Three Pulp Authors review and discuss Jeff Deischer’s “Acid Test” and the Doc Brazen series
A brief intro of our authors:
R. Paul Sardanas is the author of over 30 books of both mainstream/classical and pulp fiction, including the pulp-epic Talos Chronicle; Grace Ximenez hosted a noir/story/roleplay/film site for almost a decade, and headlined three pulp-peril short-story collections called The Grace X Anthologies; André Vathier is the co-author of the Doc Talos Mythos book We Are Connected by Invisible Links, and has written stories for Atom Mudman Bezecny’s Hero Saga.
Hi Grace, hi André. So we’re here to discuss author Jeff Deischer’s novel Acid Test, as well as the ongoing Doc Brazen series of novels.
For those not familiar with these books, there are three books in the series currently available, with the ultimate run of Doc Brazen novels projected to be twenty-four total books. So, a series with a lot of ambition. It is a pastiche of the 1930s/1940s pulp icon Doc Savage, but with a unique premise: instead of squeezing more period stories into the 1933-1949 span of time that encompassed the original pulp magazine run, the Doc Savage character, here named Ulysses Brazen, had retired in 1949, but returns, plausibly aged, near the turn of the millennium, for a new series of adventures. He has a new group of aides, and brings the spirit of the original pulp stories into a modern setting.
We’re going to specifically review Doc Brazen #4, Acid Test…but along the way will talk about the series concept as a whole. As I mentioned, there are three books available currently in the series, Brazen #1, #3 and #4 (Number Two will be released out of sequence). These three books can all be read independently, but are in fact a trilogy when the trio of tales are taken as a whole. Deischer is a noted Doc Savage scholar, having written the 2012 book The Adventures of the Man of Bronze: A Definitive Chronology, and he brings that detailed knowledge of the original characters and stories to his Doc Brazen pastiche.
Before I jump into Acid Test specifically, I found the concept of the Brazen stories overall to be very appealing. In this era of reboots of classic characters that seem to “start over” every few years in order to try and inject fresh commercial interest into beloved characters, the Brazen series can be looked at as a continuation of the original pulp saga. The way it is written, if the names and locations were changed to match the original pulps, it would feel exactly as if the original pulp run was being continued into the modern era. Deischer’s writing style hearkens strongly to that of Lester Dent (the original Doc Savage author), which also contributes to that feeling of continuity.
I agree I like the setting. For me the 90s to Y2K period (1991 – Pre-9/11) is seen through rose coloured lenses. I was five years old when Y2K was in the news cycle. I do not remember most of it since I was too busy watching Spongebob Squarepants. I know it is naïve but I see this period as sort of halcyon days (most likely because I was a child and saw the world as a child does). Looking at TV shows, movies, books from that era, they have a different feel. I cannot pin point it exactly. This changed after 9/11. My point that I want to make is when people do a reboot of a popular pulp hero or they try to put it in a modern setting it’s often set during the Cold War (1947 to 1991) or post 9/11 war on terror era. Very few set it in the 1991 – 2000 Era.
Jeff Deischer really captured that era. Cellphones are a thing but they are not omnipresent like they are now. Same with personal computers. I think it is the last time an analogue hero with gadgets can thrive. I wonder if future stories will deal with the post 9/11 era or just end before 2001. Maybe he will explore the missing years of 1949 – 1999…who knows?
Also Jeff’s fast paced action is very reminiscent of Laurence Donovan’s writing. Doc Brazen being a nonagenarian is a good idea. You do not have to spend time telling a new origin story. The 1933 to 1949 era is still intact. As you said, Doc Brazen can be a continuation of those stories. I have not read the other stories yet. Nevertheless, like you said before, each story can stand on its own like the original magazine stories. Anyone can pick it up and start reading.
The Doc Savage books are a source of very great pleasure to me. I got into them in kind of a backwards way, encountering Doc first in the Marvel Comics magazine of the 70’s (I’ve been a big comics fan for decades), and enjoying those so much I went looking for more. Of course I found the mother lode of Bantam paperbacks. For a long time, given that there are so many novels in the original pulp run, I really didn’t feel anything more was needed…anytime I felt like indulging in a “Doc fix”, I would just pick up one of the Bantams, and it seemed like they would never run out.
But as I read and read and read, I did start to feel a little melancholy in the knowledge that 1949 would mark the end. I began to feel like Doc and his crew were literary “family”, and there’s actually a special pleasure to be had in being a part of it as something that is ongoing, rather than completed a decade before I was born. When the Will Murray Wild Adventures came along I enjoyed those…it was fun to see Doc in a format of much longer novels (many of their themes mined from Lester Dent’s unpublished novels and notes). But those too were set in the era of the original pulps, and so to me they had the feeling more of “previously lost adventures”, rather than new ones.
So when I learned about the concept behind Doc Brazen, I was definitely intrigued.
The first hurdle in winning me over was the fact that Doc was now in his nineties, and no gimmick was being employed to make him young all over again. Doc’s physicality was one of his most enduring features from the pulps…how would that translate into an older man? Honestly I didn’t find the suspension of disbelief too difficult. Doc was of course the ultimate physical paragon, and there were precedents even in the real world to bring into the mental equation…remember Jack LaLanne? The “godfather of modern fitness”, he astounded the world (at least certainly astounded me), by doing things like towing 70 rowboats, one with several guests aboard, from the Queen’s Way Bridge in the Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary…a distance of one mile. The amount of rowboats was significant, as this was when LaLanne himself was 70 years old. When he died (of complications from pneumonia) at age 96, his family said he had been doing his usual workout routine the day before.
So I could buy Doc Brazen, one step in physical perfection even above LaLanne, being distinctly vigorous in his nineties.
And there were so many interesting things that I wondered about! The original five aides (older than Doc, if you recall) had passed away, but there were very interesting connections to be found and mysteries to be uncovered about the fifty year gap of time in which Doc had been retired.
All of this (and more) had me diving into the Doc Brazen stories with great anticipation.
Among those interesting connections are certainly Doc’s group of new aides. Here is how they are described on the introductory page of Acid Test:
Ozomatli, “Oz”, ape-like Aztec warrior possessing tremendous strength and not much self-control;
Tlazotitlapiltzin, better known as “Noble”, Ozomatli’s strong silent-type cousin who acts as his conscience;
Robert Lafitte, “le Chat”, a French cat burglar who is not quite reformed;
Norma Crale, granddaughter of a famous aviatrix and pilot extraordinaire using the stage name “Thunderbird”;
Henry Prevost, Gulf War vet and computer whiz.
Five of them…reminiscent of the “Amazing Five” of the pulp years, but they are quite different from Doc’s original aides. The only one resembling a member of the old team is Oz, who is Monk-like in many ways (which can be attributed to his parenthood…who would have guessed that Andrew Blodgett Mayfair might end up husband to an Aztec lady!) The substitution of Aztecs for the Mayans of Doc Savage history is nicely integrated into the Brazen storytelling tapestry, and well researched by Deischer. The country of Hidalgo from the pulps is renamed Coronado, and it is to there that Doc Brazen retired in 1949.
Oz and Noble are the standout stars of the new group of aides – though don’t jump to the conclusion that the resemblance of Oz to Monk means that Noble is like Ham. Noble is a distinct personality of his own (with some history that I won’t spoil for the readers), and his rapport with his cousin Oz is nothing like the perpetual quarrel/banter of Monk and Ham. And even Oz, with his slang repartee and love of a good fight, is not a carbon copy of Monk…his charm includes a mix of youthful impulsiveness and a blend of respect for Doc balanced against wayward outbursts that get him both in and out of trouble.
The other three new aides are also completely unique, and each is very capable, which is very refreshing. As the years rolled by in the original pulp magazine, it often seemed that the Amazing Five were present just to be captured and rescued by Doc…Lafitte, Crale and Prevost are all spotlighted at times in the Brazen novels, often making decisions and taking actions that rely on their own instincts and experience.
It’s true they all get to shine.
I enjoyed the new aides…nice to have a woman as a permanent team member, and Thunderbird Crale is tough and has a lot of spirit. I liked the interplay between the two Aztec cousins, Oz and Noble, very much. There is some humor in it (Oz is quite the character) but it’s not played for comedy relief, which I was very glad to see. The perpetual quarrel between Monk and Ham in the original pulps was fun, but it was way overdone at times, which just got wearying. As you say André, each of the aides gets to shine at various points in the story. Doc Brazen himself is very appealingly portrayed – his hair is white now, and he does not have the heavy musculature of his youth – and his personality is very calm, thoughtful and restrained. Toward the end of the pulp stories he had begun to display anger, frustration, fear and nervousness…but here he really does seem more mature, more balanced. It’s an adept portrayal of the hero as an older man.
Getting into Acid Test itself, it opens in a way that echoes many a Doc Savage novel: with a sudden, shocking disaster. A man going on his Christmas vacation is traveling on the Concorde, when the plane suddenly shakes apart and disintegrates in mid-air. The man, not so coincidentally, also had connections to Doc Brazen.
The scene shifts to another familiar setting: Doc’s headquarters (never clearly stated to be the Empire State Building in the pulps, though that was the assumption that original Doc author Lester Dent clearly wanted his readers to make). It’s referred to in the Brazen adventures as the Century Building. Again, longtime Doc readers will recall that a special room some floors below the headquarters office was sometimes utilized to screen people coming to see Doc, and often manned by Monk and Ham. In this case Oz and Noble, the two Aztec cousins, are doing the screening. There’s even a fun nod to the past where Oz tricks his cousin into losing a coin toss, with a special coin “inherited from his father”. Monk frequently used the trick coin to similarly bamboozle Ham. Though as we’ve noted, the cousins don’t engage in the running quarrel that Doc’s original aides clung to for decades. Oz and Noble are far more cordial to one another (despite the impish behavior by Oz).
The person seeking to speak with Doc Brazen is a drab little man who has experienced a strange encounter with what seems to have been an unknown kind of aircraft…and after consulting with one another, the two aides agree to take him to see Doc.
Deischer’s writing is clear and crisp right out of the gate, and the story moves quickly…again, very reminiscent of the fast-moving pulps. The familiar touches ground the story nicely with a sense of connection to Doc stories of the past; readers of the original novels should almost immediately feel right at home.
Honestly Paul . I could not have said it better. The book reads like a missing Doc Adventure of old. I know he published his own Doc Chronology. I assume he must have read the original 181 novels over and over again. That’s why Acid Test reads like an old pulp.
That really puts a finger right on one of the key reasons I enjoyed Acid Test so much. It felt intrinsically like a continuation of the pulp saga. Which if course it is…but that’s an easy label that I think is actually very difficult to achieve. To capture the style – and soul, if you will – of the Doc pulps at their best, while staying true to the continuity of the canon and bringing that off in modern pastiche…well, that’s a helluva challenge. And another aspect of it is wisely pruning out those aspects of Doc Savage pulp writing that haven’t aged well. You mentioned Laurence Donovan, André…I actually get more of a Dent vibe from Jeff’s style, but he does both Dent and Donovan one better by keeping the story elements under firm control. Doc writers in the pulps were often wild (and admittedly great fun), but honestly sometimes went off the rails with red herrings, unresolved plot elements, two-dimensional characterization, and occasional silliness. Yes, that was all part of the crazy phenomenon of pulp charm. But a story set in modern times wouldn’t feel quite so fun with all of that dragging at its heels. So how do you retain the unique glow of pulp adventure while cleaning up the flaws of style from ninety years ago? For me, Acid Test pulled off that little miracle.
I think that is true of all the Brazen books. Grace, you also mentioned liking Thunderbird Crale, and the presence of strong woman characters is enhanced in Acid Test by the presence of another member of the Aztec side of the Doc Brazen family, Puksi’ik’al. For the duration of this story she takes part in the action along with the other aides. Here is her first appearance in the book:
One of the agency secretaries interrupted the feud. “Mr. Noble, Mr. Banks, you have a visitor,” she told the pair of Aztecs.
The cousins exchanged looks, for neither had many acquaintances in the city, then followed the secretary back to the reception area. They found a ravishing bronze-skinned dark-haired woman waiting for them. Oz broke into a wide grin at the sight of the young Aztec woman. “It’s good to see you again, Puksi’ik’al.”
He came forward and hugged the beauty.
The woman named Puksi’ik’al returned the smile and said, “It’s good to see you again, Ozomatli,” using the ape-like Aztec’s true name.
“They call me Oz.”
“Then call me ‘Puck’,” said the Aztec beauty with a mischievous smile. Glancing over Oz’s shoulder, she told Noble, “Hello, brother.”
At the appearance of the beautiful young woman, the faintest hint of a frown had played upon Noble’s fine features. He disapproved of his elder sister, because while he was the faithful and obedient son, she was the family wild child.
Puck brings a lot of adventurous charm to the story.
I really like your thoughts on the development of the story’s antagonist, Andre. I agree it’s done in a very unique way, that encourages thought about the nature of “right action” that to me is always at the philosophical core of a Doc story. For those who like a good surprise as part of their reading experience, I recommend reading Acid Test first and then returning to read the comment with details about that mysterious antagonist. But don’t forget to come back! Because it brought a perspective to the characterization that’s really interesting.
The story has plenty of action to delight the pulp reader too. A wildly destructive disintegrator ray…a fight on and around a submarine. Jeff’s fight scenes are really well choreographed. Sometimes in the pulps a melee veers a bit out of the writer’s control — in some original Doc Savage novels I actually had to read some action sequences twice to work out who is doing what to whom — but the action in Acid Test carries that hallmark of clarity that Jeff displays throughout the story. For me, this really enhanced the thrill.
For me final impressions of Acid Test are linked to my feeling about the whole Doc Brazen series. As we’ve mentioned, the book can be read on its own (as was true for all of the pulp Doc Savage novels), but with this third book in the series the feeling of it being a larger literary event — one that will be bringing years of great reading — is taking shape. Since Deischer is planning no less than 24 Doc Brazen books, that is a canon all its own, and to me it feels like the most natural extension of Doc storytelling that I’ve yet encountered. So just as I looked forward constantly to the next book as Bantam reprinted the original Docs over a span of many years, I feel that same enthusiasm rekindled, with these novels building into an epic narrative of modern pulp adventure.
It’s true we have not seen pulp adventures released on a regular basis since the Bantam reprints.
See you next time when Infernal Machine comes out.
I’m definitely hooked…I’ll be getting the two other Doc Brazen books that are available now, and will be looking forward with excitement to every new release in the series. I hope the word really gets out about these books. They are such a great combination of old-school pulp adventure brought forward with 21st century sophistication in the writing. The Man of Bronze has become The Golden Man…count me in on the adventures to come!
Check out Jeff Deischer’s Doc Brazen books: