15 May 2013

Doc Savage in The Mystic Mullah

The Mystic Mullah (1935)
By Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson

My second Doc Savage novel of this week comes fast on the trail of The Sea Magician. It was published two months later in the January 1935 issue of Doc Savage Magazine, story #23 of the series. When Bantam Books released The Mystic Mullah in its paperback line of Doc Savage reprints, it was book #9. That Bantam put it out so early in the line-up (The Sea Magician was pushed back to #44) indicates the editors thought it was one of the better stories. And they were right.

The Mystic Mullah is a typical Doc Savage adventure, and that isn’t a negative. It follows most of the steps that Lester Dent outlined in his essay for beginngers about how to write a short pulp adventure story. (You can read it here.) An exotic mastermind villain who claims extraordinary powers and constantly hovers over the hero as a danger; bizarre murder methods; numerous chases and shoot-outs; trips to exotic locations; Doc using plenty of gee-wiz gadgets; and a plot that runs at a breakneck pace as the heroes dash around following one action sequence after the other.

Read too many Doc Savage novels in a row and you will rapidly wear down from all this (in fact you may welcome the slower pace and more detective-oriented entries like The Sea Magician). But taken on its own, The Mystic Mullah is the juicy good stuff of high adventure in the 1930s. I wouldn’t place it among the best of the series, but it is definitely an exemplum of what Doc Savage was all about in his prime.

The bizarre murder method opens the story, as it often does. Khan Nadir Shan, the king of the Central Asian city-state of Tanan (fictional, of course) arrives in New York harbor seeking the help of Doc Savage against the power of the Mystic Mullah. Accompanying him is the beautiful Joan Lydell, an American whose father was a trader who lived in Tanan and is almost as popular in the city as its ruler. According to Joan’s telegram sent ahead to the bronze man, their fight against the Mystic Mullah is a matter “involving thousands of lives and possibly [the] stability of Western civilization.” But when the Khan’s servant Hadim goes to Doc Savage’s headquarters on the 86th floor of Manhattan tallest skyscraper, floating green snakes maerialize and break his neck.

This opening must have impressed somebody in Hollywood, since the green snakes appear in the disappointing 1975 adaptation Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. The movie may have used the snakes poorly (bad effects animation) but I can’t deny they are a pretty nifty device.

The Mystic Mullah soon makes his own appearance, or at least his face does. The villain materializes as a floating head among mist that gives orders to his cowering Tananese followers. When Joan Lydell is at last able to explain the situation to Doc Savage—it’s tough to slow down during the barrage of pursuits and kidnappings that hit every single chapter—we learn that the Mullah claims to have died a thousand years ago. He now wants to expand his hypnotic power over all of Asia, starting with Tanan.

The adventure takes Doc and his assistants from New York, to Siberia, and then to Tanan itself near Mongolia. (Ah, Item #3 on Dent’s list: “A Different Location.”) Despite the usual globe-hopping, the best set-piece occurs during the New York segment, when Monk and Ham face the Mullah’s killers inside a dinosaur attraction at a defunct amusement park. The action tends to blur together when moving this fast, but a weird setting like this stands out.

The identity of the Mullah remains a mystery until the finale, and Lester Dent manages never to tip off too early who will actually turn out to be behind the gizmos and soul slaves of the tyrannical green head. The enigmatic character of Oscar Gibson does a good job of destabilizing the story so that readers might believe that anybody (aside from Doc and his men, of course) might end up as the villain. Did the author pick the best person possible for the final reveal? Not quite, since it’s neither the most shocking nor the most logical choice, but given the high amount of thrills in The Mystic Mullah, it’s a forgivable slip. I didn’t figure it out ahead of time, and that’s worth something.

Doc pulls out some great gadgets. The best is using his shirt buttons and the lining of his tie to create an explosive to bust out of a jail cell. Admittedly, the buttons and the tie lining are made from unusual material, but Doc always thinks ahead.

Typical of the time period, The Mystic Mullah uses the racist “Yellow Peril” stereotype of sinister Asian villains and the general sense that “foreign and exotic = dangerous.” I expected this going in, since I’ve read enough pulps from the era to know the standard prejudices. And look at the Bantam cover, fer crying’ out loud! However, it surprised me how subdued the book is in its biases. Lester Dent still has his white folks save the day, but he doesn't indulge in comic buffonery at the expense of the Asian characters, nor does he trot out insults or slurs. For the mid-1930s, this is a pleasingly restrained use of the old stereotypes.

All five of Doc’s aides are back this time, since Dent could not convince publisher Street & Smith to let him continue his experiment of rotating them. Most of the time, it’s hard to keep straight what each of them is doing, and they spend half the book as captives to motivate chases. Now I can understand why Dent felt frustrated with having to use all of them all the time; he could easily have worked this book with only Monk, Ham, and Renny. The latter achieves the most of any of Doc’s men this time around. It would not surprise me if Lester Dent originally planned to feature Renny here the way he did Johnny in The Sea Magician, but his editor pushed him to use the (over)full cast.

As I come to the end of the second Doc Savage novel this week, and following upon reading two Shadow novels right before that, I realize I must complete the trio of famous hero pulps of the 1930s and read an adventure of The Spider. So goodbye sanity and plot coherence: here comes The Spider in The Pain Emperor!