Sunday, July 1, 2018

"This Robin Hood stuff is all blah in this super-civilized century."

Before turning his focus to Africa as an explorer and author, Gordon MacCreagh was more of a South American specialist, covering much of the same territory as Arthur O. Friel. "The Society of Condors" (Adventure, April 1, 1927) finds the author struggling to make some kind of political statement as well as a few thrills. It's a familiar sort of story for the period, plunging an American, in this case a reporter, in the middle of regional unrest, in this case a conflict between Peru and Chile further complicated by internal unrest. The reporter encounters a disgruntled, Euro-educated aristocrat who tells him that the problem with South America, plainly and simply, is politicians.

"In all our vast country conditions are as unfortunate as in yours, and in some cases even worse. We are in the hands of the politicos. And why? Senor, the answer is very simple. Because they are men who make politics their profession; while we, the great rest of the people, talk sometimes about politics a little and once a year or so some of us go out and vote. We are the amateurs; and it is an indisputable rule in every human endeavor that professionals inevitably and always have the advantage over amateurs."

Going deeper, the problem seems to be democracy. The aristocrat boasts of not voting, because "what are our few votes against the unthinking thousands?... Those of discernment, capable of judgment, are always outnumbered by the mass. And it is upon the dull-witted emotions of the many that the professionals ply their art." The remedy he proposes, for all intents and purposes, is terrorism, albeit in the romanticized form of costumed brigandry. "My contribution toward reform will be to catch as many of these exploiters as I may, as opportunity occurs or as I can make it, and I shall show them the error of their ways by the imposition of fine or castigation, as they case may best deserve."

The reporter's natural skepticism is overriden by the force of the man's personalities, but once we get to the main action of the story some time later, MacCreagh introduces an element of moral suspense; he "El Rey" of the Society of Condors been corrupted by his bitterness against the political class. The reporter encounters him again as he is holding one of the politicos hostage. Are the Condors no better, say, than the Ku Klux Klan, which the story invokes without naming it outright. El Rey seems to have taken some inspiration from the American organization:

"In your own country the similar plan of a secret society with an avowed intention of reform flourishes today, even though it attacks whole races and creeds. It throve amazingly until the ignorant and the self-seeking swarmed in and it became itself an organization of political ambition too enormously unwieldy to withstand the many enemies it had made."

You wonder whether MacCreagh is imagining a Latin America's distanced view of the Klan, or whether El Rey mouths the authors own opinion of the cross-burners. Bear in mind that back in 1923 Black Mask published a special Klan issue containing stories both pro and contra, so there was nothing in MacCreagh's day like the consensus we presume (or hope) to exist today. But if you look close enough there's a consistent theme denouncing self-interested politicians, though it's difficult to look at something that seems to say that the Klan was okay, maybe, before it went wrong somewhere. In El Rey's part of the world, the solution to the problem of the politician seems to be the disinterested benevolence of which only the aristocrat may be capable. El Rey's camp, one notices, is well furnished with servants, but what disturbs the American reporter is that the young idealist is willing to torture people to get money out of them. The reporter is invited to sit alongside the prisoner and pretend to be another captive. He's told that one of the prisoner's retinue has had his ear cut off, and is shown the thing still lying on the floor. Now the reporter's only thought is to rescue the prisoner and return him to civilization. Because this is a pulp story, he manages to do this -- but then we learn that El Rey allowed him to do it. The bandit leader couldn't just let his prisoner go because it might make him look soft, but now his reputation remains intact, and he has given his American friend a terrific story to report, though he presumably won't report how El Rey used an ear from an anatomical model to scare his captive. Does this amount to a vindication of El Rey's tactics and his worldview? Perhaps, but whether you agree with MacCreagh's implied conclusions or not, give him credit for an adventure story that's intellectually provocative as well.

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