Joseph Allan Elphinstone Dunn was born in Great Britain. He traveled to the United States and Hawaii. He spent time in Colorado and San Francisco and settled on the East Coast in 1914. He was a prolific author, writing some one thousand stories, roughly half of which were westerns. He also wrote adventure stories and Atlantis stories set in the South Seas, plus juvenile fiction. He wrote an article on Jack London for Sunset magazine. The two became friends.
American John Carter (hmm….common enough name, but couldn’t have anything to do with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s guy on Mars, could it?) is a police commissioner on the New Hebridean Island of Vate, (or Efate) along with a British and French contingent who police their own countrymen, and the high commissioners who have control (maybe) over the native chiefs. It is still a place “where a dual British and French government holds sway over that archipelago of far-flung, savage isles, where the bushmen still serve man meat baked in the ovens and call it ‘long pig.’” See how the author slipped the mention of cannibalism right in the beginning?
Carter’s mother was a “Quebec Canadian,” and thus he speaks French. He also has a girl waiting for him back in the States. She has money, but he is determined to make his fortune before they marry.
While he is in his office studying Melanesian word lists, one of the natives by the name of Futu stops by and asks to see him.
“Come in, you rascal. Shut the door. Now what is it?”
Yeah. Class. Respect.
Futu tells him, “I catchum drum talkee. All same talkee come from Mallicolo. I think mebbe plenty trouble walk along that place.” The drum’s message was essentially: “White Mary, she speak too much trouble along Tomasi place, all same Mallicolo. She say boss polisimani come plenty quick. She say maybe matemate too soon.”
The reader is informed that “White Mary” refers to any white woman and “matemate” is murder.
Oh. This could be something serious! He pays Futu, who is happy to receive his coin, ‘cause, you know, he expects the new-found coin will help with the trouble he has been having with the magistrate.
After plying the British commissioner with booze, Carter interviews him about the “Tomasi place.” The reader gets a plot summary. John Carter gets his Lugar and his amphibian plane and then heads out.
According to the gossip supplied by the commissioner, Thomas began a mutual colonization project about three years earlier. That is, he and a group of investors got a plot of land where they might grow crops commercially while prospecting for minerals. It takes capital and doesn’t often return a profit. It gives a chance for Carter and the reader to get a heads-up on who all is involved.
The British commission admits he has received letters about a “chap named Burton” from the man’s family and his fiancée. They have not heard anything from him and want to know if something has happened. The commissioner is not overly concerned. Guys get out here, a long way from home. It is miserable. Things do not go as well as they had hoped, and they stop writing.
He also repeats what the reader already knows about the meanings of “White Mary” and “matemate.”
When Carter gets to the Thomas mutual colony, he finds things are worse than he expected. The man Thomas initially started the colony with, a Scotsman names Shields, has just committed suicide in his quarters. Two other men are missing. A third has gone to look for them. The sister of the third man, Claire Halliday, remains behind. Something strikes Carter as wrong with her. Is she ill? Is she merely exhausted? Certainly, Thomas is hovering over her closely. Something seems odd about the Filipino valet as well.
Before it all falls into place, there are a lot of narrow escapes and surprises, but Carter figures out the secret identity of one of the bad’uns early on after a search of their quarters turns up three items. The reader is not told what these items are until the end. One is ridiculous, but another is funny: a girlie magazine.
The main character is an American who is not in it for the long haul, but the whole piece is so steeped in colonial thinking, it is a wonder no one breaks out in a chorus of “Rule Britannia.”
This is largely an adventure/detective tale imbued not only with colonialism but racism. Natives are either “good” when they work with the westerners out of gratitude or “bad” when they don’t—the ingrates.
The New Hebrides gained independence in 1980 and are now known as Vanuatu.
Title: “The Drums Drone Death”
Author: J. Allan Dunn (pen name for Joseph Allan Elphinstone Dunn) (1872-1941)
First published: Clues, April 1939