Tuesday, October 17, 2017

High Noon in Furnace City

For a change of pace, I'm not going to summarize or criticize some pulp story in this space. Instead, for the heck of it, I'm going to share with you a complete short story from the June 1955 issue of Western Short Stories, with the emphasis on short. The FictionMags Index describes Dick Baird's "High Noon in Furnace City" as a vignette; in a slick magazine it'd be called a "short short story." The Index offers no description at all for Baird, under whose name -- most likely a pseudonym -- appeared just two stories, both for Martin Goodman's Stadium outfit in 1955. It's reminiscent in length and format of the sort of two-page pieces that would have appeared in Goodman's Atlas comics in this period. The story is a simple set-up for a twist ending, but you may end up wondering whether what happens at high noon in Furnace City actually makes sense. Judge for yourselves, for here it is, straight from the twilight days of western pulp.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Look at their skins and ye can see who their father is.'

The four-page short story "Oysthers!" (Adventure, September 30, 1923) makes a better case for Gordon Young as a pioneer of the hard-boiled style, or at least the hard-boiled manner, than any of his longer works that I've read to date. It's an absolutely amoral tale told by a deliberately unreliable narrator, Patrick O'Flynn Delaney -- a sailor with "a brogue that was as thick as the San Francisco fog." In oldschool style Young introduces us to Delaney through the eyes of another first-person narrator, who meets the sailor in an oyster house where Delaney has spent his last dime on a bowl of soup. Once, however, "t'was less than six month ago that Oi was one of the richest men in the whole South Seas -- f'r ten minutes, but no longer." The rest of the story relates the rise and fall of Delaney and his fellow castaway on the isle of Rigoro, Buck O'Malley. Buck has "a way wid womin," having stolen a Dutch trader's "naygur wife" along with his schooner before picking up another woman on the island. Delaney practices abstinence, since "naygur womin [are] too [expletive deleted by editor A. S. Hoffman] handy wid knives an' ugly in other ways," but O'Malley enjoys having the women vie to service him in every way imaginable. To make a short story shorter, One of the women finds an oyster with a pearl inside "wid the shape of a hen's egg an' as big." The end of paradise follows quickly as Kate, the Dutchman's wife, ends an argument with her rival, Betsy, by burying a knife in Betsy's breast. "That for you, pig-woman," she says in farewell. O'Malley approves and has Betsy thrown to the sharks. "It was Kate that I love best anyhow," he remarks. He loves her too well and not enough, however, entrusting her to hold the great pearl while he does the dirty work of dumping Betsy overboard, only to have Kate pull a knife on him. She's worried that he'll find a way home to cash in the pearl, abandoning her. Extracting his promise to stay with her on Rigoro, she throws the pearl into the sea.

O'Malley he stood there gaspin' for air; then wid a yell he jumps, an' the fist of him took her in the jaw an' she fell over the skylight and her laigs quivered like a frog's that's dying. 
'Ye black dirt, into the water wid yez an' find that pearl -- Oi'll kill ye! Don't ye come up widout it!'

Finally Delaney intervenes to save Kate, only to get stabbed by her while he fights his former friend. Both white men go over the side, but our raconteur makes it back on board while the sharks -- or "maybe as Oi sometimes think, 't was the black Betsy girl" -- pull O'Malley under. There's nothing left for Delaney but to take Kate back to her trader and then make his furtive way back to America, where "Some day we'll have a real dinner, wid radishes an' beer, an then Oi'll tell ye a story worth two of this an' ivery bit as true!" Even with the brogue, I wouldn't mind hearing another one from Delaney, as long as he keeps it just as short.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

'Mohammedans interest me. Supermen of the East. Excitable, you know; rather fanatical.'

During the 1910s, Presbyterian minister George McPherson Hunter was secretary of the American Seamans' Friends Society and editor of its magazine, The Sailors' Magazine. He started writing fiction for the pulps in 1919, in his fifties, and made it into Adventure only once. "Seven Rugs and Seven Men" (September 30, 1923) resumes the adventures of McGregor Sahib, a character Hunter created for The Green Book. Here, McGregor is ship's doctor for the City of Manila, currently docked in New York. The author's knowledge of the sailor community in the metropolis adds some color here as the ship has to recruit not merely new crewmen but new lascars, Asiatic seamen, from "Brooklyn's Asiatic boardinghouses." McGregor, "steeped in Indian ways," sees that the wrong men may have been hired.

The stokers were Sunnites, Arabic Mohammedans, owing allegiance to the Sultan of Turkey. And the men brought aboard were Shiites, Indian Mohammedans. The Arabic crowd, fanatical and clannish, wanted their own kind.

Sunnis and Shiites at odds? That sounds right, even if they're not as neatly divided geographically as Hunter seems to think. Still, McGregor is a veritable scholar of Islam compared to Chief Engineer Miller, who's astonished to find that the Muslims own prayer rugs. "Ain't they heathens?" he asks. Told about Muslims' five daily prayers, he remarks, "If them poor black guys can't pray without rugs below their knee-bones it's not me that'll be hindering them."

The City of Manila sets sail at a moment of international tension caused by resurgent Islam. "Turkey's defeat and humiliation [in World War I] had shaken the Moslem world and stirred the leaders of the faithful into action. her sudden rally and stab back at Greece [in 1921] had given courage and hope to the Moslem hierarchy. Followers of Mohammed were being urged to preserve the faith of the Green Banner." Little do those followers know that Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal, will shortly stab them in the back by abolishing the Caliphate and embarking on a radical program of secularization and westernization, but where's the fun in that for a pulp writer? In any event, the British navy and British intelligence are ordered to keep an eye out for Muslims using the sea lanes to spread seditious literature. The stakes are high, since "They man the merchant ships of the East. A holy war could be waged on sea and land." So says Ames, a scholar of Islam whose movements begin to arouse suspicion. Personally, I began to suspect that Ames was some sort of Bolshevist, but that idea went overboard when Ames is found dying, apparently captured and tortured by some of the lascars. He turns out to have been an intelligence officer like McGregor, who breaks the case with one of those weird tests that "appeal to the pageant sense of the Oriental" and the pulp writer.

In this trick, McGregor gathers the lascars together and sets them to the task of licking envelopes. The ones who fail are guilty of killing Ames and concealing the jihadist literature inside their carpets. "The strain of smothering all [their] fears was considerable and affected them physically, parched their tongues, dried up the saliva in their mouths," McGregor explains, "They hadn't enough moisture to wet the mucilage on the stamps. They betrayed themselves!" I might have expected editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman to ask the author, "Was it the stamps or the envelopes they were supposed to lick?" but perhaps the great man had made up his mind to indulge Hunter by publishing his tale before reaching the end. Hunter missed his one-and-only chance to contribute to "The Camp-Fire," and quit pulp for several years to edit the Pittsburgh Presbyterian Banner before placing a run of stories in the Clayton magazines. His last pulp fiction appeared in Short Stories in 1938. He retired from the ministry at age 90 and died three years later, in 1961. If only today's seditious plots could be discovered as easily as Hunter imagined.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

'Then and there a savagery crept into his puppy-like nature.'

Francis Beverly Kelley was too busy in his full-time career as a publicist for the Ringling Bros. circus to be a prolific contributor to pulp magazines. His pulp career consists of two short stories and two nonfiction pieces published in Adventure between August 1931 and May 1933. "Black Prince" (April 15, 1932), the first of the stories, recounts the tragic career of a trained lion driven by very human emotions. The only survivor of a litter, the instantly orphaned cub is raised by lion tamer Lucky Davis of Keller's Kolossal Circus, who makes a she-goat the baby's wet nurse. The unlikely bond between the two animals persists after Black Prince is weaned, but is abruptly broken when some fool puts the goat in the wrong lion's cage. Black Prince watches a lioness kill his surrogate mother and goes mad with grief. Worse, he nurses a grudge until the opportunity comes to exact revenge on the lioness. His rage spent, the lion once more becomes a tractable animal, despite his inaccurate new reputation as a "man-killer." Kelley describes the training process for various lion acts in presumably authentic detail that makes his story worth reading, but then comes the next crisis for our poor lion. He grows jealous and irritable as Lucky starts training Sheba, a Bengal tigress who "showed rare promise as an actress." Re-reading the sentence, "How should Davis know that he fairly reeked of the hated tigress whom he had been petting previous to his visits to Black Prince's cage?" it occurred to me that, in Twenties slang, Kelley could just as well have been describing Lucky's makeout session with the circus vamp. For that matter, "Sheba" was the female counterpart of a "Sheik" in those roaring days. Ironically, the humbled Black Prince, relegated to an exhibition cage after a dangerous tantrum, ends up rescuing Lucky when the tigress freaks out after a botched spot in her act and the tamer actually calls for his old pet's help. Black Prince may have a "limited brain," but though outmatched by the tigress as a fighter, he knows he can distract her long enough for Lucky to make his escape. Making his own, he takes a wrong turn and ends up in the streets of Ridge City, where he is slowly slaughtered by a posse panicked by the prospect of a "man-killer" in their midst. Every year afterward, Kelley closes, Lucky makes a memorial pilgrimage to the hill in the city where Black Prince is buried. The final scene shows the aging lion tamer at his old friend's grave as the circus band plays "Auld Lang Syne" in the distance. It all reads sort of like a Tod Browning circus movie, though I'm not sure whether Lon Chaney would play the tamer or the lion.

Interestingly, in this issue's "Camp-Fire" section, where he makes his customary but belated introduction of himself to readers, Kelley confides that the cat-tamer he idolized as a youth was a woman, Mabel Stark, who in her day was just about the most famous female circus performer. I suppose, however, that his odd little story of animal jealousy would be odder still with a woman protagonist. Writing of the real life behind his story, he observes that "In the fascinating school of the steel arenas [the big cats] parallel a classroom where both intelligent pupils and those of retarded mental growth are found. There are model students and there are morons in the big training cages." He also defends circus people against a "rough and uncultured" stereotype. "With its citizenry of many nationalities and numerous religions, the circus is a great place to learn tolerance," Kelley notes, "All of which probably can be summed up like this: 'Never turn up your nose at anyone; remember the law of gravity.'"

Monday, October 2, 2017

'Outside were the squaws and papooses, hoping that the thief would be tortured and that they might have a hand in it.'

Many pulp stories focus on some test of courage. The protagonist is often misperceived as a coward, but for some reason or other he's shunned by his community or loved ones and must find some way to prove his true virtue to them. Frank C. Robertson's "The Regeneration of Pesokie" (Adventure, September 30, 1923) is such a story, with the twist of a grim coda in the Jack London style. The title character is the black sheep of a Shoshone tribe known as the Rootdiggers, recently returned to his people after five years following white trappers. "Among them he had learned many things that were not good," the narrator notes, until the whites finally drummed Pesokie out of their camp. In short, Pesokie makes no more favorable impression on his own people. Caught stealing food at a time of desperate need, he faces a terrible fate. "The man who would betray his own people to their death that his own belly may be full must die," says Pesokie's own brother. The rest of the tribe, in the manner of pulp aborigines everywhere, want Pesokie to die by torture, while the brother, Sonnup, would prefer the mercy of a quick end. It's his right, as the man who caught Pesokie, to recommend the manner of his death, so Sonnup convinces the tribe that leaving him naked in the snowy wilderness without food or weapons is a better torture than the fiery fate they were hoping for.

The circle visibly hesitated. Nothing was so dear to them at the moment as prolonged torture of the craven who feared not only death but hardship. Yet they could see a sardonic justice in the proposed punishment. They could imagine all sorts of suffering which the fugitive would have to undergo -- intensified a hundred times by his abject fear -- and it would be lengthened to an indefinite extent, since they could imagine him wandering for days amid the grim horrors of starvation and cold.

Sonnup gets his way, and also gets to sneak Pesokie a fur robe, a hunting knife and the tribe's remaining dogs. He reminds his brother that "You should die -- thief -- coward," but tells him to try for the nearby Bannack village, since "Even a Bannack will feed a starving stranger." This is the part, you might expect, where Pesokie redeems himself, either intentionally or inadvertently depending on the tone of the story, and regains the tribe's good graces. It doesn't quite turn out that way. No one in the tribe's going to miss those dogs Sonnup stole because they're not really domesticated. "Any time an Indian wished to lose a finger or two he had only to attempt to pet his dog," Robertson writes. After Pesokie had stolen their stores, the rest of the warriors had to kill most of the dogs to sustain themselves on their lengthy trek. Now Pesokie sees the remaining dogs as potential prey or potential predators. Numbers are on the dogs' side, and a still-starving Pesokie finds himself surrounded.

Almost by accident the old coward kills the first dog to attack, and as the others move in "A wild exhilaration flowed over Pesokie! He had ceased to fear! He was fighting at last -- the thing he had avoided all his craven life -- and to his intense wonder he found joy in it, and an overwhelming satisfaction. His weak medicine had suddenly become strong." Our hero has learned that "anticipation of suffering was much worse than the reality" -- but he has to die doing it. The story closes with a close-up of Pesokie's corpse, "On his face the peaceful look of a brave man." This is impressively grim stuff from an author still early in his career. Robertson had published his first story in 1920, his first in Adventure in 1922. He'd place six stories there in 1923 before moving on to become a mainstay of Short Stories, Ace High and West for the rest of the decade and into the 1930s. Robertson kept at it practically to the end of the pulp era, placing his last story in a 1957 Ranch Romances as one of the grand old men of the western genre.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

'From first to last, I punished Laurens justly.'

Many of Georges Surdez's Foreign Legion stories strike me as having split personalities. At heart, many of them are essentially character studies. But knowing his pulp audience, Surdez always finds a way to resolve his character conflicts through combat situations. "Clay in Khaki" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a good example of this. The first half of it hardly has action in it, describing the fatal incompatibility of Verlinden, a veteran German sergeant, and Laurens, a popular recruit from a higher class background than was typical for Legionnaires. The story's told largely from the point of view of their new commander, Lieutenant Chamber, who sees Laurens as a decent kid unjustly goaded into desertion, and eventual death, by Verlinden. His attitude toward Verlinden is mild, however, compared to that of Laurens' buddies, who are ready to tear the sergeant apart when Laurens' body is returned to base. Still, Surdez lets Verlinden tell his side of the matter. The veteran found Laurens conceited; the younger man "thought himself my superior" and openly made fun of the sergeant, undermining his authority. That might just be an authoritarian talking, but this is the Foreign Legion, where discipline is everything. Seeing Verlinden's point, but also seeing that his position under his command is no longer tenable, Chamber arranges for his transfer to Indo-China, accepting the sergeant's suggestion that he, Verlinden, apply for the transfer himself in order to save face. But before the transfer can be finalized, Chamber's unit must go out in pursuit of a strong force of bandits. In the middle of battle mutiny breaks out as men refuse to take orders from Verlinden, and Chamber finally has to disarm him in order to have any hope of rallying his men. Then comes the ironic twist. Mocked by the men and believing his career ruined, Verlinden decides to commit suicide-by-Berber, charging the enemy position armed only with his automatic pistol.

He was a true Legionnaire, in love with the spectacular and, his life being sacrificed, he granted himself the luxury of exacting admiration from the very Legionnaires who had laughed. To die was nothing -- if it meant that he would be remembered.

Inevitably he goes down in a hail of gunfire, but when some Berbers venture from their position to plunder the body, them men who had scorned Verlinden moments before now go berserk in defense of his corpse. "Verlinden's personality had fled wherever the spirit travels after death, but there remained his clay and his uniform," Surdez writes, "His head, taken as a trophy through the market places of desert villages, would be a reproach to his Legionnaires." By sacrificing himself for purely selfish reasons, Verlinden inadvertently wins the day for the Legion. The question of whether Verlinden was justified in his treatment of Laurens has been forgotten, proof that the story was more about Verlinden all along. Surdez doesn't really imply that Verlinden's conduct vindicates him, and his reluctance to pass final judgment is a nice touch from an author I've only rarely disliked.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Baal and Ashtaroth, they told people to raise hell, and the people done so.'

James Mitchell Clarke had a long career as a writer and educator, but only a short one in the pulps. He published nine stories in Adventure, plus one in the one-shot Adventure spinoff The Big Magazine, between 1927 and 1935, before devoting himself to a WPA project in the San Diego school system. One of those stories is the remarkable "Walls" (April 15, 1932). The remarkable thing about it is that it's a sort of debunking account of the biblical conquest of Jericho, as narrated by an immortal man. In what looks a lot like the opening of a series, we're introduced to our protagonists in modern-day Louisiana, sharing a bottle on the wall of a ruined fort. "Never -- even in the Louisiana swamps which are full of strange men -- had been people like these," thinks Jones, our POV character.

The broad shouldered one, with the shining black eyes and a beard which curled down his deep chest in black rings, had one huge hand over the bottle. The other, a slighter man, was plainly not a negro. Yet his skin was the color of chocolate; smooth and tight drawn; more like tanned leather than human flesh covering. His eyes, though only a few feet away, appeared to be looking across incalculable distance.

The strangers make friends with Jones and amaze him with tales of Jean Lafitte the pirate, told as if they knew the man. Amazing as that must sound, given that Lafitte flourished more than a century earlier, Belshar and Hovsep can top that easily. "We've seen some walls, Hovsep and me," says Belshar, the bearded one, who leaves Hovsep, the dark one, to tell of their role in the siege of Jericho. While "we follow the sea, Belshar and me .... once in awhile we find ourselves ashore and this was one of the times," Hovsep starts. Fugitives from the Persian Gulf, they became mercenary scouts for the Israelites under Joshua. In a dig at modern anti-semitism, Hovsep tells Jones, "It's maybe funny to you to think of [Jews] as fighting men. But they were -- a wild, hard, hairy lot, sleeping in tents, wondering where the next meal was coming from, scrapping with everybody they met; and licking 'em, too, mostly." Clarke doesn't soft-pedal Old Testament aggression. "Part of the Hebrew idea was to capture every town they came to and put the people out of the way," Hovsep recalls, "It saved trouble, and it was an order from their god." Iahweh, as Clarke calls that god, isn't bad compared to Ashtaroth and Baal, the dominant deities in Jericho, and their worshipers. "Them Canaanites were a scummy lot, take my word," Hovsep recalls. The priests of Ashtaroth take young women by force and make them temple prostitutes. The priests of Baal take young boys for human sacrifice. The family of Rahab, the biblical heroine, is victimized many times over. In Clarke's backstory, Rahab herself is taken from her family, while three of her brothers are chosen for sacrifice. Twenty years before Joshua's siege, Hovsep and Belshar, then friends of Rahab, made themselves personae non grata in Jericho by attempting to rescue her brothers, saving two of the three and leaving Rahab swearing that someday "my turn" will come.

Their past experience in Jericho recommends our heroes to Joshua for an infiltration mission, during which the meet and older, hardened Rahab, who sees "my turn" coming with the arrival of "the Evening Wolf," Joshua. She tells Hovsep and Belshar about a weak spot, caused by storm damage, in Jericho's strong walls. They relay this crucial intelligence to Joshua, who has just gotten his legendary marching orders, so to speak, from "the Lord's captain." "It isn't that I don't think it will work," Joshua tells them, "I don't doubt Iahweh. But I always like to help him when I can." He sets our heroes to work further undermining the wall until he has a change of heart. "I have not put my trust in Iahweh," he laments, "If we go through with this, His face will be turned away from His people." But Hovsep and Belshar decide they'll keep at it in secret, determined to do all they can to help Rahab get her revenge. Clarke has Hovsep tell what happens next in nicely ambiguous fashion. Did a miracle actually happen, or had "Joshua'd figured the balance better than he knew" when he put our heroes to work earlier? Whatever the cause, a slaughter ensues, but Rahab and her family are saved. Jones is so caught up in the story, virtually smelling the smoke of the burning city, that he doesn't notice at first that his new friends have disappeared, but not without leaving behind evidence that they actually had been there.

As you may have noticed from the excerpts, the gimmick of the story is that Belshar and Hovsep talk and tell their story in the vernacular of 1932. Maybe that's just Jones translating it in his own head, but I think it effectively establishes Clarke's immortals as eternal common men, neither archaically alien nor decadently refined. If I recall right, there was a sort of fad for this sort of writing in historical fiction -- F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in his experiments in the genre -- but "Walls" survives whatever faddishness there was to it. While it adds an irreverent note to a Bible legend, it also gives the tale a fresh sense of immediacy and empathy as Clarke underscores the horrors of Canaanite idolatry. Most importantly, Belshar and Hovsep sound like cool guys with many more stories to tell, and it would be a shame if this turned out to be their only appearance.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Gunfight with the Glidden brothers


1955 was a late time to publish your first pulp story. In the western field, Popular Publications had converted a couple of titles to magazine format, but would soon kill them in favor of "true" adventures in the sweat genre. Thrilling had done away with most of its line at the end of 1953, leaving the most popular western pulps of the day, the monthly Texas Rangers and the biweekly Ranch Romances, as well as the quarterly Triple Western. The other surviving western titles came from Columbia, long considered the bottom of the publishing barrel, and Stadium, as the pulp arm of Martin Goodman's empire called itself then. Clayton Fox made his debut in a Stadium title, the June 1955 Western Short Stories, with "Tough, He Said He Was." It's a pretty basic character piece, the idea being that Bob Smith resents his mentor, Big John McLeod but gains a greater appreciation of him, and a greater sense of responsibility for his legacy, after McLeod dies in a freak accident. "You don't like a man you're forced on with a gun," the narrator observes, and that's how it is with Bob, for whom McLeod's hardscrabble ranch is the only alternative to reform school. After McLeod's demise, Bob falls under suspicion when a few cows are discovered missing from the older man's humble herd. At the same time, Bob feels the temptation to sell the rest of the herd and keep the proceeds rather than use them to pay McLeod's debts. Destiny points Bob toward a showdown with the real rustlers, the no-account Glidden brothers. Their in-jokey presence is probably the most noteworthy thing about Fox's debut, though I wonder how many 1955 readers recognized the joke. The Gliddens of the story are named Luke and Pete. The Gliddens of western pulp fame are Fred and John, who wrote under the names "Luke Short" and "Peter Dawson" respectively. Get it? I'm sure that the outlawry of the fictional Gliddens is meant as no reflection on the real-life authors, but maybe the name-dropping put a helpful smile on editor Robert O. Erisman's face just the same. The best thing about this little story is its modesty of scope. The big gunfight ends with no one dead, the stolen cattle reclaimed, and the Gliddens' cabin shot up until Bob's rifle barrel is too hot to touch. Fox introduces a potential love interest, but she never becomes more than that. We don't get the standard closing paragraph in which the hero thinks dreamily about the girl, because this story is more concerned with showing how Big John McLeod's lessons took. That's enough for this ten-page story to feel like a little change of pace. Fox published four more stories in Stadium pulps over the next two years before Stadium expired and he focused on novels -- though for all I know he's also the K. Clayton whose one and only western pulp story appeared in this same issue. The market for western short stories was drying up, but the pulps still gave aspiring pros an opportunity to learn how to write narratives that could sell.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

'The Anglo-Saxon is the only race that has developed the art of fighting without weapons.'

This howler comes from Gordon MacCreagh's "The Crawling Script" from the September 30, 1923 issue of Adventure. While Chinese martial arts remained largely unknown to Americans for nearly fifty years more after MacCreagh wrote, I would still have expected him to be aware of Japanese judo of jiu-jitsu, of which Americans had been aware since at least the turn of the 20th century. That's what makes this particular passage inexcusable, though I must note that no less an Oriental "expert" than Sidney Herschel Small makes a similar, and perhaps less forgivable error in his 1932 story "The River on the Sky," in which Japanese characters regard fist fighting as something uniquely western or Anglo-American.  As a whole, "Crawling Script" has the usual mixed messages we should expect from pulp stories. MacCreagh deals in stereotypes as a matter of course, but at the same time his Gurkha adventurer Bir Jung is presented as an equal partner to the story's American hero, and the actual instigator of the story's treasure hunt. Bir Jung is superstitious and often vicious, but MacCreagh's overriding message, implicit in the ending's hint of further adventures for the pair, is that he and Westerman, the American, are brother adventurers under the skin, despite the American bridge-builder's dismissive attitude toward the entire concept of "adventure." I ought to note as well that while MacCreagh may mean to give Anglo-Saxons credit for a uniquely clean style of fighting, he also notes at the start of the very next paragraph that Westerman "broke all the rules of civilized warfare in the first two minutes." The American grows squeamish occasionally, turning his head away when Bir Jung guts an enemy in a climactic duel, but comes across overall as a pretty hard guy, almost hard-boiled in his blithely cynical attitude. MacCreagh's better known for stories set in Africa, but this change-of-pace piece has its moments, both bad and good.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'Save the bother,' Lauzanno snapped, 'I'll shuck my own clothes off.'


For Singapore Sammy's last bow (and only cover feature) in Short Stories, George F. Worts reverts to the formula of the second Sammy story. As in "Cobra," "Octopus" (May 10, 1931) makes much of its villain's resemblance to the title animal. Pierre Lauzanno isn't a half-caste, but he's nearly as bad in his author's eyes, "American born, of Portuguese ancestry and Oriental upbringing." While Worts mixes metaphors by giving Lauzanno "the arms of a gorilla," he is a moral octopus in the writer's eyes, "a man who would indulge in any form of murder to accomplish an object." "Octopus" also reproduces the earlier story's motif of partnership between a properly "hard" man and someone whose addictive nature makes him unfit for the life of a South Seas adventurer. The difference this time is that Sammy isn't one of the partners. Instead, back in the burg that gave him his nickname, he encounters a mismatched pair at a crooked card game. One of them, Kelvin Broome, "the Viking," is just like Sammy's protege from the earlier story, only more belligerent; he can't lay off the cards or the booze. The other, "the buccaneer," is virtually another version of Sammy Shea. The improbably named Lucifer "Lucky" Jones will end up being Singapore's sidekick in future stories; he proves a resourceful companion here as the men join forces to avenge Broome, who gets knifed in an alley after the card game breaks up violently. They mean to secure Broome's map of a sunken treasure; finding the treasure, they hope to send it to the dead man's poor family on an Arizona orange grove, to help his sister go to art school. These are the same guys who go around boasting of how "hard" they are, and who we're told are hard by the author. Mush!

Anyway, Singapore and Lucky catch up with Lauzanno and prove just how hard they are by torturing him into giving up the map, with unplanned assistance from an actual octopus that attaches itself to the villain while our heroes are dunking him in the sea. In the middle of this there's a weird moment when Sammy "placed the flat of his hand against a davit and looked at Lauzanno dreamily. Those who had experience knew that this was by far the most dangerous, most sinister expression that the red-haired young man used." I'm sure Worts only means that Sammy's on the brink of going psycho on his antagonist, but given the context of torture, and maybe because I'm a 21st century reader, I can't help reading something even more sinister into our hero's dreamy expression. Despite that, Lauzanno proves a tough egg until the octopus intervenes and makes him beg for mercy. Shay and Jones then make the mistake of letting Lauzanno live.

"Octopus" is the longest of the early Sammy stories, but the way it breaks into nearly equal halves  suggests that Worts (or the editor of Short Stories) may have slammed two novelettes together. The second half of the story becomes a tag-team match as Lauzanno hooks up with the infamous Bill Shay, Sammy's reprobate father, whom the villain tracks down with an alacrity that puts all of Sammy's previous efforts to shame. Things went badly for the old man after we left him at the end of "The Pink Elephant." Held responsible for the sacred title creature's death, Bill was tortured by angry Siamese authorities. Already poised to benefit from Sammy's death according to the will of Sammy's grandfather, Bill, who was previously amused to lead the boy on wild-goose chases, is now out for blood. He and Lauzanno lay in wait while Sammy and Lucky hunt for the treasure, then pounce when the younger men go down in diving suits to retrieve the sunken gold. Worts is good at selling every encounter between Shay the elder and Shay the younger as a big moment, especially when Sammy is shocked to discover Dad in a diving suit attacking him alongside Lauzanno. There's also a very cinematic moment when, in the midst of another intervention by a real octopus, Sammy catches one last glimpse of Bill before the old man zips up to the surface to escape the carnage that consumes Lauzanno, and from which our heroes barely escape. It's an exciting finish to a story that's just slightly overlong, though by modern standards the extra length is put to relatively good use building up Singapore and Lucky's friendship.

From here Worts took Singapore Sammy to Argosy, where he debuted in an eponymous serial in December 1931. As for me, I'll be going back to where I discovered Sammy, in the invaluable Big Book of Adventure Stories, before proceeding to items from my own collection. Of his three major characters -- Peter the Brazen and Gillian Hazeltine are the others -- Worts stuck with Sammy the latest. The conclusion of the 1936 Sammy serial Murderer's Paradise was the effective end of the author's pulp career.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

'He said politely that North Japan was notoriously unhealthy during the Winter season.'



Sidney Herschel Small was one of the pulp writers I discovered in the pages of a contemporary slick magazine, Collier's Weekly. He specialized in East-West encounters, whether they involved Americans exploring the Far East or Americans exploring their local Chinatowns. His Collier's stories don't exactly lack action, but Small's pulp writing is naturally more energetic, if no more or less accurate in their representations of Asia. "The River of the Sky" (Adventure, April 15, 1932) is set in modern Japan, but from Small's descriptions you'd think that Commodore Perry had only just arrived. Apart from the presence of the American businessman hero, A-1 agent Andrew Moffat, aka "Hairy Foreigner," and his rival, one of those dreaded half-castes, you'd think the country was still in Shogun days. Of course, if you're going to set your story in an exotic place, the place had better be exotic, however aggressive Japan actually was about modernizing. Small gives his readers a vivid if not salacious account of the kammairi procession, in which worshippers, despite the wintry conditions, run naked, or as nearly naked as they dare,to the temple of the moon god. From that spectacular starting point, he gets to the meat of his story as Moffat repels assassins sent by his half-caste rival and rescues an elderly man from becoming collateral damage. He takes the old man in to warm him up and make sure of his health, and learns that they have a common enemy in the half-caste. Kagawa Omura once was a big man in this town before George Yakahira, the half-caste, ruined him. Kagawa's daughter, descended from samurai, is now a mere servant in Yakahira's household, and that is one insult too many for the proud old man. This sets up a situation I've seen before in pulp fiction, though I may well have seen it in a later story by another of the Oriental story specialists like Walter C. Brown. The idea is that the broken old timer gets his foot in the door, the better to carry out some baroque revenge plot, by offering the villain the last precious thing in his possession. In this case, the River of the Sky is a beautifully crafted ceramic bowl that any collector, or anyone in the export-import trade, would treasure. The payoff, of course, is that this final tribute from vanquished to victor is -- in this case pretty much literally -- a poisoned chalice. The gimmick in Small's story is that Kagawa drinks from the bowl before Yakahira does, so the drink couldn't be poisoned -- could it? I haven't read enough mystery stories to know whether the explanation Kagawa gives at the end, which involves treating the bowl with two fresh layers of glaze, the first water-soluble, exposing a poison layer for the second tea-drinker, had been done before. It's the sort of cute ploy that's okay to close a relatively unambitious short story from a writer who's done much better in my own limited experience. Apparently Small had a series of stories in Adventure about the A-1 company, or so I infer from the way he drops names of Moffat's colleagues as if readers should recognize them. I'd be willing to read more to whether Small made anything of the more compelling story of Japan's modernization and its consequences for the rest of the world.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

'You better let me go! My father's a U.S. marshal!'

A man faces a test of character and responsibility when another man's son is kidnapped by mistake, in place of his own son. Movie fans will recognize that as the story of Akira Kurosawa's modern-dress classic High and Low (1963). Crime fiction fans will recognize it as the story of the novel that inspired Kurosawa, Ed McBain's King's Ransom (1959). The core idea most likely had been done many times before in pulp fiction. One such time was in the pages of the May 1952 issue of New Western, one of Popular Publications' stable of western titles. Clifton Adams' "Fighting Man Wanted!" doesn't have the class element of the McBain and Kurosawa stories. Instead, the protagonist and the father of the kidnapped boy are peers, more or less. William Toggleson and Clay Barnett are deputy marshals in amicable competition to succeed a retiring old-timer. Both men are reasonably well qualified, but Toggleson, our protagonist, is handicapped by his appearance. Toggleson simply doesn't dress the part. He's "A far cry from the fire-eating lawmen like Earp and Masterson and Hickock. But then I'd look darn foolish wearing leather vests and tied-down .45s just to sit behind a desk. Barnett is the favorite for the post "because he wore a wide-brim hat and high-heel boots and had two .45s tied down on his legs. And maybe because he had two notches in his guns, representing two outlaws he had killed." To drive the point home, the illustration on pae one is of Barnett, not Toggleson. Our protagonist had been a town-tamer in his heyday, but he never was a killer and that, combined with his modest dress, makes him hard to idolize. When his and Barnett's boys play outlaw, Clay's kid boasts that he's "a fightin' U.S. marshal, like my father," while young Toggleson says, "Ah ... I'm nothin' much, I guess."

It's that boasting that gets Clay's boy kidnapped by an outlaw out of prison and out for vengeance on Toggleson.  Because of the circumstances, Toggleson feels responsible and talks Barnett after going after the boy himself. But he questions his resolve almost instantly. "He found himself thinking: I'd be a fool to go up there and let him kill me. It's not my son." Adams adds, "Immediately he felt ashamed of the thought." Yet he thinks it again as he closes in on the outlaw, though the thought doesn't stop him. This being a pulp western short story, there's no doubting that Toggleson will save the boy, slay the outlaw and earn the marshal's badge, but Adams still makes a halfway decent story out of it by stressing that Toggleson is not some picked-on loser who has to redeem himself for anything, as in the typical "coward" scenario, but simply someone suffering through a middle-age crisis of self-doubt despite the esteem of his community. The story reads as less cliched than it could or almost should be, and that's the mark of Clifton Adams' quality as a writer. He was one of the authors who made the last decade or so of pulp westerns a golden age of the genre.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'You ain't hard. You ain't smart. You're just a sucker.'

George F. Worts pulls off a nice piece of misdirection in the fourth Singapore Sammy story, "The Pink Elephant." (Short Stories, October 25, 1930). At the same time, he raises the stakes in Sammy Shea's hunt for his reprobate father, since I believe it's established here for the first time that the will which left Sammy his grandfather's fortune, but was stolen by his dad, contains a clause bestowing the estate upon the father in the event of Sammy's death. So just as we get our first real look at Bill Shea, we learn that he has a motive to kill his son. Sammy has tracked him to Siam (the present-day Thailand), where our hero's sob story has earned him the sympathy of a local prince who's equipped him with a handsome entourage of elephants and hunters to find the elder Shea. Early on, Sammy finally tracks has the old man in his sights -- or at least he finds a man who matches the description he depends on, that of a bearded man in the robes of a Buddhist monk, since Sammy himself hasn't seen the guy since he was two years old. After a tense, almost glancing encounter, Sammy is distracted from the chase by his abrupt discovery of the title creature, whom he rescues from crocodiles in a mud pit. The baby pink elephant is a phoouk, a rare and virtually sacred creature in Siam, and on sight of him Sammy is distracted from his potentially parricidal quest by that streak of greed that Worts has already well established. This changes the whole direction of the story, as Sammy realizes that he can earn a literally princely sum by delivering the phoouk to the king. The discovery also changes his relationship to the local prince and his minions, who feel that the pink elephant, being found in their master's territory, is his to deliver to the king, for whatever reward. Sammy understands that his trip to the capital will be dangerous, and that his erstwhile host will likely prove his enemy.

Into this tense situation wanders Sir Lester, a stereotypical Englishman touring the country "lookin' for big cats." His warning that Sammy runs "rather a risk" taking the phoouk all the way to Bangkok makes our hero suspicious. "Sammy looked quickly in Sir Lester's eyes," Worts writes, "saw something there that he did not like." But what else is new? Why wouldn't Sir Lester be just as eager to nab the elephant as anyone else? So Sammy has someone new to worry about -- except that the Englishman is not so new.  After inviting Sammy to sit in a blatant trap and then springing it, Sir Lester reveals himself as Bill Shea. For this one time we can buy that Sammy could be so easily fooled because he hasn't had a good look at his father for so long. Once Sammy identifies him, Bill greets him with, "Smart boy! All you needed to find it out was a moving picture and a full set of directions!" Luckily for our hero, the old man is content to taunt him and steal his elephant.

They told me that you were one dangerous guy to cross. Hell, you ain't hard. You ain't smart. You're just a sucker. I was almost gettin' proud of you -- and then you have to up and pull this stunt. You sucker!...What did I tell you in that letter I sent you when you were in the Singapore Hospital? 'The hand is faster than the naked eye. A wise man knows the aim of a bottle!' I warned you. You're just dumb.

Worts uses the occasion to recap the Sammy series to date from Bill's second-hand point of view before the old man absconds with the phoouk. He's arranged to have Sammy freed some time later, well after Bill and the pink elephant are out of reach -- or so Bill assumes. He hasn't reckoned with the bond Sammy has formed with Bozo, the prince's mighty alcoholic elephant. In the story's silly finish, Sammy steals Bozo from the prince's estate, fuels him up with whisky, overtakes Bill's party and manages to sneak off with the pink elephant. Score one for Sammy Shea! Silly as it is, "Pink Elephant" is a strong entry in the series thanks to its spectacular introduction, four episodes in, of the main villain, who promises to give Sammy still more trouble in the future.

Monday, August 21, 2017

'You are the hardest man to get to agree with anybody I ever saw. You won't even agree with yourself.'

If you asked a pulp reader in the 1930s which writer for the story magazines had the best chance of entering the American literary canon, he might not say Dashiell Hammett, and he certainly wouldn't suggest H. P. Lovecraft. The reader might well nominate T. S. Stribling instead, because he had something, as of 1933, that neither Hammett, Lovecraft or probably anyone else writing for the pulps had even a chance of having: the Pulitzer Prize for the best American novel of the year. Stribling received that accolade for his 1932 novel The Store. In 1932 he also published three mystery stories in Adventure featuring his psychological detective, Dr. Henry Poggioli. If Stribling is remembered at all today, it's for the Poggioli series that became his meal ticket in later life, after publishers no longer accepted his novels. On the evidence of the few stories I've read, Poggioli combines Holmesian powers of observation with an inclination for sweeping generalizations along the lines of "only such and such a person would do this particular thing." With possibly a sense of irony, the conscious satirist Stribling addresses the subject of generalization in one of his 1932 Poggiolis, "The Resurrection of Chin Lee" (Adventure, April 15), which turns on a Florida mill owner's inability to tell Chinese people apart. Absurdly, Mr. Galloway makes this claim having known only one Chinese man in his whole life, his cook Chin Lee. "I see him only now and then, and I don't remember how he looks from one time to the next," Galloway explains.

"That really is odd," Poggioli replies, "I suppose it is a race obsession. You are so obsessed with Chin Lee's Chineseness, if I may coin a term, that your recognition stops there and doesn't reach the individual. It is probably based on our Anglo-Saxon superiority complex."

Cue the arrival of a perfectly stereotyped, dialect-speaking black security guard, who reports that he's just found Chin Lee murdered on the dock, with a bullet hole in his head. Desperate to clear himself, on the assumption that Galloway will accuse him of the murder, Sam has to admit that he didn't hear the gunshots because "take mo'n a pistol to wake me up when I'se night watchin'." Of course Poggioli will investigate, but when Sam brings him to the crime scene, Chin Lee's body is gone. The psychologist speculates that the body has been picked up and taken away with care, and not thrown to the sharks, because there's no trail of blood. From this he deduces that the killer is a woman. "She could not endure the thought of her lover's body being thrown to the sharks or given over to any stranger who found it, or to the callousness of a coroner's jury," he assumes. The killer must be a strong woman, capable of lifting and carrying a corpse Sam estimates at between 150 and 160 pounds.

One virtue of the Poggioli stories, however, is that Stribling is willing to let his detective follow a train of thought to a dead end. Poggioli's speculations become moot when Chin Lee is discovered alive in his shack, while the detective and his companions are searching for clues among the assumed victim's personal effects. Chin Lee claims to have knocked himself out trying to reel in a fish, only to come to and go home. Something isn't right, however, and with a little additional data Poggioli figures out what it is. As if fully aware of the inability of both Galloway and (apparently) Sam to tell Chinese men apart, a smuggling ring based in Cuba has been bringing in illegal immigrants one at a time, each taking a turn as Chin Lee until the next one comes to take his place. One of these Chin Lees actually was murdered, but to Poggiloi's possible disappointment the murderer isn't a woman. I won't spoil a mystery that people might read (this issue of Adventure has been scanned and uploaded to the internet), but I wonder whether it's worth it not to spoil this shaggy-dog tale. It's mildly amusing in a characteristically sardonic way -- as usual, Poggioli is surrounded by idiots -- but if Stribling had some point to make about prejudice or stereotyping, it's blunted by his own impulse to reduce characters like Sam to their dialects. As a matter of style, I get the impression that Stribling saw the Poggioli series, at this time at least, as self-conscious hackwork that paid the bills between novels. If you want to see him at full power, check out the available chapters of his 1923 serial Fombombo, an epic satire about a Babbitt in the middle of a South American revolution. For all I know, The Store might be worth a read as well, even if the actual canonical writers of Stribling's time looked down on Pulitzer winners -- until they got their own, that is.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'She either surrenders those papers or shall be stripped as naked as the day she was born!'

Beneath the magnolias and grits of Civil War fiction, Gordon Young's "The Loyal Lady" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a properly paranoid spy story. In 1862 Captain Haynes of the Union army is sent south across enemy lines incognito to get accurate information on the size of General Lee's army. Lee's opposite number, Gen. McClellan, has been paralyzed, to Commander-in-Chief Lincoln's dismay, by apparently exaggerated reports of the Confederate force he faces. Haynes hopes to pump a Major Rawks for information, but finds Rawks hunting for a Union spy, a southern belle turned turncoat, who's just stolen just the papers Haynes is looking for. Rawks provokes Haynes' sense of chivalry, not to mention his patriotism, by vowing to hang the supposed spy, Maybelle Marshall, hanged, despite her safe-conduct pass from Jefferson Davis himself. Worse, when they actually meet Miss Marshall, Rawks insists on a full-body search.

"Barbarous, sir!" said Haynes desperately.
"Undoubtedly," the major agreed with composure, "But war, my friend. She is a traitor. And one who has no honor can not claim the protection of decency and modesty. Corporal, disrobe the woman!"

A corporal is unwilling to do this grim work, and a backwoods private gets his face slapped for trying. Rawks decides to do the job himself, but Haynes -- still in disguise as a brother Rebel officer -- refuses to allow it. Rather than fight, Rawks agrees to leave the search to Dinah, his "buxom negress" maidservant, who reports back empty-handed. It turns out, however, that Dinah is, understandably, a clandestine Yankee sympathizer. "Black folks dey know dat de Yankees is a-fittin fo' us," she explains. She doesn't trust Haynes, unable to look past his southern uniform, but Marshall accepts his assistance in a daring escape. In return, her gift of a Derringer enables Haynes to escape after Rawks finally figures him out. In the end, Haynes learns that Rawks and Marshall had set him up. It had all been a play designed to get Haynes, whose coming they learned of from black spies within the household of Haynes' commanding officer, to deliver more fake intelligence back north. That bemused commander offers the story's moral: "When any Southern girl tells you she is loyal to her country -- don't be a fool! Believe her. She means the South!"

The Big Magazine was a one-shot published by Popular Publications in 1935, shortly after they acquired Adventure. The idea, historians say, was to burn off excess inventory for that prestigious pulp. If so, it was an odd decision considering that Popular had recently restored Adventure to a twice-a-month schedule, and that The Big Magazine's lineup was almost a Murderer's Row of pulp aces. Based on what I've read of it so far -- I'm not quite halfway through its 224 pages -- my hunch is that The Big was more of a dumping ground for subpar stuff from those top authors, some of it fairly old, to judge from the Prohibition setting of one story. "The Loyal Lady" is one of the better stories so far, nicely plotted if also marred by cringeworthy "negro" dialect. Any persistent pulp reader has got to get used to dialect dialogue; if you can't tolerate it you're reading the wrong stuff. To be fair, he also writes dialect for the backwoods soldiers, e.g. "Shore! An' we brunged her here." But there's a difference, or so I like to think, between dialect and comedy dialect. Dinah's dialogue marks her as a comedy relief character. It's embarrassing to read in a way the backwoods dialect isn't. "Oh, Lordy-lord!" she cries, warning Maybelle against first Haynes, then Rawks. "Don' yo' b'lief 'im, honey! A gemman he say anything fo' to fool a lady....Lordy-lord! We-all is sho' gwine git murdered by dat major-man!" Lordy-lord, indeed! Large historical claims are made for Gordon Young as, if not a pioneer, then a precursor of the hard-boiled style. From what I've read of him, that's more a matter of attitude, as might be seen here as well as in his more relevant Don Everhard stories, than of style. Young's style strikes me as stilted, but in the melodramatic setting of "The Loyal Lady" it feels almost correct. But it's the twist ending and the overall feeling that anyone could be a spy that give Young's story an almost-modern flavor.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

'He go hell, I no can catch!'

Imagine the stories Arthur O. Friel might write about Venezuela in the 21st century: the intrigues of Chavistas, dissidents and military men, Cubans and Americans, etc. Venezuela was Friel's meat. He explored the territory himself and wrote both fiction and non-fiction about it. Friel was one of the star writers for Adventure in the 1920s, but his output slowed over the course of the 1930s, and his work became less ambitious. In 1938 he created the character Dugan, whose exploits are reported by raconteurs addressing the reader in the second person, a favorite Friel device. As noted often here, because most pulp writers were freelancers, their characters were rarely considered the intellectual property of any one publisher. As a result, Dugan could wander back and forth between Adventure, where he first appeared, and Short Stories, where "Under Dog" appeared in the January 25, 1939 issue. The narrator has detailed knowledge of Dugan's exploits, though he doesn't take part in the story he tells. He claims to be a "side-kick" of Dugan, though I suppose he could be Dugan himself, whom he describes as "a husky lad about my size with big fists and no brains." In other words, a conventional tough-guy pulp hero who falls in with a suspicious band of traders after saving an accused thief they'd been shooting at. The lead trader is suspicious because he talks funny: "The words were English -- or North American -- with something a little queer in the long ones." He calls himself Brockley but pronounces it "Broccoli" ("Some kind of wop cabbage," the narrator explains). Brockley's unlikely mission is to bring a consignment of frying pans across the border from Venezuela to Colombia, Dugan has his doubts; the pans will most likely be melted down so the metal can be put to more militant use. He doesn't need the money Brockley offers him, but he hopes to shake "some people who didn't like him" who'd been following him north from some previous adventure. He'd be a minority of one if not for the loyalty of Tonio, the Indian he rescued.

As it turns out, Brockley has firearms very carefully packed within his load of frying pans, and he's set up Dugan to be the fall guy if the sale goes sour. And of course it does go sour, thanks to a German working for the Venezuelan government, who gives Friel the opportunity to write a more blatant accent than Brockley's. It's actually not as extremely vaudevillian as some writers got; the accent is mostly restricted to "ch" for "j" and the occasional hiss. He's about to have Dugan executed for gun-running when Tonio speaks up to exonerate him and explain his own beef with Brockley -- the man who killed his mother and left him to be raised in a squalid Indian village. The unimpressed German's going to shoot everybody anyway, but Dugan and Tonio fight their way out, while Brockley is killed in the crossfire, denying Tonio his revenge. "It's funny, the way wise guys go flop and dumb birds like me and Dugan keep drifting along," the narrator reflects. In fact, Dugan had at least two more stories in him, at least according to the FictionMags Index, one appearing the same month in Adventure. This particular short story is a far cry from the epic stuff Friel wrote in the Twenties, but even late in his career -- his last pulp stories appeared in 1941 -- he had enough juice to make his stuff readably entertaining.

Monday, August 7, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY vs 'the toughest egg south of Shanghai'

Still hunting his reprobate father, Singapore Sammy Shea is hunted himself in his third story, "South of Sulu." (Short Stories, June 25, 1930). Ever since word got out that he had brought in the infamous Blue Fire Pearl of Malobar to be appraised, the scum of sea of land have been gunning for him and the pearl. Following a lead on his father, Sammy encounters three such characters on the island of Pelambang. Peddy the trader, stereotypically fat, runs the place. Whisky Wallace is one of his henchman. Their uncomfortable partner is Big Nick Stark, "the toughest egg south of Shanghai," who feels that his cut of the loot to be taken from Sammy doesn't really reflect his contributions to the endeavor. Sammy's no fool and leaves his pearl in a secure location on his boat before setting foot on Peddy's island, where he is predictably ambushed by the terrible trio. They tie him up and threaten torture if he doesn't come across, but with each working at cross purposes against the others Sammy has an opening to escape. Things get pretty hard-boiled as the bad guys threaten to put a lit cigar, a broken bottle, etc. in Sammy's face, but this all proves to be prelude to Sammy's battle of wits with Big Nick. Detecting a double-cross from Peddy, and killing him off-stage, Stark offers to join forces with Sammy, luring the good-but-greedy Singapore with the long-sought mate to the Blue Fire Pearl. Sammy is greedy enough to gamble his pearl against Stark's, and once he agrees to that we remember the scene early in the story where Big Nick impressed Peddy with his fancy shuffling and dealing. Worts knows how to keep things suspenseful by having his bad guys often stay at least a step ahead of Sammy, and he increases readers' anxiety by having Sammy lose at cards to Nick not once, not twice, but thrice -- the last time with his life at stake, since losing obliges Sammy to swim through shark-infested water to get rescuers to their stranded boat.

Stark apparently has an uncanny yet deceptive shuffle that looks guilelessly awkward even to a practiced eye like Sammy's, yet infallibly delivers Big Nick the winning hand. It's a bit of a cheat that Worts never actually explains Nick's technique, but has Sammy finally find proof of his cheating by accident -- he'd left an ace in the box quite by mistake, yet Nick dealt himself four aces. Worts is also wise to give Nick plenty of time to make his spiel, as if trying to wear down the reader's resistance as Nick is trying to wear down Sammy's. And for the hell of it, the antagonists have to forget their differences long enough to get their boat through a nasty storm. It keeps you wondering whether Nick will prove a good egg after all, rather than a mere tough one. "South of Sulu" gives us a likably nasty Sammy instead of the self-righteous con man of the previous story, "Cobra." He gets great tough-guy dialogue, telling Nick that "If you put her aground, one second later your backbone's gonna think an elephant's takin' a walk on it," or that "for the pure pleasure of it, I could turn you into curry of lead." It's still not as good as the original entry, "The Blue Fire Pearl," but you're more likely to keep following Sammy on his quest after this one than after "Cobra." There are two more to go in the first Altus Press volume of Sammy stories, and then I'll jump ahead in time to some later items from my own collection. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

'What this country needs is more Chinese.'

Richard Howells Watkins had a forty-year career writing magazine stories for pulps, slicks and digests. You see his name a lot in the detective and general adventure pulps, usually contributing stories with nautical or auto-racing themes. He was the sort of dependable writer who was nobody's favorite, and perhaps not very memorable today, but usually worth a read. "Two Ways North" (Short Stories, January 25, 1939) deals with smugglers on the Florida coast, though exactly what they're smuggling, or if they're smuggling at all, is open to question most of the way. The story reads almost like a satire of smuggler stories as two men down on their luck dream of earning their way back north by earning a reward for some heroic feat. Denny Coyle, a failed gambler with an Irish brogue, and Jim Bush, a former waiter, are little better than tramps, barely earning a living helping Old Craikie operate a capstan bridge to let boats through. They hope to make some extra coin helping a motorboat "alive with men" that's apparently run aground nearby, but the surly Cuban captain rebuffs them. That makes our heroes suspicious. Jim deduces that the Cuban must be smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants. "These Chinks are bringing us our stake," he tells Denny, suggesting that they blackmail the Cuban with a threat to report him to the government. Since Denny worries about the Cuban knifing the, since "These Cubans live in the present," Jim suggests that they go straight to the government and collect a reward for ratting on the smuggler. Now Denny has a moral objection; it wouldn't be fair to the poor Chinese. The ensuing debate might just as easily take place 78 years later.

"That wouldn't be honest," he stated coldly.
"Why not?" argued Jim, heating up under censure, "He's sneaking a bunch of Chinks into the country, ain't he? Don't he deserve to be caught?"
Denny was like a rock. "Where's the harm in it?" he demanded. "What this country needs is more Chinese."
"Huh?"
"Well do I remember my old man saying, many's the time when he was out of work, 'Twinty two families in the house an' devil a Christian in the lot but wan Jew an' two Chinese.' We'd of starved, I'm tellin' you, if it weren't for a fat yellow grinnin' Chinese that owned a grocery around on Pell Street."
With more energy he added, "An' don't be callin' 'em Chinks. A Jap is a Jap but a Chink is a Chinese, an willin' to be white if ye give him half a chance."

There proves to be an easy solution to this impasse. Once Jim suggests that Ferrer, the Cuban, could be smuggling in a Japanese, Denny jumps to the conclusion that this theoretical person is a spy "comin' in under cover because we're tightening up on some of our bowin' and apologizin' to Jap visitors." The government will really pay out for reporting a spy, he concludes, while Jim argues for quantity over quality, assuming that the feds will pay more for a boatload of Chinese illegals. "Where's your patriotism, man?" Denny protests at this thought. "Up North," Jim answers.

Watkins cleverly avoids making clear whether or not the man our heroes eventually discover is Chinese or Japanese. Sure, the man cries out, "No Jap! Chinese!" before jumping ship, and sure, Denny boasts of his ability to tell Chinese and Japanese apart, but just because "the face was the face of a Chinese if Denny Coyle were any judge," that doesn't mean Denny's any judge. In any event, "the Oriental" turns out to be smuggling diamonds, leading Denny to observe, on his assumption that the "yellow man" was Chinese, that "the Chinese are a clever race -- sometimes too clever, belike!" Diamonds actually draw a pretty good reward that Jim and Denny share equally with Old Craikie, who has also talked of "going North" soon. The end of the story explains the title: Craikie dies moments after putting his share of the bills in his sock. To Denny that means "the old one's further North than you or me will ever get if we go to the pole." Modest as it is, "Two Ways North" may be the best thing I've read from Watkins to date.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

'You, Baas, are like the man who makes his hut a refuge for mombas'

The most successful 'white hunter' character in pulp fiction set in Africa was L. Patrick Greene's creation Aubrey St. John Major, better known simply as "The Major." Greene created the Major and his sidekick, Jim the Hottentot, for Adventure in late 1919. In 1921 they all moved to Short Stories, where the Major became a fixture, with possibly the most covers of any character in that magazine, for the next quarter-century. Strictly speaking, the Major is a good bad man or lovable rogue, wanted by the colonial authorities in his earliest adventures for illegal diamond buying but typically targeting men worse than himself. He evolved into a more standard good guy troubleshooter over time, while Jim evolved from something close to comic relief to one of the more rounded black characters in all pulp. Greene was conscious of his characters' evolution and made them conscious of it as well. In "Major Sacrifice," (Short Stories, January 25, 1939) Jim remarks that he once would have been fooled like the story's Zulu antagonists by the Major using his monocle like a magical "third eye" that can tell truth from lies. At the same time, Jim still feels a slight dread whenever he looks at a photograph. "We black ones are crammed with foolish fears," he reflects, "That is why white men impose their will upon us so easily." For all that, Jim has an exceptional relationship with his baas that allows for considerable criticism of what the Hottentot sees as the Major's misplaced idealism. Jim is deferential without being servile, and the dialogue between the two characters is sometimes the most interesting part of a Major story. Here's an exchange from "Major Sacrifice" in which they debate what to do about two disreputable characters trailing them on the veldt. The protagonists speak in Jim's dialect, allowing Jim full articulation of his thoughts.

"If they follow us, Jim."
"Oh, but they do, Baas. You know they do. I have shown them to you. Two men on horseback, Baas, each leading a pack horse. You have seen them. You have seen their campfires. They are clever, too. They know the veldt. Always they keep a day's trek behind us and ride so cunningly that none can see them."
"Yet you saw them, Jim."
"Ah, yes, Baas," the Hottentot said with simple conceit, "but I am not an ordinary man."
"By jove, you're not," the Major drawled in English.
"Golly, damme, no," Jim chuckled.

***
"And so they are evil as i said. Their purpose -- as concerning us and him -- is evil."
"That is my fear, Jim," the Major admitted.
"Ou, Baas. Then why did you not let me go back and kill them as I desired. Wo-we! It is not too late. let me go back now. In the night's darkness I will reach their outspan. for them there will be no pain -- that I promise. I will only lengthen their sleep into death. But of course," he continued sarcastically, "that is not the way of white men. Most assuredly it is not your way. You, Baas, you are like the man who makes his hut a refuge for mombas, though he well knows that by so doing he endangers his own life. Why do not white men kill their enemies?"
"The evil ones do, Jim. The others refrain -- partly, I think, because they fear to destroy what they cannot create."
"Wu! That is folly, Baas. Men can create men -- else the world would now be empty. To kill an enemy is nothing, Baas. Death is nothing. No more than the snuffing out of a flame. And it's better, i say, to snuff out one flame that lights a hut than to permit it to grow into a big fire which will destory a kraal." Jim shook his head in mock reproach and then continued, "But perhaps the evil spirits of the waste lands will deal with those two evil men. Yet even that you will prevent if  you can. You -- how well I know you, Baas -- will risk your own life, if necessary, in order to save them."

While Jim can be very frank talking with the Major, Greene reminds us that they're not equals, though his conceit is that Jim, rather than the Major, enforces the limits of their friendship. Shortly after this exchange, Jim observes, almost self-mockingly, that "My only pleasure is to serve you." The Major counters, "What is this talk of service, Jim," and places his hand on the Hottentot's shoulder in "a gesture of friendship and protection." The Major may well see Jim as his friend in some truly egalitarian way, but Jim returns the sentiment with eyes that "glowed with the light of devotion and service." And even if Jim is right to chide the Major later for allowing evil to enter the story's happy valley, you get the sense that Jim himself recognizes that his Baas's sentiments are not contemptible foolishness but the idealism of a higher being.

The story as a whole is far less progressive than Greene's portrayal of Jim. The Major has been hired by a fiftysomething English woman to track down her husband, Henry Grey, believed lose in Africa. Her intentions become clear when she offers our hero 5,000 pounds for Henry's signature on a document, and 10,000 pounds for proof of his death. The other two trackers come into the story when Mrs. Grey learns from local gossip that the Major is not as unscrupulous as he himself had led her to believe. As for Henry Grey, "his true environment was an English suburb," but the Major and Jim recognize him from a photo provided by Mrs. Grey as the man who, under the name of "Kind Heart," somehow became the chief of a band of refugee Zulus and others living in a hidden "Happy Valley."  The situation is so preposterous -- Greene presumably has Lost Horizon and similar stories in mind -- that he can barely explain how it came about, other than to offer that Grey "knew his people. He could speak as they spoke. He could think as they thought. And that ability is the hallmark of white men who are successful in their work with natives." Unsurprisingly, some restless young men of the makeshift tribe chafe under Kind Heart's control, goaded by a pretentious would-be warrior whose refrain, "By the blood of Chaka!" is tiresome even to his own comrades. This gives our heroes an additional set of antagonists to worry about, but you probably can guess that everything works out all right in the end, the Major becoming an intermediary in a long-distance divorce proceeding after the Happy Valley elders beat sense into the rebellious youths. As a story "Major Sacrifice" is one of the sillier entries that I've read in the series, but the series as a whole remains fascinating to discover bit by bit as Altus Press prepares a complete edition and more scanned issues of Short Stories come on line. Look for more of the Major and Jim on this blog in the future.

Monday, July 24, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'A wise man knows the aim of a bottle'

The second Singapore Sammy story by George F. Worts, "Cobra" (Short Stories, May 25, 1930) takes place "several months" after the events of "The Blue Fire Pearl." By now, it's widely known that Sammy Shay has in his possession that famous bauble, and some people would like to take it off his hands, or from around his neck. The story opens with Sammy, ever on the hunt for his reprobate father, walking into an ambush set by our new villain. He is that most despicable of persons for George F. Worts: the half-caste. "This man was part Portuguese, part Malay, and part God knows what," we learn, "In him, the West met the East and became a power for unlimited malice." The narrator, and in turn Sammy himself, is obsessed with the way the villain resembles a cobra in his "steady, wicked stare." Singapore fights his way free from the ambush but suffers a severe stab wound in the process. If not for a good samaritan who arranges to have him hospitalized with private nursing care, our hero might have died in the street. Once Sammy recognizes his savior, he wants nothing to do with the man.

The man, or "rat" in Singapore's estimate, is Ted McAlister, a onetime protege of Sammy's who couldn't lay off gambling, and couldn't lay off the booze and opium while gambling. It takes a while for Sammy to understand that Ted is on the wagon, except for the gambling that is. He owes $15,000 in chits, proving to Singapore that "You don't belong in China." Ted wants to go back to America and make a fresh start in his dad's business, but can't afford passage with his debts. Now that Sammy owes him something and feels sorry for him, and with his dad's trail gone cold, he works on a way to send the American home while getting his revenge on that human cobra, Armand De Silvio.

Whether you like "Cobra" better than "Blue Fire Pearl" depends on how you like your pulp fiction. Sammy's debut was an all-out action story, while "Cobra" becomes a con-man caper as Sammy uses Ted's own black pearl to con the cobra. He has Ted show the pearl to De Silvio, who runs a jewelry store, and inquire as to whether the half-caste has a matching pearl, for which he'll pay a tremendous price. Sammy then arranges to sell De Silvio the very same pearl Ted showed him, at an inflated price that will more than cover Ted's debts and his passage home. While Sammy comes across as a goody two shoes for much of the story, the way he lectures Ted, he shows a more familiar ruthless streak while working his con. He's going to sell the pearl to De Silvio while disguised as a Hindu. Since he doesn't have a Hindu costume in his wardrobe, he lures some poor mark into an alley, beats him up and takes his clothes. His ultimate revenge on De Silvio is twofold. He has Ted tell him that he no longer wants the matching pearl, meaning that the half-caste has wasted his money. Then, out of a spiteful sense of poetic justice, he throws a real cobra into De Silvio's cashier's cage to terrify the villain into returning the money his men had taken from Sammy at the start of the story.

In an epilogue, a fresh lead puts Sammy back on his father's trail, despite a warning letter in which the old man had told him, "A wise man knows the aim of a bottle." According to Singapore, this is a Siamese saying meaning, in a more contemporary idiom, that "a hunch to a wise guy is plenty." The thought returns to him as the police discuss the cobra attack on De Silvio and express their reluctance to investigate anything having to do with such a dangerous creature. If this story proves anything, it's that Singapore Sammy is not about to take anyone's advice, including his own. His mentorship of Ted McAlister seems to have worked on a "Do as I say, not as I do" level, but you can only teach some people just so much. Sammy can be sentimental about people, as his first adventure showed, but whether that makes him a good guy the way he apparently wanted Ted to be is another story -- or several more to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

'Are there no small magics among the white men?'


Kingi Bwana,  American troubleshooter in Africa, probably was Gordon MacCreagh's most successful creation. MacCreagh, who went on safari for Adventure in 1927, published stories about Mr. King in that magazine for a decade, from 1930 to 1940. Like any good pulp hero, King had reliable sidekicks, the Mutt and Jeff team of Kaffa the wily Hottentot and the lordly Masai warrior Barounggo. People reading MacCreagh's stories today might be able to accept Barounggo as a badass, but however clever Kaffa is shown to be, it's got to be hard for modern readers to get past the author's favorite description of the Hottentot as a "wise ape." They're less politically correct templates for N'Geeso the pygmy and Tembu George, the American turned Masai chief, of Fiction House's Ki-Gor stories. Barounggo doesn't get too much to do, apart from kill a lion, in "The Witch Casting" (Adventure, November 1, 1931), while Kaffa's early suspicions of an American doctor on safari with his millionaire employer, for which King docks the impertinent African ("It is ill to speak so, unasked, of white masters.") one-tenth of his monthly pay, albeit with a promise of restitution for meritorious service, are ultimately vindicated. King senses something fishy about the safari himself, but he has white prestige to hold up. In any event, he's invited by ailing businessman Chet Howard, who's come to Africa for rest and recreation, to act as a hunting guide, but his personal physician, Dr. John Gerardi, clearly doesn't want him around. It takes a while for King and the reader to guess what exactly Gerardi is up to, if anything, for Howard thrives in Africa, proving an enthusiastic and effective hunter. If anything, there's a danger of him going native.

Howard leaped high and screamed his kill. Black forms leaped and screamed around him. Swiftly converging forms and darting spears marked the end of the drive. Uncouth leapings, howlings, wavings of weapons announced triump....Sharp blads quickly gashed throats to let the still warm blood run. Black men bathed their thighs and their foreheads in the thick welling liquid. White man Howard bathed and shrieked with them.
King looked down on it all, very still, very serious, with the beginning of understanding in his eyes.
'Good Lord, just like one of them,' he muttered.
Kaffa, still too, like a watching creature of the wild and quite as frightened, understood.
'No, bwana,' he whispered, 'Not just like one of them. He is one of them.'
King let minutes pass while he watched the orgy. Then explosively --
'And that, by God, is the witchcraft of this thing.'
'Yes, bwana,' said Kaffa with conviction, 'He is a lion man.'
'Who?' said King sharply.
'The witch doctor of this place, bwana. A man who can turn himself into a lion can surely turn a white man into a Dodinga savage.'

King's initial suspicion is that just such a witch doctor has put a spell on Chet, even though that would break a taboo against enchanting whites imposed by a friend of King's who is a very powerful "wizard," mind you. Our hero takes the idea of a "lion man" somewhat seriously, equating it with "the old werwolf belief. Lycanthropy, the scientific gents call it." the idea is not that a man physically transforms into a beast, but that he becomes convinced that he has, and acts accordingly. "Science knows it's possible," King reminds his Jewish trader friend Yakoub ben Abrahm, while the wizard suggests, "Are there no small magics among the white men?" After all, "That is no very hard magic. It is but making a pattern in the soft thing that is a man's mind. Is there no white man who knows how to plant the seed of a thought in a man's mind and then, by a careful watering with words, make that seed grow? That is a little thing that is not even magic."

King knows of such a white man, but doesn't share his knowledge with the reader until almost the end. He had asked Dr. Gerardi earlier who he had worked under in South Africa, and the doctor dropped a name that King identifies later as a hypnotist. King can leave this reveal in reserve until he figures out a motive for whatever Gerardi is up. Gerardi can mean no good for Chet, but if he wishes his employer ill, why not poison him, and why not at home in America? Yakoub makes the crucial suggestion that the death of a recklessly healthy man would not be considered suspicious. "You're the very devil," King compliments the trader, "Only a devil could think of such things." To which Yakoub answers, "For much money, my friend, many men have become devils." One King learns that Chet is going on a lion hunt, using only native weapons, all becomes clear. It's the test of a young man and Chet isn't equal to it, but Barounggo is luckily around to save the day. It's a nice touch on MacCreagh's part that it's not up to Kingi Bwana to kill the lion, and "Witch Casting" is a pretty good early story in the series. You wouldn't know from this story that MacCreagh was an experienced African traveler, though he may have been only a superficial observer of Africans, but he is a pretty good pulp writer and if you don't get hung up on the more embarrassing tropes of old fiction MacCreagh's stuff is usually worth reading.

Monday, July 10, 2017

'Happened?' she screamed back, 'I met a MAN, that's all.'

Ziff-Davis never was a major player in the pulp game, its best-known title being Amazing Stories, the pioneer sci-fi mag it acquired in 1938. During the 1940s the company began to expand into other genres with oversized publications using the Mammoth label. Mammoth Detective was the first of these to appear, in 1942, but Mammoth Western, which didn't launch until 1945, lasted the longest of the group, maintaining a monthly schedule from October 1947 to its demise at the end of 1950. At its peak it was genuinely mammoth by contemporary pulp standards at 194 pages an issue, but by the end of the trail it had dwindled to 130 pages, equal to most western pulps but smaller than the Thrilling group's copycat magazine Giant Western. Some major genre writers published in Mammoth, but it seemed to be dominated by a stable of Ziff-Davis house writers working under house pseudonyms. Does anyone who really wrote "All Roads Lead to Hell," the lead story in the December 1950 issue, under the name Mallory Storm? I wonder if it was editor Howard Browne, as I assume that some editorial indulgence was necessary for "Storm" to get away with something I didn't really expect to see in a pulp magazine.

"All Roads" is a vengeance story with a twist that is nearly given away by the opening blurb, which asks, "Can you avenge someone who hasn't been wronged?" Our avenger is Wate McCord, who saw his beloved Candy Thompson stolen from him and apparently raped by the villain, Bill Queen. McCord tracks Queen to a hell town in The Nations, where Candy works in a house of ill repute but assures Wate that "I've known only one man -- only one." Since Wate knows who that one man is, he's still more determined to take revenge on Queen, while the villain, for his own part, is oddly reluctant to eliminate a man he knows to be an avenger. From the time a more obvious good-girl character, Patricia Morely, is introduced, you can guess that there won't be a happy ending for Wate and Candy. Patricia is attended by her cousin Neal, a mute with his own grudge against Bill Queen, the man who cut his tongue out. This is convenient for the reader should Wate turn soft, but for a while we're uncertain of Neal's motives. He offers (in writing, of course) to help Wate set a trap for Queen, only to make it look like he's trapped Wate (and Patricia) for Queen. Neal is thinking several steps ahead of everyone else, however, knowing that he has to double-cross Wate in order to get Queen where he wants him. Once that happens, Neal changes into "a drooling, eager animal" who slowly tortures Queen to death while "giving out a sort of mad, obscene lullaby" while Wate and Patricia remain helpless. His work on earth finished, Neal cuts the others free and shoots himself in the head.

Then Candy arrives at the scene and jumps to the conclusion that Wate had butchered Bill Queen. Taking the trendy "adult western" genre to an extreme Hollywood dared not equal, "Mallory Storm" has Candy "become a raging, fighting fury" who screams at her savior, "You son of a bitch! I'll kill you! I'll cut you to pieces just the way you did him!"

"Candy -- for God's sake, Candy! What's happened to you?"
"Happened?" she screamed back, "I met a man, that's all. A better man than you cold be in a thousand years!"

Candy proceeds to describe her rape in relatively modest detail ("We fought until he had me stripped naked, and he was bleeding wehere I'd bitten through his ear and his lips."), revealing that she liked it precisely because Bill Queen wasn't a "wishy-washy country bumpkin [who] fell over his feet every time he asked me for a kiss." And so, "We had each other there in the bushes while you were eating dirt back in the grove."

Well damn. To his credit, Wate takes it without rancor, and to the author's credit, we're left feeling that Bill Queen was unworthy of Candy's love, given the "lascivious eyes [that] reflected perfectly his intentions toward" Patricia before Neal jumped him. And before you think the worst of Candy, we learn that she's the one who kept Queen from killing Wate. On that note of reconciliation Candy goes her own way while Wate gets the good girl. I might have expected such frankness, to use the buzzword of the time, from a paperback original, but not from a 1950 pulp magazine. But perhaps that just means I haven't read enough from the time period. In any event, "All Roads Lead to Hell" isn't exactly a great story, but it sure is a memorable one.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"Sentimental Sammy was a pagan ..."

The Blue Fire Pearl is the first volume of Altus Press's planned complete edition of the Singapore Sammy stories of George F. Worts. The volume is part of Altus's "Argosy Library," but like some previous volumes in this series, the stories actually appeared in another pulp, Short Stories. Sammy did have his best-known run in Argosy and actually made some covers of the venerable weekly, but Worts didn't take him there until late 1931. The five stories in Blue Fire Pearl date from  March 1930 to May 1931, though the copyright information in the e-book backdates them to 1928-29. It's noteworthy in comparison to comic books in particular that pulp publishers didn't often claim series characters as their intellectual property, the great exceptions being the hero-pulp stars like The Shadow and Doc Savage. Characters like Singapore Sammy or W. C. Tuttle's Hashknife Hartley could bounce from magazine to magazine, presumably because the authors were never contract employees of the publishers. In any event, Sammy Shea emerges pretty much fully formed in his debut, "The Blue Fire Pearl" (March 10, 1928), in which Worts shows admirable restraint by not frontloading the story with Sammy's origin. Sammy is a fortune hunter working his way through Asia in search of his father, possibly pulpdom's ultimate deadbeat dad. Shea the elder abandoned Sammy and his mother, taking with him a will that gave Sammy his mother's fortune. Our hero's only clues on his vengeance trail is that Dad was obsessed with pearls and elephants.

Tales of an older man pursuing pearls and elephants take Sammy to Malobar, where he's arrested for invading a temple and slugging a guard, though he only wanted to ask if his father had been there. He becomes the captive of a decadent maharaja whose idea of modernity is an obsession with boxing. With two Americans as his prisoners, the maharaja decides it would be sporting to give them a chance at freedom and a great prize -- the title pearl -- by staging a fight. The winner goes free with the Blue Fire Pearl, while the loser is tossed into a panther pit. Not eager to kill or be killed, Sammy entertains Burke's plan for them to carry each other to a draw before making a break for it with the help of a Chinese boy Sammy has befriended. Worts does a great job keeping us suspicious of Burke's true intentions while emphasizing Sammy's self-interest throughout. Sam Shea is a good guy overall, but Worts makes it clear that he is greedy for that pearl and realistic about his own chances in a real fight with a bigger man, despite a fluke championship in his backstory. As the fight progresses, Sammy realizes that Burke is really out of shape and presumes that he proposed the fix for his own self-preservation. No sooner has he drawn this conclusion, however, than we realize that Sammy has underestimated his possum-playing opponent. Our hero is floored for a seven count, but Burke's treachery and the maharaja's contemptuous prodding ("Get up and fight, you white dog!") only make him mad. Now he's looking for a way to kayo Burke, break free from the ring and steal the pearl -- and, despite himself, to save Burke from execution, because it's the holiday season.

While Worts was also known for his series about defense attorney Gillian Hazeltine and the Peter the Brazen stories (under the pseudonym Loring Brent), his Singapore Sammy stories are by far his best work as far as I'm concerned. They're more hard-boiled and less melodramatic than Worts's other stuff, while Sammy himself is convincingly a good guy without being a goody two shoes. I look forward to reading and reviewing the other stories in the Altus Press collection, and then jumping ahead to some Sammy material from my own collection in the near future. Stay tuned....