One of the strengths of the Doc Savage series is its flexibility to move from SF to lost race yarn to pulp crimefighting. Consider this month’s trio, for instance.
THE PHARAOH’S GHOST is an “exotic” adventure set in Egypt. Johnny’s been abducted so the book opens with Doc, Monk, Ham and Long Tom capturing a stereotypically treacherous Arab, Hamamah to get him to talk. Hamamah babbles about the ghost of Pharaoh Jubbah Ned when a yellow stain appears on his face. He dies screaming for no discernible reason; Monk and Ham find their hands burning. It turns out a crime boss, Jaffa, had the tomb looted, and now the mysterious yellow spot is killing the looters, one by one.
The adventure that follows is descent, but not outstanding. It rises a little above the average by Jaffa’s big plan: use the loot from the tomb to buy corrupt politicians in nations newly liberated from Axis control, then appropriate the governments’ funds. Lester Dent also puts more work in than usual sketching out the Egyptian setting and detailing the history of Jubbah Ned, which like a lot of ancient monarchs is clouded with uncertainty (Johnny, an archeologist, discourses about it at length).
A curious point is one of the supporting cast, Bondurant Fain. A brawny redhead in flamboyant pursuit of a pretty girl, he resembles Henry Peace in The Freckled Shark so much I wondered if it were Doc again, but no. I guess Dent just liked the type.
One unsurprising flaw is that all the good guys and the top bad guy are white, with the Egyptians reduced to supporting and/or villain roles.
THE MAN WHO WAS SCARED is more of a detective story, and a pretty effective one for most of its length. It opens with a businessman “like the fellows the insurance companies always put in their advertisements” trying to reach Doc before the bad guys catch up with him. He’s poisoned but reaches Doc’s HQ long enough to gasp out a cryptic message about breakfast. The bad guys quickly improvise a scheme to distract Doc by making him think the victim was just an escaped mental patient. Investigating and digging for the truth takes up the rest of the book.
Again the scheme is bigger than ordinary crookery. The bad guys were using cereal made by the dead guy’s company to spread a bio-weapon across America. They’ve already bought up the entire supply of the treatment, so they stand to make millions, and they’ve rigged things so Doc will take the fall. Unfortunately the book is too short to really do anything with this: we go from Doc being a wanted man to busting the bad guy (surprisingly the brother of the villain in Pharaoh’s Ghost. More surprisingly, the two schemes are unrelated) in a very few pages. Still, it’s a fun read and pretty woman of the month Elma Champion is brave and capable in the Pat Savage hold.
A really weird bit is that Dent mocks his own past descriptions of Doc as a mental wizard and physical superman, asserting he’s nothing of the kind. He’s got good genes, he had his amazing childhood training — anyone who’d been through that would turn out just as awesome! This ignores that in Invisible Box Murders, Doc states that his training would have driven most people insane.
THE SHAPE OF TERROR is a spy thriller. Despite the cover below, about another Awful Egg; that egg’s just a tool for poisoning Doc at breakfast. The big threat is a Nazi McGuffin that’s never described. The story opens with some RAF officers taking Doc from dinner with Monk and Ham. The plane the officers and Doc depart on crashes and kills him. Digging for answers, Monk and Ham discover a conspiracy — at which point British intelligence fakes their death too. The hope is that the Nazis will think they’re out of the picture and relax. The Nazis have developed a weapon that can win the war; Johann Kovic, a Czech scientist locked in a concentration camp, has the concept for a counter-weapon that neutralizes it. Doc, Monk and Ham are to get the secret from Kovic before the Nazis torture it out of him.
It becomes immediately obvious the faked deaths haven’t fooled anyone. First comes the poisoning attempt. Then the Nazis dog the guys’ footsteps and block their path into occupied Czechoslovakia. Then hound them once they’re there. Some of them are trying to kill him; other Nazi factions want to throw Doc in the camp with Kovic to get the secret out of him, after Doc’s been dosed with a form of truth serum. Everyone they’re working with, in Allied intelligence or the Czech underground, has or could have a double agenda.
The result is a solid little spy story that gives Doc a workout without making him just an ordinary guy (as Derelict of Skull Shoal did)
#SFWApro. Covers by Modest Stein (I’ve got to say the Man Who Was Scared cover has little to do with the book).