Five first-person encounters with a man of bronze: I Died Yesterday

A few months back, I did a review of the story I Died Yesterday, but in essence it was more a discussion of my long literary love for the character Pat Savage, and how it reached one of its peaks in my reading of this short novel, which is narrated by her. In the context of the final — and ultimate — Forties first-person story narration in the Doc Savage pulp magazine, it is well worth a second look.

For the third straight story, author Lester Dent uses a female narrator. In Let’s Kill Ames it was Travice Ames, con-artist. In Once Over Lightly it was Mary Olga Trunnels, sort-of detective. Both of those women had a degree of toughness, were smart and strong, and possessed a unique (sometimes mordant, sometimes a little arrogant, sometimes self-deprecating) sense of humor, which colored their views of people and the world. As it turned out, their resemblance to one another, and what would follow in I Died Yesterday, presents the impression that they were practice. Practice for Dent to adeptly display the Doc Savage canon’s most vital and dynamic female character: Patricia Savage.

Pat has all of those characteristics too…and far, far more. She debuted in the series fourteen years earlier, in 1934, and this would be her last appearance before the end of the pulp run in 1949. Brief glimpses into her thoughts had been presented over the years, but never in this depth. From the 1934 late-teen Canadian tomboy we met in Brand of the Werewolf

…to the fierce seeker after adventure throughout the rest of the Thirties…

…to the postwar businesswoman of 1948, she has evolved into a fascinating woman.

By the time of this story in 1948, Pat is still strong, impulsive, determined…but she has also become more introspective, and even a little world-weary. When I Died Yesterday begins, she is in her office at the Manhattan salon/gymnasium that she owns, but is not particularly looking for adventure. When her assistant comes to her with a problem (an oddly-behaving man who has come to the salon and won’t leave), she seems as if she would really prefer to just let her employees take care of it.

To her surprise, her assistant, Miss Colfax, shows less deference than usual, and actually talks back, expressing the opinion that the staff would like to see how Pat, the famous hellraiser, would deal with something as prosaic as a problem customer…in fact, some of them were frankly dubious about her reputation as an adventuress.

Troubled by this, worried that she may have lost her edge, Pat goes to throw the intruder out. The result, of course, is violence and chaos enough to make her salon staff (including Miss Colfax) wide-eyed with awe.

The actual plot of the story is not particularly memorable. The formula for what was now Doc Savage, Science Detective was vastly different from the globe-trotting, sprawling grandeur of the Thirties…the world had grown much smaller, and plots were usually either tight crime or espionage narratives, or character-driven tales. I Died Yesterday definitely falls into the latter category. The danger/mystery of the story involves what would today be called eco-terrorism, but it is not greatly compelling. What it does do is provide the framework for a number of scenes that are made intense and gripping simply because they are seen through Pat’s eyes. Those include a scene where Doc is ambushed by thugs, featuring some of the most harrowing descriptions of violent action that Dent ever wrote…and a scene where Pat is captured (a stock device in earlier stories, usually signalling a rescue on the way from the Man of Bronze). Pat gets out of it herself, using her natural reckless audacity (as well as some gadgets she had collected since Doc abandoned using them).

During these scenes and others strongly spotlighting Pat, the story soars. When it returns to the machinations of the plot, it labors.

As noted throughout this series of articles exploring the five first-person Doc Savage stories, perhaps the most interesting opportunity they offered was to see Doc himself through the eyes of other characters. Across the years, observation about Doc, his lifestyle, his appearance, his behavior…all had come through third-person narration. Dent and the other Robesons had sometimes been fast and loose with narrative conventions, and at times Doc’s thoughts and feelings had been described, or the opinions of characters concerning him at least obliquely presented. But not with quite the intimacy that first-person narration could achieve.

The first four stories in this sequence looked at Doc through the eyes of strangers. But in I Died Yesterday, we see him from the perspective of perhaps the closest person to him in the world. Pat is never reverential…she often teases her cousin, and is even frequently prompted to anger by his over-protective behavior (which was often accompanied by Doc doing his poker-faced equivalent of teasing back). Over the course of this tale, we also see the admiration she feels toward him, and the warmth. Her distress when he is in trouble is intense, and she displays protectiveness of her own. She is constantly plagued by Doc and his aides saying she is nothing but trouble…they intend to “disown” her…they wish she would stick to prettifying New York society ladies in her salon. But despite all that on the surface, there is an undercurrent of love, which is actually quite touching amid all the pulp violence and mayhem.

With those qualities, I Died Yesterday is one of the most important stories in the long pulp canon of the the Man of Bronze. Had it been narrated by another stranger, the story on its own merits would have been a trifle. But Dent brought Pat to life as never before, and it was none too soon, as by 1949 Doc Savage magazine would be done.

As noted above, Pat would not appear again in a Doc pulp. So reading this story is bittersweet. She even expresses some hesitation about wanting to get involved with dangerous adventure again. Her last words contain even more bittersweet feelings, as in many ways, this is goodbye:

I turned and walked away, wondering if the miracle that Doc had been working for had happened, and I was cured of my liking for adventure, or whether it was just that I was still scared. I didn’t feel scared, which was what worried me.

By the next issue the first-person narrative experiment was over. The rest of the series to its final issue were done in traditional third-person. The five stories were quite a wild ride, running the gamut from solid pulp entertainment (No Light to Die By, Let’s Kill Ames) to uninspired storytelling (The Monkey Suit) to a semi-screwball comedy train wreck of a tale (Once Over Lightly)…to a final adventure with a cherished heroine (I Died Yesterday).

It was perhaps the widest disparity of stories in any five-issue span of the Doc Savage pulp. It ended well, with a tinge of melancholy…but also with bursts of fierce energy (Pat with her six-shooter is a sight to behold)…and plenty of heart.

“I Died Yesterday” interior illustration by Edd Cartier

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