When you saw the title RINGMASTER OF DOOM and the by-line Brant House, you probably thought, “Hey, a Secret Agent X novel about the circus!” I know that’s the first thing that went through my mind. Well, as it turns out, this is a Secret Agent X novel, all right, from the November 1935 issue of the pulp magazine of the same name, but there’s no sign of a circus. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good pulp yarn.
This one finds New York City being terrorized by a series of robberies and kidnappings being carried out by brutal, misshapen fiends who look like Neanderthal men. (And speaking of Neanderthals terrorizing modern-day America, I believe there’s a Spider novel by Norvell Page that features the same sort of menace.) Naturally, Secret Agent X has to investigate, and he starts at a fabulous society party being hosted by one of the rich men targeted for kidnapping. While he’s there he has his first violent encounter with one of the beast-men and also runs into a beautiful, redheaded, evil female spy he first crossed swords with during the Great War. From there it’s one breathless adventure after another as the Agent battles the schemes of the mysterious mastermind who calls himself Thoth, after the Egyptian god of the dead, and even wears an ibis-headed mask to make himself look like Thoth.
You know by now whether or not you love this stuff or think it’s just about the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard of. And you know which camp I fall into. You’ve got your Neanderthals serving as henchmen for a criminal genius. You’ve got said criminal genius lashing his prisoners with an electric whip. You’ve got Secret Agent X escaping death-trap after death-trap by the skin of his teeth. And finally you’ve got a battle royal in a network of abandoned sewers along the East River that’s being flooded. There’s not much time to take a breath in this one, and that’s good, of course, because it is wildly, unabashedly, and wonderfully goofy.
But no circus. That setting was a staple of pulp yarns. I don’t know if any of the Secret Agent X novels takes place in a circus, but it would have been a good setting for the Agent to have an adventure. As it is, RINGMASTER OF DOOM is a lot of fun, and as usual, it will soon be available in an affordable reprint edition from our friends at Beb Books.
Interview with Lisa Unger
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