Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lester Dent's Lee Nace, the Blond Adder

Altus Press has recently published a nice paperback "reprinting" five of Lester Dent's Lee Nace aka the Blond Adder short-stories. Certain creators become associated with certain archetype characters. Johnston McCully of Zorro fame created many outlaw or rogue heroes along the lines of Frank Packard's Grey Seal character and others. Golden age comic artist Fred Guardineer would be known for his many magician heroes patterned mostly after Lee Falk's Mandrake. Will Everett will forever be linked to the underwater characters. For Lester Dent, it's gadget heroes, the ultimate example being Doc Savage.

Nace has a lot in common with Doc. While he is a private detective, he holds various degrees including Law and Medicine. He's famous for recently having consulted with Scotland Yard. Doesn't carry a gun but is a crack shot. He carries on his person various hidden gadgets and devices but is quick to make do with whatever's at hand. He's Doc's crew rolled into one. He is unusually tall , somewhat shaggy hair (to disguise a notched ear), fair complexion, described as being physically fit but thin and bony or knobby, and extremely capable in a fight. And, he's quick to notice the ladies and pursue them. He is set apart by the fact that he has a scar on his forehead in the shape of a coiled snake about to strike, a souvenir given to him by a Chinaman who threw a knife at him with a handle shaped in that fashion which struck him thus.

The Lee Nace stories appeared in Ten Detective Aces in 1933, during Doc Savage's first year of adventures at Street & Smith. This is important because Dent did not create Doc Savage from scratch, the basic outlines of the characters presented to him. In Nace, one can see Dent exploring similar themes and storytelling tricks that he'd use on Doc, showing exactly how much of his style and ideas ended up in the Doc Savage characters. Nace had some darts concealed in buttons and a single shot gun built into the heel of one of his shoes that he had practiced with until he was a crack shot. More familiar is Nace's habit of wearing a bullet-proof skull cap outfitted with a copy of his own somewhat shaggy hair. Then, there's his not carrying a gun, for the psychological reason that a man who carries one will become dependent on it and be helpless when it's taken from him. Nace also meets his extremely capable and beautiful female cousin Julia. Unlike Doc in this case, he takes her on as an assistant and makes capable use of her abilities.

The Lee Nace stories are interesting in another regard. A few years later, Dent would write a few stories for Black Mask, where he would refine his writing style that had grown a bit purple writing the Doc novels. In his Oscar Sail stories, he wrote very deliberate and plain sentences handed out with a staccato delivery.
The fish shook its head as the knife cut off its head.  Red ran out of the two parts and the fluid spread enough to cover the wet red mark where two human hands had failed to hold to the dock edge.
Oscar Sail wet the palms of his own left hand in the puddle.
The small policeman kept coming out on the dock, tramping in the rear edge of glare from his flashlight.
Sail split the fish belly, shook it over the edge of the yacht dock, and there were some splashes below in the water.  The stuff from the fish made the red stain in the water a little larger.
When the small policeman reached Sail, he stopped and gave his cap a cock, he looked down at Sail’s feet and up at Sail’s head
The cop said, “Damned if you ain’t a long drink of water."
Sail said nothing.
The cop asked, “That you give that yell a minute ago?”
Sail showed plenty of teeth so that his grin would be seen in the moonlight. He picked up the fishhook and held it close to his red-wetted left palm.
“Little accident,” he said.
(by Lester Dent; published in Black Mask in 1936)

Compare that with: 
She was tall, blonde, streamlined. The roadster was long, cream-colored, and also streamlined.
She was making motions at powdering her nose, using a pancake compact with a mirror fully four inches across She held it braced against the steering wheel.
Utter concentration rode her long, beautiful face. The big, flat powder puff dabbed the compact with strangely erratic frequency. It slapped only the mirror - never the powder cake.
Oklahoma sunlight, white and hot, sprayed blonde and roadster. To the right, it cooked evergreen stucco buildings of the Tulsa Municipal Airport. To the left, it toasted flat classroom and barrack structures of a school of aeronautics.

In spasms, the sun leaped from the blonde's compact mirror. Her powder puff whipping systematically, was dividing the beam into dots and dashes.

On hands and knees beside the airport waiting room, Lee Nace crawled. He was very long, bony, blue-eyed. He was gathering together the wind-scattered sheets of a letter.
(The Tank of Terror - Ten Detective Aces 1933)

Nace is also more of a hard-boiled hero. He speaks in similar short, curt sentences, direct with everyone he meets. He's prone to anger and excitement, bringing out his scar in lurid detail. He carries and smokes a pipe and is constantly replacing the stems as he's prone to chewing or biting through them in quick succession. While the gadget-detective/adventurer seems a bit rooted in juvenile fiction, the style and humor here is more understated than the Doc novels, easily presaging his work at Black Mask and later suspense novels Lady Afraid and Dead at the Takeoff.

The stories are deemed of the "weird menace" variety of pulps. Meaning that there was a habit of corpses being found in strange positions or killed in bizarre but ultimately plausible ways. Only one story really veers into Doc Savage science-fiction territory and even then barely so. Of the lot, only one has a truly memorable villain though. In The Tank of Terror, we meet Robin Hood Lloyd, a bad guy with his own code of honor who is tied to the mystery in some way. Lloyd is based on gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (there's also a veiled reference to Al Capone). He comes across as an interesting character in his own right as he is quick on the draw and seems to have a favorite past-time in killing those he doesn't like. However, he has that code of honor that only allows him to shoot someone in a fair fight, if they have a gun. He desperately wants to kill Nace and makes many threats, if he could only catch him carrying a gun.

It's a nice looking paperback, and the first from Altus Press that I've received. As I was thinking about ordering another one of their books, it's good to get one to verify that it's slickly and professionally done. There's some cool added features such as Dent's notes describing the character of Lee Nace and a sample of the rough draft of one of the stories with notations of changes by Dent.

One thing that strikes me odd is that the five stories have passed into public domain, but all five have been re-copyrighted as of 2010 to the Estate of Norma Dent. While Altus is within their rights to copyright their book, the original stories themselves cannot be copyrighted again. Derivative works does allow for something that's been remastered or heavily re-edited to exist under a new copyright (hence Ted Turner is able to copyright colorized versions of public domain movies, companies cleaning up and re-presenting old b/w movies and old-time radio shows, and golden-age comic book reprints that have undergone re-coloring processes, all can be copyrighted under a new copyright). The foreword does state that four of the stories have been re-edited per notes left behind by Lester Dent, making these sort of a "Director's Cut" edition. By that standard, FOUR of the stories could be re-copyrighted, but according to the copyright notice, all FIVE of them have been. I find that strange if there's no other reasoning behind it.

It's just me, but I also want to know just in what form the re-editing took place. I like annotated books that explain some of the process. But, it's possible that difference between Dent's notes and the final published version could be nothing more than further changes he willingly and deliberately made when typing the final version, thus what we're getting here would be older drafts in places and not what he intended as the final story. Plus, I like comparing different versions, sometimes the writer's original vision is better, sometimes the editor's. Bladerunner is a better movie with the voice-over narration, it nails the film-noir atmosphere of the sci-fi story.