Thursday, April 3, 2014

Captain Zero Returns!

Read/Watch 'em In Order #44

The second issue of Captain Zero (January 1950) contains the novel "The Mark of Zero." The first story had set up the character and given Lee Allyn some valuable experience in the problems of invisibility and how to best use the power to battle crime. At the end of the novel, the city's new commissioner--Ed Cavanaugh--knows Allyn is Captain Zero and works with him. They both have a thing for spunky girl reporter Doro Kelly--but this aspect of their relationships is actually underplayed nicely, so unnecessary melodrama is avoided.

Speaking of Doro, she really gets to shine this time out. The first novel portrayed her as intelligent and capable, but she also spent a large part of the story "off-stage" after she had been kidnapped. Here, she takes risks, makes deductions, comes up with clever plans on her own initiative and plays a key role in bringing down the bad guys.

Not that she isn't terrified the whole time. Author G.T. Fleming-Roberts continues to do an excellent job of presenting us with fallible and often frightened protagonists who still stand up and do the right thing when faced with evil. This comes across in several different ways. For instance, both Alynn and Doro make understandable mistakes that would be expected of people who aren't actually trained in law enforcement,. Allyn's reaction to being forced to kill another man is another example.

Also, it's more dangerous for Captain Zero to be out-and-about. The existence of an invisible man is now known to the public, so clever crooks are using methods such as spray-paint guns to even the odds.

The main bad guy this time is known only as the Man in the Black Hat. Keeping his identity secret even from many of his henchmen, he is building up a vast organization. Several known criminals--each with specific skills--are sprung from prison. Escape routes are meticulously planned--in one case a bridge was rigged to blow up to cut off police pursuit. A man up for appointment as Secretary of the Treasury is kidnapped and ransom notes are sent by untraceable carrier pigeons. (The pigeons were stolen from their rooftop cages and would return there one by one with instructions about the ransom.) The bad guys wear "hearing aids" that are actually radio transmitters, keeping them in constant touch with one another.

What is Black Hat's master plan? Zero, Cavanaugh and Doro all try to find out, but they seem to be hitting dead ends. People who might know something have a habit of ending up dead. But Doro tries a dangerous plan on her own, taking the place of one of Black Hat's few known associates.

In the meantime, the FBI lucks into information about another jail break.  That leads to an undeniably contrived coincidence, but it's a twist that is otherwise well-written.  Lee Allyn just happens to resemble the con being sprung from prison and the FBI asks him to take his place. Lee does so--and he and Doro (posing as a henchwoman) end up in the same car being taken to Black Hat's current hide-out. Allyn can only hope they reach the hide-out by midnight and he has a chance to duck out of sight, when he'll start to turn invisible whether he wants to or not.

The whole thing really is handled well enough for us to forgive the coincidence, though I still have one problem with Allyn's escape from prison. The FBI knew it was coming, allowing the "prisoner" to escape in order to find the hide-out. That's fair enough. But the thugs who break Allyn out kill at least one guard and get a couple of others either hurt or killed as well. That means the Feds were too dumb to consider this might happen--despite gun play being a part of earlier escapes--or they were deliberately willing to sacrifice innocent lives. None of the characters ever make note of this.

It actually bugs me, because one of the strengths of the heroes of pulp magazines is a firm sense of right and wrong. It's possible that Fleming-Roberts simply failed to think the situation through when he wrote the scene. He's one of the best writers to work in the pulps, but he wrote over 300 stories, many of them novel-length, so he's allowed to have an off-day.

It's also possible he saw the situation, but was working against a deadline, so he might have had to sigh and run with it.

Whatever the case, it's one of two flaws in what is otherwise an excellent novel.

The other flaw--well, it really isn't a flaw, because it's not a criticism of the prose or the plot. It's simply my opinion of what sort of story best suited the character of Captain Zero.

In the first novel, the villains were gangsters and corrupt officials who controlled a town. It was a plot you would fully expect to find in a work of hard-boiled fiction. The fun of the story comes from the dichotomy of sticking a character with science-fiction level powers into such a plot. You'd normally expect the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe to be taking the lead in catching the crooks--not a guy who turns invisible every night.

This time around, the villain has a master plan that includes eventual world domination, using a method that has an element to it that would also be more at home in a science fiction tale. It's a great story for what it is, but I would argue it was not the right direction in which to take the character. That hard-boiled vs. science fiction dichotomy was a major strength in the first novel. The series would have been better served if the villains remained more mundane (but still clever and dangerous) gangsters.

But that point is arguable. "The Mark of Zero" is exciting, with a good mystery element involving the identity of the Man in the Black Hat, a pair of wonderful protagonists, and several exciting action scenes. And the story is pretty hard-boiled even granting the grandiose schemes of Black Hat.

Well, we still have one more Captain Zero novel to go--we'll see what direction that one takes us in.

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