June 20, 2008

Doc Savage

Doc Savage Omnibus 13
Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson

When I want to read something breezy and without the darker overtones of hardboiled detective stories (my usual genre fiction of choice), I often reach for a Doc Savage novel. These stories were published in pulp form first, in the 30s and 40s, pretty much all written by one man (as I understand it, he farmed out some of the stories to other authors, but then nearly always re-wrote them himself from scratch anyway). There are close to 200 of them in all, I think.

There are many pleasures to be found in these novels, not the least of which is the evocation of New York and the rest of the world in the 1930s (as sold to pulp-devouring working-class boys and men, at least). There is no doubt whatsoever that science and technology are unalloyed boons to mankind, that New York is the center of the planet, that the human mind and body can be perfected, that women are a nuisance, that "adventurer" is a laudable career choice, that the American way of life is superior to all others, that the world is full of exotic peoples and hidden treasures, etc. Reading a few of the books at a clip (they each take only 2-3 hours to read), you are instilled with an unambiguous set of values. These are surely moral adventures, in the American grain.

One way these books stand out from others of the same genre and time-period is that they place a high value on humor. This is mostly concentrated in the figures of Monk and Ham, two of Doc Savage's team of five highly-skilled adventurers, who insult and play practical jokes on each other at every opportunity. The lighter tone actually helps me treat some of the more difficult elements (misogyny, racism, and forced lobotomies, for example) as joking boyish silliness, making it easier to fogive than it might be otherwise. Plus, it's possible for the author to pull off things like the following, for my money one of the greatest pulp-novel lines ever written: "It was a secret door, in the best secret-door-in-a-cliff tradition." Really what more needs to be said about a book's frame of reference when it contains a line like that?

That line is from "The Green Master," one of the five stories in this omnibus collection, about the descendants of Incans living in an enclave in the Andes, who happen to have the power of mind-control. Naturally, they are no match for our ubermensch. The more notable novel is "Up From Earth's Center," which happens to be the last one Dent wrote, and it literally involves a trip to Hell and back - outlandish even by the Doc Savage standards.

One feature a lot of the books have is a lack of respect for denouement. Basically, once Doc bests his nemesis in a final confrontation, two or three sentences are enough to wrap things up. This can be frustrating to me at times, but on the other hand, there's really not much more to be said once the dust has settled. Got to leave readers chomping at the bit for the next installment.

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