Lester Dent’s career has enjoyed a resurgence of late. I expect he’s smiling down - or up - from wherever he now resides. Nostalgia Ventures has put dozens of his Doc Savage novels back in print, with many more to come, and he’s finally getting the credit instead of “Kenneth Robeson”. Heliograph issued a collection called Lester Dent’s Zeppelin Tales. Black Dog Books has published three volumes of The Lester Dent Library: Dead Men’s Bones (air adventures), The Skull Squadron (air war), and Hell’s Hoofprints (westerns). And most recently - and no doubt most satisfying to Mr. Dent - Hard Case Crime released his unpublished novel, Honey in his Mouth.
But there are still forgotten Dent novels. Six appeared in book form during his lifetime. The first of these, published under Doubleday’s Crime Club imprint in 1946, was Dead at the Take-Off.
The hero of this one is Chance Molloy. Sounds like a good name for a P.I., or maybe a gambler. Nope. This guy is the once-rich and still powerful owner of an airline company. His chief antagonist is a corrupt U.S. Senator, Senator Lord (who is described as having godlike power). The backstory is that Molloy has invested up to his eyeballs based on the belief the army will sell him transport planes after the war. But Senator Lord, owner of a competing airline, has employed dirty tricks to nix the deal. As a result, Molloy’s despondent brother (and partner) commits suicide. Molloy is prepared to use any means necessary to expose Lord, avenge his brother and save his company - even if that means using Lord’s innocent daughter against him.
What follows is a complex plot with a wide cast of characters, many of whom are also quite complex. Though there are a number of stock characters too, this is not a Doc Savage novel. It’s the real thing. Point of view shifts frequently, much more frequently than is common in today’s fiction. There are enough character arcs to make your head spin, but Dent handles it them all with ease.
There are at several subplots going at once. The romantic subplot alone could power a whole book. Both the captain and co-pilot are in love with the stewardess, who happens to be Molloy’s ex-girlfriend - and her soon-to-be-ex husband is aboard plotting revenge. Meanwhile, Molloy is falling for the Senator’s daughter. But as crazy as everything gets, Dent wraps it all up in the end.
The main reason I read this, and the main reason I enjoyed it, is Dent’s style - an easy blend of smart, hardboiled prose and dry humor. I have the second (and last) Chance Molloy book, Lady to Kill, in my to-be-read pile.
An unintentionally interesting aspect of this book is the picture of commercial airline travel circa 1945. Instead of proceeding immediately to the airline terminal, passengers purchase tickets at the company’s office in downtown New York, where billiards, ping pong and reading materials are available in the lounge. They are then ferried by limousine - at their own expense - to the airport. On boarding the plane, they are allowed to smoke, bring their own liquor, and even carry guns. They’re seated in compartments of four seats each, as in old railway cars, and the seats fold down into beds. The restrooms are spacious lounges, with two toilets on the side. Ah, the Golden Age of air travel.
NOTE: I read the Crime Club edition, but without a dust jacket the cover is less than picturesque. The Ace Double version was retitled High Stakes. Why? Maybe to fit better on the spine with the flipside, Nightshade by John N. Makris.