Lester Dent's stories improved throughout his first year writing 'Doc Savage Magazine' in 1933. The December novel, 'The Phantom City', was arguably his best yet and it was surrounded by challenging competition. With each story, I've found myself looking forward to the next more and more.
I was especially interested in revisiting 'Brand of the Werewolf', the first novel of 1934, because it holds a notable record. When Bantam reprinted the entire series in paperback in the sixties, this one was the most successful, racking up 185,000 sales. Why that was the case, I have no idea, because it's a decent effort but not up to the standards set by the previous few. I've heard suggestions that it just had a bigger print run but, if that's all it took, why didn't Bantam print more of each book? The biggest draw the novel has today can't account for those sales all on its own.
That's the fact that this was the moment that we meet what little family Doc Savage has left. We learned about his father in 'The Man of Bronze', but that's been it thus far. Here, we're introduced to two further relatives, even if one of them is already dead by the time we get to him.
He's Alex Savage, a successful businessman in agriculture and industry who had homesteaded some of the roughest land in Canada over the prior forty years, what Dent describes as 'a collection of pinnacle and canyons, boulders and brush.' It's a sprawling estate on the west coast, the perfect environment for Ham's debonair outfits to get shredded by nature. Alex is Doc's uncle and the Man of Bronze is on his way to spend some well-earned holiday time with him, along with his five cohorts. It's clearly been a while since the two have met, because Doc has never previously met his niece, Patricia Savage, who is eighteen and also living at the family cabin.
Pat would become easily the most frequent co-star of the Doc Savage novels after the Fabulous Five. She would be back in 'Fear Cay', the 19th novel, originally published in September 1934, and would go on to appear in 39 of the original 181 adventures. It's not surprising; she adds a personal dimension to Doc, who sorely needed it as he was so deliberately impersonal, the frequent attentions of gorgeous ladies and rescued damsels being consistently rebuffed throughout the series.
I'd be surprised if Dent knew how popular she would be at this point, because he can't be sure what he wants her to be. Half of her is the standard female supporting character for these novels, an enticing mix of beauty, danger and self-will; the other half is the standard damsel in distress, which means that Pat keeps getting kidnapped (surely the American spelling of 'kidnaped' is the most ludicrous of all such changes), only to promptly rescue herself over and over again. At one point, she even suffers from hysteria, or what Dent describes as 'the jitters', and Doc has to render her unconscious to help. I have a feeling that Dent might not have written her that way if he felt she'd be back often in future novels.
Alex and Pat are introduced relatively early, only five chapters in, but it takes Doc and his men quite some time to reach them; they stumble upon Alex's grave almost halfway into the book and reach the cabin shortly thereafter. The time spent before this is fascinating, because it involves something that we haven't seen in the earlier novels: helplessness.
I don't mean that they're easy picking on the train west, merely that they packed for holiday rather than adventure and that means that they're far less equipped for the threat which soon faces them than they would normally be. They're also a long way from home. Thus far, I believe every adventure has either started in New York, which means they can supply from headquarters, or has continued directly on from its predecessor, in which case they're already supplied. Here, they're on the other side of the continent and relatively open to what is clearly an unexpected attack. They simply have to make do with what they have and I appreciated that approach. It also made Doc feel a little more human and some of his deduction here, unaided by gadgetry, is superb.
Also introduced early are examples why this is both a good and bad novel. The former is the MacGuffin of the piece, an ivory cube which starts out in the possession of Pat Savage, who knows it's important but isn't able to figure out why. The latter is the latent racism of the time, given that the Savages in western Canada have a pair of Native American servants: Tiny, who is inevitably anything but, and her husband, Boat Face, who's annoyingly stereotypical.
Readers of the Bantam paperback are generally disappointed for a couple of reasons. One is that the title of the book, which suggests a supernatural flavour, is backed up by the cover art featuring a werewolf with his hands around Doc's throat. There are no werewolves in this book, just the brand of the title which is used as a scare tactic rather like we might expect from a 'Scooby Doo' cartoon. The other is that the brief synopsis adorning the back cover, which runs for the usual mere couple of sentences, gives away the villain and gets Alex Savage's connection to Doc wrong. It's stunning ineptitude! If we go back to 'Scooby Doo', it would be like introducing the lighthouse keeper as the villain in the opening credits.
The real story involves a Spanish galleon that had travelled north up the coast with Henry Morgan's famous treasure on board, only to be lost. Alex Savage discovered it on his land, crewed by skeletons, which leads to some atmospheric scenes late in the story but also what has come to be an inevitable sort of ending, one that echoes 'The Sargasso Ogre' and 'The Czar of Fear', among others. I had hoped that Dent was getting past those 'running out of space, let's just have the bad guy blow himself up' finalés, but apparently not.
Fortunately, this backs up how he was getting past some of the other frequent problems of the early novels. I've been watching for three of them: the need for Doc to have flaws, the need for Doc's men to have stuff to do, and the need for interesting planned out endings. The latter is still a problem here, but the other two are well avoided, the former by that lack of preparation that leaves Doc and his men wrapped up in a grand adventure without the usual gadgets and tools that give them an edge. The other is solved by giving each member of Doc's team validation to be along for the ride.
Renny is tasked with mapping Alex's estate from the sky, using infra-red to peek through the fog. Monk is set to analyse butter in the Savages' cabin, for a reason that escapes everyone except Doc at the time. Long Tom uses electric wave tests to determine the potential for valuable mineral deposits underground, while Johnny prospects outcroppings for the same purpose. Well, OK, Ham mostly just serves as comic relief in this one, taking the role of guard on more than one occasion, demonstrating how his clothes aren't suited to the outdoor terrain and even falling foul of a new trick of Monk's: using ventriloquism to make Habeas Corpus 'speak'. I laughed each time it came up, though possibly because Dent doesn't allow the joke to outstay its welcome.
So I liked this story for many reasons. Sure, it introduced Pat Savage, but here that works less as the set-up for a new regular character and more for gifting Doc a chance to be human. His cohorts felt more like real cohorts than the hangers-on that they've often been up until recently. As long as we didn't read the Bantam back cover blurb, the revelation of the villain is well-handled and his relationship with his own colleagues is a neatly changing one. The ivory cube is a gorgeous MacGuffin, even if its purpose is a little far-fetched, and the skeleton-crewed lost galleon is a fantastic location.
There are flaws though, beyond the lack of werewolf. The brand is used capably but not really explained to my satisfaction. It felt like a cool gimmick that should have been ditched when it failed to be meaningful to the growing story. I'm used to Renny saying 'Holy cow!' but he seems to say it a heck of a lot in this one; I should go back and count the instances. Also, Long Tom loses a couple of teeth in a section that seems out of place in the grand scheme of things. I didn't realise he was buck-toothed to begin with, but a fight that we don't even see rectifies that by knocking them out of his jaw. Given that Bantam reprinted the original stories out of order and I've certainly read books written before this one, I don't recall him being without front teeth. Maybe Dent conveniently forgot that scene as he continued the series.
In between the good and the bad isn't only the average but also the interesting. The age of the story can be discerned through the use of the spelling 'clew' rather than 'clue' and also the use of 'rods' as a measure of distance. Dent also introduces a new part of Doc's two-hour daily routine that we hadn't previously seen: it involves him casting some small white balls onto the ground and estimating the distance between them.
All in all, this is a decent story, better than its reputation amongst fans whose opinions were skewed by the lack of werewolf activity and the Bantam back cover spoiler, but not up with the last few. Let's see what Dent has in store for us next time with the February 1934 story, 'The Man Who Shook the Earth'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
Click the title for reviews of other Doc Savage novels. #1 Man of Bronze, #2 The Land of Terror, #3 Quest of the Spider, #4 The Polar Treasure, #5 Pirate of the Pacific, #6 Red Skull, #7 The Lost Oasis, #8 The Sargasso Ogre, #9 The Czar of Fear and #10 The Phantom City