Crazy dames and super-science: Doc Savage in The Secret in the Sky and The Roar Devil (#SFWApro)

2846283 One of the drawbacks to being a contemporary science whiz like Doc Savage is that your science gets outdated much faster than, say, the Shadow’s automatics.
THE SECRET IN THE SKY opens, for instance, with a man named Willard Spanner leaving a message on Doc’s answering machine. Dent explains it’s a combination phonograph/dictaphone that plays a vinyl recording of Doc’s I’m Not In message, records the incoming message, then prints out the time-stamp on a paper roll. I’m guessing that was cutting edge for 1935; today, it’s almost steampunk.
The same in this case applies to the mystery that opens the book: How can Spanner call Doc from San Francisco, then wind up dead in New York less than three hours later. In the days before jet planes and Interstate highways, that must have been mind-blowingly cool; today, not so much. Though it is interesting to see how Dent imagined a contemporary super-sonic flier (the spheres in the image, of course). It has engines that neutralize gravity and momentum, and a refrigeration system because friction would make it otherwise unusable. I’ve no idea if this was a Best Guess
That said, this is a solid pulp adventure. The Comet Gang is as tightly organized and high-tech as the Silver Death’s Heads, with gas bombs and sophisticated alarms that let them run rings around Doc and Co. (as with The Sea Magician, the heroes come off more down to Earth and less super-human than most of these). Plus, of course, the fliers, which allow them to raid anywhere in the country, then escape back to base (no radar so no way to track them). The only flaw is the villain’s unmasking—I honestly don’t think his actions made sense in retrospect.
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The gimmick in THE ROAR DEVIL, by contrast, is more impressive for style than substance. It’s a mysterious eerie Something that generates deafening roars, also creates utter silence across a quarter-mile area, and makes the Earth shake. While the explanation does involves super-science, it’s nowhere near as spectacular a device as it looks going in.
What makes the book memorable is Retta Kenn, Lester Dent’s version of the madcap socialites so popular in 1930s comedies. Only his version is a wealthy woman with a taste for trouble who scratches her itch working as investigator/troubleshooter for a crime-solving criminologist (she’s the Archie to his Nero Wolfe, the Hawke to his Spencer).
Retta is Doc’s sister Pat Savage turned up several notches. She’s totally unfazed by danger, can bluff or fight her way out of a tough situation, can shoot well and wriggle out of ropes and fights Renny well enough to blacken his eye. She actually cracks Doc’s stoic demeanor, which takes some doing; in fact they find each other so obnoxious that in any other series they’d have been making out next issue (she broaches the idea with Monk, who discourages her). That said, her pushy manner does get overbearing at times, and her refusal to listen to Doc near the finish precipitates a big fight scene where he’d planned a nonviolent takedown. If Dent was trying to hold her up as a bad example (and I doubt he was—Doc’s guys have made their share of mistakes) he blew it. She’s awesome.
In series notes, both novels show Doc able to memorize fingerprints and footprints for future identification. Roar Devil equips Doc’s men with specialty bullets such as knockout or tear gas (Doc never carries a gun himself).
It’s a good month for rereading the series.
(Covers by James Bama and William Baumhofer, all rights with current holder).

6 Comments

Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

6 responses to “Crazy dames and super-science: Doc Savage in The Secret in the Sky and The Roar Devil (#SFWApro)

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