Saturday, February 28, 2009

EMPYRE by Josh Conviser (Del Rey, 2006)

Laing's screams were lost in the firestorm pounding the section below him. When the bombardment ended, he knew Sarah was dead. No way she could have survived that. At the thought, a piece of him gave way. He gazed down into the graying dust, lost in the whirlwind. Movement. A slow crawl. Was it an illusion—his mind chewing reality into something he could digest? He looked harder, cutting through the haze. Cloaked in gore, a delicate hand stretched out. A head rose, eyes vacant and glazed. A swirling flush of color disguised the face. Then it settled into a profile he recognized. She was alive. Laing jumped to his feet, steadying himself through the wave of relief gushing through him. Despite her departure, her betrayal, their link seemed unbreakable. The knowledge gave him no joy. She had left him, damn it! And yet, he cared for her, needed her. There was love, somewhere deep in his abyss, but anger drove him forward. Anger that she had conquered him so completely, that, no matter how he tried to wall himself from the world, her life meant everything. The structure under him lurched. Ryan lashed out, catching a support girder. The grinding shear of construction grade plastic filled the night. Clinging to the girder, Laing watched the entire section under him sway, then begin to break free of the airport wall. One by one, the adhesive seals locking the barrio's supports to the port wall popped. The thirty meters of latticework Laing had just climbed down began to sway. The scaffolding pulled from the wall, caught a wind current and sheared clean. Whole sections of the Keep began to fall. Laing dodged to his right as a massive aluminum girder snapped and fell. The teetering upper zones pulled on the outer stanchions of the section below. One of the best books in spy-fiction is also one of the best books in cyberpunk. Yes, Conviser’s second novel straddles both these genres and never once slips.

In Echelon, Conviser’s first novel, Ryan Laing, a nanobot-engineered secret agent, brought down the eponymous organization that controlled the world by controlling its information flow. In Empyre, he deals with the consequences of that action.

Only Laing, and Sarah Peters, his ex-lover, now infected with a biological weapon, can stop a terrorist mastermind who has set in motion a plan that, if successful, could leave the world tottering on the brink of chaos. The action starts in Lhasa, Tibet, and moves through Dubai, the CIA headquarters, a Santiago Calatrava-designed building in Manhattan, an elevated airport, the Burning Man, and a floating city before reaching a crescendo of violence in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

Empyre has everything that makes a spy-novel great — a likeable hero, exotic locations, double- and triple-crosses, really nasty villains. And violence. Lots and lots of violence. It also has the two main ingredients of a great cyberpunk read — a dystopian society and high-tech. But Conviser’s fascination with technology never becomes a fetish. He never sacrifices character development nor does he stop the fast and furious action to devote 10 pages to a technology. Instead, the tech is integrated into the story so seamlessly that it is hard to think of one without the other. In other words, the characters, as developed by Conviser, cannot exist outside the universe Conviser has created. They fit the world, and the world is comfortable having them there.

An interesting feature of the book is that the tech is never James Bondish. Conviser takes tech that’s in development and extrapolates them. He describes these technologies on his Website.

I have to end with a complaint though. It’s been nearly 3 years since we’ve seen Ryan Laing and Sarah Peters. And Empyre ends with enough scope for a third book. So, where’s the sequel, Mr. Conviser?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spookspeak: Mokryye Delà

Mokryye Delà is Russian for "liquid affairs", an euphemism for assassination. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Nick Carter Dossier: Chapter II: Template, Template

Two hundred and sixty-one Nick Carter Killmaster titles were published from 1964 to 1990. That comes to around 10 titles per year. With such a high frequency, it was essential for the publishers to templetize the books as much as possible so as to put the books to the market with as little delay as possible.

The Killmaster books are all paperbacks, 6 inches in length and 4 inches in breadth. The maximum number of pages is 170.

The cover of a Killmaster book has three distinct blocks:

  • At the top of the cover is the series title, in all-caps sans serif font. To the right of the title is a mug-shot of Nick Carter. Not all covers have this mug-shot. In some of the covers, in the middle of the title, is a picture of the American eagle holding a ribbon in its talons. Inside the talons is written A Killmaster Spy Chiller.
  • The second block is a picture. More often than not, it shows Nick holding a gun, and a buxom babe — or two, or three — and a huge explosion.
  • The third block is the title, all caps, sans serif.

The first page of a book contains an excerpt. The excerpt was frequently edited to have the maximum impact regardless of whether what was written happened in the book or, if it did, happened in the sequence depicted; the publisher was looking for a hook for the readers, and didn’t let consideration for subtlety or accuracy get in the way.

The copyright page contains the acknowledgement: Dedicated to the men of the secret services of the United States of America.

Stay tuned for the next part where I discuss the many faces of Nick Carter.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Book Review: THE LIST by Nick Carter (Universal-Award House, Inc., 1976)

  • James Fritzhand writing as Nick Carter
My right foot was already moving seconds before I fully realized what I was doing. The flying kick saw my instep meet British accent’s temple in a single bone-jarring thud. He gave a shrill agonized scream, one composed of both pain and surprise. Then he dropped to the sauna floor. The Smith & Wesson flew through the air, clattering loudly as it hit the wooden boards. At that split second Eastern Europe threw himself around my neck, pressing his thumbs into my windpipe.

Nick Carter travels to Hong Kong to buy, for $200,000, a list of every ChiCom intelligence agent working in the West and the Soviet Union from Poy Chu, a Chinese double-agent. But a Chinese spy is already on the case. Nick arrives at the rendezvous, a bath-house, only to find the double-agent’s throat slit from ear to ear, and two KGB thugs waiting for him. Nick beats them to a pulp and escapes with only one clue: a ticket stub, with Tuo Wan pencilled across its back, pointing to the Fung Ping Shan Museum of Hong Kong University.

Nick comes to know that Tuo Wan was a 2,000-year old Chinese princess whose body, encased in a jade armor suit, was on display at the museum, on loan from the People’s Republic of China — was, because it is now en route to Burma where it will be displayed in a muesum in Rangoon. He connects the dots and realizes that the microfilm is hidden inside the suit. Nick gets a seven-day visa from the Burmese government. He then goes to Maco on an excursion.

On board the Hong Kong-Macao hydrofoil, Nick meets an attractive young archeeologist named Katherine Holmes. They team up, and travel to Burma.

But the killer who offed Poy Chu is still on their trail. So are the two KGB agents Nick had a run in with at the bath house. Events hurtle towards a bloody climax at a ruined temple complex where Nick finally comes face to face with the Chinese assassin and the mysterious mastermind behind the killer…

The List is one of the best Nick Carter books I’ve read. It packs a solid plot that’s not complicated, but not too simplistic either, exotic locations, martial arts, and a twist ending that, although can be sniffed out very fast, has a nice spy-flavor to it.

There are a couple strikes against it, though. For one, Nick is again portayed as being not a very good spy. He trusts people too easily, and is caught by surprise not once, but twice.

Second, the cover blurb is 180-degree opposite of the actual story. It reads, “Every American intelligence ageint in the Orient was on the list — each a target for assassination. Unless Killmaster could get the list first!. But the list is of Chinese agents, not American agents.

Still, a solid, if not strong, entry in the series. There have been worse.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Spookspeak: Blowback

Unintended consequences of a covert operation. For instance, CIA support for the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would later lead to a blowback — the rise of the Taliban.

The Nick Carter Dossier: Chapter I: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Nick Carter Killmaster debuted in 1964 in Run, Spy, Run. Written by Michael Avallone and Valerie Moolman, it was published by Universal Printing & Distribution Corporation, under their AWARD imprint. The last book in the series was Dragon Slay, author unknown, published in 1990. These 26 years span almost the entire length of the Cold War, an extraordinary time in world history that saw the development of the space program and the rise of student power on the one hand, and Third World countries used as pawns in superpower politics and a dangerous arms race on the other.

Nick Carter was a child of the Cold War. Much like his more famous British cousin James Bond, whose popularity the UP&D wanted to exploit, he spent his entire career fighting the evil communists and their stooges the terrorists. Occasionally he would fight the odd megalomaniac ex-Nazi, but killing KGB and the Red Chinese secret service were his bread and butter.

But unlike Bond, who went on to fight lacklustre international criminals (yes UNION, I’m talking to you guys) after the Berlin Wall came down, Nick Carter retired just as the Cold War was coming to an end.

Let’s now take a look at some of the significant events in superpower politics during those 26 years.

1964

  • British businessman Grenville Wynne, imprisoned in Moscow since 1963 for alleged spying was exchanged for Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin incident takes place. Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving President Lyndon B. Johnson broad war powers to deal with North Vietnamese attacks on US forces.
  • FRELIMO launches the Mozambiquan War of Independence.
  • Khrushchev is deposed and Brezhnev and Kosygin assume power in the Soviet Union.
1966

  • Charles de Gaulle withdraws France from NATO and expels NATO troops from French soil.
1967

  • The Six-Day War between the Arab forces and Israel takes place.

1968

  • The Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia.

  • The Brezhnev Doctrine, the right to invade any country trying to replace Marxism-Leninism with capitalism, proclaimed.

1972

  • Rapprochement, the normalization of relations between Red China and the US takes place.
  • The Munich Olympic Massacre.

Détente between the US and the USSR.
1973

  • The OPEC Oil Crisis
1975

  • US withdraws from Vietnam.
1979

  • The Iranian Revolution: Ayatollah Khomeini becomes the leader of Iran; pro-US Shah ousted.
  • The Nicaraguan Revolution: Anastasio Somoza’s pro-US regime ousted, Sandinistas under Manuel Ortega assume power.
  • The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan to support the country’s Marxist government.
  • Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain.
The Second Cold War begins.
1981

  • Ronald Reagan becomes the 40th President of the United States.
  • The Gulf of Sidra Incident: Two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 fighters were shot down by two US F-14 Tomcats off the Libyan coast.
1983
  • The US invades Grenada.
  • The Soviet Union shoots down Korean Air Lines Flight 007.
  • President Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative.
1985
  • Mikhail Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of the CPSU.
1987
  • Perestroika announced.
Glasnost opens up the USSR.
1989
  • George H.W. Bush becomes 41st President of the United States.
  • Soviet forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
1990
  • Berlin Wall comes down.

Nick Carter’s missions kept pace with the changing geo-political scenario. In the 60s and the early 70s, Nick was primarily engaged in fighting both the Red Chinese and the KGB. Some of the books from this period are Hanoi, Danger Key, The Red Guard, The Judas Spy, Temple of Fear, 14 Seconds to Hell, Moscow, Ice Bomb Zero, Mark of Cosa Nostra, and The Inca Death Squad. Even when he tackled ex-Nazis, as he did in 1967’s Assignment: Israel, the villain usually turned out to be bankrolled by the Chinese.

Starting from 1975, the authors pitted him increasingly against Arab terrorists. The OPEC Oil Crisis had erupted just 2 years before, and the massacre of athletes at the hands of the Black September during the 1972 Munich Olympics was still fresh on everyone’s minds. Nineteen seventy-five’s The Jerusalem File fit to a T in such an environment, as did 1976’s The Fanatics of Al Asad, and 1979’s Thunderstrike in Syria and The Pemex Chart.

The eighties, the decade of the Second Cold War, saw Nick going after the KGB in a big way. Turkish Bloodbath, The Puppet Master, Norwegian Typhoon, The Outback Ghosts, The Death Dealer, all had the Soviet secret police as the main adversary. Sometimes, e.g., in The Cyclops Conspiracy and Blood Raid, Nick even worked with them, getting their asses out of fire, rubbing their nose in it. As the Cold War rapidly drew to a close, the Soviet Union remained the prime adversary, up to 1990’s Arctic Abduction, the penultimate book in the series. The last book, Dragon Slay, sees Nick working with his old enemy the Red Chinese to stop a hardliner opposing democratization of China.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of The Nick Carter Dossier where I talk about the look and feel of the books.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Nick Carter Dossier: Introduction

I got my first taste of espionage and men’s-adventure fiction series in 1991 when I chanced upon a slim book in an used book-store in the southern part of Calcutta, a city in India where I live and work. The cover showed a tough-looking guy holding a gun and behind the guy towered a giant Buddha head. Further examination showed a temple and two people fighting. The title, The List, appeared below the sans-serif white NICK CARTER. It was, said the cover, A NEW KILLMASTER ESPIONAGE ADVENTURE. I quickly read the back-cover: something about a microfilm, an “international squad of killers”, an abandoned temple and a “high priestess of murder”. With mounting excitement, I flipped the first page.

Upto that point, I had read several Alistair Macleans, a couple Ludlums and an Eric van Lustbader. They had whetted my appetite for spy-fiction. I was well on the road to becoming a junkie for tough heroes travelling to exotic places to fight evil communists and Nazis who had something nasty planned for the Free World. On that evening, as I reached the second page, I saw —

A two-page list of Nick Carter Killmaster books, with names like Ice Trap Terror, The Defector, Macao, and Codename: Werewolf. I had to be careful not to let my saliva fall on the book as I devoured the list.

Something made me turn to the back pages. The last five contained synopses of a number of books. The synopsis of one, titled Death Message: Oil 74-2 read, “An obscure coded message holds the key to a lethal outbreak of sabotage that is destroying America’s vital oil supply lines”. Another, this one of a book titled The Jerusalem File, said, “The world’s ten wealthiest men have been kidnapped. AXE’s rescue plan pits Carter against murderous Arab terrorists.”

In the immortal words of Det. John McClane, NYPD, “Yipee-kay-yeah, motherfucker!”

I started buying, and sometimes renting, as many Nick Carters as I could. From Carter, I swiftly progressed to Mack Bolan, Able Team, and Phoenix Force, then to Edward S. Aarons, and the Death Merchant. At around 40 cents a book, they were affordable.

In time, I also made detours to Desmond Bagley, Colin Forbes and Craig Thomas, returned to Maclean, Ludlum and Lustbader, and then veered off to Clancy and Larry Bond.

Eighteen years later, I am still at it.

I read spy-fiction extensively. Brad Thor, Christopher Reich, Josh Conviser, Barry Eisler occupy prominent space in my bookshelves. But even now, whenever I see a Nick Carter or a Mack Bolan, my eyes light up. And if it’s one that I haven’t read yet — there are plenty of those — I buy them. At around 40 cents a book, they are affordable.

The Nick Carter Dossier is going to be a repository of all my knowledge and opinions I’ve formed over the years on all things Carter. I intend to preserve information about this unique niche of pulp-fiction — its authors, its template, what makes it tick, the geo-political scenario in which it thrived, its looks, its good guys, its bad guys, the works. I invite you, readers, to read, link, and of course, share with me whatever you know about Nick Carter Killmaster.

Randall, the creator and manager of the wonderful Spyguysandgals, and a kindred spirit, has kindly permitted me to use the cover scans and other information available on his site. I will use his site as a primary source.

Stay tuned for Chapter I of the Nick Carter Dossier where I discuss the political environment in which the series appeared, thrived, and ended.