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Mystery Under the Sea
Doc Savage #36
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 120pp
Published: Originally 1936, Bantam 1968

Lester Dent, the man behind the house name of Kenneth Robeson for most of the 'Doc Savage' run, wrote every novel in 1933 and all but one in 1934, but he was only responsible for half of the output in 1935, as he vanished towards the end of the year to be replaced by four different authors in five months. While those five books were interesting in many ways, this novel, originally published in the February 1936 issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine', marked a welcome return for Dent and it flows comfortably throughout.

Mostly this feels like he'd never been away, but there are a few new ideas that crop up here, most obviously an actual reason for Monk and Ham to bicker at each other. That's great to see, even if it's only a MacGuffin; they can't agree on why sailors' pants are larger at the bottom, something we don't care about in any context but why these regulars are fighting. Just to keep the balance, Dent also provides an answer at the end of the book, from an expert, which highlights that both of them were wrong!

The general approach is interesting too, because we're thrown right into proceedings and we stay there throughout, but we're kept on the hook as much as Doc and his men as to what's actually going on. Back and forth go the revelations. Nobody explains anything. We don't really know who's working for whom or why, other than it all revolves around the mysterious Taz. Is that a place or a person? Who knows? Of course, Doc is able to keep on going until things become clear, but it's a surprisingly long time before that happens.

I could throw in a spoiler here, that Taz turns out to be an underwater city located somewhere off the Bahamas and there are wonders there, wonders which are promptly lost again during the finalé. However, Dent refuses to let us in on what it is and why it's there, merely pointing out that writings discovered there are partly in Mayan and partly in Egyptian, perhaps therefore hinting at some sort of missing link civilisation. He avoids the names that we might conjure up though, Atlantis and Lemuria and all the rest of them (and the name 'Taz' is merely an example of paraidolia, a key image of people locked in combat on the frontage of a building looking rather like those three letters). Instead he focuses on the technology that is rediscovered there, albeit fleetingly. Scenes in which Monk and others find themselves without the usual need to breathe while underwater are surreal and haunting.

That isn't too much of a spoiler, to be honest, because the novel begins with a man emerging from the sea with no breathing apparatus. He finds his way through the people on Paradise Beach on Long Island Sound but he's unable to escape the boat full of armed men which pursue him soon enough to avoid having his face and throat mutilated with acid and the tendons in his wrists cut. This leads to another surreal scene, in which he attempts to paint something of meaning with his toes on a carpet given to Doc Savage by the Khedive of Egypt. What's oddest is that he dies of the bends rather than any of the more obvious damage done to his body.

And so the quest for Taz begins. Doc gradually realises that there are two sides involved in this search, but it's unclear as to who's really on either. It could be that Diamond Eve Post, Seaworthy and their contingent on the 'Tropic Seas' constitute one side and a colourfully-clothed old seadog by the name of Captain Flamingo leads the other from the 'Carribenda', but we're never too sure. What's important at this point is that all of these folk seem to be fighting each other and the most frequently in Doc's company, Diamond Eve, refuses to tell him anything on the grounds that he'd use the discoveries to come for the benefit of mankind, thus cutting her out of millions. She has to show him instead, so that she can keep the hope alive of capitalising on things herself.

Diamond Eve really grew on me as the book ran on. Even when Monk, Ham and Renny treat her like another waste of space woman with all the sexism of the time, she sticks to her guns and carries on regardless. She's a worthy participant in proceedings, whatever her gender, and our regulars gradually come around to that. After one notable act of sacrifice on her part, Ham points out, 'She's got what it takes.' Even before then, she's able to plan and scheme and keep secrets; she manipulates much and has firm goals, even if she refuses to let us in on them. I love her brand of sass too: when Monk responds to another neat avoidance with a threat of physical violence ("For two cents, I'd put you across my knee"), she cuts him down to size instantly: "I love you when you get ranty," she replies.

It's probably worth mentioning here that she is the only character outside of Doc and his men who really has any substance whatsoever. Capt. Flamingo is merely a cartoon villain with a penchant for overblown nautical dialogue ("Have you plumb lost your ballast?", "I'm sailin' a clear course with ya, matey" or simply, "Batten your hatch.") and Seaworthy turns out to be hardly worthy of mention. The only other character with anything to do is Stanley Watchford Tapping, whom Dent unkindly describes as "the rabbit man", because of the animal he resembles rather than those he studies, as he's a marine biologist of note. He begins with promise, during a great scene in his mansion featuring killer moray eels, but he fades away as the story runs on until we hardly remember he was ever in it.

If the lack of early explanations helps build the mystery of the title; if the discovery of Taz, whatever its original name, makes for a fantastic backdrop to the action late on; and if Diamond Eve turns out to be a gem of a foil, it must be said that there are downsides and they come in surprising forms. The most obvious is that Renny, for all his powerful fists and enviable talents in engineering, is apparently rather behind the curve when it comes to general knowledge. In Tapping's house, he honestly asks, "What's a moray?" (when the moon hits your eye...) and, on waking up from five days of unconsciousness not far from Nassau, demonstrates that he's never heard of the place. I get that Doc's aides are leaders in their respective fields, but I have trouble buying into their lack of basic knowledge outside them. Of course, Ham and Monk both walk into yet another obvious trap, for the umpteenth time, so it's not just Renny. Johnny and Long Tom are fortunately out of the country, or they'd no doubt have done something stupid too.

There's not too much to expand the Doc Savage mythology this time out, just the revelation that he has more equipment in his 86th-floor headquarters than we were previously aware of. The section of carpet featuring the mutilated man's toe painting is cut out and removed by intruders, but Doc had a hidden camera in the ceiling set to record it, with sound to boot. Why Monk and Ham were blissfully unaware of this, I have no idea, and that does lend a certain creepiness to proceedings that really shouldn't be there.

There's a little more on the linguistic front that's worthy of mention, mostly what I presume are archaic terms. Doc proves unable to capture a couple of Capt. Flamingo's men early on, as "they suspicioned something." It's valid prose, but I haven't heard it phrased that way before. Similarly, a cove is described as something out of a historical saga "when stout ships were careened on coral sands of the Carribees." That sounds rather poetic but it doesn't seem to be a quote, just an old term for the Caribbean. Googling finds it in the names of public domain texts such as 'Butterfly Hunters in the Carribees' or 'Cruising Among the Carribees'.

A more colourful phrase shows up when Monk responds to an invitation to surrender with a 'Bronx Cheer'. It refers to a raspberry, of the sort that's blown not eaten, and it seems to be a product of the 1920s, first written down by Damon Runyan in a newspaper report of an American football game. I believe I've heard that term in conversation, albeit rarely, but I'm not sure I've ever heard of 'slumgullion', which creation Doc and his men consume in copious quantities at a key point in the book. It's 'cheap or insubstantial stew', the dictionary tells me.

Fortunately, 'Mystery Under the Sea', while not an Irish stew made with Guinness, is far from a slumgullion. It's a welcome return to the series for Lester Dent, who would be back again in March to kick off a fourth year of novels with 'The Metal Master'. This one wraps up three years in enjoyable, if not stunning, style. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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