Dust of Death
Doc Savage #32
by Kenneth Robeson
Published: Originally 1935, Bantam 1969
Back in June 1934, Harold A. Davis became the first author other than creator Lester Dent to pen a Doc Savage novel. Just over a year later, in September 1935, he became the first author other than Lester Dent to return and pen a second. This was in part because these two writers knew each other, having worked together on a paper in Oklahoma together, 'The Tulsa World'. When Davis followed Dent to New York City, the latter introduced him to Street & Smith and the rest is history. He would eventually go on to write thirteen entries in the series.
That first novel was 'The King Maker' and it's not very hard to see a number of similarities between it and 'Dust of Death'. Both are war novels, the former revolving around a civil war in the fictional Balkan nation of Calbia and the latter taking place during the war between two fictional rival countries in South America, Santa Amazo and Delezon. Both prominently feature legendary pilots, 'The Purple Terror' Champ Dugan in 'The King Maker' and Ace Jackson in this one. And both are described as Kiwis, though the former book highlights that that does not mean that they're from New Zealand, as we might expect, 'kiwi' instead being a term used by military pilots to describe non-flying officers. I can only assume that it's used with these characters in jest, because they really know how to fly!
What's most different is in the use of Doc's assistants. 'The King Maker' was notable for Doc having them run a set of solo missions behind enemy lines, something that gives them real value. 'Dust of Death', however, is nigh on a solo adventure for Doc, even if Long Tom is first and foremost for a couple of chapters. Johnny and Renny are absent, without even a mention as to why, and Ham and Monk are firmly comic relief in this one, especially given that the book marks a milestone in their antagonistic relationship, gifting Ham with a memorable foil for Monk's pig, Habeas Corpus, in the form of a jungle ape by the name of Chemistry.
Davis gets down to business quickly. The first chapter sees Long Tom fly up from Argentina to Santa Amazo to see his old friend, Ace Jackson, who's in hospital there. His arrival sparks much interest, which leads the villain of the piece, known as the Inca in Gray, to mount an assassination attempt against him. It fails, naturally, but an army officer is murdered and there's much use of an atrocious foreign accent. 'Our consul, he ees not have right for you thees military field to use.' Oh yes, I have no doubt that everyone in South America sounds like that. Or maybe not.
The second chapter only escalates the drama. We meet Jackson, all bandaged up and restricted to bed after a try on his life: his plane broke apart in mid-air while he was delivering much needed serum to a fever-struck tribe in the mountains, and his parachute had been tampered with too. We also meet Señorita Anita Carcetas, who's clearly smitten by this ace pilot who's serving as commander of Santa Amoza's air force. She's as beautiful as we might expect, but she's also the daughter of the republic's president. And as Jackson explains the intrigue in play, with the Inca in Gray apparently behind the war and eager for it to continue, that villain's men mount one more attempt at his life, right there in the hospital, which fails but results in a particularly weird death, courtesy of the dust of the title.
For a while, this is textbook stuff, even if nobody rides up an elevator to see Doc Savage on the 86th floor of a well known skyscraper in New York. We're given a succession of suspects, all of whom could well be the Inca in Gray: Junio Serrato, the War Minister of Santa Amoza, whom Long Tom apprehends and promptly releases; a European arms dealer by the name of Count Hoffe; and Don Kurrell, an oilman who represents the company who owns the Santa Amoza oil fields. Long Tom is also neatly captured by the Inca in Gray's forces, who also substitute a message of their own for the cable that Long Tom wired to Doc Savage back in New York. And, as that's received, we learn that Doc and his men use a simple little code when communicating, ensuring that each line in a cable begins with a five letter word. As the one he receives from Long Tom doesn't follow that rule, it must be a fake and there's something going on down in South America!
I thoroughly enjoyed this one for quite a while, the story moving on neatly in capable prose with action around every corner and intrigue following in its wake. There's even a neat attack on Doc in New York; while nobody takes the elevator up to the 86th floor, a couple do take it up to the 100th, an observation deck, where they cut the cable to Doc's private elevator, prompting it to plummet downward with Doc, Monk and Ham inside. That doesn't achieve much, as it turns out, because the shaft is carefully constructed to automatically slow a descent and act, through compression of the air below, as a natural shock absorber. I don't buy this in the slightest, not least because we're promptly told that the shafts are made of brick.
Of course, the trio merely take this as added incentive to travel down to Santa Amoza to see what's happening down there, which they do in a 'stratosphere dirigible', which apparently will be much faster than a plane, just not fast enough to save Long Tom from being shot to death by firing squad in Delezon. Oh yeah, Davis really goes there! He does it again later in the book with an even more prominent character too! Needless to say, the characters we absolutely know will be back for the next novel in the series don't really die, but Davis handles these scenes surprisingly well, better than the icky scenes with Ham and Monk staked out in an ant-pit.
There are downsides that go beyond Doc mostly running solo. There's a point where he borrows a ramshackle plane to fly over to Delezon and immediately gets more performance out of it than the experienced pilot who's been flying it for a while; that's eminently forgiveable compared to when, soon afterwards, he lashes the stick, climbs out of the plane and re-tunes the carburettor in mid-flight, as if he's Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar. It's a little far-fetched, but hey, it's Doc Savage, superman. It is, at least, more believable than some of what he got up to in the first half dozen books. There's a tough fight scene that makes up for this a little because it stretches the Man of Bronze, rendering him a little more human again.
The downside I can't talk much about is the motivation of the villainous Inca in Gray. He's set up capably, as a mysterious instigator who is keeping the war going for reasons known only to him. As suspects point fingers at other suspects, we really focus in on those reasons. Why would someone step in cleverly every time the war is about to end, whichever side will win, to throw a spanner in the works and keep it all running? Well, I'm still at a loss because the revelation prompted by the eventual unmasking of the Inca in Gray makes no sense at all. It wasn't who I expected, I can tell you that, but that's mostly because I was trying to use logic. Silly me!
Before I return to Chemistry, who's the primary reason why this novel is important to the series, I'll highlight a couple of words that I had to look up. That's a lot less than usual, by the way, for reasons I can't explain. I can't explain either why one of them is American slang while the other is British. The American one arrives after the engine of Doc's plane starts playing up, it 'grew logy'; this is apparently a slang term meaning 'sluggish'. It's in the air that we find the British one too. Long Tom is being transported as a prisoner in the belly of a plane with live fire exploding around it; he identifies what's happening through sound. A close 'woof' accompanied by the plane swaying and pitching means Archies. That's German anti-aircraft fire and the term dates back to the First World War, when an RAF pilot, Vice-Marshal Amyas Borton, frequently sang a song while flying between fire over the western front: 'Archibald, certainly not! Get back to work at once, sir, like a shot!'
Of course, nobody remembers 'Dust of Death' today for its use of British World War I slang. They remember it because, after Monk had spent novel after novel using his pet pig, Habeas Corpus, to torment Ham, the latter is finally able to get some real revenge. Monk picked up Habeas in Arabia as long ago as December 1933, in 'The Phantom City', book ten in the series and twenty-two novels earlier. Here, he and Ham decide to take different paths out of the jungles in between Santa Amazo and Delezon because neither one will trust the other. Shortly afterwards, Ham caves and tries to find Monk, finding instead his lookalike in a strange monkey, 'larger than a chimpanzee, but smaller than a gorilla.' It's rust-coloured like Monk and has no tail. Ham honestly mistakes it for his colleague and soon realises that it's the perfect way to torment the simian one. So how fortunate it is for him then when the local Indians, for whom the creature is a sacred ape, give it to him and he dubs it Chemistry.
Yeah, there are a lot of issues here, many of which I haven't even mentionedMayans? In Inca territory?but it's often an interesting read and it's good to hear from Harold A. Davis again. Next up, though, is a new writer to the series, Lawrence Donovan, who would write more Doc Savage novels over the next twelve months than even Lester Dent. First up for him is 'Murder Melody'. ~~ Hal C F Astell