When 'The Metal Master' was published in 'Doc Savage Magazine', Lester Dent had only been back as Kenneth Robeson for one month. Before the prior book, 'Mystery Under the Sea', the previous five novels had been written by other authors and the next four would follow suit. However, this is quintessential Lester Dent and I wonder if this oddly shared situation gave him more time to spend on the book's construction.
It's unmistakably Dent's work, from the short staccato sentences as it gets into motion to the inevitable unmasking of the villain and his undoing at the hands of irony, but he mixed up a number of things to keep it all fresh and that works pretty well for the most part.
The McGuffin at the heart of things is relatively straightforward. While an early exchange describes the Metal Master of the title as an 'it' rather than a 'he', it's really a human being, a wannabe master criminal who has control of a fantastic device that melts metal from a distance. You can imagine the applications for terrorism, I'm sue. What's more, it doesn't melt things using heat, thus leading to a bizarre scene where Monk's metal vest is melted onto his skin without harming him.
Of course, the identity of the Metal Master is unknown even to his cronies and Dent hauls out a set of the usual suspects for us to puzzle over in an attempt to figure out which is the ringleader before the finalé on Alligator Island off the North Carolina coast. So let me introduce them in the order they show up.
We know it isn't Seevers, because he's the first victim, murdered inside a car that's melted around him. He works for Louis Tester, who's some sort of underground scientist travelling back from South America. The Metal Master could be Louis, of course, or his sister Nan, who is naturally titian haired and exquisite and running around New York thrilling Monk, though she's more ignored than most of the token young ladies in Doc Savage novels.
A more obvious candidate is Tops'l Hertz, a suitably villainous crook who runs drugs in Cuba but hails from Limehouse in London, so allowing Dent to attempt Cockney again; for once it's mostly believable. Tops'l has a new henchman, Punning Parker, who has a habit of using atrocious puns at any opportune moment, whichly neatly annoys his partners in crime. Later, we meet a 'sleek woodchuck of a chap' called Napoleon Murphy Decitez and the completely hairless Gorham Gage Gettian. Dent always had a fondness for characters with recognisable physical attributes and three unwieldy names.
There appear to be at least two sides in play here, battling against each other for the secret behind the Metal McGuffin, and it's surprisingly hard to determine who's working with whom, partly because the Metal Master is an absent figure for the longest time. Decitez can't seem to decide which side he's on, so we learn a lot about things from the scenes in which he shifts allegiance.
I rather appreciated this admirable confusion, full of to and fro action, red herrings galore and a number of plays and counterplays, crosses and doublecrosses. Maybe this is why Doc finds himself uncharacteristically caught in a trap in which he didn't intend to be caught. The downside is that the book seems more detached from the world than usual because the many players spend so much time betraying each other that there's precious little room for the general public. Almost everything happens at a remove.
Where it shines isn't really in the intrigue, though that's well worth the price of entry as it's thoroughly enjoyable throughout; it's in the detail. It feels like Dent took stock of the series at this point, its high and low points and decided to shimmy everything up a little. I don't just mean the fact that Monk steals Renny's catchphrase of 'Holy Cow!' not once but twice; I mean that he mixes up the focal points and returns to components that we'd thought forgotten, even though they had been introduced by other authors.
For instance, it was J. Allan Dunn who first wrote, in 'The Majii', about secret compartments in Doc's 86th floor headquarters, though Dent chooses to combine his two separate instances here into one, so he can hide Nan Tester from possible kidnapping. This one is comfortable and inside Doc's HQ but it's accessed through the use of thermostatic technology, like the one Dunn placed around the corner. And it was Harold A. Davis, a month later in 'Dust of Death' who gave Ham a pet in the sacred ape he dubs Chemistry. It took five months for him to return but Dent has him finally released from customs so Ham can use him to annoy Monk. Sadly he gets very little to do here.
I should add, however, that he inexplicably ignores the useful code that Davis introduced in 'Dust of Death' to ensure that telegrams sent between Doc and his men have not been intercepted and replaced, namely that valid messages begin each sentence with a five letter word. And this even though Doc figures out a similar code used by the villains here, in which the real message is contained in the first letters of each of the words used.
What Dent does include is so much technology that I'm struggling to figure out how much of this is brand new information. We've certainly seen Doc use ultraviolet during searches before, even while driving cars, but Dent adds an extra component here, namely a mat outside the elevator doors on the 86th floor so that anyone exiting them automatically picks up hidden chemicals that allow them to be tracked. We've certainly seen Doc in a light mail vest before, but Renny and Monk both have them here too. I remember an instance where Doc recorded a conversation with a microphone hidden within a light bulb, but he takes that technology on the road here. And we've certainly seen a set of alarms on Doc's headquarters, but I don't recall a connection to the eyes in the painting of the Madonna in the hallway outside or Doc capturing data from visitors before they walk in.
If all of those things were natural extrapolation, perhaps the only new tech is a portable metal detector which Renny uses to determine whether anyone entering his room is carrying a gun. That's hardly the most cutting edge of Doc's many inventions. Dent does expand Doc's mythology though by pointing out that the 85th floor, the one below his headquarters, is empty because of a rational concern by prospective tenants that proximity to Doc is not safe for them; Doc makes the owners happy by renting that space.
The biggest shift is on which assistants get focus here. Beyond Doc himself, it's Monk and Ham who have dominated the series, with his other three aides struggling to find the limelight or absent entirely, as Johnny is this time, excavating a cave in Europe in which a prehistoric man had been found. 'The Metal Master', however, has Renny front and center, at least until he falls into a trap and vanishes for much of the book. He's conveniently in Cuba, investigating the drug trade there with Long Tom, when a need arises, so he gets to be active first. Long Tom too receives the most independence he's had at any point in the series, which is long overdue. Monk and Ham do show up, of course, but until almost halfway, though the latter does get a dark and stylish entrance.
Outside the technology and mythology, there are a few words worth bringing up. There are multiple uses of 'lense' which was apparently an alternate spelling of 'lens' back in the early decades of the last century; nowadays it's often listed as a misspelling instead. There are also multiple uses of 'bumboat', which apparently is a real thing even today: a small boat used to ferry supplies from shore to ship. Another frequently used word here, as a sort of catchphrase for Tops'l Hertz, is 'geeked', which doesn't mean what it does today. His usage is accompanied by a sinister drawing of the thumb over the throat to signify slitting it open; I recognise the older meaning of the word from freakshows, in which the geek was the character who bit the heads off chickens. Fun, huh?
I liked 'The Metal Master' a good deal, but it feels less substantial once it's over. It isn't the story that will abide, because it's hardly there, as engaging as it is while reading. What ought to abide are the additions and expansions to the mythology of Doc Savage and his technological gimmickry, but that remains to be seen. Just as Lester Dent ignored a previous example here, so could others ignore what he added this time out.
Let's see if returning author Lawrence Donovan ignores things next month when he takes a look at 'The Men Who Smiled No More'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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