Saturday, July 10, 2010

In a Righteous Cause: Tales of Adventure by Talbot Mundy

Talbot Mundy, like his contemporary Harold Lamb, is one of those magic names out of pulp history. Most folks have heard of him, and may have a vague notion he once wrote adventure stories, but relatively few today have read his work.

Tom Roberts of Black Dog Books is doing his part to change all that.  In a Righteous Cause is the first published volume in the Talbot Mundy Library, a series that will eventually comprise at least eight volumes.

This book brings us seven stories (some of novelette length) and three articles, all of which appeared in Adventure during 1913.

I didn’t know what to expect from this collection, but I’d been reading - and enjoying - the Harold Lamb book Wolf of the Steppes containing stories from the same mag and similar time frame, and figured it was time to give Mundy a try.

And damn - I'm glad I did. Talbot Mundy is one kick-ass storyteller. I was enthralled with every piece in this book. And the more I read, the more I found myself slowing down to savor the prose.

It’s tempting to call these stories historical adventure, but the truth is that most of them were contemporary fiction at the time they were written, roughly 100 years ago. The one sure exception takes place fifty years earlier, during the British occupation of India.

The rest involve British soldiers in various settings of war and peace. Sometimes they’re in camp, sometimes on the battlefield, but every one of them comes alive, jumps off the page and hauls you back into his world.

The long novelette “For the Salt He Had Eaten” recounts the heroism and great determination of an old Rajput warrior during the Sepoy Rebellion.  “Private Murdock’s G.C.M” (Good Conduct Medal) is a slapstick romance. “An Arabian Night” begins as a comedy, with two seamen determined to sample the forbidden delights of a harem, and becomes a battle with slavers on the Persian Gulf.

In “The Tempering of Harry Blunt” we meet a young officer who must find his steel battling Afghans before he finds the guts to propose the woman he loves. “Three Helios” is a tale of courage and sacrifice in South Africa, during one of the Boer wars. “At Maneuvers” gives us two soldiers who go to outrageous lengths to avoid participating in pointless maneuvers, but show their true metal when the chips are down. And in the title story, the “righteous cause” is  a wacky, violent, and ingenious scheme to save a innocent British maiden from engaging in holy matrimony with a greedy and roundly-despised canteen sergeant.

What surprised me, in all these tales, was the depth of Mundy’s wit and skill of his storycraft.  The two combined to deliver endings that left me smiling and eager to read the next story.

And to my further surprise, I enjoyed the non-fiction pieces too. One of these tells the incredible tale of William Walker, an American filibuster who stole Lower California from Mexico and declared himself president of the independent nation of Sonora, then led a mercenary army to Nicaragua, making himself president of that country as well. He was finally executed in 1860 in a failed attempt to take over Honduras. Seems strange I have to read a hundred year old article by Mundy to learn of this guy’s amazing exploits.

Below is a sample of Mundy’s prose, in this case the introduction to the title tale. “Nil Desperandums” is the nickname of a British regiment, Oozepore is a city in India, and "Thomas Atkins" is a generic name meant to represent the average British soldier, sort of like G.I. Joe or Johnny Reb.

(click to enlarge)

For ordering info, click HERE.
And check out yesterday's review of TROS (of Samothrace)


Charles Gramlich said...

I've got all the Tros books but haven't read them. I was worried a bit by their length I guess, but this makes me want to give them a go.

Evan Lewis said...

The first Tros book seemed a bit talky at the beginning and took a while to get into. But once I reached the second half the story took hold and wouldn't let go.

Laurie Powers said...

This looks great and I LOVE the cover. God bless Black Dog Books.

Cap'n Bob said...

British soldiers were called Tommies, from Thomas Atkins. I'll bet you knew the Tommy part. These sound like great adventures.

Deka Black said...

Reminds me of El Borak tales. Sounds good. The type of adventure the world needs.

And the proof what pulp have good writers, (insert swear at your like).

One thing only: What number of words mark the border between short story and novelette (and novella too, is athing, well, sometimes puzzles me)

Evan Lewis said...

Puzzles me too, Deka. I suppose we have somewhat standardized definitions now, but the pulps sometimes played pretty fast and loose with what they billed as novels and novelettes.

Richard R. said...

Just curious, Evan, have you read King, of the Khyber Rifles?

Evan Lewis said...

I have not read King, Richard, but after finishing the Tros saga I undoubtedly will.