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.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

'It was I who suggested the idea of two impostors meeting each other.'

From the publishers of Weird Tales, Oriental Stories covered an expansive "East" extending from our Middle East to the Pacific. In the Winter 1932 issue, E. Hoffman Price and Otis Adelbert Kline's "The Dragoman's Jest" is a play on readers' fanciful notions of the East. In Egypt, a native coffee shop owner regaled a tourist with the tale of how a conniving draagoman -- a translator and tour guide -- became a wealthy grandee. Once upon a time, this man was giving his American mark the usual tour, mainly in order to mooch off him, when the American is suddenly smitten by the vision of a briefly unveiled Kurdish princess. He promises a big payoff if the guide can arrange a tryst with the eastern beauty. The guide arranges with the princess to concoct an exotic adventure for the American, only for authentic bandits to introduce an unwelcome element of realism. That only makes things more romantic, but in the end the American mass to pay a huge ransom to the chieftain to whom his beloved had been sold in order to rescue her and himself. Just in case any reader thought the American had gone too far in his romantic enthusiasm, our native narrator assures us that the princess was also an American tourist (from Keokuk, Iowa) living out a fantasy adventure -- and that the tour guide had arranged for the bandits and ended up, disguised as the chieftain, collecting the ransom money. In short, everyone put on a show based on what a couple of yokels expected from their land and people, and laughed all the way to the bank. Cute stuff.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

'I'm going back to white man's country, where you can see what you're fighting!'

Let's start a hopefully more productive new year with a trifle from the November 12, 1932 issue of Argosy. William E. Barrett's "Cat Hair" is a story of white men in the Solomon Islands, part of a genre that never ceases to fascinate me. What fascinates me about the genre, set in Africa most of the time, is the ambiguity of the stories' superficial racism. The whole genre most likely qualifies as racist because Africans and other natives are shown consistently to be subordinate and ideally subservient to whites. Yet black characters are often given heroic qualities, particularly those who serve as sidekicks to series characters like Jim the Hottentot in L. Patrick Greene's series about the Major. Heroism is conditional upon loyalty to the white man, of course, but subordination isn't necessarily synonymous with inferiority in these stories unless we're dealing with social status. As it happens, there aren't really any heroic native characters in "Cat Hair." What I like about Barrett's short story is its reversal of a familiar trope of such stories. The hero, Collishaw, drives a cruel and bigoted white colleague off the islands by playing on the white villain's susceptibility to superstition.

After seeing  the new man beat a "number one boy," Collishaw realizes that the new man is likely to provoke a native uprising that will wipe out the good whites as well as the bad. He can't openly reproach Bronson, as "He was too old a hand to take sides with a native against white authority, no matter how abused that authority might be." But when Bronson proves hatefully intractable Collishaw conspires with a native servant to put a permanent scare in the goon. He sets up a scenario in which the native will be caught trying to take some of Bronson's hair for a voodoo-style ritual cursing. He reassures Bronson that the man has only gotten away with hair from Collishaw's cat. When the cat turns up dead soon afterward he allows Bronson to draw his own conclusions, assuring a happy ending for all but the cat. In a move that might offend some modern readers, Collishaw sacrificed his pet, poisoning it to cinch the illusion of evil magic and frighten Bronson out of Africa. The modern reader might be forgiven for asking why Collishaw didn't just kick Bronson's ass, but a story like this is a window opening out to, if not a funhouse mirror reflecting another world -- or at the least it shows us how people from 86 years ago or so saw how their world worked.