Showing posts with label Sergeant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sergeant. Show all posts

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Sergeant #4: The Liberation of Paris

During his career, Len Levinson wrote two iconic 1980s series titles documenting World War 2 combat adventures. ‘The Rat Bastards’ books written as John Mackie covers a team of misfits kicking Japanese ass in the Pacific. ‘The Sergeant’ series, written as Gordon Davis, follows maverick American infantryman Clarence J. Mahoney though the major battles of the European theater of war. Both are brilliantly-executed, but for my money, I think ‘The Sergeant’ is a slightly stronger series, mostly because Mahoney is such a colorful character. Your mileage may vary.

Book four of ‘The Sergeant’ series is “The Liberation of Paris” - originally published in 1981 - and as the novel opens, we join Mahoney and his sidekick, Edward Cranepool, in Summer 1944. They are enjoying some rest and recuperation time far from the front lines with Mahoney fighting in a G.I. boxing match defending the honor of the 15th Regiment. I love literary boxing scenes, and Levinson recounts every bruise-inducing blow like a pro.

The action cuts from Mahoney and his roughneck compadres to General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is planning exactly how the Allied forces are going to kick the Krauts out of Paris. Politically, it’s important that French Army fighters be seen as the ones liberating Paris, but they will be joined with a phalanx of French-speaking American soldiers, including Mahoney and Cranepool.

For the Paris mission, Mahoney is placed with a group of hand-picked U.S. specialists right out of central casting. We have black soldier Leroy Washington and Jewish-American fighter Mark Goldberg. You get the idea. Mahoney seems mostly excited about visiting the legendary whorehouses of Paris after the mission is completed. He’s also the one they rely upon to mow down any and all enemy combatants between the French front line and Paris.

We also get to know General Dietrich von Choltitz of Hitler’s army who heads the occupying force in Paris. Hitler has ordered the General to burn the city to the ground before letting it fall to the enemy. Choltitz is hesitant to preemptively destroy Paris, so the Fuhrer sends along a deadly piece of weaponry from Germany’s eastern front that could alter the direction of the war and push the Allies back to the English Channel. The German’s nickname this weapon, “Karl.” Not all the Germans are enthusiastic about destroying the city they’ve grown to love, and the interplay among several factions of the German occupiers made for some fascinating and dramatic reading.

Can Mahoney make it to Paris before Superweapon Karl does? Will the Hitler loyalists thwart the their soft-hearted countrymen in their goal to level the city? Will Mahoney get to bang a French whore after the job is done? I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but the fact that the people of Paris don’t currently conduct their lives speaking German might be a clue as to how this plays out. 

As with most historical fiction, it ain’t the destination, it’s the ride. And Levinson gives the reader an exciting ride all the way to Paris in this violent race to save Europe and its treasures. “The Liberation of Paris” is a fantastic war story filled with vivid characters (including cameos by Ernest Hemingway and Adolf Hitler), action set pieces, and graphic sex. It’s also a great entry point into the series if you don’t anticipate reading them all, and it’s currently available for a buck as an eBook from Piccadilly Press. Even if you’re not a history buff (I’m definitely not), the propulsive adventure will keep the pages turning until the end. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Sergeant #03 - Bloody Bush

The only thing I didn’t care for about “BLOODY BUSH” was the title. Otherwise, this third entry in 'The Sergeant' series not only equals the first two books in excellence, but surpasses them in terms of narrative power and character development.

The first book, “DEATH TRAIN”, introduces us to Sgt. Clarence Mahoney and brings us along on an undercover demolition mission of his in Nazi-occupied France. That mission gets wrapped up surprisingly quickly, so then we tag along as he helps members of the French resistance fight back when the Germans besiege their headquarters. The action is solid and the storytelling is superb, and Mahoney is such a fascinating character that he himself is the best thing in the book. A gruff, cigar-chomping Superman in dirty fatigues, he’s all but invincible as the Germans throw everything they have at him. 

(The Mac Wingate series, which would debut a year later, chronicles the adventures of another American undercover he-man demolition expert tirelessly fighting the Nazis. Remarkable coincidence or cynical rip-off?) 

The Sergeant’s second book, “HELL HARBOR”, avoids the bifurcated narrative of “DEATH TRAIN” and tells one epic war adventure story, sending Mahoney deep into the revolting sewers of Cherbourg on a mission to prevent the Germans from blowing up a key harbor installation. Now Mahoney is more human, more nuanced, and more vulnerable. The story is cohesive but the plot isn’t very rigid. It’s related as a series of incidents, some combat-driven and some character-driven. The first book set the bar pretty high, but “HELL HARBOR” is even better.

And now “BLOODY BUSH” is the best one yet. Hoping for less risk to life and limb, Mahoney has transferred to a regular Army platoon and the secret missions are over. It’s July 1944, and the D-Day landings have been successful, but now the Americans need to push out of Normandy into the interior of France, and into the jaws of the waiting German army.

WWII buffs will appreciate how skillfully the novel blends fact and fiction, as the novel deals with both the Battle of the Hedgerows and the Battle of St. Lo. It’s not all about endless warfare, either; the narrative also involves Erwin Rommel and the plot to assassinate Hitler. In fact, Rommel, Hitler and George Patton all play extended supporting roles in this story. 

But you don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy this book. It’s classic masculine pulp, with lots of exciting combat sequences as well as some colorful confrontations between Mahoney and an arrogant army captain (I enjoyed these even more). Good war fiction pulls the reader into the action on an intellectual level, but really top-notch war fiction makes you feel it in your gut, with vivid details of everything from the flying dirt and shrapnel to the exhaustion, the fear and the sinking apprehension that today is your last day on Earth. The way the ground vibrates beneath a soldier during an artillery barrage, the panic and the adrenaline that take over in hand-to-hand combat, the psychological impact of weak leadership as opposed to confident leadership… it’s all here, painting the experience of war in both the broad strokes and in the little details. 

Author Len Levinson (writing as Gordon Davis) nails all of this with his usual skill. Even better, he further explores Mahoney’s complex persona, refining the characteristics we already knew about and developing a few new ones. Mahoney can bust a fellow soldier’s jaw in one chapter, kneel in prayer and carry a Bible under his shirt in another chapter, usurp a superior officer’s command in yet another chapter, and nevertheless there are no contradictions in him, just complexity. It’s rare to find such nuance in pulp fiction. It’s extraordinary. And so is this series. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Sergeant #02 - Hell Harbor: The Battle for Cherbourg

It’s a little odd that there were so few series dealing with World War II. What could be a more natural setting for stories with action, heroism, bloodshed and explosions? And WWII-themed stories had been in seemingly every issue of the men’s adventure magazines, the predecessors of the paperbacks. Even in comic books, there were more than a dozen long-running series set during the war.

I can only think of two standout paperback series centered on WWII, and both of them were written in their entirety by Len Levinson: 'The Sergeant' (under the name Gordon Davis) and 'The Rat Bastards' (as John Mackie). Just two! But you know, maybe it’s really not so surprising that these series had so little competition. Levinson set the bar so high that few writers could hope to match them. 

The Sergeant’s debut novel, “Death Train”, recounts a couple of episodes in the combat career of Sgt. C.J. Mahoney. Gruff, pugnacious and snarky, he’s not your traditional lantern-jawed hero, but he sure gets the job done. The title refers to the first of these episodes, in which Mahoney is tasked with disrupting German supply lines by sabotaging the rail network of occupied France. The second episode finds him with some resistance fighters, holed up in a French village suddenly overrun by German tanks. I thought the first story was a little more effective than the second, but they were both superb.

The next novel is even better, presenting a handful of wartime episodes of varying lengths. In “Hell Harbor: The Battle for Cherbourg”, Mahoney is a much more fully-developed character. He’s still a grizzled war dog, chomping his cigar and addressing friend and foe alike as “Asshole,” but in one remarkable extended episode, we discover there’s far more to him than that. The context of how that happens is the last thing you’d expect. Mahoney’s recovering in a London hospital but manages to steal an officer’s uniform one night, and sneak out of the building in hopes of visiting a popular brothel. I can’t say anything more without giving away too much, but trust me--- this is the episode that will linger with you the longest. And there’s not a shot fired in it!

There’s certainly plenty of combat action in the other episodes, and the book’s title refers to the last of them. Based in an impregnable fortress, the Germans are going to blow up the harbor at Cherbourg by remote control, just to keep it out of the hands of the Americans, who need it to land critical supplies and reinforcements. Mahoney and a squad are assigned the seemingly impossible task of preventing the harbor’s destruction. A lesser author would turn Mahoney into a combat Superman, storming the fortress and drilling every German in sight, emerging triumphant. What happens instead is unexpected, harrowing and even a little disgusting, but it’s also pulp action at its best. 

It’s also believable, and that’s important. Of course it’s fiction, but everything in the novel happens in the real world, not in the Mack Bolan fantasyland of invulnerable action heroes with unlimited heavy ammunition. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that stuff, and it’s fine as far as it goes. But what’s more compelling, more memorable and more rewarding is what Len Levinson serves up in “Hell Harbor”. Put this one on your shopping list.