Friday, August 11, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Scarlet Killer and Other Stories - Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson

I've seen Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's name on many pulp covers over the years, but as far as I recall, I've read little if anything by him. So I decided to remedy that and started off with THE SCARLET KILLER AND OTHER STORIES, a collection of half a dozen yarns that all appeared in the pulp THRILLING ADVENTURES in 1932.

The book starts off with "Guarded by Fire" (March), which finds American engineer Jack Nelson in Paris, where he meets a beautiful young Russian woman who holds the key to a fabulous treasure that's hidden somewhere in her homeland. There seems to be a bit of a Dashiell Hammett influence in this story. There's a sinister fat man, a weaselly little Soviet agent who could easily be played by Peter Lorre, and of course the treasure that everyone is after. Even with all that going for it, the story is still a bit on the bland side. Not bad, but it seemed lacking in action and drama to me.

The scene shifts to the Texas/Mexico border country for "Fire and Sword" (September), a fairly short, simple action yarn about a clash between the U.S. cavalry and a gang of bandidos from south of the border. I think this one is set in the early 20th Century, the Pancho Villa era, if you will, but Wheeler-Nicholson isn't very specific about that. It's an entertaining story, although there's not much to it.

It's back to Russia for the title novella (April), during the revolution when U.S. army troops were sent to Siberia to protect American interests there. The protagonist is a two-fisted American mining engineer who tries to rescue a beautiful young woman from a bloodthirsty Bolshevik warlord known as the Scarlet Killer. This one has a lot of action, with Cossacks charging around and battling Bolsheviks, not to mention a really gruesome murder method employed by the Scarlet Killer. The biggest drawback in this one is that the hero is dumb as a rock. But to be fair, he hadn't read hundreds of pulp stories and so was less likely to recognize all the bad guys' tricks.

As you’d guess from the title, “The Scourge of Islam” (October) is a Middle Eastern adventure, as French crusader Hugh de Galliard, the only survivor from a group of crusaders on their way to meet Genghis Khan, falls in love with a beautiful girl, gets mixed up in Persian politics, is captured, escapes, teams up with ol’ Genghis, and generally does a bunch of hacking and slashing. The epic battle scenes are well-done and reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s crusader yarns. There’s a grisly execution method on this one, too. The ending is a bit of a letdown, but overall this is a good story and my favorite in this collection.

“The Fame of Albert Muggins” (November) is a comedy about a meek, weaselly British soldier in Hong Kong, just before World War I, who finally explodes under the mistreatment by his sergeant and wallops the non-com, then strikes an officer as well and deserts his unit, escaping Hong Kong by stowing away on a Spanish ship. This leads to a series of mildly amusing adventures. As a comedy, this isn’t much, but Wheeler-Nicholson does an excellent job with the setting.

This collection wraps up with “The Dumb Bunny” (December), another story about U.S. troops in Russia at the time of the revolution. In this one, a Bolshevik plot to massacre a bunch of Americans is foiled by an unlikely hero. The closing twist is a nice one, although it probably worked better and came as more of a surprise in 1932.

Overall, my introduction to the work of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was entertaining but not outstanding. He clearly knew his stuff when it comes to military matters and was knowledgable about a wide swath of history. He came up with some great concepts as well, but in these stories at least, the execution is on the ordinary side for the most part. More colorful protagonists and a little more blood and thunder would have helped. I have two more Wheeler-Nicholson collections, and I enjoyed THE SCARLET KILLER AND OTHER STORIES enough that I’ll certainly read them.

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