The Penetrator #24: Cryogenic Nightmare

The Penetrator #24: Cryogenic Nightmare by Lionel Derrick
Pinnacle Books, 1978
Price I paid: $1.50

Preacher Mann is too much for the FBI and the CIA. He has dual citizenship and friends in diplomatic circles and he’s too powerful for the regular legal channels. He’s come a long way: from a pimp in Harlem he’s worked his way to the top―of the rackets. He’s into international dope, espionage―and now, in his orgy palace off the Florida coast he’s onto a new wrinkle!

The most beautiful women in the country are systematically vanishing. And Preacher Mann is holding them on ice―literally. He’s freezing them until needed―to be shipped to the highest bidder.

Only one man can defrost the situation―the Penetrator. He must succeed where others have failed. One man on a mission that’s too cool to handle!

It’s been a solid five months since I last read a Penetrator novel. This cannot stand! Folks, it’s time to take on one of the wackiest plots these books have presented us with. This one’s on par with Aryan Onslaught and Cruise into Chaos when it comes to needlessly complex villain plans. It was a delightful read.

Diligent readers might remember Preacher Mann from another Penetrator novel I’ve read. He shows up again down the line in one of the worst books in the series, Hawaiian Trackdown. Preacher Mann is an interesting villain. He’s smart, savvy, athletic, connected, and has almost unlimited resources. He’s a villain that, all told, is a pretty good match for Mark Hardin, and when they square off, there’s definitely some tension there. Sure, we all know Mark is going to win out in the end, but the fun is in seeing how he manages to do so.

The chief difference between Mark and Preacher Mann is that Preacher Mann is unabashedly evil. He’s evil in that way that’s kind of a shame, because his evil schemes are as stupid as you can get. He’s that unbelievable level of supervillain that makes the reader stop and think, Hey, if this guy would concentrate on something legitimate, he’d be a lot more successful than he is and get away with it.

I have a hard time figuring out his motivation. One might be tempted to compare this villain to someone from comics, say Lex Luthor, who would no doubt be able to change the world for the better if he didn’t spend all his resources trying to kill Superman. The difference is that Luthor at least has a motivation: he hates Superman. His reasons for hating him might change a bit throughout his many incarnations, but that’s still the core point of the character. Preacher Mann doesn’t have anything like that. He’s not the Penetrator’s arch-enemy, hatching schemes to draw in his foe and finally take him down. He just wants money and power, which is simple enough, but he’s so abysmally stupid-evil that it just doesn’t occur to him to pursue any kind of legit ways of doing that, or at least ways that aren’t incredibly convoluted.

This is a man who drops millions upon millions of dollars to create shell companies to funnel money through, to create a mechanized island full of death traps, to single-handedly pump research into physics and biology and take it far beyond anything the scientific community has ever produced to this day. And why?

So he can freeze prostitutes.

The best explanation we get for why freezing prostitutes is a good idea is that they age and need resources. Putting them on ice apparently mitigates that. So yeah, pumping lots of money into this ludicrous scheme is a minor cost-cutting measure.

I just don’t even know.

Mark Hardin, the Penetrator, arrives on the scene more or less because he heard something was up. He, through his mentor Professor Haskins, is aware of Preacher Mann, that he’s got something going on, but he doesn’t know what. So he’s investigating. From the very start Mark is avoiding people trying to kill him. A kid from an earlier book recognizes him and organizes a hit while Mark is driving. Mark does some pretty cool stunt driving to keep himself out of harm’s way, turning the car and going into a controlled drift so that the engine block is between him and the gunners, but the car flips over and Mark has to escape. Just before he’s out of sight of the car, he sees it explode. Later on the car is discovered and investigated. Police are aware that Mark is on the scene after they find a case in the trunk full of blue flint arrowheads, Mark’s calling card.

Unlike a lot of these stories, the bad guys are constantly one step ahead of Mark. It seems that no matter where he goes, he ends up meeting some goons who try to kill him. At one point he shacks up with a young schoolteacher, a woman he meets while on the run. He stays the night at her apartment (chastely) and leaves in the morning. Before the next day is out, he gets a call from Preacher Mann’s lackeys saying that they’re holding her hostage. Mark doesn’t even react. He knows that one way or the other, she’s dead or worse. He just laments that everyone he meets who trusts him seems to come to disaster somehow and promises that one day he’ll take his revenge.

One chapter cuts to the point of view of our old friend Joanna Tabler, Mark’s frequent love interest and a high-ranking government agent. She’s also trying to infiltrate Preacher Mann’s organization. Preacher’s crony quickly reveals that he knows exactly who she is and what she’s trying to do. He doesn’t kill her, though, because she’s insanely hot. Instead she gets captured and, I’m sorry to say, sexually assaulted. To make it worse, this is never commented on again. Even after she gets rescued, she seems totally fine and never mentions that she was assaulted.

Folks, using sexual crimes as a means of showing how evil your bad guys are is just a terrible thing to do. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it. There are other ways of raising the stakes, heightening the drama, and showing your villains are evil. It’s inexcusable.

I just kicked in a couple of bucks to RAINN.

If there’s one thing I absolutely hate about the entire Man Fantasy genre, it’s the blasé nature toward this. Every time it happens, I consider just not reading any more of these books ever again.

I trudged on. While nothing could make up for that, the rest of the book stood decently on its own. Excise one paragraph of this book and the rest of it would have been nearly flawless, in a stupid and typo-ridden kind of way.

Mark breaks into an office building in downtown West Palm Beach. He hires a fellow ‘Nam vet to drop him on the roof in a helicopter. Mark’s not sure at all what he’s looking for, he’s just aware that something’s up and that it’s connected to Preacher Mann. He heads in, kills a lot of goons, steals some paperwork, and sets the place on fire. All told, a good day’s work.

A thing this book lacked, compared to the rest of the series, was the way it would cut to neat little interludes where you see life from the point of view of a third-rate villain before Mark comes in and smashes his eyeballs through his chest. I miss that. It must be more Mark Roberts’s thing than Chet Cunningham’s. This book is almost entirely from Mark’s perspective, although we get chapters highlighting Preacher Mann and a single one about Joanna.

There is a magical moment where Mark comes up behind a guard, who notices him and goes for his gun. Page 94:

“Don’t try it or you’re dead,” Mark said.

“My God! The Penetrator! I’m dead either way.”

Mark escapes the building with this helicopter buddy, but helicopter buddy gets shot in the process. Mark lands the copter himself, calls an ambulance for his buddy (who survives the book even if we never see him again), and flees on foot. The kid from the beginning of the book shows up and Mark deals with him with a single shot to the heart from Ava, his CO2 dart gun.

This book didn’t have a lot of really dramatic fight scenes, either. I was starting to get upset about this, but the rest of the book managed to offer something I hadn’t seen in a Penetrator novel.

Mark finds Preacher Mann’s island hideout. It turns out to be insanely high-tech. The entire island is somehow able to detect whether somebody has set foot on it, alerting highly trained attack dogs, gun mounts, floodlights, and all sorts of stuff. Mark has to rely on cleverness instead of brute force to get through this death trap, although brute force certainly helps a few times.

The sensors on the ground are pretty neat, but apparently they don’t have a high resolution or anything, because Mark is able to fool them by throwing rocks around. Not even big rocks. What this leads to is a large number of sensor pings that Preacher’s goons have to deal with. They have trouble keeping track of Mark and are convinced that an army has landed on the island instead of a single guy.

Mark sneaks in through a sliding rock wall, but it turns out that Preacher Mann is still one step ahead of him! A trap door swings open and Mark falls into…

wait for it

a pool full of sharks!

Because all the less cliché fish were taken.

Mark shoves a grenade down the throat of a great white and manages to escape into the lab, where he learns the shocking truth of this whole incredible plot.

He more or less learns the truth by finding some scientists and putting a gun in their faces. If you’ve read the rest of this review, you know what’s going on. Preacher Mann wants to freeze prostitutes for ludicrous reasons. What surprised me is that he’s not actually figured out how to do that yet. The scheme is still in the early stages, and while freezing people is no real problem, waking them up again is.

What makes this special and totally a Penetrator novel is the prostitutes need to be frozen to “absolute zero” for this to work.

Yeah, that absolute zero.

The book even states that it’s -460º F, so the author wasn’t just throwing those words around willy-nilly. Never mind that absolute zero can’t actually be reached by the laws of thermodynamics, and never mind that things start to do some really wacky quantum stuff as they approach that temperature, and never mind that actually freezing a human being does not need temperatures anywhere near that low. That’s what Preacher Mann’s scheme is, and by God, he’s gonna make it happen.

Mark comes face-to-face with Preacher Mann, who offers him a job. Mark issues a counter-offer: a duel. If Preacher can take Mark down without killing him, Mark will join the party. The weapon of choice is quarter staffs.

Yeah, okay.

They end up dueling and it’s a pretty good sequence. Mark leads Preacher throughout the gymnasium, baiting him and getting him to act rashly. He takes out Preacher’s bodyguards in the process, delivers a stunning blow, and then makes a run for it.

He grabs Joanna and then has to fight his way out. On the way there, he finds some engineers who never wanted to be here in the first place. Together, they sabotage the base, taking out the pumps that keep water out. As Mark and Joanna and presumably some innocent prostitutes finally escape, the water hits the cryogenic tanks and explodes, taking out the entire operation. Preacher Mann escapes, of course.

The book ends with Mark and Joanna chilling on the beach. Mark is enjoying himself until he suddenly starts thinking of chemical warfare for no reason I could discern other than that’s probably the plot of the next book. And there it ends.

Okay, so yeah, this book was pretty great except for the one big horrible flaw. I can’t say you should just look past it and enjoy the rest of the novel. That would be irresponsible and ignore a very real problem with the book and its author and society at large. What makes me so mad is that the entire thing could have been avoided by removing a single paragraph, or probably just a single sentence in that paragraph.

Of course, there are also the sex workers in this book who are being taken advantage of. At least one of them dies in the unfreezing process where we can see it. If Preacher Mann weren’t so stupid that could have been avoided. The book never says whether the prostitutes are working with Preacher willfully or not. He actually seems to treat them well when he’s not trying to cryogenically freeze them. We do know that at least one person, Joanna, was not brought in with her consent, so I suppose we can assume that the others were kidnapped as well, or at least some of them.

The last thing I want to talk about is the fantastic chapter titles this book had. We’ve got

  • Badman, Preacher Mann
  • Deathly Double Doorway
  • Table Under the Gun
  • What’s a Cryo????
  • Chute into Hell
  • Sharks! Sharks!
  • Big Cryogenic Smashup

That’s not all the chapter titles. The others are kinda boring. These make up for it, though.

I have to call out “Table Under the Gun” because once I hit that chapter, I found out that wasn’t the title! The chapter was from Joanna’s perspective (it’s the really problematic one), and was, in fact, named “Tabler Under the Gun.”

Somebody messed up!

Man, I really wish this book hadn’t managed to piss me off so much with a single scene. Otherwise, it might have been one of my favorite Penetrators. A damn shame.

2 thoughts on “The Penetrator #24: Cryogenic Nightmare

  1. Yeah, gotta love the sexual unawareness of the 1970s…it’s weird how much of this stuff from this time both in print and on screen seemed to be waaaaay too casual about it treated its women. Pulps gonna pulp, I guess.

    Still, these continue to sound mostly excellent; one of these days…

    Liked by 1 person

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