Red Witch of Mercury by Emmett McDowell appeared in and was double-billed with Spider Men of Gharr as the featured story of the Summer 1945 issue of Planet Stories.
I’m no longer surprised by how good the average Planet Stories piece is. Going by what some of fandom was saying in the subsequent issue’s Vizigraph, the Summer 1945 issue of Planet Stories was damning evidence of how far the publication has fallen. If this is the bad, how great the golden age must have been!
Red Witch of Mercury is a story of intrigue, crime and corruption. It’s a solid thriller, through and through. Mercury may be on the brink or civil war. A handful of Earthnoid interests control over half of the resources on the small world, including the lucrative wine trade. There is some resentment among the Mercurian populace, but the Earth government has just granted the Mercurian people a new degree of freedom and self-governance. Though revolution could wreck the advancements the Mercurians have made towards independence, rumors are circulating that the Mercurian Patriot movement may still consider violent insurrection to drive the trusts off once and for all. With the coming of the Festival of Rains, a celebration of the union of the rain god Nemi and his bride the soil which “would make a Roman Orgy look like a Sunday School picnic”, there’s fear that the streets could explode in riots at a moment’s notice.
The tale begins in a piano bar, where the eponymous Red Witch – an organized crime contact posing as a sultry lounge singer – approaches the death-dealing mercenary hitman-for-hire Jaro Moynihan (Mars-Irish, apparently) with a proposition: she represents a group of investors who want to put a hit on the leader of the Mercurian Patriot Movement. Following the trail after the Red Witch’s sudden abduction, Jaro stumbles upon a grand conspiracy to foment civil war by means of assassination and false-flag terrorism to ensure that the wine trusts retain their political hold on the tiny world and the Mercurian Patriot Movement is crushed by a retaliatory Earth space fleet. What follows is an adventure through the rain-drenched alleys of crowded cities to the subterranean tunnels of alien pleasure temples, shoot-outs with gangsters and Venusian hit-men, plus a mob boss and a cruel beauty who stand to profit from the bloodshed.
Red Witch of Mercury is one of those stories that made me reflect on Sci-fi film of the golden age. Though Doolin’s illustrations typify the futuristic vision of ridiculous spandex outfits and metal crested hats, the aesthetics of the story would put it easily in line with a Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. For whatever reason, non-SFF pulps got better treatment on the silver screen, but it would be easy to imagine Bogart and Bacall starring opposite one another and trying to get to the bottom of a liquor-baron and his femme fatale co-conspirator’s scheme to foment unrest and violence on the planet closest to the sun set against the haunting backdrop of a week of endless rain and primal lust.
Unlike many of the stories covered in Short Reviews, Red Witch of Mercury is available in (possibly pirated) reprint.