Doc Savage vs. Nostradamus: The Black, Black Witch and the King of Terror

I’ve read about paper restrictions shrinking pulps in WW II, but rereading Doc Savage in order it becomes obvious. Both this month’s rereads are under 100 pages, which may explain some of the details of the first entry, THE BLACK, BLACK WITCH.

The book opens with Monk and Doc going behind enemy lines for the first time. Harve MacChesney, an American diplomat (described as the kind of old-school striped-pants stereotype of his field) has been a Nazi prisoner, but he’s gotten a note to Doc concerning the secret of something dangerous called the “black, black witch.” The guys arrive at the designated meeting place only to be ambushed by Nazis, who want the secret of the black, black witch.  They lock Doc and Monk up, they escape (despite being supposedly stripped of Doc’s usual arsenal of hidden weapons), then they meet a Dutch woman, Sien Noordenveer, who knew from MacChesney exactly where to find them, even though that was impossible.

After getting entombed by a booby trap, Doc, Monk and Sien get out (it’s a good sequence) and return to NYC. MacChesney has already gone there, freaking out some old enemies by showing he can predict the future (a battleship getting sunk). The enemies decide they want the power of the black, black witch; Doc of course, has to stop them.

It turns out the McGuffin is a drug created by the alchemist Peterpence centuries earlier. He believed it would give him visions of the future, but decided to test it on his rival Nostradamus first. To Peterpence’ dismay, it not only worked, it made his rival into the legend we know; his quatrains really are precognition.

It’s a good yarn, but I think it would have been better five years earlier, when they’d have had more pages. Nobody uses the drug beyond the two examples mentioned — if the bad guys had used the precog drug more, it would have been a tougher fight. And the Nazis disappears once the American bad guys show up; I expected them to still be in competition for the drug.

THE KING OF TERROR opens with a great scene in which two well-dressed, oh-so-polite killers, Percy and Francis, whack Doc as he’s emerging from an elevator into the lobby of his skyscraper base. They’re striking characters, reminiscent of Wynt and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever. They’re working for Fraulino Jones, the point women for this issue’s crime ring; she doesn’t want Doc killed, but her superiors do.

Of course, Doc isn’t dead, it’s an elaborate ruse involving a film set up to play for just such situations. Monk and Ham then infiltrate the gang as a pair dangerous Latinos; there’s an ugly moment where they threaten to rape-kill the Fraulino to prove their bonafides. Doc gets captured, but convinces the gang he’s an impersonator Doc hired.

As the guys investigate, something weird keeps happening: people seem to lose track of time, then they wake up and find themselves repeating whatever they’d been doing before the blank spot. It turns out the big bad’s secret weapon is a powerful anesthetic gas; repeating what they were doing is just a minor side effect of getting gassed. The villain’s big plan is to exploit the war situation, in which leaders across the globe are given a much freer hand than in peace. He has doubles ready of everyone from Roosevelt and Churchill to Emperor Hirohito and Stalin. He cynically informs the “impersonator” (whom he intends to use to access Doc’s store of Mayan gold) that once they finish the war, they’ll attain even greater power by making the usual promises, which will then be, as usual, violated.

The story’s a bit too mundane, though the characters are vivid. This introduces a relative for Monk, naval officer “Handsome” Mayfair. Monk looks him up mid-book, then he shows up at the end in what’s close to a deus ex rescue. Perhaps Dent planned to reuse him, but if so, it never happened.

#SFWApro. Covers by Emery Clarke, all rights remain current holder.

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