Today, 'Fear Cay', the nineteenth Doc Savage adventure, written by Lester Dent for the September 1934 issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine', is probably most remembered for featuring the second appearance of Pat Savage, Doc's niece, who shows up in search of adventure and promptly receives it, being mistakenly kidnapped and transported to the mysterious island of the title. However, it's well worth remembering for other things too.
For one, the MacGuffin of the piece is a 'mysterious weed' rooted (pun not intended) in antiquity. It's no spoiler to identify this as silphium, so important to the inhabitants of ancient Cyrene that they put it on most of their coinage. The reason Dent could get mileage out of this is because it may no longer exist, though its importance to Mediterranean cultures of the era is not in doubt. There's no consensus on what it was, if it still exists or why it might not, but legend suggests that the very last stalk of silphium was given to the Emperor Nero as a curiosity. Dent enhances its supposed medicinal benefits to the degree of bestowing immortality or, at least, extreme longevity.
The other is the character of Dan Thunden, the reason why silphium is the MacGuffin of our story. He's supposedly 131 years old, but he's still spry, described at points as an 'amazing acrobat' and a 'fighting cyclone', who is able to give Doc a run for his money. However, while his extreme age and anomalous condition make him interesting to the cast of this story, he's interesting to us because such stand-out characteristics would normally ensure his place as the villain of the piece, but he remains firmly his own man. Or, as he says in his southern accent, 'Old Dan Thunden is wukkin' foah himself.'
The real villain is a man named Santini, who runs the gloriously named concern, Fountain of Youth, Inc. He stumbled upon Thunden, a captain who sailed the Sea Nymph out of New York in 1843 when he was a forty-year-old man, and decided that opportunity was knocking. His mistake, as we might imagine, was to attempt to keep Doc Savage out of his business, an attempt that naturally backfired and, in fact, brought Doc Savage right into his business. You'd think these villains would learn, almost twenty novels into the series!
While this is far from the most original Doc Savage yarn yet, Dent was clearly having fun with the story and mixing a few things up. Perhaps the most formulaic aspects to these novels are the beginnings and the endings, but this one starts out a little differently to normal because Doc apparently screws up. You won't be too surprised to find that he doesn't really and his collapse on a New York street after picking up a leather pocketbook is all part of a counter to the trap he knew full well he was triggering, but it's a new approach to bring him in that I appreciated.
However, he does fall for one of Santini's tricks soon afterwards, while attempting to meet Kel Avery at the airport on his arrival, as this person is set up to be the key character to the story. Doc and his men fall prey to a simple diversionary tactic, not realising that Kelmina Avery is a) female and b) the well-known movie actress, Maureen Darleen, who's arriving on the same flight. I always enjoy when Doc slips up, not to see the hero of the story fail but because he does it so rarely and it reminds us that he is, contrary to billing, human. To me, his flaws are the best way to emphasise his talents.
Instead, it's Pat Savage who gets to Kel Avery, just in time to be kidnapped alongside her, though she is bright enough to convince the crooks to let 'her maid' go, thus delivering the real Kel Avery into Doc's capable hands. After all, even if he gets fooled on occasion, he doesn't stay fooled for long! It's a clever way for Dent to kill two birds with one stone: highlighting Doc's admittedly infrequent fallibility and, in the process, giving Pat the opportunity to shine by demonstrating her abilities.
Her first appearance, in 'Brand of the Werewolf', wasn't a great one, not least because she succumbs to the jitters, so prompting Doc to knock her out to carry her across a chasm. She did have possibility, as she rescued herself as often as she found herself kidnapped, but she didn't seem like anyone whom Dent might have considered bringing back. After all, this is a notably testosterone-fuelled series for men, with its alpha male hero, who ignores the attentions of women, and his five male sidekicks, who rarely get an opportunity to do otherwise. Monk and Ham do occasionally vie for the attentions of the latest leading lady, but always get precisely nowhere because her eyes are always on Doc, who fails to return the look. However, Pat, even in proto-form in 'Brand of the Werewolf', was a wonderful way to counter that lack of a heroine and this first return to the series underlines it. No wonder she would be back so often in future novels; she's the character whom, to the powers of hindsight, was so obviously missing from most of the prior ones.
Most of the story continues as we might expect, once aware of the wildcard that Dan Thunden plays. It's restricted to New York and its environs for half the novel, before we chase off to the island of Fear Cay to spend the other half on location in a suitably dangerous environment with its abundance of caverns and tunnels and traps, not to mention its underground sound that sends men fleeing in abject terror. There are other aspects of note though which tie, as is so often the case, to the time the novel was written, not just historically but also linguistically.
The most telling historical angle is highlighted by Da Clima, the big bodyguard of Kel Avery, being afraid of the speed at which Doc drives when in pursuit of the kidnappers of his employer. Dent describes him as having even bigger muscles than Doc, but that makes him 'a trifle muscle-bound', so Doc's physique is superior. It may have made sense at the time, but it's hard today to buy into a tough bodyguard turning to jelly at a mere 85mph.
Linguistically, I'll skip quickly past the transliteration of Dan Thunden's southern accent in lines such as, 'Belay yoah jaw an' walk up to that shanty' or 'Quick! Befoah they ha'm mah granddaughtah.' Instead, I'll call out the spelling of 'blonde' with an 'e'; given that I still see that in everyday use today, I wonder why Americans don't just buckle under and put it back where it belongs.
There aren't many slang terms being used here for a change, but I did puzzle over 'Doc Savage and his scuts', knowing them only as the tails of rabbits, but apparently it was a pejorative Irish term to describe someone seen as 'foolish, contemptible or objectionable'. Dent was certainly in an Irish mood, as he has a NYPD cop use the word 'begorra' twice in two lines (without ever mentioning he's Irish). My favourite, though, comes in dialogue from Monk:
'That old yahoo, Dan Thunden, is sure a lick-splitting freak,' the homely chemist declared. 'Imagine a gink a hundred and thirty-one years old being able to hop around like he can.'
I had to raise a smile at 'lick-splitting freak', but I looked up 'gink' and found that it's another pejorative term for someone seen as 'foolish or contemptible'. I wonder if Lester Dent had bookmarked the page for 'contemptible' in his book of synonyms.
From the perspective of series progression, we're given the revelation that, in addition to Doc's honorary commission in the NYPD, he holds another as a postal inspector, as confirmed by a card that's signed by the postmaster general. In our internet-dominated world, it's odd to even think such a role even exists, but it's an important one, even prompting feature films back in the thirties to promote that profession as a heroic one. We're also introduced to another of Doc's vehicles. This one's a truck of the sort commonly used by grocers for deliveries, but it's armour-plated, with a variety of portholes for guns and tyres that are filled with sponge rubber rather than air.
'This, she some bus,' comments Clima, and he's not wrong. However, for all its interesting aspects, I don't think he could realistically have said, 'This, she some novel.' It's a decent one, but perhaps not the return for Pat Savage that we might have hoped for. But hey, she'll be back again next month for 'Death in Silver'. See you then. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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