The Torture Trust (Secret Agent X #1)
Brant House | Corinth Books | 1966 | 160 pages
Originally written in the thirties for a pulp magazine, several of the initial Secret Agent X series titles were reprinted by Corinth Books in the sixties. The never-named crime-fighting agent is a master of disguise, infiltrating and destroying criminal operations with his exceptional skills and ingenious gadgetry. Agent X is driven by a personal moral code, and is reviled by the police force as well as the criminal world. Intrepid newspaper reporter, Betty Dale, occasionally assists him in his campaign against evil, but she remains unaware of his true identity.
Investigating a string of acid-attack murders attributed to a cabal of villains known collectively as the Torture Trust, Secret Agent X assumes the identity of a low-level criminal to make contact with the group. Shadowing one of the black-robed members of the evil triad following an arranged secret meeting, X trails him back to an unremarkable house in the suburbs. Breaking into the man’s study, X discovers him to be Ronald Morvay, professor of psychology. Determined to uncover the motives of the Torture Trust and bring its remaining members to justice, X pursues a dangerous course of impersonations to infiltrate its inner core.
The biggest thrills in The Torture Trust derive from repeatedly placing its hero in impossible situations, trapped without hope of escape, that require use of his genius for quick-change disguise, or implementation of his unique arsenal of gadgetry. Whether caught in a police lock-down following a nightclub murder, or trapped in the secret headquarters of a criminal organization, Secret Agent X must utilize all the skills of his trade to free himself and keep his identity from being revealed. Conforming to serial adventure genre tropes, X must also rescue his colleague, Betty Dale, who is (naturally) kidnapped during the course of his investigation.
Although a certain suspension of disbelief is required regarding the equipment X must hide on his person to facilitate some of his high-wire persona changes (even Batman’s utility belt must surely pale in comparison), the pulpy fun of the escape scenarios more than compensates for the narrative convenience of having “just the right item” at hand.
Occasional footnotes by the author provide an almost exposé-like context for some of the agent’s exploits. We learn that X rarely eats regular food, but rather synthetic meals in pill form. He utilizes a radium-based paint to taunt his enemies (and the police), with the graphic letter “X” appearing on walls and phony business cards in his wake. Further, he possesses a moral code to never kill, equipping a gas gun and paralysis dart (in his shoe) that debilitates, rather than kills, his targets.
Establishing the groundwork for the series to come, The Torture Trust mixes elements from the adventure, spy, horror, and science fiction genres into a highly entertaining romp.