As much as I've enjoyed seeing what other authors brought to Doc Savage's table, not least the fantastic 'Land of Always-Night' by W. Ryerson Johnson, it's always satisfying to get back into the rhythm of a run of Lester Dent novels. 'The Spook Legion' was a decent romp into super-science territory and 'The Secret in the Sky' is a worthy companion piece.
The gimmick here is well-staged. Willard Kipring Parker Spanner, a man whose four names must suggest some level of importance or Dent wouldn't have recounted them four times in four paragraphs, is discovered dead on a New York street. The problem is that he left Doc Savage a 1930s voicemail less than three hours earlier, when he was in San Francisco. It takes almost twice that time to travel from San Francisco to New York today, almost eighty years on, so it must have seemed a crazy accomplishment to Doc. Then again, he spent part of 'The Spook Legion' invisible so his mind must have been at least open to the possibility.
Spanner is an important man, if not a rich one, and Doc knows him, enough to go to the morgue to identify his body, whereupon he runs into a set of hoods who steal the clothes off Spanner's corpse. The story is clearly in motion and it promptly leads Doc, Ham and Monk to a rural oyster farm with a clever underground alarm system and a 'taut rope of liquid fire' hanging in the sky. Mysteries stack onto mysteries for quite some time before they start to get a handle on what's going on, not least because Dent keeps them busy with action. There's a great setpiece scene when Doc's plane is destroyed on the ground by another, sent into it by a homing device. There are more at the mysterious mansion in Oklahoma where we start to pick up those characters we expected but hadn't met yet.
In particular, I'm talking about Lanca Jaxon, this novel's gorgeous young lady, who enters the story with style. Monk and Ham have just escaped from the mansion and discovered the perfect getaway vehicle: big, powerful and bulletproof. However, as they start to hotwire it, they find that Lanca is sitting in the back pointing a gun at them, with hollow-point bullets no less. It's all an unfortunate mistake, of course, but this book proceeds with a cat-and-mouse approach throughout. One minute, our heroes are free, the next they're captured, then they're free again, the next... and you get the picture.
By the way, this does allow Dent to utilise all five of Doc's men for once without the usual problem of struggling to find enough for each of them to do. Here, it's all Doc, Ham and Monk until soon into the second half. The other three are in upper New York, presumably helping with the vocational training given to the graduates of Doc's clinic after their surgical treatment. Well, until we shift over to them because Doc, Ham and Monk are not just taken captive but securely bound too. The alternation works pretty well.
It's also about halfway that we see what we've expected all along. Willard Spanner travelled from San Francisco to New York in less than three hours in a sophisticated piece of flying machinery, a ball that can move at high speed in any direction without causing gravitational problems for the occupants. It would surely be the logical future of the aëronautical industry if only... well, if you read 'The Spook Legion', you won't be surprised at how this one ends; if 'The Roar Devil' follows suit, then we'll have a new trend on our hands.
There are other trends apparent too. One long-running trend is enhanced here when Monk appears to have been killed in a fight; he has two deep and bloody gouges to his head. Ham, whose long-running feud with Monk we know is an act, is distraught. 'He's the best friend I've got,' he wails, only to revert to his usual antagonistic type when it becomes clear that Monk is alive after all. One possible trend is that Dent chose here to mention a Tulsa newspaper by name. It's 'The Graphic', which probably isn't real, but still sounds more realistic than 'the leading Phoenix newspaper', which is what he used in 'The Red Skull'.
Another trend, new in 'The Spook Legion', the previous novel, but emphasised here is Doc's ability to sway people to his needs, not through his hypnotic gold-flaked eyes but by his connections. We learned early in the series that the New York police department had given Doc and his men honorary commissions and 'The Thousand-Headed Man' added that he had a similar in with the London equivalent. There have been others too, but they've always been official positions. In 'The Spook Legion', it's his stature as the anonymous saviour of the opera company targeted by invisible men that gives him some clout and, here, we get two more examples. One is a commercial airline, whose employees are put at his service when he shows them a card; he owns a 'goodly portion' of their stock. The other is a newspaper, whose publisher won't play ball with him; he'll only hand over the notes that Doc needs in return for exclusive rights to his adventures. Doc nixes that by highlighting that he's both a federal agent and a director of the chain which owns the majority stock of the paper. 'You win,' replies the publisher.
Outside of that, the most obvious enhancement to the Doc mythos is a prominent use of his answering machine on the very first page. If I'm remembering correctly, we've encountered this device before, the combination of a dictaphone voice recorder and a phonographic speaker, but we haven't heard the message that Doc set before. We get that here. 'This is a mechanical robot,' it says, 'speaking from Doc Savage's headquarters and advising you that Doc Savage is not present, but that any message you care to speak will be recorded on a dictaphone and will come to Doc Savage's attention later.' It wraps up with, 'You may proceed with whatever you wish to say, if anything.' This seems odd to me, not just the impersonal nature of the message but the fact that it mentions Doc Savage three times. Talk about redundant! It also flies in the face of the suggestion that Doc's ego isn't as big as his many talents.
On the language side, there's the now expected uses of accents, often to aid pronunciation, but also some new words. The first is explained as it's mentioned, which is an odd approach. Willard Spanner 'was a nabob', but if we don't know what that is, the rest of the sentence is happy to explain: 'a somebody, a big shot.' Lanca Jaxon doesn't just have good teeth, they 'would have graced the advertising of any dentifrice.' That's any sort of paste or powder to clean teeth, so Dent is saying that she looks like she should be on a toothpaste commercial.
The word that I had to search for an explanation on is 'bobtail'. From the context, it's obviously a gun term as a hood named Stunted bobtailed his rifle and found that it no longer functioned properly. Searching tells me that it's a different grip, but to change to a bobtail involves reworking the entire frame, so it's not a simple task. The other thing I learned from reading about bobtailing is that gun owners have a language all their own and it's an almost impenetrable one to someone like me who knows next to nothing about the things.
So, that's 'The Secret in the Sky', which secret naturally doesn't survive the novel. It's another capable entry in the series from Lester Dent, who was clearly a reliable author at this point, with 24 Doc Savage novels under his belt in just over two years. However, the only thing elevating it and its predecessor, 'The Spook Legion', is its use of super-science, which may well not be a good thing. Let's see how it works next month in 'The Roar Devil' with the title character apparently able to cause noiseless earthquakes. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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