Category Archives: Doc Savage

Doc Savage Died Twice on the Devil’s Black Rock

Two books built around a spectacular gimmick, the second being much the better

THEY DIED TWICE starts with Doc working on a new project for the military, leaving Renny free to investigate a device that the inventor claims dredges up ancestral memories. Renny is so horrified by his ancestor’s (a Caravaggio-like brawling artist) behavior he finds a statute of him in a museum and smashes it. Doc agrees to undergo the same treatment and gets a nasty surprise: when Clark Savage Sr. discovered the Mayan Valley of the Vanished (which debuted in the very first novel, The Man of Bronze) he concealed it from his partner “Secret” Stevens instead of sharing the wealth. Guilt-ridden, Doc agrees to take Stevens to the Valley. This doesn’t make much sense as the series has always been clear Doc gets the gold from the valley only with the Mayans’ consent — it’s unlikely they’d have signed off on Stevens, and Doc wouldn’t accept taking it by force.

Of course this is just a scheme by the bad guys to get the Mayan gold. The machine just puts people into a light hypnotic state where they think the films they’re seeing represent real ancestral memories. The crooks need Doc to guide them to the Valley; this seems like one case where playing along with them was a mistake. In addition to their schemes, Doc has to deal with an elite Mayan sect that wants to cut off all contact with the outside world and figures whacking him and his aides would do the trick. It all works out in the end and Doc says goodbye to the valley and Princess Monja. They don’t reappear, though they crop up in several post-pulp stories, such as Millennium Comics‘ short run. She was the mother of Diana Savage in my own The Savage Year, even though the story doesn’t spell it out.

THE DEVIL’S BLACK ROCK is one of those that opens with a guest character, “Donkey Sam” David, a grizzled prospector who discovers local schemer Wickard Cole has played a prank on the teetotaller, switching the cigars in his pack for a bottle of rotgut. When he flings the bottle away in disgust, something rises out of the ground: “It had no shape, or rather it had a shape that changed so fast it was impossible to tell just what it was. The monster of the black stood on the Earth like by far the most awful thing Donkey Sam Davis had ever seen.”

He and Cole investigate together and discover that when the “devil” left it bored a tunnel miles deep. Cole promptly seals the hole with dynamite and begins gathering a crooked gang, something Sam spies on with interest before trying to contact Doc.  What follows has way too much stuff that just moves pieces around, like a pretty girl helping Sam who turns out to be Cole’s’s wife — no, wait, she’s the twin sister of Wade’s wife! There’s no point to that twist other than to add complications to the plot. And I’m not sure what Cole gained by sealing up the tunnels the black rock creates. However, there are lots of good bits such as guard dogs equipped with poison artificial fangs (see the cover below)

I did like Cole’s practical approach: he realizes going up against Doc Savage is a losing play, so he’s simply going to avoid the Man of Bronze until he completes his scheme, selling the black rock to the Nazis. The rock’s effects are spectacular and the ending explanation is interesting. While Dent doesn’t use the words, it’s a fissionable element that not only explodes when triggered, it causes a chain reaction that triggers fission in the ordinary material around it. This was actually a serious fear when the early experimenters split the atom, though of course it wasn’t the case (check out Richard Rhodes Making of the Atomic Bomb for details).

A sublot has the guys trying to break Monk of his susceptibility to a pretty face. They actually do (at one point he refuses to let Para’s looks sway him) though it didn’t last, of course.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin and Emery Clarke, all rights remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage: The Fiery Menace’s Laugh of Death

In THE FIERY MENACE Doc finally notices Pearl Harbor happened. He’s out of town for the first couple of chapters, trying to convince the military to let him and his team enlist. The military: sorry, you’re more valuable on the home front. Given that it would be unthinkable for a heroic American not to enlist, I wonder if this is why the book’s been ignoring the US is at war — Lester Dent couldn’t think how to keep Doc out of uniform.

The opening of this one is great. Betty Free, a stenographer, spots a body hanging in one of the chandeliers in the lobby of Doc’s skyscraper base (he’s on the 86th floor). We then get her mini-life story, which involves her vanishing from the story: she faints, screws up at her job later that day, gets fired, marries her boyfriend and then they settle down in a farming community.

After the opening? Not so much. The original title was The Lost Vampire and the guy in the chandelier, it turns out spoke of hunting vampires. And it turns out he has a hole in him — only it’s not a bite mark, it’s a hole drilled in his forehead. So calling the killer a vampire makes no sense. Neither does seeing it: the vampire is more of a blazing human torch type (the hole in the forehead is made by a kind of super-blowtorch).

It turns out the dead man hid a McGuffin in the chandelier that everyone wants. The vampire is the tool one side is using to scare the others into cooperation. The McGuffin is uninspired, a sizable horde of Nazi gold, but otherwise the war plays no role in the story. There’s also a curious statement that Doc tries to keep his 86th-floor base a secret, which makes no sense. Even if he shut down all references to it in the paper, it’s way too well established for it to become secret.

Bobb Cotter argues the book reflects Dent’s efforts to make Doc more human, more fallible, less superhuman. In the past, when Doc has trouble with the cops, it’s promptly forgotten. Here, they’re still suspicious of Doc after the events of the previous book. Some newspaper articles, instead of gushing about Doc’s awesomeness, are critical and suspicious. I’m less convinced than Cotter this is an improvement, but it works here. The book as a whole, though, does not.

THE LAUGH OF DEATH works great. We open on Doc at the Fortress of Solitude (Cotter says it’s the last time we see that secret laboratory) which just like Superman’s fortress would eventually be, is now disguised as an inhospitable ice island. Doc’s working unsuccessfully on a plastic insulated suit for the military (light yet cold resistant, but it cracks too easily), checks messages from his aides (and Pat, who’s assisting regularly due to the war effort) and learns they’re gone. For most of the book, Doc operates solo.

His adversaries have an impressive weapon, a Joker-like laugh that fills everyone who hears it with pain and terror, and often makes them pass out. The gang wielding the laugh get their orders by vinyl recordings, a prototype of the Mission: Impossible tape-recorded instructions. This keeps the boss offstage, but it gives Doc an opportunity to set them against each other: he makes a recording telling one group that they’re fired, convincing them to turn on their boss.

The police are still suspicious of Doc. In one crucial scene he’s saved from arrest thanks to a crime college graduate who intervenes. The graduates seem to be playing an increasingly large role in the stories during this period (Three Wild Men stated they’re spread across the world as a spy network)

 

Doc is definitely more human. When he gets locked in a time vault and can’t get out, he has a fit of pique and smashes things in the vault in frustration.

As in The Speaking Stone, Monk suddenly adds physics expertise to his repertoire so that he can provide the tech explanation for the laugh. I suppose it’s no more unreasonable than Johnny becoming an expert on plankton (same link). Overall, it’s an excellent yarn with an effective gimmick.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin, all rights remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage: The Three Wild Men Who Fell Up

Given we’re now halfway through 1942, I’m wondering if Street and Smith just didn’t want to tackle WW II in the Doc Savage series yet. THE MAN WHO FELL UP has Doc up against what are obviously Nazis, but there’s not a hint of America’s own war effort.

The book opens with two Brits, Rod Bentley and Tottingham Strand, approaching a mysterious building. Rod goes in and Strand sees him on a ledge, then sees him (apparently) shot. But instead of falling to the street, Rod’s body floats up into the air. Strand goes to contact Doc and the Nazi plot kicks in. We don’t learn who’s behind things until the bad guys start spouting German late in the book, though I wonder if Doc calling his adversaries “efficient” early on would have been a sign (German efficiency being a byword back in those days).

The plot involves a mysterious green fog blanketing New York, more people falling upwards and both Strand and the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Doc’s mysterious “Compound Monk.” Toward that goal the Nazis have been studying Doc’s operation for weeks. They create a fake copy of his HQ, along with Monk and Ham impersonators to keep Doc under watch. It almost works except Evil Ham explains Pat, who showed up earlier, left because she got scared. Doc knows that has to be bullshit.

Pat, incidentally, has persuaded Monk to teach her Mayan, the language the guys use to communicate without being understood.

It turns out the apparent flying corpses are actually a kind of heat-sensitive aerial mine. A balloon lifts them up in the air, then they’re drawn to sources of heat, such as plane engines. Compound Monk would improve on the current design as its super-sensitive to heat; Pat explains Doc picked the name because Monk’s always drawn to “hot numbers.”

It’s a good story with one memorable Doc gadget: he’s knocked off Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Okay, technically Dent insists the plane isn’t invisible, it’s just transparent plastic, with camouflage hiding the parts that can’t be made that way. It has the double advantage that it can’t be seen easily, and it’s easy to see out of, though smoke from the engines soon stains the transparent body.

THE THREE WILD MEN has a striking intro in which a young woman, Abba Cushing, injects Doc with some kind of bioweapon. When it turns out his bulletproof shirt protected him, she pretends it was a joke, vamps Monk and leads him into a trap. Her fabulously wealthy, politically radical father and his friends demand Monk give up the secret of the Three Wild Men, which Mr. Cushing insists is Doc’s work.

It turns out that three wealthy individuals — power broker, financier, reformer — have turned into crazy brute men, one of whom dies trying to attack a subway train. Doc is supposedly the brains behind whatever’s causing this; that it’s happening overseas in cities where Johnny, Renny and Long Tom are working just seems to confirm this. As usual for this period, there’s more than one faction competing for the secret. There’s also the FBI which takes Doc’s involvement seriously. And that’s baaaad news: the story makes it clear that being hunted by the unstoppable G-Men is about the worst thing that can happen to someone (J. Edgar Hoover must have loved this issue). Which makes it rather annoying they just sort of fade from the story instead of being involved at the climax.

It turns out Cushing is behind the process that creates the wild men (Abba didn’t know this, neither did his associates). He believes the world is in such a mess it’s going to take a wholesale, worldwide reform of the entire system; the wild men, once restored to normal, are broken enough to be malleable using their power as Cushing commands. His goals are genuinely  humanitarian, but also authoritarian (I’ve no idea how readers would have seen this at the time — Nazi allegory? Communist? Nothing at all?).

Like the FBI, the story just peters out. Doc bluffs that he’s found a way to counter the insanity treatment, so Cushing surrenders. It’s really anticlimactic. And the treatment itself is just a less interesting version of The Men Who Smiled No More,

We do learn that Doc’s “crime college” graduates are now being scattered across the world to give Doc eyes and ears everywhere. The opening has Doc talk with a Turkish contact (not a graduate) whose spy operation is secretly working for Doc. It’s a very WW II concept, I think, though I don’t remember if this network recurs. There’s also a couple of character bits such as “Doc Savage had not spoken a dozen words in the past hour, and he’d done it in a way that completely dominated the conversation.”

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage: The Speaking Stone of Pirate Island

It’s May and June of 1942, Doc Savage is having adventures in the Pacific but there’s not the slightest hint that the Pacific Theater of Operations is a thing.

PIRATE ISLE opens on a tramp steamer in the Pacific. Captain Hardgrove is the non-too-respectable captain, apparently saddled with a parrot that squawks out endearments to Mrs. Hardgrove’s lovers. Then he learns a man they recently rescued from the sea has apparently gone insane, run up the mast and pelting the crew with snowballs … despite the terrible tropic heat.

The man is actually Johnny Littlejohn, so before long Doc, Renny and Long Tom are flying to the ship (this is the rare book with no Monk or Ham, for reasons explained in the second yarn). Unfortunately so is Lord London, a ruthless pirate/mercenary whose presence on the scene fills the crew with terror. There’s a sequence where Lord London arbitrarily selects and shoots one of the passengers, just as a warning. It’s surprisingly shocking and effective. His men seize the ship, forcing Doc and his men to fight back without risking the passengers.

It turns out Lord London is after control of what he believes is a system for filtering gold from sea water (not the first time Johnny’s been entangled with one). He doesn’t realize it’s actually a system for making food out of plankton, an English project that could sustain Great Britain with North Sea plankton even if German u-boats shut down all shipping. That’s the only reference we get to the war. Johnny, who’s been faking insanity so nobody can interrogate him, was working on the system because … well, that doesn’t make much sense. “Greatest archeologist and geologist” is a skill set that has nothing to do with making food from plankton.

And the ending twist didn’t work for me. It turns out Hardgrove is the real Lord London. Before executing someone he starts talking about how sexy and handsome they are and this is what the parrot is er, parroting. While Lord London’s clearly ruthless, nothing indicated he was this loonie before. Still, the novel is an enjoyable, fast-moving story. It also leads directly into THE SPEAKING STONE.

At the opening of that one, Doc and Co. are still in the Pacific, dealing with the press ,when a man in a red vest shows up and gives Renny a small stone. It talks to him in Monk’s voice. Then the man keels over dead. So where are Monk and Ham? How did the stone speak? And why are the bad guys so hot to get hold of the stone?

It turns out this is a lost race story. Monk and Ham have wound up trapped in an Andean lost city (they don’t appear until two-thirds of the way in). After a lot of move and countermove with the bad guys — they do not want Doc reaching the city or figuring out what’s going on — we learn the stones are the city’s form of long-distance communication. The crystals pick up electromagnetic waves which allow them to transmit voice communication much further than radio (Monk suddenly displays enough physics knowledge to explain this), but after a while they degrade and repeat the last thing they heard on an endless loop. The lost city hopes to market the tech so they can grab some 20th century goodies, but their contacts in the outside world want to exploit it themselves. As it turns out, though, the stones don’t work except at very high altitudes so it’s all for naught.

The story is competent, not stellar. I did enjoy Dent riffing on the usual lost city cliches: instead of sitting in a volcanic crater or atop hot springs that keep it snug and warm, the snowbound Andean city is very, very cold. It’s a detail that gave me a chuckle.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (from Men Who Smiled No More‘s cover) and Bob Larkin. All rights remain with current holder.

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This simple trick made me much more efficient!

Ever since I started writing for Screen Rant, I’ve been getting a lot more email from the SR Google Group. As a result I’ve been spending a lot more time reading email. If work’s going sluggishly, I just take a break, check email and wind up going even more sluggishly. I’ve been trying to resist that impulse, but I’ve had little luck.

Last week I tried something new: don’t read email until the afternoon. In the morning, which is my most productive time, I check my phone to see if there’s anything I actually need to answer (rare), everything else waits. This was a big improvement, but it occurred to me that my least creative period in the work day is the 90 minutes or so before I wrap up for the day at 5pm. What if I pushed email to that last sector of the work day?

Success! I’ve slashed my mail time, and not allowing it earlier in the day keeps me from “oh well, might as well check the mail” moments. It really has helped. Even Trixie and Plush Dog are over the moon about it!

Okay, they’re actually in ecstasy because they’re rolling on a dead shrew (I think). But why quibble?

As for actual work accomplished this week —

I got in my next Screen Rant, on comic book relationships that would never fly today (adults banging teenagers, mind-controlled sex, rape played for laughs). At least I hope they wouldn’t. I’ll post a link when it’s up. Below, one example drawn by John Buscema, from when the Wasp married Hank Pym knowing perfectly well he was clinically insane at the time, because it was the only way she could get him to tie the knot.

I submitted one article (to Writer’s Digest) and one column pitch (to The Guardian), and two short stories to new magazines.

I finally started my next-to-last-draft revision of The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. I think I have the problems analyzed and fixed; we’ll see how it goes as I rewrite it. Unanticipated problems usually show up. I also I got about halfway through another draft of No One Can Slay Her. I think it’s showing much improvement.

I posted a blog entry at Atomic Junk Shop about Doc Savage as a creation of the Depression.

And I began work on my taxes. It goes much smoother if I start well in advance and do a little bit every time. I completed most of Schedule C (self-employment income) but I have yet to complete the related forms (business use of my home, self-employment tax).

I think it helped that as TYG was snowbound for Wednesday through Friday, she sits down on the couch with the dogs. And I had two scheduled events (car maintenance and dentist) that had to be postponed because of the weather. But I’ll be glad to have clear roads again next week.

Photo is mine, credit me if you use. Avengers panel rights remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage again: The Too-Wise Owl in the Magic Forest (#SFWApro)

I figured by now Doc Savage Magazine would have caught up with Pearl Harbor but no, March and April 1942 still show no signs of the U.S. at war.

THE TOO-WISE OWL starts when a disgruntled delivery boy drops off an owl at Doc’s HQ. The owl is pretty disgruntled at this too, as witness it grabs a gun in its talons, shoots out the window, and flies away (this ignores, of course, that the windows are bulletproof). Monk and Ham go looking for the owl and find him sitting with Jasper, a tween who seems incapable of saying a word without giving its full dictionary definition, and knows even bigger words than Johnny Littlejohn (whose reaction to being out-polysyllabicized is a hot). Plus of course we have various factions and a pretty girl chasing around after the owl and insisting they’re the injured party in all this.

As Doc says, it’s actually a fairly simple McGuffin hunt, but the owl makes it look as if it’s a lot stranger than that. It turns out that one of the factions, wealthy Jonathan Shair, has developed a miracle treatment, “vitamin M” (for mental) that enhances intelligence. Some of the recipients, unfortunately, are crooked, and use their new intelligence for evil (Shair ultimately realizes M’s inability to impart wisdom is a serious weakness in his dream of uplifting humanity). Their big goal is to get the vitamin M supply and Shair’s supply of its opposite, a chemical that induces stupidity.

Overall it’s a minor story, but fun. However Dent throws in a very awkward bit of added pathos: a murder victim early in the story turns out to be Oliver Brooks, the half-brother we never knew Ham had. Ham is knocked for a loop to learn his brother’s dead, but I couldn’t share his reaction — it might as well have been a stranger for all the emotional impact it has.

William Bogart’s THE MAGIC FOREST is a much weaker story. It starts out with Renny boarding a plane; unfortunately the crew and passengers are crooks, plotting to ambush Renny’s companion, so the big engineer winds up caught too. The two men are drugged and taken to “the magic forest” which appears to be a pine forest in Alaska. And someone keeps leaving tiny wooden totem poles around.

Doc, of course, steps in to investigate. Unfortunately after the lively opening things just plod along. It turns out The Magic Forest is just the name of a boat. Its owner is out to get revenge on the swindlers who ruined him by kidnapping them until he gets his money back (like The Sea Angel, but much less interesting). The totem poles are simply something the guy carves for his own amusement. Like Too-Wise Owl the plot is much less zany than the trappings, but unlike the earlier book this is boring.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage’s Other Apocalyptic Life: The Mad Goblin by Philip José Farmer (#SFWApro)

Taking a break from the regular Doc Savage series once again —

In 1973, Philip José Farmer published Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, the biography of the real person Farmer pretended Doc Savage was based on. It turns out this was his second try at that concept. In 1969, Farmer pitted the “real” Doc Savage and Tarzan — Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith — against each other in the soft-core erotica A Feast Unknown (given my distaste for Farmer’s erotica, the odds are against me reading it). He then followed up with two sequels published in the Ace double-book format (flip book, one novel on either side), LORD OF THE TREES and THE MAD GOBLIN (cover by Gray Morrow, all image rights remain with current holder).

The premise, introduced in Feast, is that Doc and Grandrith are both agents of the Nine, an immortal conspiracy that has manipulated the world for millennia. Both rose high enough in the ranks to taste the Nine’s gift of immortality, but then they turned against them. Oh, and both of them are related, descended from one of the older immortals on the council.

THE MAD GOBLIN is definitely the stronger story. Doc and the sons of Monk and Ham penetrate the lair of Iwaldi, one of the Nine who’s turned against the others. He wants to let humanity wipe itself out with pollution, after which the Earth will regrow — they’re immortal, they can wait — and train the few survivors to accept them as gods, never developing science or democracy or any of those other ideas that crippled the Nine’s powers. The other Eight aren’t so sure they’ll survive, so they’re determined to stop him. Doc and his team must fight through Iwaldi’s endless deathtraps while ducking the strike force the rest of the council has sent against the shriveled, bearded goblin.

Lord of the Trees never makes it beyond pedestrian. It’s talky and introspective and often clunky. In the opening page, Grandrith informs us it’s easy to survive a thousand foot fall, then does so (one of the better scenes); later, one of the mercenaries hunting him repeats the same arguments. I didn’t need to read them twice. Mad Goblin gets talky and slow in spots (it’s easy to see why Farmer didn’t make his name as a writer of slam-bang pulp action), but it’s balanced out by scenes like Doc battling an enraged prehistoric bear. Both books climax with the heroes teaming up, but the fourth installment, showing their final battle against the Nine, never came out.

Rereading this so soon after Apocalyptic Life it’s easy to see the double-book as a dry run for the biography. Both present the “real” Doc and Tarzan (Farmer also did a Tarzan biopic, Tarzan Alive!); both show them as related to each other, part of a superhuman lineage. They are, however, separate characters: the Doc and Tarzan of the later books are much closer to the originals, and their relationship, part of the Wold Newton lineage (explained at the link above) is different (one Wold Newton fan writer has treated the Mad Goblin world as a kind of Earth-2 to Wold Newton).

The book also shows the trait that seemed to dominate Farmer’s 1970s and later work, playing with pop-culture characters and figures from history. Along with Wold Newton there’s his dreadful A Barnstormer in Oz; his Greatheart Silver and Savage Shadow (another version of the “real” Doc Savage) stories in the Weird Heroes anthologies; and his short stories Skinburn (about the Shadow’s son by Margo Lane) and After King Kong Fell (which is very good). For history, we have the entire Riverworld series, foreshadowed in Mad Goblin by giving one of Charles II’s mistresses (immortal too) a supporting role. And an awkward one — he infodumps enough about her history when we meet her to leave me confused and looking things up online. “Put down the book mid-read and look up what he’s talking about” is not a good response to fiction.

Overall The Mad Goblin isn’t as good as I remembered it, but it’s not horrible either.

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Don’t you know there’s a war on, Doc Savage? Rustling Death and Men of Fear (#SFWApro)

This month’s two novels came out in January and February of 1942, which makes for weird reading. Understandably due to the time lag between writing and publication there’s not a single reference to Pearl Harbor. At the same time, they’re quite openly anti-Axis. Unlike the various stories the past couple of years hinting at A Sinister European Power behind everything (e.g., Devil on the Moon), THE RUSTLING DEATH and MEN OF FEAR make it thoroughly obvious which power we’re talking a about (spoiler: it’s Germany!!!).

Alan Hathaway’s THE RUSTLING DEATH (cover by Emery Clark)has a lot in common with his Headless Men, inasmuch as the villain as a cackling mad scientist (Krag) using a death ray for extortion. Instead of the heat ray of the earlier book, this one is a combination of heat with ultrasonics (causing panic in everyone in the vicinity). To Doc’s puzzlement, the price one senator has to pay for not being zapped is a string of minor bills. It turns out the bills include a dam that will benefit the bad guys.

Along with Krag, there’s the German villain. Not named as such (the Definitely Not Portuguese strategy), but he speaks a guttural mother language, has a somewhat Germanic speech pattern in English and wears a monocle. And he makes it quite clear the US is on the target list once the war in Europe is won.

There’s also a plethora of new gadgets including a throat-mike in Ham’s tie pin, a television unit for transmitting fingerprints to the government and ejection seats in Doc’s planes. It’s not a stand0out, but I enjoyed it.

MEN OF FEAR (cover by Clark again) has a great opening, when Monk, Ham and Johnny inform Doc his latest project is too risky, so they’re sitting it out. Which for anyone who knows Doc’s team is very, very weird. And their friend “Henry” has also convinced them that Doc shouldn’t risk his genius by so much adventure, so before long, they’ve kidnapped Doc. Hmm, is it possible their minds are somehow altered?

Well, of course. The culprit this time is “Vitamin F-E-A-R,” a treatment Doc worked on in conjunction with a European scientist, Prof. Jellant. After a Sinister European Power overran his country, said power’s agents came sniffing around the lab. Jellant fled to the US, but now the agents have him, and they want Doc to make large quantities of the fear-inducing formula. The leader of the enemy agents says thinks like “Sehr gut!” and there’s a reference to Jellant’s sister dying in a concentration camp.

It’s a fast-moving, entertaining yarn, and Pat gets a fair amount of action (she’s been practicing her juijitsu). Unfortunately there’s a throwaway line about how she craves action the way “a pickaninny likes watermelon.” That was painful.

I’m not sure when the magazine actually acknowledges we’re in the war, but it can’t be long.

All rights to cover images remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage’s birthday present is an invisible box (#SFWApro)

We wrap up 1941 with the war still offstage. I guess we’ll see a response to Pearl Harbor in January or February of next year.  Be warned, spoilers below.

Like Birds of Terror, November’s THE INVISIBLE BOX MURDERS (cover by Emery Clarke) reads like an old-school mystery. Men receive transparent boxes in the mail, then die mysteriously once the boxes were opened. The boxes vanish afterwards. The clues to the solution include a radium miner, someone who’s slept for three weeks straight and people buying monkeys.

As all the victims by the story’s start are associates of JP Morgan — not the famous one, a small-time financier named Joe P. Morgan — Doc exposes him to a duplicate of the boxes to see if he can get any information out of him. He doesn’t get much.

When Doc tries to stop the next murder, he fails, and then the cops lock him up. He points out he’s a deputized police officer; doesn’t help. And the facts soon stack up: his fingerprint is on a key piece of evidence; the underlings in the mob genuinely believe he’s the top boss.

While this has happened often enough in the series (Red Snow and Devils of the Deep, for instance), it’s relatively realistic here: rather than go on the run, Doc goes to jail, confident he’ll get out soon enough. Then his aides get captured and the cops refuse to investigate — obviously the capture is just part of Doc’s scheme. Doc, of course, won’t stand for that, so he busts out.

It turns out the scheme is extortion: pay up, or get an invisible box delivered to your door. The box holds mosquitoes whose probosces contain poison; the box is made of a chemical that dissolves when it warms up to room temperature.

It’s a good, nicely done mystery. Doc’s cousin Pat has a supporting part, spying on one of the suspects and reading his lips. The book includes an interesting statement that awesome though Doc is, the training regimen he underwent could easily have turned him into a villain or a madman; only the facts he actually likes danger and retains a sense of humor kept him sane. So in his eyes, it’s an experiment that should never be repeated.

PERIL IN THE NORTH (cover by Bob Larkin) has another reveal: it opens the night of Doc’s birthday. Doc has a big presentation to some high-powered officials so his aides plan to surprise him (easy to do — he doesn’t even remember it’s his day). Unfortunately Doc is distracted by another quirky mystery opening: a scientist asks him to investigate a blue dog that’s interfering with the man’s research. Doc effortlessly spots this is a scam, but he’s curious enough to go along with it.

It turns out to involve 250 people trapped somewhere in imminent danger of death. Thomas Eleanor, a fat millionaire reminiscent of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon is involved; so is Bench Logan, a Bogart-type tough guy working against his fellow tough guys to save the 250. As he assumes Doc’s heroism has to be the cover for some dirty business, he’s working against Doc too.

The secret is a riff on recent upheavals in Yugoslavia (according to Bobb Cotter) which is why one of the footnotes specifies that Mungen, former dictator of Monrovia, is an imaginary man from an imaginary country. Mungen supposedly commited suicide before being overthrown, but in reality it was just his double — the real Mungen escaped and used his ill-gotten wealth to set up as Eleanor. The 250 were on a Monrovian passenger ship with Eleanor and figured out the truth; Eleanor wants them dead to avoid his former nation’s vengeance.  It’s oddly similar to the kind of Hitler Lives! stories we’d see in pop culture after the war, including the dictator’s suicide.

In its own right, it’s a solid adventure with some great bits by Pat Savage again (she admits she likes to sneak into Doc’s headquarters with a stolen key every so often). There’s also a great speech by Monk making it clear that Doc & Co. have always known and accepted the risk of death. If they have to risk or accept it to save 250 lives, they will. And if any one of them made that call, the other five would back it to the hilt. It’s very moving, and very much the sort of thing we’d hear at the movies in the coming war years.

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The Mindless Monsters vs. The Birds of Death: Doc Savage again (#SFWApro)

Alan Hathway contributes THE MINDLESS MONSTERS which has a lot in common with his Headless Men as an army of monsters runs wild in New York. Unlike the early book, however, these horrors are real — men transformed into zombie-like warriors with superhuman strength, mindless obedience and an unfortunate tendency to age instantly when their usefulness is done.

While this probably owes something to zombie films, it also resembles The Monsters in that the villain doesn’t want to use his creations to loot but to intimidate: a few high profile, destructive capers and people will cough up the dough when he threatens to unleash his creations. Which are explained by mad science accelerating their metabolisms so that they’re using up years of their strength in short bursts (which also explains the aging).

It’s a concept that ought to work, particularly after Doc gets taken and almost enslaved, but it just never caught fire with me. I’m not sure why. It does add several new gadgets to Doc’s repertoire, such as an electric field used for security at his HQ.

THE BIRDS OF DEATH by Lester Dent worked a lot better for me, reminding of the kind of daffy mysteries the era sometimes popped out. It opens with two hoods trapping Boots Baxter, a wealthy but ugly man, by setting his pet canary loose. Fortunately Doc catches them before they catch Boots. Who admits to his servant in passing that when a woman he’d fallen for mocked his face, he ruined her father in a business deal and she’s now slinging hash in a greasy spoon. It’s a clear sign that even if he’s not the big bad, he’s probably guilty of something.

More weirdness accumulates. Lots of people have heavily calloused feet like they’d get walking barefoot in the tropics. Lots of people own canaries. Several people appear medically dead, which Doc deduces is a form of suspended animation. It turns out the answer lies in Africa so we get an overseas trip that like The Flying Goblin ignores there’s a war on. What lies at the end of the trail is a lost race that considers canaries sacred symbols (the canaries earlier in the book were just a red herring though) and has the suspended animation drug. Unlike The Green Death, though, they plan to use it as a revolutionary food preservation treatment. Instead of shipping meat, ship animals in suspended animation, then kill them on arrival. That way the meat is fresher and better tasting (oops. the treatment turns out to give meat a horrible taste).

Pat Savage shows up and gets more action than she sometimes does. First Doc asks her to stash the female lead in the case; then Pat shows up in the middle of the adventure later. She reveals that she stole one of Doc’s radio transmitters and uses it to keep track of what cases Doc is working on (which makes it surprising she doesn’t horn in more often).

Like The Flaming Falcons, this has a footnote that the chemicals Monk mixes up in one scene are real, but to avoid accidents, the publisher can’t divulge the formula. Other footnotes reference the uses of ultraviolet light for identifying minerals and the use of Native American languages as a method of encrypting Great War communications.

Overall, it’s a fun book.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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