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Friday, April 1, 2011

Death Train: The Sergeant # 1 by Gordon Davis

Back in October 2010, I reviewed the first book I ever read in this series, which was also my introduction to war fiction and military pulp (though I didn't know it was considered pulp until many years later).

The title character is Master Sergeant Clarence J. Mahoney, a bruising, brawling hardcorps hardcase who is one of those characters you love to read about (guiltily, perhaps), but who you probably wouldn't care to associate with in reality. Speaking of reality, this guy is not the kind of soldier who would go far in the post-war peacetime Army, despite his spit & polish proclivities hinted at in this book, and his mercurial egocentric nature. He's a whoring, hard-drinking savage not good for much of anything besides killing and fornicating. No Neanderthal Switch to turn off until the next war.

Mahoney and his sidekick Corporal Cranepool are introduced to us working with the maquis of the Resistance in German-occupied France shortly before D-Day in 1944. They've been dropped into Fortress Europe with other volunteers from the 23rd Rangers because they speak fluent French. (Mahoney also speaks fluent German--evidently this caveman from New York City is an idiot-savant when it comes to languages--hence his code name/nickname "the Parrot.") To preempt redeployment of Wermacht divisions when the invasion takes place, Mahoney and Cranepool are ordered to destroy a crucial railroad bridge.

The Air Force has bombed this bridge to little effect. Ike wants it ruined, and ruined good, post-haste. Mahoney asks for 10 crates of TNT. The French give him two. When he sees the bridge, it's obvious he can only do minimal damage to it with the ordinance at hand. He decides that the mission could be better accomplished damaging the railroad somewhere else, and a local member of the Resistance cell Mahoney and Cranepool are attached to just happens to be a former railroader.

Gestapo Major Kurt Richter is on the ball, however, and hot on their heels, rallying SS troops from around the region to hunt them down. When the two forces meet, the action is bloody and fast-paced.

I read numbers four-through-nine in the series many years before, and re-read a few several times, but was a little spoiled by the gratuitous frontline infantry combat to read about Mahoney and Cranepool behind the lines pulling off demolition missions while posing as French peasants. It was interesting, when I finally did delve into Death Train, to observe the author's style shortly after conceiving the character. I don't mean to say the character evolved much over the series, but how other characters thought of him seemed to (they tend to recognize him for what he is in this first book).

Later in the series brief mentions are made of Mahoney's past in New York, but this first installment brings it into sharper focus. Mahoney was basically a hoodlum who joined the Army in 1934 because he couldn't make a living elsewhere during the Depression. I personally think such a man would have prospered in the short-term just fine rolling drunks, mugging people in Central Park, or as hired muscle for an Irish gang. Lucky for us pulp addicts, though, three squares a day in uniform must have had more appeal than (eventually) three squares a day in the slammer. He later volunteered for the Rangers because it offered more pay. He stuck with that up to this point because the professionalism of soldiers in an elite unit appealed to him more than the mediocrity of the line doggies.

It's even more obvious here than in subsequent books what a whoremonger our "hero" is, yet the sexual interludes are not nearly as graphic as they later become. Mahoney's habit of stealing watches off of KIAs originates here, too, BTW.

This is not a bad (for a trashy pulp) novel, but is probably my least favorite in the series. Mostly because the character is better suited to conventional combat (of the pulpy persuasion) than this clandestine stuff. There is no need to read the series in sequence. Other than recurring encounters with Richter, the progression of the war, and the deaths of some supporting characters, there is no continuity to keep track of. Each book stands alone just fine.

The Sergeant series is a guilty pleasure, and the cold brutality of the protagonist is perfectly acceptable to most readers because he has been unleashed against the Germans during Hitler's reign. Gordon Davis (a pseudonym of Len Levinson, from what I read) had a lot of fun writing this series, I suspect. And we can have a lot of fun reading it.

Read my Review of The Sergeant #2 Hell Harbor: The Battle For Cherbourg.

Read my review of The Sergeant #4 The Liberation of Paris.


  1. This sounds like the prototype for The Dirty Dozen, and it's subsequent spin offs like Inglorious Bastards.

  2. There certainly are similarities, though this was published in 1980 and The Dirty Dozen hit theaters in 1967.

    Mahoney's no mental giant, but he is clever enough to stay off of Death Row despite killing other GIs in bar fights and beating the snot out of commissioned officers. I think most, if not all, of the Dozen were still privates when busted. Aside from that, Mahoney is like an amalgam of the Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and John Cassavetes characters.

  3. Ah, I didn't realize that it was published in the 80's. For the record, I think The Dirty Dozen is one of the best movies ever made. On the other hand, Inglorious Bastards is probably one of the worst...

    The 80's were full of characters like this but nearly all of them were set in Vietnam or at least about Vietnam veterans as near as I can tell.

  4. Yeah, Vietnam was on everybody's mind, and Vietnam vets were the stock action heroes in pulpy adventure of the era. Far as I know, Pendleton started the trend with the Executioner (is the Punisher a huge knock-off of him, or what?).

    The Dirty Dozen is a great flick--one of those rare ones that surpasses the book it was based on. But I didn't hate Inglorious Basterds as much as I thought I would. I consider it not bad for a Tarantino flick, and the most I've liked Brad Pitt in any role. Its major downfall was when it was at its most serious. It should have been dark humor all the way through, IMO.

    I'm curious what you hated most about IB (and Avatar, for that matter), Jack.

  5. Man, this could be a blog post in of itself but I will try to be brief. Me and JE have talked about the Vietnam era (Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon) whack job hero before. I think that he will be making a return in the guise of the stereotypical Iraq/Afghanistan vet.

    I'm going to commit sacrilege for my generation, who worships at the altar of Tarintino, and say that most of his work is crap. Folks in their late 20's and early 30's love him, but I worship at the altar of Robert E. Howard and Don Pendleton.

    Inglorious Bastards has a great premise, and your right, Brad Pitt was outstanding in it. What drives me nuts is directors who have so little life experience that the only thing they know how to make a movie movies themselves. IG is a pretty good example with a major focus of the plot being on a film projectionist and a preoccupation with Pre-War Prussian Cinema, all delivered with Tarintino's horribly contrived and allegedly ironic dialog. It is so bad it actually hurts to watch at times. Yes, I also disliked the idea that to fight evil you have to automatically sink to the level of those you are fighting. The idea was played out twenty years ago, is cliche, and at the risk of sounding like an old man (or maybe this is the soldier speaking) I find it disgusting and perhaps sending a bad or too cynical of a message.

    Avatar I thought was just childish. While it is visually stunning and created a brilliant science fiction world, I thought the characters and plot were pretty silly. As my sister said, the plot was like that animated movie "Fern Gully" that we used to watch when we were kids. The green anti-human message was really silly, but all to common. The idea that humans are a disease, a cancer on the world. It seems to create self hatred, especially with my generation and younger (the post-9/11 kids) leading the idea that we are horrible for the planet and human civilization should be "rolled back" to some kind of zero-growth model. Ignoring those themes, I suppose it was a somewhat entertaining movie...

  6. You're right--this could have been a blog post all by itself.

    I think your prediction that the Vietnam vet will be recycled as a Gulf War II/Afghanistan vet is almost inevitable. You can see the beginning phases of that now.

    I think your assessment of Avatar was spot-on. As for Tarantino, he's in my top 3 list of most obnoxious film makers. When Resevoir Dogs first came out, I couldn't understand what all the hype was about. Same with Pulp Fiction, though it was interesting structurally. The retro-biker exploitation flick he made recently had potential, but I lost interest a half hour into it. I thought Sin City looked neat, but is forgettable. Now that I've offended 75% of the web-surfing population...

    Inglorious is the best work I've seen from him (and from Pitt), but you are right.

  7. I thought Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were both mildly interesting. The problem is that his movies are all rehashes of the same thing: homages to other, more talented film makers like Sergio Leone. I know he intends to make an homage, but it comes off more like a parody of itself. Deep down I know that Tarantino has talent, but he doesn't really use it and instead cops out by creating repetitive, unoriginal work.

  8. Astute observations. Lack of originality was one of my earliest criticisms of him. Just because his films had 4X the F-bombs of any other R-rated flicks did not make them original or cutting edge for me. Steve Buscemi's character and the Dick Dale/Link Wray soundtrack were the only memorable/enjoyable ingredients from Resevoir Dogs, which might as well have been a stage play. About 4 different sets, no action, and desperately-trying-to-be-clever non-stop dialog. My Dinner With Andre, Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown & Mr. Green.

    Hmm. Wonder how many followers I lost for my Generation X heresy.

  9. I may be wrong but I kind of figured that Reservoir Dogs was somewhat limited in scope because it was a low budget film and they were making due with what the had, hence only a couple of different sets. Any of his movies taken alone are okay, but when you add them up they are pretty horrible. As a director he hasn't evolved at all. Pretty much a one trick pony but I guess he's laughing all the way to the bank so there isn't much need to innovate.

  10. It was low budget, which is no knock on it. But his sometime-partner Rodriguez, not especially gifted as a writer, can make more entertaining and memorable films for a fraction of the budgets Tarantino gets, IMO.

    Absolutely a 1-trick pony. If I had to choose 1 word to describe that trick, I guess it would be "attitude."

  11. Yeah, I think he pretty much said all he had to said with Pulp Fiction and everything after that has just been repackaging the window dressing and making it into a new film.

  12. Congratulations!!! You are the recipient of the Versatile Blogger Award!!!
    Much love!!!

  13. Woo-hoo! I won! I'm rich, I'm rich! I'm faaaaahaaaaabulously wealthy!

    I'd like to thank Mom, Santa Clause and my parole officer.

    Hey...what exactly is the award, anyway?

  14. Congrats Hank, couldn't happen to a better guy!

  15. "O-Ren Ishii, you and I have unfinished business!"

    No matter the shit that gets slung at Tarantino (much of it deserved), he's the reason I went to film school. I'm not a fan of every movie, but PF winning best original screenplay is what made me want to become a screenwriter. There are certain moments, certain perfect gems that I find in each of his movies, that make up for the rest of the chaff. Those are the moments that make the little hairs stand on end and I go running to my computer and start writing.

    Oh, so young and naive back then...

  16. I know what you mean. Some parts of Red Dawn are just silly, but I still like it and John Milius is still my favorite living director.

    I've got some technical issues with Saving Private Ryan, too. But it's a great film despite them and I've watched it 7 times or so.

  17. Currently halfway through The Sergeant #6: Slaughter City. This book freakin' rules. I'll have to write a review soon, but you were spot-on when recommending this series.

  18. Kewl! It's nice to have played a part in helping you discover this series.

    I own/have read all of them except #3 "Bloody Bush." The title suggests this book is set during the battle of the Hedgerows. Then again, maybe it implies a messy adventure Mahoney experiences in a French cathouse. 8-0

    It's a shame there were only nine in the series. John Mackie (same author different pen name?) was more prolific in his series The Ratbastards (very similar style and characters, but set in the Pacific Theater), but I like this series best.

  19. Hey. Read one of these twenty-some years ago in high school. Have a question for you and your readers. There was another series that came out about the same time called The Lieutenant (I'm pretty sure). Have been looking for those recently, but can't think of an author or anything. Had a chance to buy a bunch of them just after high school, but all traces of this series seems to have vanished. Only rediscovered The Sgt. recently and have rediscovered The Rat Bastards. WWII series seems to have been big in the late seventies and early eighties. Can anyone please help put my mind to ease. I'll settle for knowing if The Lt. existed or not. Thanks. Jeff

  20. Hi Jeff. I don't remember a series by that name and Just did a Google search that did not turn up a WWII series by that name. There was a series about an officer in WWII called Mac Wingate. He was a captain, though. His weapon of choice was a Sten gun with a silencer, and every mission was behind the lines in Europe, working with various resistance groups. Might that be what you're thinking of?

  21. You know, that just may be it. Those are the style of covers I remember. Thanks a bunch, and doing a great job here.

  22. Glad when I can be of help, Jeff. Thanks for visiting!

  23. Just wanted to drop a note on this inactive line... Having just rediscovered Gordan Davis / Len Levitson / John Mackie i am trying to get hold of his books. The rat bastards seem only to exist in america :(
    The sergeant series are real hard to get hold of in the UK... however there seems to have been a recent release of His first Sergeant book on the kindle!!!!!! Does anyone know if this is going to be ongoing or just a one off?

  24. Piccadilly Publishing will be releasing the ebooks for all of THE SERGEANT series, and the Pulp Heaven imprint will be releasing a bunch of Levinson's other novels as ebooks. I just picked up my e-copy of Death Train. Couldn't have happened to a nicer author!

    1. btw Jack i have just purchased your two commando books after reading some really hot reviews. people seem to be looking out for the third already!

    2. Thank you for your support - it's greatly appreciated! The third book, Operation Cannibal, is written and in the editing/revising stage. Look for it around the end of November.

  25. Also, "Doom Platoon" has just been released. This contains the story of a suicide mission during the Battle of the Bulge, which convinced Levinson's editor to commission the Sergeant series. It also has a couple of essays by Mr. Levinson, including an autobiographical one. I recommend this purchase for those who are already Levinson fans. You really can't beat it for the price.

  26. Thanks .. already bought and read "doom platoon" and "the goering treasure" in the last few days. I am glad to hear all his books will go on e-book mode!! i will buy "death train" now.. i hope they release the others soon!! AND the rat bastards too! i will buy the lot :)


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