Treasure Of The Black Falcon, by John Coleman Burroughs
A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 69.
For such a bland actor, John Agar made a powerful impression—though maybe just on me. Whenever I read science fiction from a certain era with a Wonder Bread protagonist, I tend to picture Agar, who got his start working as an actor for John Ford, then moved on to B-movie immortality as the star of The Mole People, Attack Of The Puppet People, and suchlike. Basically, if you had a modest budget and you needed someone to play a handsome professor, or doctor, or airman fond of saving damsels from giant tarantulas and similar perils, Agar was your man. He looked good, he could throw a punch, and he could even stretch a little, as when he played a man possessed in The Brain From Planet Arous. For anyone who grew up deprived of Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Saturday-afternoon syndicated television that reran old movies, here’s who I’m talking about:
In my mind, I gave Agar a starring role in Treasure Of The Black Falcon. Not that this novel entirely fits the mold of his movies, but it isn’t far off, and its hero, the unheroically named Dirk Gordon, carries himself much like Agar would. He’s earnest and well-meaning, with just a hint of libidinous leering beneath the surface.
As for what sort of mold the novel would fit, that’s a slightly tougher question. It begins as high-concept science fiction, but ends up pitting the good guys against a decadent feudal civilization fond of human sacrifice, like a tale straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And there’s a reason for that.
The author is John Coleman Burroughs, the third child of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter Of Mars, and author of a bunch of other books, too. John Coleman Burroughs followed his dad into the family business, first as an illustrator, then as a writer. Burroughs The Younger first illustrated his father’s work in 1937 with the publication of The Oakdale Affair And The Rider. He also drew the John Carter newspaper strip for a while, and kicked around illustrating circles for years. Most intriguingly, he also worked with animation giant Bob Clampett on a never-realized John Carter cartoon. (For samples, you can visit this confoundingly organized website.) He first tried his hand at writing in the late 1930s, in collaboration with his brother Hulbert. Written in 1947 but unpublished until 1967, when Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work enjoyed a new wave of popularity thanks to paperbacks, Treasure Of The Black Falcon is John Coleman Burroughs’ only solo novel, which doesn’t surprise me that much.
It isn’t a bad book, or at least not that bad of a book. But it’s a neither-here-nor-there-effort. It begins with a brief note explaining that the book has been constructed as best as the author could from an actual conversation! (It isn’t.) We then open in 1947 aboard the Ellen Stuart, an ultra-high-tech private submarine staffed by bland Yanks, a mute stowaway, and a couple of broadly drawn French and Cockney stereotypes. Three men lead the ship: Dirk, the darkly magnetic Von Benson, and Phillip Montague, the ship’s designer and fiancé of the “girl” (actually a grown woman) who lent her name to the ship, Ellen Stuart. Even though they have enough money to build and staff a submarine, they’re on the hunt for treasure.
More than wealth is guiding them to the depths, however. They’re in search of the Black Falcon, a gold-laden ship sunk years ago, once captained by Roger “Ancestor Of Ellen” Stuart. Roger Stuart went down leaving a message in a bottle with the exact coordinates where the ship sank, a bottle that eventually found its way back to the Stuart family. And thus… adventure!
But problems plague the Ellen Stuart: brain-devouring problems. After some mechanical failures leave the sub stranded at the bottom of the ocean, strange things start to happen. After some crewmembers die of apparently natural causes, they make return appearances. One man’s head starts floating around the outside of the sub, which leaves Dirk and the others far less fazed than they ought to be, honestly. When the Ellen Stuart’s crew reaches the Black Falcon, they discover the crew still on board, encased in a shell-like coating. Later, through a convoluted chain of reasoning you don’t want me to recount and I doubt I could if I tried, they determine that they’re up against an undersea civilization that takes over human bodies and replaces them with look-alikes.
Here, what’s been a relatively engaging, enjoyably nutty science-fiction adventure takes a turn. After Philip dies and a lust-maddened, alien-appropriated Von abducts “the girl,” Dirk must spring into action. He soon finds an undersea civilization that, remarkably, has a breathable atmosphere and none of the body-crushing pressure one expects to find at the bottom of the ocean. Home to several centuries of wrecked sailors, it’s ruled by a decadent Roman with a name that sounds like a Latin student’s bad joke: Fecus.
Well, you know the rest: A little palace intrigue, a couple of daring escapes, and it’s a wrap. I started losing patience with the book as it ran in swashbuckling circles. It’s probably any Burroughs’ birthright to write this sort of tale, but J.C. Burroughs doesn’t do it particularly well, and the 250-plus pages drag on and on well after they’ve exhausted any interest. Burroughs’ circuitous prose, which reads as if he absorbed the paid-by-the-word style of his dad’s early work, doesn’t help. Opening the book at random, I found this passage:
The air was warm, humid, sultry. Everywhere the dank, wet smell of rotting vegetation in the jungle by the river was so strong that it could almost be tasted. Except they knew that wild life was all about them and they could see the countless birds overhead, there was no sound. No breeze rustled the palm leaves, the fronds, or the tops of the giant conifers.
It’s humid, get it? And there’s no wind touching every type of vegetation Burroughs can think of. Not the palm leaves. Not the fronds. The giant conifers? No, not them either. At least if this were a John Agar movie, it would have the good taste to wrap things up in 85 minutes or so.
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