The eighth Doc Savage novel, ‘The Sargasso Ogre,’ which I reviewed last month, was a great example of an adventure elevated by its location. Sure, the Ogre was a decent foil for the Man of Bronze, but his lair dominated proceedings, given that it was the exotic Sargasso Sea itself. The same logic applied to earlier entries in the series as wildly diverse as 'The Man of Bronze,' 'The Lost Oasis' and 'The Land of Terror,' which respectively visit a Mayan valley in the fictional South American country of Hidalgo, an obscure oasis in the Egyptian desert and an island in the South Seas stuck in prehistory.
With book nine, regular writer Lester Dent takes a different approach, given that his location, a small industrial town in the Allegheny Mountains by the optimistic name of Prosper City, is rather routine. Instead, he plays up the villain of the piece, the Czar of Fear himself, generally known as the Green Bell, who's rather like the Gray Spider of the third novel, 'Quest of the Spider,' merely done right.
The fantastic cover by James Bama sets the tone wonderfully, with Doc Savage facing a set of mysteriously garbed enemies who look like a cross between the Ku Klux Klan and the Spanish Inquisition, but bathed in an eerie green light and blocking the way to what appears to be a whirlpool into another dimension but is presumably just a Prosper City mine tunnel. These are the followers of The Green Bell, a name echoed in everything from their outfits to the weird tones that he broadcasts over the radio to announce an impending death.
This cover hints at a timeless battle outside of our realm of reality but, in fact, this was a thoroughly grounded novel for November 1933, perhaps the most grounded in the series thus far. It reminds to a degree of 'The Red Skull,' if that book had spent most of its pages at the Arizona dam being threatened by Nick Clipton and his cronies. By reducing the introduction and expanding the key action, the book benefits not only from more substantial plot but also an admirable amount of social commentary.
1933 marked the heart of the Great Depression. Four years into an apparently endless slump, unemployment had reached one in four and working class men and women were seriously hurting. No wonder Dent wanted to pit Doc Savage against a mysterious and unscrupulous businessman who cares not about the workers in his town but only his own profitable future. Readers able to afford the dime an issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine' cost or able to borrow a copy from someone else would have identified with the decent townsfolk of Prosper City who want to work but are held back by a mysterious villain and thrilled to Doc's fight to get the town working again.
I mentioned in my review of 'Pirate of the Pacific' that Doc Savage doesn't fit easily into today's polarised political climate. He's outwardly right-wing, a man who epitomises the traditional American power of the individual, a man so confident of the moral high ground that he has captured criminals transformed surgically into upstanding citizens. Yet he often seems overtly left-wing too, a man who avoids the use of guns unless absolutely necessary because reliance on them makes a man weak, a man who donates his reward for keeping the Philippines safe into setting up a free hospital for the poor.
This dichotomy is very apparent here too. Doc clearly feels for the working men of Prosper City and he gives them all food and money, albeit as advance wages. He identifies with the common man in ways that make him feel like a trade union leader. Yet he gets the factories to work by outright buying them, just as a venture capitalist might do, albeit with the aim of selling them all back to their original owners once the problem at hand is solved, and at the same price to boot. Reading these Doc Savage novels in order is definitely a history lesson in how much America has changed in what is only eighty-some years.
The other heroes of the story, beyond Savage and his five close associates, could easily be read today as socialist activists: Jim and Alice Cash and their friend and mentor, Aunt Nora Boston, who starts a Benevolent Society to help those out of work. Back in 1933, these would more likely have been seen as angels or, at a time when the national spirit was called upon most, simply good Americans. The villains, on the other hand, like factory owner Judborn Tugg who sparks the decline of the town when he cuts wages for his workforce, are almost Dickensian in their willingness to put profit above human decency. Again, in 1933, he and his ilk would have been bad Americans as much as villains to hiss at and rail against.
I was impressed with the mystery behind Tugg's actions and those which soon followed to make the situation worse. Clearly there was evil intent behind everything but the endgame was kept neatly obscured by cliffhanging action and urgent need. 'The Quest of the Spider' was criticised for how weak the Gray Spider was as an evil mastermind, especially given that he's kept out of the story for the most part. The Green Bell is the evil mastermind that the Gray Spider should have been: active in his villainy, but still always at a distance, leading his meetings surreptitiously from below ground, even as his followers think he's the masked and cowled dummy in front of them.
I also enjoyed how I had to wait to see who he actually was, because so many people could have been the Green Bell, hidden behind a hood and a changed voice. I especially appreciated how he isn't ever actively identified at all, but only through a combination of observations after he's vanquished.
There's not as much cat and mouse action as in 'The Pirate of the Pacific,' but this is a very strong Doc Savage with a solid grounding in the troubles of the time and a suitably outré opponent to battle. Lester Dent was surely finding his stride at this point, with even the rapid ending more acceptable than usual. Each month I find myself looking forward to the next instalment more and more. Next up is December 1933's novel, 'The Phantom City.' ~~ Hal C F Astell
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