Category Archives: Doc Savage

Doc Savage finds Churchill, Hitler and … a fish?

December 1944 through February 1945 fall solidly into the realistic style of Lester Dent’s WW II novels for the series. Doc is constantly nervous, doubting his ability to carry out his missions. He’s distracted by the sexy women of the first and third book. He’s increasingly fed up with Monk and Ham’s antics, which he finds childish, and they half-concede the immaturity of their clowning and squabbling. In Strange Fish he tries to remember how to distinguish a real and fake Oklahoma accent and can’t recall the information.

THE LOST GIANT starts with Doc absolutely terrified by the scope of his mission, so much so he doesn’t trust his own makeup abilities. Instead he heads to a top Hollywood makeup artist who transforms him into Joe Powell, two-fisted adventurer. That enables Doc to attach himself to Fay, a mercenary hunting a mysterious McGuffin for the Axis. He pegs Joe as a capable troubleshooter and brings him aboard. But someone else has kidnapped Chester Wilson, the one man who knows the McGuffin’s location; can Doc and Fay find it and get their first.

This is a good, solid spy thriller, and the McGuffin is actually substantial: Winston Churchill’s plane has been downed in the Arctic Circle and Chester Wilson knows how to find it. Dent makes it clear it’s not just the blow of losing England’s prime minister that we’re facing (Churchill scoffs at the idea he’s indispensable) but Churchill’s knowledge of the Allied war plans.

VIOLENT NIGHT (released in paperback, as you can see, as The Hate Genius) has Doc now hunting for Adolf Hitler, but the premise is better. Hitler’s fleeing Europe via neutral Lisbon, leaving his double behind in his place. However he’s arranged to have the double killed, apparently by Allied assassins; Adolf figures this will infuriate Germany, driving them to fight to the last man; Germany and the Allied forces will both pay for Hitler having to flee! And the kill goes down in just 48 hours unless Doc catches der Fuehrer first.

Unfortunately the execution is pedestrian, at best. People keep revealing hidden identities or secret agendas to Doc or one of the other players, then reporting to someone else that yes, Doc Savage bought the supposed Big Reveal! Dent got very bad about exposition during this period and this is a very talky one.

It’s also annoyingly sexist. Pat horns in on the action, convincing Monk and Ham that they should make themselves targets for Hitler’s crew to distract them from Doc. With the clock ticking, Doc wastes time and manpower trying to scare Pat off by having U.S. agents pose as a creepy bunch of Nazis. When that doesn’t work, he has her shipped off to America by force, but she has a McGuffin Hitler needs so the Nazis hijack the plane.

There’s also a curious moment when Pat refers to Doc as not being really close — they’re only third or fourth cousins. That’s not accurate, but it is explainable (maybe she was being careful not to make herself look like leverage).

STRANGE FISH feels like a short story stretched out to novel length, and even given they were short novels by this point, the stretching shows. We open on Paris, a millionaire heiress/WAC, sent back from Europe after recovering from war injuries. She’s happy in New York until she sees a mysterious man following her, prompting her to fly to her Oklahoma ranch and her trusty right hand, Johnny Toms. Johnny’s a native American who amuses himself talking like a movie Indian even though he’s Harvard educated (the third such faithful but intelligent Native sidekick of the war years, following The Goblins and Secret of the Su). Unfortunately the bad guys have followed Paris to Oklahoma; Johnny tries calling Doc, who’s happy to help as an exciting break from his current plastics research (plastics was a wonder material back in that era).

The crooks try to distract Doc by convincing him Johnny’s call is to distract him from the real threat, somewhere in Brazil; Doc sees through the ruse and heads to Oklahoma with Monk and Ham. They’re almost immediately framed for murder, but it plays almost no role in the plot after that.

And what is the plot? It involves an aquarium fish everyone wants to get hold of for no discernable reason. Somehow the fish ties in to a Nazi war criminal fleeing the collapsing Reich; the fish is supposedly a clue to his whereabouts. It turns out to be more twisty than that, but not clever enough to be interesting.

Weirdly, the story seems to take place after V.E. Day, which is still several months off. There’s constant talk of Johann Jan Berlitz, the German the Allies have picked to replace Hitler. Unlike Jiu-San, it doesn’t appear to be a plan for the future; it reads as if the Allies are already occupying Germany and ready to start the new government. Did the publisher get short-handed and have to use this novel early? Or what?

#SFWApro. Pulp covers by Modest Stein, paperback by Leaf Larkin, all rights to images remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

Doc Savage, Man of — Gun-Metal Grey? The Nemesis of Evil by Lin Carter

Previously I’ve looked at the Doc Savage pastiches The Mad Goblin and Doc Sidhe to take a break from the real series. This month, it’s the first of Lin Carter’s books about Zarkon, Lord of the Unknown: THE NEMESIS OF EVIL from 1975.

We open on a meeting of the Lemurian Wisdom cult, which is using its apparent occultism, mixed with murder, to drain money from wealthy suckers and intimidate anyone who snoops. One snooping reporter has infiltrated the upper levels of the cult, but he’s been made: after the meeting he dies in “invisible flames” (which just means he writhes on the ground and cries out in pain). His publisher calls in Omega, a secret crimefighting NGO led by Prince Zarkon, former monarch of European Novenia. They soon identify Lucifer, the cult leader, as Zandor Sinestro, a scientist who supposedly died in prison after their last battle. His long-range plan is to create a shadow government with wealth and influence enough to run the country. Sinestro’s occult wisdom is fake, of course; the invisible flames are just an obscure, untraceable poison.

While Lin Carter was an amazing editor for Ballantine Books’ fantasy line, his own work tended to second rate imitations of better writers (Burroughs and Howard primarily). I enjoyed Zarkon when I first read it (pulp pastiches weren’t common in the 1970s) and even when I reread it a few years ago; now that I’m reading with a more critical eye, and with a lot of Doc Savage fresh in my memory, not so much.

For one thing, the cast is way too derivative. Zarkon has black eyes instead of gold, and dresses in gun-metal grey as an imitation of the Man of Bronze. His five-man team includes Scorchy, a two-fisted bantam redhead who constantly squabbles with his elegantly dressed buddy Nick, and a tough but frail looking electrical expert; the woman in the adventure packs a big six-shooter just like Pat Savage and insists on horning in on the action.

Carter’s also a much weaker writer than Lester Dent. After the initial murder, the next few chapters are exposition and talk, with no action and little suspense. Dent never lets things go quiet for that long. Zarkon’s aide Scorchy spouts Irish dialogue right out of a 1930s B-movie. Zarkon’s really not doing very much evil at this point, despite the murder. And the timescale is wonky: it appears to be set in the 1970s or close to it, but Nick talks about performing with Houdini which would put him in his seventies (a later book has a woman in her twenties hanging out with Pat Savage and other pulp women, raising the same problem). And Lucifer’s final defeat is just a freak accident. However a few details do make the book stand out”

  • Zarkon’s origin: he’s a genetically engineered time traveler from the future, sent back to stop criminals like Sinestro from bringing about WW III and the dark age that follows it.
  • Easter eggs: Appearances by pulp and comics characters became a staple of the series; Ace Harrigan, one of Zarkon’s team, is related to Golden Age comics character “Hop” Harrigan for instance. It’s relatively light here — the only one I spotted was a reference to the radio/TV series Big Town.
  • The intro, in which Carter asserts the events in this story are real, only all of the names and a lot of the details have been changed. He explains his intent was to write a nonfiction novel a la In Cold Blood (as someone in Capote’s book references Doc Savage, I suspect that’s another Easter egg); I’m guessing the real reason was Philip José Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life which came out two years earlier and claimed Doc had been real. Alas, claiming a popular fictional character was real is one thing; introducing a made-up character and pretending he’s real doesn’t have the same punch. Especially when you claim a lot of the book is made up anyway.

I don’t anticipate reading the later Zarkon books again.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover remain with current holder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Doc Savage

Doc Savage and Branding

“Branding” gets tossed around as a magic word a lot (I rarely see any branding-related writing advice that wouldn’t work just as well if you didn’t take the word “branding” out) but I think it’s reasonable to argue that any long-running character — James Bond, Superman, Archie — is a brand of sorts. It’s inevitable that the character changes, but it’s essential they don’t change so far they no longer fit the brand.

Superman, for example is light years from the original Siegel/Shuster brawling roughneck — more powerful and a lot better behaved. Nevertheless, he’s still the same character. While I hate the way writers handle Batman in the 21st century, I’d hardly argue he’s no longer Batman. For many fans, however, the 1950s Batman battling monsters and alien invaders was very, very off-brand (I like the 1950s a lot better, but its critics do have a point).

Archie has proven to be an exceptionally flexible brand. At various points he’s been a superhero (Pureheart the Powerful), a spy (The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.), a zombie slayer, grown up and gotten married and played in a rock band. He’s remained Archie throughout, though as writer Mark Waid has said, there are limits (“Betty fails a pregnancy test” or “Opening shot: Jughead’s meth lab.” would not make the cut).

But rebranding doesn’t always work for every character. Wonder Woman’s been through a lot of changes as my WW-reread shows, but the non-powered, karate chopping Diana Prince phase didn’t work at all for me (or most people). As I’ve said before it would have worked as a new character, but not for the Amazing Amazon. The Snagglepuss Chronicles was too far from Hanna-Barbera’s original to work for me, though others liked it.

And then there’s Doc Savage. As both Bobb Cotter and Will Murray have written, Doc’s 1940s adventures became much more realistic, with Doc himself much more human. The Derelict of Skull Shoal and Satan Black have very little in common with stories such as The Squeaking Goblin or Sargasso Ogre. Doc’s adventures are more down to Earth; Doc himself is just tough and competent and much more fallible.

Cotter and Murray like the transition to a more human Doc Savage; for me they damage the brand. I’ve enjoyed some realistic pulp and paperback adventures over the years, but that’s not what I read Doc Savage for. I read Doc to watch the amazing Man of Bronze take on and triumph over wild threats like the cult of the Thousand-Headed Man or Ool from the Land of Always Night, not to smash a relatively ordinary adversary. I want gadgets, deathtraps, bizarre lost races and doomsday weapons.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the WW II adventures, but for me they are not adding luster to the brand.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Joe Shuster, Sheldon Moldoff, Fiona Staples, Modest Stein and the rest by James Bama.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Comics, Doc Savage, Reading, Writing

Doc Savage … dating? Weird Valley, Jiu San and Satan Black

I’m guessing it was part of Lester Dent’s ongoing efforts to humanize Doc that instead of the crimefighter’s usual shyness around women, he ends the second and third of this post’s novels with a date.

WEIRD VALLEY gives away its twist by telling us up front that leathery old “Methuselah” Brown successfully fooled Monk. That can only mean his claim to be 300 years old is a lie. Brown says he wants Doc to research and share the secret of his immortality (derived from a lost valley in Mexico), but someone murders Brown a couple of chapters in.

This rather “meh” story almost feels like Lester Dent is self-parodying his earlier work. Doc Savage stories have given us names like “Fluency” Beech and “Leases” Moore for years, but here Doc dismisses Brown and “Arctic” Rogers as names a hack writer would come up with. And it turns out the people of the lost valley (in Mexico) aren’t really lost, because that’s impossible in the aviation age. So they just present themselves as being blandly normal Native Americans and steer seekers off into the mountains. And the secret of eternal youth is a mix of Secret of the Su and Fear Cay: the secret isn’t a fountain of youth, they’re just high-powered sulfa drugs that enable the natives to survive the usually lethal tropical diseases that would kill them young.

This is another where Dent plays Doc as tough but human. Instead of carrying his anesthetic glass balls on his person, he leaves them with a pack of equipment in the jungle; bullets hitting his bulletproof vest hurt way worse than they do in earlier books, implying the armor isn’t that impressive. There’s some fun in all this, but not enough.

JIU SAN is much more interesting. The initial POV character is Carlta Trotter, a wartime correspondent assigned to Alaska and frustrated the Japanese invasion she expected never came. She suspects her lecherous boss — he hires women with brains and beauty, then sexually harasses them — manipulated her into going north as a punishment for turning him down. Dent clearly doesn’t approve of this, but Carlta’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the way things are probably wouldn’t fly in a story today.

Then Sgt. Doc Savage shows up, having been busted down from honorary brigadier general because he’s talking appeasement with the Japanese. Trotter spots him talking to Japanese POWs held on the base and when Doc breaks them out she winds up on a stolen plane heading to Japan. So does Monk, who’s horrified Doc may genuinely have switched sides.

Not to worry. It’s all a cover for Doc to make contact with the key men in the Japanese government we want in charge after the war. They’re enlightened enough to see things have to change, but they have enough standing in Japan they won’t be rejected as American puppets. Unfortunately one of them is also the mysterious Jiu San, out to force the other future leaders into covertly making him top dog in post-war Japan (this came out in October, 1944). Doc’s mission, of course, is to stop him.

The setting, the story and the politics make Jiu San interesting, but it has the inevitable array of anti-Japanese stereotypes. They’re monkey men. They’re innately devious. They’re inscrutable, hiding their feelings. They don’t think like us. Doc at one point finds himself thinking they all look alike, then kicks himself for that.

And yes, at the end of the book Doc takes Carlta out. Monk and Ham had bet her $1,000 he wouldn’t, though Doc tells Carlta they don’t have the money to pay off.

Unusually, this has a continuity reference to The Shape of Terror, when someone mentions Doc stopping Nazi plans to build a superweapon.

SATAN BLACK is one of those where Doc is just a tough, capable investigator, indistinguishable from dozens of pulp heroes. Likewise, the book and Monk himself acknowledges that the pranks he plays on Ham are juvenile and stupid, which isn’t typical for the series.

The plot involves a pipeline carrying oil to the Atlantic to power our invasion of Europe (this was written pre-D-Day, but came out several months later — though I doubt the need for oil was any less). Part of the pipeline runs through Arkansas, where the mystery villain has, a la The Squeaking Goblin, revived an old feud between the Colbeck and Morgan clans, which provides a smokescreen for the bad guys’ sabotage (though it isn’t Nazis behind it, just a crooked financier who wants to take over the company).

The routine plot involves framing Doc for murder and hunting an implausible McGuffin, a dagger one guy made in prison, now hiding a vital clue. Dent calls the dagger a misericord, but that’s actually a particular style of church seat. Equally weird, the title makes zero sense — is it a reference to oil? To the villain’s evil heart? The most interesting thing is that Renny gets to shine, exercising his engineering skills to get the pipeline back into action.

And once again, Doc dates, asking out an attractive woman at the end of the book.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Modest Stein, Bob Larkin and Steain again, all rights remain with current holder.

2 Comments

Filed under Doc Savage

The many flavors of Doc Savage: Pharaoh’s Ghost, The Man Who Was Scared, the Shape of Terror

One of the strengths of the Doc Savage series is its flexibility to move from SF to lost race yarn to pulp crimefighting. Consider this month’s trio, for instance.

THE PHARAOH’S GHOST is an “exotic” adventure set in Egypt. Johnny’s been abducted so the book opens with Doc, Monk, Ham and Long Tom capturing a stereotypically treacherous Arab, Hamamah to get him to talk. Hamamah babbles about the ghost of Pharaoh Jubbah Ned when a yellow stain appears on his face. He dies screaming for no discernible reason; Monk and Ham find their hands burning. It turns out a crime boss, Jaffa, had the tomb looted, and now the mysterious yellow spot is killing the looters, one by one.

The adventure that follows is descent, but not outstanding. It rises a little above the average by Jaffa’s big plan: use the loot from the tomb to buy corrupt politicians in nations newly liberated from Axis control, then appropriate the governments’ funds. Lester Dent also puts more work in than usual sketching out the Egyptian setting and detailing the history of Jubbah Ned, which like a lot of ancient monarchs is clouded with uncertainty (Johnny, an archeologist, discourses about it at length).

A curious point is one of the supporting cast, Bondurant Fain. A brawny redhead in flamboyant pursuit of a pretty girl, he resembles Henry Peace in The Freckled Shark so much I wondered if it were Doc again, but no. I guess Dent just liked the type.

One unsurprising flaw is that all the good guys and the top bad guy are white, with the Egyptians reduced to supporting and/or villain roles.

THE MAN WHO WAS SCARED is more of a detective story, and a pretty effective one for most of its length. It opens with a businessman “like the fellows the insurance companies always put in their advertisements” trying to reach Doc before the bad guys catch up with him. He’s poisoned but reaches Doc’s HQ long enough to gasp out a cryptic message about breakfast. The bad guys quickly improvise a scheme to distract Doc by making him think the victim was just an escaped mental patient. Investigating and digging for the truth takes up the rest of the book.

Again the scheme is bigger than ordinary crookery. The bad guys were using cereal made by the dead guy’s company to spread a bio-weapon across America. They’ve already bought up the entire supply of the treatment, so they stand to make millions, and they’ve rigged things so Doc will take the fall. Unfortunately the book is too short to really do anything with this: we go from Doc being a wanted man to busting the bad guy (surprisingly the brother of the villain in Pharaoh’s Ghost. More surprisingly, the two schemes are unrelated) in a very few pages. Still, it’s a fun read and pretty woman of the month Elma Champion is brave and capable in the Pat Savage hold.

A really weird bit is that Dent mocks his own past descriptions of Doc as a mental wizard and physical superman, asserting he’s nothing of the kind. He’s got good genes, he had his amazing childhood training — anyone who’d been through that would turn out just as awesome! This ignores that in Invisible Box Murders, Doc states that his training would have driven most people insane.

 

THE SHAPE OF TERROR is a spy thriller. Despite the cover below, about another Awful Egg; that egg’s just a tool for poisoning Doc at breakfast. The big threat is a Nazi McGuffin that’s never described. The story opens with some RAF officers taking Doc from dinner with Monk and Ham. The plane the officers and Doc depart on crashes and kills him. Digging for answers, Monk and Ham discover a conspiracy — at which point British intelligence fakes their death too. The hope is that the Nazis will think they’re out of the picture and relax. The Nazis have developed a weapon that can win the war; Johann Kovic, a Czech scientist locked in a concentration camp, has the concept for a counter-weapon that neutralizes it. Doc, Monk and Ham are to get the secret from Kovic before the Nazis torture it out of him.

It becomes immediately obvious the faked deaths haven’t fooled anyone. First comes the poisoning attempt. Then the Nazis dog the guys’ footsteps and block their path into occupied Czechoslovakia. Then hound them once they’re there. Some of them are trying to kill him; other Nazi factions want to throw Doc in the camp with Kovic to get the secret out of him, after Doc’s been dosed with a form of truth serum. Everyone they’re working with, in Allied intelligence or the Czech underground, has or could have a double agenda.

The result is a solid little spy story that gives Doc a workout without making him just an ordinary guy (as Derelict of Skull Shoal did)

#SFWApro. Covers by Modest Stein (I’ve got to say the Man Who Was Scared cover has little to do with the book).

2 Comments

Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

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.

#SFWApro. Covers by James Bama (top) and Tony Harris, all rights remain with current holder.

1 Comment

Filed under Doc Savage

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

2 Comments

Filed under Doc Savage

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

#SFWApro. Cover design by Matthew Moring. All rights to image remain with current holder.

3 Comments

Filed under Doc Savage

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?).

#SFWApro. Covers by Modest Stein, all rights remain with current holders.

Leave a comment

Filed under Doc Savage

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.

#SFWApro. Covers by Modest Stein, all rights remain with current holder.

2 Comments

Filed under Doc Savage