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Murder Melody
Doc Savage #33
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 138pp
Published: Orginally 1935, Bantam Edition January 1967
Halfway into a five month run for authors other than Lester Dent, 'Murder Melody' introduces a new one to the series: Laurence Donovan. He had started writing pulps in 1929 and worked for many of them under a variety of pseudonyms. He created a number of characters, including the Whisperer, and mystery grew up around him: where he was from, what he did before writing, even how to spell his name. He's supposed to have worked in Hollywood before the pulps but IMDb doesn't have an entry for him, so that casts doubt on the family tale that he was given the chance to write the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur but lost out because he dived into a bottle instead.

His work on Doc Savage starts pretty well, all things considered. He gets down to business with absolutely no messing around; he avoids the trend for long characterful prologues that leave Doc's introduction until chapter five or six. He aims for all out action, with never a dull moment; it's not quite 'The Lost Oasis' with its opening ten chapter chase, but it's closer than the series has been for a while. He even includes all Doc's five assistants, something we hadn't seen since 'The Secret in the Sky' in May 1935; this came six months later in November. And, most notably, this is perhaps the weirdest entry in the series thus far and agreeably so for quite a while.

We begin in Vancouver, BC, to which Doc, Johnny and Monk fly in to witness some sort of odd demonstration. Doc's received an unusual message, you see, written in exquisite script on rolled gold leaf, which he inherently trusts; he apparently places enough faith in his interpretation of handwriting to put himself and his men in clear danger. The earth shakes inexplicably, the location not being on a faultline, a day after a similarly inexplicable quak on the other side of the country in Provincetown, MA. While this happens, an odd man dies while talking to someone through a button on his vest and passing on a fresh message to Doc, secreted in his throat. Nobody touches him; the murder weapon is apparently the melody of the title, a weird trilling not unlike the sound Doc generates subconsciously in times of thought.

I should emphasise how odd this corpse really is. His face is strangely silvered and his vest is woven from an unknown alloy. In addition to a radio communication button, he has another which triggers a wildly powerful magnet and a third which allows him to apparently counter the effects of gravity. A trio of similar men escape Doc's anaesthetic globules by triggering their levitation buttons and floating away on the breeze, unconscious. Doc sets the corpse on the same path, to avoid publicity, planning to retrieve it the next day out of mid-air. Oh, and these folk speak a strange language which is unknown even to Doc.

That's a heck of a lot to cram into the opening two chapters, but Donovan isn't done. Whoever's behind this new mystery can draw on some major power, because he doesn't just play with the earth at will, he plays with the air and water too. He drapes Vancouver in smog, so that Doc's plane is the only one in the sky, then manipulates it with a strange force and then does the same with ships in the harbour, causing devastation that's then promptly ignored. Strangest of all, he sucks those four men down from the sky and into the water, replacing them with a hundred foot geyser. So much for retrieving the corpse.

Eventually we discover that this villain is named Zoro and he leads a band of Zoromen who appear like Hindus. In turbans again, a mistake that Lester Dent made earlier in the series in 'The Thousand-Headed Man'. In an odd touch, Monk shows an uncharacteristic streak of racism, calling these Hindus 'greasy' three times in two pages, then again later. It's notable and not easily disregarded as casual racism of the time, because precisely no other character follows suit. Donovan apparently sees Monk as a blundering fool and chooses to not even pair him up with Ham for their usual bicker fest until about halfway through the novel.

We come to learn what Zoro is doing soon enough, though we have to wait a long while to find out why and we continue to puzzle over the details as we do much of what Donovan threw into this novel.

For instance, his chief task at hand seems to be to steal a large quantity of an explosive called trinitromite from a factory on the Columbia river outside Portland for reasons unknown but clearly nefarious. To achieve this, he steals a steamship in the Aleutians so he can speed it far too quickly over a thousand miles of water. It's almost like Donovan wanted to show off Zoro's advanced technology more than he wanted to acknowledge Vancouver as the most technologically advanced port in the British Empire and full of easier to acquire ships with exactly the sort of holds he needs.

In fact, I have no idea why the Aleutians even factored into this story, except to pretend at intrigue and provide a cliffhanger when an island transforms into an erupting volcano and blocks an ongoing radio call between Doc and Ham. These scenes constitute great action for little apparent reason and that trend continues on throughout the novel. It's a real rollercoaster of a ride and it's hard not to thrill to it, but it's also easy to see why many fans are unhappy with the book. There are far too many holes, conveniences and unexplained devices for the plot to hold together, even before we factor in an oversize bucketload of super-science.

For instance, the book is called 'Murder Melody' because Zoro has figured out a way to kill people by playing a flute at them, which is a suitably weird technique. However, the explanation is that it's done with chemistry. I'm not even an amateur chemist, let alone a Monk Mayfair, but I fail to understand how flutes generate chemicals, especially in ways that don't affect the people playing them but do affect everyone else who might be anywhere in the general vicinity with a quick death.

There are a lot of explanations that are notable only for their absence and the explanations that do show up are far from convincing. I adore lost civilisation stories and this is one of those, the Kingdom of Subterranae being, well, you know where. It really is a rather convenient name, especially for a race which speaks a language that nobody on the surface understands. Oh, but they figured out radio and television long before us, so they tuned into our broadcasts from deep inside the earth and now the million or so people in Manyon City speak English with an American accent. And naturally they named their age old civilisation from the Latin.

Donovan stretches a lot of things too far. Other authors might imagine that an underground race might lose the sense of vision and compensate by heightening others; you know, Mole People. Donovan sets up giant towers that reflect non-existent light incredibly well. Other authors might wonder how an entirely enclosed ecosystem could function. Donovan just suggests that it works exactly the same way as on the surface. Other authors may leave these people where they are and have humans drill into their world. Donovan has them invent advanced pressure-resistant ships that can speed through rock like it's water. When the Pellucidar series suddenly seems scientifically viable, you know you're getting the science really wrong.

Well, at least he has an ensemble cast of characters to keep the plot mysterious, right? Well, no. There are only three human characters, beyond Doc and his team, who play a part. One of them is the captain of the steamship that Zoro steals and he's only in the story because Donovan clearly wanted to create a catchphrase of his own to match the ones we know so well. 'By the great hornspoon!' is pretty cool, even if he'll never get to use it again. The other two are characters whose motivations make so little sense that I'm not even going to introduce them. On the sort of human side, as I have to treat the occupants of Subterranae, only Zoro and Lanta get opportunity. The former is the villain of the piece, who's invulnerable until he isn't; while the latter is the expected beautiful princess who would give her life for her people. Donovan does try to trick us a few times but we never buy it.

With absolutely nothing worthy of note on the linguistic or historical sides, except the presence of some crazy extreme Cockney and Scots accents belonging to Canadian officials, that just leaves some notes about Doc and his men. I've mentioned Doc's faith in his handwriting analysis; he also demonstrates other talents this time out. The most believable is an uncanny ability to identify where he is using only his sense of smell and his in depth knowledge of geography, which apparently extends to the depths of every harbour in the country. That wild and superhuman talent does at least play far better than the point where he leaps off the top of a ship's mast, grabs a rope most of the way down and uses the palm of his hand to slow his descent; the rope is left smoking from the friction but it doesn't affect the man of bronze in the slightest. Nah, not buying that one, Laurence.

Even though Donovan gives all five of Doc's men some time in this book, he has surprisingly little for them to do. Johnny gets a sort of 'Jurassic Park' moment while being transported through six mile depths and primeval rock formations. He even starts the novel off with his portable seismograph. It's Ham, though, who's given the most memorable moment; after the plane he's on crashes into the Arctic Ocean, Renny and Long Tom are able to swim to safety much easier than Ham, as the latter insists on taking his sword cane with him. I like that.

All this makes 'Murder Melody' an odd entry in the series. It has all the elements a Doc Savage story needs. It even feels right, with action and technology and a whole kingdom to save. However, it falls apart the moment we start to think about it. It's like a house of cards; it's an impressive thing before a card slips away but, once it does, the rest follow and there's nothing left. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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