Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 1, 1939

Pulp heroes need a vacation every so often, whether they admit it or not. The vacation theme turns up twice in this issue of Arogsy. In the lead novelet, Richard Wormser's series character Dave McNally, a "bring 'em back alive" hunter in the Frank Buck mode, ends up taking a working vacation shipping elephants from New York to California via the Panama Canal. He never makes it to the Pacific. One of his animals gets drunk on a cargo of booze -- a running gag is the distiller's constant invention of bad ad slogans and jingles -- and ends up taking McNally and the requisite pretty girl over the side. The elephant swims to shore with the hapless couple riding it, the girl falling in love with McNally to his manly dismay. In the happy ending he sells the hero elephant to a circus and hires the girl to tour with it so she'll forget him as soon as possible. Like a lot of Argosy stuff at this time, it's pretty lightweight, lacking the edge or bite of prime pulp.

Also in need of a vacation, or so his wife claims, is attorney Jim Daniels. Norbert Davis, a crime and mystery specialist, created the character for the 1938 serial Mad Money, and "Sand in the Snow" is Daniels's second appearance. Daniels is married, however improbably, to an astronomically wealthy heiress who wants him to take it easy and enjoy life with her, but Jim's pride won't allow him to live off her money. He's also bothered by her suggestion that they visit and old rich friend of hers in California. After an argument she storms off on her own and he, crestfallen, soon follows. He encounters a number of odd personalities along the way -- a convicted and soon escaped wife-murderer who protests his innocence, an aristocratic European gigolo in search of a rich new wife, etc., while his wife's host proves an odd bird himself, disfigured in a car wreck in which the other passenger died. Your first hunch, if you've read a lot of this stuff, seems confirmed when Daniels encounters a mystery man with a bandaged face lurking outside the estate, but he first has to deal with the murder of the much-married moneybags who had offered him a job back east, and whom the gigolo had targeted for seduction, and there are four chapters to go. Davis turned thirty this month; at forty he would kill himself, allegedly frustrated that he had lost his popularity, if not his talent. He was noted for his humorous mystery stories in Argosy, Black Mask and elsewhere. Despite the improbably encounters in this opening chapters, the hero's status anxiety gets us interested early and gives us a stake in the story, whether the mystery proves compelling or not.

Young Doctor Kildare is still tending to the wounded gunman in the cellar in the second chapter of Max Brand's "Calling Doctor Kildare." This time Jimmy has to smuggle equipment for a blood transfusion out of his hospital dispensary, giving the gunman some of his own blood. His errand of mercy risks getting him in deeper trouble with his mentor Dr. Gillespie, but Nurse Mary Lamont helps cover for him. Brand, king of the westerns, works the romance angles here, developing both Mary and the gunman's sister Rosalie as potential love interests for the young doctor, while the girl he left behind writes a sad letter renouncing him. Rosalie seems to be set up as a tragic figure, a once-fallen woman expected by those who know her to fall again. There's only one chapter left in this three-parter so Kildare will have to make his mind up quickly unless the women make it up for him.

Arthur Leo Zagat gets down to the nitty-gritty in chapter four of the six-part "Seven Out of Time," in which we learn at last why each of our mismatched band of time-lost protagonists has been chosen for study by the doctils, the superintelligent monsters allegedly descended from human beings. Zagat lets rip an apocalypse, revealing a dystopian future history of an earth divided into castes of rulers, workers and scientists and the crash of civilization when a new ice age provokes a global war in which the worst weapon is a frequency device that drives multitudes mad. Escaping to a distant planet, the five surviving doctils determine that certain essential human traits were lost in their evolution, but are necessary if their new world isn't to end as the old one did. They need some combination of faith, loyalty, obligation, beauty and love and expect to acquire them through study of their mix of historical and fictional subjects -- our hero and heroine together represent love, of course. Having experienced more directly what Zagat has described at great length, our team isn't inclined to cooperate, especially since the doctils intend to change history by colonizing Earth circa 1939. As King Arthur puts it, "Rather than live as poltroons, we choose to die as men!" This "fantastic" is as fantastic as Argosy gets and gets more interesting as Zagat lets his imagination rip and leaves his prosaic protagonists to watch.

"Fantastics" are the exception in Argosy but this week's issue has one other weird tale. Garnett Radcliffe specialized in stories set in India and thereabouts; his previous Argosy contribution was called "Beast of Allah." This week's "The Magic Monkeys" has a colonial official tormented by the priest of a monkey cult, convinced that the priest has sent the title creatures to avenge his shooting of a temple monkey earlier. It ends with the priest getting his throat ripped out by the official's faithful dog. The only problem with that, our narrator tells us, is that the faithful dog died more than a year ago.


Rounding out the issue: western writer Bennett Foster has the other stand-alone novelet, "Two Tall Men," in which an outlaw and a sheriff converge on a corrupt town to rescue a mutual friend from a murder frame. The outlaw gets himself jailed so he can bust his friend out, but the old man won't go, while the sheriff pumps the local bartender for information by torturing him (see above). Don't worry, folks: "A horse will jump a man lying on the ground every time," but our lawman depends on his victim not knowing that. Meanwhile, the outlaw breaks out by himself with his trusty piano-wire escape kit and gets evidence from the obligatory corrupt banker. Justice prevails and the sheriff gives the outlaw a head start as a reward. The very prolific Frank Richardson Pierce (more on him next week) offers "Shake Hands With Davy Jones," in which a crew of old salts take offense at the sale of an antique windjammer to the Japanese and prove their superior seamanship. This week's best story, depending on your moral perspective, is Murray Leinster's bracingly amoral "The Pebble of Justice." Leinster is best known for his science fiction but also wrote extensively for the slicks under his real name, Will F. Jenkins. "Pebble" is a Mexican story in which the protagonist gets away with murder twice, framing his second victim for his first crime, then taking over the second victim's identity -- and his wife. Here's the moral, stated at the beginning and end of the story:

In Anhuac they have a saying ... In a mountain of law there is a pebble of justice. And with a fine high cynicism they have deduced from the saying a fable that somewhere there is a pebble which, caught in a man's shoe, ensures him true justice for as long as it remains. The cynicism lies in the fact that in Anhuac most people go barefoot. 

Our hero wears huarachos.

NEXT WEEK: Walk a few miles in a rookie fireman's boots, meet "No-Shirt McGee," and learn how Genghis Khan got that way. Also, "Seven Out of Time" are running out of time in more ways than one!


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