I had to check up on which author took on the mantle of Kenneth Robeson for this 55th Doc Savage novel, because it doesn't feel at all like any of them. It turns out that it's a Lester Dent novel, but he's much more lyrical this time out, with some neat phrasing and some evocative descriptions. He also completely shakes up how the novel unfolds, throwing away his own formula in order to sideline Doc for a great swathe of the novel and give his aides an opportunity to actually contribute for a change.
This shake-up starts early, but not quite from moment one. Things start out roughly as we might expect, with an unusual character wandering the streets of New York in search of Doc Savage's headquarters because he has something to bring to him personally. There's a surreptitious limo following him, with a beautiful Eurasian lady inside. So far, so expected. But...
When he's pointed to Doc's express elevator, it doesn't take him to the 86th floor. It only takes him a single floor up, where Monk and Ham are slogging through a whole crowd of people who want to see Doc, even resorting to a lie detector when needed. And Tobias Weaver is the first person they take up to see him in three days.
Weaver wants Doc to come and see his grandson, little eight year old Teddy, who was critically injured while playing Doc in outside games. It's not far, just Stormington, a rural area just outside the Big Apple, and Doc promptly does what he asks, getting caught in the process because the whole thing is a carefully planned trap. The fake kid jabs Doc with a hypo and he's locked into a steel room deep in a house in a town that Dent describes as "antique asleep in the hills".
Now, I've had two problems already. It seems odd for two accomplished aides, often described as global leaders in their fields, to be relegated to mere secretarial duties. And it stretches credence for Doc to walk so thoroughly into this trap, but I went along with it because Dent is highlighting a rare weakness in his character. Simply put, he's a real sucker for bleeding heart cases and, if they're kids, all the better. Add a dollop of guilt and he's a goner.
We're only two chapters in and Doc is out of the picture. For a change, he's going to stay that way. We hardly see him for half the novel and, when we do see him, he's hardly active. I should add that even a captured Doc, with his legs chemically paralysed, is still a dangerous Doc, and Dent plays up just how dangerous he is with one gold-flecked eye shining out of a robe. With a lack of Doc, though, that means that his aides have to actually live up to a status that they haven't often over this series.
Monk and Ham don't do too well. They follow the trail and end up where they need to but they're too distracted fighting over the beautiful Lo Lar to do anything useful. Ham eventually realises the deception but it's too late and they're both captured too. However, the other three are impressive, which is highly refreshing.
They're just back from a marlin fishing holiday in Bimini, all of them ready for action and with their catchphrases. They check Iron Mary, a name I don't recall hearing before for Doc's recording device at HQ, and follow the trail too, only to find that the house is gone, with only Ham's hat to be found. I liked how they continued on without a lot to go on. They think well and act well when an anomaly shows up, mounting a counterattack and figuring it all out. Frankly, there's more good detective work in a couple of chapters than Doc's aides have done previously in a dozen books and there's a lot more to come too.
Sidelining Doc, as well as the bickering twins, is a clever way to shine an overdue spotlight on Doc's less well used assistants and Dent brings in Pat Savage too. Knowing that Doc has gone missing, she does some investigating of her own and figures out a crucial clue. The downside is that Renny, with a twisted sense of duty, actually knocks her out with an anaesthetic ball, carries her to a trusted taxi and sends her back to her beauty salon and her "electric vibrators", supposedly in a drunken stupor, so that she won't stay involved. Like that would ever do the trick? Of course she comes gunning for Renny, only to get kidnapped on the way. Some things they'll never learn.
Dent does adhere to some traditions. There's a boss who remains unseen even to his men, here going by High Lar. Lo Lar is his wife. There's a lieutenant who carries out his bidding and here he's called Gundy. There's a beautiful girl, not only Lo Lar but also Lam Benbow, who's trying to find her brother and hilariously gets the drop on Long Tom and marches him at gunpoint to HQ! Her brother, Bryce Benbow, is the wildcard, though he has a mere two names and no initial. We change location too, early into the second half, because High Lar comes from the South Seas, where he has an island base.
I really enjoyed this for most of its page count and for a slew of reasons, not least that it's simply written better than usual, both through its use of language and its unusual and capable structure. I appreciated the focus on Renny, Johnny and Long Tom, not only because they actually get things to do and they do them well, but because the latter two fawn over Lam Benbow in a similar way to how Monk and Ham fawn over Lo Lar. As the novel wraps, we even hear Long Tom talking about marriage!
I've always preferred the books where the villain is capable and the plot to do whatever is cunningly and carefully put into motion, and this certainly fits that description. It really does have every component that a Doc Savage novel should contain and they mostly unfold outside of the expected formula, right down to a good use of chemicals from Monk's portable kit that ends up being not needed in the grand scheme of things. That's refreshing too.
Sadly, there are negatives, beyond the ease with which Doc, Ham and Monk are sidelined early on. The second half doesn't match the first, Doc taking back the reins and ending up handling things solo. The identity of the villain is hardly a surprise, given that there's really only one candidate. There's not a lot of gadgetry put to use and, when it does show up, it's pretty routine: Iron Mary, infrared goggles and microwave radio transmission.
And, in the tradition of 'Brand of the Werewolf', which did feature a brand but not a werewolf, there is no 'feathered octopus' anywhere to be found. An octopus does show up, very briefly, towards the end and it's a big one, but it's not feathered. Feathers do show up too, very briefly, towards the end, on High Lar's coat. The Feathered Octopus is just High Lar's nickname which, like the feathered coat and the giant octopus, really has little to do with the rest of the story.
So, this is a mixed bag, but when it's good it's really good and it makes me eager to see what Dent has in store next month with 'Repel'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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