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Satan Black [and] Cargo Unknown by Kenneth…
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Satan Black [and] Cargo Unknown (1980)

by Kenneth Robeson

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Premise

Doc Savage, independently wealthy, omni-competent athlete-surgeon-chemist-etc, along with some or all of his closest 5 friends, each masters in their specialty, investigates strange phenomena and works to dispense extra-legal justice to the worthy.

Story

Renny, a colleague of Doc's who is a master engineer, is requested by government officials to return to the US aboard a military submarine, at the end of WWII. He will be given an envelope with secret instructions once the ship is underway. He invites his friends Monk and Ham to join him. However, unbeknowest to him, the courier carrying his secret instructions has been waylayed, and the instructions replaced with pointless gibberish. Once underway, he discovers that unknown cargo (hence the name of the story) has been put in a sealed cabin.

Sabateurs sink the boat a little ways outside of New York. Renny manages to escape just in time, but his friends, and a number of crew members are stuck on board. Renny has a limited amount of time to get to New York, summon Doc Savages help, and rescue the people on the sunken craft, before their air runs out.

Positives

This story is written by the original "Kenneth Robeson", Lester Dent, and shows his usual strengths of effective storytelling and a driving pace.

Negatives

This post-war Doc Savage story, however, is missing a number of the elements that defined Doc Savage in its pre-war prime:
No imaginative flights of fantasy (lost lands/creatures, weird science or the like)
No gadgets
No over-the-top villians
Doc Savage and Renny react with believable emotion to the situation -- gone is the stoicism of the pre-war Doc
Moreover, the whole "ticking timebomb" structure, used to rather mechanically create suspense, is kind of trite.

Assessment

All those negatives, though, needs must be taken in context: we had just finished fighting the largest war in recorded history -- one that not only involved the whole world, but one that took place all *around* the world. The time for imaginative, over-the-top heroics were past -- too many men had achieved immense things with quiet heroism against master-villians (Hitler, Mussolini) that outstripped anything dreamt of by pulp writers. The post war period was going to mark the ascendency of the gritty private-eye story -- taken to its ultimate level by Mickey Spillane. Lester Dent seems to have been anticipating that with this grittier, stripped down version of Doc Savage.

Moreover, if this kind of narrative structure is now rather somewhat trite -- how many thrillers focus on a protagonist trying to accomplish something before some specific deadline nowadays? -- we would do well to remember that it wasn't so trite when it was being written.

Besides, what it takes Jack Bauer 24 hours to accomplish, Lester Dent's Doc Savage manages to do in a economical, fast-paced, 60 pages.

Recommendation

Qualified Recommendation. Don't read this if you are looking for a typical Doc Savage story, with all of its imaginative curlecues.
However, if you are looking for a lean, entertaining, diverting thriller, this is well worth your time!
  Pulpfan | Jul 20, 2009 |
no reviews | add a review

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kenneth Robesonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dent, LesterAuthormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Satan Black and Cargo Unknown were never issued as single title books. Therefore they should not be included in the Work-to-Work Relationship.
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