This month’s set of adventures feel very strongly post-WW II, not so much in style as in the issues: escaped Nazis lingering on after the war, the fear of nukes (only the U.S. had any atomic bombs, but would it stay that way?) and the post-war housing boom.
THE EXPLODING LAKE opens with Juan Russell, an Argentinian metallurgist, out in the wilds hunting for ores… when a lake literally explodes in a ball of fire. Staring at where the water used to be, Russell worries the only explanation is that someone’s testing a nuclear bomb. He tries his best to contact Doc Savage, but the sinister, icy Paul Cort eliminates Russell first. Cort subsequently winds up on a flight to the U.S. along with eccentric fat man Orlin Dartlic and flamboyant Susan Lane, who’s trying to smuggle an ocelot cub onto the plane (she claims she shot its mother). Despite Cort shadowing him, Dartlic makes it to Doc and shares the news that someone might be developing atom bombs. In Argentina. Which was a notorious haven for ex-Nazis at the time (and for years afterwards).
For technical reasons, Doc doesn’t think this is a nuclear case, but still… So off he goes with Monk, Ham and Renny to investigate. Cort, Dantlic and Lane all get involved and it soon looks like Cort might not be the only bad guy in the batch. As it turns out, though, Dantlic is a Dutch Nazi-hunter and Lane is a U.S. agent (unlike the previous a-bomb story, Terror and the Lonely Widow, there’s no suggestion Susan shouldn’t be in this line of work).
It turns out the bad guy is indeed a fugitive Nazi, scientist Hans Boehl, but nukes aren’t an issue. The exploding lake was just a fake staged with gasoline to grab Doc’s attention (why they killed Russell to stop him contacting Doc goes unexplained). Boehl has a transmutation machine he stole from Germany before the war ended, and he wants Doc to get it in working order so Boehl can make enough gold for his future plans. Doc insists transmutation is impossible, but cooperates long enough to take him down. In a nice touch, Doc speculates that Boehl may have been scammed by a con man into believing the machine works.
This feels very pre-war in a lot of ways, such as Doc using his anesthetic grenades again. Maybe that’s because he co-wrote this one with Harold Davis.
DEATH IN LITTLE HOUSES is another co-written job, with William Bogart this time. Like Fire and Ice, Davis goes way heavy on travel brochure descriptions, this time on Lake Michigan. The story starts looking for a friend, electrical engineer Daniel Jameson, who’s mysteriously vanished, then turns up murdered. We also have a bearded hulk of a man visiting a display of tiny model homes and stealing one of them. Before long it appears there are multiple bearded hulks lurking around Chicago.The scheme behind it has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality: the bad guys are in the prefabricated housing business and beating the competition by stealing housing plans, electrical patents and such. The beards hide that several of the crooks are ex-cons busted out of prison, and confuse things by making them look like members of a local monastic order. It’s an ingenious idea, but the story never catches fire. The best bit is Marjorie “Speed” Calloway, the tough-talking head of a trucking outfit who gets involved in the case (thirty years later, the same kind of character would be spouting CB-radio slang).
THE DEVIL IS JONES is all Dent, and interesting, but not entirely satisfying. Hazard, a political boss in the Midwest (loosely based on the recently deceased Tom Pendergast of Missouri) to deal with the mysterious Jones, a shadowy, Keyzer Soze-like criminal figure (“Nobody knows what the Devil looks like and nobody has seen the Devil.”) whose activities include blackmailing a variety of people. The initial leads take Doc to a kind of floating cocktail party stuffed with bored sophisticates, most notably Smokey, a long-legged brunette who throws Doc off-balance by flirting with him. When murder disrupts the party, it’s obvious Doc’s being framed yet again; fortunately Madison, one of the state troopers on the case is on the level and helps out. Doc brings him into the investigation, which proves to be a mistake, as Madison’s actually a rat working for Jones. Who it turns out is Hazard; the governor of the state wanted Doc called in to deal with Jones, so Hazard took point, hoping he could get Doc out of the way.
Dent was writing straight mysteries at the time and this fits into the genre: you could substitute any reasonably competent PI and get the same story. It’s well-written and the cynical eye Dent casts on the characters is quite entertaining. However, the whole set-up using the party to frame Doc feels pointless. Like a number of mystery-novel plots, it’s way too elaborate to work.
#SFWApro. Covers by Charles J. Ravel (and I must say the Exploding Lake image is a real grabber), all rights to images remain with current holders.