Doc Savage: Skull Island by Will Murray

“His name is Kong.  I saved his life once… and he saved mine.”

In 1933, when Kong fell from the Empire State Building, moviegoers asked the most obvious question for the time: where was Doc Savage?

Though never called out specifically in the old pulps of the day, Doc Savage’s headquarters was located on the 86th floor of that building, identified through process of elimination.  There were no other buildings that tall in New York City at that time, so where else could it be?  With construction completed only two years before, it was a no-brainer that the most incredible Man of Bronze should reside in the most impressive building in the most impressive city.  It was for those same reasons that the same building should be surmounted by “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” King Kong.  Tossing the two characters together would seem equally a no-brainer.  It took 80 years for this crossover to take place.  That seems like a lot, but I think it was more a case of waiting for the right author to do the job.  Will Murray has a gift for writing these old pulps.

The story picks up as the end credits to King Kong roll, with the body of the great beast flattened on the street in the shadow of the Empire State Building.  Doc Savage and his men help to contain the chaos and offer to clear the streets.  When it’s revealed that Doc knows Kong, the Man of Bronze is urged to tell his story.

Flashing back some 10 years, Doc Savage tells of his younger self, trained since before he could walk by a seemingly merciless taskmaster of a father who passed him from teacher to teacher as a kind of science experiment.  Insight into Doc’s backstory is peeled back over the course of the adventure as this younger version, fresh from the battlefields of World War I, teams up with his estranged father, Clark Savage, Sr., in the desperate search to find the elder Savage’s father, the legendary Stormalong Savage.  They set sail aboard the ship on which Doc was born, crewed by Mayans, towards an uncharted dot in the Indian Ocean, their only clue to the last-known whereabouts of the otherwise nigh-invulnerable Stormalong.  Their vessel is intercepted en route by boatloads of tribal headhunters.  As the plot progresses, we learn that they have chosen their targets specifically: the heads of the three Savages and the ultimate prize, that of the mighty Kong himself.

The book is separated into three parts.  The characters set foot on Skull Island as part two opens, and the book takes some turns that one could only expect from a Doc Savage adventure.  Skull Island is portrayed as it was in the film, with all of its prehistoric grandeur.  But the scientifically-minded Doc begins asking questions about the origins of what we saw on screen.  And then he begins improvising as only he can.  For example, he makes a poncho from a triceratops hide to help shield himself from poison darts.  That sort of thing.  The answers come slowly, but the adventure keeps up its pace, interlacing mystery with action as Doc must find his elders, ward off the headhunters, and survive the prehistoric terrors that Skull Island offers.

Kong’s shadow looms over the whole of the tale, but he makes his undeniable presence known as part three opens.  Again, Doc’s scientific mind begins distinguishing Kong from other primates, and it’s suggested that Kong may have more human qualities than most.  At the very least, he is intelligent and inquisitive, and the initial interactions between Kong and Doc were, to me, laugh out loud funny as Kong thought it amusing that Doc could attempt to fight back.

When the mighty beast is incapacitated, it’s the fight of a lifetime for Doc and his elders as the headhunters close in.  They’re outnumbered, with little in the way of weaponry, and dwindling resources, and they must at all costs protect Kong.

The lessons Doc would learn on this adventure are fundamental to how he develops into the hero we know.  In standard pulp fashion, it’s not exactly subtle how it’s done either, but for my part, I didn’t really care how heavy-handed it was.  It’s a pulp.  I expect these sorts of things.

As I tend to grade pulps on a curve, and as I tend to geek out big time on crossovers that are handled this well, the obvious question becomes “why did this get 4 stars instead of 5?”  4 stars is nothing to sneeze at.  It’s a superior adventure, and I had a blast with it.  What would have made this a 5 star read is the one thing the author was ill-equipped to offer: more Kong.  Let’s face it, Kong is master of his domain, and the climactic fight would have been child’s play for him.  But for you more literary types, I’ll submit that that this pulp checked the boxes.  It’s said that there are three types of conflict in most types of fiction: man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself or his conscience.  This book had all three, raised to operatic proportion as befitting a tale of both Doc Savage and King Kong.  But in the end, it’s Doc’s name on the headlining title.  It’s Doc’s story, and it’s his day to save.  Kong provides the milieu.  That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of imagination.  I begrudgingly admit that more Kong might water down what we were given.  It doesn’t mean I don’t want to see it though.  My geekdom tends to be insatiable on that front.

As an afterthought, for those of you book lovers who love to see pulp characters throw around literary references, this book has another angle of approach for you.  It comes to a head when Doc and his father have a battle of wills using nothing but Sherlock Holmes quotes.

4 stars

Skull Island

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