Category Archives: Doc Savage

Mundane of Bronze: Doc Savage in Disappearing Lady, Target for Death and Death Lady

This month’s trio are all by William Bogart, but mercifully cut back on the travel-brochure description he used in Fire and Ice and Death in Little Houses. That doesn’t mean they’re good: they very much treat Doc as a generic PI type, and don’t stand out as examples of the pulp gumshoe either.

THE DISAPPEARING LADY starts with Doc visiting banker Ernest Green whose ex-wife is blackmailing him over “one of those affairs while I was in my last year at Harvard. Every college student has one sooner or later.” I’ve no idea what that means — illegitimate pregnancy? A homosexual encounter? Plain vanilla sex? Bogart writing badly? — as it has to be serious enough to ruin Green if he’s exposed. Doc, in any case, says this is a job suited to a competent PI and declines. Then two of Green’s clients turn out to be imposters, kidnap him and kill the guard. Now Doc’s all in.

He should have stayed out. This is such a routine detective story I find myself wondering if Bogart just recycled some unused fiction he had lying around. If so he needed to do better: this has Doc packing heat as casually as any hardboiled gumshoe, without even an acknowledgment it’s not his style. There’s also an interminable stretch where he’s tracking the kidnappers’ car and we get the law-enforcement equivalent of Trek technobabble as the police coordinate their operations to pin down its locations.

Unsurprisingly the obvious suspect, Green’s ex — the disappearing lady of the title — turns out to be a red herring and the real villain is (drumroll please!) the last person you’d expect (though I wasn’t actually surprised). This is a rock bottom entry in the series, even though Savage expert Bobb Cotter disagrees.

TARGET FOR DEATH — as Cotter says, if Doc was still under his old editor, we probably wouldn’t have three similar-sounding titles in a row — has a stronger start, at least. Lt. Sally Treat, ex-Navy nurse, arrives in Honolulu to meet up with her boyfriend, Capt. Rick Randall. But Rick’s not there — we learn later he’s been lured to the mainland with a fake message — and she gets a seemingly ordinary letter from one of her relatives, warning her under no circumstances to let anyone else see the missive. It soon becomes obvious someone really, really wants that letter; fortunately Pat Savage is in Hawaii, so Sally contacts Pat, who puts her in contact with Rennie (sloppily identified as “Henry Renwick) who then sends Pat back to the Big Apple. Annoyingly, she goes without a peep or putting up much resistance. Doc, Monk and Ham are soon on the case but after the interesting beginning it shrinks to some mundane snooping around the Treat family. Doc figures out, much too slowly, that the secret of the letter is that one of the periods is a microdot (a new concept then, but Doc used to be on top of that stuff). It’s a map to a Pacific gold mine that the Japanese forces flooded with water so that nobody else could find it. One of Sally’s relatives discovered it, one of the others is ready to kill for it.

THE DEATH LADY starts off with a lost race element, though I knew that by this point we wouldn’t get anything terribly exotic or out of the ordinary. Long Tom contacts Monk and Ham to say he’s arriving in New York from South America with “an Indian” (unlike some Native Americans in recent stories, not at all educated and speaking in pidgin). Someone tries to whack said native upon arrival but the guys thwart that. Long Tom reveals that the native, “Beaverbrook” — Long Tom says that’s what the man’s name sounds like to him — can lead them to Gloria Halliday, a young woman who vanished several years ago with her explorer father. Beaverbrook’s tribe is treating her as a white jungle goddess (or as my friend Ross says, a Non-Native Rain Forest Authority Figure), but within a couple of months her divine reign expires and she’ll be sacrificed. Shortly after they connect with the Halliday family, someone kills Beaverbrook and the family’s black houseboy, Sam, runs off in the best “superstitious darkie” manner and out of the story (he seems to be in it purely for rather racist comic relief).

Doc and his team join forces with Mary English, world-class private investigator and stunning beauty. Traveling to South America under cover, Doc has to pretend to be married to Mary; while this leads to the kind of awkward comedy I enjoyed in The Freckled Shark, I just couldn’t get into it here (in fairness, I was sour from the two previous books so it may not be Bogart’s fault). Like The Men Vanished, it turns out the quest is a scam, though a different one, recycling a staple plot from White Jungle Goddess movie serials: the bad guys plan to kill Halliday, then pass off a different woman as the heir to the Halliday fortune. It makes for a stronger book than Bogart’s previous two, but not strong enough for me.

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Doc Savage vs. nuclear threats, post-war housing and Keyser Soze!

This month’s set of adventures feel very strongly post-WW II, not so much in style as in the issues: escaped Nazis lingering on after the war, the fear of nukes (only the U.S. had any atomic bombs, but would it stay that way?) and the post-war housing boom.

THE EXPLODING LAKE opens with Juan Russell, an Argentinian metallurgist, out in the wilds hunting for ores… when a lake literally explodes in a ball of fire. Staring at where the water used to be, Russell worries the only explanation is that someone’s testing a nuclear bomb. He tries his best to contact Doc Savage, but the sinister, icy Paul Cort eliminates Russell first. Cort subsequently winds up on a flight to the U.S. along with eccentric fat man Orlin Dartlic and flamboyant Susan Lane, who’s trying to smuggle an ocelot cub onto the plane (she claims she shot its mother). Despite Cort shadowing him, Dartlic makes it to Doc and shares the news that someone might be developing atom bombs. In Argentina. Which was a notorious haven for ex-Nazis at the time (and for years afterwards).

For technical reasons, Doc doesn’t think this is a nuclear case, but still… So off he goes with Monk, Ham and Renny to investigate. Cort, Dantlic and Lane all get involved and it soon looks like Cort might not be the only bad guy in the batch. As it turns out, though, Dantlic is a Dutch Nazi-hunter and Lane is a U.S. agent (unlike the previous a-bomb story, Terror and the Lonely Widow, there’s no suggestion Susan shouldn’t be in this line of work).

It turns out the bad guy is indeed a fugitive Nazi, scientist Hans Boehl, but nukes aren’t an issue. The exploding lake was just a fake staged with gasoline to grab Doc’s attention (why they killed Russell to stop him contacting Doc goes unexplained).  Boehl has a transmutation machine he stole from Germany before the war ended, and he wants Doc to get it in working order so Boehl can make enough gold for his future plans. Doc insists transmutation is impossible, but cooperates long enough to take him down. In a nice touch, Doc speculates that Boehl may have been scammed by a con man into believing the machine works.

This feels very pre-war in a lot of ways, such as Doc using his anesthetic grenades again. Maybe that’s because he co-wrote this one with Harold Davis.

DEATH IN LITTLE HOUSES is another co-written job, with William Bogart this time. Like Fire and Ice, Davis goes way heavy on travel brochure descriptions, this time on Lake Michigan. The story starts looking for a friend, electrical engineer Daniel Jameson, who’s mysteriously vanished, then turns up murdered. We also have a bearded hulk of a man visiting a display of tiny model homes and stealing one of them. Before long it appears there are multiple bearded hulks lurking around Chicago.The scheme behind it has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality: the bad guys are in the prefabricated housing business and beating the competition by stealing housing plans, electrical patents and such. The beards hide that several of the crooks are ex-cons busted out of prison, and confuse things by making them look like members of a local monastic order. It’s an ingenious idea, but the story never catches fire. The best bit is Marjorie “Speed” Calloway, the tough-talking head of a trucking outfit who gets involved in the case (thirty years later, the same kind of character would be spouting CB-radio slang).

THE DEVIL IS JONES is all Dent, and interesting, but not entirely satisfying. Hazard, a political boss in the Midwest (loosely based on the recently deceased Tom Pendergast of Missouri) to deal with the mysterious Jones, a shadowy, Keyzer Soze-like criminal figure (“Nobody knows what the Devil looks like and nobody has seen the Devil.”) whose activities include blackmailing a variety of people. The initial leads take Doc to a kind of floating cocktail party stuffed with bored sophisticates, most notably Smokey, a long-legged brunette who throws Doc off-balance by flirting with him. When murder disrupts the party, it’s obvious Doc’s being framed yet again; fortunately Madison, one of the state troopers on the case is on the level and helps out. Doc brings him into the investigation, which proves to be a mistake, as Madison’s actually a rat working for Jones. Who it turns out is Hazard; the governor of the state wanted Doc called in to deal with Jones, so Hazard took point, hoping he could get Doc out of the way.

Dent was writing straight mysteries at the time and this fits into the genre: you could substitute any reasonably competent PI and get the same story. It’s well-written and the cynical eye Dent casts on the characters is quite entertaining. However, the whole set-up using the party to frame Doc feels pointless. Like a number of mystery-novel plots, it’s way too elaborate to work.

#SFWApro. Covers by Charles J. Ravel (and I must say the Exploding Lake image is a real grabber), all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage, Man of Flesh Tones? The 1975 movie

Discovering that DOC SAVAGE: The Man of Bronze (1975) was on Amazon streaming, I figured I might as well rewatch it. I remembered loving the fact Doc was on screen but feeling the execution was a little lacking. In hindsight, I was charitable. Starting with the fact that while star Ron Ely’s body does indeed look like a physical phenomenon he’s not even remotely bronze.

Not even a little. He’s a regular looking guy with normal pink flesh tones and blond hair instead of Doc’s bronze hair and permanent bronze tan. No eyes like whirling pools of flake gold, just a little f/x sparkle when he smiles at someone.

The film starts out as a fairly faithful adaptation of the first Doc novel, The Man of Bronze. Doc (Ron Ely) is at his Fortress of Solitude when he psychically senses something bad has happened (I only said “fairly” faithful). He rushes back to New York to learn from his five buddies that his father died of a mysterious disease in a tiny Central American country called Hidalgo. Clark Savage Sr. mailed Doc some papers before his death; as Doc puts them in the safe, a Mayan with red-tipped fingers shoots at him from a neighboring skyscraper; Doc and his crew trap the man there, only to have him kill himself by leaping to his death. Returning to Doc’s office, they discover the documents are ash.

Doc and his crew set out for Hidalgo. A killer shoots down their plane, unaware it’s a remote-controlled fake, and reports back to Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), the big bad, that Doc and his crew have joined the choir invisible. When they show up in Hidalgo anyway, Seas (so named because of his globe-trotting quest for riches) has the pilot killed, using snakes made out of poison venom a la The Mystic Mullah.

Doc discovers his father left him a few acres in the center of the country but the deed has vanished. Seas invites Doc & Co. to dinner on his yacht, where he attempts to have them dispatched, disappointingly just by a bunch of gunmen. Doesn’t work. A young Hidalgo woman, Mona (Pamela Hensley, a lot less glam than she’d be a few years later in Buck Rogers) leads Doc to the Valley of the Vanished which holds a lost Mayan tribe and a pool of molten gold, which the tribe deeded to Savage Sr. in gratitude for his medical help. In the best traditions of 1940s movies involving native tribes, some of the Mayans are convinced Seas is their friend, so Doc is their enemy. Of course everything is cleared up, Doc gets the gold to finance his war on evil, kissed Mona and promises to return. End.

The synopsis makes this sound serviceable; the execution wasn’t. It’s about the level of the TV superhero movies of the era I covered in Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan and has the feel of being slightly self-conscious about its source material. Rather than play it with a completely straight face, it throws in just enough camp to show the creators know how silly this stuff is.

There’s the John Phillips Sousa march used as Doc Savage’s theme (“Have no fear/Doc Savage is here.”) and the climactic battle between Doc and Seas which is played pointlessly for comedy and way too drawn out. Given it’s fantastic elements (lost tribes, ghost snakes, molten gold volcanoes) it’s surprisingly bland. Much of that can be blamed on Ely, who was also bland as TV’s Tarzan for several years. His five aides are fairly decent, though not as physically freakish as the description, which would probably take some sort of CGI (Renny’s gallon-pail hands, for instance). The F/X We do get are unconvincing; the snakes move way too deliberately to be random puffs of vapor. There’s way too much As You Know exposition, like the guys discussing how the distorting glass in Doc’s office windows saves him from the shooter, even though they all know this.

A minor point is bringing up Doc’s crime college (Seas gets the surgical reform treatment). It’s certainly canon, but it is, as several comics series have acknowledged, something that doesn’t age well; it doesn’t bother me in the books but it’s creepy here.

The next movie, written by Philip José Farmer, sounds more promising, but with Ely in the lead it might not have been much better.

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Titles and beginnings: Doc Savage in Colors for Murder, Fire and Ice and Three Times a Corpse

For writing Doc Savage (or anything else), Lester Dent’s all-purpose plot outline says to start the story with either an unusual murder method; a normal method but bizarre circumstances; an unusual McGuffin; or a different setting. By 1946, he was definitely not hewing to that approach, but he does know how to hook readers with a striking opening, even if the story doesn’t stay at that level.

Dent and his occasional ghost writers also tried coming up with good titles, many of which, like all three novels I read this month, got changed by his editors. Sometimes these were minor: The Crime Annihilist became The Annihilist. Sometimes they missed the boat: Crew of Skeletons became Brand of the Werewolf, but Dent’s title makes much more sense. Now, as to this month’s reading —

COLORS FOR MURDER was originally titled Jonah Had a Whale which, while a little whimsical, made more sense, as you’ll see. The opening is great: Della Nelson has just seen her brother seized by bad guys who’ve warned her to stay silent. She’s terrified. The crooks recommend a vacation to Cuba, paid for by her brother; just stay out of the way and everything will be fine.

It won’t. Della knows that. And for confirmation, when the stewardess hands her some aspirin, a jerk passenger snatches them for himself — and dies, poisoned. The killer, South, is displeased but rationalizes that fat people suck, so the overweight dead guy had it coming; justifying his murders is a quirk with him, but not one that plays any role in the rest of the book. And the rest of the book, is unfortunately, dull. The scheme involves Arthur Pogany, a whaling enthusiast who it turns out has found a treatment to make whales generate extra ambergris, potentially making him a fortune. The four captive whales have been painted different colors so he can tell which ones he’s treated on a given day (the treatment of whales would not go over well today, I suspect). South’s group want to kill Pogany and take his discovery.

The only really good moment after the opening is the end, when it turns out Pogany’s a fraud. His treatment doesn’t work but he thought South was a rich mark he could swindle easily. Oops.

A curious detail is that Dent avoids any actual description of Doc, as if he wants to leave the usual awed descriptions of Doc’s physique behind with the gadgets and the supervillains.

FIRE AND ICE is the first story in four years by ghost-writer William Bogart, whose own title, Deuces Wild, was slightly more interesting. Nothing else in this story is. Bogart begins with travel-brochure writing about the Alaskan wilderness before getting to the action, Doc rescuing Patience, a beautiful woman with plane problems (Doc’s up there looking at possible tourist flights for one of the airlines he owns). Doc puts her up in a nearby town, but she’s attacked by a sniper in the night. Fortunately Doc’s swapped rooms with her. They eventually head back to New York to figure out what’s really going on.

It turns out Patience’s twin sister, nicknamed “Impatience,” has discovered a ring smuggling Nazi war criminals into the U.S. (a popular postwar plot in fiction, which is ironic given the government actively recruited useful Nazis to its service). Impatience reported this to the FBI, narrowly escaping death. Patience hoped to draw the crooks’ fire by posing as her sister, then figured the crooks would back off once she joined forces with Doc. They didn’t.

It’s a dull, routine thriller, not up to Dent’s post-war stuff and the villains are surprisingly inefficient. Their attacks on Patience aren’t above the level of what a gang of juvenile delinquents could manage. There is one joke, when a pilot tells a friend “I’ll see you in Gotham, Alfred” — Superman jokes in the previous couple of stories, now Batman.

THREE TIMES A CORPSE is the pick of this month’s reading, and easily the best title, even though Dent’s Sea Snare makes more sense. It starts with Doc on vacation in Miami, where a couple of engaging low-lifes, Sam and Petey, have accepted a commission to play a practical joke on Doc. The joke takes the form of a gun set up to detonate and fire a shot into the table where Doc’s eating dinner across the street (in an odd detail, part of the Rube Goldberg mechanism is a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People used as part of the trigger device). The idea is that this will lead Doc on a wild goose chase to Montana, and out of the clutches of the sexy gambler Lucky, who supposedly has her hooks in him.

The gun goes off as its supposed to, but Sam’s snooping about when Doc has his meals tipped off the restaurateur that something’s fishy so Sam and Petey wind up in Doc’s clutches. The local police are fans of Doc (not something we see a lot in this period) and are happy to play games to get the truth out of the guys. The truth leads them to Lucky, a stunning redhead whose name refers to her uncanny gambling luck: if she plays the slots they pay out, ditto any other game she plays. In a nice touch, she only recognizes Doc’s name because she uses his cousin Pat’s line of high-priced beauty products.

This is not, of course, the first time Doc’s vacation has been ruined by someone causing trouble, but he’s actually happy about it, accepting that a nice, relaxing vacation doesn’t suit him as well as a bit of danger. Doc, Ham, Monk investigate who’s trying to get him out of Miami, accompanied by the cops, Lucky and the low-lifes. The title comes when one of the bad guys gets murdered apparently three different ways before he can talk: poisoned cigarette, needle fired into his heart, another fired into his brain.

The McGuffin is dull, a shipload of beryllium that sank offshore and (as so often during this period), now has two gangs of crooks hunting for it. But up to that point, the story is engaging enough I can forgive the bland McGuffin.

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Doc Savage, post-war: Terror and the Lonely Widow, Five Fathoms Dead, Death is a Round Black Spot

We’re now in 1946, and the tone of the books feels as though it’s shifted slightly. Nothing as big as the difference between the 1930s and WW II, but the first couple of books feel very spy-novel to me. And there’s more sexism than usual: Doc tells the female spy in Terror and the Lonely Widow that the government shouldn’t send a woman on a dangerous mission (he’s run into plenty of female spies without saying that), and Monk expresses the same feeling to Pat in Death Is a Round Black Spot. Oh, and bother the second and third yarns this month make what’s presumably a Superman in-joke in referring to reporters for “The Planet

TERROR AND THE LONELY WIDOW starts off with Doc, Monk and Ham trying to terrorize a crook, Worrick with a series of staged attacks. The goal is to convince Worrick there’s another gang of crooks in the game, targeting him — but when someone whacks Worrick for real, that plan goes south. It doesn’t help that Doc is once again arrested as a murderer. An intelligence official frees him, but that just makes him the subject of Doc’s ire: whatever’s going on is so big, Doc prefers to play it his way, without being buried under manpower and red tape. Ham cynically suggests the government only called them in because they’re like an E/R — if the patient wasn’t near death, they wouldn’t be needed.

This is one where the McGuffin is worth all the build-up. The Lonely Widow is the plane that would have dropped an A-bomb on Nagasaki if it hadn’t been shot down. Post-war, a gang of crooks operating in the South Seas discovered it, killed the crew and then tried to figure out what its payload could be. After Hiroshima, they knew. Now they’re out to sell it to the highest bidder, though they’re open to that being the U.S. government.

It’s a solid thriller, even if Doc is once again, just a competent action hero. It’s also the first novel to make a drug reference, as Worrick quips at one point that he’s not drunk, he’s been smoking pot.

FIVE FATHOMS DEAD opens with a gang of hoods led by Whitey, an intimidating figure with eyes the color of bone, and his right hand Colorado Jones taking over a Nazi sub still held by the Navy. Killing the Navy men aboard, they take off for the high seas. It’s effective, and I would never have guessed Whitey was secretly Doc, except Colorado’s massive mitts make it obvious he’s Renny. The murders were, of course, staged for the benefit of the gang.

We then jump to Brenda Linahan, a talented journalist who “had been a remarkably stupid little girl, people thought, which only meant she hadn’t given a tap about doing the things little girls do.” Her weekly assigns Brenda to investigate a series of modern-day pirate attacks; with her editor Pete, Brenda winds up aboard a liner that becomes the target of Whitey’s sub. Also on board: Govern, who turns out to be a representative of another nest of pirates, also using subs. He is very, very keen to meet the new guys and convince them to join forces rather than compete. Govern’s group are ex-military men who decided to put their war-taught skills to commercial use. Their leader is “Cavu,” for the aviation term “ceiling and visibility unlimited,” a nom du crime reflecting he sees further ahead than others do.

Doc gets to meet Cavu, but Govern pegs who they really are. When Cavu’s mob leads them into a trap, Doc has to outwit them without letting on he knows that they know. Again, it’s effective.

DEATH IS A ROUND BLACK SPOT (no connection to The Black Spot) was relatively disappointing. It opens with Pat having already horned her way in on the case: she knows a man invited Doc to meet him in a small Midwestern town, and that the man will identify himself by an image of a black spot (a “You are here” marker in a magazine ad). She finds the guy. The guy dies. Pat runs, gets tripped and knocked cold and spends most of the time in hospital. Brenda came across a lot more adventurous.

The set-up is intriguing, nonetheless. Doc, Monk and Ham (the latter two as reporters for the New York Planet), investigate and discover we have two groups of crooks out to eliminate each other. It’s well-written, though one female character feels more like a concept than a person (she’s almost perfect but there’s always one detail that’s a little off), but it’s too mundane to hook me the way the first two this month did. A shame as the background is quite good: the gang have been holding stocks, bonds and other U.S. investments for wealthy Nazis and now they’re disagreeing about how to divide up the loot.

Hard to believe that I’ll be done with the series this year, but barring disruptions, I will be.

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Doc Savage, recycled: The Screaming Man, Measures For a Coffin, Se-Pah-Poo

We’re now in the post-WW II period. Hopefully the remaining years of Doc’s magazine won’t all be this unsatisfying. All three of the stories this time out are recycled from better ones.

THE SCREAMING MAN opens with Annie Flinders shadowing Doc around some POW camps in Manila as he talks to prisoners who haven’t been repatriated yet (it’s similar to a scene from Jiu-San). Annie is an interesting character, a dancer who got into war work because she wanted excitement but the WAACs stationed her far away from the front lines. She’s finally made it to the Philippines but the war is over; still, it’s obvious Doc’s up to something.

When she tries to cut in, the bad guys kidnap her to find out what Doc is up to (typical for this era, Doc is  ineffective helping her). Now Doc, Monk and Ham, who are hunting a vanished Johnny Littlejohn, have to find Annie too. The trail leads to an ocean liner repurposed to ship a bunch of POWs home. Both Johnny and Annie are on board.

Johnny, we learn, disappeared while investigating the mysterious Jonas Sown. Who may be an urban legend, because what are the chances a single man turned Japan, Germany and Italy toward warmongering  and fascism? But Johnny has confirmed he’s real, hiding on the ship; just as they caught Hitler in Violent Night, they have to stop Sown. The villain’s agents refer to Johnny as “the screaming man” without any explanation (he’s not screaming).

Trouble is, we know it’s important to catch Hitler; a made-up villain’s escape doesn’t have the same punch. We don’t see enough of Sown to make him believable as a John Sunlight-class monster. The man Doc finally unmasks as Sown is smart, but hardly Super-Evil Genius Worse Than Hitler smart. We don’t even know how he worked his magic; Johnny suggests it might have been some kind of mind-control tech but that’s just a hand-wave. Sown ends up as mere smoke and mirrors, though he returns in one of Will Murray‘s Doc Savage novels, The Frightened Fish

MEASURES FOR A COFFIN would have worked perfectly well as a straight detective story. It’s not strong enough for Doc, even given that Monk and Ham are the ones handling most of the action; it’s also a second-rate variation of Lo Lar’s scheme in The Feathered Octopus. It opens well as the ticket takers at a prestigious medical conference realize several of the tickets are fake — but who’d want to get in free? I assumed the goal was to kill Doc (the keynote speaker) but no, it’s to arrange an “accident” in which he’s hideously burned and has to be mummified in bandages. With Doc’s aides off overseas, nobody spots the bandaged figure announcing his retirement from adventuring is a ringer; he’s going into business, with an idea to helping people through building thriving businesses offering good jobs and useful products. Given his reputation, investors are not lacking.

When Monk and Ham return from Europe, the schemers blows up their flight to stop them interfering. They deduce this has something to do with Doc’s retirement, which looks fishy to them: would he really do that without talking it over with them and the others? In a relatively short span of time they’ve exposed the villains — competent, but not that formidable — and rescued Doc. In the aftermath, Doc reflects that his reputation is a valuable asset — a fascist coup in South America failed merely because he threatened to intervene — and that the scheme, had it gone through, would have destroyed it. That’s the best bit in the book. Second best is the book’s female lead, Miss Clayton. She’s identified as “an Intellect” whose work for a high-tech company entitles her to “the most impressive office in the place” and two secretaries. This doesn’t affect the story, but for that very reason I’m glad Lester Dent added the detail rather than make her purely decorative.

SE-PAH-POO should have worked better, as it’s recycling the pre-war SF style of the series: the villain has a deadly super-weapon, in this case a sonic-based heat ray that melts metal and burns flesh. However this element is buried in a mundane murder mystery involving the Explorers Club, a group of yes, explorers, who are currently excavating a fabulous ruin, a pre-Columbian cliff city in the Southwest. “Se-pah-poo” is supposedly the native name for a hole in the floor of their holy places that allows the god to enter.

The adventure starts off with Doc getting off a train and meeting Grunts. He’s the fourth Native American sidekick to crop up in this period and like Johnny Toms in Strange Fish, is college educated but talks in pidgin. Grunts also conforms to the superstitious and cowardly stereotype, freaking out when anything weird happens.

Doc calls for Monk and Ham, who wind up traveling west with Wanda Casey, who like Grunts inherited her membership in the club from one of the founders. Having a woman join upset the group enough they’ve changed the rules so that if someone else dies, the surviving members assume his share. This gives one of them a golden opportunity: kill off the rest of the club and he gets the sizable treasury for his own.

I like the idea of using a super-weapon for such a mundane purpose could certainly work, and it probably would have with some of the larger-than-life dash of the 1930s. Here, not so much.

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Doc Savage, P.I.: Terror Takes 7, The Thing That Pursued, Trouble on Parade

For a while post-war Doc Savage was retitled Doc Savage Science Detective. We’re not there yet, but by and large, Doc comes off as a regular pulp gumshoe in this month’s trio.

TERROR TAKES 7 is a fairly straight mystery, enlivened by Lester Dent’s flair for writing a memorable hook. A woman named Paula Argus presents Doc with a flintlock rifle and a pair of buckskin leggings. They were mailed to her uncle, an orchid enthusiast, and threw him into a panic: can Doc figure out why?

Doc, however, is embroiled in research on an aerospace problem and sends Monk. When Monk and Paula go to her uncle’s place, Monk discovers uncle dead in his penthouse orchid greenhouse, even though in best locked-room fashion there’s no way the killer could have slipped out. The police show up and finding Monk there, seize him as the killer. Ivans, an ambitious, hardcase prosecutor, sees a big case that can advance his career so he’s unimpressed when Doc shows up with his honorary police commission. Doc figures out how the murderer did it, frees Monk, then they’re off after the bad guys, with Ivans in pursuit. It turns out six other people have received pieces of a frontiersman’s costume and they’re all much alarmed by it.

The motive behind it is quite mundane: the seven were government contractors in WW II and joined forces to defraud Uncle Sam. A photo shows them together with the eighth man, cosplaying as one of his ancestors; a blackmailer mailed pieces of his costume to the seven, along with demands they pay up or he exposes their crimes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is entertaining.

Pat gets a role in this: she knows Paula and with most of Doc’s team out of town, he turns to her for help. We also see the last appearance of the Hidalgo Trading Company, Doc’s secret hangar for special cars, planes and boats.

THE THING THAT PURSUED starts out with aviator Lew Page trying to contact someone named Newsome. “The small man,” a runt working for the bad guys, suggests Lew drop that idea. When it’s obvious he won’t, the small man’s girlfriend mickeys his drink. Later, Lew spots an insubstantial creature of light following his plane and crashes trying to escape it. My guess at this point was either drug-induced hallucinations or he’d drunk something to attract a super-weapon a la The Goblins.

Lew’s brother Ned arrives at the hospital where Ned’s being treated and discovers he’s had a complete mental collapse (he dies later). Ned’s dream girl, Sethena (“Seth”) calls Doc Savage despite Ned’s apparently jealous protests. Doc is intrigued and comes out without any of his team (like King Joe Cay he plays a lone had); for the rest of the book, he’s investigating alongside Seth instead. Regrettably she isn’t one of Dent’s capable women like Toni Lash, just a standard Girl Friday type. Doc himself comes off as a standard pulp PI here, to the point I wonder if this wasn’t some other project Dent wrote but couldn’t sell.

The one really noteworthy feature is the pursuing horror, a Nazi weapon that doesn’t actually do anything (Ned’s death was due to poison) German scientists developed the ray as an aircraft killer but all it does is create a hologram type effect, scary if you see it but otherwise harmless (this was based on real pilot sightings of what would later be labeled UFOs). The bad guys got hold of it, and plan to sell it to crooks as a real superweapon. Doc, of course, puts a stop to that.

TROUBLE ON PARADE is another with an opening that looks wilder and weirder than the story itself. After a paean to human accomplishment (“radio, vitamin pills, crooners, war, airplanes”) we cut to a passenger plane heading to Nova Scotia. When the pilot spots a man swimming in the sea, twenty miles from land, he parks the seaplane near the dude and offers to transplant him to the mainland. The dude, a big, muscular man with a ginormous red beard, threatens to shoot the airplane if it doesn’t fly off; the pilot complies.

Doc’s in town on business, but the business soon involves the red-bearded swimmer, “Disappointed” Smith, a muscleman who loves to quote poetry. It also involves sharp-tongued sisters Mix and Jane Walden, who warn Doc he should really head back to New York. Or at least head somewhere that isn’t Nova Scotia. Doc of course does nothing of the sort and begins snooping, again without any of his crew. Eventually he learns that nearby Parade Island (hence the title) is running a hotel for wanted men to hide out in. With the help of the Waldens and Smith, Doc saves the day, then takes Mix to dinner (like Jiu San and Satan Black this treats Doc dating as a routine thing).

Doc here could easily be a returning WW II veteran rather than the Man of Bronze. When he uses his glass capsules of anesthetic gas at the climax, it’s so old-school and so out of character for the war years that it threw me. More typical for this period, Doc bungles it: the gas has been badly mixed so it’s less effective. Overall Parade was enjoyable, but the scheme was disappointingly mundane.

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Not your typical Doc Savage: The Terrible Stork, King Joe Cay and The Wee Ones

While I’m used to Lester Dent writing Doc as an average guy in his 1940s adventures, and even making him fallible, THE TERRIBLE STORK just takes it too far.

It starts well: Doc, Monk and Ham slip into an auction room to get some relief from the heat and witness an insane bidding war over a cheap metal figure of a stork. One of the losers then resorts to gun play. Doc winds up in possession of the stork which seems to be completely ordinary, except for the legion of people trying to get hold of it. It turns out there’s a guy who’s been hiding gold and jewels belonging to members of the German government, so their wealth will be safe if Germany loses. Now the guy is dead, but the stork holds the key to the location of the goodies.

It’s a decent set-up but the good guys have been hit with the idiot stick. Doc opens a container of tear gas to confirm its contents, then suddenly realizes it might have been poison gas! Oops. Later he spots a sign someone has hidden a clue, but just ignores it. When assigns Ham to research one of the players and Ham seems to find the assignment baffling. Monk sounds like a dumb mook when he talks.

KING JOE CAY follows The Freckled Shark and The Lost Giant in having Doc undercover as a rogue and troublemaker for much of the book. Unlike them, Doc’s playing a lone hand, with his five friends all absent (a first for the series).

We open with tough guy “Clark” on a train with some crooks, trying to finagle a McGuffin from an attractive woman named Trudy. Doc succeeds in stealing her purse but can’t find the goods, so he, then strikes up a flirtation with Trudy. She, however, is not fooled (though she doesn’t know who he really is) and gets him busted by the cops when they get off in Florida. He chases her while crooks Tom Ittle and Brigham Pope chase them both. Doc at first thinks of Pope as nothing but a cheesy actor up to some dirty work, then notices how he terrifies everyone involved. He realizes it’s not that Pope’s an actor by profession, it’s that he’s acting, playing a man much less dangerous than he really is.

Doc got involved in all this at the request of Charlotte D’Alaza, a grasping millionairess he met years ago (Chronology of Bronze speculates she could have been involved with Clark Savage Sr.). However she refuses to tell him the McGuffin everyone’s after. For good reason. It turns out the secret is several documents concerning the disposal of Jewish property taken by the Nazis; Fleish, the man who took control of the assets, sold it off to Charlotte for pennies on the dollar. If her involvement in that sort of scheme is exposed, Congress will destroy her plan to build an airline monopoly.

This is another Ordinary Doc Savage story, but more entertaining, and Charlotte’s a great supporting character.

THE WEE ONES does a good job concealing its true nature: it’s a straight mystery plot but looks like a pulp SF story. The hook is a mysterious dwarf, two feet high, running across the small town of Hammond City, terrifying the populace with savage attacks. For Doc Savage, that’s Tuesday: he’s faced similar creatures before in The Goblins and The Gold Ogre, though in this case he’s skeptical, quipping that “nothing is impossible, but many things are ridiculous.” Hammond’s residents are a lot more worried as accounts of the dwarf — identical to Lys, the missing lab assistant of John Fain, who runs an electrical company — attacking people with a knife spread through town. Men working at Fain’s company decide to stay home to protect their wives, which could interfere with the company’s war work; is this an Axis plot? Curiously the previous two books read as if the war is over (they were written at the end of 1944, but came out in the summer of 1945) but this one (from January of ’45) shows it’s ongoing.

Nope. It turns out Mrs. Fain married her hubby without divorcing her first husband (they don’t specify, but it appears to be part of a scam to get Fain’s money and assets). The truth is about to come out so they’ve been doping Fain, who already had a nervous breakdown a while back, to make him unstable. He thinks the dwarf was born from some lab experiment of his, so news that fear is shutting down the town will push him over the edge, freeing his wife to take over his affairs. To fake the dwarf attacks, they simply spread stories around town to stir things up.

If not A-list Doc Savage, it’s still a solid read. Contrary to the cover, the dog plays almost no role in the story. Trivia point: this reveals that despite his competence at everything else, Doc is a terrible cook.

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Doc Savage hunts some McGuffins: The Ten-Ton Snakes, Cargo Unknown and Rock Sinister

Like a lot of adventure heroes, some of Doc’s stories center around a McGuffin, that thing everyone is determined to find or possess. Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term, said the McGuffin was irrelevant, but as I’ve written about before, sometimes having a cool McGuffin helps. Which leads us to these early 1945 (pre -VE Day) stories —

THE TEN-TON SNAKES opens with a well-written description of American veteran Bob French, focusing on his medals (“The years and terrors of a man’s life, worn over his heart.”) before he goes and asks Renny for help. Bob’s brother Tucker has gotten him tangled up in something involving a shipment of snak eskins, and people are trying to kill Bob as a result. When Renny calls in Doc, Bob fakes an assault on himself and leaves. It turns out his brother is a draft dodger, so Bob’s worried how Doc will take that (it shows the change of generations that to me draft dodger isn’t at all a bad thing). Doc, Renny and Monk (unusually without Ham) begin investigating, find the box of snake skins and discover they’re impossibly heavy, just like the title says. Complicating things are two female adventurers: Grace, stunningly beautiful, and Bill, who has a voice like a bull fiddle and can punch Monk hard enough to hurt. I figured she’d turn out to be a man in drag, but no (of course, Dent wrote muscular women into Fortress of Solitude so it’s not without precedent). Everyone goes off to South America where it turns out Tucker has discovered a white dwarf star meteorite (not that they call it that exactly). Unusually the bad guys don’t have a way to exploit it as a doomsday weapon: they plan to carve off bits and make a fortune selling it to physics lab, then take smaller bits and sell them as novelty items to the public (the pebble that weighs like a boulder!). It’s a solid story, though Doc’s unease in the middle doesn’t really pay off.

Next, Monk, Han and Renny are assigned to take a submarine trip to protect a CARGO UNKNOWN, sealed inside one room of the sub. Unfortunately a slick crook named Clark wants what’s in the room, infiltrates his men into the sub (he’s been working for several years to figure out how to do this if he ever needed to) and sinks it. Clark and his men get off, Renny barely escapes and Monk, Ham and the crew remain down there. With 12 hours of air left. And after a fisherman rescues an unconscious Renny and takes him to shore, Renny has no idea where to locate the sub. He calls in Doc, but do they have enough time?

Given the suspense about the sub’s sealed room, I was disappointed to learn the contents were just a big pile of Nazi gold, being shipped to the U.S. before anyone in Germany could make off with it. But that’s a minor flaw in a nail-biting story, a race against a ticking clock where it seems impossible even Doc can pull it off.

There’s quite a bit of technical detail about flying and diving (both of which Lester Dent had learned to do) but it doesn’t hurt the story. It’s a very good one, and Clark’s scheme comes off more plausible than Terror in the Navy.

ROCK SINISTER has two beautiful redheads, Abril and Kathy, traveling to see Doc from Bianca Grande (which Dent emphasizes is only a pseudonym for a real country — Rick Lai suggests Uruguay). They’re seeking Doc’s help because of a killing spree centered around a stone Mayan codex; the artifact has been destroyed, but the bad guys want a museum’s photos of it. Doc, however, knows the artifact and that it’s not even remotely remarkable. So what gives?

It turns out that what gives is the current president’s yearning to become a Hitler/Mussolini type fascist. He’s created a baffling mystery he’s confident will draw Doc to Bianca Grande, then he’ll set up Doc as the ringleader behind the killings, an evil tool of American imperialism (pointing out he’s already worked to shape Japan’s post-war government in Jiu-San). Fighting back against America’s supposed attack on Bianca Grande’s sovereignty will give him cover to seize dictatorial powers. In this case, the McGuffin really is meaningless, but that works for me.

As is common for this period, Dent offers opinions on Doc and on his own earlier writing. In Ten-Ton Snakes Doc suggests that his itch for excitement comes out of being denied a normal boyhood; if his years of training hadn’t warped him, he’d probably be a married, bridge-playing suburbanite. This doesn’t fit his view in Invisible Box Murders that his yen for excitement is a separate thing and kept his training from driving him nuts but it’s quite possible Doc’s entertained different views of this over the years. Renny similarly reflects here that he and the other guys have been warped by their own enthusiasm for thrills — here they are, middle-aged with no family, no kids, just each other. Is that just more of Dent’s more realistic approach or does it also reflect the emphasis on getting back to normalcy that became a thing in the post-war years?

Then in Cargo Unknown, Dent has some metacommentary about the tech Doc used to use, mocking it as ridiculous “pseudo-scientific ubelievable” nonsense.

Minor continuity glitches include Doc’s bulletproof office windows now being normal glass and Monk going from dead broke in Ten-Ton Snakes to back in his penthouse apartment in Rock Sinister, which gives Habeas his last appearance (in the fancy, tile-lined hog wallow Monk set up for him.).

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The Savage Time: Rick Lai’s Doc Savage Chronology

So rather than my usual batch of Doc Savage novels, this month I went with THE REVISED COMPLETE CHRONOLOGY OF BRONZE by Rick Lai. In the tradition of countless Sherlockian fans, Lai sets out to identify the when of every Doc Savage story, and speculate about “lost” adventures that Doc and his crew occasionally allude to.

I was curious about this, partly because I think the order of publication or the order in which Dent wrote them (not the same, as Will Murray has pointed out) works fine for me. But Lai points out that if we go with the assumption Doc’s a real person, this doesn’t work. Some stories, for example, take well over a month due to travel times or time spent in durance vile. A few occur immediately after each other, such as The Speaking Stone following Pirate Isle.

Plus Lai wants to include more than Dent and his ghost-writers. The chronology also includes the Doc Savage radio plays Lester Dent wrote and Will Murray’s more recent additions to the saga, plus, god help us Escape From Loki. Lai is a big fan of Farmer’s Wold Newton mythos so it’s not surprising he keeps Farmer’s novel in the chronology. To his credit, though, he doesn’t agree with Farmer’s own timeline, which, for example, rejects World’s Fair Goblin as a fiction written by Dent to tie in with the 1939 World’s Fair. Lai keeps all the canon as canon.

What’s particularly interesting, for the most part, is Lai’s efforts to identify the various European dictators, South American wars and playboy princes who provided the basis for the characters in the Doc Savage novels. At times, though, it gets a little forced, like when he has to explain away Doc capturing Hitler in Violent Night.

There are some interesting extras too, such as a list of Doc’s published books, and a comparison between Doc and the Shadow (who at one point put at least some criminals into an isolated island prison rather than just gunning them down).

I also find I’ll have to revise some of my perceptions of the series. There’s more continuity and references to past adventure than I’ve credited in previous posts. And contrary to my post on Doc’s crime college, several stories besides The Annihilist assert that Doc can turn people from bad to good separately from erasing their memories (he does it with corrupt businessmen in both The Sea Angel and Dagger in the Sky).

Like most chronologies of this sort, it’s a dry read, and definitely for anyone who isn’t seriously interested in the topic. But if you are …

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