I can't say that I disliked this one, quite the opposite of a fan favourite that Lester Dent penned for the November 1937 issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine' but, wow, it's a complete departure from the usual Dent story in most ways. Most of them are very surprising indeed, though there are still some nods to the standard template.
We start out in New York, with a major philanthropist, Leander L. Quietman, being kidnapped from the Museum of Natural History, in unusual fashion. He's just donated an exhibit that focuses on a little known Native American tribe called the Calhugi and, just as he enjoys a solo preview of it, the supposed wax braves come to life and whisk him away.
It's not too unusual for there to be two separate gangs battling each other while Doc gets stuck in the middle. The gang of H. O. G. Coolins, a missing Wall Street financier and silk magnate, is one, while the Sea Angel's horde are the other. Apparently Coolins's mob were kidnapping Quietman to keep him safe from the Sea Angel, which is a neat twist.
And, of course, there's a beautiful young lady to fall for Doc. She's Nancy Quietman, the philanthropist's daughter. Sadly, like most of the characters in this one, she gets next to nothing to do except to fall for Doc. The same goes, rather unfortunately, for most of Doc's aides. All five are in action here and, well, all five are here but the action they see is to generally be kidnapped and sidelined throughout.
And here's where things start to really shift away from the formula. Doc is in action early, battling the Sea Angel outside the museum, but his men are late to arrive. Renny and Long Tom are tasked in chapter three with seizing Quietman before he ships out to South America, but they're captured only a single chapter later. Johnny shows up in chapter nine and, within the short three pages that it lasts in the Bantam paperback, he's captured too.
Even weirder, Monk and Ham don't show up until chapter eight and in bizarre fashion. As we heard earlier, Monk has apparently taken Ham for millions of dollars, leaving the lawyer bankrupt and about to suffer a nervous breakdown in the Gotham Sanitarium. What's more, Monk won against the lawyer in court, so he's got away with the whole thing, even if he's been fired by Doc in the process. He's gone whole hog too, even buying a $1m crown from a former king of Spain for Habeas Corpus to wear.
Of course, given that the Sea Angel is apparently targeting elite members of the Wall Street set who have managed to swindle insane amounts of money from others while never quite breaking the law, it's pretty clear to us that the whole thing is a setup, but the fake artist, Nat Piper, who appears to be in charge of the Sea Angel's scheme, falls for it because of course he does. He kidnaps Monk, telling him that he must repay Ham every cent and also donate $1m of his own money to charity. If not, he'll be number 23 in the growing list of such men who have vanished from New York without a trace.
So far, so odd, but it gets stranger yet. There's usually a location change halfway through the novel and this one doesn't deviate from that. Piper and his collection of prisoners, which includes Quietman, his daughter and every one of Doc's men, end up sailing north in a German U-boat that he dubs 'The Flying Dutchman'. Doc is secretly on board too, but here the surprises begin.
I've never seen Doc so passive and for so long as he is in this novel. Sure, he ends up winning the day because how else would we all move on to the next edition of 'Doc Savage Magazine', but he's pretty much entirely useless for almost half the book before somewhat salvaging his reputation by taking care of business almost entire on his own.
You don't believe me? How about this! He manages to sneak on board the sub by hitching a ride underneath a rowboat, only to find himself locked in the pantry. For three whole days, during which Monk and Quietman are yoked and humiliated. When he's accidentally released, because Boscoe the compulsive thief of a henchman needs some fruit, he's promptly captured and kept that way once they reach their destination. And he stays captured, along with all his aides and the earlier kidnap victims, breaking rocks in a winter chill.
What's weirdest of all is that, of Doc's entire outfit, he's the only one to really achieve anything in this novel and he spends half of it completely at the mercy of Nat Piper. Even after he inevitably finds a way to free himself and start to fight back, he's sidelined while the Coolins gang takes on the Piper gang. This is the fifty-seventh Doc Savage novel and he's effectively out of the running for more time than any of the others, while his men have never been so utterly useless.
The most interesting angle is that there isn't even a big boss. I know I'm way into spoiler territory here, but in any other book, the Sea Angel would be the hidden identity of the evil mastermind behind everything. However, I can't say that's true here, at least not really. In fact, Doc would be right on the side of the Sea Angel, if not for a disagreement about methods, which is wild because Doc's methods are frankly even darker than the Sea Angel's. Instead, the bad guy is one of the Sea Angel's previous victims, which rings oddly indeed.
And so 'The Sea Angel' is most notable for being rather unlike any other Doc Savage novel, a sentence I'd usually see as a positive but can't, given these reasons. What's more, there's very little extra to talk about. There isn't a dab of slang or antiquated language that needs exploration and the only spot of new information for the Doc mythos is the discovery that he has gas traps on some of the gadgets in his vest pockets and, indeed, on the pockets.
Most fans seem to hate this novel but I like it for being different, if not for being different in this particular way. It could be chalked up as a good try by Lester Dent to try something new but a failure nonetheless. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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