Monday, August 2, 2021

The Executioner #16: Sicilian Slaughter

The Executioner #16: Sicilian Slaughter, by Jim Peterson
June, 1973  Pinnacle Books

I’ve been looking forward to this volume of The Executioner for several years now. Even though it’s hated by hardcore fans of the series, Sicilian Slaughter sounded interesting to me because, for one volume at least, it was as if Bruno Rossi or Frank Scarpetta got hold of the keys to the kingdom: the refined, skilled touch of Don Pendleton is gone, and for once “hero” Mack Bolan comes off as vile and sadistic as the mobsters he’s up against. 

Per his interview with William H. Young in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, Pendleton himself never read Sicilian Slaughter, and never knew who wrote it – however he clarified that he held no ill will toward whoever did write it. Young himself was unable to find out how’d written Sicilian Slaughter, but we know now that it was William Crawford. Young did reveal something I’ve not read anywhere else: That Pinnacle was ready to keep The Executioner going as by “Jim Peterson,” a house name that would be filled by a revolving cast of ghostwriters, and Pinnacle even mocked up covers for the next Peterson volume (which turned out to never be published), Firebase Seattle. This is a mystery I’ve chased for a while, and I have some of the details I discovered below. 

It makes sense that Crawford got the “Peterson” gig first, as at the time he was sort of being groomed as Pinnacle’s flagship author. The imprint published several of his books, even devoting full-page ads to them. And having read a few of Crawford’s novels it was clear to me from the get-go that he was indeed the author of Sicilian Slaughter. Most of Crawford’s hallmarks are at play: an asshole protagonist, rampant misogyny, interminable digressions concerning one-off characters, perspective hopping, periodic sermons to the reader on the shittiness of the world, and an overall dispirited vibe. One Crawfordism that does not appear is the typically-mandatory scene in which a character shits his pants or pukes his guts out. Maybe series editor Andy Ettinger told him to reign that in. 

But then, Ettinger seems to have done some tinkering to Crawford’s manuscript, as it’s more streamlined than most of Crawford’s other bloated books. And also there’s a lot of flashbacks to previous Executioner volumes, so either Crawford did some serious research (which doesn’t seem likely from what I’ve learned about these contract writers) or Ettinger went into the manuscript and added these touches. I suspect the latter, given that Pendleton also told William H. Young that Andy Ettinger wrote the prologue for the following volume, Jersey Guns: this volume saw Pendleton’s return to the series, and given that he refused to read Sicilian Slaughter it was up to Ettinger to pen the prologue. 

And it’s a good thing Pendleton did refuse, as there’s no way he could’ve retconned Sicilian Slaughter into his overall storyline. The one thing we know about William Crawford, thanks to Will Murray’s research in his 1982 article about Nick Carter: Killmaster, is that he was a cop. Thus Crawford sees Mack Bolan as a criminal; he has absolutely none of the heroism Pendleton gave him. In this novel Bolan shoots unarmed people, murders a woman (in a very sadistic manner), gets another woman to take a severe beating for him, threatens a cop, and basically just acts like an asshole throughout. Even established relationships are skewed; Leo Turrin, Bolan’s inside man in the Mafia, basically hero-worships the Executioner in Pendleton’s novels, as evidenced by the various “what a man!” reflections he’ll have when encountering him. Turrin shows up in Sicilian Slaughter as well…and thinks to himself what a “pain” Bolan is, wondering if he should just turn him in to the capos and be done with it! 

Turrin was also in the previous volume, and Crawford tries to pick up the story from directly after. Bolan’s shot up and bleeding and heads to an underground doctor Turrin told him about years ago. Here we quickly see that this isn’t your grandma’s Mack Bolan when our “hero” decides he’s going to have to kill the doctor who just saved him. But as it happens the doctor has ulterior motives of his own and is about to call in some gunsels and collect the bounty on the Executioner. Meanwhile of course our hero has a surprise of his own in store for the good doctor. Bolan is a mean-spirited son of a bitch throughout, almost identical to other s.o.b. Crawford protagonists, like Stryker. But he’s a lot more action-prone than others, carrying along an artillery case of heavy firepower. I’m betting Crawford also had military experience – I know he also published some Vietnam War novels – as evidenced by the firearms and military details sprinkled throughout Sicilian Slaughter

Bolan decides to take his war directly to Sicily; this was set up in the previous volume with Bolan getting irked that the American mobsters were starting to import new blood from the mother land. The sequence in which Bolan flies to Italy is like something out of The Marksman or The Sharpshooter; the “Mack Bolan” here could easily be Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock. First he threatens the sleazy private pilot into the job, and then, in the most outrageous moment in the novel, Bolan decides to get rid of the pilot’s busty assistant. She, uh, deserves it, though, given that she’s a former hooker and drug addict and works as a stringer for the Mafia – and plus she’s recognized Bolan and plans to snitch on him. As if it wasn’t enough to show Mack Bolan killing off an unarmed woman, Crawford has it happen in the most vile way possible – the girl’s naked, offering herself to Bolan in the cabin, and Bolan coldly shoots open a window so that she’s sucked out, screaming in terror, thirty thousand feet above ground! 

What’s surprising is that series editor Andy Ettinger even allowed this material to be published. If there’s anyone Pendleton seems pissed at in his intervew in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, it’s Ettinger. And one can see his point. It’s surprising that the series editor and the imprint would even publish Sicilian Slaughter with its sadistic “hero;” it makes it very clear that they just saw The Executioner as product, something they had to get on the book racks at a certain date to keep up the publishing cadence. They couldn’t have cared less about the mythic hero the series creator had painstakingly built over the preceding fifteen volumes. In fact, the editorial embellishments throughout make it clear that Ettinger was indeed involved in Sicilian Slaughter, and one would think he’d be like, “No, Mack Bolan probably wouldn’t blast some nude and unarmed girl out of an airplane.” 

To be sure, though, I like this crazy stuff and always have, and if this had been a volume of The Sharpshooter or The Marksman it would’ve been one of the best installments of either series. What I do mind is Crawford’s typical penchant for undermining himself; his books come off like bloated bores what with the constant background detail on one-off characters, just egregious crap that’s there to meet the word count. Even the buxom victim has several pages devoted to her sad-sack history, which only further undermines Crawford, given that the reader sort of feels sorry for her…and then the “hero” mercilessly kills her. But then perhaps it’s intentional on Crawford’s part, more indication that he saw the Executioner as a villain. But then again, it’s surprising that the sequence even made it into print, given that the guy who’d served as series editor for the past fifteen volumes was involved. Surely someone at Pinnacle must’ve figured that at least some readers might be shocked by all this, but apparently the driving goal was more to get the product in the stores. 

Another annoying penchant of Crawford’s is that he’s never consistent in what he calls his hero in the narrative. It’s either “Mack” or “Bolan” or “the man in black” (which made me think Johnny Cash had suddenly become the Executioner), and it’s never consistent. But then this is one of my pet peeves, and others might not care. I just personally feel that the author should refer to his protagonist by only one name, and one name only; other characters can call the progatonist by various names, but the author should be consistent. And I’m willing to fight for my beliefs! Sorry, lost the thread there. And also Crawford fails to make “Mack” (or “Bolan,” or whatever) likable. Even Magellan, in all his “cutting-the-heads-off-my-victim’s-corpses” insanity was still at least somewhat likable, if only because he was so batshit crazy. But Crawford’s version of Mack Bolan is like all of Crawford’s other progatonists: he’s just a prick. 

Another thing that bugs me about Crawford’s prose is that he uses this half-assed “omniscient” tone, in that he’ll tell us stuff, while otherwise limited to Bolan’s perspective, that Bolan himself doesn’t know. For example, Bolan might shoot somebody, and Crawford will write like, “Bolan blew out Eddie the Champ’s heart,” or somesuch. But the thing is – Bolan doesn’t even know who Eddie the Champ is! For all he knows, it’s just some random mobster thug. Yet we readers know who it is, because Eddie is one of the many one-off characters we’re saddled with in the narrative, a former military dude hired by the Sicilian don to train some troops. And all this stuff here is just lazy retread of the previous volume, with the troops being trained pure military style, with barracks and hiding out in foxholes and whatnot, all of which is sort of ridiculous because it’s like they’re being trained to invade a country or something, not to act as enforcers for dons in American cities. 

And indeed, the climax is basically like a military novel. Bolan, after having blitzed his way through Italy and even posing as a simple country boy to get to Sicily – which entails him hooking up with some busty local babe and having some off-page lovin’ with her – ends up on the training fields of the Mafia recruits and starts mowing them down (in spectacularly bloodless fashion) with heavy weaponry. Here Crawford shows what appears to be some military background, with sidebars on strategy and also the efficacy of the Browning Automatic Rifle. There’s also weird survivalist stuff, like when Bolan’s shot in the back and kicks in a tree, grabs out the “thick spider webs,” and stops the flow of blood with them. Speaking of which Bolan comes off as a brazen, reckless fool in Crawford’s hands, displaying none of the superheroic planning of Pendleton’s original. Several times Bolan will just storm his way into some situation and realize he’s gotten in over his head. 

But one thing I can say about Crawford’s version of Bolan is that he’s mega-tough. Bolan goes through a lot of pain in this one, shot up and beaten and just in general abused, and he just keeps on going. He starts and ends the novel in a half-dead state. Crawford again goes places Pendleton likely wouldn’t when Bolan, late in the novel, shoots up with some morphine to combat the pain. However he’s not a hero by any means; I’ve already mentioned how the poor local girl gets beaten to a pulp for being suspected of having helped Bolan, and all Bolan does is watch from safety and swear to himself he’ll “make it up somehow” to her. But Bolan’s motives are purely driven by sadistic rage; not content to merely kill the Sicilian don, he goes to great lengths to destroy the man’s entire villa so as to prove a point to the rest of the Mafia. 

An interesting element of Sicilian Slaughter is the finale, which cuts to Seattle and features a muscular dude in his 40s with gray hair named Mr. Molto. This guy runs a sort of underground military operation, and has just been hired by the Mafia to kill the Executioner. Molto has an extensive operation, and via computer has deduced that Bolan’s next strike will be in Seattle. This epilogue – which I’m betting was written by Ettinger – clearly sets up the stage for the following volume, same as how Panic In Philly ended with an Ettinger epilogue that set up this Sicilian adventure. However, the Mr. Molto subplot would never be mentioned in any future Executioner novel. 

As mentioned above, William H. Young stated that Pinnacle had done mockup covers for the next “Jim Peterson” novel, Firebase Seattle. Given the title, it was clearly intended to follow up from the climax of Sicilian Slaughter. This Peterson novel was never published, as Pendleton and Pinnacle worked out their legal issues and Pendleton came back to the series for the next volume, which was titled Jersey Guns. Pendleton did eventually turn in a novel titled Firebase Seattle (I assume using the cover originally designed for the unpublished Peterson manuscript of the same title), but obviously it had nothing to do with the events set up in Sicilian Slaughter

This means then that the closing material with “Mr. Molto” was never picked up on, and thus the villain remains a mystery in the Executioner universe. I knew that Gil Brewer had written an unpublished volume of The Executioner, and for a long time I suspected that he’d written the unpublished sequel to Sicilian Slaughter. In other words, I had a hunch that Gil Brewer had been hired to be the next “Jim Peterson.” A few years ago I got my confirmation: the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming has Brewer’s unpublished Executioner manuscript in its Gil Brewer bollection, and friends, it’s titled…Firebase Seattle. And for a mere $50.00, you can get a copy! (They charge 20 cents per page for jpeg copies, and it’s a 248-page manuscript.) 

So I wager that Mr. Molto does indeed appear in Brewer’s manuscript, and further I wager Brewer’s manuscript would have more Andy Ettinger embellishments to keep everything simpatico with the series overall. But I’m certainly in no hurry to fork over so much to read it. Gil Brewer was a great writer, but judging from his work on Soldato he wasn’t a great men’s adventure writer. But if anyone out there wins the lottery and decides to check out the manuscript, let me know!


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Very interesting, Joe.

Marty McKee said...

Mr. Molto! Man, I forgot about that guy. Joe, you know I'm not challenging your bonafides, but do we know he hasn't shown up in the 100s and 100s of Bolan novels since? Comic book writers are always finding obscure characters in decades-old stories and creating new adventures for them.

Linda Pendleton said...

Don Pendleton’s 1973 lawsuit with Pinnacle was over the claim that Pinnacle owned the Executioner series, which, of course, they did not. During the lawsuit, Pinnacle hired William Crawford to write Don’s Sicilian Slaughter. During the lawsuit, Don Pendleton’s attorney filed an injunction to stop publication of the book #16, but the court allowed it to be published, and under the name “Jim Paterson.” Don believed the book 16 to be so badly written (as your excellent review indicates, Joe) that he never considered it part of his Executioner series. Although we own the copyright for the book 16, I honored Don’s feelings on that and did not license it to Open Road Media for ebook publication with the rest of the original series, books 1-15 and 17-38.

It is very possible that Pinnacle had further covers done as they thought they would win the lawsuit and “own” the books. Sicilian Slaughter and Firebase Seattle were Don’s titles, and I assume along with a paragraph synopsis for each, as that was his customary outline of future books.

Don had his agent Jack Scovil at Scott Meredith Agency let Gil Brewer try his hand at an Executioner as Brewer was going through a rough time. The manuscript was not at top quality and nothing written by Brewer was used in Dpn Pendleton’s future book, Firebase Seattle.

I have Don’s email interview he did for Young but it is not handy at the moment to check facts. It so happened Young testified for Harlequin in the HARLEQUIN ENTERPRISES LIMITED, Plaintiff, v. WARNER BOOKS, INC., Donald Pendleton, and Scott Meredith Literary Agency, Inc., Defendants.

The Gil Brewer manuscript. I wrote this in November 2015: “A couple of months ago I had a FB conversation with David Rachels regarding this. Since then I've done research with the University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center with the Gil Brewer Collection, concerning the two copies of a manuscript on a Don Pendleton Executioner novel, with the title, Firebase Seattle. As I had believed, the manuscript in the Gil Brewer collection is not Don Pendleton's Executioner Firebase Seattle Book 21. I received copies of several pages of each of those manuscripts (both same manuscript) from the University. One of the copies included a correspondence from Jack Scovil (who was Don's and also my agent) at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, dated September 16, 1974, rejecting Gil Brewer's manuscript. The other included a note from Gil Brewer to agent, Jack Scovil, dated August 23, 1974 when he submitted a manuscript intended for Firebase Seattle. The University was unable to locate any actual correspondence between Don Pendleton and Gil Brewer, and I have no record of correspondence between them in Don's files, the majority of which are now in Lilly Library Manuscript Collection at Indiana University. In looking at the manuscript pages of the Brewer manuscript, it is obviously not written in Don's Executioner style, nor is the story line at all that of Don's published novel. As I have previously suggested, Don was always generous in giving other writers "an opportunity," and that is possibly what this had all been about as I understand Brewer had some difficult times.”

By the way, Don and I knew who had written book 16 for many years, at least by name. I don’t believe we knew anything else about him. Still don’t.

Joe Kenney, thanks for an in-depth review of the unpopular book.

Linda Pendleton, author.

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Thanks for that additional info, Linda!

Unknown said...

I've had this book since the mid-80's and never read it (thinking I needed to read them in order... which I haven't), but now I kinda want to read it just for the nihilism.

It's weird to make Bolan a sadistic maniac. He's always been kind of a "boy scout" as action-heroes go. Yeah, he'll kill a zillion people, but he always tries to protect the innocent from his rampages. Even The Punisher is more ruthless-acting, and The Punisher once assaulted a Mafia-ridden whorehouse by sneaking in, drugging a big pot of chili to put everyone in the place to sleep, and then went around cutting the throats of the sleeping Mafia goons so he wouldn't accidentally kill any whores in the crossfire! :)

William Crawford's definitely a crude writer, but I'm surprised he'd dare compromise Don Pendleton's creation so much. Pendleton's one of those guys you just wanna respect, even if his style is really quirky (with all those "yeah!" bits and the "what a man!" things). It'd be like re-vamping a Louis L'Amour character and having him slap around a woman... it just seems like something ya wouldn't do, out of sheer respect. But Crawford seems to be a real piece of work...

(Zwolf again)

Paperback Warrior said...

Interesting insight. Thanks for sharing Linda.

Linda Pendleton said...

Solving mysteries. I was looking through The Executioner’s War Book and saw that Don had mentioned in a response to a fan, Tom B. of New York, on December 5, 1972, “Bolan himself is not resting, though, Book # 15, Panic in Philly, is due out of my typewriter December 15th, and will probably go on sale early next year. #16 will be set in Sicily—probably will be titled Sicilian Safari or Sicilian Slaughter—and will find our guy chasing the gradigghia across the old country. Best wishes to you, Tom—and, again, thanks. Don Pendleton.”
This is an excellent response directly from Don Pendleton in 1972, prior to the Pinnacle lawsuit and the court okay on the publication of book #16, written by William Crawford (Jim Peterson) regarding the fact that Don already had a title and destination for his planned book. So, there is no argument about that. And as I said previously, Don probably had given to his editor, Ettinger, a paragraph synopsis of story idea.
~Linda Pendleton

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Thanks for the additional background info, Linda!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! And thanks, Linda, for the insight! This actually makes things more confusing. If Brewer submitted his "Firebase Seattle" manuscript in August of 1974, then it was certainly too late for it to have been the intended followup to #16: Sicilian Slaughter. So then I think you are correct, maybe it was Don Pendleton giving Brewer an opportunity, as he was later to do with Stephen Mertz and Michael Newton.

Also, I've only read in William Young's book that Pinnacle did a mockup cover of "Firebase Seattle" by Jim Peterson; I've never read this anywhere else, nor have I been able to find this cover. I even did some research by contacting various people a few years ago. Perhaps Young just got wrong info somewhere. Maybe Pinnacle just planned to make "Firebase Seattle" the next Peterson installment, as you say, taking the title and inspiration from a synopsis Pendleton gave them, but they never got to the cover or manuscript stage.

So then, if Brewer wrote his "Firebase Seattle" in August '74, it would likely not be a sequel to this William Crawford book, meaning that Mr. Molto never appeared again anywhere, unpublished manuscript or not -- and Marty, so far as I know, Molto's never been mentioned again. I haven't read Pendleton's "Firebase Seattle" yet, but I recall William Young writing that it had a similar character to Mr. Molto in it -- a former soldier who now worked for the Mafia -- and Young speculated that the character, despite not being named Mr. Molto, was Pendleton's attempt at trying to pay off on the setup promised at the end of "Sicilian Slaughter."

Thanks again for the comments, everyone!

Linda Pendleton said...

Joe, of course the Brewer try-out for “Firebase Seattle” manuscript was not the intended follow-up to what would have been Don’s Sicilian Slaughter. Jersey Guns was. Don planned his books several ahead, with proposed titles and a very short synopsis. The book manuscript that Brewer turned in to Jack Scovil on try-out was book #21, which means that books 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, were written by Don and published before. By the time The Executioner’s War Book was published in May 1977, there had been 28 books published. Don was a generous “teacher” and inspiration and I’m sure if his agent mentioned that Brewer was going through one of his difficult periods, Jack would have said to Don that Brewer could use some work and Don said have him give it a try, and yes, like when he took on Michael Newton and Stephen Mertz out of generosity even though he might not use their contributions. Don had, and later you can include me, a good open business relationship with agent Jack Scovil for years.

Brewer had nothing to do with Pinnacle and the lawsuit or Crawford. And Don wrote things the way he wanted, not the way Young suggested.

So I see no confusion here at all as Brewer and the proposed manuscript had nothing to do with #16.

Regarding covers, I’m sure with Don’s titles and short synopsis that Gil Cohen may also have worked “ahead” with cover suggestions for the art department on upcoming books.
I do not know where Young got his information on a proposed cover, and I don’t have the Young-Pendleton Interview handy. I would also say, after our meeting Young at the time he was in the Pinnacle lawsuit, set to testify for Harlequin, I would take what he said with a “grain of salt.”

As I have said before, I’m sure that Pinnacle believed that they would win in court and take Don’s copyrights from him. Thank goodness justice won out.
-Linda Pendleton

Joe Kenney said...

Hi, thanks for the additional note! Just to clarify, the confusion I mentioned above was my own -- I was referring to my comments in the review; I was under the impression that Brewer had been hired by Pinnacle to be the next Jim Peterson, and that his "Firebase Seattle" was a sequel to Crawford's novel. This was just an assumption on my part, based off what I'd read in Young's book, that Brewer had written a unpublished Executioner novel, and that it was titled "Firebase Seattle." Your comment however made it clear that Brewer's novel had nothing to do with any proposed "Peterson" novels. Thanks again, I really appreciate it!

Grant said...

I mention this subject ad nauseam on this site, but that scene with the stewardess sounds like it's right out of an early Destroyer book, except that it isn't brutal ENOUGH for one of those.
Instead of being a tragic character she'd be a stereotyped feminist (the hot kind) who'd become a nymphomaniac over Remo. Then after (or during) the sex, she'd try to kill him, and THEN he'd get her through the air lock.
So, yes, that scene sounds like it was plopped into the wrong series.