For some reason, 'The Giggling Ghosts' hasn't been remembered particularly well by the legions of Doc Savage fans. Sure, it's far from the best novel in the series thus far and I could name a couple of dozen I prefer, but it's not a bad book and it also features what may well be the most believable plot thus far and that has to count for something.
Then again, maybe that's the problem. This came out in July 1938 and Lester Dent might have been seeing things on the horizon that would force a change in how Doc operated, moving away from fantastic stories of superscience towards more realistic stories. If so, I can't argue with that and I appreciated the more down-to-earth approach.
It doesn't seem down-to-earth when it starts out. Miami Davis is a young lady trying to figure out what's going on with giggling ghosts in New Jersey and she's infected with a giggling fit for her troubles. Refreshingly for someone living close to New York, she has no idea who Doc Savage is but she's sent to him and discovers that somebody isn't keen on her getting to him, attempting to hijack the elevator up to the 86th floor.
That doesn't work, because Dent expands the detail of the Doc Savage world a few times here, one of which is a sort of dead man's switch for his elevator operators that has the lifts rise to the top floor if they're not continually pressed. Five minutes later, Doc uses a box-like gadget that allows him to talk on the phone without any sound escaping into the surrounding room. Sure, this is gadgetry, but it's believable.
This is also a book where all of Doc's aides, sans Pat, show up and actually get things to do. Dent, well experienced now in how they can trip over each other, introduces them to us slowly to help with that. Monk and Ham show up quickly in chapter four, battling as always, and Habeas and Chemistry are right on their heels. Johnny shows up much later, in chapter nine, where he actually gets to use his knowledge of geology for once. Renny and Long Tom arrive a chapter later still.
I should mention that all three appear and get busy during a period with Doc absent, as he's supposedly blown up in his car on a bridge in chapter seven. Sure, we know that he has surely set up that expectation and he's doing something somewhere with the crooks thinking he's dead, but he's gone from this novel for a long while, not returning until a breath away from chapter thirteen. I liked that too. It gives his aides some opportunity to emerge from his shadow.
The plot is a relatively simple one, but it takes a while to fully come to light and to be rationalised away from the sensationalism. After all, a whole bunch of people across an area of New Jersey have been reporting giggling ghosts. The giggling spreads and gets serious, some people dying of it. Eventually it's discovered to be caused by a gas that's apparently been freed from underground by an earthquake, though we know that that was faked because we watch it happen. But why? It take us a while to figure that out.
I also like how Dent eventually rationalises it, which I won't spoil but will point out has ties to a number of real events, which he manipulates in time for purposes of effect. The first is the opening of the Holland Tunnel, a twin-tube tunnel that extends underneath the Hudson River from Canal Street in Manhattan to Jersey City, New Jersey. It opened in 1927. Another is the World's Fair that was held in New York in 1939, a year away at the time Dent wrote this.
One thing I didn't like was that the bad guy, Batavia, who's a very believable hood who hires all the other bad guys and orchestrates most of what we see in the nitty gritty of this novel, is the only one of them to be named and that gets frustrating. Sure, he does introduce his boss to his men, though we don't necessarily believe it because that never happens in Doc Savage novels, but that's it. Everyone else happens because "a man" did this or "the man" did that and it really wouldn't have hurt Dent to throw in a few more names.
Then again, when he does name characters, they're as traditionally ridiculous as they've been in the past. There are three candidates for the role of Batavia's boss, a mastermind to be unmasked at the end. All of them have three names, because of course they do. The one Batavia identifies is an inventor called William Henry Hart, the most normal name of the three. Then there's a geologist called A. King Christophe and, most outrageous of all, a real estate magnate called, I kid you not, Birmingham Lawn. Where did Dent come up with these names?
At least he keeps us guessing as to which of this trio is the true villain of the piece and he uses a neat mechanism to help him. He gives each of them a medallion, the size of an English penny, which at the time was about twice the size of an American cent. These are keys to safe houses where Doc is hiding out, using magnetism to open the front doors. I had no doubt that it was all a setup to figure out who would do ill with that knowledge, but Dent handles it all well.
I liked a lot of little details too, where Dent gets a bit edgier than normal and when he opens up a few characters in ways we haven't seen before.
For the former, there are a few examples to raise. One has Batavia run Doc's limousine into the Hudson, with both Habeas and Chemistry inside. Sure, they don't get to do one thing here except appear to die a horrible death (spoiler: they don't), but it's a scene to remember.
Doc uses a similar immersion tactic for his own benefit, imprisoning a couple of goons in his diving bell and dropping it in the river, where it promptly leaks. On his return to the Hidalgo Trading Company warehouse, he pulls it back up apparently in the nick of time, only to reveal that they were in no danger at all. It was just psychological torture. When they balk at spilling the beans, he threatens to put them back in without safety measures and the job's done.
The final edgy scene to highlight has Doc trying to rescue Monk, Ham and Miami Davis from Hart's rooftop penthouse. The protection within the building means they can't get in the normal way, so he flies an autogiro up and deliberately crashes it onto the roof. It's a ballsy entrance and it actually works, though he ends up swapping three prisoners for three others.
As to the opening up of characters, I found that I appreciated Monk and Ham's banter in this book a lot more than usual. What's more, Monk gets to deliver a line that I've been waiting to hear all the way through this series, one that's all the better for arriving in his speaky voice. Yes indeed, it's "What's up, Doc?" It's timely too, because Bugs Bunny would introduce it himself only two years later, in the 1940 cartoon 'Wild Hare'.
I also liked how the best line used against either Ham or Monk is delivered by someone else, a random thug in Batavia's organisation, who calls Monk "a gimlet-eyed baboon", but the best moments are reserved for surprising instances of humility. With the three possible suspects each becoming the most likely at some point, Monk realises too late that he assumes by reaction every time, eventually owning up to it, with a confession of "I jump at conclusions too quick!" Only a chapter later, Ham and Monk agree with each other in an occasion so rare even Dent calls it out as special, but it's to both to own up to being played for a sucker.
I'll wrap up by raising a fantastic expression that wouldn't be appropriate today. It's in a line of Renny's. He's been watching Hart when Johnny asks if he's done anything at all suspicious. Renny replies, "Heckno! He just bounces around like the Irishman's flea. I never saw a guy do more work than he's done!" This comes from a proverbial story, oft told, in which the Irishman's flea is not easily found. "When you put your finger on him he isn't there."
What will be there next month is the Doc Savage novel for August 1938, 'The Munitions Master', which is the first of two in a row for Harold A. Davis, on his way to writing five of the twelve 1938 books. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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