Jack Hunter made a name for himself as “Action Jack,” star of a series of adventure flicks in the 1930s. But by 1942, the world is at war, he’s retired from the screen, and he’s living on a ranch with his fellow survivors from a previous jungle adventure: his wife, Max; her nephew, Tyler, and niece, Lindy; and their pilot and friend, Clancy. Life is good for Jack Hunter–but he feels useless and longs to do something more substantial with his time. One day, without telling his wife about his plans, Jack heads to Chicago and manages to pass himself off as a low-level mobster named “Jack Whiskers.” Joining up with a young tough named Johnny Marbles, Jack finds himself embroiled in a US Senator’s scheme to secretly assist the Japanese war effort. Jack and Johnny end up on a plane to China, and when Max and Clancy find out what’s going on, it’s up to them to track Jack down and try to get him out of trouble–again. But with spies everywhere in this strange foreign land, who should they trust to get them all out alive?
So begins The Elephants of Shanghai (Solstice Publishing, 2013), author/actor Stephen Jared’s recent sequel to his 2010 debut Jack and the Jungle Lion. [That novella is included at the beginning of Shanghai, so as to better acquaint new readers to Action Jack’s origins.] Jungle Lion is nothing short of a pulpy guilty pleasure, somewhat reminiscent of the two-reel adventure serials of yesteryear, and its follow-up does justice to Lion’s audacious spirit. In moving the sequel’s setting from the jungles of South America to the exotic atmosphere of World War II-era China, Jared ups the ante by tossing in a good dose of political intrigue and underworld treachery.
The result is a compelling and ultimately more cohesive novel overall than the author’s previous effort, 2012’s Ten-a-Week Steale. With his newest tale, Jared delivers a fond hat tip to obvious influences like the Indiana Jones flicks and dime-novel adventure stories; indeed, the cover art for the book, created by Paul Shipper, comes across as a red-bathed mix of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the 1939 piloting drama Only Angels Have Wings (in depicting the two main characters, Jack and Max, Shipper seems to have borrowed heavily from the features of the latter film’s stars, Cary Grant and Jean Arthur). The story moves along at a crisp pace, juggling dramatic sequences and sharp comedic bits marked by clever dialogue, before building to two rather gripping climactic scenes in which Jack and co. find themselves in mortal peril. Jared has a gift for crafting an entertaining plot, with detailed settings that serve to immerse the reader in the time period. Though I found myself at first missing the classic Hollywood setting that bracketed the action of the previous novel, Jack’s journey through China–with his beloved Max and devoted pal Clancy in tow–soon sucked me in.
While some of the characters are too broadly drawn to be effectively memorable (the proverbial mustache-twirling grand villain, the evil seductress, the precociously helpful little boy), Jared has gifted us with a gloriously fully-realized protagonist. Jack is a flawed character, to be sure, but here Jared completes the portrait of Jack’s growth from the first book’s initially vain, self-centered, and somewhat lunkheaded movie star to a man who finally comes into his own through the strangest of machinations. The centerpiece of the novel is Jack’s relationship with Max–which, I must admit, sadly takes a backseat to his partnership with Johnny in the first half of the book–and it is heartening to see that even though Jack and Max have built a life together, and he has settled down somewhat, he still retains the irrepressible sense of adventure that made him such a delightful character in Jungle Lion.
Though The Elephants of Shanghai ends a little abruptly, it concludes on an entirely upbeat and entertaining note that left me wanting to read more of Jack’s outlandish escapades. One can only hope that Jared has some more thrilling adventures in store for “Action Jack” in future novels, because I have a feeling there are many more fun tales left to tell.
Bottom line: Shanghai is an undeniably winning novel, with broad yet relatable characters and a storyline straight out of an early pulp magazine. Recommended for anyone looking for a light, entertaining adventure read.
[True Classics thanks Stephen Jared for providing a copy of The Elephants of Shanghai for the purposes of this review.]