Wednesday 8 June 2016

Doc Savage - The Sinister Shadow

Lurks In The Hearts Of Bronze

Doc Savage - The Sinister Shadow
by Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
ISBN: 978-1618271983

Warning: Very marginal spoilers here.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? 
The Shadow Knows!

Okay, so I’ve been a big admirer of both the original Doc Savage novels (since I started reading them in 1975, when the movie came out) and also Will Murray’s continuation novels, including his new batch under the collective term “The Wild Adventures Of Doc Savage”. All of the Wild Adventures are being reviewed here in the order of their release and, if you look them up in the Index By Title at the top right of this page (the book section is at the start of the index), you’ll see there are only a few of Murray’s magnificent tomes that I found wanting. Unfortunately, this is one of them but I don’t think that’s necessarily Murray’s fault in this case... it’s more my reaction to the literary style of Maxwell Grant. I’ll explain that a little more in a minute.

The Shadow started life as a radio show character to promote Street And Smith’s pulp magazines in 1930. He became more and more his own thing and it wasn’t long before people were asking the news stand sellers for magazines of pulps specifically based on the character. Eager to feed that market, the publishers commissioned Walter Gibson to start writing his literary adventures in The Shadow magazine and I understand he wrote the bulk of them, under the Street And Smith pen name of Maxwell Grant. Orson Welles played him on the radio, the magazine sales were astonishing and several films and serials, not to mention comics, were sold of the adventures of... The Shadow. In the UK he’s not so well known as a character but in the US he was a really big phenomenon in the 1930s. Characters like Batman may never have been invented if it wasn’t for The Shadow. I have a wonderful Batman comic somewhere from the seventies used as a reintroduction to the character, to usher in DCs revival of The Shadow in his own comic, which pretty much underscores that fact.

While not directly influenced stylistically by The Shadow, when a young Lester Dent was asked by Street And Smith to have a go at writing for the character, it was more as an audition for another character the publishers were thinking of bringing to life and, in terms of the newer character, Dent was given the job... three years after The Shadow had debuted on the radio and about two years after the character’s pulps commenced publication. That character was, of course, Doc Savage and Dent wrote the majority of the Doc Savage novels under the Street And Smith house name of Kenneth Robeson (although I don’t think he wrote any of The Avenger novels also written under that same publisher pen name... I may be wrong). Doc Savage was extremely popular, too, but he was always somewhat eclipsed by the popularity of The Shadow, I feel. There were no serials or even a movie about Doc until 1975 (although writer/director Shane Black is apparently trying hard to get a new version to the screen at some point, it would appear).

This novel is, as far as I know, the first full length novel to ‘team up’ the two characters... although the idea of Doc Savage and The Shadow getting together is not a new thing, of course. Various comic book companies over the years have tried it and... well the results are never that good and I’d have to say the same here, to a certain extent, although Murray certainly does a good job with The Shadow. Which is possibly why I didn’t like this one so much.

One of the major problems with crossing over these two characters is that they are so different in tone. The Shadow is the ‘ninja of noir’, lurking in the shadows, secreting himself and his investigations and ultimately dealing out leaden death to his enemies. Doc Savage on the other hand, while still possessing some hefty secrets, goes about his work openly as a global adventurer and he would never, knowingly, take away anyone’s life. Even the special guns he invented for his five aides are loaded with drums of ‘mercy bullets’, which explode on impact and just knock the person on the receiving end unconscious. So we have a very clear light versus dark tone on any stories that try to match up the heroes and... well that difference rarely comes across without one or the other of the characters being somewhat compromised, it seems to me and, in the case of Doc Savage’s side of the story, that’s exactly what happens in this novel, to some extent.

While I quite like the idea of The Shadow and loved some of his comics, film serials and radio shows, I’ve never really gotten on with his literary incarnation. And that’s not just because I can never pin a handle on who his real alter ego is... such as Kent Allard, Lamont Cranston or possibly, in this one, George Clarendon... in fact I believe the real identity of The Shadow became more obscured and involved over the decades. The real reason I’ve never gotten along with the character in the pulps is because he just seems so much less engaging and because he always seems so less well written than my constant literary companion, Doc Savage. The books just seem a bit ‘deadly dull’ in the way the action is expressed and... well, all I can say about that is that Murray must be doing a fine job here because... he’s really caught that deadly dull style and used it throughout the novel.

The majority of the action in The Sinister Shadow involves both The Shadow and his network of operatives. Doc Savage and co seem to have much less to do in this one and, consequently, the writing style for much of the novel, including many of the scenes involving Doc and his crew, seems to be very much in the style of the fictional Maxwell Grant than of the fictional Kenneth Robeson.

I don’t know enough about The Shadow to be able to really judge just how great a job Murray has done on him here but it did feel like it was very much in keeping with the few volumes I’ve read. There is a certain, overwrought sense of poetry to the prose as the writer finds ways to express The Shadow as he slips from sight and becomes ‘a living shadow’, so to speak. I do, however, think of myself a fair judge of Doc Savage and there are a few things I think were somewhat overlooked in this tome, regarding Doc and his crew, due to the bulk of the story feeling tailored to get as much time spent with The Shadow and his operators as possible.

For instance, early in the book, Doc and Monk accept a ‘lift’ from the police, rather than ride to the scene of the crime in something faster and more independent. I’m sure Doc wouldn’t have taken that offer in a normal situation without a hidden agenda because it leaves him somewhere where he’s possibly going to get involved with trouble, without any means of giving chase. So it seemed somehow wrong.

Secondly, the two heroes penetrate each other’s secrets, to a certain extent. The Shadow learns the location and existence of both the Hidalgo Trading Company vehicle hanger that Doc has set up and, even more damagingly, his Crime College, where he secretly cures criminals of their bad deeds, removes their memories, and teaches them an honest trade. For his part, Doc discovers and invades The Shadow’s Inner Sanctum but, frankly, there’s no way Doc would have let The Shadow escape him or fall into an unlikely alliance with him for the last act of the book. Doc would have never let him go, I’m sure. He would have chased him down to the ends of the earth to rehabilitate him, rather than tolerate a vigilante dealing out death in his city. So none of that really felt ‘true’ to me.

Lastly, Doc’s aide Ham is kidnapped early on in the book (along with Lamont Cranston) and is absent for quite a lot of it. Monk, however, doesn’t seem that unduly upset about this turn of developments through most of the adventure. Which seems kinda odd. The Monk Mayfair I know would have been going frantic throughout the whole of the story, I’m sure. Here it seems like it’s just business as usual for the apish chemist... so, again, it just didn’t ring true to the characters for me.

Other than this, though, the book is entertaining enough and full of action. It just seemed a little less interesting to me. Well done to Murray, though, for finally fooling me for a minute or two when Doc disguises himself as... ahem... a prominent character in the story. I usually spot these things a mile off and this is such an obvious thing to have happen here that I was amazed that I didn’t see that one coming. So that was good although, by the time in the novel this actually happens, I was kinda counting the pages until the end.

All in all, then, a remarkable facsimile in style and content to the original pulps of The Shadow and I think fans of the character will love this one. As a Doc Savage fan, however, I was less enamoured of Doc Savage - The Sinister Shadow, than I thought I would be... which is a shame but 'them’s the breaks', I guess. Still... looking forward to the wonderful Will Murray’s next Doc Savage adventure... which I already have sitting in the ‘to read’ pile.

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