Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.'

The man known only as Dugan was Arthur O. Friel's last major series character. The intellectual property of his author rather than a publisher, Dugan appeared in both Adventure and Short Stories during 1938 and 1939, if not later. He was one of Friel's typical American adventurers in South America, if more of a tough-guy loner than his predecessors. "A Piece of Gold" (Adventure, January 1939) finds him a hungry wanderer in Venezuela until he discovers a party of men roasting beef. He joins in uninvited and gets into a fight, which of course he wins. The situation seems to be defused by the appearance of the men's leader, a young "high class" Spaniard who offers him more meat to travel on, but Dugan only makes matters worse by offering to pay for it. The youth takes that as an insult and throws the coin away. Dugan takes that as an insult and throws the meat away. Eventually the two will reconcile and join forces to recover a treasure located in a house that once belonged to the young man's prestigious family, now belonging to the new tyrannical governor, but this tense early encounter is the most dramatic moment of the story. It seems all the more dramatic now for the racial charge Friel infuses it with. His narrator -- the typical raconteur who claims to know Dugan but may be Dugan himself for all I know -- makes a point of emphasizing that the young man, Lorenzo, isn't the typical South American trash. "Not a thick Indian slur in his voice, not a word left out or misspoken; not the common lingo of the llanos," he says, "And his face was like his talk: sharp, clear-cut, with straight black brows and straightforward brown eyes and a firm nose and chin." And yet Lorenzo is an inferior, at least according to Dugan's own hierarchy of blood:

Well, that's the way Dugan's built. Sort of temperamental. Take him right, and he'll give you his shirt. Get him wrong, and that's different. And the Irish, if you don't happen to know it, have better reasons to get proud than anything that ever came out of Spain. A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.

The sentiment is deplorable in an objective way and yet almost admirable, on Friel's part, for a frankness in viewpoint that too often goes missing today. In any event, the story doesn't treat Lorenzo like an inferior; it only insists that on almost all points someone from down there is going to be outclassed by an American, and an Irish-American especially. That goes double for Pompeyo, the de facto head of the goon squad that's attached itself to Lorenzo, hoping to snatch the treasure for themselves. He's "A cheap plug-ugly who'd tried to be a prize fighter in Havana, probably, but hadn't made good. But, down here, good enough to beat up all comers, till an Irish-American came along. The story itself is a punchy, hard-boiled entertaining affair, and if anything the casual bigotry enhances the overall tone. In the end, by the way, Lorenzo offers Dugan a whole bag of gold, but our hero deems himself satisfied with a single coin and some food, accepting what the young man originally offered him. Money doesn't mean much if you're more interested in moving on than in settling down, and Dugan has more adventures waiting for him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Variations on the good German

Let that be a lesson to me. In my last point I commented dismissively on Popular Publications' war-air pulp Dare-Devil Aces  based on a reading of approximately half of the January 1937 issue. Each story of the three I'd read featured stereotypical German villains and one-note gimmickry, leading me to deride the whole magazine as juvenile stuff. Having now finished the issue, I don't really think it much less juvenile, but I have to acknowledge it to be less monotonous in its overall content. Three of the remaining stories feature "Good German" characters, of which there were at least two sorts in this sort of pulp.  In C. M. Miller's "Eye of Doom" and the pseudonymous William Hartley's "Gentlemen Eagles" we get what might be called the sportsman, a relatively good-natured character who doesn't use the dirty "cold meat" tactics of more villainous Germans. In the Miller story the German isn't even the primary antagonist, but gets caught in the middle of a feud between two American airmen dating back to when all three were soldiers of fortune, more or less, in Latin America, the two Americans being on opposite sides of a civil war that cost the German a land investment. The suspense is twofold: will one American take vengeance on the other for having him flogged back then, or will the German take vengeance should his old American friend rat out his comrade as the one who cost the Kraut his plantation land? In the end there's no revenge and the German, even when taken prisoner, is just too good-natured to hold the one American's revolutionary antics against him. In "Gentlemen Eagles" the German is a chivalrous sport who withdraws from a dogfight when he sees that his American foe's machine gun has failed. The chagrined Yank bets his buddies that he can defeat this same ace within a certain time, and is forced to pursue the German to near the Swiss border in order to pick a fresh fight.This story is ultimately comic, the only one in the issue in which it can be said that no one really wins, unless you want to count it a win for both pilots that they're forced to land in Switzerland and taken prisoner for the duration, thus assured of surviving the war. It does count as a win for the American to an extent, since the German good-sportingly agrees to sign a statement confirming that the Yank brought him down at such-and-such a time so he can win his bet.

On a more serious if not mawkish note, O. B. Meyers' "Aces and Death" gives us a conscientious German, one more honorable than his commanders. This story invites us to see the American and German protagonists as near-exact counterparts, down to their similarly alliterative names, David Decker and Dagmar (isn't that a woman's name?) Denkert. The latter is forced down while on a bombing run against an Allied hospital housing a large number of German P.O.Ws. Denkert is shocked to learn that, contrary to German propaganda claiming that the Allies paint red crosses on ammo dumps, his target really was a hospital. He's naive enough to convince Decker to let him fly back to the German side so he can convince his superiors to stop bombing red crosses. When Denkert is predictably rebuffed and prevented from fulfilling his promise to return to the Allied side, Decker decides that he's just another treacherous Hun and is hot to shoot down his distinctive plane with a Z on the wing. Even after Denkert helps him escape after he's brought down behind enemy lines, Decker freaks out when the Z-plane appears to pursue him. The final twist comes after the American shoots that plane down, when a German plane drops off a message -- an omnipresent plot device in these stories -- explaining that Denkert's asshole commandant had used his plane to chase the American. As opposed to the more humorous stories with sportsman Germans, this one closes on a relatively grim note as Denkert reminds Decker that they'll be enemies once more should they meet again before the war ends. I still can't say I'm much impressed with Dare-Devil Aces, but I have to give credit where it's due for greater variety of content than I first assumed.

Monday, March 19, 2018

'Damn you, Kraut, what kind of lousy trick is this?'

A few weeks ago I rewatched Wings, the original Best Picture Oscar winner from 1927. That World War I classic made me curious about the "war-air" pulps that flourished around the same time or shortly afterward. Conveniently, I had a chance to sample one such magazine. Dare-Devil Aces was an early Popular Publications title, launching in February 1932 and lasting through the end of World War II. I've been making my way through the January 1937 issue, and even though I'm only halfway through it I realize what a challenge it must have been to write for the war-air pulps. There doesn't seem to be a lot of stories one can write about the war in the air, compared to the comparatively infinite possibilities of the chaotic war on the ground. Nor could one take anything like a nuanced view of World War I, apparently, as the audience for Dare-Devil Aces, on the evidence of this issue, was a lot more juvenile than the audience for Wings or the later films of screenwriter John Monk Saunders. In the war of the Dare-Devil Aces the Germans are always vicious, arrogant and cowardly, preferring to attack only with superior numbers and, whenever possible, with secret weapons. To write for the magazine, your story had to have a gimmick. In the lead novelette, star writer Robert Sidney Bowen's "Black Vengeance," the Germans have gimmicked tracer bullets that release clouds of poisoned splinters that paralyze enemy pilots on contact. In Eliot Todd's "Dynamite Buzzard," the Huns have a prototype "range finder" that allows anti-aircraft guns to detect Allied planes through clouds and in complete darkness. Fortunately for the U.S. and their Entente pals, these prototype superweapons are always destroyed and, ideally, their inventors are killed before they can fully share their insights with the high command. Some stories have gimmicks that have nothing to do with special weapons. In Reg Dinsmore's "Hell's Hooligan," for instance, the gimmick is that our American pilot hero is such a ginger snap that both allies and enemies laugh at his appearance until his heroism shuts their mouths. It's not much of a gimmick, admittedly, but it wasn't much of a story, either. Dare-Devil Aces seems to have been monotonous stuff; the target reader must have had a mental button that really needed pushing to keep buying the pulp month after month. It's the first pulp I've read that really reminded me of reading a comic book -- of the Golden or Silver Age sort -- in its high-concept simplicity. My understanding was that in 1937 a more cynical attitude toward the Great War prevailed in pop culture, though that would change very shortly, but Dare-Devil Aces reads as if the war was still on -- or, depending on your perspective, as if the war had already re-started.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

'Your hoodlums split the scalp of a prettier girl than you to keep her quiet. Taught me how!'

Created in 1917 for Adventure by Gordon Young, Don Everhard is recognized by some as fiction's first hard-boiled detective. That recognition is based on substance rather than style. Everhard, aka Donald Richmond, an oil-rich gambler and sometimes troubleshooter, has a grim, somewhat cynical attitude, but Young as a writer, especially early on, lacks the terse, staccato manner of the more generally recognized hard-boiled pioneers writing for Black Mask. Over time, their influence sunk in, so that by 1936 Young could talk the talk as well as walk the walk. The title "Everhard" (Adventure, May 1936) suggests that his novelette was meant as a kind of "reboot" for the character, and not necessarily the first since he, or his editor, had already given a 1933 novelette the same name. There had only been one Everhard story in between, the 1936 "Everhard" being the first in more than two years. He'd been mostly writing sea stories and westerns in the interval and presumably refining his style. The 1936 story re-establishes the hero's household: his sister Helen; his servant Kang Ko, a disciplinarian of long standing; and his chauffeur Mike, a professional wrestler who himself can talk the talk, cutting a mean promo to distract people while his boss does some sneaking, as well as walk the walk by breaking a crook's neck. Everhard himself is drawn to the aid of casino operators threatened by the unexpected release from prison of "Killer" Lynn, who has vowed vengeance on both the casino owner and Everhard himself. It develops that the threat to the casino is meant to draw Everhard out so Lynn and his mysterious employer Rinsko can eliminate him. It then develops, in an entertaining extra complication, that Everhard is being used as bait to draw out Lynn and Rinsko by a G-Man and his fanatical girlfriend, who fools Everhard so completely that he suspects her of setting him up for the gangsters to kill. That element of fallibility, the extent to which his own wrath at the gangsters leads him to blunder severely, makes Everhard a much more interesting and (dare I say?) likeable character than he was in previous stories I tried to read. In short, the 1936 "Everhard" read like a very promising restart for the franchise, but Young apparently was running out of ideas for his detective. Don Everhard only made two more appearances, in the November 1937 Adventure and in his only foray outside his home pulp, in a 1939 issue of Short Stories.  His heart may not have been in the genre anymore; he may have preferred writing, and fans may have preferred reading the exploits of his cowboy hero Red Clark, which continued for much of the 1940s, until Young's death in 1948. If anyone has read anymore Everhards worth recommending, I'll be glad to hear about them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'It's a yellow way to get out of a hole, Gatlin -- abandoning a white man in this country."

A common theme makes Ralph R. Perry's "Congo Sun" and W. Townend's "Red" appropriate bookends for the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. Both stories quite consciously attack the anarchically egalitarian attitude that "no one's any better than I am." In the Townend story, as regular readers will recall, a merchant-marine communist discovers his own superiority to the trash of proletarian London and emerges as a leader of men. In Perry's a frustrated first mate struggles to break the resistance of a crew of trash against an erratic captain. There's really a threeway struggle among First Mate Tom Cole, the hero, Captain Gatlin, who careens between cowardly indulgence of a malcontent crew and irrational rage against them, and Seaman Sutson, self-appointed ringleader of a bad crew of deckhands. Cole understands that someone like Sutson has to be brought to heel as soon as possible, but Gatlin fears the harm to his record should violence have to be employed against the crew. Cole doesn't necessarily think violence is the only solution, but while force may not be the only thing Sutson understands, forcefulness in manner may be the only other thing. As the ship heads up the Congo to pick up loads of lumber the equatorial heat gets to everybody and Gatlin grows increasingly intolerant of Sutson's goldbricking ways while Cole worries that it's too late to tame Sutson without violence. A sunstruck Gatlin has an alternative, which is to abandon Sutson and his buddies in a jungle town where they've been drinking the latest advance on their salaries extorted from the captain. While Cole feels that Sutson deserves such a fate, it still seems wrong to him somehow, and when Gatlin finally collapses from exhaustion, our hero uses his temporary authority to finally force the issue with the defiant seaman.

This isn't the sort of adventure thriller that Perry would write later in his Bellow Bill Williams series for Argosy. Instead, it's a character study of the shifting moods of mate and captain amid gradually increasing suspense as Perry delays the inevitable hand-to-hand showdown between Cole and Sutson. When that finally comes, Perry makes the blowoff surprising brief but unsurprisingly brutal. It works somehow; Cole breaking Sutson's arm is more abruptly decisive than the pages of knock-down and drag-out another writer might attempt. Despite the title, Perry has little to say about Africa or Africans, apart from noting, despite his characters' free use of the n-word, that native krooboys are more dependable workers than white trash like Sutson. In "Congo Sun" and "Red," pulp fiction seems to be preparing readers not only to pass the expected tests of courage and responsibility, but to take authority over others and prove that not everyone is as good as they are. Another way of putting it is that pulp, at least as published by Adventure editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, favors meritocracy over egalitarianism, or prefers a meritocratic egalitarianism that rewards talent and character regardless of class (see "Red") over an egalitarianism that stubbornly rejects all meritocratic distinctions. To look at it yet another way, modern critics may focus on how pulp affirms racial hierarchies, but pulp stories often require stiff-necked whites to bow before heroic characters as well, sometimes after struggles nearly as difficult as any empire's civilizing mission.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

"I'm a white man. I don't savvy no frog lingo."

One of my rules for reading pulp magazines is to skip serial chapters, if I'm not going to see the complete story, unless they're first or last chapters. I've made an exception for the third installment of Leonard H. Nason's five-part war serial "Chevrons," from the September 8, 1926 issue of Adventure. I had a feeling that I'd be no more lost reading a middle chapter than I would be at any other point in the story, because being lost is pretty much the point of the whole thing. Nason may be the most underrated major writer in the Adventure stable. If so, that's probably because he dealt with the comparatively mundane subject of World War I, with the major exception of his 18th century picaresque serial The Bold Dragoon from 1925. Inspired by his own wartime experiences, Nason is above all a chronicler of the chaos of war. His stories typically deal with protagonists who get separated from their units and careen their way through battles bouncing off fellow soldiers in similar straits. Within the confines of Arthur Sullivant Hoffman's editing, Nason developed a hard-boiled style parallel to the detective writers at Black Mask, giving his characters angry, slangy dialogue that suits the hot-blooded cynicism of his stories and the uneducated eloquence of many of his soldier characters. Nason's war, retold less than a decade after the fact, is thoroughly deromanticized, as are its soldiers. His stories are episodic, virtually plotless apart from a protagonist's struggle for survival, so that part three of Chevrons is almost as artistically complete as any of his standalone stories, even if it leaves his protagonist Sgt. Eadie still in the thick of the action. On its own, the third installment is a coherent, convincing worm's-eye view of the war.

Call it cynicism or realism, but Nason is unafraid to show the American soldier in his ignorance, his selfishness, his sometimes cowardice and his often courageous resourcefulness. In this installment, Eadie, his sidekick Jake (responsible for our headline quote when confronted with a cartridge of Fumee Jaune) and an aggressive captain encounter "a half dozen gallant defenders of democracy who had huddled into a shell-hole and, having allowed the [German] advance to pass them, now began to timidly make their way out with every intention of breaking for the rear and safety." These draftees "don't see what good we can do by staying here and getting killed" after losing their officers, but the captain tells them, "You can stop a bullet from killing a better man!...This isn't the Russian army. You're a bunch of yellow ----." One of the draftees offers a characteristic response: "I'm not afraid of getting killed, but I am not going to be butchered. I'm no sheep; I'm an American citizen," and gets knocked "into a whimpering heap" for his trouble before the captain is killed by a falling shell.

"Where'd it getcha?" asked Jake earnestly.
"Never mind," said Eadie, "he's dead. I know by the way he feels."
Two or three infantrymen came cautiously over and watched Eadie fold the captain's hands and put his helmet over his face.
"What did he want to stand up like that for?" muttered one of them, "Can you tie that?"
"He wanted to show us he was braver'n us," replied another. "I tell yuh this place is a poor one to be brave in."
The man who had been knocked down by the captain now came over to the group.
"What outfit do you men belong to?" he asked.
"We're artillerymen," said Eadie, "from the Third Division."
"Oh!" cried the other. "The ---- regular Army! They shove us in here to crack the hardest nut in the whole sector just because we're men that can earn our living on the outside. These are the guys that want to shove us up against some more machine guns"
Jake was about to reply, but Eadie waved his hand to him to be silent.
"We don't give a ---- whether you go or stay," said the sergeant, "There's a barrage of military police in back of you that a rat couldn't get through. And if they get their hooks on you you'll wish you'd been killed up here. This isn't my first scrap. I know what I'm talking about. I wasn't shoved into the Army with a bayonet, nor shoved on to the front lines with another one. If you were any kind of man I'd lick you for what you said about the regulars, but as it is I'll give you a good kick if you open your mouth again. If it hadn't been for us you'd be wading around the Atlantic Ocean now to save yourself from being a Boche prisoner."
"Huh!" grunted the other sarcastically.

After the draftees head for the rear, Eadie observes, "There's a hero for you. He'll go home and be president of the Society of Veterans of the American Excavationary Forces yet. He's just the kind of a bird to shine in public life." But Jake answers, "I don't know but what he's right. We won't do no good to get killed. This outfit has run itself down like a kettled steer." And they still have stubborn, stupid or insane officers yet to encounter in this installment. I can't help wondering how the passage above went over with editor Hoffman, an early promoter of veterans' organizations like the American Legion, but the fact that counts is that he gave Nason his start in fiction and made Adventure his home base  -- he also appeared regularly in The Saturday Evening Post -- as long as he published in pulp. I find these conflicts within the conflict fascinating, along with Nason's inventively episodic approach to the war in general. His stuff is a highlight of any issue it appears in.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Shame rode her this morning, and in Burt stirred a peculiar compassion for her shame."

When the Thrilling Group acquired Ranch Romances in 1950, it had been publishing an imitation title of its own, Thrilling Ranch Stories, since late 1933. Thrilling Ranch wasn't the phenomenon Ranch Romances was; while the latter continued to be published twice a month as late as 1958, the best Thrilling Ranch could manage was a monthly schedule from mid-1934 through early 1938. Most of the time it came out bimonthly, and after Ranch Romances made it superfluous it finished its run as a quarterly from the summer of 1950 through the fall of 1953. Needless to say, many of the same writers appeared in both titles, including rising star Lewis B. Patten, whose "Rustler's Run" was the lead novelette in the Spring 1953 Thrilling Ranch Stories. Judging by his story alone, Thrilling Ranch had much the same content as Ranch Romances, tougher tales than the "Romance" (or "Ranch") label might suggest but with more consideration of human emotion. If anything, "Rustler's Run" tips more heavily toward romance than a lot of the Ranch Romances stuff I've seen. The genre plot about rustlers and their hidden passage in the hills doesn't seem to interest Patten as much as the sad lives of his two protagonist families and their redemption through merger. Burt Norden is a young rancher whose father's murder has broken his mother's spirit. Stella Norden has become a drunk desperately seeking companionship from any man who ambles along, bringing a shame on her family that she feels acutely whenever she sobers up. Burt resents his circumstances but can't bring himself to hate or break ties with his mother, even though her downward spiral handicaps his own social life. He hopes to court Lucy Cross, daughter of a neighbor rancher who has his own cross to bear in the form of a slowly dying wife. Burt has a rival in the form of "blocky and savage" Mitch Riorson, a thug from a family of thugs who conveniently turn out to be the mystery rustlers. Patten intercuts from Burt's fights with the Riorsons to the final days of Mrs. Cross, who in her moribund saintliness urges husband John to hook up -- she phrases it more delicately, of course, -- with her old friend Stella Norden so he won't be lonely and Lucy will still have a mother. The fist and gunfights are rote stuff but Patten puts more effort into the deathbed scenes and the tense mornings in the Norden home, maybe because that's what Thrilling Ranch readers expected and possibly because those moments of bereavement and regret, cliche though they also may be, came closer to home for him. The story effectively ends once it becomes clear that Stella, now cleaned up for good, will marry John Cross. That makes it okay for John to take time on the day of his wife's funeral to rescue Burt from pursuing rustlers, and it allows Patten to end the story quite abruptly, mentioning the offstage capture of the Riorsons and Mitch's hanging in a final paragraph. Of course, that might have been editor Fanny Ellsworth's axe falling rather than Patten's own decision, but it still shows where readers' priorities were presumed to be.