Monday, March 6, 2017

Spy Castle (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #12)

Spy Castle, by Nick Carter
January, 1966  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes turns in another Nick Carter: Killmaster, and this might be my favorite of his yet. Other than a few snags, Spy Castle displays why the ‘60s installments of Nick Carter have become some of my favorite men’s adventure novels of all. Plus, this one (sort of) answers the question: “What if Nick Carter met James Bond?”

It’s early November, 1965, and a nuclear warhead is fired from some mysterious place in Scotland to the North Pole, setting the various world leaders into a panic. From this tense opening we cut to the Killmaster himself, who is musing over the nude bod of his latest sexual conquest, an Irish opera star named Melba – “She had magnificent breasts, had Melba.” Indeed Melba is so stacked that she sends Nick (which is to say Stokes) off on this humorous little paen to her boobs:

Nick fancied himself something of a connoisseur of breasts. Melba’s were of the Celtic type – what else in a girl from Dublin? – half pear and half globe and hung low on the ribcage with nipples tilting high on the upper round of flesh. Velvety, satin-soft flesh, pink budded, with just a hint of blue vein tracery in marmoreal perfection. Soft-firm-hard-soft! Exquisite. They might have been carved from Carrarra!

Good grief! And as you can see, Stokes’s bizarre overusage of exclamation points is catching; the dude finishes practically every other sentence with one, to the point where you wonder if he pounded out this manuscript riding high on amphetamines. It seems that Stokes was prone to this in his early Killmaster books, and given that the exclamation-point onslaught tapers off in his later series books, it makes me wonder if Lyle Kenyon Engel himself either edited them out or told Stokes to ease up a little.

Nick is called from his posh digs to the DC HQ of AXE boss Hawk via codes Doomsday and EOW, aka End of World. This is the first time Nick has ever heard of these two codes used together, so he knows something major is up. A concerned Hawk explains that a Scotland-based supervillain going by the name Pendragon is threatening to nuke Russia, making it look like America did it, so that the two superpowers can then destroy each other in a nuclear confrontation.

This explains the opening – the North Pole nuke was likely fired from the island of Blackscape, “a little northeast of Sanday” on the northeast coast of Scotland; the island is owned by Lord Hardesty, a notorious billionaire-cum-religious leader who commands an army of “Militant Druids.” Pendragon is his Druid name, and his ultimate goal is to destroy Russia, given his ultra-hatred of Communism. 

British Intelligence has been investigating Hardesty, and a rep from Scotland Yard named Ian Travers briefs Nick along with Hawk. Nick is to be loaned to the British; Travers explains that even the famed “Double Os” of British Intelligence have failed (“They have a license to kill…well, they got killed!”), to the point that only one of them, the legendary “James Stockes,” still lives. This gets Nick’s attention, as Stockes is “nearly as much of a legend in the counter-espionage world as Nick Carter himself.” Gee, I wonder who Stockes is supposed to be?

But given the abject failure of the British agents, it’s up to Nick Carter of AXE to save the day; Hawk and Travers stress (a bit too much) that this is a lone-man job, despite the fact that the fate of the friggin’ world hangs in the balance. So off Nick goes to the coast of Scotland…where he initially poses as a native fisherman stuck on a boat in the cruel, stormy sea. As usual Stokes pads out the pages with go-nowhere digressions, in particular the various bullshit cover identities Nick briefly assumes and quickly casts aside throughout the first half of the novel.

He’s united with his local contact, a gorgeous redhead named Gwen Leith of the Special Branch, a babe who is “big and busty, high and hard breasted.” There we go with the boobs again! But Gwen spurns Nick’s advances – the Killmaster’s jaw hits the floor practically every time he looks at her, just oggling those breastesses – telling him she is in a serious relationship and no funny stuff. And plus there’s that threat of imminent nuclear armageddon.

Gwen’s staked out near Blackscape island, and has been working the area with James Stockes himself, but the old boy has gone missing. Those hoping for a Nick-Stockes team-up will be disappointed, to say the least. Nick and Gwen disguise themselves in purloined black cloaks with hoods and attend a Druid Black Mass with five hundred other costumed believers outside Hardesty’s castle on Blackscape. This sequence is pretty cool, Stokes pulling out the black magic goods like a ‘60s version of the Mind Masters installment Shamballah.

Some of the satanic hijinks include a Druid in a devil costume hoisting a two-foot “phallus” and using it to goad the onlookers; with a start Nick realizes that it’s a woman beneath the devil costume. Meanwhile Gwen is “caught up in the toils of raw pagan lust.” Nick knocks her out of her lusty mood by prodding the edge of Hugo, his stiletto, up her ass! Then the Druids on stage pull out a bound man and set him on fire as a sacrifice – and it turns out to be James Stockes. Nick shoots the poor bastard in the head to put him out of his misery. Well, so much for the James Bond analogue.

Nick prefigures later Stokes hero Richard Blade in the ensuing escape; Nick, still wielding Hugo, slices and dices sundry black-robed Druids as he and Gwen race for safety. But Gwen falls and hurts her ankle and Nick has no choice but to abandon her. Hey, nuclear armageddon is imminent, all agents are expendable! (Except Nick, of course.) The ensuing chapter “Sex Duel” is another of the novel’s highlights; escaping on the Daily Mail train, Nick wakens to find a brunette beauty with “small breasts” sitting in his cabin – and here we learn one of the Killmaster’s sexual quirks is the sound of nylon stockings rubbing together.

The woman is Lady Hardesty herself, notorious ex-wife (then wife again) of Lord Hardesty, aka Pendragon. Dubbed by Ian Travers as the “nympho to end all nymphos,” Lady Hardesty in today’s era would have her own reality TV series and famous sex tape. But she is complicit with Pendragon and ultimately will turn out to be the main villain of the piece, as it is she who truly wants to nuke Russia and start WWIII. She also wants Nick to give her some of that good Killmaster lovin’, having heard through some grapevine about Nick Carter’s legendary skills in the sack.

The Lady also reveals that poor Gwen has been tortured by snakes back at Blackscape, including the lurid insinuation that one of them was slipped into a rather delicate part of the poor girl’s anatomy. A disgusted Nick hates Lady Hardesty but can’t help getting all hot and bothered by her: “She was a bitch in heat and he was a brute male!” The open challenge is for Nick to make her orgasm, something no man has ever done before, and then perhaps the Lady will make Nick her co-ruler in the aftermath of WWIII.

Stokes gets fairly graphic in the sex scene, which takes up most of the chapter, about as explicit as he got in the earlier The Eyes of The Tiger. And no surprises, Nick helps the Lady achieve that elusive orgasm, have no fear. We go from the sex directly to the action, as Nick takes out a few of the Pendragon goons who shadow Lady Hardesty; this time Nick has a few gadgets that could come out of the Bond film franchise, including a lighter that sprays napalm. He crisps off the face of one goon with it and Stokes well describes the gory horrors that ensue.

After all this cool stuff, Spy Castle loses its way with a digressive bit where Nick must pose as an Irish convict so he can gain the confidence of one Alfie McTurk, a Militant Druid who was jailed for some offense. Stokes builds up this hard-to-swallow plotline that Alfie might provide the lead to where exactly Pendragon is hiding and where his nukes are. But rather than just torture the bastard into talking, Ian Travers et al come up with this lame ruse where Nick must pose as a fellow convict on the van ride to prison; a car crash is staged, and the two are to “escape” into the woods with the intent that Alfie will somehow tell his new convict buddy all about Pendragon.

It’s a page-filling gambit pure and simple, and it does go on a while. It turns into an extended sordid sequence in which the two come across a good-looking young woman alone in her home while her husband’s off at work, and Nick tries his best to keep Alfie from raping her. Alfie eventually makes a phone call to Militant Druid HQ for a helicopter to come pick him up(!), but then Nick falls asleep and Alfie rapes the poor girl after all – and accidentally strangles her while doing so, continuing to hump her corpse! Believe it or not, this is a recurring theme in Stokes.

Nick briefly bluffs his way into a temporary membership in the Militant Druids before he’s uncovered and imprisoned. Lady Hardesty returns, turning out to be the power at Blackscape; she shows Nick a bound and nude Gwen and orders him to drop a live snake on her for more of that snake torture that so turns on the Lady. Afterwards Lady Hardesty wants more Killmaster sex: “She looked [to Nick] like all the crazy whores in the world.” Nick makes the Lady think he’s about to do her again, then forces a bunch of whiskey down her throat until she’s pass-out drunk.

Stokes doesn’t give us a big action finale – none of the Stokes Killmasters I’ve yet read have matched the finale of his Web Of Spies – but instead goes for more of a drawn-out affair with Nick and Gwen (Nick having knocked her out and then saved her from the snake in time) running around the tunnels buried beneath Pendragon’s headquarters. There’s only periodic action, like Nick strangling one dude with his bare hands to Gwen hefting a subgun and mowing down some goons. We also get a terrific catfight between Gwen and Lady Hardesty: “Red head and dark head, spitting and clawing and scratching and gouging!” Indeed, Gwen even makes the kill while a tired “Killmaster” just sits there and watches.

The finale is a cool setpiece with Nick, back in London, infiltrating an abandonded movie lot, one owned by Lord Hardesty. This it turns out is where he has been hiding the whole time; as usual with Stokes, the main villain spends the majority of the narrative off-page. Pendragon has made his home in a fake Camelot, and Nick has a brief confrontation with the wheelchair-bound villain, telling him he’s under arrest. But Pendragon gets the drop on Nick (in the dumbest manner possible – asking for Nick’s Luger so he can kill himself!) and shoots him. Luckily Nick has on “plastic body armor” and is unfazed; he once again whips out trusty Hugo to finish off Lord Hardesty for good.

Oh, and have no fears on the Nick-Gwen score; the novel ends with the two on a coastal vacation, where Nick’s about to get good and lucky with the redheaded babe. All that stuff about her having a steady flame was a lie; Gwen too is a nympho after all, and knew as soon as she saw Nick that she wanted to screw his brains out. But she tried her bestest to keep him away, hence the lie.

I enjoyed Spy Castle and it would be one of my favorites if not for the occasional padding and the “Alfie McTurk” nonsense. Otherwise Stokes delivers just what we expect of him, with a brutal, macho hero and a plot that hopscotches from point A to point Z. The guy’s one of my favorites.


James Reasoner said...

I remember liking this one quite a bit when I read it many years ago. Pretty good cover, too.

dfordoom said...

I read this one years ago and I remember enjoying it a whole lot more than I expected to. I may have to check out a few more of these Killmaster books.