Friday, August 20, 2004

Men's Action Novel Series of the Seventies Part 3

If the plots of The Butcher were more grandiose than those of The Executioner, the plots of The Death Merchant were even more so. The Death Merchant series followed the adventures of Richard Camellion, literally a gun for hire for those government agencies (think CIA, FBI, NSA, and so on) willing to pay his hundred grand price tag. Camellion was perhaps well worth the money, as he seemed nearly indestructible and literally capable of killing anyone or anything. Not only were the plots of The Death Merchant novels often Bondian in scope, at times it seemed as if they owed a good deal to the old pulp magazines, movie serials, and spy series such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In Invasion of the Clones, Camellion must battle clones of himself in an effort to stop a mad scientist. In Apocalypse U.S.A.! Camellion and a team of CIA agents and freelancers must stop terrorists from spraying nerve gas over the East Coast of the United States. In The Zemlya Expedition Camellion must retrieve information on a city under the sea planned by the Russians.

While the plots of The Death Merchant series were more imaginative and original than those of some other series, it was hardly great literature by any means. The Death Merchant series was extremely politically incorrect. Racism, sexism, and nearly every other kind of "ism" could be found between the pages of any single The Death Merchant novel. The violence was graphic in the extreme and the action scenes often detailed. The Death Merchant was a series that could only have been published in the Seventies, as at any earlier time it would have been considered obscene and at a later time too politcally incorrect.

To many in the Seventies, the action adventure novel series must have seemed like utter trash, only a few steps removed from pornography. Nothing could be further than the truth in the case of some series, most notably The Destroyer. The Destroyer is the greatest action-adventure series of the Seventies because it departed from the usual sex and violence formula. For one thing, The Destroyer owes more to pulp heroes like Doc Savage and superspies like James Bond and Napoleon Solo. The plots were often fantastic and the villains were often bizarre. For another, the appeal of The Destroyer series was not simply the action and adventure, but the satire and humour that often filled the novels.

The Destroyer was the creation of Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy. The first novel, Created, The Destroyer, was actually written in 1963 at the height of the Bond craze. It would be 1971 before Created, The Destroyer was published. The series centred on Remo Williams, a New Jersey police officer who is framed for murder. Fortunately, for Remo, the people who framed him had arranged for him to survive his trip to the electric chair. It seems he was framed by a super secret government agency called CURE, an agency known only to a few people (the President of the United States and its director Harold W. Smith among them), who want Remo to work for them. Remo doesn't particularly like the idea at first, but he truly has no choice. He is sent to a martial arts instructor called Chiun for training. In later novels it was told how Chiun was a master of Sinanju, "the sun source of all martial arts." Named for the village from which Chiun comes, Sinanju practitioners are veritable supermen--they can walk up walls, punch through metal, and do nearly anything.

The first two novels in The Destroyer series were fairly straight forward adventure novels. In fact, Chiun did not even appear in the second novel. With the third novel, Chinese Puzzle, the series took its familiar shape. Sapir and Murphy brought Chiun back so that he could train Remo in the art of Sinanju. From then on, the books would largely focus on the relationship between Chiun and Remo. Although a physical powerhouse, Remo can be rather dense. Chiun is the actual brains of the team. Unfortunately, Chiun is openly racist (he dislikes everyone except Koreans) and can be overbearing. In fact, much of the humour in the series emerged from the relationship between the two. It was also with Chinese Puzzle that Sapir and Murphy introduced the humour and satire that set it apart from any other action-adventure series.

As stated above, The Destroyer relied on fantastic plots and even more fantastic villains. In Union Bust (the 7th novel of the series), not only must Remo and Chiun bust up a "super union" which controls all traffic by air, train, and truck, but Remo faces Nuihc, a renegade Sinanju master who also happens to be Chiun's nephew! In Funny Money (the 18th book in the series) Remo and Chiun must stop a beautiful scientist, who has perfected a foolproof method of counterfeiting, and the shapeshifting android Mr. Gordons. In Next of Kin (the 46th novel in the series), Remo and Chiun battle Jeremiah Purcell, the Dutchman, who can create illusions and cause things to burst into flames with a single thought! In Profit Motive (the 48th novel of the series) Remo and Chiun face Friend, a sentient computer chip who can send his consciousness from computer terminal to computer terminal.

Not only is The Destroyer perhaps the best of the action-adventure novel series, it is also arguably the most successful. The copy on the covers of Destroyer novels in the Seventies touted it as "America's Best Selling Action Series." Remo and Chiun even accomplished something Mack Bolan never did--they made it to the big screen. Remo Williams: the Adventure Begins debuted in 1985, featuring Fred Ward as Remo and Joel Grey as Chiun. Despite Remo and Chiun's paperback success, the movie was not a hit. There was also an unsold TV pilot called Remo Williams with Jeffrey Meek as Remo and Roddy McDowall as Chiun. It aired only once, on August 15, 1988. ABC needed something to fill time before the Republican Convention! While Remo and Chiun have failed to find success on either the big or small screen, they continue to be successful on the paperback racks. Destroyer novels continue to be published to this day. Many of the early novels are even now available as books for Palm Pilots or ebooks for computers.

Acton-adventure novel series continue to be published even 35 years after the first appearance of The Executioner. I don't know the sales figures, but it does seem to me that their hey day was definitely the Seventies. Today it seems to me that paperback racks are filled with far fewer of them. Considering the quality of some of the series, that may well be for the best. But, then again, not every paperback need be Shakespeare either.

1 comment:

Brad Mengel said...

Hi Mercurie,

Given these three posts about Men's Action Novel series, I thought you might like to know about my forthcoming book from MacFarland Press
Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction
An Encyclopedia from Able Team to Z-Comm
Brad Mengel
ISBN 978-0-7864-4165-5
bibliographies, index
softcover (7 x 10) 2009

Not Yet Published, Available Spring/Summer 2009
Rough justice has often been served in the pages of serial novels, notably beginning with Don Pendleton’s The Executioner in 1969. This is the first overview of the serial vigilante genre, which featured such hard-boiled protagonists as Nick Carter, Mark Stone, Jake Brand and Able Team among the 130 series that followed Pendleton’s novel. Serial vigilantes repeatedly take the law into their own hands, establishing and imposing their own moral standards, usually by force. The book examines the connections between the serial vigilante and the pulp hero that preceded him and how the serial vigilante has influenced a variety of tough guys, private eyes, spies and cops in different media. A complete bibliography for each series is featured.

About the Author
Brad Mengel works in Australia’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. He’s contributed critical analysis to Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe and short fiction to Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 3.