bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Monday, June 13, 2011

King--of the Khyber Rifles (Pulp at the Chicago Library)

Hey, Gang! Sorry we’ve been off the intertubes here for a while, but damn it’s hard getting the time machine fine tuned. (And that Bell kid is always writing, lord only knows what else –Mac) Regardless, B. C. just finished ignoring reality via a beat up, old copy of KING--OF THE KHYBER RIFLES by Talbot Mundy. So, take it away, BC!

First off, if you don’t know who Talbot Mundy is, let me tell you what I know: He wrote a lot of stories for the pulp ADVENTURE MAGAZINE, and evidently the African natives in the villages he frequented knew enough to keep their women away from him. That’s about all I know about Mundy—which is why I read the book. But of course you can read more Adventure Magazine here.

Warning for the politically correct: Mundy, like most Brits at the time, loved his empire every bit as much as Kipling. So there’s a lot of “Queen and country” devotions, and a lot of blanket statements about both Indian and British Culture. The good news is he loves India, and he spends some time telling you so.  The bad news is, history kills ideologies faster than bombs, thus giving us wonderful ironies like:

   …for the Khyber Pass is as much British as the air is an eagle’s or Korea Japanese, or Panama United States American…

And these little gems litter the book (or for some of us, make it all that more delightful).

So It’s 1916, World War I. Our hero is Athelstan King who smokes the blackest cheroots available, and carries a medical book around under his arm even though he’s not a doctor. King seems to be modeled on T. E. Lawrence of Arabia which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like King—of the Khyber rifles. So yeah, he’s pretty much “King of India.”

Our hero is sent on a secret mission to rendezvous with the mysterious Yasmini, who leads a bad of cutthroat thieves and killers in “the hills” of the Himalaya just beyond the Khyber Pass. The thieves of “the hills” have been working both sides of the British/German fence, and Yasmini has specifically requested a conference with Athelstan King by name. If King can convince her to side with the British, the Khyber Pass would be impenetrable.

From the beginning it’s obvious there are those who don’t want him to get there. Aware that he’s being both followed and sent in wrong directions, King’s plans are again waylaid when Yasmini doesn’t show up to meet him, but rather sends one of her aids with a bracelet. If King wears the bracelet, he’ll be given a free pass from every tribe in the dessert. Maybe. Even then for one to get past “the hills” sentries they must prove they’ve killed an Englishman.

After outwitting a few scalawags and killers on the train, King journeys through the dessert to the Khyber Pass. His brother, already stationed there, helps him apply an ingenious dye to his body that won’t wear off, and it’s just damn lucky for him his Indian dialects are perfect.

There are a lot of spoilers here that actually caught me by surprise (which doesn’t always happen reading books published almost a hundred years ago), but let’s just say this tale has a secret city, two ancient lovers in a tomb—one of them a Roman soldier that looks just like King—and when someone else tries to use his brother’s head to gain entrance to the ultimate hideout… Well, then things get real interesting.

While a bit long-winded in places, the prose is near poetic. Mundy knows how to sling a phrase. This is truly a romantic adventure from the age of empire that still works. And, yes, there’s one more big surprise at the end.

And that’s all I know about Talbot Mundy.


No comments:

Post a Comment