October, 1981 Pinnacle Books
Clearly my criticisms of recent volumes of The Penetrator have caused a blip in the time-space continnuum and gotten back to series co-author Mark Roberts. For there could be no other reason to explain the sudden uptick in quality here in Rampage In Rio. It hasn’t been since the 20s of the series that we’ve seen such violence and even, believe it or not, a little sex – nothing too risque, but we certainly get some of that goofy Roberts purple prose.
In fact, Rampage In Rio is almost a prefigure of Roberts’s post-Penetrator series Soldier For Hire. In particular it predicts the bonkers finale of that series, Jakarta Coup, complete with bizarre sex talk (below), a lusty babe who turns out to be a jackbooted villainness, random bouts of liberal bashing, and an action vibe that’s more akin to military fiction than the lone wolf vibe more typical of men’s adventure. The only caveat is, while Rampage In Rio has all those elements, they aren’t nearly as exploited as they would be in Jakarta Coup.
Oh and first of all, the cover art for The Penetrator is now credited to Hector Garrido, aka the guy who a decade earlier did the covers for The Baroness. Somehow Garrido has turned Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin into a South American gangster on the cover, complete with a Panama Jack sort of hat. The only problem is, Mark (as Roberts refers to him) actually dyes his hair blond in the novel, even his eyebrows, given that he goes undercover in Brazil as a German expatriate. Otherwise Garrido gets the other details correct: there are headhunters, for example, and also Nazis, though to be sure they aren’t in full WWII uniforms.
Oh and another note – as we’ll recall, the previous volume concluded with Mark experiencing a terrible personal loss. (Spoiler alert: It was the death of his sometimes-girlfriend Joanna Tabler.) But given that the preceding book was by series co-author Chet Cunningham, this “terrible personal loss” is barely even a factor in Rampage In Rio, only mentioned twice in the narrative, and in passing at that. It’s my assumption that the series editor might have amended this material into Mark Roberts’s manuscript. In particular, there’s a part where Mark is about to get busy, and here we have the first of the two egregious mentions of the preceding book’s climactic loss…after which Mark gets on with getting it on, and no more is mentioned of the loss until toward the very end of the novel.
In fact when we meet Mark at novel’s beginning, he’s just sort of puttering around in his airplane (naturally, for a Mark Roberts installment) and “looking for a new mission.” He’s not upset about anything or desolate after his loss or whatever; just the Penetrator looking for a new job to, uh, penetrate. Meanwhile we readers have already underwent a somewhat brutal opening sequence in which people – among them children – have been kidnapped by a group of neo-Nazis. One of the captives is 15 year-old Tina Rock, an “incredibly successful country-rock star from Kansas.” Speaking of children, later in Rampage In Rio Roberts goes into what I consider too dark a tone for a men’s adventure novel, with kids getting gunned down and massacred by the Nazis.
But initially these kids are captured to be held down in the green hell of Brazil for ransom, the neo-Nazis looking for money to further their movement. They have a base in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, all of them expat Germans or Germans who grew up in Brazil (their parents having gone there after the war). Leading them is Herman Braunn, who claims to be the grandson of none other than Hitler himself. He’s more of a loser than the sadist you might expect; Roberts fills the pages with a lot of internal politicking in the neo-Nazi camp, with one faction aligned against Braunn – and besides, these Nazis are a little more “well behaved” than you might expect. In one of those aforementioned “too dark” sequences a fat Nazi molests one of the captured children (off-page, I should note)…and for this affrontery the other Nazis have him whipped as punishment.
One notable thing here is that Professor Haskins has a more active role than I can recall in any previous volume. Mark frequently heads back to the Stronghold to discuss the situation with the Professor, and also gets info from him on a frequent basis. Professor Haskins this time helps Mark figure out that these kidnappings seem to all be the work of one group, and ultimately they conclude it’s a bunch of Nazi-types operating out of Brazil. Before that though we have a lot more action, as Mark heads to Los Angeles and manages to prevent a few kidnappings while putting the pieces together. Here also we get the first taste of “bleeding-heart liberal” bashing, as after one firefight Mark looms in the distance and listens to a couple cops complain about liberals. As egregious as it can get, but still pretty funny, and an indication of the sort of thing Roberts would do later in Soldier For Hire.
But the most notable thing in Rampage In Rio is that Mark Roberts dangles a plot idea I have long wondered about: a potential team-up of the Pinnacle men’s adventure heroes. In the first quarter of the novel Mark, down in Brazil, comes upon a rack of English-language books in a store:
Unfortunately though, a team-up of The Penetrator and The Death Merchant never happened. In today’s era, with team-up superhero movies and plots that hinge on multiverses with multiple versions of the same character and all that, such a team-up would seem like a natural idea. But for whatever reason it never occurred to the powers at be at Pinnacle. Or maybe it was just a matter of figuring out who would write the books – I mean if The Penetrator and The Death Merchant were together in one book, would Mark Roberts write it? Or would Joseph Rosenberger? This also gets down to a rights issues – Rosenberger owned his character (which is why he was later able to move the series over to Dell), whereas Roberts was a writer for hire. So hell, maybe a team-up did occur to someone at Pinnacle, but the idea was untenable. At any rate it was cool to see Mark even consider the idea here.
Also Roberts indulges in even more in-jokery with the Six-Gun Samurai mention; that was another series Roberts was writing at the time. I’ve never read this series myself but have been aware of it since I was a kid. I remember my brother picked up a copy of the first volume when it was brand new on the bookstore shelves – he’s 7 years older than me so he would’ve been 14 at the time. Not sure if he ever read it but I do recall flipping through the book myself over the years, but never reading it. Anyway I like this kind of in-jokery Roberts would do in his series books.
But speaking of how the Death Merchant team-up is dangled but never happens, Roberts also makes unexploited forays into science fiction this time. There’s a part where Mark meets an old Nazi who worked in the camps in human experimentation, and this guy hints that cloning was a real thing that the Nazis figured out. But Roberts doesn’t go more in this sci-fi direction. He also doesn’t, as mentioned, much exploit the sexual material in Rampage In Rio. Per tradition, Mark does manage to pick up a babe while on the job, in this case an expat German blonde named Gretchen who, of course, propositions Mark while he sits alone in a bar. When they hit the inevitable sack, Roberts surprisingly leaves it off page. He has them go at it again shortly after, where Gretchen delivers dialog that’s almost a prefigure of the infamous “toss my cookies” line in Jakarta Coup:
Speaking of goofy phrases, if I didn’t know any better I’d suspect Rampage In Rio is where David Alexander took a lot of inspiration for his later Phoenix series – not in the content, but in the alliterative put-downs Roberts uses for his Nazi villains. “The Nazi nerd crumpled like a sack of soft turds,” is probably my favorite of the bunch, but there are a lot more besides: “soiled superman,” or a part where Mark “pulp[s]” a Nazi’s “testicles and depriving the world of a horde of Hitlerian horrors.” However as mentioned this fun gory pulp is unfortunately sullied with un-fun gory pulp…like the parts where a couple innocent kids are gunned down by those “soiled supermen.” Actually Roberts writes so quickly he overlooks his own plot threads; there’s a part late in the book where Mark befriends a young American orphan in the jungle, and Mark is reminded of his own orphan childhood, and there’s almost the dangling potential here that Mark himself might take this kid home and raise him. But the kid soon disappears from the narrative, never mentioned again.
Another element Roberts doesn’t exploit as much is an appearance of that favorite villainness-type of mine: the Nazi She-Devil. In the final pages a female character is outed as a jackboot-wearing Nazi gal, complete with uniform, but Roberts mostly keeps her off-page after this revelation. Indeed, her comeuppance is unsatisfactorily rendered, with Mark sniping at his foes from a distance. Otherwise the potential of this Nazi She-Devil is not much exploited. I mean, she’s no Helga Haas.
Overall though Rampage In Rio is a fine return to form for The Penetrator. For once Mark Hardin actually kills his opponents instead of just knocking them out with Ava the dart gun (which doesn’t appear this time), and Roberts injects some of the goofy fun that has been missing in the past several volumes. Hopefully this will continue for the remainder of the series.