Alarmed over the increasing number of mysterious deaths among the black population, the Penetrator rushes to Indianapolis, where he learns that a strange epidemic of sickle cell anemia is sweeping the country.
Then, hearing that a similar situation is occurring in Puerto Rico, Mark Hardin flies to San Juan…and finds out that a deranged toxicologist has developed a secret formula that triggers the fatal disease…an invisible death spray to infect those susceptible, killing them one by one…
It’s a race against the clock as the Penetrator searches for the insane scientist responsible for dealing sudden death to the blacks, and discovers the shocking reason for his deadly revenge…
Golly gosh, this Penetrator was pretty uncomfortable to read. In fact:
THIS BOOK HAD A LOT OF RACISM IN IT
This one wasn’t the most uncomfortable I’ve felt while reading a Penetrator novel. That honor belongs to three books down the line, Hawaiian Trackdown. Oddly enough, this book name drops Preacher Mann, the villain from that one, and for a second I thought that was foreshadowing but it turns out Mark dealt with him once before, in book 24 (Cryogenic Nightmare) and that’s what the character was referencing, so I was a little let down.
On the up side, this is our first encounter with Dr. Raymond Barr, the sort-of villain we meet again in book #49: Satan’s Swarm, which might be one of my favorites of the series. It’s not Submarine Mafia Pirates, but it comes close.
Let’s look at the cover of this one for a moment. I think the first thing anybody will notice is that this is not a flattering image of Mark Hardin, the Penetrator. I would assume he’s giving a karate chop to something or somebody, but it looks…off. Part of it is that if he follows through with that karate chop, he’s gonna hit his own gun. I don’t know as much about combat as the Penetrator does, but I still know enough to think that isn’t a good idea. Don’t go around karate chopping guns, people. It’s just not safe.
On the other hand, we’ve got a woman that my roommate says is posing for a commercial about feminine hygiene products, a man so Big Pimpin’ that his name is a bass riff, and Howard Hesseman finishing up his science experiment while Kirstie Alley begs him to come back to bed.
Who does chemistry in their bedroom? Why does his entire science setup consist of three beakers, a test tube, and a bunsen burner? And that stand, I guess. What are those called?
You know what I miss? Red and white horizontal stripes. I feel like they were a lot more popular in the seventies. They’ve shown up on Penetrator covers a few times, I think, and despite the fact that they make people look like Waldo—no, nix that, because they make people look like Waldo—they’re due for a comeback.
Hold on, I have to record my episode of NPR’s This I Believe.
Okay, I guess I ought to tell you what happens in this book. This is going to be hard. Not because the plot is convoluted. It’s straightforward and, actually, a good bit of storytelling. In terms of constructing a narrative, I want to give Lionel Derrick (Mark Roberts this time) a thumb up.
For the first half of the book or so, Mark is investigating some kind of shenanigans that might violate antitrust laws. Somebody is buying up various bits of the fishing industry somewhere and is also using some underhanded tactics to get a monopoly going. For a long time I was all “What does this have to do with what is obviously going to be a really uncomfortable plot line?” but it worked itself out in the end.
You know what? I’m going to take back half of that thumb up. Because the way this part of the plot and the genocide part of the plot tie together is simply this: the same guy is doing both things. The two things are unconnected except that the company funding the genocide and the company trying to force small businesses out of the fishing industry in an isolated area are owned by the same person. His name is Armbrewster. Mark learns that there’s a connection when, in the course of investigating the fish thing, a goon outright blurts the fact that Armbrewster is trying to kill off the entire black race. No joke.
The book starts off even more uncomfortable. Dr. Raymond Barr, a happily-married science man, is walking his wife to the car when they get jumped by a trio of troublemakers. They rob the both of them, nab Dr. Barr’s wife, beat him unconscious, steal the car, and run away.
Now, the takeaway here is that these three troublemakers were black. And things start to get uncomfortable and weird.
You know what? Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to assume that The Penetrator is a science fiction series from here on out. You know how I can get away with it? It obviously doesn’t take place on this planet. Here’s my evidence:
See, the people who beat up and robbed Dr. Barr and then brutally murdered his wife are set free. This is because the universe The Penetrator takes place in has an “ultra-liberal court system” that “gives black people a free pass” because they’re “the real victims.”
So because Dr. Barr lives on Right-Wing Nightmare World, he cracks. The people who murdered his beautiful wife won’t be brought to justice, so his decides that the only viable thing to do is seek out revenge not on the people who did the crime, but on their entire race.
This is what brings him to Armbrewster, who has a stupid name. Armbrewster also wants revenge on African-Americans, because he has a similar tragedy in his past. He lost his daughter to her drug-dealing boyfriend, who also happened to be black. He doesn’t want to wipe them out, though. He’s got much more sinister plans.
One of the reasons the racism in this book is so uncomfortable is that one can almost, and I mean almost and I am not justifying this plot or racism at all, understand why it’s happening, at least in Dr. Barr’s case. He’s not rational. He lost the person he loves most in the whole world. His mind, in its grief, casts about for reasons why this kind of thing would happen. He doesn’t come to the conclusion that society is at fault (in fact, the courts on Penetrator planet do pronounce that this is the case). He doesn’t decide that the three individuals that hurt him were bad people. No, his broken mind decides that it’s due to the inherent faults of an entire race of people. Yes, that’s terrible. But I want to emphasize that this book makes it clear that Dr. Barr is batshit insane.
On the other hand there’s Armbrewster, who is literally a monster. He doesn’t have that justification, and there’s nothing that makes us feel sorry for him or identify with him or anything. He’s just a racist asshole.
And then it turns out that I lost sympathy for Dr. Barr pretty quickly. Once he hooks up with Armbrewster, who takes him to Puerto Rico to work on his super-secret science project, Barr also meets up with a hippie commune (holy god Lionel Derrick hates hippies) called The Scum of the Earth. Barr hangs around them for a while, and because hippies are ethics-less monsters who just follow their ids all over the place, Barr gets to do a lot of drugs and sleep with a lot of teenaged girls. Yup, not only is he a racist, he’s a pedophile! Great job, book!
Apart from pedophilia, this book has something else in common with Hawaiian Trackdown, my least favorite in the series. See, the victims of this villain plot aren’t treated like people. They’re just tools to show us that the villains are evil. Lots of people die in this book. Innocent people. In a terrible way. And nobody seems to care all that much. The media reports on it like it’s just this weird thing. Mark has to stop the bad guys not because they’re racist murderers, but because he tracks down bad guys who do bad things. There’s no emotional resonance here, and the villains could be doing any old thing and it wouldn’t matter.
That’s almost not true. Mark gets help from a police officer, Captain Nero, who is not a time-traveling Romulan but rather a man of African descent. He’s the human face on the potential tragedy of this book, and while he’s treated like “Just a good cop who happens to be black,” it did bug me that his name is just one letter away from being Captain Negro.
So what’s the plot?
At first Armbrewster and Barr think the best way to genocide is to exploit the fact that people of African descent are genetically vulnerable to Sickle Cell Anemia. They figure there’s got to be a way to give all the black people SCA and be done with it. I figured that was going to be what happens.
Oddly enough, it’s not, and it’s a weird bit of detail here that what does happen is Dr. Barr finds a way of killing African-Americans in a way that just makes it look like they suddenly contracted and died of Sickle Cell Anemia. It’s some kind of toxic spray.
Mark catches onto this whole plot about halfway through the book, which is interesting because it gives the villains enough time to get the ball rolling. A lot of people die before Mark comes along. They’re not even named.
If you read my review of Hawaiian Trackdown you might recall that I was so disgusted with how child abuse was just a tool to make villains villainous that I ended up donating money to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Well, this book got me so mad that I ended up sending some money to the NAACP. Something good needed to come out of this book.
We find out that Armbrewster’s real plan isn’t to wipe out the whole race, but just enough to incite a race war.
Oh man, at least this plot is needlessly convoluted. I love these.
So he wants to kill a bunch of African-Americans and then let it slip that it was a deliberate plot by some white people. This should cause riots and stuff, eventually escalating to war. Armbrewster hedges his bets that this is a war the black people would lose. Having won the War of the Races, white people would be able to ascend to their rightful place on top (a place that, since this is a fantasy sci-fi wacky world, they no longer occupy) and bring back slavery.
Enter Mark Hardin. He actually kills fewer people in this book than I’m used to. Most of the dead villains are main guys. There are a few goons, but unusually we learn very little about their lives before the moment their hearts explode.
Mark ends up flying back and forth between Indianapolis and Puerto Rico a lot in this book. I’ll skip most of that and get to the ending.
Dr. Barr ends up being captured. I wasn’t surprised by this because at some point he has to harness giant killer insects on behalf of Red China. Another goon, Lessor, gets shot by Mark, but not before he manages to kill Captain Nero. His death sends Mark into a fugue state for about a half a page.
Armbrewster is the only one left. Mark gives chase and they end up at an old fort (they’re in Puerto Rico). There’s some running around and some punching and some gunfire, but what kills Armbrewster, rather unexpectedly I thought, is a cannon. Some bullets hit a chain holding a cannon on the wall or something, and it comes crashing down onto Armbrewster in a way that was surprising because I felt like I missed something.
One thing about this series is that it usually doesn’t go in for the whole “Cool line after the bad guy dies” thing that a lot of action movies do. But this one tried.
“Well,” he observed with a shrug as he turned away, “as they say, it’s always an unloaded gun that accidentally kills someone.”
Does anybody say that? What does that mean? I assume it’s related to why my granddad taught me that every gun is a loaded gun. And that makes a lot of sense. It’s Safety Rule #1, or at least it ought to be if it’s not. But to go from there to an Action Movie Line because a cannon fell on somebody is a bit of a stretch. Sorry, Mark, it didn’t work.
What did work was this scene where he was in a gunfight with some hippies. One of the hippies was like “I know! I’ve seen a lot of westerns! I’ll just flip this table over and use it for armor.” And then the table does nothing and the guy gets chopped to pieces.
So while this book was uncomfortable and made me really mad sometimes, it did have its moments.
One thing it brought to mind is how the narration in this book shifted as the point of view did. See, often it wasn’t a character talking about “ultraliberal judges” and “criminals’ rights being more important than victims’ rights” or anything like that. Those things were narrated. It occurred to me that for a long time I’ve assumed that out-of-character narration is the author telling us what he or she thinks. That this is the part that’s outside the story, sort of meta to it. This is what you, the audience, need to know and think.
This book challenged that because while the narrator kept saying all these racist and frankly stupid things, it only did it when it was focused on, say, Dr. Barr or Armbrewster or whoever. Whenever Mark was the focus, this kind of thing didn’t happen. The narration for him is fairly straightforward, although it does have some editorializing of its own, which might not come as a surprise.
Mark Hardin’s narration never had any explicit racism in it, it never really came out against it, either, and that’s problematic. Nor did Mark confirm or deny the existence of a criminal justice system that doesn’t treat African-Americans as inherently guilty (what a weird world to imagine).
I guess the upshot here is that nameless omniscient third-person narrators are not to be trusted all the time. This is a neat lesson for me to only now be picking up.
The other thing I want to leave you with is that this book actually began with Mark hanging around with Angie, whom he met in Aryan Onslaught. She and the kids are doing okay. The prologue to this book tells us about something that I thought would be important later on, but was never mentioned again. It would seem, though, that there are Penetrator fan clubs springing up all over the country. Angie and the kids just joined one.
What’s weird about this is that it’s described as
“Sort of a takeoff on ‘Trekking’ and the Trekees who are freaked out over ‘Star Trek.'”
- Nobody spells Trekkie that way.
- Television show titles are supposed to be italicized, not quoted.
- What the hell is “Trekking?”
I’ll leave you with that.