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‘The Perfect Assassin: A Doc Savage Thriller’ (review)

Written by James Patterson, Brian Sitts
Based on characters created by
Henry W. Ralston, John L. Nanovic, Lester Dent
Published by Grand Central Publishing

 

They’ve done it again.

As threatened, bestselling author James Patterson and his sidekick Brian Sitts, the folks who “reinvented” The Shadow last year as a rebellious teenage orphan girl in the future with psychic powers, have now similarly given us an all-new “Doc” Savage.

Not that one would have a clue about that until well more than 200 pages in if not for the cover of The Perfect Assassin saying “A Doc Savage Thriller.”

Doc Savage, for the uninitiated, was the pre-Superman Superman who starred in a long-running series of pulp novels beginning in the 1930s.

Along with his five specialist compatriots (and sometimes his adventurous cousin, Pat) the fabulously wealthy “Man of Bronze” was a brainy, brawny, squeaky-clean good guy scientist-superhero who would catch criminals and would-be world conquerors and then literally operate on them to make them into good citizens.

Doc was revived in the 1960s in a series of surprisingly popular paperback novels that reprinted the entire pulp run and then some new adventures! There were comic books from half a dozen companies including Gold Key in the ‘60s, Marvel in the ‘70s, DC, and a bunch of lesser-known publishers in the years since. Doc even teamed up with the Thing at Marvel and later Batman and The Spirit at DC.

There was also a highly-touted, but sadly too-camp Doc Savage movie in the 1970s, which starred former TV Tarzan Ron Ely. The better Doc Savage movie in all but name, though, came along in the 1980s with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.

The original novels were generally better-written than most of the “blood and thunder” pulps, mostly by real-life adventurer/writer Lester Dent. They were somewhat simplistic and naïve and yet they clearly appealed to several generations of readers.

Seeking to update their now nearly century-old cash cows for the new century, the rights owners logically called on the most popular writer in America and he brought on one of his “students.” The result here is roughly the same as it was with The Shadow—a very flawed but not completely bad novel that has virtually no connections to the actual character.

In fact, much of this book retells the backstory of the recent Black Widow movie, in which our female protagonist is raised in a secret Russian training school designed to turn kidnapped little girls into heartless assassins. Told in flashback chapters throughout in order to flesh out her character, it never really does explain why she kidnaps a Chicago college professor at the beginning of the book.

It’s that kidnapping that forms the basis of the book, though. Meed—later called Kira—is, we learn, one of those deadly little girls, now grown to adulthood. She has clearly prepared for some time her plans to form meek, bookish Brandt Savage into the perfect male specimen…and assassin. I should probably add a SPOILER ALERT here.

For chapter after chapter, we see her alternately torture him and nurture him, leading to eventual Stockholm Syndrome as he has given up any pretense of escaping and just goes along with her seemingly random, but ultimately successful, plans to reshape him.

Okay, she builds up his muscles, forces him to become more resilient, etc…but we’re never told how she stretches him taller, cures whatever eyesight issues required his glasses, makes him impervious to bullets, or a dozen other skills or traits he didn’t have going in. At one point, she does begin calling him “Doctor Savage.”

Late in the book—in an obvious callback to the classic James Bama covers of the ‘60s-‘80s reprint series, we’re told that his shirt gets torn.

We learn that Doctor Savage is the grandson of the legendary Doc—a fact already given away by the book’s advertising and its back cover text. By sheer coincidence, after Meed/Kira frees him and they become “partners,” he stumbles across Grandpa’s secret undersea “Fortress of Solitude” and somehow, after all these years, the lights are still on.

In the end, the pair puts an end to the still-active Russian “school,” and the Doctor—now a certified “hunk,” simply returns to teaching as though he had never been gone.

As far as the book’s writing, we once again get over 100 chapters, none longer than a page or three, and once again annoyingly alternating between first person (the Doctor in most of the modern-day chapters) and third-person (all the flashbacks) narration.

If the Shadow book felt like an overgrown Young Adult novel, this one goes out of its way to show us it’s NOT suitable for young adults by tossing around adult language, bringing up the Doctor’s erection, and actually opening on a scene where babies are kidnapped, tortured, and one murdered for a comic “bet.” Who thought that was a good idea to grab your reader?

We’re also hit over the head early in the book with modern-day buzzwords including “Tik Tok,” “autism,” “vpn,” “snail mail,” and “smoothie,” as if to emphasize this is not your father’s Doc Savage story.

Most of the book consists of the two-person interplay between the woman and the man. What’s good about it?

Well, ultimately, the relationship between Kira and Brandt is interesting, with them making a good team and a nice pairing once he’s allowed out more than halfway through the book, especially in an exciting, well-written scene at an airport. Sad to say that’s about the most exciting scene in the book, though, and it’s still nowhere near the story’s climax, which is full of genre clichés and coincidences.

Another cliché is the ending of The Perfect Assassin which, as expected, sets up the inevitable sequel.

While I will admit to enjoying some of the character dynamics of the book, it’s poorly written overall, badly paced in its first section, has no real plot to speak of, requires some major suspensions of disbelief, and, worst of all, is a million miles away from being what its subtitle says it is—A Doc Savage Thriller.

Again, as with The Shadow, the authors seem at times to make fun of the tropes connected to the original characters.

Maybe Doc Savage needs to stay back in his heyday. Maybe he shouldn’t be revived at all for new generations. But if you’re going to try, at least give the real Doc a chance—not some reluctant and unbelievable hero created to live up to his grandpa.

Give us his grandpa!

 

 

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