Thursday, July 25, 2013

Murder by Mold

When I was a wee little one, Pyramid Books was publishing paperback reprints of the original Shadow novels. It was these novels that served as my introduction to the coolest of the cool pulp characters.

About the same time, The Warner Paperback Library was reprinting most of the original Avenger novels,
with author Ron Goulart then commissioned to continue the series. But I didn’t get around to reading these until a few years later, when I picked a few of them up at a used book store.

And I’m glad I did, because the Avenger stories nearly rival the Shadow’s adventures in pure Rule of Cool. I reviewed the December 1939 issue not long ago, in which Richard Benson and the rest of Justice Inc clean up a corrupt town. But Benson doesn’t just deal with common thugs and organized crime. Like the Shadow, he’ll have to deal with a more science-fictiony threat from time to time.

In the January 1940 issue, for instance, Benson took on “The Frosted Death.” This is a man-made plague, accidentally unleashed on New York City by an amoral scientist. The plague is actually a mold that is passed from person to person by touch. It then spreads across your entire skin, making it look like you are covered with a light snow, but eventually suffocating you.

It’s an unpleasant and scary way to die, giving the story a large dollop of suspense right from the first page. But the villain ups the ante when he frames his business partner for both murder and for releasing the plague, while he uses slave labor in a secret lab to produce enough of the deadly stuff to sell to a foreign power.

The foreign power, by the way, is unnamed, but is obviously meant to be Germany. This was actually very common in popular fiction in all media during the early years of World War II. Though America wasn’t in the fight yet, many writers recognized Nazi Germany to be pure evil.  But isolationist feelings ran deep in many Americans before Pearl Harbor. This made many publishers, editors and filmmakers nervous about directly using the Nazis as villains in fiction. So many writers used spies or invaders who were Nazis in all but name. Milt Caniff did this (with both the Japanese and the Germans) in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, while faux-Germans turned up in several “Adventures of Superman” story arcs on radio. Paul Ernst (who wrote the Avenger stories under the house name Kenneth Robeson) pulls the same trick here.  

[There are, by the way, several examples of storytellers who did directly reference the Nazis as villains before we entered the war. The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, a number of Warner Brothers films and Timely (later Marvel) Comics all took overt shots at Hitler’s thugs prior to Pearl Harbor.]

Anyway, back to “The Frosted Death.” It doesn’t take long for Benson to deduce who the real villain is, but the main problem is destroying the stockpile of the deadly mold before the Nazis get it AND finding a cure as the horrible stuff spreads across New York.

Well, one of Benson’s men—Fergus MacMurdie—is the world’s foremost chemist. He soon whips up a cure. But he and Josh Newton (another Justice Inc operative) are captured by the Nazis along with the only samples of the cure.

In the meantime, Benson uses his mastery of disguise to replace a Nazi thug and locate the secret lab. But he soon discovers that he’s going to have to multi-task. Not only does he need to destroy the mold, he also has to rescue Mac and Josh, recover the cure, scuttle a U-boat and somehow outwit or outfight a score of heavily-armed Nazis.

I already mentioned that the story’s basic premise generates a lot of suspense. This is amped up to Eleven in the climax. Paul Ernst was a skilled pulp writer, with a strong understanding of how to tell a story clearly while still injected one exciting action set piece after another. He plops Benson down into one seemingly hopeless situation after another, but the Avenger is always one step ahead of the bad guys.

In the end, I do think the Shadow edges out both the Avenger and Doc Savage in pure coolness, but it really is a close call. “The Frosted Death” is unquestionably in the top-tier of the many entertaining stories produced during the Golden Age of the pulps.

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