It was November 1938. Doc Savage was taking a month inbetween his two battles with John Sunlight, the only villain to return for a sequel anywhere in the series. However, Europe was becoming fraught and, even though the United States were happy isolationists at this point, that doesn't mean that an author like Lester Dent, who was constantly plumbing the newspapers for ideas for stories, wasn't in on at least the sweep of where the world was going.
However, this novel wasn't written by Lester Dent. It was written by Harold A. Davis, who was content to distract his audiences from impending war by spiriting Doc Savage away to the jungles of the Matto Grosso, the Green Hell of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. What he conjured up here is pure escapism, perhaps a little too much escapism because he threw everything but the kitchen sink into this one. So, I'll play along but, in the back of my mind, I'm waiting for the ball to drop and reality to enforce itself, with Doc inevitably trawled into something more topical than Amazons and lost cities.
We start with the Green Death, of course, which is roughly what you might expect it to be. A tall man is chased through the jungle, hundreds of miles from a village. He's being pursued by unseen foes, but only until he stumbles upon a clearing, at which point the jungle stills, those following melt away and all sounds vanish. And he falls to the ground, dead, his skin now "a startling shade of green" and he's mummified, as if long dead. We aren't told who this tall man is but, in hindsight, it has to be Johnny, a corpse without even a chance to mutter any final sesquipedalian words.
Soon afterwards, three men stagger out of the jungle, almost starved. They're all that's left of a team of twenty that found a fabulous lost city. The papers promptly churn out other examples of explorers who sought lost cities, at least one of which is fictional, because he shows up later in the book, and at least one of which is real because he's Col. P. H. Fawcett, a British explorer whose story was recounted in 'The Lost City of Z', also recently filmed. These three quickly vanish, turning up in New York, where one of them, Frick by name, goes to visit Doc Savage, almost inevitably falling dead on the floor of his 86th floor foyer of the green death.
It's at this point that unknown third parties begin their attacks on Doc and his men; something that's continued throughout the book, with such abandon that we often find ourselves moving from trap to counter-trap without a chance to breathe in-between. This truly action packed novel is notable for its constant introduction of new dangers and for the sheer amount of people who die of those dangers, many of them at Doc's hand, even though the author is frequently keen to remind us that Doc has no intention of taking lives unless it's absolutely necessary.
Initially, it's just intrigue. As Frick lies dead on Doc's floor, Thorne is yanked in front outside, a woman screams and Frick's shirt mysteriously vanishes in the affray. Monk and Ham search for the woman on the assumption that she's a model, because the former recognised her from an ad. They find her, only to be taken down in a brawl. Doc and Renny follow Thorne and find him both dead and green. Soon the attacks become focused on Doc and his men, though. They descend to their underground garage to be shot at by a dozen men. They make it into their car, only for it to be immediately blown up, leaving ten of the hoods dead in the explosion.
They make it out, of course, because Doc has a new gadget: tanks of compressed gas ruptured by the bomb exploding up that push right back down at it. This is a true cliffhanger, because we don't know a thing about this until it happens, right at the end of a chapter, only for it to be explained quickly away at the beginning of the next. That happens constantly in this novel, as if Davis was deliberately trying to conjure up as many cliffhangers as he could.
He was certainly trying to conjure up more attacks on Doc and more deaths either at his hand or at a pretty close remove. They make it to the Hidalgo Trading Company, where they plan to leave for Brazil in Doc's dirigible. But there are two men who electrify it. Instant cliffhanger! And they both die when they try to escape Doc and fall onto the live cable. Two more for the growing death count. They make it into the air and are promptly attached by pursuit planes. Instant cliffhanger! As incendiary bullets just ricochet off the dirigible, they start dropping bombs, but Doc counters with a flamethrower that the bad guys swoop into and set themselves aflame. Two more for the growing death count! And so it goes. Instant cliffhanger! More for the growing death count.
Eventually they make it to Brazil and we think we're about to get down to business but we're actually just carrying on the traps and the countertraps and the cliffhangers with traditional jungle elements. Doc dives into a tree, which promptly contains a jungle cat. Doc dives out of a tree and is attacked by a tribe of Amazon women. Doc gets away from the Amazon women and falls into a cavern of the dead. It's not just Doc either. Blink and you'll miss Monk and Ham getting into similar shenanigans, and the pets too. Habeas Corpus leaps out of the dirigible and plummets to the ground. Chemistry follows but has a parachute. Even Renny, left behind on the dirigible doesn't escape this, because suddenly these bad guys have a dirigible too and they drop in like sky pirates to take over Doc's.
I'm all for action-packed Doc Savage adventures, but this one actually gets a little exhausting. There's one chapter where the bad guys are about to blow up the cliffs above the Amazon village, thus wiping the whole thing off the face of the jungle, but Monk, who's a prisoner at this point, gets a message to Doc on Habeas Corpus's back, so Doc escapes the Amazons himself, explodes his way through a stream filled with piranha and runs right into a giant boa constrictor. This is a relative short chapter but we're not given time to breathe.
There's another point, a couple of chapters later, where I swear to God, everything possible happens all at once and I actually looked around to see if the house was going to fall down around me because it would have been right for the moment. Doc is in a secret tunnel behind the cliffs because he needs to disarm the bad guys' explosives, but he's trapped between the gangsters on one side and Amazons on the other, protected only by the fact that he's carrying a two-foot-thick anaesthetised constrictor. He nudges it awake to appease the Amazons, takes out the lights and uses ventriloquism to prompt a bad guy vs. bad guy massacre in the dark. Invading tribesmen charge! Berserker gangsters charge! A dozen jungle cats charge, out of the blue. It all felt like a Wacky Races cartoon where all the cars end up colliding in a giant puff of smoke, except this time a tree falls and they all tumble into another of the conveniently located piranha-infested streams, generating a maelstrom of blood and gobbets of flesh. Whew.
I should pause here to take stock and point out a few things. The crew is only three this time around, because Johnny is believed dead in the Matto Grosso and, almost at the end of the book, we discover that Long Tom is in Europe, studying some new development in electricity. So it's Monk and Ham, as is traditional, plus Renny, who doesn't get to do too much this time out. Instead, Davis gives Habeas and Chemistry rather a lot to do. One minute they're parachuting out of dirigibles, the next they're diving into tough situations to save the guys. At one point, with an almost naked Monk and Ham painted in a brownish paste and leaping through the trees like apes, they bump right into twenty Chemistrys and are only saved because the one we know introduces them to Monk as a peer.
There's a bad guy, who's never obscured because he's introduced as the bad guy eight chapters in and only consolidates that role as the book runs on. There's a femme fatale, who does some dumb things on account of the fact that she's only trying to find her brother, one of those explorers who got lost in the Matto Grosso, and fell in with the wrong people in her search. There's even an honest-to-goodness Amazon princess with an aigrette plume in her hair, who alternately wants to sacrifice Doc and marry him as the only man she's ever deemed worthy. And there's a sort of a henchman, a medicine man for the Amazons who's sneakily shifting sides because he's talked another tribe into conquering the one he works for so that he can be in the one in charge for a change. All the characters we expect are here.
All the gadgets we expect are here too. We get not one but two dirigibles, one of which does a great job of pretending to be a cloud, and an autogiro, too. There are lots of bombs and all sorts of chemical shenanigans to ensure that the green death of the title has a convenient antidote. Like you weren't expecting that. The bad guy gets in on that act too, spraying Doc with a chemical which attracts local carnivores, hence that wildcat stampede into the piranha-infested stream. Just in case we thought it wasn't going to show up, Doc even gets a quick change act late in the novel, though it does whizz by so quickly, we may well miss it while we blink. Oh, and he has a rocket on his autogiro, for those moments when someone's about to blow you up and you have to get out of there sharpish.
Harold A. Davis was an inconsistent writer for the series but he was often wildly entertaining and this thrill-a-minute romp through the jungle is certainly that, even if it also tries to be everything else and a bag of chips at the same time. Most fans seem to remember this well, even sandwiched between the two John Sunlight books, and I can see why. It's impossible to be bored by this novel. It's impossible to not be caught up in the chaos of it. And, as long as we come out alive at the other end, it's impossible not to feel like we've been ridden hard and put away wet.
Now, can I take a breath?
Next month: the final book from 1938, 'The Devil Genghis', marking the return of John Sunlight, Doc's greatest foe in his officially sanctioned rematch with the Man of Bronze. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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