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The Penetrator #18: Countdown to Terror

The Penetrator #18: Countdown to Terror by Lionel DerrickThe Penetrator 18
Pinnacle Books, 1976
Price I paid: 60¢

The message: “Liberty for Puerto Rico or death to all Gringos. Viva el F.A.L.N.” The terrorist tactics of the Fuezas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional Puerto Riquena were being stepped up.

The bombings would increase each day, culminating in the big blast, Operation Luz. Racing against the clock, Mark Hardin stalks the streets of Spanish Harlem—his quarry, El Chico, ruthless leader of the fanatic F.A.L.N. Each step brings him closer to the creations of this time table of death and destruction. One by one, he manages to pick off the terrorist troops, slowly decimating their forces and equalizing the kill count of bombing victims.

But the deadline for Operation Luz is explosively near. Seconds ticking away like tiny bombs…


This is the eighteenth book in the Penetrator Series. The police blotters of cities across the nation and even as far away as Japan contain evidence of Mark Hardin’s handiwork—the deaths of corrupt hogs at the public table, deaths of men who kill, maim, or cause suffering among the innocent. The Penetrator is a warrior without uniform or rank, pledged to fight anyone—on either side of the law—who seeks to weaken or destroy the American way of life. Follow the Penetrator as he travels from place to place, leaving his personal symbol of retribution, a chipped blue flint arrowhead, on the bodies of society’s deadliest enemies.

It’s been a long time since my last Penetrator review! Let’s fix that!

First off, is that some long jacket copy or what? This Penetrator novel, unlike any of the other ones I’ve seen, felt the need to summarize the entire concept of the series on the back. What I love in particular, though, is that the series summary calls attention to the way Mark drops a flint arrowhead near the bodies of those he takes out. This is funny because in this book he very explicitly avoids doing that. It’s called out and everything. He doesn’t want to draw too much attention to himself in this book. It’s strictly covert ops, and that means no trademark arrowheads.

I like the cover to this one, too. Mark is missing his mustache. It just doesn’t feel right. He doesn’t have the mustache in the book, either. People mention it. He also cut his hair really short, like a buzzcut or something, but that didn’t make it to the cover. He’s changed his appearance so as to be less recognizable, you see. That’s something he apparently does every couple of books, although he always looks the same to me in my head.

Meanwhile, the General Lee is about to run over that blond lady.

Could it be that the blond lady on the front is the one and only Joanna Tabler, who we first met in book 10? (Bit of a fib, there, since Joanna was apparently first encountered in Hijacking Manhattan, which I have yet to read.)

Well, there aren’t any other blond ladies in the book, so I’m guessing that yeah, it’s Joanna. What I love most about these books is the sheer amount of continuity between them. I wouldn’t expect that of a series like that, and knowing that it’s the combined effort of two authors just compounds that wonderment.

(Another fib. The real thing I love most about these books is how stupid they are.)

I bet at some point she gets killed off. She has the most potential as Mark’s Special Lady whenever she shows up, but at some point she has to stop showing up because after book 29 Angie becomes Mark’s Special Lady, so there you go. I suppose this is one of the problems of reading these books all out of order. If I had known beforehand that there was so much continuity when I started these books I would have made an effort to grab a copy of book one, but I suppose we’re all allowed our mistakes.

“So what does Mark get up to this time?” I hear you asking. Well, you’re in for a treat!

The bad guys this time around are Puerto Rican terrorists. But don’t worry, because they’re being financed by the Mafia.

Well, the Puerto Rican Mafia.

These particular terrorists are members of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, which the back cover misspells. I didn’t know it while I was reading, but they’re a real group! Well, were. I guess they disbanded at some point. Either way, these guys were some scary folks back in the seventies and eighties.

I guess that makes this book a RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES narrative.

Scary as they may have been in real life, these folks are no match for Mark Hardin. After the standard-issue prologue that fills us in on some backstory before sending Mark off to another mission, he just shows up and kills a dude. Just like that. He finds a dude planting a bomb somewhere and shoots him. It’s gory enough that spinal fluid is mentioned. This is on page four.

One thing that Chet Cunningham does well, and I mean this totally seriously, is narrate in slow motion. I just don’t know how he does it. When The Penetrator shoots somebody and their head kicks back and the bullet causes a small explosion that leaves blood, brains, and various fluids on the wall behind them, it’s like time slows down. It really is masterful. Later in this book Mark kicks a guy in the nuts and it’s the kind of thing that Zack Snyder can only dream of.

The Mark Roberts books have their own share of insane violence, but I think his strength lies a bit more in imagining horrible ways for people to die at regular speed. You know, horse flies in the eyes and stuff like that.

So FALN. They want independence for Puerto Rico. Specifically they want the US out of Puerto Rico so that they can let the Soviets come in and run things. They’re being run by a dude named El Chico (“the boy”) and they’re blowing stuff up all over New York. They’ve got a big plan, though. It’s called Operation Luz (“light”), and Mark spends most of the book trying to figure out just what this heinous plan is. Long after we the readers have figured it out. Yeah, it was pretty hard to get on The Penetrator’s side this time because the whole time I was like UGGH COME ON YOU CAN FIGURE IT OUT IT AIN’T HARD.

It was supposed to be a surprise to us, too, but it was handled pretty poorly. I’ll come back to that.

Before Operation Luz kicks off, though, FALN sets off a bomb every two hours somewhere in New York. We see a lot of this action from FALN’s point of view, usually El Chico, who on page 67 BLEW MY MIND.

El Chico walked into the U.S. courthouse as if he owned the place. He carried an expensive attaché case and wore a two-hundred-dollar suit and fancy indoor-outdoor glasses that changed shades with the amount of light.

DUDE HAS TRANSITION LENSES®

This led me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole (one of several for this review) and I learned that photochromic lenses were developed in the 1960s! I had no idea! That is so freaking cool!

The reason El Chico was in the courthouse was that he was dropping off a bomb. In case you were wondering.

The baddies get away with a lot more stuff in this book than most Penetrator villains do. Bombs are doing off left and right, and at one point they even manage to set off “the largest blast ever set off in this country that was not authorized by the U.S. military or the Atomic Energy Commission.” They manage to do this right in the Lincoln Tunnel. Man, these folks might be the most successful enemies Mark has ever faced.

I mentioned that Joanna Tabler is in this one but she really didn’t do much. She was there to offer comfort to Mark (hilarious line: “I’ll take you to bed just like we are old married folks, right here on the sofa.”), and more often she was a sounding board that allowed Mark to tell the audience what he thought was going on without resorting to internal monologue.

Okay, so Operation Luz. The clock is ticking down. Something really big is going to happen. Something even bigger than killing 200 people by washing them into the Hudson River. What on Earth could it be?

I spent the first half of the book with no idea. I thought maybe it would involve a laser. It would be in keeping with the rest of the series, not to mention totally rad. Big laser on top of the Empire State Building, you know? Maybe threaten to destroy Central Park with it first?

But no, it’s not that elaborate. About midway through the narrative somebody drops the word “monument,” or something like it, and then it was just OH OF COURSE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY THEY’RE GONNA BLOW IT UP.

The word may have been something else, maybe “landmark” or “tourist attraction,” but either way, it’s not all that subtle.

But it’s too subtle for Mark Hardin, The Penetrator. It is also apparently too subtle for every other human being in this book who is not a member of FALN. Let’s talk through this.

Everybody’s trying to figure out what the explosions are counting down to. El Chico is making public announcements, saying very clearly that the final explosion will be the big one that brings down America and frees Puerto Rico from Imperialist Capitalist Aggression. Mark scrambles. The police scramble. The military scrambles. New York City is under high alert.

Mark tracks down the FALN guys and sees them get on a boat. We do get some internal monologue here, and it is essentially

Why are they taking a boat? Boats go on the water…what am I missing? It can’t be the Empire State Building since that’s not in the water…maybe they’re taking the boat around New York? What’s on the other side of New York from here? Surely something on land. They must be meeting some trucks or something. I bet that’s it. But what’s the target? THINK MARK THINK

FINALLY he goes OH DAMMIT THE STATUE OF LIBERTY

I think he actually does this when he’s following the boat in a helicopter and sees them heading directly for the Statue. What’s weird is that Mark goes “Oh yeah, luz means light,” but never once tells us how there’s a connection there. Sure, we can figure it out, it probably refers to the torch or something, but that’s never explicitly stated. I should quote page 154:

Suddenly Mark saw what was directly ahead. The Statue of Liberty! Of course! How stupid and dense of him. Operation Luz. Light! They would try to blow up the symbol of American liberty and freedom for so many.

But since he’s in a helicopter that means he gets to set up one of his patented Penetrator setups. He is able to do this because not only did Mark not think that these terrorists might target one of our nation’s most recognizable national treasures, no one else did either.

There is maybe one security guard at the Statue and he was the guy working there anyway.

COME ON

Great line, page 155:

He ran for the big metal lady.

Mark ambushes the FALN guys and at one point gets shot in the arm, which was surprising because he usually gets shot in the thigh. He takes out plenty of guys and works his way up to the observation deck, where he sees El Chico planting the bomb. Mark tries to talk him down, saying that this mission is dumb and pointing out that the people of Puerto Rico voted to be an American territory already. El Chico doesn’t listen to him. Mark is parked under a stairwell or something, but El Chico’s got him cornered. If he emerges he’ll be dead in seconds.

Fortunately he’s got a grenade. So he throws it.

You would think the explosion would mean that the Penetrator universe is down a national monument now, but no, it explodes in an air burst that just happens to knock El Chico off the statue without setting off the bomb that he was standing next to. Mark takes some shrapnel to the thigh.

He gets hit in the thigh with something in every book, I swear! That is so rad.

So Mark is here on the Statue of Liberty with a giant bomb just as the authorities are rolling in. I’m not entirely sure what alerted them? Whatever did, Mark’s in trouble because he’s America’s #1 Most Wanted Dude already. They’d be more than happy to think he’s a bomb-happy terrorist.

So he throws his weapons in the river, which includes Ava, his high-tech dart gun. This is weird to me, because Ava shows up in later books, but he doesn’t retrieve it in this one, so he either does so in a later book or he gets a replacement.

And then, gunshot wound in the arm and shrapnel wound in the thigh, Mark swims back to the mainland and walks to Joanna’s apartment, where he finally collapses. Just in case you forgot that he’s supposed to be the biggest badass of all time.

Joanna knows a nurse who does house calls and gets Mark all patched up. He decides to crash with her for a little while before heading off on his next adventure, and then the book ends.

So apart from the fact that every law enforcement agency in New York City is apparently incompetent, and that includes The Penetrator, when it comes to suspecting that maybe terrorists would like to blow up the Statue of Liberty, this book was pretty fun. It didn’t stand out very much compared to later books, which is frequently the case, but it had plenty of good action.

I don’t remember if any of the other Penetrator books I’ve read had chapter titles, but this one did, and they are great. Sample titles include “A Cut in Time Saves Mine,” “Here’s Lead in Your Eye,” and “Fragging the Lady.” Fantastic.

There is one big trigger warning moment in the book involving a kidnapped teen girl. It made me VERY angry when it happened because it didn’t do anything for the plot. It was treated like a generic bad situation that Mark rescued someone from, and like plenty of times when something like this happens it had no consequences for anyone. Sure, the FALN dudes involved probably got what they deserved, but we don’t know that for sure. They were nameless guys, and the whole thing was just pointless other than, I guess, to establish that these FALN guys were bad. Like we didn’t know that from seeing them blow up people. So be warned if you pick this one up.

So there you go. Not the best of the series, but pretty enjoyable.

Oh! And the fact that I read this book the weekend of July 4 is completely coincidental. I swear. Whether you believe me or not, I hope you had a safe and happy Independence Day.

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