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This is #6 in the Doc Savage series. It was originally published in Doc Savage Magazine in August 1933 and reprinted as #17 in the Bantam paperback reprint series.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in April 2016.
Cover art was by Walter M. Baumhofer.
I'm reviewing a Doc Savage adventure a month, in the order of the original pulp magazine stories. The Red Skull is the sixth adventure, which was released in Doc Savage Magazine in August 1933 and reprinted as #17 in the Bantam paperback line, two books before the story that came before it, which is referenced in the second chapter.
That story, Pirate of the Pacific was notable for how difficult regular writer Lester Dent made it for Doc to track down the villain, Tom Too. It made for a better story, to my mind, to see Doc struggle, even if he made it out on top in the end. The Red Skull tones that down to a degree, but he still has to work to unravel the mystery at the heart of the story and unmask the villain behind it.
As always, that story is relatively simple and, this time out, it takes Doc and his men to Arizona, where a dam project is being threatened by sabotage and Monk's secretary, Lea Aster, is being held prisoner. Doc is brought in by a dam worker named Bandy Stevens, who arrives on the 86th floor dead as a doornail, killed by a poison that had been applied to the button in the express elevator.
I enjoyed this approach and the odd fact that it took 21 pages to get to Doc, much longer than usual. A crew of crooks led by Buttons Zortell had been trying to stop Stevens from reaching Doc and they continue to work to confuse him, so we don't even hear Arizona mentioned for quite some time and take even longer to reach it. It's good to see Savage and his men down here in my home state though, especially in a canyon with rock formations that look like skulls, hence the title.
If the previous novel was notable for its awful attempts to give its Asian characters voice, attempts which are easily seen as racist today, this one is notable for its use of slang. I have a pretty decent vocabulary and haven't been so flummoxed by so many new words in a novel for many a year. The bad guys certainly have a flair for the vernacular, as they say.
Much of it just appears odd to eighty years of hindsight and this review will serve as a reminder for me to look a whole slew of examples up in a dictionary of slang.
Some of it is obvious, like "sky chariot" for an aeroplane, and some is at least vaguely understandable in context: a "hogleg" would appear to be a gun, a "sportocular" is some sort of visual magnification device and "dornicks" are things to be thrown.
But what's a "rannihan"? How about a "box of a jigger" or a "plumb cultus temper", the latter belonging to a "locoed goat". Lea Aster is described frequently as a "mohairrie", whose derivation I'd love to figure out. [Edit: Murray Miller wrote in to suggest that "mohairrie" is derived from a Spanish word for woman, "mujare", and I'm sure he's spot on. Thanks!]
Some of it simply looks strange, such as the frequent use of an umlaut to trigger us to pronounce two consecutive vowels separately, in words like "aërial" or "coöperation".
Some of it looks even more strange because it carries a sexual connotation today that clearly wasn't there in 1933. When Buttons Zortell complains to one of his men about the "boner you pulled", he's simply talking about a boneheaded move; "a mess of bum shootin'" on the part of the hoods is just poor marksmanship; and Monk's "explosive ejaculation" down a phone line is absolutely not an early form of phone sex.
Another oddity notable here is the habit of Dent to describe around names that exist in the real world rather than actually naming them. I don't know if this was done for legal reasons or just through a disinterest to conduct any research, but it still feels strange, for instance, for Doc to talk to "the editor of the leading Phoenix newspaper" rather than "the editor of the Arizona Republic".
So this is interesting linguistically. It's also interesting from a general pop culture standpoint.
We've already seen how Doc Savage was a key influence on the creation and development of Superman, down to having a Fortress of Solitude first, but the Man of Steel isn't the only character to owe much to the Man of Bronze. Here, Doc introduces a flying device that thoroughly resembles what we know today as the batplane. It wouldn't surprise me if the highly popular Marvel villain known as the Red Skull wasn't named for this novel, as his first appearance was only eight years later.
It's also interesting to Doc Savage fans, as Dent was still expanding his basic world and gradually introducing new elements and people. I don't know how often Lea Aster will return in future novels, but it feels like she ought to often. While she does spend most of her time in this book being kept prisoner by the men who kidnapped her from Monk's laboratory, she's a capable and bright woman able to think on her feet and her actions, even as a prisoner, are enough to save people from certain death.
While it can't boast the admirable tension of Pirate of the Pacific, the enjoyable cat and mouse aspect of that story continues on here, albeit to a lesser degree. The identity of the boss villain is kept neatly obscured, partly through the use of a pseudonym, as he has his men call him "Nick Clipton" to avoid Doc discovering his real identity. The key location is, once again, down to earth and believable, keeping the story grounded and only elevated back into fantasy by some of the gadgets Doc uses.
Even only six books in, this isn't an undying classic but it's a solid read that highlights how Dent was figuring out his formula well.
Next month, Doc chases his enemies to The Lost Oasis.
Last update: 30th September, 2020