Sunday, March 3, 2024

Sidney Herschel Small's Festival of the Dead

The Festival of the Dead is a collection of the early Jimmy Wentworth stories by Sidney Herschel Small (1893-1958), published in pulp magazines in 1931. The stories are set in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Jimmy Wentworth is an American but was brought up in China and speaks fluent Chinese. He works as a clerk for the chief of the Chinatown detail. The murder in the first story is so baffling that the chief decides to give Wentworth his chance. He’ll put him on the detail ostensibly as a beat cop but his real job is to find out things that an ordinary beat cop could not find out. Jimmy’s advantage is that he is fluent in all the Chinese dialects but nobody in Chinatown knows that. He will get to hear things and the inhabitants of Chinatown won’t know that he understands them.

These are typical pulp stories with plenty of action. There’s also an element of paranoia, as the hero is continually pitted against a diabolical criminal mastermind who seems beyond the reach of the police.

In the first story, Festival of the Dead, a popular beat cop on the detail, a grizzled old-timer named Bannion, has been murdered. This is puzzling. Bannion was an honest cop and was popular with the Chinese. He understood little of their culture and never interfered.

The head of the Chinatown detail is desperate enough to take a chance on putting Jimmy into uniform and assigning him to Bannion’s beat. With his knowledge of the language and his understanding of the culture Jimmy might turn up something. And he does. But it’s not the murderer he wants, it’s the man (or men) who planned the murder.

In Crimson Circles another cop is murdered and Jimmy is on the trail of the mysterious arch-criminal Kong Gai. There is a dope selling racket he wants to bust as well. He has a vital clue - crimson circles painted on the leg of a dead man. He sees similar circles painted on other men’s legs. Nobody knows what they mean, but Jimmy is sure they’re the key to a puzzle.

In King Cobra a rich man named Carrington blows his brains out but the puzzling thing about the case is that a piercing scream was heard from his apartment five minutes before the gunshot. Jimmy thinks it’s murder although the other circumstances suggest that that is impossible. Jimmy also suspects Kong Gai’s involvement, and there is a damsel in distress to be rescued - an innocent girl enslaved by drugs. There’s a link between the girl and Carrington.

Death Rock is a tale of rum-running (this being the days of Prohibition). Not the sort of criminal enterprise one would expect Kong Gai to be involved in but the dying words of a sailor point in his direction. The explanation of the sailor’s injuries is clever and devious.

The Bloody Emerald begins with two apparently unconnected incidents - a daring robbery of San Francisco’s most prestigious jewellery store and the discovery by Jimmy Wentworth of the corpse of a pretty Chinese girl. There’s another devious murder method and a very unusual motive for murder. There’s an even more unusual motive for the jewel robbery.

The Horns of the Dragon begins with the outbreak of a tong war. Tong wars are nothing new in Chinatown but this one begins in an odd way and there are some circumstances surrounding it that puzzle Jimmy Wentworth. It turns out that there’s something other than a tong war going on.

These are all quite entertaining stories and they’re nicely atmospheric, and there’s a fine sinister super-villain. This collection is recommended.

The Festival of the Dead is one of the titles in the excellent Argosy Library series from Steeger Books.

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