Thursday, May 29, 2014

Captain Zero's Swan Song

Read/Watch 'em in Order #46    

The March 1950 issue of Captain Zero was its third and last, but the good captain goes out on a high note.

After preventing an overthrow of the government during the last issue, Lee Allyn returns to what I feel is firmer ground for the character--investigating the sort of crimes that the average hard-boiled detective or tough-guy cop might be looking into.

Because its that dichotomy--a man with a superpower dropped into a hard-boiled adventure--that gave Captain Zero its unique feel.

This time around, someone is knocking off the elderly members of a Bachelor's Club. One of the surviving members might have a motive--the club enacted a tontine (an insurance policy to be collected by the last survivor) that provides a motive. But seems to obvious a motive and, besides, the dead men are being robbed as well. In fact, after the third murder, a gang of thugs raid a bank just when the police are checking the dead man's safe deposit box, killing a cop and getting away with the box.

But that's not all that's going on. A man named Ned Brandon is being framed for murder by a sleazy crook named Fat Paul Schoenling. Brandon works at an investment firm and Schoenling holds the potential murder charge over his head, forcing him to arrange the sale of stolen securities.

The two cases soon turn out to be interconnected, so both Lee Allyn and detective Ed Cavanough are kept busy. In fact, Lee is particularly busy--he wants to clear Brandon of the murder charge without giving the poor guy away to Cavanough, but at the same time he has to work closely with Cavanough on the Bachelor's Club murders.

Pulp veteran G.T. Fleming-Roberts continues to be at the top of his game. This time, he constructs what is the best straight mystery plot of the series, planting small clues near the beginning of the story that pay off big time at the end. This mystery has several threads--what is being stolen from the murder victims; why do they need to be killed as well; who is the master mind behind all this?  The answers all come in a logical fashion leading up to a fantastic plot twist at the end.

There's several great action scenes interspersed among all this. Lee Allyn takes cleaver advantage of his invisibility, but is still hampered by the fact that he can't control when he turns invisible (always exactly midnight) and when he becomes visible again (always at dawn). The bad guys also discover that they can use a geiger counter to detect Captain Zero, so he is nearly trapped a few times. But he thinks or fights his way out of several dangerous situations and even manages to whittle down the ranks of the bad guys.

There are several other strong points. Allyn and Cavanough are still rivals for the affections of girl reporter Doro Kelly, but Fleming-Roberts underplays this nicely so that it doesn't interfere with the main plot. Had the magazine continued, this would have been a continuing plot point--probably never to be completely resolved--so Fleming-Roberts wisely realized he didn't have to continually emphasize it.

So Allyn and Cavanough are able to work together nicely--another strength of the tale is that both men are presented as intelligent and able to make reasonable deductions.

And Fleming-Roberts wrote in clear, easy prose, telling the story well while still dropping in appropriately hard-boiled observations. My favorite: A description of a villainous woman has having "a pair of eyes that any mackerel would inevitably have been caught dead with."

There are a few places where the story seems a little rushed--such as a second-tier but still important bad guy getting killed "off-screen," so the first Captain Zero story still edges ahead in my mind as the best of the three. But its a close call--that twist ending really is fantastic.

Sadly, this is Captain Zero's last case. We never learn who Doro marries; or whether Lee Allyn's odd power ever faded; or if he one day turned invisible and never reappeared. Sadly, the pulps were fading away, being replaced by paperback novels and comic books. By the time Captain Zero hit the newsstands, the Spider, the Shadow, G-8 and Doc Savage were already gone.  Popular Publications took a long chance in trying to revive the concept of the pulp hero.

They failed commercially, but they succeeded in every other way. The three Captain Zero tales are superb pulp adventures that very cleverly adds a science fiction element to a hard-boiled universe.

So that's it for Captain Zero. Next in line for the "Read 'em" section of our In Order series, I think we'll jump into the future and visit with another captain. We'll take a look at the first five Captain Future novels written by Edmond Hamilton.

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