Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Judas Spy (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #33)

The Judas Spy, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

While the book itself is ultra-boring, The Judas Spy is nonetheless an intriguing installment of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, mostly due to the mystery behind who wrote it. The official Killmaster bibliography, courtesy the work of Will Murray in the early 1980s, has William “Bill” Rohde as the accredited author of this work. However as Murray discovered, there was more to the story.

When Murray (“WM” below) interviewed series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel (“LKE”) in 1981, Engel told an interesting tale. From the interview, printed in Paperback Parade #2 (1986):

LKE: Yeah, he used to pronounce his name “Roady.” 

WM: I don’t know if he’s still alive. I know he used to do a lot of paperbacks in the fifties. 

LKE: Well I had a very peculiar thing with that. I tried to locate him one day to send a royalty statement and I got some woman on the phone who answered his number and she said, “Oh that Bill Rohde, he’s using my husband’s name. My husband was Bill Rohde.” 

WM: That’s strange. 

LKE: She’s telling everybody that he didn’t write these books. Well I know that the man who came up to my office, wrote these books, called himself William Rohde and after that call I just didn’t know where the hell he was or have anything more to do with him. 

WM: Bill Rohde may not even be Bill Rohde. 

LKE: That’s right. There may be two Bill Rohdes but I wouldn’t think that one would use the name of the other. And use the same address and phone number of the other Bill Rohde. 

WM: Well that seems pretty strange. 

LKE: He was a very nice man.

Murray somehow got more info on this; the Engel interview was used for the eventual Killmaster article Murray published in The Armchair Detective (volume 15, number 4, 1982). In the article Murray wrote:

One interesting group of novels was the work of William L. Rohde, a paperback writer from the ‘fifties. Rohde did five novels, including the suggestively-titled Rhodesia. While he was working on his sixth, “Hijack,” Lyle Engel called his home to remind him of the approaching deadline and got a whoman who said she was Rohde’s widow! She claimed that her boarder had been impersonating her late husband. Engel never received the “Hijack” manuscript, but some years later he did run into the author, who claimed that his wife had made up the boarder story because they were going through a divorce. Whether William L. Rohde actually wrote those novels is an open question, but they were all the work of a single writer.

The five “Rohde” Killmaster novels were published between 1968 and 1969 (in fact the last one, Human Time Bomb, was also the last volume of the series to be published in third-person until the 1980s), so clearly the people involved had gotten their stories mixed up by the time Murray was doing his article in the early ‘80s. It wasn’t until many years later that James Reasoner, posting on the Rara-Avis newsgroup, revealed that the “Bill Rohde” of the Killmaster books was actually an author named Al Hine.

As James mentions in his 2002 Rara-Avis post, it’s interesting that Hine did eventually return to the series, and it would appear he did so by going around Engel. By the early 1970s Award Books had mostly taken the reins of the Killmaster from Engel, publishing their own manuscripts with their own authors. This was one of the things which led Engel to leave the series sometime in 1974. Two volumes of the series, Our Agent In Rome Is Missing (1973) and Massacre In Milan (1974), are attributed to Al Hine – and neither of them were “produced” by Engel, as were all the other books Engel edited. This means that Hine, perhaps chagrined after having been caught out pretending to be William Rohde (for whatever reason), went around Engel and submitted these two manuscripts directly to Award. However, he wrote no others, or at least no others attributed to him were published.

So then why did Al Hine pretend to be William Rohde for the five Killmaster novels he wrote in the ‘60s? No one seems to know, and as James mentioned to me in an email, “With everybody involved having died, that’s probably one of those mysteries that will never be solved.” For a while I thought I’d figured it out: When Engel placed his ad in the New York Times seeking series authors, he specified that contributing authors had to have published work to their credit. (The ad by the way was how Manning Lee Stokes and Jon Messmann came to the series.) My guess was that Hine wanted to write for the series but had nothing published, thus asked Rohde if he could "borrow" his name. However, it looks like a handful of paperbacks were published under the name “Al Hine” in the early ‘60s, including even a Bewitched tie-in! So was this the same Hine or a different one?

Anyway, enough with the Unsolved Mysteries ponderings. I guess I might as well get around to the novel itself, The Judas Spy. As mentioned above, it pretty much sucks. Hine/Rohde, as I’ll refer to him, apparently was inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, and I don’t mean the cool parts like where Bond dons a ninja costume and storms a castle of death. No, I mean all the egregious travelogue sequences which comprise that novel, as Bond and his native pal Tiger Tanaka go about Japan and Bond learns all about the country and culture through bald exposition. Hine/Rohde has done the exact same thing here, only changing Japan to Indonesia.

The reader must settle in for the long haul as “Nick” (as Carter is referred to in these ‘60s books) basically sits on his ass and soaks up Indonesian culture for 150-some pages of small print. The “Killmaster” in fact doesn’t kill a single person until page 133, and with its dour, “realistic” angle and lack of fantastical action The Judas Spy is almost a harbinger to the no-frills series installments of the late ‘80s, in particular those by Jack Canon (ie Blood Raid). It starts off intriguingly enough, with Nick in a two-man sub as it plies through the jungle waters of Indonesia, a native youth named Akim accompanying the Killmaster.

However Nick can’t help wondering about Akim, particularly his “girlish” mannerisms. There’s a bit of pre-PC open-mindedness as Nick keeps telling himself there’s “nothing wrong with that” if Akim is gay! But when the two leave the sub and go out into the jungle and are taken surprise by the elements, “Akim’s” top comes off – and Nick realizes that he’s really been hanging out with a woman disguised as a man. Her name is Tala Machur and she claims to be the sister of Akim Machir, an Indonesian youth of wealth who has been kidnapped by Nick’s archenemy Judas. Indeed Tala is the one who brought Judas’s latest plot to the awareness of AXE.

The title of this volume makes no sense, as recurring series villain Judas does no “spying” and indeed only appears for a handful of pages. Instead his masterplan this time is the kidnapping of teens and young adults who are members of wealthy and influential Indonesian families. Judas then uses his captives as human bargaining chips, his goal to get the families to either give money to the Red Chinese or to do something that benefits the Chinese government in Indonesia. Interestingly, Judas has a trio of helpers this time out, and Hine/Rohde has it that these dudes are always with him and that Nick has long been familiar with them. It goes without saying though that they’ve never been mentioned before. At any rate they are, per the back cover:

Judas was depending on his usual ugly crew: Nife, the man-child who killed on command…Geitsch, who cared only for the huge bounty the job would bring…Muller, the ex-Nazi, whose preference ran to young boys.

It takes a long time until we meet him, but as for Judas himself, he has none of the grotesque qualities of earlier and later volumes; in fact, he comes off as a random thug, his only touch of oddness being his hook of a hand:

Lounging in his deck chair, Judas looked healthy and tanned: he wore a leather and nickel hook device in place of a missing hand, scars laced his limbs, and a vicious wound had left one side of his face askew.

Otherwise Judas has none of the bizarre and memorable qualities as in other volumes, such as Run, Spy, Run or The Sea Trap. Not to mention that here he clearly is only missing one hand, whereas normally it’s both. (That being said, Judas does have a pet chimpanzee in this one, but it’s quickly forgotten.) He is clearly identified as being an ex-Nazi, though Hine/Rohde never outright states if he is Martin Bormann, as other ghostwriters did. This volume he plies about the Indonesian backwaters in a disguised ketch that features a bunch of cannons and whatnot, his loyal servants in tow. This is a very low budget Mr. Judas and he does not at all resemble the dastardly, cunning villain of previous books.

And for that matter, neither does Nick Carter himself. The “Killmaster” here is fine with soaking up Indonesian culture – while of course boffing silly ol’ Tala and, later on, a busty Indonesian model named Mata Nasut who provides various leads on Judas’s whereabouts. Here’s an example of how Hine/Rohde handles the infrequent sex scenes, from Nick’s first bout with Tala:

He welded himself to her. He felt an instant of resistance and a small grimace crossed her lovely features to be dispelled at once as if she was reassuring him. Her palms locked inside his armpits, pulled at him with astonishing strength, crawled around his back. He felt the delightful warmth of delicious depths and a thousand tingling tendrils gripping him, relaxed, flickered, tickled, stroked at him moistly and gripped again. His spinal nerve cord became an alternating filament receiving warm, tiny, tingling shocks. The vibration at his loins strengthened powerfully and he was lifted for instants by surges that overwhelmed his own.

I also just had to excerpt Hine/Rohde’s description of Mata’s breasts; the supermodel is bustier and curvier than the average Indonesian gal, and Nick sure appreciates the view:

The curves of her hips were pure artistry and her breasts, like Tala’s and many of the women he had seen in these fascinating islands, were a visual delight as well as an igniter for the senses when you fondled or kissed them. They were large, perhaps 38C, but so resiliant and perfectly placed and muscle-supported you didn’t notice size, you just drew in your breath with a short gulp.

Hine/Rohde also has a penchant for in-jokery, which is only all the more bizarre when you realize the mysteries behind the pseudonym(s). Nick poses as “Al Bard” throughout the novel, and I can’t help but wonder if “Bard” is a play on “writer,” ie “Al (Hine), the bard.” More pointedly, Nick’s cover as “Bard” has him as an artwork buyer, and we’re informed that he even has a New York gallery as part of his front which is run by a man named Bill Rohde! Further, Rohde is later stated as being an AXE agent himself. Given that both “Al” and “Bill Rohde” are used in the novel, it makes me wonder if The Judas Spy and the other four books were actually collaborations between Hine and Rohde. 

Regardless, there’s not much to recommend the novel. Nick hooks up with local AXE agent Hans Nordenboss, who serves as the Dikko Henderson of the novel (ie the Australian transplant who took turns with Tiger Tanaka expositing to James Bond about Japanese culture in You Only Live Twice). Hans encourages Nick to “relax” and understand that things move slower in Indonesia, and soon enough Nick’s just lounging around and eating various native meals. Along the way he’ll boff Tala or, later, Mata, and the latter he takes to several fancy restaurants and events. In fact Nick and Mata become a veritable item during the course of the book, and Tala for the most part is shunted out of the narrative.

Even when Judas finally appears the novel cannot rise from its torpor. The villain too just sits around, plying the murky jungle waters in his ketch, drinking schnapps with his old Nazi pal Muller. Only minor elements liven the dullness, like the oddball tidbit that Muller occasionally dons the uniform of a 19th Century naval captain. But mostly The Judas Spy is comprised of Nick Carter arguing with the mule-headed parents of the kidnapped Indonesian youth, none of whom are willing to take a risk with Nick’s crazy plans, and also Nick’s arguing with the country’s corrupt military representatives. It’s all very slow moving.

In true pulp-hack fashion, things don’t pick up until the very end. On page 111 Nick stages a one-man ambush on a boat piloted by Muller and knife-wielding Nife as they come into port to collect their latest ransom payment from one of the families. Nick merely knocks both men out, and the promise of action is squandered as instead we read more tedium as Nick is chastized for his reckless actions and again contends with the corrupt local military, which is in Judas’s pocket. Somehow all of this leads to Nick and Nife fighting to the death in an ancient arena while the natives hoot and holler; Nick takes a lot of damage in the page-consuming battle, killing his man with a secret weapon, poison gas bomb Pierre. This is Nick’s first kill in the book, on page 133.

Even here it’s on to more stalling, as Nick learns about gurus and whatnot. Given all the stalling, in fact, the “action” is delivered in rapid-fire format over the last ten pages of the book. Nick manages to set Judas up, making the Chicoms who occasionally meet up with his ketch aware of the fact that Judas is stealing from them. While the Red Chinese fire cannons on Judas’s boat, Nick boards it, shoots a guard (his second and final kill in the book), and frees the prisoners. Whether Judas or his two remaining companions survive the sinking of the ketch is unknown; Hans figures the villain likely escaped in a scuba suit.

But nope, there’s no Nick-Judas confrontation, and the two characters don’t even meet; Judas for his part is not even aware that his archenemy Nick Carter is in Indonesia. As if The Judas Spy couldn’t become even more unsatisfying, it ends with a WTF? part where Nick threatents Mata, telling him he’ll kill her if she ever returns to Indonesia! Why? Because of her involvement with Judas, or something. Nick knows he should kill her, but can’t bring himself to it due to his feelings for her. 

Here’s hoping Hine/Rohde’s next volume, Hood Of Death, is better. In the meantime you can check out Kurt’s review of it at The Ringer Files.


Kurt said...

Thanks for the shout out! Sorry to hear this one was a dud. I have it in my collection of Nick Carter books but haven't yet gotten around to it. I had high hopes for it because of the title. I really enjoyed the interview. I'm thinking that Rohde's wife was screwing with him, but who really knows.

Johny Malone said...

This book sounds like a spy novel before World War I.

AndyDecker said...

I really love the cover art. It was so untypically for series fiction at the time, very unusual. It seems Award switched the style a couple of times, there was both a more traditional art and these abstract collages. I wonder if they published both versions simultaniously, as they had the same Carter logo. On later editions they also changed the logo, even with the reprints.