I'll be spending some time today with my wonderful mother and, if you're fortunate enough to still have your mother, I hope you can do the same. For a tribute to my own mom, check out my column in this week's Ashland Beacon. It's on page 2.
Before I launch into this, I want to cover a couple of things, in case I review more of these new adventures of Doc Savage.
First, the books cost too damn much. $24.95 is a hefty tag for a trade paperback. There are probably some financial necessities at work here. They’re selling to a niche readership, so they won’t be moving Stephen King numbers. Also, everybody has to make money. I get it. I just wish the price was closer to $14.95, so I don’t have to do so much soul-searching (and wallet-searching) before I order.
Secondly, these new Doc novels are generally (with a couple of exceptions) way too long. One of the appeals of the original Doc pulp novels (and most pulp novels, for that matter) was the length. You could easily cruise through one in an afternoon or two. The best of Lester Dent’s Doc Savages was the literary equivalent of being duct-taped to a rocket and blasted to the moon. Again, I’m assuming publishing conditions demand a longer product to justify the price. I’m just not sure the Doc Savage fan is getting the best possible product.
Now that I’ve gotten my objections out of the way, I’ll tell you that neither complaint applies to Doc Savage: Skull Island.
This is an original novel by Will Murray, author, pulp scholar and agent for the estate of the late Lester Dent, Doc Savage’s original main scribe.
The novel in brief: Doc Savage meets King Kong.
The novel begins after the fall of Kong from the Empire State Building where, as we all know, Doc Savage operates from the 86th floor. Doc was out of town during Kong’s rampage, but returns during the aftermath, and it falls to the Man of Bronze and his crew to remove the great beast’s corpse. Kudos to Murray for the nice role given to Renny, my favorite among Doc’s men, who engineers Kong’s transportation out of midtown.
Doc reveals to his men that he has met Kong before, and that he and the big ape saved each others’ lives.
The rest of the novel is the retelling of that saga from 1920, when Doc, a veteran of the Great War, joins his father to search the seas for Doc’s grandfather, the legendary and near-mythological clipper captain Stormalong Savage.
To reveal any more of the plot would deny you the delight of this excellent adventure.
Murray has been writing Doc novels since the 90s, and this is easily his most ambitious and most successful. Unlike many of the Murray’s earlier Docs, this one does not feel bloated, nor does it suffer from the slightly disjointed narrative that has occasionally occurred, I assume, from trying to make Dent’s original prose fit into a Murray novel.
Instead, Doc Savage: Skull Island reads like one of Murray’s Destroyer novels: loose, fast-paced, thrill-a-minute. If this is what he can do with Doc when freed from the constraints of following 80-year-old plots and discarded bit of Dent’s novels, then I hope Murray can find a way to produce more Doc Savage novels whole-cloth from his imagination.
Doc Savage fans will love the many bits of lore revealed over the course of the book, from family history to the name of Doc’s mother. Fans of adventure novels will cheer a story that reads like Clive Cussler with the boring parts removed. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Murray tried his hand at a mainstream adventure thriller in the near future. Doc Savage: Skull Island is that good. For King Kong aficionados, there are many nods to the 1933 film, and the action on Skull Island is worthy of Burroughs or Robert E. Howard.
I only have one gripe: the author is inordinately fascinated with Doc’s trilling sound, the one affectation of the original pulp novels that I’ve always detested. On the other hand, if you’re down with the trill, then this book is practically blemish free.
Doc Savage: Skull Island is mandatory reading for Doc fans, and well-worth the price. It should be the same for anyone who loves a good, old fashioned adventure novel.