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".