Monday, December 22, 2014

The Smack Man (Keller #1)

The Smack Man, by Jack Cannon
July, 1989  Pocket Books
(Original publication March, 1975  Manor Books)

Originally published as the first volume of the Keller series, The Smack Man was later revised and reprinted as a Ryker novel, author Nelson DeMille crediting himself as “Jack Cannon.” Ironically, these 1989 Pocket Books reprints are sometimes more scarce and expensive than the orginal editions, and I only got my copy because some unaware employee at a used bookstore put it on the Mystery shelves, for half off the cover price, at that.

I previously read Night Of The Phoenix, which was also one of those ’89 revisions, but I don’t recall it being as revised as The Smack Man clearly is. I’ve never seen the original Manor Books edition, but vast portions of this ’89 edition have obviously been rewritten, with Detective Sergeant Joe Ryker fully brought into late ‘80s New York. I’d love to read that original edition, but I don’t see it happening – I’m not about to spend that much on a copy.

As mentioned in my The Hammer Of God review, Joe Ryker and Joe Keller are one and the same, and when DeMille left Leisure Books and went to Manor he just renamed the series Keller and kept on writing. I think these books were definitely not printed in order, or maybe even weren’t written in order, because The Smack Man clearly takes place after The Cannibal (one I’d love to read) and The Death Squad (another one I want to read) – but both of those books were published after The Smack Man.

And like DeMille’s other Ryker books that I’ve read, The Smack Man is by no means an action-centric men’s adventure novel, even though it was packaged as such (in both editions). It is rather a slow-paced police procedural that operates more so on character and nitty-gritty detail, with the sleazy pit of the Lower East Side fully brought to life (in the ’89 reprints, Ryker was a Sixth Precinct cop, working the Lower East Side, whereas he was a Midtown Manhattan cop in the original ‘70s editions).

But despite the lack of action or sex, I have to say I enjoyed this one just as much as I enjoyed the others. DeMille I think has a great style, very readable, with compelling characters and great dialog. And, as usual, Ryker is a complete obnoxious prick, though it seems here DeMille actually tries to make him the hero, or at least attempts to make us sympathize with him. In previous books it’s seemed to me that Ryker was an antihero in the truest sense of the word, a guy who intentionally pissed off everyone, including the reader.

When a pimp named Rodney calls Ryker to tell him there’s a dead “hoor” in his apartment, Ryker is brought into his current case. The hooker lies sprawled in the pimp’s living room, her spine arched in a horrendous position; Ryker immediately identifies it as the result of strychnine poisoning. There’s a syringe on her thigh, so, as Ryker puts it, “Someone put bad shit in the good shit.” The M.E. claims it’s murder, but it appears the hooker willingly dosed herself. In other words, someone’s out there selling deadly dope to hookers.

As in previous DeMille Ryker novels, we really learn a lot about the criminal underworld and life on the streets. So we learn that no one sells to street hookers – they get their dope from their pimps. Someone though has circumvented this hierarchy and is selling directly to them. We know from the start of the book that it’s a half-dead bum who bought his heroin from a member of a Jamaican posse (another definite revision to this ’89 reprint, I’m sure), but the police have no idea who is behind it and spend the majority of the novel in a fruitless search for whoever’s selling the deadly junk.

Meanwhile Ryker’s more concerned with his broken air conditioner – like practically every other crime novel I’ve read that’s set in New York, The Smack Man takes place during a merciless summer – as well as the constant phone calls he’s getting from his ex-wife, Eleanor. DeMille adds genuine pathos and hummanity to Ryker here, with him still in love with her, and her feeling the same, but calling to taunt him that she’s about to get married, in a desperate gambit for Ryker to drop his work and fly to Chicago to proclaim his love for her. (We also learn that Ryker has a “girlfriend” named Beverly Kim, a “high-price call girl” he apparently met in The Cannibal, but she doesn’t actually appear in this novel.)

Of course, Ryker isn’t about to do what his ex-wife asks of him. And besides, he soon sets his sights on Detective Pamela York, an attractive blonde Narcotics officer who practices “total immersion” in her undercover roles. The most compelling character in the book, Pamela is similar to Abigail Robbins in The Hammer of God, only tougher – and not in that cliched modern “female cop” style, but in a way that seems more cut from reality. She is pretty much Ryker’s perfect match, though they start off with a frosty relationship that gradually warms due to their respect for one another’s experience.

But as for the other cops, Ryker fights with them per usual, in particular his boss, Lt. Fischetti, who is the butt of most of Ryker’s putdowns and insults. The strange lack of continuity is apparent here, for we are informed that Ryker’s partner Bo Lindly is dead, killed on duty. But when? He was alive in Night Of The Phoenix, which was published after this. And also we’re informed that another partner, Sawyer, retired after he and Ryker “had uncovered a pervasive rottenness in the department,” which surely must be a reference to The Death Squad – which I believe was the last volume published in both these “Jack Cannon” reprints and the original Manor series. So what the hell?

Ryker comes up with a plan that’s identical to the one he devised in The Hammer of God: he gets another male cop and a female cop to do the dirty work while he just sits around and bitches about how tough the case is. Williston is the male cop, and since he’s black Ryker gets him to pose as a pimp. A funny joke develops with Williston becoming one of the more successful new pimps in New York, with his stable growing daily. And Pamela York poses as a streetwalker, hoping to run into the mysterious “smack man” who will proposition her.

DeMille builds up a believable growing relationship between Ryker and Pamela, with them bonding as they walk the dangerous night streets of the Lower East Side. They also find the time to badger a bunch of pimps in a local hangout, but when Pamela finally decides to go home with Ryker, the night’s fun is ruined by his broken air conditioner. Throughout the rest of the novel Ryker constantly reminds himself that he doesn’t give a shit about Pamela York – or his wife, who basically pleads with him to come get her in Chicago. But you kind of wonder what the hell these women even see in Ryker.

Once again there isn’t a single action scene, though in this novel Ryker does, for once, actually pull his .357 Magnum in the finale – though it is immediately kicked out of his hand! Ryker doesn’t even get in any fistfights. While it might be realistic so far as all that goes – and DeMille’s Ryker books definitely have a ring of authenticity about them – it does leave the reader feeling a little jilted. Ryker comes off as a loudmouthed jerk who never once backs up his words with his fists, so he loses some of his clout in the reader’s eyes.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want it to be spoiled, but The Smack Man features the mandatory downbeat ending of ‘70s fiction. Each of DeMille’s Ryker novels have had downbeat endings, but in this one he really sticks the blade in and twists it, with Ryker and Pamela finally having sex, and then Pamela rushing out to meet a contact who might know about the bad dope. Williston has recently been killed by someone, and of course it turns out to be the guy Pamela’s meeting. She too becomes his victim, suffering a horrible fate at that, forcibly injected with the strychnine-laced heroin. Only much too late does Ryker put it all together, showing up in the park to find Pamela’s “broken doll” corpse, splayed half-nude in the bushes.

It’s when going for revenge that Ryker actually pulls his gun, but DeMille can’t even give us that much, and continues to aim for realism. Instead the killer gets away – the hastily-rendered story has it that he’s killing hookers in vengeance for his sister, who became a hooker junkie herself – and Ryker gets a month’s suspension. And even though we’re informed Ryker does eventually get revenge, it’s all rendered via summary, and is none too sastifactory. By the end of The Smack Man, Ryker has come full circle, back to the self-centered asshole he started the book as, though he goes through a few changes in the course of the narrative.

I’m curious if this was in fact the last volume DeMille actually wrote, not just due to the references to other books, but also because The Smack Man comes off as a fitting finale for the “adventures” of Joe Ryker – more than any other volume I’ve yet read, Ryker himself becomes personally affected by the events in The Smack Man, but we learn that, despite it all, in the end he is still Joe Ryker, asshole supreme.

1 comment:

AndyDecker said...

The field of the paperback original has not many writers who became Bestseller writers. There is Puzo (well, he wrote for the he-man mags, but still) Martin Cruz Smith and of course Nelson DeMille, whose novels are still enjoyable. Not a great record.

I only read this as Ryker novel and remember it to be pretty grim as most of the series. The beginning of "The Cannibal" is truly horrific.