REVIEW SUMMARY: Bringing to life pulp authors Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (The Shadow), Malmont strings together a pulp yarn involving the death of H.P. Lovecraft and revolution in China, pulling in other pulp authors as he goes.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The authors of Doc Savage and The Shadow become adventurers as they try to find the ending to a pulp-like mystery in Chinatown and track down H.P. Lovecraft’s murderer.
PROS: Strong characterizations of Lester and Norma Dent, Walter Gibson, L. Ron Hubbard and the pulp business in general; draws a fine line between where reality ends and where pulp begins; well interwoven with a story of China just before World War II.
CONS: Would like to have seen more Lovecraft…but that’s a quibble.
BOTTOM LINE: Fantastic re-imagining if you are into the pulps, and a great adventure story even if you are not.
Take a rivalry between Walter Gibson (author/creator of The Shadow and prolific pulp writer) and Lester Dent (author of most of the Doc Savage pulps, a prolific writer in his own right) and give them their own pulp adventure/mystery to solve. Throw in youngsters (at the time) L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein. Include the death (murder?) of H.P. Lovecraft and intertwine it all with a storyline of the Chinese pre-World War II battles, and you have Malmont’s fascinating The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.
The adventure begins as the two pulp giants (Dent and Gibson) argue about a story concerning Chinese tong wars in 1909 based in China and New York City’s Chinatown called “The Sweet Flower War”. Both claim it is a real story without an ending, and argue whether it would make good pulp or not. The rivalry and argument lead Dent and his wife Norma to Chinatown to investigate, to try to find the true ending. Gibson, meanwhile, learns of Lovecrafts death, and decides to head to Providence to attend the funeral, shadowed (pun intended) by Hubbard. In Providence, Lovecraft’s Aunt tells Gibson and Hubbard that Lovecraft was indeed murdered. As Dent was pulled to his story, Gibson, the inquisitive writer always seeking a story feels compelled to investigate.
A separate storyline involving Zhang Mei, a Chinese warlord also known as the Dragon of Terror and Peril, is intertwined, and ultimately brings all the storylines and Dent/Gibson together in the end.
Malmont sets up the entire premise of the story by defining pulp, in an argument/discussion between Dent and Gibson, as a starstruck Hubbard watches:
“Not to say that there can’t be true stories in pulps, but most true stories don’t have good endings. Pulps need great endings. Mr. Gibson’s tale doesn’t have a good ending. In fact, it has no ending. The problem with the Tale of the Sweet Flower is that Mr. Gibson ends it just when it’s about to turn into pulp.”
Gibson flet his blood rising. “I can’t believe you’re going to lecture me on what makes great pulp. I am pulp.”
“You’re not pulp. The Shadow is pulp. Doc Savage is pulp. In fact, I will tell you what makes pulp. Of course there’s blood, cruelty, fear, mystery, vengeances, heroes and villains. That’s just a good foundation. To make true pulp, really great stomach-churning, white-knuckle, turn-your-hair-white pulp, you have to fill it with a pack of outright lies. Secret identities and disguises.” Dent began ticking off the items on his fingers to emphasize the point he was making. “The Yellow Peril. Super-weapons. Global schemes. Hideous deaths. Cliff-hanging escapes. These are the pack of lies you won’t find in any slick or glossy or literary hardcover bestseller. Horrors from the grave. Lost lands. Overwhelming odds. Impossible heroics. Unflagging courage. Oh, and I almost forgot. Gun-totin’, lingo-slingin’ cowboys.” He looked at Ron with a mischevious smile, knowing that Hubbard was guilty of perpetrating more than his share of outlandish cowby tales. “Can’t be a true pulp without a genuine gun-slingin’, tabaccy-spattin’ cowboy, right, Ron?”
Malmont lays out this pathway to pulp, and then follows it with his own believable tale (except the necessary lies, of couse).
The characterizations are true to history, and the “cameos” by Bob Heinlein and Howard Lovecraft are real enough to make me go back and research (was Heinlein actually friends with the two giants of pulp?); even Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee) makes an appearance. There is no hero worship here, except maybe with Dent; Gibson is characterized with complexity, worried about being knocked of the pinacle of his success, seeing The Shadow everywhere, dabbling in magic while having an affair with a magician’s wife. Hubbard is portrayed as ambitious and eager.
But the best character is Norma Dent, who pushes the Dent’s investigation into more dangerous areas because of her own adventurous attitude. I’d like to have seen more Lovecraft, a complex character in his own right; but his appearance and re-appearance are well done. Heinlein’s appearance looks also to be a tie-in to Malmont’s next book The Astounding, The Amazing and The Unknown.