Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Black Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #56)

The Black Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes turns in his final installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster, which was incorrectly billed as the 50th installment on the cover of this first edition. Unfortunately this one is as padded and uneventful as Stokes’s earlier The Red Rays. This is a shame, as The Black Death has a lot of potential, what with its voodoo-themed plot and the promise of actual zombies. My guess is Stokes must’ve been bored with the series, or perhaps overworked from the other projects he was writing for producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and thus couldn’t be bothered to capitalize on the plot’s potential.

Carter narrates the tale for us; by this point first-person narration was standard for the series. We open with him already on the job, attending a voodoo ceremony in New York. By his side is the lovely Lyda Bonaventure, a Haitian lady with noble blood, or some such – Stokes wants us to understand that Lyda has “café au lait” skin, and thus isn’t fully “black.” Indeed there’s a lot of “black” and “half-breed” stuff in here that would render the book unpublishable in today’s world; Lyda is the so-called “Black Swan,” leader of a revolutionary movement in Haiti, rising up against tyrant Papa Doc, and she refers to “the blacks” as if they’re her slaves.

Stokes had no problem with muddying up the plot unnecessarily, so long story short the Killmaster’s taking over this case from the CIA. Something about Lyda perhaps planning a big coup in Haiti, but the US wants to prevent another Bay of Pigs, and also there’s this captured scientist over there who is perhaps making missiles. The first half of the novel is basically comprised of Carter wondering why he was sent on this mission, if he’ll come back from it, etc, etc. One could almost read into it as Stokes himself complaining through his narrator about his latest writing assignment! But other than a brief action scene, as masked thugs attack the voodoo ceremony just as an orgy’s about to break out, the novel is listless for a good 80 or so pages of small print.

You know you’re in trouble when chapters and chapters are devoted to Carter helming Lyda’s boat and taking it into the Caribbean. It’s just all so padded and slow-going. Even the expected sexual shenanigans are downplayed, with Stokes only giving vague mention of Lyda’s bedroom prowess. More focus is spent on Carter’s distrust of her; he’s certain the lovely young lady has something in mind, and perhaps even intends to kill him so she can proceed with her revolution. But only she and Carter are on the boat, and Lyda herself is unable to pilot it. So Carter knows he’s at least safe until they make it to Haiti…which they eventually do. Stokes for one is in no hurry to get there.

Lyda has a large following, though Stokes doesn’t do much to play it up. Instead they are met in Haiti by the “black” contigent of her followers, none of whom Lyda fully trusts but who follow her without question. In charge of them is a big dude named Duppy, “the blackest man” Lyda has ever known. In one of those goofy coincidences this genre is known for, Carter realizes that Duppy is in fact a KGB agent named Diaz Ortega. How does Carter know this? Because he did his “homework,” studying all of the files at AXE headquarters in DC, and thus has seen photos of the man! But Carter himself is posing as someone else, in this case an arms supplier who is working for Lyda.

Gradually Stokes begins to pulp things up. We learn that Papa Doc has a veritable Howard Hughes at his disposal, a reclusive American billionaire who has started up his own SS in Haiti. The man’s name is Paul Penton (“P.P.”) Trevelyn, and he lives in The Citadel, an ancient fortress that is surrounded by his sadistic private army of blackshirts. This is where Dr. Martinez, a college professor supposedly abducted by Papa Doc’s men and smuggled into Haiti to make missiles, is perhaps being held. But here too there’s more to the story, as not only was Martinez an old flame of Lyda’s but Carter is certain the Ivory Tower commie symp has willingly gone to work for Papa Doc.

Even more pulpish – the natives have it that the Citadel is patrolled by zombies. Actual, real-life zombies, of the White Zombie mold, shambling forms with milk-white eyes. Carter sneers that anyone would actually believe such nonsense, but starts to wonder himself as he witnesses another strange voodoo ceremony, Lyda’s followers performing a hexing ritual on ol’ P.P. Trevelyn. But to cancel all expectations posthaste, when Carter finally runs into a “zombie” face-to-face, we discover it’s all along the lines of Scooby-Doo; they’re just regular men wearing opaque contact lenses. All of it just a ruse of Trevelyn’s to sow fear in the hearts of the superstitious natives.

That being said, there is a goofy part where Carter, having infiltrated the Citadel, poses as one of the zombies! It doesn’t go on very long, but it does have a memorable bit where he stumbles along zombie-style, arm outstretched, in the hopes of fooling one of Trevelyn’s blackshirts.

Speaking of Carter, in Stokes’s hands the dude was a bit of an ass. Overly bossy, overly suspicious, Manning Lee Stokes’s version of Nick Carter isn’t really a character the reader can root for. He also has a sadistic streak, like killing people even when he promises them to their face that he won’t. Most unsettling in The Black Death is a part where Carter simply blows away a naked and unarmed young woman. He just flat-out kills her! Of course we’re later informed that she too was a KGB agent, indeed one who usually worked with Diaz “Duppy” Ortega (Carter knows this too thanks to that convenient damn “homework” he did), and also Carter kills her just to shock P.P. Trevelyn into talking, but still…it’s pretty damn cold, and not something you’d expect from a heroic action series protagonist.

Once Carter gets in Haiti things mercifully pick up, but nowhere along the lines of the almighty The Sea Trap or even Stokes’s own earlier installment The Golden Serpent. It’s mostly just scenes of Carter trying to sneak into the Citadel and find Martinez, all while keeping Duppy/Ortega from figuring out who he is. There isn’t much action, and there’s no part where Carter himself is captured or tortured, as per the series mandate. There is a bit of a lurid factor when we learn that Trevelyn films pornos in the Citadel; this is where Carter stumbles upon the aforementioned naked gal, as she’s “filming a scene” with a black stud while Trevelyn leers from behind the camera.

But this too is muddied up, as Stokes is more concerned with the murky world of global espionage than any sordid highjinks. The final pages see one bizarre reveal after another, none of them having much of an impact, like the revelation that Dr. Martinez died long ago and the one here in the Citadel is an imposter – plus there’s another fake Dr. Matinez. Then there’s also some stuff about real missiles being made in the Citadel, the ones being manufactured topside being nothing more than dummies there to fool people into thinking Papa Doc’s activities in this area have been futile.

The “Killmaster” only lives up to his title sporadically, usually just shooting people in cold blood. There isn’t even a big finale with Trevelyn’s zombie forces descending en masse; once Carter uncovers their true nature they basically disappear from the narrative. Instead Lyda and her forces take on Treveyln’s blackshirts and the Haitian army in the background while Carter runs around in the Citadel. The finale continues with this theme, featuring an overlong sequence in which Carter and Duppy/Ortega engage in a bit of cat-and-mouse before Carter finally takes him out.

From here it’s on to another overlong bit where Carter and Lyda escape on their boat as the Haitian navy moves in on them. Stokes must’ve done some time in the Navy himself, as he peppers all of this stuff with nautical terms and procedures, but then again it could all just be leftover research from his gig writing The Aquanauts. Carter ends the tale assuring us that he and Lyda are about to get to screwin’ again (she has this bit where she wears nothing but white garters and stockings for Carter, offsetting the color of her skin…nice!!), and that was that so far as Manning Lee Stokes’s writing duties went for the Killmaster series.


AndyDecker said...

Stokes liked his fortresses, did he? He used the setting a few times.This was published a long time after his last one. Maybe it was on inventory. I like Stokes, but a few of his Carters are just bizarre. "the Devil's Cockpit" or "The Red Rays" are more Austin Powers then James Bond plotwise.

One worthwhile Carter I re-read recently was "The Nichovev Plot", #110 from 76 by Craig Nova. A Kali deathcult wants to start WWIII by kidnapping the soviet premier to sacrifice him to Kali. From a bordello in Nevada to an orgy in an british castle to the catacombs in Rome. You can't take it very seriously, but it is a lot of fun.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Andy. You're right about Stokes and his fortresses. It appears to be a recurring theme, also used in his John Eagle Expeditor and Blade books. "The Devil's Cockpit" is a Killmaster I've wanted to read for a while. I'm currently reading "Peking & The Tulip Affair," apparently by mystery/sci-fi/sleaze author Arnold Marmor, and so far so good.

Glad to hear "The Nichovev Plot" is good. Kurt from the Ringer Files also gave it a thumbs up. Luckily that's one I have, just haven't read it yet.