Like the Secret Agent X novels, it’s hard to consider the Black Bat novels truly forgotten because they’re being reprinted, but since they’re probably not very prominent on the public’s radar, we’re going to fudge a little.
The pulp BLACK BOOK DETECTIVE existed for several years before 1939, but with the July issue of that year, it became what’s known as a character pulp, rather than a general detective pulp. The lead novel in that issue, “Brand of the Black Bat”, introduced Tony Quinn, the District Attorney in an unnamed city that seems to be patterned after New York. During the trial of mobster Oliver Snate (what a great name!), Quinn is attacked by hired thugs who wind up throwing acid in his face, blinding him. Snate is acquitted, and because of Quinn’s injuries, he has to retire as the DA. He plunges for a time into despair, helped only by his butler, the reformed con man and small-time crook Norton “Silk” Kirby.
Then a beautiful, mysterious woman shows up and tells Quinn she knows of a doctor who can perform a delicate operation that will cure his blindness. Willing to take any chance to restore his sight, Quinn submits to the operation, and sure enough, he can see again. Actually, his sight is even better than before, because now he can even see in almost total darkness. So what does he do?
Well, this is a pulp magazine from 1939, after all. He decides to pretend to still be blind, so he can don a hood and cape, call himself the Black Bat, and fight crime, of course. And the first criminal he goes after is none other than Oliver Snate, as well as the mysterious mastermind who is pulling Snate’s strings.
I don’t believe I’ve ever read a Black Bat novel before, and if they’re all as good as this origin story, I’ve been missing something. “Brand of the Black Bat” is a lot of fun, with colorful writing, plenty of action, and a few plot twists, though no real jaw-droppers. Originally published under the house-name G. Wayman Jones, the character is actually the creation of veteran pulp author (and later prolific paperbacker) Norman A. Daniels. Daniels’ style is fast-paced and straight-forward, without the wordiness that afflicted some pulp authors, and his plots are usually inventive without being too bizarre.
“Brand of the Black Bat” has been reprinted recently by Altus Press in THE BLACK BAT OMNIBUS, VOLUME 1, the initial entry in a project intended to reprint the entire series. It features a fine introduction by pulp expert (and long-time friend of mine) Tom Johnson. Some people have tried to draw a parallel between the Black Bat and Batman, claiming that one was influenced by the other, but Tom’s introduction proves this not to be the case. The Black Bat was intended to be similar to The Shadow, but he also reminds me considerably of The Spider, with the way he pastes a cutout of a black bat on the foreheads of the crooks he guns down.
I really enjoyed this novel, and if you’re a fan of good pulp yarns and haven’t met the Black Bat yet, you owe it to yourself to pick up this volume and give it a try. Highly recommended.