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.

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