Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Donald E. Keyhoe's Strange Staffels

Strange Staffels is a collection of short stories by Donald E. Keyhoe, all featuring American fighter ace and intelligence agent Captain Philip Strange, the famous Brain-Devil. It’s one of several Philip Strange collections that have been published by Ace of aces books.

Donald E. Keyhoe (1897-1988) was an American pulp writer in several genres but was most notable as a writer of science fiction-tinged aviation adventure stories. He later became a UFO enthusiast. Keyhoe had been a Marine Corps pilot and then a kind of aviation impresario. He started writing while recovering from an aircraft crash.

The Philip Strange Stories mix First World War aerial combat, horror, science fiction, weird fiction and espionage.

Before the war Captain Philip Strange had had a mentalist/hypnotism act in a carnival and had studied various eastern esoteric practices. He doesn’t have supernatural or occult powers but he does have certain powers that would today be described as paranormal although mostly he relies on his training as an intelligence officer and his profound knowledge of hypnotism and psychology. At the start of the First World War he was assigned to G-2, the US Army Air Corps’ intelligence section. He was both a fighter ace, a spy and a spy-hunter.

The stories range from moderately outlandish to very outlandish and they’re all packed with action. The stores all involve Strange’s efforts to foil devilishly clever German plots. The stories are always imaginative and Keyhoe always manages to throw in at least one genuinely bizarre (an often creepy) element.

Satan’s Staffel was published in the March 1934 issue of Flying Aces. Captain Philip Strange of G-2 has his first inkling of trouble when he encounters a black German aircraft and gets a glimpse of the pilot - it is a woman, with a face like a Medusa. The German aircraft seems impossible to shoot down - his machine-gun bullets simply have no effect. Then the female pilot stands up in her cockpit and her aircraft explodes in a gigantic fireball.

Strange survives this aerial duel but when he lands he finds out that this is just the latest in a series of encounters American airmen have had with these crazed female pilots.

When one of the black aircraft is forced down Philip Strange begins to understand the true horror of this latest fiendish and inhuman plan of the Germans. There is nothing supernatural about it but the reality is worse than any supernatural horror.

Strange is sent on a desperate mission to infiltrate this terrifying Amazon squadron, and he will need all his skills as a spy if he is to survive.

The Vanishing Staffel was published in Flying Aces in December 1932. Allied planes are taking off and vanish into thin air. Machine-gun fire is coming from out of nowhere. Dazed survivors mumble about the world disappearing. It’s another devilish German plot, and it means a vast German aerial armada can strike anywhere it chooses without being seen.

The Germans have devised a kind of stealth technology, that’s clear enough to Captain Strange. What he needs to find out is how the trick is worked. To add to the problems there’s a German spy in the French Air Force.

Once again Keyhoe mixes science fiction with aerial adventure and the science stuff is very clever.

Hoodoo Drome (published in Flying Aces in November 1933) is more of a straightforward stories of espionage and sabotage without any overt science fictional elements.

It starts with an American general murdering a French general. Strange gets involved in an American plan to cover up the murder. At the same time American aircraft have been mysteriously exploding in mid-air and then American aviators start shooting down American planes. Philip Strange believes all these odd occurrences are linked. Of course he’s right but the real German plot is much more ambitious. It involves mining (mining to plant explosives under enemy trench systems was a popular idea in the First World War) and in this story both the Germans and the Allies are using the idea.

There’s action on the ground, under the ground and in the air. And there are German spies everywhere.

Skull Staffel appeared in Flying Aces in December 1934. The Germans are creating havoc with fighter aircraft that are virtually silent and virtually invisible (Keyhoe was a big fan of the idea of various types of what today we would call stealth technologies). But there’s a bigger problem - a vital map showing details of Allied defensive positions and the Germans have gained possession of it.

Once again Strange comes up against clever and ruthless German spies.

The Skeleton Barrage was published in Flying Aces in April 1936. It starts in typical Keyhoe fashion - American airfields are being wiped out. Totally wiped out - all that is left is a gigantic crater. G-2 have come into possession of a strange drawing made by an Allied spy - Strange is sure there’s a vital message contained in the picture but it’s in some sort of obscure visual code that nobody can make any sense out of.

A German spy, about to be captured, throws a camera into a river. The camera is another clue but in typical Keyhoe style it’s another clue that is mystifying rather rather than enlightening even to Philip Strange.

Then Strange, flying in his Spad, sees fiery skeletons plunging to earth (accompanied by a hideous wailing sound) as another airfield is wiped off the map. When he lands Strange encounters a high-ranking German naval officer - German spies are commonplace but a German naval officer up to no good on an Allied airfield is quite a surprise.

This is part of another grandiose German high-tech scheme which is so clever I’m not going to give you any hints as to its nature.

The Staffel of the Starved was published in Flying Aces in May 1936. The Germans have been doing odd things with their artillery barrages and mysterious coded messages have been picked up. Then something really odd happens - a German aviator who landed his aircraft and killed three French radio operators (who were monitoring those coded messages) is found dead - but he died of starvation! Even more odd, he was one of Germany’s top fighter aces.

Then an American pilot is murdered by a French pilot and American fighters start shooting down French fighters.

The Staffel Invisible appeared in the May 1939 issue of Flying Aces. Philip Strange sees two American aircraft shot down but there is not a sign of a German aircraft anywhere. It’s as if the American flyers have been shot down by invisible enemies.

Strange lands and sees more bizarre things - a head and shoulders appear from nowhere and his own Spad disappears and then reappears. Strange disguises himself as a German officer and takes off in his Spad and ends up landing on an airfield that isn’t there.

All seven stories are weird, exciting and enjoyable.  Strange Staffels is highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed an earlier volume of Philip Strange stories, Strange War, as well as a couple of collections, of other aviation adventures by Keyhoe - Vanished Legion (WW1 aerial stories) and the Richard Knight stories (aviation-espionage adventures set in the 1930s). And to demonstrate that Keyhoe didn’t just write aviation stories there’s his fun diabolical criminal mastermind novel Dr Yen Sin #1 The Mystery of the Dragon’s Shadow.

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