Lawrence Donovan threw me for a loop with his previous contribution to the 'Doc Savage' series, April 1936's 'The Men Who Smiled No More'. It was his third Doc novel and the first to divert away from what seemed like his favourite subjects: weird weather, superscience and lost civilisations. I can applaud his decision to attempt something different, but, well, I kind of dig weird weather, superscience and lost civilisations. Fortunately, two of those are back for 'Haunted Ocean' and, for a while, the third seems to be too.
Initially, it seems that we're in for a book about mysterious deep sea disturbances. Something's going on in the north Atlantic and everyone and their dog seems to both care about it and want to help Doc Savage investigate it. As if to get ahead of the imminent assembly line of new characters showing up at headquarters, Donovan is keen to set the scene immediately. Doc shows up on the very first page, as do Monk and Renny. Ham joins a page later and Long Tom isn't far behind either. They're all at HQ and there's a corpse outside their door.
Even the corpse is identified immediately, by an apparently nerveless visitor, Prof. Callus, which name is the giveaway it seems to be. He says that it's Prof. Homus Dasson, an oceanographer like him. He can't explain away the weapons, bombs and live frickin' snake in a box concealed on the body though, or the fact that rigor mortis has been artificially induced early. We're still trying to figure that out when Lora and Barton Krants show up. They're looking for oceanographer #3, their father, Cyrus, who's missing at sea.
The next character to be introduced isn't an oceanologist, though he's frankly long overdue for an introduction to the series, given that this is the fortieth monthly instalment in the Doc Savage saga. It's the President of the United States, who rings Doc personally to summon him to Washington, DC. He's never named, but this is 1936, so it's Franklin D. Roosevelt just as clearly as the famously unnamed building hosting Doc's headquarters is the Empire State Building.
Initially, the President is concerned about the disappearance of a War Commission on its way to Calais to sign a treaty to end war. How? Well, by "the immediate super-armament of the six member nations against all others." In other words, to use a phrase mentioned here, for them to become "world police". I should add that Doc is especially interested because the American representative, for no reason that I can conjure up, appears to be Johnny, meaning that all Doc's assistants are here.
By the time Doc gets to DC, matters have developed. Someone is threatening this attempt to end war by demanding, erm, an end to war. He wants all nations, including these six, to completely disarm, to destroy all their armaments and disband their armed forces. Hindsight puts us on the side of this mysterious mastermind, however, who dubs himself the Man of Peace, because this is 1936 and the six nations aiming to police the world include Germany, three years after the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, and Italy, where Benito Mussolini was almost a decade and a half into his run as prime minister.
What's more, this madman, as we are clearly supposed to see him, has some sort of superscience on his side, as he can unilaterally switch off anything powered by electricity from a distance. Doc's plane was brought down on the way because of this and we're about to see the grand demonstration, when the Man of Peace switches off the entire city of New York for four scheduled hours. The weird weather aspect comes from the light that accompanies this power, which leads to a chapter appropriately titled 'Dawn at Midnight'.
Now, even before we realise that Donovan is punning us with a hint towards the key to the mystery being found in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Doc's monitoring an odd blind spot for radio signals somewhere in the North Sea off the coast of Norway. Clearly, we're all going to wrap up warm and fly up to Moskenes in the Lofoten Islands, but we have a steady stream of visitors to Doc's HQ to deal with first. Soon after the Krantses leave, Kama Dbhana (I have no idea what ethnicity that could represent) of San Tao shows up, to begin a yellow peril aspect to the story. Then there's the big Norwegian, Hjalmar Landson, but he's murdered with a singular dagger, the partner to which Doc quickly locates in the Krants family apartment.
Perhaps the biggest problem Donovan has here, and he has a few, is that he doesn't know how to be mysterious. Lara Krants is clearly a good guy until she's a bad guy and she's then clearly a bad guy until she's a good guy again. It gets old. Similarly, she's clearly Lara Krants until she isn't and then she isn't until she is. It would be confusing, except scenes like the one with the dagger are so obviously setups that they cut through that confusion and strip the mystery away. Another example is the way that, in keeping with tradition, we don't know who the villain is until the finalé when his identity is revealed, supposedly surprising us in the process. This time out, it's obvious who he is all along for no better reason than that Donovan wondered in suspicious fashion where a character we've never met could be. Twice. Way to spoil your own novel, sir.
One of the more refreshing aspects to the book is that he brings Doc a little closer to the rest of us and, in doing so, elevates his men a little. The Man of Bronze hasn't been this vulnerable at any point in the series thus far. In an eerily staged early scene, he's overwhelmed by superior numbers, captured, searched capablyall the way to removing his fake toenailsand tied up so well that he can't escape his bonds. He's left in an abandoned attic to die when a death tank sets the place on fire and, while he doesn't prove entirely helpless, it takes Renny showing up and breaking through the heavy door to get him out. He's knocked out again later and he even makes a mistake serious enough to cost the life of Monk, who's saved not by Doc but instead by sheer luck.
It was obvious in 'Murder Melody' that Donovan doesn't like Monk and he clearly relished almost sending him to a watery grave. He much prefers Pat Savage, but she's not in this book, so he talks Renny up instead. Beyond saving Doc from the death tank attic, he gets a couple of good action scenes early on, while taking Miss Krants home. One focuses on his driving skills and the other on his fists. He takes down a whole bunch of thugs before he succumbs to the inevitability of capture, given the odds he was facing.
Pat's the only checkbox left emphatically empty on the 'things Lawrence Donovan really wants to include' list this time out.
There's plenty of weird weather, not only with the mysterious light that turns the middle of the night as bright as day. There's a cliffhanger section in the Place of the Glacial Death too, where a glacier, once a year, pushes a wall of ice through a cavern over an underground fjord. What a fantastic place to chain up prisoners so that they can be crushed to death by Mother Nature herself!
There's even more weird science. Beyond the mysterious force that switches off electricity at a distance, there's a whole slew of wild superscience on offer. To counter that force, Doc employs a glass submarine powered with compressed air, that's alternately described as a fish and a coffin. The Man of Peace has developed a unique power source that wouldn't just revolutionise transportation but pretty much everything else on our planet, given that it's based on a combination of selenium and special light and it runs silently and efficiently. He's using it to power silent submarines, for instance.
There isn't a lost race, but there does appear to be one for a while. Doc and his men land in Norwegian Lapland, a place bizarrely full of apparent savages, because Donovan didn't do his homework quite right. They also find apparently naked men wandering around without any discomfort at 40°-50° below. While this seems like a lost race, they're actually just Norwegians whose nerves have been surgically altered to make their heartbeat slower and their body temperature lower. Why? We have no idea, but this is why one such man arrives apparently frozen to death only to resurrect in memorable style, in another scene where Doc finds himself in serious trouble but is saved by sheer luck.
There are other notable things here too.
One is that Donovan throws in everything he can about Norway in such a way that we're supposed to believe he knows what he's talking about. Within a few brief pages, he throws out Eddas, the Skager-Rack, 'stavekirker', 'stolkjaerre', 'hesjire' and the Jostedalsbrae glacier. Many of these are spelled differently nowadays and may well have been in 1936: nowadays it's Skagerrak, 'stavkirker' (stave churches) and the Jostedalsbreen glacier. Google brings up zero results for 'hesjire', which Donovan thinks is a mountain elevator, so I have no idea where he got that. Most people know about the Eddas, so that leaves 'stolkjaerre', which are two wheeled carts in Norway. Oddly he doesn't mention the famous town of Å, which is in the Moskenes municipality and would seem to be an obvious place to visit in a novel like this.
Another is that there's an odd hint of racism that goes precisely nowhere. Doc has faced the Yellow Peril before in books like 'Pirate of the Pacific' and 'The Mystic Mullah'; it's a product of the time and often a particularly fascinating one to me. However, it's a wasted angle here, even if it doesn't fall prey to the usual problems. Sure, Kama Dbhana has skin of "yellow darkness" but he speaks perfect English and wears elegant clothes. He may be a villain but he's no Fu Manchu. And, while the goals of the Man of Peace are to end war, there's a line of dialogue that betrays other priorities: "But you cannot do this! One of our purposes was preservation of the white race--" We're about to see proto-Nazis face off against the Yellow Peril, which I'd dearly love to see, but that line is immediately forgotten and we don't get anything of the sort.
It has to be said that the depiction of Sir Arthur Westcott, British cliché, is pretty racist too, given that he can't speak a line of dialogue without referencing the King and the British Navy. Here's an example of what happens when his moustache gets scraggly:
By jove!" he exclaimed. "When they find out what these bally blighters have been up to, there probably will be a war! Nobody can kick one of His Majesty's subjects around like this!"
At least Donovan doesn't fall into Lester Dent's habit of giving every British character a cockney accent, but this is arguably worse.
I wanted to like 'Haunted Ocean', but it kept fighting with me. It's clearly a flawed book but it does interesting things, even if it doesn't follow up on them. Given the focus on electricity here, for instance, how come Doc's electrical expert, Long Tom, vanishes from the book without getting the opportunity to solve all sorts of electrical mysteries?
In the end, though, what wrecked its chances for me was Donovan's inability to describe the locations of the last half of the book. I had a difficult time trying to visualise just where we were at any point. Are we in a village or on a glacier? Where does the mountain elevator come in? How do we get to the underground fjord? How does the Place of Glacial Death work? Is Doc flying right now above the ocean or jumping onto a submarine in a cavern? Somehow, it felt like all of this took place in an area the size of my front room and that's clearly not possible.
So, this is another missed opportunity for Lawrence Donovan, albeit not the outright dud of a screwball comedy that was 'The Men Who Smiled No More'.
Next month, he gets another shot with 'The Black Spot' before Lester Dent shows back up to, I'm currently expecting, show him just how it's done. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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