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.