Story Name: #1: Justice, Inc.
Original Publication Date: September 1939
Available In: The Avenger #1 "Justice, Inc." and "The Yellow Hoard" (Sanctum Books, April 2009)
It's the first adventure of the dead-faced Dick Benson, whose cold eyes burn with gray fury at every available chance. The set-up for the story is quite grand. Benson, his wife Alicia and daughter Alice board a plane last minute in order to visit Benson's sick mother-in-law. Benson goes to the restroom and when he comes out his wife and daughter are nowhere to be found. He frantically searches the plane but to no avail, the two he loves more than life itself are gone, and all those in the plane claim that they were never there. His hysterics are cut short when the pilot knocks Benson out.
Upon waking Benson discovers that his face and hair have gone completely white. In fact his face is now devoid of expression, Benson is trapped in a permanently blank state unless he molds it like clay with his hands. This would be enough to mess with the sturdiest of folk and to top it off, everyone from the ticket counter girl on up swear that Alicia and Alice did not leave with him on the plane. Can Benson, the cold-faced man of steel, find his missing loved ones? Can he solve this classic locked door mystery? The answers await!
The Avenger was created by Street & Smith to help capitalize on the pulp heroes sensation that their own Shadow and Doc Savage pioneered. The Kenneth Robeson pseudonym, popularized by Lester Dent in the Doc Savage stories, was brought out to help sell the series. However, don't be fooled it is Paul Ernst not Dent who pens these tales, and the execution is a blend between the two popular pulp titles. The plot for the story feels a lot like a Shadow story, though the lead character and his agents are more in the style of Doc.
The plot follows raging gray eyes of Benson as they assemble a pair of agents; Smitty the moon-faced and surprisingly bright giant and Mac the tall Irishman with hands the size of hams. There's also kidnapping of various stockholders in the company Buffalo Tap & Die that appear to be connected to the missing wife and daughter.
The plot is nothing revelatory, but it is quite exciting and fun. That the locked door mystery's resolution isn't as exciting as it's concept is to be expected, that's usually the way those type of stories pan out. The real disappointment here has nothing to do with plot and almost everything to do with Paul Ernst's prose. The way he continually draws attention to the cold white death mask's face of the lead and his cold burning gray eyes gets tiring as the story moves on. These sort of filler phrases are common among pulps, whose writers often got paid by the word, but I found them far more distracting in Ernst's prose than in Dent's or Gibson's work.
For plot and characters this would be a 4 but I'm afraid the prose knocks it down to a 3/5 Golden Masks. It's not bad but it didn't have me rushing through it anxious for the next plot twist.