The fourth Doc Savage adventure, originally published in 'Doc Savage Magazine' in June 1933, was also the fourth Bantam reprint, a convergence that really didn't happen often. In fact, out of the 181 novels published in pulp format, only eight of them occupied the same position in the order of the paperback run. Bantam really jumped around a lot.
I mentioned in my review of 'Quest of the Spider' (click here for review) that I enjoyed it more than its two predecessors, even though it's generally seen as a weaker entry in the series. To me, 'The Polar Treasure' follows on well from that book, keeping most of its good points and improving a few of its bad ones.
The brief synopsis is quintessential pulp intrigue. It's a lost treasure story, upon which Doc stumbles by contacting a blind violinist who has been performing one of his works. He's Victor Vail and he's become caught between the two factions searching for it as, unbeknownst to him, the treasure map was tattooed onto his back using ink that can only be seen with X-rays.
The treasure was on the Oceanic, a liner chased into the Arctic over fifteen years earlier by an enemy raider during the Second World War and promptly lost in the ice. Unknown to Vail, who was merely travelling from Africa to England with his wife and young daughter, it also carried fifty million dollars in diamonds and gold bullion, hardly a minor prize to those who know about it.
The factions seeking this prize are led by the suitably named nautical souls, Ben O'Gard and Keelhaul de Rosa, both crew members on the Oceanic. The former saved Vail's life during the incident, though his wife and daughter were sadly lost, while the latter attempted to kidnap him but was foiled. The mystery is deepened by the fact that Vail hasn't encountered either faction since the Oceanic went down, except that he often hears a strange sound which he calls the Clicking Danger, the sound of the nervous chattering teeth of one of Ben O'Gard's men.
Even only four books in, it's not rocket science to figure out where this story will take us, but it's handled well with some believable twists and turns to keep us paying attention to the little details. It's going to be a while before I can put Doc's poor judgement in 'The Land of Terror' behind me, when he poured his trust into a man who was clearly the villain of the piece. He slips up here too, but in a more believable fashion, and, even when he does so, it's not the disaster it could be because he has contingency plans to save the day. It means that we don't feel the danger quite like perhaps we should, but we do thrill to the chase and grin at the ingenuity of Doc and his men after each cliffhanger is addressed.
Once again, the locations are exotic but much more down to earth than they were when the series began. The lost worlds of the first two novels were replaced by the swamps of Louisiana in the third and the remote Arctic here in the fourth. While some of what happens in both stretches credulity, at least the locations are believable and Lester Dent's prose, while still simple and abbreviated, is more than up to describing these places with a powerful sense of mood. While the swamps are dense and claustrophobic, the Arctic wastes are remote and wide open, but Dent is easily able to highlight their respective dangers.
There's more for Doc's companions to do here too. While they were in place from the very beginning, Dent was clearly focused on introducing Doc himself in the first two books, only gradually extending that introduction to his men starting with the third. They're more capable here than they were in 'Quest of the Spider' but still notably behind Doc in what they're able to do. The capture by Monk and Ham of five villains very early in the story and Johnny's stakeout of their headquarters while disguised as a newspaper vendor are great examples of how these talented folk should be used instead of merely following their leader around to flesh out the cast. Quite a few opportunities arise later in the story too, such as the needs for the skills of Monk in chemistry and Renny in electricity.
One little detail that I believe appears for the first time here is the high-speed elevator that is reserved for Doc's private use. The New York building on which he occupies the 86th floor is never named, but is understood to be the Empire State Building. I quite like the concept that in such an important location, one elevator could be reserved for a single man and be configured in such a way that it moves much faster than the others. When Doc descends in a hurry, it goes so fast that he goes into freefall at points. It's a neat way to set Doc aside from the rest of the human race, both in physical ability and within the establishment.
Of course, we don't stay there for long when we have an Arctic adventure upon which to embark! There's all the usual adventure and action here, even while Doc and his men are submerged below the North Atlantic in a submarine. I don't really buy the epic brawls between Captain McCluskey and first Monk and then Renny and finally Doc, but it's a glorious way to build relationships in our eyes between the team.
I enjoyed 'The Polar Treasure' as much as I did 'Quest of the Spider', but it's also clearly a better book. Dent had started out with a fully formed vision for these Doc Savage novels, but it changed as the series went on. Here, he's still working out the balance he should find between Doc and his companions and between the realistic and the fantastic but, to my mind, the third and fourth novels ably show how well he was progressing.
Next month: 'Pirate of the Pacific', the fifth pulp adventure but #19 in the Bantam paperback series. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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