Monday, August 6, 2012
Ryker #2: The Hammer of God
Ryker #2: The Hammer of God, by Nelson DeMille
October, 1974 Leisure Books
I've been intrigued with this 8-volume* series for a while, but a few factors have prevented me from seeking it out. For one, these books aren't cheap. No doubt due to Nelson DeMille's mainstream popularity, the Ryker books are atrociously overpriced (and don't even get me started on his Keller series, published by Manor -- or the 1990 Pocket reprints which were published under the psuedonym Jack Cannon!). Also, both Marty McKee and Justin Marriott (in the first issue of his Men Of Violence magazine) have gone on the record that these books aren't always up to snuff, so to speak, with bad writing and a general lack of action.
But when I read about the lurid plot of The Hammer of God I basically just had to get a copy of the book. Luckily I was able to find one at an acceptable price; it was still overpriced, but at least it was well below the $20-$80 some online bookseller assholes list it for. This installment taps right into the occult craze of the early '70s, with a psycho who goes around the seedy streets of New York City, killing women whom he believes to be witches. Also worth noting is that, despite being published in late 1974, The Hammer of God actually takes place from late 1969 on into the spring of 1970.
Also worth noting is the psycho actually refers to himself as "God's Avenger," not "the Hammer of God." Only a few portions of the narrative are from his perspective, but we learn that he was some anonymous farmhand who was visited by "God" one day, who basically told him to go to New York City and start killing witches. Now calling himself "Zachariah," the psycho lives in a spartan apartment in the city, where he meditates all day, living solely off of wine and cheese. He only comes out every few months, for the seasonal "Sabat" festivals of the witches; his first murder occurs shortly before Christmas.
Attending a low-rent performance of Hamlet, Zachariah picks the prettiest of the three witches and follows the actress home, where he tells her she is possessed, then proceeds to strangle her, finishing off his divine task by putting a stake through her heart. Ryker, a tough cop with twenty years experience on the force, works the area in which the murder took place (the Upper West Side and Times Square), so this is how he is brought into the tale.
Joe Ryker is one hell of a character, to say the least. Racist, misogynist, homophobic, sadistic, chavaunist, you name it. In other words, he's a complete dick, fighting with everyone and anyone. This is often stated in reviews of the series, but one thing worth noting is that nowhere does DeMille imply that Ryker is a hero. In fact every other character is generally shocked by his words and actions, and no one seems to like him. Not only that, but his muleheaded ideas, which Ryker is positive are the only ones worth trying, usually backfire, most of the time resulting in the death or at least the harm of his fellow cops. In my opinion DeMille here has created an anti-hero in the truest sense, an antogonist who serves as the protagonist.
Ryker's partner gets more narrative time, and emerges as the true hero of the piece. This is Peter Christie, a new detective on the force, one who still only has a silver badge. One of the themes of the novel is Ryker's corruption of Christie. When we meet him, Christie is just a regular guy, terrified of the crime and corruption in New York City, determined to one day escape the hellhole and move somewhere far, far away. He looks to Ryker mostly with anxiety but also a dash of respect; Ryker's known to be an asshole, but he gets results. Pretty soon though Christie is pulling actions that please even Ryker; in one laugh-out-loud moment, Christie, while interrogating some young (and black) suspects, asks himself, "What would Ryker do?", and immediately kicks one of the kids in the balls.
Ryker and Christie canvas the squalid areas of New York City, searching for Zachariah, who we know can't be found because he never leaves his apartment. After a second murder in which Zachariah kills another Hamlet actress -- this one a real-life practicing witch -- Ryker concocts a variety of schemes. A large portion of The Hammer of God is given over to dialog, of Ryker brainstorming ideas (and then bullying anyone who disagrees), either with Christie or with the rest of the precinct. (And of course true to the genre there's a "stupid chief" who is always stonewalling Ryker, but of course eventually backs down.)
But as Justin pointed out in his Men Of Violence piece, there's scarce action here. No shootouts, no chases, not even any fistfights. And yet for all that, the novel moves at a brisk pace. DeMille does a great job bringing his characters to life, and he really brings to life the streets of New York. Marty McKee mentioned in his reviews of these books that the Ryker novels came off as rushed and sloppy, but I didn't get that here, so maybe DeMille had more time to craft this particular installment. Again, though, it lacks action and thrills.
However it makes up for it with some of the most outrageous dark comedy I've ever had the joy to read. Where to start? How about the scene where Ryker, getting surly after a full day of questioning various witnesses, starts to hassle an old "fruitcake" and his young boyfriend, baiting them with degrading taunts? Then, realizing that the kid has the hots for him, Ryker actually takes the kid back to the crime scene and pretends that he too is interested -- all because Ryker detects that the kid has extra info which he's afraid to give out in the presence of his boyfriend. The kid strips for Ryker (who remains clothed)...and once Ryker gets the info he needs, he beats the shit out of the kid.
There are many other similar instances. One of Ryker's brilliant schemes is to infiltrate Christie into the underworld of witches; through sheer deus ex machina it turns out that the precinct's medical examiner, Dr. Morloch (!) is himself a full-fledged warlock (not to mention gay -- more opportunity for Ryker's barbs), so the good doctor provides the training. But wait, Ryker's heard orgies go down at these witch meetings, so they need a female detective...Ryker wants the gorgeous Abigail "Abbie" Robbins to take the job, a headstrong gal who turns heads, lives the high life in Manhattan, and doesn't put up with Ryker's shit. The arguing between Abbie and Ryker is one of the highlights of the book, and the dialog DeMille gives Abbie is further indication that he himself doesn't think too highly of Ryker.
DeMille works in a lot of information about witches and cults, playing up the more lurid aspects. He downplays the actual sleaze, though; for a novel so concerned with orgies and whatnot, The Hammer of God doesn't feature much sex or graphic nature. As part of their prep work for going undercover as witches-to-be, Christie and Abbie sleep together, but DeMille skips the details and instead plays up the ensuing spat, with Christie getting jealous not only of the attention Abbie gets at the cult meetings, but also the fact that she appears to enjoy the attention.
As mentioned, most of the novel is comprised of Ryker always being a step behind Zachariah, and then Ryker's ensuing plans to catch the bastard. The final quarter of the novel is the best, as all of Ryker's plans have centered on getting Zachariah to attend a black mass either at Dr. Morloch's swank apartment in the upper 60s or one which will be held among a less-privileged cult in the East Village -- one that takes place in a closed-down church, to boot. Any idiot could tell you that Zachariah, since he has to choose (both masses take place on the same night), would go with the one in the former church, so I never could figure out why Ryker even bothered planning something at Morloch's.
But again, this is just another instance of Ryker's plan either going wrong or causing grief -- for everyone except Ryker, that is. The last half of the novel is almost fully given over to Christie, with Ryker a supporting character. The black mass sequence pulls out all the stops, with the ensuing orgy light on the explicit nature but still pretty lurid, DeMille again playing up on Christie's homophobia (no doubt picked up from Ryker); all along Christie's been afraid that a gay cult-member might pull a move on him at the orgy, because Christie's heard that anything can happen during them.
When Zachariah finally arrives DeMille delivers a harrowing, violent scene that expands upon all of the twisted stuff that came before. Meanwhile Ryker's still not around. Christie is on the scene, but he's messed up from the heavy dope smoked at the black mass, not to mention the orgy that's raging around him -- Abbie meanwhile having given herself over to another couple. This entire section is pretty disturbed, with lots of hippies getting gutted, beheaded, and cleaved. So many in fact that by the time Ryker arrives with his .357 you get the feeling he needn't have bothered.
I enjoyed this novel enough to track down a few more titles in the series, but unfortunately none of them by DeMille. (I did luck out the other month though and scored a copy of the 1990 reprint of his Keller novel, The Smack Man, which as mentioned below is basically just a Ryker novel, only with Ryker's name changed.) This is the first DeMille novel I've read, and I have to say, I enjoyed it. While The Hammer of God was lacking a bit in the action department, and certainly could've been a bit more lurid, DeMille really made up for it with his gift for bringing to life the squalor of 1970s New York City, combined with a strong cast of characters who deliver some humorous and memorable dialog.
*The Ryker series has a confounding publication history. The series ran from 1974 to 1976, with the first four volumes published in 1974. DeMille wrote volumes one and two, The Sniper and The Hammer of God. My man Leonard Levinson wrote the third volume, The Terrorists, even though it was still credited to DeMille, who himself returned for the fourth volume, The Agent of Death. After which DeMille jumped ship, going over to Manor Books, where he changed Ryker's name to "Keller," and continued writing the series under this new title for another four volumes. Meanwhile Ryker continued at Leisure; the fifth volume, The Child Killer (1975), was published under the name Edson T. Hamill, likely a psuedonym -- and likely one chosen because it sounds a little like "Nelson DeMille." The Hamill name remained for the duration of the Ryker books, however The Child Killer was the last numbered volume. The sixth installment was The Sadist (1975), which was also the last to feature a painted cover. The final two volumes, Motive For Murder (1975) and The Slasher (1976), featured photo covers.