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WesternSFA


Mad Mesa
Doc Savage #71
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 167pp
Published: Original January 1939 Bantam January 1972

Doc's still with us as we roll into the new year of 1939 with very few hints that the various authors of the series have noticed what's going on over the pond in Europe. I'm sure they had, of course, but, so far they'd kept it out of their pulps, a sole appearance in 'The Munitions Master' by the dictator of an "unnamed power that’s clearly Nazi Germany" five months earlier. It's going to be interesting to see at what point they realise that wartime changed what many people wanted to read. While the US did not join the fray when war began in September 1939, many Americans did, and perhaps that was all it took. We'll see.

And we'll see quickly, as it turns out, given that Lester Dent mentions both Hitler and Mussolini right there on page one. He's describing the experience of young Thomas Idle, which is so strange that it's not easily believed and wouldn't have been even had it happened to one of those famous gentlemen. I loved this experience, though Tom Idle didn't, and I appreciated Tom too. He's a good character and it's a shame that he doesn't get a good coda. Of course, he won't be back, because characters in this series tend not to ever return, even if John Sunlight just did a month earlier in 'The Devil Genghis'.

Here's what happens to Tom. He's a poor farmboy from Missouri trying to find a job in Salt Lake City. He lives on a park bench but he keeps it clean so the park cop is on his side and thinks day four will be his lucky day. He eats "sinkers and java" at Skookum's but the proprietor gives him ham and eggs, too; on account. Pay when you get that job. They sure are nice folk in Salt Lake City. Except that, the next day, he wakes up on his bench and realises he's not wearing his own shoes. Or necktie. Or suit. Or, get this, face. He's apparently turned into another person, Hondo Weatherbee. Skookum recognises him and starts shooting. Officer Sam Stevens tries to club him down. And, after a rescue by a mysterious man in black gloves who races them out of town with the cops on their tail, the next day he wakes up in a cell in the Utah State Penitentiary. Where he's apparently been for eleven years.

This is a serious mystery and it's a fantastic way to kick off a new Doc Savage novel. Lester Dent takes his time with it too, spending two chapters with the setup; another in prison where Tom discovers the existence of Doc Savage and sends him a letter through his sister in Missouri; and a fourth with Nona Idle on the bus to New York to meet the Man of Bronze, only to be waylaid in Columbus, Ohio by a man in black gloves who spikes her drink and spirits her away, supposedly to a hospital, when she collapses.

We don't meet Doc or any of his men until chapter five, when Doc gets Tom's letter, sent on ahead by Nona. Monk hands it to him. Renny walks in with a "Holy cow!" and almost starts in on the Ham/Monk banter for a moment. They pick up Ham at the warehouse on the Hudson and fly to Columbus, where Long Tom and Johnny join them, with Habeas and Chemistry. We have a full slate of companions this time out! Not that they really get much to do. The pets aren't mentioned again and the five aides do one memorable job before being suckered and trapped and shifted off-screen for most of the book.

In many ways, this is close to being a solo adventure for Doc, with his most frequent assistant being Tom Idle, who gets better and better as the book runs on. I don't think anyone new, except bad guys, has had such a big part since Sagebrush Smith in 'The Pirate's Ghost' nine months earlier. That was a Lester Dent novel too, so I wonder if he enjoyed mixing it up every once in a while. Smith hasn't been back since, but at least he got a memorable final scene, challenging Doc to a shooting match. If only Tom had got something similarly memorable.

What struck me this time out was how leisurely the prose felt. While the novel is no longer than any other, it feels like Dent was taking his time, building a set of mysteries and allowing Doc to follow on in a sort of procedural vein. This isn't action-packed move and countermove like so many Doc novels, it's a fantastic mystery that's gradually unravelled and I appreciate that. Sure, the explanations are rather conveniently inserted in monologue for characters to overhear and us to pick up on as well, but they're well-staged mysteries and rational explanations.

I say mysteries plural because there are others that go beyond Tom Idle waking up on a park bench as someone else entirely. Doc manages to orchestrate a scheme that gets him into the penitentiary too and that leads to a locked room mystery, in which a prisoner is murdered in solitary confinement. His aides get into another one, their quiet observation of three hoods on a train while wearing expected disguises and their subsequent comedic cab chase through Salt Lake City leading them onto a freight train that vanishes into thin air: an engine, eleven box cars and a caboose.

Most of the expected components of a Doc Savage novel are here, regardless of how smoothly it all unfolds. There's bickering between Ham and Monk, though not a lot of it because they're off-screen for much of the novel. The other aides arrive with all their recognisable catchphrases right on their heels. Doc manages to be someone else for a while and to impersonate someone else again through the use of his voice - and that character's wife. He's nothing if not versatile. His aides are also tasked with wearing disguises, for the scene right before being captured, means that they technically spend the majority of the book looking rather unusual:

"At the station, there was at once a furious scramble, and the two porters, the old lady, the bony man with the white whiskers, and the big black news butcher all landed in a taxicab."

Yes, that's Monk and Ham as the two porters, both "as black and shiny as Concord grapes". It's Long Tom in drag for a change, as the old lady whose "face looks bony and unhealthy". Renny plays the big black news butcher, "with a bundle of magazines under his arm and a tray containing candy, cigars, cigarettes and toys slung around his neck by a strap", which means that Johnny is the "very tall, very thin man with flowing white whiskers, and who walked with a pronounced stoop."

What's missing are gadgets. Sure, they fly to Columbus in one of Doc's planes, but there are precious few gadgets in play for almost the entire novel. Unless I missed one, the only obvious example is the radio gadget that the aides secrete in the cab they're following through the streets of Salt Lake City so they can listen in from their own. Doc certainly doesn't have any in prison, so has to rely on his wits and his voice to get out of a succession of jams. It's only after his inevitable escape and return to the hotel they'd planned to use as a base of operations that he picks some up and we finally see some old-fashioned anaesthetic globe action fifteen chapters into a book with only twenty of them. He doesn't have truth serum, though, and the hoods he catches don't want to talk.

I appreciated all these approaches, except the blackface which does get old. I appreciated everyone showing up but then mostly getting sidelined so Dent can focus more on Doc, a new character who's worthy of the attention and a patiently unfolding mystery. I appreciated the attention given to wits over gadgets and traditional detective work over sudden revelations. I appreciated the villain, that man with the black gloves, who may be dastardly but also sharp. I appreciated the fact that the only character with a wild name doesn't actually use it; Big Eva is Big Eva because his full name is Everett Houndchased and he clearly thinks that's as ridiculous as we do.

I also appreciated the final location, the Mad Mesa of the title, so named because it's four thousand feet high with steep cliffs all around and a scientist spent years trying in vain to get on top of it. Why he didn't just use a helicopter, I have no idea; but maybe he was mad. It's an island nowadays too, in a seventy-mile-long reservoir created by the introduction of a dam. And I appreciated why we end up there, the core of the mystery turning out to be both fantastic pulp material and down-to-earth greed. I'm fond of another location here, a coal bed that's been burning for decades that sounds incredibly like Centralia, though that's in Pennsylvania rather than Ohio and didn't catch fire until 1962, a couple of decades after this novel was written.

The most unusual aspect to the novel shows up around Mad Mesa too, because it's how the bad guys get their inevitable comeuppance. Traditionally, because Doc Savage doesn't like to take the lives of others, they meet their demise at their own hands through cunning application of karma. This time, that doesn't happen, and it's all Monk's fault. He's trying to do the right thing, but miscalculates the chain of events he's triggering and so ends up inadvertently sending the villains to their grave.

There's not a lot worthy of note from a series perspective. There's mention early on that every letter and package that arrives at Doc's headquarters is X-rayed for explosives and tested for poisons. With irony, Nona's arrives as Doc's in his laboratory trying to find a cure for the common cold, but the only thing he catches is one himself, even though it's mysteriously forgotten about from that moment on. Doc flies a couple of people to his upstate New York college, to become law-abiding citizens, but only one is an actual crook. The other is a Columbus waitress, who witnesses Nona's abduction and has an offer made at the time to earn a quick fifty dollars by letting the villain know if Doc Savage shows up. She does so and that's apparently enough to get her that reeducation trip. That's tough.

There is a little slang to explain. "Sinkers and java", Tom's breakfast of choice translates to doughnuts and coffee, presumably because the former tend to be dunked into the latter. The one I can't explain comes on the freight train on which Doc's aides have been trapped. Before they realise this, they're a little worried about being caught by an employee of the railroad:

"What if you meet somebody?" Ham demanded.

"We'll say we're brakemen."

"And what if it's a brakeman you meet?"

"To you," Monk said, "the fruit of the peanut bush."

Clearly this means something, but I have no idea what. Googling that term returns only seven results and three of those are Doc Savage novels, not only this one but Lester Dent's next entry in the series, March 1939's 'The Freckled Shark'. As peanuts are also known as "goober peas", I wonder if "goober" plays into this explanation, but maybe that's a stretch.

And so I'll wrap this one up by pointing out that it's a strong Doc novel in my eyes and a near perfect introduction to the series for someone who hadn't been along for the ride for the previous six years, because everything and everyone is notably explained; because every aide is here and characteristic; and because they vanish pretty quickly so we can focus on the Man of Bronze himself.

See you next month for 'The Yellow Cloud', penned by the first new writer introduced to the series for almost three years, Evelyn Coulson. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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