The Penetrator #1: The Target is H

The Penetrator 1The Penetrator #1: The Target is H by Lionel Derrick
Pinnacle Books, 1973
Price I paid: 50¢


The Penetrator. He’d learned how in Vietnam. Infiltrate the enemy’s position, determine the plan of action and then strike swiftly, taking out as many key men as possible, wreaking destruction, leaving chaos in your wake.

Now he was in Los Angeles, engaged in a new, far more sinister war. But he was fully prepared and totally committed, and bound by no rules but his own.

He is tall and slim, reflecting his unique Indian-Welsh background. His driver’s licence indicates his age is twenty-eight. If he seems a bit grim, it is for good reason.

He was orphaned at four, when his parents and three brothers and sisters were killed in an automobile crash. Since then he’s been mistreated, brutalized by life, injured in games (football), and wounded in combat. But he’s survived. Mark Hardin is tough, a survivor. And an expert. Marksmanship, karate, aikido, and even the crossbow, are part of his arsenal.

He is a new breed of warrior—without uniform, without rank—dedicated to the American way of life, and pledged to fight anyone who seeks to destroy it. On either side of the law. That’s why he’s in Los Angeles. Just the beginning of a long and lonely series of brushfire wars.

Holy nuts that back cover is long. Good job, publisher guy. I hope you got paid by the word.

Folks, it finally happened! I took a trip to my local used-book store and made my usual look around the action-adventure area hoping I’d find a Penetrator that I didn’t already have. I’m usually disappointed. This time I was not. I found four books and one of them was, of all the possibilities, number one in the series!

I’ve been dying to read this one ever since I got into these novels. Mostly I wanted to see how the writing was at the start, but I was also hoping that it would have more background information. I thought it would be interesting to see how Mark Hardin began his war on crime. Would we meet his family? Would we get to experience first-hand the trouble in Vietnam that led to his medical discharge, depression, and redemption at the hands of Willard Haskins and David Red Eagle?

Now that I’ve read it, all I can say is…kind of.

Honestly, here at the beginning of the series we get to see flashbacks to a lot of the same things we’ve seen in flashbacks in later books. Mark was injured playing football at UCLA when he refused to throw a game for the Mafia. He broke up a corruption ring in the Army that led to his fellow soldiers beating him half to death. He met Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle, fell in love with the Professor’s lovely niece, and then lost her in a tragic incident involving, again, the Mafia. All of those things have been referenced again in later books, although looking back it’s possible I didn’t mention them then. Sorry.

Book #1 does come hot on the heels of Mark’s loss of his girlfriend Donna. The Mafia tried to kill them both but only succeeded in killing her, so Mark has sworn that he will kill one hundred Mafiosos. That’s backstory, but it was during that backstory that Mark discovered the Mafia’s current plans, so he’s off to put a stop to them, almost making the start of this book in medias res.

The Mafia’s big scheme this time isn’t anything special. Nothing comparing to Submarine Mafia Pirates. It’s very simple. They’ve entered into a contract with some mysterious person to sell some very pure heroin. The person seems to be foreign. All of the heroin-money swaps are with Chinese men, and the guy on the phone has a British accent. He has a ridiculous British accent, I should mention. Subtlety is not the name of the game in these books, and every time we hear this guy, “His Lordship,” talk, it’s chock full of “right-ho” and “Bob’s your uncle” and so forth. I don’t want to jump too far ahead, I found this especially funny when we found out who this guy was.

First off, we get a Capo named Charlie “The Horse” Cavallera. One thing this book has is bad formatting. Pinnacle Books paid very little attention to making this anything but a cheap paperback. I can’t really blame them for this, but still, it’s full of typos, errors, and some of the worst margin-work I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the text comes right up to the very end of the pages. We’re talking five millimeter margins here. It’s often pretty crooked, too. Just like the GOVERNMENT.

I’m not getting political, I’m just giving you a hint as to what happens at the end of this book.

Okay, I’m also getting a little political. Sometimes the thing I love most about these books is how the establishment authority figures are usually no better than the hoods and gangsters Mark fights throughout the book. Usually the ending reveals that the whole thing was set up by, say, “legitimate” businessmen, or corrupt cops, or, in this case a U.S. Senator.

Dammit, I was saving that!

I brought up the bad formatting because Charlie “The Horse” Cavallera goes back and forth between being Charlie “The Horse” Cavallera and Charlie The Horse Cavallera. All the Mafiosos in this book have nicknames like that, and they all have unreliable quotation marks denoting their nicknames.

Anyway, Charlie gets five whole pages of backstory before Mark shoots him in the head with a sniper rifle.

I’m SO glad to see that this staple of the series exists from its very start. I can’t tell you how glad I am about it. Just…it’s amazing. I love having all this backstory on goons that die and are never heard from again. Sure, their death might lead to other things, namely the Don swearing revenge or something, but there’s something crazy about setting up this baddie as a real person over pages and pages of backstory and then killing them.

Things Mark does not yet have at this point in the story include:

  1. The Combat Catalog (Not sure when they started printing that in the books)
  2. Sho-to-ça Magical Indian powers (I may have misspelled that)
  3. AVA, his silent CO2-powered dart gun (he actually gets it near the end of the book after totally dissing on it until that point, after which it becomes his favorite weapon of all time)
  4. His mustache
  5. The name “The Penetrator”

Okay, #5 is the best one. He never once gets called “The Penetrator” by anybody in this book, including himself. On the other hand, though, the word “penetrate” and its derivatives come up at least a dozen times. Mark does call himself a lower-case “penetrator” at least once, but I don’t think that counts.

Mark never once has sex in this book, if that’s what you’re thinking.

I want to point out that in reading this book, part of my mind kept thinking of it as a prequel story to the later ones I’ve read. While I knew intellectually that this was the first actual Penetrator novel written, on another level my brain was treating it like a later addition to the series, sort of a The Penetrator Begins-type thing.

Mark doesn’t so much solve a mystery in this one—at least intentionally—as he does set out to kill a hundred Mafiosos. This first book in the series is really more of a revenge porn narrative than an adventure story.

Complications include the fact that all of the Mafia guys are “legit businessmen” in the eyes of the community, so both the media and the police are after Mark too, seeing as how he’s just this renegade mad dog murderer committing gangland-style killings in Southern California.

When did we, as a culture, stop calling things “gangland?”

According to Google, we apparently didn’t. My bad.

Mark kills a lot of people in this book, up to and including an episode where he infiltrates the very house of Don Scarelli while pretending to be a Mafioso himself. It’s noteworthy that Mark just happened to take five semesters of Italian while at UCLA. Coincidence, or did he know that one day it would come in handy? I mean, I took Latin. I feel like that was a mistake now.

Using his knowledge of Mafia stuff and the Italian language, Mark manages to kill a lot of people at Mafia headquarters, although Don Scarelli himself escapes unharmed. I guess we’re going to meet him again in a later book.

Senator Martyn Corvus (hey, my Latin is useful) launches a special Senate subcommittee to investigate Mark’s actions, pulling in the Feds to help track down this armed and very dangerous menace to society.

Oh, also of note is that somehow or another, I can’t remember the exact details, the Mafia not only finds out Mark’s actual name but also try to launch an assault on The Stronghold itself. In typical fashion for these books, the assault goes terribly badly for the Mafia from the outset.

In fact, there are at least two other instances in this book of the Mafia trying to ambush Mark. I can’t give Mark much credit for winning because they are really pathetic ambushes that basically go “Hey, you, Mark Hardin, meet us at so-and-so at such-and-such for a TOTALLY COOL TALKING-TO.”


We see a lot more of David Red Eagle and Professor Haskins than I’m used to. They both assist Mark in the field. This is new to me.

Each time Mark gets the jump on the Mafia guys, he makes off with lots of money and heroin. The Mafia wants that stuff back. Here’s how the ending of this book goes:

Mark sends them a ransom letter saying that he’s willing to give them the heroin and the money if they stop bugging him. They say okay and then plan on taking the money and the heroin and then killing him, because of course they would.

But Mark already knows they would so he sets up a counter-ambush.

He also insists that “His Lordship” be there. The Don agrees to this for some reason.

Mark obviously wins this war of ambushes with nary a scratch and the narrative, very clumsily, states that His Lordship was actually Senator Corvus all along because of course he was there were hints all the way through, hints that our main characters made big deals of before going “The only person who fits this would be Senator Martin Corvus, who studied in England as a Rhodes Scholar and stuff like that, but of course it’s not him.” The senator survives this final ambush and the Feds later find him unconscious in the desert holding a very large bag of very pure heroin. If these books worked anything like the real world, I’d betcha a dollar there’d be a massive coverup and he’d become president.

I still love that this American mimicking a Brit was so awful about it and the Mafia was all “Well, he says all the right things. Calls it a lift and stuff. Tally-ho, tea and crumpets, God Save the Queen. Definitely a Brit.”

The book ends properly with Professor Haskins telling Mark that he did some very good work in this book and that maybe he should use his considerable abilities more often and make the world a better place over, say, fifty-odd books.

Mark is like EFF THAT and leaves.


I unabashedly love these books.

Book one was not a letdown. I’m so glad I found it. Sure, it didn’t have the same goofy fun as some of the late books, but this was still a great action yarn that didn’t pull any punches and shows how this series just hit the ground running. Is it stupid? Yes, of course it is. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s possible for something to be really entertaining and also stupid.

I guess this is the time to tell you that Airplane is in my top three favorite movies. That may not surprise you. It might also not surprise you that it’s right up there with Billy Jack.

I want to note that this and the next ten or so books have recently (as of late last year, I think) been made available on the Kindle store, but that there are some weird things going on there. For one, all of the Amazon listings say that they’re by Chet Cunningham, which is strange to me because the odd-numbered books (including this one) were written by Mark Roberts, and for two, they refer to this first book not as The Target is H but instead as The Target H. I have no idea what is up with that. A mistake? Some kind of copyright thing? Either way, it doesn’t make me feel good about he quality of those Kindle books, so I’m thinking I’ll stay away from them. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

Until next time, keep on penetrating!

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