Friday, March 15, 2013

Forgotten Books: Plague of the Golden Death - Brant House (G.T. Fleming-Roberts)

"Plague of the Golden Death", from the December 1937 issue of the pulp magazine SECRET AGENT X, is one of the more unusual entries I've read in this series. Like The Shadow and The Spider, the Secret Agent is a veteran of the Great War and served as an American intelligence officer during that conflict. Most of the time in the pulps, the crime-fighting hero's wartime exploits are just mentioned, but "Plague of the Golden Death" actually opens during World War I and gives us a glimpse of Secret Agent X during those perilous days.

Only the first chapter, though, and then the scene jumps ahead twenty years to Hollywood, where X has come in response to a plea for help. Many will die if he doesn't solve the secret of the Golden Death, that mysterious summons claims, and sure enough, that happens when the crowd at a movie premiere is attacked with a deadly gas. Almost before you know it, X is captured by the minions of the criminal mastermind who calls himself the Golden Death (yes, the bad guy and the murder method have the same name, which is a little confusing at times) and hauled to the top of the HOLLYWOOD sign, where he's about to be thrown off to his death!

And after that, things start to get a little goofy. In fact, for most of the novel the plot seems to make very little sense, and this in a series that was never known for being rigorously plotted to start with. Secret Agent X (a master of disguise, remember?) spends most of his time pretending to be matinee idol Grant Howard, who's starring in a World War I epic called "Armistice". Naturally, X winds up acting in the movie instead of Howard and gets to take part in some battle scenes much like the ones in which he really participated. Inspector Burks, X's nemesis from New York, shows up, as does his sometimes girlfriend and assistant, perky blond reporter Betty Dale. The Golden Death kills a bunch of people. And after I spent a lot of time thinking there's no way author G.T. Fleming-Roberts could ever find a way for this hodge-podge of a plot to make sense . . . darned if he doesn't do just that. In fact, he nails down just about every plot point. Sure, some of them may be a little bit of a stretch . . . but I'm not going to worry about that in a pulp novel, are you?

Even when I thought the whole yarn had come off the rails, I enjoyed many of the scenes. As over the top as it is, the stuff about the HOLLYWOOD sign works really well in Fleming-Roberts' hardboiled prose. So does the big battle scene on the movie studio back-lot that forms the novel's climax. Once the Agent's summation of the plot at the end put everything in its place, I wound up thinking that this is one of the best Secret Agent X novels I've read. It's certainly one of the strangest. If you're a fan of this series, you definitely need to read it, which you soon can in an inexpensive reprint editon from Beb Books.

1 comment:

Walker Martin said...

Out of all the hero pulp titles, I've always thought that SECRET AGENT X was one of the very best. Probably because of Fleming-Roberts. Only THE SPIDER could compare and in many respects they are very similar especially with the over the top plots and weird menace atmosphere.