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.
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.
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.
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.