Monday, December 15, 2014

The Sea Trap (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #44)

The Sea Trap, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Once again I have Zwolf to thank – his review of this volume of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series really piqued my interest. And man, what an awesome novel it is! Not only is this easily the best volume of the series I’ve yet read, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp, like a late ‘60s take on the “shudder pulps” of the 1930s.

What’s most unexpected is the author who was behind The Sea TrapJon Messmann. This novel features none of the ponderous or pretentious writing he would later bring to the Revenger series, none of the momentum-stalling self-introspection or the “meaningful” dialog. The Sea Trap is just a straight-up blast of violent, sex-filled fun, like an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon, as Nick Carter heads to the Caribbean and takes on a group of deformed, super-evil villains and the gigantic submarine-catching clam they have created!

Predating the unfortunate series switch to first-person narration, The Sea Trap is written in third person and moves at a steady clip. We learn early on that a few atomic submarines have gone missing in the Caribbean, in particular the X-88, an experimental US Navy model. The abductor turns out to be Judas, a recurring series villain, who has issued his demads for a hundred million dollars for the captured sub as well as its crew. Judas has, we learn, teamed up with a psychotic who is even more depraved and insane than Judas himself is.

I’ve often read about Judas, who was of course the Blofeld of the early Killmaster novels, but this is the first time I’ve read a novel he appears in. He is certainly a pulpy creation: an “economy-size gnome” with a “striated face” that’s “partially immobile” thanks to bad plastic surgery. He also has a “metal and leather” left hand, which has a gun built into the middle finger! His freakish, deformed nature is constantly played up by Messmann, but then, the freakishness of the villains is focused on throughout the novel.

Judas’s partner is even more freakish: Harold Fratke, a marine bioligist who is into “scientific erotica,” which means torturing women in bizarre ways. Harold is impotent (and perhaps latently gay, something Messmann introduces late in the narrative) and gets off on torturing gorgeous women, then handing them over to Judas’s hulking henchman, Tartar, who rapes them nearly to death. Messmann actually opens the novel with one of these scenes, and it all could come out of a sweat mag of the time.

Nick Carter is called to AXE headquarters in New York, where his boss David Hawk presents him with this impossible mission: Carter has five days to figure out where Judas is and where the captured sub is, and there are zero leads. “No trouble at all,” Carter sarcastically responds. He’s given a few goodies by the Special Effects group, including a wetsuit with innumerable hidden pockets that brings to mind John Eagle’s plastic suit in the Expeditor series – and speaking of which, Messmann’s style here shows that he would’ve been a perfect choice to serve as “Paul Edwards” on that later series, but I guess by then Messmann had moved on to publishing under his own name.

Flying to Puerto Rico, which Judas might be operating near, Carter becomes friendly with an attractive co-passenger named Betty Lew Rawlings. Coincidence alert: Betty has been hired by a mysterious staffing company to be the secretary for an old man who lives on a remote island. The company was so determined to only staff a woman who had no family, friends, or other connections that her entire history was researched before she was hired. Carter files this as interesting – and promptly bangs Betty that night in her hotel room. There are several sex scenes in The Sea Trap, and they’re actually a lot more explicit than you’d expect.

The two part ways the next morning, and Carter heads on to Venezuela, where he hooks up with a team of marine bioligsts on their own vessel, which is plying through this portion of the Caribbean. The ship is run by Dr. Danielle Fraser, who as you’d guess turns out to be a blonde with the body of a goddess, but who disdains sexual attraction and thus quickly rebuffs the immediately-interested Killmaster. As Zwolf mentions, the way Carter treats Danielle must’ve seemed "Neanderthal" even in ’69; he basically tells her they’re going to have sex, whether she likes it or not, and thus issues a challenge, Danielle’s “scientific mind” versus Carter’s raw male mystique.

It’s all of course hilariously pre-PC, but at the same time it’s pretty hilarious in its own right, leading to several funny scenes and banter. Like for example the part Zwolf mentioned, where Carter and Danielle go beneath the waves in her Sea Spider underwater craft, and Carter has to climb beneath Danielle’s seat to fix something, looking up at her from between her legs. Messmann per the genre takes many opportunities to exploit Danielle’s awesome bod, in particular when Carter spies on her midnight skinny dip, during which Danielle gets injured and Carter sucks the poison out of her, checking out her “magnificent breasts” the entire time.

Carter however continues to just provoke Danielle, getting her to a boiling point and then backing down, all so as to prove his goofy point. He does manage to score for the second time in the novel with a girl he just happens to run across during his trawls across the Caribbean in Danielle’s airplane; this is Joyce Tanner, who is plying around in her “ketch,” looking for her sister June. Joyce reveals that June answered an ad for a mysterious staffing company, to be the secretary for a reclusive man, and hasn’t been heard from since leaving six months ago.

Carter instantly suspects something – and determines to look into it further. But first of course he has to bang Joyce. Messmann really goes full out on this one, with Joyce basically telling Carter he’s the greatest man she’s ever been with and etc. Of course, this mysterious, reclusive man is none other than Judas, who has been supplying Harold with a steady supply of women to torture and mutilate. Beyond being shoehorned into the plot for an arbitrary lay, Joyce also provides Carter with the location of Judas’s secret hideout, which she’s seen from the ketch; it’s invisible from the air, hence Carter missing it during his flybys.

The book has been enjoyable all along, but when Carter gets onto the island it goes into a higher gear. Also the sci-fi angle comes into play, and it’s sci-fi of a goofy nature: Harold has devised a massive “sea trap” patterned after a clam. It’s a massive construct of steel beneath Judas’s island, so large that the captured experimental sub is inside it. We’re later informed that the giant claim has stuff built in it which prevents the electricity and power from running on the sub, which you’d think would mean that all the men aboard would suffocate, but forget it; you’d be thinking too much.

After a fairly gory firefight, in which Carter takes out most of Judas’s goons with a submachine gun, Carter is per tradition captured, so Judas can deliver the mandatory supervillain monologue. Here also the “shudder pulp” stuff is really laid on, as we watch as Harold puts sea lampreys on one of the girls, one who is important to Carter, until her face is almost eaten away. Finally Carter is taken into a massive room in which all of the captured women are kept in cages.

This is all pretty unsettling, with the women nude and mutilated, some of them missing various parts of their bodies, and all of them driven insane. In fact their screams are so horrendous that the sole patrolling guard must wear earplugs. Carter, left here with the women before his own torture begins (Harold excited at the prospect of performing his sexual torture on a man), is himself almost driven insane. But this is the Killmaster, so I’m sure you can all see where it’s going: soon enough all of the insane, mutilated women are set free, and they run amok on the island. The horror vibe of the novel continues apace, as the women actually eat one of the villains!

There’s also an Apocalypse Now vibe, as Carter, having disabled the sea trap so the captured sub can escape, calls in an airstrike. But thanks to Judas’s fallback plan, in which a ring of sharks are called around the island in a feeding frenzy, there’s no escape. So now Carter basically waits for his own death, as there’s no way to call off the airstrike. Messmann adds more unsettling yet poignant stuff here, with the return appearance of a few characters Carter knew, now mutilated and insane.

Carter is determined to kill Judas this time – and, so far as the narrative is concerned, he succeeds in doing so. This plays out in yet another great scene (in a novel filled with them), where Judas, locked in an impenatrable vault in his house, trades threats with Carter. Physically he’s no match for Cater, but that pistol-hand comes into play. Carter smashes the man into pulp, destroying his face, and the last we see of Judas a steel girder has fallen on him, after which the island is destroyed – but then, the only way one can be certain a supervillain is dead is for him to be shot point-blank in the head. And even then you might wonder.  (As for Judas, he did return for one more volume: 1974’s Vatican Vendetta, which was also the last volume of the series produced by Engel.)

The climax is also entertaining, with Carter getting off the island thanks to, you guessed it, the surprise appearance of Danielle in her Sea Spider. And as you’d also guess, Carter ends up winning his bet, right there and then – though honestly, I wouldn’t be feeling too randy after seeing all those caged, mutilated, and insane women. But then, I’m not the Killmaster. Carter instead sexually-bullies Danielle a bit more, until the “blonde goddess” can’t take it anymore and just needs some lovin’ asap. Messmann actually writes back-to-back sex scenes here, with an insatiable Danielle rolling Carter over so she can get on top. Ride ‘em, cowgirl!

We even get a cap-off joke with Hawk, who treats Danielle and Carter to dinner in a fancy New York restaurant (where they’re served clams). I mean, it’s pretty damn impressive how much goes down in the 160 pages of The Sea Trap -- and how much fun it is throughout. It’s got very good writing, fun dialog and banter, incredibly depraved villains, pretty graphic sex, and some unsettling violence, and if the series was like this throughout it would be the greatest men’s adventure series ever.

Unfortunately, I get the feeling The Sea Trap is an anomaly in the Killmaster series – but I’ll for sure be checking out more of Jon Messmann’s contributions.


James Reasoner said...

I recall liking all of Messman's Nick Carters that I read back then--although I didn't know at the time who wrote them, of course.

Zwolf said...

Thanks for the plug! :) I'm glad you got a copy of this book... it's wacky, but it's good-wacky. And, yep, it's strange that Messman wrote it. Usually he's a little stiff. I tried a horror novel he wrote (The Deadly Deep - one of those "critter" books, in this case sea life) and even though there were lots of lobster attacks and things, somehow it never grabbed me. I guess Nick Carter is his perfect milieu, though, because this book moved. And yep, it read kind of like a Spider novel or something, lots of "weird menace" craziness.

I need to start another Nick Carter soon. Heck, I need to read *anything* soon - I've been lagging badly on my reading lately.

Anyway, keep up the good work! Great review as always. :)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

Zwolf, very ironic you should mention The Spider! I have been hitting your awesome Spider-reviews post pretty hard lately (, to the extent that I've kind of gone off the Spider deep end...!

I completely agree with you that Joseph Rosenberger must've been a fan of those books...while reading Prince of the Red Looters (which is available as a free Kindle book on Amazon, courtesy Will Murray's RadioArchives, by the way), there were times I had to remind myself I wasn't reading a Rosenberger novel!

You and I agree on eBooks, but speaking of Will Murray, it is pretty awesome that he's epublished every single magazine of the Spider, at $2.99 each! In cases like this I think eBooks are justified...Zod knows how much the original pulps would cost. If you could even find them. And the various reprints over the years are probably pricey too, even the ones from Pocket Books in the '70s that changed "The Spider" to just "Spider!"

Anyway, thanks for that post...I was going to write a long comment on there but wasn't sure if you still checked your older reviews for comments. I'd only had a passing familiarity with the Spider, mostly due to the '38 cliffhanger serial, but I have to say I'm really enjoying it.

Zwolf said...

Glad you're getting into the Spider! I snagged a bunch of those when they were doing the double-reprints... a lot of those are still afordable, but if you can handle the e-versions those aren't bad prices. I used to find a lot at Vintage Library... They've still got a paperback set with 16 volumes for $20, which isn't bad. I think I've ended up with around half the series in one form or other, which should hold me for a while. :) If you read up on Norvell Page, who wrote them, he was a bit of a nut... kind of like Rosenberger. Page would go around dressed as The Spider. And I get the feeling Rosenberger kind of thought he *was* The Death Merchant sometimes...

A lot of those old pulps are really good. G8 and his Battle Aces are pretty crazy, if you like WWI biplane dogfights. They're always having to fight ghosts, giant monsters, werewolves, zombie pilots, and other products of German engineering.

I still pick up old copies of High Adventure sometimes, which reprint various pulps... it's a good way to dabble in the weirdness without spending a fortune doing it.

ACW said...

Read this year's ago. Judas wasn't quite dead? Guess I have one more Carter to read.

ACW said...

Oh, and holy crap James Reasoner! You wrote those Walker novels, didn't you?