Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, JULY 8, 1939

Nothing says pulp fiction like a fat old cowboy, right? For Argosy, however, "Hilarious Henry" was a major drawing card. Henry Harrison Conroy had become one of the weekly's most popular recurring characters since his first appearance in early 1935. His creator was W. C. Tuttle, by then a star writer for twenty years. Tuttle specialized in comic western detective stories and kept several different series characters (or teams) going for decades. Henry's stories were set close to the present day; he is a refugee from the death of vaudeville who ends up inheriting a ranch in Wild Horse Valley, Arizona and becoming the sheriff of Tonto Town. From the look of him, and the heavy emphasis Tuttle places on his red nose, you'd think the author, who did a lot of movie writing as well, was begging for his near-namesake W. C. Fields to notice the property. As it turned out, Frank (Wizard of Oz) Morgan played Conroy when M-G-M filmed the origin story, Henry Goes Arizona, later in 1939, while Fields finally made a different kind of western the following year. Fields as Henry would have been more like The Bank Dick out west than My Little Chickadee, but reading a few of Tuttle's stories makes plain why the great man, had he ever read them, would have left where he found them. Henry is too often the straight man for a large cast of recurring, allegedly funny characters. At least that's how "Thirty Days for Henry," the new serial this week, shapes up. Tuttle's writing has a sitcom quality; the recurring characters show up like clockwork to do their respective shticks. Worse, Tuttle is fond of dialects. One of Henry's deputies is a stereotypical yumping-yimminy Swede. Two of his ranch hands are clownish Mexicans, "Thunder" and "Lightning" Mendoza, who exist only to mangle the English language. Tuttle twice over this week has one of them utter the mighty oath, "I cross his heart, I hope you die" to vouch for his own veracity. The author at least recognizes that not all Mexicans are alike. Another Mexican talks with a similar accent, but is more intelligent and articulate than the Mendoza brothers. The Henry stories strike me as an act that grew tired fast, but for fans they were probably more like comfort food, each familiar character's reappearance a welcome event. As for the actual story, Henry has to solve two murders that may have to do with a shady saloonkeeper with a vengeful rival and a long-lost daughter. In this sort of story, you don't mention a long-lost daughter unless we've already met her, and there's one glaringly obvious candidate for this role. It's all by-the-numbers, but Argosy readers clearly enjoyed it. Tuttle would keep writing Henry stories for another decade, moving him from Argosy to Short Stories during the upheaval that resulted in a major format-change in the 1940s.

Since Argosy is still reprinting A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan, that leaves Walter Ripperger's "The Man From Madrid" on the serial front. By now the Spanish Civil War has almost nothing to do with the story of stolen treasure, which has become a three-way battle of wits involving our hero, his ruthless ally Mr. Nibbs, and the surviving member of the group that stole the treasure. This penultimate installment finds Ripperger in endgame mode, teasing a shift in alliances as each player weighs the best way to get the biggest share of the loot, while the smarter-than-he-acts policeman struggles to piece the plot together. Ripperger does this sort of intrigue and psychological warfare fairly well and his story remains one of the year's better serials.


Our above-the-title writers this week should be familiar names by now. Philip Ketchum's "Scourge of the Severn" is the latest in his Bretwalda cycle, and his weakest story so far. The latest wielder of the mystic axe helps Henry Plantagenet win the English throne and wins a bride for himself to make up for the defeats and sorrows to which Bretwalda's owners are doomed. Ketchum doesn't do much to make the period interesting and really seems to have phoned this one in. Richard Sale closes the issue with a grim short, "I Want to Be Like Lefty." It's the rise and fall of a young fighter who despite his skills shuns scientific boxing to slug things out like his idol, not knowing that Lefty ended up punch-drunk in a sanitarium, as he himself will.

Meanwhile, Arden X. Pangborn brings back the crafty Chinatown jeweler Wong Soo, who in "The Eye of the Crow" solves a masked robbery of the archetypal charity collection, for which an innocent man is framed. As usual, Wong Soo proves himself a better detective than the white cops assigned to Chinatown, showing up their obvious racism even while Pangborn's stories are arguably racist themselves in their stereotypes of Chinatown. Louis C. Goldsmith, a rising Argosy star, has a decent novelet, "We're Running Line," about hazardous surveying work subject to sabotage. This was a big improvement on the last Goldsmith story I read, but I felt handicapped in my appreciation by my ignorance of surveying. I have to assume that Argosy's target readership was more familiar with the jargon of the job than, say, the average paperback reader would be today. Obviously Goldsmith felt no need to explain exactly what the surveyors were doing, but you don't need to know all the details to get the drama of the story. Last if not least, William Foster Elliot makes his Argosy debut with "Ten-Thirty and Red," a trifle about an undercover cop infiltrating a drug ring. This issue was an improvement on last week, with Ketchum the weakest link and the Tuttle not exactly awful. Next week Robert Carse brings the Foreign Legion to 19th century Mexico and "The Man From Madrid" concludes. Stay tuned.


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