Book Review: Doc Savage: The Wristling Wraith

In The Whistling Wraith, a visiting king disappears en route from Blair House to the White House and Doc Savage is called in to investigate in broad daylight with cameras watching. Doc Savage is sent to Washington to investigate and things only get more mysterious as there’s a mysterious woman, kidnapping, a plot involving currency, and most mysteriously the appearance of the whistling specter of a long-dead king.

For those  not familiar with Doc Savage,  the”Man of Bronze” is a pulp hero created by Lester Dent in 1933. He was raised by a group of scientists and experts in various disciplines to the peak of human mental and physical perfection.  He’s extremely wealthy and famous with a wide variety of adventures. He was created in 1933, so he pre-dated the superhero genre. To put him in a modern context, it’d be fair to say Doc was part Batman, part Sherlock Holmes, and part Indiana Jones. He’s surrounded himself with assistants, accomplished  men in their own fields, all with their own eccentricities such as the “homely chemist” Monk Mayfair and the “dapper lawyer” Ham Brooks.

This book was written by Will Murray in the 1993 based on an idea by Lester Dent and is one of the best Doc Savage stories I’ve encountered. This book does several things right.

First, it has an interesting way of treating Savage’s assistants. Usually novels either limit Savage to two or three of his five assistants or include all five but have them keep getting lost. This book took a different tact with the assistants split into two groups for most of the book, with two in one and three in another. As they rarely shared the same scene, everyone got a chance to shine.

Second, this novel gave Savage some challenges he usually doesn’t have. Savage is wealthy, brilliant,  physically near superhuman, and holds an honorary rank of Police Inspector in London and in New York as well as an honorary Federal Agent and can obtain the cooperation of any civilized police department on Earth, a favor Doc usually returns by telling the police nothing about his investigations.

However in The Whistling Wraith, Doc and friends find the NYPD has revoked Doc’s honorary commission. When the police are called by Doc’s foes (who have conveniently planted a body on the premises), Inspector “Push ’em Down” Samson of the NYPD shows up trying to collect, its up to Doc to put him off until he can solve the case. While in other stories, having a police foil is clichéd. Here it provides Doc some needed tension and it’s a nice change of pace.

Also, Doc and his assistants have to dodge the press and public, who are far more aware of him than he’d like after a story appeared in a true crime magazine. Their being hounded by photographers and autograph seekers on the street is an interesting element and something you’d expect given how these characters are and it was brilliant of Murray to put that in.

Third, this is a really complicated mystery that borders on being convoluted, but I don’t think crosses that line. At first glance, it appears to be a simple mystery disappearance with a bit of a ghost mystery thrown in. However, the Whistling Wraith is a story of not just strange disappearances and murders but currency manipulation, political intrigue, and science fiction shenanigans. I guessed part of the solution before the end, but there was a lot I didn’t know and the reveal was really good.

As to negatives, two things stand out. First is the portrayal of political stuff in Congress. It was completely unrealistic as described, even for the 1930s era the story was set in.  While this story was in the style of pulps, it wouldn’t have hurt the story to tell the political stuff realistically rather than making processes up.  As it was, the unbelievable political scenes took me out of the story.

I also have to admit I didn’t like Doc’s treatment of Patricia “Pat” Savage in this story. Pat is Doc’s only living relative and wants to take part in his adventures. Sometimes he lets her, often he insists she stays out of it and she persists anyway. In this story, his efforts to keep her out are  rude, abrupt, and way too pushy, even as she shows herself more competent than ever, rescuing three of Doc’s men after overcoming a kidnapper. I felt sorry for Pat and infuriated with Doc for the way he kept treating her.

Still, despite these flaws, this is a solid pulp story. Yeah, it has the normal flaws you associate with a Doc Savage novel (and accept if you’re a fan of the Man of Bronze), but it’s also got a great plot and some really fascinating turns.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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