When a group of international terrorists releases Dr. Raymond Barr from a hospital for the criminally insane, the Penetrator springs into action. Dr. Barr, aside from being insane, is a brilliant scientist—a very dangerous combination. With the mad doctor on the loose, no one is safe.
Taken by his rescuers to a secret laboratory in Nicaragua, the doctor’s twisted talents are employed by Colonel Po Hahn Chau, who is breeding new strains of abnormally large, highly-aggressive insects. The colonel’s plan is to develop an insect army, a living weapon which could bring the world to its knees.
The Penetrator has to smash this plot before the colonel’s plague is loosed on the world—and before he becomes the swarm’s first victim.
Folks, this has been a fantastic couple of weeks for me, at least in terms of books. John Scalzi’s new one, Lock In, came out last week, followed shortly by the new QI Factbook, and then I had to wait a bit until Randall Munroe’s What If? was available. In the meantime, I figured I’d cap all that off with another Penetrator novel. It just made sense.
I’m so glad I did.
You might remember that the last Penetrator I read was a supreme disappointment. It made me worry that maybe that bad taste in my mouth would transfer over and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy another one.I was wrong. Satan’s Swarm might rank among the best of them.
It’s got it all. International Communist plot. Giant insects. Mad science. Flamethrowers. Heads exploding. A plucky woman reporter. Danger. Suspense. Sandanistas. Flamethrowers.
There’s so much going on that it’s kind of hard to figure out where to start. Mark Hardin himself doesn’t actually show up for a few chapters, which was surprising. Instead we get the point of view of Colonel Po Hahn Chau, the mastermind behind the plot and an old enemy of the Penetrator’s, as he sets up this diabolical scheme.
The first thing he does is send some cronies to break out a scientist, Raymond Barr, from an insane asylum. Barr is also an old foe of Mark’s. Barr’s backstory is that he is/was a brilliant chemist, but his wife was killed by some hoods. Barr went insane and, in his last appearance, was helping some fanatic racist with a plot to kill all black people with a virus or something that caused Sickle Cell Anemia. The Penetrator foiled that plot and Barr ended up in the asylum.
He gets busted loose and Po fills him in on what the plan is. I’m glad that we know it from the get-go. None of this “figuring out what’s going on” crap for this audience.
The plan is, well, giant insects. And lots of them. I say giant, but really I just mean slightly bigger than we might be used to. Colonel Po and his team have been collecting especially dangerous specimens of insect (and arachnid) from across the world to use in a major plot to bring down the United States and its evil capitalist ways. Barr’s part in this plan is to help develop pheromones that will cause the insects (and arachnids) to do whatever their masters wish them to do.
This is actually one of the less needlessly overcomplicated villain plots I’ve seen in these books. Yeah, it’s nuts, but it at least has a big nutty goal in mind to go with it.
We finally meet the Penetrator somewhere in Mexico. He’s bullfighting, presumably because he’s bored. He does as well as you’d probably expect from a Nietzschean superman and then gets a call from Professor Haskins with the bad news.
This book was at least better written than the others I’ve read for one reason. Instead of discovering the whole plot and then charging in headfirst and killing people like he normally does, this book featured the kind of plot that goes “Investigate one thing that leads to investigating a bigger thing.” It’s not exactly mindblowing since plenty of competent mysteries and thrillers thrive on that sort of plot (it’s almost a requisite), but it shows a maturation in author/character of Lionel Derrick that I’m impressed with.
So since Mark dealt with Raymond Barr (not the guy who played Perry Mason, incidentally, but possibly a reference?) in the past, the fact that he’s been broken out of a mental health institute is cause for concern. Mark’s investigation leads him to see if perhaps it was the fault of some kind of Black Militant group who wants to kill the Mad Doctor. No dice there. So he infiltrates the Klan, figuring they’d know something about it. Turns out they don’t either. It is, however, at this point that Mark meets Penny.
Oh god I just realized this woman’s name is Penny and she hangs around with The Penetrator. If I hadn’t already finished the book already, I’d hope that maybe she becomes his understudy in vengeance, sort of a Robin-type character. Maybe she’d be called The Penetratrix. No such luck.
Penny is an investigative reporter. She’s plucky and go-get-em-tiger and smart.
Oddly enough, that’s sort of a recurring theme in these books. Rarely do we face the “hysterical broad” archetype that just needs Mark to roll in and save the day. Instead we’ve got people like Angie from Aryan Onslaught, who is tough and smart and raising her kids on her own. There are other examples, at least one a book, of a woman who is self-reliant enough to get by without The Penetrator for a while. Even the ones that come across as complete bimbos for most of the book end up being extremely capable not only of faking being a bimbo, but of almost killing Mark Hardin.
I’d be tempted to write this off as a strength of the series, but there’s a problem. See, Mark always shows up and saves the woman, regardless of how strong or sassy she was to begin with. You can read this in one of two ways:
- No woman, no matter how capable she is, is as capable as a man.
- No person, no matter how capable he or she is, is as capable as Mark Hardin, The Penetrator.
I prefer the second reading but it’s hard to ignore the possibility of the first.
Penny pretty much figures out that Mark is The Penetrator as soon as she meets him. She figures that he’s the story of the century and that covering his actions will win her a Pulitzer, so she latches onto him for a while.
Mark finds various ways of trying to get rid of her, ostensibly for her own protection, but she always figures out where he’s going to be and finds him. Mark starts to respect her not only for her pluck, but also for her integrity. He promises her the story she wants as long as she stays out of the way and doesn’t interfere.
And then they do the Horizontal Hokey Pokey.
It is about this point that Mark starts to figure out what’s going on with the kidnapping and what the plot actually is. He then begins his campaign of glorious violence. Notable examples include:
- Karate punching a man in the testicles so hard that they literally explode
- Shooting a person with a flamethrower and watching him melt
- Exploding lots of heads by shooting them with bullets from guns
- Black Widows
- Putting horsefly pheromones in a dude’s eyes and then leaving him in a field
I hope I didn’t miss any.
One of the things I love best about the style of these books is that the narrator gives us backstory on The Penetrator’s victims right up until he kills them. You’ll have a dude, standing around on watch duty, thinking about how much he loves the desert and he misses his family and he hated Israel until he found out that actually Egypt killed his family and now he’s conflicted and the only hope he’s ever really had since leaving the Middle East has been in
AXE TO THE NECK
It’s amazing how much these guys get humanized in the moments before they are brutally murdered by THE PROTAGONIST.
It happens so often that I feel like it has to be on purpose. But why? It doesn’t make Mark look any better. If anything it brings in a touch of realism to the incredible violence he perpetrates, which makes him feel like less of a hero and more of a psychopath. All too often the only really evil people are the ones at the top of the organization. Everyone else is just a lackey trying to make a living in the world. Unless of course the book is dealing with The Mafia, because we all know that all Mafiosos are evil regardless of rank.
The book follows a pretty regular plot. It turns out that the evil plan to destroy The West with insects is happening all across America, Mexico, and Canada. There are lots of little bases, all being run from one big base that Mark doesn’t know about yet. So the first thing he does is storm as many of the little bases as he can. That’s where most of his murders happen in such gruesome detail. And speaking of details, Mark uses a lot of different guns in this book.
Every mission involves Mark being almost killed by some kind of bug. In one it’s fire ants, in another it’s bees. Oddly enough, the danger felt like it was actually, well, dangerous. Every time I would seriously wonder just how he was going to get out of this one. I’d never encountered that before in a Penetrator novel.
It’s at the last base that things start to go really badly. He brings Penny along, but tells her to stay at a safe distance. She ignores him and decides to get in closer. She gets caught and killed.
Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t notice it.
I was just following along and I must have missed a paragraph or something, because in the middle of all the action Mark thinks something like “These sonsabitches killed Penny, now it’s time to get serious” and I’m like WHAT
I had to go back and find it. And it was hard to do. I honestly thought for a bit that maybe there was a mistake and that her death got cut but Mark’s reaction to it didn’t. It was just one sentence where Mark looks out a window and sees her get shot. He dwells on it for a bit and then goes about his day.
An interrogation (the one with pheromones in the eyes and horseflies) points Mark in the direction of the main base. It’s in Nicaragua, so that’s where we’re bound next.
Instead of just going by himself, Mark heads to the government of Honduras under an assumed name and convinces them that the Sandinistas are developing a nuclear arsenal.
Whoa, that hits close to home.
They give him a crack team and they set out to investigate. They find the base, but oddly enough, this particular mission ends in failure. Two of the members of the team get killed and Mark and the remaining squad members have to turn back.
Once back in Honduras, Mark steals an airplane with some napalm and sets out to destroy the base and the bugs en masse. It goes well until Colonel Po releases some locusts that force the plane down. Mark lands, he and Colonel Po have a karate fight, and then some ants get loose and kill the Chinese mastermind.
Whee! What a ride!
It definitely seems like the plots to these books get wilder and wilder as they go on. This one is the forty-ninth in the series and we get giant bugs and a communist takeover plot led by the Chinese but also involving Libyans, various sub-Saharan Africans, Nicaraguans, Koreans, and Vietnamese. Ten books before this we had the Mafia using submarines for piracy, ten before that the Aryan Brotherhood taking over a town, and some time before that crooked cops stealing furniture and coats. The stakes certainly get higher and higher, and the schemes get weirder and weirder. I think there are something like four more books left in the series and I just have to wonder where it goes from here. Furthermore, does the series actually end, or did they just get cancelled without a farewell? And most importantly, who do I talk to so that I can revive the series myself?
The writing is a lot better in this one than in a lot of previous ones, too. Not only were the stakes higher, but Mark actually felt threatened a few times. He seemed less omnipotent and invincible, and that kept things more interesting. It’s a hard balance to strike, making a hero that can actually have the possibility of defeat but still comes out alive without any kind of deus ex machina swooping in to save the day. It only took “Lionel Derrick” 49 books but I think that balance was finally struck. I admit it may have happened earlier, there are still a lot of them I have yet to read, but this is the first one I’ve encountered with that element in it.
And the violence! Oy vey! It got so descriptive of people’s deaths that I was both disturbed and amused. Nobody just gets shot and dies. They get shot, we get an anatomy lesson, and their head explodes. Brains and blood and eyeballs and skull all over the place, usually right after we learn that the now-dead goon has a dream of opening a candy store to help pay for his sick niece’s medical treatments. One guy got melted with a flamethrower in horrifying detail, and then we switched points of view to his partner who just saw the whole thing up close. He says to Mark that if he has to die, please don’t let it be that way. So Mark shoots him in the chest. The man’s last thoughts were of gratitude.
Holy Jesus and Mary!
Let this be a lesson, then. The next time somebody decries modern popular culture as glorifying violence, point them to thirty-plus years ago when these books were being written. Point out that violence has always been a part of our culture. The good old days never existed, and now we don’t even have Mark Hardin to save us.