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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.