Wednesday, June 6, 2018
'I think it would clear the situation if the witness would explain what he means by drawing a blank.'
Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson is best known to history for effectively inventing the American comic-book with the 1935 publication of New Fun, the first magazine to feature all original comic strips instead of reprints from the newspapers. In pulpdom, he specialized, in Adventure at least, in stories inspired by his experience as a cavalryman in the U.S.-ruled Philippine islands. One such story is "Court-Martial" (January 1, 1932), but the court-martial proves to be only a framing device. A soldier is accused of the premediated murder of a native civilian, the premeditation apparently proved by his having gone to his squadroom after first encountering the victim in order to get his pistol. The defendant remembers nothing of this, however, having drank heavily that night. Our narrator is an officer serving on the court-martial panel who suggests during questioning that the defendant simply drew a blank and was no longer in his right mind when he fetched his weapon and shot his man. Finally, seven pages into the story, he begs his fellow officers' indulgence as he tells a story from his own experience as another example of drawing a blank. No, the narrator himself did no such thing, but he knew a young officer who did just that following the kidnapping of a Spanish girl by Moro bandits. Wheeler-Nicholson has the decency to interrupt his narrative occasionally to have the other officers express the impatience with his long-winded raconteur that some readers may have felt after a while. It's not that the story he tells is bad, or that Wheeler-Nicholson tells it badly. It's just unrealistic that the other officers would let him ramble on and on, in nearly novelistic detail -- technically it's a novelette -- when he probably could have gotten to the main point much quicker and with fewer literary flourishes. The payoff, finally, is that the our narrator changed the names in his story. The defendant is the sergeant whose kidnapped beloved killed herself in captivity, his victim a former bandit who insulted her memory, and his captain, who went on a drunken raid against the Moro camp only to forget it afterward, having drawn the proverbial blank, is none other than the fussy, teetotaling colonel who presides over the court-martial. That's a cute finish, but Wheeler-Nicholson simply takes too long getting to what is, ultimately, only a modest punchline.