The Penetrator #17: Demented Empire

The Penetrator #17: Demented Empire by Lionel Derrick
Pinnacle Books, 1976
Price I paid: 50¢

A crime and swindle operation syndicate has set up a weapons warehouse in Florida.

Five senior citizens are dead. They were conned out of their life’s savings on phony land deals and made the mistake of complaining. This mob is also distributing wholesale weaponry, ammunition, and drugs to any thief or psycho with money. Tony Rossi of La Cosa Nostra asks his old friend, Mark Hardin, to smash the Florida operation. And Mark is forced to help the Mafia against their non-Sicilian opponents because of their threat to innocent people!

Join the Penetrator as he wreaks havoc on organized crime: fighting from Florida to Guatemala to bust up the most insidious drug, gun, and swindle operation ever to threaten our national security!


It’s been a real hot minute since my last Penetrator review, hasn’t it? I figure it’s something nice to start off the new year with. A sort of Back to Basics exercise, y’know?

I’ve said it before, but I love how much attention goes into the covers for these books. Everything you see is a depiction of something that was really in the novel. These covers are made to order. Even the fact that Mark’s mustache is missing is from the book. In the prologue it’s mentioned that Mark had to shave his mustache and change his hair during his battle against someone named Johnny Utah. I don’t know what book that’s referring to or what Johnny Utah did to deserve whatever he got, but I’ll probably find out someday.

The Penetrator dealt out a lot of harsh stuff in this one. This time, he’s fighting the Syndicate, which is not the Mafia. It is completely different from the Mafia. Those two organizations hate each other. They are at war, or something. I don’t know. The book doesn’t really go into details on the differences between the two, other than the Mafia is strictly for Sicilians (except when it isn’t). Otherwise, they’re in the same business, which means stuff like guns, drugs, and pornography.

I emphasize the fact that they are different organizations only because this book takes great pains to do the same. The only other pop culture experience I have with anything called the Syndicate was in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and there I think it was an overarching organization to which the Mafia belonged. They were allied with the Illuminati, but not necessarily a part of it. I guess that doesn’t really matter other than it caused me some confusion as I got my bearings in this book and the mythology it was laying out. I assume it’s mythology, because the only references I can find (admittedly, I’ve only looked at Wikipedia) to something called the Syndicate are from pop culture. X-Files stuff. Nothing about any crime families or anything. I just don’t know.

Anyway, the Syndicate is cutting in on Mafia territory. Mark doesn’t know this at the beginning of the book, where he is investigating what turns out to be the same group. To begin, he’s just hunting down some shady land development people who appear to be ripping off senior citizens, some of whom have turned up missing. Mark kills a bunch of people and makes off with a lot of their documents. This is the first, oh, ten pages of the book.

And it’s not long after that that things start to fall apart, narrative-wise. See, La Cosa Nostra has had it up to here with all this Syndicate stuff. But for some reason they don’t want to take care of it themselves? I think the reason given is that they don’t want a full-on war in the streets. Fine, whatever.

Their solution is to contact an old buddy of Mark Hardin’s, a guy named Tony Rossi. We first met Tony in book #12, Bloody Boston. Tony is the scion of a big-time Mafioso, but left the organization after the events of that previous book. The Mafia is aware of this connection, and attempts to use Tony to hire Mark to take care of this situation.

The Maf comes across as really stupid throughout this entire book. It’s funny, Penetrator novels seem to run on the bad guys having idiotic plans that don’t make any sense and fall apart if you think about them too hard. It’s almost like they’re poorly written in a hurry or something. In this case, though, Mark is quick to point out the flaws as they happen. It’s pretty amusing. Sometimes Mark is stupid, too, but not in this book.

Tony calls him and presents the case. Mark responds by saying that this is obviously a trap. The Mafia has a hit on him the size of Fort Knox. And unlike the back of the book suggests, he does not then go along with the idea anyway. Mark does not work for or with the Mafia at all in this book, he just comments that he was already on this case anyway.

Sadly, this book doesn’t have one of the more coherent villain schemes in the series. It’s not particularly wacky, either. There’s not much of a scheme at all, really, other than to keep making money and at some point, maybe, kill the Penetrator for interfering. Mark shows up at places and kills the people there, often in lovingly gruesome detail, but the main people keep escaping until the end of the book.

The main villains are a woman named Nila, who is the skimpily-dressed redhead on the front cover. She’s also the source of a lot of the worst parts of this book. She’s some kind of murder-sadist. I mentioned that the Syndicate is raising money with porno in this book, but I should add that the pornos they’re selling are actually snuff films, or, at least, the one personally viewed by Mark during the course of the book is, and there are hints of more. Anyway, it’s gross, and the one doing the murder in the snuff film turns out to be Nila.

The book also mentions quite explicitly that Mark Hardin, the Penetrator, does not typically watch porno.

This plot hinges almost entirely on Mark’s staying one step ahead of his foes, which is common enough to the series. In this one it comes across as accidental most of the time, which is less appealing. For example, at one point Nila seduces Mark with the intention of arranging an ambush. Mark, not knowing this, goes through with the date and takes the opportunity to ambush her, in a way, which is to say that he has sex with her so good that he’s able to inject sodium pentathol (or something like it) during the act, which means that not only does she spill a bunch of beans, it also means that she can’t give the signal for the ambush to start, which was closing the drapes. But then, on his way out, Mark decides to close the drapes himself because he thought it might draw suspicion from some neighbor if the drapes were left open all night? Anyway, he’s gone before the goons can show up.

There are lots of details like that one thrown in that don’t seem to matter an awful lot. Bad guys show up, get a lot of description, and then either fade back into the background (perhaps for a sequel?) or die without much more commentary. There was this one guy described as a big slab of muscle that I expected to be the source of a big melee fight scene where, like, Mark would hit him in the gut with an iron rod just to find it bend around him or whatever, but no, Mark just shoots him near the end.

The main guy in this whole shebang is called the Poet. His description consists almost entirely of his height, which is something like 5’2″, and his voice, described in a bizarre turn of phrase:

The voice on the radio was querulous, impatient. What the Canadians would call cranky.

pg 87

I have never once thought of the word cranky as particularly Canadian.

At some point in his talking, the Poet drops the word yentzen in describing something. I believe he calls someone a “yentzen moron.” Since reading, I’ve searched for that word online and all I’ve found is a brand of duck calls? I have no idea what our author meant by that word. Either way, when I read it at first, my blood ran cold. My immediate assumption, you see, was that it was Yiddish, and that our author was coding the bad guy as Jewish. There have been a lot of things wrong with a lot of these books, but never once had I seen any Antisemitism in them. That doesn’t mean there might not be some floating around in another book, but so far so good on that front.

Later it turns out that he’s explicitly German, so I suppose that’s a bit of a relief. I expected him to turn out to be a Nazi holdout or a Boy from Brazil, but nope.

It’s near the end of the book that things finally start to get good. Mark single-handedly takes on the Poet’s compound in Guatemala. A lot of his munitions get lost early on, so he has to improvise. This is the kind of stuff I prefer to read about. I couldn’t care less about the caliber and history of the Penetrator’s Garrand rifle. I want to see him do this stuff, namely, put a bunch of wasps in a gourd, seal it, and then chuck it at people in a room so he can shoot them when they come running out screaming.

I call these books “man fantasy” but another term might be “competency fantasy.” The two things probably go hand-in-hand a lot of the time.

The final showdown ends up on the soundstage where Nila films her snuff films. It’s as ludicrous as you’d expect. My favorite bit is when the Poet, knowing things are going bad, flees to that soundstage and sets it up to be a trap. He turns on all the lights to be blindingly bright and hides. We’re told

Now that the firing had stopped inside his house, the Poet was confident that the Penetrator would soon be walking into his trap…

pg 164

And then we get a chapter break. Chapter 18 begins with

Even an amateur would sense a trap in the partially-open, walk-in freezer-type sound stage door.

pg 165

That kind of buildup and letdown is just so perfect it has to be intentional, right?

Anyway, there’s some gunplay, but the fight with the Poet ends when Mark hits him with a sandbag, causing him to fall directly onto…a guillotine.

Yeah! There’s a guillotine! I’m trying to find any reference to it before this exact moment, and while it’s possible I’m just not finding one that does exist, I’m still not finding it. Anyway, the guy falls on this guillotine (not in the usual way, but across his midsection). Unlike the guillotine, Mark’s “Bowie-Axe” has been a major part of this book, getting a whole training montage and mentions in pretty much every fight. Mark throws it, cuts the rope, and clefts the foe in twain.

But Nila’s still alive! Oh, wait, no she’s not. Mark looks up to find her, and I promise I’m not shitting you here, being eaten by a giant snake. I might just be failing to find guillotine references, but I would stake a whole 20 ounce soda of your choice betting you that there was no reference to a gosh darned anaconda before now. My gasts are completely flabbered.

This is I guess what you could call serpens ex machina, except don’t call it that because that would give it far more credit than it deserves.

And that’s the end of the book, except for the epilogue where Mark gets his next mission, one that we’ve talked about already because I’m not reading them in any kind of order.

This was one of the lamer entries in the Penetrator saga, unfortunately. These Syndicate dopes never once felt like any kind of a threat. Nor did the Mafia, who was totally planning on killing Mark in a dumb way after the whole thing was over. Their plan consisted entirely of “once he’s done with the Syndicate, we’ll invite him to a celebration party and kill him there.” So at one point—actually before the job was done—they invite him to a party. Mark just says no and gets in a plane and flies away.

Still, the book at least had a few goofy turns of phrase that I liked. I might be wrong but I think Mark Roberts, who wrote the odd-numbered books, was better about those.

From then on, he’d simply have to wing it…

Once he arrived in Immokalee, the Penetrator was grimly certain, his winging it would be by means of the black, leathery wings of the Angel of Death.

pg 6 (I had to cut out most of a paragraph)

In addition to “cranky” and “yentzen,” our author decided to use the word “phonogram” at one point. Specifically, Mark was trying to decide if possibly the Poet was something called POET, and that the letters stood for something. You know, a phonogram, which is most certainly not what was being described in the text right there. Mr. Roberts, the word you were looking for was “acronym.” A phonogram is

a unit symbol of a phonetic writing system, standing for a speech sound, syllable, or other sequence of speech sounds without reference to meaning.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/phonogram

I learn so much from the things these books get hilariously wrong.

I guess the only other thing to mention is that at one point Mark gets it on with a lady five whole times in one night, so that’s cool. In other books, his sexual prowess is a little more on the downlow. Not today!

It feels like our author had only a skeleton of an idea to run with in this one and had to pad it out with a lot of things that ended up not really driving the plot. Mark spends a fair amount of the first half of the book poisoned after a biker thug hits him with a flail. It disables him occasionally, but only between action scenes. It gets cured eventually and never commented on again. There are a lot of things like that.

And there is one scene with extreme violence, sexual and otherwise, against a woman, so there’s that too. The worst things about these books are that they don’t shy away from using that as a way to establish that the baddies are baddies. This seems to be common across the action/adventure genre, as far as I can tell, and not just in books. This is, after all, right around the same time as Death Wish.

Oh wow, I just learned that that movie is based on a novel, and the novel is pretty different from the movie. I think I might read it!

It’s hard for me to believe that I’m beginning my seventh year of reviews. Thanks to everyone for reading!

6 thoughts on “The Penetrator #17: Demented Empire

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