Friday, July 9, 2010

Fake Book Review: Sir Alec Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates

(Note: there is no such book as Sir Alec Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates. All of the names in this review are made up.)

In Sir Alec Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates, B. B. Strauss (writing under the pseudonym Reginald Chestertham) begins what can be considered the golden age of Byrd stories, leaving behind the hackneyed plots of earlier tales while not yet devolving into the jingoism of the later stories.

The Queen of the Sky Pirates is perhaps best known for its thrilling climax, which depicts Sir Alec's dogfight with the sky pirates among the peaks of the Himalayas, and culminates in a one-on-one dogfight between Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates deep within the ancient ruins hidden in the mountains.

Though she never gets a name, the character of the Queen makes the story interesting to scholars of Strauss's work, as she clearly shows how the author was maturing as a writer. Several commentators have focused on the fact that the Queen, a black woman, is one of the few characters in all of the Byrd stories to shoot down Byrd in a fair, one-on-one dogfight (the others being Baron Hell in The Pharaoh's Heart, Otto von Dietrich in Gorombaa, Island of Monsters and Lord Percy Fitzhugh in The Curse of the Maharajah's Gold). The dogfight itself, which takes place over a series of unnamed Mediterranean islands, is considered one of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of one-on-one air combat in the series.

Though it has received less attention from scholars, an equally important aspect of the Queen's character is that she is presented as an attractive woman. When Byrd first sees her in a secret aviators' bar in Greece, he asks Sophia, "Who is that beautiful woman who just came in?" In the ensuing scene, where Byrd and the Queen flirt from across the bar, Strauss shows that he has come a long way from earlier stories such as Sir Alec Byrd and the Cannibal Head-hunters of the Congo.

When Sophia is jealous of Byrd's flirtation with the Queen, we see that the co-owner of the Aurora is becoming a more well-rounded character, herself. In previous stories, Strauss uses Sophia as a plot device. Her secret island shop serves as a place for an injured Byrd to take the damaged Aurora to get them both patched up. Sophia passes on news and fusses over the damage to her plane, often with pages of description in which Strauss overindulges in his passion for amateur engine-building. In The Queen of the Sky Pirates, Strauss delves more deeply into the relationship between Sir Alec and Sophia, describing the plane they built together as their "child" and exploring issues of responsibility in the life of his brawling, devil-may-care hero.

While Sir Alec gets into a brawl in virtually every Byrd story, The Queen of the Sky Pirates is notably the first time he gets into trouble for it. During the opening scene, at a gala in a New York museum, the famous ace is insulted by an airplane racer. When Sir Alec begins to fight the dandy, the two are forcibly removed from the room, meaning that Sir Alec is not present when the Sky Pirates arrive and steal the a stone idol from the museum, setting off the chain of events that constitute the rest of the tale.

Much has been made of Strauss's fascination with weird fiction and his attempts to incorporate it into his stories, but the stone idols and the lost city in the Himalayas are one of the most effective examples found in the series. Strauss leaves both the idols and the city they guard shrouded in mystery, allowing the reader to guess "what hand might carve such grotesque features, and what mind might conceive such a horrid shape." When the city is revealed in the final scene, Strauss describes the "Cyclopean structures flashing by," lifting the most recognizable descriptions from his contemporary writers while focusing on the dogfight itself.

Some modern editors have chosen to begin Sir Alec Byrd collections with The Queen of the Sky Pirates, and there is evidence that Strauss himself considered the tale the first "true" Byrd story, as later stories stop referencing events of novels that preceded The Queen of the Sky Pirates.

1 comment:

bluefish said...

I myself am interested in the alias Reginald Chestertham. It is widely known that Strauss, born in Germany and emigrating to the United States at an early age, never lived in England, yet perhaps his best known hero, Sir Alec Byrd, is English, as is Strauss's alter-ego Chestertham. Scholars have speculated that Strauss anticipated England would both prove a solid home market, seeking to emulate the success of English adventure stories. Strauss also hoped an English flying ace would prove popular with an American audience.

I have tried researching whether Strauss's personal history had any closer relation to England and the English, but I haven't been able to find much biographical material on the writer. Have you been able to find any information about him?

I've also heard suggestions that the dandy pilot in Queen of the Sky Pirates is an early model for the later, more well-developed recurring villain Percy Fitzhugh. One Strauss scholar even suggests that the scarlet silk scarf they both wear proves they're the same character. I myself doubt it, as the pilot never uses Percy's well-known catchphrase, "Bad luck, old boy!", but he doesn't get much dialogue in the story. What do you think?