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.

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