THE FUGITIVE FINGERPRINTS

January 12, 2005

From the June 1941 issue of DOUBLE DETECTIVE, it’s the Green Lama again tangling with wacky Hollywood folks. I like the odd contrast between the sedate, philosophical Buddhist investigator and the brassy show business types he deals with in most of his stories. It’s good-natured spoofing and often very funny in a breezy way. At a murder scene, Lt. Caraway tells a beauty not to leave town without notifying him and she flusters him by asking sweetly, “Would you like my telephone number, too?” (Even the Medical Examiner gets in on it, grumbling, “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to have time enough to get to my lunch before the next murder.”)

The mystery in itself is okay but nothing memorable. A nasty Broadway producer (infamous for blackmailing his stars) is found stabbed to death upstairs during a big party at his home. The only fingerprints found anywhere in the room are three perfectly clear specimens in blood, and of course they don’t match those of anyone at the party. Later on, there’s a similar murder and the same anomalous prints are found there, as well. Despite the fact a dozen characters state emphatically that you can’t possibly fake fingerprints, it’s pretty clear that this is exactly what’s going on. The final explanation is not entirely convincing but I’ve enjoyed Ellery Queen books with revelations much more dubious (a pair of exactly identical houses down the road from each other, for example), so I can accept this with a shrug.

The real fun to be found in this story is not the rather ordinary murder mystery plot, with its assorted suspects and gangsters and possible solutions. It’s in the playful way Kendell Foster Crossen (writing as “Richard Foster”) fools around within the narrative. He has his criminal masterminds seem to know they’re in a story, as they remark how it’s always a mistake to chat with the heroes because it gives away clues they will use later, and how you should never just tie the hero up and throw him in a room, as it just gives him a chance to escape.

We first find Jethro Dumont meeting “a tall, dark-complected young man, dressed entirely in brown. This was Richard Foster, a writer and friend of Dumont.” Foster has written a book about Dumont’s ten years in Tibet, the galleys of which he is bringing over for him to approve. This is a seriously messed-up situation. Foster is collaborating with Dumont on this travel book, but at the same time he has been selling stories to the pulps about the exploits of the Green Lama — including the very story we’re reading now.

Although Foster keeps explaining in footnotes that he suspects Dumont may be the Lama, he doesn’t really know for sure. This is bizarro logic. If Dumont was actually Foster’s friend, he would ask the writer to please leave him out of the pulp novels altogether and stop drawing public attention to any connection between him and the Green Lama. In one footnote, Foster explains that the manuscripts of the Green Lama adventures are mysteriously sent to him and that apparently Jethro Dumont may be writing them himself. This doesn’t make much sense, either. Maybe Tsarong, Dumont’s faithful acolyte, is batting these yarns out on his day off to supplement his income. . . .

In any case, Jethro Dumont is the worst crimefighter ever at keeping his secret identity unknown. It seems that the whole Dr Pali intermediate role doesn’t fool anyone, and everybody mentions he might be the Green Lama. In the first place, there was really no reason why Dumont should put on the green robe and call himself the Green Lama when out chasing crooks; he could just as easily have slipped on an ordinary mask and referred to himself as the Raven or Captain Amnesia or something. As it stands, whenever there’s an interesting crime, he investigates as himself, as Charles Pali and as the robed mystic. So now there are three Tibetan Lamas snooping around an American crime scene. Even Inspector Clouseau would be able to figure that one out.

(In the short-lived radio series in 1949, Dumont was publicly known as the Green Lama, although his servant’s name was now Tulku.)

Crooks even know about the Greenwich Village house where Dumont sneaks in (coat collar up and hat pulled down) to use as his Lama Headquarters. This place has another thing that always frazzles me; Dumont can arrive there and enter the completely dark, locked building and yet there are always butter candles burning in front of the Buddha shrine. What the heck, are these four-day butter candles or something? Is it really enlightened, Buddha-wise or not, to leave candles burning in an empty house?

The Green Lama throws in a couple more mystical powers, just to help differentiate him from other crimefighters. At one point, surrounded by unfriendly gunmen, he gestures and “a solid sheet of white fire sprang up between them. It seemed to stretch from the floor to the ceiling and was blinding in its intensity.” Okay, this might be a hypnotic illusion or it might just be a handful of the flash powder which stage magicians use. A bit more impressive is the way our enlightened vigilante causes an exact duplicate of himself to suddenly appear next to him. This is useful when someone is about to shoot you, and might be an illusion or might actually be Dumont projecting his astral form. I don’t know; if he could send his spirit body out, it would certainly make surreptitiously investigating crime scenes easier.

Magga also appears in one of her thousand disguises. The Lama never does discover just who this mysterious woman really is. Her knowledge of Tibetan language and theology are strong clues that she came from the same lamasery where Dumont studied and may have been sent to assist him. She certainly does a lot of useful fact gathering for him and then obligingly gets captured so he can save the day. It’s odd that such a perceptive genius can’t track down her true identity.

Say. . .  you don’t suppose “Magga” is actually Tsarong, Dumont’s valet and assistant? We never see the two of them together. Now there would be an impressive master of disguise!