I haven't read a DOC SAVAGE novel since summer of 2015 so what better way to start the new year than by tearing through a "new" Doc adventure. Judy gave me this one for Christmas (thanks sweetie) and I really enjoyed it. But then, there have been very few Doc Savage books that I haven't liked.
Some background is necessary here. Street & Smith cancelled their DOC SAVAGE magazine in 1949. The last published adventure was UP FROM EARTH'S CENTER. By the time the plug was finally pulled, the magazine had shrunk in page count and dimensions, making it digest sized rather than the traditional, larger pulp format magazine. The stories had shifted in emphasis also, Doc was now more of a glorified detective/spy smasher than a super-hero. He was more human in his abilities and he operated in the vastly different atmosphere of the post WWII Cold War. While these stories are entertaining, it's my belief that Doc always worked best (and still does) when the stories are set in the 1930s.
Doc creator Lester Dent had notes, outlines and material left over after the magazine was cancelled. Much of this material has been worked into new Doc Savage novels by pulp expert Will Murray under the house name of "Kenneth Robeson". Some of this material was for THE FRIGHTENED FISH, which was scheduled to appear after UP FROM EARTH'S CENTER and planned to be the last Doc Savage novel. That never happened but Murray, working with the estate of Lester Dent was determined to bring this story to life.
Murray originally wrote FISH in 1980 but it wasn't published by Bantam Books (who had the Doc license at the time) until 1992. It has since been reprinted by Altus Press and here, in a special edition from Moonstone. The book is a sequel of sorts to another Cold War Doc thriller, THE RED SPIDER (written in 1948 but not published until 1979) and features the return of a Doc villain who first appeared in THE SCREAMING MAN (1945).
FISH opens like so many other Doc narratives: bizarre happenings in New York City, a man who freaks out over fish and fish images all over town, his trail of madness ending at Doc's doorstep. Doc, Monk, Ham and Johnny (no mention whatsoever here of either Renny or Long Tom), take up the trail which leads first to Long Island, then to the coastal waters of Massachusetts where all marine life has mysteriously vanished. From there, Doc and his crew board the redoubtable Helldiver (a vessel somewhat past her prime) and head for Japan by way of the Panama Canal. There's skulduggery in Tokyo and characters from RED SPIDER are brought back before the final showdown aboard a Chinese junk in the Sea of Japan.
That showdown is somewhat bloodier and more violent than previous Doc battles. Monk kills several opponents with a firearm, rather than using mercy bullets and a key character dies at the hands of the master villain (the cover art gives this away unfortunately). The unthinkable happens in this story: Monk strikes Doc in the heat of battle and Doc dares open up a part of himself that has long been securely locked away.
THE FRIGHTENED FISH is a fast paced quick read. A genuine, good old fashioned pulp page turner. While it doesn't reach the heights of some of the 1930s super sagas, it fits nicely into the late '40s niche in which it was originally planned to appear.
If you're new to Doc Savage, don't start with this novel. Save it until you've read a few others. If you're a hardcover Doc fan, you've probably already read it. If not, get it as soon as possible You won't be disappointed.