The Lost Oasis
Doc Savage #7
by Kenneth Robeson
First Published: 1933, Bantam edition 1965
The seventh Doc Savage novel was first published in the September 1933 edition of 'Doc Savage Magazine' and later reached paperback as the sixth book in Bantam's reprint line.
It's a relatively straightforward entry in the series that gets right down to business. The early scenes are both thoughtful and controlled but they really count as the beginning of a chase that lasts for 72 full pages and ten chapters. This is precisely what pulp action aims to do but rarely achieves. Sadly, it all ends in cliché with the lost oasis of the title being utterly predictable in every way, but it's a great ride to get there!
In fact, that contrast really defines the book: well-thought-out adventure combined with cheap gimmicks. That means that half is really strong and half is really weak; but, unfortunately, it moves the wrong way to start on a high note but end on a low one.
Surely Lester Dent was writing far enough ahead of deadlines that this novel was written before 'The Red Skull' hit print, so maybe he saw a potential problem himself in how long it took Doc Savage to enter the fray in that previous book. Where he didn't show up until page 21 there, he's obvious at the top of page 2 here and he dominates quickly and consistently.
Returning to New York from the Fortress of Solitude, he discovers that a million-dollar bounty has been offered to whoever can find him, from someone on board a ship at sea whose only advertised name is 'Imperiled!' So, while the public and press crowd the docks waiting for the Yankee Beauty and its inherent mystery to arrive, Doc surreptitiously swims out to look for himself.
The early scenes on board are tense and constructed with careful choreography, because Doc doesn't yet know if those who seek him are friends or foes. They also build the mystery, with a lovely English lady, a fat foe and a ghost zeppelin, not to mention an apparently inexplicable murder and a bizarre attack. Doc still doesn't introduce himself, but cleverly trails those seeking him from boat to shore, where he elicits the help of his faithful five and the chase is on in earnest.
I loved how this progressed, from the thoughtful suspense on the Yankee Beauty right into a chase that goes from sea to land to air before ending up, inevitably, at the lost oasis of the title. Each transition is fraught with new danger, each segment is as tense as the last and we never let up for a second.
The point at which we start to breathe again doesn't arrive for 72 pages when chapter eleven settles down into a battle, albeit one on board a lost zeppelin in flight over the African desert. There are many component parts here that seem perfect for pulp adventure, but the zeppelin is the one that fits here the best; because it has a neat origin and it serves multiple purposes at different points in the story.
By comparison, otherwise worthy elements seem cheap and thrown into the mix only because such things are expected. Identifying the mysterious fluttering death as vampire bats can't be seen as a spoiler, given that they're advertised on the five line blurb on the back of the Bantam edition, but they're wasted as props and the fact that they're extra‑large and venomous, to boot, feels cheap and unworthy. The same goes for the carnivorous plants also highlighted in the paperback's brief synopsis as they're hardly in the story and don't really do anything even when they are.
'The Lost Oasis' also suffers from a common flaw of many of the early Doc Savage novels, namely a far-too-quick conclusion. I'm not aware of Lester Dent's writing process, other than it being quick enough to feed a monthly magazine with a new novel every issue. He may have carefully plotted out his stories in advance using chapter‑based synopses, but it really doesn't feel like it. It feels like he sat down at the typewriter and just wrote what came to mind, checking his word count periodically to make sure he could wrap within his limits but leaving it too late to make cuts to allow for a proper ending.
He hooked me here with so much: not just the mystery at the core of this adventure, but also its heroes and its villains, what it promised for a key location, its key props and those surrounding them, and, of course, the fluttering death because every Savage adventure should have a mysterious means of killing.
Yet I found myself disappointed with most of those. The mystery resolves itself early, the heroes are either killed off quickly or wasted in standard support, the villains become routine and forgettable, the props are mostly ignored and, as mentioned, the fluttering death is underwhelming. How could Dent allow such a promising character as Lady Celia, beautiful English aristocrat and lost aviatrix, go to waste? It's a real shame that she falls into the routine role that Monja, the chief's daughter, started in 'The Man of Bronze', namely a means to highlight Doc's firm dedication to his task.
Fortunately, most of these complaints don't show up until two thirds of the way through the book and, until that point, it's a whole heck of a lot of fun. It sets up well, it builds well and it entertains well as any pulp action adventure series should. Dent was clearly learning how to pace himself, build his tension and keep us on our toes, or at least until he ran out of space. During that 72-page chase and for a while beyond it, we're given quintessential Doc Savage, the Man in Bronze; firmly, the man in charge with his men following along to help save the day.
What we don't get is much subtlety. The more intricate plotting of 'Pirate of the Pacific' is forgotten or ignored, along with the patience of 'The Red Skull.' This is cliffhanger territory and we don't have time for intricacies and patience. Doc is on the case immediately, in the middle of the action very quickly and in hot pursuit soon after that. For as long as Dent sustains that pace, we're with him. Once it flags and the clichés creep in, we wonder why we're with him. ~~ Hal C F Astell