Before there was Nick Carter, the Backstreet Boy, there was Nick Carter--The Killmaster!
I always found that amusing. But I guess "Nick Carter" isn't really an uncommon name. I am just easily amused.
The 1960s was the heyday of the fictional spy and Nick Carter was one of the many characters created, no doubt, to cash in on the popularity of James Bond and probably one of the more successful imitators, having spawned two-hundred-something volumes in the series over about thirty years (curiously, I don't believe there has ever been a Nick Carter
movie. Correct me if I am wrong). I'd bought several of the old books a long time ago and just decided to pull them out of my stash to check them out, starting with The China Doll
, which, I was pleased to learn, was the second of the series, published in 1964.
Like the others in the Killmaster
series, the author of The China Doll
is also listed as "Nick Carter." Actually "Nick Carter" was a house name under which there were many actual authors over the years. This one was written by Michael Avallone and Valerie Moolman, both of whom seemed to have authored many of the books in the series.
A blurb on the back cover copy calls Carter "The American answer to Ian Fleming's James Bond." Despite the Anglicisms in the writing (I guess Avallone/Moolman might be British?) this statement is not far off the mark. Nick Carter is tall, dark and handsome with a body honed to perfection through intensive yoga practice. He is cold and ruthless while working, but full of passion were the ladies are concerned. In other words, he's just like any other fictional spy in the 1960s. He works for AXE, a super-secret spy agency that answers only to the POTUS, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council (and don't ask me what "AXE" stands for. They never say. Maybe it doesn't stand for anything) and is known, among fellow agents, as "Killmaster."
This one begins with Nick just hanging out at his apartment with a lady friend named Robyn, when Hawk, Nick's boss in AXE, interrupts fun time with an assignment. Nick's mission is to head a protection detail for none other than the Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev, who is visiting the US for some important diplomatic talks. After Nick foils an attempt on the Premier's life, Hawk and Nick discover that an organization called CLAW is behind all this (CLAW, like AXE, is another mysterious acronym).
Forced to work with a Soviet agent known only as "Comrade," Nick goes to Japan to investigate the disappearance of AXE agents in Japanese bathhouses. Their investigation takes them from Japan to China, where they must infiltrate the mysterious "Forbidden City," where "no white man has ever set foot" in order to kill the leader of CLAW, a man known only as "The Mandarin."
As far as these things go, The China Doll
was a pretty entertaining little read, acknowledging that the whole thing was pretty silly. As with most stories of the time that deal with the "exotic Orient," The China Doll
gets a lot of things wrong, but to its credit there wasn't anything maliciously offensive about it, just the innocent stereotyping typical of the time. Even when Nick and Comrade use a make-up kit to disguise themselves as Chinese in order to enter the Forbidden City, it comes off as more silly than truly offensive.
We even get the requisite stereotyping of Asian women, which, again, seemed more silly to me than offensive, considering the time it was published. In Japan, Nick encounters a concubine of the Mandarin named Taka whose mission initially was to rat Nick out, but instead she falls in love with him and helps him out. Basically, Nick is such a stud, such a perfect physical specimen that Taka could not help but fall in love with him:
I am surrounded always by the fat and ugly, by the blasphemy that some men can can bring their bodies to. You, San, [sic] are the image of my dreams…When you came into my stall, my heart fluttered. I saw your body and stroked it with my eyes and hands…It was a dream come true.
She's so in love with Nick that she is willing to die for him. He's pretty keen on her, too, even though he's got a girl back home.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the dragon-lady type in the evil-but-beautiful Yasunara, the Mandarin's favorite concubine, who seems to get sexually aroused when the subjects of torture and execution come up. Comrade, the Soviet agent, was also pretty stereotypical as the tough-guy Russian, but it was fun to see his relationship with Nick develop from one of suspicion to one of grudging respect and eventually friendship (I smell buddy cop movie. I wonder if the producers of Red Heat
ever read this book).
All in all, The China Doll
was a silly but enjoyable little thriller. While it relied on cliche, relying on the familiar is not always a bad thing. Fans of '60s spies (think The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
and Our Man Flint
) ought to get a kick out of these.