Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Penetrator #25: Floating Death

The Penetrator #25: Floating Death, by Lionel Derrick
April, 1978  Pinnacle Books

I’m pretty sure Andy Ettinger was the editor of the Pinnacle line, and if I were in his shoes in 1978 I think I’d come to the conclusion that I needed a third “Lionel Derrick” for the Penetrator series. It’s becoming increasingly evident that the two writers for the series, Mark Roberts and Chet Cunningham, were becoming downright bored with it. In fact I wonder why Ettinger didn’t bring on a third writer – I mean that’s the whole point of a house name, right, so you can easily switch authors? – because reading Floating Death makes it clear that the series was in trouble.

Mark Roberts handles this one, and it’s a dud on the level of Cunningham’s #22: High Disaster. The main plot should give you an idea of its lameness: it’s about cows being killed in Wisconsin! But beyond that Roberts is more concerned, once again, with pedantic details about flying small aircraft; the book is even dedicated to a pilot acquantance of Roberts’s. I might sound like I’m making much out of nothing but no lie, there are pages and pages about how to fly various small aircraft. As if that weren’t boring enough, Roberts will also occasionally deliver disertations on some new gadget owned by Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin, like a leather belt that can be used as a weapon. But while it sounds cool, Roberts describes it so thoroughly that it eventually comes off like copy from a Cabela’s catalog.

But anyway, those cows. They’re being killed off in rural Wisconsin due to a claimed infection that might spread to humans if the cattle aren’t destroyed. The Penetrator hears about all this in the news and decides to investigate. He just happens to have a friend named Olie who was his buddy back in his college football days; Olie now plays for the Green Bay Packers and owns his own dairy farm in Wisconsin. Meanwhile we see the plight of the farmers over there, watching as their cattle are shot down by government thugs led by a skeletal simp named Dr. Creighton Thornesby.

We gradually learn that this dude was once a military scientist but quit because his germ warfare ideas were ridiculed. This fake cattle deal is the first step in his vengeance scheme; ultimately he wants to douse certain cities with infectious diseases so that the SIE can take over the country. The SIE is a new world order-type conglomerate last seen in #3: Capitol Hell; they’re still around, though in dwindled numbers, and Thornesby’s SIE contact is an equally-evil snob named Theophilus Wen, who claims to have endured the Penetrator’s assault on SIU back in that third volume, but I don’t remember the character. Not that it matters, as Wen is a nonentity in this book.

No, more focus is placed on Hardin flying various small airplanes. Once he gets to Wisconsin he briefly meets up with Olie, who himself soon disappears from the text, being yet another victim of Creighton Thornesby. This leads to a part that seems to come from another novel where Hardin visits Olie’s grieving widow and kids and gives them pep talks. Speaking of which, everything depicted on the cover happens in the novel, all save for the nude blonde; the only woman in the book is Olie’s widow, and she sure as hell doesn’t strip down for Hardin. But we get more page-consuming detail where Hardin poses as the PR man for the Packers and gets an interview with Thornesby, who again delivers the “virulent strain” story as justification for the cattle butchery.

Eventually we learn that the mad doctor’s plan hinges on something he read about once, a method the Japanese attempted in World War II: putting nerve gas in balloons and sending them off on the wind currents. Thornesby has his own strain of various diseases, in particular the black death, which he wants to unleash on the country in this way. The overall plan is to kill off livestock so that America is on the verge of starvation, and then mop up the survivors with various germ warfare so the SIE can rule over the survivors and start a new world. But again, all of this is lost amid the greater focus on flying small airprlanes and the new gadgets Hardin now uses in his fight on crime.

Speaking of which, Hardin has a few new ones this time out, like a shotgun that can be turned into a grenade launcher, and back on the damn plane angle he also has a new aircraft that he militarizes. Most interestingly we also learn this installment that he has a friggin’ cherry red ’57 Chevy, one that he’s modified into a veritable armored racehorse. (But sadly Hardin doesn’t even drive the damn thing.) Also curiously enough, Hardin’s “wise Indian” mentor, David Red Eagle, is in this volume revealed to also be Hardin’s military technology guru. Previous volumes have, I believe, merely portrayed him as the Penetrator’s advisor on “the old ways,” but now we’re told that Red Eagle has a college degree and a mastery of technology.

The militarized plane is used in a goofy sequence that could almost come out of a Spider novel: Hardin launches an attack on one of Thornesby’s staging areas, on an island just off San Diego, chasing just-released balloons that are filled with the influenza virus and shooting at them through the window of his airplane! He gets doused with the flu virus contained within the balloons, but even despite crashing in the forest and hiking a few miles, as well as swimming across a large portion of the Pacific, all the Penetrator has to do is scrub himself with antibacterial soap and practice some of his Indian magic skills and he’s good as new.

The climactic action sequence is along the same lines, but less spectacular. Hardin, armed with a Mossberg shotgun, ambushes another of Thornesby’s staging areas, this time on a farm back in Wisconsin. It’s almost perfunctorily written, with Hardin blasting away a few goons and lab technicians just as they’re preparing to unleash a modified strain of black death. Theophilus Wen is almost casually dispatched, but Thornesby gets more of a suitable comeuppance…almost, at least. Revealing that the Penetrator has inadvertently dosed them all with the black death (including Hardin himself), Thornesby says that they’re all walking dead men, as there’s no antidote. Hardin almost lets the bastard die in agony, but decides someone might find him and attempt to save him, so merely shoots him in the head.

The epilogue is given over to Hardin’s epic battle against his black death contamination. At death’s door, with sores and whatnot erupting all over his body, Hardin retreats to a “medicine cave,” where David Red Eagle works as a medicine man and fights for the Penetrator’s life, using ancient herbs and Indian magic. Thirty days or so later Hardin is back to his old self and returns to the world – only to be brought papers by Professor Haskins regarding his next mission, which will have Hardin looking into the “Mexican brown” situation.

Finally, this volume features my favorite arbitrary action scene yet in The Penetrator: clearly realizing he’s gone too long without a single action scene, Roberts has our hero encounter a pair of would-be muggers…right outside of a Red Lobster! Hardin kills one of them and beats the other to a pulp, and then goes in for a nice seafood meal. I can’t count the number of times that’s happened to me at a Red Lobster.


Stephen Mertz said...

Wonderful. This is one of the best, funniest reviews you've written.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks, Stephen!

Johny Malone said...

I would have bought the book for the blonde!

Grant said...

The same with me. I don't mind saying that I bought a few sword and sorcery comics with Thongor or Conan PARTLY because of the "wench" on the cover (who sometimes wasn't in the story itself).

Gary R. Peterson said...

Such a well written review! I suspect Roberts was watching reruns of HAWAII FIVE-O when he lifted the plot from the second season two-parter "The Three Dead Cows of Makapuu." The similarities are striking!