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WesternSFA


Poison Island
Doc Savage #79
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 118pp
Published: Original September 1939, Bantam January 1971

This is the 79th novel to be published in 'Doc Savage Magazine' and it saw print in September 1939, one of the most memorable months in world history, one that seems inevitable to impact a pulp adventure series like this one. I've been waiting to see how and, finally, I'm seeing some acknowledgement, albeit in a tame and unconvincing manner thus far. One action in this book involves the bad guy torpedoing a foreign vessel while pretending to be a US submarine, the goal being to spark conflict between the US and a carefully unnamed European power. "War wouldn't have broken out over one torpedoing", says Ham confidently, even with one chapter titled "Europe's Angry Man".

Back where I'm from, Europe was already at war in September 1939. Nazi Germany invaded Poland, so the UK declared war on the Nazis and it was on. Of course, the US didn't follow suit until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor a couple of years later, which is the point when I'm really expecting the series to change. At this point, Lester Dent was acknowledging that things were going on, with a mindset of the whole thing maybe calming down again, even with "Europe's Angry Man", an actual chapter title here, in charge of one of its countries.

Of course, he isn't named and, what's more, is abstracted away from the villain. Sure, he has a notably Germanic name, Jurl Crierson, and he was apparently the right hand man of a certain European leader left carefully nameless, but they fell out. So, while the mere connection is a hint that this angry leader is a bad guy too, the abstraction leaves the possibility that, if he turns out to be on our side, then there would be nothing to retract. That approach is fascinating to me, as is the careful way in which Europe is kept literally at a distance, with all the action confined to the Americas.

Mostly that means the U.S. and the Caribbean, where the Poison Island of the title turns out to be, but we begin in Hidalgo, where natives load a lot of wooden crates onto a schooner called the Patricia, with a bronze-haired girl as its captain. No prizes for guessing who that is and what's in those boxes! What's interesting here is that there's also been an attempted revolution in Hidalgo, one that was stopped as soon as it started and one of its hired hands is warned against stowing away on the Patricia by a Hindu who claims that it's doomed.

I have to say that the most obvious impact of, shall we say the situation in Europe, seems to be that the mysterious angle of so many 'Doc Savage' novels is toned down somewhat, mostly confined to the early chapters. This beginning is glorious, with Mahatma Rhi far too knowledgeable about Herb March for it to be a concidence. Of course, both men stowaway on the Patricia anyway and that sparks our plot with March able to get a radio message out before things go south and, inevitably, Doc gets involved.

I felt that the prose was smoother than usual in this book, but the chapters shorter and the plot much more straightforward. There are no real surprises to be found, except perhaps in the lack of attempt to explain away the mysterious elements. I wonder if Dent changed his approach while writing it because of what he was reading in the news. For instance, the Hindu, such a fantastic early character, fades out and all the careful connections between the ships going missing, starting with the Patricia, and a more legendary example of the same thing, the Marie Celeste, go completely unexplained. For instance, the boats taken are left floating with a red eye painted on them. One obvious plot point that ceases to be one is that the drifting Senora Dupree contains a sewing machine with a child's unfinished garment in it, as did the Marie Celeste. That's commented on but goes nowhere.

What we get is much more prosaic. The Patricia is found, reported on and Doc and his men investigate. They fly out to do all sorts of CSI stuff. They fly back to New York. Rinse and repeat when the same thing happens to the Senora Dupree. There's action at Doc's HQ, but nothing out of the ordinary, with a girl springing a gun on them, Renny taking it off her, only for bad guys to arrive and kidnap her. Doc's aides get straightforward tasks too, Monk and Ham responsible for trailing those bad guys. Doc gets to put a disguise on, blow up his own plane as a distraction and fake his own death, but nothing there surprises. Even Pat Savage, in her welcome return to the series, spends most of the book kidnapped. Nothing out of the ordinary here, folks!

I should mention that Monk and Ham are the main two aides, as usual, with the latter chauffering the former around because he won a bet. Habeas and Chemistry are here but only for a while, long enough for Chemistry to plant some microphones in the bad guy's lair, in the tradition of 'Murders on the Rue Morgue'. However, when the action shifts, Doc leaves them both in Charleston out of the way. This is an appropriate use of them and I'm not upset in the slightest. Renny and Johnny are here too but are not given much to do and vanish from the story almost entirely. Long Tom's abroad in Africa, supervising a hydroelectric project.

If anything, the most notable presences here are the supporting characters, of which there are few, so few that it's completely obvious which one's a ringer, even with a very cheap attempt at distraction in a very late chapter. Glendara Smith is engaged to Herb March, missing stowaway on the Patricia, but has a meeting/date/something with Larry Forge back in the States. Dara has some real balls. And a six-gun from her late father, a famous sheriff named Twisty Jim. She's not used as much as she should be, but I really liked her. I liked the others too, even though March fought on the wrong side and Forge is rather over-eager about everything. I could see the two who turn out to be on the side of good returning for a cameo in a later book, not that I expect it to happen, of course. But they're worthy.

And I have to return to September 1939. 'Poison Island' feels like a reluctant change. Especially so close on the heels of a couple of Harold A. Davis novels, it feels very grounded in the now of 1939. Everything makes sense, except the few mysterious elements that are left unexplained as if what was happening in the world rendered them obsolete. There's opportunity in this world for adventurers, though that's something that may change soon enough, and, of course, while the bad guys, a band of modern pirates in this instance, are very capable, hard work and dedication will win the day for the good guys. That's a given for a pulp series like this.

From a series perspective, there are a couple of notes I should make. Doc's fabulous wealth is known in this universe, of course, but there are two separate doubts expressed in this novel as how it could have been created, the assumption being that Doc must be a crook. There's also the discovery of the supply from Hidalgo, the ramifications of which are dangerous but left alone here. Doc explains some security features at the Hidalgo Trading Company, including a sort of still photography version of closed circuit TV monitoring, a picture being taken every second and recorded for posterity. And there's even actual mention of ripped clothing, a mainstay of 'Doc Savage' covers both on their original pulps and reprints in paperback:

"Even with that help - and he possibly would never have found the lifeboat without it - the trip back through the mangroves took a long time. Many times, he ripped his clothing; finally, when his coat was torn so badly that it would not stay upon him, he discarded it. Later, he ripped his trousers off above the knees, for the ends were flapping strings."

So there you have it! The torn shirts are canon, folks. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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