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The Mystic Mullah
Doc Savage #23
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 137pp
Published: Originally 1935 Bantam 1965

While the name on the cover was always Kenneth Robeson, the original Doc Savage novels were mostly the work of Lester Dent. He wrote 133 of the 181 published in 'Doc Savage Magazine', including the first ('The Man of Bronze' in March 1933) and the last ('Up from Earth's Center' in the Summer 1949 edition). And, of course, most of the early stories were his: he wrote all the first fifteen and twenty-seven of the first thirty; the other three were written by other writers from his outlines. The first of those was 'The King Maker', written by Harold A. Davis; the second is this one, written by Richard Sale.

That news won't be surprising to readers because it doesn't follow any of the trends in play in the later months of 1934.

Most obviously, Dent had found that it was hard to keep both Doc and all five of his assistants (let alone cousin Pat too), busy throughout each of their adventures. So, in October 1934, he left both Long Tom and Johnny out of 'Death in Silver', explaining that they were working out of the country. A month later, for 'The Sea Magician', he followed Johnny over the pond to England and dropped Renny and Pat. While that pair were back for 'The Annihilist' in December, Long Tom and Johnny were still absent. Here, however, the whole gang's back in play (except for Pat).

Another trend was towards more realistic villains, at least within the mythology of the Doc Savage world. 'Death in Silver' featured a terrorist group, 'The Sea Magician' a group exploiting an invention to extract gold from seawater efficiently and 'The Annihilist' the consequences of Doc's cure for criminality falling into the wrong hands. This, however, dips right back into yellow peril territory, apparently ignoring entirely the vast ramifications of what went down in that previous book.

Finally, Dent was getting better and better as a writer, his vocabulary, sentence structure and framework all showing major progression. Richard Sale, however, sets this story up as a relentless set of cliffhangers, each moving the action from one setpiece location to another. Some of it is good stuff, but the technique is transparent. He also adheres strictly to a number of series traditions, especially at the beginning and end of the novel.

We start with notables arriving in New York City, one of them finding his way to the 86th floor of a very familiar building to visit Doc Savage only to die a weirdly horrible death. If someone down at Police Headquarters would have mapped out all the murders in New York from 1933 to 1934, they would surely find nowhere with a higher frequency for corpses than the corridor outside Doc Savage's penthouse. This time, the victim is a man named Hadim and the method is death by nebulous green flying snakes. You know, that sort of weirdly horrible death.

If there's any originality at this point, it's the fact that Doc is apparently not in town. Johnny discovers the body and Ham and Monk soon join him on his investigations. It's the latter pair who soon experience the Mystic Mullah of the title, in a form not unlike that of his method of murder: a green ghostly floating head, albeit one that speaks. Doc's initial absence is, I believe, longer than in any book in the series thus far; he doesn't make an appearance until page 27 of the Bantam paperback edition, almost 20% of the way into the book. What's more, there are other points where he vanishes for a while too, partly because Richard Sale's apparent solution to keeping six men busy is to have two of them kidnapped at any point in time.

Once Doc shows up, of course, we're in regular territory. The important person in dire need of help is the Khan Nadir Shar, Son of Divinity, Destined Master of Ten Thousand Lances, Khan of Tanan, Ruler of Outer Mongolia. The mysterious but tough woman at the heart of the story is Joan Lyndell, a western woman in business in the city of Tanan, who has great power and influence there. The villain of the piece, of course, is the Mystic Mullah, whose identity is so secret that even his followers don't know who he is. Nothing in this paragraph will be remotely surprising to regular readers of Doc Savage.

There are, however, some little details worthy of mention, many of which are new tricks up Doc's sleeve, metaphorically at least. One is actually secreted in his shoes; he escapes from a tight situation by releasing chemicals from one of his heels, which flare up brightly when exposed to air. Other chemicals are used later on to bleach people and their clothing for tracking purposes. Best of all, Doc introduces a set of radio controlled anaesthetic bombs, which are just as much fun as they sound!

It isn't all gadgetry though. An actor is hired at one point to impersonate Johnny; he succeeds too, even if he ends up dead for his troubles. Renny loses much of his left ear to a bullet and Ham loses a sword cane at the docks, though he replaces it from his collection. Perhaps best of all, we're introduced to an assassination technique in Tanan known as the human spider; it features disposable girls with deadly poison secreted under their sharp fingernails.

Clearly Sale tried hard to write a solid Doc Savage adventure and he did reasonably well. It could well be argued that the episodic nature is a positive attribute, with action shifting from the docks to a refinery to an abandoned yacht club to a beachfront amusement park and, eventually, all the way to Outer Mongolia; it could also, however, be argued that it simply shows a lack of understanding of how to craft the structure of a novel. Similarly, the traditional elements could be seen as respectful nods to the series or as the lack of a confident imagination which could make something more of them. I might believe the former more if the ending hadn't been so especially unimaginative.

What I will praise Richard Sale for is how well he keeps us guessing as to the identity of the villain. There are a number of believable candidates and their respective likelihood wanes and waxes with the story. I still hadn't figured out who it was when the secret was finally revealed. I'll also add tentative praise for a neat scene when one of those candidates, a fascinatingly facetious character by the name of Oscar Gibson saves Doc's life. I'd be more effusive if I wasn't wondering if that moment starts us down a slippery slope.

It also includes an example of odd vocabulary, something that's fascinated me in my explorations of this series. To save Doc, Gibson uses 'a fragment of twelve-ounce duck'; that's a tightly woven cotton fabric, used for a variety of purposes, but here sails. Other nautical terms used are 'seining' and 'coaming'. Ham does the former at one point to the darkness; a 'seine' is a fishing net, so he's casting out his hands to discover what might be in front of him when his eyes are unable to do the job. The latter is a raised frame on a boat used to keep out water; a mahogany coaming is shot up here.

I wonder if Sale had a nautical background. If he did, it didn't manifest itself again during the Doc Savage series, as this was the only novel in it that he wrote. It's a decent enough ride, with plenty of action and a decent helping of intrigue. All of Doc's men get their moments, even if they're far too easily kidnapped in this book, a fact that really hurts the flow. I'm mostly interested in whether some of Sale's additions to the canon will remain there or whether a succession of other authors, not least Lester Dent, will ignore Renny's shredded ear or Doc's flying anaesthetic bombs.

This anomaly over, next month we'll return to Lester Dent's trend of keeping his lead cast manageable by seeing what Doc, Monk, Ham and Pat get up to in 'Red Snow'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For reviews of  other Doc Savage titles click here

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