Here we go with another novel from the pages of the pulp SECRET AGENT X, this time “The Golden Ghoul” from the July 1935 issue, which will appear sometime in the future as a reprint from Beb Books. (If there are any FTC spies lurking out there, the reason I get to read these volumes ahead of time is because I proofread the reprint’s page proofs for the publisher. Make of that what you will.)
The author behind the “Brant House” pseudonym this time around is G.T. Fleming-Roberts, known for his science-fictional plots and the fact that his Secret Agent X novels often feature a femme fatale. The latter is certainly true in this novel, as adventuress, blackmailer, and murderer, the beautiful Drew Devon, plays a big role in the action. Things get off to an inauspicious start, as the criminal mastermind known only as the Golden Ghoul is carrying out one of the most overdone schemes in pulp fiction: threatening to kill rich men with his mysterious, gruesome weapon called the Amber Death unless they pony up big payoffs. Naturally, Secret Agent X, utilizing a wide variety of disguises, sets out to stop the Golden Ghoul, expose his true identity, and bring him to justice.
Despite the rather weak plot, several things make this novel worth reading if you’re a fan of pulp fiction. Fleming-Roberts’ prose is pretty terse and hardboiled, and there are several really good action scenes. There’s also some nice skulking around in the musty old catacombs underneath an opium den, where the Golden Ghoul’s headquarters is located. Then there’s the gimmick that the Ghoul’s henchmen use to mysteriously appear and disappear, and it’s one that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. I don’t know if it would actually work or not, but it seems like it might. I can’t say any more without venturing into spoiler territory, though. And finally, Drew Devon is a pretty good character, the sort of villain that you can almost root for at times.
Fleming-Roberts is often regarded as the best author of the Secret Agent X novels, and that’s understandable given the fast pace of his work and the nice flourishes he includes. Myself, I have a fondness for the purple prose and over-the-top melodramatics of Paul Chadwick, who created the character and wrote many of the early novels in the series, but I like the Fleming-Roberts entries, too. “The Golden Ghoul” isn’t a top-tier Secret Agent X novel, but it’s a good, solid pulp adventure yarn and well worth reading.
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