FREDERICK NEBEL – East of Singapore. Black Dog Books, chapbook, 2004. First published in Action Stories, July 1926, under the title “Somewhere East of Singapore.”

FREDERICK NEBEL East of Singapore

   Back before Tom Roberts and his associates at Black Dog Books were publishing their current array of perfect-bound paperbacks – all of which if you are a pulp fiction fan of all forms and varieties, I highly recommend to you – they produced a short series of tall saddle-stapled chapbooks, of which this is one.

   I don’t know what the print run might have been for these early examples of their production art, but I imagine it was small. The number of pulp collectors who might have purchased this particular one, to pick a prime example, is not very large, and I suspect that those who did buy one have kept them. At any rate, when I checked yesterday, there was not a single copy being offered for sale on the Internet.

   The original price was $10, and perhaps back in 2004, that was relatively steep for a 68 page paperback. Still, considering how long it would take you to find a copy of Action Stories from any month in 1926, and how much you’d probably have to fork over for it, the ten bucks outlay might seem OK after all.

   And if you were to get your hands on one, what then? You may ask. A mixed bag, if you were to ask me. Nebel’s prose is clear and descriptive and often a joy too read. Picking the book open and choosing a passage (from page 5, taking place in the streets of Singapore):

   Berk chuckled. He left the sailor quarter behind and soon found himself on the wide street of the bazaars – squat, solid buildings with the upper stories extending over the walk and forming a continuous shed. And red lanterns, and grotesque Chinese inscriptions in black on flaming red paper. Spicy odors of food from a restaurant reminded Berk that he was hungry. But he was broke, and so…

   And from page 28, as Jack Berk and his companion Marty Young, white men both, and young and daring, make their way through the Borneo jungle, searching for a treasure lode of buried jewels, on behalf of a beautiful girl:

   Yes, the outlaw Kyan band was slinking through the undergrowth in search of human heads. Ten in all, led by a ferocious fellow who wore pheasant feathers in his hair, a breech clout of bark-cloth and a sleeveless, vest-like garment of leopard’s skin. He was grotesquely tattooed and wore a string of boar’s teeth around his neck. His oblong shield was trimmed with tufts of human hair. He carried a spear with a beaten metal point and also a sampitan, or blow-pipe.

   That I mentioned that Berk and Young are white is important. The natives are “heathen rascals” (page 9) and from page 12: “A reckless disregard of odds has ever been the bright badge of those white men who have ventured among strange peoples and lifted the white man head and shoulders above his duskier brothers.”

   Please don’t forget that this was written in 1926. Fiction can often tell us more about ourselves than any history book ever could. The real flaw in this story is that it is all action, the outcome is foreordained from the beginning, and the final few chapters can be skimmed through with no fear of missing anything important. But if fast and furious jungle action is your wish, along with immersing yourself in the allure of the mysterious Far East, then this adventure caper has both, and in depth.