Part of me really loves nature and solitude. But then part of me wants a frappuccino and a cheese danish.
Frisco Dougherty is back, and as impressed with himself as ever, if we judge by how many times he refers to himself in the third person. Last seen in 1951's Jewel of the Java Sea, he's still knocking around Indonesia in 1960's The Half-Caste, eternally seeking the big score that will earn him enough money to escape the tropics for San Francisco. His newest chance comes in the form of a trio of Americans who have arrived in Java to repatriate the bones of an anthropologist who died in the jungle. Dougherty suspects the coffin they plan to recover contains not a body, but a treasure, and formulates a complicated plan to steal whatever is inside. He follows the group into deepest Borneo, funded by the Wuch'ang crime cartel, who he also plans to betray.
There are two main positives to The Half-Caste. First, the exotic setting mixed with deep background concerning the Dutch East Indies evolving into an indepedent Indonesia influenced by a rising China is interesting; and second, the contents of the coffin are a clever surprise. Overall, though, we considered the book an unworthy sequel to Jewel of the Java Sea. Dougherty always verged on caricature, but now he's fully up that river. While still calculating, bigoted, chauvinistic, and pervy, he's bereft of charm, which used to be his saving grace. We suspect Cushman wanted to show how the tropics had decayed Dougherty's psyche since the first book, but he comes across too unsympathetic. It feels as if Cushman returned to the character unwillingly.
As for the half-caste of the title—Annalee, aka Sangra Brueger—she's one of the trio of coffin seekers, but because Dougherty spends nearly the entire book tracking the group from afar, she's barely in the narrative physically until the last forty pages. Dell Publications used Annalee's meager presence, with an assist from Robert McGinnis cover art, to lure readers, but it's a slight misrepresentation. The book is basically all Dougherty, along with his two male partners. During the era of good girl art there were nearly always women on paperback covers, no matter how flimsy the rationale, so you have to expect this sort of thing. We can't really complain, because certainly, the art is brilliant. We're happy to have it.
Zumba, huh? Never heard of it. But anything that involves dancing around in this heat I'll take a pass on.
A glance at this Barye Phillips cover for Dan Cushman's 1951 novel Jewel of the Java Sea and you immediately expect it to be filled with lyrical old place names, with their romantic connotations for Westerners of a certain age—Siam, Burma, Celebes, Dutch East Indies, and broadly “the Orient,” names that have dissipated into history, though colonial memory continues to associate them with riches, adventure, and freedom. The name Java is still in use, and that's where Frisco Dougherty, a musician by training, but a fortune hunter and brawler in practice, has been knocking around for fifteen years attempting to make his fortune.
Dougherty has had little luck at this, which is why when he comes into possession of a yellow diamond said to be part of a priceless larger set, he goes into treasure hunter mode with sharp tongue, clenched fists, and hot lead. This jewel he's stumbled upon is supposedly one of five known collectively as the Taj Nipa, with those in turn married to a larger diamond called the Taj-i-nur. The whole kit and caboodle is presumed to reside in the vault of the Maharajah Sir Jagadipendra Bahadur, G.S., C.I., C.C.E.I., LMNOP. But that presumption could be wrong. Maybe the stones were liberated from their vault, though nobody has reported a theft.
Such capers are the core of these types of books, but there are also women. Anna, a Dutchwoman cast adrift in the islands, tells Dougherty she's searching for her missing father, an army major. She's important, but Dougherty is particularly intrigued by Locheng, an exotic dancer in the town of Pontianak, Borneo, and to his eye, a mix of all things good about Asia. He tells the reader she's, “Indo-Chinese, Malay, child of the melting pot, and [with] white blood, enough white blood make her vivid, give her fire.” Uh huh, Frisco loves him some Locheng, though he has a mighty brusque way of showing it:
He decided not to knock. He swung the door open. She sprang up to face him. She was naked. He took a deep breath and looked at her. She seized her sarong and swung it around her hips, tucked it tightly around her waist. Her breasts remained bare, after the fashion of native women.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “Is it the Western influence that makes you think a body should be hidden? Let me see you as you were. You are so beautiful.”
The Western influence. We didn't notice him wandering around naked to demonstrate his liberation. But maybe that's his point—he's too corrupted to be free, but luckily—his luck, not hers—she isn't. At this point he's met Locheng exactly once before, and she called him a hodah orang—ugly man, according to the book, though not according to Google translate—and showed him the door. But he clearly thinks being cursed out was just a flirtatious prelude to his inevitable conquest of Locheng, and indeed, as these South Seas novels are usually male literary fantasies, that conquest will come soon enough.
Dougherty is interesting. He's impulsive and self-entitled; bigoted, though this appears to be more class than skin based; and sexist, to which we add no qualifiers considering he always wants women to parade around naked. But he's also sentimental and defends the underdog. We think he's an accurate depiction of a certain type of wayfaring American male endemic to the wilder reaches of the world. As former inhabitants of a couple of those reaches ourselves, we've met the type. Cue the Pulp Intl. girlfriends: “Met? You are the type.” Well, not really, though. We've always sought adventures, but our resemblance to Dougherty stops where he demands unearned respect, crosses lines of consent, and calls grown men, “boy.”
In the end, Jewel of the Java Sea is a South Asian thriller that sits neither at the top nor bottom of the genre. Frisco Dougherty might be worth having a beer with, but only until he says something offensive and refuses to apologize. What we'd prefer to hear from him are reflections about something other than how Western influence has ruined his chances to enjoy boobs al fresco. That may yet happen. Reading the book, we got the feeling he was supposed to become a franchise. A series never took root, but he did pop up in one sequel, 1960's The Half-Caste, also set in Asia. We already purchased it a little earlier today, because Cushman can write. What will be interesting is to see if Dougherty can grow.
We're both starving, and frankly, the way he's behaved he's given us absolutely no reason not to eat him.
During the mid-century period, high quality cover art was seen as the key to paperback sales, thus many types of books received makeovers. Aussie novelist Ronald McKie's The Survivors is an example. You'd assume it was fiction but it's actually the true story of the Battle of Sunda Strait, which occurred in Indonesia between the islands of Java and Sumatra during World War II and pitted two Aussie cruisers against a major Japanese naval force. During a battle in which the outgunned Aussie ships fared better than could have been reasonably expected, both were sunk. In the aftermath a group of stranded men battled innumerable hazards in an attempt to survive. The book sprang from the handwritten account of an Aussie sailor who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp. He was a friend of McKie's, and when the author read the dairy pages he immediately decided to write a full accounting of the battle. As far as we know nobody ate anyone, but raft rides get pretty rough. The Survivors came out in hardback in 1953, with this Popular Library paperback appearing in 1954.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1933—Prohibition Ends in United States
Utah becomes the 36th U.S. state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, thus establishing the required 75% of states needed to overturn the 18th Amendment which had made the sale of alcohol illegal. But the criminal gangs that had gained power during Prohibition are now firmly established, and maintain an influence that continues unabated for decades.
1945—Flight 19 Vanishes without a Trace
During an overwater navigation training flight from Fort Lauderdale, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers lose radio contact with their base and vanish. The disappearance takes place in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
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