He was the one man working alone against the crooks and the corrupt politicians, so he must become a figure of sinister import to all … a strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedom … some nubilous (sic) creature of the night that lurked in the shadows. In the shadows above his head there came a slithering, flapping sort of sound. As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge shadow upon the cabin wall. “That’s it!” exclaimed Clade aloud. “I’ll call myself ‘The Bat.’”
That passage is from the novelette “The Bat Strikes!” from the Nov. 1934 issue of POPULAR DETECTIVE magazine. The author was given as C.K.M. Scanlon, but there was no C.K.M. Scanlon. The use of pseudonyms and house names was common in the pulps, but this one had a more-interesting-than-usual origin: The magazine’s married editor-in-chief Leo Margulies was carrying on an affair with an editor named Cylvia Kleiman — C.K.M. Scanlon really meant Cylvia Kleiman Margulies scandal.
Pulp historian Will Murray, the editor of THE BAT STRIKES AGAIN AND AGAIN! thinks that the writer behind The Bat stories was Johnston McCulley, the ex-newspaperman who created Zorro in 1919. In this collection’s final story, “Code of the Bat,” one of the villains is called “Geranium George” because he operates a florist shop, just as Dion O’Banion, a Chicago mobster in the 1920s had. That’s the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines detail an ex-newspaperman would come up with.
This volume collects for the first time all four published adventures of The Bat, one of the trickier crimefighters of his era. Actually crusading private detective Dawson Clade, the character’s origin story is the first in the book.
In order to get Clade off their trail, some big-time crooks in an unidentified city commit a murder and frame him for the crime. The detective will go to the electric chair unless Gov. Bannister signs a pardon. This honest politician believes in Clade’s innocence and begins to sign his name to the pardon when he is murdered. His right-hand man, millionaire Martin Fenbeck, sneaks off with the paper, forges the governor’s signature, rushes to the prison and uses it stop the execution. Fenbeck and the warden agree to allow Clade to fake his death in the chair so he can disguise himself and track down the villains on his own. After the fake execution, Clade slips off into the mountains to pull himself together, and The Bat is born as seen above.
If anyone ever asks you what pulp fiction was really like, show him/her the plot summary in that last paragraph.
The first story also introduces another continuing character, police Detective Sgt. Jim Burdoon. He is semi-comic relief in his continuing failed attempts to learn The Bat’s real identity. The stories all follow a similar pattern: a crime is established; The Bat phones Burdoon; they squabble, then The Bat tells the cop where to go and what to do when he gets there in order to arrest the malefactors; The Bat’s plan works; the day is saved.
The second tale is “Bite of the Bat” from the December issue, and it deals with a corrupt construction company that blows up new bridges so it can get contracts from the new and dishonest governor to rebuild them. “Shadow of the Bat” came next, and in it, the new governor is exposed.
All three of these novelettes tie together, although each can be read as a separate yarn. To me, they read as if Thrilling Publications, owner of POPULAR DETECTIVE, intended to link them with a few words of connecting continuity and put them out in book form as a novel. I suspect Thrilling also hoped that the character would click with readers, resulting in a long series or even a new title.
Didn’t happen. One more story came out in the Feb. 1935 issue. A fifth was promised, but never saw print. Which is not to say that the tales aren’t fun — they are. The writing seems a little hasty at times, as if “Scanlon” intended to go back later and fill in some details for book publication.
Is there any proof that The Bat had anything but a coincidental link to Batman? Go back and read that quote again. It’s now well-known that Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger were pulp addicts. There was a gap of five years between The Bat’s short career and the debut of Batman, but everything a creative person reads gets tipped into the subconscious and you never know how it will later re-emerge.
Batman buffs ought to enjoy THE BAT STRIKES AGAIN AND AGAIN! Crime and hero pulp fans will, too. It’s a must-read for McCulley aficionados. If you don’t fit into any of those categories, maybe it’s time to re-read PORTRAIT OF A LADY. —Doug Bentin
OTHER BOOKGASM REVIEWS OF THIS AUTHOR:
• THE MARK OF ZORRO by Johnston McCulley