After four months away, primary series author Lester Dent returned with a highly enjoyable Doc Savage novel for August 1936, as if to highlight that even if prolific newcomer Lawrence Donovan was finally getting it right in books like The Black Spot, he was still the go to author for the best Doc Savage stories. This one isn't entirely successful but I enjoyed it a lot, as much for what it does differently as what it does that's expected.
Of course, the Midas Man of the title is the villain of the piece, but we follow a number of distractions before that's confirmed. Initially we look at Jethro Mandebran, because his mysterious disappearance is followed by a revelation that $20m has vanished along with him, from the bank he owns. A few chapters in, we shift our suspicions from this businessman to his son, Alexander Cromwell Mandebran, who's flying in from England, and then to his ex-fiancée, Sylvan Niles.
I mention all this first, because Doc and his men are put on the backburner for a change. Johnny does show up very quickly, having fun with journalists by answering their legitimate questions with replies like "Prognostication effectuates diaporesis." They work hard to translate all his answers, but it still takes half an hour for them to realise that he's telling them nothing. Karma is a bitch, though, so he's suckered into a trap by a stolen Egyptian tablet and kidnapped by the end of the first chapter, thrust into a mummy case and told that he'll lose a tooth every time he utters a sentence that they don't understand.
Doc gets a wilder introduction though. He's mentioned quickly, because the missing $20m includes some of his money. He also appears quickly, but we're not let in on it, though long term readers will see through the disguises. Initially he shows up in blackface, to give Alex Mandebran a ride: "Ah got an official cah waitin' foh yo', suh." Then he disguises himself as Alex, well enough to initially fool his ex-fiancée who ought to know better.
As Doc plays Alex playing a streetcleaner too, we could fairly say that he has three disguises before he's ever introduced as himself in chapter 7, a full third of the way into the novel. Perhaps this is because some of the characters have figured out who he is too and his reputation precedes him. "You have the reputation of never killing anyone," Sylvan Niles tells him. "Why should I be scared?"
By this point, Monk has been called in too but Ham hasn't shown up yet and Renny and Long Tom won't, because "their professions have called them". It has to be mentioned that Dent uses passive sentences rather a lot here, not just through personification but through text like, "There came into the room a small, weird sound," or "Came a crash as if planets had collided."
Mostly, this is a solo Doc Savage adventure. Monk and Ham both get moments where they prove to be thoroughly useful aides, but those moments are also followed by moments where they slip up or get captured. At one point, Ham even rescues Monk from capture but they don't actually get away, promptly being captured again.
Monk, in particular, finds himself bemused on more than one occasion. Events have raised something called Happy Skeleton, so Doc knows precisely where to go next. "How Doc Savage connected anything called the 'Happy Skeleton' with the Miners' Building, was beyond Monk," we're told, but it's as simple as a good memory, Doc remembering a newspaper article about the Castello Mining Corporation opening up a new gold vein in the Happy Skeleton mountains near Death Valley.
On the basis of this novel, Doc surely ought to trust his numerous gadgets much more than his assistants, because they rarely fail him. We get to see some new ones here too. He changes his eye colour through use of glass cap contact lenses. He tracks a car from his small amphibian gyroplane using a fluoroscopic spectacle device. He distracts a guard who gets the jump on him by throwing a gadget into a bush, where it plays a tiny record to announce, "Drop that shotgun!"
At one point, he even searches his own office. I remember the hidden panel that contains a number of recording instruments, which effectively act as a complex burglar alarm with in-built logging. I don't recall being told that every drawer and cabinet has hidden mechanisms that highlight whether they have been opened or not. When Ham triggers an exploding chair that causes chemical fire to splash everywhere, Doc triggers his own fire extinguishing system to suppress it.
Best of all, just in case glass contact lenses aren't prophetic enough for you (actually they were invented in 1887 by a Swiss physician called A. E. Fick), there's a new transportation device. At one point, Doc decides that he needs to travel from his 86th floor HQ to the Hidalgo Trading Company warehouse on the Hudson really quickly, so he opens another hidden panel, climbs into the bullet-shaped cage concealed within, which is padded and equipped with holding straps, then through the power of compressed air is catapulted at high speed through what is clearly a 1936 interpretation of Elon Musk's hyperloop system.
For once, however, Doc's gadgetry is outdone by the villain's, which isn't the sort of thing I'd usually explain, given that it's very clearly spoiler material. But hey, the Bantam paperback, which is the form through which most people are likely to read this novel, spoils it first. It features a fantastic James Bama drawing on its front cover of the Midas Man complete with intricate headgear and the four line blurb on the back cover explains that, "His very thoughts were worth criminal millionsno man could escape his evil device."
Yes, the Midas Man, whoever he (or she) turns out to be, has created and mastered a device to receive the thoughts of others. Within the story, it receives a really good build-up, with instances of men kidnapped and asked question after question, without apparently needing answers, then released as the "wrong men". The mysterious nature of this is explained, of course, later by the Midas Man cunningly tuning into their thoughts during careful questions that were designed to lead these victims.
In a moment of late unintentional hilarity which ably serves to highlight the moral compass of the series and the time in which it was written, Doc takes the Midas Man's equipment to examine, after the villain's inevitable karmic demise to the breaking of a jug of hydrocyanic acid above his head, just before he threw it at Doc. It's mentioned that, "The things were too dangerous in their possibilities, to take a chance on their again falling into unscrupulous hands." What's funny is that Doc also believes that the police might be able use them.
There's plenty more that's worthy of note too. An earlier explosive chair goes off while the police are present, highlighting that a plan had been enacted to murder a man who's already committed suicide. It's highlighted that Doc does two things at once in a particular scene, checking the vital signs and potential injuries of the unconscious Sylvan Niles with one hand while confirming whether she'd just fired her revolver with the other. The Midas Man reaches an advantage at one point over Doc that nobody else had managed, by using his mindreading device on the 85th floor of a particular building, right underneath Doc's headquarters!
But I'll end with a linguistic oddity. We know, of course, of the various catchphrases in play within this series, but a potential new one shows up here, or at least it would if it wasn't issued from the mouths of multiple characters. It's simply, "Good night!" but not as a wish at the end of the day, rather as an exclamation akin to, "I don't believe it!" I'll therefore say, good night and "Good night!" ~~ Hal C F Astelll
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