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WesternSFA


Merchants of Disaster
Doc Savage #77
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 138pp
Published: Original July 1939, Bantam October 1969

Harold A. Davis is back in the Kenneth Robeson chair for this one and it ends up being a middling affair, even though it starts off very well and Doc Savage is brought into play very quickly, called by no less an important man than the Secretary of War. He would have been contacted a chapter earlier, by a patent attorney called Lee Quinan, but he's murdered first. A hobo named Joe Goopy dies before that but had no way or idea to call in Doc. Quinan, however, is a fantastic creation. He sees the strange light signals emanating from the building opposite his office, even though he's snowblind, because his dark glasses are the key. He recognises the cipher too and even transcribes it, but the bad guys take care of him.

It's when two hundred men are suffocated on a military test site that Doc is called in, because it's quite the mystery. They were testing goggles to see through an enemy smoke screen. It isn't the gas and it's not the masks, but something suffocated them and the military believes that it's mass murder. They're right too, because the culprit is a new death weapon that's supposedly impossible to guard against; it promptly becomes the McGuffin of this novel and everyone's after it, including spies from a whole slew of nations, sent to the States by "the war lord of Europe". This was published in 'Doc Savage Magazine' in July, 1939. The Second World War was only two months away, not that Davis knew that. He carefully avoids mentioning any of them, presumably because Street & Smith didn't want to get sued.

All the component parts for a great Doc Savage novel are here and early too, from mysterious deaths to threats against the nation. Chapter three features all Doc's aides arriving in DC in disguise, notably so: Ham, Monk and Chemistry are street entertainers; Renny is an anti-marriage campaigner; Johnny and Long Tom are malaria victims; and Doc is masquerading as a western senator. Best of all, there are some serious attempts on their lives, which Davis handles with aplomb. While Doc inevitably saves the day through liberal application of gadgets secreted about his person, a Harold A. Davis staple, we feel like it's actually going to happen, that series regulars are going to end their contributions here.

This one features Doc arriving in a hotel room to find all five of his men, plus Chemistry, sprawled on the floor, not breathing. In the nick of time, he figures out what's causing it, putting some poisoned paper underwater to nullify its effects, then administers to each victim oxygen tablets, adrenaline shots and muscle stimulants in turn. It's astoundingly quick work, of course, but that just adds to the stress of the scene. Were we to count the seconds, we'd likely have to choose which of them was going to end up with permanent brain damage from oxygen starvation and which wouldn't make it, but naturally that fate is avoided through the magic of convenience.

There are a lot of cliffhangers here, the best coming later in the novel when Doc is attempting a rescue from a dangerous location. Long Tom has been captured but, through neat gadgetry, Doc knows exactly where he is. He's on the fifth floor of an office building, mostly made of metal and carefully guarded. It takes some cunning magician's tricks to get him in but he finds himself stuck in a corridor, the bad guys ready to destroy him and they do just that, blowing up the building with thermite bombs. Doc makes it out, of course, as does Long Tom, but through the use of refrigerated suits, made even more cold by the heat of the fire.

It's a glorious cliffhanger, but I have to wonder where those suits came from, just as I have to wonder in a previous scene where Doc found an oversized machine gun to fire mercy bullets at the hitmen rushing into a building to kill him. I can accept all the tiny gadgets he conceals in his utility vest, even under his layer of fake skin when the bad guys strip that utility vest from him, but how do you conceal a machine gun and a pair of refrigerated suits in a small vest pocket? Davis certainly overuses the gadgets and so underuses Doc's planning and improvisational talents. After all, the muscles can only get him so far. It's his highly-trained brain that truly sets him apart from everyone else.

Davis adheres to the requirements of the standard formula that the various series authors, including Lester Dent, tended to follow. There are a couple of omnipresent intelligent henchmen who mount the ongoing attacks against Doc and his men, this time named Grant Holst and Leon Spardoso, perhaps the most realistic names such characters have been given. There's a beautiful young lady, who may or may not be on the side of good, who goes by Olivia Payne and pretends to be a newspaperwoman. There's a wildcard of a character too, named Carl Zolg, who claims that he's a science instructor. But there aren't many characters at all, which means that it's easy to work out who's really who and what they mean to the story. Of course, there's also a shift in location roughly halfway through, which isn't notable.

Well, it isn't notable until the final scene which, in true Hitchcockian fashion, unfolds at the top of one of the towers on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It's a good choice of location, but more sense of place would have rendered it a great choice. Instead, merely just hints at what it could have been. In similar fashion, there's a glorious scene in the air, where the Flying Fortress heading west with Doc and his men on board, is attacked in memorable fashion by a pair of planes carrying a chain between them, like stunt flyers. What a great way to take out propellors! This is a very visual scene and, between that aspect and the frequency of the cliffhangers, this would have made a fantastic serial film.

In fact, the more I think about this novel and the moments that stand out from it, every single one is an acutely visual moment. We could all pick favourites and end up without any duplicates. There are fights and shootouts and plane crashes. The giveaway to help us identify the bad guys is their use of oversized wristwatches. There are escapes, like Long Tom slipping his bonds by means of his sweat triggering the potassium nitrate in his shirt and setting fire to the ropes. There's Olivia Payne's neat grey suit. There are all the disguises, which are not restricted to chapter three. And there are the mass murders, which unfold without an obvious weapon, except the flashes of light, which, of course, are also acutely visual.

Anyone looking to check off the expected details would be happy here, as would those readers eager to encounter more of Doc's gadgets, because they're everywhere here. All the aides are present, plus the two pets, and they're not underused either, though Renny and Johnny both find themselves out of the fight after their plane is brought down, leaving them both alive but with multiple broken bones. In fact, Davis even finds a way to bolster the full complement of aides by having the Secretary of War assign an army of bodyguards from the Secret Service. Sure, only one of them gets named, but they do become a useful asset on a couple of occasions.

The problem is that, even with the Golden Gate Bridge serving as the location for the finalé, this one is a fader, the bad guys not memorable enough, clever enough or numerous enough to generate the final scene that the book deserved. And, for all the mystery surrounding their apparently invisible weapons, the explanation is pretty routine and not particularly surprising either. I'd worked most of it out and it would seem likely that most other readers would have done too.

So, how much you're going to appreciate this novel is going to depend on what you expect from it. If you're a cliffhanger fan, this is one of the best of the series. If you're a fan of the gadgetry, it's going to be up your alley all the way through. But, if you want a mystery that you won't figure out early and a solution that takes real intelligence from Doc to arrive at, this one's going to disappoint. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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