This is the sixtieth novel to be published in 'Doc Savage Magazine', the date February 1938, and it may well be the worst one yet. It's the product of one Harold A. Davis, who started out pretty well with 'The King Maker' and 'Dust of Death' but failed utterly this time out. He'd written the previous couple of novels too, but those fair to middling entries suddenly seem like classics compared to this one. It gets cringeworthy.
Chapter one sets this up as another monster yarn for Doc and they rarely turn out well. We're in Alaska, which is still a territory at this point (it's odd to read about people flying from Alaska to the USA), in Arcadia Valley, a new settlement that's being plagued by a giant spider out of the prehistoric era. Yeah.
Now, this critter is truly scary. It's two-storeys tall and jumps over trees. Its tracks spread up to fifty yards apart. Apparently the Indians know about it and legend says that it'll keep attacking until, get this, it locates the heart of a bronze-haired man, at which point it'll happily quit. Why? Did you come up with this nonsense all on your own, Mr. Davis?
Anyway, government engineer Buck Dixon wants to bring Doc Savage in to save all the settlers. John Alden says to wait but that doesn't work out, because Buck is killed the next night and all the Indians leave, so it falls to John to fly to the US and track down Doc, who turns out to be in Chicago speaking on supergrowth. Are we going to get nothing but plot conveniences here?
This does, at least, allow Davis to set up the MacGuffin and the most obvious bad guy. The former is a hair from the giant spider that Alden retrieves from a tree it jumped over and it carries the memorable odour of the creature. He has it with him as he hops planes all over the continent, reminding us about the speed of travel in those days (when you aren't Doc Savage). Following him on all these flights is a gangster called Barge Deeter, who shrieks on one of those planes when he gets a whiff of the hair. It may officially be a mystery but we aren't surprised one bit when Alden dies on the runway before he can reach Doc.
Talking of Doc, he's in this book even though he doesn't make an appearance until the fourth chapter. He's quickly followed by Chemistry, who's the real star of this novel, being about as useful as any of Doc's aides has been in any of the fifty-nine preceding books. Where there's a Chemistry, there's a Habeas Corpus, of course, and Monk and Ham aren't far behind.
This section is weirdly cartoonish though. After saving Habeas from being hit by a car, Chemistry grabs Alden's body, jumps into a cab and off we all go to a hospital. He vanishes from there, again with the corpse, reports coming in that he's surfing on the roof of an ambulance and then that he's driving it, though when it crashes it's discovered that he's been tied to the wheel. And then he vanishes again. He's as frustrating on that front as Doc, who he may well have been watching and learning from. Look the wrong way and he won't be there when you look back.
Deeter isn't the villain of the piece, of course, just a lieutenant but he's surprisingly able for someone who doesn't appear too bright. He lays a lot of traps for Doc and his two men (Long Tom shows up much later, but Johnny and Renny are belatedly mentioned as working a big job in China). The first sets the stage for the rest. He explains to Doc that he has Alden's body and leads the way to a remote cabin where he fakes the inside with mirrors, triggers a false floor to drop Doc into a pit surrounded by machine guns and then fills the pit with water from Lake Michigan. Talk about overkill!
It doesn't work, of course, because Doc spends much of this novel getting out of traps. He lets himself be captured a few times, only to turn the tables in memorable and often frankly unbelievable ways. To give Davis a little credit where credit's due I should add here, there are surely fewer successful grabs of Doc and his aides than any prior novel. Monk and Ham may only get taken on a single occasion, which is almost unheard of!
The most unbelievable escape is from the 4000° furnace at a crematorium owned or at least administered by Deeter. In goes Alden's corpse to be burned away to nothing in an instant. Doc follows and Monk watches him burned as well. In swift succession, he's followed by Monk, Ham and Chemistry, with Habeas tied within his arms. Of course, they all escape because Doc can do things in this book in mere fractions of seconds. Sure, we buy into him stripping off so his clothes are burned but not him and setting up mirrors from his belt kit so an audience watching intently won't see anything amiss. Sure...
Eventually, we shift from New York to Arcadia Valley, because location shifts mid-novel are de rigeur at this point, and discover what's really going on in the frozen wastes of the north, which strangely appear to be neither frozen or wastes. The settlers are having great success raising crops in the fertile land and there's an entire hidden Oriental city just round the corner that's thriving. "Baghdad in Alaska". Where did you think the spider came from?
None of this is remotely believable. Shocked by the multi-national city with stolen property overtly on display everywhere, Ham mutters, "This must be a tremendous international clearing house of crime." Long Tom adds, "It's more than that." And so it is. Except there's no way, even in 1938, that this sort of enterprise would be remotely viable. How many planes fly in and out of the place unnoticed? How many people kept quiet about it? And, until Doc puts on an Oriental disguise to sow seeds of discontent, everyone's OK with the boss, who naturally is the only mystery man in the city, wearing a black mask so as to disguise himself from his fellow crooks? Nah.
Rather than mention the bad parts of this novel, it would be quicker to call attention to the few good bits. There's the lack of kidnaps; the surprisingly large and capable role given to Chemistry, for the first time in the series; and a blink and you'll miss it radio operator reading a copy of 'The Shadow'. That's about it.
But highlighting the negative is trivial this time out, from the wildest plot conveniences yet to the lack of credibility throughout. There are even points that are just annoying. At a Eurasian anthropologist's house, there's a slant-eyed Oriental chanting in singsong Chinese. Ugh. On one instance when Doc is taken, he's bound in steel-riveted bands. Because, of course, they have those sitting around on hand. On the way to Alaska, Doc's plane is beset by others wielding an electric ray to stop their engine. They have all the best stuff! And there's a point where the Indians revert to savagery, with breechcloths, face paint and bows and arrows. Just like that. In Alaska. Yes, there's also a scalping. How did you guess?
Fortunately, Harold A. Davis's current run of three novels is up, perhaps so Street & Smith could throw him into a cave with a giant spider. Next up is a couple of months of Lester Dent, starting with 'Devil on the Moon'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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