Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Guest Reviewer Doc Hermes on DESERT DEMONS!

In November 1993, the last of Will Murray's new Doc Savage novels, THE FORGOTTEN REALM, was published. I wrote in a review a dozen years later, "It has been twelve years since THE FORGOTTEN REALM was published. Right now, it looks like we will not see a new Doc Savage novel on the stands ever again. But.... that's what we thought in 1949, too."

And against the odds (as we might expect from him) the Man of Bronze has returned yet again. Will Murray has begun a new "new" series of Doc adventures and I'm signing up for the ride. I had to order a copy from Altus Press: Barnes & Noble were no help and I'm not much for using Amazon or eBay. (And frankly, $24 is a bit of a gouge for a trade paperback this size but of course I've paid more than that for an old pulp or out-of-print books, it's my choice).

THE DESERT DEMONS is just fine. It's not as good as the very best of the original pulp stories like METEOR MENACE or THE SARGASSO OGRE, but then neither were most the pulps. There were many original Docs that ranged from passable down to atrocious, and DEMONS is a lot more fun than most of the wartime issues. The book is based on an unused outline Lester Dent left behind. I appreciate the respect Will Murray shows for Dent and understand why he incorporates as much Dent material as he can. But I would be perfectly willing to read a new book that is all Murray, I have trust in his integrity and his own storytelling.

Okay, it's 1936 again and yet another mysterious menace has surfaced for our hero to investigate. Out in Hollywood, a phenomenon called the Copper Clouds has been killing people. They're a sort of red cyclonic masses that swoop down from the sky as if targetting individuals, then turn black and evaporate, leaving only white ash, bleached brittle houses or cars and an occasional piece of glass. This is exactly the sort of threat Clark Savage Sr raised his little boy to handle. All five of the aides are on hand, plus Patricia and even Chemistry and Habeas Corpus, and there are enough "hair-raising thrills, breath-taking escapes and blood-curdling excitement" (as the old Bantam paperbacks promised) to more than satisfy. The gadgets are fired off with abandon, science detection is used and there's even a dirigible. It's Thirties to the core. References to the then-new phenomenon "smog" and the then-recent Florida land-bust add to the atmosphere.

Of COURSE I have a few complaints. It's inevitable, there are always a few flaws in any piece of work. Coming in at 239 pages, this is more accessible than the unweildy 300-pagers like THE FORGOTTEN REALM or THE WHISTLING WRAITH. I like my pulp novels around 120 to 150 pages, enough to finish off on a snowy Sunday afternoon without real breaks. They seem to work best when you plow through them at a good clip like riding a roller coaster. Even so, while THE DESERT DEMONS is well paced and doesn't drag, it can't be as crisp and headlong as the original pulps. With the extra space available, I hoped to see Renny or Long Tom get a few chapters to themselves with room for them to shine but instead we got more incidents and incidental characters. The other place where I think THE DESERT DEMONS misstepped is that nearly all the story takes place in Hollywood and at the very end we go to Florida for the wrap-up. My preference is for the classic two-part structure with mystery and intrigue in New York, then a trip to Tibet or Brazil or Samoa for a blast of all-out action. So I'd like to see that structure return, but it's not mandatory for every adventure.

And the menace turns out to be more outright science fictional than usual. I'm good with this. The original series, after all, featured everything from genuine invisibility to fifteen-foot tall Monster Men to the Blue Meteor and earthquake-making machines. The wilder more implausible stuff was usually explained away as hoaxes and misinterpretations ("so the giant spider was a marionette?" "Fraid so,") but Doc Savage was always borderline science fiction. I think I would draw the line at time travel as going too far, but I'd be fine with seeing Doc tackle things like someone rediscovering Dr Jekyll's serum. Nothing of the outright supernatural, though... I think Doc Savage's world just wouldn't have real werewolves or vampires.

I have come to count on Will Murray to throw in many delightful bits almost as asides. Ham Brooks shows some actual legal knowledge for once. (He says,"In the absence of a corpse, California law allows a grace period of a year before someone may be declared dead.")Doc can look at a revolver held on him and see that it's loaded with blanks. Long Tom finally gets useful application for his electronic bug-repelling machine he always seemed to be getting nowhere with. When Doc grapples with someone, the person's actions seem to be in slow-motion because the bronze man is moving so quickly. (This has the ring of classic Lester Dent to it!)

That's it, I'm convinced. It would take an awful lot to keep me from getting the next book in the series. I'm so glad how things have turned out for Doc Savage fans. The pulp ended in 1949, which was then thought to be the last the characters would ever be seen. Then in 1964, Bantam started a few reprint paperbacks and the usual event would be to see a handful appear but no... eventually all 181 of the original novels were available, as well as a previously unpublished story. Ah well, that was good but it had to be the end. No. Then Philip Jose Farmer wrote ESCAPE FROM LOKI and starting in 1991, Will Murray turned out seven new books. In 1993, putting down THE FORBIDDEN REALM, I hoped that I would live long enough to see a few more authorized Doc Savage adventures come to be, and here we are.