Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Suicide Squad - An Appreciation

As the sky dumped twenty-two inches of snow on my central Virginia home, I spent some time revisiting a collection of Emile C. Tepperman's "Suicide Squad" stories. Tepperman may not have been a very prominent author, but he certainly was a prolific one. He wrote over 260 short stories, novelettes and full-blown novels between 1933 and 1943.

Tepperman definitely captured the pulse of the time -- readers of pulp magazines wanted action and plenty of it. Tepperman didn't disappoint. His stories are fast-paced thrill rides that pull the reader along from chapter to chapter.

The Suicide Squad -- Johnny Kerrigan, Stephen Klaw, and Dan Murdoch -- were the subject of twenty-two 15,000 word novelettes that ran in "Ace G-Man" magazine between 1939 and 1942. As Tepperman describes them:
Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw. The three Black Sheep of the F.B.I.--three men who were never sent on a regular routine assignment, but who always rated the calls where death was almost a certainty. Not so long ago there had been five of them. Now there were only three. Tomorrow there might be only two--or one--or none.
The Suicide Squad was reckless, and often deliberately walked into traps just to spring them to get the villains to tip their hands. With Tepperman's break-neck pacing, once the Squad gets involved (usually about three paragraphs into the story), the villain's master plan starts to unravel.

But what plots they are! In the Adventure House collection of wartime adventures I just finished the Suicide Squad takes on a 9,000 man-strong Japanese Expeditionary Force hidden in rural Maryland, a gang-run city, a saboteur with a cadre of Korean fire-archers, and the Undertaker, who returns all who go after him in a casket -- embalmed!

What makes the stories interesting is the dynamic between the three lead characters. There's an easy camaraderie and byplay between them, and (within the world of the pulps) some differences between the three. It's suggested that Stephen Klaw overcompensates for his youthful looks and short stature by being overly aggressive (even by Squad standards). Dan Murdoch is more concerned about organization and planning, even when it has to be done on the fly. And Johnny Kerrigan is the glue that holds these two opposites together.

Often times one of the Squad take the lead in the adventure, and the story takes on the dynamic of his personality. But action is always the watchword of the day, and in the end, the Suicide Squad always gets their men -- if they're still standing.

Here's a sample from the 1940 story "Suicide Squad - Dead or Alive!" Stephen Klaw has allowed himself to be captured. And, according to plan, Kerrigan and Murdoch enter at just the right moment.
Roy Fenn ripped out an oath, and went for his gun. At the same time, the two gorillas who were holding Steve Klaw let go of him and swung their own weapons to shoot at Kerrigan and Murdoch.

Dan Murdoch, with that grim smile still upon his dark and handsome face, fired once. The big gun jumped in his hand, and the hoodlum on Stephen Klaw's right was hurled backward as if he had been struck by a ten-ton sledgehammer.

Simultaneously, an automatic appeared in Klaw's right hand, and somehow its muzzle was up and belching flame at the second thug. The shot caught the man in the left shoulder and spun him around like a weather-vane, with his arms outstretched. He went sliding across the floor and ended up against a desk, huddled on the carpet, and moaning. Klaw's gun and Murdoch's had barked almost in unison.

A split-second later, Johnny Kerrigan reached Rory Fenn in a flying leap. Fenn had his gun out of its holster. Johnny smashed down with his revolver, struck Fenn's wrist. The big bruiser let go of the gun, uttering a cry of pain. He stood disarmed, staring vindictively at Kerrigan.

Johnny chuckled, kicked the fallen gun over toward a corner. Then he looked at Klaw and said, "Hello, Shrimp. Looks like these lads aren't so tough after all."
If you enjoyed the non-stop action and retro feel of the first Indiana Jones film, you might like the Suicide Squad stories. They would have made a great series of B pictures.

Emile C. Tepperman
remains somewhat of a cypher. There's no biography of him anywhere that has more than his professional life up through the late 1940's. Nevertheless, he left behind a body of work that, while not great literature by any definition, can still deliver entertaining thrills seventy years after its publication.

And that's not a small accomplishment.

- Ralph

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