Thursday, November 13, 2014

REAL PULP FICTION: Johnston McCulley in Zorro-Land

Where can I get the man for the situation? I must have one well born and reared, who knows how to conduct himself in the presence of others well born. I must have one with a natural attraction for women, one skilled in wooing. I must also have one skilled in handling a blade and known to be quick and fearless in combat. There are many such, but they are not renegades, as you are.
-- Johnston McCulley, Don Renegade

After Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan, Johnston McCulley's Zorro probably is the most famous character created in pulp fiction. Yet while Burroughs remains a household name in American pop culture, Johnston McCulley as an author has never come close to Burrough's fame. It wouldn't surprise me if many people assume that Zorro was a real person or, more tellingly, a creation of the movies. The easy assumption to make is that, unlike Burroughs, McCulley really was a one-trick pony. It didn't seem that way during his heyday. He was nearly as prolific as Burroughs, and may have created more series characters, from the prototypical masked avenger the Crimson Clown to his comic antihero, the lisping pickpocket Thubway Tham. None of these had Zorro's staying power, although McCulley continued producing Thubway Tham stories, as well as Zorros, until his death in 1958. If anything, McCulley seemed to prefer not writing Zorro, though the character became more of a meal ticket for him in later life. Look at McCulley's bibliography of works published in Argosy and it becomes apparent that the author was more interested in Zorro's milieu than in Zorro himself. He wrote numerous serials set in what one Argosy cover called "Zorro-Land," California under the rule of Spain and Mexico. Each of these, as far as I know, was a one-off story. McCulley may have never returned to any of these characters other than Zorro. If so, he missed an opportunity that may only appear obvious in retrospect. Zorro-Land was McCulley's universe, and in our time it would seem natural, depending on issues of chronology, for McCulley's California heroes to encounter one another or at least acknowledge each other's existence. Those who've read more McCulley can correct me if this did happen. My acquaintance with the author remains very limited. I haven't even read The Mark of Zorro yet, but I've read a couple of the later Zorro short stories. They are rather robotic affairs, and the difference in quality and energy between those and Don Renegade, which debuted in the November 11, 1939 Argosy, suggests that McCulley flourished when he was being most original, when he was thinking up however many variations on the Zorro type rather than following the Zorro formula.

The title character is an antihero in search of redemption, a man of giant appetites whose repasts McCulley describes in loving if not necessarily knowing detail. Marcos Zappa is a nobleman who turned against his class and led an Indian rebellion when society wouldn't let him marry a native girl. He was spared when the rebellion failed but branded with an "R" for Renegade that makes him a social pariah. For money, he makes himself the catspaw of another disgruntled don who seeks to avenge a slight from a lady. This villain wants Zappa, his brand disguised, to seduce the woman who rejected the villain originally and provoke a fight so he can kill the lady's current paramour. Once Zappa has won the lady's love, the villain will expose Zappa as a renegade, disgracing the lady, while arranging for Zappa's escape. Thus Zappa re-enters a decadent milieu of gaming halls where everyone wears a mask and estates where guest beds come with lovely young female bed warmers. While Zappa chivalrously makes no further use of his, it's obvious enough that most other guests keep the girls in bed past their bedtime. Of course, the master plan is complicated almost immediately. Zappa comes to the rescue of a coach threatened by bandits but is himself rescued by a dashing young nobleman who proves, as should surprise no one, as the very man whose lover Zappas is to steal, and whom Zappa is to kill. At the other end of the social spectrum, Zappa's imposture doesn't fool an old pirate crony of his who's happy to keep his secret, for now. None of this is original if original is the opposite of predictable, but starting from scratch once more in Old California allows McCulley to tell the tale with a fresh panache I found lacking in his later Zorro stories. While I've abandoned the idea of reviewing every story in the 1939 Arogsys, I definitely look forward to reading all the chapters of Don Renegade, and maybe I'll tell you how it ends.

Sometimes you can return to familiar characters productively after putting them aside awhile. The best stand-alone story in the November 11 issue was "Chaos is a Quiet Place," the latest novelette by Donald Barr Chidsey about his unlikely team of insurance investigator Nick Fisher and reformed (and supposed dead) pickpocket Eddie Savoy. This was their first appearance in Argosy in nearly two years, after a run in 1936-37 when they were Chidsey's most frequently-used characters. Chidsey must have been in the right mood because "Chaos" swings with hard-boiled irreverence as the heroes negotiate the return of a stolen treasure while suspecting a setup for an even bigger heist. Set in Egypt, the story probably fails political-correctness tests, though it's far from the most racist thing I've read from Chidsey. But I can't help liking that wisecracking smartass attitude, even if it makes Fisher and Savoy look like all too typical ugly Americans abroad. In any event, they're only dealing with crooks, only without all the moralizing you got in the actual crimefighter pulps. Not much else is memorable in this Argosy but this and Don Renegade make the issue worth a read.

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