Nearly all of the two dozen Dick Tracy Big Little Books are simple novelisations of the comic strips and movie serials. So when I found Dick Tracy on Voodoo Island I was excited. An original Dick Tracy story from 1944 featuring Voodoo magic? Yes, please! Unfortunately the book left me disappointed in the lack of Voodoo and feeling quite uncomfortable for other reasons. I will explain.
Voodoo Island starts with Sir Ronald Dawson, a British businessman developing a new type of rubber and requesting Dick Tracy’s help at his factory on Bongilla Island in the Caribbean. His partner, Harry Graves has been killed and the native laborers have begun to turn against him due to the whisperings of their Voodoo witch-doctor leaders. Tracy agrees to fly to the island after a stop over in Miami where he is attacked by a large African-American named Big Sam. This is where I begin to feel uncomfortable. The descriptions, speech patterns and depictions of Big Sam are…insulting. Granted this is 1944 and there will be two decades before the civil rights movement, but still I cringe before continuing.
Tracy bests Big Sam in a fight, jails him and flies on to Bongilla Island with his “assistant”, Pat Patton. Patton is the only other character from the comic strip mentioned in the story. On Bongilla, Sir Dawson introduces them to his English man-servant, Mr. Skinner and lead engineer, Ramji Dass from India. Tracy keeps an open mind and everyone is a suspect, which for a moment makes me hope for a good old-fashioned mystery. Before the chapter ends though, it’s pretty obvious Ramji Dass isn’t working for the forces of good. But then, this book was written towards kids and I shouldn’t expect to much out of it.
The first night on the island, Big Sam who has been busted out of prison and flown to the island by the bad guys bangs on Tracy’s cabin door to warn him the natives are roused and an attack is imminent. Tracy finds Sir Ronald and Pat Patton already missing from their rooms so he, Big Sam and Mr. Skinner escape into the night just before the local natives attack the cabin and burn it down. Again I feel uncomfortable with the depictions of the spear-wielding natives, but here Big Sam has turned good and I think the author (who was obviously not Chester Gould) was simply using stereotypes common of the time period.
The trio flee to a French Missionary named Pierre on the island and use his radio to call for help from the American Navy, which is due to arrive some time later. Tracy then goes out alone to scout around and returns to find the mission has been attacked. He finds a shot and wounded Big Sam, surrounded by pile of natives he has killed while Skinner and Pierre are missing. Sam tells him they were taken to the top of Monte Diable, the volcano at the center of the island where they will be sacrificed to the Snake God, Damballa. Sam goes on to say he was shot by a “Jap”, common slang of course for Japanese, whom the United States was at war with in 1944. The story then briefly visits Patton and the captives and we learn the Japanese are working on a deep plot to turn South America, Africa and black Americans to their side in plans to conquer the world. The intended new Emperor of Africa (a lion-pelt wearing fellow) is on the island to sway the Bongillan’s to the Japanese side. Good grief!
Tracy disguises himself with a body sized wooden tiki mask and joins a parade of natives to the top of the mountain where he arrives just in time to stop Ramji Dass from using a red-hot poker to put out Sir Dawson’s eyes. He fires his weapon, killing Dass and then gets into a gun fight with Japanese soldier’s as the natives scatter. Dick and his group are soon pinned down by anti-aircraft guns the Japanese have hidden on the mountain. With perfect timing, U.S. dive bombers arrive and fire on the anti-aircraft, turning the mountain-top into a war zone. A bomber is hit and the pilots parachute out (only non-American’s can die in this book) before the plane crashes into the volcano, triggering an eruption. The remainder of the story has Tracy and team racing down to escape the exploding mountain while the Japanese soldiers go into a frenzy and kill each other because as every American knows they are really uncontrollable fanatics or something. Ok, I admit I’m getting a bit punchy here.
Finally, all is well that ends well. The Japanese plot has been foiled, Sir Ronald goes back to making his rubber and I’m left wondering why the author didn’t write a fun Voodoo story…then I remember this was World War II. Dick Tracy on Voodoo Island has Chester Gould’s name on it but the story was obviously ghost written, possibly by Rutherford Montgomery who reportedly wrote several Whitman published Dick Tracy books between 1941 and 1946. I certainly see some style similarities to two novels, Dick Tracy – Ace Detective (1943) and Dick Tracy and the Night Crawler (1945). So there you have it, Dick Tracy on Voodoo Island, finally documented. I’m going to forgive the book its issues due to the age and the war, but I certainly can’t recommend it.