Starting in 1937 Louis L’Amour undertook a serious effort to try and establish himself as a writer. An early success at placing a short story in 1933 and then again in 1935 had not led to further sales though throughout the period he had written many book reviews and articles. Heartened by the sale of “Gloves for a Tiger,” a hybrid of the boxing and adventure genres, to Thrilling Adventures Magazine, a letter from editor Leo Margulies asking for more submissions of material, and then the sale of several sports and crime stories to other magazines, Louis began what amounted to a full court press against the gatekeepers of the publishing industry.
Over the years he had pursued many ideas, tales outlined, roughly sketched or written in complete form and he began to mail them out to more and more magazine editors and to collect both rejection slips and pieces of valuable advice. The stories were of many different genres and styles, mysteries, humor, and even an occasional western, but throughout this time the two themes that he returned to most often were that of the personal adventure story, often drawn from his own life, and the dramatic, freewheeling, pulp adventure style. Many of his early attempts failed to find a publisher and have been lost or discarded over the years. Only their titles and occasional brief descriptions are left to intrigue us about what their content might have been;
- Moon Over Tihama, an ‘Arab’ story
- Ryker’s Reef, possibly about the
survivors of a plane crash in the Pacific
- The Shadow of Kali
- Hotel in Trebizond
- There Lies the Sea
- Mool Singh
- The Dragon of Tambajoli
- Gypsey Landro Takes a Hand
- Death to the Swamp Lady
- The Leopard Man of Bongou
- No Head-hunters Allowed
Some of these were written in the hope that they could be spun off into ongoing series, others stood alone. For the two different styles of story Louis envisioned very different types series; for the personal stories there was a loosely associated selection of stories, usually about the characters or the general environment of the place; in the case of the pulps the series were much more plot oriented with one story following the next in close order.
Though several of Louis’s stories like “Survival,” “Old Doc Yak,” and “The Admiral,” were written, rewritten and honed by rejection and editorial suggestions into stories that did get published those “sales” (some didn’t earn any money at all) wouldn’t pay the bills. The pulp stories, on the other hand, might succeed in keeping the wolf from the door if he could sell enough of them and in the early days even this was difficult, Louis had to write as much material as possible and keep up a constant stream of mailings to publishers.
In the midst of all this feverish typing, and mailing, and scrimping and saving for paper and other materials (Louis once complained that he was about to wear his typewriter out from having to hit the keys hard enough to make his depleted ribbon ink the letters), came a letter from Leo Margulies stating that Thrilling Adventures was buying “East of Gorontalo.” The story had been started in the late summer of 1939 and featured a down on his luck merchant captain named Jim Mayo fighting, with the help of a stylish British Intelligence officer, to make a living during the opening salvos of the war in the Pacific.
The idea that a series about this character could be created and that the series might give Louis a greater chance at continuing sales did not lag too far behind. Soon Captain “Ponga” Jim Mayo, and the motley collection of men that made up his crew were plying the waters of the Netherlands East Indies and the Federated Malay States searching for any vaguely legitimate cargo (and some not so legitimate) that would allow them to continue to make the payments on the S.S. Semiramis, the rusty old tramp freighter that they now called home. It was a good concept for a series; the characters had great mobility, as a neutral American Mayo could go places that a British or Dutch ship could never consider and, because he was secretly working with Major William Arnold, Ponga Jim could be privy to whatever wartime plans were necessary to inject him into adventure after adventure. Today the series also functions as a chronicle of the effects of the spreading war in Europe and Asia on the United States, with Mayo being drawn further and further into the fighting and Louis attempting to translate the current events of the time into new and exciting stories.
For background, Louis used his own life experience as a merchant seaman some ten years before. In that time he had visited some of the exotic ports that the Semiramis calls home and had seen enough of similar locations to easily extrapolate the local conditions and landscape from charts and the published sailing directions from the U.S. government’s Hydrographic Office. In addition Louis had served on several ships that were very similar to the World War I era freighter he wrote about in these stories. Many of these vessels worked as “tramps” (traveling from port to port picking up whatever cargos were available as opposed to having the set route of a cargo “liner”) in many out of the way corners of the world. In fact the Steel Worker, the ship that took Louis though Asia in the 1920s, was eventually blown up by mines at Vladivostok during World War II.
The first four Jim Mayo stories, “East of Gorontalo,” “On the Road to Amurang,” “From Here to Banggai” and “The House of Qasavara” written in 1939 and ’40, all sold quickly getting the series off to a good start. Something went wrong with the next two, however, “In the Shadow of Sumbawa” and “North from Lorengau” because Thrilling Adventures rejected both of them. Copies no longer exist so all we know about them is the locations suggested by their titles. Sumbawa is in what was then the Dutch Indies and can be found in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain, it is home of the volcano responsible for one of recorded history’s most violent eruptions. The 1815 explosion of Mount Tambora was even more violent than Krakatoa! Lorengau is a town in the Admiralty Islands. North of there is … not much. The thinly spread Carolines.
The next story “The Well of the Unholy Light” did sell but again ill fate entered the picture and through the end of 1940 and into 1941 Louis sold no Ponga Jim stories, though he did write several and mentioned that he had rejections. While we can’t be sure, “Island of Thundering Guns,” “House on the Ranu,” and “It Happened in Tagoelandang,” all missing stories may have been about the master and crew of the Semiramis. In late 1940, when Leo Margulies bought “The Well of Unholy Light” from Louis, he included some advice in his correspondence about varying the style of these stories … at a guess “varying the style” may have meant changing the typical plot line or location. The action that was being documented in the newspapers was in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East so “West From Singapore,” finds the Semiramis leaving the Indonesian archipelago, dodging subs and merchant raiders by avoiding the regular shipping lanes on the way to the British port at Aden, Arabia
Next came a series of long or novella length Ponga Jim Mayo stories for which Louis was paid considerably more … whatever troubles he might have been having with the “style,” Thrilling Adventures was dedicated to the series; they more than doubled his pay from sixty dollars a story to one hundred fifty. Though written in 1941 “South of Suez” did not appear until March of 1942 and some very minor adjustments were made to reflect the fact that the US had now entered the war. Strangely, West From Singapore was not published until May and thus appeared out of order. “South of Suez” picks up the story and has the Semiramis continuing on from Aden up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik.
With the world speeding into total war world events were moving so fast that keeping up was probably a full time job especially for a young man living on his parent’s screen porch in Choctaw, Oklahoma. Louis commented on this a couple of times, mentioning that he, “… hated to get too far ahead [when] something may break in the news to change the set up.” In November of 1941 Louis began another novella length piece called “Voyage to Tobalai.” In this story the Semiramis is steaming east from Capetown, South Africa with a load of torpedo planes headed for Balikpapan in the Netherlands East Indies. It is likely that the story was greatly rewritten after Pearl Harbor or Louis was quite a fortune teller as there was a naval battle for Balikpapan. By December 7th Louis was about half finished but the date of February 1942 that he used in the story to try to “get ahead of the news cycle” failed to help; by that time, and five months before the story was published, the port had already fallen to the Japanese. While Louis’s story placed a major American naval contingent in the area of Celebes steaming to attack the Japanese and revenge the loss of the Philippines, an event that historically did not happen, an attack did occur to the northeast that February with the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise attacking targets in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. Not only were events moving quickly but the details of more and more of them were kept secret … a serious problem for a fiction writer who didn’t want his stories to become obsolete before the magazine could get them into print!
Working with a guy named Bus Ham, Louis created a couple of radio programs for Oklahoma station KTOK in Janruary 1942, “under the name of Ponga Jim.” Exactly what the content of these shows was is unknown but it may have been some commentary on the development of the Pacific War.
In early 1942 there were two planned, or written then rejected, Ponga Jim novellas. One, “On the Shores of Madagascar,” took Mayo back to the area of East Africa and the Indian Ocean, while the other, it turns out, was a western! At this time Louis had sold only two westerns “The Town No Guns Could Tame,” and “One Last Gun Notch.” He didn’t even particularly like the genre. The Ponga Jim story was, of course, contemporary and was probably due to the pressure of current events making it difficult to predict what kind of an international story to do. Regardless, “Riders of the Broken Hills” was not published and no copy of it can be found today.
The last Ponga Jim Mayo story “Wings Over Brazil” was probably finished just before Louis had to report to Fort Sill for his induction into the Army. He had spent some time pulling political strings in an attempt to get accepted as an officer by the Navy, based on his experience in the Pacific and some slight familiarity with Malay, but had been rejected because his lack of a high school or college diploma. On August first he was ordered to report for the draft and two weeks later he was officially a soldier.
“Wings Over Brazil” begins in Fortaleza, on the north Brazlian coast. The plot of this story centers around a group of local power brokers attempting to use the war as political cover for a pro Nazi coup. As in “South of Suez” Louis used this ploy to keep from running afoul of actual world events. It is very likely that this story was “dumbed down” with many of the specifically Portuguese aspects of Brazil converted into a kind of generic “Latin American” flavor that wouldn’t confuse the audience. Louis certainly knew the difference. Also slightly remarkable, for a wartime pulp story, is the fact that “Wings Over Brazil” makes a stab at presenting a couple of sympathetic Nazi bad guys.
In creating the Ponga Jim Mayo series Louis L’Amour got some practical experience in how creating a running character could ease the life of a struggling author. While sales were not guaranteed they were, at least, more likely. For his next attempt at creating a pulp hero Louis dusted off an idea he’d tossed around as a real life business venture; running a charter passenger and freight air service in the South Pacific. At some point in the 1930s Louis seems to have run across Jimmy Angel, a well known pilot for whom Venezuela’s Angel’s Falls are named. Some informed guesswork suggests that they met at the It Café, a place owned by screen star Clara Bow, in Los Angeles. But whatever Louis’s intentions were, history intervened and the South Pacific was not the only arena that these stories were destined to play out in.
When creating his adventuresome pilot, Turk Madden, Louis gave him a great deal of history to be worked out as a background to the various stories, there are few places in the world he hasn’t traveled or lived and few wars in which he hasn’t fought. The first story was “Pirates of the Sky” and it is a fairly typical pre war adventure story. The next two stories were called “Some Pearls for Makassar” and “Death Takes the Skyways” but, like some of the Ponga Jim Mayo stories, were rejected and have disappeared. Possibly the editors at Thrilling Adventures thought that, with the Ponga Jim stories running, there were a few too many Louis L’Amour stories about the South Pacific floating around. This was not the end of Turk Madden, however, a year and a half later, after the beginning of the war, he is looking for new adventures in Asiatic Russia. This is the first of three Turk Madden stories where he functions in the position of a mercenary pilot under the command of Soviet officers in the Russian Far East.
It was an interesting choice, Louis wasn’t particularly anti communist but he was never pro Soviet so it’s kind of odd that he chose this area. That it was underused in fiction probably helped but it also demonstrates an interest in the area that became even more evident 40 years later when he wrote Last of the Breed. Many of these stories take place alongthe coast at the base of the Sihote Alin mountains and it seems possible that Louis may have known this area from personal experience. Certainly he claimed to have made a brief stop there on a ship in earlier years.
Concurrently with the Turk Madden stories Louis started another series about flyer Steve Cowan and in concept these stories were very similar. This was probably a way of splitting his risk by submitting each to different magazines but, in the end, both series ended up at Thrilling Adventures and then made the switch to Sky Fighters.
The war interrupted most of Louis’s writing, while he tried to work during Basic Training and Officers Candidate School he was able to produce very little material between the middle of 1942 and the end of 1945. Constant movement and the need to carry as little luggage as possible (many of these rejected stories may have been lost in a suitcase that went missing the day Louis was shipped from Falmouth to the beach head in Normandy) kept his efforts extremely limited. Luckily he had “stockpiled” some stories and wartime conditions caused the magazines to schedule some prewar manuscripts differently so that his name never completely disappeared from view.
Standard Magazines, the parent company of so many of the pulps that Louis wrote for, closed Thrilling Adventures during the war, “Wings Over Brazil” was in it’s final issue, and that was the end of Jim Mayo and the Semiramis. Though Louis continued to publish several of the Turk Madden “air stories” in the 1945 to 1949 period, the taste in adventure fiction had changed. Perhaps the war had given everyone a bit too much real adventure or the exotic locales had been actually visited by too many service men and women and had been found not to be as exotic as they were deadly and primitive. The heyday of classic adventure fiction was over and what was left was slowly evolving into the racy (some would say perverted) “True Adventure” pulps and into a boom in the old standby of adventure stories, the Western. It was that look back into America’s past, that attempt to discover some traditional identity in the all too modern world of jet aircraft and atomic weapons that was to transport Louis L’Amour from an obscure pulp writer living in a tiny town in Oklahoma and having to save carefully for paper and stamps to the man who became the country’s best selling novelist for decade after decade.