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.

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