Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'I'm so sober, I'm damn near ready to fight anybody for any reason.'

Robert Carse wasn't the most prolific of pulp writers, and that probably explains why his work was consistently above average. He published a grand total of thirteen stories in 1932, including a six-part Argosy serial, and that's not much considering that his stuff usually appeared in weeklies like Argosy or Detective Fiction Weekly or in twice-monthlies like Adventure and what for that year was known as The Popular Complete Stories. This was the merger of Street & Smith's two general-adventure pulps, The Popular Magazine and Complete Stories. The selling point, as you might guess, was that there were no serials, when Argosy, by comparison, ran four at a time, so you weren't going to be in the middle of something if you picked up a TPCS. Carse specialized in what could be called the French Colonial genre, encompassing both Foreign Legion adventures and Devil's Island-type tales of brutality and resistance. "The Web" (February 1, 1932) has a little bit of both. Its co-protagonist, James, is an American who was framed for murder and condemned to the typical hell on earth so a crooked French Guiana politician (a "half-breed," of course) could take over the oil fields James inherited from his father. We never actually see the prison, since the story opens with James a free man in France, but suddenly subject to blackmail. Somehow, someone has learned that he's an escapee and fugitive, and that someone is demanding a huge sum of francs for his silence. Somehow James catches the interest of Rand, an alcoholic American journalist who only sobers up on the promise of a big story. He sees one in James's plight and together they discover that the very people who smuggled him out of prison are blackmailing him and other escapees. Basically it becomes a gangster story in a French setting, with Rand swinging from man of action to staggering drunk until he finally recruits a gang of ex-Legionnaires in Marseilles to take on the blackmailers, who of course include James's old enemy, who supposedly had been lynched in his homeland years ago. Rand may be rather implausible as a hero, arguably a sort of defective-detective type, but Carse's semi-hard boiled style makes him palatable. This is a "complete novel" at 48 pages and it's actually novelistically paced in an almost-daring way as Carse opens with several pages of dialogue introducing his protagonists to each other. Perhaps the Street & Smith editors were more indulgent of this than others. Fortunately Carse is good enough with dialogue that the protracted opening holds your interest, and there's enough novelty to the setting and situation to make this a fairly entertaining little thriller from one of pulp's more dependable writers.

Monday, April 2, 2018

'This probably was the last time he'd pick up something Trump brought him.'

Arthur Hawthorne Carhart's "Give a Dog a Name" (Adventure, June 1943) is a cute mystery story in which a heroic dog discovers the crucial clue. Carhart, a western specialist, wrote something short and to the point. The hero, Lige, is reluctantly conscripted to hunt down a friend accused of murdering another man. The law has leverage over him because Lige is wanted in another territory. The authorities expect Lige's dog, himself a sort of outcast, to be able to sniff out the suspected man. The twist is that the dog leads Lige to the alleged victim, who had faked his death, making it look like his bloody body had been dragged to the rapids, in order to get away with robbery. The crucial clue is the victim/culprit's bloodstained shoe, which indicates that the shoe's owner had to have taken it off after he'd supposedly been killed. Good dog! The thing that makes this story worth a post to me, or at least worth some clickbait, is that the dog's named Trump. I could have used a lot of sentences to headline this post. For instance:

Trump was an ugly dog. Everyone thought so, except Lige.

Trump was about to be shot the day they met some years ago. The shepherd had seen Trump smelling a coyote-killed lamb. He believed Trump guilty.

Trump must have realized he'd been pulled out of a bad spot.

The citizens wouldn't care what became of Trump. He'd probably haunt back doors, scavenging food, until someone shot him or poisoned him and felt righteous doing it.

There was one way to do it. Kill Trump and then let Newt Slayne send a telegram to the law man up north.

Maybe if he could understand, Trump would rather have this happen than to have Syd caught.

"Me and Trump don't think Syd's guilty."

Trump came back when called but then struck out in that wrong direction again.

"I'll bet Trump's hungry, too. He's done a day's work."

[Or, if you really want to editorialize...]

"Don't try," said Lige, "From here on we both follow Trump."

This is all very sophomoric in what I hope is nonpartisan fashion, but I couldn't help myself. If anyone takes offense, I swear that if I find a jungle story featuring any sort of savage named Obama, I'll do the same thing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.'

The man known only as Dugan was Arthur O. Friel's last major series character. The intellectual property of his author rather than a publisher, Dugan appeared in both Adventure and Short Stories during 1938 and 1939, if not later. He was one of Friel's typical American adventurers in South America, if more of a tough-guy loner than his predecessors. "A Piece of Gold" (Adventure, January 1939) finds him a hungry wanderer in Venezuela until he discovers a party of men roasting beef. He joins in uninvited and gets into a fight, which of course he wins. The situation seems to be defused by the appearance of the men's leader, a young "high class" Spaniard who offers him more meat to travel on, but Dugan only makes matters worse by offering to pay for it. The youth takes that as an insult and throws the coin away. Dugan takes that as an insult and throws the meat away. Eventually the two will reconcile and join forces to recover a treasure located in a house that once belonged to the young man's prestigious family, now belonging to the new tyrannical governor, but this tense early encounter is the most dramatic moment of the story. It seems all the more dramatic now for the racial charge Friel infuses it with. His narrator -- the typical raconteur who claims to know Dugan but may be Dugan himself for all I know -- makes a point of emphasizing that the young man, Lorenzo, isn't the typical South American trash. "Not a thick Indian slur in his voice, not a word left out or misspoken; not the common lingo of the llanos," he says, "And his face was like his talk: sharp, clear-cut, with straight black brows and straightforward brown eyes and a firm nose and chin." And yet Lorenzo is an inferior, at least according to Dugan's own hierarchy of blood:

Well, that's the way Dugan's built. Sort of temperamental. Take him right, and he'll give you his shirt. Get him wrong, and that's different. And the Irish, if you don't happen to know it, have better reasons to get proud than anything that ever came out of Spain. A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.

The sentiment is deplorable in an objective way and yet almost admirable, on Friel's part, for a frankness in viewpoint that too often goes missing today. In any event, the story doesn't treat Lorenzo like an inferior; it only insists that on almost all points someone from down there is going to be outclassed by an American, and an Irish-American especially. That goes double for Pompeyo, the de facto head of the goon squad that's attached itself to Lorenzo, hoping to snatch the treasure for themselves. He's "A cheap plug-ugly who'd tried to be a prize fighter in Havana, probably, but hadn't made good. But, down here, good enough to beat up all comers, till an Irish-American came along. The story itself is a punchy, hard-boiled entertaining affair, and if anything the casual bigotry enhances the overall tone. In the end, by the way, Lorenzo offers Dugan a whole bag of gold, but our hero deems himself satisfied with a single coin and some food, accepting what the young man originally offered him. Money doesn't mean much if you're more interested in moving on than in settling down, and Dugan has more adventures waiting for him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Variations on the good German

Let that be a lesson to me. In my last point I commented dismissively on Popular Publications' war-air pulp Dare-Devil Aces  based on a reading of approximately half of the January 1937 issue. Each story of the three I'd read featured stereotypical German villains and one-note gimmickry, leading me to deride the whole magazine as juvenile stuff. Having now finished the issue, I don't really think it much less juvenile, but I have to acknowledge it to be less monotonous in its overall content. Three of the remaining stories feature "Good German" characters, of which there were at least two sorts in this sort of pulp.  In C. M. Miller's "Eye of Doom" and the pseudonymous William Hartley's "Gentlemen Eagles" we get what might be called the sportsman, a relatively good-natured character who doesn't use the dirty "cold meat" tactics of more villainous Germans. In the Miller story the German isn't even the primary antagonist, but gets caught in the middle of a feud between two American airmen dating back to when all three were soldiers of fortune, more or less, in Latin America, the two Americans being on opposite sides of a civil war that cost the German a land investment. The suspense is twofold: will one American take vengeance on the other for having him flogged back then, or will the German take vengeance should his old American friend rat out his comrade as the one who cost the Kraut his plantation land? In the end there's no revenge and the German, even when taken prisoner, is just too good-natured to hold the one American's revolutionary antics against him. In "Gentlemen Eagles" the German is a chivalrous sport who withdraws from a dogfight when he sees that his American foe's machine gun has failed. The chagrined Yank bets his buddies that he can defeat this same ace within a certain time, and is forced to pursue the German to near the Swiss border in order to pick a fresh fight.This story is ultimately comic, the only one in the issue in which it can be said that no one really wins, unless you want to count it a win for both pilots that they're forced to land in Switzerland and taken prisoner for the duration, thus assured of surviving the war. It does count as a win for the American to an extent, since the German good-sportingly agrees to sign a statement confirming that the Yank brought him down at such-and-such a time so he can win his bet.

On a more serious if not mawkish note, O. B. Meyers' "Aces and Death" gives us a conscientious German, one more honorable than his commanders. This story invites us to see the American and German protagonists as near-exact counterparts, down to their similarly alliterative names, David Decker and Dagmar (isn't that a woman's name?) Denkert. The latter is forced down while on a bombing run against an Allied hospital housing a large number of German P.O.Ws. Denkert is shocked to learn that, contrary to German propaganda claiming that the Allies paint red crosses on ammo dumps, his target really was a hospital. He's naive enough to convince Decker to let him fly back to the German side so he can convince his superiors to stop bombing red crosses. When Denkert is predictably rebuffed and prevented from fulfilling his promise to return to the Allied side, Decker decides that he's just another treacherous Hun and is hot to shoot down his distinctive plane with a Z on the wing. Even after Denkert helps him escape after he's brought down behind enemy lines, Decker freaks out when the Z-plane appears to pursue him. The final twist comes after the American shoots that plane down, when a German plane drops off a message -- an omnipresent plot device in these stories -- explaining that Denkert's asshole commandant had used his plane to chase the American. As opposed to the more humorous stories with sportsman Germans, this one closes on a relatively grim note as Denkert reminds Decker that they'll be enemies once more should they meet again before the war ends. I still can't say I'm much impressed with Dare-Devil Aces, but I have to give credit where it's due for greater variety of content than I first assumed.

Monday, March 19, 2018

'Damn you, Kraut, what kind of lousy trick is this?'

A few weeks ago I rewatched Wings, the original Best Picture Oscar winner from 1927. That World War I classic made me curious about the "war-air" pulps that flourished around the same time or shortly afterward. Conveniently, I had a chance to sample one such magazine. Dare-Devil Aces was an early Popular Publications title, launching in February 1932 and lasting through the end of World War II. I've been making my way through the January 1937 issue, and even though I'm only halfway through it I realize what a challenge it must have been to write for the war-air pulps. There doesn't seem to be a lot of stories one can write about the war in the air, compared to the comparatively infinite possibilities of the chaotic war on the ground. Nor could one take anything like a nuanced view of World War I, apparently, as the audience for Dare-Devil Aces, on the evidence of this issue, was a lot more juvenile than the audience for Wings or the later films of screenwriter John Monk Saunders. In the war of the Dare-Devil Aces the Germans are always vicious, arrogant and cowardly, preferring to attack only with superior numbers and, whenever possible, with secret weapons. To write for the magazine, your story had to have a gimmick. In the lead novelette, star writer Robert Sidney Bowen's "Black Vengeance," the Germans have gimmicked tracer bullets that release clouds of poisoned splinters that paralyze enemy pilots on contact. In Eliot Todd's "Dynamite Buzzard," the Huns have a prototype "range finder" that allows anti-aircraft guns to detect Allied planes through clouds and in complete darkness. Fortunately for the U.S. and their Entente pals, these prototype superweapons are always destroyed and, ideally, their inventors are killed before they can fully share their insights with the high command. Some stories have gimmicks that have nothing to do with special weapons. In Reg Dinsmore's "Hell's Hooligan," for instance, the gimmick is that our American pilot hero is such a ginger snap that both allies and enemies laugh at his appearance until his heroism shuts their mouths. It's not much of a gimmick, admittedly, but it wasn't much of a story, either. Dare-Devil Aces seems to have been monotonous stuff; the target reader must have had a mental button that really needed pushing to keep buying the pulp month after month. It's the first pulp I've read that really reminded me of reading a comic book -- of the Golden or Silver Age sort -- in its high-concept simplicity. My understanding was that in 1937 a more cynical attitude toward the Great War prevailed in pop culture, though that would change very shortly, but Dare-Devil Aces reads as if the war was still on -- or, depending on your perspective, as if the war had already re-started.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

'Your hoodlums split the scalp of a prettier girl than you to keep her quiet. Taught me how!'

Created in 1917 for Adventure by Gordon Young, Don Everhard is recognized by some as fiction's first hard-boiled detective. That recognition is based on substance rather than style. Everhard, aka Donald Richmond, an oil-rich gambler and sometimes troubleshooter, has a grim, somewhat cynical attitude, but Young as a writer, especially early on, lacks the terse, staccato manner of the more generally recognized hard-boiled pioneers writing for Black Mask. Over time, their influence sunk in, so that by 1936 Young could talk the talk as well as walk the walk. The title "Everhard" (Adventure, May 1936) suggests that his novelette was meant as a kind of "reboot" for the character, and not necessarily the first since he, or his editor, had already given a 1933 novelette the same name. There had only been one Everhard story in between, the 1936 "Everhard" being the first in more than two years. He'd been mostly writing sea stories and westerns in the interval and presumably refining his style. The 1936 story re-establishes the hero's household: his sister Helen; his servant Kang Ko, a disciplinarian of long standing; and his chauffeur Mike, a professional wrestler who himself can talk the talk, cutting a mean promo to distract people while his boss does some sneaking, as well as walk the walk by breaking a crook's neck. Everhard himself is drawn to the aid of casino operators threatened by the unexpected release from prison of "Killer" Lynn, who has vowed vengeance on both the casino owner and Everhard himself. It develops that the threat to the casino is meant to draw Everhard out so Lynn and his mysterious employer Rinsko can eliminate him. It then develops, in an entertaining extra complication, that Everhard is being used as bait to draw out Lynn and Rinsko by a G-Man and his fanatical girlfriend, who fools Everhard so completely that he suspects her of setting him up for the gangsters to kill. That element of fallibility, the extent to which his own wrath at the gangsters leads him to blunder severely, makes Everhard a much more interesting and (dare I say?) likeable character than he was in previous stories I tried to read. In short, the 1936 "Everhard" read like a very promising restart for the franchise, but Young apparently was running out of ideas for his detective. Don Everhard only made two more appearances, in the November 1937 Adventure and in his only foray outside his home pulp, in a 1939 issue of Short Stories.  His heart may not have been in the genre anymore; he may have preferred writing, and fans may have preferred reading the exploits of his cowboy hero Red Clark, which continued for much of the 1940s, until Young's death in 1948. If anyone has read anymore Everhards worth recommending, I'll be glad to hear about them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'It's a yellow way to get out of a hole, Gatlin -- abandoning a white man in this country."

A common theme makes Ralph R. Perry's "Congo Sun" and W. Townend's "Red" appropriate bookends for the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. Both stories quite consciously attack the anarchically egalitarian attitude that "no one's any better than I am." In the Townend story, as regular readers will recall, a merchant-marine communist discovers his own superiority to the trash of proletarian London and emerges as a leader of men. In Perry's a frustrated first mate struggles to break the resistance of a crew of trash against an erratic captain. There's really a threeway struggle among First Mate Tom Cole, the hero, Captain Gatlin, who careens between cowardly indulgence of a malcontent crew and irrational rage against them, and Seaman Sutson, self-appointed ringleader of a bad crew of deckhands. Cole understands that someone like Sutson has to be brought to heel as soon as possible, but Gatlin fears the harm to his record should violence have to be employed against the crew. Cole doesn't necessarily think violence is the only solution, but while force may not be the only thing Sutson understands, forcefulness in manner may be the only other thing. As the ship heads up the Congo to pick up loads of lumber the equatorial heat gets to everybody and Gatlin grows increasingly intolerant of Sutson's goldbricking ways while Cole worries that it's too late to tame Sutson without violence. A sunstruck Gatlin has an alternative, which is to abandon Sutson and his buddies in a jungle town where they've been drinking the latest advance on their salaries extorted from the captain. While Cole feels that Sutson deserves such a fate, it still seems wrong to him somehow, and when Gatlin finally collapses from exhaustion, our hero uses his temporary authority to finally force the issue with the defiant seaman.

This isn't the sort of adventure thriller that Perry would write later in his Bellow Bill Williams series for Argosy. Instead, it's a character study of the shifting moods of mate and captain amid gradually increasing suspense as Perry delays the inevitable hand-to-hand showdown between Cole and Sutson. When that finally comes, Perry makes the blowoff surprising brief but unsurprisingly brutal. It works somehow; Cole breaking Sutson's arm is more abruptly decisive than the pages of knock-down and drag-out another writer might attempt. Despite the title, Perry has little to say about Africa or Africans, apart from noting, despite his characters' free use of the n-word, that native krooboys are more dependable workers than white trash like Sutson. In "Congo Sun" and "Red," pulp fiction seems to be preparing readers not only to pass the expected tests of courage and responsibility, but to take authority over others and prove that not everyone is as good as they are. Another way of putting it is that pulp, at least as published by Adventure editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, favors meritocracy over egalitarianism, or prefers a meritocratic egalitarianism that rewards talent and character regardless of class (see "Red") over an egalitarianism that stubbornly rejects all meritocratic distinctions. To look at it yet another way, modern critics may focus on how pulp affirms racial hierarchies, but pulp stories often require stiff-necked whites to bow before heroic characters as well, sometimes after struggles nearly as difficult as any empire's civilizing mission.