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December 20, 2017

Nick Petrie: A Timeless Gift of Pulp Fiction

Posted by tom

Nick Petrie is the author of the Peter Ash thriller series, which thus far includes THE DRIFTER (winner of both the ITW Thriller Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel), BURNING BRIGHT, and the forthcoming LIGHT IT UP (releasing January 16th). In his Holiday Blog post, Nick recalls the Christmas when he was 10 years old and became the proud (and excited) recipient of over 40 used paperback books featuring the adventures of Doc Savage (aka “The Man of Bronze”). As a writer, Nick tries to give his readers exactly what he experienced as a fan of this pulp fiction series: “a captivating story and vivid characters that take you some place new and keep you up late at night, reading with a flashlight under the covers.”

I was 10 years old that Christmas morning in Omaha, Nebraska.

The long rectangular gift was weirdly heavy.

I tore off the paper and saw a sturdy cardboard box for a game called Shoot The Moon. It was a dexterity game, a wooden frame with two steel rods and a heavy steel ball. You’d manipulate the rods apart to get the ball to roll uphill and score points. But we already had one, sitting boxless in a red bow beneath the tree.

I looked at my parents. They looked back, grinning. I opened the box.

It held a tall stack of used paperback books, at least 40 of them.

The amazing adventures of Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze!

At 10, I was already devouring science fiction and adventure stories. I’d found a few Doc Savage books that year, probably in the rotating wire rack at our local drugstore. The prose was pulp-fiction purple, the plots preposterous, the characters paper-thin, and I could not get enough. My parents, ever vigilant, had found the pile of paperbacks at a used bookstore and bought the whole lot.

Doc Savage is a gifted physician and polymath, trained from childhood by his father and a team of scientists to be nearly superhuman in both body and mind, with astounding physical powers and mental abilities. Doc and his “aides” travel the world, righting wrongs and punishing evildoers on a grand scale. If you vaporize a lake in Patagonia or create a weapon that can liquify metal, you’re in serious trouble!

Doc has a suite of offices and laboratories on the 86th floor of an unnamed New York skyscraper that bears a striking resemblance to the Empire State Building, with a fleet of extraordinary vehicles --- from zeppelin to submarine --- suitable for any adventure! His enormous wealth comes from (spoiler alert!) the grateful inhabitants of a lost Mayan city whom Doc saved from the terrors of the deadly Feathered Serpent!

(Note to reader: apologies for all the exclamation points! Just thinking about Doc Savage brings out my inner 10-year-old!)

A complete list of Doc’s remarkable skills would run far too long for this piece, as would a description of his five gifted friends --- Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom and Johnny --- whose areas of expertise include chemistry, the law, archology, geology, and electrical and construction engineering. The ongoing comic relationship between Monk, the industrial chemist, and Ham, a dapper attorney, is one of my favorite features of the series, along with Ham’s sword cane with its scalpel-sharp tip dipped in fast-acting anesthetic!

I still want a sword cane like that. I definitely want my own zeppelin.

But I digress.

Written primarily by Lester Dent under the pseudonym of Kenneth Robeson, the Doc Savage books were pulp fiction at its finest. First published in Doc Savage Magazine in the ’30s and ’40s, they were later reprinted by Bantam as paperbacks with evocative covers beginning in 1964. These were the books that made my heart race that Christmas morning.

The whole series, including more recent new work, now runs to more than 200 books. Many have a strong focus on the use of science and technology to analyze and solve problems, which still resonates for me today. Some consider Doc to be the world’s first superhero. The first Doc Savage Magazine predates the first Superman comic by five years. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude? Doc Savage had one first.

The Doc Savage paperbacks were not only my earliest experience with series adventure fiction, they were one of the prototypes for modern thrillers. More importantly, though, Lester Dent and his fellow authors created a deep and vivid world that a kid could fall into, dreaming full speed ahead, over and over again.

That’s still the experience I look for as a reader, to be carried away from my own life into an exciting tale.

As a writer, that’s what I try to give my own readers, too: a captivating story and vivid characters that take you some place new and keep you up late at night, reading with a flashlight under the covers.

With fewer exclamation points, of course.