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Spy Killer (Stories from the Golden Age) - L. Ron Hubbard [Thanks go to Goodreads and Galaxy Press for offering this title as a first-reads giveaway]

I think most people know of L. Ron Hubbard as the Scientology guy and for the sci-fi novels Battlefield Earth and the Mission Earth series. Before all that, though, he apparently was a pretty prolific writer for pulp magazines in the '30s and '40s, writing not only science fiction, but a wide range of adventure fiction.

This review is on the Galaxy Press title Spy Killer which I won as a Goodreads giveaway (my first--yay!  I don't think I have won anything since that raffle in elementary school). I'm going to be clear from the start that there might be some possible spoilers in the review and I'm not going to tag/hide them because I honestly don't think it matters a whole hell of a lot. Just letting you know. If you avoid spoilers at all cost you might want to stop reading now. 

Spy Killer is about this sailor named Kurt Reid who is accused of killing his captain and stealing the ship's loot. So he jumps ship and finds himself in Shanghai as a penniless fugitive. While in Shanghai he meets a beautiful Russian woman named Varinka and an old flame called Ann Carsten and gets himself embroiled in a plot by the nationalist Chinese to kill a colonial Japanese spy. Wow, Kurt Reid is having a bad day. But I couldn't care too much because, you see, Kurt Reid is an idiot.

He is "renown for a temper as hot and swift as a glowing rapier" and is a "bucko" sailor. The little glossary in the back of the book says "bucko" means "a person who is domineering and bullying." In other words, Kurt Reid is an asshole. In fact, that is a better description of him than "bucko." He's just a big, dumb, asshole bully, basically. Funny thing is Kurt Reid is supposed to be a big hero in the tradition of manly men among men. However, astute readers can pick up on Kurt Reid's inner lout in such passages as:
Funny girl, that Russian. She had kept him from questioning her by the sheer force of her personality. She seemed to have some numbing power over him which fell as tangible as a cloak.

He felt angry at that. It didn't make him feel strong or masculine.

And Kurt Reid needs to feel strong and masculine, people. 

Oh, yeah, but I said that he was an idiot, right? Right. He is. He's always like three steps behind whenever some kind of revealing moment occurs. Like:
There is Takeki [the spy he was supposed to kill], foreigner," said the officer again.
Kurt swallowed hard.
He was staring at Varinka Savischna
[The Russian lady].

Four pages later, after some food and conversation:
The food gagged him suddenly. He realized then that this Takeki and Varinka were one and the same person.

Wow, it took him that long? I had to reread those pages because I thought I had missed something, but no. Kurt Reid really is that dumb. There is no doubt about this by the time you get to the end of the story because, get this, Varinka and Kurt's old flame Anne Carsten are the same woman. Yeah!  She was in disguise as the Russian woman! That's why Kurt never recognized his old girlfriend! Makes sense! No, it doesn't! Yes, it does, because KURT REID IS AN IDIOT.

But okay, so what? So the guy is a few bricks shy of a load. So he's dumber than a bag of dirt. So what if the plot is no more intelligent. This is pulp fiction after all, written for light entertainment. It's the equivalent of watching WWE. There's no harm in that. I was thinking this might turn out to be a two star book because of this, but as I read more serious issues nagged at me until they basically hit me in the face with a hammer and I stared at the book in disbelief for a moment. I will describe this event.

In a bit.

But first I have to say that I understand that this story was written in the 1930s and some amount of racism is to be expected. I'm sure in those times you were weird if you weren't a little racist. I like to think that modern readers are much more enlightened and understanding about different people and cultures and that we can recognize when we are reading something inappropriate. But the thing is the really great pulp writers went beyond this. H.P. Lovecraft, as I understand, was pretty racist, even for that period in time, but it wasn't obvious in his fiction. Robert E. Howard's stories featured people from a diverse range of cultures and while many of his stories would be considered racist by today's standards, his themes often transcended racial stereotypes. Spy Killer, though, does not.

Ah, the "Golden Age," when men were men, women were sultry and Asians were yellow and slit-eyed.

Like I say, I sort of expect that in a story from this time, but it doesn't help to make it any more relevant for modern readers. Still, I was willing to accept that this story was a product of its age until the big moment when I got hit in the face with the stupid hammer. Kurt Reid is provided with a spy's disguise kit:
He stopped and she showed him that he had phials of dye secreted in the belt--part of a spy's equipment. She made him rub it on his face and hands. She fixed a small band behind his ears which pulled his eyes up at the corners, giving them a slant.

Voila, instant Asian. Easier than ramen noodles. Yeah, it was pretty offensive. I can't really imagine why any publisher would think that it would be a good idea to reprint this book.

Oh, wait-- maybe it's because of the little biography of L. Ron Hubbard that reads like a Kim Jong-Il propaganda piece. Imagine if James Bond, Indiana Jones and Ernest Hemingway somehow merged their DNAs into a lovechild and this lovechild became a rockstar brain surgeon that solved world hunger. That's basically how awesome they portray L. Ron Hubbard to have been. I'll be honest, I don't buy it. (Strangely enough, there is no mention of Dianetics or Scientology. Seems like these are significant things, but it only refers to his "serious research.")

Even if he was that awesome, why would such an awesome dude write something as sucky as Spy Killer?