For writing Doc Savage (or anything else), Lester Dent’s all-purpose plot outline says to start the story with either an unusual murder method; a normal method but bizarre circumstances; an unusual McGuffin; or a different setting. By 1946, he was definitely not hewing to that approach, but he does know how to hook readers with a striking opening, even if the story doesn’t stay at that level.
Dent and his occasional ghost writers also tried coming up with good titles, many of which, like all three novels I read this month, got changed by his editors. Sometimes these were minor: The Crime Annihilist became The Annihilist. Sometimes they missed the boat: Crew of Skeletons became Brand of the Werewolf, but Dent’s title makes much more sense. Now, as to this month’s reading —
COLORS FOR MURDER was originally titled Jonah Had a Whale which, while a little whimsical, made more sense, as you’ll see. The opening is great: Della Nelson has just seen her brother seized by bad guys who’ve warned her to stay silent. She’s terrified. The crooks recommend a vacation to Cuba, paid for by her brother; just stay out of the way and everything will be fine.
It won’t. Della knows that. And for confirmation, when the stewardess hands her some aspirin, a jerk passenger snatches them for himself — and dies, poisoned. The killer, South, is displeased but rationalizes that fat people suck, so the overweight dead guy had it coming; justifying his murders is a quirk with him, but not one that plays any role in the rest of the book. And the rest of the book, is unfortunately, dull. The scheme involves Arthur Pogany, a whaling enthusiast who it turns out has found a treatment to make whales generate extra ambergris, potentially making him a fortune. The four captive whales have been painted different colors so he can tell which ones he’s treated on a given day (the treatment of whales would not go over well today, I suspect). South’s group want to kill Pogany and take his discovery.
The only really good moment after the opening is the end, when it turns out Pogany’s a fraud. His treatment doesn’t work but he thought South was a rich mark he could swindle easily. Oops.
A curious detail is that Dent avoids any actual description of Doc, as if he wants to leave the usual awed descriptions of Doc’s physique behind with the gadgets and the supervillains.
FIRE AND ICE is the first story in four years by Dent’s ghost-writer, William Bogart, whose own title, Deuces Wild, was slightly more interesting. Nothing else in this story is. Bogart begins with travel-brochure writing about the Alaskan wilderness before getting to the action, Doc rescuing Patience, a beautiful woman with plane problems (Doc’s up there looking at possible tourist flights for one of the airlines he owns). Doc puts her up in a nearby town, but she’s attacked by a sniper in the night. Fortunately Doc’s swapped rooms with her. They eventually head back to New York to figure out what’s really going on.
It turns out Patience’s twin sister, nicknamed “Impatience,” has discovered a ring smuggling Nazi war criminals into the U.S. (a popular postwar plot in fiction, which is ironic given the government actively recruited useful Nazis to its service). Impatience reported this to the FBI, narrowly escaping death. Patience hoped to draw the crooks’ fire by posing as her sister, then figured the crooks would back off once she joined forces with Doc. They didn’t.
It’s a dull, routine thriller, not up to Dent’s post-war stuff and the villains are surprisingly inefficient. Their attacks on Patience aren’t above the level of what a gang of juvenile delinquents could manage. There is one joke, when a pilot tells a friend “I’ll see you in Gotham, Alfred” — Superman jokes in the previous couple of stories, now Batman.
THREE TIMES A CORPSE is the pick of this month’s reading, and easily the best title, even though Dent’s Sea Snare makes more sense. It starts with Doc on vacation in Miami, where a couple of engaging low-lifes, Sam and Petey, have accepted a commission to play a practical joke on Doc. The joke takes the form of a gun set up to detonate and fire a shot into the table where Doc’s eating dinner across the street (in an odd detail, part of the Rube Goldberg mechanism is a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People used as part of the trigger device). The idea is that this will lead Doc on a wild goose chase to Montana, and out of the clutches of the sexy gambler Lucky, who supposedly has her hooks in him.
The gun goes off as its supposed to, but Sam’s snooping about when Doc has his meals tipped off the restaurateur that something’s fishy so Sam and Petey wind up in Doc’s clutches. The local police are fans of Doc (not something we see a lot in this period) and are happy to play games to get the truth out of the guys. The truth leads them to Lucky, a stunning redhead whose name refers to her uncanny gambling luck: if she plays the slots they pay out, ditto any other game she plays. In a nice touch, she only recognizes Doc’s name because she uses his cousin Pat’s line of high-priced beauty products.
This is not, of course, the first time Doc’s vacation has been ruined by someone causing trouble, but he’s actually happy about it, accepting that a nice, relaxing vacation doesn’t suit him as well as a bit of danger. Doc, Ham, Monk investigate who’s trying to get him out of Miami, accompanied by the cops, Lucky and the low-lifes. The title comes when one of the bad guys gets murdered apparently three different ways before he can talk: poisoned cigarette, needle fired into his heart, another fired into his brain.
The McGuffin is dull, a shipload of beryllium that sank offshore and (as so often during this period), now has two gangs of crooks hunting for it. But up to that point, the story is engaging enough I can forgive the bland McGuffin.
#SFWApro. First two covers by Emery Clarke, third by Charles J. Ravel. Rights to all images remain with current holders.