Friday, November 20, 2009

The Assassin

As Bill Picard notes, cataloging the early works of best-selling author Nelson DeMille is no easy chore. In 1974 and 1975, DeMille wrote approximately six hard-boiled cop novels about an NYPD detective named Joe Ryker. Some of them bore his name, and some bore the pseudonym Jack Cannon as the author. Some were written about a cop named Joe Blaze and were credited to Robert Novak. Others were about a cop named Joe Keller! Some of the books were credited to Edson T. Hammill, who may have actually existed. And they were published and republished in later years under alternate titles.

Amazingly, THE AGENT OF DEATH, released by Leisure Books in 1974 as a Ryker title by DeMille, is virtually a word-for-word copy of a Joe Keller novel by DeMille called NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX published by Manor Books at the same time--just the character names are changed. Which means he obviously sold the same book to two different publishers simultaneously. And as quickly as these paperbacks were churned out and shipped to seedy bookstores and truckstops for rapid public consumption, it's possible the editors would never have known. I'm looking at both books right now, and it's a fabulous ripoff: Keller for Ryker, Johansson becomes Johnson, cops Lindly, Fischetti, and Spinelli become Liddy, Piscati, and Lentini. NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX opens, however, with a prologue set in Vietnam that AGENT OF DEATH doesn't have, making the latter's opening chapter heading of "New York City, the present" a bit odd.

THE AGENT OF DEATH is a typically shoddy Ryker adventure pitting the weary, hateful, bigoted cop against a CIA assassin named Falconer, a leper who's killing people in New York out of revenge for something that happened in Vietnam. Some of the murders are particularly chilling, such as a body left in a bathtub to be sucked dry by leeches and another man flayed and left on a rooftop to die of shock.

Ryker, who never met an authority figure he could respect, faces a formidable rival in Johanssen, another CIA operative who claims to want Falconer brought to justice, but Ryker doesn't trust the dude anymore than you will.

THE AGENT OF DEATH must have been written in a hurry. Strangely, one major event occurs entirely off-screen, a tragedy involving the death of a major character that happens between chapters and is vaguely referenced later. It's as though DeMille wrote it, but the editors ripped out ten pages to save space. Other chapters feel padded, making the book's pacing an odd experience.

THE AGENT OF DEATH is slightly more professional than the other Ryker books I've read, but not exactly high literature. I can't really recommend any of them, but they will do if you have 90 minutes to kill at the body shop or something.

1 comment:

Joe Kenney said...

I really want to read this book. The plot reminds me of an episode of Miami Vice, of all things -- an awesome episode from the third season titled "The Savage." It was about a guy who'd done black ops for the CIA back in 'Nam who went around the world, hacking up Asian prostitutes and writing a certain message in blood on the wall over their corpses. Pretty hardcore stuff for a mainstream TV show...nothing beats Miami Vice, man. Anyway, soon as I read your review of Angel of Death I thought of that episode.