'The Man of Bronze' kicked off 'Doc Savage Magazine' in March 1933, meaning that 'The Phantom City', the tenth monthly novel, arrived in December, and it certainly felt like a Christmas present to me!
For a start, it's a rip-roaring adventure in the classic style. There's an Edgar Rice Burroughs influence discernible here, though Doc and his men are kept very much down-to-Earth even whilst visiting the Phantom City of the title. That's because, while it's surely fictional, it's located in a real place where lost cities are likely to be waiting to be discovered.
I've mentioned before I how I prefer more grounded locations to some of the wilder choices Lester Dent made in these early Doc Savages, but while 'The Land of Terror' was just a cheap attempt to pretend that prehistory lasted on one South Sea island and 'The Sargasso Ogre' was set in a romanticised version of the Sargasso Sea, 'The Phantom City' is much more believable.
Doc reaches it by travelling through a subterranean river flowing beneath the desert of Rub' Al Khali, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula that encompasses a quarter of a million square miles of sun-drenched devastation. The frankincense route went through there a couple of millennia ago and the likelihood of cities lost beneath the sands is large, such as Iram of the Pillars, mentioned in a lot more fiction than just this novel.
Today, the Rub' Al Khali is as empty and almost as unexplored as it was in 1933 and it's even more shocking to us to realise that there's somewhere on God's green that is so large and so unexplored even today. The realisation instilled in me at least a little of the wanderlust surely felt by all the Victorian explorers who went off to far-flung corners of the world to fill in the gaps in the map. Frankly, the Phantom City of the title is a little more believable in 2016 than the beginning of the book with the people of Manhattan not looking twice at shifty Muslim terrorists.
There's much more to love here too, some of which is obvious and some more subtle, found only through reading these books in the order of publication in 'Doc Savage Magazine'.
Most obvious is perhaps the introduction of Habeas Corpus, Monk's pet pig, whom he uses to torment Ham. He paid one qirsh for him, equivalent to about four American cents, in the coastal Arabian town of Bustan. He's described here as 'a razor-back with legs as long as those of a dog, and ears so big they resembled wings.' One neat comparison is that the pig is 'as homely a specimen of the porker species as Monk was of the human race.'
Still prominent is the use of sign language. Doc and his men have already used it to communicate in silence, but here they find that it's a way to talk with the exotic white-haired girl in satin Arabian trousers who's at the centre of the mystery. It turns out that she's from the Phantom City, where she learned sign language from a westerner who found his way in and sparked the succession of events that lead to this story. The neat part is that she can't speak English aloud, as he had been rendered a deaf mute by torture, but can approximate it within sign language.
There's a clear demonstration of just how much clout Doc has in New York, along with an explanation of why he has it. At one point, Mohallet, the villain of the piece, is trapped in a building with his men, surrounded by police officers. Doc goes in with special infrared goggles and, to make them effective, he has the lights of Broadway turned off. That's serious! How can he get away with that? Well, his surgical skills saved the police commissioner's life. That's how!
Those paying closer attention will see that this novel follows on overtly from the previous one, as Dent had been doing for half a dozen books thus far, but he also explicitly references an earlier book, 'The Polar Treasure'. Mohallet seeks out Doc so he can rent the Helldiver, the submarine he read about months earlier when Doc and his men travelled up towards the pole. This, along with the introduction of Habeas Corpus, suggests that Lester Dent was starting to really build the world of Doc Savage rather than just churn out novel after novel.
He also seems to have improved considerably as a writer. As much as I've found great enjoyment in the first nine Doc Savage novels, there have been some common problems that have riddled them through and I've highlighted three of them in particular. I'm very happy to report that 'The Phantom City' doesn't suffer from any of these three issues. Dent addressed them all! Now, let's see how long that lasts.
The first is that Doc himself is apparently without flaw. Sure, he's the superhuman lead to this series, so we expect him to be something special, but any hero needs to have a flaw to ground them. Dent may be able to get away with mentioning Doc's daily two-hour routine as explanation and he's keen on highlighting that, if anyone else did that from childhood, they'd potentially be just as special as Doc, but even a single flaw would be a great aid to humanising him. Here, Doc walks into not merely one trap but two! The man is human after all! Thank the stars for that!
That issue leads to another, which is that Doc being so incredible means that his five assistants rarely get anything to do and we wonder why they hang around. Only rarely in these early novels do they do much of anything except fail so Doc can succeed and I can count on the fingers of one hand how often they justify their billing. Fortunately, they all have purpose here: Monk uses his skill in chemistry to save them from a trap, Johnny's knowledge of geology is put to good use and Renny's navigation is tested. We're even let in on the fact that Long Tom has a museum full of mementos from their adventures, even if we don't get to see it; he's sure to place one of Mohallet's magnetic guns into it. Sure, Ham is mostly comic relief this time out, but we can't have it all!
Finally, there's the fact that many of these novels seem like Dent kept on writing until he was about to hit his word limit and had to conjure up an ending of sorts in the last couple of pages. This one feels more like he actually wrote an outline and planned out the progression so that it ends appropriately with everything wrapped up neatly over quite a few pages. I can't understate how good that felt after so many rapid fire conclusions.
There is a weaker side, but it's far outweighed by the stronger stuff this time out. Mohallet is a decent foe, but he pales in the shadow of most of the recent villains, like the Pirate of the Pacific, the Sargasso Ogre and the Green Bell. The admirable attention given to Doc's journey towards the Phantom City means that we don't spend as much time there as we'd like. A goof is apparent there too, given that Monk really should have figured out what we wait until the last page to discover. An earlier goof assumes that Manhattan would fall into sheer darkness when Broadway is shut off, as if there's no rest of the city to address too.
As I've highlighted some interesting use of language in previous reviews, I'll call out what appears to be an oxymoron. Those four Muslim terrorists stalking the streets of Manhattan weren't frequent bathers, so they 'reeked faintly'. Now, I'd have thought that 'reeked' was a word to use only when 'smelled' isn't sufficient, but apparently it may have been a mere synonym back in 1933. If only I had Johnny's language skills!
There's something to enjoy in each of Dent's novels from 1933, but some are clearly more enjoyable than others. Looking back on the first ten, though, I've had a blast with the last three. 'The Sargasso Ogre' had the location, 'The Czar of Fear' had the substance and 'The Phantom City' combined both into what is surely the best Doc yet.
Let's see if next month's instalment makes it four winners in a row, because 'Brand of the Werewolf' marks the introduction of a new regular character and was the number one best seller of the entire Bantam paperback reprint line, as it sold 185,000 copies. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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