I’ve been a fan of the old pulp adventures – Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, etc. – for a long time. We live in a golden age of pulp reprints, so it’s not hard to acquire reasonably priced reprints of these classic adventures. The original stories tended to be in the format of short novels (about 40,000 words or so) produced once a month. Some were decidedly better than others, even within the same series, depending on who the actual author was behind the house name and how inspired they were that month. Quality sometimes suffered. You also have to read them with a solid suspension of disbelief at times, but the over-the-top action is a big part of the attraction. But one of the original pulps hasn’t gotten as much attention as the others in recent years, and that’s a bit surprising. I’m talking about the Phantom Detective (not Lee Falk’s Phantom), which ran for 170 issues (the third longest running title) from 1933-1953. Beginning in February 1933, the Phantom Detective was the second of these pulp heroes to come out (the first was the Shadow, the third was Doc Savage, which began in March 1933).
My understanding is that through some oversight the copyright of the Phantom Detective was never renewed, and all the original stories have now become part of the public domain (oops!). Because of this, a number of publishers have reprinted Phantom Detective stories over the years, and the good folks at Adventure House seem committed to reprinting every single issue of the original Phantom Detective stories, one per month. A few years ago, John Betancourt commissioned two all-new Phantom Detective novels – both written by Robert Reginald – the only new Phantom Detective novels to be written since 1953 to my knowledge. THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM is the first of these novels.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM is set in 1953. The Phantom Detective, the alter ego of Richard Curtis Van Loan, has retired. Both the world and Van Loan have changed since the heyday of the Phantom Detective. The Cold War era isn’t as free-wheeling as Depression and WWII era America, or as suited to pulp vigilantes dispensing justice outside the bounds of the law. His old friend from the original pulps, Frank Havens, the wealthy publisher, has died under mysterious circumstances, and Van Loan is asked to look into the matter by Havens’ widow. Though the Phantom Detective operated primarily in New York City, THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM mostly takes place in San Bernardino, California, a picturesque area Reginald knows well and does a good job describing here. Once there in sunny California, Van Loan realizes that all is not as it seems, unsurprisingly enough. As he tries to solve the apparent murder of his friend, Van Loan is also being stalked by an old enemy, and he unexpectedly finds a love interest. He also gathers a selection of new allies in California and ultimately goes on to found the Phantom Detective Agency under his direction, which will carry on the investigative legacy of the Phantom Detective. It’s a great premise that set up the possibility of a renewed Phantom Detective series. I suspect that sales of these two new Phantom Detective novels did not warrant the further continuation of the series unfortunately.
Never having read any of the original adventures (a little bird told me they’re fairly thin gruel, even as pulps go), I don’t know how a big fan of the originals would react to Reginald’s re-imagining here. THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM is definitely recommended for fans of the original pulp detective stories, as Reginald has successfully manage to inject new life (and interest) into one of the original but less-known pulp detectives. The shift from third person (in the originals) to first person perspective offers a great deal of potential for humanizing a pulp hero. Van Loan is a man who had solved crimes and dispensed vigilante justice for two decades, sending a couple thousand evil-doers to their deaths. He’s now in his early fifties and ready to move on with his life, assuming his past will let him. I’m unfamiliar with the Phantom Detective’s original modus operandi, but here he seeks to solve the crime through solid detective work, never dons a costume, and only resorts to violence at the climax when other means are exhausted. It’s a low-key adventure in some ways, but it retains plenty of pulp tropes to ensure that it’s still a fun story of a crime-fighting vigilante. It also features an interesting framing narrative of a man inheriting his uncle’s estate and discovering a set of manuscripts that tell of the Phantom Detective’s adventures.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers