The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril

Posted by : atcampbell | On : April 22, 2008

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

This discussion at A. T.’s house drew twelve attendees. Our topic was The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, an adventure story featuring famous writers of the Pulp Era. An obscure writer named H. P. Lovecraft dies under mysterious circumstances, and his friends Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, and L. Ron Hubbard look into it. They are drawn into a wild adventure reminiscent of the stuff they write. As this book is Malmont’s first published work, none of us had read him before. All of us started the book, and nine finished.

The group member who originally recommended this book said that he was initially intrigued by the title and main characters. He felt the story took off immediately. He thought the mystery had good twists and red herrings. He appreciated how it moves deftly between horror, mystery, and fantasy. And he was pleasantly surprised at the end when the true identity of the book’s narrator was revealed.

Several of us commented on how well the book evoked the atmosphere and culture of New York City at the time. While we doubted that the place was exactly like Malmont depicted, the world was so fully-realized that it was almost a character in itself.

Characterization was a strength of this novel. We appreciated that Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, was a multitalented man much like Doc himself. Dent’s wife Norma starts the novel as a person going through a personal crisis, but once she gets involved in the action she finds herself and quickly becomes one of the book’s strongest characters. We thought Gibson was well-presented as a top pulp writer constantly aware of his competitors nipping at his heels. Gibson’s large collection of helpful acquaintances was reminiscent of the Shadow’s network of agents.

Several people commented that they would not have read this book if not for the reading group. One reader had read little pulp writing, but still enjoyed this book enormously. We loved that so many supporting characters turned out to be significant writers and artists. There were appearances by E. E. “Doc” Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, Chester Himes, Louis L’Amour, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby. We liked Doc Smith getting to use his “day job” (chemistry) to save the day at one point.

One person felt that this book was almost metafiction. He liked the conceit of a secret history where the real world is pulp. He thought the book was fabulously well done and clearly a labor of love, and speculated that the author must have had a father or uncle with a huge collection of pulps.

We felt this book was a good companion to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon’s novel that features comic book creators involved in a similar adventure. It was noted that Joe Kavalier himself has a cameo appearances in The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.

A couple of people felt that this book suffered from “first novel” problems. They felt the story took too long to get started, and the narrative jumped around too much. They said that the book contains exquisitely-written sections and purple prose. We weren’t sure whether the latter was intentional “good bad” or simply “bad bad” writing.

Several of us read the book slowly to catch all the references. We wished for a hypertext or heavily annotated version to make sure we got everything.

One person simply stated that this was not a book for him. He had read little pulp, and was not interested in that milieu. He thought the book’s conspiracies and secrets were obvious. He also had issue with the book’s science, including the velocity of sound and how the poison gas works. He would have preferred reading a good biography of any of the writers who appear in the book.

A fan of the Shadow radio show said this book was great stuff. She had not read pulp, but stated that “if this is pulp fiction, I want to read more.” She liked the secret history approach to the story, and she appreciated the discussions among the author characters on the nature of pulp vs. reality. She loved one’s writer’s plea during a near-death experience: “If you get me out of this, I’ll never abuse adverbs again!” She commented that she comes to the Reading Group primarily to discover fun new writers like Malmont.

Overall, we liked The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. This book’s charms are so unique that it’s impossible to figure out what Malmont might write next. After the meeting, we had a nice dinner at California Pizza Kitchen.

–A. T. Campbell, III