Friday, June 25, 2010

Forgotten Books: "Cold Death" - a Doc Savage novel by Laurence Donovan

After reading Twice Murdered, the new Laurence Donovan story collection from Black Dog Books (reviewed yesterday), I wanted to try more Donovan. So I pulled this old Doc Savage pb off the shelf.

When I was first reading Doc Savage stories, I had no idea who Kenneth Robeson was. All I knew was I liked his style, and it kept me coming back for more. Nowadays, with Lester Dent highly acclaimed as the author of most of the Doc novels, it's become fashionable to look askance at the stories known to be the work of other hands.

One of those hands was Laurence Donovan.  He was called in for when Street & Smith planned to capitalize on the magazine’s success by putting out (like the Shadow) twice a month. Fast as Dent was, he wasn’t that fast, and Donovan got the nod to take up the slack.

In all, Donovan penned nine Doc adventures, and it’s been said he was the only Doc author whom Dent did not edit or rewrite.

Cold Death is the first Donovan Doc I’ve read with the knowledge it was he - not Dent - writing, so I was on alert to see what made it different. On the whole, the answer was not much. Donovan does a fine job of emulating Dent’s style, and turns out a typically action-packed adventure.

That said, I did notice a few differences between Dent and Donovan.

First, the violence was a tad more real. Sure, lots of folks suffer horrible deaths in the Dent novels, but there’s normally an element so weird or fantastic that it seems like the stuff of comic books. In Cold Death, one innocent bystander is sliced in half by a ray of Cold Light. Another guy is dismembered. Late in the story, one of Doc’s employees - a mechanic in his private hanger - takes a bellyful of slugs from a machine gun. His passing goes unmentioned and unmoored. The Doc Savage I know would most likely have prevented this, but if that proved impossible, he would have at least been affected by it. Donovan’s Doc is apparently more hardboiled.

This sort of violence, of course, is tame for the pulps in general. If this were an adventure of the Spider, hundreds would die in far more grisly fashion. And if our hero was Operator 5, the death toll would be in the thousands. But in the Doc Savage universe, we expect our violence to be somewhat more benign.  .

Then there’s the matter of rescues. This is normally Doc’s domain. Experts could probably point out instances where Dent’s Doc is saved from certain death by chance or by the actions of his aids, but I doubt a story could be found where this occurs three times. In the first instance, Doc awakes from unconsciousness to find himself strapped to the floor of an airplane - a plane without a pilot that is about to crash into the sea. As the chapter ends on this cliffhanger, I’m thinking Zow! How’s Doc going to get out of this one? Well, it turns out he can’t. Luckily, there’s a stowaway on board, a guy who tagged along just to save Doc’s bacon.

Later, Doc and Renny are about to zapped by highly-charged electric plates concealed beneath a rug. Enter Monk, who - without a clue why he’s doing it - activates a newly developed gizmo that just happens to save the day.  And at the climactic battle with the evil mastermind’s henchmen, Doc, Monk and Renny are about to riddled with bullets when Long Tom and Ham appear unexpectedly - in manacles, no less - to wreak havoc on the bad guys.

I’m not complaining. It's actually a nice change to see Doc's aides save him rather than vice versa. Still, it seems peculiar.

My only other observation is that Monk employs the expletive “Howlin’ calamities” at least seven times. I’m pretty sure Dent first put those words in Monk’s mouth, but also pretty sure he used them more sparingly.

In poking around the Internet, I see that Cold Death is regarded by some hardcore Doc fans as the best of Donovan’s contributions to the series. This, I suspect, is because it is probably more Dent-like than the others. I’m now looking forward to trying another, maybe the one considered least Dent-like, so I can see what Donovan does when he really cuts loose.

Cold Death is back in print in one of the fine two-in-one volumes from Nostalgia Ventures, complete with The South Pole Terror and and an all-new article by Will Murray.

Sunday: A complete Laurence Donovan story from Speed Detective
Soon: A look at more Donovan Hero Pulp novels

For the original cover image, I am indebted to the great NorthernWriter site.

Today: Links to more Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's pattinase


Deka Black said...

"If this were an adventure of the Spider, hundreds would die in far more grisly fashion."---> Funny, only a few hours ago i finished Wings of the Blak Death, the third The Spider novel and the first by Norvell Page.

Comparimg with the first two... well, these two are more detective-like (but the death of the main villain in the first is... crushing). The differences between R, T. M. Scott and Norvell Page are more noticeable.

But the third, as you say, hundreds of dead people. But you know? I love this kind of story. The spider was my first Pulp hero to know, and the best.


(maybe i read now The Living Shadow. ;))

pattinase (abbott) said...

Howlin' Calamities! I think that's a term I might take up.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Deka Black-how about doing a forgotten book review some week? Get in touch if you like the idea.

George said...

This is one of the Doc Savages I haven't gotten to yet. After your review, I'm moving it up the stack. Excellent choice! Love the cover!

Richard R. said...

I've regretted more than once - make that many times - not buying the entire set of Doc Savage paperbacks when they were all available at the book store. Why didn't I? This will sound odd, I'm sure, but it was that gold skin and white hair on the character in the cover art. Something about it kind of creeped me out, or at least kept me from taking the books seriously enough to realize they were action-packed pulp dramas I'd probably like. I just saw an ad for the double with this one a day or two ago.

James Reasoner said...

When I was first reading all these books back in the Sixties, I recall not liking some as well as others. Now I know those were the ghosted ones. COLD DEATH is pretty good, though. I also liked some of the Docs ghosted by William J. Bogart, like WORLD'S FAIR GOBLIN. I didn't like any of the ones written by Alan Hathway, like THE GREEN EAGLE. Still, good or bad, I have a great deal of nostalgia about reading those books back then.

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