Wednesday 11 December 2013

Doc Savage: Death's Dark Domain

The Eyes Have It

Doc Savage: Death's Dark Domain
by Will Murray 
writing as Kenneth Robeson
Altus Press 
ISBN: 978-1618270825

Death’s Dark Domain is the fourth of Wil Murray’s second wave of writing further Doc Savage adventures as the new Kenneth Robeson - the pen name traditionally used for Doc Savage stories, most of which were written by Lester Dent - whose style Murray emulates perfectly.

This is not, of course, to say Murray’s mimicking of Dent’s style is not a creative endeavour. The trick is to come up with your own twists and spin on the Doc Savage legend while utilising that base style to ensure your own “yarn spinning” has some credibility within that particular universe and Murray is a master craftsman at this kind of work.

This Doc Savage adventure has a lot of tension and weight to it, since it’s set right after the events of one of the original Doc Savage adventures, Fortress Of Solitude. Yeah, that’s right, Doc had a Fortress Of Solitude in the Arctic many years before a certain other famous character in comics poached the concept (and his first name is even Clark too... ring any bells?). Also, fans of the Doc Savage series will know that Fortress Of Solitude was a very important novel in the Doc Savage canon. For... not only did it point out a mistake that Doc Savage had made in keeping an arsenal of “too advanced to fall into human hands” super weapons in his Fortress, thus providing the carrot for the lead villain on that particular story, but it also introduced the only villain ever to appear twice in the Doc Savage series (of which there were over 180 novels).

The thing is about Doc Savage is, he’s pretty much invincible. I only ever knew him to lose a situation once (in the very last of his original adventures after the title was cancelled, Up From Earth’s Centre... presumably because Dent wanted people to write in to the publishers to complain so they could see what happens next?) and he has always commanded an attitude and strength of character wherein you know that, if Doc Savage is on the case, he’s going to solve the groovy mystery (always explainable by science, with the one exception being, again, that very last published story of his early adventures) and this leaves the writer with something of a problem, if you look at it in this way. It means that every foe Doc comes up against... he only comes up against the once. He defeats them and he moves onto the next adventure. Except in one very special circumstance... in Fortress Of Solitude, the villain known only as John Sunlight, who is extremely smart and not to be taken for granted, almost as smart as Doc Savage himself, wanders off at the end and is “presumed” to be eaten by a stray polar bear.

However, that very same year, a further Doc Savage adventure, The Devil Genghis, put paid to that theory when John Sunlight returned. It’s an interesting development and I wish Dent would have brought the character back for further stories but perhaps he felt that this would wear down Doc’s credibility as an adventuresome superman too much. Who knows?

In Death’s Dark Domain, Doc and three of his crew (Monk, Ham and Long Tom) are still clearing up after the damage done in Fortress Of Solitude and it’s clear that they aren’t taking Sunlight’s supposed death for granted. In fact, Sunlight’s long shadow is cast over the first two thirds or so of this book like a spectre haunting Doc and his crew. It’s like they’re all expecting Sunlight to show his hand at any moment and this gives the writing an interesting colouring. Is John Sunlight in this one? And if he is, does that wreck continuity with the later story, The Devil Genghis? Well I’m really not going to tell you, you’ll have to find out for yourself but... certainly something of Sunlight’s presence is felt among the pages of this gripping tale, but it doesn’t necessarily come from the direction you think. And that’s all I’m saying about the Sunlight connection here.

The book starts off well and sets up the usual inexplicable phenomenon which Doc always gets around to explaining at the end of the novel in scientific terms. In this case, a darkness is causing the odd person to wake up supposedly dead, only to find that he or she has been turned into a pair of floating eyeballs. There are also ferocious, unseen cyclops wandering the country in which this is set and also much talk of vampires... indeed, Mr. Bram Stoker’s astonishing literary creation even gets a shout out here, and it’s unusual for a Doc Savage tale to identify a fictional character quite this blatantly.

One of my favourite characters, Pat Savage, gets a look in at the start of the novel but, alas, doesn’t join in on the adventure proper... again, I won’t say why. But the tale does feature a strong female character, who’s very much a mystery herself and... oh wait... I shouldn’t say too much about her either. but she’s pretty interesting and Doc is throughly disapproving of her actions in certain parts of the novel.

Murray weaves his tale with his usual brilliant pacing and utterly compelling storyline, which really does read like its just another novel sized story from the original pulp magazine. The action never lets up and he also uses elements that were ahead of the time in the thirties but which we can look back to now with a nostalgic reference.... something that Dent did in the original tales without understanding the effect, perhaps, that it would have on future generations of readers. Here, for example, Will Murray introduces a theremin as one of the elements in the mystery... which really brightened my reading experience because, well, I really love theremins (both the musical instrument and the story of the inventor behind them).

What more can I say about Death's Dark Domain? This book is terrific. If Doc Savage is your thing, and if you’re bothering to read this review I’m guessing he is, then you really won’t be disappointed with this blistering tale of the start of a war aggravated by the actions of John Sunlight in Fortress Of Solitude. Seriously good fun and Doc is seen at his most serious. Can’t wait to get onto the next one in the series. Well worth every penny.

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