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WesternSFA


The Yellow Cloud
Doc Savage #72
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 121pp
Published: Original February 1939, Bantam April 1971

February 1939's 'Doc Savage' novel was a highly unusual one in a number of ways. It isn't just that it's the only novel in the series written by this particular author, but that this particular author was both female and Lester Dent's secretary, writing from one of his outlines. Frankly, it's easy to tell that it's the work of a new author to the series but I'm in two minds as to whether she did a good job or not. I really like a couple of things that she did, so much so that they're an improvement on the norm, but I'm a lot less fond of a few other things that she did, which seem problematic.

We start off with a mystery and it's a good one, set up by some of the commentary on current affairs that I've been waiting to see. Apparently, it's been noticed that the US Army is poorly equipped. The rifles and whatnot that the soldiers carry are the same they carried in 1918, which puts the country a long way behind everyone else. "Europe was full of men who were trying to be Napoleon," we're told on page one and the US needs to catch up. So, they've designed the X-ship, which Renny is going to fly up from an island on the North Carolina coast for a test run.

It's great to see Renny show up first for a change, though he does arrive on the island with Monk and Ham in tow. Sadly, Renny isn't with us for long because, at 12,000 feet, he's chased by the yellow cloud of the title, which engulfs him and both he and the plane vanish into thin air. He does get a photo of it and drops that by parachute, so there's something for Doc and his men to examine, but this is a major loss, whether we're talking Renny or the X-ship. And they're not alone. It's been reported that a pair of planes in Pennsylvania have been chased by a yellow cloud too and one of them has disappeared.

Rather than introduce Doc, now the setup's done, Coulson has Monk and Ham zip off to Philly to talk with Brick Palmer, the pilot who got away and there's a great introductory scene for her. Yes, her. It's great to see Monk and Ham slip up with assumptions and Brick, which is short for Abricketta, holds a gun on them from the outset, because she thinks they're medics ready to take her to the loonie bin. They don't get to take her anywhere though, because Monk is crowned, Ham shot three times in the stomach and Brick kidnapped.

After they recover, because of course they do, they fly back to New York and park the plane inside the Hidalgo Trading Company warehouse on the Hudson, where they jump into the flea run to take them to Doc's HQ. I know about the flea run, because it's the name of an important Doc Savage fan group on Facebook, but I don't recall actually reading the name in the books before. I presume that this is the point where it's named, apparently by Monk, who also gives the moniker of the Wizard's Den to Doc's well-equipped laboratory. Monk gets rather a lot to do in this one, not just with regards to the story but to the series as a whole.

For a start, I thoroughly enjoyed the acrimonious banter between Monk and Ham here, even though I've been tiring of it in the series as a whole. It seems really fresh here, as Coulson finds the perfect balance between antagonistic and caring. There's a great scene in a schoolhouse where Monk seems to have vanished, so Ham panics and searches frantically for his nemesis, only to find him outside and immediately revert to insults. Those insults are fun too, from both sides, and it never seems to get in the way of the story.

The most obvious way Monk gets busy in this novel is by visiting a plastic surgeon to fix his face, which is described early on in memorable terms:

---

Monk Mayfair had a ludicrously wide mouth, a nose that did not have the same shape with which it had started life, and the kind of hair that the brush salesman rubs when he says, "Lady, this is exactly what you need to scrub that back porch." Monk was constructed along the lines of—well, no one ever had to look at Monk and wonder where he got that nickname.

---

This plastic surgeon, Florenso by name, who's a political refugee from Vienna, another pointer that the folk behind "Kenneth Robeson" were paying attention to what was happening on the other side of the pond, works at Patricia, Incorporated, which, as you might imagine, is Pat Savage's business. I have to point out that it's highly appropriate for the only female writer in the series to immediately bring in Pat Savage and do so with emphasis too.

After some relatively typical kidnap and rescue shenanigans, Doc and various aides get into the flea run at HQ and zip on back to the warehouse in the cramped egglike device that's pretty close to what Elon Musk is trying to build in his hyperloop concept. But, when it arrives at the warehouse, they are unable to get out, because Pat's there waiting and she quickly locks the doors from the outside. Only if Doc allows her to join in on the fun will she unlock them. And, oh yeah, she gets her way! Nice.

The mystery deepens with a welcome, if rather limited, role for Long Tom. Apparently, he's invented some sort of technology to transmit and receive video in a relatively small and portable package, no small achievement for 1939. The transmitter is small enough to put in his car, which is why Doc ensures that some bad guys steal it so they can tune in. However, when they do tune in, they don't see the car but an aeroplane, recognisable as the Bermuda Wind, travelling from England to New York. How can that be, given that Long Tom only has one transmitter and that's not where it's at, is as important a question for him as the fact that the Bermuda Wind is promptly stolen by the yellow cloud is to Doc and the others.

And here's where the first wild character comes in, Brick Palmer being worthy but not unusual in any way other than being a female pilot in 1939. They watch one man, whom they describe as a "big-eared dwarf", leap out of the plane, parachuting down to the ocean. They rescue him and discover that he's an Eskimo prankster named, get this, Heck Noe. The first thing he does when they lift him off his raft is to nab Monk with the old hand buzzer and it's not long after they're firmly ashore that he nails him with the shoelaces tied to the chair routine. Oh, what a wag.

The other wildcard, if not a wild character, is Philip van Blair of the Bar Harbor van Blairs, a member of society who gets along great with Ham, who shares some of the same tailors, but despises Monk from their very first encounter and takes every opportunity to snub him. Between the usual Ham, a new snobby fashion plate and a practical joker of an Eskimo, Monk really isn't feeling it, so perhaps triggering his trip to the plastic surgeon to fix his ugly mug. He takes part in the second half of the novel, but wrapped in bandages.

I liked so much of this. I appreciated the banter, both between Monk and Ham and, as it grew, Monk and various others. I appreciated the plastic surgery angle for Monk, which brought an unusual side to the novel. I appreciated Brick Palmer and Pat Savage getting good scenes. Did I mention that Pat has been studying jujitsu and that she gets a neat signal to Doc using sign language? I also liked the eventual location for the finalé, which takes place in what's described as a Coney Island crazy house, even if it's on the shores of a lake somewhere in the north west of Canada. It's not easily fathomed, because walls collapse, floors revolve and ceilings and floors swap at the least notice. There's even a wicked spinning cone underneath a vanishing floor that's ominously spiked. It's very cool indeed.

But there are things I didn't like too. Some are relatively big ones like the fact that the yellow cloud really doesn't get used much at all, so its mystery becomes rather forgotten until its eventual simple explanation reveals everything. The biggest is probably the fact that the ending is terrible, perhaps the worst in the series thus far, arriving out of nowhere, underwhelming in the extreme with its lack of karma and leaving me wondering if someone had ripped out a few pages from my paperback copy. One relatively minor one that nonetheless grated with me is that Doc is unusually talkative this time out, launching monologues he really wouldn't launch, given how few words he usually utters. It's out of character and it feels off.

In between is the bulk of the story, because there's some agreeable intrigue. We learn early on that this character and that aren't what they seem, but that doesn't mean that they're bad guys. Doc, of course, is hip to their game from the outset and plays them while they think they're playing him. It's capably done, not outrageously noteworthy but completely worthy. We shift location well, another way to play into the intrigue. The television transmitting angle isn't handled as well as it could have been, but I've certainly read about worse gadgets handled in a poorer fashion earlier in the series.

So, this is an interesting anomaly in many ways, an enjoyable story that's cut off a little quickly, with some highly memorable sections that I appreciated a great deal. Thank you, Evelyn Coulson, even if it would prove to be your one and only entry into this long-running series.

Next month, a novel I remember reading long ago, not because of what happens in it but because it's named so vividly. See you in November as Doc tackles 'The Freckled Shark'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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