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Red Snow
Doc Savage #24
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 139pp
Published: Originally 1935 Bantam 1969

Regular writer Lester Dent returned to 'Doc Savage Magazine' in February 1935, in between Richard Sale adapting one of his outlines in 'The Mystic Mullah' and W. Ryerson Johnson adapting another in 'Land of Always-Night'. This return to regularly scheduled programming makes the former feel out of place in the flow of the series, with its yellow peril villain and everyone in Doc's group playing their part. Here, we're focused in on Doc and the double act of Monk and Ham, with a brief appearance by Pat. 'There were three other members  of the group of five remarkable assistants which Doc Savage maintained,' explains Dent at one point, 'but they were abroad at the moment.'

'Red Snow' also feels progressive, because we're not really sure what's going on for the longest time, the mystery behind the titular substance a refreshingly deep one. Dent sets it all up fabulously, showing what the red snow can do (which is to melt away whatever it comes into contact with, including human beings, leaving them as handfuls of red dust), before setting Doc up neatly with a concerted attack.

He's in Florida, not on an adventure for a change but to do some scientific research into whether it might be possible to eliminate mosquitoes by introducing a focused deadly disease into their ecosystem. This is happening in reality nowadays, so it's good to see Doc so far ahead of the curve! The press don't believe a word of it, thinking this to be a cover story and, neatly, so do the bad guys, who ambush Doc for precisely that reason; surely he must have caught wind of their shenanigans and travelled to Miami to hinder their plans! Doc, of course, has no knowledge of them or their dastardly deeds and I did appreciate this notably new approach to setting a 'Doc Savage' adventure into motion.

I liked how it happens too. White men in blackface interrupt the arrival of his luggage and, as Doc climbs down from a hotel window to investigate, half a dozen more erupt from inside peddlers' carts to ambush him. Why they want his luggage, he has no idea, but he doesn't expect to discover a corpse inside one of his trunks either. Suddenly, everything's in motion and with Doc on the run too, accused of murder. It's the little things that make all the difference and not having the month's mystery catch the elevator up to die outside his 86th floor office for a change is one of them.

It takes us a long time to figure out what's going on because Dent lets us and his characters in on details slowly. We go to mysterious houses, where rings are thrown, men are kept captive and wild substances are introduced. One key appears to be a collection of four hidden pedestals, upon which machinery had stood but is never there when our characters find them. We meet strange characters like Fluency Beech and the Baron Lang Ark. Many people die from the mysterious red snow. We don't know who are bad guys and who are good and we're not even sure why either are doing what they're doing. Patience is an important attribute to have with 'Red Snow' but it pays off well.

Dent certainly seemed to ready to change a few things up here, unusual for a series not only driven by a formula but one he created. This blurring of the plot is a good one, perhaps showing that the process of writing was improving his skills; he'd turned out twenty-two novels in two years, which could hardly be described as slacking. Another new idea is to ditch the assumption that everything has to unfold strictly in chronological order. Dent has Monk and Ham driving at speed, then backs up to explain why with an easy statement; 'Ham gave thought to the immediate past,' he says and suddenly we're in a flashback. A further innovation is that the book ends with a preview of the next adventure; for a refreshing change, Dent carefully wraps up a number of loose ends in the story, then calmly explains what's coming next.

He also builds the mythology of Doc Savage a little more. For instance, Doc has demonstrated his ability to read lips before, but here he does that in a different language. We also find that he has studied scenes of danger on film, having compiled reels of such scenes so that he can watch and re-watch, conditioning himself to think outside the box when such danger strikes. Most surprisingly, Doc tells Monk that 'there is one subject which I gave up studying a long time ago, simply because it seemed impossible to get the thing down to a point where it could be understood with any reliability.' He's talking about women and, for all his people skills, he apparently can't tell when a woman is lying.

Skipping back two months to the previous Dent novel, 'The Annihilist' was a notably brutal affair with a stupendous amount of death. This calms down a lot but there's still quite a lot of violence and brutality. Most obviously, the red snow doesn't provide a pleasant death, even if it's an emphatically clean one; it finds Leslie Thorne and a witness watches his arm fall off and the rest of him fall over, collapsing into a cloud of red dust and nothing else. However, that's far from the worst of it.

During one gunfight, a man receives a shotgun blast to the face. Another catches a brick that way, hurled by Doc, and Monk tries a little torture by folding a man in half. Doc is shot in chapter four and spends the rest of it without hearing; he has a bulletproof vest on but his shirt is ribboned, just like the covers, both Walter M. Baumhofer's in the pulps and James Bama's on the Bantam editions. Even Habeas Corpus gets shot in this one, but the cruellest moment is surely when the villains dump the bloody corpse of a cop at the feet of a woman who's minding her own business and tending her flower beds.

From a linguistic standpoint, everything interesting that I've been finding in this series gets its moment here. Spelling is the least of it, though 'cocoanuts' apparently didn't lose their 'a' by 1935. Accents show up, both in use of foreign words like 'mêlée' or to highlight an extra syllable in words like 'reënforcing' or 'coördination'. Slang is on show in dialogue like, 'Looks like we ride shank's mare from here,' a phrase I'm used to as 'Shanks's pony', both of which mean having to walk. The change of language over time is manifested in one villain wearing 'golf knickers' which make him look 'somewhat ridiculous', albeit not because in the UK, only women wear knickers.

A few words or phrases were new to me. When a blinded Monk bumps into Ham, the latter shouts, 'You will slough me by accident, will you!' I have no idea what this means, as the only meaning of 'slough' I'm aware of, at least as a verb, refers to the removal of something, often dead skin. Another one I'm at a loss to explain is, 'The car had a cut-out; it was open.' I don't know what a 'cut-out' is here but it may or may not be an exhaust cutout to free up horsepower. The only 'old' mention I could find was a 1916 legal case, in which a driver had opened his cut-out to make his vehicle noisier, his horn having been removed for repair. Finally, there's mention of a captive wearing an eyepatch, 'a black flap held in place by a string or an elastic.' Now, 'elastic' I get, but 'an elastic'? Apparently we've changed the usage of that word!

I'll leave you with my favourite though, which highlights how Dent was becoming comfortable with the language he was putting to good use. He puts Doc into a tough situation but allows him a lucky way out (unlike the point where he needs scientific equipment that he doesn't have on his person, so is forced to order it from New York, prompting a notable delay). Here's the language he uses, which is purple prose but far beyond anything he would have considered using a couple of years earlier: 'Dame Fortune is a vagrant, unreliable hussy, and Doc Savage had long ago ceased to rely upon her entirely. But occasionally the wench did make an offering which was not to be spurned. She made one now.'

I like that and I like the fact that Dent was finally able to string complex sentences together. Here's one complex sentence to highlight how next month's adventure is going to be a weird one: 'From the Arctic wastes, the next call would come. But it was not from the Arctic as civilized man knew it, but from a fabulous domain in the depths of the earth— the Land of Always-Night —a spot unknown to civilization, yet populated by a race so advanced that the intricacies of radio, of television, of surgery and medicine, of electro-chemistry, were little more complicated than the problems which confront a small child.' Tune in next month to see how weird it gets! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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