Paperback pulp

Pulp fiction is still alive and well. But rather than monthly magazines, the modern pulps are usually found in the form of paperback series. The Executioner has been the most successful, and his adventures appear monthly, not counting the seemingly endless spinoff series. The Executioner, created by the late writer Don Pendelton, first appeared in 1970 and spawned a horde of imitators in the 1970s including the Death Merchant, the Butcher, the Penetrator and a new Nick Adams series, to name a very few. Even The Spider had some of his 1930s adventures reprinted in a travesty of a series that “updated” the old stories (mostly by just calling him “Spider”) beneath Executioner-style covers. (Richard Wentworth in a white turtleneck? I don’t think so.)

The best of the neo-pulps is The Destroyer series, which started in 1972. The novels, which are now on a quarterly schedule, tell the adventures of Remo Williams and his teacher, Chiun, the Master of Sinanju. The two work for CURE, a super-secret government agency that operates outside the law to protect the United States. The agency’s existence is known only to a handful of people, including its director, the sour Dr. Harold W. Smith, and the president of the United States (whose memory is wiped clean of CURE when he leaves office).

In the first book, “Created, The Destroyer,” Remo is a Newark, N.J., beat cop who is framed for murder by CURE. CURE fakes his execution and gives him a new identity, a new face and a teacher, Chiun, the Master of Sinanju. Sinanju is a North Korean fishing village which has produced the world’s greatest assassins for 5,000 years. All other martial arts are pale reflections of Sinanju. Chiun, who is initially appalled at the thought of training a white man, is hired to turn Remo into CURE’s hit man.

Remo is loyal, brave and ruthless, but he’s not the world’s smartest guy. His adventures are full of action, humor, satire and endless bickering with Chiun over everything from ancient prophecies to soap operas to the Korean killer’s show business ambitions. Indeed, Remo and Chiun fight one another almost as much the bad guys. Smith, whom Chiun calls “Emperor Smith,” is forever stressed out by the job of keeping CURE’s existence secret, saving the nation and the world and refereeing the squabbles of Chiun and Remo.

Like any good pulp, The Destroyer has featured legions of memorable villains. CURE takes on threats foreign and domestic, among them mad scientists, evil industrialists, Nazis, the Mafia, deranged politicians and government officials, assorted terrorists and members of the entertainment industry. Along the way, Remo and Chiun have been plagued by a number of recurring foes, including Mr. Gordons, a shape-shifting android (who predates The Terminator by a decade or so); Friend, a self-aware computer system programmed to make a profit at any price; and Jeremiah Purcell, who was trained by Chiun’s evil nephew in the secrets of Sinanju. Purcell uses his mental powers to escape from Folcroft Sanitarium in No. 127, “Market Force.”

Series creators Warren Murphy and the late Richard Sapir wrote or co-wrote most of the first 68 novels in the series. Will Murray, the longtime pulp journalist/historian, co-wrote Nos. 63 through 65, then came aboard full time with No. 69, “Blood Ties.” Pulp fans will remember Murray as the man who wrote several new Doc Savage novels for Bantam, based on Lester Dent’s outlines, under the Kenneth Robeson house name. Murray wrote or co-wrote every book except one until No. 107, “Feast or Famine.”

A Destroyer movie, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, was released in 1985. The less said about it, the better. Just as in 1987, some work has been done on a Destroyer TV series — this time for UPN — but nothing has been finalized yet.

Jim Mullaney took over The Destroyer with No. 111 and has taken the series to new heights. The most recent book, No. 128, “The End of the Beginning,” is a retelling and expansion of the first novel in the series. This time, though, Chiun is more than a bit player. In his introduction to No. 128, Mullaney seemed to indicate that the series might be moving in a new direction. If so, it will have to move quickly: Mullaney has announced that he’s leaving the series after No. 131, tentatively titled “Unnatural Selection.”

However, Murphy said in an e-mail to a Destroyer fan Web site that The Destroyer is far from finished and hints that he (and Jim Mullaney) will be heard from again, telling more tales of CURE and the masters of Sinanju.