Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Theodore Roscoe's The Ruby of Suratan Singh

The Ruby of Suratan Singh is a collection of adventure tales by the great pulp writer Theodore Roscoe. These stories were originally published in various pulp magazines such as Argosy, Far East Adventure Stories and Action Stories in 1929 and 1930. This is the second collection of stories featuring either the American curio hunter Peter Scarlet or the naturalist Bradshaw.

These are tales of adventure in the Mysterious East, in jungles and exotic seaports and anywhere that fortunes can be made without too much concern for ethics of any kind.

These stories are fairly outrageous. They’re really the kinds of tales you’d hear told in a bar and they might be true or they might be just tall tales. That’s what makes them so enjoyable. You just can’t be sure whether to believe them or not.

While these stories are described as the Scarlet and Bradshaw stories it should be pointed out that some feature Scarlet, some feature Bradshaw and some feature both men. In this particular collection Scarlet only appears once (although it’s a memorable appearance). It’s still quite reasonable to describe them as the Scarlet-Bradshaw stories. They all take place in the East at the same time period and they all have a similar feel, a feel of mysteries that may or may not have rational explanations.

Some of the stories are amusing, some are quite dark and macabre. They’re an enticing blending of adventure fiction and weird fiction with occasional dashes of science fiction and horror. Roscoe’s plotting was always pretty solid. He had a knack for giving his stories a nice little sting in the tail, and for giving his stories just the right touches of ambiguity.

Scarlet and Bradshaw are not mere pulp fiction tough guys. That’s not to say that they aren’t tough, you don’t survive in the jungle very long without a certain amount of grit, but there’s more to them. They’re genuinely interesting offbeat characters.

Roscoe was also very adept at creating an atmosphere of dread and subtle uneasiness.

Roscoe was one of the grand masters of pulp fiction and these stories are among his greatest achievements.

The Stories

Moon Up is a very strange story indeed, a jungle adventure set in India but with a hefty dash of science fiction. Reven Staffard is staying in the jungle bungalow belonging to the naturalist Bradshaw. Staffard is supposedly hunting tigers but he hasn’t seen any tigers and he’s getting fed up. Then a bizarre old man wanders out of the jungle. His name, he declares, is Dr Gulick Habighorst. He has come to India for the moonlight. Apparently the moonlight in India is particularly suited to his experiments. Dr Habighorst has been conducting research on lunar rays and claims to have made an amazing discovery. He has discovered a means of using rays of moonlight as a kind of death ray. With a special lens he can use moonlight to reduce any object to its component atoms. Dr Habighorst’s lunar rays are the most potent destructive force ever discovered.

Staffard assumes the man is insane. Until Dr Habighorst demonstrates his invention.

Dr Habighorst wants Staffard to finance his further researches.

The crazy old scientist’s demonstration is impressive but there are eyes in the night watching. The eyes belong to men who want that death ray.

A very fine story with a nice twist to it.

The Blue Cat of Buddha is a treasure hunt story. Bradshaw is shipwrecked. An American singer who failed to find success in Tin Pan Alley rescues him. The singer, Johnny Ash, has gone to the East to make his fortune in order to win the love of his girl back home. The singer also saves a frail old Buddhist monk. The monk has a strange tale to tell.

The legend of the blue cat of Buddha, a giant carved cat that guards the entrance to a cavern which is a fabulous treasure trove, had attracted many a fortune-hunter. Maybe some of those fortune-hunters found that cavern. None survived to tell of it. But the old monk claims to know the secret that can unlock that treasure.

Bradshaw thinks that seeking the treasure is a terrible idea. He knows the East. He knows the quest can lead only to madness and death. But Johnny Ash is determined and Bradshaw owes him his life so he has to tag along. There are others seeking the treasure, six dangerous desperate men. A thoroughly enjoyable tale.

The Little Gold Dove of Gojjam finds Bradshaw in Abyssinia, lost in a forbidden valley with a young Englishman named Tupper. Bradshaw saves an Abyssinian from a lion. The Abyssinian, curiously enough, speaks English. He learnt the language in New York. He returned to Africa in search of a legend - the legend of Noah’s Ark. And he tells Bradshaw and his companion a part of the legend they had never heard before - the legend of Noah’s gold. The dying Abyssinian even tells them where to find the Ark. It’s in a hidden lake.

It’s all nonsense of course but something persuades Bradshaw and Tupper to search for the hidden lake. What they find is impossibly strange. Perhaps there is a rational explanation. Perhaps it was all just a legend after all. Perhaps. Another delightfully offbeat tale of adventure.

Claws features American curio hunter Peter Scarlet. He’s in one of the roughest sleaziest bars in the East which is the last place his friends Bradshaw and Schneider expect to find him. And why does he have his gun with him? Why does he want to listen to the crummy piano player? It’s the past that has drawn Scarlet to this bar in Penang. A terrible event in the past has drawn three men to this bar. A good story.

In The Ruby of Suratan Singh Bradshaw tells how he found the ruby in question. During the Indian Mutiny a nabob named Suratan Singh had fled from the vengeance of the British, taking with him the most valuable jewel in his possession. Bradshaw encounters an old woman who claims not only to know where the ruby is, she claims to have been there when Suratan Singh fled.

The quest for the ruby almost costs Bradshaw his life. And at the end we get the kind of nice little twist that Roscoe tends to throw in, the kind of twist that makes Roscoe not just a fun pulp writer but a superior pulp writer.

The Phantom Buddha is a kind of Oriental ghost story. The Malays engaged in building a railroad are being whipped into a frenzy by rumours that the phantom of the Buddha is about to appear to them in a small valley deep in the jungle. The young engineer Carter is well and truly spooked but his older colleague McInerny insists that it’s all hokum. Bradshaw isn’t certain. It may be a hoax but he is inclined to think that rather strange things do happen in the East. It’s an enjoyable little tale on the theme that seeing is believing, sometimes. A neat little story.

Final Thoughts

Pulp fiction doesn’t come much better than this. Roscoe gives us fine prose style, subtle weirdness, exoticism and adventure. Incredibly entertaining and very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed an earlier collection of Roscoe's Scarlet and Bradshaw stories, the excellent Blood Ritual, and another fine Roscoe short story collection, The Emperor of Doom.

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