I’ve long been an avid supporter of Sanctum Books’ reprints of classic pulps, specifically the ongoing series of The Shadow and Doc Savage. Each volume is a magazine-sized paperback containing two novels, using the cover art and interior illustrations from the magazines published originally in the 1930s and ’40s. They’re lovely, and I’ve been greatly enjoying immersing myself in this literature that has been so influential not just in popular culture, but also in my own work.
Until recently, Sanctum was reprinting the two series on a monthly basis, which was great. Then they announced that they were throttling the stream a bit, and would be publishing (if I remember right) only eight Doc Savage and eight Shadow volumes a year, with the off-months now to be filled with alternating volumes of two other pulp hero series, The Avenger and The Whisperer.
The Avenger I knew. I had a handful of paperback reprints from the ’70s, and they were great stuff. So if Sanctum was reprinting the full run of Avenger tales, I was definitely going to add them to my collection. The Whisperer I didn’t know. But Will Murray (pulp historian, Doc Savage novelist, and endorser of Doc Wilde) wrote “Personally, I consider The Whisperer one of S&S’s [pulp publisher Street & Smith] best series. I like it better than The Avenger. But then I really like Laurence Donovan, and I’ve really enjoyed reading and rereading The Whisperer this last month. The parallels to Batman and The Green Hornet are amazing.” So I figured I’d give it a try.
Then Sanctum announced that the subscriptions for the two new series would be combined, that there would be a single subscription for both The Avenger and The Whisperer. I was hesitant to commit funds to the latter sight unseen, but my love of pulp got the better of me and I wound up subscribing.
The first Avenger volume came in, and was as nicely made as all the rest of Sanctum’s books. I re-read Justice, Inc., the initial entry in the series, and it was as good as I recalled.
Then the first Whisperer volume came, containing two novels by “Clifford Goodrich” (actually Laurence Donovan writing under a house pseudonym, as Lester Dent wrote Doc Savage under “Kenneth Robeson” and Walter Gibson wrote the Shadow under “Maxwell Grant”). I dove into the first, The Dead Who Talked, ready for some hardboiled pulp adventure.
I have to admit, after a couple of pages, I started to fear I’d misspent my cash. The writing had a plodding quality to it, a rhythm sort of like “A car drove down the street. It was a green car. It drove down a city street full of people. The green car drove to the end of the street. That end of the street was quiet…” If that seems exaggerated, here’s some of the actual prose:
“Duke” Dolano was putting on a show. He had just beaten a tough “rap.” The Duke had beaten other raps, many of them. But this was a murder rap. It was extra special. So Duke was putting on an extra special show.
Ugh. Fortunately, after a few pages, the reading-primer style opened into a more complex pattern, as if the writer had started out clumsy and then found his rhythm, but hadn’t gone back to polish the opening (and this being the pulps, which were written to very tight deadlines at high speed, that’s likely the case).
Donovan spun a tale of crafty crooks and two-fisted cops, and I’m not going to say much about it because, frankly, only a few days have passed since I read it, and much of it is already fading from memory. It was at best an average pulp era cops and robbers story, and as a pulp hero adventure it was remarkably uninspired. The only thing truly notable about the novel is the origin of its hero, an origin that is bland and ridiculous in equal measure.
Okay, here’s the deal: The Whisperer is supposed to be a mystery man along the lines of The Shadow. Crime is happening, the lights go out, and a frightening wraith stalks the darkness. If seen at all, he is seen as a face floating in the gloom. And he speaks in a weird whisper, which of course is why he got his name.
Origins are important for an interesting hero. Doc Savage was trained from birth in an intensive scientific process to be the ultimate human being. The Shadow trained in the Far East, learning arcane skills of combat and mysticism. The Avenger, traumatized by the loss of his family, lost feeling and expression in his face, making him a tragic figure showing no emotion, but allowing him to rearrange the shape of his face to disguise himself as others.
And The Whisperer?
…From his upper and lower jaws came two oddly fashioned dental plates…[He] put The Whisperer in a loose coat pocket. Or rather he placed the odd dental plates there. [His friend] had been steadily apologizing for this poor disguise. He had made it for [him] when [he’d] been on a hot case. Because of some twist in the dental plates, [he’d] discovered he could only whisper. But it was a high, penetrating whisper that demanded instant attention. It had inspired fear…
So The Whisperer came to be because of some fucked up dental plates in a clumsily-made disguise.
If The Whisperer himself were a more intriguing hero, the forgettable plotline of this first story could be forgiven, and I might have hopes for future stories being better. But I find it really difficult to get excited about reading the adventures of a hero who is basically a garden-variety tough guy “enhanced for mysteriousness” by ill-fitting dental appliances. You know what they could have done instead, that would have been way cooler?
Anything. Anything at all.
And you know what the worst thing is? I subscribed, so I’ve still got more of this stuff coming my way. And I paid for it. Oh my lord, I paid for it.
UPDATE: Anthony Tollin at Sanctum Books has always been exemplary with his customer service, at least to me, and this case is no exception. He has graciously allowed me to apply the credit for my not-yet-received copies of The Whisperer to other Sanctum pulp reprints. Thank you, sir.