Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Spy Killer by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged espionage/adventure audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics. These days, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with skilled actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

When bucko mate Kurt Reid escapes the ship Rangoon (with help, it turns out), he has two choices: go into hiding as a fugitive of the Chinese government, or assist Russian beauty Varinka Sevischna in her project against Chinese intelligence. Since hiding in unlikely, and Kurt is always "spoiling for a fight," he accepts her offer — and soon finds himself in over his head, hot least of which when Varinka's friend (and Kurt's ex-fiancée) Anne Carsten resurfaces with an equally enticing offer.

Soon the two women disappear, however, and Reid is faced with Chinese warlord Lin Wang, who offers freedom from pursuit. In a delicious ironic twist, in order to avoid punishment for the murder he did not commit (and the reason he was a prisoner in the first place), Reid must murder someone else, namely a Japanese spy named Takeki ("the courageous"). But when Reid gets there, he recognizes Takeki and has to make a difficult choice.

Author L. Ron Hubbard fills Spy Killer with action and suspense in a land where death waits as a consequence for nearly every decision — especially inaction. But he also offers up a love story (however implausible) that adds an extra layer to events to this wonderful example of the "yellow peril" genre.

Lin Wang is a great villain — deformed physically and mentally — and Tait Ruppert plays him with gusto. Likewise, Lori Jablons is terrific in her dual role of Varinka and Anne, underscoring the fact that the two women embody separate halves of Reid's ideal.

Anyone who pays attention to things like dialogue that makes no sense unless something unspoken is true, will figure out the big twist early on. (Those who solve TV mysteries by assuming that the guest star with the least amount of air time must be the murderer, will also have an advantage.) Despite this flaw (if it is one), and its slight overlength for the breadth of its story, Spy Killer is still a pretty good adventure tale of Oriental espionage, provided you don't mind overlooking implausibilities and suspending a certain amount of disbelief. But, then, many pulp fiction enthusiasts merely consider that all part of the experience.

Bonus: for more of the story behind Spy Killer, watch the following tongue-in-cheek interviews with Kurt Reid and Varinka Sevischna, as conducted by Lawrence Carpetburner (director Jim Meskimen) on the fictional program Elbows on the Table:

Kurt Reid

Varinka Sevischnya

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