(This is my latest contribution to Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Project. For the complete list, head on over to her website.)
Two thoughts come to mind when I finished reading Justice, Inc., the debut novel featuring the pulp hero, The Avenger. On the one hand, I thought sometimes, enough is enough. On the other, the timing of the novel’s publication couldn’t have been worse.
Let’s take the date first. The cover of the new Avenger magazine is September 1939. I haven’t read any of the World War II-era novels of Shadow, Doc Savage, or the other pulp heroes but I suspect all of them seemed trite when facing the onslaught of Nazi Germany. As relentless as Richard Benson, the Avenger, is, Hitler was rolling through Europe in his own relentless drive for the Third Reich. How terrifying must that have been.
Having said that, had the Avenger been slightly more original, he might have had a longer shelf life. Other than his malleable face, Richard Benson’s story is not very original. By 1939, Doc Savage and his team had been fighting bad guys for six years. The Shadow a year longer. Tarzan was out there. So was Zorro, Sam Spade, Superman, and the new guy on the block, Batman. Now, again, there was a lot of borrowing of ideas back in the 1930s but the Avenger, at least in this first book, didn’t have that special spark needed to carry a series.
That’s not to say Justice, Inc., isn’t entertaining. The setup at the beginning of the book is pretty good. Self-made millionaire adventurer Richard Benson, along with his wife and young daughter, force their way onto a public airliner from Buffalo, NY, to Montreal. His mother-in-law was dying and they needed to get there. Benson visits the lavatory and, upon exiting, finds no trace of his family. Moreover, everyone on board asserts that he boarded the plane alone. Benson has a breakdown and winds up in a mental asylum with a curious physical reaction: his hair is completely white, as is his face. His face, succumbing to the shock of the situation, becomes paralyzed. He learns that he can push the skin of his face around...and it remains in the altered shape. This comes in handy as Benson starts to investigate what really happened on the airplane as he can disguise himself.
The writing style is pure pulp: lots of action, lots of reiteration, and lots (and lots) of words describing the nature of Benson’s eyes. I started rolling mine when the author, Paul Ernst, would describe eyes. Isn’t there another aspect of Benson you can describe?
What follows now is pure SPOILER so, if you’re intrigued about the story and want to read it, skip this paragraph. As a reader, the more I learned about the bad guys, the more I realized what happened to Benson’s wife and daughter. Like any protagonist (and me, had I found myself in a similar position), Benson holds out hope of a happy ending, of finding his family alive and well. It wasn’t to be. Ernst leads the reader on in a few places but it ultimately falls to one of the supporting cast to tell Benson the honest truth. The ending makes sense and, with it, Benson creates Justice, Inc. to combat evil. It’s a Batman-esque origin story and a worthy origin at that. It’s just not original. But, then again, how many origin stories are original?
Justice, Inc. is a very quick read. I listened to the free version over at Uvula Audio, the same place you can get Doc Savage #1. In fact, they are going to record some additional Savage stories this summer, something to which I’m looking forward. Chances are, I won’t be reading another Avenger novel.
Anyone out there want to let me know if there are additional good Avenger novels to read? Am I being too harsh?