The famous names of 1930s pulp fiction come together for a wild romp in Malmont’s inventive, if a bit overlong, first novel.
Walter Gibson, Robert Heinlein, Lester Dent, L. Ron Hubbard—they were the kings of New York’s Depression-era pulp-fiction scene, creating beloved characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage. It’s doubtful, though, that they ever found themselves in the sort of adventure Malmont has concocted for them here. Taking the writers’ real lives as a starting point, he slips them into a story worthy of their own famously lurid imaginations, transforming them from mere scribblers into something more akin to super-friends. Chinese warrior Zhang Mei has made a deal with a rogue American colonel to snag a wad of cash and a supply of poison gas with which he hopes to reunite his homeland and chase out the invading Japanese. A simple enough scheme, or so it seems, until Gibson and Dent, with their sidekicks Hubbard and Heinlein, stumble across the plot in the service of various writerly pursuits. As literary types are wont to do, they make a hash of things, blowing Zhang Mei’s plan and nearly getting themselves killed several times over in the process. Malmont takes full advantage of his chosen setting, soaking his story in sinister, shadowy city atmosphere. He does an equally nice job working in cameos from big figures of the age (a scene wherein Gibson and a young Orson Welles go to the movies is particularly fun). The plot itself, though, could have used a bit more pruning. As the desperate scrapes and daring escapes pile up one after another, excitement begins to fade to tedium. The merry band’s adventures often seem strung together by the thinnest of threads, and by their final dash to freedom, one cares less that they’re safe than that it’s over.
A little too much of a good thing.