Thursday, July 22, 2021

Operation Moon Rocket (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #34)


Operation Moon Rocket, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

I’ve been looking forward to this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster for a long time; not only because it was written by Lew “Don Miles” Louderback, but also because the plot ties into the space race. As it turns out Operation Moon Rocket is downright streamlined compared to Louderback’s plot-heavy other novels; the big print and somewhat-jumbled narrative leads me to suspect that some behind-the-scenes tinkering went on. 

Whereas Louderback’s other Killmaster novel, Danger Key, was an overly-complicated (but still very entertaining) yarn, with plot upon plot, Operation Moon Rocket keeps things simple: someone is sabotaging the effort to land the first American on the moon, and Nick “Killmaster” Carter must go undercover to find out out who it is. And yes, folks, this one features “astronaut Nick Carter,” however he doesn’t actually go into space. In fact the “space race” stuff almost seems to disappear in the final third, which comes off more like a hardboiled yarn. And also “Killmaster” doesn’t even kill anyone until page 105, and sets a record for the number of times a protagonist can get knocked out and not suffer permanent brain damage. 

The novel opens with what is clearly a reference to the Apollo 1 disaster, as a three-man astronaut crew dies in a cockpit fire while sitting on the launching pad. Even the last names of two of the victims are clearly inspired by their real-life counterparts: “Liscombe” instead of Grissom, and “Green” instead of White. But here the fire is the result of sabotage, courtesy the gantry crew chief. It’s a harrowing scene, again mimicking real life, as the astronauts are trapped in the cockpit as the fire rages. The crew chief, we learn, hasn’t done this for his own evil purposes; he’s been blackmailed or pushed into it. When NASA calls him that night, having determined the fire was sabotage and also that the crew chief caused it, he asks for police protection in exchange for telling everything he knows. 

Louderback must’ve been in a bad moon when he wrote Operation Moon Rocket, as it has a bit more brutality than the average Killmaster novel; some “cops” immediately show up at the man’s door, only they’re imposters, and they go about slaughtering the gantry chief and his entire family, including the little kids. Eventually we’ll learn that NASA has been plagued with other deadly acts of sabotage, and in each case the saboteur has ended up dead, or his family killed, etc. This brings us to Nick, as Louderback refers to him (as do most other series authors, this early in the series), who happens to be lounging by the pool in Miami Beach, a woman at his side – his “first vacation in two years.” 

As usual Louderback works in a Red Chinese angle, same as he did in Danger Key and most of the Don Miles books; Nick is called by boss Hawk to West Palm Beach, where they meet in a nightclub with an “Oriental” theme, a place that will ultimately factor into the plot as a den of Red China spies. Louderback also has a penchant for swingin’ spy chicks, and here it’s Candy Sweet(!), a bombshell blonde who is barely 20 and comes off like a proto-Kardashian in that she’s always in the trade papers for her jet-setting kicks and thrills; it’s mentioned that one of her biggest affairs was a birthday party turned orgy, which I guess is the ‘60s equivalent of a sex tape. 

While Nick frets over being paired with such a junior agent, especially one who appears to view the entire spy biz as just another kick, his reservations are thrown aside when he sees the girl in action. She knocks out a couple guards at the nightclub and shows Nick all the spying and monitoring gear inside. But Louderback throws a definite curveball here in that Nick and Candy don’t get down to the expected shenanigans, and instead Candy disappears for a good bit after her initial appearance. 

Louderback seems to have a lot of fun with Hawk, Nick’s ever-grizzled boss; the scene where Hawk briefs Nick in the nightclub, casually going on about top-secret material, is fun because Nick wonders if the old man’s finally lost his marbles. But of course cagey Hawk has ulterior motives. He does brief Nick on his assignment, though: Nick is to pose as an astronaut, Glenn Eglund, who happens to be in the hospital due to another of those sabotage attempts – only it was prevented in time, and AXE has kept it secret. Since Nick bears a similarity to Eglund, the idea is Poindexter in “Effects and Editing” will do a little makeup work (which involves a “Plastotex” mask like the “Mr. Nobody” disguise featured in the Don Miles books). Then Nick will be given the “basics” on aeronautics over several hours, after which he’ll be sent over to Houston to pose as Eglund. Oh, and Eglund’s part of the crew of “Phoenix One,” a replacement mission NASA plans to launch asap into space so as to get over the public backlash from the recent disaster. 

So of course all this is preposterous; there’s no believable way Nick could handle this assignment without outing himself as an imposter. To think you could just slip onto a spaceship crew and no one would notice is ridiculous. But then, that’s part of the charm of these books; I don’t exactly demand realism from them. Regardless, Nick is able to fake his way through this with the excuse that “Glenn” suffered from oxygen poisoning or something to that effect, hence is a little groggy and forgetful. His biggest test is passing the inspection of the medical chief on site. But this isn’t Dr. Bellows we’re talking about: it’s Dr. Joy Han Sun, a “shapely, full-breasted” beauty of Chinese-English descent. This is another callback to Louderback’s previous novels; he often has hot but evil Chinese women in them, and Nick’s certain straightaway that Joy is evil, and likely the person behind the sabotage. And of course catering to the genre, the very first thing Dr. Joy does is have “Glenn” strip down…and when she checks out his scarred body Nick is sure she knows he’s an imposter. 

Louderback I’m guessing was given the direction “make Killmaster an astronaut” by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and he tries to make it as believable as he can. So while we never actually see Nick in space, we do see him in a full pressure suit as he makes his way around a lunar training ground in Houston. It’s got the same gravity, temperature, and terrain as the moon, and it’s there for astronauts to train on. Nick’s there with the other two members of “Glenn’s” crew for some last-minute training before the Phoenix One launch, which is scheduled to happen at any moment. Nick of course bumbles his way through it, pretending to still be a little groggy to cover the fact that he has no idea where he is or what he’s doing. Curiously Louderback mentions a prototype of the lunar rover here, but one wasn’t taken along on the actual first lunar landing (ie Apollo 11 in July ’69). 

The rover factors into an action scene here were Nick, separated from his fellow crewmen, is attacked by a mysterious figure in another pressure suit who comes after Nick aboard the lunar vehicle, bearing right down on him. This isn’t your typical Killmaster action sequence, as Nick mostly just tries to run away and can’t fight back much, given the bulkiness of the pressure suit, the lack of weapons, and his unfamiliarity with moving around in low gravity. Thus it makes for a somewhat gripping sequence, with of course the knowledge going in that Nick’s not going to die…I mean there was over two hundred more volumes to go! 

Even here Nick suspects Dr. Joy Sun was behind the attack; Hawk has given Nick a photo of Joy having sex with some unidentified man, taken on a spy camera in that nightlub. This leads to one of my favorite goofy lines in the novel; when Nick first sees Joy, he thinks she is “even more beautiful than the pornographic photo had suggested.” As mentioned the mob eventually factors into the plot, and Nick will soon learn of Joy Sun’s involvement with Reno Tree, who per a complicated backstory was a vicious Mafia hitman who has now turned into a famous member of the international jet set(!). And also Joy is aware Nick is an imposter; she says of course she knew as soon as she saw him naked. We’re to understand this is due to all those scars, of course! 

I mentioned the narrative is a bit messy. So there’s a part where the Phoenix One crew has to fly to Florida for a special rocket launch and the airplane explodes in midair, courtesy a planted bomb, and the cabin loses gravity and everyone’s floating around. All this part is weird and very hard to believe, especially when Nick hauls a terrified Joy into a seat and starts interrogating her. But there seems to have been some material cut here; as Joy relates her story – which proves her innocence – and then there’s a sudden narrative cut, with the plane abruptly about to crash land, and Nick thinking “to hell with that,” he’ll face forward and watch it happen instead of cowering in his seat. Well, it’s hard to explain but if you read the book maybe you’ll see what you mean. I know Engel and Award often edited these manuscripts before publication, so it does seem like something happened to Operation Moon Rocket, like chunks were taken out of it and the gaps not properly filled up. 

This midair interrogation does however lead to the expected Nick-Joy conjugational activities (speaking of filling up gaps…sorry, I know that was crude but I couldn’t resist). First Joy demands Nick take off the “Eglund” mask so she can see his real face, then it’s on to the hardcore stuff…which isn’t too hardcore, given the publication date. And in fact goes for more of a pseudo-poetic filth approach: “She felt the sudden quivering of him at the springing of his seed,” and whatnot. Nick at this point by the way is happy to learn that Joy isn’t one of the bad guys, that she was pressured into a bad scene thanks to Reno Tree, the aforementioned Mafia sadist…who happens to also be the guy who butchered the gantry chief and the man’s family at novel’s beginning. And also the guy in that “pornographic photo” with Joy, per belabored backstory.

At this point the “syndicate” stuff takes precedence over the “space” stuff. I wasn’t happy about this, as Louderback had clearly done his homework on the Apollo Program and NASA in general, and it was fun to read an action novel set in this milieu. But Nick drops the Glenn Eglund disguise and right after takes up another – now he poses as a notorious mobster. But humorously this guise is immediately uncovered by the goons Nick tries to infiltrate. Here begins an unintentionally humorous sequence of Nick Carter constantly getting caught unawares, tied up, and beaten to a pulp, then managing to escape. At one point guys wearing cleats even go at him. It’s like Louderback gets stuck on repeat; every chapter ends with Nick caught or about to be beaten, and then falling into “the merciful haze of blackness” or whatever, and then waking up next chapter to find himself in a situation he can easily escape from. But it’s downright goofy; at one point he wakes up to find himself trapped in a centrifuge, an unwilling “test subject” for a new design, but once again he blacks out before the increased gravity can pulp him. 

Eventually the main villain of the piece is revealed, and he too is more suiting of a hardboiled novel, an entreprenneur whose plot involves getting a big contract to build new space equipment. To do this though he intends to divert the Phoenix One rocket into Miami. Nick still finds the opportunity to get laid, though; he awakens from one of his many beatings to find none other than Candy Sweet riding him. This part too is goofy as Candy helps Nick escape…and then of course he’s captured right again. You could almost set your clock by his frequent captures. Again this gives the impression that the manuscript was edited, or Louderback was in a hurry; I know all this stuff is there to make it seem tense, but at the same time Nick comes off as one pathetic “Killmaster.” 

There’s more messiness later where Nick, once again caught and managing to escape, rushes to the villain’s Palm Beach villa, where all the bad guys have conveniently assembled. Nick at one point breaks out Pierre, the “gas bomb” he usually keeps near his privates (which isn’t weird at all). He tosses it at the people, but they’re outside, so the gas apparently floats harmlessly away…or Louderback just forgets to tell us who the poison gas actually kills, as all we learn is one of the guys keeps grabbing at his eyes. Even the sendoff of desipicable Reno Tree isn’t as momentous an occasion as I would’ve preferred. It’s all just very rushed and lackluster, which is surprising given that Louderback wrote it. 

But then, the Don Miles series had ended the year before, and Danger Key was published the year before that, so it’s possible that by 1968 Louderback was just burned out on the men’s adventure genre. The fact that Operation Moon Rocket was his last novel in the genre would seem to confirm that. At least, I’ve found no other books by him in this field, pseudonymous or otherwise. The only other books I’ve seen by him are The Bad Ones, a Fawcett book from 1968 on ‘30s gangsters, and another book, published in hardcover, on “fat acceptance,” which clearly would now be seen as a trendsetter in our current world of “accepting all body types.” (Which curiously only seems to matter when it comes to ads for womens lingerie or bikinis…yet the half-nude male models of such clothing are still handsome and muscular…yes, quite curious indeed.)

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Your reviews have inspired me to buy a few of the Killmaster books. Great fun. I'd read a couple many years ago and it's a nice series to revisit.