Harold A. Davis! I remember him. He was the first writer other than mainstay Lester Dent to pen a Doc Savage novel, June 1934's 'The King Maker'. He had another shot in 1935 with 'Dust of Death' but this long overdue third effort changes things up considerably.
It's not a war novel, for a start, and there is no pilot to focus on, though we do spend a small amount of time in a plane. In the first of those books, Doc's aides got plenty to do, but they were sidelined in the second and that happens here too. At least they serve some purposes, even if they're lesser. The most obvious change is that the whole thing feels routine, which isn't a good change. Those two prior Davis novels got right down to business and did a good job of keeping things dynamic.
It starts decently enough with a good setup chapter. Our usual seekers after Doc's help arrive in New York on the SS Gentina from somewhere called Genlee and talk to each other with southern twang, all "youah", "moah" and "theah". They're Harlan Spotfield, Virginia Jettmore and Richard Castleman, with the latter tasked to visit Doc. However, as he reaches the famous skyscraper, he melts away in the street, the first New York victim of the skeleton death, now "a ghastly, grinning dried framework" for Doc, who arrives on the scene in time to see it, to trill at subconsciously.
What follows ought to be pretty good. Doc pops up to the 86th floor to hear Monk and Ham bickering and a strange disguised figure warning them to avoid Virginia Jettmore. Don't heed the warning and the skeleton death will await them, along with anyone else in contact with those from the titular land of fear, presumably the mysterious Genlee. Sure, this is a 'Scooby-Doo' scare tactic but I'll go along with it. I'll also go along with what happens next, namely Doc ignores the warning and visits young Virginia at her hotel so she can shoot him in the chest.
That's the end of the second chapter and you can see that we're very much in cliffhanger territory. This sort of thing continues throughout the novel and really ought to endow it with the energy it needs, but that's oddly lacking. Maybe it's because some of the cliffhanger situations are far too obvious. A great example comes at the end of the next chapter, in which a fight at the hotel ends with Doc and a giant bad guy called Bunko alone in a bedroom. And only Bunko comes out! Yeah, you've already guessed what happened.
Davis just can't seem to get behind this one, even when Gats and "Bunko" and a host of other bad guys go back to the "crazy house", a great location for a Doc Savage novel. Why "crazy house"? "It has two hundred rooms, a thousand doors, a dozen death traps," explains Gats, under the weird effect of Doc's strong fingers pressing the nerve centres at the base of his brain. Usually that would induce unconsciousness, but here it generates a handy truth serum effect, the first shark jumping moment in play in 'The Land of Fear'.
Somehow the crazy house doesn't engage the way it should, even with kidnaps and rescues within the building, escape routes every which where and even a goddamn spiked pit slide! How do I get me one of those? Somehow this wildly imaginative location ends up being a routine hideout for a routine henchman, Greens Gordon, who's the boss when the boss ain't around. Who's the boss? I see that you haven't read a Doc Savage novel before! That's the mystery.
Eventually we learn about Genlee. It's a settlement in Africa founded by an opportunist group of southerners who fled North America when it became clear that the north was going to win the War of Southern Aggression. You can tell how we might find it difficult to sympathise with these guys, huh? Genlee is a traditional sort of place, a contraction of General Lee, with plantations and...
Well, nobody ever mentions the S word so I'm not sure how "the ways of the old South were always observed, even in costume and custom". If these folk were diehard proponents of slavery, then they had a ready supply over there in Africa that didn't even need shipping overseas. If they weren't, then I don't understand why they felt the need to leave when the slave-owners were defeated. But hey, there's me looking for logic in this novel.
It's in short supply, trust me. It really lost me back in the "crazy house". Doc finds himself, along with Monk and Ham, in a locked room with only one exit. That's little trouble, because the man of bronze can just pick up the safe and hurl it through the door, but the corridor outside is on fire! The solution to this cliffhanger is wild. He, get this, extracts three asbestos suits from his pocket, so they can all walk through the fire unharmed. Yeah. And I presume he has a rabbit in his hat too, just in case.
So there's a lot wrong with the details in this book. Let me tell ya! There are more problems just with chapter fourteen than in the prior dozen books put together. Let's see...
A gentleman named Singleton shows up out of the blue as "the Diesel expert whom Doc occasionally drafted into service as engine man when his aides were for some reason absent." He's an ex-crook cured by Doc's upstate clinic and he lasts a couple of pages before he's poisoned by a cup of water. That's it for the redshirt, but Doc drinks too, apparently only to scare his aides as he knows the trick. Work tells me everyone's a risk manager. Doc apparently didn't get that memo. So, they blink their eyes and the yacht isn't in New York any more, it's in the Caribbean, just like that. Oh, and it'll split in half later and turn into a plane.
And the bad guys are there setting traps, which Monk and Ham naturally fall right into. Doc gives himself up to save their lives and it's curtains for them all. Except, unfathomably, these idiot bad guys don't just shoot them dead on the desert island they're on; instead, they bury them in cement on the shore and sail out to shoot them from a distance. And with a tommy gun. They don't even check that they're dead. Double tap, dudes! Doc escapes the cement by compressing his feet, which is cool, but then rigs up dummies. On a desert island. In no time flat. Without being seen. Perhaps he plucked those dummies out of the same pocket where he stores three asbestos suits.
What really works here are the things that don't matter. Davis writes some really good banter for Monk and Ham, not something we tend to care too much about but it's actually quite fun when it's done right. What's more, we have Habeas Corpus and Chemistry along for the ride and, while they don't really do anything of use, they do serve a purpose this time. Monk saves Chemistry from drinking the poisoned water, which favour is returned only a couple of chapters later, when Ham saves Habeas from being shot dead, giving away his disguise in the process. It may be corny but I really appreciated this.
Unfortunately, I didn't appreciate much else. It's capable, outside all the ridiculous cheats, but it never engages. It's a stripped down novel from the standpoint of regulars, with Johnny, Renny and Long Tom all absent, without even a token explanation. We don't even get to the exotic location until the book is almost done, spending a mere four chapters out of twenty at Genlee, most of which unfolds in 'Scooby Doo' style. The unveiling of the villain is no surprise and the unveiling of the mysterious skeleton death is not good.
Thinking up the best bits, I'm rather stumped. There are a few more details added to the Doc mythos. Doc has a special steel cloth that he keeps around to conveniently wrap incoming bombs and contain their explosive nature. The papers have carried news of his anaesthetic globes, so the bad guys now know about them. So he's developed a new gas that does the same job but remains effective longer, keeping himself and others conscious with special tablets that generate oxygen without the need to actually breathe. He has a motion picture camera in miniature, so he can record audio and video as needed. He can track a bad guy by slipping a lump of rare radidite into his pocket and giving chase with a special radiation sensing compass. He even has a magnet underneath the floor of HQ so that he can stop anyone leaving, made viable by having almost invisible steel shavings on the floor that embed themselves into the bottom of shoes.
Yeah, maybe these magic tricks are not really highlights after all. Maybe a glimpse of Monk and Ham's unspoken affection for each other through saving each other's animal companion is about it. No, I quite like the fact that a big boss can turn the tables on Doc in a new way. The villain here uncannily changes appearance, initially seeming to be tall and broad shouldered with a flat voice but then transforming into both Ham and Doc at different points. I appreciated the turnabout. If Doc can do this so often (as indeed he does here), why can't the villain?
Before I wrap this one up in that special steel cloth, I should add that it features a word I had to look up. It's "chadburn", which turns out to be an E.O.T. or Engine Order Telegraph, a communications device that allows anyone on the bridge of a ship to send orders to the engine room.
And that's it, folks. Next up, Lawrence Donovan is back, hopefully without any of the improbabilities in play here, in ‘He Could Stop the World’. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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