Reviews by Page, Burge, Marc DeLamater, Wendy Webb,

George Evans, Len Wilburn and M.J. Capps

That's what the pulps really were, you know: Worlds of Adventure. In the ragged edged pages of a good pulp magazine you could go anywhere, see anything -- and almost always survive. Sometimes you could even learn something.

This time out we've collected some remarks about a handful of outstanding adventure stories. They'll take you around the world -- and away from it. They'll set you down in the middle of war, on board boats and planes, among bandit crews and island outcasts. You'll hobnob with the brave, the desperate and the dangerous. You'll search for treasure, you'll fight to defend your life, you'll run from and into danger. In fact, you'll encounter almost anything and all while you're comfortably seated in your favorite chair.

And who knows? Maybe by the time you've read this PulpRack installment, you'll be planning an adventure of your own: hunting down some of the magazines and stories we write about to add to your own collection.

Happy hunting.

:: Jerry Page and Jerry Burge

Jerry Page:

"The Atoll of Flaming Men" by Ralph E. Perry originally appeared in Argosy (October 19, 1935) but I read it in the first issue of World Wide Adventure (Winter 1967). If you like fast action stories about island hopping sailors in the South Pacific, this one is definitely worth looking up.

Bellow Bill Williams spots a derelict pearling lugger on the open sea, miles from any pearling bed. He boards the boat and discovers all aboard dead -- and not just the boat's rightful crew, but a band of native pirates as well, and not a mark on them to show how they died. The pirates' faces, for good measure, are painted with phosphorous. Rather than go for help, as you and I would, he decides to investigate and get to the bottom of all this. That leads him to a near-by island in the control of three natives who are obviously running some sort of pirate ring. Also on the island is a woman -- the sister of the dead boat's captain. Since the pirates control the island, getting the only two Caucasians off might test the mettle of a normal hero.

This is a nicely written novelette with something going on all the time. Bellow Bill is a big, hard-muscled sailor, tattooed from waist to neck, and good in a fight. The villains are ruthless and on their toes, so being hard-muscled isn't quite enough. Bellow Bill has to plan his actions beforehand and though he has strength when he needs it, getting himself to the point where he can use it takes brains. Added to the mixture is a heroine who is tough-minded and quick-witted. And Perry has a knack for making all of his characters convincing.

That's the word we want, really: convincing. This is a solidly worked out adventure piece that may lack frills but knows better than to insult your intelligence. In short, it's pure pulp at its best with a lead character to match the compliment. I know of at least one other Bellow Bill story, and I look forward to running into others.

::Jerry Page

Marc C. Delamater:

Natural rubber rapped from trees, not oil pumped from the ground, is the black gold found in Don CameronShaffer's novelette "Black Gold" published in the September 25, 1948 issue of Short Stories magazine.

Surveyor Laird Montgomery of the O.B.C. Rubber Company is requested to undertake an important mission at a company research station deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungle. What he finds is open warfare between the station's personnel who are trying to develop an improved rubber tree that can be easily harvested and a group of mercenaries trying to exploit the remaining rubber trees and native Indians in a last-ditch, get rich quick scheme. Complicating Montgomery's efforts is his attraction to Carmella Gordon, the lovely granddaughter of the station manager.

"Black Gold" is not only an exciting adventure, but a cautionary tale about greed and exploitation. Shafer brings an enormous wealth of detailed knowledge of the Amazon region, its native people, and the rubber industry. He also brings an enormously empathetic insight into his characters. What is most distressing about Shaffer's story is fifty years later we are still facing the same choices that Laird Montgomery faced -- How do we preserve the Amazon and its native population from exploitation in the name of so-called civilization?

:: Marc C. DeLamater

Page:

These days when you see the name Murray Leinster (his real name, of course, being William Fitzgerald Jenkins), you think of him as being one of the top science fiction writers of the 1940s, '50s and '60s -- which he was, by golly. But he was also one of the most prolific contributors of taut, well-written stories to pulps of all genres, as well as to the slicks. "The Man Who Did Not Shoot," which appeared in the October 1931 issue of Clayton's Jungle Stories, the first of the two pulps of that title, is a prime example of why editors and readers welcomed his stories.

Two men are paddling a canoe down a river having just stolen a ruby from a jungle idol. The bigger of the two, Harlow, is dying of fever. The smaller one, Crumble, is paddling and scheming to get the hidden ruby away from Harlow. Though Harlow is deathly ill, he still has their only remaining gun, and only he knows where the ruby is hidden. The closer they get to civilization, the more desperate Crumble becomes. Harlow, who committed the crime to provide for his wife and child, will not reach their destination alive.

The entire drama -- and drama it is, my friend -- is played out in the canoe as the two men argue, and Crumble gives way to the desperation that will lead to an attempt to murder Harlow. Ostensibly the question of the story is where is the ruby hidden? But the real enjoyment lies in the way the story builds out the plot in full detail without resorting to flashback or straight exposition. Nor is there any false complication of the plot in the form of native attacks, threatening animals, or in fact any outside interests. Just Harlow and Crumble staring at each other across their differences. And, too, the tension.

Leinster wisely gives us one thing as counterpoint to their tension: it is raining. Here and there he pauses in the story to describe the incessant patter of the rain and its effects on the nerves of the men. All is underplayed and understated and not one blessed word of the story's 4000 or so is wasted.

Murray Leinster had one of the longest careers of any pulp writer and all you can say about that when you read a yarn like this is, "No wonder." If you like good stories it's a safe bet you'll like this one.

:: Page

Wendy Webb:

Set in Ireland around the time of 1953 when "The Sword of Yung Lo" was published in Fantastic, Maurice Walsh wrote a tale of twin brothers in love with the same woman. Or so the initial feelings this piece evokes would leave you to believe.

Distinct at the outset, is the lilting rhythm of an Irish voice at work. Words unfold gently and patiently as if the writer were speaking to an audience abstractedly content after a meal of Shepherd's pie and a pint or two. But scattered under the surface of that fleeting comfort lies a story of not just the devil himself, but his brother as well.

While Larry is the "elder by a 'split' minute," his big, dark features to brother Timmy's fair build and demeanor are just the beginning of a calculated descriptive rendering that these brothers are two sides of the same coin. Larry hustles through a life where everything goes his way, counter to the monotonous life Timmy leads wherein refuge comes in the form of a thirty-hour weekly binge into colorful storytelling aided by ten-year-old whiskey. Their views of daily life, their social standing, and work ability and rewards, compliment yet are at odds with each other at the same time. The ultimate outcome of their distorted mirror images is, nonetheless, the same: there can be one winner, and only one.

The battle in this competition is a lady named Emer, but the war is over stakes far greater. It is a war not so simple as good over evil, but in what might be perceived as the lesser of two evils. As with everything else in this story, there is more than what first meets the eye. Hinted at in the text is more than familial corruption between brothers. There is also the subtle recounting of the evils of the world throughout the ages at the hands of the few, including the political rift between Ireland and England.

At the heart of the recounted historical insurrection is the use of weapons, specifically swords. And it so happens that Timmy is a collector. The Doom Sword of Yung Ho is the most coveted weapon of collectors, and Timmy is determined to get it. This sword, as the author tells us "was never drawn except to destroy evil."

So the sword is drawn by one brother or the other. It is here that one questions if evil has indeed been destroyed, or if it has merely taken another identity.

And it is here that we discover there may never be an answer to that age-old question.

:: Wendy Webb

Jerry Burge:

When Ray Palmer became editor of Amazing Stories for Ziff-Davis in 1938, he came on the job with some definite ideas in mind. The magazine clearly needed to be made more attractive to the average newsstand browser and its contents more accessible to the average pulp reader. After some experimentation, Palmer found several artists who could brighten up the covers and provide more exciting story illustrations, and a number of young writers (as well as some established ones) who were capable of producing the kind of story-driven, jargon-free science fiction he deemed necessary to attract a larger readership.

In the early years of his editorial reign, Palmer came to rely on Don Wilcox, William P. McGivern and David Wright O'Brien, three such young writers, to produce solid, story-driven fiction not only for Amazing Stories, but for several different types of pulp magazines Ziff-Davis launched in the early ' .forties. One of those magazines was the short-lived South Seas Stories, each of whose three issues contained at least one story by David Wright O'Brien.

"Even the Worm Turns," by O'Brien appeared in the first issue (December, 1939). This is one of those satisfying little stories whose plot is neatly outlined in the title. The viewpoint character is a cowardly little thief named "Wisp." When the story opens Wisp is being knocked about by a couple of toughs, a trader captain and his lieutenant, over a stolen half-pack of cigarettes, and they are threatening worse. Luckily for Wisp, Big Jan Harmon, another trader captain, happens by and stops the bullies with a few firm words and a show of muscle. Mumbling his thanks, Wisp is sneaking off when Big Jan's girl friend offers him a job at her father's plantation. Wisp accepts readily enough, seeing it as a free ride for a couple of weeks until the boss discovers how lazy he really is. The first thing he does is steal the boss's pistol. The girl makes a project of him, bringing him inspirational books and encouraging him to think of himself as a real man. At first he plays along as part of his scam but before long he begins to take some of the inspirational words to heart. He eavesdrops on Big Jan and the girl and dreams of himself as a man of strength and confidence. Then one day down in the village, Wisp overhears the two toughs Big Jan had saved him from, plotting the murder of Big Jan. The island is divided by a deep gorge, crossed by a rope bridge. Everyone travelling between the village and the plantation uses the bridge -- everyone, that is, except Wisp who could never summon the courage to risk it. He always took the long route by way of the beach. The plot was simple: Big Jan would receive a summons from the village. He would of course take the short cut across the bridge. One of the toughs would be concealed at the top of the bridge and when Big Jan was halfway across would cut the rope supports, precipitating the big trader to the bottom of the gorge 700 feet below. Now Wisp needed to rush back to the plantation to warn Big Jan. He can't summon enough courage to return by the rope bridge, so by the time he gets back to the plantation his determination to warn Big Jan has faded into a vision of what the plotters might do to him. Instead of delivering his warning, he goes to his room to suffer his cowardice in private. He takes out the rancher's stolen gun and it seems to give him a sort of panicky courage. He rushes to the ranch house to warn Big Jan only to find that the phony message has arrived and the trader has set out for the village. Wisp races to the bridge, hoping to beat Big Jan, but when he approaches the bridge he spots the two toughs hiding in the brush. He ducks into the brush before he is seen. When Big Jan appears and starts across the bridge, Wisp wants to warn him but he is paralyzed with fear. He puts his hand on the gun in his pocket and tries to think of some of the inspirational phrases in the books he's been reading. Then one of his enemies emerges from hiding with a brush knife in his hand. With no further time to think, Wisp stands up and shoots the man, and when the other rough comes at him with a gun, Wisp shoots him, too. Jan, on the bridge hears the shooting and turning, shoots Wisp, thinking that Wisp has been shooting at him. When Jan returns to the top of the bridge, he quickly determines what actually happened. He rushes Wisp to a doctor, who finds that the little man's wounds are only superficial. Wisp returns to consciousness in time to hear Jan say that he owes him a lot and to refer to him as a man.

I've gone into considerably more detail than a review really should in order to convey something of the flavor of the story. It's really quite typical of O'Brien's fiction, whether adventure, mystery, science fiction or fantasy. "Wings above Warsaw," in the first issue of Air Adventures another short-lived Z-D pulp that saw its initial issue dated the same month and year as South Sea Stories, "Wings above Warsaw" is driven by its plot. Adventurous sports pilot Dennis Carradine, son of a high official in the British government is trapped in Poland at the outbreak of hostilities with Germany. His father has arranged for him to be carrying important papers. Believing Dennis will not be able to avoid arrest by the Germans, the father has arranged the situation so that by falling into German hands the papers might avert the war. Dennis doesn't know this; so he steals a Polish plane and manages to evade German capture, thus bringing the papers through safely and thwarting the scheme to delay Britain's entry into World War II.

As if this story's twist wasn't poignant enough in itself, it takes on added dimension when one realizes that O'Brien himself died in the skies over Europe very close to the end of World War II.

Both stories are brief -- they weigh in at about six pages apiece -- and were written to order for the first issues of different pulps. Both were written early in O'Brien's career. It was a career that started out pretty good and O'Brien showed improvement as he published more. Of course in his later stories O'Brien continued to concentrate on character, especially the later ones he wrote while cooped up in the belly of a flying fortress.

O'Brien's death cut short a career that promised a great deal. No one can say whether or not O'Brien's career would have been as successful as that of his buddy William P. McGivern. But Ray Palmer treasured his last few stories and doled them out lovingly to his readers over the next few years.

:: Jerry Burge

George Evans:

Page sent me a copied segment of Sky Birds for November 1931 containing the novel "Eagles of the Black Cross" by George Fielding Eliot, but I'm not sure I should be the one reviewing it, although in truth I was one of the generation at whom the pulps of that era were aimed. At the time I missed this one, probably because the cover (not included with Page's copy) was by one "C. Huerlin" and probably pretty poor "aviation art." I spent my quarters and dimes more on the covers and story headings than on the texts! Later, by the same author Sky Birds presented "Hawks of the Alps," obviously about Italian aces, and I've a vague thought that he did one on the Russian aces, but if so, I missed that one, too.

I claim no qualifications as a literary reviewer, only as a fan/reader; and I went on to become a totally-addicted buff of the real World War I aviation era, so take what follows as from a cranky or plain kooky guy and go on and enjoy whatever of the old and dear friends you can find.

This is really two stories running parallel, for some -- really too few -- of the great German aces and their doings are handled here in actually a detached sort of style from the plotted fictional main tale. Although a couple of credits are listed for previous Eliot tales, his actual writing at this stage wasn't as good as what would come. It's filled with cliches and is quite jumpy in the development of the story. Maybe some of that was due to the editing, perhaps cutting, for early on without any previous explanation, we find the protagonist, Eric Jensen, badly wounded! Jensen, by the way, is a Dane, serving with the Germans, and all proceeds from his point of view. Odd--but probably a slick way to defuse the inevitable griper who'd bash an American magazine for portraying "Huns" as really not bad guys. The fictionalized part is a spy story -- not really a good or well-handled part for as it comes in and out there's little of suspense, characterization or detail, really, to grip a reader, particularly a pre-teen reader. Almost beyond belief for those air-pulps, there's a romantic interest -- needless to say Jensen and the spy-lady fall in love, which could have been worked into a nail-biter and should have -- for the word-rate but far more for the good of the story. But it was handled vaguely and awkwardly. You can bet old George Bruce would have wrung this aspect dry; he was a master at that.

The descriptions of air fighting are most un-pulpish: no purple prose here with superlatives from the old "Power Words" aid-booklet. I ate up those boiling-hot creations by (in my book) the better pulp-writers. Jerry should get a separate review on this, the fiction segment of the story.

As said, even back then I'd become interested in the realities, for many personal reasons, so the "real" side of "Eagles" was/is disappointing. Even then, more accurate information was to be had. The model mags gave very good information on the aircraft and their capabilities. More important: the times of relative use. Eliot throws in names and types, little or nothing of detail -- thus losing me. In his mixing of just four real people into his structure, he misses the mark again and again. From the simple pulp-reader's view that probably matters little if at all, but thought he has Immelmann as a "likeable man, affable, devoted to developing air-fighting techniques," he mistook him for Boelcke, who is also featured but ineptly described. "Eagles" has Immelmann shot down by English flyers. Photos exist of his crippled plane -- it did not burn as told in the story -- and it's clear he shot his own propeller off. For the stub shows the bullet holes from a failed interrupter gear. Further on, Boelcke's death is almost accurately described, i.e. -- a collision in the frenzy of a dogfight with one of the trainees of his group. The name is given as "Baum" and perhaps again it was a deliberate misspelling for legal protection, for the German's name was, in fact, Bohm.

Richtofen -- the immortal "Red Baron" -- comes into the tale as a rookie, and his career is pretty accurately portrayed according to the stuff available then, although a couple of myths that developed romantically after the war are given as "for real:" von Richtofen's superstitious fear that were he to try to surpass Boelcke's 40-victory score he would himself be killed; and a hare-brained idea that German pilots intended a desperate invasion of a British drome where Richtofen's body was awaiting burial, to retrieve that body for a hero's burial in his homeland. This fantasy is the climax of the plot of "Eagles."

All in all, "Eagles of the Black Cross" was at least an unusual story to get into the air-pulps, although all, or almost all of them dedicated space to "real life stories" and "factual articles." Most of those air pulps very quickly became science fiction with Spads and Fokkers, Vickers and Spandaus replacing rocket ships and ray guns. Later in the middle thirties in Wings (Fiction House) a writer named Joel Rogers spent a couple or so years specializing in air combat cum spy stories, and under the title "The Firebirds" told a quite similar tale to "Eagles" and for me it achieved the satisfying quality Eliot missed.

Would I recommend Eliot's yarn? Sure. It was a good idea, and a good effort to break from the numbing formula stuff of the vast majority of the so-called aviation authors. Now: from the point of view of a kid hooked on some of the really good illustrators of then -- it surely deserved better art than Eugene M. Franzden's. In fact, Sky Birds and it's mate Flying Aces demeaned themselves by using Franzden as their primary illustrator. Unfortunately, the authors had no say in that area. "Eagle's" heading should have been done by Rudolph Belarski; it'd have opened right up with a better boost.

:: George Evans

Page:

Blue Book always seems the most solid citizen of the pulps, the stalwart, forthright pillar of respectability whose stories sometimes seemed better suited to the pages of Colliers or Saturday Evening Post than top the pages of a magazine intended for much the same audience that read Argosy or Top-Notch. Yet the magazine frequently turned those respectable pages over to stories about rogues and swindlers with a relish and abandon to match that with which Dime Mystery turned its pages over to mad scientists and their giggling, slavering assistants. The results were usually thoroughly delightful.

Perhaps the greatest of those rogues was a figure from real life -- well, history -- one of the great rogues of history, in fact, "Francois Villon," the poet and thief.

"Rogue's Ransom," in the April 1949 issue is one of the best of the Villon stories, too. Wilbur Peacock, who wrote for perhaps a score of the pulps, including Jungle Stories and Planet Stories (which he edited for a while), Short Stories, Ranch Romances and Mammoth Adventures. He's not widely remembered as much more than a good journeyman writer, an assessment I'm starting to think underestimates him. Certainly when it came to his stories about Villon, something seemed to grab hold of him and invest his pen with color and laughter and much, much romantic magic. You might even expect that Villon himself might grudgingly think that Peacock's blasted lies come close to doing justice to their subject.

"Rogue's Ransom" starts with Villon and his friends, Bagot the giant King of Thieves and Velvet, the beautiful gypsy dancer who is cursed to both love and understand Villon, in Blois, having fled their beloved Paris after Villon, with Bagot and his other friend Jehan, lifted the purse of Minaldi, an ambitious Italian who seeks to gain control of the Coquille, the fabulous Thieves' Guild of Paris. The money is necessary to Minaldi because without it, he cannot pay the bribes essential to his plans. Villon figures that without money, Minaldi will be forced to return to his native country in a few weeks.

But one evening as Velvet dances for the troupe of mummers in whose camp they are hiding, a messenger brings Villon word that his friend Jehan is more seriously injured than believed and has called for his friend. It's a trap of course and Villon walks right into it, He and Jehan are spirited off and held captive by the Italian who demands the return of his money and "a thousand besides." Villon agrees to send a note to his friends that they bring the ransom and that there be no swordplay or treachery in his rescue. I doubt it gives anything away to say that Villon nonetheless has a trick or two up his sleeve.

But it isn't the plots that make these stories outstanding; indeed this plot is no more brilliant, I'm afraid, than it sounds in my brief synopsis. It is the flavor of the writing and the characters. Consider, for example, Velvet:

"She was gypsy and born of woman-fire, and her love could sear as well as heal. They had fought and he wore a tiny dagger scar along his ribs as a reminder of her right. But she had soothed him, too, and she had been constant, more so than he; and somehow, although they drifted apart, they always came back together.

"She had appeared at the Paris gates the night of his flight to Blois. With the instinct of her race, she had sensed the partial failure of his plans and so she had been waiting . . . carrying food and other needs of the flight . . . And now she danced for a dozen members of the mummer's troupe; her black hair swirled, and her lips were crimson and challenging, and not a man in the troupe but would have slid a knife into the rogue-poet if she could be the prize."

Here is swordplay, skullduggery, colorful characters and devious schemes. Very satisfying and a little bit surprising from the okay but hardly wonderful stories published under his own name in Planet or Jungle. These stories are vested with much flair. His Villon is worthy to buckle swash alongside the likes of Johnston McCulley's Zorro and Sabatini's Scaramouche.

:: Page

M.J. Capps:

R.F. Starzl is little remembered these days and when he is recalled, his fiction is often held up as a bad example. Yet he was once so highly regarded that when Famous Fantastic Mysteries began publication in late 1939, fiction by Starzl was reprinted alongside the works of such acknowledged masters of fantastic fiction as A. Merritt, Francis Stevens, George Allan England, Garrett Serviss, Austin Hall, Homer Eon Flint and Ray Cummings. One need go no further than the second (Nov. 1939) issue of FFM to find his Argosy short story, "The Radiant Enemies," wherein two space adventurers land on a radium-rich comet only to discover it inhabited by beings that fly above the surface of the comet, glow with prismatic light, and look rather like "a multiplicity of diaphanous ruffles, like crumpled cellophane." One of the adventurers tries driving them away, using his deionizer kill one, and the creatures seek revenge.

There is more reward however for the reader who goes on to the January 1940 issue to encounter "Red Germ of Courage," which is reprinted from Argosy's issue of 13 Sept. 1930. It's a truly pleasing work, though not quite a great one.

In the 22d Century, a young man by the name of Syl Webb, a member of the capitalist class has had his fortune squandered for him by a benevolent government through the process of taxes. Rather than take work in the government-run "Records Office," he seeks adventure at a spaceport where he finds himself pressed into service as a "mug" aboard a space freighter bound for Titan. A mug is a common laborer, uneducated and with no social status. But our young hero makes the best of the situation and quickly proves himself hard working and generally acceptable to the other mugs. But when he discovers they plan a mutiny, his ingrained nobility leaps to the fore and he attempts to stop them. They get stopped, too, though perhaps as much by his luck and their mistakes as by his efforts.

To synopsize the story's plot is only to describe not a scientific story but a sea story. Yet this is very much science fiction. Starzl has worked out the society in which his hero has been raised with more sufficient detail for the dozen or so pages of its length. He has also worked out the design of his spaceship: it is imminently believable, a solid leviathan of thick steel walls and powerful forces, rather a welcome change from the prevalent feeling of printed circuits and myriad entanglements of pipes and wire one gets so often from reading modern stories about spaceships. There is a satisfying sense of social and physical place about this story.

I realize that sort of thing was not uncommon in the late twenties and early thirties (read, for example, Miles J. Breuer's novel "Paradise and Iron," in the Summer 1930 Amazing Quarterly for a terrific combination of convincing social and scientific extrapolation; or much of Neil R. Jones of this period), but many self-appointed authorities have insisted over the years that this sort of thinking did not visit the science fiction field until the 1940s.

Well, here it is in the pages of Argosy in 1930. Starzl's career was brief and though he established himself as a major figure for a time, he faded perhaps all too rapidly. Clearly he is one of the men who helped build the foundation on which modern science fiction rests.

:: M.J. Capps

Page:

There are many aficionados who consider Adventure the best-edited pulp of all. This is especially true of the years when the magazine was run by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, of course, but an admiring word or two should be saved for his successors, particularly Harold Bloomfield and Kenneth White, who edited Adventure while Popular was publishing it as a pulp. It maintained its prestige position in the magazine field for more than 40 years, attracting the top writers of realistic action fiction in a wide range of fields.

One of these writers was Georges Surdez, who specialized in military fiction, especially about the French Foreign Legion. H. Bedford-Jones, Bob Du Soe, Robert Carse, J.D. Newsom and Theodore Roscoe may have written their share of excellent Foreign Legion yarns, but to most pulp fans, think of Foreign Legion stories and you first think of Surdez. He wrote his tales of the Legion not just for Adventure, but for other magazines as well, including Argosy, Blue Book and Short Stories.

"Affair of Honor" led off the April 1937 Adventure, copping a fine Hubert Rogers cover painting. A young lieutenant joins a company in North Africa and soon establishes himself as a rising hero, through his reckless actions. But when the company's wounded commander returns to duty, he takes one look at the man and turns him down for a promised mission. The newcomer takes it as an insult. His sergeant investigates and finds out that, years ago the company commander killed the young man's father in a duel and now can not bring himself to send the son into any risk that might make him responsible for the death of both father and son.

A Surdez yarn always gives me the impression its author is fascinated with the idea of the Code of the Legion and intrigued by the psychology of the men who would live by that code. Surdez is blessed with a straightforward, convincing style and the adult attitude necessary to anyone who cared to write the level of realism demanded of the fiction in Adventure. But action and color, even in the color-drenched theatre of North Africa, always take a back seat to character in his yarns, and his approach to building his plots seems to lie in describing an unusual action and then seeking out a solid, human reason for it. He definitely writes military fiction of the old school but with a grace and insight that foreshadow the type of fiction that would come after the Second World War. A frank appraisal of "Affair of Honor" wouldn't put it in the top rank of his work, but it's still a pretty good story. If you come across it, give it a try.

:: Page

Len Wilburn:

If you're looking for a lot of story in not too many pages, you can do worse than "The Yellow Death" by Edmund Snell in the Oct. 1939 issue of Detective Novels. You might find it easier, however, to look it up in the Fall 1998 issue of Tom and Ginger Johnson's pulp reprint fan journal, Behind the Mask (issue 46).

Jack Pentecost loses everything he owns at the casino tables in Monte Carlo and makes up his mind to commit suicide. Before he can, he finds himself embroiled in a mystery with a lovely young lady named Yvonne Lorrimer, and a pack of jewel thieves whose leader talks Jack out of his suicide plan and hires him to take a train ride to Paris, pretending to be said leader.

With time on his hands, Jack gets back into the casino and, using money advanced to him by the gang leader, Nardini, wins a fortune. He considers backing out of the deal but decides that would not be the right things to do. He then learns it's all part of a plot the point of which is to have Jack murdered as Nardini, so that the crook can more safely evade the police after robbing a wealthy American woman of her jewels. Pentecost foils the robbery but in the process is seriously wounded and captured by the gang. Before they can murder him -- which they are preparing to do with relish, using the "Yellow Death" of the title -- he is rescued by Yvonne.

What sets "The Yellow Death" above the ordinary pulp story? Actually, there might be several things. Strong characterization, for one; every character, including stray gang members and a couple of cops who enter the story from left field, are well-drawn. The dialogue helps to realize those characters and further the plot and even in some cases, paint in the background. And there's that background: not much actual detail is given but the atmosphere absolutely feels perfect. This story suggests the scenery (and much of the suspense and action of Alfred Hitchcock's It Takes a Thief more than a decade later.

Or it might be the action. There's a suspenseful fight on the edge of a cliff, Jack's encounter with the yellow death -- a kind of scorpion -- and a climatic battle with the gang and the rescue of Yvonne from their clutches. Probably the outstanding action sequence is the battle when Jack thwarts the jewel robbery. It combines a chase and a fight, and accomplishes it in such a way that a fairly complex sequence of events is amazingly clear to the reader.

What a terrific adventure story! Who is Edmund Snell? Is he a real person whose talents we've simply not noticed before? Or is Edmund Snell a pen-name for a better-known writer? Whatever the case, let's say it again: if you're looking for a lot of story in a few pages, you can do worse than "The Yellow Death."

:: Len Wilburn