Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Devil's Horns

During the 1920s and 1930s, corrupt towns run by dishonest politicians and mobsters were as much a problem in the pulp magazine universe as they were in real life. In fact, several of the best known heroes of the era each had the job of cleaning up such a town.

Dashiell Hammett’s unnamed operative from the Continental Detective Agency was one. In what is arguably the best crime novel of the 1920s (Red Harvest), the Continental Op cleans up a dirty town by turning the various mobs there against each other—feeding them partial information, various half-truths and outright lies until the bullets began to fly and the mobsters began to fall.

 If we jump ahead to 1934, we find Simon Templar (aka The Saint) being offered one million dollars to clean up the New York City mobs. Simon takes the job, then openly challenges the mobsters by assassinating one of them. He follows this up by stealing a small fortune in bribe money from a judge who’s on the take and continues to cause trouble in a number of other ways while dodging hitmen. He works his way up the mob’s chain of command, looking to identify their secret boss and bring the whole organization down. (The Saint in New York.)

In 1939, Richard Benson (aka the Avenger) takes on the job of cleaning up Ashton City. Interestingly, he’s brought to the city by Oliver Groman, the political boss who has been running the rackets in the town for decades. Groman is getting old and suffering from the effects of a stroke. He’s reformed because of this and wants to make up for his old sins.

And if you are going to call in someone to clean up a corrupt town, there are few choices better than the Avenger. Benson is a unique pulp hero even among the gazillion or so vigilantes who inhabited the pulp magazines. A brilliant inventor, scientist and explorer, he suffered an emotional shock when his wife and daughter were murdered. This shock turned his face and hair a deathly white, killing the nerves so that he is perpetually expressionless. But this also means that the skin of his face can be molded into different shapes. With the help of wigs and make-up, this makes Benson a master of disguise.

He uses his wealth to form Justice, Inc and builds up a small group of loyal followers (most of whom had also lost people to criminal violence). Smitty is a huge and incredibly strong man who doesn’t look very smart, but is in fact a brilliant electrical engineer. Mac is one of the world’s foremost chemists as well as a tenacious hand-to-hand fighter. Nellie Gray is small and petite, but also a judo expert. Josh and Rosabel Newton are articulate, intelligent and brave—but use the fact that they are black to play off the racism of the time and get the bad guys to consistently underestimate them.

The Avenger first appeared on the newsstands in 1939 and ran a couple of dozen issues before the magazine was cancelled.  The hero appeared in a few short stories as back-up features in other magazines for a short time after that. So Benson didn’t find the same commercial success as the Shadow or Doc Savage (though he was, in fact, a deliberate amalgam of those two characters), but his adventures were strongly plotted tales of action and mystery. They were written by pulp veteran Paul Ernst, using the pen name Kenneth Robeson--the same pen name used for the Doc Savage stories, leaving the false impression that the adventures of both heroes were recorded by the same guy.

In The Devil’s Horns (December 1939), Benson is called to Ashton City by Oliver Groman to clean up the town. Almost immediately, a trio of thugs try to gun him down. This does work out well for the thugs.

Benson begins to investigate. The agents of Justice, Inc are given various assignments to gather information. It’s soon learned that a group of five men are currently running the rackets. Four of them are at least tentatively identified, but the identity of the fifth—the boss of the group—is unknown.

In the meantime, Smitty is framed for murder, Nellie and Rosabel are kidnapped by mobsters and Mac is nearly offed by a mob gunman. But the agents stick tenaciously to their jobs and Benson begins to collate the various clues. These clues include the words “devil’s horns,” written in blood by a dying man. That strange phrase turns out to be the most vital clue of all.

The mini-adventures of Benson’s agents are, in fact, one of the strengths of the Avenger novels. Though Benson is the main protagonist, writer Paul Ernst never forgets that the other members of Justice, Inc. are pretty cool in their own rights. He presents them as capable, brave and intelligent—doing their share to bring the bad guys down.

The mystery elements of the story progress logically, leading up to a nifty twist at the end. And the action scenes—most notably a sequence in which Mac and Smitty rescue the two girls from a mob-controlled nightclub—are a lot of fun; especially when Smitty rips a reinforced door off its hinges and uses it as a shield against bullets. Eveything culminates in a deserted warehouse, where the bad guys have Benson, Smitty and Mac trapped in a room about to be pumped full of poison gas.  But Benson, as usually, is two or three steps ahead of the villains.

The Devil’s Horns is not the true classic that Red Harvest is; and The Saint in New York is a bit more fun; but it’s a solidly entertaining yarn nonetheless.

So if you ever need to clean up a corrupt town, see if you can’t hire the Continental Detective Agency and ask for… oh, heck, Hammett never does tell us his name, does he?  Well, then you can hire the Saint---if you have a spare million dollars lying around.

If that exceeds your town-cleaning budget, then give Richard Benson a call. He’ll do the job for free and, by golly, he’ll do it well. 

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