Category Archives: Doc Savage

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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Doc Savage Goes North: The Devil’s Playground, Bequest of Evil (#SFWApro)

For the opening novels of 1941, we get THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND by Alan Hathaway and BEQUEST OF EVIL by William Bogart.

The Devil’s Playground (cover by James Bama, all rights to current holder) seems to take place in the Great Lakes equivalent of the “modern west.” That’s a term for movies and radio shows that use standard Western tropes while unmistakably set in the present day. Here, for example, we have Ojibway running around in war paint, demanding the white man leave their land before the curse of the Devil’s Tomahawks (which can cut a man fifty times in a matter of seconds) kills the red man as well as the white. If the white man refuses, look out, they’re “on the warpath.”

Why yes, it is heavy on the stereotypes (including the “superstitious savages”). The plot concerns a slowly collapsing mining operation — the iron the owner hoped for just isn’t there — in the north woods that’s become the target of the Devil’s Tomahawks. Doc, of course, suspects something fishy, but why would anyone want an iron mine that has no iron? Answer: it has nickel! Nickel is vitally important for military manufacturing, the area is rich with it so the Russians are out to take it, using the Devil’s Tomahawks as a smokescreen (this is the first time I can think of since WW II that one of the stories has blamed a specific nation rather than an Unnamed Foreign Power)

The villain’s gimmick, an adaptation of the medieval Iron Maiden, worked when I first read it. Reading in sequence, I’m aware that the same trick figured in The Crimson Serpent just a couple of years earlier. That cost Hathaway points.

There are an assortment of Doc gadgets, including having him hide one tiny device up his nose. And as in The Purple Dragon we have references to pre-Man of Bronze adventures, showing Doc was already busting the bad guys before his pulp series started.

Bequest of Evil is one of those I hadn’t read when it came out in paperback, and it’s a much better book (cover by Emery Clarke, all rights to current holder). It starts with an attempt to kidnap Doc, which surprises him: he’s used to crooks making pre-emptive strikes, but to kill, not to kidnap. Then Monk discovers he’s inherited a British Earldom and estate in Canada that goes with it. Not being an idiot he checks out to see if this is a trap (no!), then heads north to his new property.

More kidnap attempts on Doc and his crew follow. There’s a running gag about Monk trying to class up his act for his new station in life. And there’s a mystery figure who looks like Monk, probably the weakest element — seriously, anyone as physically unique as Monk and he just happens to have a double?

It turns out that gang boss “Lucky” Napoleon has set up this elaborate bait for Monk (it was a trap after all!) because — well, he screwed up and thought Monk was the electrical wizard on the team instead of the chemist. Napoleon has found a way to scramble all radio waves except the special short-wave radio his enslaved technicians have developed; whichever European nation he sells it too can shut down all communication except for its own.

The novel is one of the series’ straight pulp novels — for the most part it could have been done with some ordinary pulp adventurer rather than Doc. Which is not meant as a put-down, it’s fast-moving and fun.

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Doc Savage, Pat Savage and overseas travel: The Awful Dynasty and The Men Vanished (#SFWApro)

Bobb Cotter’s Doc Savage reference book points out, accurately, that between the start of WW II and Pearl Harbor Doc stayed almost entirely on the home front. As we wrap up 1940, though, we get two books that are an exception. THE AWFUL DYNASTY goes from England (as in The Flying Goblin, no war is noticeable) to New York to Egypt (which would be occupied by Italy shortly afterwards); THE MEN VANISHED is a trek up the Amazon.

The Awful Dynasty opens with a mysterious Egyptian cylinder being shipped across the Atlantic. Johnny, the archeologist, takes an interest and gets taken out. Several other people drop dead with what appears to be an Egyptian scarab sitting on them. Is it a King Tut-style curse?

Once again, we have two crooks with opposing agenda. The evil albino John Black (in thrillers, albinism always equals evil) believes the Egyptian scroll inside the cylinder is worthless, but plans to con a group of millionaires into financing an expedition, money he’ll then rip off (a la The Pirate’s Ghost). Though midway through he suddenly converts into a serious treasure hunter without explanation. The other villain, a crooked Egyptologist, knows the scroll is legit, and intends to get the treasure at the end.

It’s an adequate plot, but the execution is uninspired. It’s also one of those stories in which Pat Savage is there but doesn’t get to do much. And the ending, while I’ve seen it in other fiction from that era, doesn’t age well: the beautiful Egyptian princess filling the guest-star role in the story falls for Monk, so the guys “save” him from marrying her by convincing her he’s already married with children. It wasn’t funny when I first read it, or now.

A minor point: this is one of several stories which establish Doc has a vetting committee (Monk and Ham in this case) to decide if people asking for his help really need it. Dent was never consistent about this, as witness the following book shows people going straight up to Doc to ask for help. Possibly Doc wavered back and forth on the merits.

The Men Vanished is a much better book, with a larger and livelier role for Pat. The backstory of the plot is that explorer Daniel Stage has vanished in the Amazon. So have the men who went to rescue him. Finding vanished explorers is meat and drink for Doc, but in this case it’s a scam: Stage lures various adventurers to find him, then captures them and forces them to transfer their wealth to him, gradually enough nobody catches on. And while he’s living in a lost civilization descended from the Incas it’s perfectly unremarkable — no more amazing than any tribe that’s been isolated from Western civilization.

Of course Stage isn’t dumb enough to try and trick Doc, so when he fears Doc might get involved, he sends men to NYC to take Savage out. Trying to figure out what’s going on takes up much of the book. Embroiled in the action is Phil O’Reilly, a good-looking adventurer wannabe and (by the description) metrosexual who worries he’s not really manly enough. While he’s wealthy rather than one of Dent’s penniless drifter characters, he seems cut from the same mold.

The book has several good set pieces such as Doc dying early on and a climactic fight against an enraged jaguar. On the downside, we have a Native American millionaire, which is different from the usual stereotypes, but they still creep in (Dent compares his skill at flying a plane to a crazed Native horseman circling a wagon train). There’s also Stage’s odd decision to disguise himself with a Two Face-style mask, half normal, half looking like a grotesque native. Dent never explains what the advantage of drawing attention to himself is.

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

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