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This is #43 in the Doc Savage series. It was originally published in Doc Savage Magazine in September 1936 and reprinted as #21 in the Bantam paperback reprint series.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in May 2019.
Cover art was by Walter M. Baumhofer.
Given the timeframes involved in producing Doc Savage Magazine, I'm sure that Lawrence Donovan didn't write Cold Death, September 1936's novel, as a direct reaction to Lester Dent's The Midas Man, published the previous month, but it often seems like he did exactly that. When Newark, a location in Dent's book, is mentioned, Long Tom comments that, "That's in Jersey. And every time we have business with Jersey there is trouble." Dent introduced a compressed air transportation device to connect Doc's headquarters to his warehouse on the Hudson, but Donovan just ignores it and has him go the old-fashioned way.
Realistically, it merely serves to highlight Donovan's different approach, especially now that he was on his sixth Doc Savage novel and was clearly wanting to stamp some authority onto the series. For instance, while Dent left Doc's introduction until a full third of the way into that last book, Donovan brings him in on the very first sentence, as if to remind that the series is all about him. His first two words are "Doc" and "Savage".
Dent also minimised Doc's assistants throughout, leaving out Renny and Long Tom entirely, introducing Ham late and having all three assistants present get kidnapped so often that Doc could get on with the job at hand without them messing anything up. He'd long struggled with finding things for five aides plus Doc to do in each novel. Donovan brings in four of those five (only Johnny is absent, as he may or may not have unearthed a prehistoric platypus), three of them in the very first chapter, and he's eager to give them things to do, which mostly works because he makes them seem capable, something of a revelation in the series.
When Monk is kidnapped in the third chapter, he's suckered in by his good nature rather than a mistake and he's overwhelmed by superior numbers. Ham gets to take down many opponents with his sword cane, even though it's in the dark. Renny gets to fight well, even with a fresh bullet wound in his shoulder. Johnny builds an ex-neutralizer device to counter the villain's Cold Light that saves many people, including some of his colleagues. Sure, it's from Doc's specifications, but his understanding, ability and speed of manufacture explain why he's one of Doc's men. Monk breaks out of not one but two constrictive situations by simply hulking up through lung power.
To be fair, some of it goes too far. Hearing that Ham, his ongoing nemesis, is in danger, Monk races to his rescue in an amphibious plane, which he literally crashes through a line of trees, which strip off the wings, then the side of a house, which crushes the cabin. But hey, Monk just explodes through the wreckage and onto his feet, with no apparent injury or even a slowing down of his motion. Sometimes Donovan loses reality.
However, most of the problems in this book come after it's over and we look back to wonder not about what he told us, but about what he didn't, because there's a heck of a lot that he doesn't explain.
For instance, Cold Death is about a supervillain named Var who focuses a superweapon called the Cold Light onto buildings, which promptly vanish in what to us seem eerily like the mushroom clouds of atomic explosions. His racket is simple exortion, as he leaves messages asking for rich people to transfer their entire fortunes to him in exchange for him not blowing them and their houses up at a specified time and date.
This makes for good action, for many reasons. One is that Var has a way to project his voice in order to issue his threats and demands. The buildings can be entire blocks of New York, thus prompting major evacuations. They explode cinematically too, prompting planes to spin out of control, which naturally contain many of our key characters. This is all good stuff.
Except that we're never told how he projects his voice, how the Cold Light works and why it works the way it does. There are hints and connections, a few of which work as red herrings, but none satisfy the minds of enquiring readers. Why does this villain take the name of Var? How does he elicit the support of such intelligent henchmen? What does he offer them? What's the connection to the Land of Always-Night? Who was the real creator of this ray? Why is he dead? Donovan apparently either doesn't ask these questions himself or doesn't want to answer them.
In other words, we enjoy the book as it unfolds but it lessens after it's done. As much as Cold Death has a poor reputation among Doc's fans, I'd suggest that there's a lot to enjoy here, right down to chapter titles like "Monk Sneezes" or "Ham's in a Jam". Most obviously, though, there are quite a lot of showcase scenes.
The opener has a mysterious stranger try to pick Doc's pocket in reverse, leaving a note rather than taking anything. Monk finds himself confined in the Convincer, a device described as a robot but really a cross between an iron maiden and the pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum, triggered by noise. Var attacks Doc's headquarters at least three times, and each time his Cold Light is beaten off by Johnny's new ex-neutralizer.
It's especially good for fans of Doc's assistants, who frankly haven't got many spotlight moments in the majority of Lester Dent's many previous books. I'd argue that chapter 13, in which Monk, having been kidnapped, wakes up on a plane to see the pilot fire the Cold Light at a building in New York, is the best action he's been given since the series began. Sure, he's arrested at the end of it, naturally suspected of being involved in the attack, but it's gloriously all about him. And that's after a number of earlier action scenes for him in this book too!
I appreciated Doc being his usual self, always at least a step ahead of the rest of the cast of characters, even when they're as talented as Vonier, an explorer of note whom Doc compliments on meeting, even though he's a worthy candidate for being Var. However, I also appreciated one of Doc's educated gambles going notably awry. He allows himself to be taken by fake policemen in the hopes of being taken to Var, but he's knocked out and he wakes up in a remotely controlled aeroplane without manual controls, sent out over the ocean to his death.
I also got a kick out of just how much Donovan built this novel like a film serial. Sometimes it feels a little odd, such as when he explains something we already know, like when Monk complains to Ham about the reception he got when trying to save him. "Monk referred to the encounter on the Washington roof where Ham had heeded Doc's instructions and stopped the battle with Var's men." Yeah, we know. We were there too, a few chapters earlier! I was fonder of the way many of the chapters end with a cliffhanger and the next chapters in each instance begin with a sentence that recalls the danger and sets the scene:
"Shortly before the eight o'clock telephone call made by Doc Savage, a battered old roadster turned off a paved New Jersey highway."
"At the moment Doc Savage and Renny were speeding to the home of J. Afton Carberry, Monk awoke in a coffin-like space."
"A short time before the crash, Long Tom had been working at headquarters, as directed by Doc."
"Even while the mysterious visitor was in his laboratory, Doc Savage was piloting a cabin plane over the eastern Pennsylvania hills."
Before I wrap this up by highlighting that the next three novels will stem from the pen of Lester Dent, I should mention that Cold Death was the very last issue of Doc Savage Magazine, after 43 issues, to feature cover art by Walter M. Baumhofer, who had illustrated Doc from the very beginning.
A common debate in pulp circles centres on whether people see Doc as James Bama drew him, for the Bantam paperback covers, or as Walter Baumhofer did for the pulps. While I appreciate Bama's talents as an artist and as a man who's in better shape at 93 than I am at half his age, I'm a Baumhofer fan. I prefer his younger, action hero whose shirt is often pristine to Bama's older man with prominent widow's peak and ever-tattered shirt.
Baumhofer was born in 1904 in Brooklyn of German immigrants. He started out drawing interiors for Adventure magazine in 1925 but a teacher at Pratt Institute, H. Winfield Scott, suggested that he submit cover paintings to the pulps. He did and became the painter of the first issues of both Doc Savage and the Spider, among other pulps. The reason he didn't continue as Doc's cover artist is because he switched to the slicks instead.
His replacement for October 1936 was John Philip Falter, who handed over to Robert George Harris for fourteen issues before passing the baton on to the next most prolific artist for the series, Emery Clarke, who, with a few odd exceptions, took the magazine through to late 1943.
Next month: let's head down to the Antarctic to take on The South Pole Terror.
Last update: 2nd November, 2019