Spy novels as Asian kitsch.
June 13, 2012
The Nick Carter-Killmaster espionage thrillers were published at the rate of baseball cards (1964-1990), so it’s easy to forgive a little repetition. Trademarked by Conde Nast, the titlular hero also doubles as the pseudonym used by a post-Vietnam span of Ian Fleming-wannabes—who sadly never received byline credit. With the exception of one or two authors—most notably Michael Avallone—who went on to pen their own series, the many pens behind Nick Carter go unknown. While the series was enormously popular (if multiple editions of later books are any indication), today the Nick Carter novels are largely unknown to the general public. Getting down to business: Where it concerns pulp fiction, repetition is actually a virtue second only in importance to erection euphemisms, and when it comes to the Nick Carter experience, you can positively hang a hat on the sexual double entendres. It’s in fact what will redeem this series, where the characters are otherwise fist-drawn with the literary equivalent of dried-up Sharpie pens.
I am only going to address here the novels I deem “Asianica,” published between 1964 and 1968. Novels bucketed under this rubric can typically be identified by title and book-cover. China Doll and Dragon Flame, for example, require no situating images, but the real gems are embedded in jacket art like that of Macao and The Judas Spy. A standing jacket element appears to be either an Asian lady in post-coital flush or a dirty Asian soldier with a bullet in his face. Both these characters will invariably appear in an Asianica narrative. I’m not exempting Asians from penning Asianica either, just so you know, though I’m finding by-and-large that the authors are white men. (I came close to using this space to debate the virtues and vices of Pulitzer Prizer James A. Michener, but I guarantee after a close reading of Sayonara with me, you’ll be convinced that A. stands for Asianica, too. Hint: stay tuned for future installments of my Asianica book reviews.)
Here then, is the Nick Carter Asianica formula:
1. Titles always open with Nick Carter waking from a libidinal stupor or injury, abruptly called to duty by Hawk, his boss at the AXE organization. AXE is a fictional black-ops arm of the U.S. government. While Carter has a regulation issue female secretary in the 1970s, his personal assistants in at least Devil’s Cockpit (1968) and Dragon Flame (1966) are Korean or Chinese children he’s adopted from previous missions. They speak in pidgin and bring him whiskey and phone numbers (of women).
2. After being debriefed in the tawdry plot of some psychotic Communist mastermind, Carter will go deep cover with a local identity. That scene might look a little like this scene from Saigon (1964):
[Carter] gave the map to Saito and reached into his miniature first aid kit for two tiny triangular patches and a tube. He stuck one patch at the outside corner of each eye and then carefully rubbed the contents of the tube over his face, neck, hands and arms. “…this should help to make me a little less obvious.”
3. You’ll have noticed Nick was talking to an Asian. This is part of the template. Carter always makes an ambiguous ally from an unseemly demographic (be it Cold War Russians, expatriate Japs, or women in uniform). In Saigon it’s a Japanese martial arts expert who serves the wife of a dead French Intelligence officer, his “slitted eyes look[ing] wisely from his smoothly strong face.”
4. Carter will have adverb-laden sex. When I say adverb-laden sex, I mean that you can guess what’s going on just by the adverbs. Take this scene from The China Doll, broken down chronologically by just the adverbs: Tenderly, yearningly, suddenly, galvanically, lightly, damply, strangely (tired). Does it sound more like masturbation? Yes. Are we talking about a guy who spends most of his time under…cover? Also yes…
5. Carter will be tortured by the Communist mastermind, before escaping with clever use of Wilhemina, his beloved Luger pistol. Other weapons in his belt /ankle-holster include Hugo the knife and Pierre the gas bomb, but Wilhemina is his favorite, and boy won’t the authors let you forget it. Alas, Wilhemina is just a vehicle for the ultra-sexy pronoun game. “She” was inherited in the “spoils of war” and “sleeps in a leather bed.” Carter’s hand is “seldom more than inches away from her butt” (China Doll).
6. Nick will perform yoga, and a lot of it. I don’t know my Ashtanga from Mysore, but Nick performs yoga every chance he gets, describing it as an excruciating business of building endurance. Such scenes depict him mostly holding his breath and stretching. He can sit absolutely still and hold his breath five minutes longer than what the narrator claims is the standing record. Does this sound idiotic? Yes. Are we talking about a guy who spends most of his time undercover? Also yes…
7. Nick will have more sex, as if to mourn the death of that aforementioned ambiguous ally, who loses his/her life during Nick’s otherwise successful escape from enemy clutches. Finally, Nick will called back home (NYC) by Hawk. Hawk will be debriefed, congratulate Nick, and tell him to take a vacation. The book will end with Nick thinking about or having sex with the last significant woman he bedded.
I want to be deliberate in spelling out the racial and racy elements of the books, because entwined in this series of events are some surprisingly complex interpretations of social politics. In one scene, a French plantation owner realizes her generosity toward field workers is no different than a dictator referring to himself as a benevolent provider, all the while ignoring his abuses of power.
But then… there’s Won Ton. I’m not making this up. Won Ton (given name Lin Tong), is a Chinese spy, a “yellow length of skin and bone” charged with getting white girls junked on heroin. The Chinese are a perpetual enemy in this period of the Nick Carter series, but Won Ton takes the cake. The French men hate him because he’s a “Chinaman.” One French woman—Antoinette “Toni” Dupré—is in love with him because he is her “groovy Chinaman.” He makes her dizzy with opium. He works her over with his “body, Communist-trained mind, and drugs” and is constantly threatening to beat her up. She loves it. To be honest, I kind of love it. This is classic savage-and-ravage fantasy. If Freud thought red lips symbolized sex then I guess Red China was an extraodinarily huge boner.