What follows is a review/discussion by three diverse authors…all enthusiastic creators and readers of pulp adventure. The three of us met in 2021 and immediately enjoyed one another’s company and writings to the degree that we joined in the tradition of author circles like the 1930’s Kalem Club (a literary group whose last names all began with K, L or M, and included H.P. Lovecraft) and the Inklings, the Oxford circle made up of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.
A brief introduction: Atom Mudman Bezecny is both an author and publisher, and created the Hero Saga, which has brought to life unique pastiches of classic — and some wonderfully obscure — pulp characters. R. Paul Sardanas is the co-creator (with artist Iason Ragnar Bellerophon) of the Doc Savage adult pastiche Talos Chronicle, and André Vathier is a French Canadian author who has written stories in both the Hero and Talos “universes”. Together we comprise the Conseil du Mal (or Council of Evil)…dedicated to wicked literary pleasures of all kinds!
Hi Atom, Hi André!
So we are gathered to discuss and dig deep into the new James Patterson/Brian Sitts novel The Perfect Assassin, which is the long-awaited (with a predictable mix of excitement and horror expressed by fans) update and restart of the iconic Doc Savage series by its copyright holder, Conde Nast.
Here is the blurb, widely circulated by CN and the James Patterson website, for the book:
Prof. Brandt Savage—grandson of the legendary action hero—is forced into a top-secret training program where he discovers his true calling…as the perfect assassin.
Dr. Brandt Savage is on sabbatical from the University of Chicago. Instead of doing solo fieldwork in anthropology, the gawky, bespectacled PhD finds himself enrolled in a school where he is the sole pupil. His professor, “Meed,” is demanding. She’s also his captor.
Savage emerges from their intensive training sessions physically and mentally transformed, but with no idea why he’s been chosen, and how he’ll use his fearsome abilities. Then his first mission with Meed takes them back to her own training ground, where Savage learns how deeply entwined their two lives have been. To prevent a new class of killers from escaping this harsh place where their ancestors first fought to make a better world, they must pledge anew : Do right to all, and wrong to no one.
So unlike the Will Murray Doc Savage books which had been published for the past few decades, this is not a traditional Doc story. Instead it focuses on Brandt, grandson of the great adventurer (I believe in the actual book that is great-grandson).
As alluded to above, many Doc fans loathed the idea from the outset, and equally loathed the concept of it being written by Patterson, one of the world’s bestselling authors, but a writer with no clear affinity or connection to the world of pulps. Of course that too is another object of contention, as Patterson writes using a “factory-style” format, with presumably most of the heavy lifting done by his co-author, Brian Sitts.
Needless to say, this all caused quite a tumult in the world of Doc Savage fandom. Personally I tried to approach it with an open mind…much as I love the original pulp tales and enjoyed Murray’s time as “Kenneth Robeson” (the old Street & Smith house name used by Lester Dent and other original-pulp authors…which, by the way, has been jettisoned by Conde Nast — Patterson’s name is plastered everywhere on the new endeavor, even to the point of dwarfing the title of the book on the spine), I think there is a point where trying to recapture the magic of the pulps by essentially copying their formula ad infinitum becomes stagnant, and a new approach might well attract modern readers to a beloved series.
Does The Perfect Assassin achieve that goal? Well…in the eyes of Conde Nast the answer is probably yes, as the book seems to be selling well, and in that sense may revive a profitable product for them. In the eyes of Doc fans, I am seeing mostly lukewarm reviews, which in a way is surprising, given the vehemence of its pre-publication detractors, and the general dislike afforded to Patterson’s previous pulp-resurrection, The Shadow. Among the Conseil du Mal — all three of us far more than casual Doc Savage fans — I’m really looking forward to a great discussion of the whole “new Doc Savage”.
To readers of this roundtable talk, please be aware that we will likely be talking about details that would be considered spoilers. Personally I don’t read books like this particularly interested in its twists and surprises (at this point plot surprises are unlikely to really surprise most followers of Doc Savage)…but we realize that element of reading is important to many folks out there interested in the book. So if you want your experience of The Perfect Assassin to be a clean slate, perhaps read the book first, then return here to check out our discussion.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a strongly negative reaction to a book before its release, save for those written by literal Nazis. The intensity was rather incredible to behold at times. I guess it goes to show what love for a property can do – though, sometimes speculative fiction fans forget that this stuff isn’t really that bad. Nothing can erase what has come before, and the future is still full of possibilities. Patterson does represent authentically bad and exclusive practices in the modern mainstream writing industry, but these are broader issues with late stage capitalism itself…an issue that affects all forms of art and human expression. Moving our society away from kleptomaniacal profit-driven corporate rule would probably improve the chances of certain forms of artistic expression being allowed to exist, on top of actually making our planet habitable for the majority of our species. But we of capitalist nations are trained to attack individuals instead of institutions. We’re taught to do so to unconsciously maintain the status quo. It’s natural and normal to lay the blame at Patterson and Sitts’ feet, and I’m not going to blame anyone who attacked them preemptively when the book was announced. Even beyond that, it’s okay to like things, and it’s okay to not like things. There were professional reasons to dislike this book as well, which I am hugely sympathetic to! I gotcha, guys.
With all that being said, this book is…fine. It’s no different than any other Patterson factory book in that it’s clearly meant to be an easily consumable bit of action-excitement that you forget about later. But, imagine how boring life would be if we reserved critical lenses for high art. I am of the belief that the more disposable a piece of media is, the more that can be learned from it, especially regarding the nature of privilege. Disposable media, as we so often term it, is often created in a hurried and, if I can be frank, somewhat thoughtless manner. There is often a desire in such media to appeal to as many people as possible, and therefore their general mood represents what might be considered an average worldview, or rather a worldview averaged across the various lenses of privilege. This is a book aimed at a primarily cishet audience; there are no queer people here. The cast is pretty much entirely composed of white people. The sort of thriller that Patterson writes is usually meant for white cishet men middle-aged or older.
And so, what we end up with is a book that is about 50-60% fighting and training montages. Effectively, the first half of this book is dedicated to the assassin training of Brandt Savage and flashbacks to the training of his mentor, Meed. We find that Meed was essentially abused from birth, being subjected to overly harsh conditions constantly after being kidnapped and taken to an assassin school as a baby. Brandt, who is the narrator in the modern day chapters of the book, complains of being tortured, but really he gets off easy compared to Meed, his worst experiences being that he had to drink a nauseating volume of protein shakes. To actually connect this to Doc Savage, what Meed went through is probably similar to what Doc is meant to have gone through in his specialized training, pre-pulp days. And yet, Brandt is somehow supposed to be the special one, the successor to Doc Savage. The book hints, by way of the training and her copper-colored hair, that Meed is also a descendant of Doc Savage, possibly Brandt’s cousin or sister. Meed had a twin who died as a baby, but maybe that kid actually lived and grew up in America. (This book opens with baby murder by the way, which is…a choice.) But no…these hints that Meed is a Savage pan out to nothing. It’s like Meed was meant to be the main character, and then they just replaced her with a man. The possibility that Meed and Brandt are related becomes…weird, later, as I’m sure we’ll get to. But for now I just have to say the sexism becomes more and more visible as time goes on.
I’m just gonna say it up front: my thesis for this discussion is going to have something to do with the undeniable fact that Brandt Savage is a colossal loser and I spent a ton of my reading time laughing at him.
The action scenes are well-written though – impressively so. Somehow, this first half wasn’t repetitive, perhaps because of those nuggets of weirdness I mentioned. I liked this book in certain parts, both honestly and in a so-bad-its-good way.
The pre-release anger and vitriol towards the book were indeed incredible to behold at times Atom. It did feel exaggerated. However, with the previous release of The Shadow some folks felt they were in the right to feel as they did.
I did not like The Shadow. Even if the characters were replaced and every Shadow reference removed, you would still end up with a below average young adult fiction novel. This is not a critique of young adult fiction. Many good books are YA (YA shorthand for Young Adult fiction). The Shadow unfortunately is not one of them. Having read some of the Patterson factory books in the past, I knew what I was going into. In addition, I welcomed the new changes. As you said R. Paul, a new approach prevents things from getting stagnant.
The book itself is average. If I have to make a comparison, it reminds me of the Fast and Furious movie franchise or the Michael Bay Transformer movies. Intense well-made action sequences but at the end of the day somewhat forgettable. Not boring by any means just average.
The opening chapter of The Perfect Assassin removes any ambiguity. This will not be a YA book. As Atom said, the book opens with baby murder. This was shocking to me. I did not expect this in a Doc Savage book. Give me a machine that makes men turn into puffs of smoke or a device that makes people’s heads explode…but baby murder by assassins is where I draw the line. After that chapter, we meet our titular hero. Late twenties to early thirties Doctor Brandt Savage. Great Grandson of Doc Clark Savage Jr. He is a professor for some unnamed university. What does he teach? I cannot recall, we know he is filling in for a colleague of his who is an anthropologist. As Atom said, he does come off as a jackass. Meed is the superior character but I will give Patterson and Brian Sitts benefit of the doubt here. I do not think they intentionally wrote to him as an asshole (at least I hope so). We saw it before in other stories. Boring awkward man accepts the call to adventure and transforms into the man he’s destined to be. Nevertheless, boredom and awkwardness are in the eye of the beholder. The way he interacts with his students and the passing judgments he makes, causes Brandt to comes off as an unpleasant person. Later during the training phase, Meed plays a video of him on a loop. The video in question was his daily routine. Waking up, getting his Starbucks coffee , teaching, having dinner alone, reading and going to bed. I know this is supposed to represent, “Look at you Brandt…you are not fulfilling your destiny! Follow your bliss as Joseph Campbell says!” Speaking of Joseph Campbell the book does follow the hero’s journey which makes sense. If you want to reach the widest possible audience in eyes of a mega corporation, the hero’s journey is a safe bet.
Because we saw him judge his students in a negative light, it makes sense that he is a loner. If only we had shown him being well liked by his students and peers. Also due the fast paced nature of the novel we do not really get to know Brandt. There are little to no character moments and the ones we have relate to Meed.
Meed is the quintessential trained woman assassin that is popular now. You know the one. Movies like Anna (2019) , Red Sparrow (2018) and the recent MCU movie Black Widow (2021). If you have watched any of these movies recently then you know exactly who Meed is. This paint by the number storytelling is not bad it is just predictable. For better or worse you can remove any mention of Doc Savage lore from the story and it would still work.
The story itself is divided into two parts. Part 1 is the Meed origin story with Brandt Savage training arc and Part 2 is the assault on the assassin school. Part 2 contains lots of twists and turns.
I was also appalled at the callous nature of the baby murder that opens the book — the men who perform the act are hideously, casually amoral about it — which was, I suppose, intended to spotlight the cruel nature of the “assassin school” that they are child-snatching for. Of course a hallmark of pulp fiction is violent action, but I do not recall a single incident in the long, long run of the Doc Savage pulp which displayed anywhere near this level of violence toward children.
Moving beyond that, the opening chapters were the first evidence as well of what I would find to be at times an astonishing level of carelessness in plotting and structure in this book. The “village” where the child abduction takes place is apparently within walking distance of the assassin school. And no one seems to have a clue that it exists. I tried to give the authors (who are, after all, highly-touted professionals and bestsellers) a pass at first, but as the book progresses, this form of what really seems authorial laziness will only get worse. More on that later.
However, before going too much into what may seem a landslide of negatives, I’ll say that in the balance, I enjoyed the book, and will give its already-announced sequel a try when it appears. The tools are there to craft what I feel could be a worthy continuation of the Street & Smith/Conde Nast Doc Savage. The original Doc tales were also very much factory products, so I don’t hold that against the new series per se. But there is a lot — and I do mean a lot — for the authors to improve on, if they care to do so.
The question that raises is…do they care? I got no inkling from the book that either Patterson or Sitts are trying to do anything more here than rack up sales. Again, that in itself is not a series-killer. Lester Dent, author of most of the original pulp stories, sometimes expressed frustration about writing what he considered trashy, semi-mindless literature. But part of the Doc Savage “formula”, beyond mechanical and formulaic plotting and writing, was an intangible: there was an undercurrent of joy in it…even if it was simply from storytelling-abandon and a gunslinging wildness across the whole sixteen year arc of original stories. If Patterson and Sitts are content to simply mail in the “new Doc Savage” and ride the marketable Patterson brand to a cash-trove for themselves and Conde Nast…well, that may be what businessmen and mercenaries do, but it won’t hold my interest for very long.
Okay, on to more good and bad. Atom, your observation was right on that it seemed almost to be Meed who was designed to be the “new Savage”, but the powers-that-be chickened out and grafted in Brandt to fill that role instead. медь in Russian means “copper”, and refers to her hair, which is that color. And her story is far more fully-realized than Brandt’s. You are right Andre, the whole scenario around Meed’s situation owes a great deal to the stories you mention (the James Matthews novel Red Sparrow being, I thought, superior to The Perfect Assassin in its presentation of the premise). And as you both mention, Meed is far more engaging and powerful a character. Brandt does very little more than perpetually whine, which is very off-putting. His difficulties and challenges after being himself kidnapped and forcibly trained absolutely pale when compared to what Meed goes through…and where he bitches and moans endlessly, she in those worse straights displayed determination, courage, emotional depth, and even considerable compassion. Honestly, I would have vastly preferred the book if Brandt had been removed completely, with the whole “new Doc” being the story of Kira (her real name).
An oddity of the book is that Kira’s chapters are told in third person, and Brandt’s in first person. That structural choice, by its very nature, would seem designed to present a deeper look into the thoughts and emotions of Brandt. But he was so vapid (and frankly, annoying) that I wish I had been spared.
I am something of a believer in the principle of “give them enough rope” – capitalism can only go so far before it breaks. Of course, the challenge is hoping that humanity as a species doesn’t break first, what with the active destruction of the planet and worldwide civil rights in progress and all. But I believe that as the arts (and many other aspects of society) become more and more corporatized, the more people will break away from such offerings to seek out things that actually fulfill them. As technology advances, the tools available to independent creators become more varied, and that gives us more chances to create things that will please those who are sick of things like this book. Perhaps through those means, our voices can help change society for the better. It’s not a wholly positive situation – but there’s never really been a time in history where artists have had the sort of social placement that we’ve wanted. There will probably always be unique challenges for creators, at least as long as we live in an unequal society. It’s important to always battle against these oppressive forces, because inevitably, capitalism must be destroyed for the sake of humanity’s survival. And balance can only be found through action. But also, often, the enemy’s actions blow up in their faces, even after the point where, financially and politically speaking, we’ve been rendered helpless.
And similarly, there’s nothing wrong with quick, disposable books – as I said before, I believe they serve a purpose as lenses into certain aspects of our society. And a lot of them are just fun to read. I’ve been beating this book up a lot, but as rough as it was at times it was still a fun read. I blame this on Meed, who we may as well reveal to be Kira Sunlight – great-granddaughter of Doc Savage’s greatest foe.
John Sunlight in this book is presented quite similar to Shiwan Khan in the Patterson/Sitts Shadow book – a fairly generic villain, with no inherently solid connections to the original pulp character. He exists merely to be the source of all evil in this universe, though there is also the matter of Doc Savage’s evil twin brother Calvin, which is a sequence of words I just wrote. Kira is set up as a prospective villain but steadily turns to be more of a tortured anti-hero. And unlike a lot of tortured anti-heroes, I had a lot of sympathy for her. She went through some truly horrible things, much worse than anything Brandt faced, as we’ve said. She is definitely a clone of a lot of other fictional women who have appeared in recent pop culture. But, being a devotee of Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe gave me a unique perspective on this book. According to the Wold Newton works of Win Scott Eckert and Christopher Paul Carey, John Sunlight was Doc Savage’s son. This would make Brandt and Kira cousins…and so this means that Kira is effectively a dark version of Doc Savage’s cousin Pat.
Pat Savage is often the savior of troubled Doc Savage media. There’s really nothing her presence can’t improve, though depressingly, neither she nor any of Doc’s aides are ever mentioned in this book. But she continues to haunt the narrative through Kira – a gorgeous, copper-haired woman who is more competent in many ways than our male protagonist…or at the very least, more adventurous. And certainly more interesting. No offense to Doc, but to me Pat is the star of all of “his” stories that she appears in. At least Doc is a character you’d actually want to follow for 181+ stories. Brandt…I’ll follow him for maybe like two more books, tops, if he doesn’t fundamentally change in some way. And that’s mostly for the sake of completion.
The book does seem to hint that Brandt and Kira are related in some way – almost as if the authors were vaguely aware of the Sunlight-as-Doc’s-son theory. (Some reviewers claim that there are nods to the works of Philip Jose Farmer in this book, but I didn’t see any.) At the same time, Patterson and Sitts couldn’t be considering John Sunlight Doc’s son because…Brandt and Kira get together at the end. If this is a story set in the Wold Newton Universe, their relationship is incestuous. Now, we’ve seen variants of Doc Savage – Doc Caliban and Doc Talos predominantly – commit incest with their versions of Pat. And in this case, I believe the characters in question would be something like second cousins once removed, unlike Doc and Pat, who are closer relations. But still, Brandt is not Albert Einstein and it’s not the 1930s. Brandt and Kira are not, as fun as that might be, servants of the Nine or the Seven. This time around this just feels weird.
MOSTLY BECAUSE KIRA COULD DO SO MUCH BETTER.
But I digress. Kira is really fun and cool, and her presence allows for the climax to tease one of the neatest Doc Savage concepts that’s come out in a while: a Savage-Sunlight team. If you’re going to read this book, do it just for that reason – to see an alliance between the descendants of two titanic figures who were the most of bitter foes. I’d love for there to be a Doc Savage story where he and Sunlight are forced by outside circumstances to work together, but this is honestly nearly as good. Even if the Savage that we have kind of sucks.
Oh, also, as tempting as it may be, don’t base a drinking game around how many times the phrase “copper-colored curls” is used when Kira is being described. You will be dead before the halfway mark.
Truth be told I’m having trouble talking about this book. Not because there is anything bad with it. It’s just so damn forgettable! Being fans of Doc Savage, we are no strangers to bad stories. But I think the worst one is the forgettable one. I mean do we really remember the plot of The Submarine Mystery? No, we remember Se-Pah-Poo and Fortress of Solitude. If not for this discussion, I would have read The Perfect Assassin once and then forgot about it. Let me remind you that this is not a bad book. I have read worse. Nevertheless, it feels like a corporate product. They had a list and checked boxes.
Established IP: Check
Best Selling author that can dwarf the title: Check
Standard action adventure story with popular and safe tropes: Check
Winks and nods to please the Doc Savage fandom: Check
R. Paul I agree with you – I do not think they care the way previous Kenneth Robesons (living and dead) cared. Atom, it is depressing that we have no mention or hint of Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, Johnny and Pat. I presume they are dead like the original Doc. However, what is depressing is the idea that in the story they might as well have never existed. Instead we get Calvin! I never got the impression that Calvin is evil. Just a normal man who was manipulated.
I was certain that Brandt Savage is the great-grandson of not Clark Savage Jr but Calvin Savage. In my mind, it would have explained the attitude of Brandt. Brandt is not a well-written character. I share your opinion Paul. It seems that Kira was the main character but they did chicken out.
But I maintain that it was not authorial laziness but a genuine mistake from Brian Sitts and James Patterson. They wanted to write a boring man who’s forced into the intense world of Kira Sunlight. You know, kind of as a reader avatar. That way we could relate to Brandt. Instead, they wrote an asshole.
Can we talk about the superpower? At the end Brandt has super strength, invulnerability and he hints that he has some healing powers (like Wolverine from the X-Men). This comes out of nowhere. Sure in the original pulp Doc’s strength, stamina and endurance bordered on the superhuman. I cannot recall ever going to the extent of Brandt’s abilities. When he gets shot in the chest, I was half-expecting Brandt to reveal a secret bulletproof vest from the fortress that matched his skin color. No, he is genuinely bulletproof. I conjecture that the protein shake that Meed force fed to Brandt contained a little extra pep. This decision to give Brandt superpowers feels like it was done to cater to the superhero cultural craze we witnessing right now in popular culture. The entire book does feel cinematic or prestige television. I could see it as an streaming service exclusive series. It ticks all the right boxes what I assume a studio executive would look for.
“MOSTLY BECAUSE KIRA COULD DO SO MUCH BETTER…”
Now Atom do not be too harsh we all have dated someone we regret and in retrospective think, we could have done better.
Before we move too far from the cultural implications you both raise about this book and corporate management of creative output in our society, I want to echo your statement, Atom, about what I have often thought of as capitalism’s war on independent creativity. You’re right, technology is more and more putting the tools for independent publishing into the hands of mavericks, but simultaneously those creations are actively marginalized by mega-sellers…the result being a book like The Perfect Assassin outsells all the Will Murray Docs combined, and as you have pointed out Andre, works its way even into the reading and commenting habits of people who openly recognize it as an inherently mediocre (and in fact, as you illustrated with your checklist, a coldly reader-manipulative) product.
It’s not a new phenomenon…among the bestsellers in 1969, the year A Feast Unknown was published, were authors like Sidney Sheldon and Irwin Shaw, who in their time were very Patterson-like massive corporate-style juggernauts. My point being, though as a fan of Doc Savage I wanted to read this new authorized continuation of the series, I felt guilty and unhappy buying the book when I could have spent that money on something from Meteor House or another independent press. I hesitate to even put it on my bookshelf (which is distinctly devoid of “bestseller” products). I could, of course, have waited for it to be available at the library or the remainder bin, but fan-madness got the better of me. I plan to read the sequel only when it ultimately hits my local library…and I will make amends for purchasing the first book by continuing to relentlessly buy independent.
Fortunately, in my literary world-view, I believe the mavericks and outlaws of writing will always resist being squashed, and will continue to challenge tropes, push boundaries, empower the marginalized, and make statements (even in — perhaps most importantly in — works that you characterize, not disparagingly, as disposable literature, Atom). Those are the wicked corners of reading and writing that are exciting to hang out in…and those are the creators whose works I will always seek out, no matter how far they have been shunted into obscure societal corners.
Returning to our discussion of The Perfect Assassin, I did find many of the action scenes to be engaging — some exhilarating, some harrowing — but the inclusion of super-powers that you talk about Andre was to my mind an incredibly bad idea, effectively destroying any suspension of disbelief the book had achieved earlier. Before Brandt demonstrates that he is indeed bulletproof, Kira had mocked the idea, advising him not to push his luck. Good advice…unheeded by Patterson and Sitts. It is one of book’s stupidities…how did Kira’s training and (presumably) drug manipulation of Brandt achieve this effect? It is certainly not part of the “Doc Savage regimen”, or from some experiment conducted at the assassin school, or all the students there would have equal superpowers. If a change of this nature was within Kira’s capabilities and part of her program, why didn’t she use the technique on herself?
Logic really does go out the window throughout the second part of the book, leaping from impossibility to absurdity so wantonly I got the feeling the authors had no interest in presenting a coherent story at all. I tried to embrace it…looney action can be fun…but there were way too many “Wait…what?” moments for even this fan of pulp nonsense/excess. For example, stuff like this happens: Kira and Brandt at one point steal a jet from an airport — and no one pursues them (this in the post 9-11 world). Except the bad guys, who possess no plausible way to follow them…but do anyway. Their jet is shot down over the water — right on top of the original Doc’s Fortress of Solitude, which had apparently gone undiscovered across the decades until this incredible bit of coincidence. What Kira and Brandt intended to do at the assassin school is devoid of logic…particularly when their whole assault on it is rendered void by Brandt sending a distress call to Interpol, which brings an international force down on the school. It was that easy? Why didn’t Kira call Interpol to start with a decade ago, and skip the whole Brandt thing entirely? I can tolerate dumb plotting for the sake of fun, but this (and many more examples pile on as the book heads to its climax) is bordering on writing incompetence.
I agree with you, Andre–while I was struck by the story the first time I read it, which was only a few weeks ago, I’ve already forgotten a lot of the fine details, and despite my praise, I’m not hugely tempted to go back and reread the book to fill in the gaps. That’s a consequence of a book being a product first and a story second. As we have this discussion, the Internet is presently turning its back on AI-generated art because most if not all of the companies behind such software have violated the copyrights of artists to make their products. Regarding this, my boyfriend showed me a video by author John Green, where he talks about how the copyright issues with AI art are actually just part of a larger issue: that someday, humans may be viewed simply as meat hardware, literal parts of a machine, to be used by corporate rulers as they will with no regards to the needs of those “parts.” While I’m skeptical of most future-speculations of that kind, I think that Green has something there. Corporations already push narratives that marginalize human emotion and expression. They do treat us as machines, workers and consumers alike.
Someday, though, I do think that the owners of such corporations may find themselves facing the same situation as the nobles of France in the late 18th Century.
And on that note…the Marvel movies are still selling big, despite ending their main storyline like three years ago. That’s probably why Brandt has superpowers – pulp heroes are out, superheroes are in. Which is quite silly because any superhero creator worth their salt knows the bond that superheroes share with pulp heroes. At least some of the movies Marvel makes are willing to acknowledge that they came from that world. Here, Patterson and Sitts seem about as embarrassed to be writing a non-superpowered character as superhero movies are to give people codenames and costumes which were designed in the ’60s. (Seriously, if you’re making a superhero movie and you want to get on my nerves, have the characters talk about how stupid it is to dress up in colorful costumes and call yourself “Something Man.” Then don’t make the movie, hon.) Maybe the superpower sequences are actually Brandt’s dying hallucinations as he bleeds out from getting shot. Or, as someone on a Doc Savage Facebook group suggested, maybe Brandt is descended from Calvin Savage, who was really named Kal-El and was the real dweller of the Fortress of Solitude. Or maybe, when he was looking through the Fortress of Solitude, Brandt found Doc’s magic ruby from the ’40s comics, aka the one time Doc Savage actually had superpowers. It’s just lazy writing, ultimately – a desperate attempt to make a boring character interesting.
Of all of the dumb things in this book, the one I actually came close to hating was the twins thing. For some reason the book makes a big deal about how everyone is a twin. Kira had a twin sister who died and contributed nothing to the plot. Kira’s dad had a twin brother whose reveal as her uncle contributed nothing to the plot. And, Doc Savage has a twin brother, Calvin, who ostensibly contributes to the plot but could have easily been cut with no problems. In this iteration of the Doc Savage mythos, Clark Savage Sr. made what I consider to be a major error in judgment and wrote down all of the training protocols used to make Doc who he was. Never mind the fact that Doc was trained by many different teachers around the world, some of whom probably wouldn’t consent to having their secret methods written down. Calvin’s role in the plot is to steal this book and give it to John Sunlight, who uses it to found the assassin school. Then, Calvin is never seen or heard from again. I agree with you, Andre, that Calvin was likely not “evil,” but the invocation of what I’ll call the Evil Twin trope made me laugh for probably five straight minutes. I kind of wished that Calvin had been hunchbacked with fangs, to drive home the fact that Doc was the Good Twin. Having Clark Sr. use Calvin as the control for his experiments on Doc is an interesting idea, but because we never actually meet Calvin, we never get to explore the emotional depths of such a plot thread. They could have just had Sunlight launch an attack on the place where the training manual was located and steal it that way. Doc and Co. never stopped him from founding the assassin school with the manual because…look, writers are supposed to be creative, I’m sure they could’ve come up with something. Maybe Calvin will play a role in the sequels, but I’m not exactly gonna hold my breath.
Oh, and a big deal is also made about how twins “run in the family,” despite the fact that Doc and Calvin are supposedly not related to the Sunlights. That was a huge point of confusion for a lot of readers, I observed, and it doesn’t help the fact that it feels like Brandt and Kira are committing incest.
The training manual being stolen was the plot of the DC comics Doc Savage annual from June 1989. I feel they wrote it better in the comic.
“look, writers are supposed to be creative”
You hit the nail on the head Atom. The book does not feel creative. It does not go all in. It always read as if they are holding back. You want Brandt to have superpowers GO FOR IT don’t hold back. Use it! Have him crash through walls…survive a firing squad…take a grenade in the face with a smile. Lift up fallen debris on his back while the water is rising. Jump one eighth of a mile.
That is where I think the pulps of old and the Will Murray stories differ from The Perfect Assassin. They were creative with lost cities, super weapons, under water world , hollow earth, blind violinist with a map tattooed on his back that can only be seen with X-ray machines.
Some of the stories were trash. Nevertheless, the creativity is what stood the test of time. In a way they had to be creative. I mean if you write monthly stories you need to come up with something different every time or else folks will just stop reading.
I hope our words do not come off as those snobs that Phillip Jose Farmer talks about in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. I am frustrated because The Perfect Assassin is just an okay book with safe tropes and safe storytelling. It looks like they are taking creative risk with the Doc Savage world but if you look closely it’s very safe and does not rock the boat too much. They are tropes that are already established popular tropes. Assassin schools are popular now in fiction. Evil twin tropes are a solid established trope. Twin motif, etc.
They introduce interesting ideas. Calvin Savage as the control now that is something I feel other writer could have done something with. How would Pat and Doc react to a normal happy man who’s content with the life he’s got? How would the other members of Doc crew react? Seeing what an average version of their leader would look like.
In a way, Calvin could have had a wife and kids. He’s not shackled by the adventure life.
I hope they do something else in the next book. I feel they exhausted all the safe tropes in the first book.
My point about creativity can be summed up with Flint Golden. A pastiche of Chip Savage. You do things that are outlandish but because you stuck to your guns and went all in Atom it never feels out of place.
Again I do not dislike the book. I just wish it was a better book.
Like you Andre, I hope that we don’t come off as snobs. For heaven’s sake, we all love the Doc Savage pulps, which are rife with wooden characterization, cliche, deus ex machina, absurd turns of plot…all comments we have made regarding The Perfect Assassin. Heroic fiction, even when off-the-rails crazy, gives us all a lot of joy.
Atom, you have put forth the single most brilliant way to retroactively reader-edit the whole superpowers thing. That it was all fantasized by Brandt after being shot (and the bullet not bouncing off). Had Patterson and Sitts actually done that, I would have been applauding.
In any case, I also did not dislike the book. It lacked commitment and passion (as we all have pointed out), and sometimes fell below what I consider professional standards of storytelling — the original pulp writers often did better, despite having sometimes only weeks to churn out a novel, where Patterson and Sitts had (seemingly…it was a long wait for the book) all the time in the world.
Here are some of the things I did like in the book.
Kira Sunlight was an interesting and nuanced character. Extrapolating her from the original pulp John Sunlight was, to my mind, a brilliant move, as was (per your earlier comment, Atom), the unique excitement of making a Savage and a Sunlight into a team.
I am a sucker for an emotional or poignant moment, and the book did have a few of those. The death of Kira’s piano teacher was both stark and touching. The scene where Kira returns a stolen baby to its mother had emotional impact as well, even though it was set up in a calculated fashion…the mother was spotlighted in a few earlier chapters, which seemed weird at the time, as she was not utilized in the plot at all…but when the scene of the baby being restored to her came along, I could see that the mom’s earlier chapters had been included for no other reason than to give weight to that restoration. Nevertheless, even though manipulated, I was touched.
The book tries at times to give a more realistic vibe to its scenes and dialogue. This is somewhat spoiled by some of the goofy story choices that we’ve discussed, but I appreciated that at least in part, the story was not aimed at fourteen year-olds. I hope future books in the series continue that — and commit to it, instead of waffling between at least semi-adult, and outright juvenile.
As we noted earlier, many of the action scenes are well choreographed and some are quite exciting. Some action-based stories have difficulty by making such scenes confusing and opaque, but those in The Perfect Assassin were sharp and clearly-realized.
Doc Savage, to my mind, has been loved for the better part of a century in large part due to the inherent idealism that grounds the series, and this new iteration of Doc holds on (at times tenuously) to an underpinning of idealism as well. I hope that continues too.
I enjoyed that 1989 story you cite, Andre, and it indeed does a much better job of dealing with the idea of Doc Savage’s training being corrupted and used for evil. It helps that it incorporates one of Doc’s mentors, giving us a direct connection to Doc as he was when he was young and vulnerable – a vulnerability that the story’s villain exploits. There is no distancing effect between the story and the Doc Savage mythos there as there is here. Here, the Doc Savage story is part of a murky past, rather than a truly living part of the tale. Here’s to hoping that the text’s assertions that Doc is dead and gone are incorrect.
I think that it’s easy for certain condemnations to come across as snobby because of how capitalism has shaped the narrative of our countries. We want stories that take risks and challenge the status quo rather than simply rehashing what’s come before, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to ask for such things. The simple fact is that texts with a touch of rebellion to them burn brighter to people like us, and speaking for myself at least, I believe such works are fundamental to human survival. For what this book was, it was fine. There is still a need for quick, entertaining reads, and as we’ve said, this is basically a modern pulp in most respects.
Kira and most of her story was my favorite part. She represents the greatest potential of the text, and if the team is smart, they’ll focus more on her and not on Brandt – unfortunately, male privilege seem to trump all these days. A revolutionary spirit would let the writers capitalize on some of the odder emergent aspects of the text, but that’s not the game they’re playing. But I’m still curious to see what comes out. If nothing else, this could help with a broader Doc Savage revival, as we and many others have commented – whether that’s official or fan-led, we’ll have to see.
I wish I had more things to say about the book. In the end I wish it was a better book instead of average. They left enough loose ends to have me interested in the sequel.
I always try to look at the literary and film subjects of our Conseil du Mal discussions as opportunities to learn — from you both, and from the story we are discussing. Pulp-style creativity in this early part of the 21st Century is at quite a crossroads. With the older generations who followed the pulps in the 30’s and those (like myself) following their characters and histories in the 60’s and beyond beginning to fade (I have long faced the fact that I’m getting old)…the driving forces of escapism and nostalgia don’t have the power they once did. Today’s pulp writers have a unique opportunity to re-characterize the genre.
In that light, what can be learned from The Perfect Assassin? It is a product of formula and marketing rather than inspiration or any clear love for pulp storytelling — which I find a little sad. Its financial success will certainly power more sequels, but it remains to be seen if they will strive to energize the pulp market, or merely generate cash until something more profitable comes along. There isn’t much for authors to glean from this story — it breaks no new ground, takes few chances, and even the level of writing expertise was inconsistent at best. If the message is that grafting an iconic hero together with a massively bestselling author’s name is how to build new interest in pulp storytelling, it’s a pretty cynical approach.
I hope that the authors, having achieved financial goals, will feel relaxed and liberated enough to try and craft a continuation of the Doc Savage mythos with a degree of passion and commitment to the subject. As I mentioned above, I’ll be watching, but no longer buying — my financial support as a reader will be going to more idealistic independents.