Friday, March 20, 2020

Forgotten Books: When Tigers are Hunting: The Complete Adventures of Cordie, Soldier of Fortune, Volume 1 - W. Wirt

About 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started collecting issues of the pulp ARGOSY, I noticed that many of them featured stories in a series about a soldier of fortune named Jimmie Cordie, written by someone bylined as W. Wirt. I’d never heard of the author or character before, but I was intrigued by the series. I just never (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) got around to reading any of them.

Well, since then I’ve learned that the author’s name was really William Wirt and that he was active in the pulps for only about ten years, from the late Twenties to the late Thirties. Jimmie Cordie was indeed a soldier of fortune, one of a small group of adventurers who ranged all over the globe in search of excitement and fortune. I’ve also discovered that there’s been some controversy about the series—but I’ll get to that later.

A while back, Altus Press began reprinting the complete Jimmie Cordie series. I decided it was time for me to read the stories, and when I picked up the first reprint volume, WHEN TIGERS ARE HUNTING, I found out that the series didn’t actually start in ARGOSY but rather in another pulp, FRONTIER STORIES. This volume includes the first eight stories in the series, which appeared in FRONTIER STORIES except for a couple of stray yarns from SHORT STORIES.

The series begins with “He’s a Good Little Guy at That” (FRONTIER STORIES, May 1928). Jimmie Cordie is in Malaysia with his friends and fellow adventurers Red Dolan, George Grigsby, and Archibald Putney. They met in the French Foreign Legion and fought together there and during the Great War and have been wandering the world in the ten years since then. They’re in Malaysia after a bunch of diamonds rumored to be hidden in the base of an idol to the snake god worshipped by the local natives, but they also wind up rescuing a young British girl who’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom.

The action shifts back to the United States for “The Major Wanted Him Alive” (FRONTIER STORIES, June 1928). As a favor to a former officer they served under during the war, the four friends agree to break up a gang of smugglers operating along the border between Arizona and Mexico. A pair of pretty girls get mixed up in the action in this one and need to be rescued.

The boys are back overseas, in China to be precise, in “According to My Size and Disposition” (FRONTIER STORIES, October 1928). They find themselves smack-dab in the middle of a fracas between two warlords. No girls at all in this one, but the story does introduce a pair of recurring characters: the Boston Bean, a wealthy young man named John Cabot Winthrop who accompanies Jimmie and the rest of the gang on some of their exploits out of a love of adventure; and fellow soldier of fortune Abraham Cohen, sometimes known as the Fighting Yid (there’s some of that controversy I mentioned above). Cohen actually starts out on the opposite side in this story but has become allies with Jimmie, Red, George, and Putt by the time it’s over. 

“Private Property” is the first of the series to appear in SHORT STORIES, in the October 10, 1928 issue. The four main protagonists are still in China, and this time they’re after a priceless Ming vase in a temple. The way is barred by the army of a local warlord, who happens to have gone to college in America. And he has a beautiful daughter, no surprise there, although there are a few plot twists. Mostly, though, this is a loose rewrite of the first story in the series, “He’s a Good Little Guy At That”.

“The Jewel in the Lotus” (SHORT STORIES, November 10, 1928) is another story set in China, and once again our four adventurers are after treasure, in this case a fabulous jewel set into an idol. Their attempt to get it lands them in the middle of a deadly clash between a local warlord and the high priest of the temple where the idol is located. This one has a nice little twist in the end.

“When Tigers Are Hunting”, from the November 1928 issue of FRONTIER STORIES, is a sequel to the first story in the series, “He’s a Good Little Guy at That”. The same British girl from that yarn—considerably grown up by now, I might add—is in trouble again, or rather her father is, and she appeals to the gang for help, leading them to call in the Boston Bean and the Fighting Yid once again.

“That Fish Thing” (FRONTIER STORIES, January 1929) is a sequel to “According to My Size and Disposition”. Jimmie and Red encounter the son of one of the warlords involved in the earlier story and become involved in rescuing a prisoner from the headquarters of a tong. Naturally Grigsby and Putney get roped in on the action, too.

“Right Smack at You!”, from FRONTIER STORIES, April 1929, is the last and longest story in the book. This novella finds the whole gang in Central Asia, searching for the tomb of Jagatai Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s sons, where a fabulous treasure is supposed to be buried along with the body of the young warrior. Naturally, they run into a lot of trouble, but, perhaps a little surprisingly, there’s no beautiful girl to rescue this time.

I can see why this series was popular. The stories are pure pulp action yarns, boiled down to their essence. They suffer a little from a certain sameness in the plots, meaning it’s best to space them out, but the pace is almost non-stop and Wirt’s hardboiled style is a lot of fun to read. The characters are a bit heavy-handedly stereotypical at times, but I couldn’t help but like and root for them. As for the series’ controversial reputation, I think it’s mostly undeserved. Sure, the language is insensitive in places by modern standards, but one of the main themes in the stories, which Wirt states with brisk eloquence more than once, is that all fighting men are the same, regardless of the proverbial race, creed, or color. In fact, sometimes enemies become allies, simply because of the respect they feel for each other as fighting men. Readers who condemn this series pay ’way too much attention to what the characters say and not enough to what they do, in my opinion.

But hey, people are still free to like or dislike whatever they want. As for me, I really enjoyed WHEN TIGERS ARE HUNTING and look forward to reading the next volume in this series.

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