Man of Bronze: Taking another look at Doc Savage’s debut

One of my goals for this year — realistically 2024 — is to take my Doc Savage blog posts and convert them into a self-published book. As my first posts weren’t terribly detailed, I’m going back and rereading Man of Bronze, Land of Terror and Quest of the Spider. And needless to say, blog about them. This may be counter-productive as it’s less reason to buy the book; then again, I’ll be able to go into more detail there.

The Man of Bronze is particularly interesting to read with the remaining 181 (counting In Hell, Madonna) books fresh in my mind. It’s easy to see how it introduces many of the series standard elements, but also places where Lester Dent hasn’t gotten everything established yet. In one place it’s funny: when a Mayan assassin fires through the window of Doc’s 86th floor HQ, one of his team suggests installing bulletproof glass. The others laugh at the idea their enemies will be shooting through 86th floor windows on a regular basis (they were kind of wrong about that).

The book opens with Doc returning from the Fortress of Solitude to the news that his father has just died from a mysterious, swift-acting disease. As Doc learns about a fabulous legacy Clark Savage Senior left him, the assassin fires from a construction site across the seat. After some spectacular action chasing the bad guys, Doc and his five friends head down into Hidalgo, where the legacy lies.

It turns out that Hidalgo’s jungles hide a lost city of pureblood Mayans. Savage Senior came there years ago and formed a friendship with their king, Chac. If Chac approves of Doc, he’ll underwrite his crimefighting and dogooding with a fortune in Mayan gold. The villainous Son of the Feathered Serpent, however, plans to use a bioweapon, the Red Death, to extract the gold and finance the overthrow of Hidalgo’s democratic government.

Familiar series elements include the lost civilization; an adventure that starts in New York and moves to a colorful foreign setting; lots of airplane flying ; a masked villain; a beautiful woman falling for Doc; a super-weapon; and a beautiful woman (Chac’s daughter Monja) falling for Doc.

The science fictional component is very low compared to many later novels: the Red Death is simply a disease the Son of the Feathered Serpent found in another part of Central America and grew in the lab. It’s the only SF element in the book. It’s also unusual, IIRC, in opening from the villain’s point of view.

Ham gets one of his rare opportunities to do something legal, when he confronts a Hidalgo official who denies Doc’s legal claims. Ham demolishes his argument in short order. That rarely happens (according to Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze Dent didn’t like lawyers but his editor insisted on Ham). Johnny’s character trait — other than being skeletally thin and a brilliant archeologist/geologist — is that he gets hunches that are almost invariably right (but when they’re wrong, they’re way wrong). I don’t believe that lasted even to the next book; later we’d get Johnny offering to bet on sure things before Dent struck gold by making him the guy who speaks in big, polysyllabic words.

Doc himself is a barebones version: no bulletproof vest and none of the gadgets he’d later carry around with him. He’s much quicker to kill his enemies than he’d become by the end of the year. The story emphasizes his adrenalin-junkie side: when he thinks of what he can do with the gold, having exciting adventures is up there with helping people and fighting crime.  And we learn more about Doc’s father than I remembered: he himself was a philanthropist, an adventurer and an MD just like his son, traveling all over the world to do good.

Another detail: Doc refers to his land grant in Hidalgo having been drawn up twenty years earlier, when he was a kid. Based on that, we can safely assume he’s either late twenties or early thirties in 1933.

The handling of the Mayans is interesting. They’re very much noble savages but also simple and superstitious. However Doc treats them with unusual respect compared to most stories: if Chac doesn’t think Doc deserves the gold Doc will accept that. In most stories, natives who get between white men and gold are treated like a natural obstacle to be swept aside, rather than people with rights.

Monja is a fan favorite love interest and I’ve thought of her that way in the past. Here, though, she doesn’t seem any more special or have any more impact on Doc than many later women would. Monk assures her she’s come closer to melting Doc’s heart than any other women but I think he’s just saying that to comfort her.

As I said in my first review, the book is a slow start to the series: jam-packed with action but also several slow descriptive passages to introduce Doc’s awesomeness or his five aides. Still, I can see how it launched the second-longest running series in pulp fiction.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama, all rights remain with current holder.

1 Comment

Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

One response to “Man of Bronze: Taking another look at Doc Savage’s debut

  1. Pingback: Bedlam on the bayou: Doc Savage in Quest of the Spider | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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