The Two Doctor Deaths
Doctor Death is one of the unique characters in pulp fiction. Not only is he a villain and the star of his own series, but there are in fact two different Doctor Death characters.
The first Doctor Death appeared in a series of short stories by Edward Norris. Norris’ Doctor Death was not really the star of that series. The hero of these stories was Nibs Holloway, a troubleshooter for a jewelry company. The first Nibs story (“The Death Gambler”) appeared in the May 1933 issue of Rapid-Fire Detective Stories, published by Rapid-Fire Publications. I have not seen that story.
The next Nibs story was in the July 1934 issue of Dell’s All-Detective magazine. All-Detective focused on “ultra-mystery”: melodramatic stories of tough detectives going up against diabolical masterminds and similar villains, where Doctor Death fit in perfectly. Doctor Death was introduced in that story as a mysterious and unknown international criminal, and killed off at the end.
The next Nibs story had no Doctor Death (after all, he was killed in the prior story). But for some reason (probably reader interest), Doctor Death was brought back in the fourth Nibs story — and again killed off. He would appear in the next two Nibs stories, again apparently killed off at the end of each story, only to somehow return, for a total of four appearances.
For those wishing to read these Doctor Death stories, Altus Press has reprinted them all as “The Complete Doctor Death in All-Detective.” Unfortunately, they weren’t able to include the two non-Doctor Death/Nibs stories, as they couldn’t be found.
Obviously, the character was more interesting than the hero, so I guess Dell decided to make the villain the star of the story and have Harold Ward write new Doctor Death novels, pitting him against a different hero, and in his own magazine.
Considering that Nibs was just a troubleshooter for a jewelry store, it made it difficult to come up with scenarios in which he would regularly battle a super villain like Doctor Death.
Doctor Death was published by Dell Magazines in 1935. It was a re-titling of All Detectives magazine, where the original Doctor Death ran! The new magazine ran three issues and was canceled. All three issues are reprinted in Altus Press’ “Doctor Death vs. The Secret Twelve, Volume 1”: “Twelve Must Die,” “The Gray Creatures” and “The Shriveling Murders.”
Luckily, two more novels were written but not published in the original magazine (they would be published in some fanzines): “Waves of Madness” and “The Red Mist of Death.” and those are reprinted in “Doctor Death Vs. The Secret Twelve, Volume 2.” All stories were published under the house pseudonym of “Zorro.”
The new Doctor Death was really crazed scientist named Dr. Rance Mandarin, former dean of psychology at Yale. He felt the Earth was overpopulated, so went after the human race with a variety of evil means, both scientific and occult. So he was just as likely to use plagues or death rays as elemental forces. He basically wanted to reduce the population and return us to the Stone Age! I guess you could call him an eco-terrorist.
He was opposed by Jimmy Holm, “supernatural detective,” a millionaire and criminologist, backed by a secret group of 12 that included the President and leading scientists. Helping Jimmy was the rough and tumble Detective Inspector John Ricks, his nominal boss. There was also beautiful Nina Ferrera, the Doctor’s lovely assistant and niece, who would fall in love with Jimmy and become engaged to him. A later addition to the series was the evil, resurrected Egyptian princess Charmion, who would become a possible (if you can believe it) love interest and ally of Dr. Death!
As an added bonus, the editor of these books worked with the Ward estate to add some additional items, including information on a planned Doctor Death comic strip. You can see what was written up for this — several weeks of scripts to adapt the first story into a comic strip.
The cover of the first pulp is used as the cover of the first volume of reprints; the second issue’s cover is used as the cover of the second volume. All three covers are shown on the back of the first volume. In addition, the original interior art from the three published issues is included in this volume, a great bonus as Doctor Death looks pretty funky.
In addition, as these characters are in the public domain, some writers have used them for further stories, but I haven’t seen too many. A recent story pitting the original Doctor Death against Barry Reese‘s The Rook has appeared, and I have seen one or two new stories of the Harold Ward Doctor Death as well. Both are ripe for reuse, if done well.