Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Filthy Five (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #27)

The Filthy Five, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

One of the things I dig about Nick Carter: Killmaster is that you can take the work of the various authors who wrote for the series and excise their individual volumes into a standalone series. So then the eighteen volumes by Manning Lee Stokes, who wrote The Filthy Five, could be seen as its own series, separate from the installments by the other ghostwriters. Other than the recurring setup of Nick, his weapons and gadgets, AXE, and boss David Hawk, the ghostwriters were free to do their own thing, and I doubt many of them were reading each other’s work. In this regard, then, you could break out individual series runs from the overal series itself to make up various mini-series. 

Look, even I doubt that opening paragraph made any sense, so let me start over. The Filthy Five was written by my man Manning Lee Stokes, and it is of a piece with his other volumes of the series, though in this case it’s among the better ones. It’s also in the much preferable third-person of the early Nick Carter years. But what makes The Filthy Five so interesting is that it is a trial run for Stokes’s later Aquanauts series. I mean it is so similar that you could go through the text and change “Nick Carter” to “Tiger Shark” and “David Hawk” to “Admiral Coffin” and you’d have what could be passed off as a volume of The Aquanauts

To whit, each volume of that later series, which was also “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel, follows the same template: there’s some “water” action, usually involving scuba, there are a lot of scenes with “crusty” old Admiral Coffin handling the strategy, there’s a villain with some nefarious plan involving the water in some fashion, and generally there will be an obnoxious drunkard who either serves as a henchman or acts as a villain in some other capacity. All of that is present in The Filthy Five, to the extent that I wondered if Stokes just looked back to this Killmaster for inspiration when he started writing The Aquanauts, or if Engel himself liked this one a lot and decided to spin a series off of it. 

The only thing lacking from the usual Stokes template, shockingly enough, is the typically-mandatory sex scene. Just to drop the bomb here at the start, let me inform you that Nick Carter does not, I repeat does not have sex in the course of The Filthy Five! The book doesn’t even close with him about to get busy! In fact the novel ends with a bald and flame-scarred Nick recuperating in the hospital. This is I think the only volume of the series I’ve yet read where Nick Carter does not get his mandatory booty. So far as I know, Engel established a “three women” standard for each volume, so he must’ve really appreciated Stokes’s work; I know from Will Murray’s 1981 study of Nick Carter: Killmaster that Stokes would often diverge from the outlines Engel provided, and that’s certainly the case here…and I’m not even just talking about the lack of sex. 

If you read the back cover synopsis, you’ll be under the impression that The Filthy Five concerns a plot to assassinate “the new President.” And, judging from the title, “five” people must be behind this plot. Presumably this is the idea Engel came up with. What Stokes actually writes is something wholly different. While the assassination angle is gradually worked into the plot – before being quickly dropped – the plot of the book actually concerns a madman billionaire who wants to fund his own army, conquer Haiti with it, and start up his own country. Stokes so awkwardly works in the assassination angle that it’s clear he was only doing so because he was trying to cater to an outline he’d been given. The same goes for the title, which must’ve been something else Engel (or maybe Award Books) came up with; the reader must do some serious lifting to figure out who the “filthy five” might be. 

First of all, to answer the question I’m sure many of you are asking – no, Pok doesn’t appear in this one!! I am of course referring to the Vietnamese “houseboy” introduced in Stokes’s earlier The Devil’s Cockpit. But then, we don’t see Nick at home in this one; when we meet him, at novel’s start, he’s already on assignment in Puerto Rico, posing as a beach bum along a stretch of beachside land owned by the mysterious Sir Malcolm Drake. And, I should note, The Filthy Five occurs over just a few days, so there’s no point where Nick does go home; he stays in Puerto Rico throughout. This stretch of land, with the wonderful name Gallows Cay, is Drake’s private fiefdom, and is patrolled by armed guards. Nick confronts two of them in the novel’s suspenseful opening. 

The chief guard here is the obnoxious drunkard type who would factor so heavily in later Aquanauts novels. This time the character is named Harry Crabtree; he’s a loudmouthed Australian brute who most brings to mind the similar character Neil “The Walrus” McCreary (who was also a drunken Australian lout) in The Aquanauts #6. When he’s on form, Stokes is one of my favorites, if not my very favorite, and he’s on form throughout the majority of The Filthy Five. This opening, in which Nick tests out how far he can push Crabtree, while still pretending to be a meek drifter, is very effective. And, unlike some of Stokes’s other material, it actually has repercussions later in the novel. 

As mentioned The Filthy Five takes place over a day or two, so Stokes keeps the narrative moving at a steady pace. After the confrontation with Crabtree (in which the sadist shoots at Nick – who is still playing the hapless beach bum – to run him off the beach), Nick goes back to his hiding spot, breaks out the high-tech AXE underwater gear, and scuba dives to a sunken galleon. This is a very effective scene, and again incredibly similar to material that would come in The Aquanauts. Here Nick is to meet Monica Drake, forty-something wife of Sir Malcolm; still hot despite “breasts too large for beauty” and a “tire of fat” around her midsection. There’s actually more underwater action here than the average Aquanauts yarn, complete with Nick fighting a frogman and a pack of blood-hungry sharks descending on the scene. This sequence is one of the highlights of the novel, and here again Stokes demonstrates that his Nick Carter is more “macho” (per Will Murray) than other series ghostwriters. 

Surprisingly, it keeps going; Nick returns topside, slips back to his hideout car (a half-dead heap from the ‘40s, per his beach bum cover), and starts driving off to safety. Stokes seemingly borrows from Kiss Me Deadly, as a naked and screaming woman runs into the path of Nick’s car. This will turn out to be hotstuff native babe Dona, and Stokes settles into a long-simmer sequence in which the girl claims some men were trying to rape her, but Nick certain that she’s lying and really just another agent of Sir Malcolm’s sent to suss out whether Nick’s really a beach bum or not…and soon Dona herself knowing that Nick isn’t just a regular beach bum but continuing the charade regardless. Stokes plays out the entire ridiculous nature of Cold War espionage here, with the two rival agents both aware of who one another really is, but acting on as if they’re just regular folks; of course there’s a sexual angle as well, with Dona trying to put her wiles on Nick, but as mentioned “the AXEman” goes celibate this time. 

The novel gets even more like The Aquanauts when Nick’s boss David Hawk shows up and starts featuring in his own chapters; he’s not deskbound like the character is when other ghostwriters handle the series, but out on the field directing strategy. And yes, it is all identical to the stuff with crusty old Admiral Coffin in The Aquanauts, with Hawk here a cagey silver fox who hides the fact that he wears dentures. And here’s where the “assasination” plot comes in, as Hawk ultimately figures out that Sir Malcolm’s been paid a billion dollars in gold by the Red Chinese to assassinate the newly-elected US President. Sir Malcolm’s hired four Cuban criminals to be his assassins; presumably them plus Sir Malcolm equals the “filthy five” of the title, but that’s really stretching it. As it is, the Cuban criminals never even appear in the text, and the entire assassination scheme is so much red herring. 

Indeed, Nick will determine that Sir Malcolm’s taken the money to finance his scheme to conquer Haiti and instill himself as a new political force, somehow orchestrating WWIII in the process so that the US, USSR, and Red China wipe each other out. Hawk then sends Nick back into Gallows Cay, and this bit is very Aquanauts-esque, with Nick parachuting into the place in the dead of night. He’s painted black head to toe and wears a pair of swim trunks that are “little more than a jock strap,” which is the same curious “outfit” Tiger Shark would often wear in The Aquanauts. This part promises an action spectacle, but instead Nick is captured, true to series template, but escapes in a sequence in which Stokes deftly ties up all his loose ends – Crabtree’s comeuppance and Dona’s determination to kill the man who killed her lover (ie Nick – the frogram he killed earlier being Dona’s beloved). 

Stokes has a knack for taking Nick through the ringer and demonstrating that he’s made of very tough stuff; see for example the finale of Istanbul, where Nick escapes after torture and returns to dish out bloody payback. Here Nick is blasted by a flamethrower, managing to use someone else as a bodyshield. Regardless he suffers serious burns and loses “all of his hair.” But the Killmaster doesn’t stop – Stokes has this pulpish conceit that Nick “becomes Killmaster,” with the concept that when he does he’s basically unstoppable – and instead he goes on the offense. But even here it’s relatively realistic, Stokes not so much dishing out the action but instead having Nick swim onto one of Sir Malcolm’s ships and hiding away to figure out what the madman’s up to. Even the finale takes place on a personal level, with Nick squaring off against Sir Malcolm – who despite being the supervillain of the plot is still quite capable of using his own brawn, even if he’s lost the use of his legs. 

Overall, The Filthy Five was one of the best volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster I’ve yet read, and certainly one of the best I’ve read by Stokes. He was definitely on form this time, keeping the story tight and reigning in his usual tendency to pad out the pages. He also doles out his usual brace of ten-dollar words: desuetude, incunabula, etc. He also takes the time to flesh out the world of AXE; here we learn of “Mike Henry, second-ranking Killmaster to Nick Carter,” a sort of spare Killmaster Hawk keeps on the side. However the two men, we’re told, have never met. (And Henry contributes nothing to the tale, only appearing in one scene as he’s briefed by Hawk.) An interesting thing about Stokes’s work on the series is that he tones down the usage of gadgets (the only one Nick uses this time is a device that pulls him along underwater), in general going for more of the brutal action vibe of the men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s. 

So again, I definitely enjoyed The Filthy Five, and in fact I was sorry to see it end – though true to the Stokes norm, it’s a lot more dense than its otherwise brief 160 pages might imply. It’s also highly recommended to anyone out there who enjoys The Aquanauts, as it’s clearly where Stokes got his inspiration for that later series.

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