Friday, March 08, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Derelict of Skull Shoal - Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent)

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 start out with, I read one of the most infamous of all of Dent’s Doc Savages: THE DERELICT OF SKULL SHOAL, originally published in the March 1944 issue of the magazine, which was being published as a digest by this time. A couple of things set this one apart. First of all, it’s the only one in the series that was published in its original appearance under Lester Dent’s real name instead of the Kenneth Robeson house-name, because someone at Street & Smith made a mistake and forgot to put the right by-line on the story. Let me digress for a moment and mention that the very first Doc Savage novel, THE MAN OF BRONZE, appeared in the pulp under the pseudonym Kenneth Roberts, but someone at S&S quickly realized there was a currently popular historical novelist actually named Kenneth Roberts, the fellow who wrote NORTHWEST PASSAGE, ARUNDEL, and many other historical sagas. After that S&S always used the Kenneth Robeson name on the Doc Savages, except for THE DERELICT OF SKULL SHOAL. And when that novel was reprinted, the Bantam paperback collection had the Robeson name on it, too.

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.


Scott D. Parker said...

I come to Doc Savage about once a year. But when it comes to the Murray novels, most of them are in audio and I can listen to them on my daily commutes. I own a handful of the actual pulps and a decent sized collection of both the Bantam paperbacks and double novels printed with the historical context. Looking back now, it's been a minute since I last read a Doc Savage novel...but I have the black-and-white comics from the mid 1970s cued up to read this spring and summer.

James Reasoner said...

I haven't read those black-and-white comics stories since they were new, but I recall that I liked them quite a bit and thought they were true to the characters and the spirit of Dent's originals.

Anonymous said...

I generally prefer the earlier Docs, too.You can really tell the later ones are “Under New Management” — the scaled-back fantastic//sci-fi elements especially. Also, I miss Johnny and Long Tom, who are often MIA in the later ones , presumably because of the shorter story lengths. But you make this one sound pretty good, James. More Doc reviews in the coming months? Bring ‘em on!


George said...

The first 50 DOC SAVAGE adventures are the high point of the series for me. The later novels lacked the excitement and energy of the early books.

Anonymous said...

I like to think that (putting on the Doc Savage equivalent of Baker Street Irregulars hat for a moment) that the "Kenneth Roberts" who "really" wrote up the first Doc adventure decided to spice things up by having Doc kill a lot of his enemies, and that when Doc found out about this base canard and complained, Street and Smith dumped "Roberts" and hired a guy who just happened to have a similar name, "Kenneth Robeson," to write up later Doc cases. "Roberts" had already turned in the second novel, in which Doc is still pretty kill-crazy, and it was too late to rewrite that one, but thereafter "Robeson" had the series in hand and wrote up Doc's notes accurately, inclduing the detail that he never deliberately killed adversaries. So that solves *that* crux in Savage STudies.

How this theory ties in with this "Lester Dent" guy who somehow got credited with the Skull Shoal story adaptation is still under consideration.

Hey, if this sort of game playing works for the Baker Street Irregulars, why not adapt it to the Higher Criticism of Savagism? We could call our group The Flea Run Irregulars.

Denny Lien

James Reasoner said...

I want to be a Flea Run Irregular. Count me in!