I was looking forward to 'The Vanisher', which wrapped up 1936 over at 'Doc Savage Magazine'. Lester Dent was on the case with November's 'Resurrection Day', as outrageous as it got, and this looked like a solid follow up. Sadly it was that only in the ways that don't count.
It starts well. A strange figure appears mysteriously inside the walls of a prison, breaks twenty inmates out and replaces them with twenty other men of high stature in the community. The figure is described profusely. It's of an indeterminate gender; the prisoners initially think it's female but start to change their minds. It's called "humpback" or "camel-backed", never the word Bantam put onto the back cover of their paperback edition, "hunchback".
And, for some reason, it's a "Senegambian marauder", for no apparent reason I could conjure up. I'm happy, though, because I had no idea that Senegal and Gambia were ever tied together politically until I looked it up, though it makes sense given their geography and some of the history of west Africa.
Anyway, there's no explanation for what happened. One guard is shot dead, a name on his lips as he dies: Doc Savage. But, when the others check out the freight car in the yard, into which the camel-back retreated, it's empty but for two inches of toxic goo which take the shoes and part of the feet off an unlucky investigator. That's harsh for him but pretty damn cool for us.
Given the guard's words, Doc is invited to the prison where he ends up being involved in the mystery, naturally. It isn't over yet either. The twenty men left as substitutes in the cells were moved to the warden's house, only for them to mysteriously vanish too. And, as that news arrives, a nervous female journalist shoots Doc in the chest with a fake camera.
Investigation, assassination. Escape, capture. Confusion, revelation. Germ, countergerm. There's a heck of a lot going on in the early chapters of this novel and I loved it. Unfortunately, the longer it runs, the more it starts to fall apart, feeling rather stripped down after 'Resurrection Day'. About the only additional component is the traditional girl, mysteriously absent the previous month, but there's a lot missing.
That girl is the journalist assassin, of course, who seems to be one of the good guys but working for the bad guys. That's the best part of the mystery: is the bad guy a good guy (I'd use the word 'misguided' but Doc hardly works within the boundaries of the law). She's Syrmanthe Yell, or Sandy for short, and she's just the first outrageous name here. Wait until we hear about Igor De Faust, as outrageous a name as the horrible accent of Sigmund Hoppel and the incessant run-on sentences of Max Landerstett.
Anyway, something's going on and we have very little idea what, because Dent gives us nothing to go on at all. Sure, there's mystery but he doesn't seem to want to develop it, only deepen it. We go to Hoppel's posh place outside Washington, DC, only for gunfights to break out as if nobody knows whose on which side, and both his house and his boat are destroyed (and $40,000 for a boat is a pretty penny in 1936 money). People keep disappearing mysteriously from boats and cars and wherever. And there are no leads.
It's worthy mentioning that, here is that this is almost Doc solo. Monk and Ham are on hand but they spend a lot of time either kidnapped or away from the action, while Doc's other aides are all in Europe. So it's Doc against a mystery that we're not equipped to figure out and that's not as much fun as all the cat and mouse action going on between hero and villain the previous month in 'Resurrection Day'. In fact, we know more about what isn't going on than what is, but not enough to help.
And, frankly, there's not too much more worthy of mention. The secret turns out to be superscientific nonsense, the motive turns out to be cheap and the grand reveal is acutely underwhelming because the ending is quick and rather unsatisfactory. We even get Doc in blackface again, because he's framed in a transparent manner for a number of crimes and so has to hide out in a hotel frequented by African Americans. With Sigmund Hoppel and his horrible accent that wouldn't fool a child of four.
There is one fantastic scene to highlight. When Hoppel turns out to be a bad guy (like that was a surprise), Doc calls in an anonymous tip about him and promptly receives a call back from the chief of the Justice Division at the Bureau of Investigation, wanting to talk, no strings attached. Doc shows up, still in blackface, only to be as surprised as the chief when the camel-back villain waltzes in too from an empty room, rants and accused, before doing a fresh vanishing act right there in the offices of the feds. That's glorious.
There are a few other things I should mention too, though none are massively important to the story at hand, the first being that Doc has apparently made a "new noiseless high-voltage portable generator", which ought to be pretty frickin' cool, but merely underwhelms, given his resurrection of an Egyptian mummy three thousand years a corpse only a month earlier.
Another is an odd paradox: when Doc the fugitive climbs into a New York cab, the driver recognises him and refuses to turn in a man who's done more for humanity than anyone else. The catch is that Dent lets us in on a secret, namely that this cabby is a graduate of Doc's "upstate college", so should be an upright citizen. Why does he not, therefore, turn in the fugitive?
The last is the most minor but it really stood out for me as very gruesome for this series. At one point, the humpbacked villain makes his/her escape, leaving Sandy Yell on the floor inside his/her suit of human frickin' flesh to be mistaken for a target. The only thing more gruesome is the fact that he/she has another one ready for future use, allowing him/her to leave this one behind.
And, on that foreshadowing of Ed Gein and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I'll wrap this one up. 1937 will kick off with a Lawrence Donovan novel, Land of Long Juju, which surely won't be politically incorrect in the slightest. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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