The fourth of five consecutive first-person narratives in the Doc Savage pulp magazine took place in the Nov./Dec 1947 issue. The previous issue had debuted the new title of the series, Doc Savage Science Detective, and this (though it would be short-lived), continued as well. The three first-person point of view stories to this point had been a mixed bag: No Light to Die By had been clever and engaging; The Monkey Suit, with its plot-that-went-nowhere, less so. Let’s Kill Ames had showcased a female narrator for the first time in the canonical pulp run, and it was a successful, taut thriller.
However, this latest story, Once Over Lightly, was something of a train wreck. To begin with, the pulp cover bore no resemblance to anything in the story. It took the abstract approach from this era of the magazine up a notch…its Cubist figures appear to be playing some intense kind of ball game with a blue sphere, in the vicinity of a classical architectural column. Sharp-pointed clouds (or perhaps spaceships?) in the background complete the design. I presume it illustrates the John D. MacDonald novel Or the World Will Die, which I have not read, but which has been summarized as a futuristic novella about nuclear proliferation. The white lines around the blue sphere seem to suggest an atomic symbol, which might (or might not) further connect it to MacDonald’s story. In any case, it was pretty weird.
The title of the Doc Savage novel is odd as well. By definition, “once over lightly” means “a hasty or superficial treatment, look, examination, etc.” Basically to give something a cursory glance before moving on. How this applies to the actual story is a question not easily answered, nor is it an enticing invitation to an adventure/mystery.
Any hope that the novel itself is going to redeem all of this bizarre framing, is swiftly lost upon reading.
Once again author Lester Dent gives the story a female narrator. This time it is Mary Olga Trunnels, who prefers the nickname “Mote”. The M.O.T. is of course her initials, but again, resorting to the dictionary, we find the definition of mote to be “a small particle or speck, especially of dust”. Why anyone would embrace this nickname is beyond me.
To make matters worse, Mote is something of a pale copy of the previous novel’s heroine and narrator, Travice Ames. Miss Ames had pretended to be a private detective, and Mote works for a P.I. Agency…they both have a wisecracking style. This repetitive characterization immediately drains some of the interest from the storytelling, as one of the main allures of the first-person approach was to give unique, differing perspectives on the character of Doc Savage as seen through a fresh character’s eyes.
The plot of the novel as it unfolds is, frankly, a convoluted mess. A girlfriend of Mote’s named Glacia (another unlikely name, suggesting a cold, slow-moving personality, whereas Glacia proves to be noisy and high-strung) tells her to quit her job and come out west, where a much better job awaits. No details about this plum job are provided, and yet Mote immediately embarrasses one of her employers to get herself fired (ostensibly to avoid having to give two weeks notice), and heads west with vague prospects.
A fake Indian named Coming Going meets her and brings her to where Glacia is staying — in an inexplicably bizarre hotel that appears, for the most part, to be isolated from civilization (and loaded with strange features like animal totems instead of room numbers). Glacia still refuses to tell Mote what her new job is, but assures her she’ll get paid. It will later turn out that the only reason Glacia summoned Mote is as a sort-of bodyguard (a role Mote seems not at all suited for), since Glacia trusts no one at the hotel and is vaguely frightened.
In short order, everything but the kitchen sink is tossed haphazardly into the plot. An eccentric uncle (who is murdered), an inheritance that nobody comprehends, a couple of villains whose chief characteristics are being fat and bad tempered (one of them is displayed in a cartoony interior illustration by Edd Cartier)…
…a few other characters with quirks and attitudes are thrown into the mix seemingly for the hell of it…Doc Savage appears on the scene, supposedly there for a vacation (of course no one could possibly believe he has come to such a strange place for real vacation, so it is obvious to everyone that he is investigating the same dark doings that have sucked in Mote)…and everybody essentially runs in circles accomplishing very little.
The plot is shown to involve a sunken ship with uranium aboard (this is explained about three quarters through the novel, rather than as a mystery-reveal at the end)…though why everyone has gathered in the desert southwest to chase this atomic-era trove when the ship sank on the way to England is once again anyone’s guess.
The whole mishmash comes to an end with a final fight that appears half-serious, half-camp (for instance, one of the villains, trying to get away, tries to jump through a window, not realizing it is boarded up on the outside. He knocks himself cold).
The intent of this story would, by any logical measure, be an experiment by Dent to expand on his often quirky humor, pushing it over the boundary into a kind of adventure/mystery/screwball comedy hybrid. Perhaps not the best time to attempt such an experiment, when editorially the magazine was attempting a rebrand into the “science detective” storytelling mode. In any event, it was not (thankfully) repeated. Before the end of the magazine in 1949, there would be strong, dramatic stories to come.
But as for Once Over Lightly, perhaps it is wise to take its title in the form of advice…give it a glance, and quickly move on.
Next: The final first-person narrative, told by Pat Savage herself!