Friday, December 11, 2009
Forgotten Books: JOYCE OF THE SECRET SQUADRON -- R. R. Winterbotham
When I was a kid, there weren't many books in our house. The few I owned were passed down to me by my cousins, Billy and Crider King. One of the books they passed along was Joyce of the Secret Squadron, and I read it several times. I later read SF stories, most of them pretty bad, by Russ Winterbotham, without realizing that he was the author of this book.
I was a fan of the Captain Midnight radio show, and one of the things I liked best about this book was the endpapers with pictures of the characters. I don't think I knew what jodhpurs were, but I thought they were cool. (My copy of the book doesn't have a dust jacket, but I found one on the 'net to put here.)
The setting is the mid-'40s. WWII is in full swing. Captain Midnight and the Secret Squadron are holed up on their own island somewhere in the Pacific when a mysterious plane lands. A messenger debarks to ask Captain Midnight for help. The messenger identifies himself by drawing a mysterious symbol known only to four men in the world. It includes a winged clock with both hands pointing to twelve, but there are other markings that aren't described because, after all, only four men in the world know what they are. Satisfied that the guy's legit, Captain Midnight listens to his plea. It seems that the U. S. has lost "a new type of airplane . . . one that is likely to revolutionize modern aerial warfare and place control of the air in the hands of Uncle Sam." Yes, that's right. They've lost the Flying Wing!
Also somewhere in the Pacific, holed up on his own island, are the Barracuda and his various henchpersons, all of them intent on bringing down the U. S. The Barracuda has captured the pilot, but he doesn't have the Flying Wing, which has crashed on yet another island that the Barracuda can't seem to locate. So he sends out his most trusted operative, Carla Rotan, to find it. She stumbles, so to speak onto Captain Midnight's island.
Now the Captain's identity is supposed to be a secret, and so are the identities of the members of the Secret Squadron. (Hey, it's not the Well-Known Squadron.) They all carry a Codograph that serves as identification and as a way to solve the codes that they're always receiving. The Codograph, by the way, plays a big part in the story. I'm sure the radio show's sponsor, rich and chocolaty Ovaltine, had a hand in that. Ichabod Mudd (aka Ikky) is the genius behind the Codograph, and when one is captured, he has to design a new one. This fits right in with the radio show because a new version was offered as a premium every year or so. But I digress. Nobody shows Ms. Rotan a Codograph, but it doesn't take her long to figure out who she's dealing with. (Check the endpapers. I think the little winged clock on everybody's outfight might have clued her in.)
Joyce is the only one, at first, who's suspicious of Ms. Rotan at all. Joyce is keenly intelligent, and though she's just a kid, she's an expert pilot. And she's mighty handy with a gun and a knife. An excellent role model for young women. There are air battles with the Barracuda's Swarm (sounds deadlier than the Barracuda's School, I guess), explosions, blazing guns, and light romance. I will not reveal what happens to the Flying Wing.
I loved this book as a kid, but reading it again I can see how much things have changed. They don't write 'em like this anymore because no kid would read it. The writing's clunky, the dialogue's unbelievable, and the characters are pure stock. I don't care, though. For a geezer like me, it's still fun to revisit the past now and then.