Doc Savage: Lester Dent gets credit, and explains why pulps are shrinking

THE DERELICT OF SKULL SHOAL is a Doc Savage landmark of sorts. Due to an editorial screw-up it’s the only novel in the series where Lester Dent is named as the author. It’s also the first time Doc, after more than a year of complaints about being stuck on the home front, gets into the shooting war.

We open on a Merchant Marine vessel shipping cargo through a stretch of water where several ships have recently vanished. Doc and Monk are undercover as seamen; as the story opens, Doc hears a dog howl somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Next second, the ship is apparently torpedoed and evacuated. Doc gets hit behind and wakes up on the empty ship. While not concussed, the damage is enough he can barely move, and operates at maybe a third of his usual capacity.

It turns out the ship hasn’t been hit; it’s a scheme to get the crew off so pirates can loot it. Led by a former Hollywood producer, they have a flamboyant skull and crossbones flag; the villain is so amusing, I wish they’d had a longer novel to give him more space. Doc, Monk and Trigger, a female Naval agent, wander around the ship trying to figure out what’s going on before they end up on Skull Shoal, where the captured ships are all grounded, stripped and abandoned.

It’s one of the better stories that have Doc operating at the level of an ordinary, though very tough, character. Though the jungle tribesmen who happen to be stranded on Skull Shoal feel squeezed into the story very awkwardly to provide an extra thrill.

By contrast, THE WHISKER OF HERCULES is more of a pre-war Doc novel in style. We start with pretty Lee Mayland trying to reach Doc to warn him about her brother getting mixed up in something criminal. Something that relates to Hercules. The bad guys try to stop her, Monk and Ham step in to rescue her. When Doc and his crew swoop in to capture the bad guys someone who seems to flicker in and out of existence keeps appearing and slugging them with superhuman strength.

As if that wasn’t weird enough when they catch up with the guy, he’s dead, and apparently aged in just a few minutes. Yes, it’s another wonder-working McGuffin, in this case providing superhuman speed (which I guessed early on); the strength is simply the result of smashing into things at a faster-than-the-eye-can-see velocity. The crooks plan to exploit it with one big robbery; Doc is determined to stop them.

Doc’s back in his pre-war mode and we see more gadgetry than we have in a while, including a gas created by Monk (who’s once again an electrical expert rather than just chemistry) that bursts into flame if anyone fires a gun into the vapors. It’s not a great novel, but it’s solid.

THE THREE DEVILS starts out spooky enough as Doc and the gang land at a small Canadian town in the woodlands to find it apparently abandoned. And the person who called them there is dead. And the the radio station has been smashed by what appears to be a giant bear. Oh, and someone’s sabotaged their plane so they can’t fly away.

The dead guy was a friend of Ham who believed something sinister was going on in the area. Pulp mills, as we learn mid-book, are vital to the war effort because of all the different uses for cellulose (the narrative also explain the resultant paper shortage is why Doc Savage Magazine has shrunkin size). Only attacks by Black Tuesday, a legendary demon bear (the name is the closest translation of the native name) are driving people off and shutting down the mills. This is partly rationalized by almost everyone in this area being native peoples or mixed race, so they’re Superstitious Natives at heart.

And once again, the bad guys imply Doc Savage is behind it all, and the authorities buy it. To make it worse, three mounties get killed and the crooks get Renny and Monk’s fingerprints on the weapons.

And here we encounter a problem Will Murray discussed in Writings in Bronze: the murder never actually happens. The mounties were found dead at the end of one chapter, but the pages were lost in the editing process As a result, the references to the deaths come out of the blue.

This is a competent but unmemorable adventure, but I do like the villains’ long-range planning: the Nazis sent deep-cover agents into the area twenty years earlier to begin stirring up rumors and fears of the devil bear that are now paying off. It’s an interesting touch … though it’s hard to believe the Third Reich was sending spies into Canada in 1924!

#SFWApro. All rights to covers remain with current holders. Art by Modest Stein

1 Comment

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One response to “Doc Savage: Lester Dent gets credit, and explains why pulps are shrinking

  1. Pingback: The many flavors of Doc Savage: Pharaoh’s Ghost, The Man Who Was Scared, the Shape of Terror | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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