Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Sinister Shadow Reviewed

Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow
by Will Murray and Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson.
copyright 2015, Altus Press

For the last several weeks, I've been reading the e-book version of Doc SavageThe Sinister Shadow, a new pulp novel by Will Murray, in which The Shadow and Doc Savage each battle a mysterious new villain calling himself The Funeral Director, eventually joining forces to defeat him. An afterword to the book explains that early in his career as a pulp writer, Lester Dent, Doc Savage's creator, was asked by editors at Street and Smith, publishers of The Shadow Magazine, to submit some sample chapters and an outline for a Shadow story. Dent's first effort was rejected, but later, the editors asked him to write the very first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze, using the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. With the permission of the estate of Lester Dent and of Advance Magazine Publishers, Inc., who now own the copyrights to The Shadow, Murray wrote this new novel using portions of Dent's sample chapters and fleshing out and rewriting the outline.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see The Shadow back in print with a new adventure. I've been a fan of The Shadow ever since my first introduction to old-time radio in the 1970s and finding reprints of Walter B. Gibson's Shadow novels at my local library at about the same time. On the other hand, I've never been a particularly big fan of Doc Savage, finding him a bit too much of a stuffed shirt and a goody-goody for my taste, but I'm willing to put up with him if it means I get to see The Shadow back in action.

This new novel opens in the 1930s as wealthy men throughout New York City are mysteriously dying of heart attacks. Both Doc Savage and The Shadow, however, suspect that these heart attacks are not natural occurrences and are being caused by some outside agent. It is revealed that many of these men had criminal connections that they wished to keep secret, and were being blackmailed by someone calling himself The Funeral Director.

One of the men being blackmailed, however, is Lamont Cranston, millionaire and sometime alias of The Shadow. Unlike the radio version of Lamont Cranston, who actually was The Shadow, in this novel and in Walter B. Gibson's original pulps, Lamont Cranston was merely one of many aliases and assumed identities used by The Shadow. The real Lamont Cranston goes to see Theodore Marley "Ham" Brooks, a prominent attorney and one of Doc Savage's closest associates, one of his hand-picked "Fabulous Five" personal assistants. Cranston believes that the mysterious personage calling himself The Shadow and making weekly radio broadcasts may actually be The Funeral Director. Brooks suggests that they go to see Doc Savage and present the problem to him, but before they can reach Doc's headquarters, they are kidnapped by minions of The Funeral Director.

This sends both The Shadow and Doc Savage into action--at first on a collision course. Doc suspects that The Shadow and The Funeral Director are one and the same, but the real Shadow has to clear his name and prove to Doc that he is not the villain. Doc also disapproves of The Shadow because The Shadow is willing to use violence, including gunplay, to get the information he wants, while Doc and his associates prefer to use Doc's special "mercy bullets" that contain a nonlethal anesthetic. The Shadow is not above killing criminals, while Doc prefers to rehabilitate them using surgery and a stint at his special "criminal college," a hidden facility in upstate New York.

The Shadow races to find Lamont Cranston, while Doc and his friends Andrew Blodgett "Monk" Mayfair, a brilliant chemist, and Thomas "Long Tom" Roberts, a genius electrical engineer, likewise scramble to locate Ham Brooks. We are told that Doc's other companions, William Harper "Johnny" Littlejohn and John "Renny" Renwick, are out of the country pursuing their own adventures. There are many twists and turns, red herrings, and dead ends, but eventually we learn that The Funeral Director is an old foe of The Shadow, and his aim is to hold Cranston for ransom, thereby drawing The Shadow into a final confrontation. When Cranston's niece Weltha is unable to raise the funds to pay the ransom, The Funeral Director releases Cranston and kidnaps Weltha instead. Eventually, Doc and The Shadow realize they have a common enemy and join forces to defeat the villain. Doc and The Shadow, despite disagreeing over each other's methods, each recognize that the other is ultimately on the side of justice and declare an uneasy truce, if not an alliance.

Author Will Murray displays a thorough knowledge of the mythology and details surrounding both heroes, and the book is loaded with inside references that will make fans of both characters smile and nod in recognition. Three of The Shadow's most famous agents, Cliff Marsland, Harry Vincent, and Clyde Burke all make guest appearances and contribute to the plot at key moments.The author also introduces the eerie and memorable device of having The Funeral Director communicate with both his underlings and intended victims by means of tiny recording machines shaped like coffins.

My one real criticism of the book has to do with its prose style. It's impossible to tell how much was written by Lester Dent himself so long ago, and how much was written by Will Murray a good bit later, but I found the book rife with stilted dialogue, clumsy awkwardly constructed sentences, sentence fragments, and outright grammatical errors that called attention to themselves, slowed down the pace of the story, and took away from my enjoyment. In a pulp style action adventure story, the action should move at breakneck speed, or at least a brisk clip. I don't read a novel with an editor's blue pencil in hand, but gross mistakes in style, usage, and grammar jarred me as a reader and took me out of the story just as huge potholes in the highway can distract you from enjoying a Sunday drive. Will Murray may be a fine storyteller, but he needs a better editor. He's written several new Doc Savage titles for a series called "The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage," but I'd like to see what he can do with a straight Shadow story. Will he write one? Only The Shadow knows!

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