I’ve been working on a project that plays with 80s action-adventure tropes. To refresh my memories, I thought I’d re-read a series that I’d enjoyed in middle school: The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Reading all 100+ novels was unrealistic, so I did the logical thing—I started grabbing the reprints that appeared in the mid-80s on eBay that were labeled “Author’s Choice.” Surely, these would be the cream of the crop.
Well, I had a hard time figuring out which stories had been re-issued this way. To save anyone else from doing the digging I had to do, here’s what I learned about the reprints and my thoughts on their literary value today.
WHAT WERE THE “AUTHORS’ CHOICE” RE-ISSUES?
As near as I can reconstruct, the “Author’s Best” of the Destroyer includes the following books:
- Death Therapy (originally #6)
- Terror Squad (originally #10)
- Slave Safari (originally #12)
- Funny Money (originally #18)
- Brain Drain (originally #22)
- Mugger Blood (originally #30)
Many stories are standalone, although Brain Drain is a sequel to Funny Money. To complicate things, my copy of Slave Safari lists Voodoo Die as the next in the “Author’s Choice” series, though I have never found a copy after months of searching used books sites on the internet. I suspect, but can’t prove, that they stopped republishing them before it came out. To complicate things even more, Chinese Puzzle (shown below, originally #3, so the earliest of these) has an intro indicating it is part of the “Author’s Choice” series though it isn’t branded as such.
ARE THEY WORTH READING?
Here’s the conceit of The Destroyer novels. Our hero, Remo Williams, is a cop with no family whose identity is erased by the US government so that he can operate outside its laws. It seems one US President (heavily hinted to be John F. Kennedy) realized that American laws don’t work and we need an enforcer to operate outside them. Conveniently, there’s a centuries-old Korean assassins’ guild that’s willing to train this American enforcer (for a fee). So the old Korean master named Chiun comes to America and takes Remo under his wing. Each novel is a mission where they stop spies, terrorists, and other baddies.
But it’s all done (mostly) tongue-in-cheek. The bad guy in Funny Money and Brain Drain is a cluelessly deadpan robot who predates The Terminator by a few years and may have inspired it. Mugger Blood dispatches with its Soviet super-spy villain hilariously within the first 50 pages, then follows Remo as he fights a Harlem gang. I never felt like I was being asked to take its tough-guy act seriously.
If you’re interested in finding and reading these “Best of” the Destroyer novels, here are my overall thoughts:
- They are part of (and in many ways, parodies of) the 80s “men’s adventure novel series” phenomenon. These series were James Bond on steroids with some Mike Hammer and Rambo thrown in. Lots of violence, lots of sex, and lots of tough-guy posturing. That’s part of The Destroyer’s DNA though, as I said, it’s a willfully comic version of it.
- They are funny. I laughed out loud at least once reading each novel, sometimes a lot more than once.
- They are pretty conservative, though in an ironic way that was probably humorous in the 1970s but doesn’t seems as funny today.
- They’re sure to offend. I cringed a few times in each novel, either because of dated ideas (70s/80s norm), sexist stuff, or intentionally offensive ethnic content. At least 2 of the 7 books (Slave Safari and Terror Squad) had pretty repulsive rape scenes. Proceed with caution.
If you’re going to enjoy Destroyer novel, you’ll need to be comfortable watching two white writers use an elderly Korean character to voice deep cynicism about America, rule of law, and human nature. And it’s funny—dear God, is it sometimes very, very funny. Chuin despises Americans, but loves 70s soap operas and Barbara Streisand. He loves Remo, but he does nothing but criticize him mercilessly. So, he’s two stereotypes for the price of one: an Asian wise man and a Jewish Mother. (And it’s not even subtle; in Chinese Puzzle, the third book, there’s even a scene where he and a group of Jewish moms commiserate the awful failings of their obviously successful sons.)
At this moment, we’re lucky to have a number of researchers doing nuanced work on Asian characters in US literature. Those include Josephine Lee, Yunte Huang, and many others. I would be really interested to see a scholar who is studying yellowface and portrayals of Asians in US literature take an in-depth look at this series. It seems ripe for re-examination.
Similarly, these are the kind of books where, when a Mexican guy says “is” it’ll be spelled “eez.” Sure that was pretty common practice at the time, but it takes the fun out of reading them, especially if you’re part of the group being portrayed. I was surprised and disappointed by the number of times a book’s villain turned out to be a Black man. Mugger Blood, for example, was criticized for its portrayal of young African-Americans at the time. This great 2009 AV Club story explains it well. In the “Author’s Choice” edition, the authors respond by having Chiun mock their racism in a truly funny introduction. Regardless, at least two of the other “Author’s Choice” novels have Black guys behind the evil plots (and, unlike Mugger Blood, those books aren’t intentionally satirizing American racism). If the “Author’s Choice” are supposed to represent the best of the series, I’m leery of the rest.
About the politics: at least two of the introductions in the “Author’s Best” feature the writers explaining their left-leaning origins as newspapermen. They’re not neo-Nazis or Nixonian douchebags. They come across as the kind of folks who started on the left, felt like the 60s revolution went too far, then elected Reagan and developed a distrust for “big government” anything. I was never 100% sure how much they really admired their books’ “Let Remo take the law in his own hands, Constitution be damned” conceit and how much was just schtick. So, know what you’re getting into.
In the “Author’s Best” reissues, the writers not only provide contextual introductions, but also have responses to them written by Chuin. Take a look at this one:
Just look at those similes. Hear that disdain. If you can enjoy that, you’ll probably enjoy reading The Destroyer.