The late Don Pendleton, "the father of men's action adventure", created what is arguably the "post pulp" serial of the modern age. "The Executioner: War Against the Mafia" was released in 1969 and originally had the title of "The Duty Killer", something the main character, Mack Bolan, describes himself as. According to the Glorious Trash blog, who cited author Mike Newton's book "How to Write Action-Adventure Fiction", the book was bought by publishing house Bee Line and that company created Pinnacle Books just for this series. The original pressing simply titled the book "The Executioner: War Against the Mafia!" but later copies were pressed that added the "#1" once the decision was made to launch further titles. Numerous versions of the book exists including a modern day covered version that was released in 2016 (featured below).
This debut of the series is divided into three sections with each section including around nine chapters. It's a quick read and Pendleton keeps the reader (and Mack) on their toes. We are introduced to Sergeant Mack Bolan in the book's prologue. He is a skilled sniper in the Vietnam War and holds an official kill record of 32 high-ranking North Vietnamese officers, 46 Viet Cong leaders and 17 Viet Cong village leaders. At age 30 he has been in the military for 12 years and has served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Through letters we learn that Bolan and his mother Elsa communicate twice a week and she would send him care packages. Bolan has two siblings, 17 year-old Cindy and 14 year-old Johnny. His father, Sam, is a steelworker and Mack considers him to be "as indestructible as the steel he made." Later Elsa explained to Bolan that his father had a heart attack and that due to lost wages the family's finances were in a bind.
One day in August Bolan is summoned to the base camp chaplain's office where he is told that his father, mother and sister are all dead and that his brother was in critical condition. Bolan is air-lifted home for emergency leave. He learns that his father had borrowed some money from Triangle Industrial Finance, a front for the mob. It was only $400 but Sam had been roughed up for payments. He eventually paid them back the money plus interest but it still wasn't enough according to them. Due to the stress and intense pressure Sam killed his wife and daughter, shot his son and then turned the gun on himself in a brutal murder-suicide. This is presented to Bolan by his brother Johnny, the only communication we have in the book of the two brothers discussing the present and future plans.
Bolan purchases a Marlin .444 lever action rifle and camps out in front of Triangle Industrial one night. He kills five of their employees and a day or two later goes to Plesky Enterprises, the accounting firm for the company, to discuss his father's debt. They explain that $400 was borrowed and $550 was paid back, not enough to satisfy the terms and conditions of the loan. Bolan advises he can give them information on the shooting and they advise that his father's account is now considered settled.
Like many of the action novels that came after Pendleton's first "Executioner" entry, this one finds Bolan infiltrate the mob as a hired gunman. The group hire Bolan for his weapons expertise and pair him with a guy named Turrin for various chores. In one interesting encounter Turrin leads Bolan to one of the many whorehouses the mob runs. There he nails the second of two prostitutes in a brief sex scene (the first was a brief cabana lay when Bolan gets hired). As Bolan gets deeper and deeper into the mob's operations he starts up a phone relationship with Detective Al Weatherbee (two physical meetings). The police detective is reluctant to provide info to Bolan and during every correspondence begs him to surrender and turn in. By book's end the two have a decent understanding and assist each other to a degree.
Bolan turns the tables on the mob and starts knocking up their establishments and leaving a calling card behind - marksman's medals. After attempting to shake up the whorehouse Bolan is shot. He manages to escape and ends up in the bed of twenty-something virgin Valentina Querente. She mends his wounds and he takes her innocence in one of the more goofy chapters - mostly due to the comical dialogue. Bolan leaves a few days later and tells her he loves her.
The climax comes with Bolan using military ordinance he got from a storage warehouse (where he leaves some of the $250K he stole from the mob to pay for the weapons) and laying waste to several of the mafia establishments. The end comes as Bolan blows a helicopter out of the sky, a scene that is depicted in at least two different covers of the book. In the end Bolan leaves some money for Valentina and heads west to start a new war.
I think for the most part this debut of "The Executioner" sets the standard for what most would consider the modern serialized action adventure book. From here the copycats arose in droves - The Penetrator, The Destroyer, etc. This was 1969 and the "vigilante justice" and "ex-military" books really hadn't lifted off and may hadn't lifted off with such velocity if Don Pendleton didn't write this landmark title. "The Executioner" is essentially "The Innovator".
I'll end with one of my favorite quotes from Bolan in the book:
"Life is a competition, and I am a competitor. I have the tools and the skills, and I must accept the responsibilities. I will fight the battle, spill the blood, smear myself with it, and stand at the bar of judgment to be crushed and chewed and ingested by those I serve. It is the way of the world. It is the ultimate disposition. Stand ready, Mafiosi, The Executioner is here."