Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vatican Vendetta (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #88)


Vatican Vendetta, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

A notable installment of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, Vatican Vendetta was not only the final volume to feature Nick’s archenemy Mr. Judas, but it was also the final volume to be “produced” by series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel. From here on out the series, now in first-person (until sometime in the mid-‘80s, at least), would be in the hands of a changing lineup of editors at Award, Charter, and Jove.

According to Will Murray in his excellent Killmaster article in The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982), Vatican Vendetta was a Ralph Hayes revision of a George Snyder manuscript. Also of note is Judas’s appearance in this book. The last Killmaster book the metal-handed archvillain had appeared in was 1969’s The Sea Trap, not only a series highlight but one of the best men’s adventure novels I’ve ever read. Yet as Murray notes, Judas’s appearance in Vatican Vendetta actually picks up from the 1967 entry The Weapon Of Night, a Valerie Moolman installment that featured Judas plummeting over Niagra Falls in the climax.

Strangely, in Vatican Vendetta all of Judas’s post-The Weapon Of Night appearances are ignored, and the events of that book, which took place “a few years back,” are constantly mentioned, with Nick (who narrates the novel) and his boss Hawk repeating over and over that they believed Judas was dead after he went over the Falls. My guess is that George Snyder probably wrote his first draft sometime in 1969, which was not only “a few years” after ’67 but also was when Snyder started writing for Engel (his first volume of the series was 1969’s The Defector).

According to Murray, Engel had a slew of unpublished Killmaster novels in his archives, not only ones by series regulars but also by authors such as William Crawford (whose Killmaster work was never published, and probably for the better). I’m guessing Snyder’s first draft of Vatican Vendetta was one such manuscript, and sometime in ’73 or ’74 Engel gave it to new series author Ralph Hayes for revision. (Also I believe that by 1974 George Snyder had already retired from the writing biz.) I’d also say that Hayes rewrote the vast majority of it, as Snyder’s style isn’t very apparent here; however Hayes’s clunky style, familiar from The Hunter, is very apparent.

Vatican Vendetta doesn’t have much spark to it, and honestly was a sad way for Judas to go out – they should’ve just left it at The Sea Trap, where he was blown up in the finale (like any pseudo-Bond villain, Judas “died” at the end of every volume he appeared in). Hayes’s plotting (not to mention his description, characterization, dialog, etc) is pretty pedestrian, with the once-mighty archvillain Judas reduced to a regular sort of crime kingpin (ravaged by diabetes, no less!) who pulls heists like a villain off the Batman TV show.

As for narrator Nick himself, he too doesn’t shine as brightly in Hayes’s hands. When we meet him he is, of course, in bed with a woman; he’s in Rome, his mission to steal back a blueprint of a new top-secret nuclear triggering device from a KGB agent who stole it from a courier. Nick easily takes on the guy, killing him in the process, and makes off with the document – that is, not before he’s (very coincedentally) met an attractive young Italian gal named Gina in a bar. Hayes gives us the first of a few sex scenes between the two, but they aren’t very explicit or page-consuming.

Nick is to hand the blueprints over to an AXE courier, but he’s followed by KGB agents the next day. He rushes into the Vatican museum and ends up stuffing the blueprints into an ancient Etruscan vase. He loses the tail and it’s back into bed with Gina, who just happens to be the former mistress of a Mafia dude named Farelli. The next morning when Nick heads back to the Vatican to retrieve his blueprints…he walks right into a heist. Reality tossed out the window, Hayes first has a diversionary assassination attempt on the Pope, followed by a helicopter hovering over the Vatican while men rope down, loot the place, and rope back up onto the waiting ‘copter. And sure enough, they’ve taken the Etruscan vase!

The novel operates like a generic private eye/police procedural as Nick hooks up with an Interpol friend named Tony Beneditto and the two track clues and scan evidence, trying to determine who was behind the heist. Nick discovers an odd footprint in the looted Vatican and at great page-length they deduce it was from a “crepe-soled shoe” which is made only in Sicily. This leads us to the Mafia, and coincidence rears its head again when it’s determined that one of the heisters was the bodyguard of none other than Farelli, Gina’s ex! Now Gina’s part of the team, helping Nick and Tony but not really doing much other than keeping Nick’s bed warm.

Hayes does throw in the occasional oddball touch, like when Gina puts Nick in touch with Madame Vasari, a cathouse owner who has ties to the Mafia and might help track down the heisters. But to speak to the lady, Nick “has” to sleep with one of her girls! This right after he’s gotten out of Gina’s bed. Hayes again keeps it vague in the ensuing naughtiness, but lets us know at least that something has happened. But anyway the Madame is the centerpiece; like something out of a Fellini film she’s ancient and obese and wears a bright red orange wig to cover her bald head. Iincense and vaporizers mist the air to block out “the strange aroma” her body has acquired.

Action is sparse and, when it finally does happen, is relatively bloodless. Hayes is very much in the first-draft mode of writing, and according to Murray’s article all of his manuscripts were heavily revised by Award, usually because they came in well beneath the required word count. Nick doesn’t fare very well, either; at one point two random thugs get the better of him, leaving him a bloodied mess, and you have a hard time seeing this happen in books written by other Killmaster authors. Even when the trio goes down to Sicily and finds Judas’s secret complex beneath a villa, Hayes keeps it threadbare; Nick takes out the mere two guards who oversee the place and discovers that Judas has not only found the nuke device blueprint, but has actually made a nuclear bomb of his own.

The final third is more page-filling as Nick and Gina parachute onto an ocean liner upon which Nick believes Judas has planted the nuke. It’s headed for New York and Nick also believes Judas is aboard. But many pages are devoted to Nick bickering with the stubborn captain and then days elapse as Nick et al search the ship…finding nothing, not even Judas. Not until they come into port in New York does the mayor reveal that they’ve just been wired a ransom note, and the captain only then happens to remember that a strange man with a “gaunt face” attempted to place something valuable in the captain’s special safe.

During the Vatican heist Nick caught a look at Judas in the helicopter over the building; here’s how Hayes describes the villain, whom we later learn looks “emaciated” now due to having picked up diabetes in the ensuing years(!?):

It was a skull-like face, emaciated, the skin like parchment, waxen and pulled tight. The man’s eyes were slits, cruel and reptillian, narrow coal-black eyes peering out from a face of yellow leatherish flesh. The wide, thin-lipped mouth was curved up into a death head’s grin. This was the profile I continued to stare at, one side of a face that belonged to the most depraved and monstrous human being I’d ever known in my entire life. I thought I’d seen the last of him the day he plunged over Niagara Falls.

Later it’s also mentioned that Judas has metal hands, but Hayes goofs in stating that Judas lost both of his hands in childhood (meanwhile Nick himself shot off one of them in Run, Spy, Run). And strangely enough we’re informed Judas hides his metal claws with fake flesh. Seriously, if you’re a crazed supervillain with a skull face and metal hands, why the hell would you cover them up??

The finale is pretty middling. The nuclear bomb is found in the captain’s quarters and an expert disarms it while Nick stands around. Then Judas attempts to escape with the debarking passengers, having a tough go of it due to his emaciated, gaunt form and his cane and all. Yet he still manages to lose Nick! The villain hops a plane to Rome and Nick follows after him, once again bringing Gina along for no reason. The climax is a harried affair in which Nick gets in a brief gunfight with the two men on the streets of Rome, killing Farelli and chasing after Judas.

Racing down a well into the sewers beneath Rome, Judas leads Nick on a page-consuming chase across the slimy, rat and bat-infested passageways under the city. Nick catches up with him in the Catacombs, where a weak Judas finally appears, delivering his one and only line of dialog in the novel: “I will finally kill you now, Carter.” But he misses with his .44 Magnum and then passes out into a “diabetic coma,” falling over a bunch of skeletons from the early Christian era. Nick checks his pulse and there is none, and thus Judas is well and truly dead. The end!

So yeah, a pretty anticlimactic finale to the Judas saga, with the villain himself reduced to a shadow of his former self. But then the novel overall is pretty clunky and forgettable. Not only did Judas deserve better, but so did Lyle Kenyon Engel.

Murray states that Engel had the opportunity to stay with the series, and was indeed even offered the reigns again years later, when Charter Books took over, but ultimately he chose to end his relationship with the series he himself had started. Engel had grown frustrated with how Award was managing it, publishing manuscripts he submitted under different titles and taking forever to send payments, not to mention sending back many manuscripts and requesting vague rewrites.

But most importantly, Engel chose not to continue with Nick Carter: Killmaster because he hated the first-person narration which Award Books demanded. One must admire the force of his conviction, to quote Professor Lombardo.

2 comments:

AndyDecker said...

When I started reading Carter, the series was long into its first-person mode. As an old crime fan who kind of grew up on writers like Ross Macdonald or Spillane I never had a problem with this style. And when I read, say, Max Allan Collin's Quarry or Lawrence Block, I can't imagine this being written in third-person. Just feels wrong. But Carter on the other hand, a different case, as we get both versions.

Hayes' contributions to the series couldn't convince me either. They were pretty bland and straightforward. Not enough meat on the bones. 1970 and 1971 were not good years for Carter. Lots of mediocre books.

James Reasoner said...

I didn't mind the switch to first-person and liked both that approach and the earlier books in which he's referred to mostly as Nick. The later books, where he's called Carter in narration, I never warmed up to as much.