As I noted in my review of Reginald’s first new Phantom Detective book, the Phantom Detective was an extremely long-running pulp vigilante (a la the Shadow and Doc Savage) whose original adventures were published from 1933-53. Those works are now all in the public domain and being reprinted by Adventure House. A few years ago, John Betancourt of Wildside Books commissioned two all-new Phantom Detective novels, both written by Robert Reginald, and THE NASTY GNOMES is the second of those.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
THE NASTY GNOMES picks up where THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM left off (note, though, that knowledge of the first novel is not required to enjoy this one). The Phantom Detective, the alter ego of Richard Curtis Van Loan, has nominally retired, but he has recently established a detective bureau on the West Coast to continue his work. Van Loan has returned to his old stomping grounds of New York City, where the city is being plagued by a rash of savage attacks by little people (it’s 1953, so they’re more commonly called dwarfs and midgets), who engage in a campaign of terror by repeatedly robbing, threatening, brutalizing, and extorting citizens before escaping into New York’s network of underground tunnels. Worse, these little guys seem to disappear even after they’ve been shot or otherwise put out of commission. Van Loan realizes he can’t deal with this crime wave alone, and quickly recruits a team of assistants, just as he had in California. The story gets a bit more complicated than that when it becomes apparent that the swarms of evil little people (the eponymous “nasty gnomes,” of course) are actually pawns of a larger conspiracy spearheaded by a crypto-John Birch Society represented in the story by real-life McCarthyite attorney Roy Cohn. The addition of Cohn and allusions to McCarthy and his witch hunts are a nice addition to the novel. (If Wildside had continued with new Phantom Detective novels, I suspect Cohn and this group would have popped up again.)
Just as with THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM, this novel explores some of the moral dimensions of vigilantism and the effects of violence on a man like Van Loan. Keep in mind that this is a man who, during his active days of crime-fighting, probably killed hundreds of criminals over the years. He obviously enjoyed his work, and perhaps relished the violent side of detective work just a bit too much. Exploring that set of issues adds some richness to the narrative that many similar novels written in the original pulp era mostly lacked.
Though Reginald’s aging Phantom Detective is more of an investigator and strategist than a brawler, this is very much a novel in the pulp tradition, much more so than Reginald’s first Phantom Detective novel. How could it not be, after all, with scores of midgets swarming out of alleys to attack passers-by before escaping into the sewers with their loot? It’s a rollicking good story, and I certainly recommend THE NASTY GNOMES to fans of pulp fiction vigilantes, especially those looking for a bit of an update to the pulp avenger formula.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers