Monday, January 26, 2015

The Red Rays (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #41)

The Red Rays, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Given that The Golden Serpent was a great entry in the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, I thought The Red Rays would be as well, since it was also written by Manning Lee Stokes. But man this turned out to be a rum entry in the saga of Nick Carter, only notable for being the first volume to be written in first-person.

But if you thought Nick Carter narrating his own adventure would result in a quick-moving tale, boy you’d be wrong. Maybe this is so in the other first-person installments by other series authors, but in the hands of Stokes, The Red Rays comes off as incredibly slow-moving, Carter reduced to a nauseating bore as he drones on and on and on about little of interest.

In fact, it surprises me that this book even saw print, let alone paved the way for the eventual series transition to first-person. According to series creator and “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel, in a 1981 interview with Will Murray that was published in Paperback Parade #2 (1986), Award Books made the demand that the Killmaster series be in first-person, as that style worked for the successful Matt Helm series.

Engel stated that he never thought first-person was the correct style for Nick Carter: Killmaster, and I agree with him – indeed, he also claimed his dislike of this style was one of the reasons which lead him to leave the series in late 1973, when it went over to Charter Books. Strangely though, Engel also claimed to envision, outline, and in some cases actually write the books in the series that carried his “producer” credit. So then, if Stokes turned in a first-person manuscript, why didn’t Engel change it to third-person before submitting it to Award?

I’ve never been able to find an interview with Stokes, but in his super-informative article “The Saga of Nick Carter: Killmaster,” published in The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982), Will Murray states that Stokes (whom he memorably describes as “an industrious and hard-drinking writer”) claimed it was his own decision to write The Red Rays in first-person, as he’d enjoyed using that style in some of the suspense novels he wrote in the 1950s.

But still, given Engel’s control of the Killmaster series – writers apparently had to send him detailed outlines before submitting their manuscripts – I have to wonder how the first-person narrative even got past him in the first place. Maybe he thought it was an interesting, one-time-only experiment? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, if Engel so hated the idea of this series being in first-person, why did he send The Red Rays to Award in the first place?

And that’s just the narrative style; even beyond that, this book sucks. Like most other Stokes novels I’ve read, The Red Rays has a great, pulpish plot, but falls flat in the execution. The front and back cover have it that the Red Chinese have invented a “bizarre sex ray” and have taken over the airwaves of the western world, broadcasting porn 24/7, with further mentions of Nick Carter finding himself in Hollwyood, aka “La-La land,” before some sort of gas drives everyone crazy…

Yeah, none of that shit’s in the book. Yes, the “Red Chinese” have taken over the airwaves, but despite Carter often mentioning that they’re playing porn, we never get to see any of it – every time Carter actually watches TV, it’s just playing some woman in a devil mask mouthing anti-US propganda. This will usually be followed by travelogues of China. That’s right, friends – travelogues! And there ain’t no “bizarre sex ray” to be found anywhere in the book. As for “La-La Land,” this is where Carter’s eventually sent once the plodding plot has finally kicked in gear.

Before that, though, he’s in Beirut, getting laid. This is by an attractive female agent named Kezia Newmann who works for Shin Bet, but, as Carter well knows, is also an agent for the KGB. And she’s also involved with AXE, Carter’s agency. Carter knows that her time is limited – she’s marked for death by the KGB. Not that Carter plans to do anything about it. In fact, he displays a disquieting, morbid obsession with this girl throughout the novel, wondering often if she’s been killed yet – and wondering if they raped her before killing her!

As if that wasn’t enough, Carter even chuckles to himself that he’s screwing a corpse, as he has sex with Kezia, or at least a soon-to-be corpse, given that she’ll no doubt be dead within a day or two. Yes, friends, this is our hero. He tells himself that there’s little he can do to save the woman, anyway, so to hell with it…and then every few chapters he’ll wonder to himself if she’s been raped and killed yet! (And of course, we find out on the very last page that she has been – Carter’s boss Hawk blithely informing Carter that Kezia’s corpse was recently found.)

When Carter finally gets back to the US, he’s summoned to Hawk’s office in DC, where he’s appraised of the latest global threat. Namely, that the “NeoComms,” a faction of Red Chinese who want to break away from Mao and the “old” Communist guard and side openly with the USSR, have overtaken the airwaves and now every channel in the US and etc broadcasts nothing but NeoComm propaganda – along with, we’re often informed, hardcore porn. Why this porn stuff is even there is unexplained, and I’m betting it’s something Engel came up with in his original idea for the novel, and Stokes just failed when it came to actually fleshing it out into a novel.

Because Stokes fails over and over again in The Red Rays, committing the worst sin a pulp author can make: he delivers a boring story. Focusing more on suspense and intrigue, Stokes works up a sideline where AXE has to work with the CIA, and after lots and lots of exposition and setup Carter goes to Hollywood, where he’s to meet with a female CIA agent who will be posing as Peter Pan at a costume party held at the mansion of Rona Matthews, a former silver screen siren.

Rona it’s explained is aligned with Dion Hermes, an openly gay Hollwyood type who himself is aligned with this llama or something, and the three of them hold big parties in Burbank for older rich people, trading on some secret that will bring back their youth and vitality, all for lots of money, etc, etc. It’s shoehorned into the main plot that Rona is apparently the woman in the devil mask; the CIA has determined this via analysis of the NeoComm broadcasts. Oh, and they’ve figured out that the NeoComms are broadcasting from somewhere in Peru.

And yet, instead of heading for Peru and kicking ass, Carter instead poses as a security guard at Rona’s mansion. Here we get lots and lots of gay-bashing as Carter gets his first glimpse of Dion Hermes; the name alone unleashes Carter’s homophobia, as he can’t believe how gay it is. (As for me, I thought “Dion Hermes” sounded more like the name of a ‘70s pimp.) But then, The Red Rays is clearly from a different era; but then again, Carter’s bashing of Hermes is beyond even what you’d read in the typical pre-PC pulp. At any rate, Carter doesn’t come off like a very broadminded individual.

At Rona’s he meets Pat Kilbride, the young CIA contact, who seems nervous. After showing Carter who’s who, she gives him a chaste kiss and returns to the party, and then Carter gets in a fight with a suspicious guard, kills him, and then runs afoul of Dion Hermes. Then Carter’s dosed by some paralyzing nerve spray, and at great page-length Hermes concocts this lurid scenario where it will look like Carter was in the process of raping Pat Kilbride before they both were killed in a fire(!). Uh, all so as to discredit Carter and AXE, or something.

Anyway Pat actually does die in the fire, but Carter escapes, and now he’s consumed with vengeance. I should mention that none of the above stuff has any tension, as it’s all relayed via flashback, Carter obsessing over it even once he’s gotten to Peru, where he hooks up with a few more CIA dudes and then poses as a Peace Corps worker. Now he has to drive like 500 miles through rough terrain as part of his cover.

But Carter’s found out instantly and taken captive by a pair of Commie guerrillas – Jorge, a hulking drunk, and El Rubio, aka “The Blonde,” a super-hot Spanish native who leads a group of Cuban guerrillas and whose real name is Inez Gaunt. But as usual Stokes can’t keep it simple, and it develops that Rubio and Jorge are at war, and Rubio uses Carter – whom she somehow knows to be an AXE agent – to kill off Jorge.

Believe it or not, Carter does not have sex with Rubio, despite her pleading with him to screw her, given how turned-on she is after watching him kill Jorge. In fact, Carter only has sex with one woman in the entire novel: Kezia Newmann, the doomed triple agent from the beginning of the story. (And the sex scene, by the way, is nothing explicit or outrageous, per the publication date.) Carter instead proceeds to treat Rubio like shit, tying her up and threatening to kill her if she attempts to escape. He even tortures her a little with his stiletto.

The NeoComms are broadcasting from the top of Condor Craig, and Carter announces that he and Rubio are going to blow it up – despite the fact that Rubio, he’s determined, is secretly a NeoComm agent. One who works for Dion Hermes, to boot. So we get lots of tedious mountain-climbing material, where finally, in the last few pages, Stokes unveils the pulpy stuff: the NeoComms are situated in a SPECTRE-type fortress in the caverns beneath an old Incan temple, and their guards walk around toting laser rifles!

But even here Stokes fumbles; rather than slam-bang action, Carter instead takes out one guard, only to find Dion Hermes waiting in ambush with a laser rife. But El Rubio takes the blast that was meant for the Killmaster, and Hermes runs away…and later Carter finds his corpse! I mean, Stokes couldn’t even deliver a payoff for the long-simmer vengeance plot he himself came up with!! Instead a CIA dude is presented as the true villain, an eleventh hour reveal that only further serves to tick off the reader.

As usual, Stokes takes too many divergent plot threads and does little to make sense of them all. I mean, the stuff with Rona Matthews and the llama and the old people they were conning? Forget about it. Hell, Rona Matthews doesn’t even have any dialog in the novel, whereas the first section has you expecting her to be some sort of Tokyo Rose who would bait and taunt Carter. But instead she’s relegated to a nonentity in the narrative, Stokes more concerned with word-painting about the scenery or plumbing the morbid thoughts of our “hero.”

I’ve said before that I like Stokes’s style, and I still do, but sometimes he gets to be a bit too much (sort of like me in these reviews, I guess). But still it would’ve been great if he’d backed off on the “suspense” nonsense and instead just written a straight-up piece of pulp. But then, he could’ve been trying something different, along with the first-person perspective. The actual text would hint otherwise, though; I think it’s more a case of that “hard-drinking” element Will Murray mentioned.

Long story short, The Red Rays is the least entertaining Nick Carter: Killmaster novel I’ve yet read. Here’s hoping Stokes’s other installments are more along the lines of The Golden Serpent.

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