Doc Savage, dunderhead: Mystery on Happy Bones and The Mental Monster

This months two novels are good evidence for Bobb Cotter’s thesis that Doc became increasingly human during WW II. Beyond human, really; he comes off as a tough, but extremely fallible guy.

THE MYSTERY OF HAPPY BONES (the last paperback before Bantam switched to doing two Doc novels per book) reminds me a lot of Mystery on the Snow; it’s a mundane adventure focusing on control of natural resources, enlivened by a formidable female character. In Mystery the resource was a new metal, benlanium, for use in aircraft manufacturing; here it’s a tungsten vein the Nazis want to mine.

The story opens with a mysterious messenger dropping off a parcel at Doc’s tied up in wire; the wire is actually an unwound spool from a wire recorder, a way to get a message to Doc past watching Nazi eyes. The messenger is a cross-dressed Hannah, descended from a line of pirates ruling over a small island in the Caribbean (an island of dark-skinned natives, something that hasn’t aged well). Hannah is a truly memorable guest character, up there with Toni Lash and Retta Ken. At one point she knocks Monk unconscious; when Doc tackles her, she proves almost a match for him in combat. It turns out, fortunately, she’s on the good guys’ side; Happy Bones, the island where the Nazis are digging up tungsten, is right next to her own island kingdom. The US plans to set up an air base on Happy Bones, which could throw a spanner in the Nazi mining works. Their efforts to prevent this kick-started the whole plot.

Doc, as I said, comes across a lot more fallible than usual. Hannah holds her own with him in a fight not because she’s Michelle Yeoh but because Doc isn’t being written as his usual invincible self. Later in the novel, Doc’s hiding in an airplane’s cargo hold when he’s suddenly caught. He simply got careless and dropped its guard.

The end result isn’t horrible, but it ain’t memorable, except for Hannah.

THE MENTAL MONSTER shows once again Lester Dent’s lack of interest in continuity: Doc’s already encountered mind-reading technology in The Midas Man and a telepath in The Mental Wizard but the story treats the mind-reading device here (actually closer to a polygraph that works by EEG readings) as if such a thing is impossible.

The story opens with Bill Keeley, an engineer friend of Renny’s, telling Doc someone seems to have targeted his employer, a company developing synthetic rubber production (finding a secure rubber supply was also the McGuffin in The Flaming Falcons and The Land of Fear). Then Bill spots a white bird flying through the restaurant where he’s meeting Doc, panics and runs out. It turns out the bad guys (in it for money rather than the Axis) have a nasty germ concentrate and use the white birds to deliver it, or simply as a threat.

This is a minor adventure, and Doc’s even more of a screw-up here. In one scene, he walks right into an ambush without spotting the threat. At the climax he’s trying to free a tied-up Monk, but realizes he didn’t think to find a knife for cutting the rope; this Doc, it seems, doesn’t have the muscle to just tear them.

The book does have another competent woman, Bill’s girlfriend Carole, though she’s not quite in Hannah’s league. And it does offer one funny moment, when some of the crime ring brag that they’ve just killed Doc Savage. One of the other crooks gets up, announces he’s quitting and joining the Merchant Marine and walks out. He clearly knows that when Doc Savage is declared dead, he never is.

#SFWApro. Cover above by Bob Larkin, below by Emery Clarke. All rights to covers remain with current holders.

 

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