As I’ve mentioned before, Lester Dent didn’t bother much with continuity. If one of Doc’s team has a moment of character development beyond the standard characterization, Dent doesn’t follow up on it. However after establishing in The Devil’s Black Rock that the guys were trying to break Monk of his skirt-chasing, Dent has been referencing it regularly, as in May 1943’s THE TALKING DEVIL. Not that it works any better here than in previous books.
The book starts with Doc’s crew introducing him to wealthy millionaire Montague Ogden whose right-hand man Sam Joseph is suffering dementia centering around a grotesque devil figureine Joseph thinks talks to him. After consulting with some top brain experts, Doc decides it’s a brain tumor. He operates … but there’s no tumor. And the other doctors insist they only agreed with him because they couldn’t think of questioning such a legend.
Oh, and an organized press campaign suggests that Doc has been performing illegal brain surgery on all those criminals he busts that never show up for trial. Could that have something to do with why several men with no memory of their past (Doc pegs them all as graduates of his crime college) have suddenly turned criminal? Doc realizes he’s been set up but why? And for whom?
Oilman “Rotary” Harrison fills in the gap when he and his daughter “Sis” (it’s been a while since we’ve had such quirky nicknames) contact Doc, who subsequently rescues them from the bad guys. They’re reminiscent of Tex Haven and his brainy daughter Rhoda in The Freckled Shark; like Rhoda, Sis’s brains and talent don’t play much of a role in the story, but I’d sooner have a smart supporting female character than a dull one.
From this point, the story moves fast until Doc learns what it’s all about: a scheme to blackmail him into giving up a share of his wealth in return for stopping the rumors. Doc believes that surgically reforming criminals will someday be accepted as the solution to stopping crime, and he doesn’t want it tarnished before society’s ready. Of course, it doesn’t come to that.
A background point is that even when Doc’s cracking cases like this, he’s working on the war effort: when he uses a chemical to track the bad guys’ airplane exhausts, he mentions to Monk it’s already at use by the army overseas.
Similarly, in THE RUNNING SKELETONS, we learn Doc’s fleet of cars is now down to two: the military have taken the others to use as models for making better vehicles. Even Doc sacrifices for the war effort. This story is much more tied to the war: after his son starved overseas, a scientist developed a formula that enables men to live without eating. The side-effect is that their flesh becomes translucent; the other side effect is that it’s a short-term fix that eventually kills the subjects if they don’t change back.
All we really know at the start, though, is that salesman Tom Lewis is trying to reach Doc Savage and traveling with a dog-carrying case that contains something terrifying (it’s a dog transformed by the formula). The bad guys try to stop Lewis meeting Doc; Monk and Ham get a message from Lewis and decide to investigate solo. Their buddies, fed up with their perpetual squabbling have been bombarding them with “peace is beautiful” messages (even having a skywriter paint it out over the city). So why not cut Doc, Rennie and the others out and hog the action for themselves? That’ll show them! Doc spots what’s going on, though, and catches up with Monk and Ham. Together, they hunt for the case and the secret behind it.
Also joining the action: Tom’s showgirl girlfriend. Willie (“Not Billie. Ten chorus girls out of every dozen are called Billie, and I resent being part of the mob.”). Willie’s not the typical female lead – she’s brave, reasonably capable, but what really sticks out is, she’s fun. Part of the fun is that she’s crushed on Doc for years, and keeps putting him in a state of embarrassment.
It would be a terrific book, but the opening and the ending flop badly. The opening has a black porter open Lewis’s case and jump off the train. It’s a racist clone of similar scenes in movie comedies, and that makes for unpleasant reading.
At the ending it turns out that the real villain isn’t the scientist but a crook who’s taken control of the drug to exploit it for evil by …. Well, Dent doesn’t actually say. Maybe a plan to treat people with the drug and bill them for a cure? Possibly, but overall this is one of the weaker criminal schemes. Between the start and the finish, it’s fine, but the two ends underwhelmed me.
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