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Ost / The Magic Island
Doc Savage #54
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 137pp
Published; Original 1937, Bantam 1977

As soon as I finished 'He Could Stop the World', I knew I would had to leap into the next Doc Savage novel, just to see how anyone could follow it. That next book turned out to be 'Ost', reprinted by Bantam as 'The Magic Island', the first of four Lester Dents in a row and the exact antithesis of all that Lawrence Donovan does with his Docs.

For a start, this is patient stuff, with Dent carefully building supporting characters like Ben Brasken, a dreamer of a sailor, who dominates the first chapter. He signs on for the Benny Boston, whose crew have a secret. They've seen a floating city, two hundred miles off New Guinea. Every man knew that it was Ost, though they have no idea why.

Brasken vanishes mysteriously and, on the ship's next voyage, which doesn't happen until a month and change later, he climbs back on board emaciated and malnourished, talking of pyramid buildings and the Temple of Goa the Mighty, which is upside down. There are two white folk on Ost, he explains to Capt. Smooth—Martin Space and a woman—but the Ostians themselves are blue spider-armed men who need help from the horror.

Yeah, it's patient stuff but it doesn't skimp on the mystery because all of that unfolds in one chapter. The second shifts location to New York, where a rich woman named Kittrella 'Kit' Merrimore wants to buy Doc's dirigible. He isn't selling, of course, even after she asks nicely, tries to vamp him and then outright demands. How thirties is this ensuing banter:

  "Perhaps you don't know just who I am?"

  "You are a young woman who was not spanked often enough when she was little," Doc Savage replied earnestly. "And you have too much money."

I should mention that this second chapter opens with a report on Doc's desk about Brasken, flagged for possible follow-up. Apparently Doc receives many reports from his aides that could prompt another adventure like this one. I like that detail which, with the fantasy and unexplained horror in the South Seas, reminds of Lovecraft. 'The Call of Cthulhu' was almost a decade old at this point, having been first published in 'Weird Tales' in 1928.

Looking back with eighty years of hindsight, Dent appears to be dead set on returning the series to its roots, because he writes this one so closely to standards that it's almost a textbook. Things move steadily forward in New York for half the book, before the action shifts somewhere exotic. Each key character gets a brief introduction and every detail from the Doc mythos is given a brief explanation, just in case this is our first Doc instead of our 54th.

What's more, all Doc's aides are present, not that they achieve anything in this one, and they all get their standard treatment. By my count, Renny gets five "Holy cow!" lines and Long Tom four "I'll be superamalgamated!" Johnny is given plenty of long words and Ham and Monk bicker away as always. Habeas Corpus and Chemistry show up too, adding some flavour without getting in the way. Doc trills subconsciously twice, shifts promptly from one disguise to another for two consecutive scenes, and there's even a mention of his daily routine, which we haven't heard about in too many novels.

And, more than anything, this isn't remotely Lawrence Donovan superscience, as wild and fantastic as it gets. In fact, at one point, Martin Space sums Dent's opposition to that mentality in a paragraph that ostensibly has him warning Kit Merrimore about what she's about to see:

  "You are going to find some things in Ost that are much harder than that to explain," Space said. "But let me warn you now. Everything you see here, which may seem impossible, can be explained by modern science. Everything! Remember that and it may literally save your reason."

And, while what goes on in Ost is a little fantastic, it's worth underlining that a) Dent provides explanations and b) they aren't ridiculous ones like a cosmic wave brought back from the stratosphere. What's more, Dent even sets up those explanations by providing scenes that allow us to figure things out for ourselves. For instance, Doc, in disguise, searches the Benny Boston and discovers a cubbyhole that someone clearly occupied for a month, carving the iron keys that Brasken brought back from Ost. He then visits Brasken, again in disguise, and, with a simple test, discovers that the sailor can't swim. One mystery solved, but another set in play.

Dent also leaves the wildest stuff for last, once everyone gets to Ost. For much of the book, we're keeping that mysterious floating city in the back of our minds while we concentrate on the two sides. One is Kit Merrimore and a few others: her Oriental chauffeur, Two-bit, and a dangerous colleague named Lupp. After Doc refuses to sell his dirigible, they steal it from under Monk and Ham's noses, and when fate brings them all together again, play a deadly game with guns, bombs and poison gas. The other is Doc and a full compliment of aides, who are forced to find alternative transportation to Ost.

The final aspect that feels traditional for Dent is the one I wish he didn't include in the series and that's ridiculous pidgin English. I'm not against the idea of pidgin because there are many characters in Doc Savage books who would appropriately use it. However, Dent uses what can only be described as racist stereotype. Two-bit, his name notwithstanding, is highly capable as a fighter and a general assistant, but he speaks lines such as "He fella bleak mine leg" or "We lun ship aglound on island, lock clew in hold and put boxes on each. We fix up ailship and———". I'm sorry, Lester, but not one Asian has ever said "ailship". That's just ridiculous.

So, to sum up, this is patient, smooth, logical, explained and open not only to long term fans of the series but new readers too. But it's also a little racist. That's a lot better than the frantic, contradictory and unexplained approach that Donovan took a month earlier. Welcome back, Lester Dent.

I liked this one, even if it isn't the best lost city novel even thus far in the series. It's decent, it's enjoyable and, seemingly most important at the point we'd reached in August 1937, not remotely annoying at any point. From the early scenes in New York, where Doc can get someone to talk with a ruse made possible by mimicry, to later ones approaching Ost, where Doc foils the surrounding tribe of headhunters by using tear gas and smoke grenades in an appropriately mystical way, this feels just right. We even learn why Ostians are blue and have spidery arms.

Beyond the story, there's nothing much here to expand the Doc Savage mythos. Dent appears keen to refer to Chemistry as "a what-is-it", but I don't think that's new here, just refreshing in the literal sense.

There was one thing I had to look up though. Doc trusts a bartender, even if he "could not have any Chesterfield manners and run a place like this." That phrase refers to Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. Quotes from his letters to his son were collected into "The Book of Good Manners" and it was Chesterfield who wrote, for example, "Manners makyth Man."

And with all that said, I'm happy with the series again and look forward to next month's thrilling instalment from 'Doc Savage Magazine', which is 'The Feathered Octopus'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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