May 082014
 
Death Merchant #30: The Shambhala Strike, by Joseph Rosenberger October, 1978  Pinnacle Books Wrapping up the “ancient aliens” trilogy that began in Hell In Hindu Land and continued in The Pole Star Secret, The Shambhala Strike turns out to be an okay entry in the Death Merchant series, one that takes it straight into the realm of science fiction. Here Joseph Rosenberger manages to combine
Apr 102014
 
Death Merchant #21: The Pole Star Secret March, 1977  Pinnacle Books Picking up a few months after the previous volume, this installment of the Death Merchant is a direct continuation of Hell In Hindu Land, so you should probably read that one first. As we’ll recall from that novel, hero Richard Camellion discovered friggin’ aliens in India, and while there he was informed that there were
Jun 172013
 

Here, thanks to a very kind contributor who would like to go uncredited, is an actual letter from the man, the myth himself: Joseph Rosenberger. (And also a huge thanks to that same contributor for sending me this photo of Rosenberger and his wife, Virginia, taken in 1984!)

The original plan was to run an essay on Rosenberger, but as it turns out, this letter tells us more about the man than any other piece could. Perhaps a little too much. It’s my duty to inform you that portions of this letter are incredibly racist, and will perhaps shed light on an aspect of Rosenberger’s image that might’ve been better left untouched. But then, given the paucity of any kind of info on the guy, I thought I should upload the letter anyway, with the racist terms expunged. Also, it’s my bet that those who are familiar with Rosenberger will not be surprised to read some of the sentiments he expresses herein.

But then, as the contributor told me (and as Rosenberger himself admits in the letter), JR was a heavy drinker, and “it’s readily apparent how he gets drunker as the letter goes on.” Note too how in his "rules for life" at the end of the letter Rosenberger states that he judges people as individuals, not by race, as if the previous pages of vile vitriol had been written by someone else. In fact, reading this letter I don’t feel so much anger over the ugly sentiments expressed – instead, I start to feel sorry for the bitter old bastard.

And finally, one more piece of data on Rosenberger: He passed away in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 68, on December 2, 1993.

 


 
 
 
 
 
Dec 062012
 

Death Merchant #20: Hell In Hindu Land, by Joseph Rosenberger
January, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Like I've said before, Joseph Rosenberger had some good days, and he had some bad days. Hell In Hindu Land must’ve been written during one of those bad days; it has more in common with Rosenberger’s execrable Mace series than it does with genuinely-good Rosenberger books like The Cosmic Reality Kill. Like those Mace books, Hell In Hindu Land is nothing but an endless trawl of fight scenes, on and on and on, to such a point that the interesting (and positively sci-fi) plot is lost.

Rosenberger wrote for Fate and other fringe science magazines, and he puts his “research” to use here. Richard “Death Merchant” Camellion’s latest mission sees him heading into the depths of India, where he is to locate an ancient Buddhist monastery which supposedly sits overtop a room filled with ultra high-tech devices and dead aliens -- ancient aliens, at that. And Rosenberger doesn’t shirk on his promise…even though it takes 150 pages, we do finally see those aliens, and the plot isn’t just written off with a Scooby-Doo type of a cop-out ending.

But in order to get there, first we must endure Rosenberger’s penchant for overly-detailed fight scenes. It’s frustrating because this is the first Death Merchant novel I’ve read that features endless fight scenes on the level of Mace. Parts of it even read like a Mace novel, with paragraphs and paragraphs of Camellion using obscure kung-fu moves to beat his enemies to death. But I say “frustrating” because the previous Death Merchant novels I’ve read have been more carefully constructed, less reliant on nonstop action and fighting.

Camellion hooks up with a team of Indian nationals in Calcutta, then flies with them out into the wildlands surrounding it. There they will make their way through treacherous country to the Buddhist temple. Camellion’s team is made up of Hindus, and Rosenberger is sure to remind us quite often that Indian Hindus just positively fucking despise Buddhists, and indeed part of Camellion’s team is made up of an Indian strike force which is looking forward to killing the (unarmed) monks so as to test out some new weaponry!

A KGB-backed commando squad is also on their way to the monastery; the reason Camellion’s been tasked with this mission is that both the CIA and the KGB found out about the place at the same time. We get the usual Rosenberger inessential bits from the Russian’s perspective…they know the infamous Death Merchant is with the other team, but like the pig farmer fools they are (in Rosenberger’s mind, at least) they discount Camellion, thinking he’s nothing more than a hunter who’s gone along for the trip!

This early in the series Rosenberger hasn’t worked out the later mainstays. There’s no mention of the Cosmic Lord of Death or auras or much other metaphysical stuff. However, earlier mainstays are gone – Camellion doesn’t put on a costume or impersonate anyone. In fact he spends the whole book in a Stetson hat, even getting pissed off when it’s later damaged in a firefight.

Also, there are no footnotes, which is a shame; instead, Rosenberger clunkily works his background detail into the dialog, so that it comes off as utter exposition. And what’s really bad is that he inserts these expositionary bits with no consideration of the scene at hand…literally, there are scenes where, immediately after a massive and gory shootout, Camellion and one of the Indians will converse about ancient astronomy! I mean, standing right there amid the bloody corpses!

Granted, some of this detail is interesting, and Rosenberger shows his Fate roots. Really though these blasts of exposition bring to mind the somewhat-similar Mind Masters series. And as mentioned the aliens and their technology do come in to play, though it seemingly takes forever to get to them. Hell, even when Camellion and team have finally infiltrated “the Room” beneath the monastery, with its weird and eternal blue light and selection of bizarre, alien machinery, Rosenberger spends more time on yet another action scene, where a traitor in the party attacks Camellion. Mind you, this is after a thirty or forty-page action sequence.

The aliens are dead, or at least in suspended animation, perfectly preserved in clear cases that can’t be opened. They’re the little gray ones of current popular myth, with the big black eyes and etc. Humorously enough, Camellion shows absolutely no interest in them, or amazement at the discovery. Instead he’s more concerned with getting a document out of there which apparently contains the sum knowledge of the aliens – a “book” of alien material which the monks have been working on translating over the past few centuries. Otherwise Camellion is unmoved, as if seeing the corpses of centuries-dead aliens is just par for the course.

Rosenberger unfortunately doesn’t delve into the other stuff supposedly there among the aliens, their high-tech devices which allowed them to manipulate energy and whatnot. But this I’ve found is typical of Rosenberger…lots of potential, little delivery. It blows my mind that the guy would be brave enough to come up with such crazy plots – I mean, imagine Mack Bolan coming across alien corpses – and yet not have the conviction to follow the crazy plots through. If you’ve introduced aliens into your tale, spend more time on them and less on endless action scenes. Action scenes which, per the Rosenberger norm, do little to excite the reader.

Hell In Hindu Land started off a loose trilogy, one which was continued in the next volume: #21: The Pole Star Secret. In this volume the head Buddhist monk informs Camellion that there are two other alien bases on the planet, the other being in the North Pole; Camellion ends the tale already planning a trip there. And I believe the trilogy concluded with #30: Shambhala Strike, though the final volume of the series, #70: The Greenland Mystery, was also about Camellion searching for a crashed UFO.
Jul 302012
 
First off, a big thanks to James Reasoner and Mike Madonna -- when I read a while back that the Spring 1981 issue of the obscure mystery magazine Skullduggery featured an actual interview with the elusive Joseph Rosenberger, I mentioned it to Mike Madonna in our email correspondence. I had a hard time finding a copy of the issue in question, and told Mike that, given that James Reasoner had a story published in the issue, James might happen to still have his copy.

Mike asked James, who not only had the issue but also scanned the Rosenberger interview and sent it to Mike, who then sent it to me. After talking with both of them I'm going to take the liberty to put the interview here on the blog.

I've retyped it, as the interview appears in the magazine as a blurry Xerox-esque burst of typescript. And no, it does not feature a photo of Rosenberger! Be forewarned though that this isn't the most indepth interview you'll ever read, barely coming in at two pages. But it's something, at least, and as far as I know this is the only Rosenberger interview out there.

The interview is titled Sherlock Tomes, and it's conducted by Carl Shaner. So, here it is, copyright the Spring 1981 issue of Skullduggery:


Back in 1969, a fledgling publisher, Pinnacle Books, brought out War Against the Mafia, by an unknown author named Don Pendleton. It was packaged as Book #1 in the Executioner series and, although series characters were not new to the paperback field, The Executioner was different. So different, sales soared and, as they soured, Pinnacle and others launched literally scores of imitators. Over ten years later, most of the new breed of men's action series have died off. Not so Joseph Rosenberger's Death Merchant. Richard Camellion, the master of death, deception, and disguise, who works secretly for the CIA, has starred in over forty books, with no end in sight. He is a heard-headed pragmatist, and so is his creator, Joseph Rosenberger, as the following Skullduggery interview demonstrates.

Shaner: First of all, tell us about yourself.

Rosenberger: I'll be 56 in May. I began writing at about age 17. To date, I've sold more than 2,000 articles and short stories and, roughly, maybe 300 paperbacks under my own and a variety of names: Rosenfeld, Lee Chang, Harry Adames [sp], etc. Maybe 50 or 60 were non-fiction -- ghost jobs, mostly on Psi/paranormal. For almost seven years I roamed the world as a photo-journalist and finally settled down about 20 years ago as a one-location writer. To me, writing is a business.

Shaner: The Death Merchant is apparently designed to appeal to a different audience than The Executioner or The Destroyer, as Camellion is neither a crusader nor a superman. How much of this was your idea?

Rosenberger: The Death Merchant was entirely my own creation. The editors at Pinnacle didn't have a thing to do with it.

Shaner: Do your editors provide you with much direction?

Rosenberger: None. The editors do not provide any ideas. There is only one rule: Camellion takes on only the incredible tasks, missions that, if not successful, would result in loss of freedom in the Western world.

Shaner: The first novel, The Death Merchant, was a "war against the Mafia" story, and the impossible missions vein did not begin until later. Was this a natural development?

Rosenberger: That was the plan all along.

Shaner: Camellion claims to dislike the "Death Merchant" title. How do you feel about it?

Rosenberger: So-so, but I'm not crazy about "Death Merchant."

Shaner: Does Camellion have any real-life or literary inspirations?

Rosenberger: None.

Shaner: After ten years and over forty books, do you still enjoy writing the character?

Rosenberger: I enjoy the money.

Shaner: Have you ever used ghost writers on the series?

Rosenberger: No. I never will. I don't think any writer can take over another writer's series and do a good job, with the exception of the "comic" Nick Carter novels.

Shaner: What are your favorite Death Merchant books?

Rosenberger: I don't have any favorites. I try to make each book as good as possible, and feel, after the book is finished, that it was the "best." It's the mind-set by which I operate.

Shaner: Do you have any favorites among your other books?

Rosenberger: None. It's all commercial writing. Paperbacks, as a rule, are nothing but pulps in a different form.

Shaner: How do you rate other series characters?

Rosenberger: Some are good; others stink, in that the writers don't do their homework.

Shaner: How do you approach writing a typical Death Merchant novel?

Rosenberger: I sleep on it for months in advance, letting the "Overmind" work out the details. From an outline as I actually begin to write. Plenty of research.

Shaner: What other series books have you written?

Rosenberger: The first Kung Fu fiction series in print (Manor Books) -- until Manor tried to screw me. Result: a lawsuit that I won. I now own the series, even though Kung Fu is as dead as yesterday's cigarette. Titles: Year of the Tiger by Lee Chang, etc. There were four or five books altogether; then when I told Manor where it could go, Manor got another writer to do the series. The series fell apart after, I think, two books.

I also evolved The Murder Master for Manor -- three books. I told Manor this series would not work -- a black dude hopping in bed with chicks, secret Fed, all that kind of nonsense.

I have done one Nick Carter book, Thunderstrike In Syria -- only one, because the advances are low, because I don't have the time, and, mainly, because there isn't a byline.

Shaner: Who reads your books, do you know?

Rosenberger: All kinds of people, judging from letters, from priests to prostitutes, from scientists to truck drivers. People read fiction to relax and, on a subconscious level, to work out their own anxieties, but mostly to relax and enjoy the book.

Shaner: Finally, with the Death Merchant entering its second decade, where do you see Richard Camellion and Joseph Rosenberger going from here?

Rosenberger: Rosenberger? Who knows? I can always sell series. I've turned down five this year. Camellion will live as long as the books at Pinnacle show a profit. The bottom line in publishing is money.
Feb 162012
 

Super Death Merchant #1: Apocalypse, by Joseph Rosenberger
April, 1987 Dell Books

I'm jumping all over the place in the Death Merchant series. After reading an early volume and then one from the middle of the run, I figured I'd see how our psychotic friend Richard "Death Merchant" Camellion ended up at the end of the series. Apocalypse, the one and only "Super Death Merchant," is the penultimate volume of the Death Merchant series, which, including this 400-page monstrosity, amounts to a total of 71 books...all of them written by Joseph Rosenberger; you have to respect the guy just a little for accomplishing such a feat.

Believe it or not, Apocalypse actually lives up to its title. This book has all the makings of a finale for the series, ending with hundreds of thousands dead in the Middle East and nuclear war declared between the US and USSR; but it actually takes place before Death Merchant #71: The Greenland Mystery (which apparently brushes aside the whole nuclear war ramifications of this volume). Actually it appears to me that Rosenberger was attempting a retcon of his character, as for the majority of the book, Apocalypse bears little resemblance to the earlier Death Merchant novels I've read.

For one, Camellion isn't the master of disguise he once was. Also, no mention of his reading "auras" and whatnot, and the Cosmic Lord of Death is given only minor mention. The first third of the novel comes off more like a Robert Ludlum spy story, with Camellion arriving in Greece and meeting with a variety of contacts.

The Soviets have kidnapped a Greek scientist who has supposedly cracked the mystery behind one of Tesla's many inventions -- namely, the control of the world's weather patterns. Surrounded by Spetsnaz commandos and KGB agents on one of the countless islands outside the Greece mainland, the scientist works against his will developing this ultimate weapon. Of course the Russians plan to use it against the US, without any concern over resultant damage to the rest of the world.

The first few hundred pages of Apocalypse are a slow-going affair. Rosenberger either recently visited Greece or consulted a mountain of travel brochures, as we get unending detail about Greece, its people, and their customs. Also endless meetings of various secret agents with lots of acronyms thrown around. The most shocking indication that Apocalypse is a "different" sort of Death Merchant is that there's no action scene until page 120! Even more shocking, there's an actual, bona fide sex scene before the action scene...!

The scene is certainly explicit, at least as far as Rosenberger is concerned, complete with graphic detail and dialog from the lady in question ("Do it! Do it! Do it to me!"). I couldn't believe it. Perhaps Rosenberger's new publisher Dell requested that he sex up the proceedings? Who knows. Anyway, the lady is Melina, a Greek agent who, moments after meeting Camellion, demands that they go to bed together. Weird and gratuitous stuff for sure. Rosenberger has a habit of using his books as forums for his own political and personal views, but in Apocalypse he even dispenses his own little nuggets of wisdom about women. For example:

The Death Merchant had also shared enough beds with the opposite sex to know that there were three kinds of women. There were those who appeared as cold as a dead fish but became wildcats in bed. Other women looked and acted sexy but were as frigid as a three-thousand-year-old statue. And the last category, were those women who exuded sex and, later in bed, proved it by having orgasms almost as fast as slugs can spit from the muzzle of a MAC-Ingram submachine gun!

There aren't too many authors who could (or would) compare a female orgasm to a machine gun.

As mentioned, the action doesn't even start until over a hundred pages in. Camellion is jumped by a group of Spetsnaz agents, and here the Rosenberger of yore returns. Every bullet's path is documented, every moment of the fight scene is detailed. He also indulges his bizarre penchant of naming each and every minor character Camellion kills.

From there the novel begins to resemble a regular Death Merchant novel; Camellion and his comrades engage in several more battles, in particular a very well done sequence where they are attacked in a safe house in the woods. This scene becomes grisly and darkly humorous when Camellion appropriates an armored truck after blasting its occupants to hell; he and his fellow fighters have to sit in the blood and on the destroyed bodies as they make their escape.

Apocalypse is 400 pages, and that's around 200 pages too long. After a brief tenure in London, Camellion sneaks into the USSR, this time posing as a scientist, complete with yet another female associate accompanying him. Remarkably, this involves another sex scene, though not as explicit as the one before.

The material here is pretty much a carbon copy of the material in Greece, with Camellion meeting inside agents; once again Camellion and his comrades are surprise-attacked in a safe house and must blast their way out. But Rosenberger delivers another good escape sequence, with Camellion commandeering a Russian plane and taking off. His certainty that Soviet red tape will prevent a hasty pursuit is proven correct; more opportunity for Rosenberger to rant against the idiocy of the "pig farmers."

As has been the case in the previous Death Merchants I've read, Apocalypse ends with Camellion and a team of commandos launching an assault against the enemy's fortress. This sequence, again well-done and gory, comes off like military fiction, with Camellion the member of a large group of British commandos and US Delta Force. Meanwhile the Russians have fired off the weather control device, which results in a hundred thousand dead in Turkey and more in Syria. After the lengthy battle sequence, Camellion frees the scientist, smashes the weather device, and escapes on a nuclear sub.

Here the novel races to its conclusion as Rosenberger synopsizes ensuing events. The world is of course outraged over Russia's actions. The USSR meanwhile does not comment. After an endless scene in which President Reagan renounces the Soviets on TV, complete with his showing documentation to prove their guilt, Camellion learns that nuclear war has been declared. Given that he's on a nuclear sub, he won't be headed to London for r'n'r, after all. Instead, the sub has been given battle orders.

Apocalypse ends with Camellion happy that the world is about to engage in nuclear war. He realizes he will finally see his dream come true: the USSR blasted into a radioactive wasteland. What a strange outlook for the hero of an action series. Or, for that matter, the author of an action series.

But as mentioned, this plot development was ignored in the 71st and final volume of Death Merchant -- consulting my copy of Greenland Mystery, which I'll read eventually, I see that the events of Apocalypse are relegated to a tiny footnote on page 152, which makes no mention of the declared nuclear war. Either Rosenberger changed his mind, or Dell didn't feel like turning the series into a post-nuke pulp...or, more likely, they just wanted to cancel it.
Feb 022012
 

Death Merchant #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill, by Joseph Rosenberger
November, 1979 Pinnacle Books

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill is the earliest volume of the series I currently have; this 36th volume is the latest. Finding that earlier volume to lack the insanity the Death Merchant series is known for, I decided to jump ahead and check out a later volume. Usually I try to read these series in order, but ultimately it makes little difference, as each of them (with a few exceptions) are usually intended to be read as stand-alone adventures.

As expected, The Cosmic Reality Kill shows a Joseph Rosenberger more comfortable with his violent creation; little wonder, given that this volume was published seven years after Operation Overkill. That earlier volume showed little of the crazed shenanigans Rosenberger is known for, coming off like just another entry in Pinnacle's endless line of men's adventure books. But here we have the metaphysical/cosmic/nutjob overtones that fans of Rosenberger demand. But what's strange is, despite all of this...Rosenberger's writing here is actually better than in that previous volume. I figured as the years progressed he'd start churning out action-heavy junk like Mace, but instead he only places a few action scenes in this novel, and overall his writing is stronger.

I knew I was in for a good time when I saw the back-cover blurb: "Gnostics and Guns." The first page of the book was also promising, where Rosenberger thanks the publishers of the Principia Discordia for allowing him to quote snatches of the text. As a longtime fan of Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus!, I was familiar with the Principia and couldn't believe I was seeing it mentioned in a men's adventure novel...one written by a (supposedly) right wing-nutjob of an author, at that. I'm sort of an armchair researcher of comparitive religion, so The Cosmic Reality Kill appealed to me in every way: in it Richard "Death Merchant" Camellion tasks himself with killing Reverend Hannibal Frimm, "His Oneness and Onlyness," head of the Cosmic Reality Church, insane leader of a brainwashed legion of followers who spread across the nation.

Tapping right into the then-current Jim Jones scandal, the novel operates on America's sudden fear of religious cults. Frimm has amassed so many followers that he has camps spread across the US; he runs the Church from his base in Colorado Springs. His followers come from all walks of life and the Church's religion is an amalgam of Jim Jones's warped Christianity and the basic tenets of Scientology. But as usual with these sorts of novels, Rosenberger gives no reason why anyone would so willingly join the Church -- they must live in shacks, give away all their possessions, sex is basically forbidden (therefore, none of the sex-worship of, say, Shamballah, and more's the pity), and life is relegated to work on the land and worship. But then, people join such religions in the real world every day, so I guess Rosenberger doesn't need to give a reason, after all.

Frimm has his own network of security, headed by Brother Sesson, who considers himself the Himmler to Frimm's Hitler. Sesson's men are kids, really, untrained youths barely out of their teens who roam the grounds with machine guns, enforcing order. However the guns have concerned the government, who have infiltrated a few undercover agents. These agents have all ended up missing (melted away in Frimm's "Disintigrating Chambers").

When Camellion finds out that one of his old friends, a CIA-trained cult victim deprogrammer, has also gone missing while investigating the Church, he determines to kill Frimm and wipe out his organization. He's so pissed that he's going to do it on his own; this isn't a mission the CIA has hired him for, though the Agency is kind enough to loan an "off duty" agent to help him out. In a chilling moment, the Death Merchant determines to not only kill Frimm but all of his followers. Rosenberger, obviously realizing this would mean Camellion would become a mass-murderer, thankfully brushes this over as the novel continues.

The novel opens with Camellion scouting out a Church camp (in Fort Worth, Texas!). For some bizarre, unstated reason he wears a latex alien mask. After being discovered, Camellion blows away several "Frimmies," men and women alike. From there the novel settles into the same pace as Operation Overkill, with an action scene scattered here and there, but mostly Camellion doing some research and biding his time until the inevitable final assault on Frimm's headquarters. After an endless car chase outside Colorado Springs, Camellion hooks up with his CIA contact, Linders; together with Linders's girlfriend Janet they travel around in an RV. Throughout the novel Camellion's disguised as an old man, with Linders posing as his son and Janet as his daughter-in-law.

As Rosenberger is apparently known for, The Cosmic Reality Kill is filled with the author's own views, spouted from the mouths of his characters. Camellion hates religion and informs Linders and Janet on all of its negative aspects. Linders for his part is the guy who mentions the Principia Discordia, though oddly Rosenberger has it that Linders is making it up as he goes along -- a spoof of religion that has Janet in particular laughing until she cries, though I assumed she must've just been high. Speaking of Janet, Camellion spends the majority of the novel admiring her "female curves" as they travel along in the motor home -- that is, when he isn't telling her to fry him up a steak. (Seriously!)

The climax is well-rendered and gory. Realizing he's been used by the CIA to get a free mission out of him, Camellion turns the tables and has Linders call in a team of Black Berets for the final assault, all of it on the Agency's bill. They go in with tons of gear, helicopters that blast holographic images, and a few batches of LSD with which to spike the camp's water supply.

Camellion -- still dressed as an old man -- unleashes a host of weaponry here, including the Automag favored by the Executioner. But, again as in Operation Overkill, Frimm's soldiers come off as little competition for Camellion and the team of Black Berets. As mentioned, they're really just kids, so there's a grim, unsettling tone to the finale, as Camellion and team take special relish in blowing away Frimmie after Frimmie, Rosenberger always mentioning each of them by name, as well as their age, as if rubbing it in.

As for Camellion the man, Rosenberger still only yields few details, keeping the character a cipher. We learn that he likes steaks, for one. Also, he eats sardines with banana jello...! Camellion makes a few mentions of "The Cosmic Lord of Death," whom he apparently serves; it's his self-vowed duty to kill those who need to be killed in order to balance the cosmic scheme. He can see "auras;" he knows that he will survive this mission because he saw a "light green aura" when looking in the mirror. Given all of this, it would appear that the series could've just as easily been titled Death Messiah, with Camellion the fleshly incarnation of the Cosmic Lord of Death. (Or, more likely, he's just fucking nuts.)

Anyway, what's surprising me most is how much I'm enjoying this series. Even more surprising is that Rosenberger's writing isn't that bad at all, despite his bad rep. I guess like any other series author churning out a whopping four novels a year, the man had his good days and his bad days. The Comsic Reality Kill I'd say is mostly "good," only marred by a needless subplot in which a sheriff tries to track down Camellion. Also, Rosenberger doesn't shirk on his writing -- this novel features some seriously small print; if printed at a larger size the book would easily be twice as long or so. Obviously Rosenberger was putting everything he had into this series, which makes it even harder to believe that he did so for 71 volumes!
Jan 232012
 

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill, by Joseph Rosenberger
February, 1972 Pinnacle Books

Over the past few years I've collected a handful of Death Merchant novels, but just never got around to reading them. As a kid I had a few as well, but as mentioned previously, at the time (the mid-'80s) I was more into the gung-ho exploits of the Gold Eagle line of men's adventure novels. Since getting back into this genre I've kept meaning to read more of Joseph Rosenberger's work, but so far I've only read the first volume of Mace, which really sucked -- nothing but endless fight sequences and zero plot. But still I've remained interested in Rosenberger the man, who by all accounts was a crackpot.

So then when I came across a pristine copy of Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill, for half off the cover price of 95 cents (!), I just couldn't pass it up. This is the earliest novel I have in the series; I've read that the first volume doesn't have much to do with the rest of the series. In it Joseph "Death Merchant" Camellion is hired to kill a bunch of mobsters, and so Death Merchant #1 apparently comes off like so many other early '70s men's adventure novels, just a lurid clone of Don Pendleton's Executioner.

This second volume already changes things up; the mafia isn't mentioned and Camellion is apparently a soldier for hire, so notorious that even the President of the United States is familiar with him. This time out the NSA has hired Camellion to look into the nefarious schemes of millionaire Cyrus Carey, who apparently has concocted a plan to kill off the President and his chiefs of staff and take over the US. Carey lives in his own little island off the coast of Maine, a veritable Howard Hughes. His lair is a fortress and he's surrounded by armed goons. His politics are so far right-wing that he's considered an American Hitler.

The novel opens with Camellion already undercover, infiltrating into Carey's network of supporters. But immediately he's found out; there's a mole within the NSA and Camellion's been fingered. After a gunfight Camellion escapes. His NSA contacts are a married couple and an attractive lady named Norma. These are the ONLY people who knew Camellion was undercover, which makes it pretty hilarious that it takes our hero the entire novel to uncover the culprit. Other than that Rosenberger presents Camellion as a cipher, always quick on the draw and deadly as any other men's adventure protagonist, but not the superhero he would become in later books.

I should mention here that, unlike Mace #1, Operation Overkill is not an endless series of fight sequences. In fact the novel's rather well-done, with few of the Rosenbergerisms one might expect. None of the bizarre analogies, no footnotes (which would become a staple of the series in later volumes), no overdone passages of gore. True, when action scenes do take place they tend to go on for a while. But they don't fill up the majority of the novel. And true, Rosenberger tends to end every few sentences with an exclamation point. But other than that the novel comes off as very much in line with the other men's adventure novels Pinnacle Books was publishing at the time.

The clearest indication of this is that Camellion has sex in the novel. The aforementioned Norma sets her sights on the Death Merchant early in the book, and succeeds in bedding him halfway through. The scene isn't very graphic, but it's there, which is important enough given the sexless nature of later volumes. Another indication of the times is Camellion's other NSA comrade in the novel, a black agent named Luther Jackson who is unconnected with Norma or the married couple (and therefore not the one who outed Camellion as a spy within Carey's ranks). Jackson is a jive-talking sharp dresser who appears to have walked out of Chet Cunningham's Hijacking Manhattan.

Operation Overkill opens with action but plays out on more of a suspense angle until the climax. In a way it's like the Penetrator series, with Camellion arriving on the scene, doing some digging, getting in a few fights, meeting a lady, and then finally working out his climatic assault. We know from page one that the Death Merchant must storm Carey's island fortress, but we wait until the end for him to do so. He and Luther Jackson make for a two-man team, SCUBA diving to the place and then assaulting it with Thompson subguns and explosives. It's a well-rendered scene, but Carey's goons make for little competition.

Camellion, as his name would indicate, is a master of disguise. He goes through the novel in a variety of disguises, usually posing as an old man. When visiting Carey's island near the end with Luther Jackson, Camellion even goes so far as to make himself black; in a hilarious prefigure of the notorious '80s bomb Soul Man, Camellion swallows a pill which darkens the pigment of his skin. He completes the look with wig, mannerisms, and speech. It's all pretty stupid and funny -- again, much like Hijacking Manhattan, only not as outrageous.

The Death Merchant lives up to his name here. He blows away countless goons and is so consumed with the desire to kill Cyrus Carey that he takes his time with it at the end of the novel, first blowing off the man's fingers and then trapping him in a locked vault where he will die a slow death. Ironically, Luther Jackson proves to be even more merciless -- in a somewhat shocking moment during their assault on the island, Camellion and Jackson corner an unarmed old man who's nothing more than a groundskeeper, and get info out of him. "Thanks," Jackson grins, and then blows the harmless old man away.

Rosenberger was also into the occult, something wich long has interested me in the series, but there's little of that here, other than Camellion's mention of the old novel La Bas. As for Camellion the man, Rosenberger keeps the details slim. He mentions that Camellion isn't handsome, but he isn't ugly, either. Indeed Rosenberger attempts to stress that Camellion looks rather ordinary. Also, no mention of the Cosmic Lord of Death, or any of the other metaphysical aspects of later books -- no auras or ghosts or anything. Again, the novel comes off much like the rest of the Pinnacle line at the time.

Finally, Rosenberger isn't shy about implicating himself with his creation. We're informed that Camellion's full name is Richard Joseph Camellion -- very similar to the full name of his creator: Joseph Richard Rosenberger. I find this personally interesting, as I have the same first and middle name as Rosenberger. Who knows, maybe I'm just another of the Death Merchant's aliases??