Friday, October 1, 2021

Richard B. Sale’s The Isle of Troubled Night

Richard B. Sale’s The Isle of Troubled Night was published in the May 1938 issue of the pulp magazine Thrilling Mystery (and this issue has been reprinted by Adventure House).

Richard B. Sale (1911-1993) was an American pulp writer who graduated to the slick magazines in the 40s and then turned to the writing of screenplays and film directing.

Nick Bradford is wealthy and carefree and he’s sailing his 30-foot schooner in the Caribbean when he runs into trouble. In fact he runs the schooner onto the rocks. Luckily he ends up on a small uncharted island. Or maybe it’s not so lucky.

The first thing he sees is an aircraft (a flying boat) on the beach and it’s on fire. Then he finds a dead man. After which someone starts shooting at him. Then the girl appears. The girl, Loretta Kerr, lives in a rather palatial house on the island. There’s a motley assortment of people in the house. There’s an Englishman, Lord Peter Muir. There’s Loretta’s father, Martin Kerr, who made a fortune selling munitions during the war. He owns the island. There’s a German baron named Poland. And a Frenchwoman named Toussaint. Plus a Mexican servant, Pedro Garcia.

Martin Kerr, the German baron, Madame Toussaint and Lord Peter Muir are all involved in the armaments trade ad they’ve met on the island to cook up a big deal.

So why did one of them try to shoot Nick? The answer is that the people in the house are very frightened. They had a visitor the night before - Death! Or at least they are convinced, or half-convinced, that it was Death. Death came into the house and spoke to them.

Nick is puzzled by that corpse on the beach. It was the pilot of the aeroplane and he’d been strangled but there were no marks on his throat as you’d expect with strangulation. And Nick has a strange experience which half-convinces him as well that Death is stalking the island. He heard a voice telling him things that nobody else could possibly know.

Of course everyone is in a state of semi-hysteria. Maybe their imaginations are getting the better of them. Or their consciences (apart from Nick they’re all arms dealers so they’re in the business of death). There might be a rational explanation. Nick is a level-headed sort of fellow but he’s not entirely sure there really is a rational explanation.

Death strikes again on the following day.

The island setting adds to the terror. The burning of the aeroplane means that all these people are stranded on the island until the next supply boat arrives and that’s three weeks away. And the dead pilot was the only one who knew how to work the radio.

Sale creates a genuinely mysterious atmosphere and since this story was published in Thrilling Mystery and some of the stories published in that pulp are closer to the weird fiction genre than to the conventional mystery genre the reader doesn’t really know whether or not the explanation is going to involve things outside the normal realm of human experience or purely human evil.

The story has a definite anti-war tinge. It’s possible that these arms dealers are going to be punished for their sins, but is their punishment to be supernatural?

It’s all very pulpy (which of course is a good thing) and it’s also totally outrageous but there are some real chills with totally inexplicable deaths. The resolution works for me. I’m not going to give you any hints as to whether that resolution includes a rational explanation or not.

The Isle of Troubled Night is not to be taken too seriously but it is fun and it’s recommended.

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