After August 1938's rollercoaster ride of a Doc Savage novel, Harold A. Davis returns in September for a second month. At least, that's what Wikipedia says. Other sources detail this as a Lester Dent novel and I'm inclined to agree with them, because it's a rather unusual tale and the more unusual any Doc Savage novel is, the more likely it's going to be by Lester Dent. What's more, it's a potential sequel to ‘Mystery Under the Sea’ and that was another Dent book. There's only one reason that I'm not entirely convinced and that's the treatment of Monk, but we'll get to that soon enough.
This one's a lost world story and the lost world in question is clearly Atlantis, even if whichever author is behind 'The Red Terrors' never names it. You'd think, given how long Doc and other very inquisitive people spend in it, that they'd have asked, but apparently not. Anyway, it's in the south Atlantic, with coordinates provided18°47'03.0"S 29°11'16.0"Wwhich puts it off the coast of Brazil, east of Rio and angled just a little bit north. Someone should check it out!
We end up there in our traditional second half location shift, because of the usual shenanigans going on beforehand and the author has fun setting it all up. The first line may be the best in the series thus far: "A sailor named Steve ate an apple, and killed thirty-eight men." It was from a cart in Madagascar and the vendor, who breathed on it to polish it, had diphtheria. Given that Steve was a member of the crew of a steamer, the Muddy Mary, he promptly gives it to everyone else onboard and, eventually, an overworked hand opens the wrong valve and the ship explodes, breaks into two and sinks.
The story chases two key players and one of them was on the Muddy Mary. He's Harry Day, a deep sea diver and he makes it into his alloy steel diving suit, used for his deepest dives, during the explosion. We're given the impression that he's a good guy, but the other is clearly a crook. He's a surgeon and pathologist, Dr. Hugo Collendar, and he's literally snatched off another ship, the Southern Wind, by a mysterious red creature that grabs hold of him and dives off the side. He's notable enough that Doc reads his obituary and recognises the name.
The first notable thing that happens from a series perspective is that he finds the news weird enough that he decides to have his Cape Town operative talk to the crew of the Southern Wind when it arrives in port. Doc has operatives all over the world, it seems. They're all efficient too, as they're graduates of his upstate clinic. As the book goes on and Doc has to take his yacht out over the Atlantic (cruising past the Queen Mary at a cool 40 knots), we discover that the dedicated crew are also, you guessed it, another set of graduates from that increasingly busy upstate clinic.
Clearly Dent didn't have a problem with this use of former criminals, perhaps because they're putting their energy into actions for good now instead of bad, but it really does shift our moral leader a step closer to his evil counterpart, Carloff Traniv, in the prior book, The Munitions Master. He's performing surgery on the unwilling to make an army of allies, who live only to serve their new master. Yes, that describes both Traniv in that one and Doc in this one. The moral boundaries are blurred yet again.
And more notable things from a series perspective promptly start happening too. It's Renny who's in the room with Doc at the time. When was the last time Renny was the first aide to appear in a novel? I can't remember one. As if to highlight that it isn't always Monk and Ham, Long Tom and Johnny show up next, being frustrated by journalists who think that Doc has conjured up a cure for cancer. They stop long enough to explain that he hasn't. Sure, he's cured 24 patients in a row, but his cure didn't work in the 25th case. Like there's a pharmaceutical company who wouldn't leap at those odds, even today! It gives Dent the opportunity to explain why Doc rarely gives interviews himself:
"Because his enemies would learn all about his methods from reading your newspaper stories, and they'd get him sure."
"Doc has a lot of enemies, eh?"
"Everybody who is doing something wrong," said Long Tom, "is a potential enemy of Doc Savage."
I'm sure Doc doesn't take a holiday at this point to slow the pace down from The Munitions Master, as it was never going to compete with that rollercoaster ride, but it almost seems like it. He wanders out of town in disguise to try to save the oyster industry in Salisbury, Maryland from invasive starfish. We're given a leisurely explanation of the problem and nine weeks pass. We're still in chapter three, so this surely has to be the slowest start to a Doc Savage novel thus far. Dent seemed happy to break a few records this time out.
But then Monk radios him with news, as the supposedly deceased Dr. Hugo Collendar fought another fight with another mysterious red creature, this time in New York City. Doc will be there in two hours and we're left hanging about how those oysters are going to cope with those starfish. Monk and Doc head out to investigate and Ham joins them with Habeas and Chemistry, who do nothing in this book, beyond Ham claiming that the latter is the direct descendant of Mayan royal house pets. That's new.
Dent covers the setup here capably, but I was more interested in how he was treating Monk. Not only is he not the first aide to appear, as I'm sure he was more than any of the others, Dent (or whoever is behind the Kenneth Robeson house name this time out) really seems to have it in for him, which is not usual at all. Doc Savage fans rarely started out with the first book, usually finding the Man of Bronze in a random novel they happened upon somehow. If anyone started the series here, they'd think that Monk was a complete lech with a poor understanding of the English language.
Now, in chapter five, he needs a translation for a line of Johnny's, but that's pretty standard. Outside the obvious context, I wouldn't know what "Syncopic lipothymy" was either. However, this time, Monk also needs a translation for Long Tom's translation, "He means she just throwed a Joe." C'mon, Monk, it's obvious at this point. What's more, a chapter earlier, he can't even understand Doc when he says, "The pigment permeates the tissue." He's a world-renowned chemist! What sort of world-renowned chemist can't understand that sentence. "You sound like Johnny," he pouts.
When Monk does get one posh word in"mythogenic"it takes Ham a skimpy seven lines to get the better of him with it, which he continues to do that throughout the book, as a running gag. As always, the pair go back and forth, but usually they come out even. Ham's easily on top in this book, including one of my favourite zingers from the series thus far. "I won't have any trouble swimming because I was a lifesaver once," says Monk, as they slip into the Atlantic in a submersible tank. "Lemon-flavored, I'll bet," retorts Ham.
And it's not just the language. Every time an opportunity arises for someone to do something stupid, Dent makes sure it's Monk. He breaks through a door at one point, only to find it's a closet. He stands up quickly in that tank because he has an idea, only to crack his head on the low ceiling. When we get to a superscience section and folk walk out into the ocean with special chemical pills to prevent them from having to breathe, it's Monk who forgets, takes a breath and fills his lungs with sea water.
If that wasn't all enough, whenever a female character shows up, he turns into a horndog. It happens first with Edwina Day, sister of deep sea diver Harry, and he's instantly smitten merely by hearing her name. "I'll bet she's a blonde and as cute as a pickle seed." It doesn't work out with Edwina, of course, so he shifts his attention to the scantily clad High Priestesses in the unnamed Atlantis, who wear little but short red skirts and copious amounts of priceless jewellery. How misogynistic is this line?
"Not bad," he said frankly. "For years I've been hoping Santa Claus would bring me something like one of these."
I'm not sure why Dent suddenly had it in for Monk, but he slips the knife in at every opportunity and it starts to distract from the story. Remember that? The Red Terrors of the title? People disappearing in the south Atlantic and then showing up in New York City? It seems that the mostly off-page action has travelled to New York, because that's where the Research Hospital isnaturally Doc helped to design the building and he's on its board of scientific researchand the Research Hospital has a vault full of diphtheria antitoxin. Before long, the crooks are found and promptly lost again, Renny and Long Tom with them and Edwina Day too, and we spend another three weeks waiting for a clue.
Beyond that clue eventually showing up and prompting the location switch, I'll let you find out all the rest on your own, because it comprises a surprisingly engaging set of ideas that mix the superscience story with the lost world story and give Dent a lot of opportunity to play with the sort of worldbuilding that science fiction writers usually get up to when conjuring up alien planets. If this, then that has to be done that way because the other just won't work but... and so on.
I will say that, in keeping with most of the rest of the book, the ending is unusual. Sure, there's some of the expected karma, but Doc deliberately sets that up and the principal bad guys aren't hoisted by their own petards in quite the usual way, so he has to improvise a little. Even the romantic angle fails to unfold how we expect it to. But hey, that's a good thing. This may be Lester Dent's 44th Doc Savage novel in under six years, so we can safely expect a lot of formulaic routine. At this point, however, he was keeping us well and truly on the hop and I appreciate that. It's not easy to write a novel to begin with. It's a lot harder to write one that does what the last 43 did, but in a different way. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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