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Promising Pulp-Mag Series Characters Who Never Really Caught Fire

Posted in Pulps,Recently Read on June 16, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

One of the items for sale on our Collectibles page is the November 23, 1935 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. The cover story is Erle Stanley Gardner’s “The Silver Mask Murders,” featuring his short-lived vigilante hero The Man in the Silver Mask. This was the last of three novelettes Gardner wrote about this Shadow/Spider/Phantom Detective simulacrum. Readers following the series had to have been disappointed that it ended with several loose ends dangling. Other entries were obviously planned; “Murders” ends with its criminal mastermind plotting revenge after narrowly evading a trap set by the Silver Mask.

I assume the basic concept must have been palatable to DFW customers, especially the younger, action-hungry readers. The Silver Mask was another well-meaning playboy with seemingly unlimited resources at his disposal. He had a pretty assistant and a mute Chinese servant well schooled in the art of Oriental torture. His lavish hideout — outfitted with cutting-edge gadgets and boasting a perfectly swell dungeon — was constructed beneath the streets of Chinatown, accessible only to a chosen few familiar with the network of secret panels, trap doors, and sewer tunnels leading to it.

The Silver Mask didn’t actually engage in torture; usually the threat of physical violence was enough to loosen the tongues of hapless henchmen he captured, blindfolded, and took to his underground lair. But at least once in every story he was asked if he would torture captives if absolutely necessary to elicit vital information — and he always refused to rule it out.

The Man in the Silver Mask series, while reasonably entertaining, didn’t come remotely close to being Gardner’s best work during that prolific period. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that he was assigned to develop such a character, dutifully agreeing even though his heart wasn’t in it.  The series fairly teems with missed opportunities. The Silver Mask himself remains off stage for long intervals. Thornton Acker, the brilliant attorney and “fixer” who emerges as the series’ main villain, dominates “The Silver Mask Murders” by devising an apparently foolproof scheme to discredit the masked vigilante. Gardner in this story seems primarily interested in establishing Acker as a formidable foe; the Mask derails the malefactor’s plans but benefits most from the unexpected (and convenient) meltdown of a secondary villain who believes he’s been framed by the crooked fixer.

The adventures of The Man in the Silver Mask remind me of another brief series that held promise which went unrealized: H. Bedford-Jones’ “The Ghost of Screwface Hanlon” appeared in three consecutive 1931 issues of Short Stories before ending on the verge of bigger and better things. The protagonist was a reformed minor criminal who, for dubious reasons, impersonated a master miscreant long believed dead. The “revived” Screwface Hanlon was poised to wreak havoc on the underworld when Short Stories abruptly terminated the series. Like Gardner with the Silver Mask tales, Bedford-Jones seemed to be slumming; he introduced several fascinating ideas but failed to provide a substantive payoff to any of them. The third and final yarn at least offered a clear-cut resolution to the story arc, but it was anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

Among the “hero pulps” were several short-lived titles whose eponymous adventurers didn’t catch the fancies of readers: Captain Hazzard, Captain Zero, Captain Satan (hmmm…a pattern emerges), and the Secret Six, to name a few. But there must have been dozens of series in other pulps that began promisingly only to fade into obscurity after a handful of entries. If you can think of others, send them along in a comment to this post. Who knows, there might be an interesting Blood ‘n’ Thunder article in this topic.

160 thoughts on “Promising Pulp-Mag Series Characters Who Never Really Caught Fire

  1. My favorite obscure series is Judson P. Phillips’ Ivy Trask series for Detective Fiction Weekly in the early 1930s. Only three stories about a stage actress that hid a dark and murderous side to her. A stage critic tried to expose Trask, but she always managed to look the pretty innocent. Phillips went on to the more popular Park Avenue Hunt Club series, so it’s not surprising this one was left behind.

  2. Norvell Page had a character in BLACK MASK named Jules Tremaine (I think that was the name), a wealthy man who got drunk one night and was shown great kindness by the residents of an Italian ghetto. He was so impressed he took to hanging around the neighborhood, mixing it up with organized crime types. It only lasted a few stories, but you could see the promise it held. No doubt, Page had to drop the series to concentrate on THE SPIDER.

  3. These are both excellent examples. I’m familiar with the Jules Tremaine series and toyed with the idea of doing an article about it, but I figured three short stories didn’t give me a lot to cover.

    Julia, I’ve read a lot of DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY in my time, but the Ivy Trask series has managed to escape my attention. But I love the premise as you outline it, and I like Phillips’ work in general, so I’ll definitely look for those yarns. For all I know I might already own one or more issues with Trask stories.

    A couple more suggestions like these and I’ll have the makings of a pretty good article, I think. Thanks so much for posting your comments; I’d love to see this blog become more interactive as it reaches a wider audience.

  4. Ivy Trask debuted in October 15, 1932 issue of DFW in “Crime Lust” and “Golden Goddess” in the December 10, 1932 issue. The Hard Boiled Dames anthology reprinted the last one “Death to the Hunter” which was from the February 18, 1933 issue.

    I think I found Ivy Trask intriguing because she wasn’t the usual secretary-detective type shown in that particular anthology. I know very little though about Judson P Phillips, aside from his more popular series.

    • Thanks for the additional info! That’ll make things easier.

      I guess even among mystery fans Phillips is better known as Hugh Pentecost, under which byline Dodd Mead published many dozens of novels over a 50-year period ending with his death in 1989. He escaped the penny-a-word market, but it’s fitting that his first Dodd Mead book, Cancelled in Red, was serialized in Argosy before appearing in hard covers as the firm’s 1939 contest-winning debut novel.

  5. Ed,One thing about the Silver Mask series was that the real identity of the character was never exposed.As I recall it there were several possible individuals who could be the Silver Mask but Gardner never told.Other short Gardner series were The Roadrunner (Undercover agent on the Mexican border-4 stories),White Rings (A millionaire crimefighter and his ex-policeman assistant-3 stories).Both of these were in Argosy in the 1930’s.The Bob Crowder stories in All Detective (a Paul Pry character who hi-jacked crooks-4 stories),Dred Bart (great name )a crimnologist-2 stories in two different mags. Gardner had a habit of creating a series character and if the character didn’t catch on he dropped it.Gardner was apparently interested in longrunning series characters.It probably made it easier for him to write about them.In any case the real interest in the Gardner stories was not the characterization (except in a few cases) but the working out of the incredibly ingenious plots.

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