Saturday, February 28, 2009

40th Anniversary of Don Pendleton's The Executioner: Mack Bolan Series, Part One

The Birth of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner: Mack Bolan Series of Novels 40 Years Ago,

Part One

In March of 1969, the first paperback novel of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner Series was published. Soon after, the second book, and those to follow, became a publishing phenomenon with the success of the continuing fast-hitting adventures of Mack Bolan’s fight to destroy the Mafia. The books were published worldwide in many languages. Don Pendleton is acknowledged as the "father of the modern Action/Adventure novel." His Mack Bolan, The Executioner, theme is "Live Large" and recently the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume II (H-O) gives derivation credit for "live large" to Don Pendleton and his Executioner Series.

At the height of the Executioner success many publishers and writers attempted to ride on the coattails of Don's success. Some succeeded. Others did not. In many of those books, what appeared to be missing were the elements that Don had so skillfully crafted with his presentation of his fictional hero.

Don wrote the first novel in the series, War Against the Mafia out of his desire to express his discomfort with the reaction of many Americans to our soldiers who were dying for our country in the jungles of Vietnam and those coming home to outrageous verbal and physical abuse. So Mack Bolan became Don's symbolic statement. He also became every soldier's voice. Don created a heroic character in Bolan, a true hero who was dedicated to justice. The enemy that Bolan had to fight was no longer on the battlefields of Vietnam but right here on American soil, and that enemy was the Mafia.

Within his Bolan stories are strong values with an underlying theme of a higher morality that Bolan follows. More than once Don said about the Executioner novels, "My biggest job throughout writing the series was to keep faith with Bolan–that what he is doing is right. I wanted an enemy beyond redemption–an enemy that all civilized procedures had failed to put down. The Mafia was ready-made. They embodied all the evils of mankind."

In 1980, Don franchised his Executioner characters to Harlequin's Gold Eagle Imprint after writing Executioner thirty-eight, Satan's Sabbath. Gold Eagle's program has resulted in close to 600 Executioner Mack Bolan books published since with several spin-off series: Able Team, Phoenix Force, Stony Man, and Super Bolan. Don was Consulting Editor with the Harlequin program until his death but did not write any of the Harlequin books, which have all been written by a team of writers. Mack Bolan’s fight then became terrorists.

In an effort to explain his Mack Bolan Executioner character and his own style of writing “heroic” fiction, Don Pendleton had this to say:

In the first Executioner novel, War Against the Mafia, the hero, Mack Bolan is quickly established as a superb combat soldier dedicated to a lonely “one man war” against the Mafia. This is a war of attrition...” the same as in ‘Nam.” Bolan uses a variety of heavy military weaponry in a relentless assault against “this new enemy” wherever he may discover their presence. Characterization of the character is to present this very violent figure as a highly motivated, heroic, and sympathetic man.

The books are narrated as the closest thing to docudrama, with an authoritative third-person objective viewpoint occasionally shifting into stream of consciousness via Bolan and other characters. The emphasis is to explain the action as an approving, historical account in a stirring presentation, and to dimension as much as possible the violent activities of the hero.

Styling of the Mack Bolan stories requires a structure for carrying fast-paced hard-hitting action sequences. The writing is punchy, declarative, stirringly graphic. The reach is toward the reader’s belly, designed to evoke visceral response and rousing empathy. This is “heroic” fiction.

Premising the Bolan stories are the ideas that a good offense is the best defense, and that human violence can have positive social values–that, indeed, the goals of mankind can sometimes best be dignified through violent confrontation. The first novel, War Against the Mafia, employed a quote from Nietzsche on the theme page: “You say that a good cause will even sanctify war! I tell you, it is the good war that sanctifies every cause!” These are frankly and consciously violent books because they intend to illustrate the violent themes of mankind.

The Mack Bolan books are prototypical Action/Adventure. A good “action-adventure” book is forever in a hurry, breathless, bursting with movement and activity. I try to keep my hero clean. I try to give him all the higher human attributes. I try to depict his war as a crusade–a very highly motivated crusade, with high ideals, very strong human overtones. I show this man in almost continuous conflict with himself. I show that his course through life is no bed of roses. I’m not exhorting anyone to emulate this man by his example. Certainly there is nothing in the Mack Bolan adventures which exhort anyone, young, old, male or female, to follow in his footsteps. This guy lives a pretty grim life. He’s no James Bond, with all the gourmet foods and the luxury living. He does have an occasional fling at romance but he doesn’t even have the time to appreciate that. The guy has a pretty rough life.

Of course, the character of Mack Bolan is built around this idea–that this is a man who has submerged his own life into his mission. He has sacrificed everything that he holds dear, all his own ambitions. After all he is a man with dreams, and all these things he’s forgone in order to fling himself into this holy war.

I believe, in the deeper theme values, my Executioner books reflect my values–and that something very, very important is taking place here on this obscure little planet. I do feel that life has tremendous meaning. I feel most sincerely that the good life is the challenged life and not the easy one. I think that in their deeper theme values my Executioner books reflect this philosophy. The books are not sheer blood and guts. Sure, there is plenty of that in there, deliberately so.

I do believe that I have managed to utilize highly, highly dramatic situations, perhaps bordering on the melodramatic to bring out the deeper values that are inherent in all human life. I’m very strongly aware that many young and impressionable readers read my books and I feel a sense of responsibility there. I work very hard to see that my hero is a truly three dimensional person with very high purpose. I try to present the things he does in the context of tremendous meaning.

I will never apologize to anyone for my Executioner books. I feel they are a testament to the human spirit of mankind and I find it personally gratifying that the books have evoked such a wide response in the American reader. And it has been a wide response, not just in the numbers of books sold but in the cross section of American society who happen to be reading the books. The readers are professional people, white collar workers, blue collar people, military people, men, women, children from age twelve to age ninety four. The books are more than simple escape literature. The books do actually involve the reader in a rather high cause–the perpetration of human excellence, high human values, and besides that, they are just entertaining, that’s all.

Beyond that, I don’t know how to evaluate the books. I doubt very much that any writer can really give a purely objective evaluation of his work. The only sort of gauge I have is in the way I feel when I write those final words, The End. If I have a good feeling when I put those words down, then I feel I have accomplished my objective. I’ve said what I’ve started out to say and told the story I started out to tell, and if I finish the book feeling good then I have to assume that the reader will finish the book feeling the same way–and that’s really my primary goal.

I want to entertain and along with the entertainment, I do want to include something that does dignify the work a bit. That doesn’t mean that the time spent reading the book is lost time-completely frittered away–but that along with the entertainment there has been a few moments of perhaps introspection on the part of the reader, perhaps a little bit of understanding of the world about him.

I don’t suppose the books will ever go down in the big registry of great literary masterpieces, as certainly, they’re not that. I could only hope that Mack Bolan will take his place along with such American fictional heroes as Mike Hammer, Travis McGee, Perry Mason, Matt Helm, and of course James Bond, who is not an American hero but an Englishman, but nevertheless, in the same genre. And I hope it can be said that Mack Bolan is his own man–his own type–and he does stand apart from the other heroes, perhaps no better than they are but unique in his own right, and aside from the hope that the books will have continuing acceptance, that they will continue to sell, this is about the most I could ask for.

Don Pendleton, left, with Artist Gil Cohen. Gil did Executioner covers for a number of years.
Photo Copyright 1985 by Linda Pendleton.

Part Four

© Copyright Don Pendleton, Linda Pendleton.

All Rights Reserved. 

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