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World's Fair Goblin
Doc Savage #74
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 122pp
Published: April 1939 Bantam edition:January 1969

'World's Fair Goblin' is a damn good title for a 'Doc Savage' novel, but it was actually a contemporary idea to tie into the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, held in Queens over a year and a half from April 1939 to October 1940, in two seasons. This novel came out in April to coincide with its grand opening, so only a fraction of the 44 million attendees who would eventually visit the Fair would have seen some of the exhibits that it soon names in the opening chapter (and depicts on the cover art), like the Perisphere and the Trylon.

The other notable fact before we dive into the story is that 'World's Fair Goblin' marks the introduction of a new writer to the series, William G. Bogart. While he wouldn't be behind a second book until November's 'Hex', he'd write five of the twelve in 1940 and eventually rack up fourteen in total. I'm not particularly impressed with his work here, because his prose is clunky and awkward, but he conjures up some very worthy scenes at least and he keeps the action rolling along.

And we're thrown into that action right out of the gate. It's the thirteenth day of the Fair and Prof. Martin Uppercue is running out of his laboratory in abject terror. We're given quite the travelogue as we follow his run into the Trylon, where he mysteriously disappears. The Goblin of the title shows up too, shocking people in the Hall of Mines with his 8' stature, before he too mysteriously disappears.

That's all pretty routine, but the second chapter features a neatly suspenseful scene that's much more like it. Doc Savage is presenting a series of medical demonstrations in the Hall of Medicine, today's being a delicate operation to remove a tumour from a young boy's brain. To the horror of the doctors and surgeons watching, the lights turn off at a critical juncture, but Doc successfully completes his work with a flashlight as a source of illumination. That's cool and it's a much more able testament to his abilities than the usual hagiographical paragraph or two.

Of course, Doc will investigate both mysteries and of course there are complications. There's a small blonde girl in Uppercue's lab, who actually sics Long Tom on Doc in the dark. That's fun, but she's an uncooperative interviewee with a habit of vanishing even at a hint of an opportunity. The Goblin manages to get hold of Long Tom and collapses the mine structure behind him, the first of an almost uncountable set of abductions in this novel. The bad guys prove very capable at acquiring their enemies, including Doc.

In fact, at one point, they have everyone we can safely assume is on the side of good in this book. That includes Doc, Long Tom, the perpetually bickering Ham and Monk, Pat Savage (who spends almost the entire book kidnapped), Prof. Uppercue and that little blonde girl, who turns out to be his daughter Kay. The only characters free are those in support who may or may not be on their side. There are only three of them: Adam Ash, a PR consul at the fair; Dr. Alexis Mandroff, a Russian doctor who assisted Doc with the tumour removal; and Shill Burns, who comes across like a carnival barker. Every one of these is suspicious in his way and we have little to go on to fashion a fair opinion.

And, to be brutally honest, we have little to go on with regards to anything here. This is an action-filled story that wraps up with a capable setpiece that's Hitchcockian in its use of a new landmark as its backdrop. Sure, it's cheap and schlocky and its character motivations and cheap gimmicks are unworthy, but it channels its 'Frankenstein'-like electrical laboratory well enough to be instantly memorable in a cinematic way. It just doesn't have a lot else going for it except that cinematic approach.

Even immediately after finishing the book in one sitting, everything that stood out in my memory was a setpiece. From Prof. Uppercue's opening chase of terror to that last karmic death scene in the Perisphere, there are a bunch of them: the blackout during Doc's tumour operation, the roof collapse in the Hall of Mines, a trap set for Ham and Monk on a floating stage in a lake, explorations of the miles of tunnels under the Fair, even the memorable appearance of the titular Goblin, who's an 8' tall behemoth with shocking red hair who frequently chuckles ominously just off-screen.

What it fails at is making any of its human characters interesting. Prof. Uppercue does little beyond that initial scene, because he spends the entire book a prisoner. Kay, his daughter is intriguing for a couple of chapters, but then she's taken and that's it until the end, because she's a prisoner too. There's a scar-faced henchman called Lonesome who exudes a little menace but then is almost forgotten about. And the three others are deliberately phrased as ciphers, because they don't do much except seem to be on one side while very possibly being on the other. That's not a lot to go on.

One other problem is that, if the best of these characters is Kay Uppercue, I found it a tough job to picture her. Sure, she's a small blonde girl, but I initially interpreted that as meaning that she's six. Later comments led me to shift that to sixteen, either that or they were really creepy indeed. I'm pretty sure six-year-olds shouldn't be described as "nifty little blondes". And later comments still led me to shift once more to maybe twenty-six. There's a huge difference between those ages and, while I've firmly ruled out the first of them, I still have little idea how old Kay really is. And that affects how we see her role in this story rather a lot.

I wonder how much of this was due to William Bogart being new to the series. I hope it is because I have to admit to feeling a little worried about non-entity characters such as these becoming the norm as 'Doc Savage Magazine' rolls into 1940, given that he's going to be the author behind so many of those novels. I'd like to see a lot more logic given to the science behind this too, because this one doesn't handle that well, with a device capable of storing unlimited power because it has a perfect insulator.

Certainly he misses out quite a lot of the elements we expect as standard. Yeah, Ham and Monk bicker but care, with one excellent prank by the latter on the former neatly backfiring on the final page. But there isn't a single catchphrase on show here, with a single kinda-sorta exception for Doc's trilling. In fact, Bogart appears to attempt the creation of a new one, for Monk, given that he says, I kid you not, "Goshamighty!" no fewer than three times. Let's get out of that habit swiftly, sir.

What's more, there's far too much reliance on gadgets, precisely none of which leave the people who carry them after they've been captured. Doc may be tied down on an operating table, but he's still wearing his gadget vest, which allows him to become a walking pharmacy. At one point, he produces, in quick succession, anaesthetic gas for the villain of the piece, stimulant for Long Tom, blinding powder for imminent guards and liquid to counter that when it backfires. They don't even take a submachine pistol off Monk that he's slipped down his trousers.

While I'm running through problems, a lack of consistency comes into play too. I found myself wondering on a number of occasions how something was happening, given the revelations of the previous page or the next. What are the acoustics really like on the lake stage? And do we really launch a test moon rocket containing scientific apparatus in the immediate run-up to a serious storm? Sure, we need the latter to illustrate the finalé in schlocky terms: one character, revealed as a bad guy, suddenly has a "satanic face", revealed in a lightning flash, as he "laughs with almost insane glee". Someone was clearly a Universal horror fan. Then again, this was 1939. Who wasn't?

So, this one's a real mixed bag that entertains with its action and its location but also disappoints with pretty much everything else. It's not the best start for a new author for the series, so I really hope 'Hex' reverses a lot of this. That's a seven month gap so there's plenty of opportunity for regular series writer Lester Dent to drill him in what a 'Doc Savage' novel really needs. Fingers crossed.

Next month, we're back in the hands of Dent for 'The Gold Ogre'. Right now, I'm happy for that. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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