Doc Savage: The fearsome czar of the Phantom City

After 10 months of writing Doc Savage, Lester Dent has a basic formula down pat. Someone shows up in New York seeking Doc’s help. The bad guy tries to capture them before they can reach Doc, or after they meet Doc but before giving him more than a cryptic message (occasionally they’ll try to take down Doc himself). It’s not a fixed set-in-stone formula—The Sargasso Ogre doesn’t follow it, for instance—and it’s a workable one.
Other details wear less well when reading regularly. I can understand Dent explaining Doc to us every time, but I have less patience for explaining Monk and Ham’s nicknames. That said, Dent does show flashes of style in his writing as he goes along. In the opening of The Czar of Fear, there’s a description of a young man sitting sideways on a diner stool so that he can watch the front door. He’s gulping down a sandwich without tasting it and swilling coffee with just as little interest. It captures how frightened he is of the Green Bell.
Czar (cover art by James Bama, all rights with current holder) actually has two parties heading to the Big Apple to see Doc. One is a trio from Prosper City which has been plunged into poverty by the mysterious Green Bell. A mix of labor agitation, threats and financial power have closed the town’s businesses, leaving everyone unemployed, and the trio want help. The other party is a businessman and agent of the Green Bell, who assumes Doc is a thug-for-hire he can easily put on his payroll. Any guesses which side Doc signs up with?
As my friend Ross says, this comes off as such a blatant Depression metaphor it would be interesting to know what readers made of it at the time. Doc saves the day at first not by busting up the hoods but buying the businesses (with a promise to sell them back), re-opening them and putting the town back to work. The villain, we eventually learn, plots to take over Prosper City’s business sector, then go national, paying for his purchases with the millions he made selling stock short in the stock market crash.
That said, this is a good one with Doc’s most comic-bookish villain to date (though of course comic book supervillains were more than five years in the future). It’s the first time he’s hunted by the cops (framed for murder by the Green Bell’s agents) and I suspect the last time he uses his finger-tip thimbles with the knockout drugs: They only appear briefly here and not at all in the next book.
This is also the first not to give equal roles to all five of Doc’s aides: Ham spends most of the book fighting off the murder charge in New York.
Speaking of which, The Phantom City is the first of a number of lost race stories in this series. A beautiful, exotic blonde woman seeks Doc’s help, pursued by a Middle Eastern crimelord convinced the title lost city holds fabulous wealth she can lead him to. The villains want Doc’s submarine, Helldiver (from The Polar Treasure) to reach the city by subterranean river. On arrival, Doc and co. face the usual thrills (killer ape men!) before settling the bad guys’ hash.
It’s not bad at all, but it’s not first-rate. The Lost Oasis had a Middle Eastern setting but it was a lot more entertaining.
The book does have two introductions of note, however. While in Arabia, Monk picks up a pet pig he nicknames Habeas Corpus to needle Ham (Ham’s nickname relates to being framed for stealing a ham during WW I). And instead of regular guns, Doc’s men are now armed with machine guns that shoot drug-laden mercy bullets—no killing, just unconsciousness. Makes me wonder if Dent dropped the finger-tip thimbles because these generate more action with just as little bloodshed.


Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

7 responses to “Doc Savage: The fearsome czar of the Phantom City

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