Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Mind Poisoners (Nick Carter Killmaster)

The Mind Poisoners, published in 1966, was the 18th of the 261 Nick Carter Killmaster spy thrillers. These spy novels represented yet another incarnation of a character originally created in 1886.

The Mind Poisoners was written by Lionel White (1905-1985) although it appears it was subjected to a drastic rewrite by Valerie Moolman.

This was 1966, the protest era was just getting to hit high gear, the drug culture was starting to become big news and many older people were convinced that These Crazy Kids Today were getting right out of control. The subject matter was therefore very topical. The story starts with a number of apparently unrelated incidents - a car accident, a university administrator machine-gunned to death, protests that turn violent, a college football match that ends in murder and mayhem, even a panty raid at an exclusive college that ends in mass rape. There is one common thread - all involved young people suddenly becoming violently destructive or violently self-destructive.

Nick Carter, codenamed Killmaster, is the top agent at AXE, a US intelligence/espionage agency that handles jobs to messy and too dirty for even the CIA to touch. He’s given the task of going undercover at a university campus to find out what’s behind these violent outrages. What AXE does know is that drugs were involved.

Nick becomes mild-mannered college professor Jonathan Haig, an unlikely cover for the hard-drinking hard-living womanising super-macho Nick Carter.

As AXE suspected it’s drugs (known to turn young people into homicidal maniacs) behind it, and they strongly suspect that it’s the commies pushing the drugs.

Nick has a close encounter with one of his students, a Chinese girl named Blossom Twin. A very close encounter. For 1966 it’s a pretty explicit sex scene.

Nick of course manages to fall into the clutches of the bad guys. He’s too busy concentrating on Blossom’s delightful feminine charms to notice he’s about to be slugged from behind. And he suspects that Blossom didn’t just drug his wine, she added an aphrodisiac as well (you don’t hear much about aphrodisiacs these days but belief in them seemed to be widespread in the 60s). Nick isn’t too worried. He’s confident the bad guys won’t be able to make him talk. He changes his mind when he gets a look at a gadget called the Persuader. When he considers what it will do to a certain vital part of his anatomy he realises that he will tell them anything they want to know.

Nick’s investigation takes him into the heart of youth culture - jazz, beatniks, poetry readings, etc. Yes, I thought that beatniks were a bit passé by 1966 but I guess I could be wrong, and of course if the book was published in 1966 he might have been written in 1965. It’s also possible that it was a case of an ageing writer (Lionel White was in his 60s when he wrote the book) simply having no idea what 60s youth culture was all about. In some ways that makes the book more fun.

Nick Carter as Killmaster was of course a cliché from the moment he first appeared in print in 1964. He’s like James Bond, but more so. He’s a bit too perfect. The books however are often surprisingly good. Many different authors wrote Killmaster books and that leads to an inevitable unevenness and to changes in tone and approach but a lot of the writers were actually fine writers and the better books in the series are not bad at all. They’re not top-tier but they’re often very respectable second-tier spy fiction.

The main fault of The Mind Poisoners is that the premise is not overly convincing and there’s not quite enough of the outrageous that you find in the best works of the action-oriented spy sub-genre. It’s all just a bit too straightforward, a bit too much like an undercover cop thriller.

Nick does at least prove himself to be human, making the occasional mistake (concentrating too much on sex and forgetting that he has a job to do) and admitting to some human weakness (he is genuinely terrified of the Persuader).

There’s a fair amount of moderately graphic violence. Both Nick and his girlfriend get brutalised Nick gets beaten up frequently although he dishes out his fair share of extreme violence as well. In the sex and violence stakes it’s fairly strong for its time period. There’s enough action to keep the reader interested.

The Mind Poisoners isn’t as good as other Killmaster titles such as the surprisingly excellent Spy Castle and it doesn’t quite have the right feel. Lionel White wrote quite a bit of hardboiled fiction and perhaps that was a genre that suited him more. The Mind Poisoners reads like a hardboiled PI yarn but it’s reasonably entertaining. If you’re sampling this series for the first time I’d start with something like Spy Castle instead.

There’s a detailed write-up on The Mind Poisoners at Glorious Trash.

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