Merchants of Disaster – Codes and Ciphers

How much does a writer have to contribute to a story to be considered a co-author? We know that Harold A. Davis wrote “Merchants of Disaster” when he was writing stories directly for Street & Smith. But there is another person whose hand is very evident in the story. His material is short but very concise.

“Merchants of Disaster” starts off with a strange death but quickly moves to the offices of patent attorney Les Quinan who is suffering from snow blindness. By some strange quirk, his dark glasses enable him to see a coded message. Quinan is killed shortly after his discovery but eventually Doc Savage finds his way to the lawyer’s office and decodes Quinan’s deadly discovery.

The text then goes into a bit of technical detail dealing with a Beaufort Cipher. This is a type of cipher invented by Sir Frances Beaufort (1774-1857). Beaufort was an admiral in the Royal Navy and is also known for his classification of wind speed called the Beaufort scale. Now Harold Davis could have originated this tidbit, but it seems more likely that editor John Nanovic is the father of this passage dealing with encryption. Nanovic had previously authored a book on codes titled “Secret writing: An Introduction to Cryptograms, Ciphers and Codes” under the non de plume, Henry Lysing.

The actual depiction of a code is unusual for the Doc Savage series. The story goes into a bit of detail deciphering the encrypted text. It is a notable part of the story. As such, it seems to me that John Nanovic should also receive some credit as one of the authors of the story. His work here goes beyond that of an editor.
Nanovic’s work with code eventually earned him a trip to Hollywood. If you check out the Internet Movie Database, you will find that Henry Lysing is credited with “Code Lessons” for the 1942 movie “The Secret Code.” Nanovic wrote to Lester Dent on June 4, 1942, telling Dent he was heading to Hollywood on Friday to work as a code expert with Columbia pictures on a temporary assignment. An article from The Daily Call places Nanovic in Hollywood on June 7.

The inclusion of the code in “The Merchants of Disaster” story was not without its problems. On page 12 of the pulp magazine, readers see the encrypted message which consists of twenty-one sets of letters in groups of five. This grouping appears again on page 44. Unfortunately, these are not exactly the same letters shown before. (However, the Bantam reprint got it right.) The problems do not stop here. There are additional errors in the coding that appear if one goes through the machinations of decoding the encrypted message. I blame the typesetter, but the error could have happened anywhere along the line.

“The Spook Legion” – In going through Novic’s book, I saw something called the “School Code.” It immediately clicked with me that I had seen something similar to this only it was described as being a very sophisticated communication system. I am talking about Telegraph Edmunds and his gang in “The Spook Legion” first published in April 1935.

Doc Savage explains it to Monk: “There was not a movement for each letter of the alphabet, but motions which evidently meant whole phrases or sentences.”

The story makes it clear that this is not the hand system used for American Sign Language. The plots for the Doc Savage stories often involved a brain-storming session between Lester Dent, John Nanovic, and Henry Ralston. I would bet my bottom dollar that the idea for Telegraph Edmunds came from John Nanovic.