After 'Land of Always-Night', surely the best entry in the 'Doc Savage' series thus far to be written by an author other than Lester Dent, I can't be too upset to begin a run of five books written by that regular author. Dent had helped to create Doc, he knew him better than anyone else and the flow of the series is his. Even a book as strong as 'Land of Always-Night' feels like an anomaly simply because he didn't write it.
What I'll add to that here is that I wonder if Dent read those books written by others and found them useful as a writer. His command of the English language was clearly growing throughout the first couple of years but this one contains his most complex sentences to date, with an abundance of description that helps to build layers of meaning. And I remember him being scared of semi-colons! Well, W. Ryerson Johnson upped the game on the linguistic front in that last book, so it's good to see Dent able to meet that challenge here.
He has fun with this one across the board, not just with its language. It's set up well, with an imaginative way to introduce Doc to new readers in chapter one: through references in a science textbook. Then we get the hook to the story, with actions that are believable for eighty years ago but feel like they're from an alternate universe to ours today. Someone opens a window on an aeroplane and the ensuing gust of wind blows a piece of paper into the face of a fat man. The latter reads it, pulls out a revolver and puts three bullets into the empty seat in front of him. Oh yeah, that would play out very differently in 2017!
We soon discover that the fat man is 'Telegraph' Edmunds and he apparently believes that the seat contained an invisible man, a belief that soon proves to be surprisingly grounded. Now, as wild as this idea is, I don't have a problem with it, especially as Dent jumps through a whole bunch of linguistic hoops to explain it scientifically rather than supernaturally. 'It has something to do with altering the electronic composition of the body,' explains Doc to his men, 'securing an atomic motific status which results in complete diaphaneity.' Nonsense, of course, but fair game for a pulp adventure novel.
Where I expect my problem to lie is later in the series when someone becomes convinced that invisibility is real and everyone else ridicules it as impossible. Watch this space! I couldn't fail to read the lesson of 'Methusaleh's Children' into this; when the impossible is shown to be achievable, such as extreme longevity in that book, then mankind will find a way to make it routine. We just have to know. Well, after this book, mankind knows that invisibility is achievable, so someone ought to reinvent it.
Before he brings out the process itself, Dent deepens the mystery considerably and effectively, initially through hearsay and then observable action; there's a clever scene where a parachute drifts down from a crashing plane, with someone clearly controlling it who merely happens to be invisible. There's a memorable robbery as well, a robbery staged during an opera performance by persons unseen to the large crowd. The potential for this idea is vast and Dent has a lot of fun exploring it.
Sure, he trawls some old tropes in the process, but that's not too high a price to pay for a fun ride. There's a cast of characters that doesn't surprise, for a start; the names may be new but they're all highly recognisable. There's a villain who remains unknown until a revelation in the last chapter, a capable henchman ('Telegraph' Edmunds, of course) and a crew of idiots. There are a couple of important victims with clumsy names (P. Treve Easeman and Sawyer Linnett Bonefelt); one neat touch is to have their very visibility held for ransom. There's a beautiful young lady who's also smart, tough and daring but somehow gets kidnapped quickly; she's Easeman's daughter, Ada. There's a mysterious heroic type by the name of Russel Wray, who's Bonefelt's bodyguard. And there are a few other characters of note who show up at odd points to play their parts too. They're all expected but still fun.
Other aspects aren't old tropes for the Doc Savage series but are old tropes in popular culture. For instance, the offices of Sawyer Bonefelt would have felt mildly clichéd in 1935 but are tired today: obviously carved out of the old dark house genre that was last viable a couple of decades on the other side of 'Scooby Doo'. The offices are in the worst slum in the city and they're bleak and unfurnished, but only as a front: they're the only visible part of an entire grime-covered city block, which conceals a luxurious and neatly quiet headquarters, complete with secret passages with knots in the walnut panelling just large enough for eyeballs and gun barrels.
More contemporary is Bonefelt's business model, his nickname of Old Bonepicker coming from his specialty of 'buying up defunct corporations and manufacturing enterprises and breaking them into parts and selling them for what usually amounted to a profit.' Monk calls it 'a buzzard's way of making a living', but it sounds just like what Mitt Romney does at Bain Capital and he was a state governor who had a decent shot at becoming US President, thus underlining yet again how political morals have changed over the last century. Doc Savage was a realistic hero in the mid-thirties but a strange cross between fascist and communist to 21st century eyes.
Beyond the core story, which tasks Doc, Monk and Ham with discovering and exposing the mastermind behind an invisible criminal army, the 'spook legion' of the title, there's quite a lot for fans of the wider series to expand its mythology.
For a start, Monk and Ham escalate their interpersonal conflict from antagonistic to violent: Monk grabs the lawyer by the throat and Ham punches him in the stomach. With them the only assistants present (Renny and Long Tom are in Europe and Johnny is investigating a newly discovered cliff dwelling in the west), the rest of the progression comes from Doc and his methods. We discover that his superfirers have special compensators built in to digest muzzle flame and make it difficult to spot them in action. We find that he has license plates of surrounding states stashed in his cars, taken from used vehicles that were then run into the ocean, waiting for a reason to switch them out for the purposes of concealment. We also find that using chemical bleach is much quicker in changing a car's colour than repainting it.
We also find some believable flaws in Doc's superhuman abilities. These haven't bugged me since the excesses of the first six months of novels, but it's good to get a periodic reminder that he is human. For instance, at one point he has to fire a grappling hook from one building to another, so he can sneak up to the 86th floor; it's not an easy task and he fails on the first attempt, succeeding instead on the second. Much more embarrassingly, he gets knocked out during the robbery at the opera and the invisible crooks lift his prints, planting them later as a decoy that sets Doc up to the authorities as the leader of the spook legion. On a safer note, he has a box at the opera, as did his father before him, and, while it's never stated outright, it's hinted that he's the 'unnamed contributor who had lifted the operatic enterprise from its financial dilemma'.
There's interest from the standpoint of language too, beyond further use of accents where we wouldn't expect to see them today, whether in words borrowed from foreign languages like 'débutante' and 'débris' or whether with the goal of highlighting an extra syllable, like 'reënacted'.
Monk gets a couple of instances this time out. At one point, having been turned invisible, he rags on the unseen man behind him: 'You oughta brought a velocipede,' he tells him. 'Then you wouldn't have to ride my heels like you been doin'.' Velocipedes were bicycles, of course, but a long time before 1935. Maybe they were on Dent's mind while creating a character called 'Old Bonepicker', as they were colloquially known as 'boneshakers'. The other line from Monk is, 'Those birds are old heads,' which means here that the enemy are not stupid.
Two others are a little more surprising. Late in the novel, the enemy, searching for Doc, 'lifted the rug in the inner office and advanced carefully, as if seining.' I remember 'seining' from 'The Mystic Mullah', but that novel was written by Richard Sale rather than Lester Dent; I wonder if the word came from the latter's outline or whether Dent was indeed picking up linguistic details from the books he didn't write. The other surprising example is an offhand reference to 'this Russel Wray chick', odd because Russel Wray is male. Nowadays, it's an exclusively female epithet, as in 'chick flick' or 'chick magnet', and that dates back at least as far as Shakespeare, who used it in 'The Tempest'. Apparently, however, it was also a diminutive for Charles, especially in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and may have been so widespread that it became used, however briefly, in slang, for a 'man', like we might use 'guy' or 'dude' today.
nd, with that, I'll leave you with a vision of Monk blushing in the street. While invisible, he passes 'a group of chattering office girls, out for lunch'. 'Do you realize,' Monk asked, 'that we're walking down the street without a thing on?'
Next month, all five of Doc's assistants are back together again in a Lester Dent novel, for the first time since 'Fear Cay' eight months earlier and for the last time until 'Resurrection Day' a year and a half later. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For reviews of other Doc Savage titles click here