Review of the 1948 Doc Savage novel “I Died Yesterday”

Since I first heard of it in 1973 (it got a lot of attention in Philip José Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which I acquired in that year) to 1988, when Doc Savage Omnibus #5 was released, the novel “I Died Yesterday” was one of my Doc holy grails. The mention by Farmer that it was narrated by Pat Savage (in her final appearance in the series), and that it featured her own in-depth perspectives on her life and those of the others in the Doc Savage circle, was incredibly tantalizing. I had been a fan of Pat since I first encountered her in the Marvel Comics adaptation of Death in Silver.

In his long chapter about Pat in Apocalyptic Life, Farmer spends three pages discussing the novel (the other novels featuring Pat get a couple of paragraphs at most), and it sounded fascinating. Not so much the plot — which is marginal — but the opportunity to see her with a depth never before approached in the series.

So I did indeed search for the story for fifteen long years. Until the Omnibus reprinting the only edition I knew of was the original pulp, and in those days, before ebay and online fan circles and other modern resources, finding the January/February 1948 issue of Doc Savage, Science Detective magazine was all but impossible.

That original pulp, near the end of the long Doc Savage run, was in the era of that “science detective” title tag — digest-size magazines with odd, impressionistic covers. Some of the covers at that time didn’t even depict the Doc lead story. I Died Yesterday was indeed the cover feature, and surreal though it was, the cover image did actually match the story in its quirky way.

Jan-Feb 1948 issue of Doc Savage Magazine

With no chance in hell of finding it, I had no recourse but to wait for Bantam to reprint it. At various points when the Bantam reprints seemed in trouble and faced discontinuing, my emotional response was always the same: “Please, don’t cancel the paperbacks until you’ve printed I Died Yesterday!”

Finally the day came. A wintry day in early 1988, and on the shelf of my most-frequented book haunt of the 80’s, the huge Waldenbooks in Harvard Square in Cambridge, I spotted the gorgeous Bob Larkin cover of the Omnibus.

Doc Savage Omnibus #5, February 1988

I grabbed it, rushed with it to the checkout counter, and barreled out of there to catch the train home. That weekend, my nose did not come out of that book.

As I mentioned, the story itself is pretty lightweight, a bit of eco-crime with forgettable supporting characters and a ho-hum plot. But none of that matters. Because the story, “By Patricia Savage as told to Kenneth Robeson” is a first-person narrative that unfolds through Pat’s eyes.

And that experience is everything Farmer promised. She is her usual headstrong, dynamic, independent self, but with some of the early-pulp gloss of her appearances throughout the Thirties worn down, giving her the feel of more a real person.

When a man appears at her salon, acts very strangely, and sets off the story’s chain of events, Pat feels that maybe she has been coasting on her reputation as a hellcat. When her receptionist Miss Colfax comes to her with the problem (they do not yet know that the man has been severely wounded, with a broken-off ice pick in his back), Pat and Colfax have this exchange:

Colfax lowered her eyes to her hands and examined one of her best ten-dollar manicures. “I think they’re looking forward to watching you throw him out.”

“Who is?”

“The hired help.”

“Oh, they are, are they? And what is behind that kind of anticipation?”

Colfax lifted her head at my tone and said, “You’ve got me wrong…it’s just that they’ve heard about you.”

“What,” I asked, “have they heard about me?”

Things. About excitement.”

“I see.”

“I’m afraid you haven’t been living up to your reputation,” said Colfax quietly.

I told her that some others hadn’t been living up to their reputation around here, one of them being Miss Colfax, who was supposed to brush off pests. I said I would brush this pest off personally, then we would go into the other matter, the one about maintaining reputations.

“Yes, Miss Savage,” Colfax said.

She wasn’t very impressed, and I thought about that for a minute. Colfax was supposed to be awed by me, even if she wasn’t spellbound by anyone else. Hitherto she had been. She wasn’t now. She was even giving me, her employer, a little of the sass that our prestige-minded customers paid money for. There was just one answer — Colfax was right, and I hadn’t been keeping up my reputation as a hair-raising adventuress, and I was losing standing.

Pat bestirs herself to go deal with the problem, and in short order her hired help get to observe the hair-raising adventuress, as things quickly go from bad to worse and Pat ends up confronting bad guys with her iconic six-shooter.

I Died Yesterday illustration by Edd Cartier

She gets banged up, roughed up, and gives out mayhem as well as she takes it. The criminals end up getting away, and when she returns to her salon her staff — including Colfax — are wide-eyed.

The story progresses crisply — Pat brings in Doc to assist medically with the wounded man, and he tries to shunt her safely off to one side of the developing adventure, as he has dozens of times before in previous adventures. Good luck with that, Doc.

Doc has pretty much given up his famous gadgets, but Pat has collected a virtual museum of them, and loads herself down with the means to inflict untold damage. When she is kidnapped (so she thinks) soon after, she escapes by blowing a hole with some of Doc’s explosives in the side of the truck where she’s been confined.

Soon Doc is also attacked, and the scene at the end of Chapter 6 of I Died Yesterday is, to my mind, one of the most intense and compelling I have ever read from the pen of Lester Dent, including the unforgettable line:

The color red was on my hand, and if the color red can get into a scream, it was in mine.

I Died Yesterday, illustration by Edd Cartier

The plot of the story, as I mentioned, isn’t spectacularly gripping…but who cares? Pat comes alive in this novel as never before (Monk is also particularly well depicted…his tough-guy-with-a-soft-heart self immensely endearing…a far cry from the days of “Blazes” and “Howling Calamities”).

Often when you wait a long, long time for something (and as said, I waited a decade and a half to read I Died Yesterday), the actual experience is something of a letdown. Not this time. I still return to this novel and re-read it regularly, delighted to once again experience one of my favorite literary characters, the incomparable Pat Savage, in all her glory.

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