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The Derrick Devil
Doc Savage #48
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 138pp
Published: Original 1937 Bantam 1973

The 48th novel to see publication in 'Doc Savage Magazine', back in February 1937, didn't get reprinted by Bantam until #74 in their series and I have no idea why it wasn't prioritised sooner. This is a notably fast-paced episode with mystery and intrigue galore. The cliffhangers start in early and never go away. As non-stop thrill rides go, this is up there with the best of the series.

In fact, it's not far off being the quintessential Lester Dent Doc. All it's really missing is an exotic location and a guest appearance for Pat, getting kidnapped of course. It has everything else.

The key location is Oklahoma, where many are drilling for oil. We don't get there immediately, of course, as we have the requisite intrigue back in New York to handle first, but we get there eventually. There's also action as a young lady travels east to see Doc and more action as everyone heads west to solve the mystery that's plaguing the drill sites. That action doesn't stop.

Sam Sands isn't the first to die in a puddle of icky digestive fluid, only his clothes left to identify him, but he's the first we hear about. He was a partner to Reservoir Hill and Vida Carlaw, the usual cantankerous old coot and the usual gorgeous young female go-getter, in an attempt to strike the big one with their wildcat rig. Now he's dead and he's the first of many.

As Hill and Carlaw investigate, they're visited by their equivalents for the adjacent lease, Enoch Andershott and Alonzo Cugg, the former of whom is soon chased by a mysterious red blob. Of course, these two drill teams hate each other, but death doesn't seem to care. With the added problem of a notorious local outlaw, 'Tomahawk' Tant, in the area, Vida decides to fly to New York to seek the help of Doc Savage, even though he's apparently at the Fortress of Solitude.

Rather than shift the expected action immediately to New York, Dent keeps it going. A mysterious man in black gloves attempts to kidnap her on the plane, by leaping out of the window with her and parachuting down. This attempt is foiled by another mysterious man, who turns out to be Doc Savage. They jump and chase the villain to New York in their giro, occupied by Ham, Monk and Johnny.

If there's a fault at this point, it's the amount of things that Lester Dent sets up and promptly forgets about. Monk's gorgeous secretary shows up at HQ to deliver Habeas Corpus, prompting Ham to call out for Chemistry to join in too, but they never show up again in this book. We don't visit the Fortress of Solitude either, which I've been looking forward to for a while.

What we get instead is punch and counterpunch, bluff and doublebluff, spying and counterspying. A captured Monk is suckered into leaving a note for Doc, but he's actually leaving a note to say that he's suckering the bad guys who are suckering him. Even when he gets captured, Doc's a step ahead by having a bright local boy run up his kite with one of Doc's cameras on it, so that he can see the whole thing unfold.

Sure, some of this is added just to keep things busy so that we don't figure out who the bad guys are. Johnny goes undercover at the Fujiyama Roadhouse, playing the part of professional hood Snook Loggard, currently incarcerated in Ohio under a false name. The setup is smooth but Johnny's careless and it doesn't really progress the novel at all. It just serves to keep us engaged so that we don't start thinking too much.

Frankly, I don't think it was necessary unless it's just another way to keep the level of confusion high. You see, we're not merely in the dark as to who the big boss is, we don't even know which of two gangs is behind the strange red monsters. It could be 'Tomahawk' Tant, because he's a notorious outlaw, but it increasingly seems that Tant's men are battling with some other hoods whose identity is obscured. Is this just more bluff or double bluff from the author or do we have a set of bad guys we don't care about fighting the set of bad guys that we do care about?

Eventually, of course, things reach the expected conclusion because it's an unusual entry in the series from Dent that doesn't feature a karmic ending, and this one isn't that unusual. We learn who Tant is. We learn who are the bad guys fighting him, the ones who set the red amoeba monsters loose on so many people. We learn what the red amoeba monsters really are, as we're not buying into the supposed Indian legends floated earlier in the book. None of it is particularly surprising. And then the two gangs blow up everything and boom: out go everyone's lights. Doc and the inheritor of ill-gotten gains do right by it and set up a huge free hospital. The end.

So this is a novel that closely follows the Doc Savage formula, meaning that it really isn't too surprising. However, it seems to do it at double speed, so as to allow for constant back and forth and I really liked that. It felt like a violent chess game, in which each of the players seems to be ahead of his opponent but in which each move is accompanied by a death or a rockfall or a kidnapping or a revelation or a clever manouevre of some sort. This is very possibly the least boring book I've ever read.

It doesn't hurt that there's all sorts of period detail for me to focus in on too, not least the layout of the aeroplane that Vida is almost kidnapped from. It's a modern job, we're told so it doesn't have those rows of wicker seats. Planes used to have rows of wicker seats? Maybe I shouldn't complain about what I get stuck with next time I fly back home. Instead, "there was a succession of boxlike compartments which could be made up into upper and lower berths." In other words, there were planes in the thirties laid out like sleeper cars on long distance trains. Cool!

Today's youth probably don't know what a telephone directory is. I grew up with phone books but I didn't know that cities like New York had multiples to serve different functions, including a "red book" to list the "names of persons and firms following the various professions." The American passion for making a quick buck is epitomised by the re-use of a carnival submarine without an engine as a sort of hotel for kidnap victims. However, business isn't apparently what it ought to be.

Linguistically, Dent continues to highlight how even Americans used accents on words and hadn't quite bastardised the English language completely back in 1937. When Doc needed to dive, he "dived" not "dove". And Reservoir Hill, whose real name is Croton, of all things, would really like to meet up with a man who cheated him in a "dark cañon". There's a fantastic use of slang at one point too, as a sassy gas station attendant accuses a man of being tight with money:

"I always heard you were so stingy you pluck the feathers off the Indians on your pennies before you spend 'em!"

I had to look a few words or terms up, which is always a favourite pastime of mine. Instead of antlers above their fireplace, Andershott and Cugg have "an old-fashioned walking beam". That's a simple form of steam engine that was often used to power oil drilling rigs and ships. The clearly pejorative term "honyoks" refers to immigrant homesteaders who stubbornly farmed land that was better suited to ranching livestock. And a "dornick" is American slang for a stone or small boulder that can be easily thrown.

There's one more to lead us into what's new here to the Doc Savage mythos. For once, even though ladykillers like Monk and Ham are totally interested, Renny gets the girl at the end. "In fact, he gave the young lady quite a rush." I presume that this means that his attentions made her very happy. I might be wrong, of course. I can think of other explanations that would not seem quite as appropriate for a Doc Savage novel.

There are new devices in play, to go with a number of old ones. The windows in Doc's headquarters are of a new type that he designed. It's one way glass so that he and his aides can see out but nobody can see in. There's also a new helmet that he lately designed for use underwater. It's like a goldfish bowl flipped upside down but made of unbreakable glass. One bad guy has a go at it with a wrench and gets nowhere.

That's all well and good but the one that didn't make any sense to me is an effective way to take down a large number of enemies in a different room. A set of glass balls, like those which Doc uses often to contain anaesthetic gas to knock out his opponents contains, instead, acid that incapacitates in a not very nice way. What's new is the way in which they're broken. As Doc can't be in the same room, they don't break when he drops them, only when he trills in his usual way.

That's clever, but my problem with this is that his trilling traditionally happens subconsciously. Beyond Doc acknowledging what he shouldn't be able to acknowledge, why would he set anything lethal in his pockets to break if he trills, as he tends to do at least once per novel? That rather smacks of suicidal tendencies.

And with that potentially dangerous note, I'll see you next month for 'The Mental Marvel', with an exotic location, a strange behemoth and a golden enchantress. I can't wait!     ~~ Hal C F Astell

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