Five first-person encounters with a man of bronze: The Monkey Suit

The second of five first-person narratives in the latter part of the Doc Savage pulp run was in July-August 1947. The story was called The Monkey Suit. The cover art, unlike the May-June issue, actually depicted the main Doc Savage novel, though it was once again a composition in the late-Forties abstract style.

Author Lester Dent had prefaced the previous issue’s story, No Light to Die By, with a really astonishing sequence of introductory pieces, including an author foreword, a whole series of cablegrams purportedly showing efforts to kill publication of Sammy Wales’ first-person account of his adventure with Doc Savage, and finally a statement/disclaimer by Doc himself. For this second experiment with the new narrative style, that was trimmed back to just another author foreword by “Kenneth Robeson”.

It’s relatively short, and basically informs the reader that this time the narrator is someone distinctly unlikable. In fact (Robeson claims) most readers are likely to feel an urge to take that narrator, Henry Jones, and “kick him in the slats”.

I had felt, in reading these five stories, that the greatest challenge Dent faced with them was to clearly differentiate his narrators, so that each successive story didn’t end up feeling like Lester Dent himself under various names. I needn’t have worried…the narration provided by Henry Jones is distinctly different from that of Sammy Wales.

Jones is a scientist, but definitely a lower-tier one, though he has a very high opinion of himself. He has his own modest lab, but his researches are not noble endeavors for the betterment of mankind; his primary motivation is to get himself a product that he can market for a decent amount of cash. To that end, Jones has discovered than an eminent chemist (no less than Andrew Blodgett Mayfair), has perfected a process that will enhance his own product, and he is desirous of acquiring use-rights to that process. Being a bit of a skinflint, Jones hopes that he can get the rights for an affordable fee, since Mayfair is reported to be perpetually broke, and might be willing to cut him an attractive deal.

He sets up an appointment with Mayfair, but an hour or so before they are scheduled to meet, one of Jones’ old acquaintances — a man he distinctly dislikes — contacts him because he wants a favor.

Jones fumes over this…and we get a clear picture of his personality. He is fussy, prissy and easily irritated. He thinks of himself as a gentleman, and has a sneering disdain for anyone who doesn’t fit that standard (needless to say, it is going to get interesting when he meets Monk Mayfair).

The old acquaintance comes over to his lab and promptly launches into a fast-talking spree of “old buddy, old pal” talk. Jones really wants to get rid of him, but the man is an old-school leech, and not only won’t go away, he won’t shut up. Jones is appalled and jealous to discover the man has a corporate position better than his skill level, and the jealousy is stoked further when he meets the man’s girlfriend, who is a looker.

But things get very strange, very fast. It seems the favor that the boorish friend is angling for is for Jones to collect a package from a public locker and hold onto it. He is given the locker key, but before any kind of rational explanation can be made, there are sudden attempts on Jones’ life.

The loudmouthed friend hastily makes his exit, but Jones follows him (to a cocktail lounge, where he finds the man in the midst of a string of more outrageous lies, this time to his pretty girlfriend). When he leaves, Jones nerves himself up and approaches the woman, basically to expose and discredit her boyfriend’s lies.

Remembering his appointment with Monk Mayfair, he calls his lab to let his assistant know he has been delayed, and finds out that Monk is already there. Intrigued to hear Jones is in a bar, Monk impulsively comes to join him.

For a while, the narrative that follows is pretty crazy, and a lot of fun. Monk is in fine form, immediately playing up to the girlfriend, Lila (which infuriates Jones, who is smitten with her). More danger arrives, in the form of two gunmen who burst in and appear to be holding up the cocktail lounge (they are in fact intending to murder Jones). The interior illustration is by Edd Cartier, whose more cartoon-like style had replaced the long-term classic artistry of Paul Orban.

While Jones behaves in a pretty cowardly manner, Monk (who loves a good scrap) tears into the gunmen, and mayhem ensues. After a wild fight the gunmen flee, with Monk in pursuit. Jones finds the whole episode barbaric, and is further disgusted to see that Lila clearly thinks Monk is a better man than Jones.

This section of the story is filled with Dent’s snappy dialogue and quirky mix of danger and humor. Doc Savage is brought into the mystery, and here the first-person narration actually felt like an improvement over the third-person approach; for the mid to latter part of the Forties, Doc had been portrayed as more fallible, which sometimes led to very awkward scenes describing his emotions. With him being observed by Jones in this tale, he is portrayed as competent, modest, strong, and remarkably diplomatic with the abrasive Jones. It provided a nice balance between the old “superman” presentation of Doc, and the more humanized characterization of the later pulps. Jones, displaying more petty jealousy, keeps telling himself that Doc’s reputation must be completely exaggerated, considering the bronze man to be a “fourflusher”…an opinion that keeps getting punctured by Doc’s efficiency, accomplishments and sterling character.

Unfortunately, the character interplay can’t carry the whole story, and as the plot (such as it is) unfolds, the tale bogs down in efforts to explain all of its absurdities. The mysterious package is recovered, and proves to contain a cheap gorilla-suit from a costume shop. The reasons for this, when finally revealed, are pretty underwhelming. The whole story pivots on a mass of hoaxes, ridiculous logic, and a lack of any real menace.

The Monkey Suit, in essence, felt like a lark…and a very enjoyable one at times. Monk and Doc are the only regular series characters to appear, and Dent clearly enjoyed having the space to play with them (Monk particularly benefits from having no space taken up by his perpetual quarrel with Ham, who is absent).

In the end, Jones, still “jonesing” for the pretty Lila, is essentially brushed off by her (no boy-gets-girl ending here!), and the bittersweet final lines hint that Jones may actually be catching on that he is a pretty disappointing human being.

_______________________________________

Next…Lester Dent writes from a female character’s point of view, in Let’s Kill Ames.

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