Monday, June 15, 2015
Death Squad (Keller #4)
Death Squad, by Nelson DeMille
No month stated, 1975 Manor Books
I lucked out and finally found a reasonably-priced copy of this fourth and final Keller novel, which in the late ‘80s was revised and updated to become the sixth and final volume of the “Jack Cannon” Ryker series. I’ve wanted to read Death Squad since I read Marty McKee’s review a few years ago, and I’m really glad I finally got to, as this was my favorite Keller/Ryker novel by far.
As Marty notes, Death Squad is clearly influenced by the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, as it’s about a secret police squad that acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Nelson DeMille wasn’t alone in taking off on this concept, as there was the similar Death Squad and Kill Squad series, not to mention a 1974 TV-movie titled The Death Squad. For that matter, Herbert Kastle even published a novel titled The Death Squad in 1977. So “cops gone vigilante” was a hot topic at the time, and many of the elements DeMille deals with in this novel are still relevant today.
Kastle is a good reference point, as even though both the Keller and the Ryker books were packaged as men’s adventure action novels, they have more in common with the crime thrillers Kastle was turning out at the time, like Cross-Country. They’re also very similar to the work William Crawford was doing under his own name and various pseudonyms, as they’re obviously based on extensive research and they’re grounded in a realistic-seeming cop world. But whereas Crawford had lots of police world details but lackluster storytelling skills (incidentally, I’ve recently learned that Crawford was indeed a cop himself), DeMille has a firm handle on both. (Except for when he has Keller screw a silencer onto a revolver….)
I’ve enjoyed every Keller and Ryker novel I’ve yet read, even though none of them (the DeMille ones, at least) have had much in the way of action. They are instead rather slow-paced, grim and gritty police procedurals, but the characters and the situations are so well defined and depicted that I’ve found them very entertaining despite the lack of thrills. Death Squad however turns out to be a little different – while it’s just as entertaining and well-written as the previous volumes, it actually has its share of violent thrills and action scenes.
DeMille proves this early on, with an opening clearly influenced by a scene in Magnum Force, as Keller sits in with a pair of stakeout cops who are hiding in an oft-robbed liquor store. Keller happens to leave just as a pair of black dudes walk in; Keller stumbles across their spotter outside, cuffs him, and then almost walks right in on the execution of the two would-be robbers. They’re shot point-blank by the stakeout cops, and Keller has gotten first-hand confirmation of what he’s suspected for a while: that there’s a “Death Squad” operating within the NYPD.
This leads into an entertaining and very ‘70s paranoia tale as Keller doesn’t know who on the force he can trust. It gets even worse when a rapist, jailed in the detectives’ squad room in Keller’s precinct house, “commits suicide” by hanging. When Keller later finds a needle beneath the dude’s fingernail, he gets yet more confirmation of foul play. The back cover hypes it that Keller doesn’t really mind the dirty deeds of the Death Squad, but in the book itself he’s on the fence, and can’t decide if he likes their actions or not. What most bugs him is why they haven’t asked him to join!
The only men on his squad Keller believes he can trust are series regulars Lt. Piscati (aka Fischetti in the Ryker books) and Sgt. Bo Liddy (aka Bo Lindy). He’s not sure about his new partner, a young ‘Nam vet with a leg wound named Paul Reuter. Meanwhile we readers get to see the Death Squad in action, and their efforts aren’t limited to crooks: they have grander designs, like for example taking out a notoriously-liberal circuit court judge. The Squad meets in an abandoned subway on the outskirts of town, their “Chief” sitting in the shadows and wearing a hood as his men surround him. More ‘70s paranoia continues with the details that an FBI agent and a CIA agent are part of the ruling board, as well as a retired Army general.
DeMille as ever excels in setpieces, from an arbitrary but disturbingly fascinating part where Keller watches as a corpse is embalmed to a long dialog exchange between the leaders of the Death Squad, who state that their prime targets will be liberal politicians. Grungy ‘70s New York City is again captured in all its tawdry glory, if not to the extent of the other Ryker/Keller novels. Most surprising of all is that DeMille actually bothers to write action material here, with a handful of gunfights occuring in the narrative. In previous volumes our “hero” rarely if ever pulled his gun, and never fired it once. (At least in the ones I’ve read – the only two I still need are The Sniper and The Cannibal.)
Finally the Death Squad goes too far, at least so far as Keller is concerned; when they kill off a friend (or at least what passes for a friend for Keller) our hero swears vengeance. “If they’re the Nazis,” he blusters, “I’m Attila the Hun.” Keller isn’t much for planning; instead he just loads up his Ruger .357 Magnum and his Police Special .38 (which he’s constanty screwing a silencer on, by the way) and charges in. This almost gets him killed in an ambush, but he’s saved by Reuter – a fact the two keep bickering and bantering about like a regular Razoni & Jackson, with Keller insisting that he could’ve saved himself.
The two are now on the run, hiding from cops, trying to interrogate men they have identified as members of the Death Squad. Here Keller proves himself as merciless as his enemies, killing in cold blood. But nowhere is safe for Keller and Reuter – they even have to sleep in the patrolmen’s quarters in the precinct house – and the final quarter of the novel is very tense as they’re in open conflict with the Death Squad and don’t know who they can trust. Finally Keller learns where the Squad meets, and with the aid of a surprise ally our two heroes (now a trio) make a midnight raid on the place.
The climactic action scene isn’t along the lines of The Executioner or anything, and indeed brings more to mind a ‘70s crime flick, with Keller and Reuter only having to deal with a few Squad cops in the dark subway. DeMille doesn’t go much for the gore, either, with people just getting shot and falling down. He does though deliver a very abrupt ending, with Keller and Reuter taking out the ruling elite of the Squad, at least most of them, only to realize on the final sentence of the final page that they’ve just let the leader of the Squad escape. But here the book ends, which is unfortunate, as the Death Squad has been set up as so far-reaching and widespread that the story almost begs to keep going on.
Instead, that’s that; I guess we’re to believe that Keller has chopped off the head of the organization and now it will fall apart. But at least DeMille gave us some action in the first place, and again his characters pop to life, as does grimy Manhattan. Keller here has developed a penchant for one-liners and snappy comebacks, and DeMille even employs movie-style setup and payoff dialog, like a recurring joke about “a five-letter word meaning meddlesome.” One thing missing for those keeping track on your trash scorecard is there’s no sex at all – in fact, there isn’t a single female character in the entire novel.
Death Squad confirms that this series was published (and maybe even written) out of order. In my review of The Smack Man, I mentioned that a certain character was stated as being dead, even though he was alive in later volumes. I won’t give this character’s name away in this review, as it would be a spoiler to anyone reading Death Squad, but that character is in fact killed in this novel, which means that The Smack Man takes place after Death Squad, even though it was the first volume of the Keller series! (And DeMille didn’t change the series order when he revised these books in the late ‘80s, so I guess this out-of-order sequence was intentional.)
But then on page 140 Keller’s new partner Reuter says that “rumor has it” that Keller killed a bad cop named Schwartz. My friends, this is a direct reference to the climactic events of…The Smack Man! So what the hell?? Did DeMille just figure to hell with it, no one would notice the continuity misfires anyway, or did he himself get goofed up? As mentioned, it would appear these mix-ups were present in the ’89 revisions as well, so either DeMille didn’t catch them again or he just figured “to hell with it” again. But as it stands, Death Squad takes place before and after The Smack Man. I thought maybe the novels might occur at the same time, but each takes place over the span of just a few weeks – and in different seasons, to boot.
Sadly, this was it for Joe Keller; meanwhile, his alternate-reality version, Joe Ryker, continued on to have a few more adventures over at Leisure Books, courtesy the group of writers who served as “Edson T. Hamill.”