Sunday, September 30, 2018

'I hate to soil my decks,' he said crisply, 'But I shall kill the first man to board me.'

Albert Richard Wetjen had created a host of arguably interchangeable sailor heroes by the time he thought up Stinger Seave in 1938. This time he was determined to give readers a different type, at least physically, and a different style of story. The Seave stories are written in a retrospective style by an omniscient narrator who knows the character's entire history, foreshadowing Seave's death on at least one occasion. In an early outing, "Davey Jones' Loot" (Action Stories, December 1938), the narrator goes so far as to note that Seave would kill the story's villain on a later occasion, but not on this one. Seave himself was envisioned as nearly the opposite of Wetjen's other giant brawlers. The Stinger is "a small, frail man with a sandy, ragged mustache, mild blue eyes and a suit of comfortably baggy whites." A cold rage often seethes beneath his mild manner, and his threats are never bluffs. He is the most heartless and possibly most nearly psychopathic of Wetjen's violent heroes, though all the stories I've read have shown him in the right, or as much in the right as a "free trader" can be. Stinger Seave's idea of free trading is poaching pearls from an atoll claimed by Japan, as a matter of law, and by Buck Morgan, by right of might. Morgan is enraged when Seave, at this point a relative newcomer, muscles into Laviata Lagoon and hurls backs Morgan's efforts to drive the Stinger out. Morgan then commits the worst sin imaginable among free traders: he rats Seave out to the Japanese, forcing the Stinger to dump his cargo of pearls into the open sea to avoid arrest. The typical battling pearler might bellow and roar in anger, but Wetjen, playing the historian and claiming the Stinger's mate as his source, writes that Seave "sat at his table in the main cabin, a bottle of gin beside him and a glass in his hand ... and did not move, save to call the steward to bring a fresh bottle, right up to the time Morgan's brig was sighted." Over the objections of his crew ("The Stinger had not with him at this time that bunch of hard cases he was later to gather"), he sets a course to ram Morgan's ship before confronting the half-drunk, terrified Morgan and making him vacate the vessel. Morgan doesn't quite go without a fight and actually wounds the Stinger, and for that Seave spares him -- for the time being. "You're the first man who ever caught me off my guard, and I'll let you live to talk about it." The story ends on an ironic note, as Seave, who had earlier advised against cleaning Laviata out, sets a course to return and take every pearl remaining. Before Morgan's treachery, Seave had been a kind of conservationist poacher; leave something behind, after all, and you'll have another harvest later. Now he no longer cares. "I am a very impatient man," he says, "and I have patiently stood for a lot the past few days." It's a slightly ominous note to end an early adventure on, but Wetjen meant these to be darker stories than normal, and at the very least he succeeded at making them entertainingly different.

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