Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Agent on the Air

Among the many books I recovered from my family home some years ago, after both of my parents had died, was a copy—almost surely bought by my architect/cartoonist father—of a 1983 paperback collection of Secret Agent X-9 action/adventure comic strips, written by detective-turned-fictionist Dashiell Hammett and drawn by Alex Raymond (the latter known better for having created Flash Gordon). Until then, I don’t believe I had ever heard of that long-ago syndicated newspaper feature. But I have since had the pleasure to read the book, and to learn a bit about the strip’s history, thanks to Kevin Burton Smith’s write-up in The Thrilling Detective Web Site:
The strip was originally conceived [in the early 1930s] by King Features to compete with Dick Tracy’s growing popularity, but somewhere along the line, they decided it wasn’t enough for the hero of this new strip to be a hardboiled private eye. He would also be a secret agent. G-Men were doing boffo box office and one of the previous year’s more popular films had been Private Detective 62, based on a series of stories that appeared in Black Mask, written by Hammett’s pal, Raoul Whitfield, about a disgraced government agent, Donald Free, who becomes a private eye.

Alas, somewhere along the line, the competing visions of Hammett and King Features came to a head. Hammett evidently wanted to write a series about a private eye (no surprise there—he had already made a name for himself as creator of Sam Spade, The Continental Op and Nick and Nora Charles). But King wanted a strip about a nameless, mysterious secret agent. …

Neither artist nor writer were happy with the results, and both were eager to quit King Features. Within a year, Hammett was gone (his contract having expired) having only scripted four continuities. Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint, took over the scripting chores.
The original daily strip debuted on January 22, 1934. Despite Hammett washing his hands of the project (and reportedly losing a weekly fee of $500 for its modest scripting), Secret Agent X-9 carried on under a variety of other writers and artists until February 10, 1996.

I was reminded of all this recently when Evan Lewis began posting, in his blog, a four-part, gunplay-packed BBC Radio adaptation of Hammett’s early Secret Agent X-9 yarns, starring Stuart Milligan as X-9 and Connie Booth as Grace Powers. You can already listen to the first two episodes here, with the final couple yet to be posted.

READ MORE:Hammett Herald-Tribune: Secret Agent X-9 (1934),” by Evan Lewis (Davy Crockett’s Almanack of Mystery, Adventure,
and the Wild West).

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