If Lester Dent had never written another book, this one alone would still make Doc Savage one of my favorite adventure heroes. That's how good THE SARGASSO OGRE is. From October 1933, the eighth issue, this novel still has some rough edges, both in Dent's writing style (too many exclamation points and sound effects) and in the characterizations. But for sheer inventiveness, headlong momentum and creative details, this book is hard to beat.
The real Sargasso Sea is in fact a huge concentration of seaweed in a relatively still area of the Atlantic Ocean. The Sargasso Sea of legend is almost forgotten now, but for centuries sailors believed it was a vast deadly trap of clinging weeds circling a whirlpool, and that ships entering it could never escape. Thousands of ships through the ages were said to be still stuck in this dire trap.This folkloric Sea is where this adventure takes place.
The Sargasso Ogre himself is one of the best villains in the entire series. A vicious smuggler, he has assembled an army of cut-throats in the Sea, most of whom were born there and have known no other life than vicious piracy. The villain's real name is Jacob Bruze. Not only is he a quick-thinking schemer, Bruze is a huge muscular man who can for a few minutes hold his own in a hand to hand fight with Doc in his prime. It ends in a doubtful draw, and neither of the two show any eagerness to swap punches again after that.
Although a killer and plunderer of half a dozen ocean liners, Bruze still is capable of having a moment's hesitation before ordering a massacre, hoping the victims will surrender. This was in a phase where Doc's enemies often died in traps they set for the bronze man, and the poetic justice here is really horrific.
All five aides appear, each getting a little time on stage but mostly acting together as a tight commando squad. This is before the introduction of mercy bullets, and when Doc leads all five friends in a charge with those superfirers, they're a dangerous bunch to face.
Doc himself is friendly, not above enjoying a cabaret show on the ocean liner he and his pals are cruising on. He still calls the five aides "brothers", a touch I wish had been retained. You get a feeling these guys enjoy each other's company, and this is not a job for them but the life they've chosen.
As far as skills and mental ability go, Doc is able to speak Arabic, hypnotize a thug with a shiny knife blade, has a street map of Alexandria in his head and is able to bring back Monk and Ham from death by poison gas after their hearts have stopped (albeit with three hours of medical care)
He also shows the deductive ability which is not openly displayed often enough when he investigates the alleged suicide of a radio operator, who supposely smashed his equipment first. There's bits of glass everywhere excpt on the body itself--but there are tiny specks of glass on the clothes of the two witnesses. And of course, there's the prolonged battle of wits with Bruze and his army among the hundreds of derelict ships floating in the seaweed.
But mostly Doc is at his physical peak at this time, almost always in rapid motion-- fighting, running, escaping death traps and wriggling loose from bonds, leaping, swimming underwater. He's not perfect, being capable of slipping on a log and falling into the water or having a hard time struggling through the seaweed, but he is at the upper level of human ability. I can't think of another adventure hero without literal superhuman powers who could accomplish the things Doc believably does in this story.
Lester Dent may have said in later years that the books were just another assignment, but he shows every sign here of a writer thoroughly enjoying himself. He had one of the most vivid imaginations I've ever encountered. One trait about Dent I enjoy is the tiny irrelevant details he throws in at the most unlikely moments, as when Doc is hiding underwater, breathing through a tube as Bruze's men hunt for him. A tiny sea horse floats in front of his eyes, and Doc studies the odd fish with interest. I love Doc's constant curiousity in the early years, and the casual way Lester Dent implies it.
If you're a Doc Savage fan and have never read THE SARGASSO OGRE, definitely track down or borrow a copy. If you know someone who enjoys wild adventure stories and who wants to try a Doc novel to see what they're like, this is a great choice to suggest.