Five first-person encounters with a man of bronze: Let’s Kill Ames

The third of five consecutive first-person narratives in the Doc Savage pulp magazine took place in the Sept/Oct 1947 issue. The first two had involved a look at the Doc Savage world through the eyes of a tough-talking, hard-edged “regular guy”, and then what would normally have been a background character: a rather unlikable two-bit scientist.

In the third narrative, Let’s Kill Ames, author Lester Dent tries something never before attempted in the long run of the magazine: a story told by a female protagonist.

Women in the canon of original Doc Savage stories, with the exception of his dynamic cousin Pat Savage and to a lesser extent the Mayan Princess Monja, rarely achieved much depth. Some were little more than window-dressing for stories, some were feisty, occasionally a few were villainesses, some were more noble…others were classic, pretty (but vapid) “good girls”. The authors who wrote under the house name of Kenneth Robeson were tightly restrained by Street & Smith policies, which have been described as including what was essentially a dictum not to explore any female character below the neck or above the knees.

So it was interesting indeed to finally get inside a female character’s full persona.

The cover of the Sept/Oct issue was another in the line of abstract late-Forties artistic compositions, but it does obliquely match the story of Let’s Kill Ames, which involves the infecting of extortion victims with a radioactive substance. The victims have to pay enormous amounts for a cure, or suffer a slow death. This was also the first issue to carry the masthead title Doc Savage Science Detective.

The “Ames” of the title is in fact the woman narrator, whose full name is Miss Travice Ames. We meet her in the moment her nice car is being repossessed, and she will soon learn that she has also been locked out of her hotel room by the management, for non-payment of her bill.

Miss Ames, it turns out, is a con-artist — a grifter who uses her looks and wits to fleece various victims out of as much cash as she can manage, after which she moves on to a new city and does it all again. She’s been going through a tight stretch, with the lack of incoming con-game cash catching up to her expensive lifestyle of good hotels and fancy cars. She doesn’t want to just skip town, as all of her clothes and possessions are in the locked hotel room, and they won’t let her in unless she ponies up about four hundred bucks in room fees (a lot of money in 1947).

With few options available, she decides to try and get the money from a chemist named Pulaski who has a crush on her. He’s not much to look at, but she’s been pretty much able to wrap him around her little finger, and she figures he’ll be good for enough to get her room unlocked, so she can grab her stuff and move on.

At dinner, she plays him like a fiddle, taking periodic shots at his manhood to get him to show off (when he has had enough of that, she intends to get him to prove he is a big man by giving her some money). Instead, he is goaded into trying to impress her with a whopper of a story…he is soon going to be rich, as he has developed a technique for slow radioactive poisoning, which is going to be used on wealthy men, with a payoff coming by selling the victims a cure.

Miss Ames is somewhat astonished, and though impressed, she is frustrated about learning more when the semi-drunk Pulaski suddenly realizes he has talked too much, and clams up. She is still not sure if it is all bunk, until she decides to try a scam herself on Pulaski’s targets (men which he unwisely revealed the names of). Soon after that, an attempt is made on Miss Ames’ life, and when, after barely escaping, she rushes to confront Pulaski…she finds him dead.

(interior illustration by Edd Cartier)

Through all of this, author Lester Dent has shown a pretty skillful touch for writing a mystery/adventure from a female’s point of view. Like many Dent characters, Miss Ames (her first name is almost never used) is jaded with a clever and sometimes dark sense of humor…she is smart, knows a lot about manipulating men, and gets shaky when things become violent, but is calculating and brave enough to get herself both in and out of trouble.

This trouble, however, is more than she can handle. So she hits on the idea of calling in the famous troubleshooter Doc Savage, who she will unleash on the bad guys. And maybe, if the Bronze Man is like most men and a sucker for a pretty face, she’ll maneuver herself into getting a little money out of him too, or at least some portion of the scheme’s ill-gotten goods, before vanishing herself.

The story launches into a tight series of chapters where Doc arrives, clues are explored, and the peril escalates. One particularly intense sequence involves Miss Ames being trapped in an elevator stuck between floors with the crook who killed Pulaski, and her desperate struggle to avoid being shot (clever touch by interior artist Edd Cartier to add the “please move to rear of car” sign inside the elevator…Miss Ames looks like she heartily agrees).

“Let’s Kill Ames” interior illustration by Edd Cartier

One of the highlights of these first-person stories is the chance it affords for the main characters to share their impressions of Doc Savage. Miss Ames’ thoughts on this are very interesting — she is impressed by such a handsome, competent man, but is wary about him discovering that she is a petty crook herself. In one passage she muses about that, and offers an interesting opinion about Doc’s well-documented discomfort around women.

(Doc Savage) said, “You’re a very stable person, aren’t you, Miss Ames? Death and terror and men lying themselves blue in the face all around you, and you’re not too much affected.”

“I’m affected all right,” I said. “With a little more of this encouragement, I think I could shake up a first-rate case of hysterics.”

Don’t,” he said. “It might not look well on you.”

I had heard somewhere that he was afraid of women, that he didn’t understand them; that, as a matter of fact, he had a phobia about the point, and never allowed himself to form any attachments of that sort. Just because he couldn’t figure a woman out. It would be nice if that wasn’t the hooey I was beginning to think it was.

Doc, it appeared, had grown up a bit by 1947 in his ability to deal with women. It should be emphasized, however, that there is not a trace of romance in Let’s Kill Ames…not between any of the characters. Pulaski is a dupe and fall guy, a character named Futch who appears interested in Miss Ames — who might, in more traditional pulp fashion, have ended up romantically connected to her — actually supplies a different twist to the tale. Miss Ames herself seems to consider Doc to be something like a tiger she has invited a little too close, who might at any point decide to put an end to her career as a con artist. The lack of even a whisper of romantic involvement was actually quite refreshing for a pulp story narrated by a woman. By contrast, a couple of decades later another notable adventure writer, Ian Fleming, would also produce a female-narrated novel (his James Bond story The Spy Who Loved Me), which felt strained and maudlin with romantic undercurrents at times.

The story keeps up its brisk pacing throughout, and Miss Ames is engaging from start to finish. Developments include Miss Ames doing a bit of extortion herself (to the tune of two thousand dollars, which will feature in the story’s ending), then discovering she has also been poisoned by the radioactive compound…a tense standoff with the villains…a few familiar Dent-isms like a red herring character that turns out to be one of Doc’s aides (in this case, Ham Brooks), and the unmasking of the mastermind behind the whole thing.

Fortunately for Miss Ames, the poisoning cure is not a fake, so she gets out of it alive. In the end, she learns that Doc is aware of her own criminal tendencies, but he nevertheless lets her go. Here are Miss Ames’ thoughts on it all at the end of the story.

So I had been pretty smart, I was the one who was going to use Doc Savage to rake the chestnuts out of the fire, then I was going to grab the chestnuts and leave him with a foolish expression. Sure, I had been smart, the way a cat is when it sticks its head into a milk bottle then discovers that the head that went in easy won’t come out.

I remembered that I had left my purse in the car. I went and got it and took a look inside. The two thousand wasn’t there, but it wasn’t much of a surprise. I had a pretty good idea that I wouldn’t say anything about my vanished profit.

And I didn’t; and a couple of weeks later, I got an awfully nice letter from a cancer research fund, thanking me for the fine donation of two thousand dollars. So I didn’t feel too foolish.

All in all, Let’s Kill Ames was fun, clever, exciting, and even, at times, insightful. One of the best of the first-person Doc adventures.

Next: Once Over Lightly

3 thoughts on “Five first-person encounters with a man of bronze: Let’s Kill Ames

  1. Although slightly off topic, Dent did some work on a story starring Ames called “The Case of the Immodest Mouse”, in which she was a private detective. He never finished it. He at least took the main character from it and used her here. It’s unclear how much of that idea he ransacked.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the insight, Jeff. Miss Ames pretended to be a private detective in the Doc Savage story, so Dent did indeed ransack at least that much from “The Case of the Immodest Mouse”. Fascinating how nothing in a writer’s life need ever be lost, when it can be re-imagined and repurposed.

      Like

      1. You’re welcome. Will Murray uncovered “The Case of the Immodest Mouse” story in the Dent archive at University of Missouri-Columbia. I can’t see how that title would fit any of “Let’s Kill Ames” so it appears he only re-used the character. I don’t recall knowing if TCotIM was written first person or not.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: