Doc Savage hops genres: The Sea Magician and The Annihilist (#SFWApro)

The next two Doc Savage novels feel very different to me from the previous ones in the series. Of course, one of the advantages of writing Doc Savage is that it had a great deal of flexibility. We’ve already seen lost race stories, crime thrillers and stuff that’s SF even by current standards.
I remembered The Sea Magician as a mundane crime thriller with an uninspired fake spook (King John’s ghost stalking the British coast) but it’s actually very good. It opens with Johnny—in England lecturing during the previous Death in Silver—bored stiff with academia so he happily starts investigating reports of a murderous ghost in the part of England known as the Wash. Unlike The Squeaking Goblin, it’s obvious immediately the ghost is a fake, but Johnny gets captured anyway. When Doc shows up for a lecture of his own with Monk and Ham in tow, we’re off on an adventure to find Johnny and find what’s behind it. How does it involve royal treasure, engineering machinery and a privately owned island?
This feels less like a regular Doc Savage adventure and more like a non-series pulp tale. Doc doesn’t play a large role (Monk gets the big action scene and it’s a doozy), the female guest-star doesn’t swoon over him (they don’t run into each other until the end) and the bad guys surrender to the cops instead of getting blown up by their own devices. It’s a good pulp tale, though I’m not sure the bad guys’ scheme makes sense (even given British taxes, wouldn’t a fabulous lost royal treasure put more money in their pocket than raw gold?). And as Monk notes, nobody gets killed in this one.
Of course The Annihilist makes up for that. In the first chapter alone, eight people die or have died of the “pop-eyed death,” which is just what it sounds like, an agonizing, inexplicable death that includes having your eyes bulge out of your head. It’s so horrifying, even Doc looks shocked when he sees it (and if there’s one thing you can normally count on, Doc never shows his emotions). The book feels more like one of the horror pulps than the usual Doc Savage tale—there’s even a graphic torture scene I remembered vividly from my first reading.
It soon becomes obvious that in some fashion this relates to Doc’s Crime College, where he turns criminals into law-abiding citizens. This was originally explained as the result of psychotherapy; here the loss of moral sense that leads to crime is the result of a glandular disorder (The Purple Dragon, some years later, would go for brain surgery). It turns out that the mysterious “Boke” is very interested in finding the college but what’s his agenda? And who are the other hoods working against him? And who is the Annihilist we learn midway through the book is responsible for the pop-eyed killings?
It’s a good one, and it doesn’t hurt that Pat Savage returns, going undercover to gather information for Doc and kicking some butt when she’s caught.
Culturally, there’s the now-jarring moment in which we learn that while the Annihilist targets criminals, they’re not all “heinous”—why, one guy died when all he was doing was beating his wife! There’s also a key character among the crooks who’s quite obviously gay, even though it’s not spelled out (a more minor villain is identified as mulatto, which must have had more impact for a 1930s audience than it does now).
I do wonder if Dent conceived of doing a crime college story when he started the series, as it’s mentioned early on, or if he just thought it added to Doc’s stance as a superman among pulp crimefighters. Doc’s Fortress of Solitude got mentioned a lot in the early stories and it wouldn’t play a major role in a tale until 1938.
In case you’re wondering, these two stories bring us through the end of 1934 in the series. 1935 awaits.


Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

15 responses to “Doc Savage hops genres: The Sea Magician and The Annihilist (#SFWApro)

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