Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, January 7, 2021


 The Avenger #1:  Justice, Inc. by "Kenneth Robeson" (Paul Ernst) (from The Avenger, September 1939; reprinted by Paperback Library, June 1972; also included in Sanctum Books The Avenger, Volume 1 (2009) and The Avenger Multipack #1 (date?)

With the success of such pulp hero crimefighters such as Doc Savage and The Shadow, the floodgates opened for a number of copycats (The Whisperer, The Skipper, The Octopus, ad nauseum), but none ever captured the popularity (and audience) of Doc Savage and The Shadow.  Publishers Street and Smith were still determined to milk the super-crime-fighting cow, though, and gathered Lester Dent and Walter Gibson to brainstorm a new pulp hero who would combine aspects of the two reigning pulp adventure characters.  It was Paul Ernst who came up with the final concept of The Avenger, marrying bits of Doc savage, The shadow, and his own previous pulp characters.  Thus was Richard Benson born.

In Justice, Inc., we learn the origins of both The Avenger and his crime fighting team, Justice, Inc.  Benson was a man who earned a fortune through his many adventures around the globe.  Comfortable now, he settled into married life with his wife Alicia and young daughter Alice.  As we open, Alicia's mother is ill and dying in Montreal and Benson is anxious to get his family from Buffalo to there as soon as possible.  All commercial flights are booked and there are no available chartered planes.  There is one chartered plane, though, and it has a few empty seats and is about to take off for Montreal.  Benson manages to push himself and his family on the flight.  Benson goes to the plane's rest room to wash his hands.  When he returns, his wife and child are missing.  According to everyone on the plane, they were never there -- Benson had boarded the plane alone.  Benson searches the plane and finds no trace of his family.  The same story is repeated when he lands in Montreal; telephone calls to the Buffalo airport have no record of his family going on the plane and the field crew swear he had gotten on the plane alone.  Then he passes out.

Benson awakes three weeks later in a hospital.  He is told he had brain fever and the shock had somehow transformed him.  And transform him it did.  His previously dark hair was now white, his tanned skin pale, his face frozen and immovable in an unearthly rictus.  Most amazing of all, his face had the quality of putty -- he can move his features around with his figures and they would freeze into place.  Richard Benson had become a man of a thousand faces.  He checks himself out of the hos[pital and flies to Buffalo.  He goes to the hotel there where he and his family had been staying and is told that he left alone for his trip to Buffalo while he wife and daughter flew to Louisiana.  Benson knows that he is not going mad.  Someone had to be behind this elaborate plot.  Benson had to find his wife and daughter if they still lived.

Benson soon gained an ally and found that he had enemies.  A secretive Scotsman told Benson o meet him later that night.  Also, while leaving the Buffalo airport, Benson's cab is attacked by three men.  Benson (being the perfect male specimen that he is) disarms the men and turns them over to the police; but the men had been released almost immediately due to a high-priced lawyer who had shown up..  The Scotsman he was to meet is Fergus (Mac) MacMurdie, a former pharmacist and chemist, who told Benson that he had seen Alicia and Alice board the plane with him.  MacMurdie's family had been killed by gangsters and he had slipped into financial ruin and became a field attendant at the airport.  Because someone saw MacMurdie talk to Benson, he had been attacked at the airfield.  The Scot was a tough fellow, though, with mallet-like hands.  Although he took care of his attackers, he was banned from the airport.  Because of what had happened to him, MacMurdie was "indifferent to the threat of...death."  He agrees to help Benson find out what had happened to his family.

The first clue was with the plane that Benson and his family had boarded.  An inspection at the airport revealed that it had since been disguised with a new number on its body.  It also turns out that the plane had a hidden trap door -- one that Benson feared his family had been thrown out of.  The plane had been chartered several times recently to make the same flight.  The flights corresponded with the disappearances of several prominent businessmen -- all with ties, either through investment or employment, with the Buffalo Tap & Die Works, a company that had fallen on temporary hard times but appeared to have more than enough cash on hand to weather the crisis.

One of the missing men was Arnold Leon, an investor in the Tap & Die company, had been driven to the house of the president of the firm.  Leon entered and did not exit.  After a while, his driver became worried and discovered that the house was completely unoccupied; the owner of the house was actually spending the month in Florida.  When the driver notified Leon's wife what had happened, she accused him of kidnapping her husband.  The driver, Algernon Heathcote (Smitty) Smith, had a prison record.  He had been framed for the theft of some valuable metals.  He had been an electrical engineer, a graduate of Massachusetts Tech, but found himself unemployable after his release from prison.  He soon becomes the third member of Benson's vigilante force.  Smitty is a giant of a man, six foot nine, weighing 285 pounds, and solidly built -- he was as strong as he looked, plus he was much faster and more agile than he looked.

The three men end up facing off against a well-organized and murderous gang whose leader remains shrouded in mystery.  It takes their combined powers to overcome the gang and Benson's deductive abilities to trap the mastermind behind a multi-million dollar crime.

The Avenger, as scripted by Paul Ernst, lasted for 24 issues.  Following the cancellation of the magazine, he appeared in six short stories ghosted by Emile Tupperman (five published in Clues Detective Magazine and one in The Shadow).  When Paperback Library republished all 24 of Ernst's novels, they hire ghost writer Ron Goulart to continue the saga with 12 new novels.  In 2008, Moonstone Books published the first of three original anthologies about the Avenger and Justice, Inc.  Moonstone also has published a few original novels in the series.

As to The Avenger, the second book in the series, The Yellow Hoard (October 1939), introduced a new member to Justice, Inc., Nellie Gray. a beautiful martial arts expert.  Other members were introduced in later adventures:  Josh and Rosabel Newton (an Afro-American couple who pose Stepin Fetchit-style to gain  information while posing as household servants; both are actually highly cultured graduates of Tuskeegee University) and Cole Wilson (a light-hearted adventurer with "a streak of Robin Hood in him," who figures more prominently in the Ron Goulart novels).  Also, half-way through Paul Ernst's run, and due to an editorial dictate, Richard Benson underwent a major change, victim to a machine that provided a "nerve shock" that reversed his facial condition and returned his hair to its previous black color.

The Avenger, with his wealth, his gadgets, his abilities, and his loyal team, was a bright spot in the pulp crime-buster genre.  Much of this is due to the talents of Paul Ernst.  Bits of many of Ernst's pulp characters made their way to help form Richard Benson:  Seekay, The Wraith, Dick Bullitt, Old Stone Face, The Gray Marauder, and Karlu the Mystic.  Ernst was a consummate pulp writer who easily made the transition to the slicks when the pulp market dried up.  His work is always worth a look.

1 comment:

  1. Seems even more elaborate than at least the initial back-story for Savage or Cranston. Why did the editor want to dump the more fantasticated nature of Benson? Presumably an attempt to boost sales? Shall have to Go Look to see if Paperback Library engaged Goulart in the '60s or '70s...

    When I think of Ernst, my first thought is shudder pulp...sounds like he was much more interesting than that would imply...