Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nick Carter: Master Detective

It was lucky for Nick Carter that as a child he didn’t harbor any secret desires to play baseball or dance ballet—otherwise he might have grown into a very unhappy and maladjusted adult.

Nick Carter’s father trained him almost from birth to be an expert detective. He was developed physically into an immensely strong and expert fighter (with both fists and guns) and taught everything from science to art to languages to acting and disguise tricks. Though small in stature, his physical strength earned him the nickname Little Giant and he was said to be able to “fell an ox with one blow of his small, compact fist.” He was good at just about everything and eventually put his many talents to work bringing criminals to justice. He usually operated out of New York City, but he traveled around often enough to foil evil plots the world over. He seemed happy enough, though one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t occasionally look out at a sandlot ball game and let out a soft sigh of regret.

Nick’s first appearance was in “The Old Detective’s Pupil, or the Mysterious Crime of Madison Square,” published in the September 18, 1886 issue of the New York Weekly. The Weekly was one of hundreds of dime novels that ruled over popular literature during the latter half of the 19th Century. The term "dime novel” was something of a misnomer. The phrase was coined in 1858, when the publishing firm Beadle and Adams began to issue a series of novel-length books that cost a dime apiece. Within a few years, “dime novel” was the generic expression for any regularly published source of popular fiction—most were pamphlet-sized booklets that cost a nickel.

At first, the most popular dime novels were frontier stories or westerns, but after the Civil War, with industrialization drawing more and more of the population into the cities, a more urban hero was needed. The first detective character to regularly appear in a dime novel series was named Old Sleuth, who solved his first case in 1872. He was soon joined by hundreds of other detectives, with the genre eventually outselling the westerns.

When Nick Carter joined the crowd in 1886, he was in many ways no different from the rest. He, like nearly all his peers, was an expert in disguise who solved his cases by following the bad guys around, listening in on their conversations, avoiding a death trap or two, then making his arrests. The same sort of contrived plots and stilted dialogue that cursed the rest of the dime novel universe infested Nick’s tales as well.

But Nick managed to stand out from the rest. He appeared in over 1,000 dime novels, most of them written by Frederic Merrill van Renssalaur Dey, whose contribution to the Nick Carter mythos eventually totaled about 20,000,000 words. Nick was still around when the last of the dime novels faded away in 1915, then jumped to the pulp magazines. Original stories were still being regularly written about Nick for Detective Story Magazine through 1927, with reprints and a few smatterings of new material still popping up in various places through the 1940s. There were, of course, a few B-movies and a number of comic book appearances.

What kept Nick going when most other dime novel cops faded away? For one thing, Nick’s origin was fairly original and some of his individual tricks of the trade (such as keeping a revolver in a spring-loaded holster up each of his sleeves) were kind of neat. The villains he encountered stood out from the crowd as well. His eventual arch-enemy, mad scientist and serial killer Dr. Jack Quartz, was the perhaps the most memorable, but Nick also went up against more than his share of ruthless females: Zanoni the Woman Wizard and Zelma the Female Fiend being just two examples.

In an effort to give younger readers someone with whom to directly identify, Nick eventually acquired help from a number of youthful assistants. Chick Valentine was a “homeless waif” rescued by Nick and eventually adopted by him. Patrick “Patsy” Walker was a newsboy/shoe shine boy who also joined Nick’s growing crew of young crimebusters. Ten Ichi was a son of the Emperor of Japan, sent to Nick to learn detective skills for reasons never really explained. Other assistants, both male and female, came and went.

For a two-year period from 1895 to 1897, Nick retired from active investigations to run a detective school for boys. Dime novel readers were treated to the adventures of these intrepid students, with Nick acting as advisor and mentor. Then Nick abruptly returned to duty and his poor students were never mentioned again.

None of this would ever help qualify a Nick Carter dime novel as great literature, but all of it was potentially useful fodder for entertaining melodrama. Sadly, few if any of Nick’s stories stand the test of time. Popular fiction of this sort can make for wonderful escapism—characters from a few decades later such as Zorro or the Shadow are examples of this. But such stories require good, solid plots that make sense in the context of the fictional world in which they are set. Most importantly, the hero must fight or think his way out of trouble on his own merits. Too many of Nick’s stories depend on plain dumb luck to allow them to be truly satisfying.

In “Nick Carter, Detective: The Solution of a Remarkable Case,” from 1891, Nick investigates the mysterious death of popular dancer Eugenie La Verde, who had been strangled in her bed. ( “…the murderer had left not a single clew, however slight, by which he could be traced.”)

Nick is asked to investigate. Donning a disguise for no other reason than he always dons a disguise, he searches the crime scene. He finds nothing useful there, but when stopping for lunch at a nearby restaurant, he happens to overhear two thugs discussing the murder. So his big break in the case comes—as it all too often did—through plain dumb luck. Why his dad put all that time and effort into actual detective training is beyond analysis.

What follows is not all bad. Nick is captured by the villains, but escapes. It turns out one of the bad guys is a snake charmer—Eugenie was strangled by a python and Nick must dodge a cobra attack. At the climax, the snake charmer is crushed by one of his own pets.

It’s frustratingly close to being fun, but the dependence on dumb luck and the fact that the crooks always happen to be talking about important matters when Nick is hiding nearby pretty much spoils it.

In “Scylla, the Sea Robber; or, Nick Carter and the Queen of the Sirens,” from 1905, Nick goes up against the lady pirate Scylla and her crew of thirteen lovely distaff cutthroats. He’s captured and taken to their underwater base, accessible through a secret entrance in a government buoy marker. Nick is tossed into the ocean with 100 pounds of iron tied to his legs—only to be rescued through the most unforeseen and poorly explained deus ex machina in the history of fiction. Once again, the reader desperately wants to enjoy the story, but his desire for escapism is crushed under the weight of too many awkward contrivances.

It was on radio that Nick Carter finally comes through for us. The Return of Nick Carter premiered on the Mutual network in 1943. Soon re-titled Nick Carter, Master Detective, it ran for 12 years, with Lon Clark playing Nick for the entire run. For most of its existence, it was a standard half-hour show, but it did try out a 15-minute serialized format for a short time in 1944.

For radio, most of Nick’s young assistants were dropped. In a sort of literary sex-change, “Patsy” Walker, shoe-shine boy, became Patsy Bowen, lovely girl secretary, played first by Helen Choate and later by Charlotte Manson. Nick’s adopted son Chick also popped up in the spin-off series Chick Carter, Boy Detective, which ran on Mutual from 1945-47.

Nick was still a private detective, though like many other radio detectives he rarely seems to accept a fee for his work. (In a 1946 episode, he does mention that at least one insurance company keeps him on retainer.) Occasionally, he stumbled across a murder, but it’s more usual for the police or another interested party to come to him for help. The show had a fun opening—someone would be knocking persistently on a door. Patsy would open the door and ask “What is it?” “Another case!” was the inevitable answer.

Played with steady intelligence by Clark, Nick became a worthy addition to the traditional detective genre. The stories were interesting and the clues were fairly presented as Nick depended on actual deductive reasoning to solve cases. He was still quite capable in a fight and still an expert with disguises, though this last trait was no longer so badly overused. But mostly he depended on his brains.

In “Double Disguise; or, Nick Carter and the Mystery of the Kidnapped Heiress,” (the show kept the dime novel tradition of using double titles), Nick runs across an attempt to frame an innocent man named Chester Brown for murder. The motive is to steal a fortune that Brown’s wife was about to inherit. Nick deduces the identity of the real killer as an old enemy named Bartow and attempts to infiltrate the crook’s hideout while in disguise. But it’s a trap—Bartow set things up to lure Nick there and quickly sees through the disguise. Nick and Brown, who has also been captured, are hanged from the ceiling and left rapidly strangling to death. Bartow and his men flee as the police enter the building.

Nick, in the meantime, has employed the old Houdini trick of tensing his hands when he was tied up in order to gain enough slack to wiggle free. He uses a small knife hidden in his tie clasp to cut himself and Brown free. Then he and the police tail Bartow to yet another hideout, where they get the drop on him.

The dime novel conceits of captures and death traps were still there, but they were elements that fit naturally within a well-plotted story, with Nick’s deductive skills being nicely emphasized throughout. Other episodes didn’t worry as much about getting Nick into a death trap, but were content with allowing him to show off his cerebral skills. A 1945 episode titled “The Make-Believe Murder,” for instance, begins with an invitation for Nick to join the exclusive Alphabet Club. For his initiation, he must solve a make-believe murder staged by club members for his benefit. But one of the members is murdered for real during the fake investigation, shot dead when the lights go out. The only gun in the room, though, was a toy cap pistol. Later, another club member was murdered with a toy sword.

Nick figures it all out by the end, of course, identifying both murderer and motive and deducing how the toy gun had been rigged to fire a real bullet. It was, once again, well-written and completely fair to the audience in the presentation of the clues. This quality was maintained throughout the run of the show. Finally, here was a Nick Carter whose adventures we can enjoy with a clear conscience.

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