Sunday, August 26, 2018

Robert J. Hogan's Smoke Wade stories

Robert J. Hogan (1897-1963) was a pulp writer best known for his many stories of G-8 and His Battle Aces, stories which combined espionage and air combat. Hogan wrote many other air combat stories including the Smoke Wade stories which appeared in pulps like Battle Birds and Dare-Devil Aces in the early 30s. Smoke Wade is a cowboy who is now commander of a squadron of SPADs on the Western Front.

Smoke has not only named his SPAD after his favourite horse, he’s had the aircraft painted to resemble the horse as well. Smoke is also an inveterate gambler. He has an uneasy relationship with his commanding officer, Colonel McGill, which is pretty much a pulp fiction cliché. More interestingly he has a slightly tense relationship with his subordinates.

Age of Aces Books have published a couple of collections of the Smoke Wade stories (along with collections of lots of other great aviation pulp stories). They also have some stories to download, including three Smoke Wade tales.

Wager Flight is an early Smoke Wade story, when Wade is still a lieutenant and has just been posted to the squadron. He immediately clashes with the squadron’s top pilot, Brant. Brant is a fine pilot but he’s arrogant and boastful and generally disliked.

Smoke sees an extremely hazardous mission to destroy an ammunition dump as a good opportunity to knock some of the arrogance out of Brant, and win Smoke some money. It’s also a way of attracting the attention of Colonel McGill.

In Framed Wings Smoke has a problem. A vital mission to knock out an enemy howitzer battery hidden in a gorge and heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns is a challenge in itself but Smoke has a problem with his command. He’s been sent an anonymous note accusing him of cowardice.

To make sure of knocking out those howitzers Smoke has had the guns removed from his aircraft so as to allow him to carry more bombs. That doesn’t mean he’s defenceless though - he still has his trusty six-shooter. And that’s all a man needs.

In Aces in Dutch Smoke’s passion for gambling threatens to get him into trouble again, and  then he really lands himself in the soup trying to go after a German observation balloon without any incendiary ammunition. There’s just no way it can be done. Even Smoke’s six-shooter can’t do something like that. But somehow that balloon has to be shot down. It’s important for the war effort, plus he has a bet riding on it!

There’s already a pattern emerging here, with Stetson, a flight commander in Smoke’s squadron, persistently undermining his squadron commander’s authority. Stetson is a good pilot and he’s brave enough but he’s too ambitious and he’s perhaps not quite honourable. Stetson also shares Smoke’s obsession with gambling which causes more tensions. In Wager Flight we saw Wade clashing with the braggart Brant. Hogan clearly understands that while non-stop aerial action is crucial he also needs to add some dramatic tension on the ground to keep his stories interesting.

On the strength of these stories I’m not sure if I’d rush out and buy the Smoke Wade collections. I do like aviation adventure stories but I guess my personal preference is for stories that combine aviation thrills with other things, such as espionage or the supernatural, so I’m drawn more to stuff like Donald Keyhoe’s stories (which are available in several collections from Age of Aces including Strange War and Vanished Legion). But if you’re a fan of straightforward aviation pulps then you might find it worth making the acquaintance of the slow-talking westerner with the pinto SPAD and the six-shooter.

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