Jul 15 2011 1:02pm

“I Double Doc Dare You!” — Reunion in Bronze

Doc Savage adventures The Desert Demons from Altus Press

From 1933 to 1949, Doc Savage strode tall through the pages of pulp fiction and cemented himself as one of the “greats” of the genre. Not as much of a household name as, say, The Shadow, Doc can claim a passel of passionate admirers, and a new Man of Bronze novel is cause for celebration. Thank Altus Press for that.

Doc’s publishing history is a fascinating one. After his pulp heyday, the character found new life in reprints in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, owing something to the “camp” craze. In other words, “modern” audiences found the Bronze Giant’s original adventures could be read with an entirely new mindset. As the Bantam reprints wound down, Doc fan and author Will Murray pushed forward with the idea of new adventures. What elevated him above others of the same bent was that Murray was armed with the keenest of weaponry: original Doc Savage writer/creator Lester Dent’s notes and unpublished fragments.

So, in 1991, Murray wrote, and had published through Bantam, seven new Savage sagas, all, in one way or another, springing from Dent material that had never seen the light of day back in the roaring 1930s and 40s. Alas, after those seven novels, Bantam shut down the Bronze foundry and Murray put his plans for more new books on hold.

Flash-forward to right-freakin-now and the return of the all-new Doc Savage adventures, beginning with The Desert Demons, from Altus Press.

True confessions: the very first Doc Savage novel I ever read was one of Will Murray’s, not Dent’s. Yes, let the stoning begin.

You see, I had the love of all things pulp instilled in me by my father, who, as a kid, ate that stuff up off the newsstands and radio. I knew about Doc, of course, but had always gravitated towards my dad’s favorite, The Shadow — but a 1991 edition of Comic Buyer’s Guide featuring a huge interview with Murray about the Man of Bronze set me on the track of destiny and I decided to try a Doc on for size. I reached for what was at hand: one of the new ones by Will Murray. That was White Eyes and that led me to the “real” stuff and several dozen reprint paperbacks later I’m a Doc and Dent fanboy.

So, what’s this Desert Demons like, you ask? Well, it’s pretty damn pulpy — and pretty damn good.

This is the Doc Savage of pulp legend. This is the character at his mid-1930s greatness, a “superman” with a heart of gold and a drive to right wrongs wherever he finds them. Murray intros Doc with all the Dentian verbiage and weight it deserves and he very quickly informs — or reminds — you that there was something about the era that made heroes seem bigger and bolder. Murray throws back the curtain and puts the “Man of Mystery” through his paces as if several decades had never slipped by and the world is still a rougher place caught in the shadow of an onrushing world war.

The Desert Demons, in grand Savage tradition, tells of a baffling phenomenon that kills men and disintegrates objects. Seemingly insect-like, the “demons” swarm through the air like a cloud of rust, both mindless and with purpose, but altogether sinister. Every Doc adventure is a mystery, and this one is no shirker of that solemn duty. I’ve read a submarine-load of Doc Savage stories and I was guessing up till almost the end exactly “whatwasit” and “whodunit.”

In case you’re concerned that this Doc may be too superhuman and boring as a protagonist, not to worry; Murray remembers to paint the Bronze Giant with a multi-faceted brush, endowing him with the traits of the gods, but also allowing him to admit when he’s baffled by the mystery and flustered when those who’re close to him fall into harm’s way. He’s even deafened by a grenade in the course of the story, and that too reminds us that our hero is merely flesh and blood.

And speaking of the gang; they’re all here. Doc Savage has five individuals, aides, who are almost as interesting characters as their chief himself. Murray includes them all and, pleasing longtime Doc fans I’m sure, focuses on the duo of “Monk” Mayfair and “Ham” Brooks. Monk and Ham aficionados are in for quite a treat in Desert Demons.

The other “bits” are present, too: Doc’s incredible devices, the pets, the guest-cast’s eccentricities, the wanted-by-the-police tradition… and, yes, Pat Savage. The beautiful cousin of Doc is here, and in all her glory, too.

Murray’s use of language — one might say it’s Dent’s — is also a joy to consume in The Desert Demons. It’s pulpy, sure, but the best pulp prose can be like a good beer or a quality steak to those who appreciate such stringing together of words… like:

…although the contrast between their unlighted panes and the bone-white structure brought to mind a square skull with many empty eyes, as if an otherworldly skeleton had been buried in the dunes up to its bleached jawbone.

Or in the simple wisdom of our hero himself:

“Profanity,“ Doc told him, ”never did anyone any good.”

I also want to give Murray and Altus credit for their use of an American Indian herein. The original pulps were no paragons of portraying minorities, but far too often modern takes on the genre tend to go overboard on the political correctness. Murray uses an Indian theme and a character that, while not exactly stereotypes, aren’t exactly noble and lofty. This makes The Desert Demons ring truer as an ode to the era, without devolving into the uglier aspects of its time period.

If I have any caveats to the praise I’m placing on The Desert Demons, it would be my disappointment that this first of the new era of Doc books wasn’t of the globe-trotting variety. Savage sagas can occur anywhere at all, but in my opinion they’re at their best in exotic locales outside the United States. Desert Demons takes place in the wilds of California, with a fascinating look at early moviemaking, but I couldn’t help but wonder why this inaugural tome didn’t fly me to somewhere I’d never been or couldn’t hope to ever visit. Another minor caveat is that the book delves a bit too often into the comedic, with some very over-the-top cast members — a little of their shenanigans goes a long way.

In all, The Desert Demons could prove to be either a fix for your ongoing pulp cravings, or a fine little introduction to the riches of the form. Bottom line: Will Murray is adept at what he does and has obvious love for the material and the characters. He doesn’t so much ape Lester Dent as he honors him. Honors him with echoes of his voice and styling and in carrying on the tradition of this truly unique American fictional figure.

But wait! What is the “Double Doc” I mention in the title? Glad you asked: that would be the brand-new unabridged audiobook of Murray’s 1991 Doc Savage adventure, Python Isle. We are currently subject to a multitude of Doc gems here, folks.

Now, I’m not the greatest spokesperson for audiobooks, being a tried-and-true devotee of, you know, actual books, but I can boil this down to just a few words: I got a kick out of this.

The narrator is a guy named Michael McConnohie and he brings this funky kind of bombasticity to the work that makes it both fun and a little bit goofy. McConnohie does different voices for all the characters and I give him a lot of credit for the way he goes back and forth between them and his “narrator voice” throughout the audiobook. This is eight total CDs here, a monster of a product and well worth the price of admission. I’d recommend plunking this into your car’s CD player for a long drive and pretend you’re on a mission with Doc Savage. It makes it the actual novel a trifle more “campy,” in a way, especially when you have someone doing voices but also all the “he said” and “she said” in-between, but again, its very fun. Give it a try.

Jim Beard, among many other stately writing pursuits, is the editor of Gotham City 14 Miles, a new book examining the 1966-68 Batman TV series. Get more info and read a sample chapter from the book, join its official Facebook page, or order a copy.

Dr. Thanatos
1. Dr. Thanatos
Thank God for the Man of Bronze, who got me through weeks of chemo as a bald avatar...

I look forward to this read if only to get the memory of Philip Jose Farmer's very...creative...take on Doc out of my hippocampus, as well as the movie from the 70's (with music by John Philip SoUSA) where Doc taps the dewey-eyed love interest on the chin and says "Mona, you're a brick."
Dr. Thanatos
2. Nora-Adrienne Deret
I was in college in the late 60's and stumbled across Doc in the Brooklyn College bookstore. I think I have almost all of the books from that era, about 100 of them. I'm looking forward to checking out this new offering.
Dr. Thanatos
3. Jeff Deischer
Good review but I have to disagree with two or your comments: I don't believe that most modern readers read Doc with a different mindset than those of the 30s and 40s; they still read him as a hero in fast-paced, well-written stories. If this wasn't true, he wouldn't be popular like he is. Also, I'd argue that Will Murray's greatest weapon is not using Dent's ideas -- but his ability and desire to duplicate Dent's writing.
Jim Beard
4. Jim_Beard
Thanatos; this is the Doc for you - pure and simple. Just the way you like him.

Ms. Deret, good luck on your continuing hunt...and I hope you check the new book out.

Jeff, thank you. Clarifications: I meant the readers of the late-6os into the 70s were perhaps reading Doc with a different mind-set than those fans in the 30s-40s. Also, Will's access to the Dent material was the weapon needed to set Doc back on an even keel and return him to greatness. And yes, I agree, his desire and ability also loom large in his arsenal.
Elias Rangel
5. erangel
I got my introduction to Doc Savage by the spanish reprints of the black & white 70's comic book. The only novel I have read is The Jade Ogre, which is part of the Murray's Bantam series.
Ronald Manley
6. manleyr
I got my intro from my father in the late 50's and I have been reading them ever sense, I probably have every copy out there and I am looking forward to a new one.
Dr. Thanatos
7. John R. Ellis
I love the idea of Doc Savage. So very much. I love some of the characters. I definitely enjoy the pulp thrills. But in order to read the original stories all the way through, for many of them I have to tune out so much truly ugly racial and sexual stereotypes.

I know, I know. Product of their time, most of it seems to be reflexive instead of active, and some show positively glow compared to the -really- nasty stuff...

...but still, it makes them difficult for me to invest in.
John Massey
8. subwoofer
Yay! This is good news, Doc got me through some er... rough times overseas. Love the Bronze Giant, funny that by today's standards he'd be average sized.

Also love the Man of Bronze movie.

Speaking of campy, the use of certain phrases and language in the books always crack me up. Not a swear to be found and the many different ways to say "gee Doc, that's a puzzler" and other such zingers really mark that era in my mind. This is something I'd be happy to read.

Jim Beard
9. Jim_Beard
John, I very much sympathize with your position and agree that its an aspect of the era that doesn't shine too brightly today. I also believe in not whitewashing the past, in the hopes that we can learn from it.

I think the original Doc Savage novels were among some of the more tame in terms of racial and ethnic stereotypes - Doc was pretty fair and even-handed to everyone. Unless, of course, you were a criminal.

I hope you may take a deeper look at THE DESERT DEMONS.
Dr. Thanatos
10. Algernon Lacey
Hmmmm ... never come across him. Sounds like James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles, the manly he-man of youthful pulp in the British Empire of non-regretted memory (or rather, history).

What I'm wondering is, what is the Desert Demons' view? Will they write a novel titled "Desert Humans", about Desert Demons who disappear mysteriously? About the humans, which appear to not have a shared intelligence, yet can plan things out in advance ...
Jim Beard
11. Jim_Beard
Wha? No Doc across the Pond? But, but...he's saved ol' Blighty, like, a a jillion times!

Well, I'll be superamalgamated! :)

The Desert Demons are currently unavailable to comment, Algy ol' toff. You'd better nick a copy of the book and see what's what, wot?

Jim (anglophile)
Dr. Thanatos
12. Shavager
Collected all the Bantam ppbks starting in mid 1960's, suffered thru the terrible George Pal movie years later and bought all of Will Murray's original seven adventures, can't wait to get the new ones! I know Doc Savage fans all agree--long live Doc Savage and his gang! Hats off to Anthony Tollin for his Doc Savage reprint series and to Will Murray's diligence in obtaining the rights to give fans new adventures!
Jim Beard
13. Jim_Beard
You said a mouthful, Shav! Thanks for chiming in!

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