying to find herself and write a book, who gets kidnapped and is on her way to be sold into slavery in Algiers when Bolan convinces the mob to turn her and 9 other hookers loose. The other is Cici, who gets shot in the stomach while she and Bolan are making out. He should really come with a warning label.

Overall, I liked the book but I thought it was pretty weak compared to the previous 4 volumes.