Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Keller: Death Squad by Nelson DeMille

As Bill Picard noted in a comment on an earlier post of mine, these early paperback originals written by (or just credited to) future bestselling author Nelson DeMille are a bibliographer's nightmare:

According to a note to the reader in the front of the late 80's reissues, DeMille wrote 6 books in the early 70's. The first 2 (The Sniper and The Hammer of God) were published by Norton and starred Ryker. The remaining 4 (The Smack Man, The Cannibal, Night of the Phoenix and Death Squad) were published by Manor Books and featured Detective Joe Keller. After Ryker's first two, the Ryker series continued: #3 The Terrorists, #4 The Agent of Death, #5 The Child Killer, #6 The Sadist. DeMille's name appears on #3 and #4, but DeMille has claimed he didn't write those and that he was paid to simply have his name kept on them. (#5 and #6 are credited to Edson T Hamill.) But here's where it gets confusing: Ryker #4, The Agent of Death, is almost a word-for-word rewrite of Night of the Phoenix, one of DeMille's Joe Keller books! It appears after in this case at least, he simply changed the names and sold the same book twice. So it wouldn't surprise me if Joe Blaze was yet another version of one of the books. A few final confusions: when the books were reissued in the early 90's by Pocket Books in the US and Grafton in the UK, they were rewritten yet again. Not only were the Keller ones changed to Ryker, but their locations were changed as well. The original books all took place around Columbus Circle and in midtown Manhattan, which at that time was seedy. By the early 90's it was tony, so they were rewritten to be in the East Village. DeMille's name appeared on the original books; it wasn't till the reissues that he became Jack Cannon so as not to confuse the fans of his popular stuff. I've read The Sniper, The Hammer of God (about a religious nut hacking up women he thinks are witches) and The Smack Man (about someone poisoning the heroin supply to kill junkies), and they've each gotten progressively worse.

DEATH SQUAD, #6 in Manor's Keller series, is actually pretty good, though still crude and rough around the edges. It isn't hard to ascertain where DeMille got the idea for the book, as MAGNUM FORCE, the second Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movie, had been a hit just two years before and had already been ripped off for television in THE DEATH SQUAD.

Keller, the dirtiest (as in nasty and violent, if not necessarily corrupt) detective on the force, goes into action when a large group of cops turn judge, jury, and executioner and start assassinating bad guys. Keller actually wouldn't mind so much if they were just killing crooks, but liberal judges and nosy honest policeman are also targets off the death squad, and that pisses Keller off.

A ludicrously high number of Keller's colleagues are members of the underground assassination squad, leaving his young partner Reuter the only person he can trust. DeMille comes up with some fairly good setpieces once Keller figures out what's going on, and there's some good suspense in scenes in which Keller has to hide in plain sight from his buddies on the force to stay alive. The death squad itself operates in delightful pulp-novel style from an abandoned subway tunnel and is led by a mysterious hooded man known only as The Chief. The Chief's true identity is clever, though not as much is done with this as could have been.

If you want action, DeMille delivers plenty of bloody shootouts and fights, and the body count is quite high. Maybe because the author had more of these junky novels under his belt by this time and was already eager to break out into more respectable thriller writing, DEATH SQUAD is more sophisticated than the lunkheaded Ryker and Joe Blaze cop novels DeMille also churned out around this time.

I've read only one other Keller novel, NIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, but it was a Ryker novel titled THE ANGEL OF DEATH then. Yes, DeMille sold the same story twice to two separate publishers at the same time. Pretty sneaky, sis.


Brandon L. Summers said...

There should be an award for a person who writes a great history and review of a men's action paperback and brilliantly concludes with a Connect Four reference.

Joe Kenney said...

One thing that always makes me laugh...compare this cover to the cover of Sharpshooter #7: Head Crusher: http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/8168/3613/1600/sharp-7.jpg

It's the exact same train in the background!!