Doc Savage: A Potential Beginner’s Guide

Earlier this week, Cat Rambo kicked off a series of post chronicling her re-reading the Doc Savage pulps. Coincidentally, I recently bought a large set of Doc paperback, nearly completing a collection I started over 10 years ago. Given Cat’s essay and word of a Doc Savage film in development, I thought I’d recommend a ten novels for people new to the series.

Reading Doc can be intimidating because there were over 180 monthly “novels” published by Street and Smith in pulp magazine format between Doc’s 1933 debut and the series end in 1949. Most were written by Lester Dent, but published pseudonymously as Kenneth Robeson.  As with any huge series, some are better than others.

doc-no-1

Whether you like Doc Savage or not depends partly on your willingness to buy into the novels’ central conceit: a hero who is good at nearly everything, a genius Renaissance Man who is physically intimidating and morally upright.  Doc’s a bigger Boy Scout than any of the superheroes he inspired (Superman included).

The other hurdle to enjoying Doc is prose-related.  No serious writer looks to the Doc Savage novels for literary artistry.  Still, I can’t imagine any writer who wouldn’t admire Dent’s stamina as he knocked out a couple of 60,000-word , plot-driven novellas every month for 12 years (he wrote Street and Smith’s Avenger concurrently, letting William Bogart, Harold A. Davis, and others pen the occasional Doc story when needed).

Reading Doc is often the literary equivalent to watching The Bowery Boys or Hopalong Cassidy movies on TCM—they aren’t high art, but they’re evocative as hell when it comes to Americana. They’re fun, and fodder for Walter Benjamin-type dissection if one wants to engage with them intellectually.

With that said, where should someone start? I’m going to make a few recommendations not based on “best” or “most enjoyable” but on the potential entry points readers might have:

The Classics

1) The Man of Bronze (1933)

2) The Fortress of Solitude (1938)

If you only read two, these are the ones most referenced and most influential. Man of Bronze introduces Doc and his sidekicks, a group of extraordinary geniuses who met in the trenches of WWI and devoted themselves to fighting evil. Doc travels to a lost Mayan village where he finds his fortune (used to fight crime, of course). We also get the first of a recurring theme as Doc meets and rebuffs the affections of a beautiful girl (Doc’s celibate, ostensibly because any lover would become an enemy’s target). Doc’s Fortress of Solitude—a hidden, polar ice castle full of his inventions—was introduced by Lester Dent long before his book of the same name. Fortress of Solitude features a Russian villain who discovers Doc’s fortress and uses it against him. It was published the same year that Superman debuted in Action Comics, prior to Supes’ writers pilfering the Fortress concept, name and all.

Quintessential Doc

3) The Lost Oasis (1933)

4) Fear Cay (1934)

The most bang for your buck. Both feature globe-trotting adventures with Doc and his full crew at their finest. Lost Oasis features battles on a zeppelin, prominently featuring Doc’s mercy-guns that shoot knock-out gas pellets instead of bullets. The bad guys are dispatched in a memorable way. Did I mention ZEPPELIN FIGHT? Fear Cay is famous as the novel where Doc gets his ass whupped by a centenarian (the Fountain of Youth is involved). It’s a showcase for Dent’s writing method, which always leaves the heroes in bigger trouble at the end of a section than they where they began. The series always creatively juggled rational science and far-fetched ideas. Fear Cay is the probably the high-water mark of that approach.

A Man of His Times

5) The Czar of Fear (1933)

6) The World’s Fair Goblin (1939)

If you want to read Doc for a nostalgia vibe, try these. Doc plots don’t involve current events very often, but they can be very fun when they do. Czar of Fear finds Doc taking on the Depression in a rare case where our heroes don’t leave the States. It has lunch counters, folk singers, labor unrest, and lots of other topical luminaries. World’s Fair Goblin isn’t great plot-wise, but it all takes place on the grounds of the then-contemporary 1939 World’s Fair in New York. You get Doc and company swashbuckling through the Perisphere and Trylon, iconic Decopunk locales revisited by present-day writers like Howard Waldrop and Michael Chabon. (Note: a later work, The Hate Genius (1945), has Doc fighting Hitler, but came near the war’s end—not quite the “ripped from the headlines” tale we might hope for.)

Doc’s “Cure” for Crime

7) The Annihilist (1934)

8) The Purple Dragon (1940)

As fans know, Doc tries to avoid killing and, brilliant neurosurgeon that he is, comes up with a solution. Each bad guy he captures is sent to a hidden “Crime College” where he receives an operation from Doc that removes all memory of his past. He’s taught proper morals and a trade, and then released. Often, modern readers dismiss this “cure” as a product of the writers’ utopianism, assuming that Dent and his audience didn’t understand how problematic the notion of erasing villains’ minds was. Hogwash. The writers knew they were playing with fire and at least two novels’ plots deal directly with consequences resulting from Doc’s unorthodox operation. The Annihilist features an attack on the Crime College, and a police captain who’s not convinced Doc is the angel everyone thinks he is. The Purple Dragon features a baddie killing off graduates of the Crime College—men who think they’re normal, law-abiding citizens being mistaken for former bootleggers and hitmen.

Latter-Day Doc

9) King Joe Cay (1945)

10) No Light to Die By (1947)

In his book Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Philip José Farmer asserted that Lester Dent’s writing got better over time. While the early ’30s stories have exuberance and freshness, the later stories do have better sentence-level writing, moving closer to the noir-ish feel that Dent used in later short stories.  If you want a Doc novel with a sprinkle of Dashiell Hammett, these later ones are good bets.  I’ve met people who say King Joe Cay is their favorite Doc novel, although it was allegedly just a noir manuscript Dent re-wrote to include Doc.  Doc, posing as low-level criminal, begins to actually enjoy his new persona.  No Light to Die By is a hard-to-find classic and one of only a handful of stories Dent wrote in first person.  It’s told by Sammy Wales, a mouthy, opinionated, but overall decent youth who is skeptical about Doc’s sterling reputation. It begins all pomo metatextual as Kenneth Robeson provides an intro, then reprints a series of cablegrams between himself and Doc Savage about whether or not to publish Sammy’s story, followed by Doc’s intro (see below).

There are many other categories other folks would pick: best stories featuring his five regular sidekicks, best stories featuring his beautiful cousin Pat Savage, etc. As I said, there are 180+ of these; I’ve read just under a third of them. I’d love to hear others’ recommendations.

Note: Dates of original publication come from Wikipedia’s List of Doc Savage Novels, which was originally created by fans at The List Oasis.

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3 Responses to Doc Savage: A Potential Beginner’s Guide

  1. Pingback: Reading Doc Savage: The Spook Legion | The World Remains Mysterious

  2. brianklowe says:

    For my money, Poison Island (1939) is the most atmospheric off all the novels, with a sense of real danger.

  3. Chuck Welch says:

    A good introduction! One quick correction though — while Dent help with the creation of The Avenger, the pulp novels were written by Paul Ernst.

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