MACK BOLAN has a grave waiting for him in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he used to be a police sergeant - a reserved section in the family plot, with a tombstone already in place and his name carved on it. He was supposed to fill it, a few years ago, but he has been too busy filling the graves of other people - generally people whose name end in vowels, people who use their guns and muscle to victimize ordinary law-abiding citizens and claw their way to power in their own jungle hierarchy. When he reports to his boss in Washington, Bolan's cover name is "Striker." His fans (many of them police, though his tactics make him the most wanted criminal in America) have nicknames for him like "Mack the Rippe." But to the Mafia, the objects of his bitter, lifelong vendetta, he is known as "The Executioner."
He has appeared in 28 movels which have sold more than 20 million copies for Pinnacle Books, the ITT of paperback violence. And one must assume that his readers find some affinity for him, that something in their soul echoes his description of himself: "the romantic male with his basic orientation toward the process called death ."
So successful has the "Executioner" series been that Pinnacle has launched nearly a dozen more - some, like "The Penetrator," that are nearly carbon copies and some that take the basic motif of violence and work it out it, other milieus conducive to macho fantasy:
"The Destroyer," Remo Williams, veteran of 24 adventures, adept in the martial arts and sole operative of CURE, a small (three members) but deadly effective, top-secret government organization.
"The Death Merchant," Richard Camellion, master of violence and disguise, who has a vendetta against Commies the way Mack Bolan has against the Mafia. He takes on the assingments that are too hot for the CLA and the FBL. His adventures have been featured in 21 movels.
"Apache," Cuchillo Cor, a lone Indian in the Old West, whose quest for vengeance against a vile white cavalry officer has involved him in enough violent adventures, so far, for eight novels.
"Blade," Richard Blade if you need his full name, a 20th-century man (an agent of M16) who has adventures in something called "Dimension X," which he reaches by plugging his brain into a computer and which has contained, to date, enough bizarre lands for 23 novels. (The natives of this dimension apparently speak English, which helps to keep the stories moving.)
"The Butcher," also in his 23rd-adventure, who is the o nly man ever to resign from the Mafia and live. Naturally, a lot of his energy is devoted to continuing this situation, but he often finds a good offense more useful than defense.
"The Gladiator," Marcus Brittaricus, who engages professionally in combat to the death - most recently, in his third movel, in Pompeii while Vesuvius simmers slowly toward eruption.
There are more, but that seems to be a fair sample. Despite enormous variations of background, weapons and even temperament, these gentlemen have a number of points in common. For one thing, they are all extraordinarily macho, but none has a continuing relationship with one woman; if one of them should fall in love occasionally (and it does happen), fate usually sees to it that the woman is not around for the next book. For another, whether they like it or not (some exult in violence, others have existential doubts and reservations), they all engage in an extraordinary amount of killing and mainning. The Executioner does it with space-age weaponry, for the most part (though he can and does use his hands when necessary); Blade, true to his name, tends to use cold steel; the Destroyer's whole body, maintained by a rigid training regimen, is a precise, finely honed weapon; the Penetrator relies mainly on several standard models of handgun.
Their coolness toward women is not based on any kind of prudery but rather on the fact that they have more important things to do. There are occasional fleeting bits of sex, but most of the time the heroes are too busy hacking, shooting and slugging to bother with foreplay and all that.
Nor is it a matter of sexual ambivalence. Some of the authors occasionally introduce a homosexual character, invariably, he is treated unsympathetically and usually he dies rather horribly. (In some books of this kind, the main function of gay characters seems to be providing colorful deaths, just as the main function of women seems to be getting abducted and rescued.)
Above all, though, the underemphasis on sex seems to correlate inversely with the overemphasis on violence in these novels. Not that there is any natural contradiction between them, but that there is only a limited amount of room on a page, and some readers prefer to see it filled with Colts rather than caresses.
The quality of these novels varies considerably, though if you wish they can all be dismissed with a sniff as literary debris - as can James Bond, Tarzan, Flash Gordon and their other literary ancestors. At their worst (which, to my taste, seems to come in some episodes to The Penetrator), these books verge on a pornography of violence. Those who are familiar with the scenes of sweaty sex in medium-hard-core pornography will recognize the style, tone and pace of this excerpt from The Penetrator No. 12, Bloody Boston, in which hero Mark Hardin is trying to elicit some information from a minor gangster:
"Mark put a way his automatic and dropped to his knees in the sand in front of Primo, backhanding him across the face. It was a diversion. Mark caught Primo's left arm by the wrist and elbow and brought the arm down sharply over his knee the way he broke kindling wood. Both bones in Primo's forearm snapped. A surging scream roared from the man's throat. It lasted only five seconds before it trailed off, as Primo slumped into the sand, blubbering . . . "
Two pages later, Mark goes after the other arm with his Beretta: "The Model 1951 barked and the 9-mm. parabellum slug ripped into the soft side of Primo's elbow, shattering it. The slug broke as it smashed through the bones and the unrelenting lead surged on through flesh, taking bone chips, muscle, and tendons with it as it burst from Primo's elbow in four places, ripping more pieces of flesh away as the lead chunks spent themselves in the sand . . ." The whole process takes nine pages - about five per cent of the book - and the only explanation of why it is there at all has the lie in its special kind of sensuality; it has practically nothing to do with the plot, but plenty to do, in its own curious way, with flesh.
Most of the other paperback series featuring violence are a little bit less bloody than that item, but none of them are for people who turn green at the sight of blood. Usually there is at least one corpse by page ten (on the average; corpses sometimes come in bunches) and one approximately every ten pages thereafter. Some plots are almost as rudimentary as those in the less skilled forms of pornography: just enough narrative thread to get the hero from one big scene to the next. At the top of the field - in the Executioner series, for example - plots may be more intricate, if they don't hold down the body-count too much.
On their own terms, these books follow a rather strict moral code; the heroes are invariably on the side of order and usually of law, there is seldom any trouble determining who the bad guys are, and there are always excellent reasons for zapping them, beginning with the need for self-defense. Care is taken to avoid hurting innocent by-standers, but when there aren't any complications around like women and children, anything goes.
It's all quite exciting and perhaps harmless, if you don't mind a view of life in which brutality is taken for granted and its's always open season on certain kinds of people.