November 1936's Doc Savage novel, the second of three in a row for regular series author Lester Dent, is a real doozy. On the adventure front, it's up there with the best, with a memorable villain prompting cat and mouse games throughout, but it suffers from a couple of major flaws that make it rather hard to swallow.
One is the central conceit of the story, which is actually driven by Doc for a change. He's apparently developed a way to resurrect the dead. Sure, it's a limited time offer. Sure, it uses insanely rare chemicals that aren't too easily sourced. Sure, those insanely rare chemicals have to be treated for a decade or more to get them to the point where this is possible. But, Doc is now able to return a single man to life, regardless how long he's been dead, just so long as he has a body to work with.
This actual conceit is only the first third of this major flaw, because Doc opens up the choice to public vote, literally. He spends half a million on advertisements and works the public like a sideshow huckster, but then fails completely to deliver. After announcing the judges' choice, shenenigans then ensue, which whisk Doc and his men off to Egypt, leaving the American public whipped into a frenzy but with no payoff. Next month's book really ought to deal with the riots that happened while he was one.
If that's two thirds of the first major flaw, the last third is the choice. Thomas Jefferson is namedropped early but other suggestions include Napoleon and Edison, which would set every steampunk in the world going. Eighty years on, we've come to realise that Edison, as brilliant as he was, was primarily a publicity man, stealing ideas from everywhere and palming them off as his own. There's no way he'd be a choice today. I think we'd baulk at the actual choice too, Solomon, the three thousand year dead former King of Israel, son to David and husband to a thousand women. In 1936, the history books were clearly focused entirely on his legendary wisdom.
Of course, while Johnny has recently discovered Solomon's mummy, making the resurrection possible, things don't go to plan. There's a major villain in play, one who just happens to be conveniently outside Doc's building as the announcement occurs. He's General Ino and he decides to switch things up in a rather memorable fashion. He has his own mummy, you see, one belonging to the Pirate Pharaoh, Pey-deh-eh-ghan, who fought Solomon, and concealed his treasure in a lost tomb, a tomb in which he was not buried, I should add, in case you're thinking part four to that major flaw. Orchestrate it so that he gets resurrected instead and he can tell General Ino where it is.
I like Ino a lot. He's presumably Asian, given the name, but he isn't played like another yellow peril villain. In fact, his conceit is to change race at the drop of a hat, even during a conversation. One moment, he'll be French, but with a poor command of English, then he'll be a German, or stereotypical Chinese, or an Italian immigrant to New Jersey. His henchman is a lawyer by the name of Proudman Shasta, a cringing wuss until he turns into a berserker when asked to kill. He's particularly fond of decapitation and likes to use antique weaponry to do it.
I know some Doc Savage fans don't regard General Ino well and I think that's partly because there's no mystery to him. We know he's the evil mastermind from moment one and he interacts with Shasta and his mostly throwaway men as if secrecy was never part of the evil mastermind playbook. In short, there's no mystery to him. What he has in abundance is schemes, because he outthinks Doc better than any other villain since maybe Tom Too way back in the fifth novel, 'Pirate of the Pacific', and things play out as a far more enjoyable cat and mouse game here. Ino even quotes Alexander the Great, when pointing out that defeating Doc Savage would allow him to retire, there being no more worlds to conquer.
The other major flaw comes in the second half after we've shifted locations, as we must, to Egypt as both General Ino and Doc Savage search for Pay Day's tomb (such is what Monk and the others end up calling Pey-deh-eh-ghan), with the resurrected pharaoh playing each side for his own benefit. At one point, Ino has the upper hand, having got to Egypt first and concealed his tracks, so Doc, having reached the general vicinity, wanders off into the desert on his own. Of course he packs light, with concentrated food tablets and a few gadgets, but this somehow extends to his water:
"Doc added to the pack a flask containing, not water, but the chemical parts of water, minus the unneeded ingredients."
Erm, what? I'm not sure what was in the water Dent was drinking in 1936 but, as far as I'm aware, water is hydrogen and oxygen in the right proportions. Did Doc really pack a flask of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms which would magically reconstitute themselves into water when he needs a drink? If Dent was writing in 2019, I'd think he'd fallen prey to a dehydrated water meme on Facebook but I can't think of an excuse for his day. It's just sloppy.
So yeah, there are a couple of major flaws here that could easily spoil the novel for some but it's a blistering read nonetheless, that even ends with a less predictable note of deadly karma. I liked the cat and mouse intrigue. I liked the action in Egypt, especially once they reach the tomb, in which the cheap weaponry has thankfully rotted away to uselessness, unlike we tend to see in the movies. I liked the action back home too, with the warehouse of the Hidalgo Trading Company turned into a warzone for a tense chapter, with a poor taxi driver stuck in the middle of it all.
I liked the gadgetry too. While some of it seems cheap, like the ability of the not yet named tube system linking the Hidalgo to suddenly accommodate a large group of peopleDoc, all his men and fifteen unconscious hoods ready for a trip to that upstate clinicothers are more believable. In the desert, Doc utilises a combination of balloon and special camera to take a hundred rapid photos of the area. Sure, the kit to develop those pictures is rather tiny but it's a great way to reconnoitre from ground level. To avoid sudden death by drowning during an underground flood, he gives each of his men an oxygen pellet that allows just a little more time to escape.
We even get time for a few extensions to the Doc Savage mythos. The mummy of Solomon is being stored at Johnny's private museum, which is a pretty cool place except for being 25 miles away from downtown. I'd call this visit long overdue too, given that we've visited Monk's laboratory a few times, stopped in at Ham's ritzy apartment and even Renny's penthouse overlooking Central Park. I wouldn't say no to a guided tour of any of those, but I'd pick this private museum over all of them. Also, we're told that Doc keeps a number of detective agencies in business to take "care of the innumerable calls which he received from persons who were in trivial jams."
Thinking back, this was different from the norm in a number of ways. Nobody sparks this story by visiting the 86th floor or doing something outrageous; Doc sparks it himself, even if he doesn't put out the spark afterwards. The villain doesn't conceal himself at any point, comfortable in his ability to outwit his enemy, even when that's Doc Savage. All Doc's assistants are in play, along with both Chemistry and Habeas, the latter of which has one key scene. There's even an actual explanation of why Doc's shirt gets torn, its inevitable fate on every Bantam paperback cover. And the traditional ending is followed by a clever extra one, like an easter egg after the credits.
Before wrapping this up, I should comment on the language, with the notable usage here being mostly in dialogue. The only prose example is a description of Chemistry, Ham's monkey, as a "what-is-it". Talking of Ham, he has a good insult for Monk here, calling him a "hairy gossoon". I had to look that one up, but it's a serving boy, generally Irish. And, talking of Monk and Ham, I got a real kick out of something big-fisted Renny contributes as Johnny and Long Tom get into it: "Now, don't you two start Monk-and-Hamming it!"
That just leaves an additional note that's important to the series. While a majority of Doc's fans today see him as James Bama and others painted him on the Bantam paperback covers, with his widow's peak skull cap and torn shirt, that's not how he looked on the original pulp covers. Those were painted by Walter M. Baumhofer from the very first edition up until September 1936, so the covers of the first 43 pulps and that's the Doc I imagine. His time was ended when he joined the American Artists agency and shifted from the pulps to the slicks.
The first non-Baumhofer cover was for 'The South Pole Terror', my review for last month, but it was the only one that John Philip Falter ever painted. As an action piece, it looks remarkably like a romance cover. Maybe that's why, as of 'Resurrection Day', Robert George Harris took over; he painted all the Doc Savage covers for the next year and change and he was a strong successor to Baumhofer. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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