Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

I wish I hadn't waited so long to read this book. Professor Hex pointed it out to me way back in April of last year. Just from the description alone it has all kinds of things I like: pulp writers, Chinatown, rip-roaring adventure and fun. Now that I've read it, I can say it lives up to the hype.

The book concerns a moment during the pulp era -- the late 1930s, I believe -- when Walter Gibson had shown the Shadow not to be Lamont Cranston, when Lester Dent and his wife were desperately trying to have a child, when L. Ron Hubbard was head of a New York pulp writer's association, when H.P. Lovecraft was on his deathbed and when Chester Himes, Louis L'Amour and Robert Heinlein were working odd jobs and travelling the country. Slowly, all these pulp writers, and many more, are brought together to face the peril of the title.

I think I love pulp writers as much as I do their characters and stories. I've read a biography of Dent, a collection of essays on the "Pulp Masters," and Gruber's "The Pulp Jungle." It's all exciting stuff. From reading all these stories and essays (as well as other reading from the time), I think I have a pretty good sense of the era and the characters involved. And Paul Malmont let me feel like I was right there in it. I could smell the cigarette smoke and taste the beer at the White Horse Tavern as Emile Tepperman and E.E. "Doc" Smith talked in one corner and Hubbard harangued Gibson for advice. He hits the spots that are legendary in pulp history: the Automat, the Street & Smith offices, Astounding magazine and John Campbell.

In capturing the time period, the book reminded me of Jeffrey Ford's "The Girl in The Glass," which is set in in the 1930s, though it is mainly focused on Long Island. It also reminded me of the pulps themselves, especially in the later "episodes" when Dent and Gibson subtly take on the characteristics of their famed characters, the Shadow and Doc Savage.

And it's not just the feel of the era. Malmont uses history throughout the story both as background for the events and as plot points. The beginnings of the Japanese invasion of China affect both the story and Chinatown. A huge unity parade plays an integral role, and though I haven't looked it up, I'm sure that parade happened almost exactly as Malmont describes it.

I can't wait to see what Malmont does in the future. For now, I think I'll go read some Doc Savage.

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