Wow, this is some story and not all in good ways! With Lester Dent wrapping up Doc's first fifty novels with 'The Terror in the Navy', it became the job of Lawrence Donovan to kick off the second fifty with 'Mad Eyes' and he did so in rather unusual fashion.
It's so unusual that attendees at an early Doc Con, albeit one without a big attendance, voted it the worst novel in the series. I have sympathy for that because it does very little of what fans want in a Doc Savage novel and lots of what they don't. Even after turning the final page, we have no real idea of why anything that happened did so, let alone in this particular way. The motivations of those responsible are ignored entirely, as is the background to how they managed to do so much. And superscience! Lots of superscience!
Perhaps most importantly, we get very little Doc Savage in this supposed Doc Savage novel. There are a few brief moments with him during the first eight chapters, all of which turn out to be an imposter because chapter nine tells us that the real Doc has been securely bound and confined in an underground dungeon for the last twenty-four hours. His contributions to this novel can be summed up as being suckered into a trap (in a flashback without detail), caught and teased horribly, escaping only with the help of others, only to be caught again, all while his double runs free perpetrating atrocity after atrocity. So much for our scientific superhero!
The only good possible outcome to Doc being sidelined for what is almost the entire novel is that Donovan has the fantastic opportunity to fill that Doc-sized gap in the book with worthy things for his five aides to do. No longer in their leader's shadow, now these world renowned talents can shine, right? Wrong. They don't get much to do either until very late in the novel and not much even then. They too are suckered into traps, caught and kidnapped. And impersonated! How the bad guys found a double for Monk, I have no idea, and Renny is actually doubled by not one but two other characters.
The more we think about 'Mad Eyes', the worse it gets, so let's focus on its good side, because there is one. Most obviously, Donovan gets seriously dark in this book. It begins with the watchman at an industrial plant apparently going insane, running around trying to claw invisible monsters off his skin, the torment ending only when he's run over by an express train. The monsters have hundreds of heads and thousands of eyes and they're pretty freaky. Ten men die in an instant late in the novel by merely being splashed with green liquid. And, of course, Donovan never met a paralysing ray he didn't like.
Most obviously, though, there's that scene with Doc underground, which is so horrific that it feels like it could have been an EC comic, though I'm sure Donovan's influence was Poe. Picture the scene: we're underground in a sewer with Doc bound so tightly with leather thongs that there's no way that he'll muscle out of them. With the sole exception of the villain, who does pop in to gloat, the only other occupants are hungry rats, who are only discouraged from attacking Doc by the light, which the villain switches off periodically so they'll muster up the courage and start their assault, only to retreat as the light comes back on.
This is glorious psychological torture and it gets physical when Doc escapes because his only option is to let those rats chew through the leather and so allowing him to break free. Of course, the only tool at hand he can use as a club is the arm of a skeleton he climbs over on his way into the East River. Doc Savage novels aren't remotely this dark and, as a horror fan, I dug this gothic horror approach a great deal.
I also kind of dug the fact that Doc is sidelined, though not to this degree and not without his aides getting their shots instead. The stories that bore me are the ones where Doc is superhuman, half a dozen steps ahead of the bad guy at every point. Here, he's out of the picture entirely and his men can't do much about it. This is a very capable villain, someone able to a) sucker Doc into a trap and b) keep him captive long enough to c) successfully take his place, doubling him so well that even Long Tom and Ham don't see through the fraud. How ballsy is it for a villain to waltz into Doc's headquarters, accompanied by doubles of Monk and Renny, and pack up all his equipment for their own nefarious purposes? I like that.
Sadly, those positive attributes don't come remotely close to outweighing an astounding number of negative ones. So many things here make no sense until they're explained and Donovan can't be bothered to explain them. Even if he does, such explanations are pitiful.
For instance, there's a great scene as Monk and Ham chase a car. They can't catch it, which is weird; when they finally do, there's nobody in it, which is weirder; and they do so because it's been crushed by an invisible train, which is weirdest. However, no explanation is every forthcoming. There is an explanation for how Doc escapes the dungeon into the East River, but it's a ridiculous one. Underwater, he tries to muscle open the grate at the end of the sewer tunnel but runs out of breath, so he's accidentally hauled up by a dredging crew inept enough that they destroy the local architecture.
There are few enough characters that we can't fail to determine the villain, even though it makes no sense. The token girl, Jane Davidson, is convenient. The token characters with wild names do very little. Prof. Lanidus Spargrove is an apparent cohort of Doc's who's killed off, thus removing him from the suspect list. Dr. Josiah Anstratton arrives so late in the book that we can hardly consider him and he also works with Doc, even though he's a deformed man who our surgeon hero apparently doesn't want to fix. Other than those, a set of millionaires are about it. None do anything except get kidnapped, say no and see invisible monsters. Every one of them has an unwieldy name, from Howard van Ronzen to Rufus Bannaford via Jonas Hydebottom.
And to the superscience. Donovan sure likes his superscience but he has zero interest in giving us valid explanations of it. He conjures up air cars here to transport heavy goods like five-ton safes and three-ton copper balls, but Doc's explanation of them is stupid: "These cars are a type of super-Diesel, which draws nearly all of its energy from the stratosphere." There's a super-microscope, though we haven't a clue how it works. There's a paralysing ray, because of course there is.
And, through all this, what captured me most was that Monk actually punches Ham during one of their inevitable bickering sessions. Habeas Corpus takes a bite out of Chemistry too, though that's lessened by the two animals quickly vanishing from the book entirely. Do they just roam the countryside at will? After that, most of the cool things that happen were countered by stupidity. Hey, Cragrock Sanitorium is cool, but we're only there because of one single clue that isn't remotely credible. The Voice is cool, but we don't know what it is, why it's there and who provides it. Doc masquerading as Renny is cool but we're never given an explanation of how he can progress from unconscious salvage to leaping onto a moving vehicle in two chapters.
All in all, this is a complete and utter failure of a novel with a couple of minor notes in its favour. Surely, that'll end Lawrence Donovan's run as the second most prolific writer of Doc Savage after core author Lester Dent. No, he'll be back after a brief interlude at the hands of Harold A. Davis called The Land of Fear, up next month. Don't change the channel. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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