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This is #39 in the Doc Savage series. It was originally published in Doc Savage Magazine in May 1936 and reprinted as #73 in the Bantam paperback reprint series.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in January 2019.
Cover art was by Walter M. Baumhofer.
Every Doc Savage novel published in 1936 was either written by Lester Dent or Lawrence Donovan, except for one, this one, and it feels off throughout. The author of The Seven Agate Devils, a great title that unfortunately turns out to be relatively meaningless, was Martin E. Baker and this was his only contribution to the series. The biggest problem it has is that, while Baker does try, it really feels like a detective or spy thriller shoehorned into the Doc Savage series.
The basic concept has to do with a set of murders, committed by persons unknown for reasons unknown. Cause of death in each instance is having a hole punched through them, which is odd enough, but the associated smell of camphor—and the little devil made of agate that's left nearby with an intricately carved face that's an image of its victim—shifts the act well into weird pulp territory. Of course, the first corpse we see was intended to be Doc Savage himself but was merely an airport attendant carrying his stratosphere suit.
Hang on, what? Yeah, Baker adds in a lot of cool elements that are there for no real reason other than to be cool elements. Doc is wearing a stratosphere suit because he arrives in Los Angeles on an experimental airship that's circling the globe. Why did he catch a ride on this airship? Who knows. He could have flown there himself. He could have been there all along. He could have driven cross-country for a week. It really doesn't matter. It's just cool background.
What I appreciated more was the fact that we get a kick ass young lady in the first chapter. Doc leaves Ham and Monk alone for a moment, which, of course, allows them to be attacked. They save themselves with some neat ventriloquism on the part of Monk, but he's still literally thrown across the room by a bald young lady in a wig who uses jujitsu. We discover later that she's Kateen MacRoy and she gets the opportunity to punch Ham too and knock him out, in a pair of separate incidents. I like her. I wish she had more to do. At least she has more to do than Renny, Johnny and Long Tom, who are all out of the country for reasons undisclosed.
Doc has been invited into this affair by a lawyer named Montgomery Medwig Pell, who's acting on behalf of an imaginative soul named Camphor Wraith. Plenty of wild goose chase action ensues, each step of which sets up another bout of action and leaves another clue for later examination. I rather liked the first of these, because the bad guys, who are inevitably there waiting, have taken over a bank entirely so they can murder Doc. They leave the guards alive and don't take a dime. Not that it works out for them, naturally, but that's agreeably odd.
I wish Baker had done more with Solar Productions Field Location 7, though. It's a film set in the desert below Palm Springs, but our characters don't get to interact with the movie in production at all. Mostly they just tussle here and there in a blur of choreography that's continued throughout. For all the varied locations used, this often feels like play material with characters moved around the stage, swapped out for others, disguised as these people, pretending to be those, until we finally figure out what the heck the playwright was trying to do all along.
Baker does, at least, do something here that's long overdue for this series and which I appreciated greatly. There are kidnappings in every chapter here, it seems, but this time it's Ham and Doc who find themselves hustled off the set at gunpoint, leaving only Monk free, and that gives him an opportunity to try to figure out what's going on and who's behind it. Sure, he starts this section unconscious on a rooftop and he's promptly chased by some sort of hidden assassin, but it's a good opportunity nonetheless. Baker doesn't quite deliver but he does achieve more than anyone else has in 38 books on the giving Monk something to really do front. Sadly, he uses his fists more than his brain, so much so that his role could be determined in cartoon terms: punch, grab, squeeze, crash, etc. For a brilliant chemist, he really doesn't like to think. 'Boy, that ape sure likes to make things happen,' says one witness with a chuckle.
What he figures out is that there's a death list and a whole bunch of people at the Solar Productions set are on it. Why, we have no idea, but they're in fear for their lives and that's led them to act in ways that have confused us neatly thus far. Attempts to head off inevitability are generally done through attempts to steal the one blue agate devil (all the others are red), again for reasons undisclosed. I'd be OK with so many reasons undisclosed if only Baker had his own reasons for this and he disclosed them to us some time before the end of the book. Easily the worst thing about The Seven Agate Devils is that he doesn't. Why is the blue agate devil important? Where the heck did the seven in the title come from? Inquiring minds want to know the answers to these and a whole host of other questions that I won't share because they venture into spoiler territory.
Baker does pay some heed to the traditions of the series but it feels like he did so from a cheat sheet rather than through having actually read the previous books. For instance, he brings in Chemistry and Habeas Corpus, but they do precisely nothing except mirror the relationship of Ham and Monk. More tellingly, he recognises that a Doc Savage novel has to have kidnappings, but he goes completely overboard with this. I honestly lost track of how many times Monk was kidnapped here; it surely breaks Pat's record. He also has our heroes take part in this time honoured pastime. At one point, honest to God, Monk kidnaps two people and leaves them in a car, only to return to find that someone else has kidnapped the people he kidnapped and left someone else that they kidnapped in their place.
Where this gets annoying is in Baker's redundancy. There are certain things that he keeps on repeating, as if we don't remember that he used them a couple of chapters earlier. There are a lot of lines that explain what normal is so the next thing that happened was really strange. One odd linguistic affectation he uses often is to drop the beginning of sentences, like "Came movement at one side," or "Came a sudden crash." The worst is his insistence that Kateen MacRoy is pretty, even though she's bald, as if it's a shock that a bald person could be pretty. That keeps going even after everything's wrapped up: "Pretty Kateen MacRoy—the fact that she was bald-headed did not keep her from being pretty—was wrapped in a fond embrace with a tall, dark-haired man." Come on!
Another problem is the sheer convenience of certain points in the plot. Some are vaguely excusable in an action pulp, but not all. The worst comes out of the fact that the bad guys are using a cipher, sending messages written on the tobacco leaf inside expensive cigars. Doc realises that it's a cipher, so thinks up a sentence at random and finds that it's the precise one that he needs to decode it. He doesn't even get the right sentence! The whole point of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is that it's an insanely short pangram, prompting typists to use all 26 letters in a very short realistic sentence. It's been used since at least the late 19th century, so I don't understand why Doc would imagine a different, rather less efficient version in 1936: "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog." That he does and it's magically what the bad guys used for their cipher is the most ridiculous plot convenience I've seen yet.
And that's about it. I didn't like this novel much, though it might have been better in whatever original form that it probably had before being forced into being a Doc Savage story. There are good parts and good opportunities but Baker can't keep them all coherent enough to work as a novel. The only thing left to say is that there was a single word that caught my eye: one character's face is described as a "grotesque mismate". I had to look that up and it turns out that "mismate" is a perfectly valid equivalent to "mismatch" but only as a verb, which is the sole reason why I can't call The Seven Agate Devils a mismate.
Next month: Our one-off writer, Martin E. Baker, tags Lawrence Donovan back in to explore the Haunted Ocean.
Last update: 12th January, 2019