Perseus Had a Helmet by Richard Sale

Perseus Had a Helmet by Richard Sale from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949.


We begin with a framing device. A young reporter is trying to pry a cover story from hard-boiled police detective Captain McGrail. Reluctantly, McGrail tells the following story:

There was a young man named Perseus who was something of a wimp. He worked with a beautiful woman named Ruby Miller, and he was head-over-heels in love with her. She had no interest in him, but kept stringing him along because he bought her things. She was also stringing along another coworker, a huge buff guy called Bill Jordan.

The company they work for announced its 50th anniversary party, a costume ball, and Perseus asked Ruby to go with him. She was on the outs with Bill at that point, so she said yes. Perseus then rented a Greek costume, to go with his name. The sword and shield were paper maché, but the helmet was real metal.

Just as he was about to leave, Bill arrived at Perseus’s house and told him to not show, that he was going to the dance with Ruby. When Perseus, in an uncharacteristic fit of bravery, refused, Bill beat him up and left him unconscious.

When Perseus woke hours later, he pulled himself together and decided to go to the party anyway. He donned his costume and helmet and got in a taxi, announcing the address to which he was headed. The taxi driver took one look at him and ran screaming from the car.

What follows is an account of the numerous people who run screaming from Perseus before he realizes that his helmet makes him invisible. Finally grasping his situation and the possibilities it affords, he “decided” that he was going to kill Bill Jordan and marry Ruby Miller. First, he broke into several stores and banks and stole $3,000 (like $50,000 now), so he and Ruby could live in style. Then, he sent Bill a note saying he would die at 8pm that night. Perseus stole a gun, climbed the fire escape to Bill’s apartment where he sat surrounded by police, and shot him in the head.

But the helmet appeared to have a mind of its own, falling off Perseus’s head as he climbed down. He was arrested and brought to Captain McGrail, where he confessed the whole story.

My impressions:

This is a reprint from 1938. It’s a real hard-boiled detective story! Or at least, the framing device is. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve complained about framing devices, the way that they set up extra characters and ideas that end up not being important. While that’s usually true, this device actually works well, because it is so obviously a framing device. We’re not being fooled, just told a story. It’s a relief to see.

I’m a huge fan of this writing style. Lots of clever turns of phrase and neat little metaphors. It’s exactly what you think of when you picture the inner monologue of a noir detective, except without being grimdark. It’s a tone thing – sentances like “Some sort of celebration of the fact that business had been going on more or less for fifty years.” It’s just fun!

Unfortunately, there are also lines like this one: “”As a salesman, he impressed you more like a female impersonator.”

So yeah. It’s mega cissexist, and also plain old sexist. Ruby, an adult woman and the love interest for the adult male protagonist, is described as “a smart little girl.” This is the first time that the sexism is a full plot point, too (yay?). The story is predicated on Ruby deliberately leading the two men on, which is a pretty obvious sexist stereotype, and sucks all the fun right out of reading it for me.

Add to that the fact that, if you’re awake, you can see the twist coming right away, and the reveal is still treated like it’s a big deal (it takes four hundred years for Perseus to realize he’s invisible) and it’s just not that great.

Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta

It’s not the worst, but given how many stories like this there are in the world, I bet you can find a better one.


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