The Frosted Death by "Kenneth Robeson" (Paul Ernst) (1972)
Attempting to capitalize on the success of Doc Savage, publishers Street & Smith created the last of the major pulp heroes, Richard Benson -- The Avenger. Benson was a wealthy adenturer who made his millions through various exploits around the world. Deciding to retire from his active, globe-trotting life, Benson married and pursued a career as an industrial engineer. His plans came to a halt when his wife and young daughter were killed in an airplane crash. The shock of their deaths turned Benson's skin and hair white and paralyzed his face, Benson vowed vengeance on the criminals who caused the crash, and on all criminals everywhere. Fortunately, he had the resources to do so. Aided by his friends Fergus "Mac" MacMurdie, a chemist whose family had also been destroyed by criminals, and Algernon Heathcote "Smitty" Smith, a giant negro electronics expert who often assumes a Stepin Fetchit persona to confuse the underworld, Benson forms Justice, Inc. to help forfill his war on crime.
All twenty-four original Avenger novels were written by pulp writer Paul Ernst and appeared under the house name "Kenneth Robeson," allowing Street & Smith to bill them as having been written by the author of Doc Savage. Street & Smith hired Lester Dent (creator of Doc Savage) and Walter B. Gibson (creator of The Shadow) to help Ernst formulate the character. The Avenger magazine premiered on September 1, 1939 featuring the full-length novel "Justice, Inc." and ran for thirteen monthly issues (skipping August 1940) before becoming a bimonthly publication for the final eleven issues. (A half dozen short stories featuring The Avenger were then published from 1942 to 1944 in Stret & Smith's magazines Clues Detective and The Shadow; these were all written by Emile C. Tepperman.)
Thus ended the saga of The Avenger for nearly thirty years when Warner Paperback Library reprinted all of Ernst's magazine novels and hired writer and pulp expert Ron Goulart to continue the series for another twelve novels under the "Kenneth Robeson" pseudonym.
Ernst's Avenger never recieved the popularity Street & Smith had hoped for. He arrived during a glut of pulp heroes (Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Phantom Detectice, Operator #5, G-8, The Spider, and so on, including many heroes who failed to gel). As a Johnny Come Lately hero, despite well-worked plots and decent writing, The Avenger just failed to get traction. Efforts were made following the first twelve issues* to revamp the hero by eliminating Benson's frozen face. (One of the neatest things about the Avenger's paralyzed face was that, although immobile, it was extremely plastic, allowing him to mold his fave to look like anyone he wanted. Alas, this ability was also written out.) Too little, too late. As I noted above, Richard Benson was the last of the major pulp heroes.
The Frosted Death was the fifth book in the series, originally published in The Avenger January 1, 1940 issue. The "Death" was was a laboratory created white mold that clung to flesh and propagated wildly, quickly covering the victim's entire body. The mold would burrow into every pore of the victim, eventually causing a painful death by apphyxiation. conact with the skin meant certain doom -- there was no cure. Who would create such a terrible thing? The venal partner of a downtown chemical company, that's who. And why? To sell to a certain unnamed European country bent on conquest, that's why. Because the country is not named, for the sake of convenience let us call it "Schmazi Schmermany."
Naturally, the Frosted Death is accidently released in the city. And, just as naturally, The Avenger is on the case. And you know that Mac (being a chemical genius) would come up with a cure. But Mac and Smitty are kidnapped, along with the cure, by agents of Schmazi Schmermany and are taken to the desolate New England coast where a Scmazi Schmermany submarine awaits delivery of massive amounts of the Frosted Death. One of the neat things about the Frosted Death is, if introduced in the nasal cavity, it travels to the brain, rendering the victim a mindless zombie for the next few days before the mold kills them. Of course the Schmazi Schmermany baddies insert the mold up the unsuspecting noses of Mac and Smitty.
The Avenger, working alone, must finad and destroy the Frosted Death factory, destroy the submarine and all the Schmazis, rescue Mac and Smitty, put paid to the venal chemical company executive, and stop the Frosted Death in its tracks. Can he do it? You betcha.
As with stories of that time and ilk, there is some moral amibiguity that might disturb the modern reader. On the plus side, the overt racism often found in these tales is completely missing. All in all, a fast, enjoyable, pulpish read.
*Explaining the missing August 1940 issue: time was needed to revise manuscripts already written but not yet published,
Wow, Jerry, I had no knowledge about Richard "The Avenger" Benson! I'm going to check out the series online and see if I can buy a novel or two. Thanks for this excellent review.ReplyDelete
Sounds cool, but I doubt I'll ever see a copy.ReplyDelete
New to me, too, but somehow "Schmazi Schmermany" rings a bell somewhere...somewhere... (I'm not supposed to laugh in the public library, but...can I blame you?)ReplyDelete
I like the series overall but haven't read all of them. Maybe someday. Years ago Moonstone Books did a collection of new Avenger stories by various hands, one of whom was me. I think my story was set in a circus, but sadly, that's all I remember about it other than that I enjoyed writing it.ReplyDelete