Pulp Fiction

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Crime on St. Catherine Street.” Novelette. First published in Argosy 25 January 1936; reprinted as “All It Takes Is Brains” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966. Woolrich’s original title: “Murder on St. Catherine Street.”

   Woolrich was the kind of writer that could start with the screwiest kind of idea, get his protagonist to go along with it, and make the reader swallow it down whole, enjoying the whole rest of the story without hesitation and with no holds barred.

   Case in point. On a drunken whim, a man named Hewitt, one of Manhattan’s idle rich, agrees to a wager that he can go to a strange town — Montreal, say — with only six bits in his pocket, and manage to survive for a whole week without knowing a single soul. Which he manages to do, of course, and in fact he comes out ahead by several thousand dollars, not including the money he wins on the bet.

   It all begins with him picking up a girl as he starts the first night of his stay, or rather, as it turns out, she thinks she’s picking him up. But when she quarrels with his boy friend and accomplice in crime, a man known only as Louie, she ends up dead and Hewitt ends up on run from the law, with only a salt shaker in his pocket that he can use to pretend he has a gun.

   Coincidences always played large roles in any story that Cornell Woolrich wrote, and this one is no exception. But this is no tale of gloom and doom. In spite of all the odds against him, Hewitt maintains an upbeat attitude throughout, making this a lot of fun to read.


H. BEDFORD-JONES “The Case of the Kidnaped (sic) Duchess.” Novelette. John Solomon. First published in Argosy, 05 January 1935.

   “The worst kind of a job sir. One that you and me might swing together and ’elp out the most beautiful woman in Europe, Mr. Carson. But it’s a werry dangerous business, sir. That ’ere Duchess o’ Furstein is in a werry bad ’ole and if we give ’er a ’and it means risking our necks.”

   That’s the voice of John Solomon, ship’s chandler, mysterious millionaire, operator of one of the best private espionage operations in the World, the short, stout (think Edmund Gwenn as Santa but minus the beard) Cockney adventurer who first appeared under the by-line Allan Hawkwood, but who, by 1935, was appearing under Bedford-Jones’ own name and commanding the cover of Argosy with the little Cockney’s adventurers.

   This one is a mystery novelette that begins in foggy London where engineer Carson, an American, and one of a long line of engineers, grocers, doctors, and the like to act as assistant to Solomon’s myriad schemes in all ports of call, has received an urgent message to join him before they sail that night for Europe to assist the Duchess o’ Furstein.

   If this sounds all very Holmesian, keep in mind Bedford-Jones also wrote a Holmes pastiche so successfully it passed for a lost Conan Doyle story among some scholars.

   But our guide here is Solomon, not Holmes, though he is just as high-handed, clever, and dangerous to know as the Baker Street sleuth, if less cerebral and more given to flashing guns.

   Carson has hardly arrived at the tobacconists where he’s been summoned when Solomon rushes by, drops a wallet, which he commands Carson to hide, and seconds later is in the hands of a constable accused of picking the pocket of a ’toff, soon to have Carson “up to his neck in emeralds, Sicilian palaces…” as the wallet belongs to Sir Basil Lohancs, who has already kidnapped the duchess, and is delivering her to London on his yacht that werry, I mean very, evening.

   Baghdad on the Thames was never more so. Heady stuff in the pulp era.

   The Duchess has been using her wealth, estates, and is threatening to use her fabulous emeralds, to continue social work in Palermo. Lohanc’s can’t have that. The result as Solomon says is that the Duchess is in “a werry bad fix, as the old gent said when ’e buried ’is third wife.” Lohanc is a bad one “Money, brains and nor scruples whatever, sir. What ’e goes after ’e gets, that’s ’is boast,”and later, “Murder don’t mean nothing to ’im.”

   Scotland Yard and the French police have been fooled, and now the Duchess’s only hope is Solomon and Carson, boarding a yacht full of kidnappers and potential murderers to make a rescue on the fog bound docks with the information her loyal Sicilian maid died getting to them. Without getting all Sax Rohmer on us, Bedford-Jones evokes Limehouse and its environs and a sense of romance built out of the reality and not vague menace and shadows. His Limehouse is that of Thomas Burke and Arthur Morrison.

   Solomon gives Carson an automatic and instructions to get on the yacht while it works its way up the Thames to London, an impossible job. “There ain’t nothing impossible, sir, if so be you ’as a ’ead,” Solomon advises and he proves right, Carson getting on board and making contact with the Countess. Now what ever happens depends on Solomon and his plans, and as always Solomon’s plans are played close to the vest, Carson is captured and drugged by Lohanc and Dr. Vecchhi the murderous doctor in his pay.

   Meanwhile the usual close calls, disasters, and last minute rescues follow until the last possible moment when Solomon plays his last card, the love of a Sicilian whose wife died to protect her mistress.

   If it strikes you that with a little bit of tweaking here and there, this might well be the outline for a thriller by John Buchan, or later Victor Canning, you aren’t far off.

   It’s no great mystery, but as action adventure goes, it’s splendidly told, replete with villains who deserve their just rewards, noble heroes and heroines, and always, the presence of John Solomon, one of the great captains of pulp fiction, part adventurer, part avenger, and always righter of wrongs, cherry cheeked and wispy haired man about adventure. There is nothing quite like him or his kin in most modern fiction today.

   For anyone interested you can download or read this at Internet Archive under their Pulp Collection. The issue also includes a dog story by Albert Peyson Terhune and serial chapters by F. Van Wyck Mason, Theodore Roscoe, and Fred MacIsaac, a pretty good issue.

J. LANE LINKLATER “Mystery of the Mexicali Murders.” PI Alan Rake. First published in 10-Story Detective, January 1941. Reprinted in The Noir Mystery Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, 2016).

   Although the author of several hundred stories for the pulp fiction magazines, J. Lane Linklater, the pen name of Alexander William Watkins (1892-1971), certainly qualifies as an unknown author today.

   He did write seven hardcover mystery novels, all with a private eye character named Silas Booth. I’ve always meant to read one, but for some fault of my own, I never have.

   One series he wrote for Detective Fiction Weekly had lawyer Hugo Oakes as the leading character, and Monte Herridge wrote about him earlier on this blog here.

   He had few other recurring characters in the stories he wrote for the pulp magazines, but as far as I know, “Mystery of the Mexicali Murders” is the only appearance of private eye Alan Drake, a fellow who reminds me a bit about a fellow who Dashiell Hammett often wrote about.

   Here is the first paragraph of the story:

   The small plane from the north circled and came down. It had one passenger, an undersized, stocky man in whose volatile, fleshy face was explosive energy. His perspiring cheeks glistened in the light from the airport office as he walked toward it. He carried one very battered handbag. Billions of stars glared down at him from the sky over the great Imperial Desert.

   This is, of course, Alan Rake. He is here in the area along the border between California and Mexico after receiving an urgent telegram from the head of a big fruit shipping outfit, but when the man is shot dead in front of him when he first meets him, he decides to stay on the case and see if there’s some way he can still get paid the $5000 that was promised him.

   The case is a complicated one, with lots of suspects and a setting that is over 100 degrees during the day and not much better at night. One girl in particular, a young spitfire with flashing eyes named Edna, catches his attention.

   But more than the characters, and who it was who killed Warnbecker, takes second place to the setting, a cantaloupe-growing area that Linklater must have known well to describe it in as much depth as he does, including its vast underbelly of criminal activity. Rake mixes in well, seeing and observing, and quite remarkably, thinking too.

   Linklater was no Hammett — I should make that totally clear — but a better editor could have helped make the ending a lot tighter, and if so, this might be the small gem of a story that it almost is.

CARROLL JOHN DALY “The Egyptian Lure.” Novelette. Race Williams #18. First published in Black Mask, March 1928. Reprinted in The Snarl of the Beast: The Collected Hard-Boiled Stories of Race Williams, Volume 2 (Altus Press, 2016).

   Race Williams doesn’t call himself a Private Eye. He’d rather be thought of as a Confidential Agent, and in fact that’s what it says in the lettering clients see on his office door. By the time this story appeared, Williams was already a long-time fixture at Black Mask magazine. Readers had been enjoying — and heartily approving — his adventures since the first June issue of 1923.

   In “The Egyptian Lane” he’s, well, lured to the dive / strip joint of the same name by an envelope stuffed with money, with no name attached to the brief note accompanying it. It’s a tawdry joint — the owner of the joint is a Greek by the name of Nick — and it takes Williams a short while to track down the beautiful dancing girl who once lived in a convent but who is now his new client.

   He takes her under his wing, but thanks to a clever ruse of the men who are after her, he loses her again. Calling himself a dunderhead, there’s no way in hell the thugs who’ve abducted her can escape his wrath. Nor do they! The hunt the follows, urged on by his anger and consuming desire for vengeance, is what readers of Black Mask were waiting for, and that’s exactly what they got.

   And so did I. Race Williams is correct is not thinking of himself as any kind of “detective.” His methods are crude but effective, and a gun is his constant companion. The story is well told, the settings (from the dirty streets of Manhattan to the barren wastes of New Jersey) are well described, and the pace? It never lets up.

VINCENT STARRETT “The Taggart Assignment.” Short story. Jimmy Lavender #6. First published in Short Stories, 10 August 1922. Reprinted in The Detective Megapack: 28 Tales by Modern and Classic Authors (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, January 2016).

   Although a number of his Jimmy Lavender stories were collected in book form during Vincent Starrett’s lifetime, this doesn’t doesn’t seem to have been one of them, and I think there may have been a reason for it. Before getting into that, however, let me say first of all that the resemblance of the Lavender tales to Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes is unmistakable. (Starrett was a noted Sherlockian of his day.)

   Simply move the stories from London in the late 1800s to Chicago in he 1920s, swap Watson for a narrator-assistant named “Gilly” Gilruth, and there you have it. Even the story itself, that of a young woman whose fiancé has gone missing only days before their wedding, is reminiscent of one of Holmes’s own adventures, that being “A Case of Identity.”

   The about-to-be-jilted woman — or has something more serious happened to the missing man? — wishes no publicity, and Lavender agrees. The trail leads, by sheer coincidence (Lavender thinks not) to a another missing man, this one the circulation manager of a local newspaper.

   The story is lively and fun to read, with Gilly more actively involved that Watson was, but (and I hate to have to say thus) it’s seriously marred by a final conclusive clue that unfortunately means nothing to the reader and everything to Jimmy Lavender. I was somewhat mollified by a very striking last line, however.

POUL ANDERSON “Sargasso of Lost Starships.” Novella. Technic History #1. Planet Stories, January 1952. Collected in Rise of the Terran Empire (Baen, trade paperback, 2009). Reprinted as Sargasso of Lost Starships (Armchair Sci-Fi & Horror Double Novels #92, trade paperback, 2013), with The Ice Queen by Don Wilcox.

   The story opens thusly:

   Basil Donovan was drunk again.

   He sat near the open door of the Golden Planet, boots on the table, chair tilted back, one arm resting on the broad shoulder of Wocha, who sprawled on the floor beside him, the other hand clutching a tankard of ale. The tunic was open above his stained gray shirt, the battered cap was askew on his close-cropped blond hair, and his insignia–the stars of a captain and the silver leaves of an earl on Ansa–were tarnished. There was a deepening flush over his pale gaunt cheeks, and his eyes smoldered with an old rage.

   Looking out across the cobbled street, he could see one of the tall, half-timbered houses of Lanstead. It had somehow survived the space bombardment, though its neighbors were rubble, but the tile roof was clumsily patched and there was oiled paper across the broken plastic of the windows. An anachronism, looming over the great bulldozer which was clearing the wreckage next door. The workmen there were mostly Ansans, big men in ragged clothes, but a well-dressed Terran was bossing the job. Donovan cursed wearily and lifted his tankard again.

   Donovan had been a leader of the Ansan forces in their defeat at the hands of the Terran Empire. He is naturally bitter and is surprised to e taken by force to an interview with Commander Helena Jansky from Earth:

   “Sit down, Captain Donovan,” said the woman.

   He lowered himself to a chair, raking her with deliberately insolent eyes. She was young to be wearing a commander’s twin planets–young and trim and nice looking. Tall body, sturdy but graceful, well filled out in the blue uniform and red cloak; raven-black hair falling to her shoulders; strong blunt-fingered hands, one of them resting close to her sidearm. Her face was interesting, broad and cleanly molded, high cheekbones, wide full mouth, stubborn chin, snub nose, storm-gray eyes set far apart under heavy dark brows. A superior peasant type, he decided, and felt more at ease in the armor of his inbred haughtiness. He leaned back and crossed his legs.

   “I am Helena Jansky, in command of this vessel,” she said. Her voice was low and resonant, the note of strength in it. “I need you for a certain purpose. Why did you resist the Imperial summons?”

   It seems that Donovan is only of only a handful of people who have ventured into the Black Nebula and returned. Jansky needs him to guide her forces there on a return visit:

   Space burned and blazed with a million bitter-bright suns, keen cold unwinking flames strewn across the utter dark of space, flashing and flashing over the hollow gulf of the leagues and the years. The Milky Way foamed in curdled silver around that enormous night, a shining girdle jeweled with the constellations. Far and far away wheeled the mysterious green and blue-white of the other galaxies, sparks of a guttering fire with a reeling immensity between. Looking toward the bows, one saw the great star-clusters of Sagittari, the thronging host of suns burning and thundering at the heart of the Galaxy. And what have we done? thought Basil Donovan. What is man and all his proud achievements? Our home star is a dwarf on the lonely fringe of the Galaxy, out where the stars thin away toward the great emptiness. We’ve ranged maybe two hundred light-years from it in all directions and it’s thirty thousand to the Center! Night and mystery and nameless immensities around us, our day of glory the briefest flicker on the edge of nowhere, then oblivion forever–and we won’t be forgotten, because we’ll never have been noticed. The Black Nebula is only the least and outermost of the great clouds which thicken toward the Center and hide its ultimate heart from us, it is nothing even as we, and yet it holds a power older than the human race and a terror that may whelm it.

   He felt again the old quailing funk, fear crawled along his spine and will drained out of his soul. He wanted to run, escape, huddle under the sky of Ansa to hide from the naked blaze of the universe, live out his day and forget that he had seen the scornful face of God. But there was no turning back, not now, the ship was already outpacing light on her secondary drive and he was half a prisoner aboard. He squared his shoulders and walked away from the viewplate, back toward his cabin.

   Wocha was sprawled on a heap of blankets, covering the floor with his bulk. He was turning the brightly colored pages of a child’s picture book. “Boss,” he asked, “when do we kill ’em?”

   Things do not go well on the voyage. Strange voices and apparitions begin appearing to the entire crew, including Donovan:

   Donovan had not watched the Black Nebula grow over the days, swell to a monstrous thing that blotted out half the sky, lightlessness fringed with the cold glory of the stars. Now that the ship was entering its tenuous outer fringes, the heavens on either side were blurring and dimming, and the blackness yawned before. Even the densest nebula is a hard vacuum; but tons upon incredible tons of cosmic dust and gas, reaching planetary and interstellar distances on every hand, will blot out the sky. It was like rushing into an endless, bottomless hole, the ship was falling and falling into the pit of Hell.

   Eventually Donovan comes face to face with Valduma, an old nemesis slash alien lover from his previous voyage:

   Valduma stood beside Morzach for an instant, and Donovan watched her with the old sick wildness rising and clamoring in him.

   You are the fairest thing which ever was between the stars, you are ice and flame and living fury, stronger and weaker than man, cruel and sweet as a child a thousand years old, and I love you. But you are not human, Valduma.

   She was tall, and her grace was a lithe rippling flow, wind and fire and music made flesh, a burning glory of hair rushing past her black-caped shoulders, hands slim and beautiful, the strange clean-molded face white as polished ivory, the mouth red and laughing, the eyes long and oblique and gold-flecked green. When she spoke, it was like singing in Heaven and laughter in Hell. Donovan looked at her, not moving.

   “Basil, you came back to me?”

   The Terran forces lose control of their ship:

   The engines cut off and the ship snapped into normal matter state. Helena Jansky saw blood-red sunlight through the viewport. There was no time to sound the alarm before the ship crashed.

   “A hundred men. No more than a hundred men alive.”

   She [Helena] wrapped her cloak tight about her against the wind and stood looking across the camp. The streaming firelight touched her face with red, limning it against the utter dark of the night heavens, sheening faintly in the hair that blew wildly around her strong bitter countenance. Beyond, other fires danced and flickered in the gloom, men huddled around them while the cold seeped slowly to their bones. Here and there an injured human moaned.

   Across the ragged spine of bare black hills they could still see the molten glow of the wreck. When it hit, the atomic converters had run wild and begun devouring the hull. There had barely been time for the survivors to drag themselves and some of the cripples free, and to put the rocky barrier between them and the mounting radioactivity. During the slow red sunset, they had gathered wood, hewing with knives at the distorted scrub trees reaching above the shale and snow of the valley. Now they sat waiting out the night.

   Takahashi shuddered. “God, it’s cold!”

   A battle begins, one of groundshaking ferocity:

   The others were there with her, men of Drogobych standing on the heights and howling their fury. They had chains in their hands, and suddenly the air was thick with flying links.

   One of them smashed against Donovan and curled itself snake-like around his waist. He dropped his sword and tugged at the cold iron, feeling the breath strained out of him, cursing with the pain of it. Wocha reached down a hand and peeled the chain off, snapping it in two and hurling it back at the Arzunians. It whipped in the air, lashing itself across his face, and he bellowed.

   The men of Sol were weltering in a fight with the flying chains, beating them off, stamping the writhing lengths underfoot, yelling as the things cracked against their heads. “Forward!” cried Helena. “Charge–get out of here–forward, Empire!”

   The stronghold of the dying alien race is entered:

   The Terrans slogged on down the street, filthy with dust and grease and blood, uncouth shamblers, apes in the somber ruin of the gods. Donovan thought he had a glimpse of Valduma standing on a rooftop, the clean lithe fire of her, silken flame of her hair and the green unhuman eyes which had lighted in the dark at his side. She had been a living blaze, an unending trumpet and challenge, and when she broke with him it had been quick and dean, no soddenness of age and custom and–and, damn it, all the little things which made humanness.

   All right, Valduma. We’re monkeys. We’re noisy and self-important, compromisers and trimmers and petty cheats, we huddle away from the greatness we could have, our edifices are laid brick by brick with endless futile squabbling over each one–and yet, Valduma, there is something in man which you don’t have. There’s something by which these men have fought their way through everything you could loose on them, helping each other, going forward under a ridiculous rag of colored cloth and singing as they went.

   This is a prime example of a subcategory of science fiction that might be called “swords and spaceships.” The pages of Planet Stories were filled with this kind of tale, and no one did it better than Poul Anderson.

   PS. The cover illustration is perfectly correct. It must have helped hundreds of copies of the magazine on the newsstands, if not more.

PHILIP K. DICK “The Gun.” Short story. First published in Planet Stories, September 1952. First collected in Beyond Lies the Wub (Underwood Miller, hardcover, 1987; volume one of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, sold only as a five-volume set.) Also collected in The King of the Elves (Subterranean Press, hardcover, 2011), among others.

   This appears to have been Philip K. Dick’s second published SF story, not including some he had published in a college newspaper. The first also appeared in Planet Stories, that being “Beyond Lies the Wub” in the July 1952 issue. “The Gun” is a minor story, admittedly, a fact reflected by noting that all of its later reprint appearances gave been in collections of his early work and never picked up for a major anthology of any import.

   In 1952 the quality of the stories in Planet Stories was beginning to pick up. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett had been appearing all through the 40s, but authors such as Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson and Eric Frank Russell were beginning to be added to the mix. (Anderson, for example, had a story in this same issue; see below. Also among his early work, but still a sign of significant improvement.)

   It is not clear whether the devastated planet is Earth or the crew of the spaceship that comes to investigate is from Earth (my sense was it was the latter), but an atomic war had left the planet covered with bare earth or uninhabitable slag. And yet the investigating ship is shot down without warning, from a gun they could not see.

   A veteran SF reader will know right away that the gun is acting on it own, a remnant of two sides fighting each other to the bitter end. They manage to disable to gun so they can safely take off, but a twist in the end suggests that they have made a serious error.

   What adds a bit of poignancy to the story is the discovery of a hidden horde of material hidden away for safekeeping by one of the two warring sides about their culture. It is this single factor that makes this short take stand out, if only in a small way, hinting that the author may have had a future ahead of him. Which of course he did.

      Other stories in this issue (thanks to ISFDb) —

4 • Evil Out of Onzar • novella by Mark Ganes
30 • Zero Data • novelette by Charles Saphro
46 • The Gun • short story by Philip K. Dick
54 • The Star Plunderer • [Technic History] • novelette by Poul Anderson
70 • Thompson’s Cat • short story by Robert Moore Williams
78 • Big Pill • short story by Raymond Z. Gallun
90 • The Slaves of Venus • novelette by James E. Gunn [as by Edwin James]

ERIC TAYLOR “Kali.” Short story. First published in All Star Detective Stories, November 1929. No cover image available. Reprinted in The First Mystery Megapack (Wildside Press, ebook, April 2011).

   As a detective pulp, All Star Detective was not in top tier of those being published at the same time, but it did last for some 26 issues between October 1929 and June 1932. Most of the authors they published were unknowns even then, but the list does contain a few whose names are still recognizable today, such as Leslie Charteris, Erle Stanley Gardner, T. T. Flynn, and Johnston McCulley.

   You can let me know if you disagree, but Eric Taylor, is not likely to be one of them. He did write several dozen stories for the detective pulps between 1927 and 1937. Even before that, he began his career with a handful of stories in 1926 for Droll Stories and others in that particular category. Starting in 1937 or so, he switched gears and began writing for Hollywood, churning out scripts for many of the Ellery Queen movies, plus the Crime Doctor and The Whistler films, Universal’s monster movies and so on. He died in 1952.

   The story “Kali” is, however, does not add a lot of weight to his resumé. How the folks at Wildside Press happened to choose this one for one their many collections of old genre stories I do not know. It’s the story of a young guy named Roy who loves a girl named Margaret who is trapped into living in a well-fortified prison of a house with her guardian “aunt” and he new husband, a mysterious Bengali by the name of Ishan Dan Bahaji.

   Margaret will not receive her inheritance if she marries without her aunt’s permission before she is 23, and the Bengali’s influence over the aunt means that that will never happen. Worse, strange things are going on the house, and Roy’s attempts to break in and learn what they might be always end in fierce battles — and sudden deaths — with a small cadde of loyal servants.

   The writing is crude, true, but it also has a lot of momentum. Back in 1929, the secret that lives behind the barred door of the house would have been not only plausible but also something fearfully terrible. Not quite so much today — the title of the tale may give you a bit of a clue — but I have admit that the drive behind the tale is still there.

  HUGH B. CAVE “The Late Mr. Smythe.” Short story. Peter Kane #1. First published in Dime Detective Magazine, August 1, 1934. Collected in Bottled in Blonde (Fedogan & Bremer, hardcover, 2000) and The Complete Cases of Peter Kane (Altus Press, 2018; introduction by Bob Byrne).

   Private eyes in detective fiction are as often as not hard drinkers, and some of them are awfully good at it. But few of them are as good at it as was Peter Kane. There isn’t a single minute in “The Late Mr. Smythe” in which he isn’t totally sozzled. I can’t believe that anyone could go through life the same way he does, in three stages: drunk, drunker, and completely plastered.

   A former member of the Boston police department, Kane nominally now works for the Beacon Detective Agency, but in “The Late Mr. Smythe,” he takes the death of a friend of his still on the force personally, and he works full time on this one on his own to bring the killer(s) to justice.

   The first death is that of a blackmailer named Smiley Smythe, and when a cop named Hoban tries to bring his suspected killer in, a hoodlum named Joe DiVina, both men are killed by a torrent of machine gun fire from a car that comes speeding by.

   Besides Kane, who spends a lot of time at a bar run by a fellow named Limpy, the other recurring characters are Moe Finch, the hapless chief of police, who continually begs for Kane’s assistance; and Kane’s nemesis still on the force, Lt. Moroni. It is always Kane’s pleasure to not only solve the case at hand, but to show up Moroni as well, and in the most dramatic way he can.

   Hugh B. Cave is best known for his tales of horror and weird menace, but in this, the first of Peter Kane’s cases on record, he shows he could write very very good detective stories too. Surprisingly good, given Peter Kane’s way with either a glass or the bottle.

      The Peter Kane series —

The Late Mr. Smythe. Dime Detective Magazine Aug 1 1934
Hell on Hume Street. Dime Detective Magazine Nov 1 1934
Bottled in Blonde. Dime Detective Magazine Jan 1 1935
The Man Who Looked Sick. Dime Detective Magazine Apr 1 1935
The Screaming Phantom . Dime Detective Magazine May 1 1935
The Brand of Kane. Dime Detective Magazine Jun 15 1935
Ding Dong Belle. Dime Detective Magazine Aug 1941
The Dead Don’t Swim. Dime Detective Magazine Nov 1941
No Place to Hide. Dime Detective Magazine Feb 1942

by Michael Shonk

THE AVENGER. WHN transcribed services. July 18, 1941 – November 3, 1942. Cast: Unknown except for Humphrey Davis as Mac. Written, directed and produced by Maurice Joachim. Other writers, directors and producers unknown. Some episodes based on stories in THE AVENGER pulp magazine by Kenneth Robeson (Paul Ernst); plots by Henry Ralston.

THE AVENGER. Syndicated, Charles Michelson syndication. October 25, 1945. Cast: James Monks as Jim Brandon (Dick Janiver may have also performed the role) and Helen Adamson as Fern Collier. Writers: Gil and Ruth Braun. Produced by Charles Michelson- Walter B. Gibson involvement uncertain.

   As with much of entertainment history, there are conflicting alleged facts when one examines old-time radio and The Avenger is no exception. Let’s start with a couple of important sources of confusion. The WHN version is based on the Street & Smith’s pulp hero and the 1945 version has a different character and premise, created by Gil and Ruth Braun. Walter B. Gibson (THE SHADOW) was involved in the creation of the Street & Smith pulp character and while he was involved in some way with the 1945 AVENGER, there is some doubt he wrote any of the episodes.

   If you have any questions about S&S THE AVENGER, the place to start looking is Howard Hopkins’ GRAY NEMESIS (2008).

   In 1939 Street & Smith was searching for a new hero to follow the success of The Shadow and Doc Savage. Business Manger Henry W. Ralston, editor John L. Nanovic with writers Walter B. Gibson (THE SHADOW) and Lester Dent (DOC SAVAGE) created The Avenger. Paul Ernst was asked to write the series. He turned it down.

   Howard Hopkins (GRAY NEMESIS) wrote Ernst took the job after “Nanovic gave him the cash, the idea, and the plots.” The cash was $750 a book. Ralston, Nanovic, Gibson and Dent supplied the idea, but who did the plots for the pulp?

   In ON THE AIR – ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD-TIME RADIO John Denning claimed Henry Ralston supplied plots for the radio series. Could Ralston have done it for the pulp version too?

   Using the house name of Kenneth Robeson, Paul Ernst would write the first twenty-four pulp magazine adventures.

   The S&S The Avenger was millionaire adventurer Richard Henry Benson. After he lost his wife and daughter to criminals, Benson became The Avenger and devoted his life to fighting evildoers everywhere.

   The Avenger led a group of crime fighters called Justice Inc.: Algernon Heathcote “Smitty” Smith electronic genius, Fergus “Mac” MacMurdie chemist, Nellie Gray young blonde martial arts expert, married black couple and college graduates Josh and Rosabel Newton and later on Cole Wilson engineer and sort of a Benson copy. Reportedly Josh, Rosabel and Cole never appeared in the radio series.

   THE AVENGER magazine lasted from September 1939 until September 1942. There were five short stories in CLUES DETECTIVE (1942-43) and a novelette in THE SHADOW (August 1, 1944); all six written by Emile Tepperman.

   According to “Billboard” magazine (June 19, 1943) publisher Street & Smith was looking for a way to keep its titles alive as print sales fell and radio listener numbers rose. Street & Smith would provide scripts to a radio station for free. The station would produce the show paying royalties only if the series was sponsored. Various S & S titles turned to radio including Doc Savage (WMCA – New York) and The Avenger (WHN – New York). The 1943 article stated, “…deals currently working are airing of DOC SAVAGE, weekly half-hour on WMCA; THE AVENGER, being showcased on WHN…”

   According to the “NY Times” radio logs (source: J.J. Newspaper Radio logs) the series aired on Tuesday at 9:30 pm or Tuesday at 9 pm beginning July 18 1941 and the last episode I can find in the logs was November 3, 1942

   According to “Broadcasting” (September 22, 1941) WHN had chosen THE AVENGER as their first series to syndicate. The WHN version of THE AVENGER was a transcribed series airing live on Tuesday (it aired at 9:30-10 and moved to 9-9:30pm December 9 1941).

   One of the chapters in GRAY NEMESIS deals with the radio series. “Broadcasting Benson” by Doug Ellis (1988) helps answer many of the questions about the radio series, but needs some updating. Among his sources were the “New York Times” radio logs and the few remaining scripts.

   Ellis noted the series was syndicated and appeared on other stations but makes no mention of what stations. After reading the “New York Times” radio logs, Ellis noted the series lasted sixty-two weeks but there were only twenty-six stories produced, and reruns and station pre-emptions filled the rest of the run.

   However the series may have lasted longer. The twenty-sixth episode aired January 6. 1942, Yet In “Billboard’ (May 16 1942) columnist Jerry Lesser wrote he was replacing Wendell Holmes on THE AVENGER, but he offered no clue what part he would play. “Variety” (September 16, 1942) reported Bill Zucker joined the cast of THE AVENGER. Both were hired after the twenty-sixth and alleged last original episode reportedly aired.

   Little is known about the cast. John Dunning’s ON AIR claimed an unknown New York actor played The Avenger and the only known cast member was Humphrey Davis who played Mac. Maurice Joachim who wrote, directed and produced at least four of the episodes was also a successful radio actor and could have been part of the cast.

   From the surviving scripts we know some of the episodes adapted Paul Ernst’s stories but the series also had original stories. The titles of the seven surviving scripts are TEAR DROP TANK (an original story for radio), THE HATE MASTER, RIVER OF ICE, THREE GOLD CROWNS, BLOOD RING, THE DEVIL’S HORNS, and THE AVENGER (YELLOW HOARD). The scripts are reprinted in Doug Ellis’ PULP VAULT issues 1-5.

   October 2001 at the Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention a group of fans called Radio Active Players recreated the lost radio show’s episode based on Paul Ernst’s YELLOW HOARD from the script called THE AVENGER. The Players were Tom Powers, Richard McConville, Carol Smith, Marc Yelverton and Rich Harvey. The production can be heard on YouTube and is better than one would expect and recommended.

   YELLOW HOARD was the pulp series’ second story. It would introduce Nellie Gray to Justice Inc. The team in the pulp at that time included Benson The Avenger, Smitty and Mac. The radio version had Nellie as an established member of Justice Inc with Benson, Smitty and Mac.

THE AVENGER (September 9, 1941)

   Nellie Gray’s father Professor Gray had led a group of men in an archaeological dig in Mexico where they had discovered a group of clay bricks with mysterious writing. The men divide up the bricks and return to United States with hopes of solving the mystery of the writing on the bricks.

   Someone using strange peanut shaped explosives began to kill for the Mexican bricks. Justice Inc would solve the mystery of the bricks and bring the bad guys to justice.

   YELLOW HOARD is a pulp thriller at its best. Pages filled with non-stop action, violence, danger, death, and endless twists and too much to fit in a half hour weekly radio series.

   Changes were made from minor points such as the pulp’s Aztec treasure was turned into a Mayan treasure in the radio versions to Nellie being arrested for her father’s murder being dropped from the radio story. Maurice Joachim’s script may have lost much of the pulp’s atmosphere but it got close enough to make the radio version entertaining.

   However I wonder if the stories would have worked better as a radio serial such as CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, FLASH GORDON, SUPERMAN and TARZAN.

   Today many questions remain unanswered or the answer doubted. How many episodes were there? Who was in the cast? Who wrote the series? Did S&S ever publish the radio’s original stories? If there were more than twenty-six episodes could any of those episodes had featured Josh, Rosabel, or Cole? If it was syndicated could a copy still survive?

   In 1945 Street & Smith’s AVENGER was gone except for maybe an appearance in THE SHADOW comic book. A new syndicated radio series aired featuring a new and different character that would steal THE AVENGER name and THE SHADOW premise.

   “Broadcasting” (October 25, 1945) reported Charles Michelson Inc NYC who distributed THE SHADOW planned to add a new series called THE AVENGER. According to “Broadcasting” there were fifty-two episodes of the thirty-minute open-end transcribed series available to stations for local sponsors. (Today many believe only 26 were made and all survive.)

   “Billboard” (October 12, 1946) mentioned Gil and Ruth Braun had sold the idea for the radio series THE AVENGER after Gil had gotten out of the Army. No mention of The Shadow’s pulp writer Walter B. Gibson.

   According to RADIO DRAMA AND COMEDY WRITERS 1928-1962 by Ryan Ellett (McFarland & Co.) Gil and Ruth Braun wrote all the episodes. Today it is commonly believed Walter B. Gibson also wrote for the series. According to Ellett, Gibson did not write for the series, but he was involved in some unknown way.

   My guess is Gibson may have provided some of the plots. Some of the plots were worthy of THE SHADOW, but the stories and writing lacked Gibson’s style. Magician Gibson was too fond of magic to write scripts that explained magic away with science.

   The Avenger was biochemist Jim Brandon. Brandon had invented a telepathic indicator that allowed him to catch flashes of other people’s thoughts and a secret diffusion capsule that when broken allowed him to be invisible with the power of black light. Aided by his version of Margot Lane the beautiful assistant Fern Collier, the two fought crime, and annoyed whatever police detective was in charge (usually the hot-tempered and stupid Inspector White).

   The plots ranged from standard murder mysteries to weird science fiction. The series is almost a direct copy of THE SHADOW but changed the one thing that made THE SHADOW a success. Instead of a mysterious hero with magic powers learned in the mystical Orient like The Shadow, Jim Brandon was a dull scientist who explained it all with science, sucking all the fun and atmosphere from the stories.

HIGH TIDE MURDER (October 25, 1945)

   The premiere episode starts out slow with Jim and Fern burdened with too much exposition. Inspector White can’t solve the murders of jewelry salesmen until Jim and Fern join in and THE AVENGER goes to work.

   The music by Doc Whipple at beginning and end was a placeholder available for stations to add local commercials.

   The production was average with decent acting. The writing was its weakness. The series often talked down to the audience with the characters often over-explaining what happened and why.


   An over-the-top evil mad scientist is searching for human brains to build his army of robots. Fern has fallen into the villain’s clutches and only The Avenger can save her.

   Golly gee whiz even the kids in the audience laughed at how bad this episode was.

THE CRYPT OF THOTH. (December 13, 1945)

   A great example of what could have been a spooky mystical mystery turned into a dull procedural. A scientist is killed inside the Crypt of Thoth. Is he a victim of the Ancient Egyptian God of Death? Maybe if this was an episode of THE SHADOW but we are stuck with THE AVENGER who explains in boring detail how it was done.

   Today there are twenty-six surviving episodes of Jim Brandon The Avenger. Few except OTR fans remember him and many of them mix him up with the pulp hero.

   Meanwhile Richard Henry Benson remains alive today. Much of his survival is due to the 1973-74 Warner Brothers Paperback Library reprints of Ernst’s twenty-four THE AVENGER stories. With the series success in paperback the publisher turned to Ron Goulart to write twelve more adventures.

   The character has appeared in comic books, from THE SHADOW comic in the 1940s to DC comics off and on since the late 1980s.

   Today publisher Moonstone has kept the character alive in comic books, short story collections and novels. More are on their way.

   Paul Ernst’s version of THE AVENGER remains my favorite of all pulp series. Few pulps share modern day approved social views while maintaining the pulp’s sense of adventure and justice.

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