Bedlam on the bayou: Doc Savage in Quest of the Spider

The Fred Pfeiffer cover for the Bantam reprint of QUEST OF THE SPIDER is a lie. Doc does not deal with a giant spider. It’s a strictly mundane story with some severe problems, but I like it perhaps more than it deserves. Certainly it shows the style and formula for the series firming up.

The opening, for example, is one Dent would use multiple times: frightened people try to reach Doc for help but bad guys try to stop them. The frightened people are lumber tycoon Ed Danielsen and his gorgeous daughter Edna. An agent for the Grey Spider sabotages the commercial plane they’re taking to NYC, having already destroyed their parachutes. The Danielsens survive, however, and reach Ed’s old WW I buddy Ham, who introduces them to Dco.

Danielsen explains the Grey Spider is making a fortune by taking over lumber companies, then selling off the assets; he executes the takeovers by intimidation, violence or any other means that work. Now Danielsen’s company is in the spider’s gunsights; can Doc help.

In contrast to Thunder Island and the Valley of the Vanished, we get New Orleans and Louisiana swampland. Even the villain’s base is just a mundane big house hidden by trees. That said, it’s action-packed and effective … but also racist. The Grey Spider’s forces are ignorant, half-savage voodoo worshippers from the depths of the swamp, probably mixed race (Dent doesn’t specify but the description and the voodoo make me think so). Though one of them gets to die a hero, sacrificing himself to save Doc from a deathtrap when he learns the Man of Bronze has cured the swamp man’s mentally handicapped son (just a shard of bone pressing in the wrong place).

Dent does better on gender, with Edna the first of the smart, competent beauties he’d write into the book. She’s stunning enough that Hollywood offered her a career in the movies; she replied that as vice-president of her dad’s company she already makes more than the studio was offering.

While the foe is mundane, Doc’s weapons are getting more fantastic. He uses a drug that renders its victims complacent so they’ll blandly follow orders; more notably Quest of the Spider introduces Doc’s glass grenades, which knock their targets out with quick-acting anesthetic gas. He’d go on using them for years. We also learn Doc and his men have become fluent in Mayan, which they use here to communicate without anyone following the conversation. That would also become a series staple. The villain’s financial shenanigans would also be a recurring element in Doc’s adventures; the Grey Spider’s scheme here is a dry run for the more interesting money games in Death in Silver.

Dent brings up the crime college again but unlike Land of Terror, it now uses brain surgery rather than psychotherapy to cure crooks of crime. While Doc has fewer qualms killing in combat than he did later, there’s much less emphasis on his ruthlessness. His charity gets played up a lot. As a condition for helping Danielsen he wants a cool million which outrages Big Ed. Then Doc tells him it’s to set up a Louisiana charity that will feed, clothe and educate the poor.

On the downside, Doc for the first time fakes his death, something his five sidekicks fall for every time. It’s particularly uninspired here, involving a fake crocodile Doc just happens to have handy. We also get Dent starting to buff up Doc’s CV.  Here we learn his handwriting is so neat and perfect, nobody could possibly duplicate it. More impressively, Edna recognizes the name of Clark Savage Jr. from a new, fast-growing tree he’s developed to replenish forests around the world.

Dent is still tinkering with the team’s personalities. Long Tom here has an eye for pretty girls; he becomes much less interested in them in later books.

After this, I don’t think I’ll need to do any more rereads unless I’m looking for specific details.

#SFWApro. Death in Silver cover by James Bama, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Filed under Doc Savage, Reading

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