Thursday, September 1, 2011

Running Out of Air

I’ve always preferred the 1930s-era adventures of Doc Savage to those he had in the 1940s. When Doc Savage magazine premiered in March 1933, the super-scientist and adventurer immediately took to battling bizarre menaces. Heck, his very first adventure involved a lost Mayan civilization, while his second case included a disintegrating gas and an island full of dinosaurs.

Doc himself was larger than life. Trained from birth to obtain mental and physical perfection, he often used his genius to supply himself and his men with all sorts of gadgets. He had small capsules full of knock-out gas; he wore bullet-proof underwear; disdaining guns himself, he still provided his men with super sub-machine guns that fired mercy bullets.

Gee whiz, he had some cool adventures, bouncing around the world as he encountered everything from underwater cities to men mutated into giants to the apparent ghost of an 18th Century frontiersman.

But during World War II, Doc’s adventures become more—well, mundane isn’t really the right word, because they were still great stories. But he gradually stopped using his gadgets and concentrated his attention on battling Nazis. After the war, he took on Commie spies quite frequently. No more mutant giants or dinosaurs.

But Lester Dent, who wrote the majority of the Doc Savage adventures under the pen name Kenneth Robeson, was a great writer, skilled at fast-paced plot construction and often injected some hard-boiled sensibilities into Doc’s cases. And, though I’ll always prefer the wilder stories from the 1930s, Dent turned out one of my favorite Doc Savage stories for the April 1945 issue, titled Cargo Unknown.

A submarine is sabotaged and goes down in Long Island Sound. Two of Doc’s men are trapped aboard, along with a couple of dozen other survivors. But the exact location of the sub is unknown; gangsters who arranged the sinking are trying to kill Doc to prevent him from finding the sub; and the survivors have maybe twelve hours of air left. 

Doc and one of his other men, Renny, are racing to locate the sub while avoiding assassins. They don’t know what the motive of the bad guys is; they don’t know if they can find the sub in time; lacking proper rescue equipment, they don’t know if they can get the survivors out if they do find the sub.

That’s the basic situation. Dent eschews any super-scientific devises this time around (other than a diving suit Doc uses that is probably a little more advanced than anything available at the time) and depends on extreme tension to pull the story along.  The situation is described with vivid realism, including problems involving water pressure, air pressure and decompression.
Doc and Renny are normally unflappable, but they spend most of this story on the verge of panic—knowing they probably have no real chance of rescuing their two friends in time. A sniper takes potshots at them, a bomb near the warehouse Doc uses to store his planes almost demolishes them; a fisherman who can take them to the sunken sub’s location disappears. Even the deteriorating weather is working against them.

Cargo Unknown is pulp storytelling at its finest. It’s really proof that Doc Savage was a great character—a hero you could drop into either a super-scientific adventure or a more “mundane” submarine rescue story. In either case, you have a lot of fun tagging along with him.

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