Monday, January 23, 2012

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill, by Joseph Rosenberger
February, 1972 Pinnacle Books

Over the past few years I've collected a handful of Death Merchant novels, but just never got around to reading them. As a kid I had a few as well, but as mentioned previously, at the time (the mid-'80s) I was more into the gung-ho exploits of the Gold Eagle line of men's adventure novels. Since getting back into this genre I've kept meaning to read more of Joseph Rosenberger's work, but so far I've only read the first volume of Mace, which really sucked -- nothing but endless fight sequences and zero plot. But still I've remained interested in Rosenberger the man, who by all accounts was a crackpot.

So then when I came across a pristine copy of Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill, for half off the cover price of 95 cents (!), I just couldn't pass it up. This is the earliest novel I have in the series; I've read that the first volume doesn't have much to do with the rest of the series. In it Joseph "Death Merchant" Camellion is hired to kill a bunch of mobsters, and so Death Merchant #1 apparently comes off like so many other early '70s men's adventure novels, just a lurid clone of Don Pendleton's Executioner.

This second volume already changes things up; the mafia isn't mentioned and Camellion is apparently a soldier for hire, so notorious that even the President of the United States is familiar with him. This time out the NSA has hired Camellion to look into the nefarious schemes of millionaire Cyrus Carey, who apparently has concocted a plan to kill off the President and his chiefs of staff and take over the US. Carey lives in his own little island off the coast of Maine, a veritable Howard Hughes. His lair is a fortress and he's surrounded by armed goons. His politics are so far right-wing that he's considered an American Hitler.

The novel opens with Camellion already undercover, infiltrating into Carey's network of supporters. But immediately he's found out; there's a mole within the NSA and Camellion's been fingered. After a gunfight Camellion escapes. His NSA contacts are a married couple and an attractive lady named Norma. These are the ONLY people who knew Camellion was undercover, which makes it pretty hilarious that it takes our hero the entire novel to uncover the culprit. Other than that Rosenberger presents Camellion as a cipher, always quick on the draw and deadly as any other men's adventure protagonist, but not the superhero he would become in later books.

I should mention here that, unlike Mace #1, Operation Overkill is not an endless series of fight sequences. In fact the novel's rather well-done, with few of the Rosenbergerisms one might expect. None of the bizarre analogies, no footnotes (which would become a staple of the series in later volumes), no overdone passages of gore. True, when action scenes do take place they tend to go on for a while. But they don't fill up the majority of the novel. And true, Rosenberger tends to end every few sentences with an exclamation point. But other than that the novel comes off as very much in line with the other men's adventure novels Pinnacle Books was publishing at the time.

The clearest indication of this is that Camellion has sex in the novel. The aforementioned Norma sets her sights on the Death Merchant early in the book, and succeeds in bedding him halfway through. The scene isn't very graphic, but it's there, which is important enough given the sexless nature of later volumes. Another indication of the times is Camellion's other NSA comrade in the novel, a black agent named Luther Jackson who is unconnected with Norma or the married couple (and therefore not the one who outed Camellion as a spy within Carey's ranks). Jackson is a jive-talking sharp dresser who appears to have walked out of Chet Cunningham's Hijacking Manhattan.

Operation Overkill opens with action but plays out on more of a suspense angle until the climax. In a way it's like the Penetrator series, with Camellion arriving on the scene, doing some digging, getting in a few fights, meeting a lady, and then finally working out his climatic assault. We know from page one that the Death Merchant must storm Carey's island fortress, but we wait until the end for him to do so. He and Luther Jackson make for a two-man team, SCUBA diving to the place and then assaulting it with Thompson subguns and explosives. It's a well-rendered scene, but Carey's goons make for little competition.

Camellion, as his name would indicate, is a master of disguise. He goes through the novel in a variety of disguises, usually posing as an old man. When visiting Carey's island near the end with Luther Jackson, Camellion even goes so far as to make himself black; in a hilarious prefigure of the notorious '80s bomb Soul Man, Camellion swallows a pill which darkens the pigment of his skin. He completes the look with wig, mannerisms, and speech. It's all pretty stupid and funny -- again, much like Hijacking Manhattan, only not as outrageous.

The Death Merchant lives up to his name here. He blows away countless goons and is so consumed with the desire to kill Cyrus Carey that he takes his time with it at the end of the novel, first blowing off the man's fingers and then trapping him in a locked vault where he will die a slow death. Ironically, Luther Jackson proves to be even more merciless -- in a somewhat shocking moment during their assault on the island, Camellion and Jackson corner an unarmed old man who's nothing more than a groundskeeper, and get info out of him. "Thanks," Jackson grins, and then blows the harmless old man away.

Rosenberger was also into the occult, something wich long has interested me in the series, but there's little of that here, other than Camellion's mention of the old novel La Bas. As for Camellion the man, Rosenberger keeps the details slim. He mentions that Camellion isn't handsome, but he isn't ugly, either. Indeed Rosenberger attempts to stress that Camellion looks rather ordinary. Also, no mention of the Cosmic Lord of Death, or any of the other metaphysical aspects of later books -- no auras or ghosts or anything. Again, the novel comes off much like the rest of the Pinnacle line at the time.

Finally, Rosenberger isn't shy about implicating himself with his creation. We're informed that Camellion's full name is Richard Joseph Camellion -- very similar to the full name of his creator: Joseph Richard Rosenberger. I find this personally interesting, as I have the same first and middle name as Rosenberger. Who knows, maybe I'm just another of the Death Merchant's aliases??


Tim Mayer said...

It sounds like Rosenberger the man was almost as interesting as his novels.

Brad Mengel said...

Hi Joe,
Did you hear that a new Death Merchant novel is being published next month? The novel is written by Richard Joseph Camellion himself.


Joe Kenney said...

I've read about the upcoming Death Merchant series; it looks like it's been off and on for a few years now. My only issue with it is...well, the only interesting thing (to me at least) about the Death Merchant is Rosenberger himself.

Camellion is a bland character, a cipher, therefore it's not like we're talking about a character easily written by others -- ie Mack Bolan, the Baroness, John Eagle Expeditor, etc. These characters all have their unique traits which can be adapted by different writers.

Camellion though is bland, and the biggest draw to his books is Rosenbeger's writing, his rabid anti-communism, his racism (at times), his occult/metaphysical beliefs.

Unless this new series is written by someone who can completely ape Rosenberger's style, I just don't see the point. (And even then, just mimicking Rosenberger's style itself wouldn't be that big of a draw for a new series.)

However if it was say David "Phoenix" Alexander taking over this new Death Merchant series, then you could count me in!

Joe Kenney said...

I just re-read my comment here and thought I should clarify -- when I wrote that the biggest draw to this series was Rosenberger's writing, with "his rabid anti-communism, his racism (at times), his occult/metaphysical beliefs," I'm not saying that the racism angle appeals to me in any way.

I just meant that it's odd, baffling, and even downright humorous to see such stuff printed in a book, especially in this day and age. Most of what Rosenberger wrote wouldn't even get printed today, for a variety of reasons. I just didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea.

Zwolf said...

Interesting that Rosenberger apparently saw himself as Camellion. Sounds like the weird parallel that Norvell Page had with The Spider pulps he wrote in the 30's. Page used to show up for work wearing a cloak and hat and would flat-out tell people that he was The Spider. And those Spider pulps were kinda the Death Merchant novels of their day, although a bit better written. They were crazy-violent, with tens of thousands of people dying from hideous super-villain plots, and The Spider gunning down hoards of bad guys. I'm wondering if Rosenberger wasn't influenced by Page and figured presenting himself as his character might not be a wacky prank...

Joe Kenney said...

Zwolf, good to hear from you. I've never actually read the Spider pulps...I've actually got a copy of the '36 serial "Spider's Web," though. I've also often wondered what those re-written Spider novels from the '70s are like, where they try to make the guy seem more like a Mack Bolan-type.

As for Rosenberger, to make a wild comparison, the man is like Lee Harvey Oswald -- the more you learn about him, the more questions you have. I want to say he takes himself seriously, but when you read some of his stuff you can't help but think he's having fun with the material. In fact it occurred to me a while back, but all David "Phoenix" Alexander was doing was really a ramped-up variation of Rosenberger, with OTT action and goofball descriptive phrases; Alexander just did it a whole lot better.