The Mercenary, by Joseph Freytag
June, 1977 Pinnacle Books
Like Death List, this is another late-‘70s Pinnacle offering that seems to be the first volume of a series that never was. The only difference is that I wouldn’t have minded reading a second Death List, if only to see how more grimy and sleazy it could get. But I’d rather watch paint dry than read another volume of The Mercenary. The back cover promises an “orgy of death,” but it turns out the most violent thing about The Mercenary is the cover photo. It’s a cold war thriller curiously devoid of thrills and it’s about as bland as a TV movie of the era. Actually that’s an insult to TV movies, but you get my drift.
Another indication this was intended as the start of a series is that the book’s copyright an outfit called “Series International,” and the events are left open for continuing adventures at novel’s end. No idea who “Joseph Freytag” was, but there may be a clue in the book: the titular protagonist hunts for an elusive scientist named “Professor Leslie,” and I wonder if this could’ve been an easter egg clue to the author’s identity – namely, Peter Leslie, a veteran series writer. I know he did several volumes of The Executioner for Gold Eagle, and online reviews indicate that Leslie’s books were a bit tame in the sex and violence department, with few thrills. That is certainly evident here, which makes me wonder. Also I believe Leslie was Britsh, and a few “British-isms” slip into the dialog of the American characters in The Mercenary.
So we’re to understand from the back cover copy that “The Mercenary” is an almost mythical figure in the shadowy world of espionage who apparently takes jobs from the highest bidder. His identity is unknown, and the major intelligence agencies of the world want him dead – that is, when they aren’t contracting him for some high-stakes job. The first chapter throws us into this mystery headfirst. A sort of junior agent for “The Department” has been sent by his superior, Mitchell, to meet with the Mercenary and offer him a job. Mitchell is supposed to be there as well, but turns out to be a no-show as the rookie waits in a darkened bar. Finally the Mercenary arrives, cloaked in shadows. The rookie tries to get a look at the Mercenary’s face as he offers him the job – finding Professor Leslie, a government-funded scientist who in one sentence is described as not being political but in the next is described as being an outspoken critic of the President(!?). Leslie has developed an Armageddon Bomb, which he plots to destroy half the world with.
The reader can sort of see where this is going; the rookie has a sudden realization of who the Mercenary is – moments before the Mercenary blows him away. Next chapter opens, randomly enough, with some hotstuff babe named Faye about to kill herself in Las Vegas. She fell in love a year before with an intelligence agent named Nick Mitchell and now so pines for him that she’s about to commit suicide because she thinks she’ll never see him again. Through Faye we also learn that Mitchell is the Mercenary – which we already suspected given the previous chapter, Nick Mitchell of course being the same “Mitchell” the Deptartment flunkie was waiting for. That’s right…the very same Mitchell who killed that flunkie in cold blood. And he’s the hero of the book!
Nick Mitchell is your typical dashing action protagonist, but maybe a little older, with flecks of gray in his dark hair. Occasionally through the book he’ll muse over how many young people there now are in the intelligence game, and will regret having to kill them. But he is willing to protect his secret identity at all costs. Why Mitchell became the Mercenary isn’t much elaborated on, but he uses his capacity as a “Department” field agent to mask his secret identities; surprisingly, no one has suspected that Mitchell and the Mercenary are one and the same. A late-developing backstory has it that Mitchell’s wife and daughter were killed two years ago; the car crash was officially pegged as an accident but Mitchell detected the hand of a fellow professional at work. Of course eventually in The Mercenary he will find out his suspicions were correct and will get a chance to settle the score.
Mitchell miraculously shows up just before Faye, the Vegas floozy, is able to kill herself. He used her in his Mercenary activities a year before and now needs her again, though it turns out for lame reasons. In any event, Faye is the main female character in the novel and Mitchell’s sole “conquest,” though Freytag leaves everything off-page. We don’t even get any of your typical boobsploitation for Faye. It’s all very tame and boring. Even a later part, where Mitchell discovers an enemy agent murdered in his apartment, with his testicles hacked off and shoved in his mouth, is delivered in such dry, monotonous narrative that it has little impact. For that matter, Mitchell himself only makes a few kills in the book, and they’re all spectacularly bloodless, of the “his bullet found its mark” variety. You would figure there’d be more sprays of gore, given that Mitchell’s favored weapon is a very un-secret agent-esque .45 caliber revolver.
So anyway, Mitchell goes to Faye for help, bringing her back to San Francisco, where the majority of the tale plays out. The author seems to at least be familiar with the city, often dropping the names of streets or major locations – the Presidio in particular is mentioned a couple times. Why Mitchell needs Faye turns out to be a little lame. It develops that Professor Leslie, who by the way is fairly old, has a twenty-something daughter named Darlene who lives in the city. Darlene is a lesbian, and there’s all sorts of stuff here that wouldn’t be publishable today…especially the part where Faye goes to meet Darlene and later suspects that she met someone merely pretending to be Darlene, given that the girl Faye met was too pretty to be a lesbian! Well anyway, Mitchell tasks Faye with contacting Darlene, given that Darlene hates men and also has a distrust of government agencies, thus wouldn’t be willing to talk to him.
Darlene makes her living as a tarot reader, and we learn via her off-hand comment that she prefers the Aleister Crowley deck. Whoever did the cover photo didn’t get the memo, as it shows the Rider-Waite deck. I mean come on, people! (Personally I like the psychedelicized Albano-Waite deck.) Unfortunately not much is made of the occult aspect. Faye succeeds in getting into Darlene’s confidence…but as they’re leaving Darlene’s dingy apartment a sniper from afar blows the poor girl away. All because Darlene is wearing, for completely deus ex machina reasons, Faye’s coat – Faye is certain that she was the real target of the sniper, and poor Darlene suffered the consequences for wearing her coat.
But as mentioned, Mitchell soon figures out that it wasn’t Darlene who was killed – the real Darlene, you see, is a quite unattractive woman who harbors absolutely zero feminine nature, given that she’s a lesbian and all. Soon he and Faye will be high-tailing it to a ski resort in Nevada, where it develops that the real Darlene has fled with her father. This sequence serves no other plot relevance than to see Mitchell get in a harried gunfight on the slopes. Actually it’s not even a gunfight. Some sniper shoots at him and Mitchell makes a bloodless kill with his .45, then sees that the would-be assassin is yet another young agent. One thing that separates The Mercenary from its ilk is that Mitchell is very aware of his age, constantly regreting how he must kill younger agents – as here, where the would-be assassin refused to give up; an experienced agent would’ve surrendered, so Mitchell was forced to kill him.
The action returns to San Francisco and later Palo Alto, Mitchell and Faye constantly one step behind the Professor and his daughter. As mentioned Faye at this point is the co-star, and novel’s end clearly sets her up as being Mitchell’s companion in any ensuing volumes. This shows how little the author understands the genre; the last thing the reader wants is a steady girlfriend for the studly spy hero. But anyway the plot is further muddled by a lot of cold war plotting and counterplotting; Mitchell’s boss at the Department, Random, has called in – against Mitchell’s wishes – agents from England, the CIA, and Russia to help find the Professor and to stop the Mercenary, as they’re all aware the infamous character has been called on the job. Yes, the Department hired the Mercenary in the first place, but I believe the end goal here is to shadow the Mercenary, take the Professor when the Mercenary finds him, and then kill the Mercenary. Or something. I might’ve dozed off and missed it.
The only rival agent who makes an impression is Turgenev, a fat Russian greaseball who has a notorious stench. Constantly we’re told how he stinks, and some of the dialog about him has a proto-Justin Perry vibe to it in how it’s just so weird. Mitchell is ceratin the Russian is onto him – in fact a running thread in The Mercenary is that Mitchell’s afraid his cover may be blown and he’ll be outed as the Mercenary, whereas in reality it should be clear as day to anyone with a lick of sense. In fact it should also be clear as day who is ordering the periodic attempts on Mitchell’s life, but our hero doesn’t put two and two together until the final pages. At this point he’s learned the plotter is also the same bastard who ordered the death of Mitchell’s wife and daughter; he gets to take out the assassin who staged the car crash a ridiculously anticlimactic scene. Mitchell merely storms into the guy’s apartment, finds him in the shower, and shoots him. I mean come on, play out the revenge a little. Like at least douse the bastard with gasoline and throw a lit match on him, something.
Freytag pulls out some tricks in the finale, with some enemies who become friends and friends who become enemies, though this later reveal is blatantly obvious and thus lacks any punch. For some odd reason, though, Freytag denies Mitchell his revenge on the man who ordered the death of his family; instead gravity does the trick, pulling the villain and his henchwoman to their grisly fate several stories below. Yes, that’s “henchwoman;” yet another miss in The Mercenary is that the villain has a hotstuff female assistant who is a martial arts wizard, promising for at least some high-impact action. But instead she merely shoots at Mitchell and then ends up falling to her own doom. As I say, the novel plain sucks.
By book’s end Mitchell is confident he can continue as the Mercenary, his cover fully intact, and what’s more he’ll make Faye his fulltime partner. We’re to understand they will enjoy a brief vacation before their “next assignment,” but mercifully another assignment was not forthcoming. This was it for the adventures of Nick Mitchell, and I can’t say the men’s adventure world was poorer for the loss.