There’s no denying that Don Pendleton’s 1969 premier of ‘The Executioner’ series was the prime catalyst for the gritty, vigilante vengeance sagas. The early 70s was a fertile time period, growing numerous series’ that commonly referenced “er” ending titles (i.e. Butcher, Penetrator, Enforcer). Author Jon Messman had contributed to the genre as early as 1968 with five ‘Killmaster’ novels over a two-year period. After his own failed series, ‘Hotline’, Messmann was placed on a Signet debut called “The Revenger” in 1973. As Glorious Trash scribe Joe Kenney points out, initially this was probably a one-off novel that escalated into six total volumes. The book exhibits no signs of a continuation and is missing advertisements for the next book. There isn’t a display indicating “The Revenger” is the first of a series. These are typically publisher traits inviting readers to stick around for the next installment – with their cash in hand. Regardless how it was intended, “The Revenger” is pure quality.
Today, this plot has run its course and may have been treading familiar ground even in 1973. It’s the revenge yarn we’ve read and watched since the early pulp adventures and westerns. Messmann utilizes it really well by exploring the human emotions while simultaneously providing a very vulnerable “executioner”. Ben Martin is ex-military and served in Vietnam as a killer for various US branches including the CIA. In brief recollections, the reader tells us how Ben would wait patiently in rice patties or filthy jungles for days awaiting perfect shots. His skills were valuable and Ben served his time well.
In the book’s opening pages, we see Ben as a produce shopkeeper in lower Manhattan. He’s happily married to Donna (they make love a lot) and they have a small son, Ben Martin Jr. Ben’s shop is experiencing the typical Mafia protection racket, this time extended by the Gennosanti family. They want payment for protection or the store owners will experience…stiffness. When they knock on Ben’s door, he sticks an envelope opener through a guy’s hand and disarms them. Coolly, he calls the police who ultimately are pressed by the attorneys to let the enforcers just walk.
This particular family is managed locally by Joe Colardi. The Colardi family presents itself as fine, upstanding citizens and attend PTA meetings and donate large sums to the school. Generally, they are well liked. Beneath the surface, Joe is under pressure to deliver results for the Don of the Gennosanti family. With Ben refusing to pay, roughing up his goons and generally resisting the mob’s presence, Colardi has Ben’s son kidnapped. After a brief phone exchange, Ben agrees to negotiate with the Colardi crew if they can safely return his son. Unfortunately, they accidentally allow the boy to walk off of a rooftop to his death. Colardi loses his mind knowing that the Don won’t be happy of the negligence and the kidnapping, which was unbeknownst to him.
The second half of the book starts to resemble ‘The Executioner’ debut “War Against the Mafia”. Ben becomes a bone-chilling assassin, seemingly dismissing life, marriage or any semblance of normality. His only purpose is to kill the mob. Like Bolan’s first planned assault, Ben purchases long guns and optics from a sporting goods store and camps out in the city taking out targets. Ben kills 13 enforcers in a few short hours and puts Colardi on the run in a city he has sworn to rule. Eventually, the Don becomes involved with a strategic plan to eliminate Ben’s explosive vendetta. The finale occurs on an early morning Ferry trip as Ben faces Colardi and Don’s enforcers.
Overall, this book works exceptionally well as the typical revenge yarn. It keeps at a brisk pace considering there is seldom any gunfire exchanges. Ben is the believable action hero - making mistakes, careless, vulnerability. In this book, he’s simply a human doing very human things. Emotions, debating strategy, recalling experiences while still trying to communicate with his wife Donna post-tragedy. The break-down from human to cold assassin is a slow burn, but a morbidly entertaining one. The book’s bloody closing pages sort of recycles Ben Martin’s life. Killer to family man to killer…and perhaps family man again? If only it were a stand alone novel. Five more entries prove that isn’t the case. Messmann would later go on to write most of the first 200 volumes of ‘The Trailsman’ while dabbling in other genres like science-fiction and horror.