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WesternSFA


The Roar Devil
Doc Savage #28
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 153pp
Published: Original - 1935, Bantam 1977

'The Roar Devil' was the 28th novel to be published in 'Doc Savage Magazine', back in June 1935, but it wasn't apparently high on Bantam's list to reprint in paperback, eventually appearing as late as #88 in that series. Some of the earlier books, like 'Quest of the Spider' and 'The Mystery on the Snow', had waited for more months to be reprinted but this would remain the highest Bantam reprint number until August 1937's 'Ost' became Bantam's #89, 'The Magic Island'.

What's odd is that those earlier two delayed novels were clearly lesser entries in the series, while this one stands up surprisingly well, at least to my way of thinking, far from the retread of 'The Man Who Shook the Earth' that its synopsis might suggest. Many fans don't regard it highly and I do have to concede that the Roar Devil of the title does less with his sinister powers than perhaps any villain in the series thus far, but I appreciated a number of the approaches that regular author Lester Dent took this time and they made this book stand out for attention.

For a start, this month's female presence is Retta Kenn, who shows up on page one and is given the first line of dialogue. What's more, she's there on the last page too, to speak the last line of dialogue. She's unusual in a lot of ways, the most obvious being that she's far from the damsel in distress we're used to. While she does get captured in the first chapter, by crime boss Dove Zachies, she turns the tables on him in the second, fashioning her own escape. She'd already got the better of Zachies's henchman in the first couple of pages, by pretending to be deaf, and she even rescues Doc and his men at one point. She's smart, sassy and able to take care of herself, though she does know it and is certainly rather full of herself. I think that it's fair to say that she has the largest role given to any woman so far in the series, with the most capability and the most ability to get a reaction out of Doc. I liked her a lot and would love to see her guest in a Pat Savage story.

And Dent seems to like her too. She dominates the first two chapters and ends them by witnessing the work of the Roar Devil, whom she's seeking in her capacity as assistant to this month's unwieldy name. That's a former NYPD policeman and instructor by the name of V. Venable Mear, who is now a consulting criminologist, not to mention crusading crime fighter. Those wild names do continue, by the way, with Mear's client, the mysterious April Fifth, and a wild character called Flagler D'Aughtell, with a tramp-like demeanour and an unusual take on the English language.

What the Roar Devil does, by the way, is cause infrastructure to collapse, like a dam above Powertown, a major water and electricity supplier to New York City. More intriguingly, as that's hardly a new talent in this series, given that 'The Man Who Shook the Earth' came less than a year and a half earlier, he's also able to mute sound. Now, that's much more like it! The few scenes with all characters present unable to hear anything at all are the freakiest since Doc and his men losing months of their lives as gibbering wrecks in 'Meteor Menace'.

Another unusual approach is the structure of the plot. Usually, we're given a villain to work his villainy on the general public, but this novel is structured as a battle between a pair of villains, with the general public mostly stuck standing around watching it happen and hoping it doesn't affect them, even as they know that it's highly likely to, given that much of Powertown now sits below the floodline and the various dams keeping them from drowning are threatened.

Those villains, of course, are Dove Zachies and the Roar Devil; the former has something that the latter wants and he'll do everything he can to get it. There are traditional elements here too: of course nobody knows who the Roar Devil is, as he keeps his identity a secret even from those working for him, but, even there, Dent does something to shake things up somewhat. Not only does he disguise his voice by singing rather than speaking, but it's explained to us early and reenforced often that the Roar Devil is Leland Ricketts, Powertown's mayor. Naturally, we don't believe that in the slightest, for no better reason than it's pushed at us so strongly and also because it's Ricketts who calls in Doc Savage. Still, it's refreshing.

A third unusual aspect to this novel is the way Doc and his men are introduced. I found 'The Red Skull' notable for its late introduction of Doc, on page 21 of the Bantam paperback. Here, he doesn't show up until page 23, a new record. Dent delays the introduction of his assistants as well and he brings them each in separately. Renny is first up, for a change, and Doc sends him on to Powertown where he battles Retta Kenn, only just getting the better of her; she leaves him with a pair of bruised shins and a black eye for his troubles. 'What a woman!' he exclaims. 'I didn't think they came like you.' Monk and Ham, a double act as ever, arrive a couple of chapters later and it's a couple more again before Johnny shows up.

Long Tom doesn't appear, being out of the country, but the four who do are introduced separately, then sent off to take care of something in isolation and kept that way until close to the finalé. If Dent's goal was to give these regular characters a long overdue opportunity to shine on their own, he succeeds. Even though everyone, Doc included, is captured at some point, they all do good work. One of the biggest problems I have with this series is that Doc's assistants rarely seem to justify the honour of being Doc's assistants. Sure, they're great talents in their respective fields but they're just as often morons triggering obvious traps.

If the approach is a strong point, at least in my humble opinion, these new angles are sometimes implemented at the cost of the story. There are great ideas here, like the sound suppressor or the vaporised truth serum, but little is done with them. The Roar Devil is too busy going after Dove Zachies to actually roar much, so there's not much destruction. Sometimes it feels rather like Doc's sticking his head into a room to figure out what the argument raging inside is all about. Sure, it's a really big room and a bloody argument but that's really the substance.

There's actually more of interest from a series perspective, with a number of things worthy of note. Doc orders Monk and Ham to follow a car by tapping on an inlaid table in his 86th floor headquarters; his actions relay down to a telegraph sounder in the basement which is mounted on a resonator for them to hear. Another new discovery at headquarters is that Doc has a button to stop all elevator cages anywhere in the building; that's a pretty big deal, given how busy it is in the, as always unnamed, Empire State Building. One more surprising thing occurs when Johnny speaks to his colleagues in ancient Mayan, so as to conduct a private conversation in public; for the first time thus far, a character recognises it as Mayan, though he doesn't understand the words because he only knows a more modern incarnation.

Most interesting to me, though, were some details about Doc's costume. We're told that he habitually wears a bulletproof coat under his business suit and a pair of shorts made out of very light chain mail. Now, while Doc does wear a business suit in many of the original pulp cover illustrations, every one of which thus far was the work of Walter M. Baumhofer, he doesn't tend to wear anything more substantial on the Bantam covers than a ripped shirt that doesn't show up anything like this underneath. The cover of this paperback is no exception, a painting by Boris Vallejo rather than James Bama. And, for all those Doc Savage fans who can't take the Bama helmet hair seriously, there's a very telling sentence here:

'Some one might shoot him in the head, but they would have to do it accurately, because the bronze hair in view was not his own, but artificial hair on a thin but immensely strong metal skullcap.'

Why, of course, this immensely strong metal skullcap would have a startling widow's peak, we're not told.

With a quick acknowledgement of the scene where Monk stumbles on Ham scratching Habeas's ear, I'll add a few interesting linguistic elements. There were three words that leapt out at me this time, though two only from the context. I'm sure we'd all conjure up the same image from the word 'menage', but here it appears to describe a large household. It technically ought to have an acute accent on the first vowel but Dent uncharacteristically fails to include that. I've also heard the word 'glom' before, usually meaning to take possession of a physical item, but here that item is a human being: the Roar Devil wants to glom Dove Zachies and Monk and Ham both got glommed. The new word to me was 'camisado', which turns out to be a surprise attack that happens when the enemy are asleep.

There are a couple of phrases I had to look up too. This sentence in particular is a glorious example of thirties slang: 'If we can cinch that idea in the bronze guy's head, then croak Ricketts, we'll have handed the bronze guy a dead cat.' The 'dead cat' part is completely new to me and it's a rather awkward phrase to google, but it's also something of a rabbit hole. Did you know that a 'dead cat bounce' is a temporary boost in share prices after a sustained fall? Anyway, back at the office of Mayor Ricketts, 'The attackers had come to the conclusion that they had caught a Tartar'. Apparently this means to encounter someone unexpectedly troublesome. It's not hard to see why neither of these phrases is in common parlance today, but they do have their quaint charm.

And I'll wrap up with the note that we end with a beginning. With everything taken care of, Doc is all set to investigate the Roar Devil's sound suppressing equipment only to be sideswiped into a deeper mystery, a new adventure to rediscover the meaning of the word 'Qui':

'The Quest of Qui was to take Doc Savage into the bleak fastnesses of Labrador, and to an island which held a thing so fantastic that the world could not comprehend. Qui was there, and the horror of Qui, the mystery of Qui, was to afford the bronze man and his aides adventure more perilous, danger more hideous, than they had ever before encountered.'

Try to read that in a voice that doesn't sound like a movie trailer! So join me next month for adventure more perilous! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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