Category Archives: Doc Savage

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 Dent’s 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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Brainwashing for charity: Doc Savage’s Crime College

People who know very little about Doc Savage still know about the “crime college.” It even turns up in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, wherein someone remembers Doc planning to lock all the criminals on Earth away on a desert island where he would use brain surgery to turn them into decent citizens (this is an inaccurate recollection). The crime college was where Doc performed those operations, though only crooks who crossed his path — he never went out and tried to actively wipe out crime. A lot of modern takes ignore the whole thing rather than deal with the implications (Marvel’s Bronze Age color and B&W series) while others mention it but just to show that it’s not such a cool idea. (meanwhile the Shadow goes right on gunning crooks down and nobody questions that — but I digress)

The concept of the college didn’t start out full-blown. In Doc’s second adventure Land of Terror, we learn Doc doesn’t turn crooks he captures over to the cops. Insted, he sends them to a private mental hospital where they receive years of intensive psychotherapy to turn them into honest citizens. Two novels later, The Polar Treasure refers to the hospital performing brain operations that wipe out their memories. The inconsistency isn’t based on Doc switching methods, as The Purple Dragon shows he’s been erasing memories since 1929.

Philip José Farmer suggests in his Doc Savage bio that Doc simply lied to Lester Dent, then decided readers would be okay with it (the hook for Farmer’s bio being that Dent’s stories were fictionalized versions of true events). As I don’t subscribe to that theory, even though it’s fun, I don’t have an explanation. It’s an inconsistency, but not a huge one; I can live with it. I am curious why Dent decided on the switch; perhaps cutting-edge brain surgery fit his concept for Doc better than a relatively realistic method did.

The Annihilist claims it’s not brain surgery but glandular surgery. There’s a particular gland that influences our sense of right or wrong; in criminals it’s out of whack, but Doc uses a combination of drugs and surgery to reset it to “moral” as well as wiping their memories. The bad guys are interested in getting the secret, then using it to turn bankers and others into sociopaths who’ll happily collaborate in crime.

This is much less convincing pseudoscience than brain surgery. It’s also the only time the novels mention this mysterious gland rather than reformation through surgery alone. I’m guessing Dent, like many series authors, got an idea that didn’t work with regular continuity, so he bent it for one story (and it is a heck of a story). I considered whether maybe it’s just a mistake and the crooks don’t really understand the surgical work, but Doc confirms that the crime gland exists and so does the treatment to turn people evil.

It’s possible enough people learn about the crime college in this book that the story spreads. That would explain how the crooks in Purple Dragon and The Flying Goblin know about it, though not their knowledge of who’s locked up there and where some of them have begun their new lives. The criminals in The Talking Devil know enough about the college to stir up rumors about Doc performing some kind of monstrous experiments on unwilling patients. What Doc is doing there is blatantly illegal (kidnapping, among other things) and unethical (medical ethics do not allow brain surgery without informed consent)but apparently the stories about the college never became substantial enough anyone in authority wanted to push the issue.

Most of the graduates, from what we see of them, go on to get good working-class jobs. After WW II breaks out, though, Doc starts placing some of them around the world as a spy network (established in Three Wild Men). As the war progresses and adventures become increasingly mundane, the college just fades away, like many of Doc’s more fantastic aspects.

But the memory of it obviously lingered on with fans.

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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?

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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.

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