…is prepared for trouble in New York City, but he’d hoped to arrive in time to prevent it. The first subway station blew up while he was still en route from California, piloting a sleek new twin-engine plane. It was fast, but not fast enough to get him there in time to stop the 72nd Street IRT station from caving in, carrying a large section of Broadway with it.
A Third World group, an alliance of Afro-Asian students, the Eusi Dhahabu, has been formed in Harlem. It says that they are working for racial equality, but they are asking for money. Lots of it. Exactly two million dollars in unmarked, used twenty-dollar bills. If they do not get the cash promptly, twelve more subway stations will go. During rush hours. With thousands of people in them.
Responsible blacks cannot infiltrate the group. They have tried. How, then, can the Penetrator? Honkies stand out in Harlem. Somehow Hardin must reach back into his Indian past for a disguise that will work…and fast. There are forty-two subway stations in New York City, and time is running out.
Hooray, hooray, another Penetrator novel. I’m going to guess that I don’t have to yet again introduce the fact that I love these things yet again. You’ve probably figured that out. If not, feel free to jump back and find some of my older reviews. Just bear in mind I’m not doing these books in any kind of order other than the one in which I find them or they are found for me. This makes things interesting.
Hijacking Manhattan is an early book in the series and, since it’s an even-numbered one, it’s written by Chet Cunningham. Even though the later books have better (wackier) storylines, I find it fascinating to read the earlier ones because they set up the universe so well. I’ve commented before how surprising it is that these books have so much continuity. A lot of the surprise comes from the fact that it’s so hard to take these books seriously that I can’t even imagine the authors doing so, but still more surprise comes from the fact that two people were writing these books. I can’t help but imagine that Chet and Mark Roberts were writing simultaneously―it would be a huge waste of time otherwise―so it’s amazing that they were able to share notes and plots and characters and events so well. There’s no indication that they would have regular sit-downs and plot things out and create a series bible or anything like that, so I don’t know. Maybe they did. For all I know, they wrote their separate books in the same room. I would love to know more about their process.
This book introduces us to a regular character, one we’ve met again in books 10 and 18, but I’m sure shows up in quite a few books other than those. She’s Joanna Tabler, and she’s Mark Hardin’s love interest for every book she shows up in. One of the things that fascinate me about Mark Hardin is that he doesn’t have a different special lady for every single book. There are recurring love interests, and from what I’ve seen, they don’t intersect. Mark isn’t a two-timer. I expect that something terrible will happen to Joanna at some point, since in book 29 he meets Angie and they become a couple for lots of books after that, but so far I don’t know what.
This book also has one of the most problematic plots that this series has featured. These days, race is a complicated and touchy subject for many people, and with good reason. I’m one of those people. It’s easy to get squicked out by a book from the seventies that deals with race. Things were different then. To be fair, Mark Hardin never comes across as a racist, but lots of other characters are. They’re usually bad guys, but not always. And then there’s the way the book itself treats people. The dialogue in this one is very…unenlightened. To make it worse, this book deals with not one but two minority races, so we get the moral equivalent of conversations that go
“Yo, honkey, whassup my chinky soul brotha?”
“Ching chang bling blang!”
Yep, this book deals with an unholy alliance between African-Americans and the godless Chinese, and it’s awful.
The back cover matter indicates that the whole plot revolves around blowing up subway stations and the threat of blowing up more. This is not true. This is only the plot for the first, oh, half of the book. Maybe. One subway station is blown up, but it’s done at a time when nobody gets hurt. It just leaves a gaping hole in the New York ground, causing delays and freaking a lot of people out. It’s around this time that the Penetrator shows up.
The group that does the damage calls itself Eusi Dhahabu, which we’re told is Swahili for “Black Gold.” They say that they’re going to blow up more subway stations, this time with people in and around them, if their demands aren’t met. They want two million dollars and they have a very specific set of instructions for delivery. The City of New York meets those demands and no more subway stations are destroyed.
Meanwhile, Mark is trying to figure out what’s going on. One of his methods is to investigate both the Chinese and African-American communities of New York and see what he can find out. From the former, he learns that one of the higher-ups in Black Gold is a Chinese woman named Soo Lin, who is apparently nothing but evil incarnate. From the latter, he learns about Abdul Daley, who, apart from being black, has one other identifying feature, in that he is also short. He is the leader of Black Gold.
Mark’s method of talking to the African-American community in Harlem is, as you might have guessed from the back cover, to go in blackface. I’ll be honest, I expected to find this hilariously offensive. Yes, Mark does end up talking in jive and it’s remarkably stupid. There’s also the fact that he doesn’t actually learn much from the experience, just ends up in a fight and kills at least one person. But, in the end, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was treated more along the lines of Black Like Me than, say, The Two Black Crows. It’s not excusable, but it’s better than it might have been.
Like her later appearances, Joanna Tabler mainly exists to be pretty. At this point (and I think later?) she’s helping run a private firm called Diogenes Investigations, a high-tech detective agency that occasionally works for the U.S. Government. She’s not actually working on the same case as Mark in this book, although one of his lines of investigation is what gets her to take an interest in what he’s doing. She doesn’t know that he’s the Penetrator for most of the book, although she figures it out near the end. Apart from that, she does little, and doesn’t actually help Mark in his mission all that much.
Black Gold learns that if it can make a demand and get rewarded for it, the logical thing to do would be to keep trying for bigger and more. They concoct a plan about halfway through the book that involves knocking out a bunch of communications towers across New York City, which succeeds, but the success didn’t feel like it had much weight to it. I honestly felt like it was tacked on to the middle portion of the book for reasons of pacing and word count. I might be wrong. I kind of zoned out for a period.
But the big deal, the one that makes this book have great big old stakes, is their final plan. Through a contact in China and Soo Lin’s wiles, Black Gold gets itself something too big to handle. It’s a virus named X-447. They have a canister of it large enough to wipe out everybody on the East Coast. Their demands are that New York City itself be handed over to Black Gold to do with as they please.
So Mark has been investigating various angles throughout the book, and it’s at about this point that he learns what he needs to do and whom to do it to. This is a regular element in these books, almost as regular as giving people sympathetic backstories before killing them brutally, something that, incidentally, doesn’t happen as often in this one as usual, but does happen bigger than it usually does.
For most of the first half of the book, we get to follow the point of view of a Lieutenant in the NYPD, a guy named Butler. He’s presented as, for the most part, a regular guy. He’s on the take, but it’s made clear that this in no way makes him special. These books have a weird relationship with the police. For the most part, officers are presented as corrupt and useless, but at the same time, you get at least one or two every book that are decent, upstanding officers. Butler is the former, but he’s still presented as a fairly decent guy. He spends the first half of the book, off and on, investigating Black Gold. I think their first bombing took place in his jurisdiction. He eventually helps set up the two million dollar drop off, but he also is dead set on catching the perpetrators. He fails and even gets killed in action. He attempts to tail the drop-off car and ends up being intercepted by bad guys and knocked off the road. It’s also pretty sad, but at the same time there’s this bit where his car is flipped over, his arm is broken, and he’s thinking, “You know, a lot of TV shows and movies would have the car blow up about this time, but that’s just silly. Very few cars catch fire after crashing, and even fewer explode. That’s just crazy stuff.”
He thinks that right up until his car explodes.
Mark hires a helicopter to drop him off at the not-secret-enough Black Gold secret base. He’s loaded down with all sorts of weaponry, as you’d expect, and he uses it. This final showdown is where Cunningham’s books really shine. It’s like he’s able to write in slow motion, giving us every gory detail without really making the action seem overloaded. There are fewer head explosions and spine eruptions in this sequence than in some of the other books, but it’s interesting that when he faces off against Soo Lin, it’s remarked that he shoots her straight through the left nipple.
The final showdown with Abdul is just great. It’s one of those things where the bad guy is holding on to the precious cargo, in this case the container of X-447, and saying something like “You wouldn’t dare try to shoot at me and risk hitting this container of something that will destroy the world,” at which point our hero shoots the bad guy anyway. Abdul drops the container, which Mark grabs, but he’s still alive and attempts to turn on a steam vent.
Now, the important thing about this container is that it needs to be cold. If the container gets to more than 20º above zero (I’m assuming Fahrenheit), it’ll release the virus. If this steam hits the thing, it’ll explode, killing everybody.
So Mark stops him by hitting him with a phosphorous grenade. It’s very gross.
In most books the story might jump to the conclusion at this point, but this one bucks that trend. Mark still has to escape this compound with the container of virus, and he’s on a timer. What makes this climax interesting to me is that yes, there is a timer, but it’s not, well, time-based. It’s temperature-based, and it’s not really clear just how quickly this temperature is ticking up. I’m sure some clever girl or boy could tell me based on Newton’s Law of Cooling exactly how much time Mark has to escape, but I don’t think an outdoor temperature is ever actually given to us. I know that’s January and it’s described as regular weather for January, so I suppose you could use that.
Still, the point is that Mark needs to hurry, but it’s not clear just how much he has to hurry, and that makes it scarier.
Even scarier is that on his way out, Mark gets gut-shot by one of the Black Gold members, which slows him down. This entire sequence had me reading furiously. Even though I knew that Mark was going to get out alive and that entire East Coast wasn’t going to be wiped out by a virus, I was hooked. This is good storytelling.
Mark’s helicopter buddy arrives just in time. Mark hands him the container of virus, which he delivers to the police and their cryogenic storage unit (standard issue). Mark himself gets dropped off earlier since he can’t risk being captured and revealed to the public. He eventually meets up with Joanna again, who gets him all fixed up and they are able to relax a little bit and it’s all good.
Despite being racially problematic, this wasn’t the worst Penetrator novel I’ve read. It was action-packed and well-told. As for the race stuff, all I can really say is that it wasn’t much worse than anything else you’d read or see in 1974. I wish I could say that this book was more enlightened than its contemporary media, but I can’t say that. After all, this isn’t a genre that tends to be more woke than its contemporaries in the first place. Sometimes it’s gross, but the past is that past, and sometimes we just need to accept that and try to do better in the future.
Sometimes, I think about how important it is to read things like that, things that today would be incredibly offensive to many right-minded people. For one, it helps us realize how far we’ve come since then. It also helps to show, in big bright letters, what not to do and how not to write, something that, if you only read things written in the past few years, might go under the radar. Sometimes being offended is useful.
On the other hand, this book did something that was truly offensive, something I can’t forgive. I didn’t mention it in the summary, but I want you all to know about it in case you decide to pick this one up for yourselves. The cop who drops off the money near the beginning of the book—who is incidentally a woman— gets captured by the bad guys and is gang raped. It is disgusting and horrible and needless. It existed solely to prove to the reader that the bad guys were, in fact, bad guys, and that’s the only reason this woman had to go through abject horror. To make things even worse, she’s never heard from again after that.
I just can’t bear that. The book was otherwise good, but this is something I won’t get over, so I’m going to say that if you’re wanting to read a Penetrator novel, don’t read this one.