Milestones are always important things for magazines and 'The Terror in the Navy' is the fiftieth novel to be published in 'Doc Savage Magazine', so it was clearly doing well by April 1937. It also means that I've been at this for over four and a half years and I'm still enjoying my monthly Doc Savage. This was the last one of three in a row for regular author Lester Dent, but it would also be his last for a while: the next three would be written by a couple of other authors, with Dent returning in August.
Unfortunately, it's not a great one but it's not as bad as its reputation in Doc Savage fan circles would make it seem. As the title suggests, it has to do with a threat to the United States Navy, one that's not just words either as five destroyers are wrecked on a reef in only the second chapter by being dragged by some mysterious force. Sadly, the man with information, Lt. Bowen Toy, is drowned in the process.
Fortunately, because he's a fan of Doc Savage (he has a copy of one of Doc's books, 'The Armour Plate Value of Certain Alloys' in his bag), he manages to get a message out to him in the nick of time. Before Doc gets it, however, a hirsute and serpentine man named Fuzzy, gets it first by sneaking into Doc's HQ (he knows the radioactive metal trick), calls the radio office from there to hear and then delete the message. Nice trick! And now Doc will never know except, of course...
...that he's actually there in his HQ at the time, hiding to let the crooks think they've got one over on him. You see, he's noticed the strange balloon that's been floating around outside and knew something was coming. He's had Renny, Long Tom and Johnny on balloon duty for a week and I hate to think of the cost of that little operation! Three men world renowned in their fields, watching a balloon for a whole week! Anyway, he records all calls and so is able to listen to the message the bad guys think he won't hear and we're off and running.
Eagle eyed readers will wonder why Renny, Long Tom and Johnny are introduced first because it's pretty much always Monk and Ham, but I should add that, a little ahead of their introduction here along with Doc in chapter four comes right after Pat shows up and challenges the bad guys as they leave HQ, so it isn't even a regular aide who appears first this time out. Pat even precedes Doc into the story!
She actually gets things to do here too, though Doc doesn't want her along, of course. Chapter five is entitled 'Persistent Pat' because, when the three assistants on the job lose the balloon, it's Pat who shoots it down, from a plane she built for racing. Yeah, she's a girly girl who runs a beauty salon but she's also a tough chick who builds planes to race and equips them with weapons able to shoot down a balloon.
The usual shenanigans proceed in the usual fashion, with a key exception: it happens to be Johnny who's taken by the bad guys here instead of Pat! I have to add that I think all of Doc's aides are kidnapped here at some point. It sometimes seems like he only has five aides so that when four have messed up and been captured by the enemy, there's still one left to catch. By the time we get to chapter nine, they have Johnny, Ham and Monk but Pat is still free and clear. That must be a first!
One positive I will grant this book is that the threat at the heart of it is as palpable as it's ever been in fifty books. The madman behind it all knows how to put his money where his mouth is and he causes insane levels of loss, whatever criteria you go by. Those five destroyers in chapter two were only one of three naval disasters on that night alone. The battleship Oglethorpe strikes a rock and sinks. He aims at an entire squadron of air force planes. When Doc goes up in a airship of his own design, the Zephyr, he prompts that to be destroyed too.
And when he destroys things, he really destroys things. After Doc cleverly draws out the bad guys stowing away on the Zephyr, he launches a plane from the underbelly to follow them but the wings come right off. He crashes into the sea because his parachute has been shredded. Fortunately he has a spare. The bad guys circle around and shoot at him in the water, then drop bombs on him and finally, after the Zephyr crashes down too, they set fire to it with thermit bombs. Talk about making sure!
Even before this, we've found out plenty. A man named August Atlanta Braun sends a letter to the Secretary of the Navy explaining that these disasters will continue until "a certain foreign power" feels that it's safe to attack the United States. They're caused by a device that uses an invisible force, but Braun has another device that can counter it. He's willing to hand this over to the Navy but only if Doc Savage will be the go between.
Their meeting is particularly memorable. Doc's taken by boat to waters off Long Island where Braun is standing on the wing of an anchored seaplane, an unapproachable one because the water around it is coated in a floating acid. He explains that he'd offered the device to the government for free, but an "incompetent nincompoop of a clerk" insulted him. Now he'll hand it over for the sum of a hundred million dollars, in cash in multiple currencies. That's serious money now, let alone in 1937.
Of course, there are plenty of twists and turns before we figure out all the details and a whole bunch more expensive machinery is wrecked. I'm trying to think of another book in the series that racked up such an expensive bill. A few have included wars and I don't even think they were quite this costly. I don't recall another book where Doc proves to be the reason why a particular piece of expensive machinery is destroyed. Here it's a battleship called the Missouri and it's Doc's reluctance to follow instructions that prompts it to run aground on a reef.
Some fans don't like the logic behind this book, though I have no problem at all with it. Sure, it's "Scooby Doo" type reasoning but that's fine with me. Sometimes Occam's Razor wins out, even in a pulp story of superscience. The little things got me this time out like the paragraph above. Of course, if that doesn't seem professional, it's more understandable than Monk and Ham bickering at each other in the usual fashion in front of a room of assorted bigwigs, including two senators on the appropriations committee.
In many ways, Doc and his men don't come off at all well in this book, even though they solve the case in the end. Even when the enemy is a mastermind, they usually wrap things up before too much destruction is wrought and they rarely involve themselves in the destruction in the process. What's more, a real mastermind like Tom Too in Pirate of the Pacific or even Z last month in The Mental Wizard can believably offer solid opposition to someone with Doc's abilities and gadgetry, but the villain here isn't in their league.
It's not too difficult to figure out who it is either, because the cast of characters is rather minimal and none of them really do much of anything. I will concede that the toxic paper Fuzzy uses to set a trap for Doc is rather clever and India Allison, this month's token female guest "who looked like Michelangelo's idea of an angel", has serious potential, but there's little happening on the character front. At one point, Allison's boss, Lieber von Zidney, is clearly set up to be the villain but we aren't buying it for a moment.
And that's the problem in a nutshell. It's not that bad a novel, but we just don't buy it. There really isn't much of interest on a grander scale either. The newest cool gadget is Doc's method to catch stowaways, but it's a simple one. Doc merely pumps a sort of laughing gas into the Zephyr, dishes out a dose of the antidote to the crew, sits back and listens for hysteria. Sure, the Zephyr is a pretty cool creation, an all metal zeppelin, but it crashes and burns, even though it's supposedly not flammable. Nothing else is new.
And so the best thing about this book is Pat Savage not being kidnapped and holding her own most of the time. I'm happy about that and it does make the book notable, but it's hardly enough to salvage it from the lower tiers of the series. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more Doc Savage titles click here