The fifth Doc Savage adventure, 'Pirate of the Pacific', which first saw print in 'Doc Savage Magazine' in July 1933, had to wait until #19 in the Bantam paperback reprint series. Why - I have no idea - because this is a bundle of fun and it also sees a real opponent for Doc, for the first time, in the Mongol pirate, Tom Too. What's more, it follows directly on from the events of 'The Polar Treasure,' beginning with the return from the Arctic of the 'Helldiver,’ a submarine loaded down with treasure.
Perhaps Bantam was a little reticent in 1967, during the civil rights era and the counterculture revolution, to put much push behind a book that is now notably racis;, not only as an example of the Yellow Peril genre of devious Asian masterminds but also with a ridiculous overuse of pidgin English, described here as 'beach jargon.' Yes, we all know that many Japanese have trouble with their L's and R's, but Tom Too's men are either Mongols or mixes of multiple Asian ethnicities and there's really no reason why any of them would have such issues. And this would only come up when the letter is spoken anyway, not when it's silent in words which read here as 'halm,' 'fol,' 'sholt' or 'pelhaps!' That's nuts!
Such extreme racial stereotyping aside (and Renny gets into blackface at one point here), author Lester Dent got a lot of things right. He segues well from one adventure into the next. He remains grounded with another exotic location that's thoroughly believable. He introduces all the standard features of the Doc Savage universe succinctly and sparsely so that new readers will feel right at home with book five but regulars won't be bored by the repetition of things they already know. He even gives us a contemporary historical tie, with a sea voyage leaving the port of San Francisco past the new Golden Gate Bridge, still under construction but a major point of attention.
Best of all, he sets up an intricate web around the villain of the piece, which Doc and his men attempt to penetrate for the entire adventure with only gradual success. Perhaps learning from previous books, Dent keeps Tom Too notably out of the way, resonant from the first chapter but not named until page 47 and never showing up in person until the very end of the story. He orchestrates his chaos from afar and stays, relentlessly, a step ahead of our heroes.
That's refreshing, because up until this point Doc had always found a way to be ahead of pretty much everything and everyone. Here, that's not the case, though he does cause as much trouble for Tom Too as Tom Too does for him. This is well-highlighted within a conversation of the pirate's Mongol henchmen. 'Verily,' one says, 'this bronze devil has not been one thorn in our sides - he has been a whole thicket of them.'
Doc is drawn into Tom Too's activities through a friend, Juan Mindoro, a political power in the Luzon Union, a fictional nation quite obviously based on the Philippines. Mindoro was instrumental in achieving independence for his country and setting up a fair and honest government. But Tom Too, a fierce and calculating pirate, is threatening that hard-won freedom. He's forced Mindoro into hiding and is now preparing a coup.
While we root for Doc Savage and his men, as always, it's good to see him being made to fight for his victory by an opponent who's worthy of the name. Even far from his comfort zone he's dangerous and deadly, even succeeding in the kidnap of three of our heroes. He suckers the rest onto the Malay Queen, a liner bound for Asia, with the leaked suggestion that the men are on board. Then, as Doc cleverly tries to locate and free them, Tom Too and his men cleverly block their every move and counter it with two of their own. He's like the hydra, with two new heads appearing for every one that's cut off, and he keeps escalating his attacks, keeping Doc on the defensive. I'd suggest that this book sees more attacks against Doc and more obstacles thrown into his way than the previous four combined.
Perhaps this growing frustration at a clever foe is why death doesn't seem out of place in response. Early on, Doc has many Tom Too followers sent to his institution in upstate New York, so that they can be cured of their criminal tendencies. Later, though, as the adventure gets more fraught, that falls by the wayside as our heroes find that they have to kill or be killed. There are still a few scenes that feel uncharacteristic though, such as an early one in which Renny attempts to fight his way out of a trap by spinning in 'a complete circle, the machine-gun muzzle blowing a red flame from his big fist.'
The odd feeling at scenes like that is underlined by Doc's odd attitude to things like guns. It's not unfair to think of Doc and his men as conservative Americans, fighting not for truth, justice and the American way in the blind sense we might think of in the superhero comics, but certainly for truth, justice and humanity. That up-state institution is morally right-wing, an assurance that there's a right way and a wrong way and the right way can be forced. There's a strong sense of morality and decency to all six of our heroes, who work hard, live hard and fight hard.
Yet people like the NRA would be horrified at how Doc regards weapons. He uses them, as needed, and has even invented them, with a stack of compact machine guns to his credit. Yet, when Juan Mindoro asks why he doesn't take one with him, he explains: 'Put a gun in a man's hand, and he will use it. Let him carry one, and he is lost - seized with a feeling of helplessness. Therefore, since I carry no firearms, none can be taken from me to leave the resultant feeling of helplessness.'
This reminds me of Robert A. Heinlein, who had something very similar suggested to the lead in 'Tunnel in the Sky.' I see a lot of moral and political similarities between what Heinlein wrote about and what I read in Doc Savage. Heinlein was a military man who served proudly in the American navy and he built freedom into many of his books, not least 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,' which places a lunar struggle for independence in the framework of the American Revolution. Yet, for all his influence within the right-wing, who ate up books like 'Starship Troopers,' he also found a major audience in the hippies of the counterculture who approved of the philosophy of 'Stranger in a Strange Land.' He preached tolerance, pioneered the concept of 'pay it forward' and featured many ethnic heroes and bizarre marriages at a time when that just wasn't done.
Similarly, while Doc Savage stories are all about traditional American right wing values, with a strong emphasis on the power and potential of the individual, they don't stop there. At the end of this book Doc refuses reward for services rendered, as it's not why he does what he does. While there's an element of addiction to adventure, he fights for others simply because it's the right thing to do.
So he's a tolerant man and a champion of the underdog. What he eventually accepts as a reward is the founding of the Savage Memorial Hospital, which is set up to take no payment except from those who can afford it. So, while he's a traditionalist, he's someone who wouldn't play well to the current right-wing in America or, for that matter to their opposition. His is a voice that doesn't seem to exist today and, for the most part, that's a shame. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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