Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Chinese Paymaster (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #18)

The Chinese Paymaster, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

The mysterious Nicholas Browne, who per Will Murray in his 1982 article for The Armchair Detective was a merchant seaman, turns in what has to be the most slow-moving installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster I’ve yet read. I mean this one’s sluggish, folks, and gives Amsterdam a run for its money as the most boring volume of the series. This is strange, as the other two Browne novels I’ve read (he only wrote four of them), Operation Starvation and The Bright Blue Death, were pretty good, and featured such far-out stuff as unfrozen viking warriors(!). 

There’s no far-out stuff in The Chinese Paymaster, that’s for sure. And also this one wins the award for “most deceptively slim paperback” ever – this book’s a mere 157 pages, but boy does it have some seriously small, dense print. The thrill-lacking plot doesn’t help much with the forward momentum, either. Personally I’m surprised a merchant seaman had the time to turn out such a long book. Maybe he wrote it while bored at sea, who knows. Looking at my review for The Bright Blue Death, I see that I mentioned that book somewhat had the “realistic” vibe of later Killmaster novels, like Blood Red. Well The Chinese Paymaster is very much in that same realm, very similar to the sub-Robert Ludlum novels Jack Canon would write in the final years of the series…only with even less sex and violence. 

I kind of suspected something was up with The Chinese Paymaster when I noticed that the back cover copy didn’t give a firm understanding of what the plot was even about. We’re told about three separate incidents across the globe (a doctor being killed in China, a Green Beret squad being wiped out in Laos, and a dignitary dropping dead in a New York restaurant) and that Nick “Killmaster” Carter will be put on the case. My assumption is the poor editor at Award couldn’t figure out how to make Browne’s sluggish book sound exciting. Actually what the plot turns out to be about is Nick flies around the world as part of a charter flight, trying to figure out which of his fellow travelers is the titular “chinese paymaster.” 

Oh and misleading title alert – the paymaster isn’t even Chinese. All Hawk, Nick’s boss at AXE, is sure of is that the paymaster is getting around the world and illicitly spreading money to fund Red Chinese nefariousness. In that 1982 article Will Murray mentioned how the earliest Killmasters featured Red China in a villanous capacity, something that was gradually filtered out of the series due to the thawing of relations. Well, things have come full circle, haven’t they! Anyway we open with a long chapter in which we see those back-cover incidents play out, and then Nick’s called into Hawk’s office and apprised of the situation. Per Hawk, “The Chicom paymaster is a greater threat to Western Society than The Beatles.” But he has nothing real for Nick to go on, other than that the Chicoms have come up with the idea of shuttling their paymaster around on a charter flight…and AXE believes they’ve figured out which charter. Now it’s up to Nick to figure out who among the passengers – or crew – is his target. 

We’re in for the long haul as Nick settles into the plane – which is total ‘60s with a cocktail lounge and all the other stuff that’s been removed so they can pack in more passengers like sardines – and begins his flight around the world. We do get the pretense of action early on, as when boarding the plane at Kennedy Nick is accosted by an attacker. Nick chases him, Luger drawn, but the guy ends up getting chopped to pieces by the propellers of a plane that’s about to take off. Nick gets on board, takes his seat by an old blowhard named Pecos, and it’s off to London. Pecos blathers away – as he will for the majority of the novel, Browne almost desperately padding out the pages – and Nick fumes that his cover has already been blown. Per tradition, two of the passengers are hotstuff women, and Nick wonders if either of them could be his target: first there’s blonde bombshell Tracy Vanderlake, a jet-setting heiress, and also there’s Li Valery, a Eurasian model. 

The veteran reader of the series will immediately know that Nick will ultimately have his way with both women, and of course the veteran reader will be proven correct. But whereas Operation Starvation and The Bright Blue Death had at least some hanky-panky in them, the sexual material in The Chinese Paymaster all occurs off-page. Seriously, this is the men’s adventure novel Agatha Christie never wrote; it’s a cozy mystery in which Nick acts more like a detective, trying to figure out who among his fellow passengers is guilty. It has nothing in common with most other volumes in the series, and likely was only published because Award was determined to get several volumes out per year. It really has more in common with a mystery novel, one featuring a plane filled with red herrings. 

Our first stop is London, where Nick follows Tracy to a jam-packed club where a mod band plays. Here too Nick is shot at by an unseen assailant, and this leads to a long sequence in which he’s chased by some “teddy boys” along the docks. Tracy is abducted, but the charter flight continues on(!?), next stop Paris. Here we have another red herring bit where Nick deduces that Eurasian beauty Li is the paymaster, and indeed she is smuggling money for some commies. However as it turns out it’s against her will, and has nothing to do with the plot Nick’s trying to stop. But boy does Browne fill up a lot of pages about it. Unfortunately he doesn’t have nearly as much to say about the inevitable Nick-Li sex scene, which while inexplicit would still upset sensitive readers of today, given that Li’s one of those girls who can’t make up her mind. “Nick took her triumphantly” should tell you all you need to know about who comes out on, er, top of this particular struggle. 

We’re on page 70 and this is Nick’s first “conquest.” His first real action scene follows immediately after, as another would-be assassin slips into the room and tries to kill him. Killmaster of course turns the tables, leading to another curiously overpadded sequence where Nick sneaks the body away, dragging it along the streets as if it were a drunk friend he was helping home. Oh and have I mentioned that blonde beauty Tracy is back at this point, delivering a hard-to-buy story about slipping away from her captors, whom she assumes were just people out to ransom her for her family’s money? She is yet another red herring in a book filled with them. She becomes the sort-of female lead after this, the expected shenanigans between her and Nick also kept off-page, but she does take part in some of the action scenes. 

The flight moves on to Rome, where we have another action sequence as more would-be killers come after Nick, and then on into North Africa. Here follows a safari, in which a character is suprisingly killed off, followed by a random bit where Nick is captured by Arabs in the desert…and then is randomly saved by his plane pal Pecos…who randomly carries the shrunken head of his dead friend in his luggage(!?). With all the globetrotting in The Chinese Paymaster it occurred to me that maybe Browne did write it at sea; maybe these are all his ports of call during a particularly long voyage. We also even learn of off-page visits to Greece, and later on we’re told of another off-page visit to Japan. The narrative picks back up on the return flight to New York, where Browne clumsily stages the climactic action scene in which the paymaster is finally uncovered – an action scene where Nick doesn’t come off very well, having to go borrow a fellow passenger’s gun because he gave his up! 

But Browne’s not even done spinning his wheels; we have a second climax in which Nick deduces that someone else was really the paymaster, the brains behind it all, and this leads to a confrontation on the aiport tarmac which comes off like a retread of the earlier scene where Nick chased his would-be killer directly into the spinning blades of an airplane. About the only clever thing here is that Nick decides on a staycation at novel’s end; not that Browne uses that term, but still Nick and Li decide that it would be more enjoyable to spend a few days in Nick’s penthouse after their nigh-endless trip around the world. 

With that The Chinese Paymaster mercifully comes to a close. I had to force myself to keep reading this one. I know this is the second negative review I’ve posted this week, and I apologize for that. I mean I wanted it to be all sweetness and light on this week before Christmas, but the book was a chore to read. And pulp fiction should never be a chore to read. There’s only one Browne Killmaster left for me to read, Seven Against Greece, so here’s hoping it’s more like his other two and less like The Chinese Paymaster.

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