THE MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN
By John C. Bruening
John Bruening’s second novel in his Midnight Guardian pulp series answers the question; Can one have too much of a good thing? Sadly the answer in this case is most definitely. We recall reviewing the first book in this series, “Midnight Guardian – Hour of Darkness” and at time thinking it was a bit long for a pulp thriller. We were concerned about Bruening failing to understand the basic tropes of what made the pulps work. If he continued to produce overly long books, then they would only serve to deaden the impact of his fiction. Which is exactly what has happened with “Annihilation Machine.”
The basic plot is a familiar one with most pulp readers. It is 1938 and a mad, disfigured German scientist calling himself Sensenmann has been smuggled into the U.S. and is threatening to destroy Union City with a powerful machine that annihilated buildings from miles away with uncanny accuracy. Naturally he’s working for Hitler and the Nazi High Command. That’s it. Nothing overly complicated. Then it is up to Assistant District Attorney Jack Hunter to stop him as the masked vigilante, the Midnight Guardian.
John C. Bruening is a very good writer and he has created some really terrific characters with this series. Unfortunately he falls into the trap of being so meticulous in his storytelling that he has to put down every single incident, conference meeting and interview as if each were so vital to the overall book. Not true. Had Bruening had the benefit of a veteran pulp editor, he could have easily trimmed his massive tome by a hundred pages and still told his story; only a whole lot faster and meaner. Pacing is a crucial element to any pulp thriller and most of this book’s middle section seems to be locked into Snail Gear.
Another irksome point is the writer’s refusal to name his hero. Let me clarify. In the majority of classic masked avenger pulps, the classic writers understood the duality of the hero once he, or she, assumed and second identity. Thus when writing his Spider adventures, Norvell Page would not call his hero Richard Wentworth, while he was in action as his crimefighting hero. He would call him The Spider. Whereas throughout “Annihilation Machine,” Bruening eschews calling his protagonist anything but his Christian name. Thus it is always Jack Hunter in action and never the Midnight Guardian. We have no clue what the author has against calling him by his colorful title? It’s almost as if he were embarrassed to be writing pulp.
In the end, “Midnight Guardian – Annihilation Machine” is a good book by a good writer. We simply believe it could have been better.