The Burma Probe (Death Merchant #59) by Joseph Rosenberger

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(Pinnacle, 1984)

Deep in the heart of Burma’s thickest jungle lies the deadliest military secret of modern history. After generations of strategic planning, the Red Chinese have grasped the vital key to world power. In a desperate zero-hour maneuver, the Death Merchant is given the go-ahead. Inflitrate. Destroy!

The Burma Probe is #59 in the “incredible” adventures of the Death Merchant. What is incredible is that author Joseph Rosenberger wrote all seventy-one Death Merchant books himself in the ’70s and ’80s. That takes a very special kind of insanity. These Death Merchant books are among those that throw my rating system all askew. While they are generally a blast to read, they can’t be called “high lit” and are also incredibly offensive! I call Joseph Rosenberger the “Archie Bunker” of action novelists, but, like in his other books, I find it hard to be truly offended. It’s all just so ridiculous that it crosses the line into absurdity. I’m not being magnanimous here since few things piss me off more than bigotry, but reading some of the stuff in Rosenberger’s books I’m just dumbfounded. This stuff couldn’t be published today and I’m actually kinda surprised it could be published in the ’70s and ’80s. (As a word of warning, in case some of you are not quite as amused by Rosenberger’s nutjob extremism as I am, there may be some offensive quotes used in this review to illustrate. Just so ya know.)

The Burma Probe takes Richard Camellion, a.k.a. “the Death Merchant,” to Burma, where he and his cohorts, the merc leader of “Thunderbolt Unit Omega” “Mad Mike” Quinlan and a Gurkha soldier named Krishnan Darhangak, are on a mission to reconnoiter a secret base from which the communist Chinese plan to launch a deadly neurotoxin as phase one of their plan to take over Southeast Asia. The Burma Probe has all of Rosenberger’s trademark wackiness, but, unlike a good deal of his writing, The Burma Probe seems to follow more of a “traditional” plot structure than Rosenberger’s usual work (repeated scenes of excruciatingly detailed violence that proceed until all the bad guys are dead).

In The Burma Probe, the plot builds more slowly as DM and his buds move around Burma in a clandestine fashion, posing as British movie producers scouting sites. What they’re actually doing, though, is gathering intel and making contacts with a Burmese guerilla group. When their covers are blown, however, things get hot and the remainder of the story has DM and his gang running from commie forces while planning the destruction of the Chinese base, culminating in a humungous final battle in which hundreds of fighters, both Burmese guerilla and communist Chinese, die by the hundreds.

It’s pretty much straight-up military fiction, albeit with a healthy dose of Rosenberger’s nutjob flair and sometimes weird diction. For example, in one place he writes: “‘This place does not look like a dump because it is not a dump,’ Chit Soe Kha said in his precise but stilted English (although there is not any rule that demands the use of contractions).” That’s a little strange, the parenthetical statement there.

And the “Cosmic Lord of Death” gets a mention after Camellion has a conversation about religion and philosophy with his CIA contacts (for some reason). Camellion (like Rosenberger) is virulently anti-religion, but he seems to know a lot about it:

Dyson regarded Camellion with an off expression. “Tell me, Mr. Camellion. Are you a mercenary or a philosopher?”

“Neither. I’m merely passing by. In that respect, I’m an observer of the Human Condition and a partner of that which cuts us all down in the end.”

Dyson’s eyes narrowed.

“A ‘partner’! Of what?”

“The Cosmic Lord of Death….”

And the chapter ends there, but I imagine some unspoken odd looks thrown the Death Merchant’s way after that rather ominous statement.

But I have to admit that I get sort of a perverse kick out of the blatant racism of Rosenberger’s books. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it’d be pretty repellent, what with all the racial slurs thrown around (I found “slant-eyed robots” particularly inventive). But about mid-way in the book, DM and his cohorts meet up with an ally named Lester Vernon Cole, who is described thusly:

Tall, muscular, gray-eyed and thin-lipped, with deep brown hair worn moderately long, Cole was a private contractor who often worked for the Company. A genius at intrigue and deception, Cole was a stone killer who firmly believed in the philosophy that the only good enemy was a dead enemy. In a sense, this could have meant three-fourths of the human race, since Cole was a racist who openly admired Adolf Hitler and Der Fuhrer’s “samurai,” the Schutzstaffel or dreaded SS. Often referred to as “The Widow Maker,” Cole had a simple solution for the ills of the world: any nonwhite would be put to sleep.

Yikes. And this dude is one of DM’s friends! (By the way, I just noticed that Red Dragon Operation, the third in another of Rosenberger’s series called C.O.B.R.A., is dedicated to an “L.V. Cole.” Hmm.) Anyway, Cole ruffles some feathers among the Quinlan’s merc group, as “Thunderbolt Unit Omega” consists of mercs from a variety of nations. While Rosenberger seems to go out of his way to make it clear that DM and the others are not “racist” (while still using slurs like “chink,” etc.), he gets to use Cole as a mouthpiece to rant on and on against blacks, gays, Jews, immigrants and liberals. While it seems too outrageous not to be a spoof, I’m pretty sure Cole speaks for Rosenberger. It’s funny that I sort of expect these trashy “men’s adventure” novels of yesteryear to be somewhat un-P.C., but the Death Merchant series is pretty out there.

So I’ve gone on about the racism in The Burma Probe (I probably shouldn’t find it so funny) but there’s plenty of other goofy stuff, like learning that Cole is mortally embarrassed to undress in front of other men and the weird little footnotes that pepper the entire book informing us of such useful things like, “This writer has always warned that the West has more to fear from the Chinese than the Russians,” or some kind of technical obscurity.

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll note that I starting using my one-to-five-star rating system again and, like I mentioned earlier, these Death Merchant books kind of defy conventional rating. They’re not good, but they’re fun in a B-movie sort of way, despite (or perhaps because of) their decidedly un-P.C. natures.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩, 3 out of 5 stars on the Action Trash Scale. It ain’t Hemingway, but it’s got a lot of action and a better constructed plot that Rosenberger’s usual fare. Plus, a lot of wackiness and offensiveness to entertain those that are entertained by wackiness and offensiveness.

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