Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Book Review: Once Upon a Star: The Adventures of Manning Draco Volume 1

Book Review: Once Upon a Star: The Adventures of Manning Draco Volume 1 by Kendell Foster Crossen

In the 35th Century, many things have changed.  Terrans have gone to the stars and discovered the many alien races living out there, fighting with some, cooperating with others.  Right now, the Milky Way Galaxy is at peace.  Other things have not changed; there are still companies selling life insurance, and there is still insurance fraud.  And that’s where Manning Draco, top investigator for the Greater Solarian Insurance Company, Monopolated, comes in.

Once Upon a Star

Of course, since Manning is the best insurance investigator around, that means he only gets the toughest cases, using  quirks of the local biology or customs to create loopholes in insurance policies.  Most of his workload is caused by crooked insurance salesbeing Dzanku Dzanku of Rigel IV, and his sidekick, the easily mindwiped Sam Warren.  The slippery pair have figured out all sorts of ways to cash in on insurance scams, but just try to prove it!

Once Upon a Star was originally published as four short stories in the 1950s, then edited together slightly to make a fix-up novel.  (Three other stories about Manning Draco are in the second volume.)  These comedic science fiction tales follow an obvious pattern.  At the beginning, Manning is on Earth, flirting with an attractive woman (like Captain Kirk, Manning Draco has broad tastes and will hit on just about any humanoid species–he draws the line at crocodile people.)  This is interrupted by his irascible employer, J. Barnaby Cruikshank, who describes an oncoming crisis the company is facing.

Manning flies off to the planet where the problem is in his private starship, the Alpha Actuary.  There he learns what Dzanku and Warren have been up to, usually involving something about that world that isn’t in the official survey reports.  There will also usually be another attractive woman for him to flirt with.  Things get worse before they get better, but a combination of telepathy, eidetic memory and rules lawyering allow Manning to win the day.  (There’s also some nifty technology at his disposal, but if anything it’s underutilized and seldom plays a key role.)

As one might expect from the time these stories were written and the genre, Manning Draco is pretty much omnicompetent, though this does not always help a great deal.  For example, he’s the one Earthling with any appreciable psionic abilities…which puts him at about average in Galactic society.  And while Manning is aces with the ladies, Dzanku is fully aware of this and is perfectly willing to use it against him.  (It should be noted, however, that at no point is a woman forced to do something she didn’t want to do in the first place, despite one spoilery bit.)

Dzanku, meanwhile, is generally two or three plots ahead of Manning (having already set up the next scams while Manning has just arrived to fix the first problem), but suffers from the urge to gloat when he’s winning and devise elaborate traps rather than just finish Manning off.  He’s also addicted to gambling on games of skill, which Manning uses against him more than once.  Sam Warren is more or less a nonentity that Dzanku can have conversations with to advance the plot.

There’s no damsels in distress in these stories as such, though Fifties attitudes are the default.  A female insurance investigator is rare enough that Manning Draco is taken off guard by one showing up, and there’s a clear expectation that women will quit their jobs once they’re married.  With one notable exception, the women in the story are fully capable of making up their own minds and have agency, and the exception is so because of [spoiler redacted.]

The science is dubious (there’s an entire page-long note devoted to a nonsensical set of equations proving that people from outside a fast-time zone won’t age faster while inside it, despite experiencing events at the faster rate.)   There’s also some fantastic racism (Rigellians are inherently dishonest and have built their entire culture around deception and betrayal.)  And our hero at one point sells Dzanku into sex slavery as the best way to keep him imprisoned without dying (which would cost the insurance company money.)

Still, if you enjoy the 1950s style humor and want to watch a rules lawyer in action, this is the book for you.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning

Quick recap:  In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white.  One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence.  But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.

The Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81.  It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity.  The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration.  Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth.  Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems.  Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.

The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt.  Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives,  The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.

This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories.  Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American  struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.

Of course, not all of these stories have aged well.  “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.”  (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)

And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable.  Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.

A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them.  The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.

A couple more stand-out stories:  “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade.  “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.

Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.

Magazine Review: Detective Yarns April 1939

Magazine Review: Detective Yarns April 1939

This is a facsimile reprint by Adventure House of a pulp magazine.  Pulp magazines tended to stick to one genre, so you knew what you were getting from the beginning; in this case action-mystery.  Great literature was rare, but they really got the blood pumping.  And a dozen stories for a dime was good value for money.

Detective Yarns“The Devil Deals to G-Men” by Wyatt Blassingame takes us to the bayou country of Louisiana, with an FBI agent going undercover as a nature painter to investigate the disappearance of a game warden and death of a fellow G-man.  An oppressive atmosphere and suspicious locals make our hero’s job a lot harder.  Uses the cliche of the only woman on the island being somehow nicer than everyone else.

“Pin Game” by Wilbur S. Peacock has an Italian restaurant owner threatened by an insurance racket.  A rare case of a pinball game (at the time, these were gambling devices) used for good.  This story uses ethnic slurs.

“Death Hits the Jackpot” by H.M. Appel continues the gambling theme.  A small town has “nationalized” the local slot machine racket, much to the anger of the crook who was running it before.  But is he the one who rigged one of the machines to explode when it hit the jackpot?  Or is it the crazy street preacher?  The man whose son committed suicide over gambling losses?  Or a person you’d never suspect?  Something to consider when you visit your state-run casino.

“Double for Death” by Thad Kowalski concerns a red-headed tramp who sticks his nose in when he sees a damsel in distress.  But why does everyone seem to recognize him?  Very predictable twist.

“A Simple Case of Murder” by Harold Ward has a woman plotting to kill her husband; to be honest, forensics would have spotted the hole in her plan, even if she didn’t make a fatal mistake….

“Hot Paper” by Convict 12627 is a fact-based piece about fraudulent check-passing.  Of note is that the crooks take the anti-fraud measures previously introduced and use them to make the plan easier.  (Wouldn’t work nowadays because the outlay to set up the scam would be more than you could possibly earn before getting caught–credit cards are where the lucrative fraud is.)

“God’s Burning Fingers” by Joseph L. Chadwick has a great title.  Meteorologist Michael Vane, also known as “the Weather Detective” is involved with a case where a man has apparently been burned to death by Saint Elmo’s Fire.  This immediately rouses his suspicions.  The case is complicated by faulty eyewitness testimony and anti-Japanese racism.

“Bloodstains on White Lace” by “Undercover” Dix is another fact-based story, about the kidnapping, rape and murder or human trafficking of Irish lace-makers in Chicago around the turn of the Twentieth Century.  There’s some vivid imagery, but also brutal details of what had been done to a survivor (eliding the actual rape.)   At the time this piece was written, human trafficking was often called “white slavery” as though slavery was especially heinous when done to white people.  The writer also makes a point of specifying how pretty the kidnapped girls were.

“I’ve Got a City Full of Sin” by Louis Trimble features a detective whose sister has gone missing, and gets himself convicted of drunk driving (apparently a felony in California at the time) to infiltrate a criminal gang.  Our hero’s female sidekick is surprisingly competent and independent for the time period and genre.

“Suicide or Murder” by William Degenhard has a postal inspector investigating the supposed suicide of a man who’d just called him over to discuss something.  The explanation uses some dubious science.

“Never Kill a Copper!” by Paul Selonke is about a police officer being framed for the murder of a gangster, and his private eye friend looking into it.  Double crosses abound.  Of note, when this was written, two unrelated men could be roommates in an apartment and no one would think anything was odd.

“Ashes of Gold” by Mat Rand takes a sharp veer into noir territory.  The crime being investigated is an auto theft ring,   But the real plotline is about our protagonist’s best friend marrying a gorgeous ash-blonde woman and then inviting the protagonist to live with them in their small apartment.  The situation soon turns explosive.  It’s possibly the best story in the issue, but there’s a whopping dose of misogyny here that will not sit well with some readers.

As a facsimile, this reprint comes complete with the original ads, including a book on “married love” and a product for “Perio Relief Compound” which allegedly cured period delay in women.

Recommended for fans of pulp crime stories.

TV Review: The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

TV Review: The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

Fu Manchu is the greatest of the Yellow Peril villains, created during a time period when it was believed that “sinister Chinamen” plotted to overthrow the Western nations and bring the world under Asiatic control.  The first Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, was published in 1913, having first appeared as a series of magazine stories.

The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu

In 1956, a television program aired featuring Glen Gordon as the Devil Doctor (Fu Manchu has almost never been played by an actual Chinese actor), with Lester Matthews as his long-time nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith, formerly of Scotland Yard.  In the books, Fu Manchu’s motivation had evolved from smashing the British Empire and by extension all Western civilization, to taking over the world for its own good to prevent war and chaos.   For the TV series, he was portrayed as mostly wanting to create war and chaos so that he could then take over the world.

Due to rights disputes with Mr. Rohmer, the series was truncated at thirteen episodes, two of which I have on DVD.  Each episode opens with a chess game between Sir Denis and Fu Manchu, representing white and black respectively.  (The symbolism takes on a slight tinge when you remember that white attacks first.)  At the end of each episode, Dr. Fu Manchu is thwarted, and breaks one of the black pieces in anger.

Fu Manchu is aided in each episode by the lovely Egyptian slave girl Karamaneh (Laurette Luez) and the little person Kolb (John George).   Other minions are guest stars, and tend to die during the course of the episode.  Sir Denis is assisted by Dr. John Petrie (Clark Howat), who is attached to the Surgeon General’s office, and Dr. Petrie’s lab assistant Nurse Betty Leonard (Carla Balenda).

“The Prisoner of Fu Manchu”:  Fu Manchu hypnotizes Betty into injecting an Asian diplomat with a formula that puts him into a coma just before an important peace conference.  This is part of an elaborate ploy to replace the diplomat with an impostor, kill all the diplomats to ensure war, and steal a new type of radiation shielding being demonstrated at the conference.  The most interesting twist here is that the impostor pretends to be partially paralyzed from the effects of the poison, thus drawing attention to that rather than any defects in his impersonation.

“The Ships of Death”:  A ship sinks off Hong Kong in heavy weather, but the seasoned captain saves the entire crew, and some special cargo.  The captain is unaware that his precious cargo is actually stolen germ warfare samples from an American government facility.  (Naturally, they were only created  to help Americans defend against germ warfare.)  If these samples fall into the hands of the Reds, they’ll be able to use them as an excuse to step up their own germ warfare research and possibly utilization.  Fu Manchu blackmails the captain into accepting the job of delivering the cargo, and injects the samples into melons for smuggling purposes.  The captain decides he cannot be a part of this, and by the end, Fu Manchu himself narrowly escapes an infectious death.

Keeping in mind the technical limitations of 1950s TV, and the attitudes towards racism of the time, these episodes are pretty exciting and well-shot.  Glen Gordon is enjoying himself, and Laurette Luez is a sultry femme fatale.

This show is perhaps best watched in contrast with a modern depiction of Asian people to remind us how attitudes have changed, or so we would like to believe.

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 1

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 1

Nick

Nick Carter, master detective, is a character with a long history, in three distinct phases.  He started in 1886 in stories most associated with the dime novels, was reinvented in 1933 for the pulps, and then again in 1964 as “Nick Carter Killmaster” for a long running series of action paperbacks.  It’s the 1930s incarnation that this volume focuses on.

The house name for the writers of Nick Carter stories was Nick Carter; the first story in this volume, “Marked for Death” is by Richard Wormser.  It’s Nick’s pulp magazine debut, and establishes Nick as a master of disguise and detection who isn’t afraid to use the three revolvers he carries.  While more violence-prone than his Nineteenth Century incarnation, Nick is still more cerebral than hard-boiled.

Nick is called to Boston from his usual New York haunts by a friend whose father has been  murdered and is now being hounded for money he supposedly owned.  Problem is that last time he was in town, Nick Carter showed up the Boston police, and they are not going to be cooperative.  Warning:  Nick does not like Pomeranians, and casually kills one to test a theory.

“The Impossible Theft,” by Thomas C. McClary, is from 1934.  It involves the theft of a quarter-million dollars from a bank in a manner which seems, frankly, impossible (and is never satisfactorily explained.)  As a seeming side note, a cheap replica idol used to decorate the bank also vanishes.  Nick Carter quickly connects this with the visit of a certain Maharajah to New York and infiltrates his Westchester mansion as a magician.

This story is much more fanciful than the first, and invokes the work of Charles Fort, as well as heavy doses of Orientalism and “the mysteries of the East.”  People from South Asia are likely to find the depiction of the Maharajah and his court laughable, insulting or both, despite Nick’s new-found respect for some of their number.

The script for the first episode of “The Return of Nick Carter” radio series is also included.  “The Strange Dr. Devolo” was written by Walter B. Gibson (scribe of the Shadow) and Edward Gruskin.   The seemingly immortal mad scientist is using a weird crystal to hypnotize wealthy people into believing they’re famous people from the past.  Nick has to track him down using secretary Patsy as a decoy and expose the strange doctor’s trickery.

The volume is rounded out by Nick Carter’s comic book incarnation from 1947, in “The Lucky Stiff” by Bruce Elliott and Bob Powell.  Nick and Patsy go to the horse races, but the fix is in–in more ways than one!  Despite the murder, this is a lighthearted tale that ends on a laugh.

There’s also several text pieces that introduce the various aspects of Nick Carter’s career.

Overall:  While not up to the quality of the greats, these are some rip-roaring pulp tales.  If you’re willing to put up with the period racism, you should be able to enjoy them as examples of one of American lowbrow literature’s enduring characters.

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