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WesternSFA


Land of Long Juju
Doc Savage #47
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 140pp
Published: Original 1937 Bantam 1970

For a whole year, from June 1936 to May 1937, the stories published monthly in 'Doc Savage Magazine' were written by either regular author Lester Dent, who was responsible for seven of them, or Lawrence Donovan, who wrote five. January 1937 was the creation of the latter and it's a fun enough romp, but a dated one because of the way it handles race.

As the title suggests, we're going to end up in Africa, where a war is being brewed up in the peaceful country of Kokoland. King Udu has reigned long and well but he's in his nineties and not far from death. He does have a son and heir, or at least he does when the novel starts: Prince Zaban is in New York to learn about western ways but he's killed off before we meet him, his body stolen for good measure.

And that's a huge deal. Kokoland, which is found in Kilimanjaro country, so somewhere in modern Tanzania, has been led by King Udu's family for multiple generations and traditions have grown up around that. If he dies without an heir, the country will fall into chaos. If the Prince isn't found, flown to Kokoland and buried in the family plot, the country will fall into chaos. If the Blood Idol, a priceless jewel which has also mysteriously gone missing, isn't recovered and returned to the royal family, the country will, as I'm sure you're grasping, fall into chaos.

Why someone wants Kokoland to fall into chaos nobody knows, but they're not doing a bad job of it and they're aided by the fact that, while King Udu is an intelligent, progressive and well-respected leader who has kept the many tribes in his kingdom at peace, his subjects are the sort of ignorant native stereotypes you might expect from pulp fiction but it's still disappointing in the extreme.

Doc Savage is brought into this war about to happen by an ill-advised act of the wannabe kingslayer, who's called the Shimba. You'd think these villains would have learned by the 47th book in the series, but no. Anyway, Renny is in Kokoland building a railroad that's going to open up the country and the Shimba is really not happy about that, so his men attack Renny's camp at the outset and take him captive. Knowing what's coming, he's talking with Doc on the radio at the time, so the folks back home in New York hear what happens.

It doesn't hurt that King Udu apparently wants Doc involved, too, and so we're treated to a whole bunch of action in New York before the traditional shift of location mid-book, naturally to Kokoland. The Shimba has talked the Masai and the Okoyong into joining his cause, odd because the Masai are from Kenya and the Okoyong from Nigeria, but still. That means that there are all sorts of strange natives getting up to shenanigans in the Big Apple, including the now traditional turbaned Hindus, albeit fake ones for a change.

This is where I have most trouble with Donovan's treatment of race.

Even if we can accept that Kokoland people are all superstitious savages who worship humanoid monkeys and even if we accept that Masai warriors can't go a few miles in New York without stopping to drink blood from the heifers in roadside fields, both of which are troublesome to begin with, it seems even more outrageous for them to paddle up the Hudson in their traditional canoes to hurl their traditional spears at the Hidalgo Trading Company.

They do so in traditional dress too, which apparently means condensed milk cans dangling from their elongated ears and ostrich feathers sticking out of the heads. Now, I know New York is an international city, but I firmly doubt that there's a Koko-Mart readily selling all this stuff to wannabe assassins that might just wander by on a whim.

While Donovan acknowledges that Africa is full of many tribes, he appears to be under the impression that every tribesman (the women are apparently worth little mention) fall into one of two stereotypes: ignorant and superstitious savage or noble savage enlightened by the west. His attitude rubs off on the heroes of the book, Doc Savage and his men, too. While they fly to Kokoland to help save the country from the bad guys, they continually look down their noses at the locals, which is greatly disappointing.

Back to the novel and we're introduced to the traditional cast of mysterious characters, albeit a much smaller one than usual. Prince Zaban is murdered, but his close friend Count Cardoti survives to join Doc and his aides as an expert on Kokoland, its people and customs. Señorita Moncarid is also in New York for reasons unknown and she's right at the heart of everything, but we never really get close enough to figure out why.

Instead of more mysterious characters, we're treated to another Pat Savage entry in the series. It's becoming very clear that Laurence Donovan was one of her big fans because the last time Lester Dent, who invented her, put her in one of his novels was Spook Hole, back in August 1935. This is her sixth appearance since then and five of those are due to Donovan. Of course, she's kidnapped before we even see her, because of course she is, but she gets to un-kidnap herself later on in a much more interesting scene.

Thus far, it's all been pretty fun action and intrigue. Not all of it makes sense and Donovan clearly mixes things up (are there really rivers full of piranha near Kilimanjaro?) but he gets the job done well enough. He has Ham and Monk buried sitting up, according to some local custom. He has a Masai warrior suicide by chewing an esere bean. He has battles and explosions and fights of all sorts. He has Doc work wonders with an antique plane to level the playing field between two armies.

He also plays with a little Doc Savage mythology too. One African throws a knife at him, catching him perfectly on the skull, only for the knife to be deflected off by Doc's bronze skullcap. It's a good use of series elements. He even introduces a new one and I'm interested to see if and how it recurs later. It's a new plane called the Wing, because that's exactly what it is: a wildly advanced wing plane with no propellors but a new propellant and a top speed of 500 mph. That's how Doc and his men get to Africa so quickly. It's a marvellous creation, onto which enemy planes can crash without being unduly affected because of clever compartmentalisation.

Unfortunately, he also drops the ball quite a bit towards the end. We can't fail to have figured out the villain behind the Shimba because there's only one candidate, though Donovan does highlight that he has a partner who does the work while he's away. The latter comes out of nowhere, as does the grand reveal to solve the many problems that Kokoland finds itself in. Again, it's not particularly surprising but there's nothing done to set it up, so it too comes out of nowhere.

Worst of all, the villain's undercover man in King Udu's tent has a bizarre talent. He may be a superstitious medicine man but apparently he can speak and understand ancient Mayan and that proves troublesome at a key point in the story. It just makes no frickin' sense, whatsoever. Thus far, if I recall correctly, not one person in the world has understood Doc's men chatting in Mayan but an East African medicine man, who is unlikely to have ever set foot outside his country's borders, is utterly up to speed on the dead language. Yeah, no.

So “Land of Long Juju” is fun and enjoyable but it's also rife with flaws. It just feels more disappointing in hindsight than it was while reading and I'm of the opinion that there are worse problems to have had in the pulp world of 1937.

Next month, we shift back to Lester Dent for a full quarter, beginning with “The Derrick Devil” and continuing on with “The Mental Wizard and The Terror in the Navy”, none of which I believe are set in deepest darkest Africa. I hear that this may, in fact, be it for the interior of that continent in any Doc Savage novel. Too close to Edgar Rice Burroughs' territory? Maybe. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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