Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Paperback and Forth!

Bookworm's Book Club Presents...

Don Pendleton's The Executioner #281: Blood Stone by Mike Newton  (Gold Eagle, 2002)  Now here's a success story for you. In the early 70's "Men's Adventure" books became all the rage - building off the success of the 007 books in the 50's and the ripoffs of same in the 60's. Don Pendleton created Mack Bolan - a Vietnam vet with so many confirmed kills he's known as The Executioner. However, as is often pointed out, Bolan showed such compassion for the Vietnamese civilians that they tagged him with the nickname Sergeant Mercy. A complex man, Bolan was the perfect soldier. Then, when the Mafia killed his family back home in the States, Bolan was discharged and sent back to pick up the pieces, and he became the perfect vigilante. Across 38 books, Pendleton (and one other author, who wrote #16 while Pendleton and publisher Pinnacle fought over something or other) chronicled Bolan's war on the mob, a fast paced blitzkrieg that took him across the country and around the world, with an impressive amount of characterization in a genre not particularly known for it. After that run, Pendleton sold the character to a new publisher, Gold Eagle, and they've been publishing his adventures now for thirty years! Counting the spinoff series, the character of Mack Bolan has now appeared in more than 700 (!) books, with the main series appearing monthly (!) Starting with #39, the series has been written by several authors under the title Don Pendleton's The Executioner. On the index page, Gold Eagle helpfully thanks the book's author for their "contributions to the story", so you always know who wrote the paperback you're reading.
    In this outing Bolan is on the trail of a diamond pipeline purchasing arms for an African military dictator. The pipeline ends in America with Bolan's old best enemy, the Mafia, so the Executioner starts out in New Jersey, working his way back up the pipeline. The trail takes him to Europe, and then Africa, and along the way he finds himself saddled with the assistance of a female Interpol agent whose first trip into the field may be her last unless Bolan can keep her bacon out of the fire...
    Mike Newton has been writing these books since right after Pendleton left off (and according to some reports assisted on the last few leading up to #38). He's now surpassed the original author in quantity, and seeing his name on the book has always been an indicator that you're in for a good read. Sadly, for the first time, not so much. The hallmark of this series is action - the formula is usually a prologue setting up the bad guys, then the first chapter is Bolan already on assignment and in action in the first few pages. The succeeding chapter takes us back to see how Bolan got on the case; then it's back to the present and the next action setpiece. Continue for roughly 220 pages. Close book, satisfied.
    Weirdly, there's not all that much action in the first half of this book. A rather brief assault on a mobster's home in New Jersey is followed by a lot of the French Interpol agent and her troubles. The second location is also sparse on the gunplay and derring-do; and even when we get to the African climax, we spend more time with the supporting cast (good and bad) than we do with Mack Bolan stitching a line of 7.65mm tumblers across a bad guy's chest. So, it was still an okay read, but not as action packed and fast paced as I expect from this series. To me, these books are like the average Cannon Film from the 80's starring Michael Dudikoff or Chuck Norris - lightweight escapist action fare, perfect for reading in short snatches on breaks at work. I hope this book was just an off day for Newton as he's still writing them (and I'm still picking them up as I find them used). He's given me a lot of reading entertainment; I'll give him the benefit of the doubt this time.

Level 26: Dark Origins  by Anthony Zuiker with Duane Swierczynski  (Signet, 2010)  Zuiker, creator of the CSI franchise, has become a bit like a 21st century Bruce Geller. Geller wrote the pilot for Mission: Impossible, got the pilot made and got the go for a series; he then settled in as a producer and never wrote another episode of it across seven seasons. Zuiker has created or co-created three TV series, and this year wrote his first episode for any of the series since 2006. (And I'm not throwing brickbats - I think it's cool when someone has the talent to do that - start something, recruit a team to handle it day to day, and drop back to a supervisory position.) Now, Zuiker has teamed with co-author Swierczynski to launch a series of what he calls "digi-novels" which consist of a book, a website, and various other digital gewgaws like smartphone apps and the like. When you read the book, you can sign up at the website. About twenty pages in the books ends a chapter. One of the characters is about to watch an old Super 8 movie. The book directs you to the website with a code word where you can watch the movie yourself. You don't need to see it to enjoy the book, but it adds some spice to the reading experience. Another twenty pages or so into the story, and you're directed back to view another "digital bridge" video. This occurs twenty times across the course of the book.
    The story is not an unfamiliar one for this author to tell. Serial killers are assigned a number by the authorities to categorize their level of evil in committing their crimes, from opportunist "crime of passion" killers at level 1 to the crafty, organized serial torture murders at level 25. This book, as the title suggests, introduces us to the only Level 26 killer in the world: a man the authorities call Sqweegel (for reasons I'll leave for you to discover should you decide to read the book.) So far so good. A superhero of the serial killer set, Sqweegel is an inhumanly patient contortionist who might hide out in a small box in your house for a long time waiting for a good moment to slip out and do terrible things to you. And he wears an all-over latex body condom thing that makes him virtually forensics proof. He has been killing for more than twenty years, and he's left no evidence at any of the scenes of the crimes - the only way he's been connected to any of them is when he contacts the authorities to brag, usually with a souvenir of the kill for proof, so there's no way to calculate how many he has offed in more than two decades.
    Sqweegel is a solid character. He's creepy, and we spend a fair amount of time with him, and his sections of the book are top notch. Up against him, however is a character who's not quite as successfully written, unfortunately. Steve Dark (really? Steve Dark?)  was the only agent to ever get close to Sqweegel, actually laying eyes on him in Rome before the lithely lethal killer skipped away yet again. But having scored a point against him, Dark was soon paid back when Sqweegel wiped out several members of Dark's family, leaving him alive, but broken in a sea of guilt. He's been retired since, but circumstances of a very persuasive sort eventually put him back on the case. I just wish I liked the guy a little more. He's so much this stock haunted cop who can think like the killer that he's almost like a parody, starting with the name. I would have preferred any name, from the blunt and mundane (Sam Taylor) to the macho and silly (Jason Armstrong) but not Dark. Please. That's too much. And he's a pretty morose guy in the early chapters, back in love with a new lady, and worrying about her and the love that brought him back from the brink. *sigh* Later, when he gets back on the case, he becomes much more what I was looking for as the hero of this novel.
    The book itself is well written, not quite as graphic as some would have you believe, but more than you get on CBS three times a week for sure. The nearly 400 pages move right along, and I enjoyed pausing each time a new code word came up and waiting to view the next digital cyber-bridge online when I next got on the computer. Those little mini movies have some solid character actors in them, with Michael Ironside towering over everyone else as Dark's boss Riggins. But you also get a fair amount of Glenn Morshower, a little Bill Duke, and some Kevin Weisman, all of whom you'll recognize from movies and TV. I also really like Ava Gaudet, who plays Riggins assistant. Dark is played by a newcomer, Daniel Buran, and he's not bad, though I could have done without the ponytail. Sqweegel is played by a man billed as The Most Flexible Man Alive, Daniel Browning Smith, and there's no one else who could have played this part. Sqweegel does stuff in the book - like moving so slowly and patiently through a victim's house that he doesn't trigger motion detectors - that we sadly don't get to see in any of the cyber bridges, but the actor does move really weirdly and the suit itself is redline scary, so he comes off well onscreen. (He also featured in an episode of CSI that is tied to this book - but I don't really recommend it because the connection is strange, and the episode kind of waters down the character. Stick to the novel and video clips if you're so inclined)
    Zuiker and Swierczynski have already released the second Level 26 book, Dark Prophecy in hardcover, and a third is promised to end this series. But Zuiker plans on more and different digi-novels, and I'm intrigued enough to come along for the ride.

Book 'em Danno! We're all done here! Til next time, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. I often think that I should give the Bolan books a try. Then I look at my two shelves of Destroyers and think maybe not...

  2. Well, 'tis true that they are different animals of the same genre - kind of like The Thin Man and Mike Hammer are both mysteries, but one is full of goofy fun and the other is full of guys getting their fingers slammed shut in drawers. Same here - Destroyer - amazing satirical humor and action/ Executioner - amazing amounts of action with as little humor as you might imagine. But I love 'em both in their own ways.