Thursday, May 20, 2010

1937--A Good Year for Adventure

By pure coincidence, I just read a couple of books that were both originally published in 1937. Both were good mysteries featuring established characters and it got me to thinking. What were all the famous detectives and adventurers doing that year?

We’ll start with the Whisperer—the secret identity of James “Wildcat” Gordon, police commissioner of an unnamed big city. Gordon isn’t satisfied with the slow course of official justice and the corruption that slows it down even more. So, on top of his efforts as a cop, he often assumed the identity of the Whisperer. Using specially designed dental plates to disguise his voice, he wielded a pair of silenced automatics to dispense a somewhat faster method of justice than the court system allows.

In The Red Hatchets, he finds himself caught between two opposing forces when a Chinese tong wages brutal warfare against a local gangster. A lot of mobster skulls get split with red-handled axes while the Whisperer tries to rescue a kidnapped girl and sort out exactly what’s going on.

Beautiful girl reporter Torchy Blane (the inspiration for Lois Lane) had several 1937 adventures chronicled in the movies. One of them, Fly-Away Baby, had her traveling around the world to keep tabs on a suspected murderer. She and her boyfriend, NYPD Lt. Steve McBride, eventually confront a killer aboard the zeppelin Hindenburg.

Interestingly, Charlie Chan had been aboard the Hindenburg (though traveling in the opposite direction) while pursuing a spy in Charlie Chan at the Olympics. Of course, though that film was released ’37, it was recounting events that took place the previous year. For Charlie’s 1937 adventure, we need to look to Charlie Chan on Broadway, where he sorts out a killer’s identity from among a bevy of Damon Runyon-esque gamblers.

Terry Lee and Pat Ryan (from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates), while still bumming around the Far East, begin the year escaping from the bandit leader Pyzon, though Pat gets shot in the process. While recovering, he encounters his long-lost love Normandie Drake and her sleezy husband Tony Sandhurst. Terry and Pat rescue Sandhurst from kidnappers, but the chubby villain then attempts to frame Pat for several felonies.

Dick Tracy spent a large part of 1937 breaking up an insurance fraud ring. In the end, he is forced to track the main bad guy through a pitch-dark theater.

Hercule Poirot was in England that year, responding to a letter for help from a rich woman who feared one of her relatives was trying to off her. The letter is delayed and the poor woman is dead before Poirot arrives. But he can at least put the finger on the killer, as recounted in the book The Dumb Witness.

Back in New York City, gargantuan detective Nero Wolfe looks into a murder in The Red Box. It’s a case complicated when one of the suspects has the bad taste to die in Wolfe’s office, presenting him with a possible conflict of interest in his further investigations. But, with the help of his hard-boiled assistant Archie Goodwin, the overweight genius manages to figure it all out.

There was, in fact, quite a bit of action in the Big Apple that year. The Shadow was quite busy, but his most notable case that year was recorded in The Shadow Unmasked. While looking into some jewel thefts, the Shadow is forced to abandon his usual secret identity of Lamont Cranston. For the first time, we learn who he really is—Kent Allard, an aviator who was supposedly killed in a crash years before.

The Spider had a busy year as well. In Dictator of the Damned, he prevented a madman from using assassinations and an army of thugs to take over the city. It all comes to a head with a desperate gun battle inside a riverfront building, while the lovely Nita Van Sloan is caught up a yet another death trap. I think that poor girl may have even beat out Lois Lane for the number of death traps various villains tossed her into.

Ellery Queen had a quieter but still fascinating adventure when he tried to deduce who had plunged a pair of scissors into the neck of a famous novelist in The Door Between.

Doc Savage was hopping around the globe quite a bit that year (as he was throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s.) His adventures included battling an evil dwarf armed with a super-weapon in Repel and preventing some mercenaries from taking over a Central American nation in The Golden Peril. That latter case was especially important—the country is the source of Doc’s great wealth, regularly supplied to him in gold by some grateful Mayans he once helped out.

Over in Los Angeles, famed criminal attorney Perry Mason solved a murder aboard a gambling ship in The Case of the Dangerous Dowager. A little later that same year, Della Street gets tossed in jail for a short time helping her boss figure out The Case of the Lame Canary. She also gets the first of what will be several marriage proposals from Perry in that book. But she believes Perry needs a secretary who will back his plays no matter what more than a wife, so she always turns him down.

Even when I read the books, my mental image of Della is that of Barbara Hale from the TV series. I don’t blame Perry for being persistent in his proposals. Gee whiz, that gal was purty!

And that’s only a small portion of the vigilantes, detectives, and explorers that had adventures that year. It was an adventurous year indeed. But whatever problems might arise, whether it was a single murder or the threat of world domination, there were more than enough heroes scattered about the globe to keep the innocent safe.

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