Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Tiger Claws - Frank L. Packard
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.