Friday, October 26, 2012

The Red Ledger - Frank Packard

At 2 1/2 Dominic Court you will find one of the more eccentric detectives. Of course, finding Dominic Court itself presents a challenge. The local beat cop could probably give you directions, but even citizens and tourists that pride themselves on their knowledge of little known nooks and crannies of New York's canyoned streets walk past it without knowing. Yet, if you do find the alley passageway that leads between tall buildings, you will come out upon a small oasis from the bustle of the city. Four small old fashioned two-story houses built of wood in Dutch style, lawns neatly kept, fences and ivy wrapped fences: numbers 1, 1 1/2, 2 and 2 1/2. And, at 2 1/2 resides the older gentleman and scholar  Henri Raoul Charlebois. Charlebois, a man of unusual intelligence and vast wealth. A man who is liable to size one up by first asking their favorite color. His own is red, neither hot nor cold as he puts it. He, in his red jacket and skull-cap with a tassel,  sits at his study that is all done in red: red books, red desk, red shelves a red safe. And in that red safe is The Red Ledger, a book in which that he has kept account of the credits and debits of all who crossed his path some decades earlier when he was downtrodden, homeless, hungry and sickly. And, he has now built up a vast organization to balance the books.

This is the situation that young Ewan Stranway finds that fate has thrust him into. Ewan is a young man whose family is well off, so everyone thought. Until his parents are killed suddenly in a car crash and he finds that his father's business was in deep trouble. He uses the inheritance to pay off the debts and with just a couple hundred left, he starts searching for work. It is then he runs across an advertisement in the paper of someone looking for him and through mysterious directions finds himself in the study of Charlebois. Turns out his father is in that red ledger as one of the men who showed charity to Charlebois and gave him ten cents (a dime could buy you a meal in those days). At first Ewan just laughs as a dime will hardly help him in his current straits but it turns out Charlebois is actually offering him a job if he doesn't mind a little danger. It's a strange interview, first asking him his favorite color, then allowing him to be privy to a private argument between Charlebois and a beautiful young woman whom Charlebois "murders" before his eyes and then frantically trying to buy Stranway's silence. When Stranway refuses, it's revealed to be a ruse to test his honesty and character.

Stranway agrees and spends a month in training. From Pierre Verot he learns locks, skeleton keys and disguise make-up, Miss Priscilla Bates teaches him Morse code while Charlebois teaches him the secret codes of the organization. Amongst others of the organization are Flint the mechanic and driver and the beautiful and mysterious young woman known only as the Orchid. The four houses are all part of the organization: Mrs. Morrison, a middle-aged widow supposedly kept lodgers at #1, at 1 1/2 resided Verot and his wife and at #2 was the elderly Miss Bates. Stranway himself is given a nice apartment nearby on 6th Avenue. He is given access to Charlebois' safe and the vast sums of money and the ledger it contains. Indeed, his own position becomes that as Second in Command. After a month, he becomes an active agent.

Packard oversells the eccentricity of Charlebois at the beginning, to the point that he really comes off as a madman. It stretches credibility that a man would agree to work for him after that interview process. Ultimately, it works though. Charlebois is portrayed as charming, generous as well ruthless depending on which side of the book you fall. To those he helps, he quickly leaves as acts of gratitude seem to embarrass and discomfort him. Packard uses the limited 3rd Person Point of View to excellent effect, in a way that most nowadays are not able to pull off. The basic structure is not unusual for Victorian and Edwardian literature: the everyday man as the point of view reference, though many use 1st person narrative. Here, it allows Charlebois to stay in the background but still an active character. He's a master planner, manipulating the situation and persons as chess pieces while Stranway is often his main agent in the more dangerous cases. Stranway himself is quick-witted, capable and able to blend in most situations, even able to save the day through his own initiative. It wouldn't be a Packard novel without the one mystery-character, a woman with enigmatic name and character who is the object of the lead's infatuation. The novel never loses its point-of-view though. This allows characters like Charlebois and the Orchid to figure prominently but remain mysterious throughout. You're privy to Stranway's thoughts, hopes, opinions and surmises but not anyone else.

Charlebois is more of a driving force in the book than the super-detective of "Tiger Claws". Like a spider at the center of a web, everything centers around him and his ledger. This book focuses on Stranway, the cases he's involved in and his romance. They are the big story. But, the set-up suggests other stories. There are other active agents that have been with Charlebois for awhile. Other accounts are settled that Stranway has no part in, or laying the ground work for the big payoff.

The novel is otherwise a collection of short-stories that carry a narrative all the way through, reading almost like the climactic chapters of a half-dozen mystery novels. There are ruthless businessmen and stock manipulators, poisoners, suave con-men, a deadly smuggler and his gang. And, ultimately, the Versel-Thega, a secret society of crooks and assassins from a small principality in Europe called Karnavia and in the employ of Prince Stolbek. Through it all, are hints and reveals of Charlebois' mysterious past, how various characters came to be in his book; and the fruitless attempts of Stranway to get a few moments alone with the Orchid that aren't limited by the urgency of the missions.

One can see quite a bit of the structure to the Shadow novels, especially the first one focusing mainly on Harry Vincent's recruitment into the Shadow's service. The all red study vs Shadow's sanctum. The master planner behind the scenes, the vast organization with agents tracking down various leads around the globe. The chief difference is the structure of the novel focuses on Stranway and never deviates from that. There are no scenes of Charlebois when he's not in Stranway's presence. There's even a reference to one of a dozen unpublished cases as "Chen Yang and the Golden Joss".... doesn't that just leap off the page as a Shadow title?
A little research revealed that the opening in "Tiger Claws" is not as unusual as it seemed to me. As noted, it was the first I've read with the exotic South Seas locale, at least in the beginning. But, it seems that Packard wrote several other novels with that setting, one even filmed.
Next up, "The White Moll". In this story, Packard reverses his formula a bit as the lead character is a woman, Miss Rhoda Gray aka the White Moll. Through an act of charity, she finds herself wanted by the police, taking over a dead woman's identity (which in itself is a false identity), and fighting the plans of a ruthless gang of crooks in hopes to get the evidence and testimony to clear her name. On hand is a enigmatic mystery man this time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tiger Claws - Frank L. Packard

Reading an account of what inspirations Walter Gibson drew on in writing The Shadow magazine, he listed The Gray Seal stories by Frank L. Packard. For years I had only read one story of the Gray Seal and could see where he was clearly a precursor of the Johnston McCully rogue heroes, and there's quite a bit of the Green Lama in there as well. But, the Shadow? Not readily apparent.

A few years ago, browsing through an antique shop at the coast, I came across a set of hardbacks by Frank L. Packard. Yes, when I go to antique stores, I often look for comics, books and pulps, though very rarely finding anything of interest. In truth, even this time when I saw the name it rang a bell but I didn't immediately make the connection and assumed it was a name of a juvenile fiction author. But, then I noticed one of the books was titled "Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder" and it clicked. I eagerly picked up one of the books. On the front cover it was labeled "The Gray Seal Edition". At five dollars apiece, I grabbed them all: The Red Ledger, The Wire Devils, The White Moll, Doors of the Night, and lastly, Tiger Claws.

Sad to say, I'm really only half-way through the books. Frankly, sometimes I forget they are there waiting to be read. I read the Jimmie Dale book first. Then Wire Devils where I discovered despite these being "The Gray Seal Edition" books, apparently, only Jimmie Dale actually features that proto-pulp hero.  Wire Devils features a masked man called "the Hawk" who is horning in on the crimes of a syndicate out West involving the telegraph. Only in novels written over a hundred years ago will you find a story that's almost pure pulp presenting the telegraph as cutting edge technology!

Something drove me this past week to revisit the books and pick another off the shelf. I chose the interestingly titled Tiger Claws, and boy, am I glad I did. It starts off atypical of the other Packard novels I've read. Instead of crime in some city, the novel opens up in the seas of the Far East and spends some time sketching out the characters of brothers Allan and Keith Wharton. They are typical pulp hero men: tall, independent, gray-eyed and strong of mind, character and body. They run a small cargo shipping concern consisting of one wind-powered schooner, manned by them and several malays. They do well for themselves by being able to stop at smaller islands that the larger steam ships cannot go. But, they find a mystery when they stop at a previously deserted island to pick up castaways.

The action comes fast and furious and soon after a period of convalescence, Keith travels to New York on a mission of vengeance to pursue four murderers and the mystery of the mahogany box. In New York he renews the acquaintance of Secret Service Agent and deep under-cover operative Bob Clinton, and the two hide-out and seek clues as fugitives of justice Canary Jim (Bob) and Rookie Dykes (Keith). Adding to the mystery is that crimedom is also in an uproar by the return of the mysterious super-crook and assassin known only as Tiger Claws. During one escapade, Keith also encounters Doris Marsland, a woman with some connection to the mysterious goings on. As Keith tracks the whereabouts of each of the four crooks, he finds his present mystery involves more and more the concerns of Tiger Claws. The climactic resolution and revelations of the novel equal the best that I've read in any Shadow or Spider novel.

It is in this collection of novels where I see the influence on the Shadow. The squalor of criminal hideouts, the idea of a crime itself as its own society existing alongside a law-abiding society, with its own rules and boundaries. The people all have names like Canary Jim, Rookie Dykes, Whitie, Blackie, Weasel, Magpie, Bowery Sal and such. Physical attributes tend to mark them as grotesqueries, obviously of less than savory types. In this novel in particular, you have characters skulking and hiding in the shadows of streets and darkened corners of ill-lit rooms. Conversations overheard by the silently raising of a window. Even when colors are described, in my mind's eye, it's a world of black and white, filled with smoke and shadows. Unlike many of the hero pulp writers to come along later, Packard recognizes and includes the role of drugs, addiction, and poverty as going hand in hand with other crimes. The story itself seems to focus not on the super-detective, but what Gibson would call the proxy hero, Keith.

Although the initial description of Doris might make you think of another writer: Like bronze her hair was where it showed under her hat -- mingling gold and copper. It was an alluring face, piquant -- a little pale perhaps, a little wistful, but there was a self-reliance there and wholesomeness.

If the novel has a drawback, it's in the character of Bob Clinton. He's presented as being a bit of a super-detective and disguise artist, but the story is not about him. He's barely in it other than to help the plot along as need-be and serve as a handy deus-ex-machina. His other major function is to be a hurdle and not a help. He's deep under-cover as Canary Jim, an identity that took years to build. As such, Keith as Rookie Dykes operates under the hindrance of not being able to call the police or make his identity known to them. As he's vouched to crimedom through Canary Jim, he cannot run the risk of exposing Canary Jim as being anything other than a wanted crook. Once Clinton largely serves his purpose, he's sidelined for all of the climactic action and intrigue through a wounded arm. As he's the least developed character in the book, he's hardly missed. But, I found his mere presence in the book lessened the character of Keith somewhat. As the story isn't about him and he's hardly in it for reasons other than plot device, why make him this paragon of detection and disguise? Why wrap him in colorful superlatives that makes the lead character seem a bit second-rate? I found it difficult to not imagine what the novel would have been like if Packard had gone a little more Count of Monte Cristo (or Richard Henry Benson to keep in the purview of the blog) with the character of Keith Wharton. If the initial tragedies and deprivations at the beginning that put him on this mission had also helped turn him into more of a super-man, an inhuman instrument of vengeance, only to be brought back to humanity by the feelings of love for Doris. If Bob became less a super-detective to merely a competent one that serves as his confidante. Or written out altogether and expanding on the role of colorful and faithful Gur Singh who is sadly written out after the opening chapters.

Regardless, I found the writing style breezy and compelling. It's hard to imagine this being written decades earlier than the era of hero pulps. Some of the characteristics and attitudes towards race and sex may seem a bit dated, but the storytelling itself is not and is indeed better than much that came later. The story moves quickly, with many twists and turns and very little bloated purple over-wrought prose. The crook Tiger Claws who prowls on the periphery of almost the whole novel is all the stronger for it, coming across as a worthy adversary of any pulp hero.

The artwork here is not of the cover. None of the books came with dust-jackets, but somehow the title was evocative to my mind and this is what I came up with. If you can find this novel, I heartily recommend it.