The possibility of a lost Doc Savage novel is a tantalizing one. Yet it is a real one.
In a December 1948 letter to Daisy Bacon, the final editor of the DOC SAVAGE magazine, Lester Dent wrote that rather than writing an outline or complete novel and then having to go back and revise it according to Bacon’s instructions–as he had done with both The Green Master and Return From Cormoral–he would instead suggest plot ideas to her, and then work on them based on their discussion.
Dent’s relationship with Bacon, seems to have been a troubled one. Although Bacon wanted a return to the pre-war Doc Savage, she frequently asked Dent to re-work his plots; Return From Cormoral, for example, was written from Dent’s revised second outline–essentially a third outline–for the story.
Dent starts off the letter “I was well into the outline for the Doc”, which Bacon had agreed he start in her letter of late November, when he decided he “should put the outline aside” to pitch plot ideas to her. One was the idea for Up From Earth’s Center, which became the last novel published in the magazine.
Return From Cormoral and Up From Earth’s Center are the final two published Doc Savage stories. So what was the outline Dent set aside?
A March 1949 letter by Dent to Bacon probably holds the answer. In it, he relates the idea that Will Murray would later turn into The Frightened Fish, so Up From Earth’s Center had been completed and Dent was thinking about the next issue; it had been nearly three months since Bacon had given Dent the go-ahead for Up From Earth’s Center. Late in the letter, Dent states that a “submarine novelet” in a recent SATURDAY EVENING POST “murdered the plot [he] had prepared”.
That story was “Intercept at Dawn“, by Alec Hudson, and concerned the smuggling of an atom bomb into New York City on a freighter in the employ “of a certain nation”–the unnamed Soviet Union, the only country besides the U.S. that was suspected to have the bomb at that time. That nation intends to declare war on the U.S. at three p.m. on July 18, and detonate the bomb ten minutes later. The freighter is sunk in the north Atlantic, prior to its delivery, by an American sub and the bomb is detonated by the crew of the freighter to destroy the evidence of the plot.
Dent seems to have felt the plots similar enough to abandon his story. Ultimately, it was a moot point, for the last Doc Savage story had been published, though neither Bacon nor Dent knew it at the time.
How close to completion was Dent’s novel? We can’t be certain, since no copy of the outline or story is known to exist. Will Murray, an acknowledged Dent authority–possibly the pre-eminent one–says he has made an exhaustive search for it, and found nothing. This seems to suggest that the plot made it no further than the outline stage.
But consider that more than three months had passed since Dent first mentioned the outline, and only one novel, Up From Earth’s Center, had been written in that time. Dent routinely wrote a Doc Savage novel in two or three weeks. This left more than two months during which he could have been turning the outline into a novel. If Dent hadn’t worked on the plot since December, why was he so upset about the publication of the “submarine novelet”? He’d invested very little in the story, if that truly was the case. Obviously, he hadn’t given up on his story by that time.
Unfortunately, we will probably never know the answer to the mystery of the lost Doc Savage novel.
With thanks to the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri-Columbia