Bronze Vengeance: Doc Savage in The Land of Terror

THE LAND OF TERROR is the second Doc Savage novel and in several ways it’s an outlier, a clear sign Lester Dent and his editors were still figuring the series out.

At the same time the book follows the formula of The Man of Bronze. Both start with the murder of someone close to Doc (though his father’s death in the first book happened before the first chapter); both split time between New York and exotic location; both have a mystery mastermind with a secret identity. There’s a unique weapon the bad guys to use to kill, something Dent recommends in his writing rules.

Instead of the Red Death of the first book, though, the weapon here is the much more formidable Smoke of Eternity. In the opening chapter, crooks working for the sinister Kar murder Doc’s former teacher Jerome Coffern, then fire a pellet containing the Smoke of Eternity at his body. Once the casing shatters the substance disintegrates Coffern’s body and the street he’s lying on, leaving behind a cloud of grey smoke laced with electric sparks.

With no body Coffern’s disappearance would never be explained, except that a)his forearm and expensive watch fall just outside the radius of the Smoke’s effect; b)Doc Savage showed up to meet him. Doc tracks the gang, killing several of them, learns about Kar and his plans to use the Smoke of Eternity for crime.

The first four chapters are all Doc, with none of his five aides. He’s more ruthless than in any other book, killing one crook after the other when they try to shoot him (he’s not wearing a bulletproof shirt yet). While this could be grief over Coffern’s death, the narration makes it clear this is Doc’s code: cross him and you either reform or die. Doc doesn’t “mollycoddle” crooks.

Doc’s more than just a Shadow/Punisher-type vigilante though. When he encounters a poor, half-blind old woman while hunting the killers, he takes the time to give her some money and send her to an eye surgeon who’ll fix her vision for free, at Doc’s request. When a bank rewards him for stopping a robbery by Kar’s gang, he pays several restaurants to provide food to the homeless and poor. And for all the violence, his preferred solution to crime is sending them to a clinic for extensive psychotherapy to reform them (all crooks are mentally ill, you see), the initial concept for the crime college.

While Dent devotes the opening chapters to demonstrating Doc’s awesomeness there’s more show, less tell than in Man of Bronze. Coffern kicks things up by asking his colleagues if they’ve heard of Clark Savage; one remembers his recent groundbreaking work in organic chemical analysis, another remembers a breakthrough in brain surgery. Can one person be a giant in two such unrelated fields? Coffern says yes. Despite Doc’s father being a legend himself, nobody here thinks of Clark Savage Sr.

After the death, Doc goes into action. He can hurdle over a security fence effortless, track the crooks by the slightest traces left behind, outrun a car when it’s in first or second gear and kill one hood by throwing a pike through his body. Plus a few more spectacular stunts.

Kar’s secret identity is more prominent in the story than the official behind the mask of the Son of the Feathered Serpent in the previous book. That works better but I’m puzzled by his choice of pseudonym. Kar is a bland nom du crime compared to the Squeaking Goblin or the Man in the Moon but it’s distinctive enough I’d like to know why the villain picked it. We never do.

Just as the Smoke of Eternity is the most science-fictional weapon of the first year of Doc Savage Magazine, Thunder Isle is more SF than the Valley of the Vanished or the lost cities lying ahead. It’s a thousand-foot high volcanic crater in the Pacific and inside it lies the mineral from which Kar developed the Smoke of Eternity. When Doc’s plane descends through the thick mist over the crater they’re attacked by a pterodactyl; cut off from the outside, dinosaurs have survived on Thunder Isle into the present. This makes it a very bad place for the plane to crash as the good guys face both Kar’s goons and prehistoric wildlife.

Among other notes of interest:

•Doc still doesn’t have a bulletproof shirt or a pocketful of gadgets. He has no issues with using guns. His team have special guns but they’re simply compact machine guns rather than the superfirer pistols that would become standard later.

•It’s the only novel in the series I can remember with no pretty woman in it. Other thank walk-ons, the cast is all male. There’s a reference to Monk’s beautiful secretary but she doesn’t appear on the page.

•Monk rolls his own cigarettes. Dent went back and forth through the series on whether any of Doc’s men smoke — but of course Monk could have quit, then gone back to it.

•Johnny shows extensive knowledge of dinosaurs, as he would in several later books. Dent seems to assume that paleontology and geology are more or less the same thing. Dent has dropped the idea in Man of Bronze that Johnny gets crazy but accurate hunches. While the first book told us Johnny’s tall and skinny, this one emphasizes that he’s so “tall and gaunt” his shoulders “were like a coat hanger under his coat.” We also learn that his left eye is almost useless so he has a magnifying lens in the left side of his spectacles for convenience.

#SFWAPro. Covers by Douglas Rosa (top) and Walter Baumhofer.

1 Comment

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One response to “Bronze Vengeance: Doc Savage in The Land of Terror

  1. Pingback: Bedlam on the bayou: Doc Savage in Quest of the Spider | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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