Wednesday, November 16, 2011
The Red Flame of Erinpura by Talbot Mundy
As noted in The Gault Papers (“Mundy'sJimGrim Saga”), The Red Flame appeared in the January 1, 1927 issue of Adventure. It afterward appeared in a book edition in Britain from Hutchinson & Co. in 1934. As Mundy scholar Brian Taves points out in a post to the Pulprack Yahoo Group and in his review of the book at Amazon, no subsequent reprinting or American edition followed. So the appearance of this short novel in print from Ariel Press should be greatly appreciated by Mundy's fans.
Stories from Adventure typically bring to mind exotic settings, fisticuffs and gunfights. There is little action of that type in this tale. There is, however, intrigue aplenty in the Mundy style, as two parties of Americans representing different interests jockey with local political structures — who are jockeying in their own fashions for local power — to locate and manage a thus-far undiscovered oil field. Woven within this plot is the old star-crossed lovers theme, although modernized with the independent notions of the contemporary American female part of those star crossers: the young woman is the daughter of the man heading one of those American interests, and the man who loves her represents the competing interest.
Also involved is an Indian prince who, it slowly is revealed, is poisoning his father so he may take power. This would-be patricide is not satisfied with threatening the life only of his family, for others who do not move their chess pieces in the way he wishes also find themselves in peril.
Also present, of course, is the capable representative of the English government, savvy and cool, a seeming outsider who is intimately aware of the local threads of influence. Galloway – the savvy Englishman in Red Flame – is described by Mundy upon his introduction with phrases that make him seem a clone of Cottswold Ommany, another Mundy protagonist from other stories who serves in an outpost of progress, to misuse Joseph Conrad's phrase. As the reader's familiarity with Galloway grows, however, Mundy makes clear that Galloway is a bit different from Ommany: not quite so simpatico with the local culture as at first seems evident, not quite the cleverly maneuvering savant he initially appears — he is not, after all, an equal to Ommany.
The Gnani — a mysterious knower and master of mysteries — also is a player in this tapestry woven upon a loom of power plays. His influence is great and mighty, but Mundy reserves the Gnani's time on stage to particular moments of dramatic intensity leading to climaxes that reveal answers to puzzles in the plot. More frequently the reader learns about the Gnani from other characters' descriptions of his activities and interests.
Finally, or perhaps ultimately, there is Chullunder Ghose, a native confidence man and catalyst for bringing together the various lit fuses that run at large in this story. Upon his first appearance, the reader may dismiss him as mere humorous foil, as he is introduced by his rollicking verbal slapstick that leaves verbal vocabularist par excellance Leo Gorcey rolling in the dust. Or, as Leo might say it, “roiling in the dusk.” That Ghose ends up playing the court jester — the wise man in the guise of the idiot — is Mundy's own literary trick.
Mundy is, actually, quite loaded with literary tricks. The characters he parades on the stage of this story aren't so different from the type of folks we might encounter in a Henry James tale — but while James may place them in the salons of London, Paris, or Rome, Mundy allows them to range through India or the Middle East. Here, for example, is a description by Mundy of Mrs. Bisbee, a European woman of influence. She might easily appear in a James story, although the description certainly would include more adjectives, adverbs, and a lot of semicolons — clearly James did not write for the pulp magazines (as is obvious when Mundy begins his description of Mrs. Bisbee's physical features — all of James' women were, if morally or intellectually or emotionally flawed in some manner, at the least handsome) :
Joe Bisbee was an assistant commissioner who had had to stay and sweat in some unhealthy district in the plains. His wife, aged twenty-eight and possessed of a private income, had a summer bungalow at Mount Abu that overlooked the lake. She also had a curiosity concerning Oriental mysteries that made the bungalow a byword.
Nevertheless, she had admirers of her own race, as well as a large acquaintance among natives who had been to English universities. You could speak of anything in Mrs. Bisbee's house and be believed, provided the thing was unbelievable and contrary to all accepted theory. Even newly married wives of covenanted civil servants had no word to say against her conduct with men, because she had a cast in one eye and a false leg, due to a railway accident; but most of the women in the station bitterly resented her hospitality to educated Indians, Eurasians, and to Europeans who, for one cause or another, were excluded from the upper social level. She could not be actually outlawed from society, because her husband stood well with the heads of departments and was regarded as a coming man; also because she had money and was generous when approached by subscriptions to charity funds. But she was known as a bad influence, and accordingly ignored as much as possible.
Pulp fiction has a reputation for being about the fast-paced action, with the success of all stories hanging by the strands of incident that tie together the opening and the ending. That's a rather narrow understanding of the fiction that appeared in the pulps. It's much like saying all O. Henry stories have worth only because of their twist endings. While plot is important, the interaction between the characters and the vigor of the language are what ultimately carry a story. I'll argue that most of the enjoyment I get from an O. Henry story comes from just that — the interplay of character and language. You'll see that same level of storytelling expertise on display in The Red Flame. By 1927, Mundy had reached his top form as a narrative master. You'll see the result in this story.
Ariel Press has put together a nice volume in readable type with a suitable cover painting by Nancy Maxwell. An introduction or afterward placing this story in the context of Mundy's interests and his oevre would be a nice lagniappe, but it is at least good to know that Ariel has several other Mundy novels available to the reader who may not have the time or opportunity to track down their original appearances in old and aging magazines.
I look forward to adding other volumes from their Mundy series to my shelves.
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