Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review: The Sergeant #1 - Death Train by Len Levinson

I'm a big fan of Len Levinson's two great WW2 Men's Adventure series, THE SERGEANT and THE RAT BASTARDS. The Sergeant is the first of the two written, and the shorter of the two series, with only 9 volumes to RB's 16. Still, since it covers the war on the Western Front, from the invasion on D-Day forward, It actually takes place later than the second series, which starts off during the US Army's landing on Guadalcanal.

Master Sergeant C.J. Mahoney, a "gorilla" of a man over six feet tall and weighing 240 pounds, is a hulking, brutish brawler who joined the army in the early 30's because it provided a steady paycheck and easy access to the whorehouses that existed near every Army base. Mahoney only really likes two things; fighting and screwing, and when he's bored he's going to do one or the other, come hell or high water. His sexual exploits throughout the series are cringe-worthy and entertaining in equal measures, because his standard courtship tactic is to almost immediately begin pawing and kissing the target of his affections despite her protests, until they inevitably give in to his fierce sexual magnetism. It doesn't hurt that Mahoney has an almost preternatural ability to find women who seem "proper" on the outside, but who are secretly sex-crazed banshees desperate for the embrace of a "real man". As unlikely as some of these dalliances might be, at least the Western Front gave Allied soldiers semi-regular exposure to women, either locals or female Army personnel, as opposed to the Pacific campaign (we'll focus on that more when we review the Rat Bastards).

Death Train is substantially different from the later books in the series.Mahoney and his sidekick, Corporal Cranepool, are a pair of Army Rangers who've been assigned the job of working with the French Resistance behind enemy lines in preparation for the D-Day invasion. We start the novel as Mahoney, Cranepool, and several partisans blow up a radio tower, then flee the Germans while being shot at and attacked by war dogs. This is actually the only time in the book that we have any bayonet combat, with Mahoney and Cranepool sticking a couple of mutts. Later on, incredibly vicious bayonet and close combat becomes a staple of the series and the source of much delightful carnage.

Eventually Mahoney and Cranepool make it back to their resistance HQ, and they're assigned the task of blowing up a railway bridge, in order to prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements toward the beachhead when the invasion takes place, less than two days away. Mahoney and Co. quickly realize they don't have the resources to blow up the bridge, but they eventually figure out that they can block the use of the railroad by blowing up a German train in a tunnel, preventing repairs long enough to neutralize the threat of reinforcements by rail.

I won't go into the plot much more than that, but suffice to say that the rest of the book involves a number of battle scenes as Mahoney and his band try to stay alive with an insane SS major on their tail. Major Richter, the officer in question, becomes Mahoney's nemesis for the rest of the series, the Ahab to Mahoney's Moby Dick. The action comes fast and furious through the last third of the book, which is one massive dust-up between Richter and his cohort of Waffen SS, versus Mahoney, Cranepool, and a bunch of fierce, desperate Resistance fighters. Even though the action is almost non-stop, Mahoney still gives you a chuckle as he keeps complaining to himself about his lack of cigars, booze, food, and of course, sex. He's a walking, talking, killing personification of a soldier's Id, and there's really nothing wrong with that in a full-bore wartime Men's Adventure series.

In later books, Mahoney and Cranepool find themselves part of the Hammerhead Division, a fictitious US Army infantry division battling across France as part of the invasion force. According to Levinson, his editor at the time was a veteran himself, and told Levinson that G.I.s such as Mahoney wouldn't be operating behind enemy lines like this. I suppose this could have been rectified by making Mahoney and Cranepool former Rangers who'd been recruited by the OSS, but frankly I prefer the series as it remained, going from an OSS / special ops series to a more straight-up grunt's eye view of the war. I feel this point of view is - despite the series' gratuitous nature - one of the strong suits in both The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards. Levinson is great at writing about grunts, whether they're fighting, trying to scrounge some hot chow, taking bets on fights, chasing tail, or generally causing a ruckus.

For more information about Levinson and his writing, please check out this essay written by Levinson, up on Joe Kenney's Glorious Trash blog.


James Reasoner said...

I've always found this series interesting not only because the books are pretty good but also because of their publishing history. As I recall, they carried a "Created by Walter Zacharias" credit. He was the founder and publisher of Kensington Books. And yet after, what was it, three books, the series moved from Zebra to Bantam for the rest of the series. I've never heard the story behind that, but I'd like to.

Charles Gramlich said...

They sound very interesting. I'd not heard of this series.

Hank Brown said...

Always interesting to read somebody else's take on these books. For what distinction it's worth, I've read and own every book in the series.