In this debut volume, from 1971, Richard Camellion - known and feared as a master of "death, destruction, and disguise" - is hired by the head of the Chicago Mafia (referred to as "the Group") to track down and kill James "Fats" Regollanto, a mobster under federal indictment for interstate racketeering, before he can spill the beans about the Group's illegal operations.
When the book opens, Camellion is flying from Detroit to Chicago to report back to Mafia Don Anthony Demero about his killing of Stephen "Numbers" Bianco, the business partner of Regollanto. Bianco was killed to send a message to Fats that he ought to keep quiet. But to be absolutely sure of Regollanto's silence, Demero wants the Death Merchant to find and eradicate Fats, as well. And he's willing to pay the DM $150,000.
(We don't learn much about the Camellion's past or the circumstances that led him to becoming the infamous Death Merchant. One of his earlier jobs was to assassinate Fidel Castro at the Waldorf-Astoria, but the hit was called off by the CIA at the last moment. He likes steaks and drinks V-8, and is is well-read. He also has three suitcases that he has bobby-trapped in his apartment. One contains his many disguises, the second holds numerous electronic bugging devices and a small chemical lab, and the third is packed with firearms, packets of RDX, and bomb-making materials.)
One subplot is that Demero's nephew, Charley-Lucky, has designs on the top spot in the Group and reasons that keeping Fats alive (and talking to the Feds) will bring Demero down. So Charley wants to get rid of the Death Merchant. He hires three former Syrian hitmen to break into Camellion's apartment and await his return. The hitmen are not bothered by the DM's reputation as a killing machine*, reasoning that "he'll spurt red like anyone else". But Camellion becomes aware of the intruders because his remote "Electronic Impulse Detector", a device set up in his apartment which detects if anyone has been prowling around, starts beeping. Thus tipped off, Camellion bursts in and kills all three men, playing possum to lure the final guy out of hiding, before blowing him away.
*: At one point, Camellion successfully evades the guards patrolling outside Demero's estate and simply walks into the mobster's house. Later, three of the guards come into the room where Camellion and Demero are talking. "The three soldiers gawked at Richard Camellion ... in awe - as a newly released soul from Purgatory must gaze in rapture at the radiance of the Creator ..."
Camellion asks Demero for information on all FBI agents in the Chicago office, and asks - on a hunch - if they own any second homes or vacation cabins. The mob does some further research into three possibilities and they report a lot of activity at a cabin owned by Charlotte Holtzer, the personal secretary of Special Agent Leonard Dill. The Death Merchant suspects the Feds are hiding Fats in Holtzer's cabin.
However, there is a double agent in Demero's group of advisers, who is tipping off the Feds about the Death Merchant's plans. The FBI knows that Camellion wants to rent a cabin on the lake to scout out the Holtzer cabin, so Dill makes sure that a nearby cabin is available. ("He had been fortunate in that a cabin was available. Perhaps too fortunate!")
While at the cabin, Camellion meets and becomes somewhat involved with Jo Ann Christopher, a disabled woman who recognizes him as the Death Merchant from his picture in the newspaper. While there is no sex in the book, Camellion develops feelings for Jo Ann, and the attraction is mutual. Nothing happens, but it seems as though that's because of the Jo Ann's disability rather than the Death Merchant's chosen profession.
The FBI plans to nab the Death Merchant when he makes his assault on the cabin. And when that happens, and the FBI has the DM surrounded, his only escape is to throw some grenades and smoke bombs and escape the area. He hijacks a watermelon truck and drives back to Chicago. Without his disguises, which are back at the cabin, he can't risk going to his apartment, so he shows up at Jo Ann's door. She takes him in and bandages his wounds.
Camellion sneaks out of Jo Ann's apartment building dressed as a woman and registers at another hotel. (Camellion ends up dressing as a woman to evade the watchful eyes of the FBI no less than three times in the book. Rosenberger describes Camellion as "a not unattractive woman" with an "almost pretty" face.)
Meanwhile, Charley-Lucky is telling his girlfriend, Edie, that he has another plan to kill the Death Merchant: he and three other goons will ambush him in the parking garage of his apartment building and gun him down. Because Edie is drinking, she taunts Charley about not being able to kill the DM. Furious, he throws hot coffee on her, severely burning her face. To get back at Charley, Edie shows up at the DM's apartment and warns Camellion about the upcoming ambush. Thus, Camellion is waiting in the shadows in the garage. Naturally, he wastes the wannabe killers, though he also has to shoot two innocent bystanders who witness some of the slaughter.
Camellion goes to Charlotte Holtzer's apartment and forces her to tell him Fats's new location - a nearby hospital. Camellion impersonates a doctor to get access to the hospital's fourth floor. He has little trouble killing Fats, before dressing up as an elderly priest to escape the police's lockdown of the hospital.
Camellion may be a cold-blooded killer, but he's no low brow. He whistles Ravel and Wagner while on the job, and he recognizes Sergei Prokofiev's "Le Pas d'Acier" playing on the radio. For his stake-out of Fats's cabin, he brings Rosseau's Discours sue l'origine de l'inegalite des hommes for reading material (and discusses it with Jo Ann over dinner).
At one point in the story, he spies a music store and goes in and buys "Sibelius' Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, a rendition by Eugene Ormandy, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Jacob Ferlasky playing the Violin." (Ormandy was a real guy; not sure about Ferlasky.) At the end of the book, the Death Merchant has claimed his reward from Demero and is on a plane to Miami, reading Charles Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, "in French, a language Camellion loved".
Rosenberger clearly enjoys writing the intricate fight sequences and describing the carnage. The gore is described in vivid detail.
The Death Merchant's second slug had drilled into the chest of the other hood standing by the open door, jerking the man as though he were a giant puppet ... Again Camellion's Walther spit flame and this time sent a slug into the face of the dying hood. There was a sound that resembled an egg shell's being stepped on ... as blood, bone and brains splattered into space.and
He dropped to the floor by halts and staggers, rolled over - belching blood - and the Big Blackness closed in.This first book was entertaining, although some of dialogue spoken by the bad guys is pretty silly, just a notch or two above "You'll never take me alive, Death Merchant!":
Joe The Pole Smolenski dropped into hell coughing! Richard's bullet caught him in the left eye. His head snapped around and blood and brains flew in all directions. ...
Twice more the German Luger whispered its requiem, a mechanical Mass for the Dead that sent two slugs tearing into the slob ...
Frank died hard, jets of dark red jumping from the maw of his throat, each spurt weaker that its predecessor as his heart slowed. Then the heart said The Hell With It and stopped.
You're running the show, Charley, but you've got to admit that the sooner we knock off this Camellion joker the better off we'll be, and the faster we'll be able to take over the Group. For my dough, the Death Merchant's got a partnership with the Devil - and don't underestimate him! Even Hoover and his boys can't nail the bastard!