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WesternSFA


The Gold Ogre
Doc Savage #75
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 122pp
Published: Original May, 1939 Bantam: November 1969

It ought to be obvious that pulps like 'Doc Savage Magazine' that churned out a novel every month generally worked to a formula. That formula might vary between titles, but it was invariably set and adhered to within each. It's been fun, as I've read through six years worth of Doc Savage novels, to figure out the formula and notice when it got finessed. Well, this one breaks pretty much every rule that the series operated by and that makes it particularly fascinating to me.

What makes it extra fascinating is how 'The Gold Ogre' diverges from the norm. For a start, it only features two of Doc's aides, Ham and Monk, and then only briefly. We're told that the other three are overseas consulting with foreign governments, while the bickering buddies have gone off to Maine to hunt bear. They don't show up in this story until chapter twelve, promptly walk into a trap and are captured by the end of chapter thirteen, not to be freed until chapter seventeen, the final chapter. And until the brawl breaks out then to wrap everything up, they do nothing.

Now, your logical reaction to that is to assume that, with Doc's aides imprisoned or not in the country, this must be a solo Doc adventure. That's kinda sorta true, but really he isn't in it a heck of a lot either. He doesn't show up until chapter six himself and he also misses a couple of chapters on account of being almost killed by a hand grenade. We're never going to believe that Doc has died in one of these novels, because we know that he has to be back for next month's story, but this one does at least remove him from an impressive amount of action.

So who's really taking care of business in 'The Gold Ogre'? Well, it's Doc, but a massive amount of the book is given over to a sort of substitute Doc in training, a young man by the name of Don Worth. Don lives in Crescent City, somewhere on the Great Lakes, and works at Camp Indian-Laughs-And-Laughs because his family is poor. He's very serious, but also a gentle giant, immensely strong.

And he has three easily delineated aides of his own: B. Elmer Dexter, who spends much of his time conjuring up get-rich-quick schemes; a thinker called Morris 'Mental' Byron who often sits alone in quiet contemplation; and Leander 'Funny' Tucker, who eats and laughs and enjoys life. They don't have a 'Scooby Gang' name but they're very close and each of them would do anything for the others.

It's Don Worth who calls Doc in. It's Don Worth who calls in Monk and Ham when Doc is apparently killed. It's Don Worth who sparks most of what the good guys do in this one whenever Doc's not there to do it for them. And he has reason to care deeply, because the first person we see disappear from Crescent City after encountering one of the two-foot-tall gold ogres is Don's father, Thomas Worth, a crippled man who works as a night watchman at the Crescent City airport.

And yes, I said two-foot-tall gold ogres. There are a bunch of them, it seems, who spend their time kidnapping locals, all of whom seem to work for or have some connection to Marcus Gild, the most important man in town. They keep them prisoner in some sort of cavern, beat them horribly, give them some sort of mysterious potion and then release them. These former prisoners may appear to be fine but, at some point, they appear to suffer from a weird and violent malady which prompts them to attempt the murder of someone close to Marcus Gild.

That's the mystery at the heart of this novel and it really isn't much of a mystery. Gild's the most important man in town because he owns most of it: a bank, factories all over the place, even the telephone system. Excepting the Worth House, which is sometimes almost as busy as Grand Central Station, almost every location we visit in Crescent City or even outside it is owned by Marcus Gild. He also has a collection of small statues of men that are made out of gold and, shock horror, it's been stolen. Could Gild's statues have come to life and turned their evil attention upon their owner?

Well, no, because duh. But there really is only one rational explanation for everything that goes down and, amazingly enough, that's the precise explanation that we get at the end of the novel when all becomes clear. No prizes for figuring this one out, folks, I hate to break it to you.

The fact that these little gold men, whoever they are and what their backgrounds truly are—and take a wild stab in the dark because you'll be right—have names like Diddle, Fiddle and Faddle really doesn't help us take this seriously. The fact that they look like cavemen and they carry big clubs that are all the better to whack people with, doesn't help either. They're a silly concept indeed and I don't know what Lester Dent, for this is surprisingly one of his entries in the series, was thinking when he thought them up.

What he must surely have been thinking generally is that 'Doc Savage Magazine' was a pulp read by a lot of kids and how better to cement their allegiance than to introduce a junior version of Doc, complete with aides, for them to better identify with. After all, a superhuman giant bronze man living in a penthouse in New York with all the wealth he could ever use is a little wish fulfilment for most young Americans in 1939. A young man in the midwest who's poor and works at a summer camp is far more attainable and, if a Don Worth can realistically do what Doc Savage does, then so can a reader who paid a dime to devour 'The Gold Ogre'.

It's actually not a bad idea. Monk and Ham can get very tiresome and all the writers of Doc Savage novels have the annoying habit of taking Doc's world-renowned aides and having them spring every trap in town and get kidnapped whenever the clock chimes. I always enjoy when one of them is actually given something of substance to do and they do it right, but I also enjoy when a new character helps out for no better reason than a job needs to be done and they're there to do it. I often wish that such characters would be given an opportunity to return and help out again sometime, just as a one-off, but I haven't seen it happen yet and I doubt it will.

To me, Don Worth and his cohorts are worthy additions to this novel and I was happy to see them do well, even if they don't actually get to save the day and even if, yes indeed, they're captured twice. They help out immensely in the absence of Doc's regular aides and show great courage in the process. Once the day is won, they help out all the more and they express to Doc their hope that they can work with him again in the future. I'd be on board for that or for reading a side series that follows just them, a pulp entitled 'Don Worth Magazine'.

There's not a lot else to say this time because there's not a lot else going on. There is a beautiful redhead called Vee Main, who's remarkable in more than good looks, who's a sort of secretary and manager in one for Marcus Gild. We can firmly believe that much of his success is due to her, but she could have been given more to do here to back that up. There aren't many other characters, so it's pretty obvious who the the big bad guy is. If we hadn't deliberately figured it out, we do realise when it becomes clear that we knew all along because who else would it have been?

There isn't much in the way of gadgetry, though Doc does use a bunch, enough to make the boys really impressed. He has one radio direction finder that transforms into both a detector of electric current and a parabolic microphone, both supersensitive. He has a gadget that allows him to track the release of a particular chemical, held in an insole he gave to Don Worth, from the air using the infra-red spectrum. None of these are at all surprising. What they accomplish here is mostly awe on the part of the boys.

Did I like this? Sure, it's very likeable. It just isn't very good. This one may contain the flimsiest mystery the series has seen thus far, mostly so that there's enough room for a substitute bunch of aides who ought to have accomplished more with their time than they actually did. In other words, it's a book of good ideas but lost opportunities and it will stay in my memory longer than it should because of that.

Next up, another Lester Dent story, 'The Flaming Falcons', which may well be the first Doc Savage novel I ever bought. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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