5 out of 5
Historical pulp fiction normally hits some roadblocks for me. The everyman attributes of a certain type of pulp protagonist – caught up in whatever heightened events that unfurl in the narrative – can feel at odds with the “real” setting that’s employed, creating a difficult suspension of disbelief, and oftentimes the actual history surrounding things is a lot more interesting to the writer than it seems like it would be to their character, and especially more than it is to me, the reader. So sometimes you can luck out and get a literary version of an Indiana Jones adventure, but there’s also the possibility that you’ll be reading a distracted travelogue with an underwhelming sense of stakes.
In an early book from Robert B. Parker, we kick things off with a killer opening paragraph – John Stodder, needing to bluff his way into a post-WW II Hungary, realizes that the passport he’d been using as an assumed fake is actually stolen, and belongs to a murdered man – and things just continue to escalate from there, taking the momentum of the train on which its opening scenes take place and translating that to the cat-and-mouse and twists and turns that proceed thereafter.
Stodder is somehow mistaken for the man on his passport, Marcel Blaye, by Blaye’s secretary, Maria, and within paragraphs – all contextually believably told to us by Parker – the two are held hostage by some Russian agents, then jumping off the train and sneaking through borders then escaping from German agents… John had his reasons for being on that train, and at a loss for what’s now going on, he lays those reasons clear to Maria, which is an excellent bit of characterization that endears him to us as readers: John’s got that everyman quality combined with some war-borne survival skills, but he’s also a logical sort, knowing he’s in over his head and wanting to get free of that as soon as possible. Maria’s also an innocent in this, but is she? We can’t know, and John thinks through that too; she doesn’t get to become just an easy love interest or femme fatale.
The two discuss Knowns and Unknowns while they can, but the plot keeps boiling: they’re in the middle of a hunt for some precious info sought after by all these parties, and the book dives in to pulp tropes in the most interesting of fashions, drip feeding us the background on everything at a perfect pace, and letting loose with some really fun twists along the way – details that seem like throwaways that actually come back in full force. And as to the historical setting, because Parker lived some of this – as, according to the back of book blurb, a wartime journalist, ducking borders without a passport – the scenery setting and political dressing on display don’t feel indulgent, but more properly incidental to the story, experienced as they would be by Stodder.
Many years back, when I was just getting in to pulp, I started sort of at the more hard-edged end of the spectrum. A lot of the modern writers I dug would namecheck Parker, and so I ended up picking up one of his Spenser books, and felt like it was lightweight compared to what I was reading, crossing the author’s name of my list. Thankfully, Hard Case Crime – republishing Passport to Peril, decades after the fact – has given me the opportunity to reevaluate that shallow judgement; I’ve branched out gar beyond “hard-edged” pulp at this point and can thus appreciate tales that are geared more toward adventure, and totally fall for a writer that, even at this early stage in his revered career, was clearly already a master at tone, characterization, plotting, and pacing.