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The Flaming Falcons
Doc Savage #76
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 118pp
Published: Original: June 1939 Bantam January 1968

I can't remember enough to be sure, but 'The Flaming Falcons' may well have been my very first Doc Savage novel. It's certainly one of the first few that I bought, from some long-forgotten market stall somewhere in northern England, but I have a feeling it may have been the first that I actually read. I have to say that, if it was, I didn't remember anything about it, but then that would have been maybe forty years ago. I can't remember why I went into the kitchen half the time.

It's easy to see on a fresh read why I'd have liked it and wanted more. It's a relatively straightforward Doc but an enjoyable one that features most of the usual shenanigans without the more annoying of them taking over. It's hardly the best in the series, but it's one of the most likeable, with a believable MacGuffin that's kept neatly obscured for the longest time, a cool mystery in the skull-coloured birds of the title and an alternation in locations that doesn't include New York. The first half takes place in Arizona, outside the town of Bowlegs, and, one long steamship journey later, the rest unfolds in Indo-Chinese jungles, at a ruined city, which is never a bad thing.

It's a Lester Dent novel and he cut this one down to the quick. While Fiesta Robertson does talk with Doc on the phone in chapter five, he doesn't actually make a physical appearance until chapter six, a quarter of the way into the book. Only two assistants join him this time out, which inevitably means Monk and Ham, though they're on top-banter-form with some memorable scenes that stand out over almost everything else. Renny, Johnny and Long Tom are away in Europe. And so they acquire a third helper who's not one of the team, Hobo Jones by name, who's very welcome. He's able, but also very jealous of Doc, given his growing fascination with Fiesta Robertson.

The setup is fun. Jones is the hobo you might expect, but someone who's living on his own terms for a set of reasons entirely his own. He's in Arizona and he stumbles on a strawstack he wants to sleep in, only to find it's surrounded by an electrified fence, really a disguise for a building and the apparent home of a naked, greased man who knows how to fight. That's mystery enough, but the man dies and a bird appears in the room with him, one who soon vanishes into a cloud of piercing white flame. He's not alone at this point, having been waylaid by a woman, Fiesta Robertson, who sees what he sees.

They escape the strawstack and what she calls a witch's chicken and they escape the armed men who attempt to kill them, but they're split up. Fiesta makes it to her car and to her room in Bowlegs, only to find that the hotel won't stake her a long distance phone call to New York or the airport a ticket for a plane there. Well, until Doc Savage comes up in both conversations. Suddenly, they're willing to do all those things and more, because "We've heard a little about Doc Savage."

Eventually Doc shows up, already ahead of the game, and Monk and Ham aren't far behind, but they have some mysteries to solve. It seems that there are two gangs in play, who are fighting each other, and it takes a letter to Fiesta from her brother Dave to explain what's going on. One lot, presumably led by Fenter Bain, are growing bizarre yellow vegetables by the strawstack in Arizona and they are the ones putting Dave's horticultural skills to forcible use somewhere in Indo-China. The other bunch have stolen those vegetables and so nudged their enemies back to Indo-China, to which they pursue them for reasons as yet unknown.

And so we go. We don't know who runs either side. We don't know why the muskmelons are a worthy MacGuffin for everyone. We don't know why Arizona or Indo-China. We have no idea where the ruins of an ancient city come in. We have a pretty solid idea of the framework of what's going on but none of the details that will bring sense to it. And, of course, we don't know anything about these flaming falcons, except that they can tail Fiesta's car effortlessly at fifty miles per hour. In many ways, while the muskmelons are the MacGuffin for the characters, the flaming falcons are the MacGuffin for us. They caught my interest immediately and kept me guessing until the final chapter.

While Fiesta is a capable young lady—hey, even Pat Savage gets kidnapped on a regular basis and she is certainly capable—and Hobo Jones proves to be a fun sidekick, it's actually Monk and Ham who are the most fun here. Two scenes in particular stand out for special attention and there's almost a third but it's not explored to its logical conclusion. That one has Monk find out that Chemistry has acquired an infestation of fleas but he's carefully picking them off one at a time and giving them to Habeas. It had a lot of promise but fizzled out.

The first that didn't fizzle out has Hobo Jones stumble on Ham staked out in the muskmelon patch in Arizona. He attempts to free him but is fought for his troubles, because it's a trap. However, when it's sprung and Monk comes out to watch, he doesn't free Ham, he just tells Jones to rip his trousers, for the sheer fun of it. Even in a serious moment staged for a serious reason, Monk can have glorious fun at the expense of his friend.

The other flips the power. The three of them parachute out of their plane towards the ruined city, so Doc can delay the warplane that's going to eventually take him down, and Monk finds himself caught forty feet in the air, his parachute caught on a branch. To make matters worse, he's being pelted by a small army of monkeys, which has Ham in paroxysms of laughter, until the moment when he realises that Monk is actually in serious danger and then he panics. Fortunately, Doc's there to save the day. Ham wisely takes a walk after that.

Talking of Monk, in a novel that doesn't introduce much that's new in terms of series mythology, we do learn that he's notably superstitious. On the thirteenth day of the steamship voyage out from San Francisco to Indo-China (we never get a better destination than that), he discovers that Habeas has made thirteen scratches while creating a nest, his shaving mirror is broken and the ship's black cat is more than happy to cross his path. Some or all of this may be Ham's doing, of course, which leads to a pristine exchange between them. Monk accuses Ham of trying to hoodoo him and Ham responds:

"Hoodoo you?" Ham snorted. "My homely fellow, you were hoodooed at birth. You are a hoodoo."

Frankly, compared to the Monk/Ham incidents, the story proceeds so routinely that it's not worthy of much mention. I take notes per chapter on Doc novels and they're all pretty straightforward for half the book, with little happening and none of it complex. Mysterious, sure, because Dent sets up much, but not complex. Only when they get onto the steamship, loaded surreptitiously by crate to avoid the suspicions of Fenter Bain, do we get any real intrigue, characters believing that they've got one over on the Man of Bronze but Doc seeing through it all and remaining one step ahead. Even there, it's a mild sort of intrigue when compared with so many other Lester Dent Docs.

At least, when the mystery is explained, it makes sense. I won't spoil it here, but the vegetables have meaning and that meaning leads to motivation and everything else just falls into place. The one and only abiding mystery is why the flaming falcons? We learn what they are and that makes sense, or at least I think it does—I'm not sure how viable this approach would be in reality—but we never learn of a reason why. Sure, they're scary as heck and they have a further reason for being, but they're a wild and wonderful idea to conjure up and there's no attempt given to explaining the origins of that idea in any way.

And so that's my first Doc Savage. I think. From way back when. If it was, it certainly prompted me to seek out further Bantam paperbacks featuring "the fantastic adventures of Doc Savage by Kenneth Robeson". They weren't commonplace in northern England but I put together a collection of thirty or so over the years. I couldn't have dreamed at that point that, one day, I'd find myself in Arizona, even if it wasn't a strawstack outside Bowlegs, attending Doc Con with almost a hundred other fans, most of whom had devoured the entire series more than once. I had catch up to do, but that was a perfect place to pick up the titles I didn't have and flesh out my collection. It also led to this runthrough. I do miss Doc Con. I wish it hadn't ended after twenty years. It made a difference. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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