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WesternSFA


The Munitions Master
Doc Savage #66
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 135pp
Published: Original 1938 Bantam 1971

Whew, this one was quite the ride! 'The Munitions Master' reached the public in August 1938, almost exactly a year before the start of World War II and Harold A. Davis almost kicks it off early within its pages.

This is quite the conversation piece among Doc fans, because it has one of the broadest range of responses of any book in the series. That's perhaps because, in some ways, it's one of the best novels of them all, unfolding at a rate of knots from the very first chapter and absolutely jam-packed with moves and counter-moves, traps and counter-traps, gadgets and counter-gadgets, even Doc and counter-Doc. However, it gets so unashamedly over the top that if any reader stops to take a breath, the whole thing falls apart like a house of cards, making it one of the worst novels in the series too. It's all in the perspective.

It's unusual from the outset. We start in Paris rather than New York, with Doc out in public. He isn't the first of the regular characters to appear; that's actually Chemistry, who gets a heck of a lot to do—in stark contrast to Habeas, who doesn't show up at all, apparently being homesick—followed quickly by Monk, Ham and Doc. But when Doc waves his hand and sits down to watch whatever parade is going on, a dastardly action is triggered, a rather gruesome one too. Several hundred French soldiers suddenly lose their legs. Ranks of soldiers instantly turn into "rows of fallen figures that twisted and squirmed, and from which groans and horrible noises came constantly." At least most of them are alive, because "the stubs of their legs were seared, as if from white-hot fire." Whatever sliced off part of their limbs also cauterised the wounds.

And this isn't just a terrorist act, it's a clever sheme to land reponsibility for it at the hands of Doc Savage and it succeeds wildly. The villain of the piece, who carries an overt villain's name, Carloff Traniv, and is, unusually, identified in the very first chapter, has fake gendarmes in the crowd to arrest Doc and make his guilt obvious with a simply palmed smoking gun in the form of a vial smelling like the wounds. Now Doc escapes, of course, because he's Doc, but he's promptly taken captive by a couple who are waiting for him. In their room, as he interrogates them - having turned the tables from them interrogating him - the Sûreté are at the door and the radio broadcasts Doc claiming responsibility for this atrocity and previous ones in China and Russia, as he intends to rule the world. To underline this, he even announces that he'll make a battleship vanish at a specific time, along with everyone on board. He's stitched up something serious.

Now, while it sounds like I've just summed up half the novel, that's just the first three chapters, which are very busy indeed. There are twenty in 'The Munitions Master' and the remaining seventeen are just as busy. This is surely the fastest-paced cliffhanger of a novel to show up thus far, easily outstripping the frantic ten chapters of chase scene that kicked off 'The Lost Oasis' nearly five years earlier. Entire chapters are given over to manic battles of science and wits between Doc and Carloff Traniv that unfold like grandmasters playing speed chess, but where every move is life-threatening for the man of bronze and, most of the time, for anyone else who's in his vicinity at the time.

It's also pretty brutal, with a death count that challenges any Doc thus far, not just through the destruction of that battleship, echoing similar actions in 'The Terror in the Navy', but through the response of the peoples of the world to the messages broadcast by a fake Doc, telling them to overthrow their leaders in preparation for his rule. The Paris riot that starts in chapter one is followed by many more. In chapter eight, there are riots in New York, with the feds breaking into Doc's HQ and seizing all his equipment while the public rages outside. An assortment of villagers with pitchforks and torches even burn the Hidalgo Trading Company warehouse on the Hudson!

In chapter seventeen, the world is practically at war. An unnamed power that's clearly Nazi Germany is about to declare war on Britain, Mexico is readying to attack the US, Russia is apparently invading Manchuria while Japan is invading Russia, and a number of South American governments have been overthrown. Harold Davis is certainly not messing around! He even backs Doc carefully into a moral corner where he's forced to break a long-standing vow to never kill another human being, if only to save the world. And, if you want your deaths to be up close and personal, there's a heck of a lot of that limb melting in countries around the globe and groups of people being literally cut in half.

I said an "unnamed power that's clearly Nazi Germany" and the fact that it's as unnamed as its dictator is very telling. Stalin gets called out by name, as an example of a world leader that Traniv's men are going to kidnap, operate on and use for their own ends. Hitler doesn't, though it's pretty obvious who Davis is talking about in chapter fourteen. "The little man had eyes that were psychological blowtorches. They could hold the attention of a crowd of thousands. A voice that seemed to swell from a body twice his size did the rest. That was why the little man was dictator over millions." Yeah, in August 1938, who do we think Davis is describing. You won't get a second guess and you won't need one.

So where are Doc's aides while he's playing hero/villain speed chess with Traniv? Well, Monk and Ham were in Paris when it all kicked off, so they walk themelves knowingly into a trap to save Doc. That escalates into their spending much of the book in Traniv's captivity, but they're far from passive prisoners. They fool their captors often, escape a lot and cause quite a lot of chaos on their own; Chemistry an able and willing accomplice. He's crucial at some points to their escape because simian fingers are better than their human equivalents, even when one of those humans has been described as simian in pretty much every novel thus far. Monk gets to use his ventriloquism to great effect, too.

We're told early that Johnny and Renny are somewhere in the Arctic on a joint expedition, which is far enough out that they never join the fray. Long Tom, however, is in a test clipper flying over the Atlantic, one in a close enough position to be able to check the wreckage of the USS Georgia, that battleship destroyed at the hands of a supposedly megalomaniacal Doc. They pick up the one survivor, Seaman Phelps, who's met Doc before and doesn't buy into his supposed heel turn, but is suddenly convinced when the flying machine guns that follow a successful bomb attack to pick off the survivors all had "Doc Savage, World Ruler!" written on them. You can't argue with that logic! Well, you can and should, but hey. I told you this one jumps the shark and often. At least it gets Long Tom into the story and, after he's delivered to Scotland Yard, rescued, kidnapped and taken to the munitions master's factory where everyone else is, he becomes part of the fight against him.

If I'm not taking too many breaths as I write this review, it's because I didn't take too many breaths while I was reading this book. And much of that, I think, is as much because of Carloff Traniv as because of the insane pace that Davis subjects us to. Traniv isn't just the villain of the piece; in many ways, he's kind of what Doc might be if Doc Savage were the villain of the piece. We've had master villains before, from Mongol pirate Tom Too five books into the series in 'Pirate of the Pacific', and a few that have tested Doc well, but never before one to do many of the things Doc does but with the exact opposite purpose.

He's a great brain, able to think effectively on the fly but also able to be so prepared that he doesn't have to be, just like Doc. He's a magnificent inventor, conjuring up no end of wicked weaponry for his minions to wage war with. The bombs that take out the Georgia, for instance, are said to be a hundred times as powerful again as any other the world knows. He has a well-equipped lair fitted with lots of the routine scientific gadgets that Doc has, from electrical paralysing fields to hidden photoelectric cells.

Most tellingly, while Traniv isn't himself a master surgeon, he has a master surgeon under his thumb to take a succession of human beings and, through a specific surgical procedure on the brain, change their personality to be what he wants it to be. Of course, rather than cure criminals that way like Doc's surgeons do in his clinic in upstate New York, Traniv uses it to create zombies who will follow his every instruction without thought. He even has sixteen of them walk into a fiery death, just to make a point.

I haven't even mentioned the number of times Doc surrenders to save someone else's life or just how insanely quick his quick changes have become. There's one chapter here where I swear he switches disguise three times on the turn of a dime and I wouldn't be surprised if Davis hadn't forgotten about the third occasion entirely. It isn't the only "hang on" moment here, where we read a paragraph and promptly go back a couple of pages to figure out how Davis thought it was remotely believable. I should add that Doc even disguises other people in this one, again more than once in a chapter, so the villains lose track of who anyone is and we kind of do, too. Oh, and we have secret agents, too. Let's not forget them.

But, after a quick mention of a weird timecheck—"three thirty o'clock"—I'll leave the last words of this review to the President of the United States, words that really ought to have been the tagline for this book:

"Doc Savage is the only man who might stop what the world faces," the man groaned, "and here he has to be the one behind it."

Of course, he isn't. And neither is who you think. 'The Munitions Master' is that sort of book. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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