The Cobra Kill, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969
Within a few pages of this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster, written by series veteran Manning Lee Stokes, I realized that it was actually sort of a sequel to an earlier Stokes yarn, possibly The Red Guard (1967). I am assuming that earlier volume, which I haven’t yet read, features Nick (as he was referred to in these earlier volumes) in Hong Kong, up against the Red Chinese and some Chinese tongs. The Cobra Kill opens with Nick once again in Hong Kong, this time on vacation, but his cover’s been blown and he’s on the run from various Tongs and Commies who are out to get him – as revenge for the incidents in that previous volume. Or maybe it was another Stokes volume...maybe even one I’ve read but have forgotten!
After this establishing setup, though, The Cobra Kill becomes its own novel, with no further references to the events of The Red Guard. In fact the reader doesn’t even need to have read the earlier book; it’s not like the plot of this one hinges on anything that happened in it. Nick will be out of Hong Kong and on into Indonesia and Malaysia for the majority of the novel. But actually it’s not even “Nick” this time…sadly, friends, we’ve now moved into the first-person years of Nick Carter: Killmaster, which would last until the mid 1980s. Nick Carter himself tells us the story, and thankfully he doesn’t prove to be as much of a bore as he was in the other first-person Killmaster novels I’ve read by Manning Lee Stokes, The Red Rays and The Black Death. The action pretty much keeps moving, with Nick not slowing down the proceedings with his incessant asides like he did in those other two books. But then we do get a fair bit of jungle travelogue in the novel, which gives The Cobra Kill more the vibe of something like Joaquin Hawks.
Before I get into it though I wanted to note some things I’ve belatedly noticed about Stokes’s take on Nick. For one, Stokes doesn’t refer to Nick’s customary trio of weapons by their goofy nicknames: Wilhelmina the Luger is just “the Luger,” Hugo the stiletto is just “the stiletto,” and Pierre the gas bomb…actually the gas bomb isn’t even mentioned in The Cobra Kill. I can’t recall if Stokes used the weapons nicknames in the third-person Killmaster novels he wrote. Another thing is that Stokes’s take on Nick is that he’s purely an assassin; Stokes takes the “Killmaster” title literally, in that Nick Carter is only ever sent out on assignments that require someone to be killed. So this is sort of like the 007 setup of James Bond, but whereas “007” just means Bond has the approval to kill, Nick Carter is straight-up an assassin…something Manning Lee Stokes makes quite clear in The Cobra Kill.
In fact Nick is certain that the fact he’s a professional assassin scares a particular AXE contact this time out. As mentioned though when we meet Nick he’s on vacation in Hong Kong, but it’s as if we’ve missed another story entirely, as we’re informed that within the past few hours Nick has run afoul of Tongs, Commies, and the cops, and he’s hiding in a US embassy…just as a call comes in from his boss David Hawk. Nick is to leave Hong Kong and proceed to Indonesia, where he’ll eventually go to Malaysia; the Malaysian government has worked out a secret deal with AXE for Nick, top AXE Killmaster, to kill commie rabble-rouser Lim Yang, aka The Red Cobra. This Mao-type leader has put together a guerrilla army of red insurgents in the Malaysian government, and since the government has never acknowledged him, they want him quietly killed by an outside party. It’s a bit of a belabored setup, but it’s Nick’s job, so he’s on the case – again, he is a professional assassin, and his job isn’t saving the world, it’s killing a communist leader. (I wonder if Nick has a celll phone number where I can reach him?)
Seriously though, the anti-communist invective is strong throughout The Cobra Kill; Nick even notes in reluctant admiration how the Red Cobra has gone after college kids in Malaysia, knowing they’d be susceptible to his message, given how they’d want to go against their parents. But Nick, AXE, the Malaysian government, and practically everyone else realizes that communism is a bad idea, so there are no niceties in play; the job calls for the Red Cobra’s death, which would kill off the movement. Nick pays an expat – a former newsman who killed his wife and moved to Hong Kong, we’re informed randomly enough – to safely get out of Hong Kong. Once Nick’s in Indonesia the plot kicks in…the major portion of The Cobra Kill is Nick trying to find the Red Cobra, and most of it takes place in the jungles of Malaysia. The short sequence in Indonesia is pretty much the only part of the novel where Nick’s in civizliation.
Nick, posing as a boisterous vacationer in a plush hotel, gets a gander at his AXE contact…who of course is a hotstuff babe. Indeed, a sultry “Malay-Chinese” who really turns on the Killmaster. Nick delivers a paean to this girl’s legs that I just had to share:
The quota for Nick Carter: Killmaster was that Nick would bang at least three broads per book. Stokes as we know would often veer from templates – per Will Murray in his 1982 article on Killmaster, Stokes often went off-course from the setups series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel provided. But of course this leggy Malay-Chinese contact, whose name turns out to be Mora, will be our narrator’s first conquest in The Cobra Kill. Stokes isn’t very explicit this time; again, Stokes’s first-person installments are altogether more tame than his third-person ones, both in the sex and the violence departments. While there isn’t much sleaze, we do learn after the fact that Mora is sort of a nympho…I mean, not a full one, at least per Nick’s post-boink assessment, given that Mora can at least achieve orgasm. She’s just cock crazy is all…not that Nick uses those exact words, being a gentleman and all. Humorously enough, Nick offers to set Mora up with “Doc Saxe, the AXE headshrinker!”
Nick heads to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Stokes clearly did his research on the flora and fauna of the country – and he wants you to know it. Have I mentioned before that my wife is from Malaysia? I thought about showing her The Cobra Kill to have her vet the details, but then figured the hell with it. One thing I noticed though was that Stokes seems to imply that everyone in Malaysia is Muslim, and this certainly is not true. But then again it could just be the characters Nick encounters. Otherwise Stokes really brings to life the humid green hell of the country, particularly when Nick gets into the jungle with its chittering monkeys, crops of durian, and random cloudbursts. Stokes really did his research on durian, a local fruit which, per Nick, “smells like a sewer” but tastes like heaven. I’d never even heard of durian until I met my wife – she and her family went on about how it was notorious for its bad smell but good taste, but honestly I didn’t think it smelled that bad.
Actually, Stokes makes one goof: he has Nick flying into Kuala Lumpur Airport. I learned from my own research years ago, during a project I was working on, that there was no major airport in Kuala Lumpur (or “KL,” as the locals call it) until the 1990s – until then all flights went to an airport in Subang, a nearby city. So Stokes, despite his voluminous research, must’ve just winged it (lame pun not intended) when it came to the aiport. But then his intent is to get Nick into the jungle asap. The stuff in KL is over quickly; Nick finds that a colleague has been murdered, and the Killmaster makes his own first kill on page 61 when he bashes the assassin’s head in with the butt of his Luger. This leads to a brutal fight with another assassin, in which Nick “blinds” the guy by jabbing his fingers into the guy’s eyes – though Stokes apparently forgets this incidental detail, as when Nick takes the unconscious assassin off to be interrogated, the guy wakes up and starts “look[ing] around.”
From here The Cobra Kill gets into the jungle, and will stay there for the duration. Stokes really excels at capturing the vibe of the locale, and as usual he serves up very evocative sequences – like when Nick comes across an abandoned village during a sudden squall, and soon discovers that he’s not alone. But Manning Lee Stokes as ever understands exactly what we expect from the genre: the mysterious figure darting around the ghostly village is a hotstuff native jungle girl named Siti who will serve as Nick’s partner for the remainder of the tale. And of course also per the template, they’ll ultimately get down to some jungle love – with jungle girl Siti (who refers to herself in third-person) insisting that Nick take her from the rear for their first boink: “This way, my way, Siti is comfortable and have all of you, Tuan. All!”
A curious thing about Stokes’s first-person Killmaster novels is that Nick Carter comes off as a bit obsessive in them. Obsessive about some very unsettling things. In The Red Rays, for example, narrator Nick was obsessed with the fact that, early in the novel, he’d had sex with a triple agent who had been condemned to death; that Nick had, essentially, “screwed a corpse.” This led to periodic asides in the text where Nick ruminated over his bout of necrophilia…even wondering at times if the poor girl was dead yet. Indeed Nick came off as quite the creep in that one. So screwing corpses was his obsession in The Red Rays; in The Cobra Kill his obsession is latrines, and shit. Literal shit. “I went into the latrine and looked at the turds” is an actual line from the book, and in fact I was going to start off the review with that quote but thought it might be a little too off-putting for the more sensitive readers of the blog.
And why is Nick so obsessed with shit this time? Because he’s tracking the Red Cobra’s guerrilla army through the dense jungles of Malaysia, and by “checking the latrines” of the recently-vacated campsites Nick can get a gauge of how recently the Red Cobra’s army has been in the area. At one point he even goes into a latrine to poke “the feces” with a stick to judge the freshness! He’s also quite interested in how the Red Cobra puts lime on his latrines to cut down the stench. It gets to be a bit much, and honestly made me miss the days when Nick would obsess over screwing a corpse. But this sort of thing makes up a large portion of The Cobra Kill; I mean it’s a lot of jungle travelogue, but Stokes capably captures the setting and brings it to life. Anyway this “latrine checking” is how Nick gradually closes in on the Red Cobra, who despite his colorful name is actually a bland character, an older Malay Chinese with a professorial air.
But even though he looks harmless, the Red Cobra is truly sadistic, known for wiping out entire villages. Another hallmark of Stokes’s Nick Carter is that he’s a professional, a calm and cool killer, but this time he is driven to hate his target, and for the first time (so Nick tells us), he can’t wait to carry out his assassination. Another hallmark of Stokes’s Killmaster novels is that he’ll take Nick through the wringer, and he certainly does here. Given that the Red Cobra is Chinese, he’s “naturally devious,” and isn’t content to just shoot Nick in the head. Instead, Nick is outfitted with a scuba tank that only has an hour of air in it, and is sent down to a sunken “Jap” sub from WWII (“Jap” is used repeatedly throughout the novel); if Nick can find his way out of the sub, he can live. But of course all avenues of escape from the sub are closed off due to the wreckage, and the Red Cobra has scuba-suited men patrolling the water with spearguns. This is one of the most tense climaxes Stokes has ever delivered for the series, to the extent that the reader himself feels as if he’s running out of air.
Other than this thrilling climax, there’s nothing really noteworthy about The Cobra Kill, and it almost appears that Stokes pushed himself through the writing by doing a lot of research on Malaysia and jungle survival. Again per Will Murray, it’s quite clear that Stokes was burned out with the series at this point. Whether or not this is true, The Cobra Kill turned out to be Manning Lee Stokes’s penultimate volume of Killmaster. The following year he turned in the aforementioned The Black Death, and that was it for him on the series. It’s easy to see why, as at this point he was also writing Richard Blade and The Aquanauts for Lyle Kenyon Engel. And one can see the kernels of both series in The Cobra Kill: simple jungle sexpot Siti could be any number of the simple barbarian sexpots in Dimension X, and the tense climax with the sunken sub and the empty scuba tank could’ve just as easily featured Tiger Shark as Nick Carter.