Monday, October 26, 2015

Run, Spy, Run (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #1)

Run, Spy, Run, by Nick Carter
February, 1964  Award Books

I’ve been curious how the Nick Carter: Killmaster series started life, so I figured it was time I checked out this first volume. It’s interesting how Run, Spy, Run sets the precedent for the 259 volumes that were to follow, quickly outlining who Nick Carter is and what gadgets and weapons he uses. But there are also little details in this first volume that would either be glossed over or forgotten entirely in the ensuing years.

First though there’s the controversy over who actually wrote this book. Most people credit it to Michael Avallone, who was hired by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel to help create the series and to be its main ghostwriter. Apparently Engel came up with the series concept, the character of Nick Carter (intending to call back to the once-popular Nick Carter character of early 20th Century pulp), and Carter’s spy agency AXE. Avallone seems to have come up with the idea of Carter naming his weapons and gadgets, which is very pulpish. But Avallone’s actual writing wasn’t met with much favor. According to Will Murray’s article “The Saga of Nick Carter: Killmaster” (The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4, 1982):

When the first Nick manuscript was submitted to Award editor Samuel H. Post, Post was dissatisfied with Avallone’s somewhat pulpish approach and his idiosyncratic style. Post and the Abramsons [ie Arnold and Robert Abramson, Universal Publishing execs who created the Award imprint] conferred and returned the story for revision, along with a synopsis Post had created for the second novel. Avallone’s revision and his draft of the second book, The China Doll, fell short of the American James Bond the others were looking for. Avallone, preferring to write like Michael Avallone, declined further revisions. Engel then turned the two manuscripts over to a young woman with no previous novel-writing experience named Valerie Moolman, who rewrote them, under Engel’s direction.

Engel had a bit more to say about this in an interview he did with Will Murray in 1981, which was eventually published in Paperback Parade #2 (1986):

I wrote the outline for the first two books and then I asked Mike to write the books themselves. Mike couldn’t write the books and I had a written understanding with him whereby if the publisher did not accept his stories, did not like his stories, then I would have a right to take my outline and give it to somebody else to write.

Finally, according to the Wikipedia page for Run, Spy, Run(!!), Valerie Moolman is the sole credited author in the Library of Congress records. All of which is to say it seems pretty clear to me that Moolman, and not Avallone, wrote this book. It’s been many years since I read a Michael Avallone novel, but one thing I do recall is his writing style was pretty unique. That unique style isn’t evident in Run, Spy, Run; in fact the writing here is pretty bland. As I read the novel something kept nagging at me, that the narrative was reading a certain way, and at last I realized what it was: Run, Spy, Run reads very much like a romance novel. Hell, there’s even a chapter titled “London Idyll” which is all about Nick and his hot new colleague Julia Baron being all lovey dovey in London.

All of which is to say, this is not the most slam-bang intro for the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. It lacks much bite, and comes off very “safe,” for lack of a better word. More focus is placed on Nick’s worries and feelings than on action. I know I sound like a sexist pig, but I suspect this is due to the female authorship. Not only that but Nick is prone to falling in love; rather than the love ‘em and leave ‘em rake of the other series writers, Moolman’s Nick Carter develops feelings for his conquests and acts, to risk sounding lame, rather gallant throughout. Compare this to the almost sadistic version of the character Manning Lee Stokes delivered, and you can see how Nick Carter changed so drastically even in his first few years.

When we meet Nick he’s on a flight back to New York, having just wrapped up a quick mission-turned-vacation in Jamaica. Like many other things in Run, Spy, Run, this is likely a reference/in-joke to the work of Ian Fleming, who wrote his James Bond novels in Jamaica and even set Dr. No there. We get a brief recap for Nick, with the interesting tidbit that he worked for the OSS in World War II, after which he apparently worked as a spy for a while, before joining the newly-formed AXE “seven years ago.” Nick Carter’s WWII background would be forgotten in the coming decades. 

Another interesting element in this first volume is the revelation that Nick’s job, so far as the world is concerned, is as a private eye. No doubt this is intended as another reference, namely to the origins of the pulp Nick Carter, but this element too was removed, and for good; the later books got it much better with Nick solely being an agent of AXE with no concerns over a dayjob cover identity. But it’s this private eye cover that makes the beginning of Run, Spy, Run believable; while in his hotel in Jamaica, someone left Nick a handwritten note begging for him to board this particular flight. I had a hard time understanding why superspy Nick Carter would board the plane, not suspecting a trap. It makes sense then that he did so because the world at large knows Nick Carter as a private investigator.

There’s a bullish dude on the flight with a steel hand, and I thought for sure this would be supervillain Mr. Judas – whom Nick has never seen, but is aware of – but it turns out to be a South American diplomat who blows up when he disembarks the plane in New York, killing several other innocents in the blast. Nick meets up with an attractive stewardess named Rita Jameson, who turns out to be the person who wrote Nick that letter. There have been three airplane explosions in the last few months, one of them of a plane piloted by Rita’s fiance, and she’s certain there’s a coverup. Meanwhile, through boss Mr. Hawk (no “David” yet, this early in the series), Nick learns that each of these planes carried right wing government officials from various parts of the West, each of whom were opposing the Red Chinese.

Long story short, there appears to be a plot to wipe out these right wingers in plane crashes and replace them with Commiesymps. (I’m surprised Obama hasn’t thought of this yet.) Instead of rushing into action, Nick sort of mills around New York with Rita Jameson (whom he does not consort with), checking leads and working up cover identities. Things finally heat up in a carriage chase in Central Park in which a gunman shoots at Nick and Rita. Poor Rita ends up dead and Nick moves on with the assignment: now he’s to shadow an American ambassador named Harcourt on a flight to London.

Even more time is wasted with Nick’s elaborate cover story, which has him posing as a bookish art professor. Hawk also sets Nick up with a partner, a hotstuff female spy named Julia Baron (Nick calls her “Julie”) who, the way she’s described, must be Eurasian or something. Julia would appear in a few more volumes over the next several years; not sure if she was eventually killed off or just written out of the series. But yet more pages are wasted on her own cover story, which has her posing as Nick’s fiance. Meanwhile the two get to screwin’ pronto, in what is the novel’s most explicit sequence, but don’t expect anything too explicit; it’s more metaphorical/lyrical than anything. And once again, ol’ Nick is developing feelings for the gal…

The flight to London is also a snoozefest, with Nick pretending to be airsick so he can go to the lavatory, again and again, scoping out his fellow passengers to detect any threats. He settles on one dude with a broken arm, and sure enough this guy tries to blow up the plane midway through the flight, the plaster of his cast hiding a bomb. Nick and Julia save the day, with the outcome that their cover is blown – hilariously enough, before they’ve even got to London! Hence all that crap we had to read about their cover stories is rendered moot. After this they decide to pose as freelance spies, here to take on the infamous and elusive Mr. Judas, who they have determined is behind the plot.

In the final quarter of Run, Spy, Run, something magical happens – it becomes a Killmaster novel. Nick and Julia, captured, stripped nude and tied to wooden crosses, find themselves in a dank cellar, the captives of Judas and his deformed henchman Braille. Judas’s first appearance is suitably memorable, and here for once we get a proper description of the sadist:

Judas was a symmetrical man. Short, well-proportioned, compact; body as militant and cut-from the-mould as a Prussian Junker. In action, it would be a flying wedge of strength and iron control. The face and the strange right hand compelled attention.

Judas’ face was a shining globe of hairless, bloodless features, a one-color, one-surface mask of precision that might have been cast from an assembly line die. The eyes were slits which showed no more than narrow, unfathomable pools of liquid fire. The nose was small in the globular face, hardly raised above the flat cheek bones, finely chiseled, ruler-straight. The huge, permanently-grinning mouth beneath it would have looked more appropriate on a skull; some of Judas’ face had been lost in a long-ago accident and had never quite been replaced. Apart from the hideous grin, there was no expression on the face, save a fixed one of watching, of waiting, of preparedness to strike. The head, brows and lids were completely bald. It was not a view to be savored up close.

And as for that “strange right hand,” which Judas claims to have lost thanks to his own carelessness with a bomb he was trying to plant on a would-be victim:

The five fake fingers extended stiffly, shot toward Nick. Suddenly they halted, inches from his chest. There was a click, and a nasty little miracle occurred. The forefinger grew. The covering silver receded and a switchblade knife of gleaming steel paused a hair’s breadth from Nick’s throat.

So clearly, Judas was intended as a combo of Blofeld and Dr. No, with the bald head and deformed face of the former and the steel claws of the latter. Interestingly though, at this point in the Bond films Blofeld’s face had not been revealed (and in the Fleming novels Blofeld looked entirely different, and indeed drastically changed his own appearance in each of the three novels he appeared in), yet Judas’s mutilated face is almost a precursor to Donald Pleasance’s version of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Could the producers of the Bond films have been reading the Killmaster books?? 

Judas’s henchman, a blind brute jokingly named Braille, is even more monstrous, an “unspeakably hideous human being” who is “a mockery of mankind:”

He was very tall and very wide. His shoulders hunched forward, his thick knees bent a little more than necessary when he walked. Long arms ended in great knotted hands. His face was horribly pitted and scarred. Putrescent-looking lumps bulged from his forehead and neck. The diseased appearance of the flesh gave a crawling, loathsome quality to his incredible face.

Unfortunately this sequence doesn’t play out as over-the-top as it would in later installments; Nick instead manages to get a suddenly-gullible Judas to fall for a stupid trick (namely, that one of the items he lifted from Nick is really a bomb, one that’s set to blow). After Nick kills Braille in an unspectacular fight, he and Julia rush off to safety. From there it’s back to the bland feel of the rest of the novel, with Judas kidnapping Harcourt and basically pleading with Nick to meet him somewhere and talk deals.

The finale continues the low-stakes trend; rather than the Killmaster assaulting a compound of jumpsuited guards, he instead has another face-to-face with Judas, this time in a house near Piccadilly. Judas, holding a gun on Nick and Julia, reveals that Harcourt is bound in the house’s cellar; Judas wants Nick to work for him. When Nick refuses, Judas says he’s wired the entire house to blow. This sequence, which strives for tension, is pretty stupid, as Judas reveals they have ten friggin’ minutes until the house explodes. Finally Julia (not even Nick!) realizes they don’t have to just stand around and wait for the explosion(?!), and Nick gets in a brief scuffle with Judas, during which he shoots off Judas’s left hand (which explains why Judas has two steel claws in future volumes).

Of course, Judas escapes, and Harcourt is freed – and the house doesn’t even explode. The entire thing was just a bluff, yet Nick is certain Mr. Judas is an evil genius and knows they will meet again someday. We also get a brief scene from Judas’s viewpoint where he swears vengeance on Nick. Meanwhile, Nick and Julia are happy they can spend a little time in London together in a veritable Happily Ever After.

Moolman’s writing (or is it Avallone’s? Or Avallone and Moolman’s?) has that same polished feel as anything else Lyle Kenyon Engel produced, which lends credence to Engel’s claims that he edited and rewrote most everything he produced. I’m starting to suspect that the uniform feel in Engel’s productions is due to Engel himself. But it must be said that Moolman is a terrible POV-hopper; the first few pages in particular are a nightmare of hopscotching perspectives, as Moolman bounces from the thoughts of one character to another with no white space to alert the reader of the POV changes.

Not only that, but as mentioned Moolman’s style, at least in this first novel, is more akin to a romance novel. Run, Spy, Run just lacks bite, coming off for the most part as overwritten and padded, usually shying away from the sex and violence. I’m not saying it was terrible, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as other volumes of the series I’ve read.

Bonus note: Run, Spy, Run was included in its entirety in the 100th volume of the series, Dr. Death (1975), so if you pick up that one you’ll get double Nick for your buck. Actually triple Nick, as it also contains a Nick Carter pulp story from 1898.


Stephen Mertz said...

I believe Will Murray's and Engel's recollections are accurate, as is your suggestion that this is an Avallone draft heavily, heavily revised. In fact, this jibes with the following excerpt from a letter to me from Michael Avallone, dated 1/28/71:

"The 3 Nick Carters listed are not simon-pure Avallone as they were edited beyond my wishes, and is the major reason why I stopped doing them. The cats who followed me are all immitation-Bonders, immitation-Avallone, along the lines I set down in the very first Man From UNCLE book which is--ahem--still the best of the lot."

Mike was never one to be plagued by self-doubt!

James Reasoner said...

You have to remember, though, that everything Lyle Engel said has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. I can easily imagine his entire contribution to the series being, "Hey, secret agents are popular. Let's do a secret agent series. We can call him Nick Carter, like the old dime novel character."

I don't recall Mike ever saying anything to me about RUN, SPY, RUN and THE CHINA DOLL being heavily edited, but there it is in the quote from the letter to Steve, so I believe it. I do recall him saying that Lyle fired him part of the way through SAIGON and that Moolman finished it. I also remember him talking about how he named Nick's weapons, inspired by the Avenger pulp series by Paul Ernst writing as Kenneth Robeson, where the character carried a small pistol and throwing knife named Ike and Mike.

And after starting to read the series myself in 1967, I find it a little amazing that we're still talking about it nearly 50 years later. That possibility never entered my mind back then, I'm sure.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, guys! Steve, I loved the Avallone letter excerpt, that was great to read. And James, I now see what you mean; thanks to Justin Marriott I recently read a sort of autobio by George Snyder, from Paperback Parade magazine, and he briefly went over his time with Engel and the Killmaster/Operation Hang Ten books. He made Engel sound like a sort of used car salesman!

Marty McKee said...

I'm reading this story in the 100 collection now. Interestingly, Wikipedia lists DR. DEATH as the 96th, not the 100th, Nick Carter book. A mistake? Aggressive marketing (AIP advertised THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES as Vincent Price's 100th movie, but it wasn't)? Another explanation?