The second Doc Savage adventure, originally published in the pulp magazine of that name in April 1933 and first reprinted in paperback by Bantam in 1965 as the eighth in their reprint series, pales in comparison to the first. In fact, it pales so far that it becomes actively annoying at points. Lester Dent had set up his hero well, but hadn't figured out how to use him properly yet.
It starts well enough, with a mysterious murder. Jerome Coffern, chief chemist at the suitably generic Mammoth Manufacturing Company, is less than a hundred yards from the car of Doc Savage, with whom he's about to have dinner, when he's attacked by two men. They use an air pistol to shoot him with a special substance that melts him down to nothing: flesh, bone, clothing, even the very pavement he dies on, disappearing entirely. All that's left for Savage to identify the body is his right wrist which conveniently wears a watch that Doc gave him.
Unfortunately Dent lets himself go in the ensuing chase scene. As I mentioned in my review of the first Doc Savage story, 'The Man of Bronze,' the reason he's so much more fun than Superman, the sadly more famous character inspired by him, is because he's a human being who has to work daily to maintain his physical and mental powers, rather than merely some alien who mysteriously has them just by being born. However, while I can buy into a man so dedicated that he becomes good at everything, there are limits.
In the first book, the only really overt example of Doc's talents exceeding viability is his decent command of ancient Mayan. That's a real stretch, but everything else is at least believable in a great heroic character worthy of chronicling in a pulp series: his speed, his strength, his acrobatic skill. Real people do all that stuff; he just happens to do all of it.
Here, any such grounding is thrown out of the window almost immediately. Doc finds Coffern's body and chases the car that screeches away, beginning with a spectacular leap over a fence. Here's the rest of that paragraph: 'The height exceeded by more than two feet the world record for the high jump. Yet Doc went over it with far more ease than an average man would take a knee-high obstacle. The very facility with which he did it showed he was capable of a far higher jump than that.'
This is clearly ridiculous and it's followed by him overhauling the vehicle on foot and staying underwater longer than pearl divers amid apparently no end of other record-breaking feats. It's the wrong direction to take Savage (albeit the right way to take Superman) but Dent didn't know that yet. Doc Savage shouldn't be superhuman, he should just be closer to the limits of what a human can be than the rest of us.
Dent makes other bad decisions here about Doc's character development, but fortunately also some good ones about the world which he inhabits. The most obvious other bad call is the one that renders him surprisingly violent. In the first book, the main villain does die but by his own hand, choosing to avoid capture by Doc Savage by leaping off a huge cliff to his death. Here, Doc actually metes out justice by killing the bad guys. Sure, they're all trying to kill him, but it wouldn't take too many stories for Dent to put Doc above that sort of thing, capturing rather than killing and sending the criminals with their defective minds off to be cured in an upstate clinic.
The best decision here ties to the locations, which are pulp era mainstays. Doc follows those initial killers to a former pirate ship, now moored and used as a cross between a haunted house attraction and a museum. It's just what this second story needed to host a set of battles, full of traps and pitfalls and secrets. Then it's a submarine underneath the ship. Eventually it's the land of terror of the title, a remote island in the South Pacific, a former volcano with steep sides that helped keep it stuck in prehistory, full of wild plant life and, of course, dinosaurs. The first book had Doc and his men travel to a lost civilisation, inspired by Rider Haggard, while the second sees them in a lost world much closer to the Arthur Conan Doyle model.
Another standard for the pulp era is how the boss villain is kept hidden throughout, even from his own men. Dent used this in the first and second stories, here having Kar, the mysterious leader of these killers, talk to them only over the phone, albeit one on a dedicated circuit so he can't be far away from them. Similarly archetypal is the use of cool technology with wild names, such as the Smoke of Eternity, which is the amazing acid that found use right at the outset with the melting of Jerome Coffern and would soon find still more devastating purpose as the story progresses.
So, on the one side, this is a rollicking adventure following all the right traditions of the pulp era: good guys chasing bad guys around the city and around the world, throwing spanners into their works and then cutting their power off at the source. We even get points where we follow some of Doc's men rather than Doc himself, giving supporting players like Renny a chance in the spotlight. All this is positive stuff, making it as fast-paced and action-packed a ride as 'The Man of Bronze,' if not more so.
The flipside contains those bad decisions. The choice to make Doc more than human lessens him in our eyes because it moves his accomplishments out of the theoretical reach of his readers. Sure, we can still root for him and cheer when he saves the day, but we can't really believe that, even with a two-hour daily exercise regimen and all the right circumstances, we could become this Doc Savage. The choice to have him kill, even when justice is served by the act, darkens him morally and makes him harder to support. It takes a revenge-driven character like Batman to make darkness the right way to go. Doc Savage is the inspiring hero who's above such pettiness, just not yet.
In this instance, the negative dominated the first half of the book for me but the positive took over for the most part when Doc and his men left New York for the South Seas. Sadly they take a character with them in good faith even though he's clearly up to no good and we know precisely how that's all going to turn out in the end. It doesn't help our trust in Dent's plotting or, indeed, in Doc's judgement. It's the one human thing he does in this book and it's the one we didn't want.
Next up is one I don't think I've read before: 'Quest of the Spider,' the third in the original pulp run but left by Bantam to be their 68th reprint in paperback. I wonder how long the violent superhuman Savage will remain before he calms down to be the hero we know and admire. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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