The core story is clearly the old mainstay of industrial takeover through overly dramatic subterfuge. It's the same scheme that plagued the lumber mills of Louisiana way back in 'Quest of the Spider' and the same scheme that hit the factories of New York State in 'The Czar of Fear'. Here, the only change is that it's the nitrate industry in Antofagasta, Chile, which the globe by my bed tells me is a real place, is under threat.
If the story isn't new, at least the mystery that Dent crafts around it is worthy of note. He wasn't close to being up to the task when he wrote 'Quest of the Spider', ignoring the bad guy for most of the book and so only vaguely generating any interest in his exploits. In 'The Czar of Fear', he was much more on the ball, weaving red herrings around the villain throughout, so that we were still guessing at the identity of the Green Bell when it was finally unveiled on the last page. Here, the Little White Brother is a constant danger to the owners of Chilean nitrate mines, willing and able to use his mysterious power to generate earthquakes precise enough to be used as a tool of assassination, in an area where quakes simply don't happen.
That's a great gimmick to begin with, but it's aided by some clever plotting that begins with the opening chapter that sees Monk get suckered into leaving a fake journalist on his own inside Doc's headquarters. It's not as ridiculous as it sounds, as he does funnel five hundred bucks from the man into feeding the homeless, but he does drop the ball. Translated into the traditional unintentionally hilarious 1934 slang: 'I guess I pulled a boner, Doc.' Incidentally, the new instance of archaic vernacular here is the surprising use of shaggin’ to mean 'following', as in someone surreptitiously trailing someone else.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ensuing cat-and-mouse chase through New York for a whole slew of reasons. One is that the Little White Brother's henchmen aren't all idiots, as we've come to expect from the henchmen of sinister arch‑villains; Velvet is rather capable, even if he's a second or third stringer. Another is that we're never quite sure who's in control throughout; it clearly isn't John Acre, who has travelled from Chile to see Doc, only to be kidnapped once he arrives in New York, but is it the men who kidnapped him or the men in hot pursuit who have the edge?
The inclusion of the Midas Club in this chase is another boon, given that Ham has half a dozen rooms in this rather exclusive place, a club restricted to those with over five million dollars in the bank that they had earned themselves; inheritance doesn't count. What's more, within the Midas Club, Doc's men bump into an 'entrancing beauty' in 'exotic evening attire', namely one Helen Tipperary 'Tip' Galligan. She's but the newest in a long line of the tough, capable and headstrong young ladies who keep showing up in Doc's adventures, and she's cast from the same go‑getting mould as thirties newspaper reporter, Torchy Blane, who was just as clearly a prototype for Lois Lane as Doc Savage was for Superman.
This long and tense, if often paused, chase scene, is reminiscent of the similar one that opened 'The Lost Oasis' but it's more grounded and it almost seems like an afterthought when Doc decides that he and his men should fly down to Chile. Until two thirds of the way through the novel, we're more aware than they of the earthquakes, because of the frequency by which headlines are neatly orated in the background by newsboys in the street.
The best thing about waiting so long to travel is that it gives Dent a real opportunity to build John Acre, the character we don't quite meet early on and who gains in mystery with each chapter that passes. He's kidnapped, he's safe; he's in New York, he's in Chile; he's dead, he's alive. Wisely kept on the periphery of things until we get to South America, he's a great character and he's used well in all his guises. It's worth mentioning that the scene in which he 'dies' is a highly impactful one from an emotional standpoint and it's handled in an interestingly offhand way. I won't spoil what happens, but it's bigger than anything in any of the previous novels.
Dent was definitely working at a level of complexity higher than in the stories he wrote a year earlier, 'The Man Who Shook the Earth' finishing up his first twelve months on the job. The repetition of background information like Chilean earthquakes is a great example of something he wasn't up to when he began to tell Doc's stories. The multiple John Acres are another. A third is the inclusion of an odd little mystery of little substance but much interest: doors begin to mysteriously open at Doc's approach, which fascinates Monk, who tries to figure out how his boss is doing it. This is inconsequential to the plot, which was the be-all and end-all within the early books, but it paints an engaging texture behind the story and it builds character within Doc's team too.
Something else worthy of note is how Dent was really starting to see people like Monk as individuals in their own right, not simply as members of Doc's team. Early in the series, readers could be excused for wondering why Doc even had a team, given that he did everything himself and they didn't contribute much to proceedings, except perhaps to slip up every once in a while to cause a hiccup that keeps the story moving along. This does improve as the series progresses, and the last few novels saw a conscious effort on Dent's part to have Doc allot jobs to each of his men to justify their presence.
Here, though, for perhaps the first time, one of Doc's team is given some attention that has nothing to do with the wider story at all. Doc is absent from the first chapter because he's demonstrating to 'two score of famous surgeons' 'an extremely delicate piece of work to remove a paralytic condition from the nerve center of a man's left eye.' That eye belongs to Johnny, the bespectacled geologist of Doc's team, who has suffered from the condition since the Great War. Of course, I could only wonder whether Long Tom might receive similar treatment soon for the buck teeth that were knocked out during 'Brand of the Werewolf'.
All in all, this book felt like a stopgap, content to retread familiar old ground with new characters. Like its immediate predecessor, its greatest successes are little things obvious in hindsight rather than anything that might have pulled readers in back in February 1934. Perhaps that's why Bantam waited to reprint it; it was the twelfth novel published in 'Doc Savage Magazine', but the 43rd of the paperback reprints. Only 'Quest of the Spider', one of the weaker entries in the series thus far, took longer to reach fresh eyeballs. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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