Magazine Review: Phantom Detective #2: Dealers in Death | The Yacht Club Murders edited by Anthony Tollin.
The Phantom Detective was wealthy playboy Richard Curtis Van Loan, who became bored with his civilian life after serving in World War One. His friend, publisher Frank Havens, suggested he put his brains and assortment of interesting talents to work solving a mysterious crime just to see if he could. Van Loan did, and enjoyed it so much he decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime as a “phantom.” A master of disguise, he identified himself with a platinum mask-shaped jewel set with diamonds, a signal known to police forces world-wide.
The Phantom Detective was actually the longest-running of the pulp hero magazines, lasting from 1933 (appearing a month before Doc Savage) to 1953, though both Doc and The Shadow had more issues. Inside the stories, Van Loan was just “The Phantom.” The character was kind of generic as pulp heroes go, almost all of them were wealthy masters of disguise with good fighting skills and a variety of useful talents. He didn’t really have a gimmick that made him stand out, but the stories always had gimmicks that caught reader interest, so the magazine was a consistent seller.
The two main stories in this issue are both attributed to house name “Robert Wallace”, which took over from house name “G. Wayman Jones” when the series turned more hard-boiled from the earlier, more adventure-focused issues.
“Dealers in Death” is from 1936 and primarily written by Norman Daniels, though the text article indicates it got a substantial rewrite from an unnamed writer. A daring penthouse jewel robbery that ends in murder happens the same night a crime reporter employed by Frank Havens is assassinated in the Clarion newspaper offices. The story introduces ace reporter Steve Huston of the Clarion as the murdered reporter’s protege and a recurring supporting character. But more importantly, it is the first appearance of the red light atop the newspaper building that Mr. Havens has lit whenever he or the police need the services of the Phantom. This “Phantom signal” inspired the later Bat-Signal of the comics.
The most interesting character in the story as a character is Kate Wilde, the second-in command of the criminal gang. As the leader’s identity is part of the mystery, she does most of the on-screen skulduggery and contrasts her own love-sickness for the leader with her bodyguard’s devotion to herself. She’s competent and a good actress. It’s an unusually good performance for a secondary female character in the genre at the time.
The cover is for this story, but somewhat misleading–while there is a knifed corpse, and a note with the body, the note is not attached to the body by the knife. The climax of the story is the Phantom infiltrating the criminals’ hideout in the Everglades.
“The Yacht Club Murders” from 1939 was written by Charles Greenberg, and largely takes place in and near the yacht club of the title. The ten owners of the club have been offered a large sum of money for land the club owns, a sum which could save one of the men from financial ruin with just his share. But another member blocks the sale with his mysterious control over several of the other shareholders. He’s assaulted by the ruined man, and just as things are getting calmed down, the ruined man is murdered by a shot through the window.
The Phantom is coincidentally on hand, and his investigation soon reveals that the murder was part of a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Bat, who wears a dark cowl, and a ribbed cape that looks like a bat’s wings. By this point in the series, Van Loan is going steady with Frank Havens’ lovely daughter Muriel. Knowing that the Phantom is somehow connected to Mr. Havens, the Bat kidnaps Muriel in an attempt to get the detective to back off. Like many masked heroes in the comics, Richard Curtis Van Loan never bothered to inform his girlfriend of his secret identity. This got her kidnapped and threatened a lot without knowing why. (This finally came back to bite the Phantom in the 2006 “continuation” The Phantom’s Phantom, when a bitter Muriel leaves Van Loan over his long deception.)
There’s an article by pulp scholar Will Murray about how the Phantom Detective influenced the Batman comics, including the possibility that the Bat from the later story, which would have been fresh in memory when Batman was created, inspired some costume details. Editors Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff both worked on The Phantom Detective before coming to DC Comics, and Mort became editor of Batman just about the time the Bat-Signal was introduced. Hmm….
To round out the issue, we have a story from the comic book version of Richard Curtis Van Loan published by Nedor Comics, “The Case of the Complex Corpse.” Illustrated by Edmond Good (later artistic director of Tupperware), the story concerns a rest home that’s been murdering its wealthy patients. It’s a quick story with little mystery, but allows the Phantom to show off his disguise skills and quick-change abilities. Also, it shows some criminal stupidity. If one of your patients tells a visitor that he fears being murdered by a “freak accident”, you probably should hold off on murdering him for a while to throw off suspicion.
Both the main stories are notable for the absolute ruthlessness of their criminal masterminds towards their subordinates, murdering them en masse to save money and avoid being fingered. There’s also a bit of outdated ethnic stereotyping in the first story that may be uncomfortable for some readers.
While Batman fans are the ones most likely to want this issue, these are pretty good pulp stories in their own right and worth taking a look at.