Category Archives: Doc Savage

Don’t you know there’s a war on, Doc Savage? Rustling Death and Men of Fear (#SFWApro)

This month’s two novels came out in January and February of 1942, which makes for weird reading. Understandably due to the time lag between writing and publication there’s not a single reference to Pearl Harbor. At the same time, they’re quite openly anti-Axis. Unlike the various stories the past couple of years hinting at A Sinister European Power behind everything (e.g., Devil on the Moon), THE RUSTLING DEATH and MEN OF FEAR make it thoroughly obvious which power we’re talking a about (spoiler: it’s Germany!!!).

Alan Hathaway’s THE RUSTLING DEATH (cover by Emery Clark)has a lot in common with his Headless Men, inasmuch as the villain as a cackling mad scientist (Krag) using a death ray for extortion. Instead of the heat ray of the earlier book, this one is a combination of heat with ultrasonics (causing panic in everyone in the vicinity). To Doc’s puzzlement, the price one senator has to pay for not being zapped is a string of minor bills. It turns out the bills include a dam that will benefit the bad guys.

Along with Krag, there’s the German villain. Not named as such (the Definitely Not Portuguese strategy), but he speaks a guttural mother language, has a somewhat Germanic speech pattern in English and wears a monocle. And he makes it quite clear the US is on the target list once the war in Europe is won.

There’s also a plethora of new gadgets including a throat-mike in Ham’s tie pin, a television unit for transmitting fingerprints to the government and ejection seats in Doc’s planes. It’s not a stand0out, but I enjoyed it.

MEN OF FEAR (cover by Clark again) has a great opening, when Monk, Ham and Johnny inform Doc his latest project is too risky, so they’re sitting it out. Which for anyone who knows Doc’s team is very, very weird. And their friend “Henry” has also convinced them that Doc shouldn’t risk his genius by so much adventure, so before long, they’ve kidnapped Doc. Hmm, is it possible their minds are somehow altered?

Well, of course. The culprit this time is “Vitamin F-E-A-R,” a treatment Doc worked on in conjunction with a European scientist, Prof. Jellant. After a Sinister European Power overran his country, said power’s agents came sniffing around the lab. Jellant fled to the US, but now the agents have him, and they want Doc to make large quantities of the fear-inducing formula. The leader of the enemy agents says thinks like “Sehr gut!” and there’s a reference to Jellant’s sister dying in a concentration camp.

It’s a fast-moving, entertaining yarn, and Pat gets a fair amount of action (she’s been practicing her juijitsu). Unfortunately there’s a throwaway line about how she craves action the way “a pickaninny likes watermelon.” That was painful.

I’m not sure when the magazine actually acknowledges we’re in the war, but it can’t be long.

All rights to cover images remain with current holder.


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Doc Savage’s birthday present is an invisible box (#SFWApro)

We wrap up 1941 with the war still offstage. I guess we’ll see a response to Pearl Harbor in January or February of next year.  Be warned, spoilers below.

Like Birds of Terror, November’s THE INVISIBLE BOX MURDERS (cover by Emery Clarke) reads like an old-school mystery. Men receive transparent boxes in the mail, then die mysteriously once the boxes were opened. The boxes vanish afterwards. The clues to the solution include a radium miner, someone who’s slept for three weeks straight and people buying monkeys.

As all the victims by the story’s start are associates of JP Morgan — not the famous one, a small-time financier named Joe P. Morgan — Doc exposes him to a duplicate of the boxes to see if he can get any information out of him. He doesn’t get much.

When Doc tries to stop the next murder, he fails, and then the cops lock him up. He points out he’s a deputized police officer; doesn’t help. And the facts soon stack up: his fingerprint is on a key piece of evidence; the underlings in the mob genuinely believe he’s the top boss.

While this has happened often enough in the series (Red Snow and Devils of the Deep, for instance), it’s relatively realistic here: rather than go on the run, Doc goes to jail, confident he’ll get out soon enough. Then his aides get captured and the cops refuse to investigate — obviously the capture is just part of Doc’s scheme. Doc, of course, won’t stand for that, so he busts out.

It turns out the scheme is extortion: pay up, or get an invisible box delivered to your door. The box holds mosquitoes whose probosces contain poison; the box is made of a chemical that dissolves when it warms up to room temperature.

It’s a good, nicely done mystery. Doc’s cousin Pat has a supporting part, spying on one of the suspects and reading his lips. The book includes an interesting statement that awesome though Doc is, the training regimen he underwent could easily have turned him into a villain or a madman; only the facts he actually likes danger and retains a sense of humor kept him sane. So in his eyes, it’s an experiment that should never be repeated.

PERIL IN THE NORTH (cover by Bob Larkin) has another reveal: it opens the night of Doc’s birthday. Doc has a big presentation to some high-powered officials so his aides plan to surprise him (easy to do — he doesn’t even remember it’s his day). Unfortunately Doc is distracted by another quirky mystery opening: a scientist asks him to investigate a blue dog that’s interfering with the man’s research. Doc effortlessly spots this is a scam, but he’s curious enough to go along with it.

It turns out to involve 250 people trapped somewhere in imminent danger of death. Thomas Eleanor, a fat millionaire reminiscent of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon is involved; so is Bench Logan, a Bogart-type tough guy working against his fellow tough guys to save the 250. As he assumes Doc’s heroism has to be the cover for some dirty business, he’s working against Doc too.

The secret is a riff on recent upheavals in Yugoslavia (according to Bobb Cotter) which is why one of the footnotes specifies that Mungen, former dictator of Monrovia, is an imaginary man from an imaginary country. Mungen supposedly commited suicide before being overthrown, but in reality it was just his double — the real Mungen escaped and used his ill-gotten wealth to set up as Eleanor. The 250 were on a Monrovian passenger ship with Eleanor and figured out the truth; Eleanor wants them dead to avoid his former nation’s vengeance.  It’s oddly similar to the kind of Hitler Lives! stories we’d see in pop culture after the war, including the dictator’s suicide.

In its own right, it’s a solid adventure with some great bits by Pat Savage again (she admits she likes to sneak into Doc’s headquarters with a stolen key every so often). There’s also a great speech by Monk making it clear that Doc & Co. have always known and accepted the risk of death. If they have to risk or accept it to save 250 lives, they will. And if any one of them made that call, the other five would back it to the hilt. It’s very moving, and very much the sort of thing we’d hear at the movies in the coming war years.

All rights to covers remain with current holders.

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The Mindless Monsters vs. The Birds of Death: Doc Savage again (#SFWApro)

Alan Hathway contributes THE MINDLESS MONSTERS which has a lot in common with his Headless Men as an army of monsters runs wild in New York. Unlike the early book, however, these horrors are real — men transformed into zombie-like warriors with superhuman strength, mindless obedience and an unfortunate tendency to age instantly when their usefulness is done.

While this probably owes something to zombie films, it also resembles THE MONSTERS in that the villain doesn’t want to use his creations to loot but to intimidate: a few high profile, destructive capers and people will cough up the dough when he threatens to unleash his creations. Which are explained by mad science accelerating their metabolisms so that they’re using up years of their strength in short bursts (which also explains the aging).

It’s a concept that ought to work, particularly after Doc gets taken and almost enslaved, but it just never caught fire with me. I’m not sure why. It does add several new gadgets to Doc’s repertoire, such as an electric field used for security at his HQ.

THE BIRDS OF DEATH by Lester Dent worked a lot better for me, reminding of the kind of daffy mysteries the era sometimes popped out. It opens with two hoods trapping Boots Baxter, a wealthy but ugly man, by setting his pet canary loose. Fortunately Doc catches them before they catch Boots. Who admits to his servant in passing that when a woman he’d fallen for mocked his face, he ruined her father in a business deal and she’s now slinging hash in a greasy spoon. It’s a clear sign that even if he’s not the big bad, he’s probably guilty of something.

More weirdness accumulates. Lots of people have heavily calloused feet like they’d get walking barefoot in the tropics. Lots of people own canaries. Several people appear medically dead, which Doc deduces is a form of suspended animation. It turns out the answer lies in Africa so we get an overseas trip that like The Flying Goblin ignores there’s a war on. What lies at the end of the trail is a lost race that considers canaries sacred symbols (the canaries earlier in the book were just a red herring though) and has the suspended animation drug. Unlike The Green Death, though, they plan to use it as a revolutionary food preservation treatment. Instead of shipping meat, ship animals in suspended animation, then kill them on arrival. That way the meat is fresher and better tasting (oops. the treatment turns out to give meat a horrible taste).

Pat Savage shows up and gets more action than she sometimes does. First Doc asks her to stash the female lead in the case; then Pat shows up in the middle of the adventure later. She reveals that she stole one of Doc’s radio transmitters and uses it to keep track of what cases Doc is working on (which makes it surprising she doesn’t horn in more often).

Like The Flaming Falcons, this has a footnote that the chemicals Monk mixes up in one scene are real, but to avoid accidents, the publisher can’t divulge the formula. Other footnotes reference the uses of ultraviolet light for identifying minerals and the use of Native American languages as a method of encrypting Great War communications.

Overall, it’s a fun book.

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

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A brief history of the Doc Savage paperbacks (#SFWApro)

Doc Savage debuted in Doc Savage Magazine, a pulp magazine that would run all the way to the late 1940s. After that, Doc faded into obscurity until Bantam revived him for a series of paperbacks starting in the 196os. By the time I started the series with Devil on the Moon, Bantam had already republished fifty of them.

The initial format was simple: one paperback a month, containing one Doc Savage adventure, though printed with little regard for the original order. What standard they used, I don’t know. I do know that the pulp originals usually had an ending teaser paragraph hinting at the next adventure. Those had to be cut from the paperbacks as the wouldn’t apply to the next story.

Early covers were all by James Bama, like the two above. He had a real talent for coming up with gripping covers that were usually relevant to the story — I don’t know if he actually read them or Bantam’s art director gave him specific directions, but I’ve seen much more prestigious books that had much less appropriate covers. Bama handled the covers up through #66, Mad Mesa, then he and Bantam parted ways (he went on to become an A-list Western artist) and various others filled in, including Boris Vallejo (probably a bigger cover name back then).

And then after #96, Mystery on Happy Bones (which I haven’t read yet), things changed (that’s late 1970s, if you’re curious). As book prices kept going up, book sizes increased too so that the cost per page wasn’t insanely high. 60,000 words was common for a novel back in the 1960s, but it’s way too short now.

Instead Bantam switched to double-books, two novels per book. Some of the later books were smaller, but as they re-reprinted earlier novels in the same format, that wasn’t the main reason.

And then in the eighties, they switched to an omnibus format, with four or sometimes five novels to a book. Part of which was that a lot of them were post-war novels and these were indeed a lot shorter (I may up my rate of reading when I get to that point). The reason I’m using more pulp covers as illustrations is that more and more of the books I’m reading are from the omnibuses (I have, I believe, three one-novel books left). I don’t want to use the same cover for four or five different reviews.

I’d planned for something a little more substantial today but the root canal today is disrupting my schedule. So this is it. Covers by Bama, all rights remain with current holder.

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The Green Eagle of Mystery Island: Doc Savage again (#SFWApro)

THE GREEN EAGLE (cover by James Bama, all rights remain with current holder) is one of those Doc Savage adventures that reads like a conventional pulp story that Doc somehow stumbled into — mundane McGuffin, mundane foes, Doc and his crew acting pretty much like regular PIs. That despite the paperback’s rear cover claim it’s a “totally new kind of adventure.”

The first 40 pages come off like a Western mystery, something you might see in a Gene Autry movie. Protagonist Ben “Donald” Duck is a cowboy stuck working at a dude ranch to support himself when he stumbles across one of the guests, McCain, searching the unconscious guest Panzer. Mysteriously, Ben blacks out, then wakes up to discover someone’s planted a kid’s toy on his chest. It’s one of those puzzles where you move balls (in this case metal feathers) into holes (in this case in a green eagle image) to win, and comes with a little rhyme on it. That’s the green eagle of the title, not the bird Doc confronts on the cover.

All of this resembles the opening of The Pirate’s Ghost in which Sagebrush Smith discovers the dying scientist. Except this is much more mundane. It turns out that a wealthy man in New York gave his heirs some kind of cryptic message before he died, a message that’s tied to the puzzle. The crooks are interested enough to send pretty Johana “Hicky” Hickman to pose as his niece and get the puzzle from Ben Duck.

Of course Doc and his crew get embroiled in the goings on. It turns out the location of the holes in the toy is a map to a gold mine near Green Eagle Springs. Good guys get the gold, bad guys get death or jail, we’re done.

This is another of the adventures where Doc shows more emotion than usual. Though it really doesn’t seem to deserve any. A minor note is that Doc has a new security precaution when talking to his aides over the phone or radio — ask “what should I do with Elmer?” and if the answer is “Tie ribbons on Elmer,” he knows it’s one of the five. Except he forgets which gets them into trouble. And I don’t believe they ever used the trick again.

MYSTERY ISLAND is a stronger story (though I didn’t find it so the first time I read it), and also shows evidence for Bobb Cotter’s theory (which I mentioned last month) that Lester Dent’s yarns are getting more realistic at this point. Even though the bad guys’ super-weapon can sink entire islands, we never see it in operation — it’s all intrigue, action and double-crosses.

The book opens with a practical joke by Rennie triggering an attack on the team. It turns out they’ve been stalked for a while and the bad guys are making their move. Their target, we learn later, is Johnny, because of his geological expertise (which Doc describes as being a century ahead of anyone else in the field, and doesn’t even exempt himself). Investigating the attack, Doc discovers multiple people involved who keep switching sides. That includes Hester, a blonde who’s attached herself to Monk but turns out to be one of the bad guys and Miss Wilson, who turns out to be a British agent. Both extremely competent; Wilson’s willingness to cuss is fun, though having to write it as “blankety blank” only looks silly.

This feels very much like an early WW II adventure for Doc: the good guys are British agents, the bad guys are targeting England with an earthquake device. Not to create earthquakes in England (a la Man Who Shook the Earth) but to raise the ocean floor, cutting off the Gulf Stream so that England will ice over. But as with last month’s The All-White Elf it’s about the benjamins, not the war (the villains are identified as foreigners, but Scandinavians).

Top cover by James Bama, second by Emery Clark. All rights remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage, a pink lady and headless killers! (#SFWApro)

I notice I frequently describe Doc Savage novels in this period as lots of chasing around. Dent and his various ghosts do a lot more of that than in earlier stories — one person gets kidnapped, gets snatched back, Doc goes after someone, finds they’ve already vamoosed, goes back to HQ finds out Monk and Ham have disappeared on another trail. All of which were elements in previous years, of course, but it seems much more frantic here (without sitting down for in-depth comparison, it’ll have to remain a subjective assessment). Case in point, the first of this month’s stories.

THE PINK LADY starts off with a bang: beautiful Lada Harland staggers into a hotel lobby during a storm, and when the shawl over her head slips, it turns out she’s a bright pink. Seconds later, men bust into the lobby and kill her, despite the intervention of young, good-looking Chet Farmer. When Chet learns Lada was trying to reach Doc Savage, he contacts him and asks in on the investigation.

More pink people turn up. Monk is turned pink at one point. And then comes lots of chasing and running and fingers pointed at various characters before we learn what it’s about. As with earlier novels such as Spook Hole or Mystery on the Snow it’s not a super-weapon but a business breakthrough, a ray that can change the colors of things. It could, for example, turn fabrics any color you wanted without the cost of dye supplies. The villains are turning black industrial diamonds into blue-white beauties. And it can turn people pink to pressure them into cooperating in return for a cure (gotta say, as threats go that’s not one of the better ones in this series). Despite all the chasing around, it’s enjoyable. And it did threw a twist I didn’t expect — instead of being one of Dent’s drifter heroes, Chet’s actually a disgruntled crook who wanted a bigger cut than the boss was willing to grant.

Alan Hathaway’s THE HEADLESS MEN, by contrast, is a super-weapon story, and quite an effective one. The masked villain’s tech can laser off a human head in an instant (that’s not the term they use, but the heat ray has the same effect), burn down a building — oh, and he has an army of headless corpses rising up to do his bidding. I figured the latter was a trick (although my explanation was wrong) but it’s still effective.

The mastermind seems to be pressuring the targets of his attacks into sending their payoff money to the Central American dictatorship of San Roble, thereby taking it away from any easy tracking by American banks or Doc Savage. The bad guy is also several steps ahead of Doc, sabotaging his dirigible, sending killers into Doc’s underground garage, and equipping himself with the kind of ultraviolet goggles Doc and his team frequently use. Despite some implausible details here and there, it’s pretty good. Certainly better than Hathaway’s debut effort.

The Cotter book on the Doc Savage series argues that books like this are turning into anachronisms: as Dent’s Doc Savage became increasingly down-to-Earth, these ghostwritten turns hark back to the more spectacular SF stories of the 1930s. Cotter seems to prefer the turn to a more realistic Doc; I’m not the only fan who disagrees. But that’s what makes horse races.

Covers by Emery Clark, all rights remain with current holder.


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War draws closer: Doc Savage Meets the All-White Elf and the Golden Man (#SFWApro)

THE ALL-WHITE ELF starts off with an interesting protagonist, Arnold Haatz. Unlike the typical young drifter or woman in distress Dent uses regularly in this period, Haatz is a middle-aged civil service functionary whose past is more colorful than his office could guess (service in the army, rode with Pancho Villa). When, like so many Dent characters, he discovers something horrible, he calls in Doc Savage.

Then Haatz encounters the white creature of the title, blazing with an unearthly glow that leaves Haatz and others temporarily blind and disoriented. Doc and crew are as vulnerable to this mystery thing as everyone else, but of course, Doc soon starts to figure out how it works.

It’s fairly obvious that it’s a crooked operation, and it turns out to involve a shipment of gold some European nation is sending over to store in the US (presumably to keep it out of Axis hands). The elf is the super-weapon that will help the crooks get it.

It’s a solid story, though unusual in that the guy with the mystery weapon isn’t planning to take over the world or sell it to one side or the other in the war, just to steal.

THE GOLDEN MAN is the one where the war really plays a role. It opens with Monk and Ham returning from Europe, where they’ve actually been thinking about volunteering for the war (again, Dent don’t specify which side, which might have implied he was taking sides, something a lot of people still frowned upon). Doc however, calls them home first. On the way back by transatlantic ship, they discover the eponymous figure of the title, floating in a weirdly shining patch of ocean under a dark star in the heavens.

The guy turns out to be a precog, knowing all kinds of stuff about the people on board and predicting correctly that the ship the guys are on will be sunk by a foreign sub (using the other side’s colors in hopes of turning the US against them, a fear Dent also touched on in Devils of the Deep). The ship is hit, but everyone makes it too land in Central America. Where Monk and Ham are promptly arrested as suspicious aliens, part of the villain’s plan to get them out of the way.

By the time they get back to NYC with Doc, the Golden Man has been set up as the head of a cult thanks to his strange psychic gifts. Which he demonstrates to Doc by revealing the location of Doc’s birth (on the steamer Orion), something nobody knows (although it’s not exactly a blockbuster revelation, more like a trivia note). What’s the dude’s secret? Or that of the black star?

It turns everything has a perfectly mundane, if not dull explanation. The golden man was an amnesiac British spy, which is how he knows so much about everything. The glow was a side-effect of a new anti-submarine weapon; the black star was just a fluke, smoke from his exploding plane that briefly looked like a star. It’s almost an interesting twist, but it comes off rather rushed and a bit of a cheat. A shame as this was fun up to that point.

(Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights remain with current holders)

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