That familiar byline on millions of copies of Executioner novels has now become a guarantee of the most exciting writing in a whole new category of hard-hitting adventure fiction.
Don Pendleton had written more than thirty books before writing the first book in the Executioner series, War Against the Mafia, a few years ago. That was the start of what is now America’s hottest action series. With thirty-two volumes complete and three more on the drawing board, Don has little time for writing anything but Executioner books. Each book is written in about six weeks as Don simultaneously gathers and directs the research for upcoming adventures.
A much-decorated veteran of World War II, Don saw action in the North Atlantic U-boat wars, the invasion of North Africa, and the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He later led a team of naval scouts, who landed in Tokyo preparatory to the Japanese surrender. As if that weren’t enough, he went back for more in Korea, too!
Before turning to full-time duty at the typewriter, Don held down positions as a railroad telegrapher, air traffic controller, aeronautical systems engineer, and even had a hand in the early ICBM and Moonshot programs.
He’s the father of six and now makes his home in a small town in Indiana. He does his writing amidst a unique collection of weapons, photos, and books—usually half-buried in research, news clippings, and maps. Whether it’s Boston, Cleveland, or Nashville, you’ll get the feeling Don and Mack were there.
Holy Hutts that is a lot of text on the back of this book. At least 200 words. And none of it is about this book at all, it’s just all biographical information for Don Pendleton, which is fine, I guess, although it meant that I didn’t have much of any idea what was going to happen when I started this book. That’s a new feeling. I’m a rabid consumer of jacket and flap copy. It sustains me.
The front is great, though. Mack Bolan is a handsome guy. Look how casually he’s shooting to something on his left. Is it the giant topless lady with the guitar, or the syringe that, until partway through the book, I thought was a rocket?
Has anyone else ever referred to Nashville as the “golden capital of country music?”
I’m sure some of you are confused right now. “Thomas,” you might be saying, “Aren’t you a Penetrator man, through and through?”
The answer to that is yes, of course, I get all the man fantasy I need from Lionel Derrick, but this book crossed my path thanks to a friend of mine (Shout out to Patty! Woo Patty!), and I told her I would read it and review it, and besides all that, it takes place in Nashville, which makes it a must read.
I read another book that took place in Nashville back in January, and while it was okay, one of the things I lamented was that it really didn’t capture the feel of Nashville very much. I bet anybody reading any book that takes place in a city with which they are familiar is going to feel that way. To a lot of authors, a city is just a label to throw on the setting so that people know it takes place somewhere. And that’s okay. I don’t expect every book to be about the place it’s in, although I can appreciate it when they are. Not everybody is James Agee.
I bring this up because Tennessee Smash also takes place in Nashville, but not in any Nashville I’ve ever visited. To be fair, I don’t hang around country music studios, Mafia headquarters, or barns full of heroin, so there’s that element. And unlike the author of that other Nashville book, Don Pendleton at least did just enough research to know that the river that flows through that city is the Cumberland, not the Tennessee. He has my appreciation there.
Don does give us some exposition at the start of one chapter—actually he gives us exposition at the start of most chapters—that’s all about Nashville. He paints a pretty good picture of the city, to be honest, and that’s something I’ve learned is a Pendleton specialty. Some of the text he used seemed like it was cribbed straight from a travel guide or a pamphlet of some kind, but I tend to read the kinds of book where a bare minimum of research is a cause for celebration.
This book deals with the Mafia, which I believe is the case in most, if not all, Executioner books. I mean, the very first book in the series was just called War Against the Mafia, so I guess we know what we’re getting into there. In particular, this one concerns itself with a Mafia guy setting up shop in Nashville, Tennessee, and using it as a base of operations for bad Mafia things.
Even further in particular, Bolan gets roped in by two close friends of his, Toby Ranger (who is an attractive woman) and Tommy Anders (who almost has my name). They are members of SOG, the Special Operations Group. While Bolan works outside the law, the SOG is legit, so Toby and Tommy should be his enemies, but that’s not the case for some reason or another. He is known to have worked with them on more than one occasion, and while I’m jumping ahead of myself a bit, I want to point out that at the end of this book they offer him a job and clemency for his “crimes.” He promises to think about it.
The problem now is that another two members of SOG have been captured while investigating this Nashville Mafia scene, and SOG wants Mack to find them. In the meantime, he does his level best to take down this Mafia operation altogether, and the way he does it is pretty inspired.
The Mafia capo in Nashville is a guy named Copa. Seeing as how his name is just the word capo mixed around a bit, I found that odd, but I ran with it. Bolan is a master of infiltration, and one of his major strengths is having contacts the world over who can help him do the things he needs to do. This stands in contrast to Mark Hardin, who is also great at infiltration, but in a more solitary-sneaking-through-the-shadows way. Bolan convinces Copa that he’s a big shot from New York, something called a Black Ace, which from what I could gather was an elite assassin-type guy that no Mafioso with a brain would attempt to cross. Bolan was able to gain all the necessary paperwork and code words and stuff from some guy who has also infiltrated the Mafia as a double-agent.
Copa takes Bolan, who calls himself Omega for this part, into his trust. Bolan then spends a good portion of the book convincing Copa that one of his cronies is getting ready to make a move. Copa takes him at his word, gets all enraged because the Mafia is an organization of trust and loyalty and all that, and then sends a bunch of men to take down this upstart. This takes care of a lot of Mafia soldiers that Bolan would have had to kill later, thus saving a lot of trouble.
Compared to a Penetrator book, there was little violence in this one. It was more about intrigue, I think, and it worked well. When violence did happen, though, Pendleton turned out to be a freakin’ poet at describing it. From page 161:
He took that one first, with a bone-shattering headshot that sent juices spraying into the moonbeams, then tracked immediately onto the other targets.
It’s like something out of a samurai movie.
On the other hand, most chapters would end with a turn of phrase not unlike the one on page 111:
“But it’s your game,” Copa said, still smiling wryly.
Bolan hoped that was true.
Yeah. He certainly hoped that it was.
Those three lines are characteristic of some of the worst writing in this book. The tone seemed to flip back and forth between this odd noir-sounding stuff that didn’t quite work and descriptions of things that bordered on prose poetry. Reading this novel made for a wild ride.
Mack finds the first hostage and frees her early in the book. The other SOG person took longer, and was saved at the end of the book. All the while he’s also being hounded by Copa’s hot wife, a notable country music singer who got roped into Mafia stuff against her will. There’s a big chunk of book where Bolan sets out to rescue her, figuring more than anything that she’ll be a good source of information. I don’t think she’s supposed to be the topless lady on the front of the book. In fact, I have no idea who that is supposed to be.
I never felt like this book had much of a climax. Yeah, there was a bit of a firefight and some sneaky garrote-play as the book wound down, but it didn’t seem to have much weight to it. Mack does get shot in the leg, something I’ve come to believe happens to every action-adventure hero in every book ever.
Mack, having saved both hostages, has a talk with Copa. Bolan is still in character as Omega, the Black Ace, and explains why he had to take Copa’s wife away. Copa begrudgingly agrees. Mack leaves again with a bit of exposition stating that Copa’s time will come soon enough.
I can’t review this book without drawing more comparisons to The Penetrator. While The Executioner lacked that trademark Lionel Derrick style choice of giving us a goon’s backstory just before they get their head caved in by a giant bullet, Don Pendleton’s writing tended to be more on the expository side. I think he liked to show off his research. There were lots of times when pages and pages of information would flow forth all about how the Mafia is set up, or their ranking system, or their weird loyalty dynamic that doesn’t make sense to anybody outside the organization. All sorts of stuff like that. It was often about half exposition and half editorializing. It worked, though.
It’s hard to say why it worked so well, but man did this book flow. Even with long breaks to talk about how Nashville was just a small town that grew up, this book had some great pacing.
Oh, one thing that stood out as bad, though, was that this book could get flippant on the subject of sexual violence. It uses the word rape a little too often, as well as some of its synonyms. Nobody gets raped in the book, but I got a nasty taste in my mouth from some of the conversations had between characters. I don’t think Mack was an offender, but I could be misremembering.
Pendleton also had this tendency to give his characters nicknames? That was weird. At one point the narration calls our hero “Bolan the Quick.” He gets other names throughout the book, referring to something he’d just done, but other times he’d get a one-off nickname from another character. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
And it bears repeating that Mack Bolan’s primary strength seems to be in knowing the right people, which is something I found cool. Whereas most heroes will have a tool for every need, Mack seems to have a friend instead, somebody who can hook him up with knowledge, an alibi, or whatever. I liked that a lot, although I can imagine in some books it might come across as a little deus ex machina. Of course, the same is true of gadgets and guns, so there you go.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t my first Don Pendleton book, too. Remember Civil War II? That was Don writing under a pseudonym. I just remembered that. I feel like this book was plenty different from the other, even in terms of tone and stuff, so it’s hard for me to picture them as by the same person. Weird.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although part of me feels like it might be one of the weaker ones in the series. I don’t know what makes me think that, not having read any, but call it intuition or whatever and we’ll leave it at that. It won’t take the place of The Penetrator in my heart of hearts, though, unless Mack Bolan gets into some wackier adventures than dealing with Mafiosos who want to sell drugs. The Penetrator got, you know, submarine mafia pirates, giant bugs, and mindwarping Aryan Brotherhood types. I like the insanity you get in a Mark Hardin adventure. But if you’ve never read any man-fantasy before and you’re looking for a good place to get massively entertained, you can’t go wrong with Mack Bolan.