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The Submarine Mystery
Doc Savage #64
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 121pp
Published: Original 1938, Bantam August 1971

June 1938 saw Lester Dent back in the writer's chair and apparently ready and willing to mix things up for Doc midway through his sixth year. When the series was new, Doc was a superman, not quite to the level of leaping small buildings with a single bound but a lot closer to that level than we might think unless we go back to revisit them. That was quickly calmed down, with Doc still better than the rest of us at everything but mostly to a believable level, given that he'd been trained since birth for this life mission and he continues to hone his skills for a couple of hours every day. And that's held until now.

Here, we see some vulnerability for the first time. We're told that his training "should have made him a machine. It should have taken the human qualities out of him." That it didn't, that he retains all his emotions, means "all Doc Savage's training had been a flop". While he also retains a great poker face, this newly vulnerable Doc can be scared and worried and even angry.  He hasn't been angry in sixty-three books but he boils over twice in this one and it takes some getting used to.

In the first instance, he's being his usual silent self while his companion, Miss China Janes, who was a former showgirl, digs at him. Eventually he gets too frustrated to remain silent and lets loose with an outburst: '"Shut up!" he said loudly. "And sit down!"' The other is more dangerous. He comes upon an example of severe injustice: a man didn't harvest his full quota of barley for the day, so he's punished by having his hut set on fire and his pneumonia-stricken son whipped in the street. Doc steps in as he might, but loses his rag in the process, taking three cruel masters down hard, breaking their jaws, ribs and probably other bones too. It's weird to see Doc Savage lose his temper.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. 'The Submarine Mystery' is a crappy title and the mystery isn't a particularly great one either, even if the setup is good. Someone blows up a US Navy submarine in the waters outside Boston harbor, except that they don't, because the real USS Swordfish is somewhere in the Panama canal. This is a fake, for reasons unknown. The further mystery is that a lady escapes from it shortly before it explodes, and she's seen wearing part of a suit of armour and speaking in a sort of Shakespearean English. Into Boston she vanishes and that's that.

We soon discover that there are others who seem to be newly emerged from the sixteenth century too and one of them helps kidnap Doc, which is a pretty audacious start to their part in this book. They're not bad at it either, neatly capturing him and setting a trap for Monk and Ham, the only companions to feature in this book as the others are in Europe. Prince Albert, their apparent leader, also has balls enough to visit Doc's HQ with one of his radioactive coins to let him in. With Habeas Corpus in hand, he pretends to be Monk when Miss China Janes shows up looking for help. That's ambitious!

Of course, it doesn't work out well for him, but we find ourselves in a repetitive cycle of people being captured, then escaping, then being captured again, then escaping and so on and so on. This happens as well as you'd expect from a Lester Dent-penned novel but, while the methods are neatly executed by both sides, this one felt constantly skimpy to me.

The early chapters are all short, keeping all the odd details but missing the flesh to wrap around their bones. It often read to me like a synopsis padded out somewhat rather than a final draught. The page count is down a little, so maybe there was an editorial change in word count. There is some colour but it's limited to brief moments that aren't milked for all their worth, like Prince Albert sneering at the "sack-makers" who tailored Ham's clothes or the nighties that Doc, Monk and Ham are forced to wear while being held captive on a submarine; that was necessary after an escape enabled by Doc's mixing of a thermite compound out of his crushed coat buttons, a torn necktie and the lining from the watch pocket of his trousers.

Gradually, of course, we get to the point. The mysterious lady in partial armour who escaped from the sub was a friend of China's on the chorus line, Portia Bowen, though she later became Duchess Portia Montayne-Norwich when she married a duke. After his death in a "plane crack-up", she caught the bug of adventure, flying around the world to see what she could see. Clearly she found herself involved in something larger than she could deal with.

Presumably deliberately, this turns out to be something completely realistic, which almost sounds as if I'm complaining. It's actually quite refreshing, as much as I enjoy some of Doc's earlier novels about superscience and lost races. Let's just say that some were a lot more believable than others and it's an easy observation that some of the more outlandish gimmicks were promptly forgotten later because they couldn't be taken seriously. It's hard to carry on as usual when you've encountered the secret of invisibility and the massive extension of human lifespan.

A more believable plot goes hand in hand with a more believable Doc and I'm interested to see where this new approach takes us. One reason for the change may be Dent acknowledging what was going on in the world at large. The key reason behind the central plot of modern day piracy being viable is that "The nations of Europe have been engaged in a rearmament and intrigue for a number of years." Sure, inward-looking America wasn't paying too much attention to what was going on but Dent apparently was and he saw that it was going to warrant a change in tone in his 'Doc Savage' novels.

Of course, it got a lot more serious than Dent was ready to admit. This novel was published in June of 1938. The Nazis had already confiscated two million marks of Jewish property, but "The Fateful Year" was about to ramp up seriously, with the mass deportation of Jews starting in October. Kristallnacht happened in November and, of course, World War II was less than a year away at that point. Suddenly superscience stories seem quaint and old fashioned.

Talking of the war, there's some slang here that's worth mentioning. For a start, the submarine at the beginning is supposed to be a US Navy vessel but everyone calls it a U-boat. Clearly that didn't take a more focused meaning until the Nazis deployed their U-boats in the North Atlantic. The German term, short for unterseeboot or undersea boat, refers to any submarine, but in English it quickly became a strict reference to the subset of submarines that were military in nature and operated by Nazis. Also, Prince Albert calls his own submarine a "hooker", an odd choice of word given that hookers are Irish fishing vessels.

One line that seemed wild to me, even in a novel with Monk talking more gibberish than usual, is this one, describing Portia, who may be the ringleader behind the modern day pirates or just a prisoner of circumstance like so many others: "She fooled us to a fare-you-well in New York!" Yes, she fooled them in New York but I'm unsure about the rest.

And talking of Monk, there's a fantastic coda to this one, following a more realistic ending than usual in which the villains are killed by one of their victims rather than by karma. That's one more scene in which Doc fails, though of course he wins out overall. He'd trusted in his armoured car, only to get it trapped in a confined space, lifted off the ground and drilled into. He'd gone off alone to investigate King John Island, only to be trapped by hunting dogs in a tree. And he gets himself driven into a trap more than once.

But the coda is great. Monk and Ham don't get to bicker much here, which is also refreshing, but they have always been great rivals for the ladies too. It rarely works, of course, with the female leads often falling for Doc, instead, and moving on when they realise he's not interested. Here, both of them land the fishes they'd tried to catch. Portia goes for Ham and China goes for Monk and it works out well, so well in fact that they suddenly find themselves prospective bridegrooms, which worries them greatly. They don't want to get married, so they end the book by trying to persuade Doc to steal them away!

Next month, we'll find out what the S.R.G.V. is as Doc Savage tackles ghost fears and a deadly giggling gas that threaten millions in 'The Giggling Ghosts'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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