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WesternSFA


The Freckled Shark
Doc Savage #73
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 138pp
Published: Original March 1939, Bantam March 1972

For a while, 'The Freckled Shark', another Lester Dent entry into the 'Doc Savage' series, is quite the textbook on how to write a pulp adventure novel. Chapter one especially fits this bill, because it has everything.

There's an exotic location, showcased in the very first word: Matecumbe, an island within the Florida Keys. There's a strange character who's clearly hunting for something other than the crayfish that he pretends to seek. There's a mystery, because he's found by a college boy on a beach, naked but for a rope around his neck, apparently insane and certainly blind, missing his fingernails and eyelashes. And there's a MacGuffin, because, once he recovers his senses, he also recovers the slice of freckled sharkskin hidden within the knot in his rope, sneaks out of the hospital and mails it to Rhoda Haven in New York.

Of course, some of the mystery is soon explained. The Department of Justice correctly identifies him as Jep Dee, who was recently sentenced to the firing squad in Blanca Grande, a dictatorship in South America which has a bounty on his head. However, they believed him dead, so the appearance of his photo in the Key West newspaper quickly prompts Horst to search, initially for him and then for the sharkskin. They can't kill Jep Dee with cops right outside his hospital room, but they follow the mail to New York where they plan to wipe out the Havens, not merely Rhoda but her father Tex too, who's memorably described by Horst as a "wampus-cat".

I like Rhoda Haven a lot, because she's hardly the beautiful damsel in distress that we're introduced to in most of these novels. Like her father, she's what could be called an adventurer or even a soldier of fortune. She has four degrees, wrote an archaeology textbook and has a bounty on her head too, $100,000 from, you guessed it, the government of Blanca Grande. When Horst's bad guys show up to murder them, they rumble the plot and escape capably. Safely elsewhere, Tex decides that the best thing he can do is to sic Doc Savage onto Horst and Señor Steel, so off goes Rhoda to the 86th floor to lie her teeth off.

We're four chapters in before she gets to HQ and the first of Doc's aides enters the picture. To mix it up a little, that's Johnny rather than Ham or Monk, and he seats Rhoda in a heavy chair that doesn't move to tell her story, then wanders into the library so Doc can let him know if she's being honest, as it's a chair hooked up to a lie detector. Her only truth is that her life is in danger, but Doc has Johnny pick up Monk and Ham and investigate. Neatly, Johnny doesn't want to do the former, believing that they'll just fight over the girl, which they naturally do, but this starts quite an unusual progression.

There's a relatively set pattern for this sort of play. The aides go off to do whatever, only to end up in some sort of mess, which probably involves their capture by the bad guys, so that Doc can show up in the nick of time and save the day. That doesn't happen here. Well, most of it does, because yes, they promptly get captured so Horst's men can quiz them about Jep Dee and, when they prove that they don't know anything, they can throw them into a cistern to die. But it's not Doc who shows up to save the day, it's a character called Henry Peace, who dominates this book.

Initially, that's through genial violence. He's a big man, red haired and blue eyed, who can't shoot to save his life but knows exactly how to use his fists. In fact, after scattering the crooks, he knocks down both Monk and Ham, who think they can best him. Then it's through doe-eyed devotion with Monk and Ham chasing after Horst's men, he declares that he fell in love with Rhoda at first sight, so she kicks him into the cistern and goes home. He shows up soon thereafter, promising to marry her and become a business partner to her and her dad. He's infuriating.

He's also very good. I adored these scenes, because the very capable Rhoda and Tex use all their wits to get away from him, only to inevitably find him waiting for them when they reach their destination. They even sneak off to a secret hotel, only to discover him waiting in the closet after they enter their room. Now, a new reader may fall for this, because Dent is very careful not to let us know that Henry Peace is not really Henry Peace but Doc Savage, but series regulars will rumble him immediately. It's fair to say that a comment about his large hands might have had us believe it was Renny instead, but Dent took care of that already by telegraphing that he and Long Tom are in Czechoslovakia building and electrifying a dam.

Of course, we see Doc in disguise all the time. What's different here is that he stays in disguise for a majority of the book. He's just as involved in the story as he usually is, but, after that one moment in chapter four when he's only an offscreen voice talking to Johnny, he's only involved as Henry Peace until the twelfth chapter, which is two thirds of the way through the book. Dent deliberately avoids every opportunity to identify Peace as Doc and, when he can't do that, he cuts off the identification, like in chapter ten when Peace flies to Key West, lands on a golf course outside a local cop's house to ask him about Jep Dee. Of course, that cop is only going to talk to Doc, so Dent gives us:

"Bless me!" he yelled. "You're—"

"Henry Peace is the name now," Henry Peace said.

The other big difference is that, while Doc has always ruthlessly shrugged off every one of the many women who fall in love with him, because his life and mission needs to be free of distraction and they would be safer far away from all of that, he actively courts Rhoda Haven here. Sure, he's only doing it to get her to talk, so he can find out what she and her father got up to with Jep Dee, what the rag of freckled sharkskin is and why everything that's happened in this novel has happened, but he plays the ladies’ man to get that information. There are so many great lines revolving around his love and dedication to Rhoda, but my favourite is this one:

"I wish," she snapped, "that I had been made a man."

"You have," Henry Peace assured her cheerfully. "I'm him."

I think it's safe to say that Henry Peace is annoying when we first encounter him but he grows on us like a rash. I found myself laughing more during this book than any previous entry in the series. And it's not just me, because Ham and Johnny get to do that themselves after everything's resolved, in a memorable scene:

"Don't you ever let her find out who Henry Peace was," he warned grimly. "Monk still doesn't know, and see that he never does. You hear?"

The bronze man sounded so deathly serious that Johnny and Ham doubled over laughing. It was the first time they had ever laughed at Doc Savage.

Henry Peace is also very telling because of how Rhoda reacts to him. She's a well-educated and very intelligent woman who has long lived the life of an adventurer, so it's fair to say that she has street smarts and book smarts. She uses her wits to repel this interloper's unwanted advances and she has a lot of fun doing it. But, as the book runs on, she gradually falls for him, partly because he backs up everything he boasts about and so proves that he's a worthy match for her, as goofy as he might be.

This is a slow process, of course, so, for much of the book, she bickers and rants at him like Monk and Ham bicker and rant at each other, something that happens a lot less here because it isn't needed. And, given that it's obvious that the Rhoda/Henry banter is replacing the Monk/Ham banter and it's obvious that the lady doth protest too much and she's clearly fallen for the big redhead, it's hardly a stretch to extrapolate that sort of logic to Monk and Ham's relationship. I've never bought into them being lovers instead of just very close friends, but it's hard not to wonder here. It's like Dent gives us hints throughout the novel.

As an adventure, this doesn't hold up as well as I'd hoped, but it's a pretty decent affair. The finalé is definitely rushed, but it's satisfactory enough. I've certainly read worse elsewhere in the series. The mystery is kept for a long time, the head bad guy shows up and that prompts a whole bunch of deceit and counter-deceit, trap and counter-trap. This isn't the great cat-and-mouse battle that some books have already been, but I was never bored and I always wanted to know a little more, which ensured I kept on turning pages.

And, as much as I'd like to see Rhoda Haven again in a future book, even though I would have known even in 1939 that it would never happen, I'd love to see the return of Henry Peace. It's an utter joy to see Doc so confident in such a different way but yet so bamboozled at the same time!

And, with one quick side note to highlight that Lester Dent was clearly seeing what was happening in Europe but perhaps downplaying it, given a note here by Tex to Rhoda that, "In certain circles, more people've heard of Doc Savage than know about Mussolini and Hitler." Not any more, sir, and frankly not for long after Tex said that. I wonder what he really thought. Was he really downplaying the rise of fascism as a fad or was he commenting that Americans generally weren't paying attention and it's appropriate that they should? I'm eager to see how the tone of the series will change as 1939 evolves and the real world got closer to actual war.

Next month, the introduction of a new regular writer to the series, William G. Bogart, who makes his debut with the intriguingly titled 'World's Fair Goblin'. He'd also pen 'Hex' later in 1939 and no fewer than five of the twelve books in 1940. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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