Friday, August 28, 2020

Forgotten Books: 14 Seconds to Hell - Nick Carter (Jon Messmann)

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the secret agent boom in books, movies, and TV during the Sixties. As a freshman in high schoool, I came across a book called HANOI, part of a series of spy adventures starring a secret agent named Nick Carter, a name that also functioned as the series by-line. I was familiar with the original, dime novel version of Nick Carter because I’d read an anthology of those old detective stories a year or so earlier, and I had already learned enough about publishing to realize that this new Nick Carter was a house-name, although I had no idea who wrote the books, of course.

All that mattered to me was that HANOI was a great yarn, full of sex and violence and all the other stuff that appealed to my 14-year-old brain. (My 67-year-old brain isn’t that much different, but that’s neither here nor there.) I bought and read every Nick Carter novel I came across all the way through high school and on into college, getting many of them new off the paperback spinner rack at Lester’s Pharmacy.

14 SECONDS TO HELL, which was published in 1968, is one that I missed somehow, and I’d never read it until recently. It’s a fairly early entry in the series, #37, although the books themselves weren’t numbered at that point. (There are 261 Nick Carter novels in this modern incarnation.) During this part of the series’ run, the books are in third person and Nick is usually referred to as Nick, something that makes him a pretty likable and approachable character. He works for a super-secret government agency called AXE, where he carries the Killmaster designation. (Any resemblance to James Bond’s 00 status is entirely not coincidental.) His boss is David Hawk. He carries a Luger that he calls Wilhelmina, a dagger called Hugo, and a tiny gas bomb he’s dubbed Pierre. (There’s a reason the weapons have names, which I’ll get to later.)

In this novel, a tenuous world peace is threatened by the insane scheme of a Red Chinese scientist, Dr. Hu Tsan, who has a secret base in China from which he intends to launch seven nuclear missiles at the free world. Nick’s job is to destroy that base and the missiles, and since Russia doesn’t want a nuclear war breaking out, they assign one of their top agents to team up with him. That agent, of course, is a beautiful blonde, and she and Nick team up in more ways than one, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. The Russian girl has a secret which the cover copy totally gives away, but it’s pretty obvious so that spoiler doesn’t actually ruin much.

The first half of this book is a little slow, since it’s mostly about Nick trying to reach the evil scientist’s base and overcoming a few relatively minor obstacles along the way. The pace picks up considerably at that point, with a lot going on leading up to a slam-bang climax. The problem is, when that climax is over, there are still thirty pages left in the book, so even though there’s a little more action, it feels tacked-on to pad out the wordage.

Overall, though, 14 SECONDS TO HELL is a pretty entertaining book, and it’s not just because of its nostalgia value, either. The author behind the Nick Carter house-name is veteran paperbacker Jon Messmann, and this is the first of fifteen novels he wrote for the series in a two-year span, making him the most prolific Nick Carter author during that particular stretch. Messmann went on to create the Trailsman Adult Western series and write more than a hundred of those novels, many of which I’ve read. His style is pretty easy to recognize in this book. He tends to write long paragraphs and fairly long chapters, but despite that, his stories move along very well. I think the pacing problems in 14 SECONDS TO HELL are probably the result of its being his first entry in this series. I remember some of his later Carters, such as THE LIVING DEATH, THE AMAZON, THE SEA TRAP, and OPERATION SNAKE being excellent. Really, though, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him, since he has a good touch with characters and plot and writes good action scenes.

I mentioned the weapons Nick carries and the fact that they have names, and to get back to that . . . I may have written about this in other posts, and some of you know the background already, but for those who don’t, this Nick Carter series was packaged, starting out, by Lyle Kenyon Engel. In interviews, Engel claimed to have created it, but having worked for Book Creations Inc., the book packaging company he founded later on, I suspect his contribution consisted of saying, “Hey, that James Bond stuff is selling well. We should do a secret agent series.” The author hired to write the books was Michael Avallone, and my hunch is that all the details about the character came from him. Avallone was a long-time fan of the pulps and surely remembered the pulp version of Nick Carter, and possibly the dime novel detective before that. He was also a big fan of the pulp series The Avenger, in which the hero carried a pistol and a throwing knife he called Ike and Mike. (Don’t ask me which was which, I don’t remember and I’m not going to look it up.) I’m certain that’s where Hugo, Wilhelmina, and Pierre came from. AXE and Nick’s boss Hawk both sound exactly like things Avallone would have come up with. It’s no secret that Mike and I were friends and corresponded for a number of years, and we probably talked about all this in our letters, but again, that’s too long ago and I don’t recall all the details. But I’m confident that’s what happened and I believe the whole basis of the series came from Avallone, even though he wound up writing only two heavily edited novels and part of another one before he and Engel had a falling out.

Also, ‘way back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the novel HANOI, the first Nick Carter I read. I had no idea who the author was then, but now I know it was written by Valerie Moolman, the series’ first editor who also wrote or co-wrote a dozen books in the series, including the first eight, so along with Avallone, she really set the tone for everything that came later. Those Nick Carters are her only published fiction, as far as I know, although wrote some non-fiction books and worked as an editor for many years. I owe her and Mike Avallone a debt of gratitude for their work on a series that was one of my favorites and entertained me for a long time . . . and as this post proves, still entertains me today.


Fred Blosser said...

James, I too read the early Nick Carters in my profligate high school years, once I'd devoured the James Bond series. Probably 3/4 of the first 12 in the series in 1965-66, and a couple of others after that. The best 007 knockoff that I recall from the era, several notches in style and quality above the Carters, was THE MAN WHO SOLD DEATH by James Munro (James Mitchell). I never read the David St. John (Howard Hunt) or James Dark series which were all over the pb racks at the time too. I recall reading three of four Len Deightons (including BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN in study hall) and Adam Hall's QUILLER MEMORANDUM.

Anonymous said...

I have probably several dozen Nick Carters in my collection but have only read one or two (I can’t even remember which ones, honestly). I’ve heard good things about the Messman ones, really should try them out one of these days. Would you recommend one in particular, James? SEA TRAP seems to be a favorite with other spy-fi fans, supposedly quite ‘Movie Bond’ in feel, but with some fairly hardcore sex and sadism, IIRC.

Like Fred, I also like Munro’ John Craig books a lot. Because of the way the books were packaged, I always associate the Craig books with the Jonas Wilde series by Andrew York in my head . The cover art for both series seemed to accentuate the protagonists’ martial arts skills. ‘Move over 007, THIS spy is so badass he doesn’t even need a GUN!’ Everyone here knows Munro was actually CALLAN Creator James Mitchell, right? I only ask because I never knew it myself until just a few years ago.

- b.t.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Mike was the gun, Ike was the knife. The Avenger books were my absolute favorites when I was a young’un. I know the back cover ‘legend’ almost by heart. ‘In the roaring heart of the crucible, steel is made....’


James Reasoner said...

Well, after those recommendations for the John Craig books, I'm certainly going to have to check my shelves and see if I have any of them. I read one or two of Hunt's David St. John books and recall not liking them much. I liked the James Dark books better but have read only a few of them. They're short and fast, though, always a bonus. I read all those early books by Deighton and liked them, although they weren't as action-packed as I prefer. Same for the Quillers. Overall it was a great time to be a fan of espionage fiction, which led me to delve into some of the older authors such as John Buchan and E. Phillips Oppenheim, too.

August West said...

Sort of forgotten is Don Smith's "Secret Mission" series. I enjoyed many of these paperbacks.

Unknown said...

Anybody read the Joe Gall international thrillers by James Atlee Phillips? They seem to be the same CIA espionage stuff.

James Reasoner said...

Circling back to a question I overlooked, THE SEA TRAP is a very good Nick Carter novel by Messmann. I also remember really liking OPERATION SNAKE.

A number of my friends are fans of Don Smith's "Secret Mission" series. I tried to read three of the books and didn't finish any of them. Evidently Smith is one of those writers whose work just doesn't resonate with me. That's probably more my fault. I'll probably try one of them again sometime. There have been a number of occasions where I don't like a particular writer's books, and then suddenly I do. Sometime they even become favorites of mine.

I've read maybe half of the Joe Gall books. I like them for Phillips' writing, but the plots usually make little or no sense to me. My favorite from the series is the very first one, PAGODA, where Gall is still a pilot knocking around the Orient instead of a spy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, James. I’ll dig out SEA TRAP and put it in my short stack.

I read a few Joe Gall books, too, but they didn’t really do much for me (I own them ALL, because that’s how my OCD rolls). Of the other Gold Medal Galahads, I think the Sam Durell books are much better, the Earl Drake books are just kinda ‘okay’ — except for the first two, which are outstanding, but they’re straight noir/crime thrillers of course, not spy/espionage novels — and the cream of the crop are the Matt Helm books.


James Reasoner said...

I loved the Sam Durell books when I was reading them back in the Sixties and Seventies but haven't read one in a long time. I ought to read more by Aarons. At this point, I don't remember most of the ones I read back then, so they'd be like new books to me. I've read only the first two Earl Drake books and loved them. I'll get to the secret agent version eventually, maybe. The first nine or ten Matt Helms are fantastic but the quality falls off after that. Still good enough that I read the entire series, though. At its best, it is indeed the best of them all.

Ira Henkin said...

I discovered Carter in high school when they first came out but my interest faded after the first dozen or so

August West said...

Agree with James - PAGODA is a fantastic novel. I read it at work years ago. I snuck into an unoccupied room and finished it in a couple of hours. I confess doing that multiple times at work.