When the Death-Bat Flies, part 1

Thursday , 21, September 2017 2 Comments

The burglar fumbled in his pocket, and Dunne leaned forward sharply, the gun jutting out. It was only the jewelry. It glowed on the man’s big palm and Dunne whistled softly. 

“You damned fool,” he whispered. “You utter damned fool. That’s moonglow jewel jade! Worth a fortune. Good lord, it’s priceless! That bit there shaped like a bat….” 

He caught it up, and the burglar scrambled abjectly to his feet, round eyes bulging while Dunne examined the intricate carving of the precious stuff. The bat was really superb workmanship. 

“Geez, chief,” the burglar gasped. “You gotta take it now. No fence would touch stuff like that.”

*****

Norvell W. Page is best known for writing the adventures of the pulp hero The Spider, one of the more successful hero pulps to follow in The Shadow’s wake. But when he wasn’t writing for the hero pulps and comics, to include The Shadow and The Phantom, he indulged in the growing field of weird menace, a sensationalized form of the detective story that mixed a generous heaping of over-the-top violence, a dash of dread, a sprinkle of the spicy, and a bit of that black magic into the conventional detective recipe.

His “When the Death-Bat Flies” is a six chapter novelette that mines one of the most common veins of 1930s occult menace, the mysteries of chinoiserie. Reflecting the West’s growing fascination with all things Asia–East, West, and South, the lands of China, Japan, India, and Persia were ready sources of exotic mysteries for writers to spin into their stories. But where in the 1910s, this would have led to unadulterated Yellow Peril racism in the mold of Fu Machu (who still acted more honorable than his Western nemesis), exposure to such tales as Charlie Chan had changed the hero pulps. While men from the East would still be villains, they would also be sidekicks, teachers, and heroes in their own right. And in “When the Death-Bat Flies”, Norvell Page brought this sensibility into his weird menace.

On to the story…

*****

A thug tries to mug tinkerer and stage magician Aubrei Dunne, but Dunne manages to turn the tables on his attacker using a mix of stage-props and jiu-jitsu. To pay for the damage the thug caused, Dunne decides to empty the thug’s pockets instead. The thug, better known as Montmorency “Socks” Bere has in his possession an unfencible jade bat that he tries to push on Dunne. Before Dunne can take the jewelry, a red-haired girl bursts in and mugs them by gunpoint, believing Socks to be the thief and Dunne his boss. But before she can finish her stick-up, a car full of Chinese drives by and empties a drum of machine gun fire at all three. As they vanish, a bat flies into the room, and the redhead declares it an omen, hai chei p’ing or the Bat of Death.

The redhead introduces herself as Margaret Henderson, the daughter of Professor Michael Henderson. She panics as she realizes her father might be attacked next. After cutting a quick deal with Socks, Dunne leads all three to the Henderson mansion, only to find burglars smashing their way inside. The burglars see Dunne and run away, leaving a corpse bowing on the ground. As Margaret screams, another death bat flies past.

Dunne, Socks, and Margaret follow a man’s screams and find the professor, who is terrified of the Bat of Death. But rather than show relief at his daughter’s return, Professor Henderson takes umbrage at Dunne’s presence. Accusingly, he asks if Dunne saw the Bat of Death and demands what the magician-sleuth knows. After Margaret explains how Dunne helped, her the professor stands down, claiming he is distraught over the recent suicide of his brother. After Margaret leaves, the professor asks for Dunne’s assistance when another bat flies through. The professor takes him to his brother’s corpse, which has been disemboweled by a sword wrapped in silk embroidered with a bat. Dunne takes a closer look, and declares the brother’s death murder instead of suicide and points out the killing blow. Henderson names Natsuki Hirotoyo, Dunne’s jiu jitsu partner, as the murderer. Dunne calls him a liar, and the men come to blows. Margaret intervenes, and Dunne returns home, only to have the policeman investigating the drive-by die in his arms!

*****

Socks stared from the doorway. “Geez, chief,” he whispered, “what happened to the bull? Dead! Boss, we gotta get out of here fast. What they do to cop-killers in this town ain’t pretty!”

Dunn said irritably, “I didn’t kill him, you fool!”

Socks’ laughter was hollow. “Yeah, but try and make them coppers believe that! Boss, we gotta take it on the lam!

*****

So far, “When the Death-Bat Flies” has been a pleasant mix of detective story and general chinoiserie. However, it has been reliant on car-crash theater, slamming one run-in after another without giving time for the tension to build. The first chapter, for instance, runs through an entire Dent’s formula of twists in a fourth of the wordage. But Dunne only had one chance to extract himself with his own skill. After Margaret’s appearance, he escapes one peril because a newer peril intervenes. If it was not for the sudden appearance of Natsuki Hirotoyo, an apparent good guy whose family has been wrapped up in dealings with the Bat Tong, the constant smash of plot points would have been wearying.

The chinoiserie appears to be sorting itself out so that the Chinese is ominous and the Japanese virtuous. The blending of chinoiserie and japonisme makes sense in hindsight, with the Hirotoyo family’s involvement with Chinese crime families, but just how the Hendersons are mixed into this has yet to be clear. The professor, by employing Chinese servants, is clearly at the Chinese pole of foreign virtue here.

It was an interesting surprise to find a reference to jiu jitsu so early (1937), especially with the popular perception of the martial arts being virtually unknown in the West prior to the 1960s. However, I was quickly disabused of that popular perception when I brought it up online. Spencer Hart found judo and jiu jitsu ads filling WWII era pulp magazines. And Kevyn Winkless pointed out that:

In storage I have a 1920s era book that purports to teach gentlemen the key skills of jujitsu. According to Google’s ngram viewer, karate gets virtually no mention until exactly 1960 when it takes off to become the most commonly mentioned by far, kung fu was invisible until its brief popularity in the 1970s. But various spellings of ju-jitsu see raised visibility around 1900-1910 and again from ’35-’45. It’s not particularly common in either period. Judo starts to take off in about 1910 and keeps going up to be the most mentioned until karate surpasses it in 1970.

Regardless of how novel the grappling arts might be in pulp times, will knowledge of jiu jitsu be enough to save Aubrei Dunne from the menace of the Death Bat and the Bat Tong?  We shall see soon, as “When the Death-Bat Flies” concludes…

2 Comments
  • Andy says:

    “So far, “When the Death-Bat Flies” has been a pleasant mix of detective story and general chinoiserie. However, it has been reliant on car-crash theater, slamming one run-in after another without giving time for the tension to build. The first chapter, for instance, runs through an entire Dent’s formula of twists in a fourth of the wordage.”

    Yeah, that sounds like a Norvell Page story, all right 🙂 Admittedly I haven’t read much of his work beyond the Spider, but everything I have read by him has this incredibly feverish pace and atmosphere, like Daffy Duck pitching The Scarlet Pumpernickel (“THE PRICE OF FOODSTUFFS SKYROCKETED!”). At first I pick it apart in my head and think, “This really isn’t very good,” but then I can’t help wanting to read more.

  • […] Last time, when we looked at the first half of Norvell Page’s “When the Death-Bat Flies&… […]

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