When we last left Marshall Armstrong — more famously known as Little Big Horn survivor George Armstrong Custer — in Armstrong Rides Again!, the Latin American island where he served as army commander was melting from volcano lava and sinking into the Pacific Ocean. Incredibly, the Armstrong saga comes to an even more spectacular conclusion in H.W. Crocker III’s final book of the Custer of the West trilogy, Armstrong and the Mexican Mystery. This skillfully written novel provides entertaining action, adventure, mystery, horror, and wit, along with an H.G. Wells–like blend of science fiction and modern social metaphor, pitting Armstrong against the secular-progressive global threat of Atlantis.
The book is a worthy successor to not just Wells, with a guest appearance by Dr. Moreau himself, but also to his fellow masters, Jules Verne (in the form of a Nautilus-like submarine), George MacDonald Fraser (the Flashman novels), Bram Stoker (with werewolves rather than vampires), and Ian Fleming, most prominently his novel Dr. No, with its mechanical monsters, SPECTRE-style lair, and scientifically obsessed villain.
As in the first two books, the amusingly pompous yet genuinely heroic Armstrong narrates the story — perhaps unreliably — via a letter to his wife, “Libbie” (Elizabeth Bacon Custer). Intriguingly, this time there are two stories within the story that set the play in motion. The first is that of a tough former Confederate mercenary named Callahan, the other of Father Gonçalves, a minor character in the previous book that almost steals this one as a delightful Father Brown–Captain Nemo hybrid.
Crocker is a superb action writer, equally adept at scene setup and payoff.
In a San Francisco club room, Callahan recounts to Armstrong and company — including author Ambrose Bierce and shady San Francisco entrepreneur Burgos — how, after the “lost” Civil War, he joined Emperor Maximilian’s doomed army in Mexico and then drifted south to a remote village, where he killed a bunch of bandits only to be hung by the ungrateful townspeople. He survived the attempted execution and woke up in the desert with a gold cross and a flask left him by a Good Samaritan. Following serving 10 years in the French Foreign Legion, he now wants Armstrong to help him find the gold treasure and get revenge. Armstrong’s consent triggers a fun sequence of intrigue, double-cross, firefights, and even a naval duel, all before his team leaves America.
Crocker is a superb action writer, equally adept at scene setup and payoff. For instance, just before Armstrong leads a raid on a reputedly haunted mansion, his indelible Catholic Indian scout, Billy Jack, remarks: “Crow Indian can sense a wicked place. Crow people would say this place bad medicine.” The ensuing firefight near “Owl Creek Bridge” becomes the fictional inspiration for Bierce’s most famous work, the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. During the raid, Armstrong’s force — Bierce, Billy Jack, hunting dog Bad Boy, and two beautiful women, Rachel and Victoria, from the earlier books — witness a strange apelike creature fleeing the house.
The incident foreshadows the main villainy of the novel: bestial experiments by an anti-human power. This explodes in a thrilling fight between Armstrong and a boy werewolf aboard Father Gonçalves’ submarine. Over the wolf boy’s corpse, Bierce makes a ghastly yet pertinent comparison to our day: “What are physicians for? They thrive upon disease and die of health. In this case, a physician takes a mental disorder and graphs it onto the body.”
Father Gonçalves reinforces the concept in his tale of capture by the forces of Atlantis and his encounter with its science-worshipping, mankind-hating ruler, Faucon (the name’s being suggestive of a tyrannical medical leader in our day). Faucon’s contempt for the priest’s religion reflects the eternal conflict between “Enlightenment” and Faith, a discord that elevates the book to an intellectual level high above your standard modern fantasy novel.
More than Christianity, the Atlantean “philosopher-kings” despise children, wives, and mothers. Their laboratory, displaying a number of horrors, including an abortion machine, makes the ultimate argument against soulless science, all the more clearly when Faucon lauds it. His lines such as “Children are not sacrosanct — only your superstitions make you think them so” are more chilling than those of any cackling villain.
Disguised as royal representatives of a fictional European nation, Vandalia, Armstrong and company cross the Mexican desert toward Atlantis, pursued by an overwhelming enemy force, and are threatened by a tribe of Yaqui Indians. In a very funny business, “Count Pippernickel” — Armstrong — recognizes the independence of the Yaqui Nation from Mexico, not only saving his team’s lives but also winning allies for a thrilling battle against their pursuers.
Armstrong’s force also has a potential group of Christian allies, as described by Father Gonçalves, for the invasion of Atlantis: the “Nether People,” a population of conquistador descendants whom the Atlanteans enslave yet also fear. In his guise of Count Pippernickel, Armstrong gains an audience with Faucon and gets a lesson in evil not lost on the modern Left:
We keep our people afraid because it keeps us safe. They are safe because they are obedient: obedient to us, obedient to those who know better, who know more.… Teach your people to hate each other. Ridicule patriotism. Denounce traditions.… Deny the family. Reject Christian morality. Expose prayerfulness and piety as hypocrisy. Encourage people to see themselves as oppressed, and others as their oppressors.… Do that, and you destroy both our opponents and their Christian moral order.
The climactic, thrilling battle between unfiltered good and evil is one for the books. And Armstrong and the Mexican Mystery is as fine and fun a book as they come.