Back when I was a teen, I remember going on a tour of Universal Studios California while the second run of Jack Webb’s Dragnet was being shot. One thing I still recall from that tour was being shown some of the show’s sets, which were somewhat unique for teledramas at the time in that they included sections of ceiling. Where most series back then were shot straight on, Webb liked to position the cameras so they (and, by extension, the viewers) were looking up at the interrogating Joe Friday. Hence the need for ceilings.
I thought of this visual tactic while reading Richard R. Mill’s Shock Troops of Justice (Black Dog Books), a collection of pulp tales from the 1930s that are as much a Valentine to the then-nascent F.B.I. as they are cop tales. Much like Webb, Mill does his darnedest to make his audience look up to his hero, special agent James “Duke” Ashby. Ashby is a stalwart type who specializes in impersonating low-lifes and working class roughnecks, even if he himself has a personal predilection for the finer things in life. Though J. Edgar Hoover himself makes an appearance in several stories (usually just called “the Director”), Ashby mainly works under F.B.I. crime lab head Carl Sherman, a brainy type who comes up with the schemes that put undercover Ashby in danger, then spends his time fretting back at the office over our hero’s safety.
The primary targets in the 12 tales collected in Shock Troops prove to be gangland bank robbers and kidnappers, though in one tale “Hoover’s Schoolboys” go after a gunmaker providing modified weapons for the mobsters. (In another, a duplicitous banker–this is, after the Great Depression–is a collateral target.) In “Blind Date,“ our man pretends to be a rough-hewn commercial fisherman hired to transport a Ma Barker-esque robber named Mother Badby, her two sons and a hireling named Fisheye Glartkey by boat into Canada. The foursome plan to off the agent once they get close to the Canadian shore, but good ol’ Carl Sherman has planned for that contingency.
As pulp fiction, Mill’s Duke Ashby tales perhaps suffer from an excess earnestness at the expense of the thrills, though the pieces remain entertaining reflections of their era and its attitudes. In one memorable story, our hero uses a mouse to single out a female impersonating baddie who foolishly doesn’t panic at the sight of the scampering critter. “We banked on the old belief that women are afraid of mice,” Carl Sherman explains to the Director, never stopping to consider whether the transvestite villain might be so into their role that they too would freak out at sight of a loose rodent.
The bad guys aren’t the only ones with an affinity for drag, though. In another tale, a pretty boy agent also goes for the feminine finery to snare a skirt-chasing gangster. (Insert your own J. Edgar joke here.) All in a day’s work for Hoover’s Schoolboys.