THE SPOTTED MEN (cover by Boris Vallejo, all rights remain with current holder) opens with steel kingpin J. Henry Mason and his troubleshooter “Tink” O’Neil testing out a race bar built partly from Mason’s revolutionary new formula for a tougher, lighter steel alloy — one that has obvious military potential, as is noted later in the plot. Only the car axle made from the super-steel breaks. And Mason disappears. And a berserk steelworker shows up, fighting with superhuman strength and covered with spots.
The story that follows by William Bogart, isn’t great, but it’s reasonably entertaining. As more men run wild and a plane built from the alloy breaks too (carrying not only Mason’s daughter but her friend Pat Savage) Doc and his crew arrive on the scene. It soon becomes obvious there’s a conspiracy to shut down the factory — could it be that as in Bogart’s previous story Angry Ghost, the plot has roots in the new European war (this was a March 1940 story)? In a twist I must admit I didn’t expect, it turns out no — the real scheme is one of Mason’s relatives, plotting to shut down the steel mill, crash the company stock price and take it over for a song. It’s in the tradition of Death in Silver and other finance-centric evil plans.
The best part of the story is Pat miraculously saving the plane from a crash. Later on, Doc shows how much he cares about his cousin when she’s finally rescued. The worst part is that the plot is a mess. There’s an exact double of Mason’s daughter running around which only serves to confuse people. And while I understand Mason trying to keep the steel formula safe, there’s no explanation why he allowed steel made from the fake formula to go into O’Neil’s car and the daughter’s plane (it appears that’s the reason for them breaking up). And once again, I could figure out the masked villain because there’s really nobody else to suspect.
THE EVIL GNOME is a good one by Lester Dent, though Bantam went cheap on the cover: it’s a cropped version of James Bama’s cover for Red Snow (all rights to image reside with current holder). It opens with yet another of Dent’s young drifters, but this time it’s a woman: “Lion” Ellison, a female lion tamer currently out of work due to punching her last employer out for sexual assault. She answers an ad for circus work that seems tailor-made for her. And it is. After meeting the creepy old dude who placed the ad (the gnome of the title), Lion suddenly finds herself walking down the street. Two days later. And it appears that in the interim someone took a photo of her murdering the state governor. Fortunately she’s received a letter from her dead brother in which he references Doc Savage (whom Lion had held up as the kind of guy her weak-willed, petty-crook bro should be more like). Can he get out of whatever she’s stumbled into?
While it’s fairly obvious what the gnome’s secret weapon is — an anesthetic gas so quick-acting you don’t even know you’re under — its use in the book is really effective. In one scene, Doc and his crew catch up with one of the henchmen, who’s about to spill everything. An instant later (as far as they can tell) his head is bouncing on the floor, an axe lying next to it. Yet they didn’t see anyone!
I also like that while the killings are partly PR, they’re also partly about PR. The gnome and his crew plan to cap off their killing spree by whacking a prince who’s visiting the US to encourage American support and intervention against the Axis. Once they kill him, the gnome plans to let both sides of the war bid for their services; the winner will see the loser’s entire military and political command wiped out.
The circus angle is rationalized by several characters having known each other on the circus or carnie circuit. Mostly though, it seems an excuse for Dent to toss off a lot of circus slang, particularly in Lion’s early scenes. Lion’s skills never come into play, unlike some of Dent’s other capable female characters.
As you can tell, this is another where WW II plays a role but only in the background. It’s much more isolationist than usual: Dent’s narration speaks disdainfully of that foreign prince as trying to con the US into taking sides in the war. Previously Dent never expressed an opinion one way or the other. Was it that the pressure for intervention was becoming louder? Bobb Cotter argues another effect of the war was keeping Doc on the home front. He may have a point; I’ll look at the rate of overseas travel sometime and see if I agree.