When I found a couple of issues of Argosy from 1935 & 1936 selling for low prices I decide to gamble again; the issues didn't contain any authors I was familiar with, but knowing the reputation of Argosy as a great adventure pulp which delved into every possible genre for material, I thought at the very least the issues would be worth sticking on a shelf next to my Weird Tales. I bought them with low expectations.
Now, let me tell you what I found in the 1935, Vol. 259 No. 6 issue of Argosy: "Black Ace" by George Bruce. I hadn't heard of the author before; I checked up on him and found he'd published a lot during the pulp era, but his stories hadn't seen much republication. And now I'm convinced that's a pity.
"Black Ace" is the story of Jefferson Rolfe, an African-American pilot; it is told through the eyes of Caucasian pilot Ken Morey. It begins in the days of the air circuses when Morey discovers Rolfe is offering an exhibition in Birmingham on the same day as Morey's circus. Thinking Rolfe might drum up extra business, Rolfe invites him into the circus. However, it quickly becomes apparent Rolfe has never actually flown a plane before. Impressed by Rolfe's courage, Morey offers to train him, but after months of work Rolfe still can't land a plane - he's "ground-shy." The men drift apart for years.
Eventually, the story shifts to Ethiopia; Morey is now selling combat aircraft around the globe and has offered his vehicles to Ras Tafari himself for use against the impending Italian invasion (the Italians aren't identified by name, but Ras Tafari is so there's little hope of readers missing which conflict this is). Rolfe winds up in Ethiopia as well, still trying to make something of himself - feeling that as a pilot, he could be an inspiration to other African-Americans. When the Italian bombers begin their assault, Rolfe finally has his chance.
I'm glad I had my expectations set so low because this story - WOW! - my summary doesn't do it justice. It's a great drama, very different from anything I've found in other popular entertainments of the time, primarily in how it depicts Rolfe; Rolfe is courageous, noble, well-spoken (described as having an "Oxford accent") and, in the closing pages, heroic. If it had been a film in '35, it would have likely starred Paul Robeson and it's the kind of part Robeson would have excelled at.
If this is the only great story George Bruce ever wrote, then I'm glad I found it. If he wrote anything else worth reading, I hope I'll soon find it!