This month’s Doc Savage tales both fall into the toned-down, conventional pulp thriller category like The Sea Magician, though that’s a subjective estimate as Doc’s still impressively formidable.
DEVIL ON THE MOON was the first Doc Savage I read, and blew me away at the time. Much less so now, but it’s still an entertaining yarn where Doc and his team stay out of the picture for several chapters. Instead, we focus on the bad guys, working for what turns out to be a “strong arm operation” on an international scale. As we learn mid-book, they were hired by a sinister foreign power (certainly not Portuguese) that annexed its neighbor, then stirred up a colonial uprising overseas that distracted a rival European power from taking action (I’m guessing we’re supposed to hear “Germany” and “Great Britain” as the players). The Sinister Power didn’t pay off, so the operation has launched a scheme to make them regret it.
As it turns out, Doc’s been on-stage from the first, but in disguise, as Behemoth, a musclebound member of the gang. We also see some of Doc’s men, but from the bad guys perspective—it’s a while before we start seeing things from Doc or Monk’s POV. This approach works well, and I love the concept of the gang’s MO and plans. However the hook that gives the story its title—that the operation has a lunar base for holding prisoners—isn’t that strong, partly because it’s not a very convincing fake (maybe it would have worked better back in the pre-Apollo days of the 1930s). And this is another where the villain is unmasked as a complete nonentity.
A minor curiosity is that while one of the supporting characters is a munitions merchant who sells to the bad guys (a reverse-Rick Blaine who equipped Italy in Ethiopia and Japan in Manchuria, for example) but turns out, in the context of the story, to be good, or at least innocent. He even lands the pretty girl at the end.
THE PIRATE’S GHOST also takes a long time to bring Doc and the team in, and when they do they’re seen through eyes of Sagebrush Smith, a cowboy who’s read about Doc but refuses to believe he’s all that (he learns, of course). Smith is wandering the desert near the dude ranch where he works when he encounters a dying, seemingly mad scientist who asks Smith to get the man’s invention to his daughter and Doc Savage in New York. Smith agrees and, of course, finds himself in danger.
Just as there’s no man on the moon in the first book this month, so this has no ghost. It turns out the invention is designed to receive and translate the voices of the dead among radio static (a popular theory—as Doc notes, Edison tried using radio to communicate with the afterlife). Doc is surprisingly emphatic that this is not outside the realm of science—doesn’t the Bible prove that life after death exists?
The ghost radio ends up in the hands of a smooth-talking shyster with a fondness for gadgets, such as a fountain pen that writes in different color ink and a cigarette case that includes a built-in barometer. This gives the book an edge over Devil, which had no particularly colorful characters. After a couple of successful ghost contacts which expose various crimes, the device picks up on the title’s ghost, a pirate captain who wishes to atone for his sins by steering people to his buried loot, which can then be used for charity.
This turns out to be a scam, and despite the tech a conventional one (any medium in a mystery novel could have done the same). The goals are surprisingly modest compared to some of Doc’s foes, only a few hundred thousand dollars. That said, it’s well executed and Doc really gets put through the ringer by the end of the book. Other than one unpleasant element (Doc plays a stereotypical, shuffling “darky” for a few scenes), this one gets a thumbs up.