Monday, February 20, 2012

Doc Savage: The Desert Demons

I try to support my old comic shop haunts as much as possible. Mainly because he does order pulp stuff and I'd stand a good chance to never see many of the pulp reprints if not for him. However, some books like this one take some time to hit his solicitations and find it's way into my pull list. (Incidentally, the "it's" is not a typo. I think it's high time to call an end to this foolish spelling that trips people up. Use the apostrophe for both contraction and possessive form. Context is more than enough to show which it's for. So, I'll it's crusade here.)

This is Doc Savage scholar Will Murray writing as Kenneth Robeson. Sadly, the last Doc book written before this was an adaptation of a non-Doc work by Lester Dent and thus did not feature his aides. Here, Will rectifies that by including all five aides, Pat Savage and even the two pets. There's no explanation as to the source of the story this go round, so while it's acknowledged this too is based on something written down by Dent, the extent of what is Murray and what is Dent is not clear. The names and types of the various suspects and secondary characters sound like Dent, but that could be Murray at his Dent impersonating best.

The basic plot is Doc and crew end up in Hollywood exploring two mysteries. One, a mysterious red cloud that descends from the sky and reduces everything to crumbly powder. Two, a woman named Doris Duff has disappeared, possible victim of the cloud and is obviously really Doc's cousin Pat Savage. Involved is a would-be movie mogul who shoots Westerns, his partner who is trying to strike it rich via oil wells, a weatherman scientist, and two galoots named Happy and Harry.

It didn't help my reading of this that I was in the middle of an Avenger story, "The Glass Mountain" that likewise involves oil wells and a mysterious cloud (this one's green) that comes out of clear skies, and seemingly pursues and kills with intent, though by lightning. Both have Native American shamans that seem able to summon the killer clouds as well.

While pulp writers are notoriously known for their purple prose because they were being paid by word, Murray's Doc books are significantly longer than any of the Kenneth Robesons before him. This one feels it as it tries to include all of the aides plus Pat and give them meaningful tasks. There's the oil wells, the Hollywood location as well as a ghost-town in the Florida Everglades, the Native American shaman and a trap with alligators, as well as the mysterious menace, and strange actions from a scientist that ultimately goes nowhere. There's enough material and ideas to fill three separate Doc novels. This all bogs the novel down as it seems that it cannot decide in what direction it really wants to go.

The story is also hampered by the fact that while the strange death clouds are baffling and effective, the human crime element is sorely lacking in that regard. While there is a culprit behind the deaths, that at one point almost border the death rate in a Norvell Page Spider novel, there is no deadly efficient gang to pit physical challenges against Doc and his men. The ultimate plan of the bad guy when it stands revealed... well, when characters in your story even recognize the stupidity of the plan and just write the guy off as being crazy, it might be a sign that his motivation needs retooling. The climactic scene with the culprit behind it all, is anti-climactic as the larger threat is already explained and neutralized and he is more pathetic at this point.

This is not to say it's a bad book or a bad Doc Savage novel. It is better than some. Worse than others. It's crime seems to be one of trying to do and include too much as if it might be the last hurrah and as much as possible needed including. The various elements don't mesh together as well as intended. Simple refining such as leaving out a couple of the aides and the pets and even Pat Savage which would have allowed populating the book with more secondary characters to flesh out the world they were navigating and maybe bring the various elements together into a more cohesive whole. Thus, when the cloud starts killing wholesale, some of them are characters we already know and maybe even care about (or suspected as being behind it). But, it's good to have Doc back and, as always, I'm looking forward to the next one.

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