In a fit of boredom, I decided to tap an American digest-pulp. Blindly extracting a book from the shelf, I found my fingers on a Nick Carter title. It wasn’t the first in the four-book series, so I moved my digits two to the left and extracted Empire of Crime by Nick Carter.
Granted, the world knows that Nick Carter (Nicholas Carter of dime novels) is an alias for a host of various authors, spanning several decades. I’m not interested in discussing them. There are plenty of other sites out there that have done just that, and to trod along those lines with something fresh and delightful…no. Just not doing it.
However, because there were only four issued by this publisher, Vital Publications, shortly after World War Two, this seems like an option. They were each reprinted by arrangement with Street & Smith, the magazine publishers of the Nick Carter pulps. As online records proclaim, the first 17 novellas were written by Richard Wormser, beginning in 1933.
Empire of Crime originally debuted as “Crooks’ Empire” in Nick Carter Magazine (April 1933). It was Wormser’s second Carter story. According to the FictionMags website, that was also his first fiction story. It seems incredible that the editors and bigwigs at Street & Smith should turn over a once-lucrative dime novel hero to a fledgling, untried author. And yet, that apparently is just what they did.
Or, did they?
Born in 1908, Wormser would have been 25 by this time. We know that from his memoirs he was already writing plenty by this time, but certainly he must have churned out some fiction prior to the Nick Carter stories. No?
In truth, his first sales were all to The Shadow magazine in 1932, under about a dozen different pseudonyms. Only the alias Conrad Gerson has been attributed to Wormser. Heaven knows what the others are. According to his own memoir (How To Become a Complete Nonentity), some issues had four stories by him, under four different aliases. I’m very tempted to take a stab at identifying those stories, but that is not the point of this post….
In this tale, special detective Nick Carter is hired by the New York City commissioner to track down a nationwide crime syndicate and destroy them. In gangster-era 1930s America, this novella was right at home with readers. If you are a Jason Bourne fan, you may wish to take special notice of this novel, because I would be splendidly shocked if the script writers hadn’t read this one themselves, including an amazingly daring elevator scene that, slightly altered, finds its way in the closing moments of the first Bourne movie (when Jason throws a dead body over the stairway and rides it to the bottom to cushion his fall).
But, I’m getting way ahead of myself….
Receiving a threatening death letter, Nick ignores the syndicates demands that he refuse the assignment. Hardly disposed to listening to the demands of criminals, Nick plunges into work, and is immediately attacked and captured. There ensues a crazy blood-and-thunder shooting scene in which Nick kills every assailant but one, and then doctors up his own appearance to match that of a criminal’s visage.
The pair arrested are brought before the commissioner for questioning. In his private quarters, Nick reveals his true identity. With the commissioner’s sworn secrecy, Nick assumes the identity of one of the slain scar-faced criminals and is sent to prison. That prison being too soft for him, he is sent up the river to a tough-elements prison. There, he escapes and makes his way to a contact point on the outside. Said information was obtained from a prison-mate.
He eventually is led to a secret hideout. Nick is flabbergasted to learn that he is at the renown Kalgara’s Cover, a location that has been raided in the past, but turned up no evidence. Apparently the crooks in charge had outsmarted the police. Led down various tunnels, he is brought before the leaders and forced to explain how he came to escape, etc. They are upset over the demise of Nick Carter (whom is presumed dead, after the commissioner released info to the newspapers to run a circular about his death). The syndicate had grand plans for Nick Carter.
Nick, in the guise of the escaped criminal, is given the assignment of kidnapping a young wealthy heiress, for ransom. He refuses. Not in his line. After being roughed up a bit, he acquiesces, and a few thugs are sent to keep him in line.
He breaks in, gets away from the thugs, warns the girl, and phones the police. Hanging up the phone, her bedroom door opens with all 3 thugs in the house! A shootout occurs, and he is knocked senseless. The police arrive on the scene and Nick awakens. The girl is about to reveal that he is innocent but he motions for her silence, which, remarkably, she does just that. Led away from the scene as a criminal, he is cuffed. While distracted, Nick quickly slaps the other cuff on the girl’s arm, to force her to come with him. He knows that in all likelihood that there is another gang of hoodlums outside in a fast-car ready to mow him down with Tommy-gun fire. The syndicate doesn’t permit their kind to be captured. To be captured means loose lips, and those must be silenced.
Nick breaks away and tosses the girl over his shoulder and makes a run for it, while surrounded by New York’s finest. It’s all good fun, but, really, the author makes complete jokes out of the police nonstop throughout the novel. He escapes while carrying the girl (is he Hercules now?) and getting into a taxi (he’s already picked the cuff’s lock) they speed off to his own residence. Here, he squirrels her away in his abode in the care of his man servant. We never see nor hear of her again.
Sneaking off again, he makes his way back to Kalgara’s Cover, and explains how he escaped, once again. They are annoyed by his second failure and proclaim the death sentence. Nick smartly outwits the death decree by demanding a crooks’ fair trial, a rule that the syndicate does adhere to !!! Sadly, the sole remaining thug that broke into the girl’s home arrives and explains what actually happened, revealing that Nick Carter phoned the police. Sentenced again to die, he lucks out when the police decide once more to raid the place.
Death postponed, the lights are knocked out, and bedlam ensues. Shots are fired, and the door opens. Nick gets out with the assistance of another criminal, a mastermind high in the chain of command. Nick thinks that this other person is an investigator like himself, whom has snuck in and obtained the crooks’ trust, but in fact, he is a criminal. Foolishly revealing his identity to the man, he is nearly murdered.
While the police are actively raiding the building, Nick Carter finds Kalgara himself, hiding. Believing Kalgara to be a mere stooge, cashing in on the crooks using his facility, he helps Kalgara to escape, freely.
Escaping death once more, Nick Carter, wounded and battered, keeps moving. He soon tracks the New York communications to a radio tower, and breaking in, finds the man that last tried to murder him. Taking him down, Nick wipes out just about everyone present. He obtains diamonds that are meant to be transferred to Chicago. Taking these, he heads West to Chicago to crack that syndicate, too. While the novella constantly asserts that the syndicate is nationwide, it is clear that it is predominantly ruled by New York and Chicago interests.
Getting in contact with Chicago crooks, Nick is taken to another base. Here, he demands $100,000 for the diamonds. Learning that he is in front of the head crook here, he pulls his guns and we are gifted to another blood-and-thunder scene, on the top floor of a high-rise building. A Jason Bourne-esque moment occurs when Nick Carter must get from the top floor to the bottom, and kill everyone in his path. Unfortunately, the fastest route is the elevator, with all the dead men he has slain, piled up inside. He has cut off the power to the elevator, ruining the fuses. Using his gun, he shoots the elevator’s wires and the car drops. He jumps down and catches up in time (with the elevator) to smash at the bottom and he crashes into the corpses. Thrown and tossed about like a sack of potatoes, the beaten Nick Carter rises like the proverbial fucking Energizer bunny and, opening the elevator doors, (which ought to be a crumpled mess) exits, and shoots a bunch of baddies in the back, whom are shooting through holes in the walls at the police.
Suffering from numerous gunshot wounds, he is led away from the building after the police teargas bomb the place. Inside an ambulance, an attendant injects him, and freshly juiced-up, Nick escapes the ambulance, lands on the ground, and runs back to the scene of carnage. Going back up to the top of the high-rise, he breaks open a radio communication system, extracts TNT (the crooks blow themselves up rather than be captured, but Nick had cut off the power source, earlier), and rewires the radio so that he can track the frequency to the crooks’ lair.
Flying overhead, he finds the lair, and disabling his aircraft, crash-lands it among the fields of an apparent farm. He is captured by two thugs, whom, assuming he is legitimately a downed pilot, never frisk him. Led to a barn house, Nick Carter immediately takes the offensive, taking all concerned off-guard. Killing one thug, he breaks into the house and heads up the stairs only to be met by another assailant. Diving aside, the gunner shoots and kills the second thug that breaks into the room behind Nick Carter. Returning the favor, Nick kills the stairway man, and is met by a machine gunner.
Lobbing a grenade up, he eventually makes his way up the stairs and kills the gunner. The wall reinforced, Nick tosses in two more grenades and the wall comes down. He finds himself facing only two more crooks. One is a major head, but the other is Kalgara himself, no longer the cowering drunkard he appeared to be. Nick realizes he goofed and shoots the first man dead so that he can get at Kalgara. Getting too close, Kalgara gets his large ham-fist hands on Nick and goes to swing him about but misjudges his position and ends up throwing his own body out a window and down to his untimely death, in what must be one of the most eye-rolling scenes I read overall.
The book ends with Nick in bed at another nearby farm and he passes out…after reading a newspaper that announces big budget cut-backs in New York, which means he will only receive half the original proposed fee that the commissioner promised him.