Balancing fun and sophistication – The Inferno Scheme, Part 4

After a masterful buildup, The Inferno Scheme, which appeared in the Marvel magazine Doc Savage #3 (1976) began to unfold its climax. Doc, in the Autogyro, actually wants the mercenaries in the fortress to shoot him down. He has even been circling to make sure they get a clear shot. This (and the clearly-observed parachute drop of Ham, Long Tom and Johnny that preceded it), is meant to precipitate a chaotic fight that will unnerve and panic their enemies. Another nice realistic touch by writer Doug Moench — as the missile is about to strike, Doc tips the Autogyro so the impact will be on the rotor blade…the easiest part of the airship to replace. For the seasoned reader of Doc Savage novels, it’s also a sly in-joke aimed toward the ever-repeating motif in the pulps of Doc’s vehicles being constantly destroyed.

Meanwhile, the three aides begin their assault on the base of the fortress.

From this point on, the action will cross-cut at an intense pace. In the fortress, the Contessa has backed away from the angry Renny, and Inferno opens a trap door under him. Doc’s attempt to crash the gyro with minimal damage has gone wrong, as it has caught fire, both rendering it a total loss and illuminating his position. He goes back for one of his gadgets, a set of skis that will facilitate what turns out to be one of his wildest stunts ever.

While Doc calmly locates Renny, the cable car with the three aides is going up right into the teeth of the mercenary resistance. Doc, on establishing that Renny is below him, is ever-practical, and uses the Inferno Machine to cut himself a direct path downward.

The fight continues at a fever pitch on both fronts.

Doc dispatches the automatons, and Inferno, seeing his cinematic vision of hell rather easily managed and dismissed, loses his composure. But it’s not all smooth sailing to defeat the bad guy…Renny reveals that he rigged the Inferno Machine to short out and destroy itself after prolonged use. Doc, unknowingly, came close to blowing himself and everything else to smithereens when he cut the hole down to “hell”. Another realistic touch to the action, tempering Doc’s display of fighting virtuosity by knowledge that he is quite capable of making mistakes.

Inferno, totally panicking, blunders right into Doc and Renny, and he goes down for the count. However the really dangerous villain is the Contessa. She wastes no time in putting the Inferno Machine into action. Interestingly, Renny does not say a word about her betrayal, but urges Doc to help him save her.

The Contessa, wildly destructive and vindictive, refuses to listen even when Renny shouts that he has shorted out the machine and she is in terrible danger. This is actually another sly touch…in the pulp novels it was another repeating story motif that criminals end up destroyed and killed by their own terrible machines. Doc often tries to warn them, but is, of course, ignored. Here it is Doc recognizing the impending consequence of Renny having used the same tactic, and he prevents Renny from sacrificing himself in his frenzied effort to save the Contessa.

All of this elevated a familiar plot device to an unprecedented level of emotion for a Doc adventure.

The final actions scenes are intense and chaotic. Even knowing what is going to happen, it feels like there is tragedy in it, and sense of peril for everyone to the very last.

And the final page hammers home both the final details of the clever “Inferno Scheme”…and its emotional consequences. The narrative hook that introduced the story (which on my first reading, I had almost forgotten amid the mayhem), now closes it…along with a poignant final shot of the usually-stoic Renny shedding a tear.

A unique and engaging adventure, notable for both excellence in its craftsmanship and powerful in its humanizing of characters that had sometimes become caricatures in the pulps…45 years later, this story — and the overall eight-issue run of the Marvel Doc Savage magazine — are still high-water marks of adventure storytelling.

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