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Mugger Blood is the thirtieth – and perhaps most infamous – of the long-running Destroyer series. The premise here is the same as always: Remo Williams (the eponymous Destroyer) and Chiun, Master of Sinanju, are the assassin/enforcement arm of a secret U.S. government agency (CURE) that exists outside U.S. law to preserve the Constitution and the Republic. The series exists as a vehicle for both action-adventure fun and Murphy and Sapir’s criticisms and satire of American culture. The plots of all the books are relatively thin (this one being no exception), but the novels shine in their witty dialogue and “color” provided by the bickering protagonists.

Mugger Blood has been reprinted a couple of times and has gained some measure of infamy. To be clear, it has been decried as a thinly-veiled racist diatribe. It is certainly not the kind of book that would ever be printed in 2011. It simply couldn’t be: we take ourselves too seriously now and because the political correctness that Mugger Blood satirized in 1977 has become all-pervasive thirty years later, many outlets of social commentary are cut off for us.

The book’s temporal and spatial contexts matter here: we’re talking about mid-1970s New York City. The 1970s were the nadir for New York City. Crime was at its highest levels, with tales of new atrocities being committed a daily occurrence. Local politicians and the police force were seen as both corrupt and incompetent (one or the other traits would have been acceptable, but this was the worst combination possible). Literacy rates and public education were likewise demonized by an increasingly frustrated population as the city seemed to be descending into chaos. The 25-hour blackout of 1977 – the year in which this book came out – led to an almost total breakdown of civilization in wide swaths of the city, with massive fires, looting, and riots occurring in black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Close to 5,000 looters were arrested, and more than 500 cops were injured in the riots. New York City in the 1970s was hell. In response to the seeming powerlessness of civil authorities, the idea of the vigilante – a private citizen who would take matters into his own hands and exact a measure of justice (and vengeance) – took hold in the public consciousness. This was the era of Charles Bronson and the Deathwish films. Curtis Sliwa formed the Guardian Angels two years after the book’s publishing. Five years after that, Bernard Goetz gunned down four muggers and was alternatively praised and condemned for his actions (Goetz had already been mugged once previously, receiving permanent injuries from the first attack), restarting the national conversation on vigilantism and continually increasing crime rates. That’s a long-winded way of describing the environment in which Murphy and Sapir wrote Mugger Blood.

The Destroyer series is always filled with (right-leaning, white) working- and middle-class social commentary and criticism of contemporary America via biting satire, and Mugger Blood is no exception. Here we see political correctness, ineffective policing, corrupt and incompetent politicians, and the public educational system thoroughly roasted. Remo and Chiun are ostensibly sent by their boss Smith to New York City to recover a gizmo invented by an expatriate German scientist. The reality, though, is that Remo has become fed up with the rampant urban crime rate and wants to do something about it. He does. Remo and Chiun take on a black street gang and an Al Sharpton-analogue race-baiter. Blacks are certainly not the only group criticized here – the New York City Police Department are depicted as abject cowards unwilling to do their jobs; academics are shown to advocate obfuscatory and dangerous political correctness rather than helping solve actual problems; and the teachers and administrators of the public school system are taken to task for doing worse than nothing to educate students. Ultimately, Remo and Chiun are assassins – they can kill a few people and temporarily satisfy the reader by getting revenge on some of the worst offenders in society, but they can’t solve all the country’s moral and social ills. That’s up to all of us.

Mugger Blood has been flatly described as “racist.” I think that’s too simple a criticism, and one that simply dismisses the book without analyzing it and delving deeper into why the book was written and what it seeks to accomplish. I don’t want to come across as too defensive of Mugger Blood. It’s entirely over-the-top (as satire often is, almost by definition), and yes, it’s reasonable to call some of the depictions “racist.” So let’s be clear: I think Mugger Blood serves the useful purpose of depicting a time when many Americans were crying out for help and not getting any from the civil servants they were paying. How much you think things have changed since 1977 depends on how much of a cynic you are, I guess.

I give this controversial book 4 stars out of 5. And I know that that rating is itself controversial. But it’s an interesting, useful artifact of its time. If you are a fan of 1970s and ‘80s men’s adventure novels, you should read this one.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers