Mar 152013
 

"Plague of the Golden Death", from the December 1937 issue of the pulp magazine SECRET AGENT X, is one of the more unusual entries I've read in this series. Like The Shadow and The Spider, the Secret Agent is a veteran of the Great War and served as an American intelligence officer during that conflict. Most of the time in the pulps, the crime-fighting hero's wartime exploits are just mentioned, but "Plague of the Golden Death" actually opens during World War I and gives us a glimpse of Secret Agent X during those perilous days.

Only the first chapter, though, and then the scene jumps ahead twenty years to Hollywood, where X has come in response to a plea for help. Many will die if he doesn't solve the secret of the Golden Death, that mysterious summons claims, and sure enough, that happens when the crowd at a movie premiere is attacked with a deadly gas. Almost before you know it, X is captured by the minions of the criminal mastermind who calls himself the Golden Death (yes, the bad guy and the murder method have the same name, which is a little confusing at times) and hauled to the top of the HOLLYWOOD sign, where he's about to be thrown off to his death!

And after that, things start to get a little goofy. In fact, for most of the novel the plot seems to make very little sense, and this in a series that was never known for being rigorously plotted to start with. Secret Agent X (a master of disguise, remember?) spends most of his time pretending to be matinee idol Grant Howard, who's starring in a World War I epic called "Armistice". Naturally, X winds up acting in the movie instead of Howard and gets to take part in some battle scenes much like the ones in which he really participated. Inspector Burks, X's nemesis from New York, shows up, as does his sometimes girlfriend and assistant, perky blond reporter Betty Dale. The Golden Death kills a bunch of people. And after I spent a lot of time thinking there's no way author G.T. Fleming-Roberts could ever find a way for this hodge-podge of a plot to make sense . . . darned if he doesn't do just that. In fact, he nails down just about every plot point. Sure, some of them may be a little bit of a stretch . . . but I'm not going to worry about that in a pulp novel, are you?

Even when I thought the whole yarn had come off the rails, I enjoyed many of the scenes. As over the top as it is, the stuff about the HOLLYWOOD sign works really well in Fleming-Roberts' hardboiled prose. So does the big battle scene on the movie studio back-lot that forms the novel's climax. Once the Agent's summation of the plot at the end put everything in its place, I wound up thinking that this is one of the best Secret Agent X novels I've read. It's certainly one of the strangest. If you're a fan of this series, you definitely need to read it, which you soon can in an inexpensive reprint editon from Beb Books.
Oct 052012
 


Secret Agent X is back in "Satan's Syndicate", from the August 1937 issue of the famous pulp. This one has a particularly creepy setting, the Pennsylvania coal mining country, where an underground fire has been burning for years in a mine called Inferno, casting a hellish glow into the night sky, coating everything with soot, and causing exploding gases to vent out through cracks in the ground with a noise like the wailing of lost souls. The author keeps everything eerie and atmospheric all the way through.

The syndicate of the title consists of five wealthy men and one wealthy, beautiful woman who own all the lucrative mines in the area, including Inferno. Unfortunately, a secret in their past puts them in danger when a killer targets them one by one. Secret Agent X is on the trail of that killer, attempting to stop him before he manages to kill off all the members of the syndicate by bizarre methods.

The action in this fairly short novel is just about non-stop. One victim is burned to death by being strung up from a crane and dangled over the flames of the burning mine. Another is kidnapped to be buried alive. Disguises and death traps abound as the Secret Agent tries to triumph over a criminal mastermind. Will he succeed?

Well, yeah, but you knew that going in. The fun lies in the breathless pace, the over-the-top action, and the vividly rendered setting. This is a very entertaining yarn and well worth reading if you're a pulp fan.

A couple of background points are worth noting. While "Satan's Syndicate" mostly reads like the work of prolific Secret Agent X author G.T. Fleming-Roberts, publisher Brian Earl Brown believes (and I agree with him) that it may well have been written originally as a stand-alone story, rather than a Secret Agent X novel. Most of the usual trappings and all of the supporting characters from the series are missing, except for a couple of very fleeting references to Inspector Burks, X's nemesis from the New York police, and Harvey Bates, the Agent's right-hand man. This ties in with something else I noticed, namely that there seem to be two writers at work here. The style in some of the scenes strikes me as different from the rest of the story, which would make sense if some unknown editor took a Fleming-Roberts detective novel from the publisher's inventory and rewrote it into a Secret Agent X novel. We'll probably never know for sure, of course, but I like speculating about such things. Whoever wrote "Satan's Syndicate", it's fun to read.
Mar 162012
 
Secret Agent X, on the trail of crime as always, finds himself away from his usual New York City surroundings in this novel from the February 1938 issue of the pulp magazine bearing his name. As the story opens, he's in San Francisco, trying to track down a Chinese criminal mastermind known as Chang, who has taken over the drug trade in that city. Chang, whose description is suspiciously reminiscent of Fu Manchu, sends warnings to his enemies in the form of curses written in delicate Chinese fans, hence the title of the story.

Since X is away from his usual stomping grounds, he doesn't have the help of his supporting cast such as Betty Dale and Harvey Bates, none of whom appear or even mentioned in this novel. He does wind up getting a hand from a different beautiful blond reporter who's very much like Betty, and there's a federal narcotics agent who sort of fills in for Bates. X spends most of the novel masquerading as crime-busting reporter Lon Hunter.

G.T. Fleming-Roberts is thought to be the author of this story, and the humor, the hardboiled rat-a-tat-tat prose, and the fact that it's a gangland story, rather than a super-criminal out to take over the world yarn, all support that theory. Some people also believe that it was written originally not as a Secret Agent X novel but rather as a non-series detective yarn featuring Lon Hunter as the hero, which was then hurriedly rewritten (probably by Fleming-Roberts) into a Secret Agent X entry. That seems plausible to me. We'll probably never know for sure.

No matter what its origins, "Curse of the Mandarin's Fan" is a fast-paced, entertaining story with some nice twists in the plot. A super-weapon does show up eventually, but it's almost an afterthought. Most of the story is spent on tough guy action scenes and politically incorrect, Yellow Peril-style shenanigans. There's a fairly strong mystery element, too, as the clues to the villain's true identity are scattered throughout the story. The solution does depend on some pretty obscure knowledge that the Agent happens to have, but at least the author attempts to give the reader a fair-play mystery along with the breakneck action.

An inexpensive reprint edition of this one is in the works from our friends at Beb Books. Whether it started out as a Secret Agent X novel or not, it's an entertaining entry in the series and well worth reading if you're a fan of the character.
Feb 102012
 
"The Murder Brain", from the April 1937 issue of SECRET AGENT X, like many of the novels by G.T. Fleming-Roberts in this series, opens in the middle of the action with the Secret Agent already on the trail of a criminal mastermind known as The Brain. (No mention of Pinky, however. Narf!) The Brain is behind a series of killings that have been branded the White Cross Murders, because the victims are found with a white circle painted around them and a cross inside that circle that falls over their bodies.

Also as usual, Secret Agent X puts his skill at disguise to good use as he attempts to foil The Brain's plans. He's not known as the Man of a Thousand Faces for nothing. In addition to some of his common false identities, he also masquerades as a Federal agent, assorted criminals, a financier, and even The Brain himself.

The plotting in this one seems a little thinner and more haphazard than in some Secret Agent X novels, but with his hardboiled prose Fleming-Roberts never lets the pace slow down for very long. Not only that, but he comes up with an excellent character in Sally Vergane, a crazed gun moll who's determined to avenge the death of her former lover, gangster Wolf Hollis. But is Hollis really dead? That's an intriguing question as well, with an answer that sort of surprised me. The last couple of chapters are a veritable whirlwind of action that culminates in a fine showdown in the sewers underneath New York City.

"The Murder Brain" doesn't fall into the top rank of Secret Agent X stories, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun to read if you're a pulp fan. The upcoming reprint from Beb Books also includes a novelette from the same issue, "Redheaded Decoy" by Don Cameron. If my memory's not playing tricks on me, Cameron wrote a Phantom Detective novel that I enjoyed, "The Television Murders", but other than that I haven't read anything by him that I recall. "Redheaded Decoy" is a clever yarn about a group of G-men attempting to trap some kidnappers, as well as the case's action-packed aftermath. I liked it, too, and probably ought to read more of Don Cameron's work.


UPDATE: According to Will Murray's introduction in PHANTOMS IN BRONZE, a collection of Phantom Detective novels by Laurence Donovan, Donovan wrote "The Television Murders", not Don Cameron. But Cameron's "Redheaded Decoy" is still pretty good.