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Phoenix (The Complete Action Series)
David Alexander
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Mercenary Justice

Mercenary Justice - Chuck Bainbridge Mercenary Justice by Chuck Bainbridge is another of the '80s action novels I pulled out of my old stash. Recently I've had an interest in reading more of these. It seems a natural transition from being interested in B-movies, grindhouse trash and forgotten action movies on VHS to these kind of books. I regret now that I got rid of a bunch of them because most of them I had never even read.

Anyway, here is Mercenary Justice, the fifth in Chuck Bainbridge's Hard Corps series about a group of Vietnam vets who can't adjust to a peacetime army and decide to put themselves up for hire. Sound familiar? That's probably because this was the basis for half the action movies in the 1980s. But I don't fault it at all for that. In fact, that predictability is part of the the appeal. I fault it for other reasons. Namely, because it was just so dull.

The story starts out in New York, where Captain O'Neal, the leader of the Hard Corps, Lieutenant Wentworth, his second in command, and Fanelli, the smart-ass sergeant from New Jersey, meet with General Zabibu, leader of a fledgling African nation called Kilembe and personal friend of Wentworth. Zabibu is having problems with getting his nation established since Zaire and Angola, neighbors to Kilembe, are no friends of democracy and are eager to see this new nation fail. Zabibu appeals to his friendship with Wentworth to convince the boss to help. He hires the Hard Corps to fly on over and train up the Kilemban military. O'Neal, Wentworth and Fanelli fly on over to Africa, along with another Hard Corps member, Sergeant Steve Caine, a dude who went native during the 'Nam, to help out Zabibu.

Unbeknownst to the Hard Corps, however, is that the Cubans have an interest in Kilembe also. Something about spreading communism and all that. They send a military advisor named Perez over to Africa to organize terrorist operations in Kilembe. Soon enough, though, Perez's job becomes a whole lot more difficult when the Hard Corps discovers Cuba's involvement. As the back-cover copy says: "It's time to keep it on full-auto and forget the body count!"

Unfortunately, it ain't all that hot. With these "men's adventure" books, the armchair commando version of Harlequin romances, there are certain things you come to expect. So I knew what I was getting into when I cracked open Mercenary Justice. But it failed to deliver on the promises it gave in the back-cover copy.

It started off promisingly, with a firefight in New York City as thugs hired by the Cubans open up on the Hard Corps and General Zabibu in an assassination attempt. There was even the gratuitous mention of a police woman whose "breasts practically spilled out of her uniform shirt." The violence was appropriately graphic and cheesy and remained that way for the rest of the story. Wentworth even carried around a frickin' samurai sword (he was raised in Japan, so he's a kenjustsu master, naturally)! But besides that, the whole affair was a bit of a bore (and the out-of-uniform police woman never made a reappearance).

I guess the problem was that the story, despite the graphic violence, had no teeth. It was like an R-rated episode of The A-Team. O'Neal was the "cynical" mercenary leader, but he never came across as very cynical. Sometimes he'd spout off with a token statement to show that he was cynical, but it hardly mattered. During an interrogation scene where Wentworth and Caine are interrogating a captured enemy they threaten (very graphically) torture, but it is made known to the reader that they never intended to torture the guy at all; it was all a show. Don't get me wrong-- I do not approve of torture at all, but come on. Did Bainbridge have to tell us right away that they were just goofing on the guy? Think of all that wasted tension, when we readers could have been thinking, "Geez, they aren't really going to torture that guy, are they?" We already knew that it was all a show.

There were some interesting things, however, and they all had to do with Steve Caine, the sergeant that went native in Vietnam and lived with a tribe of Montagnards, staying with them even after the US pulled out. After the fake "torture" scene, a Kilemban soldier laughs when he if the enemy prisoner was scared when they threatened torture and Caine replies:
"Of course he was scared," Caine replied, fixing his special lifeless stare on the man's face. "I figure he had a right to be scared. I don't really find that to be funny. The man believed he might be tortured or killed. He believed his friends were being tortured in other cells. Is that funny?"

It was almost (almost) a little bit of characterization that humanized Caine a bit and made him kind of cool to me. Elsewhere in the book, Caine joins up with Pygmy fighters and his genuine interest in their culture and lifestyle was fun to see. Earlier in the book, back in the Pacific Northwest where the Hard Corps have their headquarters, we saw his disdain for a trophy-seeking hunter who was killed by a bear in the area while he hid in the bushes (right afterwards, the bear infiltrated the stronghold and Caine killed it with an improvised spear!). Yeah, Steve Caine is probably the only memorable character in the whole book.

Maybe it's a little bit strange that I'm writing so much about a book that is at best forgettable and one that few people these days will likely encounter. I just realized though, after seeing an ad on TV for Fast and Furious 6 that, hey!-- these books are kind of like that! Anyway, I like the mystery of these older series and their pseudonymous house-named authors.

"Chuck Bainbridge," as I understand it, was actually a house name and the actual authors of this series were William Fieldhouse, who wrote a number of Mack Bolan books for Gold Eagle, and Chris Lowder, a British author who also wrote for the comics Judge Dredd and 2000AD (source: Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction: An Encyclopedia from Able Team to Z-Comm by Bradley Mengel, via Googlebooks). I don't know if they took turns on each volume or divided up chapters to write, but it sure seems like some of the portions of this one were better written than others. 

Mercenary Justice is a forgettable little military actioner, though I'd like to see if the earlier ones were any better. This one suffers from what appears to be "Don't-give-a-damn-itis" (actual medical term!) on the part of the authors. But if you figure it, these guys were writing freelance and not under their own names, so I can't blame them. A fella has got to earn a buck.

I give this two stars. Two star books are sort of in a no-mans's land of being not good enough to be recommended but not awful enough to be ridiculously entertaining. In a way, a two star rating is worse than a one star rating. But whatever. If you do happen to pick this title up it won't be any significant investment in time or brain cells, but if you're truly seeking treasure in the trash I'd look elsewhere.