Book Review: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

Book Review: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino

In 1949, Chen Yong was an idealistic boy in his teens, his military uniform too large for him, cheering in Beijing as Mao Zedong declared that the People’s Republic of China was born.  Now, he is an old man who fondly remembers those early days, even as his memory of the specifics fades.  It was a tumultuous year, not only for China itself, but for its neighbors and the far off United States of America.   The response of America’s government, as led by president Harry Truman, would have a long-lasting effect on world politics.

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

This book covers that pivotal year, from Madame Chiang’s desperate mission to the States to raise sympathy and funds for the Nationalist cause, to Mao’s solidification of his alliance with the Soviet Union.  It covers the major players, Generalissimo Chang, Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Johnson, and a Congressman from Minnesota named Walter Judd, who led the “China bloc” that tried to draw Truman into direct military support of the Nationalists, or at least giving them much more money.

Some of the people involved get much more attention than others–there’s a full description of Madame Chiang’s family life and childhood, but her husband is picked up only when he becomes involved with her.  (The Generalissimo spent much of the year semi-retired before deciding to evacuate to Taiwan and consolidate his forces there.)

There’s also considerable time devoted to what Truman had intended to do with his time as president, as opposed to what reality had in store for him.  Sometimes, universal peace and brotherhood have to be put on hold.

Reading about Chiang’s behavior as he rose to power doesn’t make me think he would have been that much better as China’s leader than Mao–it was an early of example of supporting terrible people in office for the sole reason of being anti-Communist.  Sadly for the Chinese, Mao turned out to be a better general than practical economist or agriculturial planner.  Plus, he let his personality cult overwhelm any real reforms.

The writing is college-level, and the vocabulary sometimes gets a bit pretentious.  All Chinese names use the modern transliteration.  There are copious end notes, with explanations of where sources differ, a small photo insert, bibliography and index.

This book is primarily valuable as a snapshot of one particular issue at a particular time– the serious scholar will want to pair this volume with a more general history of China, or a full biography of one of the major players.   That said, I recommend this book to those interested in the starting point of Red China and how it got that way.

Book Review: The Financial Expert

Book Review: The Financial Expert by R.K.  Narayan

In the South Indian town of Malgudi, across from the Central Cooperative Land Mortgage Bank, there is a banyan tree under which sits Margayya, the financial expert.  Margayya (“the one who shows the way”) is an unofficial middleman who helps the unlettered villagers apply for small loans from the bank (for a small fee), arranges for people who still have good credit to take loans to help out those with bad credit (for a small fee) and gives financial advice, among other services (for a small fee.)  He works hard at his dubiously legal profession, from early in the morning to when the sun is setting.

The Financial Expert

The problem with nickel and diming poor people for a living is that at the end of the day what you have is a small pile of nickels and dimes.  Margayya is on the “needs reading glasses” side of forty, lives in half a house with his wife and preschooler son Balu, and hasn’t bought a second set of clothing in years.   When the Bank officially takes unfavorable notice of his business, and Balu playfully tosses the only copy of his financial ledger in the sewer, Margayya realizes that he needs a lot more money if he is to be treated with the respect he thinks he deserves.  But where to get it?

R.K. Narayan (full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, 1906-2001) is considered one of the most important writers of literature from India, at least partially because he wrote in English which made it easier to spread to the rest of the Commonwealth and eventually America.  His novels and stories were set in the fictional community of Malgudi, a “typical” large town somewhere in southern India, which allowed him to invent geography as needed and avoid lawsuits when he used real-life incidents as the basis for the story.

In this case, Margayya is a composite of two real-life people, one an actual middleman who performed the services Margayya does at the beginning of the novel, and a high-flying financial wizard who was incredibly rich for a short time before crashing and landing in jail for his shady practices.

In the story, Margayya makes a fervent appeal to Lakshmi, goddess of Fortune, and in the process happens to run into a writer named Dr. Pal.  Dr. Pal is interested in psychology, sociology and improving the life of his fellow humans.  He’s written a manuscript that will eventually be titled Domestic Tranquility, an important sociological work to improve married life.  To be blunt, it’s a sex manual.  He gives the manuscript to Margayya to do with as he will, and the businessman gets it printed; the book is apparently phenomenally successful.

Mostly what Margayya does with his new-found cash flow is try to get a good education for his son Balu.  Unfortunately, Balu  is not the kind of kid that the formal education system of the time served well, and since no one ever bothers finding a better way to engage him, Balu becomes a wastrel instead.  Part of the problem is that Balu has inherited his father’s habit of being sullen and silent when he has issues, and thus the two never have honest conversations instead of blowups.

Eventually, Margayya gets tired of the publishing business, where he never directly gets to see the money, and cashes out.  With a substantial capital, he can now open a formal money-lending and investment business, becoming a “financial expert” who is respected by even the wealthiest men in town.  But he again has left a single-point weakness in his business, which leads to ruin.

Margayya is not a very likable protagonist; he’s small-minded, sneaky and arrogant.  He’s good at making money in the short term but poor at long-range planning.  His relationship with his wife is more “she can’t bring herself to leave this jerk because there isn’t anything better for her in her society” than any form of mutual loyalty.  Margayya’s constantly worried that other people are taking advantage of him, while taking advantage of others whenever possible.  Margayya’s dignity is easily wounded, and he is quick to injure others’ dignity when he can.  He loves his son, but completely fails to understand him, so the rottenness in the young man’s character grows.

The Time-Life edition, which is what I read, has two introductions, by the editor (you may want to save this one for after you read the book) and by the author.  Mr. Narayan explains the background of the novel, including the economic conditions that lead to a cycle of debt, and how things had changed in India since the book was written.

There are several references to teachers striking students, and classism is often a subtext to what’s going on.

Recommended for those looking for a mostly realistic novel about life in India before independence with a not particularly sympathetic protagonist.

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

Movie Review: Private Buckaroo

When bandleader and trumpeter Harry James (playing himself) is drafted, his entire band enlists to accompany him.   However, his main vocalist, Lon Prentice (Dick Foran) is initially classified 4-F due to a foot problem.  One visit to the doctor later, Lon is cured and can enlist with the other fellows.

Private Buckaroo

However, the vain Lon is already an expert shot and finds most Army training and menial duties below him.  To everyone else’s surprise, the base commander (Ernest Truex) gives the order that Lon is excused from any training or duties he doesn’t want to do.  At first, he doesn’t mind, even though his fellow trainees are giving him the stinkeye when they get saddled with his guard rotations.  It’s not until Lon learns that he won’t be shipping out with the rest of the boys, but assigned to a rear echelon desk job that his attitude changes.

Meanwhile, First Sergeant “Muggsy” Shavel (Shemp Howard) is in a rocky relationship with his fiancee Bonnie-Belle Schlopkiss (Mary Wickes).  Not only is she rather shrewish, but USO entertainer Lancelot Pringle McBiff (Joe E. Lewis) is making time with her, and she doesn’t seem at all reluctant.

This 1942 musical is essentially a recruiting film for the Army put out by Universal Studios.  In addition to the above mentioned entertainers, the Andrews Sisters feature heavily.  The more unpleasant aspects of boot camp are skipped over entirely, and it ends with a montage of our brave boys shipping out.

There’s a fair amount of slapstick humor, with Sergeant Shavel taking the brunt of most of it.  The fact that Bonnie-Belle is the dominant one in their relationship is played for laughs, but the domestic violence won’t play as well with a modern audience.  There’s also some period slurs against the Japanese, in keeping with the subject matter.

As part of the mildly military aspect, the base commanders’ nieces have pretty much free run, especially precocious tyke Tagalong (Susan Levine), who gets some of the best lines.

The musical numbers are well worth seeing, but the previously mentioned content may make it a no-go for younger viewers without parental guidance.

Here’s a trailer for the movie.

 

 

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson (playing himself) needs a story for his Sunday slot, and goes to his favorite nightclub, the Trocadero.  It’s hopping as usual, but headwaiter Sam (Ralph Morgan) finds a moment between celebrity cameos and musical numbers to talk to the columnist.  He reveals that things were not always so rosy here….

Trocadero

The club used to be Tony Rocadero’s Restaurant, and we see the owner (Charles Calvert) at the end of Prohibition getting a legitimate liquor license.  He wants to turn his place into a class joint for the sake of his adopted children Judy and Johnny Edwards (Rosemary Lane & Johnny Downs.)   Unfortunately, he is killed in a street accident.  There’s only enough income from the restaurant to send one of the kids to college; the other will have to stay and help manage the place.

Johnny goes off to earn a degree while Judy takes over as acting manager and star singer of the night spot.  They struggle along until in 1935, the place is broke and about to close its doors.  Musical agent Mickey Jones (Sheldon Leonard) buys ten percent of the business as he’s convinced it can be revived with a new jazz band he’s representing.  Even this might not have worked, but then swing band leader Spike Nelson (Dick Purcell) barges in with his own musical troupe, and Judy takes the risk of having two house bands.

It’s obvious that both Jones and Nelson have more than a business interest in Judy, but she’s got a nightclub to run.  A slip of the tongue renames the place the Trocadero, it shifts emphasis from dining to dancing, and business heats up.

Some time later, Johnny has finally graduated from college, and returns.  Problem!  He’s fallen in love with society dame Marge Carson (Marjorie Manners), whose father (Emmett Vogan) owns a tobacco brokerage.  She’s less than enthused by the tawdry entertainment industry, and wants Johnny to join her father’s business.  So he can’t take over the Trocadero after all.

Judy has her own problems.  Jones is more or less okay with just being friends, but Nelson feels he’s been strung along too long and accepts another gig.  Only after he leaves does Judy realize that she actually loves the lug.

Meanwhile, Johnny discovers at the engagement party that Marge’s relatives are deadly dull people who care only for money and prestige, and look down on “hoofers” like himself.  He dances a fiery rebuttal and calls off the marriage.  He returns to the Trocadero to console his lovelorn sister and finally help manage the place, which is more popular than ever.

Which brings us back to the present day.    But this is a Hollywood musical, and there’s no way it’s going to end on a bittersweet note.

There was a real-life Trocadero nightclub, one of Hollywood’s hottest spots, but its history was nothing like this movie’s version.  Still, it’s a sweet story in its own way, a fantasy of making it in show business.  There are several fun musical numbers, including a grand finale with four, count ’em, four bands combining their talents.  One song in the modern section obliquely references World War Two, which was going on at the time.

As mentioned, there are several celebrity cameos, the most unusual of which is animator Dave Fleischer, with a little cartoon creature that comes out of his pen.

There’s of course lots of drinking, but the cigarette girl isn’t too keen on smoking (at least the Carson brand.)   Johnny and Judy do some playful scuffling, and have perhaps a bit too much chemistry for siblings, but that and the slightly offscreen death of Tony are it on the violence front.  By 1940s standards the movie is surprisingly non-sexist; no one thinks Judy can’t run a nightclub just because she’s a woman.

This is a lovely confection, fun but not very deep, and should be okay to watch with younger viewers.

Film Review: Hi-De-Ho (1947)

Film Review: Hi-De-Ho (1947)

Jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway (Cab Calloway) has a new manager named Nettie (Ida James).  His girlfriend Minnie (Jeni Le Gon) becomes insanely jealous, despite the relationship being purely professional.  When Nettie lands Cab and his orchestra a gig at the ritzy Brass Hat Club, Minnie hies herself over to a rival nightclub run by mobster Boss Mason (George Wiltshire).

Hi-De-Ho

Minnie convinces Boss Mason and his triggerman Mo the Mouse (James Dunmore) to try and lure Cab away from the Brass Hat Club and Nettie, or failing that kill him.  Just as the hit is about to go down, Minnie overhears a conversation between Cab and Nettie that reveals the truth of their relationship.  But is it too late to prevent tragedy?

This is another “race picture”, filmed with an all-black cast for showing in movie theaters catering to African-American audiences.   Even the cops are black!   As one might expect from a movie starring Cab Calloway, it’s a musical.

Good:  Cab Calloway was a national treasure and backed by some really wonderful jazz musicians and dancers in this film.  I’m not too keen on this particular rendition of “St. James Infirmary” but otherwise the musical numbers are excellent.

I also like the running gag of the one character who hangs around Cab all the time reading Variety and making smart remarks, but never takes place in the action and seems to have no actual job he does for Cab.

Less good:  The plot, thin to begin with,  resolves halfway through the movie, with the romance subplot resolved in a montage sequence no less.  The remainder of the film is a long performance by the now world-famous Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in a club…somewhere.

Problematic:   Cab is callous towards Minnie, and even slaps her to the floor when she backtalks him.  Later, Boss Mason does the same thing, and in both cases we are meant to think she had it coming.  Minnie having implied sexual needs is treated as a flaw in her character.  Nettie is subjected to a “you’re beautiful without your glasses” scene, though this is done without the dialogue.  On the other hand, Nettie is shown to be an effective manager for Cab in his early career.

Some viewers may want to skip straight to the last half of the film for the musical numbers.  Parents watching the movie with younger children may want to remind them that slapping around your girlfriend is no longer accepted practice, even if she’s being obnoxious.

Apparently, there’s also an earlier film short titled Cab Calloway’s “Hi-De-Ho” which has a different plot.  And here it is!

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

“Doll Face” Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a burlesque queen who wants to move into Broadway productions.  When slightly snobbish producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) scorns her audition because Doll Face isn’t “cultured”, her manager Mike Hannegan (Dennis O’Keefe) comes up with the idea of making her seem more accomplished by having her write an book.

Doll Face

The problem there is that Doll Face has no idea what to write, even if she were lettered enough to try.  Mike assures her that this will not be an issue, as he will hire a ghost writer to help her create an autobiography.  This writer is top-seller Frederick Manley Gerard (Stephen Dunne), an intellectual who loves lofty vocabulary and has no interest in burlesque.  He does, however, take an interest in Doll Face.

Frederick turns out to be willing to fudge the facts considerably to make Doll Face’s biography more interesting (moving her birthplace from Brooklyn to Arden Hills, for example.)  His smooth talk and kindness also make him a strong contrast to the overbearing and uncouth Mike.  Cynical and sarcastic friend of the main couple Chita (Carmen Miranda) sees where this is going and tries to head it off to no avail.

In a subplot, singer-songwriter Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to woo showgirl Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart), who only has eyes for Mike, who only likes Doll Face.

Mike tries to cancel the autobiography when he thinks enough publicity has been  milked out of it, Doll Face disagrees, and they quarrel.  When a bizarre coincidence makes it appear that Doll Face and Frederick are having it on, Mike dumps Doll Face.  This leads to misery for everyone, but the show must go on….

This 1945 musical was based on the play Naked Genius by Louise Hovick (better known to most of us as Gypsy Rose Lee.)   The name change was one of the many alterations required by the censors; the burlesque seen in the film is toned way down (though there are still some risque costumes on the ladies by the standards of the 1940s.)  There’s a brief mention of World War Two in one of the songs.

The music is quite good, and Perry Como is terrific as a singer to no one’s surprise.  There’s a couple of especially good lines, too.  “Do you always swim with your top hat on?”  “Only in opera season.”

Less good, especially by modern standards, is Mike.  He engages in “playful” aggression towards Doll Face, and advises Nicky to beat Frankie up, or at least threaten to, to gain her affection.  (Sadly, threats of force are shown to work on Frankie.)  Mike also prefers to do all the thinking for the couple, and gets sore when Doll Face decides otherwise.  This makes Frederick much easier to root for as a love interest, despite him having some controlling tendencies too; he at least will let Doll Face have her head.

Chita Chula is mostly in the story for her big number “Chico Chico (from Porto Rico)”, but is not portrayed stereotypically by the script–the character could have been any ethnicity.  And she scoffs at the idea she’s anything like Carmen Miranda.

The script is rather lackluster, but the musical performances are good, so it’s an enjoyable watch outside the cringeworthy bits.  If you’re watching it with younger viewers, you may need to talk to them about the kind of boyfriend Mike is and why that behavior isn’t appropriate.

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

The Kappa Psi Delta fraternity on the Rawley University campus is abuzz with excitement.  They’re getting a new frat brother and member of the rowing team, Bob Terry, who was a champion stroke at his prep school.  No one’s ever seen a picture of him, but with his help, Rawley might actually win the big meet this year for the first time since 1928.

Let's Go Collegiate

Then Tad (Jackie Moran), fraternity president, bandleader and second stroke on the team, learns that Bob’s been drafted and will be unable to come.  He and coxswain Frankie (Frankie Darro) try to break this news to their girlfriends from the sister sorority Bess (Marcia Mae Jones) and Midge (Gale Storm), who have been planning a huge party to welcome Bob.  They can’t quite bring themselves to let the girls down and are unable to tell the truth before the girls leave.

Frankie and Tad are being driven around by the house servant Jeff (Mantan Moreland) when they spot a strong-looking young fellow hoisting a safe onto a truck.  (It doesn’t occur to them to wonder why he’s doing this.)  They approach “Herk” with the notion of posing as Bob Terry for the duration of the party, buying him off with ten dollars.

At the party, the tall, relatively handsome and outgoing Herk is a hit with the ladies, despite his uncouth speech and mannerisms.  He decides he wants to be Bob Terry some more, or he’ll spill the beans.  Thus Herk must attend classes as Bob, despite having little education, and serve on the rowing team, despite a seasickness problem.  Tad and Frankie are assisted in this by their fraternity brother Buck (Keye Luke), who acts as the rowing team coach’s assistant.

Things get tighter for Frankie and Tad when their respective girlfriends dump them for “Bob”, and their own grades suffer from having to spend their time tutoring Herk.  Worse yet, a couple of overly inquisitive alumni arrive just before the big race, and begin to piece together what’s really going on.

This 1941 film is on my””Musicals” DVD collection, though it’s more of a movie with musical interruptions.  It’s pretty precisely dated because of the peacetime draft (started September 1940) being a plot point.  it’s a lighthearted film with some nice music, and some bits are still funny.  If you like the “wacky scheme that snowballs way out of control” plotline, this is your kind of movie.

I like that Kappa Psi Delta will pledge Chinese-Americans; Buck is treated as an equal by his frat brothers, although there’s a little ethnic “humor” at his expense (and the alumni are outright rude to him.)  Not so good is the treatment of Jeff, who is stuck with the role of comical sidekick and forced to do anything the white students demand of him.  (On the other hand, he’s a lot more honest with his love interest Malvina (Marguerite Whitten), the servant at the sorority house (she gets the “sassy black woman” stereotype.)  Compared to Tad and Frankie, Jeff comes off pretty good.)

And Midge and Bess are depicted as shallow young women who are easily fooled by Herk’s “aw shucks” demeanor–it’s not until the big race that they realize he’s been playing them.

As for Herk himself, he’s a more complex character than he might look.  He’s a bad person, but he seems to genuinely want to learn when he gets the chance, and help the team win.  If only he weren’t so self-centered, Herk might have had a redemption story here..

Treat this movie as a time capsule, and it’s not half bad, but if you are watching it with younger viewers, prepare to discuss some important ethical topics.

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners written by Alan Moore, art by Gene Ha

In an alternate America with science heroes and other weird or wonderful “characters”, it’s been decided to move everyone who isn’t “normal” to one city, Neopolis.  It’s 1949, and war veterans Jetlad and Sky Witch are reunited on the relocation train.  The new city is bursting at the seams with the continuing arrivals, and crime is on the rise.

Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Jetlad, whose real name is Steve Traynor, finds a mechanic job with the Sky Sharks, an aerial team that themselves are at something of loose ends with the end of the war.  Leni Muller, the Sky Witch (who’d defected from Germany during the war) winds up joining the understaffed police department.

In addition to the usual random street crime, there’s a lot of prejudice against the mechanical-American minority (vulgarly called “clickers”,) something is up with the Nazi scientists the U.S. has kept away from the Russians, and vampire gangsters are taking over the city’s rackets.  Although a romance is blooming, the climax is a major battle to determine just who the law is in Neopolis. and who it will serve.

This is a prequel to the Top 10 series by the same creative team, and fills in some of the background of the city seen there.  As with the original series, some of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of well-known comic book and comic strip characters.  Centrally to this volume, Jetlad and Sky Witch are takeoffs of classic characters Airboy and Valkyrie.  (Airboy was also used in the Wild Cards series under another alias.)  The Sky Sharks are the Blackhawks, and other characters are pretty obvious to fans of the original material.

Gene Ha also puts in many background cameos and sign references, readers can have hours of fun trying to spot and identify them all.  The coloring also deserves a mention, using sepia tones for a nostalgic feel.

The writing, as expected from Alan Moore, is good, but tends to dip into some of his favorite themes, which had gone a bit stale by the time this series appeared.  There’s a fair amount of seamy sexual content (including a vampire brothel) which makes this volume unsuitable for younger readers.  (I’d put it senior high and up.)

If you enjoyed the main Top 10 series, this is a good addition to that.  Otherwise, I recommend this most to older comic book fans who will get the references and are able to handle the seamier aspects.

Book Review: Wounded Tiger

Book Review: Wounded Tiger by T. Martin Bennett

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wounded Tiger

Mitsuo Fuchida was the flight leader in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier who participated in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.  The Covell family were missionaries.  This book weaves together their stories.  The author bills this as “a nonfiction novel,” recreating conversations and thoughts as much as possible from the real life records and memories of those involved.

As a top pilot for the Japanese Navy, and later a leading officer, Fuchida participated in many important events of the Pacific Theater of World War Two.   But the reason this book is about him is that after the war, he learned of a Christian’s forgiveness and service even though she had every reason to seek vengeance instead.  Fuchida was shocked and intrigued by this news, and eventually converted to Christianity.

Jake DeShazer spent most of the war in Japanese prisoner of war camps after the raid on Tokyo.  He was severely mistreated and some of his fellow prisoners were killed.  But in the darkness of his cell, the Bible came to Jake and he fully embraced religion, Christ’s words of forgiveness and mercy.

The Covells were missionaries in Japan until the government made that unhealthy, then moved to the Philippines to teach, while their daughter Peggy went to college in America.  When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they eventually hunted down and killed the older Covells as supposed spies.  But Peggy did not let this crush her or her faith, and worked to help Japanese POWs, the news of which eventually reached Fuchida.

The author originally wrote this material as a screenplay, and this shows in the very short chapters, and scene-setting date and place “intertitles.”   There are scattered footnotes explaining some foreign words (or in some cases revealing the Japanese phrase translated in the text.)  They’re inconsistently used, and i spotted a couple of typos.

There’s no bibliography as such, but the acknowledgements do mention published works of people the author consulted.

As the majority of this story takes place during a war, there is some disturbing subject matter, particularly in Jake’s prison experiences and the chapters on Hiroshima.  As a result, I recommend parents review the book before giving it to junior high or younger teens to read.  The book also touches on racism between the Japanese and Americans, which was exacerbated by the run-up to the war.

Real life is messier than we like, and some sins are more difficult to make a good story out of than others.  Fuchida’s long-term marital infidelity is only mentioned in the chapter in which he ends it, which means that his mistress and their child are shuffled off the stage immediately after we learn they exist, with no explanation of how this happened or what became of them.  One suspects that if the movie ever gets made, this is one of the scenes that will be cut.

The writing is okay, but some of the dialogue looks a bit “cleaned up” from how soldiers and sailors normally talk.

I’d recommend this book to World War Two buffs interested in the Japanese side of the conflict, and those interested in reading the life stories of Christian converts.

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible edited by Nancy Holder & Joe Gentile

Moonstone Books is a publisher that specializes in new material about pulp magazine characters.  This is their third anthology of stories about Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, and his organization, Justice, Inc.

Roaring Heart of the Crucible

For those who have not heard of the character before, Richard Henry Benson had his wife and child taken from him in a bizarre midair disappearance.  The shock of this and the claims that they had never been on the plane in the first place drove Mr. Benson to a nervous breakdown.  When he recovered his sanity, he found that his skin and hair had lost their pigmentation, and his face was now frozen.

In the process of tracking the criminals responsible, Mr. Benson became the Avenger and began assembling his team.

The fourteen stories in this volume are mostly inserted into the “classic” period of the original series, before “Murder on Wheels”, which changed the premise somewhat.  Some of the stories are very precisely placed indeed.  This means that Cole Wilson, who only joined Justice, Inc. at the end of “Murder on Wheels”, is absent from most of the book.  Perhaps fittingly, then, “An Excellent Beauty” by C.J. Henderson is a solo outing for this agent, with a twisted focus on his distinguishing feature of being “handsome.”

The most famous author in this anthology is Will Murray, whose “The Moth Murders” leads off the book.   It’s an appropriately creepy story, with a horrific murder method, a bizarre antagonist and an almost plausible explanation to end the story.

Another standout story is “The Box of Flesh” by Barry Reese, in which two seemingly unrelated investigations converge at the crossroads of stage magic and folklore.  It’s almost as creepy as the title makes it sound.

Most of the stories stay within the customary adventure pulp limit of “almost plausible,” but a couple do go straight into the science fiction genre.  There are also a number of references to other pulp characters, with the Domino Lady making a full guest appearance in “According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster” by Win Scott Eckert, which follows on from his stories in the two previous anthologies in this series.

While the stories are generally good about explaining who the characters are (and thus can get a little repetitious in this area),  for best effect, a reader should already be familiar with the Avenger characters; I recommend looking up a reprint of the first two or three stories in the original series.  Also, the book could have used another proofreading pass, as there are a couple of obvious typos.

If you are already an Avenger fan, or know one, this is a fun book.  You might also consider looking at the previous two volumes.

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