Thursday, April 9, 2015

"The sight of her gripped us like the clutch of death itself..."

The Spotted Panther, by James Francis Dwyer, was first serialized in the Cavalier in 1913, then later published as a book. It's a treasure hunt story and employs many of the tropes and cliches common in such stories---there's a legendary object (lost for centuries) that is priceless in value, the heroes have to engage in an epic quest to locate it; they encounter bizarre dangers, violent natives and a beautiful woman before finding it.

But it's not always whether your general plot ideas are original--it's what you do with those plot ideas that count. Dwyer puts all these standard elements into a truly intense and exciting yarn.

The narrator is a guy named Lenford, but his two partners--Chico Morgan and Red Templeton--are the main heroes of the story. Both Chico and Red are strong, fearless types, so when they learn that a sword known as the Great Parong of Buddha is located in the jungles of Borneo, they dive right in after it.

It's the nature of the famous sword that gives the tale intensity. It really is legendary and it's been missing since a Portuguese sea captain snatched it a few centuries ago. It's considered to be so important and powerful that if it were found, its mere existence would cause a mass uprising throughout Asia that would kick out the European powers and cause a bloodbath. (Dwyer kind of lumps the various Eastern religions together for the purpose of his story.)

The three men are soon caught up in the same obsession, determined to find the sword no matter what obstacles stand in their way and no matter what the consequences. And the obstacles are formidable. To get to the remote village where the sword is now kept, you have to pass through the Place of Evil Winds. There are violent orangutans that are led by something known as the White Mias. There's a swamp in which one of the many "Mouths of Boorsh" may swallow you up into its bottomless quagmire. There's natives armed with blowguns and poisoned darts. There's the leader of the natives--the titular Spotted Panther--who is bigger and stronger than even Chico or Red and doesn't object to strangling his enemies. 

Dwyer does a great job of not only describing the physical dangers, but also slowly building up the feeling of obsession that grips his characters--a feeling that grows more and more intense as the story progresses and gives real impact to the climax. The sword--especially after the heroes get hold of it and use it in battle--has an effect on them that even leaves the reader wondering if there is some sort of magical power inherent in it. 
Inevitably, there's a beautiful girl involved--a descendant of the Portuguese sailors that stole the sword who hooks up with them after Chico saves her life. She and Chico fall in love pretty much instantly. But she is more than a cliche---acting with intelligence and courage throughout the story to help out the heroes. 
Before the end, the exhausted and hungry adventurers are trapped in cave with the sword. Chico has an epic fist fight with the Spotted Panther. There's a pitched battle against the whole tribe and a night-time escape under the swamp through the Passage of the Glow Worms. Dwyer has a talent for making his various plot twists simply sound cool. 

The story isn't perfect. Chico and Red are a little too similar for each to be a fully distinctive character in their own right, while Chico and the girl fall in love right away pretty much just because it's required of them by the conventions of the genre.  But these are minor complaints--overall The Spotted Panther is an exciting and notably intense story with a unique atmosphere.

You can read it online HERE.

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