The last of five novels in a row for regular 'Doc Savage' author Lester Dent, 'Spook Hole' may well be the best of them, even if it didn't have the movie trailer set-up of 'Quest of Qui'. It's a great example of how Dent could play with his formula to create something that's at once exactly what we expect and also something innovative. What's important is where that innovation lies.
Initially, everything seems to follow the usual formula. We're treated to a fantastic set-up in the early chapters, with a number of promising angles. Doc shows up early and most of his assistants are introduced soon enough. The usual roles are assigned: the villain of the piece and his henchman; the mystery man behind everything; and the story's token lady, who is, of course, young and beautiful. We gradually find out which exotic location we'll be visiting in the second half and, sure enough, that's when the planes come out. Eventually, the villain comes a cropper by his own actions and we're done for the month.
Now, that deliberately vague summary does sound familiar, doesn't it? It could be used, with every word intact, to describe the majority of Dent's entries in this series and there were plenty of them by this point. 'Spook Hole' was the thirtieth monthly novel for 'Doc Savage Magazine' and Dent had written all but three of them. That's an impressive output and I'm sure it was only possible because he'd figured out how to work it to a formula. What elevates this one is how he mixes things up a little to keep that formula fresh.
For a start, there isn't a single villain; there are two and they're battling each other. There's Captain Wapp of the whaler named Harpoon, who speaks with a thick European accent. Then there's Oliver Orman Braski, who is a more traditional American hood. Both of their gangs want to nab Hezemiah Law first, so as to gain whatever it is that he keeps at Spook Hole that's worth a million bucks, and they're more than happy to kill everyone on the other side to get it.
For another, the henchman is so capable that he's the henchman for both Wapp and Braski. His name is Ropes, because he carries a unique weapon: a two-foot length of heavy wire hawser that's wrapped in adhesive tape. As we start out, he's working for Wapp, but we soon discover that he's a double agent for Braski. When things get a little tense, due to the involvement of Doc Savage, he persuades the two villains to join forces instead and work together. After all, there'll be plenty of money to go around once they find Hezemiah Law and Spook Hole. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?
The mystery man gets a surprising amount of time, even though it doesn't seem like it because Dent manages a character subterfuge very well for a change, and he spends most of it on his own stirring things up between the other sides. Long term readers will see through the subterfuge, but new readers may not, partly because there's another, more obvious subterfuge in the neatly annoying Sass, a character that Captain Wapp hires on when he bulks up his numbers. In between are a couple of cab drivers, which Dent handles well too, because, while we expect one of them to be one of Doc's assistants in disguise, we don't necessarily expect the second to be too.
The token lady gets a lot less time than expected, partly because Hezemiah Law's niece, Nancy, knows nothing and does nothing except get kidnapped. Talking of young ladies getting kidnapped, Pat Savage is back too, with an interesting couple of scenes. Initially, she lasts two pages, Doc dismissing her outright after she's served her purpose:
'I asked you to help us simply because I cannot imitate a woman's voice with any great success,' Doc told her. 'You promised faithfully to clear out after you did that. I'm holding you to that promise.'
So that's it for Pat. Except it isn't. And then, when she's finally out, she's immediately back in again. Doc drops her off at her beauty salon but, a single page later, she's waiting at headquarters for him with Nancy Law. While Pat is a peripheral character here, spending most of her time kidnapped as usual, Dent does at least have some fun with her while she's around.
A less obvious scene of note is Doc's first appearance. There's a giant black shape floating through the events of the first chapter, tying up one-armed men and knocking out hoods. It's a man, of course, secreted under a rubber cape and hood, but we won't know who it is until he takes them off. Well, series regulars will all recognise who half a page earlier because of the strange trilling sound he makes. That's a good approach for Dent and I believe it's the first time he used it.
The other notable approach that Dent takes here is to keep the mystery in mind throughout but focus instead on the action. The mystery, of course, is wrapped up in whatever Hezemiah Law is doing in Spook Hole, but we're not let in on that secret until almost the last page:
'It is very baffling, this secret,' Johnny told Pat. 'I do not believe I ever went through so much trouble before and learned so little. Frankly, it gives me a headache.'
Of course, it really doesn't matter what it is, because that whole side of the book is a huge MacGuffin, but Dent keeps it alive by continually adding little details to deepen its mystery. While everyone in the book cares deeply about that MacGuffin, we care more about what they'll do to get to it: Wapp and his men, Braski and his, Ropes and whichever side he'll stay on... The mysterious one-armed man turns out to be a sort of Yojimbo character, a clever man playing everyone against each other, including Doc and his own team. By the end, we've witnessed more dynamics than perhaps the last dozen books combined.
Talking of Doc's team, I should outline who's in play here. He's first up, as he always used to be, but Monk and Ham aren't far behind. Johnny is in the action before we know it, prompting a rescue mission; he's in fine form here, unlike many prior books in which his supposedly impenetrable vocabulary consists largely of words that I know. Here, he was just as impenetrable for me:
'Consummate ischiagra, a bit of cephalalgia, and a touch of torticollis describes my condition,' Johnny groaned.
'Put it in small words,' Monk requested.
' I feel like hades,' Johnny complied.
Only a couple of pages further on:
'Acrimonious contumeliousness, I call it,' Johnny said.
'Holy smoke!' gulped a sailor. 'We have the dictionary along with us.'
Ironically, Johnny has to help out his colleagues here. When Doc asks Nancy Law for her uncle's profession, it turns out to be ichthyology and Monk honestly asks Johnny to translate. I knew that one when I was a child and I'm not a world-renowned scientist. Long Tom shows up later, albeit in unusual fashion, but Renny's abroad for this one, building a railway in a remote part of Asia.
And, talking of abroad, the eventual action takes place in and offshore from Blanca Gorde, a small coastal town on the Chilean side of Patagonia. This is entirely fictional, unlike Doc's last trip to that country, back in 'Meteor Menace', as Antafagasta is a big enough town to appear on my globe. One nice touch this time is that Doc stays behind, after the mystery is wrapped up, to pick up what knowledge he can from Hezemiah Law. Unfortunately, we get there by plane from Doc's warehouse on the Hudson, which has been miraculously restored after being blown up and burned down by fake Vikings last month in 'Quest of Qui'.
Last time out, Dent spent a lot of time expanding the Doc Savage mythos, but at the expense of the story. Here, he's able to juggle the two, letting us in on a few new details as they become applicable. For instance, there's a prowler alarm on Doc's headquarters that doesn't just monitor the obvious rooms on the 86th floor but also the areas around them; it's triggered here by an eavesdropper in the internal fire escape shaft. As Doc gives chase in his extra-fast elevator, we learn that he consulted heavily on the design of the building and Renny drew up its blueprints. Another neat little addition is a large fish tank in the laboratory, which contains a glass tube that can serve as a secret emergency exit with its own mini-elevator.
Renny isn't the only one to help out. Doc tracks Johnny at the outset of the book by following his footprints, an easy task because they're visible to black light; Monk had helped Doc to blend fluorescent chemicals which are contained within the porous heels of all their shoes. Of course, there are other people helping out Doc all the time, not least the staff at his upstate New York clinic. Thus far, everyone put through the process to repatriate crooks into honest society was sent there unconscious. Here, we learn about other alternatives, Patagonia being a rather long way from New York state. One is to sucker a crook into delivering himself, with a note from Doc asking to reimburse the man with ten thousand dollars. He isn't lying, but that ten grand only shows up in the bank accounts of those who have undergone a full treatment and been released into society.
Last time out, we visited Monk's laboratory, with its dedicated room for Habeas Corpus, and Ham's apartment on Park Avenue; we also spent part of 'The Annihilist' in Renny's penthouse overlooking Central Park. Here, we get a glimpse at Long Tom's digs, which are as modest as everyone else's are flamboyant: 'a miserly room off a gloomy basement laboratory where Long Tom conducted his experiments; an extremely lowly environment, considering that Long Tom was probably several times a millionaire in his own right.'
There's much less of note on the linguistic side and almost all of it comes from Captain Wapp and his European accent; the one exception issuing from Braski, who suggests that 'Old Hezemiah Law would have had a pup.' I hadn't heard that before, but it clearly means the same as having kittens. I have no idea why cute baby animals should have anything to do with anger, but hey.
Most obviously, Wapp says 'bane' a lot and I have no idea what it means. Initially I thought it was the way that he pronounced 'been', given that his first line is 'You bane in big hurry', but that soon falls apart as his dialogue proliferates. The following gloriously broken sentence has a clear meaning, but what 'bane' adds to it, I have no idea: 'One funny move he bane make, and aye take with mine hands his neck and make with it a large crack.'
I looked up two other words that Wapp uses more than once. I presume his use of 'monkeyshiner' refers to the sort of troublemaker he doesn't want to go up against but must. It has a racist connotation nowadays, referring to a black man who acts up to please whites, but I don't think that applies here. The other is 'bummers', which I have no doubt doesn't mean here what it meant when I was growing up in England, namely homosexuals. Here, it's a clearly pejorative term for people of less worth and presumably comes from the same root as 'bums', with the focus being on 'loafers' rather than 'vagrants'.
And that's it for 'Spook Hole', which also means that that's it for a while for Lester Dent. Having only missed three out of thirty novel, he's about to miss five on the trot, giving up his regular perch for J. Allan Dunn, Harold A. Davis, Lawrence Donovan (twice) and W. Ryerson Johnson. Half of these are returning authors: I wasn't too fond of 'The King Maker', Davis's previous entry in the series, but Johnson contributed 'Land of Always-Night', which makes me look forward to 'The Fantastic Island' all the more. Next up, though, is 'The Majii', written by Dunn from an outline by Dent. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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