lovehate: Nick Carter - Killmaster

If you are a regular reader of lovehatethings, the blog, or the lovehate podcasts, you know that eclectic nostalgia is often the order of the day. Sometime in the late 80s I got hooked on a series of pulp espionage books called the Killmaster series, all written under the pseudonym of Nick Carter who was also the main character and, thus, also the Killmaster. Nick Carter (not the Backstreet Boy) actually evolved from a serial detective character starting in the late 19th century.

"Nick Carter first appeared in a dime novel entitled The Old Detective's Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square on September 18, 1886. This novel was written by John R. Coryell from a story by Ormond G. Smith, the son of one of the founders of Street & Smith. In 1915, Nick Carter Weekly became Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine. In the 1930s, due to the success of The Shadow and Doc Savage, Street & Smith revised Nick Carter as a hero pulp that ran from 1933 to 1936. Novels featuring Carter continued to appear through the 1950s, by which time there was also a popular radio show, Nick Carter, Master Detective, which aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System network from 1943 to 1955."

I, however, was not a fan of Nick Carter the Detective. Instead, I became a fan of Nick Carter, secret agent N3 of AXE (not the body spray, but an underground US government agency). Reborn through the explosion of Fleming's Bond books and films in the 60s, the 261 Killmaster novels ran from Run Spy Run in 1964 to Dragon Slay in 1990. With most plots inspired by Cold War paranoia, Carter took on the Soviets, the Chinese, and any other maniacal mastermind who was a threat to the United States. The stories always involved plenty of violence, mostly perpetrated by Carter himself, using his three main weapons: "Wilhelmina, is a stripped down German Luger. The knife, Hugo, is a pearl handled stiletto. The blade retracts into the handle, and the whole thing is worn on a special sheath on the wrist, designed to release the knife into the user's hand with a simple muscle contraction. The third member of the triad, Pierre, the poison gas bomb, is a small egg shaped device, normally carried as a "third testicle" at his scrotum. Activated with a simple twist, it would, within seconds, kill anybody, or anything, that breathed its odorless and colourless gas." Oh yeah! Good times! Testicular gas bomb!

Oh, and by the way, there was also plenty of gratuitous sex with foreign and friendly agents alike, that was all characterized by writing better suited for Penthouse Forum than a fine piece of literature like Killmaster.

I happened upon a few of the books by accident in used book stores because, as the cover price was so cheap due to quality and age, and used book stores often based prices on a small percentage of the cover price for pulp fiction, I could buy scads of them each month for only a few dollars. They were a hell of a lot cheaper than comic books once The Dark Knight blew the lid off that era and everything went "arty". Almost as soon as I'd given up ever finding more of them in my local bookstores, eBay came on the scene, and I could buy boxes of 50 titles for $20. That's some low-budget entertainment! Considering it only takes a few hours to get through a Killmaster offering, I found myself bringing them on planes and for short hotel stays. I could get through an entire novel with time to spare during a flight to Vegas.

I'm certainly not claiming that the Killmaster series should be placed in Eliot's Canon, but there is something to be said for the guilty pleasure read. It's why, as much as might like to snicker and look down on adults who read Harry Potter or Twilight novels, I do have to pull back and admit some perspective is necessary. The Reader Response theory approach to writing was never so evident with a revisiting of retro pulp novels. Why should I like them? Why do I like them? What do I bring to the reading experience that allows me to generate meaning from the hackneyed plotlines and one-dimensional characters? I suppose once cheap, available, action-spy-sex romp is put to the side and all you're left with is the text - who could pass up a testicular gas bomb named Pierre? Wait a sec! Pee... Air... Oh Killmaster, you slay me.