THE CLOWN WHO LAUGHED

January 24, 2004

How about another Green Lama adventure? From the October 1940 issue of DOUBLE DETECTIVE, pulp’s greatest (and only) ordained Buddhist crimefighter goes after a travelling circus which makes its real profit through murders on the side. (If a hero has a substantial career, he is obligated at some point to have a circus adventure, as well as a duel in a coliseum, a clash with his dark imposter, being framed for murder, solving a crime while blind . . . these requirements are all in the handbook.)

Before I forget, does it seem likely to anyone else that the Green Lama’s origin is intentionally suggestive of Buddha’s own story? The pampered, naive Prince Gotama was so affected when he first saw an old man, a sick man and a corpse that he immediately began his spiritual journey that led to his becoming Buddha, the Enlightened One. The aristocratic Jethro Dumont, returning from ten years in a peaceful lamasery, witnesses two children being gunned down in a gang shooting with no justice forthcoming; he begins the more proactive spiritual journey of fighting crime as the Green Lama. Seems clear the author had a parallel in mind.

THE CASE OF THE CLOWN WHO LAUGHED is not a great classic pulp yarn you would go back to savor again every year, but it is solid, unpretentious entertainment and short enough to read during an afternoon of doing laundry and other chores. I have never been enthusiastic about circuses, in person or in fiction, but this story uses the travelling show setting to good effect and keeps things moving briskly. It helps that “Richard Foster” (actually Kendell Foster Crossen) doesn’t go into elaborate detail on the sad life of Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy or the secret jargon spoken by roustabouts; he uses just enough to give the story color.

Jethro Dumont may be a noble crusader for justice and a bearer of good karma, but he doesn’t stay on top of his business holdings. Finding to his surprise that he owns a circus (his lawyer advises him to check it out, as something shady seems to be going on), Jethro looks into things and quickly finds himself up to his mantra in dark doings. The managers of the circus have an ongoing racket where (in each town they visit) one of their smooth-talking grifters cons an old man into taking out a life insurance policy made out to this complete stranger. Then, the next time the show comes to that town or the year after, the sucker is carefully murdered and the money collected.

This doesn’t seem all that workable in practice, but I’ve read enough texts on crime and scams to realize the most unlikely-sounding operations succeed all the time. The problem here is that more and more of the circus performers are getting wise that something unkosher is going on. This means that they have to be cut in on the action or suddenly leave this life. So there are an awful lot of tragic—cough— accidents befalling people associated with this show, and even the local police are beginning to suspect.

Showing up as his own self to look around, Jethro then makes an appearance as his third identity, Dr Charles Pali (this is the bird in the green clerical suit). With his makeup a bit more obviously Asian than usual, Pali gets a job with the circus as a magician. He actually seems to be doing supernatural magic, too; in addition to card tricks and John Edward type chicanery, our hero apparently makes objects levitate and skid around without explanation. Assisting in this investigation are two of the Lama’s aides, Ken Clayton and Jean Farell. (Notice redhead Jean does all the shooting, she’s a Montana girl.)

Twice, our hero is captured, tied up and left to face a certain death. Of COURSE he gets away. Thank goodness for criminals who don’t simply torture you to find out what you know and then shoot you in the back of the head before dumping you in the river. That would be so gauche. So the Green Lama finds himself all trussed up on the floor of the elephant enclosure as a fire starts the big boys stampeding. He also is thrown into a cage with a cranky lion, but fortunately he is able to press a nerve spot on the lion’s neck and render it senseless. (Ow! My suspension of disbelief just tore a ligament!)

Running around the edge of the story, stepping in to bail the Lama out in a spot that gets too tight or to hand him a convenient clue, is our gal Magga again. A bold adventuress with a gift for disguise, she also is so fluent with Buddhist concepts and sayings that it seems possible she was in fact sent by the lamasery to keep an eye on Jethro, making sure he doesn’t disgrace the temple by suddenly carrying two heavy 45s and laughing wildly as he chases crooks. Did Jethro Dumont (or the readers) ever find out the backstory of Magga? It’s funny to see a pulp hero treated the way they usually act around civilians . . . hiding their true identities and purpose, turning up unexpectedly and disappearing when the work is done, all of that. But, characteristically, Jethro takes it all with good natured grace.