Monday, February 8, 2021

The Executioner #14: San Diego Siege

The Executioner #14: San Diego Siege, by Don Pendleton
November, 1972  Pinnacle Books

It’s old home week for The Executioner; this installment sees Mack Bolan back in California, where he hooks up with former Death Squad members Gadgets Schwarz and Pol Blancanales. Los Angeles cop Carl Lyons also appears, making this sort of an unintentional prefigure of the later Able Team series, which featured the three characters. However Lyons does not share a scene with Gadgets or Pol, and barely even interracts with Bolan – he walks right by him, late in the novel, but Bolan’s in costume and Lyons doesn’t recognize him. 

At the end of San Diego Siege Bolan reveals that he was on his way to Phildelphia when he got the call from Gadgets and Pol which brought him here. The two surviving members of the Death Squad have called in Bolan because their old ‘Nam commanding officer, Howlin’ Harlan Winters, may be in deep with the Mafia, and only the Executioner could sort things out. This is a fary cry from the future days of Able Team, where Pol and Gadgets would handle things themselves. Bolan is reticent to step foot in San Diego, claiming that the rot runs too deep and the Mafia is too embedded in the city; one would have to destroy most of the place to save it. This is mostly due to the naval presence in the city, the Mafia taking advantage of the continnuous sea traffic to transport illegal wares. 

Gadgets and Pol aren’t certain Winters is involved with the mob, but they’ve got their suspicions. A Colonel in ‘Nam, he was essentially kicked out of field duty due to his colorful presence and bucked up to General. Now he’s living above his means and the two men suspect he may be engaged in some illegal chicanery. Bolan thinks of Winters as the Patton of Vietnam, but the unfortunate thing is we’ve never heard of him before…and don’t even get to meet him. Because, and spoiler alert but it happens real early in the book, Winters is already dead when Bolan goes to see him. Props to Pendleton for including a busty blonde in a see-through robe when Bolan comes upon Winters’s corpse; she’s the man’s niece, we’re informed, and she’s just standing there staring at the gory ruin that was her uncle. It looks like he’s blown his head off in his own study, but Bolan isn’t sure if it was murder or assassination. 

That’s it for the busty blonde, though; San Diego Slaughter is very tame on the babe front, and Bolan goes nookieless. As if to compensate for this, though, Pendleton later delivers yet another topless babe, a redhead Bolan comes upon while she’s sunbathing. Presumably she’s the one Gil Cohen has illustrated on the cover, as she’s the closest we get to a female protagonist in the book…but even she only appears on a scant few pages. It’s very much a man’s world in this volume of The Executioner, with Bolan determined to undergo a “rescue mission” for Winters, even though Winters is already dead. What Bolan intends to rescue is Winters’s honor – that is, if he still had any. The question remains whether he was in bed with the Mafia. 

This certainly isn’t the most slam-bang action entry in the series, but that’s not to say San Diego Siege is boring. For me its greatest failing is that the reader has no investment in Howlin’ Harlan, and we’re robbed of the chance of him making an impression on us. I thought it would be interesting to see Bolan’s mentor – but then, Winters isn’t really even presented that way. Pendleton is intent upon the hero-mythologizing of his protagonist at this point. Winters, we learn, wasn’t so much a mentor of Bolan’s as a colleague, as Bolan was already a hardened jungle warfare expert when he was put in-line with Winters back in the ‘Nam hellzones. Indeed, Gadgets and Pol look up to Bolan so much that you wonder what sort of awe they ever even had for Howlin’ Harlan Winters. 

What I mean to say is, the revenge which fuels these three guys is not felt by the reader. But then it’s the 14th installment of a long-running series, so you can only expect so much emotional investment. It’s all very by the numbers, Pendleton faithfully following his constant template – the mandatory opening action scene followed by a long simmer, occasional “yeah, this will be hell” asides, parts where the local mobsters rant and rave, periodic plot recaps by one-off cop characters, lots of Bolan-worshipping from hero and enemy alike, and an action climax. But it’s all done so well! At this point it’s not so much the template as how Pendleton subtly changes things around. Like the lack of a female this time, or how Bolan has two assisstants; this latter element is humorously worked into the story when a San Diego mobster doesn’t believe the Executioner is really in town, because Bolan always works alone. 

Big Ben Lucasi is the name of that San Diego mobster; he’s a shorstuff prick who serves (poorly) as this novel’s villain. He lacks any menace and comes off more like a character Danny DeVito would’ve played in the ‘80s. He’s also lost in the mire of the narrative. The question is whether Winters was killed by Lucasi’s mobsters, and if so why. To determine this Bolan acts more like a private eye than a lone wolf vigilante. For one he plants a bug Gadgets has devised in Lucasi’s house; this is another of those scenes Pendleton does well (yet another template staple) where we’re introduced to the latest Mafia thug, who rants and raves that the Executioner is in town – and then literally finds himself face-to-face with the Executioner himself. However Bolan just puts the fear in Lucasi and leaves, covering for the fact that he’s planted a bug in his place. I forgot to mention, but Pendleton cagily sneaks yet another topless female into the scene, this being Lucasi’s floozy wife, who promptly thereafter disappears from the novel. 

There’s a proto-Baroness vibe to San Diego Slaughter in the spy-fy descriptions of Gadgets’s various radio and monitoring devices. I always like stuff like this because it’s clear Pendleton did some research or checked with some people. I mean it could all be completely made-up so far as the workings go, but it’s all described so well in the narrative and dialog that you take it all as fact. One of the elements here I’m certain appeared in at least a few Baroness volumes: the tiny spool of wire that can record four hours of audio in a few-seconds’s burst of static, and when you play it back slow you can hear it all at normal speed. Pendleton weaves all this stuff into the novel so that Gadgets has more to contribue to the tale than just being a sidekick, but at the same time it detracts from the usual action quotient. 

That being said, the collecting of the recorded material leads to one of the novel’s few action scenes; Bolan, Gadgets, and Pol get in a shootout on the grounds of Lucasi’s house. It’s not overly violent or even that long, really, and seems to be there just because Pendleton realized he wasn’t meeting his action quota. There are other scenes which promise action but don’t deliver, like when Bolan, just bullshitting his way through it, commandeers a Mafia drugdealing boat, pretending to be a stand-in for the usual guy. This part makes Bolan seem kind of dumb, as he just gets on the boat with no clear plan. At least it has a memorable conclusion; they get to the waterborne drug meet and Bolan blows away the dealer on the other side. He lies to the crew that the guy was selling them “trash,” dumping what is in reality high-grade heroin into the sea. Humorously enough, even the crew starts to idolize Bolan after this…even after they learn that it was really the Executioner and that he dumped real heroin into the sea! 

Through this sequence Bolan poses as “Frankie Lambretta,” his cover identity he’s used a few times now. Surely there must be a shelf life on such things. The crew members take him at face value, but Lucasi and his main henchman Tony Danger instantly recognize the name, which is already being tied to the Executioner. Oh and I forgot. Speaking of “face value,” Gadgets and Pol make passing reference to Bolan’s “new face,” which he got in the third volume, one volume after the duo briefly joined Bolan in the Death Squad. But anyway, Bolan continues to fumble and bamboozle his way into the ranks of the Mafia, fooling them with ease into thinking he’s some high-ranking member of the family, and while this is yet more hero-stuff from Pendleton, it also does the disservice of making the bad guys seem like easily-fooled losers. 

But wait, I was talking about a topless redhead. Her appearance is one of the more notable scenes in the book. And not just because of the toplessness! Her name – though Pendleton is slow about informing us this – is Marsha Thornton, and she’s the easy-lay wife of a San Diego bigwig named Thornton who is in deep with the Mafia. Bolan comes across her while she’s sunbathing. She is known for screwing all of her husband’s mobster pals, and I guess Bolan’s here to get info from her. Whatever; the thing of importance is that she has a big guard dog which she sics on Bolan. Now we’re told that only a rare man could stand up to a raging guard dog – but Bolan, you won’t be surprised to learn, is a rare man. And he punches the dog in the throat as it’s leaping at him. This of course gets Marsha hot and bothered, but Bolan goes for more of a “you’re not just a whore, you’re special” sort of approach, and Marsha decides to tame her usual “hunger,” dammit all to hell. I mean I never undersand why Pendleton never goes full fantasy in his novels, but whatever. 

Meanwhile Carl Lyons is called in by the San Diego cops to help nail the Executioner, but Lyons makes it clear that he respects the dude – not that he won’t do his job. Then he goes straight into some Bolan idolizing for his fellow cops, to the point that you start to wonder if Lyons is decorating the precinct locker room with pinups of the Executioner. Humorously though as mentioned Bolan walks right by him and Lyons doesn’t even realize it, given that Bolan has appropriated an officer’s uniform and is brazenly walking through a police station. His target is recently-arrested Tony Dancer, whom Bolan springs in another memorable scene. But we’ll remember that Bolan is squarely a good guy, thus he even calls the cops and tells ‘em he’ll be bringing Danger back. Well anyway, through Danger Bolan finally learns the whole sad story – Howlin’ Harlan Winters and Thornton both were hoodwinked by the mob, the latter in particular blackmailed into helping them via some porno flicks the mobsters secretly shot of Marsha. Thornton himself is unable to have sex, for unstated reasons, and while he understands his wife’s many infidelities, he still is willing to protect her honor. 

Anyway, long story short, it all ends somewhat unspectacularly. It develops that the Mafia was using Winters so as to get high-grade military radio technology, which I guess they intended to use for betting on horse racing or somesuch. Not the most dastardly of villain plans, but we’ll take it. Bolan, in an appropriated Ferrari, shadows Lucasi’s convoy out into the California desert, Gadgets and Pol following in Bolan’s war wagon. The goal is to find the radio tech or something, but it all ends as expected: with a massive gunfight. But it’s not nearly as massive as previous ones, and indeed Bolan leaves much of the shooting and stuff to his two comrades, saving his own justice-dispensing for Lucasi. But Lucasi has been presented as such a non-threat that Bolan’s cold delivery of justice almost comes off as too harsh. I mean just imagine Arnold blowing off Danny DeVito’s head at the end of Twins; it pretty much has the same vibe. 

Well, that’s it for this volume of The Executioner. Bolan tells Gadgets he can keep the war wagon, and what’s more he lets the duo keep the winnings they stole from the Mafia so they can open up their own business. Little do the three of them realize that in eleven years Gadgets, Pol, and Lyons will be hacking up zombie punks.

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