THE PERFECT ASSASSIN
(A DOC SAVAGE THRILLER)
By James Patterson and Brian Sitts
Available November 2022 from all major booksellers
I opened the door. An automatic sensor turned on a bank of industrial lights overhead. As my eyes adjusted, I suddenly felt totally sober again. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.
We were in a huge room with a high ceiling and no windows. It was filled with metal shelves in long, neat rows. It looked like a natural history archive. It had the smell of old paper, old chemicals, old leather.
“Welcome home, Doctor.” said Kira.
Anyone who has ever engaged with me in a discussion about books and writing should already have a sense that I have a real problem with ghost-written books—that is, I do not like writers who take credit for someone else’s work even though I know it is a long-standing practice in the industry. I still don’t like it. Under that umbrella, I also do not like it when certain authors—in this case James Patterson—turn their names into a book factory in which other writers actually write the books but Patterson gets his name in 4-inch letters plastered across the cover of the books while the actual author’s name appears as an after-thought. In this case, Brian Sitts, the author (as in, the one who actually wrote the words that are published and not the outline on which the story is based), has his name buried at the bottom of the cover and at such a low-level transparency that it effectively disappears.
And considering that this is a “Doc Savage” novel, I am sure that someone reading this is wondering whether I have the same problem with other Doc Savage novels given that no matter who wrote them they all were, with one notable exception, credited to the house-name “Kenneth Robeson.” My answer would be no. I do not have the same problem with house-names because that particular industry tradition is one where the named author is something of a character himself (or herself in the case of female house names such as “Carolyn Keene” from the Nancy Drew series). Lester Dent was the most prolific “Kenneth Robeson” in the heyday of Doc Savage pulp adventures and Will Murray the most recent. The notable exception that I mention above in which Doc Savage was published previously with an author credit to someone other than Kenneth Robeson was the classic ESCAPE FROM LOKI by Philip José Farmer which detailed the story of how Doc and his five colleagues first got together. And now fast forward to the year 2022 and THE PERFECT ASSASSIN, credited to “James Patterson” as primary author and Brian Sitts as secondary, with the series tag “A Doc Savage Thriller.”
Even given my general misgivings about how the James Patterson machine works, I approached this book with an open mind. I was curious how it would tie into the original Doc Savage books (if at all) and whether it would outright betray the core principles in terms of character and morality that those pot-boiler pulp action stories trafficked in. Would Sitts try to duplicate the Robeson entertaining action prose style or would it embrace the choppy simplistic Patterson style? Would I be engaged with the new characters or long for the originals? Would it be interesting? Would it be entertaining? Would it be infuriating?
Well, it’s not infuriating. It’s somewhat interesting. I was moderately entertained. The characters were not as engaging as they could potentially become.
As I said, I had an open mind but I still had some hesitancy given that the previous Patterson/Sitts effort to do this with Doc Savage’s sister property, THE SHADOW, had by all accounts gone off into crazy-land and taken The Shadow character and pulled a “Jonah Hex” on him by abruptly transplanting him into the future which placed the original character in a setting that did not work at all for him. However, I felt a bit more positive about this one because rather than using Doc Savage (Clark Savage Jr.) himself, this story is set in the modern day and centers around Doc’s great-grandson, Doctor Brandt Savage. This is easier for me to walk into with a readiness to accept given that he is, for all intents and purposes, an all-new character. The idea opens itself up with potential to do something new and moving the concept forward rather than trapped forever in the pre-World War II era. As I am fond of pointing out, if you aren’t moving then you’re stagnating. And it is the same with fictional characters. There’s a risk of stagnation if your characters stay stuck in the past, never-changing, never-growing, forever. If the concept and characters are strong enough, they should be adaptable to a diverse range of changes and growth and sometimes you don’t know until you try and either fail or succeed.
Oddly, there is little in terms of discernible style to the Sitts prose. I think the longest chapter is four pages. Some chapters are as small as half a page. It’s an odd style of writing. I know it’s common with these modern popular thrillers but it feels choppy and awkward to me. There’s so little opportunity for the reader to engage with the characters and be in the moment; to enjoy the prose. It feels like it could almost be written by an A.I. as there is an utter loss of an author’s perspective or voice in the writing. The original pulp adventures were churned out every month and yet they somehow had a style to them that makes them still enjoyable to read even today, if not for the stories, then for the enjoyment of the prose itself. The robotic construction in the writing for THE PERFECT ASSASSIN is such that it almost feels like an extended outline of a story rather than a complete novel. In fact, I suspect that if it had been formatted more traditionally, those 108 chapters and 316 pages, would have come in closer to around 200 pages and about half that number of chapters.
All that being said, I stuck with the plot, such as it is, which is pretty standard Patterson fare about a regular someone getting pulled into danger and intrigue by a mysterious someone else. The authors introduce the reader to 2 main characters, Brandt Savage (of course) and his co-star, and catalyst for this story, is a bronze-haired female calling herself “Meed.” Her story covers similar ground as what Marvel has done with their Black Widow character in the films. But that’s not something to be too critical about as the idea of a female character raised to be an assassin in a training school for assassins is not unique to Marvel either. Unfortunately, Meed is consistently the more interesting character than Brandt, which is unfortunate for a book that is supposed to be jump-starting a new series of “thrillers” starring this new Doc Savage. He seemed weak, as a person (not his body) and I was trying to figure out why I had this impression. I finally realized the reason—and in a way I think this may be the key to how this version of the character could potentially grow into something good if successful enough in sales to continue—Sitts does something with Brandt that I don’t think was ever done with his great-grandfather in the writing.
Whenever the narrative shifts to a chapter about Brandt, the perspective shifts to first-person. So we are inside Brandt’s head. We hear his fears, his anxieties, his nervousness, his insecurities. Why does this matter? I think it matters because for readers of the original Doc Savage stories, Doc’s inner thoughts are a mystery for the most part. He was a man of action. Sure, he was obviously a genius, because the reader was told this, and the number of inventions he created along with his multiple doctorates and surgeon skills establish his bona fides. But we never got inside his head much to see what inner demons he was battling. Farmer tackled some of that with his Doc Savage pastiche, Doc Caliban. While the Caliban stories could reflect the prose style at times, there was still a Farmerian filter that deconstructed the implications of such a character. In Brandt, we have a young professor who is somewhat embarrassed of his connection to the legendary Doc Savage to such an extent that he has contemplated changing his last name. But as that is the name on his diplomas, he’s content to just let it lie. This little tidbit is a key to the struggles Brandt is going to need to overcome to ever fully embrace his role as the inheritor of the Doc Savage mantle. He is a character with the genetics necessary to be a hero, but none of the desire or the motivation to do it. Meed functions as the catalyst for his journey to becoming a hero and she has her own lineage connection to the past that is a conduit for her and Brandt to forge an unbeatable team. This is not a story about a carbon copy of the original Doc and his amazing five assistants. They were a product of their day. This is a flawed and reluctant Doc and his single partner who has her own hidden motives for why she needs to push him into accepting his destiny.
I was pleased to see that the Patterson machine did not undo the past or do an “everything you know is a lie” approach. No. Everything you knew is true, mostly, although there are some new wrinkles introduced and established connections with Doc Savage history is interwoven throughout. He smartly avoids filling in the gaps of what happened to the original Doc Savage and even maintains a noticeable vagueness about Brandt’s unnamed parents and who they are. He is aware of his famous great-grandfather, but has not ever known him, so his journey of self-discovery is also learning about his great-grandfather. There is no betrayal of the original character and concept but there is most definitely a major change introduced to it. The most intriguing to me involves the importance of “twins” in the very concept of genetically engineering the perfect human. I feel like Sitts or Patterson (or maybe both) has read Farmer’s Doc Caliban, but I can’t prove it. However, the twins idea, name-checks, and the new twists we learn about Doc and his lineage are surprising enough to bring me back to see how that is developed in future installments.
My overall impression of THE PERFECT ASSASSIN is that it could have been more creatively skilled with its prose style and achieved its goals better. The end products winds up as a perfectly middling exercise and unlikely to garner new fans of Doc Savage but also unlikely to please current Doc Savage fans. However, even with the exceedingly simplistic writing style and choppy construction, I enjoyed it well enough and it ended strong with the new Doc Savage ready to start on a new adventure and I would like to read more about him.