The Mucker by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1921)
Edgar Rice Burroughs was far more than Tarzan and John Carter. He also wrote western, mystery, adventure, and historical stories. All of his books feature overblown prose, stilted dialogue, incredible plots, and coincidence piled upon coincidence piled on coincidence, seemingly ad infinitum. At his best, ERB was a page-turner. At his worst, he was still a page turner. That, plus his great imagination, is what made him one of the greatest literary successes of the Twentieth Century.
Like a polished circus act, Burroughs managed to juggle a dazzling display of thrills and threats effortlessly. And if a few balls happen to go missing in mid-air, who's to notice?
Billy Byrne is The Mucker, a physical giant of a man and a low-born thug and minor criminal from the slums of Chicago. A product of his environment, Billy knows no rules and has no respect for anything but himself. He has a deep-seated hatred of society and the law, and he especially despises anyone not of his remarkably low social status. A man who has no friends is one who also has enemies. When one of Billy's enemies is arrested for a robbery in which a kindly storekeeper was killed, he uses the opportunity to pin the murder on Billy. Billy, who had nothing to do with either the robbery or the murder, is forced to flee.
He makes his way from Chicago to San Francisco, where he is drugged in a waterfront dive, waking up at sea on a ship whose crew consisted of brutal men avoiding arrest and of fellow shanghaied victims. The ship's mission: piracy and kidnapping.
The kidnapping victim is beautiful Barbara Harding, the cultured daughter of a New York City millionaire. By this time, Billy is embracing violent life at sea. Harding's yacht of captured and disabled, with its crew and passengers left to die. While Barbara is taken, Billy leaves the man who was protecting Barbara for dead.
What happens next is predictable. Barbara hates the vicious thug who murdered her friend and Billy hates the girl for her social standing and fancy ways. A sudden typhoon cripples the ship and pushes it to an unknown Malaysian island where it is torn apart on the rocks. Billy uncharacteristically grabs Barbara and swims to shore, saving her. There is a handful of other survivors, including the Captain and his two mates. Two sailors are sent to a high location to scout for water but never return; later their headless bodies are found. In short order we discover a lost race of Japanese Samurai who have interbred with Malaysian headhunters. There are chases, rescues, and misunderstandings as Billy and Barbara are forced to run, hiding out in a desolate part of the island for months. Slowly, Billy realizes he is in love with the high-born lady and tries to improve his character to please her. Because Billy is at heart a noble sap, he misunderstands Barbara's feelings, thinking she loves someone else.
Let me interrupt this synopsis to give you a flavor of ERB's writing:
"An American girl of the highest social caste in the arms of that most vicious of all social pariahs -- a criminal mucker of the slums of a great city -- and defending them with drawn revolver, a French count and soldier of fortune, while in their wake streamed a yelling pack of half-caste demons clothed in the habiliments of sixteenth century Japan, and wielding the barbarous spears of the savage head-hunting aborigines whose fierce blood coursed in their veins with that of the descendants of Taka-mi-musu-bi-no-kami." (Just one sentence from pages 132-3!)
Now back to our regularly scheduled synopsis.
Love remains unrequited as Barbara, thinking Billy dead, is rescued from the island. Billy is rescued three months later. A year passes and Billy is now a professional boxer, working his way up to the championship. Barbara, he knows from newspaper accounts, is engaged to another man. When he reads that the engagement has been broken, he goes to Barbara (who all this while thought him dead) and virtually forces her to reconcile with her fiance -- a man of her social standing and not a mucker like Billy.
Billy then exits.
Thus ends Part One, which originally appeared as a serial in October and November 1914 issues of All-Story Cavalier Weekly as "The Mucker." A sequel, "The Return of the Mucker," ran as a serial in June and July 1916 issues of All-Story Weekly (sorry, Cavalier).
Open Part Two.
Billy, having given up Barbara to be married by another man, is still determined to be the kind of man that Barbara had taught him to be. He returns to Chicago to give himself up for the murder of the storekeeper which had started his adventures. He is sure that the justice system would prove him innocent. Our naive hero did not reckon with the influence of politics on the justice system and Billy is found guilty when he goes to trial and is given a life sentence. Of course Billy escapes.
While on the run, he meets and is befriended by a hobo called Bridge -- an educated man with an unknown past. There are adventures while running from the law. The two eventually find themselves in Mexico where Pancho Villa and various gangs and armies are fighting for control of the country. Billy finds himself in an outlaw gang vows to kill every gringo in Mexico. Coincidences pile up and soon we find Barbara in Mexico. And in danger. Did I mention there were also unfriendly Indians?
All's well that ends well, I guess. A few dei ex machina are thrown in. Billy never furfills a vow he made to a Kansas farmwoman and we never learn the secret of Bridge.* Oh, well.
The Mucker is a rip-snorting yard that is thoroughly entertaining. For those willing to suspend disbelief and literary judgment, this one's a winner.
* Bridge's tale is continued in "The Oakdale Affair," which was published in Blue Book Magazine in 1918, although it did not receive book publication until 1937 when it was paired with another Burroughs novella, "The Rider."