Night Of The Phoenix, by Jack Cannon
September, 1989 Pocket Books
(Original publication June, 1975 Manor Books)
In 1989 Nelson DeMille decided to bring his Ryker series back into print, crediting himself as “Jack Cannon” with a note to the reader explaining that these editions were “revised and updated” by the author himself. The note to the reader also provides a little backstory on these books, briefly stating that the series started as Ryker with Leisure books before moving over to Manor and becoming Keller.
As part of the revisions New York “hero” cop Joe Ryker is here only referred to as such, and never as “Joe Keller.” It’s my theory that DeMille left Leisure because he got pissed off that editor Peter McCurtin published Ryker #3 under DeMille’s name, even though it was written by Len Levinson. Len explained this to me that McCurtin’s thinking was that Leisure owned not only the series but the rights to the author’s name. Doesn’t sound legally accurate to me, I mean DeMille was a real name, not a house name, but what do I know, it was the ‘70s.
But anyway shortly after this DeMille split from Leisure and went over to Manor, changed “Joe Ryker” to “Joe Keller,” and continued writing the series, which ran for a total of four volumes. Counting the two Ryker volumes DeMille published with Leisure (actually they published three by DeMille, but more on that below), that means the Joe Ryker/Keller books ran a total of six volumes, all of which were reprinted by Pocket in these “revised and updated” editions. Night Of The Phoenix originally appeared in 1975 as the third volume of Manor’s Keller series, but was the fifth (and thus penultimate) volume of the ’89 Ryker reprints.
Even this is screwy, though; as Marty McKee notes, Leisure actually published Night Of The Phoenix as the fourth volume of Ryker, titling it The Agent Of Death. Marty mentions that this Leisure edition features different character names than the Manor edition and also lacks a prologue which features so memorably in the Keller version of the tale (fortunately, the prologue is also in this Pocket reprint). So as Marty states, sly DeMille must’ve gotten paid twice for the same book…though if Len Levinson’s comments to me are any indication, DeMille probably didn’t get paid for either book, Manor and Leisure being notoriously reluctant to pay their authors.
Now that all that is out of the way, on to the novel itself. Night Of The Phoenix is along the same lines as the other DeMille Ryker I’ve read, The Hammer Of God. (A problem with all of these Ryker and Keller books is they're so goddamn expensive on the used book marketplace – hell, even the Pocket reprints are expensive, in some cases moreso than the original editions!) Rather than focusing on the action this genre is known for, DeMille instead delivers a police procedural that’s heavier on dialog and character.
And speaking of character, Joe Ryker is once again an arrogant, obnoxious prick, belittling coworkers and degrading superiors. Whereas Len Levinson made Ryker a whole lot more likable, DeMille’s (original) interpretation of the character is a hateful bastard, as repulsive as can be. Like Narc #4, this is another cop novel that takes place in the sweltering heat of a New York summer, and DeMille relishes in letting us know how sweaty and stinky his protagonist is – and talking about obnoxious, there are a few scenes where Ryker notes his own stink and will spread his arms so that others can smell him! So like I said, he’s a pretty repulsive guy.
As mentioned this Pocket reprint retains the prologue which was in the original Manor edition but removed from the Leisure edition. And truth be told, this prologue is the highlight of the novel; I could’ve read an entire novel about CIA assassin Morgan as he sits in ambush in some swamp deep in ‘Nam, targetting any unfortunate NVA or VC who might come his way. There’s a dark comedy afoot as we learn that Morgan is paid per kill, and, like Death Race 2000 or something, he’s paid in accordance to how important the person is he’s killed.
It’s late in the war and a CIA rep drops into the swamp to tell Morgan he’s no longer employed; the CIA rep further informs Morgan that he’s made the personal decision to kill Morgan and take the few hundred thousand dollars he’s amassed over the years in his Swiss Bank account. But Morgan ends up killing the rep and, stranded in the swamp (his sole companion a Vietnamese girl he wounded earlier due to a misfire and spent the rest of the night raping), begins walking his way out of the jungle.
This brings us to the “present,” clearly 1989 in this updated Pocket edition; I’m curious how much exactly DeMille revised, but the original Manor edition being so pricey I’m unable to compare the two printings. Anyway Ryker is called onto the case when a gruesome corpse is discovered; a former CIA agent is found sitting in his bathtub, killed by leeches. DeMille brings to life the nightmarish scene, with Ryker and his fellow cop “friend” Lindly looking in horror at the fat leeches as they float around in the bloody water – a scene which finishes on a bizarrely humorous cop movie-style joke when Ryker pulls one of the leeches out of the water and reads it its rights.
When the guy’s wife is later blown away by a sniper, Ryker is convinced something’s going on…his first clue being how his “stupid chief” superiors at the precinct sort of brush over how the Feds immediately swooped onto the crime scene and took away all of the evidence. Then CIA rep Jorgenson shows up and informs the cops that a rogue CIA assassin from the ‘Nam era is back and is hunting down the men who set him up. The assassin is of course Morgan, and Jorgenson delivers Ryker et al a background story that’s a little different from the “facts” as presented in the prologue. But then, Jorgenson makes it clear that he’s in the business of lying, thus making Ryker even more distrustful of the man and the entire situation.
But as mentioned Night Of The Phoenix is narratively identical to Hammer of God in that the novel is basically a dialog-heavy police procedural with none of the action or suspense a reader might want. There isn’t even much of a lurid element, other than the grisly crime scenes Ryker investigates, for example a later sequence where another former CIA agent who betrayed Morgan is found hanging above a building, the skin flayed from his corpse. As for sex, there isn’t any of that either, even considering a nonsensical bit where Ryker and his new partner Lentini hire a hooker for the night, even bringing her onto one of the crime scenes the next morning!
For the most part Night Of The Phoenix is comprised of Ryker snapping at his colleagues and superiors that there’s more to the Morgan case than meets the eye; he of course runs afoul of Jorgenson, who makes veiled threats that Ryker “knows too much.” Ryker’s certain that a member of Jorgenson’s CIA team is a turncoat, someone who is feeding Morgan intel, but Jorgenson continues to backpedal and spread mistruths. After a while Ryker’s also certain he and his partners will come under fire, so in one of the more unusual “plot twists” I’ve ever read in one of these novels, he decides to hell with it and goes on vacation!
For vacation Ryker settles on a rural farmland owned by his ex in-laws in Chicago. Both of them “old unconverted Nazis,” they live on a compound guarded by dogs and the old man has an arsenal in his basement, complete with machine guns, subguns, and even gatling guns. There’s a part where Ryker, Lindly, and Lentini look over the weaponry, suspecting they might need it when the inevitable CIA squad comes after them – Ryker has gone on vacation so as to escape any death squads that might be sent after him, but when Lindly follows after him Ryker knows the cat’s out of the bag and his hiding place has been uncovered.
But man, DeMille can’t be bothered to write an action scene. Forget about Chekov’s dictum; DeMille shows us a whole lot more than just a rifle above the mantle, but doesn’t use them in the third act or any other act. When the squad does show up that night, all we get is a somewhat tense scene where Ryker et al hear the dogs barking outside; they see some headlights; and then the car drives away! The next morning, despite finding all of the dogs dead, Ryker just decides to leave, telling Lentini to go start up the car…and Lentini’s killed in the ensuing blast, the CIA of course having wired the car to blow. You see, Ryker’s an idiot in addition to being an asshole.
Please skip this paragraph if you want to avoid the novel’s surprise. As the murders continue, Jorgenson doles out more info, like the fact that Morgan is a leper. Ryker starts to wonder how a guy with such a supposedly-ruined face could get around the city without anyone noticing him. And like Ryker you soon begin to suspect Jorgenson himself. This turns out to be the reveal – Jorgenson is actually the murderer, and he doles out the tale for Ryker at the very end of the novel. Long story short, Jorgenson himself was part of the CIA team that screwed Morgan over, and also as coincidence would have it Jorgenson happened to be on the base a jungle-ravaged Morgan stumbled into after surviving his betrayal in the prologue sequence. So Jorgenson finished off Morgan himself (throwing him out of a helicopter!) and now, these years later, has decided to cash in on the Swiss Bank account, after getting the various serial numbers from his old turncoat pals. So in other words the promised tale of a leper-faced CIA assassin running amok in NYC is denied us, DeMille once again going for more of a “realistic” approach. Dammit!
While it skimps on the action and the sleaze, Night Of The Phoenix is still rather well-written, with DeMille bringing his characters to life, in particular his slimy protagonist. There’s good dialog and funny stuff too, though nothing on the un-PC level of Hammer of God. Speaking of which I don’t think DeMille removed too much of such material from this revised edition, as evidenced in an early scene where Ryker goes on about how black people hate cold weather. It’s just that in this installment Ryker’s moreso just a regular asshole instead of a racist and sexist asshole.
I’d like to read more of DeMille’s Ryker and Keller novels, whether in the original editions or these “Jack Cannon” reprints, but the prices for them are too prohibitive. However the post-DeMille Ryker novels from Leisure, credited to Edson T. Hamill, are fortunately much more affordable, so I’ll be reading them next.
Oh, and as for these Jack Cannon/Pocket reprints, each of them have similar covers, of this shades-wearing "cool" cop who in no way shape or form resembes Ryker or anyone else in these books. In fact, the covers look like stills from the sequel to Cobra that Sylvester Stallone never gave us.