Book Reviews: Challengers of the Unknown AND Groucho Marx, Secret Agent by Ron Goulart

Title: Challengers of the Unknown

Author: Ron Goulart

Format: Paperback, published by Dell

Published:1977

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Title: Groucho Marx, Secret Agent

Author: Ron Goulart

Format: Hardback edition by Thomas Dunne Books

Published: 2002

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No, you aren’t seeing double in an odd way. Or a glitch.  And No, this isn’t something I will be doing on a regular basis.  But, Yes, there are two book titles with accompanying information and cover shots at the top of this review and I will be reviewing them both in combination.   Now, it would seem obvious to the observant that the reason for doing this may be simply because they are by the same author. Not just any author, but the well known and prolific author, Ron Goulart, known for tackling stories for decades of all sorts, from noir to adventure, from original characters to media tie ins, from shorts in magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock to novels.  So, it’s true in part that this combined review is related to the same author being responsible for both books.

But, there’s more to it than that.

In the two books in question, Goulart tackles very similar things.  Groucho Marx, Secret Agent is Goulart’s fifth book in a series about the Hollywood icon solving mysteries with crime reporter turned script writer Frank Denby.  This volume opens up with Groucho and Frank at a Halloween party in 1939, a party thrown by a millionaire type with connections to Hollywood.  Although Goulart describes him as “darn close to being a Howard Hughes doppelgänger”, I’d say he falls more in the William Randolph Hearst category as the book goes on.  Among the attendees at this party are the millionaire’s star actress for his studio and her British director husband.  The husband ends up dead after the party and the actress, an old friend of Groucho’s, pulls the comedian philosopher and Denby into the case, a suicide that looks much more like murder.  What unfurls is a case involving spies, actors, assassins, and enough perfectly aimed Marx humor to make a reader think the man himself wrote the book.

In Challengers of the Unknown, Goulart takes on the only novelized adventure of DC Comics’ classic team of adventurers.  Four men, with the later addition of a female member, who were each experts in their fields of specialty, and pretty much anything else they needed to be experts in as well, who all beat death when they shouldn’t have.  The four original members were all survivors of a plane crash that in no way they should have survived, so they took that as a sign to team up and take on challenges and issues that only men on borrowed time would confront.  This may sound corny to modern readers, but it’s a perfectly workable…and quite well loved comic book formula if you talk to fans of such things.  In the novel, the Challengers are called on to go to a South American country initially to investigate the alleged attacks of an ancient creature risen once more from the depths of a lake.  This all while there are hints and innuendo about there being more going on in this small country on the brink of revolution that point the Challengers not only to mythical monsters possibly made real, but also even scarier truly human monsters from the past.

Both of these books, in a sense, are media tie-ins.  The Challengers book, if rumor and memory are to be believed, was developed in 1977 because the idea of a Challengers film project of some sort was a potentially hot property.  The Groucho Marx book is also wrapped up in media simply because its central character is Groucho Marx.  That in many unfortunate ways, for at least one of the two titles, is where most of the similarities between these two Goulart works ends.

Groucho Marx, Secret Agent is a page turning passel of fun and action, with not only a great mystery as its spine, but enough intrigue of the spy variety to make it work well in that vein as well.  Groucho is expertly portrayed by Goulart, both the very public Groucho and the lesser known, more personal side of the legend, given name Julius.  Goulart moves through Groucho’s various ‘stage’ faces, what he showed the world, both real and contrived, with an elegance that makes Marx in this book not only someone readers engage with and enjoy, but someone that readers want to know more about.  Reading Goulart’s books about Groucho, the entire series, make me want to go rematch Marx Brothers movies and You Bet Your Life reruns for weeks, just to catch glimpses of the true genius that was Groucho, on stage as well as off.

And Goulart doesn’t stop with Groucho. Derby and his cartoonist wife Jane as well as the other supporting cast members, both real and conceived by Goulart,are fully realized characters and add a snap to the story that keeps the reader interested. Also, this particular book works enough tropes in from PI and Spy books to keep any fan happy, and it also allows Groucho, Frank, and others to openly poke fun at said tropes.  This novel, of the six in the series, is also one of the most action packed of them all.  It moves with the pacing of a thriller, closer to a fast moving hard boiled mystery than the general armchair detective clip you would think a book like this would have.  Groucho Marx, Secret Agent definitely fires on all cylinders.

Challengers of the Unknown, on the other hand, misses every target it shoots for.  Now, it can be argued that Goulart wrote Challengers in 1977 and the Marx book 25 years later, so obviously he could have learned things between them that he applied to the second book.  Even saying that, though, even assuming that I wasn’t a Challengers of the Unknown fan, owning most of their original adventures and a fair number of their following stuff, this book still strikes out.   What could have been a wildly pulpish over the top adventure was little more than a bastardizing of known characters as they were originally presented and a whole lot of off page action leading to little to nothing happening for the reader to actually enjoy.

Perhaps the tale of this novel being a work up for a proposed movie or tv project is correct based simply on how Goulart portrays the central characters.  Although none of them were fleshed out to a grand extreme in the comics, the Challengers Goulart presents here are not only contrary to their original characteristics, but they are blatant action adventure stereotypes, from Ace Morgan being the bland cardboard leader to Prof Haley being an over the top womanizer and as dense as a box of Rocky Davises.  I found myself almost from the introduction of each Challenger yelling at the book, something I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done.

Not only that, but the central core of the story is not only ill conceived, but it’s boring.  When we finally get to the bottom of the mystery of the lake monster and are confronted with the source of the trouble, what should have been an unbelievable action scene turned into a laborious drudging through of near misses and poor character execution.  Add to that the rather shoddy handling of the second mystery, the other reason the Challengers were there, and this book fails on all counts.  There were numerous opportunities for Goulart to push this story’s boundaries in ways that would make readers really unsure if the Challengers would survive or not, but he never ever got close to doing that at all.

Two books. One author.  All aces with one.  A total strike out with the other.  What makes that interesting….obviously that can happen and does happen to any author, especially prolific ones… is how the things one book gets so wrong, the other gets right in every single way.

Challengers of the Unknown gets one page from me, and that’s gracious. Or, in my terms, I don’t even draw my gun for this book. No bullets out of a possible six.

Groucho Marx, Secret Agent is five pages for sure and more if the powers that be here would allow them.  Six bullets out of a six, a fully loaded gun for this one and dead on with every shot.

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