Friday, January 29, 2016

Genius Jones by Lester Dent

Pulp fiction hero rescued from obscurity
Lester Dent, a prolific and highly respected author of adventure fiction, is best know as the creator of the popular character Doc Savage. Though Dent’s bibliography may be overwhelmingly Savage-heavy, his novel Genius Jones proves that he was no one-trick pony. This remarkable adventure was originally serialized in Argosy magazine from 1937 to 1938 and has been out of print ever since. We have the pulp fanatics at Altus Press to thank for resurrecting this gem and giving it new life in paperback and ebook.

A German liner comes across an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and the captain is shocked to spot a man riding upon the floating ice. This solitary traveler, who apparently doesn’t realize that World War I has ended, drives off his German rescuers, but not before they broadcast their unusual finding via radio. In the vicinity sails an American yacht, which responds to the call to rescue the mystery man. The owner of this yacht is one Polyphemus Ward, a cantankerous millionaire who reluctantly comes to the aid of the castaway. Also on board is spunky journalist and comic relief Funny Pegger, a requisite femme fatale named Glacia, and a foppish potential nemesis named Lyman Lee. The rescuee, who goes by the name of Jones, is the son of a polar explorer who disappeared decades ago. His father having died when he was young, Jones grew up in isolation in the remote reaches of the arctic. Ward promptly ushers this polar Tarzan to New York City, where his babe-in-the-snow naiveté gets him into all sorts of trouble.

When reading Genius Jones, it is very difficult to believe it was published in 1937. The humor is still fresh after all these years, and the story is as lively and entertaining as if it were published yesterday. It reads like a contemporary Hollywood screenwriter paying homage to the pulp age rather than an actual artifact from that era. Only in the final few chapters does it show signs of antiquation, as a couple of racial stereotypes unfortunately appear, dating the book as a relic of a bygone era. To those familiar with the political incorrectness of pulp adventure tales, however, the book’s offenses on that score are pretty tame.The biggest problem with Genius Jones is that it overstays its welcome. At 30 chapters, this full-length novel is mammoth by pulp fiction standards. Much like an old movie serial, each episode ends with a little cliffhanger. By the time you get to the end you have little memory of what took place at the beginning. The plot gets rather repetitive after a while, with Jones rushing off half-cocked to do something foolish, then returning to seek the assistance of Pegger. Another disappointing aspect of the story is that Jones rarely utilizes any polar expertise in his big-city adventures. His unusual origin serves to make him a fish out of water, but he might as well have been raised in the jungle for all his arctic upbringing figures into the story.

Despite its shortcomings, if you are a lover of pulp fiction, this book embodies everything you love about it: madcap adventure, tongue-in-cheek humor, larger-than-life characters, sexy dames, and villains you just love to hate. Sadly, Dent only published one work featuring Jones. The Altus edition includes the brief outline of a planned second adventure, but Dent never undertook it. Unlike the indestructible Doc Savage, Genius Jones will forever remain a one-hit wonder, but one well worth reading.
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