Doc Savage and his five aides, in the wonderful James Bama illustration that graced the back of many Bantam reprints. (Clockwise from left, Ham the dapper lawyer, archaeologist Johnny, door-buster and engineer extraordinaire Renny, electrical wiz Long Tom and apish chemist Monk)
Well, after reviewing three somewhat lesser Doc Savage adventures in a row, I thought it was high time I talked about some of the bonafide best books in the series, lest I give too negative of an impression. These 12 titles are what I consider to be the cream of the Doc Savage crop, all of them grade A, high-octane, page-turning pulp adventures. An observant reader might note that almost all of them date from the first two or three years (1933-1935) of the sixteen that the Doc Savage Magazine was published by Street & Smith. I'll admit a personal bias here - I'm far fonder of these early globetrotting, exotic supersagas, with their outlandish and colorful plots, than I am of the later, leaner WWII-era, espionage and "scientific detective" tales. Many of the later novels boast tighter writing overall (Lester Dent had really honed his craft by that point), but these later stories are also missing the hell-for-leather, grandiose thrills of the earliest books (for me an essential ingredient).
The following dozen tales helped forge the powerful mystique of the Doc Savage character, who would go on to influence the men who created Superman, Batman and countless other principled superhero characters in popular fiction. Listed in chronological order, I highly recommend them all as fun popcorn reads of the first rank.
The Man of Bronze
"High above the skyscrapers of New York, Doc Savage engages in deadly combat with the red-fingered survivors of an ancient, lost civilization. Then, with his amazing crew, he journeys to the mysterious "lost valley" to search for a fabulous treasure and to destroy the mysterious Red Death."
Published March 1933, this inaugural Doc Savage adventure is not the best or most outlandish, but is as good a place to start the series as any. Doc is in full-on revenge mode in this and the next novel (The Land of Terror), and kills his enemies with limb-wrenching, bone-crushing impunity. Dent quickly retooled the character and from the third novel on, Doc's moral code of never taking a life if at all possible would become strictly enforced (this did not drastically reduce the body count of each book, however).
The Man of Bronze is also notable for explaining the source of Doc's vast wealth, which enables him to set up his crime-busting enterprise on the 86th floor of what many assume is the Empire State Building in New York City, and fund his exhaustive array of gadgets, fleets of vehicles, airplanes, dirigibles, submarines, etc.
The Land of Terror
"A vile greenish vapor was all that remained of the first victim of the monstrous Smoke of Eternity. There would be thousands more if Kar, master fiend, had his evil way. Only Doc Savage and his mighty five could stop him. But the corpse-laden trail led to mortal combat with the fiercest killing machines ever invented by nature."
This second adventure still finds Doc in an atypically vengeful mood, and he dishes out much severe punishment during the course of this tale, which is noteworthy for not only its mysterious means of murder (the "Smoke of Eternity" that basically dissolves its victims), but especially for its riffing on King Kong, as Doc and crew battle not only the bad guys but a variety of deadly dinosaurs. Typical of this "island that time forgot" scenario, a series of volcanic eruptions consigns Thunder Island to the deep by the end of the book.
The Polar Treasure
"Menaced by "the strange clicking danger," Doc Savage and his fabulous five-man army take a desperate journey on a polar submarine in search of a missing ocean liner and a dazzling treasure. Their only clue is a map tattooed on the back of a blind violinist. Awaiting them at their destination is the most terrible killer the Arctic has ever known."
The 4th Doc Savage yarn, The Polar Treasure, avoids the fantastical in lieu of wall-to-wall action, thrilling escapes, and nefarious skullduggery on the frozen arctic wastes. Unlike the colossal cheat of a cover illustration that mars Brand of the Werewolf, there is no false advertising here: Doc really does take on a towering polar bear in savage, hand-to-claw combat (only one of many inventive and highly entertaining sequences).
The Lost Oasis
"While seeking to solve the mystery of "the trained vampire murders," Doc Savage and his amazing crew suddenly find themselves prisoners of Sol Yuttal and Hadi-Mot aboard a hijacked Zeppelin. Their deadly destination is a fabulous lost diamond mine guarded by carnivorous plants and monstrous, bloodsucking bats."
Another tale full of blood-and-thunder adventure (and way too many exclamation points), The Lost Oasis is fast-paced, occasionally gruesome fun. A kidnapped aviatrix, weird villains, a nasty way of killing people with "the fluttering death," a lost diamond mine in the middle of the African desert that seems a direct inspiration for Clive Cussler's Sahara, fights with knife wielding tribal warriors on a dirigible - this one is packed with excitement and color.
The Phantom City
"Arabian thieves led by the diabolically clever Mohallet set one fiendish trap after another for Doc Savage and his mighty five. Only Doc, with his superhuman mental and physical powers, could have withstood this incredible ordeal of endurance which led from the cavern of the crying rock through the pitiless desert of Rub' Al Khali and its Phantom City to a fight to the death against the last of a savage prehistoric race of white-haired beasts."
For my money, this is the apex of the series. Lester Dent jumps right back into the realms of Burroughsian "Lost World" fantasy in The Phantom City. This is another novel that is a non-stop parade of terrific action sequences, all showing Doc at the top of his game, tangling with gangsters and giant ape men with equal skill and daring. If pulp adventure is your bag, it don't get no better than this, baby.
"Doc Savage and his fabulous crew journey to Tibet in pursuit of their most dangerous adversary, the evil genius Mo-Gwei. Battling against overwhelming odds, they try to stop him from conquering the world with a diabolical machine known as the Blue Meteor, a screaming blue visitor from space that turns men into raving animals!"
The villains' world-conquering, murderous "Blue Meteor" device is one for the record books. Doc and his crew travel to not one, but two, exciting, exotic locales - Argentina and Tibet. They arrive at the latter destination accidentally, as they wake up in Tibet a month later with no memory of how they got there...and on top of that, Doc finds himself engaged to be married to the beautiful Rae Stanley. Doc Savage, so powerful and masterful in all other walks of life, is perennially nonplussed around women, and his companions have a rare chance to get in some good laughs at his expense.
The Thousand-Headed Man
"With a mysterious black Chinaman, Doc Savage and his amazing crew journey to the jungles of Indo-China in a desperate gamble to destroy the infamous Thousand-headed Man."
Not much of a blurb to describe this, one of the best of all Doc Savage novels (and one of only two stories adapted for audio). Doc goes native in this one, running around the jungle and its mysterious lost city like Tarzan, performing nearly superhuman feats of strength and agility on virtually every page. The only drawback is his five aides aren't given nearly enough to do, and are captive for a good part of the book. This doesn't slow Doc down at all, as he pretty much single-handedly takes on the weird tribe that haunts the ancient stone city. This one starts out in London but really kicks into gear when it gets to the jungle, and the action comes thick and fast until the very last page.
The Mystic Mullah
"It was an ageless thing that had existed since the beginning of time -- a monstrous green face that spoke sudden death. With its legions of ghostly, nebulous soul slaves, it had begun to terrorize the world. Even Doc Savage and his fantastic five were helpless against its awesome power, until...."
Doc and crew travel to Asia to battle another weird menace. Do you sense a theme here? From this list, you might get the impression that all Doc Savage tales take place in far-away locales. Actually, at least half to two-thirds are set in New York City or a similar urban environment (and most of the ones that finish in someplace exotic, usually begin in NYC). I like those city mysteries just fine, but give me a story with Doc and his men running amok in foreign lands any day of the week. Main "Kenneth Robeson" author Lester Dent was a dab hand at investing his pulp efforts with lots of local color, little cultural tidbits and snippets of the local language, used sparingly but effectively to properly set the scene. Some plot elements of this novel were used in George Pal's overly campy film, The Man of Bronze.
The Land of Always-Night
"With the fate of America hanging in the balance, Doc Savage and his fearless crew battle a hideously white-faced man named Ool who kills merely with a touch of his finger. The only clue to his diabolical power is a mysterious pair of dark goggles which brings death to whomever possesses them. The trail leads to a fabulous lost super-civilization hidden deep in the bowels of the earth, where Doc Savage and his fabulous five face their supreme challenge."
This is a ghost-written Doc Savage novel, written not by series regular Lest Dent but by Ryerson Johnson. Usually, I don't care for the ghosted Docs, much preferring Dent's clipped, muscular prose, but Johnson does a bang-up job here. Just look at that fantastic James Bama cover! The novel lives up to the promise of that great cover, with the final 50 or so pages chock-full of unbelievable and original "lost race" adventure, every page oozing atmosphere. And Ool emerges as one of the series' most memorable villains.
Quest of Qui
"It started when a Viking Dragon ship attacked a yacht in the waters outside New York. Next, "Ham" was stabbed with a 1,200 year-old Viking knife. Then Johnny was captured and frozen solid in a block of arctic ice. Finally, even the mighty man of bronze himself -- Doc Savage -- is kidnapped and enslaved by the chilling menace. What is his plan this time? Can he save himself and his friends from almost certain destruction?"
Doc tales set in the cold, frozen north are usually good value and this one from 1935 is no exception. Archaeologist and long-word-loving Johnny gets a rare solo spotlight here, and it's his disappearance at the beginning of the story that gets Doc and his other four companions involved the mystery of yet another lost civilization, and some unscrupulous criminals trying to exploit it.
"In New York, Rama Tura, chosen disciple of the Majii, leads Doc Savage into a sinister world of drugs and advanced hypnotism. Far away in Jondore, a revolt is brewing that will pit the Man of Bronze against his most devious opponent: the who cannot die."
Some of the best prose to be found in the earlier Doc novels graces this splendid entry from September 1935. The Majii has a creepier feel than usual, thanks to the hair-raising antics of Rama Tura and his minions. The seemingly authentic supernatural manifestations puzzle even Doc for a longer than normal time, but as always, he eventually exposes the truth behind the villains' modus operandi. Includes lots of incredible, violent action and feats of near-superhuman prowess from Doc, a particular highlight being Doc and Monk's suspense-filled escape from a deep well, back-to-back and inching their slow and agonizing way up the stone walls.
Fortress of Solitude
"The deep mysteries of Doc Savage are finally revealed! John Sunlight, poetic genius of evil, gruesome master of a thousand elements of screaming terror, discovers the innermost secrets of The Man of Bronze. Doc Savage finds himself enmeshed in a diabolical web of dark horror as he valiantly battles the appalling machines of destruction he himself has invented!"
This is a fun and crisply-written adventure, notably mainly for two reasons which make it an instant classic in the series: 1) for the first time, Dent brings we readers into Doc Savage's sanctum sanctorum, the top-secret domed lab in the remote arctic to which he periodically retreats to conduct scientific research and invent technology for the betterment of mankind (that's right, the Superman creators ripped the "Fortress of Solitude" concept off from Doc Savage..."The Man of Steel?" Doc Savage was "The Man of Bronze" several years before Clark Kent). And 2) the book introduces, in John Sunlight, a villain almost the equal of Doc, and the only one to survive the finale to fight again another day. Sunlight manages to infiltrate the Fortress and steal a host of Doc's inventions which he begins to sell to the highest bidder - and those machines are soon put to horrendous, deadly use. An alarmed Doc is behind the curve for a goodly portion of this novel, which makes a refreshing change of pace. On a lighter note, Dent has some fun pitting Ham and Monk against Sunlight's Amazonian henchwomen, Giantia and Titania.
There you have it. If you pick up any one of these slender volumes and can't find anything to enjoy, then clearly, this series is not for you. Which is perfectly OK; after all, this series is just about tailor-made for 11-15 year old boys (or those who are still in touch with their 11-15 year-old-selves). If you have a taste for pulp adventure fiction, though, you'll likely still get a legitimate kick out of these inventive thrillers. We're not talking great literature by any stretch, but for escapist bedtime reading, you could do a darn sight worse.
Note: All plot synopses taken from the back cover blurbs of the Bantam editions, published by Conde-Nast.
Originally published in February, 1934 (next in line after Brand of the Werewolf), this 14th Doc Savage novel starts off like gangbusters but sags a bit in the middle and kind of limps to an unspectacular finish. Doc does have a few moments where he shows off his amazing prowess and mental abilities, but overall this is another disappointing early entry in the series, unusual in that most pre-1940 supersagas are fun and colorful reads to this day (books like The Polar Treasure and The Phantom City from 1933 are classics of their type, full of imagination, pulse-pounding action and period flavor).
The central gimmick - that the villainous organization known as the Little White Brothers has some machine that enables them to start earthquakes at a precise moment and location - is a good one, if not very credible. Doc and his men are offstage a bit too often for my liking, though, with altogether too many pages devoted to the comings and goings of beak-nosed John Acre, chief of the Antofagasta secret police. It also doesn't help that The Man Who... is about 40 pages longer than the typical Doc Savage novel. Dent doesn't provide enough inventive action and so the book winds up feeling a bit padded.
The Man Who Shook the Earth (great title!) had potential to join the upper-tier ranks in the series, but the execution is not up to snuff. It gets the job done, but writer Lester Dent seems to lose interest somewhat after a vivid opening, and doesn't render the Chilean locale with his customary atmospheric aplomb.
However, many other Doc Savage fans hold this tale in higher regard than I do, so as always, your mileage may vary.
Great James Bama cover on the Bantam paperback edition, though!
My rating: C+
Another decent but slightly ho-hum Doc Savage novel, which is unusual as the early books are generally pretty reliable when it comes to being fun, thrill-a-minute page-turners. The Doc Savage pulp magazine was published monthly, which meant main author Lester Dent and the occasional substitute (all writing under the house name "Kenneth Robeson"), had to churn out a dozen exciting, exotic adventure stories a year. Considering this punishing schedule, the sheer amount of good, fun reads produced is pretty impressive. But it also meant that the odd duff story cropped up here and there. Measured by the standards of the series as whole, Brand of the Werewolf rates as merely routine. Not bad, surely, but lacking the spectacle and imaginative menace that characterizes most of the early novels.
The Bantam reprint cover is terrific, but unfortunately promises more than the story delivers. Yes, Virginia, there is no werewolf. Not a real one as promised by the cover illustration, at any rate. I say this not to spoil things for potential readers, but to save them from the crushing disappointment felt by many a young reader back in the 70s who eagerly forked over their hard-earned cash once they got an eyeful of the cover and ended up bitter over false advertising.
The plot this time out:
Seeking to avenge his brother’s murder, Doc Savage and his daring crew become involved in a desperate hunt for the lost treasure of the pirate, Henry Morgan. Stalking them every inch of the way is the archfiend, El Rabanos, and his strange ally, the werewolf’s paw!
This story (published in January, 1934) starts out pretty well, with Doc and his five aides on a train en route to Canada for a much-needed vacation (perhaps the only time they do so in the entire 181 book series). The villains aren't particularly interesting this time out (there's no mysterious deadly gadget being deployed here, for one thing) and the novel is short of action by normal series' standards.
The book is notable mainly for the introduction of Doc's striking and statuesque cousin Patricia Savage, who would appear another 40 or so times throughout the series. Pat is not seen at her best and bravest here, but of course she's been through a particularly rough time of it, what with her father's murder and all. When next we see her, however, she's ready and raring to go, having got a taste for the action-packed lifestyle Doc and his pals lead. From then on, she tries to elbow her way in to whatever violent, blood-curdling mystery they happen to be investigating, despite Doc's attempts to keep her out of harm's way. She's a fun, memorable character, and, as described by Dent, almost as physically striking as Doc himself.
Dent's writing is a little smoother than in some of his first stories, but his descriptive powers aren't in full evidence yet, and Brand lacks the colorful, globe-trotting high adventure and memorable action of the best Doc Savage novels. Still a fun enough read, and recommended to pulp fans.
My rating: C
I used to be a big fan of the pulp hero Doc Savage, and collected many of the Bantam paperback reprints when I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s. Discovering other fans of the series online over the past several years (check out the wonderful website The Hidalgo Trading Company) has rekindled my interest and ever since, periodically, I find myself in the mood to run through a half-dozen or so of these short novels. Generally speaking, I've been able to enjoy them even through my more jaded and critical adult eyes, as examples of high-octane period adventure with often vividly-described action and spectacle. The best of them (usually by Lester Dent, who wrote the lion's share of 181 novels) are first-rate pulp thrillers that stand with the top work of the era.
However, the recent batch of "supersagas" (as entries in the series are fondly called by fans, a phrase that likely originated from famed SF writer and fan Phillip Jose Farmer, whose Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life is a very entertaining "bible" to the series) that I've been reading have been a decidedly average lot compared to last year's list.
The first in this year's Doc Savage binge was The Derrick Devil, originally published in Feb. 1937.
Bantam's paperback cover blurb reads:
A mysterious jellylike creature is terrorizing the Indian Dome Oil Field! The Man of Bronze and his five fantastic aides descend upon Oklahoma to do battle with dastardly Tomahawk Tant -- and uncover the infernal secret of the weird monster from the depths of the earth.
Despite a strong premise, this novel is pretty weak tea by writer Lester Dent's usual standards, with mundane villains, routine chases and escapes, and a less-effective performance by Doc this time out.
There is one great segment, though (pages 112-115), where some of the bad guys tie up the gaunt, big-word-spouting Johnny (one of Doc Savage's five pals that accompany him on his adventures) to a tank full of the weird, blob-like things that have apparently turned their many victims to piles of dissolved goo. Dent's writing comes alive here, describing Johnny's disgust and fear in atmospheric detail:
Johnny's hair stood on end. His eyes popped. Squirming, writhing hideously, translucent and ocherous in the light, was one of the fantastic monsters which had first been observed around the Sands-Carlaw-Hill wildcat oil well.
It's only a brief vignette, however, and the novel's resolution and explanation of the true nature of the creatures proves anti-climactic and somewhat lame, if in keeping with the series' rationalistic bent.
Overall, a lesser Doc Savage novel, but not without a few points of interest.
My Rating: C-
I first became acquainted with Gladys Mitchell and her delightful amateur sleuth, Dame Beatrice Adele Lestrange Bradley (Mrs. Bradley for short), when I came across her novel Laurels Are Poison at my local library. I was struck at once by the book’s original and lively tone. It was a school set mystery (a favorite sub-genre) and was bristling with wit, memorable characters and a strong sense of place. I enjoyed the novel immensely, but for a number of reasons (mainly due to lack of availability of many of Ms. Mitchell’s titles), I didn’t return to the series until almost 20 years later.
Perhaps spurred on by the short-lived (and mostly unsuccessful) TV series starring Diana Rigg, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries, several publishers have recently begun reprinting some of her most well-regarded works. Vintage Books (a subsidiary of Random House U.K.) is one of these. So far, Vintage has released 9 Mrs. Bradley novels, in simple yet pleasing, color-coded editions.This is a most welcome development, as Gladys Mitchell is an unfairly-neglected master of the Golden Age mystery, and deserves to be appreciated by a larger audience.
Mrs. Bradley herself is a wonderfully fun, colorful creation. Independently wealthy, twice widowed, a renowned psychologist with connections among all strata of society, unflappable in the face of danger and implacable in her search for the truth. Her appearance is somewhat alarming: "a small, shriveled, bird-like woman, who might have been thirty-five and who might have been ninety" with hands like "yellowed claws," a "sharp-featured, sardonic face" and bright black eyes like a bird of prey. She’s given to dressing in bright, gaudy clothing and "cackling hideously" to her own amusement. She’s not without her attractive points, however:
"Her voice was startling in that it belied her own appearance. Here was no bird-like twitter or harsh parrot cry, but a mellifluous utterance, rich and full, and curiously, definitely, superlatively attractive." (1)
Her calm and frank manner wins over most of the people she meets, and she has a particularly strong rapport with children. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, either, and moves with ease between manor house and moor, tracking killers, dodging knives, bullets and sundry other dangers. Despite her age, she possesses a "vice like grip" and is capable of great bursts of speed, and seems to have no fear.
All in all, Mrs. Bradley is a remarkable entertaining protagonist, and it’s no surprise really that she features in a stonking 66 novels (!), from 1929 to 1984 (her character enduring long past the Golden Age). By most accounts, the books from the first half of Ms. Mitchell’s career are the most consistently lively and clever. Part of the fun of discovering Gladys Mitchell is due to her wide variety of settings and styles. With so many books, she was forced to shake things up from time to time. Some titles are light and frothy, subtle parodies of classic detective story form, and some are somber, brooding mood pieces. And her writing is generally of a very high standard.
Come Away, Death (CAD) hails from this fertile early period, originally published in 1937. The 8th book in the series, it’s a curious beast in some ways. While a number of Mrs. Bradley books follow a more traditional detective novel format, CAD is much more novelistic in tone, more of a travelogue and character study, rich in mood and mysticism.
Here’s the blurb from the back cover of the Vintage Books edition:
"Sir Rudri Hopkinson, an eccentric amateur archaeologist, is determined to recreate ancient rituals at the temple of Eleusis in Greece in the hope of summoning the goddess Demeter. He gathers together a motley collection of people to assist in the experiment, including a rival scholar, a handsome but cruel photographer and a trio of mischievous children. But when one of the group disappears, and a severed head turns up in a box of snakes, Mrs Bradley is called upon to investigate..."(2)
Mitchell’s strong eye for local color and detail are obvious from the first page:
"Seated in the launch, waiting to be conveyed from the side of the S.S. Medusa to the shore, Mrs. Bradley found herself chiefly aware of the smell of sewage, which seemed, like a siren-song, to emanate form everywhere, subtle as the colours of the bay, and yet all-pervading as the sea mist through which the ship had sailed upon leaving England." (3)
Greece, with its careworn beauty, rich history and lively people, is really the overriding character of the novel, next to Mrs. Bradley, but the rest of the dozen or so supporting characters are brought vividly to life. Having been a teacher for most of her life, Ms. Mitchell is especially adept at depicting children, and here she captures three young boys in clear-eyed, non-cutesy detail. Their interactions with Mrs. Bradley are a delight.
Unusually for Mitchell, no murder occurs until well after the 200 page mark. Instead, the reader is treated to a slow but fascinating build-up of tension and dread atmosphere. We know something bad is going to happen, but only gradually does a likely murder victim become apparent.
This may tax the patience of those readers who like a more straightforward mystery plot. Mitchell does give us one, even if the ultimate reveal of the murderer is handled rather abruptly (though adroitly) in the final chapter.
Ultimately, the book is concerned more with the journey than the destination. The plot, while suitably audacious, is almost an afterthought here. This is a book which luxuriates in mood, atmosphere and character. Mitchell’s prose almost makes the mystical aspects of the various ancient temples and pagan beliefs become tangible and real, and the reader can practically feel the baking hot, dry Mediterranean heat.
The success of CAD for the mystery fan depends largely on what you read these sorts of books for. If you prefer fair-play plots and straight-up deduction, than this is probably not the best Mrs. Bradley novel to start with (better choices would be The Saltmarsh Murders, Death at the Opera, and When Last I Died, among many other more traditional entries in the series.)
But if you’re looking for something off the beaten track from the Golden Age detective norm, and are a fan of rich atmosphere and detailed characterization, then I can safely recommend CAD as an absorbing read.
For more information on Gladys Mitchell and the inimitable Mrs. Bradley, I highly recommend visiting Jason Hall’s terrific tribute site, The Stone House.
For an example of the BBC's bastardization...er, version of Mrs. Bradley, with a miscast Diana Rigg, click below:
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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