Monday, August 15, 2016

The Penetrator #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers

The Penetrator #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1978  Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham brings the sleaze factor back to The Penetrator; in his latest mission, which sees him venturing around San Francisco, Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin finds the time to visit a few strip clubs and cathouses – all in the line of duty, of course. And while our hero himself doesn’t get lucky (the sex scenes were whittled out of this series long ago), he does become friendly with a platinum blonde who strangely enough is almost identical to another Cunnigham creation, Joanne Tabler, the federal agent who has sporadically appeared since the earliest volumes.

This volume also sees the continued softening of Mark’s formerly-rough edges. Multiple times in The Skyhigh Betrayers he has the chance to kill someone, but goes out of his way not to – despite the fact that these people later come back to cause him more problems. This Mark Hardin sure as hell isn’t the same guy we were presented with back in #4: Hijacking Manhattan. The softening has been going on for quite a while now, and I wonder if it was because Cunningham himself had become less bloodthirsty or if Pinnacle requested that the protagonist of the series be less sadistic. While this does make Mark Hardin seem more like a normal hero, it also does make him appear rather stupid – how else to explain a part where he fights a bunch of Cuban agents out to kill him and goes out of his way to just knock each of them out?

The Skyhigh Betrayers is a bit busy in the opening with laying groundwork. Long story short, the lead scientist on some atomic energy research project has killed himself – or was he murdered? And the number one guy on the project, Dr. Brunt Maxwell, has gone missing. Apparently the project had something to do with a shielding for atomic warheads which would cut down radioactive fallout or somesuch. Anyway Mark Hardin gets wind of all this and figures something rotten is up, so he heads on over to San Francisco to find out what’s up.

As usual posing as a federal agent, Mark is able to bullshit his way into various agencies and high-security areas. When visiting the research center, he meets a gorgeous blonde-haired babe named Juliet Marshall, a woman apparently so pretty that Mark will basically pine over her throughout the novel. As mentioned there’s no sex for poor Mark this time out, but he’s really crazy about Juliet; indeed he considers her the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen. She’s new on the project and now is mostly taking care of Mrs. Brunt Maxwell, who has no idea what happened to her husband or even whether he’s alive or not.

There’s a lot of goofy “comedy” stuff in The Skyhigh Betrayers, sort of like the hijinks you’d see in late ‘70s action movies, usually ones of a redneck bent. For example an early scene has Mark’s rental car being arbitrarily inspected by a random cop, and Cunningham ruins the tension by having Mark sneak over and disengage the parking brake on the cop’s patrol car. The cop goes running off after it and a chuckling Mark drives away. But even goofier is Mark’s sudden resolve not to hurt anyone this time around. This mostly presents itself via the appearance of Juanita, a sexy Cuban secret agent who keeps running into Mark and threatening him, with Mark laughing it off.

Juanita initially goes after Mark in a different way – when he confronts her in her hotel room, having figured out she isn’t just an innocent employee after all but really a Cuban agent – she doffs her top and offers herself to him. Instead “The Penetrator” laughs this off as well and takes his leave. Later in the book Juanita will come after him again and again, even sending some thugs after him.  The real villain of the piece is an East German agent named Thomas Ashford who is also hunting down Dr. Maxwell. Ashford is one of the most brutal villains in the series yet; his intro in the book has him torturing a Mexican dayworker in a sequence that will have the reader squirming. This opening in fact was so lurid that it had me expecting the series was about to return to its grimy roots, but it appears that Cunningham saves the sadism for the villains, these days.

The Skyhigh Betrayers is almost like a private eye yarn in that the majority of it is comprised of Mark going around the seedier areas of the city and hunting leads. Midway through he discovers that Brunt Maxwell had a penchant for nudie clubs, and Mark finds himself at a strange dive where you can buy a camera in the foyer and go in and photograph naked women. For extra cash you can feel one of them up or more in a private room. You guessed it, Mark finds Brunt’s favorite gal and gets a private room with her, and she too pretty much offers herself to Mark – not that he takes her up on it.

There’s sporadic action throughout, with Mark mostly armed with a .45 throughout, though he does finally break out Ava, his dart gun, again. By the way, starting last volume we’ve gotten “The Penetrator’s Combat Catalog” at the end of each book, with drawings and ballistics of some of Mark’s weapons, similar to the material that would appear in the final pages of early volumes of Gold Eagle’s Executioner line. This time we get to see Ava, and talk about lame – it looks exactly like a Luger! All along I’ve pictured it as some sort of sci-fi raygun-looking thing. But the bit with Ava is another indication of Mark’s softening; Cunningham introduces the dart gun again, reminding us of its lethal payload…and then Mark just carries around a .45, usually butting people in the head with it.

But Mark’s biggest and most inexplicable goof this time is his early failure in the killing of Ashford. The two first meet when Mark’s walking around a local fishing site, asking random people for Brunt, a well-known sports fisherman. This sequence, quite padded and dull, caps off with Ashford, who himself is posing as one of the fishermen, pulling his gun on Mark. Ashford gets away this time, and later – after taking out some of Ashford’s thugs – Mark heads for the dude’s house to kill him. Instead he throws a grenade at Ashford and the East German agent runs for safety; the explosion burns down the house. Mark walks off, just assuming (wrongly) that he’s killed the man! 

Cunningham was also fond of putting topical interests in his installments, as best displayed in #20: The Radiation Hit, with its trucking focus. This time it’s skydiving, which in fact leads to the (meaningless) title of the book; from the strip club babe Mark learns that Brunt Maxwell has a secret love of hang gliding, and Mark eventually goes out looking for him. This entails lots of skydiving stuff shoehorned into the book; Mark you won’t be surprised is suddenly revealed to be an expert hang glider, telling some young dude whose gear he borrows that he’s logged several hours of flight time. In reality we learn that Mark only has a passing familiarity with it, though you gotta wonder how a guy whose been on various vengeance quests for the past, what, six years would have time to do much else.

Mark finally tracks down Brunt here in the sky, and succeeds in talking him down; there follows an arbitrary bit where some random guy pulls a gun on Brunt, demanding that he race him. But the dude’s strung out on goofballs or something (don’t worry, Mark doesn’t kill this guy, either, even though the dude tries to kill Mark!!)…  Cunningham as ever has a thing for ending each chapter on a cliffhanger, no matter how lame or contrived. Pretty Juliet Marshall is also here; turns out she too is an agent hunting down Brunt, though it’s never outright stated to which agency she belongs. As for Brunt Maxwell himself, he’s super annoying; shy as a rabbit and always trying to run away.

“There’s been enough killing,” Mark consoles poor lil’ Brunt, promising that he’ll keep the scientist safe from danger. It doesn’t work out that way, though, as within minutes after Mark has located the rogue scientist, none other than Juanita shows up, toting a gun and abducting the man from right under Mark’s nose! Even here Mark refuses to kill the annoying enemy spy, instead causing her to suffer a horrendous car crash (which she apparently survives unscathed), and then planting a submachine gun in her wrecked car…for which, we later learn, she’s hauled off to jail.

Meanwhile a still-alive Ashford has done some abducting of his own – he’s kidnapped Mrs. Maxwell. Here Cunningham realizes he’s in the homestretch and starts writing Brunt as a completely different character, full of resolve and quick-thinking; Cunningham brushes off the copout by having Brunt claim that he often experiences occurences of schizophrenia or something, and when confronted by lots of stress he will temporarily take on a new personality. Whatever! At least the book caps off with a shotgun-toting Mark heading for an abandoned amusement park, where Ashford waits with a bound Mrs. Maxwell, surrounded by various traps.

Even in the finale Mark fails to kill the main villain – that honor goes to Mrs. Maxwell – but he does make off with the gal, Cunningham informing us that Mark and Juliet are headed off for vacation together. She still doesn’t know Mark is the infamous Penetrator and Mark still doesn’t know who she works for – Juliet jokes that she’s “one of the Jane Fonda Commandos” who “go where any women’s libber needs help” – but Mark figures she’s part of some NASA security force. At any rate it’s left up in the air if Juliet will return someday.

Wrapping up, The Skyhigh Betrayers was kind of middling, a bit too padded at times, with a curiously-restrained Mark Hardin acting more like the hero of a late ‘70s TV show than the bloodthirsty revenger of previous books. But it wasn’t the worst Cunningham book I’ve read by a long shot.

Oh, and that image on the cover of the dude in the scuba suit wrestling a dolphin? It’s not in the book. Neither are there any atomic lab-protesting hippies or any opium-smoking Chinese dudes. Bummer!


AndyDecker said...

"she doffs her top and offers herself to him. Instead “The Penetrator” laughs this off as well and takes his leave"

How sad is that?

Grant said...

I definitely agree.
A villainess character who isn't defeated in a big scene is one thing, and one who has no romantic scene with the hero is one thing, but the two things together are unthinkable. And yet, so many escapist adventure stories take that route.