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The Dagger in the Sky
Doc Savage #82
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 120pp
Published: Original November 1939, Bantam September 1969

Times were a-changin'. 'The Dagger in the Sky' was the novel in the December 1939 issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine' and that means that the war in Europe had been raging for a few months. I don't know quite how far in advance these novels were written but I've been waiting for one of the series authors to note that something was going on there and this is when it finally happened. It's not overt, just a side note a few chapters in that mentions that Germany absorbed Czechoslovakia. Instead, Lester Dent, who wore the Kenneth Robeson hat this time out, focused on an imaginary war in two imaginary countries, albeit ones that he admits in author's notes are renamed "for obvious reasons".

Other routine components are different here too. I don't think we can quite claim that the more down-to-earth plot, with a cabal of bad guys doing bad things for what they think are good reasons but which are definitely bad, is particularly new but it is a very grounded novel for a series that's featured some truly fantastic elements, from dinosaurs to lost worlds via the power of invisibility. In fact, this one's so grounded that Doc himself is given a much more human face. Early on, he leaves New York for a month of holiday, because he believes that he's becoming too much like the machine he was trained to be and he should reconnect with the masses. Later, he notices the feminine charms of Sanda MacNamara and has to choose a little more vehemently not to allow romance into his life than usual.

What's more, his aides are pretty capable this time out. I've mentioned in a number of reviews that it's frustrating to read about how talented these five men are, not just at the top of their respective fields but adventurers supreme, only for them to screw up task after task and spend most of their time being kidnapped. To be fair, everyone gets caught in this one, Doc included, but Monk knocks out a butler who was once a contender for the heavyweight crown, Long Tom and Johnny complete a successful tail and a dangerous mission is completed so well I'm definitely not going to spoil it.

But first, as they say, the mystery. There's a black stone and a wealth of black daggers that appear to be supernatural. The black stone is an ancient artefact, believed by some South American natives to be the supreme Mayan deity, Kukulkan, turned to stone, or perhaps a different evil deity who Kukulkan turned to stone. Either way, touch it and die. Literally. Sixty are dead in the fictional country of Cristobal and its curse has travelled to the States, the stone having been sold by Juan Don MacNamara, son of Cristobal's president, to Sid Morrison, antiques broker, who only makes it to the third chapter. Some black daggers appear in the sky, two hundred feet long, above such victims. Others are stabbed with black daggers to the heart, which promptly disappear.

One of those victims is Doc, whose plane ride to a month-long holiday is ended with a searing white light and a plunge to the ground, a two-hundred-foot black dagger appearing in the sky above the wreckage. That's chapter one, which is a pretty cool way to kick off a Doc Savage novel, even though, as we know, it is not the end of the Man of Bronze. Sid Morrison is stabbed with a black dagger. Juan Don MacNamara crashes his plane, the dagger showing up in the sky above him. And Henry Lee, wealthy American, finds no safety in his own home a thousand feet above Wall Street, because he's stabbed with a black dagger as well, even with seven colleagues watching him to ensure it doesn't happen.

Of course, there's a rational explanation for all of this, not that I'm going to spoil that, because this is a down-to-earth Doc Savage adventure. I did mention that, right? And everything seems to tie to the war between Hispanola and Cristobal, which nobody can satisfactorily explain. These South American states tend to get along, but there's been a couple of years worth of concentrated propaganda that's painted the people of Cristobal as the enemy of Hispanola and eventually a border skirmish grew to full-fledged war. What's more, Hispanola appears to have magically acquired substantial arms, weaponry and other military equipment to easily skew the odds into their favour.

And so, off to Hispanola go Doc, four of his aides and all seven of the incredibly rich men who constitute a syndicate involved in acquiring museum items, these latter drugged and unceremoniously dragged on board ship secretly in theatrical trunks. I should mention that this is a Swedish ship, given that America is neutral; Congress firm in that, and so any American goods travelling to a country at war must be paid for in cash only and be delivered in a boat that is not registered in the U.S. Yes, World War II had been a going concern for a couple of months at this point, but Pearl Harbor was still a couple of months away.

I don't think I need to detail the story any further than that, which is about halfway, because that's the grounding, but I will comment on a few details from later on that help to keep things realistic. Just as Doc's aides are capable here, working individually or as a team, even when Doc keeps his plans close to his chest, as he so notoriously does, the enemy aren't idiots either.

When they outwit Ham, the biggest problem in the crew this time out, they're very conscientious. They search their captives well, stripping them of even the best hidden gadgetry. Doc eventually picks up the trail, courtesy of Monk's soles - that are made of a clever chemical that gradually dissolves and is easily trackable - but doing so is just a way to allow even Doc to fall into a trap, because the bad guys figured it out. Clearly, the new Doc isn't going to be able to rely on gadgets.

Crucially, it isn't just what we see but what we don't see. After Doc is captured, he doesn't fashion some clever escape with a quick disguise or three, an approach that's always felt cheap to me. Instead, he has to be rescued, either by the good guys or the bad guys pretending to be good guys, only for Doc to have them scouted all along and so merely lets them do their thing until it's time to turn the tables. There is one disguise in this novel, which I won't spoil, but it's a really good one that has plenty of time to set up and that makes it a lot more viable than the ones Doc has conjured up in the past in a mere two shakes of a lamb's tail.

To wrap up, I'll point out that even the way things wrap up is treated differently. Doc Savage novels are notorious for their karmic endings, in which the villain of the piece is stripped of his anonymity and left to manufacture his own demise out of greed or vengeance or bitterness. That was mostly done, I think, to avoid Doc having to kill anyone, because that moral stance was enforced after the first few bloodier novels in the series. However, here, Lester Dent takes a very different tack. Doc doesn't kill anyone in this one either, but that doesn't mean that the bad guys perform that job for him. Instead, they simply get caught and Doc sends them to his famous secret "upstate college" to be reprogrammed as upright citizens. It's a mild ending but not a disagreeable one.

And so, as a Doc Savage novel, this is a mediocre one, not particularly good but not particularly bad. It merely serves as an important one, with the tone of series definitely changing. I kind of expected that a little, given that the, cough, situation in Europe, cough, didn't just go away and there had to be a point where a series set in the present day had to acknowledge a global conflict. That appears to be this book but in a relatively subtle way, with action shifted elsewhere and comments left to asides or very careful apolitical notes. Mussolini is mentioned, for instance, but only because his desk was situated far from his desk as a subtle means of establishing power over his visitors. I'm eager to see how this progresses as the series moves into 1940. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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