Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 1, 1939

This week's cover story, Allan Vaughan Elston's "East of Fiji," doesn't really deliver the exoticism the cover promises. There isn't the sort of culture clash you might expect, but simply a murder mystery focusing on the so-called Cockroach Inn, where people may or may not have been killed and some sort of treasure may or may not have been stashed years before. It isn't very memorable; I honestly could remember nothing about it until I ran through the pages again tonight looking for screencaps. They said that was true about a lot of pulp fiction but I didn't believe it until I started this project.

I had better luck remembering Garnett Radcliffe's "The Rifle of Feroz Khan." Radcliffe was another exotic author, specializing in tales set in India or thereabouts. This time we hear a tall tale from the title narrator relating the greatest shot he ever made. William Tell was nothing compared to Feroz Khan, who has to shoot a pebble off the head of a friend to prove his own veracity -- he had boasted of his marksmanship -- and exonerate the friend, who had been falsely accused of a crime. Radcliffe ratchets up the tension as the nervous hero stalls by demanding a more difficult shot, steadily placing himself further and further away from the target. It has a resolution that made me cackle a little with satisfaction.

With Walter C. Brown's "The Lost Pigtail" we return to the Chinatown of the pulp imagination. On our last visit, I suggested that the pulp Chinese with their strange customs and proverbial idiom were ancestors of the magical beings who populate today's "urban fantasy" stories. I stand by that, but at the same time Chinatown authors too often substituted proverbs (or dialects) for dialogue and actual characterization. Everybody talks and pretty much acts alike in most of these stories. In this one, we learn why it was handy for one old-timer to keep his queue of hair that others had shorn off to keep up with the times. In a typical plot of this period, someone's stealing money that had been collected for war relief in the mother country, then under attack by "the brown monkeys" from Japan. Our hero's hair helps him defeat the villain, though he did not use his pigtail to strangle his foe, as I expected. How'd he do it? Someday you may find out for yourselves.

Charles Tenney Jackson's "The Island That Died" is a story in his series about Mase McKay, a swamp man who lives on the edge of the law in the Florida Everglades and thereabouts. He hires out for an expedition looking for fossils and gets caught in an old feud over treasure. It's fairly action-packed but, like "East of Fiji" it hasn't proved particularly memorable. McKay was a popular enough character, however, that we'll see more of him this year.

This week's Argosy Oddity is John Ames York's "Thunderbolt." In short, it's about a German flier dive-bombing Hitler, and both men showing up in the afterlife. That sort of speaks for itself.

On the serial front, the last installment of Howard Rigsby's "Voyage to Leandro" can't hope to live up to last week's hair-raising episode, but Rigsby makes a valiant effort by having his hero's delirious partner chop his own gangrenous foot off. From there it's on to an all-too predictable happy ending as our hero finally meets the mysterious girl called Nautilus and ends up marrying her, while his tarnished idol, the mutineer Jeremy Robb, is tossed off a cliff by his own moronic sidekick. Overall, "Leandro" is a superior serial and an interesting coming-of-age-through-disillusionment story. Meanwhile, Walter Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" kills off more of its cast without yet solving the mystery death from the first installment. Our hero, who you'll recall is trying to recover a stolen treasure for the beleaguered -- and by the time of publication, obsolete -- Spanish Republic, is caught between the increasingly desperate, murderous leader of the thieves and his increasingly brazen self-appointed helper, Mr. Nibbs, who has left one of the thieves a gibbering wreck after last week's torture. There are two weeks to go now, and it still looks like things are going to get worse -- for the hero, not the reader -- before they get better. The serials (not counting the reprint of A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan) and the Radcliffe story are the saving virtues of a largely mediocre issue.

Next week brings back Philip Ketchum's magic axe Bretwalda and Arden X. Pangborn's Chinatown jeweler Wong Sun, while one of Argosy's most popular authors, and one of his most popular characters, make their debuts in our survey. Stay tuned!


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