Like its predecessor (“The Sniper”), this second book in the 'Ryker' series is about a murderous psycho on the loose, and the efforts of police detective Joe Ryker to bring him down. The lunatic this time is a hulking fanatic clad in a monk’s robe, who considers himself God’s executioner. He stalks and kills anyone he believes to be a witch, pounding a stake through each victim’s heart for good measure.
As before, no matter how interesting the serial killer is, Ryker himself is even more fascinating. He’s the perfect human metaphor for the jungle he inhabits, the sleazy, dangerous, brutal New York City of the early 1970s. At his best, he’s gruff and sarcastic. At his worst, he’s a hot-tempered, hard-drinking bully who thinks nothing of smacking around anyone who gets in his way. Yet somehow he’s the Archie Bunker of pulp fiction, hilarious and likable no matter how outrageous his conduct is.
There isn’t really a whole lot of plot to this novel, maybe only sixty pages’ worth. But that’s okay! The other three-quarters of the book consist of random vignettes, a bit of color commentary and lots of dialogue. It’s all so entertaining that you won’t mind, trust me. I was so delighted with all the ribald, coarse and cranky dialogue that I was always a little disappointed to be pulled away from it for new plot developments.
The police have nothing to go on but a physical description, and since the killer never leaves his ratty studio apartment (except when he’s out killing someone), they can’t find him. So Ryker investigates the secretive occult underworld of the city, and schemes to draw out the psycho. It gets a little involved, but basically Ryker manipulates his partner into going deep undercover, joining the creepiest coven in the city, one which will soon hold a black mass extravaganza with religious desecration, drugs, an orgy and all kinds of weird stuff. It’s a little unclear whether these people are Wiccans, Satanists, or what, but who cares? The point is that Ryker knows the killer won’t be able to resist appearing at the black mass to wreak vengeance, and the cops can then swoop in and nab him. But things don’t go according to plan…
One prominent pulp reviewer complained that “The Hammer of God” is short on action and thrills. Well, I don’t know, maybe it is (not that I minded). But we do get a big harrowing climax that’s soaked in blood and gore, with enough shock and suspense to make it far more riveting than your average Mack Bolan shoot-‘em-up sequence. In any case, the action is really just the icing on the cake. What really makes this book outstanding are the skillful characterization, dialogue and pacing. And it flows so smoothly that it’s an effortless read. When you think you’ve read twenty pages, you’ll be surprised to see that it was fifty instead.
All of these are hallmarks of great writing. The author here is Nelson De Mille, who knocked out a handful of these pulpy paperbacks when he was young and getting himself established. Today, he’s a big successful mainstream author and I’m happy for him, but it sure would’ve been nice if he’d kept struggling long enough to bat out a few dozen of these 'Ryker' books!
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