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Death in Silver
Doc Savage #20
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 134pp
First Published: 1934, Bantam Edition 1968

The twentieth Doc Savage novel, 'Death in Silver', written by Lester Dent and published in 'Doc Savage Magazine' in October 1934, marks a change in direction for the series in a number of ways.

For one, it's the first story thus far to be set entirely in New York City and its immediate environs, such as the Hudson River. Many prior novels started there, only to move on to more exotic locations during their second halves; that trend began with 'The Man of Bronze', which started in New York City but soon moved to a lost valley in the fictional central American country of Hidalgo. Its villains are home grown too, even with a traditional hidden mastermind behind a more obvious gang.

For another, Doc is brought into the story through a believable coincidence. Prior novels tended to start with someone seeking out his help, usually by taking the elevator up to his 86th floor office, or trying to do so but failing in a manner that captures his attention. For a while, one adventure would lead directly into the next, beginning wherever the prior one ended. The worst examples had the bad guys attempt to keep Doc out of their business by attacking him, acts which, through sheer irony, brought their misdeeds to his attention.

And for a third, Dent must have realised that he hadn't yet found a satisfying way to appropriately divvy up work between Doc and his five assistants. Some of these novels fail to find anything of importance for them to do and the rest only reach varying degrees of success. Not one fully explains how these five men, each at the peak of their respective profession, are able to assist Doc so relentlessly instead of doing their own jobs. This reaches a ridiculous level when all of them traipse off on holiday with him in 'Brand of the Werewolf' for no discernible reason whatsoever. Here, Dent finally applies a believable solution, which is to say that they do actually have lives and so are unable to join Doc on every adventure.

While I'm a sucker for exotic locations, all these changes are decent ones and they help the credibility of the story. The bad guys this time out, a gang of crooks known as the Silver Death's-Heads, assassinate the owner of a shipping company, Paine L. Winthrop of the Seven Seas, in emphatic fashion, blowing him up in his office forty storeys above Wall Street. Monk's laboratory is in the penthouse, so he feels the effect of the blast. He and Ham investigate, not bringing in Doc until page 17 of the Bantam paperback edition, much later than usual. Only four pages further, we discover that Johnny's lecturing in London; Long Tom's in Europe, collaborating on experiments with a colleague; and Renny's in South Africa, overseeing the construction of a hydro-electric plant. With Monk and Ham rumbled and kidnapped, Doc joins the fray.

Surely the most grounded Doc Savage novel thus far, 'Death in Silver' doesn't abandon its roots as much as finesse them into a more believable story.

We still have our bad guys, who follow the instructions of a talented leader, who reports to a mysterious mastermind, who in turn speaks to his minions from the shadows with a disguised voice. Here, he doesn't even have a cool sounding mysterious mastermind name; he's merely the boss, the chief, the master. The most overt nod to the pulp tropes of the day was to costume this gang in outfits woven from wire made from molten down silver dollars. This highlights how they're after that most old fashioned of goals too: money. While their leader does have grander motives which he keeps hidden, even his everyday lieutenant, with as many talents as he has, is driven by simple greed, which manifests itself in a notable crime spree that the mastermind is hardly happy about!

We still have our technological marvels, both large and small, though they can and do fail. For instance, Doc's anaesthetic globes, the curse of so many inept villains in earlier books, fail to take down the clever Ull and his Silver Death's-Heads, and Doc's submarine, the Helldiver, is caught by use of electro-magnets. However, new tech is deployed, such as a new way for Doc to determine if someone's following him; it looks like 'black clover seed' but explodes like firecrackers when stepped on. We know that the substance on the tip of Ham's sword cane knocks people out but we learn here that, administered in an even smaller dose, it acts instead as a stimulant. Pat even has a trick phone that emits tear gas when spoken into.

We still have our new leading lady, guesting for an episode to lust after Doc and fail to get anywhere. In this instalment, that's Lorna Zane, private secretary to the now deceased Paine L. Winthrop. As always, she's depicted as capable ('I was born and raised in Montana,' she says, pointing her gun at Doc) but spends more time as a hostage than as anything else. Of course, that's becoming a trend for Pat too. Now living in New York and running a beauty salon and gymnasium on Park Avenue, she doesn't spend much time in this one but does get kidnapped yet again; her kidnap count is actually higher than her appearance count.

We still have our small cast of other supporting characters, one of whom is guaranteed to be the master criminal behind everything, but who? Is it Harry 'Rapid' Pace, Winthrop's efficiency expert, who has an awkward condition which prompts him to say almost everything twice, or is it Hugh McCoy, the financial consultant on the proposed merger between the shipping companies of Winthrop and Bedford Burgess Gardner, who had mysteriously given all his employees five months of paid vacation then picked up as though nothing had ever changed? Given that the only other character of note is Don Ull, the lieutenant of the Silver Death's-Heads, that's not a heck of a lot of choice but there are red herrings enough to keep us guessing. I should add that Ull is notable, though, as an incorrigible criminal who nonetheless owns many patents; he proves to be a worthy foe.

The most surprising new development is Dent's use of longer, more complex sentences. There are actual conjunctions here and they're used correctly. During these early novels, I often wondered if Dent's basic sentence structure was a deliberate stylistic choice or just because that's all he knew how to write at the time. This, more than any prior book, shows that he's capable of telling stories without over-simplifying his grammar. Dent even acknowledges this in dialogue:

'"Gardner is owner of Transatlantic Lines, the ocean line which was Paine L. Winthrop's chief rival until lately, when there has been talk of the two companies merging," said Pace, using what for him was an extraordinarily long sentence.'

His vocabulary was always more interesting than his grammar. As tends to be the case, there are words here that I needed to look up. Outside Pat's new salon are two doormen, who don't simply wear uniforms; they're 'caparisoned' in them. That's a fantastic word which means to be decoratively attired; a caparison is an ornamental cloth used to cover a horse.Another word I had to look up was 'retroussé', which means a nose whose tip is attractively upturned. This highlights Dent's use of accented words, upon which I've touched before. While he uses 'débris' repeatedly and even 'béret', he surprisingly drops the umlaut from 'coordinated'.

A more recognisable word here, if in a different spelling, is 'lolapaloosa', meaning something spectacular; Pace uses it to describe Gardner's mansion. Another oddly familiar term is 'Father Knickerbocker', which Dent suggests is a name New Yorkers give to their city. This came from Washington Irving, who wrote his satirical history of New York under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker. It's still in use today, most prominently in abbreviated form by the New York Knicks.

It isn't just words that are odd here. One brief conversation that took me aback was an early one between Doc Savage and a unnamed NYPD lieutenant. The Silver Death's-Heads keep on vanishing after heists into the waterfront district around the East River. The officer plans to track down their lair with plain-clothes cops and an army of stool pigeons. Doc literally bets that it won't work, with the cop's suggestion of fifty bucks to be paid by the loser to the police Death Benefit Fund, presumably on the honour system, given that it never comes up again.

All in all, 'Death in Silver' is a highly enjoyable entry into the Doc Savage series and it's well-regarded by the fans. In fact, when Doc finally reached the big screen in the mid seventies, it was 'Death in Silver' that was to be the story adapted. Producer George Pal soon realised that a background story was needed first, so shifted it on to be the second film in the projected series with 'The Man of Bronze' kicking things off. Of course, the ill advised campness of 1975's 'Doc Savage', not to mention the dominance of 'Jaws', released the same month, meant that Doc flopped both critically and commercially and the series was done for.

In the pulps, of course, it was merely #20 with 161 stories more to go, so it served as a strong entry with a worthy stylistic shift. The next few novels would feature subsets of Doc's assistants, who would often discover the next adventure during an absence. For instance, join us next month for 'The Sea Magician', a story set in England, where Johnny's time away from this book allows him to stumble onto the legend of King John's treasure, lost in the marshy estuary known as the Wash. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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