If regular Doc Savage writer, Lester Dent, thought that he had something to prove after Harold A. Davis turned in a pretty decent sixteenth in the series, 'The King Maker', he had nothing to worry about. With this seventeenth novel, first published in 'Doc Savage Magazine' in July 1934, he knocked it out of the park. When Bantam reprinted the series in the sixties, this was the second title to see print, after the obvious introduction of 'The Man of Bronze'.
I also remember this one with a lot of pleasure, more than any other in the series. Now, I haven't read all 182 original books by any means but I have read a bunch over the years and this one always stood out as my personal favourite. Reading afresh, in much better context than ever before, I see why.
For a start, it's a yellow peril novel. I've always had a weakness for the yellow peril genre, which is as fun as it is politically incorrect, and I should emphasise that not only did I not grow up with racist notions of the inscrutable Orient but I did use this as an exotic gateway drug into authentic Asian culture, which I still find fascinating.
Our villain isn't really the Thousand-Headed Man of the title, it's a man by the name of Sen Gat, who is so quintessentially yellow peril that he has incredibly long fingernails to highlight to one and all that he has no need of work. He also has the inevitable lair in London, though in Shoreditch rather than the usual Limehouse, for some reason, and it has the inevitable collection of secret buttons to get him out of whatever scrapes he has a habit of getting into.
Everything is astoundingly clichéd, right down to the pidgin English of his minions, as this early passage highlights:
The blackness of a rear doorway sheltered him a moment later. He knocked, and after the briefest of pauses there was a stir, and a slant-eyed celestial opened the door.
"Sen Gat," said the thin man.
The oriental was blandly expressionless.
"Velly solly," he singsonged. "No catchee such man this place."
The visitor scowled. "You tell Sen Gat I'm here or you all same catchee hell."
The yellow man grasped the door as if to shut it."You all same come alongside big mistake. No Sen Gat--"
Some of this is surely just the standard racism of the time, but Dent falls into a number of traps that I've called out in previous books. Pidgin English isn't a single language, but a merging of the Queen's English with whatever local languages happen to exist in a particular place. Dent doesn't seem to grasp this and mixes up Chinese, Malays and others and has them all talk like Aborigines. The word of this book is surely 'mebbeso'. He also gives them the stereotypical Japanese tendency to pronounce Rs as Ls even when the letters aren't even spoken! Who ever pronounced 'feathers' as 'feathels'? Just swapping every R for an L when it's pronounced by a 'slant-eyed' 'celestial' 'yellow man' goes beyond racist to just plain idiotic.
Another reason to love the book, flawed as its yellow peril approach is, has to be its mystery. This begins with three black sticks, made of an odd material, which turn out to be keys to the city of the Thousand-Headed Man, located somewhere in the jungles of Indochina. Sen Gat wants in, of course, and so do others; like our leading lady, Lucille Copeland, whose father had brought those keys back to England.
We end up there, of course, though there's a great deal of action, adventure and intrigue on the journey. What's important here is that it comes in a variety of forms.
We have the standard city-based game of cat and mouse between Doc and Sen Gat. At one point the latter has Doc's five men captive and they bargain over the phone, but Dent gives Doc a neat edge with a clock chiming an hour slow behind him. We learn here that he has an in with the British police force, through a codename of SX73182, so they help him out even as they search the city for him as the prime suspect in a couple of murders.
We have clever subterfuge, such as the Sen Gat henchman who flies Lucille Copeland towards Indochina under the guise of being Monk. We have a race of planes, with Doc catching his nemesis at each re-fuelling stop but the villain aware of it and bright enough to do his sabotage cleverly. We have the Indochina jungle and its natives and wild animals to cope with too.
And we have a string of weird buildings and occurrences, which proved highly engaging and memorable to my younger self. We start out with the Pagoda of the Hands, situated in the middle of the jungle with no context to guide us. It's large and empty, except for a mysterious rustling sound that presages doom, and decorated with nothing but human hands. Later, we reach the Pagoda of the Feet and... I'm getting rather ahead of myself. All this is quintessential pulp fiction, exotic and mysterious and weird.
Sure, there are problems. I have no idea how Doc, travelling from southern Russia to Indochina, found himself in Abyssinia. That's the former name for the northern half of Ethiopia, which is on a different continent entirely; I wonder if Dent mistook it for Afghanistan. Similarly, he has Hindu villagers wear turbans, when that's a religious requirement of the Sikhs and Hindus tend to go bare-headed. Perhaps that substitution of Shoreditch for Limehouse was just another goof in a book with plenty of those to go around.
Without daring to venture into spoiler territory, I adored everything about the city of the Thousand-Headed Man. It's not just another Lost City, though it is one of those; Dent builds it with fascination as much as stones and everything about it is notable: its geography and architecture, its occupants and their weird choice of living weaponry, their notably un-stereotypical demeanour and the way in which they end the book, which is as appropriate as it is surprising to see from Dent.
Linguistically, there are some interesting moments, none of which tie to the horrendous pidgin of Sen Gat's minions. Some words are introduced through the aboriginal Indochinese language of 'khas', which Doc struggles to comprehend. The other exotic word used a few times is 'creese', which Dent explains to be 'a long knife with a crooked blade and a carved handle.'
One word he fails to explain, presumably because it wasn't unusual at the time, is 'nihil', as in 'Doc Savage completed his scrutiny of the vicinity, but the results were nihil.' This is a word I know from Latin, but I was surprised to see it used here, as we've long since contracted it down to 'nil'. The thirties slang phrase of the book is surely Long Tom's line, 'Suppose we put the pump on those babies,' which has nothing to do with incubation or aircraft and more with the interrogation of suspects.
There were two other things that surprised me here.
One is how much destruction comes at Doc's hands this time out. We're used to him using his brain to solve problems, but he uses brute force on a number of occasions here to get past obstacles and I have to admit that I cringed at some of what he did.
The other was how little time we spend in the city of the Thousand-Headed Man. I'm not complaining about the very capable build-up but the Bantam paperback runs 150 pages and we don't meet the title character until page 120; in many ways, he's the MacGuffin of the story, and certainly not the villain we expect. I remembered much more from his city, but that was clearly my imagination running away with me. Then again, that's a real measure of success with a pulp novel and this one is a real spark for imagination. It's still my favourite. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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