Category Archives: Doc Savage

Young Doc Savage: A tentative chronology

As I mentioned a few years ago, I’m fascinated by the missing years in Doc Savage’s life. The series tells us  almost nothing about the time between Doc meeting his five friends in WW I and the beginning of his career in The Man of Bronze. And what we do know seems contradictory. The Purple Dragon and Devil’s Playground establish Doc was busting crooks back as far as the late 1920s yet Man of Bronze states clearly that he and his friends are only now beginning their great crusade against evil.

An easy explanation for the contradictions is that both books were by Lester Dent’s ghostwriters, putting in their own ideas. Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze shows Dent was quite willing to rewrite his ghosts’ work to suit the series better but he might have missed the contradictions, given the several years between their books and Man of Bronze. Then again, Dent’s second novel, Land of Terror, establishes Doc’s crime college is already up and running, and that shipping criminals there is SOP for him. And in novel #1, a cop who spots Doc speeding tells his rookie partner not to even think about ticketing Doc; he’s such a big deal, even Mayor LaGuardia would turn handsprings if Doc asked him.

That could be because he’s the son of the great philanthropist Clark Savage Sr., but the impression I get is that Doc has earned this respect in his own right. This could be due to his medical skills — Land of Terror mentions that one of the city’s top political bosses is only alive because of Doc. However, the bulk of the evidence works better if we assume Doc and his friends have been busting heads and taking names since at least 1929 (according to the The Purple Dragon) and possibly earlier.

The most logical solution is that prior to Man of Bronze, our heroes saw whatever adventures they had as a dry run, a test to see if they had what it takes (Doc points out that while he’s been trained for this from birth, the guys haven’t). It’s not until the death of Clark Savage Sr., prior to the opening pages of that first novel, that they commit themselves 100 percent.

Doc, of course, has been committed from birth. But I don’t think he counted his earlier adventures because he had another kind of training: school.

Murray’s book quotes from a couple of novels establishing that Doc’s dad began his training at birth; it lasted until he was around twenty. Dad recruited the best, but having a college seal of approval would still make it easier to prove himself. Particularly as his first love is surgery; there’s no way he gets a medical license without going to medical school. Factoring that in, here’s my tentative timeline for his life prior to Man of Bronze:

Doc is born in 1900 (I’m picking the year arbitrarily because it’s cooler than being born in, say, 1897). His parents launch his training but after the US gets involved in WW I, Doc takes a powder so that he can get in on the excitement (adventure in what was seen as a great moral crusade, that would suit him perfectly). He meets his five friends (whether or not it was in a prison camp) and discovers that he really is suited to the life of heroism he’s being trained for.

Doc returns home, completes his training and starts college in 1920. Quite aside from the benefit of formal credentials, a lot of his training wasn’t academic (combat skills, wilderness survival, memorizing street maps of major cities). It’s quite possible he still had something to learn. While Doc could breeze through his classes easily enough, I’m guessing he took several degrees (and possibly advanced degrees) so it’s plausible he graduated in 1924. He may have been relieved to be done; in a time when the “gentleman’s C” was considered a good grade for a man of his social class and college involved lots of partying and dating, Doc would have come off as a “wet,” AKA what later generations would call a square. Then again, he was young; perhaps he dabbled in partying and found it wasn’t for him.

(This Millennium Comics mini took a look at the pre-Man of Bronze era)

Next comes medical school, another four years, bringing us to 1928. Then comes his residency, which could easily run the five years to 1933, particularly as he probably wanted to qualify in several specialties.  And of course he wasn’t just studying in those years. The Fortress of Solitude is up and running by Man of Bronze and Doc’s already got a boatload of scientific devices, probably developed there. Maybe that’s where he developed the surgical techniques he used at his crime college (I’ll be writing about that soon) and undoubtedly he kept leaping into adventures with his friends. But until he’d completed all his studies, he couldn’t commit to being the nemesis of all evil.

I can see lots of different timelines that would work as well, but this is the one I like best.

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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!

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Doc Savage nonfiction: Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze

Will Murray has been writing about Doc Savage a long time.

As revealed in WRITINGS IN BRONZE, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the creation of Doc Savage (involving writer Lester Dent and his editors at Street and Smith). He then wrote for five zillion fanzines before taking up the series with Python Isle. Writings collects his nonfiction about Doc, and it’s impressive. Though not for the casual reader: if you don’t care about some of the revisions Bantam books made between pulp and paperback reprints, or the careers of the various ghostwriters Dent employed over the years, this won’t be much of interest.

The articles are a mix of behind-the-scenes information and speculation and analysis of the stories themselves. In the latter category we have the question of whether Doc’s mother supported her son’s extensive childhood training (Murray concludes yes), the history of the Helldiver submarine, Monk’s pretty secretary (a semiregular character who vanished after Pat became the semiregular female on the team) and Doc’s relationship with Princess Monja.

The behind the scenes stuff is more interesting to me. This includes a look at the changes between Dent’s drafts and the published novels (Three Devils lost several pages so Doc and Monk end up talking about a murder that never happened), the changes in format over the years, the order in which Dent wrote the books, the popularity of Mesoamerican Lost Cities in pulp fiction and the shifts in style as the pulp market died and new editors took over. He also looks into various never-published stories, such as Dent’s outline for Python Isle (rejected on the grounds readers hated snake stories), on which Murray based his story. And there’s trivia, such as a threat by Murray Leinster’s publisher to sue over Man Who Shook The Earth ripping off Leinster’s Earth Shaker (Leinster’s letter on the subject says no, he doesn’t think so).

Murray answers a couple of questions of mine, such as why Brand of the Werewolf doesn’t have any sort of fake werewolf, just a werewolf logo for the crooks. Answer: Dent entitled it Crew of Skeletons, the editor changed it.

Another question is why after Pearl Harbor we got novels that ignored the war until Doc started trying to enlist late in 1942. To keep up with his demanding monthly novel writing, Dent worked much further ahead than I realized. The first few adventures of 1942 were stories written pre-Pearl Harbor.

Being written over several decades, the collected articles have their faults. In one, Murray concludes Street and Smith moving away from the classic pulp style was smart; in another he thinks it was foolish. In fairness, you could probably get as many inconsistencies out of my blog posts over the past decade.

And it would have been nice to have an index, for when I want to look up specific details.

The book also makes me think about how we define canon. Murray suggests the logical chronology for the adventures is the order Dent (and his ghost writers) wrote them. That makes sense, certainly more than Philip José Farmer’s (Farmer excludes World’s Fair Goblin on the grounds that Doc, being a real person in Farmer’s mythos, couldn’t have had an adventure at the New York World’s Fair in the given timeframe). But given not everyone has access to that information, I’d argue the original publication order makes more sense as canon.

Regardless of quibbles, a very impressive job

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Doc Savage, Digested: According to Plan of a One-Eyed Mystic and Death Has Yellow Eyes

We’re now at the beginning of 1944, when paper shortages caused by the war forced Doc Savage Magazine to go digest-sized, trimming the stories even shorter. Not that length would improve ACCORDING TO PLAN OF A ONE-EYED MYSTIC.

Oddly, the novel opens with Rennie taking a fishing vacation, which seems an odd thing for a hero to do in the middle of WW II. On a passenger flight to Kansas City where he’ll meet fishing guide Norman Monaghan, Rennie meets and offends the prickly eyepatch-wearing weirdo of the title. The big engineer drifts off to sleep … and wakes up a day later in someone else’s body to discover said someone being a woman-beating thug and killer. Oh, and Rennie’s body apparently murdered someone in the intervening day; the newspaper conveniently prints a photo of the killer’s prints and Rennie recognizes them as his.

This is, of course, the opening of Mad Mesa and with almost the same gimmick, using makeup to distort Rennie’s appearance while he’s drugged enough to be confused. But that doesn’t make sense as the first thing he notices is that his massive hands are now normal; I don’t see how makeup could pull that off.

It turns out Monaghan is recruiting Rennie to help investigate a mystery, so the “mystic” and his gang use this technique to get Rennie out of the way. It’s hard to see what this gains them that doping him wouldn’t, though I suppose it does keep Rennie and Doc, once he shows, distracted. The mystery involves a new superweapon the mystic wants to seal and sell to the Nazis. In yet another variation on The Man Who Fell Up it’s an air-to-air rocket that automatically targets planes by the electricity in the engine. This time though the story emphasizes how important this will be in context of the air war in Germany: no high-altitude bombing, no night bombing raids. Utlimately though, the story is just dull.

Trivia note: Bantam shortened the title to simply One-Eyed Mystic for the paperback release.

DEATH HAS YELLOW EYES starts with Monk and Ham visiting Washington for another shot at getting into combat. They’re staying at Ham’s family home in DC, a gloomy manse with portraits of Brooks ancestors. Monk becomes convinced there’s something in the room, invisible except for its yellow eyes. Ham scoffs, but then the invisible something takes Monk down inside a locked room, then escapes with him.

This, of course, leads Doc into a trap, and then into one of the best frames in the series: the bad guys rob a bank, bring Doc, Ham and Monk into the vault invisibly (and unconscious) and leave them there. All the evidence indicates they’re guilty. Johnny busts them out, but before long they wind up captured again, on the bad guys’ plane headed to Europe. Where they talk. A lot.

Of course Doc Savage novels always involve talk and exposition, but the flight over is a long, dull stretch of discussion. We learn that behind it all, as in Hell Below, is a bunch of Nazi schemers plotting to high tail it out of Germany before the axe falls. To finance their luxurious retirement, they have the location of several Nazi caches of gold, and invisible cloaks to hide themselves in while they steal it (though the wearers’ eyes glow yellow through some fluke).

As usual there’s no reference to past adventures such as the invisible crooks of The Spook Legion. Nor is there any use of Doc’s array of gadgets; once again he’s an exceptional guy, but hardly the superman he used to be. Bobb Cotter thinks this is an improvement; I don’t.

One curious detail of Yellow Eyes is that the female lead is named Doris Day. According to Cotter, Dent deliberately named her after the real Day, a popular singer of the day. By the time I arrived in America, though, she was a much bigger star (movies, TV) so it’s a lot more jarring to read now (the difference between naming a character Sandra Bullock 30 years ago when she was doing TV movies and using the name today (or did readers find it jarring back then, too?).

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Doc Savage: The Secret of the Su and the Spook of Grandpa Eben

As a comics fan, pitting Doc Savage against Dr. Light in THE SECRET OF THE SU makes me laugh in a way the original readers wouldn’t have. It’s a good adventure marred by an anticlimactic McGuffin.

The story opens with a Florida doctor, Wilson, attempting to reach Doc Savage. Years ago, Wilson saved the lives of some Native Americans in the Everglades. In gratitude one of them, nicknamed Slow John, has been the doctor’s faithful sidekick ever since (this ages just as poorly as one would expect). Now Slow John (who isn’t slow; like the Native American in The Goblins he’s extremely smart) has revealed an incredible secret. Well, two secrets. One is that Slow John’s tribe are not Seminole but Su, a lost race dating back to ancient Atlantis. The other is that they have a McGuffin, something so amazing only Doc Savage can handle it.

Enter Dr. Light, AKA Dr. Licht. A German immigrant, Light was approached by Axis agents a couple of years before the story started. He still had relatives in Germany; if he wasn’t willing to work as a spy, bad things would happen to them. Light’s response was to laugh — kill them all, it’s not like he’ll care! However, if he discovers something of interest to the Reich and they can meet his price, he’ll be in touch. He’s a complete bastard, and that’s appealing in a villain. And the secret of the Su generates a lot interest; Light’s price for giving it to them is a cool $3 mill.

What follows is a lot of doublecrossing as Light’s team and some more dedicated Nazis race Doc’s crew to the lost land of the Su, somewhere deep in the Everglades. Dent makes good use of the Everglades, a vast junglelike world nowhere near as drained and tamed as it is now. The Su, of course, are not happy with visitors, and willing to set trained hawks on them (hence the cover).

Unfortunately the secret is a letdown. The Su have a wonder drug for treating infection, better than sulfa antibiotics. It could save thousands of soldiers on whichever side controls it. Which is perfectly true, but it’s not very dramatic. Even at the time, I wonder if fans felt that was satisfactory.

THE SPOOK OF GRANDPA EBEN opens in a small Western town where Billy Riggs, a likeable ex-con, is humiliated by Copeland, a local big shot businessman. Copeland is a grasping miser who sent Billy to jail for a theft he didn’t commit, and has hounded him ever since, demanding employers fire him, that sort of thing. Ezra Strong, another young man (usually I think of anyone named Ezra as a grizzled oldster) suggests Billy use his grandfather’s supposedly magical charm to wish a curse on Copeland.  To Billy’s surprise, Ezra’s amusement and Copeland’s horror, an invisible Something blocks Copeland’s path.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Copeland’s also got Doc Savage on his back. Copeland’s a crooked military contractor so Monk and Ham are investigating him; Monk’s checking the quality of Copeland’s chemicals, Ham’s going over his records for legal issues (one of the few times Ham got to do any actual law work in the series). The spook keeps returning, something or someone kills Copeland and before dying, he puts the blame on Doc. Once again, Doc has to go on the run from the cops while investigating the spook. And the bad guys who really killed Copeland are trying to take out Doc and

It turns out that Ezra has invented a force-field device, although they don’t call it that. It’s not effective enough to be of use in the war, but it might be effective in crime. When a local bad guy learned about it from Ezra’s dimwit girlfriend, he set all the events in motion. Doc, of course, clears everything up and takes the crooks down

Overall, this was a minor one.

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Doc Savage wants some action: Hell Below and the Goblins

Starting with The Fiery Menace, “you’re too valuable on the home front” became the excuse for not having Doc and his team in uniform. 1943’s HELL BELOW and THE GOBLINS both build their openings around that idea.

Hell Below opens with Doc and Monk trying to convince the brass to let them see some action. The brass point out that Doc and his team get shot at a lot more than the average soldier, but that doesn’t deter them (Bobb Cotter points out that as Doc’s still operating on a no-kill policy, having to use real bullets would surely be a problem). This attracts the attention of grizzled Western businessman Too-Too Thomas who is trying to enlist the Navy in some sort of project. He proposes to Doc that as they’re both being frustrated by military red tape, they join forces and steal a bomb-laden Navy seaplane for his project (which he refuses to explain). Doc, of course, is not on board with this idea.

It’s a great opening that develops into a competent but much less great WW II adventure. Two prominent Nazis (based, Cotter says, on Goering and Goebbels) are fleeing the dying Reich (mid-1943 seems surprisingly early for that) by submarine for a new home in Mexico. One plans to build the Fourth Reich, the other just wants to retire in luxury. They’ve seized Too-Too’s Mexican ranch, a place so isolated in the desert they can live and scheme unopposed.

Further complicating things is Schwartz, a Nazi submarine captain out to drag the traitors back to Germany for trial. There’s a lot more detail on running a submarine than we usually get, which I suspect reflects the wartime era.  Surprisingly, Schwartz gets to go back to Germany at the end of the adventure. Even though he’s offered up as a good German acting out of loyalty to his country, he’s capable and obviously dangerous — not the sort who usually lives to fight another day in pulp adventures.

Even more surprising, the Nazis make a couple of references to Doc as the embodiment of the master race ideal and he doesn’t argue with them. That’s hardly a comparison Dent could have wanted, so why bring it up if not to refute it? And it could be refuted; Doc, after all, is the product of scientific training, not Aryan genes (even if Philip José Farmer later credited him with an inherited mutation).

Pat gets a part in the adventure and even makes a significant contribution, putting a chemical in an airplane gas tank that allows Doc to track it.

The Goblins is noteworthy because it turned out I didn’t have the double-novel paperback containing it and Secret of the Su (which will be covered next month). It opens with telegraph operator Parker O’Donnell finding grinning green dwarf in his bedroom, only to have it disappear. We then jump into the opening of what feels more like a lighthearted mystery than a Doc Savage novel. Gorgeous attorney Martha Colby visits Parker and informs him he’s received an inheritance from his father. Part of the condition is that he accept Martha as his legal guardian. Parker’s 25, but Dad took precautions against Parker inheriting his impulsiveness and occasional bad judgment. Martha’s first assignment is to take Parker to dad’s old partner, Tom Brock, for a good stiff talking-to.

In between all this, Parker is watching Doc’s latest battle with the military brass, carried on by telegraph (Doc’s in the area on a defense project). As his telegraph skills have stuck him on the home front, he’s sympathetic to Doc. Then people start trying to kidnap or kill Parker and Martha. Doc gets involved. So do more of the green goblins, which a local college-educated Native American (who still comes off as a stereotype) suggests are a spirit creature. Certainly they seem supernatural, able to burn men to a crisp with a touch. Lester Dent’s story does a remarkably good job hiding that they’re just a variation of the flying bodies in The Man Who Fell Up. A much nastier variation as they’re specifically attracted to human flesh. They’re an invention by Tom Brock, who’s protecting Parker from the Nazi villains. Unusually the Nazis aren’t after the invention, they’re after valuable tin deposits on the land Parker inherited. More precisely, they’re determined to keep Parker from learning about the deposits so the US government can’t make use of them.

Normally Dent leaves it to the last minute to show that the supernatural element has a mundane explanation. Here, Ham has the sense to figure it out mid-book: Native American spirits wouldn’t have hired a bunch of tough gunmen to work for them. Ergo, mundane.

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The Secret Origin of Doc Savage, sort of: Escape From Loki

A number of Doc Savage novels have come out since the pulp magazine folded, but I’m not going to cover them. Not that there’s anything wrong with them — Will Murray’s books are all better than Land of Long JuJu — but 181 pulp reprints is enough. The two exceptions are The Red Spider (written but not published in the magazine, it first saw daylight as a Bantam paperback) and Philip José Farmer’s ESCAPE FROM LOKI.

I think I picked this one because a)it’s the only novel set between Doc’s childhood and Man of Bronze and as I’ve mentioned before, those uncharted years intrigue me. It’s based on an idea in Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, that Doc met his five friends in a WW I era prison camp, and that’s been treated as canon by several people (Lin Carter references it in the Zarkon series that started with Nemesis of Evil and Mike Barr used it in his 1980s DC Doc Savage comics.

Unfortunately Escape from Loki is a dreadful book I had too struggle to get through. The story starts well, with Doc — 16 years old but big enough to bluff his way into the military — engaging in a dog fight that takes out a couple of barrage balloons on the enemy side. He winds up crashing in German-held territory, gets caught, escapes and eventually ends up in Loki, a prison camp run by the sinister mad scientist Von Hessel, meeting Monk, Ham and the others along the way. The villain appears to be making germ warfare experiments on POWs, but he’s actually testing out improvements to a bacterial treatment  that has made him ageless. He offers this to Doc to convince him to switch sides, but fails. At the end, he escapes, presumably so that he could return in another book, mercifully unwritten.

What went wrong? Well Farmer’s style of adventure was always a little too slow and thoughtful to work for Doc Savage (The Mad Goblin for instance), and starting in the 1980s he just got slower and wordier. His character tend to go heavy on introspection, so his Doc (not yet a doctor of course) does too; it doesn’t feel like Doc to navel-gaze so much, and it weakens the character beyond that. Doc’s reaction to everything is to analyze it thoughtfully; having a teenage Doc react with some feeling would be better. Even when he’s aroused by Von Hessel’s mistress, the emphasis is on Doc analyzing his own arousal.

As an adventure it’s too mundane to show what Doc is capable of. It’s also dull, with none of the flash Lester Dent could deliver in a non-SF adventure like The Sea Magicians (the immortalist element is thrown in at the last minute). And Von Hessel’s mistress is a worse character than a typical Dent female, with no personality other than being sexy and decadent (nobody reads Farmer for feminism).

And farmer actually gets a key point wrong: he has Monk say that Ham cleared himself on a charge of pig-stealing when the Doc Savage pulps were clear Ham got his nickname because he was found guilty.

Perhaps if Farmer had written Escape From Loki a quarter-century earlier, he’d have delivered something good. The Mad Goblin is a much better book, though even there we get a long info-dump about an immortal supporting character. When it comes to Young Doc Savage, Farmer comes nowhere near scratching my itch. But I didn’t really think he would.

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Doc Savage, dunderhead: Mystery on Happy Bones and The Mental Monster

This months two novels are good evidence for Bobb Cotter’s thesis that Doc became increasingly human during WW II. Beyond human, really; he comes off as a tough, but extremely fallible guy.

THE MYSTERY OF HAPPY BONES (the last paperback before Bantam switched to doing two Doc novels per book) reminds me a lot of Mystery on the Snow; it’s a mundane adventure focusing on control of natural resources, enlivened by a formidable female character. In Mystery the resource was a new metal, benlanium, for use in aircraft manufacturing; here it’s a tungsten vein the Nazis want to mine.

The story opens with a mysterious messenger dropping off a parcel at Doc’s tied up in wire; the wire is actually an unwound spool from a wire recorder, a way to get a message to Doc past watching Nazi eyes. The messenger is a cross-dressed Hannah, descended from a line of pirates ruling over a small island in the Caribbean (an island of dark-skinned natives, something that hasn’t aged well). Hannah is a truly memorable guest character, up there with Toni Lash and Retta Ken. At one point she knocks Monk unconscious; when Doc tackles her, she proves almost a match for him in combat. It turns out, fortunately, she’s on the good guys’ side; Happy Bones, the island where the Nazis are digging up tungsten, is right next to her own island kingdom. The US plans to set up an air base on Happy Bones, which could throw a spanner in the Nazi mining works. Their efforts to prevent this kick-started the whole plot.

Doc, as I said, comes across a lot more fallible than usual. Hannah holds her own with him in a fight not because she’s Michelle Yeoh but because Doc isn’t being written as his usual invincible self. Later in the novel, Doc’s hiding in an airplane’s cargo hold when he’s suddenly caught. He simply got careless and dropped its guard.

The end result isn’t horrible, but it ain’t memorable, except for Hannah.

THE MENTAL MONSTER shows once again Lester Dent’s lack of interest in continuity: Doc’s already encountered mind-reading technology in The Midas Man and a telepath in The Mental Wizard but the story treats the mind-reading device here (actually closer to a polygraph that works by EEG readings) as if such a thing is impossible.

The story opens with Bill Keeley, an engineer friend of Renny’s, telling Doc someone seems to have targeted his employer, a company developing synthetic rubber production (finding a secure rubber supply was also the McGuffin in The Flaming Falcons and The Land of Fear). Then Bill spots a white bird flying through the restaurant where he’s meeting Doc, panics and runs out. It turns out the bad guys (in it for money rather than the Axis) have a nasty germ concentrate and use the white birds to deliver it, or simply as a threat.

This is a minor adventure, and Doc’s even more of a screw-up here. In one scene, he walks right into an ambush without spotting the threat. At the climax he’s trying to free a tied-up Monk, but realizes he didn’t think to find a knife for cutting the rope; this Doc, it seems, doesn’t have the muscle to just tear them.

The book does have another competent woman, Bill’s girlfriend Carole, though she’s not quite in Hannah’s league. And it does offer one funny moment, when some of the crime ring brag that they’ve just killed Doc Savage. One of the other crooks gets up, announces he’s quitting and joining the Merchant Marine and walks out. He clearly knows that when Doc Savage is declared dead, he never is.

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Doc Savage, Monk and Women: The Talking Devil and the Running Skeletons

As I’ve mentioned before, Lester Dent didn’t bother much with continuity. If one of Doc’s team has a moment of character development beyond the standard characterization, Dent doesn’t follow up on it. However after establishing in The Devil’s Black Rock that the guys were trying to break Monk of his skirt-chasing, Dent has been referencing it regularly, as in May 1943’s THE TALKING DEVIL. Not that it works any better here than in previous books.

The book starts with Doc’s crew introducing him to wealthy millionaire Montague Ogden whose right-hand man Sam Joseph is suffering dementia centering around a grotesque devil figureine Joseph thinks talks to him. After consulting with some top brain experts, Doc decides it’s a brain tumor. He operates … but there’s no tumor. And the other doctors insist they only agreed with him because they couldn’t think of questioning such a legend.

Oh, and an organized press campaign suggests that Doc has been performing illegal brain surgery on all those criminals he busts that never show up for trial. Could that have something to do with why several men with no memory of their past (Doc pegs them all as graduates of his crime college) have suddenly turned criminal? Doc realizes he’s been set up but why? And for whom?

Oilman “Rotary” Harrison fills in the gap when he and his daughter “Sis” (it’s been a while since we’ve had such quirky nicknames) contact Doc, who subsequently rescues them from the bad guys. They’re reminiscent of Tex Haven and his brainy daughter Rhoda in The Freckled Shark; like Rhoda, Sis’s brains and talent don’t play much of a role in the story, but I’d sooner have a smart supporting female character than a dull one.

From this point, the story moves fast until Doc learns what it’s all about: a scheme to blackmail him into giving up a share of his wealth in return for stopping the rumors. Doc believes that surgically reforming criminals will someday be accepted as the solution to stopping crime, and he doesn’t want it tarnished before society’s ready. Of course, it doesn’t come to that.

A background point is that even when Doc’s cracking cases like this, he’s working on the war effort: when he uses a chemical to track the bad guys’ airplane exhausts, he mentions to Monk it’s already at use by the army overseas.

Similarly, in THE RUNNING SKELETONS, we learn Doc’s fleet of cars is now down to two: the military have taken the others to use as models for making better vehicles. Even Doc sacrifices for the war effort. This story is much more tied to the war: after his son starved overseas, a scientist developed a formula that enables men to live without eating. The side-effect is that their flesh becomes translucent; the other side effect is that it’s a short-term fix that eventually kills the subjects if they don’t change back.

All we really know at the start, though, is that salesman Tom Lewis is trying to reach Doc Savage and traveling with a dog-carrying case that contains something terrifying (it’s a dog transformed by the formula). The bad guys try to stop Lewis meeting Doc; Monk and Ham get a message from Lewis and decide to investigate solo. Their buddies, fed up with their perpetual squabbling have been bombarding them with “peace is beautiful” messages (even having a skywriter paint it out over the city). So why not cut Doc, Rennie and the others out and hog the action for themselves? That’ll show them! Doc spots what’s going on, though, and catches up with Monk and Ham. Together, they hunt for the case and the secret behind it.

Also joining the action: Tom’s showgirl girlfriend. Willie (“Not Billie. Ten chorus girls out of every dozen are called Billie, and I resent being part of the mob.”). Willie’s not the typical female lead – she’s brave, reasonably capable, but what really sticks out is, she’s fun. Part of the fun is that she’s crushed on Doc for years, and keeps putting him in a state of embarrassment.

It would be a terrific book, but the opening and the ending flop badly. The opening has a black porter open Lewis’s case and jump off the train. It’s a racist clone of similar scenes in movie comedies, and that makes for unpleasant reading.

At the ending it turns out that the real villain isn’t the scientist but a crook who’s taken control of the drug to exploit it for evil by …. Well, Dent doesn’t actually say. Maybe a plan to treat people with the drug and bill them for a cure?  Possibly, but overall this is one of the weaker criminal schemes. Between the start and the finish, it’s fine, but the two ends underwhelmed me.

 

#SFWApro. Covers by Emery Clarke, all rights remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage vs. Nostradamus: The Black, Black Witch and the King of Terror

I’ve read about paper restrictions shrinking pulps in WW II, but rereading Doc Savage in order it becomes obvious. Both this month’s rereads are under 100 pages, which may explain some of the details of the first entry, THE BLACK, BLACK WITCH.

The book opens with Monk and Doc going behind enemy lines for the first time. Harve MacChesney, an American diplomat (described as the kind of old-school striped-pants stereotype of his field) has been a Nazi prisoner, but he’s gotten a note to Doc concerning the secret of something dangerous called the “black, black witch.” The guys arrive at the designated meeting place only to be ambushed by Nazis, who want the secret of the black, black witch.  They lock Doc and Monk up, they escape (despite being supposedly stripped of Doc’s usual arsenal of hidden weapons), then they meet a Dutch woman, Sien Noordenveer, who knew from MacChesney exactly where to find them, even though that was impossible.

After getting entombed by a booby trap, Doc, Monk and Sien get out (it’s a good sequence) and return to NYC. MacChesney has already gone there, freaking out some old enemies by showing he can predict the future (a battleship getting sunk). The enemies decide they want the power of the black, black witch; Doc of course, has to stop them.

It turns out the McGuffin is a drug created by the alchemist Peterpence centuries earlier. He believed it would give him visions of the future, but decided to test it on his rival Nostradamus first. To Peterpence’ dismay, it not only worked, it made his rival into the legend we know; his quatrains really are precognition.

It’s a good yarn, but I think it would have been better five years earlier, when they’d have had more pages. Nobody uses the drug beyond the two examples mentioned — if the bad guys had used the precog drug more, it would have been a tougher fight. And the Nazis disappears once the American bad guys show up; I expected them to still be in competition for the drug.

THE KING OF TERROR opens with a great scene in which two well-dressed, oh-so-polite killers, Percy and Francis, whack Doc as he’s emerging from an elevator into the lobby of his skyscraper base. They’re striking characters, reminiscent of Wynt and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever. They’re working for Fraulino Jones, the point women for this issue’s crime ring; she doesn’t want Doc killed, but her superiors do.

Of course, Doc isn’t dead, it’s an elaborate ruse involving a film set up to play for just such situations. Monk and Ham then infiltrate the gang as a pair dangerous Latinos; there’s an ugly moment where they threaten to rape-kill the Fraulino to prove their bonafides. Doc gets captured, but convinces the gang he’s an impersonator Doc hired.

As the guys investigate, something weird keeps happening: people seem to lose track of time, then they wake up and find themselves repeating whatever they’d been doing before the blank spot. It turns out the big bad’s secret weapon is a powerful anesthetic gas; repeating what they were doing is just a minor side effect of getting gassed. The villain’s big plan is to exploit the war situation, in which leaders across the globe are given a much freer hand than in peace. He has doubles ready of everyone from Roosevelt and Churchill to Emperor Hirohito and Stalin. He cynically informs the “impersonator” (whom he intends to use to access Doc’s store of Mayan gold) that once they finish the war, they’ll attain even greater power by making the usual promises, which will then be, as usual, violated.

The story’s a bit too mundane, though the characters are vivid. This introduces a relative for Monk, naval officer “Handsome” Mayfair. Monk looks him up mid-book, then he shows up at the end in what’s close to a deus ex rescue. Perhaps Dent planned to reuse him, but if so, it never happened.

#SFWApro. Covers by Emery Clarke, all rights remain current holder.

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