October 19, 2005

One interesting thing about the Green Llama is that if he feels threatened or if you get between him and his supper, he will spit accurately in your eye and — what? Two “L” llama? Oh, all right.

As I was saying, the Green Lama was actually a wealthy American named Jethro Dumont who studied for ten years in Tibet and earned his rank; he actually was a Lama. (He himself modestly adds, “although sometimes I think not a very good one.”) Returning to the States, he used his knowledge of pressure points, martial arts, telepathy and illusions to fight crime in as non-violent a way as possible.

This is the tenth Green Lama story I’ve read (there were fourteen all told), all of them written by Kendell Foster Crossen (as “Richard Foster”). They have all been pleasant little diversions, but none of them have really had that extra spark to make them memorable. The Green Lama doesn’t go over the top like the Spider or Doc Savage. He goes up to the top, looks around serenely, and goes back down again with his stories never becoming flamboyant or irrational enough to be completely satisfying.

From the July 1940 issue of DOUBLE DETECTIVE, we found the world’s greatest Buddhist crimefighter (well, maybe after Judge Dee) tackling a ring of vicious Japanese spies who are after an inventor and his new Death Ray that microwaves you from a mile away (phew! what’s burning?). There’s more action than usual. At one point, the Lama makes a last-second rescue of a damsel as the knife is at her throat and he then plows into a dozen Japanese thugs. Since he is a pacifist vigilante, he contents himself with dazing them by snaps of his red kata scarf or knocking them out with careful smacks on nerve centers . . . still, it is as much carnage as you’re likely to see him inflict. At this point, he is still chugging radioactive salt solution to give his touch a jolting electric charge. (This was before the FDA banned that stuff, of course.)

As likeable as Dumont is, I always hated the lame quasi-Buddhist sayings Crossen puts in his dialogue. A few minutes in a bookstore or library could have given the writer a list of appropriate aphorisms which would show a little depth. The best line our wise man comes up with this time is, “It is written that love brings courage to the heart of the coward and fear to the heart of the hero,” which isn’t half-bad. Most of the time, though, he just snaps off obvious stuff that Hallmark wouldn’t approve for a greeting card. “The man who hurries may rush past the door of Heaven without seeing it. . . .” I think Buddha could do better than that!

In addition to the Asian agents running back and forth, kidnapping people and acting nefarious (we actually see the infamous water torture used here), a strong sub-plot takes up almost half the story. It’s interesting enough in its own right, as a man is knifed to death at a seance. Everyone was holding the hand of the person next to them, except the medium, Prince Sengali . . . and he was tied up in a straitjacket. And the knife was the type used by a killer who had been executed two years earlier. Hmm, wonder how that was done. The Green Lama’s fascination with and expertise about stage magic sometimes makes me wonder if most of his mystical powers weren’t just Blackstone–style trickery. Certainly, a solid knowledge of escape techniques is valuable to any pulp hero, and the Lama gets tied up more than your average investigator.

Crossen always cranks out a clear, enjoyable yarn. I like best some of the cracks the secondary characters mutter to themselves. Seeing the Lama’s partner, the lovely Magga, in a bathing suit, a police captain grumbles, “Some picker for a guy who wears his collar backwards.” Two of the Japanese spies have a bit of friction as one remarks that the lamas have shown some remarkable accomplishments and the other snorts, “Superstitions of a foreign worship!” In a footnote, Crossen says that evidently one was a Buddhist and one a Shintoist, “always a subject for a quarrel.” It has nothing to do with the story itself, but little digressions like that add to the atmosphere.

In addition to his pulp career, the Green Lama also transmogrified into a flying superhero in PRIZE COMICS (with gorgeous Mac Raboy art, the guy who did those Captain Marvel Jr covers), and he had a short-lived radio series in 1949. Never a first-stringer but always doing his bit, Jethro Dumont brought truth, justice and the Buddhist way wherever he appeared.