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!