This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. This week, we're back to our regular running order with #10 - Plunder of the Sun.
David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun (1949) takes us back out of the United States again, this time to South America. Al Colby, the book's protagonist, was a short-lived series hero. Plunder is the second of his three adventures. (It was filmed in 1953 with Glenn Ford and Patricia Medina. Oooh.)
Colby is a sort of generic adventurer. He's American, we gather he's a roving exile (for some unspecified reason), and has been for some time. He's well-connected, fluent in Spanish and, generally speaking, one tough hombre. At the start of Plunder of the Sun, Colby is hired by an exhausted older man, Berrien. Berrien is an antiques dealer and he needs to get a package from Chile to Peru. Berrien tries to keep the contents secret, but Colby wins the macho standoff between the two men (Colby wins all macho standoffs, take that for granted). The package is some sort of rare artifact. It belongs in Peru (according to Berrien), but the Chilean authorities would confiscate it. Berrien thinks it would be safer discreetly transported by an American.
Berrien agrees to the deal. He's looking to move on, he could use a bit of a money and, perhaps most of all, Berrien's nurse is hawt. Who knows...
The threesome travel to Peru by way of a slow-moving freighter. Berrien's suspicions are rapidly confirmed. The authorities give Berrien and Ana Luz (the nurse) a hard time at every port and the freighter is carrying a full complement of dodgy characters. Colby's job of protecting the package is no cakewalk - it looks like everyone is after it.
The freighter trip, which is about half of Plunder of the Sun, is my favourite part of the book. Ostensibly, it is your typical cosy. A half dozen "strangers", all with secret, interconnected pasts. One central figure (soon deceased) who binds them all together. A sudden power outage! A flash of lightning! A scream! And then everyone sits around and discusses everything over a game of whist!
On the other hand, it is a direct subversion of the cosy. Although the set-up is familiar, Mr. Dodge swiftly moves this away from what Chandler famously described as a "detective story" (that is, "middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction"). Colby tries to work things deductively, but quickly hits a dead end. No one is doing what they're "supposed" to - all the characters are worried, confused and multi-dimensional. Actual people. As the freighter trip winds up, there's no dinner party moment - everyone just sneaks off and goes their separate ways, leaving the initial mystery unsolved. Nor, really, does Colby care. He has his own priorities (as do the local authorities) and avenging Berrien's death isn't high on anyone's list.
As Colby strikes out on his own, things get even more confusing. He's now in sole possession of a priceless treasure, but should he claim it? And, if so, how? Everyone has an offer for him, again, each with their own (mixed) motivations. Who can he trust?
The answer to the latter question is, of course, no one. The second half of the book is trek back and forth across Peru, as Colby and his entourage of rivals all pursue buried Incan treasure. On one hand, this is inherently less interesting - there's a lot of process in here (Mr. Dodge's hand-waving to realism, presumably). But, on the other, there's also a lot of tension. Colby can't accomplish this alone, but there's no one else he can trust. This results in a series of uncomfortable, untenable partnerships, with no one sleeping and everyone on guard. By the time Colby's even near the treasure, he's a frazzled wreck, and the reader can feel it.
Again, this feels like a response to the "detective story". There's a moral ambiguity here, as no character is bad (not even the book's ultimate "villain") and no one is good (especially not Colby). How people behave is not a predictable, mechanical equation, but something far more complex, with thousands of variables. Colby can't even predict his own behaviour, much less that of the people around him...
Plunder of the Sun isn't perfect - amongst other things, there's a nasty core of colonialism running through the entire book. Even as Colby berates the Spanish for doing the actual colonising back in the day, there's a distinct air of superiority that follows him throughout the book. The Peruvian characters are all fiery, bad-tempered, savagely honourable, etc. etc. - stuck in a strange feudal world that only the American interloper can sort out with his freedom-lovin' machismo. In some ways, an entire country is treated a bit like a small town: a stick-in-the-mud backwater that needs to be cleaned up by a hardworking stranger. At the same time, Mr. Dodge has no hesitation in playing up the otherworldly, well, otherness of the country - ensuring the reader knows exactly how wildly foreign this adventure is. Just look at all the covers: Plunder of the Sun has always been marketed more like King Solomon's Mines than Raymond Chandler.
And, on covers, the Hard Case Crime edition features more work from the legendary Robert McGinnis. Sadly, despite my undying love for the man's work, this one doesn't quite do it for me. Ana Luz (for that's the woman, presumably) is a very strange shade of pale. She also makes the composition too crowded. The cover is portraying one of the book's pivotal moments (in remarkable detail). With her Galactus-sized presence included, it makes you question whether all three figures are even in the same scene. However... awesome burro.
I'm not actually a fan of any of the historical covers either. Publishing Plunder as a Dell Mapback is a perfect fit, but there were any number of action scenes to choose from - why have Ana getting slapped as the front cover art? The other editions have all been a little too stark for me. I don't hate them, but I prefer that particular style when it is used to have a bit more fun.
[More on David Dodge and his work over at the David Dodge Companion]