Category Archives: Doc Savage

Bedlam on the bayou: Doc Savage in Quest of the Spider

The Fred Pfeiffer cover for the Bantam reprint of QUEST OF THE SPIDER is a lie. Doc does not deal with a giant spider. It’s a strictly mundane story with some severe problems, but I like it perhaps more than it deserves. Certainly it shows the style and formula for the series firming up.

The opening, for example, is one Dent would use multiple times: frightened people try to reach Doc for help but bad guys try to stop them. The frightened people are lumber tycoon Ed Danielsen and his gorgeous daughter Edna. An agent for the Grey Spider sabotages the commercial plane they’re taking to NYC, having already destroyed their parachutes. The Danielsens survive, however, and reach Ed’s old WW I buddy Ham, who introduces them to Dco.

Danielsen explains the Grey Spider is making a fortune by taking over lumber companies, then selling off the assets; he executes the takeovers by intimidation, violence or any other means that work. Now Danielsen’s company is in the spider’s gunsights; can Doc help.

In contrast to Thunder Island and the Valley of the Vanished, we get New Orleans and Louisiana swampland. Even the villain’s base is just a mundane big house hidden by trees. That said, it’s action-packed and effective … but also racist. The Grey Spider’s forces are ignorant, half-savage voodoo worshippers from the depths of the swamp, probably mixed race (Dent doesn’t specify but the description and the voodoo make me think so). Though one of them gets to die a hero, sacrificing himself to save Doc from a deathtrap when he learns the Man of Bronze has cured the swamp man’s mentally handicapped son (just a shard of bone pressing in the wrong place).

Dent does better on gender, with Edna the first of the smart, competent beauties he’d write into the book. She’s stunning enough that Hollywood offered her a career in the movies; she replied that as vice-president of her dad’s company she already makes more than the studio was offering.

While the foe is mundane, Doc’s weapons are getting more fantastic. He uses a drug that renders its victims complacent so they’ll blandly follow orders; more notably Quest of the Spider introduces Doc’s glass grenades, which knock their targets out with quick-acting anesthetic gas. He’d go on using them for years. We also learn Doc and his men have become fluent in Mayan, which they use here to communicate without anyone following the conversation. That would also become a series staple. The villain’s financial shenanigans would also be a recurring element in Doc’s adventures; the Grey Spider’s scheme here is a dry run for the more interesting money games in Death in Silver.

Dent brings up the crime college again but unlike Land of Terror, it now uses brain surgery rather than psychotherapy to cure crooks of crime. While Doc has fewer qualms killing in combat than he did later, there’s much less emphasis on his ruthlessness. His charity gets played up a lot. As a condition for helping Danielsen he wants a cool million which outrages Big Ed. Then Doc tells him it’s to set up a Louisiana charity that will feed, clothe and educate the poor.

On the downside, Doc for the first time fakes his death, something his five sidekicks fall for every time. It’s particularly uninspired here, involving a fake crocodile Doc just happens to have handy. We also get Dent starting to buff up Doc’s CV.  Here we learn his handwriting is so neat and perfect, nobody could possibly duplicate it. More impressively, Edna recognizes the name of Clark Savage Jr. from a new, fast-growing tree he’s developed to replenish forests around the world.

Dent is still tinkering with the team’s personalities. Long Tom here has an eye for pretty girls; he becomes much less interested in them in later books.

After this, I don’t think I’ll need to do any more rereads unless I’m looking for specific details.

#SFWApro. Death in Silver cover by James Bama, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Bronze Vengeance: Doc Savage in The Land of Terror

THE LAND OF TERROR is the second Doc Savage novel and in several ways it’s an outlier, a clear sign Lester Dent and his editors were still figuring the series out.

At the same time the book follows the formula of The Man of Bronze. Both start with the murder of someone close to Doc (though his father’s death in the first book happened before the first chapter); both split time between New York and exotic location; both have a mystery mastermind with a secret identity. There’s a unique weapon the bad guys to use to kill, something Dent recommends in his writing rules.

Instead of the Red Death of the first book, though, the weapon here is the much more formidable Smoke of Eternity. In the opening chapter, crooks working for the sinister Kar murder Doc’s former teacher Jerome Coffern, then fire a pellet containing the Smoke of Eternity at his body. Once the casing shatters the substance disintegrates Coffern’s body and the street he’s lying on, leaving behind a cloud of grey smoke laced with electric sparks.

With no body Coffern’s disappearance would never be explained, except that a)his forearm and expensive watch fall just outside the radius of the Smoke’s effect; b)Doc Savage showed up to meet him. Doc tracks the gang, killing several of them, learns about Kar and his plans to use the Smoke of Eternity for crime.

The first four chapters are all Doc, with none of his five aides. He’s more ruthless than in any other book, killing one crook after the other when they try to shoot him (he’s not wearing a bulletproof shirt yet). While this could be grief over Coffern’s death, the narration makes it clear this is Doc’s code: cross him and you either reform or die. Doc doesn’t “mollycoddle” crooks.

Doc’s more than just a Shadow/Punisher-type vigilante though. When he encounters a poor, half-blind old woman while hunting the killers, he takes the time to give her some money and send her to an eye surgeon who’ll fix her vision for free, at Doc’s request. When a bank rewards him for stopping a robbery by Kar’s gang, he pays several restaurants to provide food to the homeless and poor. And for all the violence, his preferred solution to crime is sending them to a clinic for extensive psychotherapy to reform them (all crooks are mentally ill, you see), the initial concept for the crime college.

While Dent devotes the opening chapters to demonstrating Doc’s awesomeness there’s more show, less tell than in Man of Bronze. Coffern kicks things up by asking his colleagues if they’ve heard of Clark Savage; one remembers his recent groundbreaking work in organic chemical analysis, another remembers a breakthrough in brain surgery. Can one person be a giant in two such unrelated fields? Coffern says yes. Despite Doc’s father being a legend himself, nobody here thinks of Clark Savage Sr.

After the death, Doc goes into action. He can hurdle over a security fence effortless, track the crooks by the slightest traces left behind, outrun a car when it’s in first or second gear and kill one hood by throwing a pike through his body. Plus a few more spectacular stunts.

Kar’s secret identity is more prominent in the story than the official behind the mask of the Son of the Feathered Serpent in the previous book. That works better but I’m puzzled by his choice of pseudonym. Kar is a bland nom du crime compared to the Squeaking Goblin or the Man in the Moon but it’s distinctive enough I’d like to know why the villain picked it. We never do.

Just as the Smoke of Eternity is the most science-fictional weapon of the first year of Doc Savage Magazine, Thunder Isle is more SF than the Valley of the Vanished or the lost cities lying ahead. It’s a thousand-foot high volcanic crater in the Pacific and inside it lies the mineral from which Kar developed the Smoke of Eternity. When Doc’s plane descends through the thick mist over the crater they’re attacked by a pterodactyl; cut off from the outside, dinosaurs have survived on Thunder Isle into the present. This makes it a very bad place for the plane to crash as the good guys face both Kar’s goons and prehistoric wildlife.

Among other notes of interest:

•Doc still doesn’t have a bulletproof shirt or a pocketful of gadgets. He has no issues with using guns. His team have special guns but they’re simply compact machine guns rather than the superfirer pistols that would become standard later.

•It’s the only novel in the series I can remember with no pretty woman in it. Other thank walk-ons, the cast is all male. There’s a reference to Monk’s beautiful secretary but she doesn’t appear on the page.

•Monk rolls his own cigarettes. Dent went back and forth through the series on whether any of Doc’s men smoke — but of course Monk could have quit, then gone back to it.

•Johnny shows extensive knowledge of dinosaurs, as he would in several later books. Dent seems to assume that paleontology and geology are more or less the same thing. Dent has dropped the idea in Man of Bronze that Johnny gets crazy but accurate hunches. While the first book told us Johnny’s tall and skinny, this one emphasizes that he’s so “tall and gaunt” his shoulders “were like a coat hanger under his coat.” We also learn that his left eye is almost useless so he has a magnifying lens in the left side of his spectacles for convenience.

#SFWAPro. Covers by Douglas Rosa (top) and Walter Baumhofer.

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Man of Bronze: Taking another look at Doc Savage’s debut

One of my goals for this year — realistically 2024 — is to take my Doc Savage blog posts and convert them into a self-published book. As my first posts weren’t terribly detailed, I’m going back and rereading Man of Bronze, Land of Terror and Quest of the Spider. And needless to say, blog about them. This may be counter-productive as it’s less reason to buy the book; then again, I’ll be able to go into more detail there.

The Man of Bronze is particularly interesting to read with the remaining 181 (counting In Hell, Madonna) books fresh in my mind. It’s easy to see how it introduces many of the series standard elements, but also places where Lester Dent hasn’t gotten everything established yet. In one place it’s funny: when a Mayan assassin fires through the window of Doc’s 86th floor HQ, one of his team suggests installing bulletproof glass. The others laugh at the idea their enemies will be shooting through 86th floor windows on a regular basis (they were kind of wrong about that).

The book opens with Doc returning from the Fortress of Solitude to the news that his father has just died from a mysterious, swift-acting disease. As Doc learns about a fabulous legacy Clark Savage Senior left him, the assassin fires from a construction site across the seat. After some spectacular action chasing the bad guys, Doc and his five friends head down into Hidalgo, where the legacy lies.

It turns out that Hidalgo’s jungles hide a lost city of pureblood Mayans. Savage Senior came there years ago and formed a friendship with their king, Chac. If Chac approves of Doc, he’ll underwrite his crimefighting and dogooding with a fortune in Mayan gold. The villainous Son of the Feathered Serpent, however, plans to use a bioweapon, the Red Death, to extract the gold and finance the overthrow of Hidalgo’s democratic government.

Familiar series elements include the lost civilization; an adventure that starts in New York and moves to a colorful foreign setting; lots of airplane flying ; a masked villain; a beautiful woman falling for Doc; a super-weapon; and a beautiful woman (Chac’s daughter Monja) falling for Doc.

The science fictional component is very low compared to many later novels: the Red Death is simply a disease the Son of the Feathered Serpent found in another part of Central America and grew in the lab. It’s the only SF element in the book. It’s also unusual, IIRC, in opening from the villain’s point of view.

Ham gets one of his rare opportunities to do something legal, when he confronts a Hidalgo official who denies Doc’s legal claims. Ham demolishes his argument in short order. That rarely happens (according to Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze Dent didn’t like lawyers but his editor insisted on Ham). Johnny’s character trait — other than being skeletally thin and a brilliant archeologist/geologist — is that he gets hunches that are almost invariably right (but when they’re wrong, they’re way wrong). I don’t believe that lasted even to the next book; later we’d get Johnny offering to bet on sure things before Dent struck gold by making him the guy who speaks in big, polysyllabic words.

Doc himself is a barebones version: no bulletproof vest and none of the gadgets he’d later carry around with him. He’s much quicker to kill his enemies than he’d become by the end of the year. The story emphasizes his adrenalin-junkie side: when he thinks of what he can do with the gold, having exciting adventures is up there with helping people and fighting crime.  And we learn more about Doc’s father than I remembered: he himself was a philanthropist, an adventurer and an MD just like his son, traveling all over the world to do good.

Another detail: Doc refers to his land grant in Hidalgo having been drawn up twenty years earlier, when he was a kid. Based on that, we can safely assume he’s either late twenties or early thirties in 1933.

The handling of the Mayans is interesting. They’re very much noble savages but also simple and superstitious. However Doc treats them with unusual respect compared to most stories: if Chac doesn’t think Doc deserves the gold Doc will accept that. In most stories, natives who get between white men and gold are treated like a natural obstacle to be swept aside, rather than people with rights.

Monja is a fan favorite love interest and I’ve thought of her that way in the past. Here, though, she doesn’t seem any more special or have any more impact on Doc than many later women would. Monk assures her she’s come closer to melting Doc’s heart than any other women but I think he’s just saying that to comfort her.

As I said in my first review, the book is a slow start to the series: jam-packed with action but also several slow descriptive passages to introduce Doc’s awesomeness or his five aides. Still, I can see how it launched the second-longest running series in pulp fiction.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama, all rights remain with current holder.

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The Other Doc Savage: Doc Brazen in the Millennium Bug

THE MILLENNIUM BUG: Doc Brazen #1 by Jeff Deischer feels more like Lester Dent than any Doc Savage pastiche I’ve ever read. I’m not entirely sure that works, though I’m sure I’ll read Book Two eventually. Caution: spoilers included below.

Deischer is a die-hard Doc Savage fan who’s written both Man of Bronze fanfic and a chronology (not the one I read a couple of years back); his cover design was a deliberate attempt to capture some of the stylized covers of the post-war novels (I’ve got an example by Walter Swenson below). He says in the afterword his dream was to write an authorized Doc Savage novel; as he wasn’t in a position to do that, writing the adventures of Ulysses Brazen was the next best thing.

As the title suggests, this 2018 novel is set in the late 1990s. Doc Brazen has retired to Coronado (equivalent of Hidalgo) happily married to the counterpart of Princess Monja (here an Aztec rather than Mayan). Then several graduates of the Crime College — er, Brazen Institute — revert to their criminal ways. Doc investigates, accompanied by two Aztecs (Monk and Ham analogs, though not exactly). During the investigation, he acquires an added team: a computer expert, a French cat burglar (one of the reprogrammed graduates) and the daughter of the female adventurer in The South Pole Terror.What’s behind it? It turns out John Sunlight‘s followers — er John Spectrum’s — cloned what was left of him after The Devil Genghis. The clone is now a thirteen year old boy and while he didn’t inherit Spectrum’s memory he’s been trained and conditioned to think just like him (a nice variation on the usual clone-the-memory techniques). Targeting the Brazen Institute is meant to blacken Doc’s name, discrediting him before Spectrum Jr. launches his master plan.

I read this enjoying Deischer’s knowledge of and love for the original series. Millennium Bug itself, though, feels more like a so-so original novel such as The Devil’s Playground than, say, Millennium’s excellent Doc Savage comic. Deischer said setting Doc in the modern world was a way to make the book stand-out, as most pastiches (e.g, Doc Sidhe) go for a 1930s setting. The trouble is, nothing felt terribly 1990s other than people having cell-phones and computers; despite the title, the Y2K bug doesn’t figure into the plot at all. The language is outdated too (calling “Thunderbird” Crale an aviatrix rather than a pilot is very pulp-era). DC Comics did better contemporary Doc stories.

Another problem is that Spectrum’s plan doesn’t make any sense: the only thing targeting the Brazen Institute accomplishes is bringing Doc out of retirement. Though that may be intentional: Spectrum, for all his brainwashing, is still a thirteen-year-old boy so it’s not surprising his plan is more about spite for “his” old foe than a tactical master-stroke.

A minor but annoying point for me is that like Will Murray Deischer insists John Sunlight’s death at the end of Devil Genghis can’t be changed out of respect for Dent; he dislikes Millennium’s decision to show Sunlight escaped death (I found it perfectly plausible myself). And like a number of fans he takes John Sunlight’s declaration in that novel that he wants to build a peaceful utopia at face value; I can’t see it as anything but a lie to get Doc off-guard. Plus of course, what constitutes a utopia for the monstrous Sunlight is probably dystopia for anyone else.

(As a minor point, has anyone ever done a sequel to Repel? Cadwiller Olden was a formidable foe and the ending clearly leaves his death in doubt. If not, someone should get on it … hmm …)

I may be making Millennium Bug sound worse than it is; it’s hard for me not to approach something like this more analytically than enthusiastically. Certainly it’s a better story than Dynamite’s initial comics story arc or Lin Carter’s Prince Zarkon. Or, you know, James Patterson’s take. I’ll see what I think when I finally get around to book 2.

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Doc Savage, Reborn? The Perfect Assassin by James Patterson and Brian Sitts

Given what a mess James Patterson and Brian Sitts made of The Shadow, I read their Doc Savage reboot, THE PERFECT ASSASSIN, without much enthusiasm. It isn’t good, but it doesn’t mangle the Man of Bronze the way the duo (which I assume is mostly Sitts, with Patterson providing marquee value) mangled the Master of Darkness.

Our protagonist is Brandt Savage, grandson of Clark Savage Junior. He’s aware of his ancestor’s legend, though he assumes it’s exaggerated, and the apple has fallen far from the tree: Brandt is a dull, scholarly introvert who’s happiest spending his evenings reading at home (I did bristle a little at the implication this is a bad lifestyle choice). Then he’s kidnapped by a woman named Meed. She subjects him to an insanely intensive training course that also remakes his body (taller, buffer) in ways I doubt made sense but I wasn’t reading closely enough to find out.

These scenes alternate with scenes of Meed’s past, undergoing training in what looks like a rip off of the Red Room that gave birth to Black Widow at Marvel. Eventually she balked at the ugly hits she was sent to do and escaped, but the Russian establishment is still training kidnapped girls. She wants to end it. Brandt is going to help, like it or not (contrary to the cover copy he is not being made into a perfect assassin).

Why pick Brandt? Meed eventually reveals she’s John Sunlight‘s daughter Kyra. The Red Room knockoff operates on a twisted version of the training program that created Doc Savage, based on information Sunlight got from the twin brother we didn’t know Doc had. The twin was Clark Savage Sr.’s test case, given none of the training Doc did so their father could quantify it’s effectiveness. I can understand the brother having issues.

Together, Brandt and Kyra take down the organization, become lovers and Brandt becomes a true heir to his grandfather — don’t call him doctor or professor, just call him “Doc,” okay?

As the book doesn’t use Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, it doesn’t piss me off the way The Shadow did. The Perfect Assassin doesn’t rewrite Doc’s history the way they authors did the Shadow, either. One of the best moments is when Brandt winds up in Doc’s Fortress of Solitude and it finally sinks in that everything he’s ever heard about Clark Savage Junior is true. There’s a genuine sense of awe in that moment.

Despite that, and some good action scenes, I did not care for the book. The long training sequences are dull, the scenes from Kyra’s past are stock (she’s not far off from assassin-turned-Batgirl Cassandra Cain) and after the bad guys go down we spend a pointless amount of time on wrapping the story up. I skimmed more than half of the story and don’t feel I missed anything.

On top of which I have some picky fan criticisms. Back when Marvel had the Doc Savage rights they had a team-up with Spider-Man — actually a story where Doc and Spidey fight the same menace in the 1930s and the 1970s. Rereading it along with Marvel’s first Doc Savage series, it struck me that instead of Peter Parker vaguely remembering Doc as an early superhero, a science nerd like Peter would probably remember him as a groundbreaking scientist (e.g., “I read his Atomic Science Simplified when I was 10, it made the physics so clear!”).

Same problem here: long after Doc’s adventures have faded, his science work would keep his name alive. Brandt’s an anthropologist so he ought to remember Johnny Littlejohn, Doc’s aide, as a top guy in the field. I can’t believe Johnny didn’t have some landmark research that Brandt would have heard of.

And John Sunlight’s daughter really should be more distinctive than Kyra. If she were just a straight graduate of the assassin academy with no significant parents it wouldn’t have changed anything. Being Kyra Sunlight rationalizes her going to Brandt for help, but that’s it.

#SFWApro. Covers by James Bama, Bama again, and Gil Kane. All rights remain with current holders.

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The Story Behind the Story: The Savage Year

My short story “The Savage Year,” which came out a few years ago at Lorelei Signal (no longer online there though), goes live today at Metastellar. As I haven’t rewritten it in the five years since the first publication, I’ll take the liberty of simply reprinting my How I Came To Write It from back then (including the illustration by Lee Ann Barlow):

The story’s opening: “Walking past a half-naked couple making out next to a picnic basket, Artemis West wished she could turn invisible. I never thought my first assignment would involve working magic in front of a park full of hippies.

It’s 1968, Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated, and the country is mourning. And as Artemis soon discovers, her job as a Secret Service sorcerer is about to get much more complicated, thanks to a British black magician and a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed drifter, Diana Savage. Whose father is some kind of brilliant scientist and philanthropist, and everyone expects her to follow in his wake. So she’s run away for a summer of love before she heads to college. Only there are innocent people in danger, and in her heart she’s her father’s child …

Why yes, this is the story about Doc Savage’s daughter that I wrote about starting several years ago. As noted at the link, I’d wanted to write about her (or more precisely my version of her) since the early 1980s, but never came up with a story. Then I hit on teaming her up with Art West, great grandson of James West, the hero of Wild Wild West now following family tradition by working for the Secret Service, though as a mage.

When I reread the post at the link, it floored me: my protagonist has been Artemis West and female so long I didn’t remember ever considering a male lead (Jim West’s partner was Artemus Gordon. Descendants are stuck with the name). It’s not surprising though, as I write a lot of male/female teams. As to why I switched to make Artemis a woman … I have no idea.

The story idea beyond that shaped up early. Mages in the Secret Service actually have a dull gig. All they do is go around and touch up the bindings Native American shamans used to lock various Lovecraftian outsiders away. As long as the mages do their job, the outsiders can’t get out.Except that when Artemis goes to check the local bindings (originally San Francisco, but it eventually shifted to the Midwest) she discovers someone is letting outsiders loose. Which is, of course, bad. Even alongside a bronze teenage tornado who fights like ten men (she’s Doc Savage’s daughter. She’s been well-trained) Artemis has her work cut out for her.

Refining the concept proved a lot tougher. I had no idea what the bad guy wanted, what exactly he’d unleashed and how the creature would help him achieve his goals. Nor did I know how to stop him. Eventually I figured it out, with the help of Lester Dent’s plotting formula — appropriate as he created Doc.

I also trimmed back a lot of the in-jokes, such as a reference to Artemis’ aunt Honey. I wanted to write the story so that someone who’d never heard of Jim West or Doc Savage could enjoy it, which meant avoiding any Easter eggs that would be more distracting than amusing.

When I was done, I presented it to the beta readers in my local science-fiction writing group. They suggested I needed to introduce the villain earlier to give him more of a presence, and that I needed to make the story weirder in a few spots. It was good advice. I followed it.

I’ve also blogged about the story over at Atomic Junkshop. Feel free to check it out, but I recommend checking out “The Savage Year” first.

#SFWApro. Illustrations by Barlow and James Bama, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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James Bama died last week

Which will mean nothing to most people. But James Bama was the definitive Doc Savage paperback cover artist, and as far as I’m concerned the definitive cover artist period. So here are a few of my favorite of his covers for the Man of Bronze.If you want my take on the books, you can work through my Doc Savage reviews or use the search box to look for the specific titles. And Brian Cronin has a little more information on Bama’s career.

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Books read from various series

PEACE TALKS: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a disappointing return to the series after six years away. Part of the disappointment is that there’s no warning this and the upcoming Battle Ground are one large story in two volumes, which makes the Big Menace showing up midbook and the abrupt, unresolved ending unsatisfying (it doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger as much as just chopping the book in two at the middle).

The novel starts out great as everything goes wrong for Harry (except his love life, because he and Murph are finally getting it on). Lovecraftian entities are hunting him. The White Council wants to expel Harry, leaving him vulnerable to anyone with scores to settle. Cops are investigating some of Harry’s past actions. The Fae Mab has ordered Harry, as her Winter Knight, to provide three services to a vampire queen, no matter what she asks. And all this while Harry’s working security for a conference of the supernatural world’s powers, none of whom get along well. And then Harry’s vampire brother Thomas suddenly attacks and almost kills a leader of the svartalfar.

As Thomas has no rational reason to do this, I’d expect the plot to be exposing whoever manipulated/pressured him into the attack. Instead we veer into a caper story like the previous novel Skin Game, with Harry and Thomas’ sister carrying out an elaborate plan to rescue Thomas from magical jail without collapsing the peace conference. I lost interest.

Oh, and the gimmick of Harry having “conjuritis,” where he constantly sneezes up random materializations, feels like something from a Bewitched episode.

By contrast JENNING’S LITTLE HUT by Anthony Buckeridge actually improves on the previous book in the series. Jennings and his friends have taken up building huts on a stretch of school property dominated by a pond and a lot of mud — but it’s conditional on them not getting too messy or into too much trouble. Needless to say, Jennings and Darbishire have problems with those conditions …. Will Mr. Carter notice Jennings walking around all day with a pane of glass? Will Sir Richard Grenville stop the Spanish Armada? Will Atkinson figure out why one Old Boy thinks it’s 1895? I enjoyed this.

ADVENTUREMAN: The End and Everything After by Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson (who provided the cover above) is the start of a series, and on paper sounds like something that would work for me: a Doc Savage pastiche (though with a more diverse team of aids) plunged into an adventure straight out of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run. Claire Fallon and her son Tommy are fans of the old Adventureman pulp stories, which appear to end with Adventureman and his team defeated. After a woman drops off a mysterious never-before-seen volume about Adventureman (equivalent to Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life), Claire suddenly notices Adventureman’s legendary skyscraper HQ standing where an undistinguished tenement should be. And she seems to be growing bigger and stronger and smarter …

The art on this is great, but the story is lacking. It has all the right pieces for a great yarn, but the magic is just lacking, as if there’s no sincerity to the story (that’s a subjective interpretation, not an assessment of Fraction and Dodson’s state of mind). Still, I’ll check out V2 just to see if it improves.

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Is Hell in Maine or Russia? Doc Savage in Up From Earth’s Center and In Hell, Madonna

And so we come to the end of my long Doc Savage reread (and occasionally first-time read). For the final installment (unless I do a Ten Best list or something at some point) we have the last story in Doc Savage Magazine, UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER and the unpublished IN HELL, MADONNA, which came out thirty years after Street & Smith rejected it.

The omnibus volume that includes UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER also includes an essay by Will Murray about the changes in the series. It’s a useful reminder that while I tend to credit shifts in style to Dent’s creative decisions, they often weren’t. It was an editor who pushed for a more realistic tone during WW II and editor Daisy Bacon who pushed for going back to the 1930s style of adventure. She and Dent argued a lot about plots which is what led to this strange final tale. Dent submitted a list of plot idea, hoping Bacon would like one of them. She liked the idea of Doc Savage encountering the literal forces of Hell, but overruled Dent on making it a hoax a la The Sea Angel and The Squeaking Goblin. Bacon thought that was a cheat so we ended up with the series’ only supernatural adventure.

We open with a yacht picking up Gilmore Sullivan, a raving loonie, from an isolated island off the coast of Maine. They soon discover Gilmore is stark raving bonkers, claiming he’s escaped from hell, which he stumbled across while exploring the local caves. Dr. Linningen, one of the boaters, learns Doc Savage is in the area and goes to consult with him. Doc’s intrigued and along with Ham and Monk begins to investigate. Things get weirder when a Mr. Wail shows up, claiming to be a devil himself, though in no hurry to go back down below.

Wouldn’t you know, though, that’s how it turns out? Another devil shows up to recapture Gilmore. Doc, Monk and Ham force Wail to lead them back underground, through the crack in the caves that leads to Hell. It is a nightmarish world where trees wield their branches like tentacles and Doc confronts formless boulders sprouting multiple arms. At times the horrors are so Lovecraftian I suggested exactly that to an early Wold Newton fanzine; it’s a shame Dent didn’t write more in that vein. The creatures are unkillable but they’re terrified of fire — reminds them of diabolic punishments — which helps Doc get everyone to safety, after which he blows up the entrance, cutting Hell off. Wail is this side of the barrier, but when police bust him for some of his acts, he disappears from the cell.

The tale starts off slow and talky, but once it gets going it’s a wild ride and a great, if unconventional, finish for the series.

The series’ return with IN HELL, MADONNA, published as The Red Spider, was less satisfying. According to Will Murray, Bacon wasn’t keen on Cold War stories; I’ve also read that readers disliked the Cold War thriller Terror Wears No Shoes. Both could be true. In any case, even though In Hell, Madonna had been accepted by Bacon’s predecessor, Murray says she yanked it from the issue it was supposed to appear in; as the magazine had cut back publication frequency Dent didn’t notice. Bobb Cotter, however, says The Green Master replaced it. Only one of these can be true but I don’t know which. Either way, it’s the only story Dent wrote that didn’t make it into print.

Except it did. Researching Lester Dent’s ghost writers, Will Murray stumbled across a reference to the story and eventually tracked down the one surviving manuscript, a carbon copy Dent had made. He worked out a deal on rights that led to Bantam finally publishing it in the late 1970s under the title Red Spider. The new title refers to Frunzoff, a trusted agent of Stalin’s who sits at the center of everything the USSR is doing, monitoring every thread like a — well, you know.

The opening has a U.S. anti-radar rocket (with Long Tom and Rennie working on it) shoot into Russian air space by “accident.” Actually it’s to knock out their radar long enough for the military to fly Doc Savage across the border. He meets up with Monk and Ham, who have cover identities, and have established both the existence and the whereabouts of the mysterious Frunzoff. He’s the man who can tell Doc what he’s in the Sovietn Union to find out: does Stalin have the A-bomb? Are the Russians working on building a bomb? How close are they?

Getting the information turns out to be fairly easy, but now they have to get it to the West. Complicating things are siblings Seryi and Mahli, two Russians who offer assistance, not out of any anti-Communist principles but because if Frunzoff goes down over this, there will be openings in the upper echelons. Seryi and Mahli are outside the corridors of power; they hope this adventure will change that. To that end, they’re willing to help Doc, Monk and Ham escape to the West, but they’re in the heart of Moscow and it’s not going to be easy….

Murray, who loves the later, more realistic era of Doc adventures, considers this one of Dent’s finest works. I can’t say I feel the same. The mission would have had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality at the time, but even in the 1970s when I first read it the Cold War was looking decidedly old-fashioned. It’s certainly a competent, taut spy novel, but it’s more Doc as a B-list Bond than Doc as Doc.

Murray also thought Seryi worth bringing back for The Frightened Fish as a serious love interest. That I just don’t get. She’s not a bad character but not one of Dent’s more memorable women, and there’s no chemistry between her and Doc. I can think of several women from the WW II novels that Doc got much more flirtatious with.

Either way, my reread reaches the end. It’s been a lot of fun, but I’m not sorry to wrap up.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin, all rights remain with current holder.


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Penultimate Doc Savage: The Swooning Lady, The Green Master, The Return From Cormoral

Given my general dissatisfaction with the post-war Doc Savage series, it’s a pleasant surprise that the three I’m reviewing here — three of the last four in the series —were mostly fun, and none were awful.

THE SWOONING LADY kicks off with a beautiful Latina putting on a swooning act when men dressed a certain way come near. Monk fits the description but when he tells her he’s not “Roxborough” and still tries to make time, she throttles him with his own tie. Realizing she’s clearly Up To Something, Monk calls in Doc and Ham: what’s her game, and who is Roxborough? Doc’s on board, of course, though he’s still PO’d at Monk’s lechery getting them into trouble in The Angry Canary.

A well-placed bug reveals the woman is one Dannie Morgan, an unemployed actor working for tough South America crooks Juan and Jolla, trying to lure Roxborough into a trap. They’re putting her up at an expensive hotel and paying $40 a day for the gig, so Doc realizes this is something big. Juan and Jolla proves themselves smart and tough and evade capture. Monk tracks down Roxborough, though, who turns out to be a wealthy businessman in town checking up on business associates he claims are cheating him. The swooning Dannie, he claims, is a pawn of his partners to entangle him in a scandal; then when notoriously prudish Latin American millionaire Señorita Oristezza shows up to do business and learns he’s a sleazeball, she’ll ruin him.

It turns out that the señorita and Dannie are one and the same. She suspects Roxborough of making off with a $2 million diamond shipment of hers, came up here to investigate and much like the disguised Doc in The Freckled Shark, let the role unleash her wilder side. Dannie is easily the most interesting thing in the story, a self-made millionaire in a male-dominated culture; the rest of the story is competent but minor (Juan and Jolla are tough, but they’re not strong enough to be the lead villains). It turns out Roxborough did make off with the diamonds and the elaborate scheme is designed to cover that up and make him look like an innocent. Several details were left out of the Bantam version which chopped off the last few paragraphs of exposition in the finish. I can’t say I’m on tenterhooks about it.

This was, by the way, the end of Doc Savage, Science Detective as a title and the end of the digest-sized magazine (Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze has details on the editorial decisions of the era).

THE GREEN MASTER is a much stronger story. It opens with Monk discovering multiple blonds, mostly men but one beautiful woman, pursuing him despite their bafflement at life in the city (they don’t know how to avoid traffic, how to hail a cab, etc.). When Monk confronts one of the guys, he suddenly finds himself agreeing with everything the man says and answering all his questions about Doc’s current work (though Monk doesn’t know much, which he feels ashamed about). Ham has the same reaction later. The man implants a story in their heads he figures will send Doc off on a wild goose chase, but at Doc’s offices they touch a green stone that arrived in the mail — something the man asked about — and immediately regain clarity.

Tracking the blonde clique and bugging their hotel room reveals they’re here on a mission; Auca, the woman, warns the others that one of them is betraying the others by reaching out to Doc. The investigation gets  complicated when a Westerner named Swingles (I don’t think the name, which is never explained, would have had the sex connotations then that it does now) shows up and tries to keep Doc detained while his confederates go after the blondes. Swingles tells Doc that Auca is the one who sent him the green stone, while setting her cohorts against each other.

Eventually “Jones,” the leader of the blondes, puts the whammy on Doc, Monk and Ham (Monk’s faking it — he has the stone hidden on him). Doc is terrified to realized he’s completely powerless to resist whatever power this guy has. Auca later explains the power lies in the green stones, which somehow energize the leaders of her people to mesmerize others, though the stone held in other hands provides a counter-spell. Doc is forced to fly to the lost city in the Andes, besieged by Swingles’ gang, who it’s implied are working for Sinister Foreign Powers (this was a bigger part of Dent’s story proposal but the editor said Terror Wears No Shoes proved political intrigue didn’t sell). Not that the lost race are the good guys: they’ve enslaved dozens of local tribesmen who wander into their city and used them as slaves. Doc manages to obtain enough of the green stones to free the slaves, and with their help takes down Swingles’ gang. The story ends with a U.N. commission moving in to sort things out, study the power and see that the blondes don’t take more slaves.

The series’ last Lost Race story is a good one all around. It also has a nailbiting scene where Doc has to land a plane under difficult conditions: Dent had acquired his pilot’s license at some point and he puts his knowledge to good use here.

Macbeth Williams (again, no explanation of the name) and three other scientists RETURN FROM CORMORAL a rocky Atlantic island they’ve been stuck on since the research foundation funding their expedition went belly up. Fortunately a tramp steamer found them and took them back to Miami. Macbeth’s girlfriend, Carlie, meets them and we learn she’s a little frustrated because her beau is tentative and doesn’t have confidence in his judgment — not the sort of man she wants for a husband.

But things have changed. On Cormoral, Williams somehow acquired the ability to make uncannily accurate predictions. He can’t do it if he concentrates but if he just does it without thinking, he’s almost always right. Has he become precog? Is his judgment better than he thought? Is it finally time he assume control of his half-billion inheritance instead of leaving it to financial managers?

Williams is unsettled enough to contact Doc by telegraph; as someone kills the telegraph clerk right afterwards (but not in time to stop the message) this was obviously a wise call. Doc discovers that Williams ability — psychic or just intelligent as it may be — is real, but why would that drive people to kill him? And why is it the foundation that stuck the scientists on Cormoral doesn’t seem to exist?

It turns out that the entire thing is a scam and the other three scientists are part of it. They’ve discovered rich deposits of uranium on some of the land Williams has inherited but haven’t been able to get the managers to sell. If they can convince Williams to assume control, he’ll probably be more cooperative as the land’s apparently worthless. The trip to Cormoral and the aftermath are part of a Big Con to convince Williams he has the gift or the judgment to manage all that money and property.It’s a fluffy but fun tale.

Next month, we wrap my long, long reread up with the final novel, Up From Earth’s Center, and In Hell, Madonna, which didn’t come out until the late 1970s (it was slated for the issue that became The Green Master).

#SFWApro. Top cover by Walter Swenson, next two by George Rozen, all rights remain with current holders.

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