January 7th, 2011

A handy map if you find yourself in Atlantis

Poor city planning, in some ways. Only one bridge connecting each of the rings? What's up with that? So, if at the top of this map, you're standing there in your toga and flip-flops and you want to go to the main palace (where the action is and things are jumping), you can't just walk there directly. No sir. You have to trudge completely around the city and get to the bridge at the bottom and then cross over. Not the best idea, it would be like Manhattan only have a single bridge at its northern end and travelers from Jersey would have a hike.

Most of the stuff you see about Atlantis has nothing much to do with Plato's original account anyway. He didn't present it as a wonderful paradise of peaceful living and philosophical reflection. That was more his vision of ancient Athens. (Whether he seriously thought Athens was more than 9,000 years old is another ticklish idea.) In fact, Atlantis attacked Athens for no particular reason and so deserves getting plunked under the ocean. I don't know where the idea that Atlantis had advanced tech came from either... sometimes it's shown as classical Greece with a few cool gadgets, sometimes it seems almost like a lab at MIT.


From June 1934, this is a fine example of 'Ruritanian adventure', a genre almost forgotten today but very popular for decades. Its most famous example is Anthony Hope's THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, filmed a number of times (the Stewart Granger version from the 1950s is still very entertaining). This genre involves intrigue in a small European country, royalty, impending war, impersonation and swordfights. At its best, it's a lot of fast-moving entertainment.

Here we have the small nation of Calbia, a Balkan principality with a royal family threatened by a revolutionary movement. Doc is approached to intervene but no one is quite what he or she claims to be at first. There is a good deal of scheming, double-crossing and deception going on. In addition to King Dal Le Galbin and his daughter Princess Gusta (OF COURSE she's gorgeous, did kings ever have homely daughters), two main players in the game are a homicidal dwarf named Muta and the grossly overweight Conte Cozonac,who calls himself the King Maker and who offers the throne of Calbia to Doc himself.

At 170 pages, THE KING MAKER is one of the longest novels in the series and this gives room for some interesting digressions. The best part is that Doc and the Five split up to investigate what the situation is in Calbia, none of the aides knowing what the others are up to. Renny gets a good deal of action by himself (he's always been my favorite of the five). The bigfisted lug poses as a red-haired loudmouth aviator named Champ Dugan, hiring his services to the Calbian throne. Renny gets to do some spectacular barnstorming and dogfighting in his gaudy plane, and he enjoys playing the part of a brash, boastful soldier of fortune. LIke Doc himself, Renny seems to relish acting a role that's the opposite of his normal

This is the only time that I found Johnny's dialogue believable. His vocabulary is what an educated man might normally use, big words that are distinctive but not so obscure or specialized as to be annoying. One of the few criticisms I have of Lester Dent's characterization is that Johnny needlessly irritates everyone he meets with those words. Here he says things in every sentence like "hypothesis", "advocate", "enigmatic", "nefarious" and so forth--words the average person is likely to understand. I only wish this more subtle and likeable characterization had stuck.

The way Doc is presented in the early novels is terrific. He's just at the upper limit of believability. In a hospital which he finances, surgeons gather to watch him operate on a man with a fractured skull. When someone gives an address on 14th Street, he immediately knows there is no building with that number. He speaks fluent Calbian (Dent throws in a large number of bizarre Calbian words and phrases throughout the story). And as soon as they are attacked by a mysterious weapon which blows up targets in complete darkness, he has a good enough idea of what it is that he devises a defense against it.

Physically, our hero is at his peak. He runs up the stairs with a 300 pound man under one arm. In disguise, he wipes out a crowd of soldiers and Renny, who doesn't know who this stranger is, decides he couldn't defeat the man himself. When the floor drops away beneath him in a narrow passage, the bronze man leaps up sideways to jam his feet against one wall and his shoulders against the other wall, then works his way down the hall like that, and as the mastermind peers through the door to see if the trap worked, a big bronze fist smacks him right in the ksser. Go, Doc!

One of the things I enjoy best about Lester Dent's writing is the way he compares Doc's startling accomplishments with the real life people who can do such things. This makes it more believable and at the same time reminds the reader that there are people who can do amazing feats. Doc has developed toes that are nearly as prehensile as fingers, to the extent that he can tie a knot in a string with one foot. This sounds hard to buy, but he learned this from circus performers and amputees who can shave, drive nails and turn the pages of a book with just their feet. The range and variety of Doc's skills are incredible, but each one is within human ability.

The cover of the Bantam reprint is by Fred Pfeiffer, and it's the best one he did for the series. In front of heavy red drapery, Doc sits back on a simple marble throne. One fist to his chin like Rodin's Thinker, his face in deep shadow, it's a strangely evocative image and an odd one to choose for the cover. I'm starting to appreciate Pfeiffer's art more as time passes. He may not have been well suited for Doc Savage but there is more merit to his style than I thought at first.

Today's mystery guest

People with more refined tastes than mine think he's a great writer. Fair enough. But he is remembered best for a character whose name has passed into common usage.

It occurs to me that I put up the new Mystery Guest without making sure everyone knows who this one was, which is bad form. So, Collapse )