Reading Doc Savage: The Czar of Fear

IMG_0699I’m skipping around a bit in the course of these rereads, but this is number twenty-two of the Bantam Reprints. On the green-toned cover, Doc is menaced by several figures in black hoods with glowing green eyes. A trick of the light makes it appear that the middle figure actually has three glowing green eyes, but the text does not support this, alas. This figure also has a shape half-obscured on its chest that will turn out to be a green bell but in this looks more like one of those things you put over food to keep them warm. Doc is posed very awkwardly, head turned towards the men and stepping toward them while wrenching his chest towards us in order to display rippling muscles half-obscured by the customary ripped shirt.

The narrative begins with a radio squawking and a man in a lunch-room: “pale fright rode his face”. He’s gulping his fourth mug of coffee, accompanied by two women, one “a striking beauty” in her twenties who turns out to be his sister and the other “a pleasant-faced grandmother type.” We learn their respective names are Jim, Alice, and Aunt Nora and they’re in search of Doc Savage.

There’s a pause for atmosphere to build tension before our action begins:

Rain purred on the lunch-room roof. It crawled like pale jelly down the windows. It fogged the street of the little New Jersey town. The gutters flowed water the color of lead.

And then we hear a sound from the radio: “a tolling, like the slow note of a big, listless bell. Mixed with the reverberations was an unearthly dirge of moaning and wailing.” The trio react with panic, but Aunt Nora reassures them, “It’s not likely the Green Bell was tolling for us — that time!” We learn that whenever the bell tolls, it means death and insanity.

They exit to their car, freshly refueled and ready to go. After they’ve departed we see a strange figure with a green bell on its chest dumping out the ten-gallon pail of gasoline it’s siphoned from their car.

As the trio drive, they deliver a lot of exposition, including Aunt Nora’s estimation of Doc Savage’s abilities:

“Take the word of an old woman who knows enough to discount half of what she hears. Doc Savage is a man who was trained from the cradle for the one purpose in life of righting wrongs. They say he’s a physical marvel, probably the strongest man who ever lived. And moreover he’s studied until he knows just about everything worth knowing from electricity and astronomy to how to bake a decent batch of biscuits*.”

When the car runs out of gas a few paragraphs later, Jim decides to walk back to the station, leaving Aunt Nora, Alice, and the “two big, businesslike blue revolvers” Aunt Nora pulls out of her purse. Jim heads off, only to be ambushed by more bell-wearing figures that disarm him and carry him over to some railway tracks that are not particularly nearby and actually involve climbing over “a high fence,” where they intend to throw him onto the electrified third rail and do so, killing him. Exit the Green Bells, “away in the rain-moist night like dread, voiceless ghouls from another existence.” (Sorrowfully, they neither gibber nor meep.)

Cut to the Triplex, “New York’s newest, gaudiest, and most expensive hotel.”** A man is entering, with the attention to detail that signals a major Dent villain:

The newcomer was a tall snake of a man. The serpentine aspect was lent by the fact that his body was so flexible as to seem boneless. His hair was carefully curled, and had an enameled shine. His eyes were ratty; his mouth was a crack; his clothes were flashy enough to be in bad taste.

This is “Slick” Cooley, who’s arrived to meet up with co-conspirator Judborn Tugg, also described at length and evocatively. Sometimes Dent is in fine form and this is one of them.

Tugg was a small, prosperous-appearing mountain. His dark pin-stripe suit, if a bit loud, was well tailored over his ample middle. His chins, big mouth, and pale eyes rode on a cone of fat. A gold watch chain bridged his midriff, and formed a support for several lodge emblems.

They argue about the Green Bell, who has sent them to meet Doc Savage before Alice and Aunt Nora can. Tugg, who has mentally labeled Savage as a common thug who hires himself out for money, leaves Cooley in the lobby to watch for the women and lights a dollar cigar in the elevator on the way up to the 86th floor, all part of his plan: “He had another just like it which he intended to offer Savage. The fine weeds would be the final touch. Doc Savage would be bowled over by the grandeur of Judborn Tugg.”

He meets Doc, who is described with the usual lavish “mighty giant of bronze” and “marvelously symmetrical proportions.” He invites Tugg in and, in a typical display of unobtrusive but definite Savage oneupmanship, offers Tugg a ten dollar cigar.

Tugg explain there’s Trouble with a capital T in Prosper City, caused by all the workers being on strike and outside agitators stirring up trouble, led by Aunt Nora. He wants to hire Savage “to–er–punish Aunt Nora Boston and her gang.”

Savage says his services are not for sale but sometimes people give him gifts in return for things he’s done. How much would you need in this case, a smiling Tugg asks, thinking he’s got Doc’s number now, only to nearly have a heart attack at Doc’s answer: “a million dollars.”

Meanwhile down in the lobby, Cooley sees the women, grabs Nora’s purse, plants some money in it, and calls a police officer, saying the women robbed him. “It’s into the jug for you,” the (inevitably Irish) copper says, and starts to hustle the women away only to be interrupted by Monk, who’s seen the whole thing. He takes them upstairs but when Aunt Nora recognizes Tugg’s voice while still in the hallway, calls Doc out. Doc leaves Tugg in the room and steps out to be ogled by introduced to the ladies.

Stepping back in, Doc throws Tugg out. Monk adds insult to injury by letting the Hotel Triplex know so they’ll eject him too and then mails off the roll of cash he’s extracted from Cooley’s pocket.

Tugg returns to his hotel to find his bags on the curb. Luckily he’s picked up by a limo driven by Cooley at this point. In the back is the Green Bell, “a figure incased from head to foot in a black sack of a garment. On the front of the raven gown was painted a big green bell.” The Bell tells him not to worry about Savage, because he’s got a plan in place to keep him busy, a scheme that “will undoubtedly result in Doc Savage dying in the electric chair!”

Back on the 86th floor, Doc listens to Aunt Nora’s side of the story while Monk hovers, “furtively admiring Alice Cash’s loveliness.” She says Tugg & Co cut wages, which set off the chain. Aunt Nora’s Benevolent Society has been working to feed the unemployed, funded out of her own pocket. Ole Slater, “a nice young lad who thinks he can write plays” and a beau of Alice’s, is mentioned in a passage that reads like Dent wrote it at breakneck speed: “He’s gathering material for a play, and he stays at my rooming house. I forgot to tell you that I run a boarding house.” We also find out the police chief, Clem Clements, thinks Tugg “is the greatest man alive.”

Finally we discover the Green Bell is capable of driving people insane, although no one knows how he does it. Two more of Doc’s aides, Renny and Long Tom appear, having stumbled across someone listening to the conversation from outside the door. It turns out to be Ole Slater.

The last of Doc’s aides, Ham and Johnny, enter, exclaiming that Doc’s been accused of a murder: the New Jersey police “have four witnesses who say they saw you throw a man against the third rail of an interurban line and electrocute him!” Far below, they see the police car arriving with their witnesses.

Monk and Ham stay in the office (quarreling as they do) while Doc and the rest leave, headed down a secret passage to a room where they can watch what’s happening in the office via a secret television. The witnesses, while clearly dubious, have been prepped and can identify a picture of Doc. Doc decides to head off to Prosper City but leave Ham behind to fight the murder charge. He and the other men assemble their gear and head off to the Hidalgo Trading Company, Doc’s secret warehouse. As they are entering it, seven of the green bell figures appear, gripping automatics and submachine guns, and begin firing them.

Automatics and machine guns opened up in a hideous roar! Empty cartridges chased each other from the breeches of the automatics, and poured in brassy streams from the ejectors of the rapid-firers. Powder noise cascaded through the capacious warehouse in a deafening salvo.

Alice, Nora, and Ole shriek and dive for cover, while Doc and company stand there:

Something mysterious was happening to the bullets. A few feet from Doc and his men, the slugs seemed to stop in mid-air and splatter like raindrops Some halted and hung in space, strangely distorted.

Panicked by this hoodoo, the green bells try to flee, only to smash headlong into an invisible wall. Dent makes things clear (pun intentional) by explaining that walls of thick glass have arisen in front of and behind them. Doc uses his usual mechanism to gas them into insensibility.

When awakened and questioned, the captives know little except they were told to attack Doc at the warehouse but not harm the women or Ole Slater, lest the deaths of the latter stir up even more trouble in Prosper City. Despite other questions, this is all the information they yield before they are shipped off to Doc’s correctional institute to have their memories removed and be retrained in the ways of “upright citizenship and a trade.”

Everyone else heads off to Prosper City. When they arrive at the airport, they’re met by the police chief, Clem Clements***, who is described thusly:

An incredibly tall, raw-boned man led the policemen. He had an enormous mustache, and a small red face. The combination was remindful of**** a cherry with a large brown caterpillar on top.

Doc spots a paper in Clements’ hand and knows it must be a warrant for his arrest. He pivots the plane as it lands to kick dust in the face of the police and slips out the back in the confusion. The police search the plane and ar frustrated to find no Doc. They leave and the rest call a taxi, which arrives a half hour later driven by a shabby, surly man who seems half asleep. They head into town, but the driver acts uncertainly and as though he “did not know where he was going.” Cue the moment we all find out he’s Doc Savage in one of those moments that reminds me of Gene Parmesan in Arrested Development.

They reach Aunt Nora’s house and Doc Savage embarks on the first step in his plan to improve Prosper City by giving Aunt Nora a sheaf of thousand dollar bills and telling her to order food and clothing from the merchants who have been the most generous in supporting her charity. They set up a meeting where the food will be distributed.

Meanwhile, the Green Bell stirs up “hardfaced men,” the paid agitators, who begin preaching. They

…label Aunt Nora a sinister woman, and Doc Savage a murderer and worse.

The elderly lady, they said, was in league with “The Interests.” Just who The Interests were, they neglected to mention explicitly, but included mill and mine owners in a general way. Aunt Nora was going to try to persuade men to go back to work at starvation wages, they declared. Why go to work and starve anyway, while the pockets of the rich were lined?

Clements tries to forbid the meeting but is argued out of it by Alice Cash. Doc compliments her acumen and gets “a ravishing smile of thanks,” signaling heartbreak ahead for Alice due to Doc’s strict no-romance policy.

Savage must lurk undercover due to the outstanding warrants, but Doc’s four aides, Renny, Long Tom, Monk, and Johnny (you may remember Ham is back in NYC defending the fort) help with the meeting, driving off the agitators when they try to break things up. Clements and thirty police officers show up to arrest everyone. They’ve been tipped off where Doc is, and cordon the house around him. There’s a tent wall from the meeting not too far from the house; Doc uses instructions in ancient Mayan to his men and his amazing power of ventriloquism to make it seem as though he’s inside the tent and coordinate an attack in which all of the police are rendered unconscious.

The crowd regathers but everyone seems uneasy. Long Tom turns on the PA system, turning into a local dance music station to quiet fears, an action which the Green Bell twists to his own ends:

Unexpectedly, an unearthly wail burst in upon the lilting of fiddles and the muted moaning of saxophones. The sound rose and fell, changing its tone. It was like the death cries of a monster, pouring from the loud-speakers.

A deep-throated, reverberating boom lifted over the bedlam of wailing. The throbbing sound seemed to fill all the night, magnified a thousand times by the address-system speakers. More of the weird notes came. A death-walk procession!

Everyone panics, while Dent proclaims of the Green Bell, “Prosper City was a realm of fear, and he was its czar.”

From a vantage point located both afar and at the beginning of the next chapter, Cooley watches and laughs. Tugg picks him up and reveals that Clements is still at the hospital, unconscious. The two enter a ramshackle old barn where they are joined by other men to be addressed by the Green Bell. He tells Slick he will pay him a bonus of fifty thousand dollars for placing the device that induces insanity where Doc Savage will come close to it. Everyone leaves; Cooley lurks behind to discover that the seated figure of the Green Bell is just a dummy placed over a hole.

Cooley places the device and slinks out of sight, ending another chapter. Doc appears in order to launch the next by addressing the crowd. Alice Cash, watching him, is unable “to take her eyes off his figure.” He does so and ends up addressing the factory and mine owners, spearheaded by one Collison McAlter, offering to buy their holdings while allowing them to buy them back at the same price any time within a year. McAlter and his buddies hem and haw, saying they want time to discuss things and maybe they should schedule a meeting or two. Doc nips this in the bud by pointing out the Green Bell is still out there doing his bell thing. he then distributes more money and heads off to bed.

Doc’s uncanny senses divine the existence of the Bell’s device before it can affect him. When he and Long Tom examine it, they find it emits ultra-short sound waves that can drive someone insane. (Googling on “can ultra-short sound waves drive someone insane” did not convince me one way or another that this was a plausible technique.) They do find fingerprints on the machine. Doc also reveals that one of the devices Doc has placed in the room has been taking ultraviolet footage of the action. Revealing it, they identify Cooley. Doc heads off to find him, while the rest exit the room, Renny waits outside the door with one of Doc’s tiny, high-speed machine guns for someone to try to retrieve the device but fails to witness someone using the window to drop a package in.

Cooley is waiting in Clements’ office when Doc finds him and goes to work, first paralyzing his vocal cords, then telling him, “You’re going to die,” before beginning to torture him:

For some seconds Doc worked on Slick’s frame with incredibly strong hands. His manipulations produced excruciating agony. So great was the torture that Slick began to think he was actually dying.

When his voice is restored, Cooley sings like a bird, revealing everything he knows not just to Doc but to Chief Clements, who turns out to be standing outside the door listening. The Chief apologizes to Doc for doubting him and they discuss the case and the participants, including Ole Slater who the Chief says has “written a couple of plays that have been produced on Broadway.”

You would think everything’s gotten much better for Doc but Dent’s good about always keeping tension high. By the end of the next chapter, Cooley has been killed in his jail cell and Tugg has not just killed Clements, but framed Doc for his murder. To cap it all off, the device that came in through Doc’s window was a bomb; much of his equipment has been destroyed in the explosion. Monk’s the only one there; the rest have gone with Alice to retrieve her brother’s body, which Ham has sent to Prosper City via the train.

Shots are fired. Investigating, Doc finds that the Bell’s men have attacked the others at the train station and then driven away. He sets off a few firecrackers and uses the diversion to hide himself in the hearse holding Jim Cash’s body. On its arm he discovers the words “in my factory locker.” He heads off to Little Grand Mills, the location of the locker, making his way through police patrols effortlessly despite the fact he has not slept since the book’s beginning. Plenty of the Green Bell’s minions are at the factory; he eludes their gunfire but they escape, taking with them whatever had been in the locker.

Collison McAlter, the owner of the factory, appears and tells Doc to puts his hands up, but Doc uses firecrackers again to divert attention. Trying to find out whether or not McAlter is the Green Bell, Savage pretends to be mortally wounded by McAlter’s shot. McAlter’s horrified reaction proves his innocence. The two head back to Aunt Nora’s while Doc explains that Jim Cash had proof of the Green Bell’s identity and had hidden it in his locker.

Ham calls to tell Doc of something odd: the mail carrier there was kidnapped and a letter from Prosper City taken. Probably from Jim Cash, Doc grimly says. The rest ask how they’re going to get him out of the place before the police return to search it again, but Doc decides to stay, hiding himself through a mechanism I’m still not entirely clear on, using diving equipment to submerge himself in a water tank that Monk puts a chemical on top of and sets alight so it looks as though they are burning trash in the tank.

The police, accompanied by Judson Tugg, appear and search everything except the flaming tank with great thoroughness. They do discover the body of a police officer hanging among the wisteria beneath Monk’s room’s window. One of the men who has just appeared on the scene, the officer has been stabbed multiple times with one of Aunt Nora’s carving knives, which has also been conveniently left in the body. The police start to arrest Monk when he points out he has literally never been out of their sight since they arrive. They grumble a bit and search more until they find the gun that killed Clements in the pocket of the suit hanging in Monk’s closet.

Meanwhile outside the chemicals burn atop Doc’s tank, good for only one more hour. Clever Alice manages to get a message to Doc in his tank and he emerges, startling the police. Surrounded by guns, he is forced to strip and dressed anew in a pair of old blue overalls. Barefoot, he is forced into a police car and driven off. The Green Bell’s signal comes over the car radio.

At the sound Doc escapes. He believes it is a call to the Bell’s men and he intends to see where Tugg goes to answer it. He follows Tugg, “as noiselessly as a cloudcast shadow,” to the ramshackle barn where the Bell previously addressed his group and where they are assembling once again. His ears, sharper than Cooley’s, allow him to immediately understand that the figure is a dummy and someone is shouting through an underground pipe to make it seem as though the dummy is speaking. He starts digging around while the Bell is shouting instructions to Tugg about a bottle of poison he’s hidden and how to use it to poison Aunt Nora’s waterline.

Doc realizes that one of the factory or mine owners must be the Green Bell but his search for clues is unsuccessful and unlike the reader he doesn’t know McAlter is the only one of them with a name and hence the obvious suspect. He doesn’t witness the Bell’s encounter with Tugg later, when the Bell tells Tugg that Savage followed them and heard everything that was said, having heard Doc digging around and deduced his presence.

Doc heads to find the poison, not realizing the Bell has set a death trap at the spot. However, his uncanny reflexes allow him to spot and disarm the machine gun pointed at the bottle, and then empty it of its poison, refilling it with water. After that he lurks around town a while, then appears to Tugg, pretending to be the Bell. He sends Tugg after the poison. But what about the trap for Doc Savage, the bewildered Tugg says. Yeah, forget about that, we’re changing the plan again, Doc says quickly, and vanishes before Tugg can ask any other awkward questions.

Tugg thinks about all this and realizes that the Bell had Slick Cooley killed because he was a threat and that Tugg may be next. He resolves to be careful when getting the poison. His suspicions are roused further when the machine gun trap, which Doc has repositioned to shoot harmlessly into the air, goes off when he retrieves the bottle. Screw this, Tugg thinks, and goes off to tell Doc Savage everything. He runs into Monk instead.

Monk gets Doc and brings him to Tugg but before he does, somehow the Bell gets to Tugg again and he changes his mind. They all realize the Bell must be one of the people that has been wandering around, one of whom is Collison McAlter. Lots of theories are exchanged and Doc indicates that he understands what is going on but isn’t going to tell any of them. (I was really hoping at this point that Aunt Nora would turn out to be the Bell.) They’re used to this, and go off on the errands on which he’s dispatched them.

It’s page 117 and we’re about due for the boss fight, so sure enough, here’s the Bell:

Impaled in the glare stood a somber figure — it might have been a black six-foot tube of flexible India rubber, except that it had arms and legs.

The breast of the weird form bore a bell in green. The eyes were the lenses of goggles — snakelike, with a green glitter.

The Green Bell himself! Only the sinister czar wore those green goggle to shield his eyes.

When Doc advances, he’s rushed by the Bell’s men. In the hubbub the Bell escapes and the attackers turn out to be “bums from around town” that the Bell has hired. No one notices that the Bell has put another package under the hood of Long Tom’s car. Long Tom goes about his business, but when he returns to the car, a note from Doc alerts him to the danger, and suggests he pretend to be slain.

Doc heads back to Aunt Nora’s, where everyone is questioning the prisoners. He uses hypnosis but still is unable to find out the Bell’s identity. Judson Tugg disappears from his cell, but Doc is unconcerned. He declares that he has a piece of wood with the Bell’s fingerprints on it. The wood disappears soon afterwards. Doc reveals to his men that the wood was actually soaked in a chemical that will turn the fingers of whoever touched it yellow in a period ranging from a day to a week. All they have to do is wait.

Ham shows up to let them know he’s cleared Doc of the original murder charges. While everyone’s sitting around talking, Doc also discovers he can cure those who have been driven insane by the Green Bell’s diabolical device. A grateful Alice Cash tells him she was hoping he would stay in Prosper City and he explains why he can’t. Unconvinced, she tells him he needs a wife and he immediately flees.

That night the Green Bell’s signal comes once again and Aunt Nora is kidnapped. Doc follows the signal down into a coal mine where the Bell is addressing a gathering and killing Tugg as an example to them all. After doing so, he mentions casually that he stabbed Tugg instead of shooting him because a nearby underground room is full of nitroglycerine that could get set off by “any large shock in the earth near by.”

There are two pages left in the book; the inevitable happens and the nitro is set off. In the aftermath, Monk and Doc wonder again who the Green Bell***** was. Alice appears and asks if anyone’s seen Ole Slater. It’s the strangest thing, she observes, but the last time I saw him, he seemed to be turning yellow.

*A domestic detail I hope to see elaborated on in future books, but suspect will not ever reappear.
**At this point the narrative became much enlivened when I imagined a 1930s Donald Trump hovering constantly in the background scowling at people and trying to barge into women’s hotel rooms.
***This name is so far below Dent’s usual level that I choose to believe it a placeholder that inadvertently got left in.
****My personal candidate for the “Most Awkward Phrase of the Book” award.
*****At this point I will reveal that early on in the book I began inserting the word “pepper” after every instance of “Green Bell.”

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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