Oh yes indeed, I've been waiting for this one! A couple of decades before Superman had a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, Doc Savage had a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic and most prolific series writer Lester Dent had dropped hints about it in plenty of novels prior to this one. However, this is the point where we finally get to visit, which ought to be a momentous occasion. It's also the point where we meet John Sunlight, the only villain to appear more than once in the original pulp series; he returns in ‘The Devil Genghis’ two months later, as well as in the comic books and later novels by other hands.
Now, all that knowledge kind of sets the bar high on this novel, as does the fact that many fans see Sunlight as Doc's greatest foe and quite a lot of them also list this novel in their top five from the entire series. That's a lot to live up to and, quite frankly, I ended up a little disappointed. That's not because this is a bad novelit's definitely a good onebut because it simply doesn't live up to all that hype, at least eventually. It starts off pretty damn well in one of the busiest first chapters I've read thus far.
John Sunlight is a mystery man; because, of course, he is. We first encounter him in Russia, where he has been caught blackmailing superior officers in the army in order to advance his rank and Serge Mafnoff wants him shot, but the jury lets him live. They send him instead to a Siberian prison camp to spend the rest of his short life way up there in the Arctic. Nobody has ever escaped, so naturally he does, by stealing an icebreaker on its annual visit. He also burns the camp and takes all convicts and crew with him. After four months amidst the ice, they find the Strange Blue Dome, which looms a hundred feet high with a shimmering luminance.
We do know a little more about Sunlight. He's tall and thin with very long fingers. He has a "great shock of dark hair", a "remarkably high forehead" and a pair of "hollow burning eyes", yet he most resembles a gentle poet, we're told. He has an intriguing set of companions, including a "bestial black ox" of a chief aide in the sadistic Civan and a pair of American giantesses, guilty of the spying of which they were convicted. They're Titania and Giantia, according to their vaudeville billing. And, of course, it doesn't take the convenient falling apart of the icebreaker for him to want to descend to the ice and investigate the dome.
That's one chapter, which is a mere four and a half pages in the Bantam paperback edition. Dent is not messing around here. He spends the second chapter letting Sunlight figure out a way into the dome, because naturally there are no doors or windows. It's all one solid substance, as if it wasn't built but grown. A sledgehammer does nothing but generate a loud ringing note. And, while there are Eskimos living nearby, none of them apparently even see the dome, even when Sunlight throws them against it. Six weeks pass in which he starves them but they stay fat. Eventually, he realises that they're sneaking off to the dome under a robe of white arctic rabbit fur and entering through a portal which opens of its own accord. In he goes and, two more weeks later, he emerges and turns one of the Eskimos into black smoke.
For all Doc's gadgets, he doesn't have anything set to notify him automatically of an intrusion into his holiest of holies, which seems odd. After all, not even his aides know where the Fortress of Solitude is, and none of them have ever seen it. He has to read in the papers about the mysterious death of Serge Mafnoff, now a diplomat, through being turned into black smoke in his fashionable house in New York. Eventually, we learn that it's been a year since Sunlight stumbled on the dome, which is plenty of time for him to have learned plenty and planned much.
Cue various shenigans, starting with a clever but transparent manouevre to herd Doc into the taxi outside HQ that's driven by Civan, who eventually lets slip that he was hired by Eli Camel who then left for South America on the Amazon Maid. Cue clever counters, starting with Doc rumbling Civan before he could get out and trigger a bomb to blow up the yellow cab and Doc not buying into that story, so watching the Mafnoff house where Ham, Monk and Long Tom are investigating his death.
It's here that another inexplicable wonder happens. Everything suddenly goes black, triggered by Sunlight's men so they can rescue Civan, so black that Doc's aides can't see anything, even with the aid of a flashlight. The mystery grows but, of course, not to Doc because he knows what must have happened and the importance of what he knows affects him in a way we haven't seen in the series before:
They all looked at Doc Savage; if there was to be an explanation, it would have to come from the bronze man. Monk, Ham and Long Tom were utterly at a loss.
Then they stared in amazement at the bronze man. His facethey had never seen quite such an expression on his face before. It was something stark. Queer. They could not, at first, tell what it was; then they knew that the bronze man was feeling an utter horror.
"Doc!" Monk gasped. "What is it?"
Doc Savage seemed to get hold of himself with visible effort. Then he did a strange thing; he held both hands in front of him and made them into tense, metallic fists. He looked at the fists. They trembled a little from strain.
Finally he put the fists down against his sides and let out a long breath.
"It cannot be anything but what I think it is," he said.
Thus far, the book has been magnificent. Dent has set up the villain as someone unusual, who can escape from a Siberian prison camp, who's ruthless enough to dominate other men and make them do his bidding, who can survive on less food than anyone around him. He can also figure out how to work some of Doc's inventions or whatever it is that he's stashed in the Fortress of Solitude so that he can put them to use as a means to gain still greater power and influence. It's a unique story that affects Doc so vividly and we know because of his reactions that this is a very big deal indeed.
On a much lesser level, I really appreciated Titania and Giantia, two quirky women who are larger and stronger than men, but still driven by a sort of maternal instinct. They have a tiny sister in New York, Fifi by name, whom they must protect from Sunlight and they even misguidedly kidnap Monk to help them do that. His impressions are "two Herculean females, not badly proportioned, but built with at least a triple or quadruple measure of everything." As ironic as it sounds, I wanted more of them. They had a lot more potential than Dent was willing to provide.
Unfortunately, Sunlight is mostly an absent villain and, when he's present, he's a stereotypical one whose plans are clichéd and whose defences are obvious and easy for Doc to navigate past. His one talent seems to be overkill. When he realises that Doc has infiltrated his fortress, which crowns an island in the Hudson river, he leaves and detonates most of the island as he does so. He even gains stereotypical supervillain quirks, like a fondness for one particular colourwhich will change when he feels likethat leads him to dress entirely in purple.
We also have to put up with some pretty dismal lesser villains. I'm not talking about Civan, though he's no great henchman, but of the despotic world leaders to whom he plans to sell superweapons, naturally playing both sides against the middle each time out. Baron Karl isn't too bad as the head spy of an unnamed Balkan country but he's not too good either. At least, he's not as fundamentally annoying as the leader of his chief rival, a king only referred to as "the former playboy prince". He is the quintessential entitled brat who spends his time drinking, carousing, getting into ridiculous trouble and moaning about everything under the sun to anyone who'll listen. I didn't like Fifi either as she's a kewpie doll waste of space who moans as much as the playboy prince. Aptly, her first line is, "What about poor little me?" She's like an annoying version of Betty Boop. Of course, Monk is entranced.
Because we spend so much time with characters like these, the build of the novel, through its usual midway location shift, the pace isn't as tense or as frantic as quite a few recent books and it's even more inevitable. Of course, the shift is to the Strange Blue Dome, which Doc steadfastly refuses to explain, even when Monk figures out that he has to know what it is. Given that he doesn't aim for a rapid pace, Dent instead plumps for details, some of which are agreeable but others of which seem like he thinks he's presenting the definitive book in the series and so must describe things that we already know from the previous sixty-seven volumes.
Some of the agreeable details add to the lore of the series. Doc has finally reached an agreement with the papers to not report on him; we'll see how long that lasts. The flearun to Doc's warehouse on the Hudson is no longer in the fishtank at headquarters; it's behind a wall in the laboratory. The global detective agency he brought into being is entirely staffed by graduates of his upstate clinic, which somehow makes the de-criminalising process he runs there even more morally dubious. And, of course, we get a glimpse, albeit a brief one, into the Fortress of Solitude.
Monk is entranced by the vast chemical laboratory and Long Tom by the electrical experimentation setup, but we garner no details about them, beyond their size and complexity. More importantly, it becomes clear that Doc has secreted away in this hidden fortress many terrible inventions, some of them his own and some he's confiscated during many adventures. He provides a good analogy to Aput, the medicine man of the eskimos who guard the dome for him: what, he asks, would Aput do with a poisoned seal. The eskimo replies that he would bury it "where none would ever find it". Doc replies simply, "That was my idea, too."
I should mention here that Monk and Ham don't have much opportunity to bitch at each other for much of the novel, infuriating each other at a distance, though there's a memorable scene at the Serge Mafnoff crime scene where Monk attempts to impress a local cop, only for Ham to steal his thunder. Long Tom is actually more memorable here, because he takes a major dislike to Fifi, whom he's tasked with guarding. He refers to her sarcastically as "little honey lambkins" and grimaces or grunts in disgust every time her name comes up. Renny and Johnny are out of the country, though they both do a little detective work into Sunlight at Doc's request. Renny's in France, consulting on flying fields for high speed transport planes, while Johnny's in Egypt, opening a pharaoh's tomb.
I should also mention here that I had to look up a couple of words, which I haven't had to do in quite a while. Ham calls Monk a "gossoon" a couple of times and that turns out to mean a servant boy or lackey, so it's not particularly insulting, given some of the other insults they come up with. It's Long Tom who explains to Doc that Fifi turns "cocklebur", which obviously means that she's going to work against them if she's left behind, sort of like a traitor without the lost allegiance aspect. However, I have no idea where that comes from because "cocklebur" is a genus of flowering plants. Maybe it's their listing as a "noxious weed" in Arkansas and Iowa that Long Tom is thinking of.
And so this starts with a bang but ends with a whimper to my thinking. It's not a bad novel, but it's underwhelming and it doesn't live up to my admittedly high expectations for it. Sunlight still has a lot of potential but he hasn't reached it here. Okay, he gets away neatly at the end, which is a unique feat for the series, but I still prefer other villains, such as the Tom Too, the Pirate of the Pacific and the more recent Carloff Traniv, the Munitions Master. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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