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Retirement. Publishers, thank you for the many years of reading pleasure you gave me, but all good things must come to an end. Due to failing eyesight I am forced to retire. I can no longer review your books, and any that you send will be donated to the local library, unread. Do not send any more. I can only read for a couple hours every day, and this does not allow me to finish a book in reasonable time. I will be devoting time to my own books from now on, and reading on a personal level. Books that interest me. I prefer paperbacks and hardbacks, not eBooks. My eyesight has been failing the last few years, and I cannot handle hundreds of review books any more. My books are still available for review. Anyone interested in reviewing any of them, they are found in the Link to Tom’s Books On Amazon. Contact me for pdf copies at

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Steve Payne Interview Part One

I’ve known Steve Payne for a couple decades now. Steve contacted us when we started publishing Classic Pulp Fiction Stories, and said he wanted to write pulp fiction. I don’t remember if I suggested Secret Agent X, or if Steve suggested the character, but in the May 1996 issue of CPFS we began the six-part serial of The Freezing Fiends, the first Secret Agent X novel since March 1939. Steve wasn’t finished; he had become a fan of pulp author G.T. Fleming Roberts, and made the Secret Agent X character his own. In the February 1997 issue of Double Danger Tales, Steve’s second novel, Master of Madness appeared in a three-part serial. The third novel, Halo of Horror was published as a three-part serial beginning with the October 1998 issue of DDT. With the end of the FADING SHADOWS genre magazines, Steve took a break from writing to concentrate more on his profession, but has been working on numerous plots for the character. Meanwhile, “Master of Madness” and “Halo of Horror” were both reprinted by Matt Moring of Altus Press, and 14 years after “Halo of Horror”, Altus Press is releasing Steve’s fourth Secret Agent X tale. “The Resurrection Ring” is a titanic novel of 170,000 words, the longest Secret Agent X novel ever written. I thought it was about time we introduce this amazing writer to everyone.

Tom: Steve, how about telling everyone a little about yourself; your background, history, where you’re from, that sort of thing. Although you have been in the pulp community since the mid ‘90s, there may be some out there who do not know you.

Steve:  I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1963.  However, I grew up at opposite ends of the Pelican State, both down in Baton Rouge, and here in Ruston, in the heart of north Louisiana’s Pine Hills.  For college I earned a Bachelor of Arts in British History at Louisiana Tech.  That B.A. in hand, I attended Harvard Divinity School, where I had hoped to earn a Master of Theological Studies in Church History.  Soon after I had completed one year of the program, however, my dad suffered amputation of both legs.  So I elected to stay in Ruston, and work as a substitute teacher.  This period confirmed my love for teaching and inspired my enrollment at Tech.  In short order I had earned a Master of Arts in English, with specialties in 18th Century British Literature and 20th Century American Literature.  

During junior high school (maybe in 1976 or ’77) when I still lived in Baton Rouge, I stumbled upon a paperback reprint of The Creeping Death by the master, Walter Gibson.  Then we moved back to Ruston, where I acquired The Romanoff Jewels, another classic novel of The Shadow.  Not many months afterward, I encountered The Avenger (still love Justice, Inc. and The Blood Ring!), in addition to the fabled Man of Bronze, Doc Savage.  (The Magic Island/Ost was the first of Doc’s novels I read, if I recall correctly.)  Later, still, thanks to Will Murray and you, I grabbed some of the other hero magazines:  Operator #5, The Black Bat (Black Book Detective), a little of the Phantom Detective, and Secret Agent X.

Tom: I believe you teach English Literature in college. Who are your influences in writing, besides G.T. Fleming-Roberts? I think you’ve mentioned A. Conan Doyle before. Anyone else?

Steve:  When I was still teaching full-time, my students often expressed surprise at my love for popular fiction.  Sadly, we (some members of the Academy and many snobbish types) have sold them a “bill of goods” that one can’t be learned and enjoy popular literature.  That’s simply untrue!  To your question:  In class I went out of my way to express appreciation for popular writers like A. Conan Doyle, Fleming-Roberts, and Walter Gibson as inspirations for writing effective, “tricky,” mysteries.  In the same vein I would mention Lester Dent as an electrifying tale-spinner.  Or I would allude to Paul Ernst as another entertaining pulpster, one noteworthy for developing the believable pulp superhero, G.T.F.R’s take on Agent X notwithstanding, of course!

In terms of so-called “literary fiction,” I have developed many favorites:  Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky, the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, satirist Jonathan Swift, and, for me, a recent discovery Caroline Dormon.  The mother of the Louisiana environmental movement, she was an excellent writer and a tireless crusader.  She was also the nation’s first woman to work in an official capacity with the US Forestry Service.  These notables don’t begin to count the thinkers from my divinity days:  Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and anti-Nazi martyr; Will D. Campbell, a radical Baptist preacher and crusader from the Civil Rights era and beyond; Dorothy Day, a Catholic crusader for social justice; and Dr. Cornel West, one of America’s most insightful and challenging contemporary theologians, particularly on issues of racism and classism which still bedevil this country.

Tom: Secret Agent X has always been a secondary pulp hero, vastly overshadowed by Doc Savage and The Shadow. Why don’t you give the reader some information about the character?

Steve:  Published by Periodical (Ace) Publications, the Agent starred in a series of 41 recorded novels, from February 1934 to March 1939.  He himself is a mysterious, nameless crime-fighter, dubbed the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” likely in imitation of the legendary silent film actor Lon Chaney.  The original writer Paul Chadwick (and possibly an editor like Rose Wyn) had stitched the Agent together, so we’re told, from scraps of Doc Savage, The Shadow, and perhaps The Phantom Detective.  Thus in combating crime, the man of mystery displayed much of Doc’s physical prowess (mastery of jiu-jitsu and boxing, with other unarmed combat techniques also part of his amazing repertoire) and brilliant mental faculties (expertise in a wide range of codes and ciphers, languages, and modern sciences).  In addition the Agent owned The Shadow’s and The Phantom’s deductive abilities, besides those last two characters’ mastery of disguise.  On the surface he might sound highly derivative.  But as I’ve discovered over the past year or so, Agent X’s story, his literary development, is much more complicated than was formerly believed. 

Some of his inspirations are the original tricksters of Western narrative, Odysseus (of Odyssey fame) and Jacob (from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), not to mention Joshua and Caleb, the legendary Israelite spies from the Hebrew Bible.  If readers flash forward to the dawn of the 19th century, they will see an even more profound influence on the Secret Agent, the real-life François Vidocq, a French citizen and sometime criminal.  Later Vidocq would metamorphose into a secret agent and the world’s first modern detective. Mentioned by name in X’s own stories, Vidocq was also a master of disguise and deception who established the first modern police force and the science of criminology.

But one American literary character indirectly shaped the Agent’s development, and that of all American espionage creations to come.  This antecedent to X is James Fenimore Cooper’s creation Harvey Birch, from the novel The Spy (1821).  A tale of the Revolution, Birch, one of Washington’s spies, uses disguise, maintains a “secret sanctum” of sorts, and performs various kinds of derring-do.  And he performs his deeds while considered a traitor to the Continental cause.  The parallels to Agent X are quite striking when we consider the way that both the law and the criminals regarded X as their mortal enemy.  And the likenesses do not end there, when we take account of the sacrificial natures of both men, in the midst of great loneliness and overwhelming odds.

In his own career X combined the traits of a Federal operative and a lone wolf vigilante, just as you and Will Murray have shown.  That is, the Secret Agent carried an extraordinary commission from Washington, answering to a superior, or “control,” named K9.  That man in turn might have gotten authority from the President himself.  In contrast to the usual G-men, the Secret Agent could behave more or less as he saw fit in battling the criminal element.   Someone had to pay for all of his crime-fighting, of course.  So “ten wealthy, public-spirited men,” the legend relates, had subscribed to a fund in the name of Elisha Pond.  With that money X equipped a sanctum, the Montgomery Mansion; and he built an arsenal of armored cars and other gadgets.  He developed explosive and flash grenades, flares, and a series of bulletproof vests.  Then he fashioned that legendary anesthetizing gas gun, his chief weapon to overcome his opponents.

X faced some nasty criminal types, most of them seeming escapees from the “weird menace” pulps.  They included Doctor Marko, the Skull, Thoth, the Fury, the Brain, Shaitan, and Madam Death.  I might count the “Leopard Lady,” Felice Vincart, among this number.  But she wasn’t the main villain in either of her appearances.  Since the original novels, some other writers have added to the Agent’s Rogues’ Gallery, as I myself have done with Proteus, the Fool, the Ghost, and now, the Resurrectionist.

Tom: With The Resurrection Ring now in print, why don’t you tell readers a little about the plot, how it came about, and why, without revealing any crucial secrets to the story. But, of course, with enough tease to the plot to make them want to read it.

Steve:  Here’s the blurb Matt Moring requested for Pulpfest: 

Arsonists in silver-white garments, animate snowmen, reduce innocent victims and private property alike to blackened husks. Then armed with strange pistols, the killers murder a number of crooked industrialists and dope lords. Only then can the arsonists' chief, the fiendish Resurrectionist, raise the gunshot victims from the grave! But new life isn't so great, since all of the formerly deceased are now wild-eyed, twitching addicts, slaves to a mysterious “sugar”!

Can the Resurrectionist really build his criminal cult by raising the dead and summoning the Wrath of God on his enemies? Or is his actual goal something more personal: the real identity of the Man of a Thousand Faces?

To answer these questions, the brilliant detective and his courageous assistants, a known criminal among them, must confront an old enemy. He will force the Secret Agent to face his own shadowy past and to admit that even he might finally have run out of disguises–and surprises….

So in a nutshell, that’s the plot of TRR.  For years I had toyed with an origin for the Man of a Thousand Faces.  That is, under what circumstances, exactly, had the Department of Justice declared him dead?  Who had helped him execute his daring plan?  And what was its outcome, both for the detective and for those whom he loved?  My novel aimed to answer those very questions.  How simple this sounds!

But telling this narrative challenged me profoundly, as I reveal in the Afterword.  The tale required a compelling villain, for instance. Surprisingly enough this problem finally solved itself.  In addition, TRR must show the passage of time, or a date sometime after the final story Yoke of the Crimson Coterie.  Only a timeframe from mid-1939 or thereabouts would enable me to reveal certain new facts about the Agent.  After all, such information had heretofore been secret—and understandably so.  Ring would show how his long-ago decisions, however well-meaning, had created unintended consequences for the master detective.  And my tale needed to do one thing more.  It must preserve the aura of mystery surrounding the master man-hunter.

Tom: Secret Agent X had numerous helpers that appeared throughout the series, and you bring most them into this latest adventure. Do you have a favorite among his aides, or police officials?

Steve:  Betty Dale is my favorite because of her intelligence and her utter devotion to him and his cause.  I will confess, however, that I would have much preferred a more “Pat Savagesque” portrayal of Betty.  In my view the editors should have made her a more modern woman and a bit less the “weak” or helpless female (although I concede that her portrayal reflected some of the dated social norms of the day).  So I’ve tried to render her in a slightly less sexist light, while keeping her true to the spirit of the character, if not the literal vision of Chadwick and the others.

I have soft spots for some of his other aides, brave Jim Hobart and loyal and intelligent Harvey Bates being two.  It’s a shame that G.T.F.R. removed Jim from the series after 1937 and Bates after The Corpse That Murdered, most likely by editorial fiat.  So I’ve tried to rectify that situation in my own contributions.  By the way, readers can look for some serious danger to befall Bates, Hobart, Betty Dale or all of them in the future.  Inspector Burks interests me, too, though not strictly for comic relief purposes.  I will admit that I enjoyed giving him his “comeuppance” at the Agent’s hand!  In a future story I would like to use Burks in a much more serious role, so that we see why the NYPD so deeply respects him—and why the Agent himself admires this dogged lawman.

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