Thursday, May 31, 2018

Inside McLeane’s Rangers: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

Unmasking the author behind a pseudonym is a bit of a pastime for modern readers of vintage adventure paperbacks. Recently, the desire to play armchair detective or cultural anthropologist lead to the discovery of the real man behind the somewhat obscure, five-book McLeane’s Rangers series written under the pen name of “John Darby.” A little digging revealed an accomplished journalist who later became a well-established writer in the mystery genre after authoring several other action novels many of you have undoubtedly collected and read. 

The choice of the John Darby pseudonym and McLeane’s Rangers series name is almost certainly a nod to WW2 U.S. Army hero William Orlando Darby who was fictionalized in a movie called “Darby’s Rangers” starring James Garner in 1958. The premise of the McLeane’s Rangers series from Zebra Books is similar to Len Levinson’s “Rat Bastards” novels or any number of the “team of badasses” war fiction subgenre in which a group of misfit military men participate in fictionalized versions of famous battles. In this case, the legendary conflicts involved pivotal moments in the Allied victories over Japanese forces.

Basic internet queries came up empty for any clues regarding the real identity of author John Darby. Likewise, the writing style didn’t provide much of a lead as all the books seemed to be written in the same voice (ergo: likely a pseudonym, not a house name).

All of this begs the question: Who the hell was John Darby?


While internet search engines provided no clues, a deep dive into the U.S. Library of Congress Copyright database revealed that the MacLeane’s Rangers series was authored by someone named Michael Jahn. 

Now we’re getting somewhere. 

According to Wikipedia, Jahn was hired as the first rock music journalist for the New York Times in 1968, a job largely unheard of at big-city newspapers at the time. In that capacity, the Times sent him to cover the now-legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969 among the 400,000 muddy attendees. He remained at the Times for three years covering rock for the “Paper of Record” during a remarkable time in music history. 

Jahn later shifted gears to mystery fiction where he won an Edgar Award in 1978 right out of the gate for his novel, “The Quark Maneuver,” about a homicidal Vietnam vet. This lead to a popular mystery series starring NYPD Chief of Special Investigations Captain Bill Donovan that spanned 10 books between 1982 and 2008. His papers and manuscripts are stored at the at the Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 

Interestingly, no available bibliography of Jahn lists the McLeane Rangers series as part of his body of work. Luckily, I was able to track down Jahn, now 74, and ask him if he was, in fact, John Darby. 

“Guilty as charged,” he replied. “You’re the first to ever notice that they even existed.”

It turns out that McLeane’s Rangers wasn’t Jahn’s first foray into Men’s Adventure Fiction. Starting in 1975, Jahn wrote five TV tie-in “Six-Million Dollar Man” paperbacks, including the popular, “The Secret of Bigfoot Pass.” Fanboys of the Bionic Man praise Jahn’s adaptations for merging the divergent continuities of the TV series with the Martin Caiden’s “Cyborg” novels that inspired the show. 

Soon thereafter, Jahn wrote two paperbacks tied into the “Black Sheep Squadron” TV show that spun off from the movie “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” as well as a 1981 installment in the Nick Carter: Killmaster Series, “Cauldron of Hell” (#153).

All of this experience opened the door for his own original action series in 1983. “Those days I was friends with a bunch of guys who wrote military-related adventures and I had a history in the genre. Zebra Books was an imprint of Kensington, which was best known for romances. I was invited to write those but never did. I did the McCleane’s series plus four quickie novelty mysteries under another name for them. Zebra paid less than anyone but tended to like everything you did,” Jahn said. 

“When I had offered McLeane to Zebra, it seemed like a good fit. I don’t recall whose idea it was. The Zebra editor was not especially action-oriented. But I think they wanted something different than ‘Black Sheep Squadron,’ maybe an infantry thing suggestive of ‘Merrill’s Marauders.’ I was a fan of ‘Rat Patrol,’ so a handful of men was good.”


Although Jahn was the brains behind the series, the authorship remains a less-than-straightforward affair. “There was a friend of mine, an aspiring writer, who was on the verge of getting evicted and was desperate for money,” Jahn said. “I was up to my ass in work those days with lots of contracts, so I gave him McLeane’s to write and cooked up the byline John Darby. He struggled severely, and I had to re-write his work. After the first two books, I basically took the series back and finished it myself. So if the books seem a bit choppy, that’s the reason.”

Who are McLean’s Rangers? The team of American ass-kickers consists of:

- McLeane: the fearless leader of the group who takes his orders from the top and manages to have a good bit of graphic sex between adventures.

- Contardo: the violent, Brooklyn-born psycho is likely to fall into a deep depression if he doesn’t tear off someone’s face at least twice per week.

- Heinman: the hillbilly of the team earned a doctorate in Oriental Studies from Oxford. Conveniently, he’s also a martial arts expert and speaks several useful Asian languages. 

- O’Connor: the mandatory Chicago Irishman of the team is an explosives expert built like a bull with fists like hams. Spoiler alert: he’s not afraid to use them.

- Wilkins: the expert marksman of the group is also the youngest among them. He knows how to ventilate any enemy with his rifleman skills. 


During the fictional team’s time in WW2, the men covered a lot of ground:

#1 “Bougainville Breakout” - the group’s first adventure pits the Rangers against the entire Japanese garrison in Bougainville. The mission is to destroy a Japanese ammo depo invulnerable to American air attack while securing the release of a captured spy. 

#2 “Target Rabaul” - During World War II, Papua New Guinea was captured by the Japanese, and it became the main base of Japanese military activity in the South Pacific. McLeane’s Rangers are sent there to bring their jungle warfare talents to the Japanese stronghold. 

#3 “Hell on Hill 457” - McLeane and his men parachute into a heavily-fortified Japanese position around a mountain fortress that can only be dealt with using some heavy explosives. 

#4 “Saipan Slaughter” - Only McLeane’s elite commando unit has the skill and the nerve to penetrate the island of Saipan in advance of the pivotal U.S. invasion. 

#5 “Blood Bridge” - In this final adventure of McLeane’s Rangers, the team embarks on a mission to save China from a deadly invasion by the Japanese military juggernaut. 

The McLeane’s Rangers series touches all the important bases of 1980s Men’s Adventure Series Fiction - violence, drama, sex, gore, salty language, and excess testosterone. The paperbacks are generally well-written but clearly not the work of a professional historian or anyone with great inside knowledge of the U.S. Military. For example, the McLeane’s Rangers are a U.S. Marine Corps unit, yet the term “Rangers” is strictly a U.S. Army designation. For readers capable of suspending their disbelief and embracing some fictional escapism, there’s a lot to enjoy in Jahn’s version of WW2. 

For his part, Jahn is learning a lesson about the enduring legacy of Men’s Adventure Fiction of the era. “You know, there’s something going on that I never expected,” he said. “Despite my Edgar Award and the 10 Bill Donovan Mysteries, all of which were critically well recieved, what I’m being remembered for is the 70s and 80s paperbacks. There’s a whole thing about the Six Million Dollar Man. My 1982 space shoot-em-up book ‘Armada,’ which in my opinion was ripped off by the film ‘Independence Day,’ was nearly made into its own film a few years back. I’ve also been asked about Nick Carter. And now you’re asking about McLeane. This is fascinating to me.”