Both stories this month are from Lester Dent’s frequent pinch-hitter, Harold Davis. Both were good entertainment, though neither one was first rank.
MERCHANTS OF DISASTER (cover by James Bama, all rights remain with current holder) is often compared to Davis’ The Munitions Master but other than one early scene (soldiers on a drill ground struck down by some unknown device, apparently suffocated) there’s no real comparison. It opens with a couple of other weird events — a hobo becomes the first victim of the mysterious death, a man with badly damaged eyes sees strange flashes through his protective glasses — and then the government calls in Doc Savage. Doc and his team have several run-ins with the death, surviving (of course) even though it negates things like gas masks and the concentrated oxygen pills Doc’s been employing since Mystery Under the Sea. Unlike the madman of The Munitions Master, the villains here have only the one weapon, but as you can guess “the oxygen destroyer” is a good one. A nice touch is that the bad guys aren’t plotting to conquer the world in any way shape or form. They’re quite literally acting as merchants, willing to sell the weapon to anyone who will pay their price — in fact, everyone who will pay their price, after which they’ll do a disappearing act before the buyers realize they didn’t purchase the only formula.
Once again reflecting the approaching war, this has attacks on the West Coast convincing officials that it’s imperial Japan’s opening act of war, followed by paranoid stories of Japanese landings or attacks around San Francisco. Just a couple of years later, those kind of warnings would be taken seriously in real life.
A minor point is that the villains’ gang all wear large watches, which are secretly designed to receive coded radio transmissions. This is worth noticing because Doc and his team use the same watches in the following adventure.
As Bobb Cotter’s book says, THE CRIMSON SERPENT is a rather Southern Gothic tale (cover by Emery Clarke, I believe, all rights remain with current holder). It opens with Renny working on a flood-control project in the Arkansas swamps. The swamp folk (every bit as primitive as the ones in Quest of the Spider) are not happy with the government coming into their turf. Neither they nor the engineers are happy when Renny’s crew keep winding up dead with the Crimson Serpent, a grotesque pattern of wounds, marked on their body.
The bad guys do their best to stop Doc getting involved, without success. Things soon get weirder, going from the dead men and strange clanking sounds to men in ancient armor who may be a lost colony descended from the conquistadors, or immortal conquistadors themselves—is it possible Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth is in Arkansas rather than Florida? No, but given Doc’s dealt with immortality formulas before, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’d been some truth to that. The climax has Doc and Co. battling through the conquistadors’ castle, which is laden with as many death traps as a good movie serial.
It turns out the bad guys have for years been using the isolated castle as the base for a counterfeiting ring; with all their equipment set up there, they don’t want to move so they’ve been trying to rile the swamp men up into killing the engineers and shutting down the project. The problem I have with this, though, is that as the swamp rats know about the conquistadors (the crooks have been scaring them off for years) it’s odd they don’t bring up these spooks sooner. Another weakness is that Davis’ description of the “serpent” never gives me a clear sense of what it looks like. Despite those flaws, a fun one.