The Spectacled Seven of ALL PULP as well as our loyal readers from time to time come across non ALL PULP reviews that just deserve to be shown to a wider audience. From now on, if you come across such a review, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. If it's selected as being just too good for the pulp world to miss, then it will be posted as an upcoming GUEST REVIEW OF THE WEEK...like our first one right here...
GUEST REVIEW OF THE WEEK
REVIEW OF 'THE FRECKLED SHARK' by Lester Dent
Just so you know.
This March 1939 adventure is best remembered for the infamous "Henry Peace" affair, but before we get into that, I'd like to discuss the story itself. THE FRECKLED SHARK is a lively, quick-moving tale about an assortment of shady characters chasing each other around over a fortune worth millions (forty or fifty), involving the lives or deaths of thirty people. No one's version of what's going on can really be taken at face value, not even the seemingly trustworthy folks. These people mean business, too; there are plenty of murders, torture and cruelty going on and it's not a genteel jewel robbery caper by any means.
Despite all the suspense and action, Lester Dent throws in some genuinely funny lines almost as afterthoughts. When he was trying to write outright farce, Dent seemed uncomfortable; when he has a character make a joking remark in a tight situation, the little touch of humour strikes me as just the sort of thing a real person would say to break the tension. The narrative asides are also wry; Doc ties up a suspect, and "about the only thing he could move was his ears." Of course, the whole hook of the story, the Henry Peace scandal, is amusing in itself and also shows some rare insight into a normally opaque character.
In the first twenty pages, Lester Dent gets the reader hooked by laying down one puzzling incident after another, all of which seem to fit together somehow. Who is this guy Jep Dee, found half-dead from exposure and vicious torture, with a knotted rope around his neck which he refuses to have removed? What's the deal with the scrap of freckled shark hide, which he thinks is immensely crucial but which is a clue absolutely no one can figure out? Why are this gangster Horst (who looks like the Devil with muscles) or Senor Steel (the dread dictator of Blanca Grande) interested in the whole mess? Then there's the cantankerous old soldier of fortune Tex Haven (who carries five pistols hidden on his person) or his nubile daughter Rhoda (who has degrees from four universities and is expert in medicine, archaeology and government administration as well as being a mercenary with a reward on her head). They're in it up to their chins but they won't explain anything either.
When Rhoda goes to enlist Doc Savage's aid, she pours out lies (she starts with, "My name is Mary Morse") but because she is sitting in a chair with a built-in lie detector, it gets her nowhere. Doc doesn't show himself, but he sends her off with Johnny to recruit Monk and Ham, and the pulp rollercoaster ride takes off. After that, there is much violence, intrigue, running back and forth, sneaking through the Florida mangroves at night, aerial dogfights, double-crosses and deception, until gradually it all becomes clear. Even Doc finds himself surprised at a few of the plot twists, and is shocked to think he has been duped..
Johnny is along for the ride, and he is (as usual) the most likeable of the aides. He makes conscious efforts to use understandable language, although he keeps backsliding into the frankly irritating habit. Just once, I would like for someone to remind him that one sign of an educated person is the ability to communicate clearly. As it is, one goon says, "Oh. One of them guys, eh? I don't see why these foreigners who come over here can't speak English."
Even so, Johnny is the most thoughtful and considerate of the regular cast, and Doc (as he does in other stories) seems to appreciate Johnny's opinions the most. Here, he takes the bony archaeologist away from the other two aides to ask him what he should do in a delicate situation. Monk and Ham tend to bulldoze over people, either physically or through verbal manipulation but Johnny is concerned with other peoples' feelings. Doc trusts only him to give sound advice; I always got the impression Johnny was the oldest of the gang, maybe even one of Doc's teachers. This is still pulp characterization, of course with broad strokes and bright colors, but Dent always manages to add little human touches to his cast.
Monk and Ham are their usual selves, carrying on their schizoid love affair where they can't stop insulting each other but fret when the other is in trouble. I know they're straight (c'mon), but honestly they remind me of several married couples I know. We can note here that Chemistry barely comes up past Monk's knees (pretty tiny for a chimp and he can't really be a baboon because he doesn't have a muzzle or tail). Alan Hathaway and Harold A Davis somehow got the idea that Chemistry was five feet tall, able to wear adult clothing or drive an ambulance (!), but Dent's original concept was that he was not much bigger than a monkey. Maybe Doc tried some growth hormones on the ape.
I do like the way that, when trapped in an underground room with a gang, Monk yells to lock the door so they can't escape ("There were at least a dozen men in the room. Monk, the optimist, didn't want any of THEM to get away.").
The main appeal of THE FRECKLED SHARK, of course, is that Doc spends most of it disguised as a rude, insolent ruffin with bright red hair and a larcenous streak. This is Henry Peace, and it's not really giving much away by revealing the pose because Lester Dent lays on some heavy hints from the start and quickly makes it obvious. As Henry, Doc gets to laugh loud and often, propose marriage to a beautiful girl as soon as he meets her, and insult Monk and Ham. He tells Monk,"If you had kept that nose out of other people's business, it might not look so funny." Then he goes over to Ham (the "dandy") and yanks up the tails of the fashion-obsessed lawyer's coat, splitting it up the back. He also knocks both of them on their backs with a single punch each, then chases them off by throwing bricks ("Irish confetti") at them.
Gee. Do you think Doc might be acting out impulses toward these two guys he had kept bottled up for years? Not to mention then acting on the powerful attraction to women he felt but could barely admit, even to himself. The price for Doc's superhuman abilities and knowledge was lifelong discipline and self-sacrifice, being a scientific Puritan. As much as we might like a quick glimpse of Doc up in the Fortress of Solitude, unshaven and reading SPICY ROMANCES in his underwear, while working on a six-pack, it would never happen. It took a few years of World War II and a nearly fatal head trauma before his emotional repression began to crack and he could open up. Doc was never quite the invincible demi-god again after his feelings started coming out, but I sort of think he started enjoying life more and not living every moment for his noble mission.
Doc is a trained psychologist, of course, and he has just enough self-awareness to realize this Henry Peace role could easily get out of hand. Sort of like Catholic high school girls getting drunk for the first time when their folks are away -- once you uncork the bottle, it's tough to get the djinn back in; if Doc started enjoying being Henry for too long, it might be tempting to start skipping those two-hour daily exercises and long hours sweating over hot test tubes or dull 1200-page textbooks. He is also understandably tempted when the gorgeous Rhoda starts to tumble for Henry and there is every sign he could easily be getting somewhere with her. What a pickle for the severely repressed bronze man.
Personally, I would have liked to see Henry come back as a recurring character whenever the situation allowed it. He could be Doc's secret identity, a boisterous and fun-loving Mr Hyde offering much-needed chances to blow off steam. Since Monk immediately and strongly dislikes the guy, there could be some fresh comic relief to replace the tired bickering with Ham. Dent could even have pulled the old amnesia gag where Doc is struck on the head while in the disguise and thinks he really IS Henry Peace. Only Doc himself can come up with a defense against the shrivelling Purple Fog or whatever, and this Henry guy is just getting in the way of the search for him. (Fan fiction writers out there, these ideas are free.)
As it is, although he will occasionally impersonate other uncouth galoots, Doc puts Henry away and never goes back. By the end of the story, Ham and Johnny have learned about the impersonation, but since Henry has treated him so rough and easily won Rhoda over despite Monk's efforts, Doc sternly tells them never to let the lecherous chemist know. "The bronze man sounded so deathly serious that Johnny and Ham doubled over laughing. It was the first time they had ever laughed AT Doc Savage" (actually, there was the earlier case where Doc somehow found himself engaged without knowing how in METEOR MENACE....)
Even when his hero was at his most stoic and poker-faced, Lester Dent usually dropped hints that Doc felt normal emotions like fear or doubt and even sexual attraction, but just kept them pushed below the surface. Here is the clearest instance of the writer letting us in on what is actually going on behind those swirling gold-flecked eyes, and it makes this book a lot of fun. THE FRECKLED SHARK is one of the top dozen or so Doc novels I'd recommend every fan should be sure to read.