Tom Swift and His Chest of Secrets
or, Tracing the Stolen Inventions
By Victor Appleton ©1925 Book #28
Image from the collection of James D. Keeline
Review by JP Karenko, September 2005
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
Mr. Damon is up to his old tricks. The story opens with a bang, or rather a crash, as he lands his new Butterfly-style airplane on the roof of Tom's office. Otherwise, this is a straightforward tale of industrial espionage and theft. Tom has enough valuables in the form of blueprints, formulae and models lying around his office, that he is becoming concerned someone might steal them. He has constructed a large, heavy, brass-bound Oak chest to keep his goodies in until a proper underground vault can be built. Koku the giant, is posted as guard. The chest is heavy, but not heavy enough. Tom suffers the usual "cowardly blow" in mid-story, and wakes from the aftereffects to find his possessions, the chest and his giant manservant all missing. What a revolting development this is!
How these problems are resolved, you will have to locate a hard cover copy of the book to find out.
I have been unable to find this story on line. Sorry.
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "savage and only half-tame," he is antagonist and rival of Eradicate. In this episode, his great strength is highlighted and put to great use.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. No description given. He has resumed his position as Swifts' financial advisor and CFO (Treasurer) of Swift Construction Company. He is the voice of caution regarding Tom's expenditures, sometimes obnoxiously so. In the last several tales, he is doom-and-gloom and sarcastic.
Tom Swift-Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home-schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. In this tale we find he is fit, tanned and does not smoke cigars.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Never fully described, except as "portly" with a moustache and "tortoise-shell glasses." Appears to be quite wealthy. Has once again taken up his old hobby of wrecking transportation conveyances.
Garrett Jackson-No description given, but is spry and fit for his age. (Original volumes described him as "aged.") Swift Construction Shop Manager/General Foreman.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant. "Eradicates dirt." Eradicate has now "become too old to do much," As described, he now has "white hair in a fringe and is bald on top..." He remains faithful to Tom and helps out where he can. Constant rival and antagonist of giant Koku. I envision a skinny Uncle Remus.
Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, he is described simply as old. Mr. Swift, has enjoyed improved health of late, and is now working on a book about inventing. We also find he wears glasses. Not surprising for someone of his advanced years.
Ralph Plum-Attorney retained by Swift Construction to handle local legal matters.
Mr. (Noname) Newton-Ned's father. NFN or description. Employed by National Investments Company of Shopton, is accused of stealing Liberty Bonds. First major part in these tales, but no name, description or character development is provided by the author.
Renwick Fawn-Well dressed, go-fast managerial type. Walks with a limp and "throws out his left elbow when he walks." Anyone who remembers Walter Brennan in The Real McCoys television show will recognize this gait. Bad guy.
Deputy (Noname) Dawg-Generic standby cop. No name or description. Walk-on part.
Amos Beck-No description. President of National Investments Co., where Ned's father works.
Judge Klein-Generic standby court official. NFN or description, except "learned." Walk-on part. Arraigns Ned's father for Grand Theft.
Prosecutor Nixon- Generic standby court official. NFN or description. Walk-on part.
Ivan Barsky-Large bushy-bearded "Russian" pattern-maker and mechanic. Truly fractures his English with a fake Russian accent. Later found to be one (Noname) Blodgett, ringleader of an industrial espionage gang (See Gang of ?, below.)
The Nocturnal Listener-Generic window-peeper. Never identified, and has no actual part in the story. Shopton (or at least the Swift household) seems to have a plague of these critters. I'd consider a large dog or a trench under the outside library windows.
Dirk, the Mechanic-Generic Swift employee. No name or description. Walk-on part.
Miss Mary Nestor-Betrothed love interest of Tom who lives on the east side of Shopton. Described as a "very pretty young woman with flashing brown eyes, and a sweet trilling laugh." Blushes easily, especially around Tom. Also described as "plucky."
Kate Borden- No description given. Shop-till-you-drop cohort of Mary Nestor. Walk-on part.
The Lunch Bunch-Three of the Gang of ? No names or descriptions. Walk-on parts.
Mr. (Amos) Nestor-Mary's father. In spite of major roles in several of these adventures, his description is never given, and his first name was only mentioned in passing, in episodes #1 and #6. Walk-on part in this tale.
Mrs. (Amos) Nestor-Mary's mother. In spite of major roles in several of these adventures, her description is never given, and her first name is never mentioned. The only thing known about her is that she is a good cook and wife, caring deeply for her husband, and is more or less helpless without a man around to take care of her. Walk-on part in this tale.
Mrs. Baggert-Swift's aged housekeeper. In this tale, she rattles around trying to dose Tom's father with catnip tea.
Dr. Clayton- NFN or description. Ministers to Tom's Dad after a blow to the head. Walk-on part. Shopton is apparently full of doctors who never work twice in these tales.
The Red Headed Rogue-Later found to be Ivan Barsky/Blodgett without the wig & false beard. Can't be a Russian-We don't run to red hair.
Gang of ? Merry Masked Marauders-Cohorts of Blodgett and Fawn. Industrial spies and extortionists. Variously described as being eight, seven, five and three in number. Generic bad-guys that come and go, as needed to fill out the story.
Mrs. (Noname) Fawn-Small, pale, timid, and unimpressive. Later found to be victim of domestic violence at the hands of husband Renwick.
Farmer "Pa" Kimball-50-ish, kindly and helpful. Gives Tom & Ned important information.
Jason Stern-Ornery, mercenary farmer. Along with his hired help, below, provides aid to Tom & Ned, but in exchange for cash.
Tume-Generic farm hand. No last name or description.
Ben- Generic farm hand. No last name or description.
Jake- Generic farm hand. No last name or description.
Nathan-No last name or description. Owner of Nathan's Garage in the burg of Fenwick. (Note: Fenwick was owner of the Whizzer in Vol. #6 Wireless Message.)
Lonely Cabin Couple-Generic elderly farm folk. "Old Timers" who don't believe in things like aeroplanes, since "They ain't natural!"
Pa (Noname)-No name or description.
Ma Hattie-No last name or description.
Fenwick Chief of Police- No name or description. Generic lawman.
Kollection of Keystone Kountry Kops-Unknown of they were "real" cops or temps, deputized for an afternoon. Twenty of them. Shades of Bonnie & Clyde!!!!
Mr. Blythe-NFN or description given. Faceless representative of "a major oil company," introduces in Oil Gusher. Interested in purchasing Tom's handiwork.
The Hummer aircraft is introduced, and then discarded. Small and speedy 2-seater. Fly-on part. No bearing on the details of the plot except as a transportation prop. Burned up in a forest fire. See Attitudes. May be a partial/corrupt memory of Humming Bird aircraft.
The Black Bird is introduced. Fly-on part. The main bearing on the details of the plot is its' use as heavy lifter and transportation prop. Described as "large," it seats 4, or three, if one of the occupants is Koku.
The Blue Bird is the bad guys' getaway plane. Really big, as it seats 8 plus carries a multi-hundred pound chest. Can they be all bad if they name their aircraft so innocuously???
Numerous gadgets are spoken of, but none play even a passing role in the story, except as filler (in blueprint form) for the chest. There is a "tidal engine" used to harness wave power, an automatic railroad train brake that is applied by track signals, the gyroscope air flier, and a "mammoth telescope" which is realized 11 years into the future in Vol. # 39 of the series. (This is remarkable planning at G&D, if the idea really was in the files for possible future stories...)
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
It's amazing how much technology and society have changed. As with Great Oil Gusher, this particular old Tom Swift Sr. episode has little to do with actual invention(s) and much more with personalities and social conflict rather than any gadgets. Society's attitudes (or at least the authors') are changing, constantly, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our "modern" society and its' mores (or lack of them...)
Attitudes and Prejudices-It is said that Tom possessed large denomination cash that was yellowish in color. This was probably some of the following:
National Gold Notes - There were two factors that held heavily in the creation of National Gold Notes which originated exclusively from banks in California. As the gold rush of the 1840's bought massive amounts of this metal out of the ground and into barter, it rapidly found its way into coinage. California banks being so inundated with both raw gold and gold coins, it petitioned the government for the authority to issue Gold Notes that could be substituted for the actual coinage. It was on July 12, 1870 that Congress voted giving the right to issue such notes to nine banks in California and Kidder National Gold Bank in Boston. However, while Californians rushed to print this yellow-toned paper, no such effort was ever undertaken by the Boston counterpart.
This and 4 other types of Technicolor "artsy" cash certificates were in circulation at the time of the story. Denominations were in the form of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000. The notes were huge. The visual, above is about 2/3 actual size. The popular "greenback" in its smaller current size did not become de rigueur until after 1928.
Info above is from http://www.gold-investor.com/staticpages/index.php/
Mary Nestor and airplanes-This girl will be the death of Our Hero. She has the unique ability to cause aircraft motors to stop running and levers and other parts of the plane to break or malfunction. In this tale, the motor quits while she and Tom are joyriding over (of all things) a forest fire. Their conveyance becomes toast, and they have to hole-up (literally) in a cave to avoid becoming crispy critters, themselves. There's also the issue of breathing-even in a cave, unless it were very deep, they would suffocate, since the fire would consume all the local oxygen, and superheat the remaining inert gasses..
Ford (as in Henry) is mentioned twice in the tale, once in reference to his farm tractor, and again later with reference to the "Tin Lizzie" Model-T auto. Tom thinks it would be unwise to go head-to-head with him in business matters, as he (Ford) "already has much of the market sewed up."
On p167 Koku goes armed with a rifle when a burglar alarm is set off. Considering his recent more-than-usual bloodthirsty attitude and repeated threats of "death to Tom's enemies," I wonder if this is wise.
In spite of the above item, the overall attitude in the story is pacifist, and this is an important clew (the old spelling is now being used, again) as to the identity of the author. Piazza is also used, but I think this term has now been adopted by more than one author. Another important factor is the geographical descriptions of the landscape around Shopton. See Geography, below.
Errata-there is a running gag throughout this series. Mr. Damon's home keeps flip-flopping between Waterford and Waterfield, NY. Sometimes it is in neither, and several times in both places, at once. This is partly due to the enforced poor communication amongst the many ghostwriters at G&D that contributed to this series.
There are now 4 distinct categories. In this tome Mr. D's home is in Waterford.
The tally for 28 volumes, to date is:
Waterfield-13, Both places-2, Waterford-8, and Neither place-5.
Typos and malapropisms were minimal. Blodgett's name was spelled both with and without the final "t" on p85. That was it.
Tom flies through a thunder storm in his lacquer painted wood and canvas kite. That he survived, I expect, is Engineering Fantasy. It certainly was an Error in judgment, so I put the comment about it here. Old pilots get to be that way by avoiding thunder storms, (or forest fires) not by going thru them.
Speaking of airplanes, it is said Koku cannot fly the Black Bird. It is specifically stated that he was taught to fly a biplane, in Vol #16 Giant Cannon. Maybe he forgot how?
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy-The Gang of ? makes their getaway from the Swift works in a generic touring car. At that point in the story, it is said there are eight of them. Eight men at a conservative average of 150# each, plus 400# Koku, plus a 250# chest totals up to a one-ton load. Boy, they don't make cars like that, today! The average full-size SUV is technically "overloaded" with just 4 passengers and vacation luggage. (Check the sticker in the glove box, if you don't believe me!)
Better living through chemistry is what DuPont used as their marketing slogan. Whatever the drug that was used on Koku was, it worked Hollywood fast and thoroughly well. For all his ferocity, this giant is getting downright unreliable as a watchman.
Tom's father wishes he could see the perp (See Vol. #17 Photo Telephone) when he gets a phone call from the bad-guys that stole the his son's chest. He seems to have forgotten the special "Selenium sending plate," bright lights and 3-wire hookup needed at the other end to make the device transmit a picture.
Geography-There is now, no longer any place close to Nestors' house to land a plane. Shopton must be growing at a fantastic rate-or Tom's repeated ups and downs have caused laws to be passed regulating such things. Lake Carlopa has returned, with a landmark called Chestnut Point. The topography of 1920's upstate New York, remains consistent, with some pretty desolate wooded country (Adirondack Mountains) being described west of Shopton.
JP Karenko 9/28/05
Tom Swift and His Great Oil Gushers | Tom Swift and his Airline Express | Index