July 11, 2004

Great Quotes from criminal masterminds: “I believe that little interchange of confidences, and other chitchat between the criminal and the detective is always the undoing of the criminal. So we’ll skip it.”

From the October 1941 issue of DOUBLE DETECTIVE, this is your average murder mystery with many of the standard ingredients stirred in the mix. Someone is extorting protection money from Hollywood mugwumps, shooting them dead if they don’t pay up. (At first, he calls himself the Hollywood Ghost, but later on he changes trademarks to become The Man from Nowhere.)

There’s a motley assortment of possible suspects and some bizarre gimmicks used in the killings, which are staged to seem like Invisible Man murders, complete with eerie footprints materializing right in front of everyone. The Green Lama and his ambiguous pal Magga untangle the knots after a minimal amount of running up and down the town, people getting slugged over the head and kidnapped at gunpoint, all that sort of stuff.

The story itself is readable but nothing you would fondly remember decades later as a great experience. What makes THE CASE OF THE HOLLYWOOD GHOST interesting are the odd little touches Kendell Foster Crossen (writing as Richard Foster) adds to the Green Lama tales.

For one thing, the stories are packed with references to earlier episodes, including many lengthy footnotes explaining what has gone before. The Green Lama series has heavy continuity, something unusual in pulp adventures. There’s attention paid to the chronology, too. The Green Lama first manifests three months after Jethro Dumont spent ten years in Tibet, and he has been fighting crime for a year and a half. The supporting cast doesn’t stay the same either, but get married and have babies, or join the service and are replaced by new aides. Dumont frequently hears what they’re up to, even when they are no long active in the series, a nice touch that makes them seem a little more like real people keeping in touch.

I was puzzled by the Green Lama’s halfhearted attempts at keeping his secret identities secure. Actually an American named Jethro Dumont, our hero has created a third intermediary persona to use when he’s not in the full green robe and red scarf getup of the Lama. This was for the longest time a joker named Dr Charles Pali, also supposed to be a Tibetan lama. Pali wore a clergyman’s suit all in shades of green and used makeup to look slightly Asian. The idea seems to have been to create a buffer between Dumont and the Lama, but this arrangement never seemed to work that well. When the Green Lama came to town on a case, Dumont and Pali also were spotted in the area and you don’t have to be a world-class evil genius to become suspicious of two more Tibetan lamas wandering around whenever the crime-fighter was active,

By the time of this story, Dumont is calling himself just plain Charles Pali and has started wearing regular business suits . . . but they’re still green. A pleasant subdued shade of green, maybe, but still a big old clue. And in fact, the Green Lama’s identity is figured out several times in this story alone by different people. The police actually turn up at his hotel room, say “You’re Charles Pali, that Green Lama guy, ain’t ya?” and our hero just nods and goes with them.

It makes sense, though, if you realize that Dumont isn’t taking all this routine of disguises and fake IDs that seriously. He is on a sacred mission and is more concerned with how his karma is going to be affected than by his legal problems. Dumont pretty much shrugs and says it’s all as Buddha wills it to turn out. He doesn’t even care when someone impersonates the Green Lama and kidnaps a woman, even leaving an ominous calling card; Jethro is too detached and philosophical to worry about his reputation, as long as he’s on good terms with Buddha.

Then there are the mystic powers the Lama has started to manifest. From the start, he had relied on his knowledge of pressure points and esoteric fighting techniques, including wielding the scarf to half choke people or snap like a wet towel in the locker room (Oww! Hey, Lama, cut it out!). But he has also frequently shown the ability to levitate small objects, deflect blows with mental force and create realistic illusions. In this case, when he and his two assistants are chained up and being measured for coffins, he goes into a serious meditation. Two of the murderer’s victims show up, bullet holes visible in their pale foreheads. The images flicker out almost at once, but they’ve given the Green Lama just enough time to slip that lock-pick he had hidden on his person.

Although Crossen evidently had taken out a few library books on Buddhism and salts the pages with dozens of Tibetan prayers (English translations in footnotes), the proverbs he provides for the Lama and Magga are amazingly uninspired and irrelevant. Honestly, you have seen greeting cards with deeper philosophy. This is the weakest part of the stories. (“It is written that the traveller does not cross the mountain pass until he reaches it.” Well, duh.)

Set on Hollywood sound stages, with all the familiar trappings of publicity agents and scriptwriters hovering around, the story doesn’t really give us any startling insight into moviemaking or moviemakers. The slightly amusing comic relief, Morris Goldman, is a Jewish stereotype but a very mild and inoffensive one; he takes credit for everyone’s ideas, sees crew murders as drawbacks to his career, and speaks in a goofy style of mixing metaphors (“I should sue him for inflammation of character! He’s biting the hand that lays the golden egg!”). As eccentric background characters go, Goldman is okay. He appeared before in BABIES FOR SALE, and even he immediately makes a shrewd deduction, saying to Jethro, “The only two times I ever hear anything about this Green Lama is when you’re around and now you want to play detective like he does.”