14 May 2013

Doc Savage in The Sea Magician

The Sea Magician (1934)
By Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson

After hopes for a new Tarzan film collapsed (so close!) and also a new Shadow film (not that close), the recent news that Shane Black will write and direct a new Doc Savage film begs for the skeptical approach. However, with Black riding on the massive success of Iron Man Three, he definitely has the power to get this project done. I have a few too many near-misses on genre films I want to see, but if the new Mad Max film could finally get made, then I feel better hoping that this long-stalled adventure film will also make it to screens within a few years.

Premature celebration time! Let’s read a Doc Savage novel! After going through two Shadow novels (The Devil Monsters and Gangdom’s Doom), it’s a logical step to make even if it weren’t for the good news from Mr. Black.

So, scanning across my shelf packed with old Doc Savage paperbacks and some of the new reprints from Nostalgia Ventures, I choose… The Sea Magician. This is Doc Savage #21 according to original magazine publication, and #44 in Bantam’s popular paperback series numbering. It was originally released in Doc Savage Magazine in October 1934.

The Sea Magician is less exotic and more down-to-earth than many of Lester Dent’s Doc Savage novels from this early period. Most of the action occurs in England, with a short detour in France that does not involve any of the heroes and a conclusion on a fictional isle near Britain, Magna Island, an independent kingdom under crown protectorate. The story’s unusual hook is the appearance of the ghost of King John, wandering among a swampy land called “the Wash” where he died seven hundred years ago, apparently by poison. After a man in the Wash is killed by a wound from a medieval sword, brilliant geologist and archeologist William Harper Littlejohn (a.k.a. “Johnny”), one of Doc Savage’s five famous aides, investigates reports of the regal spook to see what gives.

The tale does not hold out the supernatural mystery for long. Anyone familiar with Doc Savage knows there will eventually be an explanation for the haunting, most likely the device known later from Scooby-Doo of a person masquerading as a ghost to frighten folks away from a criminal enterprise. In the second chapter, the “ghost” of King John takes Johnny captive, and we launch into the rest of the story wondering what exactly is happening in the Wash and who wants to hide what from whom.

The kidnapping of chemist and inventor Wehman Mills provides a hint as to what the villains are actually plotting. Mills claimed to have perfected a method of extracting pure gold from sea water that is cost-efficient enough to make anyone a billionaire. Wehman’s daughter Elaine tries to seek Doc Savage’s help after her father is seized, but she also falls into the clutches of the kidnappers. When a press agent starts promoting a gold-manufacturing plant on Magna Island, Doc Savage knows where to turn his attention. But the mystery still hovers around the Wash and why anybody would want to masquerade as King John’s revenant to scare people away. What does this swampland have to do with a seawater plant on Magna Island?

Although The Sea Magician takes a stretch to get into the serious action—which of course includes the requisite aerial battle—Lester Dent does deliver a solid payoff with a clever solution that makes sense of all the previous events. Dent got the idea of the gold-from-seawater process after meeting another pulp writer, Ryerson Johnson, who knew about confidence men in Florida who had proposed a similar device. What Dent eventually makes of it is a twist far more interesting than what it seems the villains are plotting initially. The King John ruse, which seemed nothing more than a randomly selected gimmick to get the novel moving, ends up neatly tying events together.

Monk’s line that concludes the novel is a great bit, too. It’s a moment where the reader will suddenly say, “Hey, he’s right! I never realized that before.”

The Sea Magician is a good adventure, although average for Doc Savage. It’s not wild enough a tale to match the highest tier of the series, and the villains are mostly comedy relief, like the haughty French actor Paquis and his Cockney partner Smith. Although the reveal of what the bad guys are actually doing works as a twist, the “surprise” villain identity is nothing of the kind, and I hope Lester Dent wasn’t thinking he was fooling anyone with this ruse. Dent also abandons some promising plot strands for too long, such as the prolonged disappearance of Elaine Mills after she gets the introduction of a major character, making for a uninvolving middle.

However, it could have been worse. Lester Dent revised the story at the request of Street & Smith editor John Nanovic, who wanted Johnny’s encounter with King John’s spook moved to the opening instead of buried down in Chapter VII. The restructuring gives The Sea Magician an excellent opening that helps carry readers through the slow muddle of the next few chapters. Lester Dent had excellent dramatic instincts, but this is a case where his editor had the right idea and seemed to know Dent’s strengths better than he did.

Only three of Doc’s aides show up: Johnny, Monk the chemist, and Ham the lawyer. At this point in writing the Doc Savage stories, Lester Dent wanted to reduce the number of supporting characters who appeared; it was tough to cram in all five of Doc’s helpers into each novel. Monk and Ham would always appear, while the other three (Johnny, Long Tom, and Renny) would rotate. This plot is mostly about Monk and Ham, the odd couple of the series, with Johnny out of the action for most of the first half, and Doc absent almost until the big finale. However, Dent was under pressure from Street & Smith to keep all of Doc’s supporting cast in action, and it would take a bit longer before the author was able to regularly use the reduced roster.

I can never read just one Doc Savage story at at time—the same with The Shadow—so I’ll have a report of another adventure up soon: The Mystic Mullah.