|Hello, 1936! For January, the last of five months in which Lester Dent was notably absent as the writer of Doc Savage, Lawrence Donovan stepped in for the second time and did a lot of what he did two months earlier with the similarly titled 'Murder Melody' but generally did it a lot better.
For instance, he gets straight down to business again, with Renny and Long Tom showing up immediately, and Doc himself, along with Monk, Ham and Johnny, arriving with the second chapter. Donovan clearly doesn't like long settings of scenes, even if we were starting to get accustomed to them; he wants his heroes right there in the thick of it from moment one. He also wants all of them there; not just Doc and his five men, but Pat Savage as well this time out.
Donovan also clearly knows what he likes, because he returns to many of the same ideas here as in 'Murder Melody', even though the story itself is completely new, the only supporting character to return from a previous novel being the boy who mans Doc's elevator (who ponders on finding a safer job until Doc slips him a hundred dollar bill as a clear sort of hazard bonus). Then again, I can't find fault in Donovan's choice of pet tropes: weird weather, superscience and the rediscovery of a lost civilisation. I kind of like all those things too and every one of them is worthy of many a Doc Savage tale.
The weird weather kicks in first, because we begin 'Murder Mirage' in New York City on the 4th of July, but there's a blizzard in full effect. Then we get the superscience, because a woman is murdered in truly fantastic fashion: a green ball, twice the size of a football, is rolled through the snow, which melts as it passes, shines with a very bright light and transforms a young lady into an immaculate image embedded onto the window of a storefront, so providing the best chapter title in the series: ''Corpus Delicti' in Glass'.
The lost civilisation has to wait until we make our traditional location shift halfway through the book, skipping across the ocean in a new dirigible to Amman in British-controlled Transjordan, before heading into the desert to discover what's going down at Tasunan in the Valley of Tasus, where you get tasunite, Donovan's fancy new substance du jour. Before we get to all that, though, there's a bunch of other interesting stuff going on.
For instance, even as we start to figure out the players in this game, Doc is shown to be a little more vulnerable than usual on a host of occasions. Sure, we're supposed to be paying attention to Lady Sathyra Fotheran, who's seeking the assistance of the man of bronze, and the traditionally garbed Bedouins who are searching for her in the streets of New York, as are a bevy of traditional American mobsters with the usual characterful nicknames, starting with their leader, Whitey Jano, and continuing through Creeper Hogan, Slim Decarro and Runt Davis. The only surprise is that Jano is oddly fluent in Arabic.
In actuality, we're watching Doc as he gets attacked rather well and rather often. He's hit hard at the base of the skull during one battle, which leaves him 'out on his feet' for a full thirty seconds. He's stabbed hard between the shoulder blades during another with a century old dagger, right after a subject under his hypnotic control commits suicide. 'One of the few who ever beat Doc,' comments Renny.
He's saved from the stabbing attack only by his metal undervest, which isn't new to the series but makes a long overdue return. So does his skullcap, so often misinterpreted by fans of Bantam paperback cover art as his hair. Here, he's sneak attacked on a rooftop by a bunch of Arabs who think they knock him out, but he's saved by 'what appeared to be a tight bronze wig' which he apparently perfected after being wounded by a bullet. Like his new dirigible's engines, it's constructed from an extra-tough metal alloy, and except for odd moments like this one when he removes it, it's simply a routine part of his wardrobe.
If we want to thank Donovan for paying all due respect to previous mentions of Doc's outfit, we should also be a little upset with him for overusing Doc's subconscious trilling. I seriously lost track of how often that's raised here, appearing on successive pages more than once. There's even a point where we find that Doc wryly replicated it as a whistle on his dirigible. Given that it's supposed to be entirely subconscious, I'm not happy that he even knows that he does it, let alone what it sounds like or that he copies it for cheap effect.
At least Donovan treats Monk a little better this time out, after the unmistakeably bad treatment he gave him in 'Murder Melody'. Maybe he's busy with Pat, whom he places into a number of suggestive situations. She appears here first in bed, woken up by a phone call from Doc, and later has to wander around in a lace negligée. It's no surprise that she gets kidnapped a lot, no less than three times in this book by the same man! Maybe Johnson is as much a fan of Pat Savage as he isn't of Monk Mayfair. She's even given the last line of dialogue in the novel, which is a suggestive one indeed that I won't spoil.
All in all, I liked 'Murder Mirage' a lot more than 'Murder Melody', even though it can't maintain its great early momentum throughout. When the weird weather and the superscience is explained, it's explained away only as inherent properties of tasunite, which is a bit of a copout. It's also the reason why Doc loses another dirigible, a carefully designed one this time with special alloys and a new non-flammable gas, because he clearly failed to test it under the influence of tasunite. The identity of the All-Wise One, who's name-dropped a lot but really doesn't do much, is no surprise at all, though Donovan does add a couple of twists to the inevitable reveal. After Monk's odd racism in 'Murder Melody', I couldn't help but notice Doc's odd instruction to the NYPD to pick up all Arabs. It predates 'Casablanca' but sounds today eerily like its famous 'round up the usual suspects' line.
What I can praise is how much tighter this is than Donovan's previous Doc Savage novel, not just on the grand scale but in little scenes too. For instance, Monk and Ham are inevitably kidnapped together, because that's compulsory in Doc novels, but Donovan has them attached with thumbcuffs, either side of a metal pole in a ship. It's a neat way to force them together to bicker and argue without any risk of them getting free. Lady Fotheran, or at least Pat in disguise as Lady Fotheran, uses one of her cousin's tricks to escape one stint in captivity, using chemicals secreted in her shoes to set off a blinding flash of a distraction. Doc himself performs another superhuman feat that's certainly a lot more believable than his rope trick in 'Murder Melody'; this time out he climbs onto the top of his dirigible, four miles up, to manually fix a bent fin and get them back on track.
There are even some odd linguistic items of note, something that was notably absent from Donovan's last stint as a Doc Savage author, even if they're less notable than what his colleagues tended to come up with. One may even be a typo, because one of Doc's many trilling episodes here is described as 'erotic' rather than 'exotic'. This is right before he calls Pat, so maybe it's a Freudian slip on Donovan's part rather than a typo. Doc brings in Pat to be a 'chaperon', a spelling that's consistently used throughout the book. Today, we tend to add a 'e' to the end of that word, but it isn't required, even now, so perhaps it was the standard in 1936. Finally, Doc is referred to here in many ways, but I'm surprised that it took 35 novels to reach a use of 'Dr. Savage'.
'Murder Mirage' was the last of five novels written by authors other than Lester Dent, who was about to return for a pair of books before taking another break, one in which he was mostly replaced by Lawrence Donovan. I'm therefore looking forward to a new set of books soon featuring weird weather, superscience and lost civilisations. Let's see if that's what I'll get! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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