Lester Dent Dent, Lester - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Lester Dent 1904-1959

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Kenneth Robeson and Tim Ryan) American novelist and short story writer.

A tremendously prolific writer specializing in the genres of mystery-detective and science fiction, Dent is largely remembered for the nearly two hundred Doc Savage novels he produced in the 1930s and 1940s. Writing under the pseudonym of Kenneth Robeson, which was imposed by his publishers in New York, Dent churned out scores of novels featuring the hero-adventurer Dr. Clark Savage, beginning with 1935's The Man of Bronze. In addition to his many pulp fiction works, Dent also wrote several mystery novels, including the notable Chance Malloy tale Dead at the Take-off. Two of Dent's short stories, "Sail" and "Angelfish," are moreover thought to typify the gritty, laconic style of the Black Mask magazine, a detective-mystery publication that enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1930s under the editorship of Joseph T. Shaw.

Biographical Information

Lester Dent was born in La Plata, Missouri in 1904. He spent most of his early formative years in relative isolation on his father's ranch outside Pumpkin Buttes, Wyoming, but his family's return to Missouri allowed Dent to receive his early education in La Plata. While still in school Dent envisioned himself becoming a banker and began attending Chillicothe Business College in Chillicothe, Missouri. In 1924 he took a job as a telegraph operator instead, believing that he could make more money by doing so. The following year he moved to Oklahoma, gaining employment with the Associated Press as a telegrapher. In 1926 a coworker of Dent's in Tulsa informed him that he had sold a short story for a significant sum of money to a pulp magazine publisher. Soon after Dent began writing his own stories for the pulps while working the night shift for Associated Press. His success in the field attracted the attention of Dell Publishing in New York City. A representative of Dell contacted Dent in 1929 and offered him a substantial salary to become a house writer. He accepted, relocating to New York with his wife, Norma Gerling, in 1931. At Dell Dent began writing his popular Doc Savage novels under a house pseudonym. Meanwhile, he attempted to expand the scope of his writing, and contributed two well-received detective stories, "Sail" and "Angelfish," to the acclaimed Black Mask magazine in 1936. While earning considerable wealth for his writing, Dent pursued a broad range of avocational activities, including mountain-climbing, boating, treasure-hunting, piloting, and aerial photography, as he continued to write an extraordinary amount of salable fiction for Dell and similar publishers. In 1940 he and his wife retired to La Plata to settle on a dairy farm, a move that signaled a significant decrease in Dent's literary output, though he continued to write Doc Savage titles and produced several other detective novels. In February of 1959, after completing by some estimates more than two hundred and seventy-five novels as well as numerous short stories, Dent was hospitalized following a heart attack; he died less than one month later on 11 March 1959.

Major Works

Preeminent among Dent's fictional output are the scores of pulp novels he wrote featuring the superhuman hero Doc Savage. Raised by experts to possess incredible physical and mental capabilities, Savage relies primarily on his host of technological gadgets to fight evil across the globe. His opponents are typically criminal masterminds who pervert technology and exploit the innocent in order to acquire power and satisfy their sinister desires.

The adventures themselves present a blend of science fiction and fantasy adventure. Some of the novels, including The Majii and The Squeaking Goblin, for example, rely on myth and folklore while others, such as The Land of Terror and The Land of Always-Night, carry Savage and his team to exotic locales and lost worlds. During the World War II era, Dent injected a great deal of realism into his previously fantastic plots, notably accentuating the potential fallibility of Savage by revealing his capacity for self-doubt. By the end of the 1940s, however, Dent had returned to the earlier, more imaginative pulp-style formula for the Savage novels, apparent in the final Savage adventure Up from Earth's Center. In contrast, Dent's more complex mystery novels, written in the 1940s and 1950s, depart considerably from the style of the Savage stories. Of these Dent's 1946 novel Dead at the Take-off, featuring the character Chance Malloy, is representative. A tale of adventure and intrigue, the story follows Malloy's efforts to respond to the underhanded scheming of several corrupt individuals as they attempt to destroy his small airline company. Among Dent's most highly esteemed works are the short stories "Sail" and "Angelfish." In both tales the unusually tall private detective Oscar Sail employs violence and deception to achieve his professional goals.

Critical Reception

Critics have attributed Dent's literary success to his use and refinement of the popular pulp fiction formulas that were already established by the early 1930s in his almost two hundred Doc Savage novels. Some have acknowledged, in addition, that Dent's humor in these works, unlike that of most of his contemporaries, was largely intentional and that his action-filled Savage stories reflect certain developments of plot and character as well as a clever use of imagery and metaphor that transcends their otherwise formulaic nature. Overall, however, commentators have observed that these novels were intended solely for mass consumption and quick sales rather than for literary quality—Dent himself once opined that his writing and that of his colleagues might have improved if they were allowed to put their own names on the novels, but his publishers flatly refused to do so. While several of Dent's Doc Savage novels do stand out as exemplary among the rest, and although the series exhibits an almost timeless appeal, the works have been considered simply as adequate examples of genre writing, marred by the flaws of conventionality, especially noticeable in the dozen or so Savage stories that were undertaken by Dent's ghost writers. In contrast, Dent's mysteries, such as Dead at the Take-off and Cry at Dusk have been more highly esteemed, as have his Black Mask stories, which have been said to epitomize the magazine's hard-boiled style at its best.

*Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Land of Terror (novel) 1935

The Man of Bronze (novel) 1935

The Fiery Menace (novel) 1942

The Derelict of Skull Shoal (novel) 1944

The Three Devils (novel) 1944

King Joe's Cay (novel) 1945

The Thing That Pursued (novel) 1945

Dead at the Take-Off [also published as High Stakes] (novel) 1946

The Devil Is Jones (novel) 1946

Five Fathoms Dead (novel) 1946

Lady to Kill (novel) 1946

Measures for a Coffin (novel) 1946

Terror and the Lonely Widow (novel) 1946

Danger Lies East (novel) 1947

Let's Kill Ames (novel) 1947

No Light to Die By (novel) 1947

The Angry Canary (novel) 1948

I Died Yesterday (novel) 1948

Lady Afraid (novel) 1948

The Pure Evil (novel) 1948

Terror Wears No Shoes (novel) 1948

Return from Cormoral (novel) 1949

Up from Earth's Center (novel) 1949

Lady So Silent (novel) 1951

Cry at Dusk (novel) 1952

The Lost Oasis (novel) 1965

The Fantastic Island (novel) 1966

The Land of Always-Night (novel) 1966

The Phantom City (novel) 1966

Death in Silver (novel) 1968

The Dagger in the Sky (novel) 1969

Dust of Death (novel) 1969

The Red Snow (novel) 1969

The Squeaking Goblin (novel) 1969

The Golden Peril (novel) 1970

The Mental Wizard (novel) 1970

The Green Death (novel) 1971

The Majii (novel) 1971

Poison Island (novel) 1971

Mad Mesa (novel) 1972

Land of Fear (novel) 1973

The Crimson Serpent (novel) 1974

The South Pole Terror (novel) 1974

The Mountain Monster (novel) 1976

The Red Terrors (novel) 1976

Mystery on Happy Bones (novel) 1979

The Whiskers of Hercules. The Man Who Was Scared (novels) 1981

One-Eyed Mystic. The Man Who Fell Up (novels) 1982

The Shape of Terror. Death Has Yellow Eyes (novels) 1982

The Talking Devil. The Ten Ton Snake (novels) 1982

The Golden Man. Peril in the North (novels) 1984

The Laugh of Death. The King of Terror (novels) 1984

Three Times a Corpse (novel) 1990

*Years of publication later than 1959 reflect dates of reprinted editions rather than of original publication.

Ron Goulart (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Doc Savage and His Circle" in Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of Pulp Magazines, Arlington House, 1972, pp.75-84.

[In the following essay, Goulart explores the origins and style of Dent's Doc Savage novels.]

Recently it had occurred to Doc Savage he might be turning into too much of a machine—becoming, in fact, as superhuman as many persons thought he was. He did not like that idea. He had always been apprehensive lest something of the kind occur. The scientists who had trained him during his childhood had been afraid of his losing human qualities; they had guarded him against this as much as possible. When a man's entire life is...

(The entire section is 3039 words.)

Will Murray (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bronze Genius", in The Man Behind Doc Savage, Robert Weinberg, 1974, pp. 9-14.

[In the following essay, Murray discusses Doc Savage's many fantastic gadgets, inventions, and vehicles.]

Bronze was Doc Savage's symbol. Bronze because his skin had been kilned to a metallic hue by tropic suns and arctic winds; but also it denoted his forte, science. For bronze was the first alloy, its creation the first dabbling into science attempted by early man, heralding the Bronze Age and the end of the Stone Age. Just as Doc Savage alloyed science and human courage to end the Age of Menace.

Out of The Wizard's Den of his 86th floor headquarters or the...

(The entire section is 4424 words.)

Will Murray (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sunset of the Superman," in The Man Behind Doc Savage, Robert Weinberg, 1974 pp. 56-62.

[In the following essay, Murray recounts Doc Savage's exploits in Dent's World War II era novels, and the changes Savage's character underwent during this period.]

Doc Savage was a superman. His men were near-super-men. Originally, they got together during the first World War where the excitement got into their blood. The—y decided to band together as a small army after it was all over for the avowed purpose of fighting evil. The war must have had a great effect on Doc and his men. It was there that they saw their first action and much of their equipment was patterned...

(The entire section is 4132 words.)

Will Murray (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lester Dent: The Last of Joe Shaw's Black Mask Boys", in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 2, Fall-Winter, 1981, pp. 128-134.

[In the following essay, Murray investigates the publishing history of Dent's two acclaimed short stories, originally published in the Black Mask magazine, "Sail" and "Angelfish."]

Lester Dent (1904-1959) enjoys an unusual dual reputation in the mystery field. Under the house name Kenneth Robeson he ground out between 1933 and 1949 over 150 pulp adventure novels featuring his superhuman hero Doc Savage. Under his own name, he was responsible for unnumbered pulp and slick magazine stories, in addition to five...

(The entire section is 3124 words.)

Marilyn Cannaday (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lester Dent and Doc Savage: Heroes and Adventurers", in Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990, pp. 85-94.

[In the following essay, Cannaday examines affinities between Lester Dent and his fictional hero Doc Savage.]

To 'live dangerously' is for them an act of self-indulgence, not loyalty.

Paul Zweig, The Adventurer

Lester Dent and Doc Savage were seekers of adventure, risk-takers whose lives were interwoven. Dent invented imaginative, far-flung adventures for Doc Savage and experienced them vicariously through the...

(The entire section is 4163 words.)

Will Murray (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Source: "Six Decades of Doc Savage," in Doc Savage Omnibus #13, Bantam Books, 1990, pp. 419-30.

[In the following essay, which is a slightly revised and expanded version of the afterword to the Doc Savage Omnibus #13, Murray discusses the origins and development of Doc Savage.]

No one writer or editor conceived Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, whose adventures originally appeared in Doc Savage Magazine, which ran 181 issues from March 1933 to the Summer 1949 issue. Doc was the product of the greatest hero-making factory ever—he Street & Smith Publishing Company, which had been responsible for such still-famous icons as Nick Carter, Buffalo Bill, and...

(The entire section is 3742 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Blosser, Fred. "The Man from Miami—Lester Dent's Oscar Sail." Armchair Detective 5 (1971-72): 93.

Examines Dent's short stories "Sail" and "Angelfish" as "splendid examples of the Black Mask school at its best."

Farmer, Philip José. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1973, 226 p.

Biography of Dent's fictional hero Doc Savage.

Lachman, Marvin. "Original Sins." Armchair Detective 22 (Summer 1989): 274.

Includes a light-hearted but laudatory review of Dent's first Doc Savage novel The Man of Bronze occasioned by its re-release in 1989.


(The entire section is 148 words.)