All the Doc Savage pulps were written under the byline of Kenneth Robeson, a house name that masked a whole bunch of different writers. Nowadays, we know the identities of all of them but this is the first that I simply don't buy. Apparently 'Repel', renamed 'The Deadly Dwarf' for Bantam paperback release, was written by Lester Dent, but that doesn't ring true to me at all.
The departures from Dent's usual approach start immediately. Instead of the action beginning in New York and then moving somewhere exotic midway through the book, we get the exact reverse. After Mount Ettilusamauma, better known as Ethel's Mama, erupts in the South Pacific, Doc and all five of his aides promptly leave New York for Fan Coral Island. We haven't even got to the end of chapter one!
And that isn't even the most telling sign. Sure, some very weird things are happening on Fan Coral Island, the wake of the volcano's eruption marked by uphill landslides, flying palm trees and raining coconuts. But this is a Doc Savage novel! He's encountered a lot stranger than within in the fifty-five prior adventures. Yet, Doc is doomsaying like a street prophet preaching the end of the world. "It is more than important," he tells Ham. "It may well be the most terrible calamity ever loosened on the human race."
What is it? That's a good question, but Doc names it a handful of pages in, before they even leave for Fan Coral Island. Everyone will inevitably call it Repel, he pronounces, and they do. For much of the book, this incredibly ominous MacGuffin is left unexplained and, frankly misrepresented, but it's pretty clear what it is. It's a force that repels instead of attracts. And, of course, everyone wants it, including Cadwillider Olden.
I'm jumping ahead quite a way here, but he's the best thing about this book and I'm guessing he became surprisingly influential. Cadwiller Olden is a criminal mastermind, a very successful one and a very intelligent one. He's a scientific genius and "Snowball" Eagan, a minor crook, outright pronounces that Olden is "the cleverest man alive". He's also three feet tall, displays a fondness for muscled giants and shares the same tailor as Ham. He even has the same sword cane, merely scaled down to his size.
If Cadwillider Olden isn't the template for Dr. Miguelito Loveless, nemesis to James West in 'The Wild Wild West', I'll be utterly shocked. He even has a giant assistant called Nero, surely copied and pasted into the character of Voltaire, Loveless's equally giant assistant. The only difference is that Loveless got to be a regular villain while Olden only seems like he'll come back for more. From his first appearance, he felt like a nemesis and whoever really wrote this even gave him a deliberately vague demise that left a very real possibility of a return open.
Another reason I don't buy Dent as the author of this novel is that it plays out very differently to any of his earlier books. I take detailed notes when I read Doc Savage novels, chapter by chapter, and Dent's chapters are busier than this by an order of magnitude. He sets up characters and organisations and plans with a great deal of detail, almost none of which is apparent here because most of the action is a deadly to and fro between Doc and Olden.
Much of the book is Olden setting a trap and Doc getting out of it, in ways that are later described to us. For instance, Olden disguises himself as a child called Pete at one point, climbs up on Doc's plane and feeds chemicals into the fuel tank that would mix when the motors start and cause vibration, exploding a couple of minutes later once the plane gets into the air. Doc is able to escape that certain death by virtue of Monk having installed a new device that checks the composition of the fuel for any foreign substances.
Set trap. Get out of trap. Rinse. Repeat.
While Doc's men not getting to do much of anything except getting kidnapped is pretty routine, having them gone for a very long period of time is not. I don't recall an instance of any member of Doc's entourage getting kidnapped and staying gone for more than a day or two. At one point here, four of his aides are gone so emphatically that Doc and Johnny come home to New York and spend half a million dollars dedicating every private investigator they can find to the search. At another, Renny and Long Tom are gone for two weeks, while Doc waits for Olden to emerge from hiding.
The variations from normal extend down to the little details. For instance, when Monk is grabbed by the invisible force that is Repel and he clings to a tree for dear life, all the catchphrases come out. The "Holy Cow!" count is three in a couple of pages, along with "I'll be superamalgamated!" twice and an instance of Doc's trilling for good measure. So far, so usual, but we're also given what seems like an attempt at a new catchphrase for Monk, never before seen in the books. It's in his vague attempts to describe things. We get a "gollawhoppus", a "thingamumgrabber" and a "thingamajig". I wonder if that will continue in future books.
What this means is that we get an annoyingly vague superscientific McGuffin that's treated seriously from moment one, even though it's rather akin to an earlier superscientific McGuffin that turned out to be a fraud, even though it apparently wiped out navy destroyers, air force squadrons and the like in 'The Terror in the Navy' only six books earlier. We get a fantastic villain who has so much promise that he never got used again. And we got a continual stream of departures from the Doc Savage formula, so prompting the novel to feel like a fraud. If the action had held up, I might have been happier, but it's gone, replaced with that underwhelming to and fro trapsetting.
A lot of fans seem to really like this one, but it disappointed me massively by feeling like it was the first knock-off novel written by an unknown hack in five years. If it wasn't for Cadwiller Olden, this might have become my least favourite novel in the series thus far.
Let's hope that next month's Doc, 'The Sea Angel', Lester Dent's last novel of four before handing over to Harold A. Davis for three months, is back to his usual standards. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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