From September 1943, this is the oddest of the Avenger books, and it's significantly the only one that Warner did not reprint before starting the new books by Ron Goulart. Reportedly, wartime paper shortages meant this issue had very limited circulation. I would swear that Harold A Davis (who ghosted for Lester Dent on some of the Doc Savage adventures) had a hand in writing this -- well, he had already seen print as "Kenneth Robeson". The story has a lot of his whimsical, anything-goes style.
The Bilious Beetle himself is a typical masked supervillain with a convoluted plot to take over America's soft drink industry (the irony is that soda gives him heartburn, hence 'biliious'). We know that he's one of the members of the board of SuperSweet Cola, but none of them are given much motivation for the crimes and the fact that they all have names like Clovis Winterbottom, Leeson Van Biesel, and Obadiah Polkinghorn make it hard to keep them straight in the reader's mind. In fact, Polkinghorn is brutally killed in the first chapter but is then mentioned as being at the final meeting of the board with no further explanation.
Benson himself is in good form this case, keeping one step ahead of the mastermind, catching a thrown dagger in his teeth, stopping to rescue babies in carriages and even help change the flat tire on an old farmer's truck. But one reason to suspect Paul Ernst didn't write this story is that The Avenger's face-molding ability has been restored without explanation . Even stranger is that The Avenger can extend his arms and legs 'more than half again their normal length' in emergencies, allowing him to reach a switch eight feet off the floor. I don't recall him ever doing this before.
I did like the fact that the Bilious Beetle has been studying Benson's career and prepares for their meeting by gluing a inch-thick pad of rubber on his head, with a wig over it. When The Avenger tries his creasing trick, the unharmed Beetle laughs maniacally and knocks him out with a convenient shovel. The fact that the Bilious Beetle has a Greek henchman and chaffeur named 'Plato' hints the writer was trying to poke fun at a certain green-masked radio hero.
There is also a wonderful scene where Smitty inadvertantly comes upon Nellie Gray skinny-dipping (she's been covered in soot and is trying to get clean). As the cute blonde stands up and sees him, Smitty's remark that he's "a little disappointed" infuriates her and she doesn't talk to him the rest of the book.
While the actual plot is nothing but chases and captures and escapes, the inventive details make it fun to read. Benson uses disguises almost nonstep, confusing the crooks no end. At one point he knocks out two gunmen with gas and makes them both up to look like himself. When they wake up simultaneously and shoot each other, Benson snaps his fingers and says, "Palookas." And as much as I enjoy the use of subterfuge and misdirection, it's a little hard to accept the ending where we find out Josh Newton has been posing as Benson for most of the story-- Josh is much taller than The Avenger.
*Promotional art for an upcoming Moonstone collectionof new Avenger stories.