During his literary career, Peter McCurtin served as an author, editor, collaborator, and house name. When McCurtin’s name appears on a paperback cover, his actual input into the final product is often shrouded in mystery. With regards to the 1970s iteration of his Soldier of Fortune series, paperback anthropologist Lynn Munroe has done the heavy lifting for us. Books 1-3 were written by McCurtin the man, and books 4-9 were ghostwritten by Ralph Hayes as McCurtin the house name and edited by McCurtin the editor.
The ‘Soldier of Fortune’ paperbacks star - and are narrated by - mercenary Jim Rainey, and each novel finds Rainey in another war-torn hellhole engaging in combat-for-pay. The series was rebooted by McCurtin in the 1980s - also starring Rainey - but I confess that I haven’t done my homework on the backstory regarding that string of novels.
The series kicks off with “The Massacre At Umtali,” from 1976, and a helpful prologue brings ignorant readers like myself up to speed on the history of colonialism, racial strife, and civil war in Rhodesia where the novel’s action takes place. Rainey is our narrator, an ex-marine from Beaumont, Texas, who is engaged to serve as the leader of an anti-insurgent force of mercenaries serving the Rhodesian Army (white European colonialists) fighting terrorist guerrillas (black African insurgents) for $2,000 per month.
McCurtin writes Rainey’s narration in a pleasing conversational style, so it feels like you’re listening to a badass buddy in a tavern telling you about a foreign adventure he experienced. Rainey puts together a slapdash team of fellow mercenaries (“fuck ups and killers”) for his anti-terror mission, and watching the misfit fighters come together as a team was a particularly cool aspect of the story. The mission itself involves finding and removing a particularly reprehensible terrorist leader hiding in a jungle stronghold.
This book has it all: badass main character, fascinating setting, instant readability, and blood-soaked violence. The racial characterizations in the novel are a product of an earlier time - 1976 - that probably wouldn’t fly today, and the morality of European colonialism in Africa is never questioned. However, nuanced social criticism isn’t what you’re looking for in a Belmont Tower shoot-em-up paperback from that era. This cheap-o novel is intended solely for pure escapism, and it succeeds in that mission. This is a remarkably exciting war story with some great twists and turns along the way.
As for me, I’m all-in for this series. I’m particularly looking forward to see what author Ralph Hayes does with the concept in later volumes. Highly recommended.
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