Monday, December 4, 2023

The Executioner #19: Detroit Deathwatch

The Executioner #19: Detroit Deathwatch, by Don Pendleton
June, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Don Pendleton hews closely to his template for this 19th volume of The Executioner, but then again if it isn’t broke why fix it? Pendleton’s repetitive structure clearly struck a chord with readers of the day, so he follows it to the letter in Detroit Deathwatch: the opening hit on some Mafia hardsite, the chapters focusing on various one-off characters, the inevitable chapter in which a member of law enforcement recaps everything that’s happened in the novel thus far, the periodic philosophical ruminations courtesy Mack “The Executioner” Bolan, and finally the big action finale. 

But still, it’s becoming increasingly easy for Mr. Bolan. Never does he feel any fear or sense of danger. The possibility of his being hurt or killed never enters the picture – it is others who will suffer at the hands of the Mafia sadists, and Bolan is the hero who must save them. The actual mechanics of waging an ongoing war against the mob come so naturally to Bolan that there is no strategy nor planning required; he shows up, he makes his various hits, he slips away into the night. He’s more a supernatural figure at this point than a flesh-and-blood human, despite Pendleton’s frequent claims that Mack Bolan was “just a man.” Bolan’s also kind of weird by this point, but I’ll get to that in a bit. 

First of all, there’s no pickup from the previous volume. No mention of the busty nurse Bolan essentially pressured into shacking up with him at the very end of the novel. Bolan when we meet him this time is already on the scene in Detroit, launching a waterborne strike against a Mafia hardsite. It’s cool if a little unspectacular, Bolan briefly using his boat as a decoy and then donning a wetsuit (quickly dispensed with) so he can go ashore and blow away a few goons with his customary Automag. The violence has been toned down, for the most part, save for a wildly gruesome finale. Otherwise Bolan only shoots a few hapless thugs here; again, there is no possibility of Bolan himself ever being hit in the melee. 

Pendleton throws a curveball in the works with the sudden appearance of Toby Ranger, the busty blonde Federal agent last seen in #9: Vegas Vendetta. She’s undercover as a bimbo in this particular mobster’s villa, but she’s just been outed and is on her way to her last ride when Bolan intervenes. Bolan calls off his hit and takes off with her to his safehouse in the city, presumably so as to keep her safe. But here’s where the weird stuff begins. Bolan, apparently inspired by his own actions at the climax of the previous volume, essentially pressures Toby into having sex with him – they’re both “professionals,” he argues, they have to live for the moment, so let’s do it. Of course it isn’t presented so bluntly, but still that’s kind of how it happens – and once again Pendleton fails to give us any juicy details. 

But man…next morning at the breakfast table it just gets stranger. Bolan starts talking about “the cosmic sprawl” and ruminating to himself how woman was referred to as a “helpmeet” in the King James Bible, and hey, Toby could be his helpmeet for now. I mean he just comes off as an odd guy. Later in the book he’s even quoting Emerson to himself (the poet, not the prog-rock keyboardist), and keeps referring back to the “cosmic sprawl” (whatever the hell that is) and the helpmeet thing – again, another part of Pendleton’s template is introducing a concept or theme and frequently referring back to it. But it’s all just so weird…I mean Toby’s even like, “What?” when Bolan breaks out his first “cosmic sprawl” utterance, and you’ve gotta figure she might be wondering if she made a mistake last night. I mean, at least Johnny Rock and Philip Magellan had the decency to know they were nuts. Bolan is completely on the level…and you know Pendleton is, too. 

But then, Toby herself is an oddball – another recurring gimmick, one that quickly grates, is her constant referral to Bolan as “Captain” something or other: Captain Virile, Captain Wonderful, Captain Granite; she’s got a name for every occasion, and it gets old. According to my review for Vegas Vendetta, it sounds like Bolan and Toby had more of a sparring relationship in that volume, but this time Pendleton presents them almost as soul mates. Toby Ranger is the type of woman who could bring a men’s adventure series to a halt: she’s such a perfect match for the hero that you wonder why he doesn’t say to hell with the whole mob-busting game and just marry her. And indeed, Toby tries to put her hooks in Bolan throughout the book, even begging that they go off to some “green pastures” to be together after this latest mission is done. 

And as for this particular mission: what starts as a typical Executioner strike turns into something a little more seamy, and along the lines of a plot in one of the Imitiation Executioners that proliferated on the bookstore shelves at this time: beautiful women being abducted and forced into prostitution by the mob. But whereas one of those Imitation Executioners would be a lot more explicit in this regard – see, for example, The Marksman #18, which concerned this very same subject – Pendleton keeps the subject mostly in the background. As ever, this stuff is just the MacGuffin that is used to link together the action scenes and the philosophical asides. 

In fact the prostitution ring angle only enters the narrative via long “morning after” dialog from Toby, who explains that she’s been working undercover in an unofficial capacity, trying to track down her missing colleague Georgette – the “Canuck” member of Toby’s Rangers, also briefly seen in that earlier Vegas-based installment. Georgette was looking into a rash of disappearances concering super-beautiful women (Toby clarifies that these aren’t just gorgeous women…but “super” gorgeous ones!), and of course this being an Executioner novel the trail ultimately led her to the Mafia. But Toby thinks she was made and has been taken off somewhere, or maybe even killed. And she thinks it all happened in that very Detroit hardsite Bolan was hitting at the start of the book. 

Meanwhile we have the expected cutaways to one-off characters. We’ve got stuff from the perspectives of the mobsters themselves, none of whom will have much of an impact on the narrative. We also have stuff from the perspective of a cop who has been called into Detroit now that the Executioner has been spotted – and also legions of Mafia soldiers have entered the city, for precisely the same reason. This is another of Pendleton’s MacGuffins; we’re often told of these bad-ass killer Mafia hit teams congregating here or there, and when Bolan ultimately confronts them – that is, when he even does, as usually the hit teams are kept off-page – it’s such a cake-walk for him that you wonder why the element was even introduced into the narrative. Nearly 20 volumes in, it doesn’t create any sense of tension at all. At this point only a bored readership poses any threat to Mack Bolan. 

Oh and an interesting factoid for those out there like myself who dig such factoids: Bolan at one point in Detroit Deathwatch waltzes into a police station and pretends to be an agent (presumably Federal, as he isn’t wearing a uniform). It’s the name he gives for himself that’s interesting: Stryker. So, did Pendleton just pull this name out of the air, or did he borrow it from the contemporary Pinnacle series Stryker? A series that was written by William Crawford, ie the guy who served as “Jim Peterson” for The Executioner #16, which Pendleton claimed to never have read – and also stated in his interview in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction that he never even discovered who “Jim Peterson” was. So then, long story short, if Bolan’s “Stryker” name was inspired by Crawford’s series, that would be pretty ironic. I mean if that wouldn’t be an example of the cosmic sprawl, uh, sprawling, I don’t know what would be. 

Action is more sporadic this time around; we have the opening hit, then only a few scuffles here and there. Pendleton brings in a bit of a ‘70s crime-pulp vibe when Bolan and Toby fly to Canada and Bolan strong arms the manager of a stripper joint. But this Canada jaunt is over and done with in a flash and it’s back to Detroit – but again, Pendleton doesn’t much focus on the city or attempt to bring it to life. But then, that’s not really what you want from the book. Most of these installments could take place in the same cultural vacuum: “Detroit Deathwatch” could just as easily be “Dayton Deathwatch.” Especially given that the novel climaxes in the same location it started at: the Mafia hardsite along the lake. 

Here Pendleton gets more ghoulish and lurid than ever before in the series, with the reappearance of a “Turkey Doctor,” ie those Mafia sadists who specialize in torture while also keeping the “patient” alive and aware throughout. Pendleton rolls out all the stops here with a squirm-inducing passage in which Bolan comes across “turkey meat” in the sub-basement of the hardsite, mutilated and mauled but still alive and aware. It’s pretty crazy and not like much anything else in The Executioner, making Pendleton’s version of the Mafia seem almost as sadistic and depraved as the one in James Dockery’s The Butcher. So crazy and depraved that by novel’s end Mack Bolan himself is in tears. 

That said, the “green pastures” finale seems tacked on and hard to swallow after the few pages of nightmarish gore we just read. But the important thing is, Bolan’s about to get some good lovin’ again, which was how the previous book ended – so it’s nice at least to see that Pendleton has, for the moment, decided to add a little spice into the series. Speaking of which: if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go tell an attractive co-worker of mine that we’re both professionals, and the cosmic sprawl demands that she become my helpmeet. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll quote a little Emerson!


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

That's an insightful -- and funny -- review! I'd just add that the cover painting was done by Gil Cohen, since I co-edited the art book ONE MAN ARMY: THE ACTION PAPERBACK ART OF GIL COHEN. ;-)

Johny Malone said...

Well, men often say stupid things after the act...

Charles said...

Didn't Bolan re-adopt the Stryker name later on down the series?