Only a couple of weeks after reading 'The Mystery on the Snow', May 1934's Doc Savage novel, I find that it's already fading away from me to a collection of scenes and impressions. I struggled to remember the answer behind the title, which suggests that it wasn't as notable a mystery as author Lester Dent might have planned it to be.
Now, that's not to say that it's gone. I remember the mystery itself, though more for Doc's reaction to it than for anything inherent in the scene. He's in the far north of Canada, inside the Arctic Circle, and he's come across a clearing in the spruce. There are two teams of dogs, still attached to their sledges and the tracks behind them show how they came into the clearing. There are snowshoe prints too, in soft snow, showing where people walked about. However, there's nobody anywhere to be seen, just a fire, a partially prepared meal and some blood on the snow. The bitter cold doesn't stop a chill from running up Doc's spine as he realises what the scene is missing: any tracks leading outwards.
It's a good scene for a number of reasons. It's set up well, taking up an entire chapter to outline and then another one to run through possibilities and deepen the mystery. Doc calls his team who suggest ideas, just as we do, but to no avail. Dent, through Doc, explains why none of them are viable. 'On the face of it,' suggests Doc, 'the thing seems inexplicable.' And, of course, there's no quick explanation given; we don't discover the answer until almost the end of the book. I refreshed myself as to what that was and realise why I forgot it: it's an appropriate but underwhelming answer.
And that highlights the problem with the book. The whole thing is underwhelming, but consistently so. Nothing stands out as particularly awful, because this isn't a bad novel per se. It's just that very little stands out at all, so it's far from a good one either. Perhaps that's why Bantam took so long to reprint it; it was fifteenth in the original pulp series but only the 69th paperback.
The names are one underwhelming factor. The villain is actually neatly hidden, but his name is Stroam, which doesn't excite as much as any of the prior villains in the series thus far. Other character names like Kulden, Ben Lane and Mahal aren't much better and the latter could easily have been spiced up, given that he's a cut rate clairvoyant. Mahal the Mystic! That would have been a better way to introduce him!
The best name is Midnat D'Avis, who's the lady of the month, but she's underused and so can't live up to her considerable potential as both a stubborn PI and 'a pint size edition of femininity'. And she was the only character who had the real possibility of being memorable.
In fact, I'm remembering locations much more than the characters, such as the sprawling warehouse of the Hidalgo Trading Company and the steel panelled reception room at Mahal's establishment. Sadly, when we head north to figure out what's going on up there in the Arctic Circle, we're aiming at Snow Mountain! Seriously, Dent couldn't come up with a better name for a mountain in the frozen wastes of the north than Snow Mountain?
What's oddest is that there isn't even a connection to bring Doc and his team into the mystery. There's a deliberate lack of one and we actually spend quite a lot of time in New York before heading north to find out why. Ben Lane wants to bring Doc in but he doesn't because the bad guys do well at stopping him. They do almost as well at stopping him from finding out, but not quite and it's that pressure that sends him to Canada.
These obstacles are being put in front of both Doc and Lane consistently enough that we don't even meet the latter until a hundred pages in and, even then, that's at the point where he thinks Doc is dead and vice versa!
Fortunately, a lot of the New York time is spent at Doc's warehouse, about which we learn quite a bit. We've been here before, but not long enough to realise that the walls are feet thick and lined with steel beams, making the place like a giant bomb shelter or, as Dent puts it, 'a gigantic vault'. I don't remember the dozen airplanes housed there either, but there they are. One of the most memorable parts of this one is Doc navigating through the vast ceiling of the warehouse to literally get the drop on some bad guys.
There are other memorable parts too. Doc has his men wear new shoes that turn out to be trackable through some sort of radioactive presence in their heels and soles. A captured Renny leaves a glorious hint in a pool of his own blood which he shapes into the form of Long Island. Doc stops cars below his plane by dropping gas bombs that interfere with their engines. When one character manages to get into Doc's offices, he's trapped there by a set of bulletproof glass panels. So there's certainly cool stuff here.
There's also brutal stuff. One minion attempts to kill Doc and his men by chewing on his own hair because he believes it's been coated with a chemical compound that forms a poisonous gas when mixed with saliva. It turns out to be cyanide instead and it causes the man's death. Even worse, we meet one man late in the novel who has no face, because of the method of torture that has been used on him; acid was dropped onto it, one drop at a time. We don't see it happen but we see the result and it's worthy of being played up.
But there's more dubious stuff too. When Monk screws up early in the book, Dent feels that he needs to play up the man's capabilities with a line like, 'He was ordinarily a canny fellow, hard to take unawares.' Only ten pages later, we get the same thing with another man in Doc's crew. 'Renny, in his associations with Doc Savage,' points out Dent, 'had walked much in the shadow of danger. This had made him wary. Rarely was he caught napping.' Of course, Dent only needs these lines because Monk keeps getting taken unawares and Renny keeps getting caught napping!
Given all the clever things that Doc and his men get up to, one other scene here played really wrong for me. As is often the case, Doc has collected and incapacitated a bunch of crooks, ready for delivery to his upstate New York clinic so that they can be medically 'cured of their knavery'. When he makes the call, he uses code, referring to them as 'a shipment of guinea pigs', just in case an operator is listening. Yet, earlier, a captured Renny is forced to radio in to Doc that things went well, and there's no code in play. Why hadn't they agreed that 'Hey Doc' or some such innocuous phrase, when used as the first line in a conversation, should be interpreted as a warning?
Now, if there's nothing special with the story, at least there should be something on the linguistic side to stand out? There's usually interesting slang to highlight or other historical notes?
Well, not really. There's little linguistically to stand out this time either. We get more use of the diaresis, an umlaut that tells us that two consecutive vowels should be pronounced separately rather than together; a couple of examples here are 'coöperation' and 'aërodynamics', which isn't easy to pronounce with three syllables in 'aero'.
The slang is forgettable because the hoods are mostly French Canadians who merely talk like zis in ze broken English, m'sieu'. The funniest example of slang arrives when fiery Midnat d'Avis suggests that she can accomplish more than Doc's men. Ham exclaims, 'The crust of the hussy!' though he does add that he likes her style. And that's about it.
So, I guess that wraps up a capable but underwhelming episode in the annals of Doc Savage. Next month, the first Doc novel not written by Lester Dent; 'The King Maker' came instead from the typewriter of Harold A. Davis. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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