Category Archives: Doc Savage

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.


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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.

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Waves of Death unleash a Time Terror: Doc Savage time!

Moving into 1943. we’re now solidly in WW II, though it doesn’t change things much from pre-Pearl Harbor stories such as The All-White Elf

THE TIME TERROR has a great opening in which “the skinny man in the grey suit” accidentally spills a bottle of something stinky on Onie Morton. Onie decides to stay home. Dent makes clear this is not, of course, the accident it appears. Onie works for Doc as a news condenser, boiling down the days news into bullet points so Doc can scan it. I believe past stories mentioned a clipping bureau but this seems a step beyond it; given the emphasis on Doc using his crime-college graduates for espionage, I’m surprised Dent doesn’t identify the condensers as part of the network.

It turns out none of the condensers have made it in to work, all because of the skinny man, later identified as Shorty. Doc, of course becomes suspicious and fingers a plane crash in Canada as the story the skinny man is trying to cover up. He and the crew head up there, after locking Pat in the library to keep her from following. Shorty, however, captures her and takes her along as a hostage.

It turns out what downed the plane was a pterosaur. Not far from the crash site is a lost land of cavemen and dinosaurs like The Land of Terror and The Other World. Like The Awful Egg there’s no hint they’ve ever faced dinosaurs before — did Dent or his editors just assume (as comics used to do) that the turnover in readers was rapid enough (it’s been three years since The Other World) that current readers wouldn’t know Doc vs. Dinosaurs had happened before?

Apparently Dent has been reading up on paleontology because Doc and Johnny point out that the mix of animals — dinosaurs of different ages, mammals, primitive humans — is all wrong. Even if they’d drifted in to the region at different times, why wouldn’t they have evolved or changed as happened elsewhere? Turns out there’s a reason: a chemical in the lost valley that blocks evolution. A scientist has studied the chemical and derived an evolutionary enhancer. The Japanese want it, making this Doc’s first clash with our foe in the Pacific (all the Unnamed Sinister Foreign Powers of the past few years have been European). Shorty’s working for them under pressure, though the story hand-waves his deeds away.

Doc and the scientist defeat the Japanese and agree to deep six his discovery: the world simply isn’t ready, especially as the beneficiaries would be only those well-connected or rich enough to arrange for the treatment.

Overall it’s an excellent yarn. WAVES OF DEATH, not so much.

This one reads like Dent was in a rush to make deadline so he recycled elements from Time Terror. There’s a mysterious death in a small northern town (Michigan, this time, by an impossible tidal wave), an attempt to keep Doc from learning about it, Doc learning about it. There’s a surprising amount of padding, like having guest characters repeat the same information to different people, or Doc telling us details he’s deduced that someone else has already told us. Despite Pat doing regular work for Doc now, Doc insists that he doesn’t want her anywhere near the action.

The McGuffin is clever, an electrical ray that causes tidal waves as a side effect; the scene were Doc’s team are hit by a wave is effective. Otherwise this is unremarkable.

Interestingly, both novels give Doc’s background in a footnote rather than the text (saving space?). Waves emphasizes that Doc never knew why his father trained him the way he did, making me wonder if Dent had an origin in mind he never told (a later story suggested Clark Savage Sr. was atoning for something in his own past).

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Doc Savage Died Twice on the Devil’s Black Rock

Two books built around a spectacular gimmick, the second being much the better

THEY DIED TWICE starts with Doc working on a new project for the military, leaving Renny free to investigate a device that the inventor claims dredges up ancestral memories. Renny is so horrified by his ancestor’s (a Caravaggio-like brawling artist) behavior he finds a statute of him in a museum and smashes it. Doc agrees to undergo the same treatment and gets a nasty surprise: when Clark Savage Sr. discovered the Mayan Valley of the Vanished (which debuted in the very first novel, The Man of Bronze) he concealed it from his partner “Secret” Stevens instead of sharing the wealth. Guilt-ridden, Doc agrees to take Stevens to the Valley. This doesn’t make much sense as the series has always been clear Doc gets the gold from the valley only with the Mayans’ consent — it’s unlikely they’d have signed off on Stevens, and Doc wouldn’t accept taking it by force.

Of course this is just a scheme by the bad guys to get the Mayan gold. The machine just puts people into a light hypnotic state where they think the films they’re seeing represent real ancestral memories. The crooks need Doc to guide them to the Valley; this seems like one case where playing along with them was a mistake. In addition to their schemes, Doc has to deal with an elite Mayan sect that wants to cut off all contact with the outside world and figures whacking him and his aides would do the trick. It all works out in the end and Doc says goodbye to the valley and Princess Monja. They don’t reappear, though they crop up in several post-pulp stories, such as Millennium Comics‘ short run. She was the mother of Diana Savage in my own The Savage Year, even though the story doesn’t spell it out.

THE DEVIL’S BLACK ROCK is one of those that opens with a guest character, “Donkey Sam” David, a grizzled prospector who discovers local schemer Wickard Cole has played a prank on the teetotaller, switching the cigars in his pack for a bottle of rotgut. When he flings the bottle away in disgust, something rises out of the ground: “It had no shape, or rather it had a shape that changed so fast it was impossible to tell just what it was. The monster of the black stood on the Earth like by far the most awful thing Donkey Sam Davis had ever seen.”

He and Cole investigate together and discover that when the “devil” left it bored a tunnel miles deep. Cole promptly seals the hole with dynamite and begins gathering a crooked gang, something Sam spies on with interest before trying to contact Doc.  What follows has way too much stuff that just moves pieces around, like a pretty girl helping Sam who turns out to be Cole’s’s wife — no, wait, she’s the twin sister of Wade’s wife! There’s no point to that twist other than to add complications to the plot. And I’m not sure what Cole gained by sealing up the tunnels the black rock creates. However, there are lots of good bits such as guard dogs equipped with poison artificial fangs (see the cover below)

I did like Cole’s practical approach: he realizes going up against Doc Savage is a losing play, so he’s simply going to avoid the Man of Bronze until he completes his scheme, selling the black rock to the Nazis. The rock’s effects are spectacular and the ending explanation is interesting. While Dent doesn’t use the words, it’s a fissionable element that not only explodes when triggered, it causes a chain reaction that triggers fission in the ordinary material around it. This was actually a serious fear when the early experimenters split the atom, though of course it wasn’t the case (check out Richard Rhodes Making of the Atomic Bomb for details).

A sublot has the guys trying to break Monk of his susceptibility to a pretty face. They actually do (at one point he refuses to let Para’s looks sway him) though it didn’t last, of course.

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Doc Savage: The Fiery Menace’s Laugh of Death

In THE FIERY MENACE Doc finally notices Pearl Harbor happened. He’s out of town for the first couple of chapters, trying to convince the military to let him and his team enlist. The military: sorry, you’re more valuable on the home front. Given that it would be unthinkable for a heroic American not to enlist, I wonder if this is why the book’s been ignoring the US is at war — Lester Dent couldn’t think how to keep Doc out of uniform.

The opening of this one is great. Betty Free, a stenographer, spots a body hanging in one of the chandeliers in the lobby of Doc’s skyscraper base (he’s on the 86th floor). We then get her mini-life story, which involves her vanishing from the story: she faints, screws up at her job later that day, gets fired, marries her boyfriend and then they settle down in a farming community.

After the opening? Not so much. The original title was The Lost Vampire and the guy in the chandelier, it turns out spoke of hunting vampires. And it turns out he has a hole in him — only it’s not a bite mark, it’s a hole drilled in his forehead. So calling the killer a vampire makes no sense. Neither does seeing it: the vampire is more of a blazing human torch type (the hole in the forehead is made by a kind of super-blowtorch).

It turns out the dead man hid a McGuffin in the chandelier that everyone wants. The vampire is the tool one side is using to scare the others into cooperation. The McGuffin is uninspired, a sizable horde of Nazi gold, but otherwise the war plays no role in the story. There’s also a curious statement that Doc tries to keep his 86th-floor base a secret, which makes no sense. Even if he shut down all references to it in the paper, it’s way too well established for it to become secret.

Bobb Cotter argues the book reflects Dent’s efforts to make Doc more human, more fallible, less superhuman. In the past, when Doc has trouble with the cops, it’s promptly forgotten. Here, they’re still suspicious of Doc after the events of the previous book. Some newspaper articles, instead of gushing about Doc’s awesomeness, are critical and suspicious. I’m less convinced than Cotter this is an improvement, but it works here. The book as a whole, though, does not.

THE LAUGH OF DEATH works great. We open on Doc at the Fortress of Solitude (Cotter says it’s the last time we see that secret laboratory) which just like Superman’s fortress would eventually be, is now disguised as an inhospitable ice island. Doc’s working unsuccessfully on a plastic insulated suit for the military (light yet cold resistant, but it cracks too easily), checks messages from his aides (and Pat, who’s assisting regularly due to the war effort) and learns they’re gone. For most of the book, Doc operates solo.

His adversaries have an impressive weapon, a Joker-like laugh that fills everyone who hears it with pain and terror, and often makes them pass out. The gang wielding the laugh get their orders by vinyl recordings, a prototype of the Mission: Impossible tape-recorded instructions. This keeps the boss offstage, but it gives Doc an opportunity to set them against each other: he makes a recording telling one group that they’re fired, convincing them to turn on their boss.

The police are still suspicious of Doc. In one crucial scene he’s saved from arrest thanks to a crime college graduate who intervenes. The graduates seem to be playing an increasingly large role in the stories during this period (Three Wild Men stated they’re spread across the world as a spy network)


Doc is definitely more human. When he gets locked in a time vault and can’t get out, he has a fit of pique and smashes things in the vault in frustration.

As in The Speaking Stone, Monk suddenly adds physics expertise to his repertoire so that he can provide the tech explanation for the laugh. I suppose it’s no more unreasonable than Johnny becoming an expert on plankton (same link). Overall, it’s an excellent yarn with an effective gimmick.

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Doc Savage: The Three Wild Men Who Fell Up

Given we’re now halfway through 1942, I’m wondering if Street and Smith just didn’t want to tackle WW II in the Doc Savage series yet. THE MAN WHO FELL UP has Doc up against what are obviously Nazis, but there’s not a hint of America’s own war effort.

The book opens with two Brits, Rod Bentley and Tottingham Strand, approaching a mysterious building. Rod goes in and Strand sees him on a ledge, then sees him (apparently) shot. But instead of falling to the street, Rod’s body floats up into the air. Strand goes to contact Doc and the Nazi plot kicks in. We don’t learn who’s behind things until the bad guys start spouting German late in the book, though I wonder if Doc calling his adversaries “efficient” early on would have been a sign (German efficiency being a byword back in those days).

The plot involves a mysterious green fog blanketing New York, more people falling upwards and both Strand and the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Doc’s mysterious “Compound Monk.” Toward that goal the Nazis have been studying Doc’s operation for weeks. They create a fake copy of his HQ, along with Monk and Ham impersonators to keep Doc under watch. It almost works except Evil Ham explains Pat, who showed up earlier, left because she got scared. Doc knows that has to be bullshit.

Pat, incidentally, has persuaded Monk to teach her Mayan, the language the guys use to communicate without being understood.

It turns out the apparent flying corpses are actually a kind of heat-sensitive aerial mine. A balloon lifts them up in the air, then they’re drawn to sources of heat, such as plane engines. Compound Monk would improve on the current design as its super-sensitive to heat; Pat explains Doc picked the name because Monk’s always drawn to “hot numbers.”

It’s a good story with one memorable Doc gadget: he’s knocked off Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Okay, technically Dent insists the plane isn’t invisible, it’s just transparent plastic, with camouflage hiding the parts that can’t be made that way. It has the double advantage that it can’t be seen easily, and it’s easy to see out of, though smoke from the engines soon stains the transparent body.

THE THREE WILD MEN has a striking intro in which a young woman, Abba Cushing, injects Doc with some kind of bioweapon. When it turns out his bulletproof shirt protected him, she pretends it was a joke, vamps Monk and leads him into a trap. Her fabulously wealthy, politically radical father and his friends demand Monk give up the secret of the Three Wild Men, which Mr. Cushing insists is Doc’s work.

It turns out that three wealthy individuals — power broker, financier, reformer — have turned into crazy brute men, one of whom dies trying to attack a subway train. Doc is supposedly the brains behind whatever’s causing this; that it’s happening overseas in cities where Johnny, Renny and Long Tom are working just seems to confirm this. As usual for this period, there’s more than one faction competing for the secret. There’s also the FBI which takes Doc’s involvement seriously. And that’s baaaad news: the story makes it clear that being hunted by the unstoppable G-Men is about the worst thing that can happen to someone (J. Edgar Hoover must have loved this issue). Which makes it rather annoying they just sort of fade from the story instead of being involved at the climax.

It turns out Cushing is behind the process that creates the wild men (Abba didn’t know this, neither did his associates). He believes the world is in such a mess it’s going to take a wholesale, worldwide reform of the entire system; the wild men, once restored to normal, are broken enough to be malleable using their power as Cushing commands. His goals are genuinely  humanitarian, but also authoritarian (I’ve no idea how readers would have seen this at the time — Nazi allegory? Communist? Nothing at all?).

Like the FBI, the story just peters out. Doc bluffs that he’s found a way to counter the insanity treatment, so Cushing surrenders. It’s really anticlimactic. And the treatment itself is just a less interesting version of The Men Who Smiled No More,

We do learn that Doc’s “crime college” graduates are now being scattered across the world to give Doc eyes and ears everywhere. The opening has Doc talk with a Turkish contact (not a graduate) whose spy operation is secretly working for Doc. It’s a very WW II concept, I think, though I don’t remember if this network recurs. There’s also a couple of character bits such as “Doc Savage had not spoken a dozen words in the past hour, and he’d done it in a way that completely dominated the conversation.”

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Doc Savage: The Speaking Stone of Pirate Island

It’s May and June of 1942, Doc Savage is having adventures in the Pacific but there’s not the slightest hint that the Pacific Theater of Operations is a thing.

PIRATE ISLE opens on a tramp steamer in the Pacific. Captain Hardgrove is the non-too-respectable captain, apparently saddled with a parrot that squawks out endearments to Mrs. Hardgrove’s lovers. Then he learns a man they recently rescued from the sea has apparently gone insane, run up the mast and pelting the crew with snowballs … despite the terrible tropic heat.

The man is actually Johnny Littlejohn, so before long Doc, Renny and Long Tom are flying to the ship (this is the rare book with no Monk or Ham, for reasons explained in the second yarn). Unfortunately so is Lord London, a ruthless pirate/mercenary whose presence on the scene fills the crew with terror. There’s a sequence where Lord London arbitrarily selects and shoots one of the passengers, just as a warning. It’s surprisingly shocking and effective. His men seize the ship, forcing Doc and his men to fight back without risking the passengers.

It turns out Lord London is after control of what he believes is a system for filtering gold from sea water (not the first time Johnny’s been entangled with one). He doesn’t realize it’s actually a system for making food out of plankton, an English project that could sustain Great Britain with North Sea plankton even if German u-boats shut down all shipping. That’s the only reference we get to the war. Johnny, who’s been faking insanity so nobody can interrogate him, was working on the system because … well, that doesn’t make much sense. “Greatest archeologist and geologist” is a skill set that has nothing to do with making food from plankton.

And the ending twist didn’t work for me. It turns out Hardgrove is the real Lord London. Before executing someone he starts talking about how sexy and handsome they are and this is what the parrot is er, parroting. While Lord London’s clearly ruthless, nothing indicated he was this loonie before. Still, the novel is an enjoyable, fast-moving story. It also leads directly into THE SPEAKING STONE.

At the opening of that one, Doc and Co. are still in the Pacific, dealing with the press ,when a man in a red vest shows up and gives Renny a small stone. It talks to him in Monk’s voice. Then the man keels over dead. So where are Monk and Ham? How did the stone speak? And why are the bad guys so hot to get hold of the stone?

It turns out this is a lost race story. Monk and Ham have wound up trapped in an Andean lost city (they don’t appear until two-thirds of the way in). After a lot of move and countermove with the bad guys — they do not want Doc reaching the city or figuring out what’s going on — we learn the stones are the city’s form of long-distance communication. The crystals pick up electromagnetic waves which allow them to transmit voice communication much further than radio (Monk suddenly displays enough physics knowledge to explain this), but after a while they degrade and repeat the last thing they heard on an endless loop. The lost city hopes to market the tech so they can grab some 20th century goodies, but their contacts in the outside world want to exploit it themselves. As it turns out, though, the stones don’t work except at very high altitudes so it’s all for naught.

The story is competent, not stellar. I did enjoy Dent riffing on the usual lost city cliches: instead of sitting in a volcanic crater or atop hot springs that keep it snug and warm, the snowbound Andean city is very, very cold. It’s a detail that gave me a chuckle.

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This simple trick made me much more efficient!

Ever since I started writing for Screen Rant, I’ve been getting a lot more email from the SR Google Group. As a result I’ve been spending a lot more time reading email. If work’s going sluggishly, I just take a break, check email and wind up going even more sluggishly. I’ve been trying to resist that impulse, but I’ve had little luck.

Last week I tried something new: don’t read email until the afternoon. In the morning, which is my most productive time, I check my phone to see if there’s anything I actually need to answer (rare), everything else waits. This was a big improvement, but it occurred to me that my least creative period in the work day is the 90 minutes or so before I wrap up for the day at 5pm. What if I pushed email to that last sector of the work day?

Success! I’ve slashed my mail time, and not allowing it earlier in the day keeps me from “oh well, might as well check the mail” moments. It really has helped. Even Trixie and Plush Dog are over the moon about it!

Okay, they’re actually in ecstasy because they’re rolling on a dead shrew (I think). But why quibble?

As for actual work accomplished this week —

I got in my next Screen Rant, on comic book relationships that would never fly today (adults banging teenagers, mind-controlled sex, rape played for laughs). At least I hope they wouldn’t. I’ll post a link when it’s up. Below, one example drawn by John Buscema, from when the Wasp married Hank Pym knowing perfectly well he was clinically insane at the time, because it was the only way she could get him to tie the knot.

I submitted one article (to Writer’s Digest) and one column pitch (to The Guardian), and two short stories to new magazines.

I finally started my next-to-last-draft revision of The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. I think I have the problems analyzed and fixed; we’ll see how it goes as I rewrite it. Unanticipated problems usually show up. I also I got about halfway through another draft of No One Can Slay Her. I think it’s showing much improvement.

I posted a blog entry at Atomic Junk Shop about Doc Savage as a creation of the Depression.

And I began work on my taxes. It goes much smoother if I start well in advance and do a little bit every time. I completed most of Schedule C (self-employment income) but I have yet to complete the related forms (business use of my home, self-employment tax).

I think it helped that as TYG was snowbound for Wednesday through Friday, she sits down on the couch with the dogs. And I had two scheduled events (car maintenance and dentist) that had to be postponed because of the weather. But I’ll be glad to have clear roads again next week.

Photo is mine, credit me if you use. Avengers panel rights remain with current holder.


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Doc Savage again: The Too-Wise Owl in the Magic Forest (#SFWApro)

I figured by now Doc Savage Magazine would have caught up with Pearl Harbor but no, March and April 1942 still show no signs of the U.S. at war.

THE TOO-WISE OWL starts when a disgruntled delivery boy drops off an owl at Doc’s HQ. The owl is pretty disgruntled at this too, as witness it grabs a gun in its talons, shoots out the window, and flies away (this ignores, of course, that the windows are bulletproof). Monk and Ham go looking for the owl and find him sitting with Jasper, a tween who seems incapable of saying a word without giving its full dictionary definition, and knows even bigger words than Johnny Littlejohn (whose reaction to being out-polysyllabicized is a hot). Plus of course we have various factions and a pretty girl chasing around after the owl and insisting they’re the injured party in all this.

As Doc says, it’s actually a fairly simple McGuffin hunt, but the owl makes it look as if it’s a lot stranger than that. It turns out that one of the factions, wealthy Jonathan Shair, has developed a miracle treatment, “vitamin M” (for mental) that enhances intelligence. Some of the recipients, unfortunately, are crooked, and use their new intelligence for evil (Shair ultimately realizes M’s inability to impart wisdom is a serious weakness in his dream of uplifting humanity). Their big goal is to get the vitamin M supply and Shair’s supply of its opposite, a chemical that induces stupidity.

Overall it’s a minor story, but fun. However Dent throws in a very awkward bit of added pathos: a murder victim early in the story turns out to be Oliver Brooks, the half-brother we never knew Ham had. Ham is knocked for a loop to learn his brother’s dead, but I couldn’t share his reaction — it might as well have been a stranger for all the emotional impact it has.

William Bogart’s THE MAGIC FOREST is a much weaker story. It starts out with Renny boarding a plane; unfortunately the crew and passengers are crooks, plotting to ambush Renny’s companion, so the big engineer winds up caught too. The two men are drugged and taken to “the magic forest” which appears to be a pine forest in Alaska. And someone keeps leaving tiny wooden totem poles around.

Doc, of course, steps in to investigate. Unfortunately after the lively opening things just plod along. It turns out The Magic Forest is just the name of a boat. Its owner is out to get revenge on the swindlers who ruined him by kidnapping them until he gets his money back (like The Sea Angel, but much less interesting). The totem poles are simply something the guy carves for his own amusement. Like Too-Wise Owl the plot is much less zany than the trappings, but unlike the earlier book this is boring.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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