Death Merchant #38: The Burning Blue Death, by Joseph Rosenberger
April, 1980 Pinnacle Books
The 38th installment of Death Merchant sees Richard Camellion venturing from Holland to DC to West Germany, in a borderline sci-fi adventure that spans about three months. At this point in the series Joseph Rosenberger was freely indulging in his fringe science interests, to the point that, for once, we have here one of the rare installments that is more composed of dialog and plot rather than action sequence after action sequence. Indeed, there are only a handful of action scenes throughout The Burning Blue Death.
We get the impression from the outset that this won’t be a typical installment, with an opening missive from the Death Merchant himself:
It’s quite strange reading such words from a fictional character whose business is death and who has killed, by a rough estimate, perhaps a thousand or so people by the time of this novel’s events. But The Burning Blue Death is High Rosenberger for sure, overwritten to the point of insanity (183 pages of super-small print), littered with egregious footnotes, filled with metaphysical stuff like auras, Krillian photography, and Spontaneous Human Combustion (or SHC). For a while it’s occurred to me that there are some points of similarity between Death Merchant and The Mind Masters; both series seem to come from authors with rather twisted imaginations, and Rosenberger and Rossmann/Ross clearly share the same interests – even the writing styles are somewhat similar, with both authors prone to having their characters baldly exposit on esoteric subjects, even referencing specific magazines and articles verbatim.
But whereas The Mind Masters put more focus on sleazy sex and less on action (at least in the first three volumes), Rosenberger as we know could be guilty of turning in a book that was really just one overlong action scene after another. The problem with that is, at least for me, Rosenberger’s no David Alexander. I mean, that guy could write a 183-page action scene that would probably be a blast to read, so to speak, but Rosenberger’s action scenes can be turgid and repetitive. This is why installments like Burning Blue Death are so special – a rare instance of Joseph Rosenberger putting more focus on the story and the latest weird assignment Camellion has undertaken. I’ve only read a few other Death Merchant novels I could say the same of (for which reason they’re still my favorites): The Cosmic Reality Kill would definitely be one, as would be Blueprint Invisibility.
When we meet Camellion he’s in Holland, having just appeared the previous night on a late night TV show starring “the Johnny Carson of the Netherlands.” As ever Camellion is in one of his disguises, this time looking like a Dutchman in his 60s. He’s put a bunch of ads in various newspapers asking about SHC, which is what he discussed on the TV program the night before. Gradually we’ll learn that a few US notables, including a Senator, have literally gone up in flames recently, imploding with blue flame. Camellion, like his creator, is enamored with esoteric subjects, thus is so handedly familiar with Sponataneous Human Combustion that he can easily pose as a scientist specializing in it – even speaking in pristine Dutch. Unfortunately we don’t see the TV bit. Rather, the focus is more on the goons Camellion is certain will be coming for him, given that he pointedly revealed some info that would surely come across the attention of whover is behind these SHC attacks.
Sure enough some goons come a-calling late that night, but have no fear – Camellion is armed with some cool-sounding modified .45s that have elongated barrels and pistol grips in front of the trigger guards. (Dean Cate has illustrated one of them in his typically-wonderful cover art.) There follows the standard Rosenberger action scene, complete with rampant POV-hopping where we are suddenly informed the names and backgrounds of the one-off gunmen who show up briefly enough to shoot at Camellion, miss, and get killed. Throughout Camellion has on “old man” makeup and a half-bald wig and wears very sci-fi-sounding night vision goggles, which Rosenberger must’ve thought were so cool that he actually describes them twice; Camellion wears them again in the novel’s final action sequence, and Rosenberger tells us all about them as if forgetting he already did so a hundred pages earlier.
Thirteen days later and Camellion, in another disguise, is over in London, having tracked down the man who hired the thugs who failed in the hit on him in Holland. As ever working with the CIA (with whose local director, Harvey Spare, Camellion engages in page-filling arguments about everything from SHC to gun control), Camellion puts together a team and raids the tobacco shop of his target, a man named Marmis. Here Rosenberger gets positively poetic about the variety of expensive tobacco to be found in Marmis’s shop, only to finally inform us that Camellion doesn’t smoke(!). And speaking of our hero, his latest disguise has him as a “crippled up” old man, complete with a cast on his arm.
There follows another Rosenberger action scene, more tedious than exciting, which again culminates with everyone dead, including Marmis – killed by a fatal drug accidentally given him by a junior agent. But Marmis’s place is really a hideout for a branch of the IRA, and once everyone’s dead Camellion finds coded documents written in the Labanotation method – humorously, Camellion instantly knows they are written thusly, given that he is an expert on every subject known to man. Finally the SHC angle returns – I was afraid at first that The Burning Blue Death would be another Death Merchant that squandered its fringe science plot with random shootouts and whatnot – and Rosenberger muses on the subject via several pages of case studies.
A whopping six weeks later, Camellion’s back in the US, working with usual CIA contact Courtland Grojean, and the CIA specialists have finally broken the code. Marmis’s uncoded documents hide illustrations of men in weird-looking suits, complete with metal rods sticking out of “skullcap”-type helmets; Dean Cate also attempted to illustrate this, at the top of his cover art, but it looks like he misread Rosenberger’s description, or perhaps the Pinnacle editor didn’t properly convey it, as the dude in the drawing looks more like the grand dragon of some sci-fi KKK branch. Courtesy more bald exposition with CIA science contact Dr. Russell Courtier, a biophysicist from an unsepcified New York university, we learn that SHC might be induced artificially, and indeed the Nazis were working on such a weapon.
Mention of “The Brotherhood” in those coded documents has Camellion figuring a neo-Nazi group is behind the plot. After a brief firefight with thugs who try to take him out on the way to his apartment in the DC suburbs – after which he spends a week, off-page, in jail – Camellion hops a plane to Germany. Twenty-three days later, he’s now working with a group of West German agents and researching the SHC developments made by the Nazis in WWII, under the guidance of a scientist named Helmut Koerber. We learn that the SHC device was called the Transmutationizer, and we see one in use, as a group of Brotherhood gunmen attack Camellion and crew, two of them wearing portable SHC devices which are powered by a trailer truck. Some of Camellion’s comrades go up in weird blue flames.
It seems that just about every Death Merchant climaxes with an assault on a fortress, and such is the case with The Burning Blue Death. Having determined that an old SS sadist named Baron Hammerstein is behind the Brotherhood and the plot to use SHC to kill off his enemies, Camellion teams up with a crew of West German agents and British SIS commandoes and storms the Baron’s Gothic castle. Here Rosenberger again tells us all about Camellion’s new-fangled night vision goggles, apparently forgetting he already told us about them before, and also we’re informed that Camellion makes use of a Sidewinder submachine gun, which us Pinnacle diehards know was a gun also favored by fellow imprint hero The Penetrator.
The ensuing action scene is heavy on the carnage – as ever Rosenberger injects just the right amount of gore in his action scenes, with heads blowing off and whatnot – but is a bit unsatisfying in that the villains of the piece, Koerber and Baron Hammerstein, are quickly introduced and dispensed of within just a few pages. However we do get to see more usage of the SHC device, with friend and foe imploding with blue flame. Camellion, realizing this would just be yet another device used to terrorize mankind, ends up destroying the Transmutationizer. The designs for building one are also lost, what with the massacre of the people behind it.
As usual the highlight of this Death Merchant is the arbitrary ranting of Camellion, which is to say Rosenberger. He bitches about religion, anti-smoking (ie warnings not to smoke), and Jimmy Carter, among many other things, though to be honest his Carter-bashing is perfectly understandable. The highlight though is Camellion’s theory on the “level of incompetence,” which he discusses with Grojean:
“The principle is very simple. In every organization, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. That is, if people do well in one job, they are promoted to another higher up the ladder, and so on until they reach a job they can’t do well. As soon as people reach jobs they can’t do, they tend to make mistakes because they’ve reached their level of incompetence. Understand?”
“Certainly. The cream rises until it sours.”
I planned to put a Hillary Clinton joke here, but decided not to, so as not to offend anyone who might be planning (for whatever reason) to vote for her. Plus the joke wouldn’t have worked anyway, because Hillary Clinton has never done well in any job.
Finally, here’s a review by Allan.