What’s Not Up, Doc (Savage)?

A Disappointed, Disparaging Not-Really-A-Book Review of Doc Savage 1: The Perfect Assassin, by James Patterson & Brian Sitts

By Daniel Dern: Non-spoiler disclaimer: While I subscribe to the practice that, as a rule, reviews and review-like write-ups, if not intended as a piece of critical/criticism, should stick to books the reviewer feels are worth the readers reading, sometimes (I) want to, like Jerry Pournelle’s “We makes these mistakes and do this stuff so you dont have to” techno-wrangling Chaos Manor columns, give a maybe-not-your-cup-of-paint-remover head’s-up.

This is one of those.

Among the many pulpish sci-fi/fantasy/etc books/series I uncritically consumed growing up during the 1960’s were dozens of the Doc Savage books, by “Kenneth Robeson” (Smith & Street’s house name from when they were originally published in the early 1930’s through the late 1940’s) being reprinted at, IIRC, like forty-five cents a pop, turning up in, IIRC, among other places, the (book) spinner racks at the George Washington Bridge Bus Station (which I recall thinking of as the Port Authority Bus Station at the GW Bridge), at 178th Street, where I’d switch between one of the busses to (or from) New Jersey, and heading southwards in Manhattan. (The terminal was also a block or two from a great thin-crust pizza shop.)

My timing was good (also luck); I recall reading the first book (Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze), as my first. (According to one article I read, while this reprinting started with this book, they quickly shifted to

not-in-sequence… not that, give or take the rare character addition (Doc’s cousin Pat; Monk’s and Ham’s pets Habeas Corpus and Chemistry respectively; etc.)

I was, and remain, a Doc Savage fan. If I had to guess, I’ve probably read around half of the 181 by “Kenneth Robeson.” (While conceding, having read/reread/skimmed a few, courtesy of either HooplaDigital or Kindle Unlimited, that the Suck Fairy has done a few barnstorming runs through many of the pages and plots.)

I’ve also enjoyed the various Doc Savage comics I’ve read over the years, from Marvel and DC (though none ofwith  the pre-Marvel/DC ones) and some indies/team-ups/cross-overs, like Batman, (Marvel Comic’s) The Thing (Ben Grimm, part of the Fantastic Four, in case you’ve lost track), The Spirit (by DC, in DC’s 2010 “First Wave”, plus the homages like in The Authority.

And I’ve read (and reread) Phil Jose Farmer’s trilogy A Feast Unknown, Lord Of The Trees, and The Mad Goblin), showing a much more humanized version of Doc. (Quick shout-out to Rusty, for his comment in the August 10, 2022 Scroll citing/listing the titles , which turned up during my (re)searches.)

(My research for this post also shows the PJF wrote a Doc Savage origin/prequel, “Escape From Loki,” too $$ive to buy, but, in theory (according to WorldCat), (possibly) available at a dozen or so libraries ranging, geographically (from me) from Worcester to Liverpool.)

I don’t remember whether I saw the Doc S movie starring Ron Ely, but I’d ready for the movie (or TV series) starring The Rock, anytime it finally happens…

So I was intrigued, if not ready to look forward to, the book announcement I saw a month or three ago (and submitted an item, not, I think, yet run), “The Perfect Assassin: A Doc Savage Thriller, Written by James Patterson, Brian Sitts,” followed by reserve-requesting it at my library.

I confess that while I’m familiar with Patterson’s name, and know that he’s written a bazillion books, including with a semidemihemibazillion co-authors, including a “reinvention of The Shadow,” I don’t think I’d previous read anything by Patterson.

Now I have.

The book is set in our present. The protagonist’s name is Doctor Brandt Savage. We encounter him, like we do with Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones in Jones’ first movie, as a college professor lecturing to a class.

Steven Thompson’s November 2022 review of the book at ForcesOfGeek.com, “’The Perfect Assassin: A Doc Savage Thriller’ (review)”, clearly feels the same way as I do about this book (and included a few facts that I may not have separately encountered in web researching). I’ll call out the two obvious ones that had occured to me before I found and read his review:

  • Until about halfway through the book — like page 175 — nothing other than the book’s subtitle/cover (“A Doc Savage Thriller”) and the protagonist’s last name, and the (non-medical) Doctor — suggest any connection whatsoever to the original Clarke Savage Jr.
  • Plotwise, ditto up to that point, the book could just as easily be the origin/training story for (Marvel’s) Black (and other shades of) Widow (Natasha Romanov, etc).
  • The writing is (to me) competent, but less sparkling than a glass of seltzer left out in the sun for a week.

At the halfway-point, the connection to the original Doc Savage becomes explicit and relevant. More than that I won’t say, in case you decide you want to read the book.

If you’re looking for a reasonably-competent action/adventure book, this probably qualifies.

If you’re looking for another satisfying dose of Doc Savage, I don’t think you’ll find it here. Whether that was the goal, I dunno. You’re welcome to enjoy it more than I did. If you dent your wall hurtling the book (not a library copy!) at it, don’t look at me to reimburse you for repairs.

I’m not sure I feel better for having written it, but now I won’t be continuing to write and edit this piece in my head.

In the words of Nero Wolfe, “Pfui.”

22 thoughts on “What’s Not Up, Doc (Savage)?

  1. Thanks for the warning/review. If a used copy drifts by my eye, I’ll probably page through it; but otherwise, no thanks.

  2. I don’t get these Shadow and Doc Savage revivals at all. Why hire Patterson and his co-writers to produce something which has nothing whatsoever to do with what people expect from the Shadow and Doc Savage?

  3. Why? $$$ only, that’s why! Shame on you, Patterson. Stick to your own series!
    What’s next? A PRIDE AND PREJUDICE rip-off?

  4. “I don’t get these Shadow and Doc Savage revivals at all. Why hire Patterson and his co-writers to produce something which has nothing whatsoever to do with what people expect from the Shadow and Doc Savage?”

    One possible explanation (though I don’t know whether it’s the case here) is a “keep the trademark alive” book. There’s been active copyright and trademarks to Doc Savage since Street and Smith published his first story in 1933, and while copyrights, if renewed, will continue in force until the term ends, trademarks have to be kept in use to stay active. Apparently Marvel published a number of its early Captain Marvel comics on an occasional basis every few years largely to maintain its trademark on the name after Fawcett abandoned it: https://www.cbr.com/captain-marvel-marvel-trademark-maintain/ (Its current version is considerably more successful, of course.)

    If there hasn’t been a new Doc Savage book published in a while, I could see the trademark owners having an interest in getting one out quickly to avoid getting judged to have abandoned the trademark. If you really needed to be quick about it, you could take an unrelated book not published yet, edit it to make a main character Doc Savage, and then put it out under that name. Again, I have no idea that that’s what happened here, but it’s one possible scenario.

  5. And yet new licensed Doc Savage and The Shadow novels have been coming out, since 2011. (They came out through Altus Press, which later became Steeger Books.) The copyright of the first Doc Savage Wild Adventures book shows that the book is copyrighted to Will Murray and the heirs of Norma Dent (Lester Dent’s widow), and it also includes the Condé Nast copyright and trademark.

    There have also been new The Shadow and Doc Savage (and The Avenger) comics from Dynamite.

    There have also been licensed reprints of Doc Savage and The Shadow. Now and then, Condé Nast seems to decide it wants to do something new with their pulp characters, and it pulls the licensing from the official reprints. My understanding was that they were afraid people would get “confused” between the reprints and the new properties. facepalm

    Maybe Condé Nast wanted something from a bigger publisher, so they brought in Patterson. I could have suggested other writers…

    Maybe they wanted something that would get the attention of movie producers. But if these books don’t do well and have little connection to the original character, then … meh.

  6. The Ron Ely Doc Savage movie was pretty forgettable. It was campy by design, ala the Adam West Batman, though I do admit it followed the plot of the original novel quite well. I will say that it was tons better than a later movie that was rather Doc Savagish, though without any shred of entertainment value. I’m looking at you Buckaroo Bonzai (shudder).

  7. Orange Mike, your public library should lend it to you for free, of course. But they won’t refund your time.
    As for the “why why why,” I doubt Patterson did it for the $ and ditto doubt even more that twas the publisher’s idea to “hire” him to do this, versus him telling them this was one of his next projects.
    “Keep the trademark/copyright alive” makes some sense, although if that’s the case, this is a very roundabout way of doing it, given that (probably not a spoiler) Clarke Savage Jr does NOT appear in the book as a person, he’s referred to by protagonist and the other major character historically. MILD SPOILER: Many of Doc’s inventions/etc’s do appear or are referred to, including the NYC HQ (referred to but not seen/visited and Doc’s Fortress of Solitude (which preceded Superman’s, note). Also another descendant from the extended Doc Savage cast of characters is involved.
    For all I/we know, IP constraints kept Patterson & co-author from bringing in Doc in the bronze thewed flesh. (Which could have been done any number of ways, e.g., time travel/stasis, a “Tanner On Ice” (Laurence Block) accident (also used for Steve “Captain America” Rogers), etc.
    I’d welcome a fresh (good) Doc Savage series.
    Hmmm, here’s another “Why” theory — The Rock lobbied for it, as part of his continued efforts to be the star of a Doc Savage movie/TV series. (I don’t give this much credence, this really calls for Doc himself, whether contemporary or back in the day, rather than just a descendant. Again I say, Pfui. And Pfeh. If I’d read the review I’d cited (or my own) in time, I wouldn’t have bothered reading/skimming this book. Pfui, Pfeh, and Ptui.

  8. For years after first seeing the Doc Savage movie, I remembered exactly one scene from it and nothing else (the fight where he changes fighting styles a dozen times…)

  9. Patterson is a fine writer of thrillers… or used to be. His Shadow book was an abomination that wasn’t even good YA, though it was written at that level. I can only guess that the Doc Savage book is equally offensive. The “co-writer” of the Shadow book obviously (he only had one previous writing credit I recall) wrote the whole thing. I mentioned it to Steranko and I believe he suggested that the book was written primarily to extend the copyright. Doc Savage book ditto.

  10. When James Patterson’s deal to produce books on The Shadow and Doc Savage was announced in 2020, there was talk that it would lead to movies. The announcement referenced the “Street & Smith superhero universe,” so my guess is that the IP holder thinks they’re sitting on a future MCU-style goldmine.

    Unfortunately these books seem utterly charmless and generic. The cover to The Shadow looks nothing like the character and even abandons the famous tagline for this: “Crime has a new enemy.”

    In the original press release, Patterson says “Who can forget The Shadow’s historic tagline, ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?'”

    Patterson can forget that, apparently. What a hack.

  11. These Patterson books wouldn’t have been necessary to extend trademark rights. A 2015 novel by Will Murray, The Sinister Shadow, used both of the characters.

    However, we’re not far from the year that these characters’ original stories pass into the public domain. The first story where The Shadow was more than a mysterious radio narrator was published on April 1, 1931, so I think it enters the public domain on Jan. 1, 2026. Doc Savage began in March 1933 and those stories become public domain on Jan. 1, 2028.

    Creating new characters calling themselves The Shadow and Doc Savage gives Conde Nast something to own when the rest of the world gets to play with two of the great pulp crimefighters.

  12. Rcade: You’re right about the original Shadow and Doc Savage copyrights ending soon. Copyright terms round up to the end of the calendar year, though, so the first Shadow stories will be public domain January 1, 2027, and the first Doc Savage stories on January 1, 2029.

    I’m not sure how often trademarks have to be used in promotion to keep them alive, but if the last book featuring both names on the cover was published in 2015, which is now 7 years ago, I could see it being useful to release another one in 2022 to ensure the trademarks stay in force after the copyrights end. (Ongoing trademarks won’t prevent others from publishing new Shadow and Doc Savage stories once copyright to the original stories ends, but they may affect how those stories can be promoted, as we’ve seen with the complicated publication history of characters named “Captain Marvel”.)

  13. We encounter him, like we do with Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones in Jones’ first movie, as a college professor lecturing to a class.

    Good on you for looking up the character’s full name, but we first encounter Indiana Jones stealing a golden idol from a Peruvian temple in full action hero mode.

  14. A.J. – fair point. (A friend has pointed out that, taking a leaf (not of athelas) out of the Star Wars playbook, internal evidence suggests that the second-released IJones movie was, chronologically wrt Jones, the first.)
    Back on the Doc Savage front, I recall Marvel doing an updated-to-the-present version of DS#1, The Man Of Bronze. In the original, Doc and his gang are gathered by a window in their 86th-floor (IIRC) NYC skyscraper digs, and a sniper aiming at Doc from another building misses “because the window glass displaces images about 18″ to one side.” In Marvel’s update, the assassin is using a laser, so it’s not clear (to me) why they still missed. Perhaps the window effect was only one-way?

  15. Having read all the original Doc Savage stories, sometimes in original pulp form, one thing I learned is that while they sometimes have all the failings of pulp novels, they frequently rise above that standard. Lester Dent in particular was superb at creating bizarre villains and he excelled at writing action on the page that you can see in your mind’s eye — a rare and difficult writing skill few writers possess. Doc, for all his bronze stoicism, was a fun character who let readers travel the world with him and have a damn fun time in the process. Nothing I’ve heard about Patterson’s ghostwriter here indicates this new story possesses any of these traits.

  16. misses “because the window glass displaces images about 18? to one side.”

    How thick was the glass? because it doesn’t have that much of a refractive index in normal windows.

  17. Mike, thank you for the shout-out!

    P J Evans, if windows of normal thickness don’t have that much of a refractive index, I suspect the glass in the story was a product of Doc Savage super-science.

  18. Oops, should have said “Daniel, thank you for the shout-out!” Mike, thank you for posting Daniel’s shout-out!

  19. From what I’ve read about “Patterson’s” “Doc Savage” novel, there’s little left of the original character. It seems to mashup characters and ideas from other adventure-hero series:

    A super-soldier serum, like Captain America.

    Intense training that gives abilities far beyond normal, like Remo Williams (the Destroyer series).

    And a kickass assassin/ninja female (like Black Widow).

    Plus the new Doc isn’t raised to be a hero, he’s dragged into it against his will.

    Altogether, even if I didn’t already have a strong side-eyes for the interminable James-Patterson-and-some-other-person books, this is one I would (and did) decide to avoid

  20. I also hit the Doc Savage novels at a young age, when I found a trove of them my uncle had left behind at my grandparents, and read them with zest and wonder. Someone very kind 🙂 sent me a boxload of them a few years ago and I found the rereads awfully enjoyable. I did a couple blog posts with recaps and should do some more, since they were really terrific fun, but one thing I noted in the rereads is that Dent had some wonderfully evocative descriptive lines, as well as eerie, creepy villains and that wonderful band-of-brothers banter.

    I’m sorry to hear Patterson didn’t hit the mark; I think it would be so much fun to write.

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