There are quite a few collections of Lester Dent’s pulp stories available now, and I’ll eventually get to all of them, trust me. Dent is one of my all-time favorite authors and has been ever since that day in 1964 when I plunked down a quarter, two dimes, and two pennies (sales tax, you know) for a brand-spanking new copy of the Doc Savage novel METEOR MENACE off the paperback spinner rack in Tompkins’ Drugstore.
THE CRIME SPECTACULARIST is a collection that originally came out in 2006, but it’s still in print and available from Pulpville Press. It includes two novelettes and a novella starring Foster Fade, a private detective who works exclusively for a New York tabloid called The Planet. His job is to root out spectacular crimes and solve them, well, spectacularly, thereby increasing The Planet’s circulation when the paper runs exclusive stories about these exploits. Fade supposedly writes these stories, but since he’s a detective and adventurer, not a scribbler, the yarns are actually ghosted by his sidekick, a beautiful platinum blonde named Din Stevens who carries an automatic in her purse and is not averse to using it.
If that bit of background doesn’t catch your interest, you might as well stop reading this post. As for me . . . boy, I love this stuff. The three stories in THE CRIME SPECTACULARIST originally appeared in the pulp ALL DETECTIVE in 1934, which was also the second year of Dent’s Doc Savage novels and quite possibly the best year in the whole run of that series. So Dent was pretty much at the top of his game when he wrote these Foster Fade stories, and it shows. The first one, “Hell in Boxes” concerns the deadly and mysterious Aroma Assassin, whose murders are accompanied by a distinctive smell. Dent throws in some killers from South America, as well. The second story, “White-Hot Corpses”, centers around nefarious shenanigans at a creepy, deserted amusement park (a great setting for a story like this) and features one of the grotesque, oddball murder methods that Dent often came up with for his stories. And the third story, “Murder in Circles” is the longest and best of the bunch, with Fade and Din trying to track down some parrots found floating at sea in a canoe. Why those parrots are so important is a mystery, but the quest to recover them involves half a dozen killings, another mysterious murder method, and an isolated Caribbean island. This story could have easily been done as a Doc Savage novel, but at this stage of his career Dent was so imaginative I don’t imagine he had much trouble coming up with plenty of plots.
An added attraction in these stories is the way Dent’s hardboiled prose gallops along at such a breath-taking pace. Most of the time, he was one of the best pure storytellers who worked in the pulps, and once you start any of these stories, you’ll want to keep flipping the pages until you get to the end.
Foster Fade is similar to Doc Savage (and other Dent characters) in that he’s obsessed with gadgets and always has some gizmo handy to help him get out of whatever jam he’s in. He wisecracks a lot more than Doc ever did, though. But as far as I’m concerned, Din Stevens sort of steals the show in these stories. She’s a great character, brave when she has to be, as quick with a wisecrack as her boss, and a real babe, to boot. Dent should have written more stories about her. She could have carried her own series.
It’s also interesting that Fade and Din work for a newspaper called The Planet. It’s been fairly well established that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were heavily influenced by Doc Savage in their creation of Superman, and here’s another instance where they might have been influenced by Dent’s work. Sure, the paper in these stories is a tabloid, and it’s called The Planet, not The Daily Planet, but that strikes me as close enough to be a possibility, anyway. So does the relationship between Fade and Din. A lot of their dialogue could have easily come out of the mouths of Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
All in all, THE CRIME SPECTACULARIST is a fine collection, and if you’re a fan of fast-paced pulp adventure stories, I can’t recommend it highly enough.