Wednesday, May 16, 2018

'Say the word, pal, and nothing will come back but me and the field order book.'

Frederick C. Painton was an air-story specialist before becoming more of an espionage writer until World War II, when he became a war correspondent. It's unusual to find him writing a Foreign Legion story, and in fact "Gold Galons" (Adventure, March 1937) isn't much of a story. It features two Americans who joined the Legion to get off the proverbial beach, one becoming a corporal, the other making sergeant and aspiring to officer's training school at St. Cyr. Corporal Lacey and Sergeant Connery remain buddies, though their different career tracks and the impact on their friendship might have made a story in its own right. The story here, however, is the threat to Connery's advancement presented by a onetime romantic rival, Lieutenant Latour. The American beat up the Frenchman off duty after Latour tried to flog the woman who had been his but had become Connery's. At first, heading into a battle, all seems professional between the two men as Latour gives Connery the coordinates for an artillery barrage. Something goes wrong, however, and Connery discovers Latour's error when he sees that he's firing on his own men. Of course, Latour insists that the error is all Connery's. "You species of merde -- you have killed twelve of my men and wounded twenty," the lieutenant protests, promising to have Connery court-martialed. The American's only hope is getting hold of Latour's field-message book, which he believes will vindicate him by showing that Latour gave him the wrong coordinates in the first place. Lacey basically offers to frag Latour to get the book, -- see the header -- but Connery demurs. After the next engagement the sergeant faces a dilemma when he discovers that both Latour and Lacey have been wounded. There's a bit of sloppy writing her that the editor missed, since Connery appears to discover twice over that Latour has been wounded. In any event the enemy is closing in with bad intentions for the wounded, and Connery can't carry both men to safety. He has to choose between his buddy and his superior officer, with Latour promising to clear Connery's name by admitting his error, even though someone has stolen the precious book. In the end, he decides that Lacey is more badly wounded and more in need of help. Taking his buddy to the medic, he leaves Latour to a cruel fate at the hands of Chlueh tribesmen, and throws away his only chance of redemption in the absence of the field-message book. It turns out, of course, that he made the right choice after all, for in the between Latour's wounding and Lacey's, the American corporal "glommed" the book off the Frenchman. Painton writes well as a matter of style, but his story is resolved too neatly for its own good. It's a story that probably could have been told in any military setting, and making it a Legion story only exposes its inferiority to the good stuff put out by the likes of Surdez, Newsom, Carse, etc. Painton was better off sticking to the genres he did well, and for the most part, with exceptions like this, he did so.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

'I'm here to earn a guinea. Reckon I'll stay.'

One of H. Bedford-Jones's specialties was worm's-eye view accounts of history in the making. His "Hell For a Guinea" (Adventure, March 1937) makes the battle of Bunker Hill the backdrop for a petty wager between "tap-room yokel" Adam Ford and Ensign Sullivan of His Majesty's army. When Sullivan boasts that the Redcoats will march unimpeded from Boston to Philadelphia, there to arrest the Continental Congress, patriot Ford bets that guinea that the British won't be able to break out of Boston. To make the bet more sporting, Sullivan vows that his men will break out within three days of the wager. One thing I like about this story is the way HBJ avoids the temptation to make the bet itself some great turning point. While Sullivan's comrades warn him against announcing the British schedule too exactly, it turns out that the Americans were well aware of the Redcoat plans well before Ford crosses over to their side. He's been given a pass "to hell and back by way of Charlestown" by General Gage so he can get "the family guinea" to put up, and inevitably he's sent up Breed's Hill to fight the British. He has a harrowing experience as HBJ nicely emphasizes the terror of battle, which escalates as the colonials run out of ammunition and the British keep on coming. The tale turns pulpy only when Ford coincidentally encounters Sullivan at the climax of the fight, only to see his new buddy Martin, who's been hoping the whole time to kill a Redcoat, blow him away. Seeing the ensign mortally wounded, Ford suddenly doesn't want to claim his winnings, but Sullivan reminds him that "King's officer never - never welches." Knowing that the battle will discourage Gage from leaving Boston, Sullivan hands over his guinea as practically his last act, but by now Ford feels "It warn't wuth it -- there'd ought to be some other way." That there wasn't makes the tale a tragedy at both the macro and micro level, and something more than the patriotic pap one might expect from pulp, if one didn't know better.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

'As much as I loved my king, I love the Legion.'

When is a Foreign Legion story not a Foreign Legion story? Perhaps when the subject isn't the French Foreign Legion but it's Spanish counterpart. The Spanish organization is the subject of Robert Carse's "Legion" (Adventure,  December 1936), set in North Africa in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Carse has something of a reputation as a leftist, so he might be expected to take the Republican side, but for this story, at least, he takes a neutral position. In short, an officer thought long lost escapes from Moorish captivity and promptly falls under suspicion as a relic of the old regime. The new commander is a Republican loyalist, but he and his predecessor eventually realize that their shared first loyalty is to the Legion. Their second shared loyalty is to Spain's colonial empire. Leftists the Republicans may have been, but that doesn't translate to anti-imperialism, at least in this story. Under Republican rule, the Legion's job remains to maintain Spanish rule in the region, while the old officer's main purpose is to avenge the insult to national pride he endured as a captive and virtual slave. The King of Spain may have oppressed  his own people, the old man concedes, "But before any King of Spain did that, we drove the Moors from there, swept them out and into the sea. I do not know, but I think that in the years the Moors held me as a slave the memory of those things kept me alive." The old hero dies an epic, almost Arthurian death, impaled on a bayonet but driving himself forward to get his old enemy the Moor in a literal death grip. So passes the old regime in honorable style, one might believe, though in fact it would be reborn in less honorable form, but leaving that aside, "Legion" is a typically solid action story from Carse that gains added interest from its historical context.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are.'

Arthur O. Friel's "The Hawk of Zaguamon" (Adventure, December 1936) reminded me of a later story of Friel's that I read earlier, in which his series hero Dugan, an American adventurer in South America, tentatively befriends a young aristocrat turned rebel. As usual, the setting in "Zaguamon" is Venezuela, specifically during the regime of President Juan Vicente Gomez, who died a year before Friel's story was published. The American hero this time, Rod Steele, is the sidekick/adviser of Ricardo Torre, the U.S.-educated hawk of the title ("El Halcon") and a rebel against one of Gomez's abusive and potentially rebellious governors. The Hawk's small army intervenes in a skirmish between the governor's forces and another rebel force whose leader ends up mortally wounded. The dying man entrusts his heir, a slender youth, to the American's stewardship, while his army readily joins forces with Torre's. This proves a decisive encounter in more ways than one. Torre and Steele discover that Governor Boves, their true enemy, has been importing Germany military advisers for some can't-be-good purpose. His now-augmented force inspires Torre to provoke Boves into a decisive battle. The two factions get along well enough, except that the Guerra forces are very protective toward Ricardo, their beardless new leader.Ricardo's father hadn't wanted them to join with any other rebel force because "He thought I was too young to be among such men as most rebels are." This makes sense to Steele, since "the average gang of self-styled rebels in these wilds comprised human beasts of prey, vicious in every word and deed." But there's more to it than that, as Steele finds out after young Guerra has to kill a soldier who's less protective than possessive, telling the young commander, "No man -- have you!"

Steele's amazed eyes, lifting sooner than the furious gaze of the slayer, stared anew. The loose army-shirt was torn wide open; and, scratched by clawing nails now dead, out swelled firm young breasts never those of a boy. The gray eyes flashed up, met the wide brown ones. Quick hands yanked the shirt together. Burning red arose to the dark hair, gradually receded. Then, with a sigh, Carlota Guerra holstered her pistol and stood mute, head still high but gaze avoiding Steele's astonished regard.

I must confess that the twist took me by surprise, though in hindsight I should have been tipped off by "Carlos" deciding to wear an oversized uniform confiscated from one of the dead Germans. Certain things become inevitable from here, of course. Carlota convinces Stelle to let her continue her imposture, reminding him, "Have there not been fighting women before now?...Have I not fought for years like a man? Do not be stupid!" Friel makes a point, however, of having Carlota thrown from a horse and taken out of the action for the final battle against Boves, so she can live to become, at age seventeen, our American hero's bride. In Steele's defense, he offers to send her to a "high-class girls' school up North" first, but she's not having that. "I know men!" she protests, "Men that are men, not schoolboys! And damn, hell, if you not want me --" No, damn, hell, he does want her, and "right over yonder in Trinidad are English clergymen waiting for us." Such is romance south of the border, and it doesn't really feel out of place in this entertaining mini-epic of pulp South America.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'I'm so sober, I'm damn near ready to fight anybody for any reason.'

Robert Carse wasn't the most prolific of pulp writers, and that probably explains why his work was consistently above average. He published a grand total of thirteen stories in 1932, including a six-part Argosy serial, and that's not much considering that his stuff usually appeared in weeklies like Argosy or Detective Fiction Weekly or in twice-monthlies like Adventure and what for that year was known as The Popular Complete Stories. This was the merger of Street & Smith's two general-adventure pulps, The Popular Magazine and Complete Stories. The selling point, as you might guess, was that there were no serials, when Argosy, by comparison, ran four at a time, so you weren't going to be in the middle of something if you picked up a TPCS. Carse specialized in what could be called the French Colonial genre, encompassing both Foreign Legion adventures and Devil's Island-type tales of brutality and resistance. "The Web" (February 1, 1932) has a little bit of both. Its co-protagonist, James, is an American who was framed for murder and condemned to the typical hell on earth so a crooked French Guiana politician (a "half-breed," of course) could take over the oil fields James inherited from his father. We never actually see the prison, since the story opens with James a free man in France, but suddenly subject to blackmail. Somehow, someone has learned that he's an escapee and fugitive, and that someone is demanding a huge sum of francs for his silence. Somehow James catches the interest of Rand, an alcoholic American journalist who only sobers up on the promise of a big story. He sees one in James's plight and together they discover that the very people who smuggled him out of prison are blackmailing him and other escapees. Basically it becomes a gangster story in a French setting, with Rand swinging from man of action to staggering drunk until he finally recruits a gang of ex-Legionnaires in Marseilles to take on the blackmailers, who of course include James's old enemy, who supposedly had been lynched in his homeland years ago. Rand may be rather implausible as a hero, arguably a sort of defective-detective type, but Carse's semi-hard boiled style makes him palatable. This is a "complete novel" at 48 pages and it's actually novelistically paced in an almost-daring way as Carse opens with several pages of dialogue introducing his protagonists to each other. Perhaps the Street & Smith editors were more indulgent of this than others. Fortunately Carse is good enough with dialogue that the protracted opening holds your interest, and there's enough novelty to the setting and situation to make this a fairly entertaining little thriller from one of pulp's more dependable writers.

Monday, April 2, 2018

'This probably was the last time he'd pick up something Trump brought him.'

Arthur Hawthorne Carhart's "Give a Dog a Name" (Adventure, June 1943) is a cute mystery story in which a heroic dog discovers the crucial clue. Carhart, a western specialist, wrote something short and to the point. The hero, Lige, is reluctantly conscripted to hunt down a friend accused of murdering another man. The law has leverage over him because Lige is wanted in another territory. The authorities expect Lige's dog, himself a sort of outcast, to be able to sniff out the suspected man. The twist is that the dog leads Lige to the alleged victim, who had faked his death, making it look like his bloody body had been dragged to the rapids, in order to get away with robbery. The crucial clue is the victim/culprit's bloodstained shoe, which indicates that the shoe's owner had to have taken it off after he'd supposedly been killed. Good dog! The thing that makes this story worth a post to me, or at least worth some clickbait, is that the dog's named Trump. I could have used a lot of sentences to headline this post. For instance:

Trump was an ugly dog. Everyone thought so, except Lige.

Trump was about to be shot the day they met some years ago. The shepherd had seen Trump smelling a coyote-killed lamb. He believed Trump guilty.

Trump must have realized he'd been pulled out of a bad spot.

The citizens wouldn't care what became of Trump. He'd probably haunt back doors, scavenging food, until someone shot him or poisoned him and felt righteous doing it.

There was one way to do it. Kill Trump and then let Newt Slayne send a telegram to the law man up north.

Maybe if he could understand, Trump would rather have this happen than to have Syd caught.

"Me and Trump don't think Syd's guilty."

Trump came back when called but then struck out in that wrong direction again.

"I'll bet Trump's hungry, too. He's done a day's work."

[Or, if you really want to editorialize...]

"Don't try," said Lige, "From here on we both follow Trump."

This is all very sophomoric in what I hope is nonpartisan fashion, but I couldn't help myself. If anyone takes offense, I swear that if I find a jungle story featuring any sort of savage named Obama, I'll do the same thing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.'

The man known only as Dugan was Arthur O. Friel's last major series character. The intellectual property of his author rather than a publisher, Dugan appeared in both Adventure and Short Stories during 1938 and 1939, if not later. He was one of Friel's typical American adventurers in South America, if more of a tough-guy loner than his predecessors. "A Piece of Gold" (Adventure, January 1939) finds him a hungry wanderer in Venezuela until he discovers a party of men roasting beef. He joins in uninvited and gets into a fight, which of course he wins. The situation seems to be defused by the appearance of the men's leader, a young "high class" Spaniard who offers him more meat to travel on, but Dugan only makes matters worse by offering to pay for it. The youth takes that as an insult and throws the coin away. Dugan takes that as an insult and throws the meat away. Eventually the two will reconcile and join forces to recover a treasure located in a house that once belonged to the young man's prestigious family, now belonging to the new tyrannical governor, but this tense early encounter is the most dramatic moment of the story. It seems all the more dramatic now for the racial charge Friel infuses it with. His narrator -- the typical raconteur who claims to know Dugan but may be Dugan himself for all I know -- makes a point of emphasizing that the young man, Lorenzo, isn't the typical South American trash. "Not a thick Indian slur in his voice, not a word left out or misspoken; not the common lingo of the llanos," he says, "And his face was like his talk: sharp, clear-cut, with straight black brows and straightforward brown eyes and a firm nose and chin." And yet Lorenzo is an inferior, at least according to Dugan's own hierarchy of blood:

Well, that's the way Dugan's built. Sort of temperamental. Take him right, and he'll give you his shirt. Get him wrong, and that's different. And the Irish, if you don't happen to know it, have better reasons to get proud than anything that ever came out of Spain. A little matter of blood. There haven't been so many Africans in Ireland.

The sentiment is deplorable in an objective way and yet almost admirable, on Friel's part, for a frankness in viewpoint that too often goes missing today. In any event, the story doesn't treat Lorenzo like an inferior; it only insists that on almost all points someone from down there is going to be outclassed by an American, and an Irish-American especially. That goes double for Pompeyo, the de facto head of the goon squad that's attached itself to Lorenzo, hoping to snatch the treasure for themselves. He's "A cheap plug-ugly who'd tried to be a prize fighter in Havana, probably, but hadn't made good. But, down here, good enough to beat up all comers, till an Irish-American came along. The story itself is a punchy, hard-boiled entertaining affair, and if anything the casual bigotry enhances the overall tone. In the end, by the way, Lorenzo offers Dugan a whole bag of gold, but our hero deems himself satisfied with a single coin and some food, accepting what the young man originally offered him. Money doesn't mean much if you're more interested in moving on than in settling down, and Dugan has more adventures waiting for him.