The first of a proposed series of collections culling the highlights from the long-running story magazine, Adventure, Black Dog Books’ The Best of Adventure, Volume One, 1910-1912 is a meaty set of action yarns from the early twentieth century. For lovers of genre writing and the output of the early American fiction pulps, the first volume contains plenty of familiar names — Talbot Mundy, Rafael Sabatini, Damon Runyon, R. Austin Freeman — and a healthy swath of lesser known adventure fictioners.
Editor and pulp historian Doug Ellis selected 24 tales from the magazine’s first two years, the only condition being that each author could only be represented once in the volume — keeping prolific pros like Talbot Mundy from taking over the book. Mundy’s selection, “The Soul of A Regiment,” opens the story collection on an expectedly solid note. A Kipling-esque tale of bravery in a British regiment, the tale also features a hint of the racial condescension so familiar to the period. (The career soldier responsible for whipping an Egyptian regiment into shape first gets the “coal-black Negroes” into paying attention to him by showing his proficiency with the ol’ buck-and-wing.) This doesn’t detract from the story as much as it pretty quickly highlights for the reader that these stories’ cultural attitudes are very much of their era. As Ellis himself notes in an introduction describing the years immediately preceding the Great War, “Colonialism was an accepted reality and the ‘white man’s burden’ an accepted myth, particularly for the U.S., Britain and several European countries.” While Ellis admits that the mag did occasionally publish tales with even more egregious racial stereotypes, “none were very good pieces of fiction.”
It should be noted, though, that the majority of the works collected in this best-of manage to avoid racist stereotyping (though we do get an occasional Arab despot as in Bertram Atkey’s “The Hate of Ismail Bey”), focusing instead on taut tales of derring-do, western gunfights, historical swashbuckling and fierce battles against a harsh and cruel nature. A few offerings seem to really step outside the Adventure parameters: Damon Runyon’s typically wry “Pied Piper, Junior,” for instance, tells the tale of a carnie grifter who “borrows” a retired snake charmer’s python to rid a Midwestern town of rats; the comic “adventure” is frequently told from the snake Elmer’s PoV. R. Austin Freeman’s “31 New Inn” is even a squarer peg: an old-fashioned detective novella featuring Freeman’s “medical jurispractitioner,” Dr. Thorndyke. One of the earliest tales featuring this forensic ratiocinator, “Inn” moves a bit creakily in comparison to the more rousing action pieces, though detective fiction historians most likely will appreciate its inclusion.
To these eyes, one of the collection’s highlights proves to be a South Seas novella, H.D. Couzens’ “Brethren of the Beach,” which follows a motley crew of hard-bitten types who discover a treasure’s worth of pearls while harvesting guano on an isolated island. The resultant rounds of one-upmanship and betrayal had me visualizing the cast of Treasure of Sierra Madre in the tropics. Another yarn, William Hope Hodgson’s “The Albatross,” which depicts a couple’s attempts to survive their time on a rat-infested derelict ship, would not have read out of place in a later horror fiction pulp like Weird Tales. Effectively creepy.
The bulk of the set, though, prove quick and satisfying little actioners offering readers into worlds we now primarily see on cable doc series like Deadliest Catch or Ax Men — rough environments where tough-as-nails men put themselves at risk on a daily basis — or classic Hollywood adventure movies. Of all the genre types featured in the book, the one that seems to most consistently bring out a lighter narrative touch prove to be the westerns (e.g., John Lewis’ “The Prodigious Postscript,” which details the adventures of a seeming tenderfoot in an Arizona desert town.) Per the manner of the day, the voice of many of the offerings in Best of Adventure: Volume One is more formal than we are accustomed to reading in more modern action pulps, but that’s also a part of their considerable charm. These are tales where publishers still saw fit to blank out every obscenity, and the nastiest epithet that was openly used was “brute” or “swine.” Which does not, in any way, mute the sense of peril in these Gripping Yarns.