Monday, August 13, 2018

The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight vol 1

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was one of the most interesting of American pulp writers. He had a succession of careers, all of them fascinating.

Initially he joined the Marine Corps and became a pilot but that was cut short a few years later by a plane crash. Then he acted as manager for a couple of pioneer aviators undertaking national publicity tours. One of these aviators was a guy called Lindbergh. That inspired Keyhoe to write a book about Lindbergh, which became a bestseller. Then he became a prolific and very successful writers for the pulps, in a variety of genres. Finally, after the Second World War, he made his most successful career of all out of UFOs. He wrote a bestselling book on the subject, Flying Saucers Are Real, followed by further books and articles and lectures and he became a recognised authority on the subject.

As a pulp writer his most notable achievements were his aviation action adventure stories. What made Keyhoe’s stories particularly interesting is that he combined aerial combat, espionage, science fiction and the supernatural. He not only combined these elements, he did it with consummate skill. Keyhoe wrote a vast number of stories featuring Philip Strange, a First World War fighter pilot and intelligence agent who uses his paranormal skills against enemies both human and inhuman. These stories can be found in several collections, beginning with Strange War. His Vanished Legion stories are just as good.

His other major series character was Richard Knight, a post-war sporting aviator and barnstormer who is actually a U.S. secret agent. Several collections of these stories are now available from Age of Aces Books, beginning with The Complete Adventures of Richard Knight Volume 1. The four novellas in this collection originally appeared in the pulp magazine Flying Aces in 1936 and 1937.

Vultures of the Lost Valley is not only a spy thriller with lots of air combat, it’s also a lost world tale (and lost world stories happen to be one of my favourite genres). It all starts when Richard Knight rescues a pretty girl from a stolen aircraft. She speaks Spanish only but what’s really weird is that she gives the impression that she has never seen an aircraft, or an automobile, before. She seems to have no knowledge of the modern world. She’s also in possession of a famous and fabulously valuable emerald though to have been lost for a century. Benita (that’s the girl’s name) has another problem - there are quite a few people trying to kill her.

Richard Knight can’t help wondering if there’s any significance in the fact that he spotted notorious Japanese master spy Hiroki. He knows there’s definitely something strange going on when the Northrop aircraft in which he and his buddy Doyle are flying is attacked by American fighter planes. The really strange thing is that these American planes don’t exist - only twenty of these new Drake PV-11 fighters have been built and all twenty were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the Drake factory. They may no longer exist but they looked pretty well when they jumped him.

There is of course a dastardly conspiracy behind all this and it’s an immediate national security threat.

This is typical Keyhoe, packed with action and intrigue and with just enough of the weird and inexplicable to add some spice. A very fine story.

It’s very important to read Vultures of the Lost Valley before any of Richard Knight’s other adventures, otherwise you’ll be rather confused about where the beautiful but slightly odd Spanish girl who wants to be a secret agent fits into the picture.

Hell Flies High has a wonderfully macabre opening. Knight and Doyle are flying towards Washington when they encounter a Douglas airliner. This aircraft is an aircraft of death. They then get jumped by a French Morane-Saulnier fighter with Soviet markings, and an Italian Breda. The French fighter and the Italian fighter seem to be trying to shoot down the Douglas airliner, and Knight’s Northrop, and each other! And this is happening within a few miles of Washington.

And things get stranger. The green blood is worrying. Naturally there’s a gigantic conspiracy behind these events but there’s no telling exactly what the nature of the conspiracy might be except that it involves some kind of secret weapon. In fact multiple secret weapons, of horrifying destructiveness. It all leads up to aerial battles in the stratosphere where aircraft attain unimaginable speeds and the air in the pressurised cabins can cook a man and sounds do strange things. Really high altitude flight was still science fiction in 1937 and Keyhoe’s wild speculations about the stratosphere add to the wonderfully bizarre feel of this story.

Hell Flies High is Keyhoe piling on the weird stuff and this is where he’s at his very best. A terrific story.

Death Flies the Equator pits Knight and Doyle against the Four Faces, a vast international criminal organisation that for some reason is taking an extraordinary interest in the development of a new trans-Pacific airline route. It’s not clear why these crime lords would want to stop the air route from being used. And why would they want to steal one of the Clippers, the gigantic flying boats that dominated international air travel in the 1930s.

Knight finds himself working with the Royal Navy on this case. British commercial interests are threatened by the Four Faces. The British are also upset about the disappearance of half a dozen of the seaplanes and they’re even more upset abut the aircrews being turned into zombies.

Knight soon figures out that there’s really no-one (other than Doyle) that he can trust. The Four Faces have agents everywhere. There’s a very high paranoia quotient in this story.

There’s also, as usual, non-stop action and thrills and countless aerial combats. Great stuff.

Falcons from Nowhere has a pretty sensational opening. Richard Knight suddenly blacks out for no good reason and then regains consciousness half an hour later. That would be disturbing at any time but it’s positively alarming when it happens when you’re in flight. Lucky the auto-pilot was engaged!

There's worse to come. There’s a horrible disease that can turn a person to stone but it seems like someone has found a way to inflict this disease instantly and at will. There are also aircraft that can be heard but not seen. And aircraft that just vanish. It’s part of a diabolical criminal conspiracy and Knight suspects that he’s dealing with an old enemy that he thought had been destroyed. It’s vintage Keyhoe. An excellent story, which makes four excellent stories out of four

Keyhoe had a knack for working firmly within the conventions and limitations of pulp fiction but at the same time managing to make his work slightly more interesting than most pulp stories. His heroes were just a little bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes, he put some imagination into his villains and his plots are pleasingly outrageous without becoming merely silly. This is pulp fiction, but it’s A-grade pulp fiction. He was also very good at combining the fast-paced aviation action adventure stuff with the weird fiction stuff.

For my money Keyhoe was one of the most consistently entertaining of pulp writers. His output was vast but the good news is that a goodly proportion of that output has been published in book form in the past few years.

This collection is very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Hi thanks for the great post! I was unaware of this author, but after reading such a great review I'll definitely check him out. I know you're a Lost World fan, and I'd wager you probably like to read paperback editions, but if you do read on an electronic device, we've just released Lost Worlds: The Ultimate Anthology: 30 Classic Tales (Masterworks of Adventure Book 2). It includes Eureka, a Lost World tale set in Australia that hasn't been published in over 100 years, The Knight of the Silver Star (First Kindle Edition), a Prisoner of Zenda like swasbuckling Lost World tale and many others. It's available freely on Kindle Unlimited.