Thursday, February 18, 2016

Web Of Spies (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #11)

Web Of Spies, by Nick Carter
January, 1966  Award Books

As far as I’m aware, this was the only volume Manning Lee Stokes wrote of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series to feature Nick Carter’s archenemy Judas. Stokes is usually pretty iffy on villains – many of his novels don’t even feature a central villain – so I was curious to see how he would handle the skull-faced, metal-handed Mr. Judas, the Blofeld to Nick’s Bond for the first ten years of the series.

Web Of Spies is Stokes on a good day; while some of his novels come off as overly padded, hopscotching from one vague plot to another, this one maintains a steady clip throughout, never gets too bogged down, and features Stokes’s crisp prose at its best. One thing though is his bizarre usage of exclamation points throughout the narrative, usually for no reason at all. Like this! Or like this! For no reason at all! Throughout the novel! All this lends the novel a goofy tone, and it appears that Stokes (or perhaps series editor Lyle Kenyon Engel) whittled down these unecessary exclamation points in future volumes.

Nick when we meet him is heading into Tangier, wearing elaborate makeup that makes him look like paunchy old bestselling novelist Kenneth Ludwell Hughes. We learn this guise is beloved of Nick’s boss Hawk, and a real novelist was even hired to ghostwrite “Hughes’s” novel. Now Nick is to pose as the hard-drinking writer as he lounges in Morocco; his real mission is to track down Alicia Todd, an English pharmacist who has invented something Hawk describes as a “paradise pill.” Todd’s invention is the MaGuffin of the plot; we aren’t even told what it is until the final page.

But first Nick wants to get laid, courtesy Gay Lord(!), a hotstuff AXE agent Nick memoraly banged several years ago in Hong Kong. Indeed of the “hundreds” of women Nick has slept with, he ranks Gay as one of the very best. But poor Gay is in trouble, and Nick skirts orders to sneak to her place in Tangier. There he discovers that Gay has been playing both sides. Her mission here is to be a contact for the Spiders, an outfit in Spain that smuggles ex-Nazis into South America. But the Spiders really kill the Nazis, though they let some of them go for the sake of appearances. Gay is suspected of playing both sides, but she tells Nick the full story.

Turns out a new faction of Spiders has taken over; this one lets the Nazis live, and it’s run by some evil man who came out of nowhere. Nick instantly figures the work of Judas. Gay has been issued a death threat by the new Spiders, but swears to Nick she’s been working with the original branch, led by El Lobo, and has been planning to give all of her intel to AXE HQ in DC. Anyway, now it’s time for some lovin’. No sex description at all, even vague metaphor, as Stokes no doubt due to the era delivers an immediate fade to black. He does inject his patented morbidity, with Nick before doing the deed realizing that Gay won’t live through the night! All as unsettling as Nick’s morbid “screwing a corpse” obsession in the later Stokes installment The Red Rays.

The first of a few action scenes has Nick escaping the Spider death squad that has come for Gay; she gets gunned down but Nick escapes. Within a few hours he’s spying on a pair of women as they sunbathe in the nude! One of them’s Alicia Todd, “a thin little sparrow of a woman” who is also a heroin addict and “sexually twisted,” meaning she’s a lesbian. We get more of Stokes’s casual and natural pre-PC thought when Nick checks out the other gal, redheaded bombshell Tasia Loften, whom Nick knows to be a KGB agent sent here to “sway” Alicia Todd – Nick is relieved to learn that Tasia is “a real woman” and only pretending to be a lesbian for her assignment!

We’re now in Costa Brava, in Spain, where the rest of the novel plays out. There’s a well-done sequence where Nick stages a one-man assault on the villa the two ladies stay in, his goal to steal both of them away from the Russian guards. Meanwhile Judas’s Spiders launch an assault at the same time. Here Nick uses Pierre, his poison gas bomb, and successfully talks Tasia Loften into trusting him. Meanwhile a heroin-high Alicia Todd runs obliviously to Judas’s men and thus is captured. Nick pulls a Spider trick and stamps “his personal seal” on the forehead of a corpse as a message to Judas – the seal we’re informed looks identical to the one shown on the upper-left corner of the cover and is hidden in the heel of Nick’s shoe.

Stokes builds a nice will they/won’t they chemistry between Nick and Tasia. We’re informed this lady is super-attractive, super-stacked, super-everything, and she suppresses her growing desire for Nick because she’s afraid she’ll fall in love with him if they have sex. Tasia is a nicely-rendered character, a strong female who isn’t strong in the overly-macho and aggressive “tough chick” clichéd fashion of today. She and Nick soon meet with Judas, who indeed is the man behind the Spiders; they meet at a bullfighting tournament, Judas surrounded by legions of undercover operatives.

Judas changed depending on the author. In Run, Spy, Run he was a skull-faced ghoul with metal hands; in Peking & The Tulip Affair he was flat-out stated to be Martin Bormann and had a “frozen face;” in The Sea Trap he was an “economy-sized gnome” with a “striated face.” In all versions one consistency was that he had metal hands. Here’s how Stokes describes him:

He was not much over five feet tall. Today he wore a beautifully cut gray business suit and a black Homburg. In a cream colored silk tie he wore a single large black pearl stick pin. His little feet twinkled in highly polished handmade shoes. Nick had never seen evil come so neatly packaged!...The skin of Judas’s face was pink, tender, and beardless. Only minute striations showed that it was all scar tissue. False skin, as it were. As false as the lashes and the brows and the dark toupee beneath the Homburg.

Interesting to note that Stokes must not’ve been aware that Judas had metal hands; throughout the novel he keeps mentioning that Judas “washes” his hands, “some Freudian thing,” as if he were attempting to wash off the blood on them. Stokes’s version of Judas has a rictus-style mouth, always smiling due to surgery, and he continously drools from its corners, fastiduously cleaning himself with a napkin. But Stokes’s Judas is more of a generic spy villain-type, more into crafty cunning and guile, with none of the ghoulish appeal of the version in Run Spy Run or The Sea Trap. Stokes saves the ghoulishness for Skull, Judas’s towering “zombie” of a henchman:

The man was wearing a shabby blue suit which was too small for him. His wrists and ankles protruded grotesquely. He was hatless and his great arching skull was shaven to the bone. The small eyes, like lead berries, were too close to a splayed nose. The mouth was large and loose and wet. When the man spoke Nick saw that his canines were malformed, thrusting from the gums at an angle like fangs.

Skull truly is a zombie; Judas later reveals to Tasia that he found the man in a morgue in Poland, dead of a heart attack. Judas came up with this pacemaker gizmo through which he controls Skull. Aiming it at the man like “a TV gun” (apparently the early name for a remote control – and isn’t “TV gun” a much cooler name for it? “Honey, hand me the TV gun!!”), Judas can either push a red button, which stops Skull’s heart, or a black one, which starts it. If Judas presses the black button several times, Skull is granted super-strength – but that’s super sexual strength, and he goes on a rape spree! This is quite unfortunate for any females in his wake, as Judas is enormously well-hung, indeed even of “equine proportions.”

Tasia as mentioned is a well-rendered character and she sets Nick up, desperate to get Alicia Todd back. Otherwise Tasia will be killed by the KGB for failing her mission. Nick’s sent to prison thanks to heroin Tasia planted on him – plus the englassed spider the cops found in his pocket (this being the carrying card of all Spider members). Nick is saved via blind luck; a contingent of El Lobo’s Spiders, led by the man’s sexy teenaged granddaughter Carmena, busts Nick out of jail and takes him to the old man. Now Nick, with El Lobo’s Spiders, launches an assault on Judas’s fortified monastery in the mountains near the French border.

Stokes gives the place a very Bond villain-esque vibe: the monastery is guarded by machine guns on rooftops and an electrified fence. Even better is the drained moat which surrounds the place, upon which roam wild bulls – bulls with razor-tipped horns! Yes, it’s all almost just like Dr. Evil’s “sharks with lasers,” only it’s a few decades earlier and it’s played on the level. Unfortunately Stokes doesn’t go full-out with the finale; I was hoping to see Nick, who as the others is outfitted in black as well as facepaint, gun down several of Judas’s men in an extended setpiece, but instead he is promptly captured by Judas – that is, after Nick has saved Tasia from a rapacious Skull (Tasia herself already a captive of Judas at this point).

The finale instead plays on more of a personal level, as while out in the courtyard the two Spiders fight each other, as well as Russian paratroopers called in by Tasia, Nick meanwhile engages Skull in combat while Judas and Tasia watch – and Nick is easily beaten. The climax sees Nick and Tasia trapped in an ancient coffin, escaping in the now-flooded moat, and Nick going at Judas with a stake, which is a fine payoff courtesy Stokes, given how Nick has constantly thought of Skull as a “Frankenstein” with fangs.

As expected Judas escapes, though per series mandation it’s implied he has been killed (El Lobo guns down the car Judas escapes in and it blows up in the distance), and Nick escapes with Tasia. In the final pages Stokes finally pays off on the will they/won’t they Nick-Tasia relationship, with a few pages on their “preemptory lovemaking,” with a nude Tasia rolling over Nick and etc. But turns out he’s just getting her all worked up; when she’s ready for him, Nick instead extracts a capsule the lady has hidden in a certain part of her anatomy – another of Stokes’s favored gimmicks (see also John Eagle Expeditor #5, for example).

In the end, Nick and Tasia never do end up getting busy; Nick instead tells her to get dressed and heads home with the appropriated capsule, which contains notes Tasia jotted down from the dying Alicia Todd (she’s dead, by the way!). The “paradise pill” didn’t exist as such, all of it in Alicia’s head, and “two weeks later” Nick meets with Hawk, who informs Nick that the pill was basically like cocaine – it would keep a man awake for two weeks at a stretch and also induced a euphoric state. Oh and Tasia Loften decided not to defect and returned to Russia and is probably dead now. The end! 

Anyway, I really did enjoy Web Of Spies, and it was my favorite Stokes entry in this series yet. His writing is as superb as ever, doling out big words with aplomb and imbuing the proceedings with an almost literary vibe. One of my favorite discoveries since I started this blog is the work of Manning Lee Stokes, and Web Of Spies is a great indication of the man’s pulp-writing skills.


Pork Chop Sandwich said...

So he was just hanging out in a morgue in Poland, sees a dead guy with fangs and a giant dick, and immediately thinks "Hey, remote controlled rape zombie!" 'Cause, evil.

Joe Kenney said...

Very funny! Yeah, just another day in the life of Mr. Judas, I guess.