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Nothing Can Save You

The Sky Walker  (The Avenger, volume 3)

By Paul Ernst 

8 Oct, 2023

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Paul Ernst’s 1939 The Sky Walker is the third volume in the Avenger series. The Sky Walker was published under the Kenneth Robeson house name.

One day the glasses in Chicago’s Mike’s Bar begin to sing, then shatter for no obvious reason. The mysterious phenomenon is accompanied by a seemingly causeless droning from the sky.

Chicago is distracted from the mystery by real tragedy. A pavilion collapses, killing seventeen people. The cause appears clear: substandard steel used in the supports, no doubt thanks to a greedy contractor. 

But this is not the cause at all. Evil! Evil is the cause! It’s up to Richard the Avenger” Benson and the increasingly large staff of Justice, Inc to reveal what is really going on.

[Standard fair for its day” vocabulary choice warning]

Each member of Justice, Inc has their specialty: retired adventurer turned fanatical crime puncher Benson is wealthy and possessed of superhuman senses, will, strength, reflexes, and thanks to shock-paralyzed facial muscles, prodigious powers of disguise. Behemoth Algernon Heathcote Smitty” Smith is even stronger and a skilled engineer. Fergus Mac” MacMurdie is a talented chemist. Petite Nelly Gray is even more fantastically wealthy than Benson1 and an adept martial artist.

Always on the watch for criminals of the sort conventional police are helpless to stop, Benson believes there is more going on in Chicago than shoddy building materials. He is quite correct. He is not fast enough to prevent an astonishing number of deaths.

Inventors Maximus R. Gant and his brother Robert Gant are unusual victims of this volume’s villain. Unlike the other casualties, whose deaths are a matter of wrong place, wrong time, the Gant brothers are targeted for death. For the evil plan of evil to work, the Gants cannot be allowed to share their recent inventions.

By the time Benson has worked out that the Gant brothers are in danger, both are dead. However, the armed killers who broke into the Gant household include racism amongst their failings. Consequently, they grossly underestimate the Gant’s African American servants, Tuskegee Institute graduates Joshua and Rosabel Newton. While the criminals manage to kill their primary target, Josh and Rosabel dispatch several of the attackers before Justice, Inc. arrives to deal with the remaining goons.

Impressed by the ease with which Benson sees through the Newton’s reflexive pose as simple-minded lackeys2, and convinced that Benson and company are the only hope the late Gant brothers have for justice, the Newtons ask to join Justice Inc. Benson, who is free of the prejudices of the day, immediately agrees.

What did the Gants invent? Why is someone targeting building after building for destruction? Most importantly, can the members of Justice, Inc survive the seemingly endless sequence of ambushes and death traps into which they wander, in this, the third of a vast number of adventures3?


I’d avoid spoilers but this is eighty-years old and also out of print.

The Avenger series is not a million miles away from superhero fiction. But it’s not quite there yet. One might expect the Big Bad to have some world-shaking purpose in mind, some grand vision that justifies in their mind killing dozens of innocents. In fact, their goal is astonishingly petty. The bad guy has land he wishes to make more valuable. He is essentially a Scooby-Doo villain. Not that this makes his victims any less dead.

Like most superheroes, Benson has a firm rule against killing … from a certain point of view. Although he carries a knife and pistol, he’s always careful to use his superhuman aiming skills to disable with harmless debilitating head wounds. However, Benson routinely creates deathtraps that could be easily avoided if only his opponent could resist giving into their worst impulses.

My reason for revisiting this volume in particular is because this is the volume in which African American Josh and Rosabel Newton first appear4. Pulp fiction wasn’t known for having many African American characters. Such examples who did appear tended to be comic figures of a sort that did not age well.

The Newtons are an exception. The text makes it clear early on that the Newtons are highly educated and graduated at the top of their class5. Any lower-class vernacular to which they might resort is put on, as a way of dealing with the prejudices of the white people with whom they routinely deal. Those prejudices effectively confer on the Newtons the power of invisibility. Who notices servants?

This is all in keeping with Ernst’s habit of writing characters who subvert (at least to a degree) expectations. The team’s big guy is also smart. The team’s smallest member is also their hand-to-hand combat expert. The team’s Scotsman is weirdly neither an engineer nor an economist.

Alas! Benson’s habit of recruiting victims into Justice Inc’s ranks means that every new recruit gives each person that much less space in which to shine. The Newtons get their moments but are hardly the focus. Ah, well. It could have been much worse. So much worse.

Something I overlooked when I first read this, back in the 1970s, is the degree to which the plot sends the crew, all of whom are ostensibly conscious that their enemies know who they are and will not hesitate to kill them, striding into trap after trap6. Survival is dependent on their prodigious abilities combined with the curious enthusiasm their enemies have for setting up elaborate, indirect, often slow-acting and always insufficiently monitored deathtraps, rather than just shooting Justice Inc members7. James Bond’s antagonists may have taken notes from Richard Benson’s.

Still, the plot moves briskly, and while The Sky Walker is very slight, it is also very short.

The Sky Walker is out of print. This surprises me a bit.

1: Nelly Gray is rich thanks to the mountain of Aztec gold recovered in The Yellow Horde. Doc Savage fans may remember he was funded in large part by Hidalgo gold. The role of Mesoamerican gold in American crime fighting cannot be overstated.

2: Josh wears a small gold key denoting his academic prowess and Benson understands its significance. He knows that these folks are smart and capable.

3: This book is the third of a very large number of installments in the Avenger series unless you only count the original Paul Ernst installments, in which case the number is smaller but still large.

4: I just came across an unsubstantiated claim that another Justice Inc. member, wrongly convicted Smitty, was supposed to be African American. Editorial intervened but not in time to have the illustrations changed. In the illustration, Smitty is African American. Or so I have read. Not having The Avenger, September 1939 to hand, I cannot confirm this. If true, Ernst was apparently determined to have sympathetic, competent African American characters on the team.

5: Despite the Newtons’ degrees, they’re working as servants for the Gants. Racism? The Depression? Probably not helping in the lab or they’d know more about what their bosses were working on. 

6: Perhaps the members of Justice Inc. ignore traps because they are sure they can escape them. We are told that Benson feels confident enough in his ability to survive the bad guys’ worst that one of his standard investigatory methods is allowing the other side to capture him, in order to learn more about his enemies.

7: Perhaps the bad guys aren’t trying to shoot our protagonists because their aim is usually bad. The bad guys invariably miss. Corrosive effect of evil on the eyesight? Hand tremors?