“Kill-crazed cops on a mission of vengeance - to wipe up the scum the law can’t touch” is the cover tagline of Jack Ehrlich’s 1973 stand-alone novel, “Bloody Vengeance.” Ehrlich was an Edgar Award-winning mystery writer whose 1972 Western, “The Fastest Gun in the Pulpit,” was adapted for the screen in a 1974 TV movie starring Slim Pickins.
I can only assume that “Bloody Vengeance” was Pocket Books’ attempt to capitalize on the vigilante fiction craze started a few years earlier by Don Pendleton’s successful series, “The Executioner.” Unfortunately, the publisher slapped a cheap photo cover on Ehrlich’s paperback, and it remains largely forgotten.
The novel itself is surprising compelling - largely due to the fact that Ehrlich wrote the narration of police Lieutenant Rob Royce in first-person as if it were a memoir. Through some solid police work, Royce is able to solve the murder of Mary Gunner, who had been dismembered and raped with a Coke bottle. Solid police work leads to the arrest of psycho subject, Harry Jako.
In a normal mystery novel, that would have been the satisfying ending, but it’s only the start of a vigilante paperback. You see, Jako beats the case and walks free thanks to some legal technicalities, and this understandably irritates the hell out of Royce who exacts a little - you guessed it - Bloody Vengeance with the help of his partner, Seargent Harry Willis.
Royce and Willis find the experience of frontier justice so satisfying that they decide to settle another old score with another deplorable criminal who also beat the system. It’s through these actions that the officers find their true north and reinvigorate their sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Word spreads around the department and other officers want to get in in the act.
Without spoiling anything, one man’s vigilante action evolves into a secret organization and then a movement. Imagine if the Guardian Angels were all off-duty cops who kick ass with the understanding that the on-duty cops were willing to look the other way? That’s the basic premise. The story evolves into an interesting parable about the corrupting nature of power and celebrity.
Downsides? The author fails to address many of the thorny issues that the premise of unchecked police power should beg. For the purpose of fictional escapism, that doesn’t pose a problem as long as this novel isn’t serving as a blueprint for a more perfect union. I’d also say that the first half of the book was far more exciting. When the vigilante action becomes a political movement, the action slows down a bit and it becomes a more thoughtful novel.
But why quibble? Guys, this is a fantastic paperback. It’s a crime-fighting, right-wing, wish-fulfillment fable with awesome action scenes that never veer into cartoonish territory. I’d go so far as to call it among the best 1970s vigilante novels I’ve ever read - rivaling Pendleton’s “War Against the Mafia” for the top spot. It would have been a monster hit with a better cover, and that’s a damn shame. As of this writing, it’s not available on Kindle (another crime), so you’ll have to seek it out on the used paperback market. Please do. You won’t regret it.
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