I sometimes have claimed that I read The Destroyer series of “adventure” from the very beginning; that’s not entirely true. I actually started in 1972, with Destroyer #3, Chinese Puzzle. I immediately fell in love with the series and began looking for the first two books at every used bookstore in sight; I can’t remember where I found numbers one (Created, The Destroyer—Figure 2) and two (Death Check), but from then on, as a dedicated Destroyer reader—for the next thirty years or so, I haunted the bookshelves at grocery stores and gas stations—because in the ‘70s and ‘80s, these series books weren’t found in regular bookstores like Barnes & Noble. (At the time, I was living in the US, but I’ll bet Chapters and Coles didn’t have ‘em either.) When the series came into its heyday, Destroyer books were being produced twice a year and I was there to pick them up at either Dissmore’s or Rosauer’s grocery stores in Pullman, Washington, home of the WSU Cougars!
Capsule overview—if you’ve never encountered this series, and you like serio-comic adventure novels, you might be pleased to know that they are all (I think) now available from Amazon.com as ebooks. There are 150 of them, plus a few novellas. The books are about a mythical House of Sinanju, a tiny fishing village in North Korea, which has supplied assassins and bodyguards to all the major countries of the world since time immemorial. Sinanju is the “sun source” of all the martial arts of the world; karate, kung fu, ninjutsu and all others having been stolen from or inspired by, Sinanju. There is always one reigning Master of Sinanju and one pupil—always Korean… until a certain young President of the US decided the Constitution of the United States was not working as-is, and hired Chiun, the current Master of Sinanju, to train a white man—Remo—in the world’s deadliest art.
So the hint is that President Kennedy created CURE (what’s that acronym? Ha! It’s not an acronym; it’s the “cure” for everything wrong with the United States. Criminals got lawyers that let them escape justice? CURE them by assassinating them! Corporations poisoning the air and water? Send in Remo and Chiun and CURE them!) Because Sinanju has always worked for kings and emperors, Chiun calls the Head of Cure, one Harold W. Smith, the “Emperor Smith.” Remo was formerly a New Jersey cop who was framed for a murder he didn’t commit (he was picked not only for his honesty in all things, but also because he was a deadly soldier during the Viet Nam war), “executed,” (he was given a pill to simulate death, then “electrocuted”), and brought back to life. Incidentally, he fulfilled an old Sinanju prophecy (“The Night Tiger brought back and the avatar of Shiva”) and became more than even Chiun could have guessed.
The books were originally written by Warren Murphy (Figure 3), writer and ex-reporter, who worked in the Newark Mayor’s office, where he met his co-author-to-be, Richard Sapir, a reporter for one of the New Jersey papers. After any number of meetings enlivened by the mass consumption (as the Coneheads say) of intoxicating beverages, they decided to write books together. According to Murphy, their original idea was to write about “…a Jewish crime-fighting psychoanalyst in New York City named Bernie. It was obvious that wasn’t going to fly. We kept working.” In 1963 they finished the first draft of what was to become this series, but it didn’t get published until eight years later (1971).
The first two books (Created, The Destroyer and Death Check) didn’t have the trademark humor (and disrespect for everyone—black, white or otherwise, rich or poor, American or otherwise, working person or mobster) that gained them legions of fans. With every book they wrote, Sinanju became more and more unreal and the feats performed by Chiun and Remo more and more unbelievable. But what elevated the books to near-greatness (in my less-than-humble opinion) was the relationships between Chiun, the elderly Master (who might be any age between 90 and 120), Remo, the wise-cracking apprentice, and Harold W. Smith, the strait-laced and humourless leader of the the US’s least-known secret agency.
Chiun had no qualms about killing, except that it must be done without using guns or bombs (“booms,” he calls them) and with the elbows held just so. Remo, slightly bitter from his recruitment and the loss of a “normal life” (because learning Sinanju thoroughly, as was previously thought impossible for a Westerner, meant his nervous system changed at the cellular level, and hamburgers—indeed, most meat save duck and fish—became poison to him) was only too happy to “take out the trash.” His Viet Nam experience had shown him that killing—for the right reasons—was a perfectly acceptable response to some things. And Harold W. Smith, who had learned from his World War II experiences in the O.S.S., that he was probably the only incorruptible man in Washington. He had clearly been the correct choice for the head of CURE and the keeper of the Red Telephone that led directly to the current POTUS (President of the United States). As Remo grew in Sinanju, he became to Chiun the son and heir that the Master had never had; Remo himself—who had been left on the steps of an orphanage as a baby—grew to think of Chiun as his “little father,” the father he had never known.
There are 150 books in the Destroyer “canon,” and of course, Murphy and Sapir didn’t write every single one of them. Sapir died in 1987 and in fact, he and Murphy didn’t always see eye to eye on the series, so Sapir dropped out from time to time (#2, Death Check, was written by Murphy alone, though I believe the book carried both their names as per contract). Murphy took on various ghostwriters, like Molly Cochran, who later became his wife—although none of the others did that—usually rewriting the books to suit himself (except, it appears, most of Cochran’s). Other writers included Robert Randisi, William “Ted” Joy, Ric Meyers (who came as a guest to my home convention—Moscon—in 1985, the year the movie came out), Ed Hunsburger, Will Murray and, finally, Jim Mullaney. Murray, incidentally, wrote a number of Destroyer books with Richard Sapir sans Murphy, and Mullaney one (#88, The Ultimate Death) with Ric Meyers. (#108 and #110 were written by Mike Newton and #109 by Alan Philipson. These two writers took the series into places that Warren Murphy not only decried, but actively loathed, urging readers to not consider these books part of canon.
There has been no new Destroyer novel since #150, The End of the World (2012), although there are several novellas (available on Amazon) as well as The Assassin’s Handbook #1 and #2. Recently, Murphy wrote five books (with co-author Gerald Welch) featuring Remo’s children, who are also heirs to Sinanju—Stone Smith and his half-sister Freya Williams.
In 1985, as previously mentioned, Hollywood took an interest in this series—which was selling millions of copies—and made a movie, starring Fred Ward as Remo (a character actor who had previously appeared as Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff) and Joel Grey (who had made a big splash as The Master of Ceremonies in both the movie Cabaret  and the Broadway version , winning an Oscar in the former and a Tony in the latter); also Wilford Brimley as Harold W. Smith (another character actor who was known to genre fans mostly for his work in John Carpenter’s The Thing). Although Murphy was an accomplished screenwriter by now—his first had been The Eiger Sanction from the Trevanian novel of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood (Eastwood’s option on the book was running out—as a Destroyer reader, he called Murphy from Hollywood, and requested he write a screenplay—Murphy went and bought a book about screenplays and finished it in 8 days); later he would collaborate with Shane Black on the story for Lethal Weapon 2 (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover), though the actual screenplay would be written by (or credited to) Jeffrey Boam
I would love to quote Tom Lehrer and say, “This film… this film was sensahtional!” (from Lobachevsky), but I can’t. To a Destroyer fan, this film was a failure, both commercially and artistically. (According to IMDB, it made $14 million at the box office, but that was probably small potatoes. The production costs aren’t shown.) Although the movie attempted to have the humour of the books, too many details were wrong, and the storyline just didn’t have much of the “oomph” of the series. And it also had Captain Janeway… er, wossname Kate Mulgrew, whose voice to me is like chalk screeking on a blackboard. (That’s probably just me, however.)
And if that wasn’t enough, along in 1988, a TV series was proposed; the pilot was directed by Christian Nyby, who had done everything from Battlestar Galactica to the Six Million Dollar Man (and T.J. Hooker, Hill Street Blues, Rockford Files and so on). It aired as a TV movie (which you can now see on YouTube), and it starred Roddy McDowall as Chiun (McDowall can be seen in the original Fright Night as well as the Planet of the Apes series; he was also Mordred in the B’way version of Camelot) and Jeffrey Meek as Remo, plus Stephen Elliot as Harold W. Smith. (Meek’s previous TV appearances were in the soap opera Search For Tomorrow; Elliott had had genre bit parts on TV as far back as Captain Video and Tales of Tomorrow, and as recently as The Six Million Dollar Man.) I haven’t watched the whole thing (yet), but from what I’ve seen it, too attempts to do justice—not only to the books, but to the first movie! In fact, whole scenes appear to be taken from the movie. The big problem is not Roddy McDowall’s imitation of Joel Grey’s imitation of a Korean, it’s Jeffrey Meek, whose Richard Simmons hairdo and red vest (like the one Marty McFly wore in Back to the Future) kind of make a mockery of the books. (Hey, here’s an idea, Hollywood—how about casting an actual Asian as Chiun?) And I understand that not only does Meek have no real karate chops (okay, sorry)… er, martial arts training, but there’s a wholly gratuitous fight scene on roller skates. Sigh. Well, follow the link and judge for yourselves.
I apologize for the quality of the last two pictures; unfortunately, the only copy/copies of the TV movie that exist are really bad VHS copies. I did the best I could in cleaning these screen grabs up. (Ed. Note: Steve’s original images have been replaced by slightly better ones.)
So what is the attraction, you ask, of a book series that celebrates killing? For me, the attraction is the humour. When this series first came out, it appeared to be in response to a number of humourless series like The Executioner (Mack Bolan) and The Killmaster (Nick Carter) as well as such flashes-in-the-pan as The Butcher and The Exterminator. And if I’m not mistaken, people like Tom Clancy were getting their start about this time too. These books were all about macho men who lived for getting society’s revenge on the bad guys when society was too wimpy to give ‘em what they really deserved, which was a boot in the face and a bullet to the head. And they were full of irrelevant detail about the guns and equipment used, like “Bolan used a specially-modified Colt Desert Eagle .44 magnum with the optional left-handed lands and grooves, the no-slip sharkskin grip and the Huffnagel laser sight attachment.” (I made all that up, by the way; I haven’t read one of these for years. But you get the idea.) Murphy and Sapir wanted to lampoon all those types of books—which described in excruciating detail not only the equipment but the actual killing strokes—when guns weren’t used—and so on.
And they did; but where somebody like Mack Bolan (I’m using that name as an example only) might describe his ninja training in detail and all the fantastic ways he could cripple or kill an opponent, The Destroyer came up with even more fantastic feats that a Master of Sinanju could perform. Like scaling a 30-story glass-walled building with your bare hands in a matter of minutes, then jumping off and gliding to ground like a feather. Or like the aged Master Chiun destroying a 30-ton tank with his bare hands and one extra-sharp fingernail. And the lampooning of cultures: the suburban whites, the urban blacks, the Mob, the military (of the US and other nations), and so on. Nobody was exempt from their merciless gaze, and they all got it in the necks. “That’s the biz, sweetheart,” was Remo’s usual quip as he put down another target. And Chiun’s worship of such media idols as Barbra Streisand (“Take me to your local monument to her,” Chiun demanded of Remo) or newscaster Cheeta Ching (an obvious takeoff on Connie Chung, name changed to avoid lawsuits). And Chiun’s constant kvetching at Remo: “You pale piece of a pig’s ear!” was his favourite insult.
So why are there no new Destroyer novels? Well, I dunno… I did notice that Murphy’s own website (www.warrenmurphy.com) hasn’t been updated in over a year. I also noticed that the comments on his most recent (2014) Destroyer novellas (on Amazon) are equally mixed good and bad: “If that’s an example of what the Destroyer has become, count me out from now on,” or words to that effect. Why? Well, Warren Murphy appears to have stopped lampooning both political parties equally. If you read his personal blog, he calls President Obama “Box O’Rocks,” and says—not implies—that he is out to “destroy America.” In my opinion, if the lampooning and social/political satire turns from even-handed and light-hearted to heavy anti-Obama propaganda, then the joy has gone out of the series. (Remember, these columns are my opinion only… although if you read the Amazon ratings, quite a few people appear to agree with me.) I hope that either Jim Mullaney (as Murphy’s chosen successor on The Destroyer) can bring Remo and Chiun back the way they used to be; otherwise, even with the new Sony movie announced in August of last year (directed by Shane Black—yes, the same Shane Black who Murphy collaborated with on Lethal Weapon 2) I fear the series is headed for the dustbin of history. And that would be a shame, as there are many hilarious and well-written novels to read and reread. (To categorize, I guess I’d have to call this “science fantasy,” not SF.)
About Figure 1; Murphy was asked in an interview how he came up with the House of Sinanju emblem. Here, in part, is what he said: “…yes, it is a stylized version of the Chinese symbol for China; however, that symbol does not just mean China; it means “center” also. So back in the early days of Sinanju, before there even was much of a unique Korean language, the Masters of Sinanju appropriated the symbol from the Chinese because they thought all should know that Sinanju was “the center of the universe,” and the Masters were ready to graciously throttle anyone who didn’t agree. (Currently, of course, the Masters believe that the Chinese stole the symbol from Sinanju, instead of the other way around, but history does have a way of growing past facts to accommodate legends.) And since we’re doing a full accounting here, I must admit that the idea came to me when a Chinese takeout restaurant I used to go to a lot gave me a baseball cap with the symbol embroidered on it—(for free, mind you; I was a good customer)—and I instantly swiped the concept ‘cause I thought it was cool to have a Sinanju hat… and now you know the rest of the story.”
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