I hadn't held out too much hope for 'The Black Spot', given that Lawrence Donovan had notably under-whelmed me with his last couple of contributions to the series, 'The Men Who Smiled No More' and 'Haunted Ocean'. I'm happy to say, however, that this did the job magnificently. It's not perfect but I haven't enjoyed a Doc like this in a long time. Finally, Donovan justifies why he got so much opportunity in 1936, penning five out of twelve books that year with regular author, Lester Dent, only one ahead of him on six.
There are a lot of reasons why this plays so well, but the most obvious is that Donovan doesn't dumb anyone or anything down. The machinations of plot are complex and myriad, but they're constantly playing second fiddle to the action. There's action here from moment first to moment last, but there are points where it's incessant. At one point, I was literally grinning at the cat-and-mouse action, where control of a particular situation shifts back and forth on a per page basis. This works because the bad guys aren't stupid, not the bad guys in charge and not the bad guys working for them. When they make mistakes, they're believable ones, not stupid ones. The same is applicable to Doc and his men.
And, talking of Doc and his men, every one of them is on hand for this adventure, including Pat, who turns out to be the first to appear, I believe for the first time. She's at a 'gangster party' at the mansion of Andrew Podrey Vandersleeve. We know he's important because we're given all three names five times in eight paragraphs. He's also dead, slumped on his desk in his office, bleeding black blood and with a large black spot over his heart that seems to have been generated from inside his body rather than outside. What's more, there's $18,450.80 in cash on his desk, so robbery doesn't appear to have been the motive. Well, until Arthur Jotther points out that there's $131,549.20 missing too.
Jotther's his secretary and is so obviously the mastermind that he clearly can't be. We can apply Agatha Christie logic, right? It would work here, though those not familiar with Christie's techniques will be kept on the hop throughout. Donovan's other obvious influence here is the most obvious one, Lester Dent. I was struck here by the preponderence of short, crisp sentences, which were a characteristic of Dent's early work and I wonder if, with four prior Doc Savage novels behind him, Donovan was doing his homework by reading or re-reading all the others that had gone before him to see how they ticked. It certainly feels like it.
If he did, he found a neat alternate solution to a problem that caused Dent a lot of trouble early on, namely what to do with Doc's five men. Dent's solution was to have one or two of them out of the country at any point in time, so he could better focus on the others. Donovan's idea is to have Doc deem the danger at the heart of the story so powerful that he must take care of it alone, so he does his level best to keep his men out of it, waiting at headquarters for calls or guarding the warehouse, unless there's something specific that he needs one of them to do. For instance, he sets up a clever little scheme to track down the location of a villain by having one of his colleagues arrested on false charges and sending in a suitably disguised Ham to spring him as a crooked lawyer.
Pat gets plenty to do, because she's far less likely to obey his orders. He does try to send her home on a few occasions but she never listens and he ought to be glad of that fact, given that she helps him out of a number of scrapes and even saves him from being caught on camera on more than one occasion. This is because we get an interesting supporting character here who ought to become a regular. He's "Red" Mahoney, a movie news cameraman for Future Pictures Corporation, a big man with a shock of red hair who's as opportunistic as any thirties journalist I've seen in the movies. He even punches a cop at one point to save his footage, though it backfires on him. He and Pat have quite the rapport, though she's clearly not on his side throughout.
I liked the way Donovan handled his supporting characters, as they get as much attention as Doc's men here but without a lot of overt description. For instance, James Mathers is one of a number of Wall Street money men to be threatened by the Black Spot, but he gets more page time, including some fun scenes. He also has a Japanese bodyguard who's really not Japanese. I appreciated how Mathers plays to stereotype there but Doc sees through it and, at a late point in the novel, talks to him in the appropriate obscure Chinese dialect.
Jotther jumps out of Doc's car at a hundred miles an hour and survives; I don't buy into his healing abilities but I do appreciate his stubborn dedication to task. Ronald Doremon gets banged up and burned too, attempting to rescue Doc from a burning building; he's assistant to the general manager at the Electro-Chemical Research Laboratory, which has been blown up. Doc owns a controlling interest in the place and it's apparently the venue where many of his cool gadgets were devised and created.
We get a lot of those gadgets here too, from his 1936 answerphone, through which messages are transcribed to vinyl records, to a microphonic device that he attaches to windows to record what's happening inside. I believe both of these have seen use before, but there are new devices on display. At one point, Doc is caught travelling on a crowded New York subway, the black spot device pressed into his back. His response is to rub his ankles together, which generates an anaesthetic gas. At another, we're introduced to his 'lifeboats', though they're never actually used here. I'll be watching out for these electrically-powered one or two man submarines in future Donovan books. Finally, Doc has a couple of teeth that he can unscrew and combine to generate yet another gas.
One approach Donovan takes here that I thoroughly appreciated is the way in which Doc's gadgets don't always have the intended effect because of the actions of others. For instance, there's a point here when he's driving up a long driveway and he crashes into an oncoming van. The reason is that it's dark and neither vehicle is running with lights; Doc's infra-red beam doesn't help the other driver. At another point, Doc is caught by the chauffeur of another victim of the Black Spot and he's searched. The chauffeur activates one of his miniature grenades, so Doc has to slap it out of his hand, at which point it explodes the island in the middle of the victim's pond.
Doc's particularly vulnerable here, not only so that Pat can save him. I can't remember an adventure in which he gets knocked out or incapacitated quite so much. Sometimes he rescues himself, such as from the earliest attack on his person in a room filling with gas or from the car crash mentioned above, in which the roof of his sedan is crushed in on him and he has to escape the burning vehicle by pushing it back up and out. Sometimes, he's helped by Pat or Doremon or by even the bad guys. When he's caught on the outside of a building with bad guys on the roof and at the windows, he leaps off into the Hudson below but cracks his head on a submerged pile, knocking him out and allowing the hoods to capture him and tie him up before he comes to.
These hoods work for "Jingles" Sporado, not only an unscrupulous but intelligent crook but a former actor, with a fine repertoire of impressions. Just as Doc's gadgets can backfire on him with the interruption of third parties, so his bag of non-technological tricks becomes less useful when others can put them to use them too. Jingles is more than able to impersonate both Doc and Ham, so putting Doc's men right back into harm's way every time Doc manages to get them away from it. I adored this back and forth and believe that Sporado, who isn't the big boss, is going to turn out to be one of my favourite bad guys in the series.
While much of 'The Black Spot' is wildly successful and some of it frankly outdoes anything that's gone beforeI haven't even mentioned the gangster party/murder party bookendsthere's more to be said on the negative side, with three especially notable flaws.
One is what we know today as 'The A-Team' effect, in which people walk away from the most outrageous car crashes and building explosions. It's odd to see that in a pulp novel, because adult readers are fine with people dying every month, even if children watching a television show shouldn't be because of network rules. While a few characters do end up in hospitals, some of them shouldn't be walking by the end of the book, including, I might suggest, Doc himself. But hey, they just shrug it off. Leaping out of cars at a hundred miles an hour with no stunt training? No worries, mate.
The second is that there's a heck of a lot of impersonation going on here that doesn't make sense. I can buy into Sporado's impersonations because we're told he used to be an actor and because they're voice only, but I don't buy into Doc being able to transform into a black cab driver and back on the turn of a dime. Never mind a Doc in blackface scene being something I had little intention of ever seeing, the logistics of it are hogwash. Renny seems able to do similarly quick transformations as well, with only Ham given the opportunity to craft his disguise through the benefit of time.
Finally, we're never let in on the secret of the the devious device at the heart of the story, the one that generates the Black Spot effect. We do learn where it came from, which is a neat bit of irony, but none of those details we crave, like how it works and what it actually does. Really, it's just another magic raygun, because it's not on Donovan's list of priorities to become anything else. He could easily have explained it; he just chose not to. The bastard.
Before I wrap up, I should add that there are some words here worthy of note, which hasn't been the case for a few months. I was surprised to see 'internes' spelled with a second 'e', but that's apparently the archaic way to do it. I had no idea what 'scantlings' were, though it was clear from the context that they're small pieces of lumber; Doc puts a couple to very good use late in the book. I understood 'scrooched' from the context too, but hadn't heard the word until 'Mathers scrooched his beefy body back into the underbrush.'
And that leaves one word that feels like a typo but, if it is, I don't know for what. It comes courtesy of Silky Joe Scarnola, the gangster you might expect. If anyone has any clue what 'the bu' is in the following line, I'd really like to know:
"Hell's bells, Jingles!" he said. "By that time all we'll have to do is put on the bu an' scare some of the big shots! You can collect plenty then!"
Is 'bu' the same as 'boo' and we're moving into 'Scooby Doo' territory? Tune in next month for 'The Midas Man' to see if anyone figured it out. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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