September 20, 2004

Back to August 1941 we go, flipping open the pages of DOUBLE DETECTIVE to see what the Green Lama is up to. The world’s greatest Buddhist detective is in Cleveland this month (the third time he’s gone there; he oddly seems to commute between New York, Cleveland and Hollywood for most of his cases). The FBI has been concerned with a big increase in opium and morphine use among addicts in that area (whatever happened to morphine abuse, anyway? Guess it just can’t compete with crack for value on the dollar) and Jethro Dumont puts on his snappy green business suit and heads to the area to investigate. (This is the first case where I haven’t noticed him donning the heavy green robe with the cowl; maybe the weather was just too muggy.)

As time went on, the noble Lama increasingly became more open in his use of his spiritually turbo-charged psychic powers. He seems to have cut back on that practice of drinking radioactive salt to give him an electrically charge touch (maybe it gave him acid reflux) but he is doing a lot more hypnosis and telepathically viewing what someone far away is looking at. At one point, he implants a post-hypnotic suggestion in one person without her knowledge to respond at a Tibetan phrase he can utter at a critical time. Obviously, skill like this would only be taught by the Tulkus in Tibet to persons of high moral integrity; certainly I don’t know many folks who could really be trusted with it (myself included).

The Lama and his weird abilities have become fairly well known to the underworld by this point, and one criminal mastermind has figured a way to work around them. To lure the Buddhist crimefighter into a trap, what you have to do is use someone as bait who doesn’t know that he or she is being manipulated. That way, all the telepathy and hypnotic interrogation in the world can’t uncover what the pawn doesn’t know. Eastern enlightenment meets its match in sneaky Western cunning.

Like most of the stories in the series, THE CASE OF THE CROOKED CANE is enjoyable, with just enough twists and surprises to keep you reading, but there’s really nothing memorable to it. All of the stories were written by Kendell Foster Crossen as “Richard Foster,” which gives them a uniform tone but also eliminates the wild shifts in style when wacky Harold A. Davis followed sullen Laurence Donovan on DOC SAVAGE. There is a clever little locked-room mystery as a subplot, involving a man shot in the back in a hotel room that no one entered, and the solution is fair enough to be satisfying.

There aren’t any of the smoking gun battles and amok fistfights that give most pulp adventures their distinctive non-PTA approved style, as our hero is cagey enough to sneak up on his enemies and knock them out with a simple chop to the back of the neck. At one point, though, the Lama does find himself securely tied up on the deck of a ship at sea, with a hardened thug cocking a revolver to put a bullet in his spiritual head before throwing the body overboard, so the Lama does face some complications.

One thing about the Green Lama really makes no sense to me. As Jethro Dumont, he resides in his luxury penthouse complete with manservant, where he can search the papers for clues. But at the same time, he maintains an “old-fashioned house on a side street in Greenwich Village” to serve as his crimebusting headquarters. It hardly seems worth paying for the place. Once or twice, he does bring someone there for interrogation, but mostly he only stops in for a few minutes to put on his Asian makeup for the Dr Pali role. Also, I would have to say that if Jethro Dumont or Dr. Pali asked to rent an apartment in your building, turn them down — they always leave a few unattended butter candles burning when they leave, making them bad insurance risks.

The mysterious woman called Magga only appears briefly at the end, but the real fun this time is the slightly sassy attitude of the Lama’s redheaded helper from Montana. Jean Farrell is brave and resourceful enough, but her snappy replies to the Green Lama’s (let’s face it) pretentious speeches tickle me. Jean observes that Magga is probably “already here, disguised as one of the chairs in the lobby,” and after hearing a long sentence in Tibetan from her boss, she blithely responds, “I wouldn’t know about them things.” Let’s face it, if you insist on making people listen to Tibetan proverbs without even translating them, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

The Green Lama stories are always pleasant diversion and a nice change of pace after reading, say, two wild Spider apocalypses in a row . . . but they don’t seem to ever rise above that to be a book you would want to go back in a few years and enjoy again.