Monday, July 24, 2017

The Inquisitor #3: Nuplex Red

The Inquisitor #3: Nuplex Red, by Simon Quinn
May, 1974  Dell Books

Like Operation Hang Ten, The Inquisitor is one of those series that goes for high dollars these days, mostly because “Simon Quinn” was a pseudonym of future bestselling author Martin Cruz Smith. Over the years I debated tracking down this six-volume series, but a while back I decided not to when I learned that protagonist Francis Killy, the titular Inquisitor, serves as a soldier for the Catholic Church but tries his best to refrain from killing in the line of duty. Isn’t that like a porn movie where the actors don’t have sex??

So I passed up on a few opportunities to pick up the series, never at a nice price to begin with, but recently I got a few of them for a pittance. This is the earliest one I have, and now that I’ve read it, I have to say I’m glad I never went to the trouble of tracking down the series. Perhaps it’s just this third volume, but I have to say I didn’t enjoy it at all; Nuplex Red is padded, boring, and poorly constructed, with a cipher-like hero lost in the quagmire of intense info-dumping about nuclear plants and nuclear waste and nuclear etc; there’s hardly any action at all until the final pages, and even then it is so hazily sketched out that it fails to leave an impression. Surely Smith banged this one out to meet a deadline, and it cannot be compared to his “serious” work (or perhaps even the other five installments).

Overall the book has the vibe of Nick Carter: Killmaster, which Smith also wrote a few installments of (the first-person volumes from after Lyle Kenyon Engel left the series), mixed with a bit of a Catholic overlay. Francis Killy (arbitrarily referred to as “Killy” or “Frank” in the narrative), according to the interminable backstory arbitrarily shoehorned into the text midway through the book, was a wayward punk kid in ‘50s New York (where he tossed a desk at a stern Catholic priest in school), before finding his way to ‘Nam and eventually the CIA. In overlong, summary-style backstory we are informed that, after a Catholic priest prevented an attempt on Killy’s life during his Agency years, Killy eventually learned that this priest (actually a Monsignor) headed up a newfangled Inquisition branch of the Church, and was looking for Inquisitors; Killy got the job, and now globetrots as a Church troubleshooter. I have to admit, I find no interest in the series setup.

But I also have to admit, maybe if Nuplex Red was more compelling, I might be more into it; this is not the best introduction to the series. It has more in common with the average thriller of the mid-‘70s, as I know off-hand of a few cime novels dealing with plutonium heists, only Smith pads out the pages with way too much info on how nuclear reactors run, what kind of damage nuclear waste could wreak, how security works on nuclear reactor sites, etc. It’s just deadening stuff, folks; I mean there are parts where nuclear scientists go on and on in technical detail for a few pages of unbroken dialog. To the point where the reader is about to yell, “Just shut up and KILL SOMEONE already!!”

The majority of the novel has Killy in Maryland (where I was born – useless info alert), posing as a representative of the Church at a meeting of the Atomic Energy Council(!). His commander, Monsignor Cella, has tasked Killy into looking into a bomb that was made for some mysterious individual; in the first instance of nuke info-dumping we’ll be assaulted with, the novel opens with a dying nuclear scientist creating a dirty bomb for a group of priests in the Vatican, expositing on the act step by step, and informing them that he’d been paid to make a similar one. So off Killy goes to Hessian, Maryland, where he spends like a hundred or so pages sitting around and listening to nuclear scientists info-dump on nuclear research.

Meanwhile a guy named John Peay, the security chief at the AEC meeting in Hessian, is masterminding a heist that’s about to go down at the Mohawk nuclear base in New York. Smith spends more time with the heisters, many of whom are Haitians; strange backstory, awkwardly written like most else in the book, has it that Peay “fell in love” with the people of Haiti or somesuch, and is pulling off this nuke rip-off to benefit the island. His men are sadistic, too, gunning down Mohawk guards in cold blood. This only happens after lots of “scene-setting,” with the heisters posing as truck drivers, etc. The book is almost methodically paced.

Two of the nuke scientists come to the fore: Kitakami, a Japanese pacifist who survived Hiroshima (as did Monsignor Cella in more backstory), and Vera Tesaru, a science-babe from Russia who also happens to be a KGB spy. In between all their expositing Tilly is called into Peay’s office, where Peay reveals that he knows Killy is a fake – and in fact he knows Killy himself, as back in ‘Nam Peay was responsible from exfiltrating fellow CIA agent Killy out of the latest hellhole. Then the Mohawk heist goes down, and Peay, still posing as the security chief, pretends to answer the summons of the hijackers, catering to their whims to fly out a few nuke scientists to confirm that the heisters have in fact created a nuclear bomb on their own. Killy goes with them.

Our hero makes his first kill of the book on page 160(!), taking out a guard with a .38 revolver – this is after Killy has glibly informed Vera that Peay is behind the heist, Killy having figured it out from the suspicious way Peay’s been acting. Peay wants 100 million in diamonds, and there begins this incredibly drawn-out bit where he sends his demands to the White House, and meanwhile Killy is in communication to, all of it via Telex, and there’s all this stuff about “nuplex red,” which is the shortwave radio designation for a nuclear disaster, yet it’s a Federal offense to not declare nuplex red, or to somehow assist in the disaster spreading, thus everyone washes their hands of it, including the president(?!). I guess this was back in the days where one could still get arrested or charged for something in Washington; these days you can just leak classified info to your pal so that it spreads in the news, even if you’re the head of the FBI, and no one seems to care!

So Killy finally takes out a guard or two, and in one of the novel’s few memorable bits one of the Haitian heisters, fatally shot by Killy, says “Stay cool” as he dies. Then Killy and Vera, who is only in panties, are locked in the Mohawk control center, where Vera asks Killy if he’s ever fantasized about being the last man on earth, running into the last woman – they engage in somewhat-explicit sex (“Killy took her standing up… Inside she was softer and hotter than he expected.”). Immediately thereafter Killy realizes that Peay intends to destroy Mohawk all along, which leads to a tense bit where he and Vera must defuse two dirty bombs, however it turns out one of them’s a fake. Running around in radiation suits, they confront Peay, armed with an M-16, who leaves them with the last bomb before he escapes. In the defusion of this one, Vera plummets to her death in the reactor core. Oh, and Peay shoots Killy in the gut and he’s more dead than alive.

The novel’s final chapter picks up months later, and Killy has just barely survived that gutshot. He’s 25 pounds lighter, still mostly bald from radiation poisoning, but he’s tracked Peay to Haiti, where even here Smith denies us much in the way of action. Instead Killy confronts Peay on this super-bizarre corpse-smuggling business Peay has started up(!?), and Killy reveals that Peay’s latest batch of corpses, conveniently sitting around the room, might not be dead after all – some of them start moving, and Killy ends up shooting Peay when Peay draws a gun. Turns out the corpses were cops, and all this was an elaborate sting operation. WTF? The end, at least.

The book is just, I don’t know, bad. Listless and dull.  It’s just so poorly constructed and awkwardly written, vague when it should be focused and focused when it should be vague. And Killy does nothing to capture the reader’s interest, even considering the ultra-lame “one-liners” Smith tries to give him. Like when Vera asks him, “How is it you are on one side and [Peay] is on another?” To which Killy replies, “I was breast-fed; maybe that has something to do with it.” Mind you, that’s the funniest one-liner he has, and it sucks!!

Here’s hoping the other volumes I have of The Inquisitor are better…but judging from this one, I’d say this series does not deserve the exorbitant prices.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

I was always curious about the Inquisitor series, though not quite enough to buy any. Thanks for revealing how bad this one is. You've confirmed my suspicions. You're, uh, doing God's work, sir! ;-)

Zwolf said...

I've only read two of these so far - this one, and The Last Time I Saw Hell. And The Last Time I Saw Hell is actually really good, so I was let down by Nuplex Red. It's confusing and weird and nothing happens. Last Time I Saw Hell, though, had plenty of action and Killy getting in some seriously tough scrapes. I read it first, so I had high hopes for this one, but, nope, it was bad. Did a good job of making nuclear doom sound really scary, but that was about it.

Anyway, I'm betting some of the others will be better. I know at least one of 'em is...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

Pelaphus said...

I read THE INQUISITOR when I was very much younger (bought them when they were new) and while I don't remember them vividly (though I can easily put my hands on them), I really liked them, and they were my gateway to Smith's other books.

I seem to recall that NUPLEX RED didn't quite make sense, and I had to read some passages over again (that scene with him and the babe trapped in the radioactive room, getting in a last, weird boink before death, but then not dying … my memory is that they should have been crisped and Smith/Quinn really didn't explain how they got out clean; to my mind, they should have been able to power lightbulps by putting the contact ends in their mouths) … but I also recall it having bigger print and seeming perhaps a bit shorter than the others, maybe a rush job. Which is possible, if he had a contract for six. But despite #3, THE INQUISITOR was a favorite of mine — I thought its concept was a cut above and that the prose was unusually graceful for the genre — and I was sad when it ended. Go back to the beginning and try the first two. Maybe you'll see the magic. (And maybe you won't.) :-)

— David Spencer

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, David! Glad to hear Nuplex Red really WAS an off-installment. The only other volume I have is the 6th one, so I'm hoping I'll enjoy it a lot more. And yeah, that "last, weird boink" was really something else...