Read/Watch 'em In Order #43
Captain Zero is the last of the pulp magazine heroes. In 1949, Street & Smith was cancelling its entire pulp line (including The Shadow and Doc Savage). Other pulps were vanishing as well, or converting to digest-format magazines. The competition from comic books and paperbacks was just too much.
But Popular Publications decided to give a pulp hero one last try. Captain Zero was only around for three issues, but those issues gave us three entertaining and well-constructed stories with a fascinating protagonist.
Lee Allyn was blind for twelve years before he volunteered for an experiment involving radiation. The experiment worked, giving him back his eyesight (though his vision remained weak), but there was an interesting side-effect. Every night at midnight, Allyn turns invisible. He reappears at dawn. He soon discovers that tight-fitting clothing made from animals--such as wool or rawhide--will turn invisible along with him. So at least he doesn't have to go the traditional Invisible Man route and walk around in his all-together.
But having invisible clothes doesn't make the experience any less disturbing. Disappearing from view rather understandably freaked Allyn out the first time it happened. But he gradually got used to it, though he lives in perpetual fear that one morning he won't reappear.
Being invisible has its advantages and its disadvantages. Allyn works as a newspaper reporter in a town run by several mobsters, so using his power when he investigates the rackets is a definite advantage.
But there are annoying disadvantages. Remember his weak eyesight? He has to wear contact lenses, which occasionally reflect light and threaten to give him away.
And, by golly, exactly how do you get around town when you're invisible? You can't drive a car--an apparently empty vehicle making a left turn onto 2nd Avenue would raise an eyebrow or two. You can't hail a cab. How do you get from Point A to Point B? Especially when you are on a strict time limit. Allyn has no control over the transformation--when dawn comes he'll reappear no matter where he is.
Allyn is a great character. He's just a regular guy, subject to normal fears when facing danger; competent and intelligent, but prone to mistakes and bouts of pure terror.
That's what makes the first Captain Zero tale ("City of Deadly Sleep," November 1949) so much fun. The writer, pulp veteran G.T. Fleming-Roberts, creates a likable Average Joe character who happens to have a super-power, then plops him into a serious of dangerous situations that essentially obligate us to empathize with him.
This is counterpointed by the novel's hard-boiled story. There's a corrupt police chief protecting two gamblers and their respective organizations, with a third small-time gambler (controlled by an unknown boss) who is trying to move in on the other guys. There's also a serious of murders--three well-to-do men are killed right after wracking up significant gambling losses. Who's responsible for that? What was the motive? How does it tie into the pending gang war?
It's a straightforward crime story with a solid mystery, unfolding in a logical manner. It's realistic in every way other than a main character who turns invisible.
Allyn uses the name Captain Zero when invisible, but as the book progressing, Captain Zero is made to look guilty of one murder, while Allyn is soon wanted for another murder. With the only man who knew his double-identity dead at this point and a beautiful lady reporter kidnapped, Allyn is on his own as he desperately tries to figure out who really killed whom.
"City of Deadly Sleep" would be my pick for the best of the three Captain Zero novels, but the subsequent novels were also excellent. We'll be taking a look at each of them eventually.
So it's really too bad Captain Zero arrived on the scene when he did. It would have been nice to keep him around longer and hear a few more of his adventures. Darn you, paperback novels. You ruined everything.