Monday, January 29, 2018

Secret Agent X #1 - The Torture Test

If you ever find yourself burning out on the sullen anti-heroes of 1970's-80's paperbacks, and getting tired of the coldness, the sex and the cynicism in them, the vintage pulps are the perfect alternative. But while fabulous characters are all over the place in the pulps, finding great stories isn’t necessarily easy. 'Doc Savage', 'G-8' and 'The Spider' are classic heroes, but these stories were written for a young crowd - basically 12 to 16-years old. You get lots of action, weird villains and a brisk pace, but sometimes things collapse into such silliness that you become detached from the story rather than being carried along by it. At the other end of the spectrum are heroes like 'The Shadow' and 'The Phantom Detective'. Here the stories are a bit more adult and less fanciful, but sometimes the prose is dry, plodding and short on thrills. I love all of those characters. But I’ve found that the stories I tend to enjoy the most come from the middle of the spectrum, where you’ll find lesser-known heroes like 'Jim Hatfield', 'Operator 5' and 'Secret Agent X'.

Agent X makes his debut in “The Torture Trust” (1934), an imaginative and energetic novel full of action and atmosphere, menace and mayhem. It’s got naturalistic dialogue and there are no goofy sidekicks following the hero around. Paul Chadwick (as Brant House) handles this enigmatic character with skill, sharing Agent X’s thoughts and feelings just enough to make him human, without ever losing the aura of mystery that makes him fascinating. We’re told almost nothing about who he is (not even his name), where he came from or how he got into his dangerous profession.

In this adventure, Agent X battles an unknown trio of hooded extortionists who are terrorizing the city, torturing their victims with acid when they don’t pay up. At first, he has almost no clues to work with, but he methodically zeroes in on the villains’ identities and location, step-by-step, right through to an effective climactic confrontation. Chadwick must have realized he had something special here, because he would later recycle the story for another 'Secret Agent X' novel, “The Hooded Heroes”, in which the only real improvement was to make the villains even meaner, pouring molten lead down their victims’ throats! 

Like many of the great pulp heroes, Agent X frequently goes undercover, wearing disguises and elaborate make-ups as he conducts his operations. He really takes that work seriously in “The Torture Trust”, studying film footage and voice recordings of his subjects before meticulously applying many thin layers of makeup to complete his impersonation. This is quite a contrast to 'The Shadow', 'G-8', 'The Phantom Detective' (and Agent X himself in his later novels), whose make-ups are slapped together in a few moments, often in the dark or in moving vehicles. That attention to detail pays off, both for Agent X and the author and it helps set this thriller apart. Like all the best hero pulp stories, it’s grounded in the real world… but anything can happen on the next page.