Case of the Crimson Hand

December 1, 2003

From the April 1940 issue of DOUBLE DETECTIVE, this was the first of the Green Lama series by Kendell Foster Crossen (writing as “Richard Foster”). A bit obscure today, the noble Lama had his fair time in the spotlight for almost ten years. He appeared in the pulps from 1940 to 1943, transmogrified into a flying superhero in PRIZE COMICS and his own title (with elegant Mac Raboy art), and finished up with a short summer 1949 radio series starring the impressive voice of Paul Frees.

At first, the Green Lama seems to be a fairly blatant imitation of the Shadow. The Asian origin, multiple identities, a reformed gangster as an agent, a friendly police contact and so forth. It’s where he differs from the Shadow that makes the Lama most interesting. For wealthy playboy Jethro Dumont did not fritter away his millions drinking and driving sports cars and chasing the 1940 incarnation of Paris Hilton around the pool while the servants shook their heads. No, he was interested in spiritual matters and spent long years studying in a Tibetan monastery before becoming ordained. He really WAS a Lama, although an unorthodox one.

Instead of using a pair of .45 automatics to plow tunnels through crooks’ foreheads, the Green Lama was about as nonviolent as a crimefighter could reasonably be. Once in a while, there was no alternative but a hand edge chop to the back of a thug’s neck (not hard enough to kill, though) but normally Dumont relied on pressure points,* discreet use of his long silk scarf [kata] as a garotte or whip, and the useful ability to give electric shocks. (He drinks a radioactive solution of irradiated table salt to gain this power. One footnote explains that real experiments with drinking radioactive salts enable a man to make a light bulb glow in his bare hand. I’m heading to the lab at Cal Tech this weekend to try this for myself.)

(Footnote: *He has enough skill with nerve pressure that he can cause temporary blindness, paralysis of any chosen arm or leg, garbled speech, and probably constipation as well. Doc Savage could paralyze his opponents for a time with pressure on spinal nerves but it was tricky, didn’t always work and could possibly be fatal. Apparently, when being trained as a child, Doc didn’t study at the same lamasery as Dumont.)

As the Green Lama, Dumont wears an ankle-length dark green robe with a hood and fur trim, felt shoes, and the red scarf around his neck. Pretty snappy, but a bit conspicuous for running around Manhattan in broad daylight, one might think, so he normally lugs this outfit around in a bulky briefcase and only suits up when he’s ready for action.

One thing I like about the Lama is that he has set up an intermediary secret identity. As “Dr Pali,” Dumont uses some makeup to look a bit more exotic and then wears a green clerical suit complete with the reversed collar. He has this getup on under the heavy robe (you can tell the Green Lama didn’t enjoy fighting crime in August), so even if he’s exposed or captured, the villains will waste their time trying to track the fictitious Dr Pali while Jethro Dumont chuckles at them. A very cute arrangement.

There’s also the extremely convenient mystery woman known only as Magga, who turns up to help the Lama and keep the plot from stalling. Skilled with disguises, well versed in Buddhist lore herself, she nevertheless remains so vague as to not be interesting. Perhaps we will learn more about her in later stories but here she’s only a blur in the narrative.

The villain this time is only adequate. Wearing a mask and a single red glove, the Crimson Hand leads his gang on various looting sprees. His highest point is when he knocks out the entire city of Cleveland with radium gas (the science here is more than a bit shaky), causing many deaths and making off with huge amounts of boodle. As a mastermind, though, he’s not very impressive, transparently blaming his setbacks on his underlings and not delivering any grandiose speeches. When his true identity is revealed, I had completely missed the idea that we were supposed to be trying to figure out who he was. The usual cast of suspects and misleading clues was so underdeveloped that I wasn’t even wondering who this mug actually was.

THE GREEN LAMA has a strong premise with a lot of possibilities, but the story is told in a competent, uninspired style. There are a lot of Buddhist terms and references used but the alleged words of wisdom sound completely bogus and improvised (“In Tibet, there is a saying that frightened burro will gallop madly for the stable.” Huh?!). Although I appreciate the Lama’s moral principles and idealism, he doesn’t show much skill at strategy or deduction, either. Yet, the introduction to this first adventure describes him as “the greatest scourge of crime the modern world has ever known” and [claims] that Jethro Dumont’s crusade “has probably benefitted humanity more than the act of any single man in centuries.”