Doc Savage’s birthday present is an invisible box (#SFWApro)

We wrap up 1941 with the war still offstage. I guess we’ll see a response to Pearl Harbor in January or February of next year.  Be warned, spoilers below.

Like Birds of Terror, November’s THE INVISIBLE BOX MURDERS (cover by Emery Clarke) reads like an old-school mystery. Men receive transparent boxes in the mail, then die mysteriously once the boxes were opened. The boxes vanish afterwards. The clues to the solution include a radium miner, someone who’s slept for three weeks straight and people buying monkeys.

As all the victims by the story’s start are associates of JP Morgan — not the famous one, a small-time financier named Joe P. Morgan — Doc exposes him to a duplicate of the boxes to see if he can get any information out of him. He doesn’t get much.

When Doc tries to stop the next murder, he fails, and then the cops lock him up. He points out he’s a deputized police officer; doesn’t help. And the facts soon stack up: his fingerprint is on a key piece of evidence; the underlings in the mob genuinely believe he’s the top boss.

While this has happened often enough in the series (Red Snow and Devils of the Deep, for instance), it’s relatively realistic here: rather than go on the run, Doc goes to jail, confident he’ll get out soon enough. Then his aides get captured and the cops refuse to investigate — obviously the capture is just part of Doc’s scheme. Doc, of course, won’t stand for that, so he busts out.

It turns out the scheme is extortion: pay up, or get an invisible box delivered to your door. The box holds mosquitoes whose probosces contain poison; the box is made of a chemical that dissolves when it warms up to room temperature.

It’s a good, nicely done mystery. Doc’s cousin Pat has a supporting part, spying on one of the suspects and reading his lips. The book includes an interesting statement that awesome though Doc is, the training regimen he underwent could easily have turned him into a villain or a madman; only the facts he actually likes danger and retains a sense of humor kept him sane. So in his eyes, it’s an experiment that should never be repeated.

PERIL IN THE NORTH (cover by Bob Larkin) has another reveal: it opens the night of Doc’s birthday. Doc has a big presentation to some high-powered officials so his aides plan to surprise him (easy to do — he doesn’t even remember it’s his day). Unfortunately Doc is distracted by another quirky mystery opening: a scientist asks him to investigate a blue dog that’s interfering with the man’s research. Doc effortlessly spots this is a scam, but he’s curious enough to go along with it.

It turns out to involve 250 people trapped somewhere in imminent danger of death. Thomas Eleanor, a fat millionaire reminiscent of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon is involved; so is Bench Logan, a Bogart-type tough guy working against his fellow tough guys to save the 250. As he assumes Doc’s heroism has to be the cover for some dirty business, he’s working against Doc too.

The secret is a riff on recent upheavals in Yugoslavia (according to Bobb Cotter) which is why one of the footnotes specifies that Mungen, former dictator of Monrovia, is an imaginary man from an imaginary country. Mungen supposedly commited suicide before being overthrown, but in reality it was just his double — the real Mungen escaped and used his ill-gotten wealth to set up as Eleanor. The 250 were on a Monrovian passenger ship with Eleanor and figured out the truth; Eleanor wants them dead to avoid his former nation’s vengeance.  It’s oddly similar to the kind of Hitler Lives! stories we’d see in pop culture after the war, including the dictator’s suicide.

In its own right, it’s a solid adventure with some great bits by Pat Savage again (she admits she likes to sneak into Doc’s headquarters with a stolen key every so often). There’s also a great speech by Monk making it clear that Doc & Co. have always known and accepted the risk of death. If they have to risk or accept it to save 250 lives, they will. And if any one of them made that call, the other five would back it to the hilt. It’s very moving, and very much the sort of thing we’d hear at the movies in the coming war years.

All rights to covers remain with current holders.

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