Into another new year for Doc Savage and 1938 saw some big changes. Writing was mostly divvied up between six Lester Dent novels and five by Harold A. Davis, starting with this one in January, with only one odd one for Ryerson Johnson. The artist of the entire previous year, and the two months before that, Robert George Harris, handed over to Emery Clarke as of this book and he would continue on with only two exceptions for five years. Finally, the year wrapped with two of the biggest adventures in Doc's career, facing off against John Sunlight in 'The Fortress of Solitude' and 'The Devil Genghis'.
So, much to look forward to, but we kick off in action-packed style in 'The Living Fire Menace', which is a lot of fun, even if there are some big flaws that are hard to ignore. It's also a very visual novel, a gimme for a screen adaptation, should one of those ever arise again, and it features all five of Doc's aides. While they spend most of the book captured, a few of them do get opportunities to shine here, explaining why Doc keeps them around.
The opening chapter almost reads like storyboards. The mysterious Z-2 rushes through the Californian desert wearing inner tubes on his feet and layers of clothing inappropriate for the hundred plus degree temperatures. His skin is cherry red and he's rambling about "The living fire! The death that cannot be avoided! The fire that spurts from within, that burns and destroys!" It's urgent that he reach Doc Savage. He finds a gas station and gets through to Johnny on the phone, but is shot dead for his trouble, perhaps by the lovely girl who appears to be hunting him.
I love that and I don't love it any less after learning a chapter later that he wasn't shot; he blew up in a sheet of flame. It must be that living-fire! There's some sort of plot against Doc and his five aides, mounted by Clement Hoskins that prevents Johnny and Long Tom from meeting up with Ham and Monk for dinner at Reefer's. Petrod Yardoff can kill someone with a single touch, delivering electric fire from his fingers, and Stinger Salvatore, given the job of kidnapping Doc and his aides, doesn't seem too nice either.
Everyone shows up by chapter four, Doc on his way back from a six-month trip to the Fortress of Solitude. He arrives with some new tricks up his sleeve. There's a girl at headquarters with a gun, so he goes invisible to catch her off-guard, author Harold A. Davis even providing a citation for such bizarre technology in the form of the claims of Hungarian oculist Stephan Pribil. A more believable gadget is the polaroid, which Doc merely puts to good use a full decade before Edwin Land sold the first commercial instant camera.
One thing I enjoyed about this book was how Doc's aides get things to do for a change. It's Renny who finds the girl, for instance, Virginia Hoskins, at a New York hotel, though he's kidnapped for his troubles. It's Monk who sees through the scam when they get to the same apartment only to find a cardgame in progress but no girl. He even gets to punch through a door like Renny! It isn't long after that when Long Tom figures out some key details to explain the story to come, perhaps the first time that any of our regulars, with the notable exception of Doc, have done that.
Davis keeps us on the hop too. Not only does Doc in particular go through a succession of cliffhangers each one a gimme to kill him (but doesn't) or to capture him (and does, though he promptly escapes again), but there are news bulletins to highlight this. During one foray, Monk and Ham hear news on the radio that Long Tom and Renny are both dead, their bodies found after a boat explodes, identified by papers in their pockets. Then the news of Doc, who's electrocuted in public when opening the door to his car. That's tough!
Of course, everyone's still alive but this is serious enough stuff to prompt a conscious decision. "We will accept the challenge that has been hurled at us," says Doc, and tells Monk to leave the pets behind this time as off they go to Sandrit, CA, an imaginary town right outside a real one, Palm Springs. Clearly it's a trap, but they walk into it with their eyes open.
Things also get weird here, if they weren't weird from the opening scenes, I mean pages, with the oddly clad Z-2, who turns out to be an undercover agent of the Department of Justice and an old army buddy of Johnny, exploding in a gas station. Clement Hoskins has a deep mine in Sandrit, full of rich veins of gold and minerals. Johnny is agog at the hitherto unseen formations while he and the others are taken down in a glass elevator. It's a wonder, with an obvious catch being the army of criminals working there being cherry red and presumably infected with the living fire menace.
Needless to say, I don't buy everything that goes on down in Hoskins's mine with its glass workbenches, glass elevators and glass guns, but it's freaky cool to look at, I mean conjure up in our imaginations, especially when the weird professor shows up. He's Prof. Torgle, a scientist recently sprung out of an asylum, and he looks like this:
"His feet headed one direction, his body another, as if some giant had at one time twisted him halfway around. His head was unbelievably flat on the top. Little eyes that had no color of their own, glowed like tiny red coals. The mouth looked like a ragged slit cut by a knife into a dull piece of red leather."
I totally want to see Prof. Torgle on screen, perhaps in the memorable form of Danny DeVito. What's more, Prof. Torgle's lair, deep in Hoskins's mine, is full of weird death traps, which Doc's aides flummox him by countering, Renny through his sheer power and Long Tom through his electrical knowledge. Also right there where Torgle hangs out in the Pit of Horror is the living flame into which Doc is flung to experience its effects. That's pretty cool too.
In reality, none of that would be remotely viable, as believable as Yardoff stopping a bloodthirsty mob by pointing a water hose at them or Doc stopping another one by simply pointing them at a cure for them being cherry red. The best bits about this one are the visuals, the pacing and the weirdness of it all. Details don't fly too high on its radar, as evidenced by the whole mine being reclaimed by the ocean at the end of the book, even though it's maybe eighty miles away on the other side of a national park, some mountains and a whole slew of towns.
More annoying problems for me include the author forgetting how he'd brought in the one and only lady in the book, perhaps that he even had brought in a lady in the book, so bringing her back in a completely different way; Doc's habit of countering cliffhanger after cliffhanger through the use of rubber shoes and not touching anything; and yet another quick doppelganger routine for Doc. Those are getting old.
So, chalk up another fun but problematic novel for Harold A. Davis, who gets another shot next month in 'The Mountain Monster'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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