Wednesday, April 11, 2018
'I'm so sober, I'm damn near ready to fight anybody for any reason.'
Robert Carse wasn't the most prolific of pulp writers, and that probably explains why his work was consistently above average. He published a grand total of thirteen stories in 1932, including a six-part Argosy serial, and that's not much considering that his stuff usually appeared in weeklies like Argosy or Detective Fiction Weekly or in twice-monthlies like Adventure and what for that year was known as The Popular Complete Stories. This was the merger of Street & Smith's two general-adventure pulps, The Popular Magazine and Complete Stories. The selling point, as you might guess, was that there were no serials, when Argosy, by comparison, ran four at a time, so you weren't going to be in the middle of something if you picked up a TPCS. Carse specialized in what could be called the French Colonial genre, encompassing both Foreign Legion adventures and Devil's Island-type tales of brutality and resistance. "The Web" (February 1, 1932) has a little bit of both. Its co-protagonist, James, is an American who was framed for murder and condemned to the typical hell on earth so a crooked French Guiana politician (a "half-breed," of course) could take over the oil fields James inherited from his father. We never actually see the prison, since the story opens with James a free man in France, but suddenly subject to blackmail. Somehow, someone has learned that he's an escapee and fugitive, and that someone is demanding a huge sum of francs for his silence. Somehow James catches the interest of Rand, an alcoholic American journalist who only sobers up on the promise of a big story. He sees one in James's plight and together they discover that the very people who smuggled him out of prison are blackmailing him and other escapees. Basically it becomes a gangster story in a French setting, with Rand swinging from man of action to staggering drunk until he finally recruits a gang of ex-Legionnaires in Marseilles to take on the blackmailers, who of course include James's old enemy, who supposedly had been lynched in his homeland years ago. Rand may be rather implausible as a hero, arguably a sort of defective-detective type, but Carse's semi-hard boiled style makes him palatable. This is a "complete novel" at 48 pages and it's actually novelistically paced in an almost-daring way as Carse opens with several pages of dialogue introducing his protagonists to each other. Perhaps the Street & Smith editors were more indulgent of this than others. Fortunately Carse is good enough with dialogue that the protracted opening holds your interest, and there's enough novelty to the setting and situation to make this a fairly entertaining little thriller from one of pulp's more dependable writers.