Tuesday, February 5, 2019

'And a damn good job it is, this bossing the Arena gang.'

Robert Addison Nicolls (1905-1993), a history teacher and football coach at the Friends School of Baltimore, has a grand total of ten stories listed in the FictionMags Index, four of them backup stories for Doc Savage in the 1940s. His first pulp story apparently was his most popular. "The Roman Way" (Adventure, June 1940) was twice reprinted by Popular Publications, in 1950 and 1955 issues of the venerable story magazine. It's written in what could be called the anachronistic vernacular style, though our perception of the casual but not exactly slangy narration as anachronistic is conditioned by the more formal or flowery language of historical fictions by Harold Lamb and others. Basically Nicolls has the veteran Roman soldier Servius, now an assistant manager of a gladiatorial school and arena, talk in what sounds like the voice of a common man.

...the Arena dungeons outstink 'em all. They're in a class by themselves. Still, it's our bread and garlic now -- Marcus's and mine. And a damn good job it is, this bossing the Arena gang. Easy in winter when the shows aren't on, but a ticklish piece of work when the big season starts. We run our gang on legion discipline; you've got to if you want to hang on in this business. Marcus is boss, just as though he were still centurion in the old Tenth, and me his optio, his second in command. That's how it's always been. I guess that's how it'll always be. Marcus first, me second.

At the same time, Nicolls gives Servius vivid powers of description, particularly when it comes to smells.

Fresh blood sopping the ground on a hard fought field has a salty tang that goes to the head like a draught of strong wine, and even the horses flare their nostrils and squeal and jump. Next day it resembles the smell of stale flat lees in the bottom of a cheap tavern drinking cup, and the piled up bloated bodies spread a sickish sweet odor that makes a man retch in spite of himself.

The narrator's mind flashes back and forth from the arena to the days when he and Marcus fought in Britain alongside Julius Caesar. He remembers rising through the ranks under Marcus's strict discipline and finally earning his admiration and trust. After a long day of heroism in battle, Servius still gets flogged with Marcus's vinestock for falling in late that morning, but immediately afterward receives a commendation and promotion. He remembers Servius falling in love with a native woman, having a child with her, and having to leave them behind when Caesar withdraws from Britain. In the present, a gang of captured Britons condemned to be killed by beasts in the arena stages a riot. Marcus tries to convince the ringleader to have his men go peacefully, arguing that if they stay healthy they can at least give the animals a fight, even without weapons. Then he recognizes a bit of gold the young man's wearing and realizes that it's the son he left behind long ago. He offers the youth his freedom, but the Briton is determined to stay with his men. The most Marcus can do is arrange it so the Britons will have weapons to use against the beasts of the arena. This only lends a patina of honor to the execution and Marcus knows it. "I shall want a report on the deaths of the British prisoners," he tells Servius, reflecting once more on "the Roman way" summed up in the saying vae victis, "woe to the conquered." The effect is pathos rather than sentimentality and it's a surprisingly good fit with the slightly hardboiled tone of Servius' narration. The story clearly made an impression on readers, but one gets the sad feeling that Nicolls never topped his first effort.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

'The sun would have been kind not to have revealed this.'

H. A. De Rosso has a reputation for writing some of the darkest western pulp stories. He peaked in the 1950s, as pulp westerns moved closer to the more mature tone of movie westerns in the same period. He published 25 stories in 1953, including "Long Rope - Short Prayer!" in the April 1953 10 Story Western. In this one, range detective Red Harrison is called to Santa Gertrudis to investigate rustling, only to find he's been set up. The rancher's wife Bridget Mullineaux had her own cattle stolen by a trusty henchman in order to create a pretext for a detective to reopen the case of Jim Woodruff, her lover who was killed for rustling. Bridget is certain that Jim was framed and expects Harrison to smoke out the actual rustlers while investigating the fake rustling. Her suspicions appear more plausible when some of Jim's old buddies try to scare Harrison out of town. They claim he's trying to frame someone for the most recent rustling, but it also looks as if they have something to hide. Harrison's investigation continues after he kills one of those men, bu the intervention of another woman, Isobel Cobb, starts to tear Bridget's story apart. Isobel tells Harrison that Jim Woodruff married her three days before he was killed -- and really was a rustler. She warns Harrison to quit and leave town or else she'll tell Bridget the whole story. Infatuated with Bridget, Harrison can't let that happen. He heads to Isobel's place, presumably to silence her, only to find that Bridget's faithful henchman Tacoma had already done the job -- this post's title sums up the scene -- only to be mortally wounded by another of Woodruff's old cronies. Tacoma lives long enough to tell Harrison that he killed Woodruff because "He hurt Bridget." Harrison hunts down the last rustler, as much to wipe out the truth once and for all as to get justice for poor Tacoma. "An ugly purpose was clawing at Harrison's brain," DeRosso writes, "He did not like to think about it. He tried pretending it wasn't there." But just the same he goads the rustler into a gunfight, even as he wonders "if this was worth it when stacked against a woman's illusory dream." There's no real benefit to it, since Bridget is married to the rancher.  The only payoff Harrison can hope for is some sort of loving look from her as he leaves, but he doesn't get it. It's almost stereotypically noirish stuff but in a western pulp from 1953 it must still have had some transgressive novelty, and even now it's probably the best story in the issue.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

'At moments I am even envious of the defunct Mr. Li.'

Tsang Ah-bou was James W. Bennett's attempt at a Charlie Chan-style detective, the twist being that Tsang did his detective work in China itself, where he would have plenty of opportunities to interact with westerners like Bennett himself, who did some diplomatic work and taught creative writing in the middle kingdom earlier in his life. Tsang is more than a tough guy than Chan; "His loosely fitting gray serge gown concealed muscles trained in jiu-jitsu and of an iron-like hardness," writes Bennett, who apparently never caught on about kung fu during his time in China. His athletic training comes in handy when his Occidental superiors in the Shanghai police assign him to solve the murder of a Chinese movie actor in his second outing, "Tsang, Accessory" (Oriental Stories, Winter 1932). Whether Bennett researched the Chinese film industry is unclear and probably unlikely. He portrays an upstart company with American personnel muscling in on a market dominated by native talent, making the established talent suspect in the death of Li, the leading man of the new studio. Other possibilities include the upstart studio's American director and cameraman and its Chinese-American leading lady. To investigate in depth, Tsang gets himself hired as the dead actor's replacement, his questionable physical resemblance more than compensated for, in the director's eyes, by his ability to do his own stunts. A fatigued Tsang complains of his added workload in a letter to his superiors, but it gives him the opportunity to slowly reduce the suspect list until he stumbles upon the opium racket for which the new film company is a front. It might seem unlikely that a director with Hollywood experience would get involved in the drug trade, but as Tsang explains, "It is true that he can command thousand of dollar, possibly, as director. But as head of opium ring, he can make many million." From that example, you see that Tsang's English remains imperfect -- it's realistically erratic rather than by-the-numbers pidgin -- but shows a better grip on grammar than Charlie Chan had. The story's twists include the revelation that Li the actor was in on the opium racket, while his leading lady is a detective in her own right -- presumably working for the U.S. government -- who actually killed the guilty thespian in self-defense. The story's title is explained at the end when Tsang, sympathizing with the actress-detective and the American cameraman who apparently loves her, decides to let the murder case go unsolved. His superiors may think the worse of him for this seeming failure, but our hero reflects that "that is penalty I must pay for joining ranks of law-breakers. It all comes, I think, of the bad custom in United States of having lady detectives!" Tsang made two more appearances in 1933 issues of Rapid-Fire Detective Stories, but after that Bennett's career in pulp fiction was just about done, and his creation would be just about forgotten.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

'Do not forget, sheik, that brave sons and virtuous daughters are the offspring of mothers!'

William Ashley Anderson's fiction career extended from 1914 to 1973, and the man himself lived to be 98 years old. He had a run of stories in The Saturday Evening post in 1919 but spent most of the 1920s in the pulps, mainly in Adventure. "The Edge of the Simitar" (July 30, 1924) is a tale of exotic espionage during the Great War that owes a little something to Talbot Mundy and maybe a little something more to John Buchan. Our hero is an ailing Frenchman, Cohusac, who's stirred from his torpor in isolated Aden when a British friend informs him of a conspiracy afoot to establish an Islamic regime in Christian Ethiopia. As Germany has for some time pandered to Islamic resentment of the French and British imperialism, and given Ethiopia's reputation at the time for invincibility, such a conversion could tip the balance of power in Africa and beyond. Suspicion focuses on an American, Sevier. His nation is still neutral in 1916, and his personal alignment is uncertain. Believing this American instrumental in organizing the planned Abyssinian coup, Cohusac concocts a plan to get him driven out of the country.This involves him disguising himself as a hunchbacked troubador, the better to serenade a local lady, allegedly on the American's behalf, thus creating a scandal. This silliness is necessary, in retrospect, to introduce us to the true mastermind of the conspiracy: Miriam, the object of our hero's serenade. Anderson portrays her as a sort of Muslim counterpart to Hilda von Einem, the German instigator of a Muslim conspiracy in Buchan's Greenmantle. As a Muslim, his villainess is even more exceptional, if not more formidable, than Buchan's. He emphasizes the discomfort of her male Arab con-conspirators.

Miriam was one of those amazing Mohammedan women who since the war have shown that many of the great movements in Mohammedan history have originated in the harimlik. She, a woman, an annoyance to men, was looked upon with universal respect for her intelligence. Despite this, however, the Mohammedans were too deeply set in their prejudices to approve of the boldness with which she went unveiled. Had she been in Arabia her conduct would have been considered of so immoral a character as to make it impossible for the sheiks and hadjis to treat her with anything but disapproval and contempt. The fact, however, that Somali women are never veiled, and Abyssinian women are not only unveiled but have also as much personal freedom as Europeans, made it impolitic, if nothing else, to express their disapproval openly. 
At the same time, they never overlooked an opportunity to snub her if they felt they could do it in safety, since they feared her also on account of the power of witchcraft she was supposed to have -- reading men's minds, seeing through the covers of books, prophesying with accuracy.

The irony, as the story reaches its climax, is that Miriam knows something that Cohusac doesn't that makes all his efforts rather pointless. Sevier, she knew all along, is not the agent provocateur Cohusac and his British friend feared, but exactly the opposite: an agent of the British government. The Frenchman has the satisfaction, however, of rescuing Miriam from rape at the hands of one of her erstwhile allies. He has accomplished something after all. Anderson, meanwhile, has tried to have things both ways, playing on what fear then existed of jihad among American pulp readers while indulging in a perhaps more strongly felt fear of a sort of superwoman representing disorder on a global scale. Miriam's presence gives his story a redemptive thrill that the plot itself lacks and makes it worth a read today.

Monday, January 14, 2019

'A touch of sun -- it does queer things.'

Blue Book was the main market for H. Bedford-Jones' serial anthologies of thematically-related stories. The gimmick gave him an excuse to surround each actual story with some framing device when they could well have stood well on their own, but his approach certainly paid more. HBJ had two separate series going on in the July 1937 issue: "Ships and Men," written in collaboration with Captain L. B. Williams -- that is, in collaboration with himself -- and "Warriors in Exile," represented in this issue by "A Touch of Sun." The framing narrative includes an apparent nod to Theodore Roscoe's Thibaut Corday, as it introduces an impossibly old Foreign Legion veteran to narrate a tale from the early days of the Legion, in the 1830s, that he claims to have witnessed. The tale itself concerns Pan Andrei, a Polish nobleman who was exiled from his homeland by its Russian overlords and ended up with the Legion in Algeria, only to desert to the natives two years later. He takes up the Touareg cause under the name El Mohdi, alongside a Turkish veteran and his daughter Khattifa, with whom Andrei falls in love. The old narrator attributes the Pole's desertion and his transformation into a renegade "Arab" to too much sun, but apart from that insinuation that he had to be mad to do it all, the story treats his new Muslim friends in relatively respectful fashion. Khattifa, who dons a youth's uniform to remain at her beloved's side, is particularly contrasted with Andrei's Polish wife, who appears in Algeria bearing tidings of his pardon and his reinstatement to nobility. He hears of this indirectly, having infiltrated the French base in native guise in order to learn the Legion's plans. The prospect tempts him briefly, but once he leaps to the conclusion that his wife is more interested in her own reinstatement to high society, he remembers all of Khattifa's virtues.

Allah! What a contrast between that woman, a princess, and this Turkish girl who loved him, rode with him, was going to bear him a child within a few more months! Here was life -- warfare, hard living, privation, and love that sweetened it all. Here was the proper destiny for a man; not back there on the estates of a prince.

Alas, in the next engagement El Mohdi is knocked unconscious and separated from his army, waking up alone in the sun. He had set the Legion up to be ambushed, but now, hearing the songs of the Polish battalion and feeling the sun again, his alignment is scrambled once more. Now he rushes to warn the Poles of the attack but they, seeing him approach in Touareg garb, shoot him dead. This last detail confuses one of the audience in the framing story, because it's all supposed to be based on Pan Andrei's diary, and how could he have written up his own demise? The old narrator suggests that he might have thrown that last part in himself, but that disclaimer reads more like an authorial shrug of the shoulders.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

'Wipe your chest, renegade!'

H. Bedford-Jones was fond of framing devices, at least when writing short stories. Sometimes they helped maintain the gimmick for a series of thematically related stories, and sometimes, probably, they simply padded out a story to make it more lucrative for the prolific author. They tend to keep us at a distance from the main story, since you have to get the story of someone telling the story first. It's unusual for the framing device to warn us away from the story, but that's the impression given -- perhaps unintentionally -- by the framing device for "J. Smith, His Mark" (Adventure, June 1940). In the framing device, our present-day narrator is shown some curios by a Hollywood friend, and then is treated to a private screening of a film alleged to be unreleasably bad. The story of that apparent stinker is our main story, an adventure of Captain John Smith when he was a mercenary in Morocco, years before his legendary exploits in Virginia. The story itself is not bad, if not much of a story. Smith makes a friend who shows him the ropes, an English renegade kills the friend, and Smith gets a measure of revenge in a duel that ends with him carving his initials, Zorro-style, in his enemy's chest. This trifle has a morbid coda as our narrator's friend calls his attention back to an exotic drum he'd admired earlier. The skin of the drum is the skin of Smith's enemy, the initials still showing. The narrator has nothing to say about the cinematic quality of the film he's watched, but we might observe that if anything made the project unreleasable, it was the presumably explicit footage of Smith slicing both of his enemy's ears off before signing his work. The Production Code didn't allow for such things -- but pulp did.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

'You had a continent to choose from and you tried to steal what was mine.'

Based on my limited reading I think of J. D. Newsom is of a Foreign Legion story specialist, but his novella "Lord of the Stony Rises" (Adventure, July 30, 1924) finds him in Australia telling a meandering tale of one man's vengeance giving way to another's. The common foe is John Burdette, a mighty land baron on somewhat unscrupulous origins, first shown firing, in humiliating fashion, an even less scrupulous underling, Mitcham. This Mitcham dreams of taking revenge and has an inkling of how to do so, having become aware of the legal uncertainty of much of Burdette's property. He's such a loser, however, that he can do nothing about it and is reduced to a paranoiac fear of Burdette ever lurking near him until he happens to run into just the person to help him. A chance encounter begins a mismatched partnership between the thuggish, weaselly Mitcham and the dandified "shrimp" called Rushton, who has the means and the apparently whimsical temperament to take on Burdette by running cattle on his supposed land. Rushton is a constant infuriating surprise to Mitcham, from his unlikely competence with a bullwhip to his ability to hold his own with Mitcham in a fight. He also has more stick-to-it-ness than Mitcham, who's willing to sell out immediately when Burdette suggests a price that strikes Mitcham as lordly but seems pathetic to Rushton, who has hinted at reasons of his own to stick it to Burdette. Burdette himself recognizes Rushton as the real threat and strives to flip Mitcham back to his side. Mitcham had seemed to be the protagonist of the story, but as his craven nature becomes undeniable Rushton becomes our hero as rough outdoor life rips away his veneer of refinement to reveal the real character beneath. This change gives the story more of an episodic quality than it probably should have, especially once it moves into endgame mode with Burdette tasking Mitcham to provoke a native uprising in order to destroy Rushton. Newsom is blunt about the fate of the continent's aborigines, making plain that relegating them to reservations is more or less a death sentence, but shows them little sympathy. The tribe Mitcham deals with is especially awful, their adoration of the man as a god (for providing them with booze, among other reasons) going horrifically overboard in a kind of parody of the Catholic Mass as the people become convinced that partaking of the divine flesh will give them magical powers. With Mitcham thus disposed of the stage is cleared for the showdown with Burdette in which Rushton finally reveals his grudge with the land baron. It proves to be typical melodramatic stuff: Rushton's grandfather once owned most of the land Burdette now holds, but was driven out after refusing to let Burdette marry his daughter, Rushton's mother. In the ultimate melodramatic moment, Burdette has a vision of the long-lost girl and promises not to harm her boy before dropping dead from a heart attack. It's a bit of a mess but still an entertaining story, and in any event this was still early in Newsom's career. He'd been publishing in Adventure since 1922, and his best work was still ahead of him.