Category Archives: Doc Savage

From Rome to Skull Island: books

THE EDGE OF THE EMPIRE: A Journey to Britannia From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall by Bronwen Riley dramatizes life in the Roman Empire (circa AD 130) by taking us on a journey from the imperial city itself all the way to the ultimate thulei of the isle of Britain, where Hadrian’s wall at the northern border literally marked the edge of the empire, This was a very good premise, allowing Riley to talk about Roman food (fish paste and olive oil!), travel, ships, military structure, life in colonial towns and weather without feeling info-dumpy. Among other things it makes me see just how much travel was going on in that era, and how risky a great deal of it was. Very good.

SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP: It’s Scooby Time! wraps up the Sholly Fisch and (mostly Dario Brizuela) series in the same cheerfully silly, fun vein as the previous volumes. Scooby and his human friends team with Mr. Miracle, Metamorpho, Black Lightning, Flash’s Rogues (haunted by the ghost of the Top) and in the final issue have to deal with pranks by both Batmite and Scooby-Mite. The issue is a tribute to all the Scoobies who’ve gone before, bringing back multiple sidekicks (Scrappy Doo, Vincent Van Ghoul, Red Herring) and multiple versions of the core characters (including DC’s rival series Scooby Apocalypse). Goodbye guys, you’ll be missed.

NIGHT RAVEN by multiple writers and artists collects the complete run of the Marvel UK series concerning a mysterious vigilante (“Night Raven” is one of the birds of abomination in the King James Bible, though the specific inspiration for the name was a John Milton poem) waging a one-man war on crime in 1930s New York, and leaving his brand on the faces of his victims. Much to my annoyance, this turns from comic strips to text pages — never as interesting — about a third of the way through; the early strips are decent, then they get really good under Alan Moore, who traces the battle between Night Raven and the immortal Asian crimelord Yi Yang across the decades. Unfortunately the last 40 percent of the book is text pages by Jamie Delano who is no Alan Moore (I’ve never particularly liked his comics work) so I wound up skimming a lot of them. I’ve been curious about the character but my curiosity is now satisfied. Still, the Moore stuff is really good.

As I said last week, I couldn’t resist reading Will Murray’s DOC SAVAGE: Skull Island, which opens with Renny applying his engineering savvy to figure out how to remove King Kong’s corpse from outside the Empire State Building. We then flash back to the post-Great War years, when Doc and his father went searching for Doc’s missing grandfather “Stormalong” Savage and found him on Skull Island, where Doc meets Kong. This confirms my opinion that Murray is no Lester Dent (not that he’s ever claimed to be) — he does great with the Kong scenes but Doc’s encounters with dinosaurs are nowhere nears as good as, say, The Other World, nor does the book capture how much Doc thrives on excitement — I think he’d have much more of a blast here. There’s also a lot of time spent battling uninteresting headhunters (and they’re a little too stereotypical savage brutes for my taste).

What does work, at least for me as a fan, is the spotlight on Doc’s prickly relationship with his father, and details such as how Doc acquired his nickname (working as a medic in WW I), a little about his mom (named Kendra Robeson, an obvious in-joke), Clark Sr. grumbling about his son reading puerile popular fiction such as Burroughs or Doyle and constant speculation about why Dad trained Doc the way he did. Regrettably it’s canon that Doc never learns so we can’t get an answer (I love Murray’s passing suggestion that it might have been Doc’s late mother’s idea, but that doesn’t work with what little we do know). So this one did have its charms.

Oh, and over on Atomic Junkshop I’ve posted an expanded version of an article from this site a few years back, about DC’s Beowulf.beowulf4

#SFWApro. Cover by Scott Jeraids, bottom by Ricardo Villamonte, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Comics, Doc Savage, Reading

Another ‘Other Doc Savage’ — Will Murray tries fiction

With the end of the Doc Savage canon approaching (about two more months and I’ll be done) I thought I’d take a break and check a couple of Will Murray’s “Kenneth Robeson” books from the 1990s. I own several, and would probably have more if money hadn’t been so tight in that decade, so presumably I enjoyed them back then. Rereading them with the original books fresh in my mind, not so much. Murray’s an amazing Doc Savage scholar but the two I read this month remind me of Lancer Books’ Conan series — bland imitations of the real thing.

PYTHON ISLE is based on an early 1930s outline by Lester Dent that his editor rejected. Snake stories, the editor believed, didn’t sell, though he also turned it down when Dent proposed making it Lion Island . We open with Doc in his first Fortress of Solitude (before he built the blue dome of Fortress of Solitude) then cut to a gang of South African smugglers led by Blackbird Hinton and King Hancock (“He hadn’t an evil bone in his body. Nor a good one either.”) who shoot down a plane coming too close to their boat. Then they realize the plane is a patchwork held together by gold plates and patches and decide to take a good look. The plane carries Tom Franklin, a pilot who vanished several years earlier, and the beautiful Lha of Ophir (an obvious Tarzan joke by Dent). Franklin escapes and gets a message to Renny, who’s working on a dam project nearby.

Renny gets word to Doc before he’s captured. Hinton gets word to Bull Pizano, a hulking brute (with a soft spot for animals) who can slap Monk around and more than hold his own fighting Doc. There’s the usual assortment of danger and escapes before Doc and his crew wind up on the eponymous island, currently in the grip of  evil high priest, Taxus, whose “invisible wrath” reduces his enemies to zombies (villains used similar gimmicks in Hex and The Czar of Fear but it’s unimpressive here). Eventually Taxus and the smugglers go down; Pizano winds up being eaten by sharks without a final battle with Doc or Monk (Murray says he didn’t think he could do justice to that showdown).

Dent wanted to do a series of stories spotlighting Doc’s aides, starting with Death In Silver but the rejection put paid to that (only The Sea Magician saw print). He did reuse several elements of Python Isle in later stories, for example turning the opening with Lha into the first appearance of the much more impressive Z in The Mental Wizard.  Murray follows Dent’s outline more faithfully than Dent might have (he often made changes when he got to the writing); Murray’s desire to make this just like a 1934 Dent novel is a weakness, reproducing the long detailed descriptions of Doc and his crew that Dent wrote into the early books. It wouldn’t have hurt to leave that out. Though the continuity references to earlier books are good.

THE FRIGHTENED FISH is based on a Dent plot synopsis rather than a detailed outline. Set after The Red Spider (unpublished until Murray dusted it off and got Bantam Books to reprint it in the 1970s) starts off effectively, as three hoods terrify a man with images of fish. The bad guys escape Doc but then the obnoxious, arrogant Celia Adams “of the Massachusetts Adams” shows up, demanding Doc find her missing boyfriend — why, yes, boyfriend Baker Eastland is unwittingly caught up in the same plot, how did you know? Investigating leads Doc & Co. to Massachusetts, where the fishing areas are mysteriously empty of fish; from there they eventually travel to occupied post-war Japan, where the same thing is happening. Doc points out that with Russia now having the a-bomb, the world is already unstable; Japan losing its primary food source would result in even more stability.

Enter Jonas Sown, the mastermind from The Screaming Man, to conform this is exactly his plan: just as his mind-control tech whipped the Axis leaders into war mode a couple of decades earlier, now he’ll do the same with the communist bloc. Japan will become communist and then WW III begins! This time Sown won’t fail!

Unfortunately Sown — added by Murray to Dent’s plot — remains underwhelming. Part of that is that like a lot of post-war Dent stories for the series, this is very talky: Sown spends much more time detailing his big and evil plans for the world than actually doing evil. Eliminating fish as a source of food is indeed a serious threat, but it’s not a very scary one. John Sunlight could have put this across, but Murray says that violates his What Would Lester Do? approach: Dent left Sunlight dead, so dead he must remain.

And then there’s the women of the book. Seryi, the Russian anticommunist from Red Spider, returns but only to break Doc’s heart by sacrificing herself to save him; Celia is written as a bitch with no redeeming features. Dent’s women were usually more capable and likable; even “she-male” Velma Crale in The South Pole Terror comes off better than Celia. She feels like a leftover from when Murray was ghostwriting The Destroyer, a series I found horribly sexist whenever I read it.

Despite my disappointment, I couldn’t resist picking up one of Murray’s later works, Doc Savage: Skull Island because a Doc/King Kong crossover set right after WW I seems irresistible. But that one will get a separate post after I finish it.

#SFWApro. Covers by Joe DeVito, all rights to images remain with current holders.


Filed under Doc Savage

Doc Savage vs. evil, terror and hate!

We’re still in the Doc Savage, Science Detective phase, which may explain why THE PURE EVIL is such a dull yarn — though not why Edd Cartier’s cover doesn’t illustrate or even mention Doc’s adventure.

This one opens with Gail Adams (while Gail isn’t another first-person narrator, she does get most of the POV) driving her brother Dan to his work as a radar operator. Something he sees on-screen drives him to smash his equipment and then go to church. Later in the day, he’s found strangled in his locked room; the supervisor, who might know what Dan saw winds up dead the same way. A Mr. Morand (no relation to the man in Danger Lies East I assume) with a weird speech pattern (“Your brother. Most unfortunate. Very sad.”) offers Gail a life insurance payoff, double indemnity in case of suicide, which Gail deduces is to stop her asking any questions. Instead, Gail calls Doc, then flies to New York when it appears he won’t take the case otherwise.

One of the passengers tries to kill her in an effectively chilling scene (though not as effective as Colors for Murder). Fortunately Doc and Monk have snuck aboard and save Gail, but the man impossibly vanishes. Morand, also aboard, explains the killer is one of several evil entities his research has manifested, though he insists they’re scientific forces, not supernatural.  As more weirdness happens, a trio of wealthy debunkers recruit Doc to prove Morand is full of crap.

It’s a decent set-up but mediocre execution. Doc being a science detective is presumably why we get a long, detailed search of the plane with lots of technical detail about where he could be hiding; I didn’t need it. The big reveal is a talky scene in which Renny reports to Doc what he learned eavesdropping on Morand’s gang: this is all a scam to earn money for his “research” from the wealthy trio. Although we gets some old-school elements like anesthetic grenades, this ultimately turns out to be a generic detective novel.

The curiously titled TERROR WEARS NO SHOES shows how the zeitgeist was changing: coming out in 1948, it presents the USSR (not specifically named, much like pre-war novels such as The Rustling Death didn’t outright label the villains as German). Russia has perfected a bioweapon it plans to introduce into America, the first step in WW III. In contrast to the 1950s political paranoia where commies were infiltrating America to destroy us from within (something I covered in Screen Enemies of the American Way), Doc declares that communist infiltration has proven worthless, hence the turn to open warfare.

The story opens with Doc, in disguise, trying to impress Canta, a female crimelord in the mold of Crockett from Danger Lies East. While we’re told she’s powerful and a legend in the Far East, once she joins forces with Doc — she gave the U.S. the pseudonymous tip-off about the plot — she comes off rather ineffective, a typical woman out of her depth. Crockett was more fun.

Much of the plot concerns a hunt for Long Tom, who was investigating the conspiracy. We learn Long Tom was largely absent from Doc’s WW II adventures because he was working on the Manhattan Project; now he’s disappeared again, and the Russians believe he’s dead. Nope, he actually killed the ruthless Soviet agent sent to eliminate him, then successfully assumed his identity. Unfortunately I guessed this trick well before the big reveal.

This wasn’t as bland as its predecessor — despite how the book treats her, Canta’s pretty cool (I would so love to see a fanfic with her, Pat, Retta Kenn, Rhoda Haven and Crockett all working together). However Dent spends a lot of time warning us about the unspeakable evil of the international communist threat (which as usual comes off interchangeable with the recently defeated Axis) and that’s old hat (and a dull hat) to me.

THE ANGRY CANARY starts in a package depot where a weird-looking dude (“he wore a green suit of a shade hitherto unheard of.”) and a good-looking woman both attempt to pick up a canary cage without a claim ticket. The clerks on duty, refuse, but then hear the canaries fighting inside the cage until of them kills the other. Meanwhile, someone sends Doc half of a $1,000 bill and the claims ticket. After Doc uses his science detective mojo to deduce the person who sent the envelope is a woman, smokes exotic cigarettes, has recently returned from India, etc., Doc sends Monk to pick up the cage — though by the time they finally get it, one of the clerks has lost his life.

Analyzing the birds’ brains, Doc discovers they’ve been altered: they fought because something stimulated them to hate each other. Margaret Prince (the woman who sent the envelope and tried to collect the cage) eventually explains that she’d been working at her missionary uncle’s establishment in India when it became obvious something was whipping up Hindu/Muslim hostility far more than normal. The villain is sinister Mr. Plott (green-suit guy) who’s figured out a technology that stimulates rage and hate (Doc tells Prince about his crime college to confirm this is indeed possible). This idea works much better than it did in The Screaming Man.

The novel also works in one nice twist: Audrey, the blonde Monk and Ham have been fighting over for a while, insists on horning herself in on the adventure. It looks like she’s more than the brassy blonde she initially seems to be, and she is, but not the way I expected. Rather than an excitement junkie, she’s Plott’s wife, infiltrating herself into Doc’s circle when they realize Doc’s probably going to get involved. The results are not classic, but they are enjoyable.

#SFWApro. Bottom two covers by Walter Swenson, all rights to images remain with current holder.


Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

The Pat Savage syndrome

One of the points Tim Hanley makes in his Batgirl and Beyond is that in the Silver Age Batwoman, Batgirl I (Betty Kane) and Batgirl II (Barbara Gordon whom you’re probably all familiar with) were all shown to be competent, but still constantly sidelined. Reading I Died Yesterday this month has me thinking how I’ve often seen that trope, and it definitely applies to Doc’s cousin Patricia Savage.

When we first meet Pat in Brand of the Werewolf, she’s 18 years old, just lost her father and is determined to figure out the mystery behind his death. She can shoot, fight and track and has the same taste for adventure her cousin does. When she shows up in New York in Fear Cay, she tells Doc that after the previous adventure, life in the Canadian wilderness is just too dull. When the bad guys target a young woman, Pat trades places and lets them kidnap her instead. She admits later it was more excitement than she’d anticipated, but she’s up for the gig. By the following book, Death in Silver, she’s opened Patricia, Incorporated, her New York beauty salon/health spa which charges skyhigh prices (I Died Yesterday says Pat’s ruthless about turning away potential clients, thereby reassuring people she’s exclusive enough to be worth paying through the nose). And whenever she can, cutting herself in on Doc’s adventures.

It’s understandable Doc’s never very enthused about this. He’s in his thirties, Pat’s barely an adult; as he says in The Feathered Octopus, he knows she could hold her own with his team but he doesn’t want his last living relative risking her neck. It doesn’t change the fact that she is sidelined even in the stories she appears in; I Died Yesterday is one of the few that really shows her capable, and even there Doc’s conducting himself like a jerk to discourage her. It’s the kind of trick Ricky Ricardo might play on Lucy, if they’d been PIs. And it’s not unique; while one WW II book mentioned Doc recruiting Pat because his regular resources are stretched so thin, Violent Night has him using US spies to scare her off the case (it doesn’t work). Given he’s supposed to be hunting down Hitler, it’s a remarkable waste of resources. Pat almost never gets to shine, though both Millennium’s and Dynamite’s Doc Savage comics made it a point to give her more action.

Pat’s hardly unique. I’ve seen lots of books and movies where they establish the female lead is competent and capable, but then treat her as just the love interest. Or assume that no matter how competent or professional she is, all she really wants is to land a man; once she does that, forget her career! Or simply assume she’s just not good enough. I read a sequel in the 1970s to Robert E. Howard’s stories of mercenary Dark Agnes and it ends with this tough, capable warrior woman going all weak at the knees — good thing there’s a man around to hold her close and tell her everything’s okay (it makes me appreciate why Sigourney Weaver said she was so glad they never put a scene like that into Aliens). It’s an equivalent of sorts to the hot mess approach to writing women: show that no matter how tough, capable or adventurous she is, she’s not really going to be the hero Because our culture tells us that’s a a man’s job!

#SFWApro. Covers by Carmine Infantino, James Bama and Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holders.


Filed under Doc Savage, Undead sexist cliches

Doc Savage’s Women: Let’s Kill Ames, Once Over Lightly, I Died Yesterday

This trio of yarns, running from late 1947 to 1948, wraps up the string of first-person narration that began with No Light to Die By. They’re also the first to appear under the magazine’s new label, Doc Savage — Science Detective. It’s an oddly retro title, as Science Detectives using forensics, lie detectors and other methods had been a thing 40 years earlier (Craig Kennedy being one of the best known), but as Will Murray says the editorship at the time was experimenting with new ways to boost sales. I think the weird-looking cover below must have been part of that (all three covers are by Walter Swenson)

The narrator of LET’S KILL AMES is Ames, specifically Travice Ames, one time professional chemist turned grifter. As the story begins, her hotel discovers her history of skipping without paying and locks up her rooms. With no other options, she reluctantly allows persistent suitor Nat Pulaski (he’s short. Ames hates short men) to take her out to dinner. Under the influence of a lot of liquor Pulaski lets slip that he’s onto something big: someone is paying him big money to provide a slow-acting poison that the someone will slip to three men; either they pay for the antidote or they die. The treatment is radioactive and Ames remembers the case of the radium girls from a couple of decades earlier, grounding the idea in reality. Nevertheless she figures Pulaski’s just talking big and there’s no real scheme. However this gives her the idea to con one of the men by making it look like he’s been poisoned (she has the chemical know-how) and then offering to find a cure.

Oops. Turns out the poisoning is real, which doesn’t make the dude very happy (“his hands began picking up ruling pens, protractors and rulers and laying them down again without his hands having told him what they were doing. His breathing was hard and audible, like someone sandpapering a bone.”). Ames isn’t too happy either when people start trying to kill her with cyanide. Her solution is to call Doc Savage, figuring she can con him into helping her — he can’t be as savvy and tricky as his press clipping say, right? Suffice to say Ames comes through alive but she doesn’t walk out with a cash bonus.

It’s a fun story and does play up the CSI aspects of Doc’s investigation. The next two novels surprisingly don’t make him any more of a science detective than usual.

The woman narrator of ONCE OVER LIGHTLY is Mary Olga “Mote” Trunnels, who does office work for a PI firm. At least she did until he screwball BFF Glacia calls and demands Mote visit, with promises of a fabulous job and an atypical offer to pay for Mote’s ticket. Mote waits for her paper-pushing boss to do something stupid, makes a big stink out of it when he does, and gets fired, thereby eliminating any need to give two week’s notice. She arrives at a very bizarre, contemporary-styled hotel she describes as the kind of thing an artist would draw for a story set on Mars. Awaiting her is another Dent’s Native American sidekicks a la Secret of the Su and The Goblins, though “Coming Going” turns out to be a federal agent undercover in redface makeup. Shortly after Mote arrives, Glacia’s uncle is murdered. Mote realizes Glacia was hoping she had enough PI experience to help with whatever she’s enmeshed in, which involves a mysterious inheritance and something called “Keeper.” But wait, Doc Savage is passing through town — any chance he can help?

Turns out Doc’s already on the case. The inheritance is the location of a ship that went down with a boatload of processed, atom-bomb ready uranium, “enough to be worth the destiny of several nations.” That’s a very lucrative McGuffin and some very nasty people are, of course, after it. Not bad, and Mote’s a fun narrator, though not as interesting as Travice.

The third novel, I DIED YESTERDAY is Pat Savage’s swan song and gives her the narrator’s role. It opens at Patricia Incorporated, Pat’s ultra-chic, ultra-expensive spa. Miss Colfax, the ice cube who presides over the front desk and makes getting  appointment tougher than being presented to the King of England (the customers pay more because they know they’re an exclusive breed) informs her boss that the young man who just came in is more than she can deal with. Surprised, Pat meets the guy and discovers he has an icepick wedged deep in his back, handle broken off so it can’t just be pulled out. Pat knows if she calls Doc in on whatever’s happening he’ll insist on keeping her out of it so she arranges for her on-call surgeon to treat the guy. He, however, says it requires Doc’s touch — and sure enough, Doc wants Pat safe, especially when he learns there’s already been shooting (someone trying to finish the job on the ice-picked guy). He and Monk waste time trapping Pat and making her think it’s the bad guys doing it so that she’ll stay in the trap. Doesn’t work, of course.

The plot turns out to involve plant biochemistry, a scientific secret worth a fortune and Lucia, a mystical woman convinced destiny is involved. It’s a more SF secret than the first two stories, a chlorophyll-based method for growing food in a lab, thereby potentially eliminating world hunger. The real fun of the story, though, is getting to look in on Pat’s world. We learn a lot about Patricia, Incorporated, including that the staff are generally in awe of her adventurous reputation and slightly disappointed she hasn’t been doing much lately. The salon is decorated by A-list designers who indulge in the same kind of malarkey I only thought came into vogue years later (“the threshold of symphonic harmony with nectarian living.”).

Then there’s the gadgets. It turns out has Doc has been de-emphasizing his gadgetry in favor of relying on his wits — he figures it’ll keep him more resourceful — Pat has been collecting and storing them. She has a fashionable jacket, for instance, that’s actually a utility belt with gas bombs, smoke bombs and thermite sewn into the sleeve (after seeing it at work, she reconsiders the risks of that one).

That makes it all the more frustrating that at the end of the story, Pat’s contemplating quitting adventuring. She wonders if it’s fear, then realizes she’s not scared, she just doesn’t want to stick her neck out like this. Admittedly the cast is dwindling — Johnny’s gone, Renny and Long Tom have one story each left — but the guys aren’t contemplating retirement. The book deserves a better ending. But still, giving us a Pat-centered novel is more than I’d have expected.

#SFWApro. Rights to covers remain with current holders.


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Some good Doc Savage yarns: Danger Lies East, No Light to Die By, the Monkey Suit

After that last trio of disappointing novels I wondered if finishing out Doc’s adventures would be nothing but a slog. Apparently I was pessimistic.

DANGER LIES EAST opens with “At three o’clock he was dead.” It then watches as the man apparently takes a fatal drug with his lunch, but it’s actually a concoction Monk is using to incapacitate him. The death comes as the guy tries to get away and gets knifed in the back by someone.

Monk took an interest in the guy because the guy was following Doc, probably because the State Department’s Morand (described similar to MacChesney in The Black, Black Witch as a competent but almost stereotypical old-school diplomat) calling Doc in. As Doc has previously complained, this means it’s something so nasty nobody else wants to touch it. He is, of course, right: there’s unrest in India (when this March-April 1947 magazine came out, India’s independence and Pakistan’s separation were on the way) and in the Middle East (we’re a year out from the birth of Israel) and there’s prominent religious leader, Nesur, who can decide if things erupt in violence or stay calm. It looks like he’s going to choose option A and as the U.S. treated him as a Nazi sympathizer in the past (unfairly, Morand concludes now) he’s not on our side and the government doesn’t even know which way to find him. Can Doc locate him and convince him to push for peace?

This reminds me a lot of Mask of Fu Manchu — the Third World is a powder keg and one holy figure can light the fuse! — but the grounding in real-world geopolitics gives it more punch. Off Doc, Monk and Ham go to the Middle East, hunting for Crockett, a Modesty Blaise-type crimelord who has some connection to Nesur. Surprisingly, Crockett turns out to be quite pleasant and decent — and winds up working with them against a corrupt oil syndicate that plans to seize a large chunk of the region’s oil in the chaos that Nesur will bring. It’s another story where Doc’s just a competent ordinary guy, but this time it works.

NO LIGHT TO DIE BY opens with a foreword by Kenneth Robeson explaining that a guy named Sammy Wales wrote this one as a first-hand account of his adventure with Doc Savage; an exchange of cables between Robeson and Doc follows with the latter protesting against publishing, explaining in a statement that Sammy writes as if Doc were superhuman instead of a guy who has trained and worked to become what he is. He sounds like Sherlock Holmes grumbling Watson’s stories about him are all too shallow.

Sammy is the kind of down-and-out drifter Dent used in a number of his pre-war Doc novels such as The Flaming Falcons, but having him narrate (the first of five first-person books) gives this a different feel. In the opening, the beautiful voice of Paula Fenisong wakes Sammy up by mistake; as Sammy learns later, there’s another Wales at the hotel he’s staying at, a lunar expert. Pretending to meet the guy lets him meet Fenisong, get a fat payment from her boss, and then get slapped around when they realize he’s not who he claimed to be. Intrigued, he shadows them to a reception where Fenisong lures Doc Savage out onto a terrace in time to witness a strange light display in the heavens. Before long, Sammy’s up to his neck in trouble alongside Doc, Monk (who suddenly knows how to perform a CSI forensic analysis) and Ham as they try to find out who’s behind the light — and mysterious blobs of shadow — which Doc warns could be a devastating weapon.

Sammy has a great narrative voice and he’s an entertaining lowlife. He’s willing to skip out on a bill and feels that after his WW II service and medals he’s entitled to take it easy. Shortly after saying that, he sees a display of Doc’s medals and feels rather cheap to realize how much more Doc has done. Sammy’s not a total rat (Doc notes in the intro that Sammy doesn’t see how much he’s changed in the course of the adventure). The adventure is in the pre-war style with an SF threat and Doc using his anesthetic grenades again. Sammy never learns exactly what the “chromospheric” technology does, so neither do we.

Doc tells us in the introduction that his father trained him to be a superman because of being victimized by criminals; as several earlier books say he didn’t know the reasons, apparently he’s learned since. Doc mentions being trained for twenty years and throws in a comment that “when you let a bad thing happen to you, you have it coming” which I can’t say I agree with.

The narrator of THE MONKEY SUIT is the much less likeable Henry Jones. A chemist who narrates with stuffy academic formality, he encounters an old friend and fellow chemist, Dido, who gives Henry the key to a locker in Grand Central Station. Curious, Henry follows Dido to a meeting with stunning Lila Farrar, Dido’s boss’s daughter, and finds himself blown away by her beauty. I expected that when plunged into the action, Henry would rise to the occasion, shake off his stuffiness and get the girl but nope.

After Henry escapes random death a couple of times, fellow chemist Monk Mayfair points out what Henry missed: the attacks weren’t random. Someone wants the box in the locker, which is odd as it turns out to be a monkey costume. Monk calls in Doc, which doesn’t suit Henry as he sees Lila bowled over by Doc; Henry desperately wants to believe Doc isn’t all that smart or amazing, and keeps screwing up Doc’s plans by trying to play hero and impress Lila. When the bad guys invite him to put his skills to work for them, he seriously considers it.

The McGuffin is a ray Dido invented that preserves food with ultrasonics, no cans or freezing needed (not the first time food preservation has been a plot element). That seems an odd invention for a chemist but it turns out Dido’s running a scam, so there you.

I look forward to reading the next three in this sequence.

#SFWApro. Covers by Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holders.


Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

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.

#SFWApro. Covers by Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holder.

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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.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. Cover image by James Bama.

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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.

#SFWApro. First two covers by Emery Clarke, third by Charles J. Ravel. Rights to all images remain with current holders.


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