Last month's thrilling episode, the twentieth, in the adventures of Doc Savage, set a precedent that this one emphatically follows. It could be argued, that at twenty-one, the series had finally grown up.
The problem is that Doc isn't a solo adventurer, as much as it sometimes seems that way. He has a team of five assistants, all global leaders in their fields, who apparently spend their entire lives traipsing along with him, even though they rarely get to do enough to warrant their presence. For quite a while, as one novel began where the prior one ended, their respective worlds must surely have wondered when their scions were coming back to join them.
'Death in Silver' solved that by casually mentioning that three of the five were abroad: Johnny's lecturing in London, Long Tom's experimenting in Europe and Renny's overseeing in South Africa. In other words, they're not joining Doc on the adventure that was about to spring up and he'd have to get by with Monk and Ham. Beyond seeming far more realistic, this allowed writer Lester Dent to focus in on a trio of leads (plus Doc's niece, Pat, who was clearly proving popular with readers), rather than try yet again to shuffle the action between six eager participants.
'The Sea Magician' begins with 'Death in Silver' an active adventure. We just hop the pond to check in on what Johnny's up to in England, because we know that, after nineteen thrilling adventures all across the globe, a calm and sedate lecture tour is hardly going to keep him happy. Sure enough, he's soon heading up to the Wash, that area of marshland some ways up the coast where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire, after reading a newspaper piece about some poor farmer who was apparently killed by the ghost of King John, who used an ancient broadsword to do the deed and left him with a coin dated 1216 in his pocket.
The last time I wrote about the Wash was in Guy N. Smith's novel, 'The Slime Beast' and its sequel. In that book, a couple of treasure hunters sought for the crown jewels which King John lost there in 1216. Here, that knowledge constitutes a sort of spoiler, because American audiences of the thirties apparently only knew King John as the villain in the 'Robin Hood' stories. It's only a mild spoiler, though, and I don't have a problem providing the background. The point is that, even if the English might automatically associate the Wash with King John's treasure, Americans in November 1934 are still not going to buy into a ghostly murderer and in a Doc Savage novel, they would be right behind him investigating the truth.
Johnny doesn't buy into a ghostly murderer either, especially when he comes up against a very palpable King John himself and fights him, with his opponent talking all the while as if he really was a dead king from the 13th century. Johnny wins too, only to be promptly knocked out by another King John sneaking up behind him. Even in 'Scooby-Doo', the ghosts didn't replicate.
Naturally, Johnny is taken prisoner. Naturally, Doc Savage is already on his way, albeit for other reasons. Naturally, the game, as Sherlock Holmes would say, is afoot.
I particularly enjoyed the way this one built because Doc isn't coming to rescue Johnny and really has no idea where he is. It takes a particular set of circumstances to connect a few different dots and put him, with Ham and Monk, on the trail. That's very refreshing for a series in which adventures usually ride up to the 86th floor and knock on Doc's door.
It's also refreshing to find Renny and Long Tom still abroad and out of the picture. That gives Monk and Ham plenty to do, in one instance in disguise, as they follow a lead onto an island off the coast of the U.K. which is apparently sovereign territory, ruled over by a self-proclaimed king who has invented a clever technique to extract gold from seawater. That's no spoiler, by the way, given that it's on the back of the Bantam paperback edition, and there's plenty still to discover in this one, in which twists and turns keep us on the hop for most of the story.
This book was a great way for Lester Dent to play with old tropes like ancient legends, tiny independent nations and mad science, all perfect for the pulps, but ground them in a realistic setting. The villain has the base motive of making lots of money and those working for him do so for their share. What spoiled the realism for me was the local talk. Being English, I have a pretty good idea how people talk in the various regions of the country and they don't talk like they do here. Dent seems to have the idea that the only language spoken in England is Cockney and that's as far from the rural accent of Norfolk as can be imagined.
I should add that this didn't just hurt my belief in this novel but in all the others that went before. If Dent can't get language right in an English story, how can I buy into earlier characters from farflung countries like Venezuela or Tibet speaking the way they do? Many of those earlier novels contain words from other languages whose usage I can't question because of sheer ignorance. They simply ring true. Yet I know the usage here doesn't ring true. While 'bloke' is an acceptable slang term for 'man', for instance, nobody uses it the way a large proportion of the bad guys use it here. 'Some bloke dropped this off earlier' is valid. 'I think that's a damn lie, bloke,' is not. Neither is, 'Listen, bloke, Hi arsked you-' nor 'Bloke, it'll be a long time before you know!'
The realism falls apart outside the language too, but Dent adds in little touches that bring us back in. For instance, the damsel in distress in this novel is Elaine Mills, a bright young thing who impresses for quite a while in the early chapters but mysteriously loses all ability to do anything once a male saviour arrives to help her out. Sure, it's just the sexism of the time but it does get tiring. Yet Dent also adds touches like one when the bad guys realise Doc Savage is on the case. One mentions that a friend, who tried to kill the Man of Bronze, didn't just fail but changed afterwards. He didn't recognise him on the street, he gave up his life of crime and he got a job in a factory, ''onest as they come'. That's the first time we see the results of Doc's mysterious up-state clinic after the fact; usually we only hear about it beforehand.
All in all, this is an enjoyable romp but I enjoyed the first half far more than the second, when things get entirely routine. The first half has some neat plotting to weave together a set of characters who don't know each other; an uncharacteristic concentration on characters other than Doc and his men; and a good approach to the villains, whose attempts to get Doc out of the way are highly believable. Unfortunately, the second half descends into routine action and only has the believable science to underpin it. Gold can and has been extracted from seawater, merely not in quantities sufficient to offset the cost of doing so. It's fair game for a pulp adventure novel to invent a new method that makes it a viable enterprise and it would absolutely be worth millions!
So, this is a transition novel. There's a lot of good here, as Dent tries to shift the series onto solid ground and succeeds in a number of ways. However, there's a lot of bad too, as he seems to forget about some of the things that made the Doc Savage formula work so well. For a start, Doc himself hasn't been used less at any point in the series thus far; there are points where we might easily forget this is about Doc Savage and think it's a spin-off with Monk and Ham instead, who, to be fair, get some great interaction. I'd have liked a lot more with Elaine Mills too, but she's shifted from lead violin to third triangle for no apparent reason and that sat poorly with me.
So, do these changes bode well or ill for the series? Let's find out next month with 'The Annihilist', with Johnny taking a month out and Long Tom staying gone, but Renny and Pat returning. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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