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This is #16 in the Doc Savage series. It was originally published in Doc Savage Magazine in June 1934 and reprinted as #79 in the Bantam paperback reprint series.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in February 2017.
Cover art was by Walter M. Baumhofer.
The Doc Savage novels, even in the pulp days, were always written as 'by Kenneth Robeson'. In reality, up until this point, that house name only concealed a man named Lester Dent, who wrote each of the first fifteen books solo. He would go on to write most of the rest of the series too, but not everything and an array of other authors got their moments to play in a sandbox that we often equate entirely with him.
This was the first time that happened, with a new writer, Harold A. Davis, stepping in to write June 1934's novel, the sixteenth in the series, from an outline by Dent. I'm happy to say that he does a pretty decent job, following the formula that Dent had established very closely but in text that flows better. That was my first surprise here; at this point, at least, Davis was clearly a better writer than Dent, even working from the latter's story. He would go on to write fourteen books in the series, the last of them being The Exploding Lake in September 1946.
Other than the more sophisticated sentence structure, which is apparent immediately, The King Maker begins just like any Doc Savage novel: another character takes the usual elevator to the 86th floor to see Doc and attempt to enlist his help. Well, not quite. This time out, two characters find themselves in the same elevator at the same time and this sets up a neat little misdirection trick.
One is a pompous nobleman from Calbia, a small Balkan nation, who calls himself Baron Damitru Mendl, the Calbian ambassador to the United States. The other is a tiny old woman in a shabby outfit, seeking a world-renowned surgeon to look at her crippled son. Or, at least, she says she is; her actions on leaving Doc's office suggest otherwise and, a scant four pages later, the outplayed Baron Mendl is murdered on his yacht. It's a spectacular death too, as the entire boat explodes mysteriously in the wake of a hissing sound. That this crone is soon exposed as a male dwarf named Muta merely adds flavour.
Of course, Doc is not a stupid man and, from the outset, he plays the game into which he's invited with a cunning that may not always be immediately apparent or, indeed, foolproof. It's good to see Doc a little less superhuman but it's also good to see that he isn't necessarily caught in the traps we think he is; one has him played neatly by a princess, only for him to turn the tables just as neatly.
On the flipside of that, it's good to see Doc's men taking the initiative when opportunity presents itself and not always fall flat on their faces. One of the biggest problems of the early Dent books is that they're truly Doc Savage novels in the sense that Doc Savage dominates utterly; I often wondered why he put up with his five assistants, given that they do more harm than good, world renowned experts in their fields or not. It's not hard to argue that he'd have saved the day in many of those early adventures quicker and more efficiently, not to mention with lower death counts, if he'd have worked them on his own.
Here, thankfully, Davis puts them to good use and they feel more like a coherent team than they have in any previous novel. Sure, they get caught on occasion but they also contribute materially, individually and together, to the success that we know has to come eventually. After all, Doc and his men can only be back next month for another adventure if they win out this month in this one, so we never expect any apparent death to be real. Late in the book, Doc refreshingly sets them each goals in enemy territory and each one of them, including himself, runs their mission solo to achieve those goals. Davis may have worked to Dent's template on almost everything else, but this new approach is a worthy addition.
Unless I've let things slip past me, Davis also solidifies another component part of the Doc Savage mythos that I'm remembering from later books, that being the verbose vocabulary of Johnny. It certainly isn't a new thing here, Dent having played with it in earlier books, and the reasoning is all Dent too: 'Johnny... never used a small word where he could think of a big one' could have been copied and pasted from any earlier novel. However, I'm not remembering his dialogue being the sheer onslaught of daunting words that it is here, in lines like, 'The superannuated crone has terminated her meanderings.'
There's even another little addition snuck in by Davis, which is the inclusion of exercises to develop toe dexterity in Doc's daily regimen, but before you think that I'm discarding Dent for Davis like last week's trash, the latter does make one error that he should never have flirted with. There's a firm suggestion that he falls for the leading lady of this book, Princess Gusta of Calbia, for real and, while this exposure of his humanity is somewhat refreshing, it isn't appropriate for the character and it serves only to weaken him. Fortunately, Davis doesn't take it to a ridiculous degree, but it's there nonetheless and it shouldn't be.
Much of the rest is pretty good. Doc and his men end up in Calbia, of course, to help end a civil war that's brewing between the establishment forces of King Dal De Galbin and rebels who follow a nobleman called Conte Cozonac. Of course, the figureheads aren't the most important players, with an array of agents and double agents complicating our, and Doc's, understanding of the situation. Another intriguing idea adds further spice to the mixture: the suggestion by Conte Cozonac that Doc should become the King of Calbia, at least temporarily, to put an end to the conflict.
There's little of note here beyond how closely Davis follows Dent and where he doesn't. I only found one linguistic oddity of note, which was an exclamation of Renny's. Masquerading as a legendary flyer called Champ Dugan, 'the Purple Terror', he faces off against nine Calbian planes, the pilots of which are not as skilled as they might appear, something that Renny notes immediately. His choice of dismissive wording, however, is simply, 'Kiwis.' This surely isn't a racial slur against people from New Zealand, but I'm unsure as to what it means in this context. Reading up on the term, I found that military pilots gave that epithet to non-flying officers, given that kiwis are small birds whose wings aren't strong enough to lift them off the ground. Maybe there's another meaning that I haven't located yet.
All in all, this is a solid entry in the series and, had Davis managed to resist his urge to relax Doc's strong avoidance of romantic involvement, it would be up there with some of the best thus far. As it stands, it's better than many of Dent's previous novels and it adds more than just another volume to the series. If it has another downside, it's that it adheres so respectfully close to Dent's formula that we wonder how it will fade into the background of the series to come.
Next month, the book that has long been my favourite Doc Savage: The Thousand-Headed Man.
Last update: 26th November, 2017