Ryker #1: The Sniper, by Nelson De Mille
August, 1974 Leisure Books
Everyone’s favorite asshole cop makes his debut in this first volume of the Ryker series, which I was recently able to find at a very nice price. The Sniper appears to confirm my theory that Nelson De Mille wrote these novels in a different order than they were published; while this one takes place after May, 1973, the next volume takes place between 1969 and 1970.
I don’t know much about Nelson De Mille, other than that he served in ‘Nam and, upon his return, hoped to break out into bestselling crime fiction. While he eventually succeeded in his goal, he spent his formative writing years at low-rent publishers like Leisure and Manor (Len Levinson once told me that the one time he visited the Manor offices in New York, the only people there were De Mille and a lady whose name Len couldn’t recall; he got the impression that the two were running the place). My suspicion is that the Ryker books (and by tangent the Keller books, which basically were the Ryker books) were really “trunk novels” that De Mille had perhaps written with the intention of getting published as hardcover crime fiction and, failing to secure a publisher, ended up just publishing them in willy-nilly order through Leisure and Manor.
There is of course also the possibility that De Mille intentionally wrote these novels without any care toward continuity, with one volume taking place several years before the previous one, and etc, but I think there might’ve been more going on behind the scenes. This might also explain strange instances like one character being dead in one volume, only to be alive with no explanation whatsoever in another. Or maybe De Mille just didn’t care, who knows.
Anyway, The Sniper is a fine intro to the series, in that it sets the measured pace of the ensuing volumes. This is a police procedural, not an action onslaught (only the final De Mille volume, Death Squad, really featured any action – and was easily my favorite). De Mille slowly spins a 240-page story about Sgt. Joe Ryker of the NYPD and his new partner, Arthur Hayes, tracking down the titular sniper: Homer Cyrus, a freaked-out ‘Nam vet who is murdering pretty blondes with a Starlight-scoped M-14 he smuggled into the country after the war. Action is very infrequent, with more focus on detective work; De Mille by all accounts did his research with various police units, and he goes out of his way to bring it all to life. Indeed one wonders if Joe Ryker was based on a real cop De Mille met.
Worth noting is that Ryker isn’t as much of an asshole this time around; other than his interractions with his “stupid chief” Captain Peterson, a pair of Puerto Rican kids, and a gold-hearted hooker, Ryker isn’t as mean as in other volumes. Nor is he as obnoxious. The first half of The Sniper sees Ryker growing increasingly foul-smelling as a result of working round-the-clock on the case, with no niceties like taking a shower or whatnot, but Ryker himself doesn’t go out of his way to assail his fellow cops with his stink, as he did in The Hammer Of God. Speaking of which, The Sniper is yet another crime novel that takes place in a New York City in the grip of merciless summer heat, and De Mille often reminds us of his sweaty, stinky characters – but like the other books in the series, it takes place over several months, so that by novel’s end we’re in the middle of a freezing winter.
One thing The Sniper proves is that at least one of the Edson T. Hamills who eventually took over the series had actually done his homework; in my review of Motive For Murder, I mistakenly claimed that the still-unknown Hamill who wrote that one had devised an “alternate universe” in which Ryker’s wife and son were murdered by the mob. Well, it turns out this sad background was taken from this first novel; De Mille gradually informs us that part of the reason behind Ryker’s brutal behavior is that his wife and kid were strangled years ago by two Mafia hitmen (who themselves have disappeared, though Ryker and his fellow cops still search for them). This is something De Mille changed when Joe Ryker became Joe Keller; the latter not only didn’t have a son, but his wife was still alive, if separated from him.
Another thing I got wrong in my Motive For Murder review was the presence of muckracking TV reporter Creighton Straichey, who I assumed was original to that volume but who in fact appears in The Sniper and hounds Ryker and the rest of the police force. As in that later installment, Ryker succeeds in using Straichey in the course of his investigation, though without the harm to Straichey’s life the reporter endured in that later volume. At any rate it seems clear that series editor Peter McCurtin gave at least one of his “Hamill” ghostwriters this first installment to work off of; Len, who wrote his own Ryker novel, told me that he’d never read any of the De Mille originals. (And speaking of Len, McCurtin proves he was a savy editor by having Len ghostwrite a novel under De Mille’s name, as the two have very similar styles.)
We know from the first page that Homer Cyrus is the killer; we see him in action on the incomplete, elevated highway on the West Side as he snipes a gorgeous blonde passing beneath him in a red Jaguar. In death she crashes and causes a huge pile-up which results in several more dead and wounded; meanwhile Cyrus brains a bum with the butt of his M-14. Folks, I hated Homer Cyrus more than any of the other killers in this series, and relished the moment he’d get his just deserts. De Mille has him as a bumbling fool who goes about his killing with professional acumen instilled upon him in the ‘Nam jungles; eventually we’ll learn that he suffered a head injury there which affected his mind but not his coordination and skills. Also he appears to be targeting blondes due to an old pre-war flame as well as a hot nurse who frequently had sex with her patients to cheer them up(!).
Ryker and Hayes (whom Ryker actually treats fairly well and even considers a friend!!) do solid police work to root out the killer; again, this isn’t a Dirty Harry-esque book at all. This mostly hinges around Cyrus’s Starlight scope, which is still top secret. Here De Mille works in a customary ‘70s conspiracy vibe with the presence of a shady FBI agent who comes onto the case, more concerned about the stolen Army inventory than the dead bodies piling up. Captain Peterson, who I don’t believe appears in other volumes, I can’t recall, ends up making “a deal with the devil,” as Ryker puts it, comprimising the integrity of the NYPD to placate government politics. Ryker and Peterson hate one another, by the way; whereas ensuing volumes have Ryker more so butting heads with Lt. Fiscetti, here Fiscetti is sort of friends with Ryker, at least carrying on a civil relationship with him, and it’s Captain Peterson who has it in for our hero.
And what a hero he is! In the opening half of The Sniper, Ryker grabs a nude preteen Puerto Rican girl and slams her into the gravel on a rooftop, bullying her for info! While Ryker’s no Dirty Harry when it comes to the action side of things, he goes far beyond him when it comes to police brutality. Ryker’s hassling the girl and her boyfriend because he discovers they were up here on the roof having sex while Cyrus was nearby aiming his rifle. The two hid and watched him, and it’s from them that Ryker learns about the starlight scope; the kids saw the eerie green glow on the scope, and Hayes, who also served in ‘Nam, knows what it must be.
Hayes actually does more detecting work than Ryker, hence Ryker’s respect for him; that being said, there’s a goofy part where Ryker kicks Hayes out of bed with his live-in hooker girlfriend, sends him downtown to get some prints…and then tells the hooker to “get on the floor” so Ryker can have his own go at her! While De Mille keeps all the sex off-page, Ryker himself eventually lives with the hooker in her “fleabag” apartment on the West Side, which leads to one of the most devastating “Rykerisms” in the entire series, when the girl mentions she’s been meaning to move to the East Side:
“Look, we’re going to be roommates for awhile,” interrupted Ryker. “I don’t want to hear your whining about how life could be better. You’ll live and die a hooker and a junkie, probably right here in this fleabag. Concentrate on good fucking, please.”
That’s our Ryker! This all comes later, after Ryker and Hayes have pissed off their brother cops by getting Cyrus released; the killer escapes and manages to murder two cops, thus explaining the anger of Ryker’s brothers in blue – so he moves in with the hooker, Maureen, to use her fleabag as a hiding place. Cyrus was caught after a few more blonde killings by the appearance of that aforementioned nurse; solid police work having yielded Homer Cyrus as the prime suspect in the recent M-14 shootings. The nurse, currently stationed in Europe, heard about the case and offered her help. She feels that her casual screwing of Cyrus – not to mention the abrupt way she broke it off – might have had something to do with his ensuing murder spree. “You think?” Ryker sarcastically asks her.
The woman’s appeal on the radio is what gets Cyrus out into the open, but meanwhile Ryker has already got a positve ID on him thanks to a bum who has seen him around. This is another guy Ryker badgers, along with the Puerto Rican kids; when the bum shows up drunk at the precinct, Ryker decides to “Puke him!,” and he, Hayes, and Fiscetti take the bum into the bathroom, force him to puke, and then clean the stink off him with turpentine. Cyrus has been impossible to find because it turns out he’s been living in a tree in the middle of Central Park – a bit of subtle in-jokery from De Mille, who early in the book has Ryker guessing that Cyrus “could be living up in a tree.”
Dumb-ass Cyrus responds to the nurse’s radio-broadcast appeal to meet at a hotel, and thus walks right into a police trap. But as mentioned it’s a dirty job; the FBI has strong-armed Capt. Peterson into focusing more on the starlight scope than the actual killer, and Cyrus has walked into the trap without his gun. Now the book devolves into an overlong sequence of people searching Central Park for the hidden M-14 and scope. Ryker comes up with the idea to get Creighton Straichey, who always wants a scoop, to front the $10k bail. Ryker and Hayes follow Cyrus upon his release, hoping to nab him with the rifle in hand, but end up losing him in the now snow-shrouded Park – and getting their two fellow cops killed as a result.
Ryker deals with this the only way he knows how – beating up another woman! This is Cyrus’s sister, who lives in Oklahoma. Ryker flys there off-radar, threatens the woman in her home, then slaps her face (and breasts!) around while her little kid is screaming in another room(!). That’s our Ryker! He even ensures that she’s gotten his name right, his goal for her to blab to her brother when he makes one of his periodic calls to her. Then, again using Straichey, Ryker has the fake news planted in the media that Ryker will be “grieving” at the coffin of one of those murder cops (whom Ryker didn’t even know), which is lying in state in a West Side church for a week. Thus Ryker has set himself up as bait for Cyrus.
This takes us into the homestretch, with a foolish Ryker realizing too late that he has to get out of the church that’s holding the coffin and into a cab without getting shot by Cyrus, who is no doutb watching from afar through a sniper scope. True to series form, when Cyrus does pull the trigger it’s someone else who is killed instead of Ryker (guess who!!). This leads to the hilariously-anticlimactic climax…in which Ryker engages Cyrus in an endless walk through the streets of the West Side, the two mortal enemies keeping a hundred or so feet distance between each other; in other words, out of the range of their pistols.
It just goes on and on, the two walking almost casually through the grimy streets. Cyrus is jungle-honed and thus can’t hack the freezing cold, something Ryker capitalizes on. Ryker here has his .357 Ruger Redhawk, but also has a Beretta automatic “ladies gun” strapped to his ankle as a backup (the “ladies gun” bit proving that Ryker – and therefore De Mille – was at least familiar with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels). De Mille is good with setups and payoff, as Ryker is constantly dismissive of the little Beretta, but it ends up saving his ass; he uses it to get the drop on Cyrus when the killer finally closes in on Ryker, mistakenly believing that the .357 is out of bullets.
And while he denies us much action or thrills, De Mille at least has Cyrus getting those just desserts; after shooting him in the legs with the .25, Ryker proceeds to “carefully” bashing out each of Cyrus’s teeth with the butt of the gun, then “smashing” his testicles with a savage foot-stomp. Ryker then proceeds to cuff the heartless kller to a pipe on a desolate rooftop, leaving him there to freeze to death – or starve to death. Ryker could care either way. It’s a fitting, brutal end for the sniper, not to mention an abrupt end for the novel, given the preceeding 200+ pages of slow-going police procedural.
I enjoyed this one, as I have all the others in the series, though ultimately I think it was my least favorite of De Mille’s Ryker/Keller books. Now the only one of them I haven’t read is the nauseatingly-overpriced The Cannibal…which I hope to read someday.