During a recent discussion on Facebook, I mentioned that I’d never read the final Doc Savage novel by Lester Dent, UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER. Well, that got me looking at my copy of DOC SAVAGE OMNIBUS #13, the Bantam paperback that includes that novel, and I realized I hadn’t read any of the five novels in that collection. So I decided it was time to do that, and when I’m finished with them, I’m going to read the Doc Savage novels by Will Murray that I haven’t read yet (there are still a few of them), and then maybe I’ll go back and reread some of my favorites from Dent’s first few years on the series, from 1933 to 1937 or ’38, the era I consider the high point of the series. This will take a year or more, because I usually don’t read books from the same series back to back. So you can expect to see quite a few Doc Savage posts for a while.
To get to the actual novel, the other thing that makes this one notorious is that it’s the story where Doc Savage suffers a serious head injury early on in the action, resulting in a concussion or perhaps even a fractured skull. Fans of the series have noted that Doc’s personality changes somewhat after this story and have theorized that the change was a result of the head injury. That makes sense to me. Whether Lester Dent intended it that way or not, we’ll probably never know for sure.
As Dent often does, he drops us down right in the middle of the action to start the book. Doc and his aides Monk, Ham, and Renny are in disguise, serving as crewmen on the ocean liner Farland, which has been taken over by the U.S. Navy and pressed into service as a military vessel during World War II. The Farland is steaming across the South Atlantic when it’s torpedoed and the order to abandon ship is given. Doc was warned that something was going to happen, and that’s why he and his aides are there, but he doesn’t know what sort of villainy is in the works.
It’s during this chaos that something strikes Doc in the head and renders him unconscious. When he comes to, he finds that he and his friends are still aboard the abandoned ship, but not everything is as it seems, and they’re not alone, either. There’s also a beautiful blonde on hand, Theresa Ruth “Trigger” Riggert, a tough, hardboiled dame of the same sort who often figures in these Doc Savage yarns. (Dent’s female characters always remind me of the female characters in movies directed by Howard Hawks.) If that’s not enough, there are also some guys who want to kill them, of course, and then Ham and Renny disappear under mysterious circumstances, and a submarine shows up, as well as a sinister yacht, and we’re off and galloping again.
This adventure takes Doc and his friends farther south in the Atlantic and winds up at Skull Shoal, a truly eerie setting where the action-packed and satisfying conclusion takes place. While the overall plot struck me as being a little too small in scale (I prefer the early, so-called “supersagas”), Lester Dent’s writing is really top-notch in this novel, with plenty of good dialogue, vivid descriptions, and hardboiled action. The early scenes aboard the Farland, after the attack, reminded me of some of Alistair Maclean’s nautical adventures such as H.M.S. ULYSSES and made me think it’s a shame Dent never wrote an actual war novel. It would have been a good one.
Overall, I really enjoyed this yarn, and reading it makes me look forward to this Doc Savage project on which I’m embarking.