by Paul Malmont
384 pages, Simon & Schuster
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. What effect does that title have on you? Does it make you roll your eyes and despair at the state of the publishing industry or does it make you punch the air and scream “F*ck yeah!” If you are not one of those air-punching right now, this book isn't for you. Don't waste your time; stop reading this review right now. Go back to your Milan Kundera and camomile tea. There is nothing for you here.
Air-punchers, are we alone now? Good. You really have to ask yourself what kind of person doesn't like a title like that. The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril – it says it all, really. With a title like that, your readers are given a damn good idea of what they're going to find within the book. There's no messing around, no attempt at subtlety or chin-stroking metaphor. The title of Paul Malmont's debut novel is unashamedly pulp and perfectly captures the spirit of the tales the book pays tribute to.
Malmont's tale takes us to pre-WWII New York and submerges us into the world of the famous writers of pulp fiction. The story focuses on the rivalry between Walter Gibson and Lester Dent, the two best-selling scribblers of the day. Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, is dour, misanthropic and a borderline-alcoholic. Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, is adventurous to the point of recklessness. Following the strange death of H.P. Lovecraft, the two rivals find themselves investigating a case as strange as any plot-line from their books. Accompanied by a young L. Ron Hubbard, they encounter a sinister weapon, ancient Chinese gods, a cursed island, secret tunnels and deadly assassins. Fans of classic pulp fiction will not be disappointed.
However, Malmont is keenly aware of the shortcomings of the pulps to which he pays homage. Characterisation in these tales is often flat, if at all present. The square-jawed heroics and narrow escapes of the tales of old have not aged well. Even the least-demanding modern audiences will expect a little more from a novel and Malmont cleverly adds a personal dimension to the tale by focusing on the private lives of the authors. Being a writer, it seems, has pretty devastating effects on your personal relationships. Both Hubbard and Gibson are separated from their wives and Dent's own marriage is suffering the emotional shockwaves of his wife's recent miscarriage. Gibson's affair with a chicken-loving psychic (yes, really) helps to highlight his sense of isolation and the nagging sense of having let his own son down. Though the Doc Savage tales enjoy huge monthly sales, Dent's desire to be recognised as a “serious” author undermines this success. As the least popular author of the three men, Hubbard is prone to exaggeration and frequently irritates his companions with his tall tales. By allowing his heroes to have all-too-human weaknesses, Malmont gives the book a more modern sensibility; his characters have enough depth that we genuinely care for them when they find themselves in perilous situations.
It is hard to fault a debut like The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. It's fast-paced, exciting, funny and smart. Malmont pays tribute to a number of great authors whilst simultaneously spinning a rollicking yarn. Combining thorough research with some wonderful flights of fancy, this is a novel that lives up to the promise of its wonderful title. An utter delight.
Hereward L.M. Proops