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WesternSFA


The Squeaking Goblin
Doc Savage #18
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 138pp
Published Originally: 1934 Bantam Edition: 1969

Regular Doc Savage writer Lester Dent surely had his work cut out to write something more memorable than his previous outing in the series, 'The Thousand-Headed Man'. He chose to one-up himself by throwing Doc and his men into immediate action and leaving them there for almost the entire book. ‘The Lost Oasis’ began with what is close to being a 72-page chase scene (counting in Bantam paperback pages), but this one knocks that out of the water. When we get to page 105, which is only thirty or so pages from the end, two days pass in a single sentence and it suddenly reminds us that nobody had even a moment to breathe until that point. Most of the book is taken up by less than a day.

Doc shows up in chapter three, after a couple of introductory chapters to establish the title character, an elusive soul who looks rather like a corpse in a coonskin cap but can shoot a rifle with incredible accuracy. ‘Holy cow!’ Renny inevitably says, ‘A guy dressed like Daniel Boone!’ He’s naturally the Squeaking Goblin of the title and he’s a villain on the case so quickly that he has a rifle aimed at Doc before the latter even gets out of his seaplane. Of course, Doc has an eye on him too, so we find ourselves right down to business from this very first appearance.

We’re in Maine, on the coast where Chelton Raymond is hiding out in his boat waiting for Doc Savage to show up and save his bacon. He’s a rich but scared man, because the Squeaking Goblin has it in for him for no reason he can name. We find out soon enough that it’s because of his name, the Raymonds being one half of a good ol’ fashioned centuried Kentucky mountain feud, the Raymonds hating the Snows with a palpable passion and the Snows hating the Raymonds right back just as much.

What adds a spooky little extra to this story is that the Squeaking Goblin is not just known to these families, he should be long dead. Frosta Raymond explains to Doc that he was old Columbus Snow, who shot the Raymonds with a muzzle-loading rifle that squeaked when it fired. However, her granddaddy Raymond did for Snow eighty years earlier and the feud had gradually calmed down ever since. Now, the Squeaking Goblin is back and the last six months have seen a massive resurgence of the feud, with dozens of dead on either side, a fact that only gradually seeps through to the combatants. After all, if the Squeaking Goblin is supposed to be a Snow who kills Raymonds, who’s killing the Snows? Well, apparently the Snows see it the other way around.

I had a blast with this feud, which is so powerful a concept to these Kentucky mountain folk that they even use the word ‘feuded’ as meaning someone who has been killed in a feud. The only catch is the hillbilly dialect that Dent uses, because ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ sure done for that kind of talkin’ for us newfangled folks. This has similarities to the ‘authentic frontier gibberish’ of ‘Blazing Saddles’, with gems like, ‘Quare we never heerd no shot. We all be down the crick a piece all mornin’.’ We don’t even get to Kentucky until page 77 but we’ve had conniptions from this dialect from the very first chapter. Of course, the characters all have names like Tige and Jug; no wonder they aren’t sure about rich old Chelton; he sounds like an Ivy League graduate in a house full of folks what can’t read none.

Overall, this entry in the series is notable mostly for its breakneck pace. It isn’t that the story is poor, it’s that it seems to be constructed so carefully for its effect that it falls easily apart when we start to think about details. I don’t want to spoil the revelation of who the villain really is, because the build-up to that is tense and capable but, once we know, we can’t help but wonder why he would have made some of the phone calls he did. Was he asking for trouble or did Dent change his mind about who the villain would be partway through the novel?

It’s fair to add the bullets of the Squeaking Goblin into this category too; it’s notably freaky to find them vanishing into thin air after killing people, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how. Dent sets us up with that huge mystery and gradually realises that it’s not so huge and downplays it far enough that we don’t care when we’re eventually let in on the secret we knew from the start.

There are some moments of note though. I got a real kick out of a McGuffin in the form of a book, ‘The Life and Horrible Deeds of That Adopted Moor, Black Raymond’. There’s also a great use of ventriloquism, one of the talents of Doc and some of his men that isn’t always used to its best effect in this series. However, these are minor aspects compared to two others.

One is that this is a gory read indeed. The death count is higher than most of the previous books and that goes double for those killed as we read. Even when they’re ‘off screen’, they’re often found in brutal fashion. One of many examples is Doc’s discovery of one corpse: ‘The man lay face-down. His head had no hair on top. It was a very wet and red head, as if freshly painted with scarlet. When Doc lifted him to turn him over, a small fountain of crimson came to life in the back of his bald head.’ Beyond the use of two different colours as equivalents in successive sentences, this is a strong visual image that couldn’t have found a way into mainstream movies until forty years later.

The other is the use of disguises. At one point, Jug Snow and his bevy of Snows come across a strange man in the road. He’s a cripple, his legs ‘crossed in grotesque fashion under him’, on top of a platform that’s mounted on wheels; he propels himself with a pair of short stout sticks. What’s more, he has a head entirely free of hair, right down to a lack of eyebrows or lashes. His teeth are blackened and he’s apparently both deaf and dumb, even though he has an accordion slung around him. The only way this character could be any more politically incorrect is if he was in blackface. ‘He resembled a deformed, hairless monster,’ says the prose and we’re not fooled as to which of Doc’s men this surely has to be. That goes for his companion too, a tall and skinny man named Fatty Irvin, covered in scars, chewing on tobacco and stuttering wildly. Times sure have changed.

That’s obvious in the language too. Beyond ‘supermalagorgeous’, a peach of a multi-syllabic word from Johnny, there are a few words I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced in proper context. One is ‘spondulicks’, a slang term for cash that I first heard in British comedy, of all places. It’s odd to hear this issue from the mouth of Jug Snow, given that he has enough trouble with two syllable words to attempt one with three. Another is ‘sumac’, which is a flowering plant but I’ve only previously heard it in the name of the exotica vocalist, Yma Sumac.

By far the best example of old language comes in a single sentence late in the novel as Doc sets up a trap for the villain and has what must be half of the population of the Kentucky mountains turn up to watch. ‘They came in buggies, surries, and even a few decrepit flivvers,’ we’re told, ‘although the mountain roads were not kind to automobiles, and not many were used. Most of the travel was by jolt wagon and horseback, or afoot.’ Apparently ‘flivver’ was a nickname for the original Model T and it came to describe any cheap car, a ‘surrey’ is a turn-of-the-century carriage, similar to what we imagine that the Amish drive, and a ‘jolt wagon’ appears to be the simplest vehicle possible, a set of planks with wheels attached and some mules in front to pull it.

And that leaves one word that I’m utterly confused by. Early in the book, a private detective tells Chelton Raymond of Doc Savage’s reputation: ‘They say he’s a ring-tailed wizard.’ Beyond 'wizard' obviously meaning someone capable of incredible feats, I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what ‘ring-tailed’ has to do with the price of fish in Denmark and it isn’t the sort of thing that’s easily googleable. Every result seems to be a lemur and I’m pretty sure that’s not what Lester Dent had in mind, however easily Doc moves between the trees.

So, let’s see if one of you can explain ‘ring-tailed’ to me before next month’s enthralling episode, 'Fear Cay', featuring the welcome return of Pat Savage! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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