As I’ve been reading through the titles of the Hard Case Crime series of paperbacks, I’ve found most of them entertaining at minimum, and frequently highly satisfactory. Last October, I was convinced I came across a true classic in Charles Williams’ A Touch of Death; not only for its compelling characters, but also the spot-on pacing and setting details.
Plunder of the Sun, a 1949 David Dodge story about the race to dig up a long-lost trove of Incan treasures in Peru, inspires similar praise. The “exotic treasure hunt” sub-genre is not something I’ve dipped into with any regularity, but PotS shows the appeal of these kinds of adventures. The Robert McGinnis cover features an egg-shaped menhir and two men of very similar appearance: the main character Al Colby and the man who proves to be his darker half, “Jeff” Jefferson.
Well, any book that features a menhir is going to get my attention, but Dodge has used a whole host of details in dialogue, setting and character that elevate PotS well beyond its seemingly standard plot of clues and double-crosses. I’ll cover the two major themes that caught my attention while (and moreover, after) reading this interesting story.
Laws and Their Meaning
Al Colby’s occupation as a private eye makes him available for odd jobs and provides him with more than a tourist’s knowledge of the laws in Chile, where the story begins. He is on a park bench in Santiago, where a very frail art collector named Berrien is offering him work. For a thousand dollars, he is to accompany Berrien and his reticent nurse Ana Luz (that’s her on the McGinnis cover) on a boat from Valparaiso into Peru, while carrying a prized antique. The antique was smuggled out of Peru, and Berrien, too weak to travel by plane, needs it smuggled back in. Colby is an American, and as such has the advantage of not typically being searched at border crossings.
Colby does not know what the package will be at this point, and we see how his morality is unencumbered by knowledge:
A thousand dollars is a thousand dollars. I could use it, although I didn’t need it so bad that I had to grab it without thinking. And Berrien’s deal gave me the nudge I needed to leave Santiago. Once I had thought I would stay in Chile forever, but forever turned out to be about a year. It as time to move along. I knew that I could probably get his package through without trouble. Breaking the law didn’t bother me. If his story was halfway on the level — and I believed part of it — the kind of law I was breaking didn’t matter much.
Colby could use the money, but Berrien appears reluctant to discuss any risks in operation beyond the luggage check at the port. He remains wary but the prospect of traveling with the mostly wordless Ana Luz intrigues him enough to agree to the plan. From the start, he is interested enough in her to note her subordinate relationship to Berrien:
I stood up. He said in Spanish, “This is my nurse, Ana Luz.”
I said it enchanted me to make her acquaintance, wondering whether her name was Señorita Luz or whether he had introduced her by her first name to show that she was only a servant, the way you would say, “This is Mary Jane, the scullery maid.” Nothing in her manner gave me a hint, either way.
Colby easily smuggles the package onto the ship, which crosses into Peru waters. On board, Colby encounters a pair of other Americans. A large character named Jefferson — “Jeff” for short –introduces himself as a traveling salesman, but Barrien recognizes him and it’s obvious to Colby that he isn’t sailing to Peru to hock pressure cookers. Barrien tells him that Jeff is the primary danger to their mission, a thief who “would steal anything that could be sold.” There is also Julie, a “dizzy” young blonde who constantly pursues, and gets, the attentions of the variety of men around her. She does not make much of an impact until they reach land.
Set up by the initial warning about Jeff, the boat trip itself features plenty of intrigue. During the first night, Colby notices that someone on the ship has directed one of the crew to send a dot-dash message including C-O-L-B-Y. He cannot get make out anything else from the signal, so he tries to obtain information from one of the crew:
I said, “What I really want is to know what was in the message you just sent.”
He filled two shot-glasses with whiskey, held them at eye-level to see that they were equal, and handed me one.
“None of your business, salud.”
“Salud. If it wasn’t my business, I wouldn’t be asking.”
“Then the rule book says I can’t tell you. Have another?”
“One is enough for me. How much would it cost to have you forget the rule book for a couple of minutes?”
He smiled at me — with his mouth, not his eyes.
“You don’t try to bribe a man when you’re drinking his whiskey, laddie. Go back to bed.”
“Tell me who sent the message, then.”
“The rule book says no.”
“Was it ship’s business or a private message?”
“The rule book covers that, too.”
This is the first encounter between Colby and the system of values held by another person. In this case, the crewman Sparks is willing to share his whiskey but not violate the letter of his rulebook. Colby has military experience in the Signal Corps (which is how he recognized his name being transmitted), and this familiarity with Sparks’ rules makes him to back off the conversation.
Ana Luz is mostly contained to either her cabin or Berrien’s, but during the second night Colby finds her on deck with another South American, a young man who knows her. The man, Raul, is interrogating her and slapping her across the face until Colby rushes in to put an end to it. This is the scene portrayed on the cover of the Dell edition, which also features a map of the various points on Colby’s journey. There’s a struggle between Colby and Raul, but it’s comprised of Colby slapping Raul around and then pinning his arm to his side — Raul has a gun in his coat — but not disarming him. Ana Luz manages to deescalate the situation, disclosing that she and Raul know each other. The episode is eventually played off as a misunderstanding, and Colby and Raul are playing poker with the other passengers the next day.
The slapping episode was fodder for the Dell cover, but also set up another situation where Colby has to interpret the laws of another culture. He knows enough not to slug Raul unconscious in front of Ana Luz, something Spillane’s Mike Hammer might do without a second thought. Dodge communicates how poorly such comic-book antics would play on a boat to Peru:
I didn’t know what to do. As long as it was just a little friendly face-slapping, I could be another crazy gringo who objected to seeing ladies pushed around, and no hard feelings. But if I took his gun away from him, I made a personal feud out of it. And if I didn’t take his gun away from him, he was going to get at it sooner or later and let me have the business. He squirmed like an eel, trying to get out from under my hand.
This wrestling match is followed by more confrontations: Colby suspects Ana Luz of searching his cabin, Ana Luz tries to scratch out his eyes, they then discover that Berrien has died, and somebody runs out of Berrien’s cabin, knocking Colby out cold in the hallway. Once the boat reaches Peru and the police investigation of Berrien’s death resolved, the three-way contest for the package gets underway, between Colby, Jeff and Raul. This action carries the novel effectively, and sets up a sequence of double-crosses and chase scenes that we might expect of an exotic treasure hunt.
Shame and Knowledge
The treasure in question is not the Berrien’s package, but the message contained within it: once on shore, Colby finds an opportunity to unwrap the parcel, finding a few pages of an ancient manuscript wrapped around a quipu (an Inca message-cord).
Colby takes the quipu to a local museum for appraisal. The museum director reluctantly directs Colby to another collector located in Lima, who has a worse reputation than Berrien. He also recommends a book, William Prescott’s The Conquest of Peru, which Colby acquires and reads.
While he absorbs some of the history of Pizarro and the destruction of the Inca civilization, Colby obtains a sense of the value of his ancient artifacts, beyond plunder for a quick payout. There are laws embedded in these objects, perhaps as in the Tree of Knowledge of the Garden of Eden, that Colby gradually learns as he reads Prescott. One of those laws, is don’t take the gold out of the country, roughly speaking.
That comparison seems a bit heavy for a story about a treasure hunt, but there are a couple of incidents that could back it up. When Colby boards the boat in Valparaiso, he (as I mentioned before, anticipated by Berrien) he and his luggage are barely searched by the inspectors. Ana Luz is treated much differently:
… Ana Luz’s baggage got the same treatment. The inspectors had more sport with her than with Berrien, because she owned some pretty fancy underwear. They held things up to the light and made a game out of looking for something concealed in the frills. But even with the horseplay, it was easy to see they meant business. When they finished with the bags, they wheeled Berrien off to a side room for the personal treatment. Ana Luz and a matron went into another room.
Ana Luz was the first to come back. She looked so stiff and uncomfortable that I couldn’t help smiling. It was bad luck that she happened to see me then, because she turned a bright, angry pink. I was sorry about the smile. It’s humiliating enough to be stripped to the skin and peered at by strangers without having other strangers laugh at you. It was the second time I had made her blush, without meaning to either time.
The awareness of Ana Luz’s shame primes Colby for an awareness of the laws being violated by predatory artifact collectors. It does not happen immediately, because he needs knowledge of the Inca and more understanding of the characters around him, but Colby at least shows potential in his sensitivity. The acquisition of knowledge and embarrassment are paired in this story, as they have been in other stories.
Humiliation is also a theme in Colby’s slap-fighting with Raul, where the detective’s sensitivity to Raul’s bruised ego arguably saves his life. Once, after he stops him from drawing his calm in front of Ana Luz, and again, when Raul bursts into his cabin after Jeff had Colby tied to his bedposts.
More interesting is another incident later in the book, with a very intoxicated Julie. She has been following Colby and Jeff across Peru, and finds Colby in his room (reading Prescott and dreaming about Atahualpa’s ransom). Continuing to play the ditzy tramp, Julie attempts to engage Colby and get him back to the hotel’s cantina, but he isn’t interested. He watches her cry for a bit and smear her mascara, and then takes her by the arm back to her own room.
Before I could find the light, she put her arm around me. I held her with one arm, afraid that she would fall, and reached for the light switch with the other. When the lights came on, her eyes were closed. Her head hung back on her shoulders, so that I could see where a line of sun-tan makeup ended on her throat. She mumbled something.
“Kiss me, mys’ry man.”
“Open your eyes.”
They opened. I took her by the shoulders and turned her around so that she was facing the mirror of the peinador.
It was a big mirror, nearly full length, and it gave her a good view — smeared lipstick, smeared mascara, cock-eyed hat, loose mouth, glassy eyes, rumpled clothes, everything. She rocked there for seconds, looking stupidly at herself.
“Who wants to kiss that?” I said.
Her eyes changed. She put her hands over her face and turned blindly away. The bed caught her below the knees. She fell forward on it, still with her hands covering her face.
Ana Luz and, to a lesser extent Julie, turn out to be nuanced characters in PotS, making active choices in the story beyond what we see in, say, Peter Rabe’s Stop This Man. Colby cannot trust either of them, given Ana Luz’s secrecy and Julie’s impulsivity, but the true adversary is Jeff.
The Other Half
Introduced to us as a “big, rangy, hard-faced fellow who looked as if he could have played pro football for a living at one time,” Jeff is physically on the larger side of average, probably not unlike Colby himself. Football players in the 1940s were mostly between 190 and 220 lbs., much closer to the average man than they are today.
Jeff is also a cynical opportunist in Colby’s mold. At the first port of call in Peru, Jeff shows Colby his ability to find an antique in the “dump” and buy it for cents on the dollar. In their conversations throughout PotS, Jeff and Colby often appear to be on the same moral wavelength, as foreigners in the position to harvest a bounty that would be exploited by corrupt locals anyway. Jeff encourages Colby to brush aside the history and help him plunder a lost Inca fortune, and Colby admits to being “bitten by the bug” of opportunity. Given their possible physical and probable psychological resemblance, Jeff embodies Colby’s “other half,” or “shadow self,” which the detective must eventually confront if he is to evolve.
Jeff and Colby have several contests of fighting, wrestling, pointing a gun at one another, and so on, proving Colby’s inability to shed this shadow of a person. They eventually team up to go treasure hunting outside of a remote mountain village, chased by the other characters and only slightly ahead of the authorities. They form a competent and determined pair, but they lack even the slightest sense of trust. This leads to the inevitable showdown and long-anticipated violence.
Jeff held out his hand. “Make a deal with me, Colby. Give me half and I’m your man. I can translate the manuscript as well as anybody else, I know the racket inside out, and I can handle plenty of trouble. How about it?”
I looked at his outstretched hand. It had been a fist when it knocked me silly in Berrien’s cabin. And I still remember the hard knots it had tied around my wrists and ankles.
I said, “I’ll think about it — carefully.”
One can read through PotS as a well-written treasure quest, flavored with the details of a author who has traveled the area and met the locals. It would serve as an entertainment of a quality we can expect from Hard Case Crime, with plenty of interesting characters and settings. However, I think there is a compelling story beneath the genre trappings, one of cynicism giving way to moral choice. 8/10.
NOTE: see here for another positive review.