This weekend I read and thoroughly enjoyed a New Pulp novel called Airship Hunters recently published by the fine folks at Meteor House. I really try and make these articles be about classic pulp, but new titles do catch my eye and while I am a fan of co-author Jim Beard’s occult detective, Sgt. Janus, it was actually the airship that caught my attention.
I first read about airships as a kid in several Edgar Rice Burroughs titles. A film dramatizing the Hindenburg disaster and then an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday terrified me when I was just starting grade school. My introduction to the New Pulp world in 2009 came via Airship 27 with their nifty logo on each book. I even put an airship in my second Fu Manchu novel a few years later as a result. Far and away, my crowning achievement with airships was discussing their use in two cult classic films of the early 1970s: Darling Lili and Zeppelin with one of the principals involved in their production. So yes, suffice to say if you tell me Meteor House is publishing an airship title from Jim Beard, you have my attention.
Now in all fairness, it should be noted this new title is a collaborative effort between Jim and his co-author, Duane Spurlock. I know of Duane, but I had not previously read his work. Much like Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain a century earlier with Fantomas, the two men authored alternating chapters while compiling the book. Spurlock hails from Kentucky while Beard is my fellow Ohioan. There is a distinct Midwestern flavor to the adventure which lends an undeniable charm and authenticity to the proceedings.
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Jim Beard made quite a splash in the New Pulp community when he introduced an original occult detective character in Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker in 2012. There has been a rich history of Holmesian occult detectives, but Beard appeared to have been the first to hit upon the brilliant concept of having each short story in the volume narrated by a different client of the detective. It was a simple, but highly effective means of giving eight different perspectives on the character.
Beard also took the unexpected decision to kill off his character at the end of the last story in the collection. Imagine if A Study in Scarlet had concluded with Holmes plunging to his death at the Reichenbach Falls and you have a clear notion of what a bold and unexpected move it was to make for an author who had already managed to raise the bar in a genre that many believed had been exhausted of fresh ideas.
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There is a longstanding tradition of occult detectives. Sheridan Le Fanu is generally considered the originator of the sub-genre with his chronicles of Dr. Martin Hesselius. Together with William Hodgson Hope’s Carnacki, Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, and Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone, Dr. Hesselius’ cases are generally regarded as the finest examples of a continuing occult detective hero in the supernatural realm of mystery fiction.
Willie Meikle, Jim Butcher, and Simon R. Green are among the outstanding contemporary practitioners of the form. Now one may add Jim Beard and his creation of Sgt. Roman Janus to the list of occult detectives whose exploits are worthy of a larger audience. Beard is among the select group whose work is exclusively aimed at the niche market for New Pulp. Sgt. Janus, both as an original creation and as a literary work itself, raises the bar for Beard’s fellow authors to match the same exacting standard achieved here.
Janus, in Roman mythology, is the god of the gateway to the past and the future. So it is with Sgt. Janus, a character who provides the essential link between the astral plane and our own reality. The eight stories in this collection depict the character through the eyes of his clients. The device works brilliantly in giving the reader differing perspectives on the detective and his methods.
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