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WesternSFA


The Motion Menace
Doc Savage #63
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 124pp
Published: Original 1938, Bantam September 1971

While most sources list W. Ryerson Johnson as having written 'The Motion Menace', it seems that Lester Dent rewrote it completely, scrapping everything but the central idea and the title, so this turns out to be a Dent novel rather than a Johnson. That rings true because much of what's best about this is quintessential Dent but some of what's worst about it too.

While the bad is really bad, fortunately there's a lot more good and that starts right at the outset, with the first regular character introduced being Pat Savage. She's borrowed a plane from Doc and is touring the Orient under the name of Enola Emmel (which, the bright-eyed among you will have already realised is Lemme Alone backwards).

She's also trying to find a man named Capt. Cutting Wizer, because, when he was last in New York, he created some fantastic dermatological machines for her and she wants him to make more. Instead, she accidentally sparks a plane like hers to be destroyed because the Elders think that Doc has sent her to investigate them. It's a great start to the book and, in case we hadn't realised how much happens within it, Ky Halloc gives voice to our thoughts: "This" he said, "is just the first chapter."

The Elders are cool and unlike any villains in the Doc mythos thus far. They're generally old, wear white beards and are quietly polite. When they kidnap Pat, they apologise for blindfolding her and keep quiet when she upturns a canoe in a failed attempt to escape. They work for the traditionally mysterious mastermind behind everything, who goes by His Highness. Oddly, the villain is at so far a remove throughout this book that I forgot he was even in charge.

Next in the string of positive aspects to 'The Motion Menace', things get really busy in New York and they stay that way for quite a while, this being the fastest paced and most urgent entry in the series in quite some time. Put simply, a newspaper syndicate wants a story on Doc and is paying everyone they can find to get tips, which means that Doc is a harried man even before the mysterious force starts in on him. This kills anything living and stops anything mechanical. And the Elders are everywhere, it seems, including in a fourth floor room Doc escapes into, ready to grip his arm and foot so hard that even his phenomenal strength can do nothing except be bruised.

For at least five chapters and arguably quite a few more, Doc's on the run and only one step ahead of certain death. At one point, having made it to Monk's laboratory, he sees what's about to happen and screams "Run!" When Doc does this, we pay every attention we have because this is serious. The Elders are right behind him at every move and, the more time passes, the more important they seem because their reach is everywhere. The cops giving Doc an escort to the airport? Fakes working for the Elders.

Eventually we get to a Preparation Area, which highlights that the Elders aren't just big in New York. They have other Preparation Areas around the globe, in Berlin and Tokyo, and they're busy. An international banker called Viscount Herschel Penroff is caught up with them and he's another polite but very cold villain. He has Monk tortured and it's a very daring and close rescue that allows Doc to get him out, along with Ham, Long Tom and the two inevitable pets. Renny and Johnny are out of the country, working on their own things, and they don't appear here.

One negative to concentrating on breakneck pulp action in New York is that Pat, here at the very outset, vanishes for most of the book, kept captive somewhere in Manchuria. A great first chapter for her prompted to hope that this might be the book where she gets a real opportunity to shine. She does in the end, but not to the degree that I wished for.

The middle section of the book is magnificent, real cat and mouse stuff between Penroff and Doc, with a frequently disguised Long Tom in the middle. By the way, we've been to Monk's penthouse laboratory before, but we get the opportunity to visit Long Tom's in this episode, which is underground; it was previously a wine cellar. He masquerades as a blind man at this point, but he's a radio operator during the best parts, on a round-the-world airship Petroff is using to get to Manchuria. The back and forth here is a glorious thing to read, with Penroff realising A but Long Tom persuading him B, Penroff finding out A through a cunning trap, but an equally cunning plan then convinces him of B...

Eventually we get to Manchuria and things aren't quite as solid. The mysterious science at the heart of the novel is cool and we start to figure out what's happening here, but it starts to descend in quality from there. This science manifests most memorably as a sort of invisible wall, which moves and captures. That's why planes stop in mid-air and fall to the ground. It's why bullets do the same thing when fired towards it. And it's how Monk and others are captured again, when a circle of invisible wall surrounds them and closes in.

Sadly, while the elders are cool, Capt. Wizer is one of Dent's poor stereotypes, this time a "Minnesota Svede". His accent is inflicted on us in the second chapter, with lines such as "It yust bane too bad" and "Vhen he come, Ay bane try to see you dont die." It seems that every line has to include the word "bane" and it's a rare one that doesn't include a Y for a J: "Yumpin' Yiminy! Ay have never seen two such yiggers!" Fortunately we don't have to suffer through Dent's take on Chinese for long, as he settles for one of his awful pidgins and R/L swaps with "You fella velly welcome" and "Make tlacks."

I'm not even going to get into the superscience, because it's gibberish, yet another wild theory manifested in a powerful weapon that almost allows the Elders to take over the world but which we're now going to forget about forever. Doc even points out that the American government has a place where it stores this sort of thing so nobody can use it for ill. That's not worrying at all, given what's going on in the news right now. No, sir.

I was surprised to see Doc praising OGPU here too, the secret police of the Soviet Union, even though the Soviets weren't America's enemy in 1938. After all, they'd operated the gulag system since the twenties. It's interesting to see that Doc has an in with them too, presumably because he's done them an important favour the way he did one for the New York Police Department.

I also won't point out who His Highness is, not to avoid a spoiler but because he doesn't really do anything as His Highness here and there's only one possible candidate for the role anyway. I rumbled him immediately and kept wondering if another character would be added at some point to change that thinking, but in vain. He's a cheap villain too, an almost nonentity who hides behind a curtain in his own lair like the Wizard of Oz and is given a far too convenient off-screen demise.

So there's a lot here to like—plenty of breakneck action, some wonderful cat and mouse stuff with the only worthy villain of the piece, an opportunity for Pat—but it falls apart because of a disappointing last couple of chapters. But hey, it has an airship. That's all I need to give it bonus points!

Next up are another couple of Lester Dent-penned novels, starting with 'The Submarine Mystery'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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