5 Feb 2013

The Lost Oasis / The Sargasso Ogre, by Kenneth Robeson

Submitted by mhare

Cover to Doc Savage # 7

Doc Savage # 7: The Lost Oasis and the Sargasso Ogre

First published back-to-back in 1933, “The Lost Oasis” and “The Sargasso Ogre” stand as two of the great early Doc Savage pulp novels. Some fans consider “The Sargasso Ogre” to be one of the best, if not the best, Doc Savage adventure. I tend to agree. While both are highly imaginative and inventive, intensely colorful, and full of great action and suspense, “The Sargasso Ogre” sticks in memory and lingers with you. Yes, they are pulp novels, but they are also fun. You get the impression Lester Dent, the man behind the pen name Kenneth Robeson, had a blast writing these tales and it shows.  Even the main characters have that same enthusiasm and enjoyment.

“The Lost Oasis” opens with someone on an ocean liner bound for New York City radioing the newspapers to offer a one million dollar reward to whomever could find Doc Savage. The radio message was signed 'imperiled'. Doc investigates, swimming onto the liner while it is still in the harbor. 'Imperiled' turns out to be Lady Nelia. One of her two bodyguards is killed on deck in a mysterious manner as if by a vampire. Lady Nelia and Red escape the liner on a launch. They to go a hotel. Doc follows them, finds Red killed like the other man, and loses track of Lady Nelia. A telephone call from Yuttal and Hadi-Mot, the villains, who have have Lady Nelia. They demand the diamonds she had carried. Doc, aware they would not release Lady Nelia, refuses to turn over the diamonds. Doc traces the taxi Yuttal had used in the kidnapping. The trail ends in rural Maine, where they spot a large airship hidden in the woods.

Doc and his five aides sneak aboard the airship and hide. The long trip to Africa gives them away: Yuttal and Hadi-Mot become suspicious when the ship becomes tail-heavy. Attempts to rush Doc's position fail. They release the mysterious squeaking things to hunt Doc. Using the confusion, Doc rescues Lady Nelia. The airship ends its flight at an oasis in the middle of a great desert. Doc, his aides, and Lady Nelia escape from the airship. The remainder of the novel is a cat and mouse chase by the villains as they attempt to flush out Doc from their hiding places in the oasis. When they corner Doc, Hadi-Mot discovers Doc had sabotaged the airship, stealing vital machine parts, stranding everyone at the oasis. Although Doc surrenders, the villains dare not kill any of them. Doc makes a final escape, turning the tables on the villains, who die at the hands of their own weapon.

“The Sargasso Ogre” picks up a few days later, when their airship reaches Cairo. Doc and his aides sail back home on the ocean liner Cameronic. Forewarned by an attempt on the life of Long Tom, one of his aides, they are on alert and notice several suspicious events. In mid ocean, the liner is hijacked by a modern day pirate named Bruze, also called the Sargasso Ogre. Doc is unable to prevent the hijacking and the ship goes far off course, ending up in the mythical Sargasso Sea. Bruze leaves the ship, now stuck in the seaweed, and goes to fetch more help. Following Bruze and his men, Doc comes across Kina la Forge, the leader of the resistance to Bruze's rule of the Sargasso Sea, who refuses to believe Doc is not in league with Bruze. After a series of traps, captures, and escapes involving both Bruze and Kina la Forge, Bruze believes he has Kina and Doc trapped on a stranded warship and sets out to raid it, planning to surround it with gasoline and set it afire. The raid doesn't go as planned and, in usual fashion, the trap is turned against the trapper.

One nice thing about the Nostalgia Ventures edition of “The Sargasso Ogre” lies in the unedited text. In the Bantam paperback editions, the final page of “The Sargasso Ogre” got chopped. That was the edition I knew as a kid so I thought the story ended with the line “They fell to examining the craft” instead of a page later where Ham wryly comments on Monk wooing Kina la Forge.  The villains in both novels are a cut above average.  Yuttal and Hadi-Mot are effective,  Pure, simple thugs, ruthless and ambitious.  What makes them stand above average is their murder weapon of choice: trained giant vampire bats.  Until the reader learns the creatures are bats, their use as murder weapons is very creepy and suspenseful, producing some of the best scenes in the book.  Bruze, with his hair-trigger temper, bombastic personality, and tremendous strength, seems almost Doc's mirror image.  I find it significant that when Doc and Bruze square off at the end of the novel, both men are so well matched the fight ends in a draw.  Equally significant in my view is the moment of moral qualm when Bruze realizes just how horrendous is his plan and for a second has doubts.  Such a spark of humanity in an otherwise dyed-black villain is unusual for the period.  Little touches like that are the reason "The Sargasso Orgre" rates so highly.

Today the plot of both novels may seem formulaic and cliched, but that only puts a minor tarnish on them. Both novels are still good reads, full of bizarre detail and moody atmosphere even as they move with the speed of bullet trains. The whole idea of the pulp novels was to let the average reader escape the real world for two or more hours of exotic adventure. By that yardstick, “The Lost Oasis” and “The Sargasso Ogre” succeed. I still think the early Doc Savage novels would make fabulous movies in the right hands. The chief flaws of the novels are ones endemic to all pulps of the era, including thin characterizations, unbelievable action, and one too many lucky breaks. Still, reading them again after so many years is like visiting with an old friend or an eccentric uncle who loves telling tall tales.

Rating: A-

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