[28 June 2006]
During the height of the Pulp Era in the 1930s, characters like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Conan the Barbarian delighted millions of Americans. The best pulps outsold Steinbeck and introduced ‘men of action’ into the popular imagination that even Hemingway couldn’t compete with.
In The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Paul Malmont turns the era’s best known pulp writers, Walter Gibson and Lester Dent, into the stuff of their books—crime-fighting, risk-taking heroes who must work together to save New York’s Chinatown from certain destruction. The result is a rollicking, thrill-packed pulp that pays loving homage to the genre while spinning a crackerjack yarn that could hold its own on any corner newsstand.
As the book opens, Gibson says, “Let me tell you a story. You tell me where real ends and pulp begins.” It’s an idea that Malmont tinkers with throughout the book, blending historical and biographical truths with some real stretchers. For example, anyone who cares about such things knows that H.P. Lovecraft died young, a relatively unknown writer during his lifetime whose work was considered too unsettling and bizarre for even the edgiest horror pulps. In Malmont’s telling, this much stays the same. However, in The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Lovecraft does not die of cancer. He is murdered in his hospital room by a shadowy assailant because of something he knows—and something he had.
When the police refuse to investigate, Gibson steps in, determined to get to the bottom of his old friend’s death. At his side are a mediocre western writer named L. Ron Hubbard and a consumptive drifter who operates under the alias Otis Driftwood. Quickly, it becomes clear to the trio that Lovecraft’s murder is only one small piece of the puzzle.
Though the book is half over before the meatiest adventures begin, the early pages of The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril are not idly spent. Malmont lays a complex foundation involving the adopted son of Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin and the Tong Wars that ravaged New York City’s Chinatown in the early 20th century. Additionally, Malmont takes his time introducing readers to his cast of pulp writers with delightful and rich characterization. L. Ron Hubbard is portrayed as an overeager glad-hander, outclassed by his peers, yet desperate to join their ranks and win their approval. Other writers of the period make cameo appearances, including Chester Himes, Louis L’Amour, and Orson Welles, along with a few others who are better left as surprises for the reader.
Malmont’s greatest triumphs, however, are the characters of Walter Gibson and Lester Dent. Gibson is plagued by inner demons, yet unquestionably up the task of leading his motley band of writers to the answers, and the endings, they seek. However, the book’s true hero is arguably Dent, who emerges as a kind of pulp Atticus Finch, capable of remarkable bravery and decency. In many ways, Malmont parallels his characters with their best-known creations. Gibson’s Shadow is a dark hero who “knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” while Dent’s Doc Savage leads a chorus of young readers in the creed: “Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, that all may profit by it.”
As the action intensifies, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril hits its stride, throwing its characters into the path of zombies, rogue military operatives, poisonous gas, and dirty cops. The fight sequences are wonderfully over the top. In the best of them, Gibson flees a crazed, chain-wielding warrior through a burning theater, stalling his assailant with magic tricks pinched from the likes of Houdini and Blackstone. Near the book’s conclusion, however, the plotting stumbles as Malmont allows his characters to hash out old conflicts over a cup of coffee before the final showdown. While the confrontation is necessary, it could have been worked into the action to avoid interrupting the book’s otherwise driving narrative. Perhaps less emotional resonance, but it would have made better pulp.
While The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril could be compared to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it would be inaccurate to make too much of it, though the books will likely share a fan base. The premise of each involves real-life writers who shared a literary era, yet the books are different beasts—one is set in the mundane world, one is set in the fantastic world of the Shadow and Doc Savage. One is great writing about pulp, the other, great pulp writing.
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril is well served by Malmont’s sincere and unapologetic love for the pulps. Rather than winking at the reader, Malmont dives into the fray of the genre, sleeves rolled up and guns blazing. Readers willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the ride are sure to be delighted and amazed.