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WesternSFA


The Majii
Doc Savage #31
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 140pp
Published: Original 1935, Bantam 1971
After five Lester Dent novels on the trot, September 1935 marked the beginning of five non-Lester Dent novels on the trot. J. Allan Dunn, a new face to the series, got his shot first, with 'The Majii', writing from an outline by Dent and he does a surprisingly good job. I just wish I knew how to pronounce it. Magi? Madgy? Ma-Jee? Who knows. It sounds weird and those three dots almost make the word look like it's written in Sanskrit.

That's not the only agreeably weird edge that Dunn brings with him, even though his previous work was mostly in westerns, with adventure stories as his backup. He was British by birth but emigrated to the U.S. in 1893 and moved around quite a lot, as perhaps befits a member of New York's Explorers Club and Adventurers' Club. His qualifications are there and he wrote a thousand stories, novels and serials before his death in 1941. This novel, however, was his only contribution to the Doc Savage series.

'The Majii' starts out like 'The Mystic Mullah', one of three previous non-Dent novels, with the arrival in New York of a foreign dignitary, here the Ranee of Jondore, yet another fictional country. We later find out that it's a jewel-rich Asian province under British control. Surprisingly it has a population comparable to the U.S.A., which is a rather wild suggestion, even if the British Empire did account for a quarter of the world's population when this book was written. Then again, hyperbole is the name of the game. The Nizam of Jondore, the leader of his nation, is apparently the richest man in the world, courtesy of those jewels, which makes me wonder how he has so little power to kick out the foreign occupying force.

The Ranee is the widow of its last Nizam, who is recently deceased; his half-brother has inherited the throne as it's presumably male line and all that. She's cruising round the world to get a handle on her grief, which can't be helped by a band of murderous thugs deciding to chase her through New York, even though she has a brace of armed guards at her side. What's weird here is that the last of them commits suicide when subjected to the will of Rama Tura, fakir and disciple of the Majii, a legendary Jondorian who lived thirty generations ago.

Rama Tura isn't our big boss, because the Majii shows up late in the book to claim that role for himself, but he's so capable a henchman that he almost rises to the billing of sidekick. He's in New York because he's touring an uncanny stage act that involves him turning glass into valuable jewels, apparently using the unbridled power of the human mind and nothing else. Yes, suckers fell for stuff like this all the time back in the thirties, because the exotic Orient was inscrutable and mysterious to Americans who had just survived the Great Depression. Rama Tura knows how to milk it too; his introductory scene is as an apparent corpse on a bed who comes back to life to talk with the Ranee:

"I am the dead who lives at will," he said. "What do you want?"

Also like 'The Mystic Mullah', Doc doesn't show up for a few chapters so that the back story can deepen before he joins in. When he does so, it's because he's called into hospital by a former teacher to examine the Ranee, at death's door after collapsing at one of Rama Tura's public demonstrations right as the fakir announces that she's about to die to the assembled throng. And so the game is afoot. Incidentally, that former teacher mentions Doc to his colleague: "But that was years ago. The man has far outstripped me—outstripped any one I know, for that matter. He is a mental wizard."

Doc's very much the focus here. Renny and Johnny are out of the country, the former attending an engineering conclave in Germany and the latter leading some archaeological research in Central America. Long Tom is due to leave the country too but doesn't and Dunn frames his participation in an interesting way. An electrical outfit has offered him $50,000 plus bonus to superintend some construction in South America and he was preparing to leave when Doc calls him. Discovering that Monk and Ham, already on the case, have been captured by the enemy, he immediately joins the fray, turning down that nice little salary. I liked that approach. I didn't like the fact that it was a completely worthless sentiment because he's promptly captured too.

Monk and Ham are taken in a clever manner but one that doesn't ring entirely fair. They're attending a further Rama Tura demonstration and Doc has sneaked backstage to plant a camera to record the act. When they see a bronze elbow sticking out from the covering over a stretcher, they assume that it's Doc who's being carried out and promptly investigate. In the elevator, the 'body' promptly shoots them with "some pungent, burning liquid" that blinds them so much that Monk can't even hit his enemy with a machine pistol in a frickin' elevator. Yeah, I'm not buying into him being that poor a shot. Can he hit the side of a barn with a cannon? Tune in next week.

Long Tom just disappears. He drives into the story and apparently gets captured before he gets anywhere. We have no idea how, just that it happens because he doesn't answer Doc's messages. That seems a little cheap, but it's surely to allow Dunn to concentrate on the man of bronze, who's heading out to the airport to meet the new Nizam of Jongore, Kadir Lingh, who's flying in from San Francisco on the midnight flight. He gets there just a little too late, the brief battle he misses leaving one man with sliced eyes. Ouch! And, just in case we're unable to imagine that, Dunn is happy to provide us a suitably painful explanation: "The blade had all but separated his eyeballs as a sharp knife would a pair of apples." It's OK, folks, he's a bad guy; he killed a taxi driver earlier in the book.

All this adds a freakiness to the story that I found welcome. Characters aren't where Doc expects them to be, so he spends time and effort trying to figure out why and where they might have got to. It gives us the impression that Rama Tura is so firmly on top of this game that Doc is still trying to figure out which game it is. Moving a chess piece when you're playing Monopoly really doesn't help and it takes quite a while for Doc to realise what is actually going on. I appreciated this because, while I'm on Doc's side and want him to come out on top in the end, I don't like the stories where he's an invulnerable all-knowing superman who's unable to make an error. I'm particularly fond of one scene here, as Rama Tura pulls a neat trick on him that leaves him dazed and confused and the chapter ending with the line, "Standing there slapping his face, he ceased to remember." That's tough.

There's a lot of freakiness here, usually in the wake of whatever Rama Tura's just got up to. At one point, Doc's yet again one step behind him, walking through the empty Hotel Vincent in an attempt to find any human being not drugged by the villain. He eventually finds a telephone operator quietly reading in a tiny room. This chapter feels like it could have come from a 'Weird Tales' story and it's an agreeable tone to find in a Doc Savage. When we finally get to Jondore, which happens much later in the page count than usual, we spend the majority of our time within the ancient tomb of the Majii, a vast, inevitably black cube of a building which has never been seen by western eyes. It could easily be transplanted as is into a Cthulhu mythos story, just secreted within a swamp to be worshipped by a cult of fish-creatures.

So far, so good, but Dunn seems to have had some ambition here. Maybe he was a fan and he wanted to make a mark on the series that would always be his. Maybe he was just a professional who did his homework and felt it was fair for him to do a little expansion of the Doc Savage mythos while he was at it. Either way, he does that a great deal, especially within the 86th floor headquarters, which are fleshed out like never before.

Dunn has Doc run through some forensic tests while explaining how he can do that in his laboratory. For instance, hundreds of scrapbooks, furnished by an agency, sit on shelves covering "every political development reported by the press of the world, among other things." There's an electro-spectroscopic analysis contrivance that breaks down even microscopic samples into their chemical components. There are geological charts for the region and thousands of tiny labelled vials containing its different soils, clays and rocks. There are weather charts too, "automatically recorded by his own instruments". How big these headquarters are we aren't told, but they can't be small!

The 86th floor also has to be large enough to hide rooms all over the place. Dunn introduces us to one that Doc keeps secret inside his HQ. It's a "ventilated wall compartment" that's perfect for hiding villains who choose to drug themselves into slumber rather than spill the beans to Doc. He also introduces us to another one outside the HQ, down the corridor and around the corner. This one's even more secret, because it's activated by thermostatic technology embedded within the plaster of the wall. He has to put his hands up against the right spot, keep them there, then release and keep them there again. This is an extra-special compartment because it allows Doc to tap his own phone and even cut it off entirely if he wants. But hey, he's a big target, right? Dunn even lets us in on the fact that he makes his own distilled water there in the laboratory because a previous enemy had once tried to poison him through the water supply to the building.

If that isn't enough, Dunn even takes a go at Doc's two hour daily routine, something we haven't seen expanded in quite some time. He suggests that it includes a memory routine, though sadly he doesn't explain what. I could do with that little trick! He merely points out that his memory was being prepped for greatness from the outset. How's this for starting early? "In the cradle stage, he had been broken of forgetting things, just as other children are broken of the thumb-sucking habit."

Oh, and we even get a new trick that's secreted within his clothing. At one point, having been captured, he rips the seams on his trousers open, on both legs. They each give out powders, one yellow and one blue. Combining the two creates an acidic fog which burns anyone who happens to move into it. We know that killing is against Doc's ethos but apparently burning them horribly is fine, given the right circumstances.

Dunn doesn't give anywhere near as much attention to Doc's assistants. The closest he comes is a scene where Monk, Ham and Long Tom return to HQ and Monk vanishes. Ham is distraught and Long Tom calls him on it. "You two guys give me a pain. You put in your time trying to kill each other. And the minute one of you thinks the other is in a jam, you bust out in tears." Of course, the moment Monk shows back up, it's immediately back on like Donkey Kong. I often wonder if pitting these two against each other was the most fun part of writing a Doc Savage novel or the least. Maybe it depended on the day.

There are points in this novel where the language gets a little clumsy, but Dunn certainly isn't afraid of crafting long sentences and there are a few instances of words that stood out to me. He uses 'interne' twice, which tells me that it's not just a typo; it's just an archaic form of 'intern'. I think I've seen 'rompled' before, but I did really like the sentence in which it's used here: "Echoes rompled hollowly through the darkness." I was surprised to see 'a shenanigan', given that shenanigans happen in the plural more often than not, but it's perfectly acceptable in the singular. That leaves "bowser", which I had to look up. The meaning is obvious, given that Monk shouts, "Scat, bowser!" to a dog, but I wondered where the generic nickname came from. It looks like it may date back to a 1920 book by Thornton Burgess, an author of many novels for children about animals, including 'Bowser the Hound' in 1920 and at least one sequel, "Bowser the Hound Meets His Match", in 1928. I have no idea how he met his match or what that match was, but wouldn't it be hilarious if it was a pig with large ears?

I looked something else up too and it wasn't the catch to speaking ancient Mayan to your colleagues to ensure that your captors don't know what you're up to. I get the general concept but when the line is "See a man called Kadir Lingh", I'm not sure how much a dead language is going to help. What I looked up was an idea raised by this sentence: "Two men were lying atop the roof in cots. This in itself was not unusual, as tenement inhabitants often slept on the roofs." Apparently, this was a real thing. Before the advent of air conditioning, apartments in tenements were often too hot to bear, so tenants slept on roofs or on fire escapes, often in great numbers. Back in 1908, the 'New York Times' ran a piece about rich folk catching on to this idea and using 'roof beds', each of them with its own little roof to keep off the rain. The biggest catch to sleeping on tenement roofs, though, is a likelihood of burning your feet on the tar.

In short, there's a lot to like here but J. Allan Dunn may have tried too hard. He lived for another six years but 'The Majii' was his only Doc Savage novel. Following on, in October, is the return of Harold A. Davis, author of 'The King Maker', with 'Dust of Death'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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