Friday, February 10, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Murder Brain - Brant House (G.T. Fleming-Roberts)

"The Murder Brain", from the April 1937 issue of SECRET AGENT X, like many of the novels by G.T. Fleming-Roberts in this series, opens in the middle of the action with the Secret Agent already on the trail of a criminal mastermind known as The Brain. (No mention of Pinky, however. Narf!) The Brain is behind a series of killings that have been branded the White Cross Murders, because the victims are found with a white circle painted around them and a cross inside that circle that falls over their bodies.

Also as usual, Secret Agent X puts his skill at disguise to good use as he attempts to foil The Brain's plans. He's not known as the Man of a Thousand Faces for nothing. In addition to some of his common false identities, he also masquerades as a Federal agent, assorted criminals, a financier, and even The Brain himself.

The plotting in this one seems a little thinner and more haphazard than in some Secret Agent X novels, but with his hardboiled prose Fleming-Roberts never lets the pace slow down for very long. Not only that, but he comes up with an excellent character in Sally Vergane, a crazed gun moll who's determined to avenge the death of her former lover, gangster Wolf Hollis. But is Hollis really dead? That's an intriguing question as well, with an answer that sort of surprised me. The last couple of chapters are a veritable whirlwind of action that culminates in a fine showdown in the sewers underneath New York City.

"The Murder Brain" doesn't fall into the top rank of Secret Agent X stories, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun to read if you're a pulp fan. The upcoming reprint from Beb Books also includes a novelette from the same issue, "Redheaded Decoy" by Don Cameron. If my memory's not playing tricks on me, Cameron wrote a Phantom Detective novel that I enjoyed, "The Television Murders", but other than that I haven't read anything by him that I recall. "Redheaded Decoy" is a clever yarn about a group of G-men attempting to trap some kidnappers, as well as the case's action-packed aftermath. I liked it, too, and probably ought to read more of Don Cameron's work.

UPDATE: According to Will Murray's introduction in PHANTOMS IN BRONZE, a collection of Phantom Detective novels by Laurence Donovan, Donovan wrote "The Television Murders", not Don Cameron. But Cameron's "Redheaded Decoy" is still pretty good.


Walker Martin said...

I no longer collect the hero pulps but when I did back in the 1970's and 1980's, I thought SECRET AGENT X was one of the most readable titles. I enjoyed THE SPIDER alot also because of the crazy weird menace plots and fast action.

For the most part I found the hero pulp titles to be pretty unreadable, after all they were aimed at the teenage boy market. Many suffered from the stupid sidekick problem, examples being DOC SAVAGE with Monk and Ham, plus G-8 with Bull and Nippy. These guys made the B-western sidekicks look brilliant.

However, SECRET AGENT X was an exception, mainly because of GT Fleming-Roberts.

George said...

Love the cover with that bride skeleton in the coffin! I have a few Brant House epics. Now I have to read one. You make it sound like fun!

Anonymous said...

In the 1970s when I lived for a short time in Brown County, Indiana I learned that G.T. Fleming-Roberts (then deceased) had owned and lived in a house in the same town (Nashville). The house was uninhabited and I went for a look and walked around. Beautiful view overlooking mountain wilderness and cowled stone statues here and there about the lawn. His writing career ended with the end of the pulp magazines and his later years were spent as a court recorder in Indianapolis. I've read several of his short stories set in Brown County, all of which were rich in an evocation of that artists' community near Bloomington.

--Stephen Mertz

Monte Herridge said...

Good to see a review of a G.T. Fleming-Roberts story. I probably should read some of these Secret Agent X stories he wrote. I have reprints of five of the ones he wrote, but haven't gotten around to reading them yet. His other stories are pretty good, especially his detective stories. Read his stories in the Pat Oberron series, a private detective series from the 1940s.

Sean Ellis said...

Did you hear about some guy that wrote a Secret Agent X novel a couple years ago? Oh, wait...that was me. Shameless self promotion. But seriously, I discovered SA X for the first time a couple years back when someone wanted me to write some short stories for an anthology. Back then, it was tough finding any information about him, but I came across a couple of the old stories and fell in love with the character.

Steve Payne said...

Howdy, James,

Good to see that you're reviewing Ace's old character, Secret Agent X, keeping his memory alive! I really appreciate your analysis of the stories and the characters. They're spot on.

Don't know if you remember me, but I'm Steve Payne, who scribbled a trio of Agent X novels for Tom Johnson's old Double Danger Tales. I never got to tell you, but I appreciated the kind words you wrote long ago, regarding my first X novel, The Freezing Fiends. It was actually my first piece of fiction! Matt Moring's Altus Press is reprinting my second novel, Master of Madness, due out in a few weeks. And I'm planning a fourth X tale, The Resurrection Ring, which I hope to complete later in the year. It's an origin of sorts for the Man of a Thousand Faces. And it will feature the return of a major enemy of the Agent--maybe even a pair of them, if I can make the narrative work. It will also feature a character who figured prominently, but never appeared in person. Hmmmm.....

Keep up the good work on your X reviews and other writing. And thanks for helping to keep pulp alive!