Deathmate, by Martin Caidin
October, 1982 Bantam Books
Here’s another review I’ll begin with thanks to Zwolf, who mentioned this novel in my review of Martin Caidin’s subpar drug smuggling yarn Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve. I found a copy of Deathmate immediately after I read Zwolf’s endorsement, and luckily this one turned out to be a lot more affordable than Caidin’s other books, particularly his Six Million Dollar Man novels.
But speaking of Caidin’s famous creation, it would appear that by 1982 Caidin himself wasn’t a “name” author, for Deathmate was a paperback original. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer paperback originals, always have and always will. But anytime I see an author moving from hardcover, with all the prestige, industry reviews, and marketing that entails, to the sometimes-obscure world of paperback originals, I figure his popularity has waned. The same thing even happened to Herbert Kastle, who briefly was relagated to paperback originals in the mid-‘70s.
Regardless, Deathmate is a lot more entertaining than that earlier Caidin novel, and for the most part avoids all the goofs and clunky writing of Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve. Until the very end, at least. The first third of Deathmate barrels along at a crazy clip, featuring a “hero” who massacres thousands of men, women, and children in early 1960s Vietnam.
I put hero in quotes for several reasons. For one, protagonist Ron Previn is such an emotionless cipher that it’s hard to feel anything for him in the course of the novel (which by the way runs to a too-long 226 pages of small print). But also because, as mentioned, he kills literally thousands of unarmed villagers in pre-war Vietnam, either blowing them up or ripping them apart with his .22 Magnum “Spaghetti gun” (presumably the machine pistol depicted on the cover).
Curiously, Caidin doesn’t inform us at the beginning of the book that all this is occuring at least twenty years before the publication date. In fact, the majority of Deathmate appears to occur in the early ‘60s or even the late ‘50s. When we meet him Ron is fresh out of college, heartbroken from a bad breakup, and is making pretty good money on a small crew working deep in the jungles of ‘Nam laying oil pipes.
The opening of the novel is pretty much horror fiction. First we see a series of innocent Americans getting butchered by the Vietnamese natives they considered their friends. We readers know this is the work of the Viet Cong, but it’s so early in the confrontation that the Communist group is totally unknown to the Americans who have come here as missionaries, civilian contractors, or whatever. There’s no revisionism here, either – the VC are brutal scum and they massacre people in the most horrific ways. A later bit even has them getting their hands on a prepubescent American girl.
There’s more “horror novel” stuff besides with a creepout description of the massive insects Ron and his fellows encounter deep in the jungle. But that’s just for starters; Ron’s unaware that Americans are being butchered around the country. Then the natives he works with begin acting stranger and stranger, stealing stuff from the site and not showing up for work. One day they set something to blow and one of Ron’s coworkers is killed. They make the grueling trip back to the main site and are met with total disaffection; there’s so much strife here that human life has absolutely no value.
This we’re informed is the inciting incident that makes Ron a killer. While we’re often told he’s just a normal guy and etc, we never actually see it; instead we meet him as he’s reacting to the growing horror of Vietnam, and as he comes out of the shock he realizes there’s something dark deep within him. It’s this spark that makes Ron a natural born killer, the sort of man the Company would love to hire. Soon Ron and Gary, his muscular but otherwise simpering coworker, are being propositioned by some suited spooks, who offer the two the chance to deliver Charlie a little payback.
They’re trained by a muscle-bound merc named Mike who basically steals the novel but only appears in this sequence. They’re trained in everything from explosives to firearms, and even here Ron has the edge because he grew up hunting and has worked on construction sites so he understands how to blow stuff up real good. Mike also tells them to select a firearm that will become their main gun. Gary gets a regular submachine gun but Ron selects the aforementioned .22 Magnum machine pistol which Mike refers to as a “Spaghetti gun” because it rips out like a string of bullets in one go.
The spooks have offered Ron and Gary the mission of going into a VC camp and rescuing a kidnapped American child, a little girl who was taken a few weeks back and might not even still be alive. The three go off in the night and this is probably the most thrilling scene in the book because it actually plays out in “real time,” whereas the later ones are relayed mostly via summary. It’s also an indication of the type of “action scene” we’re going to get in Deathmate. I mean there isn’t a single part where Ron gets in a gunfight with anyone; the entire book is comprised of him massacring unarmed civilians in a variety of methods.
So here Mike sets up some explosives and wipes out most of the village, after which Ron and Gary will do these sorts of jobs themselves. In fact it gets to be a bit humorous because as mentioned these guys waste literally thousands of Viet Cong villagers in the first few hundred pages of the novel, and the reader has to wonder if just two non-soldiers could be so devastating to the enemy then why did the war drag on for so long? I mean these two guys alone could’ve wiped out the entire population of Vietnam in a couple years.
Throughout this Ron becomes even more of a cipher, but an asshole of a cipher. He’s brutish and rude to everyone and bosses Gary around like a peon. He takes increasingly risky jobs and eventually even demands that only he and Gary go out as a two-man team instead of being a part of a larger force. I mean the government could’ve saved millions if these two guys really existed – oh, and I forgot to mention that Caidin opens the novel stating that there really were people like Ron and he even dedicates the book to him. WTF?
This goes on for the majority of the novel, with absolutely no topical details of what year it is, what’s going on with the war, or anything. Ron lives in a daze, only living for his massacre missions. But then on one mission as he’s blowing up another village he cuts down a little figure with the Spaghetti gun and to his horror sees it’s a little American boy, the son of a missionary who was in the village. Ron abruptly quits the massacre business and even hands over the few hundred thousand dollars he’s amassed on his missions to the boy’s parents, after informing them that it was he who accidentally murdered their son!
Unfortunately the novel continues after this point, and here the clunky writing of Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve returns in full force. I figured the CIA would just terminate Ron upon his resignation, but instead they send him back to the States and put him up in a nice cabin in the woods. They even provide him with a woman who serves him up some off-page lovin’. After this Ron decides to live in rural New York, and here the novel again descends into unintentional humor.
Caidin flashes forward seven years and tells us everything Ron’s been through in summary – I mean we’re told he met and married some lady on one page, and on the next we’re told that she’s developed a blood disease and is confined to the hospital! We’re also informed he has two little girls. I mean none of the characters live or breathe, they’re just wallpaper – the intention is for us to feel for Ron, to empathise with him, but in reality it’s hard to care about his wife or kids because Caidin does nothing to bring them to life.
It gets even more humorous when Ron is confronted by some guy in a bar one night, tired from working two jobs to support the sick wife, and the guy claims to remember him from ‘Nam – which the dude mentions is now a full-scale war, so my assumption is we’re now in the late ‘60s, not that Ron bothers to notice his own era. Ron shuts the dude down permanently – surprisingly, the only true “action scene” in the book, and it’s really just Ron nailling the guy with a bottle – and gets bailed out of jail by his CIA handler, the first he’s seen him in all these years.
But here comes the goofy stuff. Ron keeps getting hassled by a woman who claims to be the widow of the guy he killed in the bar. She just keeps pestering him and calling him, claiming to know the “truth” of what he did in Vietnam and how she’s going to tell everyone unless Ron does what she asks, etc. What exactly she wants is never explained; the implication I got is that she wants to get laid, even more humorously enough, because apparently the two have all sorts of hot off-page sex…however Caidin completely forgets to inform us of this until we have a scene where Ron is visiting his wife in the hospital and feeling guitly.
But apparently Ron did the deed with this lady, Helen, and from here it becomes like a proto-Fatal Attraction. Ron’s wife gets out of the hospital, still frail, but Helen starts calling them, following them in her car, and even standing outside her house and staring at their house all day – goofily enough, her house is right across the street. It’s just some of the dumbest shit I’ve ever read in a novel, particularly given that Ron, the object of her obsession, killed thousands of people in Vietnam but for some reason can’t bring himself to kill off this nuissance of a woman.
It gets dumber. Ron’s wife, pushed into depression by the constant harrassment, kills herself with an overdose of pills, and Ron’s family is removed from the narrative just as half-assed as it was introduced. Ron sends the daughters he supposedly loves so much off to stay with an aunt and that’s it for them – he’s already forgotten about them. Caidin wants us to understand that Ron’s shock has broken down the safeguards he erected post-Nam and now the true killer is coming back.
He’s also a psychopath thanks to CIA brainwashing, with a “chorus of voices” in his head vying for control. But again the narrative spirals in an arbitrary detour. Ron goes to San Francisco…and does nothing except walk around. This part was so immaterial to anything I wondered if it was there to fill a word count. Then Ron goes down to Florida and hooks up with a group of “friends” he’s supposedly made at some point, even though previously it’s been implied that Ron has no friends because he talked to no one in ‘Nam and just lived a simple life with his wife and kids the past few years.
However these dudes are all former Company mercs and they let Ron know he’s being tailed and all that jazz. Then Helen shows up again and Ron figures she too must be a Company plant. At least he finally gets rid of her after some off-page sex…in another goofy bit, she basically tries to blackmail Ron into living with her(!?). Instead he kills her in a complicated manner involving makeshift explosives, which is pretty hard to buy given that all his previous kills in the jungle were courtesy the Spaghetti gun and ready-made explosive devices.
Even more humorously, Ron here transforms into like the ultimate secret agent, again displaying training and skills we never knew he had – in fact, skills that would be next to worthless in the jungle. He’s losing his CIA shadows via convoluted schemes, setting up bombs in decoy vehicles, and making elaborate plans of vengeance on the Agency. However he does get back to his chief m.o. of massacring unarmed individuals.
It gets even more difficult to root for our “hero” as he not only wipes out otherwise-defenseless CIA agents but even their families. But he doesn’t stop there. Next he takes out an entire airliner filled with innocents so as to kill more Agency targets. And Caidin even resorts back to his flying fixation with an overlong scene of Ron renting a plane (somehow he learned how to fly, too) and setting up a bomb on a remote control airplane he launches from it, basically an oldschool drone.
It’s all just really over the top and crazy but ruined by the fact that we care nothing for Ron and all this happens without much dramatic thrust. Worse yet we learn in the finale that the CIA is watching all this and indeed is appreciating the skill on display – Ron had a tracer implanted in him courtesy an operation he got without his awareness while drugged in ‘Nam, and the CIA is now shadowing his every move. It’s implied they’re maneuvering him to become an Oswald type who will kill the President.
However here Deathmate ends, on a total cliffhanger. But really after 226 pages of small, dense print the reader is more relieved than frustrated. I was glad to say goodbye to Ron’s adventures and kind of wished the book had ended a good hundred pages before. The Vietnam stuff was crazy in a good way, and well written, but everything after it was a chore to get through, stymied by an author who seemed unable to convey any tension, drama, or emotion.