Monday, July 5, 2021

The Executioner #15: Panic In Philly

The Executioner #15: Panic In Philly, by Don Pendleton
March, 1973  Pinnacle Books

Mack Bolan is all business in this fifteenth volume of The Executioner, which opens on the action and stays focused on the action throughout Bolan’s short stay in Philadelphia. There are no pickups from any previous volumes, Bolan at this point a one-man army who roves around the country in his War Wagon, making calculated strikes on various Mafia strongholds. Don Pendleton has his template down pat, with Bolan making initial blitzes before going undercover to really mess with his Mafia prey. 

One thing to note is those looking for a period view of Philadelphia will be disappointed; Bolan spends the entirety of the narrative everywhere but the city, hitting hideouts in the rural surroundings, scoping out residential areas, and spending the last third of the novel in a mansion. Local color is provided by the usual Pendleton staples of one-off characters who helpfully exposit on stuff we’ve already seen happen; in this case it’s some cops and firemen who periodically show up to clean up the Executioner’s messes. Another thing to note is that Gil Cohen’s typically-great cover is misleading; Bolan doesn’t wield a rifle at any point, the action does not take place around any Philly landmarks, and, while there is a curvaceous babe in the book, she only appears on two or three pages and has no real, uh, interraction with Bolan. 

This time we get a few entries from Bolan’s journal; I can’t recall if we’ve had these before, but it’s a bit humorous to imagine Bolan writing in his little diary after a gory hit on the mob. While reclining in his War Wagon, of course. But then escapism is the name of the game with this genre, though as ever Pendleton tries to retain a semblance of reality. Perhaps a bit too much of one; other than Bolan’s superhuman skills (which Pendleton frequently explains away in his narrative digressions), The Exectioner is nowhere in the surreal ballpark of its imitators, a la The Sharpshooter and such…which is one of the reasons I’ve been looking forward to reading the following volume, Sicilian Slaughter, even if it’s written by William Crawford

The opening sequence is an indication of Bolan’s superhumanism; the story opens with Bolan making a few blitzes on various Philly mob fronts, even at one point blowing away some thugs in an auto shop. After this we get hasty setup that the mob here, run by old Don Steffano, has been importing soldiers from Sicily. A group of them are staying in an old whorehouse out in the rural area northwest of the city; we get a bit of background that the place used to be a school at the turn of the century, then the Don’s son, Frank, turned it into a top-notch whorehouse, only to get shutdown when he gave a complimentary ticket to a conservative judge. Now the soldiers are there – complete with foxholes – and Bolan hits them in one of his typical frontal assaults. 

At this point Pendleton has toned way down on the violence; Bolan makes many kills as he storms across the compound, blasting away with his Automag and Beretta, but there’s not much gore on display. But also this is an indication of Bolan being a bit too superhuman, hitting a pseudo-military compound all on his lonesome and making an escape in just a few minutes. He’s even almost bulletproff like Superman; someone fires a friggin’ shotgun at him and Bolan survives it because the person pulling the trigger goofs. This is a quick setup for a later revelation that has more dire repercussions for Bolan. At any rate he gets away with no troubles and moves on to his second phase of attack: infiltrating Don Steffano’s organization and sowing havoc from within. 

Borrowing a plot from previous volumes, Pendleton has Bolan bluffing his way into this, posing as some roving Mafia troubleshooter. In this case Bolan gets wind of a hotshot hitman heading to Steffano’s to help out, Bolan picking up the info thanks to a tap he’s put on the don’s phone. Here Bolan also learns that one of the Talifero brothers has survived Bolan’s attack in #9: Vegas Vendetta, which certainly is setup for a future volume. The top hit man being sent on his way to help Don Steffano is a “Black Ace” or somesuch who is known for changing his face after every job and thus conveniently no one knows what he looks like; Don Steffano is informed that he’ll recognize the Black Ace by the new Maserati he’ll be driving. 

Before that we have a fun bit where Bolan’s almost caught by the cops; as he dangles there on the phone line, listening to his tap, he’s hit by floodlights and a cop tells him on a bullhorn that he’s surrounded. Bolan goes into a quick fantasy where he can see the fallout: he’d be taken in but turned into a celebrity, with even a movie to follow (perhaps Pendleton speaking through his protagonist about the possibility of an Executioner movie in the real world – something the covers always promised but never delivered on). But Bolan knows he wouldn’t survive twenty-four hours in jail; he’d be murdered by some Mafia flunky or other stooge and the death covered up. I can just see the “Bolan didn’t kill himself” bumper stickers now. 

Bolan’s confrontation with the Black Ace guy is memorable; he sneaks onto Don Steffano’s grounds and is able to get the guy alone as soon as he’s arrived. From here Bolan becomes the Black Ace, bluffing his way into Don Steffano’s world and bossing people around. At this point the action slackens off and Panic In Philly becomes more of a suspense tale, with Bolan trying to maintain his cover while sowing dissent – he maneuvers it so that Don Steffano’s people think that the don’s son, “Frank the Fuckup,” is orchestrating a takeover, while also maneuvering it so that the don’s men kill a delegation of hoods who have been shipped in from another family – Bolan having fooled Don Steffano’s men into thinking this delegation has come here to harm the don, whereas in reality they’re here to provide backup. 

The curvaceous babe mentioned above is Philippa, aka “Philippa the Bitch,” Don Steffano’s 32 year-old daughter who still lives at home and resents the old man. She makes no real impact on the narrative – at least not on-page – and only shares two brief scenes with Bolan, who basically tells her to leave. As with many of the volumes the events of Panic In Philly occur over the span of several hours, leading to a definite sense of urgency to Bolan’s schemes. We also get an appearance from Leo Turrin, Bolan’s inside man on the mob who has appeared in previous volumes; Leo shows up per Don Steffano’s request, as a guy who has seen Bolan and lived, and is only saved from the firing squad Bolan’s set up for the delegation thanks to Bolan himself. 

But it’s Don Steffano whom Pendleton most brings to life; he’s a King Lear type who is falling apart just as quickly as his kingdom is. Pendleton nicely brings to life the old mobster, who sits in shadows in his study and relunctantly leaves the decisions to the Black Ace. The climax between Bolan and Steffano is another highlight of the book; the revelations mentioned above come into play and Steffano’s given a hot tip. But Pendleton plays it more on the suspense angle, and a darkly humorous one at that; Bolan has stuffed the corpse of the real Black Ace in the trunk of the Maserati and has shown it to a few of Steffano’s men, claiming the body is Bolan’s. The highlight of this sequence is that he manages to sell the corpse to Frank for a whopping $110k…so Frank can high-tail it for New York to show off his booty to the Mafia overlords! The part where Don Steffano finds out about this is another highlight. 

As expected Pendleton ends the novel on the action; a new delegation shows up unexpectedly, these ones a cohort of the Taliferi, and Bolan knows he won’t be able to maintain his cover. So as usual he goes out via a frontal assault, hitting them hard with his Automag again. Here he actually takes some damage, getting hit in the calf and with a bullet lodged between his ribs and his skin – only deflected by a shoulder holster. In his Maserati it appears Bolan is headed directly for the next installment, but as it turns out he’d have a slight detour thanks to Crawford penning the next volume. 

According to his interview with William H. Young in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, at this point Pendleton was in litigation with Pinnacle. The Executioner was doing very well for the imprint but Pendleton was not receiving his fair share of the royalties. To keep the series going, Pinnacle hired William Crawford to write the following installment, Sicilian Slaughter, as “Jim Peterson.” What’s interesting is that the one-page epilogue of Panic In Philly sets up Sicilian Slaughter, with an injured Bolan thinking about heading to Sicily for a frontal assault. I suspect this epilogue was written by series editor Andy Ettinger; it doesn’t have the same ring as Pendleton’s prose, and also we know from Pendleton’s interview with Young that Pendleton himself never even read Crawford’s novel – thus the entire “Sicily assault” was a creation of Pinnacle’s, and likely the setup for it here was written by Ettinger.


Linda Pendleton said...

Don Pendleton was in a lawsuit with his publisher, Pinnacle because Pinnacle tried to claim they owned Don's Executioner series of books.
Sicilian Slaughter and books to follow had been planned by Don, title and a paragraph synopsis. His lawyer tried to get an inunction to stop publication of book #16 but the court allowed publication.
Linda Pendleton

Jesse Luscious said...

Even though I read all of the mafia-related Executioner books, I only kept this one because I'm from Philly. Thank you for your in-depth examination of this & other similar series.

I really love learning more about the history and context of these books that I read for a quick thrill!