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Quest of the Spider
Doc Savage #3
by Kenneth Robeson
First Published: May 1933, Bantam Edition: 1972

For some reason, Bantam dragged their heels before reprinting the third Doc Savage story, 'Quest of the Spider', which didn't see a paperback release until #68 in their series. Only one other novel had to wait longer to find a new audience: 'Bequest of Evil', the 96th pulp magazine story but only 173rd in the Bantam paperback reprint run, and that one didn't even stem from the pen of Doc's usual writer, Lester Dent.

Some readers have suggested that the delay is because 'Quest of the Spider' is a weak entry in the series with a routine cops and robbers plot, a cheap villain who does little of note at any point in the story and a poor choice of location in the Louisiana swamps, especially after the fantastic locations of the first two novels. Much scorn has also been heaped upon the idea of having Doc Savage disguise himself in an alligator skin at one particular point in the story.

I have to admit that these detractors have a point, especially when it comes to that frankly unbelievable disguise, but I can counter their negativity with the suggestion that 'Quest of the Spider' is an enjoyable romp with most of the component parts needed for a successful yarn and a few additional ones to boot which set the series onto a solid footing. I certainly enjoyed it more than its predecessor and would argue that, for all its many faults, it's a better book for a few reasons.

The story, revolving around forced acquisitions of southern lumber mills through a reign of terror by the villainous Gray Spider, is unashamedly pulp entertainment but it's also more down to earth and believable than the discovery in 'The Land of Terror' of a second lost world running and one that has been stuck in prehistory. I love reading Victorian lost world novels but they're rooted in an era of exploration and discovery in which vast swathes of the globe had not yet been mapped. People loved to wonder about what might be there. May 1933, when this novel saw print in 'Doc Savage Magazine,' is too late for that sense of wonder to still be valid. It's a throwback which had none of the validity of the lost valley in 'The Man of Bronze.'

We're kept until the very finale to discover which one of a pair of characters will be unmasked as the Gray Spider. Doc is hired by 'Big' Eric Danielson, down to earth president of the largest lumber company in the south, to find out what's going on with his industry, and Doc's price is a cool million dollars, so it has to be a big deal. While Danielson can't see it, it's clear to us that the Gray Spider works for him but Dent sets up two characters for that spot and we're kept wondering throughout as to which it will be. Compare that to the utterly obvious choice of one possible villain in 'The Land of Terror' and this seems inspired, while that was an exercise not only in inevitability but, sadly, also in the gullibility of our heroes.

Each of Doc's assistants had been repeatedly highlighted as a world-renowned talent in their own right, but they spent those first two books pretty much sitting around waiting for Doc to save the day. Here, they're each given their own turn in the spotlight. While they could certainly have been a little more successful in their exploits here, they do at least get to show that they can do more than just traipse along in the shadow of their leader. I appreciated that immensely.

Doc himself is also toned down at least a little from 'The Land of Terror'. He's the leader of this band and he leads from the front, both physically and mentally, but, in my humble opinion, when he becomes too superhuman his adventures suffer. Here, he performs fantastic feats for sure, a level above the talents of anyone around him including his assistants, but he doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound and I appreciated that too.

Finally, there are also some scenes of real power in this book that trump anything to be found anywhere in the first two. One tasks Doc's assistants with reacting to his apparent demise in the Louisiana swamps while battling an alligator. Lester Dent's prose, as stuck in short, simple sentences as ever for much of the book, acquires notable impact in sombre musings on how this apparent superman might be mortal after all. Another involves the heroic sacrifice of one of the Gray Spider's swamp-dwelling minions after Doc's humanity sparks a revelation that he was fighting for the wrong side all along.

These two sections are gloriously emotional and, for all its faults, elevate this book in some ways above its predecessors. It's not a bad novel, simply uninspired in many ways while an important one in others. Bantam's reticence in releasing it is one reason why I chose to work through the Doc Savage stories in order of original release rather than in the arbitrary order in which Bantam chose to reprint them. I want to watch Doc and his team grow naturally rather than jump around his greatest hits for a while until the quality drops.

Of course, all this unfolds in traditional pulp terms. There is a single villain, hiding behind a mask and an imposing name, plotting from his lair deep in the Louisiana swamps, known as the Castle of the Moccasin. His goals are down-to-earth but his implementation of them involves a community of subhuman swamp dwellers, which makes little sense but adds much atmosphere to proceedings.

It all highlights that, while Lester Dent may have had early delusions of real literary value (and they certainly grew over time), what he did best was knock out imaginative and immersive pulp novels every month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

Click here for a review of #1 Man of Bronze and here for a review of #2 The Land of Terror

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