Friday, July 25, 2014

Death Merchant #12: The KGB Frame

In a summary of the Death Merchant series, the writer of Spy Guys And Gals, notes: "Extremely little is recorded about the man nicknamed the Death Merchant. His early years are a total mystery as are the means he used to acquire his awesome killing abilities. For a series with 70 different adventures, this is remarkable."

All we know (through the first 11 books) is that Richard Camellion used to be a high school history teacher in St. Louis. We have a basic physical description: "a lean almost-handsome face - straight nose, firm, determined jaw, eyes as blue as polar ice. Brown hair clipped in a two-inch crew cut."

But we get a lot of circumstantial information about Camellion in the early pages of The KGB Frame (published in July 1975). First of all, the Death Merchant has owned an 81-acre ranch seven miles south of Votaw, Texas (an actual small town roughly 75 miles northeast of Houston), for at least six years. The ranch is named Memento Mori ("Remember Death"). Jesus Sontoya, a trusted friend of the DM, lives on the ranch.

Camellion also has four "safe houses" in the United States, each with a sizeable hidden cache of weapons, disguises, etc.: (1) one in Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles, (2) a four-room brick house in Arlington Heights, north of Chicago, (3) "a neat cottage" in Sioux Falls, Iowa, and (4) an apartment on Vermilyea Avenue in upper Manhattan. Unfortunately, Camellion ends up having to destroy (by planted explosives) the New York apartment house, which he owned under the name Corliss Durbenten.

Also, it is revealed that Camellion knows (or can speak) 11 languages!

In The KGB Frame, the Russians want to get rid of the Death Merchant, so they create a recording of him supposedly admitting to being a double agent for the Soviets. When the CIA hears the tape - and its experts determine that the recording is genuine - they send several assassins to kill the traitorous Death Merchant. After figuring out that he has been "netted" by the KGB, Camellion travels to both New York and Mexico City in an effort to clear his name. (The final shootout is among the ruins of the Pyramid of the Sun outside of Mexico City.)

Rosenberger engages in some American exceptionalism:
[Belov] like [sic] the country and he liked Americans. In the two years that he had been stationed at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., he had come to learn that Americans are the happiest, the best fed, the best-dressed people in the world.

Belov thought of the large apartment near the embassy that he and Elana rented. Every single piece of furniture was American and fifty times better than similar items manufactured in the Soviet Union. The refrigerator was a General Electric, the vacuum cleaner a Hoover, the color television set an RCA, the stereo a Philips. Why, even the shower head had come from Sears & Roebuck! Then there were those little everyday things that Americans took for granted, like American cigarettes, ballpoint pens, hot dogs, cola drinks and - Nescafe!
But not all of the United States is super-amazing. For example, New York City is referred to as "the land of freaks and ripoffs, with more kooks per square mile than even L.A.!" Camellion later muses: "If God existed and ever wanted to give the world an enema, New York City is where he'd stick the nozzle!"

One aspect of some men's adventure paperbacks is what is described as "gun porn", in which the author describes - at length - the various weapons used, the caliber of the shells, and how the various guns work. So far, Rosenberger is more apt to over-describe the gore than the specific firearms. Nevertheless, no one in these paperbacks simply fires a gun. It's a "9mm Spanish Astra Condor pistol equipped with a Bennim-Molig silencer" or a "9-MM Tula Tokarev TT pistol". In addition to his trusty shoulder-holstered .357 Magnums, Camellion uses an Ingram M10 .45 ACP caliber submachine gun with a Sonics silencer, and a silenced 9-millimeter Hi-Power Browning. At various points in the book, he carries SIG 7.65-millimeter pistols, a Colt AR-18 rifle (5.56MM slugs), a Remington 870 Wingmaster shotgun, and two .45 Mexican Obregon automatics.

Rosenberger continues his use of racial slurs. During a shootout at a Mexican whorehouse, Camellion refers to gunning down some "chili peppers" and "hot tamales". He also refers to the Russians as both "Ivans" and "pig farmers". The latter insult - which, perhaps in ignorance, I really don't understand - will be used throughout the entire series.

And this volume's food/fruit metaphors: "Dyudin's head exploded from the impact of the Super-Vel .357 slug that split open his skull like a watermelon kicked by an angry mule." ... A gunshot victim's legs give out from under him like "soggy breadsticks".

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Death Merchant #11: Manhattan Wipeout

Manhattan Wipeout is a sequel of sorts to the previous Joseph Rosenberger volume, The Mainline Plot. After busting up Joey Pineapples' mob and destroying $300 million in heroin, Richard Camellion - the infamous Death Merchant - stays in New York and goes after another of the city's mobsters: Salvatore Giordano, perhaps the most dangerous gangster in the U.S.

This book is one of the weaker volumes in the series so far. While Rosenberger's action scenes are as lengthy and gory as usual, there is very little resolution after the mad shootout at the meeting of the various mob heads on Long Island. Camellion indulges in all sorts of murderous mayhem, killing mobsters and their bodyguards, but he makes his escape before he can kill Girodano, after hearing approaching police sirens. And then the book ends. But apparently, the secret recordings Camellion was able to make of the meetings is enough for the feds to move against some of the surviving mobsters, so the Merchant of Death will earn his standard $100,000 fee.

While the action scenes in these books are clearly not meant to be believed - and I'm fine with that - the way that Rosenberger handled the secret recordings really bugged me (pun intended). One device hidden at Krantz, Koonze, Rosenthal & Lebokowski (Giordano's attorneys) picks up "every word uttered in the offices of the high-powered law firm". How is this possible? The firm is likely using multiple floors of a large Manhattan office building. But this is how Camellion finds out about the big meeting Giordano is planning. And then when Camellion stakes out the meeting house on Long Island, he ends up shooting about a dozen dart-bugs outside various windows. Once again, I had serious doubts about how well these mics would pick up sounds within the walls of the house (there is also the howling mid-February winds along the water to consider).

However, you don't expect realism when you read about the "incredible adventures" of the Death Merchant. What you do expect - and what you get, over and over again - are hilarious turns of phrase, some godawful writing, and a bit of casual racism.

One hood is describes as being "uglier than a week old pastrami sandwich", while another one "looked like a man who would use Janitor in a Drum for a cologne". After the Death Merchant fires a few slugs into one bad guy, he acts "like he had a wasp in his underwear, he jumped, jerked, and died." And in seemingly every book of the series, at some point Rosenberger describes someone's shot-up head by referring to smashed fruit. This time: "The back of his head resembled a burst pomegranate ..."

The violence is, as usual, minutely described, with Rosenberger outlining exactly what the DM's many slugs do to the human body:
Two slugs missed Provanzano. Two didn't. One hit him in the left shoulder and tore off his arm. The second hollow-point struck him in the left side, flattened out, and tore all the way through him, taking chips of rib bone with it. ...
Al Ponzi tried to escape through the kitchen door, going through it in a dive. Half of him made it; the rest of him caught a .357 slug that tore off his left foot, and four 9mm pieces of steel which hacked through his stomach, his liver, and his gall bladder. Ponzi died in midair.
Elsewhere, Rosenberger describes Camellion firing his submachine gun ("the chatterbox"): "a whining symphony" of slugs, "the hot hornets of ricocheting steel". Rosenberger even teaches us a little bit about Italian food: "... fresh fettucini, boiled al dente European style, twice as tasty and chewy as al dente American style".

Rosenberg's racism is usually so over-the-top that it makes you shake your head in amazement rather than anger. In this book, he refers to Harlem as "coconut-land" and "apeland" and mentions "a coconut dishwasher" working in a restaurant's kitchen. While describing the events of the previous book, Rosenberger recalls the "slant-eyed monkeys from North Korea". He also describes the "spic areas" of Manhattan and refers to Italians as "garlic-snappers".

Other References?: Rosenberger refers to the Chicago mob as "the Outfit", which could be a nod to Richard Stark and his superb series of Parker novels. Elsewhere, someone is called Hardin, which is the last name of another crime fighter in another series: Mark Hardin, The Penetrator (so named because he was an expert at penetrating enemy lines in Vietnam, not due to any sexual prowess (though his last name might hint otherwise)).

Monday, July 14, 2014

Death Merchant #10: The Mainline Plot

Communists in North Korea have created a super-potent, super-addictive strain of heroin called Peacock-4. It only takes one shot to become an addict for life. The North Koreans intend to introduce the heroin into the U.S. and enslave a generation of young adults. As The Mainline Plot's back cover states: "Wreck the youth of a nation and you wreck its future."

So the North Koreans forge a three-way alliance with the Corsican mob in France and the Pinappello mob family in the New York area, to transport 1,000 kilograms of heroin halfway across the world. It's Richard Camellion's job - as the infamous Death Merchant - to bust up the deal and recover the drugs. (This was the fourth Death Merchant book to be published in 1974. Rosenberger was really cranking them out.)

Camellion begins the book in Seoul where he is being followed in his car by Wan Kwo-Do, North Korea's counterintelligence group. He ditches the car at a farmers' market and runs into a teahouse. After gunning down a team of eight assassins, Camellion is off to France to meet with CIA agents and undercover agents of the US Narcotics Bureau.

This time, a seven-man murder squad is waiting in his hotel room. Camellion, tipped off to the instrusion by his E.I.D. device, comes into the hotel room via the fire escape, surprising the goons. He kills all seven and high-tails it out of the building before the cops arrive.

We then get a couple of chapters of exposition, as we go to the House of Fouche, a small winery run by Roger Fouche, the most powerful syndicate boss in southern France. He and four other men are talking about the operation. He is meeting with two North Korea agents and two Mafioso from New York. It is during this meeting that Fouche gets the bad news that the DM waxed seven of his finest assassins in the hotel room. (At one point, Rosenberger actually writes that the North Koreans "remained silent, their almond features inscrutable".)

More information is given - including the six stages of preparing heroin (it's practically a how-to guide) and background on the New York mobsters - as Camellion visits an apartment in Marseille where the undercover US agents are working. The DM sees Fouche as the link and so he proposes to go to the winery and get some information.

After a couple of shootouts, Camellion captures Fouche and gets him to spill the beans on the heroin deal, how it was arranged, and how it will be shipped. He tells the DM the drugs will be hidden in the gas tanks of Renaults in the hold of a certain vessel, but this turns out to be a lie. (The drugs are moved several times from a seaplane to a cabin cruiser to other vessels before being delivered safely to Joey Pineapples' Jersey City estate.)

Camellion arranges a massive ambush on the Pineapples estate and the drugs, hidden under the floorboards in the stables, are destroyed in a fire. The mission is a success, but the Death Merchant realizes that there are four more powerful Mafia families in the New York area ("he had only begun"). And so it looks like that will be the DM's next target: "There's going to be a Manhattan wipeout!"

Joseph Rosenberger has devoted far more pages in this book to fight scenes and shootouts than in the previous volumes. At every stop Camellion makes, he has to blast his way out. (The Death Merchant actually gets shot in this book, but he is wearing a vest, so he survives.) At one point, Camellion is using something called The Blaster, a submachine gun developed by the CIA with a whopping 3,117 (!) cartridges in the magazine! As Rosenberger describes the damage that the dozens of slugs do, he showcases his unique style of writing:
The tornado of Blaster bullets did more than wreck inanimate objects; it found three of the troops. One man, to the side of a small sofa, simply fell back dead, his face a bloody pulp, his brains smeared all over the Persian rug. The second man cried in pain, jumped a foot, rolled over, and wondered if there could be life after death. He found out a few seconds later. The third man also had a very important question: could a man live without his stomach, with half his insides scattered all over the floor? Then he passed out and found out that a man could not ...

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Death Merchant #9: The Laser War

In 1941, Nazi scientists developed a laser gun capable of utterly destroying whatever it was aimed at. They had taken it to North Africa for testing but were forced to abandon the weapon, buring it near a series of ancient tombs near Al-Jaghbub, a village in Libya. In The Laser War, Richard "The Death Merchant" Camellion's job is to find and bring Die Brandwunde ("The Burn") back to the United States.

When the book begins, Camellion is on his way to see Otto Frenswagger - one of the only men left in the world who knows where the weapon is buried. However, Egyptian agents from Bureau 7 have reached him first and kidnapped him. Camellion wastes the agents who are remaining in the apartment - and soon decides that he must break into the fairly impenetrable Egyptian Embassy (where he believes Frenswagger is being held) before the Egyptians are able to get the laser gun information.

Armed with two 9mm Soviet Stechkin APS machine pistols and a short-barreled Colt AR-18S (a submachine gun with 30 5.56 mm cartridges) - Rosenberger is very specific about the firearms - Camellion gets inside the embassy via a roof skylight and advances from room to room, his quick reflexes saving his life time and time again, while his 5.56 slugs do their destructive, deadly work. He finds Frenswagger, who has been roughed up but has not talked, and they escape.

Camellion travels to Cairo, disguised as Osgood Godfrey Rodley, a British professor of "Egyptology". He goes to the home of Magdi Al-Shafik, a rugmaker, who is also the section chief of the local Shin-Bet cell. As they are talking about setting up a meeting with Okba Bin Naffa, who would guide the DM to the laser gun location, the house is raided by Egyptian police. Al-Shafik is killed and Camellion (unrecognized by the police) is taken to jail. They know his ID is fake, but they do not know his real identity; they believe he is an Israeli agent. So they handcuff him to a pole in a room where four guards play cards nearby.

Thankfully, the Death Merchant has a tiny lock pick "buried" in his left forearm, between his flesh and the latex scar tissue (which looks like a healed knife slash). While the men are distracted by their card game, Camellion gets the pick out and works it into the left cuff keyhole. Soon he has the cuffs off and he lunges at the men "with the speed of a meteor". With no weapons, he gives a four-finger strike to the throat of one man, kicks another in the kidneys, uses an "axe-hand Judo chop" on a third, and a back-breaking kick to the spine of the fourth agent. Once they are subdued, he grabs their weapons. He also creates some chlorine gas with some extremely handy cleaning supplies (bleach and vinegar)! He puts the mixture near the A/C vent and distributes the gas throughout the building. With other Egyptian agents overcome by the gas, he's able to shoot his way out of the building.

After lengthy discussions about how to get close to the location of the laser gun, the Death Merchant and eight others parachute out of an F-82 a few miles outside of Al-Jaghbub "into a night so dark that not one man could have found his mouth with a five dollar pizza!" They meet up with Okba Bin Naffa and his tribe at the tombs of the Ksar Mara Wadi, north of Al-Jaghbub. In no time at all, they find the buried weapon. It's as if they had a detailed map with an X on it!

Rosenberger cops out when the final battle is about to start. The Egyptians have four helicopters of troops (75 in each helicopter) ready to attack the DM and his small band of men. It is at this moment that the DM decides to try to fire the laser gun, which two of his commandos have been trying to assemble. The batteries, buried in the sand for roughly 30 years, appear to be fully charged (!) and the beam of green light coming out of the laser is at maximum strength. Aiming at one helicopter, the laser evaporates it. It is there one minute, then gone! They do that to two more helicopters, leaving just one to land and send its men to battle the DM. They kill many of them, but are forced to retreat into the underground chambers of a fort. There is one long hallway in the fort, with some rooms off to the side. The bad guys come down both ends of the hallway, but the DM has a flamethrower with him (pages ago, when they rattled off what weapons they were bringing, the flamethrower seemed odd; here is why it was mentioned). They roast dozens of Egyptians and many others flee from the flames. (There is also some hand-to-hand combat, intricately and minutely described - it goes on for 9 pages.)

Rosenberger has not offered much biographical information about the Death Merchant in the previous eight books, but here he identifies him as "Richard Joseph Algernon Camellion, the ex-school teacher from St. Louis". Camellion continues to enjoy eating raisins and blurting out unasked-for opinions about religion. When one of the DM's commandos makes a crude remark about some nearby Arab women, Camellion says, "I'd say they are pretty useless. About as useless as a professor of moral theology, or any other idiot who rearranges man's superstitious fears about gods and devils and calls it 'religion'!"