Review: The Chinatown Deathcloud Peril

…by Paul Malmount.

The Chinatown Deathcloud Peril by Paul Malmont takes us into the golden era of the pulps–literally and figuratively. This novel is about pulp writers caught up in pulp-style adventure and intrigue. And not just any pulp writers: Lester Dent, author of Doc Savage, Walter Gibson author of The Shadow, and a young ambitious writer named Ron Hubbard. You also have cameo appearances by Howard P. Lovecraft and several other famed writers of the day (don’t want to give away any surprises).

The story unfolds with Dent and Howard attempting to bequeath upon Hubbard the essence of pulp vs. reality as illustrated by the infamous tale of Mock Duck and the Sweet Flower War in New York’s Chinatown. From there, after some character build-up and table-setting, a plot to, well, unleash a deathcloud over Chinatown unfolds. Lovecraft appears–almost rising from the dead–as the herald of doom, and the writers embark upon a quest to discover then thwart the threat. Interwoven you have the story of Zhang Mei, Chinese Warlord, who would be your stock villain if this were true pulp. But the author goes deeper, delving into the man’s rationale to move past the cliche figure of the ‘yellow peril’ so common to yarns of that era. From there we move on to a rip-roaring conclusion, with plenty of action, heroism, sorrow, and resolution. It makes for a damn fine read.

The strengths of this book lie in the obvious care and devotion Malmont has for his characters–sort of strange praise as they were real people, but there you have it. The author has done his research on Dent and Gibson, Lovecraft and Hubbard, and the characterization feels true and worthy. Some of the best sequences involve a sort of metafictional examination of these men through the lens of some of their famous writing. You can see the virtuous Dent exemplifying Doc Savage’s code, witness the youthful Hubbard struggling with his ego, ambition, and desire to do well. Lovecraft’s demise and the sequence surrounding his apparent funeral are suitably sinister and, well, Lovecraftian. But the best scenes probably revolve around Gibson, who wrestles not only with his fame, but the nature and essence of his darkly heroic creation. And Shadow aficionados will delight in a particular trail-and-pursuit that would do any pulpist proud.

Some of the best moments of this book, are somewhat ironically, quiet and introspective. Little windows into the popular writing scene of 30’s New York–the White Horse Tavern, the Street and Smith Offices. The writers’ progressive conversations on what makes good writing, pulp fiction, and good storytelling are grand as well. You might find yourself wishing Malmont had gone the Mike Chabon route and spent more time with these kinds of moments (Kavalier and Clay was obviously a big influence), delving deeper into the psyches of these writers. Maybe the author didn’t feel comfortable going further into the minds of characters based on real people; more likely his editor was nervous about the book coming in at 500 plus pages (instead of 367), which is what such a treatment would have demanded.

It seems odd to criticize an obviously self-aware work on pulps and pulpists about action scenes, but this turns out to be one of the book’s weaknesses. The action, when it occurs, is often harried without being gripping, less than clear when it should be crystalline. Could be a case of the author being a little too self-aware–not wanting to push past a certain cusp of believability. It’s like Malmont can’t decide how much emphasis to place on the action, and for me, at least, middle-of-the-road just isn’t satisfying. There are some structural issues as well. Zhang Mei’s origin and sub-story, while interesting and articulate, should’ve either been much longer and more fully woven into the main narrative or greatly abbreviated. You can appreciate the author’s desire to move past the aforementioned ‘Yellow Peril’ routine, but in this case the sub-story almost counters the narrative flow.

Critiques aside, this is an enjoyable book and highly recommended for fans of the pulps and good old-fashioned adventure fiction. A fine debut effort from Paul Malmont; I look forward to his next project.
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