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Literature / The Executioner

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"I am not their judge. These people have judged themselves by their own actions. I am their judgment. I am their executioner."

An Action/Adventure Series created by Don Pendleton in 1969 that became a Long-Running Book Series. Over 600 novels have been written featuring the protagonist Mack Bolan and various spin-off characters.

Mack Bolan (nicknamed "The Executioner" by his fellow soldiers) is an elite sniper/penetration specialist in The Vietnam War when he receives word that his father Sam, a steelworker in Pittsfield, has gone insane and shot dead his wife Elsa and daughter Cynthia ("Cindy"). On talking to the Sole Survivor, younger brother Johnny, Bolan discovers that his father was being squeezed by Mafia Loan Sharks and, on hearing that his daughter was prostituting herself to cover his debt, snapped under the pressure.

Figuring there's no point in fighting a war 8,000 miles away when there's a bigger enemy right here at home, Mack Bolan sets forth on a one-man crusade to destroy The Mafia, using all the military weapons and tactics at his disposal including heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, night-vision scopes, radio-detonated explosives, electronic surveillance, silenced handguns and the garrotte. Bolan is also fond of using wiles to turn his enemies against each other.

In 1980 Don Pendleton sold the rights to Gold Eagle Books, who retooled the series by having Bolan fake his death in order to lead a covert US Government operation known as Stony Man, under the cover name of Colonel John Phoenix. Also part of Stony Man are two units whose story is told in their own spin-off series: Able Team (consisting of three Bolan comrades from his Mafia Wars — not to be confused with Able Squad) and Phoenix Force (a Five-Man Band assembled from the world's best anti-terrorist operatives, with no connection whatsoever to Jean Grey). Ostensibly Able Team was to operate inside the United States while Phoenix Force did so on an international level, but this idea was soon dropped.

After a KGB operation to destroy Stony Man caused the death of his girlfriend April Rose, Mack Bolan returned to his Vigilante Man origins, though he still does the occasional mission for Stony Man on an 'unofficial' basis.

Compare with The Punisher and Paul Kersey of the Death Wish series.

Not to be confused with the 2019 Visual Novel of the same name. The protagonist also has no relation to Marc Bolan of the British band T-Rex.

As of 2015, the series is out of print because of its publishing house, Gold Eagle, closing down.

Frequently encountered tropes in this series are:

  • All Crimes Are Equal:
    • Being in the Mafia (no matter how distant the link) is punishable by death. Doesn't matter if you just are an errand boy, you are guilty and must die.
    • Played with when Bolan is framed for the murder of a prostitute. The female D.A. tries to goad him on the stand to consider prostitutes lawbreakers like anyone else. She's thrown when Bolan literally laughs that he considers them victims, not criminals and would never kill one.
  • Arch-Enemy: Major General Greb Strakhov, who was behind the KGB operation that led to April Rose's death in Day of Mourning. In the following novel Bolan kills Strakhov's son, so It's Personal for him too.
  • Are We Getting This?: In Able Team #8 "Army of Devils", a crew for a radical left-wing news station pulls up at a building that Able Team is raiding. Their producer tells the sound guy to record the gunfire so they can loop and dub it to "make it sound like World War 3". Just then there's an eruption of automatic fire, causing the sound guy to comment: "Won't have to overdub that!"
  • Author Filibuster: Bolan spends entire chapters pondering the necessity of violence and the morality of his "War Everlasting," as Don Pendleton created the series in response to the anti-war views of the Flower Power generation.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: In War Against The Mafia, Bolan deduces that the Mafia conference going on in the mansion's upper room is actually a decoy by timing it and recognising the actions of the participants are too regular.
  • BFG: Bolan likes using elephant guns as sniper rifles — first a Marlin .444 lever-action, then the Weatherby Mark V in .460 Magnum calibre. This leads to several Your Head Asplode moments.
    • Several of Bolan's enemies were also given to using these weapons, such as the psychopathic giant Igor Baibakov, who not only used the .50 BMG caliber Barrett Light Fifty as a primary sniper weapon, but was big and powerful enough to use the thing as an assault rifle.
  • Avengers Assemble: Happens often with Phoenix Force, being a diverse Multinational Team. Less so with Able Team as there's only three of them — usually they're introduced in a Mission Briefing while being flown to their target area.
  • Battle Butler: Bolan would occasionally run into loyal mafiosi who fit this description when he tried The Infiltration, which didn't make his task any easier.
  • Busman's Holiday: Bolan can't even go kayaking without someone trying to kill him (see #50: Brothers in Blood and #90: Blood Heat Zero).
  • Calling Card:
    • Bolan leaves a miltary marksman's medal at the scene of his killings. Sometimes he has one delivered to a future target as psychological warfare. The mob has been known to leave such medals at murder scenes, either to frame Bolan or cover up for their own inter-gang rivalries. The latter tactic was used so often that one underling reporting a Bolan hit got beaten up "for pulling that stunt," until Bolan (who'd let him live so he could follow the man to his superiors) walked through the door and started shooting.
    • The Black Aces, as the name suggests, use standard black ace of spades cards as an ID. Bolan uses this to his advantage when masquerading as one when he obtains a card out of a deck of from a Mook's poker game.
  • Catchphrase: "Live large" and "Stay hard". The latter sometimes gets a "What?!" reaction, though they eventually figure out what Bolan means.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Especially after Bolan went back to being a Rogue Agent. Federal law enforcement agencies on the other hand are at most obstructive, and more often supportive — despite the fact that law enforcement should have more issue with Bolan's activities and methods than intelligence agencies.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Being turned into a "turkey" is the fate of several people who help Mack Bolan, leaving him to inflict the Mercy Kill. Able Team member Carl Lyons has been known to use the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique on occasion, though Phoenix Force prefers to rely on scopalomine.
  • Cold Sniper: An army psychiatrist is quoted as saying that while most soldiers can be a successful sniper once, it's the ability to continue to do so (to see the difference between killing in the course of duty and murder) that separates Bolan from other men. He is described as "a man who can command himself."
  • Coffin Contraband: One of the novels (likely inspired by the Frank Lucas affair) has heroin being smuggled in coffins marked Remains Non-Viewable (used for mutilated corpses who couldn't be given an open casket funeral) to dissuade anyone from opening them.
  • Combat Pragmatist:
    • When innocent lives are at stake, Bolan has no problem with shooting his enemies in the back, going for groin strikes or eye gouges in hand to hand combat, making use of his surroundings to get the upper hand, and so on.
    • Bolan's Establishing Character Moment as a One-Man Army in the first novel. Realising he's being lured into a trap, he raids a warehouse containing surplus military hardware. Up to then he'd fought the Pittsfield Mafia with rifles, knives or pistols, so they're unprepared for being hit with rocket launchers and mortar bombs.
  • Comic-Book Time: Early novels stated that Bolan had also fought in Korea; this was dropped as the series continued. Contemporary novels don't even mention his Vietnam service as it would make him seem too old.
  • Conspicuously Public Assassination: Bolan often starts his 'blitz' by turning up at a number of Mafia joints, calmly stating the name of his target, whom he kills along with their bodyguards in an impressive display of shooting, leaving his Calling Card behind. Another favorite tactic is to gun down some bigwigs at a seemingly-improbable range with a sniper rifle. This quickly gets the local mafia 'mobbed up' in a known 'hardsite' (which Bolan has already scouted in advance) where he can destroy them with overwhelming firepower without worrying about innocents getting in the way.
  • Crazy-Prepared:
    • Although a typical 'blitz' can be over in less than twenty-four hours, Bolan spends a good deal of time beforehand gathering intelligence, planning his hits down to the second, and leaving safe houses scattered about the city.
    • In "Chicago Wipe-Out", the Mafia track down Bolan and a Damsel in Distress to a hotel. Fortunately there's a zero-visibility snowstorm in progress, so Bolan is able to lead her out as the hit squad is stumbling through the snow, trying to get into position. She realises that Bolan can only do this because he's memorised the distances of each turn from the hotel room to where he's parked their car.
  • Death from Above: In the final shootout in War Against The Mafia, Bolan spends a large part of it thinking it's going too easily and wondering when the mobsters are going to unleash their "big punch". It turns out to be an attack helicopter.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Mafia underboss Leo Turrin, actually a federal agent who feeds Bolan inside information.
  • Demanding Their Head: This occurs several times during Mack Bolan's war against The Mafia, as whenever a mob boss demands Bolan's head, it's usually meant to be taken literally:
    • Ironically in "Tennessee Smash", Bolan is posing as a mob assassin and has to deliver a head himself because it's expected of him. The boss then kicks it into his swimming pool.
    • In "Paradine's Gauntlet", a terrorist wanting revenge for a previous encounter demands that Bolan be the courier for a ransom exchange. "This is non-negotiable. If he is unavailable, evidence of death must be presented with the payment. His head will be acceptable." This ends up being Paradine's downfall; he shoots Bolan and then puts aside his rifle for a knife, intending to collect Bolan's head. However Bolan is Not Quite Dead, and Paradine discovers you should Never Bring A Knife To A Gunfight.
  • Dirty Communists: The Stony Man series is based on the Reagan-era view that the Soviet Union was the Diabolical Mastermind behind international terrorism. However the Able Team series, while maintaining this anti-communist stance, is highly critical of US policy in supporting Latin American dictatorships.
  • The Dreaded: Bolan soon becomes this as the mere rumor the Executioner is in town causes hardened mobsters to break into terror.
  • Dual Wielding: Bolan prefers fighting at range, but he's not above using a pair of melee weapons if the situation calls for it, such as his paired knife and tomahawk combo in Mission to Burma.
  • Elite Mooks:
    • The Black Aces, a squad of elite Professional Killers under the Taliferro brothers. They are regularly described as the Gestapo of the mafia, serving as a regulation squad for the Commission should any mafia boss step out of line. As a result, they are held in awe by the average Mafia footsoldier and are often described as radiating 'class' and charisma.
    • Right below the Black Aces are the Red Aces, which, according to Savage Fire, while lower down in the hierarchy, are still a dangerous foe to mess around with.
  • Enemy Mine: Bolan sometimes teams up with those he would normally oppose to stop a bigger threat, such as teaming with members of an El Salvadorian death squad in Blood Vector to stop a global bioweapons attack. Bolan's makeshift allies almost inevitably turn on him as soon as the greater threat is neutralized.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: Early books in the series had characters (and even the blurbs for the novels) explaining that The Mafia isn't just an Urban Legend.
  • Evil Counterpart: On several occasions elite soldiers (in fact entire mercenary units) are hired by the Mafia to kill Bolan. He is clever enough not to fight them directly, but instead uses hit-and-run and infiltration / manipulation tactics.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Captain Wade, the head of security for Stony Man Farm, who sells out to terrorist Al Miller in Day of Mourning, resulting in an assault on the farm that ends with the death of April Rose.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Played with in one book with Bolan is arrested for killing a prostitute found murdered in his hotel. At first, the small town cops, D.A. and public defender think it's just a random killing until they find out who Bolan is. On the stand, Bolan's attorney asks why someone would bother framing a man who's proudly confessed to killing countless mobsters. Bolan replies it was a trap, noting how he was nearly killed in the jail shower but ended up killing his attackers.
  • Girl of the Week: Bolan encounters a beautiful woman in every novel. Some die, others live to be encountered in future novels (such as the Ranger Girls, who turn out to be federal agents). The Forgotten Fallen Friend trope was somewhat averted; dead allies often weighed on Bolan's conscience past the novel they died in, such as Cuban soldado Margarita and federal agent Georgette Chebleu. In the early Pendleton novels Bolan would have sex with them, but when Gold Eagle took over they gave Bolan a regular Love Interest with April Rose and Bolan never had sex with any Girl of the Week until after Rose died.
  • Gun Porn: The Gold Eagle novels usually have trading-card stats of relevant weapons. Plus every gun on the planet must have been used by the protagonists at one time or another. The members of Phoenix Force all use different firearms (reflecting their different backgrounds) even though standardization of ammunition, magazines and spare parts would make more sense.
  • Guns Akimbo: Bolan frequently fights with a gun in each hand, usually a Hand Cannon and his Beretta. Sometimes his allies or enemies do this as well.
  • Hand Cannon: One of Bolan's regularly carried handguns is the massive .44 Desert Eagle; before this he used the .44 AutoMag.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Skinwalker features a non-fatal occurrence of the question being asked by a supporting protagonist. The body of an environmentalist is found with his throat torn out, surrounded by the prints of a wolf that walked on two legs. The first cop on the scene figures out that it's probably a "Scooby-Doo" Hoax being conducted by the oil company to frighten their enemies. He asks the man who found the body if he told anyone else about the tracks. After the witness says he didn't, the cop swears him to secrecy and wipes away all of the tracks in an effort to keep the murder from accomplishing its goal. The cop ends up being the second victim a few chapters later.
  • Hero Looking for Group: In the second novel Death Squad, Bolan enlists several Vietnam veterans to help him in his war against the Mafia, but all of them get killed except for 'Gadgets' Schwartz and 'The Politician' Blancanales, who along with 'Ironman' Carl Lyons become Able Team in the Gold Eagle books.
  • Hopeless War: Bolan calls it his "War Everlasting". He knows he can never win but feels he must fight anyway, as every bad guy he kills saves many innocents.
  • House Pseudonym: Gar Wilson ostensibly wrote the Phoenix Force novels while Able Team was written by Dick Stivers. The novels even had a fake bio for these people, but they were just pseudonyms for various Gold Eagle writers.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The plot of book 441, Murder Island. The main villain is an elderly British man who just so happens to share his last name with the protagonist of 'The Most Dangerous Game'. He arranges for men to be sent to his island so he can hunt them. He also has a room full of the skulls of people he killed, and even talks to one of them near the end.
  • I Call It "Vera". 'Big Thunder', Bolan's stainless steel .44 AutoMag, and 'Belle', his silenced Beretta Brigadier (a civilian Beretta M1951), sometimes fired Guns Akimbo. They were later replaced by a Beretta 93R and .44 Desert Eagle, with the occasional use of "Little Lightning" (a Mini-Uzi).
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Bolan's icy blue eyes are mentioned on numerous occasions. For many people it's the last thing they ever see.
  • Impersonation Gambit: Bolan would pull this on both the local police (to gather intelligence) and the Mafia (in order to destroy them via a Batman Gambit), usually by posing as a federal agent or an elite hitman sent from New York to kill Bolan.
  • It's What I Do: Bolan uses these exact words on more than one occasion.
  • I Want Them Alive!: The mob bosses would love to get Bolan alive so they can torture him to death. The more practical hitmen assigned to this task tend to ignore these orders.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Local police and mafiosi suspect that Bolan is secretly working for the CIA. Ironically Bolan was offered a 'license' by Justice Department official Hal Brognola early in the series, only to turn it down as he didn't want to "drag the rest of the country into hell with him". Hal Brognola continued to feed Bolan information though, and later convinced him to join the Stony Man program.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: Occasionally when two different groups are both opposing Bolan, he will manipulate or bait them into fighting each other while he escapes or lurks around picking off members of both sides.
  • Long-Running Book Series: Surely one of the principal examples, currently clocking in at over six hundred titles.
  • Love Interest: Valentina "Val" Querente, whom Bolan met in the first novel, though their relationship didn't continue. April Rose was introduced as an electronic spying specialist for Hal Brognola at the end of Bolan's Mafia War arc; she later became Mission Control at Stony Man. Although beautiful women continued to pop up on every mission, Bolan never slept with any of them until after April's death.
  • Machete Mayhem: Bolan often engages in jungle warfare with terrorists throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and other regions where machetes are commonly carried by both soldiers and civilians. As such, it's not uncommon for Bolan to be attacked by panga wielding rebels in Africa, Filipinos packing bolos, parang wielding Indonesians, and so on. Sometimes, Bolan himself will turn these weapons on his attackers.
  • Magic Bullets: Bolan goes to a lot of trouble to protect police and innocent bystanders, but it seems unrealistic that no-one is ever harmed by stray bullets or flying shrapnel, especially when he's using military weapons in inner-city areas.
  • Magic Plastic Surgery: Bolan had his face changed to look like an Italian-American buddy who was killed in Vietnam, in order to help him infiltrate the mob.
  • Master of Disguise: Bolan calls this "role camouflage", which is based on psychology rather than physical disguises. He knows that no-one will associate the friendly telephone repairman or smooth elite hitman from New York with the notorious blacksuited One-Man Army.
  • Meaningful Name: When posing as a Black Ace hitman, Bolan uses the alias Omega (i.e. the End). After faking his death in the fiery destruction of his war wagon, Bolan takes the identity of Colonel John Phoenix, rising from his own ashes to lead the Stony Man operation.
  • Men of Sherwood: In Battle Mask, several small-town policemen are caught completely off-guard by a shootout triggered by the protagonist, but still manage to kill or capture most of the mobsters under risky circumstances without being decimated.
  • Mook: Bolan mows down dozens of unnamed thugs, gangsters, terrorists, gangbangers and other scum in every book without breaking a sweat. In one book, Bolan even refers to some of them as mooks.
  • Mook–Face Turn: Usually an underling whose life Bolan spares early in the book ends up helping him. The most notable case is Jack Grimaldi, a mercenary Ace Pilot for the mob who joined Bolan's crusade and ended up working for Stony Man. A number of law enforcement officials end up turning a blind eye to his activities as well, such as LAPD cop Carl Lyons, who later joins Able Team.
  • Murder, Inc.: The Black Aces serve as the inheritors to the real-life Trope Namers in the series. They only take orders from the Commission and are usually called in to regulate the various mob families across the country. When Bolan targets the mob's criminal enterprises as the series progresses, they soon become a recurring enemy.
  • Never Be a Hero: Mack discourages his kid brother from following in his footsteps. Later Johnny teams up with his brother after his own run-in with the Mafia, but eventually decides he doesn't have what it takes to engage in the War Everlasting, so provides Mission Control services instead.
  • Nightmare Dreams: Bolan dreams of wading through rivers of blood while everyone takes pot-shots at him. He doesn't need a shrink to interpret the meaning of this.
  • Noble Shoplifter: In War Against the Mafia, Mack Bolan starts his crusade against the Mob by breaking into a gun store and taking a large amount of firearms and ammunition. However, he leaves behind enough cash to cover what he took, plus the damage to the store. When interviewed in the newspaper, the proprietor says he doesn't consider this a robbery, but rather a transaction that took place while the store was closed.
  • One-Man Army: Bolan constantly goes up against hordes of mobsters, terrorists, cartel members, and other heavily armed groups and wipes them out while receiving only minor injuries.
  • Photographic Memory: Bolan uses this to good effect when posing as a Black Ace; Mafia footsoldiers are flattered that he appears to know minor details about their lives.
  • Political Overcorrectness: In "Vegas Vendetta", comedian Tommy Anders (real name Giuseppe Androsepitone) is doing a stand-up comedy routine about how Paramount removed the word "Mafia" from The Godfather, and jokes that they're now going to change it to The Stepfather after militant atheists objected to the word was religious propaganda. Then he pretends to get a call from ABDFBHC (A Better Deal For Broken Home Children) objecting to The Stepfather. Then Anders starts going on a rant over this trope and forgetting he's supposed to be making his audience laugh, because he's being pressured by the real Mafia and doesn't find it amusing.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Late in War Against The Mafia, Bolan spies on a presumably untrained mobster scratching his shoulder with the barrel of his gun.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Bolan denies that he's acting out of revenge; he's simply the man most qualified to fight what he sees as a cancer on society. This view tends to go out the window when a Girl of the Week gets turned into a turkey.
  • Rogue Agent: Though unlike most examples, he started off as this. After being framed by the KGB and the death of his Love Interest, Bolan decided to go back to fighting evil his way. Though he still does the occasional 'deniable' job for his old colleagues.
  • Set a Mook to Kill a Mook: A favorite tactic during Bolan's war against The Mafia, by playing on pre-existing tensions in whatever Mafia family he was targeting. So much attention was focused on the One-Man Army dressed in black who was decimating them with long-range sniper fire or full military assaults, they'd never suspect the smooth-talking Black Ace hitman sent from New York to deal with Bolan, or the lowly foot-soldier ringing up the boss to warn of treachery from an ally, might be Bolan himself.
  • Sexy Shirt Switch: Mack's Girl of the Week in Dixie Convoy does this; lounging around the war Wagon in one of Mack's shirts.
  • Shooting Gallery:
    • In Panic in Philly, a basement target gallery has been built in the Big Fancy House of a mob boss. It comes in handy when he gets a rival crew to walk into the gallery with the lights turned off, then lights come on and his men open up with tommy guns.
    • At the start of Arizona Ambush, Mack Bolan is surprised to find an abandoned shooting gallery set up on a site owned by The Mafia. As he walks through it, one of the targets turns out to be a very real sentry whom Bolan shoots. The Reveal is that there's an impending Mob War and one side has hired Vietnam veterans as mercenaries.
  • Spy Catsuit: Bolan's infamous 'blacksuit', worn not only to hide him in the dark but also for its psychological effect.
  • The Syndicate / Nebulous Evil Organisation: Bolan thinks he's fatally weakened The Mafia, but discovers (even as he's preparing to move to Stony Man) that it's remarkably resilient. Other criminal organizations include TRIO (a union of Oriental crime groups such as Yakuza and the Triads) and MERGE (its Western/Latin American equivalent), along with the KGB, renegade CIA, neo-Nazi groups, and various terrorist organisations — Bolan and his allies must have fought every bad guy in existence by now.
  • Taking Over the Town: The second Able Team novel Hostage Island has an outlaw biker gang taking over Catalina Island and holding the population hostage.
  • Telecom Tree: In Dixie Convoy, the truckers helping Mack Bolan use CB radio to spread a message from one coast of the U.S. to the other.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Definitely averted! But it is worth noting that, as the series has progressed over the decades, not every book ends with Bolan putting a bullet between the eyes of a villain begging for mercy. A few times (gasp), Bolan even decides to let them stand trial, though granted this more often occurs with non-organized crime targets.
  • Tranquil Fury: Mack Bolan never goes into Unstoppable Rage.
  • Tyke-Bomb: In American Nightmare, Blocker, the main villain has three people working alongside him, posing as his family. His "children" are two siblings who were left behind during the final moments of The Vietnam War, whom he bought and raised to be hardened killers.
  • Vigilante Man: Mack Bolan during the "Mafia Wars" and frequently during the later novels. He's also a vicious killer as described below...
  • Villain Killer: Bolan received his moniker from his merciless slaughter of crime syndicates around the world, eradicating whole "families" of gangsters in a single chapter. The fact that Bolan rarely errs in his Knight Templar spree on criminals at times approaches Mary Sue levels.
  • Villains Want Mercy: Invoked occasionally, often in the last page or two, and usually just before Bolan puts a gun between their eyes and pulls the trigger.
  • Vulnerable Convoy: Armoured limousines are no good against an opponent who uses anti-tank rockets on a regular basis.
  • Warrior Poet: Bolan is very well read — each novel begins with a couple of quotes from a literary work, then a quote from Bolan's journal giving his own take on it. His favorite book is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, as Bolan often sees himself as Windmill Crusader.
  • Weaponized Car: The "war wagon" (a 26-foot GMC motor home equipped with laser-enhanced infra-red cameras, electronic surveillance devices, a computer database with phone link (in the 1970's!) and guided missiles) was constructed with the help of moonlighting NASA engineers sympathetic to his cause, and financed with stolen mob money, much to their chagrin. Replaced by the Laser Wagon (with upgraded electronics and weaponry) once Mack became official.
  • Would Not Shoot a Good Guy: Bolan doesn't kill civilians or law enforcement officials, both for moral reasons and because he knows people will turn a blind eye to his activities as long as he's just killing the bad guys. (This is in contrast to some Executioner-inspired series where collateral damage, even against cops, is handwaved away as part of the job.)

Alternative Title(s): Able Team, Phoenix Force