DEATH'S DARK DOMAIN
This is the fourth of the new Doc Savage novels by Will Murray (based on material from Lester Dent) and it's the first one I did not really enjoy. Not that this is the end of the world. The original stories by Lester Dent, even back in the early 1930s, had a few here and there that I finished glumly and thought, hope the next one is better. It's the nature of a series, whether books or movies or albums, that some don't work as well as the better ones. Certainly I am still looking forward to the next one, PHANTOM LAGOON, and expect that familiar little thrill when I settle back to open an unread Doc Savage book.
By this time, it is clear that I am never going to adjust to the length of the new books. Growing up on pulp novelettes that ran around 100 pages or so, I am used to a story I can finish on a single Sunday evening and get the full momentum. Publishing reality calls for longer books these days. and I understand that, but I just don't like long adventure stores. Reading a huge wrist-breaker by James Michener is one thing; those are epics you read over a period of time and they usually cover decades of events. An action thriller, no matter how briskly it moves (as this one does) suffers a bit by having too much time between the first page and the last. (My getting old and losing my attention span doesn't help, of course.)
Anyway, DEATH'S DARK DOMAIN has our heroes traveling to a place called Ultra-Stygia, a burned out no mans land between Freedonia and Sylviania errr Tazan and Egallah. They are trying to recover some of the advanced secret weapons that John Sunlight stole from the Fortress of Solitude. Doc and the boys bounce back and forth between the two warring nations, tangling with a variety of bizarre and seemingly supernatural monsters. Tagging along and mostly getting in the way are a female secret agent who seems to be doing a good impersonation of Vampira (before there was a Vampira) and a guy who has become invisible but also has grown a bristly coat of hair. There are a lot of chases and captures and escapes before everything gets resolved.
Plenty of ingredients in the stew this time around, but I thought they actually worked against each other. To the reader, it's clear that the stolen super-weapons are behind the occult shenanigans such as the clouds of impenetrable blackness or the invisible ogres with dozens of eyes. It should be obvious to the aides as well, after all they are explicitly on a mission to retrieve these weapons yet they seem puzzled and half-believing in the supernatural events.
Fiana Drost as a femme fatale fell flat. She drops hints in all directions that she is a genuine vampire, and the aides let it go without much challenge. (Although I do like Long Tom throwing a shoe at her when his patience reaches it limit.) After a few days, when she has had to eat and sleep and use the bathroom, her pose would be ruined but this isn't mentioned. She doesn't get much to do, except for murdering a few helpless victims with her bat-shaped medallion and the big revelation of her parentage doesn't go anywhere either. (Hint: her father was not up for sainthood.) I was hoping for her to start ranting about her own ambitions to rule the world and to make her escape with a crate of the stolen weapons, but nope.
As always, Will Murray nails every detail of the ongoing characters just right. Long Tom joins the usual team of Monk and Ham, and every bit of their characterization rings true. Pat turns up briefly but gets shuffled off to stay behind, despite her wishes. (Murray gets in one of the funniest bits of any Doc Savage story to date. In a hospital bed after possibly being exposed to anthrax, Pat asks her cousin "How long have I got?" Doc blandly tells her "About a week." He means a week of staying under observation but for that moment, Pat is understandably horrified. I can't help but think Doc knew the effect his answer would give and this was his deadpan way of pranking her.
We also get an interesting explanation of why Doc paints so many of his planes that distinctive bronze color. It's not sheer vanity (like having the Bantam logo painted on the side would be) but because having the planes so recognizable shows that they are unarmed civilian craft and no threat to the authorities. This is to reassure the military of any country that Doc finds himself entering the airspace without permission. I don't know if Will Murray came up with this or it was in Dent's notes but its a good idea.
It's also a neat touch that neither Egallah nor Tazan is friendly to Doc, both regarding him and his men as spies. Usually, one of the warring countries in stories like these is depicted as more democratic or just than the other, there is a good guy-nation and a bad guy-nation. Here they are both jerk-nations fighting over disputed territory between them.
I know I mention this with every review, but only fans understand the joy of seeing a new Doc Savage novel in your hands... not a pastiche set in modern times, nor a shoddy sex-up glitzy Philip Jose Farmer-type story but something that from start to finish has the ring of a genuine Doc story. And it is a faint but warm pleaure to look up and see spines of new Doc Savage books starting to line up on the shelf and reflect there are more to come.