Vintage Pulp Jul 3 2024
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
He's hopelessly outclassed by his prey. And the tiger is a problem too.


Above you see a nice cover by an uncredited illustrator for 1959's Womanhunt, written by Harry Wilcox posing as his alter ego Mark Derby and published in this Ace paperback edition in 1960. This is interesting visual work. You notice that the femme fatale's eyes resemble the tiger's eyes. That comparison is at the crux of the tale Derby tells. In the story a government agent named Dickson (Dix to his friends) is sent upcountry in Malaya to pose as a big game hunter there to kill a deadly tigress, while behind the scenes he's searching out a communist cabal and determining whether an agent already there is doing her job or has turned.

That agent—Anna Swansey—is someone Dix barely knows but is “miserably and hopelessly in love with.” Under the pressure of his mission, his feelings turn into a consuming obsession. As high concept novels go, the idea of trying to stalk an apex predator, arouse love within a woman, and expose a spy ring all at once is as ripe as it gets. There's a lot going on at all times, and Derby keeps multiple plates spinning on sticks while treating readers to some nice passages, like this one:

Before her magnificent body, an electric apparition of charcoal, gold, and white, had passed out of sight, he had a second view of her snarl, the haughty sneer that drew mouth and white whiskers high and quivering on each side, the narrowing of the usually rounded eyes, the flash of the ivory teeth.

At one point Dix is alone in the jungle and hears the tigress's roar. It's a moment when he realizes, terrifyingly, that his hunt of her may have turned into her hunt of him:

He jumped as if a cannon had gone off. He had got it into his head that she was somewhere over on his right, or behind him, and this growl came from directly ahead. It sounded awesomely near, too. [snip] The roar, a sound which perhaps only one in every million human beings ever hears, and only one in ten million ever hears at close quarters, filled the dark jungle with shock. There was a moment, perhaps of one second, during which Dix did nothing but stiffen; then his arms moved and the beam of the flashlight mounted on the rifle barrel cut a cone of light in the dark clearing.

The title of book registers weird in 2024, but it isn't misogynist—or not very. A few web pages say the woman of the hunt is, metaphorically, the tigress. No. It's a metaphor, alright, but not one that simple. The woman of the hunt is actually both the tigress and Anna. That's made clear because Derby flogs the woman-as-tigress metaphor until it's welted from nose to tail. But he's also capable of smirking at it, briefly anyway, such as here:

My grandfather used to say that a tigress was a woman, a woman who did not wish to be caught. She would hide down trails the hunter didn’t know and, just like a woman, her lies would be more clever than his traps. That’s what he used to say.” ’Che Kadan was fond of quoting his grandfather, who’d been one of the Malayan sultans—an old man of character, it seemed, since his quoted remarks were invariably mere clichés or sentimental platitudes which must have been remembered for the authority with which he’d uttered them.

It's a comparison that's probably insulting to most modern women, but don't let it fool you. The tale is steeped in debilitating male emotion, lustful obsession, existential terror, and a desperate loneliness. It reads tragically at times, as Dix tries but fails to keep Anna from slowly taking over his thoughts. And that's another unusual aspect of the book: Dix is increasingly driven by jealousy. At first it's directed only against Anna's boss Charlton Lang, who also wants her badly and uses his authority to constantly keep her near him in a work capacity. Then Anna's ex-lover shows up. Dix is driven near to madness by this event.

Derby deals in high emotion. For example, big cats generally kill humans when they're the only obtainable prey. Usually the animal is hurt, or very old. Dix sympathizes with the tigress, doesn't consider her to be in any way at fault, but people keep getting eaten, so he has no choice about killing her—not merely as matter of his cover, but as a matter of saving lives. His conflict over this is wrenching, symbolic of terrible choices forced on us all. To add an extra ingredient, he isn't an experienced hunter. He can shoot—but he isn't expert. His pursuit of the tigress is ridiculously dangerous.

This is a great book. However, the usual warnings apply to colonial fiction. In addition, within the communist plotlines Dix's quarries are all fools, monsters, or victims of coercion. Capitalism wasn't then—and isn't now—turning the world into a fruit laden banquet table overflowing with goodness for all, and Derby was surely smart enough to understand that. But despite the billions killed to establish and maintain his preferred global order, he never touches the reasons why alternative political philosophies take hold. In his mind, resistance comes from the deluded, from dolts who—for inexplicable reasons—believe colonials have no right to steal foreign lands. That may annoy the more politically objective readers.

But while more character depth on that front would have made Womanhunt perfect, and its total and rather smug one-sidedness means it has to be partly classified as propaganda, Derby can really construct and deliver an adventure. How do you wrap up a communist spy caper, Malayan big game hunt, and heart-hurting love story all at once? Those spinning plates never wobble. The hunt's spectacular end flows immediately into the climax of the spy tale, and within that chaotic resolution the love story concludes with fireworks. We'll be revisiting Derby soon.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
July 19
1966—Sinatra Marries Farrow
Superstar singer and actor Frank Sinatra marries 21-year-old actress Mia Farrow, who is 30 years younger than him. The marriage lasts two years.
July 18
1925—Mein Kampf Published
While serving time in prison for his role in a failed coup, Adolf Hitler dictaes and publishes volume 1 of his manifesto Mein Kampf (in English My Struggle or My Battle), the book that outlines his theories of racial purity, his belief in a Jewish conspiracy to control the world, and his plans to lead Germany to militarily acquire more land at the expense of Russia via eastward expansion.
July 17
1955—Disneyland Begins Operations
The amusement park Disneyland opens in Orange County, California for 6,000 invitation-only guests, before opening to the general public the following day.
1959—Holiday Dies Broke
Legendary singer Billie Holiday, who possessed one of the most unique voices in the history of jazz, dies in the hospital of cirrhosis of the liver. She had lost her earnings to swindlers over the years, and upon her death her bank account contains seventy cents.
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