Mundane of Bronze: Doc Savage in Disappearing Lady, Target for Death and Death Lady

This month’s trio are all by William Bogart, but mercifully cut back on the travel-brochure description he used in Fire and Ice and Death in Little Houses. That doesn’t mean they’re good: they very much treat Doc as a generic PI type, and don’t stand out as examples of the pulp gumshoe either.

THE DISAPPEARING LADY starts with Doc visiting banker Ernest Green whose ex-wife is blackmailing him over “one of those affairs while I was in my last year at Harvard. Every college student has one sooner or later.” I’ve no idea what that means — illegitimate pregnancy? A homosexual encounter? Plain vanilla sex? Bogart writing badly? — as it has to be serious enough to ruin Green if he’s exposed. Doc, in any case, says this is a job suited to a competent PI and declines. Then two of Green’s clients turn out to be imposters, kidnap him and kill the guard. Now Doc’s all in.

He should have stayed out. This is such a routine detective story I find myself wondering if Bogart just recycled some unused fiction he had lying around. If so he needed to do better: this has Doc packing heat as casually as any hardboiled gumshoe, without even an acknowledgment it’s not his style. There’s also an interminable stretch where he’s tracking the kidnappers’ car and we get the law-enforcement equivalent of Trek technobabble as the police coordinate their operations to pin down its locations.

Unsurprisingly the obvious suspect, Green’s ex — the disappearing lady of the title — turns out to be a red herring and the real villain is (drumroll please!) the last person you’d expect (though I wasn’t actually surprised). This is a rock bottom entry in the series, even though Savage expert Bobb Cotter disagrees.

TARGET FOR DEATH — as Cotter says, if Doc was still under his old editor, we probably wouldn’t have three similar-sounding titles in a row — has a stronger start, at least. Lt. Sally Treat, ex-Navy nurse, arrives in Honolulu to meet up with her boyfriend, Capt. Rick Randall. But Rick’s not there — we learn later he’s been lured to the mainland with a fake message — and she gets a seemingly ordinary letter from one of her relatives, warning her under no circumstances to let anyone else see the missive. It soon becomes obvious someone really, really wants that letter; fortunately Pat Savage is in Hawaii, so Sally contacts Pat, who puts her in contact with Rennie (sloppily identified as “Henry Renwick) who then sends Pat back to the Big Apple. Annoyingly, she goes without a peep or putting up much resistance. Doc, Monk and Ham are soon on the case but after the interesting beginning it shrinks to some mundane snooping around the Treat family. Doc figures out, much too slowly, that the secret of the letter is that one of the periods is a microdot (a new concept then, but Doc used to be on top of that stuff). It’s a map to a Pacific gold mine that the Japanese forces flooded with water so that nobody else could find it. One of Sally’s relatives discovered it, one of the others is ready to kill for it.

THE DEATH LADY starts off with a lost race element, though I knew that by this point we wouldn’t get anything terribly exotic or out of the ordinary. Long Tom contacts Monk and Ham to say he’s arriving in New York from South America with “an Indian” (unlike some Native Americans in recent stories, not at all educated and speaking in pidgin). Someone tries to whack said native upon arrival but the guys thwart that. Long Tom reveals that the native, “Beaverbrook” — Long Tom says that’s what the man’s name sounds like to him — can lead them to Gloria Halliday, a young woman who vanished several years ago with her explorer father. Beaverbrook’s tribe is treating her as a white jungle goddess (or as my friend Ross says, a Non-Native Rain Forest Authority Figure), but within a couple of months her divine reign expires and she’ll be sacrificed. Shortly after they connect with the Halliday family, someone kills Beaverbrook and the family’s black houseboy, Sam, runs off in the best “superstitious darkie” manner and out of the story (he seems to be in it purely for rather racist comic relief).

Doc and his team join forces with Mary English, world-class private investigator and stunning beauty. Traveling to South America under cover, Doc has to pretend to be married to Mary; while this leads to the kind of awkward comedy I enjoyed in The Freckled Shark, I just couldn’t get into it here (in fairness, I was sour from the two previous books so it may not be Bogart’s fault). Like The Men Vanished, it turns out the quest is a scam, though a different one, recycling a staple plot from White Jungle Goddess movie serials: the bad guys plan to kill Halliday, then pass off a different woman as the heir to the Halliday fortune. It makes for a stronger book than Bogart’s previous two, but not strong enough for me.

#SFWApro. Covers by Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holder.

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