Thursday, July 17, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 15, 1939

William Dieterle's Juarez. the latest of Warner Bros.'s prestigious biopics starring Paul Muni, was released in the spring of 1939. Author Robert Carse and the editors of Argosy must have felt it was a popular enough movie to exploit. Note the prominence of the hero's name in the cover copy advertising a story in which he is mentioned, but never appears. On a superficial level, "Maximilian's Men" is the sort of Foreign Legion story at which Carse specialized. Yet the cover copy strikes an atypical note: this time the Legion is on the wrong side of history, or at least more obviously so than normal. Carse's story is less about the Legion than about one Legionnaire, more antihero than hero for taking the wrong side. In Carse's reading of Mexican history, the Austrian royal Maximilian is well-meaning but no more than a catspaw of Napoleon III, the Emperor of France, who is less interested than Maximilian (or our protagonist) in giving Mexico good government, but really only wants to exploit what wealth and resources the country has. Still, the Legion has been sent to support Maximilian, and our protagonist knows nothing other than duty and loyalty. This puts him at odds with an American operative aiding Juarez and an aristocratic Mexican lady who first sympathizes with Maximilian, but turns against the monarchy once she realizes Napoleon's true intentions -- and falls in love with the American. Carse foregrounds the love triangle in a manner untypical of him; he seems not only inspired by a particular movie, but by the conventions of Hollywood that require more of a romantic angle than he put into his more hard-boiled tales. There's also a note of relevance, the concept with which Argosy grappled throughout this year. As his Legionnaire protagonist finally realizes the error of his misplaced loyalty, so Carse hopes that virtuous soldiers of his own time will put other values before duty.

"You're men who fought for what you believed in, too [the American tells the Legionnaire], but when you go back to Europe you can do something for Tonia and me. Tell the folks there what it means when a lad like Napoleon tries to take a country that doesn't belong to him. That's easy to forget when people have been living in peace for a while, but we can't let them forget. Peace and freedom mean too much."

Not an unworthy sentiment, but I prefer my pulp unburdened with this sort of conscientious relevance. Pure pulp is more hard-boiled and barnstorming than this. Carse writes well, but something is missing -- replaced is more like it. The author may have sacrificed some of his raw pulp spirit to make propaganda or Hollywood bait. But he'll be back next week with something less relevant, though movie-like just the same.

On the serial front, Walter Ripperger wraps up The Man From Madrid by escalating his three-way battle of wits into a four-cornered struggle for control of the stolen Spanish republican treasure. Ripperger started from a point of relevance and acknowledges the defeat of the republic along the way, but the finish is pure thriller and entertaining on that level. In the second installment of Thirty Days for Henry, W. C. Tuttle checks off more items from his serial to-do list. In every story of Henry Harrison Conroy, the unlikely sheriff of Tonto Town, we must pause for Frijole, the ornery cook of Henry's ranch, to tell a story about his eccentric rooster, William Shakespeare. Tuttle gets that out of the way this week, while every week gives us a healthy helping of dialect humor thanks to those moronic Mexican ranch hands, Thunder and Lightning Mendoza. The dumb thing about dialect humor is when you have two Mexicans talking to each other, with no one else around, in their idiotic accented dialect. Wouldn't they talk to each other in Spanish? That wouldn't be as funny, which would be pretty bad considering that Tuttle's stuff isn't that hilarious to start with. As for the actual story, at least Tuttle doesn't insult our intelligence by delaying the revelation that La Mariposa, the saloon singer, is actually the long-lost daughter of King Colt, the saloon owner and local narcotics importer. This allows an apparent villain to show his sentimental side, and here I honestly wonder whether Tuttle has his tongue in cheek or not when writing such scenes. He works on the edge of self-parody, but if some reader always took it straight I'm sure Tuttle didn't complain. And lest I forget, Argosy continues to save money by reprinting another installment of A. Merritt's beloved classic Seven Footprints to Satan.

The stand-alone stories are a motley lot. Garnett Radcliffe returns with another tale of India, "Fool of the Regiment," in which a foul-up becomes the favorite of an officer for having the raw strength to save him from a cave-in. Eustace Cockrell contributes a boxing story, "Sweet Talking Man," with a black protagonist. He's a former champ who's lost his fortune because he was a sucker for the title antagonist. Our hero's old manager comes up with a con to win his old charge his money back, disguising him as a nobody and setting up a big-money fight with a contender, hoping that the bad guy will bet a wad on it. In the ring, the strategy is for the old champ to pretend he's broken his hand and lure his foe into a trap; the twist is that our hero wins despite actually breaking his hand. Our fighter talks in politically-incorrect dialect but Cockrell doesn't overdo it compared to some writers, and it's not as if white boxers were ever portrayed as masters of grammar or vocabulary. I can give the dialect a pass this time because Cockrell's subject isn't really "Aren't Black People Funny?" Murray Leinster has another interesting story in "Plague Ship," stranding a crippled captain and a frail missionary on the afflicted title vessel. The twist here is that the missionary, while attempting to convert the captain, undergoes a conversion himself as he must take on the physical responsibilities of making the ship seaworthy again. He doesn't quite save the captain's soul, but he does save his life, and Leinster makes the missionary a better man for his adventure. Finally, Burton W. Peabody's "Red Light -- Green Light" is a literal trainwreck having to do with another romantic triangle. The Leinster story and the conclusion of Man From Madrid are the best things in this issue, but it bears repeating that the Henry serial may well amuse you if you've never read one before.


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