1936 was surely the year of Laurence Donovan for 'Doc Savage Magazine'. Having only contributed one prior novel to the series, 'Murder Melody' in November 1935, he kicked off 1936 with his second, 'Murder Mirage', returned again here with his third and would contribute three more later in the year for a grand total of five in 1936, only one behind regular author Lester Dent. Unfortunately, this one isn't a patch on the previous two.
My expectations coming in, based on Donovan's previous two novels, could be summarised as weird weather, superscience and lost civilisations, with Doc and all his aides taking part, perhaps including Pat, and a whole lot of action. What we get is almost none of that, because this is far from a traditional 'Doc Savage' novel and far from a successful one too. Of all those items, the only one which Donovan delivers here is the inclusion of all five of Doc's men, plus Pat, not that most of them get much to do.
The first few chapters are slow and redundant, a direct contrast to the immediate action of Donovan's previous novels. By a third of the way in, we've done little except introduce a bunch of characters and inflict upon them a rather strange malady in which they're stripped of all their emotions. The title comes from the fact that the jovial characters generally affected lose their smiles and gain a sort of rictus grin.
This starts, for us at least, with 'Smiling' Tony Talliano, a street shoeshiner in New York, though we're told that shipping magnate Simon Stevens was a victim first. Then it's a night watchman, Henry Hawkins, and a lapidary by the traditionally awkward name of Harris Hooper Perris. By the time Ham shows up, Monk has been afflicted, so there's none of the banter we're used to seeing between them. And then Ham succumbs too.
There are a couple of interesting attributes to this strange state of affairs. One is that stripping people of their emotions apparently equates to stripping them of whatever stops us from murdering people. Almost the first thing 'Smiling' Tony does is push his friend under a train. Simon Stevens would have killed a man if Doc wasn't right there in the very same board meeting to stop him. The night watchman calmly shoots a burglar and goes back to his lunch. Even Ham apparently slices someone's throat out with his sword cane. The other is that nobody sees anything, not even us. Excepting the first two instances, which come with a explanation on the side for readers, and the odd hint here and there, this bizarre malady just happens without anyone or anything around to apparently cause it.
What's really strange is that this absence of cause is expanded to an absence of most of the other components of 'Doc Savage' novels that we're used to seeing. There is a criminal mastermind, of course, because someone has to be behind everything, but he doesn't appear to do anything. There's none of the usual shenanigans where the big boss hides behind a mask and a false voice so that even his men don't know who he is. In fact, his men (like the use of 'his' was a spoiler) are suspiciously absent too. There is a grand scheme unfolding and we know that it has something to do with diamonds but we get almost no context to figure it out. The MacGuffin seems to be the Domyn Islands, which Simon Stevens informs his board that he's sold for a tenth of their worth to someone whose name he can't recall, but that angle goes precisely nowhere.
Even the action often takes place off screen, as it were. For instance, there's a scene at the Stevens home, where Simon is being looked over by a doctor that Doc has sent over. Also present are Stevens's son and Dr. Madsen's nurse, along with Pat Savage, who's there incognito. Everything changes in a brief scene but we don't see any of it. Nurse Clarke wanders outside for some air and is promptly murdered. As soon as people start to see what happened, Pat and Jim Stevens are promptly kidnapped. Earlier, there's a raid on the same house, which, again, we don't see, but it cures Simon Stevens and magically shifts his malady to Pat and Jim. That some of this feels unintentionally humorous, like some deadly Victorian parlour game, is worth noting but the fact that we don't see it happen is even more important. It's a little frustrating because we're reliant on Doc figuring out what's going on and he's notoriously close-lipped. Mostly we have to wait for the finalé to find out just what the heck we didn't see and why.
Much of it goes down in and around Monk's new house, an isolated cottage on Shinnecock Point in Ponquogue, out on Long Island. Initially we just think he has trouble with the neighbours, given that Habeas Corpus seems to like nothing more than jumping into the nearby pond and biting the heads off the ducks. But then Monk gets afflicted with the mysterious malady at the heart of the story and wanders home to find Ham rather shocked at his lack of banter. But then both Ham and Habeas fall prey to the illness too and we have to wonder where the rest of Doc's men are.
Rather conveniently, they're all nearby, as Renny, Johnny and Long Tom had all been attending a symposium at the Museum of Early American History in Riverhead. Why, we have no idea. Why the Stevens house is nearby too and the bad guys are operating out of the immediate vicinity as well, we can't explain except by suggesting that Laurence Donovan couldn't be bothered to come up with anything better. Anyway, Johnny and Long Tom find themselves afflicted so quickly after they join the story that they almost play no part in it, leaving Renny on his own trying to figure out what's going on. That leaves Pat with the most to do, even if it's mostly covering tracks that suggest that Ham murdered someone. She only gets kidnapped once and that's late in the book. Donovan is clearly a Pat Savage fan and he relished giving her things to do while Doc's aides flounder around like amnesiacs.
Mostly, though, this is Doc's story. He does things that make no sense at the time and only gain meaning later in the novel. He demonstrates new technology that we haven't seen before, some of which is conveniently crucial to the resolution of the whole affair. He goes here, he goes there, he goes back again. He's a dynamo in this one and he even gets a scene where he finds himself afflicted with the still unnamed malady, his body reacting in an unusual way by battling whatever's attacking his mind by subconsciously launching his daily routine and, needless to say, winning out in the end. It's Doc who finds cures too, though I really don't buy into the temporary fix that he figures out with nerve manipulation. Why that works, I don't know, but why it wouldn't work again, having just worked a first time, I really have no clue.
At least the tech is interesting, as always. First up is a camera, hidden in the tank of poison fish at Doc's headquarters that is a front for one of his secret exits, which takes incredibly close up photos of people's eyes without their knowledge. After Doc gets taken by the bad guys, they strip him down to a pair of shorts to ensure that he can't use any of his gadgets. This tells us that his bulletproof skullcap has chemical explosives secreted inside it and that he wears false nails on his toes to conceal other tricks. Best of all, there's his new monoplane, which is a real marvel. It's silent in flight, so much so that he can trigger the engine to be audible and shock everyone below him. It's eminently manoueverable of course, able to hover well enough to record sound on the ground. It's bulletproof and equipped with a loudspeaker and a rapid fire gun that spits mercy bullets, all of which can be controlled by one man who happens to also be flying the thing at the time. Cool, huh?
As you can imagine from what I've written thus far, I have a whole bunch of problems with this book. There are more details too that I haven't mentioned yet. At one point, intruders break into Doc's HQ and break his poison fish tank to steal the diamonds that he's hidden obviously inside; those fish die on the floor but Doc resurrects them with no better explanation than he put them into another tank and poured some liquid into it. I was imagining poison fish automatons or some such but Donovan never returns to this and leaves it a complete mystery. The same can be said for the Domyn Islands and the drainable duck pond and a whole bunch of other little details that are left completely unexplained.
At the end of the day, this is a Doc Savage novel phrased as an unintentional screwball comedy. There's a whole story going on here but we don't get the opportunity to either see it or figure it out because we're too busy skipping between an array of characters who may or may not still be affected by whatever's affecting people at any particular moment. It's a sort of tag battle of forgetfulness. This chapter might have Monk and Ham and some mystery man with red hair unable to function but the next one might have Monk and Ham cured and the other guy shot dead. But wait, one more chapter and maybe it'll all reverse again. Perhaps Doc can resurrect the redhead like the fish. Who knows?
And, to a large degree, who cares? That's sadly where this one ends up. Definitely a dud from Donovan. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles in the Doc Savvage series click here