Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow by Will Murray (as Kenneth Robeson)

Fate intervened in such a way as to ensure that it would take nearly three months of agonizingly hanging on nearly each and every chapter-ending cliffhanger to get to the end of this book.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was pre-ordained.  But as they say, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.  And oh, what a journey it was!

Does anyone mind if I just let my geek flag fly a bit?  No?  Good.  Because I’m doing so anyway.

Let me be bluntly honest about this one for a moment.  I have no clue if you can call this a well-written novel or a badly-written novel.  It depends upon criteria.  You see, pulps have a long-standing tradition.  Some are masterpieces that hold up over time, such as those from the likes of Charles Dickens or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, where they speak to their time and transcend it.  Others were very much products of their time, written under extreme duress, with the authors earning by the word count while busting out genre-defining thrillers.  H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard might come to mind for some of you.  If you’ve ever joined in on NaNoWriMo where the object is to bust out a draft of 50,000 words or more in 30 days or less, then you have the beginnings of a vague idea of what it’s like to be a pulp writer.  Authors like Walter B. Gibson, who wrote under the name Maxwell Grant, pounded out 300,000 words a month — every month for years — on his typewriter, and through him, The Shadow became the most popular character of his time.  Those pulp novels were thinned out, streamlined, and otherwise mutilated to become the half-hour radio drama that would run from 1937 to 1954.  Likewise, if you look at the name of the author of this book, you’ll see the name Kenneth Robeson.  Robeson was the pen name of Lester Dent, who cranked out a similar series of pulps for the character of Doc Savage back in the day.  Savage was, and still remains, the only character of that era who can compete with The Shadow in terms of popularity, endurance, and ability.  Each inspired legends.  The Shadow’s most popular knock-off was called Batman, while Doc Savage became the template for Superman.  Before comics were made dark and edgy, they were sanitized.  Before they were sanitized, they went to war.  And before they went to war, they tackled the social injustices of the age.  Before they did any of that, pulps did the heavy lifting.  The difference is, those guys didn’t have superpowers.  They relied on science, brains, guts, and a hard-coded sense of right and wrong.  They didn’t always see eye to eye, their methods were vastly different from one another, and their objectives weren’t always aligned.  But that’s what made their adventures so different from the cookie-cutter formula of today’s comics, even though the formula most definitely started with adventures like this.  Lester Dent was the one who put that formula into place.  To those in the know, it’s actually called the Lester Dent Formula.  It’s the blueprint for everything you read in a superhero comic book today.  Is it any wonder these characters survived as they did?

And yet, as popular as these characters are, as long as they’ve endured, they’ve never really come face to face in the format they so richly embodied… until now.  They’ve worked together in a handful of crossover team-up comics that range from the uninspired to the outright convoluted.  But to have them finally face each other in a pulp novel?

It’s enough to make a fanboy weep.

And what’s more?  The name behind the Kenneth Robeson moniker, Will Murray, is a writer of such brilliance that he not only matches Lester Dent’s original style on Doc Savage, it seems he can do a spot-on interpretation of Gibson’s Shadow.  Some might say he was channeling both of these writers from beyond the grave, he’s that good.  Ladies and gents, this is no mean feat.  Even when they wrote each other’s characters under each other’s pen names, you could tell a difference, and Murray has somehow juggled this and amalgamated it seamlessly.  This is why I can’t tell you if this is a good novel or a bad novel.  It’s about three or four times the size of a traditional novel for each of these characters back in their heyday, but it feels like this is the second or third draft, deemed final, pounded out in about a week and a half.  It tells more than shows, it’s overly melodramatic, it’s outright obnoxious in places, it’s surly, and it depends on the strength of the characters to keep the reader invested in the plot so breakneck as to border on the disingenuous.

In short, it’s damn near perfect pulp.  It feels like it was written in the early 30s, in the early careers of both of these legends.  It’s the most honest and most natural crossover I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.

I walked into this as a huge fan of The Shadow.  I was introduced to the Master of Midnight nearly a quarter century ago, back when I was at college.  Already a big fan of radio and of Orson Welles, I was confused as to why The Shadow had slipped under my radar.  Turns out it was because the license holder kept a stranglehold on the character.  Only a few of those classic programs were released to the public in a format we could buy.  But the novels were out there if you knew where to look.  Once the internet became a thing, I was finally able to pin this beast to the ground and figure it out.  The novels are nothing like the radio program.  They’re far more brutal, with a larger cast, and some impressive villains.

On the reverse, I walked into this knowing just enough about Doc Savage to make me dangerous, but I’ve learned how wrong I was to let this guy slip through the cracks.

That’s the genius of this story.  Not only can the die-hard fans of these characters walk in and feel right at home, the complete newbie has a jumping on point.  Each pulp novel was always written with the understanding that it could be the first for a reader, and that balancing act was honored in the hopes that enough would be given to bring new fans into the fold.  After all, if it didn’t sell, the writers didn’t eat.  It was the Depression.  Will Murray has done the same thing here, and while it feels like an invite through a time machine, there’s a modern punch to it as well that will help today’s readers discover the thrill of yesteryear.

Each of these characters has their strengths, their weaknesses, and their signature idiosyncrasies.  They also have their team of agents.  Not all of those agents are on display here, but the bulk of them are here, and you get to know them as they serve their respective teams.  From there, it’s a game of one-up-manship as Doc Savage and The Shadow slowly peel back the layers of one another’s defenses and learn each other’s secrets, all the while wondering if the other is friend or foe while the diabolical Funeral Director lays his plans.

Murray has really done his homework, as I mentioned in my previous posting, and I won’t spoil that here.  As I say, those who have read those old novels will have to pick their jaws up off the floor to believe the level of absurd detail that’s in here.  The Shadow knows, and he said as much by the midpoint of the book.  Those who are new to this, you won’t be lost because you’ll be unraveling the mystery alongside Doc.

Don’t let the name on the cover fool you.  Doc headlines, and he gets his moment in the sun here and there, but this is The Shadow’s novel.

So is it a good novel or a bad novel?  It depends on how critical you want to be.  It’s a near-perfect pastiche of the two greatest writers in pulp history using the two greatest characters of that genre, both written to the absolute hilt.  It’s $25 for the paperback, and it’s worth every single penny and more in my estimation.  The rumor is that in addition to the Doc Savage line, Murray may be using this book as the launching point of a new series of Shadow adventures.  If this is true, I’ll be picking up every single one.  As it is, Audible has a small selection of the Doc Savage stories in their catalog, and I’ll be picking those up here and there over the next few months because I want to know more about the Man of Bronze.  And best of all, it feeds into this greater habit of mine, a never-ending rabbit hole known as the Wold Newton Universe, wherein all of the old classics share a universe already, even if they never met before.  This book drops right into the whole mess like the keystone of a giant puzzle.

I could go on forever, to be honest.  The point is, if you’re a fan of either or both characters, this book is for you.  If you want to learn about the pulp age and its greatest heroes, this book is for you.  If you want a page-turner with horrifically stupid dialogue and a grandstanding villain who monologues in the tradition of all great pulp villains, this one’s for you.  If you can’t deal with the writing style and sensibilities of the early 1930s, you should probably skip it.  But if you can set aside the modern world, even for just an hour or two, and let the idea take you, this is portal to the past like no other, the perfect bridge between then and now.

I want more.

5 stars

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One thought on “Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow by Will Murray (as Kenneth Robeson)

  1. Pingback: Grendel vs. The Shadow by Matt Wagner with Brennan Wagner | Knight of Angels

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