Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Doc Savage: The Infernal Buddha

Last time
, we watched as Doc Savage faced off against his most fearsome foe, the Rasputin-like John Sunlight. While the clash of intrigues did reveal many of Doc Savage’s virtues, such as the observation powers of Sherlock Holmes, the physical prowess of Tarzan, the Christliness of Abraham Lincoln, and a leavening of Percy Fawcett’s adventurousness, that Arctic battle obscured one important fact: Doc Savage never fights alone. For at his side are five remarkable men of mayhem and science, each a master of their field, each a pulp hero of renown, and each eclipsed by only one man, Clark (Doc) Savage, Jr. himself. Whether he is joined by the simian industrial chemist Monk Mayfair, the dapper attorney Ham Brooks, the brooding bruiser and construction engineer Renny Renwick, wildcat electrical engineer Long Tom Roberts, or the verbose geologist Johnny Littlejohn, Doc Savage always has a friend at his back, ready to dive into the latest adventure.

Especially when that adventure starts with the delivery of what appears to be Renny Renwick’s desiccated remains to Doc Savage’s laboratory. An act that, instead of intimidating the Man of Bronze, sets him on the trail of Renny’s apparent murderer. And into the path of a mysterious Chinese artifact that holds the power to drain the world’s oceans. But how did Renny end up in that box? 

Like all of Doc Savage’s associates, Renny is free to work on his own projects. And when his latest takes him to Malaysia, Renny crosses the path of exotic twins Mark and Mary Chan. The twins have escaped from Dang Mi, a notorious pirate, but have left the Buddha’s Toe in the pirate’s lair. This encased artifact can draw all the moisture from its surroundings, effectively mummifying any creature that comes in contact with it. Renny attempts to retrieve the Buddha’s Toe, but is last seen being chased into the jungle by Dang Mi’s second in command. Dang Mi recaptures the twins, the Toe, and the apparent remains of Remmy, who is then shipped to Doc Savage as a warning.

Immediately, Doc Savage, Ham Brooks, and Monk Mayfair fly out to Malaysia, where, after a spell moonlighting as pirates, they track down the Toe, Renny, the larger Ice Buddha of which the Toe is a piece, the twins’ warlord father Wa Chan, and a Japanese flotilla out to avenge their losses on Wa Chan and his family. The Infernal Buddha may be written by Will Murray instead of Lester Dent, but the familiar pattern is the same. Not will Doc Savage and his aides prevail, but how. And while Murray’s novel is far longer than the fast-paced novelettes that filled the Doc Savage pulp magazine, for once, the extended adventure does not feel padded. Some of that comes from the banter between Monk and Ham, but most comes from Murray keeping the same breakneck pace of Dent’s originals.

One may notice a certain cheesiness around the names of Dang Mi and Wa, Mary, and Mark Chan, almost verging on disrespect. The cheesiness is deliberate, but saved only for those Western characters who are playing a masquerade and badly. All the characters mentioned are Americans, fugitives for various reasons. If anything, their adventures show the disastrous meddling of the West in Eastern affairs. Doc Savage becomes an American cleaning up an American mess, and, in typical Savage fashion, setting the criminals back on the road to rehabilitation.

The Ice Buddha and the fragment known as the Buddha’s Toe are improbable materials based on real-world chemistry. At a time when much of the contents of the sky were unmapped–in a chemistry sense–the idea of a super desiccant falling from the sky is fitting and based on creative liberties with known chemical phenomena. Although, strangely for the kind of adventures, the fate of the Ice Buddha is tied up with the Divine, as Doc Savage ascribed his actions in ending the threat of runaway desiccation by crystal to true Divine Inspiration. And the Man of Bronze, this Man of Science, remains in awe of the brief encounter. It is to Murray’s credit that he presents this encounter in such a way as to remove any taint of deus ex machina from the story. The Man of Bronze likes his musings. Sometimes he even shares them.

But the highlight of this story comes down to Doc Savage’s associates. Renny is given an adventure of his own that is worthy of the adventure pulps. In classic form, Ham and Monk bicker their way across the globe in search of Renny’s apparent murderer. And if Johnny and Long Tom sit this one out, it is because even Lester Dent realized that six main characters can be too unwieldly of a cast for one book. Murray fills the pages with little character moments that not only establish the friendships between Doc Savage and his aides, and his aides with each other, they also establish why the five men, heroes in their own right, gladly follow where Doc Savage leads. Plus Ham, Monk, and Renny act out the anger and emotions that the taciturn Doc Savage cannot allow himself to display. It is through his friends that Doc Savage becomes human, instead of an Icon of Bronze.

For a new adventure, in a time when reboots ravage the originals, Murray gets Doc Savage right. The Infernal Buddha is one of the best of Doc’s New Adventure, which will later get cluttered with such eminences as The Shadow and King Kong, as well as a stand-alone adventure for his cousin Patricia Savage. But while Doc and his friends have some time of their own, they shine here in what will become well-worn tracks. It’s pulp revival done right, with one of pulp’s biggest heroes getting the story he deserves.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Doc Savage: Fortress of Solitude

Doc Savage’s secrets revealed at last! And by a villainous mind of insatiable greed!

A new Rasputin, called John Sunlight, escapes from a Siberian prison camp in an icebreaker, only to run aground next to the big blue dome of Doc Savage’s Fortress of Solitude. After a brazen theft, Sunlight is selling the weapons Doc Savage has locked away from the rest of the world. Now Doc Savage and his Iron Crew must stop Sunlight and retrieve these weapons before chaos is unleashed on the world. But John Sunlight is that rare individual, a man to match the Man of Bronze himself.

In the “Fortress of Solitude”, Lester Dent gives a peak into one of Doc Savage’s most enduring mysteries, the shrouded Arctic refuge only known as the Fortress of Solitude. In doing so, he gave Doc Savage his only enduring nemesis, and the only villain to ever return to plague the Man of Bronze: John Sunlight. Sunlight would return in “The Devil Genghis”, and the Fortress of Solitude would enter that great mélange of comics and pulp legosity only to reappear under new management of another Superman, a Man of Steel, not Bronze. 

Like the adventures of a man named Buckaroo, those borrowings from Doc Savage are in the future. Today’s borrowing, of a weapon that reduces men to windblown ash, is more pressing upon the Man of Bronze. For while the murder of a Soviet diplomat may start as nothing more than a Golden Age mystery for Doc Savage to puzzle out, Sunlight has set his own crew against the Man in Bronze. And while Savage is the leader of a crew of men each worthy of their own pulp series, the fearsome Sunlight drives his own followers to similar acts of bravery. Might the key to breaking this stalemate rest with two strongwomen searching for their kidnapped sister?

“I salute again…the man who has inherited the qualities of the Erinyes, the Eumenides, of Titan, and of Friar Rush, with a touch of Dracula and Frankenstein.

The star of “The Fortress of Solitude” is John Sunlight, a mentalist menace with the strength to put the terror behind his words. He is a dark reflection of Doc Savage, a charismatic Renaissance Man of Science, a sinister Shadow with agents throughout the world. Dent wastes no time establishing Sunlight as an unapologetic menace shrouded in an aura of fear that compels obedience…or else

“John Sunlight,” the bronze man said, “is probably as complete a fiend as we ever met.”

And unrepentantly so, which is refreshing in this era that so desperately tries to scrub the agency out of evil. But such a man as Sunlight is a just a puzzle to Doc Savage, to be put together and rearranged and reformed in Savage’s Crime College until he is no longer a threat to his fellow man. Sunlight’s breach of Doc Savage’s privacy, by invading the sanctum of the Fortress of Solitude, however, rocks the Man of Bronze on his heels. 

For once, this is not just the misdirection common to the hero pulps, although Doc Savage uses the illusionist’s mainstay with all the skill of his fellow hero, The Shadow. But Doc Savage quickly recovers, setting his powers of observation and planning against Sunlight, until the mysterious Rasputin who once force Savage to react to his ever move is now reacting to Doc’s decoys. The effect is that of a chess match, with Sunlight unaware of the net tightening around him, yet capable enough to foil particular plays made by Savage’s Iron Crew. The intrigues ratchet towards Doc Savage’s inevitable victory–

–and then Sunlight slips away, with plunder from the laboratory and museum inside the Fortress of Solitude. A Pandora’s Box has been opened, leaving Doc Savage and company with a rare defeat and an urgent search for such scientific weapons of war as the world was never supposed to see.

Doc’s boys are a bit of an afterthought. “Fortress of Solitude” is already crowded enough between Doc Savage and John Sunlight, and the dense novelette cannot spare the time for all five of the Iron Crew to take places in the spotlight. Even the banter between Monk Mayfair and Ham Brooks is much subdued. Because of this, “Fortress of Solitude” may not be the best entry point into the series, at least for the character dynamics. Those, however we will explore next week, in the context of one of Doc Savage’s many copycats.

While “Fortress of Solitude” does not shrink away from the two-fisted action common to pulp-era stories, the focus is on mood, disguise, and intrigue. Almost as though Dent was echoing the works of fellow Street & Smith writer Walter Gibson. And while earlier adventures of Doc Savage have a quaint antiquity in speech and style, this one is more timeless and contemporary. One can very well imagine Clive Cussler’s heirs writing something similar today, although not as terse. But Cussler is not the only copycat, and the idea of a team of rockstar super-scientists keeps simmering in the public’s imagination…

Monday, December 13, 2021

Lester Dent's Checklist

Doc Savage and adventure pulp writer Lester Dent is known for his fiction formulas. Whether waving those character identification tags or the much beloved Master Formula for plots, Dent's advice has helped many writers in the seventy years since he shared it with the writing world.

But these formulas are not the whole of Dent's advice. For, hidden inside the "Introduction to Fortress of Solititude," penned by Will Murray for Anthony Tollin's recent Doc Savage reprint, is another of Dent's formulas, paraphrased in an interview.

But not an interview of Lester Dent. This one was with Mort Weisinger, a friend of Dent's who helped him plot at least one Doc Savage story. Weisinger would later help create the science fiction pulp hero Captain Future and go on to edit Superman for DC. Of Dent, Weisinger would say:

"[He] had a formula he used for every one of his novels. He claimed you should always have an exotic locale, and the mystery should be: who did it? And the motivation: why did he do it? And a unique murder method: how did he do it? And in every book, a unique treasure."

As Dent would put it in his Master Formula, "The idea is to avoid monotony."

Those familiar with the Master Formula may recognize this as a succinct summation of the introduction, a section often passed over in the rush to get to the structure outlined within the formula. But Weisinger presents it a checklist form.

Here is Lester Dent's Checklist.

Every pulp story should have:

  1. An exotic local
  2. A mystery (who did it?)
  3. A motivation (why did he do it?)
  4. A unique method (how did he do it?)
  5. A unique treasure.
May this advice serve writers as well as Dent's Master Formula.

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Hand of Kuan-Yin

The figure was fifteen inches in height, and carved from that ancient ivory that comes down to China from the islands off Siberia. The image was that of Kuan-yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, protector of shipwrecked sailors, and bringer of children to childless women. It lay upon the sand near Teo’s outstretched fingers, its deep beige ivory only a shade lighter than the Hawaiian’s skin.

Tom Gavagan finds an old family friend dead, shot in the back. The only thing out of place is a statue of a goddess foreign to the Hawaii islands, a statue worth more than the old Hawaiian’s other possessions. But as Gavagan checks up on Kamaki, the man’s son and last surviving man in the family, he finds that Teo and Kamaki were caught up in the events surrounding a four-year-old art heist. Can Gavagan pry Kamaki free from the schemes ensnaring him? Or will both men, now stranded sailors, end up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean?

Louis L’Amour pens a satisfying and straightforward adventure in “The Hand of Kuan-yin”. While L’Amour is now best known for his Westerns, he brings the same eye for location, detail, and verisimilitude to Hawaii. Written in 1956, three years before Hawaii’s statehood, “The Hand of Kuan-yin” was part of a trend in Hollywood of shifting from the imaginary islands of tiki bars to the real paradises of Hawaii. Beau L’Amour writes, in the afterward to May There be a Road:

“The Hand of Kuan-yin” was written in 1956 and was sold with the intention of its being the pilot episode for a television show called Hart of Honolulu. I have no idea if this show was even shot, or, if it was, if it ever aired. Louis wrote the story in the weeks after he and my mother acquired an ivory Kuan-yin, the first piece of valuable art they ever bought (not as valuable as the one in the story by a long shot).

Indeed, the pilot was filmed, but the show remained unsold. A recording of  Hart of Honolulu remains, for the moment, on YouTube as one of those hobbyist curiosities found from the archives.

As mentioned, the story is a straight-forward crime adventure, with the hero Gavagan cut from the same mold as the Sacketts. The chinoiserie elements around the Kuan-yin stature are understated, serving more to emphasis that Hawaii is a fault line between native, Eastern, and Western cultures. Kuan-yin also allows for a nice fatherly character moment surrounding old Teo.

“The Hand of Kuan-yin” may not shine among the jewels in the crown of L’Amour’s best works, but even an average L’Amour story is worth the read. Especially when it trades L’Amour’s beloved deserts, prairies, and Rocky Mountains for new lands.