BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Doc Savage and his team descend upon California, to investigate mysterious red dust demons from the sky that are killing Hollywood types; Pat Savage, Doc’s cousin, is missing and may be one of the victims.
PROS: Shows the “science investigator” Doc and the “human enough to get mad” Doc; the inclusion of Pat Savage is always a plus; dirigibles, baby!; excellent Afterwords by Will Murray and cover art by Joe DeVito; promises of more new Docs to come.
CONS: The eighteen year wait nearly killed me; even after all these years, I still dislike the inclusion of the pig and the monkey.
BOTTOM LINE: Not only a great story for starving Doc fanboys (guilty!), also contains elements of steampunk (Doc was punk before it was cool), westerns and adventure. Not my favorite Doc of all time, but an excellent start to a new set of stories.
[For newbies: A Doc Savage Primer]
Patience. That is a shared characteristic of Doc Savage fans. A forty-two year wait was endured between the 1949 publishing of Up From Earth’s Center (republished by Bantam in 1990) and the 1991 books by Philip Jose Farmer and the next Kenneth Robeson, Will Murray. Seven books were written by Murray, from the notes of Lester Dent, the co-creator of Doc Savage, and published in 1991-93. Then, nothing, except a battle by Will and others to have more Docs published.
So, after an eighteen-year wait that would have George R. R. Martin reader’s shouting for the author’s head (oh, wait! they already do that), comes the publication of The Desert Demons, written by Lester Dent and Will Murray with a cover by Joe DeVito.
From a historical perspective, the 28 pages of Afterwords by Murray and DeVito, plus the extended biographies of Dent and Murray, are worth the price of admission. I sincerly hope they survived the editors cuts intact (my review copy was an advanced reader, so I can only hope).
But the story is what is important. And it is vintage Doc. Not vintage “unemotional, superhuman” Doc, but vintage “human, scientific investigator” Doc…with some science fiction thrown in.
The story takes place in the summer of 1936. Red clouds are descending on Californians, at first seemingly demons called down by an Indian’s rain dance. When they engulf people, they leave behind only a white powdery substance; when the clouds destroy cars and buildings, all that is left is glass. Hollywood types, professors and a lady named Doris Duff are all said to have disappeared in the copper clouds.
Three chapters in (and three chaps in doesn’t constitute a spoiler), we find out that Doris Duff, which everyone thought was a fake name for a Hollywood starlet, is none other than Doc’s cousin, Pat Savage. This leads the normally serene Doc to lose his cool.
A strangled sound was wrenched from the man’s lips. His eyes bulged. Sweat overspread his reddening features. Helpless, he watched as the big bronze man continued exerting a terrible pressure, watched as the tips of his own pale fingers turned purple, as the pressure came near to forcing the fingertips to split and leak blood.
“Extraordinary!” gasped Johnny.
“Doc, what ‘s gotten into you?” Monk squeaked.
“Doris Duff is actually Pat,” Doc Savage said distinctly. His golden eyes were terrible.
Then Doc Savage’s three aides understood. Pat was Patricia Savage, the bronze man’s cousin and only living relative. Keeping Savage, the bronze man’s cousin and only living relative. Keeping her out of harm’s way was one of Doc’s purposes in life.
Thus starts the adventure to find Pat, uncover the mystery of the copper-colored clouds, and generally save the day. No exotic locations this time (unless you include Hollywood and the Florida Everglades of the 1930’s exotic). All five of Doc’s team are included in this story, and, much to my chagrin, Monk and Ham’s pet pig and monkey (Habeas Corpus and Chemistry, respectively), are included. Though a rabid Doc Savage fan, I’ve never relished the storylines and attention given to the latter two; though they play a key role in the ongoing fued between Monk and Ham, they are generally a distraction and are not my cup of tea.
In my re-read of the Doc Savage books, I’ve been listing my favorite Doc feat and Doc gadget from each story. Both are easy selections in this new story:
- Doc jumps on a grenade:
Doc braked expertly. The cab rocked to a halt. Flinging the door open, he removed his helmet of hair, shucked off his coat, then wrapped both around the grenade and slammed himself on the street, his bundled coat beneath him.
The sound of the grenade letting go was muffled, but not greatly so. Fiery streaks spurted from beneath the prone figure of the Man of Bronze. Grayish-black smoke dribbled out. A deathly silence followed.
- And, of course, the stratosphere dirigible is an easy gadget selection:
From an engineering standpoint, the stratosphere dirigible was decade ahead of its time. It was streamlined to the nth degree, possessing no hull projections of any kind. Motor gondolas, as well as the control cabin, were set inside the rigid gasbag. Every rivet and girder was manufactured from an ultra-light alloy, as was her silvery skin. The gas that provided buoyancy was non-inflammable helium.
It was no air leviathan, however. The great ocean-crossing passenger airships would have dwarfed it. Propulsion was driven by high-speed Diesel motors, turning ordinary propellers. But attached to the dirigible’s tapered tail was a ring of rocket tubes–product of Doc Savage’s inventive genius. This rocket array was in the nature of an auxiliary mode of propulsion. It was impractical for most maneuvers, such as take-offs. But high in the stratosphere, the rockets could be safely engaged, producing stunning speeds that would have been the envy of many European fighter pilots.
In the Afterword, Murray walks through which pieces of the story are Dent’s writing, which are his and which are a combination. If you’ve read Doc Savage novels from different points in history (the first series which is mostly Dent was published from 1933-49, with Murray’s original seven published from 1991 to the end of 1993), you can tell a difference in the character of Doc, and in the writing style. Murray’s writing style is more polished, most likely because he is writing without the constraint of the very tight pulp timelines (read one of the first twenty Doc Bantams, then read Python Isle to see the difference).
However, in this novel, which the afterword says is partially Dent and partially Murray, the story style is consistent all the way through.
The cover by Joe DeVito deserves mention, and it gets detailed coverage in the Afterword. DeVito used negatives from photo sessions given to him by Jim Bama to create the cover, and will be doing the covers for the rest of the series.
According to the beginning of the book, the planned titles are:
- Horror in Gold
- The Infernal Buddha
- The War Makers
- The Ice Genius
- Phantom Lagoon
- Death’s Domain
Welcome back, Doc Savage!