Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Quarter of Eight

I just finished rereading "A Quarter of Eight," a Shadow novel published in the October, 1945 issue of Street and Smith's Shadow Magazine. Each issue of the Shadow Magazine, from 1931 through 1949, featured a 40,000-60,000 word novel about the crimefighter, along with a collection of mystery novellas and short stories.

As with any other popular entertainment, the tastes of the audience changed over time, and pulp fiction houses changed with them. In the 1930's, action and adventure -- the more fantastic the better -- was the key. By the early 1940's, audiences seemed to have matured, and stories became somewhat more realistic.

Most pulp magazines ceased publication after the Second World War. Tastes had changed once again, and this time there was a format change as well. Paperback novels were on the rise, and the demand for monthly fiction magazines sharply declined.

To counter this, Street and Smith editor Daisy Bacon worked with the authors to retool the house heroes -- Doc Savage and the Shadow -- to reflect the realities of postwar sensibilities. The authors were encouraged to write in a more mature and realistic style as well.

"A Quarter of Eight" is a good example of the postwar pulp ascetic. It was written by Walter Gibson, who created the Shadow (the magazine version) in 1931 and wrote 283 novels featuring his mysterious character. The story's begins during the war in Martinique, with four men involved in a treasure hunt.

The hunt involves the lost treasure of Francisco Bobadilla, an actual historic figure. In 1502 Bobadilla, governor of the Indies, was killed when a hurricane overtook his 31-ship convoy bound for Spain. Lost in the storm were ships laden with gold.

In Gibson's novel, it's suggested that Bobadillo actually hid the treasure on the island, and sunken ships were just a cover story to discourage wealth seekers.

It's a tautly written tale -- only about 27,000 words long, yet it spans years and follows the twists and turns as four treasure hunters go their separate ways and later reunite, each with a piece of the puzzle that leads to the booty. Some die and pass on their secret (and identifying tokens, the title's piece of eight broken into quarters), and once men start dying, the Shadow gets involved.

But take a moment and read the story's opening paragraphs.

Four men were in Sargon's back room that night.

What their names were didn't matter, because nobody used his right name in Martinique -- not if he could help it.

These were the times when the island was dominated by the Vichy government, when a man's life was valued only in terms of his wits. What these men were was known only to themselves -- individually.

In those days, almost everything was illegal in Fort de France, the capital of Martinique. Tension smoldered like the hidden fires of Mount Pelee, the towering volcano which twenty years before had all but blasted the island off the map.

What might blast Martinique next was anybody's guess.

Men who used their boats to carry supplies to waiting Nazi submarines might, on the return trip, bring in weapons from Free French freighters, for distribution among the local Underground. Yet no one could question this inconsistency; it might simply be a cover-up.

The greater a man's value to one side, the greater his value to the other. This was the law in Martinique, during this fateful period while the outcome of the war seemed hanging in the balance. It was policy for a man to think only of himself.

Simon Sargon followed that policy to the letter.
Wow. Engaging, evocative -- and we haven't even met the four men yet! That's storytelling by a master. "A Quarter of Eight" is a fairly short read -- an evening's entertainment. But entertaining, indeed!

If you thought pulp magazine fiction was just overheated purple prose telling absurdly simplistic stories for adolescents, this might change your mind.

- Ralph

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