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Devil on the Moon
Doc Savage #61
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 120pp
Published: Original 1938, Bantam July 1970

Regular series author Lester Dent returns after three months away for a Doc Savage novel that's both smooth and unfulfilling. There's a lot of good here, but there's eventually a lot of bad too and that's enough to leave me with serious mixed feelings about it.

It starts out well, with a meteor flashing over the trees to crash in Chesapeake Bay. Out of it falls Tony Vesterate in his green spacesuit to crash-land with a burned parachute. Lin Pretti, a roll-your-eyes sort of name, finds him. He's injured but savvy enough to tell her that he's been to the Moon, but was able to escape. He also has a mysterious blue glass cylinder in his possession that people seriously want.

We don't buy into the story woven by the first overt hoods on the scene. They explain to Bob Thomas, who's been trying it on with Lin, that they're guards from a nearby insane asylum and they're looking for Tony, who has escaped. The Moon is just his delusion, but Lin is his sister. These are Lurgent's men and we've read enough Doc Savage novels to know the villain's right hand man on sight. The character of note, though, is Behemoth, a giant of a man who's recently joined up with his mob and who asks a lot of questions. Yeah, we've read enough Doc Savage novels to know who he is too.

What follows is a heck of a lot of manouevering. This is densely plotted but much of what happens is a distraction from the elephant in the room that becomes more and more obvious throughout the first five chapters. There's no Doc Savage in this Doc Savage novel and none of his aides either, except for a glimpse at a distance at the end of chapter four. Behemoth shoots at them but to no avail.

It's odd to see Dent drop obvious clues to telegraph where we're going but plot so densely that we're supposed to not notice. Maybe he just wants a few readers to kick themselves when the reveals come, because most, even if they happen to be wide-eyed ten-year-olds reading outside the news shack after they pick up this new issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine' in March 1938.

Yes, Behemoth is Doc working undercover and he's been feeding information to his men via dropped notes by a couple of dead rabbits on the road, which eventually gets Johnny captured. He shows up in chapter seven and that's the point - Behemoth is rumbled by the Man in the Moon.

And yes, the traditionally hidden villain of the piece here is called the Man in the Moon, for no better reason than he takes people prisoner and sends them up in a rocket because who the heck is going to escape from the Moon, Tony Vesterate notwithstanding? It's a stupid name, so stupid that Dent even calls attention to it at one point:

"It did sound fantastic that a mysterious international strong-arm organization headed by a name as ridiculous as the Man on the Moon could have been trying to steal a country's submarine in order to fake a declaration of war and sink another nation's battleship carrying an admiral—all to start a European war."

Two paragraphs later, he adds:

"Then someone mentioned Doc Savage. Presto! The thing immediately seemed less incredible."

Yeah, Dent's way to explain away a stupid name is to point out that no name seems stupid when it's in a Doc Savage novel. I'm not sure I buy into that skewed logic at all, Lester.

Oh, and if that first quoted paragraph sounds like spoiler material, it kind of is but it kind of doesn't matter because the plot here really isn't important. The blue glass cylinder is the real McGuffin but I think half of what we read about here is a McGuffin too: the moon, the submarine, the war, the Devil in the Moon medallion, the Moon. None of those things really matter in the grand scheme of things, which really boils down to two things: who is the Man in the Moon and where is Johnny, because he really needs to get rescued soon.

I'll spoil something else though. As you might imagine, we do end up on the Moon eventually, as we would surely be calling shenanigans on Dent if he didn't deliver that. As you also might imagine, it's not really the Moon. I know, I know. I bring this up because it seems utterly bonkers to me that a Man in the Moon who can apparently raise or drop entire nations at a whim can get away with secreting an array of high profile international prisoners on the dark side of the Moon without even one noticing that the gravity is normal.

Could it be that the average American in 1938, which is admittedly before World War II, let alone the Apollo program, didn't know that the Moon has a sixth the gravity of the Earth? Or that it hasn't got enough atmosphere to breathe? If that's the case, which seems like a stretch to me, suddenly all those bug eyed monsters and outrageous female spacesuits from pulp magazine covers seem to make sense. Even Monk falls for it, the schmuck.

Until that point, I was enjoying myself. Sure, I saw through all the reveals pretty much immediately, but I'm over sixty books into this series. I'm experienced in the ways of Doc! Sure, Dent telegraphed a heck of a lot this time out, including the identity of the Man in the Moon, which is utterly given away by the halfway point but can be safely guessed in chapter one before we ever hear that stupid name. Sure, Habeas Corpus and Chemistry both appear in two different sections of the book, without having any reason to be in it at all. Sure, we're treated to not only all five of Doc's aides but Pat Savage too, again without most of them having a reason to be here. Sure, there's another character who shows up but proves so pointless that I'm not even going to bother to tell you who he is. But Dent wrote this one smoothly enough to let it just flow past my eyeballs. It's an easy read, even for a Doc.

I should add that Pat is tough in this one and only becomes a prisoner when everyone else does. She's pithy and no nonsense and she slaps Lin when she's getting hysterical. Perhaps most importantly, Doc hints that the real reason he doesn't allow her along on his adventures (he tells her to go home here, but she unsurprisingly doesn't) is because she's harder than his men. They follow his directive to take no lives, even when their own are in danger. He knows she wouldn't. She's too good a shot to miss and too hard a character to want to.

And there's not much else to bring up. There isn't a lot of bickering between Ham and Monk or, to be fairer, there's plenty but Dent cuts away from it much quicker. The usual stock phrases all come out, a little less frequently than usual; Johnny even gets to use small words in one scene. And there isn't an instance of thirties slang to note, other than Doc's, erm Behemoth's, odd line in which he states that he's "plumb fizzy-giggled". Read that with a straight face.

I didn't dislike this as much as a lot of Doc fans seem to, but its early promise does vanish solidly and that whole gravity thing is going to bug the heck out of me. So, moving right along then... next up is another Dent, 'The Pirate's Ghost', which I'll tell you right now, without having read it yet, that it will turn out to not be a pirate's ghost. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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