Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Monsters are Coming

To start off, for people that might stumble to this entry looking for the DC comic titled Secret Six, written by the usually excellent Gail Simone. As a name, the Secret Six has a long history. With DC, there are two teams predating the current team of villains. The first team was of various normal people, with specialized talents: a magician, a boxer, a scientist, and so on. Each is being blackmailed by a mystery-man calling himself Mockingbird who may be one of the men or women that makes up the group. In a unique twist, the identity of the blackmailer is kept a mystery and is still unrevealed when the series reached an untimely end. In the late 1980s where it became popular to treat characters from the 50s and 60s as being in "real time" and killing off and replacing heroes with modern versions, the original Six are brought out of retirement and sent on a flight that results in their deaths. However, one seems to have survived as Mockingbird recruits an all new team, including a son of an original member. The new six have robotic enhancements so that each has a singular special power. The mystery of who killed the original team and who really is Mockingbird is finally revealed.

But, before that, the Secret Six was a pulp series from the latter half of 1934. History takes a strange turn as the name precedes the pulps. The term was also used by a group of Chicago businessmen that were interested in toppling Al Capone. Before then, it was used by a group of men siding with Jim Brown and the abolitionist movement.

If you're still reading, DC also took the name Suicide Squad from a pulp team of characters.
The early 1930s saw the birth and explosion of the hero pulps and the pulp superhero: The Shadow, followed first by the Phantom Detective and then Doc Savage a month later in 1933. In 1934, Popular would turn to dependable Robert Hogan to create The Secret Six, a book that featured a team of characters having the larger than life adventures not too disimilar to those that would find the Shadow or Doc Savage.

The chief difference is that the Secret Six did not have the charismatic and superhero leader. In many ways they are akin to DC's later non-Super teams such as the Challengers of Unknown and Sea Devils. While there is a leader of the group who is a better detective, better man of action, better looking, etc., there's not this large gap of ability between him and the others. Also, much like several of the DC teams and even Doc's own group of aides and the Shadow's agents, the various members of the Six are specialists.

The Secret Six are:
King: The leader of the group. A young man of action, barnstormer pilot, previously on death row and sought by police for a murder he didn't commit.
Luga: Large Zulu chief and King's servant and regular cook for the Six.
Key: Possibly the one member of the group that really was a crook and is now reformed. His contacts provide the group with much of their information on the movements of the police and underworld. A master burglar and safe-cracker. A man of slight build.
Bishop: The moral center of the group who seems genuinely religious and keeping the group on the straight and narrow, to the point that they even try to curb their use of swearing. Built along the lines of the stereotypical portly Friar Tuck mold
Doctor: The scientist of the group, in both medical and technology.
Shakespeare: Master of disguise, he disguises the Six for undercover work.

They are also helped by:
The Dummy: A deaf man whose hearing has been restored and feeds them information overheard in Police Headquarters.
Legs Larkin: A former criminal contact of the Key's feeding him information on the Underworld
Flo the Fleecer: A beautiful gold-digger and possible con-artist who is attracted to King.

The Secret Six are all wanted for crimes, although it's possible that only the Key (and his contacts) actually has a past life of crime. As such, their old names and past lives are foresaken and they make their headquarters in an isolated cabin with enough grounds on which to keep their own plane. It's not clear how they make the money needed to feed themselves and operate their vehicles. In this sense, one can see familiar lines that Hogan followed from his most popular series G-8. Like the Six, his real name is never revealed and while very competent, he's not quite along the superhuman lines of Doc Savage, the Shadow, or even the Phantom Detective, Secret Agent "X" and the Spider. He needs the help of his assistant Battle to create the most convincing disguises. And, like G-8, at least in this novel, there are scenes of the groups sharing meals together, a possible theme or belief of Hogan's: the importance and communal nature of sharing meals, illustrating the idea of the group to be more than just friends but a family created by necessity and common goals.

However, The Secret Six didn't prove to be a success story, only lasting a few issues. This may be due to the generic and normal nature of the lead. Or it could be due to Hogan not really exploiting his large cast to the fullest extent. Other authors of the other books didn't need to use their full casts. Dent quickly rotated Renny, Johnny and Long Tom in and out of the Doc books, focusing mainly on Monk and Ham. By nature of the title, one expects to see the full cast. Most of the Six are barely cyphers, given a few small tasks or lines but that's it. Nor does Hogan physically describe the characters each issue or explain their relationships and why they do what they do. This works fine in a series like G-8 where the backdrop of the War and that he's a spy is enough to know of the set-up or a case like the Shadow where the character and his origins are supposed to be mysterious. But, most of the hero pulps took pains each issue to treat the hero as if it might be the reader's first encounter with him. Hogan doesn't write that way here nor in the Wu Fang novels which tend to make the recurring characters non-descript.

The advantage is the plotting of the stories. "The Monster Murders" is from December 1934, featuring a cover of a giant ripping the roof of a building and the Six scattering. A couple of the Six are on a walk when they come across dogs the size of horses running wild in the streets and aid the authorities in routing them. Meanwhile the Key and his contacts bring the Six a case of suicide and possible blackmails. As this puts them on the trail of two men, one over 6 feet and another over 7 feet, which leads them to even taller men that are impossibly tall, Key's case and the giant dogs seem obviously linked. And, it culminates in an exciting explosive finale. It's an exciting story, focusing mostly on the efforts of King and Key (who shares some of G-8's aide Nippy's sense of humor).

The reader will probably be ahead of the Six on figuring out a lot of what's going on in the story. And, with the science fiction plot, the fact that the Doctor is so under utilized other than as a Doubting Thomas and complain is a bit maddening. It makes him seem as if he doesn't bring that much to the table where the team is concerned in a plotline that you'd think would give him a lot to do and take a bit of the center stage. Another problem is that King and the team don't really treat the giants as "impossible" and follow up on the leads that it suggests or the obvious links to the giant dogs until near the end. It's one thing trying to find someone that's over seven feet tall, but once the giant is ten feet, eighteen, or forty, you're entering the realm of something un-natural going on. But, they continually approach it as aberrations but not necessarily un-natural.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the name, "The Monster Murders". One of Batman's earlies adventures pitted him against Hugo Strange and his giants, also identified as monsters in the story's titles. Most attribute this similarity to the Doc Savage novel "The Monsters", the cover featuring Doc being held in the grip of a giant hand and Bob Kane and Bill Finger are known to borrow from the pulps. This Doc novel has proved to be one of the more popular and enduring. Of all the covers, this is the only cover that Bama faithfully follows in his cover of the reprints. The story was also used to adapt for a radio script and was adapted in the 1970s Marvel color comic series with covers by Gil Kane and lush interior art by Andru and Palmer. The Doc story was first published in April, earlier the same year as the Secret Six novel. Is this a case of  Hogan borrowing from the Dent novel? It's possible that he was not as taken with Dent's efforts as Doc didn't really have to deal much with the giants as much in his novel, more with the gangsters behind them. Here, the team and society in general seem genuinely threatened with a nigh unstoppable threat, the Six outmatched.

Or, it could be a case that there's something in the water to prompt two stories of giant "monsters" in the same year. A little thing that was called King Kong in the theaters just the year before. In fact, the climax of the Secret Six novel seems taken right from the movie with the giant taking a lovely blonde as a prisoner and foresaking a cure in the hopes of making her the queen of the world and fighting attacking planes to the death.

There's even an earlier precedent to both of these novels. Three decades earlier, H. G. Wells writes the novel "The Food Of The Gods And How It Comes To Earth", dealing with humans transformed into giants and ultimately a war between them and the rest of humankind. In fact, "The Monster Murders" could be taken to have elements of another Wells novel, "The Island of Doctor Moreau".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mysterious Wu Fang (and Robert J. Hogan, too)

I finished reading two Wu Fang novels by Robert Hogan and have started an issue of The Secret Six. And, with the arrival of my new laptop, had hoped to bang out a review of the novels. Usually I like to start with a little background on the character and writer. Which was where I hit a snag.

Robert Hogan is a bit of an anomaly in the pulp authors' circle. Like Lester Dent, Walt Gibson, and Norvell Page he wrote a character pulp, the principle guiding force behind the character. For 110 issues, he wrote G-8 while the aforementioned contemporaries wrote Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Spider. Like those titles, G-8 has made a couple of forays into comics, several attempts at reprintings of his stories including some with excellent covers by Jim Steranko. However, Robert Hogan and his character were different from them in a significant way. One, I recall no mention of him using ghost-writers or what, if any, editorial involvement may have played in the creation of the character he is principally known for. Two, from the start, Hogan had his name on the cover. Every other major character pulp of the time was published under house names and pseudonyms. Yet, Hogan wrote at least three different title series under his own name: G-8, Wu Fang, and The Secret Six.

Maybe it's some ironic twist of fate, that the one author of the major hero pulps that wrote and was published under his own name is the one that the least has been published and written about. At the time of this writing, I'm newly married and most of my research books are at my old house a couple of hours away. But, I couldn't recall a single personal detail concerning Robert Hogan or behind the scenes of his stories. Yet, I can tell you that the creator of the Green Lama did magic tricks. Looking online for biographical data on Hogan was fruitless. The name is too common by itself, and coupled with his works bring up a lot of information on his books and characters, but nothing on him or his writing. Maybe it's the fact the other writers did slave behind house names that fueled interest in doing scholarly research in ferreting out the details behind the principle writers and their ghosts and replacements. As we are going through a revival of interest in the pulps and the characters, with several comic book companies trying new adaptations of them and more pulp reprints being offered than before, there is still precious little being written about G-8 and his creator.

As shown with The Octopus, Harry Steeger, the publisher of Popular Publications seemed convinced that a villain centered pulp was viable. Looking at the success of Fu Manchu, an Asian menace was opted for, Wu Fang. Robert Hogan was tapped to write it. It lasted a mere seven issues. Later, they'd try again with Dr. Yen Sin by a different writer and with even less success.

Wu Fang was a Chinese criminal mastermind who had designs for conquest, especially of America. He was a member of a few secret societies and had loyal henchmen of various races, most notably Chinese and Malaysian, and spies placed in key positions. He was a scientific genius who specialized in breeding various hybrid creatures that were intelligent enough to be trained as well as what could best be described as hybrid monkey men. He also had an assistant who claimed to have an ancestor as an ape, perhaps an early experiment of Fang's. He seemed to have a weakness for exotic white women and was able to exert some mysterious control, perhaps through brainwashing over them. There are two that we know of, Mohra and Tanya, both of whom would betray him after falling in love with his foes.

Wu Fang was most frequently opposed by Val Kildare. Kildare was more than likely somewhere between 30 and 50 years of age and well travelled. By the first novel, he had opposed Wu Fang several times but fails to capture him which leads to his official dismissal from the FBI, though he's allowed to keep his badge. He still enjoys some kind of  authority and he's referred to as being ex- Secret Service as well, but most frequently just as a "government man". Kildare is helped first by reporter Jerry Hazard and later archaeologist Rod Carson. Newsboy Cappy also serves as eyes and ears on the street.

Hogan was a good action pulp writer. With G-8, he showed that he could excel at realistic battle and action as well as thinking up outlandish plots. While fighting WWI, G-8 did the usual spy stuff but he also fought lost races brought to fight on the German side, bizarre death machines, science fiction weapons and devices and some that were merely mundane devices decked out with supernatural overtones. He brought that creativity to his writing of Wu Fang, thinking up fiendish tortures, outlandish creepy creatures created and controlled by Wu Fang.

Yet, the novels are lacking when it comes to the heroes and basic set-up. I've only once tried to read Rohmer's Fu Manchu and was bored by it. But there are familiar tropes that are carried through here. The Oriental criminal mastermind, the White government agent and his sidekick, the woman working for the villain but in love with the sidekick and her loyalties divided. Hogan doesn't only follow the trope, but he repeats it when he introduces a second sidekick, Rod Carson and his love-interest Tanya while Hazard is forced to retire with Mohra by his side from the fighting due to injuries received while being tortured by Wu Fang. What Hogan doesn't do is really describe the heroes or give them compelling characteristics or memorable traits.

To look for in depth characterization and motivation in most of the pulp literature would be a mistake, characters are painted with broad strokes, their appearances going hand in hand with their natures. Dent excelled at giving little character or personality bits to his characters to make them memorable. In the G-8 novels, Hogan wasn't often subtle but each of the principal characters were memorable in their own way. G-8 being the most generic, he had a favorite album he played to help relax and was sometimes given to philosophize over the nature of War, how some of the enemy he'd gladly meet over drinks in a cafe if times were different. Bull was large, loyal and a bit superstitious while Nippy was deft with his hands, cunning, witty, and a practical joker. That's all lacking here. We are told in "The Scarlet Feather" that Hazard is visibly younger than Kildare and that he's athletic. A similar description is given to Rod Carson in the other novel. But, that's it. The two are interchangeable and serve the exact same functions in the novels, following along on identical paths though the two men hold two entirely different jobs, Hazard is a crime reporter (and a detective in his own right) while Carson is an archaeologist. But, both talk with the same voice. While being the hero of the stories Kildare is described as an ex-FBI agent or Secret Service agent depending on the novel but still exacting some kind of authority. Otherwise, he's completely a blank slate, bumbling as often as the supposed sidekicks. His main trait seems to be able to be calm and not swayed by the attractiveness of the women while his chosen helpers are excitable and love-sick. The most distinctive of the lot is the plucky newsboy Cappy who helps them with information and even saves their bacon a time or two. Normally I don't like it when kid characters come on the scene as active participants in the stories, but here he's a breath of fresh air, his exuberance jumps off the page.

Of course, Kildare has other things against him that Hogan couldn't foreseen. He's so generic a character, it's hard to not mentally see his name and not think of either Dr. Kildare or Val Kilmer as you fish around for some characteristic or visual image to hook on him.

The traitorous women Mohra and Tanya don't fare much better. They are given little to do other than to look pretty and fret over whether to help their boyfriends or the mysterious crime-lord who holds some control over their lives. Mohra is described as being both exotic looking but also as a "white woman".Tanya is described as a blonde and speaks in a foreign accent. Another novel claims she comes from a royal family, kidnapped by Wu Fang.

Nee-Sa is a young Asian girl that also works for Wu Fang, although in her case it might be willingly. As such, her evil is a bit unsettling and un-natural and in "The Case of the Black Lotus" she disappears from a scene by possibly turning into a bat!

Which takes us to Wu Fang himself. In other novels and stories than the ones here, we get more background on the man and just how far he will go. For that history, I'll just point you to Rick Lai's outstanding article on him and Yen Sin. Yet, at least in these particular novels, we don't get much focus on the villain, he remains in the background, a motivating force until the end. Likewise, we have a lot of hybrid creatures and strange tricks such as Nee-Sa possibly turning into a giant bat, but little explaining how it's done or scenes of the man working in his lab, directing his minions, etc. He is as generic a menace as Kildare is a hero. Which sets up a vicious cycle. As we don't really see Kildare stand out as a detective ala Holmes, or mental/physical epitome ala the Shadow, Doc Savage, Jim Anthony, he never seems that big of a threat against Wu Fang. Likewise, Wu Fang never really shines as his opponent isn't all that special a character himself. It is interesting that one of the two novels I read actually used the term "Yellow Peril" in describing him as a character.

"The Case of the Scarlet Feather" and "The Case of the Black Lotus" are the second and sixth novels of the series. In "The Case of the Scarlet Feather", Wu Fang is up to something strange as he tips Val Kildare and Jerry Hazard to a plot to kill a cargo ship's cabin as well as an escape attempt by men he's holding in the ship's brig. Both events happen as planned, and seemed link to the theft of several caskets, the men involved being identified as foreign agents. Kildare soon discovers that it's linked to the formula for a powerful gas, recently discovered coating a scarlet feather in an Egyptian tomb.

"The Case of the Black Lotus" has Wu Fang usurping control of a secret Chinese society Chang Li, and using their sacred black lotus flowers as death symbols, pinning a widespread campaign of murder and terror on the leader of the secret society. Val Kildare, with the help of Jerry Hazard and archaeologist Rod Carson delve into the underground societies of Chinatown to find Fang's lair and stop him.

Both cases have mounting danger and bizarre menace through the various creepy hybrid creatures under Wu Fang's control. Both have intense scenes of the heroes trapped in buildings and allies getting killed one by one. While Hogan is not one for actual atmosphere, he describes action and settings with clarity. Wu Fang is a torturer and Hogan ably displays that without actually getting too graphic with the details, showing a possible talent for writing for some of the more graphic pulps. Interestingly, both covers feature the prominent method of torture in each story.

"The Black Lotus" is not the novel that Rod Carson and Tanya debut in, but their roles feature heavily as this is the novel that climaxes with Jerry Hazard being tortured to the degree that he may not fully recover for a long time if ever. If he and Mohra did return, it was in an unpublished adventure. Rod's plans for an archaeological expedition seem indefinitely derailed in his joining Kildare for the fight against Wu Fang and rescuing Tanya from his control.

Both novels are wonderfully illustrated, the first by Richard Flannagan, the illustrator of the Fu Manchu novels, and the second by Franz Plachy. Plachy wasn't as atmospheric as Flannagan, but he seemed to love drawing the heroes fighting scores of villains in exotic if cramped quarters and I prefer him over the other.

The end result is that as it was a short-lived series, I wouldn't mind reading the others, especially to get more of Wu Fang's background and character. Hogan is a master of plotting and telling a story, the adventures move at a break-neck pace. At the core, there's some interesting things going on with the characters that don't quite develop. As a steady diet, I'd probably find the blandness of the characters a bit tedious though wishing for Wu Fang to take on someone like Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow or the Green Lama. These two novels were reprinted in 1997 and 1999 by John Gunnison's High Adventure series.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Phantom Detective: The Silent Death

Date of original publication: Dec. 1936. This is the 46th novel.

Following the success of Street & Smith's The Shadow, many of the other pulp publishers tried their hand at hero characters headlining their own titles. The Phantom Detective was one of the earlier and most successful ones, debuting almost simultaneously with Street & Smith's next big star, Doc Savage. Published by the Ned Pines publishing companies which is known by many names: Better, Standard, Thrilling, etc, The Phantom Detective ran for 170 issues and twenty years, spanning from 1933 to 1953!

The first eleven issues were credited to G. Wayman Jones and after that to Robert Wallace (it has been put forth to possibly capitalize on name recognition of mystery writer Edgar Wallace). However, those are house names and many pulp writers penned a Phantom Detective novel or two and assigning a real name to specific stories seems to be spotty. The Phantom was definitely a generic enough character and with a generic enough style of writing that aided in those regards. His main competitors in the Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider all were characters written under house names and had other writers at times, but each of those heroes had a powerful style and singular vision that drove the adventures. The Phantom seemed to be designed and written so that anyone could easily plug him into a story or adventure they might already be working on. The novels tended to range from fairly ordinary gang busting or mysteries with a slight twist to weird criminal masterminds committing impossible murders. His stories focused on mysteries and crime, so no lost races or fantastic scientific discoveries, least not that I've seen yet. This put him a bit more in the area of the Shadow or the Spider, but he was more down to Earth than either of those two, lacking the atmosphere of the former and the passion, weirdness and tension of the latter. The Phantom also made it into comics. Strangely, Standard never tried to center a comic around him despite his apparently solid success in the pulps. He was one of the few of their heroes that made the transition almost verbatim to his pulp counterpart though.

Despite the Ned Pines empire being sold and re-sold and copyrights haphazardly being renewed, the Phantom faded pretty quickly from the scene once the day of the pulps ended. A few reprints popped up here and there, but never with the regularity or success that was met with the Shadow, Doc Savage, or the Avenger. Even G-8 and the Spider had a few more attempts, with brief revivals in the 80s and 90s. With Gunnison's pulp reprint publication "High Adventure", adventures of the Phantom and other far more minor pulp characters again started being seen with a bit more regularity. Now, the Phantom Detective is one of the more consistently reprinted heroes, with facsimile reprints of the original novels being reprinted with the original cover and interior art and back-up short-stories.

Despite his fading away almost immediately after his last adventure and his being generic in almost every regard, he did have one unique feature that seems to have been a lasting legacy on comics and mainstream culture though most don't know it comes from him. Only one person knew who the Phantom Detective was or how to contact him (so he didn't have murders constantly being committed on his front doorsteps ala Doc Savage) and that was the newspaper publisher Frank Havens. When he thought that a crime deserved the Phantom's attention, he would send out a signal, a flashing red light from the top of the newspaper's skyscraper. In this novel at least, the import of that red light seems to be a secret between the two men, but otherwise it pre-dates the more popular Bat Signal by many years.

The Phantom, as he was simply called in the novels, was Richard Curtis Van Loan, one of those inheritors of great wealth that the pulps and early comics drafted their heroes from. Like the Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider, he spent time on the battlefields of the Great War. He came back aimless and restless, finding no satisfaction in being a man of leisure. When asked by his friend the Clarion newspaper publisher Frank Havens to put his mind to solving a problem that had the police stumped, he found a cure to the listlessness that was plaguing him away from war. Deciding on a calling, he spent several years mastering every science and skill that he thought would help in this endeavor: disguise, ventriloquism, criminology, fighting tactics, etc. Some novels even got more specific, saying that he traveled the world, studying under other masters (sounding familiar to that other hero as well) until he excelled at each one. The Phantom does not have agents or aides as such to help him, he generally plays a lone hand. He is frequently helped by two principle characters, neither of whom know his dual identity. One is Clarion reporter Steve Huston, a two-fisted young man that idolizes the Phantom. The other is Havens' daughter Muriel who is in love with Van but he won't pursue a relationship due to the dangers of his life. Neither are full-blown assistants or side-kicks though nor do either appear in all the novels.

In The Silent Death, the Phantom shows a knowledge of jiu-jitsu, a common useful skill of the heroes of the time. Unusual though is it's not to throw someone as commonly referenced, but to deliver a quick chop with the edge of the hand to the neck to deliver an instantaneous stunning blow. He also reveals that he has a quick armored speedboat complete with machine guns and some kind of grenade launcher and tear gas grenades. The ship is quickly destroyed though.

The cover to this issue is powerful and dramatic, easily among the best. Like most of The Phantom Detective covers, he is shown in a monochromatic background symbolically looking on to the scene of the action. However, this scene does not take place in the story at all. Not only does no woman get gunned down, there are no female principle characters. Wonder if the artwork might have been changed to work as a Phantom cover from a more generic scene that could grace a cover of any of the many pulps of the crime and mystery genres.

Muriel is not in the book and I've noticed with the last couple of Phantom Detectives I've read, I enjoyed the ones without her more. It might be an indicator of a difference in who is doing the writing. The ones without her have been more larger than life and exciting as opposed to the sometimes more prosaic and dull mysteries that the character sometimes undertakes... sort of like the difference between Holmes in The Blue Carbuncle vs The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Steve Huston is on hand and plays a larger role than I've normally seen him in, serving as a substitute hero for the first couple of scenes. In the first part of the novel, he's a little more proactive and hard-boiled and is a presence for the rest of the novel, indicating that with a little tweaking, the novel could easily be about him and not the Phantom as hero. He's given to uttering the odd but unique exclamation "Hell's hop-heads" which could be a possible line in identifying the writer.

The plot starts off being about a series of impossible murders, small neat bullet holes in the foreheads but no bullet. Plus, the victims are two upstanding businessmen and a notorious gang leader with no apparent link to tie them together. Another murder is committed in a closed room with the police present, but no sound of gunfire or even the appearance of a gun amongst the small gathering of people, the bullet-less bullet hole appearing as if by magic. One of the good aspects of the novel is that the story progresses and changes over the course of the adventure. Some questions get answered, but new ones and new threats arise. When a link (a secret valuable cache and that each had been approached by one of the group for funds) is discovered among the group of suspects and murders, a mysterious robed and hooded villain called the Silent Death arrives physically into the story, able to mete out his mysterious death just by proclaiming the next villain. When the nature of the cache is revealed, a secret hoard of gold shared amongst the businessmen, a time limit is imposed upon the Phantom to finding the gold before the villain, unmask him and his method of killing, the novel begins to race to a climactic finish. Sadly, the villain is dispatched rather quickly and easily at the end, in one of the more coldly graphic descriptions I've come across as it compares the carnage that the Phantom's gun does to the man's head vs that of his silent-death which I'll describe here in invisio-text just in case you want to read the story first: the Silent Death is a variation of two guns, both small compact air pistols that fire salt bullets which are quickly dissolved by the blood. One gun, the villain fires while his arms are crossed and hidden in the folds of his robe, the other used when he's not disguised is a trick cigar that can be fired by biting down or while being held. End of invisio text.

The story manages to shift the action and short-term goals of the heroes and villains constantly to keep things moving. Every time the Phantom makes progress, he also suffers setbacks and is nearly trapped and killed in a variety of ways, pushing his physical and mental skills to the utmost. The novel could easily serve as the basis of a serial the way it breaks down, albeit a short serial. An interesting little bit that goes against the cliche of these novels is that the Phantom's ability at disguise is hampered a few times, once by the object of his disguise being a complete physical mismatch that no amount of disguise would cover. Another time, he has to use his own shoes as the man he's disguising himself as does not wear the same size. In fact the import of shoes pops up a couple of times in the novel, as he first ventures out in the shoes he was wearing earlier in the evening, tap shoes, and not ones decked out with hidden devices.

This all makes for a fun action-packed novel with an interesting criminal and method of killing. A mystery and adventure worthy of the super detective.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Jim Anthony: Bloated Death

In reviewing the pulp story I have with the character Thunder Jim Wade, I talked a little bit about the Doc Savage clones or wannabes. Jim Anthony is another that falls into that category. He started off wearing his pedigree on his sleeve though in later stories, he became a little more down-to-earth (as much as pulp heroes get), though a bit more the hard-boiled adventurer. Like most of the would-be Doc Savages, he never proved to be the break-out success that Doc was but he managed to last over 25 issues over the space of three years in the pulp Super-Detective (not to be confused with the Ghost's first few pulp issues called The Ghost Super-Detective and published by a different publisher).

I find Jim Anthony to be to Doc Savage much like the Spider is to the Shadow. The obvious parallels are there, but both Anthony and the Spider are infused with a passion that is lacking in their inspirations. Both are more prurient in their approach to men and women and their relationships. Doc and the Shadow acknowledge that men want to date women, Monk and Ham being notorious skirt chasers after all. Still, it's all done chastely. Jim Anthony and the Spider stories recognize the sensuality, the "why" of the chase. Women aren't merely being lookers, but give off heat when sitting close. Passionate kisses and embraces are given and received. In those sensibilities, it's taking a PG aspect of the Street & Smith characters and taking them to PG-13. In this particular novel, it mentions a female character as being flat-chested, a specific description that wouldn't occur in most other books.

This helps differentiate Jim Anthony from Doc. He has Doc's intelligence and ability, but he's also more human though not necessarily more enlightened. While Doc seems to do all his work as charity since he has a steady supply of gold, Jim Anthony has made use of his abilities for his own gain. Like Holmes, he has authored articles on criminology. He holds records in various physical feats such as running the marathon and swimming. He's made countless inventions and one doesn't doubt that he's added to his fortunes over the years through patents and such. He still fights crime and punishes criminals for free, but he doesn't come across as being all that shy about being recognized for his abilities despite his protestations of not understanding why exactly he'd be considered a celebrity.

Another aspect that helps make Jim Anthony interesting is his back story. He's the son of an Irishman and Native-American princess and as such, he embodies both cultures. He's a master of all civilized sciences and modern reasoning (with a bit of the Irish fighting spirit, but that could be just me reading into it). However, he's also a throwback to the more primitive culture and man and their closeness to nature, with the physical body and abilities that allow them to survive where modern man has grown soft. He possesses a sixth sense, an ability attributed to the animal kingdom and primitive man that allowed them to sense when danger is near. In many ways, he's exactly as a reporter compares him in this novel when he decides to go on a camping/hunting trip, Superman crossed with Tarzan.

Also interesting to note, when Bantam started reprinting the Doc Savage adventures, they hired James Bama to do the covers and history was made. While Bama produced a Doc that wasn't actually described in the books, his painting of him with the widow's peak, the torn shirt that displayed a massive physique became the default look of Doc Savage. He looked like a man capable of much that the novels would have him do, a superman. Well, the writers and artist of Jim Anthony seemed to recognize that concept from the beginning. Jim Anthony liked to do much of his adventuring with as few clothes as possible and still not get thrown in jail. This allowed the interior artist to draw illustrations featuring a muscular and burly hero clad in nothing more than his shorts and with a physique rivaling most superheroes. It's a bit surprising that he never made it into comics in the 1940s since he was already visibly designed along those lines unlike Doc, the Phantom Detective, the Avenger, etc. Subtle, he wasn't.

The plot of "Bloated Death" gets the ball rolling when Jim Anthony feels the need to take a vacation, to get away from civilization. The only problem he has is that no one (ie the press and public) seems to understand that he really wants to get back to nature and truly rough it with no more than what he can carry into the wilderness. He has no intention of carrying modern gadgets, staying in a lush cabin with indoor plumbing and staff to wait on him, etc. Among many of the visitors to try to sell him something or get an interview, are a couple offering him a cabin in the Canadian Northwest. They are intent on getting him to go and thus layer their offer with other inducements to spark his interest. The wife leaves a little note intended for him to find telling him to stay away. The photo the husband leaves of the cabin shows on enlargement the image of a couple being hanged in the background. Of course, he plans on investigating (though denying to his friends that he will), just on his own terms.

Originally forbidden to go, Dolores manages to bribe Anthony's grandfather into switching places with her so that she accompanies Jim Anthony to the wilderness. Once there, the two find an Indian tribe that try to kill them in addition to a group of crooks, strangely bloated corpses and a deeper mystery involving a process of transmuting gold to a cold liquid form that allows for easily smuggling and a lost gold mine.

The set-up in such broad strokes reads exactly like a Doc novel. Several involved with either him or one of his men trying to get away for a vacation or in some location on unrelated business or simply people trying to lure Doc somewhere on false pretenses. The Pacific Northwest was also a common-enough theme in several Doc stories. Add in a science-fiction angle/rationale and a savage race/group to contend with as well as the crooks.

The surprise is, it actually reads as well as most Doc novels. The banter and humor between the aides are absent, but then Jim Anthony is more loquacious than Doc. The author's writing has a bit more of a wry humor to it and less situational/slap-stick. The villains are varied and well done, allegiances are unsure at times and the prospect of betrayal lingers just beneath the surface. In fact, I would have liked to have seen them played up a little more, the last couple of chapters beefed up some in that regard.

Taking Jim Anthony into the wilderness without access to gadgets and weapons works really well. The writer not merely tells us that Jim Anthony is capable of fantastic feats, but with each little "factoid" of some fantastic aspect of his past is coupled with him duplicating or exceeding it in the woods. We see Jim making use of his dual nature/culture as he must use woodcraft and his scientific knowledge to bring out and preserve fingerprints without access to his laboratories. The writer shows us Jim Anthony being smart, accruing evidence against the crooks while setting the odds against him. It's the pulp equivalent of crossing Survivor with C.S.I. and it helps to make the story stand out.

Modern readers will probably find the Indian tribe as being offensive and politically incorrect. They are portrayed in a very stereotypical manner. I will warn people to let go of a few of their preconceived notions when it comes to such portrayals though. In some ways, Jim Anthony himself is an example of modern portrayals of Native races, ie that he is better than civilized man because he shares that closeness to nature, he possesses a nobility and purity of spirit and lack of hypocrisy of modern man as well as the physical perfection that comes from being closely tied to nature vs civilization. More importantly, don't confuse today with the past. 1940 was not the same world today as it was then. Many places didn't have indoor plumbing, electricity and remote places were far more prevalent and would indeed come across resembling from something almost a century earlier than compared to large urban areas. It was a completely different culture than now in places. Many people, especially minorities were not educated and with ignorance DOES come superstition. And, if most people that portray natives as "Noble Savages" actually went and lived with them for extended time in that pre-civilized environment, they would probably find that they are indeed more of the latter than the former. Harsh living requires harsh rules and harsh consequences for those that disobey them. It's amazing really just how much the world has changed in the matter of two generations in terms of culture and how we see the world. However, I agree the portrayal here of the tribe is sadly negatively stereotypical which is typical for the time, but it doesn't make the portrayal by default inaccurate or all that far-fetched. What the novel doesn't do is make the crime of literally equating culture to race and making a value judgment based on that circular logic (and thus the superiority or inferiority of the culture is directly linked to whether the race is viewed inferior or superior which is reinforced as being superior and inferior because of their culture). Which is what gives this book its odd dichotomy. It portrays the culture negatively with stereotypes, but Jim Anthony's basic background is one of portraying the race itself in a generally positive light. It never really goes far enough either way to nail it down as being outright racist or groundbreaking. Like it's approach to women, it's a bit more developed and adult, but it's still just as thoroughly unenlightened.

Despite that drawback, it is a great read and reprinted recently so easily available by the folks of Adventure House. Makes me want to hunt down and re-read the other sole reprint of Jim Anthony's I have, one of the later stories titled "Mark of the Spider".

Monday, October 25, 2010

Doc Savage - The Stone Man

Published date - October 1939.
Featured aides - Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Renny. Missing - Johnny, mentioned as investigating claims concerning claims of origins of man.

This is almost a perfect followup to reading Kuttner's Doc Savage-lite Thunder Jim Wade in "Waters of Death" and the Secret Agent "X" novel "Death's Frozen Formula" in that it shows a bit of the untapped potential in the concepts from both novels.

The novel starts off in typical Doc Savage fashion, in the middle of action and verbally painting memorable characters. In this case it's Spad Ames and Waldo Berlitz, two cold-hearted killers fleeing the Law in an aerial pursuit. Eluding their pursuers, they crash in the canyons of the Arizona Badlands and shortly stumble upon a secret that costs Berlitz his life in the form of being turned into a "stone man".

When we next see Ames, he's white-haired and trying to get together a crew to kidnap a pair of strange siblings and get back to Arizona to get the secrets of a land beyond the mists.
This isn't one of the best of the lost races of the Doc Savage novels nor the best of the incredible menaces. It takes a little long to get to the hidden land and build the tension. A lot of stuff seems set up that really goes nowhere. Spad Ames and his partner Mr. Locatella and their mutual distrust though they are both intriguingly characterized. The hidden land/lost race are only described in the most broad strokes and only a little part of the actual novel. The climactic action comes all too quick and speedily and conveniently wraps everything up. If ever a story needed an extra ten to twenty pages...

But, it does show off what the Doc novels did so well. The secret of the mysterious menace isn't all that mysterious other than it's sci-fi angle, at least not to the adult 21st Century me. However, to a kid from 1939, it would probably be fairly fantastical especially when done in connection with a hidden land of mysterious people in the American West. The main bad guys were interesting, the interaction between Ham and the other aides (he had played a practical joke on Monk and Renny) and Doc is fun and well-done, like visiting old friends. The action and locations are varied from New York to the Badlands and to the land beyond the mists. The supporting characters have conflicting goals and concerns, putting the lie to the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" being automatically true.

It shows how even a mediocre Doc novel is often more readable and fun than the better ones of other series.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who really wrote "The Octopus"

Went to the comic store yesterday, they were having a big sale on trades and miscellaneous items. I was actually looking to pick up a Spectrum3, a fantasy art magazine. Instead, found a spiral bound book titled Keys to Other Doors by John DeWalt, with a nice picture of the Spider taken from the interior art of one of his pulps. And, half off too.

The book is a handy collection of lists concerning pulp characters, mostly from the lines of Thrilling (known in comic circles as Standard, Better, Nedor, etc) and Popular (the Spider, G-8, Captain Satan), both original publications and reprints, as of the publishing of the book in 1995. Included is also publication histories of some of the work of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the character Zorro. Over all, a very handy volume for easy reference.

Also nice, it lists the authors of the pulps as best can be determined. Many of the hero/character pulps were published under names such as Kenneth Robeson, Maxwell Grant, Brant House, Grant Stockbridge, etc. Robert Hogan may be about the only one to write a major character series, G-8 and his Battle Aces, under his own name.

When I reviewed the pulp The Octopus, I credited it to Norvell Page. The old reprint I have by Robert Weinberg lists him as the writer behind the house name of Randolph Craig. The most recent reprint of the story is in a nice volume of a couple of Spider tales credited to Norvell Page. Thus, I was surprised to see the list here to place the writers as being a duo named Edith and Eljer Jacobson. A quick web search revealed a famous psychoanalyst named Edith Jacobson but nothing of anyone named "Eljer" nor any collections of stories or books by them. I posted the question at the yahoo group Cover_Ups which focuses on the pulps and was pleased to get information directly from a couple of pulp scholars in short order.

Apparently, in researching the authorship of the pulp, the payment checks from the company were found concerning the story and it was signed by both the couple Edith and Eljer and Norvell Page. Edith and Eljer were a husband and wife team normally writing weird menace stories for the pulps. The school of thought seems to be that the Jacobsons wrote the original story and then it was re-tooled/re-written by Page to make the hero fit more of the Spider mold. This would explain why the story in places seems typical of Norvell Page's work and at times even more grotesque, and horrific, the prose more purple without quite the polish of his Spider work.

I'll have to be sure to keep a lookout for their name on other stories for comparison's sake in style. It's a shame that the most recent reprint doesn't credit their involvement implying Norvell Page was the sole author.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Octopus

The Octopus is an oddity on several levels. One, the title character is that of the bizarre villain featured in its pages. Several times during the pulp years, publishers tried putting out pulps that would contain recurring villains, several of them in the Fu Manchu mold. And, no doubt, the enduring popularity of Manchu as well as characters and books like Fantomas, Frankenstein, and Dracula all suggested that a series based on a recurring villain was feasible.

Two, the first and only issue of the pulp is given as being Vol. 1, #4, suggesting three earlier issues featuring the character is out there. This is not the case. According to Robert Weinberg, it is believed that probably the book is a continuation of Dr. Yen Sin, another failed villain pulp put out by Popular.

Three, the villain's next appearance doesn't happen. Apparently he didn't set the world on fire so the story that was to follow this one, had the name of the villain and pulp changed to The Scorpion. The Scorpion failed to catch on as a villain as well. However, both names would prove popular for villains over the years. There's easily a half dozen Scorpion villains in the comics and movie serials of the time. Fewer Octopi, but his latter day namesake Doctor Octopus is far more popular than all combined.

When I first read the story, I knew it was supposed to be by Norvell Page, the writer behind many of The Spider pulps. Stylistically and thematically it is very similar to the more famous series with much of the same beats and rhythm. The Octopus is wilder though, it's The Spider with the dials cranked up to eleven. There's a rawness to it, that I thought it came first before Page had refined his style and plotting.

However, that's not the case. The Spider was started in 1933 with Page coming on board soon after. The Octopus was published in 1939. Instead of a progression, the Octopus character and story suggests some kind of regression. It's an explosive release of unbridled creativity and writing, piling improbability upon improbability, delivering it to the reader through purple prose and force of will, defying credible disbelief and logical plot progression and extrapolation.

Take the hero, Jeffrey Fairchild. Rich and trained to be a doctor, he runs and operates a clinic under the guise of a kindly old doctor improbably named Dr. Skull. He is also the lethal vigilante known as the Skull Killer due to his marking his victims much like the Spider. He also has secret tunnels between the hospital he helped fund as Fairchild and Skull's clinic. In an unusual twist, he has a pampered crippled brother who is overly critical of Jeffrey but whom Jeffrey bends over backwards to help and is trying to cure as Dr. Skull. Also a bit different from the usual is the would-be love interest Carol Endicott. Instead of coming from the best families, she's from the slums and was persuaded by Jeffrey to trust Dr. Skull who'd give her a job and security. This is a woman who is a bit cynical due to a hard life. When she tries to use her father's gun which blows up in her hands she ruefully thinks, "Poor old Pop! He'd come back from over there with an army gun and a lot of faith in nothing at all. Other men gave their lives, and Pop had given his soul... She might have known he'd never leave her anything useful!" In a roller-coaster story, it's a throwaway bit of deft humanizing characterization.

The villain is one of the most bizarre humanoid villains to grace any pulp. His description is often vague, describing more of the horror than his actual form, leaving it to the imagination. The end result is of some kind of Lovecraftian being in almost human form. What bit of visual description tells us that he has six octopus like limbs instead of a pair of arms. The text implies that the eyes of his mask glow, but the artwork shows it to be lights on part of his bulbous mask. The story at times almost suggests that somehow a Dr. Borden is the Octopus, but it never implicitly states it or how he managed such transformations. However, by the end of the story Borden has disappeared from the pages, no reference of his final fate.

Using ultra-violet light treatments, the Octopus has discovered a way to devolve people but not to bestial, ape-like beings. Instead, their blood is broken down to being like sea-water, their bodies and tissue also breaking down to more gelid matter. Their minds become more primal and violent and coupled with the changes to their blood, they become vampiric. Even though they need and crave the blood, they need regular treatments of the ultra-violet light even more. It is with this that the Octopus begins his reign of terror over the city, all for purposes of blackmail. Though the themes of torture, mutilation and monster-making occurs a couple of times in Page's Spider novels, the resulting creatures and their creator is never as creepily horrific and unearthly as here.

The improbabilities, outlandishness, and sheer audacity of characters and plot would probably deter most readers from this story, though I find it oddly compelling and worthy of re-reading every couple of years to just remind me of the experience. Sadly, while I own two reprints of this novel thanks to a recent reprinting, I've yet to come across a reprinting of the followup, The Scorpion.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thunder Jim Wade: Waters of Death

On the heels of the success of the Shadow and Doc Savage, publishers tried to duplicate the magic with other characters. Despite the pedigree and talents of the Shadow's scribe Walt Gibson as a magician and writer that lent much to the atmosphere and mysteriousness of the character, he proved the easiest to duplicate. A big part of that is that the character's motivations as a crime fighter are easier to understand and write about. Whether he had mysterious background and secrets such as Secret Agent "X" or they were just masked men with guns and cloaked in darkness and disguises such as Phantom Detective, the Spider, and the Black Bat, the novels when boiled down to it were those of enterprising criminals often with very basic motives of theft and robbery.

Doc, on the other hand, was known for adventures that spanned the globe, full of lost civilizations, and odd technology and devices. And, while he used disguises, his identity and profession was public, he didn't slink about the shadows except when he was being framed and hunted by the police. Then there was the bit of Doc being both a physical and mental marvel. All the super-detectives had their specialties in disguises, hypnotism, being crack shots and a little bit of scientific knowledge in the realm of forensics but Doc was an expert in all areas, inventing most of the gadgets that he used. Doc was a superman among supermen. It didn't stop companies from trying with the likes of Jim Anthony, Captain Hazard, the Skipper, and Thunder Jim Wade. The most successful of the lot was probably Street and Smith's own Avenger and Justice, Inc., who managed to embody a bit of both the Shadow and Doc.

While Lester Dent didn't create Doc Savage, it is probably due to his talent that the series succeeded and became so influential on so many comicbook superheroes that followed and so many of the pulp wannabes never really found ground. Dent was a master at creating memorable characters with broad brush strokes and individual shallow surface ticks. Characterization was never especially deep, just enough to paint a good picture of the character in the mind's eye and motivate all actions that followed. Nor was plotting very complex, but he varied the action, locales and mixed the principle actors involved to keep the story moving and hold reader interest. While there were often gadgets and locales that seemed patently impossible, he and his ghosts grounded much of the science with plausible sounding reasoning and extrapolation. Thus, the reader discovers that Doc had things we'd recognize as an answering machine, automatic doors and that Long Tom was working on perfecting something akin to the bug zapper. Likewise, many of the locales (most often seeming to be the American Southwest) were painted in a clarity and with enough detail to transmit the reader there. This clarity of people and places, the plausibility of so much the science and motivations of the characters, grounded the stories so that you bought everything fantastical that followed. It made a daunting task for those that followed, especially for writers that seemed more suited to the purple prose and overwrought histrionics of the pulps.

Thunder Jim Wade was one of those characters that were built along the lines of Doc Savage. His upbringing was just a tad more civilized than Tarzan's. He was the son of an explorer who died in Africa and raised by natives of a lost Cretan city called Minos. The exotic upbringing made him a master of hypnosis, fighting, and diverse skills such as sleight-of-hand and escape artist. Here he discovered a fantastic metal of incredible strength and lightness that made possible the construction of the Thunderbug (a black vehicle that could be converted from airplane to a tank to submarine due to retractable wings and treads). When joining the outside world, he develops a hatred of greed and crime and builds an organization for fighting it. The core of the organization though is him and his two quarreling aides, red-headed giant "Red" Argyle and slight knife throwing "Dirk" Marat (their relative descriptions remind faithful pulp readers a bit more of G-8's Bull Martin and Nippy Weston than of Doc's Ham and Monk). While Jim wasn't necessarily adverse to killing he and his pals carried guns that would fire a burst of flame meant more to scare and cause a little pain than killing or permanently disabling an opponent.

In a bizarre move, on the covers of the pulps that his stories appeared, Thunder Jim Wade was portrayed looking much like Flash Gordon. The description in the stories themselves do not suggest such an appearance.

Written by Henry Kuttner, the final Thunder Jim Wade story "Waters of Death" stands as a typical Doc story with many of the same elements and structure. A pair of explorers are trying to get out of the jungles with news of a mysterious hidden land called Palinwa and great scientific discovery (turning lead into gold) to turn over to the good governments of the world. To this end, they hope to enlist Thunder Jim Wade to help as the native Tabin Naung they are traveling with claims to be the rightful ruler of this land whose throne was taken over by the beautiful but evil Kamanthi who has set herself up as high priestess of a goddess. Things go badly as all but Naung are killed by headhunters but he meets up with Wade and his crew who travel to the isolated land to set things right. Added for good measure are dinosaurs, a battle of "magic" and the woman Kamanthi made even more exotic by being done up in green body paint and artificial arms to make her a six armed representation of the goddess Tama that the natives worship.

The story is partially under-served by the relative shortness compared to a standard Doc novel. The main characters don't really get a chance to shine, the story is about the equivalent of about the last quarter of one of Doc's standard adventures. Likewise, there is a paucity of characters so the twists in the story come as being about the only twists the story could possibly take to keep it from being even shorter.

Despite being similar to Doc Savage, Thunder Jim Wade fails to come off quite as "super" especially in the physical aspects. He's a capable fighter, but he does not seem to have the edge that you expect of many of the pulp heroes. In fact, he seems to do little better than his aides in that regard. Thus, his personal battles seem to lack in the epic quality somewhat. As a superhero, he needs just a touch more seasoning to make him and the story truly sizzle. In that respect, the shortness may hurt in that it doesn't give him and his aides real time to shine and stand out against a variety of threats and death-traps. However, the story may be served by the shortness in that they don't wear out their welcome with their relative mundaneness. You get the story completely distilled down to the basic plot and everything moves quickly before you can really notice the shortcomings. I've not read enough of Kuttner's work to discover whether he'd have been better suited if given more space to develop the story. But, this is short enough that I wouldn't mind reading the other Thunder Jim Wade stories, to see if there was more to recommend the character.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Secret Agent X: Death's Frozen Formula

Death's Frozen Formula
Date: February 1937.

A little background on the character. "X" is a top secret government agent. He's not affiliated with any known government agency but secretly reports to one man. His operations are funded by a committee of civic minded citizens. Because of this secrecy his actions are considered criminal by the police and recurring character Inspector Burke has vowed to bring him to justice. His real identity a secret, even to readers, only reporter, aide and love interest Betty Dale has seen his real face. We know he's handsome and brown-haired, but that's about it. As a master of disguise, his most frequent identities are that of elderly Elisha Pond under whose name he is able to access his funds and A. J. Martin who is a rather bland looking man but a reporter for a wire service (and apparently whose credentials are authentic, so he must spend considerable down time maintaining that identity). He's also helped by red-headed private detective Jim Hobart and Harvey Bates who is broad and square shouldered, square faced and has dark shaggy haired and knows "X" under a few guises (not specified).

A twist, because of the secrecy of his mission, "X" takes pains not to kill. His most common weapon is a gas gun and carries other various other gadgets and wears a bullet-proof vest. In this mission, he also has syringes with knock-out drugs, magnesium flare bombs, and some trick cigarettes that emit a gas after burned down to a certain point. Despite this, he's a crack shot and has the standard pulp-hero talent of hypnosis when needed.

"X" also made it into the comics briefly as the Phantom Fed "X" which adapted his first story. He's slated to return in Moonstone's "Return of the Originals" but who knows what changes he'll go through for it as they are making arbitrary changes to all of the pulp characters.

This story is the first that I recall reading about Harvey Bates and is apparently the first time that the two aides Bates and Hobart meet and work together.

In this story, "X" is investigating a dope and blackmail ring. Specifically, what the connection is between that and hop heads going to various theaters and leaving right after the news reels. There is also a pseudo mystery menace in hairy humanoid monsters that kill with some kind of freezing cold weapon. Under Lester Dent, a lot of mileage could be gotten from such a bizarre menace element, but here it's played as being fairly obvious. "X" recognizes the first dead body killed in such a way as having been flash frozen to death via liquid oxygen or something similar. There is also a sexy femme fatale in the exotic Zerna who is one of the ringleaders. As this is Ace and not one of the Spicy lines, her basic looks are about as far as the sex goes. But, she is an unrepentant drug dealer, blackmailer and accessory to literally cold-blooded murders.

By this point in his career, his and Betty's relationship has gotten romantic enough that it serves as a distraction and hindrance to both. And, for a man that guards his secrets so much, both the cops and the crooks seem aware of a lot of his actions and methods. Like the Spider novels, the crooks manage to tie him to each of his agents and capture them to force his hand. Through this, they also become aware of several of his identities such as Elisha Pond and that is how he gets his monies. As all the ringleaders are captured alive, this gives them quite a bit of information that they could share with pals in prison or barter with the police. That is if pulp novels actually followed up on dangling points in previous novels like that.

The novel is an exciting and fast paced read. "X"s concern over his agents, his affection for Betty and his stance against killing make him a great hero to root for despite his lack of personal life and background. He comes across as being both super-human and human, part Shadow and part Doc Savage. Likewise, the odd angle of the killers using an unusual way of offing those they no longer need gives the story a much needed elevation above a simple mundane crime ring and worthy adversaries for the super sleuth.