Secret Contributors to the Doc Savage Series

Lester Dent is most famous for his work on the Doc Savage series.  He attributed much of his success as a writer to the use of his “master plot” which served as a template for writing pulp style adventure stories.  Another trademark item that Dent employed in his Doc Savage stories was the frequent use of colloquial terms and descriptions to enhance the flavor of exotic locations.  In a way, these descriptive paragraphs interjected a bit of a travelogue into the stories and made them seem more realistic.  Modern readers know a little about the source of some of these tidbits Dent used in his writings.  The University of Missouri at Columbia has Dent’s manuscripts and correspondence in its Western Historical Collection.  Also included in this collection are twenty-three volumes of “Marlborough’s Self-Taught Series” foreign language books ranging from Afrikans to Tamil.  Undoubtedly this is the source of the local expressions seen in various stories over the years.

Examining the story from December 1933, “The Phantom City,” readers can find many expressions used in that story that come directly from the 1915 edition of “Marlboro’s Self Taught Series, Arabic (Syrian) Self-Taught With English Phonetic Pronunciation” by A. Hassam, N. Odeh.  Dent’s story contains a generous sprinkling of passages taken directly from the book.  Here are a few examples:

  • na’am, aiwah (yes)
  • anta sami? (Do you hear?)
  • qawam, bilaja (make haste)
  • taiyib malihi (very well), la (No)
  • shu biddak? (What do you want?)
  • imshi (go on)
  • wa-asafah, akhkh (Alas!)

“White Shadows in the South Seas” is notable for going on location in Tahiti to shoot the film rather than filming in a Hollywood set.  Cameraman Clyde De Vinna received an Oscar at the 1929 ceremonies for his acclaimed work on the film.  De Vinna continued to work in films over the next three decades until his death in 1953.It is problematic whether Lester Dent ever saw the movie version of “White Shadows in the South Seas.”  But if you said he was familiar with the novel you would be correct.  Much of the action in the Doc Savage story, “Pirate Isle” published in the May 1942 issue takes place on Jinx Island.  Frequent descriptions of the local flora abound in colorful detail.  An inspection of O’Brien’s book reveals that much of the description of detail is strikingly similar to passages employed by Lester Dent in his stories.

“White Shadows in the South Seas” was the first of three books by O’Brien all dealing with the South Seas published over the next three years.  O’Brien died in 1932 at the age of sixty-two.  One of his early jobs was reporting for the Marion Daily Star.  A paper owned, at the time, by Warren G. Harding who went on to become President of the United States in 1921. O’Brien was enough of a celebrity that his passing was noted in Time Magazine.

Modern readers may wonder at the source of other details. Researching some material in “Pirate Isle” from the May 1942 issue I came across a novel titled “White Shadows in the South Seas” by Frederick O’Brien.  First published in 1919, O’Brien’s island tale is situated in the Marquesas Islands in the southern Pacific and includes many rich details on the native life and flora.  O’Brien explains in the introduction to his book his motivation in traveling to the remote islands and his desire to learn what he could of the indigenous peoples.  His book was successful enough to inspire a movie.  “White Shadows of the South Seas was produced as a silent movie and released in 1928.  Director for this film was W. S. Van Dyke who may be familiar to Tarzan fans for the 1932 version of “Tarzan the Ape Man.”  Van Dyke also directed four “Thin Man” films over a period of years from 1934 until 1941 featuring Myrna Loy and William Powell.  The director was actively making movies up until his death in 1943.

Dent: “petavii, a kind of banana, which curved high in the air” 

O’Brien: “the petavii, a kind of banana the curving fronds of which spread high in air”

Dent: “the green and glossy flowers of a pandanus” 

O’Brien: “the pandanus, green and glossy”

Dent: “mako-mako shrub, which had yellow flowers. The other name for mako-mako was snake plant”

O’Brien: “the snake plant, makomako, a yellow-flowered shrub”

Dent: “Thousands of orchids hanging like butterflies”

O’Brien: “and thousands of orchids hung like butterflies”

Dent: “small bushes with crimson pears called noni enata”

O’Brien: “The noni enata, a small bush with crimson pears upon it”

Dent: “Mulberry trees were thick with yellow blossoms among the cottony, round leaves.” 

O’Brien: “The puu-epu, the paper mulberry, with yellow blossoms and cottony, round leaves,”

Some of Gann’s material also appears in “They Died Twice” (November 1942). The material is notably similar, particularly the scene detailing the sandals and the henequen rope.  Likewise, the passages detailing certain lianas and red berries/juice being used for the same purpose are exceedingly parallel.  The same is true for the passages describing the fish “greedily” eating the pixbicabam berries.

This is not the first time Lester Dent reaches out and snatches text from another writer.  In an earlier Doc Savage story, “The Dagger in the Sky” (December 1939), it is clear that another book provided detailed background for that story.  Thomas Gann published “Discoveries and Adventures in Central America” in 1928.  Gann first came to British Honduras in 1894 as a medical officer.  He was only 27 years old and possessed a vigorous interest in the countless Mayan ruins dotted throughout the countryside.  Gann wrote over forty books detailing his experiences and was recognized as an authority on Central American archeology. After returning to England, he became an honorary lecturer at Liverpool University where he died in 1938.

Gann:  “xanap, or tapir-hide sandals, held on with coarse henequen rope,”

Dent (“The Dagger in the Sky”): “xanaps, sandals made of tapir hide held on with coarse henequin rope.”

Gann: “were simply swarming with fish, mostly machaca and tuber.”

Dent (“The Dagger in the Sky”) “the streams swarmed with tuber, machaca and other varieties of fish which could be caught quite simply by gathering a berry called pixbicabam, tossing it in the most convenient river, whereupon the fish were stupefied and rose to the surface.”

Gann: “They also use the sap of a tree, known as chalam, to poison the water and temporarily paralyse the fish, which may then easily be caught, just as the San Pedro Columbia Indians use the red juice of a certain liana for the same purpose.”

Dent (“They Died Twice”): “Chalam was the tree, the sap of which was thrown into water to temporarily paralyze or stun fish. Sometimes the red berries of a certain liana was used for this purpose.”

Gann: “like grapes, hanging up in the hut, and found that this was the bait which they used for catching machapa”

Gann: “These berries are the fruit of a liana, and are called pixbicabam.  The machaca rise to them greedily.”

Dent (“They Died Twice”): “There was game, and fish-freshly broiled machaca, which was caught with the small berry resembling grapes and called the pixbicabam, to which the fish rose greedily.”

Gant: Flocks of noisy piam-piams flew from tree to tree, reiterating their monotonous note “piam! piam!” so busy over their eternal squabbling …

Dent (“They Died Twice”): … flocks of piam-piam birds were fluttering from tree to tree and busy with their eternal squabbling.

Another author makes an unannounced contribution to “They Died Twice” with Phillips Russell’s publication in 1929 of “Red Tiger: Adventures in Yucatan and Mexico.” Phillips C. Russell (1884-1974) was a prolific author and served on the faculty at the University of North Carolina from 1931-1954. 

Russell: “The zapote nut looks somewhat like a baseball with a brown cover. Its flesh is mealy and cool, with a custardy flavor.”

Dent: “There were zapote nuts on the ground, looking like baseballs with a brown cover; good eating, their flesh mealy and cool with a custard flavor.”

Dent was not shy about adapting basic plots from other stories either.  As far back as “The Polar Treasure” Dent used Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate story, “Treasure Island” as a basis for the Doc Savage story.  But this story only adapted the basic plot and Dent left a bread trail of clues to show thoughtful readers what he had done.  The Doc Savage story following “Pirate Isle” is “The Speaking Stone.”  That story is based on “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton and like “The Polar Treasure” can be thought of as homage to the original story.  There are at least two things we can say about these passages as regards Lester Dent.  First, Dent was not paying close attention to what he was actually doing in these cases.  It would only have taken a few minutes to rework the sentences into another form that would not have been so obvious.  Instead he was simply grabbing passages and passing them off as his own with a minimum amount of transfiguration.  Second, inclusion of the pirated text adds a little local flavor to the stories but in no way is it essential to the plot.  The stories would read just as well if the offending passages were excised.  So the questionable parts do not form an essential part of the story.  One final thought remains on this trio.  Since Gann, O’Brien, and Russell “wrote” part of the respective stories, does this make them an honorary Kenneth Robeson?

Back in 2006 a similar question arose concerning plagiarism in the novel “Atonement” by Ian McEwan when compared against an autobiography titled “No Time for Romance” by Lucilla Andrews which was published in 1977.  Critics cite many parallel passages but most often cite the ones shown below as being most offensive.

However, Dent’s utilization of unattributed material is an entirely different mater.  Webster’s dictionary defined plagiarism as “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”  There is no mention of Thomas Gann, Frederick O’Brien, or Phillips Russell between the covers of Doc Savage Magazine in which their writings appeared.  The works are unattributed.

One passage in particular in “They Died Twice” caught my attention.  The segment reads “There were tiny parakeets and pairs of yellow-headed parrots dining off chichem berries.” It just happened that I was reading “The Man of Bronze” the night before.  Sure enough I went back and examined that story and found this: “Confident of his motors, Doc flew low enough that they could see tiny parakeets and pairs of yellow-headed parrots feeding off chichem berries that grew in abundance. “

Appearing in Gann’s “Discoveries and Adventures in Central America” is this passage: “Flashing like emeralds in and out between the branches, were flocks of tiny parakeets, and pairs of yellow-headed parrots, dining off the chichem berries, and screeching in the process loudly enough to drown at times even the piam-piams.”  We can now trace this technique all the way back to the very first story in the series, “The Man of Bronze.”

Given the gritty nature of the pulps and depression era economics, current readers may be inclined to shrug all this off as simply being the nature of the beast.  The magazines were printed cheaply and often contain rough fare that provided a temporary respite from the tedium of daily life.  The price for a magazine was only ten cents and authors were not getting rich writing.  Many writers were struggling to make a living, but others were doing well, and Lester Dent was one of the ones doing very well.  In 1935 he was paid $750 per month for a Doc Savage story.  Adjusted for inflation that comes out to over $11,000 per month in today’s dollars.  In December 1940, Dent’s pay was reduced to $650 per month.  That still works out to over $110,000 per year in today’s dollars.   Dent was under no pressing obligation to crank out a story as fast as possible so that he could get on with something different to sell to another publisher so as to earn money to put food on the table.  Instead, he bought his own yacht and sailed around the Caribbean Sea with his wife and two crewmen searching for Spanish gold.  In some ways Dent’s career parallels that of A. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.  The public loved Doyle’s creation and eagerly devoured each new adventure.  Doyle eventually tired of writing the stories and felt that they impeded his growth as an author.  His solution was to kill off Holmes in December 1893, an act that created a national uproar.  The Strand Magazine, publisher of the stories, lost thousands of subscribers.  Doyle eventually relented and brought Holmes back in 1903 with “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” 

Unlike Conan Doyle who received full credit and public admiration for his creation, Dent was only a contract writer whose works were published under the house name of Kenneth Robeson.  It was a sore spot with Dent who longed for recognition of his strong work on the Doc Savage stories.  Unfortunately, that recognition would only come after his death when Bantam began reprinting the stories in paperback in the sixties.

Dent’s wagon was hitched to Doc Savage, but it was not what he wanted. As early as 1934 Dent was looking for talent, he could use to subcontract the actual writing of the Doc Savage stories.  Richard Sale tried his hand unsuccessfully on the “Mystic Mullah” (January 1935) before bowing out. Lester Dent aspired to markets higher than Doc Savage. Marilyn Cannaday’s book “Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage” reveals Dent’s unhappiness.  He states, “I wrote reams of salable crap which became my pattern.”  Dent further laments his failure to follow through with former Black Mask editor Joseph Shaw whom Dent saw as a mentor.