By Steven S. Long
Illustrations by John Waltrip
“Bullets?” chuckled old Thibaut Corday, stroking bent fingers down the affluent burst of whiskers that still retained their cinnamon for all his fourscore years. “You say, my American friends, that bullets are the best of weapons? But yes, perhaps. And with bullets I am a man the most familiar. Dieu, yes! I know them backward and forward and sidewise, and have had three of them in my hip and one in my throat at the same time. I have fired a million of them; fired them until the butt of my Lebel slammed my shoulder into paralysis and the gun barrel blistered my hands. Yes, I know them. Splendid for a fight. But then — I recall a battle I fought in which I never used a blade or a single bullet. Truly, that was a battle. Two companions and I against a yowling heathen gang that was provided with bullets enough to drill a fortress into sponge. And we — the three of us — we three with not a knife or a bullet among us. And what a battle we gave the enemy! No soldiers ever fought with weapons more strange!”
—Foreign Legionnaire Thibaut Corday reminisces about his long military career in “Better Than Bullets,” by Theodore Roscoe (Argosy All-Story Weekly, September 1929)
The Soldier is, of course, a professional fighting man — a classic character in many types of fiction regardless of the time period or place depicted. In the pulps he comes in many varieties. With the Great War so fresh in everyone’s mind, stories about military action and daring in the trenches and on the bloody fields of that conflict filled many a pulp magazine. The colonialism of the time meant that European soldiers were posted to exotic lands to maintain their empire’s rule, and while there might become involved in all sorts of strange adventures. Or Our Hero could be a mercenary, perhaps a veteran of the War who’s discovered that the only way to satisfy his appetite for adventure and thrills is to put his soldiering skills on the market.
One of the most popular forms the Soldier takes is the Foreign Legionnaire, who is (or once was) a member of the famed French Foreign Legion (Legion Etrangere). The novel Beau Geste, published in 1925 and first released as a movie in 1939, stoked the public’s interest in stories about these men who fought all around the world for the glory and honor of France. The Legion takes in recruits (known as bleus) from all foreign lands. More than a few (especially in pulp stories!) are wanted men, renegades unable to get by in ordinary society, or honorable men fleeing some sort of disgrace or loss back home. After six months’ training — typically at the Legion’s headquarters in Sidi-bel-Abbes, Algeria — a Legionnaire could look forward to a five-year term of fighting and hard labor in some of the most desolate places on Earth for the whopping sum of about $2 per month. If he lasts for twelve years, he earns French citizenship as well. But of course Legionnaires in the pulps lead much more thrilling careers.
Examples of Soldiers from the pulps include the Lost Legion, Jimmie Chordie, the Foreign Legionnaires Thibaut Corday and Grellon, and Terence X. O’Leary (in some stories).
“Loo Kong, I’ve spent ten days locating you,” he said softly. “My government is interested in you — very interested!”
Loo Kong stood erect, stiff, silent.
“You are known as a revolutionist, a terrorist, an international espionage agent. You are wanted by the governments of Great Britain, France, Italy, Soviet Russia, China, and now the United States. You recently betrayed your own people by acting as a spy for the Japanese Army during the invasion of Manchukuo. We were warned months ago by our secret agents in Hong Kong that you might attempt to smuggle yourself into this country.” …
“My government’s going to find out just why you’re here, Loo Kong. We don’t feel exactly hospitable to the man whose name stands first in the secret archives of the League of Nations as the most dangerous living enemy of world peace!”
Still the Oriental was silent.
“We are going to learn from you the secret of the Darkness.”
Again the slanted black eyes battled with the clear blue eyes of Jimmy Christopher. The Oriental smiled faintly. “The Darkness? You are making a grave mistake.”
—Jimmy Christopher, Operator #5 in the American Intelligence Service, begins his battle against the insidious Masked Empire in The Masked Invasion (Operator #5 #1, April 1934).
Although Henry Stimson, President Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, famously observed that “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail,” espionage was alive and well during the Pulp Era, and espionage fiction was just as popular as it is today. Whenever a pulp story dealt with governmental operations or schemes, the Spy was there to serve his country’s interests. Compared to real world intelligence agents, the pulp Spy, like his modern successors James Bond and Jason Bourne, typically functioned less as a gatherer of information and more as a general “troubleshooter” for his nation, using his extensive skills to do whatever it took to prevent the enemy from succeeding.
Perhaps the most noteworthy fact about the pulp Spy is that he lacks the cynicism, world-weariness, and “grittiness” found in most modern spy characters. Instead he’s a noble-hearted man, unabashed in his deep love for his country and his idealism. He knows the enemies of truth, freedom, and the American (or British) Way will succeed if he doesn’t stop them, so stop them he will.
Examples of Spies from the pulps include Operator 5 (Secret Service Operator #5), Jeff “the Eagle” Shannon, Secret Agent X, Norroy, Kara Vania, Aurelius Smith, and Sir George Llangolen Trevor of the “Free Lances In Diplomacy” series (said by some to be the longest-running series in pulp history).
“The Meat King” By Bruce Harris
Illustration by L.A.Spooner