Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Mark Of Cosa Nostra (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #64)

The Mark Of Cosa Nostra, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1971  Award Books

The last Nick Carter: Killmaster courtesy George Snyder,* The Mark Of Cosa Nostra mines the same territory as later installment Beirut Incident: Nick “Killmaster” Carter, who narrates the novel, takes a break from tangling with the usual foreign agents to take on the American Mafia. However this time he does it mostly in Sicily.

Nick when we meet him is already getting in character in a remote AXE training facility in the Arizona desert. This volume’s unusual in that Nick spends the entirety in his disguise, which has him sporting a thick moustache. He’s posing as a high-level Mafioso named Tommy Acasano but doesn’t know why, nor what the assignment will be. At novel’s opening Nick has been here for a week or so, and as he’s walking from his room one morning he’s approached by a sexy young blonde who appears to be very young. She is – we’ll learn she’s only 19, and she’s a junior AXE agent, here for training.

This girl, Tanya, comes on strong to Nick, and without much trouble talks him back into his room for some hot lovin’. As ever Snyder doesn’t much exploit his female characters, but it must be mentioned that Tanya comes off a lot better than his other female protagonists – and Nick himself doesn’t even show the macho misogyny of Snyder’s other lead protagonist Bill Cartwright, in Operation Hang Ten. But this scene proves to be the first in a series of pretty-funny jokes; Nick starts taking off Tanya’s clothes and sees something metal and cylindrical poking from beneath the waistband of her panties. This turns out to be a “panty gun” which Tanya is testing for AXE; when Nick pulls the panties off the gun barrel snaps forward, the barrel right in Nick’s face, and if it had been loaded he’d be dead.

After this the girl makes a nonchalant phone call to someone to say the test was successful, and that’s that! She has no true interest in sleeping with Nick. To his credit our hero doesn’t come off as brutish as one might expect. In fact he admits that this incredibly young junior agent did get the drop on him. The panty gun appears twice more in the text and in each instance it makes for a memorable moment. At this point Nick’s boss Hawk arrives and over breakfast explains to Nick what the mission is.

Like the later Beirut Incident this is one of the few Killmaster yarns where Nick takes on organized American crime: AXE wants to put to stop the potential Mafia takeover being orchestrated by Nicoli Rizano. Having left America a decade ago, Rizano now rules a fiefdom from Sicily and has made a score selling heroin at dirt-cheap prices to US soldiers in Vietnam. He’s recently had a rival godfather killed off in America and is plotting to return to his homeland as the new main godfather of the United States mafia.

Nick is to pose as Acasano, Rizano’s only friend, who was ordered to compile a list of Mafioso who would support Rizano upon his return to America as the reigning capo. However Hawk relates that Acasano is really dead, killed by an AXE agent. Cagey Snyder figures out a way to slip in a few pages of third-person narration as we read of this undercover agent being outed by Acasano and the two killing each other in New York. Hawk is certain Rizano is unaware his friend is dead, so Nick is to go in disguise to Sicily and turn over a fake list of names to gain Rizano’s confidence and bust up the heroin operation.

This bound-for-failure plan is explained away with the goofy note that the two friends haven’t seen each other in ten years, so it’s hoped that Nick’s disguise will be good enough that Rizano will just think it’s the passing of a decade that’s made his old friend look a little different. No explanation is given on how Nick’s voice would doubtlessly sound different. This is why Tanya is here at the training base; Acasano had just acquired a new woman, a 19 year-old beauty Acasano took everywhere with him.

Tanya is a dead ringer for her (the real girlfriend is being kept in a resort by AXE agents), so she’s to go with Nick to Palermo and help him out. Off they go to Manhattan to wait in Acasano’s apartment for a coded message that should be arriving from Sicily. Snyder finally works in an action scene with the two ambushed by a pair of “Orientals” who lurk in the darkened apartment. Since they have heard Tanya call our hero “Nick” they know it’s not really Acasano, and so must die. Here Tanya proves her skills aren’t just in getting guys into the sack; she actually comes to Nick’s rescue a few times.

More importantly, Nick and Tanya finally get down to the dirty business of screwing. Tanya will prove to be Nick’s only conquest in the novel, a total breach of the series template where “Killmaster” scores with at least three babes per book. However this part does contain the most surreal description of an orgasm I’ve ever read:

There was no way I could hold back. I was a balloon filled with water and rolling across a long flat desert. A large spike was ahead sticking out of a weatherbeaten board. I felt myself pulling and clutching and bouncing until at last I struck the spike, and all the liquid water rushed out of me.

Snyder doesn’t much bring Palermo to life, but then this isn’t really the genre for such things. Instead he has Nick and Tanya locked up in Rizano’s fortress in the countryside, where he’s lived like a mafioso Howard Hughes for the past ten years. Rizano’s in deep with the Chinese Reds, in particular a crafty one named Tai Sheng. Nick as Acasano butts heads with Tai Sheng immediately upon meeting him at the airport. It’s clear Tai Sheng is using Rizano, with the ultimate goal of the Reds taking over the American Mafia. Snyder tries to convey more import to the tale – and also explain why Nick doesn’t just kill everyone – with the idea that Nick plans to steal a list of undercover Red agents from Tai Sheng.

It’s more on a suspense tip as Nick sits around in an opulent room, the “guest” of still-unseen Rizano. Tanya was taken away from him as soon as they entered the fortress. Later Rizano, who turns out to be going to seed and completely controlled by Tai Sheng, happily relates that “Tommy’s girl” was really a duplicate…the belabored story has it that the real girlfriend was spotted by Oriental waiters at a resort(!), and it was instantly surmised that this girl who has been going around with “Tommy” is a secret agent…indeed, an AXE agent! How they even know about top-secret AXE isn’t really explained.

Thus Nick watches on a monitor as Tanya is tied to a chair and beaten around by Tai Sheng – who by the way is also trying to convince Rizano that Nick himself is an imposter. The reader wants “Killmaster” to spring to action, but instead Nick bides his time, hoping for the chance to get that list of agents from Tai Sheng. Snyder wrote this thing in such a hurry that at one point he even has Nick trying to protect his list from Tai Sheng – before Nick “remembers” that it’s a fake list he brought here just to get in the graces of Rizano.

Tai Sheng claims to know someone in Turkey who can attest that Nick is an imposter, and further they’re headed over there for a heroin run, so why not bring along the bound and beaten Tanya as well? What the hell. Snyder all along is building a suspense story, as usual for him something more along the lines of a vintage Gold Medal yarn. The only problem is, he’s up against his word count. So, as hard as it is to believe, the climax of The Mark Of Cosa Nostra plays out on an airport landing strip in Turkey…and features one of the most lame copout finales of any book I’ve ever read.

Here be spoilers so be warned. Okay, Tanya’s already been outed as AXE, and is taken away by a flunky to be raped and killed on one of Rizano’s yachts on the bay near the airport. Soon thereafter, Nick’s cover is blown as well – and he’s blown it himself, slipping up when Rizano asks him a sneaky question, something the real Acasano should know. Okay, so here’s the dumb stuff. Rizano takes out a revolver and shoots Nick, point friggin’ blank. He just shoots him! And Nick falls down behind a car…and doesn’t die!! I mean, I can’t understand any writer who would come up with this sort of a lame bullshit copout finale… “I’ll have my hero get shot, but it’ll just be in the side, and he’ll walk it off…!”

I mean there’s no hidden bulletproof vest, no last-second plan to protect Nick’s cover identity. Nothing! Nick just gets shot! Basically point blank by a guy standing a few feet away! No last second dodging behind a car, or kicking at the gun! Nothing! Hell, even getting shot isn’t part of a plan – Nick’s completely caught unawares by the bullet! Him not getting killed is just a total fluke. I mean it’s just some of the laziest writing I’ve ever encountered…folks, you don’t have your protagonist get shot point blank and just happen to live through the good grace of god or poor villain marksmanship. 

But Nick lays there in a growing pool of blood as Acasano and Tai Sheng have their own final moments together. Then Nick, in a stupor, manages to drive a stolen bus down to the harbor, coming to Tanya’s defense. However the girl, we’ll recall, isn’t the typical defenseless maiden of Snyder’s other books, and has things well in hand. Instead it’s she who comes to Nick’s aid, bandaging him up, and later literally jumps to his rescue when Tai Sheng shows up toting a pistol. This leads to a practically endless fistfight between Nick and Tai Sheng, with Nick’s stiletto also employed, and man it just seems to go on forever.

I’d say the copout stuff is indication Snyder was fatigued on this series, not to mention his contempraneous work on Operation Hang Ten. I see now from a post by Paul Bishop that Snyder died last year, which is unfortunate. I also came across this nice interview with him, from I guess a few years ago. It features such memorable lines as, “I’m a junkyard writer who writes junkyard books,” but also some depressing lines like, “My kids had a new dad they liked better than me.” Judging from the interview Snyder became very prolific in the early 2000s, self-publishing a string of series books. Many of them seem right in-line with Hard Case Crime’s output, so it’s hard to understand why he couldn’t find a publisher, as he admits in the interview.

In fact the entire interview depressed the hell out of me…I mean the guy was a gifted writer, particularly in the hardboiled pulp manner, and sure he hit the occasional wrong note like the above Nick shooting, but let’s keep in mind he was likely overworked and hitting a deadline. But still, to write so long and remain unrecognized is just depressing as hell, and makes one wonder if getting into the writing game is even worth it. But as Snyder also states in the interview, the writing itself was enjoyable, so there’s that.

*Snyder’s name is also attached to the 1974 entry Vatican Vendetta, but as noted in my review that volume was a Ralph Hayes revision of a Snyder manuscript. My assumption is Snyder wrote his manuscript sometime in the late ‘60s and it sat around for a few years until Hayes did some work on it for “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel.


russell1200 said...

Off topic but I thought you might find this interesting. You know far more on the subject of pulp fiction heroes than I.

Zwolf said...

I've read this book but it was so long ago I forgot pretty much everything other than it didn't come across as much like an Executioner book as I'd been expecting.

As for that ending, sometimes good writers will do some crazy things. In one of the later Mike Hammer books (Black Alley, if I remember correctly) Mike Hammer starts out the book having been shot three times in the torso with a .357 Magnum. And some guy who happens to be a doctor takes him home and takes care of him, rather than sending him to a hospital.

I'm like, "Ummmm..." I mean, just the hydroshock alone of ONE round from a .357 is likely to kill you, even if it missed all vital organs. A .357 will likely kill you even if you're wearing a bulletproof vest. But... THREE? And then you could get adequate care for that kind of trauma in some guy's basement? I love Mickey, and I know Mike Hammer's so tough he shaves with a .38, but... nope, can't figure that 'un, unless there's a plot revealing that Mike's real name is Kal-El and he's the last son of Krypton. The situation also leaves Mike having to basically bluff everybody for the rest of the book, because he's never in any shape to be brawling after that kind of punishment. Anyway, it makes Nick Carter taking a close-range bullet to the gut seem a lot more plausible by comparison... :)

andydecker said...

I think most of the novels from 70 to 75 rather poor, after Messmann and Stokes called it a day. In later years it seems that Kenyon Engel bought every manuskript which he got in the mail. So many writers who only did one or two novels.