Friday, March 28, 2008

The Crimson Mask

At the coner of East Avenue and Carmody Streets was a drug store with windows facing on both thoroughfares. A rather curious place too, because unlike modern drug stores it had no soda fountain, no display of candy or coffee pots. The only way a man could get a sandwich in that store would be if he were starving, and then the owner would have sent out for it. There were even the red and green globes in the windows that indicated that this was an old fashioned drug store.

The name on the door read “Robert Clarke, Ph.G.” and it might have been expected that Robert Clarke was as old-fashioned as his store.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Bob Clarke was young, eager, and alert. He ran the drug store, in about the poorest section of the vast city, because he liked it here. Grown-ups knew him as “Doc.” The kids had coined a name for him two days after he opened the store. They called him the “Lemon Drop Man” because he kept a crystal container of candy ready, and the kids could get a handful for the mere asking.

Doc ran his business in a peculiar fashion, too. Some might have called it slipshod, and a good credit man would have promptly refused to extend any credit at all. For Doc was in the habit of compounding prescriptions and insisting that they be charged. He maintained that his customers – those among them who were pitifully poor – had enough troubles in paying doctor bills.

…Doc Clarke was the Crimson Mask. But only these three people knew that, or how and why Doc has entered this everlasting business of fighting crime, months before, and then only after a long and careful study of the subject.

The life he had chosen had had its inception when his father, a police sergeant, had been shot in the back by gangsters. Doc, a slender youth at that time, had seen his father die. He had seen an eerie phenomenon which had caused the blood to rush into the dying man’s face until it had formed a clear, vivid mask of crimson.

It was at that moment that young Clarke had made his vow to avenge his father’s death by making ceaseless war on all gangsters and crime and had taken his pseudonym and mask of identification from hi memory of the crimson mask of blood of his dying father’s face. Bob Clarke himself now had just such a mask – fashioned of crimson velvet. Although he did not have to rely on the mask to hide his real identity, since he had become an expert at disguise and mimicry.

Former Commissioner Warrick had helped him in all this. A life-long friend of young Clarke’s father, the wealthy ex-commissioner had helped the boy through the School pf Pharmacy, where he had gone with what money his father had left him. Now that Bob Clarke had graduated, and during all this time at school had been perfecting himself in all the arts that would make him a great detective, he was repaying Warrick in the one way the ex-commissioner wished to be repaid by making possible the dream of the older man’s life to wage relentless war on crime and criminals unrestricted by red tape.

(“The Crimson Mask and the Vanishing Men,” Detective Novels Magazine, 1941 by Better Publications)

And with the help of Dave Small who helped run the drugstore as well as investigating and Bob’s girlfriend Sandra Gray who he met in an earlier case, the Crimson mask does just that.

The Crimson Mask was one of several detectives that semi-regularly appeared in Detective Novels Magazine in the early 1940s. The pen-name was Frank Johnson, but the writer was Norman Daniels who was a fairly prolific pulpster back in those days. He ghosted a few Doc Savages and contributed adventures of the crimefighters the Black Bat and the Phantom Detective.

I have to confess to feeling a little guilty. I have in my collection a Crimson Mask story, have had it for years and yet never read it. This issue of HIGH ADVENTURE reprints two of the Crimson Mask’s stories and they are both good little mysteries. “The Crimson Mask and the Vanishing Men” concerns bank messengers that disappear with the money they are carrying only to be found dead some time later. Even when the police and the Crimson Mask are keeping watch, the messengers vanish without a sound in the middle of crowded streets. “The Money Trail” concens itself with armored cars. When acts of sabotage and a bungled hold-up attempt that leaves one guard dead, the Crimson Mask investigates what looks to be vast swindle and a gang that aren’t afraid to kill to reach their goals.

The Crimson Mask makes for enjoyable reading. He’s capable but not so much as to distance himself from the reader ala Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Avenger. He’s not shy about his girlfriend but none of that “can’t be together because of the dangerous mission” nonsense of the Spider and Phantom Detective. His motivation for fighting crime is personal and understandable. And, while he operates on the outside of the law and uses a gun, he’s respected by the police as a detective and crimefighter. His charitable work as a pharmacist helps give us a bit more than the usual insight to the character, he’s big on social justice as well as criminal justice. All in all, we get a hero who comes across as a genuinely nice and affable guy. The stories don’t deal with super crooks like Doc Savage and the other big guns of the pulps combat, they almost pale in comparison. However, they aren’t pikers either, they have unusual angles and ruthless men at the heart of them.

All in all, a lot of fun and a character I’d like to see more of. I’m going to have to hunt up that pulp I have and give it a read.

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