“He had been a man. After the dread loss inflicted on him by an inhuman crime ring, he became a machine of vengeance dedicated to the extermination of all other crime rings. He turned into the person we know now: a figure of ice and steel, more pitiless than both; a mechanism of whipcord and flame; a symbol to crooks and killers; a terrible, almost impersonal force, masking chill genius and super-normal power behind a face as white and dead as a mask from the grave.”
This is the introduction I received to The Avenger.
Staring at the back of the book in a used bookstore in Toronto, I noticed a bit of a heft to this pulpy novel. A short 141-page reprint of the original book, I threw down five bucks expecting a little entertainment for a lazy afternoon, but what I received was pretty awesome.
Street and Smith Publications has a long history of creating memorable action heroes in their books, and The Avenger was created by writer Paul Ernst with the original publication around 1939. Under the name of Kenneth Robeson S&SP published other series like Doc Savage and The Shadow, both of which I really need to do some reading of in the next few months.
The Avenger follows Dick Benson’s crack team of crime fighters at Justice Incorporated. Is there a better name for a crime fighting company? Anyway, Cole Wilson, the company’s silver-tongued partner, is accompanying a group of filmmakers to a place called Demon Island. The location has been known to harbour spirits, but that only makes Terence O’Malley, the director, more excited.
At the same time, a group of treasure hunters arrives on the island. Jittery, slight dull-witted, and with dollar signs filling their dreams, they’re looking for a hidden cache of money, but will they find it? It isn’t long before some of them start to die with the ghostly image of a woman being somewhere behind each fall from a cliff and maddened run into the dark forest outside.
When the film crew finally shows up on the island, the treasure hunters are watching, waiting, and making sure no one knows what they’re up to. Enter the disappearance of one of the film’s stars and a distress signal sent to Justice Incorporate, and Dick Benson and his team are on their way to Demon Island.
What really gets me about this book are how well drawn the characters are… awesome cover art aside. Cole Wilson, Terence O’Malley, and Heather Brail have an entire chapter where they spend time building their relationship through short recollections of past adventures and banter. For instance, they talk a bit about the last film project they went out on called The Purple Zombie where, apparently, real zombies showed up bringing the super natural into the book. There are also short instances where you can tell there’s something small between Heather and Cole, a little hint of romance and a past.
It’s a slow build like this that really brings even a first time reader into the story, but things speed through with the treasure hunters slowly disappearing and pretty much everything going wrong once the film crew reaches the island.
Right about half way through the book The Avenger reaches the island with Nellie Gray, a tough dame, and Smitty, an irate brawler. When he’s introduced in the book, you might not get that cold as steel feeling from the character. Sure, he seems tough, but he always takes such a measured approach to things especially when it comes to dealing with the treasure hunters on the island.
Dixon comes off more as a detective rather than a hardcore crime fighter, but it’s this intelligence that sets him apart from the other characters. The ghost on Demon Island, without spoiling the ending, isn’t quite what you might expect, but The Avenger sees right through it with a pretty exciting ending.
What really drives this book are the interactions between characters, the inner monologues of The Avenger, and the amount of detail that goes into creating each setting. That combined with just that tough, cigar-smoking dialogue you can imagine hearing in your mind it creates this just… vision of a bygone era where characters like The Avenger could be created without a hint of irony.
What I find most appealing about this book is how easy it was to jump into. This was apparently the 36th novel in the series with Paul Ernst finishing his involvement in the series after the 24th book. It feels like a book you might see published today from a small press or read online accompanied by a serialized graphic novel.
In other words, even though this was written in 1942 it still has all the heralds that make pulpy books like this great. And if it was still possible to buy one of these each month for 95 cents, the world would be a much better place.