Thursday, April 10, 2014

Death Merchant #21: The Pole Star Secret

Death Merchant #21: The Pole Star Secret
March, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Picking up a few months after the previous volume, this installment of the Death Merchant is a direct continuation of Hell In Hindu Land, so you should probably read that one first. As we’ll recall from that novel, hero Richard Camellion discovered friggin’ aliens in India, and while there he was informed that there were two more spots on the planet in which these beings rest in some sort of stasis.

We reunite with Camellion while he’s en route to the second of these spots, which happens to be in the North Pole. Once again Camellion’s been given full control of the mission, with a nuclear sub and a squad of “Special Sea Commandos” (which I assumed were Navy SEALs, but turned out not to be) at his disposal. Unlike the previous volume Rosenberger takes his time building up the narrative, and doesn’t just throw you into endless action scenes; in fact it isn’t until around page 50 that we even have any action.

Given how mediocre Hell In Hindu Land was I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy The Pole Star Secret, but this turned out to be my favorite Death Merchant since #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill (which was the best one I’ve read). Like that later volume, this one at least attempts to tell a story, instead of featuring endless gunfights. But anyway Rosenberger develops an air of mystery as Camellion and his CIA and military colleagues grill a pair of Soviet scientists whom Camellion abducted from their weather research station in the North Pole.

The scientists claim there’s an underground world beneath the Polar cap, a place they refer to as Thuleandia. While the others are incredulous, Camellion informs them that the scientists aren’t lying, and further goes on to tell them in the most blasé of manner that in his previous adventure he met aliens called “Sandorians,” and learned that one of their ancient outposts was Thuleandia! The Soviets are here not only to explore this supposed underworld paradise, but to also conduct weather-warfare experiments. This latter point proves to be the central plot of the novel, rather than the aliens.

As usual Rosenberger goes all the way, filling 190 pages of small print with overly-described gunfights, bald exposition, and lots of technical data about nuclear submarines. But I have to say, none of it is terrible, like Rosenberger’s Mace stuff. Also the metaphysical element is back, sometimes to a humorous degree, with Camellion making mystical pronouncements to his dumbstruck colleagues, about life and death being just a dream and how the purpose of life is to lead to death, and etc. And once again Rosenberger has that bizarro element at play, like when in Camellion’s introduction he informs us that the Death Merchant is “dressed in a scarlet jumpsuit, black Wellington boots, and eating raisins.”

And also per custom Rosenberger populates the tale with a lot of redshirts who eventually run together and who you have a hard time telling apart. But as for the main ones we have McAlpine, the CIA contact, Colonel Hurdbetter, the leader of the Special Sea Commandos, and Earl Wolfe, one of the SSC dudes, who likes to use a crossbow. We also get occasional cuts over to the Russian perspective, as the Soviets have sent their own sub here, and after an early firefight between Camellion and team with the Russians, the “pig farmers” are all alarmed that the Death Merchant himself might be here in Thuleandia – apparently the dude and his exploits are so mysterious and infamous that he’s become a legend even in the USSR.

When the action finally does start it goes on for a while, as expected, but again, it isn’t terrible like some of Rosenberger’s other stuff. It’s mostly relegated to Camellion and the SSC team foraging through Thuleandia, which is a lush forest beneath the Polar cap, accessed via a “dry chamber” in a passageway in an underwater mountain. An artificial sun shines from the ceiling, and while the foliage is strangely lush and abundant, there is no fauna, or indeed any sign of life other than the Russian sub at the other end of the chamber. Camellion and team intend to make their way to the alien dome, which they must find – cue lots of detail on how difficult it is to navigate when in the North Pole, as all bearings show “north.”

The alien dome by the way appears to be made of stainless steel and measures 250 feet high and 150 feet wide. But that’s about all you’re going to find out about it. Despite tidbits dropped early in the novel, that the dome was created centuries ago by aliens and that maybe there are giants in Thuleandia, The North Pole Secret drops all of this stuff when, during a skirmish with the Russians, Camellion discovers that the dome is surrounded by an invisible force field. After confirming this, by throwing a grenade at the dome and watching as the grenade disappears, Camellion basically says, “Screw it; let’s head back for the sub.” Seriously! 

Given that actual aliens appeared in the previous volume, I wonder why Rosenberger didn’t deliver with his bizarre promises about Thuleandia. But then, given how casually the whole alien aspect was dealt with in Hell In Hindu Land, it was probably no great loss – I’m sure we all recall how Camellion in that earlier novel was like, “Huh. Aliens. Interesting. Now let’s go kill more pig farmers!” But once he realizes that the force field around the dome is too advanced for any of them to penetrate, Camellion decides to leave Thuleandia – and mind you this is after about 50 or so pages of endlessly-detailed gunfights, with Camellion blowing away Russian “slobs” and “goofs.”

But yeah, all the alien stuff is just dropped, and Camellion and team leave Thuleandia and concentrate on destroying the Russian polar station. The final 90 or so pages play out in typical Death Merchant fashion, with Camellion leading an assault on an enemy compound. First though we have a submarine battle, after which we get lots of egregious exposition on how great Lee Jurras and his weapons designs are (the book is even dedicated to Jurras). We also get lots of exposition on how Camellion and the commandos will survive the cold weather during the assault; the Navy men basically can’t think for themselves, and look to Camellion to explain everything, even what they’re going to wear in the frigid temperatures.

Also as is typical from Rosenberger, the climax features tons of redshirts getting killed, and you have a hard time remembering who they are. But of course it ends with Camellion being the only one who is right about anything, and successfully blowing up the polar station. The Thuleandia stuff is brushed under the carpet; Camellion has the sub commander blow up and thus block off the underwater entrance to the mysterious underworld, and that’s that.

As for the aliens, Camellion just sort of forgot about them for a while – the trilogy didn’t wrap up until the thirtieth volume of the series, The Shambhala Strike, which I’ll be reading next.


John Browne said...

Great review Joe. I have the complete Death Merchant series having begun collecting them back in 1976 and I actually only completed the collection last year. I admit it's strange what 38 years of perspective will do. The stuff I found so fascinating as a teenager now has different flavor as someone 50+. Keep these reviews coming. Your reviews have reminded me about books I lost from my collection over the years including "Masked Dog" and "THe Enforcer" series and which I am now actively seeking

Joe Kenney said...

John, thanks a lot for the comment, glad you enjoy the blog! Also impressed to hear you've collected the entire Death Merchant series. Now you just have to read all of them!! Seriously though, I'm now reading #30: Shambhala Strike, and so far so good.

I hope you seek out The Enforcer. I think it might actually be my favorite series of all, even though it's a bit slow-moving at times. I just love the vibe of it, and plan to read it again someday.

AndyDecker said...

I thought I was the only one who has the series complete and maybe read only two thirds or less of it :-)

What John Browne said. I also found that the perspective changed in that time, especially on Rosenberger. As much as I found the last books by Dell just a boring shadow of its former glory - if you want to call them like that -, I thought the research and effort he poured into the books fascinating. At the time nobody wrote like that, with the footnotes and all.

In some aspects these novels invented the techno thriller before guys like Cussler or Clancy did that.