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WesternSFA


The Stone Man
Doc Savage #80
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 119pp
Published: Original October 1939; Bantam 1976

Not that any of the Doc Savage novels are long, slow or tedious but 'The Stone Man', the eightieth book to see print in 'Doc Savage Magazine', is a particularly quick read. It has a central mystery, of course, but it's also explored in a relatively straightforward manner. It's a simple book in its way, but Lester Dent's prose, characters and ideas makes it a strong one.

As he was increasingly doing, he held back the introduction of regular characters until he could establish a new adventure for them. Their involvement in the story doesn't really kick in until chapter six of eighteen, so a third of the way through the book. Before that, it's all setup, beginning with a couple of bad guys who smuggle drugs across the Mexican/American border by plane. They're Spad Ames and Waldo Berlitz and it proves deadly when the Border Patrol take them on, because they have an Austrian refugee on board this time out, who paid $1,000 to be smuggled into the States. Dent doesn't say why he's a refugee, which is an obvious way to avoid making the publication "political" but still get a point across. Anyway, he's dumped at first sight of the Border Patrol plane, along with the drugs. He's not their first victim either.

They're forced into a crash landing, which Ames survives. Berlitz apparently does too but not for long. He's found a black arrowhead and babbles about stopping the river. He brains his partner and runs off, only for Ames to find him soon enough in a petrified state. When he hits him with a gun, he breaks into pieces. And, while this is the point where someone sees and gets word to Doc and our story starts moving, Dent waits a while longer, detailing Ames's journey to New York to see someone else: he drives a stolen car to Flagstaff, hops a freight train to Chicago, flies to Newark, catches a cab to New York and wanders into the office of a prize snob called Herman Locatella, the latest in a string of competition for Ham on the sartorial front.

Ames knows that Locatella is really Spix the Mouth and so blackmails him into quite a shopping list: twenty tough men just start things out, then it's guns, bombs and gas, along with two planes with pilots. And it's a single plot convenience that brings in our heroes, because Locatella has swindled one of Ham's clients and he's bugging his office to prove he's a crook. He takes the news to Doc and the man of bronze accompanies him back to figure out the next step, which is to get to two students, Mark and Ruth Colorado, before Ames does. Unfortunately, they're attacked in the darkness.

And here I should back up a step because everything's flowing forward so smoothly and I ought to identify the attackers who come out of nowhere, given that none of the bad guys even know that they're involved yet. Really, they're not involved yet! It's actually Monk and Renny who attack them, because they're dead set on getting revenge on Ham. The dapper lawyer apparently rigged a bet, so that he'd be able to have a week of being able to make both of his colleagues get onto their hands and knees and bark like dogs when the whim strikes, which of course it does at all the worst possible moments. It's all fun, naturally, but it's a distraction from the story, which promptly proceeds.

Long story short, the good guys find Phenix Academy, "a modern venture in specialized higher education" just as the bad guys are kidnapping the Colorados. The bad guys get Mark but the good guys get Ruth and we're off and running, given that they're a mysterious pair. They both look like albinos, except that they're beautifully blue eyed, and they're almost entirely unaware of everyday life. They're perfect physically and they're incredibly smart, but their knowledge is entirely book smarts. They don't know what ice cream or moving pictures are, but they're willing to find out. And they wear black arrowheads around their necks.

As you might expect, regular readers, there's a little back and forth that involves plenty of action, but the inevitable next step is to head west. Ames crashlanded in the badlands of Arizona, near the Grand Canyon, and that's where he's heading with his men and his planes and his bombs. The Colorados are chasing them and Doc and his aides are chasing them. They all soon end up back where we started and we discover quite the secret about the land beyond the mists.

I liked this one. It's relatively straightforward but it makes sense. Every decision has a reason behind it in the eyes of the decisionmaker and every action has a purpose. Spad Ames isn't the world's best smuggler and he's hardly a supervillain, but he's a very able and grounded crook who is willing and able to do what it takes to get what he wants. That's refreshing. There are cool mysteries, starting with Berlitz's stopping of the river, and continuing on to the grand reveal towards the end of the book, but they're all grounded a lot more than most of these novels. Sure, we're expected to buy into something unusual in the deserts of Arizona rather than some exotic and poorly explored corner of the globe, but then this was 1939. Arizona's a big state and a very new one. There weren't many people here back then and a lot of the state wasn't on anyone's radar.

Even though there's little that's outlandish, 'The Stone Man' does adhere to standards. Doc shows up soon enough, along with some of his aides—only Johnny is missing this time, as he's in Mongolia researching an innovative theory on the origins of our species. Monk and Ham bicker, of course, even if that mostly takes place offscreen after the shenanigans of chapter four. Long Tom is only there because he has a new device that proves useful, an improved lie detector that's used on some of Locatella's men, who naturally end up being "sent to college". We shift from New York to another location halfway through the book and, spoiler alert"—not really—the bad guys get their comeuppance through self-generated karma. It's not a surprise of a book, it's just one put together smoothly and capably.

There's not much that's new from a series perspective. Beyond that lie detector, not much gadgetry comes out to compensate for a lack of attention to plot. Beyond the usual anaesthetic globe, most of it ties to the ability to follow people, whether by radio signal or infrared phosphorescence. The latter manifests when a foresighted Doc drenches Mark Colorado with liquid that he can use later on to track him. Quite frankly, I'd only need to call out the crushing of scope creep as unusual, after Monk casts doubts as to the accuracy of Long Tom's lie detector. The ensuing conversation between the anaemic wizard of electricity and the simian chemist is only three lines long but they're telling:

"You can ride Ham all you want to," Long Tom told him levelly. "But you mess with me and you'll end up like a postage stamp."

"How do you mean—postage stamp?"

"Licked." ~~ Hal C F Astell

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