Toward the end of the long run of the Doc Savage pulp magazine, author Lester Dent changed things up a bit. The stories from 1933 up to May-June 1947 were all told in third-person narrative. With that issue however, and across the following four installments of the magazine, the stories were told from a first-person perspective.
This was a strange time in the history of the magazine. With sales declining (Doc Savage would come to the end of its original run in 1949), there was a good deal of experimentation going on…including a number of abstract covers, which sometimes did not even illustrate the Doc Savage novella inside. The Doc story in the May-June 1947 issue, listed below the headliner atop two other backup stories, almost seems an afterthought.
Nevertheless, first-person writing was an intriguing approach toward getting a fresh look at Doc’s world. However, it also posed a unique challenge for Dent. He had a distinctive writing style, and the strength in first-person story narration comes largely from establishing the “I” character voice in a convincing way. Would all five of the sequential narrators simply sound like slightly altered versions of Dent himself?
In the first of the five novellas, No Light to Die By, this is exactly what appeared to happen. The narrator of the story is a young man named Sammy Wales. He has a somewhat quirky, occasionally mordant sense of humor…he is pretty tough, has a wayward streak, but has a penchant for coming around and trying to do the right thing (sometimes despite himself). He has plenty of attitude, but is also self-deprecating at times. All very much in the style of Dent’s omniscient third-person writing.
The narrative change prompted an extraordinary burst of introductory pieces to No Light to Die By, all to set the scene. They included a Foreword by Kenneth Robeson, a series of cablegrams documenting Doc’s effort to shut down the story (while simultaneously in transit to various exotic world locales), and finally a statement/disclaimer by Clark Savage Jr., himself. They would, in later years, become a gold mine for fans and literary biographers who enjoy musings on “Doc Savage as a real person”…and even taken as pulp playfulness, they are pretty remarkable.
After all that, the story actually gets underway, narrated by Sammy.
Dent-isms abound, including a case of mistaken identity, an eccentric group of mixed potential villains and possibly innocent dupes, a bizarre effect in the night sky that Doc identifies as a highly-sophisticated (and dangerous) form of energy emission that looks like moonlight gone berserk, and a big black moving void that can kill by inflicting dozens of small punctures in its victims. There is a pretty girl, whose voice is alluring enough to bring Sammy into the business in the first place, and who prompts amusing exchanges between skirt-chaser Monk and smitten Sammy. The story is fine pulp entertainment.
Most interesting, of course, are Sammy’s impressions and observations concerning Doc, Monk, Ham, and the whole concept of “righting wrongs and punishing evildoers”. Throughout, Sammy is a mix of tough-guy jaded and reluctantly impressed. Sammy is a WWII vet, and at one point he and Doc have a pointed exchange about Sammy’s attitude that having been shot at repeatedly for Democracy and Uncle Sam, he is owed some good things in his life, without having to work like a dog to get them. Doc points out that tens of thousands of Americans were in the war right alongside Sammy Wales, and they are willing to keep working hard. Sammy doesn’t take kindly to the criticism, until in a quiet corner of Doc’s headquarters he discovers a modest display case that includes no less than four purple hearts — after which he is quieter about being owed a living after being shot at.
This type of interplay is actually quite effective — Sammy’s lack of reverence (and frequent wiseguy backtalk every time he opens his mouth), gives weight to the moments when he is impressed and even occasionally awed throughout his adventure with the Man of Bronze.
What is achieved, at least to some extent, is a heightened feeling of being a part of the adventure rather than an observer. Sammy, as a “regular guy”, gives the story a grounded perspective. This heightens tension in moments when he is afraid, prompts curiosity when he is puzzled within the complexities of the plot, and when mysteries are revealed, the “ah ha!” moment has more impact. So to me, the experiment felt successful.
There is a bit of a cliched feeling to what in most respects is a happy ending (mysteries are solved, and there is even a guy-gets-girl moment — a relatively rare ingredient to Doc Savage stories), and it is kept from being too neatly wrapped up when you circle back to the beginning and realize that after “the end”, Sammy doesn’t just disappear into the sunset, but will stir up a last bit of trouble when he decides to write and publish his story…which of course ends up printed in the Doc Savage pulp.
Even if it had been a one-shot experiment, it would have been a notable tale within the Doc Savage canon. But the experiment was just beginning, with four more first-person narratives to go.
Next: July/August 1947 – The Monkey Suit