Friday, September 26, 2008

Urban Guerilla

Pinnacle, the paperback publisher who delivered the pulpy adventures of the Executioner, the Penetrator and many other gritty action heroes to drugstores all over the nation, also gave us the .357 Vigilante series in the mid-1980s. Reportedly intended as a parody of the typical Pinnacle hero, Ian Ludlow's first book reads more like a slicker prime-time-television Penetrator instead. "Ludlow"—in actuality, television writer/producer Lee Goldberg—was a student at UCLA when he got the gig writing these books, so he can be forgiven for whatever shortcomings they have. According to Goldberg's UCLA professor (and co-writer?), Lewis Perdue, who turned down Pinnacle's offer to write the series and offered it to his student instead, the novels were intended to be "over-the-top bad." I have a hard time believing anybody would intentionally write a bad novel, especially an aspiring twenty-year-old who's been given a huge break penning novels for a major publisher. I wonder if that's really a later-in-life excuse for subpar writing that embarrasses the successful writers today.

I don't think Goldberg/Ludlow has anything to be embarrassed about, and it's very possible he doesn't think so either. In fact, if you're familiar with Goldberg's TV work as a writer of middle-of-the-road crime dramas like SPENSER: FOR HIRE, HUNTER and DIAGNOSIS: MURDER, you may notice that the .357 Vigilante books are written in the same glossy, straight-ahead style, albeit with slightly ramped-up sex and violence that would probably not be too outrageous for today's prime-time audience. I don't use "middle-of-the-road" in a disparaging way above; matter of fact, I think television could use more shows like HUNTER in a time when solving mysteries has become a grim pursuit, rather than something fun (yes, I realize the concept that chasing murderers should be "fun" sounds kinda weird, but that's what murder mysteries are all about).

The "star" of MAKE THEM PAY, book #2 in the .357 Vigilante series, is Brett Macklin, whose origin (told in .357 VIGILANTE) is similar to that of Mack Bolan, the Executioner. Macklin's cop father was murdered by punks who set him on fire and tossed him under a bus (literally), which then exploded, taking out half a city block. Afflicted with Paul Kersey Syndrome, which means you should not hang out or fall in love with him at all costs, Macklin suffers more personal losses in the sequel, which pits "Mr. Jury" (I don't know why Pinnacle didn't call the series Mr. Jury) against child pornographers. Macklin's cop pal, Shaw, who is steadfastly opposed to vigilante justice, and the city's mayor recruit Macklin to clean up the perverts, who then kill their victims after filming them.

Adding to the moral dilemma over whether vigilantism is a good thing is Macklin's decision to seek some sort of due process on his targets before killing them. To this end, a fourth member is added to the "team"—a burned-out barrister who's now the host of a banal TV courtroom show—who looks over the "evidence" and gives Macklin the go-ahead to rub out the accused.

Goldberg doesn't really spend a lot of time debating the subject of vigilantism, but I think addressing the argument was a good idea. However, MAKE THEM PAY is more interested in blowing stuff up and shooting people, which is as it should be. At just 151 pages, the book is well paced and structured. I'd be surprised if Goldberg hasn't tried to pitch a Brett Macklin television series, though, judging from history, network executives seem to be not too fond of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands between shampoo commercials.

A special bonus with my copy of MAKE THEM PAY is the author's autograph. In February, I picked up the first (all?) three .357 Vigilante paperbacks in an eBay lot. I was pleasantly surprised to find an author's inscription on the title page, and an email response from Goldberg confirmed its legitimacy. Neither of us knows who Paul is though.


Lee Goldberg said...

This is the first i've heard that the books were supposed to be "over the top bad." They were, however, intended as light satires of the then-popular "men's action adventure" novels in the EXECUTIONER/PENETRATOR/DEATH MERCHANT vein...much the same way Trevanian spoofed spy novels in THE EIGER SANCTION and yet still paid homage to all the conventions of the genre.

English Teacher X said...

Compared to, say, Joesph Rosenberger's THE DEATH MERCHANT or something like the TRACKER series by Ron Stillman, .357 VIGILANTE was the epitome of tight plotting, crisp efficient writing, and stark realism.

Quite a few decent writers took assignments like these to pay the bills -- John Shirley wrote THE SPECIALIST series and Randy Wayne White wrote the HAWKER series, for example -- and who can blame them for letting their imaginations and their sense of humors run wild, and wallowing in purple prose and outlandish, pulp-influenced situations?

I eagerly devoured the three novels when I was like 15, and have always been haunted by the "cliffhanger" note they ended on -- with the rich guy plotting to kill Macklin and his nearest and dearest. So Mr. Goldberg, can you recall what was planned next for Mr. Macklin? Would he be enjoying a retirement in Hawaii these days, or rotting in a landfill?

Lewis Perdue said...

It wasn't that I was offered the series and turned

Actually, Lee wanted to break into book writing, so we created the concept and I got my existing publisher to give us a contract.

Lee's extraordinarily talented. He did all the heavy lifting and virtually everything after the first book.

The rest is history (non-stop, fast-paced and bloody), Go Lee!

Lee Goldberg said...

"The rest is history (non-stop, fast-paced and bloody), Go Lee!"

History!? Isn't my life still non-stop, fast-paced and bloody??

I can't believe it has been 25 years already since .357 VIGILANTE. My God.

I wonder whatever happened to those editors we worked with at Pinnacle.