Category Archives: Doc Savage

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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Dragons and sea serpents vs. Doc Savage! (#SFWApro)

THE PURPLE DRAGON by William Bogart (cover by Bob Larkin) is the first novel to really deal with Doc’s crime college since The Annihilist (I don’t really count The Flying Goblin). The “college” is where Doc’s team of surgeons operates on criminals to erase their memories, after which they’re trained into law-abiding citizenship. This is usually portrayed as being more humane and productive than imprisonment; this book throws in that Doc would sooner have the crooks as taxpaying citizens rather than living on the taxpayer dime.

The book opens with the kidnapping of Hiram Shalleck, a likable lunch-wagon operator. After confronting the fire-breathing Purple Dragon, Hiram regains his memories of life as Joe Mavrik, bootlegger and mobster, with no idea of his other life, or that it isn’t still 1929. When he starts to realize what’s happened, the bad guys whack him. Several more graduates get the same treatment but the evidence indicates they were murdered years ago (the cops have no idea where they’ve been). Doc, however, knows better and begins the investigation. It’s a good, twisty mystery with several in-jokes in character names and quirky touches (Doc has trackers implanted in his team’s socks!). It reuses the wristwatch communicators from Merchants of Disaster and also borrows several bits from earlier books. Monk and Ham are apparently stuck back in prehistoric times (a la Giggling Ghosts); the bad guys gas people and put them in compromising positions (Evil Gnome). There are also lots of minor oddities: Doc’s anesthetic gas is visible as a fine haze when he uses it; Doc uses a utility belt rather than his usual vest.

Those are minor continuity glitches though. The real flaw is that we get no hint how the villains pulled this off. They don’t have anyone inside the college giving them tips, so how do they know where to find all the targets (members of a former NY mob who know where to find their late boss’s hidden loot)? How do they even know the college exists? It’s a serious weakness in an otherwise solid mystery.

Speaking of the college, the time frame shows it was operating in 1929, well before the start of Doc’s heroic career. Not surprising (when we hear of it it’s an established operation) but more fodder for my Young Doc Savage concept.

DEVILS OF THE DEEP by Harold Davis (cover by Emery Clarke) opens with a sea serpent, or possibly a giant tentacle, crushing a small fishing boat. In an odd bit, Monk, Ham and Long Tom offer to investigate, just so they have an excuse to go to the coast and fish. Monk deliberately downplays evidence that there’s something going on so Doc won’t feel the need to go with them. Doc, of course, sees through this.

Unusually the story doesn’t waste any time speculating a possible supernatural threat. Doc identifies the menace as mechanical early on. It turns out a group of engineers have developed an anti-sub device that captures submarines with its coils, then holds them underwater until the crew runs out of air. Bad guys have the device, and they’ve used it to seize a submarine; now they’re raiding up and down the coast.

This is a very WW II book, even though it’s still 1940 and the US isn’t involved. Rather than assume it’s the Axis attack (as opposed to Merchants of Disaster, where the oxygen destroyer is assumed to be a Japanese weapon), the thinking is that one or the other side in Europe is trying to manipulate America into coming into the war as their ally. Then it appears that Doc Savage is the one behind it (not the first time he’s been blamed for something like that). Despite the awkward opening, it’s a solid, competent adventure. It’s the first book since I started rereading these that I didn’t actually have (and haven’t read) though not the last (I picked it up used).

Rights to both covers remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage, High and Low: The Flying Goblin and the Tunnel Terror (#SFWApro)

Both books this month are by William Bogart, not Lester Dent, and both covers are by Bob Larkin. All rights to covers reside with current holder.

2846284THE FLYING GOBLIN starts off in cracking style: two hoods summon a hurtling Something from the sky to smash into Doc’s crime college (which hasn’t appeared since The Annihilist) and bust out Birmingham Jones. Jones has undergone Doc’s memory-wiping surgery, but he hasn’t been broken of the desire to kill, so the bad guys recruit him. Meanwhile Ham and Monk, acting on their own, investigate a pretty young woman’s story of seeing a similar flying object near Sleepy Hollow (there are references to the Headless Horseman, but nothing really comes of that angle). The flying thing destroys their car, almost killing them. What is this mysterious super-weapon/being? And what are the bad guys’ goals?

It’s a lively story until it falls apart at the end. There’s no good reason for the guys to have attacked the college (which is, after all, guaranteed to draw Doc’s attention, a thing to be avoided) as Birmingham Jones isn’t really any tougher or nastier than umpty-zillion other thugs in the series. And how did they know his mental state, given there’s no hint they have a spy inside the college?

Then there’s the climax in Paris. Once again, WW II infringes on the series, but only in the sense that there are two unidentified countries fighting somewhere else in Europe (apparently only two), and both sides think the other is using the flying weapon (a super-fast radio-controlled missile) against them. France? Apparently in the Savage-verse it hasn’t been fighting in the war since the previous year. Oh, unlike The Evil Gnome, the bad guy’s real goal isn’t to sell his weapon, it’s to terrify the world into making peace (in another WTF moment, the two warring countries do indeed stop fighting. It’s as incompatible with the real world as Fu Manchu assassinating Hitler).

In a minor note, Bogart forgets that Renny looks saddest when he’s happy and vice versa.

THE TUNNEL TERROR is flawed, but a lot better. It starts, like a lot of recent Dent stories, with an unemployed drifter; this time it’s veteran tunnel digger (“mucker”) Hardrock Hennessy. Hitchhiking out West to get a job with one of the big dam projects, he encounters a mysterious fog that burns when it touches and fatally desiccates anyone caught inside it. He narrowly escapes, but the fog is soon threatening other people in the digging tunnels around the big dam. There are also remnants of a lost civilization of giants — is it possible they’re still down there, alive? As with The Awful Egg, it’s not a possibility we can rule out.

It turns out, though that the gas and the supposed giants — the artifacts are real, but the makers are long gone — are part of a scheme to stop the dam project and relocate it to land someone else owns (land grabs are a familiar series plot). Today, of course, they might be able to stop the project based on the archeological significance alone. It’s a solid story, but the lost race probably needed to be played up or somehow tied in with the gas — as is, it’s like the bad guys were just throwing plots at the wall to see what sticks (which admittedly would be plausible). We do get one of the series’ competent women, Chick Lancaster, a tough-minded but (of course) gorgeous engineer working on the dam.

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Continuity and Doc Savage: The Boss of Terror, The Awful Egg (#SFWApro)

Doc Savage is, in many ways, a pulp forerunner of the comics super-heroes. But one of the ways Lester Dent’s tales don’t resemble the comics is the lack of continuity.

Comics continuity fascinated me as a kid. In Justice League of America #34, to take one example (it was one of my early acquisitions), there are references to Dr. Destiny’s previous battles with the JLA, including footnotes identifying the specific issues. This made them seem more real to me — just like life, what happened one issue could affect what took place down the road.  Doc Savage stories, by contrast, almost never reference each other. When Murder Melody compared events to similar ones in an earlier book (Man Who Shook the Earth) it astonished me because that was so unusual. As witness this month’s novels—

1253616THE BOSS OF TERROR (cover by Boris Vallejo, all rights to current holder) opens in media res: Doc, Monk and Ham crash an ambulance into a limousine, part of a plan to get inside the mansion of millionaire “Radiator” Smith (wealthy from manufacturing automobile radiators and the like). Smith’s scared, wants to talk to Doc, doesn’t want the meeting publicized …but when Doc, posing as Smith’s chauffeur, gets inside the mansion, Smith insists he never called, doesn’t want to talk, please go away.

And then Smith’s son gets done in with lightning. That struck him inside a closed room. And then more men, also named Smith, die the same way. By the end of this fast-moving adventure (not great, but fun), it turns out the villain’s gimmick is exactly the same as the McGuffin in World’s Fair Goblin — a suitcase-sized battery that can store enough energy to power a skyscraper. Or electrocute someone; it turns out the invention in this book can only generate static electricity, which doesn’t work for power generation, but does fine as a murder/extortion weapon.

At no point does anyone refer to the previous adventure, which happened only a year earlier. I’m guessing Dent realized he hadn’t done much with the device in the previous story, so he used it as a murder weapon this go-round. But reading in original publication order (the paperbacks were closer to four years apart) it does seem odd nobody mentioned the resemblance.

A minor surprise is that the woman in the story, Annie, is nothing but an adventurer looking to make money off the gadget. She seemed so purposeful, I assumed she must be a female spy like Annabel in The Angry Ghost.

THE AWFUL EGG (cover by Bob Larkin, all rights to current holder) is one where continuity references would definitely have helped. It opens with Dr. Samuel Harmony (a phony doctor, I should note), abruptly shutting up his business and firing his receptionist, Nancy. When she talks to her boyfriend about it, someone shoots at her — which convinces the couple to contact Doc Savage.

 

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Harmony, meanwhile, heads out west into the Badlands of Colorado. It turns out he’s an amateur paleontologist (though Dent refers to paleontology as archeology throughout the book) so he decides to pass his time on the run hunting for fossils. Johnny poses as a local guide, giving him his best role in ages. We learn he started using big words as a rookie archeologist/geologist to impress people, but enjoyed it enough to keep it up even after becoming established in his field. During the expedition, they find an ice cave where they unearth a dinosaur egg. Which gives Harmony an idea … but not a great one. After splitting from Johnny, Harmony kills and mutilates an animal, then a human adversary, to make it look like something actually hatched out of the egg. Then he uses a mock-up dinosaur to attack his rivals — it turns he and the other bad guys are in a three-way contest for control of a gold hoard.

The thing about Doc Savage stories is, it’s entirely possible to have a dinosaur show up, unlike, say, The Shadow. Doc battled dinosaurs just a few months ago, in The Other World. So why not reference the story to make the fake monster more plausible? You’d think Doc’s men would bring it up. I’m not sure it would help, as the scheme is strained (at times it feels like Dent had just read up on dinosaurs and wanted to show off his know-how) and one of the villains pretty obvious.

A minor inconsistency is that Ham now smokes cigars, which is treated as something he’s been doing since forever (whereas Monk, who’s sometimes shown as a smoker, apparently isn’t). A minor surprise is that Nancy turns out to be a selfish gold-digger, so much so even the libidinous Monk isn’t interested. Usually the female guest-stars were good girls.

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Story Behind the Story: The Savage Year (#SFWApro)

savageyears3-375x600As I mentioned last week, The Savage Year is now out in the online magazine Lorelei Signal with that great illustration by Lee Ann Barlow (all rights to image reside to current holder).

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

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

Why yes, this is the story about Doc Savage’s daughter that I wrote about starting several years ago. As noted at the link, I’d wanted to write about her (or more precisely my version of her) since the early 1980s, but never came up with a story. Then I hit on teaming her up with Art West, great grandson of James West, the hero of Wild Wild West now following family tradition by working for the Secret Service, though as a mage.
That frankly floored me when I reread it. Now that I think about it I can dimly remember Artemus West, but he’s been Artemis and female so long I didn’t remember it any other way (Jim West’s partner was Artemus Gordon. So descendants are stuck with the name). Although as I write a lot of male/female teams, it’s not surprising (I’ve no idea why I switched).I do know the basic concept shaped up early. Mages in the Secret Service actually have a dull gig. All they do is go around and touch up the bindings Native American shamans used to lock various Lovecraftian outsiders away. As long as the mages do their job, the outsiders can’t get out.Except that when Artemis goes to check the local bindings (originally San Francisco, but it eventually shifted to the Midwest) she discovers someone is letting outsiders loose. Which is, of course, bad. Even with a bronze teenage tornado who fights like ten men (she’s Doc Savage’s daughter. She’s been well-trained) Artemis has a hard time stopping the bad guy.Unfortunately I had no idea what the bad guy planned to do. Or what his plan was — I wanted multiple encounters between his monsters and the women. Or exactly how to stop him. Eventually I figured it out, with the help of Lester Dent’s plotting formula — appropriate as he created Doc. I also trimmed back a lot of the in-jokes. I wanted to make sure that someone who’d never heard of Jim West or Doc Savage could still enjoy the story. That meant avoiding anything that would make readers stop and go “Huh? What’s that supposed to refer to?” There’s one reference to Artemis’ family (creepy uncle Herbert West, from an HP Lovecraft story) but nothing more. Perhaps if there’s a next time …Then I shared it with some beta-readers who made some good suggestions. First, that as the malevolent Covenant-Price doesn’t appear until the end, it’s hard to build him as an antagonist. Now he’s in multiple scenes. Second, that there were places I needed to make things even weirder in a couple of places. I think I succeeded.Lorelei Signal is free, so go ahead and check it out. Especially my contribution.

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Doc Savage vs. Spotted Men and Evil Gnomes (#SFWApro)

1808375THE SPOTTED MEN (cover by Boris Vallejo, all rights remain with current holder) opens with steel kingpin J. Henry Mason and his troubleshooter “Tink” O’Neil testing out a race bar built partly from Mason’s revolutionary new formula for a tougher, lighter steel alloy — one that has obvious military potential, as is noted later in the plot. Only the car axle made from the super-steel breaks. And Mason disappears. And a berserk steelworker shows up, fighting with superhuman strength and covered with spots.

The story that follows by William Bogart, isn’t great, but it’s reasonably entertaining. As more men run wild and a plane built from the alloy breaks too (carrying not only Mason’s daughter but her friend Pat Savage) Doc and his crew arrive on the scene. It soon becomes obvious there’s a conspiracy to shut down the factory — could it be that as in Bogart’s previous story Angry Ghost, the plot has roots in the new European war (this was a March 1940 story)? In a twist I must admit I didn’t expect, it turns out no — the real scheme is one of Mason’s relatives, plotting to shut down the steel mill, crash the company stock price and take it over for a song. It’s in the tradition of Death in Silver and other finance-centric evil plans.

The best part of the story is Pat miraculously saving the plane from a crash. Later on, Doc shows how much he cares about his cousin when she’s finally rescued. The worst part is that the plot is a mess. There’s an exact double of Mason’s daughter running around which only serves to confuse people. And while I understand Mason trying to keep the steel formula safe, there’s no explanation why he allowed steel made from the fake formula to go into O’Neil’s car and the daughter’s plane (it appears that’s the reason for them breaking up). And once again, I could figure out the masked villain because there’s really nobody else to suspect.

THE EVIL GNOME is a good one by Lester Dent, though Bantam went cheap on the cover: it’s a cropped version of James Bama’s cover for Red Snow (all rights to image reside with current holder). It opens with yet another of Dent’s young drifters, but this time it’s a woman: “Lion” Ellison, a female lion tamer currently out of work due to punching her last employer out for sexual assault. She answers an ad for circus work that seems tailor-made for her. And it is. After meeting the creepy old dude who placed the ad (the gnome of the title), Lion suddenly finds herself walking down the street. Two days later. And it appears that in the interim someone took a photo of her murdering the state governor. Fortunately she’s received a letter from her dead brother in which he references Doc Savage (whom Lion had held up as the kind of guy her weak-willed, petty-crook bro should be more like). Can he get out of whatever she’s stumbled into?

While it’s fairly obvious what the gnome’s secret weapon is — an anesthetic gas so quick-acting you don’t even know you’re under — its use in the book is really effective. In one scene, Doc and his crew catch up with one of the henchmen, who’s about to spill everything. An instant later (as far as they can tell) his head is bouncing on the floor, an axe lying next to it. Yet they didn’t see anyone!

I also like that while the killings are partly PR, they’re also partly about PR. The gnome and his crew plan to cap off their killing spree by whacking a prince who’s visiting the US to encourage American support and intervention against the Axis. Once they kill him, the gnome plans to let both sides of the war bid for their services; the winner will see the loser’s entire military and political command wiped out.

The circus angle is rationalized by several characters having known each other on the circus or carnie circuit. Mostly though, it seems an excuse for Dent to toss off a lot of circus slang, particularly in Lion’s early scenes. Lion’s skills never come into play, unlike some of Dent’s other capable female characters.

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As you can tell, this is another where WW II plays a role but only in the background. It’s much more isolationist than usual: Dent’s narration speaks disdainfully of that foreign prince as trying to con the US into taking sides in the war. Previously Dent never expressed an opinion one way or the other. Was it that the pressure for intervention was becoming louder? Bobb Cotter argues another effect of the war was keeping Doc on the home front. He may have a point; I’ll look at the rate of overseas travel sometime and see if I agree.

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