Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Marc Dean Mercenary #1: Thirteen For The Kill

Marc Dean Mercenary #1: Thirteen For The Kill, by Peter Buck
July, 1981  Signet Books

Signet Books got back on the men’s adventure train in the early ‘80s with this series that ultimately ran 9 volumes. “Peter Buck” was the pseudonym of a British author named Peter Leslie, who also in the ‘80s wrote several volumes of the Gold Eagle Executioner and related books – in other words, Peter Buck isn’t some relative of Pearl S. And I’m sorry to report that a British vibe extends to Thirteen For The Kill, at least insofar as the pulp goes, with a clinical detachment to the narrative style, a plodding pace, and way too much narratorial padding. 

Also, at 224 pages of small, dense blocks of print, the novel’s just too long. Actually the length wouldn’t be bad if so much of it wasn’t devoted to scenery description or to hero Marc Dean and his titular thirteen-man force navigating treacherous stretches of the North African desert. One thing to note straightaway is that the cover makes Thirteen For The Kill look like the typical “lone wolf commando” yarn this genre is known for, but in reality it turns out to be more along the lines of the earlier Donovan’s Devils or the contemporary Soldier For Hire, only without the wonderfully bonkers reactionary vibe of the latter. Indeed, there is a blasé, bland vibe to the entirety of Thirteen For The Kill. But it is similar to Soldier For Hire in that Marc Dean, rather than being a lone wolf commando type, is actually a “leader of men” (as outright stated in the narrative), commanding a force of…forty men. Actually, the setup is even more similar to The Liberty Corps, which also eschewed the typical lone fighter setup for such large forces. 

I concur with the mighty Zwolf, who also was not fond of our series protagonist: Marc Dean, a 36 year-old career officer who now makes his living as a mercenary. As Zwolf notes, Dean’s a bit too much of an asshole officer to be a series protagonist, not much listening to his men and needlessly putting them in jeopardy. But then, this is more of a team book, as Dean doesn’t operate in a solo capacity: the core seems to be comprised of Sean Hammer, Dean’s Irish best budy, and Mazzari, an African with a British accent (and who per pulp demands is the immensely muscled black guy on the team). Atypical for most men’s adventure protagonists, Dean has both a wife and a kid – though the wife’s recently become an ex-wife, and the kid, a 4-year-old son, lives with his mom. This means then that Dean is still free to engage in the casual sex also demanded by the genre, though you win a no-prize if you’ve guessed that Brith author Leslie doesn’t get too risque in the sex scenes. Hell, even the violence is mostly PG. 

As with a lot of British pulp the vibe here is very continental, despite Dean being an American. I mean when I personally think of a professional mercenary, I don’t think of some guy who went to Harvard and has lush penthouses around Europe; Dean is very much a “man of action” in the Jefferson Boone mold. But unlike Boone he doesn’t work alone, and the gist of the series seems to be Dean putting together teams to take on his jobs. And also Dean does not have any emotional connection to these jobs, so again the usual revenge angle of men’s adventure is gone here. In Thirteen For The Kill Dean’s task is to destroy a fortress in North Africa that has been taken over by an “Arabic non-Muslim” extremist force. 

Leslie pulls a number from the average men’s adventure mag story by opening the tale late in the action, then flashing back to the establishing events. It’s very much in the men’s mag mold as we meet Dean, suffering from momentary amnesia, as he wakes up off the coast of some North African hellhole, trying to remember how he got here. Soon enough he regains his memory and recalls that he was leading a force of 40 men on an attack of a fortress, but the majority of his men were killed in a sea wreck and now Dean only has the titular thirteen mercs at his disposal. From there we jump back to the long establishing material; Leslie proves himself more comfortable in the non-action scenes, making his future career as a Gold Eagle scribe a little suspect. 

But then, there is a ton of ‘80s gun-p0rn in Thirteen For The Kill. Straight-up exposition as Dean will discuss guns and ammo and whatnot with his underworld dealer, or where there will even be asterisked footnotes explaining what certain weaponry acronyms mean. There’s even a laundry list, late in the game, of the various weaponry Dean and force still has at their disposal, complete with number of rounds for each. It gets to be a bit much, and certainly brings to mind Gold Eagle. The only notable thing is that Dean, at a bargain, picks up several Dardick pistols; Leslie explains to us via exposition (and later another footnote) that these odd-looking pistols were developed for the Air Force in the late ‘40s but were never actually put into service for various reasons. 

Not that much is made of it when all these guns are actually put to use. Peter Leslie seems to be writing more of a suspense thriller than he is a men’s adventure novel; the action scenes are sporadic at best, and certainly bloodless. They also have more of the feel of war fiction, same as Soldier For Hire and Liberty Corps, with Dean directing fire instead of actively engaging in it like a lone wolf men’s adventure protagonist would. Personally I feel this takes away from the excitement, and I didn’t much enjoy it. I did however like Dean’s hatred of all things martial arts; twice in the novel (including even in dialog with his 4-year-old son!) Dean claims that karate and such is just “jumping around” and that a “pencil in the eye” is much more effective. Take that, Joon Rhee! 

Speaking of Dean’s son, he factors into a random flashback late in the game to when Dean last saw him, just a few weeks before the novel’s opening. More focus however is placed on Dean’s ex; our hero is still hung up on her, claiming she’s the only woman he ever loved, and this entire flashback is about the most recent time he banged her. That said, Dean does pretty good for himself otherwise, picking up some nameless blonde early in the book for some off-page shenanigans, and then, just a few pages later, he’s entagled with another babe once he’s gotten to Morocco. This is Rada, who might or might not be an enemy agent. Leslie handles the sex scenes with the same white glove treatment as the action scenes, with lines like, “He went into her, deep as a sword wound.” The flashback frolic with Dean’s ex contains an even better line: “[Dean] was easily, scaldingly, wonderfully inside her.” Scaldingly? Sounds like the ex Mrs. Dean might want to pay a visit to her gyno. 

Another humorous line is when Dean, after crawling through the hot desert to scope out an enemy base, decides to disguise himself as one of the Arabic soldiers: “There was still enough grime on [Dean’s] face to give him a swarthy appearance.” This reminded me of the part in Team America where they “disguised” the main puppet as a radical Muslim terrorist. Such things might implly that Leslie had his tongue in cheek, but otherwise the tone is flat and serious throughout. There isn’t much spark to Thirteen For The Kill, is what I mean to say, and I’m hoping the ensuing 8 volumes are an improvement.


Contraband Research said...

I've been reading some men's adventure novels as well as your reviews. It seems like most series fall off hard and become very tame and repetitive. So what are the best series pound for pound? (and hopefully they're easy to find or can be found as ebooks lol)

Stephen Mertz said...

Leslie was a notorious low level bottom-shelf hack. His notoriety in writer circles stems from him retyping his entry in The Man From Uncle (IIRC) pb series & then re-selling it as an entry in the Mack Bolan series.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments!

Contraband Research, that's a good note...a lot of these series do fall off in time. The Penetrator would be a definite case in point. My favorite overall series is John Eagle Expeditor, but that one too had a couple "off" installments. But if you are looking for in-print/eBooks, then I'd have to suggest Marc Olden's Black Samurai and/or Narc books, which are now very affordable as anthology eBooks. The other month I think I saw the first one for like 99 cents, and it contained the first three volumes of Black Samurai!

Stephen, great to hear from you, thanks a lot for the behind-the-scenes commentary on Leslie. I'm surprised I've never read one of his books before. I remember the reviews of his Bolan books on were universally negative. I read somewhere once that Gold Eagle once received a Bolan manuscript by a series ghostwriter in which either Bolan or some other character PISSED ON someone, and Pendleton was very incensed by this...wonder if it was Peter Leslie?

Contraband Research said...

Thanks! I'll check those out.

Joe Kenney said...

I forgot! Stephen Mertz's MIA Hunter and Cody's Army are also out as ebooks if you are looking for some '80s men's adventure. As for the '70s, Jon Messmann's The Revenger is also out as ebooks and highly recommended!

Age Of Aquarius said...

Mr Mertz is entitled to his opinion but that's not an entirely fair reflection of Peter Leslie. For a start, unless Mr Mertz is amazingly un-self-aware all of us who worked on those books are low level bottom shelf hacks whether he likes it or not. We may be capable of better, but that's where we're at and no shame in it. Leslie started in the 60's as a publicist and wrote a number of TV tie-ins via his connection to the UK Souvenir Press who made a speciality of this - hence his appearance in The Invaders and Man From Uncle lists. His own stand-alone work is actually pretty good, and his Avengers novels with (cough) Patrick McNee co-authoring (well, yes...) are certainly better than the later US titles which are really awful.

Let's talk about the Man From Uncle. Leslie was better than the likes of Michael Avallone who seemed to have never watched the show or read a script (I like Avallone btw, but his version of Uncle is baffling). David McDaniel was the best Uncle paperback writer, mind you. Anyway, yes it's true that Leslie used one of his Uncle pb's as a basis for an Executioner. Dismissing this out of hand ignores the fact that in the UK it was a long standing tradition for writers who worked on series fiction to take one of their entries and re-write it for another market. (Sexton Blake writers did this throughout the entire 90 years history of the series, as the hardback crime and pulp markets had little to no reader crossover). If you understand this context, then Leslie was just doing what many writers had done before and was an accepted practise. I find it hard to believe this has never happend in US pulp and paperback markets, so to single him out is not good manners in my book.

The reason why I find it annoying is that such a comment ruined the career of Gerald Verner, a very popular UK author of his period who also wrote as Donald Stuart. A US critic picked up a Stuart Blake novel and a Verner novel and trumpeted that Verner was a plagarist (without understanding context or that fact that they were the same person), which is something that sullies his reputation unfairly even now. Leslie is long gone and can't defend himself. Probably no-one cares except me, as he was a friend of a friend (I didn't know him, only his novels, some of which are good and some rubbish, like any pulp writer), but I can't let Mr Mertz's paragraph go without comment.

Bobby said...

Hey Joe, first time reader. Only learned about blog from Pulp Apocalypse. Great Mag. Question: You said 224 pages was too long, so in your opinion what is the best length in pages for Post-Apocalyptic or Men's Adventure/Action novel?