Thursday, September 11, 2014

How to Escape from Prison in One Easy Lesson

I love those moments when I have some spare time and nothing to do; when I can pick up a short novel that I know can be read in less than two hours, lay on my couch and read it start to finish. That's the best way ever to relax. It might be a novelization of a Dr. Who television serial. It might be an early 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain (These were written for the paperback novel in the 1950s and were required to be exactly 180 pages long by the publisher.). It might be a pulp novel from the 1930s or 1940s.

The night before I wrote this post, it was The Vanisher, a Doc Savage novel from the December 1936 issue of Doc's magazine. Typical of author Lester Dent's best stories, it starts off with a bang and races through a series of bizarre plot twists and exciting action scenes before reaching its conclusion.

This one starts out with a prison break. A hunchbacked man (or woman--no one is ever quite sure) sneaks into the prison and breaks out twenty men who have all claimed to have been framed by an all-powerful criminal syndicate. He replaces them in their cells with twenty executives from various insurance companies, none of whom know how they got there. 

It's also a mystery how the convicts got out of the prison. And strange escapes happen throughout the story, with the hunchback or the escapees disappearing from rooms without a trace. 

I suppose its a spoiler to tell you that the hunchback has a short-range teleportation device, but if you haven't figured that out for yourself early in the story, then you aren't really trying. But that doesn't mean there isn't a strong element of mystery to the story. The identity of the hunchback and his motivation are all uncertain at first. It seems like the hunchback might be a good guy of sorts--he claims he wants the convicts to help him destroy the syndicate that framed all of them. But he's also willing to commit murder and use the threat of death to keep his gang in line. It's soon apparent that--whatever his motivation--he's not on the side of the angels. (I keep saying "him," but that's just simpler than saying him/her over and over again.)

Doc, Monk and Ham get involved fairly early. Doc visits the prison to investigate the mass escape, but a woman disguised as a reporter tries to kill him with a gun-rigged camera. But even her motivation is up in the air--is she a villain or is she being forced to work for the villain?

On top of all the, the insurance guys who had mysteriously turned up in the prison cells after the escape keep popping up unexpectedly, shooting at pretty much everyone with shotguns and machine guns. 

Doc gradually sorts things out, though at one point he's framed for murder and on the run from the cops himself. But, as is typical of the best Doc Savage stories, when the villain thinks he is one step ahead of Doc, it always turns out that Doc is actually two steps ahead of him.

If I were to quibble, I'd have to say that the conclusion of this story is too abrupt to be completely satisfying, but it is in toto a wonderfully exciting and appropriately bizarre Doc Savage story. It is, in other words, the perfect way to spend 90 minutes.

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