25 April 2007

Doc Savage in Quest of Qui

Quest of Qui (1935)
Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson

Pulp is a passion of mine. I when I use the word “pulp,” I mean it in the pure, historical definition: the genre fiction which was published in cheap paper story magazines between 1896 and 1952. And nothing epitomizes true pulp better than the novels that appeared in Doc Savage magazine in the 1930s. Fortunately, Bantam reprinted all of the novels in paperbacks in the 1960s and ‘70s, making them easy to obtain. (Buying an original issue of one of the pulps from the ‘30s can easily run eighty bucks minimum, and the condition is usually atrocious.)

I've read a stack of Batam’s Doc Savage reprint novels, and still have a wonderful stack of them yet to go. I read a couple each year so I can vacation in the imaginary world of “High Adventure ‘30s.” My most recent read is Quest of Qui, first published in magazine form in July 1935. The Bantam cover by Bama seen here is a grabber, but it looks as if the original pulp cover was completed before the artist knew what the story was about (this often happened in the fast-paced pulp publishing world, and sometimes writers were forced to write to fit the cover).

Quest of Qui was written by Lester Dent under the house psuedonym of “Kenneth Robeson.” A few other authors produced Doc Savage novels during the golden age, principally Laurence Donovan, Harold Davis, and William G. Bogart, but Lester Dent is the one who matters. He invented the characters and wrote the vast majority of the novels. He’s the only Doc Savage author I've read and I have no desire to read one from anybody else.

Quest of Qui ranks as only an average adventure for Doc Savage. Bantam reprinted it early in the paperback run (#12), and since they usually placed the best novels at the front (The Thousand-Headed Man, The Lost Oasis) to hook readers, Quest of Qui’s weakness is a bit surprising. The opening is fantastic: a pleasure-cruising yacht off of Long Island is suddenly seized by a dragon boat full of Vikings. That Lester Dent, he sure knew how to open a story. The rest of the novel never lives up to the joyful absurdity of this first chapter. Doc Savage and his team adventure up to Greenland to find a lost pygmy civilization (the “Qui” of the title) and stop robbers looking to loot their ancient treasure. There are icy death traps, a few bizarre attacks by ancient Viking weapons that seem to fly out of nowhere (Dent loved seemingly impossible murder methods), and a very exciting aerial dogfight where Doc just barely manages to outwit his enemies and down their plane.

But it hangs together too loosely, the comic interludes with Ham and Monk taunting each other and Johnny throwing out big words are more tiresome than usual, and the final explanations don't satisfy the way they do with the best of Dent's Doc Savage adventures. Dent refers to the ancient language the Scandinavian woman Ingra speaks as “Viking,” which is rather silly: viking is merely the term for a raider, and no scholar would use it to refer to the language spoken by medieval Scandinavians. The proper name for the language is “Old Norse.” Doc Savage would certainly have known better. But I'm quibbling.