Perhaps because Lester Dent was back in the hot seat, writing his third of five Doc Savage novels in a row, 'The Roar Devil' ended with a movie trailer style push for 'The Quest of Qui', which Bantam inexplicably shortened for its paperback release to simply 'Quest of Qui'. Really, it should be 'The Quest for Qui' because the majority of the book involves various people trying to find this lost civilisation in 'the bleak fastnesses of Labrador'.
Those who are getting used to Monk and Ham being Doc's dominant, if perennially bickering, assistants will be surprised to find that Johnny takes the lead here and ends up with perhaps a higher page count than anyone else, even if he spends most of it running around the snowy wastes of eastern Canada in nothing but red underwear. It seems that he has quite the constitution!
He starts out the book watching a movie newsreel and investigating what he sees. A crew of Vikings apparently stole a yacht called the 'Sea Scream' off Long Island, leaving its occupants in their dragonboat. Johnny sees this and checks it out, realising that the boat is genuine, and so follows its trail up to Labrador. He discovers a man there on the snow, shot but not dead, babbling about the 1,200 year old mystery of Qui and how Kettler won't be able to find it again without the golden-haired girl. Johnny is captured, recognised and left to die in a water-filled hole in the snow, his plane destroyed. His only hope is the radio transmitter that he was using to contact Doc Savage; that's still on and transmitting.
Enter Doc and Renny, back in New York, the latter in fine form given that we get no less than three 'Holy cow!' proclamations in four pages. One of those is issued after an antique Viking knife is thrown at them, in their own headquarters, by person or persons unseen. They ring Monk, who's going through precisely the same thing with an antique Viking spear. I should add that none of them immediately assume invisible attackers, as the events of 'The Spook Legion', only two books earlier, apparently count for nothing and have been completely forgotten.
Ham does show up, albeit quite a bit later because he's kidnapped first, but Long Tom is absent, superintending a construction project in South America. Instead Dent spends some time showing us around the private digs of Doc's assistants. Behind a mahogany door at Monk's place, he has a dedicated room for Habeas Corpus; that qualifies as 'no doubt the most expensive pigpen in the world with a marble floor, a chromium trough, a ten-foot-square wallowing box full of perfumed mud. Over at Ham's Park Avenue apartments, he has a case of two dozen black sword-canes. The rest know that he's been kidnapped because no cane is missing.
In fact, Dent keeps on letting us in on new little details that expand the Doc Savage mythos, as if he's in no rush at all to get on with the story. He explains that Doc's honorary commission on the New York Police Department was awarded after he designed their radio system and their inter-station teletype hookup. When Ham shows up, he's unconscious because Doc hasn't explained to any of his men about the knockout gas he built into his car as a trap. We discover that his waterfront warehouse on the Hudson contains more than planes; it also contains an experimental submarine that Doc's working on and a dirigible that can make flights into the stratosphere.
We know about the latter because the Vikings destroy this warehouse by backing a truck up to its side, packed with dynamite and oil drums, and blowing it up. We're halfway into the novel at this point and they've continued to be one step ahead of Doc and his men throughout. Dent just doesn't seem interested in them anymore, having introduced them in such fantastic fashion. He's content with them offstage while Doc's team tries to catch them up. So we learn that the invisible chalk that his men use is slightly sticky so can be easily secreted in their hair and that it can be used not only to leave messages on glass but even inside pockets, albeit in crude fashion.
It takes a while for them to get fed up chasing their tails and finally follow up on Johnny's fading transmission from the Canadian wastes. They've become coated in a weird luminescence, 'grotesque, dancing satans of pale flame'. They've come upon Thorpe Carleth, who runs Carleth Air Lines, and his able manservant, Peabody. And they take him up on his kind offer to borrow one of his experimental aircraft to fly up to Labrador and see what might be going on.
Eventually, of course, things start to settle down, but it's fully two thirds of the way through the book before we really begin to figure anything out. There are indeed Vikings, not least the tough lady of the novel, Ingra, but the men who sailed the dragonboat down to Long Island aren't among their number. The real Vikings are but one of the mysteries to be explored once we eventually make it to Qui, which is almost exotic enough to live up to the billing it was given at the end of 'The Roar Devil'.
I liked the way that Dent designed Qui, though I'd have preferred it if he'd got us there sooner and populated the place with less clichéd action. At least we leave it in less clichéd fashion, which must mean something. It felt to me like Dent knew what he was going to do in Qui from moment one, but had no idea how he was going to get us there, so he spent chapter after chapter expanding on the Doc Savage mythos until something fell into place that would work. That means much less story than usual but much more detail.
As always, there's room for some linguistic gems from the thirties. One word that I'd love to see brought back into common parlance is 'catawampus', which here means askew or awry, as in a square that Ham draws in his pocket that turns out to be a diamond. Less appealing to my OCD is 'a stairs', rather than 'the stairs', which just seems wrong. One word that I knew but hadn't heard in a long while is 'tyro' meaning a beginner, here the pilot who faces off against Doc in a tense dogfight. Another that I've learned here in Arizona is 'wikiup', meaning a Native American dwelling built with a frame and covered with brush; there are some of those in Qui.
That leaves a couple that involve Ham. As if Johnny wasn't embarrassed enough running around in the snow in his red underwear, Ham, 'the Beau Brummell of New York', finds himself dressed in a gunny sack, a cheap bag made out of burlap that's the precise opposite of his usual sartorial elegance. The one that I had to look up was an out-of-character comment hurled his way by Peabody, Carleth's gentleman's gentleman who's so good at his job that Ham wants to hire him. 'Nerts to you!' he says. 'Nerts' turns out to be a simple dialectical pronunciation of 'Nuts!'
So, all in all, while the lost civilisation of Qui might almost live up to its billing, 'The Quest of Qui' is a mixed gunny sack, worthy in some ways, just not the ones we tend to expect. It's not lacking in action, not really, but it's mostly abstracted action where there isn't a clear enemy to battle. There's a great deal of promise that tends not to be followed up on. Instead, we get the sort of details that long term fans will dig but a new reader won't find particularly impressive. And, once again, we ignore lessons learned in recent books because invisibility is clearly not the sort of assumption that should be first and foremost for a series with an open end.
Maybe things will get back to normal in 'Spook Hole', August 1935's novel, the last of five consecutive Lester Dent books before he vanishes again for a while, handing over the series to other authors. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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