Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Frederick Faust's last story about Tizzo the Firebrand -- written, like all the others, under the alias of George Challis -- was actually the first of the series that I read. It was the only complete Firebrand story in the unz.org Argosy trove, but it was impressive enough to inspire me to start a Tizzo collection of his original appearances. "The Pearls of Bonfadini" concludes a sequence of four novelettes (following three short serials) in which the half-English, half-Italian redhead -- who favors an ax despite the sword shown on the cover -- falls into then fights his way out of the orbit of Cesare Borgia. Tizzo enjoyed meteoric success as an Argosy character, appearing on seven covers between late November 1934 and this end point in August 1935. Whether "Pearls" was meant to close the series all along or circumstances prevented Faust/Challis from writing more, I don't know. Regardless, the series is a classic of swashbuckling.
In addition, Frank Richardson Pierce begins a three-parter, Silver Thaw, that can be had complete at unz.org, while Faust continues the western serial The Sacred Valley under his more familiar identity as Max Brand, and concludes The Blackbirds Sing under the even less familiar pen-name of Dennis Lawton. The issue's fourth serial is part two of Borden Chase's Bed Rock, another of his dangerous-job tales of tunnel-digging sandhogs. The only real standalone stories this issue -- admittedly, you can enjoy "Pearls," as I did, without having read the earlier Tizzo pieces -- are Foster-Harris's action piece "The Rattler Whirs" and a gruesome short by Houston Day, "Cure for the Headache." This issue may be a little Faust-heavy for some, but it's still another outstanding Argosy from what I consider the venerable weekly's peak period. Browse through it at your leisure through this link to unz.org.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
William Ard never published in the pulps but went straight to paperback original novels, becoming a prolific author under numerous names before his untimely death from cancer at age 37 in 1960. As Jonas Ward, he wrote the Buchanan novels that inspired the 1958 Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film Buchanan Rides Alone. Ard published this novel in hardcover in 1959 as As Bad As I Am. That title is taken from some jailhouse graffiti recited by the protagonist, ex-con and ex-actor Danny Fontaine:
As good as you are, and as bad as I am, I'm as good as you are. As bad as I am.
With the publication of When She Was Bad in 1960 As Bad As I Am became the first of what proved a tragically short-lived series. Dell clearly hoped to market them as the Danny Fontaine novels, no matter what title Ard preferred. This 1960 re-release also required a slight rewrite, since Ard had changed his hero's first name from Mike to Danny from one novel to the next. Wanted: Danny Fontaine is the first Ard novel I've read. It might be described as a hard-boiled fairy tale, often grittily realistic in its depictions of crime and police procedure, and often too romantic to be true.
Fontaine is a three-time loser who got in trouble each time out of a compulsive desire to help a pretty girl. His parole board's perverse plan to reform him is to forbid him from dating women for eighteen months. Danny's determined to tough it out while living off rent on the apartment building he owns with his sister in a rapidly de-gentrifying neighborhood. In a familiar pop trope, his sister is married to a tough cop who distrusts Danny. But in this story the cop's the man you can't trust.
Even though Danny assumes he can't get work as an actor because of his criminal record, he's drawn back into the thespian milieu, impressing the casting director of a soap opera with his reading of audition lines describing prison life. He meets cute with Gloria Allen, a showgirl on the verge of a big break on a TV variety special starring a thinly-disguised satire of Jackie Gleason. Gloria gets a parallel storyline showing the pitfalls of her possible rise to stardom, including a date arranged by the crypto-Gleason's agent with a young lawyer negotiating the comic's new contract -- a date the lawyer expects to come with a bonus at the end. One of the novel's too-good-to-be-true elements is its revelation of the lawyer as a true gentleman at heart and a good guy who wants to do Gloria a good turn by helping Danny in his hour of crisis.
The crisis comes when Danny learns that his cop brother-in-law has set up two prostitutes in the apartment building, taking a cut of their earnings as protection money. A showdown leads to a struggle for the cop's gun in the marijuana-scented apartment that ends with the cop shooting himself by accident. Convinced that there's no way he could make the dead man's brother officers believe the truth, Danny runs, eventually taking shelter in Gloria's apartment.
It seems that everyone but the police is willing to believe Danny's story. Ard does nothing in this novel to flatter cops, who are shown, especially in the upper ranks, to be willing to lie and cheat to get high-profile convictions under unceasing pressure from their superiors. One police captain in the particular gets the truth of the incident from the prostitutes (some readers will object to their blatant Puerto Rican ethnicity), but ruthlessly convinces them to change their story to one portraying Danny as the aggressor. As the manhunt for Fontaine becomes front-page news, Gloria's future in entertainment seems to disintegrate once the comic's entourage learns of her relationship with the fugitive, but the smitten Gloria couldn't care less. Despite the lawyer's game best effort, Danny feels compelled to run again, only to be shot and caught. This is his moment of maximum peril as Ard sells the threat of torture or worse at the hands of the police. Fortunately, private detective Barney Glines -- a name Ard had used before, though he's supposedly not the same character from earlier novels -- to help the lawyer outmaneuver the police and track down the one man whose eyewitness testimony can counter the prostitutes' perjury. It all comes to a melodramatic courtroom climax, punctuated by the guilty police captain blowing his brains out. All ends happily, and in When She Was Bad Fontaine will become Glines' protege.
Somehow, over 219 paperback pages (in a sturdy edition perfectly shaped for reading) Ard maintains a tricky balancing act between noir and urban fable. When the novel goes hard-boiled, it's utterly convincing, and when it waxes romantic it has you enough on the side of his hero and heroine that you forgive the virtual whimsy of it. In the end I guess it's less a mix of styles than Ard doing his own thing in a unique and unflaggingly entertaining way. It's sad to realize that a year after As Bad As I Am came out in its original form, Ard was dead. There remains plenty for me to discover -- I especially want to try a Buchanan now -- but who knows how good he would have gotten in the long run?
By this time in 1941, Argosy's longtime stablemate Detective Fiction Weekly had ceased to be a weekly in another sign of the dire straits facing the Munsey Corporation. For all I know, by the time this issue hit the newsstands the decision had already been made to end the venerable weekly's weekly status. The proof wouldn't come for another month. For now, Argosy not only soldiered on but played an ace. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan was born in another Munsey magazine, All-Story, back in 1912. Throughout his career, the ape-man bounced back and forth between the Munsey mags and the McCall company's Blue Book and Red Book, depending on who paid Burroughs more. He had last appeared in Argosy in a 1938 serial. Perhaps now the Munsey people thought Tarzan could save Argosy, at least for a little while.
Virgil Finlay had been doing occasional interior illustrations for Argosy since 1939.
This was not one of his finest hours.
The Quest of Tarzan gets off to a dubious start with some anticipatory exposition about Mayans settling islands in the South Pacific before moving on to the negotiations of a German ship owner and an Arab slave trader, the latter promising to provide the former with a wild man to exhibit in circuses. The German is briefly taken aback when told that the wild man is white, but once informed that the wild man is also "English born" the ancestral hatred takes over. For the Arab, apparently an old enemy of Tarzan, this will be sweet revenge. He's somehow learned that Tarzan got bonked on the head or something (in a previous adventure?) and has lost his memory, reverting to his most primitive self. I'd seen the amnesia gimmick done in the 1929 silent serial Tarzan the Tiger; had Burroughs himself done it before? Anyway, he's wandering through the jungle until the slavers capture him and deliver him to the German. Meanwhile, World War II has broken out and another German passenger takes advantage of the fact that the first German was sailing under a British flag to confiscate the vessel in the name of der Fuehrer. Tarzan acquires some cellmates, kills a snake and regains his memory, most likely because Burroughs had tired of the amnesia gimmick already. The ship takes on some British prisoners, including a stereotypical dowdy dowager and her more hip children. This is exactly what you want to do with Tarzan of the Apes: stick him out at sea on a boat. I expect he'll meet some misplaced Mayans before this three-parter is open, but I'm not sure you can take that for granted.
This is another Argosy without a table of contents on the Fiction Mags Index, but since all three issues containing The Quest of Tarzan have been scanned and made available online, I can fill in that gap.
While the Tarzan story features an evil German, Japanophobia prevails in this issue by a 2 to 1 margin. Sinclair Gluck's novelette "No Ticket to Nippon" has American gangsters helping the Japs smuggle a strategically valuable element out of the country. It sports some fragrant Japano-jibberish from the Nipponese villains, e.g. "Ah ha! Big dirty trick on me, please, Captain Coast Guard! I notta knowing thatta stuff! White man fooling Japanese skipper, please. Telling that cement! Ah ha! Dirty work, I think so!" You can easily imagine Jerry Lewis or Mickey Rooney playing the part. The Japanese retain some dignity in Hal G. Evarts' "Colonel Coolie," perhaps because, with the action set in China and his heroes Chinese, Evarts has no excuse to resort to vaudeville pidgin. In the story, a coolie survives torture and saves his unit virtually by accident, succeeding where the stratagems of his westernized, academy-trained commanding officer had failed.
I didn't bother with this issue's installment of Murray R. Montgomery's Swords in Exile, another in a sort of anti-Musketeer series about Cardinal Richelieu's personal troops, because it was part five of six. I did read the conclusion of Walt Coburn's two-parter Town Marshal because the previous issue, containing part one, is at unz.org. It's a typical Coburn combo of violent and romantic passion, a vicious outlaw being offered a pardon in order to clean up a still-more vicious cow town where he encounters an old flame and the old enemy she married. Coburn teases a romantic triangle involving the outlaw-turned-marshal, the young woman who inherits a ranch, and her hotheaded boyfriend, but arranges for age-appropriate pairings by the end. I can't say whether whisky fueled the writing here, as it was often supposed to have in Coburn's later career, but there's an energy here missing in most of the other stories. I'm thinking of two pieces that hardly have business in a pulp magazine. In Elmer Ransom's "With Work to Do," a disgraced, widowed doctor befriends an injured beaver and spoils the animal until it's ostracized by its own kind, only to be inspired when the beaver mans up and takes charge in a crisis caused by the man himself. Don Tracy's "Bunny Rabbits" is inexcusable slop in which a newspaper circulation stunt offering rabbits as incentives to newsboys goes haywire. I guess the slicks wouldn't have these stories, but they seemed respectable to Argosy. Stuff like them was helping to kill the venerable weekly, on top of Munsey's self-destructive overexpansion over the last two or three years. For the next two Tuesdays we'll continue to follow Tarzan's misadventure and see if anything else is salvageable from these dark days for Argosy.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Johnston McCulley's tales of Zorro represent just a fraction of all the pulp fiction he wrote about Spanish or Mexican-ruled California. In fact, McCulley didn't become a prolific writer of Zorro stories until relatively late in his career, after many other pulp markets had dried up or died on him. If anything, he seemed reluctant for a long time to return often to the character that gave McCulley his place in pop-culture history. Maybe the character gimmick we now identify with Zorro -- the hero who pretends to be a dull fop in civilian life -- bored him. Yet he remained fascinated by the setting and the period, and during the 1930s especially wrote numerous swashbucklers set in what this 1936 Argosy exploitatively calls "Zorro-Land." That tantalizing label tempts us to think of McCulley setting all his California creations in a "universe" where his heroes might have interacted with each other, depending on chronology. I doubt whether the thought ever occurred to him. Here was a writer who was happy to write tales of the lisping thief Thubway Tham ad infinitum (or nauseum), but when it came to Old California it seems that McCulley really preferred to come up with a new concept for a hero, to start over from scratch, as often as editors would let him. And in fact there's a freshness to these miscellaneous California chronicles that's missing in the later Zorro stories I've read. I'd rather give this Don Peon a try than have old Don Diego go through his paces yet again. I probably will give at least this first installment of the Don Peon serial a try, since I must have this issue to complete Eustace L. Adams's serial Brave Men Die Hard. For my trouble I'll also get novelettes by Cornell Woolrich and Donald Barr Chidsey (the latter apparently outranked by McCulley if by few others in this period), short stories by James Francis Dwyer, Allan Vaughan Elston, Frank H. Martin and Theodore Roscoe, and a serial installment from Arthur Hawthorne Carhart. Not a bad package, theoretically, and probably not expensive despite McCulley and Woolrich's canonical names. Perhaps we'll have a chance to discuss this issue at greater length sometime....
Sunday, August 21, 2016
Here's a 1937 Argosy without a table of contents in the Fiction Mags Index. Fortunately, a site dedicated to the pulp writings of L. Ron Hubbard has this issue covered with a detailed table. For Hubbard fans or followers, this issue is extra-special because the great man has a letter in Argonotes along with his story "Nine Lives." In the letter, Hubbard defends "fast-production" writers like Frederick Faust and H. Bedford-Jones against snobby critics, crediting them with more nimble brains and "unconscious technique," while saying of himself that " If I write less than fifty thousand a month, my idea-machine practically breaks down." As was often the case in the second half of the 1930s, Donald Barr Chidsey gets the cover with the debut of a new series. "Call Me Mike" introduces Mikkud-Phni Luangba, heir to the real of Kamorriri, and his American companion/bodyguard George Marlin. Mikkud-Phni, aka "Mike," has adventures all around the world when he's not studying at Princeton. The running gag is that Marlin usually is forced into frantic action to rescue Mike, while the prince views everything with placid bemusement -- though he shouldn't be underestimated in a fight. Chidsey published at least three more Mike stories: two in September 1937 and one in 1940. There may be more, since the Mike series isn't recognized in the Fiction Mags Index. The first three stories have "Mike" in the title, but the 1940 story is "Flight to Singapore," and other Mike stories may be similarly obscured. I've read a couple of the Mikes, and they're mildly amusing, though you can see how they'd quickly grow monotonous. Along with these highlights the Aug. 21 issue features serial chapters from Bennett Foster, John Hawkins and Arthur Leo Zagat and stories by Frank Richardson Pierce (possibly a No-Shirt McGee), Garnett Radcliffe and Bertrand L Shurtleff. Hubbard's stuff was pretty entertaining in these early days of his career, so this issue's probably a pretty good overall package.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
Something important is missing from this 1941 cover: the word "Weekly." Since its founding as Flynn's in 1924, this magazine had maintained a weekly schedule as the stablemate of Argosy for the Munsey corporation. Now Munsey could maintain that schedule no longer, crippled by a harebrained brand expansion that had shown few results. The last weekly issue bore an August 2 cover date. How much time passed between that issue and this one appearing on newsstands I don't know. In any event, Detective Fiction now became a true biweekly title, as opposed to "twice a month" magazines like Short Stories that always were dated the 10th and 25th of the month. If there were five Wednesdays in a month, as would be the case in November 1941, you'd get three issues of Detective Fiction. That situation didn't last for long, however, since with Munsey's fortunes still dwindling Detective Fiction became a monthly in April 1942. Popular Publications took over in 1943, but while they upgraded Argosy into a long-running men's magazine, they finally killed Detective Fiction in the summer of 1944, only to revive the title for a short-lived mini-pulp in the 1950s. As you see, Munsey had come up with some ugly packaging for the former DFW that would only get uglier over the next year. Inside, you could still find familiar faces, whether authors like Richard Sale or characters like T. T. Flynn's Mike and Trixie (who made their last appearance until 1951 in this issue) or J. Lane Likletter's Paul C. Pitt. But there's no denying that a once-mighty magazine was a shadow of its former self in more ways than one.
Friday, August 19, 2016
Here's one Western Story cover from 1939 that doesn't quite work for me. In his focus on the close up of hands and weapons H. W. Scott loses some of the sense of height and peril -- despite the bird in the distance -- that this predicament should have. Of course, if the real subject is mutually assured destruction, the cover does have a point. Inside, this issue is dominated by L. L. Foreman's "book-length novel" Bullet Blockade. At 53 double-column pages, this one is a relatively plausible claimant to that much-abused title, and it could well be a good one, since I've liked what I've read of Foreman so far. It leaves room for only two more short stories, by B Bristow Green and Tom Roan, along with this week's installment of Bennett Foster's serial Blackleg. Of course, each Western Story comes with a quota of nonfiction and regular columns. On any given week it looks like it was definitely worth a dime.