Sunday, October 12, 2014

The 110th Anniversary of Lester Dent's Birth

Chances are good that most people would not recognise the name "Lester Dent". A notable exception would be among fans of 20th Century pulp magazines, for whom his name would be very familiar. Quite simply, it was Lester Dent who, with magazine publisher Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, created Doc Savage. Of course, besides The Shadow, Doc Savage may well be most famous pulp magazine hero of all time. Lester Dent was born 110 years ago today.

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

It was in 1929 that Lester.Dent made his first sale, the story "Pirate Cay" to Top Notch magazine, cover dated September 1 of that year.  Mr. Dent soon had a very good career writing stories for pulp magazines. Indeed, it was less than two years late that he  he created his first recurring character. Curt Flagg made his first appearance in Scotland Yard, March 1931 in the novel Wildcat!. Curt Flagg worked for a detective agency based out of New York City, but often found that his work made him travel to various locales such as London, England and Tulsa, Oklahoma. In some respects he was a prototype for Doc Savage's aide John "Renny" Renwick,, being enormous in size and possessing "hands the size of gallon pails." While a large man and nearly indestructible, Curt Flagg was also very intelligent. Between his size and his skill at deduction, he was nearly the perfect detective. Flagg never earned his own magazine, appearing in Scotland Yard and still later in All Detective. In all, Flagg appeared in four stories, spread out from 1931 to 1933.

The next recurring character that Lester Dent created for the pulp magazines is better remembered than Curt Flagg, although it is primarily for his connection to the Doc Savage.  Lynn Lash first appeared in Detective-Dragnet Magazine, March 1932, in the story "The Sinister Ray." In many respects, Lash was a prototype for Doc Savage. Lynn Lash was a science based detective, roughly patterned after Arthur B. Reeve's ficitonal criminologist, Craig Kennedy, who used science in his investigations. Like Doc, then, Lynn used a variety of gadgets in his work, and had a fully equipped laboratory in which to do research. Lash was also extremely intelligent, a match for such classic detectives as Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe in the science of deduction. His similarities to Doc Savage do not end with Lash's gadgets, laboratory, or intelligence, either, as Lash had his own team of assistants. In fact, one of the characters who appeared in "The Sinister Ray" was an ape like man called "Monk", who resembled one of what may have been Doc Savage's most popular aide, Andrew Blodgett "Monk" Mayfair. For that matter, the opponets that Lash faced were very similar to those faced by Doc Savage (and still later in the best of Norvell Page's Spider novels), diabolical masterminds who used advanced technology in their attempts to obtain their goals.

Sadly, Lynn Lash would only appear in two more stories, one of which remained unpublished for nearly fifty years. "The Mummy Murders" was published in Detective Dragnet, December 1932. The third Lynn Lash story would not be published until 1980, in serial form in the small periodical Chapters, which reprinted vintage material from old comic strips and pulp magazines. At long last the three Lynn Lash stories would be published in one volume by Will Murray, in a limited edition book, The Sinister Ray,  published by Gryphon Publishers in Brooklyn.

It was the character of Lynn Lash that drew the attention of Street and Smith business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic to Lester Dent. The two men decided Mr. Dent could be the right man to write their new character Doc Savage. As a test, Mr. Dent wrote a novel for The Shadow. The Golden Vulture met with Street and Smith's approval, even though it would not see publication in The Shadow magazine until 15 July 1938 (then rewritten by The Shadow's writer Walter Gibson). It was then that Mr. Dent was officially give the job of writing 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 Renwick resembles Mr. Dent's earlier character 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. Of course, Monk Mayfair may well have been Doc Savage's most popular assistant.

While other writers would also pen Doc Savage novels, it was Lester Dent who wrote the bulk of them, 161 in all. Amazingly enough given just how many Doc Savage novels Mr. Dent wrote, he continued to write for other publications as well. In fact, it was during Doc Savage's first year of existence that Lester Dent created his next recurring character, Lee Nace, who first appeared in Ten Detective Aces in the story "The Death Blast" in 1933. Nace was a tall, blond, rather sombre man (he was often called "the Blond Adder") who used gadgets in his battles with often bizarre opponents, from a mass murderer who collected skulls to a scientist who specialized in explosive death rays. In all, Nace would appear in five stories in Ten Detective Aces.

Lester Dent created another recurring character who, not surprisingly, used gadgets in 1934.  Foster Fade first appeared in All Detective Magazine, February 1934. While Foster Fade used gadgets much like Doc Savage or Lee Nace, he also tended to be a bit more flamboyant in how he went about things. Not only did he investigate only the strangest of cases, but he usually solved them in ways so unusual that he was sure to get his name in the newspaper! Unlike Doc Savage, Foster Fade was not publicity shy. In all, Foster Fade would appear in three stories in All Detective Magazine.

For much of the thirties, Mr. Dent's time was occupied by Doc Savage. That having been said, he would still write other material. Like Lynn Lash, Lee Nace, Foster Fade, and Doc Savage, Lester Dent's character Click Rush used gadgets. In fact, he was called the Gadget Man. Even more so than Doc, Click Rush was the consummate technophile. The Gadget Man was a tall, slender, yet strong man who had first come to the city in hope of selling technologically advanced equipment to the police. When he was essentially laughed out of police headquarters, Rush went on his own as an amateur detective who used gadgets to fight crime. And Click Rush had a huge arsenal of gadgets to rely upon--radio equipment that can amplify sound, gas grenades, explosive heels in his shoes, and a hidden hypodermic needle. Written in a humorous tone, the Gadget Man would prove to be Mr. Dent's most successful character besides Doc Savage. He first appeared in a seven page preview in Best Detective, September 1937, only to make his full debut in Crime Busters, November, 1937 in the story "Talking Toad." In all, Click Rush would appear in eighteen stories in Crime Busters from 1937 to 1939.

Roughly concurrent with Click Rush the Gadget Man was Lester Dent's character Ed Stone, written under Street and Smith's house name of Kenneth Robeson. Like the Gadget Man, Ed Stone appeared in the pages of Crime Busters, his first appearance in the magazine being in the story "Ring Around the Rosey" in its August 1938 issue. Ed Stone was a washed up prizefighter who was dragged into the detective business sheerly out of the necessity to make a living. He also unwillingly had an Asian valet simply called "One" foisted upon him. This may have been fortunate for Stone, as One was the real brains of the two men. It was One who made sure that Stone continued to take cases to keep them in food and shelter, not to mention the one who did much of the work on the cases and made sure that they received payment for their cases. Ed Stone appeared in six stories in Crime Busters, from 1938 to 1939.

It was in 1946 Lester Dent's novel, Dead at the Take Off was published by Doubleday Crime Club. It was a considerable departure from his work in the pulps, being a complex mystery novel more reminiscent of the stories he had written for detective magazine Black Mask than his work on Doc Savage. It also represented the first appearance of Chance Malloy, the hero of a series of hard boiled mysteries written by Mr. Dent.

It was in 1949 that 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 last published short story was a Western titled "Savage Challenge". It was  published in the 22 February 1958 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. His final sale was the novel Lady in Peril to Ace Books in 1958. Lady in Peril was published in March 1959 as one half of an Ace Double (a series of paperbacks published by Ace that contained two full novels) along with Wired for Scandal by Floyd Wallace.

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.

While the average person today may not recognise the name "Lester Dent", Mr. Dent had a lasting impact on American pop culture through the character of Doc Savage. Doc Savage was very much a predecessor to the superheroes who started to populate comic books during the early years of World War II. In fact, Street and Smith described Doc Savage as a "superhero" in house ads years before Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, June 1938. For that matter, the influence that Doc Savage had on the Man of Steel would take an entire article in and of itself. Well before Batman and his utility belt, Lester Dent had created characters who kept gadgets (from thermite hidden in clothing and gas grenades) hidden on their person. Indeed, while the debt the superspies of the Sixties owed to James Bond is often acknowledged, the debt they owe to Doc Savage is not as well known. In fact, some of the gadgets Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin used on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. owe as much, if not more, to Lester Dent than Ian Fleming (what are the U.N.C.L.E. Specials but a variation on Doc Savage's superfirer machine pistols?). The character of Doc Savage had a lasting impact on American pop culture, and it was largely Lester Dent who was responsible for realising the character as we know him. Along with fellow pulp writers Walter Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, and Norvell Page, the creator of The Spider, Lester Dent changed pop culture forever.

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