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The Pirate's Ghost

Introduction

This is #62 in the Doc Savage series. It was originally published in Doc Savage Magazine in April 1938 and reprinted as #62 in the Bantam paperback reprint series.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in December 2020.

Cover

Cover art was by Emery Clarke.

Review

I don't believe that The Pirate's Ghost has been remembered particularly fondly by Doc Savage fans, but I got a real kick out of it for a few reasons.

For one, it's lyrically written, regular series writer Lester Dent outdoing his usual prose by a good deal. This starts early and continues throughout the book and I enjoyed it a great deal. For instance, he starts chapter two with what could have been a throwaway establishing shot, elevated through his description of evening dust devils in Death Valley "looking in the moonlight like cinnamon robed giants hobble-skirting along."

For another, it follows the previous month's novel, Devil on the Moon with another opening that takes Doc and his men a little while to join. This time out, we follow a cowboy by the name of Sagebrush Smith into Death Valley. He's shot off his horse and stumbles onto an old man and a building full of electrical gadgets. This old man is a scientist, who's spent half a million on research, working out of a prehistoric ruin, and he thinks Sagebrush is one of Doc's men, sent in response to his letter.

Clearly, Meander Surett isn't entirely compos mentis, given that he thinks he caught someone watching him and chained him up, only for Sagebrush to discover that it's really a coyote pup. Before he dies, he has the cowboy promise to take a box to his daughter Sally and Doc Savage in New York. It will change the world, he says. And Sagebrush is an honest man who agrees to do it.

However honest he is, he's not that bright because the first thing he does is to return to the Lazy Y ranch that kicked him out and accidentally spills a few choice comments that sic the bad guys onto him. It's at this point that Doc's men show up, in the form of Monk and Ham and their pets, though I like how they're hinted at rather than introduced. The others at the Lazy Y just say a couple of men came around the day before and one of them was like an orangutan, something they had to look up to find the word. Ah, yes. Monk.

Doc shows up at the beginning of chapter four, joining in the big fight that erupted between a bunch of Lazy Y hands, who are clearly working for the villain of the piece, and Monk, Ham and Sagebrush. After it's over, Doc has Sagebrush join them on the trip back to New York and that's another great reason why I like this book. I've been getting tired of the yapping between Monk and Ham, but it's shaken up considerably by Sagebrush, who joins in and throws them off their game. Ham insults Monk until Sagebrush does it too and then defends him. I loved that exchange.

The bad guy is unusually named immediately and never really hidden, even if it takes him ten chapters to actually make a physical appearance. He's a shyster lawyer by the characterful name of Everett Everett Barr who used to be a carnival huckster. He never wears a mask, disguises his voice, hides himself from his men. He also has a fantastic plan that outfoxes everyone, including Doc for a long while. He's an unusual villain and a worthy one. He also has a habit of being overly jolly with his colleagues, often adding "old pal, old partner, old sport" or the like after speaking their names.

The MacGuffin of the piece is, of course, Meander Surett's box, which turns out to be a device to hear the dead called the Static Translator because the static in the air is apparently the voices of those have passed on, awaiting a device like this to tune them in. Dent has fun bouncing this around, even giving Sagebrush the opportunity to get one over on Ham and Monk, plus the bad guys, led by Hoke McGee, who Barr has sent in chase.

This novel is full of characters getting one over on other characters. Surely my favourite is when a disguised Doc suckers Hoke and his men into getting a disinfection treatment on a train before it reaches Los Angeles county. It isn't a disinfection treatment, of course; it merely coats them all in a neat chemical that makes them stink, all the more with each attempt to wash it off. It's almost a practical joke, except it has a real purpose and it keeps on being funny for a whole week.

I have a lot of favourite moments here. Another involves Doc showing up at the Hotel Surfside. It has a strict "nothing happening" policy, as decreed by its New York management, so the clerk won't let Doc and his men register. Until Doc points out that he's the New York management! Another has to be the long running goal of Sagebrush Smith to challenge Doc to a shooting match. He doesn't believe that Doc could hit fifty dimes in a row with a gun and it takes the whole book to get him to do it. After Doc hits forty-nine, he gives up and Doc hires him. I hope he gets to show up in a future book.

My least favourite moment comes when Doc decides to keep his crew out of the spotlight. The way they do that is for Monk to become a Mexican cabby, Ham to become an Italian journalist and Doc to become a black janitor with a lucky rabbit foot. Or, as Dent calls Rastus, a "big darky". Surely there are better ways to disappear.

The moment that's kind of both is when Doc is taken out by gas for a three day stretch. I do like it when Doc is outfoxed and he's neatly outfoxed here because he realises that his men have been taken down by gas, so dons the anti-gas hood he has in his pocket, only to find that this gas works on pores in the skin, so down he goes too. What I don't like is the convenient timing of his coming out of it right before everything happens at the finalé.

All in all, I found this a highly entertaining Doc. I don't have a problem with the story or indeed with the title, which is a little misleading but not really. I particularly enjoyed the various changes to the usual formula, because it does what a Doc Savage novel has to do without doing it in quite the same way that it usually does. Even the shift of location comes later than usual.

It's even an interesting book linguistically because the inclusion of cowboys means a heck of a lot slang. At the beginning of the first chapter, I jotted a bunch of words down to look up. Here are just three consecutive lines, full of slang, one example of which Dent even explains for us:

"Sagebrush Smith slapped his Texas saddle on his Roman-nosed pinto, thonged his warbag and slicker on the back, and rode. He rode "slick-heeled"—without spurs—for his paint bronc didn't need spurs. The cayuse was next thing to a broomtail, and plenty spirited."

Most of those are easy to grasp, though I'm not sure what a Texas saddle is. A cayuse is a low quality horse, though a broomtail is even lower quality, to the point of possibly being wild. I'm not sure how that gels with Sagebrush being able to ride it without spurs, but hey.

Another word that Dent uses but explains is "turnips", here meaning large and loud cowboy watches. They're pocket watches, it seems, the term being a derivation of turnups. Like some of the words above, this wasn't found in the cowboy dictionary I use as reference, so may be pretty obscure, old pal, old jasper, old hombre.

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Next up, the return of W. Ryerson Johnson for the first time in over two years with The Motion Menace.

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Last update: 15th February, 2021