10 Best Adventures of 1940
March 25, 2015
Seventy-five years ago, the following 10 adventures — I’ve plucked these titles from my Best Thirties Adventure list — were first serialized or published in book form. I urge you to read them immediately.
In no particular order…
- Michael Innes’s espionage adventure The Secret Vanguard. A sardonic inversion of John Buchan-style stories, complete with German spies, a chase through Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and a heroine on the run (in Scotland, of course). This might be a controversial pick, on my part, because some Innes fans dislike it. But it was a turning point in the author’s career, a transition from whodunnits to thrillers; also, it was a key influence on Graham Greene.
- Richard Wright’s gothic avenger-style adventure Native Son. When Bigger Thomas, a young black denizen of a Chicago slum, is hired as his landlord’s chauffeur, he accidentally murders their daughter, Mary… and attempts to frame Mary’s boyfriend, a Communist Party organizer, for the killing. The book is an indictment of the system of racial oppression that dehumanizes its victims and leaves them no opportunities to lead meaningful lives. Native Son was an influential bestseller. “No American Negro exists,” James Baldwin wrote, “who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”
- Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s revisionist western adventure The Ox-Bow Incident. Set in and around the (fictional) cow town of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, and taking place in one long day in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is sometimes described as the first modern Western — because it avoids the genre’s usual clichés and formulaic plots. Two drifters are drawn into a lynch mob to find and hang three men presumed to be cattle rustlers and killers. Although some members of the posse attempt to dissuade the others, the three men are captured and killed. At which point it is discovered that the men were innocent. In 1943, the novel was adapted by William A. Wellman as a film of the same title starring Henry Fonda.
- Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled crime adventure Farewell, My Lovely. Private investigator Philip Marlowe returns in what is considered the author’s best work. The plot is eventful: Marlowe agrees to help the police (in fictional Bay City, California) bring a killer to justice; he accompanies a man (who is later killed) to a money-for-jewelry exchange after the man’s girlfriend’s jade necklace is stolen; and he is beaten, drugged, and locked up in a private sanitarium. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1944 (starring Dick Powell) and 1975 (starring Robert Mitchum).
- Jack Williamson’s occult fantasy adventure Darker Than You Think. Published in the pulp magazine Unknown in 1940, then rewritten and published as a novel in 1948. Investigating the death of an ethnologist friend, journalist Will Barbee discovers that an ancient race of shape shifters — Homo lycanthropus — lives among us, waiting for a Child of the Night to lead them to supremacy. What’s more, it was these werewolves who invented rational skepticism… in order to make humankind stop believing in werewolves! Why hasn’t the werewolves-started-the-Enlightenment meme caught on, I wonder? Blame the werewolves’ ongoing cultural hegemony. ALSO SEE: Erik Davis’s write-up of this novel, in HILOBROW’s CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM series.
- L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s atavastic fantasy adventures The Roaring Trumpet and The Mathematics of Magic. First published in the fantasy pulp magazine Unknown, both stories — which were reissued, with 1941’s The Castle of Iron, in 1975 as The Compleat Enchanter — concern the adventures of psychologist Harold Shea, and his comrades, who travel to parallel worlds where ancient myths and legends are reality. In The Roaring Trumpet, Shea and co. encounter Norse mythology; The Mathematics of Magic, meanwhile, is set within Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. These screwball yarns are funny, sexy, and really interesting at the same time. They predate much more famous meta-fictional fantasies like Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions and Heinlein’s Glory Road by decades.
- Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War adventure For Whom the Bell Tolls. In May 1937 Robert Jordan, a world-weary American who has joined the International Brigades opposing the fascist forces of Spain’s General Franco, is ordered to travel behind enemy lines and destroy a bridge. He falls in love with a Spanish woman, Maria; and he clashes with the leader of an anti-fascist guerrilla band, who isn’t persuaded that blowing up the bridge in question is worth going on a suicide mission. The sabotage mission — compromised by the theft of Jordan’s dynamite caps — stumbles forward. Badly wounded, Jordan stays behind to ambush the enemy counter-offensive while Maria and the guerrillas flee for their lives. The 1943 movie adaptation stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.
- Nevil Shute’s atavistic adventure An Old Captivity. Donald Ross, a young Scottish pilot, is hired to pilot a photographic air survey mission of Greenland — searching for evidence of the Vikings’ landing point in North America. Falling ill, Ross slips into a coma — shades of Jack London’s Star Rover — during which he remembers a previous incarnation in which he was a slave aboard Leif Ericson’s vessel on its voyage of discovery. Awakening from this vision, and recognizing a Cape Cod bay which he’d visited in his previous life, Ross leads the archaeological expedition to the evidence for which they’d been searching.
- Eric Ambler’s espionage adventure Journey into Fear. At the beginning of World War II, a British engineer named Graham, who carries vital classified information about the Turkish fleet, becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Istanbul. Later, traveling aboard a neutral Italian ship — his fellow passengers include a Turkish secret agent, a Spanish prostitute, and a politically incompatible French couple — Graham must match wits with a German spymaster. Journey into Fear is an influential spy thriller — a classic, even. It was adapted for the screen in 1943 by Norman Foster and Orson Welles; the movie starred Joseph Cotten and Dolores del Rio.
- Hergé’s Tintin adventure The Crab with the Golden Claws. Serialized 1940–41; published as a color album in 1943. In his ninth adventure, Tintin pursues a gang of opium smugglers to Morocco. Along the way, our hero meets, for the very first time, an alcoholic sea-dog with a penchant for screwing things up: Captain Haddock! The two escape in a lifeboat. There’s an extraordinary surrealist dream sequence during which Haddock imagines Tintin as a champagne bottle (and attempts to pop his head off). They’re strafed by a seaplane — which they hijack. They crash-land in the Sahara; there’s an amazing full-panel scene of the their wanderings. They’re rescued by the French Foreign Legion, then attacked by Tuareg tribesmen. Eventually, there’s a drunken showdown with the opium smugglers in a Moroccan cellar. What else could you ask for in an adventure?
Let me know if I’ve missed any 1940 adventures that you particularly admire.
JOSH GLENN’S *BEST ADVENTURES* LISTS: BEST 250 ADVENTURES OF THE 20TH CENTURY | 100 BEST OUGHTS ADVENTURES | 100 BEST RADIUM AGE (PROTO-)SCI-FI ADVENTURES | 100 BEST TEENS ADVENTURES | 100 BEST TWENTIES ADVENTURES | 100 BEST THIRTIES ADVENTURES | 75 BEST GOLDEN AGE SCI-FI ADVENTURES | 100 BEST FORTIES ADVENTURES | 100 BEST FIFTIES ADVENTURES | 100 BEST SIXTIES ADVENTURES | 75 BEST NEW WAVE SCI FI ADVENTURES | 100 BEST SEVENTIES ADVENTURES | 100 BEST EIGHTIES ADVENTURES | 75 BEST DIAMOND AGE SCI-FI ADVENTURES | 100 BEST NINETIES ADVENTURES (in progress) | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | NOTES ON 21st-CENTURY ADVENTURES.