Harold A. Davis returns as Kenneth Robeson for a second Doc Savage book in succession and, like its predecessor, “Merchants of Disaster,” it starts out well but ends up falling apart. What's more, this saw release in August 1939, only a month before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War began, but it's a fundamentally old-fashioned cliffhanger. The series was clearly resisting any suggestion that it become topical, so much so that Doc and his cohorts end up, in a way, in 1542. Yeah, let's see how well that doesn't work.
For maybe half the book, it plays out rather effectively, with an atmospheric location, a believable mystery and a set of interesting characters. We're in the almost inaccessible swamps of southeastern Arkansas, in between the Mississippi and Ouachita rivers. The government is working a flood control project, for which they even brought in Doc Savage himself to persuade the locals, who automatically distrust any authority, that it's to their benefit. He even has Renny assigned to the project to make sure it goes well. For a change, it's Renny who we see first of Doc's entourage.
But things aren't going well. People are disappearing into the swamp, after hearing chains and clanking metal, never to re-emerge, and rumours of a deadly snake circulate. Government engineers scoff, of course, but locals begin to leave the project, threatening its viability. Engineer Bill Craig even stumbles upon a hanging corpse, an unmistakable mark of the crimson serpent on his chest. It's not there when he takes Renny to see it, so the huge assistant heads back to camp to call in Doc, only to find that his radio set has been sabotaged. A chapter later, he vanishes into the swamp, along with Bill Craig and they're lost, presumed dead, a hideous corpse meeting those who follow to investigate.
Three suspicious characters are introduced in the first five chapters and experience tells us that at least one of them is going to be up to his or her neck in whatever's really going. They're agreeably different this time out, an impressive set of suspects.
The first is Georges Douter, who shows up in Renny's camp precisely at the moment the radio ceases to work. He pretends to be a journalist but clearly isn't and he speaks with a European accent, though there's no attempt to tie that fact to current affairs, such an obvious omission that it surely had to be deliberate because of editorial policy. He underlines his status as a suspect by calling Doc and leaving a weird message, letting the bronze man know that Renny is dead and claiming to be the Oracle. “Keep away,” he says, “or the Crimson Serpent will continue to kill.”
The second is female, because at least one of the suspects had to be. She's a tiny Spanish lady who arrives at HQ wanting to hire Doc to find Georges Douter. She's Consuelo Manresa and she has one of the best entrances thus far in the entire 'Doc Savage' series, given that she insults both Monk and Ham and then promptly leaves, after they both attempt to jump her simultaneously and end up in a heap on the floor in front of her. When they fill in Doc on the Oracle's message, he has them fly their dirigible to Chicago and Consuelo promptly follows in a hired plane.
And the third gets a pretty good entrance too, given that he waltzes into Doc's hotel room in Chicago, where he was being honoured by the Scientific Adventurers' Club, and delivers the drugged but clearly alive Renny, who's escaped from his captors but was wandering dazed around the streets. This character is Fletcher Carter, who's a private detective with a real knack for being in the right place at the right time. He exercises that knack a lot in this book, often to save Doc's men from the latest incarnation of certain death. Of course death is very far from certain here, given that Renny is killed three times to my count without, of course, actually being killed.
All three of these characters continue to act suspiciously, as Doc investigate what's going on, initially in Chicago and then down in the Arkansas swamps. It feels like it's been a while since a novel where he doesn't set a single foot in New York at any point, but he doesn't come close here. In fact, there's another outside character added into the fray, though we always accept that he's what he seems to be: a crime reporter with the unlikely name of Gerald Pettybloom. Doc uses him to spread publicity about what's going on by enabling him to steal a print from his lab. Renny had rigged a camera around his camp and it triggered the night of his disappearance. He had the film concealed in his belt so could pass it on to Doc and that's when we discover that the clanking metal was men in antique armour.
I did mention 1542, right? Well, Harold Davis explores the idea that the Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto, who had discovered the Mississippi in 1541, might still be there to this day, sipping from the Fountain of Youth, a myth that he'd thought was in Florida but might have been a couple of states away in the swamps of Arkansas. It is an intriguing idea, but even before it's wheeled out, the novel has started to creak wildly at its seams and the idea is lost amidst overly complicated choreography, far too many characters masquerading as other characters and, as always in a Harold A. Davis novel, plenty of use of overly convenient gadgetry.
I can deal with that sort of thing to a degree, but each of those three problems is notably overdone here and it's not remotely believable. The worst instance may well be an instance where Monk wakes up to hear Ham spilling the beans to their captors. While he's in a bona fide torture chamber, Ham's only been injected with truth serum so Monk's able to turn the tables on the bad guys. How, you might ask? Well, at this critical moment, Davis tells us that he happened to only recently perfect an anti-truth serum serum that effectively immunises someone to known truth serum and, get this, he injected himself with it right before they left New York. He didn't have time to inject Ham too, of course; it was that last minute. Plot convenience much?
Similarly, I can accept Doc being able, under the right circumstances, to disguise himself as someone else, so he can take their place and usually infiltrate the enemy's camp for a while. He does that pretty early in this novel, somehow managing to implement this disguise during an actual fight. Later, he impersonates two different bad guys in two successive chapters and only escalates from there, roping his assistants into impersonations too and confusing the heck out of us. By the time we get to the final chapter, I'd lost track of who was who because they'd just change into someone else mid-paragraph and I was supposed to just take it as read.
Some of the gadgetry is cool and not all of it's new. Doc's used the ultraviolet ray communication device before and we're used to him planting imaginative trackers on enemy vehicles. He benefits from some useful listening devices this time out which aren't explained but are far more believable than Monk's anti-truth serum serum. I would love to know how Doc manages to safely secrete thermite-nitroglycerin bombs on his person and I wasn't much impressed by the "small capsule of highly compressed liquid air" that he throws at a gunman to freeze his hand and the firing mechanism of the weapon. I mean, sure, it's really cool, and maybe even viable, but Davis is so fond of everything happening in the blink of an eye and I just don't buy that.
If you haven't guessed, there's a lot I don't like about the second half of this novel, after liking so much about its first half. What I did like was the setting, even if the presence of a huge Spanish castle in the Arkansas swamps is never quite explained, let alone the torture chamber and the wild abundance of levers and secret doors. It's like we're in an old dark house movie but we're in the least likely place in the country to have an old dark house. The men in armour speaking two-hundred-year-old Castilian and firing blunderbusses at dirigibles is wicked cool but it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. If nobody knows you're there, you don't have to disguise yourself and you certainly don't need to disguise yourself in such a flamboyant and dedicated fashion.
And so this is another mixed bag from Harold A. Davis, something he seems to be getting really good at. It isn't without its charms, but 'The Crimson Serpent' is not a highlight of the series and I find myself looking forward to the return of regular series author Lester Dent for a couple of books in a row, starting with 'Poison Island'. I see that the non-Dent books for the next twelve months are by William G. Bogart so we don't have to revert to over-indulgence with disguises and gadgets until 'The Purple Dragon' in September 1940 when Davis returns. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more Doc Savage titles click here