Sunday, October 5, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPTEMBER 30, 1939

The devil of William Du Bois's serial, this week's cover story, is a veteran gossip columnist who's about to release a highly-publicized memoir. The ballyhoo in his paper, which is serializing the memoir, hints at reputations that may be ruined by the author's revelations. This first installment introduces a number of likely-to-be-offended people, along with another reporter who'll become our protagonist. You can see a whodunit being set up, and the only surprise is that someone besides the memoirist gets whacked. Instead, it's the newspaper's publisher who gets dumped out a window, while the manuscript of the memoir, delivered alarmingly close to deadline, is stolen. Du Bois tells it in hardboiled-newsman mode, as is only appropriate, and that makes The Devil's Diary entertaining so far.

In the other serials, Theodore Roscoe deepens the mystery of Remember Tomorrow by giving more details of the deaths blamed on the undead armies of the Battle of the Somme: they seem to have died in ways unique to the war, including one death by poison gas. By now there's an international cast of the living at the Chateau de Feu, a cross-section of Europe at the brink of the next war, along with our American mystery-writer protagonist. By this point things could go either way: it could be a supernatural phenomenon or it could be an elaborate fake-out; time and more chapters will tell. In the second installment of Eando (Earl and Otto) Binder's Lords of Creation, the glimmer of hope our hero saw last week, the airplane hinting at the survival of civilization in the far future in which he woke up, is belied when the plane delivers a delegation from "Antarka" demanding tribute from the near-Stone Age people of "Norak,"the old New York. The imperious Antarkans are the Lords of Creation, taking tribute in raw materials and human "helpers." This outrages our hero; the future, already dystopian due to the exhaustion of metal ores and the resulting technological decline, grows worse when he sees the world divided between masters and slaves. But the people among whom he lives are complacent, or else preoccupied with petty local wars with other tribes. Our protagonist decides to change the future, proposing to harvest metals from the ruins of New York City to even the odds, or at first to give his people the edge (of metal blades) over their local enemies.

The big name among this issue's stand-alone authors is Georges Surdez, the pulps' king of Foreign Legion fiction. The nearest thing Surdez has to a claim to fame today is his popularization, if not his outright invention of the deadly game of Russian Roulette in a 1937 Collier's short story of that title. It was something they did in the Legion, I guess -- or so Surdez claimed. As the Collier's credit indicates, Surdez was a writer who moved freely between the pulps and the so-called slicks like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. His shorter work usually went to the slicks while novelettes went to the pulps; since "The Blood Call" is a short story, it may have been rejected by Collier's before Argosy took it. Like many Foreign Legion stories, it focuses on a Legionnaire with a past. In this case, a German Legionnaire tries to provoke a duel with his commanding officer in his odd attempt to atone for having killed the commander's brother, a flier, during the Great War. All of this is told in flashback form, to explain to a visitor why the commander gives money generously to a drunken soldier; his idea is that the man who killed his brother should be worthy of him, not a beggar. The story's too short to be one of Surdez's better tales, but it definitely gives the flavor of his work.

The other headline writer this week is Ralph R. Perry, whose "Big Gun From Texas" is a mystery about horse-stealing, with the requisite gunplay involved. Richard Sale contributes "No Patriot There," one of his series of "what really happened" Civil War stories, this time involving a Virginia boy who, despite the histories you may have read, killed John Wilkes Booth. Harry Bedwell, a railroad-story specialist, gives us "Take 'Em Away, McCoy," about an engineer fighting Mexican bandits while dealing with his fiery Mexican girlfriend's jealousy of his affection for his engine. Not as funny as Bedwell thought, sad to say. Finally, Walter C. Brown takes a vacation from Chinatown and travels to the Dutch East Indies for "Savage Quest," but while the setting has changed, Brown's macabre racism still pervades the piece. This story also proves Brown an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to writing accents, since the story's cruel Dutch trader is saddled with a vaudeville accent. The actual protagonist is a Dyak tribesman who proves almost inexplicably loyal to the Dutch brute, protecting him from all menaces until Brown finally explains the savage's protective attitude. Suffice it to say that he doesn't really have the Dutchman's long-term interests at heart. This is a solid issue overall, with all the serials entertaining and points of interest in all the stand-alones. I'm going to take a couple of weeks off from the 1939 Argosy series, but I plan to be back in time for the conclusions of all the serials, in case I've kept anyone hanging. In the meantime, I may regale you with some items from my personal pulp collection -- so this is still TO BE CONTINUED.

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