THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

January 6, 2004

From the August 1940 issue of DOUBLE DETECTIVE, this is an enjoyable if slightly run-of-the-mill adventure by Kendell Foster Crossen (under the house name Richard Foster). The Green Lama has really grown on me. He’s a nice change of pace from your usual snarling, clenched-teeth pulp avenger with an automatic exploding in each hand. (Not that there’s anything WRONG with that. . . .)

The odd concept of a Buddhist crimefighter is presented with more conviction and plausibility here than in the first story. Jethro Dumont seems genuinely concerned with helping people, choosing to oppose criminals because he has the necessary skills; he’s not so much obsessed with wiping out those vermin of the underworld as he is with preventing the harm they would do. And he’s also shown as tolerant and good-natured, vastly more appealing than that other religious detective, Father Brown (who always irritated me as being preachy in all senses of the word).

This time out, the Green Lama enjoys a shipboard mystery. Like stories set on a speeding train or in a snowbound lodge, the shipboard adventure has a special claustrophobic appeal in that the range of motion is restricted, despite the fact they are often moving across distance. (Everyone does get out at Colon to chase each other around for an eventful night.)

We find Jethro Dumont in his Dr Charles Pali getup enjoying a cruise from Los Angeles to New York and (inevitably) finding murders and dope rings and men overboard and a lame orchestra. The Lama would go after drug smugglers in any case, but this organization is particularly vile; they are selling cocaine to schoolchildren by enclosing packets inside comic books (heinous as this is, still it does make the art look more vivid to the kids).

 A member of this gang is a nervous guy named Carlos Lopez (“he used to sell reefers to the Harlem dealers”). Now, when Carlos is required to stab someone to death, he gets himself all keyed up and aggressive by smoking a lot of marijuana. Frankly, I think if he did a few joints in a row, he’d be less likely to run out and stab someone to death than he would be to sit in his cabin listening to AMOS N’ ANDY and ordering room service, but maybe pot was different back then. Of course, the gang has a mysterious leader who appears heavily disguised except for a skull ring, and who we know has to be somewhere in the onstage cast.

The Green Lama investigates in his patient, unobtrusive way, using as little violence as possible. (Although there is a startling moment when he whips his red silk prayer scarf around a thug’s neck and cracks it, just hard enough to drop the man senseless. How do you practice something like that, anyway?) Our hero also makes good use of his knowledge of pressure points, enhancing the effect by his questionable use of drinking radioactive salt to give his touch an electric charge. (My doctor has advised me against trying this.)

Magga turns up again, this time undercover as the sultry beauty Señorita Carmen Esteban. What the heck is up with this woman anyway? She comes and goes with no visible means of support, full of esoteric Buddhist lore, and keeping tabs on the underworld so she can point Dumont in the right direction. (He calls her “the Revealer of Secret Paths, the Magga.”) If she is a wandering adventuress with a love of Asian theology and an independent income, why doesn’t she just come out and tell this to Dumont? Does she just like being all mysterious and enigmatic?

Personally, I think she’s an agent working for the lamasery where Jethro Dumont studied, keeping an eye on him and making reports on his activities. Perhaps if the Green Lama started showing signs of being corrupted or getting too rough, she might go back and recommend he be defrocked.

The heavy dosages of Buddhist quotations are not overdone this time, and the scenes of Dumont meditating for hours in his cabin before a flickering butter candle give a haunting image of a detective solving crimes in his own way. There is a great line when the crooks ask the captive Lama why he’s interfering with them, wondering if he’s a hijacker trying to muscle in on their action. Our hero replies, “I am only a part of the suffering which must follow you,” and that their evil thoughts have brought about their own punishment. (Instant karma’s gonna get you.)

The story also marks a change in the Green Lama’s supporting cast, as ex-con Gary Brown is smitten with a nubile lass and heads for the altar. Conveniently enough, Dumont meets two new kids who jump at the chance to offer their services. One is a matinee idol named Ken Clayton, the other is a saucy young redhead named Jean Farrell. Now, redheads in pulps are required to be little firecrackers and Jean is no exception (“My dad . . . always claimed a girl wasn’t decently dressed unless she wore long woolen underwear and carried a gun.”) The usual stereotype is that women in pulps were timid, helpless damsels, but you sure couldn’t prove that by the ones I keep encountering in these stories.