The first two years of monthly Doc Savage novels were mostly written by Lester Dent. Only two were penned by other authors, apparently from outlines by Dent, and they didn't feel right. 'The King Maker' and 'The Mystic Mullah' were enjoyable novels but they didn't read like Dent's work and they didn't follow the flow of what he was doing at the time.
'Land of Always-Night' kicked off year three of 'Doc Savage Magazine' with another new author but, for once, that author gets it right. He was W. (for Walter) Ryerson Johnson and he would go on to write two later books in the series, 'The Fantastic Island' and 'The Motion Menace'. Based on this one, which is one of the best in the series thus far, I'm thoroughly looking forward to
seeing how those turn out.
While it's clear pretty quickly that this isn't a Dent book because of Johnson's superior command of the English language, it plays out just like it should. All the component parts of a Doc Savage novel are here and they show up when they should and how they should. The only choice of Johnson's to go against the grain at the time was to include all five of Doc's men, but he manages them superbly, whether it's within a scene that shares them all or within the book as a whole. In fact, I'd argue that he does that better than Dent had managed thus far.
Johnson's different approach shows up in smaller details. For instance, the villain of the piece here is a strange creature by the name of Ool. He has weirdly white skin with golden down instead of hair and he has a pair of bulky goggles whose glass is utterly black. What's more, he spends the first page killing someone in a suitably bizarre manner, waving his right hand like a
butterfly and taking a life with a single snakelike touch. That's a cool bunch of attributes but it's not unusual for a Doc Savage story. What's odd is that he feels rather like the villain and the villain's henchman wrapped up into a single character.
The early pages play up Ool as a member of a different race. 'My people had a civilization greater than yours', he tells a New York City crime boss, 'some thousands of years ago.' We aren't let on which race, of course, but Johnson has him collide with culture. He talks about killing Beery Hosmer as he discovers chocolate creams, a neat contrast and a neat attention to detail. Each of Johnson's characters has defining characteristics to help us distinguish them,
which is a transparent trick but one that works relatively well. For instance, that crime boss is 'Watches' Bowen who has a penchant for Napoleon brandy and carries at least four watches with him at any one time. Bowen is a sort of partner in crime who has henchmen of his own, but Ool always remains his own man.
He's a successful one too. For all that he doesn't seem to understand much of the culture around him, he's sharp as a knife and tough too. While we know today that Doc Savage isn't going to die in book #25 of a much longer series and 1935 readers surely knew that too as he had to be back for another adventure the following month, it has to be said that Johnson works the suspense angle well. I certainly came closer here to believing that the man of bronze was no more than
in any prior novel. Ool has reason to want Doc dead and he has a really good set of attempts at accomplishing that. It initially appears like he wins a battle to the death and succeeding attempts are well framed too; I particularly liked the fake cop who smears poison on Doc's 86th floor telephone, then leaves to ring him from downstairs.
The cover of the Bantam paperback edition shows fantastic suspense too; it's one of my favourite James Bama paintings and a rare example that I much prefer to the Walter M. Baumhofer pulp cover. It depicts Doc and his inevitable torn shirt weaving his way through a set of giant mushrooms, helmet hair fortunately obscured but a pair of Ool's weird googles on his face, both pursuing and being pursued by a number of freakish opponents. It makes a great attempt at the the impossible task of suggesting that what we see can't be seen because it's taking place in utter darkness.
Where this bizarre landscape might be located you'll need to discover yourself, but I will highlight that not one but two characters pretend to be the same person: Gray Forstay, the only surviving member of the Lenderthorn Expedition, which was attacked by black shapes on pack ice far into the arctic north. While it's not too hard to connect the various dots and some have cast scorn on the viability of such a hidden civilisation, I'd suggest that it's a rare novel, even a rare Doc Savage novel, to have so much happen in so few pages.
Johnson doesn't waste the space he was given to play with. This book is packed with moves and countermoves, intrigue and discovery, setpiece after setpiece. I could name a whole bunch of favourites, but I have to call out the scene where crooks fail in an attempt to steal the goggles from Doc and escape from his custody to discover that they're all dining downstairs. It's a neat bit of subterfuge that conjures up strong visuals. Of course, not all of this is entirely successful; I was never in doubt as to how Dimiter Daikoff the giant killer, who claims to be a patriot not a murderer, really is.
Linguistically, there's less than usual on which to comment and it's mostly unsurprising. Johnson really likes his em dashes, which are paired up for even longer dashes on many occasions, often within a single page. There's a phone call that sounds like it came, see, from an Edward G. Robinson gangster movie, see, from the thirties; of course, that was contemporary to the novel, this first seeing print in 'Doc Savage Magazine' for March 1935. An intriguing piece of slang accompanies a crook who aims to blow a door open; he uses 'soup and soap', the latter being exactly what you'd expect but the former being a vial of nitroglycerine. The most surprising language for me was in the spelling of 'phenagling', which I've only ever seen written as 'finagling'.
What's most surprising of all is the fact that only half of me is happy that the regular series writer, Lester Dent, would return the next month for five novels in a row. The other half is unhappy that I'll have to wait nine whole months until the next W. Ryerson Johnson story. However, Dent's dominance would weaken around that time as a few different writers would pen entries in the series, including Lawrence Donovan, who would write nine in a period of less than three years. Until this point, I wouldn't have seen that as promising. Now, I'm far more open-minded. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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