This one came out of nowhere for me. It's one of the best 'Doc Savage' adventures in the series thus far and perhaps the most consistently enjoyable from a pulp standpoint, going deep into crime and horror as well as straight adventure. And why things suddenly fell into place in December 1934, I have no clue.
The only notable idea building at the time was the one, introduced in 'Death in Silver', to thin down the number of Doc's assistants per novel to a manageable number, but this is a major step forward from what we saw in 'The Sea Magician', where Monk and Ham got so much prominence that they took over for a while. Long Tom is absent for the third book in a row and Johnny's gone again too. Renny is here but not for a while and he arrives in a different location, following his own thread of the story until he eventually joins up with the rest of the crew late in the novel. This is more comparable to 'Death in Silver' in balance (and other things), but it's better and more consistent. It's undeniably the most mature 'Doc Savage' yet and the one that looks deepest at what Doc actually does.
There was at least one hint in 'The Sea Magician' as to where Dent was going next. At one point in that book, a criminal mentions that a friend had run up against the Man of Bronze and emerged rather changed for it; not only did he fail to recognise his friend in the street, he had gone straight and found a job in a factory! It only took 21 books before someone in a story acknowledges something that we readers have seen all along, that Doc doesn't kill crooks, at least when he can help it; he drugs them instead and sends them to a facility he maintains in upstate New York for their criminal tendencies to be removed, thus turning them into productive citizens. I'd suggest that an examination of this was long overdue!
Well, here, the crooks do more than acknowledge it; they investigate it and trigger a whole story around the techniques used and how they could be adapted for dark purposes. We're finally given an explanation of the actual concepts to flesh out what was previously a cheap abstraction: through his research, Doc had discovered that aggressive, criminal or antisocial behaviour is caused by a chemical imbalance in a gland in the lower brain; he also formulated a chemical to correct that imbalance. His treatment involves some surgery, the application of this chemical and the removal of some memories, as well as training and exercise.
Now, it's tough to imagine what Americans might have thought about this in late 1934, but the question of morality behind what Doc is doing is raised in the text by Dent himself. While he clearly comes out on Doc's side, which is hardly surprising, he points out that the students of this college 'entered unwillingly, usually under the effects of a stupor-inducing drug' and the place 'turned them into honest men whether they wished it or not.' He adds that, 'The world did not know about the place. The world would probably have been shocked.' He suggests that the knowledge 'would excite many misguided reformers who would stir up government investigations, for the criminals had no choice about taking the treatment.' And, the most damning criticism of all: 'Doc Savage, in the final analysis, was a private individual, and such are not supposed to mete out their own brand of justice. The courts are for that. And Doc Savage had never sent a crook before an American court.'
As if to nail this point home, he introduces an unusual antagonist to complement the usual villains. He's a police inspector named Clarence 'Hardboiled' Humboldt, a tough-as-nails cop tasked with cleaning up Manhattan and doing an outstanding job of it so far. His first act in this story is to tap Doc on the chest with a blackjack and threaten him. As it moves on and the circumstances behind the growing number of deaths starts to implicate Doc as the killer, Hardboiled is keen to take him down. He arrests him more than once, though Doc always slips through his fingers, but he never gives up. He's a fantastic character and a good way to highlight the differences between right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, or moral and immoral. Doc is on the wrong side of each of those, even if we're clearly supposed to side with him and perhaps see him as above such comparisons. Sadly, Hardboiled comes around a little too easily in the end, but he's still a great character.
The story begins with the pop-eyed death, which sounds funny but describes people dying of some sort of impromptu brain swelling that prompts their eyes to pop almost out of their skulls. It's not pretty and it adds a strong sense of horror to this dark crime story. It's worth mentioning here that, at the very end of 'The Sea Magician', Monk points out that nobody had died during that adventure. Well, Dent makes up for lost time here: there are three deaths on page one of the Bantam paperback, rising to nine by the end of page four, eight by the pop-eyed death and one by assassination. Later on, entire rooms fall prey to the pop-eyed death and whole swathes of criminals collapse and die en masse. No wonder the papers panic and people start leaving New York, thinking that it's the result of some sort of communicative disease.
The beginning of Chapter IV is particularly horrific. Monk and Ham have been captured and surrounded by thugs; Doc arrives just in time to watch them all die horrible deaths, every one of them except for Doc, Ham and Monk. Doc, who never shows emotion, is literally taken aback, approaching one dying crook, freezing and then stepping back; Monk backs away too and it takes three attempts for him to even speak, while Ham is so horrified that he averts his eyes and examines the ceiling. Doc, 'stark bewilderment' on his face, says that, 'I only know that it was one of the most hideous, mysterious things I have ever seen happen.' Asked to explain the 'room of fantastic death', he comments, 'Believe me, I was never before so much at a loss for an explanation of a happening.'
And we believe him. It's a truly startling scene and it sets the stage for much that follows. Doc is shocked, puzzled and eventually even shot. This isn't what we're used to in a 'Doc Savage' novel; Doc doesn't show emotion and he makes it out of every situation in one piece. Well, not any more. Needless to say, that wound isn't too serious; he makes it through, of course, with 'a bullet hole through his Herculean torso.' Looking back at all the previous novels, I can only think of one scene that would fit well alongside the cruel, horrific and dangerous action depicted here and that's the faceless man in 'The Mystery on the Snow', his visage created by the slow dripping of acid onto his face. However, we don't see that, we just meet the man and listen to his story. If that were here, we'd see it happen.
In fact, we do see a scene of torture and it's even worse. Poor Sidney Lorrey, brother to the physician who runs Doc's clinic, is tortured brutally by a sadist named Leo; plucking his fingernails out with pliers is only the beginning. In fact, while he's ostensibly looking for information, Leo soon gives up asking questions entirely in favour of just having fun. Even the 'other onlookers, hardened criminals, were becoming nauseated and turning away.' And Dent, so awkward with sentence structure and descriptive language at the beginning of this series, not even two years earlier, shows how far he's progressed with sentences like this one:
'Leo, purple-faced, hot-eyed and intent seemed not to hear, for he was engaged in the process of whittling Lorrey's fingers down to the bone, one at a time and showing Lorrey, with fiendish chuckles, the naked grey of the exposed bones.'
It's almost appropriate for Dent to have one of his lead villains be squeamish, namely Boke, who is clearly one of the more important of the unusual number of antagonists Doc has to unravel here. We're kept on the hop wondering if each villain is working for this villain or that one? How many are working together and how many are fighting each other? Who's ultimately in charge? Is there only one leader and is he the Crime Annihilist? At one point, Boke collects three quarters of the organised crime leaders in New York City and its environs into one room so he's an important man, but he's also a squeamish one. He can't bear violence, not even the mention of it. Boke would have trouble reading this book because of the violence it covers!
In such context, Dent's habit of using words we don't recognise today, at least not as intended, becomes a sinister act. Ham's sword cane saves the day at one point, the tip 'coated with a substance which seemed to have a mucilaginous quality'. That just means 'sticky', but it sounds so much more extreme when only pages away from more pop-eyed death. So does 'maul', used here to mean a large hammer, but conjuring up darker meanings because of the context. On the other hand, it's hard to think dark thoughts about the word 'phaeton', which was a vehicle faster and lighter than a touring car, with no windows or permanent roof; it was a style already on the way out in 1934, soon to be replaced by the convertible. Of course, we still have the coupé, a two door car with a fixed roof, also mentioned here on a couple of occasions, but without that ending accent; Americans would soon drop it and reduce the word to one syllable.
The most surprising word to us, almost eighty years on, is 'shaggin'', which in the thirties was apparently an equivalent to 'tailing'. When Monk and Ham follow a sniper, only to be told, 'You two must have been shaggin' the wrong guy!', there really isn't anything sexual going on. Honest! The other surprising moment from a cultural perspective isn't a word but a suggestion. Late in the novel, it becomes clear that the victims of the pop-eyed death, contrary to initial belief, were all criminals, but of different levels. We're told: 'Not all of the dead crooks were persons who had committed heinous crimes. One man had been beating his wife when he fell dead with his eyes sticking out.' Wow! That sort of attitude really dates a novel!
On the other hand, there's one character who's notably ahead of his time, a 'feminine-mannered' villain with 'fragile features and a rose petal skin.' We're not told that he's gay, but it's heavily implied. He may even be a transvestite; there are a number of ways to read his character. Today, we might well believe that he's crossgender, but I doubt Dent was going quite that far in 1934! Regardless, it's another feather in his cap that he was so willing to step outside the traditional list of characterisations viable for pulp novels. A further nod goes to the fact that the chief villain survives the book for a change; he's captured, of course, but alive. That's refreshing, after so many convenient instances of deadly karma in prior books.
Then again, Dent wasn't entirely routine. After all, he was increasingly bringing Pat Savage into the fray. She's back again here, with one fantastic scene of female empowerment, even if it's during yet another kidnapping. Unless I've miscounted, she's now appeared in four 'Doc Savage' novels but has been kidnapped six times. That's hardly a good ratio for anyone, especially if we're supposed to acknowledge that female empowerment as meaningful!
Given that Dent has done everything else in this novel, it can't be too much of a shock to find that he also extended the Doc Savage mythos a little. We discover a new gadget of Doc's for one: a button on his shirt sleeve which, when torn off and its surrounding metal band removed, shows that it's razor sharp, great for cutting yourself free when you've been captured and bound. For two, with Doc on the run from Insp. Humboldt, we spend some time at Renny's apartment. He has a penthouse overlooking Central Park; he had designed the building and supervised its erection, down to the secret escape passage under the bath that Doc shows his assistants. Surprisingly for an old-fashioned man of action, his apartment was 'an incredible array of modernistic metals and glass.'
And that happy vision is a great place to leave 'The Annihilist'. Let's avoid such lurid lines as, 'Monk had a box seat for the pageant of fantastic death' and remember instead that Renny's apartment is filled with mechanical gadgets and that his 'wide, glass-covered terrace was a greenhouse of tropical shrubs.'
Yes, that's more like it. And I should add that this superb, if notably gruesome, entry into the series feels like an odd time for Lester Dent to take another break, but next month's book, 'The Mystic Mullah', was penned by a different writer for only the second time thus far. Let's see if stand-in Richard Sale can top this! Somehow, I doubt it. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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