Monday, January 24, 2022

The Terminator #1: Mercenary Kill

The Terminator #1: Mercenary Kill, by John Quinn
September, 1982  Pinnacle Books

Here’s another latter-era Pinnacle offering, one that amounted to five volumes. It’s also another series Marty McKee hooked me up with some years ago, and I’m only just getting around to it. The Terminator is credited to John Quinn, but the copyright page outs Dennis Rodriguez as the real name of the author. Per Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes Of Paperback Fiction, Rodriguez “was editor of pornographic magazines for Pendulum Press where he worked with Ed Wood Jr.” However, also per Brad, “While director Ed Wood Jr. also used the John Quinn pen name, there is no evidence that he wrote any of the books in this series.” And to be sure there is little in the way of Wood-esque weirdness in The Terminator, at least judging from this first volume, which sticks to a clear-eyed “realism” throughout. 

As I read Mercenary Kill I kept having flashbacks to another late-era Pinnacle offering: The Force. It’s been ten years since I read the first volume of that also short-lived series, and I haven’t read another volume since, but something about Mercenary Kill kept reminding me of it. Maybe it was the writing style, or the fact that the main protagonist of The Force was a cynical vet of the spy game, same as Rod Gavin, the main character in The Terminator. The Force was credited to “Jake Decker” and came out the same time as The Terminator, so maybe it too was the work of Dennis Rodriguez. Again per Brad Mengel in Serial Vigilantes, The Force was “the only credit for Jake Decker,” lending further impression that “Decker” was a pseudonym. Whatever the case, I did enjoy Mercenary Kill more than I enjoyed the first Force novel. 

Oh and just to address the series title – obviously this series came out before the Schwarzenegger movie. But in the world of this book, “Terminators” are a special section of the CIA, sort of like the “00” agents in the Secret Service in James Bond. Agents who are sent out on kill assignments. Per the deal it’s eight and done, and Gavin when we meet him is on his eighth assignment, after which he intends to retire. Curiously we’re not given a description of Gavin, so Gil Cohen’s cover will have to suffice. It is implied he is 34, though, and also a ‘Nam vet. Mercenary Kill is clearly an ‘80s offering because, unlike the majority of the men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s, it is focused on world-building and scene setting. In effect it comes off as a standalone novel, and doesn’t really even set up the potential for more action-heroing in future volumes. Gavin is not presented as an Executioner-esque crime or terrorism fighter, I mean to say, and his actions throughout Mercenary Kill are all made in the name of self-preservation, not to save anyone else. 

The novel opens on the action, though, with Gavin in Miami, where he takes out three commie agents. Here we see that Rodriguez will have a bit more of a “literary” vibe to his prose than the genre standard; again, another similarity with The Force. While the novel is not spectacularly gory, we do get memorable descriptions, like “pink spray” blowing out of a guy’s head when Gavin shoots him with his .45. It’s a cool and memorable description, but at the same time it gives the impression that Gavin’s just shot a cartoon character. Rodriguez maintains a crisp style throughout, with lines like “[Gavin] brought his blood pressure to boil with a couple quickly-smoked cigarettes.” Oh and as a random note, I found it interesting that “flight attendant” was used in the novel instead of “stewardess,” so it must’ve been the late ‘70s or very early ‘80s when that earlier term, so championed in trashy paperbacks of the day, had fallen out of favor. 

Another thing unusual about Mercenary Kill is that there are a slew of minor characters to keep track of. And Rodriguez keeps hopping around them with little introduction or setup, leaving the reader out of sorts. Things move a lot more smoothly when he just focuses on Gavin, though. Our hero, who is pretty taciturn and cipher-like, has carved out an off-the-grid life for himself in Colorado, living in a rented apartment with no phone. He’s so off the grid that he doesn’t use banks; when he goes on a job he takes a big envelope of money to one of his few friends to safeguard while he’s gone. Gavin’s also in love with Kendall, the owner of the bookstore across from his apartment. While she doesn’t factor into the novel much, Kendall is often on Gavin’s mind, which also gives the novel a different vibe from the average; Rod Gavin is one of the few men’s adventure heroes who is in love. Not that this stops him from having a little extracurricular fun on the job. 

One of the many supporting characters in the novel is Barnes, Gavin’s boss at the Agency. The two have an antoginistic relationship that really reminded me of the one Butler had with his CIA boss in the Butler series by Len Levinson. But again this series is more serious in tone, thus Barnes comes off as more nefarious than satiric. He questions Gavin’s lack of commitment to the Agency, telling him he is “not a believer.” Regardless he gives Gavin his latest – and final – mission: go to the country of Costa Bella in Central America and terminate a soldier named De Leon. In one of those many subplots we’ve seen De Leon get in trouble: he’s inadvertently massacred a car load of nuns, at the order of sadistic commanding officer Rojas. This has set off an international incident, with De Leon, clearly framed, thrown in a Costa Bellan jail. They’re all involved with the US to some extent, with De Leon being working undercover for a State Dept guy named Duffy. 

My assumption is Duffy will factor into future volumes of The Terminator, as he becomes Gavin’s main accomplice in Mecenary Kill. In this volume the two meet; Gavin’s been sent to kill De Leon, and Duffy heads to Costa Bella because he’s heard the CIA is getting involved. Meanwhile other agents are afoot, including one minor character who is run down in Costa Bella; Rodriguez’s description of this guy’s death is an example of the dark sort of humor that runs throughout the narrative: “…a painless impact that he actually thought was kind of funny.” What’s weird though is Rodriguez throws in the curveball, one that’s barely explored, that Gavin knows De Leon. The two attended some sort of training a decade before. Rodriguez does little too exploit this, and just has Gavin (rather easily) carry out his job, after which the main plot kicks in – Gavin realizes that he himself has been framed, as Rojas, the man Barnes told him to connect with down here, now chases after him for the murder of De Leon. 

Throughout Rodriguez sticks to more of a realistic vibe, save for a bit midway through where Gavin runs into a group of Costa Bella guerrillas. Of course, their leader is a sexy chick named Maria Angela, and of course she ends up going to bed with Gavin. Rodriguez leaves it off-page, but at least we know that our hero isn’t too devoted on his girlfriend in Colorado. Maria also hooks Gavin up with a gun: a P-38, which he uses for the rest of the novel. Judging from Cohen’s portrait of Gavin that runs on each volume of The Terminator, I’m assuming this P-38 will become his trademark gun. Hopefully Bucher doesn’t mind! Maria isn’t the only helper Quinn encounters; as mentioned Duffy also meets up with him, and after a shaky start the two develop a sort of friendship, with Duffy providing Gavin a place to stay once Gavin’s made it back into the country. (Curiously, Rodriguez leaves Gavin’s escape from Costa Bella off-page; one would think it would almost be a story in itself.) 

There is more of a modern hardboiled vibe to The Mercenary Kill than the cover of Rod Gavin blasting an AK-47 would have you believe. And in fact, he doesn’t even blast away with an AK-47 in the novel, or at least he doesn’t that I can recall. Instead of a slam-bang finale, we have something more befitting a Gold Medal paperback as Gavin traces Rojas and Barnes to California, where the two are involved in a heroin ring. Barnes has been using his CIA role to run drugs, his biggest deal coming through and etc. He of course was behind the frame of Gavin, as well as of De Leon; we’ve also learned almost casually that Barnes is gay and has a fondness for young men. Ah, the days when being gay was just another “villain attribute” in pulp fiction. Simpler times. 

I have repeatedly mentioned that Rodriguez goes for realism, but this is not to say we have a totally believable situation. The finale features Gavin locking himself in the trunk of Rojas’s car, fortifying himself with a couple sandwhiches and a bottle of J&B scotch. He drinks half the bottle as he waits for Rojas to drive into the remote area where the drug-dealing’s going down. By this point Gavin is a little buzzed; we’re told he “feels good” and “relaxed.” He gets out of the trunk, does a few stretches – and then proceeds to do some quick shooting with his P-38. I just thought it was funny our hero got drunk for the finale, but Rodriguez doesn’t imply that this might slow him down at all. That being said, one guy does get eaten by a dog here, though it happens off-page. 

As also mentioned Mercenary Kill comes off a lot like a standalone novel. By the end Gavin’s gotten his revenge and he’s headed back to Colorado to reconnect with his beloved Kendall. There’s no indication that he’ll return in a future volume to see any action; indeed, we get the impression he’s done with the action and killing business. This makes me wonder if, a la The Revenger and other series openers that came off like standalones, Rodriguez wrote Mercenary Kill as a self-contained story, and then either he or Pinnacle decided to farm it out into a series. Overall I enjoyed Mercenary Kill, and eventually will get to the next ones. And once again a big thanks to Marty for hooking me up with the series.


Unknown said...

(Zwolf again)

I've read a couple of these -- this one and one of the others -- and both were good. As they go they become really short books, almost novellas, with huge print. The action never goes off the rails, really, but the books make up for it by having Gavin be somehow more likeable than most action-series heroes. He can still take care of business, but he comes across as more of a guy who'd rather sit around and have a few beers and not have to go whack somebody. He's kind of laid back and much less of a psychopath than, say, The Lone Wolf.

Sorta reminds me of Matt Helm a bit, which isn't a bad thing. Although Helm's done a few things I think Gavin would balk at...

Brian Drake said...

I'll echo Zwolf. It's a good series, and each book can be read on its own. The Kendall drama will bore you -- no resolution, never. She's perpetually pissed at him for one reason or another and he's all whatever, bitch, where's my mail? Gavin's background is always given, and he is always somehow, someway, drawn into trouble, and shoots his way out of it. My only complaint about the series is the way each book ended. We get a crap ton of build up, plot, characters, etc., and then a summary ending and burst of gunfire and off to the pub, job done. But it was better written than some of the Pinnacle efforts for sure (and better than many other publishers' action series, too), and they hold up well. I think you'll enjoy it a lot.