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This is #49 in the Doc Savage series. It was originally published in Doc Savage Magazine in March 1937 and reprinted as #53 in the Bantam paperback reprint series.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in November 2019.
Cover art was by Robert George Harris.
On the face of it, The Mental Wizard is a pretty decent lost civilisation yarn for Doc, but it's an odd one that bugs me a little, not just because of a cheat of an ending but because it runs out of internal logic.
We start out in Colombia with a substantial introduction to characters and plot before Doc Savage finally shows up midway through chapter four. "Amber" O'Neel is a general all purpose crook pretending to be a revolutionary, El Liberator, and he's in need of a plane when one promptly appears out of the blue to crash nearby. It contains a decidedly odd couple: an emaciated seven foot tall pilot in a leather skirt and a young lady scantily clad in spun gold, right down to her hair which appears to have been gilded. It isn't at all obvious at this point which one has kidnapped the other.
We soon discover the uncanny powers of the young lady though, who goes by Z. She throws four men at once without any apparent effort. She compels another to kill, even though she's bound and doesn't speak. O'Neel promptly covers up her eyes so that she can't hypnotise him or any of his party. Meanwhile, the pilot has vanished into the jungle, keen to find his way to civilisation and share his diary with the world. He's David Sutton, an aviator who's been lost in the wilderness for a decade; somehow he makes it up the Magdalena to Cartagena, coincidentally just as Doc Savage and his men are due to arrive.
Last time we spent this much time in South America, it was in the Harold A. Davis novel, Dust of Death, where the fictional countries of Santa Amazo and Delezon are at war. While Doc is only in Colombia for a holiday cruise, the country plans to receive him as a hero anyway because he stopped "a war between a couple of their neighbors". Of course, Colombia is real and so is Cartegena, which really is at the end of the Magdalena river.
We spend a while in the city, action and intrigue unfolding here instead of New York for a change, before we shift location midway with a trip inland. Dent does really well in these Cartegena scenes because, even though we're all surely aware of how red herrings work in Doc Savage novels by now, we still get caught up in the panic as Sutton is killed by a blowdart and Doc appears to meet the same fate. I even wondered why some locals suddenly lie down in a crowd when, of course, it's the work of Doc's anaesthetic globes. Dent distracts us from the man behind the curtain well this time out.
The gang's all here for this one, though Dent introduces them surprisingly for a change. While Monk shows up first, as he tends to do, it's on his own to greet the thronged masses and explain why the notoriously media-shy Doc isn't coming out to see them. The rest follow Doc into action, but Ham, the fool, talks instead of holding his breath and so succumbs to the anaesthetic globes. The rest aren't unhappy about it because, with Monk absent, Ham has been jabbing at Johnny's big words and Renny's sour expression. It's good to see this sort of thing away from Monk/Ham and then quickly shut down.
As we move on, half of my mind was noticing how Dent wasn't quite playing to his usual formula and the other half was trying to figure out Z. The former comes in odd ways. Some chapters are so filled with action that they run far longer than they would normally, while others are short and include nothing noteworthy at all, just a little shifting here and there to set up something down the road. I usually take notes on Doc Savage books per chapter and dead chapters where I note very little aren't usual, especially early on.
Z's development is much more interesting. Clearly she's the mental wizard of the title, though that term doesn't show up until Monk floats it almost half the way through the book. What she does is incredible, which explains why so many are scared stiff of her. Local hoods in Cartagena keep her locked in a cupboard with a gag and a blindfold restricting her powers, because she has them believing she's surrounded by venomous snakes.
It's not just the locals, whom tend towards uneducated and superstitious in Doc novels. When Monk, unaware of what's going on, opens that cupboard door, she makes him lie down and stick his hands and feet into the air, without a word or a glance. Soon after, she convinces all Doc's aides that she's been surreptitiously stolen away, when she's really still there.
What's even more incredible is how Doc assesses her powers. "It appears," he tells Monk, "that this girl has an intelligence infinitely beyond anything we possess." Monk's shocked when he realises that Doc is including himself in that "we". Her powerful not-hypnotism aside, Doc and Z are pretty evenly matched during their journey inland. He's fascinated by her brain. She's of the impression that he might be Klantic, something we don't yet understand. Before we do, we learn a lot more about Z and this is where I start to have problems.
Z is a native of this jungle, albeit with a rather different heritage that I won't spoil, and she's unaware of much of what we take for granted because she's never experienced it. She may be intelligent even beyond Doc's level but how does that replace experience and fundamental basics? For instance, she's never encountered electricity before, but she reads Long Tom's new book on advanced telephoto work and promptly picks out a weak point in his theories about bending cathode scanning streams. How does this work?
Think about it. This is someone who's native language is not English, though she's encountered it through aviators like Sutton, she has zero education in science and Long Tom's book is an advanced volume that even some electrical engineers might not grasp. So she's deducing the meaning of scientific terms and extrapolating all the basic maths from the advanced? None of that is the product of intelligence, it's the product of magic.
While it's fun to watch Long Tom flounder at her brilliance and telling to see Doc astonished at the same, this becomes important as the book rolls on. I won't spoil where it goes, but someone as intelligent as Z and capable of make the deductive leaps that she does surely wouldn't be where she is doing what she's doing. She would have ditched all superstition, built a plane of her own and flown it to civilisation to discover things. And is she going to buy into Doc's subterfuge at the end? No way.
While I wouldn't normally explain what Klantic is, the Bantam paperback has that spoiler in its back cover blurb and, wildly out of proportion, even on its cover. It's a statue of a man, "a mile from head to toe", lying down in the jungle. It's also a city, in which Z's people live. That's a pretty cool idea and it's pure Lester Dent. Some of my favourite Docs were built around Dent's lost civilisations, from The Phantom City to The Thousand-Headed Man. This isn't as good as either but it's still a lot of fun.
With all the interesting stuff in the setting, there's very little left for me to add. There's hardly anything to contribute to the Doc mythos except for that slight change to Ham's bickering. The only new gadgets are a pocket version of the metal detector that we remember from Doc's headquarters and a pill that's harmless but mimics severe appendicitis. It allows Doc to let a crook go but be able to tell the police where he'll be in a few days.
There are only two words worthy of note this time out, though both are easy to grasp in context. The first is "fer-de-lance", which is a particularly venomous snake, a species of pit viper in southern Mexico and northern parts of South America. The second is "ignuts", which obviously means "idiot". I couldn't find it online, but "ignats" means the same thing, so maybe it's a typo. Surprisingly, it may spring from the same source as "Nazi". It seems that the common Bavarian name of Ignatius was shortened to Nazi for use as a derogatory term, meaning an ignorant peasant. When the National Socialists came along, the same dismissive term was used to refer to them and it stuck.
And that's it for The Mental Wizard, who really ought to have joined Doc's team for future novels. Z would surely be more use than our five traditional aides who have a tendency to make stupid mistakes that get them kidnapped. I wonder if people reading this in 1937 thought she might stay with the series for the next instalment, The Terror in the Navy.
Last update: 17th December, 2019