(Editor’s note: This is the 46th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Matt Hilton, the British former beat copper whose first novel, Dead Men’s Dust--introducing Joe Hunter, “an all action hero with a strong moral code”--is due out in the States in May from William Morrow.)
I came into the crime and thriller genre by a different route than many of the writers out there. When others talk at length about the works of Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, Parker, and Leonard, I’m the one with the blank stare. I’ve long been aware of Mike Hammer, Spenser, et al. through the wonders of television, but I confess to never having read any of the obviously wonderful books in which they appear. I came into this genre through reading Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian) and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu Mythos) as a young teenager. I loved the action and the derring-do of the Howard books, as well as the creepy supernatural undertones of Lovecraft.
It was only natural, I suppose, that I moved on to “action”-based books when I started looking around in hopes of widening my reading base. Back in 1979, I discovered a dog-eared copy of a paperback novel first published 10 years earlier. That book was War Against the Mafia, by Don Pendleton, which introduced Mack Bolan to the world … and it really rocked my boat.
I know I was an impressionable 13-year-old, but the blood and thunder penned by Don Pendleton gripped me, and I began to search out as many Mack Bolan books as I could find--not to mention fund on a meager income from delivering newspapers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those novels about Bolan, aka The Executioner, made up a huge, best-selling series created by “the father of action adventure” (a term allegedly coined by Pendleton himself). I devoured book after book in the massive 38-volume series Pendleton composed between 1969 and 1980. There were other players trying to feed off Pendleton’s literary success, most notably the Destroyer series, featuring Remo Williams and Chiun, and I lapped those up as well. Quite frankly, I couldn’t get enough of those types of stories. And they led me on to discover other characters cut from the same cloth as The Executioner. Jack Reacher, Joe Pike, Bob Lee Swagger, and, yes, my own creation, Joe Hunter, all owe a nod toward the original larger-than-life figure that was Mack Bolan--even if the influences are barely subliminal.
Mack Bolan was the American hero of his time. His adventures were set against the backdrop of Vietnam War horrors and stories about soldiers who returned home to crowds hurling verbal abuse their way, when they should have been treating those men with the respect heroes are due. Mack Bolan was a voice for those soldiers--a man of virtue with a strong moral sense and a desire to see justice done. Looking back, War Against the Mafia was a violent book, as were all of the subsequent installments of that series, but Pendleton wasn’t propagating vigilante action or aggression. The violence in his stories was simply an allegory for the sanctity of life and a person’s responsibility to fight for that life.
With War Against the Mafia we get exactly what we expect. As it says on the cover, “Mack Bolan, Vietnam war hero, launches a bloody, one-man crusade against the most powerful gangster force in the history of the U.S.A.” The story has a simple premise, which was used to equal success by Marvel Comics’ Punisher series. Bolan, the Special Forces’ top assassin, returns from the hell of jungle warfare to discover that his family has been pushed into despair and degradation by underworld figures, and Bolan just isn’t the kind to let them get away with it. Cue the blood and thunder that appealed to a 13-year-old boy and still resonates with me three decades later.
Pendleton, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, began his writing career by authoring several books under the pseudonyms “Dan Britain” and “Stephan Gregory.” He also wrote several non-fiction books with his wife, Linda. But it is for the first run of Executioner books that he is best remembered. Pendleton penned books 1 through 15 in the series, before a legal battle with his publisher, Pinnacle Books, saw book 16, Sicilian Slaughter (1973), written by an unknown author under the pseudonym “Jim Peterson.” Moving his business to another publisher, New English Library, Pendleton took up the yoke again with book 17, Jersey Guns (1974), and went on to deliver the next 21 books in the series. Following Satan’s Sabbath (1980), Pendleton’s Executioner was licensed to the Harlequin Publishing group, and all subsequent Mack Bolan books, including numerous spin-offs (Phoenix Force, Able Team, Super Bolan, and Stony Man) were composed by a team of writers. Pendleton acted as a consulting editor on the books but he didn’t write any of them, though his name always appeared on the covers.
In addition to the Executioner series, Pendleton wrote novels about some more endearing characters, including hard-boiled private eye Joe Copp and psychic detective Ashton Ford. The Copp and Ford books are still in print, but sadly the same can’t be said for Pendleton’s original Mack Bolan novels.
Sadly, Don Pendleton passed away in 1995, but he has left behind an admirable body of work that continues to influence writers 40 years after the publication of War Against the Mafia. Although they are not strictly “crime” novels, the Executioner series featured crime as the nucleus of Bolan’s rage against injustice. In our present times, Bolan’s ethos still rings loud and clear. Live large and stand proud.
READ MORE: Reviews of the Executioner books by Marty McKee of the blog Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot.