May 7, 2005

The WHAT of Murder?! Okay, it’s a slightly obscure reference, but King Croesus of Lydia back in the 6th century BC was the first to discover how to refine gold (whether he personally did it or some people working for him did). So, turning out gold coins with guaranteed purity, he became more than a bit wealthy and famous in his day. (Interestingly enough, the Croesus site has been excavated recently.) You might expect the more widely known legendary Midas to be used in the title, but maybe Kendell Foster Crossen felt Midas had been overexposed, and heck, he was well educated in classical history and wanted everyone to know it.

Anyhow, CROESUS OF MURDER is certainly appropriately titled, as the Green Lama tackles a criminal mastermind obsessed with cornering the supply of gold. The villain even has an ambitious plan to rob Fort Knox (and since Pussy Galore is only a ten-year-old at this time, he figures there’s no one to betray him). He gets away with two million in bullion the first try, and no one can figure out how he did it (pssst, it’s a far-fetched Mad Science application of a real technology). Complicating the shenanigans is the fact that the masked fiend is also bankrolling and directing what amounts to a Nazi army base in Florida, Camp Himmler, complete with uniformed troopers, to act as his gang. Kidnappings, torture and murder are going on right under Uncle Sam’s nose, and our only hope is a Tibetan-trained Buddhist crimefighter in a green robe.

From May 1940, this was the second of the fourteen Green Lama stories to appear in DOUBLE DETECTIVE. There are a lot of ingredients stirred into the cocktail this time around. A villain who is both leading a Nazi movement in the US, secret weapons and superplanes, a picturesque Muslim-themed ghost town occupied by Brown Shirts, mysterious kidnappings of gold mine stockbrokers, a plane skywriting threats, and the usual Houdini-style escapes from deathtraps and dazzling impersonations we expect from the Green Lama and Magga.* Even our hero himself, the most spiritual vigilante in the pulps, deliberately takes human life when he is obliged to shoot down three planes in flight. (Oww, my dogma just got run over by that karma.)

(Footnote: *Escaping from manacles, nailed-up coffins, burning buildings and so forth seems to be the one area where the Lama has an edge over Magga. Well, he does have the radioactive salts which give him an electric jolt to his nerve strikes. But as far as investigative skills and awareness of what’s going on, Magga usually is ahead of our boy in green, and I suspect she solved a lot of mysteries by herself that Jethro Dumont never needed to be called in for.)

Yet, the story (like the others in this series) never gets really heated or exciting. Crossen writes in a dry, documentary style which understates the action; the many unnecessary footnotes (giving extra information not really needed) also break up the flow. All of the Lama yarns were written by Crossen (under the name “Richard Foster”) and this might have been a case where another author or two filling in would have livened up the tone of a series a bit.

Most damaging to the Green Lama stories is that his aphorisms and sayings are just unbearably lame. For someone who took the time to write down long titles of Buddhist reference works and copy passages in Sanskrit [actually Pali —K.C.B.], Crossen seems to have just put down whatever uninspired attempts at philosophy occurred to him. Some of the genuine sayings attributed to Buddha are vivid enough that they would well in dialogue. “When a bad man spits up at Heaven, the spittle only falls back and defiles himself, Heaven is not harmed” (I’m paraphrasing from memory there). The Lama would seem a lot more enlightened if his little mottos had some substance to them. (Dumont’s musing at the beach seem so wrong-minded I expected his servant Tsarong to argue with him.)

Magga turns up, of course, the enigmatic superwoman who is as skilled at disguise as any crimefighter short of Secret Agent X. The Green Lama knows nothing about her and never makes any progress at learning her real name or history, but my hunch is that she is actually an agent of the same lamasery which trained Jethro Dumont, sent to the West to help him out in his mission and maybe rein him in if he showed signs of being corrupted by civilization. (That would be a funny end story. . . . Dumont, drunk and gambling in a New Orleans brothel after working undercover too long, is confronted by Magga. She confiscates his robe and scarf, tells him he’s been stripped of his rank, and forbids him to claim any connection with Buddhism again. Then she takes over as the new Green Lama in SPICY BUDDHIST DETECTIVE.)

It’s curious how reluctant the pulps and comics were before Pearl Harbor to actually name Hitler, Germany or the Nazis. In CROESUS OF MURDER, a group called the Brown Shirts who march around in full military uniforms build an armed camp, but they are funded by a certain foreign nation , the ultimate source of their funds and ideology is “Europe’s most notorious dictator,” and their American leader is referred to as Fuehrer. He’s a German-American named Karl Himmler, with a ridiculous small black mustache, and he makes pointed remarks about America’s “Aryan destiny” and goes around saying, “Sieg Heil!”

Now, I’m no deductive genius but I kinda have a suspicion what’s intended to be really going on here. I doubt if Adolf himself would notice a slur on his noble crusade in a crude American pulp magazine or that there was much he could do about it anyway. But there were Bunds in the US at that time, and they certainly would be likely to start a few lawsuits which the publishers might want to avoid if they could. After the war started, of course, our enemies were fair game and swastikas bloomed on villains like mushrooms on a compost heap.