Shortly after I began working on the Depot I found myself collecting 1930’s and 1940’s era Big Little Books. With over two dozen BLB’s to find and a limited budget I focused on those BLB’s featuring stories not found in the daily comic strip. I first reviewed Dick Tracy on Voodoo Island last year and the book to the left, Dick Tracy and the Phantom Ship, is another such kids novel. Published in 1940 as part of Whitman Publishing second series, The Better Little Books, this thick hand sized book was taken directly from Ned Wever’s Dick Tracy radio broadcasts.
Sponsored by Quaker Puffed Rice and Wheat, these short radio shows usually ran a complete case in about a 15 episodes (3 weeks) and this particular case was sold in 1939 as a radio play called Dick Tracy and the Strange Case of the Ghost Ship. The Depot doesn’t have a copy of this script, but it can be found in the Ohio State University Library where a trove of Dick Tracy treasures from the Chester Gould family reside. In this book, the play has been novelized as a 13 chapter story complete with picture panels on each opposite page. While the artwork is unique to this Big Little Book, the dialog itself reads as if directly from the radio script itself and one can imagine the voice of Ned Wever (Tracy), Walter Kinsella (Patton) and Andy Donnelly (Junior) speaking from a sound stage.
The case begins with Dick Tracy receiving a request from a whaling captain friend named Billy the Kid (not the cowboy) who needs help with a troublesome racket taking place down in the Antarctic. Remembering for a moment we are in 1940 and whaling is an accepted past time, Tracy’s jaunt down to the Antarctic Ocean follows the global theme of other radio cases such as the Purple Rider in northern Canada.
Pat Patton, Junior and Dick fly themselves south, barely surviving bad weather and sabotage before landing and boarding a “Factory Ship” where they meet Billy the Kid and Captain Storm. The factory ship is the whale processing ship that finds and harvests whales caught and tagged by a fleet of smaller chase boats. Once aboard the investigators learn the tagged whales have been going missing and there have been several sightings of the cursed sailing ship, the Flying Dutchman.
Of course Tracy doesn’t believe in ghost ships and gives a morale boosting speech before he and Patton join the crew of a chaser ship and secret themselves away under a tarpaulin on a harpooned whale. Soon a motor powered schooner approaches in the dark, brigands arriving to steal the whale away before the Factory ship can arrive. Tracy and Patton surprise the crew and take control of the ship, named Vulture.
The brigands are led by a man named the Shark, who runs the criminal outfit out of the Cave of Whispering Winds, a hard to reach grotto protected by dangerous whirlpools. Tracy receives a communication from the cave radio operator seeking an update on the Vulture’s progress. Now knowing where to go, Pat and Dick set sail for Whispering Winds. Little does he and Pat know, their failure to sign off correctly has given away their ruse and radio operator Hank orders the Flying Dutchmen to sink the Vulture with all hands on board. In the dead of night the Dutchman attacks, ramming the Vulture to pieces and leaving the men to perish in the sea.
Tracy heroically saves himself and Patton by clinging to debris and the pair wash up into the brigands hideout, unconscious. Surprisingly they are nursed back to health by the brigands before the Shark orders them placed in captivity on a high ledge over the main floor of their cavern hideout.
Back on the Factory ship, two men from the Vulture are pulled from the sea and they quickly rat out their former conspirators. Thinking the worst has happened to Dick and Pat, Junior and Captain Storm decide to do what Tracy would have wanted and head for the Cave of Whispering Winds themselves. On their approach they are attacked by the Flying Dutchmen, who hits their ship with a torpedo. The Captain drives the factory ship along side the Dutchmen and they attempt to board. The fighting is fierce (cue fisticuffs sound effect) but Junior, Captain Storm and his men are all taken captive aboard the Dutchman.
Inside the cave, Patton lures an armed guard in close with a series of taunts. Tracy cold cocks the guard, takes his rifle and fires on a cauldron boiling whale oil on the floor. The oil spills, sending men running. Lying flat, Tracy demands they surrender their weapons or he will flood the room with more oil. With no place to hide, the men agree and after a ladder is provided. Tracy and Pat take a dozen men prisoner, all except the Shark who barricades himself in the radio room, calling the Flying Dutchman for help.
Heeding the Shark’s call, most of the Dutchman’s crew embark in smaller boats for the hideout, giving Junior the opportunity to trick the man guarding the captives. Luring the guard to the bars with a note, Junior uses a jujitsu finger hold taught to him by Tracy and the guard gasps and pleads for release. Junior forces the guard to free Captain Storm and his crew and they quickly take control of the ship, but will they be too late? Inside the Cave of Whispering Winds, Tracy and Patton are captured by the crew of the Dutchman and the Shark prepares a firing squad to execute the meddlesome pair. Junior and his crew do arrive in the nick of time and after another large brawl, the Shark and his criminal band are captured. Junior has saved the day!
Thanks to the well planned plot and cliffhangers of the 1938-1940 radio serial, Dick Tracy and the Phantom Ship really is a well done story. It is full of danger and excitement in a simpler, safer and more kid friendly style than Chester Gould’s newspaper strip. Gould of course did not write the story or provide the artwork, yet our heroes, Tracy, Junior and Patton feel accurate enough to keep us engrossed in the story and not looking for its flaws. This is a good Big Little Book and worth carefully peeking at the pages.