|Book eight for Doc Savage, 'The Sargasso Ogre', is a thoroughly enjoyable early entry in the series that takes full advantage of a fantastic location, even if it does so in an overly fantastic manner. Then again, the Sargasso Sea was a lot more exotic and far less explained in October 1933 than it is today.
Here, as in many examples of pulp fiction, it's a dangerous and ghostly area whose abundant seaweed traps ships and those on them end up having to form an isolated civilisation. Hammer returned to this idea as late as 1968 with their film, 'The Lost Continent', but it was a frequent choice of location back in the thirties and even earlier. Today, of course, we know that ships bog down in the Sargasso because of calm winds rather than the sargassum seaweed, which isn't remotely as abundant as pulp fiction would have had us believe and which provides no impediment to shipping at all.
Doc Savage and his men end up in the Sargasso when the Cameronic, a cruise ship carrying them home from Alexandria, is hijacked and navigated there by the Sargasso Ogre of the title and his ruthless gang. This isn't the first ship to fall prey to these hijackers but it's the first to contain men both able and willing to fight back and so we're all set for the sort of action we expect from Doc Savage and his crew.
The Sargasso is a particularly evocative location for Doc to explore and he does so magnificently, bobbing under the seaweed and floating around within the Sargasso Ogre's realm. Lester Dent does a great job of evoking mood and it's no hardship to visualise what he conjured up here. It reminded me that it took far too long for Doc to reach the big screen, the eventual feature not arriving until 1975. Had he been filmed back in the thirties, this book would have been a fantastic choice to adapt.
It's been notable that the last few books have highlighted how these folks never have a dull moment, with each story transitioning promptly into the next. Doc and his crew are only in Egypt because it's where they flew the zeppelin they rescued in 'The Red Skull', with a cargo of freed slaves and priceless diamonds. They expect a quiet journey home, but a price is put on Long Tom's head on the very first page and Pasha Bey, head of an Egyptian assassin's guild, is tasked with taking his life.
I liked how Bey, who takes the job, recognises Doc. With seven adventures reported on thus far, he ought to have been all over the newspapers and so recognised wherever he goes. However, I also liked how Bey doesn't recognise Long Tom or realise his connection to Savage, thus allowing him to walk into a job that will inevitably backfire on him.
These early scenes, which take us into the Alexandrian catacombs, are well done but relatively routine compared to where we'll end up, as are those on the Cameronic. We'd spent plenty of time on a cruise liner only three books earlier in the best story thus far, 'Pirate of the Pacific', and nothing on this cruise liner outdoes what happened on that one. It's the Sargasso Sea that makes this book worthy of special attention and we arrive there soon enough, fifty or so pages in.
I adored the location and Dent puts it to great use. The great gyre of the North Atlantic has trawled in a wide variety of ships over the years, even centuries, so those who have been stranded there have plenty of material to scavenge and that makes for a colourful environment indeed, with clothes and weapons from many eras decorating both the Ogre's gang and those who stand against him.
Interestingly, those who stand against him are the women of the Sargasso, who have occupied a battleship under the command of Kina la Forge, a multi-lingual flame-headed wench with her own pet monkey called Nero. Initially, she's a glorious character, born in the Sargasso of parents stranded there, educated from the libraries of derelict ships and lording it over a realm of Oriental splendour; everything naturally acquired from the many vessels stuck in the weeds.
Of course, like every other gorgeous young lady who has met Doc thus far, she falls for him, but she is at least savvy enough to see that he's not interested. She has every potential of being a great female character but, inevitably, the sexism of the day and the testosterone of these novels win out and she's relegated to weak support. Even throwaway vocabulary betrays Dent's inability to see women as strong leads in this series. Even on a warship facing off against the Sargasso Ogre, housekeeping must apparently be done!
Things progress much as we expect, though with notable atmosphere. Doc has the fore throughout, much of his work in the Sargasso done solo, but Monk gets a chance to find his way onto the warship of the ladies too and thus steals a little attention back for a while. From the very beginning, Dent fashioned a team but failed to give most of its members enough to do. Only at points do Doc's five men get chances to show why they're part of that team and I'm still waiting for those chances to start to multiply.
Dent is still giving us rapid fire finalés too, but at least this one, as abrupt as always, actually makes sense, wrapping up proceedings with a glorious irony. I'm keeping my eye on these endings too, hoping that Dent will start to pace himself better and wondering when that will happen.
There's one other thing that leapt out of this one as odd. It's another of those moments that would presumably have made complete sense to the readers of 1933 but has dated enough to no longer do so today. At one point, Doc is inside the hold of a ship, about to face off against members of the Ogre's piratical crew, and he looks up to see 'a rust scale as large as a spelling book.' It took me a moment to realise what a rust scale was, just a large patch of rust on the hull rather than some piece of nautical equipment, but how large is a spelling book? I have no idea. Presumably such beasts were notable for their size back in the pulp era, but I can only guess.
This isn't as large as a spelling book, but it's a lot more fun. Next month: November 1933's novel, 'The Czar of Fear'! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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