Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Executioner #9: Vegas Vendetta

The Executioner #9: Vegas Vendetta, by Don Pendleton
November, 1971  Pinnacle Books

Mack Bolan blitzes his way through Vegas in this 9th volume of The Executioner, Don Pendleton now firmly in control of his series and its staples, even down to setting up future installments. While the sort of grindhouse-esque spark of the first few volumes has been lost, it’s been replaced by more of a streamlined template: we’re sure to get an action opening, a few sequences from a mobster’s point of view, some recaps of stuff we’ve already read, a lecture or two about Bolan and the life he’s chosen for himself, and several more action scenes, capped off by a big finale. One thing we won’t be getting is sex – the first volume is alone in that regard, Pendleton having deemed that his hero, being a man on the run, “doesn’t have the time” for that sort of thing(!).

Pendleton is really a pulp master; Vegas Vendetta is to the length of other Pinnacle series books, 180 pages of fairly big print, but it sure does move – just compare it to any contemporary volume of Death Merchant to see what I mean. While you’ve finished The Executioner in no time, and have enjoyed it quite a bit, a Death Merchant seems to stretch on into enternity, and reading one hurts to your very soul.

Without much pickup from the previous volume, we meet up with Bolan as he’s made a brief stopover in Vegas on his way to San Francisco; he’s decided to boost his war chest by heisting a “skim run” from a local casino to a Mafia hardsite out in the desert. This is a typical Pendleton action intro, with a black-garbed Bolan wielding a LAW rocket launcher and a Stoner weapons system. The violence isn’t too bloody, and Pendleton focuses more on the surprise of Bolan’s hit. Not to mention the surprise Bolan himself experiences, finding none other than Carl Lyons at the hardsite – future Able Team member but at this point an undercover cop, last seen in #3: Battle Mask, but having first appeared in #2: Death Squad.

Lyons, working now for “Head Fed” Hal Brognola, was undercover at the Gold Duster casino when his cover was blown and he was taken off, to this very hardsite, to be killed. Bolan pulls his broken form from a blown-apart car and hurries him off to safety. During the drive we get one of those lectures on Bolan’s “stay hardness” and reaffirmations of his fighting spirit, etc – Pendleton’s clear hero worship of his protagonist is both humorous and charming…not to mention part of the template. 

Bolan’s main weapon this time is the “hot little Beretta” he picked up in #5: Continental Contract; also returning from his European adventures is the Weatherby Mark V rifle he used in #6: Assault On Soho and which we’re informed he has had shipped to him here in the US. But once he’s dropped Lyons off in a safe place, Bolan, disguised in shades and false, longish sideburns, cruises around the Vegas Strip in a “three-year-old Pontiac convertible,” and the action drive of the opening is lost. Pendleton wantonly fills pages via the presence of Tommy Anders, a casino stand-up comic who at first brings to mind Buddy Hackett but instead comes off like a blowhard, his “hottest club act” being nothing more than a digressive list of various celebrities who have changed their ethnic last names to something more mainstream.

Yet here Pendleton unwittingly hits upon some prescient topics because Tommy’s tirade is against the nascent politically-correct movement – which hadn’t even really started yet, though it was around this time that some Hollywood snowflake actually cut from the original print the “racist” dialog from my all-time favorite Pre-Code horror film, The Mask Of Fu Manchu (these scenes were re-inserted in the late ‘90s, but since the originals had been destroyed by the snowflake, they were taken from an overseas 16mm print). While his stand-up routine goes on much too long (Pendleton clearly filling pages to meet his word count), Tommy does end on a point all-too-salient in the victim culture in which we currently live:

“What’s going to happen to this country, ladies and gentlemen? What’s going to become of it when we’re all completely and finally sliced up into militant little minority groups all too damned stiff to laugh with each other. Huh? We’re going to have to rewrite all the history books...”

Bolan’s been put onto Tommy via Carl Lyons; Tommy’s sob story has it that his talent agency has been taken over by the Mafia. In fact, the Mafia is threatening to take over showbiz in its entirety. This of course doesn’t sit well with Bolan. Tommy is staying with four long-legged beauties called the Ranger Girls, led by a blonde bombshell named Toby Ranger, “Mother Nature’s answer to Women’s Lib.” They’re super-hot singers or dancers or somesuch, here in Vegas to make it big with their act. They like to dress alike in “peekaboo hotpants and plunging, see-through tops.” Bolan and Toby have an instant lust-fueled hate for each other, with constant barbs tossed at one another. But poor Mack doesn’t get laid again, this time.

The novel follows the template of Chicago Wipe-Out in that the opening action scene is really the only big one. Midway through we have a brief one where Bolan makes one of his surprise assaults on the Mafia. A plane bringing in the dreaded Talifero Brothers is coming into Vegas, and Bolan’s there at the dawn landing to blast the wheels off the plane with his Weatherby. The brothers live, not that they go on to much greatness – having been set up so well in the past few volumes, I expected more from the Talifero Brothers, who operate their own enforcer wing in the mob and whose name spreads fear wherever they go. I mean, I wanted drooling ape-like thugs along the lines of The Butcher, but instead the twins are nothing more than…lawyers!!

Another ball’s dropped, sort of, through Vito Appostini, the guy who runs the casino in the Gold Duster. One of the templates of the series is where Bolan will show up unexpectedly, and this happens again here, as Vito heads on up to his heavily-guarded penthouse atop the casino, only to find Bolan waiting there for him. But after a bit of a build up, Appostini abruptly disappears from the novel; Bolan bullies him for info, learning of the “Caribbean Carousel,” a Mafia venture which will take us into the next volume. Also through Vito we get a lot of info-dumping about how the Mafia rakes in the cash.

Buying some mod clothes, affecting a slouch, and arranging his hair in “the just right look,” Bolan spends the rest of the novel playing the Mafia for saps as he poses as a Mafioso bigshot from the east coast. Waltzing into the Gold Duster, he takes advantage of the gullibility of the other mobsters, given Vito Appostini’s fall from grace (due to Bolan’s presence) and the arrival of the Taliferos. And talk about more ball-dropping – throughout we’re told about this tough Vegas enforcer named Joe the Monster Stanno. Folks, “the Monster” sleeps through the entire finale while Bolan walks around the Gold Duster unopposed, giving out orders and making fools of the Vegas mobsters. 

Pendleton does work in a gambling theme in the final pages, Bolan “gambling” on his life as he shuts down the Gold Duster, sets Joe the Monster up to be killed by the Talifero Brothers (and vice versa), and plans his escape via a Mafia-owned helicopter (one piloted by a guy named Jack Grimaldi, who will become another recurring figure in the series). Meanwhile Hal Brognola and the local cops are closing in on Bolan – not that much really comes out of this subplot, other than more vicarious Bolan-worship through Brognola, who considers the Executioner a “truly superior human being.” 

Even the climactic action scene is brief, more about other characters killing off one another while Bolan makes his escape to the rooftop of the casino, where Grimaldi’s helicopter awaits. Here Toby Ranger is revealed to be a Federal agent or somesuch, wielding a small automatic and blowing away a handful of goons. She escorts Bolan to the roof while mobsters pursue them – a moment faithfully captured on the cover painting (in which Bolan appears to have a Hitler moustache, thanks to that shadow). But she stays behind as Bolan escapes, with the reader not getting an answer on who she really is.

And that’s it for Vegas Vendetta, which starts off strong but sort of becomes a bit too whacky with all the “role camoflauge” Bolan achieves. As I say, the ferociousness of the early volumes is gone, this volume at least, and the Mafia comes off more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. But as stated Pendleton’s prose is so supple and controlled that, despite the occasional exposition, info-dumping, and lecturing, one blows through the book…and can’t wait to read the next one!


John M. Cowan said...

Great review, and love your site. I have to say you're wrong, though, about Bolan never getting laid. He has sex a lot. Hell, two books earlier, Nightmare in New York, he's got three hot babes taking care of him while he recovers from his wounds after an ambush. Then there's Miami Massacre, the first time one of his girlfriends gets tortured and killed by the mob; California Hit (the first Bolan I read) where after cutting loose some porn actresses he gets it on with the main female; Jersey Guns, where again he's nursed back to health with some hot loving from the woman who rescues him (her brother ends up tortured and dead); Firebase Seattle, where he rescues a chick, wipes the blood from the mafiosi he's just killed off her legs, and then does the deed; then later he nobly declines to do the same with her mother who's all hot for him. . . Those are just the ones I specifically remember. Honestly, Bolan gets laid a lot. Sorry.

On the other hand, you're right about the Death Merchant.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comment John, I appreciate it. And I really appreciate hearing from someone who also takes note of such things! You're right, I forgot about Margarita in #4 (and there was also the faux-Bardot in #5), however you might want to give Nightmare in New York another read -- Bolan actually doesn't make it with any of the three girls, which I noted in my review. Despite which that volume was my favorite yet in the was really great!

I guess what I should've written above, rather than Bolan never getting laid, was that Pendleton didn't go to the lengths of his contemporaries in the men's adventure field...I mean look at Nick Carter in comparison, who would get lucky with three women (at least!) per volume.

But the comment on Bolan "not having the time" for sex comes from Pendleton himself: it's in an interview he did with author William H. Young in A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction, where Pendleton states that Pinnacle requested he sleaze things up in War Against the Mafia, after which Pendleton was able to whittle back on it, given that he felt Bolan was a man on the run and would have more pressing things on his mind. Personally I think such concern over "realism" is unecessary in what is ultimately escapist fiction for men.

I haven't gotten to Jersey Guns yet, or California fact I just realized it's taken me like 4 years to read the 5 volumes Pendleton published in one year (1971)!

John M. Cowan said...

Good points all, Joe. Been a long time since I read the New York book. I guess I assumed when I was 14 that with three hot young women around in vapors states of undress, Bolan might have done the deed with at least one of them. But then I was probably 15 when I first read it, so my mind was kinda fixated on sex and nudity. But yeah, Nightmare in New York is great.