Age of Aces Books, an independent imprint dedicated to reprinting and sharing their enthusiasm for the aviation stories that once had a number of pulp titles dedicated to them. On my final spin through the dealer's room before leaving the show, I had a grand total of $8 left in my wallet, and, passing the Age of Aces table, I saw a book marked "$8 - His tail-gunner is a GORILLA!"
Needless to say, I gave them my $8. I'm a sucker for anything involving gorillas in fiction; I still cry every time King Kong falls from the Empire State Building, I've got something almost resembling an encyclopedic knowledge of guys who made whole careers out of playing gorillas in TV and movies...I like apes. I like apes a lot.
One thing I'm not real familiar with, though, is aviation fiction, so I didn't really know what to expect going into this book, or how close or far it hewed from what was considered "standard" for the genre.
To summarize, Brian "Coffin" Kirk (so nicknamed for his deadpan demeanor) is a two-fisted American pilot who, after years of training, is ready to settle an old score: 20 years ago, as the Great War drew to a close, he witnessed his zookeeper father's assassination at the hands of "the Circle of Death," a criminal organization and spy ring. Young Coffin barely escaped with his own skin, being saved only by the intervention of a mother gorilla. Escaping with her baby, young Coffin made his way back to America and began to plan revenge.
Twenty years later, Kirk is flying into Germany to take the fight back to the Circle - and his old ape friend is with him. Tank, as he's named the gorilla, has grown into a hulking brute, and been trained by Kirk to act as mechanic and tail-gunner for his plane. Kirk's also had much of Tank's fur removed by electrolysis, and the skin underneath tattooed to look Caucasian. With a loose-fitting coverall and some sneakers, Tank resembles a particularly ugly human, and Kirk uses ventriloquism when Tank needs to "speak" to someone else.
It's crazy, but that's part of the fun.
Kirk's vendetta against the Circle of Death takes him from the heart of Germany to island hopping around the South Pacific, as the Circle of Death allies itself with the Axis Powers. As Kirk strikes again and again, we see him up against ruthless spies, poison gas, angry natives and more spraying lead then you can shake a 30-caliber machine gun at!
The Adventures of Coffin Kirk is a novel in six parts; it was written as six separate short stories, published in the pages of Flying Aces Magazine between October 1937 and June 1941, but they fit so tightly together that they read seamlessly as a single novel. I was actually a bit surprised when I saw the dates, because reading the last two stories I would have expected them to have been written after, and in response to, the attack on Pearl Harbor, due to the way the focus shifts from the Circle of Death to the Imperial Japanese as the primary antagonists. Maybe Whitehouse was just particularly far-sighted, and recognized that war in the Pacific was a likely occurrence.
The stories are fast-paced and immensely enjoyable; despite his grim expression, Kirk is a fairly lighthearted character, quick with a wry joke or comment aside to Tank. Dialogue is kept very sharp and snappy throughout, with dialect being used with visible care in delineating Americans, Brits, Germans and the Japanese in conversation.
Tank himself steals the show on every page, especially when his animal instincts are riled up; in more than one of these stories, he picks up one enemy combatant and starts swinging him around like a club to take out his compatriots. He tears planes apart with his bare hands, knocks doors off their hinges, and kills at least one Nazi spy with a single punch to the face.
It's also worth noting the vividness with which Whitehouse wrote dogfight scenes; a former pilot and tail-gunner himself, he drew heavily on his own experiences, and it shows. His aerial battles are every bit as carefully choreographed (albeit in the written word) as an evening with Cirque du Soleil, and even I, who was completely lost with a lot of the airplane jargon, felt my pulse picking up as planes dipped and sailed around each other in a diesel-fueled dance of death.
Though originally a Pulpfest exclusive, for this interested the book can be bought here.