Okay, so here’s the thing: The Secret Six: The Red Shadow was published in 1934, so this isn’t going to be a traditional book review. After all, it’s not like an 84-year-old pulp novel really needs more Amazon reviews. The original pulp magazine that published The Red Shadow is long out of business and the author – Robert J. Hogan – died in 1963.
So, why bother reviewing this book at all?
The Secret Six was a short-run series of pulp stories about a group of people who get together and decide to fight crime. Think of them as the original Avengers without the tights and super powers. In a lot of ways, the pulp heroes of the 30s were the prototypes for the superheroes of today. Characters like King, the Key, Bishop, the Doctor, and Shakespeare laid the foundations for what would come later.
The 1930s was when the superhero was created, even if the term wasn’t commonplace at the time. Remember, Superman wouldn’t debut until 1938 (even though Siegel and Shuster had created him in 1933) and Batman wouldn’t don the gray tights and bust skulls until 1939. This was the era of Doc Savage and The Phantom and a panoply of other heroes both remembered and forgotten.
Obviously, not all of these pulp fiction heroes would be remembered down the road. The Secret Six falls squarely into that category. Of course, here it is 84 years later and I’m writing a review of their first adventure, so maybe they weren’t quite so forgettable.
Action stories are, in a lot of ways, all the same. Bad guys do bad things and good guys stop them. Like all pulp fiction stories, the bad guys in the Secret Six were completely over the top and the good guys were a bit less than angels. Even Doc Savage, who typically refused to kill anyone, had little compunction about letting the bad guys get eaten by giant ants or plunge to their grisly deaths off Aztec pyramids. So, next time you think of Batman’s anti-hero aesthetic as being unique, remember he was the natural evolution of people who were only slightly less anti-hero than him.
That’s why, at least from my point of view, it’s important to look back on the pulp fiction of the ’30s every now and then and remember where modern action stories came from.
If you’ve never ready any of the pulp fiction from that era, it’s worth taking a look at. Don’t expect miraculous works of art, though. The people that wrote these stories knocked them out like machinery. As such, the quality is sometimes not exactly up to par with something crafted and honed over the space of months of years. Remember, a lot of these books were written in a couple weeks and it wasn’t unheard of for some of the pulp authors to write 10,000+ words per day in order to handle their twice a month book deadlines. That’s 60-70 thousand words each and every day and usually on mechanical typewriters. For those unfamiliar with word counts, a page is usually assumed to contain 250 words. At that level, people like Walter Gibson were writing 40 pages a day. It sounds easy until you try it.
The Red Shadow is fairly standard for most pulp fiction of its era. It’s just clever enough to keep the reader flipping pages, but while it has a lot to offer, it lacks multi-dimensional characters. In fact, some of the supporting characters could have been excised and no one would have noticed they were gone. The story itself was clever enough: A mysterious red force is killing people and it’s up to a rag-tag coalition of people to stop it.
By today’s standards, a red force that kills people doesn’t seem too outlandish, but in the 1930s the story must have bordered on science fiction. In fact, the term “death ray” is thrown around a couple times, even though it doesn’t turn turn out to be a death ray.
Take one part regular badassery, a teaspoon of action and gallantry, and a villain that’s still somewhat mysterious even after we find out who he is and you’ve got the recipe for a quality batch of cookies. Like a lot of the pulp stories of its time, The Red Shadow doesn’t offer a lot of depth, but that was never the point. Pulp stories like The Red Shadow were meant to be the Fast & Furious stories of that generation: they’re pure nitro-burning funny cars for a time when America really needed the escapism that can only come from mindless heroism.
The actual magazine that printed The Red Shadow is, as noted above, long gone. Even the publishing house that purchased the rights to the Secret Six stories is gone. Fortunately, we live in the future, so finding a copy of The Red Shadow (and the rest of the Secret Six stories) is as easy as clicking a link.
Go get a copy, put your brain on screensaver, and have a little fun tonight. If you want to read a classic, you spend time with Ethan Frome or Ishmael (good books in their own right), or you can hang out with King, Bishop, and the Key, break out of jail, and bust up a budding criminal empire.