For a while, 'The South Pole Terror' doesn't read like a Lester Dent novel, because he uses completely new little summaries for new readers and brings in all five of Doc's assistants for the first time since 'The Secret in the Sky' almost a year and a half earlier. The further we get, though, the more like Lester Dent it reads.
Unlike the recent trend of setting up the mysteries in stories before having Doc appear, he's right there in chapter one this time out and the first two words in the book are 'Doc' and 'Savage'. We still have mysteries, needless to say, and a few show up immediately. A silver sloop on Long Island Sound is discovered, complete with fourteen corpses: all appear to have died of a severe sunburn, except for one woman murdered by her blackmail victim. The fifteenth name on the roster, the explorer Velma Crale, is missing. And the package sent to Doc Savage with her name on it promptly explodes under X-ray examination.
Yes, we begin chapter two with Doc apparently dead and being removed from that famous building in New York on a stretcher, his head detached from the rest of his body. A bystander called Derek Flammen is as shocked as everyone else but he has a larger part to play in the story, as the ensuing conflict soon highlights. The key players seem to be Crale, Flammen and a man by the name of Cheaters Slagg, that nickname stemming from his glasses rather than anything more characterful.
A few chapters in, Doc starts to gather his crew, because, shock horror, he isn't dead at all, though he keeps the public in the dark for investigative reasons. Johnny's in England, translating tablets for the 'English national museum', whatever that is. Renny's there too, for no reason I could grasp, except to introduce himself emphatically with three exclamations of "Holy Cow!" and one instance of putting his fist through a door panel within his very first page.
They follow instructions to catch the Regis liner heading over the Atlantic so that they can search for a man named Thurston H. Wardhouse. It's on the ship that they hear about Doc's demise, which affects them deeply. It's the first of a number of instances of brutality in this novel. They eventually find Wardhouse but the ship is attacked by the same weird heat ray that was responsible for the silver sloop earlier.
Monk and Ham are in New York, bickering as always, and delivering news of the Regis to Doc. Together, they spring a ruse to catch Velma Crale, using an expensive pneumatic dart gun that looks like a cigarette case. We realise this because they retrieve the darts, which Dent tells us cost a huge five bucks each!
That leaves Long Tom, who's back at headquarters being kidnapped by a group of well-armed attackers masquerading as building inspectors. Doc is able to rescue Long Tom but the attackers get away, because they plan ahead as well as Doc, who has the ability to trigger his walls of bulletproof glass. Well, the attackers switch off the electricity supply to the building and, though Doc has his own private supply, they sabotage his high speed elevator too.
If it sounds like we have no idea where we're going, except for the title of the novel, you'd be spot on. Dent delivers mystery and action, danger and death, move and counter move, but he doesn't let us or Doc and his men know what's actually going on until ten chapters in. Even then, it takes a wild bout of fake torture to reveal it, which has serious consequences.
You see, Doc and Monk bump into a steward on the Regis who turns out to be a bad guy with a knack for setting people up. He sets up Doc wonderfully, with a set of messages out on the radio that Doc was destroying the ship with his death ray and a staged corpse to hide that it was him. Of course, Doc isn't far behind and he flies this man to Monk's lab where he appears to torture him horribly.
And yeah, I mean horribly. He convinces him that he's sliced out one of his eyes and taken one of his ears. The man eventually caves but then dies of a heart attack. I have to add that Doc promptly brings him back with a shot of adrenaline but still. He scared a man he'd kidnapped to death and, within a page, Dent has us believe that Doc keeps his up-state clinic secret because of "well-meaning reformers with other ideas of how it should be done." Wow.
Anyway, this victim of mental torture gives up Uncle Penguin, which isn't a particular wild character name but a ship, belonging to Cheater Slagg, which he leases out for polar exploration. And he gives up a valley in Antarctica, though he knows nothing about it. Slagg found it. Flammen and Crale both saw it too. And there are millions tied up in it, so the three are bickering and scheming over that profit.
And, of course, off everyone goes to Antarctica, where you can write much of the rest of the novel yourself. What you might miss out is just how long the book takes to unfold, in chronological time rather than page count. Chapter fourteen alone includes a five week and three day gap as Uncle Penguin heads south and Doc fails to locate it. It takes at least a week for a liner to cross the Atlantic and there's a long and dangerous walk in Antarctica that takes as long.
There are entire Doc Savage stories which unfold within a couple of days. I can't think of another one anywhere near the scale of this novel, which must encompass at least a couple of months, except for the missing month in which Doc and his men are transported unconscious from Chile to Tibet in 'Meteor Menace'.
Timeframes aside, this works on most fronts and it's an enjoyable ride. Of course, none of us buy into Doc's death and we wonder at why the public will buy into the story that he's the villain behind everything. That situation is left entirely unresolved, by the way, so I hope that the following book, 'Resurrection Day', will address the matter immediately.
The main characters are drawn simply enough that we can figure out who and what and why pretty early on. When Dent uses loaded language like 'Flemmen, leering, waved a bony hand,' we know he's not going to be unmasked as some sort of hero. Only Velma Crale has real possibility. She's an explorer and aviatrix of note, notable in itself for this time period, Amelia Earhart an obvious comparison. Hilariously, Dent attempts to talk up her prowess using the term 'he-woman', which really doesn't stand up today. I prefer her line to Flemmen as she puts him in a jiu-jitsu hold. 'I'm not afraid of anything that wears pants,' she says and we believe it.
So there are problems here and they start to multiply when we ponder on it. The mysterious valley in Antarctica works pretty well, I guess, but it's an underwhelming and prosaic operation for such a concerted buildup. There's no explanation of how Slagg found it and realised its importance. At least the weapon that makes its exploitation possible is very cool, though the science behind it is dated and problematic. No regular reader of Doc will be shocked to discover that the villains are killed by their own folly at the end, but this instance is even more underwhelming than the valley.
But it's far from all bad. It's good to see all of Doc's men in action again and especially because the plot has things for them all to do. What's even better is that some of those things are routine in nature and come from Doc trusting in their talents rather than some twist of plot throwing them some sort of specialist bone to allow them into the spotlight. It has to be said that Renny gets caught by the bad guys more than usual here but it also has to be said that he finds a heck of a lot of ways to escape too.
Dent lets us in on a few more details of the Doc Savage mythology here, not all of which approach the brutality of the fake torture session. Doc can use his X-ray machine by remote control, which isn't too surprising given that every X-ray machine I've seen is operated that way. Thermit compound turns out to be a really useful addition to Doc's gadget pack: it enables him and Renny to escape from separate jams. He has a dirigible with an observation pimple (they might rename that nowadays) and an infra-ray searchlight so it can be easily tracked when it's stolen. He has alarms set around the hangar on the Hudson that illuminate a nearby billboard when triggered. And there's an elderly employee at the Hidalgo offices who keeps on doing his job even when Doc's a) dead and b) public enemy number one.
I'll wrap up with the linguistic side of things, which we learn some more of Lester Dent's nautical terminology. I now know that ships carry cylindrical devices to cap their chimneys and they're called Charlie Nobles, though the Wikipedia entry seems to slightly disagree, suggesting that they're simply galley smokestacks not devices to contain that smoke. I know now that there are spectacles called Cheaters. That's not a lot of learning, but it's some and I'll take it.
I wonder what I'll learn next month in 'Resurrection Day', featuring what a reviewer has described as "a lively blend of mad science, violent action and slapstick goofiness that marked Lester Dent at his best", adding a note that "Doc Savage has come up with his all-time most outrageous invention." What could it be, with a title like 'Resurrection Day', I wonder... ~~ Hal C F Astell
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