Saturday, May 31, 2014

Death Merchant #6: The Albanian Connection

In the sixth number of Death Merchant, Joseph Rosenberger has his hero, Richard Camellion, in West Germany at the request of the CIA. The Spider, a world-wide organization of ex-Nazis who escaped Germany toward the end of WWII, have been plotting for 28 years (the book was published in 1973) to gain control of, and reunify, Germany and again seek domination of Europe.

The Spider has been paying millions to the tiny nation of Albania to have its headquarters in a huge cavern in the Alps. But the Albanians - and the rest of the world - are unaware of the true activity going on at Spider HQ: the Nazis are assembling seven atomic bombs, four of which are meant for London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, if they do not get their way.

"A fantastic scheme? Camellion readily agreed that it was. But then, the followers of Adolf Hitler had never been noted for having common sense, or any other human quality. The plan was just crazy enough to work."

Yes, Rosenberger actually wrote that last sentence. (Perhaps it wasn't such a cliche 41 years ago.)

The Nazis plan to smuggle in the last of the necessary plutonium - and Camellion's first task is to find and thwart that shipment. Camellion is a master of disguise and so he attends a meeting disguised as a Spider agent from London. However, the plan fails as he does not have the "microdot" - and Camellion has to fight his way out (which he does). He also gets info from one of the goons on when and from where the plutonium is being shipped. He heads to Marseilles and interrupts the shipment.

A few weeks later, Camellion plans to kidnap the Chief of Albania's Secret Police, Colonel General Epineska, and fly him to Greece in a stolen jet, to squeeze him for more information on the base. Two cars of men invade Epineska's country home and a terrific gun battle ends with the DM driving a tractor into the house and setting it on fire. Epineska escapes, so they take Lt. Korfuska as prisoner. (During the battle, the Death Merchant reveals to the Albanians that the Nazis are constructing atomic bombs in their Mount Karob hideaway.)

Epineska spends the next two weeks tearing the countryside apart, torturing and murdering innocent people for information, looking frantically for the DM. He also goes to Falcon I (the Nazis headquarters) for a surprise inspection. He orders the Nazis to dismantle their bombs, and they laugh at him. Meanwhile, Camellion meets with the heads of BND and outlines his plan to attack Falcon I. The other leaders call it a foolhardy plan - "why, such a venture is an affront to heaven". But can they sit idly by and/or negotiate with the Nazis? They cannot. Camellion's plan is to use only Russian arms and equipment, along with GRU-forged papers - so Russia will get the blame if the attack fails.

And so the Death Merchant and 15 others jump out of a plane in darkness, landing in the North Albanian Alps three or four miles away from the Falcon base. They initially plan on destroying a bridge along the one road up the mountain, cutting off the Nazis' supply lines. What the DM actually ends up doing is setting off a mammoth landslide, exploding thousands of tons of rock that come crashing down on tanks and trucks crossing the bridge, killing hundreds of "Heil Hitler halfwits" and "Master Race morons" and collapsing the bridge.

The DM and his men meet resistance when Epineska and about 80 soldiers land nearby and pour out of a helicopter, charging at the commandos. "The Albanians ran straight into a solid steel wall of 7.63 slugs, going down faster than haystacks in the path of a tornado!" The survivors get close enough that both sides are forced into hand-to-hand combat, with Camellion fighting Epineska, eventually throwing him off the edge of the cliff to his death.

When the fight is over and the Albanians dead, the question becomes: Can the Death Merchant fly the helicopter? Of course, he can! As they approach the Falcon base, it looks like a victorious Epineska is returning ... until the copter's guns open fire on the Nazis and tear shit up! After a rough landing, they commandeer two tanks and blast the mountain retreat's huge steel doors wide open and pour in, headed in with an armoured car and the tanks, guns a-blazing!

The Nazis are defeated. And although one atom bomb does explode afterwards, it is far enough underground or within the mountain that it apparently does no damage. Men on the surface feel only a "loud and mighty rumbling" of the ground. ... And the Death Merchant's mind is already filled with thoughts of his next mission - in Cuba.

Rosenberger outdoes himself when describing the Death Merchant's awesomeness:
He had heard about Le Marchard du Mort and didn't have to be reminded that the man before him was the world's deadliest man hunter and the most efficient killing machine in existence. ...

Camellion had an aura of violence around him that was almost physical, a power that left one confused and helpless. ... brooding, almost hypnotic eyes ... a power that was almost diabolical, a magnetism that was irresistible.
Rosenberger refers to Death as the "Pale Priest of the Mute People". It's an odd phrase. An internet search leads me to believe it's from Sir Frederic George Kenyon's poem "The Working Of Robert Browing":
Leave, as ye witness, all my wonted joy
In this dear dwelling. Ay - for here comes Death
Close on us of a sudden! who, pale priest
Of the mute people, means to bear his prey
To the house of Hades.
Although Rosenberger never gives readers any real idea of where the Death Merchant came from or why he does what he does, we learn in this book that Camellion lived in St. Louis, Missouri, as a young boy.

Monday, May 26, 2014

C.S. Lewis: Reading and "Escapism"

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1961):
[W]hat shall we say about the stigma of "escapism"?

Now there is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fictions. All such escape is from the same thing; immediate, concrete actuality. The important question is what we escape to. . . .

Escape, then, is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding -ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate, and thus neglecting real opportunities and evading real obligations. If so, we must judge each case on its merits. Escape is not necessarily joined to escapism. . . .

Since the charge of escapism against a very unrealistic work is sometimes varied or reinforced with that of childishness ... [t]wo points need to be made.

First, the association between fantasy and childhood, the belief that children are the proper readers for this sort of work or that it is the proper reading for children, is modern and local. Most of the great fantasies and fairy-tales were not addressed to children at all, but to everyone. . . . If few but children now read such stories, that is not because children, as such, have a special predilection for them, but because children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion. It is we, not they, whose taste needs explanation. And even to say this is to say too much. We ought, in strict truth, to say that some children, as well as some adults, like this genre, and that many children, like many adults, do not. For we must not be deceived by the contemporary practice of sorting books out according to the 'age-groups' for which they are supposed to be appropriate. That work is done by people who are not very curious about the real nature of literature nor very well acquainted with its history. . . .

Secondly, if we are to use the words childish and infantile as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing; not to those which every sane man would keep if he could and which some are fortunate for keeping. . . . [W]ho in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire? The process of growing up is to be value for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventure is no more a matter for congratulation that losing out teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes. . . .

When we accuse a work of infantilism we must, therefore, be careful what we mean. If we mean only that the taste for which it caters is one that usually appears early in life, that is nothing against the book. A taste is childish in the bad sense not because it develops at an early age but because, having some intrinsic defect in it, ought to disappear as soon as possible. We call such a taste 'childish' because only childhood can excuse it, not because childhood can often achieve it. . . . If you are going to call a taste for the marvellous childish in the same sense, you must similarly show its intrinsic badness. The dates at which our various traits develop are not a gauge of their value.

If they were, a very amusing result would follow. Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility. The eight-year-old despises the six-year-old and rejoices to be getting such a big boy; the schoolboy is very determined not to be a child, and the freshman not to be a schoolboy. If we are resolved to eradicate, without examining them on their merits, all the traits of our youth, we might begin with this – with youth’s characteristic chronological snobbery. And what then would become of the criticism which attaches so much importance to being adult and instills a fear and shame of any enjoyment we can share with the very young?
In On Three Ways of Writing for Children, Lewis - who wrote, as you may know, The Chronicles of Narnia (among many other books), mentions "that particular type of children's story which is dearest to my own taste, the fantasy or fairy tale":
Now the modern critical world uses 'adult' as a term of approval. . . . Hence a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development. If I spend some little time defending myself against these charges, this is not so much because it matters greatly whether I am scorned and pitied as because the defence is germane to my whole view of the fairy tale and even of literature in general. . . .

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Death Merchant #5: Satan Strike

In Satan Strike, the dictator of Bonheur, a small Caribbean country, develops a highly-infectious and deadly virus he dubs "the Satan Virus".

Jean Pierre Duvessalines's plan is to release the fast-acting virus in a handful of Soviet cities and blame the United States for the millions of deaths. Russia will then retaliate against the U.S with nuclear weapons, and the U.S. will defend itself similarly. After the two superpowers are destroyed, the megalomaniac Duvessalines, armed with the virus as the ultimate weapon, will rule the planet.

While Duvessalines's plans for world domination are somewhat dubious, Joseph Rosenberger still comes through with a solid installment of The Death Merchant, mainly because several battle scenes are so good.

Bonheur shares a 129-mile border with the Dominican Republic, and is clearly meant as a stand-in for Haiti. Duvessalines gets his name from Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Haiti's first leader, who led the first successful slave army revolution, defeating the French at the Battle of Vertières in 1803) and François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 until his death in 1971, a couple of years before this book was written. For anyone who has still missed the similarities, Duvessalines is nicknamed "Papa Pierre". (Also, the name of Duvessalines's virus recalls Alistair MacLean's The Satan Bug (1962), a thriller that also featured an infectious, fast-killing virus.)

Satan Strike begins with a bang, as Richard "DM" Camellion and a group of Libre Nationales are under heavy gunfire from the Tonton Macoutes as they try to break Joseph Parsi out of prison. Unfortunately, Parsi - who discovered the virus plot - dies before he can reveal any additional information about Duvessalines's plans.

The CIA has (in good faith) told the Russians about the existence of the plot and the two governments have agreed to secretly work together to stop Duvessalines. The two Russians agents are Boris Yushkik, who has a reputation nearly as famous (or infamous) as the Death Merchant, and Irina Golbov, who can speak seven languages and is "more than adept at the ageless art of seduction". I'm not clear why Rosenberger bothers to mention this, as it doesn't come into play at all (although she and the usual asexual Camellion do apparently mess around).

Camellion and Golbov pose as American tourists who have come to Bonheur to see and collect butterflies. After meeting up with Father Georges (one of the prime contacts in town for Libre Nationale) at the Holy Name Basilica, they are ambushed by six men in their hotel lobby. Camellion and Golbov spring immediately into action, using specialized weapons like a cane with a six-inch switchblade and a cigarette lighter that fires small caliber bullets. They lay waste to the hit men - "Irina made them jerk and jump to a staccato dance of death, chopping them to morgue meat with a dozen or more slugs" - and kill several more that rush into the hotel from hiding places outside. They also blow up a packed car. In all, more than 20 Comites are killed.

Meanwhile, Duvessalines and his former college friend, Dr. Eugene Vismer, both experts in biochemistry and bacteriology, are testing a possible antidote on innocent Bonheurnians who have been seized and strapped to a conveyor belt in the sealed testing room. After being inoculated with the Cx4 vaccine, they are exposed to the Satan Virus. Victims usually die within minutes, but these men and woman live for nearly two hours before dying. (The conveyor belt then transports them to a crematorium.) So it's back to the drawing board for the evil JPD, who is described as "a midget Hitler, only ten times as cruel".

Camellion susses out that the lab is most likely hidden in the Citadel de la Mantaire, a former tourist attraction that has been shut down. After a series of epic shootouts, including one at a remote plantation in which Camellion and a Libre Nationale member end up wiping out 113 Comites (!), Camellion announces that an armed assault on the fairly impregnable Citadel is essential or the virus will be loosed upon the world. The plan ends up being very similar to what Rosenberger dreamed up in his previous volume, with a number of jets strafing the area with napalm and bullets before a bunch of DM-led commandos land at the Citadel and shoot and fight their way up to the fifth-floor lab.

The Russian agents plan to let the Death Merchant do his thing and save the day, and then steal the formula for the virus for themselves! But Camellion anticipates their double-cross and ends up destroying the filing cabinet containing the paperwork on the virus and the vaccine, stating:
The world's better off without that Satan Virus. We've enough instant death with thousands of H-bombs!
We also know from various comments in the earlier books that Camellion (i.e., Rosenberger) is virulently anti-religion. Camellion and Golbov - out in their disguise as vacationing Americans - observe a voodoo ceremony performed for the tourists. Irina remarks that it's
paradoxical that voodoo can exist side by side with Christianity. ... But I suppose that's only natural. Religious superstition and priestcraft have always been used by the capitalists as a means of motivating and controlling the proletariat.
Camellion says that in Bonheur, voodoo supplements Christianity. He adds:
"Not that it makes any difference because only a dedicated masochist could believe in either one!"

"Precisely!" Irina said smugly. "Religion is the opiate of the people!"

The Death Merchant smiled. "Marx would have done better to take a bath more often instead of rattling about things he didn't really understand. Man had to invent God. As man progressed in education, as he began casting off his ignorance, the Renaissance shift from God to humanism followed the reasoning of classical Epicurean nihilism."
Then they walk off and the main story picks up again! (Later books in the series have Rosenberger interjecting his own opinions on a variety of matters, complete with footnotes!)

In the first five books, Rosenberger has not revealed much about Camellion's background or how and why he became the Death Merchant. In this volume, we learn a few small factoids: Camellion enjoys cold tomato juice and eating raisins out of the box.

Nostalgia Note: There is an advertisement for Kent cigarettes bound into the book between pages 96 and 97! This was once common practice for certain paperbacks in the 1970s, after a federal ban on cigarette advertising on television and radio was instituted in 1969.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Death Merchant #4: Chinese Conspiracy

Chinese Conspiracy - my favourite of the four Death Merchant books so far - begins in a roadhouse just outside of Du Quoin, Illinois, where Richard Camellion is enjoying a cold glass of tomato juice. The Death Merchant is actually on vacation, working (for some unstated reason) as a game operator in a travelling carnival, "a holiday from intrigue, violence and sudden death".

[We get a decent description of the Death Merchant early in the book. He's in his mid-30s, weighs about 170, not big but well-muscled. "Kind of an ordinary-looking guy ... wore his hair in a kind of flattop, like a roof, over a face that was strong, the jaw firm, the nose rather delicate." And don't forget the chilling stare from his "icy blue eyes". We also learn that, in addition to tomato juice, he likes apricot juice. Still no background on his life or how he became the merchant of death, though.]

An attractive local woman needs help with her car and Camellion volunteers to help. Once outside and surrounded by five armed men, he realizes he has fallen into a trap. The Death Merchant's vacation is over! Camellion works steadily, incapacitating each goon, before getting some assistance from a mysterious stranger, who calls Camellion by name and says they need to leave the roadhouse at once. The stranger is Vallie "The Eye" West, a top CIA agent, and he tells Camellion that the Russians tipped off the CIA about a week ago that China sought to kill the DM because of his possible involvement in a CIA mission against China.

That mission, which Camellion accepts (of course) involves the launch of a U.S. space shuttle called Toro I, which will become the world's first space station. Dr. Berthram Goddard, the head of Project Toro, was recently kidnapped from Cape Kennedy by a "private" spy group hired by the Chinese. (Rosenberger makes a big point of noting that the "Orientals" were unable to pull off the kidnapping themselves, because they couldn't infiltrate Cape Kennedy undetected; they needed to hire some "white" agents that could blend in.) The kidnappers are under the direction of ex-Nazi Hans Hugo Kronsleiter, who tangled with the Death Merchant in Argentina six years ago. (We learn about this incident and why Camellion burns to exact revenge on Kronsleiter much later in the book.)

The U.S. believes Kronsleiter will try to smuggle Goddard back to China via Canada. China will then announce that Goddard has defected because he supposedly opposes the U.S.'s "imperialistic" actions in Vietnam - people will buy this line because his son is a conscientious objector living in Montreal - and when China destroys the space shuttle via missiles shot from a nuclear sub in James Bay, they will claim Goddard assisted in giving them vital information. The destruction of Toro I will be a huge blow to the U.S. space program and a tremendous propaganda victory for China. It's up to the Death Merchant to rescue Goddard and foil the plot.

I enjoyed this installment more than the first three. Because it's a given that the DM (who actually is referred to as the "DM" a couple times!) will survive and succeed - and so far (outside of the very end of The Psychotron Plot), he has not even been seriously wounded, which requires a huge suspension of belief - the fun in reading these adventure pulps comes from the intricacy and momentum of Rosenberger's plots and the utterly over-the-top descriptions of the Death Merchant's assaults and the resultant gore. A typical example:
The Death Merchant tilted the .357 and fired through the financial page of the Moosonee Herald, the blunt-nosed slug popping the Chinaman's head. Chips of skull bone and fragments of brain splattered against the door frame as - almost without a head - Chang melted to the floor, spraying fountains of blood which made a mess of his snow-white parka. He had been born without hope, in a no-name spot of northern China. Now he died without a whimper.
The narrative in Chinese Conspiracy zips right along and Rosenberger gets creative while describing the violence: "... his belch gun chattering faster than an auctioneer ... the slugs ricocheting and zinging like steel popcorn".

One aspect of these books that could get ridiculous after awhile (or, more likely, already has) is how close Camellion comes to getting shot. His secret for survival is to always keep moving, so that when the enemy fires "a line of slugs" or a "river of hot steel", the bullets hit in the spot he vacated only a fraction of a second before. Slugs whizz past his cheek or he feels the bullet nearly part his hair; they never do more than graze him, inflicting painful, but minor, wounds.

Also, Rosenberger calls upon every Asian slur he can think of. Camellion sprays bullets from his Schmeisser machine gun like water from a garden hose, chopping the Chinese gunmen "into Oriental goulash" and "chunks of chop-suey" and sending them instantly to all their "rice-eating ancestors". Later, after Camellion kills a female member of the Chinese contingent, Rosenberger writes: "Sorry, sister, but you should have stayed back home in the rice paddies!" The face of one of the Chinese generals is "shining like pale butter" and someone else is described as "lemon-faced".

In the previous book, The Psychotron Plot, Rosenberger threw epithets at the evil Russians, but since the Soviets are working with the U.S. in this volume, he's completely silent in that regard. Instead of "lovers of Lenin", we get "Mao-morons". At one point, Rosenberger writes that Camellion's submachine gun "chattered loudly, the .45 slugs snarling a Japanese-sandman song of death". ... Yeah, Japanese, Chinese - same difference!

There are three epic, highly-entertaining gun battles in Chinese Conspiracy: at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, at an abandoned Canadian weather station on North Twin Island on the southern end of Canada's Hudson Bay, and on Dragonfly, the nuclear submarine carrying the missiles intended to bring down Toro I. [Wikipedia says the actual North Twin Island is uninhabited, but Rosenberger has a small tribe of Ontagla Indians (a fictional tribe, apparently) living on one side of the island.]

Finally, one completely unexpected scene: Fairly early in the book, Camellion is knocked unconscious in a fight and wakes up in a casket in a funereal home basement, with his hands cuffed behind him. Despite his limitations, he is able to access some lock-picking equipment that he has conveniently stored in his rectum! He forces the container of tools out, opens it up, and uses the proper tool to pick the handcuff lock. Then he puts the container back up his rectum, and awaits the return of the bad guys. Rosenberger presents this as nonchalantly as if Camellion had simply reached into his pocket.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Death Merchant #3: The Psychotron Plot

The Russians have been doing significant research into "biochemistry, neurology, [and] electrical engineering" at a secret base in Egypt, experimenting with a machine known as the Psychotron - "a weapon that, by interfering with the electro-magnetic field of the human body, particularly of the brain, can cause delusions, hallucinations, and even death".

The Psychotron has already been tested on a small village in the Sinai desert, and more than 100 people were driven insane. At the present moment, the machine, colloquially known as the Mind Blaster, has a range of only 20-30 miles, but the Russians are working feverishly at expanding its range.

CIA Director Jacob Hemms, talking to Richard Camellion, aka the Death Merchant: "But I have more bad news ... When perfected, the Mind Blaster will be capable of telepathic hypnosis! Do I have to tell you what that means? Should the Russians ever be able to hypnotize thousands of people - even millions, to be able to turn entire populations into robots who would be complete mental slaves ... they could very easily enslave the entire world!"

Camellion is momentarily stunned at the thought of the Psychotron being aimed towards the large East Coast cities and tens of millions of Americans "helpless against the perverted will of their Communist masters". Hemms explains that the CIA wants the Death Merchant to travel to Israel and work with the Shin-Bet to (a) find the secret base in Egypt, (b) destroy the Psychotron, and (c) kidnap Dr. Yuri Popvikin, the machine's diabolical inventor.

The Russians attempt to kidnap the DM when he arrives in Tel-Aviv and while they get him in a car and drive away, he overpowers his attackers, killing one and taking the second gunman (and the driver) prisoner. When the kidnappers fail to arrive with Camellion in tow as expected, the Russians know something is up, and they fear the surviving gunman will talk. Camellion rightly intuits that the Russians will now close up their Tel-Aviv cell and "go deep black", setting back the CIA's search for the Psychotron; why the Israeli intelligence people do not also realize this obvious fact is a mystery.

The Death Merchant wants to raid the shop the Russians are running as a front ASAP. He and Israela Diamant, the head of the intelligence section in Jerusalem, pose an elderly couple, two tourists looking to purchase some religious items. (Camellion harbours serious doubts about working with a woman - they "were so damned undependable!" - but Diamant acquits herself well in the ensuing battle and the DM actually apologizes for doubting her!)
A voice of caution whispered within the Death Merchant's brain, quietly telling him that the Catholic Shop would not be easy to take, that the possibilities for the escape of the Russian agents were numerous. ... Richard knew that an old friend would be with him and Israela every second - DEATH!
Several "lovers of Lenin" are killed during the raid - one, shot in the head, "found himself in the middle of Hell, sitting stupidly on Stalin's hot lap" - and Camellion brings back two additional prisoners. One spills that the Russians are attempting to smuggle a portable Psychotron into Jerusalem. He also says only a few people know the location of the secret base: Colonel Kagorin and some of his aides, and Hasan El Assad, Egypt's Minister of the Interior (though El Assad doesn't know that he knows; he thinks the base is a meteorological station).

Someone laughingly suggests that all they need to do is go to Egypt, kidnap El Assad, and squeeze him for the location of the meteorological station.
"That's exactly what I plan to do!" the Death Merchant said ...

Five pairs of eyes turned to Camellion in amazement. "You can't - you're not really serious!" Langbein asked. "Such a wild scheme couldn't possibly succeed. Why, even you couldn't bring it off, Camellion."

Israela smiled softly to herself. She knew the Death Merchant meant what he said. He was that kind of man - to grab the impossible and twist it into reality!
It all works according to plan. A few more "hammer & sickle slobs" are wasted and, under threat of torture, El Assad gives the location of the supposed weather station.

A plan of attack on the Mind Blaster base is outlined. Five planes will attack the area with napalm and phosphorous bombs - "like avenging angels from some Jewish Apocalypse ... scattering death" - then three helicopters with roughly two dozen commandos will fly in for the ground attack.

Russians tanks greet the commandos, but our heroes have little problem blowing them up. They commandeer one tank and drive it into the compound. Amid the rubble of the base, Camellion spots a trap door that leads down into an anti-chamber and, further on, the Psychotron room. He says he'll go down alone: "I'll have more fun than a part-time sweet potato salesman". (??)

With the trap door closed behind him, it's pitch black, but Camellion has "The Box", a CIA radar penetration device that can see through brick and cement. It also works as an infra-red device, so he can see the various Russians hiding in the dark, waiting to pounce. He methodically kills the various agents (or "Ivans", as they are often called). "The Death Merchant almost felt pity for the Commie crackpots as he opened fire, his UZI chattering faster than a group of old maids discussing an X-rated movie!"

In the climatic battle, Camellion battles Colonel Kagorin in hand-to-hand combat before Kagorin falls back into the Psychotron's "furiously spinning balance wheel". His arm and leg are sliced off and he is decapitated, with his head flying across the room like "a comet with a spraying red tail". After Camellion's group apprehends Dr. Popvikin, the Death Merchant puts packs of explosives on the Psychtron and sets the timers.

The group has suffered casualties. Of the 27 commandos that began the fight, only seven remain, and all of them are wounded. Camellion himself has suffered several wounds, though none are life-threatening. However, soon after the copters take off, Camellion is hit with either a slug or shrapnel, and he passes out.

The story resumes as the Death Merchant decides he is well enough - he was taken to a hospital on a kibbutz and has been recovering from his wounds - and simply leaves the compound, literally walking off into the sunset, as the Chief of the Shin-Bet remarks:
It's a stupid world, a violent world filled with greed and hate and prejudice, but now and then there's a tiny flash of justice. I guess you could say that men like the Death Merchant are part of that justice.
This third installment sounded promising, but the book somehow never really got going. The back story of the Psychotron was weak - we don't see much of the Russians working on the machine at all - and the only time the narrative really came alive was during the climatic battle.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill

Billionaire Cyrus Carey and the ultra right-wing group the Knights of Vigilance are plotting to assassinate the President and Vice President of the United States, and institute a fascist government. While the Halloway administration is aware of the plot, it does not have enough hard evidence to move on Carey or his group. So it's up to Richard Camellion - the Death Merchant! - to stop the planned bombing of Congress when the President opens the latest session in the fall.

After doing some dirty work for the Chicago Mafia in the previous book, Camellion is now working for the National Security Agency. He has spent six months attempting to infiltrate Group D in New York, the largest KoV cell in the United States. All that goes to shit, however, because there is a spy somewhere and Dana Redd, the leader of the Group D meeting, knows who Camellion is. While being taken down to the warehouse basement to be roughed up, the Death Merchant, who has a gun secreted on him, makes his move and slips out of the Knights' custody. A gun battle erupts in the warehouse and Camellion kills four men before setting fire to the whole place and escaping.

With his cover blown, the Death Merchant believes that his only option to prevent the assassination is to storm Carey's four-story stone castle, located on an island in Muscongus Bay, off the coast of Maine, a fortress the locals refer to as "our Alcatraz". But because of the existence of the spy, Camellion becomes tight-lipped about his plans, laying a cover story that he is lying low or perhaps even giving up. (The identity of the spy can be one of only three people, but Rosenberger draws out the mystery for nearly the entire book.)

Glorious Trash blogger Joe Kenney has reviewed a number of DM novels from much later in the series (as well as many other adventure series and assorted tawdry books from the '70s): "Rosenberger has a habit of using his books as forums for his own political and personal views." The action-adventure genre certainly leans towards U.S.-centric jingoism and gun-porn, so I assume that Rosenberger was seriously conservative. However, two books into the series may be too early to get a handle on Rosenberger's politics. Kenney also notes the similarities between the names Richard Joseph Camellion and Joseph Richard Rosenberger.

Because the book was published in 1972, communism takes more than its share of barbs. President Halloway is disturbed that "native-born Americans" are behind the assassination plan. "I can understand the Marxists and their subversive methods - but this!" Carey's plot will save America from "the hell of Socialism" that Halloway is trying to institute. Various high-ranking military officers, along with two Senators, are in on the plot, and at a meeting with Carey, they all bemoan the fact that America is losing to the Soviets because President Halloway has cut defense spending in favour of social programs and other reforms! (Man, this IS fiction!)

Carey wants to create the Nazi States of America. Under his rule, society's undesirables would be weeded out through a "Doctrine of Fatherly Neglect". Squads of Peace and Protection Watchers would limit dissent by machine-gunning protesters. It's all so over-the-top. I sensed a definite Dr. Strangelove vibe to this exchange:
Becoming emotional, Dana banged his fist on the table and half rose from his chair. "I'm telling all of you, we're going to take a lesson from what happened at Kent State! We're going to teach the college bastards that they can't revolt and throw bottles and bricks without expecting retaliation! I'm working on the practical theory that the only good revolutionary is a dead revolutionary. You cannot reason with violence. You stomp it out. You kill it!"

"Very logical," Senator Blair said with enthusiasm. He puffed contentedly on his cigar.
Camellion teams up with Luther Jackson, a former Vietnam vet and a sleeper agent running a pawn shop in Harlem as a front. Camellion shows up disguised as a black priest, having taken a pill - "a derivative of dichlorobenzene and benzenesulfonic acid" - that turns his skin pigment dark. (Jackson marvels: "You look more spade than I do!")

Camellion explains his high-risk plan to attack Carey's fortress. Jackson thinks he's totally nuts, but of course, he agrees to do it! Because of the Death Merchant's involvement in trying to smash the plot, Carey moves the assassination date up a week. At 3 AM of the day Holloway is to be murdered by two members of his Secret Service, Camellion and Jackson begin their mission. The two men scuba dive out to the island with various weapons, grenades, and whatnot. The attack goes smoothly, considering the supposed intensity of Carey's security team on the island, and is a bit anti-climatic.

Naturally, Camellion makes a mess of numerous goons throughout the book:
The big revolver boomed, and quite suddenly Scott Kaddle had only a part of a head! The big steel-jacketed slug slammed into his forehead, instantly erasing his ugly features and scrambling his brains like a couple of dozen eggs. ... Scott dropped from the world of the living, melting to the floor, then sliding into Hell with a swiftness that must have astonished the Fallen Angels.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Death Merchant #1

The Death Merchant is the first book in a series of men's action-adventure paperbacks written by Joseph Rosenberger and published by Pinnacle Books during (mostly) the 1970s.

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.

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.
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!":
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!