Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Doc vs Kong and other stories

One of the problems waiting for the Altus volumes of new Doc Savage novels to arrive at my local comic store is that it takes a while. Usually, I'm almost at the point of possibly just ordering it direct when it finally shows up. My joy was increased at a recent stop as not only did the latest Will Murray penned novel show up but the latest Sanctum volume, I had neither stories! I tackled the reprints first.

The Invisible Box Murders (November, 1941) is one of those Doc stories that concerns a mysterious, impossible murder. In this, deaths from an unknown source with a mysterious transparent box that later disappears from police custody. What's enjoyable in this story is Doc finds himself arrested and jailed, thus this becomes one of the few stories that we see Ham actually utilized for his legal knowledge. However, Dent's shortcoming in this area is also evident in that Ham doesn't really do anything that proves his reputation. One of the things often annoying in the Doc novels is how the other aides are often assigned tasks that one would expect to be assigned to Ham such as contacting foreign legal/diplomatic agencies. With Doc jailed, the aides get to show some individual action and initiative. The inclusion of a police officer to shadow them is not only a nice twist, but an interesting character in his own right and would be worthy to become a supporting character or another aide himself... if he's not the bad guy in his own right. Because, in a Doc story the bad guy is usually one of the people accompanying the crew. In this case, it's often difficult to really decide where the cop's allegiances truly align. An exciting story, though the resolution is not of the "box" and murders is a bit difficult to swallow in that even for that time, one would expect scientists/doctors examining the body would have quickly figured out a large part of how the people died.

Target for Death (January, 1947) is a post-War Doc by William Bogart and not Dent. Bogart actually wrote the second Doc Savage adventure I read, the first that I bought for myself: The Flying Goblin. As much as I enjoy Dent's writing, I credit with Bogart as being the writer that actually cemented my enjoyment of the Doc Savage novels. As a post-War Doc, the story is more mundane and realistic than fantastic. It concerns a young woman who is in Hawaii and on her way back to the States. She's given a letter from an Uncle to deliver and finds herself and her family embroiled in a mystery as people are after the letter. When opened, the letter is largely innocuous and certainly nothing obvious to kill over. Interesting that Bogart wrote this while Dent was off writing his novels, and there's a certain similarity in story styles between this and Dent's non-Doc novels of this time.Of particular interest that the first part of the novel focuses heavily on Pat and Renny and both get largely written out for the second half to focus on Doc, Monk and Ham. The solution is one that probably seemed a bit novel in the mid to late 1940s and young readers as opposed to readers today that will have it figured out early on. The fun part is watching the characters and story reach to the same conclusion.

Skull Island by Will Murray. I confess, I was not really looking forward to Skull Island. To be brutally honest, these new Doc novels are ok, but lacking on several fronts. As shown above, one of the strengths of the Doc novels is the sheer variety they allow. With his aides, the stories can be military thrillers, crime novels, mysterious but normal crimes, and science fiction adventures. Murray's focus on unused plots and fragments of Lester Dent makes the novels feel like pastiche, focusing largely on a certain type and style of story as opposed to the wider possibilities. Unfortunately, the lengths of the new format are also too long for the stories, they feel more bloated than epic. I realized with The Infernal Buddha which felt like two novels made into one, that the larger books allowed extra possibilities. Instead of one long story, two or three shorter ones, short stories featuring solo adventures by the aides are possible or even preferable.  That's the problem with doing pastiche, it's about style and subject already explored. Instead of treating Doc as pastiche, treat him as a real character, do stories that Dent couldn't have done, such as short stories focusing on just one aide, or novels with different aide combinations, without Monk and Ham taking center stage. Or stories focusing on different types of villains that wouldn't have been thought of such as a slightly more realistic serial killer stalking New York or working to prove the innocence of a victim (or one of the aides framed for a murder, imagine a running subplot through the story being Ham defending Monk in a Court of Law). However, because Murray is trying to ape Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson, the stories ultimately come across as somewhat bloated, luke-warm wannabes. They are ok, but at best equal to the mediocre stories of the past. This announcement comes across as moving from pastiche to the realm of fan-fiction, the type of story that fans love to speculate on, but is rarely successfully pulled off.

And, I was surprised. Because Skull Island proved to be what I was really looking for from Murray. Writing a story that Dent never could have written and freed from that constraint, Murray delivers a fun, hard to put down story that treats Doc and characters as characters and not character types. The danger to fall into fan-fiction is always there, especially as it is a continuity/archaeological story in that it explores in depth the untold history and background of Doc. Murray manages to pull it off, to go in directions not expected but fit what we know without ever feeling like it's just name-dropping or showing off his knowledge (such as every writer that delivers a Green Hornet story feels obligated to show that he knows that the Lone Ranger is related).

The plot concerns Doc and his crew coming home, early in their career, and finding the body of King Kong on their door-step. Doc reveals he has seen the creature before, that he has been on his island. The rest of the story is Doc relating the story, of how after WWI, he meets up with his father to go on a mission to follow up on clues to the location of Doc's grandfather. What follows is a great adventure story along the lines of Burroughs as they dodge and confront dinosaurs, head hunters and ultimately King Kong himself.

Murray uses the novel to explore various themes and father-son relationships and how they shape who the characters are. He gets mileage out of showing how they repeat themselves, that much of the conflict between Doc and his father are like that between his father and grandfather and just how much alike they really are.

Murray also takes delight in exploring the literary forebears of Doc and to the dismay Wold Newtonians, he establishes them as being just that, literary: Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Nick Carter. Instead of coming across as simply name dropping, it's in the context of the relationships and history of the characters: the reading material the father would like his son to read vs the type of stuff he really liked to read and how that shaped him. And, then the father showing his own awareness of the material. I know I was surprised when I discovered as an adult my parents read the Phantom when young or had read part of "The Lord of the Rings" to make sure it was suitable. So, the scenes came across as being authentic.

Readers accustomed to the default "high adventure" Doc Savage might find the novel a little shocking. The first few Doc Savage novels are before Doc developed his non-killing rule and this story would pre-date even that. This is Doc right after World War I and before he finished medical school. Doc kills here. A lot. And, there's his trying to improve the machine gun. He is a young man, prone to brash actions, seeking to prove himself to his father, and possibly over confident in his own abilities and point of view.

And, despite being a continuity story, Murray doesn't get so caught up that he tries to explain or reconcile the discrepancies between the dinosaurs here that follow modern theory vs those he'd discover later. One would think that he might at least try to later lead Johnny to figuring out that some dinosaurs had feathers!

Other writers could take a few pointers from how Murray handles the team-up aspect. While the story reveals hidden or unknown information and speculates on what kind of creature Kong is, he delivers a story that doesn't outright contradict the characters or the stories this is taken from. What makes it work is the sense of fidelity to the source material. The changes are additive, not subtractive; not saying that the movie or the pulps got things wrong, but rejoices what they got right.

It'd be nice to see Murray follow this up with more stories of this type. Not team-ups and crossovers, but treating the characters as believable characters, fleshing them out and taking them into new types of stories, relationships and territory. And, to move away from the "sad" endings. More and more, the stories seem unable to give Doc clear cut victories, but end on serious and depressing notes.

Other stuff
When not reading pulps, I tend to gravitate to fantasy novels and period mysteries. Recently discovered the books of Imogen Robertson, mystery novels set in England in the time of the American Revolution. As the "Forgotten Realms" novels have slowed to a trickle, I saw a "Pathfinder" novel by Richard Lee Byers, author of a series I enjoyed for FR.

Called To Darkness is a much more linear story than his Brotherhood of the Griffin series and with a smaller cast. It concerns Kagur, a woman in the tundra regions. Eovath is a frost giant that had been captured as a young boy years earlier by her father and the two were raised much as brother and sister. However, she discovers at a night of celebration that he seems to have gone insane and poisoned and hacked to death the members of her tribe and almost kill her. She embarks on a quest of vengeance along with a near blind shaman.

The story becomes a bit more on topic when they find an entrance to caverns that he took and start a trek under the earth that echoes a bit of Verne as they encounter various dangers and hostile environment with stone and tunnels pressing around. Then, into true Edgar Rice Burroughs when they come into an interior world that not only has orcs, but also tribes of stone-age men and familiar dinosaurs. And, in true David Innes, John Carter, Flash Gordon mode, Kagur finds she must unite disparate tribes and people to confront the villain that menaces them all.

It is somewhat disappointing that Byers doesn't do as Murray and modernize the concept of the dinosaurs any. However, Byers does a fine job in the action scenes and acknowledging the hypocrisies of the characters' points of view. Kagur has trouble in seeing how her wanting to take vengeance on Eovath is not that different than Eovath taking vengeance on the people that killed his family and took him into slavery. Instead of focusing on romance of a handsome adventurous man needing to rescue a beautiful princess, the princess is the hero of the story but one that has some growing to do, to come to terms how her life and world has changed and how to deal with that.

The parallels to Burroughs is intentional to boot. I recognized the vibe as reading the novel, and then at the end on the "About the Author" page, he acknowledges this was him trying to do just that. Interesting to read two action stories of people fighting dinosaurs, and both do them exceedingly well.