Destroying a Right-Thinking Series

by James Mullaney

In Canada, a reliable well of conservative sentiment freezes over.

Last year’s NHL season might have been called off before it ever got underway, but the Canadians off the ice managed to stay busy, scoring a quiet victory against the American Right.

Five years before Blackford Oakes was Saving the Queen, a far less cultured, far more blue-collar super spy by the name of Remo Williams was taking popular fiction in a direction unheard of in the culture wars at that time: To the right.

If you’re wondering where you’ve heard the name Remo Williams even though you’ve never heard of The Destroyer novel series, which has been chronicling Remo’s adventures since 1971, lay blame at the feet of Showtime, Cinemax, and about a million UHF stations which have been running the dreadful 1985 film Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins in endless midnight rotation for the past 20 years. And if you’re unlucky enough to have seen the movie, rest assured that the film has about as much in common with the books that inspired it as Roger Moore’s campy Bond had with Ian Fleming’s cold, calculating master spy.

The foundation for all that follows is set up in the first book, Created, The Destroyer. Remo, a simple Newark beat cop, is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, is sentenced to die in an electric chair that doesn’t work, and is revived and bamboozled into working for CURE, a super-secret agency that operates only at the suggestion, never at the order, of the president. By the end of Created, Remo has become CURE’s enforcement arm–its Destroyer–who, with the mercenary Chiun, does battle with America’s enemies at home and abroad. It’s a fight for truth, justice, and the American way, and if there’s cynicism in the books it’s directed at those who view such clear-eyed pro-Americanism as dated, jingoistic cliché.

Often the villain in a given Destroyer novel is guided by a left-wing agenda. Back in the 1970s, the Wounded Knee protesters were mercilessly mocked; the conservative dream of a U.N. out of the U.S. was finally, blessedly (albeit fictionally), realized; and Carter CIA head Stansfield Turner was rightly called to task for making a hash of Central Intelligence. More recently, the Clintons and their cronies came under repeated fire. The humor in the series is wickedly pointed and decidedly un-P.C. Environmentalists, Hollywood celebrities, and journalists in particular have been targets of satire in The Destroyer for years.

So how does a highly successful 34-year-old book series that was once firmly grounded in patriotic and good old-fashioned Right-leaning American values end up listing Left-ward and, at least as a partial consequence, now find itself on the verge of cancellation? Blame Canada, says series creator Warren Murphy (co-creator Richard Sapir died in 1987). Since 1994, the once-great series has been published in Toronto by Gold Eagle, a subsidiary of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.

“Come on,” Murphy says. We’re talking about the province of Canuckistan and I just don’t think our “neighbors to the north” get it.”

Murphy, a New York Times best-selling author who has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards for his non-series work, suggests the reason behind the drift leftward isn’t necessarily diabolical. “Maybe [Canada is] just trying to make the place more hospitable for Alec Baldwin when he arrives.”

The novels’ leftward lean began in the 1980s with the death of co-creator Sapir, which was then followed by the retirement of Murphy from the series. It was at that point that a ghostwriter was brought aboard who, while prolific (there are four Destroyers published every year), lacked the conservative convictions of the original authors. The humor became sophomoric, turning off many longtime readers, and the political jabs frequently began to strike against the right. A series which had once thrived at least in part due to a viewpoint apart from the mainstream began to feature the same Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh parodies that were already being done to death all over the popular culture. The resulting loss of tens of thousands of regular readers finally facilitated the move from the old publisher, Signet/NAL, to Canada’s Gold Eagle.

A publisher of standard guns ‘n’ guts action novels, Gold Eagle has never been certain what to do with a series that doesn’t conform to the expectations of the genre. Is The Destroyer action, humor, political and social satire, mysticism, or science fiction? (At times, it is all of these.) A hands-off editorial approach has developed which, although conforming to the dreams of every writer, has allowed too much freedom in several important areas. One of these areas of freedom — politics — has allowed new writers to undermine one of the founding principles of the series.

“Sneaking into the series the same kind of soft-witted political and social mush that typifies what is laughingly called ‘the mainstream’ is… annoying to read,” says Murphy. “Our side won the intellectual war; this is, as Mrs. Thatcher once said, no time ‘to get wobbly.’”

But wobbly the books have become. One manuscript, written after the Contract With America, had the long-established character of Dr. Smith — no whining Lefty he — grousing about the “right-wing” takeover of Congress while hatching a plan to send a group of women out for abortions. Fortunately, there was time to correct this bizarre and grossly out-of-character scene before publication. But the fact that it came a hair away from being published demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the property which Gold Eagle was licensing.

A quick read of the early books makes clear the political tone that they strike. And in this Internet age, if one were to wonder exactly what the politics of the series should be, one might drop an email to the original author himself.

“In the early seventies, there was no real alternative to what William F. Buckley Jr. once called ‘the fever swamps of the left,’” says Murphy. “Everybody knew… that the war on poverty would soon be won, that a… ‘Great Society’ was just around the corner, and all we needed was a few more George McGoverns and Frank Churches to make things perfect. The only conservatives whose voices were ever heard were a handful like [Buckley], but who were regarded as that enlightened age’s version of the nutty uncle you keep locked in the attic.

“The libs were the majority then and therefore clearly in our landing pattern. And they are so much fun to attack because a) they’re brainless automatons most of the time and b) they have no sense of humor. Don’t any of them own mirrors? Men are from Mars, women from Venus, but liberals are from Pluto.”

Clear enough?

Indeed, the message was clear enough 30 years ago, and recent history proves that the old formula still works. For a five-year period starting in early 1998, The Destroyer returned to those glory-days roots. Parodies of Susan Sarandon, Al Sharpton, Ben & Jerry, Sting and many others began again springing up in its pages. One entry during this time had the Clintons swiping the White House furniture on their way out the door. The book was written one year earlier and released in January 2001, right at the time when the Clintons (who remain a satirist’s dream) were actually swiping the White House furniture on their way out the door.

Another book featured a Ronald Reagan temporarily cured of Alzheimer’s. Liberals expecting the same tired stereotype of the former president ubiquitous in movies and on television for two-and-a-half decades would be sorely disappointed. Here was the Reagan conservatives knew and loved. Of this book an online reviewer last summer wrote, “I left my well-worn copy at the tribute/memorial table for President Reagan at the Moorpark College staging area for the shuttle to the casket viewing.”

During this five-year period, readers who had been gone for years began returning. Sales shot up. Amazon rankings for a new book sometimes reached into the hundreds, an amazing feat for a thirty-year-old series.

Unfortunately, after a change in writers two years ago, all gains were immediately lost. A recent title featured Ari Fleischer as the uber-villain. President Bush had become a target of derision. A firm editor’s hand could have corrected the problem, but it did not. In Canada, it seems indifference reigns supreme.

In the past two years Amazon rankings have plunged dramatically, and while actual sales figures are known only to Toronto, there has surely been a comparable hit at brick-and-mortar stores. Online chatter has turned largely into complaints, and one-star reviews are now common for a series that has sold in the vicinity of forty million copies worldwide and which once regularly boasted glowing New York Times book teviews on its covers.

Despite the recent tarnish, “The Destroyer” remains a valuable property. In mid-August, Murphy announced that Gold Eagle had made a multiyear bid for a new series contract, a bid that Murphy ultimately rejected. There is now talk of getting a new publisher, and such a development would not be without precedent. In thirty-four years The Destroyer has had three publishers, staying roughly a decade with each.

One hopes that this venerable red-state series will find a new home. It would be a sad irony if the age that has seen the rise of alternative conservative media should bear witness to the demise of one of the largely unheralded pioneers of that age.

James Mullaney is author of 22 pseudonymous novels, and is coauthor of the
companion guide
to The Destroyer series, as well as a thriller-in-search-of-a-publisher recently coauthored with Warren Murphy.