H. Bedford Jones (1887-1949) was an incredibly prolific pulp writer producing work for most of the well-known pulp magazines in a variety of genres.
The Master of Dragons collects four adventures of two American soldiers of fortune, O’Neill and Burket, in China in the 1920s. This was the era of the warlords, before the rise of the Kuomintang. Central government had all but disintegrated and military leaders (who were often little more than bandits) carved out what were virtually private miniature kingdoms, each warlord having his own private armies. These private armies were generously supplied with generals and colonels even if they only numbered a few hundred men.
In the first adventure the two American adventurers fall foul of one of the senior warlords, the wily Governor Wang. He finds himself outmanoeuvred though and can’t just have them killed, so he cooks up a better plan. He supplies them with a Fokker two-seater (O’Neill is a pilot) and sends them off to impose fines on his subordinate warlords. If they succeed they get a share of the proceeds. Wang can’t lose. If they’re successful he gets lots of money, if they fail and get killed he’s rid of two trouble-makers.
The other three stories recount their attempts to carry out this apparently impossible mission. There are double-crosses and narrow escapes, there’s plenty of action and they do a few good deeds along the way. They’re rogues, but they’re honourable rogues.
The unusual and exotic settings are effectively rendered despite the fact that the author had never been to China. Whether it accurately reflects warlord-era China or not is an open question but this is pulp fiction so what matters is entertainment rather than accuracy and on the entertainment front these stories score highly.
Modern readers who insist in political correctness may not be pleased but the stories reflect the kinds of values that were once regarded as important - heroism, decency, friendship, loyalty. The people from whom O’Neill and Burket extort money are all criminals, and vicious criminals at that. Personally I have no requirement for political correctness in my reading matter and no interest in trying to impose today’s fashionable prejudices onto the past.
There’s a multitude of dastardly villains and it’s all good pulpy fun. O’Neill and Burket are likeable if cynical heroes. The author’s style is energetic and enthusiastic and if you’re a pulp fan there’s absolutely no reason why you won’t love this book.