Friday, November 15, 2019

Amusement, Inc.

What if Doc Savage and bros. took on the mob with actual bullets? Let's find out in Theodore Tinsley's "Amusement, Inc."

The back story of "Amusement, Inc." is as interesting as their tales. Few people would actually believe that six millionaires would band together to fund an attempt to clean out the crime from a major city. It makes for great fiction, but unbelievable newsprint, yet, in the months before "Amusement, Inc." and Black Aces appeared on the stands, one such organization, The Secret Six, was revealed in Chicago as instrumental in bringing down Al Capone. Of these millionaires, Eliot Ness said:
"These six men were gambling with their lives, unarmed, to accomplish what three thousand police and three hundred prohibition agents had failed miserably to accomplish: The liquidation of a criminal combine which paid off in dollars to the greedy and death to the too-greedy or incorruptible."
That "Amusement, Inc." would use this story should come as no surprise. Chicago's crime scene and the longing of its citizens for justice left a lasting mark on the pulps--"Words do not count—deeds are their own explanation." And justice in the pulps was swift, violent, and final, as befitting the cries of a populace near their breaking point with violent crime.

Tinsley uses his version of the Secret Six as the money behind the muscle that will be known as Amusement, Inc. 
"I'm offering you danger and death to play with by day and night." 
How's that for a job offer? But crime is everywhere. One murder attempt later, and Major John Lacy is brought before the Emergency Council of six millionaires trying to clean up the city. Out of this meeting, a secret society grows, and the front organization: Amusement, Inc. To staff his amusement, Lacy draws upon the old soldiers' network to assemble a squad from his old unit--and an armory's worth of weapons.

Amusement, Inc. will need all the guns, too, as one of the Emergency Council's banks is targeted by arsonists for having the gall to refuse a racketeer's loan demand. These "torch bugs" are wanted dead...just dead. Alive is not an option.
"I'm not cop, you fool--I'm a death warrant! You'll talk fast to me or you'll burn in your own grease!"
Just a reminder that Major Lacy, for all his incorruptible strengths, is not John Law, nor is he paid to deal kindly with torch bugs and other thugs. Leaning on the rats compels them to give up the name and location of the racketeer who ordered the blaze. A few bullets later, and the first blow against crime is struck.

It's a pity that the bank burned down, though.

Certain pulp heroes like Doc Savage might instead chose rehabilitation, but the men of Amusement, Inc. are there for adventure--and vengeance.

"Amusement, Inc." is the pulp equivalent of an action movie, running from murder attempt to city chase, from explosion to gunfight. There's little investigation here, just action. And if you want to survive a gang war, you'd better have a gang of your own.

Like the rest of Black Mask's alumni, Tinsley's prose still sounds contemporary nearly a century later. The characterization is a bit scant, but this isn't about the men of Amusement, Inc., it's about the criminals terrorizing the cities getting their just and violent end. Amusement, Inc. is just the instrument of destruction.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Interplanetary Graveyard and Horror on the Links

Edmond "World Wrecker" Hamilton spins a tale of space-bound graverobbers in "Interplanetary Graveyard."

With the famous last words for soldiers and sailors, "I'm going to marry her tomorrow," Mark Raymond goes on leave after a long space freighter voyage. As expected, the surprise is on Mark, who is unaware that Ardra was "taken to the Moon"--now a cemetery world--while he was gone. Even though his rival for Ardra's hand, Burke Ullman, has dropped a meteor shower of snide hints at Mark.

Grief-stricken, Mark decided to sneak into the lunar necropolis, an act forbidden on all but a few official days. Slinking through the crypts of the moon, Mark soon finds his girl Ardra's grave, freshly disturbed and empty. Mark follows the clues and finds Ardra's body--drugged, not dead--in the spaceship of the man he beat out for Ardra's hand.

Burke taunts Mark with "I am going to revivify Ardra. I am going to give you the satisfaction of seeing her in my arms. And then I am going to give you the red drug." This red drug will doom Mark to an unrousable slumber. One ensuing struggle and the villain is done in by his own scheme. The ending is too traumatic to quite be happily ever after, but Mark's certainly making good on his promise to marry Ardra.

The similarities to a Caribbean zombie story are striking, both in the use of drugs to feign death and in the intended drug-fueled servitude. The religious aspect of this kind of zombie story is not present, which is to be expected in a science fiction retelling.

The prose here, in 1940--on the eve of war, paper shortages, and Congressional censure of the pulps--is that transparent Black Mask style that will be later erroneously called "Hemingway". It's odd that the pulps have a reputation for purple prose. Some genres courted it, generally the more Gothic influenced-including the hero pulps. Hamilton, out on the edges of respectable science fiction, yet in the mass market's cross-hairs, chooses the more accessible style.

"Interplanetary Graveyard" is short, sweet, and lacks screwdrivers. Compare to "The Iron God", it is grounded in human passions instead of intellectual conceits, yet grounded science produces believable methods and settings to the clash between suitors. Hamilton certainly raises the reputation of the science fiction entries in this month's pulp survey.


"The Horror on the Links", by Seabury Quinn, introduces the adventures of the French occult detective, Jules de Grandin. De Grandin is a step on the progression from Semi-Dual, one of the earliest--if not *the* first--occult detective, to the weird menace of Marvel and beyond. (The Pulp Super Fan has an excellent introduction to Semi-Dual, whose Argosy stories we will see soon.) Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories were a cornerstone of Weird Tales throughout the Farnsworth Wright era. Today, however, he is overshadowed by Howard, Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.
"Physicians’ sleep is like a park—public property." With that lamentation, Dr. Trowbridge is summoned to treat the long gashed wounds of Paul Maitland, who, in his delirium, cries out about an ape-thing chasing him. Meanwhile:
"Almost entirely denuded of clothing, marred by a score of terrible wounds, her face battered nearly past recognition and her neck broken, the body of pretty Sarah Humphreys, was found lying in one of the bunkers of the dub’s golf course this morning."
Sarah's wounds are similar to Paul's/ Dr. Trowbridge, as Paul Maitland's physician is drawn into the investigation, headed by Sergeant Costello, and assisted by a criminologist, Jules de Grandin. De Grandin's renown in the scientific world is such that Trowbridge recognizes his work.

Upon questioning, Paul says he was attacked by a hairy ape near the golf course. An examination of Sarah's body confirms the unlikely story. 
"It's terrible--"  
"But certainly, One does not look to see the beautiful in the morgue. I ask for what you see, not for your aesthetic impressions."
Meanwhile, another of Dr. Trowbridge's patients, a Mr. Manly, was shot out by the same country club. De Grandin, struck by the coincidence, goes digging through the trash and discovers a shirt belonging to Manly with gorilla hair on the inside. But how to reconcile the all-too-human Manly with the ape that attacked Paul and Sarah? Or, more importantly, should Dr. Trowbridge even entertain de Grandin's apparent fancy?

The result takes a hard turn into the strange, with the sudden appearance of a mad scientist previously only known to Jules de Grandin. It's enough to make a man appreciate the rules of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Except for Rule #2: No supernatural/preternatural causes. This is from Weird Tales, after all.

Rule #9 is also out; Dr. Trowbridge is certainly above my station in wit, vocabulary, and observation. Have a dictionary ready. De Grandin's future assistant, Dr. Trowbridge, serves as the narrator, and he's quite fond of the more elevated English of French and Latin origin.

Returning to the case, and the strange man-ape: 
"You start, you stare. You say to yourself, 'This de Grandin he is crazy like the April-fish!'" 
Any man hunting a man-ape-thing at night by himself has to be a little mad. As for Mr. Manly's identity, history, and fate, I'll save for the reader to discover. This is a Weird Tales story, after all, and the twist should be respected.

"Horror on the Links" is more a English detective story than an American Black Mask story, and I found it helpful to know what kind of mystery Quinn was playing theme-and-variation upon. It is inspired by Agatha Christie's "The Murder on the Links", although the polite rules of the style are disrupted for a sensational tale of mad science and revenge befitting Weird Tales. The story is dense with description and plot, requiring the need to flip back and reread every few pages, something I haven't needed in Wellman's occult detective tales of John Thunstone or the Black Mask hard-boiled adventures.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of "Horror on the Links" is Quinn's tendency to follow the climax of the story with long passages of exposition. It's yet another cheat in the game of the English-style detective mystery, set out in part in the introduction to Dashiell Hammet's "Arson Plus":
This is a detective story you’ll have a hard time solving before the end. Form your ideas of the outcome as you go along and then see how near you guessed it.
De Grandin hides all his cards--and most of the clues--until after the very end. The result is something that's not quite a mystery and not quite a campfire ghost story that relies on sensationalism for its initial hook. It doesn't fit into the expectations of readers trained by centuries of five-act and three-act structure, nor into the four rounds of trouble in the emerging pulp master formula. It takes getting used to, so it works, but it isn't a style or format I'd recommend imitating.

But, like many of the authors from the 1920s section of this survey of pulp, I will be reading more.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Lair of the Grimalkin

For five years, from 1943-1948, Richard Shaver exploded on the scene with his Shaver Mystery, an X-Files-like set of mysteries fille with secret worlds and hidden cavern cities, much to the frustration of science fiction fans. During this time, Amazing's circulation swelled to nearly 200,000 per issue. (Weird Tales and Astounding averaged 50,000) Meanwhile, SF fandom tried to cancel Shaver through boycott and letter-writing campaigns, creating an ugly tradition that still carries on to today. 1948, Amazing stopped publishing the Shaver Mystery, for reason unclear, and Shaver spent many years chasing after the success he once had.

"The Lair of the Grimalkin" is one such attempt, a sword & planet tale on Venus. Here, Venus is a green Hell here, teaming with a mix of life and chemicals that limit Earthmen to small sections of the planet. But the lush life covers vast mineral wealth, so men repeatedly set forth into the jungles. They just don't come back.

Tempted by riches and the verdant hellscape, Hal has a line on a massive deposit of platinum in the well-named Swamp of Despair, and the story begins with preparations for an expedition that's most likely doomed.

Then, deep in the Venusian Amazon, Hal finds the rarest flower on the planet--a human woman surviving where explorers never did. Her jungle home is threatened by the Grimalkin, a kind of dragon, so Hal decides to play St. George.

But things aren't as they seem, as a failed attempt at killing the alien Great One lands them in captivity, alongside the girl, in a Venusian village. Shaver doesn't bother filing serial numbers off of dragon myths here, so Hal and his companions have to escape--or be dinner. The resulting fight rages across Venus, back to the Earthman domes before the dragon finally is slain, and Hal earns his babies ever after ending.

I was expecting dreck from Shaver, as his memory is quite maligned. This wasn't bad. Frankly, The Lair of the Grimalkin holds up better as a story than Williamson's The Iron God. There's more humanity to this transplanted jungle adventure, for one. Shaver has imagination, to be sure, but he needs an editor. The folksy style doesn't lend itself well to the exposition needed for worldbuilding and Shaver's fascination with making up his own language.

For a man who is derided for his fascination with the paranormal, Shaver's chemistry is surprisingly crunchy. More than one compound and ore that sounded like blatant unobtanium actually exist with the compositions Shaver describes.

There are massive "Lost City of Z" vibes here, which shouldn't be a surprise as pulp was smitten with the real-life adventures of Colonel Percy Fawcett, who inspired elements of the adventure pulps, hero pulps, and the weird pulps.

As a result, I would love to see what Shaver might have done in an Argosy-style adventure. He had the formula and the verisimilitude. But the paranormal and the pseudoscientific were instead his fascination--and his reputation among the "notables" of science fiction fandom suffered for it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Iron God and Cardigan: Death Alley

Jack Williamson's career in science fiction is long and distinguished, starting with his first story, sold to Hugo Gernsback in 1928, and enduring into the 21st century. He is perhaps best known for his Legion of Space. And, to be fair, I wish my introduction to him was there.

Instead, curiosity got the better of me when I saw "The Iron God" in SFFAudio's Public Domain files. The combination of dive bombers attacking a metal giant and a science fiction story published in Marvel was too much to pass up.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to "The Iron God", as its hopeful optimism, mad science, and star child tropes have been ground into dust over the resulting seventy and more years of science fiction magazines, books, and drive-in movies have copied the same themes and plot elements. And the sea change that accompanied post-modernism shifted views about science away from the path to a rosier dawn towards the leading suspect of who will kill our tomorrows. From that vantage point, the clumsy attempt of a mad scientist to create a New Man who would not heed the Old Lies serve more as a warning against secret kings than a reproach of a species that kills what it doesn't understand.

That said, the reason "The Iron God" does not shine has more to do with the dross that followed it than it's own faults. At best, it is average. Really, the radioplay of the doomed dive bombers is the highlight.

Pulp fiction's fascination with Colonel Percy Fawcett continues, as the mad scientist father of the Iron God disappears into the South American jungles. However, it has changed from men of action and science like Doc Savage into brilliant lab rats content with mere moral victories.

I'll try Williamson again, as his presence inspired and shaped much of traditional science fiction since before the Campbelline Age. But this time, I'll stick closer to the beaten path


Black Mask alumni Frederick Nebel's Jack Cardigan was one of the main reasons behind the success of the legendary Dime Detective Magazine. Cardigan first appeared in, "Death Alley."

This is a tale for jazz and bourbon. Cardigan's partner is dead--done in by drive-by--and the case is apparently closed. Only Cardigan believes otherwise. It doesn't take long for Cardigan, P. I. to find trouble, both with the crooks and with the law. Said trouble sends the rest of his private detective office into the hospital. After all, St. Louis is a rough city--and a blissful change from New York or Chicago.

The familiar hand of Lester Dent's Master Formula can be felt guiding events. Cardigan gets dropped into one peril after another, and not all he can fight his way out of. The murders of the detectives cross over with a spot of trouble that a newly widowed heiress finds herself in, drawn together into one final standoff, and a public gunfight.

"Death Alley" truly is a perfect four-chapter execution of Dent's formula, awash in gin, whiskey, and tobacco smoke. Compared to the more adventurous Race Williams, Cardigan actually has to rely on some proper sleuthing--and an ability to ferret out connections as tenuous as smoke. It isn't noir, Cardigan is never tempted and is instead vengeance personified as he searches for the killer, but you can see it from here.

There's something about Black Mask writers that, even when riddled by slang now long out of date, their prose has a freshness to it that the 1930s hero pulps and 40s science fiction lack. Even when the hard-boiled stories are dated, they aren't. Nebel is no exception. That's not to say that I didn't have to rely on a dictionary a click or so away for a couple terms. But in the end, with the required and satisfying twist, I want to see this done on the silver screen in proper black and white.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Whisperer; Six Pyramids of Death

Out of the foggy night steps a ghostly figure in gray -- The Whisperer! His super-silenced automatics spitting blue flame, he hurls a hissing challenge to the Law and lawless alike! And hot on his crooked trail, legendary lawman Wildcat Gordon!

In "The Six Pyramids of Death", Commissioner James "Wildcat" Gordon starts sneaking around a countess's house in the guise of The Whisperer, a vigilante in the same ominous mode as The Shadow. While searching for evidence that would convict the countess, The Whisperer gets mired in a net of bad luck--and frequent blows to the back of his head. For when he wakes up, he observes a secret meeting as cutthroats argue over six golden pyramids. But as the pyramids start disappearing, the cutthroats start dying. While The Whisperer is caught in a web of death, Commissioner Gordon must also fen off the machinations of his hostile mayor.

Billed as the most violent series Street & Smith ever published, The Whisperer wears its homage to The Shadow on its sleeve. Everything in that classic formula is present, from the ominous atmosphere to the brooding in the shadows, a radio-friendly calling card, and the twin automatics. Even the cadence of the story matches The Shadow, including the refrain of "For the man watching from the hiding place was The Whisperer."  Unfortunately, when assembling that classic formula, something broke along the way, as the sum is decidedly less than the parts.

Wildcat Gordon turns into The Whisperer through the addition of dental plates that build out his jaw. The catch is, they also affect his voice, reducing it to the whisper that gives his alter-ego his name. A novel solution to the quandary facing any vigilante trying to hide his identity--and one more convincing than the Moon Man's--but it undermines the ominous mystery of The Whisperer with weakness. Worse still, The Whisperer gets knocked out on a regular basis in this story. While it gives Gordon personal stakes in bringing the criminals to justice--or a grave, for the murderers--With how many times someone has snuck up on and decked the Whisperer, it's a wonder he still has a secret identity...or a life.

On top of that, the mood whiplash continues, replacing the dark, brooding ominous man of shadows with the folksy, good old boy commissioner. Knowing too much about the man behind the mask does undermine the story. Why not a folksy good old boy? Because, at least in fiction, most good old boys settle matters directly, without all the theatrics and sophistication a man of the shadows must use. But what is believable is the violence.

As for six pyramids of death, which have been an afterthought not just in this review, but in the story, a more classic example of a MacGuffin will be hard to find. There's no mystery here, just a lure to get the gunmen shooting at each other, and the reason for their existence is a disappointing capstone to such a violent treasure hunt.

For writers, the prose of The Whisperer is an object lesson. As Lester Dent says, wave those tags. Not only does it give readers quirks that identify characters, but they also allow writers to use more than full names and pronouns to refer to their characters. This is especially helpful in action scenes, where the constant usage of a character's full name brings The Whisperer's fights too close to the dreaded checklist.

The sum total is that in "The Six Pyramids of Death", The Whisperer misses the mark of the hero pulps. As such, he is more notable as being one of the many inspirations swept up into the plagiaristic Batman than for his own adventures.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Knights of the Open Palm

The June 1923 issue of Black Mask was notable, not only for its anti-Klu Klux Klan theme, but also for the appearance of the first hard-boiled detective, Carroll John Daly's Race Williams. Per pulp expert Robert Sampson,
"that strains the definition of detective. A hired adventurer who may occasionally detect if he blunders into a clue the size of a bathtub and painted bright pink. He has little use for clues, even less for chains of reasoning." 
Indeed, many of Willaims' first cases owe more to adventure pulps than the long already storied detective genre. But to listen to Race Williams describe himself:
“I’m what you might call a middleman – just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks. I do a little honest shooting once in a while – just in the way of business, but I never bumped off a guy who didn’t need it..."
And in his first adventure, "Knights of the Open Palm", plenty of hooded goons need a little honest shooting. Race Williams is paid to retrieve a son held by the local chapter. The result is part infiltration of a secret society and part Western in hard-boiled clothes--the classic Man from Nowhere who wanders into a town run by a mob of crooks and toughs. But when the Klan tries to intimidate Race Williams, he stands firm and intimidates them back.

No Western--or two-fisted detective story--would be complete without a shootout. It's hard not to imagine this as Tombstone in 1920s Ohio. And, at the end, the white hat, er, Race Williams rescues the kidnapped boy and inspires the town to rise up against the Klan. After all, it is tough for a gang to intimidate people when a newcomer just killed four goons. There's no rabble-rousing on Race's part, just a tough man showing the powerlessness of bullies.

From the first, it is blatantly obvious is that there's no love here for the Klan, but not for the same reasons they're shunned today. Here, they're treated like racketeers and mobsters, a danger to both black and white. The Klan is revealed to be hucksters. "And you got'a have ten dollars--thought if you've got the ten the rest of it can be straightened out." "It" being the race and religion "requirements" to join this "esteemed" organization. The reason why the criminality is emphasized over race? There are a lot of sticky fingers underneath those robes when it comes time for intimidation, which attracts certain types of goons by the trainload.

While some of the slang is dated, the first-person narration is straightforward and current, lacking the "purple prose" that many people knock the pulps for. As far as lessons, the moral here, that hatred breeds criminality, is one that we're likely to relearn the hard way.

Monday, October 28, 2019

In Another World with CEOs

Here's a pair of reviews dealing with the unlikely mix of business and otherworldly fantasy. For those who prefer their fantasy to be more adrenaline-fueled than cutthroat cozy, expect a surprise soon.

In Andrew Karevik's  CivCEO, Charles Morris, a forcibly retired CEO, is spirited away by mistake to another world. Abandoned to his own devices, yet gifted with the same skills as an otherworldly champion, Charles settles into the the role of mayor for a small village. But when the villagers discover Charles lacks the blessing of their goddess, they give him an ultimatum: improve the prosperity of the village in a month or die. Now Charles must draw on fifty years of business skills to grow his village--and keep away from the gallows pole.

CivCEO is a variation of the growing dungeon builder genre of litRPG fantasy, bringing the management and building aspects above ground and into the light of day. Like many a dungeon builder and litRPG, CivCEO is exposition-heavy as it explains Charles' various strategies for trade and development, albeit without abusing statistics sheets. Unlike said litRPGs, CivCEO does not get swept up into epic world-changing events over the horizon. Instead, it settles in among a cozier setting of Charles' village and its nearby neighbors. And it's this coziness, combined with Charles' goal of making sure that both sides of a deal come out ahead, that gives CivCEO its charm.

Light novels are admittedly wish-fulfillment literature, often shaped around the race for power, respect, and popularity. Middle-Aged Businessman, Arise in Another World!, by Sai Sumimori, upends the usual light novel formula by appealing to a different set of wishes. The main character, Onigawara Shouzou, starts as a successful head of his household with a happy and adoring wife and three loving, well-behaved daughters. Instead of being a burned-out salaryman, Shouzou owns his own home, enjoying the benefits of being a measured risk-taker, a mentor to his employees, an trusted adviser to his bosses. And that’s all before the cosmic accident that sends Shouzou and his family to another world.

Upfront, Middle-Aged Businessman is a gimmick series, with average writing. Like most gimmick light novels, the main character goes a little too readily from success to success and stock situation to stock situation, so it is not a particularly deep work. The appeal is in the novelty. And a happy middle-aged man fulfilled through his work and his adoring family is quite the novel concept for a light novel. Not that this is aimed at middle-aged men, but at the teen and young adult crowd. Actual young adults who could use an example of what life as a middle-aged man should be, not the salaryman burnouts and disaffected, alienated teens who are flooding the genre.

Volume one established the isekai portal fantasy premise, with Shouzou choosing what is best for his family instead of adventuring. He establishes a guild, adds value to it to be competitive in a cutthroat market, and, through his experience in the real world, earns respect and success from his coworkers and the new world’s society.

Volume two focuses more on mentoring. And this time, Shouzou has more of a challenge. Here, he must mentor a lazy, fat failure of a prince into being a man. His advice–mostly given through example, action, and carefully arranged encounters–sounds familiar to certain corners of the internet. Work hard, lift heavy weights, talk to a pretty girl, stop living for approval of other people. Care about yourself and try to improve every day. And it works. Which is the most novel idea of this series. There have been plenty of anime/manga/light novel attempts to motivate boys like the prince into more productive members of society. This is the first time I’ve seen them get actual useful and practical advice. Most previous attempts have the same effect as throwing a whiskey bottle at a recovering alcoholic.

Unfortunately, novelty only lasts so long. This is an otherwise unremarkable story caught up in as many standard light novel conventions as the otherworld fantasy setting allows a man and his family. And by the end of the second book, the welcome is growing a bit thin. But portrayals of happy families are rare enough in the medium that the first book is worth a read by light novel fans.