Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: The Sergeant #6: Slaughter City by Gordon Davis

Although post-modern pulp fiction is dominated by the serial vigilante novel, closely followed by the serial spy thriller / anti-terrorist kill team / gaggle of badass mercs adventures, there have been a couple of solid World War II post-modern pulp titles. The most notable of these is The Rat Bastards, which have at least 16 titles and possibly more (if anyone can give me a more accurate count I'd much appreciate it).

I've been recently directed towards another World War II title - The Sergeant, by Gordon Davis (the pen name of Len Levinson). This is a series of nine titles following the exploits of Master Sergeant CJ Mahoney, a real rat bastard himself, a thug and miscreant who enjoys screwing and fighting in equal measures, and apparently has to get some of each in each of the novels. I will direct readers to pulp blogger Henry Brown's excellent reviews of Book 1 and Book 4 - this is a review of Book 6, the crossing of the Moselle River and the assault on the city of Metz by Patton's 3rd army.

First off, I will mention that I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. It's not terribly written; although it isn't prosaic it is very readable, no better or worse than a lot of PMP fare. Levinson must have watched Patton about twenty times, because his depiction of Patton in this book is so spot-on with how he is portrayed in that film, especially during his morale speech before the crossing of the Moselle, that I could hear George C. Scott's voice practically reading the dialog to me.

Beyond the serviceable writing, this book reminded me a great deal of Bernard Cornwell's utterly awesome Sharpe series of Napoleonic War novels. I am a huge fan of this historical military action-adventure series, and so I was pleased to discover that in reading Slaughter City, the feeling was quite similar; a tough, no-bullshit lead character and a handful of repeat offenders who always get stuck with the dangerous important jobs because they've got the rare misfortune of being really good at what they do. Cornwell's sly mix of history and fiction allowed him to backdrop a lot of great fictional adventure with the history of the Peninsular Campaign, and I can see a similar feel in this book. Patton, Bradley, Hitler, Himmler and such are of course real characters fighting a real war, but interacting with Levinson's fictional creations to create a fictitious story loosely set within a number of facts.

And a bloody fiction it is. There is some real brutal violence in this book, which is fine by me, since, well - it's friggin' World War II. Bazookas, hand grenades, machine guns, high-powered rifles, tanks, artillery - it all makes for messy fighting. The most brutal examples of this combat take place during the Moselle landing, the house-to-house combat during the battle for Metz, and a desperate German gamble to use a rail line to punch deep into the Allied lines. Foremost in the insanity is the use of the bayonet in close combat.

Now, I won't argue that the bayonet was never used in WW2 - I'm sure it was. And I'm sure there were a few "bayonet duels" during that war, here and there. But at one point in the book it's as if every single soldier on the battlefield forgets he's carrying a repeating-fire (if not semi-automatic or selective fire) weapon, and resorts almost entirely to bayonet duels. At one point, a character even lays about himself with an engineer's hatchet, splitting German skulls and severing limbs by the sackful. Although Cornwell is guilty of an over-abundance of bayonet fighting in his Sharpe novels, at least the soldiers have a plausible excuse; the men of the 95th Rifles are carrying single-shot muzzleloaders, not M1 Garands.

Overall though, the action is fast and furious, the writing doesn't over-scrutinize the weapons and bullet trajectories a la The Death Merchant or other "gun porn" series, and there's enough amusing sexual content (a certain bet worth five hundred dollars comes to mind...) to remind ourselves that this is definitely "men's adventure" and not 196 pages of who shot who where with what caliber weapon. If you get a chance, pick up a copy if you come across it in your local used book store.


Hank Brown said...

Oh yeah, I still remember that speech by Patton. I think this is the one with the USO chick (Laura Hubbard?), too.

I also like the Sharpe series (I've found several installments in audiobook form at the library and listened to them while driving). It hadn't occurred to me to contrast Sharpe and Mahoney before, though. Both certainly are juggernauts in combat, though Sharpe is at least a tad more altruistic, it seems to me. Good points. Both authors seem to have researched their respective battles fairly well, and worked their characters into them nicely. I kinda wish Davis/Levinson had the sort of historical afterwords Cornwell often adds. But, then, the Sergeant was never regarded as worth such classy treatment, I'm sure.

I just finished reading Sergeant #2 Hell Harbor, BTW, and now know why Mahoney is no longer a Ranger in the later books.

Nice review!

James Reasoner said...

A belated comment on this . . . You know that Levinson also wrote The Rat Bastards series, don't you? He's really in his element in these war novels. I don't like his Westerns nearly as well.

I ought to reread the whole Sergeant series now that I've done more research on WW2.

Jack Badelaire said...

James, I had no idea; I've never read a RB novel and have very little background knowledge on the series. This means I definitely need to pick up a couple of them in the near future.

Do ou know of any other WW2 serial titles?

James Reasoner said...

There's the Mac Wingate series by Bryan Swift (a house name), published by Signet, and Boxer Unit-OSS by Ned Cort (also a house name), published by Warner, both from the Eighties. I used to know some of the actual authors on these but don't recall them now. There was a series published by either Leisure or Manor about the war in North Africa, but I don't remember the author or title right now. Bound to be some more. I'll think on it.

Jack Badelaire said...

Belated thanks James, for the info. I'll have to look into those titles and see what I can find.