With the end of the Doc Savage canon approaching (about two more months and I’ll be done) I thought I’d take a break and check a couple of Will Murray’s “Kenneth Robeson” books from the 1990s. I own several, and would probably have more if money hadn’t been so tight in that decade, so presumably I enjoyed them back then. Rereading them with the original books fresh in my mind, not so much. Murray’s an amazing Doc Savage scholar but the two I read this month remind me of Lancer Books’ Conan series — bland imitations of the real thing.
PYTHON ISLE is based on an early 1930s outline by Lester Dent that his editor rejected. Snake stories, the editor believed, didn’t sell, though he also turned it down when Dent proposed making it Lion Island . We open with Doc in his first Fortress of Solitude (before he built the blue dome of Fortress of Solitude) then cut to a gang of South African smugglers led by Blackbird Hinton and King Hancock (“He hadn’t an evil bone in his body. Nor a good one either.”) who shoot down a plane coming too close to their boat. Then they realize the plane is a patchwork held together by gold plates and patches and decide to take a good look. The plane carries Tom Franklin, a pilot who vanished several years earlier, and the beautiful Lha of Ophir (an obvious Tarzan joke by Dent). Franklin escapes and gets a message to Renny, who’s working on a dam project nearby.
Renny gets word to Doc before he’s captured. Hinton gets word to Bull Pizano, a hulking brute (with a soft spot for animals) who can slap Monk around and more than hold his own fighting Doc. There’s the usual assortment of danger and escapes before Doc and his crew wind up on the eponymous island, currently in the grip of evil high priest, Taxus, whose “invisible wrath” reduces his enemies to zombies (villains used similar gimmicks in Hex and The Czar of Fear but it’s unimpressive here). Eventually Taxus and the smugglers go down; Pizano winds up being eaten by sharks without a final battle with Doc or Monk (Murray says he didn’t think he could do justice to that showdown).
Dent wanted to do a series of stories spotlighting Doc’s aides, starting with Death In Silver but the rejection put paid to that (only The Sea Magician saw print). He did reuse several elements of Python Isle in later stories, for example turning the opening with Lha into the first appearance of the much more impressive Z in The Mental Wizard. Murray follows Dent’s outline more faithfully than Dent might have (he often made changes when he got to the writing); Murray’s desire to make this just like a 1934 Dent novel is a weakness, reproducing the long detailed descriptions of Doc and his crew that Dent wrote into the early books. It wouldn’t have hurt to leave that out. Though the continuity references to earlier books are good.
THE FRIGHTENED FISH is based on a Dent plot synopsis rather than a detailed outline. Set after The Red Spider (unpublished until Murray dusted it off and got Bantam Books to reprint it in the 1970s) starts off effectively, as three hoods terrify a man with images of fish. The bad guys escape Doc but then the obnoxious, arrogant Celia Adams “of the Massachusetts Adams” shows up, demanding Doc find her missing boyfriend — why, yes, boyfriend Baker Eastland is unwittingly caught up in the same plot, how did you know? Investigating leads Doc & Co. to Massachusetts, where the fishing areas are mysteriously empty of fish; from there they eventually travel to occupied post-war Japan, where the same thing is happening. Doc points out that with Russia now having the a-bomb, the world is already unstable; Japan losing its primary food source would result in even more stability.
Enter Jonas Sown, the mastermind from The Screaming Man, to conform this is exactly his plan: just as his mind-control tech whipped the Axis leaders into war mode a couple of decades earlier, now he’ll do the same with the communist bloc. Japan will become communist and then WW III begins! This time Sown won’t fail!
Unfortunately Sown — added by Murray to Dent’s plot — remains underwhelming. Part of that is that like a lot of post-war Dent stories for the series, this is very talky: Sown spends much more time detailing his big and evil plans for the world than actually doing evil. Eliminating fish as a source of food is indeed a serious threat, but it’s not a very scary one. John Sunlight could have put this across, but Murray says that violates his What Would Lester Do? approach: Dent left Sunlight dead, so dead he must remain.
And then there’s the women of the book. Seryi, the Russian anticommunist from Red Spider, returns but only to break Doc’s heart by sacrificing herself to save him; Celia is written as a bitch with no redeeming features. Dent’s women were usually more capable and likable; even “she-male” Velma Crale in The South Pole Terror comes off better than Celia. She feels like a leftover from when Murray was ghostwriting The Destroyer, a series I found horribly sexist whenever I read it.
Despite my disappointment, I couldn’t resist picking up one of Murray’s later works, Doc Savage: Skull Island because a Doc/King Kong crossover set right after WW I seems irresistible. But that one will get a separate post after I finish it.
#SFWApro. Covers by Joe DeVito, all rights to images remain with current holders.