1937 closed out in much more traditional fashion for Doc Savage, even though 'The Golden Peril' is a Harold A. Davis novel and it followed four by Lester Dent, the regular author of the series. In fact, it's as traditional as the series got, because this takes Doc and his aides back to the Valley of the Vanished for the first time since the very first novel, 'The Man of Bronze', way back in March 1933.
It's also much more traditional in other ways. Every one of the twenty-one chapters runs six to eight pages, except for the skimpy final one. It's an action-packed adventure full of cliffhangers that are explained in the next chapter. It's a hard one to put down for that reason and, for all its flaws, it never even comes close to becoming boring.
The evil genius this time out is the Leader and he's apparently rather well informed because the first chapter features his men ambushing a donkey train of gold that the Mayans are delivering to Blanco Grande to be sent on to Doc by the president of Hidalgo, Carlos Arispa. All the Mayans are massacred but Zum, who makes it into Blanco Grande, only to be killed along with the radio operator before they can send a message to Doc.
Meanwhile in New York, Doc is hearing about the Leader from Baron Vardon, a League of Nations representative who wants Doc to step in. We learn about a notorious murder technique, the Hand of Death, and we learn that the Leader may be based in Switzerland, not that anyone but Vardon seems to want Doc to go anywhere. Attacks begin and attacks keep on coming because Davis clearly wants this one to get moving quickly and never let up.
Chapter two has Doc attacked inside headquarters but scared off with a neat trick of projecting movies onto mirrors to generate a credible threat. Sadly a messenger boy dies in Doc's lobby, our first visible victim of the Hand of Death. Chapter three has fake cops attacking HQ with an evil thermite bomb with spikes hurled down the corridor outside Doc's office. Now Vardon dies from the Hand of Death. Chapter four has Doc attacked at Vardon's hotel and Long Tom attacked at HQ, by an old man peddling pencils who wanders down the stairs from the observation deck above. Then a dozen men attack Doc, though he pulls another neat trick with apparent invisibility to scare that bunch off.
Whew! I almost forgot to breathe just writing that last paragraph! What this tells us is that the Leader has a lot of men and he's able to talk them into something as dangerous as attacking Doc Savage in his own headquarters. The call from the Secretary of State's office warning him away from interfering in an apparent revolt in Hidalgo, given Doc's connections to that nation, is another clear sign of how well-connected the Leader is. He even has a dwarf listening in from the floor above Doc's HQ.
What's more, his men are everywhere. During these attacks, Ham and Monk have shown up and Long Tom was there early, but Renny and Johnny are thousands of miles away, working a job in South America. Nonetheless, by the time they're packed and jumping onto a cable car on the way to Hidalgo, the Leader's men have cut a cable and set them on a descent to their deaths! By this point, a police launch trying to stop Doc's amphibious plane from leaving the Hidalgo Trading Company's warehouse on the Hudson are probably not real cops. Maybe the whole world reports to the Leader now!
It takes until chapter seven for us to meet the Leader though and he's not the charismatic charmer we might expect. Pretty much all the adjectives that Davis uses to describe him are boring. He's flat. He's lifeless. He's devoid of expression. Yet, he's clearly dominant in his world and his men leap to his command. He's also a little overblown but I'll return to that later, as he gets a lot overblown before long. Doc really presses his buttons.
The shift from New York to the exotic locale du jour has already taken place at this point because we meet the Leader in his fake Coastguard plane hiding in the clouds, waiting for Doc to show up. When he does, he fires a missile at him, which Doc just turns back on him through virtue of having equipment that's more powerful. It's radio controlled. He just reversed the beam!
By the way, there are quite a lot of new details about Doc's gadgetry here, even if the powerful equipment on board his amphibious plane doesn't get an explanation beyond being powerful equipment. The mirror movies are cool but the invisibility trick is even better. It was all done from the room below, using microwaves and ventriloquism, plus a few rigged devices. Doc could be a parlour act. Later, we learn about the dictograph shortcuts he's included on all his planes. In case he or one of his men needs to send a message but isn't able to do so, they can just bash one of a set of buttons featuring a set of default messages and off it'll go. But don't get me started on Doc's atomic juice! That's just ridiculous.
Of course, we end up in Hidalgo before too long, where the Leader is ready for Doc. One problem with a long running series like this is that we're in no doubt that Doc Savage is going to be alive for the next adventure. There are another hundred plus to go! Similarly, we can't believe that any of his five aides (or Pat, when she shows up) are going to die either, so any time an author tries to build suspense out of such a calamity, we're never going to buy into it.
Davis here knows that but realises that, while we know it's never going to happen, the characters don't have that luxury. So he kills off Doc in truly spectacular fashion here, in such a way that Renny and Johnny, trapped in a cell underneath Blanco Grande, can't not believe it. That makes for a tough scene. Similarly, Monk is executed late in the book in a way that seems to be real to Ham and the rest of Doc's assistants. It's a really nice touch.
I mentioned that the Leader was overblown earlier. He gets more so, spouting rhetoric like anyone's paying attention, "Authority such as no man has ever had will be in my hands," he suggests. "Dictators, kings, emperors and czars of the past will be as nothing compared to me." Yeah, tell it to the shrink, you villain of the week, you. I didn't like the Leader from the time that I realised that his name was just "the Leader". I mean, if that's the best you can come up with, I'm not going to buy into capability in other realms. He's acutely stereotypical and Davis doesn't even try to bolster him. People are following him everywhere, so he must be amazing and that's about it.
Another thing I didn't like here was one of Davis's pet tropes, namely his fondness for doubles. In fact, not just doubles but exact doubles with zero set up time to make them remotely viable. The traitor in Avispa's army who led the revolt against him is Gen. Juan Glassell and no sooner do we get to know him but Doc's playing his double so well that his men can't figure out which one's real until Glassell opens his shirt to show a recognisable scar. And, no sooner do we get past this, than the Leader brings in a double for Avispa so he can call for loyal forces to surrender. Enough already.
My biggest problem with this novel, though, surrounds the fact that nobody's supposed to know about the Valley of the Vanished. If you don't recall, it's a hidden part of Hidalgo that's home to a primitive tribe that still speaks ancient Mayan. Doc's dad bought the land to keep them safe and, as part of their thanks to him and Doc both, they continue to supply shipments of gold that finance Doc's good deeds. The Mayans know about it, Carlos Avispa knows about it and Doc's men know about it, but everything hinges on this staying secret from the rest of the world.
Yet here, the Leader attacks a gold shipment in the opening chapter, and he goes on to out the whole place. By chapter fourteen, apparently everyone in Hidalgo knows about it and five thousand troops are actively descending onto it to raid whatever gold they can find. I'm not a huge fan of how Davis has all this action go down in the Valley of the Vanished, but I'm even less of a fan of having anyone know about it. I don't know how that's going to have an effect on the rest of the series, but my guess is that it's just going to be promptly ignored like the invisibility in 'The Spook Legion' and that's cheap.
With a quick mention for a strange spelling of "bowlders" for "boulders" and the use of "adit" as the opposite of "exit", which I discover comes from the terminology used in mines, another odd note occurred to me late on in this book. If I'm not very much mistaken, the book is aptly named because it's a reference to the one and only woman who appears anywhere within it. There is a female voice heard in chapter fourteen but no woman accompanies it and I'm pretty sure it's just Doc's ventriloquism, so we have to wait all the way to chapter fifteen (of only twenty-one) to meet a member of the fairer sex.
Because this is a return to the location of 'The Man of Bronze', you won't be too surprised to discover that she's Princess Monja, she who crushes on Doc while Monk crushes on her. He is so smitten that Ham doesn't choose to compete, making Monk's scenes with Monja oddly cute, even if we know that he isn't going to get anywhere. He also gets the last line in the book, and the last words of that provide our title.
Another cute note is that this book isn't just full of cliffhangers to keep us turning those pages from one chapter to the next, it actually includes a literal cliffhanger. Doc pulls off a neat trick, making it appear that his plane has been damaged, only to blast the Leader's army with knockout gas so that he can land safely and decommission their guns before they wake up, but he's caught anyway, in a net no less. That allows the Leader to have his men truss him up in the net, wrap him in rope and blankets and throw him off a thousand foot cliff to be kept dangling until he's ready to cut the rope. It felt refreshing to read a cliffhanger that was actually a cliffhanger.
It's hard not to like this one, given how insanely fast-paced it is and how traditional it felt after a few more unusually structured books from Dent in the preceding months. However, the Leader is a terrible villain (without any doubt as to his identitythere's a suspect list of one) and whole sections of this feel wrong for the series. I did like the fact that an author chose to return to the Valley of the Vanished, though, even if he didn't do it as well as he should have.
Harold A. Davis gets another shot next month, with 'The Living-fire Menace', as indeed he will the month after that, with 'The Mountain Monster', which I hear is his worst contribution to the series. Let's see how that plays out. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles in the Doc Savage series click here