Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Penetrator #20: The Radiation Hit

The Penetrator #20: The Radiation Hit, by Lionel Derrick
May, 1977  Pinnacle Books

I think it’s time I took a long hard look in the mirror and realized that I’ve now read twenty volumes of The Penetrator. And by god I’ll keep on reading them until the bitter end. But man, this one, courtesy Chet Cunningham, is bland and listless for the most part – for whatever reason, Cunningham has been floundering in his past few contributions to the series, and I still think it’s because Pinnacle asked him to soften the edges of his psychotic Mark "Penetrator" Hardin.

The Radiation Hit capitalizes on so many mid-‘70s fads that it almost comes off like it was put together by a marketing department. The Smoky And The Bandit craze must’ve been in full force as Cunningham penned this volume, with all of the CB radio mania that ensued; you can just imagine “Convoy” blaring in the background. (Some of my earliest memories were of the CB craze, and given that I grew up on the West Virginia/Maryland border, you can just imagine how popular it was there in hicksville.)

The plot – and Cunningham, unlike his series co-writer Mark Roberts, never bothers to ground his installments in any sort of continuity – has Hardin in Colorado, where he’s chasing down leads in a possible nuclear factory assault. Another indication of how many books of the Penetrator I’ve read is that I started to experience déjà vu during The Radiation Hit; it’s very similar to an earlier Cunningham installment: #10: The Hellbomb Flight. Just as in that novel, this time Hardin’s up against scientists who have gone rogue due to their fears that technology will be used for the wrong purposes.

Cunningham is in fact more concerned with doling out CB lingo (the back of the book even features a handy CB glossary) and writing about big rigs than delivering a Penetrator novel, as Hardin scopes out a nuclear facility and gradually deduces that the terrorists, whoever they are, will try to steal the highly-radioactive nuclear reactor fueling rods in a tractor trailer. Meanwhile Hardin (somehow) has gotten information from an insider, a scientist named Dr. Richard Banscomb who is one of a trio of nuclear scientists who have quit the facility due to its unsafe practices, and gone public with it.

But as mentioned, the CB phenomenon and truck drivers are given so much focus that Hardin doesn’t even see any action for the first hundred pages, other than a few soft probes of a facility where he knocks out a guard or two with his sleep darts. The Penetrator isn’t really that bright this time out, either, easily falling for a trap set up for him when later he goes back to the same facility and steals the rig in which he thinks the stolen fuel rods have been stashed. Only later does he discover that he’s been duped with a duplicate rig.

Part of the reason for the minimal violence in the first half of the novel is that the villains themselves aren’t a bloodthirsty lot; instead, they’re a team of nuclear scientists who want to alert the world of the dangers of nuclear power. More topical ‘70s material is presented with reams of “dangers of radiation” articles Hardin reads as part of his research, all of it straight out of Silkwood. We gradually learn that these scientists have arranged the heist of the nuclear reactor fuel rods so as to use them to pollute a large flock of sheep with radiation, so the media and thus the world can see how dangerous uncontrolled nuclear power could be. 

Some of the lurid goofiness of earlier Cunningham installments returns with the appearance of Lisa Golden, wife of one of the rogue scientists; Hardin visits the notoriously-promiscuous young lady, posing as a reporter, and she immediately strips down and asks him to tie her up for a little S&M. This is actually yet another callback to The Hellbomb Flight, where Hardin was similarly propositioned out of the blue by yet another sex-starved woman, but Lisa doesn’t immediately drop out of the narrative. In fact she becomes the novel’s main villain, a bloodthirsty, dopesmoking, sex-crazed radical, and not until she becomes so does the book become enjoyable.

Lisa, seducing her elderly husband, convinces him to allow her to go on the late-night run in which the big rig will deliver the fuel rods to the farmland where the scientists will unleash their plan. But Lisa has her own plan – she gets the young co-driver to leave the rig with promises of sex, but instead leads him into a trap where her hippie-terrorist comrades use the poor bastard for knife-throwing practice! The other poor driver Lisa shoots several times in the head with her .25. After which she and her friends make off with the rig, smoke a few joints, and let Lisa’s jiggling breasts decide which turns to take on the road!

Now, well over a hundred pages in, we have the makings of a Penetrator novel. Lisa’s hippie terrorist comrades plan to blow up the trailer in some desolate patch of Colorado, killing all of the locals. They will then use this mass murder to inform the world of how dangerous radiation is. They send out CB messages to the media, informing them of their plans and making demands, however Lisa tells her followers that they will blow up the fuel rods and kill the populace regardless if their demands are met or not.

But as it turns out, Lisa’s followers are more “hippie” than “terrorist,” and Hardin so outmatches them that it’s not even funny. Instead of building toward an action-packed climax, Cunningham instead has Hardin sort of just drive around rural Colorado, trying to luck into wherever the trailer has been hijacked to – there’s a laughable bit here where Hardin tells himself there’s “no time” to involve the Feds, as by the time they got in gear the radiation would already be let loose. As if the government wouldn’t hurry through red tape in emergency situations.

But of course Hardin locates the area, not far from Colorado Springs, and deduces that the rig is hidden in a barn outside of a remote farm. He plays a cat-and-mouse game with the hippies which proves to be the novel’s climatic sequence, just walking around in the dark and looking inside the house, slowly drawing them out. One of them proves to be Hardin’s first kill in the novel (like 130 pages in!), and Cunningham makes you feel sorry for the poor bastard, who lies at Hardin’s feet and calls for his mother as he dies. Meanwhile Lisa, who has morphed into a guerrilla general or something, orders her minions about and threatens to shoot “cowards.”

The finale is very anticlimatic, with the hippies trying to wire the trailer to blow on the farm and escape. Even here Hardin doesn’t kill anyone, but instead plays on their nerves. He’s secretly dismantled the trailer from blowing, but the hippies don’t know it, and they think they only have minutes to get out of there. When the final confrontation between Hardin and Lisa comes, she instead proves her own undoing, accidentally ramming her getaway van into the trailer. Dazed from a concussion, she climbs into the rig, exposing herself to the massive doses of radiation and dying in seconds – and even here Cunningham makes you feel sorry for her, despite the fact that she’s a cold-blooded murderer who planned to kill off an entire town. 

And that’s that. Hardin calls Joanna Tabler, unseen this volume, and asks her if she’d like to spend a few weeks with him in Colorado Springs.  She says she can’t, so Hardin figures he’ll spend some time here alone fishing! It’s just a listless end for what is for the most part a listless volume of The Penetrator, Cunningham obviously enamored with the CB scene and doing his best to shoehorn his enthusiasm into what is a very underwhelming and passable installment.


Grant said...

I've almost never been fond of adventure stories with "hippie terrorists," partly for the same reason as I've almost never fond of ones with Nazis and neo-Nazis as the villains, and that's that to me they're such a "chestnut." Maybe the one thing is less of a chestnut than the other, but thanks to things like the SLA and Charles Manson, it manages to feel like one to me.

That showdown scene between Derrick and Lisa is another matter, though. Even though it's indirect, the idea of him scaring her into plowing the vehicle into her own "weapon" sounds pretty clever. It reminds me of a scene in a movie that doesn't stay with me for much of any other reason, "On Deadly Ground." It's the scene where the hero terrifies the oil executive's "henchwoman" into driving away from him in a panic, and driving right into - what else? - a stack of oil barrels, which blows up the car.

Unknown said...

I have all the PENETRATOR novels, but have yet to read one. Saying that, your reviews keep cattle prodding me towards them. One day...

Ironically enough, I've been on a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT marathon. I swear I'm the only fan of Part 3 (mainly due to its soundtrack). I should get points just for admitting that I'm a glutton for punishment! Heh.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Trever, I wouldn't recommend starting with this volume, unless you're really into the whole CB fad. (I forgot to mention, the Penetrator's CB handle is "Knuckles!") Grant, I agree, I've yet to read a book that has believable hippie terrorists...I've read about many that were definitely hateable, though, like in Burt Hirschfeld's "Father Pig."

Unknown said...

I'll start at the beginning of the series and work my way up.

I'm currently plowing through THE DEATH MERCHANT, so it'll be a few months before I shake hands with THE PENETRATOR. Looking forward to it, though.

Grant said...

This is off the point of THE PENETRATOR, but are you (or anyone else here) familiar with the PEPPERONI HERO books at all? The name of the main character and some of the story titles makes it either sound very campy, or like some "young readers" detective series, but judging by the single one I've read, they're pretty "gritty" detective stories instead (sometimes in ways I don't go in for, something that could fit in here).

Joe Kenney said...

Grant, I've only heard of the Pepperoni Hero, which I believe is more of a private eye thing that was packaged as a men's adventure series. Bill Crider wrote a few words about it on his blog in 2006: Also, it appears to be one of those scarce/obscure series, with the expected inflated prices on the used book market. Glad to hear you've read one, though.