Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The 50 Anniversary of the Death of Lester Dent

To the average person the name "Lester Dent" may not sound familiar, but it is a name that is very familiar to pulp fans around the world. After all, Lester Dent was the man who, alongside Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, created Doc Savage. It was on this day fifty years ago that the prolific and one day legendary pulp writer would pass from this world.

Lester Dent was born on October 12, 1904 in La Plata, Missouri. And while he would spend some time as a child in both Wyoming and Oklahoma, it would ultimately be to La Plata that his family would return and that Mr. Dent would spend most of his life. He would graduate from high school there, going on to attend Chillicothe Business College in Chillicothe, Missouri in nearby Livingston County.

It was in 1929 that Mr. Dent made his first sale, the story "Pirate Cay" to Top Notch magazine. Lester Dent would find success in the pulp magazines. It was in late 1930 that he received an offer to write exclusively for Dell Publishing. It was also in these days before the Man of Bronze entered his life that Mr. Dent created yet other characters. By 1931 he had created his very first character, Curt Flagg, a large man working for a detective agency out of New York City. He would go onto create the gadgeteer Lynn Lash (a prototype for Doc Savage), investigator of the macabre Lee Nace, and the "crime specacularist" Foster Fade.

It would be Lynn Lash who would lead Mr. Dent to Doc Savage. The character first appeared in the story "The Sinister Ray" in Detective-Dragnet Magazine, March 1932. "The Sinister Ray" attracted the attention of of Streeth and Smith business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, who decided Mr. Smith could be the right man to write their new character Doc Savage. While Messrs. Ralston and Nanovic laid much of the groundwork for the Man of Bronze, it would be Mr. Dent who would fully realise the character. Indeed, in many ways Mr. Dent plagiarised his own character, Lynn Lash, in doing so. Like Doc, Lash used gadgets extensively. Like Doc, Lynn had his own fully equipped laboratory in which to do research. And like Doc, Lynn had his own team of assistants. As to Doc's assistants, Renny resembles Curt Flagg to the point that the two could nearly be the same character, while an ape like character called "Monk" also appeared in the course of Lynn Lash's adventures!

While other writers would also pen Doc Savage novels, it was Lester Dent who wrote the bulk of them, 161 in all. Mr. Dent would continue to write elsewhere as well. He created the humorous hero Click Rush "the Gadget Man" for stories appearing in Crime Busters magazine, as well as prizefighter turned private eye Ed Stone appearing in the same magazine. For a series of novels published by Doubleday Crime Club Mr. Dent created the hard boiled detective Chance Malloy.

In 1949 Street and Smith cancelled Doc Savage along with the majority of its remaining pulp magazines. During the Fifties Mr. Dent oversaw two farms in the La Plata area and ran an aerial photography service called Airviews for a time. He continued to write both short stories and novels. His final sale was the novel Lady in Peril to Ace Books.

It was in February 1959 that Mr. Dent suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken immediately to Grim-Smith Hospital in Kirksville, Missouri where he remained a patient until his death. Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage and one of the most prolific pulp writers of all time, died at 11:30 AM on Wednesday, February 11, 1959.

Although the average person probably would not recognise his name, Anglo-American pop culture owes an enormous debt to Lester Dent. Doc Savage was not simply a successful pulp hero, perhaps surpassed only by The Shadow, but one of the first superheroes. He would influence heroes and superheroes to come, from Superman to Batman to James Bond. Mr. Dent featured gadgets such as thermite hidden in clothing and gas grenades before 007 ever saw print or the men from U.N.C.L.E. ever graced a television screen. Along with Walter Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, and Norvell Page, the creator of The Spider, Mr. Dent changed pop culture forever.

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