Saturday, May 31, 2014

"The Mark of Zorro" by Johnston McCulley

I've been a Zorro fan for most of my life.  At a rummage sale when I was probably 8 or 9, I found an old picture book based on the Disney TV show, Zorro (1957-61).  I was already a lover of all things Old West by that age, and the dashing Zorro reminded me a lot of the Lone Ranger, one of my earliest heroes.  I read that already-well-loved book over and over, taping it back together whenever it fell apart a little more.  Later, I got to see some episodes of that show, plus the 1940 Tyrone Power movie, The Mark of Zorro.  I loved the show the most, as Guy Williams suited my adolescent self, with his bright smile and sly quips.  There was a Zorro TV show in the '90s that I liked too, though I only caught a handful of eps because my family didn't have cable.  And, of course, in 1998, Antonio Banderas donned The Mask of Zorro, and I love that movie version very, very much.  I also quite like Isabelle Allende's book.

So it's odd, since I've loved Zorro stories for almost 20 years, that I'd never read the original story until now.  And I'm regretting that, in a way, because I could have been enjoying this book for all these years!  It's such a zesty, fun-loving sort of story, exactly what would have pleased me in my teens.  Oh well, at least I've read it now!

And I've not only read it, I've listened to a breathtaking audio version too.  I actually listened to this a few months ago (my everlasting thanks to Deb Koren for telling me of its existence!), and then discovered when I started reading the book that, duh, this is what the audio series was based on!  Which means that I got to read this whole book with Val Kilmer's voice in my head, which... wow.  Talk about swoon-inducing!  In fact, I almost recommend the audio over the original book, based solely on the magnificence of Val Kilmer's vocal performance.

Okay, but anyway, the book we know now as The Mark of Zorro was originally a serial in a pulp magazine almost a hundred years ago, in 1919.  It was called The Curse of Capistrano, and the story caught the eye of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who changed the title to The Mark of Zorro when he made it into a movie.  The movie was such a smash that the whole serial was released as a book under his title instead of the original.  McCulley went on to write a bunch more books about Zorro, which is kind of surprising since at the end of the original, Zorro reveals his secret identity and declares he's going to get married and settle down, basically.  But whatever, sequels of swashbucklers are a good thing and I won't quibble.

I'd put a spoiler warning here, but surely you already know who Zorro's alter-ego is, right?  If not, skip this paragraph.  Anyway, as I read this, I wondered over and over how it would have worked for people reading it the first time who did NOT know that Diego Vega was also Zorro.  It was published in five installments, so there were probably about eight chapters per installment -- did readers realize that the reason Diego got so much page-time was that he was the hero?  Or were they like, "Dude, shut up about this annoying mush-brain and get back to the good stuff already!"

Okay, so the basic story is this:  back in the early days of California, when the Spanish dons held all the power and the mission priests held all the morality (remember, this is totally fictional), the pueblo of Los Angeles has a bunch of corrupt officials who beat the peasants and mistreat the natives and persecute their enemies and generally behave like Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham in your typical Robin Hood stories.  (It so happens that I'm also a major fan of Robin Hood.)  This guy in a black mask and cape, deadly with a sword, starts showing up and punishing evildoers.  He calls himself Zorro, which is the Spanish word for 'fox.'  Lovers of justice applaud him, lovers of easy money do not.

Also, there's this guy named Diego Vega, a young man who makes Sir Percy Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel (a probable inspiration for this story) look like a manly man.  He wants to read poetry, he wants to sit in the sunshine and dream, he's fatigued by everything, distressed and annoyed by everything -- and fabulously wealthy.  He asks Senorita Lolita Pulido to marry him, whines and fusses when she resents not being courted, and generally is the laughingstock of the pueblo.  And, weirdly enough, I actually started to think that his idea of not going through the process of courting, singing outside the senorita's window, not making of a fool of himself -- I thought that sounded rather sensible.  I think I would have accepted him.

Unless, like Lolita Pulido, I also had the dashing Zorro making virulent protestations of love every time I turned around.  

Anyway, this would never win any prizes for a beautiful writing style, but it's a cracking good story, full of adventure and intrigue, danger and romance.  I won't be waiting long before I read it again.

Particularly Good Bits:

"I am the friend of the oppressed, senor, and I have come to punish you" (p. 15).

Don Carlos had proved himself to be a courageous man in his youth, and now he was a wise man also, and hence he knew better than to participate in an argument between women (p. 37).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for violence and a man menacing a woman.

This is my 8th book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR Challenge, and my 9th for the Classics Club.


  1. Looks super fun and I'll definitely be checking it out! I haven't seen much else, but I love the 40's movie. :-)

    1. The edition I read (with the cover pictured -- Penguin Books, I think) had a really great introduction that discussed all the different movie and TV versions and recommended which ones were the most faithful, etc. The 1940s one with Tyrone Power is one of the more faithful, and I bought a copy myself recently because I haven't seen it in close to 20 years. I'm hoping to get to it soon!

    2. Hmmm. Maybe I'll have to track that one down and take it along in July, too (along with the Hemingway). And do let me know when you're able to watch it! Like I said, it's one of my classic favorites and I'd love to hear if you enjoy it. :-)

    3. Oh, dear. I'm afraid the book and film got a little mixed up in my reply there...hope you can sort it out all right! ;-)

      Anyhow, point of what I was saying, is: that I'm looking forward to reading it and am very excited for you to be seeing the 40's one soon! :-)

    4. Don't worry, I knew just what you meant. I'm quite sure I'll review the movie over on my other blog when I do get to see it :-) Then we can discuss it in the comments!

  2. I remember watching the old Disney Zorro too! I loved them! I'm going to have to check the books out now. :)

    1. Isn't that a wonderful show? My dad bought a whole bunch of eps on VHS years ago, and watched them a LOT.

  3. I've never read or seen Zorro, but this sounds really good! A western Robin Hood, mixed with The Scarlet Pimpernel sounds awesome. I'll have to wander the library for this one. :)

    1. I hope you can find it! I thought it was really fun, a good "summer vacation" book.

  4. Ooh, ooh, an audio version! I so did not know that, now I absolutely must track it down! I love this book so much.

    Our library had a reading program at least 6 years ago where Zorro was the theme and so Johnston McCulley's book was on the menu along with Allende's interpretation. I never had a chance to read hers, but I just found his book to be so fun and interesting. Like you, I've loved Zorro for a long time. Frank Langella makes a superb Zorro in an impossible-to-find rendition from the 70s, just love it.

    Oh, it's so nice to be hopping on people's blogs again. I missed you, Rachel!! And it's my own fault for letting myself get so caught up at work that I didn't make time for online stuff, like blogging with buddies. It's awesome to be back!

    1. The audio version is amazing. It's like an old radio drama, all acted out with different voices and sound effects, not just someone reading it. Though Val Kilmer reading it would have been wonderful too.

      I liked the Allende book, but it's quite long. And I like McCulley's better :-)

      I've missed you too! I fell about 2 weeks behind on blogs while at my parents' house, and am slowly catching up. Life happens! But I'm glad you're back :-)


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