Monday, April 4, 2016

Danger Key (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #16)

Danger Key, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1966  Award Books

The first of two novels Lew Louderback wrote for the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, Danger Key is very much in the spirit of the James Bond movies of the era. As anyone who has read Ian Fleming’s original books knows, the Bond novels are much different from the Bond films. Louderback appears to have been one of the few Killmaster ghostwriters who understood what series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel likely was going for: not espionage-heavy tales in the vein of the Bond books, but comic book-style adventures in the vein of the Bond films.

As Kurt Reichenbaugh notes in his review at the Ringer Files, this novel is pretty dense. A whole bunch goes down in the course of its 160 pages, but again as with most publications from Award Books, that’s some real small print. Louderback though really hits all the bases, and likely could’ve gone on to have been one of the best Killmaster authors, up there with Jon Messmann and Manning Lee Stokes. But as mentioned a lot of stuff happens – the novel’s almonst Pynchonesque in how many layers of plot there are – and the reader almost needs a scorecard to keep up. After this book Louderback moved on to writing Don Miles for Engel, and having read the first volume of that series I can see that dense plotting is just part of his style.

Still, it gets to be too much, and in fact Danger Key is almost so breathless that you sometimes overlook how great it is. For here, finally, we have a Killmaster novel that almost reaches the lofty heights of The Sea Trap. It’s not as lurid or graphic, to be sure, but it’s jam-packed with fun stuff and memorable images. In some ways Danger Key is like the novelization of a Eurospy movie that never was; like one of those “spyghetti” flicks of the ‘60s, the novel operates more as a string of massive setpieces, the entire thing just barely held together by an overly-convoluted plot. There’s even a part where hero Nick Carter dances to a bossa nova, which only furthers the Eurospy image.

One thing missing from the Eurospy vibe is the globe-trotting; Danger Key takes place entirely in the Florida Keys; the titular location is Peligro Key, aka Spanish for “Danger Key,” and it’s here that Nick will gradually discover a plot by the Red Chinese terror agency CLAW, overseen by Nick’s archenemy Judas. According to Will Murray’s Killmaster article in The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982), CLAW was created by Award Books editor Samuel Post. The acroynm never explained, CLAW only appeared in a few novels; Murray had it at only two, this one and The China Doll (the second volume of the series), but CLAW was mentioned in a few others; in fact, Danger Key is for the most part a sequel to Fraulein Spy, the fifth volume of the series, a Valerie Moolman installment in which Nick again tangled with a CLAW plot.

The busy plot of Danger Key has it that something strange is going on in the Florida Keys; there’s an underwater resort-type place named Aquacity being built on the ocean floor, funded by the Howard Hughes-esque A.K. Atchinson, and eventually Nick will learn that the closed-off and remote construction site is not far from a secret US installation in which a nuclear research project is being helmed. Here an “electronic brain” is being created for a nuclear missile delivery system, something so powerful that it could change history. Nick will eventually stumble upon a CLAW plot in which a retirement community near Aquacity has been taken over by CLAW agents, their faces surgically altered to look like elderly caucasians, so they can infiltrate the government lab and take over the electronic brain.

The first quarter of the book is almost like a hardboiled novel from Gold Medal, as Nick poses as a drunkard magazine reporter who also happens to be a CIA agent; another agent was killed here, and this guy, Ralph Benson, was himself in danger of being uncovered. Thus Nick becomes “Ralph Benson,” keeping up the dual layer of disguises; just the first indication of the heavy plotting Louderback delivers throughout. Word has it the other agent was run over by a car, one driven by a hot blonde in a bikini – Nick soon discovers this could be none other than Ingra Brand, a lovely German gal who was in fact engaged to the man who was run over.

Ingra comes on strong to Nick, basically inviting him to the remote section of a nearby beach for some sex. This from a woman who just lost her fiance a few days before. But it wouldn’t be Nick Carter if he didn’t say what the hell and go along with the gal; he figures he’ll have his fun with her, even though he suspects it’s a trap. As in the Don Miles books, Louderback gets slightly explicit in the sex scene, though it’s nothing as strong as what Jon Messmann would soon be writing for the series:

Nick felt her legs part beneath him, felt the bone-tight tautness of his own body sliding into her softness. Her hands caressed and fondled him with growing urgency, until at last her fingernails bit into his back and her mouth melted against his in supplication and hot desire. Their bodies tensed and arched and flowed together, thighs straining deliciously and mouths blending. Nick let himself go – all of himself but that one segment that was always an agent, on the alert for the dangerous, the unexpected. 

He rolled her over and pulled her with him, fiercely jacknifing his desire home. And this time he found her! Each movement was a stab of ecstasy. She gasped suddenly, tore at his lips with her teeth. Her fingers clawed at his chest. He swore softly and pulled her arms away, pinning them at her sides without losing his stride. Her movements quickened convulsively in time with his, and then in one last crazed moment they both forgot the hard sand beneath them, the distant surf, their separate identities – all but the exquisite bursting inside them as their whole beings seemed suddenly ignited, then liberated and free, floating away from the world on wave after shuddering wave of ecstasy…

That’s just an excerpt; the whole thing goes on for about two pages. And we’re only thirty pages in! But Nick’s right; it’s a setup, and we’re graced with the cover image (though Nick and the girl sure aren’t in their bathing suits in the book) as two “cops” ambush Nick. It’s a brutal fistfight, again in the Gold Medal vein, and Nick’s knocked out, the heavyset sherrif hitting him with a thick ring on his finger. Later he realizes there was a drug embedded in the ring; also he realizes the fat sherrif is really a martial artist, and is in fact a Chinese man with facial surgery to look white! After escaping, Nick is so injured he needs to recuperate in the hospital.

More sex ensues as Nick’s “nurse” turns out to be none other than Julia “Julie” Baron, Nick’s sometimes-bedmate and fellow AXE agent who first appeared in the first volume of the series, Run, Spy, Run. Julie appeared in a handful of novels, the last being Time Clock Of Death; in his article Murray states that by the early 1970s Engel had grown tired of Julie, not to mention Mr. Judas and all of Nick’s fancy gadgets, and had decided to begin filtering them out, shortly before Engel himself left the series. Given this, I wonder if Julie was killed off in Time Clock Of Death. I guess I’ll just have to read my copy and find out – and also, Time Clock Of Death was one of the installments Engel claimed to have written himself.

Nick goes back to the Keys disguised as a “millionaire fisherman” and Julie poses as the new gal in the typing pool at the military base where the missile project is taking place. Here Louderback starts delivering the fun stuff, like a trip Nick takes to the old folk’s community, where he tries to visit Ingra Brand’s father, wheelchair-bound codger Gunther Brand. Gunther once worked for the Nazis and had various plans for an underwater assault on London. But Nick’s hurried out of the man’s place – and chased by a bunch of old people! More Chicom agents with facial surgery, these people chase after Nick in a long, entertaining sequence which sees him breaking free in Mobile Gal, Nick’s Bond-esque boat that was designed by AXE’s Special Effects and Editing. The thing comes equipped with heavy machine guns and blows up stuff real good.

And plus he gets laid again – once again courtesy Ingra Brand, who comes on to Nick in his latest disguise, not knowing it’s him, and even delivering the same pickup line! Instead Nick takes her back to his room and “an old fashioned rape” ensues, per the chapter title (curiously, some chapters have titles while others don’t; I’ve never seen that before). Nick gets pissed at the girl, wondering if she’s a spy, sickened with the whole bizarre caper, and basically forces himself on her in another extended sex scene. And wouldn’t you know it, the girl starts to love it after she’s screamed and cried a bit! But then her handbag explodes and Nick only manages to save them both. Looks like Ingra was set up as bait and whoever sent her didn’t mind if she got wasted, too.

Well, folks (to quote Roy), we’re still only about fifty pages in! Just like this review, Danger Key just keeps going and going. Carter eventually will sneak back to Gunther Brand’s home, where after being attacked by a man posing as Brand Nick will discover that Judas is behind all this – seeing the skullish face on a monitor in Brand’s home. Louderback goes for the “classic” version of Judas, from Run, Spy, Run, a bulky “Prussian ox” with big shoulders and a barrel chest, but still with the scarred face and metal hands. Nick here also learns of Brand’s Nazi past, his various weapons designs, and also the fact that Ingra isn’t his daughter at all. Indeed, Ingra and her twin sister Ilse (whom Ingra doesn’t know about) are actually the daughters of a man named Lautenbach, Hitler’s top scientist and a man Nick killed in Fraulein Spy.

The final quarter is another extended setpiece where Nick, in scuba gear, finds that Aquacity doesn’t exist; later he’ll learn all that money was used to build Brand’s experimental underwater warfare craft for an assault on the US. Danger Key is home to A.K. Atchinson’s ruined villa, where the portly, drugged Texan is kept entertained by a busty chick named Kathy Kane (who offers herself to Nick as soon as she meets him, but he’s busy with trying to save the world and all). And plus there’s hundreds of CLAW agents, not to mention enforced workers for the Aquacity project, divers hired to work underwater but instead conscripted into Chicom service. And there’s evil Judas, too, and Louderback continues to dangle the concept that he might be Martin Bormann.

The climactic action sequence is very much in the vein of Thunderball, which was probably raking in the dough in theaters around the world while Louderback was writing this (plus it’s also my favorite Bond movie). Nick manages to infiltrate Judas’s underwater complex and pose as one of the guards, but is of course eventually uncovered, leading to a massive firefight. Louderback isn’t one for the gore when it comes to the firefights, but he is good with hand-to-hand fights and bladed battles beneath the sea; there are many images of CLAW scuba fighters spiralling to the seabed, trailing inky pools of blood from their slit throats and whatnot.

Julie also gets in on the fun; turns out Ilse Brand has been posing as her sister (though Nick slept with the real Ingra, the second time at least), and she’s one of CLAW’s top agents. Julie finds Ilse just as she’s about to sabotage the missile project, and this leads to a brutal karate fight between the two. Louderback again proves his worth as a pulp writer with the gals tearing up each other’s clothes as they fight; first Ilse’s boobs pop out of her dress when Julie grabs her, and then Julie’s own dress gets shredded, so what’s for either of them to do but just rip off the shreds and fight in the buff? “Both girls were panting, their breasts heaving, and a thin sheen of sweat covered their naked, exquisite bodies.” All right!!

The finale continues with the Thunderball vibe as Nick leads the freed workers in a battle against the CLAW team, fighting beneath the waves as the Chicoms steal off with the missile thing on an underwater sled. But just as Nick’s about to have sex with Ingra, who claims she was captured and left in Atchinson’s mansion, he’s informed that Julie is Judas’s prisoner – and it ain’t Ingra but Ilse, who almost stabs Nick in the back. The last pages are very much like the end of a Bond film, as Nick is escorted into Judas’s lair, poor Julie strapped to an operating table and about to be sliced up by an old sadist from the Nazi concentration camps.

But it’s little Pierre to the rescue, Nick having stashed the gas pellet in his pocket, and that takes care of Ilse. Nick gets in a fight with the old concentration camp doctor, and meanwhile Dr. Brand saves the day, coming to his senses – he was only working for CLAW because they had Ingra, you see – and apparently blowing up both himself and Judas in the finale. But like any good sub-Blofeld, Judas returned again; I believe his next appearance was in the Moolman-penned The Weapon Of Night, which came out the following year.

Well, it looks like Louderback’s dense, breathless plotting is contagious and thus has resulted in a dense, breathless review. But I really enjoyed Danger Key and in hindsight I’d say it was my second favorite book yet in the series, just under the almighty The Sea Trap. In fact I intend to read it again someday. Louderback could’ve gone on to be the series author, I think, but instead as mentioned he went over to the Don Miles series. In 1968 he returned for one final volume, Operation Moon Rocket, which I have and now look forward to reading.

Anyway, Danger Key offers practically everything you could want from ‘60s spy-fy. It’s got lots of action, lots of adult shenanigans, cool gadgets, and very good writing, description, and dialog. Even when Nick infiltrates Judas’s underwater lair, the expository dialog explaining it is so effectively delivered (by one of the prisoners) that you don’t even realize it’s exposition. Louderback’s just a gifted writer, which makes it a shame that he didn’t continue in this genre; instead it looks like he got into nonfiction under his own name, in particular a hardcover book on “Fat Power” which received a negative review from Kirkus – but then, most every Kirkus review is negative.

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