Paul Malmont’s love for the pulps bleeds through in every word on the page of his debut novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. From the setting to the characters, from the plot to the overall structure it is clear the author set out to create a loving paean to the long dead genre. The novel reads like a love letter not just to the stories of the pulp era, which were gritty, complex, and slightly demented, but to the men who created them, who you could describe the same way.
According to the Infallible Source of All Internet Knowledge, the Pulp Era was named from “inexpensive fiction magazines. They were widely published from the 1920s through the 1950s. The term pulp fiction can also refer to mass market paperbacks since the 1950s.” It was the beginning of genre fiction and there was a magazine to cover every available taste, from sci-fi to bleak crime stories. These magazines were printed on the cheapest available paper and the stories needed writers who could pound out lurid, exotic tales with speed and without mistakes. It was hard, unforgiving business and it created hard men. Malmont uses two of the most successful of these writers as his main characters.
Walter Gibson was the creator of The Shadow, who used to rule the fiction market in that time long before Alec Baldwin and company would rise to water the character down for modern cinematic consumption. Lester Dent was the creator of Doc Savage. Together these two were the most prolific and celebrated of the pulp writers and they are Malmont’s primary characters. Initially, they don’t get along but have to put aside their past grievances in order to solve the book’s central mystery. They approach it from different angles, and the author creates some nice parallels between the two men and the way their approach to writing reflects the way they live their lives. While Gibson carries on an illicit affair with another man’s wife (and her psychic chicken) and lives alone, Dent has a strong relationship with his wife who helps him as much as she can with the research end of his writing. The two men untangle separate threads of the same story and along the way they (predictably) reconcile their differences and have to work together to stop a larger threat. It’s by-the-numbers, but the half fun of pulp fiction is the discipline the writers had to show to stick to genre conventions and still give the reader something that feels new. Malmont succeeds more often than he fails in his pulp novel about pulp novels.
The novel is set in New York in the late 1930s, at the center of the publishing industry. While Gibson and Dent follow their parallel paths they come across a mystery involving exiled Chinese warlords, rogue elements of the U.S. military, and biological weapons. The author isn’t striving for hyper-realism, but while the plot drifts towards the outlandish, the characterization and personal details are spot-on. Malmont is trying to tell a true story filled with lies, a contradiction he makes clear from the opening scene where Gibson tells an improbable tale over drinks at the White Horse Tavern and challenges his listeners (and by extension the readers) to separate the truth from the pulp. He more or less concludes it can’t be done. His vision of the Pulp Era tends towards the fantastic, but there are solid details about the historical characters, and a few digressions into the culture that spawned them. The author gives us bits and pieces of he way the pulps worked as a business, and their larger role in the cultural milieu.
The inciting incident comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s funeral and Gibson finds himself with a young L. Ron Hubbard as his sidekick. Over the course of the novel, the characters come across everyone from Louis L’Amour and Robert E. Howard to Orson Welles and Robert Heinlein. Even a young Stan Lee and Jack Kirby get in on the act, running around New York City tailing suspicious figures to darkened warehouses. The novel is one long namedrop of the luminaries of genre fiction’s past. It doesn’t fell gratuitous, as you don’t need to even recognize those names to enjoy the novel, but the easter eggs add a layer of enjoyment to those who do. This novel isn’t intra-textual nudging and winking or one long nostalgic wank-fest (at least not merely). The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril is fun. There are shady characters and real adventure. It might not be bleak enough to make it if it hand to stand alongside Adventure Magazine or Two-Fisted Tales on the racks back in the day, but Malmont’s enthusiasm makes the novel well worth the time.